“Sounds pretty good,” said my crack guitar teacher, Douglas L. He was zooming me from two feet away, his angular face with soul patch framed in my laptop. I basked in his praise. If I were a dog my tail would have been wagging. It had taken me two months to subdue sixteen bars of “Casey Jones” by Mississippi John Hurt, a famed acoustic blues man born in 1892. Like many in my cohort, four years of college had passed with an acoustic guitar nearby. A folk song was “three chords and the truth.” Those three chords were C, F and G. You could add G7 for variety, maybe Am if you wanted pathos. Prior to college, when I was a pre-teen, my parents thought I should learn a musical instrument. They conducted an extensive search to determine the instrument best suited to my talents and hit on (insert long drawn out crescendo here), you guessed it … the accordion. This was pre-Lawrence Welk, so my future was not assured. My parents theorized that though I might not make it on the Elk Lodge circuit, I could always be the hit of any party, bringing along my 120-base red Hohner. (Oh look, here comes Marshall with his fabulous accordion! I hope he plays ‘‘Lady of Spain.’’) My accordion career crumpled when my high school music teacher found strapping on the accordion to be a struggle, what with his wooden leg and all. I wound up playing third trumpet in the school band, blatting out four-beat measures in “Pomp and Circumstance.” I simply killed quarter notes.
Fast forward to retirement. I brought out the old guitar that My Life’s Editor had bought me some years prior and eyed it speculatively. Could I advance beyond C, F, G and occasionally G7? The purchase of an upscale Taylor acoustic committed me, and I started lessons with the ever-patient Douglas. I was not in Kansas anymore. I had entered the world of finger picking, the pentatonic scale and the seven modes. I left “This Land is Your Land” and “Blowin’ In the Wind” in the rear view mirror. By my sixth year I advanced to the point that I was the seventh performer in Douglas’ “Spring Jam” for his students, wedged in between an eight-year old performing the “Stairway to Heaven” guitar riff and a twelve-year old, wowing an audience of adoring parents. There were free hot dogs.
Today I enjoy sitting down of an evening and working on my repertoire at home. I am not ready to set up shop on tony Beach Drive in downtown St. Pete, my guitar case open for folks to flutter in fivers. There is the little issue of my producing the same number of beats in each measure I play. My singing is exploratory in nature. I warily approach a musical note from below, grab it for a moment, then slide down the other side. My fingers get an attitude on occasion and sulk. I do take pride in those 16 bars of “Casey Jones.” On the day they came together I was elated. There is magic in challenging yourself and developing a skill when you trundle beyond gainful employment, whether it be using chopsticks or riding sidesaddle. The more difficult, the better. This brings me to Dame Juliana Bernes, a nun, who wrote a Treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle in the 15th century. She is to blame for a legion of frustrated fly fishermen right up to this century who have shivered in frigid trout streams as a leak in their waders trickles down their leg and a creature with a brain the size of a pencil eraser sneers at their fly.
It is difficult to explain to people why a person would fly fish. It is not socially acceptable to collar someone and expound on why you fly fish. Under the terms of the Geneva Convention this is considered torturing civilians. Furthermore, fly fishing is not generally a very productive way to catch fish. Maimonides is thought to have said “Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man to Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime.” He was not talking about fly fishing.
Like playing the blues on a guitar, fly fishing is both a skill and an art form. Learning to fly cast contradicts everything your Uncle Bud taught you when he put a spinning rod and reel in your hands at his pond, hooked up a worm and had you chuck it in the water with one simple motion. In fly fishing, the weight of the fly line is what carries the lure – feathers and a hook – out over the water. The fly connects to the fly line with ten feet of clear monofilament. The magic lies in the flexing of the eight-foot rod and the pull of the heavy fly line, streaming out some thirty feet behind as it loads on the back cast with the cocking of your forearm and then releases as your forearm snaps down, like hammering a nail. The objective is to deliver a fly to the water’s surface as gently as a lover’s kiss, the fly line carrying the fly out with minimal fuss. Piece of cake.
There are two places where fly fishing particularly comes into its own. One is where the fish’s diet consists of small, crunchy insects, and the other is where the water is very shallow and the splash of a large lure would cause every fish within a quarter mile to vamoose. In both cases a carefully presented fly fits the bill. It is a benediction on the lives of fly fishermen that these locales are trout streams and Bahamian bonefish flats. Fly fishermen can exercise their skill in gobsmackingly beautiful surroundings.
Fly fishing is one sport where you get better as you get older. Like learning to play guitar, it requires practice. One afternoon I was out casting on the lawn bordering Pioneer Park in downtown St. Pete, careful to avoid stepping in dog poop. A patron of our local saloon, Courigan’s, spotted me and hustled over, crossing the street, careful not to spill his beer. He came up alongside and said “Hey, fly fishing huh? Pretty cool!”
I said, “Yeah, it is cool.” I thought, you should hear me play the guitar.
I had an OK childhood as a suburban kid. The exception was when my parents put me in organized sports. In Little League, I was a catcher – none of the other kids wanted to squat in the dirt, sweat and peer at the world through steel bars. One day when my team, the Tigers, played the Yankees, a Tiger parent sitting in the stands turned to the man next to him and said “They should pull that catcher. He’s had four passed balls in this inning alone!” My father turned and growled, “That’s my son you’re talking about!” Things got interesting in the stands that afternoon. I also had a short history in organized Youth Golden Gloves Boxing. My father saw boxing as an opportunity to butch me up. He was worried that I was putting my nose into books too much. I was worried about putting my nose in front of someone’s fist. The upshot of that experience was that I learned I had promise as a blood donor.
Unsupervised, I rode my bike and foraged for frogs and turtles in a nearby pond. But the most fun was when I had a glove, a baseball, a bat, and some pals, plus an open field. Our favorite game was “Indian Ball.” The batter would toss the ball up, hit it to the guys in the outfield, then drop the bat on the ground. The guy who fielded the ball would throw it in, aiming at the bat. If he hit it, he got to bat. Not rule-intensive.
Recently, after playing tennis with my friend Gary P, I mentioned Indian Ball to him. He lit up. “You want to talk about games? We played games when I was a kid!” A gritty city kid, Gary grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, where there were fewer open fields than Republicans in a soup kitchen. We’re talking wire fences, asphalt, and brick walls. Of course, looking at Gary in his Phillies ball cap, spotless white Tee and New Balance tennis shoes, I couldn’t picture Spanky from Our Gang.
“I was eight years old. For 5 cents you could buy a Spaldeen or a Pensy ball at the corner candy store,” he said. These were called “pinkies” and made of soft rubber. Pinkies were used to play handball, stoop ball, boxball, or stick ball. Stick ball was preferred, the bat made from a broomstick. It was played in the street with the ever-present possibility that first base would drive off in mid-game. A ball misshapen from battering by broomsticks and ricocheting off manhole covers and car fenders would be cut in half and used in a game called “halvsies” (“halfball” if you were from Boston). A kid would draw a chalk square on a wall and a batter would stand in front of the square and hack at pitches. If you lost your last halvsie ball and didn’t have 5 cents, you could cut a 4-inch chunk off Mrs. Murphy’s discarded garden hose that had been run over by a lawnmower and use it for … wait for it… ta-dum: “hoseball.” Finally, if you had a halvsie ball but had lost your broomstick, you could play “Asses Up.” When a boy lost a handball game the penalty was to bend over, face the wall, present his bum to a thrower 30 feet away. The thrower reared back and fired. In boy terms there was no downside. The thrower got to show off his marksmanship and the throwee got cred for not flinching. Female readers may find this incomprehensible.
As a suburban kid, I played marbles on dirt. My bag of marbles: cat’s eyes, clayies, steelies, micas, and agates. Clayies were made of clay, small and cheap, OK to lose to an opponent. Steelies were ball bearings. Micas were clear with flecks of color. One-color agates were prized as shooters. The best shooters were just the right size to fit into your fist between pointer finger and cocked thumb when you knuckled down outside the ring, drawing a bead on a target. Shooters were also called taws, poppers, thumpers, toebreakers, mashies. You get the idea.
What does a city kid do when asphalt is hard on the knuckles and expensive marbles might skitter down a street drain? In Gary P’s childhood Philadelphia the answer was “Deadbox.” To play, you first dumpster dove the neighbor’s trash, the lush who drank Rolling Rock beer by the case. You pushed aside banana peels and coffee grounds to dig out the bottle caps. You drew a large box on the sidewalk, with 12 small numbered squares inside the periphery and a bigger square with a skull and cross bones, the Deadbox, in the center. Competitors started at box number one and shot their way from box to box. To shoot, you placed the “beery cap” down, crinkled edge up, and flicked it. You could knock competitors’ beery caps out of the way, but if you wound up in the dreaded Deadbox you had to go back to the beginning. Some players removed the cork insert from the bottle cap and wedged in a penny, creating a “blaster” to knock the other kids’ beery caps out of the game and off the sidewalk. These kids grew up to be Mafia enforcers and Aldermen.
For his part, Gary P. grew up to be a fine example of the adult species, a model of the benefits of unsupervised play. My Life’s Editor says that I am an example of unsupervised play but leaves it at that.
NB: Readers who may want to dive a little deeper into street games should watch the “New York Street Games” 2010 documentary with Ray Romano, Whoopi Goldberg, Regis Philbin and others. Click on the YouTube trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6c-vAJqSsQ.
One early June morning, summer of 1959, dressed in jeans, canvas sneakers and a clean Tee, I pedaled my German 5-speed (black with gold striping) to my first real job. On the Ft. Meade, MD military post where I lived, nothing was far from home. It took me 10 minutes to pull up to the back entrance of a square cinder block building painted a government issue tan. On a side wall, just below the eaves of the shingled roof, black stenciled letters read: “Refreshments and Snacks.” I leaned my bike up against the building, walked hesitantly around to the back, and rapped on a screen door that rattled and banged against the door frame. A man inside barked, “Come in, but don’t let in the damn flies!”
The commanding voice belonged to a slim, balding man in his late thirties with a pencil mustache. He was dressed in pressed summer khakis, with three sergeant’s chevrons on his right shoulder, a Second Army patch on his left and a name badge over his right breast pocket. A tan garrison cap was cocked on his head. That summer, when I was fourteen, Specialist 5th Class Jim Washington became my tutor in the mysteries of human behavior, sex and other arcane rituals of the adult world, topics I have continued studying over the intervening years with spotty results. Jim also taught me to flip burgers.
One side of the snack bar toed up to the terrazzo deck of the Officer’s Open Mess Swimming Pool. The pool was 25 yards long and teemed with officers’ spawn once the gates swung open for the summer. A waist-high opening with sliding windows and screens ran across the side facing the length of the pool. A condiment ledge ran under it, against which wet bodies would lean as customers peered at us through the screened serving window.
Jim Washington was a member of the Special Services branch of the Army, not to be confused with Special Operations folks who go in danger’s way with knives in their teeth. Special Services people hand out volleyballs, schedule country music concerts for bases and, in Jim’s case, run snack bars. Not hard duty, and there are perks. When a Washington family barbecue was on the calendar, Jim would load a blue and white cooler in the trunk of his car with government issued steaks. His wheels: a 1959 Buick Electra, red bottom, white top, with a 401 cubic inch V-8, measuring a Brobdingnagian 225 inches long, hence the street moniker “A Deuce and A Quarter.” It was the size of a small boat.
My job was to keep the cooking area clean, refill condiments, stock napkins and, increasingly, as time passed and Jim sat on a chair in back smoking Pall Malls, cook and serve up burgers and hot dogs and pull fountain drinks. I had to wear a soda jerk hat and an apron. This seriously impacted the James Dean effect I was going for. In time, I was charged with answering the phone. Because of this I learned that there were apparently two Mrs. Washingtons, one who lived at the same address as Jim and one who was a first alternate, bearing a different name and located elsewhere. One day, as he sat and smoked, Jim pulled out a curious plastic pack, about two inches square, with a circular ridge. He held it out to me. “Know what this is, boy?” He did not tell me. I guessed I would not be learning about the mystery packet at home.
Another denizen of the Officer’s Open Mess Pool was its manager, Sergeant Riley. An ex-middleweight boxer with a buzz haircut, broken nose, and cauliflower ear, he was given to twitch and speak in loud bursts. He would come to the back door of the snack bar, announce he felt thirsty and ask for “a short one.” This meant I should get a small Dixie cup, used for the water dispenser, and pull him a Budweiser. By 5:00 PM he was blotto.
My pay for this work was a handsome 95 cents an hour, doled out bi-weekly at the accounting office in a brown envelope containing cash – bills and coins. Deductions were noted in pen on pre-printed lines across the top of the envelope.
The time of my workday when I earned every penny of that 95 cents was at day’s end. The grill had to be cleaned, the residue of dozens of burgers and hot dogs removed, many of which had featured a slice of the dreaded processed cheese product that formed an impervious scale. I started by turning up the heat on the grill, then leaned into the stiff burger spatula, scraping crud into a trough running the length of the grill in back. Next, I poured on hot water and pushed a heavy sandstone grill block back and forth with both hands. By this time, I was sweating prodigiously. I followed this by wiping a steaming hot cloth over the grill. Finally, I had to scrape the collected goop into the grease pit and wash out the trough.
By mid-summer my adolescent hormones, fertilized by hamburger grease and the heat of the grill, had produced a glowing crop of zits on my face. I washed furiously morning and evening and applied Clearasil religiously, producing an oleo of brown dots and beginner pimples. My anxiety skyrocketed when, as I sat listening to Frankie Avalon or Bobbie Darrin on my transistor radio, I heard the bell ding at the slider window, slid it open to behold – Rosie. Rosie was my minister’s daughter, was a year older than me, and was simply beautiful. She was beyond all my aspirations, unobtainable. When she came to order a burger and deigned to smile at me, her love vassal, I felt my face, framed by the sliding window, explode in a maelstrom of glowing zits.
Even so, it was the best of summers, the best of times.
In a galaxy far away, when I was in my 40s, I would fish with my son, my brother, and friends on the Big Piney River in east central Missouri. This was not a glam-intensive fishing experience with guides in $250 Orvis and Patagonia outfits and a 5-star lodge featuring rib eye steaks with red-wine reduction sauce. Think more the Tarry Inn in downtown Licking, MO, population 1800 (3600 now that they have the South-Central MO Correctional Center) and the Sonic Drive-In in nearby Houston. Our guides on the Big Piney were the Claytons, a family of farmers and winter-time logging truck drivers, or whatever else it took to put bread on the table. They were “good ol’ boys,” the highest accolade available in rural Missouri. Ray Dow “Ray” Clayton, the patriarch, was solid as an oak door, had a crew cut and wore zippered, faded blue Walmart jumpsuit overalls open at the chest. At one time he had been the sheriff of Texas County.
We would drift down the river in two 18-foot Jon boats, two paying cargo up front, each on a bench seat, and a guide aft, with a paddle and, if in operating condition, a much-abused electric motor. Tree-shrouded bluffs loomed hundreds of feet above us as we passed over rapids and deep runs, water so clear we could see the Fall leaves coating the pebbled bottom like Mexican tiles. The objects of our interest were the rowdy, bronze-backed smallmouth bass, as well as a motley collection of less respectable fish – bluegill, rock bass and warmouth. These panfish, however, were considered by local folks to be the best eating.
As the morning wore on, Ray, Ramon, or Tom, whichever two of the Claytons were guiding, would attach fish after fish to metal stringers clipped to the sides of their boats. Around noon, they would beach the boat on a shoal and the shore lunch ritual would commence. One guide would reach for a gunny sack stashed under his seat, pile it atop a battered, metal cooler and step ashore. He was the chef de cuisine. The other guide was charged with food prep. He would sit in the sand, feet out in the water, take a sharp Barlow folding knife out of his pocket, and one by one gut each fish with two deft cuts. He would then cradle the palm-sized panfish in a callused hand and scale them, sluicing out the body cavity in the stream. River otters, raccoons and mink provided clean-up service.
Meantime, the chef de cuisine had pulled a battle-scarred kerosene Coleman stove and a large fry pan out of the gunny sack. He would set the stove on the pebbled shoal, squatting, and fire it up. From the cooler came: a gallon can of vegetable oil; a plastic bag filled with a breading of flour, corn meal, and salt and pepper; a bag of potatoes; four or five large yellow onions; and a loaf of Sunbeam bread like we used to soak with water, ball up, and throw at friends in the elementary school cafeteria.
The breaded panfish would brown in the fry pan, hot oil snapping and crackling, as we waited, beers in hand, like dogs hovering around a kitchen table. The prep man would busily slice up potatoes and the onions. When the fish were done, draining on a brown paper bag, the potatoes and onions followed into the fry pan. On one of our earliest trips, a fisherman looked around and asked, “Where are the plates?” The chef responded, “Over there,” and pointed to the loaf of Sunbeam bread. Big Piney etiquette required that you plop a fried fish, together with a slice of onion and a slice of potato, on a piece of bread and pick from there, with your fingers. There was an occasional “ouch” when a particularly delectable morsel proved too hot. On his first trip, a newbie started to nosh his piece of bread. Ray exclaimed, “He’s eatin’ his plate!” Some things are just not done up the Big Piney.
If life were particularly good that day, one of us might have brought along a bag of double-stuffed Oreos. Oreos, of course, are best paired with a cold Budweiser. The cumulative effect of fried fish, potatoes, onions, double-stuffed Oreos, and a beer is a gratifying sense of well-being coupled with the vitality of a slug. This leads to an after-lunch meditative experience best enjoyed in the shade while the guides clean up, scouring the fry pan in the gravel and returning the Coleman stove to its home in the gunny sack.
Drifting down the Big Piney in the late afternoon, approaching the take-out point, some of us would be thinking about dinner. Maybe a stop at the Sonic Drive-In in Houston, 20 minutes south of Licking. Maybe a SuperSONIC Bacon Double Cheeseburger paired with an Oreo Peanut Butter Shake or an Oreo Cheesecake Shake. We wonder, did the Walgreens in Houston carry Pepto Bismol?
My Life’s Editor rose from the couch where we eat ice cream (Trader Joe’s Mint Chocolate Chip) and split chocolate bars (Moser Roth Dark Sea Salt Caramel) on alternate nights while we watch Judy Woodruff chat up the day’s notables. She got close to the 50-inch screen, squinted and said, “I can’t tell. It looks like Worms and Peas.” I got up from the couch, put on my 2.25 magnifiers, stared closely at the screen and pronounced, “No, it’s War and Peace.” Each evening a stream of learned and worthy types looks out at us from the TV, interlocutors as well as interviewees live streaming from their abodes. On one side of the split screen we see Jeffrey, Lisa, or Bill; on the other side we see the interviewee. Everyone is frowny because things are dire in this time of mass self-incarceration. Faces swell and produce a googly-head E.T. affect if they are too close to the computer. Gesturing hands up close look like giant mutant crabs. What interests My Life’s Editor and me are the bookshelves behind the talking heads. We peer closely at the books behind the good and great, trying to see what they read. Was that Team of Rivals behind Amy Walter? Elements of Style behind Yamiche Alcindor? Hornblower and the Hotspur behind Admiral Mike Mullen? 50 Shades of Grey behind Janet Yellin? We believe someone’s books are the measure of the man or woman. We assume these folks have read the books behind them or intend to do so at a future date, pandemic allowing. When My Life’s Editor and I were first married, we lived on East Elm in downtown Chicago and would close out an evening on Rush Street by stopping at a used book store at the southwest corner of State and Elm. It was owned by a crabby, unkempt guy who sat in the back, surrounded by his dusty inventory, desk littered with scraps of paper, Post-It notes and one cold cup of black coffee. He would look up from his reading, exposing the gravy stain on his shirt, and growl when I brought up a book that I wanted to buy. On one occasion, I was stunned when an interior decorator appeared next to me at the grouch’s desk and said he wanted to purchase ten feet of “good-looking books” for his customer’s library. What? Who buys books by the foot, like sausage links?
I came to books late as a kid. I was an Army brat; books were a luxury since we moved every two years and had to travel light. What furniture and possessions we had were slowly demolished by movers, assignment to assignment. Family goods would sit on a crate in Bremerhaven, marinating in the rain until making the trek to Stuttgart. Crate opening was like “Wheel of Fortune.” What would we find in this box? Didn’t we used to have a coffee table? With water stains from my parents’ martinis? I read AC Comics – “Battle Action” and “War Comics” – until I found the post library, a bicycle ride away. After that, it was start with the farthest book on the left and read until I hit the end of the shelf, go down one shelf, repeat.
Over the years, wherever My Life’s Editor and I traveled we visited used book sellers, checking out their shirt fronts to see what they had eaten for lunch. We learned to extract books from a book store shelf not by tugging at the spine, damaging it, but by pushing in the two books beside our target to grip it and slide it out. More and more books came home with us, like stray dogs from the pound, many battered, now treasured, all with the dust patina that the book trade calls “the real estate.” Each of our homes has required construction of built-in bookshelves, involving many trips to Home Depot, much swearing, and application of bourbon lubricant. My Life’s Editor was our first construction casualty. She came down with lumbago while painting bookshelves, something that sounds like an affliction of 19th century dowagers, only exceeded in popularity by dropsy.
Consider for a moment: books versus a digital device. An iPad lying doggo on a kitchen table may have twenty books inside but says zip about that fact. Same twenty books on a shelf, in the flesh, screams what a prodigious reader you are. Try to use an iPad to support the broken leg of a couch. Not much good. Three 500-word books, no problem. Want to get the glue to set on a project? Press a flower? Don’t reach for an iPad. Try to flatten a roach with an iPad, the roach sneers. Try a book, and the average palmetto bug is a grease spot. Put an iPad down as a door stop, the door just pushes it aside. Finally, an epic, 700-page book is a world-class sleep aid. That reminds me. It is 3:00 in the afternoon on this 30th day of house arrest …. I think I’ll pull out The Wealth of Nations and toddle off to the couch.