Friday, December 25, 2015

God Bless Us Every One

Author's Note

Yesterday's post, a short story called Angela had one glaring omission.  In my hurry to meet the Christmas Eve deadline, I forgot to credit my best friend Norman Lorenz for his help in the creation of the story.  Christmas programs were always a focal point in both of our lives - we were always in the same classes together from first grade on.  We lived for -- and lived in -- scenes like the fictional one depicted in the story - a blessed and wonderful childhood.

Norm and I are always reminiscing about how important the Christmas services always were to us. Without Norm's encouragement and suggestions,  the story first of all mightn't have had a full moon, and the story mightn't have gotten finished at all. Thank you, Norm for your constant encouragement.

Norm's probably up in Door County today, with the relatives, singing Christmas songs like Elvis, or Bing.  Merry Christmas to everyone there, and everywhere.

God Bless Us, Every One!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


This is a work of fiction. If you notice any resemblance to people in real life, then I've done my job! Thanks to my lifelong friend Norm Lorenz for his encouragement and story ideas.

Pine View Memorial Manor in Sun Prairie! Imagine living a happy normal life, and then ending up commited to a hell hole like Pine View Memorial Manor.  Not quite Carnegie Hall, but we did our part to make sure that the poor captive old people would have decent Christmas music on Christmas Eve. My friend Norm plays saxophone, banjo, and has a resonant singing voice like a fine old wood-cabinet radio. And I play accordion.  We all had a good time re-discovering the old Christmas favorites from the '40s and '50s. Our Christmas show is about as good as it gets.  And now, I was heading home.  Taking little-known county highways through all sorts of tiny villages, and speed traps without names.

And of course a red light called "ALT" lit up on my dashboard. I had a slight suspicion that this light did not mean "Tune in some nice Alternative music on your car radio."  The hopeless noise that the car made next confirmed my suspicion.  My knowledge of things automotive is so little that people near me suffer from second-hand idiocy.  My car was broke. Broke. I tried starting the engine once more. There was a half-hearted grunt from the engine room.  The next time I tried, there was only a menacing castanet sound.

Just like the movies. Nothing like car trouble to put people in places they'd rather not be.  In the eerie stillness of the moonlit night, I thought to myself "Well, ain't this just your average Twilight Zone! What's next? Clarence the angel coming with jumper cables? 'You've had a wonderful life, George  Bailey!' Or maybe it's Freddie Kruger, come to wish me a merry holiday – "Now slash away hack away whack away all!"

Damn. All I could think of was what Baldoni said after my almost $1000 accordion overhaul.  "Whatever you do, don't let the box out in freezing weather. You'll wreck the seals on the reed blocks."  So, how am I going to get home before my reed blocks freeze? And, how am I going to get home at all?  Maybe my accordion repair budget would have been better spent on giving the old vintage piece of Americana Chevrolata a bit of a preventive once-over!

I got out of my car, and stepped into the stillness of the moonlit Christmas Eve night.  A breath of fresh clean air, that would soon become the onset of hypothermia unless I could find some help. A sign next to the road said "New Hope", pop. 637. Yeah, right. 637 people and nobody's ever heard of Triple A.  I grabbed my accordion case and headed down the side of the deserted highway in the direction of the "city".  Lotta luck finding something open on Christmas Eve.

The first sign of civilization was a dark church on the right side of the road.  Someone walking in front of the church. From this distance in the frosty winter air, it looked like the person walking toward me had wings on their back. As we got closer together, it turned out it really was a person with wings. A lady with honest-to-god angel wings was walking toward me from the church. Oh, wait, duh, Christmas Eve – Church - there's always a Christmas pageant.

The angel-lady walked right up to me.  "You're here, Peter. This way. We found some candles, in case the power doesn't return."  The lady had golden hair and huge beautiful eyes. Close up she looked a lot older than my first impression, but still - those eyes!. She spoke softly, but with such authority that I would feel out of place turning her down. She turned around and I found myself walking to the church with her. And, how on earth did she know my name? These small country churches don't have very big budgets for things like costumes. That angel costume definitely had a few miles on it, yet although ancient looking, the costume had remarkable detail.

She paused, looked at me and, clasping my hand, said "I'm Angela." Her hand felt warm, surprising for the way she was dressed.  She couldn't fit a top-coat over those wings.  "The lights, the organ, even the boiler, all the things we take for granted, all of them stopped working. The power is gone." Her eyes, very dark and deep in the moonlight gave extra meaning to every word she spoke.  "The service starts in less than half an hour, and no lights on the Christmas tree.  I hope you'll be able to help..."

And I thought I was the one looking for help...

The church doors opened to reveal a chaotic darkness inside. People were lighting candles, trying to see without the lights. The children were grouping on one end of the foyer, rehearsing their recitations for the service with one another, nervously wondering how this would all go without the organ to lead them, and hardly able to see the director in the dark. The priest, dressed in his special white Christmas surplice, was helping to distribute his supply of extra altar candles. And they getting more light - candles lighting other candles.  Apparently the plan was to proceed with the service by candlelight.

I looked around for the angel wings, but Angela was nowhere to be seen. Making myself "at home", I placed my accordion case on the floor of the coat room.  A very old Italian-looking guy eyed the case familiarly.  I explained – "It's my accordion. It can't stay outside because the reed blocks will freeze."

"Good care makes sweet music", the old guy replied.  "I'm Luigi, the organist. Out of work tonight, so sad," a hitch in his voice.  "In old country, I was very good accordionist. Wedding, church, dance.  So long ago..." His eyes were misty. "Was a Baldoni, such a sweet sound."

"Baldoni? Hey, guess what? This is a Baldoni, too!"  I flopped the accordion case flat on foot of the coat rack and snapped it open.  "That's why I take such good care of it."

With awe in his gaze, Luigi touched the closed bellows of the instrument, as if he couldn't believe it was real. "Oh, so beautiful" he whispered.

I could see that he wanted to, so I asked "Would you like to try it out?"  After all, without power for his organ, an organist has a lot of free time on his hands. just a frustrated bystander.

"Bless you," said Luigi and began to pick up the instrument.

A lady barged into the coat room and grabbed me by the elbow. "You are the one.  Thank you very much to help us with the electric. I'll take you down and show you what a shambles we are in!"  She was a stocky red-faced lady wearing a white apron. "I'm Marilyn. She beckoned me to come down the stairs.  She held a candle.  I pulled out my pocket flashlight to see my way down the creaking, turning stairway.  My accordion, I was sure, was in good hands with Luigi.

The church basement, an instantly recognizable church basement smell. The flashlight revealed a room all set up for an after-service dinner that was not to be.  Tables were set with  with napkins and utensils. The serving table was filled with a row of Nesco roasters, the food warmers of choice for generations. "Look, LOOK! My meatballs, so good, and now so very cold."  She slammed down the lid of the Nesco.  "Kielbasa, borscht, we all make our best food, our old family recipes, and now  -- all we will have -- just cookies! Might as well be Baptists."

Apparently, this was a case of mistaken identity. The person they were expecting was probably someone who would know how to solve the problem. Someone with a little mechanical aptitude. Somebody had been called, and they thought I was him. I am not he. And how had they even placed a call, if there's no power in the building? Where was this guy?

"There!" she pointed to a small utility room next to the stainless steel kitchen sink. "The power, the boiler, it's all in there! There's a screwdriver and some hammers in the drawer over there." Marilyn did NOT ask if there were any further questions.  She turned around and went back upstairs. It was all my own problem, now. Why me?  Bewildered, I stepped into the foreign confines of the church's utility control room.... The main circuit breaker had tripped, and I know that it takes a severe trauma to knock out a main breaker.  I looked carefully around with my flashlight. Having reset all the breakers, the main breaker still would not hold the circuit. Nothing was apparently wrong, no melted or disconnected wires.  I'm no electrician, but I know when not to touch something you don't know about.  This problem would take more electrical know-how than I had accumulated in my entire life.

I felt sorry for the parishioners, and wished I could have helped them. Memories of cherished childhood pageants past helped me to appreciate the ultimate importance of the focal social event of the church's holiday season. Defeated, though, I went softly up the stairs, to find Angela, and explain that there was nothing I could do. There would not be any electricity tonight, so sorry.

The church was very quiet as I entered, and stood against the back wall by the organ loft. The service had begun. Lighted only by candles, the church had been transformed into a golden sanctuary. Parishioners huddled together for warmth. The children were performing the recitations they had been rehearsing. They  told the timeless familiar story of the prophecies, and the Nativity, in unison, individually, and in song. A pause, then a familiar sound - Luigi had my accordion in the organ loft, and was leading the songs. He coaxed a sweet harmonious voice from the accordion, each note caressing the voices of the children as they sang "Away in a Manger". Wished I could play like that!

The beautiful golden candlelight gave newness to the old familiar verses. "And she brought forth her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger."  A pause. A lady whispered loudly "LOOK!" She was pointing to the life-size nativity set in the front of the church. The rest of the congregation, momentarily distracted, whispered and pointed to the stable. The light from the full Christmas moon had focused through the stained glass windows a beam of clear white moonlight directly on the baby in the manger.

Silent Night, Holy Night.  Luigi began to play softly on the bassoon reeds of the accordion. The children began the verse softly, and by the end of the first stanza the entire congregation had joined in. By the end of the third stanza, about the "Son of God, Love's Pure Light", the singing had swelled to a volume you could feel as well as hear.

The children continued with the angel's appearance before the shepherds. "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you - you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger"

Suddenly, an inspiration struck me:  MEATBALLS! Of course! I bounded down the stairs to the basement, flashlight in hand, and unplugged some of the Nescoes. The excess of power-sucking Nesco roasters had been overloading the circuit, keeping everything from going on!  I could hear the children above " . . . a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying... " I strode confidently to the utility room, and threw the main breaker.

A momentary hush from the room above.  Then the children, at the top of their voices.  "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men."

As I re-entered the now-brilliantly lit sanctuary, Luigi had fired up the organ, and burst out into "Joy to the World". Fortissimo Sforzando! The congregation was standing up, singing loudly as their joy gave them expression. The Christmas tree almost reached the ceiling, and it was almost hard to look at all the brilliant white lights. Luigi's feet were dancing on the organ pedals. I wanted, needed to be a part of this moment. walking up to the organ, I picked up my accordion where Luigi had gently laid it. Luigi smiled and nodded. I joined in. It was, without a doubt the most joyful musical experience I have ever had. Joy to the World.

By the second stanza, people were hugging each other in the aisles, shaking hands, wishing one another a blessed Christmas.  The church elders brought out washtubs full of huge brown paper bags full of fruits, candy, and peanuts, and started passing them out to the overjoyed kids. Across the room, through the hubbub of joy, I spotted the pair of wings that I just couldn't get my mind off of. I saw Angela. She smiled with her beautiful eyes, and waved to me. I looked again, and she was no longer there.

Marilyn headed downstairs, where the Nesco power load had been re-distributed to other outlets, and started heating up the food. The radiators began to give up the first hints of warmth. The parishioners began to find their way down the stairs into the hall.

As I was packing up my accordion to head back to looking for a fix for my car, Luigi put his hand on my shoulder. "Peter, such a blessing you bring us. Please, you must stay. Eat! Eat!"  Well, I'll admit I wanted to spend a little more time getting acquainted with Angela, I kept thinking of those eyes. so I followed the crowd downstairs.

The food wasn't quite warm, yet, so Luigi and I traded tunes on the Baldoni. Luigi played some traditional European dance music, I ripped out a few Frankie Yankovic tunes. Although the hall was crowded, some tried dancing.  And the food - out of this world. But I never ran into Angela. And, as I stepped out into the cold calm December air, far Off, I could see my car.  It looked like someone was shooting off fireworks in the night. From this distance it looked like a shower of white sparks was raining down on my car. And then, it dawned on me, I was filled with a warm realization from deep within.  I was not alone, on this holy silent night. My car would start just fine.

Merry Christmas, Angela!

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Can one still purchase a Nesco? Are Nescoes manufactured, or do they come into existence through some special Divine act of transubstantiation? The Nesco is a semi-portable free-standing electric roasting oven. So powerful, it will inevitably blow a fuse and plunge the entire house in darkness. In our extended family, at least, the Nesco was by far the most revered and coveted family item. Whenever the old Angel of Death would flap his wings over our family, the Holy Succession of the Nesco was set in motion. Ordained and strictly enforced by Aunt Meta. As the soul rises gently to the afterlife, the Nesco descends majestically to the appointed successor. Thus Meta hath declared and so shall it be!

The smells of thanksgiving - a turkey roasting in the Nesco in the basement. The smell of the basement room under the garage - cold, damp concrete, drafty windows, lead paint, linseed oil and turpentine, the fragrance of the usual basement activities. And in the air, the holy incense of Grandpa's cheap cigars. My grandpa's basement - his kingdom.

From the time the stuffed bird was placed in the Nesco (usually about 5:00 am), Grandpa would have to baste the turkey every half hour until it was done, else it would get dry, Thanksgiving would be ruined, and that would be his fault. So, Grandpa kept the lonely watch. Grandma would preside by periodically yelling down the stairs. "Lionel, did you baste it?" It was very easy to lose track of time in the basement, so many more important things to be done, sorting paint brushes, sweeping floors, smoking White Owl cigars, and drinking beer, conveniently stored in the Kelvinator of the basement kitchen. "Lionel - all the lights went out again! Fix the fuse!"

The last hours of basting would always be the best. A cloud of fragrant steam would fill the room each time we opened the hatch. And from the hot hissing cauldron, some little crackly bit of turkey skin, or a wing tip would inevitably fall off, and would have to be eaten, isn't it unfortunate how these things happen? When the bird was done, Grandpa would load it onto a huge platter and start whacking away at it with a butcher knife. The Nesco pan would go on the gas range in the basement kitchen. Grandma would come down to the basement and make gravy.

Meanwhile up in the house Family Thanksgiving traditions were in full swing. Grandma, Aunt Bumpy and my mother getting into each other's way in the kitchen, whipping cream, mashing potatoes. My brothers and sisters and Aunt Bumpy's kids clomping incessantly up and down the stairs. There was always some board game thing going on in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Aunt Bumpy's nasty little dog, Gidget - Little Gidgie could never quit barking, and the kids would just encourage her by throwing things for her to fetch.

The table loaded with mashed potatoes, gravy, platters of turkey, mounds of squash, cranberries, bowls of stuffing and gravy, stacks of Brown 'n' Serve dinner rolls, and the Ring Mold - a ring of Jello impregnated with floating bits of raw cabbage and carrots. And then, clear off the plates and bring out the pie plates! Pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and mincemeat pie with its cloying sweetness.

After dinner, we'd all pitch in doing the dishes. The older kids would carry plates of leftovers to the cold basement room under the attached garage, covered with dish towels placed on the newspapers Grandpa had arranged on top of the paint cabinets.

Somehow by the end of the dishes, Aunt Bumpy would already have a card game going on the dining room table. nickels accumulating in front of Aunt Bumpy, although sometimes my Grandma was pretty sharp at that game, too. They'd play either Sheepshead, or a simple rummy game called "31". Drop another nickel in the pot.

In the living room, the men would fall asleep in chairs, football blaring away on the black and white Motorola TV - a console floor model. Kids would stomp back up the stairs to their board games.

Back down in the basement - that's was where real the activity was. Grandpa would fire up the phonograph with some polka music, and we'd take the roasting pan into the wash machine room, and place it in the stone laundry sink. Ist das nicht ein Schnitzelbank? Ja, das ist ein Schnitzelbank! We had the usual dishrags, SOS pads, scrubbing brushes. In addition we had all the secret weapons from the paint closet - scrapers, wire brushes, and industrial grade steel wool. It took hours, but we didn't care because we loved working in the basement, cleaning the Nesco pan, and the outside housing of the Nesco, and all the various greasiness.

Sometimes during the basement operations, we'd have to stop for a short trip to check on things in the cold room. Pulling up a corner of the linen towels, Grandpa and I would pick up little bits of stuffing, and chunks of leftover turkey. My grandpa could never get enough of that white meat. With a conspiratorial wink, we'd just grab it with our fingers - who needs forks - we're in the Basement! And cold stuffing is so much better than the hot. What happens in Grandpa's basement, stays in Grandpa's basement!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Stage Setup - Any Questions?

Last Sunday my wife staged her annual Fall Fashion Show. Alana Women's Apparel paraded the best of the New Looks for Fall 2015.  It's a fun event, and attracts lots of loyal customers, as well as the merely curious. The event used to be held in her store, but has outgrown the venue, and we now set up the runway in our theater across the street.  Of course there was shopping afterwards, and refreshments at the store. 
Sunday, October 11, 2015
Alana Women's Apparel Fall Fashion Show

Five days later, the theatre featured a spectacular classical accordion recital by the world-renowned Stas Venglevski.  Completely captivating recital - we hung on his every note, as he played a variety of compositions. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor  (Yes, the organ piece) which he transcribed for his accordion, as well as compositions by Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and some very intricate Russian Folk music. His own compositions brought the audience to their feet at the end of the show, and we wouldn't let him go without an encore.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015
Stas Venglevski accordion Concert
After the show, some people who had been to both the fashion show and the accordion concert wondered how the theatre had been so radically transformed in just the few days from Sunday to Saturday.  Wasn't there a lot of setup? How many people helped us take down the runway stage, reset the lights, reconfigure the seating, and reset the stage platforms?  

Well, not to brag or anything, it's just a 45-second one-man job. See how it's done - here's the video  :>

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sheet happens

In my little town I never meant nothing, I was just my father's son. - Paul Simon

The other day, my wife sent me to pick up a sheet with 1,000 thread count. I wasn't sure whether we could handle so many threads in a bed-sheet; the highest we've ever been is 500. What if we couldn't wake up?

The sheet set was an incredible deal, about 1/3 of the regular price. The catch: it had to be purchased between opening time and noon on Saturday only. It was a Door-Buster item. My wife had to open her shop in the morning, so I became the drafted designated Buster of Doors on her behalf. She made all the arrangements - I could cut right through the crowds trampling the shards of broken glass that once were the doors, and go down to pick up the item from Lynne at the Domestic Desk. The arrangement was pleasant enough; I was playing Sergio Mendez on my mini-van stereo, and it was a sunny morning. Perfect door-busting weather. It reminded me of the last time I went shopping for a bed sheet.

In my $110.00 per month 10-room apartment in Watertown, I lived upstairs with my piano, my books, and my two cats, Miss Riley and 3285 Unwanted. I had a care-free job as a night auditor in the Watertown Best Western Motel, and numerous other odd jobs. This was truly the high life, until one day, my bed-sheet ripped. Somehow the hole got so big, I would wake up on the other side of the sheet. Who knows where that could lead -- I've heard of these portals opening up, and you're never heard from again. So I decided that I had to purchase a new bed-sheet. I walked out of my apartment on 4th and Main Street, down to 2nd and Main; didn't want those cheap Woolworth's or Kresge's sheets, I wanted a good one!

Penney's was where you went for the necessities: Durable dry goods at reasonable prices. A three-story emporium on 2nd and Main Streets. The iconic bright yellow and black tile exterior. Inside there were institutional pistachio green walls, flickering fluorescent fixtures, and wooden floors that creaked as you looked through the merchandise on the wooden display tables. Stairs toward the back led up to a mezzanine which formed a low ceiling over the shoe department. But for a bed sheet you had to go down the stairs to the Housewares department in the basement.

Apparently, there had recently been a sale event. A half-empty shelf along the wall held a variety of bedsheets of various sizes. Still great prices, but only two of the clearance items were the right size for my single twin-size bed. One was a single light brown flat sheet. And the other was an entire sheet set. I needed the single sheet, but - imagine having a matching pillow case, AND a fitted sheet. I had never had a fitted sheet before, and could picture the time that could be saved by not having to line up the sheets every time i got out of bed. The set was the same price as the single brown sheet - Wotta deal!

As I approached the checkout counter, a familiar yet unexpected voice greeted me from the counter. Mrs. Milton, my next-door neighbor from my parents' house was working there. Good old Mrs. Milton. "Got a day off from work, Gary?". Good old nosey Mrs. Milton. People believe that you're out of work, just because they see you in the daytime.

"I'm working on the night shift this week." Don't want to take up your whole nosey day; just ring up my order. I put the sheet set down on her checkout counter. She picked it up to examine it.

"Is this for you?"

"Yep. There's a whole set in there. Even a pillowcase."

Then, in a polite tone, she pointed out "but --- it's pink!"

In the silence of Penney's basement, the humming of the fluorescent lights seemed deafening.

Well, don't we have an eye for color, you nosy wench! Perhaps she was not clear on the concept of sheet sets. "Yes, it's a set. They're all the same color. Even the pillowcase." I explained patiently

"But---they're pink!"

Pointing to the wall, "Well, my bedroom walls are light green, similar to that color." I held the sheet set up to compare with the color of them store walls. "That goes together, don't you think?"

She finally told me what the problem really was. "These sheets are PINK. Wouldn't the brown one be more -er- ah - manly?"

MANLY???  What's going on here?  "Perhaps. But the pink ones come in a set, you see. The brown one is just a single sheet. The pink ones are a better deal. And besides, I live alone and work on the night shift." I could see that I was losing ground. "Nobody would know. Who could tell?" Who, indeed! As if I didn't know.

I already had a reputation as an eccentric; the piano music coming out of my Main Street apartment, and those odd books on religious sects that I ordered on inter-library loan, the odd hours, coming home at 8 am, stopping at the Uptown Bar to buy eggs.

And so, with a sigh, I headed back to my apartment, a paper Penneys bag holding my new single manly brown bed sheet. I dreamed of someday having a fitted sheet, and a matching pillow case. 

Now, in the 21st century, each time I paint a room, my manly brown drop cloth reminds me how far I've come in this world.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Raspberry Story

My, wasn't life awful -- and wonderful?" (Mrs. Soames)

Raspberries. One taste and you can hear the crickets chirping in the hot, stifling closeness of a far-away evening stillness. What a day this has been!

Summer. August.  Hot.  My friend Tommy Radford and I had both graduated from kindergarten the previous spring, and we now owned the world. Everything was new - the world was ours.

We would spend entire days exploring "the Marsh," our name for a vast undeveloped expanse behind our house on the edge of town. The Marsh extended all the way to the highway.  tommy and i had not conquered the Marsh all the way to the far-off highway, but we were working at it.

Each day, we discovered new sections of the Marsh. The grass was over our heads, and we'd create paths by bending down the grass, either by walking over the tall grass repeatedly or by crawling forward by our elbows, leveling the path with our forearms, as we'd seen the soldiers do in war stories on TV.

Our trails were blazed to connect all the secret and mysterious places of the Marsh; a group of tiger lillies, a field of the other-worldly milkweed plants. When you picked a milkweed leaf it bled a mysterious white fluid, and it took quite a bit of courage to open a milkweed pod for the first time. There was a rock that could be lifted to reveal a quivering world of grayish white grub worms.  And everywhere the sharp sawing and chopping sound of summer insects, sounding so near, yet never to be seen.

Marsha, my neighbor -- who was much wiser than both of us, because she was a year older -- came with us one day, and helped us to identify the exotic plants and wildlife in our area. She could create facts instantaneously. she showed us poisonous mushrooms that could kill us just by touching them or sometimes just standing near them. There was a hole in the ground where a huge poisonous snake lived,  with a mouth big enough to swallow your entire leg in one bite.

One day we decided to share our wealth of natural curiosities with our neighborhood friends.  The expedition tour we sponsored was really the only safe way for them to view all of these wonders of nature.

We assembled a group of squeamish neighborhood kids -- our regular play group, plus their younger sisters and brothers. Free of charge - there was fun in the danger of it all.   We assembled the group in the basement under my father's garage.  We emphasized the importance of following the leaders -- Tommy and I could keep them safe.  Didn't want someone to step off the path into the soft muck in which the cattails grew. Your foot could be chewed up by bloodsuckers before you had a chance to pull it out. Counting Tommy and me, there were about ten of us.

And the expedition began.  Tommy started in the lead, and me behind the group. Tommy and I took turns leading the awe-struck group to the various scary sights. And at the end, a disorienting surprise turn in our path led us back to the very same path by which we had entered. Home safe, thanks to the skill of your excursion leaders.

As we headed back to the garage where the tour had started, we passed my father's garden. And as the beautiful late-afternoon August sunshine slanted down on the happy group, I was taken by a sudden impromptu idea.

I led our expedition between the two rows of raspberry bushes in the garden. Our fellow expeditionaries were treated to a handful of juicy fresh raspberries. Picking tasty fresh raspberries - and eating them right off the bush! What a fitting climax to our late summer spectacular -- our glorious --

Suddenly, the group's mood shifted.  Some of the younger kids screamed.  What was it--a bee?  Someone pointed toward the garage. I saw my father running toward us. Was something wrong in the house? My father never ran unless it was an emergency. Turns out, my father was angry with us for picking the raspberries. Well, what were raspberries for? OK, so we won't eat your raspberries, then. It had been a great tour, and raspberries did not matter.

Our tour group scattered in fear. The expedition was over. They all ran home in their separate ways, leaving only Tommy and me to explain.  Only we never got a chance to explain. Our excursion into the unexplored world was left entirely out of the "discussion". How many raspberries could a kid eat, anyway? Wasn't Dad interested in the glorious world we had just opened up to the neighborhood kids? NO.  We were bad, there was no discussion.  We were incapable of doing anything constructive, and were just interested in destroying his stupid raspberries.

And, although I was just 6 years old at the time, I can remember, exactly, my father's next words, which changed my life forever.

"And as for you, Tommy Radford -- I NEVER want to see  you around here again".  Tommy, feeling dismissed, went running home.  I was stunned.  The rest of the scolding just rolled over me, "yeah yeah go to your room and stay there, no going out of the house for two weeks, blah blah blah".  But, Tommy.  Tommy was gone forever.

My two weeks in "solitary" went by, taking the rest of the summer that was left to us, and then came first grade. I made all new friends.  Some of the best life-long friends - I met my best friend Norm from the other side of town, on the first day of first grade. (Just emailed him this morning, another story, another time).  I'd meet Max Wincell and Jimmy Griep, and have lots of friends from other neighborhoods, mostly school classmates, but never again from my own neighborhood. The paths through The Marsh all grew back to the way they had always been.

Although Tommy Radford lived across the street from me, we never played together again. I hoped that Tommy wasn't blaming me, but I was not able to ask him. A lot can happen in two weeks. Within two weeks, I was completely out of Tommy's circle of friends -- completely written out. There was never a reconciliation.  In the coming years, Tommy's group would build go-karts, treehouses, model rockets.  They would be in trouble with the police because the go-kart powered by a lawnmower engine was so successful. And model rocketry - Tommy's friend Bobby's older brother, Danny would go on to become Commander Dan Brandenstein of the Space Shuttle. Lee's brother started a rock n roll band, and I'd watch them out the window, as they would practice in the back yard. Goodbye to that life. I took piano lessons. My father got his wish. He never had to see any of my playmates again.

But never again would I have close friends in my own neighborhood. (even Marsha, my neighbor, became more distant, but she was now busy being a girl, as she explained gently. Understandable, we'd meet again in five years).

Years later, when I was in college, the Madison newspaper featured a photo around Halloween time, of a school bus driver in Stoughton. The kids on his bus all loved him -- he could turn a mundane and boring bus ride into an adventure. In this particular newspaper photo, the school bus driver was dressed up in a monster costume, making Halloween real for the kids. The bus driver's  name:  Tommy Radford.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

10 minutes at a time.

Woke up Sunday morning with a work list full of 10-minute jobs. Words of encouragement from the Mrs. as I got out of bed "The guy who did the roof estimate Thursday says that all the stairways and decks need some of that Thompson Water Seal".... Well, good morning to you, too, Honey.  I'll add it on to my list of 10-minute jobs.  Each little 10-minute job takes two hours to set up, and a half hour to execute.  So, I brushed out all the storage containers, killed all the weeds, scrubbed the shower, and washed the bathroom with bleach, helped a commercial tenant with a sign on the front wall of one of the commercial units, and hauled some stuff out of my workshop.  Getting ready for a nasty drywall patch job, I rounded up the tools, opened up the joint compound to see that it's still good, and discovered that I had no paper tape, which is important in patching a corner.  So, I had to go to Home Depot, and after a stupid look or two from the staff, I found what I needed by myself. And then, one of the orange aprons asked me if there was anything they could to for me.  I said, "Sure, come home with me and patch the drywall in the tenant's closet, please."  She didn't get it.  But, by the time I got home, it was already 3:00 pm.  The day was sinking into the swamp of toil and despair.

"So, " says I to meself, "I believe it is time for a little GOOFING OFF!  T'is Sunday, and tomorrow ye must return to work at ye olde Day Job.  oh-WEE-oh  we OOOOOooo"  

I snuck down to the basement and rummaged around on my shelves, and, what did I find?  An unlabeled reel-to-reel of some long-forgotten recordings I made with my buddy, Norm, back when there was a bit of time for such things.  As the wheels of the time machine spun around, I couldn't believe that we'd had that much energy back then.  So, I dug up some old posters from our show announcements at the time (we played old folks homes, bars, and even a charitable marathon walk once a year).  And here is the result.  Norm is on vocals and banjo.  That's me on accordion and bass.  Those were the days, my friend...

And, co-incidently, producing this video production was only a 10-minute job....

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Little Science, A Little heart - That Is All

One doesn't have to be a connoisseur of classical music literature to have at least a minimal exposure to the works of Gioacchino Rossini. He wrote 39 operas in his life. Through one opera alone, he provided Looney Tunes with a generation of sound cues. Of course, when you're hit over the head with a giant wooden mallet, there are birds zinging around your head as you come to, and the flute music from "after the storm" is heard. Who can forget Sylvester the Cat singing ""Feeeee-ga-ro Figaro Figaro!" as bricks and garbage are hurled at him? Others were inspired by Rossini's music as well. Popeye the Sailor couldn't weather a storm at sea without hearing "The Storm" from William Tell. And, of course, there's The Lone Ranger Theme. All Rossini.

He lived from 1792 - 1868. By his 70s, Gioaccino had turned opera into the Marx Brothers of the times, making the audience laugh, and cry at the same time. He was adored by his audiences, but he wondered if his frivolity had upset his Maker. Rossini decided to turn his talents to sacred music. He composed an entire mass "Petite Messe Solennelle" (Little Solemn Mass), which Napoleon declared was "neither solemn, nor little" (it runs 70 minutes). Le Si├Ęcle (a music critic of the time) stated that "it was a good thing that the mass was scored for a small choir, piano, and harmonium, because, had it been scored for full chorus and orchestra, it would have enough fire to melt a marble cathedral".

Rossini, in the dedication of the mass, declared, humbly:

"Good God – behold completed this poor little Mass – is it indeed music for the blest that I have just written, or is it just some blessed music? Thou knowest well, I was born for comic opera. Little science, a little heart, that is all. So bless Thee Lord, and grant me Paradise!" (1863)
So, picture Rossini and God, face to face at the time of judgement. An awful and complete silence. God is reviewing the life that was Rossini, especially the Missa Solemnis. God shakes his almighty head.

"Gioaccino, Gioaccino. Here in Heaven, we have all of the works of the greatest composers who have come before you. Haven't you ever heard the great Toccatas and Masses of Bach? The St. Matthew Passion? Handel and the Messiah? The hymns of Martin Luther? And here you come, Gioaccino, with people smiling as they are singing, and rhythm, and the lilting ---"

Rossini hangs his head. It is hopeless, now. How could he have expected the Almighty to accept such a humble and rustic thing as this mass.

" . . . and what's that in the first row, there, Gioaccino? An ACCORDION?"

"We called them harmoniums in my time on earth, my Lord." Rossini replies very softly and dejectedly. "reinforces the harmony of the chorus ..."

God rises from his throne, Rossini cringes, as the hand of the Almighty sweeps toward him. With a mighty roar, God proclaims "Gioaccino Rossini - - - - "

The heavens are silent, as Rossini hears his name echoing back to him from the clouds. God puts his hand on Rossini's shoulder, no longer able to suppress a smile. "Gioaccino, my son, come home. Come in, my son, we'll show them how the joy comes into the music."


Little science, a little heart.  That is all

Sunday, April 12, 2015

To See the Simple Pleasure We Once Knew

All these years I've been  "going to and fro in the Earth, and walking up and down  in it." (Now, who said that?  It's in the Book of Job, King James Version).  Some things you pick up along the way, bits of insight and advice.  You carry these fragments around, they bump into one another in your head for years, re-configure, refine themselves, and then one day you realize that these little nuggets have refined themselves into the greatest pieces of wisdom that you'll ever encounter.

Notice, I've updated the Excelsior subtitle above, to include one of these - perhaps the greatest of the realizations I've come across in this life.

Happiness?  To be living in the good old days, and realize it at the time - it doesn't get much better than that!

And what if you could go re-visit one of these golden salient time of bliss in your life.  A moment when everything, just everything was harmonious and perfect.  What if you could go back for even for a few moments and re-experience that simple joy?

Here's a song about that very phenomenon.  It's been sitting in my various basements since the 1970s on a reel-to-reel recording I made from the radio. The song has been haunting me ever since I brought it out of the archives.  I feel compelled to share it.  So here ya' go!  Enjoy.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Hooked on a Khachaturian

The other day at work, I was asked to fill in at the front reception desk.  While the front desk doesn't have the stunning 13th floor view of Lake Michigan that my regular desk has, it does have the computer network, so my indexing of top-secret documents can continue unabated.  The front desk is the first place visitors see when they arrive at our company, so there's a lot of "Show Biz" involved.  I sign visitors in, direct calls on the switchboard, schedule meetings, and coordinate countless pizza and sub deliveries to the employees.  

There was one corner of the reception area that I found particularly annoying, though.  There is a television feed, usually set to CNN or Fox News.  Since other parts of the screen run local welcome messages and weather conditions, it is necessary that the television feed be ON all the time.  The news was what you'd expect - rehashing over and over the celebrity gossip, terrorist activities, terrifying weather reports (hey, there's always going to be a tornado somewhere). But what gets to you first is the repetitious ads.  Smug old farts with golf clubs selling reverse mortgages, gold investments, class action suits, insurance, and on and on...

Then I discovered a music channel.  We don't have any of the Sirius or Warner channels, but there are two channels run by public television channels, one is jazz and one is classical.  The classical channel plays a wonderful variety of music spanning five centuries, and I was able to hear many familiar favorites as well as some new discoveries. 

One song grabbed my attention so completely that I had to find out all about it.  An Adagio movement from a score by Aram Khachaturian, written in the 1950s for a production (movie or ballet?) of Spartacus.  This familiar passage (about 50 seconds into the example below) was the basis from the song "Hooked on a Feeling" that had been on the soundtrack of my life in at least three different versions in the 1960s and 1970s.  The most infamous version was the Blue Swede version that was popular in the early 1970s, featuring a chorus of about six people chanting "Hooka Chokka Hooka Chokka".  

I decided to research the connection - and, amazingly, nobody else had discovered the unmistakable link between these two pieces. 

Am I the only one on the Internet who ever noticed this similarity?

Khachaturian Adagio from Spartacus:

And here's the Blue Swede version from the 1970s.  Imagine, this song is 40 years old!  A new generation is discovering the song, now, as it was used in a film "Guardians of the Galaxy" which I have not yet seen.  If you've never heard the version, crank up your woofers and tweeters, and let 'er rip!

And if you're interested in further research, use this link for the complete history of Hooga Chokka:

Monday, February 2, 2015

More Random Notes - Livin' the Dream!

Yes it's been awhile, and I missed all of my loyal readers, all three of you. Clearing up some random items that have been piling up in the Draft box.


Yvonne and Kay near the end of the day, work's all done, just waitin those last few minutes for the nine-to-five thing to be over.  Yvonne flipping through photos on the internet for a Halloween costume ideas.  She comes up with a photo of an ugly green-face witch leering at the camera, brandishing her broom.  Something looks familiar.  To herself "Who is  that?" Then she calls across the room: "Kay, can you drive a stick?" . . .


It's an almost-late-for-work morning.  On the way to work, I'm just locking up my front door, and see the bus already arriving at the corner.  I frantically head out, waving and running, hoping that the bus sees me.  Luckily, it was Al at the wheel.  Al, as you recall, is the driver that stopped and attempted to pick me up mid-block on my day off.  Al waited as I ran cross-corner through the traffic of the five-corner intersection. 

I stomp up the stairs of the bus panting.  Physical fitness is not one of the things I'm known for. Panting out my apologies:  "Sorry.  Had to get that extra twenty seconds of sleep."

Al replies:  "Well, good thing you didn't decide to stay in bed for an extra twenty-five seconds!  Take it easy, Old Guy - don't get a heart attack.  Cuz there's NO WAY I'm giving you mouth-to-mouth."


So, this "work"  I'm talking about - it's my job!  A full-time job.  I'm not a temp, any more.  The place I'm working at hired me full-time. Try before you buy.  When they said "full-time" they meant, that I could go home once in awhile to sleep for a few hours, but otherwise, there was a major project in-house, and we had to keep at it until it was done for the day.  (The project is secret, but it involves huge vats of incoming mail each and every day, and this includes Sundays).  The project is now complete.  When it was all over, we were all happy to have a heap o'gold in our bank accounts from all the overtime, and we did get the project out by Christmas.  Getting up at 4:30 am, and getting home aroung 8:00 pm became the norm.  The sunrise over Lake Michigan is beautiful - all those folks home in bed don't get to see such beauty.

So, now, I'm catching up on everything else, clearing up backlogs everywhere, and re-discovering things that haven't been looked at since September, when it all started. Spent a lot of time this weekend on the business end of a snow shovel.  And today the ground hog ran back into his dark little hole, so there will be lots more wintry snowed-in days to catch up on things. How does that work, anyway? 


I am now informed that I work less than four blocks from a facility that makes Life-Changing Bacon Topped Maple Donuts...  Each day brings its own little bit of wisdom.