The story starts 44 years ago, the summer of 1973. We had just graduated from high school and a group of six or seven of us – a mixed group, no couples – had jammed into a station wagon and headed out to a drive-in movie.
I have no idea what we saw. It was just a group of friends enjoying that interlude between high school and the rest of our lives. But one thing made it memorable, at least to me.
One of the people there mentioned having gone shopping that day and had purchased a pair of button fly Levis. Not remarkable in itself, but we started playing with the phrase. Someone, it might have been me but who knows, said, “Button fly Levis took the zip outta my romance.” And I said – and yes, I’m sure it was me – “Sounds like the title of a country western song.”
And my friend John Sanders (who now uses the full family name John DeGrazia-Sanders) turned to me and said – “Write that song!”
So I did. Took two days, but I was determined. Partly because it was a dare, right? I couldn’t turn it down, and partly because it was a funny idea and I didn’t want someone else to take it. I ended up with a plaintive country western ballad that told the story of unrequited love – or at least unrelieved teenage lust.
The problem was, I don’t read or write music, don’t play an instrument. I can sing bit. So I wrote the song but it was really just a bunch of words that fit a pattern. I sang it a few times, but it was probably different every time I sang it.
It was eight years later, when I was working at the La Grande Observer in the far back corner of Oregon, that I met my reporting colleague Jim Angell. Jim is also a great guitar player and performer. He listened to me sing it through a couple of times, tweaked a couple of lines and figured out the chords for it. It became a real song. We actually performed it at the Eastern Oregon State College Oktoberfest that year. Afterwards the college president told us we were nuts. I appreciated that.
Fast forward to two weeks ago, Father’s Day. We are now in the New Orleans area, and Max – as I’ve mentioned a time or two – plays guitar. Plays pretty well, as a matter of fact, and will be studying music in college this fall. He’s been taking lessons at the Guitar Center, and every fifth Friday of the month (for those months that have five Fridays, of course) they have a jam session. The students and the teachers get together and play. Sometimes a student will play something particular he or dshe has been working on. Usually one or two eight year olds will plunk out something on the piano, but there’s usually three or four people up on the stage playing drums, guitar, keyboard, bass. There’s an old guy who teaches wind instruments, and he’s usually on stage throwing in sax solos and keeping them together. Tori’s gotten on stage a couple of times to sing with different combinations of players. It’s fun.
Well, we’ve been going to these for four years, and Friday’s was Max’s last as a student, since he starts classes in August and the next five-Friday month is September. So earlier this year I tracked down Angell – he’s in Wyoming no happily married and just back from a vacation in Iceland – and he sent me the chords, and this Father’s Day Max sat down and played “Button Fly Levis.” We practiced it a few times this Friday at the jam session we performed it together.
It was a blast. If you listen to the video, you’ll recognize that my voice doesn’t go quite as high as easily, as it did 43 years ago. It’s a little strained. But I’d forgotten how fun it could be to perform, and Max followed me wherever I was going so it was OK. I told the story, and people laughed in all the right places, and applauded at the end.
It was especially sweet to perform the song with Max. He is the age now I was when I wrote it. It was fun to share that moment from my past as he’s getting set to start his future.
Max has been receiving calls from the “U.S. Government Grants Department,” offering him a $9,000 grant. Now, we’re certainly interested in any help in paying for his college education, but this was pretty obviously not legit.
The next time the guy called, I motioned for Max to give me the phone.
“Hello?” I said.
He identified himself as Randy Miller. He had a flat accent, maybe Eastern European, hard to place. He said he was from the U.S. Government Grants Department, and was offering the Maxwell Powers at this phone number a $9,000 “loyalty grant” for being a good citizen. Only 1,700 people in the country were to receive such a grant. Max was going to have to call the Treasury Department at a number he gave me (which turns out to be a VOIP phone, voice over internet protocol. Pretty sure Treasury uses regular landlines.)
I observed that it was a sorry state of affairs if only 1,700 people were deemed to be good citizens. He ignored that. I then asked to whom my son would have to pledge loyalty to receive this money. He seemed puzzled. I decided to play a role.
“We don’t pledge loyalty to just anybody in this household,” I said. “We’re very religious and only pledge loyalty to our lord and savior Yahweh.”
He went back to page one of his script.
I asked again what department he was from.
“The Government Grants Department.”
“What government?” I asked. “This isn’t some foreign country trying to subvert my son, is it?”
He went back to page one of his script.
“Well $9,000 is a lot of money,” I said. “I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want $9,000. I know nine or 10 people and none of them would turn down $9,000.”
That one was kind of out there, and I wasn’t surprised he didn’t bite at it, although I was a little disappointed. Back to page one of the script.
This went on a little longer, but frankly I was getting bored. He was not, I have to say, a foeman worthy of my steel. So I finally told him that Max wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college.
“That’s a lot of work, four years. He’s thinking he might do better getting a job like you have, trying to rip people off with a phone scam. You don’t have a college degree do you, and you’re doing okay at this con game, right?”
He started to go back to page one, then he sounded offended and challenged me. “I haven’t asked you for any money, have I?”
“Not yet, but I’m online reading a report about your scam. You’re following the script, and I know that before this is over you’ll tell him to buy an iTunes gift card to pay the processing fee. I can read it right here. I may sound stupid, but I’m not as stupid as you.”
And I hung up.
It was 15 minutes. I would have liked to play him longer, but frankly he was boring me. At least that was 15 minutes he wasn’t scamming somebody else, so I guess that’s something.
By the way, anyone who wants to send Max a few bucks for his college tuition is welcome to chip in. But he’s not paying a processing fee via iTunes cards, and he’s not pledging loyalty to anyone.
In 1997, Tori and I – much to our surprise – learned we were going to have another child. Our youngest then was Millie, and when Max was born in 1998, she was six. So yeah, we were surprised.
At some point during the pregnancy I did the math and said “Holy smokes! (I didn’t say smokes) When this one (we didn’t know the sex) graduates from high school, I’ll be 62 years old!” It seemed just impossibly old to have a graduating senior.
Then I thought about it and sighed. “Well, I was planning to be 62 anyway, so I might as well be doing something useful.”
And now I’m 62 years old, and today Maxwell Mark Charles Douglas Oscar Baur is graduating from high school. Couldn’t be prouder of the young man he’s turned into. Yes, he’s smart – graduating fifth in his class and I never see him working that hard – yes, he’s talented and fun. But what we’re really proud of is how thoughtful he is of other people, how sensitive he is. how much he cares about other people. I imagine it’s mostly his mother’s influence.
In a couple of months he’ll be off to the University of New Orleans to study computers and jazz guitar (where else would you study jazz guitar than New Orleans?) It’s a very exciting time, and we’re proud of him and eager to see him make his mark.
Congratulations Max. You done good! We can’t wait for what comes next.
Sunday was Mother’s Day, of course, and we (me and Max and Kate) spent it celebrating Tori. A movie. Max made a special dinner (stuffed mushrooms and pasta,) a gift and – best of all – when Tori and I woke up Sunday morning the house was, maybe not spotless, but really, really clean.
It was a good day.
Right now, however, I want to talk about my own mother. To a great degree, I am who I am because of Mary Ellen Baur. She’s been gone 14 years. Instead of something sappy and sentimental I’ll tell you a couple of true stories.
Mom was smart – I mean, genius smart. She hated when anyone brought it up, but her IQ had been tested at 150. “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s plus or minus 15 points,” she’d protest. “Oh, so it could be as high as 165?” Might have been the only time she regretted her kids learning math. She was always interested in science. She could spend more time combing through tidepools than anyone I’ve ever known. She was a Girl Scout leader, sometimes three troops at a time as well as serving on the district council (seven of her eight kids were daughters, so …), ran “Great Books” programs in school, carpooled us to school (driving in three carpools every week) and so much more. And after she got us all in school, she went back to school, got her teaching credential and taught fifth grade at the local Catholic school for more than 20 years. (And, unbeknownst to me, she had a thing for Harlequin romances. In cleaning out their house, we found literally hundreds of them tucked away.)
When I was 7 or 8, I don’t quite recall now, I had the mumps. No one gets the mumps anymore because all kids are vaccinated, or should be, but in the ’60s they were still a problem and potentially serious. My glands were swollen and I had a temperature, and I couldn’t move around because the thinking was – I don’t know if it was real or not – that would spread them in my body and cause dire consequences. For a week I lay on the couch, all day and evening, waiting for the swelling to go down.
After the first day I was bored out of my mind and told mom so. She left the room and came back with a big book – the first volume of the encyclopedia. Now that might sound absurd, but she knew me.
“Look at this,” she said, pointing to articles on airplanes, astronomy and astronauts and the army and automobiles, animals and armor. I was hooked. I spent the rest of the week poring through the volume, and then, on through the alphabet. This was a kid’s encyclopedia, but a few years later when we acquired the World Book, I worked my way through that.
Yeah, as a kid I read the encyclopedia – for pleasure. Not every word, not every article. But a good chunk of every volume. Even into high school when I was at loose ends I would pick out a volume and thumb through it until something caught my eye, and settle down to read. Because of mom.
Once in high school I was going on about some – to me – interesting, trivial factoid I’d run across, and mom looked at me, shook her head, and said, “You are a font of useless information.”
Which turned out to be at least a little ironic. When Trivial Pursuits was sweeping the nation, I was good at it. Very good. I never lost. Never. Except one time. My mom beat me. Didn’t just beat me, she kicked my ass. So who had the greatest store of useless knowledge, hmm?
We lost mom to Alzheimer’s before we lost her for good in 2003. In fact, it was on Mother’s Day 1999 that I learned she had the condition. What a phone call that was. I had called home to wish her happy Mother’s Day. Dad answered and said she was taking a nap, but while I was on the line he had some news. Not only did he tell me that she had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but for good measure he added that the same week he’d been diagnosed with ALS. Yeah, that was a memorable Mother’s Day.
The last few times I saw her, she was already gone. The thing that made her her wasn’t there any more. But there was one more story.
Mom and dad were always a perfect match. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s still true, I never saw them argue, don’t recall a single instance when they weren’t one. If you’ve ever read Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” you’ll know what I mean when I call them a duprass. (And if you don’t, read the book.)
As their separate conditions deepened, they actually became even closer. As dad lost his physical ability, she became his hands. As she lost her memories, he became her contact with the world.
After dad died, mom was in a residential home in Denver, a short distance from my sister’s home. And she seemed oblivious of what had happened. Once she was talking about dad and some of his accomplishments and the cartetaker said, “Your husband sounds like a remarkable man.” “Oh he is,” mom agreed. As another of my sister’s commented, “She’s in denial – and it’s working for her.”
Went to Costco yesterday, determined to buy only things that begin with the letter C.
Am I obsessive-compulsive or something? No. I just decided to play a game as I shopped. And I suppose it might have helped keep the cost of the trip down. After all, it’s Costco, and we always end up spending way more than we planned.
So here’s what I picked up on my expedition.
• Cherry tomatoes
Hmmm. How about
• Chicken eggs
• Calcium-enriched orange juice
• Corn-free flour tortillas
• Carved ham
• Crisp frozen Taquitos
• Crunchy granola bars
Then there was something we really needed, but working around the “C” rule was tricky. I finally came up with …
• Cubed ice, melted and placed in individual serving containers – in other words, bottled water.
Was that cheating? Then you’ll really love:
• Cados, avo
What can I say? I really wanted the bag of avocados.
Tori and I took off for a mini-vacation last week, Wednesday through Friday at the Gulf Coast in Alabama. We had driven through the area two years ago after missing a freeway entrance and deciding to see what lay down the road. We liked what we saw. I wrote about it here.
We ended up staying last week in Orange Beach, Alabama. In retrospect, we should have gone on down the road a bit to Gulf Shores. Nothing against Orange Beach, it had a beach and that’s what we wanted. But it was all huge condos on the beach side of the main drag, all strip malls on the other. There was a lot of that in Gulf Shores, but there was also some of that “funky beach town” air. Lesson learned.
Still, we woke up to the sound of waves, and were on the beach Thursday and Friday as the sun rose. That was the whole point, so we’re not complaining.
There’s Something about Tori
I don’t know what it is about Tori. People just come up and start talking to her, telling her their life stories. It happened both mornings on the beach.
The first was an older guy (older than me, even) who was walking purposefully up the beach, clearly getting a workout. And he stopped to explain to us why he was using cross country ski poles.
It’s not like we were the only people on the beach. There were scores of folk up and down the sand he could have stopped to chat with, but he chose us. They always do.
He was visiting from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or ooper-land, as the residents call it.) There were 300 inches of snow on the ground in the UP, and he and his wife were enjoying the sunshine.
The ski poles were because he has bad knees, he explained, and they help take a little of the weight off them as he walks. He’d had his knees scoped and knows they’re not in good shape, but he doesn’t want knee replacement surgery. A friend of his had that procedure and has never been quite the same. See what I mean? People just start spilling their guts.
His doctor – “a foreigner,” he told us – had kidded him about the problem. “He told me ‘I know what the problem with your knees is,’ and then started poking my stomach.” So, yeah, he as carrying excess weight that put extra stress on the knees. Point taken. I’m working on that same issue myself.
But you get the point. Out of nowhere this guy stops to give us his medical history.
The next day a couple roughly my age walked by with a handful of debris. “We’re picking up trash,” they said. The husband walked on. She stopped to chat.
She was from Franklin, Tennessee, she said, and they were down for a while visiting the beach before spring break brought a load of drunk college kids. I mentioned that when I was a kid I had lived near there in Nashville, while dad worked at a factory in Franklin.
That set us off on a discussion of how much the area had changed since she had moved there with her husband to work at the nearby Saturn plant in Springhill. They were originally from Detroit. And we went on for another 15 minutes or so.
I think it’s Tori. There’s just something about the woman I married that draws strangers to her to tell their life stories.
You Could Feel the Ghosts
The weather on the Gulf Coast was warm and bright Friday, a sparkling day, but as we walked through the tunnel, a brick-lined vaulted passageway into Fort Morgan, and stepped out into the sunny parade ground, I felt a chill. You could feel the ghosts.
Fort Morgan is at the eastern point guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay. The fort actually goes back to the war of 1812, and it played an important role in that conflict. But its pivotal moment came during the Civil War, when Mobile was the only port on the gulf still open to Confederate blockade runners. In August 1864 the Union decided it was time to shut it down.
It wasn’t a huge military action, nothing like Antietam or Gettysburg or even Shiloh or Stones River. But the port was vital to the Confederacy, and thus vital to the Union. It is best remembered, when it’s remembered at all, for the words of Union Admiral David Farragut. When warned by a subordinate of the Confederate “torpedoes” (really floating mines) that had just blown up the ironclad USS Tecumseh as it tried to enter Mobile Bay, he replied, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
And as we walked into the fort through that long tunnel, I could imagine what it felt like being a Confederate soldier, marching into the fort and not knowing if you’d get the chance to march out. Inside, the fort’s outer wall was lined with large chambers, dark and gloomy. And like I said, I could feel the presence of the men who had fought to defend the place. Standing on the wall looking out into the bay, it didn’t take too strong an imagination to see the Union ships moving into place to blast the fort into submission.
We spent more than two hours in the fort and on the grounds outside. It was time well spent. Then we took the ferry across the mouth of the bay to Dauphin Island, spent a little while at Fort Morgan’s twin, Fort Gaines, on the western entrance to the harbor, and headed home.
The thing that stopped us at Fort Gaines wasn’t the fort itself. Out on the lawn there was large wooden “thing.” That’s all I can come up with to describe what it looked like. Maybe 20 feet long, four feet high and almost that wide. It was obviously made up of many timbers.
Turns out in 1998, when Hurricane Georges blew through the area, this thing had been dredged up from the deep and washed ashore. Examination showed it to be a section of the keel of a wooden sailing ship from around the 1800s. There was no way to tell what ship, where it as from, how it ended up at the bottom, or whatever happened to the crew.
(I know we took a couple of pictures of it, and I’ll post it as soon as I can find it.)
You could see the places where ship’s ribs were attached, how it was pieced together. A timber eight to ten inches square was perpendicular to the main piece, and you could see how it had been cut and shaped by a long-dead hand. There was only one way to do it in the 1800s, no power tools.
It was another set of ghosts. The craftsmen who built the ship, the unknown crew who sailed on her. It doesn’t take much to wake them. All you have to do is be open to them.
Like I said, we had first found ourselves down on Alabama’s Gulf coast by accident. And that paid off again, in a small way, last week. We had left Orange Beach heading west, planning to catch the ferry. We weren’t in a hurry, just ambling west. And we ambled just a little too far.
In Gulf Shores, the coastal highway jogs north, and I missed the turn. Not a problem. I could (and did) jog around a couple of blocks to backtrack, then get back on the route.
But what I saw stopped us in our tracks.
Built into the side of a building was a pirate ship! I assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that it was the entrance to a restaurant. We stopped. Pictures were taken. Then we got back in the car. And as we drove up the road on the other side of the building, we saw what it was – Souvenir City. A really big shop featuring what I assume are T-shirts, postcards and every plastic geegaw a vacationer could want to remember their trip to the shore. I mean big. I’ve never seen a place that big dedicated solely to the sale of coastal tchotchkes.
What we had seen, made up as a pirate ship, was the rear entrance. The front was a giant shark, and to get in to buy a set of Gulf Shores placemats and a “Roll Tide” backscratcher you have to enter through the shark’s gaping, tooth-lined mouth! Pretty cool, eh? We didn’t go in, we have all the bric-a-brac* we need, but I’m glad we saw it. And we wouldn’t have if I’d have made the right turn in the first place.
Similarly, on Thursday we were exploring to the east. We missed Flora-Bama completely, apparently it’s not so much a town as just a line on a map separating the two states. We ended up on Perdido Key, south of Pensacola, where we pulled into a parking lot to take a break.
And there, down on the pier, two sailing ships were tied up. Not just any ships. These were replicas of Nina and Pinta, two of the three ships that were part of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. Why there wasn’t also a Santa Maria replica I cant say. But they were fun to take a look at. And later that day as we lay on Orange Beach we looked up and there was one of them cruising by, then turning slowly and heading back into the sunset.
Anyway, those were some of the highlights of the get away. The best part, of course, as spending the time on the road with Tori. When we married we already both had children, then had more right away. So we never got a whole lot of “us time” until the last couple of years. So it’s always nice to get away, just the two of us.
* Reminds me of one of my all-time favorite reporter quotes. A woman I worked with in Oregon came back from interviewing a little old lady and, to give us an idea of how crowded with a lifetime of souvenirs her home was, commented “The knick knack shelves were choc-a-block with bric-a-brac.” Sheer genius!
I have done them, and like everyone else I have had indifferent success. I think it was 1996 that I figured out the reasons for that.
a) We always make it something huge – I’m going to quit smoking this year, lose 25 pounds, learn how to sculpt or knit or perform brain surgery.
b) We always think making this huge thing a resolution for the new year will somehow make us more likely to achieve the goal, when in reality it just ups the pressure. Failed new year resolutions are legendary. I decided that if I want to lose weight or learn Italian or take up pottery, I’ll do it because I want to, not because the words occurred to me on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1.
So on Jan. 1, 1996, I made a resolution I knew I could keep. I promised I would not wear a tie all year.
And I kept the resolution! All year! First time I’d ever done that. My wife, Tori, commented at the time, “You need better problems.” She was probably right, she usually is, but I thought I’d come up with a winning formula. The next year I made myself a stiffer challenge, one that would require a bit of effort. I resolved that when I went grocery shopping, after loading the groceries into the car I would always take my cart all the way back into the store, every time, rain or shine. Not only did I keep that resolution for the whole year, it actually became a habit that I still follow today.
But that’s been it for me for resolutions. I don’t have any new year resolutions for 2017.
What I have is a schedule.
I know what I need to do this year, know what I want to accomplish. And I know about how long it ought to take to do it, if I’m serious. Which I am, so I’ve got a schedule.
I will finish project 1 in the next two weeks. Project 2 (I’m not ready to discuss most of them in any kind of detail) I think has terrific potential. I’ll finish the first draft by April 1. Then project 3, the movie treatment for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” That shouldn’t take more than a couple of months – just a matter of adapting the story I know so well to a different medium. That’ll give me the summer to revise the first draft of the project 2. Finally, when fall arrives I’ll get to work on project 4, the sequel to “Chrissie,” which with a little hard work, luck and concentration I should be able to finish by the end of the year.
Ambitious? Probably. Written in stone? No, but I’m going to try to keep on that pace. I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve got a lot of writing to do. I don’t have time for a lot of navel gazing. It’s just a matter of that old adage, apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and keep it there until you’re done.
I’ll have some other things going on – a book festival in March, any other readings and events I can muster. And a trip out west this fall, which will be for family but there’s no rule that says I can’t try to sell a few books while I’m there.
If you made a resolution – more power to you! Keep it up. If, like me, you take a different approach, get cracking.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some work to do.