Music and Lyrics

Music and Lyrics

I am a child, I’ll last a while. You can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile.

You hold my hand, rough up my hair, it’s lots of fun to have you there.

God gave to you, now, you give to me, I’d like to know what you learned.

The sky is blue and so is the sea. What is the color, when black is burned?

What is the color?

I am a Child, Neil Young

The band was Buffalo Springfield – Bruce Palmer, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Jim Messina.  It was 1968 and they had released what would be their final album – The Last Time Around.  A teenaged hippy baby sitter named David was watching us for the evening.  I am certain when my father saw him in his psychedelic shirt and Birkenstocks, he mourned for the future of America.  The teenager was holding a number of record albums under his arm. “ Hey, little dudes”, he cooed as he flipped back his hair, surveying the four boys under 13.  My dad gave my mother that one last “ are you sure about this look”.  She smiled.  He was the oldest son of one of her dearest friends and was a great kid.  “ let’s go, Miles” she said.

Within seconds of my parents reversing onto the street and driving off toward some exotic liaison with other adults in a land of tinkling martini glasses and swirling perfume, the loading mechanism was dropping an LP on to the rotating turntable.  Richie Furay, Stephen Stills and Neil Young initiated the first track called On The Way.  As David grinned and fell into my father’s favorite lounge chair, I gathered on the floor and listened.  Eight songs later, a gentle harmonica led Neil Young into a soft ballad about being a kid.  “ I Am A Child” was the first melody where I can recall hearing the lyrics that were about me and how I felt.  The question of “what is the color, when black is burned?” came to symbolize for me a unfiltered world filled with innocent wonder.

Someone once reflected that “music is what feelings sound like.”  When you become a teenager, music, lyrics, books and perhaps your best friend are the only things in life that can be trusted.  As a writer filled with teenaged angst, I fashioned myself a lyricist and wrote bad songs – I mean, really bad songs, inspired by a counter cultural generation of poet songwriters who used words and music as a wedge to liberate feelings that lay trapped behind a generational door.  Whether it was Jackson Brown warning me that the “ the (earth’s) fuse was burning” or Stephen Stills reminding me to savor “ those top down nights when the air was red wine”, these sages of song seemed to know what lay ahead on the highway of life.

My first exposure to the mystical power of the lyrics was in 1977 on a silky Southern California summer night as we sat in my friend Phil’s bedroom screwing up our courage to play the White Album by the Beatles backwards.  It was rumored that the Charles Manson and his blood thirsty “family” had slaughtered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca along with actress Sharon Tate after hearing hidden messages on the White Album’s Revolution Number Nine.  “ If you play it backwards, the song says, ‘turn me on dead man’.” Sean warned.  Our other friend Brian nodded, knowingly. He was clearly disturbed by our experiment.  It was if we were playing with a Ouiji board on his grandmother’s grave.  He and Sean were devout Catholics and this all seemed like some great cosmic felony to be gathering like devil worshippers to play an LP that divined satanic messages to druggies and psychopaths.

We turned the record in reverse and slowly increased the volume.  It was scratchy at first- perhaps sounding the way Thomas Edison’s voice groaned as he invented his talking gramophone.  But, I could hear it, amidst the swirling mayhem of anarchic music in reverse – a ghostly moan repeating: “ Man-yon-min–man.  Man-yon-min-man”.  In retrospect, it was complete gibberish.  But at that moment, as I looked Brian, who sat like a stupefied granite statue, I felt a cold chill.  Had we sent some demonic homing signal into the night that could only be heard by murderers and long haired Satanists.

“ Did you hear it? He whispered.” I heard it!”  Not wanting to be left out, I agreed that the cryptic modulation could have been from beyond instructing us to go out and wreak mayhem on capitalists – whatever those were.  Just then Phil’s Mom stuck her head in the door and we all jumped ten feet into the air, looking guilty as if we had been caught using bloody chicken feet to outline pentagrams in some secret Satanist ceremony.  “Boys, it’s time to ride your bikes home.  It’s getting late and Mrs. O’Brien just called.” We looked outside and realized that the lingering afternoon had descended into sinister night.  “ You guys gotta go.” Phil confirmed. It sounded like a death sentence.

Brian and Sean disappeared together under weak, intermittent streetlamp light that barely fought off the shadows that sought to take over the empty road.  A van passed slowly and seemed to hesitate as it rolled by.  I was suddenly convinced that the entire Manson gang was following me home ready to plunge forks into my body and carve Helter Skelter in my rear end.  On that fateful night, I broke a land speed record covering three miles on a ten- speed while making countless deals with God that in exchange for my safe passage I would never tamper with the occult or malevolent lyrics again.

Yet, while others devoured music, I savoured the lyrics.  While people fawned over Dylan, I drank in the truth of Simon and Garfunkel and became a closet acolyte of Paul Simon, the songwriter– an oracle who lived in a province governed by emotions and physical forces.  In my lifetime, his lyrics have led me through the ghettos of Soweto and into the lives of the inspired, lost, indigent and misunderstood. “Kodachrome” reminded us how we gild the colors of our past and “ Me and Julio” introduced us to Mama Pajama in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. He urged us to go look for “America”.

Lesser known artists created singular works of art – testimonials to the marginalized of their generation.  Janis Ian summed up the broken glass and dark corridors of adolescence in “Seventeen”: “I learned the truth at seventeen. That love was meant for beauty queens, and high school girls with clear skinned smiles who married young and then retired. The valentines I never knew. The Friday night charades of youth were spent on one more beautiful. At seventeen I learned the truth. And those of us with ravaged faces lacking in the social graces, desperately remained at home, inventing lovers on the phone who called to say ‘come dance with me’ and murmured vague obscenities. It isn’t all it seems, at seventeen. “

John Lennon’s “Imagine” challenged us to think about a world devoid of war and hate. Don McClean’s American Pie became an anthem to America and rock and roll. Jim Morrison’s tortured literary genius was posthumously set to music and released by former band mates Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzerek and John Dunsmore in An American Prayer.  I feasted on every offering of free verse, attempting to conjure up my anthems to the sacred and the profane – dead Indians, women in ginger nylons, angels and sailors.  This turned out to be more difficult to accomplish in a sedate suburb cocoon where ballads about men with leaf blowers, postmen gone bad and car pool moms who choose to turn left and never look back did not seem to capture the imagination of anyone except perhaps, a child psychiatrist. I would have to wait until life led me into darker, rugged places where the raw minerals of insight and truth could be mined and forged into lyrics that could change the world.

I continued to listen between the lines of the music.  I became a boorish anthology of stories and useless anecdotes about the genesis of songs and the truth behind the music.  My world was shattered one evening when watching a special on the 60’s band Iron Butterfly.  The song, Indagaddadavida, soared up the charts in 1968 and was heralded as the convergence of psychedelic rock and heavy metal – a fulcrum moment in the evolution of the school of rock.  The seventeen minute song was analyzed, memorialized and canonized by legions of bobble headed burn-outs in search of truth and a party.

Years later, band members drummer Ron Bushy and Doug Ingle purportedly admitted that the title song was really intended to be called “ In The Garden of Eden” but that Ingle was so drunk during the recording session that he slurred the words to the track and the alternative version stuck.  All the years wasted trying to define the origins of the word

“Indagaddadavida”.  Sometimes, I learned, the lyrics were just in fact, words and the music was in fact, just music.  Things can be exactly what they appear to be, like the world seen through the unfiltered eyes of a child:

You are a man.  You understand. You pick me up and you lay me down again.

You make the rules, You say what’s fair. It’s lots of fun to have you there.

God gave to you, now, you give to me, I’d like to know what you learned.

The sky is blue and so is the sea. What is the color, when black is burned?

What is the color?

Jack Bauer Must Die

 

Jack Bauer Must Die

 

It’s midnight on a Tuesday.  The laundry is a massive multi-colored heap lying unattended on the mudroom floor.  The computer flashes, “you have 312 new emails”.  The dishes ferment slowly in the sink of what looks like a neglected soup kitchen.  The dog gnaws on a Ferragamo shoe while the cat temporarily passes out in a fetid litter box reeking of ammonia.

 

Upstairs there is thumping indicating the resident adolescents have yet to fall asleep.  The absence of authority permeates the house like the smell of a recent fish dinner. The television beeps like digital clock and a monotone voice announces, “The following takes place between 2am and 3am.”

 

My wife looks at me and asks rhetorically, ” You think the kids are asleep?” With my best codependent face, I reassure her. “Oh – – yeah. I’ll check them in a minute.”

We  hit the “play episode” button – pathetic addicts in a deep cocoon of denial.  We are in the middle of a debilitating video blackout watching the television show “24”. I cannot sleep until I find out whether the president will call back the bombers or he will permanently excommunicate his annoying, conniving Lady Macbeth ex-wife.  My wife is praying a new character – an urbane, handsome middle-eastern Oxford graduate will not be killed.  ” Oh, I hope Raiza lives,” she squeals anxiously clutching a pillow.  I am not jealous.   He has that “ I am a dead man “ look written all over him. I give him two episodes tops. I have become conditioned to not get attached to anyone on this show.

We are together but alone – each trapped in our own inescapable web of emotional knots tied to this soap opera serial drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, a seemingly indestructible instrument of US counter terrorism in a world that demands morally ambiguous actions to defeat the forces of evil that threaten our American way of life. 

Wherever Jack Bauer goes people die – usually bad guys.  However, if you get too close to Jack Bauer – not unlike a career as a stunt man, living among New Guinea cannibals or raising a 200lb chimpanzee as your own child, your life expectancy is reduced by about fifteen years.  And for goodness sake, don’t hire Jack’s daughter Kim Bauer as your baby sitter or au pair.  This kid is a tornado of bad karma.

Kim’s misadventures make teenagers that have ended up in their hometown police blotters look like cherubim.  In just 24 hours, innocent Kim rescues a young girl from her abusive father, discovers the girl’s dead mother, gets in multiple car accidents – one that results in her boyfriend losing his leg, pulls a gun on four different people- killing one at her Dad’s urging, endures a siege as a hostage, escapes from police custody, witnesses a nuclear explosion, and is trapped inside a bomb shelter with a reclusive survivalist.  Tough day at school, hon? Throughout this entire period, Kim keeps interrupting her father on his cell phone as he is trying to save Los Angeles and/or the President of the US, David Palmer, whining “Dad, just come get me.” Kids just don’t change – they still see themselves as more important than the future of the free world.

Jack does not eat.  He does not go to the bathroom. Jack does not sleep.  He is the ultimate warrior.  He makes the tough decisions and employs brutal methods that waffling bureaucrats cannot make in the face of danger. While interrogating a smug bad guy who displays indignant bravado given the government’s weak knee decision to grant him immunity, Bauer simply shoots the creep and asks his colleagues for a hacksaw so he can cut off the snitch’s head off and use the prize to insinuate his way in with some domestic terrorists.  As we watched “the head in a bowling bag” scene, we heard a noise behind us and to our dismay, realized our ten-year-old son had been spying on the episode from the doorway.  As my wife ushered him out of the room to bed, I could hear her talking to him as they went up stairs.  “ Honey, you know that cutting people’s heads off is not very nice, right?

Each hour is a heart pounding shot of epinephrine with soap opera lack of resolution that leaves a viewer aching and feverish for more.  My wife calls the library at 1am to extend our rental.  “Hi, we rented DVDs for “24” for Season 2. Can we recheck them for another two days? I assume you are not there right now but I wanted to call anyway.” ‘I assume you are not there?’, I say mocking her.   Most librarians are not fiddling with their Dewey decimals at 1am; And yes, sweetheart, please get “24 -Season Three” tomorrow.  If I am lucky, I may get sick from no sleep.  We can stay home and put a blanket over the windows like trailer park crack addicts and do “24 in 24.”  We can parcel the kids out to neighbors and send out for pizza.  We can be Sid and Nancy.

The problem with our “24” addiction is not only the need for constant injections of Jack and his Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU); it is the fact that we are only on Season 3.  As we race to catch the “24” train, it keeps moving.  “24” is now on season 7 and in our sprint to present day, we are subordinating health, hygiene and domestic responsibilities watching consecutive episodes which leave us completely over stimulated and vulnerable to odd dreams.

After a disturbingly symbolic dream where I cut my boss’ head off and present it to our private equity owners in exchange for some restricted shares of stock, I awake in a cold sweat realizing my obsession with “24” is threatening my sanity.  When my son would not confess to using his brother’s computer, I found myself wondering how quickly he would crack if I water-boarded him.  I routinely now refer to my children as ” hostiles” and ” friendlies” and suggest to my wife that when we have teens over we establish a soft perimeter around the basement.  When my daughter claimed she was in town but was in fact, at a friend’s party, I briefly considered using Google Earth to triangulate her location, “neutralize” the entire group and then drop them off at the local police station courtesy of “A Friend of 24.”

I realized that we are now in the grip of a mania and that for the bad dreams to end, Jack Bauer must die.  The problem is the guy won’t expire. He has been injected with more drugs than a Jersey milk cow, stabbed, shot, clubbed, injured in a plane crash, suffered numerous brain damaging head blows – and like Jason from Halloween, keeps getting up.

There is a side of me that understands that art sometimes imitates life.  Does the US employ spooks and shadow agencies like CTU who fight clandestine battles right under our noses on US soil? Do I approve of Jack Bauer’s tactics? Will democracy prevail over authoritarianism? Will Kim Bauer get through a day without breaking the law or maiming her latest boyfriend? Will Jack Bauer ever shave, eat or have a bowel movement? Perhaps some fiber might loosen him up literally and figuratively.

It’s late and we have just secured the first episodes of Season Three.  As I read my column to my wife, we chuckle at our obsessive behavior and get the kids off to bed. 

We have a civilized evening – cleaning up the house, walking to retrieve the DVDs and watching just three episodes – trying to convince ourselves that we can get

the “24” monkey off our backs any time we like.  As we turn out the lights, she is still.  I can tell she is thinking.  This is our last private moment before sleep where we discuss kids, the future and any other important unattended issue.

“You know, if you tell everyone in town that they can rent those DVDs from the library for free, we will never make it to Season 7.  The secret will be out.”

That’s my girl. 

From Russia With Love

Cover of "From Russia with Love (James Bo...
Cover via Amazon

From Russia With Love

 

In the summer of 1971, I saw the movie, “Dr Strangelove – Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”   At 10 years old, I did not totally appreciate the bizarre characters like Brigadier General Jack D Ripper or Dr. Strangelove.  I could not entirely understand why Slim Pickens aka Major TJ  “ King” Kong rode the atomic bomb out of the B52 bomber like a bucking bronco.  However, I clearly understood that the US and Russia were fighting a Cold War.  My fiery imagination was stoked by a father who was constantly criticizing the US for letting down its guard against “commies” and “spies”.  Hollywood was full of “Reds” and while Senator Joseph McCarthy did his best in the 50’s to root out these ideological weeds, communist dogma was invasive and required relentless vigilance to detect and remove political parasites.  The entertainment industry, Congress, all of Europe and even our church had been infiltrated by the vodka swilling, plate breaking, Gulag operating, godless collectivists who were just biding their time waiting for the last capitalist to sell them the rope that they would hang us with.

I had to do my patriotic duty and keep our neighborhood safe for democracy.  This required me to develop a clandestine intelligence organization to inform on any person who might be providing secrets to the enemy.  I was not sure what secrets the Reds could gather from a neighborhood that was more boring than watching paint dry. However, one never knew where a sleeper cell might be cocooned.  Authors like Robert Ludlum described how sleeper agents could lay dormant for a generation.  A Manchurian candidate could be activated with a simple phone call. 

 

“ Is this Mrs. Ruth Turpin of 1828 Windsor Road?”

 

“ Yes, who is this?”

 

” Sasha sells sea shells by the sea shore.”

With this heavily accented, tongue twisting alliteration, my mother, the sleeper agent, would go into a brainwashed trance, drive her station wagon up the winding mountain roads of Mt. Wilson and blow up the radio tower disabling all radio and TV transmissions across the San Gabriel valley, isolating us from the outside world. Just up the street in Pasadena was Cal Tech, a bastion of high IQ engineers, rocket scientists and astrophysicists.  We were indeed a tempting target.  The 64,000 ruble question was which of my neighbors might be actually conspiring to sabotage our town.  Could the confederate turn out to be someone we never suspected like green thumbed Mr. Seidell who upon being “ activated” would fly across the country to Washington DC and attempt to assassinate President Nixon with his trowel?  Spies were clever and not easy to catch.  They were ruthless and not above posing as retirees, gardeners and even parents. 

I recruited my friends to assist me in patrolling our neighborhood.  Of particular interest was Mr. Harmon who lived across the street with his parents and kept odd hours.  We also had some concerns about Mr. Meister who routinely screamed at us to get off his lawn.  Vodka and socialism made people angry and loud.  Perhaps, Mr. Meister missed the snow of Moscow and was annoyed at the constant sun and temperate climate of Southern California.  On a warm summer afternoon, armed with binoculars, a Polaroid camera and walkie-talkies, we embarked on a series of information gathering patrols. 

The next morning, my mother received several angry calls from neighbors who were concerned over a disturbed child peering into windows, crawling through juniper bushes and in one case, taking a photograph.   Although I was not identified in person, the default accusation on our block was to always blame the Turpin boys.  Annoyed, and lacking actionable information, my mother could not deduce the identity of the young peeping Tom.  As all good spies do, I convincingly lied when interrogated. I even provided an alibi. While she could not prove anything, she lectured me about people’s personal privacy.  If she only knew that we had already uncovered some seamy information about some of our “upstanding “neighbors, including the disgusting fact that ultra tan Mr. Brown sunbathed in the nude and mowed his backyard in a Speedo while Mrs. Franke watched him from her adjacent upstairs window.  It seemed moral decline was everywhere.

 

My parents were naïve and did not understand the town was teeming with traitors.I even suspected my brother of selling information to foreign agents.  He was a weak individual with liberal ideas.  I searched his room and discovered a magazine stuffed between his mattresses.   It was called amazingly “ From Russia With Love” and had a beautiful woman in a provocative pose on the cover. It was obviously intended for fans of the 1963 James Bond thriller starring Sean Connery. The magazine was weathered and torn.  I opened it and to my delight and shame, I saw photographs of naked “Russian” women.  None of these women looked sinister like Spectre agent Rosa Klebb, the spy who attempted to kill James Bond with a poison tipped knife that jutted out from the end of her boot.  No, these women seemed, well – – more open to détente.  

 As any dedicated spy would, I immediately disappeared behind the garage for to “study” the magazine to be certain that if I ever saw any of these women in public, I could identify them, even with their clothes on.

 

After committing each page to memory, I carefully tucked the magazine under my pillow and went off to school ready to share what I had learned with my friends in homeroom.  I knew my brother would not report the magazine as missing.  Yet, as I was sitting through Social Studies class, my mother was fatefully making my bed. I rode home in record time, as I was eager to examine the magazine models for other distinguishing features – beauty marks etc.  As I walked in the back door, I immediately knew that something was not right.  I was escorted into the dining room, which was the center for all corrective action.  My mother looked overly concerned and for a moment I thought there had been a death in the family.  “ Honey, is there anything you want to talk to me or your dad about?”  I was stumped and then I saw the magazine on the chair next to her.  “ That’s not mine.” I protested.  “ It’s Tom’s!”  I protested to no avail. She remained convinced of my guilt.  “The neighbors have been complaining about someone peeking in their windows and now I have found this adult magazine in your room. I think you and dad need to have a talk. “

Suddenly, it hit me.  It was all so clever – I had been framed.  I was obviously getting too close to someone or something and “they” wanted me out of the way. Like my Dad always said, those Reds are pretty determined and would go to great lengths to remove any threat.  Later that evening I endured my father’s unimaginative lecture on the birds and the bees.  I had already heard a more graphic and entertaining version from Dennis Higgins in gym class.  It would do me no good to attempt an explanation to my Dad.  I would have to endure this punishment and bide my time. 

One thing was certain.  When I got older, I wanted to join the CIA – especially if it meant interrogating one of those Russian women.  After all, I was probably the only guy who could pick them out of a police line up.

 

Taming The Dancing Bear

0911_Cotillion_352
Image by Dawn Camp via Flickr

Taming The Dancing Bear

“We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.”– Japanese proverb

It was the uniform of the condemned: the hand me down blue blazer, striped tie knotted with a baseball sized double Windsor, a starched white pin point, and itchy, gray wool slacks with razor edged military creases. It was not even Sunday.  It was Saturday evening and I was going to the first of what promised to be several humiliating classes called “Cotillion”. I did not know what a cotillion was but judging from the wry, sardonic smile on my older brother’s face, I was not going to like it.  Cotillion was supposed to transform us into young gentleman and ladies – gentrified aesthetes whose table manners were only exceeded by their ability to do the cha-cha.  Each parent secretly held hopes that this rigorous social sandpapering would prepare their child to some day become the US cultural attaché to some exotic European country.

The dance macabre was held at the town community center and was hosted by the imperious Commander and Mrs. U. The Commander was a rigid cardboard cut out who feared no man except his spouse and dance partner, a Joan Crawford stunt double replete with hyperthyroid eyes and a fearsome tire skid unibrow. Her toxic perfume could have emptied an entire trench line in WWI. We suspected that life with Mrs. U was the equivalent of going to war – long periods of tedious boredom punctuated by episodes of sheer terror. We hugged the walls, a knot of restless and irritable fifth graders, pushing and shoving one another toward the demilitarized zone of ballroom floor that separated us from the mysterious tangle of Cinderella gowns, bowed hair and polished glass slippers.

“Heel, toe, heel, toe, slide, slide, slide” shrilled with mind numbing repetition through an ancient loudspeaker.  For the young attendees, the experience was reminiscent of a political reeducation camp in Cambodia.  For Mrs. U, each Saturday evening brought the chance to transform into a dreamy Blanche Dubois reliving a time when Tommy Dorsey music was floating on the cool autumn air and young men were lining up to fill her dance card. When the first few notes of Blue Danube fell like a soft silk veil, the U’s roamed the floor in a nostalgic blackout looking for partners.  A silent rosary could be heard from the mouths of every child, ” Please do not pick me, please do not pick me.” An alabaster claw clutched my arm.  “ Come with me, young man.  Let’s show this ballroom how to waltz!”  Nervous snickers and total humiliation swirled around me as Mrs. Unander proceeded to break me like a green colt. After enduring the Box Step with the skeleton lady, the music mercifully stopped. I returned to the fray of cowlicks and tight collars, emasculated and reeking of cheap perfume.

Our liberation from Cotillion and dancing was short lived.  The early trauma was followed by an even greater confusion of middle school and high school dances.  As boys, we understood that girls liked to dance and that asking the opposite sex to trip the light fantastic could lead to “going out” – – one of the many jasmine scented rites of passages compulsory to a young man’s journey. The gymnasium social scene was a tight onion of posturing and hormones.  An outer layer of boys and girls adorned the gym walls and risers watching the vortex of motion with envy and contempt.  The core of this anxious adolescent scallion was an evolving social order of post pubescent royalty – – princes, ladies in waiting, dukes, jesters and the first cut of prom kings and drama queens.  The dancing was free form expression with boys confined to safe, unimaginative jerking from side to side with the occasional overbite and riff of an air guitar.  The girls were infinitely more expressive with arms above their heads swaying like Moroccan belly dancers in a swirling hot wind.  And then there were the mavericks – individualistic kids who dared to dance outside the safety zone – using moves borrowed from American bandstand or Soul Train to distinguish them and perhaps leap frog the established social hierarchy by dancing with the most popular girls.  We would mock and badger these counter cultural souls from the safety of our shadows.  Yet, we were the ones who were not dancing.

I tried to break ranks with my larger, inept brethren practicing moves in front of the mirror days before dances.  There was simply no sequence of steps or motions that did not make me look as if I was on the cusp of an epileptic seizure.  My father was no help.  The man, who had grown up in a time with great dance steps like the Jitterbug and the Lindy Hop, had one series of moves that my brothers and I simply referred to as “the hydroplane”.  He would sway side to side like a Rodeo Drive palm tree while moving his hands parallel to the ground.  It appeared as though he was a tragic Prometheus forever condemned to administer Pledge wax to an imaginary tabletop.  My brothers were no help as they were equally challenged.  My last hope, my mother, could not stop laughing each time we privately attempted to hustle.  I was the dancing bear in the circus.

I married and was immediately diagnosed by my coordinated partner as suffering from severe rhythmic deficit syndrome (SRDS).  SRDS can effect anyone but I was sadly the poster child for the disorder.  My spouse patiently pushed therapy – – dancing at parties, weddings and informal gatherings.  Each step was painful and I created excuses to avoid the rectangular parquets of humiliation.  She signed us up for a couples dancing class but I flunked out.  I observed other men also challenged with SRDS who loathed parties with bands and DJs.  The music would start and this band of left footed brothers would flee to the toilets, bars and patios as if a fire had been declared, leaving their dates, partners and spouses to dance with one another and that same loathsome maverick that would see this opportunity to once again become the center of the galaxy of dancing queens.

It took twenty years but I finally stopped fleeing the party at the first machine gun burst of music. To my surprise, no one noticed ursus clumsius lumber on to the dance floor, as all were preoccupied with their own self- expression.  They had obviously observed dancing bears before. As the bass thumped and the music pitched, I noticed the ghost of an awkward adolescent hesitating at the party door, looking back at me – a thick, teetering jenga stack of overbites and invisible guitar riffs – smiling and then melting away. I glanced around the floor and watched as other bears entered the fray.  The maverick was still roaming the floor, ever the opportunist, feasting on partnerless women, urging all to join him in some Latin Salsa line step that he had learned while on a recent business trip to Sao Paolo.  I smiled and moved predictably, balancing on my invisible circus ball – arms confined within the proverbial safety zone. Somewhere off in the cosmos, the Unanders would be smiling.

The girls were still beautiful.  The music was still intoxicating.  The best part of all was no one cared.  Not even me.

Back To School

Back to The School

Students at Washington High School at class, t...
Students at Washington High School at class, training for specific contributions to the war effort, Los Angeles, Calif. (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

It’s the week after school has started and I am already having those yips like a war veteran as I watch my soldiers leave each morning at 6:45am with field backpacks, educational essentials and new clothes to be sent into the ” bush ” of high school.  It is a time of great anticipation and angst.  We are on a slow conveyor belt to an empty nest with one in college and two in high school.  I confess to being one of those parents who live each kid’s experience vicariously and constantly relive my own roller coaster ride of hormones and missteps on the pot holed path to adulthood.

The term “Homeroom”…still sends chills down my spine.  I was wedged for twelve years between Tammy T and Brad W.  Tammy was gorgeous and to my alphabetical delight, was seated in front of me.   Judging from her Facebook photo, she is still inspiring men’s imaginations.  Brad was my periodic wingman in mischief and malfeasance.  He fell off my radar for a while and is now either a successful creative artist or possibly making license plates somewhere in a minimum security facility in the high deserts of California.  We will have to wait for our 35th reunion to find out.

The first few days of school were always an exhilarating rush of change – – new and old faces, strange text books the size of War and Peace, anxiety that an upper classman like a horse, might sense your angst and ride you off into a corner.  Schools have gotten better about bullying and overt acts of harassment that were viewed as critical rites of passage in the 60s and 70s. However, a stare can still be withering and a turned back can be considered the worst of omens portending a horrible year.  A lifetime is a day.

I think of my own teachers and the odd chemistry they created that helped move me through adolescence.  Miss S was my firestarter and inspiration to read, write and give a voice to the my own seemingly inconsequential existance.  To Miss S, each of us was a Forrest Gump innocently flying through life’s seminal events and playing a supporting but vital role in the mythology of our generation.

There was the Vietnam Medic turned history and PE teacher whose unconventional courses, extreme behavior and daily boxes of Uncle Joe’s donuts had him repeatedly voted teacher of the year.  He later married one of his students which seemed for some, to change his reputation from creative to creepy overnight.  Secretly,  he still garners my write in votes as the best teacher to follow through the history of the United States.  There was Mr R, the charasmatic, first generation Irish, high energy math and track coach whose bad knees were only eclipsed by heavy Irish brogue.  For the hip and unconventional kids, there was always Mr I – the biology teacher who wore flip flops and coached the High School Ultimate Frisbee team (this is California in the 70s, folks).  And one of my favs, Coach K, a sensitive and inspirational guy who produced championship swim teams and taught pre-Calculus and Algebra.  He was in tune to the ravages of exclusion and once remanded our class with a punitive pop quiz  for behavior he saw within the student body that disappointed him.  I always had this theory that when he was young, he was on the wrong side of some bully and the experience transformed him into a sort of uber musketeer – – a D’Artagnon of the disenfranchised.

School was hard because you were constantly encountering things for the first time and learning how to react to the vagaries of community living.  Think of it as being deposited daily in the middle of the expressway of life while being injected with a cocktail of hormones.  This explains the Chernobyl meltdowns that often occur in our houses every night as tired soldiers trudge in from the bush and literally fall apart.  Everything is tinged with melodrama and hyperbole…” Everyone has this except me”.  “No one will be there, except me”.  “No one wears those anymore” Oh, that’s right, I forgot, everyone now dresses like Jody Foster in Taxi Driver. “The teacher said we did not have to do that section”.  “I forgot my backpack at Teddy’s house”. On and on it goes like a great metaphysical wheel in a hamster cage – the only thing missing is the sawdust, rodent kibble and salt lick.  I often feel trapped like a rodent when I come home to the “House of Pain” on a weeknight.  Activities and sports are key as they seem to generate critical self esteem that keeps kids from drifting into those dark alleyways.

Despite the best efforts of an engaged parent and our educational institutions, some kids stub their toes.  Some do it quite spectacularly.   Many are now entering that electrifyingly exciting and dangerous era of being “young and invincible “. It means cars are driven at break neck speeds, new things are tried, popping off to your elders is a form of boundary testing and the advice of a chronically lying, pre-pubescent, acne ridden teen is of infinitely greater value than your insights – – you, with that big “ L” on your forehead.

In my old high school, we had the East Parking lot where the non conformists, disenfranchised and loadies would congregate.  The lot was situated behind the woodshop and metal shop which ironically became the future vocations for some of these maligned kids.  I played sports with many of them and while there was always an open invitation to exit the shadows and join the sea of polo shirts and deck shoes of the main stream social circles, the East Lot had its own lugubrious allure and a tight knit community borne out of being and feeling different.  Some felt most comfortable hanging out only with these kids who seemed to know their pain.  Invariably, they were always labeled as “bad kids”.  However, my Mom used to say, “There are no bad kids, only bad choices with bad consequences.” Given she was raising four potential felons, this made sense to me and I vowed I would adhere to this theology of parenting later in life. There were drugs, accidents, deaths and the occasional scandalous revelation.  Yet, the kids seemed to cope sometimes better than their parents and understood that school was an important training ground for finding passion, community and a sense of self worth.  We sometimes forget how emotionally charged the decade of age 8 to 18 can be. While elementary school is generally a time of wonderful learning and innocent exploration, middle school has become the demilitarized zone between childhood and full blown adolescence, a sort of no man’s land where kids are growing up faster than their brains can keep pace and they are experimenting to find their place in an evolving society of peers.  High school starts to lay the foundation. The pressure to fit in and the agony of being banished will never be forgotten or in some cases, forgiven.

Years later at my high school reunions I would learn of dysfunctional homes, alcoholism, abuse and mental illness that were hidden from everyone like an ugly scar and whose burden drove many of these kids to seek solace from others who were in their own way, struggling to fit in and cope.  I felt guilty that many of these kids that I harshly judged where in fact, just coping and at the same time, desperately trying to send flares into the night sky hoping that help might arrive and ease their pain.

I was amazed how many people came to these reunions, not just for the sheer nostalgia of the gathering but to mend some ancient wound.  Beautiful women that no one recognized at first – ugly ducklings turned to magnificent swans paraded defiantly across the floor.  Others that had been marginalized came to just make sure everyone knew their net worth, zip code or resume.  There were those who were hoping to regain even for a brief evening, the alpha status lost the day they graduated and entered the real world.  Everyone was once again, for a brief moment, seventeen — vulnerable, excited, secretly wanting to see what their old flame looked like, falling back into old cliques, feelings and friendships.

Everyone remembered that feeling when life was raw and unfiltered, witnessed through an innocent lens of a kid living and learning.  It was all the experience with much less responsibility than one will ever have again.  To feel again, just for a moment, the excited ache of a crush, the thrill of a new experience or revel in the triumph of peer approval.  Now imagine it all that again for the first time.  Imagine being barely mature enough to cope with the tsunami of emotions that come with those experiences.  It’s a wild whitewater ride that each kid responds to differently.  It’s about learning to fly and bumping your butt.  It’s back to school time parents, buckle up.

The Summertime Blues

mowing

Well my mom and pop told me, “Son you gotta make some money,

If you want to use the car to go ridin’ next Sunday”

Well I didn’t go to work, told the boss I was sick

“Well you can’t use the car ’cause you didn’t work a lick”

Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do

But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

Summertime Blues, Eddie Cochran,

My teenaged children explained to me the other day that summer was supposed to be a time for sleeping in, staying up late, sleep-overs and high end camps which indulged the mind, body and soul.  I shared with them that summer break was an anachronism, the last buggy whip of an age of tanned, outdoor laborers who planted, tended and harvested their own food.  The three-month holiday was invented in agrarian America to accommodate the need for child labor in the fields during planting season.  Summer was a time when “industrious” and “ dedicated” young men and women were shipped out to the countryside to earn the redeeming calluses only found on the end of a shovel, plow or milking stool. Sunday was the only day of rest and a time where community was not forged by incessant texting between a gaggle of unimaginative, acne-ridden teens but with your family and neighbors at church.  Fun was a relative term.  “Kids, isn’t it fun to pick this cotton? First one to get to two bushels, get’s a slice of Mom’ s blueberry pie that is cooling on the windowsill”  “Honey, let’s get up at 3:30am tomorrow instead of 4am to milk the cows.  What a time we had this morning with Old Bessie! “

My father understood clearly that idle hands were the devil’s workshop.  Summer was an outmoded and socialistic invention of a liberal government more riddled with commies than a deer has ticks.  Three months off from hard labor would render the US apathetic and defenseless.  When we had all become teenagers, he gathered us one May afternoon and announced that we must get jobs for the summer to finance our profligate spending habits.  Allowance, which he felt was tantamount to welfare, was a relic of our past. The problem with welfare, he moralized, was that people began to view it as an entitlement and became dependent.  Instead of serving its intended purpose as stop gap assistance until one could become self sufficient, welfare became a money tree under which one could indefinitely rest and still feel sorry for themselves.

Instead of reacting violently to being suddenly cut-off from the pater familius gravy train, we took the news reasonably well.  Summer could be boring and the chance to earn money starting any number of businesses seemed terribly exciting.  We were relishing the prospect of having our own money and as a result, not being subjected to statements like, “ whose money is this anyway?”, “ oh, that’s right, I went to work today and you sat here like a lazy sack of …”, “when you are eighteen and can pay your own way, then maybe I will listen to what you have to say.”

Each kid devised his own strategy on how to make money.  There were the low value ideas like lemonade stands and redeeming bottles and cans for change.  The primary source of income was of course, the hard labor of neighborhood yard work.  Somehow, cleaning someone else’s yard for money seemed less of an imposition than cutting one’s own lawn.  It’s my belief that years from now, sociologists will recognize The Boomer generation as the last of the “mow and rake” demographic – before swelling ranks of harder working “mow and blow” immigrants crowded us out with superior technology and indefatigable work ethics.  It would now seem like corporal punishment if I deigned to make one of my kids mow our lawn or rake leaves.

However, in the days of cold war, children were considered free labor and a landscaping professional was any kid who had used an electric mower or had facial hair. The main tool of the trade was the ancient lawn mower -a rusted manual cutting cylinder with a rotating blade.  The simple mechanical design was unimproved since it was invented in 350 BC by a Greek teen that could not swing a scythe but was told to cut the wheat or he could not attend the Poison Oracles concert that evening at the local amphitheatre. The mowing implement was harder to push than a field plow or shopping cart filled fifty-pound sacks of dog kibble and a broken wheel.

To operate the cast iron monstrosity, one would have to back up several paces to build enough momentum to cut through any lawn higher than one half inch. As the blade ripped through the various varieties of suburban grass – Bermuda, St Augustine, Fescue, and Kentucky Blue – the whirling blades filled the air with green shrapnel and debris.  By the end of a lawn cutting session, you resembled a bizarre grasslands creature –covered in flecks of emerald, sweat and whatever insects du jour were visiting for that season.  It seemed the grass fell everywhere except into the ancient canvas grass catch that hung precariously behind the machine on two hooks adjacent to the back wheels.

After cutting and raking up the grass, you were expected to edge the lawn with a device that looked like the unholy union of a jousting stick and a pizza cutter.  The metal blade knifed along the sidewalk and garden beds as you carefully trimmed the rectangle of property to geometric perfection. After all, an uneven yard suggested to your neighbors that if you could not control your lawn, how could you possibly hold the rest of your life together?

Leaves were accumulated with a bizarre device called a rake. It was a cumbersome implement made from fragile metal strips that made a distinct scratching sound as they were dragged across garden beds and backyards.  If raking was not tedious enough, the final indignity involved depositing your detritus into the trash.  Instead of launching leaves into your neighbor’s front drive or into woods where property lines blurred and ticks reigned, you were forced to stand in the trash cans stomping down on the debris to make room for more clippings.  Invariably, the trash can would tip vaulting you and your days work onto the cement where you would lie for moments, bleeding and angry that you must repeat this Promethean task all over again. .  Eventually, you succeeded and became expert in jamming eighty cubic feet of leaves into a 20-gallon trashcan.  It made my father quiver with pride to see his four sons bouncing up and down in his trash cans tamping down debris like serfs in the fields.  There would be times, when out of sheer elation he would come out and jump in the trash bin with us.

My eldest brother loathed this manual labor as it gave him blisters and uneven tan lines.  He quickly figured out that everyone needed his or her windows washed especially in the unfiltered light of a Southern California summer.  He formed a window washing business and proceeded to make a fortune.  It was genius – low overhead – a squeegee, ammonia, rags and an FM radio – and there was little competition.  He could complete a 3000 square foot home – inside and out in about three days bringing in $ 150. He quickly figured out that condos and apartment complexes had identical layouts, a fixed number of same sized windows and air conditioning.  He went door to door in upscale condos complexes offering to do windows for $40 a unit – usually completing his work in less than two hours.

The local YMCA helped out by creating a kid’s job bank where local citizens could call and offer a job including details of where, how much, when and who.  These were before the days of trucks driving down to Stamford to pick up highly industrious undocumented workers desperate for any paying job.  We were the labor force desperate for money and in those 70’s summers and we lived off an economy of yard work, spring cleaning and vacation support services – watering, feeding pets, gathering mail.  A community understood that it needed to create a consumer class among its kids to support our summer economy. Neighbors felt an obligation to keep the teens employed and out in the open where they might find less trouble, more supervision and self esteem.  Parents understood that their kids needed to work.

Years later, two of my three kids have summer jobs.  I am hitting .666, which is not a bad batting average for this Ivory Tower Division team. My third child is threatening to call protective services as he has determined that most ten year olds are not supposed to be working.  I point out that they are not supposed to be playing some game called “ Spore “ for 92 hours straight, either. He can earn cash around the house doing yard work, washing a car or a cleaning a window.  Minimum wage seems beneath him.  I am this close to pulling that lawn mower out and tasking him with taking on the front yard.  He may even grow a beard right in front of me just from the sheer maturation of the hard work and industry that would be foisted upon his narrow shoulders.

And then again, I may be forced to go out and help him – showing him how to cut, rake, edge and stomp on the cans.  I get dizzy just thinking about it.

Never mind.

Speed Sticks And Pushers

Speed Sticks and Pushers

 

Health class (n), 1. A compulsory educational tollbooth through which every middle school child must travel.  2. A valuable roadmap for pre and post pubescents to assist navigation along the highways of life.  3. A learning curriculum designed to reverse all disinformation learned from one’s older siblings

 

In the days of Nixon, Watergate and presidential pardons, health class was segregated between girls and boys. There was the domesticus curriculae, better known as Home Economics, for girls; and “Health” class for boys hosted by our mustached, dolphin shorted PE teacher Mr. Stebbins who my father sarcastically remarked looked like an adult film star.

 

While the girls were railroaded into baking, maintaining proper Redbook posture and ultimately hypnotized into believing that Prince Charming did actually exist and was out there waiting wearing clean underwear, boys were taught the proper techniques for donning a jock strap, avoiding women with venereal diseases and abstaining from drugs with names like ” bennies”, ” uppers”, ” downers”, “Horse” and “Mary Jane”.

 

We were subjected to anti-drug propaganda to scare us straight.  In the annals of anti-drug films, the 1967 classic, “Pit of Despair” stood as a classic – converting the most impressionable among us into paranoid purists who would rather die of influenza than take medication. After viewing  “Pit Of Despair”, I was afraid to take so much as a Bayer aspirin for fear of waking up running naked down the Santa Monica freeway shrieking, ” the moon is following me…and he has a gun!”

 

Every anti-drug flick offered a similar plot featuring a normal suburban kid relenting to peer pressure, and agreeing to attend a wild “tea” party with lava lamps, 30 watt bulbs, throw pillows, sitar music, bell bottomed girls and drug dealers known as “pushers”. In a lost weekend of drug and alcohol abuse, the protagonist ends up with more holes in his arm than a cribbage board, screaming as he looks at his party mates who are no longer people but grotesque demons with narrow pink beaks.  Instead of fleeing the den of iniquity, he takes a more direct route to the street, leaping out an open window shouting, “Look at me! I can fly!”.  Meanwhile, his emotionally dead friends look on in sociopathic indifference as a rag doll dummy floats horrifyingly with flailing arms down to the cement sidewalk below.

 

Some were quick to dismiss the exaggerated melodrama of “Pit of Despair”, but we were all on the look out for pushers. I was convinced anyone with long hair or a beard was a drug dealer.  Even Sammy Davis Jr. played a heroin dealer, Sportin’ Life, in the move, “Porgy and Bess”. He later sang a song in 1972 whose lyrics, I was convinced, were clearly code for encouraging drug use.  The innocent ditty, “The Candy Man Can”, was played on countless conservative AM radio stations and hummed by clueless suburban housewives as they picked out their Webber Bread in the grocery store.

 

Drug use obviously was rampant and if you sniffed, puffed or popped, you were likely to immediately grow long hair, quit taking baths and barely manage a two-syllable response to any question.  You pretty much just walked around all day saying, “solid, man.” These wild haired, drug crazed gutter trash were called “hippies” and they existed like body snatchers to co-opt you into a life of drugs, promiscuous sex and crime – the trifecta of worthlessness according to my father. John Lennon memorialized the quintessential hippie in the song, “Come Together.”  The Beatles were notorious for putting symbols and subliminal drug messages in songs like “Hey Jude”, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and even the “Yellow Submarine” extolling the virtues of expanding one’s mind with opiates and hard narcotics. 

 

The insidious creep of drugs had to be stopped.  According to my Dad, the “French Connection” from Marseilles to New York would need to be choked off in its tracks or America would become a giant opium den – succumbing to Communism because we could not see or hear the Reds coming through the haze of our smoke and loud music.

 

While girls blindly emerged from Home Economics as SWITs (Stepford Wives in Training) with new appreciation for the wonders of baking soda as a panacea for odors, heartburn and insect bites, boys suddenly saw powdered sugar and flour as sinister accessories for pushers to further corrupt the poison as they unleashed it on Main Street.

 

The officer who briefed us on drugs and the warning signs of addiction was a

Detective with a thick Brooklyn accent, which only seemed to underscore the gravity of our drug problem. After all, what’s a NY cop doing in Southern California unless the “connection” was somewhere lurking in the shadow of our ivory tower.  He told us about cartels and drug lords.  He told us to watch for pushers hanging around the playground and baseball fields.

 

As we jogged in gym class, we pondered the identity of the alpha pusher running our town’s local drug ring.  Who was “Mr. Big?”  The big kahuna was often depicted in movies as a benign law abiding citizen by day and a ruthless distributor of narcotics, prostitution and murder by night.  Perhaps he could be our middle school principal, Mr. White. If he was the man, he could not be working alone. His VP of students, Mr. Gilligan, must be the strong arm of the operation – dealing not only drugs but also detentions.  These clever punishments delayed kids after school and forced them to walk home alone where his network of pushers might more easily trap them. 

 

I confided my entire theory to my brother and was immediately ratted out to my father.  My Dad was furious, “You will get our butts sued.  Michael. What were you thinking?”  Weighing the cost/benefit of investigating a major drug ring but having to weed the backyard until the year 2015, I gave up on Mr. White.  However, I never stopped scanning the playground for dealers.  Sportin’ Life could be anywhere waiting to snare us into a life of addiction.

 

I am now told that today’s health classes are more politically correct but remain true to the major building blocks of adolescent development – drug and alcohol prevention, body change, sexual responsibility and hygiene.  We can always tell when Health class is in session as one of our boys comes home smelling like a Mennen Speed Stick.  For the next week, the boy is a walking Glade Room freshener as he lathers his entire body with deodorant hoping to attract someone or something.  Usually, he attracts a few flies and the cat. At dinner, he informs us about hygiene as if we were immigrants just off the boat on Ellis Island.  My wife nods with a sardonic smile indicating that perhaps her husband could use a refresher course. 

 

Health class seems not to have lost its punch.  It may carry a different scent and rely less on fear than information but it has come of age. It has kept pace with the 21st century and has finally understood that health is in the end, a coed experience.  Kids do not seem too concerned about pushers and are clearly more informed about the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles.  Yet the Achilles heel of each generation is the fact that they believe they know more than their elders.  Alas, they are still kids. The rote facts they learn are only words and not always understood.  We only hope these seeds of health and wellness germinate at the right times.

 

And judging from the fact that my son has not bathed in three days, not everyone is practicing what is being preached.  I have to go find that Speed Stick and leave it under his pillow.

 

 

 

The Anxious Dodger

Dodger Stadium
Image via Wikipedia

 

The Anxious Dodger

A springtime ritual of male bonding in 1970’s Los Angeles meant trips to Chávez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles.  It was the epicenter of our baseball universe – the sacred home stadium where each year our Los Angeles Dodgers would battle for the National League West pennant.

My father loathed the crowds and traffic of sporting events.  Attending a game with 60,000 fans was a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and public urinals.  Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was located in a very rough neighborhood.

The LA Coliseum in South Central LA hosted the 1932 Olympics, the Rams, UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans and the 1968 Watts riots.  The Forum – home of the Lakers and Kings -was like Fort Apache precariously located in Inglewood, an area with more guards, barbed wire and barred windows than Folsom prison.  Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Los Feliz Hills in East Los Angeles.  East LA was often depicted in the media as an area dominated by gangs and drive by shootings. My father’s suburban anxiety manifested itself each time we would attend Dodger game.  His paranoid behavior made our long day’s journey an emotional roller coaster as we rode shotgun scanning alleys and side streets for potential assailants.

While we lived less than thirty minutes drive from the actual ballpark, we would literally leave hours before the game, as my father did not want to ever be stuck in traffic.  To the chagrin of his sons and wife, he was not particularly fond of going out.  After a hard week at work, he subscribed to the FIFO method of socializing – – first in, first out.

We would exit the freeway winding through densely populated, graffiti stained neighborhoods of chain linked front yards where laundry hung on clothes lines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in a mistral wind. Like clockwork, my father would tell us to duck down in our seats and lock the doors. The toughest person I saw on the street before having my head jammed into my collarbone was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller.  “ Careful, dad, that baby might put a cap in our rear end”, my older brother said sarcastically.  At 15, he had begun to challenge my father’s peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity.

A magnificent 1970 Chevy Impala low-rider rumbled past – its occupants patrolling their barrio.  The chrome wheels and custom sapphire blue paint job reflected the hazy midday sun. It was the ultimate Chicano cruiser and we were very impressed.  My brother started to roll his window down.  “ He dude, that’s a cool ca…” My father grabbed him and shoved him down in his seat. “Jesus H Christ. You want to get us killed?”  The driver was a handsome tan twenty-something with arm tattoos and wrap around sunglasses.  He dismissed us with a nod and continued rolling down the street.  My brother continued. “ Dad what does H stand for in Jesus’ name? And isn’t his name really pronounced ‘hey-soos?’ Mexican people are still pissed off about us stealing California from them, dad. I hear they carry machetes and if your car breaks down they cut your head off and stick it on their front porch flag pole as a warning to other people who short cut through the barrio.”

“I’m scared,” I whined.  My brother looked at me disgusted, “ I’m just joking, you peon!”

My father had had enough and looked ready to explode from the goading and logistical anxiety of driving four boys to a baseball game on a hot, smoggy Sunday afternoon.  “If you don’t keep quiet, I’ll ‘peon’ you” he snapped.  My brother started laughing immediately and then my other brother realized what my father had said.  I finally appreciated the double entendre and laughed extra loud to convince all that I had known all along that my father was threatening to urinate on my brother.

He would park in the same area, Lot Y – the furthest space from the stadium and closest to the exit of the parking lot.  His greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when LA’s great social insurrection occurred.  He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure would always be building until one day, they would explode in an earthquake of civil unrest.  When it happened, he damn well would not be stuck in his car when a gang of men with machetes decided it was time to take back the state of California.

Our seats were in the right field pavilion – a word I assumed must certainly be French for outfield bleachers.  The term “pavilion” sounded chic and elite. The fact you were sitting next to a guy wearing a wife beater undershirt and a tattoo that said, “Loco-motive“ did not seem to diminish your sense of prestige.  By the end of the game, you and that maniac were blood brothers.  You might even exchange phone numbers and promise to keep in touch – unified through the strange alchemy of beer, sun, foot long hotdogs and your common obsession with Tommy Davis.

If you were lucky, you would catch a glimpse of Roger Owens, the world famous peanut vendor whose uncanny accuracy with tossing peanuts made him an instant celebrity.  Owens could thread a needle with a bag of nuts across twenty rows – -consistently landing the salty prizes in the hands of his intended targets. He would throw between his legs, behind his back, often peppering three different individuals at the same time with three different bags.  According to the record books, his all-time personal record of most tossed peanut bags in a game was 2,400 bags set in 1976 in Dallas, Texas, at Texas Stadium during a Cowboys game.

About the sixth inning, my father would begin to furtively look at his watch and sniff as if he had a cold.  This was his “tell –tale” twitch indicating that we were minutes from exiting the ballpark. By the seventh inning stretch, we were being hustled from our seats and running across a great desert of burning asphalt and cars. “ Dad, why are we running?”  my brother would yell as we stumbled toward our car.  “ We don’t want to get caught in traffic!” my father would scream back as he raced ahead. Years later, my younger brother realized that eight innings is not extra innings in baseball.  He had never actually seen a game go beyond seven innings before being sequestered out of the stadium.  In fact, he assumed hockey had two periods, football was three quarters and any basketball game was over once a team went up on their opponent by more than 20 points.

We raced toward the freeway on-ramp, heads ducked in the car, on the look out for General Santa Ana and the Mexican army.   It was all very stressful – the ducking, the running, the rapid eating, the running, ducking, and 130-degree car with windows rolled up as tight as a submarine.  About this time someone would declare himself carsick and throw up.  Looking back, it all seemed very normal.

Years later, as I take my children to Yankee games, I find myself parking in lots that will afford me a rapid escape.  It is the seventh inning stretch and I consider the dreaded purgatory of post game traffic.  I turn to my boys and say,” let’s get going, guys.” There is a huge groan of resistance.  Alas, I have become my father. Yet, with each spring, I repeat our ritual pilgrimage to the Bronx. (Wait, isn’t this the same Bronx where the 41st precinct was called “Fort Apache” and where the gang from the movie “The Warriors” fought a rival gang dressed in pinstripes wielding baseball bats?) Yet, like my father, I brush back my demons with a high, hard sigh because I know to a kid nothing is better than a hot dog, Pepsi, peanuts and a homerun. Eternal youth is walking into a stadium on a warm summer day, the air heavy with the smell of cut grass and the sharp contrast of a blue sky against a green manicured diamond.

In the realms of fathers and sons, there is area where age has no boundaries. It is a safe place where moments are shared and words need not be spoken.  In this uncharted geography, you might come across a place of worship. It sometimes takes the shape of a baseball stadium.  As you get closer, you hear the deep crack of a hard maple bat, the roar of a partisan crowd and a boy yelling to his father above the chaotic din,

“Dad, why do we have to leave the game early?”