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Saturday, August 27, 2011

The World's Largest Prarie Dog

I had only traversed the western part of the state one time before and that was my bus trip to Topeka from Colorado Springs when I was 16. At that time I didn't pay too much attention to the scenery, what there was of it. So I was going to traverse it this time alone, hitch-hiking the 600 or 700 miles from Topeka to Colorado Springs to visit my Aunt & Uncle.

My plan was to start super early, but of course that went to pot as I over slept and had not really planned what to take with me. So, I spent the morning screwing around packing what I thought I would need to make the journey...shouldn't be too much, not like I was going cross country or anything. It was 1974 and it was not an uncommon thing to see kids hitch-hiking all over the place, the world didn't seem to be as dangerous a place as it is now. I grabbed a ride from my roommate who dropped me off at the on ramp to I-70 West and I stuck out my thumb. It was destined to be a weird and exhausting trip.

Everyone knows Kansas is flat, flatter than flat, the home of Dorothy and Toto. Let me tell you, its flatter, but after you spend some time out there, by the side of the road, way the fuck out there, it has a grandeur, a feeling you get that America is a huge place and you are in the middle of it and living, really living and experiencing something few folks do or would even care to do for that matter. So, I kicked some cans around, looked at the makeup of the guardrail, sang a song half out loud and half in my head and waited for that first ride.

The day wasn't getting any younger and the way I was getting passed by you'd think I had cheeze doodles sticking out of my nostrils or something. I gave my most pathetic pleading face and soon a VW mini bus pulled over. The side door slid open and I tossed my pack in and climbed aboard. I was pretty happy by what I smelled, the inside reeked of freshly smoked joints and I was absolutely in the mood. 3 guys and 2 girls were in the bus. "Hey, thanks for picking me up, how far you goin?" The driver, a solemn looking guy with long dark hair and a headband, round rim glasses and a 3 day old stubble said, "We're goin' down to Wichita to catch the ZZ Top show tonight...goin out as far as Salina". That was a nice start to the trip, Salina was a nice little chunk to get under my belt. I sat back with my new friends and swapped stories, smoked some stuff along with some cigarettes and drank some beers. I looked out the window as we traveled along and took in the beauty of extreme eastern Kansas, it would still be awhile before the flat lands really started in earnest.

Sometime around 3PM or so I stumbled out of the van where the interstate that goes to Wichita intersects with I-70.  Off went the van on down the line looking for all the world like a Cheech & Chong movie. To be sure, I was feeling alright but was getting a bit concerned about the time. Night out on the prairie is no time to be hitching so I figured I better formulate some sort of plan. The towns become fewer and farther apart as well out here and are not nestled along the highway neither. I stuck out my thumb and scanned the shoulder for the usual items left lying around after being thrown out from moving cars. Someone had actually taken the time to pull over and empty their ashtray on the ground as there was a huge pile of butts and burned matches. When you are going down the road you don't see this stuff, it looks fairly clean, but get out and hang out on the side of an interstate and you can find all sorts of shit lying around. Besides the pyramid of butts there was a left foot sneaker...someone was hopping around on their right foot apparently, a headless doll that was either decapitated went it hit the road or had been tortured before being flung out, an old "Dekalb" (pronounced De Cob) baseball hat replete with the flying corn cob on the front. I actually thought about keeping this but no amount of washing could get the greasy crap that was on the inside clean. I sat on a guardrail, lit a cigarette and took a breather.

The traffic was getting a bit more sparse, oh there was lots of it, but mainly it was long haul truckers and folks in a hurry to get somewhere and few were coming up the ramp onto the highway which is where I was. Hitchhiking was then and still is illegal. Some cops don't care too much as long as you don't look like a serial killer or look like you hadn't bathed for a few months. Still in all, it was a much better idea to stay on the ramp rather than the highway itself...of course, I would slowly make my way up the ramp so that folks whizzing by had a shot of seeing me. So here I sat smoking, thumb out, checking out trash and still thinking about the time.  Great! A Chrysler Valiant pulled over up the road and backed up to meet me. It was a middle class family heading home from Kansas City. I was really happy to finally climb aboard and thanked the man and woman in the front. Their little girl was in the back coloring in a coloring book and trying to pass the time best as she could. They were headed for Russell, the home of Senator Bob Dole, it was smack dab in the middle of the state. We cruised along making pleasant small talk, they offered me some sandwiches which I gratefully accepted as I had barely eaten all day. I helped the little girl with her coloring and enjoyed my ride.

The countryside was now becoming quintessential Kansas and there is little to see except the few billboards and attractions that can wow the tourists in this God forsaken hinterland.

The road is straight as an arrow and you could probably fall asleep and not go off the road. I mentioned the attractions in this part of the world. Everything is "such and such capital of Kansas" or "The worlds largest whatever". When you get out here there ain't much so this stuff can be quite exciting. To wit:

Then there's "The Worlds Largest Ball of Twine":

Now THAT'S something a town can sink its civic pride teeth into! And of course there is the world famous "Geographic center of the continental United States":
I don't know what the duck has to do with anything, but there 'tis.

So you now have the slimest of ideas how crazed one can become out here unless you have plied yourself with copious amounts of weed and whatever else you can lay your hands on.

Anyway, we arrived in Russell as dusk was beginning to set in and I had a choice to make. Either find a local hotel to shack up in which I really couldn't spare the dough to do, or keep on pushing and maybe luck out and get someone driving straight through to Denver or something. It was worth a shot. I edged up the ramp and saw some ominous looking clouds way off to the west. The problem is, out here you can see a long, long ways and the wind coming down off the Rockies can push a system across the plains pretty quickly as this one was kind of looking like. It had a good sized thunderhead and you could see the lightening blazing away within the clouds. I was praying like mad for a ride but was getting passed by with frightening regularity. The first drops of rain spattered upon my hat and I could smell that rain smell that comes on a hot summer evening. It would be pouring soon enough and I sprinted to the overpass just up ahead.

Underneath an overpass it is relatively dry but loud as the cars and trucks reverberate throughout the structure. From the shoulder a concrete slab gently moves up and away from the road ending just under the above road. At that point there is a flat space, about as wide as your body and running the length of the underpass. It was here I scrambled up to as the rain came down in buckets, the lightening was striking all around and it became dark as ink. It was no good being by the road below as you would not be seen until it was too late to pull over and besides you got as wet from the passing vehicles down there as you would standing outside. I had talked to guys who had spent a night under one of these things but I never had and it seriously looked like it would be my only choice this night. I had a small flashlight, clicked it on and surveyed the situation...just crushed rock dust and little else, a bit of pigeon shit here and there as they loved nesting under these things but I didn't see any nests in the eaves. There was little else to do but wait it out and maybe, against all odds, even snooze a bit, though the thought of slipping off and rolling down to be crushed by a semi kept me pretty much awake. I had a tiny propane burner which I got out and brewed some instant coffee in a tin can with a bail wire that I carried.
The coffee hit the spot and I boiled up some freeze dried stew I had packed away. I was feeling pretty damn good after a hot meal. I lit a cigarette and laid on my side surveying the traffic as it rumbled by. I actually dozed off now and again and spent the night on and off for what seemed like eons. I woke at one point and the rain had ended...I looked at my was 3AM. Not a sound rose from the road below, quiet as could be. I dozed again and awoke with a start, the sun was up and the trucks and cars had resumed their loud presence. I took off my bandanna from around my neck and soaked it from a canteen I carried and washed my face best I could. I was famished but I needed to get back on the road.

I slid down the concrete slab and started walking up the road, it was still early but the traffic was becoming brisk. The sun was out and it was cool and breezy this early in the day, I settled next to a guard rail and again began my journey.  Lighting a cigarette I stuck out my thumb and hoped for a little better luck today, the sky was clear and blue with big, billowy clouds floating as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance, behind me, was a grove of trees where the town of Russell stood. Here and there a combine was rolling through the wheat starting the harvest. Across the highway stood an old barn that had been long since abandoned, a much better place to have spent the night if I could have seen the damn thing, I thought. Weathered and half falling down, I could just make out a "Red Man Chewing Tobacco" sign that had been painted on the side, behind the building were miles and miles of wheat, as far as the eye could see. Breadbasket of the world, indeed.

A Pontiac convertible screeched to a halt and backed up along the shoulder. Two servicemen were in the car, probably coming from Ft. Riley, motioned to me to hop in the back. I climbed in and off we flew. Luckily I had attached a "Stampede Cord" to my hat or it would have flown off as we roared down the road. The wind felt great and I took off my jean jacket and stripped my shirt, put on a t-shirt and laid my jacket and shirt out to dry on the seat. The two servicemen were not much older than me, the blonde guy driving, Don, asked if I was hungry. His partner, Nick, handed me a thermos filled with coffee when I nodded in the affirmative. Nick also handed me a sack filled with fried chicken that they had either made or had acquired along the road. Each piece was wrapped in wax paper and I hungrily dived in to a thick, meaty breast. Things were going my way for a change.

Don and Nick were headed for Garden City so they could give me a ride as far as Oakley. Named after Annie Oakley, my map showed this was where the road, after having run straight as an arrow for hundreds of miles, turned slightly to the north west, then straightened out to head west once again on into Colorado. I had seen the few signs here and there for the wild attractions in this part of the world but the sign I now saw piqued my interest. Hand painted red boards nailed cross ways to two posts sported a hand painted sign, "See the Worlds Largest Prairie Dog 175 miles".  What the hell was a Prairie Dog? I had heard of them, never really saw one before, I didn't think they were really much larger than a beaver or big could the one up the road be? 50 lbs? 150 lbs? A man eating Prairie Dog? Could there be such a thing? I imagined a group of farmers armed with shotguns and their hunting dogs going after this scourge of western Kansas, determined to bring it down before it killed another cow, or, heaven forbid, killed and devoured Grandma Mamie of Scott City! They captured it alive as it fed on a coyote carcass and delivered it up to this place up the road to be viewed in awe by tourists far and wide. It was Shamu the Killer Whale of Prairie Dogs, something anyone within 100 miles had to stop and see.

The day passed by pleasantly, Don & Nick played some nice tunes on their 8 track player and they even conjured up a joint at one point. I was feeling mellow and quite satisfied that I'd make into Colorado by late afternoon. I felt a shake on my knee and slowly came awake. Nick was shaking me, "Dude we're turning off in a bit". I started to gather my things and prepare once again to thumb my way west. We were fast approaching Oakley, Kansas.
Shit, only a mile to go, why the hell not? I was in no hurry and Lord knows when I'd be back this way, much less with a reason to stop.

Now it was becoming really interesting...6 legged steer, alive no less?
"Guys? You ever been to Prairie Dog Town ?" "Not in this lifetime anyway"Don said....he pulled over and I climbed out, "Nice to meet you, thanks for the ride and stuff." "Take care, man" , Nick yelled as they spun gravel and headed down the exit southbound. There it was, right across the highway, the entrance to the promised land where the riches of western Kansas were to be found. I sat on the guard rail yet again and lit yet another cigarette. There are some things not to be rushed but to be savored. I crushed out my cigarette butt and looked up and down the highway, there was not a car in sight so I strolled across I-70 and into the parking lot of Prairie Dog Town. A high stockade surrounded and hid the valuable commodities contained within, God forbid anyone should get a free peek. I went to the ramshackle booth to buy a one was around, the whole was place eerily silent. A car pulled into the nearly empty lot with Minnesota plates and a family piled out. I was feeling a little self conscience standing there like a rube, but put on a smile and welcomed them to my lonely vigil. At last an elderly lady came ambling over exclaiming that she was sorry for the hold up. "Sorry, sorry, got some pies in the stove and just took em out to then, that's $1 for adults and $.50 for the kids." I paid my buck and wandered in, the gravel crunching underfoot as I walked. I heard behind me the old lady talking to the Minnesota folks, "Ever thing is plainly signed, some o the animals you can feed, its safe...jes put a nickel in the bucket and take a handful of feed that's in the big feed bag". The big trees presented a most welcome bit of shade and the breeze blew through the leaves and almost lulled me into a trance, but I was on a mission...where the hell could it be? I approached another large stockade and peeked around the corner...and there she was, in all her glory and majesty, something for the ages.
It towered high above the prairie and was, undoubtedly, the largest prairie dog in the world. She even had a smaller pal to pass the long, dull days staring into the endless wheat fields of western Kansas.
Best buck I ever spent.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


For more than 40 years I was a pack a day smoker, folks who knew me in the 70's and 80's cannot remember me with out a smoke in my hands. It was all consuming part of my life and now that I have quit, I can see what a hold it really had on me.
I tried to quit tons of times and never made it very far. It was not until about 3 years ago that I just got tired of smoking and every time I thought about lighting up, I would think how hard it would be for me to breathe and how much I would hack and cough. Little by little I got down to about 1 or 2 a day and finally ended it. I came to realize that every time I tried to quit, my mindset was that "Ok, now I can never have a cigarette again". This crushed my drive before it even began. I came up with an idea a little while back, and it seems to work for me. I carry a pack with me, as always, but I don't smoke 'em. Instead, I tell myself "Man, you can have one whenever you want, they're right here"...and then I move on and dispel the thought for awhile. I know the addiction will be with me forever and I doubt there will ever come a day when I don't crave one...hopefully, it will fade a little at least.
Sometimes, when I'm in a retrospective mood, I think of the women I have "known" in my life...just for the hell of it, just to give my ego a little boost and remember some good times. Well, I thought I'd do the same for brands of cigarettes I smoked. This is not a once in awhile brand, but bonified brands that I smoked for quite awhile. So, in roughly chronological order you can now view with how many different brands I ruined my lungs....

Raleigh coupons were like green stamps for could trade 'em for all kinds of worthless shit...the joke was save up for an iron lung...not so damn funny in retrospect.
I even rolled my own for awhile with a machine something like the one below:

You stuck a hollow tube of cigarette paper on the end, inserted a a filter, then filled the tray with cut tobacco and slid the lever to jam the tobacco into the tube, never worked too well...was nice for grass though.

Instead of a throat treatment? Uhhh..yea, fucking right! I got Old Golds from a friend of mine who ripped them off from his dad who had a huge pile of cartons...Lord knows where the hell he got 'em...I never asked.

If I wound up looking like the above dude I'd probably still be smoking today. Are the advertisers trying to say something?
and in the end I graduated to the most lethal of all.
There's nothing like the smell of a dirty ashtray in the morning as you reach to light up the first of the day.

Becoming addicted was a long process, in harsh comparison, I became a total junkie of the almighty Percocet in less than 3 weeks about 5 years back.

Leaving the hospital after a 3 week stint in intensive care, I had a pretty decent percocet addiction going already, what with the morphine drip and gobbling the perc's up like there was no tomorrow. Back at home and recovering, I was already a zombie, barely walking, eyes still full of blood etc. etc. so, because of the trauma I was going through after my brain aneurysm my doctor kept the percocet going, and going and going. Then he announced it was time to quit. WTF? "Joe, haven't you been decreasing the dosage so as to ween yourself off?" the doctor exclaimed. "What, are you fucking kidding me? What do I look like, a kitten being weened from its freaking mother?" I was really scared now. He relented and gave me one more prescription and I knuckled down and broke em up and savored each one. The tiny chunks of dust that were left after splitting them, I licked my finger, stuck the pieces to my wet finger and rubbed it on my gums like what you would do after doing a line of coke. I managed to kick it, but 3 years later, the very mention of them perks my ears up and starts the salivating all over again.

*Post Script ~ I remember sitting with my Dad and 2 Uncles, listening to them tell war stories and watching them chain smoke. I wanted to be so much like them. The tobacco industry and the candy industry certainly didn't give a shit about getting kids hooked early, to wit:

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Seeing the Elephant

The ride to Culpeper, Va. was an exciting one insofar as I was headed for my first large scale event as a Civil War reenactor. The Blue Ridge Mountains, to my right, were beautiful, a bit more subtle than the majestic Rockies or even the White Mountains of New Hampshire. These were far more easy on the eyes, large yet rolling, filled with lush greenery and marked here and there by a road going through one of its many passes, leading into the famed Shenandoah Valley. The names of the towns, passes, rivers that I passed had been etched in my mind since childhood, Warrenton , Brandy Station, Manassas, they read like a Bruce Catton novel. It had been a long time coming to get to this place.
 Fall, 1988. Headed to work on a Saturday morning when I saw a hand made sign CIVIL WAR ---->. I made the turn and having a few minutes to kill I'd take a look. I mean I HAD to, this undoubtedly was some sort of sign from above. Going down the road I caught sight of an American flag, a 35 star one, then the tops of tents, then the parade ground where all these men, dressed in blue, were formed up. I parked and walked over, completely entranced by what was going on. These guys looked great, morning parade was impressive as they did their evolutions and inspections and were dismissed for breakfast. 20 + years of being a "buff" was coming to fruition.
Needless to say, I joined the 3rd Regiment of Infantry, New Jersey Volunteers, outfitted myself and joined the fray at a few minor skirmish events and countless drills but the big fight was still to come.
I swung into town late afternoon, Thursday. The first big event of the year started tomorrow. The 125th anniversary of the beginning of the Overland Campaign of 1864 promised to be a good one with Friday being the reenactment of "The Wilderness". I grabbed a motel room, had a quick bite and settled in to take stock of my equipment, get some rest and take the last shower for 3 days. I was pretty excited and didn't get much sleep, so I spent time reading up on the actual battle I was going to help recreate.

In the spring of 1864, Gen. U.S. Grant, newly minted overall commander of all armies in the Union, accompanied the Army of the Potomac as it started south on what would be the final campaign of the war. Unlike past Federal commanders whose target was the rebel capital of Richmond, Va, Grant knew that the only road to victory was the destruction of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and to that end his advance columns splashed across the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864 and began the race to get through the thick, almost impenetrable second growth of tangled briar's, pines and underbrush known as The Wilderness. The original forest had been long cut down to fuel the many iron forges in the colonial era and what was left was possibly the worst place ever to fight a battle. Getting through this area quickly meant flanking Lee out of his position onto open ground where Grant's superior artillery and infantry could be brought to bear. Lee, aware of this, sent 2 of his corps along the 2 main dirt roads that ran through The Wilderness and attack, negating Grant's superiority. On May 5 & 6 a struggle of utter chaos ensued as all battle lines became hopelessly tangled and in many cases lost their way in the thick woods. The slaughter was severe and many wounded men, unable to move, were roasted alive in the many fires that sprung up from the discharge of so many black powder rifles. I thought of the men and the courage it must have taken to fight this battle and I was determined to try and do their memory proud.
 I got a very early start next day. Donned my uniform, had my knapsack and all my accoutrement's and musket ready to go. Stopped in a coffee house for one last decent meal, you would have thought that General Sherman hisself had strolled in and pulled up a stool, it got deathly quiet and all the early morning farm boys gawked and kind of murmured amongst themselves. The waitress broke the ice with some funny comment and I made a joke about invading the coffee shop and all was right with the world once again. A couple of good 'ol boys slapped me on the back on the way out and said something like: "Don't let them "southron" boys stick ya with no keep nice and low now, hear?" Stuck with a bayonet? WTF? I knew they were kidding, but still.....

The site was to the south and west of the original battlefield, in Louisa County, Va. I pulled in, parked, loaded my stuff on my back and set off for registration. It was beastly hot for early May and I was already pouring sweat before I had gone very far. I passed bunches of guys whom had arrived and were wandering around, a lot of rebel boys with no shoes! They glanced at me and gave a grunt and a small smile, cordial enough I suppose. My bootee then stepped in something mushy and extremely stinky, my first horse road apple! Wow, how historically correct!. I signed my waiver and glanced at the roster and saw that a few boys from the 3rd were already on site. "How many you expecting?" I inquired. The reb sitting at the wooden table gave me a grizzled look and said: "Oh, we "figger" about 12,000 or so, what with walk- ons and "sech", you blue bellies are in for a hot time, I tell you.." I shouldered my musket and started the tramp down the dirt road for camp.

The camp, as it were, was a good mile or so down this twisting, turning, over hill and dale type of dirt road. Here and there was a tree, but mostly you kicked up dust and baked as you walked. The sweat was stinging my eyes and I periodically took off my cap to wipe my brow with my coat sleeve. That early morning shower was a long way in the past.  I reached our company street and saw 2 tents up already. We were perched on a sort of hillock and the view was pretty damn amazing. Tents were springing up everywhere. Off in the distance I could see the reb camp and close by saw a squadron of cavalry drilling. A team of horses trotted by pulling a caisson and what looked to be a 12 pounder Napoleon cannon. I set up my tent and helped the other boys do likewise as they came wondering in. We would be fighting that afternoon so I made sure canteens were filled and any last minute details were taken care of.

The bugles sounded assembly and each regiment lined up in their respective battalions. Marching by the right flank we started down the long road that I had recently walked. We were about 3/4's of the way back in line and as we came to a rise I could see spread out before me a long blue line interspersed  with National and State flags at the head of each regiment. It looked to me like there was easily of full sized brigade! The drums and fifes were playing martial airs, the flags were flying in the breeze...I could see how a young man could get caught up in the "glory" of the moment and march into battle little knowing what horrors awaited him. Then came the dust.

The dirt road kicked up tons of dust from all those ahead of us and soon we were choked with the stuff. It settled on our uniforms tuning them a light shade of brown. I hung my head and tried to catch a clean breath and continued wiping the sweat off my brow.. My feet were seemingly on fire and I was drenched from head to toe, but the drums and fifes kept my spirits up, as they were meant to. Fallen soldiers began appearing on the side of the road, those already stricken with the beginnings of heat exhaustion. They lay under trees being tended to and drinking copious amounts of water. My mind refused to go there, I was too caught up in the moment to think about falling out. I girded my loins and trudged on.

We reached the registration area where we guided left onto another dirt road heading, I think, north. Now I saw a bunch of black folk with wooden stands set up selling sandwiches and other good things to eat. They also had a large pail and were giving soldiers a drink of water. I grabed a ladle and drank down the cool water. "God bless you, Billy, whip dem secesh", the young brawny black man told me. I realized these were folks reenacting too. I did not think I could be any more immersed in the era, then I heard the distant "thud" and "thump" of cannon and I knew I was close to "seeing the elephant"...the term used when seeing combat for the first time. Our battalion filed off the road, stacked arms and rested.

We were on a ridge and across the valley to our front was a huge patch of woods as far as the eye could see. I could not tell where the artillery was set up, just kept hearing it. Looking at the tree tops I saw smoke boiling up from the forest floor, the ball had opened and the troops were engaged. I figured it was almost a mile from where I sat, down through the valley, into the woods to the fight. I sat and drank, I pulled some dried beef from my haversack and sucked the juices. Here and there little fires had sprung up and little knots of men were boiling coffee, others puffed at pipes and still others just quietly talked or stared into space...each with their own personal thoughts about what they were experiencing. Was it really possible to get struck in those dense woods by some un-reconstructed yahoo with an axe to grind? Could things get out of control? 12,000 guys with guns, bayonets, swords and no security of any would have to be blind faith. The bugle sounded was gulped, fires kicked over, everyone struggled to their feet and fell in. We fell in and in line of battle began crossing the valley to the woods ahead. The file closers to our rear gently prodded us as we tried to keep as straight a line as possible, guiding center on the colors. I saw a couple of rabbits scury from the forests edge and as we got closer men started to appear, leaving the front, headed to the rear. Were these guys re creating being wounded, or had they really had enough? We stepped into the woods and all soon became confused chaos.

Somehow our regiment became seperated from those on either flank, but we trudged ahead towards the sound of the firing, making room for those tired souls who seemed to have had enough and made their way to the rear. The firing grew louder and those behind us were now urging us forward quicker...up and down gulleys and small ridges we went, the bushes tearing at our clothes, the smoke now getting thicker. My mouth was wide open and my heart was racing. We halted and were told to load. I tore a cartirdge and rammed it home. I fumbled for a percussion cap, my hands dripping, I couldent make my fingers work, I dropped one and finally secured one to the fire hole. We dressed our line as best we could, we could hear screaming and yelling just over the rise but could not see much, I caught glimpses of troops off to each side of us, I assumed they were our boys. Off we stepped climbing the small rise and then I saw 'em and it looked like the vortex of hell on earth.

Through the thick smoke and trees I could see the rebel line. It was at least 5 ranks deep, battle flag waving, men screaming like demons and firing as fast as they could load. We were pushed up into line, closing a small gap that had formed when a regiment had broken and left. I could feel the force from behind as officers and NCO's had their muskets and swords parallel with the ground keeping our ranks tight and stopping us from naturally stepping back from the onslaught. I began methodically loading and firing, no one had said anything about "taking a hit", it didnt look like anyone was falling, just smoke, screaming and a deafening roar. I soon had gone through half my cartridge box and my musket was decidely hot to the touch. I looked over and saw some knucklehead wasting water from his canteen as he poured it on his hot rifle barrel...a sure way to burst it I thought. I finally stepped back out of line and someone moved into my spot, my hands were black from gunpowder and Im sure my face was covered as well from tearing the cartridges. I took a knee and tried to take a breath. My uniform was soaked and I was exhausted. I took out a handerkerchief and wiped my face and neck, took a drink and soaked the rag with some water and tied it round my neck. The ebb and flow of the craziness had caused regiments in line to get squeezed out and pushed in again elsewhere. I looked up and my boys were gone. The smoke was so choking thick and the trees so dense that I couldent see a damn thing. I got up and stumbled down the line...I ran into a drummer boy beating his drum madly, could barely hear it. An officer was screaming, trying to shout encouragement and keep his men in line. He looked at me, grabbed my cartridge box sling and hurled me into line. Once again I was in the fray and began firing like mad again. I could feel the blast of the rebs muskets and got a taste of unburnt black powder that was issued form one of their rifles. The sun seemed to be going down and the confederate line started to creep forward at us. We fired high to keep from actually slamming them with the burst of fire from the end of the musket. I now went down, from what I don't remember. Another guy must have slipped and took me down ...I went down and stayed down, put my head in my arms and took deep breaths.

Pushing the yanks, the confederate battle line passed over me and in a moment the noise was diminished. I raised my head and looked around. The ground was littered with spent cartridge paper as well as bits of equipment here and there. There was no one really around except the guy who had brought me down, he was leaning against a tree smoking a pipe. I could hear the sound of firing off to my rear as I guess we were still getting pushed back. My comrade looked at me and lazily asked: "You ok?". I nodded my head, looking around and taking stock of my stuff. My cap and flown off at some point and as I looked around I saw it laying a bit away. I got up and moved over to it and picked it up. It had seen better days. Obviously some reb had been standing on it for awhile as it was covered in dirt with bits of twigs and leaves...I shook it off and put it on. "Now what?" I asked. My comrade shrugged his shoulder and kept puffing his pipe. I saw a small detachment of confederates picking their way through the woods towards us. Un reconstructed rebs? They were as grimy and sweaty as me. "You boys alright?" the grizzled old Sgt. asked. "We're both pretty good, where the heck do we go, whats going on?" Sarge spit a piece of tobacco he was chewing, "Licked you all pretty good, I need a drink?" I reached round and felt my canteen and realized it was bone dry. "Thank you, yes". He passed me his canteen, the water was warm but clean and refreshing. "That was some fight" I said...."Seein the elephant today are ye?" Somehow he knew. I took a drink and shook my head yes. Sarge handed me a flask as I passed him his canteen "Take a drink of this, it'll get your blood up". I took a swig from the flask and felt the sting of good Kentucky Bourbon firing its way into my empty braced me alright. "Thank you again Sergeant"...."Pleasure, thanks to you boys for comin down here and keepin the numbers even." So much for the rumors.

After being pointed in the right direction, I picked my way through the woods back to the ridge where I had started. It was quiet now, the troops having marched back to camp. There were still a few "shirkers" like myself wandering around. I sat and looked back at the woods. I had seen as much of "the elephant" as anyone in the 20th century could hope to. I sat quietly for awhile then I got up and went back to camp.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"This is Blues Power!"

Does anyone know where I can find a lonely dirt cross roads? You know, the kind that the Devil hangs around looking for folks who want to sell their souls? They say that if you stand at the crossroads at midnight and have your guitar with you, the devil will come along and will trade instant guitar wizardry for your my book, that's a steal of a deal. Perhaps I can bring my harmonicas and make it a daily double although I seriously doubt my soul is worth that much. Still, in all, I'd like to give it a shot, you never know...never say never...if nothing else Id have another story to spin. Probably the best known crossroads is the one that Robert Johnson hung around at, where he made his deal...I mean the guy only cut a handful of tunes and he is revered more than ever nowadays, he's been dead now at least what, 70 years? THE crossroads is at the junction of highways 49 and 61 in Mississippi, they have a big sign there with lights and everything shining on it, I imagine I would have to que up and wait my turn, they probably sell t-shirts there and have a fucking 7-11 by now.
Like most white boys my age, the blues came to me in the form of the 60's "British Invasion", it was an honorable thing that many bands explained where their licks came from. The Stones pretty much led the way by having Howlin Wolf on the TV show Shindig! back in 1964. They also put notable blues luminaries on legs of their US tours, Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells to name one act. (*It must be noted here that one of the biggest blues influenced bands of the era, Led Zeppelin, did absolutely nothing in giving credit where credit was due, going so far as to steal song writing rights from Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon...Limey Bastards!*).

It was the summer after my senior year in high school, I was immersed in several styles of music. From the aforementioned British blues bands to "California" style country (Gram Parsons and the Grateful Dead's "Working Man's Dead" and their spin off "New Riders of the Purple Sage") to Hank Williams and beyond, my musical tastes were tinged with music rooted in the blues but I had'ent taken a drink from the well just yet. I started noticing credits on many cool songs I liked, names like McKinley Morganfield, Willie Dixon and Chester Burnett. The band "Hot Tuna" whom I loved, had further song writing credits with the likes of Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Willie Johnson and others. This was the beginning of my schooling, a schooling that has lasted to this day.
Sometime earlier in that same summer I had been turned on to an album "Fathers and Sons". It was a Muddy Waters album with mostly white backup musicians so it still had that slick white boy sound but with a real blues master at the helm. Now I had been diddling around with a harmonica for a little while, so I was just floored when I heard Paul Butterfield on this album. Yea, he was a white boy, but I heard a soul in his music that only comes with experience living and playing the blues. I started to visualize what his mouth might be doing during any particular riff and I tried to emulate, I was just about hooked and I was really lovin this ride.

Now the learning escalated, I was in record stores all over, "The Book Nook" and "Inner Dimensions" a head shop in Montclair. "The Last Straw" another head shop in Bloomfield and the king of all places to buy vinyl: "Korvettes" in West Orange. I was starting to amass a bit of a collection, however, one foot was still firmly implanted in British Blues...stuck like quicksand.
The "Village Voice" of early August had a banner ad for an upcoming show at Carnegie Hall...headlining was a British blues band I really liked at the time, the "Climax Blues Band", they had just released an album recorded live at the Academy of Music in NY titled "FM Live"...I really loved it. Also on the bill were 3 other acts somewhat familiar in name only but really only a bi-line to me. "Also Appearing: T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, & Albert King". Hey I really wanted to see Climax and Im sure I would somewhat enjoy these other acts, was'ent sure about Big Mama, though, probably no where near Janis Joplin...what a fucking knucklehead I was...Id eat those words soon enough.
A nice evening, the kind of evening one can only find in NY, the air was clear for a change and a nice breeze caught you and dried the sweat on you at every crosswalk. I went with a few friends, I cannot remember who, I was stoked on wine and numerous joints, was enjoying myself capitally. We entered the hallowed halls of Carnegie Hall and I kind of noticed that there were not quite as many people dressed like me, seems like the Hoi Polloi were not well represented and in their stead a steady flow of upper crust New Yorkers were coming to get a little culture, I guess. Why the hell would these distinguished looking bookworms and hot shots want to see Climax Blues Band? Fuck it, lets find our seats. We ascended to the balcony about half way up and settled in. The house lights dimmed, a lone stick figure of a man came out with his electric guitar and sunglasses...he tuned up a bit, mumbled his thanks to the audience for showing up, his band shuffled in and jumped into "Everyday I Have the Blues". I could see the heads nodding to the music, a few feet were tapping, a bubble that was wrapped around my awareness suddenly began to shimmy and shake...30 minutes later, after an amazing rendition of his famous "Stormy Monday Blues", a distinct tear in the bubble could be seen. Was I really this high, should I go to restrom and throw some water on my face, could I even walk? I sat during the brief intermission pondering my fate and looking at this luminous bubble quaking all around my head.

Big Mama Thornton hit the stage with a bang! "Hound Dog" is her main claim to fame, done much more soulfully than Elvis ever could. At this point I was almost comotose, I was aware of the music, really digging it but I could'ent really move, the damn bubble had me transfixed. With each beat of music is shook just a bit more violently and the tear in front began to look like a slow motion fire on it just melts away, but much slower. I could see her on stage, she was not quite as "big" as in her younger life but she was belting it out just the same. Her band chugged along in an orgiastic frenzy of blues induced raw sexual tension. My stomach was in knots and my bowels felt like they would explode, messing myself terribly, that dident happen thankfully, but the pressure was intense. Another intermission, I was able to get up and followed one of my friends into the mens room. For a bunch of high brows the aroma of pot was overwhelming, it really hit you as the seal of the door was broken and you stepped inside. I washed my face and smoked with at least 10 different people of all sorts. Some other freaks were by me but so were some bearded dudes from the beat generation as well as what appeared to be art and literary critics dressed in black tuxedos for Gods sake. I stumbled back upstairs and hit the bar they had at the landing. I blasted 2 shots of Wild Turkey, almost choked to death and mumbled incoherently back to my seat...folks seemed to part the way for me realizing that here was a thoroughly dangerous individual. In those days I dressed like an urban cowboy and the sight of me reeling with my wild shoulder length red hair looking like for all the world like a mentally deranged Wild Bill Hickock...well something had to give.

The houselights flickered, the backup band started playing the intro tune, "Watermelon Man"...the backup band appeared to be the Stax Records house band, that is, Booker T, Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper, the horns and I believe Son Seals on drums (he later switched to guitar and became big in his own right in Chicago and beyond). They were so damn tight and the tune was amazingly lively and soulful at the same time. I was awakening now, the bubble had long since "popped" and disapated...they introduced Albert and on strolled a man in one piece olive drab coveralls with his signiture "Flying V" guitar wheich he plays left handed ala Hendrix (a right hand guitar played upside down). He jumped in to "Don't Lie to Me"...I lept to my feet and let out a yowl that had to have shaken the rafters, everyone turned to look, I think I even saw Albert give a smile. The great awakening had happened. The rest of Albert's set had me and others I coaxed on their feet wildly thrashing like a drunken stork run amok. It was beautiful. Two encores, I screamed so loud I was hoarse, I felt like I could lick the entire starting lineup of the NY Giants!

Intermission, the crowd started to file out as if the show was over, I followed suit. My friend said, "Hey, man, don't you wanna see Climax?" "Nah"

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Jefferson City

The bus rolled out of Minneapolis as the morning sun peeped over the downtown skyline. Everything changes dramatically in just a short amount of time between night and dawn. The cool of the night is replaced by the harsh reality of a hot sun, the litter in the gutters is so much more the dark it almost looked like it belongs there, now it stands out starkly and becomes a depressing shade of gray. There is a whole other society that lingers by bus stations it seems. They seek the shelter of the shabby lobby area where they can relax in relative peace for a while until the police roust them, but even the cops don't seem to mind too much. This station and most like this station are situated where people used to be in droves years and years ago, now only the stew bums and cheap hookers hang out down there. It's close to the soup kitchens and the homeless shelters and I guess offers a promise of getting the hell out of town someday.

The bus rolled through the quiet city streets looking for the freeway south. I settled back for what I knew would be the easiest part of my journey and I planned on trying to rest and relax as much as possible. The small vents just beneath the window blew a steady stream of cool air onto my face and filled my nose with the smell that only a bus can have. I smelled it a million times in the old DeCamp buses that went from Bloomfield to New York City which I rode frequently as a kid and young man, shoot I was still a young man, just barely 20 now. I had come to Minneapolis with of all people a married woman and her infant son. She was in her late 20's and had left her dysfunctional marriage and was heading back to her home. I had been her lover for the last few months and jumped at the chance to be with her heading west. She was leaving her marriage and I was leaving home for the adventure of my life. We took our time driving west, took 3 days in what should have been 2. When her son was asleep we made love at every chance we could, she was so pretty, so passionate, the deepest brown eyes I had ever seen and she taught me just about everything on how to be with a woman. Minneapolis was where her folks lived and once there I stayed a few days. Knowing I had to move on and not really sure where I was going, I stole a late night creep into her bed to just feel her reassuring arms around me for the last time. A bump in the road jolted me out of my quiet daydreaming.

There was no one sitting next to me as yet so I put my backpack on the vacant seat, the damn thing must have weighed 40 or so pounds and was a pain to hoist up into the above rack. I dug through it and pulled out my tattered paperback "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72" by Hunter S Thompson. I loved this book as it was so easy to just fall into it and escape all that was around me for a few hours. It was a primer for the way I wanted to live my life...a maverick journalist, drug addled, writing about insane things in a seemingly sane world. Two things I wanted to accomplish in my life...a writer and a musician...a renaissance man...someone that could be easily spotted on the streets of life...kind of like that idiotic commercial for Dos XX.."the most interesting man in the world"...."stay thirsty my friends".

The bus meandered down the freeway often pulling off and stopping at little towns nestled just off the freeway. This was God's country, the land of John Steinbeck. Miles and miles of farmland framed the roadside as morning turned to afternoon and we neared the Iowa boarder. The bus made a rest stop somewhere off route 15 in Iowa. We were given 1/2 hour to grab some lunch and most folks headed for the small weathered cafe across the street. An old coke sign hung above the entrance proclaiming "EAT", not to pass up a chance I crossed the street and sauntered inside. Just a tad out of place I thought as I looked around, 90% farmers and older folks and a one young long haired red head. Quiet murmuring of customers, the clink of glasses behind the counter and the infamous waitress with the rhinestone glasses with a neck cord attached, beehive hair-do and as sweet a smile as ever, "Hi hon, you by yourself? Just sit yourself right here at the counter and let me get you something to eat". "Thank you ma'am". She giggled at the ma'am and gave me a menu. Growing up in Jersey I had never been in a place like this before. Much more cozy than a diner and friendlier too, almost like being at a friends house with a lot of folks having dinner. The fare was strictly mid west so you knew the burgers had to be superb...corn fed beef...I was hoping to find corn fed girls out here on the plains young brain rarely strayed from its primal function. Cheeseburger rare with fries and gravy appeared along with an excellent brewed cup of coffee..."Enjoy it Hon, let me know if you need anything else" "Thanks, honey"...she really giggled this time and gave me a wink, man, I had it, I was set, they all loved me and knew how special I was...on my quest to write the great American novel and become a latter day Hemingway...they could tell.

Late afternoon turned to dusk as we rolled into Missouri, I had long since put my paperback away and was furiously scribbling in my journal. The first rule of all great writers is to keep a journal, I thought. Study the faces, observe the seemingly ordinary, make sense of the mundane as it is there you will find the real gem of a story. I studied the passengers in the fading light. Was there something I was missing? Where was the story? All I saw were a bunch of snoozing old folks in bib overalls and light calico print dresses. A couple of kids walked up and down the center of the bus, bored as hell. Screw it, it would come to me, it had to. I switched on the overhead light and checked my possessions. I had packed and re packed and re re packed back at home getting ready for this. I had walked for miles to be prepared to hit the road. I had tried to prepare for every possibility one would encounter. I even had a tiny rip stop nylon tent with folding aluminum poles, weighed very little and complimented my rip stop nylon sleeping bag which sat atop the whole backpack rig. This was a fucking backpack, a mountain hiking pack with padded shoulder straps, strong aluminum frame and even a waist cinch to help take some of the load off of the back and more onto the hips...nice. Clothes, freeze dried fruits and various foods, flashlight, tiny propane stove, writing materials, harmonicas and a backup pair of Keds sneakers in case my dogs got tired of my Fry boots. Bring it on!

It's always a bit chillier just before dawn. I got that shiver as I stepped off the bus in Jefferson City, Missouri, that's as far as my money would take me. A couple of tired old folks waited to board the bus, I slung on my pack and headed into the station to wash up. The once cream colored tile floor was now yellowed with age and spotted with old gum that had been spit out. Here and there a cigarette butt was crushed out on the floor. A dingy sign announced "Cafeteria" but it was closed...just some candy machines with the usual fare. The men's room smelled of super strong ammonia, had to use it to overpower the stink I guess. Took off my pack and splashed water on my face and looked into the mirror. Less than a year ago I was in high school with hardly a care, the face that stared back was already looking old...could such a short time on the road already take its toll? I brushed out my hair, wiped my face and hands and put my Stetson back on, the same Stetson I had bought in New York across from the Port Authority at "Knox Hats", my beautiful cowboy hat already stained from the rain, the 3X beaver needed brushing and cleaning...oh well. I stepped out into the dawn as the sun peeped over the downtown skyline...the same trash in Minneapolis was now here in Jefferson City, imagine that. A couple of stew bums shuffled over to a church down the block for a handout and some religion...I headed for the highway south.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sir Harry Alfran (with a nod to Jack Greenland)

If you want a pack of gum or smokes or a newspaper you go to the only places really left here in the suburbs; the cookie cutter ""7 Eleven"'s of the world. Anyone my age or there abouts can attest to the subtle charm of the corner Sweet Shoppe or Luncheonette. Hell, sometimes they were called both, and most of them did have both, that is a cashier counter and a long counter with stools.
Every town here in Jersey had plenty of 'em, I had at least 3 that I remember within walking distance of my house. Some had better comic books than others and some would let you loiter for a few seconds longer than the others before you got the obligatory: "This ain't a library!" or "What''ll it be boys?". All in all they had pretty much the same things that I was interested in at the time and that was mainly Base Ball cards.
1962 was the year of the 'brown edges", at least thats what my best friend John and I called them. More than any other year, I remember these, I treasured them and collected them with an insane vigor that only a boy of 8 years could do. I earned .25 cents a week allowance and I divided it up 3 ways. As each pack of 10 cards (and a stick of rock hard gum) was .05 cents, I could buy 5 packs during the week. Sunday was the day I received my allowance and the corner stores all closed early so I had to wait til Monday. Monday after school I would race to the store and buy 1 pack. I never ripped open the pack, I always examined the cover art, yea, it felt like a good pack. I'd rub my hands over it like Aladdin's lamp and then I'd slowly open the back, taking care not to rip the cover waxed paper.  There was still one more step to take before the treasures were realized. The ancient rock hard stick of gum covered most of the back of the first card as well as sugar powder from the gum. You would have to work up a shit load of saliva to get that gum going in your mouth and once you had the spit, you chowed down. The gum always shattered into slivers before before you actually got it going.
For me, one of the toughest cards to get seemed to be the 1st checklist. 4 or 5 checklists tabulated the entire series of cards. There was even a check mark box on the checklist to check off that you HAD the checklist! Unless you started before opening day with your collecting you could kiss #1 Roger Maris goodbye, you weren't gonna see was a real racket this company had and us kids were in it hook, line and sinker.

So, after the 1st pack of the week I divided it up this way: 2 packs on Wednesday (Wednesday madness!) and the final pack on Saturday...then the week started fresh again. This cycle went on for quite a few years and I would sometimes go to different neighborhood stores on the off chance they had a better box of cards.  At the store the packs were displayed in special display boxes from Topps. I NEVER took a pack off the top, I always dug down a bit to get a good one.

Base Ball cards were seasonal though, not to worry, Topps wasen't letting me off the hook that easy. They had all sorts of crap to collect. Monster cards, Mars Attacks, different TV show cards, Beatle cards (loved them) and one of the best during the Centennial years: Civil War Cards!
These particular cards were custom made for a boy of 8. Gory isn't even the word, obscenely, profoundly gory is more like it. Each card depicted a battle or event. They were hand drawn and probably had no relation to what happened on the field but who fucking cares, they were simply amazing!

The above is a tame selection but gives you a decent idea, the rear of the card was an historical account of the scene depicted and it came with gum AND  Confederate money.

Out of all the stores, the Grove Street Sweet Shoppe in Montclair was my favorite. The Lord of the Manor was a kindly gentlemen known to us as Sir Harry Alfran (Lord knows what that name meant). To an 8 year old he was a towering giant of a man, with jet black hair, a good sized paunch, thick black frame glasses with a stub of a cigar butt clenched in his teeth, a yellowed white shirt open at the collar and rolled sloppily up to his elbows and mean as a bear with a lanced boil on his ass. You're feet barely crossed the threshold before the usual "What'll it be boys" slammed you in the face like a hot kiss on the end of a wet fist. The place smelled like old cigars (naturally) and was long and narrow with old tired cracked black and white checked linoleum floors. About half way down was the lunch counter, I may have gotten that far once in my life. Usually there were a couple of hobo looking guys sipping coffee and gnawing on some sort of burger or donut or who the hell knows. I cared about the front of the store. The first part of the counter was a glass case filled with all kinds of cigars (naturally squared) and then the open area with step down like shelves that contained boxes of cards and tubs of wax lips, wax soda bottles and fairly racist candies like Black Crows and Chocolate Babies. A squeaky old carousel filled with comics completed my little slice of heaven on earth and I could walk away contented with any sort of cards or comics.

The beginning of this base ball season I went out and looked for a pack of cards just for the hell of where, no where at all...I searched luck. Base ball cards are now in the realm of the dumb ass yuppie for-profit collectors... fuck 'em.

Friday, June 17, 2011


I'm a National League fan. I'm a product of Dad's love of the old NY Giants and his heartbreak when they snuck out of town way back when. 1962 dawned with a new National League franchise: The New York Mets and I have been in love ever since. My Dad took me to games at the old Polo Grounds and then to beautiful spanking new Shea Stadium in 1964.

I was all of 10 years old in '64 and was as crazed about baseball then as I am now. We went to an afternoon game, Mets vs. Milwaukee (the Braves at that time) and had an elegant lunch in the Diamond Club during batting practice. As all folks say, I remember how green the grass actually was, how big the Diamond vision screen was, I couldn't wait to have my first glass of Rheingold Extra Dry beer (beer of the Mets). It was a time when you wore a jacket and tie to the ballgame, the business men all had on their snap fedoras and smoking was allowed and even encouraged with tons of advertising on billboards and even in the programs. Programs were .25 and you could just get a scorecard with pencil for .10....everyone kept a scorecard.
The Mets were lovable losers but no one seemed to give a damn, just to have National League baseball back was enough, for now. Casey was still at the helm, usually snoozing on the bench by the 4th ininng. Jim Hickman was my main man, later to be replaced by Ron Hunt. "Little" Al Jackson was pitching...Clarence "Choo Choo" Coleman was catching...."Marvelous" Marv Throneberry guarded the 1st base bag, all was as it should be.

Lunch at the Diamond Club was great as you could sit by a picture window and watch batting 1st game of the season and I was psyched. I had my cap on and my baseball glove, fully expecting to catch a foul. A very distinguished looking gentleman came up and said to me (being a cute little red headed boy) "Who's your favorite team?" "The Mets!" I shrieked. "And who's your favorite player?" "Jim Hickman!"..."How would you like to meet him?"....My jaw dropped and my eyes became wide as dinner plates. He introduced himself to my father, it was none other than M. Donald Grant, Chairman of the Board and a minority owner of the Mets. He asked Dad if it was ok to take me to the dugout, "Sure" was Dad's reply. Only later did I learn that my Dad wanted to go to, but didn't have the courage to ask.

My memory of how we actually arrived at the dugout is fuzzy at best, at any rate somehow I found myself standing in the dugout with every player of my dreams doing what they do before games...kidding each other, spitting huge wads of tobacco juice, scratching their balls...all the great things a kid needs to see. I stood there dumbfounded. "Hey, Casey...c'mere and meet Mr. Hofmann"...Casey looked around in a daze and prepared for his usual dog and pony show.."how ya doin, kid" old, crotchety, a fucking he was...every wrinkle on that weathered face visible...the smell of sweat, leather and neetsfoot oil all swirling through my nostrils. "Hi, Mr. Stengel"...I thrust my baseball at him with a pen, a crusty hand accepted the ball and he signed it. "Hey, Casey...where's Hickman?" Mr. Grant said, "HICKMAN! Get over here, will ya!?" Jim bounded down the stairs from the field. "What's up skipper?" "Sign this ball for the kid, k?" Jim Hickman was a young, talented, genuinely nice guy, in his early 20's. He seemed to get a bit of a thrill that a kid saw him as his probably wasn't too long ago that he was in my shoes. He signed my ball, asked my name, and talked a bit about hitting curves, change ups etc. I sat on the dugout steps and was one with my heroes, I wanted to grind as much spit and dirt into the seat of my pants as possible.
47 years later, I still love my Mets, despite what kind of crap they unload on us fans over the years. Their 2 world series wins are to be treasured and that day in the dugout not only sealed my love for them, but for the game itself and all the boys who play it, love it and respect it.