Rearview Mirror

AND, IN THIS CORNER ….

Feb. 27, 2016

Met my sisters at the old house last Saturday to officially start The Process.

Of rummaging, assessing, divvying, donating, and discarding the material and emotional accumulations of two lives intertwined for over 60 years as husband and wife, and nearly as many as Mom and Dad.

I didn’t really have or take the time to think about what to expect.

As odd as it may sound, I was just kinda’ looking forward to experiencing the initiation of The Process through my big sisters’ eyes.

Being the youngest by 10 years, I’ve developed a fairly insatiable curiosity about the early chapters of my parents’ … parenting, and my older siblings’ sibling-ness.

So Saturday I found myself in good company for the bittersweet sorting of and through treasures.

That’s ‘treasure’ in the true sense … of artifacts whose worth transcends and mocks any monetary connotation.

I wasn’t but 30 seconds into my arrival, when my oldest sister Kim unfurled a near life-size version of her seven-year-old self. The likeness produced the same smile it elicited 53 years ago, when Aunt Janet hand-painted it for the rounds of “Pin the Tail on the Kim” that must’ve set a pretty high bar for seven-year-old birthday celebrations in the neighborhood. It’s worth noting that the only artifact that survived my sister’s 7th birthday party was the hand-painted, personalized decoration made by my aunt.

The true gifts aren’t always disguised as gifts.

My sister Laurie ushered me upstairs to my old room. In so many words warned me to brace myself.

That my mom was a packrat was no surprise to me.

But the stacks of lovingly and meticulously—packed tubs that my sisters had extracted from my old bedroom’s closets were not merely the product of someone incapable of throwing things away. They were time capsules whose future value to the one who would open them was well-known by the one who packed them.

I was stopped cold by the first lid I pried off.

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Staring back at me was a card from one of the times Billy Karwatske’s Dad took us to the Civic Arena to see professional wrestling, a memory I had had no reason to recall in literally decades. Scanning the names took me back to some BIG moments, like the first time my impressionable 10-year-old ears experienced the truly indescribable reverberation of an arena-full of blood lusty and thirst-quenched Yinzers chanting, “Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!” as the larger-than-life Sammartino throttled the overmatched evil in front of him.

The hair on my arms may or may not have still been standing as I literally bounded down the steps to show my sisters, not pausing to consider how little interest they might have in my reminiscing about the first time I saw Andre the Giant in six-man-tag action live. Although we lacked the means for such clinical diagnoses back in a day, I’m pretty sure that the experience was my first time completely LOSING MY SHIT.

Yeah. One item in to the first box I was.

It heralded an afternoon (and afternoons to come) where progress was to be measured in ways other than assessing and editing.

What moved me about all the containers stacked and strewn about my old room had only so much to do with presents from my youth, but much more to do with the presence of my mother, which I felt as strongly on Saturday as I have since her passing last March.

As I lingered in my old bedroom, Mom and I communed over artifacts whose significance had become even greater in their retirement. I’m confident that she took her time (oh, that woman could take her time) recalling each sweet memory before she sealed the lid on another full tub. My memories were of the very same kindred spirit as I began unpacking them.

I eventually sobered (slightly) to the task at hand, appreciating each container as its own chaptered snapshot … of my childhood, teenage years, college, my first jobs, my old newspaper clippings. I managed to stuff my heart, and my old Subaru, with as much as each could accommodate, and, once home, stacked the first row of tubs in a corner of our already over-stuffed garage.

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I’ve found myself spending some quality time visiting my past over the past several months. Though I’ve made fresh tracks along familiar and forgotten roads, I have no intentions of dwelling there.

But the sacred act of blowing dust from such beautiful remembrances has opened my eyes …

…to the preciousness of the present
…to the opportunities we all have to make of the moments memories worthy of someday finding their way into tubs sealed like time capsules
… for loved ones to crack open like buried treasure
…and realize anew, like the generation before them, that the true gifts are not always disguised as gifts.

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Postcards, The Road Ahead

Postcards ….

It was a typical divide and conquer evening, only made atypical by the milestone.

Our oldest turned 17 Wednesday.

Karry was on dance duty, which earned her a pilgrimage to Waynesburg to scoop up Emma and her friends, and put me, by default, in charge of wrapping presents and dinner prep.

I would not be Karry’s first-round pick for either chore. Under normal circumstances I’d be lucky to participate in these spring drills as a non-roster invitee.

Admittedly, neither task plays to my strengths (which, generally speaking, fall under a loose category that, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just call “Intangibles.”). Family gift openers have described my wrapping as “primitive,” though I prefer “possessing of a charming, child-like quality.” Regardless, as with most things I’m not particularly skilled at, I compensate with enthusiasm.

So, I flung myself into the task of paper-cladding the humble pile of middle-of-the-week birthday gifts, most of which were feverishly procured slash Amazon-ed within the previous 48 hours (as per family, um, tradition). I fished my emergency stash of Sunday Comics from the drawer of my old Areford Elementary teacher’s desk (that my Mom fished from the ruins of our old neighborhood school about 40 years ago). Snatched the tape from the top drawer of the overstuffed chest where we keep the bills and The Neglected Stacks. In desperation I went digging through The Neglected Stacks for a couple extra blank birthday cards, since we had procured a couple more gift cards than birthday cards, and it somehow felt slightly less lame if we didn’t stuff multiple gift cards into a single envelope.

While digging deep into one of the far left stacks, I slammed the breaks on my feverish search when I happened upon … buried treasure.

Postcards.

From … Toronto. Vancouver. San Antonio. Utah. San Francisco. Las Vegas.

Addressed to … Peter.

All from about 15 years ago. When he was 1-2 years old.

From me.

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I was both taken aback, and taken back.

I totally forgot that the young parent version of myself used to write him postcards when I went on business trips. Forgot how much I hated leaving him and Karry in the days when miracles were more than a daily occurrence.

I just called home a few minutes ago and heard you saying, “Humpty Dumpty” – Mee Maw taught you that yesterday. And Mom told me that you walked 8 steps on your own. I am soooooo proud of you! Going three days without seeing you smile or hearing you chit-chat is too long.

It was a time machine to when the world was so much smaller … when we harvested simple moments of transcendence by the bushel.

I should be home tomorrow by 9:15 or so … hopefully you are still up. If not, I’ll put a kiss in my hand and put it on your head, unless you are sleeping with your butt in the air!

Yeah, he used to sleep sometimes with his knees under him, which made his butt stick up in the air. Whenever Karry or I would pass by his room and catch a glimpse, we’d call the other and just stand there, smiling in silence at the gift of him just … being. Reading my old words to the young him made me smile anew. And yeah, I remember putting kisses in my hand so I wouldn’t wake him. Sleep was a precious commodity for all involved back then.

Greetings from Vancouver. This is that place that mom showed you on the globe. I saw something today you would have found very cool. Out in the water in the bay I saw an airplane “driving on the water.” And it started driving fast and took off and flew up into the sky.

First time I’d ever seen a seaplane. And I experienced it through the awed eyes of my two year old who wasn’t there. As a wise person once wrote, you can only taste it for the first time once.

Greetings from Las Vegas! You would find lots here to draw your attention. At night you can hear lots of ‘woo woos.’

Woo woos = police cars. I’m not sure Vegas has been described so innocently before or since.

As I carry you with me wherever I go, I see these sites through your eyes.

In the stack were about 10 or so cards I sent over maybe a two-year-period.

At some point, I stopped writing them.

I’m not sure when. And I’m confident it wasn’t any sort of conscious act.

I remember reading a great essay that talked about The Last Time, and how we are seldom aware of The Last Time we’re experiencing something.

The last time you rock your child to sleep in your arms. The last time you read Goodnight Moon. The last time you play catch with your Dad.

The last time your Mom calls to wish you a happy birthday.

I don’t give myself credit for much, but I can honestly say that I think I’ve always possessed a keen sense of the passage of time. I used to journal a lot in those early days of parenthood. I knew that my future self would want to be reminded of all the daily amazings that drew ahs like fireworks and evaporated just as quickly. When I find myself feeling a little untethered, I’ll pluck an old journal from the shelf, and see what the life of the younger Us used to be like.

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the people in my pages.

The miracles of the present age are of, um, a different vintage. When he wears pants at the dinner table? Minor miracle.

It’s tempting to believe that your children have always been the same person since birth. The cold fact is they are completely different people today than they once were. And they don’t care about those kids whose smaller clothes used to hang in their closets. The junior in high school doesn’t care that his two-year-old self used to run into my arms every time I came upstairs from work, or that his three-year-old self just had to pull his plastic lawn mower out of the garage and ‘mow’ beside me every time I cut grass, or the great pains he and I took to memorize the choreography to our favorite Wiggles routines. (Gooooo, Captain Go….). Those were gifts from someone other than the young man who now does donuts in the snow in the Wild Things parking lot.

Which brought me back to the small pile of gifts waiting impatiently.

I aborted my search for empty birthday cards.

Re-arranged the treasures in front of me back into a neat pile.

But instead of returning them to The Neglected Stacks, I wrapped the Sunday comics around them (with a charming, childlike quality.). Sealed them with Scotch tape. Tossed ‘em into the small mound.

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Moved on to kitchen stadium, where I proceeded to slice a ½ dozen tiny bowls full of veggies, set off two smoke alarms and set one paper plate aflame while Wok-ing the hell out of Peter’s made-to-order-stir-fry-birthday dinner, whose deliciousness almost-but-not-quite made up for the fact that I didn’t put it in front of an impatient, famished table until 8:30 because I kinda’ forgot to slice the beef until the girls returned home from dance.

However, grace (i.e. rescue) came in the form of Emma’s from-scratch Oreo cupcakes, thoughtfully and lovingly made for a sibling whose legacy of giving her nothing but big-brother crap is now in its 13th season.

Karry placed a candle atop a cupcake, Emma turned out the lights, and I nearly ruined everything by going for harmony on the final Happy Birthday To You (a sweet, but ill-executed homage to my Dad’s birthday serenades of yore).

Then the room fell quiet, and the world stopped long enough for the guest of honor to take his sweet time in considering his birthday wish.

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And in the silence, I wondered what the Dad who used to send postcards promising to put kisses in his hand for his sleeping baby boy might say to the one now sitting around a cluttered Tuesday night table staring, bewildered, at a newly-minted 17-year-old whose heart’s set on a Ford Mustang.

He whispered the only advice he could:

Write this down.

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Excursions

Reunion

It hit me harder than I expected.

Kid Quick, I mean.

I was caught defenseless in his flurry, and before I could get a punch in, I was on the canvas, the ref counting me out, and Quick taunting me the way he used to when I was a kid, “Come on … stand up and fight!”

But, hey … first time in the ring in, what? Thirty years? I think a little rust is forgivable.

Sh*t … I was ready for the rematch before the ref was done counting.

Channeling Moonlight (Graham)

When was the last time you bumped into someone you haven’t had any contact with in decades? I mean zero contact. No pictures. No social media. Nothin’.

Now, imagine that happening, like, 50 times in the same evening.

On a Saturday not long ago, I experienced the closest thing to the sensations of a pre-Internet high school reunion: the exhilaration of seeing old friends I used to spend hours at a time with … for the first time in decades; of matching faces with names I’d totally forgotten about; of trying to recall dance steps my younger version  had mastered and memorized … surprising myself at how much came back, and forgiving myself for how much didn’t.

If I kept a leaderboard for most single-night “Oh My Gosh”-es, I’d have set a new personal record.

All while discovering just how good most of those old friends have held up. And, as with the best of reunions, totally forgiving the years for not being as kind to others.

The place: Pinball PA.

Think Field of Dreams for any child of the 80’s who wasted (read: invested) any portion of their youth dropping quarters in exchange for the temporary dopamine rush of blasting enemies and chasing high scores.

Aisle after aisle (after aisle) of exquisitely preserved pinball machines and arcade cabinets, perfectly nestled, non-descript, in a shopping center (where else?) in Hopewell, PA.

I owe the invitation to Andy, a friendship minted in the fourth grade, in whose company I logged many a mile biking across our hometown to temporarily tattoo our initials all over our its 8-bit cathedrals: the Station Arcade at the shopping center, Fun City at the mall, and the Electric Playground in downtown (across from where the Manos Theater used to be).

Andy lives a generous bike ride/short drive from Pinball PA. After a handful of “Dude, you need to see this place …” overtures, I found an open Saturday afternoon and made the pilgrimage. Pulled into a shopping center that could’ve been a Hollywood lot recreation from our teenage years.

Walked in and was greeted by the sweetest, beepy-est 8-bit symphony … and the nicest man in the universe: a middle-aged long-haired dude in black concert t-shirt whose 2017 closet bore an unapologetic resemblance to his (and, um, my) 80’s closet. He [1.] gave me a lay of the land, [2.] offered to give me a complimentary tour at any time — I think the place is technically considered a museum–, [3.]  issued me a wrist band if I decided to leave and come back that day, [4.] gave me a red solo cup for the B.Y.O.B. bottle of wine I’d brought, and [5.] led me to the back tables, where he encouraged me to leave my stuff next to where a birthday party was going down.

“People are pretty cool here,” he said.

I took my time finding Andy. Spent a good 15 minutes just walking the aisles and involuntarily spasm-ing Oh-My-Gosh-es like they were hiccups.

I was totally Moonlight Graham stepping onto a field for the first time in years, calling the saints of my youth by name.

Gorf.

Stratovox.

Scramble.

Moon Patrol.

Galaga. (of course)

Punch Out.

Time Pilot.

Gorgar. (which was like the badass bouncer of the pinball aisle at Fun City).

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Dragon’s Lair (reverent bow).

Tron.

Galaxian.

I finally found Andy in one of the aisles, deeply engaged in battle. Waited for him to finish.  He walked with me.

“So, what are you gonna play first?”

Into The Ring…

It was like being kickball captain on the playground with all your best friends standing, expectant, in front of  you.

Andy had his guess: Stratovox, which we used to play at the Rec Center after swigging big-orange-container-Gatorade after summer basketball camp. Over the years, we’ve found many random excuses to quote the game’s signature monotone warning: “We’ll be-back!”

It would have made a fine choice (I made my way back to it later), but my first pick was a ceremonial one.

I paused in front of Laguna Racer, an old black and white, early generation cabinet from the Age of Pong. It caught some of my (Dad’s) first quarters at Fun City at the Uniontown Mall. I pressed play, hit the gas, and experienced the sweet simplicity of Accelerate, Avoid, Earn Extra Time … not through the lens of 2017, but through the eyes of my six- or –seven-year-old self experiencing the thrill of a steering wheel for the first time … moving my car avatar over the ramrod straight open road.

Game on.

After a couple rounds, and adding my initials to its neglected leader board, I moved a couple cabinets down and stood in front of Punch Out.

Smiled when I saw Glass Joe staring at me from across the ring. Still the same old confidence builder he always was.

Made quick work of him to earn a bout with Piston Hurricane. When he teed up his, “Come on, Come on,” (“Ha! Bring it!” I may have said out loud), my subconscious blew the dust off my file cabinet of patterns, and I bobbed right to miss his big punch before unloading a flurry and uncorking a finishing uppercut to put him on his keister. Next: Bald Bull, from Istanbul, Turkey, all 298 pounds of him. He weathered a couple knockdowns before staying down for good.

Kid Quick, though, knocked me back to 2017, which coaxed an involuntary eff-bomb spasm that would’ve gotten me kicked out of Fun City. I quickly looked to my left and right, and exhaled NOT to find any small children within shouting distance.

The magical concept of free play meant I could jump right back in the ring (Punch Out allowed you one rematch to coax a couple more quarters from your pocket).

In the rematch, I went the distance, but couldn’t put the Kid down.

I was back on the street. Just a man and his will to survive.

I started all over, tore through the trio again … Joe, Hurricane, Bull … before returning to my unfinished business with the Kid.

Third time was a charm. I found the rhythm and settled into a pattern. Dodging and counterpunching, dodging and counterpunching. Hoping I’d wear him down before the timer expired. “Stay down!” I would’ve said in my head had I not been yelling it at the screen as the ref counted so effing methodically to 10.

Beads of sweat dotted my forehead as I paced around the cabinet waiting for my next victim, Pizza Pasta.

It was coming back to me. Stick and move, stick and move. Pizza went down like a slice with anchovies pulled from the warming oven of Pizza Town across the alley from the old Station Arcade. Easy pickins.

Then, Title Shot … the Champ: Mr. Sandman.

Thankfully no video documentation exists of my reaction after taking his title. All I’ll say is that it was an absolutely appropriate response for a nine-year-old, if a nine-year-old had the refined ornery adult vocabulary of a 47-year-old.

Ahem.

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Guy Kawasaki wrote a book a few years ago in which he describes Enchantment (the name and subject of the book) as “the act of losing yourself in the moment.”

For the next three hours, I was enchanted.

Time and Places 

One of the most resonant and unexpected parts of the experience was how the individual games conjured the locations that hosted them.

Time Pilot? Used to be at the movie theater at the Uniontown Mall. Such an exotic treat you either had your parents drop you off early, or added a time buffer after the movie was over before you had them pick you up.

Gorf? Winky’s. Gorf was an inspired mashup of Galaxian and Space Invaders. How good was it? Good enough to beg your Dad to take you to Winky’s (though not good enough to make you eat the food).

Spy Hunter? Uniontown Pizza Hut.

Scramble? Laurel Mall movie theater.

That Space-Invader-ish-knock-off-game-whose-name-I-can’t-remember that was my go to when others were shooting the duck at all those skating parties at the Wheels of 8 Roller Rink.

And the “foster games” that rotated in and out of our local Dairy Mart, and stayed only  long enough to allow us to achieve mastery before being replaced (so we could begin our training anew, i.e. pouring quickly expiring quarters into a new machine): Asteroids, Donkey Kong Jr., Tron, Moon Patrol, Dig Dug, Star Trek. Though the facts are lost to history, I wish a record existed corresponding the tenures of machines with the tenure of some of our favorite Dairy Mart employees (Estelle, Mean Wilma, Elaine who Made the Awesome Microwavable Burritos, Dewey, Chuck, Bill, etc.).

Gyrus? Parked next to Dragon’s Lair (reverent bow) in the front row as you entered Fun City. Andy recalled that Greg Marmol used to kick ass at Gyrus (1,000 bonus points for remembering that).

If you would have given a genie lamp to the younger version of myself, it would’ve conjured Pinball, PA. The concept of free play after paying for your wrist band … total game-changer.

At the peak of my indulgence, I played myself two player on Galaga to double my chances of notching a perfect bonus round to earn the 10K bonus (an essential for anyone with high score ambitions). Managed to crack 200K, which was my benchmark when I was in my prime.

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It was at this point I made the strategic decision to leave my wine bottle uncorked. Didn’t want to run the risk of dulling my reflexes. I was taking having so much fun that seriously.

After a while, it occurred to me just how much of my Dad’s modest disposable income must have gone to my video game addiction. That he never counted the cost is a lesson I’m still trying to fully put into practice. He lived his life by a different calculator, where time was the only currency that mattered. I couldn’t suppress a smile when I passed by the old Xs and Os football game. The one he and I’d play at Fun City (translation: one of the few he understood). I remember him still picking his play when the ball was snapped, and me taking it easy on him to keep things competitive. He was a good sport.

Free = Great, But Not Better

A couple hours in, Andy and I were joined by Wolfie, a friend I made in junior high and have kept since. I spent more teenage mall Fridays with Wolfie than anybody else, our parents graciously taking turns sharing the transportation burden until we got our licenses. I hadn’t seen him in awhile,  but couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to catch up.

Though we would’ve loved a fourth player, Andy, Wolfie and I mustered up the courage to give Gauntlet a try. We chose our roles, wizard, warrior, elf … and charged into battle.

At first, the concept of free play was a reassuring novelty. We played aggressively, but respected the dangers in the game play, steering clear of risky situations. After a while, though, it became a bit absurd, as we’d just hit a button to refresh our player after getting offed. It got to the point where we were like hungry diners at an all-you-can-eat buffet of our favorite foods, eating ourselves beyond full. Probably a good ½ hour passed before we just walked away from our characters, since it was never going to end on its own.

For all the awesomeness inherent in an evening of ‘Free Play,’ there was a subtle, but important lesson in our Gauntlet experience.

The investment is what made the arcade.

A physical destination that required a pilgrimage.

A finite experience that lasted only as long as the quarters in your pockets multiplied by whatever skill you brought to the table.

Don’t get me wrong, we were beyond exhilarated when Atari (followed by Intellivision, then Coleco-Vision, the forefathers of today’s PS4 and X-Box) introduced console crack into our living rooms. But, looking over my shoulder, I can also say that empty pockets were their own gift, chasing us back into the daylight, where other adventures awaited, and leaving us eager for the next time.

I imagine that pre-Internet high school reunions regularly conjured a range of emotions that echoed the original feelings of one’s youth.

I’ll never know for sure. For all social media has given us in connectedness, its robbed us of the spasmodic Oh My Gosh-es that used to be the sole dominion of reunions and the random, chance encounter.

So it was nice to be reminded of my teenage feeling of anticipation pulling into an otherwise non-descript shopping center. Of spending a dopamine-drenched Saturday afternoon losing track of hours … of years. Of hanging out with some old friends.

And Andy and Wolfie, too.

As I walked to my car for the drive back home down I-79, I couldn’t help but think of a certain monotone refrain.

We’ll be back.

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The Road Ahead

‘Twas the Night Before ….” (Christmas in November)

[So, the past couple months? Pretty much a blur. Am a little overdue in taking my existential crisis in for a tune-up. Need to remind myself to pump the breaks a bit more often in 2018. Writing up an overdue Speeding Ticket from early November, 2017….]

So, Wednesday night around the time when I’m counting the minutes before my head hits the pillow, the 16-year-old’s deep voice carries up the steps from his down stairs bunker, where he’s paused his evening communal gaming ritual with his fellow-headset-ted snipers …

“Dad, can we go? You ready?”

What’s he talking about? My wife asks.

I knew.

“Grab a flash light … meet you downstairs,” he yells up.

In a couple minutes I’m his passenger in the Old Subaru, unofficially his old Subaru, and he’s snaking us, under cover of darkness, through town.

“Gonna take us past the Pizza Hut, like they’ll have me do tomorrow.”

I affirm his choice.

We make the right at the Hut, then a left at the next light onto Oak Springs Road, and a left into the Big Lots Parking Lot. He takes us behind the Big Lots.

“Hope we don’t get arrested,” I say, kidding, but not really kidding.

In true Peter fashion, we were cramming the night before the Big Test.

The subject: Parallel Parking.

He asks me to get out and stand in the grass and shine a light on the curb.

“One does not only parallel park in the sunshine,” I say in my best Yoda voice, remaining in the vehicle.

He huffs, but after 15 seconds of observing me not moving a muscle, slips it back into drive.

He makes his first approach … signals (nice)… passes the open space … stops … puts it in reverse … looks over his shoulder… eases off the break, turns … then cuts it … eases it forward. Exhales, then … cuts it backward … nudges it forward.

“They give three up and backs,” he says sheepishly.

I open the door, shine the flashlight on the gap between us and the curb. Not great, but …

“Acceptable,” I say.

“I can do better,” his reply.

It’d been a couple weeks since he last practiced, so a little bit of rust … forgivable.

He circles around for another pass. Pause. Reverse. He shows more patience this time before he makes his cut. Eases it parallel. Brings it forward … just once. I open the door. Shine the light. Two, maybe three, inches.

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That’s more like it.

He pulls out, this time unable to resist flooring it (a command which takes the Old Subaru a few seconds to process) as he circles back around the empty parking lot. I just shake my head rather than admonish. I remember doing the exact same thing in my parents’ old Mercury Monarch when I first became master of my self-locomotion.

He makes another pass.

And another. Another. Another. All of them pretty much bullseyes, a few of them so tight I close my eyes and brace myself for a curb kiss that … never comes.

After a while, he starts whisper-narrating the voice in his head … “OK … watch this … this is going to be perfect … not yet … not yet … oh yes … nailed it … Are you watching this? … Gucci.”

For some reason I find this about the funniest thing in the world.

“Please promise me that you’ll do this with the guy tomorrow.”

He begins to whisper-address me as if I’m tomorrow’s ride-along … “Oh yes, prepare for perfection … you might want to take a picture of this officer … show the boys back at HQ … oh, look at this! Look at this! Textbook.”

Pretty soon he has us both belly laughing harder than I can recall us both laughing together in … well …  way too long.

I let him say when, and he insists on a few more passes, putting at least a baker’s dozen in his rear view mirror. It’s like the cut in the montage scene in Rocky III where Rocky masters the footwork under Apollo’s tutelage and throws in a flurry of practice punches just for good measure.

Then he drives us home in the next-to-last car ride we’ll take where I’m a necessary component.

The last one comes the following afternoon, when I accompany him to the Driver’s License Center. He admits to being nervous though he has no reason to be.

Karry, who left work so she could meet us at the center, texts me to remind him to remove the air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror. “Damn, your mother’s good, “ I gush to Peter as I pluck it down and put it in the glove box, until I realize she’s following in the car behind us (ha).

In the parking lot, I give him a handshake that he pulls into a hug, then I trade cars with Karry and head back home to field a work call.

I get jubilant texts from mother and son about 20 minutes later.

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The following Friday night he heads out to meet some friends. Before he leaves, he pauses to kiss his mother on the cheek for the first time in his 5,960 days on the planet.

And it’s that gesture, and not the sound of him pulling the noisy Subaru up the driveway, that gives her pause.

“Didn’t see that coming,” she said, summing up the past 16 years, and every moment from this point forward, as she unconsciously rubbed the place on her cheek where her baby boy had just kissed her goodbye.

Sometimes when you are bracing for one chapter closing, it’s a footnote in the margin that gives you a glimpse of the ones to come.

 

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Excursions

Deja vu ….

I can remember as a kid, returning home after summer afternoons playing in the dirt at my friend Danny’s house (he had some of THE FINEST dirt in the neighborhood), Mom would stop me at the front porch, order me back down the steps to the garage door, and make me take off my clothes before allowing me to enter through the basement.

This was not an infrequent occurrence.

Last night I got together with some of my best friends from my hometown to pick out a Christmas tree for our old high school hangout, a tradition now in its 23rd year.

Karry’s last words before I hit Route 40 for Uniontown: leave your clothes outside when you come home.

Even though the admonition was to prevent the smell of smoke, not the mess of mud, from entering the house, it made me realize how truly fortunate I am.

First, to have grown up with friends who have proven just as awesome to raise a glass with, as to play ball with, hang out at the arcade with, and destroy Tonkas with.

Secondly, to have known the love of strong women who’ve made sure I don’t make too much of a mess of things. IMG_0742

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Rearview Mirror

Here’s (to) That Rainy Day (#215 in the books)

I recently found myself feeling very thankful … for, of all things, a summer Sunday thunderstorm.

That happened about 32 years ago.

I remember it as one of those glorious, near-Biblical downpours – the kind that mid-summer, Southwestern PA humidity teases and taunts until it comes down full-throated and angry. The kind whose sound used to mesmerize me as it drumrolled, fortissimo, the aluminum awning on our tiny front porch, pouring in a sheet over its edge.

I remember that particular afternoon storm being accompanied by lightning that flashed with such frequency and bad intent it made you involuntarily wince as you waited the couple beats to learn from the companion thunder crack if any trees or transformers had born the brunt.

It was mid-afternoon and Mom was getting an early dinner ready. We were to eat early because Dad was playing music that night.

On the surface, an every-third-Sunday-night gig at a Moose Club in Perryopolis may sound more like punishment than anything, but Dad loved that particular job. It had absolutely nothing to do with the money, as once each of the nine pieces of the orchestra had been paid, the cut was a measly $25 for three hours. Nah, for Dad, the payoff was in the freedom the band had on those Sunday nights. Things were looser at the Moose than the typical gigs — the opposite of the structured, 14-setters that dictated what kind of song had to be played when. On those Sundays, Sam, the bandleader, would even let the musicians request a chart that they wanted to play, or hadn’t played in a long time … or a jazzier chart that was more fun to jam on than to dance to. And playing from 8:30-11:30 a short drive down Route 51 was a breeze compared to the four-hour jobs they’d drive an hour or more to.

As Mom got things ready in the kitchen, I remember the phone ringing in the dining room, and me getting up to answer it (days before caller ID when a surprise always waited on the other end). It was Sam, calling to let Dad know that the Moose had lost power due to the storm, so the gig was cancelled.

I relayed the message, and remember Dad being bummed, but also being OK with not having to rush the rest of the afternoon, and getting his evening back.

Though there was no longer any reason to eat early, Mom finished what she’d started, and the three of us sat down to eat at the kitchen table.

That’s when the phone rang a second time, about 45 minutes after the first call.

This time Dad answered. It was Sam again, calling to let him know that the Moose got power back, so the dance was back on.

So, Dad resumed his gig-prep ritual, getting a shower, doing his teeth (which took a good 30-45 minutes. I’m not sure there was ever a trumpet player more meticulous about his teeth), laying out his suit, his mute bag, etc.

No big deal.

Until the phone rang for a third time. Sam again.

He’d been able to reach everyone in the band … except the drummer, Bob, who also happened to be my drum teacher. In the age before cel phones, when answering machines were still a novelty, you either got ahold of someone, or you didn’t. Sam figured that Bob must’ve gone out to eat or something after learning that the gig was off.

“Tell Pete to get ready, just in case Bob doesn’t call me back,” Sam told my Dad.

Now, this was suddenly a big deal.

So, I was 15 years old. I’d been taking drum lessons for about a year and a half at my father’s, um, insistence. I literally came home from school one day to learn that he’d signed me up for lessons. I had never previously expressed an interest in the drums. And there was no precedent for my father signing me up for anything that we hadn’t previously discussed. But I was an agreeable kid, and, hey, drums were cool, so I just rolled with it.

I didn’t pay much attention to the not-so-subtle clues as to my Dad’s intentions. When he signed me up for lessons he informed me that he’d already pre-arranged with the instructor (Bob) that I was to learn all styles of music, not just rock. He wanted me versed in the bossanova, the rhumba, the cha-cha, and of course, jazz and swing.

I humored my Dad by going along with this, though my heart beat more in time to big, fat backbeats.

My Dad had started having me tag along on gigs with him, just to listen. I remember at first feeling awkward riding to gigs with guys 40 and 50 years my senior, and then sipping Pepsis for four hours while listening to old music and watching old people dance. He’d also asked Sam to make me some tapes of the band for me (which he recorded ‘live’ on an old Radio Shack Realistic recorder), so I could play along at home, applying the beats I was learning in my lessons. Full disclosure: I’d always skip past the boring slow ones, and just played along to the passable jump tunes … In the Mood, Kansas City, etc.

But I always assumed that the tapes and the ride-alongs were just for exposure, and really, to humor my Dad.

The prospect of playing an actual gig was not even close to being on my radar when Sam called that Sunday afternoon. For one thing, my drums had never left my practice room in the back. I didn’t even have cases for them. And since Dad-slash-Santa had delivered them already set up a couple Christmases back, I didn’t know how to tear them down.

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I remember taking them apart that afternoon for the first time afraid I wouldn’t remember how they went back together. When I wasn’t freaking out, I was praying hard that Sam would call back saying he’d gotten ahold of Bob. Alas, a fourth call never came.

The rain had long since stopped by the time Mac came to pick us up. I remember carrying my cymbal stands out one by one, gingerly laying them down in the back of his Chevy Suburban, and covering them with a blanket so they wouldn’t be tempted to roll.

When we were done loading the truck, Mac commented, “They look like dead bodies.”

Not the encouragement I was looking for.

When we got to the Moose, Dad helped me set things back up, bought me a Pepsi to calm my nerves. Sam loaned me an oversized tux jacket, and a gratuitously large, velvet, clip-on black bow tie that wore crooked.

A veteran professional band leader who had logged decades as a successful high school band instructor, Sam was his usual picture of calm. I’ll never forget his only instruction to me, which he delivered with a wry smile: “As long as you begin and end with the rest of the band, you’ll be fine.”

By the time everybody tuned up and gathered on the bandstand, I was in full panic. I gave my full attention to Sam’s every word and gesture, locking into the tempos as he counted off the tunes. From there, I focused on Ralph, the keyboard player (and Sam’s son). Specifically, I hyper-focused on Ralph’s left hand, which he used to play the bass line. After a couple verses, I’d turn my attention back to Sam and wait for him to signal whether the song ended in tempo, if things slowed down, or if everyone was to play the last notes together.

To compensate for all the tunes I didn’t know (which were legion), I’d exhaust my humble bag of tricks on the few that I did, “In the Mood,” “Kansas City,” etc. Imagine a nervous, 15-year-old rock-and-roller turned loose on Glenn Miller. Yeah.

For the others, it was a lot of ‘boom-chicka-boom’ until a tune came to a merciful conclusion. I found myself regretting skipping over all of those boring, slow tunes in the practice room.

I remember little else other than surviving the longest three hours of my life … thanks to a constant stream of advice and encouragement from Alice (our singer) and the guys in the band.

When it was over, I gratefully collected their smiles and handshakes, and then collected myself before turning my full attention to trying to remember how the heck to tear my drums back down.

Then Sam came over to me. Asked me to put out my hand.

Into which he put $25 … my share of the evening’s take.

I still can vividly recall my 15-year-old self’s feeling of surprise and exhilaration as I stared at the money in my hand. It felt like a million bucks to me.

In that humble transaction, I went from being a scared-shi*tless 15-year-old to being a professional musician.

But that paled in comparison to what he did next.

He asked me if I’d consider being his regular drummer.

Excuse me?

He said he was looking for someone who could make all the gigs. Bob sometimes played with other groups, forcing Sam to find subs. He wanted someone steady.

I can tell you with 100% certainty that there was nothing in my performance that evening that earned me the invitation.

But I never gave him a chance to reconsider his offer.

And, for the next 13 years, I rode along in vans with guys 40 and 50 years my senior, playing old music for old people.

And loving every single minute of it.

The long drives to the gigs, listening to my Dad and his musician friends talk music and tell tales of guys they played with and places they played.

Seeing it as my honor, as one of the younger guys, to help carry the equipment up and down the steps of whatever hall we happened to be playing in.

Over time, learning every chart inside and out … not just beginning and ending with the band, but catching every kick and squeezing the juice out of every chart. Laying down a mean rhumba, cha-cha and bossanova for the dancers to indulge themselves.

Delighting in the ritual and routine of it all. The rhythm of the set up and tear down. The meticulous way everything perfectly loaded and packed into Mac and Sam’s vans. The way each musician would warm up (I can still hear Mac playing the Theme from the Godfather every time he pulled his alto from his case). Which halls had the best food. Losing myself in Dad’s trumpet solos.

And, to this day, you could quiz me on the #s of the charts in Sam’s book. “Love” by Nat King Cole? #252. “Two-o’ Clock Jump” by Harry James? #320. Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”? #143. “Cherry Pink”? #125. “Begin the Beguine?” 95.

All of it.

And I hope that, somewhere over the course of the 13 years that followed, that I became deserving of the faith and investment Sam placed in a nervous 15-year-old who didn’t know his Artie Shaw from his Cole Porter.

And for the record, I still have the $20 bill that Sam put in my hand after that first gig. (I recall allowing myself to spend the fiver at the county fair a couple days after the gig.)

A couple weeks ago I heard the news that Sammy Bill passed away at age 89.

My deepest condolences to his son Ralph, with whom I also had the (absolute) pleasure of sharing a bandstand with for many of those years.

Sam was never anything but good to me the entire time I held down his drum chair. Thanks to him, I got to fulfill my Dad’s dream of sharing a bandstand with his son. To this day, it remains one of my greatest joys in life.

I’m just one of probably over a thousand young musicians whose lives Sam enriched through his love and gift of music.

So, for that summer Sunday thunderstorm from 32 years ago …

I am thankful.

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