Excursions, The Road Ahead

Perfectly Timed ….

Behind these smiles are some stories, that, if you hold them close enough to your ear, you can still hear the beer-sticky basement floor of 311 North Richill Street in them.

That sacred address was responsible for us first colliding in our late teens, and, thus, gathering together last night at PNC Park, to celebrate one of our own NOT turning 50 (as the sign indicates).

That sacred address had a significant hand in at least four of us somehow convincing pretty college girls who totally should have known better to first dance with us, and eventually to marry us.

We solely owe last night’s gathering to an inspired idea from one of them (much love and thanks to Natalie).

Though it was intended as a gift to Popie, it was as much of one to the rest of us: a perfectly-timed reminder that no distance of time can diminish a good story’s ability to coax an on-demand laugh, head shake, hi-five, wince, or blush. And that we experienced each in equal and abundant measure in that golden (ZE) Chapter of our lives.

It was good to hear that my first college roommate’s high-pitched giggle is still in regular rotation (and still higher-pitched than my own). It was good to throw a hug around my last college roommate (and unapologetically go back for seconds). It was good to learn of (and meet) kids who are just blowing their parents away with the young men and women they are becoming, and also of children who are younger karma vessels for the ornerier among us.

It was good to see that Popie still lets his smile have the run of his face.

I think my new favorite game on the planet is to put the 19-year-old versions of us in the left column, and our, um, not-50 versions on the right, and to draw the connecting lines. I’ll let you figure out which column features at least one naked street bowler and which features at least one CDC-supporting, life-saving chemist.

Used to be Friday nights would not end until the clock was deep into single digits, or before our butts hit the beer-sticky basement floor of 311 North Richill for a communal rendition of the theme from Hawaii-5-0.

So it was telling that the majority of us were exchanging goodbye handshakes and hugs by 10:30 (and well before the post-game fireworks)… in deference to our drives home and long-week-depleted energy reserves.

But, as the above picture proves, the smiles will keep.

And as the years have proven, so will the stories … and the bond.

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Postcards, The Road Ahead

Encore

 

I get this little tinge of expectation every time I go to the mailbox. It’s a dog-level expectation. No matter how many times I walk away disappointed, I still return the next time with a measure of hope.

Much like our old black lab, Sadie, who for years, and in vain, chased the chipmunks in our back yard. Though the chipmunks would always have a head start, always accelerate faster over short distances, and always make it safely back to their headquarters beneath the base of the basketball hoop, Sadie would invariably gather her poundage (which ranged between 80-102.5 in her mature years) into a full sprint, chase them back to HQ, and then feverishly paw and snort while the chipmunks mocked her from a safe distance (because chipmunks are, you know, punk bastards). She’d scratch at the base for literally minutes, oblivious to our calls, until we’d have to drag her away by the collar as she craned her head over her shoulder, let-me-at-‘em-style, all the while dog-growling the equivalent of “You wait. Next time, f*ckers. … next time.”

Like Sadie, no matter how often I return empty-pawed from the mailbox, I still think, there’s always a chance, as I stroll across the sidewalk and open the latch.

A chance for a letter, or a card. Or just something that catches my eye.

It rarely happens. And, it doesn’t take much. Karry will confirm that I’m nearly giggly when the Clipper Magazine arrives every month.

Couldn’t tell you the exact day, whether it was a weekday or weekend, but I do remember it was February 2016 … when I spied … THE CATALOG.

I remember plucking it from the bottom of the daily pile, and mindlessly scanning its pages looking for a single listing … from a lifetime ago.

That had no business still being there.

But, I’ll be damned … there it was.

Sanders: Intro to Ballroom.

A smile took over my face. Not the immediate, in the moment, oh-that’s-funny grin that burns off as spontaneously as it erupts. But the one that kindles itself from a sweet memory triggered unexpectedly. The kind that sort of wells, then breaks gradually and stretches wide … hangs around for a little bit, and leaves its warm echo even when your cheeks return to their normal resting position.

And, just like it did when I first spotted the very same listing in the community college winter catalog twenty years ago, it sparked an idea ….

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The late-90’s version of the idea was to twist my then-new bride’s arm (a precursor to my stepping on her toes) into signing up for the once-a-week evening course at Trinity High School.

My reason went deeper than trying something new and fun with my best friend, though that was a piece of it.

I wanted to ceremonially close a chapter.

I’d just relinquished the drum chair of the 10-piece, little-big-band style group that I’d played with, alongside my trumpet-playing father, since I was 14 years old.

Without exaggeration, it was my dad’s lifelong dream to raise a dance musician.

He’d tried hard with his first four children, producing two tremendous piano players, but wasn’t able to coax either of them onto a bandstand. Though I never confirmed this with him, I’m inclined to believe that among my Dad’s first thoughts when my 39-year-old mom gave birth to me, 10 years after the birth of my closest sibling (I was, um, a bit of a surprise), was, “yep, a drummer.” A secret that I believe he kept to himself until I came home one day from seventh grade and he summarily informed me that he’d signed me up for lessons. And not only that, he’d already given the teacher marching orders that I was to be taught a myriad of styles, ‘not just rock.’ My curriculum was to include foxtrot, cha-cha, rhumba, waltz, samba, bossanova, and swing.

And that was that.

For the record, I’d never expressed any previous interest in the drums.

Yet a couple years later, I found myself spending my weekends riding in vans with musicians 40 and 50 years my elder, and entertaining senior citizens in dancehalls across southwestern Pennsylvania playing selections from the Great American Songbook.

And pretty much loving every minute of it.

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I still loved much of it when I finally quit 14 years later, after I’d started playing with a couple rock groups. I just wanted to try something different.

Dad was cool about it. He understood. He’d played with countless bands throughout his life. Knew the feeling when it was time to move on.

I had no intentions to even look over my shoulder, until one day I was mindlessly thumbing through a community college catalog when one listing in particular caught my eye.

Sanders: Intro to Ballroom.

And I knew on the spot that there was one thing I had to do before closing that chapter in my life.

Karry was a trooper.

We were horrible (at first), but it was a blast.

In no small part due to our instructors, Ron and Ruth Sanders. To the 20-something version of our selves, they were this totally adorable older couple. It was obvious that they’d been teaching the course for some time. Their teasing, corny jokes were well-rehearsed and in the fashion of an old married couple … about the female always following the lead of the male, about trusting the male’s sense of direction around the dance floor, about the perils of ‘spaghetti arms.’ But, man, were they something to watch. I believe Ron was a stone mason (or did similar hard labor with his hands) for a living. Yet his dance posture was impeccable. He was the picture of elegance and grace as he rose up on his toes and led Ruthie (as he called her) and her signature high heels across the high school cafeteria’s floor. It was obvious that they just loved dancing with each other. The highlight of each class was during break, when they’d put on a song and show us how it was done. We’d just watch in awe and with the biggest smiles.

But they were most gracious instructors, too, and coached us up on our foxtrot, cha-cha, rhumba, waltz, samba, bossanova and jitterbug. The toughest part for Karry was following my lead. She likes to be in control of things. Plus, she knows I have no sense of direction, and was (rightfully) dubious of my ability to navigate a circle.

It only got a little oogie those couple lessons when Ron and Ruth broke out the Lambada (the ‘forbidden dance’). I remember Karry and I dissolving into tears of laughter seconds into our first attempt, after I tried to look seductively into her eyes.

But gradually we got better and a bit more comfortable with all the (other) styles, deepening our arsenal with enough moves to soften the more mechanical edges of our technique.

Until we deemed ourselves more or less ready to take it to a real dance floor.

And dance to a certain little big band.

And, for me, to experience my Dad’s playing from the civilian side. For once, to be among the entertained, and not the entertainers.

I remember we picked a Saturday gig in Monessen. Can’t remember if it was a VFW, or an Elks, but I distinctly remember it bore that indescribable scent that all those old great halls have … that remains to this day among my favorite smells in the world (it’s like a built-over-decades building cologne of beer, smoke and men over the age of 50).

I didn’t tell my Dad we were coming.

I remember how happy he was to see us (incidentally, I don’t think there was ever a time when he was not happy to see Karry). How big a kick he got when we told him we’d been taking lessons for the sole purpose of coming to a gig.

I remember being the youngest ones on the dance floor.

I remember the band’s repertoire giving us ample opportunity to try out (read: exhaust) every step in ours.

I knew every song by heart.

I remember time standing still as Karry and I swooshed around the floor to Dad’s Harry James solo on “You Made Me Love You” … remember Alice, the singer, dedicating Nat King Cole’s “Love” to us, and working up a jitterbug sweat to “Woodchopper’s Ball,” which I discovered was just as fun to dance to as it was to play.

I remember kissing Karry a thank you on the night’s last foxtrot, ‘C’est Si Bon,’ before the band broke into their theme song, “I Still Get A Thrill.”

I remember a great Saturday night spent dancing with my best friend to my Dad’s horn.

I couldn’t imagine a more perfect close to that chapter in my life.

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I hadn’t had occasion to recall that sweet memory until that cold afternoon in February, last year.

I was taking a few days off in the aftermath of Dad’s funeral, and couldn’t separate the flood of memories from the music he taught me to love. The daily walk to the mailbox had suddenly become bittersweet, as my dogged expectation was now rewarded with handfuls of cards and handwritten letters of love and condolence (that I’ve kept ever since in a drawer next to my bed). Until one day I spied a community college catalog peeking from beneath the pile, and, mindlessly began thumbing through the pages.

Sanders: Intro to Ballroom.

Couldn’t believe it.

And just like it did decades before, it sparked an idea.

I knew on the spot that there was one thing I now had to do before closing another chapter in my life.

But it didn’t feel right to ask Karry for an encore. It simply wasn’t a practical idea in the present circumstance, given schedules, given everything else she juggles in the unrelenting, herculean effort to keep the machinery of our existence functioning.

But …

… I had a daughter.

And, like my father before me, a responsibility — to ensure my child’s education included the finer points of the foxtrot, the cha-cha, the rhumba, the waltz, the samba and the jitterbug.

A little arm-twisting ensued (a precursor to my stepping on her toes).

But, like her mother before her, Em was a trooper.

And it was a blast.

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In no small part due to Ron and Ruthie. For the record, the intervening years had only added to their adorable-ness. They were telling versions of the very same jokes, still poking fun at the man’s sense of direction, still warning against the perils of “spaghetti arms.” And aside from Ron having a slight tremor in his right hand, and Ruthie occasionally having to pause to rest a sore knee, (though still defiantly rocking her super high heels), they remained a sight to behold in each other’s arms gliding across a cafeteria floor.

We were the youngest couple in the class (Emma, of course, by decades).

Though she’s a five-night-a-week dancer, Em found herself a bit out of her comfort zone. When it comes to her dancing, she’s used to being in control. Letting me lead took a little getting used to. Nonetheless, she was very patient with me.

However, I was surprised at how much I remembered, with a little refresher.

Her skill and my recall made us pretty quick studies, not to mention the darlings of the class.

The only slightly oogie part was the one session where Ron and Ruthie made us switch partners, and Em found herself coupled with a 50-year-old dude, an exchange that could not end quickly enough for her.

Aside from that … by the end of the class, we found ourselves fluent in Foxtrot, and cutting a reasonably mean jitterbug (our favorite).

And I’m proud to say, when it comes time for her wedding reception, my little girl will be able to educate her newlywed husband on the fundamentals of the polka.

The experience was the perfect reminder, with the perfect company, at the perfect moment, that loved ones who leave us never (ever) leave us. And that what they’ve planted in us are seeds for us to plant in others.

And so the best lives on.

The Great American Songbook.

Fathers and sons.

Wives and daughters.

And a chapter I now plan to keep open, and adding to, for years to come.

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The Road Ahead

The Miles Between

Where the 16-year-old sees decay, I see … character.

And that’s just one of the dashboard instruments presently measuring the miles between us.

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Exhibit A: my one working speaker. Back seat, driver’s side. Omits the right channel from the mix of every song. To me, this is feature, not flaw, as it delivers fresh, unconventional listens to even the dustiest, old songs spun by the saints-cum-DJ’s of WJPA, our national treasure of a local radio station. Oh, and if I hit a pothole just right, sometimes it jogs the wiring to temporarily give me back my front speakers.

And when you know something’s not gonna last, you appreciate it a whole lot more.

Then, there’s (Science) Exhibit B: my backseat bug collection. I’m irrationally proud that such a diverse mix of insects have chosen my rear window as their final resting place; their quest for either warmth or escape ending, sadly, if exquisitely, in greenhouse-effect irradiation, but with a pretty kickass view. In a purely coincidental symmetry, a pair of perfectly preserved 17-year locusts serve as bookends, framing an inspired collection that also includes spiders, flies, bees, a stinkbug, and a motley crew of as-yet-unidentifieds. As impressive as the current exhibit is, it pales in comparison to its predecessor, which was lovingly curated over a decade, until my disgusted family could take it no more and, while I was out of town, wiped away 10 years of, um, pure science with one long suck from a shop vac … under the guise of “surprising me” by thoughtfully cleaning my car inside and out. Still pissed about that one.

But, my capacity for, um, character is not without its limits. After enduring three consecutive sweaty, global-warming-induced southwestern PA summers with a busted air conditioner, I finally broke down last fall and fished one off the internet for my mechanic to install, realizing that my strategy of bringing Ziplocs full of ice cubes to work to nurse me through the ride home was kinda’ weird, and TOTALLY not conducive to carpooling. But let me tell you, when I pulled into traffic for the first time with every vent trained on me and the knobs wide open, feeling that frosty Freon breath smack me in the face for the first time in years, you better believe, I found my ass some WJPA, cranked my single speaker up to 11 and rattled THE SH*T out of my rear-window bug collection.

But, the 16-year-old? He’s got plans. A vision.

New sound system.

New wheels.

But what he doesn’t have at present is a clue (i.e. a funding strategy for said vision).

Which buys me a little more time.

When you know something’s not gonna last, you appreciate it a whole lot more.

197,013 miles…

… and counting.

We’ve been through a lot together. Rear-ended twice at stop lights (oddly, both times I was on the phone talking to the same person in our Chicago office), hit by a loping deer, crunched by a Cub Scout parent leaving a pack meeting, and, most recently, ‘kissed’ by a charming British woman in a rented RV, who crumpled my driver’s side while I was inside my favorite coffee shop and she was overestimating her parking abilities.

As a result of the resulting cosmetic surgeries over the years by the good folks at Budd Baer Collision, she doesn’t look all that bad despite having plowed through her13th Pennsylvania winter. Makes me think of all the crap Mom used to give Dad for his wrinkle-free face into his 80s, which was the sole product of the countless skin cancer procedures he’d endured.

Truthfully, what upset me most about my recent run-in with the rented RV is that the parking-challenged British lady didn’t aim a little south, as the old girl could use a facelift near the rear door and fender on the driver’s side, where rust is starting to get the upper hand.

I’ve nursed her through a few invasive surgeries as well. New exhaust around 100,000. Replaced the head gasket at 150,000 miles. New struts just last week.

But of all the miles, the ones I remain most grateful for are the 6,000 I inherited when I bought it sorta, but not really new in 2004. It was part of the dealership’s loaner program, but they still gave me the original warranty despite the miles already on it.

It allowed me to rationalize the purchase in my head as a used car, which was and remains kind of a big deal to me.

Used is all I can remember us ever owning growing up.

After our family’s flames of passion for Ford Pintos finally died down1, we made more than due with run-til-they-die old reliables like our 1980 Mercury Monarch (the tank I learned to drive on), followed by a 1988 Ford Taurus that Dad somehow managed to coax into the next millennium. We drove what Dad could afford, and were grateful to get where we wanted to go. The concept of vehicle as status symbol was relegated to my lovingly curated (and epic) Hot Wheels and Matchbox collection.2

So cars have always been practical conveyances between A and B to me. But that’s never kept me from developing an emotional (read: irrational) attachment to them.

I remember the day when the old Monarch died of natural causes outside our house. I went outside to pay my final respects. Sat in the driver’s seat one last time. Turned the ignition. Just an empty soft click. But rather than pulling the key out, I twisted it halfway back and tried the knob on the old AM radio3 to hear what, if anything, The Universe might have to say to me.

It did not disappoint.

Through the sweet crackle of static came the opening strains of the Beach Boys, “Don’t Worry, Baby.”

Good thing I’m not a sentimental dude.

Because I would’ve openly wept, rather than, um, just misted up.

1Laurie’s brown hatchback, Missy’s blue version of the same that sported an unironic racing stripe, and the 1974 brown station wagon we literally rocked with an aftermarket 8-track tape player that is responsible for more of my musical education than I care to admit.
2Which my middle-aged self may or may not steal the occasional glance at.
3 Whose pre-set buttons I had lovingly curated: 3WS (oldies), WJAS (big band), KDKA (Pirates in the summertime), WMBS (the Uniontown station you can always count on to this day for true, indescribably epic, local color).

Unrelated-but-related, I remember The Universe speaking clearly to me once before through the Monarch’s AM radio. It was the day of my senior prom, after I picked up my rented tux from Ptak’s. I remember sitting at the light at Five Corners in downtown Uniontown, when I turned the knob to hear the opening strains of “Everybody Plays The Fool.”

Though it’s a small sample size, I’ve found The Universe to be pretty consoling when speaking through AM radio.

I carried on my parents’ legacy of buying what I could afford, when I procured my first car, a low-mileage used 1991 red Mercury Tracer station wagon, which I chose primarily to haul my drums to gigs. I remember test driving it to my house to make sure all my cases would fit before I signed the papers.

The Tracer was part of my, um, wedding dowry, when Karry and I got hitched in ’96.

By the time I got rid of her, pretty much everything was either falling off or had stopped working.4 I remember taking a measure of solace from the fact that every other Mercury Tracer I’d see on the road was visibly disintegrating in the same fashion mine was (faded door handles, bare metal around the windows where the rubber molding had fallen off, hub caps missing like teeth). I felt part of a fraternity …. of people-who-wished-they-could-afford-tinted-windows-so-no-one-would-see-them-driving-a-piece-of-sh*t-Mercury.

My people.

Which made my next purchase absolutely delightful … an even lower-mileage used 1994 red Mercury Tracer station wagon. Everything that was failing on my old car was in fine fettle on the new one. I’m pretty confident that no one in the history of ever was more giddy about purchasing a second used Mercury Tracer than this guy. I remember inviting Karry’s mother over to see my new car, which looked exactly like my old car.

My brother would be laughing right now because when I was growing up, I insisted on having two of everything so I could keep one in reserve. I think I’ve just always wanted the things I loved to last forever.

4 The car, I mean … not Karry.

Big Red #2 lasted until January of 2005, when it earned me a whopping $700 on trade-in for the 2004 Subaru Legacy and its 6,000 miles, which secretly allowed me to honor Mom and Dad’s legacy of buying used cars. Knowing how hard Dad worked, logging 35+years with Sherwin Williams, I’m not sure I considered myself worthy of a new car in my mid-30’s. It’s weird to write that, but it’s true. Maybe a better way to put it is, if a used car was good enough for my Dad, then it was just fine for me, too.

I don’t expect Peter to feel the same way I do on the subject, but I’m also not giving him the choice, either.

He’s inheriting my Legacy, figuratively and literally.

Spoiler Alert

 

FullSizeRender-3On an otherwise forgettable Sunday evening during Steeler season this past winter, Karry looked at the burning clock and realized that our still-daunting to do list was not going to allow for any type of meal prep, so she gave Peter and me a green light to grab a bite out. I let him pick the place on one condition: that he refrain from plugging his ears with his headphones in the car, which is (a.) among my biggest pet peeves and (b.) pure survival instinct on his part, shielding him from my single-speaker oldie’s soundtrack … that I may or may not also chronically sing along to. But, respecting my leverage in the negotiation, he abided, and we hopped in the old Subaru, setting Max and Erma’s as our destination. As a courtesy to him, I resisted the urge to turn on the radio. We just chatted … about the Steelers, about basketball. Just stuff. And as we drove, and out of nowhere, it hit me. That, in a few months, this … me coaxing him into an impromptu boys bite to eat, and my being instrumental in his decision, as his sole means of escape slash transport … would cease to be a thing. This 16-years-in-the-making ritual would essentially go poof in the passing of a test, and the handing over of keys.

I read an article a few years ago that has always stuck with me. The author wrote that we’re seldom aware when we’re doing a familiar something for the last time. The last time a mother rocks her baby to sleep in her arms. The last time a father and son pass baseball. The last time a family gets together to celebrate a birthday.

The last time a Dad coaxes a son into an impromptu, Sunday-night, hop-in-the-Subaru, you-pick-the-place-bite-to-eat.

And before I knew it on that nondescript Sunday evening, I found myself sitting at a stop light with tears welling in my eyes … grateful for the cover of darkness and reaching, in desperation, for the radio dial.

We ordered cheeseburgers (he went bacon). Loaded fries. Don’t-tell-Mom refills on root beer. Ice cream. Stole glances at the Sunday night NFL game. Cowboys, I think. The conversation was easy, like it always is when we’re out, just the two of us.

And by the time we found ourselves walking our full bellies across the parking lot to get back in the old Subaru — he in the passenger side, me in the driver’s side — this otherwise forgettable Sunday evening had suddenly became unforgettable.

Because when you know something’s not gonna last, you appreciate it a whole lot more.

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