Monday, May 30, 2011

Korean war veteran

Looking around veteran memorial in Wichita

Veterans Memorial Park -- Wichita, Ks

One of several memorial plaques in Wichita's Veterans Memorial Park

Dignified men

A few weekends ago, I was walking with my kids through Veterans Memorial Park along the east bank of the Arkansas River in downtown Wichita. An old man in a wheelchair was looking at the names on the U.S. Marines Memorial Wall.

“So you’re a veteran?” I said.

“Yeah, are you,” he replied.

“No,” I said. “My dad was in the service.”

Then, noting his cap, with the words, “Korean War Veteran” on front, I told him my wife’s grandfather also fought in Korea.

“That makes me feel old,” he said.
I could have talked with the old man for hours, finding out about his life, his service, but I didn’t want to take up his time. So I left, saying, “Pleasure to meet you, Sir.”

Next, we looked at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

A lean, fit-looking man riding a bicycle stopped at the wall, said he was 62-years-old. He pointed out a name on the wall and said, “He was my best friend.” They had been pals since the seventh-grade, rode bikes together, played sports together.

The man on the bicycle said he dropped out of school at 17 and enlisted in the marine corp. He was in the jungles of Vietnam, involved in combat before his friend went there. After a month in Vietnam, he suffered some injury to his left foot and was sent back home. Around a year later, his friend was killed at age 19.

“It’s sad he didn’t get to live out of his life,” I said.

“Yeah,” the man said, his only response. The man had a calm, reserved disposition. He had an intelligent, successful air about him, leading me to surmise that he had gone back and finished his education after being in the service.

“Have a good day,” he told us and rode off.

There are veteran memorials in cities and small towns all over America. I wonder how many non-service people take time to look at them.

I also wonder about all the World War II veterans I interviewed for various stories, while working as a newspaper reporter in the ‘90s. It was awesome. I talked to men who had been involved in bombing raids over the oil fields of Ploesti, Romania, crippling the Nazi war machine.

On two occasions I sat down with old men who had made up Underwater Demolition Teams (frogmen) – the precursor to the Navy Seals. Their job was to locate and blow up enemy obstacles, such as mines and cables, clearing access for the U.S. Navy to get through the waters and land on beaches in the Pacific.

These old guys, Depression-era kids from farms and cities across the country, were articulate and so knowledgeable about the geography and culture of the areas where they had been. Talking to them was like being in a college classroom.

How many of them are still alive?

I met an elderly man in church yesterday. He was thin, wearing a hearing aid, standing with his daughter and making a point to mention that she had her doctorate and retained her maiden name after marrying. She works in a VA hospital in upper Michigan. The old man said he was fortunate, not to have been in combat, while in the Pacific.

It was an honor, getting to talk to him.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Blue in Green by. Miles Davis

Heard this morning on Writers Almanac with Garrison Keillor that today would be Miles Davis' 85th birthday. Cool.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Your Own Personal Oprah

I was idiotically cruising the idiot box (internet) when I learned Oprah taped her last show, and I guess it airs this week – or in September. Whatever, I don’t know. I care as much about Oprah’s last show as I did, the Royal wedding and whether or not I’d get swept up in the rapture.

Queen Oprah thinks her last show is on a par with the Second Coming, I’m sure. Isn’t her image more recognized than those of Elvis, Jesus Christ and Mickey Mouse? You know she’s Do-Gooder of the Ages--Spiritual Guru-Miracle Suit-Mondani handbag-Maya Angelou messiah -- New Agey -- jesus with a vagina-angel mama.

Oprah’s righteousness knows no bounds. She’s an original savior, who unlike Jesus or Joan of Arc, could never go out endowed in pain. How antithetical to the Church of Oprah tenet of entitlement to the greatest life ever and if you do not cross over to this personal enchantment, you are lacking, within yourself, the positive vibrations needed to attract those secret gifts of old from the universe.

This is not to say the queen of all that is media has not had her cross to bear in life. I’ve heard her story. We all have – Oprah born to an unwed teen mom living in abject poverty and she did your drug – was molested – snorted coke – was addicted to the married man she was sleeping with -- who pulled herself up by the bootstraps to become a media empire unto herself and the self-proclaimed doyen of all that is known about handbags, make-up, breast-lifting bras, the inner child, cosmic healing, literature and spirituality. As I’m sure you know she’s the greatest TV faith healer since Oral Roberts.

Queen Oprah’s journey through the media sphere has grown exponentially since the ‘80s when she was this young upstart hosting shows with such thought-provoking themes as “Housewife Prostitutes,” “Satan Worshipers” and “Man Stealing Relatives.” Back then, I just knew her as this woman with a chick show that my mom watched. She gained and lost a lot of weight and cried about her family and sexual abuse. That’s about all I knew.

I paid more attention to Oprah in the '90s when Texas cattleman sued her for saying bad things about beef. Cattlemen may have lost a lot of money due to her remarks, but sorry. Freedom of speech has its price. Neo-nazis, the Taliban, Religious Right – all of them have First Amendment rights that must be respected. So I was happy when Oprah prevailed against the lawsuit and said, “Free speech not only lives, it rocks.”

Employees of Empress Oprah do not have this right because they have to sign confidentiality agreements that are binding unto the grave. It’s all a square deal. Our constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech exists in full force until a legal procedure is enacted in which an establishmentarian billionaire mogul with a team of high-priced celebrity lawyers coerces the underlings to sign a form, abdicating their civil liberties.

In the years since then, Oprah has…not changed, but evolved. Her shows have taken a more quality-of-life dimension, encompassing lifestyle themes of fitness, nutrition, the best shoes to wear and how our poop should be properly colored, s-shaped and eliminated into the water with a single plop. She has: allowed people to live out their wildest, most materialistic dreams as she’s given away cars donated by General Motors, explored Wynona Judd’s voyage of self-discovery and how to prevent leakage when sneezing or laughing.

She has warned audiences about the dangers of childhood immunizations. This controversy gained traction after a study was published in a medical journal in 1998. The medical community has since attacked the credibility of that study and affirmed that immunizations are safe. But who needs medical authorities? Oprah has her own experts – Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy and Suzanne Somers (Crissy from “Three’s Company.”)

Obstetrician/gynecologist Christiane Northrup, is another of Oprah’s pals, sounding the alarm on vaccine evils. Dr. Northrup’s credentials are impressive -- Dartmouth Medical School alum, professor and best-selling author. Also, she uses tarot cards, astrological charts and advises women to increase their “energy flows” by doing qigong in their vaginas. Or as Oprah would call them, va-jay-jays.

Medium John Edwards is also in the Queen of Media’s inner circle. He’s an expert on talking to dead people. Bereaved paying customers rely on Edwards to relay the messages they don’t hear from their loved ones. You see, spirits communicate by way of a “vibrational” language and most living people can’t speak in the “low frequencies” of the dead. Naturally. Any scholar in the reputable science of the paranormal knows that.

Not everyone is as spiritually in tune as the Reigning Oprah and her court of advisors. Some people block positive energy with their thoughts. The magnetic law of attractions won’t favor them because they lack willful thinking. For example, the impoverished South African girls attending Saint Oprah’s Leadership Academy are poor because their families didn’t properly visualize prosperity. Jews in Hitler’s concentration camps must have been projecting majorly negative energy into the universe. That must have been the case with Elie Wiesel, whose memoir “Night” was an Oprah’s Book Club favorite. (Oprah likes to tell people what books to read.)

We should all be on Oprah’s spiritual plane. Naturally, there must be a celebratory cry-fest to mark her last show even though she’ll continue with an omnipresence to rival God. Narcissus had to be content with his mirror image in a pool of water. Oprah will continue to grace the cover of every O magazine, run her own network and a media kingdom the size of the Roman Empire.

So let’s all cry for Oprah (she loves it when people cry), but remember she’ll be back. Always. Like a recurring outbreak of genital warts, she’ll be back.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Robert Johnson - Me and the Devil Blues

The Devil and Mr. Johnson

If I were in hell right now, catching a live, breathin’ Robert Johnson flesh out the devil’s music, my mortal soul would be aflame with the spirit as a primordial drive rocked my body into rhythmic sensations, most real and Biblical.

One hundred years ago, Robert Johnson, “King of the Delta Blues singers” was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi on May 11, 1911, far as we know. The details of his life -- and death -- are muddy.

If I owned a Robert Johnson 78 rpm disc from the ‘30s, that’s the object I’d reach for if my house were on fire. There are collectors who own such treasures and I am covetous. I just don’t have $5,000 lying around that I can plunk down for an original wax pressing of “Terraplane Blues.” I’ll be happy to listen to the recently released CD – “Robert Johnson: A Centennial Collection,” a re-issue of the 49 songs Johnson is known to have recorded in his short life.

Delta blues thrived throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. A slew of artists were recorded for posterity – Bukka White, Skip James, Blind Blake, Tommy Johnson (no relation), Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willy Brown, Son House… Robert Johnson’s recordings, made in 1936 and ’37 were the last hurrah for this era, but his music was delta blues at its pinnacle. He took it places it had never been to before.

Johnson incorporated a percussive sound, boogie-woogie bass line, ragtime, masterful “bottlenecking” techniques and drastic changes in pitch. Keith Richards has described his technique as almost “Bach-like,” in the way it sounded like more than one person playing. His lyrics were simple, poetic narratives of forlorn love, hard times and drifting. In songs like “Crossroad Blues,” his voice was low down and in “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” it reached a jangling falsetto.

Johnson was said to be a mediocre guitarist when left Robinson, Miss., in around 1930, only to return around a year later with his uncanny talent. The myth, of course, is that he traded his soul for his talent. Supposedly, he went to the crossroads – the intersection of highways 61 and 49 outside Clarksville, Miss. and made a pact with the devil.

The “deal with the devil” story-line has precedence, stretching at least as far back as Medieval times. German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used this theme for his play, “Faust,” in the 18th century, and the idea spread to America with Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” and Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Italian violinist, Niccolo’ Paganini – for only one example -- was rumored to have sold his soul to Satan.

There is a tendency, I guess, to explain away dazzling talent by attributing it to witchcraft and the diabolical. Maybe that seems more plausible than the possibility that someone worked his ass off.

The story of Robert Johnson’s deal with the prince of darkness was given legs by Son House, and Johnson, himself. Here’s what I think: Tommy Johnson (one of Robert Johnson’s mentors) was telling that story about himself back in the ‘20s. Robert Johnson just stole (or borrowed) that tale for himself and used it for his own PR.

He was ambitious and out to carve his niche. The few recordings he made showed he was serious. I think Johnson was a savvy artist who played on the devil theme with songs like “Preachin’ the Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” and “Me and the Devil Blues.” The “devil” in these songs, I believe, was a metaphor for a white-dominated system bent on holding the black man down – economically, socially, politically, psychologically and spiritually. Hell was the life he had to live on earth. The impending doom he sang about represented what might happen to a black man found on the street after dark. Lynch mobs were perfectly legal back then.

His early death at age 27 didn’t come about through a Faustian pact. It happened because he had a sweet tooth for women and booze, and one night he made love to the wrong woman and when her husband offered him an open bottle of whiskey, he foolishly accepted it. Unfortunately, the drink was laced with poison and he died three days later. (He died on Aug. 16, 1938 – exactly 39 years prior to the date when Elvis Presley would die in his Graceland bathroom.) If Johnson hadn’t died young, that story might not have caught on.

As it happened, the folk revival of the 1960s brought many of Johnson’s contemporaries out of obscurity, and while they finally received the acclaim due to them, Johnson’s fame was posthumous. If only Johnson had lived another 30 years…he could have played an electric guitar and jammed with Hendrix. It would have been natural. “Me and the Devil Blues” sounds just as haunting as “Voodoo Chile.”

No, Johnson’s not in some Dante-like inferno. Nor is he on a cloud, playing lily-white church pop on a harp. I think his body lies mouldering in a pauper’s grave. (His remains are disputed to be at three different locations.) He’s at rest, awaiting the words, “Robert Johnson, rise up” and the kingdom come.

Those old 78’s are obscure, nearly impossible to find, but Robert Johnson and his joy-giving music belongs to all of us. He’s in our DNA – the waters that feed the Mississippi River, the wind that blows along U.S. 61 – our American mythology.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Mom" -- High school grad pic w/ her grandpa (1973)

The Graduate

Mother-in-Law takes center stage

It’s May, the pinnacle of spring, a time of renewal and youthful vigor. Traditionally, it’s a month for weddings and graduation – milestones symbolic of life moving forward.

Today I am attending one of those graduations. I’ll be watching a family member walk across the stage, diploma in hand as she enters a new phase of her life. That person: my mother-in-law, Terri Colby, age 56.

“Mom” will receive her associate’s degree in (gasp) math from Butler Community College, a school she first attended nearly 40 years ago. When she recently re-enrolled after a long hiatus, her daughter -- my wife, Liana – asked her if she would take the walk when she graduated.

“Heck yeah,” she answered.

The time has come today and her family will be there to cheer her on. Afterwards, we’ll all gather at the clubhouse in the retirement village where she and her husband, Rick, live and celebrate “Mom’s” accomplishment. It will be a change of pace for someone unaccustomed to being in the spotlight.

There are a lot of performers in our family –show boaters, muzzle loaders and carnival barkers who relish in center stage. “Mom” is the wallflower who sits quietly in the background, smiling and giggling as others command attention. I think we need loud personalities to bring vividness to our world, but we also need mild, moderate people like “Mom” to give balance.

She’s not a drama queen, not the type to stir controversy. This good-humored woman is the stalwart of our family, the linchpin from which all paths lead to and fro – a role that her mother, who passed away a few years ago, used to fill. When others in the family get carried away by their emotions and feel out to roll heads, “Mom” is the quiet, sensible one who restores calm and makes peace. When others find fault with somebody, she’s the one who can find the good in that person.

Recently, I was surprised to learn that this quiet, reserved person used to get in trouble for talking too much, while attending Dodge Elementary School (her favorite school ever) in Wichita. Her first-grade teacher often had to tell young Terri to place her name in the chatter box.

In the early ‘70s when her family moved to Augusta, “Mom” was singled out by her teachers for her prodigious talent for mathematics. Parents would call the high school looking for someone to tutor their children in math and teachers would direct them to Terri Dee Livesay (pronounced Lev-a-see). She started out as a volunteer tutor and soon, people were paying for her services.

College was never emphasized in her family. Getting good grades was just something she did because she was a good, dutiful kid who inherited her mother’s mild temperament. However, as an 18-year-old student, fresh out of high school in the fall of 1973, she enrolled at the school, then known as Butler County Community College.

Life took her on other paths. She married, had kids, divorced, re-married. I used to think she made a mistake, not finishing her degree. “She could be an accountant by now, making great money and living in a nice, big house,” I thought. I didn’t know she had simply put her plans on hold.

She considered being a mother to be her main job. “Mom” was the type of person to take a job as a lunch lady at her kids’ elementary school so she would be closer to them during the day. Later, when she became unhappy with her youngest son’s school, she pulled him out and started homeschooling him.

But that kid is on his own now. That prompted “Mom” to go back and finish the few remaining hours she needed to get her degree.

“My youngest left the nest,” she said. “The time was right.”

I figured after getting her AA degree, “Mom” might call it a day, but I’ve heard she intends to go on with school. Not sure what her plans are, but I think she has designs on Fort Hays State University where she can take many of her classes on-line. Whatever decision she makes, it will be the right one.

“Mom” has always been the one supporting her family in their endeavors. She has attended pre-school, elementary, middle, high school and college graduations. She’s been to weddings, baby showers and kid’s birthday parties for family members. With her children and their spouses still aspiring toward new things and her grandchildren growing rapidly, Mom will again be everybody else’s cheerleader.

But today is all about her.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day

The day is on the wane as I finally have time to sit and write this so if I want to get something in marking Mother’s Day, I need to get rock n’ rollin’ on this thing. Victoria – that was her given name at birth. She goes by Vickie.
Anyhow, as a kid I had no idea how scary and anxiety-laden life must have been for her after she wound up divorced and living on Wal-Mart wages as the single mother of three kids. Hell, I only had two kids and that was enough for me. A month after my daughter was born, I was laid out in an urologist’s office having my swimmers cut off at the pass.
I’m not sure if two kids squabbling reaches lord of the flies level, but I assure you – get three kids together and you’re only a hair’s-breadth away from belzebubbian rabble and a dead pig’s head on a stick. Anyhow, my mom had to put out fires constantly as she lived with that crap every day.
I know I could be frustrating to Mom. Call it air-headed, absent-minded, ADHD, head-in-the-clouds, whatever – but Mom would give me a simple task to perform, say, cleaning the kitchen counter and I’d get distracted and come just short of setting the living room on fire. “Jeff, you could screw up a wet dream,” she’d tell me.
Of course Mom could be encouraging. Fearing I was destined to play the fool all my life, I once asked her, “Mom, is there anything I’m good at?”
“Yes,” she said. “Bullshitting. You can bullshit like nobody I’ve ever seen.”
So I set out for a career in print journalism. After all, news writing is just B.S. with window dressing. So I was in college and had to take highfalutin classes like Historical & Philosphical Issues in Communication. I went by Mom’s house, had her look at my notes and quiz me for a test the next day.
“Hegel didn’t believe in God in the traditional sense,” I said, referring to the 19th century German philosopher.
"I bet he’s in hell,” she said.
“Well Mom, Hegel wasn’t an atheist. He just had an abstract idea of God as the ultimate reality. You have one viewpoint, countered by an antithesis and from there, the ideas merge into the synthesis and this keeps going on until you come to the ultimate idea, which is God. Marx was influenced by Hegel, but he didn’t think the ultimate idea was God. He thought it was communism.”
Nasty look from Mom.
We’d been going on with her questions and my long-winded answers about Locke, Rosseau, Hobbes, Hegel, Marx...for around two hours when I finally said, “I lied, Mom. The test isn’t tomorrow, it was today. I just wanted to show you how smart I am.”
She wasn’t amused. She doesn’t go for some of the things that make me laugh. My mother doesn’t like shows like South Park or The Simpsons. She once saw me watching this One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest-like skit on Saturday Night Live and thought it terrible that they would make fun of the mentally ill.
So you can understand my dilemma when I was dying to tell her this joke. It’s not like she was without a sense of humor, but so many things are taboo and off-limits. Should I chance it? I decided to go for it.
“Hey Mom," I said, "Did you hear that Ronald McDonald got arrested for child molesting? He tried to stick his big mac in a small fry.”
To my relief, and surprise, she burst out laughing. Then she called four or five of her friends and repeated the joke.
My mother was born with a phone attached to her ear. She also knows everyone in town and who they’re sleeping with. When gossiping, her voice takes on this hushed conspiratorial tone as she lets you in, saying, “Now don’t repeat this to anybody.” Never mind that she’s already told about five other people.
I always loved to call Mom and do my mediocre impersonations of celebrities. She was always cool with that except for that day in 1996 when the words, “…we the jury find Orenthal James Simpson not guilty” were spoken over televisions across the land. She picked up the phone – I’d just gotten home from work at the AC Traveler – and I said, “Vickie, this is O.J. Simpson.” Her response was a long diatribe of eight and ten-letter words.
“Mom, are you mad?” I asked.
“Hell yes, I ‘m mad. You don’t call me, saying you’re O.J. Simpson. They oughta’ cut off his nuts.”
Mom was nicer and played along when I would call, speaking in a high-pitched voice, pretending to be Michael Jackson. (One night, my wife, Liana, and I saw Michael Scott do this to Ryan on an episode of The Office. Liana turned to me and said, “See what kind of people do that stuff.") I retired the act when MJ died. No more jokes about “Jesus juice” and loving all little children. It didn’t seem right.
One death that did seem appropriate to joke about was Katherine Hepburn’s. I call Mom, imitating Hepburn’s shaky voice as she walks around Heaven. Then I did another voice -- Jimmy Stewart’s.
“Oh hi Katie, it’s been a long time. What’s that? Well gosh-- uh what's that –uh—you say you wanna’ have sex?”
Then I went into these long, warbled noises with intermittent sounds of “Oh Katie” and “Oh Jimmy.” (It’s much funnier when you hear it.) I then finished the act with the sounds of two Hollywood icons finishing and Mom at the other end of the phone, laughing her ass off.
“Well, I gotta’ say, Jeff, this is one of your better ones,” she told me.
I think she laughs more these days than ever. Ever notice how as your parents start acting more and more like old people, they also appear more mellow than you remember them as a kid?
It was a couple of years ago. My son, Sam, was 6 or 7 and Mom was talking so kind and gently to him, sounding so wise.
“You only have one life to live so make it a good one,” she said as he sat there quietly, looking like such a serious little man in his glasses. “You have one body so you want to take care of it. You want to eat right and brush your teeth, floss and use mouthwash.”
“Well Mom, I don’t think too many kids go for the taste of Listerine,” I said. “Maybe if they’re little alcoholics.”
“There’s children’s mouthwash,” she said as Sam nodded attentively. Then she stopped.
“You just got a look on your face that reminded me of your daddy when he was a little boy,” she told Sam. “Thank you for bringing that memory back for me.”
Dammit! There are so many things I would like to take back. Mean things I’ve said. So many times I’ve been selfish, intransigent, lacking in empathy. I wish I’d been a better kid, more appreciative. Perhaps every kid says this with regard to their parents. My kids will probably say it about me. Knowing that I would be entirely forgiving of them assuages some of my guilt as I’m sure Mom feels the same toward me.
Parents deserve a break after raising their kids. Now it’s my turn to do good things. When I have coffee and sweets with Mom at the Bake Shop or take her to the new boutique downtown (because women like that junk) it’s pretty cool. It’s a blast, taking time out with her and I’m never sorry I did it.

The American Way of Dying

                                              "Vehicle" -- The Ides of March My Nissan sitting in the parking lot of Fairview...