Monthly Archives: November 2012

Before It Was Cool 005

1963 – The Beginning of the End of Innocence

1963 sucked. Plain and simple. I was a Cub Scout and a back-bench altar boy – trying hard to do what was “right”. The altar boy thing busted first. I enjoyed learning Latin, but I had an annoying habit of asking the priests “why?”.

They would set forth the dogma and I would ask “why?”. They would answer “because God said so” and I would respond “Why did God say so?”. They responded “because he did” and I replied “because … why?” They washed me out and I wasn’t an altar-boy anymore, but I treasure the fact that I learned some Latin in the process.

I was still a Cub Scout, even if I wasn’t an altar-boy anymore. The scoutmasters taught us to be patriotic young men – supportive of our government and social institutions. We had a brilliant president named John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and the weirdness of McCarthyism was essentially over (so we thought) due in great part to the efforts of Edward R. Murrow.

On November 21 of 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy flew into Houston Hobby airport for a series of speaking engagements in Texas. My Cub Scout pack was selected as part of the receiving line / honor guard that lined the walkway from the tarmac into the terminal. I stood at strict attention and salute in my itchy starched uniform as the President walked past us. I was proud to be a footnote in that momentary brush with history .

President Kennedy delivered a speech in Houston and flew the next day to Dallas. The Houston Chamber of Commerce gave the president a snazzy Stetson cowboy hat that he didn’t know what to do with. Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson looked quite natural in his cowboy hat. We sat glued to the TV watching the historic events unfold. I don’t need to go into detail about what happened on November 22, 1963. Those details are well-known. But I watched as the President was assassinated in Dallas. I watched as his assassin was assassinated. I watched and wondered why I had stood patriotically at salute in itchy trousers for a couple of hours only to witness a seditious murder as the outcome.

November 24, 1963, was my eleventh birthday. We had planned a backyard cookout and party – but people started cancelling wholesale. It did not seem to be appropriate to party as the President of the United States was lying in state. We cancelled the birthday party.

On November 25, 1963, I celebrated the first day of my eleventh year by watching the funeral of the President of the United States. Suddenly being a patriotic Cub Scout didn’t matter anymore. Why do what’s right if murder is the answer?

1963 was also the beginning of what I call “The Butch Wax Wars”. As noted before, rheumatic fever had left scar craters on my scalp where hair did not grow. Short-cropped butch haircuts made the craters stand out and kids at school seemed to enjoy pointing them out. I was weary of being ridiculed and wanted my hair long enough to cover the craters. Dad took me to the barber shop for a butch-chop and I said “no.” It was an ugly scene (the first of many). I stomped my 11-year-old white ass out of the barber shop and started making my way along Bissonett Boulevard toward somewhere (anywhere) else. Cops were called, Kirby was subdued and captured – but the haircut didn’t happen.

It sounds like a silly thing, but it would become a big deal. Unsupported Independence. A patriotic Cub Scout seeking some support for his own independence. My dark brown hair grew out to a “reasonable length” and the scar craters covered over, but damage was done. I wasn’t a “good kid” anymore. I was a rebellious longhair who played drums and typed on the typewriter.

About the best thing that happened in 1963 was that my folks got me a transistor radio. I could self-exile into my room and listen to the world. Late at night I could listen to Russ Knight, the “Weird Beard”, on KILT-AM until midnight when Wolfman Jack and “The X” came blasting out of Mexico and blew every other AM station off the air. Chuck Dunaway moved onto our block that year. He was cool – a Disk Jockey at KILT and his son John and I became fast friends. Chuck Dunaway was SO cool that he eventually wrote the liner notes for the first LP that some musician friends of mine recorded. You can read those liner notes if you find a copy of the first album by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.

Mom started ragging on me that I should go outside and play instead of holing up in my room listening to the radio and banging on my drums or sitting at the card table tapping on the typewriter. I didn’t quite get that. I was perfectly content listening to the radio, playing my drums and tapping on the typewriter. I finally figured out that if I went out to play and got into trouble I would be punished by being banished to my room where I could listen to the radio and play my drums. Maybe by some small acts of grace and forgiveness, Mom would let out to the living room where I could tap on the typewriter. So I got into trouble a lot. Worked for me.

The Beatles started hitting big in 1963 – as did another British band called the Rolling Stones. I was more a fan of the Stones, but the Beatles were o.k. I really preferred Jerry Lee Lewis and a lot of the older American jazz players, but the Beatles and the Stones were what was on the radio. I would listen to the radio and incorporate jazz licks on my drums into the rock ‘n roll. It was fun.

I don’t remember much of 1964  – 1966 except that I attended one semester of Junior High School at Albert Sidney Johnston before Fondren Junior High was finished and opened. I was in band at Fondren and somehow got positioned as Captain of the Band until one fateful day. The band teacher (I don’t recall her name) had to go to the school office for some reason and left me in chare of the class. Kids being kids (even if they were band geeks) the class got a bit rowdy in the absence of the teacher. I stood at the conductor’s podium and tried to keep some order, but my efforts were to no avail. People were doing terrible things. The clarinets were playing jazz and even rock ‘n roll and the drum section was rocketing pencils into the air and sticking them in the acoustic-tile ceiling – that sort of stuff. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the situation cooled down before the teacher came back to class. She stormed back into the classroom and the clarinet section immediately did their best “we’re little angels – we play clarinet” impressions. The trumpets quit doing Doc Severinson riffs. Not much could be done to hide the plethora of pencils hanging like yellow number-two stalactites from the ceiling above the percussion section.

Teacher was ticked off bigtime. She upbraided me in front of the whole class. “How can you be so stupid as to let things get so out of hand?” she bellowed.

I tried to explain that I had tried to keep a lid on things and didn’t rightly appreciate being called stupid in front of the entire class. Teacher kept on with her tirade right out in front of God and everybody. I finally told the band teacher then and there “I quit!”, stomped off the conductor’s stand and marched out the door. I didn’t quit marching until I got home – which was a rather long march.

For some reason, Dad was home when I arrived unexpectedly. I explained the situation to him and he was visibly peeved. Understand, my Dad was usually pretty cool-headed. He didn’t usually get visibly peeved. He was sort of angry at me because things had gotten out of control in the band room, but he was actively pissed at Mrs. What’s-Her-Name for calling me “stupid” in front of the whole class. Maybe I was a lot of things, but with a tested and certified IQ of 160, “stupid” was not among them.

The next day, I had to show up for band class and I did. I took my seat in the percussion section with yellow swords of Damacles still hanging from the ceiling. Class started and suddenly my Dad strode through the door. He walked up to the conductor’s stand like some intellectual John Wayne, faced Mrs. What’s-Her-Name and  intoned in a presentable baritone clearly audible to the entire class; “Madame, you have got to be one of the stupidest teachers I have ever met.” (This from a man who was finishing his PhD in Education Administration at the University of Houston). “You have no right to publicly demean any child in front of an entire class. Come on, son. We’re leaving.”

Dad and I walked out of the band room straight to the principal’s office. Some big meeting (to which I was not privy) ensued between Dad and the principal. Mrs. What’s-Her-Name was called out of class to attend said emergency meeting. Net result when it was over was that I wasn’t in band anymore. I still played music. Jazz with Jack Dudney – and we started a kid-combo that practiced in our garage. One of the “angelic clarinetists” even joined the combo and wailed some pretty presentable swing.

The next year, Fondren Junior High School had a different band teacher.

I had another adversary or two at Fondren Junior High. Coach Wilson was one and Willy Bain was another. Coach Wilson was a coach (obviously) and Willy Bain was a bully. They were somewhat similar.

Coach Wilson was convinced that I should play basketball. I was a tall lanky kid with big hands and an excellent sense of co-ordination from playing drums. But I didn’t want to play basketball. I didn’t care for sports at all (still don’t) and thought Phys Ed was a waste of time in general (except for swimming and diving and running miles or 440s). I referred to the organized “stick and ball sports” as “compulsory recess”. Coach Wilson stayed on my ass all through Junior High School – trying to get me to play basketball and ragging me mercilessly because I didn’t want to. I was thrilled my last year of Junior High because I knew the next year I would be happily away from Coach Wilson at Westbury High School – until I learned that intervening summer that Coach Wilson had also been “promoted” and assigned to Westbury High School.

Willy Bain was a different story.  He was a “big ole boy” – a couple years older and sort of “slow” — and I never understood why he took a disliking to me. He would catch me in the hallways and slap me around for no apparent reason. It all came to a head one day when Willy was particularly peckish. He caught me in the hallway and literally mopped the floor with me. I didn’t do much to defend myself. Nothing much I could do. Willy was taller and older and outweighed me, so I just took my lumps. When Willy got tired of pounding on me, I stood up, dusted off and looked him square in the eyes.

“Well, Willy Bain,” I said to him. “You’re a big man, aren’t you? You just pounded shit out of a guy who didn’t even defend himself. That make you feel important?” Willy looked perplexed and stomped off while I dabbed blood off my lip (with the help of several girls).

The next day, Willy caught me in the hall again. He grabbed me up and pushed me up against some lockers. He glared into my eyes and said “I’m sorry, man. Sometimes I don’t know what my deal is.”

I stared straight back into his eyes and said “Don’t worry about it, Willy. Sometimes I don’t know what my deal is either”. Willy and I became friends after that. Whenever I had a “situation” with the jocks that needed “dealt with”, I just told Willy “I have something that I need taken care of” and the situations got taken care of. I never sicced Willy on Coach Wilson, but sometimes wish I had. By the end of High School, Willy was in prison for aggravated assault — but he always treated me right for the last few years I knew him.


Before It Was Cool 004

Typewriters, Drums, Horses and Mexico

Age-wise, I crossed my first decade in 1962. Life-wise, that was probably the year my life quit being a narrative timeline and became a scattered jumble of interconnected events.

I did lots of kid-stuff. Gathered up empty soda-pop bottles from the surrounding construction sites and made a few pennies turning them in for the deposit bounty. Rode my bike all over the surrounding area – all the way out to South Main and Airport Boulevard were the carcass of an old experimental monorail car lay gloriously decaying in a field. Floated construction flotsam in a nearby creek and bombarded it with dirt clods. Same as I did in Montezuma except the creek and the battleship-debris were both bigger and more complex. Stepped on a nail at one of the construction sites and had to get tetanus shots.

Getting back to the biggies, Dad was finishing his PhD thesis and Mom was helping type it up. They had set up a card table in the den that was always scattered with papers. I remember hearing them discuss all sorts of stuff like “Chicago Manual of Style” and “ibid” and “op cit”. Despite that early introduction, I still have trouble remembering my own ibids from the op cits. That table also supported an amazing machine – a portable Remington typewriter. When the house was quiet, I would sit in front of that amazing machine and tick out letters that then became words and eventually sentences and paragraphs. It intrigued me!

Lines and curves and dots.

Individually meaningless.

Joined together

Creating “letters”.

Letters unjumbled.

Patterned into equations.

Inscribed on stone.

Inked on paper.

Scattered as electrons.

These symbols lift us,

strengthen us,

carry us.

They make it possible for many hearts to beat as one.

What wondrous power there is

in meaningless

lines and curves and dots.

When I got to high school, I flunked typing – I was too accustomed to ticking out letters using only six fingers. I was fast and accurate, but pinkies and thumbs never factored in to my keyboard operations.

The Klier family moved onto our suburban block that year. Their son Johnny was a neighborhood buddy of mine. They were Texas transplants from somewhere like Chicago, maybe – but they grabbed on to the Texas thing bigtime. They had horses.

They kept the horses pastured and barned in a field about a mile away from the house. Johnny and I would go with his dad several evenings a week to feed and groom the horses. Weekends we would go saddle them up and ride around the pasture or even venture out onto dirt roads. I learned how to ride, tack and tuck – and why neither you nor the horse should ever be “rode hard and put away wet”.

Summer of 1962, Dad had a vacation from work and announced that we were “going to go to Mexico.” We packed into the Chevy station wagon and set out for Monterrey and Saltillo. We sweated our way through South Texas and crossed the border without memorable incidence. Somewhere along the line in Mexico, however, we got stopped at a roadblock. A bunch of armed guys in uniforms told us they were “Federales” looking for banditos in the area. They piled us out of the Chevy and searched it for bandits. A couple of dollars later (La Mordida), they let us through the roadblock and we went on to Monterrey.

The hotel where we stayed in Monterrey was very Spanish Colonial. All of the rooms were on a big square surrounding a central courtyard. Of the evenings, Mariachis played music in the courtyard. Mom and Dad put us kids to bed and went to sit in the courtyard and listen to the Mariachis. I woke up and slipped the harness once again – went wandering unnoticed into the darkness of Monterrey.

Yet again, cops were called and the Policia Municipal  gathered me up and delivered me back to the hotel. Dad and Mom were pretty frantic, which I didn’t quite understand. All I had done was take a stroll through Monterrey unescorted in the middle of the night.

The next day, we went to the Mercado. We bought a bandito-looking marionette that was pretty cool and a Donald Duck comic book that was written in Spanish. Highlight of the day was when we were strolling the plaza downtown. I was walking and reading Donald Duck and suddenly ran spang face-first into a light pole – damned near knocked myself out. All the old men in Monterrey were intrigued by sister Bonnie’s blonde hair – they kept reaching out and stroking her hair as we passed down the street. I didn’t much like that and spent much of that day in downtown Monterrey running interference between sister and the weird old guys with the blonde-hair fixation. I must have been a sight – a scrawny 10 year old kid with a black eye shooing away the weirdos who wanted to stroke my sister’s hair.

Tenth birthday back in Houston, Dad bought me a set of drums. It was a good set of Slingerlands – red pearl. Dad had played some drums when he was a kid. He spoke of a fondness for Bix Beiderbeck and a lot of rather disreputable but talented jazz players. Dad and Mom also enrolled me in proper music lessons with a well-known Houston drummer named Jack Dudney. Jack played drums with the Ed Gerlach Orchestra, a well-known Big Band /swing-jazz unit in Houston. Jack became more than a music teacher to me over time. He was more like a zen master.

Jack Dudney wasn’t really a zen master. Well — he was, but I don’t think he knew it. I took lessons from Jack for about 9 years. Well, eight years, I guess — and then I just hung out with him for an hour one afternoon per week for the last year.

He died several years ago.

I’ll never forget the first time my 10-year-old eyes saw him. He was a huge man who hulked over a full trap-set like a mountain behind crates stacked on a beach. I walked in for my first lesson and he sat me down behind a kit. He handed me two sticks the size of Lincoln logs and said “show me what ya got, kid.”

Boy! My big break!!! I was constantly beating on things in my living room and bedroom. Everybody (including my dad – who used to play some drums himself) noted that “the kid does have some rhythm.”

So I took those logs in hand, scrunched forward to get my feet on the bass and hi-hat pedals, and proceeded to smash, bash, crash and trash my way around the circle of snare, tom-toms and cymbals. I kicked back and beamed when I was done. Looked triumphantly over at Jack and heard him say “Yeah. I think we can work with that.”

Yep– that was it. “We can work with that” was his only comment on my awesome display of raw natural talent.

That was Jack’s style– understated and a bit aloof. Kind of swing-band zoot-suit hip, he was the only adult I took seriously when he said things like “Cool. I can dig that.”

First thing he did was give me a pair of my own logs. Size 2A drumsticks  — the ones you learn with– are literally the diameter of Lincoln Logs and about a foot long with blunt beaded points machined at the end.

“If yer gonna learn to do drums, kid, yer gonna learn to hold the sticks. Yer clubbin’ my drums like a caveman and I don’t want ya rippin’ my skins,” Jack told me. “If yer gonna do drums right, ya gotta learn to bounce, not bash, and ya gotta control that left hand, man.”

Like a later intro into sitting meditation, the very first thing I learned about “doin’ drums” was posture. That and how to tuck the left stick — butt cradled at the thumb and tucked tip-toward-chest under the next two fingers — “so’s ya bounce not bash.”

Next lesson (after a posture check) the zen started. He pulled out some sheets of paper and books — music paper with what the untrained eye might mistake for notes all over them.

“Difference is that drum charts don’t change tones,” Jack explained. “The position of the note on the lines tells you what drum to use, so you can’t rightly call them ‘notes.’ These sheets ain’t music. They’re what you read to make yer music. Yer gonna learn how to read the instructions, do what they say, and then learn how to not-follow them right.”

And then there were a couple years of drudgery. Instead of smashing and bashing Neanderthal and carefree on the coffee-table, I quietly tapped out proper flams, paradiddles and flamadiddles, single strokes, double strokes and crush-rolls with my Lincoln Logs on a Remo-brand practice pad so it wouldn’t trash the coffee table. I stood or sat up straight, staring at my books and charts and graduated from stultifying boredom to marches and military tempos.

I also graduated into 1A sticks — slightly smaller logs and used by many marching bands. Definitely “not cool” still. “Damn, Jack,” I’d say on occasion (he was the only adult didn’t mind my adolescent “Damns”). “When do I get to do something cool?”

“Ya wanna do cool?” he’d say. “Play this.” And then he’d set me behind a full kit, dig through a stack of records (yeah– big 33 rpm-s. It was a few years ago, okay) and drop the needle onto one. Gene Krupa or Tito Puente. Getz or Goodman or the Dorseys would blare into the room and he’d just stand there looking at me.

I’d kick and clunk and clank and thud my way through a song and he’d tell me “Yeah. I think we can work with that. If ya wanna learn the groove (what had played on the record), ya gotta do the charts.”

So we went back to the rudiments — and posture — and proper stick handling and charts. Interesting side note — to this day, I still know how to hold a stick in my left and tickle it with my fingers to get “the bounce.” Why can’t I figure out how to use chopsticks?

Eventually, like 3 years into the deal, we went to lessons on the kit instead of the practice pad or a stand-up snare. Learned how to move right and left foot independent of one another and of both hands. Learned to “dance the bounce on the skins” and trip lightly around a trap set – using 7A or my favorite 9A sticks — barely more than long pencils with nylon tips that made a cymbal sing crisp & clear and a snare drum snap like a banner in a brisk breeze.

And the charts got more complicated. Arranged with dots and circles and flags scattered across all five lines, the spaces and sometimes two staffs stacked.

I hated charts. Some yutz with a pencil telling a musician what to do. “Damn, Jack,” I’d say from time to time. “This arrangement just ain’t cool.” (Even on my way out Jack’s door for the last time as a young adult, Jack wouldn’t go for anything stronger than “Damn.” He was hip — but even Jack-hip had its personal boundaries.)

“Ya want cool?” he’d say. Then he’d dig through the records and drop the needle on the song that went with the chart. “Sight-read it.”

Ohhhhhhh mannn. Sight-read!

Drop onto a cold drum throne in front of an unknown chart and dive into playing with the band based only on what’s written on the chart. Hands, feet, head and heart all operating independently of one another trying to make one whole tempo, beat and rhythm that fits with the efforts of 50+ other musicians — who either know what they’re playing already or are grooved into the vinyl and permanent.

That’s tough.

Clank and clunk, bash and thud — slowly better but not “solid” with the orchestra. “Yeah, we can work with that. If ya wanna get the groove, ya gotta know the charts — and then figure out how to not-follow them right. Rest, man, ya forgot the rest — sometimes the silence is the sound you want. Ya gotta know the music then feel the music then be the music — and then let the music be you. Quit thinking! You’re thinking instead of being and screwing the rhythm.”

By year eight, I thought I was a pretty good drummer. I was banging around with a band doing what we called “Acid Jazz.” We could have called it “Fusion” but that name had yet to be invented for the Jazz-meets-Psychedelic music style.

Apparently Jack thought I was doing okay too. “Lessons” became hanging out, shooting the breeze, “sharing chops” and drummer duets– you-follow-me, I’ll-follow-you riffs that rocked the house and occasionally pissed off the piano teacher next door. Or we’d challenge each other to sight-reading duels or “trippin’ the skins” sight-reading solos. I knew I was really kickin’ ass when I’d look over from the traps and see Jack with his eyes closed and a big old monkey grin on his face.

Every week, I’d pay Jack for the lesson and then come back the next week to hang out, “peeve the pianoman” and trade monkey grins. Then one week became the last day.

We finished our session and Jack took up his appointment book to write my next lesson date as usual. Then he stared me in the eyes and put down his pencil. “Ya know you probably shouldn’t pay me,” Jack said. “I mean, all we’ve been doing is hanging out.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but you’re — like– my teacher, man.”

“Naw, man” Jack answered. “I’m not a teacher — just a dumb drummer. I’ve shown you everything I’ve got about music and you’ve pretty much got what I’ve got. Now you’ve gotta go out and play it yourself.”

Which I did for several years.

I haven’t played a lick on the drums in a decade or so, but I can still hold a proper left stick. Don’t know how many times or how many contexts I’ve reminded myself that “Yer gonna learn how to read the instructions, do what they say, and then learn how to not-follow them right.” Or I remember to “Quit thinking! You’re thinking instead of being and screwing the rhythm.”

And sometimes when I hear myself say “Yeah. I think we can work with that,” I break into a big old monkey grin — or silently welling tears of respect.

Before it was cool 003

Gone to Texas

In August 1960 Dad and Mom packed us all up into a used 1953 Ford and we lit out from Iowa City, Iowa, on our way to Houston, Texas — the place that would become our familial hometown.

Sister Bonnie was three years old, sister Barbie was about one-and-a-half and I was not-quite eight. I don’t much remember that thousand-mile trip, but dad says we stopped to visit a brand new little amusement park called “Silver Dollar City” and toured Marvel Cave in a little bitty town called Branson, Missouri. We snipped the corner of northwest Arkansas and rode that raggedy brown Ford through Oklahoma into Texas.

Dad had a freshly-minted Master’s Degree from the University of Iowa and was moving on to his PhD and an associate professorship at University of Houston.

I can’t report any inspirational anecdotal youthful “first impression” of Houston 1960 upon our arrival save that we were all really damned weary after a two-day road trip on two-lane highways (the Interstates along that corridor hadn’t been built yet).

We moved into an apartment on HMC Street near the University of Houston. Fitting perhaps that in contemporary location, our no-longer-extant apartment building now lies immediately across the street from the Harris County Psychiatric Center just off of South MacGregor in the Medical Center District. Mom says the apartment manager asked if we wanted an air conditioner (at additional charge) but, ever-practical and close with the dime, she told them “no”.

So we landed in Houston in August at a big square fourplex without air conditioning. The place didn’t look like much. Just a two-story brick box containing four apartments) two upstairs, two down. As you went into the main door, we lived in #1 – first floor on the left. Mom says we stayed there without air conditioning for about two days and woke up in the mornings “feeling like we were sleeping on a sponge”. First available weekend, we went to Sears and Dad bought a window air conditioner for the living room.

One thing I do recall is that in terms of shopping, downtown was where you went. Other than neighborhood grocery stores or five-and-dimes, just about every major shopping place was downtown. One of our first trips to town was a real eye opener for me. All the stores were segregated. The big Woolworth’s had a lunch counter that was chopped up by a wall. There was a common kitchen, but two-thirds of the dining space was for whites only and the other third was a bit less cared for and had a sign on the door that said “colored entrance.” I didn’t understand the concept of a colored entrance. It didn’t look much different from the other entrance – just the room was smaller  and not as well cleaned and maintained. But the room was the same color scheme as the white room

We went to the big Joske’s department store one time. Bargain basement was slightly integrated in that white folks went there and colored folk could too – but the colored folk were not allowed into the other four floors of the main store. I slipped away from mom to get a drink of water. I found two fountains side by side. There was a big snazzy one with a cooler that said “chilled water” and a smaller, simpler one marked “colored water”. Hell, I’m an eight year old kid from Iowa at the time. The idea of “colored water” was intriguing to me. I wanted to know what color the colored water was – so I went for a drink from that little room-temp spigot. Much to my dismay, the water was clear same as any other water, but a floor manager happened to spot me drinking from the wrong fountain. He snatched my up by my collar and blabbered all sorts if stuff about “who do you think you are” and hauled me through the bargain basement looking for Mom. The way he carried on, you’d have thought I had committed some atrocity like taking a shit in the middle of the fine linens department. We found Mom and the floor manager delivered both of us a lecture about “teaching this boy his place blah blah blah” that appeared to leave mom as perplexed and confused as I was.

I learned my lesson. That “colored water” thing was false advertising. It was plain old water — just not chilled. Bait and switch — a bargain basement shill.

HMC Street had a couple of intriguing aspects for a curious young lad. It was only about two blocks south from Braes Bayou – a big meandering creek that winds through Houston. And Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) owned some apartments / motel places a couple of blocks east on Ardmore Street – he hid out there for a while during his draft evasion investigations.

Can’t say I had a lot to do with Muhammad Ali. He would reappear  in my life a few years later – but that is a different story for a different time.

I was familiar with Braes Bayou. Mom used to send me out to play and tell me “but stay from the bayou”. Of course, that was interpreted as an immediate invitation to go play on the creek bank. That changed one rainy day.

A neighborhood Buddy (name unrecalled) and I went over to Braes Bayou. The creek was running fast. I went down the bank to toss a stick into the roiling water and schluuuuuup – sank my leg into mud up to the knee. Buddy grabbed me and pulled me out before I fell into the water – but the shoe on the sunken foot was gone and my pants were a mudcake up to the knee.  I had to walk home lopsided and ‘fess up.
Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John,
Went to Braes Bayou with his stockings on;
One shoe off, the other shoe on,
Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John.

My first day at school in Houston was interesting. The teacher asked me a question and I answered “yes”. I didn’t say “yeah” or “yup” or anything snotty. I clearly intoned the word “yes”. Teacher stiffened her back, glared down her nose and said “yes, what?!!”. I replied “Well, …?? Yes.”

“Don’t you be disrespectful in my class,” said Teacher. She grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and wagged me to the principal’s office muttering something about “manners” and “sir” and “ma’am” and carrying on about god knows I didn’t understand what.

The principal was pretty cool that trip. He explained to me that “This is Texas and we say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘yes, sir’ hereabouts”. I was o.k. with that – once I knew what the rules were, they were easy enough to abide. He sent me back to class with a note to give to teacher – and she was calmed a bit after reading the note, although she never did really like me for the rest of that first year in Houston schools. We sort of mutually and benevolently ignored one another.

So I went home after that first grueling day at school and Mom asked me a question. “Yes, ma’am” I replied. Mom wheeled on her heels with the same outraged look that teacher had on her face. “What is this ma’am business?”, she said. “Don’t you be sarcastic with me! A simple yes or no is all that’s required!”

Just then the phone rang – it was the principal from school. He explained to mom about my visit to his office and things cooled down. The Midwest had collided with the southwest and Kirby lost that round altogether.

My children have been raised to the point that I have heard them address one another as sir and ma’am.

Also during that first year in Houston Dad became acquainted with a brilliant black female lawyer named Barbara Jordan — yes, that Barbara Jordan – and he later became active as a supporter of her political career.

In early September of 1961, the TV and radio news in Houston was ate up with warnings about Hurricane Carla churning in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. My Midwestern family didn’t know from Shinola about hurricanes, but we stocked up on water and stuff like they said we should and sort of centralized our life into the living room of the apartment. On September 10, for the first of several times in my life, I witnessed a wondrous sight. The light of the sky turned green and then golden – a sure sign of impending hurricane.

Carla hit Houston like a force-five bitch on September 11, 1961. We all hunkered down in the living room and watched out the window as a scene unfolded that looked like a live-action of the tornado in the Wizard of Oz movie. For two days, we watched as weird miscellaneous lawn chairs. Broken 2×4 lumber and chunks of tin roofing flew through the air outside. Out back of the apartments was a long carport with concrete-block walls and a tin roof. We watched as that tin roofing became another prop in the Dorothy-goes-to-Oz scenario. We watched as the concrete-block walls collapsed and trashed several cars – not including our brand new Chevrolet station wagon, fortunately.

Sometime during the night of September 11, a huge oak tree at the side of the building tore out of the ground by the roots and smashed onto the roof of the fourplex. We and the other family on the first floor opened our front doors and the two families who lived upstairs took shelter with us on the first floor. It was probably my parents’ only experiment in communal living as folks passed through from one apartment to another on the first floor and slept on floors and couches and anywhere else that there was a dry flat space and a blanket.

On the afternoon of September 12, the wind died down and the rain slacked off – but the sky was still green and golden. Some of us kids ventured outside – intrigued but duly cautious by sparking downed power lines and on the lookout for displaced snakes. Suddenly the moms shouted “kids get in here now! Immediately!!” We were outside as the eye of the hurricane passed over and come the evening of September 12, the Oz Tornado started again – this time hurling debris in the opposite direction from the day before. The outer wall of the hurricane had hit.

One of our local TV news guys got famous for covering  Hurricane Carla live from Galveston – a fellow named Dan Rather. I would have the pleasure of meeting him several times a few years later.

After the hurricane, the HMC Commune held together for a couple of days until the roof of the building was repaired and the neighbors moved back into their own apartments upstairs. The carport got rebuilt and new cars started appearing in the parking spaces. Life returned to normal.

HMC was an interim stop. Dad and Mom were continuously house-shopping. We looked at some neat places along MacGregor and in West University, but the folks wanted something different. They wanted a new house. They bought a place in a brand new subdivision called “Westbury”. It was literally on the outskirts of town on the southwest side of Houston, and our house was the first one up in a six block section. For a while, we lived in the middle of a vacant field watching other houses being built all around us. We became suburbanites.

In 1962, at 10 years old, I was introduced to four things that would change my life and mold my future – typewriters, horses, drums and Mexico. But for the moment this looks like a good place for a chapter break.

Before It was cool 002

Once Upon a Time in Iowa

While I lived and toiled in Texas for almost 40 years and consider myself a naturalized Citizen of the Republic, I was born in Iowa.

Being very young at that time of my birth, I don’t remember a lot about it — but apparently I was born during a snowstorm in Clarinda, Iowa, during November of 1952. So says the family, and it could explain why I hate cold and snow to this day.

I had long black hair when I was born, they say, and it wasn’t an easy birth. I was born upside down – came out of the chute feet first instead of head first – with the net result that my lungs were full of fluid and I wasn’t breathing. Maybe I didn’t want any part of the world from the get-go, who knows. There wasn’t a priest at the hospital at 8:00 p.m., so a nun baptized me — just in case. A priest was called and he came in and emergency baptized me again.

Obviously the docs and nurses got me to breathing. Witness the fact that I am here to write this 60 years later. A few weeks later I was officially baptized in the Roman Catholic church. Later in life, having heard about the thrice-blessed baptism thing, I guess I felt like my ticket was already punched and I could indeed do anything I damned well pleased.

I was born in Clarinda because Montezuma (where my folks lived) was too small to have a hospital. My grandmother, uncle and a baby cousin (all on mother’s side) got stuck in the snowstorm coming in from Des Moines, but they got out safe and made it to the hospital.

The long black hair I was born with eventually went blonde and then dark brown – a trait that would later be shared by my son after he was born 40 years later.

Come about 1955, I had another serious bout with life. I got rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is similar to scarlet fever and is caused by a streptococcus virus (like strep throat). Rheumatic fever is on the far serious edge of the strep spectrum and can be fatal to young’uns and old folks especially.  Besides extremely high fever, Rheumatic causes abdominal pain; cardiac problems; severe joint pain and swelling; nosebleeds; skin boils, rash and open cysts; and quick, uncoordinated jerky movements kind of like seizures.

We don’t know how I got it, but mine got so bad they shipped me off from Montezuma to University Children’s Hospital in Iowa City some 65 miles east from home. The virus is very virulent and I was essentially quarantined. Dad and Mom were not allowed to come to the hospital lest they catch it from me, which Dad says upset them horribly.  I was in hospital alone for about a week before they let my folks come pick me up. Again, I got better – but the rheumatic boils and lesions left numerous scars on my scalp that would plague me through the Butch Wax Haircut days of the 50s and into the 60s because hair doesn’t grow on scar tissue. Throughout those short-hair days, I had unmistakable meteor craters in the butch-cut on the top of my head that the other kids never failed to point out.

Not much happened after that until I was in kindergarten in 1957 when my first sister, Bonnie, was born.

Signs of things to come. The February day that Dad was bringing Mom and Sister home from the hospital, I went to school. Education is important. I told the teacher I wanted to go home because my momma was bringing us a baby sister. Teacher said I had to stay in class. I bided my time until the teacher went out to get our milk-and-cookies snack. Whereupon (they say), I climbed out the window of the classroom and proceeded to walk home. Cops (well– singular “cop” in such a small town) were called and a general ruckus ensued. The cop found me walking along the main highway through town. He radioed in and they called our house. Mom, Dad and brand new sister Bonnie were back from the hospital in Clarinda, so the cop took me home – which was where I wanted to be to start with. Score Kirby one, School zero – and the first of several times I would have “situations” with schools.

Another important event occurred in that kindergarten 1957. I learned the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t remember much praying going on at the start of each school day, but I distinctly remember the pledge. Every day we would place right hand over the heart and dutifully recite “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.

That pledge may look a bit odd today, but it was the pledge that was in effect as of the 1945 United States Flag Act. The Act was amended in 1952 to insert “One nation under God …”. I guess news moved slower back then, but as of 1957 in rural Iowa we were still taught the pledge without the under God part  — and to this day I still get some disapproving looks when (without fail) I recite the pledge at public gatherings but forget to include the 1952 revision.

I was a bit of a hellion early on, they say. Our neighbor, Mrs. Mary Smith prized her garden flowers. She won Blue Ribbons every year at the Poweshiek County Fair for her perfect garden flowers. Well, they tell me, one day I was out playing and decided my momma needed a pretty bouquet – so I went next door and pulled up a bunch of flowers (well – all of them) by the roots and carried them in to my mom. She stared at them in horror and pretty soon Mrs. Smith was banging on the front door screaming like a banshee!

“What did that (unintelligible) little (unintelligible) do to my flower bed???!!!”, said Mrs. Smith rather loudly.

“Now, Mary” said my mom, “he didn’t mean any harm and I am certain we can make this right. Kirby David Sanders! Get in here and bring those flowers!” I knew I was in deep when momma called me by all three names.

I, having earlier been banished to the living room and told “you just sit there until I call for you”, brought the flowers (stems, roots and all) into the kitchen. Said momma, “You apologize to Mrs. Smith and march right out there with her and help replant every last one of those flowers”.

I went immediately with Mrs. Smith and helped replant every single flower – but she didn’t win any Blue Ribbons at the Poweshiek County Fair that year.

And then there was Mr. Garrity’s garage. Garrity was another neighbor. In modern parlance, I would claim he maintained an attractive nuisance. The garage was really an off-kilter ramshackle old shed. Looked like the only thing holding it together was the four-paned glass windows. So what’s a curious kid gonna do when faced with such a thing? The answer is obvious –- pitch stones through the windows and see if the building collapsed. Which, of course, is exactly what I did. The building didn’t collapse.

That evening, when my dad came home, Mr. Garrity came over bellowing like Mrs. Smith had done before. The next Saturday was spent with my dad – glazing and puttying new glass into the window frame. As I recall, the inside of that garage looked worse than the outside.

I stayed out of trouble for a while — until the town, the county and the state decided to build some new sidewalks and fix the sewers along the highway in front of the house. First thing they did was dig things up, pound some wooden stakes into the ground and set up these kerosene-fueled bomb-looking thingies beside the markers to light up the markers at night so people wouldn’t drive off the road and crash. There was always water running alongside the dug up place next to the wooden stakes and the kerosene-bomb looking thingies. Didn’t take me long to discover that I could pull up those wooden stakes, throw them into the water and make battleships! I threw dirt clods and rocks at the sailing armada of battle ships trying to sink them. Then I accidentally bumped one of the kerosene bomb-thingies into the water – and the water caught fire! Wow! What a strategy. Put a battleship in the water, run downstream a few feet and throw a kerosene bomb into the water – then run back and start throwing rocks and clods. If the rock-clod artillery didn’t stop the surveyor-stake battleships, the downstream flaming mines surely would!

A couple days later, there was an angry crowd of surveyors and county engineers and the town cop on the porch talking to my dad. I was banished to the back yard “until construction was completed”.

I was released from exile when “construction was completed” and allowed back out front. There were guys up and down the street laying concrete for sidewalks and finishing out the overlay for the soon-to-be sewer culverts. Another attractive nuisance! When an impetuous kid sees unattended wet concrete, what’s he gonna do? Walk in it! Leave some footprints for the ages! So I went walking in the wet concrete and hit a spot about a block away from home when I heard something go CRACK! and the concrete earth disappeared out from under me. Suddenly, I was in a deep hole up to my chest in wet concrete and I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t move. Mrs. Mary Smith (Lord love her) saw what happened and call the police — and the volunteer fire department. They all came out (along with several of the surly surveyors and engineers) and dragged me out of the concrete. Once again, I was banished to the house or school while they leveled the sidewalk and fixed the concrete culvert construction that had collapsed beneath my feet.

While I was banished to house or school at about age six, I was fortunate that the folks my parents rented from had loaned them a TV. It only received one station out of Chicago. Reception was spotty and there wasn’t much on — Uncle Milty, Howdy Doody and a cartoon I loved called Crusader Rabbit which I mispronounced as ’Sader Rabbit. There was only one episode (tested starting in 1948), but I loved it! In modern terms, Crusader Rabbit was a sort of early Calvin and Hobbes,  but that Crusader was a Don Quixote bunny rather than a kid and his cohort was a bumbling tiger. It was a “test run” by Jay Ward who later went on to create Rocky and Bullwinkle – in which episodes Crusader Rabbit was a squirrel and his “Hobbes” tiger was a moose. Other than that, we listened to the radio.

Dad came home one evening and announced that he had to go to a meeting in Cedar Rapids  and I jumped for joy. “Can I go, too? Can I go, too?”

Dad said “ Why would you want to go to a meeting in Cedar Rapids?”.

I said “Because if you are going to meet ‘Sader Rabbit, I wanna go, too!”

Dad explained to me the difference between Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and ‘Sader Rabbit and I stayed home with mom while dad went to his meeting.

After the concrete had hardened on the sidewalk-sewer project, I was released from home-or-school exile at the ripe old age of six. I viewed the magnificence of the concrete ribbon in front of our house and the site of my concrete sinkhole adventure. The sinkhole site was now an incredible square cave. A concrete bunker worthy of investigation! I crawled in like an intrepid scout in search of defensible positions for the troops – and got stuck.

Once again, the cop was called, the volunteer fire department showed up, and they hauled me out of the newly constructed stormwater sewer. I was placed under house arrest again as the result of my curiosity.

My youngest sister, Barbara, was born in October of 1958, completing our idyllic 1950s family of five. Life was stereotypically good.

Come 1959, I was seven years old and the town of Montezuma breathed a collective sigh of relief. Dad and Mom moved us all to Iowa City so dad could finish his Master’s Degree. Don’t remember much from there except that we lived in a round-roofed tin World War Two surplus Quonset hut (“on-campus student housing”). It had a living room, a kitchen and a bedroom. In the bedroom, Bonnie and I slept in bunk beds. Barbie slept in a cradle on the other side of the bedroom next to Mom and Dad’s bed.  When it rained the pinging on the tin roof sounded like sonar hitting a submerged submarine. Dad took me to a Hawkeyes football game that year. It was snowing. I escaped from the stands and went running onto the field to play in the snow. Cops retrieved me and delivered me back to dad. Ineligible man on the field.

Sister Bonnie tells me that in the short time we were there, I also tried to “tightrope walk” the rail on a bridge over the highway – and made it all the way across.

In 1960 I was eight-years-old. Dad got a gig as an associate professor and opportunity to complete his doctorate degree at the University of Houston (TX). We all packed into a used 1953 Ford sedan and went to Texas.

Before it was cool 001


“Write a memoir, Kirby! Write a memoir” – so goes the refrain from friends. “From the stories you tell, your life has been so interesting.”

I refrained from placating the refrain because I always thought my life was just normal. But I will take their word for it that whether you are a whoop-de-doo celebrity or politico or war hero or mass-murderer or an accountant or a janitor, your own life just looks “normal”. I am not any of the above – but I guess I will take my friends at their words.

Granted, I have been through a lot. More honest, perhaps, to say that I have put myself through a lot –- suburban childhood to young adult street-kid to part-time cowboy to acid-jazz hippie musician and neo-beat poet to reasonably respected (if not always respectable) newspaper reporter and historical researcher. I guess you could say “I’ve been around”.

I am going to call this collection of essays fiction for several reasons. My life has not been any “Andy of Mayberry” type deal – probably more like “Twilight Zone.” There are probably people who were involved in it that would just as soon not be fingered for having been. To borrow from another TV reference, “The names have been changed to protect the innocent”. Additionally, memories by nature tend to be faulty, sometimes fuzzy and imprecise (particularly so if you grew up in the 1960s and 1970s). I did not take Chicago Manual of Style reference notes on my own life. Last but not least, it is the nature of memories that they embellish themselves – so be it.

I am also going to leave out some of the really miserable episodes because I don’t care to recall them and you don’t deserve to be subjected to that sort of crap.

And so, dear friends in the chorus and innocent bystanders, grab your ass (or hat, as appropriate) and welcome aboard the ride. Please keep your tray tables in the upright position and seat belts fastened. We expect some turbulence.

Near Neosho

Near Neosho
©2012 Kirby Sanders

I awoke today near Neosho.
The sun shone brightly and the wind whispered
through the high grass.
The makings of a perfect morning!

I listened intently for the call of birds
or the scurry of rodents through underbrush –
but there was none.

There was nothing but a relentless
soft breeze wafting over the prairie
and the call of a creek nearby.

I made my way to the rippling water
and drank my fill.

Took a moment to splash the  coolness over my body.

And then I sat upon the bank –
listening to nothing.

Glorious nothing.

Then I set my feet one before the other
onward in search of …

More Ruminations of a Redneck Progressive

More Ruminations of a Redneck Progressive

©2012 Kirby Sanders

Chatting with my back-fence neighbor, J.H., of a recent morning. It was a typical Southern scenario – two old men leaning on the fence solving the sins of an uncaring world for lack of anything better to do. It was early-on and neither of us was exactly dressed for the day. Both of us were shirtless – had just dragged on our drawers and gone to do some meaningless back yard chore when we spotted one another. Me with my scars hung out in front of God and everybody. J.H. in his britches and braces, his well-earned beer belly equally out there.

“So,” says J.H., “You know why a redneck murder is so hard to solve?”

“No,” says I. “I can’t rightly say as I do.”

“ ‘Cause there ain’t no teeth in the dead man’s head and the DNA is same as everybody else in town.”

We laughed and scratched over that one a bit. Then J.H. unwittingly said something inspired.

“Funniest thing happened the other day,” says J.H. “I was talking to another fellow. I was talking about being drowned in doctor bills – how I wished there was a better way to get help when you get sick – and he tells me ‘You sound like a damned Liberal!’”

“Well, J.H.,” says I, “Coulda been worse. He coulda said you sound like a Communist.”

“I suppose so,” says J.H. “But I never seen myself as a Liberal. I just think there’s a better way for a working man who gets sick or down on his luck to get better. Seems like there should be a way where we don’t leave folks behind. Where we all carry each other forward when need be. Something more Progressive.”

Says I, “Progressive – that’s a word I use. I’m not a Liberal. I don’t trust Liberals. They are squishy, unreliable and too far to the right. If I am a Liberal, you’d have to call me an ‘Eisenhower Liberal’.”

“That’s what I mean,” says J.H. “The so-called Liberals have some good ideas and the so-called Conservatives have some good ideas – but they are so busy screaming at each other that nothing gets done. Working folks and poor kids and the old folks are being left behind like seed sewn on the rocks and all people do about it is scream at each other. Sometimes I’m a Liberal and sometimes I’m a Conservative, but ultimately I’m a Pragmatist. Ya do what works and what we’re doing isn’t working. There’s gotta be a better way. A fair way for everybody.”

“Damn, J.H.”, says I, “I think you just defined the term ‘Progressive’. That’s kind of important.”

“Maybe so”, says J.H. “I guess I better go put a shirt on.”

“Yeah,” says I. “Me too. You have a good day now.”

Two old men leaning on the fence solving the sins of an uncaring world for lack of anything better to do.