Tuesday, December 5, 2017

That one Christmas they were together

As Christmas nears I know that I am not alone in feeling that Christmas is frought with mixed emotions, bringing back memories that are both bittersweet and precious. One of my favorite writers, Lewis Grizzard, wrote a story in 1981 about a memorable Christmas of his. I can relate. Maybe you can too. (My illustration is from my friend's family, not Grizzard's.)

That one Christmas they were together
by Lewis Grizzard

We had only one real Christmas together, my mother, my father and me. We had only one Christmas when we were actually in our own house with a tree, with coffee and cake left out for Santa, with an excited 5-year-old awakening to a pair of plastic cowboy pistols, a straw cowboy hat and an autographed picture of Hopalong Cassidy.
I was heavy into cowboys when I was 5. A man never forgets when he scores big at a Western Christmas.
My first Christmas I was barely 2 months old. That doesn’t count as a real Christmas. Then, we were traveling around for a couple of years. The Army does that to you.
Then, there was Korea. My father went off to Korea and was captured, but then he escaped, and then we had that one Christmas together before whatever demons he brought back from Korea sent him roaming for good.
We were living in Columbus, Ga. My father was stationed at Fort Benning, which had been my birthplace. Army brat. War baby. That’s me.
We lived in a tiny frame house with a screen door that had a flamingo, or some sort of large bird, in the middle of it. You remember those doors. They were big in the ‘50s.
My father, despite what was going on inside him, was a man who found laughter easy, who provoked it from others at every chance, a man easily moved to sentimental tears.
The year after he came back from Korea, I used to climb in his lap and feel the back of his head. There were always lumps on the back of his head.
“What’s these lumps, Daddy?” I would ask.
“Shrapnel,” he would answer.
“What’s this shrapnel?”
He would attempt to explain. It all sounded rather exciting and heroic to a 5-year-old boy. He, my father, never complained about the pain but my mother said he used to get awful headaches, and maybe that’s why he couldn’t get off the booze.
But that one and only Christmas, my father had duty until noon on Christmas Eve. I waited for him at that screen door, peering out from behind that godawful bird.
Finally, he drove up. We had a blue Hudson, the ugliest car ever made. My father called our car “the Blue Goose.”
I ran out and I jumped into his arms. “Ready for Santa?” he asked me.
“I’ve been ready since August.”
My father, whatever else he was, was a giving man. He couldn’t stand to have when others didn’t.
He’d found this family. I forget their name. It doesn’t matter. The old man was out of work and in need of a shave and a haircut. The woman was crying because her babies were hungry.
“They’re flat on their butts and it’s Christmas,” I heard my daddy say to my mother. “Nobody deserves that.”
My father could work miracles when a miracle was needed. He found a barber willing to leave his home on Christmas Eve and open his shop and give the old man a shave and a haircut. He bought the family groceries. Sacks and sacks of groceries.
He bought toys for the babies. There was a house full of them. The poor, they are usually fruitful.
We didn’t leave them until dusk and the old man and the woman thanked us and the babies looked at us with sad, wondering eyes. As we drove away in the Blue Goose, my father broke down and cried. My mother cried, too. I cried because they were crying. We all slept together that night and cried ourselves to sleep.
Next morning, I had my pistols and my hat and my picture of Hopalong Cassidy and maybe the three of us only had that one real Christmas together – the old man had split by the time the next one rolled around – but it was a Christmas a man can carry around for a lifetime.
On the occasion of my 35th Christmas, my father long in his grave, I thank God it’s mine to remember.

The Register and Tribune Syndicate

Friday, January 20, 2017

Kent F. Johnson

When I moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, in August of 1970 I searched every day for a job, any job, and after about ten days was hired by the Everitt Companies to work at their manufacturing facility, Union Manufacturing and Supply Company, a manufacturer of modular homes and component homes, as well as a lumber yard for contractors. I had no experience in the lumber industry, and really no training on how to handle phone messages either, but Louie Priestcorn, the man who interviewed me for the job, told me he decided to hire me because he already had one employee named Pam and she, too, was left-handed, so he thought it would be fun to have two left-handed Pams. You just never know what will get your foot in the door.

One of the very first friends I made there was Kent Johnson, the company purchasing agent. My job was to answer the phone and I did a little paperwork too, mostly for Kent, whose desk was near mine. Kent's wife, Bernadine, soon became the day care provider for my son, Patrick. In fact, it was Kent and Bernadine's youngest son, Ricky, who potty trained Patrick by taking him along to the bathroom every time he needed to go. They were only about a year apart in age.

Kent and I talked to one another every day across our desks about our customers, our families, and how we liked to spend our free time. We soon became confidants and friends. Kent grew up in Fort Collins and was a very social guy. Every day about ten o'clock in the morning he left the plant and met up with his old high school buddies downtown for coffee. He left me "in charge." They were a tight-knit group who were friends for life. One of them, Don Weinland, became my own lawyer. Another, Bob Cushatt, became my insurance agent. Kent treated me like family and drew me in to his circle of friends. He had a fun sense of humor and kept me laughing much of the time. Unfortunately, sometimes when I start laughing I cannot stop, a kind of hysteria overcomes me...it's a family trait. That's not good when answering incoming business calls with a comedian sitting nearby.

My soon-to-be-husband, Bob Russell, worked at Union Mfg. also, but in another building. He and Kent were friends and when Bob and I started dating Kent was all for it, telling me what a fun guy Bob was. They had travelled back to Kansas together for some company-sponsored training and had a blast, partied hardy. Every Monday at work Kent would ask me what we did over the weekend for Bob was introducing me to his friends and taking me dancing and dining every Friday night and sometimes Saturday too.As a married man with three little boys Kent's partying days had dwindled.

I worked for Union Manufacturing for almost fifteen years, working my way up from receptionist to outside sales representative, becoming the first female outside lumber sales rep in Northern Colorado, thanks to the company owner, Bob Everitt, and the manager of Union Mfg., Bill Lewis.  Kent's job changed too and we didn't see as much of one another ever again but we remained friends. Within the ever-expanding perimeter of the city of Fort Collins is an smaller community of oldtimers, people who were here before Old Main burned. People who owned businesses in town when the south end of town was Prospect Avenue. Thanks to Kent Johnson, I got a glimpse of that society and understand the shared experiences that bind them even today.

Those who know Kent know that Bernadine was the love of his life and her poor health and death six years ago was devastating to him. He never recovered from that loss. I am thankful for the friendship of this funny guy who made me feel that Fort Collins is my home forever more. The memories come flooding back as I write this and they are all good memories. RIP, Kent.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Love Song

As I look back over the forty-five years of our marriage I realize that music has overlaid our lives like a gentle fog, shifting and changing, but always present, making our lives together one continual song, a moving melody.

On our wedding day we said our vows to the music of Neil Diamond's Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show..."pack up the babies and grab the old ladies and everyone goes, cause everyone knows brother love's show..." playing on the portable record player at the little Methodist chapel on East Elizabeth Street. A little unconventional for a wedding but it was our music.

1971, the year of our courtship, we not only danced to Neil Diamond while partying with friends, but both fell in love with the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. We knew all the words to every song and still do. And we danced to country western music at Bruce's Bar in Severance, to Three Dog Night's Joy to the World (Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog), The Colorado Sunshine Company, and collections of rock and roll music from the 50s and 60's on reel to reel tapes produced by several of the guys in our group.

Oh, I mustn't forget, the Dutch Hops, an annual Harvest Festival in Windsor with polka bands and Dutch hop dancing upstairs at the Grange. We even attended a few Square Dances at the Lodge Hall in Wellington, with Bob's father calling the steps. One of my favorite events was the outdoor dance at the Well-o-Rama, late at night after a long, hot day of parades, games, sunburns, motorcycle races. Yes, we danced our way through the seventies, to the beat of an eclectic mix of music, and I'm so glad we did.

Somewhere in there we became friends with several musicians who started coming to our home where they played and sang, stayed for dinner, became part of our extended family. Dave Yeaney played guitar and sang Bill Staines' Last Dance At Salinas "Oh, she says her name's Betty Grable, and he says he's really John Wayne, when you're five miles from nowhere with nothing, who gives a damn 'bout a name?"...aww, Dave, you were so talented, and you made us laugh, and sold your favorite guitar to Bob for a song ....but you took your own life..."like lovers often do...I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never made for one as beautiful as you...starry, starry night." Yes, Don McLean's songs were woven into our mix too.

And there was Moose, aka Michael Buchanan, who brought the music of John Prine and Willis Alan Ramsey into our lives, our own Spider John. Moose's bluegrass sound was plaintive, authentic, soulful. "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes..."...oh, I remember how he made those songs his own. Then Moose was gone and took all that talent and possibilities with him.

Charlie Butler, "Good time Charlie's got the blues" played and sang, taught me about plants, took our son, Patrick, fishing, was a big part of our lives, musically and otherwise. He and Bob played guitar together many hours, upstairs in the dome, cussing and discussing. 

Charlie's piano-player partner, Steve Johnson, taught Bob to play the piano. They didn't start with Chopsticks, no, Bob wanted to learn MacArthur Park by Richard Harris, "Someone left the cake out in the rain, I don't think that I can take it, 'Cause it took so long to bake it, And I'll never have that recipe again, Oh no!" They practiced that song until they both could play it well, and by then they were sick and tired of it! I loved it...got to hear it played many times as they practiced all the complicated chord changes in that mysterious song. 
My sister Fran introduced us to The Moody Blues and we immersed ourselves in "Nights in White Satin", "Tuesday Afternoon" and more. Listening to that album now is calming and soothing to my soul. And Bob taught himself Maybelle Carter's Wildwood Flower, forever etching itself in my brain. My brother, Mike, brought his own musical tastes to our lives, enriching our musical lives, broadening our horizons. Carole King, Chuck Berry, and Jim Croce come to mind.

Throughout the 70s and 80's, as we learned to love the new music of John Prine, Moody Blues, and others we had our own standby favorites in Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, Roy Clark, Kris Kristopherson, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Dolly Parton, and Judy Collins. 
And there was music on the radio too. Lenny Epstein hosted a weekly show we came to love, playing folk songs by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Utah Phillips, and folk artists we'd never have known if it weren't for Lenny.

The music continued into the 80's and 90's, an ongoing serenade of joyful sound by the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Kate Wolf, and Mary McCaslin. Always new voices bringing their lyrics to the chorus, weaving their words into our song. 
And there were minor chords too, songs that accompanied death of a family member and will forever be associated with them in my mind. My mother loved Patsy Cline and when I hear "I fall to pieces each time someone speaks your name" I think, yes, Mom, that is how I feel when someone speaks your name, even now, after all these years. When my sister Kathy died her daughter Rachel sat on the floor at the funeral with her guitar in her lap and sang her mother's newest favorite song, John Prine's "Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery" with such sweetness and sensitivity that it broke my heart. On the day we buried Bob's mother her longtime friends Ed and Opal Turner came to our home with their guitars and sang and played to comfort us in our grief. Bob sang with them, a fitting dirge in the folk tune Long Black Veil, "She walks these hills in a long black veil, she visits my grave where the night winds wail, nobody knows, no, and nobody sees, nobody knows but me." That mournful voice was a son, Bobby Russell, singing his sadness for his mother as she made her transition from our world to the next. 

Now as we celebrate forty-five years of marriage our song has mellowed. No longer do we rock the rafters with the raucous sound of Bob Seeger's Old Time Rock and Roll or Peter Rowan's The Free Mexican Airforce. Now our son, Patrick, brings his guitars and sings and plays his music in our home. His daughter, Isabella, is finding her own voice in the modern day music of her time. Our daughter-in-law, Alejandra, expresses herself beautifully in dance and so does Lucas, our grandson. Our older grandson, Cortland, shares his appreciation for Lady Gaga with his younger brother and sister and together they are trying to bring Grandma into the light. And so our song continues, and this house is never without music, gentle, thought-provoking music these days.

Thank you, my love, for the music and the memories. You have some favorite musical quotes like Jimmy Buffet's “Some of it's magic, some of it tragic, but I've had a good life along the way.” and the Oak Ridge Boys "Nobody likes to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus, everybody wants to be the leader singer in the band" but I think the lyrics that best express my feelings are Bette Midler's The Rose.  "Some say love, it is a river, that drowns the tender reed. Some say love, it is a razor, that leaves your soul to bleed. Some say love, it is a hunger, an endless aching need. I say love, it is a flower, and you, its only seed." Happy Anniversary, Bob.