Friday, September 30, 2022

A new book is coming your way...

 Foster ...and other stories will be released November 1, 2022. I hope you will read and enjoy. Here is a brief synopsis:

Grayson Dunn is falsely accused of murder. As a down-on-his-luck foster kid, jaded by years of
abuse and disappointment, he knows better than to believe the law will take his side. His only option is to run, even though it means abandoning his sister Stacey, the only person alive who loves him. His flight takes him from Missouri to California, meeting unforgettable characters along the way. He connects with Jenny Simms, a talented singer-songwriter bound for Hollywood and the dream of stardom. Meanwhile, Lucciana DeStefano is hired to hunt Gray down. She has never failed to complete a contract and will stop at nothing. Gray and Jenny part ways for a time, only to meet again in a small Northern California town—mere steps ahead of the hunter.

 

 

C.W. Spooner adds seven short stories to this volume which further explore themes of family—those we’re born to, and those we choose—and the kismet that often puts us exactly where we need to be.

“A beautiful look at how we hold onto hope when the world has consistently let us down. Readers will delight in C.W. Spooner’s gift for showcasing the humanity of his flawed yet charming characters.”  -Cassandra Rendon, author of The Good Bad Lands, All the Ways You’re Important to Me, contributor to the anthology The Truth That Can’t Be Told 2.

_____


 

Monday, September 12, 2022

 

Sociology 1A

A Memoir of the Sixties

Part 2 of 2

 

 Sleep was hard to come by at home. It seemed you were always in transition, from sleeping during the day, to sleeping at night on your days off, and then back to the night shift routine. Somehow in the transitions, you lost a day and half of sleep, or so it seemed.

Your wife did the best she could to keep the kids quiet and occupied. This included your two vivacious daughters and the little boy she took care of, a nervous little bird named Donnie. He was nearly two and still in diapers and he cried a lot. You could hold him and comfort him and calm his crying, but smiles were hard to come by, and laughter just wasn’t part of Donnie’s personality. But the thing that made Donnie unique, that set him apart from all of his peers, was the fact that when he pooped his pants the smell was unbearable. It was so bad it could trigger your gag reflex. You had to tie a bandanna around your face like a cowboy in order to change his diaper, and even that didn’t help much. You found yourself asking What the hell is your mother feeding you?

Your shift at LRL ended at 8:00 a.m. There was a great donut shop (it reminded you of Scotty’s in Vallejo) on the north edge of the campus, right on your way home, and now and then you’d stop and pick up a mixed dozen for the family. Generally, you were home in bed asleep by 9:00 a.m. and wide-awake around 3:00 in the afternoon. Then it was time to get up and help take care of the kids.

You’d pray Donnie would hold his fire until after his mom picked him up.

_____

 

Several evenings each week and most Saturdays, you drove up Highway 24, through the Caledecott Tunnel and on to Walnut Creek, to sell shoes at Grodins. Fred was the department manager, a great guy who became a good friend. Freddie had a line of malarkey that was perfect for talking a customer out of his old shoes and into a new pair of Florsheims. Years earlier, when he first applied for a job at Grodins, the store manager asked him What do you know about men’s clothes? Freddie said Well, I’ve been wearing ‘em since I was fifteen. The manager cracked up laughing and hired Freddie on the spot. Brash, cocky, funny, and a pretty good golfer, too—that’s Fred.

The Bay Area stores were covered by the Retail Clerks Union, so you were paid a flat hourly wage, or six percent commission, whichever was greater. Walnut Creek was a good store and you always made commission. Actually, you made out pretty well for a part-time job.

Occasionally they’d assign you to work at the Grodins in Berkeley, on Telegraph Avenue just south of Sather Gate. That location was dying a slow death because most of the students shopped at the local Army-Navy Surplus store. You’d stand around and watch the colorful scene out on Telegraph Avenue, watching the clock tick slowly toward closing time, wishing you were back in the Walnut Creek action.

Or home in bed asleep.

_____

 

It was a bright January day and you were going through the mail, and there it was: the envelope from Merritt College with the grade report for the fall semester. You opened it and saw that you had earned an A in the class you completed. And then on the next line you read: Sociology 1A – Incomplete. Holy crap! John Lennon didn’t turn in a drop; he gave you an incomplete.

After work the next morning, you headed for the Merritt campus to take up the issue with the front office. The lady at the counter listened sympathetically and then told you that only the instructor could change the grade report. Unfortunately, Mr. Lennon wasn’t teaching a class in the spring semester and wouldn’t be on campus. So, she looked up his phone number and gave him a call; the phone was disconnected. You stressed the urgency of the matter, that you had to submit your application to Sac State and you needed this corrected ASAP. She thought about it for a while and then said I’m not supposed to do this, but here is the last address we have for him.

You jumped in the car and headed for the address on Bancroft Avenue in Berkeley, which turned out to be an apartment building that had seen better days. You found his apartment and rang the bell and he answered with a hearty Hi, how ya doin’? like you were a long lost friend. You explained the importance of changing his grade report from an incomplete to a drop, and he immediately launched another attempt to change your mind. Tell ya what, I’ll give you a book, you’ll read it and give me a couple-page report and I’ll give you a grade. Whataya say? You said Thanks, but no thanks. You didn’t add that his proposal offended your sense of ethical behavior. He finally gave up and promised to phone in the change. Then he grinned and waved and wished you well as you hurried away to your car.

That’s that you said to yourself—again. But this time you didn’t have much confidence.

_____

 

For the most part, your experience at Merritt College had been positive. You’d completed all your general education requirements, maintained a 3.8 GPA, taken all the computer science classes you could squeeze in, and generally enjoyed the experience.

Over the course of several semesters, you’d come to know a couple of guys you enjoyed hanging out with during class breaks. One was a CHP officer, the other a guard at San Quentin. Both were Black and though they were farther along in their careers than you, it was amazing how closely their lives paralleled yours. They were concerned for their families, looking to find homes in clean, safe neighborhoods, looking for good schools for their kids. They were just like you and you looked forward to chatting with them every week.

When Martin Luther King was assassinated, suddenly it seemed like a wall had sprung up between you. You felt a decided coolness, as though you weren’t welcome in their circle anymore. Even though it was understandable, it hurt, and you never really got over it. Maybe you tried too hard, or said the wrong things? Maybe they just needed to process this devastating loss in their own way? With time, you could have fixed it, and perhaps they’d be your friends to this day; but your time there was running out. It remains one of the few bad memories associated with Merritt College.

Another bad one was the night the Black Panthers came on campus and locked the Faculty Senate in a meeting room, refusing to let them go until they agreed to the hiring of more Black instructors and the development of an African-American studies curriculum. There was a rumor Angela Davis was with them but you could never confirm it.

You cut class that night and went home. All you wanted to do was hug your kids.

_____

 

As the spring of ’69 progressed, so did The Plan. You moved your family from Alameda to the house in Fair Oaks near Sacramento. Your wife went to work for Allstate Insurance, and your mom lived with them during the week to take care of the kids. You continued to work at LRL, living during the week at your mom’s home in Vallejo and commuting to Berkeley. Your application to Sac State was in the mail, along with a copy of your transcript. According to plan, you would start the fall semester in Sacramento and work part-time at the Grodins located in Country Club Center.

One morning, you decided to call the Merritt College office and check on that grade report, just in case. The woman who answered the phone made sure you were authentic and then went to pull your records. Sociology 1A? Ah yes, you got an A. After you picked up your jaw, you thanked her and hung up the phone.

So, John Lennon had changed the incomplete to an A. You had to think about that for a minute. Should you call back and go through the nosebleed of trying—yet again—to get the record corrected? Or not?

You thought about your life. Did it not range from the pristine suburbs of Alameda to the ghetto campus in Oakland, from the radicalized scene at UC Berkeley to the upscale shopping malls of Walnut Creek? In your daily travels, didn’t you move in and out of various layers of society, through institutions both revered and reviled? Did you not rub shoulders with stoners, barbeque purveyors, future scientists, and Black Panthers? Isn’t sociology the study of society, its systems and institutions, and wasn’t your life a field study in progress? If anybody deserved an A in sociology, most certainly it was you.

Damn the ethics! Full speed ahead!

_____

 

It wasn’t long after that when The Plan began to fall apart. The coup de grace came in the form of a polite letter from Sacramento State College, advising that they could not accept you for the fall term due to an enrollment glut. The letter suggested you apply at Humboldt State in Arcata, way up north, where the application volume was less impacted. Unfortunately, you now lived in Fair Oaks. Arcata would be a hell of a commute. And so you found a job in the Sacramento area and settled in to work and care for your family, your college dreams deferred for the time being.

That was a long time ago. At the age of eighty, it’s good you remember all the people and places, the sights and sounds and smells, and especially what it was like to be so young and alive and lucky, to run down Grove Street with an old man’s laughter at your back, sprinting toward a future that would fill your heart, then break it, then fill it again. And all of those memories triggered by a simple line on a transcript:

 Class: Sociology 1A / Semester Units: 3 / Grade: A

_____

 

 

Saturday, September 10, 2022

 

Sociology 1A

A Memoir of the Sixties

Part 1 of 2

 

Cleaning out a closet one day, you opened a box and there on the top of a stack of papers was your transcript from Merritt College in Oakland. You hadn’t seen it in forty years. You scanned the list of classes you completed and, lo and behold, there it was: Sociology 1A. And you could not help but smile at the memory of those hectic days long ago.

You remember the first night of class—was it fall semester ’68?—you were late as usual. You parked on Grove Street, a couple of blocks from the campus and took off on a flat-out sprint, just as you had so many nights before. You ran by the barbeque joint where an old Black man was standing outside, taking a smoke break, and he called to you Hey, Lickidysplit, you late for class again? Ha ha ha! Without breaking stride, you shouted back You got that right. See ya later. And he said Not if I see you first! Ha ha ha! The laughter followed you down the street and you promised yourself someday you’d stop there for barbeque because it smelled like heaven.

You bounded up the steps of the main building, up the staircase to the second floor and into the classroom. You grabbed a desk at the back of the class. The instructor was reading aloud from a text of some sort and twenty-some-odd students were hanging on every word. Is he reading from the textbook? you asked the guy sitting next to you. No, it’s a poem. I think he said it’s by Robinson Jeffers. You checked out the instructor. He was wearing a plaid wool shirt, jeans, motorcycle boots. Perched on his nose was a pair of round granny glasses. His hair was long and shaggy. He looked like John Lennon gone to seed. He finished with a line that said something about life crawling out of the primordial ooze onto dry land. He closed the book with a thump, then fake-stumbled off the desk where he’d been sitting and said Now that is heavy! The class gave him a round of applause.

You sat there wondering what the hell this had to do with sociology. The instructor launched into a discussion of the class syllabus and the text that was required. He said to buy it used; don’t waste money on the new edition. And in less than an hour, it was class dismissed. Maybe it was because you were tired, or stressed out with too many things to do, but you started to think about dropping this class. You were trying to take two classes a semester, but it was too much. You needed to drop a class and this one, with the John Lennon wannabe, was the prime candidate.

You started to go forward to speak to the instructor, but he was surrounded by eager students, most of them girls who thought he was way cute, and so you decided to give it one more week. You would see how the next class went and then you would decide. At least he was letting you out early and you could go home and read bedtime stories to your girls, maybe catch a catnap before heading to work at midnight. 

In a minute, you were down the stairs and back out on Grove Street.

_____

 

Ambition came to you late in life. At first you thought all you needed was a job, any job, to put food on the table and a roof over your head. And so, you got married and got that job and two beautiful daughters came along. And then you realized food on the table and a roof over your head wasn’t enough. You were working for bosses who were no smarter than you, but they had something you didn’t: a degree; the magical piece of paper that says you are an educated person. No, just a job was not enough. Not nearly enough. Plus, you wanted the world for your kids. So, you hatched a plan. Go back to school, finish your second year of college, do it on the cheap at a community college, make sure your classes were transferrable. You were working and living in the East Bay so Merritt College in Oakland would do just fine. Then you would transfer to Sacramento State College, move the family to Fair Oaks, take over a house there that your brother had offered to you. Your wife would work, you would work part-time, your mom would watch the kids. And in three years or so, with any luck, you’d be finished. You would be that educated person. There would be no stopping you. What a plan!

So there you were, working as a computer operator at Lawrence Radiation Lab—UC Berkeley, working the graveyard shift because it paid a fifteen percent differential, working part-time for Grodins Men’s Wear selling Florsheims in their shoe department, your wife earning extra money providing daycare for a working mom.

You didn’t know it then, but what you needed was a Plan B.

_____

 

Berkeley, California. The People’s Republic of Berkeley. Berserkeley. Scarborough Faire. Call it what you want, in the mid- to late-sixties it was an interesting place to be. You were hired at LRL Berkeley in the spring of 1965, just in time for the denouement of Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement. He stood in Sproul Plaza and declared victory over the UC Administration and then said Hey, don’t leave yet. We’ve still got a war to stop. And so, the FSM morphed into the anti-Vietnam War movement and things went from interesting to radical.

There were nights driving to work when you got off the freeway at University Avenue and were greeted by a police barricade, an officer shining his flashlight in your face asking What’s your business here? You knew then that another demonstration had gone out of control. You remember the night you came to work and the guys on the evening shift described the helicopter that hovered over Sproul Plaza and dropped teargas to disburse the demonstrators. Then there was the night some radicals (terrorists?) bombed a tower on the power line feeding the Lab and you sat in the dark until dawn, the only light in the building coming from battery powered lanterns mounted on the walls, half of them inoperative due to neglect.

And down in Oakland, not far from the Merritt campus, was the headquarters of the Black Panther Party, where a couple of off-duty Oakland cops drove by and shot out the windows. The Black Panthers scared the hell out of you—then. It was only later that you and most of your friends read Soul on Ice and you all wore “Free Huey” buttons and Tom Wolfe coined the phrase radical chic. Thankfully, you were gone by the time the Symbionese Liberation Army showed up and kidnapped Patty Hearst.

The majority of students on campus wore the non-conformist uniform: faded jeans, boots or sandals, battered old shirts or sweaters (preferably black), long shaggy hair, and lots of facial hair. And those were the girls! (Just kidding.) But you weren’t part of that. You had other priorities. You had a family to support, and you had The Plan, and by God you were sticking to it.

May you live in interesting times. Is that a blessing or a curse?

_____

 

Sundays were beautiful. It was your day off. No work at LRL, no classes to attend, no shoes to sell—except during the Christmas season. Sundays were family days. You’d take the bicycles from the patio, buckle the kids into the seats mounted on the back and hit the streets of Alameda. You lived at the north end of the island, close to the Naval Air Station, but the city had a fine system of bike lanes and bike-friendly neighborhoods to ride in. Alameda was a small town set down in the middle of a teaming metropolis. Your favorite thing to do was to ride out past the Southshore Shopping Center to the beach that faced San Francisco Bay. The kids could play in the sand for hours while you kicked back with a book or enjoyed an adult conversation with your wife. Off to the northwest you had a great view of the Bay Bridge and the skyline of downtown San Francisco, a city that you’d always loved. And then you’d load the kids back onto the bikes and head for home, through the beautiful neighborhoods, wondering how much those homes were worth and if you could ever afford one.

Maybe it was something you could add to The Plan.

_____

 

The second class session of Sociology 1A wasn’t much better than the first. The instructor held forth, displaying his snappy sense of humor, soaking up all the laughter, and generally enjoying the spotlight the classroom afforded him. Again, you wondered what the hell this had to do with sociology and you were glad you hadn’t purchased the text. You made it through to the break without walking out. You approached Mr. Lennon and told him you had to drop the class and he began trying to talk you out of it. Hey, stick it out. It’s not going to be so bad. No papers to write. Whataya say? You told him you couldn’t do it and would he please just turn in a drop for you and finally, reluctantly, he agreed. He shook your hand and wished you well as you headed for the door.

That’s that you said to yourself. Yeah, right.

_____

 

Working at LRL was a good gig. The computer center, situated in the Admin building way up on the hill behind the Berkeley campus, supported the Physics Department and graduate students who were assigned to one of several groups. The physics groups were headed by some of the best-known scientists in the field of high-energy particle physics, men like Dr. Luis Alvarez. By the mid-sixties, there were six or seven Nobel laureates associated with the Lab.

The mission of the computer center was to process all the data collected in experiments conducted utilizing LRL’s Cyclotron (invented by Dr. Ernest Lawrence), a particle accelerator that sent beams of protons crashing into target mater and recorded the results when atoms split and sub-atomic particles went spinning off through a bubble chamber.

You also worked with the grad students as they learned to use the large-scale computer systems. They studied FORTRAN and other languages and wrote programs to perform dubious functions, all in the name of higher learning. You got a kick out of seeing the new students arrive each fall, neatly shaven and trimmed, wearing their sport coats and ties, their wingtip oxfords shined to a high gloss. You’d take bets on how long it would take them to don the Berkeley uniform: jeans, sandals, shaggy hair, beards. It didn’t take long—about three weeks, max. You wondered what their families thought when they went home for the holidays.

But it was a good gig. You worked with lots of great guys and the occasional great gal. (Let’s face it: sexism was still rampant in the job market.) There was Hugh, a hard worker and a true friend, an older version of you: in his early forties, married with two daughters, working two jobs to make ends meet. There was Roger B, a smart-mouthed, cocky kid, always fun, always funny. There was Brian, who spent most of his free time tracking down his pot connection; needless to say, a very mellow guy. There was Roger G, who had moved on from grass to LSD and was evangelical on the benefits of chemical mind-expansion.

On the graveyard shift, midnight to eight, things got very quiet around 3:00 a.m. You’d fire up the long jobs that processed all that experimental data and then do your best to stay awake. One good thing to do was to step out onto the balcony that looked out across the bay to the Golden Gate Bridge. God, what a view! It was ever-changing and you never tired of it. The best, the one you’ll never forget, was the full moon hanging over the north tower of the bridge, a river of yellow light streaming across the bay to the Berkeley shore. San Francisco was off to the left, with the Top of the Mark and the lighted elevator shaft that reached the Crown Room at the Fairmont perched high up on Nob Hill. Standing there, looking out across the bay, you were absolutely certain anything was possible.

Wasn’t that the way a guy in his mid-twenties was supposed to feel?

_____

Coming soon, Part 2. Did the instructor turn in the promised drop? How did The Plan work out? Watch this space for the chaotic conclusion.

_____



 

Saturday, August 27, 2022

 

Who’d You Get Today?

from Yeah, What Else?

Who’d you get today?” That was the standard summer greeting when you saw your buddies. Not, “What’s up?” or “How’s it goin’?” Simply, “Who’d you get today?”

It referred to our summertime hobby during the mid- to late-fifties, which was collecting autographed pictures of Major League baseball players. The way it worked was this: we would walk up to the branch post office on the frontage road along Highway 40 and buy a stack of two-cent postcards. Then we would hunker down and write cards to all of our favorite players, addressed to the stadium in the city where they played. For example:

 

To: Mickey Mantle

C/O The New York Yankees

Yankee Stadium

The Bronx, New York

 

Dear Mickey:

You are my favorite player and I am a big fan of the Yankees. Please send me an autographed picture of yourself. I hope you win the triple crown this year, and that the Yankees win the pennant.

 

Off in the mail would go fifty to one hundred postcards at a time. And then we would wait every morning for the mail to arrive. Sure enough, within a week or so, back would come the requested product in the form of a picture postcard. If you were lucky, the postcard would be autographed personally by the player. In many cases, the autographs were preprinted on the card. It was a never-ending quest because each year the teams would prepare a new set of postcards, so you were constantly trying to get the current year’s edition.



There were several challenges to overcome. First, some players seemed impossible to get. These, of course, were some of the game’s great stars who I’m sure realized that their pictures and autographs had significant value to collectors. I don’t think I was ever successful in getting Stan “The Man” Musial, though some of my friends actually made that catch.

Second, there was the problem of the preprinted autograph. We got around that by writing letters to the players and enclosing a self-addressed postcard:

 

Dear Mr. Ted Williams:

I think you are the greatest hitter of all time. Please autograph the enclosed self-addressed postcard and mail it to me. I hope you hit .400 this year.

 

You might ask what was the genesis of this little hobby? If memory serves, the credit goes to Bobby Morenco, one of my friends from Little League. I believe he was the original collector. Don Decious, who lived across the street from me, was also an avid and innovative collector. He went so far as to create scrapbooks with all the cards and autographs mounted neatly, preserved for posterity. I had a mediocre collection, but I was in the game, as least enough to shout out the standard greeting to my friends throughout the summer months: “Who’d you get today?”

Then came 1956, the year of The Great Hall of Fame Breakthrough. Somehow, someone—was it Morenco or Decious?—obtained a list of the mailing addresses for all living Hall of Fame members. Wow! Out went the letters with self-addressed postcards enclosed:

 

Dear Mr. Ty Cobb:

I think you are the greatest hitter of all time. I hope your record stands forever. Please autograph the enclosed postcard and mail it to me.

 

And back they came, those priceless postcards, autographed by the likes of Carl Hubbell, Frankie Frisch, Rogers Hornsby, Bill Dickey, Jimmy Foxx, Mel Ott, Ty Cobb, and Joe DiMaggio, to name just a few. I couldn’t believe it. Ty Cobb held my postcard in his hands and signed it with a bright green marking pen! Joltin’ Joe, The Yankee Clipper, actually wrote a few words on my card: “Best Wishes from Joe DiMaggio.” I’m nearly eighty now and I still get chills every time I hold those cards.



As I said, my collection wasn’t much. It certainly couldn’t compare to Don or Bobby’s. Along about 1959, I began to lose interest. My cards were bound with a rubber band and stored away in an old shoebox. Later, I gave them to my then-brother-in-law, Rick Beaver. Years later, he returned them to me, which was a very thoughtful thing to do. When my sons reached Little League age along about 1987, I found the old cards and shared the history with them. Now the cards are back in that shoebox waiting for me to do what I should have done many years ago: mount them properly in a scrapbook and make sure they are passed along to future generations.

That scrapbook is definitely on my “to do” list, along with several other things. But my list is notorious as the place where projects go to die. At least I got as far as sharing the story with all of you.

It’s funny, but I can still hear my buddies calling just like it was yesterday: “Hey Charlie, who’d you get today?”

 

PS: I finally got the cards mounted in a scrapbook. Check that one off the “to do” list.

____


Wednesday, August 17, 2022

 A Place Nobody Ever Heard Of

from Yeah, What Else?

 

Ohmygawd!” Danny came barging into my room clutching a copy of the Minneapolis Tribune. “Did you see this? Johnny Cash is going to be at the St. Paul Auditorium tomorrow night. Johnny Cash!”


“Oh yeah?” I replied. That’s about all the enthusiasm I could muster. I liked Johnny Cash well enough. I was just not a big fan of country music. Now if he’d said Miles Davis or Dave Brubeck, then I’d have responded with an Ohmygawd of my own.

“Oh, man, it’s tomorrow night,” Danny continued. “I’ve got to find a way to get there. Where the heck is the St. Paul Auditorium anyway?”

“I think it’s in St. Paul,” I cracked. I couldn’t resist the set-up. “You know, Orville has a car. Maybe you can talk him into going.”

Danny brightened at that prospect and hurried off to find Orville.

It was late March 1962 and I was in Minneapolis to attend Gale Institute, a trade school that promised to train me for “…a high-paying job in the airline industry.” I had completed the correspondence portion of the Gale program over a period of several months and was just beginning the four-week residence course. There were four of us living at Mrs. Olsen’s boardinghouse, just around the corner from the school in the Hennepin-Lake district. It was a large two-story home with a couple of bedrooms upstairs that we shared, and it had a full basement that had been converted into a kitchen. There we could store all the staples of bachelor survival: frozen dinners, peanut butter and jelly, milk, and the essential bag of Oreo cookies.

My housemates were an eclectic bunch. Jerry, my roommate, was from Waverly, Iowa, and was simply a great guy, full of mischief and laughter. I swear I could have picked him up out of his family’s farm in Iowa, set him down in the neighborhood where I grew up, and he would fit right in.

Danny was from Waterloo, Iowa, and though he was a good guy, we didn’t quite click. Maybe it was because (with apologies to Donnie and Marie) he was a little bit country and I was a little bit jazz. More likely it was because he enjoyed taking shots at my hometown. He’d never heard of Vallejo, California, and he was sure nobody else ever heard of it either. I told him all about our rich heritage and our contributions to the U.S. Navy via Mare Island Naval Shipyard. And I pointed out that Waterloo wasn’t exactly The Big Apple. None of that slowed him down a bit. Needless to say, I was glad that Jerry was my roommate.

Orville, Danny’s roommate, was from somewhere in Ohio. I’m not sure he ever told us where. He was older than the rest of us, mid-twenties I believe, and painfully shy. It was hard to get a word out of him. We’d prod him and needle him a little, trying to get him to loosen up, but it was no use. We couldn’t get him to react. Oh, once in a while he’d furrow his brow when something caused him concern, but most of the time he just smiled a very benign smile.

I had arrived at the Twin Cities airport on a Sunday night in the middle of a blizzard, lucky the flight was not diverted to Chicago or Milwaukee. I took a shuttle to downtown Minneapolis where I had a reservation at a hotel that turned out to be one step up from a flophouse. From my room on one of the upper floors, I looked out the window at the driving snow that was blanketing the city and wondered what in the hell I was doing there.

Actually, it was Part 2 of a four-part plan that went something like this: (1) marry my high school sweetheart; (2) finish the Gale Institute training; (3) land that high-paying job with an airline, preferably somewhere in Northern California; and (4) live happily ever after. Part 1 was completed and my bride of just two short months was waiting for me back in Vallejo. Looking out the window of my room, I don’t think I’ve ever been so lonely. And that was day one!

The next morning, I found my way to the school, and from there to Mrs. Olsen’s house, and once I met Jerry, things started to look up. It was hard not to smile when he was around.

So, the three of us—Danny, Jerry, and I—went to work on Orville, trying to convince him that we should find our way to the St. Paul Auditorium to see Johnny Cash. Jerry liked Johnny’s music, so it was easy to get him onboard. I pitched in because an adventure in the wilds of St. Paul was preferable to sitting around the house feeling homesick. As it turned out, Orville was a pushover. He agreed to come along and provide the transportation in his four-door Chevy Corvair.

Mrs. Olsen gave us directions and we lit out for the St. Paul Auditorium with plenty of time to spare. It was bitter cold that Friday night, with snow piled in three-foot high drifts along the streets. But the snow ploughs had done their job and the pavement was clear and dry. The directions were good and true and we found the auditorium with no trouble. It was a very large brick structure, built to house a variety of events, from concerts and plays, to basketball and hockey, to the Ice Capades and the occasional tractor pull. On this particular night, it was set up as a dance hall, with tables and chairs arranged all around the outer edge of the dance floor and a bandstand set up on one side.

As we came in, many couples were on the floor, dancing to recorded music. I would guess the crowd was no more than two hundred and fifty people. We found a spot close to the bandstand and waited for Johnny’s show to begin. Finally, the announcer came to the microphone, made a few public service announcements, and then said, “And now…please welcome…Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three!”

Johnny and his band mates bounded onto the stage and launched into their first number. I was shocked to see how thin and gaunt he looked. I attributed it to the rigors of life on the road. Later, of course, we’d learn that Johnny was in the middle of a very dark period in his life, when he was addicted to prescription drugs—uppers and downers—and to alcohol. He looked very nervous and jumpy, and he seemed unhappy with the sound system. Still, the band plunged on and I had the sense that they were giving us the best they had to give despite the cavernous room, the iffy sound system, and the small crowd.

The set rolled on, and though I don’t remember all the numbers they played, I do remember “I Guess Things Happen That Way,” which is a terrific song. Throughout the set, Johnny would periodically cup his right ear with his hand. It seemed an odd gesture and I wondered if there was a purpose, or if it was just an affectation. At one point, he paused to introduce the band. The only name I caught was that of the drummer, “Fluke” Holland. Johnny said he was the drummer on the legendary recording of “Blue Suede Shoes.” That drew a respectful round of applause from the crowd. After about forty-five minutes, Johnny said that they were taking a break and would be back soon for the second set.

During the break, Jerry and Orville headed off in search of a cold drink. Danny and I started to join them when suddenly, Danny yelped, “Hey, there’s Luther Perkins!” Standing off to the side of the bandstand, smoking a cigarette, was the thin, laid-back guy I recognized as the electric guitar player. Danny grabbed my arm and we hurried over to say hello.

Danny could barely contain himself, gushing to Luther that he was a great fan of their music and generally acting the way most of us would when standing face to face with one of our heroes. Luther was very friendly and accommodating, as though he welcomed this impromptu meeting. I asked him why Johnny kept cupping his right ear. He said that in a huge space like this one, the sound tends to get lost. Cupping his ear allowed him to hear his voice and judge how he was coming across.

We chatted a little longer and then he said, “Where are you guys from?”

Danny jumped right in. “My name is Danny and I’m from Waterloo, Iowa. And Charlie here is from a place nobody ever heard of—Vallejo, California.”

“Vallejo?” Luther said. “Oh, we’ve played there many times, at the Dream Bowl out on Highway 29.”

I looked at Danny and saw his jaw drop about three inches and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Luther finished his cigarette, shook our hands, thanked us for coming out, then headed off to regroup for the second set. I think Danny was still in shock and I managed to slip in a few zingers about a place nobody ever heard of. It was good fun.

We stayed through the second set, watching the Tennessee Three and their star giving it their level best. The song I remember from that set was “The Rebel…Johnny Yuma.” After Johnny said thank you and goodnight, we headed back out into the cold for the long drive back to Mrs. Olsen’s.

On the way home, Danny held forth on all things Johnny Cash. How Luther Perkins is credited with creating their distinctive “boom chicka boom” sound. How Luther and Marshall Grant, the bass player, were originally the Tennessee Two. Then W.S. “Fluke” Holland joined the band and they became the Tennessee Three. And the recording of “Blue Suede Shoes” that Fluke played on was the Carl Perkins original, before Elvis covered it. And Carl Perkins, who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes,” was no relation to Luther, though some people think they are brothers. And on and on…

We took Danny’s word for all of this, and at the end of the day, I knew more about country music than I really wanted to know. Of course, there were many things that were unknowable on that cold night in late March, a night when the Minnesota winter held on tight and refused to give way to spring. I could not know, for instance, that at the end of the Gale program, I would accept a job with Northwest Airlines and ask my bride to pack everything we owned and move to Minnesota. I couldn’t know we would live there for three years and our two beautiful daughters would be born there, or that we would meet wonderful people who would become our dearest friends. And I couldn’t know happily ever after was not in the cards for us. All of that was in the future.

At that moment, riding home through the bleak streets of the Twin Cities, I was happy and even exhilarated. I felt somehow I’d scored a victory for my hometown. Thanks to a major assist from Luther Perkins, it was Vallejo 1, Waterloo 0.

_____

 

Friday, August 5, 2022

 

Uncle Pat

from Yeah, What Else?

 

There was a great commercial that ran during the recent (2012) baseball playoffs and World Series. Former Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood is walking along the ivy-covered outfield wall at Wrigley Field with a State Farm agent, talking about the “discount double-check.” Kerry says he used to do an “ivy double-check” before home games, because people leave all kinds of things in the ivy. He reaches in and pulls out an old cell phone, a French horn, and—surprise—Andre Dawson, a Cubs star and Hall of Famer from the late-eighties.

I can envision my own version of that walk. I would reach into the ivy and out would come my uncle, Frank “Pat” Pieper, and George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

Uncle Pat was born in Hanover, Germany, in February of 1886. The family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Denver. As a young man, Pat left home for Chicago to seek his fortune. He went to work for the Cubs organization in 1904, starting as a vendor at the West Side Grounds where the Cubs played their games. When the franchise was purchased and moved to what is now Wrigley Field in 1916, he became the field announcer.

Uncle Pat’s job was to announce the lineups, the batters, the defensive changes, and so on. One problem: Wrigley Field did not have a public address (PA) system until 1932. From 1916 until the system was installed, he made his announcements by way of a very large megaphone. I’ve seen pictures from those days captioned “Pat Pieper and his Pipes.”

When the PA system was installed in 1932, Uncle Pat was given a small table near the backstop, behind home plate on the third base side. And that’s where he worked until he was past his eightieth birthday and the club decided to move him to the press box for safety.

During his fifty-nine years as the Cubs field announcer, he missed only sixteen games; none after 1924. His signature line, one you would hear before every home game, was this: “Attention… attention please… have your pencils and scorecards ready and I’ll give you the correct lineups for today’s ballgame…” My wife Barbara grew up in Chicago attending games at Wrigley Field and she remembers the voice and that familiar phrase. She was back at the stadium for a game in the summer of 1975 and she realized that something had changed. The familiar voice wasn't there. Later she learned Pat Pieper had passed away in October 1974.

He is honored with a star on the Cubs Walk of Fame outside the ballpark. In the summer of 2002, I was in Chicago to visit my dear friends, Lee Nidetz and Moira Higgins, and help them celebrate the ten-year anniversary of their consulting firm, Technology Staffing Resources, Inc. Part of that celebration was a trip to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play the Giants. As we waited outside the stadium for our group to assemble, I found myself standing next to the Walk of Fame. Moira snapped a picture of me with Uncle Pat’s star.

 

Now, what about Babe Ruth, the other guy that I pulled out of the ivy? Well, that brings us to the legend of the Called Shot Homerun.

It was the third game of the 1932 World Series, Cubs vs. the Yankees at Wrigley Field. Babe came to bat in the fifth inning, Charlie Root on the mound for the Cubs. The Cubs bench was riding Ruth mercilessly, and the Babe was giving it right back to them. With two strikes, Ruth began to gesture with his right hand, a fact confirmed years later by the discovery of a home movie taken by Matt Kandle, Sr. Was Ruth pointing at the Cubs dugout? Was he pointing at Charlie Root? Or was he pointing to the center field wall, indicating that’s where he would hit the ball? Whatever the case, he hit the next pitch an estimated 440 feet into the right center field bleachers. The Yankees won game three and then won game four to sweep the series.

A New York sportswriter, Joe Williams, was the one who coined the phrase “Called Shot.” No one else but Mr. Williams seemed to notice. Babe Ruth didn’t say anything about it for several days, but finally seemed to realize it made for a great story. Did he really call his shot? There is testimony on both sides saying “yes he did” or “no he didn’t.” From my research, the consensus is this: we’ll never know for sure.

But wait a minute. What about the field announcer, sitting back there by the backstop? What did Pat Pieper have to say? In an interview with the Loveland (Colorado) Reporter-Herald, given in June 1971, this is what he said:

 

Don’t let anybody tell you the Babe didn’t point to the bleachers before he slammed that homer off Charlie Root. I know, I had the best seat in the house. Babe shouted to Guy Bush, the Cub pitcher who was heckling him from the bench: ‘That’s two strikes, but watch this,’ as he pointed to the right field stands. Root came in belt high with the next pitch and, wham, it was gone.

 

So, after all the experts have had their say and after all the eyewitnesses are long gone, what are we to believe? I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll go with Uncle Pat.



 

Friday, July 22, 2022

 

Delivery Boy Blues

from Yeah, What Else?


T
he engine began to sputter and cough and cut out, then surge again. I looked at the gas gauge and my
eyes nearly popped out of my head. It wasn’t just on empty; the needle was below the “E,” resting on that little metal peg on the far end of the arc. After a few more coughs and spurts, there was dead silence as I steered the tiny BMW Isetta off to the side of the road, flat out of gas.

“Oh no! You idiot!” I yelled. “How could you not check the gas gauge?”

This was it, the final straw, a clear-cut firing offense. But wait a minute. What was that down the road about a quarter mile? It was a gas station with the lights burning brightly. Maybe, just maybe, I could still salvage this situation. I popped open the door and jumped out, slammed it hard and locked it carefully, and took off on an all-out sprint toward the lights of the station.

I was beginning my senior year at Vallejo High School, and my after school and Saturday job was to be the official delivery boy for Wessel’s Pharmacy. My ball-playing friends, Frank Bodie and Joey Butler, had worked for the Wessels, but they had graduated and were heading off to college. When I heard about the opening, I applied for the job right away. This was considered a plum position, especially when you considered that you got to zip all around town in the Isetta, affectionately known as the “Drug Bug.” The Wessels used it prominently in their advertising: order your prescriptions from Wessel’s and the Drug Bug will bring them right to your door.

Wessel’s Pharmacy was located about a block east of the El Rey Theater at the corner of Tennessee and Monterey streets. It was a pleasant storefront on the south side of Tennessee. There were rows of shelves filled with cosmetics and health aids and sundries as you came into the store, and the pharmacy counter was in the rear. Bud and Thelma Wessel were the owner-operators and, except for the delivery boy, were the only employees. If memory serves, the Wessels were only in their fifties, but the hard pace was beginning to take its toll. I heard that they were in financial trouble but determined to overcome the situation by sheer hard work. They were there to open the store in the morning, and they were there an hour or so after the 9:00 p.m. closing time, six days a week. And they were exhausted.

There is a story about Mrs. Wessel convincing her husband to take an evening off and go home to get some rest. When he left, he forgot something important that he intended to take home, so Mrs. W sent the delivery boy (probably Frank or Joey) to take it to him. When he arrived, there was Mr. Wessel parked in the driveway, sound asleep behind the wheel. He couldn’t even make it into the house.

Thelma Wessel was a short, heavy-set woman with a very sweet disposition. She smiled and laughed easily and it was easy to like her. Bud Wessel was another story. He was tall and slim with gray hair that was rapidly going white. He wore reading glasses that tended to slide down his nose and when he looked at you, he would drop his chin so that he could gaze over those glasses. That gaze could be withering when he was angry, but occasionally, you could get a smile and a laugh and his eyes would twinkle. He truly looked the part of the wise and trusted pharmacist.

I think it was Joey who warned me that Mr. Wessel was not easy to get along with. I was so happy to have the job that I paid little attention to that warning. My mom saw to it that I received an allowance every week and when I started working, we kept that arrangement. I just endorsed my paycheck from Wessel’s and gave it to her. It really wasn’t much, but it made me feel good to think that I was helping out.

Mr. W and I never really hit it off, mainly because I couldn’t seem to do anything right. When I got to the store after school, there were generally a half dozen prescriptions to be delivered, and my primary duty was to get organized and plan the route carefully, minimizing travel time and the distance between stops. There were maps available to assist in this task and, after all, I’d grown up in Vallejo. I thought I knew my way around. Somehow, I just couldn’t get it right. I managed to get lost frequently and always took too long to complete my deliveries, at least in the eyes of Mr. Wessel.

Mrs. Wessel would occasionally give me a short list of items to pick up at the market when I was out. If she gave me five items, I usually managed to get at least two of them wrong. Three-for-five is good in baseball, but not so hot on a trip to the market.

On slow nights, they would give me busy work to do, jobs like dusting the bottles of medicine on the shelves in the pharmacy. I couldn’t even seem to do that correctly, prompting Mr. Wessel to patiently explain once again what he expected. I’d march in every day determined to do better, but the harder I tried, the worse it seemed to get.

Simply put, I had become a perpetual screw-up.

The biggest source of tension between Mr. Wessel and me was the Drug Bug. He loved that little Isetta beyond all understanding. It was his baby. It was a temperamental little beast and I never quite got the hang of it. When it had been sitting for an extended period of time, there was a strict sequence of steps you had to follow before you turned the key to engage the starter. If you didn’t execute the sequence precisely, the bug would backfire. That tiny vehicle could produce a cannon blast that was truly amazing. I seldom ever got it right. The Isetta would backfire and as I chugged off down the street, Mr. Wessel would pop his head out the side door of the building and glare at me over his glasses.

And now there I was, running as hard as I could for the bright lights of the service station, desperately trying to recover from yet another mistake. I raced onto the lot and headed for the small office next to the service bay. Suddenly a huge grin broke across my face. Sitting in the office was my friend Frankie Arellano. I was so glad to see him, I could have kissed him right there.

“Frank! I didn’t know you worked here.”

“Hi, Charlie. What’s up?”

“I ran out of gas down the road. I’m out delivering prescriptions for Wessel’s. Can I get a can of gas—fast?”

“Sure, I’ve got a can right here.”

In a matter of minutes, I was sprinting back toward the Drug Bug, the gas can banging against my leg. I dumped the gas into the tank, jumped in and turned the key. The little Isetta backfired happily as the engine sprang to life. I made a quick stop at the station to return the can.

“How much do I owe you, Frankie?”

“Forget it. It’s on the house.”

“Thanks, buddy. You’re saving my life.”

With that, I was back on the road. The whole episode cost me no more than twenty minutes. On the way back to the pharmacy after my deliveries, I decided that if Frank and I were the only people in the world who ever knew about this little adventure that would be just fine.

A few days later, I showed up for work to find Mr. Wessel sitting at the counter in the back of the store with a ledger book open in front of him. He was in a great mood and actually smiled at me as I came in. It seems he kept a detailed record of the Isetta’s performance and there had been a miraculous spike in the miles per gallon. He showed me the numbers and said, “Isn’t that amazing? How could that happen?” He was ecstatic. I felt my stomach drop as I realized that it was my “free” gallon of gas that had skewed the numbers. Frankie didn’t charge me for it, so I didn’t enter it in the delivery log. I didn’t know Mr. W tracked every detail with such precision. I just shrugged and went about planning my afternoon deliveries.

Years later when I would tell this story, I would say that Mr. Wessel was so happy, I didn’t have the heart to tell him what really happened. The truth is I didn’t have the guts to admit to another compound screw-up.

It wasn’t too long after that when things came to a head. I came into work on Saturday morning, received my paycheck from Mrs. Wessel, and set about doing odd jobs until some prescriptions were ready for delivery. Once again, I wasn’t performing the tasks to Bud Wessel’s satisfaction. He launched into a very calm, quiet, patient lecture about how he wanted things done. He might as well have been screaming in my face. I snapped. I couldn’t take anymore.

“That’s it,” I said. “Nothing I do is good enough for you. I quit!” With that I stormed toward the door.

“You know,” he said very calmly, “you got paid for today. It’s included in your check.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and turned around. I had no clue what to do at that point. I was utterly destroyed, no longer the abused worker standing up for my dignity and self-respect, just a humiliated kid without a leg to stand on. I took a tentative step back into the store, deciding lamely that I’d have to finish out that day on the job.

“No,” Mr. Wessel said, “that’s okay. It’s probably better if you go.”

I headed for home, wiping my eyes on my sleeve, trying to decide how to tell my mom that I’d quit my job and why. My “career” with Wessel’s Pharmacy had lasted just a couple of months.

Mr. Wessel did an interesting thing after I quit. He wrote a letter to my mom. It arrived in the mail a few days later. He wrote that he was sure I was a fine, intelligent young man with a bright future. He was sorry that things had not worked out, but he wished only the best for me and our entire family. It was a kind and generous thing to do and I felt my anger toward him begin to melt away.

It couldn’t have been more than a couple of years later that I heard Bud Wessel had died. I knew exactly what had happened: he’d finally worked himself to death. I felt a heavy sadness for him and for Mrs. Wessel too.

Hopefully we learn something as we live through these experiences. So, what are the lessons learned from all of this? Don’t put extra pressure on yourself, because it won’t make you a diamond. Work hard and do the best you can, but don’t take it home with you. Don’t think you need to have all the answers, and if you are struggling, reach out for help.

That’s a pretty good list for starters. It’s great if you are smart and lucky and you only have to learn those lessons once. If smart and lucky aren’t your things, well then, you get to learn them over and over again.

More than six decades later, I’m only sure of one thing: I still owe Frankie Arellano for that gallon of gas.

_____