Sunday, September 30, 2012

Even In Tragedy, Somehow, All Is Well

From today's Times and News-Star

He stood as the soloist sang near the casket, and it didn’t surprise me at all.

Then the pallbearers stood, and then I stood, and everyone at the funeral stood, mostly in honor of the message of the song but also in honor of a man who could no longer stand with us. By then, the tug was too strong.

At a funeral, I’d never been a part of anything quite like it.

Jay died at 58, most unexpectedly, three weeks ago this Sunday morning. He was to go on his paper route and then on to church, where he sang bass most faithfully for our choir, right behind my wife and the altos.

But a massive heart attack changed that and ended on Earth a life like the ones we as children thought everyone led: Little League coach, Lion’s Club member, Jaycee, Scout Master, honest businessman, hometown boy.

Then you grow up and learn, often painfully, that Jay was sadly the exception to the rule. There are a lot of wonderful people in the world, but few decide to ease about as quietly and as efficiently and as selflessly as Jay did.

The church’s first three rows were filled with his family, and I knew soon after the service started that this would be no “ordinary” funeral. The congregation sang “Because He Lives” and I looked at the family and they were singing every word, including his mother, standing, her eyes closed and her singing strong, though just 10 feet removed from her son’s casket.

Four members of his family spoke, each briefly and each telling you a bit more about Jay than you knew before. He was quite often a bit late, for instance. One mid-December Wednesday evening the church bus, talking the choir caroling, had to stop when someone saw Jay running down South Main Street in pursuit. Jay’s brother said it felt odd to be in church when, on this Thursday morning, he’d normally be looking at Jay in their insurance office. “Well, it’s only 10:30,” he said, “but I’d like to at least THINK Jay would be in by now.”

His twin “baby” sister by five minutes said her brother was so nice that he even agreed to take a college class with her, just to please her. “It was old English romantic literature,” she said, noting it was one of her brother’s few regrets.
And his brother-in-law spoke of Jay’s servant’s heart, his love for country. “He never served in the military,” he said, then pointing toward Boy Scout Troop 45, four rows deep, in full uniform, he added, “but Jay served his country, every day; he was the most patriotic person I’ve ever known.”

So by the time the soloist got to the third verse of “It Is Well With My Soul,” the stage was sort of set, I guess. There was a spirit, a feeling of tragedy and loss mixed with goodness and hope, and when the music kicked up a bit and the words kicked in …“Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, The clouds be rolled back as a scroll…,” everybody just started standing, in honor of the spirit present and a promise kept, in honor of this man, brother, son, husband, father and friend.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Everybody's Huckleberry Friend Left Us With A Song

Andy Williams: The Bestest

Because my mother loves me and because I will always be her little boy, no matter my age, I met Andy Williams more than 15 years ago at his Moon River Theatre in Branson.

My mother was there for a show with about 2,500 of her closest friends, and she handed a couple of books I’d written to a teenaged usher and told him, ordered him, to get the books to Andy Williams. I’m sure out of fear that his sweet older lady would hunt him down and beat him with a switch if he didn’t, the kid must have delivered the books, because a week later in the newsroom of The Times in Shreveport, my phone rang and it was crooner extraordinaire Andy Williams, who asked me in his smooth voice of rich baritone timbre if I would come to Missouri and write some jokes for him.

And I did. And he will always be in the Top Five of the most genuine, kind, funny, professional, talented people I’ve ever met.

Played golf with him and the guy who dresses up as The Bear for his shows, and with one of his agents/lawyers. Ate with him in his dressing room – he put cottage cheese on his baked potato instead of sour cream. Sat through several performances – the Christmas shows were the best -- faxed him jokes from Shreveport, sent him pages and pages through the mail, and sometimes just called and talked to either him or one of the nice ladies who worked for him there and told them to pass this or that along, some joke regarding the news of the day.

It’s strange now, thinking about it. It was sort of like being in show business. Which I was not. But Mr. Williams most definitely was. Recording artist. TV series and specials. Not just a singer but an entertainer. Funny. Willing to make fun of himself. Crowd pleaser. Genuine as baby breath. 

He lasted because he was genuine in talent and in his heart. Even when he talked, he sounded like he was singing, and he could sing like a house afire. Listen to “Days of Wine and Roses” or “Theme from ‘The Godfather’” or “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face.” No lip-synching for my man. He was about five feet six and it was all stud singer. He could belt WAY up there and it came off smooth and rich and deep and full.

But more than that, he did something that even those of us less talented can always do. He treated people right. A guy recognized him on the golf course and said he was coming to the show that night. “Well thank you and please applaud,” Andy Williams said. The guy loved that. His band was full of young musicians and they all appreciated working for him because he wasn’t temperamental or anything less than encouraging. Sometimes he’d call me just to see how our Little League team was doing. He was a Big Star who made you feel like one. He gave us all neat Christmas presents: I have a picture in an engraved silver frame of him and Debbie and their dogs, and a killer blanket on my bed right now with the Moon River Theatre logo stitched into it. He did little things to make you feel like you mattered.  

He actually crashed the golf cart when we played one day – hit his brother’s cart and cracked the fiberglass fender – smiled, said “Oops” and kept on driving. I dropped the sweater he gave me to wear and he had to walk back down the fairway and pick it up. The ultimate indignity, seeing as how this was a guy famous for wearing sweaters on his Christmas show. And I’d fumbled one. Imagine dropping Tiny Tim’s ukulele or Henny Youngman’s violin. But Andy Williams just laughed.

We’d be playing and I’d think of something and run it past him. He wore a dress and fruit on his head in one song, some Carmen Miranda number, and I told him to try saying this: “Sorry about my outfit, but all my really good dresses are at the cleaners.” And I can hear him laughing and repeating just that, a couple of times until he had the timing right, then saying, “That’s funny. That’s funny.” Even when he laughed he sounded like he was singing.
The audience asked questions and one was always, “Is that your real hair?” And he’d point to his solid white hair and say, “Yes, but I do dye it this color just to make me look a little older.” The jokes weren’t cutting edge but they were handy and for Branson audiences and his timing made most everything funny.

I hope he crossed the river in style, as he’d always sung about, when he passed away Tuesday at 84 from the bladder cancer he was diagnosed with a year ago. Most of his close friends, Merv Griffin and that gang, preceded him, but people who know how to be a friend always have friends, so he passed away with plenty of love around. I’m sorry for those who will miss him most and got to be around him all the time.

I have a sense of loss and regret that’s profound because I didn’t pursue a deeper friendship with Mr. Williams. This might have made little difference to him but it meant a lot to me. Back a few years ago I fell out of touch with him, lost his home address and phone number, was too embarrassed to call the theater and pick back up. My priorities shifted and things that weren’t important at all became important to me. I’ve tried to learn a lesson from that, because I don’t feel he ever really knew how much I enjoyed knowing him and being around him, or how much people enjoyed talking to me about him. I should have driven up there, done something. I’d have kept writing the jokes for free, just to hang around; it was that fun. And already we’d planned to go up late this fall and see him…now it’s too late.

So, my word to the wise is, never wait. Find a way. Everyone likes to know when they’ve made a difference for you; I wish I could tell Andy Williams that now, about how just thinking about him or being around him made me feel better, and how grateful I am that, at the rainbow’s end, he left me and millions more smiling, and with a song.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Hurts Me ...

Andy Willliams.
The bestest in the biz and a beautiful person...

Chuck Brown Finally Scores, (sort of)!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

If There's PB&J, There's A Will And A Way

From today's Times and News-Star

 Man does not live by bread alone.

He also needs peanut butter and jelly.

(Thank you, Lord!)

In America less than a month, Victor Lange learned the importance of this sandwich staple last week. A freshman on the Louisiana Tech golf team, the Johannesburg, South Africa teenager became the first Tech golfer since 2008 to win an intercollegiate event.

Fueling the victory was steady play and a steady diet of PB&J. Tech’s Jeff Parks, now the favorite for every Coach of the Year award known to man, handed his newest recruit an afternoon snack midway through the tournament’s first round. It was Lange’s first snack of the tournament and the first peanut butter and jelly sandwich of his life.

Lange is 18.

“Every time I took a bite,” Lange said, “I ran off a string of birdies.”

Parks, a father of young ones and an obvious disciple of the handy sandwich, funneled the South African another PB&J on the fifth hole on the tournament’s second day.

“Immediately after, I holed out my second shot from 180 yards for an eagle,” Lange said. “I loved it. I kept asking coach, ‘What have I been missing all my life?’”

Plenty, Victor. Plenty.

Welcome to America!

Brit statesman John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, “invented” the original sandwich in the 1700s. A gambler who hated to leave a card game, the Earl is said to have summoned his caddie for meat between bread slices so he could keep raising and calling and whatnot. Good for him.

While the Brits invented it, Americans perfected it. We are a people who embrace the sandwich, and rightfully so. Do you know what’s waiting for you at the window of the imaginary drive-thru lane in your home’s kitchen? Dependable Mr. Sandwich, that’s what.

When you carve out the Mount Rushmore of Sandwiches, it would look like this in my book:

Peanut butter (Crunchy Peter Pan) and Smucker’s Strawberry Preserves. Lange’s sandwich was grape jelly. If Parks had given his student-athlete the exact sandwich I’ve described here, Lange would have parked under an oak tree, ordered another and never finished the round. Again, Parks is a good coach: he gives his player’s only a taste of greatness and keeps them hungry for more. There is never a time when peanut butter and jelly is a bad idea;

Grilled American/Cheddar Cheese, Land O’ Lakes butter on both sides of the bread, lightly salted upon completion. Perfect with cold milk chaser. On a cold day, most excellent when dipped in tomato soup;

Turkey Po-Boy, but the bread here is extra crucial and gravy is required for dipping (Ray’s Pe Ge is what I’m thinking about here, if you wish to get specific, and I wish to);

Chicken Salad, especially if it’s like they used to make them at Stone’s Pharmacy in Mullins, S.C., in this little bread press/toaster thingy. No grapes and apples and fruit salad in the chicken salad, please.

Step back, deeply inhale, and admire that for a minute, this national monument to simplicity, this pantheon of culinary wonder. It takes my breath away. And makes me hungry.

It should go without saying that the bread must be fresh to the point of sticking to the roof of your mouth when you eat it. And that if fried bologna or pimento cheese on fresh white bread want to beat me up, they have a point. On another day, each probably makes the list.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Tender Touch In The Nekkid City

(From today's Times and News-Star)

One of my many lowly paid correspondents is Lil’ Tone, valuable because he is well-traveled, with an eye for the unusual and an ear for the peculiar.   

We are all about unusual and peculiar. It’s our bread and butter, our burger and fries, our Haggard and Jones.

He has reported from Yankee Stadium on A-Rod’s 600th homer – “100 percent prima donna,” reported Lil’ Tone, who is nonetheless a fan of the Bronx Bombers – but he is just as apt to record show-stopping events at the Love’s in Minden. I would recount here, except it can only be appreciated audibly.

“That little encounter makes an episode of ‘Swamp People’ look like “Downton Abby,’” he said. “Only in Louisiana.”

A man of the people, Lil’ Tone is. 

But what I wanted to tell you about today was yet another trip he took to The Big Apple this very summer. North Louisiana born and bred, Lil’ Tone married above his raising and latched onto a big-city Tallulah girl who knows the ins and outs of life in the passing lane. If she doesn’t know where it’s at in New York City, it’s not worth going to.

I would love to make this trip someday with Mr. and Mrs. Lil’ Tone, sort of be the groomed Chihuahua in their Prada tote. From their Gotham Central base around West 57th Street, they walked through Central Park daily for the usual “language salad.” Lingered at the Museum of Modern Art and a photo exhibit at the Guggenheim. Dined at Gramercy Tavern and also at an Italian place of food and fun in the West Village. Saw Phillip Seymour Hoffman in “Death of a Salesman.”


But no matter how big the town, it’s still made up of individual people, one at a time. In the middle of the masses are the moments, played out in different venues the world over, familiar reminders that the intimate world will forever turn one touch at a time.

“Monday night we went to this restaurant where I ordered a hamburger,” Lil’ said. “Instead of bacon, it had a piece of pork belly topside. No A-1 in sight but still pretty dang good.

“Then last night we went to Carnegie Hall to hear a pianist named Lang Lang. Yes, I certainly could make a lot of jokes about his name but they would all be lame lame. Suffice it to say that my wife and her piano buds have been hopping on one foot about this concert. The rest of her posse heard it over the internet while we we were rockin' the house inside ‘The Hall.’ It really was pretty spectacular and my betrothed got teary-eyed more than once during the concert. He played two encores and folks in the joint were quite festive.

“But in the middle of all that, a little episode that caught our eye right near us was this little girl who was about 7 or 8. Every so often, she would put her arm behind her seat and hold the hand for a while of this little old hunched over lady sitting behind her. We supposed it was her grandmother or even great-grandmother. She would hold her hand for a while and then take it back. It seemed to be an effort for the little old lady to reach up and hold that little girl's hand, but she did it quietly and willingly each time. Small thing in the middle of the Naked City but a reminder of many things for me.” 


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Was That Summer?, Or Just A Hot Flash

(From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR)

I asked her how her summer went.

“What summer?” she said.

Time, especially summertime, can really get away from you.

It reminds me of the two snails who were driving their snail cars and got in a wreck, and the policeman snail asked a bystander snail what he saw.

“Well,” the pedestrian snail said, kneading his hands, looking blank-eyed toward the intersection, “I mean, I don’t know. I’m not sure officer. It all just … it happened so fast.”

(begin ital.) Zoom zoom…(end ital.)

One minute it’s Memorial Day, the next it’s watermelon for the Fourth of July, and suddenly you’re at Office Depot buying notebooks and loose leaf.

Summer, or hot flashes?

Where DID the summer go?

It went to cheer camp, spirit sticks and sports bras. I am the step-father of a 16-year-old cheerleader these days and have been forced to pay attention to such things. The other day we had to buy a cammo T-shirt for a pep rally and right there by the T-shirt rack in the mall, I practically made her try the “Youth Large” on over her other clothes, which she was “sure would fit,” but I was afraid (terrified!) would be too tight. It wasn’t. In her opinion. (Should have gotten the Youth XL but don’t get me started.)

Summer went to Little League, to sunflower seeds, to trips to the concession stand and to the emergency room. One of my young friends, a high school senior now, stepped on what he thought was a sharp shell in the ocean. Two weeks and a baseball tournament later, he finally went to the doctor. Stingray barbs in his foot. He’d stepped on a stingray, doing stingray things down there in the sand. Seriously, what are the odds? The doctor dug the barbs out, my young friend was on crutches for two weeks, and he’s still counting his blessings. I don’t know what happened to the stingray, but you know how they are. No card. No call.

Speaking of baseball and boys, part of the summer was swallowed up in a trip to see the Texas Rangers. Four grownups and 15 high school boys. We hit the truck stop at Highway 271 (the one with marble sinks in the bathroom!), caught Happy Hour at Sonic by the Ballpark in Arlington, watched the game in temperatures that can only be described as Equator Hot, then church bussed home. I don’t do trips that end at 4 a.m. as well as I used to. Where did the stamina go?

Summer went to a trip to the Redneck Riviera, where cutoff jeans are the poor man’s board shorts. Summer went to homemade ice cream in a folding chair by the RV and in a folding chair in the church’s fellowship hall. It went to sunburn and suntan and skeeter bites and fireflies.

Summer went to bare feet and sundresses and late-night milkshake runs, to books you stayed up late reading and movies you stayed up late watching, something you felt you could do and not be tired the next morning, since the sun stayed up late too. (Wrong!)

Summer went to torpedoed wasps nests (“Everybody go inside while I spray this stuff!”), discussions of heat and humidity and rain, regret over lists of neglected summertime to-do lists, and arguments about the upcoming football season.

Which is here. And will be gone before we know it. Because, I guess, that’s the way time is. I mean, I don’t know, time just…it happens so fast.