Meandering to Memphis, part 1
This is the beginning of a new project - so I'll start at the beginning -
I know and respect people who plan their lives, careers, moves, etc. Maybe I’m normal but I don’t feel that way when I consider the fact that I don’t know how I got here. Large parts of my life seem to be failings and escapes and wanderings. One example - my parents let me choose where I went to high school. Two of my brothers went to a large Catholic school – when an average family could afford such a luxury – so I decided not to go there. Two public schools next to each other in my homeland of Providence, Rhode Island were very different – one was highly respected – but I remember seeing a bunch of kids at the other and being afraid to go there. The default was a small Catholic, all-boy, school, which still held the title of “preparatory seminary.” I really paid no attention to that title. It wasn’t the school my brothers went to, I didn’t see a threatening group of boys, and, being more socially inept than anyone I knew, there were no girls.
For many, joining the military is an escape – escaping a city with little or no opportunity, escaping poverty, escaping family, etc. That was all of the above for me. No one in my family had gone to college, so I had no idea how to prepare. That little school had one guidance counselor and it seemed he was there for the “bad” kids. I had worked since I was about 10, but just to have a little money to buy a few luxuries. I became aware of being poor when I couldn’t take a shower in the seventh grade or thereabouts – large parts of my childhood are foggy at best – and at church, where I would see how the other kids dressed or the cars they drove up in. Of course I wanted to go to school out of state and the military had been on my mind, but I didn’t know where or for what. I applied for Army ROTC – yup, one brother and sister had been in the Air Force and one in the Navy – but didn’t get a scholarship. I didn’t know about “building a resume” for such things. I went to school, studied, was easily talked into joining a track team (I threw hammer, discus, shot and javelin) to get away from the nerds I had classes with, and worked. Nothing stood out.
At the end of my socially awkward high school years, then, I had no idea what to do. I graduated with a background in math and science, in the top ten, but I was fried. I had a chance to get noticed in the field events, but had no coach for most of the time and was not mentally prepared for the championship event – I ended up pretty good in the hammer throw – but hadn’t trained on the college throwing circles, which had a specially-prepared surface. So I choked. I was tired of studying and working. When I didn’t have a job – I was asked to quit a job so they didn’t have to fire me for horseplay– my Father called me a bum. My oldest sister and friends got me a temporary job, sitting in a little room with a crew packing first aid kits. The only good part was I was forced to talk to women around me. We sat in this little room, “assembling” first aid kits, talking, engaging in the same mind numbing exercise every day. I’m sure some of them went on to college – it was a “summer” job. After a short period of unemployment they hired me again (of course due to my family) and I worked a couple more “piece work” – being paid a base wage plus a number of pennies per item – first aid kits, assembling/packing welding or safety helmets, punching ventilation holes in safety helmets, punching out gas mask filters etc. I even worked a tour in the warehouse, probably because everyone including me knew I wasn’t any good at working with my hands. While I worked I paid my Mother a few dollars of what I made. Free ride was over – I was eighteen – house rule.
I really didn’t want to go back to work there, fearing I would be stuck. I started making plans to escape. Then I was a “bum” again. My sister was taking a vacation, taking her girls out to visit our sister in Missouri, just south of St Louis. Some of those plants shut down at a certain time, predetermining when workers would take time off. That was the summer I turned 19. I’m not going to get into autobiographical detail about that trip. My sister went back because her vacation was over and I stayed. I wasn’t doing anything else. Among the culture shocks I experienced were biscuits and gravy, chicken fried steak, and squirrel - as in “there’s a squirrel on the grill” without its bushy tail or any other fur. I also saw the symptoms of something I was already familiar with. Providence was a dead and decaying industrial city. We once visited friends in Missouri who lived in a neighborhood with a lot of empty houses – a sign of tough economic times. I was the only child in my family to never have moved. These people had to leave because of lack of work, or the houses were built and never occupied. Either way, though unsure of the facts, my vision of that essentially abandoned neighborhood of fairly new houses sticks with me. I changed in a lot of ways that summer, mostly superficial, but gained some experience from a fascinating cast of characters. And I ate squirrel. I had to go home to get ready to leave again. As a kid I had talked about the Air Force, explored other branches (Navy and Coast Guard were out since I really wasn’t a fan of boats), but came back around to attempting to follow my oldest brother’s footsteps – get training in electronics and come back for a good job, or make it a career. But I wanted to get away. In June of that year I tested and entered the USAF with an active duty report date in November. Since I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I picked my highest test score and enlisted “open” in any electronics field. Kissing my Mother goodbye and getting on that bus in the dark of a New England November morning, I took my first step towards Memphis.
I was perfect for the scared kid role at basic training. I really didn’t know anything else. I also got more social. Seems we caught a break with an outgoing Sergeant and being there over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holidays. I used my religion to escape on Sunday mornings and meet women, we had enough base liberty for one of the gang to get caught drinking - he showed off the beer in the cup and I was told I had to be a witness or get in trouble myself. I chose a ground radar career field, which meant I was going to Biloxi Mississippi for training. I was awarded trainee of the week and graduated with honors. A bunch of us got on a charter bus for the 600 mile ride to Biloxi. Autotrack radar school – we learned about systems for training aircrews by tracking simulated bombing runs and showing them signals from navigation-jamming emitters and threat radar simulators (like ground-to-air missiles) – was not too difficult, but I worked at it. I think the previous summer’s rest helped me focus. Most of us led three facet lives – school, including military and radar training, physical fitness training, with three days mandatory but some of us spent time running and lifting on our own time, and partying. On base we drank, but I also remember some great times off base, at little hangout bars, clubs, and the beach. Oh, Keesler Air Force Base was across Highway 90 from the Gulf of Mexico. It was like upper Narragansett Bay, where us poor city kids went, a little dirty, no real waves, but a great place to walk and run – except for the dead fish. I was chosen as a student leader, marching the squadron to school and through PT formations, making sure we won squadron of the week with shiny waxed and buffed floors and clean rooms. Of course we hid the disallowed alcohol around inspection time, mostly in our bellies. I held Sunday night meetings with each floor of my “stack” which started with “who’s got something to drink?” That six months is a huge part of my life experience and every time I hear David Bowie or Men at Work or Duran Duran or Culture Club or Michael Jackson or…the memories hit me in waves. I took another step towards Memphis.
I didn’t realize that the field I picked had some very specific assignment locations attached to it. I don’t know why I picked it, but I know that I asked the Air Force to send me to Florida or California or overseas. Well, flying ranges that allow for “non-standard” flight patterns over terrain that is conducive to big jets aren’t in those places. For the most part they’re in rural (go figure!) locations in Nebraska, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota – and La Junta Colorado, which is where I ended up. I remember looking at a map of Colorado – eastern Missouri was the furthest west I’d been – and seeing the star and capital letters of LaJunta – had to be a big place, right? Before the internet I knew nothing of this place. I took a short break back in Rhode Island and flew to Denver, then a bus ride, stil in my “blues” to the town. Wasn’t much to see since it was dark. When I arrived at about 3 am my sponsor met me and asked “Do you drink beer?” I smiled. I ran with some Southerners, one a close friend who taught me about grits. I learned to say ya’ll when it was a signoff of the bomber crews I communicated with on the radio all day (“Ya’ll have a safe and pleasant flight home”) who also helped me at least dull if not lose my Rhode Island accent with pretty constant “please say agains” for a the first few months. I also enjoyed living in a small town – the star and capital letters meant it was a county seat, not a big city – of about 5,000, dialing five numbers on a phone, leaving doors unlocked, hitting open range when you left town, and the entertainment value of shooting at targets – I went Western with a Winchester 30-30 and a Ruger single action 44. I was good at my job – except the mechanical parts – and trained newcomers on that navigation-jamming emitter. I even volunteered at the local high school coaching kids in the throwing events, though here they only had shotput and discus. I still wanted to go overseas but didn’t actively lobby for an assignment. One night I lamented about missing the ocean and soon I had an assignment out in the Pacific – Guam. I had an incredible experience there, being rewarded for my work with promotions, meeting a lifelong friend, and traveling, but my second year and subsequent assignment made my decision to get out of the military. Meanwhile I went to school at night and some weekends, starting work on that college degree that had evaded me, in what I don’t know, and volunteered to help with nuclear shelters, kind of a farce since we were ground zero for a bunch of weapons, but I knew a little about radiation and it was fun. I extended to re-enlist and wait for new radar sites to open in Montana and the Dakotas so I could get back to doing what I knew at a busier operation – part of my problem on Guam was professional boredom – but I got a life-altering assignment handed to me. I was going to Mt Home Air Force Base in Southern Idaho.
I loved being out West again, but this was my first experience living and working on a base. I had lived in small houses or apartments for nearly four years. Here I was given a dorm room and a meal card – I wouldn’t be cooking for myself either. I also experienced a new job, which at this point was just threatening - I was getting out as soon as possible. Electronic warfare – the mission of training crews to defeat systems guiding surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery – was a different world. I met people who I knew from school who had been here their whole career. Besides being stuck on base – I was back in the “real” Air Force – I was dead ended professionally. The unit was overstaffed in my rank and skill level. My cohort was among the ones that had been here and knew this job well. I had also lost interest in working in electronics. I really wasn’t any good at it, so where a radar was a radar was a radar, operational procedures were completely different and I relied on my crews to be the experts instead the right move – learning it all myself. But, I worked with a more racially diverse crew, went to school and met some good people outside the unit, and I volunteered for any opportunity to get out of there. I took crews to ranges in Nevada, including one “Area” in particular, Utah, Arizona, Arkansas, and Louisiana, staying gone for nearly six months total of the two years I was assigned there. I also bought a motorcycle and tripped around the West. I also took on an additional duty helping with chemical defense exercises – it was a good distraction. On the odd weekend, I visited my friend from Guam, who got an assignment a little over an hour away and then got out of the military bit stayed in the area. Then it was my turn. I was good enough at the job to keep out of trouble, but at six months prior to the end of my enlistment I asked for an “early out” to go to college, which was granted because we were overstaffed (big surprise!). I had taken a few more courses and decided people were more interesting than circuits, so I thought about pursuing psychology. Where to go? I was not willing to move back to Rhode Island – the place seemed alien and still dead to me. Boise, about an hour away, seemed snobby. Three guys in my “branch” were from north Idaho and said I should check it out. The University of Idaho was in a small town. I visited in May, was accepted to start in August, flipped off the Air Force and everyone in it, and headed east to be a bum for a summer. I had virtually no money, our veterans’ education benefits were awful, but I figured I could work and get some financial help. It was nice to visit with family but I still got treated like a kid, traffic and people were annoying – especially since I was on a motorcycle! When August came around I was off, escaping again.
Moscow Idaho was unlike Mountain Home. Some low hills surrounded fields of peas, wheat, and lentils. It was green with trees in those hills, with not one sagebrush blowing across the road. It also got cold in August! I had signed a lease on a small trailer at the edge of town and two weeks after I got there I had to turn on the heat. Meanwhile, I found a couple of minimum wage jobs with Sears and a bar (Mr. Mellow New Waver was going to work the door of a country bar!) and started school at the University of Idaho. Two things I was not ready for were huge classes and a grueling 16 week schedule of four classes. I had taken one at a time at night and they were 8 or 12 week intensive studies – you focused on one and moved on. I was also computer illiterate, couldn’t type, seven years older than nearly everyone in my classes – I found out this was a very “traditional” school – and my study habits had certainly slipped. My research skills were non-existent. I couldn’t focus at work and school without a break at the same time. And I was broke again. I made about $600/month, which was luxuries money while in the military. It was a doomed venture but I wasn’t giving up right away. In that first year, however, I was awarded a new position at Sears, my second opportunity in life interact with people from many backgrounds and occupations, ages and races. I built on previous training and service experience. I also got to spend time with a friend who came to live in North Idaho – the same one I was stationed with on Guam and used to hang out with southern Idaho. Unfortunately he and a few other friends, my companions in that first year, left soon after – he moved for a job, one friend graduated, one dropped out. I was left with bills piling up – colleges then and now are quick to loan money – and spending more time working than schooling. I changed majors, from psychology to economics, and ignored some great advice. A professor told me to worry about school now, life after school later. Management changes at Sears left me and another “part-timer” with more responsibility for no more pay. I had to think about finances. A co-worker convinced me to check out the Air National Guard in Spokane Washington, about 90 miles away. I hated the military by the time I left, but after losing weight and chewing on it for a while, I figured I could make more money, at least once a month, and get more money for college – the GI Bill had improved.
I spoke with a recruiter – what did I want to do? I re-took the aptitude test and scored high in everything. I didn’t want aircraft maintenance – I had experience with equipment supervisors telling us not to touch anything, so I thought the training and work wouldn’t amount to much. I wanted to do something meaningful. I asked about tactical radar, hoping they would send me back to Biloxi for a six month stint. I knew those guys at school and felt our systems were different enough to require formal training, and a six month break from the grind I was in would help me refocus on studying when I got back. They were unwilling to spend the money. I needed a way to get in and collect that additional (or so I thought) $3-400 a month in pay and education benefit. Another field had an opening. I worked nuclear shelters as an additional duty on Guam and chemical warfare defense training and exercises at Mountain Home. I made another decision which I didn’t know at the time would change my life – I entered the Guard in the Disaster Preparedness field, the folks that trained populations on nuclear, biological, and chemical defense and responded to related incidents. Through that decision I gained a career, absolutely irreplaceable life experiences, and gained some lifelong friends. At the time, however, I sacrificed three days of full time work for the same, albeit for more money, but as soon as I qualified for a big $150/month GI Bill check the school pulled my $2200/year grant – you do the math. Two years later I admitted failure and dropped out of school. Sears closed and I didn’t want to transfer to a nearby store. I had three years of college, no job, and years’ worth of debt facing me. The odd days I worked for the Guard didn’t contribute to my unemployment benefit but counted against my paid benefit. I moved to Spokane Washington, lost another job in a management change, and had to sell my motorcycle to pay rent. I left the Northwest and took a step towards Memphis.
Somewhere in that hell of failure – I never failed at anything and within a year I struck out twice – I stayed close to friends and family. Again, going back to my parents was out of the question. I decided to have a little birthday fun regardless of the cost, and planned a trip to New Orleans with my old buddy. I felt like I’d discovered a gold mine! Somewhere in those years I gained some additional musical tastes, enjoying rock and blues. I became a Blues Brothers fan, not realizing where all that music came from. One of our adventures took us into an encore of a band playing at the House of Blues in New Orleans. I knew one of those guys from the movie. I didn’t know the rest of the band on stage, two of whom were named Cropper and Jones. I had just witnessed the last few minutes of a Booker T and the MG’s show. Also during that trip, my friend introduced me to New Orleans – jazz and beignets, crawfish and blues, the river and a streetcar ride through the Garden District. On the way back I stopped to see my sister in Missouri and decided to escape there for a bit. Later that year I moved South, swallowed my pride, and took a job at the nearest Sears in Jefferson City. That winter I got stuck there during a blizzard and later moved in with the co-workers that sheltered me during the storm. I transferred my Guard membership to a unit in Topeka Kansas, went back to Biloxi (actually Gulfport, next town over) for a training exercise and drove to New Orleans for some fun with a couple of the guys. Casinos had moved in to the Mississippi Gulf Coast – casinos that were in place of a couple of those little clubs and bars we used to go to. One of them, in an historic hotel, was closed along with an old hotel I used to visit with one of my girlfriends. On the way down I also got stuck in Nashville traffic for the first time. My buddy had moved back to Alabama so I stopped by. His Mother was surprised I ate grits, being a Yankee. His Father met me out in the street while I was looking for the house with the biggest grin – “Hi! I’m Mac!” Those visits and years in Missouri eventually helped me take a giant step towards Memphis.
In the Air Force I learned to learn from everybody and anybody, regardless of my personal feelings about them. When I had a problem doing that I coincidentally knew it was time to go. I left friends and enemies both behind, then lost touch with them all when I went through those difficult years of personal failure and turmoil. I didn’t want to stay in Missouri and didn’t want to stay with Sears. I’d worked three different jobs in different stores and was afraid of getting pegged in retail. But this time I kept working, kept training, learning from everyone and anyone, especially my boss who I couldn’t stand but he knew this business. I also hadn’t burned the bridge to the Northwest. A year later I went to Alberta for a family reunion and stopped to spend a couple of days with friends in Washington and Idaho. I missed them and the place. While in Missouri I lost two family members – my brother-in-law and Father. When my Father died I asked them to put my residence as Idaho. I had made up my mind to go back, applying for a full time job with the National Guard. Six months later I moved, sleeping on a friend’s floor while looking for a place. I moved back to Idaho and took a transfer with Sears, working part time in the auto center In Coeur d’Alene. I had two thoughts – I loved Idaho and if the job didn’t work out I would regain residency and go back to college. Employers had turned me away because they assumed that’s what I would do anyway. So the additional duty from the military turned part time position became my career. In those first few years, I raced back to Rhode Island when my Mother had a stroke – and enjoyed my first New England fall in 15 years, vacationed in Las Vegas, as my oldest brother also went West after our Father died, took another vacation with my friend in New Orleans (had a blast but got chased out by Hurricane Georges), and enjoyed good times hanging out with friends in Washington and Idaho. I started paying off debt and saving money too. I changed full time jobs to a similar position with the Air Force – I couldn’t believe myself, not in uniform, but going back to the active Air Force. I was starting to formulate a goal. I also went back to college, just to put a diploma on the wall, and discovered that I could be a good student. I missed the lesson from the 80’s, that if school was a hobby, a side gig, I really enjoyed it and excelled. I could now type, do online research, and got comfortable with using computers, even taking a few online classes. The best experience with them was reading and writing – a lot – but I missed the classroom interaction. I got a break from the daily grind with a recall of our Guard unit in 2002. Perfectly timed, I had a good experience in Kuwait, gained valuable knowledge, and doubled my income for four months. All that bad debt from my first college failure and year of unemployment was gone, I had some savings – thanks to friends I used to work with at the Coeur d’Alene Sears that put up with me for a few months when I got home. I bought my own place, got my degree, and retired from the Guard. My work became my life, but it was good. Then it wasn’t. I had three close friends and co-workers, partners at work. One retired. Another finally moved, getting assigned overseas. The third turned out not to be a friend. We lost the man in Alabama with a big heart and grin. Then, while on vacation in 2004, I got a phone call. It was time for another trip to New Orleans. It was reserved, but we had a few good days in New Orleans, went to a crawfish festival in Chalmette, hung out in Biloxi, and he introduced me to Mobile. My friend Steve McBride, the only friend from the military I had, who helped me learn about the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, who I had hundreds of phone conversations with over 15 years of good and bad times, said goodbye to me in front of a former Sears building that had become the Baronne Plaza Hotel in New Orleans. It would be the last time. His last phone call to me was devastating. I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t do anything. We were supposed to tell those stories repeatedly to each other and anyone who wanted to hear them for the 100th time of beer and women and crawfish and getting lost in New Orleans. I feel horrible I can’t remember more, but I never thought I would have to remember them alone. I was numb when a friend of his in Mobile called me a few days later. Cancer took him from his family and friends in October 2005. He was 41. I wish I had been writing about our conversations the whole time. Two months earlier disaster struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Through their loss, he and his Dad taught me a lesson probably only second to my Mother’s – you can work and plan, but you better enjoy life while you can. I took another step towards Memphis.
The following spring I visited the Gulf Coast again. I was given the opportunity to work with a command inspection team, checking checklists and watching for the smallest mistakes. But I was going back to Biloxi. We stayed on Keesler AFB and worked in Gulfport. On that 20-minute drive to work every day, my memory went into overdrive. Was that empty lot a Landry’s restaurant where me and Steve ate the last time we were in Biloxi? Was that ruin really the old Tivoli Hotel where me and the girl from Michigan went a few weekends? What happened to that nice quiet beach bar where my boss from the Kansas Guard and I talked about going to school at Keesler and about losing my Father? The high end bar near the yacht club my friends once told me to check out, where the “classy” women hung out? In my last two prior visits I was finally appreciating the old houses on the Beach Boulevard and now they were gone. It was all gone. One positive was that I got to visit and enjoy new places, instead of wallowing in nostalgia – and loss – in the old, I discovered some new places – lunch buffet at MawMaw’s, the Shed, Aunt Jenny’s. Looking back now, I caught just a glimpse of what used to be in a place I liked to visit but the loss was very real for people who lived there. I had more to learn about loss.
It’s easy to insulate ourselves from people and events, and seemingly even time itself. We go to work, plant a tomato, enjoy new places, and fret about what’s for supper or the meaning of life. I hope someday to catch up and start writing about now, but sometimes you can’t fully understand the present or put it into perspective right away. But time also steals that understanding, or maybe it just strips away trivia – I don’t really know for sure – but parts are missing. Like not remembering words to a song you loved, but you still feel good when it’s played. Probably better that you can’t sing along anyway. When I was five, my Father’s parents - Pépé & Mémé – died within weeks of each other, both in their late 80’s. My Mother took care of them as they were dying but they kept an apartment next door. That same year my oldest brothers joined the military – Air Force and Navy. I suppose they figured waiting for the draft was a bad idea. I remember them moving my Mémé, though I don’t know if she was sick or dead, and I remember watching a relative’s car pull up next door, not to visit us, but remembering later seeing a piece of art in their house I realized they were there to get stuff – whatever they wanted. I remember being afraid to go into the bedroom next to mine where they stayed. That’s it – I don’t recall funerals or my brothers leaving – I’m sure there was a party. When my brothers came back I remember weddings and new friends - their wives’ families. My oldest brother lived upstairs for a while, so he helped my Father with the house. I remember music – he brought back quite a collection of albums. I was a Beatles fan, so I didn’t really notice the other records. My oldest brother taught me how to drive. I still joke that he didn’t teach me how to back up or park, but I drive a lot more than either of those, so no big loss (though they were a big hurdle to passing my driver’s license test). The first thing I could drive was his company van and the last lesson was in pouring rain. I cringe when driving in the rain now, not because I am uncomfortable with it – just the opposite – but I imagine other drivers, when they were learning, and their big brother offered to take over – they took the easy way out, because to this day they can’t drive in rain! They’re either crawling along or speeding, both dangerous under the conditions. My brother Donald taught me better than that. He was my most important influence in my younger years, responsible for my first drink (oh that gin punch!) driving lessons, showing how to take advantage of opportunity, coming back from the military with useful knowledge and putting it to work. I was a great student, but college wasn’t going to happen and I thought I could follow in his footsteps. I just wasn’t that smart and really didn’t feel like returning to Rhode Island was for me. We all had fun when I visited, though. He loved music so coming back for a wedding was always a chance to get on the dance floor. That started young for me, from the old doo-wop (he loved the Four Seasons) and rock to new wave, I always loved to dance. I thought about him telling me about the reaction of kids in Japan to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American and thought about him when I was on that train heading out of Tokyo nearly twenty years after he was there. I followed his advice in my personal life, a little selfishly, but broke and ran for college instead of the workforce when I left the military. He was always up for taking a ride and showed me some of his favorite spots where he went fishing or just went to stare at the ocean. He dared me to play dollar slots on my birthday in Las Vegas, then put a few of the dollars I won in the machine to the right and left – which led to a $750 win and spending the rest of the weekend gleefully giving it all back. When we met in Grand Junction Colorado for our niece’s wedding – he lived in Las Vegas and I in Idaho – he was no longer invincible. He had just been through his first battle with cancer, but was undaunted. He gave up on Las Vegas finally, moved back to Rhode Island, and started a new life. He was at my Mother’s as the neighborhood turned into a high-crime area and helped her in the house then move out of the house she had lived in for over forty years. I can’t imagine how difficult that was. Then he had more pain and sleepless nights. He visited me for the first time, flying with my Mother to Idaho for Thanksgiving. Though the weather wasn’t good, we managed to enjoy a visit and we watched the bald eagles on their migratory roosts over Lake Coeur d’Alene, picking out the spawned out salmon on a break from their annual move from Alaska and the far north to warmer climates for a season. It was only then I started making that an annual ritual, driving out to Higgins Point starting in November and waiting for the great birds to show. That Christmas visit back to Rhode Island was a celebration and anticipation of loss. His pain was caused by a large cancerous tumor on his lung, too difficult for treatment or removal. We shared another holiday, another New Year’s Eve gathering (the party that made that gin punch famous) and an early birthday, while we were all still gathered for Christmas. We took another ride and as he dropped me off at the airport on an unseasonably warm January day he said “Don’t worry, I still have a few years left in me.” The flights back were horrible, something I had been experiencing more of lately. I had been through rough weather before, but this one was the worst. Coming into Detroit we passed through the cold front that would chase out that warm air back east. The jet did things I’m sure it wasn’t supposed to do, save one – it stayed together. I wanted to get out, drive back to Idaho, but I got on the next flight. As we were cruising above a very calm night in Montana a crewmember informed us that our landing might be difficult (yeah!) as there were 50-60 mph gusts at Spokane. Less than three weeks later my life mentor and driving instructor was gone. I drove across country, detouring through Missouri to pick up our sister and brother-in-law. I haven’t flown since – I would rather take a ride.
I had a house, a good-paying job, money, and time off to get away and spend it all. The next Christmas holiday I tried a new way of traveling across country. Driving again was a bad gamble so I took a train. I started reading books again (Jimmy Buffet got me through a couple of those cold winters) and enjoyed the travel, the chance to meet and converse with fellow train travelers, the stops in Chicago, even the delays. I took the train every year, sometimes boarding or terminating in Albany, where my brother Michael would take me or pick me up, since he lived nearby in Vermont. I even ventured to write a little. Everything added up to nearly three days of some beautiful scenery but little sleep, and when I slept my fellow passengers didn’t. On one of these trips I had a no kidding epiphany. I boarded, took my seat, and realized I was facing backwards. I should have written my life story, but I have one simple thought – success (happiness?) going forward by looking back. A couple of friends once asked me bluntly the same question – “What happened to you?” Life, job, stress, loss had taken their toll and I did not react or adjust well. I had to change. I enjoyed reading again (college killed that) so that started to trickle back into my life. I like spending time with friends but I lost one. I used to love getting outside but went from work to home, sometimes to gym, but that was it. I reached one of my retirement goals but had a long way to go as I watched as Mac and Steve, my brother Donald, other relatives, and acquaintances from work never realize their final retirement goal – being done with work and enjoying travel or whatever they looked forward to when they decided to turn in their office keys. After I matured and my Mother got older and dealt with her stroke and seizures and loss – I saw she was also a human being and not a supermom or giant – I enjoyed spending what time we had together and wanted to spend more. A week or so surrounded by holiday madness wasn’t enough and she was aging. But she recovered and kept on going. I also started feeling another hole in my life. Loss took me to humility, and humility, though I didn’t show it publicly, left me searching for something besides myself. I held out hope for a life partner to share it all with, but gave that up. Years alone left me so picky I was sure “that women” didn’t exist and taking chances just didn’t pay off. No, the hole was some practice of faith, something not human, something of God. I was questioning my existence, and the end of the existence of friends and family, and there was this spark. I was brought up Catholic, read some Buddhist and Hindu texts and books, but didn’t really act on it, though I tried. I thought that by actively practicing a faith I might be able to deal with the world better than I had been doing. So I spent a few days on vacation near home, reading, walking outside, planning my next trip to Rhode Island – my brother David’s 60th birthday – took the train, read some books, listened to some blues, and took some rides – southern Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico.
You know what you get when you draw a straight line from point a to point b? A route I’m probably not going to take. Oh, I did it for enough years, favoring the destination and ignoring the journey. Not that I truly wander now – I usually have some reason for taking a crooked road, uneven ground. Sometimes it’s strictly for the adventure; sometimes it’s part of a plan; sometimes it’s just something I gotta do. My parents had the misfortune – or deliberately planned – to have three of six children during the same week of May, albeit 13 years apart. In 2010 my brother David was turning 60 (me, 47) and I was determined to be in Rhode Island for it. Now, I-90 runs just about past my old house and ends up in Massachusetts, so logic tells you it’s just about the fastest driving route – you remember that no fly rule right? But straight lines are not for me and I had two goals. My sister – the other May baby of the trio – lives in southern Missouri, so I took a little detour. After brief stay, I had this crazy idea to see if I could find family of my friend Steve that died of cancer almost five years earlier – I was going to drive through Birmingham Alabama to see if his Mother or brothers were still there. I didn’t go to his funeral, since we had our last trip to New Orleans earlier that year and I had just gotten home from a road trip around the Southwest when he passed. I also didn’t get back in touch with his family. Yeah, I know, but life has a way of taking over what you mean to do. Two days later I stopped by his and his Father’s graves. I want to be cremated, but not being there when he was buried, I understand the idea of a place to grieve. More importantly, I was blessed to have a talk with his Mother. Later I sent her a card and wrote a note about what a good man and great friend he was. Of course she knew. A few years back I toyed with the idea, based on he and I keeping in touch by phone for so many years, of writing about people and places and calling it “I wanted to call Steve today.” Well that day I wanted to call Steve and tell him I had coffee with his Momma.
In between Kirbyville Missouri and Leeds Alabama I took a little detour down to Clarksdale Mississippi just to take a stroll in the Delta and visit the Delta Blues Museum, and took a direct route that included a stop in Tupelo. I’m not a big Elvis fan but the displays outside the museum there, where they moved his childhood home and a church to, were really well done. They talked about the kid from Tupelo, not the King of Rock ‘n Roll. I enjoyed it. Now the day before, I found myself on I-40 coming across the Mississippi. I had been learning a little about Memphis music, saw interviews with Rufus Thomas, and I was curious. What could I find out or see in just a few hours? On that first “pass-through” I stopped at the welcome center downtown and asked what I could see in a few hours. The folks there kind of looked at me funny and threw out a few suggestions, but I knew I had to go to one place. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is a re-creation of the original Stax Studio, torn down years before. This is where the Blues Brothers (in part) came from, the site where Booker T and the MG’s made that great music, where Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, and of course Otis Redding, put Memphis on the music map. I cried when the intro film talked about the death of Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays, the changes at Stax and in Memphis after Dr. King was murdered, and the end of (the original) Stax Records. I marveled at the displays that told the story of Memphis soul, so much I was unaware of – Thomas, Taylor, Floyd, Pickett, and so many others that lived here or came here to work and record. After I went there I parked across from the building that once held WC Handy’s office on Beale Street and took a quick walk down the blocks that reminded me of Bourbon Street. As the sun set I headed down Third Street and ate at Neely’s. I followed the Highway 61 of legend, the River Road, the Blues Route, a reversal of the route so much great musical talent traveled along heading north out of Mississippi. I got my first taste of Memphis. I thought I should come back again someday. Oh yeah – a giant step towards Memphis.