Friday, December 26, 2008

A musical family?

I’ve always loved music. One of my first memories was my brother Alan calling me into the house when a Chubby Checker tune came on the radio—“The Twist,” I presume. I would pedal my tricycle as fast as I could back to the house so I could listen to the number one record of 1960.

When my brother Dale borrowed a friend’s electric guitar, he warned me not to touch it when he left the house. Of course, the moment he was a block away, I had it out of the closet and was learning to pick some melodies.

In 5th grade, our vocal music teacher got married and moved to Troy, New York, right in the middle of the school year. Mrs. Adams took over. No offense to Mrs. Adams, but our ex-music teacher was much better looking and I had a crush on her (although I can’t for the life of me remember her name anymore).

My best friend, Larry, had been playing the trumpet in the 5th grade band and told me I should do that instead. So I went to the band’s open house day where Mr. Lowe displayed an assortment of musical instruments for us to choose. Losing count of the number of buttons and switches on the clarinet and flute, I decided to go with the trombone. Only one thing to do: Move the slide back and forth. How hard could that be?

As a budding Glenn Miller, I was relegated to the garage for practice. My bedroom was just too close for my parents’ comfort. Neither of them being musicians, they probably didn’t appreciate the soulful tones emanating from this brass contraption. I do remember that moving the slide didn’t much affect the sound coming out the other end. That’s not a good sign.

In spite of the rough start, I did learn to play the trombone well enough to become a music major in college for a couple of years, but my less than inspirational experience student teaching a junior high school band prompted me to change my major and eventually graduate with an accounting degree.

Music is still a big part of my life, however, as a group of us gets together from time to time to play blues tunes. My trombone stays at home, though, as I switched to electric bass many years ago. It’s a creative outlet that helps keep me sane during income tax and town budget season.

For quite a number of years playing in bands was more than just a hobby. It paid for college and, after the kids starting coming, it paid for a lot of other things. One of our variety bands, Southwest, put together a promo video back in the 90's. See it here (for those of you who have broadband Internet, click on "watch in high quality"):

We encouraged our kids to play instruments in school bands and several of them did. Sarah and Gayle played clarinet and Dan played the drums. Chris, Bryan and Jeff spent their extracurricular time playing sports.

In one of the cuter moments I can remember, Sarah and Dan decided to perform “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” a cappella:

In spite of Dan’s apparent inability to clap and sing simultaneously, he went on to become a drummer, mallet player and percussionist. He will receive his master’s degree in music education next May. He admits he still has trouble clapping and singing at the same time. Here is the drum set finale from his senior recital in undergrad school:

Gayle was a band chick in high school.

Although she spent a great deal of time learning her clarinet parts and practicing her marching steps, she had time to lead a rap group and write some original (and somewhat racy) material. Here it is:

Here, also, is Gayle performing with the high school marching band at a citywide contest:

Finally, Bryan, who I mentioned earlier did not pursue music as an avocation, did exercise his vocal prowess to the delight of many screaming girls at the high school senior talent contest.

So there you are. We may not be the Osmonds or Jacksons, but music was and is an important part of our family. I treasure the memories.

Copyright 2008 Randy Hunt

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hey, you in the wheelchair. Stand up!

Click here to listen to the audio version. (On a high speed connection, these podcasts may take up to a minute to load. Be patient. If you're on dial-up, you can simulate a podcast by reading the following article out loud.)

Joe Biden made big headlines and starred in one of the most viewed YouTube videos of the presidential campaign when he commanded Chuck Graham, a wheelchair bound Missouri state senator, to stand up and be recognized.

“Stand up, Chuck. Let ‘em see ya. Oh! God love ya. What am I talkin’ about?”

When I saw this clip for the first time, I almost choked. Yes, it was Biden being Biden, but it also dripped of déjà vu.

I played in bands since I was in junior high. Rock bands. Country bands. Variety bands. Any format that would land us a job. In my first band, I played trombone. It was back when the bands Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Earth Wind & Fire were popular. All of them incorporated trombones as well as trumpets and saxophones. Unfortunately for us, our brass section was comprised of a single slush pump player.

What’s the difference between a frog driving a car and a trombone player driving a car? The frog is more likely heading to a gig.

What do you call a trombone player with a beeper? An optimist.

What kind of calendar does a trombone player use for his gigs? Year-At-A-Glance.

So when the bass player quit, I saw an opportunity and started my career as an electric bassist using a borrowed guitar and amp. (For an update on the exploits of my trombone, see Happy Holidays from the Bunyan Household.)

Fast forward from the late 60’s to the early 80’s. We were still hustling gigs, some of us to earn college tuition money, some of us to support kids, and the drummer to attract chicks. We worked with an agent, without whom we never would have landed a wedding reception at the Missile Inn on Dyer Street. This place was a dive—surrounded by strip malls, hock shops and fast food restaurants—that got its name from the fact that Ft. Bliss, Texas, was the Army’s training center for Hawk and Hercules missile systems. It was also a short drive to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

In all of the years that we played parties around El Paso, we never stepped foot into the Missile Inn. The karma wasn’t good and, in spite of the fact that I grew up in the northeast side of the city, it was not the part of town that made for good gigging.

The ballroom was small and uninspiring. I’m guessing that the bride’s father got it for a song. Maybe just a lyric or two. Capacity was probably 100 or so, but there were at least 150 people jammed into this place. To say it was hot would be an understatement. A June wedding is traditional, although in the desert, it comes with 100+ degree days—more than the air conditioning could handle.

After the first set—a quiet, unobtrusive collection of jazz and pop tunes to accompany the obligatory chicken cordon bleu, rice pilaf and green beans—we were ready to crank it up and get the party started. Now, you have to picture us making the transition from a lounge act into a frat house band. Five out of the six of us had the eyesight of a mole; all except for the drummer, who sported the 20-20 vision necessary to zone in on babes across the room. Our agent hated for us to wear glasses and use music stands, so we put both away in preparation for our metamorphosis.

Bill, our front man, lead singer and rhythm guitar player, was finishing wiping down his guitar with a polishing cloth and tossed it back onto his amplifier. Everyone turned up the volume and we started rockin’. Half way through “Pretty Woman” the eagle-eyed drummer noticed that Bill’s polishing cloth was on fire. It was fortunate that one of us wasn’t cripplingly nearsighted. Somehow it had fallen into the back of the amp where the hot vacuum tubes ignited it. Bill put it out without missing a beat. That’s talent.

The rest of the set went well with the pyrotechnics under control, but we knew we were in for more fun before we got to “Save the Last Dance for Me.” At some point during the next set someone scrawled something on a napkin and asked a waitress to deliver it to Bill. This was nothing unusual as we received song requests all the time.

On closer inspection, Bill realized that this person had scribed a joke and punch line that he obviously thought would improve our heretofore unfunny performance. You need to understand that Bill is a very funny person—a quick wit ala Robin Williams—but I don’t think I’ve ever heard him tell a joke. That wasn’t his style. And the thought of someone sending up a joke was a bit of an insult.

The unspectacled Bill, in a darkened room, asked the crowd who had written this joke. Off in the corner, a guy yelled out that he was the author. Bill fired back: “Come on up here, funny guy, and tell the joke yourself.” This was met with a noticeable gasp coming from the general direction of the instigator.

Gary, another one of our Mr. Magoos, sensed that something was up and wandered back to his guitar amp to recover his glasses. After struggling for a second to focus, he turned to me and said “Oh crap! The guy’s in a wheelchair.” I, in turn, tripped back to my amp and mounted my Coke bottle lenses on my nose adding, incredulously, “And he’s trying to stand up!”

By the time all of us had donned our prescription eyewear, this guy had made it half way across the room, using the tables to support himself as he dragged his feet behind him. It was as if we had been transported to a miracle healing rally. Bill parked his guitar in its stand, rushed over and, along with another gentleman from the crowd, assisted the soon-to-be comedian to the stage.

I don’t remember the joke or if it was funny, but I do remember that the entire place erupted in applause after the punch line, much the same way that the crowd in Missouri gave Chuck Graham a standing ovation. It’s a way for the audience to dissipate the tension and, in our case, show their appreciation for the gumption displayed by this fellow in taking Bill up on his dare.

So don’t feel bad, Joe. It happens to the best of us. But even Bill knows that FDR’s fireside chats weren’t televised.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Why I don’t ski (a study of the laws of gravity)

Click here to listen to the audio version. (On a high speed connection, these podcasts may take up to a minute to load. Be patient. If you're on dial-up, you can simulate a podcast by reading the following article out loud.)

Gravity is an interesting thing. It keeps your car in the driveway overnight without the need for tethers. That’s the positive aspect. In combination with a snow-covered mountain, gravity has no redeeming qualities.

About a dozen years ago, we decided to make the 140-mile trek into snow country from the desert city of El Paso, Texas. A few El Pasoans ski, but certainly not in the numbers that New Englanders do. For our family, skiing was just too expensive—starting with the fact that we had six kids. When you’ve got six kids, everything is expensive. Eating out anyplace other than a soup kitchen can break the bank.

So rather than deal with the expense of renting skis, snowboards and the associated accessories, we decided to go inner tubing. It’s roughly equivalent to going to a public swimming pool versus taking a dip at the country club. No one at the inner tubing facility is making a fashion statement by sporting $200 goggles that color coordinate with their $600 jumpsuit and $1,800 skis. No, the inner tubing crowd is jean-clad and arrives in a variety of vintage vehicles which share a common component: jumper cables.

Making the trip, however, presented a logistical problem. Our Dodge Ram 250 conversion van had broken down and, instead of paying the mechanic’s $1,200 repair bill, we signed over the title to him. That left us with my Dodge Intrepid (the worst car ever—and one I wished had defied the laws of gravity and floated away some night) and Mary’s Chevrolet Geo. With none of the kids being old enough to drive, we split them between the two cars and we both drove.

We arrived at the mountain in about three hours and parked among our fellow inner tubers’ oil-dripping jalopies. It was a perfect day. Sunny. Not too cold. Plenty of snow. As I recall, the admission was $8 for kids and $12 for adults. As ridiculously cheap as this sounds, it was still $72 before snacks.

We were all assigned inner tubes, ranging from car-sized for little Jeff to tractor-sized for me. Then we stood in a queue waiting for the tow line. So far, so good. The drag up the hill was pleasant and nobody had broken an arm yet.

At the top of the mountain, we were offered three choices: the beginners’ slope, the intermediate slope, and the death defying 88° sheer dropoff identified with a skull and crossed bones sign. We all looked into each other’s eyes and, without saying a word, moved in unison towards the beginners’ slope. Except for Gayle, that is. She was nine at the time and wasn’t thought of by the family as a risk taker.

After surveying the gentle grade of the beginner’s slope, I took inventory of our gaggle and noticed that Gayle was missing. “Where’s Gayle?” I asked. Our 7-year-old, Jeff, nonchalantly explained that she went down the slope back there. And, sure enough, there was Gayle at the bottom of the mountain, completely intact and unaware that she had just conquered the black, triple diamond expert run. Apparently she hadn’t read the sign.

Well, we weren’t about to be intimidated by a 9-year-old girl into changing our plans, so we proceeded to tackle the beginner’s slope. So slight was the angle that you had to paddle with your hands several times to get all the way down the hill.

After several more runs and graduating to the intermediate slope, I was building my confidence and decided I was man enough to take on Gayle’s Hill. Standing at the top, I watched several other people speed down the slope without incident, laughing and screaming all the way.

Okay, time to shove off. I laid down, head first, on my tube and one of the kids gave me a push. Which one, I don’t remember, but what happened next is 100% their fault.

I quickly gained speed. And what I mean by quickly is that I reached terminal velocity in about six seconds. The problem was that I was not aimed straight down the hill. Instead, I was on a course that would take me off the left side of the groomed portion of the run. There’s no rudder on these things, by the way.

About two-thirds of the way down, I was generating a series of sonic booms as I left the inner tubing area. I flew into a depression which, when I reached the other side, launched me airborne. I was hugging the inner tube as I flew by several birds and squirrels’ nests. This is when it occurred to me that gravity would soon make its presence known.

Then… BWAAAPPP!!! I hit the ground with such force that everyone on all three slopes turned to see what the heck was going on. You see, an inner tube is like a rubber ball and the bounce I experienced was unbelievable. I was back in the air, only this time my inner tube went one direction and I went the other.

There’s not much you can do at this point except to wish that you had never gotten to this point. My next contact with the ground was the first of at least three crushing blows, one of which involved a face plant. I finally landed on my back in a snow drift, staring straight up at the blue heavens, waiting for the light to beckon me to the afterlife.

In fact, it was so quiet I thought I might have lost my hearing, but I soon realized that the silence was the result of everyone staring with bated breath, curious to see if I was going to move. I imagined one of the facility workers in the background lowering the flag to half staff.

I first focused my efforts on wiggling my toes. They wiggled. Perfect, I thought. My spinal cord is probably still in one piece. I then raised each arm, checking to see if they were pointing in any unusual directions. Same with my legs. I couldn’t believe it. No bones poking out of my jeans. Head still facing forward. I had survived!

I discovered later that I had wrenched my back, bruised some ribs, and couldn’t turn my neck at all, but this was all pretty minor considering how it might have turned out. Driving home was a challenge. I had to query my kids whether there were cars coming from the left or right. And the next day we went to the Sun Bowl game. All I remember is that I could only see the football players when they were between the 30 and 40 yard lines. Never saw a touchdown.

Now you can understand why I hang around town on winter weekends and leave the slopes to the heartier crowd. Gravity is not my friend.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Let it snow

It might snow tomorrow.

I love the first snow of the season. And the second. And third.

So get out your shovels, snow blowers and Aleve and keep an eye out for those first flakes of winter. Technically, it’s not winter until December 21st, but tell that to anyone who enjoyed the April Fools’ Day storm in 1997.

Of course, Cape Cod’s biggest snow storm in recent years blasted us on Sunday, January 23, 2005. We were to host a Patriots playoff party that afternoon, but ended up watching the game by ourselves in the cozy confines of our soon-to-be igloo.

The next morning, I struggled to peer out the windows to size up the previous night’s winter tidings, but every window was nearly opaque with snow and ice and steamed up instantly with my breath. I proceeded to the front door and very carefully opened it, just a crack, to survey the accumulation.

What I saw, instead, was a wall of snow that covered the entire doorway. That was a tad unsettling, knowing that the rest of our exit doors had attached screens that swung out. How, exactly, were we going to get out?

I pulled the snow shovel from the coat closet and slowly opened the door enough to start pushing the snow away at the top of the doorframe. In a few minutes I had cleared the doorway and our impatient black lab, Maggie, dashed out to relieve herself. Only she completely disappeared into the snowdrift and was unable to move.

I continued to shovel out to where she had vanished and uncovered a wagging tail attached to an embarrassed, 75-pound coal black dog statue. Turns out that I was the black Labrador retriever this morning, not her.

With three feet of snow and twelve-foot snowdrifts, it was a morning I’ll never forget. I dug a series of trenches for Maggie so she could do her business without fear of becoming a popsicle. I also dug a walkway out to the SUV, which we had cleverly parked in the driveway close to the street. After the plow driver came by, we only had about five feet of snow to shovel from behind the car to access the street.

By 10:00 a.m., we were able to make it out of the neighborhood and get to the office. Many other people, I acknowledge, were stuck for up to three days, due to the shortage of heavy plow trucks. The normal fleet of private snow plowers, operating their half-ton and three-quarter-ton pickup trucks, were useless in over 30 inches of snow.

The office temperature (inside) was 37 degrees Fahrenheit (see Taking The Temperature of Danny G. for an explanation of the competing temperature scales). Snow had covered the exhaust vent pipe and caused the heater to shut down. So, rather than balancing debits and credits with our frosty number two pencils, we went for a ride to see the storm’s aftermath and shot the pictures that follow.

Although, as an elected town official, I’m concerned about the stress such storms put on our budget, there’s a little voice in my head (among several, unfortunately) that says “I wonder what a 4-foot snow storm would be like…”