Wednesday, November 7, 2012

He Earned It

President Barack Obama
Expressing my happiness concerning the President's re-election:

The system of meritocracy: to work hard, to do a good job, to be acknowledged and rewarded for your efforts. It has made this country great. It is the basis of our continuing freedom. 

Barack Obama's re-election says many things, but above all he speaks to "the better angels of our nature." He is to our times what Abraham Lincoln was to the 19th century, for surely we are at a similar crossroads in the history of mankind. Our nation has been chosen to carry liberty forward; this requires a clear eye, open mind and unflagging compassion for our fellows as well as all other species on planet Earth. 

Let us never forget the sentiment expressed in our 16th President's Inaugural Address as our fractured Union faced "the second American revolution." It is simple, beautiful and ageless. 

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."


A job is a task undertaken with a desired result in mind.  It can be as simple as peeling an apple or as complex as directing the construction of a transportation network.  To "do a good job" is to be present in your work, engaged and respectful of the labor, the laborer and the environment in which it is done.  

Our nation has been chosen to carry liberty forward.     

England's Sir Winston Churchill is said to have had a gargantuan ego.   A story I read describes a tongue lashing given his long time butler Charles Rudd.  Lady Churchill, who witnessed the display, questioned how her husband could justify treating his dear and trusted family employee with such disrespect.  Churchill replied (and I paraphrase liberally) "I am a great man!  I am here to do great things.  At times Rudd forgets that."   

I think certain individuals are chosen for greatness.  They are born to a place and time, and then, as Malcolm Gladwell describes in "Outliers", develop into the individual the position requires. 

The United States has been referred to as a grand experiment.  The nation's abundant natural wealth and its unique political system have allowed an ever expanding citizen population to exercise individual autonomy.   We, as a nation, have carried this ideology forward.  Let us hope this mission is now insured another few years!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Big Birds & Bulls

Associated Press

HARFORD, Pa. — Officials say a rodeo bull at the Harford Fair in Pennsylvania got loose and ran wild around the grounds injuring several people before the animal was captured.
Fair officials say the bull got loose during loading Friday evening. The Binghamton, N.Y. Press & Sun Bulletin reports that hundreds of fairgoers dove into carnival game booths and fences to escape the animal ( ).
At least 10 people were reportedly injured, but fair and fire officials would not confirm the number of injuries and declined to answer questions on the incident, citing an ongoing investigation.
Nineteen-year-old Raymond Rose told the newspaper that people were screaming as the bull ran toward them. He says it had big horns and weighed probably 900 pounds.
The paper reported the fair reopened Saturday at 8 a.m.

If you ask me, Americans are turning into big fat wimps!  How can a domesticated farm animal strike this kind of terror in the hearts of thousands?  No wonder a Muslim brother with aviator shades and an odd shaped brief case can set off more alarms than a Kansas twister!!  I watched one of the videos posted on Youtube and the bull appeared to be barely trotting down the fairway. I'll bet he was just looking for the cattle trailer or maybe the beer tent.  (Whiskey for my men, beer for my bulls*)  The plump old lady in the wheel chair?  The one who had to be life-lined to Geisinger Medical after being flipped into the air and left semi-conscious with half a corn-dog protruding from her mouth?  Well geez... maybe  next time she won't play rodeo clown around Tim Toro the Texas Longhorn!  

Excluding headlines concerning the gas rich Marcellus shale, the last incident in this area to go National happened back in 1986 when Christopher Lake ( a.k.a. "Lakie") and his pregnant wife Nanette, caught up with a high school kid  who had slipped into their home and pinched some marijuana.  Lakie, an affable fellow when not high on Bud Light or methamphetamine, was a Harley-Davidson homie renown for being wound a tad too tight. Only a fool would have thought to steal from Lakie, let alone go after the man's personal stash.  But to brag about it afterward at a high school dance was nothing less than a death wish.  

There is honor among thieves; when crossed, retribution is swift and often lethal.  

Lakie had to set an example.  So he and his bride, along with a friend, Hank Peck, apprehended the young scoundrel and in a makeshift court set up among the socket sets and tire-irons of the family garage, tried and convicted the kid of rifling through the Lake's nightstand and slipping away with a bud or two of fine Jamaican weed.   As punishment, they stripped the teenager of his clothes, covered his trembling body with axle grease and then broke a couple of down pillows over his head.  With the high beams of the Chevy illuminating the way, the three vigilantes then forced their prisoner to walk the length of Main Street, New Milford, PA to atone for his crime.  The story made NBC's TODAY show.  I later heard the eye-witness testimony of an astounded local resident:

"I could hardly believe it.  There was all this honkin' and hollering and down the middle of Main Street comes this... this... thing.  Well I don't know, but it looked just like Big Bird! "

Lakie was convicted of aggravated assault, fined about a thousand dollars and given a suspended sentence.  Some days later a hand painted sign appeared in his front yard on Cobb Street.  Atop a black background in neat white stenciling the plaque read:   

                                                               May 6, 1986
                                Site of the last American Tar and Feathering

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Whistle Blower

I used to play a lot of tether ball when I was in elementary school.  It was a simple game; a volley ball "tethered" by a thin rope to a tall steel pole.  The object?  Two players would face off against one another and try to clobber the ball in opposite directions.  The first to wrap the rope and ball completely around the post like the colors of barbershop pole, would win the game.  

The victor usually had a really strong arm or was just a tad taller than his opponent and was able to hit the ball high, foiling the defender's attempts to leap up and block its cork screwing flight.   When mismatched in height  the serve was of prime importance.   If the smaller kid had the serve, he could create sort of an angled, elliptical orbit by starting the ball low and sending it on a rising trajectory, sort of like an electron zipping around the nucleus.  If he smacked the ball right, the top of its arching flight would peek just above where the taller kid was positioned.  As it came round the pole again, it would dip low and the little red-faced server would smack it a second time, speeding it along the same out of reach path.  If the tall kid was lame and didn't move and he'd keep missing the ball until he lost.  I loved that game!

My other favorite game was a total guy thing with a modicum of violence and much battle field theatrics:  dodge ball.   Played in gym, with two teams on either side of the center line, and all you tried to do was hit each other with the volley ball.  If you could dodge the shot, you were still in the game, if not, out to the side lines you went.   The team with players left on the floor won.  Simple.  But my seventh grade gym teacher came up with a new version he called Combat Dodge Ball. Mr. Royer was a bald, squat, muscle bound, ex- Marine sergeant who made us line up in squads for roll call.  He would walk the lines of seventh and eight grade boys and with his index finger, stretch and release the elastic waist band of our jock straps.  A stinging zap made sure we had them on.  If not, back to the locker room we were sent.  Chas (his first name, uttered only behind his back) also checked our hair length to insure the bangs where no longer than the width of two fingers above our eyebrows and that no growth had touched the top of our ears.  If a kid was in non-compliance, Chas would let out a very pronounced nose grunt; a short nostril "HMMMFFFH" followed by the word "hairCUT!!"  He would then move on down the squad line, checking and rechecking his students.   

If your hair was too long (this was the 60's and every kid wanted long hair) you had until the next gym session to get to a barber (we had gym every other day) or he would send you to the assistant Principal's office for a talk with Mr. Fritz.  Fritz kept a file of index cards on which he recorded each student's disciplinary indiscretions.  I had a thick stack of cards (hyper-active kids usually did) that Mr. Fritz loved to thumb through as he interrogated me.  Earl Fritz was about 6' tall, had ink black hair cut in a squared flat top and always wore a white shirt and a black suit and tie.  He was intimidating and distributed detention liberally, but it was the principal... whose name I have blocked from my mind... who one time pulled me from a line for laughing and slammed me against the wall during a fall-out shelter drill.  He had sandy blond hair and a sort of pleasant demeanor.  Looks can be deceiving. 

Yeah, so combat dodge ball.  I assume Chas Royer invented it because no one had ever heard of it before playing it in his gym class.  Two big rule changes.  First, no player left the court during the game.  Instead they were forced to lay face down on the spot where they were hit. (the quick and the dead).  Second, we didn't use soft volley balls.  Nope, Chas' version of Combat D-Ball used rock hard basket balls.   Obviously the bigger boys had an advantage.  The basket balls required a big palm to handle and in comparison to a volley ball, were heavy.  Either you had a hard time throwing it, and missed a lot, or the ball worked fine for you and you could truly hurt your opponent.   And then there were Chas's disciples, the sadomasochists.   Big lads who were destine to be stars in high school football.  They loved to throw the ball at the dead and wounded, skinny little kids, pale and malnourished  symbolic of the world's underclasses, lying face down, heads covered with their frail arms, easy targets strewn across the maple floor of the gym.  No good moving target to throw at?  Slam a dead kid on the floor.  If they hit the cowering body just right, they could make the ball bounce back to them along with the moans of their victim.  That made Chas smile and his disciples loved to see him smile.

Its funny, those memories.  I am quite sure Chas Royer and Earl Fritz are dead by now, but they are quite alive in my mind, unaltered by time. 

Mr. Fritz and detention hall.  It was a small desk-chair unit placed in the corridor outside the main administrative office, the place everyone had to pas to come or go from the building.  If you were prone to shame, it was a horrible seat to occupy.  On the other hand, if you were slightly brazen, it could be a rather rewarding social experience.    My longest stint of after school incarceration was in punishment of good healthy capitalist spirit.  Something that should have won me praise from my elder educators.  It was 1968 and bird whistles were all the craze.  The whistles were tiny devices, made of a little piece of leather and a thin reed of clear plastic connected together by a U-shaped grommet.   This 1" long, 1/16th of an inch thick device was inserted behind the front teeth on the tip of the tongue.  Exhaling softly through the mouth caused the plastic reed to vibrate emitting an ear piercing screech with lips barely parted.  You could blow a bird whistle in a crowd, and no one could tell who had made the shrill noise.

So these little devices, which I imagine resulted in a good many deaths by suffocation when inhaled, were sold at the candy store across the street from Highland Junior High school.  There, along with sweettarts, jaw breakers, baseball cards, tootsie roll pops and a million other temptations were bird whistles, selling for a nickel a piece.  Unfortunately, we had two things going against us when it came to visiting Paisley's Candy Store.  Most kids attending the school (which was torn down some years ago and replaced with a mini market) rode the big yellow buses to and from home and lived miles from the town's sole source of bird whistles.  Second, we did not have what was called an "open campus".  That is, we were not allowed to cross the street to Paisley's or anywhere else not on the school grounds.  

Displaying the entrepreneurial genius of a young Bill Gates I sensed the potential popularity of the bird whistles. So, disregarding the distance, I mounted my bicycle one afternoon and rode the ten miles from my house to the store.  There I bought a big 40 cent bag of Cheetos and invested another buck sixty in bird whistles.  The next day I took them to school and began selling them for a dime a piece.  As my supply quickly dwindled, market pressure drove my price first to twenty and then twenty five cents a unit.   The profit was not only incredibly intoxicating, but with it came a new form of popularity; that of the "pusher-man."

Not more than two days passed and I was again aboard my Huffy one speed making another covert run to Paisley's Candy Store.   This time, with company profits, I bought five dollars worth of bird whistles.  Similar success was enjoyed at lunch hour the following afternoon. My pockets jingled with coins as the school came alive with the piercing call of unseen raptors.  But then the heavy hand of government, that hated thing called regulation, was placed upon my shoulder.   From the wall intercom came an announcement:  "Ronald Boyd, please report to the Administration Office.  Ronald Boyd, report to the office."  

There I sat in front of Mr. Fritz, a pile of discolored and misshapen bird whistles in a water glass beside him, my stack of index cards in his hand.  

"But what have I done wrong?"  I pleaded.  "I went after school to the store!  I'm not the one using the whistles during school hours.  How can I be held responsible for what other students do with a perfectly legal device?"

Had my case been heard before a jury, had I an attorney who could have expunged my prior school convictions from evidence, I believe I would have been vindicated.  But with Fritz manning the gavel of justice it was three weeks detention for possession with intent to distribute... BIRD WHISTLES.

I had a lot of problems with authority as a kid.  Real authority garners respect which must be earned.  Few of my disciplinarians in early childhood ever achieved anything close to my respect.  What they did instill was a healthy sense of how flawed most bureaucracies are and how corrupting even a small amount of power is.  

What can I say, once a whistle blower, always a whistle blower.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Madame Coo

Madame Coo
I remember the pigeons in Paris. During my second year there, I lived on Rue de Bois de Bologne in the 16th arrondissement.  I was a block or two from Avenue Foch, which if I recall correctly, radiates like an axle spoke from the traffic circle around the Arch de Triumph.  I don't have a great memory of how the streets of Paris were laid out, because I went everywhere on the Metro. 

Paris is divided into different neighborhoods or arrondissements and the 16th is pretty damn ritzy. Most of the buildings were constructed during the late nineteenth century as residential housing for the wealthy.  They were made of stone with beautiful metal work around the floor to ceiling balcony windows. All featured amazing main entrances; double swinging doors of impressive size made of naturally finished hardwoods designed to accommodate horse and carriage from which one disembarked in the building's central courtyard.  Each set of doors had a smaller pedestrian entrance built into it.  One announced themselves by pushing a buzzer on the outside wall.  The concierge,  who occupied the ground floor apartment beside the entrance, would peek out her window, determine your identity and either buzz you in or join you at the door to determine your business. In France, there is a certain formality even to the most mundane daily activity.

I rented a maid's chambre.  It cost about $100US a month.  It was tiny.  It had a small closet, a narrow cot-like bed, a sink and a bidet.  The communally-shared Turkish-style toilet was located down the hall.  My rental had two great features.  First, the building had an ancient, two person elevator that ran from the lobby to the sixth floor, leaving only one level of stairs to climb to reach the septieme etage, where I lived.  The year before I had not been so lucky. My place on Rue Marbeau had been accessed solely by a spiral staircase that connected the back doors of all the apartment kitchens.  That was the set-up in many buildings and it made for a real workout for the seventh floor tenants.  In my case, each trip up or down consisted of 126 small wooden steps, a sum I tallied unconsciously at least twice a day.  The second big plus of my new room were the windows. They were built like French doors, half the height but just as wide, and they overlooked the huge park on the city's western edge after which my street had been named. When they were open, the room felt like it belonged to the sky.

On my side of the building, the windows were built into the rise of the leaded Mansard-style roof-line.  Below the window sill was the wide curving lip that made a kind of eave over the building's edge.  It is there the pigeons liked to roost, particularly if one tossed a few bread crumbs their way.  Pigeon feeding was strictly forbidden and the city ordinance against it was posted on most buildings somewhere near the concierge's apartment.  The law existed because when pigeons take flight, like all birds, they lighten their load by pooping.  Concentrated feeding areas therefore result in high volume avian waste zones.  A "little pigeon shit"  is one thing, but when it rains down from a height of seventy or eighty feet and drenches your beautifully attired date as you embark for an evening stroll on the Champs Elysees, it's no laughing matter.

Paris, like any large city, shelters its share of lost and forgotten souls.  The little old lady who lived across the hall from me fit that description perfectly.  She had a face shriveled as a California raisin and wore layers of clothing from conflicting but equally desperate eras. She seldom was seen except from behind her cracked door, which she opened ever so slightly to spy on me  as I passed.  I always greeted her in French with a merry and bright,  'Bonjour Madame!" Just as predictably, she would grunt and jam her door shut.

I didn't know her name and since my French was pretty limited I never spoke to the concierge about her. Instead, I simply referred to her as Madame Coo, friend to the pigeons. Regardless of the anti-feeding ordinance  (which may have been left over from the German occupation of the 1940's) she derived great joy from scattering chunks of her left- over baguettes on her window sill for the birds. She would also put out plates of water and other culinary delectables, drawing huge flocks to the west side of our building. 

The sound of the pigeons as they gorged themselves on Madame Coo's handouts was incredibly disturbing, particularly on mornings after a late night with friends at the Mazet Cafe.  The flutterring of wings and the incessant scratching of clawed feet on the metal roof was bad enough, but that cooing!   My God, it had such a human quality, the tone and rhythm of muffled love making heard through walls too thin.  The ewes and coos of hundreds of arial rats pleasuring themselves was unnerving.    

What goes up must come down and what goes in must come out.  The mess below, as well as on the roof ledge, was a blight on the romantic backdrop of my otherwise museum quality neighborhood.  Madame Coo must have had a powerful nephew on the Paris Police Force, for I never heard anyone complain about her feeding the birds.  And the ordinance warning?  The official sign displayed seven stories directly below her window? It was almost illegible due to the Jackson Pollack size drips of grayish green goo smeared across the lettering.  

But it was okay.  The street cleaners, with their blue uniforms and long handled whisk brooms, would arrive in the morning and rinse down the sidewalk.  The sun would peak through the shimmering leaves of the sycamore trees and life in Paris would go on, carrying Madame Coo's pigeon pooh away on a curb-side stream of  non-portable l'eau.  As for me, during those far too frequent not so chipper early morning hours?  Well, I would roll my face to the wall, pull my pillow over my head and picture plump French girls romping about in Manet-like bliss until I drifted back off to sleep.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Bottle-neck guitar

A working man's injury has a story to tell.  Accidents often happen when we are rushing, over-tired or pre-occupied. The scars we carry remind us of our history and help define who are. 

I caught the index finger of my left hand in a hydraulic wood splitter.   I had been working alone on the hill when it happened.  It was the autumn of the year my wife and I separated.  I cut a lot of wood that season, selling it to make up for the loss in family income.  My spouse had been the primary wage earner.  I worked as a stone mason, spent a lot of time with our children and took care of our large rural property. 

I got so I was pretty fast when it came to splitting wood.  I operated sort of on automatic pilot, my mind lost completely in the work.  I would stack three or four logs on the support deck,  
then one by one, roll each into place, pull and hold the lever that activated the hydraulic arm and then watch as the wedge pushed slowly and evenly into the butt end.  In seconds, the  sawed log would split down the length with the grain and I would release the lever and the wedge would reverse course.   I'd then toss the smaller pieces into the truck bed, roll another big chunk of wood into place and repeat the process.  The repetitive act of making firewood had a sort of dreamy, slow motion quality that I quite enjoyed.  With sixty or eighty chords to turn out, that was a good thing.

Anyway, I rolled on a heavy log that had a "Y" at the end.  I propped the thicker stub against the back plate but it rested awkwardly there, so I supported it with my left hand as I pulled the hydraulic lever with my right.   As the wedge pressed in against the log, the tension created caused wood to twist and the upper stem of the "Y" pulled down, somehow pinching my gloved hand between its sawed stump and the back plate.  It happened just that fast.   

I'm a musician.   I've played the guitar for more than thirty-five years.  It was my profession as well as my first love.  My band mates and my past writing partners were like family to me.  I was alway jamming with new people, composing tunes, learning songs and performing until the year I divorced.  It was an artistic discipline as well as my social life.   My left hand is what I fret the guitar neck with and the index finger is incredibly important.  All the bar cords require the first finger, its primary in every riff and scale progression I'd ever learned.  

So I'm up there on the mountain on a cloudy Sunday loading the truck with ash wood and suddenly everything changes.  As I release the hydraulic and am able to pull my hand away from the machine, I know what has happened is bad, really bad.  I'm afraid to remove the glove.  I am worried about the bleeding.  I'm a long way from the house.  

I don't remember doing it,  but I must have reached down with my good hand and shut the gas motor off.  Then I climbed in the truck and with one hand on the wheel, spun the truck around and barreled down hill to the house.  The kids were there.  I rushed in and yelled to my thirteen year old son.  "Sam,  get a bag of ice.  I crushed my finger!  Hurry!"  He jumped up from his chair and ran into the kitchen with me. 

"How'd you do it Pop?"  He asked as he searched under the counter for a plastic freezer bag.

"On that God damn splitter."  I mumbled.  I was leaning over the sink intent on inching off the glove.  I was praying my finger wasn't going to come off with it.  

It was a bloody mess, but still all in one piece.  I rinsed it with cold water.  The skin had burst from around the bone like the rhine on an over ripe tomato.   Sam was cracking trays of ice into the bag he'd found and his little sister Sarah was standing across the counter from me her eyes wide, not saying a word.  

"I'm okay baby,"  I said to her  "but you'd better run upstairs and get my wallet.  I'm going to have to go get some stitches "   

I was in shock I suppose.  Everything was just a numb throbbing all the way up my arm.  As I flushed the wound, I noticed a big wood sliver sticking out of the center of my finger print.  I tried a couple times to pull it out but it wouldn't budge.  Then I realized it wasn't a sliver.  It was a chord of white muscle tissue.

I could sense that Sam was afraid to look at the finger.   He handed me the bag of ice and stood behind my elbow.  I folded it gingerly around the dish towel I'd improvised as a bandage.  

"Guys, I think you had better stay here."  I said as I took my wallet from Sarah's outstretched hand.  My little girl looked so serious that after I'd slipped the billfold in my back pocket I gave her nose a tweak with my good hand  "Hey, I'm okay baby.   You and brother call mom and tell her I'm going to the hospital for a couple stitches. " 

I headed out the back door and as I stepped off the deck I saw our old Dodge Caravan coming down the dirt road.  Sarah's mom had arrived early to take her to soccer practice.   She pulled in and I told her what had happened and she insisted on driving me back into town.  So the kids climbed in the back and off we headed to Binghamton General Hospital's emergency room.  The ride took forty minutes and the whole time I'm thinking "what if I can't play guitar anymore?"  Then it dawned on me.  Maybe that's why the early blues men started playing bottle neck guitar.  Most of them had been farm laborers.  Farmers were always getting hurt, always lossing fingers. 

I thought of old Walter Pavelski who owned the farm next door to ours.  When we were kids, he used to play his  finger-up-the-nose trick.  He would say, "Hey, see if you can do this!"  When we would look up he would have all but the base of his index finger buried in his nose.  Walt had a pretty big nose and when he didn't have his dentures in it seemed even bigger.  It really wasn't hard to believed he'd shoved his whole finger up that nostril of his.  But then he'd pull his hand away and viola, nothing but a stub.  He'd lost the other two thirds to the gears of a corn blower.     

The country blues players.  If they lost a finger, they could always tune the guitar strings to a cord, find a glass bottle and slide it up and down the neck.   Every position is another cord, no problem.  With a little practice, soon they could slide between individual notes and play melody lines.  "Okay," I think , "If worse comes to worse I'll play bottle neck guitar for the rest of my life."

It was a long wait at the emergency room.   My ex is a bigwig in the hospital's marketing department, but that didn't get us a doctor any faster.  Fortunately the physician who finally worked on me was a surgeon.  I guess somewhere along the line one of the nurses must have given me a pain killer, because when he slipped my injured finger through the hole in the sterile operating bib, I laughed out loud.  Isolated from the rest of my hand, this swollen, fleshy appendage certainly didn't resemble my finger.   

"Well Doc,"  I teased  "You look like a rabbi preparing for a circumcision.

"Yes,"  he said with a twisted grin "but I intend on reattaching the skin, not removing it."

It was weird to feel the tug of the needle and thread as he pulled the wound back together.  He had injected me with Novocain or something, so I couldn't  really feel anything.  It was more like my hand was in the other room and my arm was a mile long.

"So what do you think," I said to the surgeon, "Will I still  be able to play my broken hearted love songs?"

My ex was sitting in the cloth walled cubicle with our two kids.  I looked over at them and  smiled.

"Oh I think you'll be able to play them just fine.  You'll need some PT of course, but the joint is undamaged."

"PT?"  I asked

"Yes, therapy. "

"Therapy?  Like post traumatic?  What?  Do you think my finger is going to go into shock every time it hears a two-stroke engine fire up? Maybe flip-out or something?" 

"Physical therapy." he said, glancing up with a no nonsense expression.  "A crush can be many times harder for the body to heal than a laceration.  You must work the finger to prevent scare tissue from developing that could restrict movement.  That is, if you want to be able to play that fiddle of yours again."

"Guitar."  I corrected  "And I'll do all the therapy you want as long as the little bugger works."

"It will work." he assured me.  "You were very lucky."

Indeed I was.  I can still play the guitar.  Maybe even a little better than before.  Like they say about trauma, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

In a lot of ways I am stronger now than I was that day up on the hill with the wood splitter.  And every time I look at my left hand I think just how lucky I am.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Teaching The Blues

Mississippi John Hurt
I currently instruct one student in the art of guitar.  True, enrollment is a bit lean but I live in the second most sparsely populated county in Pennsylvania.  The local economy, once agrarian based, is now dominated by service sector employment with a smatterring of government positions and health care careers.  The average annual income for a family of four is a scant $33,600.  This leaves little in the way of trickle down revenue for private instruction in the arts.  

My classes are never advertised.  I rely solely on word of mouth.  My entrance requirements have been criticized by some, but I find them most effective in culling out the serious students from those of only passing interest. I insist all would be pupils fashion a hand made guitar from self harvested ash, maple or hickory and construct an instrument without the aid of 20th century technology.  If the guitar meets my strict requirements for resonance, pitch and tone, I then grant an audition.  A single performance of a selected composition is evaluated and entrance accepted or denied.  All decisions are final. 

Arkansas Mike came to me through the recommendation of a respected associate.  Gracious and articulate with the smooth oratory style of our former President Clinton, I invited him to my studio for a visit.  I liked Arkansas immediately.  A keen wit, clear eye and respectful demeanor presented itself, so when he pulled a crisp Jackson from his wallet and humbly requested an hour of instruction, I decided to waive the standard entrance requirements and pocket the twenty.

It has been almost a year since Arkansas Mike became a beneficiary of my weekly tutelage.  His progress has been outstanding as he is in possession of a very fine mind.  Also, without sounding too boastful, my inter-disciplinary approach to arts education has heightened his ability to absorb and process a far greater spectrum of musical styles and techniques due in part to the Renaissance under pinnings of our mentor/pupil relationship.

Coinsider this morning's exchange.  An email arrived expressing Arkansas' concern over the difficulty of mastering the rhythmic picking style of the Delta Blues.  His note also contained reference to a rather difficult encounter with his girlfriend Giggles.   The emotions stimulated by the confluence of Giggles and Arkansas Mike's personalities seemed like an excellent starting point for the week's music lesson.  Consider my approach:

The Student Inquiry

On Mon, Oct 8, 2012 at 10:22 AM, Arkansas Mike > wrote:

Giggles got drunk at Arlo's and I had to re-group and think about the "Simple Life"!!*   I got close to getting mad!!!  So, its bye-bye Giggles!!!!   I do not have the blues, but I would like to work on the song, "Fallin' Down Blues." ** I just have a problem with the blues.  I can't get the rhythm or something down. 

Simple Life 

Arkansas Mike
Susquehanna County

* Simple Life refers to the lessening of material and emotional attachements inorder to reduce human suffering. 

** Fallin' Down Blues:
The Instructor's Response:

From: Ron Boyd
Date: Mon, Oct 8, 2012 at 2:24 PM
Subject: Re: The Blues
To: Arkansas Mike

Rhythm problems?  Ah, the white man's burden!  You must tap into your "dark side" Arkansas Mike.  Funnel your repressed anger, your disappointments, your frustration, into twelve bars of repetitive melody;  give it a place to go.  

Have you ever asked yourself why the American slave sang the blues?  Well, if he expressed his anger, frustration or disappointment, if he actually stepped up and punched that big, fat, white overseer right in his bulbous red nose, he would have undoubtably been boiled like a potato  whipped like cream, stomped like grapes or shredded like wheat!  If by chance he survived, he would then have found himself bound in chains and headed for the auction block in the malaria infested swamps of the Mississipi Delta.  

So slaves learned to FUNNEL their anger.  They learned to hold on to it until they got to a secluded corner of the cabin where they could sit down on the dirt floor and just start rockin' back and forth, hugging their knees hard, swayin' side to side, rollin' their eyes and holding those powerful guns at bay.  Yeah, and they would feel that anger like it was molten rock sloshin' around in the earth's core, down where Satan swims.  They would feel those scalding gastric juices churning up in their bellies. They would feel swollen with sulfurous gas and taste the bitter bile of diminishment and insult.  Then, when they felt all the meanness and hate and earthly injustice they had endured about to explode inside them, they would throw back their heads, part their lips and with a glorious smile, let that poisonous geyser rip; let it blow right over their vocal cords like ink black smoke gushing from the stack of a steaming locomotive... and out it would a boil lanced:  The Blues!

Try singing these words, then make up a few of your own.
Well Jesus walked on water
Across the River Jordan
You can smell the beans and bacon
And the bones of evil breakin'

Giggles she been drinkin'
From dah fountain of dee Satan
Now she howlin' at dah Moon
Like a dog dat treed a coon

You see, you just have to let it come out.  You can't think about it.  You have got to feel it.  Embrace the pain.  Make friends with the pain.  Then you gotta sing the pain... dance the pain... love the pain... because the pain is the path to glory.  It is the way to God's SALVATION.

Okay, there is one other way to play the blues.  Its the Lennon/McCarthy approach.  A structured course of practice consisting of a minimum of 10,000 hours*.  That works too.

*see "Outliers" Chapter 2. by Malcolm Gladwell    

Good luck Ark!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Bell Boy

It was the fall semester of my junior year and I was living next door to a church on the top floor of a four story apartment building that I shared with three other college students.  

A fogged and anchorless summer had left me scrambling for housing just days before classes started.  I should have known better than to consider Clinton Street.  It was too far from campus and its decaying store fronts  were haunted by pawn brokers, used furniture vendors and thin, husky throated barmaids.  Once a main commercial thoroughfare, it had fallen from grace and by the late 20th century was best known for an initiation ritual known as "The Clinton Street Run." Perhaps to illustrate the concept of the mind-body gap, packs of bright eyed college students would attempt to jog its length, consuming no less than one drink at each of the more than sixty bars along its course.  Naturally few survived to tell the tale.

So there was Cliff, Danny, Carbo and me.  We met the real estate broker in the Tub of Suds coin laundry on the first floor.  She gave us the key to the place, told us her knees were bad and that she would wait for us in the white Lincoln out front.  We climbed the wooden stairs single file.  Stacks of yellowed newspapers and heaps of black garbage bags cluttered the back porches.  Over flowing litter boxes, coffee cans full of cigarette buts and on the third floor, a set of brand new white wall tires with shiny silver rims.  An emphysemic hack echoed from behind a screened door and I could feel an unseen pair of eyes follow us up the last flight of unpainted stairs.

Carbo loved the place.  Seventy-five bucks a bedroom, free steam heat plus electric.  One month deposit.  Before I'd even had a look at the bathroom, Carbo had produced a deck of cards and we were cutting for rooms.  Carbo pulled a king and I got a duce.  So he and Cliff ended up with the two front bedrooms with the big south facing windows and Danny got the spacious digs off the living room.  I was left with what once had been the kitchen pantry, a tiny squat backed into the north east corner of the building.  The walls were covered with dark brown imitation wood paneling and there was a single, prison-width window that faced the solid brick wall of the Orthodox Catholic church across the alley.  Lucky me.

Carbo was Italian, but a northern barbarian must have soiled the purity of Carbonne family tree, for unlike his Sicilian brethren in Astoria, Queens, Carbo had light brown hair, a slight nose and a big white tooth orthodontia enhanced grin that could disarmed any prejudicial stereo types linking him to the kind of Italians made famous in the "Godfather."  But that is where the dissimilarities ended.  Carbo was a pure disco-dancing wise-guy in the making.  He wore shiny silk shirts open to his navel, gold chains with crucifixes, way too much cologne and was studying accounting, I assume so he could return home and go to work fixing the books of la famiglia's businesses.  

Looking back, I think Carbo must have suffered from ADD, for the only way he could concentrate when studying was with a looping eight track of Led Zeppelin's "House of the Holy" played at max volume on his Crazy Eddie mega watt stereo system.   We all knew when Carbo had a test coming up. His three foot high speaker columns and hundred pound tube amplifier would kick to life, sending visible concussion waves through the paper thin walls of the apartment.  Dishes would crash down from the shelves above the sink. Jake, Danny's little black mutt, would crawl under the couch, claw at its ears and whine.  Every widow in the apartment would rattle as if a squadron of F-15s were strafing the building.  And there Carbo would be, sitting at his tiny desk in the corner of his big room, a towel wrapped around his naked torso, chain smoking Newport's and pouring over depreciation formulas and amortization charts surrounded by a stack of accounting books.  I had tried banging on his door and screaming at him to turn it down.  We all had.  But Carbo would just rise from his chair, take a few striding gaites to the door, grin at you with his toothy smile and then push it closed in your face.  He never even pretended to touch the amp's volume knob. 

Carbo was big and Carbo was tough.  He stood about six foot two and was made of 220 lbs. of pure muscle.  He looked like a body builder, though I never saw him work out.  He also held a black belt in karate. Unfortunately his marshall arts training was all about fight and had nothing to do with meditation or spiritual balance.  

Like the rest of us, Carbo loved drugs.  He loved all drugs; ups, downs, pot, pills, whatever.  On the weekends (if they could actually be delineated from the weekdays) it was a black-beauty washed down with Budweiser, a cartoon of Newport's and a card game somewhere off campus.  How Carbo found those card games I'll never know, but he would come in at four or five in the morning and dependent on his mood, tear the apartment apart or cook himself some steak and eggs.  Then he would head to his front bedroom and crash.   He slept in what I called his Lone Ranger mask; a black felt eye blinder designed to ward off  ambient light.  Other than that he wore nothing.  

Many a morning, I would be in the bathroom taking a shower and Carbo, blinders pushed up on his forehead, would kick through the door,  plop down on the toilet and take a deadly smelling dump.  Nothing quite like the humidity of a shower mixed with the ordure of a toxic crap to start the day off right.  Carbo would have his ear-plugs in, so no amount of cursing from behind the curtain would disturb his communal evacuation.  

But Carbo's ear plugs were no match for God.   You see the real-estate broker in the white Lincoln never bothered to explain why the apartment, with its gigantic living room, spacious kitchen and free heat was renting so cheap. We just figured it was because it was on Clinton Street, the arm pit of the civilized world.  But there was more to it than that.  It was the  church, and not the shared parking accommodations or the inconvenience of the occasional wedding or funeral, but the church bells.  

On Sunday morning, this Catholic parish believed in reminding its congregation of its holy duties.  But there were no finely cast bronze knockers hanging high in the bellfry tower with Quasimodo swinging from vines of heavy hemp.  No, the bells in the church next door were different.  In fact they weren't bells at all.  They were actually electronically enhanced analogue recordings played through an amplification system fit for Shea Stadium and they were broadcast every quarter hour until mass at high noon.  

Through ringing ears, one could almost hear the Angels snicker at Carbo's mega watt stereo system and the searing, ear splitting, heavy metal music he played at such outlandish volumes; almost hear them laugh at this young man, curled up fetal-like beneath his mamma's pink down comforter, his ear plugs in and his Lone Ranger mask on with Sunday services approaching.

Sure, Carbo was big and he was tough but beneath his eighteen karat gold crucifix, Carbo was but another fatally flawed mortal, full of sin and rife with weakness.  

One Sunday morning as I was about to leave the apartment by the front door, I happened to glance over at Carbo's room.  I saw something move inside.  Move quickly.  Like an attack dog springing for the throat of an intruder.   I stepped cautiously into the front hallway and peered into the dun light of Carbo's room.  There he was, his back to me, buck naked, gluts flexed, spine straight, triceps bulging, standing before a wide open window, a few wisps of December snow drifting in on the lightest of breezes.  The Remmington 308 deer rifle he'd brought from home after Thanksgiving was pressed tightly against his shoulder, an eye glued to the scope and aimed directly out the window at the huge gray fiberglass speaker attached to the church tower.  It was exactly 8:30 a.m. and the recorded bells had just begun their wavering, mid-hour, magnetic-tape clanging.

"Carbo NOOOOOOOO!"  I shouted at the top of my lungs  "Danny's got a quarter pound of Columbian in his bedroom!!! You shoot out that fucking speaker and the cops will be all over us!!  What are you thinking!"

Carbo just stood there. Then I noticed his sculpted Roman butt cheek twitch.  Then his shoulders dropped a bit and the taunt muscles in his back relaxed ever so slightly. The rifle came off his shoulder and with his left hand he dumped it into the corner against the wall and with the heel of his right fist, slammed the upper section of the double hung window closed.  He didn't turn around.  He just tugged down on his Lone Ranger mask and sort of fell sideways onto the king size bed, the one he'd dubbed his off shore drilling rig.  He yanked the pink comforter up over his shoulder, buried his head into the pillow and immediately started snoring.

If the angels snickered, I didn't hear them.  I just pulled Carbo's bedroom door shut and under a long, slow, deep breath, whispered,  "Let sleeping dogs lie and bell boys rest."


Tuesday, July 24, 2012


The red, white and blue
I'll admit, the gun thing in the U.S. is confusing.  When a person goes berserk and sprays a crowd with lead, who doesn't curse the weapon?  On the other hand, America has spent most of its life poised on the edge of a great and violent wilderness.  Hasn't the right to bear arms contributed to our underlying sense of freedom and individualism? 

As much as I love aesthetic order (and the tidy lay-out of European cities)  I understand that structure also represents control. Its hard to be free and controlled at the same time. It seems that every day Congress enacts new laws and communities script new regulations. Every day the human population increases in number.   And every day, an average of two hundred other species are driven into extinction.

Totalitarianism* as described by Aldous Huxley in "Brave New World" could very well be where we are headed. So relish these days when you can still take a car... or a horse... and ride west without a passport, apply for any job you want, live anywhere within the continent you choose or just stay put and spend every dime you have on branded clothing and restaurant food.  Its all up to you!

*  totalitarianism:  of or relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state : a totalitarian regime.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Enlightenment (Move You Shall!)

Goal Posts of Life
I was still in my early thirties when I packed up my wife, our three cats, some basic household necessities and headed off for Nashville, Tennessee to become a professional singer /songwriter.  After about six months of dragging body and soul around Music Row, Printers Alley and to every other neon blitzed Holiday Inn and Ramada featuring a writer's night, I began to realize that it was definitely not the life for me.  So one afternoon I found a glitzy little hair salon, walked in and asked the stylist to cut off my pony tail.  She was happy to oblige and I returned to  the streets of Music City looking like a young Kennedy fresh from a swim on the Cape.  Within a week I'd abandoned my finely tooled cowboy boots, dropped the acquired twang and jettisoned the ever present bottle of Bud Light.  

Dixie is known for Baptist congregations, sky splitting revelations and joyful, teary eyed Christian salvations.  Perhaps the tenor of Davidson County rubbed off on me in a perverse way, for instead shaking hands with Jesus like most rock bottom country singers, I ended up in Barnes & Nobel searching the shelves for books on Buddhism.  In the coming months I began to meditate, became a vegetarian and started to spend hours exploring the State Park system of Eastern TN, Hell bent on training to become a through hiker on the path to self-realization more commonly known as the Appalachian Trail.  

I practically gave up penning songs and turned my attention to filling thousands of pages in hard covered journals with detailed descriptions of my metaphoric encounters with life; pithy stuff, like capturing the sublime in a conversation shared with a Pakistani grocery store clerk.  Everything took on new meaning.  Everything was part of the journey to my inner self and of course, enlightenment.  I even gave up smoking pot.  Did you get that?  I gave up smoking P-O-T; something that I had deemed central to my identity and considered indispensable as a tool to demolishing the psychological barriers my formal education had erected between the right and left side of my brain, between ego and truth, between mundane citizen-cog and sensitive artist/composer.  But you know what?  Try as I might, I just wasn't ready.  The joyful prayer flags might have been fluttering in the thin, crisp air of the Tibetan highlands, but half a world away, in the valley of Cumberland River, I remained an unevolved Occidental toiling for pennies within the meat wheel of life.  

Then one morning, after about two years on the ethereal trail, I found myself sitting straight backed at the kitchen table in our rental home on Goodmorning Drive.  My eyelids at the pre-requisite half mast, I was attempting to telepathically alter the position of a pair of shoes I'd left on the floor by the opposite wall.  Mind you, I was only trying to move one, and only a millimeter or so.  Nothing too grandiose or showy.    You see, with all that acquired "I create the world" ripoche rhetoric circling in my satori ready mind and totally accepting that "reality is illusion and nothing is as it appears,"  I just wanted a sign.  A tiny "at-ah-boy" from the other side, something from Carlos Castaneda's nagual, a nod from nothingness, a wink from anybody's heaven.  I just wanted to see a shoelace drop or the leather tongue twitch.  

So I sat there in a trance.  For how long I'll never know.  I became totally "one" with those shoes. I performed a mind-meld that would have smoked Spock.  I emptied myself of every thought but the complete and total connection to the energy of I-Shoe-I.  And guess what happened?  Out of nowhere, like a fly-speck on the distant horizon, it began to form. Faint but increasing in volume ever so slowly, shaping itself like clay deep within the muscles of my distended diaphragm.  A primal animal noise.   A gurgling organic sludgy sound, rising from the core of my being, expanding like a balloon on a helium spigot.  Soon this auditory vibration was taking on color; brilliant, crystalline prismatic hues brimming with intensity, forcing a way upward, like a striped beach ball held too long underwater, shouldering past my calm and practiced deep healing breaths, up through my tracheae between awed vocal cords and from there gushing forth like the blood curdling blat of a tortured and dying calf.  My muscles re-coiled, my chair fell back, and in one seamless sound guided move I let my leg fly like the Saints' own John Carney, a kick so Zen that it sent those shoes right over the spiritual goal posts of life!  "BY GOD BASTARDS, MOVE YOU SHALL!"  

Enlightenment never felt so good.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hard Travelin'

Woody Guthrie

I learned a whole lot of Woody Guthrie songs for an American history course I took at Harpur College the summer of my senior year.  For my finals project, I used folk music to document the hard times and social injustice experienced by those who had lived through the desperate days of the Dust Bowl.  

Paul was taking the class as well. Paul was a Dead-head.  He was also a member of a benign cult of young psychedelics called the Joses.  The Joses had a signature handshake, one in which they wiggled their fingers above and below each others palms as if they were the appendages of a germaphobic wood-tic.  The Joses also had a trademark.  It was a circular, self-adhesive black felt pad about an inch in diameter; the kind used to cushion the bottoms of wooden chair legs.  Jose members kept a small stash of these "black dots" handy to stick on inviting surfaces sort of the way urban gang members are known to tag walls with their signature graffiti.  I recall finding a black dot in England, pasted to one of the 40 ton rock pillars at the Neolithic temple of Stonehenge!   Somewhere along the line the Joses had gone global. 

Anyway, when Paul wasn't off dotting the acid raves of Grateful Dead concerts, he attended the State University of New York.  I can't remember what he was majoring in but we both found ourselves in the same history class that summer.  Paul was a good guitar player.  I had jammed with him a few times during my sophomore year.  The relationship had culminated in a bar gig, but due to my insobriety, it had gone very badly and soured our friendship. The college class seemed fortuitous and my suggestion that we work on the finals project together a perfect way to make amends.
The search for audio tracks from the years of America's Great Depression led me to WHRW, our college radio station.  I spent evenings there for a couple of weeks, listening to recordings in their archive collection.  In 1935 the United States Congress had passed The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act., freeing up federal money to fund Roosevelt's "New Deal" programs in order to put the nation back to work.  Under the financial umbrella of the Works Project Administration (WPA), musicologists employed by the Library of Congress became the nation's first audio recording technicians, collecting performances from all sorts of little known blues and folk musicians of that period.  Woody Guthrie was undoubtably the most prolific artist on their registry.  

It took me a while to adjust to the limited quality of the mono recordings and the raw sound of Guthrie's guitar and vocals, but little by little I was drawn in by his stories.  Google and Youtube did not yet exist, so transcribing the lyrics and figuring out the cords was a slow process involving countless needle-drops.  In the process, the incredible talent carved into those plate thick vinyl records began to dawn on me.  This was not the music of the The Stones or The Beatles, but it was every bit as powerful.  It was a style unto itself, created by Guthrie to capture those dusty, displaced, Dust Bowl characters who had taken to the road in search of a better life.  It was more than that too.  For me his songs had a philosophic quality, a sort of creed a guy could live by.       

By the time my history final was due, I was sold on Woody Guthrie.  I was playing a hundred dollar EKO six string; an Italian made battle-axe designed to look like the far more expensive Gibson Hummingbird.  I carried it in a black cardboard case and came to class that day wearing a ratty straw hat, a harmonica brace and a faded red bandanna around my neck.  I had a good set of liner notes rehearsed to accompany the songs which described how families of Okies and Arkies lost their farms to drought and bank foreclosures, how entire counties nailed shut their doors and windows and headed west on highways like Route 66 or hopped the "flat rattlers" of California bound freight trains, risking life and limb for a new start beyond the Rocky Mountains in the idyllic, fruit filled valleys of the Pacific Coast.  

Unlike the subjects in Guthrie's songs, I had been raised in the comfort of a brick-faced colonial home in a secure middle class suburb.   Still, I felt strangely qualified to sing Woody's songs.  I had hitch hiked to California the summer I graduated high school so I suppose I felt I'd done a little hard travelin' of my own. Those eight weeks on the road had opened my eyes to a side of America I had never known.  There was the Mexican girl who invited me to stay at her brother's apartment in Denver.  I joined half a dozen family members on the living room floor that night, all proud, generous people who had come north to work. My host took me to the Hilton Hotel the following day and introduced me to his friends and co-workers.  To my surprise, all the signs in the multi-tiered basement of this luxury complex where printed in Spanish; not exactly what I had expected from the cowboy town portrayed by Hollywood westerns.  

As I moved on to the Rockies, then south to Flagstaff, I learned it was the less fortunate who most often gave you a ride or offered you a place to stay; the folks with the big cars and giant motor homes, who peering out at you from behind air conditioned glass, seldom if ever shared anything but their exhaust.  An eighty-dollar Ameri-pass on the Greyhound Bus line was my only motel, an olive-green sleeping bag my only bed.  I was on my own for the first time in my life and even though September would find me safely enrolled in college, my take on American culture would undergo a tectonic shift.   This new perspective expressed itself in countless ways, from the music I enjoyed to the friends I chose.

I met Paul in the spring of 1976 and ended up living in his off campus house for a few weeks during the summer break.  In his room Paul had a huge glass urn where he used to toss spare change; pennies mostly, like it was some kind of wishing well.  One day I borrowed about half a buck's worth of coins from this "kitty" to buy smokes.  It was a loan of course, one which I fully intended to repay.  Cigarettes only cost about sixty cents a pack back then and unfortunately I was hooked.  I felt I had to have them.

I was in the living room practicing guitar when Paul came in.  He was dressed in faded jeans and a loose fitting sleeveless tank top.  A kerchief, folded diagonally, covered the crown of his head.  It was knotted just above the base of his short black pong tail.  A feathered hoop hung from his left earlobe. His smile faded as his dark eyes tracked from my guitar to the filter cigarette left burning in the ashtray.   Paul knew I was dead broke, so when he asked me where I'd gotten the money for the butts, he knew what my answer would be.  I told him I'd taken some change from the big bowl and added that I would be replacing it as soon as I could.  Paul wasn't at all happy about that.  Even university hippies have their limits.   He said I had abused his trust; ripped him off when his back was turned.  My defense was that the few dimes worth of coins I'd taken were simply a loan and that there had been no deception involved. But Paul was a man of principle.  Regardless of my tobacco addiction, the confession and guarantee of repayment aside, in his eyes I was no more than a common thief.

Paul didn't like cigarettes.  True, he was a habitual pot smoker and amateur acid head; he wouldn't say no to a nitrous buzz and was known to use downs as more than a medical necessity.  But screw State or Federal law, the only the rules that applied in the Jose house where his own.   Aware of his own contradiction, he supported his position by quoting Bob Dylan:   "Those who live outside the law must be honest."  Paul was pretty righteous in regard to tobacco.  Herb was cool, but not Camels.  He was a vegetarian as well. I guess he hoped a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables would counterbalance  the negative affects of his illegal drug use.  I happened to dislike most greens, particularly those tasteless, gruel thick lentil dishes college students were famous for.   So Paul and I had our differences. Helping myself to those few coins just added fuel to an already smoldering fire.

Paul let me stay on after the wishing well incident only because we were scheduled to play a paying gig together in Hoosick Falls, New York.  Hoosick was his home town, a tiny village backed up against the Adirondack Mountains and the Vermont border.  Paul wasn't a singer, so I was to carry the vocals and play rhythm guitar, while he did his thing riffing out like Jerry Garcia.  The bar where we were booked was a good two hour ride north.  I didn't own a car and neither did Paul.  Somehow he arranged a ride for himself, but the driver had no room for me, my girlfriend or our instruments.  That meant hitch hiking 160 miles with a woman and two guitars.

Bea, my girlfriend of three weeks, was from the upper Westside of Manhattan.  She was studying film production at New York University, but had taken a job for the summer at a sleep-away camp on the eastern edge of the Catskills. I'd seen the same ad in the New York Times and desperate for money, had taken the LIRR out to Huntington where I interviewed with the director and was hired on the spot.  Anxious to escape New York City, I hitched hiked north to the camp the following day believing the next eight weeks were going to be a little piece of heaven.  To my surprise, camp was nothing like I had imagined it.    

It was raining the evening I arrived and continued to through most of the next day.  In the morning, after a mess hall breakfast of cold pancakes, watery scrambled eggs, and purple colored "bug-juice," I found my way under a leaking barn roof to what was to be the camp's music room.  Not only were there no guitars to be found, there were no instruments of any kind except for a couple rusted tambourines and an upright piano missing half its ivories. The music department spoke volumes of the good things to come, including the cabin of fifteen eight year old boys that I was to spend the summer babysitting.   It was a fucking nightmare.  They were the youngest kids in the camp and all spoiled brats.  During the day they were feral, snarling and snapping, screaming and demanding and at night they would whimper for their mothers and wet their beds.  Within the first week I had yelled myself hoarse.  The damage to my vocal cords combined with rain-forest humidity and lack of sleep lead to a case of tonsillitis which, without health insurance or ready cash and with a pack a day habit,  grew progressively worse.

Camp counselors we were allowed a couple hours off every other evening.  The drinking age in New York was eighteen, so a bunch of us would pile into a car and head to the local bar to pound brews. That's where I met Bea; long lean legs, faded jeans and western-cut saddle boots, a worn cotton T-shirt  and thick black hair to her waist, smoking a Camel straight and sipping a Dewars on the rocks.  I'd never met a girl who smoked Camels, let alone drank pricey scotch, so I was pretty impressed.

That first night we ended up between a couple of cars in the camp parking lot,  pants around our ankles, heels and toes sunk deep in the soggy, rain soaked sod.  A few days later we both quit our camp jobs and together headed for Pennsylvania with another counselor named Rob.  Rob played bass.  I think he had a vision of us becoming the next  Hall and Oats and touring the country with a one song set of "All Along the Watchtower".  Rob also owned a Camaro, had a fat bag of weed and was okay covering his own gas, so naturally I bought into his fantasy and the three of us headed for my family's vacant summer home in the Endless Mountains.

After a week of ceaseless rain, Rob's hopes of collaborative glory had drown and he and the Camaro were on their way back to Long Island.   It had been a heartfelt good-bye.  After all, with Rob went the beer, the pot and the wheels needed to acquire more.  Nearly out of groceries and down to our last cigarettes, Bea and I decided to quit the farm and head north to Binghamton where I assured her we would find the welcoming arms of college friends I'd met the previous semester. That's how we ended up at Paul's, in his tiny off campus house, crashing in the attic room, nipping pennies from the wishing well and further damaging my infected tonsils with daily rehearsals for the upcoming Hoosick Fall gig.   

Back in the early seventies hitch hiking was still relatively safe.  I can't remember the number of times I thumbed from the farm in PA to my parents place in Michigan.  Rides were plentiful and I often made the twelve hour trip in the same length of time as it would have taken me to drive.  It was usually young people who picked you up; counter-culture types with long-hair and maybe a joint.  I made a lot of temporary friendships that way and heard some incredible stories.

It was mainly guys who hitch hiked.  There were women out there too, but they were few and far between and if they travelled alone, they always ran the real risk of rape.  Bea had never hitched before she met me so thumbing rides was a real adventure for her.   It really was a different era in America' social history.  People weren't scared of each other like they are now.  Sure we were taking a risk, but that is part of being young and as naive as it might sound, we felt really safe together.    Bea was a tall, attractive Chinese woman, so she drew attention like nobody's business.   I would sit down in the tall grass above the berm or lean behind a convenient telephone pole while she held our cardboard sign toward approaching traffic.   It never took more than five or ten minutes before some young guy, truck driver or business type would pull over. Then they would spot me, rising from the weeds or stepping from behind the pole with my guitar case and back-pack. Some pulled away immediately, the deception obvious, but most were just kind hearted folks who greeted us with a smile.    

The biggest problem that Bea and I had, is that we both liked to party.  I was all about marijuana while Bea was into liquor and cigarettes.  At twenty, she was already worried about whether or not she was becoming an alcoholic.  That kind of thought never even crossed my mind.  She was beautiful and lots of fun when she was drinking.  As for me, I just figured all men drank.  It was normal to want to have a few beers.

When I was on the road, I always hoped for rides from potheads.  On the trip to Hoosick Falls that afternoon we hit the jack-pot twice.  Unfortunately, by the time we made Albany, my eyes were half closed and my throat was on fire.  Two weeks of jonesin' Bea's filterless Camel's and all those hours at Paul's rehearsing vocals had taken their toll on my throat.  After a  couple of powerful joints, my tonsils were swollen to twice their size.  I looked in the rear view mirror at some point and noticed that they were bright red and spotted with white abscesses. I'd been running a low grade fever on and off for several weeks but that afternoon I was shaking with chills and feeling really light headed.  Nurse Bea recommended gargling with whiskey,  so we picked up a pint of Jack Daniels at a local liquor store before hitching our last ride in to Hoosick.  The whiskey did seem to help, at least for a while.   So did the beers I was soon being spotted at Goobers the bar we were to play for that evening.  We'd arrived at the tavern just after five o'clock and we drank steadily until Paul showed up at around 8:30.  Bea was in fine spirits.  I felt like Hell.    

There was no such thing as a digital tuner back in those days.  You did everything by ear and when you were high, tuning could be a real trial.  But when the room was spinning and the floor warping like a concave mirror, I found it nearly impossible to match tones. When you're young and healthy looking people can be slow to appreciate just how fucked up you are.  During the sound check Paul kept telling me my B string was sharp.  Unable to find the note, I remember glancing over at the two of him and croaking, "Guess I'm a fret too high!"   

And so the gig started.  We opened with a medley of Grateful Dead tunes; "Me and My Uncle" into "Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad" and then onto an old Commander Cody song called "Home in My Hand".   These were no brainers for me to sing, but that night my tonsils were so swollen and I was so drunk that it was like I couldn't breath, like someone had their hands around my neck and was trying to twist the life out of me.  The more I pushed to get the vocals out, the more hoarse I became. We were booked to play three sets and by the end of the first I was completely done in.  Solution?  Drink some more.  

I woke up the next morning in a pop up camper van with Bea asleep beside me.  I was drenched in sweat, with the overhead canvas brilliant white in the sweltering heat of the first sunny day we'd seen in weeks.  My head was splitting.  My tongue felt two sizes too big for my mouth.  I had symmetrical lumps the size of walnuts bulging from both sides of my neck.  Swollen lymph glands.  When I went round to the house to use the bathroom, Paul was there but we didn't speak.  He was so pissed off because I'd fucked up the show and made him look like a fool in front of his hometown friends.  I'd completely let him down, but I felt so sick I really didn't give a shit.   I searched the bathroom cupboards until I found some aspirin and then after waking Bea, we headed out for the New York State Thruway and the asphalt ramp that would lead us back to Greenwich Village and Bea's Sullivan Street Apartment.   

I didn't talk to Paul for a full year after that.  It wasn't until we found ourselves in that history class that fate offered us an opportunity to rekindle our friendship.  When we settled on the idea of doing the finals project together, I was determined to make the best of the second chance Paul was giving me.  

Unfortunately, this time Paul dropped the ball.  He may have showed up to class in a straw hat, but the guitar he arrived with was an electric, I think it was a Fender Telecaster.   Although the first manufactured electric guitar dates back to 1931, it wasn't until the 1950's that electrics became popular.  Before that they were more of a novelty incorporated in the big band format.  During the days of the Dust Bowl most rural homes were lit with candles, kerosene and coal oil, (Guthrie's younger sister had died in a house fire started with coal oil) There just wouldn't have been a lot of places to plug in an amplifier like the one Paul had brought along.   

Then there was the issue of tunes.  Paul had learned only one song, a blues number unrelated to the period.  The set list I'd given him a few days earlier had disappeared and there had been no time to run through the songs.  So Paul did what he did best.   He "noodled";  that is, he improvised note dense lead runs over the equally word dense lyrics. Since most of the compositions were solo folk pieces, there were no instrumental breaks or bridges for a rock guitarist to riff out in.  The words required rather precise melodic frames.  In this style of music, competing with or playing over the vocals is considered a major No-No. So after a while, Paul just sort of gave up and strummed along, probably a wise choice considering the circumstances.   

I'll admit I was a bit put off when we shared equally in the  "A" earned for the presentation. I'd worked my ass off learning those tunes and for whatever reason, Paul had just floated through. But as they say, what goes around comes around.  After the wishing well conflict and the fiasco I'd made of the Hoosick Falls show, I told myself we were even.  Yet old failures are fickle.  They can leave scars under which bits of unreconciled quilt lie dormant. You think you've made peace with the past and then something flips a switch in your brain and that suppressed shame morphs into a wave of unexpected spitefulness. This inability to cleanse and heal through forgiveness is a well documented source of psychological trouble. 

Almost a decade past without seeing Paul.  Then one afternoon, over lunch, a friend let me know that my old Dust Bowl buddy had hit the skids in Atlanta.   He had picked up a cocaine habit in NYC and had taken it with him to Georgia.  He lost his band down there and then ended up ripping off his roommate's stereo or TV in order to score drugs.  The roommate, an ex-Jose member no less, insisted Paul check in to rehab or hit the highway.  Paul, with no income, disappeared onto the streets.  

As I listened to the story, the memory of the fifty cents I'd borrowed from Paul's wish bowl came rushing back, dragging with it the bitter taste of that dehydrated, hung over morning in Hoosick Falls.  But instead of feeling remorse or empathy for Paul's situation, I felt the shadow of a grin twist my face.    

In 1990 I was in New York recording an EP when Paul's name surfaced again.  My producer had also been a friend of Pauls.  He recounted a trip to San Francisco made a few months earlier and how he had bumped into him on a side street down around Fisherman's Wharf. Paul was selling CDs and second hand books that he had displayed on an old rug.  When the cab pulled to the curb and the tinted rear window came down, the rail-thin vendor reportedly stepped forward and heard what must have been a familiar voice ask,

"How's it goin' Paul?" 

Apparently not good.   Paul just winced, rolled his eyes away and said  "Hey man, I'm not a mind reader, whatcha need?"

Paul's decent into heroin addiction and homelessness had actually run parallel to my increasing abuse of alcohol and marijuana as a young business man in New York City. The more money I made, the more I drank, and depression and anxiety became constant companions.  I blamed everybody but myself for the pain I was creating in my life.  I was so disconnected from my body that it felt like I was in the audience watching a marionette controlled by invisible strings.  While I denied the damage I was doing to myself I was quick to expose the inadequacies of others.  A sarcastic wit's brutal sense of humor was employed to assuage the issues underlying my increasing alcohol dependence.  

Its a long road, this road to Recovery.  And as Woody Guthrie sang, it's "some hard travelin', I thought you knowd!"   There are parts of us all that are dinged and dented, parts filled with guilt, shame and remorse.  There are angry and destructive components there as well.   The energy of those emotions can propel us forward or it can create an internal gravity that holds us in orbit around out dated ways of thinking.  If we are mindful of the limiting behaviors that arrest our development, we can learn to navigate around the obstacles that would otherwise derail us.   We all have an incredible potential for growth and change if, as Abraham  Lincoln wrote, we call upon "the better angels of our nature".    

The lessons of our past are useful, but memory can also thwart our development.  As in music, poor technique must often be unlearned before a new approach can be absorbed.   That can be a tremendous struggle.

Paul is now heroin free and he is helping others overcome similar afflictions.  Thirty seven years after that summer night in Hoosick Falls, the current chapter of his life reached me.  It has given me cause to rethink a part of my history and a shame I carried these many years.   It has offered an opportunity to apologize to Paul, to Bea, to Rob and to any others I may have wronged along the way.  It has also allowed me the occasion to retire that part of my past so that I can enter the present with a greater capacity to welcome the many wonderful experiences it has to offer. 

Best to you all,


*Bound for Glory 
by Woody Guthrie , Joe Klein
ISBN 0141187220 (0-14-118722-0)
Softcover, Penguin Books, Limited