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Category Archives: Along The Watchtower

If it happened in my life – or if I imagined it did – it’s shoved somewhere in here. Stories of growing up Southern, in a small, rural town – and the ensuing escape; of life experiences and passing thoughts at the moment.

Go Fast, Turn Left, Don’t Hit Anything

By Brian M. Howle

As life continues its daily, relentless grind on us all, wearing us down, beating us into submission – it is only natural for almost everyone to just accept this as a given; to take in stride the changes that affect us in all the negative manners we are told is our predestined fate, and to let those slight, few regrets which we may still retain just fade away and remain unreconciled.

Yeah, well, fortunately for me, I am not everyone.

So when my daily grind began with checking email for our publications enabled me to run across the evite to attend the Media Day Appreciation event being hosted by the recently purchased Myrtle Beach Speedway on April 18, it took me a split-second to read and then re-read what was on the screen before me: “You may choose to drive an actual NASCAR stock car or you may choose to ride with …”

Well, I never got to the part explaining you could also just be passenger while a professional driver took the wheel until later.

One of 16 media drivers at the NASCAR Racing Experience challenge who had their photo taken with the official NRE car and lived to tell the tale.  And this guy is good.

And that’s because if ever a Walter Mitty-type dream came true for anyone, it most certainly just had for me.

This was made possible by the fact that one of the new owners of the track, Bob Lutz,  is also founder and owner of NASCAR Racing Experience.  After 20 or so years in running these types of driving schools, Bob knows that promotion is more than just the name of the game, and what better way to ensure that the word get out on your newest endeavor – via all local media outlets – than by inviting the entire motley crew of thrill-seeking journalists out to the track for a true first-hand perspective.

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Posted by on April 23, 2012 in Along The Watchtower

 

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Christmas For Dummies

By Brian M. Howle

It really is hard to believe that yet another Christmas has snuck right up and foisted itself upon an unprepared and skittish world.  As I write this, it is the literal beginning of the 12 Days of Christmas, as we get that honest assessment deal going on just in time for Christmas.

For those who celebrate this holiday of Christmas – who have it so ingrained into their memories it is essentially a part of their personality – that whole Thanksgiving weekend deal really begins to set off all the little hidden sensors that will chime in familiar succession as traditions beget memories that beget new memories …

And they all become this glorious, wonderfully individual glop of a lifetime that we call our souls.

Oh for sure, the involuntary nature of cardio and pulmonary gives us a heart, and it does keep us alive while it’s healthy.

But that warm and fuzzy (or bare and destitute) feeling we get at holiday times can become much, much more than just a storage facility for happy memories with grandpa and grandma and Crazy Aunt Lisa.  It can also give us cause to reflect on our lives, and the world around us; to reset the big picture and make sense out of what has become clouded on our journey through life.

This more erudite, progressive, thinking person’s world has now reached a position of being above it all, really; a place where there is no time for silly throwbacks to our Puritan founders. They see religion as the root problem of just about every argument they roll out, and on any other given day a lot of people just might have the inclination to agree on that one.

I have to admit, although I pride myself on being intently observant of the world around me, I missed the exact date that things began to change.  I don’t remember there being any one incident or announcement that trumpeted when things took a turn from normalcy and common sense, but it’s an unfortunate fact that now resides before us at this time of worldwide celebration and faith.

Since there wasn’t any huge public outcry against it that I can ever remember as a child, it’s difficult to understand exactly why it has even become an issue.  I mean, really.

But as you all know by now, those wonderful folks who decide what the rest of us can and can’t say or do or share or celebrate in our nation of freedom of choice and freedom of religion have most fervently put the ol’ kabash on that most hateful, hurtful and horrible phrase that some particularly selfish citizens inflict on unsuspecting friends, neighbors and strangers:

“Merry Christmas!”

Again, this isn’t any insane argument about anyone’s belief system.  The say, “oh, you can still have your precious little religion.  We don’t mind that.  You just can’t celebrate it or speak of it in public.”

And the end-all reason for this view, for this mass edict that all must bow to and obey? Why is it we can’t say it?

“Because it’s offensive.”

It occurs to me that, as long as we’re talking fantasy views here, that we could solve the nation’s energy crisis tout de suite if we could hook up a generator to the graves of our founding fathers, ‘cause they must be spinning like the Large Hadron Collider right about now.

The initial concept of political correctness was, as most things are, a fair and noble idea.  Those with certain conditions, afflictions or affiliations seemed to always be the butt of jokes by the majority, and words can leave wounds after all, so let’s just start watching our p’s and q’s, shall we?

And so, a considerate thought for the feelings of a few “special” folks amongst us was born as not just an idea, but a movement.  And if there’s one thing we humans (especially Americans) latch on to like a seagull on a french fry, it’s a movement.

Oh, those poor, poor folks who have been wronged by your and my beliefs, our holidays and all the ancillary traditions that go along with it.  Can’t you feel how they were wronged and ridiculed by our evil declarations of “Merry Christmas!”?

But as we all know, all too painfully by now, that whole “seemed like a good idea at the time” vibe that accompanied most P.C. agendas quickly morphed into a public-shame-&-humiliation hydra that soon developed tentacles of truly stupid and ill-conceived laws.

And the long-standing battle between those of ecumenical beliefs and those without escalated into even more absurd and idiotic arrays of charges and counter charges.

Townships, communities, cities, counties, states and ultimately federal governments began issuing edicts of what was and was not allowed to be displayed or celebrated at taxpayer expense due to “consideration for those not members of the thingy-du-jour.”

Crosses that had adorned land or buildings for decades were actually outlawed by an American court of law.  Nativity scenes were ordered taken down in town after town because they promoted one religion over another.  The singing of religious songs was also rather unceremoniously banned.

Again, this is not my fight for one religion.  I’m not pushing Christianity over anything else. That is not the issue.

This is about taking law and using it as a tool to impose narrow concepts on the majority of the populace.

But the simple act of acknowledging the existence of Christmas, alone, can not be denied by decree or ignored by those who believe.

Growing up in a relatively religious atmosphere – from what I witnessed – didn’t seem to have drastically affected any of my friends in any negative or nefarious manner.

What it did do, however, was to makes us all aware of the needs of those less fortunate than us.  It made us have a core value base that imparted us with a sense of pride in our community, for respect of our neighbors’ property.  We understood the need for everyone to do their part all aspects of our lives, because there literally was no such thing as a free lunch.

There was, however, such a thing as compassion and assistance thru churches and service organizations.

The obligatory meal to make the holiday seem more normal for those without food gets all the press on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Everyone sees those PR opportunities.

But, those same people need food, clothing and shelter on every other day of the year, too.  Difficulties and hardship do not take vacations or time off.

It’s an extremely difficult concept for me to wrap my head around, to be honest with you.  I was raised by a family, a neighborhood, and a community that looked after one another and rallied in a moment’s notice in the event of tragedy or loss.

These same people made the advent of the holiday season the most anticipated time of the year by engaging in the simplest and least expensive tradition ever conceived:
Exchanging goodies.

Oh, while I’m sure some families who were particularly close to one another may have done some actual gift exchanges – but that’s not the goodies I’m talking about.

And no, gifts of libation aren’t these goodies, either.

I’m talking ‘bout food.

Not just run-down-to-the-Piggly-Wiggly, precooked, mass produced munchies, kids.  I mean, honest-to-peanuts, made from scratch goodies.

There are families in my hometown that, to this day, most likely guard that family recipe like it’s the next project coming up from Apple.

One family made a chocolate cake that would give you the same chemical rush of pleasure as heroin – in theory.

Another family baked cookies that were recognized as legal tender in several of the more advance culinary nations.

There was an avalanche of the best cookies, cakes, pies, and pastries – along with the occasional liqueur – the likes of which no issue of Southern Living magazine has ever had the distinct honor and pleasure of photographing, sampling and sharing with the world.

Hardly was there ever a time in the many, many years that have passed from those happier, carefree days that my siblings and I didn’t make some reference to those simple delights.  When we reflected on this dish or that, and who made it, that tangible part of our past and our present began to foreshadow the future, as the numbers of those friends and families slowly began to dwindle.  There was the expected attrition from children growing, marrying and in most cases, moving away.

And then came the attrition through the normal cycle of life.

This is not a bad thing, nor is it a harbinger of end times, this shaking off of our mortal coils.  But with each loss, those of us left behind begin to feel the erosion of all those things that we – and our parents – held so dear, and fought so valiantly to maintain.  And the battle to preserve that lifestyle seemed to become more and more, one of diminishing returns.

However, the families of my youth have grown and evolved through a couple more generations.  And with each child of these folks that I meet today – now adults with children of their own – it is impossible to ignore the familiar watermark on the hearts and the values of these small-town folks who raised them.

So join my friends and I in keeping these traditions alive.

If you know of an elderly, homebound or just a lonely individual who is facing this season alone, please give of your time and your heart – and make a wonderful difference in their life, if only for a day.

And I promise you – that person will absolutely not consider your religion a problem.

So to all of you sharing this amazing planet – enjoy your religion, or lack of it – and may you all have a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a Happy New Year!

The column was also published in Alternatives NewsMagazine and Coast Magazine, Dec. 15, 2011 – January 12, 2012.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2011 in Along The Watchtower

 

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Christmas Lesson 2011: Baby Doll and Ken

Baby Doll and Ken have a front yard reunion.

Note: Every Christmas, I try to write a column that extolls the spirit of the season, something nice, something sweet, something quite unlike the daily ugliness we all face out in the big, bad world.  This year was easy; several stories were in wait to be selected already when this came across my news feed this week.  If you know someone particularly jaded or lacking something to believe in, have them take a quick look at this.  It’s a short read, but will stay with you forever. – Brian

By Midwest Horse Welfare Foundation, Inc., from a post on Facebook

We were just talking about how horses never forget. Here is a short story from one of our friends and adopters, John and Cindy. I thought this might bring some Christmas cheer to those who need it. Feel free to share if you wish.

We look after a sweet mare by the name of Baby Doll. Her owner is a man named Ken who is getting up there in his years (he is 90+ now).  Due to health issues Ken has not been out to the barn in over a year to see his beloved mare.  Now, Ken is one of these guys that when he would come to the barn each week he always had some dog & cat food for the barn critters, treats for his and other horses and usually a 2 day old Danish for the barn managers.  You get the picture of what type of man Ken is.

Cindy and our friend Kym decided to pay Ken a visit a few weeks ago (he lives about a 1-1/2 hour drive from the barn, not far from O’Hare airport) and in tow with them was Baby Doll. They knocked on Ken’s door, who was delighted to see his ole friends Cindy and Kym. They smiled and said someone else was here to see him, and there was Baby Doll in the yard (right there in the Chicago suburbs).

Cindy said the look on his face was nothing but pure joy and when he called his beloved mare her ears perked up so tall; she knew and missed that voice.  Now, Ken is not one to show a lot of emotion (he fought some nasty battles in WW-II), but Cindy said it is the first time she has ever seen a tear in this man’s eyes. There was no doubt that Baby Doll had not forgotten this man who had taken care of her for so many years. Above is a great reunion picture of an ole cowboy greeting his beloved mare that he had not seen in a very long time.

Ken has made arrangements to pay for her even when he is gone. Baby Doll is 26 now and you would never know it, she has such much spunk on trail. She is the best mare I have met and we love her tons, she has such a kind personality.

We plan on printing the picture and putting it in a frame and sending to Ken for Christmas. Cindy said the one that had the most tears in their eyes was Ken’s wife – tears of happiness to see her husband be able to hug the girl he talks about so often. ∆

So, if you know a Ken – or a Ken’s wife – who has lived long and given all they had to give; if you know someone of this age who has served their country in the military, or who worked their entire life either in commerce or making a difference in their community, or who sacrificed career for family or caring for others … please …. take a few minutes to find what could give their weathered hearts a proper dusting off, and injected with love and hope.  And then – do it.

Because Christmas alone is anything but Merry.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in Along The Watchtower

 

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Frank Zappa Wrote A Song About This Guy

By Brian M. Howle

It’s really amazing to realize that the late, great Frank Zappa – who was so far ahead of his time it’s not even close to being funny – could have envisioned the unfolding of my life, even at this late stage, and had the wherewithall to write a song about it.

Good ol’ Frank and the Mothers of Invention. They cranked out some seriously incredible music, albeit extremely eccentric from time to time (well, more often than not is more like it), and Frank himself was an absolute machine, a prolific writer and artist who churned out an amazing body of work in his all too short lifetime.

But in the last week, I have come to realize that he had the visionary ability to peer into my current situation and assess the total sum of a person who has become a bane on my existence, all at a time where I have attempted – much to the consternation and disapproval of my friends and ex-lovers – to give assistance, service and help to someone who is so self-absorbed, so ungrateful, and so completely unworthy of my friendship and talents that they can be so beautifully nailed in the verse of one of Frank Zappa’s greatest works: “You’re An Asshole,” from the song, “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes.”

Yeah, I know, the song was about a girl, and my subject matter isn’t.  But the verse fits perfectly, and I’m sticking with it.

And you know who you are.  So does most of Myrtle Beach.  Enjoy your free publicity.

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Posted by on February 5, 2011 in Along The Watchtower

 

Nashville Residents Need Our Help In Flooding Aftermath

nashville floods
Dover Anthony sings on as he overlooks the parking lot of submerged cars at the Knights Motel in East Nashville, Sunday, May 2, 2010. (AP Photo/The Tennessean, John Partipilo)

Compiled by Brian M. Howle from AP Reports

Muddy waters have poured over the banks of Nashville’s swollen Cumberland River, spilling into Music City’s historic downtown streets. The flash floods caused by record-breaking rain caught many here off-guard, forcing thousands to frantically flee their homes and hotels. The rapidly rising waters killed 18 people in Tennessee alone, including 10 in Nashville, and officials feared that the death toll could increase.

The ongoing Gulf Coast oil spill and the attempted Times Square bombing have caused many to overlook the impact of flooding on Tennessee, especially in Nashville. Parts of top Nashville tourist spots including the Country Music Hall of Fame and The Grand Ole Opry House were flooded.

There have been recent media reports making the air, with country music stars reaching out to share their personal stories of property loss (like Keith Urban) with the hundreds of thousands who not only have lost all of their personal belongings, furniture, clothes and homes, but now face rebuilding their lives without the benefit of flood insurance, as the likelihood of flooding was not seen as a high probability. The freak storm has now brought that sobering reality to many, many responsible, hard-working folks who just got caught at the worst time in the worst way.

The Cumberland flooded quickly after the weekend’s storms dumped more than 13 inches of rain in Nashville over two days. That nearly doubled the previous record of 6.68 inches of rain that fell in the wake of Hurricane Fredrick in 1979.

National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Rose said the river crested at 51.9 feet at 6 p.m. CDT Monday night (May 3).

For residents of the Grand Strand, the memories of what we have to contend with after hurricanes (like Hugo) should trigger strong empathy to help immediately.

The Nashville Area Red Cross is in need of financial support to continue providing relief to victims of local disaster flooding. The American Red Cross is not a government agency. All disaster assistance is free, and is funded solely by local donations. There are several ways to give:

• Visit http://www.nashvilleredcross.org and click DONATE NOW to make an online gift;

• Mail a check to the Nashville Area Red Cross;
2201 Charlotte Avenue, Nashville, TN 37203;

• Call (615) 250-4300 to make a donation by phone;

• Text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation on your mobile phone.

The photos and videos of the aftermath might not have the emotional punch that those of post-Katrina or post-tsunami images unleashed on us all, but we must all come to the aid of our fellow citizens and help them in their time of need.
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This article also appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, May 7-20, 2010.

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2010 in Along The Watchtower

 

Petals & Pooches: Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation & Gardens Has Gone To The Dogs (In A Good Way)

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Katie Lee Ashley stands guard over the Petunias while she waits for her fellow canines to arrive. (Photo by Tami Ashley)

By Brian M. Howle

Thinking of taking the family pooch along for a day trip to one of S.C.’s wonderful, aromatic and fully-in-bloom gardens this weekend? Well, I hate to tell ya, Sparky, but think again.

That is, of course, unless you plan to visit beautiful Magnolia Plantation and Gardens close to Historic Charleston, SC, just off of storied, live oak-lined Highway 61.

Nestled on the banks of the Ashley River, Magnolia Gardens – the oldest public gardens in America – offers an all-day schedule of events to fill your day with history, beauty, nature and communing with a large number of God’s creatures, large and small. And unlike every other major garden in the Charleston area – as well as most around the state – Magnolia puts out the water bowl for your dog because, well, the owners think dogs are people, too!

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The Long Bridge at Angel Lake, Magnolia Plantation’s most-photographed vista. (Photo by Tami Ashley)

Once you clear the Ashley River bridge when heading south on U.S. Hwy. 17, it only takes about 15-20 minutes to arrive at the history-laden gates of Magnolia Plantation. After paying the entry fee, a variety of tours are available for separate charges. Guided tours include Magnolia’s plantation home; a Nature Train tram tour (I recommend this one because you cover the main grounds with a very entertaining guide at the wheel); the Audubon Swamp Garden tour; a Nature Boat tour of the wetlands; and the new “Slavery to Freedom” tour.

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Majestic live oaks abound, like this one gracing the Ashley River with full floral guard. (Photo by Tami Ashley)

Once inside the gates, you’re free to wander the lush, floral-covered grounds at your own, leisurely pace. Azaleas are the star of this show, but the variety of flowering plants is seemingly endless. Self-guided walks throughout the garden’s many trails are easy to follow. The rich, historic past of Magnolia Plantation permeates everything around you, and the original slave cabins command a sense of reflection among the stands of breathtaking, huge, moss-draped live oaks. Amenities such as bicycle rentals, a great little gift shop in the plantation homestead, restrooms and a beverage/snack bar are available for your convenience.

Children of all ages will absolutely love the ample petting zoo that features a myriad of animals readily found in the glory days of plantation life – from pigs and goats, to proud roosters and peacocks. My favorites can be found among the small herd of ponies grazing the main pasture, who stroll up to the split-rail fence to solicit muzzle rubs and sugar cubes.

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Katie’s “Elvis Snarl” lets us know she’s picked up some “P-mail” left behind by a previous pooch amongst nature’s delights. (Photo by Tami Ashley)

Get an early start and make a full day of your visit, as this glorious marriage of natural beauty and man’s stewardship will literally take a full day to completely explore and enjoy to its full magnificence!

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is located at 3550 Ashley River Road (Hwy. 61), Charleston, SC 29414. Open daily 8am to dusk; Adults $15, Kids 6-12 $10; Kids under 6 Free. For more information, visit http://www.magnoliaplantation.com or call (800) 367-3517.
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This article also appears in Alternatives NewsMagazine and Coast Magazine, April 8 – 22, 2010; and online at http://www.myrtlebeachalternatives.com .

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2010 in Along The Watchtower

 

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Help Stop The Radio Performance Tax

radio tax vote
By Brian M. Howle

Some Of Washington’s Weasels Are Trying To Sell Out Music Radio Stations, Artists To Big Record Companies
In bringing you this important story, I find myself firmly between two facts: One puts me in the happy position of assuring all of you this issue has absolutely no basis in political party affiliation; the other regretfully confirms that there are nefarious powers out there who will stoop to the lowest common denominator in finding new ways to screw us all in the name of “revenue enhancement”.

So here’s the skinny on the latest attempt by the corporate whores (and their congressional pimps) who are trying to destroy yet another American freedom – and industry – as provided to us by the National Association of Broadcasters:

For more than 80 years, radio and the recording industry have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship: free play for free promotion. And it works. It’s a relationship that has sustained businesses on both sides.

In fact, radio’s free promotion of artists translates to as much as $2.4 billion annually in music sales for record labels and artists. And this doesn’t even include the enormous revenues they receive from concerts and merchandising.

But the labels–like many businesses–are struggling in this economy. They have failed to adapt to the digital age, and find their business model is broken. And now they want to impose a fee called a performance tax on local radio stations to subsidize their losses.

A performance tax would threaten the local radio stations that communities depend on. It would financially hamstring stations, stifle new artists and harm the listening public who rely on free local radio.

In short, the money generated from the performance tax would flow out of your community and into the pockets of the major record labels – and three out of the four are foreign-owned. The record labels would like for you to think this is all about compensating the artists, but in truth the record labels would get at least 50 percent of the proceeds from a tax on local radio.

If you’re one of the 235 million people who listen to radio each week, a tax could reduce the variety of music radio stations play, and all but eliminate the possibility of new artists breaking onto the scene. The tax could particularly affect smaller, minority-owned stations, some of which may have to switch to a talk-only format or shut down entirely.

It also affects your community. Radio stations are major contributors to public service – generating $6 billion in public service annually, providing vital news and community information and free airtime to help local charities. If a tax were imposed, stations’ critical community service efforts could be reduced.

And, worst of all, if you’re one of the 106,000 Americans employed by local radio, your job could be in jeopardy. In these troubling economic times, the last thing local radio needs is to be hit with a tax that some analysts estimate could be $2-7 billion annually.

Congress has continually recognized that local radio is different from other musical platforms and should not be subject to a performance tax. Local radio is free, so everyone, regardless of income, can have access to it. Local radio also has to fulfill certain public service obligations that other platforms do not. And importantly, the free music that radio plays provides free promotion to the record labels and artists – up to $2.4 billion annually.

There are currently two bills pending in Congress that would levy a performance tax on local radio – H.R.848, sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (MI-14) and S.379, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (VT). Your members of Congress need to hear that you strongly oppose these bills.

Additionally, anti-performance tax resolutions have been introduced in the House and Senate in support of local radio. In the Senate, Sens. Blanche Lincoln (AR) and John Barrasso (WY) introduced S. Con. Res. 14, and in the House, Reps. Gene Green (TX-29) and Mike Conaway (TX-11) introduced H. Con. Res. 49. Both are known as the Local Radio Freedom Act. Many members of Congress already support local radio and resolutions against the performance tax. Others still need to hear your voice.

Take Action Now!
We need your help! Support local radio by taking action against legislation that could kill local radio as you know it. The performance tax could bankrupt local radio stations and give giant foreign-owned record companies a bailout. It’s a bad idea that will happen unless you speak out against it.

Visit The “Stop The Radio Tax” Website
Simply go to http://www.noperformancetax.org and you will find all the links and information you need. Sign up now and take a stand in support of local radio! By signing up, you’ll have the opportunity to join thousands of people from across the country who are ready to fight the performance tax.

Tell A Friend
Send an email to your friends about the performance tax issue, letting them know what they can do.

Post A Facebook Status Update/Tweet This
Use your own social networking page to spread the word. Simply update your status on Facebook and Twitter with messages related to the campaign. Your message should be unique, but can follow the examples below.
Post this message to your Facebook:
STOP THE RADIO TAX. The performance tax is a bad idea that would hurt [insert radio station name]. If you enjoy listening, help us take action against this at noperformancetax.org.
Tweet this Message:
[Insert radio station name] needs help. Congress is killing the radio star. Tell them no. #stoptheradiotax http://bit.ly/wkO89

Write A Letter To The Editor
Write a letter to the editor or longer guest column to voice your opinion on why a performance tax is a bad idea.
Personalize the letter, and let the editor know why radio is important to you and your community. Encourage readers to take action. Below is a sample letter:
The proposed performance tax on radio stations could cripple local radio, hurt the listening public, and silence up-and-coming artists – all while big record companies get a bailout.
Radio has given so much to the music industry, launching the careers of many of the artists that we’ve come to love. Radio also plays a critical role during emergencies, informs us about what’s going on in our neighborhoods, supports local charities and nonprofit organizations and provides jobs for our community.
Why impose a tax that could bankrupt our local radio stations just to help foreign-owned record companies recover from their own business mistakes?
It doesn’t make sense. Congress should realize that a performance tax is a bad idea.

The website contains more information to help you understand all of the facts of this incredibly arrogant and moronic attempt to literally ruin free music radio as we know it, along with destroying the livelihoods of countless tens of thousands of folks in radio, as well as the musicians who are the core creative force for everything involved in producing the music we all enjoy and treasure as one of the inalienable rights guaranteed to us by the framers of the United States Constitution.

Your voice does make a difference – so make yours known today! Log onto http://www.noperformancetax.org now.
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This article originally appeared at http://www.bhowle.wordpress.com

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2010 in Along The Watchtower

 

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Reason #27 For Staying Away From SPCA Shelters

katie in snuggie
Katie Lee wrapped up in mama’s Snuggie on a cold January night in the lowcountry. (Photo by Tami Ashley)

By Brian M. Howle

This isn’t really a story, although there is one for the ages to be told at some point, but it’s more of an observation about the relationship between humans and animals.

In this case, the more specific title of “animals” would be dogs.

Seriously … look at that face. Your day sucks that much? Your week? Your year? Your life? Then look at that face. Ummm …. I don’t think so.

See, that’s a face that gets away with absolute murder and mayhem, completely and totally granted amnesty and absolution from the human whose heart melts with unrequited love upon gazing on this skillful little con artist as she “strikes a pose”.

Hey, fault the humans all you want, I’m with ya cuz, I am. But if you have a void in your life that needs quality attention (pssstt … you might not believe this, but you can get a win-win situation in the deal, I swear you can), then I strongly urge you to visit your local SPCA shelter or humane society and find a face of your own.
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Note: Katie’s not a rescue dog, but there are so many little ones out there who desperately need someone to step in and save their lives.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2010 in Along The Watchtower

 

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The Grand Strand Loses Its Great Ambassador Of Music: A Tribute To Jeff Roberts

jeff roberts
Jeff Roberts (Right) with former Screaming Cheetah Wheelies’ guitarist Mike Farris at a SXSE event in May, 2008. (Photo by Dariel Bendin)

By Brian M. Howle

Back in the late-’70s, the remaining members of a decimated Lynyrd Skynyrd reformed under the moniker of The Rossington-Collins Band. And one of the more haunting songs on that memorable album they produced in their post-Skynyrd continuation was entitled, “Next Phone Call”, about the chilling effect of hearing one’s phone ring in the middle of the night, when only the worst of news seems to find its way into our otherwise stable lives.

It wasn’t all that late in the night when I got the call, but it did have the same numbing effect of shattering an otherwise peaceful beginning to another week in Paradise here along the Strand – my old friend, Jeff Roberts, had unexpectedly died. I have reached that age where there is no such thing as an understandable loss of life, though ecumenicals portend to comfort me with profound explanations of the mysteries of God’s unknown will, and His great plan for us in the overall scheme of things.

But there is no comfort when someone close to me calls to let me know that one of the nicest, most decent men I have ever had the great honor and pleasure to know had passed away. Far too soon for his time, far too soon for his family, and far too soon for a world that sorely needs the likes of a Jeff Roberts now more than ever.

Now, I consider myself to be an extremely well-versed audiophile and musical history/trivia buff.  But it would be foolish (and abundantly obvious) for me, and really, just about anyone else around these parts to challenge Jeff’s encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary music. Equally foolish would be for one to assume that his forte was strictly rock & roll (with apologies to Atlanta Rhythm Section). Jeff’s genuine love for all things music was challenged only by his genuine love for his family and friends – and his son was the center of his world. And that one, simple fact speaks quantum volumes about those he loved.

Jeff’s contributions to the lives and experiences of musicians, writers, producers, engineers, songwriters and fans of music in general are as countless as the stars in the heavens above. The years of immeasurable joy he helped others find as they searched for that “perfect record” while he owned Sounds Familiar, in the original store at 38th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach, probably spans the lives of more people than anyone can imagine. A gentle giant of a man, his beaming smile and deep, sincere laugh made anyone who entered his store with a heavy heart forget their problems for the time they spent there. And his expansive knowledge of all genres of music – and the thousands of artists who performed them – made him the ultimate Shaman of advice for all of those who came searching for “that song, you know, the one that goes …”

Sounds Familiar went its way far too soon, but Jeff continued to provide the same service and help with its smaller but no less important successor, Sounds Better, located in the Hidden Village complex along Restaurant Row. Anyone looking for that impossible-to-find vinyl 45, LP or 8-track invariably found their way into his little musical Nirvana, tucked away near the site of his family’s old Myrtle Beach homestead.

And anyone who had the good fortune and excellent luck to experience any of the South By Southeast shows over the last few years will have an extra special memory to treasure, as Jeff continued to help bring excellence in music to us all along the Grand Strand, right up until this past Monday, January 11, 2010, when God couldn’t find his favorite Stevie Ray Vaughn album and called on the best on earth to help him out. Or, maybe He just wanted to show up Hendrix in the weekly Trivial Pursuit game.

So, farewell, old friend. And thank you for filling the best years of my life with the best damn soundtrack known to any man. But take solace in knowing that for us mere mortals, your spirit will live in glorious stereo every time a song – that you turned us on to – drops on the ol’ trusty turntable. That song, you know, the one that goes …
###
Services will be conducted by McMillan and Small Funeral Home, 67th Avenue North & 17 Bypass. Visitation Thursday evening 6-8. Funeral service Friday at 2pm in the Chapel.
###
This article was also published in Alternatives NewsMagazine, Nightlife & Entertainment Page 23, January 14 – 28, 2010; as well as online at http://www.myrtlebeachalternatives.com.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2010 in Along The Watchtower

 

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The Last Christmas Tree

christmas tree

By Brian M. Howle

Writer’s Note: Today – December 14, 2009 – marks five years since the reason for this column took place. Whomever it was who coined the phrase, “Time heals all wounds,” is completely full of shit. Some wounds just get bigger. But the overall message of this particular story remains just as strong, and in fact, is even more pertinent today. I implore everyone reading this to follow the advice at the end.

The one thing that remains constant and universal about a person throughout their life is the memories of Christmas and the entire holiday season. Unless you weren’t born and raised in a country that celebrates Christmas, of course. Thing is, with each passing year, we are being drawn closer and closer to living in a country that doesn’t.

And if that does ever come to pass – and don’t be so surprised if and when it does – you will still have the means to buck the system and keep right on enjoying everything about Christmas. Despite what has been deemed socially or politically incorrect, all of those wonderful, palpable, cherished memories will live on within the most private recesses of your mind.

So before the Thought Police start cracking down on Christmas even harder, I would like to share a few of my Christmas memories with you.

For some, I guess all those twinkling, flashing colored lights automatically become the cornerstone for earliest recollections of the holidays. For others, it could be the brightly festooned packages, with miles and miles of shiny ribbons and bows.

But for me, it always comes back to the silent sentinel of Christmas that stood watch over our home, our family, and (most importantly) our gifts and presents from Santa Claus within the warm, safe confines of our living room – the Christmas tree.

As I’ve stated many times before, my father owned the Piggly Wiggly in my little hometown of Andrews, S.C.. And though there were these ancillary hints and clues that Christmas was soon to be on the horizon – what, with Thanksgiving parades and the official start to the shopping season immediately thereafter. But for me, the seminal moment for signaling the advent of Christmas was when the big truck backed up to the front of the store. Not in the back, where every other item in the store was unloaded in a loud, frenzied, chaotically choreographed line of workers and steel-wheeled ramps that expedited cases of beans and the like.

No, the only truck that unloaded at the front of the store only came from the distant mountains of North Carolina, and it’s cargo was bushy, sticky and unmistakably aromatic.

The Christmas tree truck.

Once those sap-ladened, needle-dropping bad boys were leaning against the width of the store’s windowed facade, then – and only then – officially, Christmas was on!

Now, I have no idea what my family did before I came into the world, as far as picking out the tree was concerned. I’m sure they struggled in their sweet but incompetent way, bless their leetle hearts.

But once I was around, here’s how it went down: Daddy would come home during his lunch break and pick me up in his blue Ford pickup truck (the official Piggly Wiggly delivery truck could only be a Ford, just so you know) and delight in watching me try to look over the big steel dashboard, straining on tip toes to get that first rush of spotting the trees lined up out front. And he had his hands full, trying to bring the truck to a stop and keeping one hand tightly gripped on me to keep me from bolting out of a still-moving vehicle.

And then the banzai attack was on. I flung myself onto the waiting arms of thousands of sticky, pointy branches of wonderfully scent-laden needles, trying to avoid the big clumps of oozing sap that invariably lay hidden underneath. I rustled every limb, holding every one at arm’s length in order to access the merits or faults of each tree.

Oh, the inspection was grueling and unforgiving. My developing leetle artistic brain demanded perfection in symmetry, with a full-bodied balance in the front, back and sides. Gaping holes or snapped branches? On my tree? Perish the thought.

And more times than not, I had this knack of settling on the one tree out of hundreds with the deformed trunk, where the infant tree’s beginnings in life were altered and maimed by some unknown event that twisted and thickened the base into a quasi-Quasimodo appearance. It then became daddy’s job to hacksaw the blemish off so that it would fit down snugly into the solid steel tree stand with the little water reservoir bowl.

After obtaining my considered approval, the tree was hoisted up into the faithful delivery truck, and daddy let me in the back so I could ensure that rascal didn’t try one last attempt at escaping my determined leetle clutches. Cold December wind in my face, I wrestled to keep the beast from escaping during the entire 4 block sojourn to our house.

Once home, the tree was placed in the aforementioned stand out on the patio, where it was watered and allowed to “breathe” overnight, and the magical transformation was complete. What was once a drooping, disheveled heap of evergreen needles had metamorphized into a full, thick, massive tree. Standing strong and tall, it was then brought inside and placed in the obligatory corner of the living room.

Enter mama.

Yes, selecting the tree was my forte. But decorating it was hers.

And though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was one of the few things that induced bonding between us. Perhaps it was her way of grooming me for my task in adulthood, when I would have my own Christmas tree to adorn. But she took great pains to show me how to arrange decorations and lights in a symmetrical, balanced manner, standing back and studying her work before swooping back in for a critical adjustment or repositioning of a light.

It’s funny, the irony of it all, now that I reflect on it. My mother and I fought like cats and dogs for the majority of my childhood and adolescence, and wasn’t pretty. There were times when each of us wanted the annihilation of the other, no doubt about it. And to be honest, I think that most of the time it was probably due to my then-undiagnosed hyperactivity (back then, instead of a fancy name for behavioral disorders like HD/ADD, they would just call you “spayshul”), with me badgering my mother non-stop about whatever my question of the moment was.

Problem was, I had a zillion questions every minute of every day.

But when it came to decorating the Christmas tree, mama somehow transformed into a patient, doting parent, and answered each question with untypical patience.

And together, we would step back when all the boxes of lights and ornaments and candy canes were empty; after the last few handfuls of aluminum “icecicles” were tossed over the finished project like shimmering strands of silver snow and ice, just so – and bask in the self-satisfying admiration of our mutual handiwork.

And as with families all over the nation and the world, just like yours, we not only celebrated our faith, but our family as well. The deepest, strongest, most emotional and total sensory recall-producing memories are furrowed even stronger within our gray matter when we link family to Christmas.

The years passed by, and each successive holiday saw the commotion over the tree diminish, especially as each of the three children found their wings and flew the ol’ nest on South Farr Avenue.

And, being the youngest, I saw the tree diminish in size – but not always for lack of enthusiasm. Once the advent of the artificial tree took root, so to speak, in the Howle household, my job as official finder became obsolete.

This turned out to be very prophetic and practical for me, as I have chosen a career where software upgrades, planned obsoletion of hardware and a throw-away mentality towards the experienced adult worker have combined to draw our extinction ever nearer than it seems. Which, to me, is ominously imminent.

But before my title was dust, my parents began to struggle with the physical task of climbing up the 78 degree incline of the attic steps, digging out the boxes from the massive asbestos sanctuaries that resided up there, hauling it back down the grade without breaking anything. Then they would set it up in a corner of the room, after moving furniture to make a place for a tree that would now only host perhaps a dozen presents – primarily for my parents, since we were all now gone, except for me.

As they complained one year, while I trudged the harrowing steps to retrieve the lifeless tree from its hibernation, it occurred to me that because of the arrangement of the limbs to the center “trunk,” you could remove one half of the 360-degree circumference of the tree. Because it was already rather short, would fit on top of a row of low dresser cabinets flush against the wall, affording them even more usable space without having to move half the room around and repeat when Christmas was over.

Hey, I had my moments.

The years rolled on, and Christmas at home in Andrews became less annual for all of us to be together, what with our own families and the like.

So when my parents faced retirement and sold the family home, the tree made the move to their new abode. But it only saw a few more Christmases.

And when my father passed away in August of 2004, we weathered our grief and awaited Christmas without him for the first time in my and my siblings’ lives – and for mama, the first time in 64 years.

We always thought that, if mother passed away first, that daddy would not last a week, because his love for her was stronger than life itself.

How much more irony could be infused by the fact that, after his death, she simply gave up and suffered a heart attack on Thanksgiving day.

On her deathbed in a Sumter nursing home, I visited her in December, the day before she died. On my previous stop, I couldn’t take the barren, sterile hospital walls in her room any longer. I bought her a tiny little Christmas tree, and festooned it with leetle tiny ornaments. It even had lights, just so.

She regained lucidity for a moment, gazed upon the little tree and smiled, squeezing my hand, and then faded back off into semi-consciousness.

Our bond with the tree was our first act of contrition all those years ago, and became the final act when she passed away the next night.

So to all of you on this wonderful holiday season – whether you be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu and all the others – I wish you all the best of good tidings, love, and peace on earth. And whatever you do, please – put away those petty fights and differences with those you really love.

Because you never know when you’ll share the last Christmas tree.
###
This article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, December 20, 2007.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

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Wag This

By Brian M. Howle

When I took this gig, I more or less promised by publisher that this would be a humor/stories-of-life kinda column. Because if nothing else, I’ve experienced a lot of stuff, and I possess my dad’s quick wit. Fortunately for me, I also possess my mother’s gift of words and a love for crafting virtual reality via the King’s English. And I sincerely hope that anyone reading this on a regular basis understands sarcasm, cynicism, dark humor, facetiousness, sub-references and emotional response. ‘Cause today, we’re pushing all the buttons, pulling all the strings, hitting all the raw nerves, and quite possibly burning a few bridges before I’m through.

Awhile back, some Republicans were having a hissy-fit because someone was hummin’ “Blowing in the Wind” near the Oval Office, when lo and behold an actual world-safety situation broke in Iraq. In response, our government – i.e.; the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advisors and congressmen – decided enough was enough and started lobbing a few cruise missiles around ol’ Saddam. And faster than you could say “anal retentive”, the immediate knee-jerk response of those Republicans was to start screaming, “Wag The Dog, Way The Dog, this is life imitating art imitating life”. Apparently, those boys saw the movie, and must have gotten ahold of some bad popcorn laced with LSD, which blurred their ability to distinguish between reality and make believe. What irked me most at the time was the fact that this military response to Saddam was carried out by a president who is a Democrat, dealing with a problem left over by his Republican predecessor’s administration.

I mean, is there anyone out there who honestly thinks that if we just forgot about Saddam – and kept on stamping our feet, shaking a stern finger and arching our brows as we clenched our teeth while admonishing, “Saddam, for the LAST time, put that biochemical weapon down! … I mean it, young man, don’t you dare make me turn this aircraft carrier around!” – that he would just go away?

By the way, I hope you enjoyed that 74¢ a gallon gas we guzzled away in our SUVs, ATVs, Humvees, Jet Skis and BMW M-3s, ‘cause that was the payoff for the Gulf War, not human rights violations. I thoroughly enjoyed the cheap gas, as I drive a POS.

Back to the current world. The Inquisition is over (well, maybe, since Ken renewed the lease on the copiers for another year), Monica has written an excellent accessory for your bird cage, and we were happily settling into a refreshing pattern of slow news days. Then the media god “Overkilleus” smiled down upon the ratings woes, and bestowed Slobodan Milosevic upon them.

“Oh, thank you, thank you, Overkilleus,” wept Sam Donaldson, struggling to keep a small, seemingly dead animal positioned on his head. “Surely, you have saved us all from cable market loss!” Sam joyously exclaimed.

“But Overkilleus, what have we done to receive such a gift, how have we proven our worthiness to you?” implored Wolf Blitzer in his best Hugh Downs voice.

“Hey, can it, Cable Boy, I still have a follow-up question,” snapped Sam, the ferret on his head snarlingly nodding in agreement.

Overkilleus put his mighty hands between the two men and pushed them apart, frightening the ferret, which lunged for a boom microphone that swung down and hit Wolf in the forehead, reproducing his legendary forehead knot from a hastily prepared live feed from the Pentagon during Desert Storm.

“That’s not fair! Now everyone’s gonna watch CNN to see Wolf’s knot!” screamed Sam as he wrestled to break the ferret’s grip on a transmission cable. “No one will see or hear my from-the-hip, take-no-prisoners drivel!”

“Now, now, Sam,” Overkilleus lovingly consoled him, “Don’t you worry about those ratings. I’ve got Allyson Floyd and Nina Sossamon on your lead-in locals, you’ll get your ratings.”

“Oh, bless you, bless you, Overkilleus,” Sam blurted out as he began weeping uncontrollably again. “What can I ever do to show my appreciation for your generosity?”

“Lose the ferret,” Overkilleus said as he helped a stunned Wolf to his feet.

“Cut me, cut me, Nick!” Wolf deliriously begged a nearby sound engineer. “I’ve gotta do this for Adrianne! YO ADRIANNE!”

“Come on, Wolfie,” chortled Overkilleus as he steadied the cable icon and unwrapped his earpiece from his trench coat epilets. “Let’s go call Connie Chung and pretend to be Newt’s mom blistered on Tequila!”

There was a time when war was taken seriously by everyone. Editorial opinions and political cartoons were just as abundant, but they didn’t consume our every waking moment, and we stayed focused on the gravity of the matter. Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite didn’t trivialize the news, they just reported it.

I distinctly remember the birth of ABC’s “Nightline” with Ted Koppel. The Iranians had just stormed the American Embassy and taken the hostages. “Nightline” began as a crisis-coverage production, slated to disappear with the hostages’ release. But as the ordeal dragged on, the world witnessed the advent of the “Crisis du Jour Logo”, complete with immediately recognizable theme music. Theme music – for a crisis update. Oy vey …

Well, I guess it served its purpose in preparing us for the ‘90s. CNN’s haunting string-laden orchestral little number, created exclusively for that judicial travesty known as “O.J.’s Day Off”. No kidding, I actually read in one of the national news magazines at the time, one reporter’s description of the music, something like “the violin’s high, soaring melody symbolizing Nicole’s and Ron’s tragic deaths, contrasted by the cello’s low, ominous presence, representing O.J.’s dark and ominous alibis. OY VEY.

Oh yeah, someone explain this one to me, ‘cause I’m really having problems with this one. During World War II, did we announce to the entire world our military strategies, troop placement options, time tables, troop numbers … stuff like that? Did we ever notify the Axis powers that we were running a little low on specific bombs? Did we send the enemy our public opinion poll results? Or was “Loose Lips Sink Ships” just a clever Yankee propaganda slogan?

Today, if we’re sending in F-117A stealth jet fighters, there’s a blueprint rendering of the plane, complete with vital stats like range, armament, top speed, etc., filling in the “blue screen” over the news anchor’s shoulder, followed by a video clip of where the plane is based, meeting the people who built it, interviewing townspeople on how they feel about “their plane” engaging in such a dangerous mission. And sometimes, they even feature the pilot, time permitting.

Unless, of course, the pilot is shot down and captured, or as has happened as this is being written, soldiers are captured by the enemy. Then you’re gonna learn just about everything there is to know about them. Less than 24 hours after their capture, each of the three American soldiers had their bruised, stoic faces boxed in the color-coded graphic, offering little personal facts about each one’s high school years, favorite music, favorite hobbies … Reminds me of that bio on the gatefold pages of the Playmate of the Month. And that bothers me.

As the NATO strike against Milosevic’s thugs became imminent, Serbian TV psyched up the faithful by broadcasting “Wag The Dog”. Can you imagine that? Frothing up the dogs of war by comparing their impending punishment to a fictitious yarn about a U.S. President fabricating a war in the Slavic Theater of Operations.

I can’t fathom anyone being that desperate to bolster their venom and hatred here in America.

No matter how self-serving, self-feeding or self-glorifying the media becomes, Americans must tolerate it. Regardless of sensationalism or hyperbole or rhetoric, underneath the high-tech production values and eccentric profound revelation lies the very soul of freedom and a free society. Our system isn’t perfect, and may never be without faults – but the beauty of it is that we can change it, if the people so desire. We have the means to change without civil disruption and mayhem, and we call it Election Day. In Kosovo today – as in Bosnia before – Milosevic has not only taken away the Kosovar’s rights, he’s taken away their existence, their lives.

My father served in World War II, a war in which this country heroically committed its sons and fathers, with patriotic determination and complete unity, and ultimately prevailed. My brother served in Viet Nam, a war in which this country tragically committed its sons and fathers, with no stomach for the price of victory and in complete disarray and division back at home, and ultimately failed. The lives of over 50,000 Americans – 50,00 brave and honorable Americans – were sacrificed for a pointless end game, which consisted of no end game.

So, we have two distinct choices to make as Americans. We can continue to lead the world in promoting what is right, because there are some things worth fighting – and dying – for. Or, we can stick our heads in the sand and let the rest of the world fend for themselves. The main drawback to that decision is that one day when we feel a tap on our shoulders and pull our heads up, we’ll find the world overrun with Slobodan’s and Saddam’s soulless followers. Then we would have to kill for the sake of killing, not for the sake of freedom.

Whatever direction our involvement takes, I hope the American people take a united and fervent stand. My personal wish is for some unforeseen intervention – say, the President of Brazil hosting a peace conference where warring leaders could samba their differences away, or even the realization of the prophecies’ accounts of the Tribulation (since we are in the final days of the millennium).

If it’s not the latter, I would look forward to a future encounter between Overkilleus and Arthur Kent, NBC’s “Scud Stud” from Desert Storm, who zoomed from star to oblivion following the Gulf War.

“Oh man, Overkilleus, I can’t believe you’ve called me after all this time!” an uncontrollably excited Kent would gush. “So, what’s the assignment? Beirut? Rwanda? China?”

“No, I have a much bigger task for you, Arthur,” Overkilleus would say, lowering his voice in importance ass he puts his arm around Kent’s leather-jacketed shoulder. “I want you to find out the truth about something the world needs to resolve.” Overkilleus slowly looks up at a map on the wall. “I want you to go here,” he says as his points out Washington, D.C.

“Wow … D.C. … So, what is it? The President? Congress? The Supreme Court? PACs? Sex scandals?” Kent babbles excitedly.

“A ferret.” smiles Overkilleus.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, April 8, 1999.
###

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Cat’s-Eye Of The Hurricane

By Brian M. Howle

Besides being a “graphic rabbit” (i.e. graphic artist), musician and writer, I pride myself in being an all-around handyman who dabbles in tinkering around with inventions. After years of collecting various electronic components, wires, relays, circuits, tubes and generally what others would consider junk, I recently put the finishing touches on what I believe to be my greatest accomplishment: The Universal Cat Translator.

For the past two years, I have worked tirelessly on my little project during the time between magazine deadlines. It was a hard, time-consuming labor of love sandwiched between pounding out this publication, but as mid-September approached I had finally realized my dream . About the size of a Walkman personal stereo, it contains a standard hard drive found in most computers, capable of recording days of information on a set of AA batteries. While the technical aspects are fairly commonplace, the breakthrough coup de gras was my unraveling the mystery of the cat vocabulary. Most people probably think that cats have a very limited vocabulary, consisting primarily of “meow” and the more emphatic “meow, dammit.” But no one was more surprised than I when I stumbled upon the longlost scrolls of feline phonics while mindlessly surfing the net one night. Akin to decoding hieroglyphics and binary codes, it was an amazingly easy process once I got the hang of it.

I was all set to begin the necessary patent paperwork to share my invention with the world when big, bad Hurricane Floyd decided to put the fear of God into every reasonable human being on the entire eastern seaboard. I set about boarding up my parents’ house at Pawleys Island, removing furniture and household items so as not to relive the horrors experienced by Hugo ten years earlier. Then I repeated the same procedure for my landlady, and finally again for my own apartment. After the last sheet of plywood was nailed up and the yard missiles put away, there was one final task to undertake before I could join the mass exodus of evacuees. I had to round up my little herd of cats – all eighteen of them.

With my array of portable cages securely tied down in the bed of a pickup truck, I covered them with multiple tarps as the first wave of feeder bands from he approaching storm began their ominous onslaught. Ready to roll, I made a last dash through my apartment, gathering up clothes, cat food and kitty litter for the journey inland to the safer confines of Columbia and my beloved. On my way out the door, I grabbed the Cat – Translator and tossed it into the back of the truck – but not before turning it on for the long ride ahead of me. The following is the transcript of my journey, as my kitties chatted among themselves. To clarify who is who, here are the names of my little ones:

Anastasia: Matriarch of the bunch; older, wiser and less prone to freaking out in a crisis; solid black.

Romaria: Oldest daughter of Anastasia; large, lithe, a stately lioness among her peers; bluepoint silver.

Alexander: Oldest son of Anastasia; plush but muscular, dominant male but too sweet to exploit his position; solid black.

Samantha and Sabrina: Twin daughters of Anastasia; one mellow, one devilish; gray tabbies.

Othello and Mercutio: Twin sons of Romaria; noble and kind, they emulate their uncle Alexander; solid black.

Delilah and Monique: Twin daughters of Romaria; soft and supple, they mirror their mother’s grace and style; blue-point silver

Alanis: Youngest daughter of Anastasia; overly-hyper and harboring angst towards any male, but kind at heart; black with white chest.

Guinivere and Lola: Twin daughters of Samantha; slightly wilder than the rest when excited; blue-point silver.

Chanel: Youngest daughter of Anastasia, quiet and calm, but constantly bedeviled by her children; gray tabby.

Howard, Robin, Jackie and Fred: Chanel’s kids, unmercifully rowdy and curious, with irreverence for their peers; black, silver and gray tabbies.

L.C.: My housecat, oldest of the bunch, completely anti-social and having nothing to do with the rest, has a real attitude but is daddy’s little babycat and knows it; orange and white tabby.

Now that you know the players, here is their story as it unfolded:

Anastasia: QUIET?CHILDREN! Stop that screaming! It’s drivin me crazy!

Alexander: But, mom, we don’t know what’s going on! Why did daddycat put us in these little boxes? And where are we going?

Alanis: I don’t care where we’re going, I just don’t want any of you boys near me.

Othello: Shut up, Alanis, no one is even slightly interested in you in the least.

Alanis: Oh sure, I’m so sure … that lying Tom from down the road said the same thing before he dumped me after he got what he wanted. You men are all the same!

Romaria: Alanis, we’ve all heard this before; please don’t shout like that, it just upsets the kids.

Alanis: IT’S LIKE RAYEEE-AINN, ON YOUR WEDDING DAY …

Mercutio: That’s because it IS rain, dumbass!

Monique: Hey … isn’t that ironic, don’t ya think?

Guinivere: Mom, Grandma … Why is the ground moving?

Samantha: I don’t know, darling, maybe your grandmother knows.

Anastasia: Yes, Gwinney, I do know … It’s because daddycat is taking us to a safe place until this storm is over. And tell your sister to come down from the ceiling.

Guinivere: Lola, Grandma said to chill out and come down here.

Lola: GROUND DOESN’T MOVE, I TELL YA!

Sabrina: I’ve heard stories from west coast cats about the ground moving, Lola.

Delilah: That’s probably because west coast cats smoke catnip, Sabrina.

Jackie: SOMEBODY’S HOLDING CATNIP?

Robin: You wish, Jackie!

Anastasia: QUIET! I don’t want to hear anymore about that!

Romaria: Sam, Dee, not in front of the kids, OK?

Howard: I’m just waiting to see some hot lesbo cat on cat action here.

Anastasia: HOWARD! WATCH YOUR MOUTH!

Robin: Grandma, Howard’s obsessed with that, you know.

Howard: Ooofa!

Fred: Ooofa!

Chanel: Boys, BOYS … please, please don’t upset your grandmother.

Monique: Excuse me … Grandma, you never said why the ground is moving.

Anastasia: Monique, darling, daddycat put us in his ironcat, and now he’s taking us to a safer place, away from the storm.

Guinivere and Lola: WHAT? WE’RE IN THAT IRONCAT? HEEEELLLLPPPP!

Alexander: Gwinney, Lola, stop screaming, now. Daddycat is only trying to keep us out of the bad storm.

Alanis: But, we’ve been through storms before and daddycat didn’t put us through all this …

Anastasia: No, children, this is a terribly bad storm, much worse than anything you have ever known. It’s called a hurricane.

Othello: What’s a hurricane, Grandma?

Anastasia: It’s the worst kind of storm, darling. The humancats all fear this more than anything else. The rain comes in ferocious amounts, and the wind blows down the trees and the humancats houses.

Howard: (Peeking under the tarp while the truck is rolling along I-20) So … what’s the difference between that and what we’re going through right now?

Chanel: HOWARD! SHUT UP, YOU MORON!

Robin: Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee!

Othello: (to Mercutio) Geez, she laughs at anything.

Mercutio: I know, day after day after day. It’s sad.

Alanis: Is there a dry litter box over there?

Anastasia: No, darling, just make do with what we have, now.

Jackie: GRANDMA SAID “MAKE DOO!”

Robin: Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee!

Anastasia: DON’T MAKE ME COME OVER THERE!

Guinivere and Lola: Are we there yet?

Howard: Seriously … (looking under tarp again) … I don’t see the difference between this hurricane thing Grandma’s talking about and this.

Romaria: Howard, mom has explained this to you already …

Robin: Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee!

Chanel: Howard, your aunt’s right … and shut up, Robin.

Sabrina: Hey! Somebody stole my lizard!

Othello: You got a lizard?

Sabrina: Lola! Did you eat my lizard?

Lola: Noophh.

Sabrina: SAMANTHA! YOUR DAUGHTER ATE MY LIZARD!

Anastasia: QUIET! There will plenty of lizards when we get back!

Howard: Hey! Look! There’s another cat in this ironcat that’s going by us!

(Everyone looks under the tarp as a station wagon pulls alongside; a snow white cat sticks his head out of a small opening at the top of a side window)

Howard: Hey! That’s Daniel Catver, Grand Catdaddy of the Kat Klax Klan!

Catver: (As the wagon passes) Wake Up, White Kitties!

Mercutio and Othello: Hey, We resent that!

Chanel: (Shaking head) Oh Lord … where’s Wayne Gray when you need him.

Anastasia: Chanel! Bite your tongue, young lady!

Guinivere and Lola: Are we there yet?

Alexander: Mom, make them shut up, please?

Anastasia: Gwinney, Lola … You ask that again and I’m coming over there and scratching your eyes out!

Fred: Ooooooo … Grandma’s gonna kick some butt!

Jackie: FRED SAID “BUTT!”

Robin: Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee!

Lola: ACCCCKKKKK!

Guinivere: Ooooo, gross … Lola coughed up a big hairball.

Sabrina: Is there any lizard in it?

Samantha: Sabrina, let it go, OK?

Anastasia: THAT’S IT! I’M COMING OVER THERE RIGHT NOW!

Howard: Oh boy, the litter’s gonna hit the fan now …

Chanel: HOWARD!

Robin: Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee!

L.C.: (Yawning) God, I hate outside cats.

As I pulled into my beloved’s driveway, they all quieted down and leaned against each other in a big, fuzzy ball. Eager to playback their conversation, I hastily grabbed the Translator as I ran towards the door, anxious to get out of the pouring rain.

Unfortunately, the slippery case slid from my grip and fell against the steps, disabling its recording mode. Although I was able to retrieve the above transcript, I’m afraid the Translator is beyond repair for the time being. Which is really a shame, since the trip back home the next day was in beautiful weather, and instead of the 45 MPH speed I endured in the storm, I was able to drive the posted speed limit of 70.

Now, that would have been a story to hear.
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The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, September 23, 1999
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Posted by on August 22, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

My Worst Summer

By Brian M. Howle

After recounting the joy and adventure of my days as a lifeguard over the last four issues, I began my annual fight with my memories of other summers past. The fight consists of me trying not to recall the events of certain summers in my childhood, because to this day they still put a shiver up my spine.

The single worst day of any summer found me spending the week with my best childhood friend, “T” B. Gamble, Jr.. Named after his father, Troy, somewhere along the line the nickname “T’ came into being and stayed with him throughout his school years. For all practical purposes, we could just as easily have been joined at the hip. Wherever you saw one, you usually saw the other. We were always on the same tcams (circumstances otherwise would produce bouts of pouting and false bravado), in the same patrol in Scouts, chasing the guy driving the milk truck together (in our daily raid on weaseling some free half-pints of chocolate milk), and bugging our parents to drive us out to the country club so we could take in a relaxing dip in the pool or cheat our way through 9 holes of golf. We were inseparab1e.

In the late ‘50s and very early ‘60s, our parents bought lots at Litchfield Beach, not far from each other. After the houses were built, it was just like it was back in Andrews – just a hundred yards or so from each other’s home. We took our first swimming lessons together from a lifeguard named Eddie at the original Litchfield Inn. Countless hours were spent mastering the art of body surfing in the ocean and sculpting massive, Atalaya-like castles in the sand; countless more were spent on our dock on the canal, slowly pulling up lines of string weighted down with scraps of meat and fishing weights as famished blue crabs hung on for dear life with one claw, while stuffing shreds of meat into their mouths with the other. They would react suddenly upon seeing the blue sky break through the murky marsh water, but not before we would skillfully swoop them up with the submerged net that was stealthily positioned nearby. Nights consisted of putt-putt golf, trampolines, skeeball and anything else we could think of to lessen the weighty burden of loose change from our parents. All in all, life was good.

In the late ‘60s, I entered a radio station contest that would award the winner with ten gallons of ice cream from an ice cream shop at Coastal Mall in Conway. Held early in the school year and requiring the writing of a poem about ice cream, my mother and teachers suggested it just might be up my alley. The big day came, and everyone was listening to mighty WKYB AM radio when the winner was announced. And sure enough, I had won.

Now all I had to do was go to Conway, present my letter of verification, and walk out with ten gallons of whatever combination of flavors my little heart desired. Only problem was, I wasn’t old enough to drive at night.

And so, fall turned to winter, winter to spring – still no ice cream. But with the arrival of summer’s beckoning call to the beach, my frozen dairy dilemma was soon to be resolved. “T” had invited several friends, including myself, to spend a week or so at his beach house. Which spoke volumes about the tolerance of “T”’s parents. Being responsible for multiples of our little clique was a real faith-testing challenge – but Mr. & Mrs. Gamble rose to the test on countless occasions. It was there in “My Blue Heaven,” the Gamble’s beach house, where someone actually remembered something from school earlier that year – a science experiment. The actual experiment was designed to show how gases – in this case, carbon dioxide – could be used as propellants, and how the various elements and chemicals react. Well, it didn’t take long for us to figure out that if you took a two liter bottle (which in those days was glass) and put a little vinegar in it, then stuffed a tissue down in the neck with your finger to leave a small receptacle for a few tablespoons of baking soda, then screw the metal cap back on real tight and then shake it up and throw it – Viola!

You had your basic bomb.

We did it for the loud boom (which reverberated against houses from one end of the beach to the other in the dead of night); “T”’s folks pointed out the lethal shards of glass (which we overlooked, since we only did this at night and couldn’t see that part of the experiment) and put an end to our scientific pursuits.

One day the subject of my waiting ice cream came up, and something about a prize deadline. Mr. Gamble overheard the conversation and offered to drive us to Conway to collect my bounty. Curtains swayed and loose papers fluttered in the ensuing breeze created by our breakneck dash to Mr. Gamble’s burgundy Fairlane. Drunk with anticipation, we sang and laughed and generally made Mr. Gamble’s attempt at concentrating on driving a real chore. But as usual, he never complained about our rowdy loudness.

Once at the ice cream parlor, a small crisis developed when I showed the scooper-in-charge my little letter of verification. He scratched his head, mumbled “Be right back” and disappeared to the back of the store. A few minutes later, he returned with the owner. Or rather, the new owner. The shop had changed hands since the contest, and legally, I don’t think they were obliged to give me as much as a cone. But the guy was decent enough to honor my winnings, herding us behind the counter to get a good view of our choices. And our choices needed to be perfect, as the prize only came in five gallon containers. Mr. Gamble had the foresight to bring a couple of plastic coolers along, so we packed one with five gallons of vanilla and the other with five gallons of strawberry, and then poured four or five bags of ice over them.

Mr. Gamble made the ol’ Fairlane blow out some carbon on our journey back to the beach, as I nervously watched my winnings slowly melting away. When we reached the house, another frantic dash created another ensuing breeze as we raced for the freezer. All told, only a cup or two had melted, and we reveled in our victory, clanging spoons and bowls as we danced on the counter top in the kitchen. A brace of teenage boys unleashed without constraints upon ten gallons of ice cream – must be a gastrointestinal specialist’s dream come true. We celebrated late into the night, then – bloated on lactose – we retired to our bedroom suite to review the day as we listened to an unending eight-track tape of The Beatle’s White Album. A small, contented smile crossed my lips as I drifted off to sleep to the verses of “Bungalow Bill” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

The music played throughout the night, weaving in and out of my dreams, which were pretty intense due to the sugar coma that I was in. And then, in the middle of “Dear Prudence”, I heard my very best friend in the whole world; barely audible, seemingly distant and displaced, but crying. And not the normal, “I fell off my bike” cry, either. It was haunting in its cascade, which regenerated itself deeper and louder with each cycle.

Suddenly, I awoke to find Jimmy Moody, one of the other friends, shaking me violently and, trying to scream at me without really being loud. My eyes were open and I could see his lips moving, but the music and the echoes of the screams were still clouding my ability to distinguish anything as I fought to wake up. I think I asked, “What?” once, and the second time my friend spoke, all the sounds came swirling to a stop; all the light focused on his face; and all the words became clear.

“Mr. Gamble is dead”, he enunciated loudly through clenched teeth, trying not to be heard by those outside the room.

“What?” I repeated, as the clarity of the horrible realization gave way to a new wave of confusion and disbelief. “What do you mean? We just had ice cream”.

“No, he got up this morning and was driving back to Andrews when he had a heart attack. He pulled off the road and stopped his car, but he died before the ambulance could get there”, Jimmy quietly said as he saw my reaction beginning to set in.

Now fully awake and alert, my mind began to separate the mesh of sounds that had seeped into my dreams. The music was still playing; car doors were being slammed outside as “T”’s mother returned with our school principal, Mr. Rowell, to break the tragic news to him, as his screams of pain and loss echoed upon hearing those words – now everything gelled to unscramble the confusion.

Jimmy left to attend to something else after he was content that I was awake and aware. I remember sitting there for a few minutes, trying to cope with this life lesson and my sense of grief, for my friend – and myself – physically unable to move. Tears and light trembling abounded, and my sense of awareness was there, but nothing moved. Not my head, my arms, my legs, nothing.

And then I heard my very best friend ask, “Where’s Brian?”.

At his side in an instant, we hugged and cried and screamed out our own loss of innocence. Then his mother and Mr. Rowell came over and whispered something to him. He asked me to drive his car back to Andrews, because he was leaving with his mom right away, and it would be a few minutes before we could clean up and pack before locking the house on our way out.

There were a lot things I thought about on that drive back home. Most of them still reside within my active reminders, the ones that usually go off whenever I’m losing sight of what really matters.

“T” made a promise to himself – and to his father – to become a doctor on that day. He made it his life’s mission. And he did.

Not only did he become a doctor, who began with family practice back in our little hometown when he first graduated med school, but he became a heart specialist.

Now some thirty-odd years later, he partnered in a successful family practice in Columbia, where he treated the love of my life and our sixteen-year-old son on a regular basis at the time. He now works in Florence with the Carolinas Hospital system, as a cardio specialist.

So on those rough, “poor me” days when I find my surroundings to be intolerable, when my opinions of others become vocal, when I just flat out become a pain in the rear, I think about my friend, “T”, and his lot in life.

And then I usually call my dad and put aside my selfishness.

(Note: Since this was written, the extra 35 years that I got to spend with my dad – that my friend did not get to have with his – came to an end in August of 2004. And one of the first calls I received – and without a doubt, the most meaningful to me – was from my friend, “T”.)
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The previous article orginally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, August 12, 1999.
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Posted by on August 22, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Let’s Call A Spade A Spade

By Brian M. Howle

(Note: Although this was written in May of 1999, it is still applicable to the mindset of the current elected officials of the City of Myrtle Beach. This Mayor’s administration and City Council passed a series of laws that effectively ran off motorcyclists of all races, creeds, religions and make of bikes from within the fair boundaries of Myrtle Beach proper. These range from aggravation laws (helmets required within the city despite the SC state law that does not) to Marxist control laws (exhaust system decible levels and examination of motorcycle original statistical information plates to confirm adherence to City code) to flat-out strong-arm tactics (denying vendors permits or limiting public access, or astronomically increasing vendor fees and reducing their allowed space). Please note: These tactics are used ONLY by the City of Myrtle Beach; NMB and the South Strand (Surfsides, Garden City, Murrells Inlet, Litchfield & Pawleys Island) do NOT endorse Myrtle Beach’s view of the bikers and the loss of the enormous revenue they generate for the local businesses AND municipalities of the Grand Strand.)

The last “braps” from the few remaining motorcyclcs become fading echoes as the massive crowds of Memorial Day Weekend ‘99 disperse and retreat to their hometowns. Our little resort town exhales a collective sigh of relief as the final hours of the traditional summer kick-off holiday draw to a close, leaving behind an avalanche of trash and debris as the only physical reminders of the much anticipated event.

And now we can start to evaluate the impact and the statistics, to assess the pros and cons, and to come to terms with the myths and the reality.

Or do we really want to?

As a life-long native of the Strand, I am very much aware of the economic DNA of our Golden Goose, and all the wonderful things associated with it. Despite our small town roots, the lifeblood of an increasing number of people depends on the unending waves of humanity that make the Strand their vacation destination. But if we’re really serious about maintaining those waves, it would behoove us all to hunker down and stare the demon in the eye. And this will, in all likelihood, be the most difficult task any of us could ever undertake, because it means looking in the mirror.

In the aftermath of previous Memorial Day weekend celebrations, some have chosen the “sky is falling” approach to confronting the masses. Under the influence of youthful inexperience or youthful ignorance, the Mayor of Myrtle Beach called upon the Governor to dispatch the National Guard to quell the impending apocalypse that he envisioned to unfold. Regardless of whether his decision was a result of political considerations or a matter of conscience, Gov. Hodges is to be commended for his decision not to pursue such a reactionary response.

Now that it’s over, let’s tally up the results and compare them with other events:

• Number of bike-related deaths from MD Bike Weekend: None.

• Number of bike-related deaths from Harley Weekend: One.

• Number of arrests resulting from public intoxication during Harley?Weekend and MD?Bike Weekend: Full statistics not yet released. (Needless to say, common sense would dictate that in both instances, the number is probably pretty high).

• Percentage of the population exasperated with traffic tie-ups from both events: 100%.

• Percentage of the population left nearly stone deaf from both events: 100%.

• Percentage of exposed gluteus maximuses: 100% (female riders only) Note: Comparison to Harley Week in this category would be unfair due to genetic disposition.

• Percentage of population flagrantly prejudiced: Unknown.

Oops. There it is.

Every reason imaginable has been used by officials, residents and media to make the case against the Atlantic Beach Bike Rally continuing as an annual event. That is, every reason but the one that is really the heart of the matter.

Despite incidents of similar behaviors, nobody seems to mind the overwhelmingly white Harley Week.

Despite incidents of similar behavior, no one seems to mind the overwhelmingly white invasion of golfers.

Despite incidents of similar behavior, nobody seems to mind the overwhelmingly white hordes of college students on spring break and summer vacation.

Coincidentally, no one seems to mind the overwhelmingly African American, Hispanic or Asian legions of workers who cook the meals, wash the dishes, scrub the floors, make the beds, collect the garbage and generally perform all the menial labor necessary for all of these groups – and the locals – to enjoy the good life at the beach.

This isn’t confined to the Grand Strand, or Horry County, or South Carolina, or the South, or the United States. It’s just a sad fact that anywhere there’s a white majority, you can bet that there’s an unspoken mood of uneasiness when any minority begins to congregate in large numbers.

Deny it all you want – over the last three weeks I’ve witnessed and overhead the whispers of fear from one end of the Strand to the other. Businesses have chosen to close their doors for the duration of Memorial Day Weekend. Food and beverages have been stockpiled so that there’s no need to venture out of the house. Mini-vacations and long-overdue visits to family and friends away from the beach have been scheduled. The only other event to trigger a similar response, that I’ve witnessed, is the impending arrival of the dreaded hurricane.

So, why don’t we just come clean and call a spade a spade, so to speak. If we’re hell bent on keeping the Coppertone folks behind the wheel of their Mercedes and Lincolns (hey, isn’t it ironic, don’t ya think?), then let’s get serious about it. I mean, if we can put white men on the moon, surely we can keep the Strand light and bright. I don’t claim to have all the answers, of course, but here are a few thoughts for our leaders to chew on:

• Since we’re already in the process of building new roads to the beach, simply install toll booths and impose a surcharge on all Japanese-made motorcycles.

• Pass new zoning laws requiring all Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises to be located west of the Waterway. Amend the law to include roadside produce stands (watermelon vendors only).

• Further amend above law to include all Taco Bell restaurants.

• Ban the sale of all 40 oz. malt liquor and MD 20/20, as well as Kool and Newport cigarettes.

• Further amend above law to include tequila and Corona beer.

• Make possession of any radio, tape deck, CD player or boom box with a power rating of more than 10 watts a capital offense.

• Require all non-whites complying with above laws to swim across the Waterway before admitting access.

• Amend above law to exclude Hispanics; replace with requirement that no vehicle contains more than 4 blackvelvet paintings of Jesus.

• Further amend above two laws to exclude Asians; replace with restrictions against anyone scoring over 1400 on S.A.T. exams.

• While we’re at it, enact zoning laws restricting the number of beachwear stores to only one within a 15-mile radius.

• Abolish the sale or possession of all Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Melissa Etheridge or Indigo Girl albums, tapes and CDs.

• File a class-action suit against God for creating a rainbow.

• Allow the “He needed killin’” defense in confrontations that begin with “Yo, Yo, Yo”. “Que pasa?” or “Well, the way we did it up North …”

Well, I’m sure some of vou can extend this list on and on. But until the powers that be consider these options seriously, we should all extend an enormous debt of gratitude to the tireless efforts of the mini-army of law enforccnient, the Friendship Committee, and all the normal folks out there who accept the world in which we live, with all of its imperfections.

Because it is the existence of these people that, in the final analysis, will prevent the Grand Strand from being compared to South Africa’s “Sun City.” And for some, replacing ignorance and prejudice with enlightenment and compassion will be too much to ask. But you could at least try. In the meantime, pass the Coppertone.

It would be mighty white of you.
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The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, June 3, 1999.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

This Is Your Brain On Bikes

By Brian M. Howle

Those little neurons that fire off signals to your brain’s memory section must have an interesting genesis. Everyone has them – but I believe some of us have more than most. While washing my car a few weeks ago, I observed a young boy venturing from the safe confines of his driveway to take that inaugural plunge into worldly freedom. His cautious, methodical peddling – tempered with momentary gyroscopic corrections to maintain balance – began to slowly increase in speed. With a determined focus, his eyes were set on the next three feet of asphalt awaiting him; bottom lip firmly in the overbite of concentration. For a few brief seconds, only he and I existed in our little corner of the world. Upon reaching the recognizable border of his next door neighbor’s yard (the grand total of about fifty feet), the realization of his first solo ride cut through the concentration. His little face lit up like a Vegas marquee, and he very carefully negotiated the U-turn maneuver. Then he began screaming to his mother, who was sweeping their garage, “Mamma! Mamma! MAMMA! Look, LOOK … I’m riding WITHOUT training wheels! LOOK!! And Mamma smiled and congratulated him, and as he hopped off his bike she gathered him up in her waiting arms and hugged him amid squeals of delight from both as they made their way inside for a celebratory treat.

I hope his mother keeps that little moment tucked away in her accessible memory, for her to retrieve and relive at her fancy. Because I know for sure the boy will.

In the few nanoseconds after they disappeared inside their home, my mind had transported me back to the day when I, too, had broken the surly bonds of stabilization assisted bicycles. No one was around that day, for reasons unknown, and I sat on the steps at the end of our side walkway, giving my training wheels the evil eye. A serious decision had to be made, and since I apparently had nothing but time on my hands (being a little kid and all), I turned my attention to my dad’s tool box. Now, this signaled two important things:

1) – I was actually motivated to do something, and;

2) – I must have been motivated to plunder through dad’s tool box without his supervision. Hey, I was five, maybe six years old – the difference between a wrench and say, a hacksaw, seemed of little importance at the time. And besides, I had already established that I had time on my hands, so the diversionary task of seeing how many sawable surfaces our yard contained didn’t ruin my time table. And days later, when dad discovered a toothless hacksaw in his tool box, I learned two more important things:

1) – Hacksaws should not be used on steel and masonry unless you use specialized blades, and;

2) – It’s hard to sit for a few days when you do.

Well, after the hacksaw lost its novelty (and its teeth), I again turned my attention to removing the training wheels. It took little while – maybe an hour or four – but I figured out which fit the nuts that held the wheels in place. With the yard littered with wheel pieces, tools and assorted items sawed from their points of origin, I climbed up on the seat, gripped the squishy plastic handlebar grips, put my head down and pushed off from the top of our driveway. A small slope led to the street, and initial inertia always helps when you’re a kid doing something for the first time. It also helps to close your eyes, which I did, and when the driveway bottomed out and the only sound I heard was the rushing wind dancing over my ears, I opened my eyes and languished in the moment of victory of self-reliance. Then it occurred to me that the rest of the world shouldn’t he denied enlightenment to this accomplishment, and I swooped into the big, wide, easy turn to head back to the house to share the news. Aglow in pride, I accepted my parents’ congratulations and encouragement as I stood beside the now tamed beast and reveled in triumph.

Not long after mastering the two-wheeler, a predictable series of events were set in motion. First, every little boy has a genetic code interwoven into his heart and soul, into his very being, that requires him to seek maximum speed in all forms of propelled movement. Second, the same DNA dictates that once top speed has been ascertained, the brain begins to crunch the numbers required to achieve release from the grip of gravity, be it ever so brief.

My friends and I began constructing ramps for free-flight jumping, utilizing such high-tech materials as bricks and two-by-fours. At this point the learning curve is very much in play, as the DNA leads us to discover some of the basic principles of physics: i.e., the concept of weights and leverage, and diminishing or increasing points of fulcrum shift – as when a board’s length exceeds the fulcrum line, resulting in your bike becoming a lawn dart. We learned that when you nail together two or more boards for a longer ramp, always make sure the nails don’t project upwards, ‘cause tires ain’t cheap. Through the painful but rewarding attempts at trial and error, we managed to ride our winged beasts a grand total of maybe four feet – that is, to assure no great injury would be risked. The big, heavy bicycles of the day were simply not destined to fly.

That all changed in the mid ‘60’s when s bicycle designer borrowed front the look of drag racing and invented the “Spyder Bike”.

The Spyder was a gleaming, sexy and seductive sight to behold. Built upon a small frame, it featured highrise handlebars (just like the hippie motorcycles), a “banana” seat with a “Sissy Bar”, a small, thin front tire mounted on an extended fork (again, just like the hippie bikes), and a wider rear tire that was akin the the dragsters’ big, fat racing slicks . The smaller wheel configuration allowed for a better torque ratio for lightning fast acceleration. You couldn’t pedal one wide open for very long, but there was one thing in particular you could do with the greatest of ease:

Pop a wheelie.

Yep, these babies were born to imitate a unicycle, no doubt about it. When I walked into the living room on Christmas morning and saw my metallic copper Schwinn Spyder, I could beel the sensation of weightlessness that awaited me. I walked around it several times, the way a dog does before it beds down, running my fingers over every inch of sparking metal. The bright copper color was offset and highlighted by tons of chrome – the rims, the handlebars, the chain guard, and the fenders; the rear of which were upturned and flared, again … just like the hippie bikes. I momentarily hesitated when urged to take it out for a ride, not wanting to soil its virgin tread. Five seconds later, I was rolling down the driveway.

Well, everyone now had a new bike, and the race was on to perfect the “wheelie”. To avoid embarrassment and humiliation, we practiced these moves alone if at all possible . After a few days of countless falls, I began to get the hang of it. Feeling confident and wanting to show off for someone, I rolled over to visit Louise, a neighbor across the street on the next block. At this point in my life, it was far less humiliating to fail in front of a girl than in front of the guys. For my sake, it turned out to be a wise move.

“Hey, Louise, wanna see something cool?” I suavely inquired as I circled around her big, clunky girl’s bike.

“If you insist,” she retorted, feigning disinterest (I’m telling you, they start that stuff early – it’s in their DNA). “What’s so cool?”

“Hey … Watch this.” I coolly stated, as I swung around behind her to position myself to pass by her in Napoleonic splendor once up on one wheel. I shifted into low gear, straightened out the front wheel and then stood up on the pedal and kicked down; simultaneously pulling back on the handlebars to attain the proper alignment of balance. I was about to learn that the code did not always prepare you for “variables” in the quest for bicycling bravado personified. I failed to allow for adrenaline.

Wanting not just to impress my friend but to absolutely stun her with my ability, I was a little too “pumped” for my wheelie premier. I kicked far too hard, pulled back far too quickly, and proceeded to virtually propel myself backwards into the unforgiving street. The bike shot up in the air as I tried to impale myself – or rather, the back of my skull – into the asphalt. This was not a fall; this was the equivalent of having Mickey Mantle use your head for T-ball batting practice. Completely and utterly disoriented (which I later learned is normal when experiencing a concussion), my one and only coherent thought became inexplicably twisted between thought and spoken word.

“Bike, get my Louise out of the street!” I shouted repeatedly, as I stumbled through the world of cartoon birdies swirling around my immediately aching little head. Louise obliged and rolled my bike over to her yard, then she walked back over to me. I was still trying to get my brain to stop sloshing around my head, but I could sense her growing concern over my well being.

“Brian, you should get out of the road, a car might come by,” she implored, constantly checking both directions as she leaned over me.

“Bike, I am doing what do you think?’ was the best I could manage as I was beginning to abandon any attempt at cohesive thought and speech in favor of moaning in searing, dull pain.

I eventually crawled off to the side of the road and lay prone in Louise’s yard for about half and hour. Shortly after regaining the ability to speak, I struggled to my feet, collected my bike and bid Louise good day. I wobbled back to my house, parked the bike and took a very long nap.

Some time later, I did finally master the wheelie, and would ride with my friends for blocks, all of us peddling along on the back wheel. This soon grew boring, and while sipping on a Coke at the Drug Store one day, I was thumbing through a car magazine when I came upon it picture of a motorcycle jumping over it car. The shot was taken just as the bike was leaving the ramp, and as I looked at the picture and then looked at my bike parked outside, a little light went on inside my slightly dented head.

I immediately proposed my hypothesis to my colleagues, and we raced back to our neighborhood to dust off the old ramp building materials. In a jiffy, we had the ramp up and ready; not too long, not too steep. Since the revised concept was my baby, I was allowed the first attempt. With the imprint of Farr Ave. still freshly embossed on my head, I envisioned the jump before making the attempt. I took long, deep breaths; I reminded myself not to kick the bike out from under me before I had even started; I lined up the ramp and the landing ramp (oh yeah, we were confident: a full six feet away, with the same degree of incline as the takeoff ramp) and saw myself sailing heroically across the great chasm and landing softly but safely on the other side. I shook out my fingers one last time, grabbed the handlebars and started for the approach. Speed was good, alignment was good, and right up to the point of being airborne, everything looked good. However, once again, adrenaline missed the pre-jump meeting and showed up at the worst possible time.

Just as I reached the top of the ramp, I gave it it little extra “umph” to get me across. I didn’t account for that “umph” coinciding with the rear tire leaving the ramp at the exact same moment. With no resistance against it, the wheel spun freely – and all the force I put into that foot pushing down continued. But without the ground to stabilize it, the bike pulled up under me, as my foot shot off of the pedal and directly into the rear spokes, where my foot was an unwelcome intruder, responsible for removing roughly half of the spokes before stopping. In the fractions of a second that this all occurred, the pain of that intrusion paled in comparison with that which came with touchdown. Now having some surface to grip and counteract the direction of my foot, the wheel reversed itself at the speed of light. It snatched the full weight of my body forward, which pulled my foot through the other half of the remaining spokes. All in all, considering the foot wasn’t actually severed from my ankle or anything, it was pretty cool.

The worst accident I ever had came while I was alone. For some reason I had decided to break out into an all out sprint on my bike. I was standing up on the pedals, leaning forward, pumping my legs furiously as I labored to breath and maintain top speed. I was leaning forward so far, my chin was only inches from the front wheel. And then, the single most surrealistic thing I ever witnessed took place. As I peddled and hung forward over the handlebars, I looked straight down. Unbelievably, and for a brief few moments seemingly suspended in slow motion, I watched in horror as the wheel disengaged itself from the front fork, and with the next pedaling motion that resulted in a slight pull upon the handlebars, it made its way free from the fork and proceeded to pull ahead of the bike.

My small, battered little brain was still trying to process all this when the front fork fell victim to gravity and dug into the old, craggy pavement. I had my eyes open, but remember none of the next minute or so. I knew I was stunned, and I knew that I had just had a pretty bad accident, but I was relatively calm. The whole thing took place a street over from mine, in front of my best friend “T'”s house. Running on emergency backup circuits, my brain guided me to their door, where I politely knocked and waited for Mrs. Gamble to let me in. When she opened the door, she took one look at me and turned white as a sheet, and started muttering those “mom” things that always include a lot of “Oh, Lord “ and “Help me, Jesus “ mixed in there. Confused by her reaction, I stepped back from her as she attempted to put a towel to my forehead. “Let me wipe some of this off, Brian,” she said while trying to steady me, “let me get a good look at it.”

“A good look at what?” I wondered to myself, “What on earth is she talking about. And what’s this warm stuff running down my face and neck?” I reached up – for the first time since the wreck – and felt my forehead. It stung a little, no big deal. And then I looked at my hand and saw the blood. I had finally gone and done it – split my head wide open. At that moment, all of my other senses – especially the one that detects pain – kicked in.

People came running from up to six blocks away, each seeking the source of the mega-decibel screams. My brother, sitting on the walkway steps to my house – no more than 200 feet away – was oblivious to the sound. He and a friend wandered over only after noticing the small crowd gathering in Mrs. Gamble’s driveway. I vaguely remember the trip to Dr. Harper’s office: punctuated by the very strong recollection of receiving stitches while Dr. Harper spun his unique bedside manner that we all came to know and love: “Now, I’ll ask one more time before I close this up … You’re sure he didn’t leak any brains out there in the street, did he? ‘Cause I know this boy, and he’s gonna need all he can get”. Dr. Harper hovered over me, peering over his horn-rimmed glasses and desperately balancing a chewed and worn cigar between his teeth as he looped the sutures shut. “Does that hurt?” he queried, stopping for my answer. I nodded in the affirmative. “Good”, he said as he leaned back in for another stitch, “that means you’re gonna live”.

Sometimes, whcih I watch how our children now stay glued to the television or video game or computer, I worry the simple joy of riding – and crashing – a bicycle might disappear for their world. And that would truly be a shame.

Because nothing prepares you for life like a bike.
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The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, March 9, 2000.
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Posted by on August 22, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Ultimate Recycling

By Brian M. Howle

Everyone seems to agreee that life in our area just feels better than somewhere else. It’s hard to single out just one reason, but the natural beauty of the coastal plain is unquestionably the star of the show. And how could it not be? Wide, white sandy beaches, lush dunes, wild myrtles and oaks, rich fertile soil, extensive waterways – combine these with the sub-tropical climate and the “for sale” signs almost impale themselves into the ground for you.

Older folks in this area can tell you right quick how “things used to be” if you’ve got a minute to spare. In fact you don’t really have to be all that old to know what’s been happening over the years to our precious little strip of earth known as the Grand Strand.

I’ve always been fond of hanging around what the less respectful refer to as “old timers”. Information comes with patience and time, and most kids can figure that out pretty early on in the game. Unfortunately, most make the mistake of forgetting about as they become more involved in learning how to “grow up”, though, and only later in life does it come thundering back into their consciousness. But of the few things I actually got right in those early days of decision making, sticking close to the older crowd was one of the smartest moves I ever made.

As a child, I quickly learned that the adults who were actually interested in having any form of conversation with you, as a rule,:

(A) Would not speak to you in “baby talk”, or in general assume that you had the attention span of a Cocker Spaniel;

(B) Would not hold out an open palm in your face while holding up the index finger of the other hand in that “just a sec” mode as they swing their attention to something far more important – like a commercial on TV;

(C) Would actually answer 99.9% of all questions asked, with detailed sidebars about the subject matter, the likes of which your small undeveloped brain would never have accessed in a million years.

Armed with this knowledge, I set about getting as much information about everything that I could. The first decision was to stake claim to prime info-gathering real estate. In a small rural Southern town, this was probably my very first “no-brainer”: the steps of the church, before and after the morning service. To me, those granite slabs were the equivalent of the Internet. A wisely timed tying of the shoe, a long, lazy yawn, a casual pause here – all were integral components of delineating the crowd. Yep, there was treasure to be gleaned from these folks, and I learned many a life lesson by listening to the older folks as they spoke to me.

I should confess, I should have listened more attentively a few other times back then, but I guess some life lessons have to be learned the hard way. Occasionally, a couple of times seemed necessary to get the point. So much for the disclaimer.

I first entered the job market as a teen, starting off with part-time jobs. I learned another amazing fact: There weren’t always older folks around. Understand, at the time, my concept of “older folks” was 60-80 years of age. And yes, I did think anyone over 30 was “old” in terms of hipness, but I didn’t think they would be as wise or as interesting as the older people. And I couldn’t have been happier over the discovery – after all, it meant more free information.

During my college years, my appreciation for these people really escalated. One of my very first summer jobs was construction. Laborer jobs, then as now, were plentiful but woefully low paying. I nosed around and found out form carpenters made good money, so I decided I was a form carpenter. I got my tool belt and all the usual carpenter’s tools and put everything in the belt’s little pockets and holders and got it all just right. Then I put the whole thing in the driveway and ran over it with my car 20 or 30 times, giving it that “worn with experience” look. Confident of the ruse, I applied for the carpentry job amid a flurry of misinformation.

Worked like a charm.

When I ventured out on the job site for the first time, I surveyed the other workers quickly. I spotted the oldest looking man right away, and made it my mission to befriend this grisled veteran of the sawdust wars. I confided in him that I had bluffed my way into the job and that I really needed the money (which was true). Well, to my good fortune, this fellow took a liking to me right away and proceeded to show me all the tricks of the trade. It was amazing. He taught me two year’s worth of apprentice training in two months, and it was apparent to me that he enjoyed teaching and showing me the ropes immensely. My experience was never questioned, and I was able to contribute quality work to a major project. A project which, to this day, I always point out to whomever’s in the car with me as I pass by the site.

Originally a Journalism major, I stumbled into the production aspect of the business purely by accident. In search of another summer job during college, I answered a classified for a printing press operator. The owner of the printing plant was very polite in letting me down, explaining how complicated and cantankerous a Goss Community Offset Press can be, and that only years of working with it would enable anyone to tackle the job.

But he saw my enthusiasm for the industry – and my disappointment at losing the press job – so he offered me a job as a “utility worker”. They would train me in all aspects of pre-press production work, as well as post-press operations. Pay-wise, I would be at the bottom of the food chain, but when you’re young and hungry any port will do in a storm.

First day on the job, I was introduced around to all the folks in the shop. Quiet, demure housewives; quiet, unassuming country boys, and weathered middle-aged folks abounded on the premises.

Then the doors from the darkroom swung open, and out walked the wildest looking, craziest talking old guy I had ever met. His name was Bill Faylor. He was loud. He was effervescent. And, oh, he loved to pick on the young’uns. Which, of course, consisted mainly of me.

Every morning, my day began with a boisterous tirade from Bill, asking out loud (for everyone in the shop to hear) how drunk or high I had gotten the night before, how many women I had slept with, how many warrants were out for my arrest – all before I ever had a chance to even mumble “Morning” to anyone. He was on me like a shadow, and I couldn’t get enough of it. He was one of the funniest men I ever knew. And in between all the picks and rants, he took the time to painstakingly detail the processes of each of the tasks I was to learn. The first four months of my graphics career were the most enjoyable four months of my adult working life. And to this day, I still contend that I received about five or six years worth of hands-on experience under his tutelage.

I later learned that Bill’s wife had been very ill for years. Outside the office, he was the quietest, most reserved person you’d ever see. The illusion projected at work was a mask to ease the daily pain of his life, which he never spoke of, never complained about, and never allowed to interfere with his work or his ability to work amiably with his co-workers.

But his attitude and outlook on life and work and death, along with the natural attraction to this field of work, propelled me into a career that I love as much today as the first time I ever touched a T-square and a keyboard.

25 years later, it is rewarding to know the lessons that these men – and countless others – bestowed on me were imparted on the younger kids I have worked with. Sharing knowledge requires no special talent that I can think of.

Except maybe, patience.

I guess it’s funny, that while I understood the importance of an older person’s experience and wisdom, I really never considered my own parents “old”.

Which means in the final analysis, I can take a pretty good shot at appreciating the patience my parents gave me back then. And it probably quadruples the appreciation for the patience they continue to show.

But at least now I’m in it position to let them know.
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The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, January 28, 1999.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Digital Buggy Whips

By Brian M. Howle

Although you’dnever know it by watching our good ol’ U.S. economy just chug right along, continually putting up numbers showing growth and robust pulse, the world at large is in a mess. Asian markets have tumbled, Europe is struggling with a PR. campaign designed to bolster faith and acceptance of the multi-national Euro currency on top of their own share of market and investment woes, and South America’s economic problems are literally driving some Folks bananas (or at least the banana wars are).

“So?”, you may ask yourself, “What’s it to me? We’re doing alright – in fact, we’re doing great!”

The painful truth of the matter is we are all in deep denial. The current stock market surge is founded primarily on high tech stocks that are artificially inflated on good old American greed, fueled by massive investments in the infant computer and Internet speculative stocks. Companies have put billions into ventures whose worth are yet to be established, with everyone rolling the dice for an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the greatest money-maker since prostitution. There’s just one small problem with getting swept up in technology’s intoxicating allure:

History.

When faced with these newfangled innovations and their unproven performance, it would behoove most of us to remember the classic “Aesop’s Fable” about the lesson of greed: The dog who had the good fortune to acquire a large piece of meat, and while on his way home to savor his find, comes across a small footbridge. Noticing what he doesn’t realize is his own reflection in the water, he thinks to himself, “Hey, that dog has a piece of meat, too. If I can scare him into dropping it, I call have twice its much to eat.” As he begins to growl and snap at the other dog, he lets go of his bounty, only to helplessly watch it plunge into the water below, sinking forever from his tearing eyes.

Let’s take a look at one example of recent technological breakthroughs initially heralded as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Remember the advent of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR)? Just imagine – a means of allowing anyone with normal amounts of “disposable income” to have a device which would record and playback whatever your fancy dictates from the ever growing number of television offerings (brought about by the introduction of coaxial cable, satellite feeds and Ted Turner), all in the comfort and privacy of your own sweet home. So off you went, drunk with anticipation like a kid on Christmas morning, disposable income in hand, ready to make that big purchase which would immediately increase your stature within your most intimate social circles. You entered the store, sought out the electronics department and came face-to-face with an unexpected dilemma: Beta or VHS?

Now, most of you well-heeled folks listening to the barracuda with passionate enthusiasm and self-avowed expertise in this unknown stratosphere of state-of-the-art electronics went with the more expensive – but clearly superior – Beta format, swayed more by the salesman’s serious inference of quality when he said, “Well, it’s what Sony decided to go with, and you know those guys know what is best.” As for the rest of us, we lowered our heads and pointed out the less glamorous VHS unit as our choice for purchase. The infant video industry hastily produced movies for the public’s consumption in both formats, hedging their bets in prudent and insightful vision.

As we all know, the Beta boys won the battle for quality befitting industry standards (as most television stations and production facilitics have chosen Beta for their purposes), but they ultimately lost the war. The more affordable VHS took off like a scalded banshee, the video industry shifted priority, and every Asian electronics manufacturer with an abundance of 6¢ an hour workers began pumping out VHS players and recorders. A champion had emerged from the haze, and millions of people reveled in their newest toy, although most had their glee tempered by the constantly flashing “12:00” on the unit’s clock, which apparently was backward-engineered from the most complex stolen U.S. military secrets.

The new reality of the rules of the game – when it comes to predicting economic and employment futures – is that there are no rules. Front the beginning of time (or more appropriately, time clocks), the unforeseen evolution of social economics has been as unsettled and unrelenting as the occans. The changing demands of societies’ food chains have deposited and eroded riches constantly throughout our recorded history. And now the “experts” are telling us that the concept of lifetime employment an assumcd precept held automatic by most Americans, and handed down to our capitalistic clones in Japan – is it vanishing realization. Workers can now expect multiple careers in their lifetime, and the need for education has become paramount in that challenge.

One of my favorite lines of dialogue comes from the movie, “Other People’s Money”, starring Danny DeVito as a coporate raider who lives only for the art of the dal, buyin out and taking over dying or seriously floundering companies, cutting jobs and liquidating assets for quick and sizeable profits. Addressing the stockholders of his latest target as they prepare to vote on his stock offer, he tells a tale of impassioned sincerity concerning buggy whips. “A hundred years ago, there were over 200 companies making buggy whips,” he says, “And hundreds of people were steadily employed, providing for hundreds more in their families. The country was growing, towns were springing up on a westward wave of prosperity and confidence, and anyone on the move had to have a buggy whip. But then technology came along and gave us the steam engine and railroads, then the internal combustion engine gave us automobiles and airplanes. Travel became motorized and travel time was reduced by astronomical percentages. The need for horses and buggies rapidly declined, and the number of companies making buggy whips fell accordingly.

Finally, only one company remained, the strongest and best managed of all the companies stood alone in the face of the inevitable end. “And you can believe, that company made the best damn buggy whip the world had ever seen,” he concludes, “But in the reality of the business world, that didn’t mean a thing.” Ultimately, the stockholders vote to sell their outdated cable and wire company. The family-owned business dies a quiet, sad death. But, being a movie, DeVilo falls in love with the company lawyer/daughter with whom he battled throughout the takeover, and subsequently devises a plan to use the company’s production facilities to upgrade and divesify to successfully manufacture wire for use in the burgeoning telecommunication industry, saving everyone’s job and the future of the community. That’s the way it goes in the movies.

The field ofgraphics and prepress production is my arena, and in 25 years I have witnessed the passing of the hot type Linotype typesetting machines (and the skilled artisans who operated them; thinking, reasoning and planning in reverse with backwards letters and numbers, all the while enduring painful burns and toxic fumes from bubbling, molten lead); its successor, the photomechanical typesetting machine, which read ticker-tape rolls of paper produced by legions of frenzied typists, tranferring the encoded tapes into flashes of light within the machine onto light-sensitive photographic typesetting film. The film was then processed through another device which was essentially a mini-darkroom, and ultimately going on to a layout artist who deftly ran the copy through a waxing machine, cutting and trimming and adjusting every galley of type onto full page layout sheets, leaving holes for photos by affixing “knockout boxes” of amber acetate film so that the person in the camera/platemaking room could attach negatives to the finished flat. These flats were then used to burn metal plates for transferring the image of the page onto rubber rollers, which offset the image onto the paper, producing the final product.

Today, all of those functions can be produced at a desktop Macintosh computer – with a scanner and a printer – by one person. In the future, voice-activated computers and as yet uninvented download devices will eventually replace the need for that one person. And the lesson to be learned from this little story?

Well, when I was a child, my mother would always impart on me – in those moments when all parents question their child’s ability to use their noggins – this interrogative, rhetorical plea: “Do you want to be a ditch digger for the rest of your life? Then you better straighten up and do your homework and learn something that will do you some good in life”.

Which was prophetically good advice, considering the invention of the Ditch Witch, a motorized, self-propelled trenching machine. So what analogy can be used for today’s children and their future?

Pray to your God in heaven that at the Microsoft headquarters, a still-frugal Bill Gates doesn’t ever decide to eat his bag lunch while sitting on the edge of the footbridge spanning the fountain pool that sits out front. And pray even harder he doesn’t look down when he bites into that sandwich.
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The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, March 11, 1999.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Al Qaeda vs. Al Greeda

By Brian M. Howle

(Note: The following column originally appeared on July 4, 2002. But it is somewhat interesting – if not exasperating – how although the more things change, the more things really stay the same.)

There may have been other times in my life when I’ve been happy to see the end of a month – but not many top this past month. We’ve had more problems than Carter’s has little pills, here in the bustling headquarters of Alternatives and Coast, as computer glitches and outright computer death conspired against us all in achieving our deadlines. But, I’m thrilled to report that we have replaced the old dinosaur with a pair of new iMacs. And now that we’ve worked out all the software conflicts and avoided massive brain embolisms in the process, I’m as happy as kid in a candy store – until the next crash sends me into a profanity-laced diatribe.

Quite a few things have come to light since my last column, so let’s get right to it:

I guess a lot of folks are shaking their heads over the recent barrage of stock market scandals – and while I have no holdings in the market to fret over, I don’t understand why people are so surprised by it all.

Although we’ve made tremendous strides since September 11, we’re still reeling from the effects. The upcoming July 4th holiday has set off yet another round of security warnings from the government, and everyone needs to stay on their toes in case of another Al Qaeda attack.

But is Al Qaeda really our biggest threat? As horrible and tragic as those Sept. 11 attacks were, we may well be in the midst of something even more tragic – an attack from within.

Oh, it’s not as impressive or immediate as flying a plane into a building, that’s for sure. But for all of my adult life, I’ve seen it coming.

We’ve taken the American Dream and milked it for all it’s worth, maybe to the point of running the well dry. What was once a simple desire and goal to make better lives for our children and us has mutated into an ugly, self-fulfilled prophecy of greed at all cost.

Need an instant example? All-you-can-eat restaurants – really, can it get any more arrogant than a desire to gorge one’s self to the point of nausea? Just so you can “get your money’s worth?”

Apparently, capitalism is a thorny little concept with many built-in landmines. Profit-driven incentives have turned honest, simple goals into chasms of unrelenting deceit that now threaten to destroy our entire economic system. For decades, normal folks have watched the rich get richer through shrewd, bold investments on Wall Street, and along the way daydreamed of one day being included in that exclusive club of high rollers.

Then the ‘80s came along with the new “Me” generation of get-outta-my-way, I-got-mine players. The slow erosion of character, values and ethics gave way to a landslide of money-grubbing hands, as everybody wanted to get in on the “sure thing” that would create the next block of millionaires.

The catch was, the men who ran that exclusive little club – Wall Street – had the game fixed from the get-go. After all, who was going to stop them from running the table on us all
?
Federal regulators? Congress? The Justice Department? Seriously … the lack of enforcement of shenanigans in the trading world is shameful at best.

And now the vaunted glass ceiling of exclusivity has truly begun the metamorphosis of change, as that darling of handy gals everywhere – Martha Stewart – now faces the same scrutiny and plunging fortune as the boys. Personally, I hope Martha comes out unscathed (well, relatively; her stock value has dropped 50% since the news of her alleged involvement in a dead stock dumping arrangement just a leetle bit ahead of the rest of us), because, well, she’s the first woman and all, and I think she deserves some gimmes during the initial years. Later on, if she tries it again, then I’m alright with letting Martha go to prison, where she’ll get a whole new appreciation for the term “insider trading.”

Now, Congress (what a bunch of posturing weasels these guys have turned out to be lately) has jumped up on the ol’ “God & Country” bandwagon and called for the heads of all stock markets and major companies to appear before them, because “you got some ‘splainin’ to do, mister.” They want the presidents and CEOs and CFOs to take an “Oath of Disclosure,” stating that – to the best of their knowledge – the books are not cooked (By the way, I understand Martha has some great recipe ideas for that).

Oh yeah, I find this interesting: You know all those loudmouth morons who are constantly using “them damn foreigners” as the standard answer to all of these problems? Well, I wonder if they have noticed that in the mix of folks accused in these stock/financial swindles, that there are no Blacks, no Hispanics, no Asians, and no high-profile Arabs. There are no thick, indiscernible accents or Pigeon English to contend with. Just a bunch of middle-aged to senior white guys – oh, and Martha.

Along with the stock mess, the courts and the church are at it again. The infamous California (why, oh why did I know right away that this was a California court decision when I heard the headline intro on the news?) judges have stirred up a good ol’ fashioned hornets’ nest with the decision that – within the Pledge of Allegiance – the words “under God” were unconstitutional.

Well, when you live in a country where the founders (I like to call them founders; but really, they sorta started all this deceit and manipulation with that pesky Native American problem – which they sorta added insult to injury when they added on slavery, too) were all Anglo-Saxon Protestant or Catholic Christians, chances are their descendents are going to be a bit perturbed with such a silly move.

Of course, the fact that the single founding purpose was for a country – where people could choose their own religion and live free of government intervention – completely negates any argument about the decision that these two judges reached. Technically, they are correct: the phrase implies ONE religion over another. Especially when you add in the fact that “under God” was a little nicety that President Eisenhower bestowed on the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. Oh yeah, that the fact that the Pledge of Allegiance wasn’t around when the constitution was written. The framers of the constitution didn’t create either version, for whatever reason – I tend to think they would have immediately realized the possible conflicts. Then again, they muddied up that “all men are created equal” part with the provision that one be “at least three-fifths white,” so maybe we should cut them some slack at not being omnipotent at the time.

On the Merit Score, however, it’s ridiculous to even have the case brought to ANY court, at ANY level. If you don’t believe in religion and you don’t want your kid to recite the Pledge, have them step out of the room and smoke ‘em if they got ‘em for all I care. But don’t screw up the ritual for the rest of us, okay?

Now, I’ve never claimed to be a perfect person; nor will I start now. But during my childhood and adolescence, there were many, many instances of hypocrisy that shook my trust in the adult world – and the advancing forays into the world of big money investments did nothing to restore that trust.

As children, we were subjected to an infusion of rules, laws and regulations, which were more or less pounded down our collective throats. And they all seemed to be of the highest good intentions, and they all followed the common sense approach to life. Be a good little pig – do the right thing, be good to your neighbor, serve your country, and give thanks to your God for everything that happens in your life, good or bad.

Oh, except for the fact that there were some little pigs more equal than others.

There is no way on earth that I’m the only person to notice the shadowy demise of honesty, character, and even the most minute molecule of ethical standards in all aspects of our society over the course of my life. So how did we get to this point?

The same way I’ve come to poorly attempted compromises in my take on life, I guess.

I’m guilty as charged, for turning my head the other way when I heard a person of standing use racist language in private.

I’m guilty as charged for keeping quiet when I overheard police officers using “good ol’ boy” language when referring to a suspect.

I’m guilty as charged for – in my youth – wanting to keep my job, and going along with a corporate decision that I knew to be illegal or unjust.

I’m guilty as charged for just not getting involved in the hundreds of thousands of little opportunities I’ve had to try and change the things that I know are wrong.

But I take solace in knowing that while I am guilty, I am not alone.

That means it’s up to all of us to right these wrongs, and to forgive those of us who have bowed to the ostracized-threat induced capitulation of not standing strong against the forces of wrong and evil.

President Bush, in promoting his administration’s plan to back school vouchers, recently stated to the administrators of the school districts wanting federal funding: “Show us results, if you want government help. We can’t allow our children to be trapped in schools that can’t teach and won’t change.”

I second that, Mr. President. Now … can we also ask our government and financial leaders to do the same? Show us results, if you want our help and our vote. Give us back our trust and dignity and maybe even a little say so in our country. We can’t allow our citizens to be trapped in a country that can’t govern and won’t change.

These things weigh heavily on my mind, as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s birthday. Once again, the terrorist warnings are up; our color is orange; our outings will be subjected to massive security checkpoints, with all of the expected delays and frustrations; our very lives in our hands as we plunge onward to attend the special services, concerts, fireworks displays and family gatherings.

Our adversaries shake their tightly-wrapped noggins and wonder out loud, “What IS it with these people? Why would they risk their lives to watch fireworks and sing their infidel anthem – even as their capitalist greed causes them to fight and bicker among themselves?”

Because we’re Americans – and that’s what we’re all about.
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The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, July 4, 2002.

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Those Who Can, Teach; Those Who Can’t, Run For Office

By Brian M. Howle

One of the things that will send me on a tirade at light speed is the current state of our education system. Each new day seems to bring yet another scathing assessment of a perceived failure in its very existence. And every election year, you will hear politician after politician espousing his or her dogged determination to create legislation that will resuscitate education reform. All the experts from both arenas agree that the dang thing is broke – but they just can’t seem to get together on the fix.

Let’s just clear this part up right now. The problem with our education system is in the machine that is those politicians – and those who voted them into office.

In other words, we are all culpable – with the exception of one important group.

The teachers.

A recent report on education concluded that a program instituted by the Pentagon (yes, that’s right, the military) was the most successful model of all contenders to date. It is based on (surprise) a military mindset when it comes to discipline. There’s no screwing around in these classrooms. The students are all “military brats” – their parents are members of the various branches of service.

Discipline is understandably a positive influence on these kids’ overall development. The clincher, however, is the second point of interest in the report. The involvement of the parents – on every level, at any time, doing whatever is necessary – has been deemed the key to the program’s success. Students’ grades and test scores increased so dramatically – even for kids who showed little ability – that their parents opted to re-enlist solely to keep their kids in the program.

The panel assembled to determine the results have concluded that this pilot program is far and away the most successful ever employed. The most glaring aspect of their findings is that without the parents’ participation and support, the brightest teachers and the slickest politicians can’t do it alone.

Um … somebody, please tell me … exactly when did this become news?

Perhaps it became glossed over in all the years of “peace and love” during the ‘60s; or the groovy laid-back obfuscation of the ‘70s, or the obsessive need for personal gain that befell the masses during the ‘80s, or during the wake-me-when-it’s-over ‘90s. But somewhere along the line, the very cornerstone of a viably necessary part of what made our country the greatest on the planet has been neglected – to the point where society as we know it is in grave peril.

So, you want to know what the hell happened? I’ll tell ya …

That post-WW II boom of jobs, babies and prosperity turned around and bit us in the butt. The quest for the American Dream became all consuming, to the detriment of our nation and our moral fiber. The sacrifices that so many brave Americans made on the battlefields around the globe, to ensure our freedom of choice that enables us all to pursue our dreams, have been mocked in an axiom of irony.

School, along with television, became a convenient place to ditch the kids, as the masses competed for personal wealth and material possessions. Considered more as a daycare facility than a place for education, parents dumped their young on school steps each morning, expecting the teachers and administrators to mold their little angels into model citizens. Long hours and busy schedules conspired to slowly kill the family sit-down evening dinner – where everyone relayed the events of their day, and children shared their questions and opinions about life and school with their folks. Now, everyone eats at different times- between cell phone calls – and then quickly retreats to the confines of individual televisions or computers.

Some have bemoaned that it is the schools that are at fault, somehow rationalizing that if the school has their kid for eight hours a day, then it should be responsible for how the child progresses.

Honesty must prevail – I am somewhat biased on this subject. My mom was a teacher, and later a guidance counselor. I was raised among a covey of teachers in my little town of Andrews; some were mothers of friends (as with my best friend), and some were just down the street from us. Actually, most everyone was “just down the street” from us.

Even as a naïve, gullible child, the grit, savvy and compassion of these professionals immediately impressed me. Of course, I didn’t always understand that what they were attempting to do – in educating me – was a good thing. But even a kid knows when an adult is disingenuous when it comes to communication between the two. And these women – and men – always had time for a child’s universe of questions, culled from a cornucopia of curiosity, ideas and dreams.

Take my mom, for example. One of my earliest memories is mother, running me through a series of flash cards. I’ll bet you I went through several thousand flash cards – and learned what was on them, and what they meant – before I ever set foot in a school. Now, don’t get me wrong – I loved my cartoons and my toys and games – but when a lot of kids were doing whatever kids do to pass the time, I was perusing dictionaries and thesauruses.

Which is why, when my first day of kindergarten arrived, it didn’t impress me all that much. All these kids running around – screaming, fighting, laughing, crying – and poor Mrs. Gilland trying to keep all the BB’s in a thimble. And then to top that off, once she established some order in the class, she started up with flash cards. Hey, I didn’t need all this external aggravation and distraction from the others – and the alphabet was long old hat in my repertoire.

So while the letter “A” entranced the others, I opened up a window and bailed on kindergarten, hightailing it back to the house. There, my dad unexpectedly confronted me when he came home for lunch and found me kicked back in the recliner, watching soap operas.

About 10 minutes later, I was back in kindergarten. Mercifully, it was lunch recess, so I didn’t have to sit down for a little while.

Not long after that first day, Mrs. Gilland instructed each of us to pick a book from the bookrack. As I reached for – and began to retrieve – the book I wanted, a girl reached over and scarfed it from my anticipating little hands. I immediately protested, loudly, and Mrs. Gilland intervened. “You should always respect little girls, Brian, and let them have first choice with our materials,” she sweetly explained. (Actually, she was just preparing me for dealing with women as an adult). “Here, this book is about the same subject as the one you wanted. Now, go sit and read it, and then we’ll all tell the class about what we read.” Then she turned and started walking over to another child.

Well, all that “respect the gals’ talk was fine – but the fact that I had chosen it first had been completely ignored. I was annoyed; no, I was incensed. And for some unexplainable reason, I took exception at the ruling, and proceeded to fling my second-choice-thrust-upon-me book at Mrs. Gilland’s still-in-range back.

And with that, I became the first – and as far as I know, the only – child to both run away from school and then be expelled, all in the first week.

And you can believe that, after my parents were through with me, I never tried anything like that again.

Unfortunately for my backside, I was quite adapt at discovering other means of exasperating my teachers through those elementary school years. But with each episode, I learned.

Episodes usually resulted in the double whammy of getting whupped by our principal, Mr. Woodbury (who was renowned for his legendary 5-pound paddle), and my mother. All things even, I would always take Mr. Woodbury’s retribution over my mother’s.

Finally, after surviving elementary school, I made it to the “big” school and Jr. High. There, the whooshing rush of a paddle was seldom heard in the classrooms, and none too soon for yours truly.

But I guess we all have one last hurrah left in us, even when it comes to punishment.

I learned very early that I had a propensity for language. I also learned, at the same time, that I woefully lacked any comprehension of all things mathematical. My poor dad – the numbers cruncher extraordinaire in the family – would spend hours with me, going over equations and finite rules of algebra and geometry. Every now and then, one would sneak through the wall of ignorance that encased me – and I would actually get it. It was like winning the lottery, with the payoff being my unbridled joy in finally understanding something about the one subject I hated more than any other.

So it shouldn’t have been any surprise that I tended to lose focus when I was in math classes. On one such day, I did so for the absolutely final and last time.

I was in Mrs. Thelma Haselden’s algebra class in the 7th or 8th grade. As usual, things weren’t going well for me, and I might as well have been on Mars. Distractions came all too easy, and the day came where my lack of attention – combined with my tendency to be a smartass – drove Mrs. Haselden’s patience to a cul-de-sac. This was a truly bad deal for me.

You see, Mrs. Haselden was not just a math teacher. She also instructed Physical Education, and was varsity girls’ basketball coach. And she was one healthy woman, if you get my drift.

It was most probably my patented “talking back” that triggered it; I honestly don’t remember. But whatever it was, Mrs. Haselden had reached the end of the line on reasoning with me. She tersely instructed me to step up to her desk, as she pulled her chair over to an open space in front of the blackboard. I was told to lean over the chair back and grab the seat, my back to the class.

Mrs. Haselden grabbed her teacher’s edition math book – the one that’s about 12 pounds – and proceeded to tee off on my hiney. With her girth, the book’s weight, and simple – but extremely powerful – kinetic energy, the contact with my derriere lifted me up and over the chair, headfirst into the blackboard with considerable velocity.

At least I learned a lesson in physics, which I never forgot. And I never said another word back to her unless asked. Of course, I also stopped taking math classes after that, too.

So, if you’ve got kids in school today, don’t go blaming the “system” or “the man” if your children aren’t cutting it, academically. Chances are that if you showed a little interest in their studies and personal development – by curbing their television, computer and video game time, have them in the house by 10 each night, and impart on them the social faux pas of answering the teacher’s request for homework with “I ain’t got no homework, bitch” – then their teachers and your politicians just might stand a chance of succeeding in this whole endeavor.

September 11 and all that is inclusive aside, President Bush has not impressed me greatly on other issues. But whenever I find myself questioning his reason or motive, I try to remind myself of his one greatest decision:

He married a teacher.

And Now, A Biased News Report
There’s just something fun about the back and forth ribbing that we Southerners and Northerners engage in with palpable zest. I guess that, from one another’s perspective, there are just some things we’ll never understand about each other.

It’s a good thing that doesn’t keep us from laughing at each other. Well, for example:

Two boys are playing football at this park in a small town in South Carolina when one of the boys is suddenly attacked by a crazed Rottweiler. Thinking quickly, the other boy takes a stick and shoves it under the dog’s collar, twists it, and breaks the dog’s neck, thus saving his friend.

A local sports reporter who was strolling by sees the incident and rushes over to interview the boy. He tells the boy he’s going to write the story and says, “I’ll title it ‘Young Gamecock Fan Saves Friend From Vicious Animal.’”

“But I’m not a Gamecock fan,” the little hero replies.

“Sorry, since we’re in South Carolina, I just assumed you were,” says the reporter and he starts writing again. He asks “How does ‘Clemson Fan Rescues Friend From Horrific Attack’ sound?”

“I’m not a Clemson fan either,” the boy says.

“Oh, I thought everyone in South Carolina was either for the Gamecocks or the Tigers. What team do you root for?”, the reporter asks.

“I’m just visiting my cousin, I’m a Syracuse Orangemen fan,” said the boy.

The reporter smiles, starts a new sheet in his notebook and writes: “Little Yankee Bastard From New York Kills Beloved Family Pet.”

For any of my “slow” Northern friends who may take umbrage with this little joke: You can change the team names around, alter the punch line and amuse your friends at our expense, too.

If we can all laugh, then there is hope.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, April 25, 2002.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Harry Pothead And The Sorcerer’s Weed

By Brian M. Howle

Alas, poor Royal; we knew you well.

Okay, so we didn’t, really. But, that won’t stop the tabloid press in the haughty and proper confines of the United Kingdom from having a freakin’ field day – at the expense of a child.

Yep, the big news broke over the weekend – of the alcohol and drug forays of young Prince Harry, youngest child of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana. In the five to ten minutes that I mulled over this young boy’s misdeeds, over one billion people around the world became privy to this information. I doubt if many of them gave it much thought.

Which is a real shame, because somewhere – deep within the bowels of rampant sensationalism and titillation that now passes as journalism – there’s a real story, with a real message.

Oh, I have no doubt that reams upon reams of dribble will follow about young Harry’s wild escapades, complete with sordid, smarmy insights into decadence and debauchery of Babylonian proportions. And not just confined to the Brits … all media – worldwide – will feast on this one.

Just for fun, let’s break down the kid’s background and see if we can achieve some insight as to his core problem. Because, after all, no matter what your demons, there’s a core problem that links it all together.

Suffice to say that merely being a Royal is an extreme pressure right out of the gate. From the moment he drew his first breath, he was destined to be submerged in the trappings of an archaic Monarchy lifestyle: Proper nannies, proper schools, proper friends, proper behavior – drilled non-stop from day one.

Hey, piece of cake. Anyone could skate through puberty without any problems under those conditions.

Unless, say, you carried some baggage unique to your place in the grand order of things.

17-year-old Harry is third in line to the throne (he’s already lost his mom; and would have to lose dad and only sibling to gain the throne). His dad had his first drink at age 14. His mom had bouts of anorexia, bulimia and depression. Other relatives have submitted the Queen to the royal embarrassment – some on multiple occasions.

Add to this the fact that no teenager in the civilized world can be held from information. Television, radio, internet, schoolyard grapevine – no matter what the conduit, young Harry is at the mercy of the media when it comes to facing the cold, hard facts concerning his lot in life. Headlines in Britain’s newspapers coyly exclaim, “His Royal HIGHness.” One particularly snooty expert Royal watcher gleefully responded to a reporter, “Well, Harry’s not as popular as his brother, William. He’s not as good looking, nor is he as athletically inclined. He was always the goofy one. He’s always trying to outdo his brother and gain the attention of his father.”

Hey, Nigel, I took Psych 101, too. A toadstool could figure out that much. But thanks for putting it out there on a soundbyte that will loop around the dial until young Harry gets to hear it a few dozen times. Bloody well done, old chap.

So, we have a young boy, who has strayed from the straight and narrow and very proper mantle of British Royalty. He’s the youngest child, and as such is statistically predisposed to problem behavior. His parents have both exhibited addictive behaviors. The kid smoked a few joints, and had a few drinks. His father confronted him with it, and they talked. He’s done his time at the obligatory rehab clinic.

He’s a 17-year-old boy. And for all 17-year-old boys – regardless of social standing and privilege – hormonal tsunamis and trying to be cool can make life a bitch. Leave the kid alone.

Besides … lookie here at what’s next…..

Big Oil End Run – a.k.a. Enron
If there’s someone up there who reads my stuff on a regular basis – and likes it – well, they must have given me this week as a present. But validating my contention – that corporate greed is destroying our way of life MUCH faster than any lost war on drugs or failed attempts at creating an effective national education system – is of little satisfaction to me. Thousands of innocent, hard working, gullible, God fearing people have been ruined – jobs lost, savings lost, futures lost. And I just can’t revel in any of that.

But at least now, we all get to see how serious our national government really is about pursuing truth and justice.

I’m not holding out much hope for that to pass in Texas, though – considering that almost every person in the Houston area is directly tied to Enron. From the service industry; to the hospitality industry; to real estate; to tax-based revenues; to the labyrinth of state officials, prosecutors and judges (The Texas Attorney General quickly recused himself from any Enron-related matters that might come up) – it’s gonna be hard for folks there to find a sacrificial lamb that will satisfy all.

Then again, when citizens allow a big, manipulative, powerful company to have carte blanche when it comes to tax breaks, amortization rates, sweetheart deals and the like – well, sooner or later, that chicken is gonna come home to roost. (Man, I’m sure glad we don’t have any companies like that around here, huh?)

But for the employees of Enron – the heart of the company; the ones who put in long, arduous hours, who plowed their saving and bonuses back into Enron’s then-skyrocketing stock – there is no caveat of conscious.

Forget the lying to the Fed. Forget the lying to Wall Street. Forget the obscene amounts in political contributions – to BOTH parties. Forget the possibility of a mortally wounded infrastructure in Houston.

For these Americans (and after all, we are bombing the crap out of Afghanistan to protect the rights of THESE Americans, right?) were forced to sit on their hands and watch their stock’s value plunge into the abyssal void of bankruptcy and ruin. They were legally (a fancy term which means they had no choice) locked into investments that prevented them from selling their stock and recovering at least some of their money. Ah, but as for those executives in charge…they had no such restrictive stipulations hanging over their financial security. They dumped their vast stock holdings (albeit less than half of their holdings at most, but hey, I could live on half a billion, too) far in advance of the fall. And all the while, Enron’s tactical svengalis were stroking Arthur Andersen into providing co-conspirators, who issued “scorched earth” orders to all but the most rudimentary paperwork involved. Then again, giving the company that audits your books over $52 million a year will make some greedy Americans look the other way.

So now we get to see if the actual destruction of thousands of lives and the lifeblood of a community has any consequence in Corporate America. At least, more importance than, say, some obscenely expensive political vendetta against a hound and his bitch, for trying to destroy our way of life by participating in a failed, poorly conceived development known as Whitewater. Heck, our Senate actually impeached a President over the eventual dregs of personal embarrassment that were rabidly squeezed out of that one.

So, this time – pay attention to which way they look. Sooner or later, people are gonna notice.

In the meantime, I would advise having a diversified portfolio, with holdings in real estate, T-bills, hula hoops (they’re coming back; it’s just a matter or time), General Dynamics, Dow Chemical, Northrop, Marietta-Martin, Boeing, Remington, Winchester, Smith & Wesson, and Glock.

Pretzel Logic
George W. Bush, Jr. has gone on record as wanting to be known as the “Education President.” And yes, I was a bit skeptical when I heard that. But in all honesty, I have to admit that he has come through on that promise. I now know two things that I didn’t know before:

A) It’s medically and physically possible to induce a fainting spell by choking on a pretzel, if it presses up against a particular nerve in the throat, and if you have low blood pressure (a condition prevalent in joggers and runners); and,

B) When the President of the United States of America passed out and fell off the couch – bruising his cheek and lip along the way – the only two witnesses to the event were Barney and Spot.

Barney and Spot are not Secret Service codenames, nor are they aides or staffers, or relatives. Barney and Spot are dogs.

The leader of the free world, unconscious on the floor, comes to and finds Barney and Spot in the same places they were before he fell – they hadn’t budged. President Bush, if I were you, I’d be looking for a dog named Lassie:

Lassie: “WOOF!”
Secret Service agent: “What’s that, girl? A capacitor in the CPU for the modem that links the Nuclear Hotline has burned out, and the odor has triggered swelling in the President’s sinuses, which has pressed up against a nerve that caused him to pass out? And we can order another one from Radio Shack? And the maid is stealing the silverware?”

A true master Thespian, Lassie always got the most out of a single line.

But seriously … we now have smart bombs. Why can’t we have smart dogs, too? Or is this yet another example of the “dumbing down” of America, gone to the dogs, so to speak? Or is that just the axiom for freedom and democracy – “Smart Bombs, Dumb Dogs?”

Imagine the following scenario in the not-too-distant future: The elite force of Secret Service agents is deployed in advance of President Bush’s impending departure from Washington, as he makes his way to the waiting Marine helicopter on the White House lawn. Suddenly, a half-dozen men with aviation sunglasses and earpieces with those little coiled cords tucked down in their collars scurry into an encircling formation around the President, loudly whispering into their sleeves as they crouch in anticipation:

“Daycare Leader to all agents, Daycare Leader to all agents … stay alert and be prepared to stabilize the Shrub … is now about to attempt chewing gum while walking … notify EMT’s and Walter Reed …”

That Dubya … what a hoot. Don’t ya just know that in a dark, unstable, moldy cave – somewhere in Afghanistan – there were some Al-Queada guys watching CNN the next day, exalting out loud, “I can’t believe we’re getting our asses kicked by THIS guy!”

Don’t be so aloof, Cave Boy. ‘Cause once you become too self-confident about your situation, Dubya is going to give you boys a laser-guided pretzel enema. And if you’re lucky, you’ll faint, too.

Another Dumb Animal
In light of the recent arrest of another “troubled” person in the Socastee area this weekend, I’d like to advance the call of action against people who choose to inflict their own sick pain and suffering on helpless animals. As disturbing as it is, the truth of the matter is that it is not a felony to maliciously and mercilessly murder an animal in South Carolina. (And yes, I know; for some, hunting is a form of murder. I feel your pain. Now, get over it. This ain’t hunting.)

You can talk all you want about man being the supreme being on earth, and about how God gave us domain over all other animals, and that it’s not the same as the taking of a human life. Go ahead; give it your best shot … knock yourself out.

Common sense – along with every competent psychologist and psychiatrist I’ve ever asked – will tell you that a person who savagely tortures, maims and kills animals is potentially just one act away from graduating up to human prey. That alone is reason enough to finally put some teeth into animal cruelty laws. But it should be done out of respect for the lives of these animals; more succinctly, out of respect for life itself.

Yes, I know where my Quarter Pounder with Cheese comes from. I know my shoes once grazed in a pasture somewhere. I know countless cousins of “Babe” are really tasty as a side for eggs and grits. Such is the luck of the draw; the delineating definition between livestock and pet.

These are acts of necessity, of survival, of sustenance. And the bloodlines are bred solely for that purpose.

But to kill, simply for the enjoyment of killing; to satisfy some perverse, sick, pathetic need to make existence for defenseless animals more horrible than your own – is an act of unmitigated evil. Period.

And now the county or city will have to spend taxpayer money to put this dumb animal on trial – and if justice is served, foot the bill for the use of local incarceration facilities at taxpayers’ expense.

I propose another idea. After the sentencing, gather up a group of folks who all feel as I do. Then give us big, heavy, ball-peen hammers, and five minutes. Hey, all those folks on City and County Councils are always hollerin’ about saving money, aren’t they? Let’s get serious about it, then.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with civic participation that’s carried out with enthusiasm and expediency.

Or a big, heavy, ball-peen hammer.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, January 17, 2002.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

South Carolina: The Shakedown State

By Brian M. Howle

(Note: This was written July 14, 2005 – long before S.C. Governor Mark Sanford’s now-infamous tryst with his Argentinian hike buddy. This just underscores his longtime propensity for the political play based on Mark Sanford’s needs, not an ideology, poltical party or – God forbid – ethics and character, slathered in a thick coating of hypocrisy.)

As the years have rolled on by in my life, some things have become apparently clear to me, much to my absolute dismay. And despite my most honest efforts to avoid becoming cynical, jaded, skeptical, doubtful, and pretty much wary of everything that moves in general – well, it just ain’t happening.

Take that whole “be honest” bill of goods that our political, religious and business leaders – along with our parents and teachers – sold us when we were just small, malleable little tow-headed kids.

The concept was, always tell the truth: no matter how much it may hurt YOU to do so; no matter how much trouble it may cause OTHERS to endure; no matter what OTHERS may think – if you know it to be true, and honest, and good, THAT’s what matters.

This idea was so important, that we were given constant examples of the practice by our wonderful role models – political, religious, professional and, of course, our own parents.

Heck, they even went as far as coming up with that whole George Washington “I cannot tell a lie” scenario. We should have been more than a little suspicious when it was accompanied by that “I threw a coin across the Potomac River” sidebar. I mean, seriously, go look at the river, and try to imagine a child pulling that off.

Well, the point I’m careening toward here is courtesy of the honorable and honest governor of our fair state, Mark Sanford.
Gov. Sanford ran for the office as a proud Republican, and often touted those good ol’ Republican mantras, like “We’re dedicated to keeping government out of the lives of the people.”

Thanks for selling us out, Gov. Sanford. We appreciate it so very much.

Oh yeah, you were all over pimping out the media when you had your little scuffle with the boys in the domed funhouse over that whole “Pork Barrel” legislation brouhaha. You even enlisted the help of non-voting, non-taxpaying, artery-clogging. doomed-to-death farm animals – in the form of loveable little piggies – so all the TV stations would run you holding the cute little squealing porkers as you chided the lawmakers for their wasteful ways.

So where was our in-your-face governor last week, when the unbelievably invasive and un-constitutional mandatory seatbelt law was on his desk awaiting either a signature or a veto?

Why, he was taking the middle-of-the-road, gutless, and not at all Republican position of electing not to sign the bill at all, which in turn automatically made the horrible legislation law in South Carolina, that’s where he was, folks.

Don’t give me that argument about how Gov. Sanford had to let it go into law, because the Federal government threatens to pull highway funding dollars if states don’t tow the line like good little boys and girls, just like back when we were kids.

That’s another kettle of fish that needs attention – among dozens of others – on a national level, but it’s not more important than some simple rights of the state’s citizenry.

Before you get all bent over my attack on the honorable Governor Sanford, allow me to clarify a few things.

I have nothing but the highest respect, admiration and support for ALL law enforcement officers. These folks are underpaid, overworked and put their lives on the line every day so that you and I can tell the rest of the world we live freely in the greatest nation on earth. They are not the ones creating laws; that’s what the House and Senate do. So don’t attack these folks for doing their job.

The seatbelt law means police now have the right to pull you over and issue a twenty-five dollar ticket for those who decline to buckle up. It’s a cute little end-game law that circumvents the state’s old “license checkpoint” tactic that was struck down by a higher court as unconstitutional.

I personally believe that EVERY man, woman and child SHOULD wear a seatbelt when riding in a vehicle. I also believe that motorcyclists SHOULD wear a helmet, regardless of age.

My belief was confirmed in glorious fashion when a seatbelt literally saved my life in TWO separate accidents. I’ve worn a seatbelt since earning my beginner’s driving permit, and I would hope that everyone use the same common sense – and tons of corroborating data on the use of seatbelts that uncategorically proves that they DO save lives.

However, there are some folks who – for various reasons – absolutely do not want, intend or ever plan to strap on a seatbelt.

I personally know people who have had friends or family killed in auto accidents where – and this is against all normal conditions and circumstances, but, nonetheless – victims were trapped in submerged or burning vehicles by jammed seatbelts.

There are those among us who have varying physical reasons for avoiding the belts, mainly due to painfully constraining tightness that doesn’t affect the rest of us as it does them.

And, sadly, there are those who are just stupid and don’t want to be told anything.

However retarded, though, that’s the whole point of living in a free society, where there is supposed to be some measure of honesty in purporting that we actually have some freedom of choice.

Government – whether Federal or State – has no business whatsoever intervening in our personal transportation seating choices. Why on earth would they even find the slightest interest in doing such a thing?

Could it be a heartfelt concern for the health and well-being of the public?

Could it be an overwhelming desire to prevent family members from experiencing the grieving process by avoiding unnecessary deaths when unbelted victims are ejected from vehicles in crashes?

Or could it be an easy, easy, oh, so easy way to produce revenue?

Damn smart way to raise revenue, don’t you think? Oh no, we won’t subject the citizens to another tax increase – at least, not where they can figure it out. Why, we’ll just whittle out a leetle bit of change from the pockets of motorists all over the state, and the next thing you know, we’ll have enough money to pay for legislators to take junkets around the world, encouraging businesses and tourists to come visit the Palmetto State. And then they can contribute to the scam when we write them up for not wearing seatbelts, too.

Oh, and it gets better.

It’s not just the state of South Carolina who gets the windfall. Every county, city and municipality will rev up the ticket writing machine, as the budget deficit woes go away, twenty-five dollars a pop.

Ooooo … and what about all that other revenue that gets generated by ancillary fines resulting from the seatbelt infraction?

Back to that part where we don’t get federal funding if we don’t abide by the Feds edict on seatbelts …

We won’t need the federal funding for roads, because no one is going to come to a state where law enforcement can shake you down the minute you cross our fair border.

Kibbles & Bits
How To Lose The War On Terrorism Without Really Trying
Hey, is it just me, or does anyone else find it slightly unsettling that our border situation – both with Mexico and Canada – is a world-wide joke? Have the anti-terrorist experts who keep coming up with these brilliant solutions – like banning lighters and nailclippers on airliners – ever wondered how illegal drugs get into the U.S.A.?

I’ve supported my President and my country, wholeheartedly and without a bit of cynicism since 9/11. Whether we had a valid reason to invade Iraq or not does not bother me, although being lied to does (if that ever proves to be the case). Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out. But stop jerking the people around when it comes to Homeland Security.

The next 9/11 won’t come raining down from the sky in the form of a highjacked airliner. It will be some form of dirty bomb or conventional nuclear weapon, brought unencumbered across the porous borders of our nation by those who hate us most.

The government in Mexico is an open joke that slaps America in the face with each morning’s sunrise. The leftists in Canada are doing their dead-level best to do the same.

Yeah, I know – that whole scene recently with the southwestern border and those yahoos who volunteered to patrol it and all made for interesting video reports. But during those days when the yahoos made their presence widely known, illegal entry into the United States dropped like Monica Lewinsky in a windowless room.

Y’all don’t come back now, ya heah?

Talk Radio Burnout
About two years ago, I began listening to talk radio on a daily basis. I figured it was time to give those with whom I often disagreed a fair shake and listen to what they had to say.

Oh yeah, what do you call a right-wing talk show host with a prescription drug addiction?

An oxymoron.

(I have to admit, I am soooo proud of that one).

If you truly believe everything you hear on talk radio, consider yourself a truly stupid person.

The rest of us sure do.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, July 14, 2005.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

An American Christmas

By Brian M. Howle

There are so many occasions that we native-born Americans (with humble apologies to true Native Americans) take for granted. Familiarity does indeed breed contempt, even under the most innocent of conditions.
With the onset of the traditional Christmas rush, most Americans find themselves in the grips of capitalism at its most fervent pitch. Each year, even with the earlier-than-the-year-before pre-Christmas sales that used to begin right after Thanksgiving (but which now emerge as soon as the last stale bag of Halloween candy is put on clearance sale), Christmas always seems to sneak right up on us. And so we begin the quest for the perfect gift, for the hot toy of the year, for that sojourn into the capitalist mecca known as “the mall.”

A lot of normal, decent folks are out there, happy as clams, polite and obliging and good as gold. Then again, there are – and I swear, every year there are more and more – total wastes of human DNA out there, bowling over small children and little old ladies. Rude, insolent, arrogant, bitter and downright ugly examples of our species gone terribly wrong. I leave it to each of you to categorize yourselves as to which group you qualify.

I recently had the eye-opening honor of attending a Citizenship Naturalization ceremony in Columbia, S.C. The love of my life, originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, had passed all the citizenship tests and requirements and was scheduled to duly and lawfully become a U.S. citizen.

Arriving on an early Friday morning at the U.S. Courthouse in the Capitol City, two things immediately struck me:

(1) Having not visited a U.S. Courthouse for some time, the past transgressions of the lunatic fringe in our country have left a chilling reality to our most basic freedom of assembly – Metal detectors, bomb detectors, security cameras and guards galore, and;

(2) The true meaning of America’s “Melting Pot” moniker.

A quick glance around the entrance revealed that the world’s population was well represented. People from Canada, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Uruguay, Yugoslavia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Burma, Netherlands, Germany, France, Belize, Guatemala, South Africa, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Korea, India, England, former states of the Soviet Union, Philippines, Guam, China, Taiwan, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. It wasn’t the fact that these folks were immigrating to our country that astonished me; it was the fact they were making South Carolina their former portal for becoming permanent members of our society. Longstanding mental images of weary immigrants entering through Ellis Island seemed more then norm in my mind’s eye until this personal day of awakening. But here they all were, anxiously anticipating the formality of becoming U.S. citizens.

The large crowd of about 350 people lightened by 122 as officials called for those who were actually participating in the ceremony, to finalize paperwork and verify identity . Meanwhile, I observed the families who were gathered-to witness their loved ones’ realization of a dream come true. There is an undeniable sense of awe when you see the seamless tiers of generations assembled for such an event. From the oldest grandparents and great-grandparents – most of whom only speak their native tongue – to the youngest toddlers and infants, most of whom display the physical characteristics of dual ethnicity homogenized to form the new world child, this window to the ever-changing fabric of our population is just a joy to behold.

As the big moment drew near, the doors to the courtroom swung open and everyone jockeyed for position to afford the best vantage point. And you know, it’s amazing how, even though there may be language barriers when such a diverse group gathers, the hand signal for “scoot in closer” is truly universal. When everyone finally squeezed into the packed courtroom, the multi-lingual murmur trailed off as the officials entered and the ceremony began.

Overseeing the proceedings was Senior U.S. District Court Judge Matthew J. Perry, a patriarchal figure of a man with an authoritative yet soft voice. Articulate and eloquent, he welcomed everyone and thanked them for their attendance. He then introduced visiting dignitaries and members of organizations who were providing various mementoes and keepsakes of the occasion. American Legion representatives gave each new citizen a booklet on Flag Etiquette; Members of the National Society of Colonial Dames presented laminated copies of the Naturalization Oath; and ladies of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution furnished copies of the Pledge of Allegiance and the American Creed, along with little American flags.

Hey – next time some cretin starts mouthing off about those “damn foreigners taking over our country”, ask them to recite the American Creed. Game, set, match.

The keynote speaker for the ceremony was Dr. Ali Akbar M. Haghighi, a Professor of Mathematics at Benedict College. A great moment of levity was provided by Judge Perry’s attempt in pronouncing Dr. Haghighi’s name, due to the fact that after inquiring as to the correct pronunciation, Dr. Haghighi turned away from the P.A. microphone to address the Judge. Unable to hear the response, Judge Perry asked a second and third time, each of which Dr. Haghighi would again turn away from the microphone to answer. Still not sure of his success in getting it right, Judge Perry finally implored Dr. Haghighi to forgive him if he had bungled the pronunciation, and in the event he had, to “come see me if you ever need a parking ticket fixed.” Apparently, ticket-fixing is also a universal champion of the language barrier, judging from the room’s response. (Oh, by the way – it’s Hah-gee-gee).

All kidding aside, the Iranian-born professor gave an inspiring assessment of what he considered to be the two greatest privileges of American citizenship. First, freedom of speech – a concept that has been taken for granted by too many Americans for far too long. While many of us get all bent out of shape because of offense at content of speech – such as the use of profanity, or the diatribes of Klansmen or Neo-Nazis – we tend to forget that in many countries physical abuse, torture and death can result from the simple act of expressing one’s opinion.

Secondly, Dr. Haghighi passionately reveled about America’s long-standing reputation as “the land of opportunity”. In this country, one truly has the ability to accomplish anything you set your mind to. You are free to pursue your dreams, to go as far as your capabilities will take you. And yes, prejudices do exist and minorities can face formidable odds. But as long as you obey the laws and stay focused on your goals, anything is possible. Too many Americans have become slovenly apathetic towards applying any semblance of a work ethic, somehow coming to the conclusion that government entitlements and handouts have become the ‘90s equivalent to inalienable rights.

Dr. Haghighi made me realize if you took a jaded, self-absorbed American and plopped him down in the middle of any one of dozens of other countries on this earth, where cast systems are unchangeable and unforgiving, where racial or religious or political constraints are unavoidable and unbending, where there is no recognition of even the most simplistic of basic human rights – well, they would beat a path straight through the gates of hell to return to the principles of our Constitution. Geez, just took around – Bill Gates, Darla Moore, Oprah Winfrey, Dave Thomas, Tom Brokaw, Kathy Lee Gifford, Jerry Springer, Colin Powell, Pauley Shore – it’s enough to make your head explode. The land of opportunity.

Dr. Haghighi’s speech concluded with a rousing ovation, and the moment all had waited for was upon us. Judge Perry asked the candidates to stand and state their name and country of origin, due to the sheer number involved, and when all had spoken the entire group would take the Naturalization Oath of Citizenship. One by one, row by row, men and women of all sizes, race, religion, color and creed proudly did just that.

Then, towards the very end of this group of our newest citizens, there came an elderly couple from Colombia. The wife was very soft-spoken and her English was a little hard to understand. But the husband broke from the name/country format and in a loud, firm voice – thick with accent but proud and strong and very clearly English, tears streaming down his face – proceeded to tell the Judge how proud and happy he and his wife were to be in America, becoming American citizens. The courtroom was awash in smiles and applause and more than a few other tears.

Then the group stood, raised their right hands and took the Naturalization Oath of Citizenship. One by one they stepped forward to receive their certificates and handshakes, turning to face flashbulbs, cheers and hugs from family and friends.

Aglow in her new status, I playfully chided my Pêsseginho (little peach) that she was now “street legal”. We headed to a downtown restaurant for a celebratory lunch as she tucked her certificate over the visor of our van. Afterwards, on the way back home, conversation was lively and constant. But as I drove, from the corner of my eye, I saw the visor pulled down and the paper plucked out time after time. Not even her graduation from college this past spring compared to the pride that radiated from her constantly smiling face. Only my pride in her could come close.

So as I wish you all Happy Holidays and a prosperous New Year; as we all hope for peace on earth and goodwill towards man, as you wade into the sea of humanity searching for that perfect gift – I can’t tell you who that rude, insolent, arrogant, bitter or downright ugly person is. But in this land of opportunity, I can tell you who it isn’t.

Feliz Natal, meu Pêsseginho.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, December 17, 1998.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Nip It, Nip It In The Bud

By Brian M. Howle

It’s downright amazing that we, as a species, managed to plod along at a chronological Snail’s pace without mass media, and still managed to instill the simplest virtues of character, decency, self-esteem and common sense into each successive generation. How on earth, do you think, did our ancestors survive without the enlightenment of a network’s or reporter’s opinion? Did their children ever desire a sense of empowerment that comes from unlimited access to all the confusing, disturbing, and explicitly forbidden world of images and information? And exactly when did the Constitution become a pass key into a citizen’s private life?

Now, maybe these things don’t bother you, maybe it’s just me. But it seems to me that in the aftermath of Bubba’s Inquisition – and the ensuing gauntlet of fallen fingers when self-promotion motivated media types turned the spotlight back on the accusers, resulting in the loss of two (count ‘em, TWO) Speakers of the House of Representatives – and in all the post-Monica backwash, well, someone’s just not paying attention in the media.

Take this George Bush, Jr. flap about prior drug use. The original question of “Have you ever done drugs?” is an excellent example of both sides making mistakes in responding. The question in and of itself is a reasonable one. Most companies now require prospective employees to submit to standardized drug tests as a matter of common practice. Expecting any prospective public servant to answer a question concerning prior or current drug use is not unreasonable. And yes, on this single point, we do have the right to know.

Well, Junior decided that he didn’t have to answer that question, and the impression he made was exactly that – of someone who lets their temper and emotion control their mind and speech, and then becomes a sound byte that amplifies their attitude, whether it be confidence, cockiness or arrogance. He gave the media dogs a great big chew bone by refusing to answer. Attempts at spin control only served to worsen his already damaged image. And to top it all off, allies and enemies alike pointed out the ironically eerie similarity to Bubba’s history of dancing around an issue. If he had simply answered this the very first time it came up, whatever ripples it may have produced at the moment would have long since disappeared.

As for the media, well, is anyone ever surprised by the constant feeding frenzy that now comprises the media? Junior lofted up a great big, fat, slow, hanging changeup out over the plate, and the media crushed it. Like some rabid boomerang, it just keeps coming back again and again, chipping away at the relevance of it all until it just seems like more of the same ol’ same ol’. Desensitizing the public’s sense of what’s really important serves no one.

My own sense of what’s really important was crystallized during my junior year of college. Deep into the core courses of journalism, a mixture of history-making national and world events – and the ethical pushing of the envelope advocated by some of my professors – combined to form my views. The nation was being ripped apart by the combined one-two punch of Vietnam and Watergate, and it became all to clear to me how powerful the media had become. Advertising classes advocated creating ad campaigns that would lead the consumer to believe they needed the products – whether they actually did or not.

Now, being stubborn by nature probably didn’t help, but these things just sorta stuck in my craw. I could not begin to fathom the concept of preying on the stupidity or humiliation of others to sell a product. And I could just see the day that my publisher or editor would call me into the office and give me an assignment that smelled of “Let’s nail this guy to a cross.” Realizing I had placed myself into a profession fraught with compromise and tongue biting, I pursued the field of graphic arts and design. I have chosen not to accept an account from time to time based solely on my inability to believe in the product or the person. And yes, I have had some conflicts with my employers when faced with such a situation – but I have had the good fortune to work for men and women who respected my position. Respectful folks, with boatloads of patience, have made me a better person.

Well, being one who really hates the use of catch phrases, there’s one that I must cotton up to without remorse: “The Dumbing Down Of America”. Print media has historically led the parade on this one, what with “Yellow journalism” and all that. And publications like The National Enquirer and The Star have been the research material fodder for comedy writers for years.

And of course, constantly changing trends, likes and dislikes of each generation’s concept of fashion and art contribute to clashes between personalities – and that’s to be expected; it’s normal. Well, if “absolute power corrupts,” then “unlimited television rots.”

The decline of any resemblance to socially acceptable behavior on television has reached an all-time low. The onslaught of the Jerry Springers and Sally Jessie Raphaels gave the civilly-challenged dregs of our society a platform, and it went from “watching the freaks go ballistic” to daily entertainment fare for almost all of our youngsters. Oh, alright, and all of the catatonic housewives and househusbands who long ago sold their souls for daily fixes of the soaps – which for decades have espoused pursuit of all of the Seven Deadly Sins. A different poison, perhaps, but the resulting brain rot is essentially the same.

Cursing, screaming, threatening, throwing, punching, kicking all just absolutely lovely traits to be absorbed by impressionable little – and not so little – minds. Don’t worry about establishing your position with facts, little ones, just point out someone else’s questionable morality or ethics. Don’t waste your time with circumstances or explanations or reasoning, just punch ‘em in the nose while the crowd – arms raised and bent at the elbow, fist clenched – vocalizes a guttural “woo woo woo” a la Arsenio.

And now, for your viewing pleasure and personal edification, comes a new series slated for airing this fall – Cheaters. The show’s premise? Lovers who suspect their partners are being unfaithful hire private investigators to stalk the alleged infidel until the truth is known. Once revealed, the jilted party then confronts the cheating no-gooder. And you just knooooooow what kinda video you’re gonna get with this one – be sure to gather the kids around the tube, so they’ll know what to expect in divorce court.

In the mid ‘80s, a young woman who worked in my office as an intern writer approached the rest of the staff with questions about The Andy Griffith Show. She was dumbfounded by the responses of those of us who were native to the South. Every person she asked essentially praised the show and its cast. No one, not one single, solitary soul badmouthed the good citizens of Mayberry.

“I don’t understand you people,” she gushed in exasperation. “How can you find such mindless, corn pone, yokel dribble bearable to watch, much less actually enjoy?”

“What don’t you understand about the show,” I asked innocently, while my mind began to assemble defenses against this attack on southern heritage.

“I don’t get any of it. I don’t get the hillbilly humor, the one-horse town, the stupid people …” she exhaled with frustration, hands swirling with her words as she spoke.

“Such as?” I baited.

“Well … like, all the women are portrayed as naive, mindless puppets, whose only purpose in life is to serve men – or infuriate them”, she said, confident her point had been made.

“Well, actually, although there was a strong theme of women in traditional roles as mothers, teachers or waitresses, the show was one of the first to support some feminist causes – unheard of in the early ‘60s fare of prime time.” I matter-of-factly continued, “Like when Miss Ellie, the new young lady pharmacist, decided ta run for local public office. Oh, you might think that Helen Crump was Andy’s only squeeze during the series, but before Helen there was Miss Ellie, whose refusal to fill a hypochondriatic old lady’s demand for her special ‘pills’ brought her and Andy together when he patiently waited for Ellie to finish her diatribe on medical ethics, so he could tell her that the old pharmacist (Ellie’s now-retired uncle) would give the poor, worried old soul sugar pills – placebos – to psychosomatically relieve her anxiety attacks. Anyway, Miss Ellie must have signed on with some movie project, because next thing you knew. Helen Crump was sitting by Andy on the porch swing, sipping mint juleps while he serenaded her with his guitar…”

“I … um … well, that’s not what …” she attempted to stammer out a reply as I took a deep breath and continued.

“Then there’s Aunt Bea. Now, sure, she was a very traditional southern matriarch, and prone to bouts of flustered hysteria over the simplest of problems.  But, she was also very open to change and welcomed the opportunity for personal growth, like when she learned to drive (at the expense of Andy’s fence), or when she decided the sky was the limit and learned to fly solo at the Mt. Pilot airport”.

I was on a roll.

“Look, forget the thing about the women. What about the men’? I mean, was there anything real about them?” she implored, bouyed by the knowledge she had me on this one.

“Well, let’s see …. There’s Andy, of course, a widower with a young son, also a sheriff who never regularly carried a gun … he dealt with people and their problems by talking to them, instead of threatening them, but was a no-nonsense kind of guy when it came down to upholding the law or generally defending God, family and country. Yep, I’ve known men like that. And Barney, the lovable but bumbling deputy, forever scheming to project a macho image, of himself while desperately hiding his insecurities, seemingly over-reacting with high-pitched screams of ‘Nip it, nip it in the bud!’ … yeah, I’ve known folks like him, too,” I continued.

“Yeah … I mean, NO, that’s not what I meant,” she began to huff, “I mean, the show never dealt with anything topical or controversial; it was just sugarcoated mush”.

“How can you say that?” I asked, incredulously, “Now, take ol’ Ernest T. Bass, the town’s ADHD adult. He took out his misguided interpretations of legal and social decorum by throwing bricks through windows, but Andy realized his condition and helped him work through his problems. Heck, he even set o’ Ernest T. up with a gal just his speed!”

“No, no, no, you don’t see ……” she wimpered.

“And another thing; Andy’s show addressed the homosexual issue and advanced the cause of tolerance – in the deep south, mind you – years before it became acceptable.” I explained with the air of a professor. “Howard Sprig? Gay. I n his forties and still living with his mother? … the bow tie? … the anal retentive personality? Please. And Floyd, the barber? Talk about gay … “

“But that’s not what …” she squeaked, tears beginning to brim up in her eyes as a little twitch tugged at her left cheek.

“And then there’s Gomer, of course ….”

“No … stop … I don’t want to know!” she exclaimed as she wheeled around, looking for the door.

“Oh, hey, how about The Beverly Hillbillies? Talk about another great show …” I excitedly chirped as she made a break for the door.

“Nooooooooooo … leave me me alone …” she blurted through her tears as she ran for her car. She fumbled for the keys, then looked up at me as I was closing the office door. Our eyes met; I smiled and waved, and then yelled at her:

“Y’all come back now, ya heah?”

We never saw her again.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, February 23, 2000.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Al Qaeda Ain’t The Greatest Threat, Slick

By Brian M. Howle

Every dang one of you out there knows this to be true, so don’t go getting all bent out of shape. Yes, yes, those rabid religious zealots that make up the leadership, rank & file of Al Qaeda are all very, very bad people. And yes, yes, they are all completely dedicated to destroying America and Israel, in no apparent order of importance.

But, let’s get real. Now, just like each of you, I was all riled up and totally supportive of our President back on 9/11, when the towers’ long plumes of smoke trailed off into that fateful September morning sky, and the ensuing dust cloud that made Manhattan disappear filled my heart with sorrow and rage, and obscured my ability to rationally understand what I was witnessing.

So, here we are, four-plus years later, 2,000-plus American military lives later, and billions of dollars (that we didn’t have to spend) later. For all our righteous and decidedly overwhelming military might, that lanky bastard with the ratty beard and the AK-47 is still scampering around some cave, and only God knows where.

And just what do we have to show for it?

A collection of the absolute worst members of the legislative and administrative branches of American government to ever serve, the incompetent likes of which we have never seen before.

The Democratic party, once the proud clarion of social justice and champion of civil rights, has disintegrated into a disheveled-looking bunch of whining traitors, interested only in recapturing their 40-year dynasty of government waste. And to make matters worse, they’re just being major dumbasses when it comes to actual national security issues.
I say, next Senator who makes pretentious charges against the character of the next qualified federal judge, gets castrated on the spot. (And yeah, this includes you, Hillary).

The Republican party, once the only true alternative to a nation gone astray, has homogenized and morphed itself into something that isn’t all that discernable from the other guys; at least when it comes to throwing money at a problem when that’s not the way to fix it. They have, however, completely shattered the Constitutional foundation of the rights of citizens in their pathetic pursuit of justifying the means to the ends. Someone should remind them that a citizenry under total government control was pretty much the outline for Orwell’s 1984. Didn’t work in the book, either.

I say, give me a President who mangles the language, oversteps authority and believes Democracy means one man can decide for all and ignore the Constitution … oh wait, already got one.

So now, when you’re ready to take a flight within or out of the country, you can’t take a decent nailclipper with you – but you can bring pounds and pounds of stolen Uranium across the porous borders of Canada and Mexico without much problem.

You can’t get a public education worth a damn – but you can bet your ass that you can get more and more money allotted for education without having any means of accounting for whether or not anyone is getting the job done.

You can’t get economics taught in the school system where our children have an understanding of world markets and currency after 12 years of education – but you can get a dozen credit cards in five minutes.

The time is drawing near when our time at the top of the world order will expire, and you don’t have to look too far to see the woeful signs that the end is, indeed, very near.

My cousin in Texas sent me this list of observations that someone made, and it’s probably been around the world via the Internet a dozen times. But this one bears repeating until every American reads and fully comprehends what the hell is going on in our once-great nation:

Top 10 Signs Your Country Has Become Dumber Than A Bag Of Hammers

1. Recently, when I went to McDonald’s I saw on the menu that you could have an order of 6, 9 or 12 Chicken McNuggets. I asked for a half dozen nuggets. “We don’t have half dozen nuggets,” said the teenager at the counter. “You don’t?” I replied. “We only have six, nine, or twelve,” was the reply. “So I can’t order a half dozen nuggets, but I can order six?” “That’s right.” So I shook my head and ordered six McNuggets.

2. I was checking out at the local Wal-Mart with just a few items and the lady behind me put her things on the belt close to mine. I picked up one of those “dividers” that they keep by the cash register and placed it between our things so they wouldn’t get mixed. After the girl had scanned all of my items, she picked up the “divider”, looking it all over for the bar code so she could scan it. Not finding the bar code she said to me, “Do you know how much this is?” I said to her “I’ve changed my mind, I don’t think I’ll buy that today.” She said “OK,” and I paid her for the things and left. She had no clue to what had just happened.

3. A lady at an office I was visiting was putting a credit card into her floppy drive and pulling it out very quickly. When I inquired as to what she was doing, she said she was shopping on the Internet and they kept asking for a credit card number, so she was using the ATM “thingy.”

4. I recently saw a distraught young lady weeping beside her car. “Do you need some help?” I asked. She replied, “I knew I should have replaced the battery to this remote door unlocker. Now I can’t get into my car. Do you think they (pointing to a distant convenience store) would have a battery to fit this?” “Hmmm, I dunno. Do you have an alarm, too?” I asked. “No, just this remote thingy,” she answered, handing it and the car keys to me. As I took the key and manually unlocked the door with the remote, I replied, “Why don’t you drive over there and check about the batteries. It’s a long walk.”

5. Several years ago, we had an Intern who was none too swift. One day she was typing and turned to a secretary and said, “I’m almost out of typing paper. What do I do?” “Just use copier machine paper,” the secretary told her. With that, the intern took her last remaining blank piece of paper, put it on the photocopier and proceeded to make five “blank” copies.

6. I was in a car dealership a while ago, when a large motor home was towed into the garage. The front of the vehicle was in dire need of repair and the whole thing generally looked like an extra in Twister. I asked the manager what had happened. He told me that the driver had set the “cruise control” and then went in the back to make a sandwich.

7. My neighbor works in the operations department in the central office of a large bank. Employees in the field call him when they have problems with their computers.. One night he got a call from a woman in one of the branch banks who had this question: “I’ve got smoke coming from the back of my terminal. Do you guys have a fire downtown?”

8. Police in Radnor, Pa., interrogated a suspect by placing a metal colander on his head and connecting it with wires to a photocopy machine. The message “He’s lying” was placed in the copier, and police pressed the copy button each time they thought the suspect wasn’t telling the truth. Believing the “lie detector” was working, the suspect confessed.

9. Want to have some fun the next time you visit a fast-food restaurant? If your order comes to, say, $7.63 – give the kid at the window a $10 bill and 13 cents. Have your hand ready to shield your face, because chances are, their head will explode as they try to figure out why you gave them 13 cents.

10. A mother calls 911, very worried, asking the dispatcher if she needs to take her kid to the emergency room; the kid was eating ants. The dispatcher tells her, “Give the kid some Benadryl and he should be just fine. The mother replies, “I just gave him some ant killer…..” Dispatcher: “Oh God! Rush him in to emergency!”

Life is tough. And it’s a lot tougher if you’re stupid.

But I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.

Ooops.
###
The previous article orginally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, February 9, 2006.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Coultergeist

By Brian M. Howle

You know, some times you hear or read things that simply defy all reasoning, all common sense and everything that your parents, teachers and those with your best interests at heart ever tried to impart on you. And then you listen or read it again, just to make sure you got it right.

But even after rechecking the facts, you’re still stunned when you realize that another human being out there could be so incredibly stupid, or crass, or hateful, or something that one descriptive word just doesn’t seem to fully explain to your satisfaction.

So here I am, a self-avowed wordsmith, and words just don’t seem to cut it when it comes to defining the incredulous shrillness, moronic asininity and wretchedness of GOP pundit and author, Ann Coulter.

Never one to shy away from controversy, the condescending gravitas of Ms. Coulter has long grated on the minds and ears of mere normal mortals in our country; usually, those of the Democrat persuasion.

But now she’s just flat out gone way out of bounds in the realm of socially acceptable behavior, common decency and the uniquely American right of free speech. And this time, even her former Republican supporters are putting distance between themselves and Ms. Coulter.

Congress recently considered legislation that would make it a felony for anyone to picket or demonstrate anywhere near the funeral of an American serviceman or woman. This came about due to the over-the-top stupidity and deeply retarded hate-based philosophy of religious zealots (the particular targeted group are the wacko church members from Kansas) who have recently made a practice of spewing anti-gay rhetoric towards the families of ANY American military personnel who have died in service to their country.

The warped reasoning for these complete wastes of human cells? Because God wants these brave servicemen and women to die, because America condones gay rights.

I think it’s fairly obvious that it isn’t just religious fervor at play here. These people are beyond the pale when it comes to any semblance of what could possibly pass for intelligence or Christian compassion. Their lack of education, understanding, compassion and realization of true Christianity literally make me – and everyone else out there – sick to one’s stomach. It’s a true wonder they can actually find their way to church on Sundays, where they gather and incite each other with their spitting vile and venom in the name of God. I’m sure He is so proud to have them on His team.

Yep, I bet it just absolutely makes His day when they taunt the grieving family and friends with screams of “God is happy your child is dead!” and “The only good faggot is a dead faggot!”

With the exception of these (and a few other) inbred pricks and prickettes, all other normal people in our country just roll their eyes and shake their heads when they hear about this. And, thankfully, that’s the way it should be.

So, it truly stumps me when someone like Ms. Coulter – who apparently has had the benefit of not only basic education, but higher education, as well – dives head-first into the sewer of hate-drenched drivel that is in no way that far removed from the rantings of this particular group of idiots.

And once again – before I go any further, let me reassure the majority of you fine Republicans out there – I’m not blaming you for Annie’s diatribes against humanity as we know it.

I don’t even think that most dyed-in-the-wool, true-believer Conservatives buy into this latest pukefest by this patently biased excuse for a human being.

That being said, you should take note of those who have come to her defense – and remember them on down the road. Because they are not that far removed from the Kansas heretics.

For anyone who missed the abomination Ms. Coulter unleashed last week, allow me to bring you up to speed.

Annie is not just a Republican, or more clearly, a Conservative. She is a vehemently acrid spokesperson for her party who has come under fire before, more or less for making the usual dumbass, partisan remarks and observations that dominate the more “creative” types on that side of the political aisle.

She has authored a couple of books, including “How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must),” and her latest offering, “Godless (The Church of Liberalism)” – which, in a cunning marketing move, was released on 6-6-06.

For the record, it should be noted that David Lee Roth was also clever enough to release his latest album, “Strummin’ with the Devil” on the same day, utilizing the same pathetic reasoning.

Coulter has made the charge in her latest book, and then expounded on it in a recent Today Show interview with the glib Matt Lauer (as recently defined by that mental giant, Tom Cruise) by claiming that the “9/11 Widows” were happy their husbands died in the attack on the World Trade Center towers.

Of course, the “9/11 Widows,” also known as “The Jersey Girls” by some talk-radio retards, are the widows of men who died when the towers collapsed and their offices plummeted to the ground, vaporizing nearly 3,000 souls instantly.

Annie believes these women have no right to speak out against their government and president in the post-9/11 world. She thinks that their participation in the 9/11 Commission’s hearings, as well as their much-publicized criticism of the Bush administration, are simply political rhetoric unfit for American auditory consumption.

Well, of course you do, Annie! The entire Incompetence Support Group – otherwise known as conservative-leaning talk radio – just revels in demeaning and degrading these women and their kind, because they dare to engage in freedom of speech in a manner that is not steeped in glorious praise of President Bush and all things Republican.

In a TV interview, she called them “witches who acted as if the terrorist attacks happened only to them” and “professional victims.” Perky Ann continued, “these women got paid, they ought to take their money and shut up about it.” (Like whores & prostitutes, Annie?) In her new book she also writes, “…And by the way, how do we know their husbands weren’t planning to divorce these harpies? Now that their shelf life is dwindling, they’d better hurry up and appear in Playboy…”

Wow. What a class act. Conservatives must be prouder than hell to have Ms. Coulter “Stuck on Stupid.”

When the maelstrom of criticism against Ann erupted, she countered by saying that if these women we going to use the deaths of their husbands to criticize the Bush administration, then it was justifiable to go after them in the manner in which she has chosen.

I guess she means that if you speak out against her beliefs, she has the right to make unwarranted and non-factual statements against the character of her opponents to level the playing field. After all, this is a democracy, you know.

Ummm … according to the talk show boys, it’s not a democracy, it’s a republic, where that pesky will of the people is trumped by the will of the elected representatives. I guess the rules get bent to fit the prism of your particular political view.

And in the event some of you have forgotten, you should recall that Ann severed her relations with National Review Online (not exactly the “Drive-By Media,” eh, Rush?) on October 3, 2001 after spewing similar crap concerning Muslims and an Invade-and-Convert Christian rant.

In a column entitled “L’Affaire Coulter: Goodbye To All That,” Editor Jonah Goldberg wrote:

“Coulter had submitted ‘a long, rambling rant of a response to her critics that was barely coherent.’… Running this ‘piece’ would have been an embarrassment to Ann, and to NRO. Rich Lowry pointed this out to her in an e-mail. She wrote back an angry response, defending herself from the charge that she hates Muslims and wants to convert them at gunpoint.

But this was not the point. It was NEVER the point. The problem with Ann’s first column was its sloppiness of expression and thought. Ann didn’t fail as a person — as all her critics on the Left say — she failed as WRITER, which for us is almost as bad.

Rich wrote her another e-mail, engaging her on this point, and asking her — in more diplomatic terms — to approach the whole controversy not as a PR-hungry, free-swinging pundit on Geraldo, but as a careful writer.

No response.

Instead, she apparently proceeded to run around town bad-mouthing NR and its employees. Then she showed up on TV and, in an attempt to ingratiate herself with fellow martyr Bill Maher, said we were ‘censoring’ her.

By this point, it was clear she wasn’t interested in continuing the relationship.

What publication on earth would continue a relationship with a writer who would refuse to discuss her work with her editors? What publication would continue to publish a writer who attacked it on TV? What publication would continue to publish a writer who lied about it — on TV and to a Washington Post reporter?

And, finally, what CONSERVATIVE publication would continue to publish a writer who doesn’t even know the meaning of the word ‘censorship’?

So let me be clear: We did not ‘fire’ Ann for what she wrote, even though it was poorly written and sloppy. We ended the relationship because she behaved with a total lack of professionalism, friendship, and loyalty.

What’s Ann’s take on all this? Well, she told the Washington Post that she loves it, because she’s gotten lots of great publicity. That pretty much sums Ann up.”

Keep in mind – this is from those who were her friends.

And of course, there were a couple of the talk radio guys who thought Annie’s comments were just brilliant. And, not to disappoint the faithful in their fully flawed flock, one of their defensive rationalizations – in response to the immediate wave of female commentary attacking Coulter’s lack of taste and decency – was that those women on the left who did so “were just jealous of Ann Coulter’s good looks.”

Excuse me? “Ann Coulter’s good looks?”

Hmmm … well, if you think a skeleton with an Adam’s Apple and some skin pulled over it looks good, then so be it. From my perspective, she looks more like a broom with breasts than an attractive woman.

But I gotta tell ya, speaking as a fully heterosexual man, I would unequivocally rather have sex with a broom than with Ann Coulter.

For starters, I know – for a fact – that a broom originated on this earth as an organic, living thing, and therefore actually had a soul at some point in time.

Secondly, a broom is naturally blonde.

Thirdly, a broom has a much softer surface, and far more natural lubrication.

And perhaps most importantly, a broom has a superior purpose on this earth – for sweeping away trash like Ann Coulter and her ilk.

Plus, a broom can’t talk.

You see, Ann, the basic flaw in your idiotic claims against these women – as well as anyone else who dares to disagree with this administration or any other that may follow – is that they actually do have the right to speak out, in any manner they choose. Just like you have the right speak out with your version of whatever twisted interpretation of the truth is in your anorexic-clad world.

Perhaps the boys in the ‘70s band, Grand Funk Railroad, had Annie in mind when they wrote their great ode to overly emaciated women – a catchy little ditty entitled “T.N.U.C.”

Figure that one out in “The Arena of Ideas,” kids.

And I’m not a liberal, so save your crayons.

Yep, Ann is a great role model for your kid, if you want your kid to look like a survivor of Aushwitz without the beaming glow; if you want your kid to smoke like the ashes of 9/11 and cut down their life expectancy, and if you want them to engage in partisan hate-mongering instead of compassionate conservatism or progressive liberalism.

And especially if you want them to be a total bitch.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, June 15, 2006.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Supremely Courting Communism

By Brian M. Howle

Well, anyone who reads my column knows that I’ve been thinking about this week’s ghastly turn of events emanating from the United States Supreme Court.

I fear that the mythical call to arms – once proudly listened to in this country – will evade the nation yet again, as the outrage that should make the earth tremble just fails to materialize.

We have truly become a nation of sheeple, oblivious to the outright unconstitutional edicts of our highest court. Where are the rallies? Where are those call to arms that we so gallantly regale during the coming weekend, as we celebrate our once glorious national sojourn against the warm, comforting bosom of freedom and self-government?

In an act of complete and total arrogance towards any semblance of the law of the land as defined in the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court handed down a truly shameful and asinine ruling by asserting that a government entity has the right to take PRIVATE PROPERTY from a PRIVATE OWNER and redistribute it to a wealthier PRIVATE OWNER, who in turn develops said PRIVATE PROPERTY into a revenue-earning tax cash cow for that government entity.

For those who need to be brought up to speed, there is an amendment that prohibits the government from seizing private property, with the exception being EMINENT DOMAIN, where the property is used for PUBLIC needs, such as highways and right-of-ways for utilities and such.

Even then, the government has to pay fair-value for the property.

Well, screw all that now. If they want it, they can just take it. And the hell with paying fair market.

This decision came down last week. And as of now – nearly a week later – there are still no massive demonstrations in the streets; no cries of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” reverberating across the fruited plains.

I guess it’s just overshadowed by things of real interest to the average American these days. Things like analyzing the results of the Michael Jackson freak show acquittal, or the open buffet for sharks along Florida’s Gulf coast, or maybe even the latest attempts by FOX in whoring out all the emotions they can, while gutting the memory of little Natalee in Aruba.

Oh please, God, if you’re out there, send one of your bull sharks to get Geraldo or Greta, please? The incessant nawing of the corpse – before there is any corpse – is simply too nauseating to endure anymore. Thank you, Jesus.

In the meantime, as this once great nation spirals into the abyss of glorified stupidity and minutia, I offer you some truly enlightening entertainment while underscoring my bleak assessment of our society in general.

Yes, it’s that magical time of the year again when the Darwin Awards are bestowed, honoring the least Evolved among us. Here then, are the glorious winners. 

2005 Darwin Award Winners:

1. When his 38-caliber revolver failed to fire at his intended victim during a holdup in Long Beach, California, would be robber James Elliot did something that can only inspire wonder. He peered down the barrel and tried the trigger again. This time it worked….. And now, the honorable mentions: 

2. The chef at a hotel in Switzerland lost a finger in a meat cutting machine and, after a little hopping around, submitted a claim to his insurance company. The company, suspecting negligence, sent out one of its men to have a look for himself. He tried the machine and lost a finger The chef’s claim was approved. 

3. A man who shoveled snow for an hour to clear a space for his car during a blizzard in Chicago returned with his Vehicle to find a woman had taken the space. Understandably, he shot her. 

4. After stopping for drinks at an illegal bar, a Zimbabwean bus driver found that the 20 mental patients he was supposed to be transporting from Harare to Bulawayo had escaped. Not wanting to admit his incompetence, the driver went to a nearby bus stop and offered everyone waiting there a free ride. He then delivered the passengers to the mental hospital, telling the staff that the patients were very excitable and prone to bizarre fantasies. The deception wasn’t discovered for three days. 

5. An American teenager was in the hospital recovering from serious head wounds received from an oncoming train. When asked how he received the injuries, the lad told police that he was simply trying to see how close he could get his head to a moving train before he was hit. 

6. A man walked into a Louisiana Circle-K, put a $20 bill on the counter, and asked for change. When the clerk opened the cash drawer, the man pulled a gun and asked for all the cash in the register, which the clerk promptly provided. The man took the cash from the clerk and fled, leaving the $20 bill on the counter. The total amount of cash he got from the drawer..$15. (If someone points a gun at you and gives you money, is a crime committed?) 

7. A thief burst into a Florida bank one day wearing a ski mask and carrying a gun. Aiming his gun at the guard, the thief yelled, “FREEZE, MOTHER-STICKERS, THIS IS A F***-UP!’ For a moment, everyone was silent. Then the sniggers started. The security guard completely lost it and doubled over laughing. It probably saved his life, because he’d been about to draw his gun. He couldn’t have drawn and fired before the thief got him. The thief ran away and is still at large. In memory of the event, the banker later put a plaque on the wall engraved with the words, “Freeze, mother-stickers, this is a f***-up!”  

8. Seems an Arkansas guy wanted some beer pretty badly. He decided that he’d just throw a cinderblock through a liquor store window, grab some booze, and run. So he lifted the cinderblock and heaved it over his head at the window. The cinderblock bounced back and hit the would-be thief on the head, knocking him unconscious. The liquor store window was made of Plexiglas. The whole event was caught on videotape. 

9. As a female shopper exited a New York convenience store, a man grabbed her purse and ran. The clerk called 911 immediately, and the woman was able to give them a detailed description of the snatcher. Within minutes, the police apprehended the snatcher. They put him in the car and drove back to the store. The thief was then taken out of the car and told to stand there for a positive ID. To which he replied, “Yes, officer, that’s her. That’s the lady I stole the purse from.” 

10. The Ann Arbor News crime column reported that a man walked into a Burger King in Ypsilanti, Michigan, at 5 a.m., flashed a gun, and demanded cash. The clerk turned him down because he said he couldn’t open the cash register without a food order. When the man ordered onion rings, the clerk said they weren’t available for breakfast. The man, frustrated, walked away. 

A 5-STAR STUPIDITY AWARD WINNER!
11. When a man attempted to siphon gasoline from a motor home parked on a Seattle street, he got much more than he bargained for. Police arrived at the scene to find a very sick man curled up next to a motor home near spilled sewage. A police spokesman said that the man admitted to trying to steal gasoline and plugged his siphon hose into the motor home’s sewage tank by mistake. The owner of the vehicle declined to press charges, saying that it was the best laugh he’d ever had.

Well, there they are, folks. I look forward to the Darwin Awards each year, if only to reassure myself that it could, indeed, be worse.

So what it comes down to – the most people’s final analysis – is that comedian Blake Clark’s observation is more true today than ever.

It’s time to thin the herd.

As we’ve clearly seen in the previous examples, the concept is not without its followers. All that remains now is for the overwhelming majority of others who are similarly inclined to wade out to the fringe of the pack and let nature take its course.

It’s tounge-in-cheek, of course, but it would be nice to have a nation of thinking individuals who aren’t brain-dead from years of cathode-ray overexposure or simple-mindedly towing the line for one of the two insane political parties, which, coincidentally, run the entire country.

When the government takes your money via taxes out of you paycheck FIRST – before any liens, savings, deposits, Christmas Clubs, etc., and spends it without regard to its best use for the whole of our society; when the government prevents majority rule from practicing their brand of religion in a country founded on religious freedom; when the government blatantly, flat-out lies and deceives that poor, middle-class fool who inevitably foots the bill for the latest lobbyist’s bribes (and that’s what they are, outright bribes); when our education system is so broken and out of touch with reality and yet, no one seems to care that we’re speeding towards a collapse back to 3rd World status at the speed of light; when we know our nation’s heroin-like addiction to petroleum products teeters on total chaos and looming shortages, and yet we continue designing, building and selling inefficient and wasteful vehicles; and when the nation’s highest court decides to circumvent the constitution in such a blatantly in-your-face, screw you and there’s nothing you can do about it manner – well, it’s time to start thinking about some changes.

It pains me to no end to say it, but right now, I find myself in agreement with conservative talk-show host, Rush Limbaugh. He suggested that it’s time to rally the family on the ol’ homestead, sending Grandma up on top of the house with sandbags and a shotgun, and have the kids do the same, as well.

Dig in. Defend what you have legally, lawfully, morally and rightly earned through your hard work and sacrifice.

The next generation of bumpers stickers will no doubt read: “You can have the deed to my property when you pry it from my cold, dead hand.”
In the meantime, I hope our government feels free to siphon all the gas they want from our motor homes.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, June 30, 2005.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

In Search Of The Lost Chord – Part I

By Brian M. Howle

(This column originally appeared in the 6-7-2001 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine; 48 previous columns were lost in the computer crash described in the opening paragraph. I hope to retrieve them as soon as I find an older version of Adobe Quark with the necessary “Pasteboard Extensions”.)

There are those particular times in our lives where fate simply slams us into the throes of a seminal moment. A moment where all that was before is changed forever; becoming obscure and distant in the light of discovery, and where all that will be is unequivocally decided and changed forever.

My moment sorta came in two parts, four years apart. The first moment came at my sister’s 16th birthday party on December 5, 1959. My folks had rented out the National Guard Armory in Andrews, and it was quite an event. A “Big Band” dance band entertained the guests throughout the evening. I remember being entranced by the small lights that were clipped to the music stands, as I watched the trumpet player belt out his leads like Harry James.

Then my parents tapped me on my shoulder and leaned down: “Would you like to sing a song with the band? As a birthday present for your sister?”

I looked out at the huge crowd, then looked at the band leader, who was motioning for me to step up to the microphone. At six years of age, I never blinked.

“Sure, why not?” I replied. My parents huddled with the band leader for a moment, then asked me what song I wanted to sing. Since it was December, there was never any doubt. I told them my selection and the band started flipping through their sheet music, as the band leader announced my impending performance to the guests.

The fact that I never had a single moment of stage fright should have been a sign to my parents, but when you’re small, freckled and sorta cute, those things don’t come to the fore. Following a smattering of applause, I stepped up to the mic and shared my rendition of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”. When it was over, there was a thundering ovation that I never expected – but that I found incredibly satisfying. The seed was sown.

That second moment was one shared by millions of others. But for a few hundred thousand of us, it was much more than a mere event of popular culture. It was a blinding beam of enlightenment; an epiphany of direction and dreams unimagined.

On February 7, 1964, my family gathered around the old black and white television – as did most of the nation – to watch The Ed Sullivan Show.

Ed’s variety line-up for the night included Fred Katz, an eastern European magician; impressionist Frank Gorshen (later to become immortalizdd as The Riddler on the campy Batman television series); Harry McDormett, a medalist from the Winter Olympics; Tessie O’Shea, a British comedian; two scenes from the Broadway production of Oliver! including a rendition of the cast singing “I Will Do Anything As Long As He Loves Me” (which, in a twist of mega-irony, featured then-unknown chorus member Davy Jones, who became one of Beatlemania TV clones, The Monkees, a few years later); and a group of Swedish Acrobats (without a doubt, the most bizarre act of the night).

Oh, yes – and a quartet of lads from Liverpool, England, known as The Beatles.

My brother, Jack, and his best friend (seven years my senior) were of high school age at the time. They elbowed most of the family out of the way when Ed introduced the Fab Four, appropriating front row seating mere inches from the glimmering screen. His friend, Jimmy, carried on like a kid on Christmas morning, continually slapping my brother on the back and saying, “Howle, these guys are unbelievable! I’ve never heard anything like them!”

Jimmy had an amazing grip of the obvious.

For the most part, our parents watched in detached silence, shaking their heads and looking at each other with that “The end of the world is near’ look that parents of every generation give one another when confronted with things that lure their children away from those safe, comfortable, and known entities that they have come to understand in their lifetime.

As for me, I was pretty much oblivious to anything going on around me in the room. I was glued to the images and sounds emanating from the television. The look, the sound, the harmonies, the electric guitars – all combined to overload my leetle tadpole brain’s comprehension. Well, except for one thing:

The hundreds of screaming, crying, trembling, hysterical young girls all aflitter in the studio audience.

My my own admission, I was not exactly the brightest coin in the change drawer as a child. I’m sure there are those who would attest that to remain true even today. But at that moment, somewhere between “She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)”, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” – for the first time in my short life – I absolutely, positively knew what I wanted to do.

The next morning, I called my best friend, “T” Gamble, and laid out the plan. As plans go, it was incredibly simple: we needed to acquire electric guitars. Pronto.

My parents had given me an inexpensive little plastic guitar the previous Christmas, in which I initially showed little interest. I zoomed right past it, pursuing the assortment of toy cars that captivated my attention. When my mother asked me if I was going to play my guitar, I looked at it quizzically. I didn’t know how to play a guitar; I was taking piano lessons, and learning to play trumpet in the school band. To give me incentive, she picked it up and started saying stuff like, “Look, you can be the next Elvis if you learn how to play this thing”, mugging for the family as she crooned her version of “You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog” while strumming air chords.

Now, I liked Elvis in his movies, mostly because they usually involved lots of cars and Ann Margret. But I didn’t have the heart to tell her that – as a singer – I thought Elvis sucked. As it turns out, Frank Sinatra and I were on the same page on this one: Elvis implemented a singing style that embraced a complete lack of enunciation. I also realized that this was heresy in the South at the time; I more or less kept my opinion to myself. And so, the plastic guitar soon became fodder for “T” and me to engage in our impression of “Quick-Draw McGraw’s” cartoon character “El Kabong”, where it was “kabonged” into little pieces with delightful vigor.

But now, there was an urgency in wanting to learn everything about a guitar. I enquired around school that day and discovered someone had a Sears & Roebuck Silvertone electric guitar stashed away in the band’s instrument room. I received permission to use it, then sought out John Ranson, a high school guitarist who had a little three-piece band. I’m sure he had better things to do than while away the hours. showing a little kid like me how to play guitar, but he took enough time to show me four chords.

Thirty minutes. Four chords. The mold was cast.

I wasn’t able to take the Silvertone home, so “T” and I practiced on a ukulele he had. That eventually turned into a bit of a handicap, as learning how to play four strings didn’t exactly carry over to a guitar with six strings. So, for a long time, I never played the low “E” or “A” strings.

But this didn’t really matter. As Rod Stewart once told Barbara Walters during one o her interviews, “I hate to dash your dreams, love, but almost all of my songs consist of three or four chords. That’s it. It’s not rocket science, love”.

As “T” and set about mastering the guitar via the ukele, we began to search for friends who wanted to form a band. No, not just a band – a rock ‘n roll band.

I don’t remember exactly how it came to be, but we recruited our friend, Van Wright, to play bass. Not long after that, we convinced another friend, Ronnie Talbert, to become our drummer.

And just like that, doggone if we didn’t have ourselves an honest-to-goodness rock ‘n roll band.

Well, it may have been a little presumptuous to have called ourselves a band in the beginning. We made a lot of noise, that’s for sure. And if nothing else, we were loud; because everyone knew if you wanted to be good, you had to be loud.

I think Van bought the first amplifier in the band. Actually, he built his rig; it was a kit from the Heath Electronics cataglogue. After switching from guitar to organ, “T got a little Realistic P.A. amp from Radio Shack. I was the only one still “unplugged”.

And so began the relentless assault on my parents consciences as Christmas bore down on the Howle household. I implored them to save me from the taunting and ridicule of those accusing me of being a “poser”; to allow me to define my dignity with my own guitar and amp. For the first time in my life, I volunteered for yard work, or housework, or anything that might put me in their good graces by Christmas Day. And I prayed a whole bunch.

When that Christmas morning came around, I broke tradition from my usual “It’ll be there when I get up” routine and nervously approached the den. I inhaled deeply and closed my eyes before entering the room. Then I faced the tree and opened my eyes, still holding my breath.

And there, nestled against the tree, was the most heautiful sight my leetle eyes had ever beheld.

It was a beautiful Tesca Del Ray double-pickup, solid body, cherry sunburst guitar, with a mother-of-pearl inlaid pick guard, and a bridge-mounted tremolo. Sitting behind it was a 5-watt amplifier; complete with vibrato, glistening with sparkled grill cloth and simulated leather vinyl cladding. It was exactly like the one I had circled in the Bennett Brothers of Chicago mail-order catalogue.

I think it was the only time I ever cried on Christmas.
- Next Issue -
The Birth of The Trio Conspiracy

###
The previous series of articles originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, 2000.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

In Search Of The Lost Chord – Part II

By Brian M. Howle

(Note: To bring you up to speed from the last installment: After watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, I got together with my best friend, “T” Gamble, and started learning guitar. We enlisted two other friends in our endeavor: Van Wright became our bassist, and Ronnie Talbert was our drummer. We had ourselves a band, man!)

As for the absence of this column in the last issue, well, that was a work-related incident. Our computer – on which ever single letter of type, every photograph, every ad element, and tons of stuff you don’t even want to know about which goes into producing this publication – finally gave up the ghost, and up and died on us. Not a crash, not a technical glitch, not an “operator error”; it flat out zoomed on up to that great software program in the sky. As a direct result, we literally worked around the clock – rebuilding years of work while continuing to prepare the new submissions as well. Along the way, the weekly allotted time I set aside for pounding out this puppy disappeared. Now, it would have been interesting had I gone ahead and attempted to write one at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of our press deadline, after being up for three or four days. Natural fatigue and the hallucinations that accompany it make for some fine writing at times – a la Wordsworth – but that last deadline wasn’t one of those times.

In the issue before last, I began recalling the genesis of my musical career … or rather, the would-be, tried-as-hard-as-I-could, gave-it-my-best-shot attempts at making music a semi-career. In the end, it turned into a hobby with an attitude.

But in those heady early years, ahhh … that was quite another story.

After watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, I got together with my best friend, Troy “T” Gamble, and started learning guitar. We enlisted two other friends in our endeavor: Van Wright became our bassist, and Ronnie Talbert was our drummer. There were a couple of other friends who tried to make the cut in the band, but it just didn’t work out. One guy played coronet (long before Chuck Mangione), but there weren’t a lot of coronet-led rock & roll tunes on the charts at the time. When it came time to give him his pink slip, then manner in which we carried it out should have been a harbinger of things to come.

On the next day of practice, we rode over to his house, opened the car door, and placed his coronet case on the edge of his yard. Then we slammed the door and sped off.

Tactful, huh?

Looking back on it now, it amazes me how the cutthroat and heartless manner of the beast came to us to effortlessly. We didn’t have a lick of real talent to speak of, but we were just as smarmy and goal-oriented as any other music industry moguls. And it was something that would reoccur many times over the course of my music career – including to myself – and it was never pleasant.

The other guy – a saxophonist by the name of Eddie Parker – was “let go” because he lived about twenty miles from Andrews, in the little community of Lane in Williamsburg county. Like both “T” and me, his mom was a teacher, and he had to ride home with her whenever she was through with after-school stuff – and after-school was our prime practice time. None of us were old enough to drive, so he missed a lot of practices, and we cut him loose, too. Since he never let his sax out of his sight, he was spared the roadside drop humiliation.

Oh, by the way – he soon joined The Spirals – a real band in Florence – as a keyboardist. Before long, he was playing gigs, wearing tuxes and making more money in one night than we would make as a group in a year.

Such is the fickle nature of the beast.

Well, we weren’t soothsayers, so none of this mattered to us at the time. We were consumed with getting our little band established, and in landing paying gigs that would pave our way to fame and fortune.

After we acquired a couple of electric guitars, a bass guitar, an anemic little amplifier or two, and Ronnie’s drum kit, we set about working out our arrangements of the current hits.

“Current hits” was defined as any song that contained the four to six chords that we could play.

Well, in order to chart arrangements, we had to have a place to practice. Hmmmm … now, that shouldn’t be a problem for us. Surely, our parents would just love to have the four of us in their living rooms, creating sonic death for hours on end, right?

See, it turns out, like Orwell said – some parents are more equal than other parents.

Our “anytime, anywhere, anyplace” practice mentality was swiftly converted into a “whenever-my-folks-aren’t-gonna-be-home” mentality.

But when you’re cutting your diatonic teeth, the music biz is just a series of obstacles that you overcome and conquer. And that’s a good thing, because it helps to prepare you for the constant flurry of repetitive scenarios that are inherent in the game.

Once we began to actually learn a few songs, the cold hard facts began to create impasses that we just didn’t think we’d be able to overcome. For starters, we didn’t have a single bit of P.A. equipment – not even a microphone stand. And keep in mind, we were just 11 to 13 at the time. No one was “independently wealthy”, and no one was knocking down the big bucks required to purchase a P.A. system. And as long as it took us to prod our folks into buying us our individual instruments, no one was silly enough to ask for a P.A. for Christmas. Because we knew the answer would be a question:

“Do you want Santa to get a hernia lugging that huge thing down the chimney?”

It was about this time that having three members of the band with mothers who taught at our school came into handy play.

I can’t remember exactly when we first stumbled into our good fortune. I think it was when we were asked to be the “talent” part of a program at school, most likely a beauty contest (we ended up playing at lots of beauty contests).

Well, lo and behold, it turned out that the school had a little portable P.A. that they lugged out and used for every function requiring a sound system. You remember the kind: a little tweed-covered, 50 lb. suitcase-like contraption that encased the amplifier, a turntable, the volume and tone knobs, and about three inputs for high-impedance microphones, with the detachable speaker enclosures that made up the outside covers for the power unit.

Hey, it wasn’t high-tech. It wasn’t big and impressive. It wasn’t very efficient, either; the two 10” speakers were pushing about 10 watts (your little desktop stereo “boombox” of today has 20-50 watts). It was ornery and cantankerous, requiring a 10-minute warmup for the vacuum power tubes. It would wail in holy feedback anger at mis-calibrated volume levels thru the omni-directional, high-impedance microphones, deafening dogs within a four-block radius before we managed to spin all the knobs back to “0”. But this seasoned little P.A. had the one quality that made all the other ones pale in comparison …

It was free.

I realize now just how good we had it back in those days, in our little “backwoods” Southern town; where everybody knows everybody and their children. Loaning out the school’s one and only P.A. to a bunch of rowdy little troublemakers? Try that today and see how long they laugh at you.

With the acquisition of the P.A., our impetus to be a super group was established. We could now actually hear ourselves when we sang, which was truly a heaven-sent revelation – since we sang a lot better than we played. At about this time, I learned another of those lessons that stay true throughout your life:

Life Lesson #1: Your vocals will never be louder than your drummer. Learn to deal with it.

But, doggone it, darn if we didn’t actually start getting sorta good at a few of the songs. Our set list consisted of 20 to 25 songs, tops. Of those, about 40% were Beatles tunes; 40% were “Beach Music” (rhythm & blues), and 20% were “contemporary” AM radio rock & roll. We didn’t have a very well defined musical agenda as far as content went. We just played songs in our 4-6 chord range. Any song.

After a couple of months of steady practice, we began seeking out gigs in ernest. As I said, the school became our primary venue, playing for assemblies and special events. We would spend hours setting up our meager little P.A., along with our little amps and Ron’s drum kit. We would do our “sound check”, shut it all off and then head home and get ready for the show, grooming and preening and getting that cowlick under control. Then we would don our basic gig attire: white shirts, ties, dress pants, and break out our “Sunday-go-to-church” shoes (penny loafers with the mirror-like, highly buffed sheen).

We would gather at the show at least an hour before anyone else arrived, re-setting our amps, cleaning and polishing our guitars, and always checking one last time to make sure that mic would indeed electrocute you if you touched it while keeping one hand on your guitar. When the masses began arriving, we sauntered over to the side of the gymnasium (the Stonehenge of all small-town schools was the gymnasium), trying not to look too cool for the room as we battled the butterflies and racing pulses that always struck minutes before our name was called.

Which brought up an overlooked little item in our overall game plan. We didn’t have a name.

See, depending on who you talked to, we were known as “Brian’s band”, or “T’s band”, or “Van’s band”, or “Ronnie’s band”, since we never played anywhere before. But when they came over and asked us our name so they could pencil it in for the M.C. to introduce us, we stared blankly at each other for a minute or so. The first few offerings that came up were all inappropriate titles that had us laughing hysterically at the thought of our parents’ or teachers’ reaction to such monikers. Then we noticed a little plate on one of the amps that said, “Transistorized Power Amplifier”.

Bingo!

Since we still had the other two guys in the band, we made our world debut as “The Six Transistors”. It’s probably debatable which was more lame – the name, or the performance. Perhaps it was an even draw.

But we were undaunted. The event began, the M.C. cheerfully welcomed all to the beautiful Andrews High School Gymnasium, and the show was on. Our heart rates went from 70 beats a minute to around 290 when the M.C. glanced over his shoulder and nodded at us while he fumbled with his notes, looking for that penciled-in name. And then, all the hard work, all the practices, dreams and fears coalesced in one heart-stopping, cottonmouth inducing, flop-sweating moment.

“Ladies and gentlemen, would you please make welcome … The Six Transistors!”

The crowd politely applauded. We strode up to our instruments, flipped a couple of switches, and looked at each other one last time with a combination of pure fear and unbridled joy, as the pop and hum of the amps buzzed in anticipation.

Then Ron counted off to four, as we launched into “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”.

I can only speak for myself, but for two minutes and ten seconds, the worlds of physics and metaphysics collided and merged in my brain, enrapturing me with the resulting epiphany. The beat’s a bit fast; didn’t matter. The chord change was a bit mangled; didn’t matter. A horn note here and there that’s not in the song; didn’t matter. Constantly forgetting to not let my lips touch the microphone while playing my guitar; didn’t matter.

We wrought out the retarding last chords, as “T” and I harmonized the chorus to its end. As per endless rehearsal, we bowed in unison. Above the din of thunderous applause, the screams of the girls cut through like a nightingale’s call in the night.

That’s what mattered.

- Next Issue -
Behind The Scenes:
The Trio Conspiracy

###

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

In Search Of The Lost Chord – Part III

By Brian M. Howle

(Note: To bring you up to speed from the last installment: After watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, I got together with my best friend, “T” Gamble, and started learning guitar. We enlisted two other friends in our endeavor: Van Wright became our bassist, and Ronnie Talbert was our drummer. We had ourselves a band, man!)

Our first name, “The Six Transistors,” sucked big time. Plus, we fired the fifth guy (who played coronet – badly);The sixth member was Eddie Parker, a saxophonist, whom we later gave the boot due to truly stupid reasoning on our part (We didn’t realize Eddie was an excellent keyboardist, but a real band in Florence soon benefited from his talents). We came up with a new name after rendezvousing with Eddie in the little crossroads community of Trio (pronounced TRY-O) during one of our late-night soirees. Trio is exactly halfway between Andrews and Lane, so during a Peach wine induced haze, “The Trio Conspiracy” was born.

With the public debut under our belt, things began to roll right along. We weren’t really all that good – but in the small town of Andrews, we had a proverbial ace up our collective sleeves: true, we weren’t the best; but we were the only band around.

Now, in all truthfulness, we actually did get better. Then again, it would have been impossible to get any worse.

We played relatively steady for school events like sock hops, assemblies, and the good ol’ standby – beauty pageants. Our set list of 20-25 songs remained pretty much the same for a year or so, as we honed our skills and began to nail down the arrangements (which, after about two years, seemed only fair).

I was really happy with our progress. I had learned an additional dozen or so chords on my Tesca Del Ray cherry sunburst double pickup guitar, which Santa brought to me direct from the Bennett Brothers of Chicago mail-order catalog. “T” was handling guitar and keyboard duties, as well as splitting time with me on lead vocals. Prior to his departure, Eddie really was a great sax player. Ron wasn’t trying to be Keith Moon or anything, but he was – and I avow to this day – the steadiest drummer I ever worked with. Van was probably the most technically attuned of us all: he built his amplifier (straight from the Heathkit Catalog), and he actually studied the art of bass lines: picking up cues from songs on the radio, and reading up on interviews with renowned bassists and songwriters in all the trade publications.

Our coming of age was signaled when – during a practice where learning someone else’s song wasn’t going very well – we stumbled onto a riff. It sounded sorta cool, and we kept finagling around it, trying it this way and that way. After a while, we started putting it in order, using all of the accidental attempts we had tried. Without meaning to, we had crossed over into the realm of creativity.

We had written original material – a song.

It was an instrumental. It was only three chords. And the guitar lead was three notes picked down scale on each measure, then picked up scale on the next measure, and finally strummed staccato on the last stanza. It was – undoubtedly – the lamest, weakest, most annoying little ditty ever composed in the annals of musical composition history.

But, baby, it was all ours.

We called it “428”, an homage to Ford’s muscle-car engine of the day (O.K., so we weren’t very deep when it came to inspirational fodder for songwriting).

Now the floodgates were open, and we struck while the iron was hot. We ripped off a riff from Little Stevie Wonder for a trumpet-lead tune called “Brass Revolution.” (In an ironic twist, I’m sure Stevie would have found it quite revolting.) We “borrowed” another hook from Three Dog Night’s “Chest Fever” to pound out an untitled organ-guitar-bass-percussion fiasco that featured our first “way-too-long-jam” in the middle. It actually bordered on being psychedelic – but at the time, the closest we ever got to drugs was when we had a really far-out, grilled-cheese sandwich and Pepsi at Reynold’s Drug Store’s soda fountain after practice.

Well, now there was no getting around it. We needed to put these classic tracks down on tape for posterity and fortune. But in Andrews, quality tape recorders were a rarity – and if one existed, it was a luxury item that no one would ever let us near.

I might not have been all that bright, but I was imaginative. The AM radio station over in Hemingway, WKYB, was the Top 40 listening choice of the “in crowd” in Andrews, circa late ‘60s. I remembered listening to this big hype job from some band near Florence who had recorded a song in the station’s studio. WKYB played that song for weeks – getting the top votes on “Listener’s Choice” at 5:00 p.m. every day – from their legion of loyal fans. And, of course – in all modesty – we were much better than those guys.

I mustered up all the courage I possessed – at the time, quite an accomplishment for a shy, low-esteem, underachiever like myself – and called the station, using my best “older-sounding-adult” voice. The secretary connected me with their Program Director, G. Stephen Green, who was also the afternoon drive D.J.. Everyone listened to his show – because, well, we were in school the rest of the day, and KYB went off the air at sundown – so when it came to radio, it was him or nothing.

It felt like my heart stopped as I took a deep breath before I began to speak. I must have really hoo-dooed this guy with “the voice”, because he became very excited when I enquired about using their facilities for recording. Yes!, he would be happy to let us pay him for his time after they went off the air. Yes!, any night the next week would be just fine. I negotiated a fee (I think it was $25, which was equal to about $1,000 in today’s inflated currency), thanked him for his time, and hung up. Finally, I exhaled, and felt my chest pound again.

Then I jumped up and down, running around the house, screaming in pure joy for 15 minutes, ran to the bathroom, and threw up several times. Then I called the guys and told them our recording session was set, and they all repeated the routine in the safe confines of their own homes.

The next week, we borrowed a van (another milestone in band maturation), and talked my brother – seven years my senior – into driving us over to the studio in Hemingway. Upon arriving, we were a bit perplexed by the station’s meager size. In our fertile minds, we had visions of Radio City Music Hall grandeur as our recording Oz. Comparatively, this place was more like an outhouse.

However, that quickly dissolved when we entered the lobby. With my brother leading the way – and effectively shielding us from view – we spotted Mr. Green thru the studio’s glass partition, as he “ramped” the time and weather while cuing the next song on the turntable. Festooned with wire-rimmed glasses and a beatnik goatee, he broke into a big smile and excitedly waved us on into the booth. As we entered single-file, he snatched off his headphones and rushed over to my brother, engaging him in an animated handshake.

“It’s a real pleasure to meet you, Brian,” he gushed, “After dealing with these kids around here, I’m really looking forward to working with guys that are true hipsters.”

My brother, who possesses an acridly dry wit, stepped aside and waved his hand toward us. “Well, that’s great, but I’m not Brian. Meet the hipsters, bud.”

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to listen to the winning lottery numbers being announced, and having each one match your card, right up until that last, horribly incorrect number?

Well, that’s the look that came over Mr. Green’s face when he gazed upon the five of us, as we grinned like proverbial Cheshire cats. “Hey, Joe,” Eddie squealed, “really looking forward to working with you, too!”

To his credit, once resigned to having another group of kids in his studio, the guy actually did make us feel welcome. He led us into a tiny little room beside the main studio, separated once again by a large window. There was an old standup piano in there, and a few mic stands. It was barely bigger than a closet.

But to us, it may as well have been fabled Sun Records or Motown.

We lugged in our gear and began setting up, per his instructions, between records. For some reason, we decided to pick up on Eddie’s moniker and called him “Joe” all night long.

“Hey, Joe, is this where I plug in?” “Oooo, Joe, do you have any free records we can have?” “What does this button do, Joe?”

As the final strains of “Theme from Summer Place,” WKYB’s official “going-off-the-air-background-music-while-the-station’s-FCC-required-signoff-info-drones-on,” played out through the studio monitors, “Joe” pushed his glasses back on his balding head, furrowed his brow, and wheeled his chair around to face us, cuing the intercom mic and motioning to the big clock above the mixing console. “O.K., you guys have two hours, and only two hours. Any questions?”

For a moment, silence. Then Eddie leaned over to the nearest mic. “Um, yeah, Joe … you got any beer?”

“Joe” looked over at my brother, who was in the control room with him, and smiled. “Well, they sure act like musicians, don’t they?”

The guy showed the patience of Job for the next two hours – suffering through horrendously mangled chords, muffed notes, louder-than-anything-ever-heard-drums and constant re-takes – as we played for everything we were worth, and laughed ‘til we cried. We absolutely had the best time of our entire lives.

We recorded the three instrumentals (I would give anything to have a video of the expression on “Joe’s” face during that), and then recorded our first song with lyrics. It was entitled “Marilyn,” a mushy little love song (verbosity personified, considering my extensive experience with the opposite sex – not!) that I wrote about a girlfriend with whom I had “gone steady with” for about three weeks (That was before she dumped me via a letter, while I was staying at the Airport Sheraton in Atlanta with my dad – who was now general manager of the local Ford dealership – as he attended a Ford management seminar).

Up until then, “Joe” had pushed us along like an overseer on a Medieval rowing ship. Once we got through the initial sound check, it was just “GO!”, and no other movement was employed until the song was over. But, as we played this song, he sat up from his slumped position and began twirling knobs on the console. Eddie’s sax solo really was very good, and when we finished, “Joe” cued the intercom.

“You know, that’s not a bad tune, guys. I’d like to try putting a little echo on the vocals and sax lead, though. How about we do that one again?

We looked like deer in the headlights. “Joe” was asking us to cut another take? Up until then, it was more like “STOP! DAMMIT, START OVER!,” with lots of head shaking and muttering on his part.

I pointed to the big clock. “Our two hours are up. Do we have the time?”

“I think we can scratch that first half hour from the clock. You know, that was for setting levels and all,” he replied, allowing a slight smile to break out. “Let’s get a good take on this one.”

For the first time that night, we became serious about the task at hand. We had our first real shot of encouragement from a “pro” in the business, and it breathed confidence into our demeanor. We did a few more takes, and when “Joe” gave us the sign, we all pushed and jostled our way into the control room for the playback.

During the other songs, we listened to the playbacks through headphones. Remember, this was a little AM station that had recording equipment mainly for cutting commercials, and for Gospel singers who did a live Sunday morning broadcast accompanied by the old standup piano. But for this playback, we listened to the pro-quality studio monitors – and our jaws literally dropped.

Life Lesson #2: Your songs will never sound better than they do on the master tape playback. Even the crummy songs sounded decent through the studio monitors. But “Marilyn” was a real killer.

We loaded up our gear, thanked “Joe” and paid him, and headed home. Our songs would be played at 5:00 p.m. – on the radio – the next afternoon.

Let’s see … do you think any of us slept a wink that night?

- Next Issue -
Bigger Amps Deliver Groupies

###

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

In Search Of The Lost Chord – Part IV

By Brian M. Howle

(Note: To bring you up to speed from the last installment: My first band, The Trio Conspiracy, had just finished recording our first original songs over at radio station WKYB in Hemingway, with the patience and encouragement of their Program Director/DJ, G. Stephen Green. He gave us a copy of the tape, and told us our songs would be played on the air the next afternoon. We were all giddy with anticipation, thoroughly excited at the prospect of having our masterpiece compositions shared with the rest of the free world.)

We had been practicing and playing for about three years, and now the big “payoff” was upon us. Gigs were booked with regularity around our little town. And while we may not have been the greatest band assembled, we were doing pretty darn good for a bunch of kids in a small Southern town in the late 1960’s.

All in all, life was good.

There was one nagging little thing that kept eating away at me, though. It flared up every time I saw any band on television, lip-syncing their latest hit. And it really, really ticked me off to see those guys, faking their own recorded music, with those huge amplifier stacks behind them.

Because, you see (and anyone not in a band usually didn’t), they weren’t even plugged in to those huge amplifiers.

Now, poser T.V. bands didn’t bother me. As David Spade once pointed out in reference to “The Partridge Family” T.V. show, “Laurie Partridge, smiling and singing, not really playing her keyboards, not even plugged in.” I knew how that deception worked.

But I would see the Rolling Stones or The Doors or The Turtles or whoever; smiling, lip-syncing and playing air guitars. And those huge Marshall or Fender or Vox amp stacks just stood there, nothing more than silent, expensive stage props. I would glower across the room at my little 2’x2’, 3.5-watt amp and simply fume.

No doubt about it. I wanted that look. And that sound.

Well, it had been a couple of years since I pestered my folks into giving me my guitar and amp from Christmas, so the push was on. There was no way I could keep my sanity until the next Christmas. In my mind, the only thing keeping me from sounding like Jimi Hendrix was that puny little amp. Of course, figuring in talent and ability didn’t come near my equation process, but, hey – as I’ve said many times before – I wasn’t a particularly bright kid.

And so, while wandering around Sam Soloman’s Merchandise Showroom on East Bay St. in Charleston on a shopping trip with my folks, I spotted an inexpensive amp (compared to real amps like Marshalls or Fenders) in their electronics department. It was a “piggy back” style amp that had a big, twin-12” speaker cabinet, and a separate amp head that sat on top. It was some off-brand called Norma (I never saw another Norma amp in my entire life), and it was only 40 watts – but that was 36.5 more than the one I had grown to loathe.

After months of moaning and begging, my parents finally gave in. They asked my brother (and personal hero), Jack, to take me to Charleston to buy the amp, and gave him the money. Cooler still, we left the morning after the recording session.

On the way down, I was ecstatic. The band was happenin’, our songs were going to be played on-air that afternoon, and I was finally gonna get my “stack”. Then my brother dropped a colossal “bummer” on me when he matter-of-factly mentioned in passing, “Well, I just hope for your sake that they haven’t sold it already.”

Gee, thanks, bro. I really needed to hear that.

When we got there, I raced into the store in a panic. Zooming past shoppers, I negotiated the aisles until I turned the corner where the electronics were on display. And then, my frayed nerves, rapid pulse and labored breathing smoothly, blissfully returned to normal.

For there, towering above the baby amps and seemingly beaming a heavenly glow, was my beloved amp stack.

I ran my hand over the smooth vinyl covering, leaning in close to savor the smell (sorta like “new car” smell) – allowing it to meander through my olfactory receptors and flood my senses – as one might employ while swishing around a brandy sniffer.

By the time my brother caught up with me, I had pinned down a salesman. I immediately asked for a new, boxed amp, and he retreated to the stockroom to check. Continuing to run my hand over the vinyl, my fingers encountered a ragged edge, and my glee was momentarily tempered by a small cut on the top edge of the amp head. It wasn’t huge; it didn’t affect the performance in any way, but it was a defect nonetheless. No biggie; after all, this was just the floor demo.

It went from “no biggie” to a major problem when the salesman returned. “Sorry, that’s the only one we have in stock,” he began, “and, we bought this line last year as a one-time deal, so we can’t order another one.”

Just as I was about to have a hugely premature stroke, my brother sensed my angst and chimed in. “Well, sir, there’s a small cut on the covering of this one.” Jack said, showing off his shopping savvy and wisdom for his little brother. “Do you think you could you give us a break on the price, like when you have a ‘scratch & dent’ sale?”

My hero came through again.

The salesman thought for a second or two, and then said, “Well, I don’t see why not. This is a discontinued model, and (he looks around like we might be spilling national security secrets or something and then leans back in) it’s been here forever … Sure, I’ll tell ya what I’ll do; I’ll give you five dollars off. That O.K. with you?”

I looked at Jack for approval. He nodded in the affirmative.

“Let me check it over one more time, then,” I replied, as I moved the lighter amplifier head from atop the heavy speaker cabinet. Jack reached into his pocket for the cash that my parents had entrusted in him, as the salesman began to write up a receipt. But, when I turned the unit around, I discovered another small cut on the back of the amp head. Not only that, I found four more on the back of the speaker cabinet.

Before I spoke up, I had a moment of deviant brilliance.

“Oh wow, gee, hmmm … Sir, there’s another cut on the back of the head. Do I get another five bucks off for that, too?” I implored, using my best “poor-little-nearly-devastated-kid” look and assuasive tone.

He immediately looked at my brother, and figured another five bucks wouldn’t hurt. “Sure, kid,” he smiled, “today it’s five bucks for each imperfection, O.K.?”

“REALLY? Oh, that’s way cool, bud,” I merrily exhorted. “Oh wow, look … there are more cuts on the back of the speaker cabinet. Let’s see … one, two, three, four .. plus the first two … O.K., so that’s $30 off, right?

The salesman was speechless. He stood there, mouth agape, searching in his mind for a way out of this. Then, Jack looked up from behind the cabinet and said, “Well, you did say five bucks for each imperfection. And there are six of them, right?”

Wiley double-teamed and outwitted by the Howle brothers, his body language reflected the defeat. “Yeah, O.K., sure, whatever,” he muttered, as he demonstratively scratched through the writing on the receipt, hurrying to close the deal before I could find something else wrong with the amp.

We triumphantly carried the amp and speaker cabinet out to the parking lot, and carefully loaded it in the trunk of Jack’s GTO. I was absolutely beaming.

“Well, Brian, dad gave us $100 for the amp,” Jack began coyly, “so we have $30 left over. What would you like to do with it?”

I softly closed the trunk lid and smiled at him. “I think I’d like to treat my brother to lunch.”

We thoroughly enjoyed our meal at Morrison’s Cafeteria, congratulating ourselves on our wheeling & dealing skills. As we left Morrison’s, I noticed the time, and we jumped into the GTO and headed back towards home. It was about 4:35 p.m., and our songs were scheduled for air at 5:00 p.m. I nervously dialed in WKYB’s frequency on the AM dial, as it occurred to me only then that we were over 100 miles from their broadcasting tower. I became very nervous, because WKYB had a meager 5,000 watt transmitter.

An avowed Ford man, I sang the praises of General Motors and their Delco electronics division as the GTO’s radio pulled in the signal, strong and clear. A few miles outside of Charleston, G. Stephen Green “ramped” an intro to our tunes, a taped tympani drum rumbling in the background.

And then - just like The Beatles – my buddies and I were having our songs played on the radio.

The reality of driving down Highway 41 with my brother at my side, with my new amp in the trunk, listening to my band on the radio was overwhelming. There simply are no words that could fully described the plethora of emotions I experienced during that 14 minute set. Jack quietly shared in my joy, waiting until the last notes of the final song faded away before finally speaking up.

“I guess you know that, since I’m the one who drove you guys over there and all,” he dryly emoted, “that I get a percentage of your royalties for that.”

“No problem, Jack,” I grinned, “Any record company that signs us up, you’re our agent. Until then, I’ll give you half of everything we make from it … which, right now, is nothing!

As the ‘60s came to a close, most of America was being torn apart by civil strife, political upheaval and the war in Vietnam, and the music scene was morphing to reflect these changing mores. But, for the most part, we had stayed aloof from the hot-button issues of the day in our quiet little town.

The protective sheltering of simplistic life in Andrews was torn away from me when Jack graduated from Wofford College. An ROTC cadet, he accepted a commission into Officer’s Candidate School, and was sent to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. Upon completion, he got his orders for duty in Vietnam. Very early one still Carolina morning, my dad, Jack’s best friend, Jimmy, and I drove through the pre-dawn darkness to Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, N.C. We attempted upbeat, polite conversation – but the foreboding seriousness of what my only brother was about to undertake was palpable and inescapable. For me, the concept of personalized mortality was foreign and vague, at best – until now.

We stood in the bluish-purple glow of dawn, shaking his hand and hugging him as we bid him good luck, and then silently watched him board the C-130 military transport. We watched the big plane lumber down the runway, slowly lifting into the air, banking to the left and disappearing behind the clouds – and we prayed. My dad, a WWII veteran who was always gregarious and full of corn-pone humor, was uncharacteristically quiet. We kept our silence all the way back to Andrews.

That afternoon, I plugged my guitar into my new amp and began strumming random chords. All that happiness and unabated, selfish joy from celebrating the radio debut and buying the amp – just months before – was gone.

It’s probably important to note that, unlike the differences that were tearing the nation apart at the time and broadcast on television every night, people in my little town didn’t share in that view. I’m sure there were those who disagreed, morally and politically, and who were members of the “loyal opposition”. But they didn’t feel the need to violently demonstrate, scream obscenities at or spit upon anyone in uniform, or burn the flag.

I sat down and wrote an inspired song called “Leaving,” and introduced it to the guys that day. They all quickly learned their parts.

Shortly afterwards, during a club-sponsored fashion show at school, we were once again the “entertainment” portion of the production.

Partly as a goof; mainly as a tribute to him, I wore one of Jack’s Army uniforms and became the finale of the fashion show. I wrote the copy for the M.C., and sauntered onstage replete with McArthuresque dress hat and Pattonesque lighted cigar in hand, as the M.C. descriptively evoked:

“Brian Howle is fashionably attired for a full day of killing communists in a snazzy little ensemble that’s very popular in our country today among young men, 18-30. Rugged and long-wearing, it is available in green or blue only, but comes with complimentary laundering and a two-to-four-year guarantee.”

The students and teachers all hooted and hollered in laughter. Then I joined my bandmates for the closing song. We debuted “Leaving”, an ode to the possibilities of death while serving one’s nation; questioning how anyone could attack not the government’s role in war, but the character and bravery of those who were called upon to put their lives on the line. It was written as a conversation between a soldier on the eve of shipping out to war and his stupid, hippie girlfriend. Who knew I had scooped a plot-point in Forrest Gump 30 years ahead of the movie?

It started out with a guitar lead playing “Reveille”, the iconic bugle tune for waking up the troops, and then turned into the song:

“I’ve got some things I need to say, ‘Cause come the morning, I’m going away;
I’m going off, to Viet Nam, to do my duty for Uncle Sam;
Your eyes are telling everything on you, For once, they’re showing me the real you;
You hate the establishment and don’t know why, And yet, for you, I may well die.
Well, I’m leaving, going over there;
Yes, I’m leaving, to do what’s fair;
I’m gonna fight for democracy;
Even if it means I lose an arm, or if I can’t see …”

It ended with the guitar lead turning into “Taps”.

The whole school cried.

And I discovered the cathartic release of composing, and the joy of touching the souls of others through words.

- Next Issue -
The Great Electric Show Blackout

###

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

In Search of The Lost Chord – Part V

By Brian M. Howle

(Note: My very first band – The Trio Conspiracy – had been practicing and playing for about four or five years, and now the big “payoff” was upon us. Gigs were booked with regularity around our little town. We may not have been the greatest band assembled, but we were doing pretty darn good for a bunch of kids in a small Southern town in the late 1960’s. I had begun writing songs, so our repertoire included original tunes. As I recounted in the previous issue, we had just finished recording those songs over at radio station WKYB in Hemingway, and they were played for all the world to enjoy. Getting airplay was unheard of for little bands from small towns like ours – even if it was on a little, 5,000 watt AM station in yet another small town.)

Up to this point, we had just played school assemblies, sock hops, and beauty pageants. But now, we understood the importance of self-promotion. If we were ever going to cash in on our fleeting radio fame, now was the time.

An electric co-op over in Williamsburg County held a big shindig every year at one of the huge tobacco warehouses in Kingstree, and one of their events was a talent contest. We quickly called up and got ourselves booked, ready to begin our mission of world domination – one county at a time.

I had recently bought my first “real” amplifier, with separate amp and speaker cabinet.”T” had a similar rig for his keyboard/guitar, and Van had his Heathkit behemoth pounding out the bass. As I said earlier, none of this mattered much to Ronnie; drummers can out-decibel any amplifier known to man with ease. And if they can’t, they’ll just get a big-ass monitor to feed their kit back to them at an even louder level.

As the big day drew near, we began our plan of attack. “T”’s dad had agreed to drive us over to Kingstree for the show, so we met up at his house with our gear packed and ready to go. I don’t remember the reason, but his dad got tied up somewhere and was late picking us up.

Talk about fun. Mr. Gamble now had four teenage boys – already pumped up on natural hormonal surges without the added stress of a talent competition, mixed in with the stress of being late for a gig – to contend with for the 25-mile trek to Kingstree. Why he didn’t pull a U-turn and take our whining little butts back home about halfway there – well, it just amazed me back then. But after growing up and taking on two sons to raise of my own, I’ve grown to understand.

“T” has a step-sister, but is the only child from his dad and mother’s marriage. That was the technical situation, anyway. For all of us in the band, and for a dozen or so other friends, Mr. Gamble was a second father. And in his eyes, we were all “his boys”. No matter how much we grumbled, he just smiled and drove along at a snail’s pace all the way to Kingstree, picking on each of us about “being sure to bellow like a stud bull for those leetle gals” when we made our appearance onstage.

Better late than never, and with our rantings completed, we rolled up to the big warehouse amid a sea of folks meandering around the various booths and shows. We scurried over to the event office and verified our presence with the talent coordinator. She told us to check in with the M.C. for the show, and pointed over in his direction. Following her finger, we looked – and then freaked.

The M.C. was non other than Charlie Walker, of radio station WKSP in Kingstree. And this was not good news for us.

Charlie was known locally as the “Mouth of the South”. He was country as they come, and loved to push the limits on suggestive radio chat (amazing, considering the Bible-belt mindset for the overwhelmingly rural, agricultural audience). He told the stupidest jokes over and over; he chided folks from all communities; and he had a voice that grated the nerves like fingers on a chalkboard.

He would visit the surrounding towns regularly when not on-air, and I remember him standing in my dad’s Piggly Wiggly, harassing kids like me and anyone else who cared to engage him in debate. And, Charlie was about 150 years old back then. On my way to Columbia a few months back, I began searching for a Braves game on the AM dial. I almost ran off the road when I tuned in only to hear Charlie’s voice; still alive, still on the radio; and still just as arrogant and stupid as ever.

Well, having to deal with Charlie was a wildcard that we hadn’t anticipated. For some reason, “T” quickly pulled me back and implored me not to “tick him off” when we introduced ourselves.

“Just sign us up, Brian, don’t get into anything with that old coot,” he pleaded. “If you make him mad, he’ll ruin our chances at winning, you know he will.”

“Bubba, don’t you worry,” I reassured my buddy. “I can handle this guy.” I looked over at Van and Ronnie and said, “Watch, and be amazed.”

We walked up behind Charlie while he was rambling on about boll weevils or some other hot-button topic with a local farmer, and tapped him on the back.

“Excuse me, Mr. Walker. My name is Brian Howle, and we’re The Trio Conspiracy from Andrews. That lady over there said to check in with you for the talent show and go over the performance procedures.”

He turned from his farming story and gave me a discerning glare. I handed him a piece of paper with a phonetic pronunciation of our band’s name written out. “Now, remember, when you introduce us, it’s pronounced ‘TRY-O’, not ‘TREE-O’, alright, Mr. Walker? We’re a quartet, not a trio.”

He pushed his glasses back on his leathery face, a Marlboro with a full-length ash dangling from his lips, as he squinted at the typed words on the paper.

“Boy, why the hell are you giving me this? I’ve been on the radio for thirty years. I was reading copy before you were a glint in your daddy’s eye.” He shot a wink at the farmer as he got cranked up.

“You only gotta tell me one time who you are,” he drawled. “I don’t need no damn paper to remember a bunch of peckerheads from Andrews.”

I looked at the guys, and took a deep breath before I spoke. “I’m sorry, Mr. Walker, I just wanted to make sure you don’t read the name wrong …”

Charlie cut me off.

“Make sure that I don’t read the name wrong? Boy, lemme tell you; don’t you worry about me screwing up, ya heah?” The farmer was almost in tears from laughter at this point, and Charlie kept pouring it on. “Now, you mean to tell me, you boys are from Andrews, and you’re gonna get up on that stage and try to play music?”

A small crowd began to gather; for Charlie, fuel on the fire.

“I didn’t know Yeller Jackets (Yellow Jackets are the Andrews high school mascot) could play a damn geetar. In fact, I’ve never seen a damn geetar-playing Yeller Jacket in my en-tire life …”

That was it. Insulting us was one thing; insulting our school was over the line.

“Well, you will tonight, bud,” I snapped. “And if you don’t like it, you can kiss my en-tire, lily-white …”

I didn’t get a chance to finish my rebuttal, as the guys grabbed me and hauled me off to the band staging area, where there was equipment to be unloaded from the trunk of Mr. Gamble’s Fairlane.

As darkness fell, the crowd swelled to overflowing in the humongous warehouse, and the show began. Sponsored by the electric co-op, the stage was bathed in dozens of floodlights and spotlights. Countless groups and soloists – mostly Country or Gospel acts – performed their acts, all with acoustic instruments. We were the only “electric” band in the show.

Nervously waiting in the wings, I surveyed the masses, trying to ascertain their reaction. As I did, I caught the eye of a pretty little blonde gal sitting up front, who was smiling in my direction. I looked around to see if there was someone behind us, but no; she was looking at me.

See, girls from home were like sisters, more or less. We grew up with them. We knew everything about them, and their families. And, we knew their daddies. More importantly, their daddies knew us.

‘Nuff said.

Much like a slightly altered American Express commercial, there are seminal moments in a musician’s life. Getting your first guitar or piano is one. Getting your song on the radio is another.

But your first groupie rates above them all.

Before I could start thinking up my opening line of bull, the guys called me to huddle up. We were next, and we had five minutes to set up our gear and start our set. We had never had done this before, and we were a little edgy with nervousness.

The singer onstage finished her song, the crowd applauded, and the officials waved us to begin. We scampered up the stairs, lugging our big amps and helping Ronnie with his drum kit, as we frantically prepared for our set. The din of the crowd grew louder with each passing minute.

A stage hand placed the microphones in front of us, and we checked off in order among ourselves. Just before we were to nod at Charlie for the intro, we reached over and flipped on the power to our amps.

BOOM!

The warehouse went black.

And it became eerily silent.

Heck, the whole side of the street went dark. No one moved. We immediately switched off our powerless amps, frozen in place, scared to death of being lynched on the spot for sabotaging the good name of the electric co-op. Flickering beams of flashlights danced around the stage, as crewmen figured out which circuit had blown.

Oh, this was just great. Like we needed to make sure that we would be good and terrified before we played in front of 2,000 strangers for the first time.

To their credit, it only took them about three or four minutes to find the problem. Then again, with 300 or so electrical workers in attendance – at an event sponsored by the local electric co-op – I guess that sorta helped.

They increased the stage box to a 50-amp breaker – a sufficient level to power our equipment – and gave us the thumbs-up. We took the big, collective breath and flipped the switches again. This time, the little red pilot lights glowed happily in response, and the spotlights stayed on. We warily nodded at Charlie.

“Well, folks,” Charlie squawked, “they’ve blown our power – now, they’re gonna blow our minds! Would you please put your hands together and …”

We were stunned. Ol’ Charlie was actually doing us right.

“…welcome, from Andrews, The TREE-O Conspiracy!”

We didn’t have time to react to Charlie’s intentional mangling of our name. Ronnie immediately counted off, and we began playing. I don’t remember which songs we played, or for how long. And I don’t know what the rest of the guys were thinking during our set.

I just remember singing each song directly to that pretty little blonde on the front row.

Well, we didn’t win the contest, but I went home with an address and a phone number.

And Charlie, unbeknownst to him at the time, went home with a Yeller Jacket bumper sticker covering the license plate on his truck.

- Next Issue -
Band Lighting Courtesy Of Myrtle Beach Motels

###

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

In Search Of The Lost Chord – Part VI

By Brian M. Howle

(Note:The impetus for my very first band – The Trio Conspiracy – began after I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. After playing for about five or six years, gigs were booked with regularity around our little town. Some of our original songs had been recorded and broadcast on a local radio station, and we began entering talent contests – which, in turn, got us bookings for other events. We may not have been the greatest band assembled, but we were doing pretty darn good for a bunch of kids in a small Southern town in the late 1960’s.)

An English teacher for almost 25 years, my mom decided to upgrade her career. Between my freshman and senior years, she spent her summer breaks at Western Carolina University, earning her masters degree so that she could become a guidance counselor.

Now, having a teacher for a mom is one thing. But having a mom involved in guidance counseling and career planning is quite another. By the time my senior year rolled around, I only needed two units to graduate – the result of having my course load “guided” to the teeth.

Despite my best protests, school officials wouldn’t allow me to take just two classes and then have the rest of the day off. As a result, I ended up in a few classes that I ordinarily would never have dreamed of taking. But sometimes, these things work out to one’s advantage.

One of the classes I signed up for was Shop. Oh, even back then, in one of the first attempts at political correctness, they had just re-titled the name of the class as Industrial Arts – but everyone continued to call it Shop.

Now, most of the guys were happy and content to pursue the usual shop projects – birdhouses, gun racks (there were a lot of gun racks built back “in the day”), and a few of the more advanced students tackled the high-tech challenge of a picnic table.

When my instructor asked me what project I wanted to attempt, I pondered the possibilities. Looking around the facility, I realized there was a bunch of machinery and tools that I had never had at my disposal. Now, this was primarily due to the fact that – unlike these fools – my dad knew far better than to allow me anywhere near power tools that could cripple not only myself, but anyone in the general area. The Tim Taylor character of Tool Time had nothing on me when it came to project-realted carnage.

A discussion at the previous band practice popped into my mind – and, quite literally, a little light went on in my head. Actually, it was a lot of lights.

We needed a lighting system. After all, only the happenin’ bands had a light show.

And so, while the other guys were pounding out the usual stuff, I was over in a corner, drawing up plans for my project. Then I began selecting materials, and putting in my supplies request. Our instructor, Mr. Barr, looked at my list and scratched his head.

“What the heck are you gonna build, Howle?” was his first response. “We can’t furnish you with all this stuff. If you want to do this, you’ll have to buy most of this on your own.”

Hey, no problem. I was in a band, making the big bucks. I was knocking down over $10 a gig. Every other month.

I collected almost all of the items I needed right away. The school furnished the wood, nails and paint: I bought all the wiring, receptacles and switches. It pretty much wiped out my vast band savings, but it was gonna be worth it.

After a few weeks of sawing, nailing and cursing (and, remarkably, without any trips to the emergency room to reattach severed limbs), I had built the two boxes that would contain the lights, and the control panel. In 1970-71, a lot of my contemporaries across the country were burning the American flag, or wearing the flag in some form, or generally not giving it much respect. I decided to counter this attitude by painting my creations to look like our flag, and salivated at the thought of some commie hippie trying to desecrate them in my presence.

It was a time-consuming task. For the light cabinets, great care was taken in laying out the alternating rows of red and white stripes, and making the stencils for the stars. The control panel was striped, and the solid blue front panel had the switches framed by stars. In my eyes, it was absolutely beautiful.

The big day came when all the paint was dry and my little project was ready for public view. I unveiled the finished product and stood back, fully prepared to accept the accolades of my friends. Their perspective was a bit different.

“Hey, man,” someone piped up, “those things look like military caskets, man.”

Sure enough, at about 5’ high x 18” wide x 2’ deep, they did look a little creepy while in a horizontal position. But standing up – which, in my mind’s eye, was the way I always envisioned them – they looked great, and the necro-connection was more or less nullified. Needless to say, I got an “A” on my project. Now all we needed were the actual lights.

Well, as it turned out, lights were doggone expensive. It was gonna set us back around $40 for two sets of spotlights, and another $16 for the colored gels that covered them. Of course, we were all broke, and majorly bummed out.

As fate would have it, we somehow ended up in Myrtle Beach one night, which was unusual for us during the fall session of high school. But there we were, cruisin’ the boulevard and hanging out at Wink’s drive-in, looking for babes. Now, I’m pretty sure some form of libation was involved in all of this. At some point, while cruisin’ the boulevard for the 80th time, someone noticed that a lot of motels used colored spotlights to bathe their palms and parking lots.

Suffice to say – the next day, we had our light system up and running. And with plenty of spares, to boot.

Now we really looked like an honest-to-peanuts band. The sound may have been another matter, though, since we were still using the high school’s little 20-watt PA system for all of our gigs. Looking back, I’m just glad that these new, fancy, state-of-the art outdoor speaker systems you see all over the beach now, weren’t around back then.

One of our main venues was Cherry Hill Country Club’s clubhouse, located just outside of Andrews. We played a ton of private parties there, from birthdays to holidays. The neighboring school in the next county, Williamsburg High (Andrews is perched right on the edge of western Georgetown County, bordering Williamsburg County), may have been our arch-rivals in sports and the recipient of constant “farmer” jokes, but the kids over there seemed to be quite enamored with our sound. So much so that, in an act of innovative initiative, the members of the freshman and sophomore classes pooled their “tater” profits and contracted us to perform for their “Freshman-Sophomore Prom.” Honestly, we were impressed with their drive and desire to rival their upper-classmates’ “Junior-Senior Prom.” And, we were even more impressed with the huge $80 fee we requested and received (an all-time high figure for our services).

As in any small town, when there was a social event going on, age was not a discriminating factor. Although our music – loud, frenetic rock ‘n’ roll – was tuned toward a younger audience’s tastes, there were always plenty of adults in attendance. And not just as part of the chaperone factor, either. Some of the wildest behavior we ever witnessed from our vantage point on the stage emanated not from our peers, but from our elders.

We began to notice a pattern that ran true almost every time we performed. Beginning the evening with rigid, almost stuffy personas that frowned upon any type of interaction between girls and boys that might be construed as questionable, their personalities morphed with definite changes as the night wore on. I personally suspected that they had an “adult” punchbowl stashed somewhere in the vicinity.

The litmus test for this suspicion was whenever we played 5th Dimension’s “Age of Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine.” Folks who – prior to the song – stayed back in the shadows, suddenly were right up onstage with us, horning in on the microphones for the chorus. Balance and equilibrium seemed to become a bit of a problem around that same time, which sorta made us wonder – just who was watching the henhouse, after all?

There primarily to prevent kids from engaging in the usual teenage party agenda (alcohol and sex), these were people we all grew up knowing – friends of our families, classmates of our older siblings, members of our churches. Some were more open-minded and social than others, for sure, but they were all fair and tolerant in their dealings with kids who occasionally “crossed the line.”

As Christmas break came around that year, we had another big party to play out at the country club. Prior to the advent of our light system, it was always dark and shadowy in the clubhouse’s main room, as there was an absence of overhead lighting. Though slightly murky, we could see just about everyone in the room from onstage. But when we plugged in those 1800 watts of light, glaring directly in our faces, everything outside of the immediate “front row” was a darkened, obscured blur. Only the frequent opening and closing of the front door to the room was discernable from our view.

About half way through the show, the door opened yet again in the middle of a song. As I nonchalantly looked over, a petite, shapely form was silhouetted against the outside light for a brief moment. Then the door closed, and the shape was lost in the darkness.

Well, like I said before, you know everyone in a small town. I had taken count of all the little honeys in attendance, and knew who was out of town that night. And, this shape was not in my mental rolodex.

I quickly looked at my bandmates. None of them noticed the new arrival.

Now, I was always a little slow about things, when it came to dealing with the fairer sex. But I was just beginning to learn – when in direct competition with my buddies – that the difference between getting a little goodnight kiss or singing to my dog after going home unattached, was to strike first whenever the opportunity presented itself.

I turned to the guys during the last chorus and indicated it was time for a break.

We finished the last chords and announced it was break time. A smattering of polite applause accompanied my hasty exit from the stage, as I acknowledged well-wishers while searching the dark periphery of the back of the room for the vision of loveliness that had momentarily been framed in the light. As I drew near a group of folks, I spotted her.

She was engaged in conversation, her back to me, as I approached. She was short, blonde, wearing a cute little outfit and a very short little skirt.

I edged a little closer. Just as I was about to break cool and drop my best line on her, I noticed a familiar face starting towards me.

It was my brother-in-law, Gene.

Just as I was recognizing him, a cascade of realization buried my ability to process thought. The same reactions you get from things like drinking soured milk, or watching your dog eat something you never dreamed any animal would ever consider eating, or the old stand-by, fingernails on the blackboard. These all overwhelmed me. Arrrrrrrgh!!!

And then, my sister – ten years my senior – turned from her conversation and greeted me. “Merry Christmas, Brian! Here, I know it’s not Christmas day yet, but I think you should open your present now. You’ll understand when you do!” She was all aglow, decked out in her little elf skirt.

I forced a smile while fighting off the heebie-jeebies of nearly hitting on my own sister - Arrrrrrrgh!!! – as I unwrapped the present. It was a guitar strap; pre-heavy metal genre, shiny rows of chrome, like medieval armor. It really was beautiful. I thanked her repeatedly. I used it that night, as not to offend her.

But I never could use it again.

Arrrrrrrgh!!!
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Posted by on July 27, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

The Saga Of The Pioneer SX-9000

By Brian M. Howle

These poor, poor kids. I feel so sorry for them. You know, kids today will never know the pure, unbridled joy of owning massive, heavy, powerful and acutely aesthetic stereo systems. And that’s just a doggone, crying shame.

Perhaps a little background is in order, to bring those of you (probably under the age of 30) scratchin’ your leetle noggins and wondering what the hell I’m talking about.

Just look at the electronics world around you. It is so beyond your comprehension it ain’t even funny, and you don’t have a clue what life was like before micro-sized stereo systems, PC speaker systems and – even worse, home theater systems – came along and ruined the thrill of assembling a component stereo system, the way God planned it.

In the early 1970s, yours truly was living large – young, free and single, life was good. No, really – life was very, very good.

While attending USC in Columbia, I came to the brilliant conclusion that higher education was not for me. I was ready, willing and able to contribute directly to the workforce of our great nation.

At the same time, I had also come to appreciate the finer electronic toys of the day, which presented a rather thorny conundrum: How the hell do you buy top-of-the-line stereo goodies while contributing directly to the workforce of our great nation as a 20-year-old without a college degree, or a job with highly-sought-after skills commensurate with a nice, hefty paycheck?

The answer was, of course, you don’t. But as in many other instances, I never let that stop me from chasing the dream.

So just about every weekend, while my friends and I made blowing the week’s wages on partying and carousing an Olympic event, I made the drive down to Five Points in Columbia, where the town’s high-dollar, avant garde stereo store held my Holy Grail in the window display for all to see and marvel in hallowed Stereo Review awe:

The Pioneer SX-9000.

Now, this bad boy was not just any stereo amplifier/receiver, folks. No, no… this was THE consummate stereo amplifier/receiver. The Cadillac, The Rolls Royce, The Porche, nay; The Ferrari of home audio electronics. If anything ever was, this was all that – and a bag of chips.

Keep in mind that – at the time – most stereos had a volume, balance, tone, function selector (AM, FM, Phono, Aux), a headphone jack, and maybe all of 3 to10 watts of power. As Arnold would say, “Little girlie stereos.”

The SX-9000 was about the size small suitcase, and weighed about as much as a cast-iron engine block.

The size and weight were due to the massive heat sinks of the amplifier, necessary to cool off the ear-splitting 70 watts of power that it cranked out to (get this) up to three pairs of speakers -each! 210 total watts!

It wasn’t just a brute, though – it had a ton of practical and very cool features: AM and FM (stereo or mono) tuners, 2 tape monitors (and record/playback headphone jacks), 2 phonograph (hey Dad, what’s a phonograph?) inputs, 2 auxiliary inputs (for reel-to-reel tape decks or the newfangled cassette decks), high and low bandpass filters, FM muting and loudness switches.

Need more?

A mini-mixing/recording board, it also boasted stereo microphone inputs with balance controls, input controls, and a built-in reverb unit, assignable to either left, right or both channels. With a reel-to-reel tape deck (with sound-on-sound capability), it was like having your own 4-track recording machine. The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper on a 4-track, kids.

I’m tellin’ ya, this thing was just cool as grits.

And prior to this generation of stereos, the old-fashioned tuning needle was the only thing that lit up in the display window.

But the SX-9000 had those new, cutting-edge LEDs that indicated function selection, needle meters for signal strength and tuning, a way-cool oscilloscope-green display for the different tone color selections, and the way, way, way-cool reverberation intensity display, where opposing graphic lines crossed as the reverb was turned up.

And, unlike the other units, all of these features were accessible through the front panel! Brilliant!

To top it all off, the whole thing was all encased in a gorgeous, oiled, real-wood Oak cabinet. Sweeeeeeet!

Much like the way that Wayne Campbell would slide by the music shop and play the Stratocaster – only to put it back on display in the movie, “Wayne’s World” – I went in every Saturday and chatted with the sales guys, theoretically putting together my dream system.

But at $500 (about $10,000 in today’s money), the likelihood of my owning an SX-9000 was about as likely as me hooking up with, say, Linda Ronstadt. (Hey, my motto was: If you’re gonna dream, dream big.)

And since dreams are free, we went all out: Advent’s large speaker cabinets (in tandem, no less; that meant 2 speakers on each side, stacked for maximum frequency range; a Dual 1228 turntable (hey Dad, what’s a turntable?), and an Akai 12” Reel-to-Reel tape recorder. All told, I would have had to shell out around $2,500 for the whole shootin’ match.

My annual income at the time was about $5,000. Do the math, and feel the pain.

Sometimes, on Sunday, I would drive back down there and just press my leetle nose against the window, dreaming of the day my Playboy-approved bachelor’s pad would showcase my eclectic, expensive and oh-so-happenin’-with-the-ladies taste in music. Sigh

Of course, that bastard Monday always rolled around, and while I rolled wheelbarrows of cement back and forth on the construction site of the nuclear power plant site where I worked as a laborer, the reality was oh, so unkind.

A couple of weeks later – after I figured out that the market for wheelbarrow pilots was pretty much flooded – I discovered a career in graphic arts, working for printing companies, newspapers and magazines.

Ah yes, the big time had finally arrived.

Now, there was still no way I could afford my dream system. But after I began working for a local buy & sell classified shopping publication called – cleverly enough – The Horry News & Shopper, I realized that I could place a wanted-to-buy ad for something nearly as good as what I wanted, and still be able to afford it. Brilliant!

So, I made my little 1 column x 1 inch ad and waited for the fortuitous calls that would fulfill my dreams to start pouring in.

And sure enough, a former serviceman called me with not one, not two, but three complete stereo systems for sale. Seems he couldn’t make up his mind on what he wanted, so he bought all three and then compared them in his living room, each system for a week.

Man, he must have been one hell of a wheelbarrow specialist in whatever part of the world that he was stationed.

There were two Pioneer systems (the smallest units they made) that didn’t really jazz me … but the third system was anchored by a Marantz 2240.

Well, it was no SX-9000, but it was dang close. Marantz was a top-name manufacturer, and with 40-watts x 2 channels, did the job of impressing friends and family just fine.

I paid $100 cash for it, on the spot, and he packed it back up in the original carton and even gently placed it in the back seat of my car for me.

Later, I picked up a used turntable (hey Dad, what’s a turntable?) at a pawn shop for about $20; and as fate would have it, a new colleague at work had a couple of used Advent speakers that I obtained in exchange for installing his car stereo (what a maroon that guy was). I then proceeded to play each and every one of my 2,500-plus albums (hey Dad, what’s an album?) with sincere, unabashed glee.

That is, until one of my friend’s unemployed, redneck roommates and her equally unemployed, redneck boyfriend broke into our house in broad daylight – while we were at work – and stole all of it (though we didn’t know this at the time). And they also stole my roommate’s gun collection (about a dozen different firearms, from black powder pistols to an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle).

Enraged, I couldn’t stand the resulting silence – along with that mocking empty spot in the living room – and I ran down to the mall and bought a cheaper, wannabe Technics system thru a finance company, with loanshark interest rates.

Which should tell you how much I wanted happenin’ tunes in my humble abode.

That little system filled my needs for a decade, and I eventually put together a slightly better system over time.

A few years later, I found out – undeniably – who stole our stuff, but God had already equalled the score with them through a series of accidents, personal losses and jail time for other crimes that they committed, so I just let it go.

Oh, I wanted to kick that sorry sack of crap’s butt to within an inch of his life – but I did the Christian thing, turned the other cheek and let it go.

And as it should be, the Good Lord took note.

About two years ago, I briefly worked for a classified shopper, which has since gone belly up. But while I was there, I befriended a young girl in the sales department. 30 years my junior, she shared a love of music that made us best buds at work – and along the way, I told her the story of the SX-9000.

One day, she approached me for advice on what to do with a box of stereo components that her crazy landlady had – for some reason – decided to bequeath to her, out of the blue. I told her to bring them to the office and I would appraise their worth, and she could then sell them thru our paper.

The next day, she brought them in. There was an older Panasonic unit, a fairly new Radio Shack Optimus unit, and, down at the bottom …

One mint-condition Pioneer SX-9000. Which she gave to me.

Yeah, if you’re gonna dream, dream big. And don’t forget to turn the other cheek.

Anyone know where Linda Ronstadt is these days?
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The previous article was originally published in the October 5, 2006 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Ciao, Numero Tresh

(Note: The following is a reprint from February, 2000. I’m placing it here for my friend Amy, in Indianapolis, and for those who may be new to NASCAR and needing some reference for understanding the average fan (if they are truly “old school”).

By Brian M. Howle

As this is being written, it is almost a week and a half since the tragic loss of NASCAR’s preeminent driver, Dale Earnhardt, in the February 18, 2000 running of the Daytona 500.

By now, even if you personally hate NASCAR, you know almost everything there could possibly be to know about the accident. And given the unparralelled coverage by the television media, you also know a lot about Earnhardt’s life; his tribulations and triumphs – on the track, and off.

So, for all of the “non-believers” out there (those of you uneducated in the ways of stock car racing, and in what it is that draws the ravenously loyal fans to the tracks in ever-increasing numbers), here’s my humble attempt to give you a little insight:

When the stock car bug has bitten you, it’s a done deal.

Once upon a rural Southern time, there lived a young freckled-face boy who was pulled into the world of stock car racing like a moth is drawn to a flame. He was a “spayshul” child; today, you would label him as ADHD. Constantly moving, the boy just couldn’t stay still for anything – not for all the tea in China …

Except on Saturday afternoons, between the end of winter and the onset of fall.

During those months, he would disappear for hours, listening to races on tinny-sounding AM radios. On particularly glorious days, his father would allow him to listen on the family car’s radio – which made it all the easier for the boy to slip deep into his imagination.

As the drawling announcers rattled along with race descriptions that rivaled an auctioneer’s pace, he would grip the steering wheel and hunker down in the seat, barely able to see over the massive steel dashboard, bouncing up and down on the seat right along with his favorite driver as the announcers painted moving pictures of a 2-ton stock car careening into a high-banked curve, as every imperfection in the unforgiving track shook and rattled the entire vehicle a thousand times a minute. He would glance out the side windows periodically, keeping tabs on all of the “bad guys”, and waiting for his hero to pull alongside.

In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, his hero was #22, Glen “Fireball” Roberts.

“Fireball” was the quintessential prototype for today’s modern drivers. He was ruggedly handsome, amiable with the public, and – unlike the vast majority of his colleagues – well-educated and well-spoken. But above all else, he was a “Driver’s Driver”, and a man’s man.

As you might expect, the technology back then was not what it is now. In fact, they raced on everyday, get-’em-at-your-local-Firestone-or-Goodyear-dealer street tires. “Fireball” ran – and won – a Daytona race on one set of regular, street tires.

Although his car number – 22 – remained constant, he drove about every make of car that was contending at one time or another, starting out in Chevy’s (in the mid-’50s, NASCAR ran convertibles – driver safety was not an early priority), Pontiacs, and finally, Fords. His color schemes changed over the years: the Chevy’s were white and black; the Pontiacs were black and gold.

And then came the wondrous day that “Fireball” began driving a Ford, the boy’s most favorite make of them all. But when “Fireball” switched to Fords, he came up with a theretofore-unheard-of paint scheme that required a man confident in his masculinity: Lavender.

The purple 1963 and 1964 Galaxie 500s became the universe for the leetle freckled-face boy, and he gleefully shared in his hero’s every victory, and pouted in his hero’s every defeat. And more often than not – or so it seemed at the time – there would be victorious late Saturday afternoon celebrations that carried the boy happily through his busy week of school. Life was good.

On March 26, 1964, the little boy was listening to the World 600 race from the Charlotte Motor Speedway when the announcers began screaming the accounts of an horrific crash unfolding before them. A frozen chill ran down his spine when he heard “Fireball’s’ number called out – he had crashed hard, and his car had flipped, coming to a rest on its roof – in a time when safety bladders in racing gas tanks were just a glint in some inventor’s eye – the ruptured tank poured gasoline into the car’s interior, where it pooled in the roof panel and burned mercilessly. Paralysis and nausea and the fear or God rendered the boy immobile as they described fellow driver, Ned Jarrett, as he stopped his car on the track and hurried over to “Fireball’s” rescue, helping to pull him from the hellish inferno.

The newspaper accounts the following day didn’t do much to ease the boy’s aching heart. It was deadly serious, and the doctor’s would only say “wait and see”.

For the better part of the following month, the boy listlessly attended classes and avoided play with his friends. His hero was in trouble, and needed his daily complement of exhaustively long prayers to a kind and loving God, to heal his hero and make the world right again.

One morning the boy awoke to the sound of his father’s voice. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he looked up to his dad’s face to ask why he was being awakened.

“Son, I’m sorry to have to tell you this … but your buddy didn’t make it,” he said as softly as he could, knowing full well that his son’s little heart was about to break wide open. “He passed away during the night.”

The boy cried and cried for days, feeling as if the whole world had come to a terrible end. He didn’t know how to mourn the loss of his idol. And to make matters worse, his friends didn’t seem to share his pain – since they still had their heroes, all baseball or football players.

As with all things, the passing of time eased the boy’s pain and loss. He gradually found other drivers to cheer for, although none would ever covet the place in his heart held by his idol. Many years later, as an adult, the boy continued his passion with NASCAR, attending several races a year whenever possible. He found a new hero, a Huck Finn look-alike from the hills of northern Georgia named Bill Elliott, who drove – of course – a Ford. And like all young men, the day came when he met his one true love – a beautiful young Brazilian girl. Through no fault of her own, she was completely unaccustomed to this strange racing fraternity. Because, in her country, there was no NASCAR – but there was Formula One.

They each shared their love for racing in different arenas, but began to educated the other in the ways of their league. A mutual respect and understanding of rules and drivers was formed, and they spent alternating viewing schedules keeping up with Formula One early on Sunday mornings (usually from halfway around the world), and then afternoons bathed in stock car glory.

One of the first things she noticed – about a league that had no wrong in his eyes – was the man’s emphatic disdain and dislike for one particular driver.

“Why do you dislike the driver of that #3 car so much?” she asked in total innocence.

She patiently listened for the next hour or so as the man raved and ranted about the time #3 put this driver or that driver “in the wall’ on the last lap, using the ol’ “chrome horn” to push aside the competition to win yet another race, on the way to winning yet another Winston Cup title. It was clear to her that he did not care at all for #3. Besides, #3 drove a Chevy.

Now, it all made sense to her.

And then she explained to him a similar set of circumstances that existed in Formula One, where one particular driver seemed to have repeated conflicts – usually ending up with a crash – with her country’s national hero, Ayrton Senna. He smiled an understanding smile at this revelation; he had seen Senna drive.

Formula One, unlike NASCAR, does not have races rained out. Both leagues use wide, slick racing tires, but Formula One has “rain tires” with tread for dispersing the water. During one such race, the young man watched in amazement as Senna – unphased by the huge puddles of water that could send a car flying off the track with no notice – screamed through the pack and passed every single driver in the field – twice! Senna was fearless, bold, and extraordinarily talented. It was awesome to watch.

For the next few years they watched many races, and attended a few as well. One Sunday morning, he awoke to the alarm and switched on the television, as a Formula One race was about to begin in Italy. Early in the race, he saw the colors of their favorite blur across the screen after coming out of a sharp corner, never making the turn, smashing into the outer wall and then wildy limping along the retaining wall until it finally rolled to a stop. There was no movement from the cockpit as the announcers began to ponder the possible extent of his injuries.

The young man reluctantly awakened his sleeping beauty, and softly told her the sad news. They watched the replays and theorized on what had caused the crash, but it didn’t really matter what had caused it. Her country’s one true hero had been taken away, and it became a national week of mourning in Brazil.

Late that afternoon, as the young man watched the much-despised #3 win yet another race, he dejectedly reach for the remote to avoid having to endure the Victory Lane celebration. But before he could switch the channel, the driver of #3 clambered out of his chariot and faced the television reporters for the obligatory post-race interview. And then, the driver said something that the young man never expected.

Before he thanked his primary sponsor, his car manufacturer, his car owner, or anyone else, the first sentence out of his mouth was:

“This win is for Ayrton Senna, who was tragically killed in an accident in Italy this morning”, began the uncharacteristically subdued winner. “He was, without a doubt, the greatest driver in the world, and all of racing will miss him greatly.”

I have no doubt in making the statement that, for all practical purposes, a good 95% of the fans had no idea who this Brazilian driver was, or why this American racer was praising him. I know that without my beloved in my life, I probably wouldn’t have, either.

But at that exact moment, all the disdain and ill-feelings I had ever had about this Chevrolet-driving rascal melted away. I now saw a man who respected all forms of racing, and who kept abreast of them with a kindred interest.

That same driver lost his best friend later that year at Daytona, when Neil Bonnett crashed in the fourth turn during a practice session. And it had a solemn impact upon him.

Many other fans softened their dislike towards the successful icon of the sport. Once reviled and booed loudly at driver introductions, his well-earned nickname of “The Intimidator” continued to be legend on the track, but a different man began to show himself to the attentive public. A loving wife, a renewed involvement with his three older children – all of whom were driving stock cars (even his oldest daughter, for a time), and the apple of his twinkling eye, his eight-year-old daughter – all combined to cloak him in an evolutionary change of temperment.

Oh, sure he would still tap the rear bumper of anyone in his way, but even his staunchest dectractor would admit to you in a moment of unfettered honesty – no one, and I mean no one, could drive a stock car like Dale Earnhardt. And I doubt very seriously if anyone ever will again. Not like him.

And so, while those of us who grew up as young freckled-face boys or girls in small towns across the nation – listening to radio broadcasts of our fledgling sport – mourn the loss of the modern day NASCAR legend, I find comfort in knowing that somewhere up in Heaven, Senna is feeling a tap on his rear bumper. And when he looks in his mirror, he sees a grinning Earnhardt waving at him.

I just hope they’re both paying attention when “Fireball” passes them.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, February 28, 2000.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Diary Of A Mad Lifeguard – Part I

By Brian M. Howle

As the rat-a-tat-tat, fast paced delivery of the local news reporter chatters in the background, I mundanely go about my housekeeping duties, alternating my attention from the dish washing to the television to my constantly inquiring cat. Somewhere between the casserole dish and the twenty-sixth demand to be fed, my ears perked up when I realized the reporter was relating a story about Horry County’s program to certify lifeguards. With the drying rack and the cat’s tummy both full, I reposed to my little room to gather up the memories of my lifeguarding days.

Long before the masses became enthralled with those who risk life, limb and implants on “Baywatch”, the whim of the whistle cast its evolving spell over me. Years of attending Boy Scout summer camp resulted in a preponderance of aquatic merit badges, and somewhere along the line a Red Cross lifeguard certification. I never gave it much thought until the country club outside of town built their pool, necessitating the need for a lifeguard. Three or four of my Scout buddies and I rotated on the duty roster, which was a good thing when we realized how painfully boring the job was. We opened the pool in the morning, checking the chlorination system and taking ph levels, vacuuming the bottom, skimming the top and, of course, emptying the bug collectors. Then we would open the snack stand, power up the equipment, stock the drink machine, date the member register book, slap on the zinc oxide and clamber on up in the stand.

Perched a lofty eight feet above the water’s surface, we were afforded a Kingfisher’s view of the pool’s L-shaped layout: To the right was the shallow end and the kiddie pool; to the left, the foreboding deep end, replete with the ominous Alfred Hitchcock-Stephen King Memorial Diving Board. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard “Mommy, Mommy, look at me!” followed by the unmistakable crack of a fracturing bone. Note to would-be deep pool owners: If you just have to have a diving board, set it up for the least amount of spring possible and then have it welded in place. And have at least eight feet of open pool on either side of it. Just trust me on this.

Miles of sutures later, my initial enamorement with this field of work began to fade, and I left the profession to find a job with less cursing, screaming and open head wounds.

Naturally, it would end up being pulpwooding, where statistically there is hardly a blip on the radar when it comes to cursing, screaming and open head wounds.

I was a “piler”, heaping the lops after the saw operator cut the tree down, then cut it into 6-foot sections. To give you an idea of what a pulpwood crew is like, just think of the character Jar Jar Binks from the Star Wars prequel, and then imagine 8 or 9 of them. Keep in mind, at least three of them run the chainsaws with the three-foot blade.

On the plus side, I bulked up on pure muscle for the first and only time in my life. On the minus side, my chainsaw operator nearly dropped an 80-foot loblolly on meesa, whereupon meesa began to thinksa about another linesa of worksa. How rude!

A grueling year of hard studying in college followed my Paul Bunyan days, so when the next summer came along, some of my friends convinced me to apply for a lifeguard position at Huntington Beach State Park at Murrells Inlet, where most had already worked at least two summers. My roommate, Danny and my friend Joe – both from Andrews – were going to work there again, so I dusted off the ol’ Scout papers and headed over to see the Park Superintendent, Mr. Lee Jordan.

Now, for months before the interview, I had listened to my friends relating their exploits as lifeguards and thought, “Yeah, sure, that could happen.” I also heard a thousand renditions of their impersonations of Mr. Jordan. He seemed to have a proclivity for using the old “You know?” to the beginning, middle and end of just about every sentence. And he had one of those great, gruffy but lovable voices that was easily imitated.

My buds were by my side as I was led into Mr. Jordan’s office, where he smiled at me and motioned for us to sit while he closed the office door. He began by apologizing for a small delay in our meeting.

“Well, Brian, these boys speak mighty highly of you, you know?” was his first sentence, and my friends were sitting on either side of him, slightly behind his field of vision.

“THANK YHA HA HA HA HA…” was my first impression on Mr. Jordan.

Thirty minutes and about 79 “You know’s” later, we convinced Mr. Jordan that I was indeed qualified for the daunting task that lay ahead. On June 1, the SCDPRT would employ a full crew of five lifeguards for Huntington Beach State Park. Thus began the best summer of my life.

My friend, Joe Bouknight, was Head Lifeguard by virtue of seniority and the ability to annoy the hell out of you until you capitulated to his point of view. We revered him mightily, and were quick to respond to his every command.

Yeah, right.

We came to look upon our friend Joe not as Head Lifeguard, but as a father. He was our daddy.

Daddy Joe.

And it would naturally follow that if he was our daddy, then we were all his little doting sons.

Danny Joe, my roommate and best friend during college and for several years after.

Mike Joe, a previous guard from North Litchfield attending Newberry College.

Dog, who was the Superintendent’s son, whose name was Mike, but we already had a Mike and besides, this guy was a hot dog when it came to trying to pull macho on the beach bunnies so they had already named him Hot Dog. But everyone just called him Dog.

And yours truly, Brian Joe, although a few weeks later my name sorta changed when, after receiving a box of misprinted checks from my bank, I attempted to pronounce the mistake while we were having a kegger, and the “Brain” on the label just kinda came out “Brayan” and for whatever reason, Brayan has followed me to this day on reunion occasions.

First thing I learned was: being blonde and freckled is a bad thing when you’re out in the sun all day. Now, when I worked at the pool, I had an umbrella overhead, and when no one was around (on those wonderful 100+ degree days) I would hang in the cool snack bar. I never really had a chance to over do it.

Lifeguarding at an ocean, however, is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. I thought I had applied enough sunscreen to do the job, but after the first two days the painful reality of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree burns began to set in. My feet and knees were most vulnerable, and let me tell you, those feet and knees do a lot of bending that you probably take for granted. You get burned like I did, you won’t take it for granted ever again, I promise you.

So for a few weeks, I pretty much got the much coveted “chair” assignment – staying the entire day in one of two guard stands – and kept my knees and feet covered with white towels and quarts of zinc oxide. My buddies had to pick me up and put me in the car and then back out when we went out at night, and I cried myself to sleep a lot, but other than that, it wasn’t that bad.

There were many indoctrination ceremonies that had been handed down from year to year in the Lifeguard trade, so the first month was a little strange. The statute of limitations thing prevents me from disclosing any of them, unfortunately, but take my word for it – most of the stories you’ve probably heard about lifeguards are mostly true.

We were housed in the former garage of Atalaya, the massive mansion built by philanthroper Archer Huntington for his sculptress wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington. They more or less threw in a half dozen metal bunk beds, a couple of closet units and an old, rusty, deathtrap of an electric stove, which was fortuitously located right beside the entrance to the bathroom/shower where the constant pool of standing water just dared you to connect the dots.

But, hey, it did have electricity (which meant we could set up our 1,000-watt stereos to maximize that cave echo effect from blasting tunes in an all-brick room), and hey, it was free. But Lordy, if those walls could talk.

When fully healed and able to wander the miles of beach that make up Huntington, I learned all the obligatory tricks of the trade.

The Whistle Twirl: (an absolute must, there is no cheating on this one) where one twirls the lanyard around one’s hand until the whistle comes to a snap in the palm of your hand, perfectly, and then the twirl is reversed for a back side move.

The Babe Alert (acoustic response): A series of monosyllabic grunts, coughs and whistles coded for “Must See T&A”.

The Babe Alert: (telepathic response): Not unlike many of nature’s animals, lifeguards have the innate ability to sense the presence of greatness.

The Frisbee Skip: The skill to casually toss a frisbee to anyone – from any angle, in any wind speed conditions – and hit them right in the palms.

The Frisbee Decapitation: The skill to launch a fris with the velocity of a jet, intended to do bodily harm to smartass dudes trying to poach in Guard territory.

The What A Cute Dog Response: Piling it on the honey with the butt-ugly dog.

The Don’t Bother Me With Stupid Questions When I Have A Hangover Response: Utilized sparingly, it would normally go sorta like this:

Stupid Tourist: “What are those guys doing?”

Bleary Lifeguard: “Fishing.”

Stupid Tourist: “ What are they fishing for?”

Bleary Lifeguard: “Fish.”

Yeah, if those walls could talk, I know five guys who would put out a contract on them.

- Next Issue -
Where The Rubber Meets The Beach

###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, June 17, 1999.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Diary Of A Mad Lifeguard – Part II

By Brian M. Howle

In the previous issue, I began recounting my days as a lifeguard at Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet, circa 1973-74. The lifeguard crew consisted of “Daddy” Joe Bouknight, Danny “Joe” Bath. Mike “Joe” Merchant, Mike “Hot Dog” Jordan (but everyone just called him Dog) and myself, Brian “Joe” (or “Brayan”). We established that lifeguarding was one of the best jobs that any guy could ever wish for; that sunburn was an occupational hazard not to be taken lightly; that certain events will never see the light of day in this story; and that one learned all the cool tricks and traits of the trade in short order upon donning the shorts and T-shirts with the big, capital LIFEGUARD emblazoned front and back.

Speaking of which, I don’t know if the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism still sports the same logo as the one we were adorned with, but in light of the recent rash of political correctness sweeping the Country I sure hope so. I just have to believe they’ve changed it by now. The one we had consisted of the SCDPRT words arranged in a circular pattern, within an outer circle that turned downward in inward, tracing the outer circle for the uppermost quarter, then back inward horizontally until the lines met the perpendicular of the initial downline, and running longitudinally to the bottom before stopping short of the outer circle. Which is a drawn-out, Aristotelian logic way to say that this bad boy was way too phallic to escape anyone’s attention. On the other hand, it was a conversation starter.

Despite having a Freudian field day screenprinted on our trunks, T-shirts, hats and windbreakers, we actually took our jobs – the constant vigilance of watching swimmers in the water – pretty darn seriously. In the years before lifeguards were posted at the park, drownings were commonplace, especially on the north end of the park – because where Huntington stops, the inlet in Murrells Inlet begins, and currents in excess of 70 miles per hour are easily produced by the tidal shifts. Unlike the gentle, scalloped slope of the ocean floor on the beachfront, the perimeters of the inlet drop off steeply within a few feet of the waterline, creating it vertical vortex that will pull even the most accomplished body builder under in mere seconds. Large, unavoidable signs with huge letters spelling DANGEROUS CURRENTS – SWIMMING PROHIBITED had about the same effect as those $200 FINE FOR LITTERING signs do on the highways. Once a person stepped off that edge, the only question was where the body would surface – in the inlet marshes to the north, straight out off the coast, or on the shore to the South.

In the years where guards were employed, there were no drownings at Huntington. So keep that in mind as we go along.

There’s not much point in me – or any lifeguard – denying that this isn’t an ego-feeding endeavor. Real or imagined, the responsibility for the public’s safety and well-being imparts the aura of importance on you. However, keeping that aura in perspective can be tricky – and occasionally, downright embarrassing.

Like when the time when all five of us were on duty on a “slow” day, when only a dozen or so swimmers – mostly children – casually splashed along the receding breakers. Even with so few to watch, on this particular day there was an unusual absence of the greatest nemesis of our attention: generously filled bikinis. About that time, all was made right when several very attractive young ladies made their way thru the dunes and onto the beach.

Now, Dog – bless his leetle heart – had sonic behavioral attributes that were the basis for his name. Being the park superintendent’s son, I’m sure he felt the pressure of staying on point as far as protecting the masses was concerned. And overall, he pretty much did just that. But Dog wasn’t the brightest coin in the change drawer, so to speak, and his quest for coolness often resulted in him being his own worst enemy.

So when these ladies made their way past our little picnic table – where we all gathered on light crowd days – Dog’s ears perked up as he went into his “Hot Dog” mode. Two little girls were playing in the surf directly in front of us, and one of them began yelling excitedly. This apparently overloaded Dog’s attention response mechanism as he assessed the situation and sprang into action. First, he bolted upright from his seat, sorta half standing and half sitting, ears twitching, as he let his twirling whistle lose its inertia and dangle beside his hand. Then the hand raised towards his sunglasses – a dead giveaway to the rest of us, as Dog never touched his shades unless an impending water rescue was imminent.

We literally uttered a unison “Dog...” in all attempt to bring him up to speed, but it was too late. In a flash, the whistle and the sunglasses were flying off to his left and right as he took off, full throttle, towards the two little girls in a path which just happened intersect that of the newly arrived bikinis. Everyone froze as Dog covered the forty or so yards to the water, diving headfirst into the breakers between him and the two little girls.

But wait! Now there was only one child visible, as Dog had so astutely observed as the catalyst for his action. Popping up to the water’s surface, he threw his head back to clear the water from his eyes as he frantically began to scan for the missing girl. Back at the table, we exploded in that deep, wonderful laughing that makes you roll on the ground.

Dog was standing in about two feet of water.

The two girls were playing a standard game of “Let’s See Who Can Hold Their Breath The Longest,” and everyone on the beach was aware of it.

Except poor Dog.

Head hung low, Dog slowly made his way back to the table, where we were fighting as hard as we could to stop laughing. There is that decorum among friends, after all, that discourages rubbing it in. Dog returned to his seat, silent and sullen. After a few minutes, he glanced around, dropped his head again, and muttered a barely audible expletive.

“What’s the matter, Dog?” someone felt obliged to ask
.
“I lost my whistle and shades in the ocean,” same the disgusted reply.

Another explosion of hoots and guffaws ensued, and Dog just wandered on off to the southern limit of our watch area, where he stayed most of the day, whistleless and squinting.

In fairness to Dog, the rest of us had our own moments of not thinking it through. Every morning, we left our quarters in Atalaya and made our way to the beach, stopping by the concession stand between the parking lot and the beach to lug out the big, heavy first aid kit provided to us by the SCDPRT. About the size of it small suitcase, we hauled the weighty metal box onto the beach, set it down on the table, and then hauled it back concession stand each day, mindlessly and automatically. We never had it reason to open it – until one day in August.

In one of nature’s countless cycles, August signals the peak of the jellyfish population. Ordinarily, you’ll see several dead jellyfish washed up on shore or in the lapping waterline. But a mere 50 to 100 yards behind the breakers, there are literally hundreds of thousands of the gelatinous critters. The most feared of these is the deadly Portuguese man-of-war, capable of more than just a painful sting. These suckers can inflict severe injury upon contact; entanglement in the many stinging tentacles ensures a trip to the emergency room.

One sweltering August afternoon, a couple of guys disregarded our warnings of jellyfish infestation and plunged headlong into the breakers, whereupon one of them received a full facial wrap from a man-of-war.

The resulting wounds had the appearance of third-degree burns, and we at long last cracked open the big first aid kit and retrieved the baking soda and Solarcaine. We knew he was bound for the emergency room, but this poor guy needed immediate relief – no matter how slight – to his agony. We dressed his wounds as best we could and his buddy spirited him off to the hospital.

Now, to this day, I honestly don’t know if this particular first aid kit came from the manufacturer equipped this way or if someone in previous years “upgraded” it, but as we went about repacking the kit we made an interesting discovery.

Condoms.

I know, I know … we never really figured it out either. In all the first aid courses I attended, I never saw condoms among the gauze and alcohol swabs. But there they were, of the generic variety, in plain white plastic wrapping with only the word “condom” printed on the front.

Well, after the man-of-war incident, the beach was pretty much deserted, except for two or three families who set up their chairs and umbrellas against the duneline, as far from the water as they could possibly get. The only thing I know for sure about what happened next is, as Bart Simpson would say, “I didn’t do it.”

Still engrossed in trying to re-pack the kit as we had found it, I detected the sound of air being forced, followed by muted giggles. I turned towards the sounds, only to have a now-inflated condom bounce off of my forehead. The unison of cackles abruptly gave way to a combined group gasp of things gone terribly wrong as the semi-transparent balloon caught the ocean breeze, racing quickly over a brace of outstretched hands and heading for the dunes behind us. Everyone had begun to leap towards it when the collective realization snapped in that it was descending directly towards the family that had set up shop right behind us. There was a momentary freeze followed by a synchronized resuming of our seats. No one moved. No one said a word. An eerie silence fell over our usually raucous picnic table, interrupted only by the sound of the two small children playing at their inattentive parents’ feet.

I mustered up enough courage to take a painfully slow peek over my shoulder, which was quickly followed by an even more painful attempt to restrain an outburst of damning laughter. As it turned out, my colleagues had all made the same decision.

While his parents had their faces buried in their newspapers, little Junior was repeatedly batting his younger sister in the face with our latex Hindenburg.

Oh, the humanity!

The five of us fanned out in formation that would have made the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds proud, and at about the same speed. Since the ocean was essentially deserted, it seemed like a good time to close the beach and call it a day. After it few minutes, we regrouped – far from the table – and realized that the kit would have to be retrieved. In a process we often used to determine who would get a weekend day off, I drew the short sea oat. As my very good friends snickered behind the duneline, I walked rigidly and quickly to the table, grabbed the handle on the kit, set my eyes straight down to the sand in front of me and made a beeline for the pathway between the dunes. About halfway there, the relaxing cadence of gently breaking waves was broken by a very loud “POP!”

I still wonder if those folks ever finished their paper.

- Next Issue -
Official Gate Crashers

###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, July 1, 1999.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Diary Of A Mad Lifeguard – Part III

By Brian M. Howle

In this installment of recounting my lifeguard years, I would be remiss not to mention how working for a state entity differs greatly from today’s beach services. As a state employee, were public relations ambassadors as much as lifeguards. I never anticipated that in the long hours that made up the summer days of beach duty, meeting and getting to know the individuals who comprised the throngs of sun worshippers would become one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job. From points far north in Canada, through the upper Ohio valley, along the upper eastern seaboard, from the great plains and the arid southwest – the spectrum of visitors to Huntington Beach State Park is unbounded. When families plan that one week of unbridled relaxation and enjoyment, it doesn’t really matter where they’re from. The concept of having a good time is not tainted by location, social, racial or economic status. Note to would-be political aspirants: If you really want to get the skinny on what your constituents want, spend ten hours a day, six days a week, for three months standing on a state park beach.

We were under the direct supervision of the Park Superintendent, but as in all paramilitary settings, a couple of the park underlings – known to you civilians as Park Rangers – just couldn’t help becoming a little power crazy on those rare days when Mr. Jordan was away. An hour or so before we were scheduled to take up our positions on the beach, we would hear a loud ruckus outside the lifeguard quarters intended to rouse us from our blissful sleep. Alarmed, groggy and confused, we would rush outside to investigate the excitement.

Fifteen minutes later, we found ourselves picking up trash in the parking lots, still groggy and confused but no longer alarmed. This little game went on for about a month, with the Rangers absolutely assuring us that their authority was legitimate and all just a part of the chain of command.

That all changed one July morning when Mr. Jordan returned from a trip a day early – unbeknownst by our Ranger slavemasters – and proceeded to amble on over to where I was picking up the reeking vestiges of a watermelon feast.

“Good morning, son, how are you doing?” was his normally jovial first question.

“Just peachy, Mr. Jordan,” was my less than enthusiastic reply.

“Mind if I ask you something son?” he queried with a rather stern look.

“No sir,” I politely answered, “go right ahead.”

“What the hell are you doing out here picking up garbage?” This was not the question I was anticipating, and I guess Mr. Jordan read it in my face when my expression turned into that “What the hey?” look when it dawns on you that you’ve been hoo-dooed. He broke into a big, wide grin as he motioned for me to come with him, putting his arm around my shoulder and giving me one of those “guy” hugs – real quick, real light, just enough to say “You know, you’re alright’ without having to actually say ‘You know, you’re alright.” We climbed into his big pickup as Mr. Jordan keyed the mic on the two-way radio.

“Gentlemen, your slave labor enterprise does show me some initiative on your part, you know; nonetheless I would like to see both of you in my office in ten minutes.” He pulled up to the entrance of our quarters, putting the mic back on it s holder.

“Go get yourself a nice, cold drink, son, and rest up a little before you guys hit the beach, you know?” he said as I shut the truck door. Then he tipped his hat and sped off to his impending meeting with the Rangers.

At noon that day, we were engaged in our usual round of drawing sea oats to see who would have to haul the big water cooler back to the concession stand for a refill and then back – a task that we unanimously hated and tried to avoid at all times. The mid-day heat made the 300-yard round trip a grueling endeavor capable of evaporating your will to live. But before we had finished drawing oats, one of the guys literally dropped to his knees, uttering “I don’t believe it,” as he stared past the rest of us.

And there, distorted by the light-bending waves of heat rising from the blazing dunes, were the two Rangers, wobbling and struggling to bring the brand new, much larger water cooler. A little daily task that became their implicit responsibility. Courtesy of Mr. Jordan, you know?

Of course, Mr. Jordan’s sense of justice would most likely have resulted in our immediate execution had he known everything that went on.

Unlike today’s entrance to the park, the old entrance used a small gate house at the turn-in lane facing Highway 17. At night, the gates were closed and locked promptly at 11:00 p.m.; anyone arriving after that – regardless of whether camper or state employee – had to wait for the night watchman to return from his constant circuit of the park’s loop of roads. A sweetheart of a man, the watchman was a retired fellow of wonderful demeanor but woefully impaired vision, and not particularly in a hurry for anything. If you pulled up to the gate and saw his taillights disappearing around that first curve back towards the beach, you might as well take a little nap, ‘cause it would be a good hour or more before he made it back.

One night a couple of us double dated with sisters whose family was camping at the park. After a big night of riding the roller coaster, cruisin’ the boulevard, grabbing a burger at Wink’s and all the obligatory ‘we’re at the beach” activities with our dates, my buddy and I returned to the park to deliver these young ladies back into the safe charge of their father. A large, imposing figure of a man, he made clear to us that when it came to his daughters being “home” on time, punctuality ensured our continued good health.

Well, as we pulled up to the locked gates and watched the tail lights of the night watchman fading out of sight as he began his rounds, a rather unpleasant mental image began playing in our minds that basically consisted of a large, imposing foot and our backsides. Although the gates closed at 11:00 p.m., our dates’ curfew was 11:30 p.m., allowing us a final stroll on the beach before saying goodnight. However, it was already 11:15 p.m., and the prospect of stopping outside that camper at 12:15 p.m. made us sit lightly and on the edge of our seats.

At the time – 1973 – Huntington Beach State Park was in the process of becoming the beautifully maintained grounds that you see today. The landscaping around the entrance was old and a bit overgrown, and without any real definition as to composition or design. Creosote posts fanned out on either side of the gates, about four feet apart and linked with thick, heavy steel cable. After pacing back and forth a few minutes – and with my backside already experiencing anticipation pains – I wandered just a bit further to the left side of the gates. In the warm moonlight, I realized that there were no posts beyond about a twenty-five foot span. There were two large pines on either side of a group of azaleas, and my blueprint tracking program immediately deduced that my little Ford Maverick would make it between the pines with inches to spare. I tried to take the time to evaluate data and formulate a plan, but when I saw my watch showing 11:23 p.m., the plan clearly became driving that puppy ‘tween the pines.

I must confess to feeling a twinge of remorseful guilt as I savagely – but mercifully quickly – mowed down the azaleas in cold-chlorophylled murder. But, no time for remorse when it’s 11:24 p.m. The twisting, winding road into Huntington was not built for road course racing and required complete concentration in order to transform the normally ten minute drive to the campsites into a six minute sprint.

The sisters were hugging their dad goodnight at 11:29 p.m. Of course, I probably took two years off of everyone’s lives with the tire-squealing blur through the park, but our backsides were intact.

My buddy and I returned to the quarters to join our colleagues in recounting the evening’s events over a cold beer before going to sleep in preparation for another big day on the beach.

Around 12:30 a.m., one of my friends awakened me from a deep sleep. As I fought to clear my head, I became aware of muted, halting whispers, steeped in the intonation that signals alarm. My buddies were at the windows, which were positioned high on the twelve foot walls of our quarters – formerly the garage and before that, the stables – located at the rear of Atalaya. I saw the random beams of many flashlights flickering through the darkness beyond the windows, and heard the muffled voices of men.

Scampering to the windows, I perched on the top rail of a bunk bed and peered over the sill to the ground below. For an instant, sacrificing my backside to an irate father seemed like a preferable option.

The grounds around our parking area was swarming with a variety of law enforcement officers, along with Park Rangers, the night watchman, and some old guy were never saw before.

They were, of course, searching for the gate crasher. Solving the crime was of paramount importance, as the State of South Carolina would not be denied its $10 camping fee. One of the guys NOT in my car earlier in the night ventured outside to ascertain exactly how many years in prison I might be facing, while three pairs of very wide eyes observed from above. He spoke to one of the men for a few minutes, then nodded his head in agreement and headed back inside, where we circled in anticipation of his report.

“Well, they know someone crashed the gate.” was the first sentence.

How do they know?” I asked in bewilderment, “There’s no way the watchman would notice the murdered azaleas in the daylight, much less the night.”

‘He didn’t,” came the reply in a tone which was increasingly cloaked in seriousness, “The night watchman from Brookgreen Gardens saw the car drive around the gates.’

The old guy we never saw before.

“And they want us to help them search for the car.” It was the proverbial nail in the coffin, the irony of all ironies, that I would be in the middle of the posse when the guy would finally spot my little white Maverick. I envisioned his excitement: “Yep, that’s it! That’s the varmint!” I could see him running his hand over the hood. “Yep, still warm, too.” The rattle of chains and the reverberation of locking cell doors began to echo in my mind.

“Well, Brian, grab a flashlight and put on some shoes,” mv friend matter-of-factly droned on, ‘We’re looking for a yellow Mustang.”

What?” I stammered, still confused but beginning to understand, as the cell door magically clicked open and the chains fell to the floor.

Fortuitously for my friend and me, the Brookgreen guy had even worse vision than our watchman, combined with a complete inability to distinguish current makes of automobiles. I attribute the color discrepancy to the mercury vapor lights beside the guard house at the gates.

And so, we gleefully joined in the search, side by side with a blend of park Rangers, County police and Highway Patrol officers. An exhaustive effort, we even combed the beach while pursuing the evasive yellow Mustang. After an hour or so later, the group agreed the culprit had made it to the beach and headed for North Litchfield Beach, so they rounded up the wagons and headed off to continue the search.

And yes, lest you think I came away from this without learning anything, I did learn a very important lesson that night.

Stay the hell away from azaleas at our state parks.

- Next Issue -
The Best Perk Of Al
l
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The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, July 15, 1999.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Diary Of A Mad Lifeguard – Part IV

By Brian M. Howle

In concluding my little mini-epic about lifeguarding at Huntington Beach State Park circa 1972-74, 1 have chosen the absolutely bestest, neato keeno thing about being a lifeguard as today’s topic:

The bikini buffet.

You can hear all the tall tales you want; you can ponder what your response would be to situations that usually result in a guy being inspired to pick up pen and paper and begin writing in ernest, “Dear Penthouse Forum;” you can scoff and cajole and be the die-hard doubting Thomas ‘til the cows come home. Nothing can prepare you for the reality of being exposed to a never-ending sea of mostly exposed flesh. Anyone who thinks they may be prone to spontaneous combustion when events trigger humongous blood pressure variations should never, ever consider this line of work.

The presence of a multitude of shapely young ladies combined with having a job that requires vigilante attention presents quite a conundrum to an eighteen to twenty year old male. (My experiences took place in the days of still-rampant sexism and inequality; there were no female lifeguards at the time, so all of my recollections are based on that premise).

For starters, your average eighteen to twenty year old male – of any generation – has an attention span roughly equivalent to that of a cocker spaniel. Put that young man on the beach for eight to ten. hours a day amid a preponderance of scantily clad young honeys, and it’s like watching a mosquito in a nudist colony – he just doesn’t know where to start.

But once he does find a place to start, well, stand back and be amazed. I know I sure was, casually listening in on my more experienced colleagues during those first few weeks. I’m still not really sure which was more perplexing to figure out – the fact that these guys could actually concoct the dialogue they piled on those girls, or the fact that the girls seemed to take the bait – hook, line and sinker.

Regardless of the techniques employed when trolling for prospective dates, there were – and still are – two questions to be asked which always had a Nostradamus-like ability to size up the evening’s itinerary: “Where are you from?”, and “How long are you going to be here?” Actually, these can be used by civilians under similar circumstances with the same results. The key is in the answer. What you wanted to hear was this: For question one, the farther away their hometown, the better; For question two, the solid lock answer was “Tomorrow.” I can’t explain why, but it seems that as that vacation time winds down, ladies are more apt to be a more giving person, in a manner of speaking.

Now, sometimes a family would pull into a campsite with a surplus of daughters, and that wasn’t all that unusual. But from time to time, we would encounter a father who seemed to want to thin out the mob at his dinner table.

One family from upstate comes to mind, comprised of three daughters. The oldest was eighteen, and a very pretty young lady; the middle girl was sixteen, and also very pretty; and the youngest was an off-limits thirteen, but without any doubt one of the most beautiful creatures we had ever seen. Some bloom earlier than others, as we all know, but this was a most exceptional instance unlike any I have ever witnessed. Annual regulars to Huntington, the two older sisters were noticeably annoyed by the constant stream of guys walking right past them to approach their “baby” sister. It was always a source of great amusement to watch the would-be suitors stroll over to this girl and strike up a conversation. It would take a minute or two, but when they eventually took their eyes of the body and looked her directly in the face, their body language screamed the realization that “it ain’t gonna happen.” The body said twenty one; the face said ten to twenty.

Her dad apparently didn’t want this girl to feel left out by her siblings, so whenever one of us dated one of the older sisters, he would ask another of us to double date with the youngest. We obliged, of course, but rest assured – we were perfect gentlemen. Hey, even a lifeguard is capable of having a conscience.

Another family that visited on a yearly basis was from central Pennsylvania. There were no battles of conscience here, though. Five daughters, including a set of twins, comprised this ready made match for the five of us. Their father made no attempt to hide his desire to marry them off as quickly as possible, in a joking sort of way. The odd part about dating one of these sisters, however, was the ritual involved when stopping by their campsite to take them out. Talk about opposite expectations – when you dated one of these girls you were expected to first sit down at the picnic table with dad for a friendly chat, whereupon dad would insist you join him for a beer; more often than not, for two. Then you were given clearance to head on out on your date. The thing was, dad brought his own beer from Pennsylvania. I don’t know if it’s still true today, but back then, beer in S.C. was known as 3.2 beer, for the percentage of alcohol. Pennsylvania beer, however, was 6.4. You didn’t have to possess a degree in quantum physics to figure out those two beers were like a six-pack of our weenie beer. We always started out of the park with great attitudes, though.

The overwhelming majority of young ladies came to the park from nearby motels or private homes where beaches or beach access didn’t exist, so dating campers was relatively infrequent. But of all our encounters, there was one involving park visitors that left an indelible mark on our memories.

One late July morning, two extended-body vans rolled into the North campsite without much fanfare and proceeded to set up for a week’s stay. Later than afternoon, all settled in, the occupants made their way out to our domain on the beach. It was like a small invasion.

We were under attack from twenty-seven lovely members of an Ohio Girl Scout troop.

Now, native ladies are wonderful creatures, just as bright and charming and beautiful as any women ever to visit our lovely South. But overall, the biggest single difference between Southern belles and Northern gals goes beyond personality.

Lordy, those Northern girls are downright aggressive.

It was fairly apparent by the end of that first day on the beach that this group of females was on a mission. And unlike most other “group” encounters, there was no “I want to go out with that one” infighting within their ranks. Nope, these gals wanted lifeguards, with no particular preference other than it had to be a lifeguard. And not one intended to go home empty handed.

Well, twenty-seven of them and five of us … you do the math. It was like an onslaught of Estée Lauder-laden locusts. Every night, we climbed up on the roof of Atalaya and watched the line of crouched, running silhouettes as they stealthily made their way to our quarters in the warm moonlight. And every morning, we found it increasingly difficult to bounce out on the beach as we were accustomed. We concluded that these young ladies were pursuing a special merit badge, the likes of which was never described in any Boy Scout handbook we had ever read. Though we never complained (yeah, like you know guys who would), on the Sunday morning when they broke camp and rolled the big vans back toward Ohio, we exhaled a collective sigh of relief.

Although content that we had proudly represented our state park system as public relations ambassadors above and beyond the call of duty, we unanimously agreed to abstain from fraternizing with any more campers for awhile.

Until that bus load of Canadians showed up Monday morning.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, July 29, 1999.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Troop 329: Scouts From Hell – Part I

By Brian M. Howle

Whenever I hear someone use the analogy, “Oh, don’t be such a Boy Scout” – usually as an admonishment towards one who tries to invoke some semblance of principle in a situation where everyone else “looks the other way” – one, and only one, thought goes through my mind:

They never met anyone from Troop 329.

I have no idea of the current status of my old Boy Scout Troop back in Andrews, S.C. My hope is that it still exists, and that the newest generation of young boys growing up in small town America are afforded the same lessons that my generation was taught, as well as those preceding us.

In the dark ages preceding today’s entertainment buffet, there wasn’t it whole lot to do as a child in my hometown. Oh, we played all the usual games of football, baseball, basketball and other male bonding sports common across the land. We may well have been the last generation to share a love for “Kick The Can”. But besides those games, general play in someone’s house or yard was about it.

Fortunately for us, there were a few men who took on the task of organizing Boy Scout Troop 329, Coastal Carolina Council Chapter of the Boy Scouts of America. Mr. Jerome Moscow was the Scoutmaster when I first came up from the Cub Scouts. He was a fine and honorable man who extolled the virtues of Scouting, literally “from the book” – the Boy Scout Handbook. The weekly meetings held in the little Lion’s Club hut on Rosemary Avenue were prompt and rigid: Uniforms were expected to be pristine and exactly to specifications. Fulfillment of requirements for achieving rank – from Tenderfoot to Eagle – was tediously reviewed and certified. It was very ‘50s Americana oriented – it’s just that it was the mid ‘60s at the time.

Mr. Moscow retired not long after my age group came into Scouting (I don’t think we personally had anything to do with it, it was just his time to move on). We all wondered who it would be to take the banner and lead us onward and upward, in the true spirit of Scouting.

And then, a young man born and raised in our little town took the reigns of Troop 329. Sambo Harper, known for his years of playing football at Clemson and his rolling, boisterous laugh, was the new head honcho.

Our lives would never be the same.

Sambo was one of those odd compilations of conflicting character traits. On the one hand, he was just a regular guy – it little rowdy, a little raunchy, and a lot on the heavy side. On the other hand, being a National Guardsman, he was also a great believer in the ways of military standards when it came to discipline and organization.

Being in the Scouts was pretty neat and all when Mr. Moscow ran the show. But, it became a lot of fun – mixed with a lot of humiliation and anguish – when Sambo became Scoutmaster.

The meetings began with a lot of back and forth “comments” between Sambo and us, something that would never have been acceptable during the previous regimes. He had a couple of guys to assist him in keeping us in line, but the one I remember best was Luther Langley. As a naive, gullible kid, my first brush with adult sarcasm, cynicism and humor came from watching these guys roast each other on every subject imaginable. Not long after their tenure began, my friends and I started “getting” a lot of the humor on nightly television shows that normally went right over our heads. And Sambo and Luther can take credit for that.

Our Troop consisted of several patrols, each numbering around 6 to 8 boys. As usual, my best friend, “T”, and I were together in the Cobra Patrol. We painstakingly painted our Cobra logo on our canvas backpacks, stitched up our little Cobra flag for leading us into the wild, and started taking this Scouting thing pretty darn seriously.

The Rowell family had a farm about 5 miles outside of town, and they allowed the Scouts to use an area back in the woods for our weekend camping excursions. There was a shabby little shed-like area for group congregations where, on what seemed like almost every Friday afternoon, we unloaded our supplies and made our way to our respective campsites for a two-day stay. Within a hundred yards of this area, there is a fresh water spring that makes its way out into the surrounding swamps (for newcomers to my exploits, Andrews is little more than a small raised area surrounded by swamps and wetlands). The temperature of that springwater is absolutely freezing – it seems to be about 34˚ by my recollection. But it saved us from the laborious task of hauling coolers filled with ice out to the boonies. First thing we did upon arriving was to take our drinks and perishable foods to the spring for immersion into the chilly waters – nature’s own refrigerator. More on the spring – and the surrounding swamps – later.

Then we would set about rounding up firewood – or rather, running for firewood. Each patrol had to accumulate enough wood for two days’ and nights’ worth of cooking – and in the winter, for keeping us from freezing to death. So, getting out there and finding trees and limbs that had naturally fallen and aged was of paramount importance. Otherwise, a lot of back-breaking – and usually accident-prone – axe work was required to load up on green wood, which tended to be a real pain getting to burn.

Once the firewood as gathered, we set up our tents, carefully ditching around the edges for drainage in the event of rain (you only forget to do that once, by the way), and clearing any debris from the campsite that may have cropped up since the last visit (when nature calls in the dead of night and you venture out in the dark to, well, you know… you don’t want to break your neck tripping over something that wasn’t there before – again, you only forget to do that once, also).

With campfires crackling and burgers sizzling, we would have our supper and then make our way over to the old shed. The itinerary for the weekend’s events would be explained, the leaders would trade insults with one another, and then we all headed for the big cow pasture adjacent to our camping area. It didn’t matter how many times you went camping – there was one thing that we absolutely lived for on each camping trip.

Capture The Flag.

As darkness fell, we would choose up sides and take opposing ends of the vast pasture. It encompassed about 12 acres, a clear field in the middle of swamps and woods, with just two little knobs of scrubby little trees at either end. Both sides signaled their readiness with flashlights and yells, and the game was on.

There was a definite take-no-prisoners mentality involved in this contest, and everyone knew it. This was no place for the weak or faint of heart. Most slithered on the ground, slowly – very slowly – to avoid crawling through one of the numerous “pasture muffins” so thoughtfully left behind by the grazing cows during the week – inching our way towards the enemy’s stronghold. Detection by the other side could result in serious contusions and lacerations, but no one seemed to mind. It was all part and parcel of the game.

Personally, I preferred the “Banzai” approach – running wide open through the darkness in a beeline, braced for the unseen collisions with anyone or anything along the way – eyes fixed on the small glow of a flashlight affixed underneath the “flag” hung upon a scraggly branch of the small trees that comprised the enemy base. Akin to my no-holds-barred approach to “Kick The Can”, the element of brazen surprise (or unwitting stupidity) seemed to have winning results most of the time. I would fly by the unsuspecting last line of the enemy’s in an oblique curve and snatch the flag from the limb, and then kick it into high gear for the long run back to home base.

On one particular night, I failed to take into account a member of the other side in my body count, as I flashed by the limb and grabbed the flag. Somewhere between their base and the center line, I had the misfortune of encountering Siggy Tanner, who was a few years older and a lot bigger than me. Siggy introduced me to “The Corkscrew” – a form of contact that involved a fist, taking the slightly raised knuckle of the middle finger and applying it to the temple of the victim in a rapid and hard motion. I don’t remember the first part of it, but its I regained consciousness, I recall the relief of all the guys standing around me.

“Man, I’ve never seen anyone go into convulsions like that before!” was the general phrase the seemed to be real popular.

Even though Sambo and Luther banished the use of “The Corkscrew” from any further contests, I avoided Siggy like the plague after that.

Bruised, battered, bleeding and completely elated, we returned to our campsites for a nightcap of marshmallows dangling from thin limbs and hot chocolate, as we recounted our exploits of the evening. Then we crawled into our cozy sleeping bags and drifted off into restful sleep.

Daylight brought about the sounds of more crackling fires and the smell of frying bacon and eggs, and muffled hollering in the hazy distance of other campsites awakening. Not being it morning person, I usually stayed in my warm sleeping bag long after the others had started their day. After breakfast, we began pursuing various tasks required for the next rank, or for merit badges. Or we would just revel in being kids in the woods, doing all the mindless stuff that occasionally resulted in someone requiring it trip back into town for stitches or a cast. But we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Lunch normally consisted of sandwiches or canned food that didn’t neccessarily require cooking, as we conserved as much wood as possible for breakfast and supper . Afternoons consisted of games of football or baseball in the pasture, or with us paying close attention as Sambo and Luther taught us how to tie various knots and lash trees together to build rope bridges and signal towers. We all learned morse code, using signal flags or flashlights; we didn’t realize it at the time, but later on, this came in right handy.

Nighttime fell on the second day, and campfires were once again stoked and roaring for the big supper on Saturday nights. We usually feasted on burgers, hot dogs, or stews that we contrived utilizing some strange combinations of food groups. Since my dad owned the Piggly Wiggly, I had it habit of popping in the store on Friday afternoon and asking the butcher, Wyman, to set me up with a nice thick steak. I got a lot of glaring stares across the ol’ campfire, as others would eye my Porterhouse, then look forlornly at their pitiful little hot dogs or burgers, then look back at my steak, saliva dribbling down their chins.

My reaction to their glares was, “Hey, sorry, you should have picked a dad who owns a grocery store”.

I probably should have rethought that approach, looking back on it. One night – one very dark night – a group of us hiked over to the spring to retrieve some ice-cold Cokes from the clear depths. Unbeknownst to me, there was it conspiracy afoot. As we started back to our campsites, one of the guys feigned forgetfulness, stating that we had forgotten to get one for Sambo and Luther.

“Brian, how about grabbing a couple more Cokes, O.K.?” was the well-rehearsed setup from the guy with the flashlight.

“Sure, no problem,'” I unwittingly obliged, as I ran back the mere few feet to the spring and scooped up the drinks.

When I turned back to join them, I could only hear the sound of fleeting feet becoming more and more distant, amid squeals of laughter. I was left alone in the darkness, the two cold Cokes clinking beside me.

I panicked and began to run towards where I thought we had entered the spring, but within seconds I had begun to mire down in the ever-present swamp. Unable to see my way, I quickly bogged down to my knees in the freezing muck.

“Hey, come on guys, I’m stuck! I’m getting wet and it’s cold out here!” I screamed in terror. “Please guys, come back!” I fought in vain to extricate myself, and then I realized that one of my shoes had been sucked from my foot. And then I realized that, for dome unfathomable reason, I had worn my new shoes.

Now, the cold, the mud, the abandonment paled in comparison to the scenario of explaining to my mom why I had gone camping in my new shoes.

A lone whipperwill mocked me as I searched the foreboding woods for my friends. Less than 30 yards away, my buddies huddled, stifling their laughter as they listened to me begin to cry. Actually, I began to wail.

Well, they proved to have a conscious after all, and returned to pull me from the swamp, trying their best to hide their overwhelming desire to burst into laughter at my situation. But I could not leave until I retrieved my shoe. I sloshed around for what seemed like an eternity on my hands and knees, desperately searching for my lost Florsheims. And then, just as I was about to have a complete and total nervous breakdown, I felt it slide along my fingers.

All were forgiven for their cruel little joke as I happily made my way back to camp. The shoes were impaled on sticks beside the fire as we all laughed and replayed the scene a dozen times. I was in the middle of razzing “T” for his involvement in the matter, when one of the guys hollered out:

HEY! BRIAN! YOUR SHOES ARE ON FIRE!

Mortified, I wheeled around to find my shoes obscured by a cloud of smoke. Placed too close to a fire too hot, they looked to be goners. I grabbed them off of the stakes, only to launch them into the darkness as the searing heat burned my hands.

Well, it turned out they were merely “steaming”, not burning, and yet another round of laughter rang through the night air. The whipperwill concurred.

When dried, the shoes were a little stiffer, but I still had both of them.

Later, as we lay in our tents, “T” asked me, “Psst … Brian .. what are you thinking about?”

“I’m gonna shoot that damn whipperwill”, I said as I closed my eyes.

- Next Issue -
Beware The Red Hats

###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, May 4, 2000.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Troop 329: Scouts From Hell – Part II

By Brian M. Howle

In the last issue, I began recalling the experiences of Boy Scout Troop 329 from my hometown, Andrews, S.C.. As one of the remaining bastions of simple, honest mentoring, Scouting provided my friends and me a positive way to seek out our confidence – and a great outlet for controlled mischief. Our Scoutmaster, Sambo Harper, and his assistant, Luther Langley, schooled us in the ways of Scouting – and allowed us to be ourselves as we participated in a myriad of activities.

The virtues of decency and helpfulness were instilled in us despite our best efforts to avoid them. We became ravenous for merit badges and spent long hours quizzing one another on the eve of final accreditation to attain the next rank. When all of the prerequisite tasks of proper Scouting were completed, we turned our attention to camping out – anywhere, anytime.

Sambo was in the National Guard during his tenure as our Scoutmaster. As a result, we became familiar with the majority of military bivouac gear, provisions and protocol. I guess Sambo had a good line on used stuff, since we came to be in the possession of a couple of huge tents – like the ones used to provide emergency shelter for the newly homeless in Homestead, Fla. after Hurricane Andrew decimated their homes. We were also issued rain ponchos, canteens, a variety of specialty belts which contained oodles of neat little pouches and hooks and keeno guy stuff like that. At some point we even dined on C-Rations while attending Jamborees or public service events, finally coming to be at one with our fathers in reminiscing about the coveted tin of pound cake. Straight military issue, these meal packs also contained the then standard issue mini-pack of cigarettes – an inclusion that eventually resulted in Sambo and Luther pre-opening our packs to confiscate the forbidden smokes before some of the less sensible of us scarfed them up and puffed away the evidence before being busted.

When it came to an outdoor excursion, Troop 329 was equipped second to none. Although we had use of an established campsigte located on the Rowell farm outside of town, we did not simply load up the gear and kids in the backs of pickups for every trip out into the wilds. Sambo and Luther drilled us on the use of a compass and map reading, and would drive us to various locations around the two-county area and drop off a patrol with a sealed envelope containing the coordinates, a compass and a timed start. They would then drive to a different place, drop off the next patrol, return to the Scout Hut in town and load up another patrol or two for more of the same. They would spend their personal free time during the week mapping out the assorted routes, hiking the courses to ensure correct coordinates and time tables.

We never asked, but I think we may have surprised our leaders with our success on these maneuvers. The alloted time may have been exceeded occasionally, but no patrol ever became lost or disoriented. And there are simply some things that elude description to truly convey the importance of our coming to realize the potential of our abilities. Those map and compass hikes were a catalyst for immersing ourselves into voluntary basic training.

Outsiders would have had a hard time understanding our seemingly conflicting modes of behavior. We had the mechanics of outdoor life down to an art, swarming over a new campsite and establishing an operational base, complete with working mess area and deluxe “four-holer” latrine in less than an hour. Because we knew that the sooner camp was made, the sooner we could begin looking for trouble. Which was probably the only thing we did faster than setting up camp.

No one knows for sure exactly when it happened, but not long after taking over the reigns of 329, Sambo implemented his single greatest innovation – simple, red baseball caps.

Long-standing tradition had imposed those hard-to-keep-on little boat-shaped, pleated Scout hats as part of the strict uniform code. Besides making you look like a real dweeb, they were almost impossible to keep on your belt when not using for inspection assembly. And while we realized, as we blended in with hundreds of other Scouts at Jamborees or camp, that uniform appearance was an integral part of the organization as a whole – well, that basic childhood need to be different still gnawed at our collective gut.

That all changed when Sambo issued his proclamation that we would all wear identical red baseball caps, with the 329 numbers sewn on front, above the bill. After clearing the change through official Scout channels, ol’ Sambo figured out that when we piled out of the back of the pickups on campouts, he could quickly locate ANY member of our troop with just a glance. As with any new idea, there were some who scoffed and shook their heads in disapproval whenever we would march into a camp with other troops. But it didn’t take them long to recognize the benefits of quick identification and accountability.

It also didn’t take them long to recognize that when the red hats were around, there might just be a small chance that their guys may be in harm’s way.

We attended many public service projects, in addition to the Jamborees and camps. One such outing took us to Francis Marion National Forest, near McClellanville via U.S. Hwy. 17, where we participated in trail blazing on a grand scale. The Palmetto Trail’s trailhead is located just off Hwy. 17, where one may now begin the long trek through the forests and swamps of the coastal plains. The trail cutting was assigned to troops in specific segments – usually one-half to one mile in length – and utilized dozens of troops. Armed with compasses, machetes and axes, we mapped the trail, clearin medium trees and underbrush as we went. International Paper Company provided harvesters and skidders for the large trees, but for the most part it was good ol’ fashioned hand-to-plant combat.

The military services used this occasion to ply their spell over wide-eyed youths captivated by the assortment of hardware brought to the show. We witnessed equipment demonstrations of vehicles, artillery pieces and every automatic weapon in the U.S. arsenal. We ooh’d and aah’d at the engagement mobilization of a screeching Jeep equipped with a mounted cannon, fell our own heartbeats race with the tension of hand-to-hand combat (complete with the bayonet-thru-the-dummy’s-heart finale), and set land speed records lining up for our turn at firing the .60 caliber tripod mounted machine gun or the M-16s. Our only disappointment was when we learned that despite our offer of signed waivers, we would not be allowed anywhere near live grenades. Which, in retrospect, was probably a good idea.

Sambo’s righthand man, Luther, had a habit of mixing scouting weekends with hunting. Long before we stirred from our comfy sleeping bags, Luther was up and decked out in full hunting attire, pursuing various game depending on the season.
On one particular outing, he yammered on and on about finding the perfect spot for putting up a duck blind as the eve of duck season fell. Relief from “duck mania” came only when he retired early in the evening in preparation for his pre-dawn start. While he slept, we quietly – and carefully – replaced his birdshot shells with “Double Ought” buckshot, which is used for deer and wild boar. Happy and content in his secluded blind, we could only imagine his reaction as he trained the sight of his shotgun on the first incoming duck, and then squeezed the trigger – only to see the doomed fowl disappear in a puff of feathers.

Retribution inevitably followed such pranks, usually after much thought and planning by our beloved leaders. But for incidental error or disobedience, Sambo issued his absolute favorite and most used form of punishment – hugging trees.

Anything, from incomplete uniform at inspection to wantonly ignoring specific orders, would get you wrapped around a gree. It may sound silly, but hugging trees would quickly “get your mind right” to Sambo’s edicts. You spend an hour or so holding an oak or ine and you’ll get with the program in short order. Besides the obvious physical discomfort of standing for long periods of time with your arms around the tree, there were several types of critters who would happily attach themselves to your body in the most uncomfortable of places. Chiggers, ticks and “redbugs” are not welcome visitors on a campout.

As we passed through our youth, our rowdiness and play seemed to be all that mattered. But when we attended a Jamboree in the middle of a wet and miserable winter, the real worth of our training shined through in practice.

We set up our camp in record time. We stocked our firewood and maintained our campfire for the entire weekend, while all others struggled to build theirs just to cook one meal. Then we set about building a pair of signal towers on either side of the expansive camping area, lashing logs together with yards of rope to form strong, stable platforms for signaling and observation. It was a private line as it turned out, as no other troop present was capable of flag signaling, or even morse code with flashlights.

As our contemporaries huddled in wet, cold and hungry groups around us, we reveled in our accomplishments. The many competitions over the weekend were consistently dominated by the troop with the red hats. And everyone knew it.

My friends and I have come to appreciate the disciplines and ideals that these men instilled within us, as our lives stretch into the abyss of middle-aged reflection. Every member of our troop from that era has gone on to lead respectable, successful lives. And each of us have passed on the values that we learned to our children – at every opportunity.

Amid the mindless clutter of today’s assortment of video and computer games, cable TV and cell phones for our children to master, there’s something to be said abou the knowledge of tying a square knot or starting a fire with a stick and some twine. Oh, I know – there are those of you who will laugh this off as useless nostalgia, good only for reminiscing rednecks. And that’s O.K., too.

Let’s see you start a fire with a Nintendo controller.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, May 18, 2000.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Paddlin’ Up Memories – Part I

By Brian M. Howle

A week or so back, everyone in America needed a break. We desperately sought some kind of release, relief, refuge, acceptance, whatever … because the events of September 11 are that deeply burned into our frontal consciousness. It has been the single most draining experience – physically as well as emotionally – of my entire life. I can’t fathom what it must be like for those who lived through Pearl Harbor, or the German V-1 bombings of London, or D-Day, Pork Chop Hill or Khe San – only to go through this, yet again.

My sweetie belongs to a Canoeing & Rafting club through her work, and has been attending various excursions around the waterways of our gorgeous state. As after every issue, I head inland for some serious R&R. Somehow, it seems to end up as slave labor a lot of the time – but it keeps me off the street, and I’m not complaining. After the last issue (which was in the final two days of pre-press deadline when the terrorists’ attacks occurred ), I just wanted to disappear. Fortunately, my prayers were answered.

Her group had a scheduled trip that following Saturday, information which I had lost in the shuffle of thinking two weeks ahead (a little impairment shared by others in my business). On her previous trip, they had ventured out onto the Congaree River outside of Columbia, where it’s more swamp than river. I had heard the tales of picking up canoes and walking over rocks; of the insects and scratches from low-hanging branches; of deep-woods-induced, each-paddling-against-the-other bouts of arguments and fights. This was not a canoeing trip, thankfully. This half-day sojourn would be conducted in the comfy confines of sea kayaks.

We hit the road bright and early – and amazingly, on time. We arrived at the gathering spot, a convenience store/gas station just off of I-95 on Exit 68 (for access to St. George or Branchville). The leader of her group turned out to be Lou, an old post-college friend of mine from the mid-‘70s. Lou was the college roommate of one of my old lifeguarding compadres; when I lived in the Columbia area, they were frequent running mates of mine on the social treadmill of mid-‘70s Columbia. We caught up on who’s where and who’s gone and who’s got kids in college as we waited for the outfitter to arrive, and I couldn’t stop thinking to myself how nice it is to see old friends, even those who were in our lives but for a brief time. But in light of the past weeks’ horrors, it’s the sort of thing that a lot of folks may find themselves thinking these days:

“Thank you, God, for each and every day, and the many daily miracles that pass before our eyes and through our very souls – if only we take the time to see them.”

The outfitter showed up and introduced himself as Zack. The remainder of the group had arrived, so Zack instructed us to follow him to the landing where we would put in. His compact pickup carried several different personal vessels on top, and a customized trailer held about a dozen sea kayaks. We rolled through the early morning mist, turning down a winding, sandy lane that melted into the sandy expanses of the Edisto Rivers banks, passing several deer hunters on their stands – poised atop hunting-accessory-festooned pickups with bright, chrome dog boxes hanging over the tailgates. As we pulled into the landing area, there were several more hunters gathered there as well, listening for the bays of the hounds to give them direction in the hunt.

We unloaded the kayaks and our personal gear, and then the group partially split up as vehicles were transferred to the finishing point downriver. And yes, the usual complement of Deliverance references were made throughout the day, but the vehicle transfer always makes me hear banjos in the background.

When they returned, Zack reviewed kayaking etiquette and safety information, and began loading the individual members of our group into size/weight/experience-matched kayaks.

Note to novice kayakers: When you first sit in your kayak, make sure those little foot pegs inside the bow – that you absolutely must have in order to brace yourself for paddling, and also for keeping your balance in the kayak before you ever dip the paddle – are tightly secured. Oh yeah. Zack came over and set the pegs, or so I thought, and I happily signaled for him to push me off the bank. As he did so, I swung the double-bladed paddle over to begin my initial stroke, and pushed hard with my feet to get that leverage and balance thing going.

For about 1.3 seconds, I resembled a Road Runner cartoon – except, in my scene, the dang kayak didn’t capsize, but it flirted with inundation on each side about 6 times before I managed to steady it. I immediately yelled out, “Did anybody see that? Did you see how close I came to losing it?” Of course, they all did. Once again, I provided the comic relief at the very outset of a trip on the waters. (See, I was the first – and only – person thrown out of the raft when we did a white-water rafting trip up in Nantahala National Forest a few years back). I know at least one little girl who enjoyed the moment, if no one else. Zack pulled my kayak back up on the bank and made the necessary adjustments to my pegs, making sure they were locked in this time. I should have taken a moment and drained the small amount of water that had spilled in during my haywire-gyro-imitation, but I didn’t realize it was in there at the time. I think the adrenaline rush of impending cold-water dousing made me impervious to it for the first 15 minutes or so.

Well, everyone had done their little practice paddling routines, so Zack gave us the signal to begin. It turned out Zack had presented me with his old kayak, and it was a stiletto on the smooth river. Zack had a beautiful fiberglass kayak, but he couldn’t “open it up” because he had to watch over the entire group, usually holding back at the rear to assist those in distress. Overall, the group did well; there was the occasional, momentary encounter with a low limb on a bend in the river, where the currents run faster – but besides that, we made good time.

As the kayaks glided across the glass surface of the Edisto River, we marveled at the glorious beauty that surrounded us. Massive live oaks and towering cypress trees line the white, sandy banks, with various pines weaving themselves throughout the tapestry of foliage. The banks undulate from sweeping, low beaches to shear-faced bluffs that rise over 50 feet from the river. Groups of docks and boardwalks announce the homes of those who live on this magnificent waterway – from the simplest old pre-mobile home trailers with their big ol’ Confederate flags on display, to Taraesque landscapes that encompass white-columned southern mansions with flowing concrete abutments that front wrought-iron, bannistered steps that wind downward to the softly lapping black water.

But for the majority of the trip, there is no sign of civilization as you drift down the dark ribbon of water. Birds dive across the vistas, flitting about the lower limbs – and now and then, a deer hound or two happen upon us, as they determinedly scour the ground, searching for the scent of that trophy buck. They glance at us, momentarily, then swing the wagging tails back into action as they scurry off into the underbrush, never giving us another thought as they disappeared into the silence of the woods.

After setting a rapid pace and leading the way, Lou dropped back during one of the “wait-up” moments (where the group has to “wait-up” for a slow poke to catch up, with Zack’s accommodating experience) and we chatted some more. As the group restarted, I found myself out front. Good ol’ Zack, bless his little heart. He gave me a rocket, and once you’re out front – with no obstructions to your view (like the other folks in the group) – then you begin to get a sense of what it must have been like for those early explorers in coastal South Carolina. Because, for all of our technology and advances; for all of our social and spiritual growth; for all we have devised to entertain and self-medicate ourselves in the name of progress – this view has not changed in centuries. It is far removed, untouched from or by time, protected by the children of nature and the ravages of elements that man generally avoids.

And it was just the thing I needed.

We stopped around the halfway point and beached our kayaks on a landing for a lunch break. This was where I discovered the extent of my water intake during the spin cycle on takeoff. I had been sitting in about 3 inches of water the entire time, oblivious to it as I drank in the beauty around us. The group exchanged choices of lunch, and it appears that your basic peanut butter & jelly sandwich escapes the trauma of soft-sided personal coolers stuffed in the bow of a kayak much better than any other sandwich or food item.

We re-embarked on our journey, and everyone had pretty much mastered the art of kayaking at this point. Zack cruised up front with me, as we cut quietly through the swirling currents ahead of the group. Suddenly, a large fish – either a catfish or a carp – shot up from the surface of the river, hanging mid-air a la Michael Jordan, snapping a dragonfly out of mid-flight, then plunging loudly back into the murky deep. Zack and I gave each other that “Whoa!” look, and immediately looked back to ask if the others had caught the sight. We were about 100 yards ahead of the rest of the group – I can’t stress how nice it was to have the thoroughbred kayak – so we “waited up””, debating whether it was catfish or carp. Either way, that sucker was big.

With nature all around us, the call of nature finally got the better of the group by the time we made the landing at Colleton State Park. I bolted for the facilities, which were on the other side of the park from the landing – a trip made all the more challenging with the stiffness my knees had developed after being stuffed inside the kayak for three hours. By the time I made it back out, members of the group were heading for their cars. Most had decided to call it a day, but three others wanted to go the remaining leg, so we helped Zack load up our kayaks and bid our friends goodbye. We caught a ride back to our car with a young couple from Orangeburg. They were students at Auburn; she was from Orangeburg, and he moved here from Alabama after they began dating.

Now, my mother is from this area, from the nearby town of Branchville. During the course of our conversation, the girl mentioned that we should try to catch “Railroad Daze” in Branchville. It’s a festival that commemorates the fact that Branchville, S.C. is the world’s oldest railroad junction. The Best Friend chugged up from Charleston, and Branchville was were you either went to Columbia, or took the split to Orangeburg and then later, to Augusta. I hadn’t been to Branchville in around 15 years, and I somehow always managed to miss the festival. I then told her how much I wanted to catch it, because my sweetie has never been there, and the whole family-roots thing.

“Well,” she turned and chirped, “today’s your lucky day, then. It’s going on this weekend.”

- Next Issue -
Branchville Bound

###
The previous column originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, October 11, 2001.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Paddlin’ Up Memories – Part II

mama ruth's house
By Brian M. Howle

In the previous column, I had begun relating the events of a recent weekend excursion over in Orangeburg County, S.C.. My sweetie had arranged a kayaking trip through a group at her place of work, and we had a great time on a gorgeous, sunny fall day. We met a young couple from the area, and when I mentioned my mother was from nearby Branchville, the girl mentioned that we should try to catch “Railroad Daze.” It’s a festival that commemorates the fact that Branchville is the world’s oldest railroad junction. I had always wanted to go, but never seemed to find the time, or could not remember the date – a fact that I lamented out loud.

“Well”, she turned and chirped, “today’s your lucky day, then. It’s going on this weekend”.

We pulled out onto the main road and made a beeline for Branchville, approaching from a direction that was foreign to me; all my previous trips there came from Andrews. The last community we passed through on the way was Bowman, where the Main Street began at the blinking light, then you turned right and went one block, where it ended at the next blinking light. Take that left, and next thing you know, you’re entering the suburbs of Branchville. But this road was not that road, so I was “flying blind” as we made our way.

The sight of cars parked alongside the highway signaled that we were entering town. You have to understand – for me, this was unimaginable. So many people in Branchville that they’re parking on the side of the road – a half mile, from downtown? Waaaay too weird.

When I finally recognized some landmarks and realized which road we were on, I knew how to get to my mother’s old home. But when we reached Main Street, our path was blocked by State Troopers, who were directing traffic around town via a one-way circle which made its way back to the point where we entered town. I had never ventured more than four blocks from my grandmother’s house as a child (actually, they wouldn’t let me out of their sight, and four blocks was pretty much the whole town from my perspective at the time), so this route was a new experience for me.

As we crossed over the other main highway that intersects Main Street, anticipation began pumping through my veins. I knew Mama Ruth’s house was just a few blocks away, I knew we were behind it, and that the old school playground – wher I used to swing for hours on time – was on my right. Yes there it was And the church that was righ beside the school! I began looking over toward Main Street, searching for the high brick walls that encircled the back and side yards of the big house. I was looking for those majestic Magnolias that skirted the sides of the front porch – the ones that flooded the warm night air with the sweet odor of Magnolia blossoms; the smell that permeated the old non-air conditioned house in the spring and summer. Many an hour, I determinedly chased after “lightning bugs” (fireflies to the Yankees amongst you) that hovered around the flowers. Captured inside a Duke’s mayonnaise jar with holes punched in the lid, I would keep them beside me for the free light show, as I rocked in the big wicker glider that graced the cool, breezy porch.

I didn’t see any of that.

We parked a block behind the house. As we made our way towards it, my memories were shattered.

The old walled fence was gone. The Magnolias were gone. But, the house was beautiful – even more beautiful than when I was a child. The new owners had completely renovated the outside, with some additions to the back and sides. A gorgeous, lush lawn runs around the sides, where a large wrap-around deck hugs the back and rear of the house. A small open porch that opened off of the kitchen /breakfast area had been enclosed and slightly enlarged. The other side of the yard still retained a section of the original brick fence that joined the house to a storage building. The old smokehouse (a tool shed by the time of my arrival in the day) that sat behind the back dining room had also been renovated.

The house sits right on Main Street, where the highway has a slight dogleg to it as you head South. From the front porch, or the “lookout” room that topped the porch upstairs, one could observe anything coming into or going out of town – for as far as the eye could see. We walked around front, as State Troopers were directing traffic away from downtown, right before the big parade. My great-grandfather’s house is still standing and in remarkable condition, directly across the street from Mama Ruth’s home. We ventured up on the porch where I peered through the familiar, slightly distorted original panes of antique glass in the front door. Although the furnishings were different, somehow – in a very odd, but very comforting way – somehow, it seemed the same.

There was a mirror at the end of the foyer, just like Mama Ruth had. To the right, a small bureau chest sat beneath it, just like Mama Ruth’s. A sideboard graced the open space beneath the carved banister railing of the staircase, just like Mama Ruth’s. I shivered at the similarities. I looked over to the entry to what we called “The Parlor”, or “The Pink Room”, or “Mudd’s room” (my great-grandmother’s bedroom). And there, I saw something that I never, ever dreamed would be seen in this house.

Sitting just inside the French doors to the room – in my great-grandmother’s bedroom – was a full set of drums, complete with crash cymbals and a high-hat.

I couldn’t stand it any longer. I rang the doorbell, and continued looking through the window, hands cupped around my brow to fight off the reflective glare from Main Street. For a brief moment, we heard thundering little feet racing down the stairs, but only caught the blur of a small child on his way to the kitchen. I leaned over the right side of the porch and looked towards the back. They were barbecuing on the fencedin patio side, but no one was attending the cooker. The family was having a gathering, and at this particular moment, everyone was inside.

We made our way back around to the new addition, and stepped up on the deck. A door leading into the small room opened slightly as we approached. We announced our presence, and the door opened wide. A delightful young woman greeted us, and in a blurted few sentences; I gave her the basic background story on my family’s previous ownership. She smiled in wide acknowledgement as I began telling her little “things” about th house; where things were located (or where they used to be located); where we played as children, where the adults gathered, and on and on. A group of women were sitting around the breakfast table, and the smilingly granted us permission to kidnap their host for a few minutes. she led us on a tour of the house, back through the old dining room, where all the men folk were now gathered watching college football on TV. From there, through the old rear kitchen (now converted into a laundry room), and on to the old screened-in back porch, which has been enclosed and walled off at the other end (which had led a small hallway just outside my grandmother’s bedroom and a bathroom), just off the base of the stairs.

We went back through the dining room and kitchen, through the old den and into the front hallway. There I related stories about my cousins and me sliding down the stairs on our rear ends, and how it seemed to be just so absolutely delightful at the time. I enquired about the “lookout room” upstairs, my favorite place to hide away on rainy days – and she told me they had turned that into her son’s bedroom, after he had fallen in love with the room on first sight. Lemme tell ya – that kid has great taste and a good eye for detail. We knew we were keeping our thoughtful host from her guests and family, and began making our way back towards the side room.

It was then that I realized that, although they had made extensive renovations to the outside of the house, the inside had been kept very much as it was. All the wood floors and paneling, moulding and details are still unpainted, varnished wood. New paint and sorne needed plaster had been applied to other surfaces, but the wood’s glorious grain and patina is the unrivaled star of the home.

After meeting her husband and children, we bid our host goodbye – along with her entire group – and made our way back to the car, as I stopped every four or five feet to marvel at the beauty of the old homestead. As we opened the doors and sat down, I allowed myself a few minutes to take in what had just transpired – and to soak in the sweet irony of it all.

Oh … I’m sorry, I just realized that I’m keeping the point to myself. You see, mom’s family has long lineage. And in the South, that means – at some point in time – someone in my family probably held the title of slave owner.

Of course, by the time I first visited Branchville, things had been slow to change. Heck, things had been slow to change everywhere in America. I was eleven years old when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave blacks the right to vote, folks – and that was a Federal statute just coming to change with the times.

Across the street from Mam Ruth’s house, beside Big Daddy’s old house, there runs a narrow, shady dirt alley, which winds back from the highway and disappears into lush foilage. A few yards back sat the home of my grandmother’s right hand – her maid, Daisy. I would ramble over there and play games with her son, and vividly remember noticing the discrepancies between Daisy’s family’s standard of living and my family’s.

Her house had no indoor plumbing. The floor was not parquet, not tile, not berber, not even brick – it was dirt. Broken windowpanes were covered with yellowing cardboard patches, and insulation was non-existent. Chickens wandered through the middle of our circle while we played marbles, aimlessly pecking for specks of food on the living room’s tightly packed, broom-swept dirt floor.

But every morning, for as long as Mama Ruth lived there in my lifetime and even before, Daisy would come on over to the big house. She cooked, cleaned, shopped for groceries, and helped tend to children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; as well as son- and daughter-in-laws. She was my grandmother’s closest ally, and the two spent countless hours debating the current political, social or religious differences of the day. Two women of like age, bound by destiny and circumstance to become lifetime friends – but quantum physic equations apart in economics, social standing and legal rights – chatting the evening away in rocking chairs, all the while shelling bushels of butter beans or snap peas.

Three generations later, the ways of the world have made deep inroads into correcting the wrongs of our past. My children can’t imagine a public water fountain, restroom or dining room marked “Colored”. And the only sheets they’ll ever wear will be for toga parties in college.

You see, the folks who bought the house are black. In and of itself, this doesn’t matter, really. It didn’t when these folks applied for the loan to purchase Mama Ruth’s house, because now the law says you can’t discriminate because of race. It didn’t matter when they pumped a considerable amount of that money into the local economy during the renovation project. It didn’t matter when they increased the value of the property by doing so, either. When it comes to money, there is no black or white – only green.

All that matters is that a young, vibrant, highly educated professional couple has returned to this venerable old antebellum community. They have breathed new life into an old, comfortable home, where new generations of children will bruise their little backsides sliding down that beckoning staircase and revel in Easter egg hunts in the yard’s many hidden nooks and cranies. A home where they will gather on Thanksgivings, Christmases and birthdays to share in bountiful feasts among those they love the most.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful to any of my ancestors – but I’ll bet anything that somewhere in a local cemetery, there’s a whole lot of spinnin’ goin’ on. Bet that breeze feels good o the ol’ front porch, too.

Sorry, Tom. I guess you’re wrong, after all. You can go home again.

Just don’t look for the old Magnolia trees. The new lady of the house is allergic to them.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, October 25, 2001.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Camp Guns & Woeses – Part I

By Brian M. Howle

The Summer of 1965 was a pivotal year in the development of yours truly. My only brother – seven years my senior – graduated from high school and was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force Academy. My sister – ten years my senior – had just graduated from U.S.C. and was traveling Europe before beginning her post-graduate work.

And I was 11 years old.

Well, I’m pretty sure that my folks looked at each other one day and realized that – except for the hyperactive 11-year-old – the nest was just about bare. Then they watched me zoom through the house, as I attempted to complete about two dozen tasks at one time, yammering away incessantly all the while. Then they looked back at each other.

Oh yeah, I was going to be spending time at a summer camp that year.

So, in typical parent trickery, they called me into their bedroom one day in the Spring, and showed me a beautiful, full-color brochure which extolled the wondrous adventures and activities of the Citadel Boys Camp.

“Look, Brian, you’ll be paddling boats, and sailing, and hiking, and swimming and a whole schedule full of things to do”, they smilingly began, as they baited the trap, “and it’s just filled with boys your age. Oh, you’ll have the best time … You’ll just love it!”

Well, yeah, the pictures were colorful, and all the kids were smiling and doing all sorts of really cool stuff. But like a feral puppy not quite sure of taking such an unknown leap of faith, I was a bit apprehensive.

“Um … how long does this camp last?” I asked.

Two whole, fun-filled weeks!” was the that’s-right-go-on-and-stick-your-paw-in-the-bear-trap response.

I was starting to sway … it did sound awfully good.

“What else do they do there?” I inquired with a sprinkling of interest.

“Oh, lots of things .. you can take up archery, and shooting skeet, and…” they began, as I quickly cut them off.

Skeet? With a shotgun?” I perkedly asked.

“Oh yes, and you can also take marksmanship in their indoor shooting range”, they merrily chirped, taking a step back to watch the trap snap shut, “with real military .22 rifles!”

Yes! Kids with guns! My kinda place.

“Okay, sounds good to me”, I said, never hearing the twang of the spring’s release, never seeing the impaling crunch of reality’s brutal jaws coming, “Sign me up, I want to go!”

So, spring turns to summer and one glorious sunshine-filled day, we loaded up the ol’ Galaxie 500 with my foot locker (filled with enough underwear to endure a nuclear winter, each pair emblazoned with my name in Magic Marker on the waistband) and headed South for Charleston. It was a beautiful day, and my folks were smiling and chatting, as I aimlessly stared through the window – counting all the telephone poles, mailboxes, signal lights and Fords – between Andrews and Charleston. I was oblivious to the changes that were about to unfold before me.

As Dad wheeled our turquoise battleship into the Citadel compound, I looked up at the tall, arching gates.

Big gates. Big, heavy, steel and wrought iron gates. Gates joined to high, thick walls and rows of black, pointed wrought iron. Kinda like a fort.

And being like a fort meant, like being in the military.

And being in the military meant discipline.

Oh, this was going to be a long two weeks.

Gene Autry’s “Don’t Fence Me In” played at megavolume in my head, as we passed by the huge parade ground in the middle of the compound. Huge, majestic live oaks, heavily draped with moss, stand over the lush grounds, encircled by imposing castle-style buildings that comprise the physical plant of The Citadel.

Dad pulled up to the unloading zone, and I was having some serious second thoughts about this whole deal. I shared my concern with my mother.

“Listen, I paid good money for you to come here and enjoy yourself”, she sternly informed me, “and by crackie, you’re going to enjoy yourself”.

Mama always had a way of explaining things to me so that I could understand.

I helped Dad haul the foot locker over to a loading cart, and we swung it over to join with all the other foot lockers, where they were tagged and send off for delivery to our assigned rooms.

The guy in charge of signing everyone in led my folks and me inside the dormitory. Each dorm is shaped like a huge box, with 20-ft.-thick walls serving as the barracks. Four stories high, each upper floor’s balcony railing overlooks the quadrangle in the middle – which I would come to intimately know and loathe as “The Quad”. The mesmerizing checkerboard pattern that runs across the center of the building makes perfect 90˚-turn marching a snap. And where the huge expanse of open tile – surrounded by a perfectly square enclosure with multi-leveled baffles and nothing but flat, reflective surfaces all around – acts as an acoustic amplifier to the nth degree, amplifying even the slightest of sounds to massively reverberate throughout the entire building.

I thought back for a moment… nope, this was not in the brochure, either.

The room was, not surprisingly at this point, very austere and small – but it was located in one of the four corners – and the acoustic design essentially missed the corners. This came to be extremely important during my stay, although I didn’t know it at the time.

There was a momentary glimmer of hope of salvaging anything out of this looming debacle when we ran into a friend of mine from Andrews, R.A. Green, who was also attending the same session.

Well, the grand tour was about over, so I walked my folks out to the car. There, Mom and Dad wished me well, as they cheerfully and speedily headed back to our comfy, quiet little home.

Things quickly changed after the parents left. The charming politeness afforded us in the presence of our doting parents evaporated under the hot Carolina sun, as gentlemen transformed into screaming neanderthals.

Now, up to this point, there didn’t seem to be much importance put on where we happened to be at any given time. But that wasn’t going to last long.

Our names were called out, and they began to herd us into our assigned squads. where I lost track of R.A. Once in, you were quickly encouraged to hate anyone not in your particular squad.

Our first order of business was learning how to fall into formation (where the handy checkerboard began to make more sense); and the second order was to learn difference between our right and left.

And dang if they weren’t downright rude about it.

One little kid in the next squad couldn’t hang with the pressure of repeatedly getting: wrong, and as his counselor (juniors and seniors with a serious ous need for control) leaned into his face to insult and demean him, to poor kid wet himself, profusely.

Again, not in the brochure.

Now, I didn’t find anything remotely amusing about this kid’s humiliation – but someone behind me did, and made very funny remark. Predictably, I exploded into laughter, which swiftly put the counselor in my face, to within eyelashes of a head butt.

“YOU THINK THAT’S FUNNY, LITTLE BOY?” He seemed sincere, yet, irate. “I’LL TELL YOU WHAT’S FUNNY WHEN YOU NEED TO KNOW! YOU UNDERSTAND?

Suddenly, all those Sunday nights watching The Ed Sullivan Show played in my head, and the great lineup of Jewish comedians snapped into my mental Rolodex.

Youuuuu don’t know from phunny”. I laughingly snorted.

In retrospect, that response was probably not in my best interest. But at the time, there was no Internet, so I couldn’t do the research that would have clued me in to the fact that there is no “Department of Humor” in military life.

WHAT DID YOU SAY TO ME? ARE YOU CRAZY? DROP RIGHT NOW AND GIVE ME TWENTY!” he screamed, microns away from my nose, as I tried not to notice the bulging veins in his forehead.

I looked him square in the eye and said, “Twenty”.

I had never seen a man’s head explode before, but this guy came about as close as I’d ever seen. Fortunately, an actual officer – who was quietly overseeing the proceedings, intervened and calmed my counselor down. Then he pulled me out of formation and walked me over to the cool shade of the balconies. Then he quietly invited me to spend the night sitting in a lone chair placed in the center of the quad after we got all settled in.

Not in the brochure.

I was then led back to my Squad – as the previously loud and cluttered noise ceased and gave way to thundering silence – and we made our way to the supply office.

There, we were issued our official camp uniform – white T-shirts, blue shorts, white socks and tennis shoes, and blue caps. Then we gathered our towels and linens, and marched back to our rooms.

Now, apparently, there is a serious belief on the part of our military to make sure that – if an invading army did happen to overrun the barracks – they would nonetheless be so impressed by the fact that you can bounce a quarter off the sheets, it would distract them long enough for our boys to kill them. I could easily imagine the scenario:

“Ivan, can you believe how well these beds are made?”

“No, comrade, it is truly a miracle how these infidels can .. AAAaaaarrrrrrggghhhh!

After an hour or so of mastering the square-corner sheeting technique, we were called to formation once again. They trotted us out, across the big parade ground, and over to the official Citadel barber shop for our summer haircuts.

As luck would have it, my squad was the first to arrive, and my counselor quickly moved me to the front of the line. Once inside the cool confines of the air-conditioned building, we became relaxed.

The doors swung open to the shop, and the sweet old man behind the chair motioned me on over. I took my seat, as he placed the little barber bib around my neck and spun the chair around to face the mirror.

“So, what did you have in mind today, young man?” he pleasantly asked.

“Oh, just a little off the top, the sides are fine”. I nonchalantly replied, settling myself in the big, cushy barber’s chair.

I watched in the mirror as he clicked on the electric clippers and ran a blue-liquid-soaked-comb thru my sunbleached bangs, parting it this way and that, making sure to find the exact natural part.

Then he placed the clippers on my forehead, right below the hairline, and made a single pass down the middle of my head, all the way back to my neck.

When he stepped back to align his next pass, my jaw dropped to my lap. I had a reverse Mohawk.

Eight or nine passes later, I was as bald as the day I was born.

And though I was young, and didn’t know much, I knew this:

This was not in the brochure.

- Next Issue -
Gimme Back My Bullets

###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, August 1, 2002.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Camp Guns & Woeses – Part II

By Brian M. Howle

In the previous issue, I had begun to recall my days at the Citadel Boys Camp in Charleston, S.C., where I spent the longest two weeks of my life. Hoo-Dooed into attending by my parents’ masterful plan to have two weeks in the wake of my siblings’ departure from the nest (my sister was traveling Europe prior to post-graduate work; and my brother was about to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO), I quickly discovered that this camp was not at all like any other I had attended.

And initially, that was not a good thing as far as I was concerned.

At eleven years of age, I didn’t quite make the connection between The Citadel – the military college – and the camp. But shortly after our parents left us on that first day, the reality – and to me, the horror – of living in a military-style environment created my first bout of anxiety and stress.

After being tricked into receiving “buzz cut” haircuts at the campus barbershop, we were a bunch of small, pasty, squeaky-voiced, bald little rats, trying to come to terms with the concept of precision discipline.

And therein lay the paradox.

To say the least, I was not your prime candidate for officer material. I just happened that I didn’t particularly care for having to immediately follow every order and instruction that was barked to me during the most mundane of daily tasks. I had no problem doing things, or following orders, as long as the reasons were known and explained.

But common-sense reason and military thinking can not exist in the same universe. And so, my first order of business was to make myself invisible to those in command. After my initial encounter with an adult officer on the first day (the counselors were all college students, but chompin’ at the bit to taste the absolute power they had over our lives) – where I was invited to spend that first night at camp, sitting in a chair, alone, in the middle of the quadrangle that centered our dormitory barracks – I had an emergency meeting with me, myself and I … and we all agreed to keep our mouth shut. At least, as best as we could.

Morning inspection was the first indicator that abject stupidity is no stranger to any institution. Shocked out of deep slumber by a scratchy, skipping record playing Revelie, we were lined up outside – hey, it’s dark at 5:30 a.m., by the way – and made to stand at attention while our rooms were ransacked in an apparent attempt to find contraband. What contraband a bunch of 11-13 year-old kids in 1965 would possess remains a mystery to me, but they tore up our rooms nonetheless. Any beds not properly made – and as I mentioned last issue, military sticklers really have a thing about that quarter-sheeted bed – were demolished and re-made (sometimes four or five times) before anyone took the first marching-in-formation step towards the chow hall for breakfast.

When we finally did make it to breakfast, I have to admit that these folks had a handle on preparing food for masses of hungry youngins. Boy Scout Camp and Camp St. Christopher had their good points over El Cid in most areas, but the men and women of this kitchen put them to shame. And this one, lonely little nicety gave many the will to endure the day that followed.

Once I became a bit more adapted to avoiding the butt-chewings, things settled in to make life tolerable. My roommate, Greg, was from Savannah; a slight wisp of a boy with a great sense of humor, we made a good “Mutt & Jeff” pairing, as I was in my celebrated “Husky” stage of life. Now, I was not obese, mind you, but chubby – and waddling my way through prepubescence was proving to become a bit of a drag.

We quickly bonded and began our plan to avoid the daily drills that offered the best chance of landing one on the “quad” for a variety of infractions. We decided to just fall in line as far as all the reindeer games went – make our room spotless, keep our uniforms clean and fresh, and tried to stay in the back of the squad as much as possible.

After being briefed on the multitude of recreational options that awaited us, the counselors began scheduling our daily itineraries to match up with our personal interests. There was a ton of stuff to do – swimming, diving, sailing, marksmanship, crafts, bowling, archery, handball, basketball, baseball, flag football (nothing like unprotected contact sports overseen by blood-thirsty counselors, who repeatedly barked out “I don’t feel a thing” whenever someone limped over to the sidelines to show their dislocated finger or exposed, broken leg bone), and a plethora of para-military endeavors. I stood at the sign-up table, mulling over my choices for the afternoon agenda.

“Can I sign up for skeet shooting at 2:00 p.m.?” I politely asked, making sure not to make eye contact with anyone over 13.

“Love to help you out, kid”, was the dry response from the counselor as be checked over my pre-planned itinerary – which I didn’t know about, “but you’ve got tutoring every afternoon for two weeks – from 2 to 5”.

Tutoring? Wow, talk about your true definition of a military snafu.

“No, no, no, sir”, I sternly replied, determined that I was going to straighten this all out right here and now, repercussions be damned, “I didn’t sign up for any tutoring. I came to have fun.”

There … couldn’t get any plainer than that. Now we would start the fun stuff as soon as ….

“No, no mistake, bud”, came the that’s-final-so-don’tbother-me-about-it-anymore retort. “Your mother signed you up for math and science”.

I love my mother, I really do. But at that moment, for some reason, I wanted to know the location of the armory, with all of its high-powered rifles.

Yep, mom had gone and ruined my camp right out of the gate. The counselor gave me four or five textbooks, and an assortment of workbooks and ledgers. Then he waved me off in the direction of my impending class.

On the way to the math class, I made some life-changing decisions. By my reasoning, if I didn’t get math during the nine months of my last grade – which I passed – then two weeks of this wasn’t going to result in anyone shouting “Eureaka! By George, I think he’s got it!”

And I also reasoned that – like looking the instructor who ordered me to “drop and give him twenty” (pushups were the immediate means of extracting unwavering obedience from anyone) in the eye and calmly replying, “Twenty” – even these people weren’t going to start wailing on a kid. So I took a huge leap of faith, and entered the classroom.

I never opened the first book. Instead, I took the ledgers that came with the gig and made drawings for three hours (a skill which I had already honed in school), until the instructor gave us the “dismissed” order at 5:00 p.m. After a couple of days of not turning in homework, we had another little “meeting of the minds”, and I spent another couple of nights sitting in the lone chair in the middle of the quad, counting the alternating squares a thousand times over.

But after two days, my afternoon schedule was once again wide open. I was excused from any further waste of time with the tutorer.

And except for that one last obstacle, from there on out it became easier to adjust to this new lifestyle. I was hyper, and having 10-14 hours of non-stop activity was what I really needed. As long as I was busy, I was fine.

Or as long as no one tried to hang the mantle of responsibility on me.

After about five days of morning inspections, Greg and I made the big grade – our room was judged the most perfectly arranged of all those in our squad. As a reward, inspection winners were given the honor of leading our squad for the entire day – to breakfast, to activities, to lunch, to parade practice, to supper, and to whatever nightly entertainment was scheduled for the day. So they called our names, and we fell out of formation to take command of the squad.

Big mistake.

About halfway to the mess hall, as we marched and sang our little marching songs, we were passed – very slowly – by a carload of young ladies in a cute, little white Mustang convertible. There to see Citadel students, they addressed us with that “come hither” vocabulary that seemed to – in my mind – invite us to become, um, better acquainted. Keep in mind, they were 18-22; years old; we were all of 11-13.

But, after all, folks around there did like to say that the military way of life made men out of boys.

So, I turned to face my squad as we marched, and gave the order to fall out and become better acquainted.

We swarmed the Mustang, much to the dismay and surprise of the young women, literally falling in their laps and begging for kisses. They squealed in typical girl reaction, and hurriedly asked us to exit the vehicle.

Only as we vacated the car and began to reassemble for our march, did I notice a lone figure, standing at the entrance of the nearest building. In full dress uniform, he was much older, very rugged looking, and not at all amused, and he glowered at us without saying a word. Then he spotted a counselor in the distance, and called to him. They convened as we continued on our way, and I felt a disturbing vibe as they leaned over the rail, whispering to each other, trying to make out our destination.

After we readied our next activity, I forgot about the incident and went about having fun. The rest of the day was good, and supper was particularly delightful that night. After we led our squad back to the barracks, a counselor knocked on our door and asked us to step out for a minute.

When we did, we froze. There, standing in the night shadows, was the silhouette of the officer who had observed our “Charge of the Lightheatered Brigade” on the Mustang.

Oh, we could have done it in front of a Corporal, or a Sargeant, or a Lieutenant, or even a Major or Colonel. But that would have been too easy.

No, instead, ol’ Greg and I had put our squad in dire circumstances by launching our little foray on the gals in front of the president of the Citadel.

General Harris.

- Next Issue -
How I Came To Absolutely Loathe Potatoes

###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, August 15, 2002.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Camp Guns & Woeses – Part III

By Brian M. Howle

The previous two issues sorted out my days at the Citadel Boys Camp in Charleston, SC. Last issue, I had just recounted leading my squad in an all-out charge on a cute little Mustang full of college gals who had come to visit their cadet boyfriends. As fate would have it, our little “black op” was witnessed by the President of the Citadel, General Harris.

As penance for our unwanted intrusion on the Mustang, we pulled KP duty for most of the remaining days at camp. And as any good soldier knows – as a bottom feeder, if you screw up on the base level, you develop daily, personal relationships with zillions of potatoes in the never-ending quest to provide the troops with adequate amounts of starch and carbohydrates.

Say what you want about Asians … from the perspective of feeding the troops with a minimum of fuss, that whole rice thing suddenly made a lot of sense to me.

The first weekend at camp was a mixed event for yours truly. One the one hand, it meant I had reached the halfway point – my suffering would soon be over, and I would be back in the comfort of my house, in my hometown, with my now-very-normal;-no,-more-than-normal friends.

On the other hand, it meant I would come face to face with being the only kid in the house for the first time in my life – as my brother had been commissioned to attend the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO.

My parents spotted me among the sea of camp clones (hundreds of kids dressed in white T-shirts, blue shorts, blue baseball caps, white socks and tennis shoes) and waved me in the direction of our car. Jack was all decked out in his Air Force cadet dress uniform, looking sharp and drawing envious looks from some of my counselors. I had all year to figure out this thing that was about to happen, but for reasons unknown to me to this day, I just didn’t realize that the day would come when he would actually leave.

Looking back, it was an emotional day for everyone as we made our way to the airport. My brother was about to plunge into military school without the benefit of close proximity to home and friends, and among a sea of total strangers. My parents were watching their second-born and oldest son, leave home for a school almost all the way across the nation. And I was about to lose the protection and comfort of my big brother out in the real world.

I can’t remember how it went at the airport. I vaguely remember watching his plane quickly disappear into the horizon, winging its way to Colorado. And I don’t remember what we did afterwards, or where we went to eat.

I only remember how hard I cried myself to sleep that night, when I realized how much I missed my brother. I couldn’t understand why I was so upset – but I would have my answer sooner than I thought.

The following Monday, I finally got my chance to hit the skeet range. Mom’s failed attempt at having me tutored during my stay resulted in missing sign-up at the start of camp, and after I managed to extricate myself from the debacle I had to wait until the following week. Now, it was time for me to face some unspoken demons.

During the previous year, my Uncle Claude Martin (my mom’s oldest brother) had been killed in a hunting accident near his home. A 10-year-old boy – my age – on his first hunting trip, was left alone at the edge of a field. As Uncle Claude tried to slip through some hedges, the boy – startled, scared and much too young to be left alone with a gun – wheeled at the sound and pulled both triggers of his shotgun. It was clearly a tragic accident, but Uncle Claude was dead.

My mother’s father was a banker and a state senator from Branchville, S.C. In 1929, the stock market crash virtually wiped out the bank. Then in 1930, while returning to Columbia to vote on pending legislation, he and another senator were killed by a drunk driver in a horribly violent, head-on collision. My grandmother was suddenly a widow with five young children to raise.

Mama Ruth was not a meek woman. She had the intestinal fortitude of a Marine drill instructor when it came to raising her children, amid the pain and loss of her husband and their father. Uncle Bubba (as family and friends called him) took the mantle of oldest son and ran with it, completing college and then law school. His younger brother, Uncle G.W., completed college and then medical school. The girls – my mom, her sisters Margie and Minnie Claire – all completed college, and all pursued professional careers.

Yes, they all had great strength and were very goal oriented. But it was Uncle Bubba’s constant vigil at the helm of the family that saw them all through the hard times. I saw how much his death devastated my mother, aunts and Uncle G.W., but I didn’t realize at the time that it literally crushed my grandmother. She was never quite the same woman after Bubba’s death.

Making its way into a confusing cauldron of mixed signals about that same time was my desire to spend as much time as possible with my dad. It became confusing when we went hunting – up until my uncle’s death, I was only allowed to use a .22 caliber rifle and a .410 shotgun, and then only for target practice. Seeing his youngest boy on the cusp of adolescence, my father deemed me ready for the “big” shotgun.

There was no Andy Griffith episode for me to refer to on this one. I really knew only two things about shotguns: (1) They were very, very loud and scary; and (2) They killed my uncle.

So there was my paradox – trying to please my dad’s desire to see me through a rite of passage that all Howle men had conquered, while reeling from the subconscious raging fear and horror of suffering the same fate as Uncle Bubba.

I managed to placate my dad for a few hunting trips by having the “good” bad luck of a lack of game to shoot. He would try to get me to shoot the 20-gauge at tin cans (first thing I learned about the shotgun: little number, big kick), but I evaded his attempts. And I avoided that 12-gauge like the plague.

Now, here I was at a military summer camp where guns were praised and touted, with a variety of firearms programs for campers to pursue. Because I didn’t have the same anti-gun link with a rifle, I had been kicking butt at the indoor rifle range for a week, earning my Marksmanship medal in short order.

Now it was time to step up to the plate.

There was a firearm safety class before we were allowed on the skeet range, and everyone got the basic skinny on the do’s and don’ts of shotgun etiquette. Then we trotted outside to the range, and I tried to fade to the back of the line. But one of my counselors, who witnessed my tirade after being forced to miss that first week of skeet shooting – and then had to put up with my ensuing attitude – made dang sure I was up at the front of the line for this one.

While I was busy praying for a 20-gauge to be among the fold, God sent a clear message when I realized that they were all 12-gauge.

The kid in front of me eagerly took his place, adjusting his glasses and placing the shotgun up against his shoulder. He bobbed for a second, then called out “PULL!” The clay pigeon sailed from its launching hut, high over the reeds of the marshes along the Ashley River. He fired and missed, but he was not deterred. He was ecstatic, and he grudgingly shuffled to the back of the line to await his next turn.

Rich, my counselor, took me under his arm and led me to the shooting mark. I was never more terrified in my entire life, and as I tried to raise the heavy 12-gauge my whole body was shaking. The only comforting benefit was that with my back to my peers, they couldn’t see the tears streaming down my face.

But Rich had sensed my uneasiness around the shotguns, and through his persistent daily chats, he had come to figure out my phobia. I was seconds away from heaving the 12-gauge into the marsh and having a massive breakdown when he leaned over and whispered, “It’s just birdshot, Brian. You’re shooting over the marsh. There’s no one out there for over a mile. You don’t have to be scared, just yell ‘pull’ and lead the pigeon a little; keep the barrel moving and gently squeeze the trigger. You’re not going to kill anyone.”

I wasn’t shaking anymore, but I was still crying, and unable to shoot.

Rich took a deep breath and said, “Your Uncle Bubba would want you to do this, you know.”

Something clicked. Well, yeah, of course; Uncle Bubba was an avid outdoorsman. He hunted, fished and camped regularly, and his main getaway was a little concrete block cottage nestled on the white, sandy banks of the Edisto River. And now that I thought about it, I realized that just every memory of visiting with Uncle Bubba included a drive out to the river cottage.

The tears abated, and the rush of fresh courage and understanding flowed through my being with soothing warmth. I tightly gripped the shotgun, pulled it close to my shoulder and calmly called out, “PULL!”

The clay disc flew out of the little hut, silently gliding across the still afternoon sky. I followed it about halfway through my turn, leading it like Rich had told me, and then I shut my eye and pulled the trigger.

The gun didn’t sound like a cannon this time. And the much-feared kick of the big gauge gun was nothing – not at all like I had imagined. And about the time I was realizing all of this, I opened my eyes at the same moment I heard my fellow campers screaming in delight – and watched as the disc exploded into dust.

A crowbar couldn’t have pried the smile from my face as I made my way to the back of the line, as my friends shook my hand and slapped me on the back while they heaped congratulations on me. Uncharacteristically for me, I didn’t showboat or gloat. I just took it all in, enjoying the conquest of my fear while understanding – for the first time in my life – that this thing called life could be handled.

Oh, I was still galaxies away from maturity and growing up. I had a penchant for doing things the hard way and I successfully kept that foible intact for years to come. Umm … from time to time, still do.

But here – among an environment that I absolutely hated; among kids that I initially avoided; among disciplines and routines that were the least of my character traits; and among counselors that I initially provoked and constantly disrespected – we were all fortunate enough to have these cadet counselors. They were all fine young men of character who listened to their “kids,” and then set about helping them conquer their demons. Over the last few days of camp, I discovered every kid in my squad had some little “issue” that Rich and his counterparts helped to overcome.

That last night, as I listened to my little AM radio playing The Rolling Stones’ “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” through my earphone, I honestly thought I might have found a way of life that I needed. Sure, there was all that unnecessary (to me) military protocols stuff – but if it helped me overcome my deepest fear then maybe, just maybe, this was the life for me.

My epiphany was cut short when a hushed whisper beckoned my roommate and me to “come watch the fun,” as blurry shadows danced across the screen door to our room. We quickly tiptoed outside, where a line of kids was scurrying up the staircase at the entrance to our corner room. Following the group, we serpentined up to the fourth floor (a serious violation of rules made clear on day one, but disregarded on the final night because, hey, what could they do?).

The line disappeared into the doorway of an unoccupied room, where we could discern the stifled laughter of all the kids standing in the darkened room. At first, I couldn’t figure out what we were doing there. And then, I heard a muffled cry.

There was a kid who had been a major pain-in-the butt the entire two weeks. The typical “troubled loner,” he had been responsible for ratting out almost every person who did the least little thing wrong during our stay. When he wasn’t being a snitch, he whined and complained and played out major scenes of conflict with just about every kid – and this was payback time.

Lulled into the room with the promise of purveying the latest issue of Playboy, he had been shoved into one of the standing, metal lockers. The door was then slammed shut and locked, and the entire locker was tipped over – door first – onto the floor. He was trapped in a now unvented metal coffin, in the Indigo blackness of night, screaming and kicking and crying as the others laughed at his misfortune. As much as I disliked the guy, this just didn’t seem very funny to me. I slipped back to my room, popped the radio earpiece back in and thought some more about my earlier revelations.

Fortunately for me, I got over my thoughts of military life.

And that first Monday after being back home, at my weekly Boy Scout meeting, I think I wore my school clothes and took the demerits for not being in uniform.

And for some strange reason, I didn’t mind.

After all, I had a shotgun.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, August 29, 2002.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Night Of The Tanned Terrorists

By Brian M. Howle

As a resident of the Socastee area of Myrtle Beach, one tends to become oblivious to the constant buzzing of all types of aircraft which scurry in and out of the Myrtle Beach International airport. My apartment seems to be directly under the flight paths of most of the larger military aircraft, as the huge behemoths lumber overhead at what appear to be too-slow-to-stay-in-the-air speeds. This alone would cause most folks to feel alarm – but for me, the mere sight of the planes brings back much more than that.

During my college years, several of my friends and I worked for the S.C. Dept. of Parks, Recreation and Tourism during the summer. For three glorious months, studies and term papers were but a distant memory, lost in the haze of sun, sand and the never-ending waves of bikini-clad young ladies in need of company. Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet was our domain, and as lifeguards, the converted garage of Atalaya (the main restidence of philanthroper Archer Huntington; the name is Spanish for “Castle in the Sand”) was our home for the summer.

The pay was not that great – in fact, it was probably below minimum wage. But the pay wasn’t the single most important factor in our decision to work there. In some lines of work, there are “perks” that go with the territory, and, well … let’s just say there are some pretty neat perks associated with this particular job. And at some point in future columns, I will share some of them with you, depending on my research into some statue of limitation issues. But for now, here’s the story of why I’m leery of the big planes:

One of my buddies, Joe Bouknight, was the head lifeguard. Actually, the title was more for show than anything else, as we all shared the same duties and pay. The only time I can remember that title coming into play was when a group of very attractive young ladies happened by the lifeguard stand one day, and as the five of us jockeyed for attention and allowed the testosterone to influence our demeanor, Joe suddenly remembered his title. A couple of us were instructed to make our rounds up the shoreline while he – in his position of great importance and authority – made sure no one stole the 400 lb. lifeguard stands. Which was always a real threat, since it was common knowledge those stands were virtual babe magnets.

Joe’s father was a retired Air Force Chaplain. His family moved to my hometonw of Andrews, SC, the summer before my senior year of high school, and we became fast friends right away. Joe was an excellent student, replete with all the honors – STAR student, National Honor Society member, Marshall – and an academic record that made him a Who’s Who shoo-in. Of course, all of this meant he was a perfect canfederate for youthful mischief, and we bonded immediately.

As fate would have it, Joe’s dad decided to take a long-awaited sojourn to Europe with one of his old Air Force buddines during the summer. Both men could take advantage of one of the constant military flights – known as “hops” due to numerous layovers and plane changes – across the big pond for a few weeks of sighseeing and retracing steps from their service during World War II. Al the plans were arranged during the school year, and the two men were giddy with anticipation as the big day neared. The only item that escaped their attention during the planning stage was how to get to Charleston Air Force Base for a midnight flight to Germany.

Ever the helpful son, Joe volunteered to take his dad to the airbase. After all, it was a midnight departure time, and with our schedule of beach duty – stumbling to the stands around 9am in the morning, give or take an hour – it was a perfect plan. Of course, Joe would need a co-pilot for the long drive back late at night, and there was never any question as to who would be best suited for the task.

So, on the appointed day, we packed up the floatation rings and zinc oxide and headed for Andrews to pick up his dad and his dad’s friend. They had their luggage sitting out in the driveway as we pulled up, and before poor Joe could even give his mom a hug, they were in the car, honking the horn and hollering “Let’s GO!” It was bernusing to see these two older gentlemen acting like a couple of kids going to the fair for the first time, especially since I had Joe’s dad as a teacher during that final year of high school. None of my other classmates ever saw this reserved, quiet, soft-spoken man in the light that I now observed.

An hour and a half later, we were passing through the gates of the airbase, with Joe’s dad navigating our route to the boarding area. We hauled the luggage to the check-in while his dad tended to the paperwork and obtained his passes for the flight. As is usually the case at any airport – military or civilian – there was an unscheduled delay, estimated to be around an hour or more in duration. We offered to stay during the wait, but Joe’s dad told us to go on back to Huntington so we would be well rested for the next day’s work. We wished them a safe flight and headed back to the car. On the way out of the parking lot, Joe turned off of the road to the main gate, driving slowly as he alternated his attention from the street to something he seemed to be searching for up above the surrounding buildings.

“What are you looking for?” I asked, as I peered out into the dark silhouettes of unlit, unmarked buildings.

“I want to see the C-5As,” came the reply. “I saw their tailfins when we were driving in.”

For those of vou not familiar with military aircraft, the C-5A is the Air Force equivilant of the Boeing 747 commercial airliner, and as we rounded a corner, four massive tailfins – 5-stories tall – loomed over the last row of buildings. Awash in high-intensity lighting, these impressive giants dwarfed everything around them, including a nearby C-141 Starlifter (which is what usually flies around my neighborhood when the military is conducting training maneuvers in our area). Joe wheeled his Volkswagen Squareback between two buildings that boardred the tarmac where the planes were parked. He turned off the headlights and ignition, which launched a teeny little red flag somewhere deep within that part of my brain (not often used) that had – on many previous occasions – vainly attempted to tell me something that I never seemed to quite grasp.

“Um, Joe … How long are we going to sit here looking at the big white planes?”, I asked as I began to take in the enormity of these gleaming goliaths, the fine hair-like tentacles of the onset of nervousness lightly making their presence known as they ventured out a little further from the recesses of my brain.

“Who’s sitting?” was the answer that trailed off as Joe shut his door and began walking towards the tarmac.

“Um, Joe I began again as I fumbled for the door handle, hurrying to get out and feebly attempting to bring the matter up for discussion, “Joe, what are you doing, Joe?” It occurred to me I sounded like the HAL 2000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Joe didn’t notice the analogy, though, as he was fixated on the big planes, steadily walking towards them as if under some Svengali-like trance. I hurried to catch up with him, glancing around for some sign of life that would discourage any further advance, but it was the dead of night and nothing was around but us and the big planes. The I suddenly remembered – with a justifying reassurance – that Joe had been on numerous airbases, as his dad was a career Air Force man. Surely, he knew the parameters of what was allowed and would proceed only as far as needed.

About that time, I saw a small, red nylon rope on the pavement before us, held up only a few inches off the ground every thirty or so feet by small red cones. The little flag began to flutter in my head.

“Um, Joe,” I once again droned, coming to a stop at the rope, feeling that there was some significance to its presence. “Joe, I don’t think we should cross this rope.”

“Naw, it’s O.K., if it was restricted there would be armed guards on duty around the planes,” came another trailing reply, as he maintained his steady gait towards the now REALLY huge aircraft.

“Um, Joe … I dunno about this … I think …” Now my voice trailed off as I noticed a blue Air Force pickup heading in our direction, although it wasn’t speeding towards us. Al the same, I wasn’t feeling quite as adventurous now.

“Um, Joe … I think that truck is heading for us”, I emphatically implored as I came to a complete stop.

Sure enough, the truck pulled up beside us, and an airman stuck his head out the window and asked, “What the hell are you guys doing out here? I looked at Joe with a “good question” face.

“We just wanted to take a look at the C-5As,” Joe stated matter-of factly, smiling his usual boyish-charm smile, completely unphased by our position between the red rope and the planes.

“Well, you guys better clear outta here before …”. Now his voice trailed off as he cocked his head to look past us. “Um, never mind”, were his final words as he put his truck in gear and turned around, leaving us to look in the direction he was looking before he abruptly left.

What we saw were two more Air Force pickups heading towards us, but they were not just cruising the runways. They were going very, very fast.

“I think we should head back to the car now,” Joe said as he began a brisk pace in that direction, not noticing that I was already about 10 feet ahead of him and noticeably faster. We managed to make it about halfway back when the trucks skidded to a stop, tires squealing, one in front of us and one behind us. Then the door of the truck in front of us flew open, and an extremely tense, loud voice bellowed through the still night air.

“FREEZE! HANDS ON YOUR HEADS!” came the order, as the beam of a spotlight blinded us. “I SAID, HANDS ON YOUR HEADS! AND WALK TOWARDS MY VEHICLE. DO NOT MAKE ANY SUDDEN MOVES OR I WILL BLOW YOUR HEADS CLEAN OFF!”

Apparently, he was addressing Joe, as I was in front of his truck before he got to the “sudden moves” part. Content that I was following orders correctly, I turned slightly to look at him. That was when I first noticed the .45 automatic pistol in his hand.

The little flag was starting to whip around pretty good now.

And with good reason, for as I turned to look at him, he jammed the pistol into the back of my neck, pushing my head towards the hood of his truck. “HANDS ON THE HOOD, SPREAD YOUR FEET, DO NOT MOVE OR I WILL VENTILATE YOUR BRAIN.”

For some unknown reason, the surrealism of the moment overtook my thought process, and I turned towards Joe and sorta half-laughed, “Man, I don’t believe this.”

Surrealism quickly gave way to reality as a hard, heavy boot kicked my right foot out, widening my stanc even further, followed by, “I SAID DO NOT MOVE!” As the M.P. frisked us – while we stood barefoot, in pocketless shorts and tank tops – I heard the sounds of boots hitting the pavement behind us, accompanied by many metallic clicking noises. Since my head was almost touching the hood anyway, I very carefully tucked down a little more to look under my left arm, to see what the noises behind us were. There I found 12 fully equipped M.P.s, each with a fully loaded M-16 assault rifle pointed directly at us.

The little flag was now horizontal in a gale of fear.

At some point, Joe managed to stammer out our reason for being there, but it didn’t have much impact on our captors. We were ordered into the back of the truck behind us, all the while inches away from full metal jacket encounters of the close kind. We sat down in the bed of the truck, encircled by a dozen barrels which remained trained on us. Then the M.P. with the pistol – who was much older than the others, and very much in charge – walked to his truck and led both vehicles away from the planes.

As soon as he was in front of our truck, helmets and rifles went slamming down to the floor of the bed. “Man, what is it with you people?”, came a disgusted inquiry. “You guys make the THIRD set of idiots tonight wanting to see the big, shiny planes!”, was another M.P.’s comment. It was only then that we could see the faces of our captors, and along with their apparent lack of interest in blowing us away, we noticed most of them were just kids – even younger than us. For the first time since “FREEZE”, we relaxed a little.

“No crap, man”, volunteered another guy, “I had just made a sandwich, ‘cause I haven’t eaten yet, ,cause the first two sets of morons kept us out for two hours. When the alarm sounded, I tried to grab it on the way out the door, but I lost it jumping into the truck!”. As we rumbled along through a maze of buildings and sidestreets off of the tarmac, we asked them what was going to happen to us. “Oh, probably, ‘Don’t do this again’”, as he slapped one hand against the back of his other one. They all had a good laugh over that one.

Then the truck came to a stop, and helmets and rifles were quickly returned to their previous places, as we were marched into one of those foreboding quonset huts. A buzzer was pressed, a red light came on and the door clicked open as we were led inside.

We sat in complete silence as mufled voices were heard from behind a door which had a sign on it which read, “No Weapons Beyond This Point”. About 20 minutes later, the entry door opened, and more M.P.s came in, followed by Joe’s dad. He paused for a moment, giving Joe one of those looks that my dad has given me on occasion, then proceeded thru fhe “No Weapons” door.

About 5 minutes later, he emerged with the Base Security Commander, and he ooked at us and said, “Yes, that’s my on Joe, and that’s his friend Brian; I’ve known him his entire life. I promise if you let them go, they’ll never try this again”. Amen, Rev. Bouknight.

They held Mr.Bouknight’s plane until he got back, so at least we only embarrassed him and didn’t ruin his trip. The two blue trucks took us to Joe’s car and then escorted us to the main gate, ensuring the U.S. Air Force that their C-5As were safe and sound.

As we drove down I-26 through North Charleston, heading for the safety and sanctuary of Hwy. 17 and Huntington Beach State Park, we approached an interchange. On one of those big, green highway signs overhanging from an overpass read, “Naval Weapons Station”.

“You know”, Joe began as we slowed down slightly, “I’ve always wanted to see a Polaris submarine up close”.

I’ll bet you that to this day, you can still see the scar from my big toenail on the top of his right foot.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, March 25, 1999.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Vroom! Vroom! Vroom!

By Brian M. Howle

Glowing ribbons of magenta and azure run along the skin of night’s last gasp, illuminating billowing, cumulus clouds and wispy puffs of breakers on an undiscernable horizon. Fingers of radiant rapture entwine themselves into everything they envelope, kissing the warm trade wind breezes that caress the north Florida coastline. Ever-present seagulls glide silently upon the kind breeze, climbing effortlessly across the beaches and dunes, over the rows of motels, condos and homes, spanning the marshes and waterways of the natural coastline, then diving out of the lifting currents across a great expanse of smooth concrete and asphalt. They hover motionless, calculating the next wave of wind.

Suddenly, a wall of air pressure and gravity violently slam the seagulls upward, then downward and outward, only to disappear as quickly as it arrived. Nanoseconds later, an explosion of sound sends shock waves reverberating thru their disheveled bodies, igniting the birds “fight or flight” response as they flee in sheer terror towards the protective bosom of a rising February sun.

Welcome to Daytona Speedweeks.

The Superbowl of Stock Car Racing - The Daytona 500 - is held as the first race of the season, making NASCAR's kickoff event a unique production. This year's race, after rain delays and a spectacular freak accident held up an additional two hours, finished well after midnight, and Matt Kenseth's #17 Ford Taurus took the win.

Yes, dear hearts, it’s true. Despite advantages in social standing, upper middle class stature and the opportunity to experience higher education, I am a victim of my environment. Call me simple, call me common, call me redneck at heart – just don’t call me during a Nextel Cup race.

Singer Barbara Mandrell capitalized on the crossover of country music to mainstream with her song, “I Was Country Before Country Was Cool.” In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the woeful opuses devoted to heartache, alcohol and pickup trucks were embraced by the nation; nay, the world. Steel guitars, cowboy boots and cheatin’ hearts were as abundant as spandex, disco balls and cocaine. America had come to understand.

The acceptance, popularity and growth of stock car racing under the auspices of NASCAR was inevitable as far as I’m concerned. Then again, I do have some vestiges of predicating influences that may color my opinion.

Anyone who has been following this column should know by now that I was raised in a small town not far from the beach, the quiet little community of Andrews, SC. Approximately 20 miles west of Georgetown, Andrews is a relatively peaceful collection of nice, unassuming folks. Like anywhere else, it has its infrequent brush with notoriety or celebrity, the most notable example of the celebrity moniker being it is the home of the Intergalactic Ambassador of The Twist, Chubby Checker. Perched on the edge of Georgetown County, most residents work in the paper or steel mills of Georgetown, in the textile mill in town, in some scattered light industry or town businesses, or agricultural endeavors. And like anywhere else, today it boasts of all the franchised accoutrements – fast-food, strip malls, convenience stores and a Food Lion complex replete with a restaurant featuring Oriental cuisine.

The 1959 First Annual 500 Mile NASCAR International Sweepstakes at Daytona was held on February 22, 1959, in front of 41,921 spectators. Lee Petty (center car) battled with Johnny Beauchamp, as the two drove side by side across the finish line at the end final lap for a photo finish (car closest to wall is a lapped car). Beauchamp was declared the unofficial winner by NASCAR officials, and he drove to victory lane. It took NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. three days to decide Petty the winner the following Wednesday. The controversial finish helped the sport. The delayed results to determine the official winner kept NASCAR and the Daytona 500 on the front page of newspapers.

That’s the Andrews of today. Back when I was a kid, if you didn’t have your groceries in the kitchen, gas in the take of your car or notebook paper for your kid’s homework by 5:00pm, on weekdays, it was like an elliptical orbit around the moon’s dark side in low gear, ‘cause it was a good 14 hours before you could do any of those things again. And if it was Wednesday, tack on another 5 hours, as all the businesses turned the “Closed” signs on their doors at noon. Most of the mills paid their employees on Thursdays: This meant for the three grocery stores – The Piggly Wiggly (which my father owned), the Red & White and the IGA (which we P.W. folk sorta looked down on) – it was time to break out the new case of cash register receipts, as well as for the dry goods stores in town. Saturdays offered a more leisurely shopping experience in most instances, as closing time was usually extended an hour.

For a child growing up at the time, it was light years removed from the current fare of adolescent amusement. No computers, no video games, no video stores, no Walkmans, no cable TV, no color TV, No MTV. No mopeds, no ATVs, no cell phones, no faxes, no waterparks, no multi-screened movie complexes. No digital cameras (although the advent of the Polaroid brought about a reaction akin to the discovery of the tapir’s jawbone by the primates of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) no CDs (although 8-tracks did make an appearance towards the end of high school), No strip bars (although one of my friends’ dad had a subscription to Playboy from day one), and NO Mickey D’s (although we did have Sam’s Restaurant, the salt lick for prepubescent teens and hormonal wildlings, where you pulled into the parking lot, flashed your lights and had child labor law violations take your order for dime tips).

I’m telling you, it was rough. Why, the metal container from someone’s supper of soup the night before was scarfed up and sacrificed to harm’s way as the all-consuming item of interest in a game of “Kick The Can”. Magnolia seed pods made excellent grenades in all-day games of “Soldier”, each of us determinedly placing the stem in our mouths, teeth clinching tightly as we pulled our hands away, releasing the “pin” and tossing high, arching lobs over banks of azaleas and camellias to annihilate our foes.

Hours were spent in wading safaris encompassing all the major ditches known to harbor legendary crustaceans- crawfish (known to you enlightened as “crayfish” or “prawn”) – each of us armed only with our knowledge of submerged rocks and bottles, and always with the latest contestant of the previous day’s “Kick The Can” affair. Because if you happened across that “grandaddy” with the 8-foot clawspan that the owner of the gas station had sworn to encounter as a child, well, you wanted some metal between you and that rascal. Amateurs quickly abandoned their grandmother’s hairnets for dredging during their initial hunts. Mistakes were repaired at the doctor’s office, tears were kissed away, ice cream was consumed and the subscription to Playboy was ensured.

The end result of the 1979 Daytona 500 - the race that gave birth to today's fascination with NASCAR. A blizzard had immobilized most of the eastern half of the country, so a captive audience witnessed the first live, nationally televised stock car race. Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed each other on the final lap; when their cars came to a rest in the infield, they began to argue. Then Bobby Allison stopped to check on his brother; words were exchanged, and in the aftermath - according to Bobby - "Cale proceeded to hit my fist with his nose repeatedly!" Richard Petty crossing the finish line for the victory got scant seconds of live coverage, as "The Fight" gave viewers the far more interesting story of the ending. And everyone pretty much agrees, this was the event that gave NASCAR the push that created the meteoric rise in its popularity.

About five miles north of town, just across the Black River, Highway 41 junctions Highway 521. On the northwest corner of the intersection sat a small, wooden gas station. And about 30 yards behind the station was Black River Speedway, a dirt track of less than half a mile in length: Hard, splinter infested stands for spectators, and a P.A. and scoring tower that consisted of four telephone poles pursuing four different versions of verticality, topped off with a glorified clubhouse that exceeded those constructed by my friends and me only by virtue of having electrical wiring. The mosquitoes were voracious (look at a topographic map of Andrews sometime – the town is virtually a small raised hump of land surrounded by swamp and rivers), dust was inescapable and permeated everything, and the noise was excruciatingly ear-splitting.

In other words, I experienced an epiphany.

My dad took me as often as he could, but when he couldn’t, I quickly found someone who was going. The smell of fresh cut grass, cotton candy, insect repellent, Old Spice, oil and gasoline, Lucky Strikes, burning rubber and the occasional whiff of ‘shine combined to burrow deep, entrenched folds in the halls of memories in my brain. Pepsi Colas with peanuts poured in, t-shirts with packs of smokes rolled up in the sleeves, ducktails and big, sweaty men with softball-sized chaws of chewing tobacco bulging out their cheeks. All these things flood through my mind at the speed of light whenever someone flips a starter switch and a big ol’ V-8 braps itself to life, the fuel flooding thru the ravenously thirsty four-barrel carburetor in parallel to my memories.

My dad has always had Fords. Always will. And as the good Lord intended, so have I (except for that meaningless indiscretion with a Grand Prix in ‘89). He eventually sold the Piggly Wiggly, only to become general manager of the local Ford dealership, Hemingway Motors – which is confusing as hell to outsiders since the town of Hemingway is 25 miles on up the road. I even worked there part-time during high school, deftly dispersing auto component’s to the mechanics after consulting the encrypted code book from hell in the parts department. So it was only natural and right that when the green flag dropped, whoever was driving a Ford – any Ford – was my guy.

And I wasn’t shy about it, either. Engine decibels were periodically challenged by my shredding vocal chords. Once, a man sitting down the row from me reached over an tugged my arm. “Next time that #94 (the only Ford in this particular race) comes by, let’s all stand up and holler ‘GO 94 FORD!’, alright?”  Ever the gullible foil, next time by I rocketed up in the air screaming “GO 94 FORD!” for all the world to hear.

Which they did, quite easily, since I was the only one of the 150 or so in the crowd to do so.

As the crowd’s laughter subsided in my ears, I fought off the tears of humiliation and avoided all eye contact. But then that thing I mentioned earlier – as the Lord intended – came into play as my guy, #94, beat fenders and traded paint with every Chevy and Olds and Pontiac on the track, muscling his way past the leader coming out of the fourth turn on the last lap.

As he came back around, slowing to take the checkered flag from the flagman for his victory lap, I was startled by a loud chorus of “GO 94 FORD!” from the crowd around me. I turned to find my supposed antagonist with a conciliatory smile on his face, and extending his hand in friendship. As I shook his hand, he leaned over and winked at me. “Loyalty,” he drawled, “is what this sport is all about, son.”

From the season’s final race in Atlanta (now Homestead, Fla.) in November until Speedweeks at Daytona in early February, those who share my avocation for the sport find themselves in an uncomfortable state of limbo. Saturday and Sunday afternoons contain black holes of time where 200 mph billboards and the soothing wail of 750 horsepower behemoths running at full song should exist. But come next Sunday, right after noon, the green flag will drop and 40 or so of the best drivers in the world will give 150,00 at the track – and millions more on TV – the best show going. Most fans are latecomers to the sport, drawn in by masterful promotion, unmatched excitement and the glitz of corporate sponsorship.

And the newest generation of kids in Andrews should concern themselves with only one thing – visiting the local McDonald’s. Because the #94 McDonald’s Winston Cup car, driven by Bill Elliott – and, coincidentally, a FORD – will need fresh tires on each pit stop.

Go ahead, kids … that Big Mac will put on a right front, and a Combo meal will put new rubber on all around.

With apologies to Barbara, “I Was NASCAR Before NASCAR Was Cool.”
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, February 22, 1999.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Changing The World With A Wizard 9/16

By Brian M. Howle

Every generation – regardless of race, sex, creed or religion – has held it as their own personal ideal from the beginning of time: The concept of one’s individual actions – or as it member of a group – actually having a recognizable impact on the world around them. Sadly, only a select few every realize that dream.

I’m proud to say that some friends of mine and I once earned that distinction – in our own adolescent way.

Back in the days before the multitude of recreational distractions that now plague every neighborhood in the developed world – computers, TVs, CDs, cell phones, etc. – kids had to fend for themselves when it came to entertainment. Usually, this fell under the supervision of adults, and wisely so, as we all know that in idle mind is the Devil’s playground.

Ol’ Scratch surely must have looked upon my little group of friends as some twisted version of Disneyland.

As I have related many times before, growign up in Andrews, S.C. in the ‘60s had its limitations when it came to things to do for bored and restless youngin’s. Team games like football, basketball and baseball, and small group games like “Kick The Can” or “War Games” served us well in keeping our devious little minds preoccupied during the daylight hours. And the Boy Scouts provided a wonderful, controlled outlet for crossing over the much desired sunset-and-beyond stuff that we all dreamed of endlessly, wishing for time to rush by at light speed so we could all be old enough to do the forbidden things that older kids were allowed to do.

Nowadays, we would trade anything to relive those slow, carefree days of childhood – since time now seems to actually whiz by at the speed of light. Sigh

Well, there were a handful of exceptions to our confined existence back then – and this is about a couple of them.

I should say in advance, my particular little clique of friends was pretty well-behaved for the better part of our youth. We didn’t engage in hard-core criminal activity or aminial sacrifice, or anything really weird like that. After all, most of my friends were Boy Scouts, and we lived by the standards we were taught.

Well, um … most of the time, anyway.

When your world is restricted to a 5-mile radius, it’s pretty hard to get into that much trouble.

Hmmmm … I can almost hear some of those who knew me then, choking right now.

O.K., so besides my own little individual adventures of some note, as a group, we were fairly harmless. For the most part.

There was the time that my best friend “T” and I were walking home from a trip to the soda fountain at Reynold’s Drug Store, knocking around with no particular interest in mind. As we walked across the old Lane railroad track on Morgan Avenue – which is Highway 41 – we noticed it dog laying in the middle of the highway.

Even then, I was a budding champion of animal protection, and was immediately concerned about this dog’s well-being. It didn’t seem to be injured as far its we could tell, and although it had no collar or tags, we were certain it was somebody’s pet. And that meant it was up to us to save the day.

We approached the docile little pooch and calmly exhorted it to get out of the road. The dog just gave us that dog look of indifference and stayed put. Then we noticed a truck heading into town that was obviously disregarding the speed limit, and showing no signs of slowing down for the relaxing mutt.

As we appealed to its sense of self-preservation, the dog continued to show no interest in abiding by our wishes, as it went about the usual dog ritual of licking itself with total disregard for socially acceptable behavior. And then I noticed the truck was less than 3 blocks away – and hadn’t slowed down it bit.

Well, so much for diplomacy … it was time for action. As “T” kept watch on the fast-approaching truck, I leaned over and tried to push the pup towards the curb. No response. I pushed a little harder. Still no response. And then I reached the panic point when “T” began screaming for me to get out of the road, lest I join the dog in his quest for termination. And so, I booted the rascal in an act of sheer desperation, one final attempt to save this helpless, sweet little doggie from becoming a frisbee.

The dog did finally move, and quite fast, too. But not before showing its thanks for the boot by chomping down on my hand on its way to the nearest yeard, where it promptly disappeared through some bushes.

Well, now I had a real problem. “T”, who went on to become a doctor, assessed the situation with amazing accuracy.

“Man, you’re gonna get it now, Brian. You’re gonna have to get a bunch of rabies shots now”, he said to me as I shook my bleeding hand far away from my body in an attempt to dislodge the dog germs from my hand. “I’ve never seen that dog before; I don’t know who it belongs to, and neither do you. Unless we call find it, you’re definitely gonna have to get those rabies sho…”

“Look, I’m not getting any shots, alright? That dog wasn’t foaming at the mouth or anything; he wasn’t running around like he was crazy with distemper or anything,” I retorted between screams of pain. “Besides, no one knows about this but you and me“.

“Oh, sure, like you’re gonna waltz into your house and your mama isn’t gonna ask how you ripped your hand open, Brian,”h snapped back with his uncanny, dead-on summarization of the situation.

“Hey, I can handle my mom, don’t worry about that. You just make sure you don’t rat me out, alright?” I pleaded, giving him that “Hey-you’re-my-best-friend-in-the-whole-world-and-I’d-never-rat-you-out” look. With some reluctance and a lot more begging on my part, he finally agreed to my plan.

About ten minutes after I got home, the phone rang while I was in the bathroom washing my gashed hand with soap and Listerine, biting on a towel to muffle the screams of searing pain, and I paid the ringing no attention. About tell seconds later, my inother burst into the bathroom.

“ARE YOU INSANE? MARY GAMBLE JUST CALLED AND SAID “T”TOLD HER YOU WERE BITTEN BY A STRAY DOG! GET IN THE CAR, WE’RE GOING TO DR. HARPER’S OFFICE RIGHT NOW!”

Although I later thanked my friend for his actions, during the next few hours I was seriously reconsidering my choice of best friend. How could he rat me out like that? I was silently furious as Dr. Harper examined my hand, turning it over a dozen times while exalting a series of “Hmmmm’s” before walking back to where he kept all the surgical stuff. I knew that didn’t bode well for me, but with Dr. Harper on one side and my steaming mom on the other, my options were limited.

Dr. Harper returned with some disinfectant derived from pure acid, as he scoured my hand with what I considered to be way too much enjoyment. Then he dressed it and went into the next room with my mom, as I leaned quietly towards the closed door trying to discern the low tone of the discussion they were having. When the door finally opened, Dr. Harper came back to me and said:

“Brian, if we can’t find that dog and verify that it doesn’t have rabies – and you’re not going to like this – you’re going to have to undergo a series of shots with this.”

He then produced the biggest, longest, scariest hypodermic needle my frightened little eyes had ever seen. To this day, I can’t believe I didn’t pass out.

Well, the dog was eventually found, and it turned out not to have rabies. But I was definitely leery about sharing any of my personal secrets with “T” for awhile after that.

As we got a little older, we got a little bolder. One night, several of us were spending a Friday night at my friend Van’s house. We soon tired of playing “Tripoly” and all the usual games to keep our wired little minds occupied. And then, well … then we had a really cool idea.

My dad had recently bought it 1954 Chevrolet 2-door coupe from the little old lady who lived next to the Piggly Wiggly that he owned. It was black with a white top; simple, basic transportation to take him from home to the store or to go fishing out at Jack Lake near Jamestown. It was his work car, and I was mesmerized by its presence. And one of the really cool things about this particular car that caught my attention right away was the fact that you didn’t need a key to start it up. It had one of those old-fashioned ignition wwitches that would turn with or without a key.

I don’t remember how it came up, but we decided to sneak out of Van’s house and run back over to my house in the middle of the night. Then, quietly, and with the stealth of a SWAT team, we lurked from the shadows of my yard and surrounded the Chevy. I jumped behind the wheel as lily friends moaned and groaned and pushed the 2-ton car (they used to make ‘em solid back then – all steel, not it speck of plastic) silently down Cottonwood until we were about a block and a half away from my house. Then they all climbed in and I fired up the stout 235 cubic inch 6-cylinder as we cruised out into the night. We stayed on the back roads as much as possible, and took some old logging roads when we could. We may have been young, but we had an amazing command of every road within 20 miles of Andrews, and to reach them without crossing the main highways. We didn’t speed; we weren’t drinking (yet), and we weren’t really raising any hell – just lumbering along at low speeds, taking in the wind and still night air as we cruised from point to point.

On one of those occasions where we actually had to drive on the main highway, we passed the town limit sign of a smal communiy between Andrews and Kingstree. And then, our little group had the collective thought of how we could change our little corner of the world.

A quick diversion back into town was required, as Van had to retrieve a Wizard 9/16” socket and a 1/2” ratchet front his home. His dad owned the Western Auto, and everything that Van utilized had the Wizard name on it. Quietly giggling and keeping an eye out for “the man”, we eased back into the safety of the back roads and headed for the neighboring communities.

When we reached the first little town limit sign, we doused the headlights and slowed down almost to a stop. Then one or two of us jumped out and ran over to the sign as the rest drove off in the darkness, just far enough away to keep tabs on everything while turning the car around. By the time we crept back to our friends, they had removed the nuts and bolts that held the sign on its posts, and with boisterous laughter, piled back into the Chevy with the town limit sign in tow.

We then cruised over to the next little town, and removed their sign its well. Only, this time, we replaced it with the one we had lifted from the previous town.

This went on for a couple of hours, until we had rearranged the world enough to confuse any unwitting stranger passing through a town theh thought to be 25 miles to their north or east, wondering how they had become so lost on a highway so simple.

All in all, we probably changed the names of a dozen towns that night, and never looked back. Of course, we also never had any concept of how much trouble we could have gotten into for our little prank, although we did have enough sense to make it a onetime event. It took some towns longer than others to realize their new identities, but eventually, they all got their signs back.

And today, whenever I pass one of those big, fancy, custom-made signs tha are so popular now, I can’t help but think:

If they had been around back then, I would have had to learn how to hot-wire daddy’s Piggly Wiggly delivery pickup.

And Van would have had to bring the entire Wizard line of tools along with him.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, May 18, 2000.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Kick The Can 8.0

By Brian M. Howle

During the Thanksgiving holiday break, I was once again in Columbia – at my beloved’s, frantically trying to finally complete the latest home improvement project that we had begun a few months back. There are certain jobs that mere mortals undertake which, when completed, give you a whole new appreciation for the craftsmen and artisans who do these things professionally, day in and day out.
In my eyes, anyone who lays ceramic tile for a living has been elevated to mythological “god” status. Don’t ever quibble with these folks about their rates for services rendered; they earn every single penny. Be nice to them.

Anyway, during one of the many much-needed breaks (required to realign my spine from the question mark formation that threatened to fuse my vertebrae together, after staying hunched over the backerboard and mortar for hours on end), I slipped out the kitchen door and began to play with our black Labrador Retriever, Maggie. Maggie’s most favorite game in the whole, wide world is fetching her “bone”, an odd-looking toy shaped like a bone, but consisting of two, small neon-green soccer balls on either end of the “bone”. As long as you can throw it, Maggie will happily chase it down and bring it back, lathering it with yet another coat of dog saliva in copious amounts.

While engaged in this relaxing game, I noticed some of the local kids playing in the woods behind our house. At first, I couldn’t really see them – I could hear them talking and laughing, and from time to time, see the tree limbs shaking in the general area of their play. Then I noticed electronic noises mixed in as well causing me to run to the kitchen door to listen for our phones ringing. But the sounds were not emanating from the house. The younguns were the source.

When they eventually made their way out of the woods, I discovered the source of the sounds I had heard. Among this hand of children, pagers, beepers, and cell phones were as prominent as pine needles in a Carolina forest.

I just had to shake my head in silent disapproval. And I think Maggie concurred with me, but then again, it could’ve been fleas.

For a guy who’s always considered himself pretty hip ‘n happenin’, there are some things that seem sadly out of place when it comes to the amenities endowed upon our children these days. And I’m beginning to worry that the entire, arnazing, bewildering, humbling, frustrating and thrilling experience of “childhood” may well be slipping further away from each uscceeding generation. My heart sinks at the thought of some child in the not-so-distant future having only one or two years of pure childhood.

My best guess at the current timeline for children is about 5, maybe 6 years, tops.

Now, when my friends and I were growing up, that timeline ran up to, oh, about 13 to 16 years. Of course, some matured earlier; others – like myself – took a leetle longer. But generally speaking, I’d say a good 13 years was spent in happy, unending, all-consuming, mindless play.

Every time I start up on the subject of differences between my early years and my kids’, that uneasy parallel – of hearing my parents say the exact same thing – pierces through my brain like a billboard featuring a 30-foot image of Katherine Harris, that much-maligned Florida Secretary of State. That being said, I begrudgingly begin the next sentence with …

When I was these kids’ age, there were hardly any electronic toys and gadgets. That’s mainly because, when we were kids, the few electronic toys and gadgets that did exist came from Japan, and at the time, “Made in Japan” was synonymous with “Piece of Crap”.

See, we had just bombed the Japanese back into the stone age, and their manufacturing facilities were gone. They cobbled together little shops and started churning out whatever they could to make a yen, and were slowly but steadily rebuilding their manufacturing infrastructure. And post-war restrictions on what raw materials they were allowed further slowed down their ability to produce top-quality items for export. As a result, a lot of their stuff was considered cheap junk.

I guess the Japanese didn’t care for that a whole lot. But hey, they sure did change their image, didn’t they? Now, anything we Americans spend the time and research to invent – and then toss away as unimportant – becomes yet another opportunity for the Japanese to perfect, produce and sell en masse back to us. Now, we look at Sony, Lexus, and Furbies they way they used to look at RCA, Cadillac, and hula hoops. Oh, well, that’s what we get for dropping the “big one”. Actually, the “big two’.

So, without the current fare of today’s distractions, we had to revert to using our wits and imagination. It was either that, or watch the pine trees grow. Not being horticulturally inclined or noticeably retarded, we chose to play.

There were the obligatory football, baseball and basketball games; the board games, the card games, the dizzying array of play games (Red Rover, Dodge Ball, Spin The Bottle, etc.); bicycling, skating, swimming, boating, hiking, and eventually, golfing. We had stuff to do.

But above all – more than anything in the whole world – we played Kick The Can.

A simple enough concept: Mark a spot for a “base” (usually on the walkway leading to the front door of the house at which we were playing), take an empty soup can and place it on the base, pick one person to be “it”, and line up everyone to one side. Then give the signal to start, and someone kicks the living daylights out of the can, sending it as far away from the base as possible. Everyone races out of sight (usually behind the house), whoever’s “it” retrieves the can and places it back on the base, and then tries to make visual confirmation of the others. Upon spotting a player, “it” would then quickly run back to the base, put one finger on the top of the can, and holler out, ‘One, Two, Three on …” and then say the person(s) name(s). Those caught would have to surrender, and then take a seat beside the base – a sort of makeshift “jail”.

There was only one way to “free” your buddies. You had to fake out “it”, stealthily approach the base and time it so you reached the can before “it’ did, and once again, kick the living daylights out of the can. Then all prisoners were reinstated in the game, and “it” would angrily retrieve the can and return it to the base, and start all over again.

Strategy was paramount for A successful game. Each had his own technique:

• Some took the “Clinton” approach – they simply hid in someone else’s yard until the game was over;

• Some utilized the “Gosh”” (a.k.a. Gore/Bush) approach – they made their presence and participation known, but stayed way back from the nitty-gritty action;

• Some employed the “Sand Piper” approach – making their way quietly but quickly to within sight of “it”, only to turn tail and run back into the safety of their hiding place;

• And a brave, select few (like myself) took the “Banzai” approach – Never stop running from the first kick; encircle the house and zip by the unsuspecting keeper of the can like a banshee, and just kick the living daylights out of that can.

Now, I watch these neighborhood kids at play, and can only imagine the scenario fo their version of our beloved game – Kick The Can, Version 8.0:

Blasphemy #1: The “can” would be available in designer colors, made of unbreakable state-of-the-art carbon fiber compounds, and light up like Tokyo on New Year’s Eve – price: $20 to $250.

Blasphemy #2: Of course, there would be a special “Kick The Can” Nike line of shoes – probably a Tiger Woods commercial, too, with Tiger driving a “can” beyond the city limits – price: $75 to $200. (Knock-offs for $20, though).

Blasphemy #3: Oh yeah, they make more than shoes. Nike shirts, shorts, socks, whatever – price: $10 to $60.

Blasphemy #4: “It” would have a battery of detection devices at his disposal: Video cameras, Radar (X , K Laser and Doppler), Infra-red Heat Seeking Monitors, Motion Detectors, Sound Detectors, Reconaissance Satellites -price: $80 to $3 billion (Hey, rich kids play, too).

Blasphemy #5: The active players would have the same technology, plus: for communication – Cell Phones, 2-Way Radios, Palm Pilots, Internet Access and GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) receivers for exact locations in planning attacks – price: $25 to $4500.

Blasphemy #6: Oh yeah, we used to play at night a lot: Night Vision Goggles – price: $150 to $850.

(Sigh) …

I can hear you now: “There he goes again, way out there where the loonies fly. What dreamer!

Maybe so … but do you think those kids of the future will still at least have a Maggie in their lives? What’s that? You do?

Then you haven’t seen the latest item from Japan.

An electronic, robotic dog.

Maggie 8.0.

So … who’s way out there now, huh?

###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, June 8, 2000.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 

Night Of The Camaroo Kid

The Camaroo

By Brian M. Howle

Every year around this time, the first hints of yet another seasonal change make their presence known. The constant vigil for hurricanes, the first cool front that teases the sense before returning us to the relentless sub-tropical heat, the shrill call of the whistles on the football field – all signal fall’s impending arrival. But for me, the changes signal the anniversary of my absolute closest brush with death.

September 18, 1971 was my version of Roosevelt’s post-Pearl Harbor speech to Congress and the nation – for me, “a day which will live in infamy.” A year to the day since injuring my left knee while playing high school football, an old friend from grade school days was in town visiting his relatives, when we happened to meet at a convenience store. We decided to get together that evening to celebrate our reunion with a few more friends.

In those days, any reason to celebrate was acceptable on a weekend night in Andrews, our sleepy little hometown. If a particular cause was lacking, well, the fact that is was a weekend night in Andrews was good enough for us.

But now we had a legitimate reason to party, and all the necessary preparations were made in the harmless spirit of “boys being boys.” There was only one hangout for the younger set, Sam’s Drive-In (fast food franchises were still caloric gleams in our eyes, decades from arriving here), and all social itineraries for the under-thirty set were formulated in Sam’s parking lot. It was the nerve center for gossip, a meeting place for hormonal wildlings and the only place in town to get a burger at night. It was agreed we would make it our strategic command headquarters that evening.

Far removed from the social and cultural influences of Haight-Ashbury, there was no drug problem in the Andrews of 1971 due to two very important facts:

(1) There were no drugs (although I later learned one or two locals had ventured out into the world and come back to town “with a brand new plan,” as the Kentucky Headhunters would attest); and,

(2) No one seemed to consider alcohol a drug.

Well, that worked for us.

Obtaining alcohol – whether legally of age or not – was not a big trick. There were more bootleggers than churches, and let me tell you, Andrews has a few churches. The bootleggers were geared more to the after-hours clientele; more often than not, however, we simply drove out to one of several small grocery/gas stations (redneck prerunners to 7/11s) where the owner filled beer and wine orders via young boys who took your money, ran inside and gave the owner the cash and the order, then returned to your car carrying a brown paper bag crammed with clinking bottles. Generous tips ensured your “connection” kept you in good standing and expedient delivery.

So, not unlike many other nights, two of my friends – Leon (the Camaroo Kid; a moniker that resulted from a previous night of cruising around and attempting conversation while buttered) and Van (bassist in my first garage band) – and I stocked up on beer. But, since our old friend, Charles, was in town, we made sure to have enough to last the night. Each of us bought a case, including Charles.

As twilight began to fall, Sam’s parking lot was bustling with activity. The afternoon football games were over, the boats were all trailered back home after a day on the river, and the eternal cycle of boy-meets-girl/girl-meets-boy was chomping at the bit. We recalled days of old, insulted each other, laughed, hollered at every carload of girls that cruised by, and generally just had a large time. Young, alert, bright eyed, clear of mind and strong of body, we were all Spartacus. We were immortal.

The hours passed by and the empty bottles piled up. At some point, a dangerously low inventory of beer was realized, remedied by another quick run to the little store. A few jokes and a courageously fumbled attempt at pursuing a car full of girls later, we were dumfounded to discover our supply again running low. Satisfied that we were nowhere near the lethal parameters of blood-alcohol content, it was decided that the time had come to upgrade our intake. A short trip across town; lights dosed as we slowly rolled to a stop in a dark alley, a light toot of the horn, an exchange of money and product with a faceless silhouette, and the deal was done. We returned to Sam’s to catch up on anything we missed with sanguine haste.

Now, somewhere along the line, I was separated from my buddies. I don’t know why I was, but it was probably due to the fact that I was extremely intoxicated. Informed by others – for days and weeks afterwards – of my actions that night, the scenarios painted for me were not exactly flattering. Yes, I do vaguely remember climbing up on the back of a toilet at the BP station and passing out (wedged quite comfortably, thank you); No, I do not recall carrying on a conversation with a telephone pole for half an hour across the street from Sam’s, while my compatriots rolled on the ground in laughter.

I also vaguely remember something about Leon having a fight with his girlfriend at some point that night, but I think it was when I was AWOL. After my telephone pole debate, I wandered back to Sam’s parking lot and draped myself over the hood of Leon’s champagne gold 1968 Camaro, where I contentedly dozed off.

A firm hand shook my shoulder, and I opened my eyes. The blur standing over me was repeating a slap-back echo chorus of “GET UP!”

“Leave me alone, now, I’m comfortable!” I barked out in disgust at being bothered.

“No, get up, get up … we’re gonna go watch a race!” was the now discernable plea from the darkness.

What’s this? A race? And I’m in danger of missing out?

“Alright, alright, let’s go … but I call shotgun.” I said as I slid off the hood and wobbled towards the passenger door of Leon’s Camaro.

“No, sit in the back, I already called it,” growled back the voice.

“Alright, but if you don’t open door when I say to, I’m probably gonna throw up on your neck.” I replied as I pushed the seat forward to crawl into the tiny back seat.

“Um, hey, wait a minute … OK, you sit up front.” He wisely capitulated.

After he squeezed into the back seat, I plopped down and started to shut the door when I suddenly had the overwhelming urge to begin inquiring about someone named Ralph. The other occupants quietly congratulated themselves for allowing me quick access to the door.

As we made our way out of town, I became aware that there were now six of us in a car designed for two people and a loaf of bread. Besides Leon, Van, Charles and myself, two more friends – Greg and Ricky – had stuffed themselves into our ride. As we rolled along, steadily picking up speed, Ralph was on my mind again, and I tried to keep my eyes closed so that he would go away. I opened them after a few minutes just as a sign flashed by my window.

“Hey, that was Johnson Swamp bridge?” I asked out loud, my attention drifting as I noticed the telephone poles clicking by like a metronome gone berserk. “Where are we going, anyway? And who’s racing out here?”

“It’s out past Williamsburg High School,” came a shouted reply above the blaring 8-track tape and the loud attempts at conversation between those around me – and the growing whine of a small-block Chevy nearing full song.

The pace of the telephone poles slowed suddenly, and I was pressed hard against my door by a quick left turn. Greg, who was sitting on the shifter console between the front bucket seats, added to my G-force discomfort with his considerable added weight.

“Hey, I still don’t know who’s racing,” I hollered out again.

A voice from the back seat cut through the noise. “I think we are.”

It was at that exact moment when I realized that no matter how drunk you are, your parents’ common sense will still surface through the fog. Their constant warnings of the consequences of back-road street racing came to the fore of my awareness. That, and the fact that over a two year period, eighteen young men had died around our area in high-speed crashes.

As we made another hard left turn, I recognized a house that flashed by. I had dated a girl who lived on this road, and I knew that about two miles ahead of us there was a 15 MPH left-hard curve. I also knew there was no way we were going to make it.

In the company of my peers, I tried to be cool. I leaned over to my left to look at the speedometer as the needle passed 80, and then I sat back.

”You know, there’s a bad curve up here,” I stated loudly.

No one seemed to hear me as Leon shifted into top gear, foot glued to the gas pedal.

“I said, there’s a real BAD curve up here!” I repeated louder, growing increasingly nervous as we scalded down the worn blacktop.

I looked at Leon. He was hunched down on his seat, eyes fixed straight ahead, hands welded to the steering wheel.

“I SAID, THERE’S A REAL BAD CURVE UP HERE! YOU MIGHT WANT TO SLOW DOWN NOW!” There was no more false bravado. I wanted out.

The little yellow diamond-shaped 15 MPH sign loomed ahead as our headlights picked up its reflective paint. In an instant, it flashed by me.

I never bothered looking ahead again. I literally reached down and locked my arms around my legs, and tucked my head down between my feet. The paralyzing fear I had experienced for the previous minute or so disappeared. It was probably just a nano-second, but a warm calmness swept over me as I mused to myself, “So this is what it’s like to die.”

“Take the inside and you got it made,” Greg yelled, elbowing Leon in the ribs with his left arm while raising his beer for another swig as we entered the curve.

Or, as a mathematician would have said, “as we failed to maintain the radius and dissected the apex in a straight line.”

As the 8-track prophetically pounded out 3 Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come,” Leon realized what I had been saying. He slammed the shifter down into first gear. Eyes closed and still tightly in my fetal position, I heard and felt the transmission explode as a result. We left the road at well over 100 MPH, clearing a small ditch that ran alongside the curve. The impact back on earth ripped the dual exhaust pipes from underneath the car. The noises were demonous.

We cut through an old barbed-wire fence, taking out rotting fenceposts like toothpicks. The doomed Camaro made a valiant attempt at following the outline of the curve for about fifty yards.

Then we hit a telephone pole, clipping it cleanly at the ground and snapping it again about ten feet up. That ten-foot section sailed right through the windshield – directly above me – and peeled back the roof almost to the back seat. Even though this all occurred at high speed, I was trapped in a Sam Peckenpaw-like film sequence, where everything seemed to be rolling by in super slow-motion. There was a bright blue-white flash that pierced through my closed eyelids as the transformer on the pole exploded. Then a very hard “WHUMPH!” – followed by swirling silence.

We had impacted a large dirt mound behind the pole, left behind by a power company crew as they cleared a right-of-way for the power line. The Camaro hurtled up, end over end and spinning, clipping the smaller saplings left behind by the crew. During this silent flight, I ran my tongue over pieces of teeth that were filling my mouth. I knew my dentist was going to be upset with me.

Suddenly, the slow-motion roll snapped back into real-time with a spine-jarring “THUMP!” Although the car had come to a stop, the silence was deafening, broken only by the angry hiss of steam from the mortally wounded Camaro.

Eyes still tightly shut, I heard Van call out from behind me, “Someone turn on the light!”

“Yeah, I can’t see anything, turn on the light,” another voice repeated.

I opened my eyes slowly. I was sitting upright, looking straight out over what used to be the front end of the car. Although I had accounted for at least two others by voice, I would not look to my left for fear of seeing one of my friends dead. And then there was a third voice from behind.

“Hey … I smell gas.”

That was all it took. I glanced quickly to my left as I started to extricate myself from the twisted mass. Leon was standing outside the car, just standing and looking at the remains of his beloved Camaro. Greg was hanging over the driver’s door; head, arms and torso outside, waist and legs dangling inside, trying desperately to climb out.

And then I was standing outside, too, frozen in awe at the sight before me in the dim moonlight. It appeared as if pages from a book were hanging from all the limbs around us; in actuality, they were the plates from the car’s battery, which exploded during the telephone pole incident. The sensory input was overwhelming: the strange, odorous brew of swamp, oil, gas, blood and beer permeated the cool night air. As Van was making his way through the rear window, I heard Charles and Ricky. I could not believe it. We had all survived.

Just then, I heard a car approaching. But from where? We couldn’t see the road; in fact, we couldn’t even tell where we had come from. A huge pine had stopped us from making another roll, and a heavy growth of trees and underbrush surrounded us after we sailed from the life-saving confines of the powerline clearing. Then, as the car drove by, I saw its headlights flash through the trees. Although I had accounted for everyone, I still didn’t know the extent of their injuries. Getting help as all I could think of, so I took off in the direction of the lights.

I bounced off of several trees in the darkness, but kept forging on at full gait. I saw the car’s backup lights as they slowly reversed, searching for signs of our car. They were just around the curve, in front of us, when they saw our headlights pinwheeling through the air. It was taxing for them, as they were also trying to avoid the power lines that were now draped across the dark highway at a 45˚ slice, lightly touching the pavement before rising back into the darkness, spitting out sparks with each swaying breeze.

Within thirty feet or so of reaching them, my legs were cut out from under me by the barbed-wire fence, enacting its revenge for our annihilation of its brethren in the field back where we left the road. Relatively unscathed by the wreck, my right knee would now join the left in providing me a lifetime of pain.

But the adrenaline levels at such a moment masked the pain, and I continued on. The folks in the car reeled back in startled surprise when I bounded out of the woods at full gait.

“Get an ambulance, get an ambulance!” I shouted at them as I ran in circles in front of their car. “No, get two ambulances … maybe three!” I rambled, as I started to wonder why none of the rest had joined me. I began spitting out my teeth, only to find it wasn’t teeth at all, but little chunks of safety glass from the side window, which I had slammed into during the multiple rolls.

“Hey, y’all follow my voice … Come to me!” I yelled.

Brian? Where are you, Brian?” Charles was the first to answer.

“I’m on the road, come on out, follow my voice, but be careful, there’s a barbed-wire fence between us and the power lines are down in the road!” I yelled back.

“OH GOD, BRIAN WAS THROWN OUT ON THE ROAD!” Charles cried out, “KEEP HOLLERING, BRIAN, WE’LL FIND YOU!” He began weeping loudly.

“No, Charles, no; I’m alright, don’t worry,” I tried to assure him.

“THAT’S RIGHT, YOU’ll BE ALRIGHT, JUST KEEP HOLLERIN’ … I’LL FIND YOU!” Charles persisted. I hadn’t seen him most of the night, but apparently he was even more drunk than I had been.
I say “had been” because the moment that car stopped rolling, I was dead straight sober. For me, alcohol was no match for life-affirming brushes with the Reaper.

Everyone eventually made their way out of the swampy woods, and we gathered in the glare of our rescuers’ headlights to give thanks for our lives – and to whip up a real good cover story about the circumstances surrounding our attempt at flight. The pasture we plowed through before hitting the pole was home to an old sway-backed nag, who frequently stood at the fence while grazing. The old “Officer, I swear, it looked like the horse was standing in the road so I swerved to miss it” defense was employed and agreed on by all. That was our story and we stuck to it.

The ambulances and the Highway Patrol finally showed up. Ricky was the only one to go to the hospital, treated and released that night for a severe laceration on his hand. Besides ruining my knee on the fence, I had a small piece of chrome molding from the door impaled in my thigh (which I didn’t discover until the next morning). The others escaped virtually unscratched.

All these years later, as I watch all those sixteen to nineteen year-olds heading out for a night with their friends, I can only give them my prudent voice of experience: Don’t drink yourself into stupidity and then drive or ride in a car with someone who has, and don’t allow your friends to, either.

And don’t ever, ever get into a Camaro with Ralph – or Leon.
###
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, September 9, 1999.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2009 in Along The Watchtower

 
 
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