In A Big Country…

As we stepped out of the bright noonday sun into the murky dusk of the shadowy pool hall/bar/cafe, my dad’s jaw fell open.

“Jesus Christ, would you look at the size of that Polo Bear?” he said. My Uncle Herb just smiled and laughed out loud at the look on his brother’s face.

I’ve never seen you look like this without a reason

Another promise fallen through, another season passes by you

Shock

polarbear

I headed to a nearby booth as my dad and my uncle did a very slow waltz around the inner sanctum of Ole’s Big Game Lodge, a huntsman’s paradise with walls that were smothered with every kind of mountable trophy except a decent Yeti. There were elephants, goats, wildebeests, and a rhino. There were lions, and tigers, and bears, (oh my) and yes, it was a big-assed polar bear that had ambushed dad once his eyes had adjusted to the darkness. A great eight-footer about to snack on an understandably pissed-off harbor seal trapped under its giant paw.

After nine long hours, we’d finally made it to Paxton, an interstate town just inside the Mountain Time Zone on our westward voyage up to the mountains. We were nearing the overnight point of our trip to Steamboat Springs, soon to be my home away from home for the foreseeable future. After two horizon-expanding summers as a camp counselor just at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park, I had been seduced into pulling up stakes on a pretty dim future as a teacher in Iowa and rolling out west to tackle a winter on the powdery slopes with the romantic dreams of everything that a blank check like that might hold for a twenty-seven year old with no money and no future. It was a siren call that already captured two of my buddies, Greg, the original transplant, Sully, the teacher and Bob, the pearl diver. All Midwesterners looking for something closer to adventure than what could be found on the rolling plains of the heartland.

So, that next day with a bit of a lump in my throat and a few tears held back for the sake of pride, I bid farewell to Dad and Uncle Herb as they dropped my few bags off at condo on the hill above the old west ski town and headed back down the road to the safety of Iowa. As Bob helped me toss things onto the floor that would be my bed, I silently wondered what I had gotten myself into.

I never took the smile away from anybody’s face

And that’s a desperate way to look for someone who is still a child

It didn’t take long for the plan to unfold. That night when Sully came dragging home from a full day of social studies with sixth grade hooligans, we hopped into his yellow Opel and headed out to the mountain to begin my internship as a full-fledged snowbird…albeit the working kind. It turned out that Bob had recently been promoted from his position as a pearl diver to that of short-order cook at the Sidestep (née: Side-ache) Cafe. This left his dishwashing job open to the next man up. So began my working life in the mountains. As it turned out, the money wasn’t great and the free meal was even worse. Still, until something better came along, it was my last best hope. The job I was really waiting for was on the mountain. But the corporate bigwigs were still a couple of weeks away from holding the open interviews. So liquid Palmolive became my friend.

In the meantime, I was tightly holding onto the four hundred dollar grubstake my mother had secretly endowed upon my adventure. Rent would be due long before any possible paycheck might come from the “real” job I had yet to secure. My share of the rent was about to go up, because Sully’s original roommate Greg had found a better place to hang his hat and get away from the now overcrowded condo. Greg still held tight to our new friendship and proved valuable on many occasions. Bob and I quickly learned the art of turning hotel hors devours into a full meal. On Fridays, Sully would join us, but during the week, teaching was too demanding to turn him into a happy hour punk. Bob was my guru in this newfound survival skill. We would work our way across the base of the mountain, from one hotel happy hour to the next, drinking pretty cheap swill and living on cocktail wienies and cheese cubes. We looked like tourists, and we acted the same. But really, the waiters and bartenders all belonged to the same seasonal brotherhood of vagabond workers and as such, were required by the very bylaws that joined us to watch out for jokers like the two of us. As such, we survived. On the nights we didn’t scrounge, Bob’s idea of a home cooked meal was half a package of Top Ramen noodles and some sweat and sour sauce, lifted from the local Chinese carryout joint. I was a potpie man, myself…a full meal wrapped in a crust. The beer of choice around our condo was whatever we could afford. These were desperate times. One weekend adventure found us pooling our combined pocket money to afford a twelve pack of Buckhorn. With the aid of some environmental voodoo that allowed us to return bottles for a nickel apiece, we were only twelve cents short of our goal. That problem was quickly solved when Sully found a quarter stuck in the cushions of our Goodwill couch.

As the weeks quickly passed, first I, and then Bob got jobs as lift operators on the mountain. Bob was either a better skier or a better liar, as his lift was on the backside of the peak where the finest powder lay waiting for the first shift operators to come and violate it in their sacred runs to the bottom shack. I, on the other hand, a relative novice with boards strapped to my feet, was assigned to a place called Headwall, the beginner slope right in front of the Steamboat Sheraton. We were the first faces that our adoring public would see if they knew little about skiing on snow. When Thanksgiving finally rolled around two very noticeable things happened. First the sun went away for over a month, to be replaced with dark skies and the most beautiful, fluffy snow one could imagine. It really seemed a bit like living in a snow globe…that was being shaken on a 24-7 basis for thirty-five straight days. The second was my lift mates and I soon became introduced to every form of southern drawl that had ever been loosed by overweight, acrophobic women forced into a vacation not of her choosing. On more than one occasion, we would have to bring a snail-paced lift chair to a complete stop to accommodate a stressed out skier who knew her legs were about to be torn off by that seat slowly crawling around the bull wheel.

When finally the ever-present clouds shred themselves into nothingness, it was on New Year’s Eve. As it happened, a full, gigantic moon crawled up over the mountain long after dark and it’s orange blood flowed down the jagged strips of pale snow where the runs had been carved into her side like so many painful wounds. It seemed to freeze the warm air from our lungs like a Polaroid snapshot. But for the temperature and deep snows, it had a look and feel more like Halloween than the final day of the year. With the breaking of the snowy spell, the rest of the New Year fell into a more normal routine. An occasional large snowstorm followed by several days filled with enough sunshine that at least mentally, we felt warmer as we crept into spring.

In a big country, dreams stay with you

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside

Stay alive

 When March tossed St. Patrick’s Day down at our boots, Bob and I decided that the time was right to push back and show this mountain who was really in charge. We’d adopted another lift operator along the way. Anthony was from South Carolina and his low country twang was charming and nearly undecipherable to Bob and me. It was he who brought his love of the Scottish band, Big Country to us. This alone would have endeared him to the two of us. Their music seemed to follow us around the town, in and out of most every bar. It became our anthem. Anthony was athletic and wiry and was all but impossible to catch on a downhill run. He fancied himself a rock hopper. He lived for deep powder and the larger snow-covered boulders from which he could get some serious air. In this regard, Bob was his compadre. I was a chicken in this area. I had learned to ski and love deep powder and I had acquired an ability to handle the bumps on a black slope, but I stayed away from runs that might combine the two. Above all, I knew I was too big to be skiing off of large rocks thinking that I’d do anything besides plummet like a pig without wings.

On this particular day, the sun was pushing the temperature into the mid-forties. After a winter of sub-zero days on the slopes, this was too tempting to disregard. The three of us ignored the crowded, subway mentality of the gondola and instead headed up the mountain first hopping up on one lift and then the next in only shorts, light coats, gaiters and gloves instead of our heavier togs and Anthony had hidden a fifth of peppermint schnapps that we felt would serve us better once we got to the operator’s party, secretly being held on the west side of the peak.

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered

But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered

ski-lifts

The schnapps never made it to the west side party. It was gone before we got off of the third and final lift dropping us just above Buddy’s Run. It took only a few minutes to ski down to the informal gala, which was hidden, from the touring public by some fairly deep powder and quarter mile of firs. We shared a beer or two while standing around soaking in the warm rays, joking and making plans for later with a few dozen of our brothers and sisters in arms. It was one of the most vibrant, and pleasant memories that I return to as I think about that time in my life. I can remember telling Bob and Anthony that I was surprised the schnapps hadn’t bitten back at us. I reasoned that it was likely because three of us had shared it and already skied off any of the bad juju. After half an hour or so, we knew it was time to head back down to the bottom, so we thanked our friends and made ready to go. The mountain broke before us in a cascade of feathery runs, an open invitation to breathe deep and become one with nature and all its beauty.

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert

But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime 

I should have known I was in trouble when I tried to step into my skis and fell over for no apparent reason. Bob began what would be a nonstop cackle that would last for the next thirty minutes. Of course the unapparent reason from my balance issue was that the schnapps had indeed caught up to me. The two beers at the gathering proved to be just stupidity in action. After a couple more attempts, the skis were on my feet and I was pointed downhill with my friends laughing with every awkward slide I took. What usually should have been a ten-minute run at good speed eventually took about half an hour. Tears had started to freeze to my face as the temperature had started to sink with the sun. I could manage about thirty yards or so before my balance gave out and I’d have to right myself and start the agonizing ritual over once again. My lower half had taken on the painful pink one might see when glancing at frozen crab legs in the seafood shop. I was laughing so hard that I could barely see the trail. It was all I could do to keep from pissing myself, which the dropping temperature had taken off the table as an outdoor option. Bob and Anthony were less than helpful in any regard, whatsoever.

So take that look out of here, it doesn’t fit you

Because it’s happened doesn’t mean you’ve been discarded

Pull up your head off the floor, come up screaming

Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered

But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered

Shock, One, Two

In the end we made it back to the employee lockers and thawed out a bit. I threw on some pants and we decided to keep the day moving and headed into our happy hour routine. About at week later, Anthony flew awkwardly off a rock and snapped his tibia. It proved to be his ticket home as the season was winding down. With April came even warmer weather and fewer skiers. By the end of the month Sully was counting down the school days, Bob was making plans to ride his bicycle to Alaska and I was on a plane back to Iowa…waiting for another adventure to pop up calling me forth somewhere in this big country.

 In a big country, dreams stay with you

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside

Stay alive

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Love It, Live…

As I grow older, I have begun to feel a sensory kinship to Ray Charles. I’m not any kind of musical talent, though I can pretend to blow fills on a blues harp as my guitar playing friends turn up their amps to push my bends a little further to the rear of the mix… and rightfully so. I’m probably the only one that can hear my budding talent on the harp. No…my empathy with Ray is more physiological.

For all practical purposes, I’m deaf, but I’m too proud to do anything about it. I’ll let age take part of the credit, but for the most part I’m going to lay the blame at the feet of a certain high school friend…I’ll call him Bruce.

Now don’t get me wrong, Bruce was a great friend and he led the kind of high school life I wanted for myself. He was smart. He had a great sense of humor. He was a natural leader. But mostly, to me, he personified cool. It was because I saw him do it, that I started including my middle initial in all of my signatures. Talk about your pedestals. I was a couple of years behind Bruce in school and he was the perfect gateway for my short venture into the wild side of life. Bruce helped me into and out of my first ridiculous forays into underage drinking (who knew Boone’s Farm could be so messy)? He influenced my interest in taking more art classes than shop classes, which is probably why I’m still afraid of table saws specifically and loud tools in general. He was on the cutting edge of the rural psychedelic experience and as a result, I started listening to more FM cuts and less to Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. Hell, it was Bruce who loaned me The Hobbit to read for the first time. He altered my universe.

But, Bruce had no regard for my young, and apparently sensitive ears. He was a musician that could seemingly play any instrument, but for the purpose of fronting The Heavy Experience (local rock gods to we of the younger set), Bruce played the bass. He was also the lead singer and evidently had the more understanding parents of the band members. For it was in Bruce’s upstairs bedroom that the band’s sound system was housed, when not being used for practices or gigs.

At this point in life, many of us can now appreciate what a colossal mistake this was on the part of Bruce’s parents. But there it was…right at the end of his ten-foot by ten-foot room…a room barely big enough for his bed…let alone this monstrous contraption. But the two, five-foot columns powered by a megawatt amp (seemed to produce as much power a border radio station down near Laredo) was his pride and joy. And it was through this sound system, that the entirety of Led Zeppelin albums, I and II, were literally etched into the soft fabric of my brain cells at levels that would have impressed the boys from Spinal Tap. I swear there was a twelve setting on that system’s volume control. When Bruce powered the system up and dropped the needle on the first album, I’m sure my eyes rolled back in my head. While I can remember feeling something quite uncomfortable in my ears, but not willing to call it pain, I wasn’t about to admit to Bruce that it was too loud. It was rock n’ roll. This was Bruce. It was cool with me.

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So now, I understand. It is not at all unusual for someone like myself, a couple weeks shy of sixty, to have that nasty ringing sensation sloshing around my ears in an otherwise silent room. It’s not fun but it’s not abnormal. Just the same, this particular nasty ringing haunting MY ears seems to suggest Robert Plant screaming “Living, Loving…. She’s Just a Woman” over Jimmy Page’s guitar licks. The pitch in the echoing rings of my inner ear are so high my dog starts howling at me, of course it’s always when no one else is around to witness it.

But all things being equal, I can’t say I’d trade the hearing issue with the experience of growing up with such a rich and local connection to the feel of rock n’ roll. We had at least four good bands in my little town that were capable of earning money, or at least free refreshments, at a variety of gigs. It started with the late sixties sound of The Soul Purpose playing “Hang on Sloopy.” My cousin Steve played guitar in The Sound Alliance as this second group appeared on the scene in town. These guys had a sax in the band…this was when Boots Randolph was the only sax player most of us had ever heard of and way before Clarence Clemons joined the E-Street Band and made it fashionable. This group eventually graduated and along came Bruce’s band, The Heavy Experience. It was this band that gave me a taste of the glamorous lifestyle of the local rock icon. I was brought along to help move equipment and to run the homemade lighting system during the band’s shows. After my first show, I had three big blisters on my fingers and thumb and an extra twenty dollars in my pocket. On one longer road trip, I, at only fourteen, was required to smoke the cigar that would hopefully kill the smell of the skunk our drive had managed to hit with the station wagon. Music seemed to require a lot of sacrifices.

Eventually, The Heavy Experience morphed into a smaller group, called Pax (Latin was not lost on the hip youth of my day). And just as quickly, Pax was gone and we were out of the seventies and into the era of “me first.” Somewhere during that wonderful time period, I was brought in as the drummer in a group of my own peers. Our name changed with every practice, as did our lead singer. We never played anywhere besides the garage or basement of somebody’s home. We knew about six or seven songs, leaning heavily on Creedence Clearwater Revival. But we had fun and we had a deeper understanding of the freedom that rock n’ roll could bring to a kid stuck in a small town in the Midwest.

There was something so meaningful about being on the edge of all this live music that has stuck with me over the years. Live music, when done well, pulls you in and lets you participate on the same stage with the performers. It hurts and heals in what seems like the same moment. It allows us to travel time and land where our memories were born. So, looking back, a little hearing loss isn’t that big of a deal. Other than the live music, there isn’t that much out there I really want to hear any more. I was given an education that I still seek to supplement these days. I look for the live music as a way to re-inform myself as to what is real and what is fun. For this education, I have so many to thank. You know who you are…or you should. So keep playing boys…somebody out there is still listening.

If only Robert Plant would shut the hell up!

loud-music04

 

The Red-Headed Stranger…

Jenny didn’t shit just anywhere when she had a statement to make…she was very selective. She wouldn’t shit in Craig and Robin’s room. On those rare occasions she actually came to visit them, she didn’t bother to shit upstairs in Fred and Dan’s room. In Larry’s and Gary’s room? My room? She never shit in any of those places. In fact she was a perfect guest to most of us at the WAFU House. It was more than a little surprising that a visitor who oozed great looks and obvious breeding like Jenny’s would find it acceptable to shit anywhere except where she was supposed to.

 

The WAFU (We’re All Fine Undergraduates???) House was a three-story behemoth that was a cross between two great movie sets…Animal House and Psycho. Ten of us called this place home at the same time. Eight dudes and two ladies…three, once Jenny moved in. The only rules revolved around Top Raman Noodles and toilet paper. Otherwise, it was everybody for themselves. We were a living, breathing television script way before the advent of reality TV. We were drunk and disorderly at the dawning of the MTV age. And all was peaches and cream, until Rod brought Jenny home one late winter evening with barely a story other than she needed a place to stay for a while. For her entire stay, she remained an enigma to us.

 

It was only Chris with whom Jenny seemed to have serious issues. We never knew why this was the case. Chris certainly didn’t ask and Jenny wasn’t talking. Still, on more than one occasion, Chris came home from a long day on campus to find very un-ladylike calling card plopped right in the middle of his area rug. Maybe it was just some kind of evil chemistry between them, but tension was palpable.

 

Maybe the problem was that Rod, her liberator, paid way more attention to his girlfriend Pam than Jenny was willing to put up with. After all it was Rod who had taken it upon himself to save her from her “situation” with that last guy. He had bonded with Jenny. He had brought her to stay with us…until arrangements could be made. Pam was unusually silent about all of this, but that’s how we rolled in the early 80’s. Jenny’s a bitch… Hunziker and Furman are assholes and sometimes you have to put up with Fred and BK.

 

Clearly, Rod was a sucker for redheads and Jenny was a long, lean one. The deep-set hazel that glittered in her eyes barely masked the anger and resentment she had for her last guy. I suspect this is what she really loathed the most about Chris…his physical similarity to some guy none of us had ever seen, but who had become painfully imprinted on Jenny’s psyche. We never quite learned how Rod came to befriend Jenny and that had to grate on Pam’s already delicately stretched heartstrings. If Jenny noticed this resentment from Pam, she kept it to herself. Jenny seemed to have a lot on her mind. She was quiet and kept to herself. She slept almost constantly, only waking to stroll into the kitchen and eat whatever food Rod was willing to give her, and then back to the couch for another round of shuteye. As it turned out, she was carrying more than deep, dark concerns about her living situation.

 

It took very little to entertain our little household of misfit toys. We’d survived on beer and Fred’ sense of humor for so long that when MTV premiered earlier that fall, we felt like we had been lifted to a higher cultural plane. Most of us viewed MTV as a way to become more informed on the social and political renderings of our various musical heroes. Dan, on the other hand, viewed MTV as a gateway drug to better sleep. One unusually cold, still snowy March night, Dan outlasted the rest of us, who had sauntered off to our own beds, and passed out on the couch while Martha Quinn, on the screen across the room, introduced each video with a back-story lost on this audience. The furnace, when it ran correctly at the WAFU House, did little if any good, so before fading completely to black, Dan had at least grabbed the afghan lying on the floor by the couch. He didn’t remember that the afghan belonged to Chris and as such, was considered a target.

 

Dan was wakened to the tune of a whimpering chorus. Four soft, wet, newly born puppies were crawling around on his chest and legs trying to determine if he was their new mother or if it was indeed, our temporary house guest, Jenny, the Irish Setter with a grudge to even. Jenny had crawled up onto Dan and the afghan and littered, while Dan twitched and snored his way through it all. Chris’s afghan took the brunt of the birthing process, but Dan, who shortly after this episode traded his pre-vet major for forestry, had not gone unscathed. He quickly freed himself from the mess he found himself in and woke the house with his colorful expressions. Jenny was a new mommy and Dan, at least in the eyes of the puppies and his roommates was the de facto new daddy.

 

After the cuteness of the puppies wore off, that is to say in about a week. Jenny and her offspring were farmed out to a place much more capable of handling the day-to-day demands of parenthood. Rod took them back to his parents place and the rest of us, especially Chris, started living a mostly normal life again. We had all been included, if ever so briefly, in the “circle of life.” Spring brought the customary thaw and our windows opened to warmer southerly breezes. The songbirds began to fill the trees in our yard and the nasty insects that find every hole in the window screens started to join our daily adventures. But the flies this spring seemed to be thicker than usual…even for the WAFU House.

 

Finally, one day, while Fred and I sat on the “puppy couch” as it had been dubbed, eating our tuna fish sandwiches, we could stand it no longer. There were too many flies and as the warm weather had brought a pungent odor to our television room. Fred and I were convinced that there was a dead mouse in the vicinity. We slid the couch away from the wall. There was nothing to be seen there. We flipped the couch over and were horrified to find a jelly-like mass stuck to the inside of the underskirt of the couch. Cream-colored maggots crawled over most of the underside of the couch. Oh well… we were familiar with gross. This was just another chapter. But then we both saw it at the same time…the petrified, but unmistakable paw of a long-dead puppy poking through the skirt. The sickness forming in the back of my mouth chased me out the door and into the yard, with Fred close on my heels. Larry who had been watching the search with an egg-salad sandwich in his hand, didn’t make it three steps before his lunch resurfaced. A full month after she had left our lives, Jenny, or at least one of her offspring, had struck again. The puppy had obviously fallen through the back of the couch and died shortly thereafter. It’s a testament to our lifestyle that we didn’t notice it for several weeks.

 

Being the soulless wretches that we already were, Fred and I tore off the skirt of the couch and tossed it in the yard for the elements to destroy. Eventually the couch was restored, thanks to a can or two of Easy Bake Oven Cleaner. In the end, the WAFUs may have lost whatever we once had of our dignity, but we had our couch back… and you can’t watch MTV sitting on your dignity.

devildog