Saturday, February 28, 2009


I had put out the candles and was sitting in the dark, brooding. I listened to the wind howl in the middle of a God-awful thunderstorm which, although I didn't know it at the time, was part-and-parcel of tornado weather. My head was spinning. I felt vaguely ill. Then a thought crystallized: Why not call my ex-wife and daughter and tell them I was OK. They lived in Arizona and I knew they would be worried. As soon as the rain let up, I would walk to the corner, a little more than a block away, and use the public phone booth.

I know what you are probably thinking. If the phone wasn't working in my house, why would the phones be working on the corner? I think the events of that day had scrambled me, slightly disconnecting me from rational thinking and the fact that the question never occurred to me speaks volumes about my state of mind at midnight on the day tornadoes ravaged my part of the country.

I needed it to stop raining long enough for me to walk that block and put my plan into action. By 1AM, the rain had slowed to a drizzle and I went down the stairs and looked out the door. The air was full of water but it wasn't raining. I could see occasional flashes of lightening but not much else. You don't realize how little residual light there is at night in a city until you are in the midst of what amounts to a complete blackout. I mean, it was DARK. And very very quiet.

I walked up the slight hill to the corner, aware of the sound of my shoes scraping the pavement. My senses were alive; I could hear myself breathing. Do you remember the old-style phone booths made of metal, with sliding glass doors that looked not unlike vertical coffins? The sound of the metal doors scraping against the metal of the floor grated on my ears as I entered the booth. When I put the money in the slot and failed to hear a dial tone, I suddenly became aware of the absurdity of what I had just done. Of course, there was no dial tone! Nothing at all was working in this part of the city. I was awash in a sea of strange images. I could still see flashes of lightening. It was starting to rain again. I realized I was on a metal platform in an electrical storm. I saw a kid standing on the corner.


He was wearing a red and gray checked sweater and wore his hair cropped short. I hadn't noticed him on the way to use the phone. Where had he come from so suddenly, I wondered. I stepped out of the booth and walked towards him. There was no traffic, no sound, nothing at all.

We exchanged glances. He said, "Do you like sex?"

I looked at him in wonderment. How do you answer a question like that? "Yes," I said. "I do."

He looked me in the eye and said, "With me?"

And on that note, gentle reader, I strode briskly away from the young man in the red sweater and close-cropped hair and left him standing there alone on the corner and walked home in the rain. I went to bed, completely convinced that I had just experienced the last surreal moment of a truly surreal day

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Here was the situation as it laid itself out, the first in a series of surreal moments I would face that day. As I was returning from a short business trip to Danville Ky on Interstate 64, I was suddenly confronted by a TORNADO that appeared to be coming directly at me. I was listening to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" on a tape I had in the car but I switched to the radio, looking for news, as I went through a group of survival techniques in my head and decided to pull in under an overpass and figure out what I should do next.
I paid careful attention to that funnel cloud and soon realized it wasn't that close to me but since it was my first experience with a tornado I had to admit, what did I actually know about these things? I heard on the radio that dozens of sightings, most of which turned out to be duplicate sightings, had been reported across the Midwest that afternoon, but since barely controlled hysteria was the order of that particular day, I was ready to forgive just about anything.

My office was in the suburbs of Louisville and it was necessary for me to drop off the company car and pick up my own. I worked in a 6 story office building that was still under construction, 4 floors of which were complete and rented out. The other 2 stories were still incomplete and no work had been done in a couple of weeks. We liked to eat lunch on the unfinished 6th floor as the elevator opened on to a single large room that was completely enclosed in glass and it provided a good view of the Ohio River and the Louisville skyline.

The people in my office were clustered around a radio, murmuring at one another and they greeted me like a long lost brother, home from the war. We listened together for a while, getting no further new information and decided to go up to the 6th floor to see it we could see anything. It was very dark and there was a greenish tint to the sky and I thought of the book "Darkness at Noon." It wasn't quite 4 o'clock but it looked like early evening. There was no wind, which was strange in itself because, as quickly as I can explain this, a new tornado suddenly appeared in the general direction of where I lived, the bottom of which was one large dust cloud, and, as we watched, it quickly sat down on the Water Treatment Plant, scattering debris in all directions and, just as quickly, seemed to lift itself off the ground and dissipate. I had never seen anything like that before.

We broke up and started for home, never mind that I was headed to where I had just seen a tornado. I lived in an old neighborhood off Bardstown Road in an old house that had been beautifully carved into 4 apartments. I had the second floor front. I dreaded what I thought I was going to find when I got home.

The traffic, of course, was horrific. What was normally a 15 minute trip seemed to take forever. I was about 6 blocks from home when I first saw evidence of the tornado's destruction. The stores and houses that I passed on my way to and from work every day were now demolished. A hardware store and a couple of small markets, a few coffee shops and an art gallery, a convenience store and some gas stations and the historic Fern Creek Baptist church, all of which had lined both sides of Bardstown Road were now heaped in the middle of the road, with the odor of gasoline and smashed bananas in the air. The police had set up a temporary roadblock and no cars were allowed to pass. I had to park on the edge of that mess and start walking towards my house.

You could see the course the tornado had taken as the road became clear and there was considerable damage to my right in the direction of Cherokee Park. A tornado has strange patterns of destruction. At the center of the park was an ancient tree on which Daniel Boone had carved his initials. I found out later, the tornado, bearing down on that tree, had suddenly reared up and jumped right over top of it, preserving the old landmark in yet another surreal moment that day. It looked like it had gone down the street parallel to my street, which was Tyler Parkway, and debris was blown into the yards but there was only superficial damage to the houses. As I approached my house, I could see a tree limb sticking out of my dining room window that came from God knows where but that was all the damage I could see. I climbed the stairs and entered my apartment.

There was no electricity, no water, no phone, no nothing. I lit a couple of candles that I scrounged up and tried to assess the damage. The tree limb I had seen from outside was in the closet off the dining room that held my winter stuff - all ruined - and my custom-made bowling ball was shattered. I pushed the tree limb back through the window and thumb tacked an over sized towel on the broken window frame to keep the rain out. I swept up the broken glass as best I could. By this time it was raining hard, a major-league electrical storm, and I had just made it home without getting very wet.

I sat down in a chair and hooked my leg over its arm. I rubbed my eyes. I was sitting across the room from the window that had a ridiculous bright green beach towel in it, festooned with thumb tacks, and trying not to think about anything, anything at all, but all I could do was wonder what more could possibly happen that day.

Monday, February 16, 2009


During the summer of my sophomore year at college I was a Good Humor Man. I was issued a white shirt, white pants and a black bow tie, assigned a route and sold Popsicles and ice cream bars out of the back of a truck.

I had a bank of three bells on a rope with a hand pull that announced my arrival on the block by my pulling on the rope and producing a rhythmic series of tones, which is the best I can do at describing the sound that was made.

My chief competition for business was Mister Softee who played a recorded song through a loud speaker as he moved slowly through the neighborhood. If you have young children, you may be familiar with the song he played, especially as you sat down to dinner. My other competitor was Jack and Jill and he pushed a button and created a sound not unlike a door bell. Frankly, the cacophony of bells and loudspeakers and buzzers more than a dozen times a day as we all passed through the neighborhoods on our routes must have driven parents crazy.

And it wasn't just the neighborhoods I trolled, it was public swimming pools, break time at farms that employed migrant workers and manufacturing plants full of blue-collar guys who just loved their cold ice cream on a hot summer day. My boss wondered why I was ordering so many half gallons of ice cream because bulk sales were handled in another department. I had to explain how I was paying the guys on the gates of those farms and plants with half-gallons to gain entry to sell ice cream bars to the men.

This was the summer of my content and I was having a blast, making almost $500 a week, my wife and I having no idea what to do with so much money. Boy, I' m telling you we were a couple of 2o year old college students living high on the hog that summer . . .

Until one day in the middle of August.

My boss came looking for me and found me at lunchtime when he saw my truck parked in front of a pizza parlor and told me to hurry home as my mother needed me. My father had been in Vietnam since the previous November and, with my boss being so mysterious, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on.

My mother told my brothers and I that she had been visited by the Base Chaplain who told her that Dad had suffered a heart attack. I couldn't resist a guilty smile. Here he was, 45 years old, in a war zone, and he had a God-damn heart attack!

Remember the old World War II movies when women would receive a telegram that started WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU . . . .? well, by the time of the Vietnam war era, we were much more civilized than that.

Two days later, after no word at all except for that one visit from the Base Chaplain, a staff car pulled into our driveway and three men emerged: a minister and two well-dressed officers. They talked among themselves for a second, put out their cigarettes, and as all of us peered through the curtains with a growing sense of dreadful anticipation, the three of them walked toward our front door and knocked.

This was the first time my mother and brothers and I had been together all at once since my father left for Vietnam. Without Dad, there wasn't much "togetherness." My father was the cement that held our family together and, without him there, we were not very close knit. My father had more than 20 years in the service and mandatory retirement loomed at 30 years. In order to get to 30, he had to accept an overseas assignment and he hadn't been able to decide what to do. I was in college, my brother Bobby was a junior in high school and our youngest brother Ricky, was a freshman. He had the option of taking a three year tour in Europe with his family or go to Vietnam for a year. He was a senior NCO and if he chose the one year in Vietnam, he would receive his money tax-free plus receive bonus pay for being in a war zone. It turned out to be a no-brainer from his point of view. He would make enough money in that year to help pay for our college and still have enough for a down payment on the house he and my mother planned to buy when he retired. He wanted to help design and build it. When we were transferred to Washington DC after our stint in North Dakota, he bought a house and built a workshop in the basement. From that workshop, he built a laundry room for my mother and a rec room for the family with knotty pine cabinets on the rec room side of the basement. He was fond of the words "knotty pine." He found them to be beautiful.

Those men at the front door? They were that proverbial World War II telegram.

Another brick in the Wall

Saturday, February 7, 2009


When we lived in Base Housing on Tachikawa Air Force Base we could see Mt Fujiyama from our front yard. Since "yama" means mountain in Japanese, Mount Fujiyama was redundant and Mt Fuji was how she was known to all. We became aware of the adage about Fuji after a while: A man who travels to Japan and does not climb Fujiyama is a fool. A man who climbs her twice is a bigger fool..

My parents climbed the mountain in 1956 as I have the climbing poles they used in my closet. The mountain is climbed by passing through various stations and at every station your climbing stick received a brand, showing that you had arrived there, and at the summit you received a final brand and a pennant to attach to the stick.

My father died in Vietnam in 1967 and my mother, who is 81, now lives in a nursing home.

Memories memories.