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Hello, Seattle, 43 Years Ago

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So I’ve been watching Mad Men fitfully for a couple years on Netflix, haven’t pushed into the last half of the last season just yet.

It beguiles and intrigues me because it’s set in the 1955-1965 time when my parents were reaching the apex of their youth and surfing, however timidly, the incredible surge of the post-war economy and culture.  Of course, there’s the costumes and props and maddening telephone technology in Mad Men that resonate, but also wisps of the urgent issues of the day, and how the writers ingeniously filtered them through office culture.

I worked at summer jobs at my dad’s manufacturing plant ( they made glass for General Motors) in the late 60s, and, although we weren’t working in a Manhattan high-rise, we were still firmly attached to the skeleton  that underlay the social and professional fabric of the country, so in so many ways my dad’s office in middle America was just a door or two away from Don Draper’s.

43 years ago, perhaps to the day, (I’ll close this loop in a moment), Mrs. Perils and I returned to our post-college digs in Bowling Green, Ohio, from a breathtaking trip to Seattle, took a look in the mirror, and decided that we were going to be those guys that, as Huck Finn said, lit out for the territory.  We hitched a 4×8 U-Haul to my ‘67 Pontiac Tempest and headed for Seattle.

In the Mad Men episode I just watched, Don has just walked out of a meeting in Manhattan and begun driving west, to a future as uncertain as we faced in 1974.  Somewhere around Cleveland, the ghost of Bert Cooper appears in the passenger seat and recites Kerouac: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

The question, of course, is existential and not merely geographical.  It was sufficiently laden with emotion in the Mad Men plot, but - and I’m not a crier - I found myself suddenly weeping (in a manly way), a late-summer squall exposing long-forgotten topology.  Where was I (we) going back in October, 1974, taking leave of family we knew would feel our absence and (probably) question our choice?  By all measures, we’ve had a wonderful life, and connected deeply with our families, but at the time it didn’t seem so certain.

I think “Whither goest thou” is a trenchant question for life’s next adventure.  And this car, this formerly shiny car, nonetheless seems up for another cycle around the odometer.

Catching Up On Last Weekend

Flying into the midwest was quite a bit different on Sunday than it was last month.  From the vertical vantage of six miles, the riotous reds and golds of the deciduous forests have given way to a uniform pall of dog-fur brown.  Last month, the Minnesota lakes were a froth of frenzied last-minute water sports, myriad white slashes carved into the chilling blue water;  Sunday, the only thing stirring the water’s surface was a persistent arctic wind that rocked my plane as it made its final approach to MSP.  The marina berths that had hosted the summer hierarchy of local aquatic social distinction are now barren, windswept lattices overlaying water for which freezing is an imperative as urgent as childbirth.

I retrieved my Wisconsin bicycle from the custody of my client’s owner, but the 1-mile ride from my hotel to the gym where I purchase a-la-carte workouts left my fingers in a mind-bending agony as they relived their Toledo Blade winter paper-boy abuse.  The euphoria that accompanied the bike’s purchase in August begins to look like a mortgage for which the collateral (the pleasure of evening bike rides) is insufficient.  (anyone have Secretary Paulson’s email address?)

We attended a wedding Saturday night of a couple who are great friends of our son’s, and climbing companions of Mrs. Perils.  The wedding ceremony was held at a Methodist church near the University of Washington, and later we attended a reception and dinner in the Chinese Room in the Smith Tower downtown.

The ceremony was unapologetically religious, officiated by a woman minister.  We tried to remember the last time we’d been inside a church for any reason, wedding or no, with inconclusive results.  Perhaps for that reason, I tracked the syntax of the ceremony closely, marking the iconic stuff that I used to accept as general cultural commonplace, but that is now part of the geologic edifice of our cultural divide.

The language of scripture and sacrament employed was mostly elegant and often, even to a non-combatant, stirring.  I was raised as a Methodist, but I’m not sure I ever attended a Methodist wedding.  I tracked its layered progression of commitment, the invocation of Christ as progenitor of the institution and as a benevolent third party.  I noted the unambiguous (but not strident) assertion of marriage between “a man and woman”.  I actually thrilled at the climactic vows of devotion unto death, and the challenge to us as friends and witnesses to nurture the union.

I came away thinking that it would be impossible (for me, at least) to participate in that particular ritual perfunctorily, if I knew beforehand what bargain was being struck, either to accommodate my partner or to placate relatives.  I couldn’t stand there bathed in the sincere aura of a particular commitment not only to an enduring contract with my partner, but also the stark acknowledgement of the Christian brand on the entire process, if I were an iota less than convicted.

This is not a criticism or the condescension of a cynical non-believer (which I can evince at times);  rather, it’s a revelation to me, delivered via a close attention to the language and solemnity of the service, that one must, at certain pivotal moments, unambiguously examine the essence of his/her beliefs and character and act with truthful vehemence.

The reception was held on the 35th floor of the Smith Tower downtown.  Built in 1914, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi for decades.

The crown jewel of the Smith Tower is the legendary 35th floor Chinese Room. The room’s name derives from the extensive carved wood and porcelain ceiling and the elaborately carved blackwood furniture that were gifts to Mr. Smith from the Empress of China. The observatory’s furnishings include the famed Wishing Chair. The chair, product of the skill of a Chinese carver and quite likely the skill of an early day virtuoso publicity man, incorporates a carved dragon and a phoenix, which when combined, portends marriage.

The night was unseasonably warm, and there were doors leading outside to a promenade around the perimeter of the building. A few (well, probably too many) photos (Click photos to enlarge):

This is the ornate elevator bank in the lobby.  I hadn’t been in the building in easily 20 years, and wasn’t sure whether they still had human elevator operators.  They do.

Here’s the view from the observation deck.  On the left, looking north down 2nd Avenue; on the right, looking up at the pyramid top of the building:

On the left, Qwest Field, where the Seahawks play. The shot on the right was pointed out to me by a professional photographer who admired the perfect circles of light. I told him I was totally going to steal this bit of intellectual property, and he graciously assented:

(Update) One more - a shot of the ceiling of the Chinese Room:

A March Madness Reminiscence

The NCAA men’s basketball championship is tonight and, although I really don’t have an emotional stake in the outcome, I always get a little pang around this time of year because it reminds me of the torrid 3-year affair I conducted with my first sports love.

My mom and dad both attended Ohio State, and there was never any question about where our sports loyalties resided. I was sort of a chubby, unathletic kid, though, and the sports gene pretty much lay dormant until the winter of 1959 - 60. That year, a once-in-a-lifetime recruiting class became sophomores and eligible to play at Ohio State, including Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell and Bobby Knight. I must have contracted my dad’s enthusiasm, and we started setting aside time on the evenings - Saturday and Tuesday, usually - when they played, and we’d strain our Toledo-area radio’s capability to pull in the Columbus radio station (WTVN) carrying the games.

As this first wondrous season unfolded with victory after victory, we at some point got caught up in scorekeeping. My dad must have seen a bonding opportunity in this virtual sport, an opportunity that hadn’t germinated in the freezing duck blinds and torpid bobber-watching forays he’d tried in vain to entice me with, and he made the most of it. He had scoresheets printed (mimeographed - these were the old days) at his office with the hallowed starting five filled in, and blanks for subs, and, as we listened to the radio broadcast, we assiduously recorded field goals attempted and made, free throws attempted and made, and personal fouls. We’d compare notes at halftime and at the end of games, and compute the shooting percentages for individuals and the teams, and try to do it fast enough to compare ours with the post-game wrap-up on the radio.

We also filled in the opponent’s ledger, and tracked vaunted enemies like Terry Dischinger (Purdue), the Van Arsdale Twins (Indiana) and their wonderfully-monickered coach Branch McCracken, and of course the hated Bill Buntin and Cazzie Russell of Michigan.
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We were aided greatly in this endeavor by undoubtedly the most egregious homer announcer I’ve ever heard, a guy named Joe Hill. His call was so precise that it was amazing how close our radio-informed statistics would track the official numbers. And, an added bonus, Hill would really scourge the refs if he felt we were being jobbed, and, for the first time in my life, I tasted the seething vintages of the sports fan’s hatreds.
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The Buckeyes won the national championship that year that Lucas and Havlicek were sophomores, and went on to post a 73-6 record over the three years those guys played. They were beaten, however, in each of the next two national championship games by Cincinnati. I honestly think I lost my religion the Sunday morning after the second Cinci loss. Sitting in church with my eyes closed, seeing nothing but the Blade’s “CINCI WINS!” headline emblazoned in Hiroshima-sized type on my retinas, I finally knew the universe for the cold and brutal place that it is.

Ohio State had a couple of good years after that with Gary Bradds, another all-American, at center, but, for me, bra sizes began to replace field-goal percentages as my stat-du-jour, my dad began to suffer stress from occupational angst and personal demons, and our period of Buckeye bonding dissipated.

Still, we had it, that period of delirious sports lust, and its corollary, the searing heartache of defeat and entitlement forfeited. Good fortune, time and mobility allowed my dad and I to enjoy each other’s company until he died last fall, and I’ve had satisfying adult relationships with other sports teams, but I always feel a little nostalgia during March Madness for those nights by the radio, brow furrowed and pencil poised, urging Big Luke to sink another of his soft hooks.
(Pictures from The Golden Age of Ohio State Basketball by Lee Caryer)

Bonus shot - Basketball cognoscenti familiar with the scowling, silver-haired visage of Bobby Knight might get a kick out of the shot below, taken at the Cow Palace after the 1960 national championship game:
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A Musical Interlude

As I mentioned a couple of entries ago, I’m going to Columbus to meet up with my brothers and parents, and to play with my OSU band alumni at the football game against Cincinnati Saturday. As I’ve said before, it’s hard to torch one of the last summer weekends in Seattle to do this, but since all of my family (2 younger brothers and parents) attended OSU, and my youngest brother was in the band, too, it’s become a traditional family reunion.

So, the other night I crept down to the basement, oiled my trumpet’s valves and began to methodically abuse my dental work, to the presumed consternation of neighbors and the certain reproductive disruption of our basement’s spider population. It pained me, as well, to reconcile the sounds bouncing off the walls, the clangor of distressed metallurgy, with the remembered dulcet tones of my youth.

The trumpet I’m using is the same one that I had in high school, and the case is a museum of competition medals (I wasn’t that good, but our band was), OSU basketball programs from the Bill Hosket/Dave Sorensen/Jim Cleamons era. I know this is absolute nonsense to anyone not having an unhealthy level of knowledge of Ohio State athletics, but you get the idea.

My accompanist on this night is Miss Jean Ann Soda, an effervescent, if uncautious, complement. I warm up with long tones, lip slurs, chromatics. Yes, it IS like riding a bike, but the fingers fly ahead of the flaccid lip muscle.

From my trumpet’s sarcophagus I pull my book of exercises, Rubank’s Advanced Method Vol. 1 for Trumpet or Cornet, and page through it looking for something I can play. I play some arpeggios, some short ditties, and flit back and forth between different keys to awake whatever ability I retain to sightread music. As I move from page to page, I note handwritten dates, phrases and imprecations: “Dec 20. Long tones, go for 25 seconds”; “Nov 1-62″; “Nov 29-62 - both lines, ALWAYS!”; “Dec 6-62 Do again”; on page 26, “Feb 2-63″ and, on the same page, “Feb 6 - 63 Do it Please!“; on page 31, “May 26 - 63 Re-Do Correctly…sf..pp..staccato”; and on page 50, undated “Very Good”. A log in the front of the book has entries in the same handwriting spanning from October 12, 1962 to May 31, 1963, a period during which I took private lessons from our high school band director, Frank Menichetti, which would have been my freshman year.

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We probably all have that one teacher that we look back to and say he/she made a difference, was a fulcrum in our development. At the time I started high school, Mr. Menichetti had built a powerhouse high school band juggernaut at our school, with consistent 1 ratings at state concert band competitions. You could go anywhere in Ohio, say you played in the Perrysburg band, and have instant respect. He did it with a combination of teaching solid fundamentals, criticism when warranted and, above all, constant exhortations towards excellence. Our motto, on a sign above his podium, was “Quis In Tartaro Communis Es Vult”, “Who in hell wants to be ordinary?”. Although he wasn’t Bobby-Knight abusive, you definitely knew when you weren’t measuring up. I believe this explains why the private-lesson entries in my exercise book end on 5/31/63. Progress was glacial, I was lazy and complacent and we broke for the summer and never resumed.

At the end of my sophomore year, I began to appreciate more fully our legacy of success, and to want to step up to a more significant role, perhaps even contend for first chair. Then, sometime during the summer, word came that Mr. Menichetti had resigned and, apparently dismayed either with teaching or the administration, was returning home to Illinois to work in the family meat business. There was no comparable successor on staff, and it soon became clear that the administration was not going to make much effort to find one. When school began, our director was an earnest but overmatched young guy just a year or so out of college.

I recall the sting of this revelation, that internecine jealousy and academic politics could bring down something that we and the community seemed to value so highly. I also recall a little of the kids-of-divorce syndrome, that maybe if I/we had tried harder to be better, he might have stayed. The next two years were what it might be like playing for the post-Lou Piniella Mariners, stuck in a purgatory of high expectation and, well, merely ordinary performance.

Still, not everyone gets to experience the catalyst of success, of knowing how it feels and having at least an inkling of how hard it is to achieve and maintain, and there was more value in having played in Mr. Menichetti’s band than in anything else I did in high school. I’m not saying, by any means, that it was a launchpad to unalloyed lifelong success. But without it, I wouldn’t have had the personal and musical wherewithal to try out for and get into the Ohio State band, where I was able again to experience that elixir of excellence. Those experiences have given me a standard against which to measure any activity that I engage in.

I know Mr. Menichetti eventually returned to teaching, at a town not too far from mine. Last year, out of curiosity, I Googled him just to see if I could fill in any more of the story. I was startled to come across a reference in a small-town Illinois cemetery, with a link to this:
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Whether he’s in Tartaro or Caelum, the bastards had better be filling out their practice cards.

This Is The Hardest Job A Manager’s Got To Do, But The Organization’s Decided To Make A Change

A picture named Old_Suitcase.jpgI leave on a business trip tomorrow, and before I do, I have to find a way to fire one of my oldest and closest associates. Let’s call him “Eddie”. “Eddie Bauer”. This individual has been my faithful companion for nearly 5 years and, like all of the best lieutenants in business, has discreetly hidden, when necessary, any dirty laundry that my business ventures may have generated.

Lately, though, he’s started to let himself go physically, showing up for duty with an increasingly slovenly visage. I began to worry a bit about his ability to continue to perform his tactful office seamlessly. Then, on my last trip, the wheels (one, anyway) literally came off and, even in the dulcet confines of seat 3A, I could not relax for fear that he would leak something valuable down in steerage.

When we met after the flight, I was heartened to learn that he had managed to hold it together, and I walked him gently to our homebound shuttle.

He can probably sense my imminent departure tomorrow, noticing the unaccustomed absence in the closet of his less capacious colleagues. While it’s true that it will require two of them to do the job he used to do, we’ll all just have to pull together and try to cover.

I wanted to throw a more opulent going-away party. I tried to gen up one of those US maps that other bloggers have been posting showing states they’ve visited, but the link doesn’t work, at least tonight. It woulda done him proud, all those colored-in states.

He’ll get to stay around a few weeks, taking up space and enduring the euphoric whispers of his peers as they return to the closet festooned with fresh destination tags. He’ll get outplacement counselling, and we’ll eventually place him with another firm, Salvation Army or, better yet, Community Services for the Blind. He’s still got something to offer to the right firm, it’s too soon for the landfill. But he’s probably seen the last of his favorite carousels, #2 at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell, or the crazy shell game they play at Detroit’s new McNamara Terminal. He’ll probably never again sport the “Priority: World Business Class” sticker on his handle.

I’ll let him keep his “Heavy! Get help to lift” tag - I wouldn’t want to be party to that final emasculation. In better days, he’d proudly weigh in at just under the 50lb limit, leaving checkin agents gnashing their teeth at the near-miss of additional revenue, and not smiling at my “Careful! That’s my mother in there!” admonishment as they struggled to flop him onto the conveyor.

Vaya Con Dios, buddy. It’s been a great run!

A Reminiscence

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I took this picture just before we did our pregame show at the ‘71 Rose Bowl

A couple days ago I was inspired to dredge up a story from my OSU days. It was the spring of 1970, during the Cambodia bombing campaign, and campuses all over the country were in turmoil. Each school approached these events according to its own personality, as I will relate.

I was more cynical than passionate about political issues at the time, and in my more cynical moments it seemed to me that Ohio State, with 50,000 students on campus and a Big Ten sports culture, approached student activism as more of an opportunity to party than to make a lasting political statement. In the core of any demonstration, of course, were truly dedicated activists, but milling at the periphery, and outnumbering them by a lot, were gawkers, sunworshipers, frisbee-throwers. Many saw the demonstrations as a way to get classes cancelled and grading liberalized. For instance, two of my classes that quarter offered students the opportunity to state the lowest grade they’d accept, and to take ‘pass/fail’ if that grade wasn’t achieved.

Anyway. With this image in mind of how demonstrations went down at OSU, envision this one day on the Oval (a large grassy area at the heart of campus). Three stage-sized podiums had been constructed for that day’s events, one run by the Black Student Union, one by someone like the SDS, and one apparently by the faculty senate, with crowds clustered around each one. Platform negotiations were apparently being conducted, as emissaries shuttled back and forth between the podiums.

I had stopped at the ‘faculty senate’ one and heard one or two earnest but unheeded profs plead for an orderly protest process that kept classes open. I think they saw the political upheaval of the day as perhaps the teaching opportunity of a lifetime, and didn’t want to be cut out of the dialogue. They garnered mostly derision from the committed and ennui from the groundlings on the periphery.

Suddenly, there was a disturbance from the back of the stage, and in a moment a ham-sized fist reached forward and grabbed the microphone. The body attached to the fist next emerged, and it was Woody Hayes. Some cheered, as many hooted, but everyone hushed a bit as Woody launched into a garrulous, circumlocutory dissertation sprinkled with historical references, homily and, I’m sure, at least one reference from his hero, Emerson. Typical Woody pep rally stump speech, minus the player introductions.

As he seemed to be winding to a close, he exclaimed, “If there’s one thing I teach my players, it’s not to HATE!”. This was apparently just one toke over the line, even from one of iconic stature. A girl with granny glasses and denim work shirt stood up and yelled, “WE HATE MICHIGAN!”, and the place just erupted in chanting and howling. Woody was somehow disengaged from the microphone and squeezed from the stage.

In the next several days, the Kent State killings took place, our demonstrations became more chaotic and violent, and the National Guard stationed itself on the Oval to prevent anyone from congregating there. Tear gas permeated the air, even to the 7th floor of my dorm. One day, word came that the school would close at noon, and everyone had to be off the campus by 4pm. In no mood to go home, I decided to head for Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and my girlfriend (now wife). A friend offered me a ride to Wheeling, and as we drove off campus, Columbus police were arresting students who were hitchhiking as a method to comply with the precipitous order to vacate.

Arriving on the Carnegie Mellon campus, I found a large congregation of students on a lawn in front of a makeshift stage, all seated on the grass. The president of the university was speaking, and answering questions from the audience. They were following Roberts Rules of Order. Carnegie Mellon does not play in the Big Ten.

School did eventually resume at Ohio universities, except of course for those four kids at Kent State. I took the picture above of Woody on the floor of the 1971 Rose Bowl just before we did our pregame show. We lost to Jim Plunkett and Stanford that day, and whiffed at the first of 4 or 5 national championships that would elude Woody during the 70s. Though his public persona was distorted a bit outside Columbus, Woody was enough of a wingnut that you had to cringe sometimes when he opened his mouth. As with a lot of things about him, though, you had to respect him for his commitment to his values (even if you didn’t share all of them), and for taking the risk to speak that day when he could have hidden out and concentrated on recruiting.