Mount Rainier is so imposing that it makes its own weather, and on most days the mountain disappears under its thorny crown of rain clouds.
In fact, weather analysts calculate the odds of “seeing” Mount Rainier likely hovers between once or twice a week, considering the 189 rain-days per year, producing 126 inches of precipitation annually.
On the other hand, July is Mount Rainier’s driest month, with an average of 7 days of rainfall, amounting to 2 inches on average, which improves the odds tremendously for the millions who live and travel the I-5 corridor between Tacoma and Seattle. They invoke a familiar colloquialism that captures the moments when Mount Rainier reveals itself. They say, “The mountain is out today.”
My youngest son Nathan, who lives in nearby Bellevue had arranged long ago to glamp with Leah and me for a summer weekend at the National Park so he could experience Paradise, up close and personal, for the first time.
Happily, during our visit, “the mountain was out,” and it was magnificent!
On our first day together, we sought out a few of the requisite park sites as part of Nate’s Rainier orientation, including:
a wobbly walk across a suspension bridge…
to gaze at ancient trees…
in the Grove of the Patriarchs;
a hike to Myrtle Falls, cascading 72 feet into a rocky gorge;
a gambol across Sunbeam Creek on the Wonderland Trail before it rolls into Stevens Canyon;
tracking iconic, Narada Falls,
as it plunges 168 feet into a canyon of split rocks;
admiring Reflection Lakes, sans the reflection (ruined by wind-swept ripples);
and relishing the trove of jaw-dropping, mountain vistas that seem to vanish into thin air–
which we reflected on while enjoying a soft-serve swirl at the historic Paradise Inn.
The next day, the mountain was still out, and it was a picture perfect day for hiking the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point.
Of all the trails I’ve trekked, I can say with cautious certainty that the Skyline Trail may be among the most magnificent of them. With the sun out, and blooming wildflowers dotting the landscape, there are few hikes that can compare.
We started on a paved path from the Paradise Inn at 5,420 feet elevation, and continued to climb through flower-carpeted meadows for a mile…
until we reached the Deadhorse Creek Trail spur, and looked back in wonderment.
We were now traipsing through packed snow and rocky terrain as we reached the tree line. We paused for a break where other hikers were keenly aware of something or someone through binoculars and long camera lenses. I scanned the mountain for movement through my viewfinder, and discovered the attraction–a team trekking across the glacier on their way to the summit.
Nisqually Glacier was now looming large in our sights.
The spectacle of watching the snowmelt pummeling the moraine below was thrilling.
It seemed to us that Rainier was so close, we could almost touch it.
With one last push, we arrived at Panorama Point, having climbed 1400 feet in 2 hours. I should have felt drained, but I was giddy with excitement with views from the overlook,
while also spotting Mount St. Helens far in the distance,
and capturing the Nisqually River as it meanders through the Rampart Ridge gorge.
On our return trip, we opted to take the Glacier Vista spur for a beauty shot of the mountain,
Returning via the Alta Vista Trail gave us a very different impression of the valley below,
but also prompted us to occasionally glance back to admire the source of all the magic.
Leah and I have been planning our current trip since January–looking at various routes, places of interest, and RV park availability. At times it seemed like a logistical nightmare–having to shift dates and locations to accommodate timing, anticipated weather and RV park amenities (service hook-ups).
By April, most all of our mapped destinations (44 in all over 20 weeks) were booked. That’s about the same time the National Park Service (NPS) announced that two of our anticipated stops (Rocky Mountain and Glacier) now require timed-entry permits to be eligible to visit.
Because NPS is grappling with record attendance and overrun facilities at many locations, this additional measure is intended to relieve congestion at the park gates at best, and eliminate park closures due to limited parking and staffing woes.
At Rocky Mountain National Park, two reservation options were available for visitors between May 28 and October 11: Bear Lake Road Corridor plus full park access, which includes Wild Basin, Long’s Peak, Trail Ridge Road, and Fall River Area from 5:00 AM – 6:00 PM; and all park roads except Bear Lake Road Corridor, with a reservation period from 9:00 AM – 3:00 PM.
When the reservations window opened on May 1 at 8 AM (MDT), passes became available on a first-come basis—up to 60 days in advance–with approximately 25% of day passes held for guests planning to arrive within 2 days. I logged on torecreation.gov bright and early, and was eager to claim my permit, but apparently the rest of the world had the same idea.
When the online dust settled, I had my coveted entry pass, albeit with a 2:00 PM start time. While it wasn’t the most ideal situation–losing half the day–it was better than making the trip, only to be turned away. Yes, it’s happening.
On the day of our permit, Leah and I meandered through Estes Park for a few hours, breezing through art, jewelry, sporting goods, and general stores, where Leah found an eyeglass lanyard for a buck. We passed a dress-up cowboy spieling in front of Bob and Tony’s Pizza on Elkhorn Ave. and laughed it off, but we returned for some of the worst pizza we’ve ever tasted, although comparable to spreading Ketchup over a cardboard circle, which I did as a child.
Once we passed through the Bear Lake ranger checkpoint, we stretched our legs with a walk around Sprague Lake, the site of a one-time mountain resort, and immediately, we were greeted by a curious teenager,
who looks as if he had a bad reaction from a slice of pizza from Bob and Tony’s…
and is returning to a healthier diet of tall grass.
Half way around Sprague Lake, we encountered his girlfriend romping through the water, courtesy of Leah’s iPhone…
Completing the lake loop, we stood in awe at the doorstep of the Continental Divide and admired the view…but not for as long as I would have liked, since we only had a narrow window of time to explore our immense surroundings.
Naturally, being inside the Bear Lake Corridor gave us an opportunity to circle Bear Lake,
and its neighbor, Nymph Lake.
But running short on time, I abandoned my goal of hiking the rest of the trail to Emerald Lake,
and opted for time in the higher elevations. Our drive took us through Moraine Park,
till we reached Horseshoe Park at the junction of Trail Ridge Road.
Once we rounded the bend from Hidden Valley…
it was one spectacular lookout…
until we reached the Gore Range, the highest elevation on the park road at 12,183 feet.
We drove as far as Medicine Bow Curve, when a herd of elk happened to wander across the tundra to graze, as if to remind us that we were approaching dinner-time. It was our cue to U-turn.
As we doubled back, our conversation turned to the timed-entry, reservation system. The time we were allotted was just a teaser, considering the 355 miles of hiking trails throughout the park.
While I would have preferred a whole day or two or three to satisfy my craving for mountains, I support more people having a chance to appreciate this country’s beauty without annoying crowds, and to capture a lasting memory…
U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant Victor David Westphall III and 16 Bravo Company soldiers under his command lost their lives in an ambush at Con Thien (“Hill of Angels”), a combat base near the former Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone.
But Victor “Doc” Westphall shaped his grief differently than 58,000 other Gold Star families who were looking to find meaning in their child’s death from a senseless and unpopular war. He and his wife Jeanne would dedicate the rest of their lives working to fulfill their son’s legacy by honoring ALL victims of the Vietnam War.
When sons or daughters die in battle, parents are confronted with the choice of what they will do to honor the courage and sacrifice of that son or daughter. Following the death of our son, Victor David Westphall, on May 22, 1968, in Vietnam, we decided to build an enduring symbol of the tragedy and futility of war.
With $30,000 seed money from David’s life insurance payout and another $60,000 in savings, Doc commissioned Santa Fe architect, Ted Luna to design a chapel on his Moreno Valley hillside property off U.S. Highway 64 in Angel Fire, NM.
After three years of sweat equity, Doc presented the Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel…
to commemorate the loss of his son.
The spartan, triangular-shaped chapel was intended as a non-denominational sanctuary, with the exception of a towering cross-like torchiere at the vortex.
But Westphall’s vision was running on fumes; he needed $20,000 per year in maintenance expenses, and donations were in short supply, especially after Maya Lin’s national memorial (the Wall) was dedicated in Washington D.C. on November 13, 1982.
Fortunately, the Disabled American Veterans organization committed to funding Doc’s memorial, and ownership was transferred to their foundation. The Disabled American Veterans charity tended “Doc’s” dream till 1998–building a much-needed Visitor Center into the hillside in 1986, and acquiring an additional 25 acres for a buffer zone before reverting ownership back to the David Westphall Veterans Foundation (DWVF).
In 1999, DWVF inherited a decommissioned Huey for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial grounds from the New Mexico Army National Guard, acknowledging the impact that the Huey had in Vietnam combat assault, resupply, and medivac missions.
After 17 years of ground service at the memorial, their Huey was lovingly restored…
and returned to its hallowed perch.
On Veterans Day 2005, Gov. Bill Richardson granted the Vietnam Veterans Memorial state park status, which secured state resources for needed renovations and a newly built amphitheater behind the chapel.
In 2007, a commemorative walkway was inaugurated for all U.S. veterans. The dates on the bricks-for-bucks signify the dates of service. Two stars denote the person was killed in action, and one star designates missing in action.
On July 1, 2017, management of the Memorial was transferred from the NM State Parks to NM Department of Veterans Services.
Doc Westphall died in 2003 at the age of 89, and his wife Jeanne died the following year. Both are buried at the memorial.
At the time–during the Vietnam War–I would have registered as a conscientious objector if necessary, as I had no taste for war. Lucky for me, I side-stepped conscription with a college deferment in 1970, and a high enough number (#181) in the Selective Service Lottery held on August 5, 1971. By then, Nixon had ordered phased withdrawals to coincide with Vietnamization. Consequently, fewer numbers were being called up to relieve the soldiers returning home, who received little fanfare and support from society at large.
Approximately 2.7 million men and women served in Vietnam over the course of 20 years without America ever realizing its objective–to thwart the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia.
So many young soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice to defend their country with honor, and so many paid the ultimate price with their lives. Moreover, far too many came back broken from their war experience. At the very least, we owe them all a debt of gratitude, and above all, our respect.
Thankfully, the Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel offers us a place to share our grief, heal old wounds, and bring us closer to awareness and acceptance of our past.
Leah and I were en route from Albuquerque to Taos when I noticed an early road sign for Bandelier National Monument. As we got closer to our destination and signs for Bandelier became more frequent, I proposed that we make it a stop–not for overnighting, but a daytrip to break up the travel monotony–considering it wasn’t more than an hour out of our way.
While there wasn’t hardcore support for the idea, there wasn’t serious objection either, which meant I still had a chance to sell the idea.
“I think it’s been 46 years since I was there–probably some side-trip while visiting Santa Fe during my first cross-country honeymoon trip,” I started.
“I think I was there sooner than that,” Leah commented, “like in the past 10 years.”
“Really? It couldn’t have been with me,” I asserted. “Do you not have an interest in going?”
“I don’t know,” she maintained. “I mean, is there anything there that we haven’t seen before?
I thought, “Are you kidding me?! Would you pass up Niagara Falls because you saw Victoria Falls?”
I said, “It’s the site of an ancient pueblo village. It’s similar to Mesa Verde, and I think you may be mistaking one for the other, because we last visited Mesa Verde when we flew to Santa Fe for Carrie’s wedding 12 years ago.”
“What do you propose we do with the Airstream, ’cause we certainly can’t pull it around the canyon,” Leah asked and answered.
“We can work that out when we get there,” I proposed.
Sometime that answer gets me in trouble…but not this day!
We first passed through Los Alamos (with maybe more nuclear physicists per square mile than anywhere else on earth), and climbed a ridgeline of the Jemez Mountains,
overlooking the Frijoles Canyon.
“Any of this look familiar,” I teased.
We followed a serpentine road that wound around the mountain, carrying us deeper into the canyon. A park ranger stopped us at the park entrance station.
“Sorry folks, but your trailer–nice as it is–doesn’t fit on our mountain roads. To get to our Visitor Center and trails, you’re gonna have to drive to the Juniper Campground parking lot and unhitch there,” he advised.
“Sounds reasonable,” I confirmed.
“You’re prepared to do all this work just to drive the park?” Leah asked.
“You’ll see. It’ll be worth it!” I said.
We walked the Pueblo Loop Trail, passing Big Kiva (a ceremonial underground chamber)…
and the 700-year ruins of Tyuonyi (QU-weh-nee) village—
originally a 3-story ring of sandstone rock debris exceeding 400 rooms.
From a distance we saw several families poking through the cavates, chipped out of porous rock.
We soldiered on, beyond the remnants of the Long House…
lined with protected petroglyphs,
and imagined what it once looked like…
when all that remains are chiseled-out rooms,
once hidden behind adobe walls.
We took the trail extension in anticipation of climbing to the Alcove House…
but Leah chose to sit this one out.
The climb was steep and narrow, and the ladder rungs were on fire from baking in the sun all day.
While Leah enjoyed the shade beside Frijoles Creek, I had an aerie to myself with a nestled kiva,
and sculpted rooms for meditation.
Which may have prompted me to say a prayer or two before my looong climb down.
With Amarillo behind us, we were finally on our way to Albuquerque to visit Leah’s family. Earlier in the week, Leah had made preliminary plans with Carrie, her daughter to take the grandkids to Santa Rosa, NM to visit a popular water park the day after our arrival.
But not so fast!
We were driving on I-40 West with very light traffic, and had just crossed the border into New Mexico when a couple in a pickup pulled along side me and grabbed my attention. The woman in the passenger seat looked concerned. She mimed a circle with her finger while shaking her head, and pointed in the general direction of our Airstream before the pickup sped away.
“Oh, shit!” I grumbled. “There’s trouble back there.”
“What do you mean, trouble?’ Leah asked.
“I don’t think she was playing Charades…hopefully nothing serious” I answered.
I slowed to a crawl–pulling off the road to inspect our rig.
The original set of Goodyear Marathons looked nearly new upon general inspection, and I‘d only pulled the Airstream about 5,000 miles since starting out on our Great American Road Trip. Thank goodness for tandem axles. As for the blown tire, the tread was gone and the cord plies were shredded, but miraculously, the wheel and wheel well were still intact.
“We need a new tire,” I sighed. “The one that used to be there looks like spaghetti.”
“So now what? We’re in the middle of Bumfuck,” she panicked.
“Not exactly,” I tried to reassure.
“And on a Sunday to boot!” she continued.
“You’re not helping,” I advised.
Analyzing our location on GPS, I responded, “It’s showing that we passed a truck stop the moment we crossed the border.”
I called Russell’s Tire Center and learned that Cole was on-call. He agreed to meet us at the shop in half an hour. He also advised that he would be charging his travel time back to me at $95/hr. in addition to the emergency repair at $95/hr. It was a different kind of highway robbery, but I was out of options since I lacked the tools to lift a 7500 lb. trailer.
“There! It’s arranged,” I crowed. “We just need to get to the next exit and head back.”
“How are we gonna do that without a tire, genius?” she asked.
“Slowly and carefully,” I suggested.
It seemed like forever, but we limped along at 20 mph with flashers flashing until we approached the next westbound exit. Ironically, Jennifer (our GPS voice) routed our return along Route 66–parallel to I-40 West–as if she knew that slow-going was ill-suited for Interstate travel.
We got to Russell’s first and waited for nearly an hour when Cole arrived. He got straight to work. With the wheel off, I discovered what became of the tread. Luckily, no harm was done to the shock or the brake system.
Feeling insecure about using the spare under the Airstream, I opted for a new tire. When all the dust had settled, we were finally on our way to Albuquerque after a 2-hour layover and $300 in expenses. But I was feeling weary from the incident and wary behind the wheel, knowing that the other tires needed to be replaced.
90 minutes of drivetime took us to Santa Rosa, NM.
“Wait a minute! Aren’t we scheduled to drive here tomorrow with Carrie and the kids?” I asked.
“That’s right,” confirmed Leah.
“But we’re already here. Why on earth should I drive another 90 minutes to Albuquerque, only to return here the next day with your family,” I reasoned. “Why can’t they meet us here instead? They could even camp with us tonight if they want. Besides, I’m exhausted from this expensive mini-adventure.”
“Not a bad idea, Einstein,” she quipped.
Good News! Google confirmed that 2 walk-in sites with services were still available at Santa Rosa Lake State Park. Jennifer navigated us to the park campground, where we looped around twice to locate the open sites as advertised. Turns out, one site was handicap reserved; the other site was reserved for camp host.
As with most self-help campgrounds, Leah put our payment in an envelope and dropped it into a paybox at the entrance kiosk. After plugging into the host site, it was a relief to finally kick back with a cold beer and a blast of A/C to melt my stress level.
But not so fast!
Two park rangers have approached Leah, and it didn’t go well. We have been evicted, unapologetically.
So we rolled back onto Route 66 and found an overnight spot at a local RV park. Leah made arrangements with Carrie, who eventually drove to meet us and spend the night car camping with Devin and Gabe outside our Airstream window.
The next day, we drove to the Blue Hole—
–ready for excitement.
When we arrived, I had this nagging feeling of déjà vu.
“We’ve been here before,” I mentioned to Leah.
“I would have remembered this place,” she disagreed.
“I’m telling you, this place is very familiar to me,” I insisted.
“Maybe you were here with someone else,” she theorized.
“Nope! You were with me, and I can prove it,” I stated emphatically.
I scrolled through the picture gallery on my phone, as if by chance…until…
“There it is!” I insisted. “We were here on October 18, 2017! And here’s the picture to prove it!”
“Congratulations! You’re right again, as usual,” Leah said without conviction.
“We never went in the water,” I said, “But that’s about to change today.”
It took some coaxing, but eventually everyone braved the 61o F temperature…
except me. I was going for the whole enchilada.
I watched as several youngsters scrambled to the ledge 20 feet above the Blue Hole and jumped,
which was all the preparation I needed for my jump.
The water was freezing–enough to take my breath away. But at least I left with bragging rights.
P.S. After we reached Albuquerque, our Airstream got a new set of shoes…
After a spin around Sun Records, Leah and I altered our orbit a couple of Memphis miles to the center of a parallel universe of talent, originally known as Satellite Records in 1957.
Inspired by the success of Sam Phillips, Jim Stewart–a banker by day and frustrated fiddler by night–decided he too could produce hit records despite no music industry experience. Upon realizing his need for professional recording equipment, he enlisted his older sister, Estelle Axton who mortgaged her home for an Ampex 350 console recorder.
In 1960, Satellite Records moved to a converted theater on McLemore Ave. and Stax Records (a fusion of their last names) was born.
Rufus and Carla Thomas recorded the new company’s first hit record, Cause I love You, in 1960…
which caught Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler attention and willingness to negotiate a distribution deal for all future Rufus and Carla recordings, and right of first refusal of all other Stax artists.
Steve Cropper also added to the early success of STAX.
Originally, his guitar playing fronted the Royal Spades, but Jim Stewart invited Cropper to Stax where the group was re-billed as the Mar-Keys and became the house band, playing sessions with newly signed artists as well as recording their own sounds, like Last Night, a 1961 hit.
Steve Cropper would leave the Mar-Keys to become head of A&R for Jim Stewart, but continued to play back-up sessions as needed, always a part of the Mar-Keys floating membership. One day, while awaiting a session, Booker T. stepped in for a turn on the Hammond organ, and Green Onions was instantly conceived in 1962.
The Mar-Keys had just morphed into the next Stax session band, a/k/a Booker T. and the M.G.’s,
Stax success continued when Otis Redding, driver for Johnny Jenkins’ took the microphone after Johnny’s dismal performance. Subsequently, Otis auditioned with Booker T. and the M.G.’s on accompaniment, and wowed everyone with his song, These Arms of Mine, released October 1962.
Otis Redding would become the label’s biggest star, continuing with hits: I’ve Been Loving You too Long; Respect; Just One More Day; and Try a Little Tenderness. But like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, Otis and several members of the Bar-Kays lost their lives in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, enroute to a performance in Cleveland.
Only 6 months earlier, Otis was headlining at the Monterey Pop Festival, backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. At the time, he was fully aware of the opportunity and exposure. He said, “It’s gonna put my career up some. I’m gonna reach an audience I never have before.” He was 26 when he died.
(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, co-written by Steve Cropper was released one month later, and reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
In 1968, the wheels came off the Stax bus. They lost their distribution deal with Atlantic Records after Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros. Records in 1967. Warner Bros. also reclaimed the library of master tapes held by Stax, citing a clause in Atlantic’s contract that entitled them to “all right, title and interest, including any rights of reproduction.”
Adding insult to injury, Warner Bros. also reclaimed Sam and Dave, who were “on loan” to Stax from Atlantic.
And to make matters worse, the country was at war with itself after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4,1968 just blocks from the label’s headquarters.
With their back catalog depleted and no distribution deal, Stewart sold his shares of Stax to Gulf & Western for millions, but stayed behind to continue running the company. Enter Al Bell, record producer and songwriter, who joined Stax in 1965 as director of promotions, and became co-owner and vice-president after buying out Estelle Axton. In 1969, Bell shepherded the “Soul Explosion,” generating 30 singles and 27 albums within eight months,
utilizing house talent like the Memphis Horns (an off-shoot of the Mar-Keys) and new talent like the Staple Singers.
But musically, the resurrection of Stax records can be attributed to Isaac Hayes, the Black Moses.
In 1969, Isaac Hayes released Hot Buttered Soul, his four-song, soul-defining masterpiece which sold 3 million albums.
The Stax Museum has many alluring features and exhibits. There’s the reassembled Hoopers Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church from Duncan, Mississippi built around 1906;
there’s also a disco dance floor, that ideal for busting a move and showing your groove;
but the crown jewel of the collection has to be Isaac Hayes’ rotating 1972 peacock-blue, 24K gold-plated Cadillac.
The release of Theme from Shaft— which won an Oscar for Hayes for Best Original Song in 1971–
put Hayes in the drivers seat when it came time to renegotiate his contract…
In 1970, with the wind at their backs, Bell and Stewart repurchased Stax from Gulf & Western with borrowed money from Union Planters Bank.
In the summer of 1972, in pursuit of a wider audience, Al Bell brought an all-star revue to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum–dubbed Wattstax–to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots. The sold-out crowd of 100,000 fans spawned a highly regarded documentary film and a live double album of the concert highlights.
Stax archives recount the final years of Stax Records:
By 1971, Stax had grown from a family production company distributed by Atlantic Records, to a freestanding independent record company. Stax now manufactured, marketed and distributed its own recorded music in America and through licensees around the world. The racial harmonies that typified Stax’s early years was becoming an issue. Trust was an issue. Jim Stewart, producer-cum-chief executive officer was tired, disillusioned, and pushing paper instead of making records. He had not attended Wattstax. He told his partner Al Bell that he wanted out.
Change and challenge were pervasive after so much growth. One major problem became the theft of Stax property, including master tapes. Stax hired one of the country’s premiere white-collar crime investigative firms. Their search did uncover improprieties involving some employees, but Jim Stewart and Al Bell decided not to prosecute. Instead new security measures were designed and implemented at the McLemore Avenue and the Union Avenue Extended offices to specifically protect and preserve Stax masters, East Memphis copyrights and other valuable assets.
Al Bell was enjoying a Midas touch. Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, and the Staple Singers had all emerged as superstars. Rufus Thomas had entered the most successful era of his career. Albert King had broken through to the white rock album market. Mid-level artists such as Soul Children, Frederick Knight, Luther Ingram, and Mel & Tim were all hitting the charts. Bell was pushing company expansion in many different directions at once, issuing pop, rock, jazz, country, gospel, and comedy records in addition to its staple of classic soul tracks.
Though Stax thrived in the independent world, it had still not broken through in mass-market distribution venues like Sear and Roebuck. Seeking a buyer for his company’s other half, Al Bell kept that distribution goal in mind. He wound up, surprisingly, making a distribution deal with Clive Davis at CBS Records. CBS, though successful with many white acts, boasted no major black artists. “The company was” as Bell says, “larger that life white with no real knowledge of the black market.”
Stax and CBS each complemented the other’s weakness. Stax could help CBS reach the small, privately owned stores, and CBS could get Stax into huge chains. In 1972, through a complicated agreement, Bell bought Stewart’s half with money loaned from CBS. Jim Stewart, agreeing to remain with the company for five more years, received $2.5 million, up front, and millions more in payments to come.
Though the new relationship began well, a disaster occurred in May 1973: Clive Davis was fired from CBS. The deal he’d struck with Al Bell was full of nuance and personal commitment between two parties, and Davis’ replacement neither understood nor appreciated the arrangements.
Faced with a contract it felt was a mistake, CBS began systematically reducing payments to Stax for records sold, precipitating a tangle of legal battles and a shortage of operating funds. Stax was bound to CBS as its sole distributer, and could not get its product in to stores nor receive monies for records that had been sold.
To keep the company going, Stax founder, Jim Stewart secured operating loans with his forthcoming CBS payments as collateral. Going further, he gave Stax a personal loan and then personally guaranteed even more borrowed money. But CBS continued to withhold payments and Stax continued to hemorrhage.
By summer 1974, Stax defaulted on payments to Isaac Hayes, and was forced to relinquish the marquee artist. Around the same time, Stax gave Richard Pryor, in lieu of payment, the master tapes for his groundbreaking album That Nigger’s Crazy. Pryor took the album to Warner Brothers; it went gold and won a Grammy award. By the end of 1974 Stax had given 85 of its employees their pink slips.
Bell, Stewart, and Stax vice-president John Burton campaigned for capital to pay off both CBS and Union Planters Bank, from who, Stax had borrowed heavily. Leaving no stone unturned, they approached Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, A tentative agreement was worked out, and Burton headed to the Middle East. Faisal was assassinated by his nephew on March 25, days before the meeting was to take place.
Stax persevered but times were increasingly turbulent. The nation itself struggled: Watergate led to President Nixon’s resignation. Recession gripped the U.S. economy. In Memphis, Union Planters Bank—which had loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to Stax—struggled for its own economic survival.
Despite chart topping hits during late 1974 and 1975 by Stax artists including Rance Allen, Little Milton, the Staple Singers, young pop sensationalist Lena Zavaroni, Shirley Brown, Albert King, the Dramatics and others, distribution challenges perpetuated by CBS Records strangled Stax.
When Union Planters abruptly called in Stax’s loans and they were unable to pay promptly, the bank immediately and aggressively pursued the company. Stax’s daily operations were crippled. On June 8, 1975, the company basically ceased being able to pay anyone. In October, Stax officially laid off all its remaining employees. Many still continued to work for free. The battle between the bank and Stax was rancorous and bitter. Many believed that racism was the motivation which drove Union Planters pursuit while others believe that it was strictly a business decision.
For years, Stax had contributed to community efforts. In the company’s final days, the local community gave back. In latter 1975, when Stax could not pay its remaining employees, the proprietor of the College Street Sundry, Ms. Ethel Riley Flowers, regularly fed them at no charge. Merrit’s Bakery also gave food to the last employees “because,” in the words of William Brown, “she knew we didn’t have no money. These people were surviving on the love of each other. They weren’t surviving on waiting for that dollar to come around the corner. They knew it wasn’t coming!”
Unable to pay its bills, its artists, its loans, Stax was shut down on December 19, 1975, forced into receivership by an involuntary bankruptcy petition.
Union Planters Bank, that had helped Stewart and Bell buy back the company from Gulf & Western, moved to collect on personal guarantees given by Jim Stewart. He lost his fortune, his assets, and his home.
The Stax building was padlocked.
In January 1977, Stax’s assets were parceled out in a bankruptcy sale on the courthouse steps. The catalog of tapes was sold to a liquidating company, the office furniture to an auction company, and the recording equipment to an individual who hoped the magic would continue to work.
The Stax building was sold for ten dollars in 1980 to the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).
For Jim Stewart, it’s always been about the music.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 for his important contribution to the music scene.
Motor sports awaits its biggest day on May 30, when 135,000 spectators will gather at the Brickyard for the start of the 105th running of the Indy 500. It will be the largest assembly of people anywhere for a single event since the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the country and the world.
Last year, the race was held without fans, but this year the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will accommodate 135,000 of 257,325 available seats, or 40% capacity. The number is staggering until the onlooker realizes that the curved rectangle is 2.5 miles long and occupies 559 acres,
with tiered grandstands reaching 7 stories on both sides of the track.
Having checked in at the Indiana State Fairgrounds for overnight accomodations,
we couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming noise coming from the nearby critter pavilions…
so off we went to follow the commotion, and found the source. Apparently, it was a tire spin-off to Mecum’s 2021 Indy Auction:
…an annual event that brings out the best and most coveted collector cars for bidding:
But Leah and I were in Indianapolis during the Indy 500 Practice to watch drivers rocket down the straightaways in their IndyCars at 240 mph,
in anticipation of bringing home the trophy and chugging a bottle of milk.
So off we went to the fabled racetrack, built in 1909 and mostly unchanged, until the addition of the Pagoda, completed in 2000.
Trying to track the cars as they went screaming by in a blur…
would have certainly resulted in whiplash if we continued watching with each passing lap, but thankfully, the video screen provided necessary neck relief.
And then the unexpected happened…
With 1hr 44min left in the practice session, #45 Santino Ferrucci turning too early into the #2 corner careened into the wall,
Florida manatees are in trouble and it’s troubling. Today, wildlife conservationists put their current census at around 6500 individuals–up from a few hundred in the 1970’s–
and have reclassified these docile creatures as “threatened.” However, the tide may be returning to “endangered,” given the increasing number of manatees at risk from boat strikes (averaging 100 every year), and the consensus that manatees are dying in unexpected numbers this year from extreme weather. Simply put, they are starving to death.
There’s a chill in the air, and the West Indian manatees of northern Florida have been scrambling to find warmer waters during winter months, where they usually huddle in large numbers, which assists in the yearly count.
Many coastal manatees migrate to Manatee Lagoon…
to bask in the warm-water discharges of FPL’s Next Generation Clean Energy Center at West Palm Beach,
while hundreds flee to Blue Springs State Park, in Orange City, Florida, where they find safe haven at a wellspring releasing 72° water year-round.
Others migrate to Silver Springs State Park,
where clear, calm, and temperate waters provide an abundance of sea grass for grazing.
But that’s not the case in many other places where manatees congregate. In recent years, massive toxic algae blooms accelerated by increased extreme weather have eliminated several hundred “sea cows” every year.
The Indian River Lagoon on the Atlantic side of the state accounts for the majority of manatee losses.
According to Indian River Lagoon guide Billy Rotne:
The raw truth of the matter is due to negligence of our storm water. We’ve had continual algal blooms over the past 10 years, which blocks out seagrass and kills it…so the manatees are starving to death.
And Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club further connects the dots:
I believe that seagrass loss is making manatees travel farther to get food, often going into man-made canals where they are more exposed to boat traffic.
Manatees have no natural predators. Sharks, whales and alligators usually swim in different waters and pose no threat to them.
Only humans have the capacity to put manatees at risk, with at least 432 having already perished in the first two months of 2021, accounting for 5 times the number of deaths in recent years.
Even more disturbing, a boat charter captain trolling the Homosassa River in the western part of Florida observed a manatee with “TRUMP” etched along its back.
Perhaps we need to do a better job of protecting them, if they are going to survive our abuses.
Ever since Ron DeSantis, Trump’s toady and Florida’s Republican governor decided to ignore CDC guidelines for rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s been a confusing patchwork of inefficiency for Florida’s 67 counties. Of course, first-responders, front-line healthcare workers and long-term facility residents were early targets. However, rather than vaccinate the area’s essential workers–in an effort to stem the tide of infection–DeSantis determined that Phase 1 inoculations should also be delivered to a more vulnerable and deserving population of seniors 65 and older. Rightfully, critics have accused DeSantis of politicizing the vaccine priority as a bow to those who supported his election 2 years ago.
This week, county health department officials throughout Florida received nearly 94,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, with 3,000 doses slated for St. Johns, my home county. Leah and I have been actively following the announcements through state and local websites, and wondered how this would trickle down to us. We were determined to bob and weave through the bureaucracy for a chance that whatever news we learned would lead us in a useful direction.
Yesterday, we latched onto a hotline phone number that promised to connect us to a human who’d be scheduling appointments, but no matter when we called, the line was either busy, never connected, or went to voice mail. An after-hour answering service eventually took our information, but failed to return our call.
“Hurry up!” Leah shouted, running into the bedroom. The weight of 365 days of 2020 had worn me out, and I was comfortably lounging in bed. I glanced at the night table clock. It was 8:30am.
“Let’s go!” she commanded. “The Health Department is giving out the vaccine, and cars are already lining up across the street.” Leah had been on her morning walk, when she received a call from a neighbor–who on a whim, woke early, and was now first in line since 8am.
By 8:45am, I was behind the wheel, and behind a long string of sedans and SUVs, waiting to turn the corner from US-1 onto San Sebastian View, approaching the St. John’s County Administration building.
Leah and I slowly crept forward for the next hour until we turned the corner. We were making progress.
Eventually, we arrived at the first checkpoint…
where a healthcare worker offered us a sanitized clipboard with a validation form listing cautionary medical conditions, and alerting us to potential medical risks and complications for this unapproved, albeit emergency-authorized vaccine. We were instructed to tell our vaccination provider about:
a lapsed fever
a bleeding disorder
blood thinner usage
a current or planned pregnancy
any breastfeeding activity
or if we have received any other COVID-19 vaccine.
We inched closer to the next checkpoint…
where Private Johnson, 1st Class of the U.S. Army entertained us while we waited further still. I had nothing but questions for him.
“How many shots have been given out so far, today?” I asked.
“I heard someone say 58 seniors over the past 2 hours, since opening at 9am,” he informed.
“So what happened to ‘appointments only’?” I asked.
“I really can’t answer that.” he asserted.
“But how did everyone even know about this vaccination site?” I queried.
“Beats me! Social media, most likely.” he posited. “All I know is that after 100,000 inquiries yesterday, the phones crashed, and people started showing up.”
“You mean, the Health Department was giving shots here yesterday, and there was no promotion or notification?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. So much for organization.
Our conversation was cut short when I was directed to move closer to the RN station. After two hours, Leah and I relaxed our arms, and we finally received our experimental pokes.
We were directed to a 15-minute waiting zone where EMT would monitor us for:
swelling of face or throat
a rapid heartbeat
a nasty rash all over our body
While waiting, I couldn’t help but ponder the many conspiracies spewed by Alex Jones and QAnon advocates surrounding the vaccine: No, I don’t believe that Bill Gates implanted a 5G-enabled microchip to surveil me; I don’t believe I was injected with Satan’s blood. I don’t believe my DNA was altered to turn me into a cannibal or a pedophile; and I don’t believe my immune system has now been compromised, leaving me open to greater infection.
Thankfully, after 15 minutes, Leah and I remained symptom-free.
The entire process took 2 1/2 hours, door to door. At home, I pealed the Band-aid off my left upper arm–not even a speck of blood showing.
Four weeks from now, we’ll repeat the process, as we anticipate the second dose. Perhaps by then, the roll-out will be more predictable.
But more importantly, new leadership will be moving our nation forward in a different direction, and there will be much less to fear besides COVID-19.
Long before COVID-19, Leah and I arranged a summer Airstream adventure that would start with a month at the Jersey shore–where we could spend quality time with friends and family. We were also looking forward to participating in granddaughter Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony which was three years in the making.
Thereafter, stops at the Cape and Portsmouth would precede a visit to Acadia National Park before crossing over to Canada to pub crawl along George Street in St. John’s, whale watch at Cape Breton, feast on PEI mussels, and stroll through Old Quebec before returning stateside.
It promised to be a rewarding road trip, worthy of miles of picturesque scenery and memories. However, the pandemic had other plans for us. For one, Canada had closed its border to us. And secondly, Northern New Jersey was adjusting to its epicenter outbreak.
It appeared that we were doomed to succumb to another of Florida’s steamy summers–unless we could tailor a brief, albeit cautious round trip to attend Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah. Of course, hauling our bedroom-kitchen-bathroom capsule would be a decided travel advantage, knowing we were insulated from motel maladies, risky restaurants, and nasty public restrooms on our way North.
So we sketched out a new plan, and off we went.
Ordinarily, to avoid RV resort and campground fees during overnight transitions, Leah and I would scout the area for Wal-Marts, since Wal-Mart has a long-standing tradition of allowing RVs and travel trailors to boondock in remote sections of their parking lot. But after driving 7 hours through stormy weather, we settled behind a quiet Cracker Barrel in Wilson, NC where drag racing and doughnuts were less likely to occur.
Another 8 hours of driving the following day brought us to Lucy’s house, where a deep driveway in the front provided a perfect spot for suburban camping,
and the tent in the backyard provided the perfect cover for Lucy’s weekend ceremony.
Attending this Bat Mitzvah seemed like a miracle, considering the circumstances, although Lucy could never have imagined that her special day would become a rain-or-shine, mask-wearing, socially-distanced ceremony staged in her backyard.
Lucy’s decision to become a Bat Mitzvah took many of us by surprise, because her dad, Matt was a lapsed Catholic who traditionally participated in holiday decorations and gift-giving, while Danielle, her mom was a non-practicing Jew who balanced Christmas with 8 nights of Hanukkah celebrations, which was always rewarding for Lucy.
Nevertheless, Lucy came by her decision independently, and was fully supported by both parents. Despite being Jewish by default (Judaism follows matrilineal descent), Lucy followed her curiosity, and with her tutor, Galia’s help, she slowly began to identify with Jewish history and culture, while looking for purpose in its doctrine.
After a year of discovering the Old Testament and learning the meaning of many age-old traditions, Lucy decided she wanted to become a Bat Mitzvah–to celebrate her coming of age and her beginning of life as a fully participating Jewish adult.
To that end, Danielle secured Cantor Barbra on Galia’s recommendation,
who home-schooled Lucy in Hebrew reading, challenged her to read from the Torah, and counseled her in conceiving a meaningful mitzvah project. It was a two-year task that Lucy embraced, along with her school work and dancing and gymnastics and music lessons and play dates with friends.
After brain-storming and soul-searching, and empathizing with the plight of immigrant children separated from their parents at the Mexican border, Lucy elected to stage a fundraising benefit for ASTEP Forward (Artists Striving to End Poverty).
She coordinated an evening of music and dance at Fairlawn Community Center, and recruited notable talent (including James Brennan, acclaimed Broadway actor, choreographer, director and grandfather) to fill the bill, ultimately raising $3500 in ticket sales and merchandise for the organization that delivers performing arts workshopss to underserved communities across metropolitan New York.
She also managed to perform a song and dance duet that featured Bumps (Grandpa Jimmy).
Two months later, Lucy was standing before us on her special day–her Bat Mizvah preparation now complete.
Lucy’s parents, Matt and Danielle had spaced 6 ft diameter tables under the canopy for appropriate distancing between guests,
while an internet audience joined us via Zoom.
A small selection of family members managed to assemble from Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida.
Lucy’s closest friends were also on hand.
For the following hour, prayers were chanted;
rituals were observed;
speeches were made;
wine was sipped;
bread was broken;
and Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah status was eventually conferred.
After an afternoon of spiritual enlightenment, it was party time!
Congratulations, Lucy on all of your hard work, and your accomplishment on becoming a responsible young woman.
Captain Terje Nilsen of the Viking Star personally delivered the unfortunate news over the ship’s PA system during breakfast.
“Because of high winds, we will be cruising past the port of Bodø, and continuing onto Tromsø. I apologize for the inconvenience, but the weather is just not safe for us to make a landing.”
Of course, we were disappointed.
Bodø is a charming alpine village north of the Arctic Circle and home to Saltstraumen, the world’s largest maelstrom. Additionally, Leah and I had booked an excursion to Kjerringøy, and would have enjoyed hiking through this preserved trading post dating back to the 1800s.
But Captain Nilsen wasn’t kidding. If the gusting winds and pounding seas were any indication of what was witnessed as the Hurtigruten ferry attempted docking in Bodø, then I couldn’t imagine the Viking Star following suit–certainly not with so many passengers unable to handle the rough crossing from Tilbury, England.
Nevertheless, passengers were invited to the pool deck following breakfast to celebrate a longtime maritime tradition of crossing the Arctic Circle.
While Paulo serenaded us with folk classics and Beatles covers of Here Comes the Sun, and I’ll Follow the Sun, (ironic, don’t you think),
the crew assembled to initiate each of us into the Order of the Blue Nose.
Our Cruise Director, Brensley Pope took the microphone to give some background:
Good afternoon Ladies & Gentlemen and welcome! We have entered through the Arctic Circle, and it is time to make our journey official by welcoming you to the Order of the Blue Nose! First, a little history.
The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word arktikos: “near the Bear, northern” The name refers to the constellation Ursa Major, the “Great Bear”, which is prominent in the northern sky.
The region north of the Circle, known as the “Arctic” covers roughly 4% of the Earth’s surface.
The position of the Arctic Circle coincides with the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for a full twenty-four hours; hence the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” This position depends on the tilt of the earth’s axis, and therefore is not a “fixed” latitude. The Arctic circle is moving north at a rate of 15 meters per year, and is currently located at 66 degrees 33 minutes North latitude.
Captain Terje Nilsen interupted, “I believe that’s enough history for now…”
The crowd responded with laughter. And then it became official with his declaration…
Hear ye… hear ye….
Whereas by official consension, our most honorable and well-beloved Guests have completed successful passage through the Arctic Domain. We do hereby declare to all in attendance and that those who possess the courage to take the Aquavit cleanse shall be marked accordingly, with the prestigious Order of the Blue Nose.
Captain Nilsen continued…
This is to certify that you all have been formally and officially initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Chilly Deep, and should wear your blue noses proudly! With the order of myself, the Captain, I command all subjects to Honor and Respect those onboard Viking Star as one of our Trusty Blue Nose family.
We officially welcome you to the Blue Nose Order! Skol!
I got my blue nose and drained my shot glass of chilled Aquavit. Was I now a proud member of a society of alcoholics and sun worshippers?
But I wasn’t alone.
Lines formed from both sides of the pool deck for distinguished crew members to efficiently annoint all worthy passangers with a blue-tinted dab of meringue.
What follows is a small sample of inductee’s portraits–some more enthusiastic than others…
United in singular purpose, we now shared a common bond.
To validate our accomplishment, each of us received a certificate of achievement validated by Captain Nilsen.
Soon after, while walking about the jogging track in whipping winds after a filling lunch, I caught a glimpse of what made this affair so special.
With our table cleared, and the house lights dimmed, the performance was about to begin. We were reminded by the maitre d’ to take as many pictures as we wanted, provided no flash photography was used.
Drawing from Mexican folklore and fantasy, the storyline is set in an alchemist’s library/laboratory–complete with rigging and a trap door–where we are introduced to a loyal menagerie of characters,
beholden to a mischievous girl, and her scatterbrained, but well-meaning grandfather,
who for the next 80-minutes embark on a quixotic quest through space and time to rescue Grandpa’s Book of Life, and in the process gain an understanding and greater appreciation of the world’s wonders and secrets of life.
Throughout their journey (part bilingual theater, and part circus), the duo encounters: a skip rope team…
a Risley acrobatic duo,
a silk curtain dancer…
an audience participant…
pageant and puppetry…
and a trampoline wall before the finale…
The show, now in its 6th season was sassy, classy and fun.
As expected, the performers’ imaginative costumes were cut from the same creative cloth that distinguishes Cirque’s originality.
And the acrobats’ anthems appropriately delivered the romance and drama that supported their feats of daring-do.
With the last bow was taken, and the house lights turned up, our family agreed that this was an evening well spent,
GPS was set to Zona Arqueológica de Tulum, but upon arrival, the crossover was still under construction. Following signs to the next Retorno, I backtracked to a bustling turnoff. This looked nothing like the Tulum I remembered from 5 years back. Heck, Tulum used to be all jungle 20 years ago!
But now, it resembled a spider web of agents in uniformed shirts carrying clipboards and shouting directions in Spanglish. Our rental car was stopped short of the road to the ruins, where we were met by Freddy, a representative for Santa Fe Beach Club, whose job it was to redirect us to his business.
According to Freddy, my choices were limited since cars could no longer advance. Either I could park nearby for $20 and walk 1 km to the ruins, or pay $40 a head, granting us: closer parking; National Park entrance passes; access to the Beach Club–including toilet and shower provisions, one drink (choice of water, soda, or cerveza), and a half-hour water tour, followed by reef snorkeling (all gear provided).
“No way!” everyone voiced emphatically.
All of us were content to walk to the ruins for a fraction of the cost. As I prepared to park in an already overcrowded lot, Freddy offered us a winning alternative: the same all-inclusive package reduced to $27 per person–a 33% discount–traditionally offered to Mexican residents. Score! and lesson learned. Always negogiate the price!
While the ruins piqued their interest, the prospect of snorkeling atop the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (largest reef system in the Western Hemisphere) sounded especially promising to Noah and Nate. After I revised our initial itinerary–which would have included a stop at Yal-ku in Akumal, with snorkeling in a brackish lagoon surrounded by sculptures–I sensed their enthusiasm to swim in the Caribbean.
I followed Freddy’s directions to Tulum’s Hotel Zone, and turned into a narrow seaside road, offering access to scores of Tulum’s boutique hotels and yoga retreats. Unfortunately, Tulum’s current popularity may prove unsustainable, as it’s recent explosion of tourism and new resort construction have overtaken the town’s current infrastructure capacity, turning it into a eco-nightmare.
Nevertheless, developers continue to exploit the bohemian chic of Tulum. Despite government crackdowns (knowingly rife with corrupt officials), illegal projects continue, laying waste to precious jungle habitats that were once home to endangered jaguars and sea turtles.
We drove to the término, reaching our destination…
and luckily found a coveted parking spot along the mangroves by the beach entrance.
We walked the remaining half mile to the National Park on a rutted lane shared by cyclists, and local vendors selling water and trinkets.
Ordinarily, the surroundings are packed with tour groups and spectators, but we arrived on a calm day, without the usual hubbub.
In fact, the landscape was relatively quiet, and devoid of humanity…
except when I wanted an isolated picture of family.
After meandering through 13th century wreckage for more than an hour, we turned our attention to the beach, where the turquoise water looked so inviting.
Ruins Beach is accessible from the cliffs above, but 500 meters south, lies Sante Fe Beach, one of Tulum’s original hangout spots before the tourism boom…
and that was our next destination.
Per Freddy’s instructions, we sought out Captain Harrison, and lounged on PVC beach chairs under a delapidated canopy, waiting for our excursion on Brenda or half a dozen skiffs just like her.
Leah stayed on land after realizing her bonine fix had worn off, but Noah, Nate and I eagerly climbed aboard.
Our captain motored out to open water,
and offered a summarized history of the Mayans, and importance of Tulum…in Spanish.
Soon, we headed for the reef, where others had formed a floatilla of snorkelers.
Noah and Nathan eagerly jumped overboard for an under-the-sea swim…
while I remained on the surface, shooting pelicans…
and keeping track of my sons.
Once ashore, it was time for a beer and a shower. Despite the primitive outdoor plumbing on the beach, we concluded that $27 a head was a better bargain than any of us could have ever imagined for a family vacation adventure.
This tune helps set the mood, so hit play and read until the video:
I’ve been an adrenelin junkie most of my adult life, so it figures that one day I would satisfy my urge to jump out of a plane (with a parachute, of course). But for whatever reason, I never took advantage of the opportunity…until now.
The opportunity came in the form of a birthday present from my sons, Noah and Nate, but with a long ribbon attached: we’d be skydiving in Playa del Carmen, which was my gift to them to celebrate their belated birthdays!
We all came from different parts of the country. Leah and I flew from Jacksonville to Charlotte–where we met Nate, who transfered from Seattle–and continued with us to Cancun, hours ahead of Noah’s direct flight from Philly.
We thought about the weather when we arrived at Vidanta on Saturday. Our jump on Monday was conditional on the weather spirits. The winds had to be just right, and a sunny day would be a bonus. On Monday we got both.
I reserved a car from the resort’s travel center on Sunday, and returned the next day with my family to pick up my VW Polo at 9 am. I was expecting the agent, but nobody was there except for two women from Columbia, who were already waiting with their family for half-an-hour.
When we compared itineraries, the Columbians mentioned they were driving to Chichen Itza. In my mind, I thought that my family deserved priority check out. After all, we had a briefing and a plane to catch at Playa del Carmen’s aerodrome at 10 am. But I wasn’t going to make a stink about it, because we planned our departure with a half-hour contingency cushion. Nevertheless, a spark of adrenalin delivered a dose of shpilkes.
Besides, none of that mattered at 9:15 am when the agent was still a no-show, and the concierge kept her distance when Leah approached her about contacting the agent to secure an ETA, so we could make alternative plans. Another push of adrenalin and my irritation level moved to agita.
We hustled to a tram stop to catch an achingly s-l-o-w shuttle to the resort’s transit hub, and hailed a taxi the moment we got our bearings. A time check revealed 9:30 am. Google maps predicted a 10 am arrival. My pulse was racing just a bit, and I was feeling verklempt. We traveled the road to Playa mostly in silence.
We celebrated our arrival at exactly 10 am (how does Google do it?)
Typical paperwork to indemnify the company was waiting for us, and after weighing in, we anxiously waited for our tandem partners to arrive from an earlier jump. Nearby, our chutes were being prepared.
Leah was driven to the jump drop on Playacar’s beach, while my sons and I met David, Jose and Juan, who we would trust our lives to.
Finally, it was time to jump! On the way to the airport (walking distance), I learned that David had over 2400 jumps, of which 500 were tandem. I was really looking forward to this!
After an official passed us through security with a wand, we caught up with our pilot and plane, a twin engine AirVan outfitted for eight passengers parked along a single landing strip. Once we were prepped on the flight and outfitted with harnesses, we boarded the plane. Soon we were barrelling down the runway and airborne.
Our free fall time was approximately 40 seconds, and we were hurtling toward earth at approximately 200 km per hour (125 mph). No wonder my face was stretched to the max. But after touching down only meters away from our landing zone, I knew that this was a birthday gift I would long remember…
until the next time!
Thanks Noah and Nate for an adrenal rush of a lifetime!
Much has changed in the past two years. Counting down birthdays for my father has become a nervous inevitability for our family as he ages and succumbs to a numbing dementia that continues to rob him of the vitality he enjoyed before entering MorseLife Memory Center four years ago.
Today, Dad is 95 and unaware of everything in his life that has brought him to this grand occasion. Occasionally, he dazzles us with fleeting flashes of familiarity, like an imprinted song lyric, or he chuckles at a joke. Otherwise, we are left to personify his thoughts and feelings.
Even now, we long for the not-so-old days when frustrating bouts of stuttering and looping sentences would trail into nothingness as he attempted to express himself. At the very least, it was a short time of momentary lucidity and coherence.
My father is a man of very few words, and even fewer deeds. He restlessly idles in a wheelchair for most of the day, waiting for more time. But time is not on his side. One year ago, Dad was exercising in the facility swimming pool with assistance (see Happy Birthday, Dad!), however a viral infection compromised his balance, and eventually incapacitated him. Now his withered legs will no longer support him.
While he still manages to feed himself, his prepared meals are entirely liquid-based and served in a cup, as he has forgotten how to chew and swallow. We made this discovery seven months ago, after visiting during mealtime, and watched Dad feed himself a forkful of solid food, only to sweep his mouth with a forefinger to rid his cheeks of masticated goo.
Whenever family gathers, we are always determined to remind him of who we are and what our significant relationship is to him. With resignation, we still ask the same questions that we know all too well remain unanswerable–like, “Dad, can you tell me the names of your children?” And of course, there is only silence and a vacant stare.
While we are ready to concede that this ship has sailed, we somehow embrace the notion that he must certainly know us, but just can’t find a way to verbalize it. As a result, we have accustomed ourselves to asking closed questions which we know will easily elicit a “Yes” or “No” answer. Nevertheless, hospice staff continues to gauge the quality of his life by prompting him.
“Are you comfortable, Carl?” and “Do you need anything, Carl?”
Nevertheless, one bright and shiny catalyst in my father’s life that continues to move him is music. No matter that his eyes are closed, and he appears to be napping. Whenever he hears music, there is always a wagging finger and a tapping toe to mark the beat.
Ongoing research has been conducted with music and the measured response of Alzhemer’s patients. The Mayo Clinic reports…
Research suggests that listening to or singing songs can provide emotional and behavioral benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease.
MorseLife is a strong proponent of music therapy, and provides music entertainment as part of their daily ritual for residents. For instance, Raoul performs every Friday afternoon before Sabbath services. He and Dad bonded immediately once Raoul noticed Dad’s exuberance during an afternoon music session last year. Taking a short break from his act, he asked Dad what he did in the real world, and Dad answered without hesitation (but falsely) that he was on the radio. The next week, for Dad’s 94th birthday, Raoul presented Dad with a cap forever identifying him as Radio Man.
Despite a collection of a dozen or more caps, Radio Man has become his most cherished possession, and he hardly ever dresses without it.
Not to be outdone, I felt compelled to deliver a gift for Dad’s 95th birthday celebration that would be equally as memorable. But given his present circumstances, what do I give a man who has everything (except his memories) and requires nothing (but his memory)? I gave it a lot of thought and happened upon an idea that required stealth and deception.
Our family gathered in the Memory Center’s private dining room this past Friday to honor Dad with a party cake (for us) and ice cream (for him). To make it a little more special, I presented Dad with a smuggled bottle of Chivas Regal–his go-to booze for most of his adult life, until he was no longer allowed.
Because of MorseLife’s stringent no-alcohol policy, Dad hadn’t tasted hard liquor in over four years, so naturally, I wondered how he’d react. Would he think the heat too harsh? Or would he flatly reject it like he did when he was once offered liquified macaroni and cheese for lunch?
Since there were no objections from my siblings, as they were equally as curious, I poured Dad a finger of Chivas, and we toasted him.
The results were priceless.
I poured him another…and soon after, another. Each time, his reaction was identical.
He had to know that this was a special day!
The floor nurse stopped by to check on our birthday boy. She immediately spotted the open bottle of Chivas on the table and straightened her back with her hands on her hips.
“I hope that Carl isn’t drinking that!” she admonished.
“Absolutely not,” I answered, quickly. “Ask him yourself!”
After she left, I poured him another.
“It’s the last one,” I promised over Leah’s loose objection.
Same result. “Oooh!” “Ahhh!”
We moved our celebration to the common room, where Raoul was already entertaining the residents with his Latin-flavored karaoke. Once Dad was situated, the party started in earnest.
Raoul offered a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and we were there to witness Dad’s glory.
To hear Dad sing was an unexpected gift to us all.
It was September 1969, and I was in my senior year at Pittsburgh’s Peabody High School. To my mother’s dismay, my bell-bottom jeans were torn and faded, my hair was too long, and my music was too noisy. The British Invasion was casting Pittsburgh’s favorite sons Bobbie Vinton and Lou Christie aside, although Tommy James and the Shondells were pushing back hard with their psychedelic sound.
I was hooked on rock ‘n roll, and doubled down on my commitment as a record collector by retiring my GE record player and worn 45’s in favor of LPs. Fortunately, my summer job as a yardman at Steel City Lumber funded my new Pioneer SX-1000 receiver and Dual 1219 turntable, complemented by a pair of Advent Loudspeakers. All I needed now was a record that was worthy of blasting.
My weekly allowance was meant to cover my bus transportation and school lunches for the week, but if I scrimped hard enough, I could afford an album, and I knew exactly which one I wanted. The Beatles’ Abbey Road LP had just been released, and I couldn’t wait to listen to it in its entirety, uninterrupted.
However, a weekend trip to National Record Mart’s East Liberty location left me high and dry. Unfortunately, the Beatles’ much anticipated album was already out of stock. Rather than leave the store empty-handed, I took the store clerk’s advice and picked up a record from a display he was building by the store entrance.
Being unfamiliar with the group, I was reassured that this band was unlike any other I may have heard. He said these guys performed at Woodstock, and this was definitely a band to pay close attention to. My interest was piqued. On the surface, I was trading a color photo of the Fab Four stepping through a London crosswalk for a sepia-toned picture of five scruffy guys posing in the woods. The album in question was self-titled, The Band.
I couldn’t wait to get home. I slit the shrink wrap, and carefully placed the record on the turntable platter. From the first track, a romping Across the Great Divide, to the last track, a haunting King Harvest (Has Surely Come), I knew I was hooked. It was completely different from any music playing on the radio at the time. This was a melange of mountain music, blues, and rockabilly mixed with unusual signatures. The music was delightful! How ironic that four of the five players were Canadian, but their expression was pure Americana.
That was 50 years ago. Today, The Band’s iconic album still resonates. While The Band’s songbook is limited to seven studio albums of original material over a ten-year career, their legendary status as consumate musicians was cemented in their final Thanksgiving concert, The Last Waltz (1976)–captured for the big screen by Martin Scorsese–where a string of special guests joined the group on stage to make music history as one of the greatest concerts of all time.
The magic continues this November, as The Last Waltz Tour reprises The Band’s original setlist with fresh arrangements and a steller line-up of musicians. I had admired the film and listened to the original recording, but I had to catch this performance now that it was coming to my newly adopted home town.
It was a chilly evening at St. Augustine’s Amphitheater, but the capacity crowd was warmed up for the event, as a familiar whiff of marijuana wafted through the tiered venue before The Last Waltz Overture signaled the beginning of the show.
Three frontmen took the stage,
and for the next 3½ hours shared lead vocals and guitar riffs, and provided subtle harmonies for a trove of rock ‘n roll gems memorialized 43 years ago. The all-star ensemble also included jazz keyboardist, John Medeski of MedeskiMartin & Wood;
legendary producer and bassist Don Was, and funk-master drummer Terrance Higgins anchoring a solid rhythm section; and a New Orleans-flavored horn section powered by Mark Mullins and the Levee Horns, playing from Alain Toussaint’s original charts.
Guest stars included: Cyril Neville,
and septuagenarian guitarist Bob Margolin, who played with The Band and Muddy Waters at the original Last Waltz in 1976, and reminisced about performing at the concert and jamming at the after-party with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, and Paul Butterfield until 7am.
Such a night!
Theme From The Last Waltz
Up on Cripple Creek
The Shape I’m In
Georgia (On My Mind)
It Makes No Difference
The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show
Down South in New Orleans
Who Do You Love?
This Wheel’s on Fire
King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
The Genetic Method
Life Is a Carnival
Rag Mama Rag
Kind Hearted Woman Blues
Further On Up the Road
I Shall Be Released
Such a Night
Baby Don’t You Do It
The Band’s music endures after 50 years, and may it keep us Forever Young.
One hundred and sixty years ago, John Brown and his abolitionist brigade played a pivotal role in American history by raiding the South’s largest federal armory in Harpers Ferry with the intention of fueling a rebellion of slaves from Virginia and North Carolina, and envisioning a subsequent society where all people–regardless of color–would be free and equal.
The initial siege caught U.S. soldiers off guard and the armory and munitions plant were captured with little resistance. Brown’s marauders took sixty townsfolk hostage (including the great grandnephew of George Washington), and slashed the telegraph wires in an attempt to isolate the town from outside communication.
However, a B&O passenger train, originally detained at the bridge, was allowed to continue its journey to Baltimore, where employees sounded the alarm and troops were immediately dispatched to quell the insurrection.
In another of Brown’s miscalculations, the local militia pinned down Brown’s insurgents inside the engine house while awaiting reinforcements,
yet newly freed slaves never came to his rescue.
Ninety U.S. Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee’s command arrived by train the next evening and successfully stormed the stronghold the following day. When the dust had settled, ten of Brown’s raiders were killed (including two of his sons),
five had escaped, and seven were captured, including John Brown.
John Brown was quickly tried and convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Just before his hanging on December 2, 1859, Brown prophesied the coming of civil war: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
How right he was! To the North, Brown was a martyr; to the South, he was a traitor. To a fractured and fragile country, he was the first American to be sentenced and executed for treason.
John Brown’s raid and subsequent trial hardenened the separatism between the country’s abolitionist and pro-slavery factions,
…and advanced the disparate and insurmountable ideologies of the North and the South, until only the Civil War could satisfy the issue and begin healing the nation.
The term treason has been loosely bandied about of late and with tremendous fanfare, albeit little distinction. It’s become a familiar talking point for Donald Trump, whose insulting language and hyperbolic demagoguery continue to rouse his supporters as it diminishes the civility of our national conversation.
Bold and courageous public servants and patriots who are honor bound to defend democracy have been branded as traitors and accused of treasonous behavior because they dare to speak out against corruption and wrongdoing inside the White House.
And the implications are worrisome, for the stakes are high. In a country that values free speech, treason is not about displaced loyalties; it has nothing to do with political dissent; and it has no standing in speaking truth to power. Treason is about pledging allegiance to power and greed instead of American values, like diversity and unity.
As before, politics continues to polarize the nation,
while our Legislative Branch of government seeks a constitutional remedy against the Executive Branch through an impeachment process. And once again, ideological differences have fostered veiled threats of civil war.
If history is to be our guide, then John Brown must be our beacon. During his sentencing he lamented, “…had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends…and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”
Sounds remarkably familiar.
More than ever, we must steer through political currents, and find our way around deception, obfuscation and misdirection if our democracy is to stay afloat.
“It’s a fine line between nutty and eccentric,” explained docent Jim Masseau of the Bayernhof Museum, “and the difference between the two is money.” Over the next two-plus hours, as Leah and I toured this residential mansion in suburban Pittsburgh, Jim’s definition proved to be an understatement, as we learned more about the behavior of Charles Boyd Brown III, the master of Bayernhof.
We entered the house through heavy double-doors, which opened into an airy vestibule sporting a heavy chandelier–
befitting a man who made his fortune fabricating sand-casted aluminum lanterns.
Along the way, we passed what appeared to be a life-sized Hummel figurine (later identified as bearing a likeness to his great-grandfather),
and gathered in the family room with the other guests, only to stare at Charlie’s portrait while we waited for Jim to begin the tour.
After informal introductions, Jim fed us details about Charlie’s bachelor life (born in 1937) and the house he left behind.
Built high on a hill covering 18 acres, and completed in 1982–after 6 years of construction without blueprints–Charlie’s 19,000 square-foot, Bavarian-styled “castle” overlooks the Alleghany Valley, with views reaching one-hundred miles beyond city limits on a clear day.
However, despite Charlie’s dream of constructing a $4.2 miilion estate with German folk-flourishes–
a rooftop observatory with a 16 inch reflecting telescope…
a basement batcave made of concrete and fiberglass,
a swimming pool with a 10-foot waterfall…
a wine celler with a working copper still…
a billiard room (starring a pool table thought to belong to Jackie Gleason)…
a home office…
and a boardroom (only used twice)–
his house, unfortunately, would never be considered museum-worthy on its own. Charlie would need a gimmick to attract greater attention. And that’s when he started collecting automated music machines from the 19th and 20th century.
Charlie couldn’t carry a tune, and had as much musicality as a bag of bagel holes. But his appreciation for century-old music machines instructed his passion for collecting them, until he acquired nearly 150 working devices (many rare and unusual), now scattered throughout the premises.
A sample of instruments can be viewed in the video below:
As Charlie grew his collection, he loved showing them off, and held lavish parties for 5 to 500 guests at a time–always in charge of the cooking, and always dressed in one of his signature blue Oxford shirts. He owned 283 of them. Whenever he tired of his company, he would magically slip away through one of many secret passages, leaving his guests to fend for themselves.
Before Charlie passed away in 1999, he endowed a foundation valued at $10 million to convert his home into a museum. In 2004, the O’Hara Township zoning board granted his wish, and the Bayernhof Museum was born, with the stipulation that pre-arranged guided tours be limited to 12 people at a time.
Charlie’s Bayernhof got its big break when CBS News did a feature for its Sunday Morning broadcast earlier this year…
I met Andy Warhol once, although it was nothing glamorous. I can’t brag about meeting him on the set of one of his Factory films or dancing together at Studio 54 or sharing lines of coke in the ladies room of Max’s Kansas City. Nevertheless, I’ll settle for our chance encounter in the back seat of my taxi.
It was July 25, 1985 and I was waiting at the light on W. 65th St. and Amsterdam Avenue when I recognized Warhol exiting Lincoln Center. He stepped off the curb to hail a cab, and I held my breath that the light would change before another driver could snatch him from me.
When the light turned green, I gunned the feeble engine, and the taxi lurched across the intersection. I pulled up alongside of Warhol, and he scrambled into the back seat of my cab carrying a Commodore tote bag. He requested I drive him to his Upper Eastside townhouse after attending a Lincoln Center event with Debbie Harry to launch Commodore’s Amiga 1000, and promote its color graphic capabilities.
He wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and the trip–all of 15 minutes–was covered in relative silence, although he asked me turn up the volume when “Brown Sugar” played over the radio.
“I designed that album cover for the Stones, y’know,” he said softly.
These memories came flooding back to me as I explored the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, walking through seven floors of collections from the early years,
through his productive New York days,
until his demise in 1987.
The Andy Warhol Museum–managed by the Carnegie Museum of Art–holds the world’s most extensive collection of Warhol’s art, including:
…approximately 100 sculptures;
…nearly 2,000 works on paper;
…more than 1,000 published and unique prints;
…4,000 photographs; 60 feature films; 200 Screen Tests; and more than 4,000 videos.”
The collection also features Warhol wallpaper and books;
…and an archive of perhaps half a million objects collected by Warhol spanning a 40-year career, including his original Amiga 1000 computer and assorted discs filled with unseen digital art…until recently.
Nearing the end of the exhibition, I approached a Warhol painting detailing a series of female torsos, but found the photograph lackluster and flat. And I wondered, “What would Andy do in this situation to add contrast and depth?”
That’s when I framed a posthumous collaboration of Keith Haring’s painted elephant with Andy’s torsos.
Feeling inspired and somewhat creative, I decided to try my hand at screening a kerchief in the Underground Lab for $2.00.
While it’s not perfect, it’s nothing to sneeze at, so I’ll be using tissues instead, whenever necessary.
Originally, our itinerary would have taken us directly from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, but after phoning Airstream’s Factory Service Center, and learning of an available repair appointment, we redirected Jennifer (our GPS avatar) to plot a course for the western border of Ohio.
Although we were headed in the opposite direction, it was a small price to pay to fix the damage sutained to the right-side wheel well from a blown Goodyear Marathon tire in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario (see Blowout!).
Located between Ft. Wayne, IN and Columbus, OH at the intersection of State Routes 274 and 65 sits the village of Jackson Center with a population of nearly 1,500 people, whose largest employer is Airstream with 730 workers.
In 1952, founder Wally Byam, migrated to Jackson Center from Los Angeles with visions of expanding the output of his iconic brand.
Sixty-seven years later, Airstream continues its hand-built tradition of America’s longest tenured travel trailer, and now awaits completion of its state-of-the-art 750,000 sq-ft eco-friendly facility by year’s end, which should help correct the current 2,400 trailer shortfall.
When Leah and I arrived, we were overwhelmed by dozens of Airstreams–from its earliest incarnation,
to several vintage varities,
to newest production models–
all towed across America with a wide array of boo boos,
and lining the parking lot in need of attention and TLC.
After confirming my appointment with Amica Insurance Company–who contracted for an adjuster to appraise the damage upon our arrival on Friday morning–I checked in with Customer Service, and registered for the afternoon tour of Airstream’s currrent manufacturing facility.
We were joined by 50 additional visitors and Don Ambos, a 60-year veteran of Airstream who retired as a line worker, but currently curates the 2-hour tour–from components to assembly.
Currently, Airstream builds 72 travel trailers every week…
…and 13 Class B Motorhomes every week.
By the time the tour had ended, our trailer had already been towed to the on-site Terraport, where we stayed the next two nights with full hook-up at no extra charge ($10/day for visitors)!
The Airstream factory tour runs every day at 2pm from Monday through Friday, although on Friday, the production cycle only runs half a day, so goggles and eye protection are not required.
After traveling over 50,000 miles behind the wheel of my F-150, with my Flying Cloud 27-FB hitched behind me, I can’t image a better tandem for comfort, performance, and durability.
And having witnessed the assembly of both truck and trailer (in Dearborn, MI and Jackson Center, OH, respectively) I am reassured that Made in America matters.