#009 Swimming a Mile

In and around the lake

Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there

One mile over we’ll be there and we’ll see you

Ten true summers we’ll be there and laughing too

Twenty four before my love you’ll see I’ll be there with you

John Andrson & Steve Howe

One of the highlights of my 10th summer was Boy Scout camp. I’m racking my brain to remember which camp it was. I’ve googled and looked at satellite images and I’m pretty sure based on proximity to home that it was Camp Mahonegon. I have this image of getting on a bus with a duffle bag or backpack and waving at tearful parents as we pulled away, but I’m thinking maybe that was a something I saw in a made-for-tv movie. 

I don’t remember which of my friends were with me at camp that summer, or who my tent mate was. But I remember the tent, the cot, our section of the camp, our scoutmaster, how our troop combined with another troop complete with a bugler from another part of the state, coming up with a name of our patrol (which I’ve forgotten). I remember waking up at dawn in the cool, damp mountain air to the sound of reveille and the smell of bacon and pancakes and hot syrup far off in the distance. That almost-heavenly aroma grew thicker and stronger as we walked in formation down the dirt road, through the trees, down the hill to the dining hall by the lake. 

That’s where the camp director, looking all official and ridiculous in his adult Boy Scout uniform complete with kerchief, like some overgrown AC/DC wannabe, made the announcement about the mile swim. On the penultimate day of camp, in the lake beyond the diving dock, boy versus buoy, there was to be the annual challenge of personal aquatic endurance. 

I felt confident I could swim a mile. It didn’t seem that far. The camp director said most scouts who attempted it would complete it in less than an hour. I had to do it! I knew how to swim!

Romney had a community pool. Miraculously, that little mountaintop town of 1,753 people, only 9,800 residents in the whole county, had a sweet little pool. It was small. Nothing Olympic-size about it. We didn’t swim laps. We just splashed and played and held our breathe and dove down to retrieve pennies off the bottom. The summer between first and second grade, I took lessons. I got my Tadpole certification. 

But wait, there’s more! Set in stone, in and beside that little cement pond for several summers of the early 70’s was my love for two things, a love that remains to this day.

First, frozen pizza. The aroma of frozen pizza cooking to a golden-burnt perfection in that industrial toaster oven so had me standing in line just after the whistle blew for adult swim. I loved how the pepperoni slices curled up around the edges, the thin crust was crunchy and the cheese glistened like a little oil slick, served by random teenage girls who cared more about their own looks than they did about me and my fascination with them and my pizza. This was pre-Red Baron and prepubescent world. 

Swimming makes me hungry. Swimming makes me really hungry! Even as an adult when at various times I’ve made a feeble effort to incorporate lap swimming into my exercise, the steps taken to alleviate my additional hunger afterward outweighed the benefits of the cardiovascular effort. 

The day came for the mile swim on the Saturday before camp concluded the next day. Well after breakfast had digested, about 10:30 or so, we headed to the cold lake as the sun was just beginning to warm things up. I looked around and I was the only scout of my tenderfooted young age that was making the attempt. All the other swimmers were older, taller, built like Adonis’s, full of testosterone and confidence. 

I had thoughts of backing out, but thought “drowning before dishonor.” The whistle blew, we waded into that same murky mountain lake water I’d splashed in all week. It felt so cold. Usually we swam in the afternoon. We ventured out behind the diving platform and started laps around the buoys. 

I started at the back of the pack and was soon lapped by scout after scout. Time vanished as one stroke followed another. I wished I’d eaten a bigger breakfast. I felt I had made a big mistake. Eventually I found a rhythm. One by one that pack of swimmers thinned out as scouts completed the mile. Then, I was the only one left. From time to time I’d look up at the lifeguard in the rowboat keeping an eye me. I’d like to think he smiled at me with encouragement, but he probably just wanted lunch. 

Then, after an eternity, I heard him say “one more lap.” I was done, I was spent, My groove had turned into a grind. I’d wanted to quit for a while. But I could squeeze out one last round of the markers. 

When I came to shore, only a few people were waiting. There was no hero’s welcome for my last place finish. Everyone was at the lodge nearby having lunch. I was too tired to care. The camp director told me my time was 1:29:30. I had beaten the hour and a half mark!

I made my way over to join everyone else to enjoy what was left of the cold burgers and fries. What I really wanted was frozen pizza. 

At the court of honor that evening as all the merit badges were handed out, it was announced I was the youngest scout to ever finish the mile swim. I had proven something to myself that Saturday in July of 1973. I learned that when I really, really wanted something I could accomplish it. 

But life’s not always that easy. I’d eventually learn that there is such a thing as failure. Teenage girls serving pizza wouldn’t return affections, friends would be false and betray you, jobs wouldn’t work out in spite of best intentions. You could suffer like hell in the desire and effort to swim against the current. If we’relucky, we will live to tell the tale. And if we’re really lucky, life will have handed over other gifts, with hindsight perhaps even more valuable that what we were seeking. 

My eventual move to Indiana put an end to swimming and scouts. The country high school that I would attend a few years later offered neither a pool or calculus. I quit Scouts after just a few meetings, not clicking with a new crowd. 

Puberty was a comin’. And what does any of this have to do with Glen Frickin’ Campbell, anyway?

Next week, I’ll dive into that second love I spoke about while hanging beside the Romney Community Pool.

In the meantime, ✌🏽❤️🖌

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#008 Oh, Deer

Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day

The sun is up, the sky is blue

It’s beautiful and so are you

Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?

John Lennon & Paul McCartney

I lied. I promised you this would be the last post about Romney. As I go down my own personal rabbit hole, taking a few of you with me, I discover more. As a writer, to be true to mine own self, I must do what I must do. 

To quote that great American, Winston Churchill, “it will be long, it will be hard, it will be bloody.” I’m not talking about World War II. I’m talking today’s post. Coincidentally, I worked briefly for a band called World War III, but please stay to the end anyway. See, I slipped something in here about my music career. We’ll get to World War III in a couple decades from now. Figuratively, not literally.

My 10th year was eventful. After this post, I’m pretty sure one more and we can exit, stage left, Romney. A lot happened that year that with my certain strain of hindsight I now see as important.

Obviously, I celebrated my birthday, and as a right of passage I received from my dad the following gift:

A Western Auto break-action 20 gauge shotgun! I had to earn that manly firearm. I took and passed the WV Dept. of Natural Resources Hunter Safety Course. A couple of my Boy Scout buddies were there in the evenings, after school, with me. The little DNR building is still there. I spotted it the last time I passed through Romney just over a year ago. 

That fall, when squirrel season began, I really felt like a young man, walking through the woods carrying that gun, fully aware that I would only point it at something I was willing to destroy. As an exercise, Dad had me load a shell of small shot, perfect for squirrel, at a little sapling about as big around as my forearm was at that age. Kaboom!!! The baby tree was torn up badly, as was some of my hearing. No one wore protection back then. When our ears came back, Dad said now imagine as hard as that tree was, what damage would have been done to something as soft as a human? The impression, to last a lifetime, was made. 

Next, Dad took a six by six inch piece of wood about an inch thick that he’d been carrying and placed it by a tree. We walked about 10 yards away and Dad handed me a shell with a deer slug in it instead of shot. I took aim and pulled the bang switch again. The force from the slug damn near drove me backwards. There was a hole about the size of a nickel in the piece of wood! I’m not sure who was happier, Dad or me. The kid with one good eye, who couldn’t hit a baseball, the slowest one on the basketball court, the last one picked for kickball, could shoot straight!

We walked towards home, quietly listening for chirps in the trees, careful to not step on any sticks lest they snap and bely our presence. I’d reloaded with the squirrel shot. Towards the end of the journey, about 10 minutes from home, I thought I heard something, high in a tree. I looked up and something grey was moving, though not much, hard to see. Maybe it was the wind, but the chirp could be heard again. I was certain I could see it. I looked at Dad, seeking permission though at this point, as a certified WV Safe Hunter, none was needed. I took aim, squeezed yet again and damaged my hearing one more time. 

(I’ve been told by a doctor my tinnitus is probably from being around gunfire as a youth, and most likely not from loud music. Yes, and… is probably the truth.)

We waited for gravity and the Grim Reaper of Aerial Rodents to perform as expected, and nothing happened. I was disappointed to say the least. My first round fired in the battle of man versus wildlife was in vain!

Now keep in mind, my father could shoot. He could group pistol shots together at 10 yards in the space of a half dollar. He could take down three quail boom boom boom on one flush of a covey. I’d previously asked my dad how come he was such a good shot. His reply was ammo was expensive, especially growing up in Southeastern Kentucky on the banks of the Redbird River a couple decades previous. 

We waited silently for what seemed like an eternity. I was feeling worse by the moment. Dad didn’t seem to care. We turned to head towards home. As we walked away, our back now turned to the tree, we heard a thump. We returned to the tree and there lay the deceased squirrel. The Howard family tradition of Great White Hunters was being passed on. I picked up my prey and marveled at it’s gray fur tinged with black and red. It was hard to see where the shot had hit the beast. There was no blood.

On the way home, we stopped by a little shack-like cabin, or was it a cabin-like shack? Dad knew the old man that lived there. I suspected some of the man’s income came from information about who was making ‘shine in the vicinity. Perhaps the old man himself had a still and it was better to give up a few neighbors than himself. We’ll never know, but that day, my first kill was given to the old man who undoubtedly had it for his dinner. The lessons of giving and not wasting, were not wasted on me. Besides, Dad didn’t have to clean it, Mom didn’t have to cook it, so much work for so little reward. 

That November, at Romney Elementary, the principal declared in the morning announcements over the speaker in each classroom that the first day of deer season would be Deer Day, and anyone going deer hunting would be granted an excused absence. I couldn’t wait to go home and tell Dad, who, of course, said we’d go. 

That November morning of opening day of deer season was cold and clear. We left before Oh Dark Thirty. I had my hand warmers lit. I was bundled and booted appropriately, but I was still cold AF. Dad left me on a little tree-covered knoll beside the river with a view through a thin copse of trees in between. He went about a hundred yards upstream to wait himself. The sun was yet to rise above the horizon, but dawn was breaking. Mild advection fog rose from the river obscuring my view. Through frozen nostrils I could smell the cold, deciduous humus of my adopted home state of West Virginia, of my Appalachian heritage.

And then I heard the subtle crunch crunch of hooves on frosty leaves. Or did I? Maybe it was a hunter, perhaps not wearing the new, yet-to-be-popular, orange vest as I wore. Through the fog, I could see a shape. Was it a deer, an errant cow, or, hopefully not, a human? I wanted to bag a buck so bad I could feel it all the way down to my frozen toes. Damn, I couldn’t see the target. I withheld fire. And waited.

The sun rose, the fog thickened a bit, then dissipated as I froze. I listened for another deer and heard nothing, saw nothing. Shit. About a half hour later I heard my Dad’s unmistakeable whistle, loud and clear, from the right and a minute later he came into view and joined me. He asked if I’d heard the deer. I told him how I’d heard something but couldn’t ID the target. He affirmed that I’d made the right decision. Better to be prudent than commit manslaughter at such a tender young age. 

As it turned out, I was the only kid to participate in Deer Day. I felt special. I felt sorry for the other kids whose inattentive, deadbeat or panty-waisted fathers didn’t take them hunting. But then came the ultimate pisser.

The following May, when certificates for perfect attendance were handed out at the end of the school year, I expected one, and my name was not called. What the H? I HAD PERFECT ATTENDANCE. I raised my hand and asked “Where’s mine?” I was informed by my teacher that I had one absence. DEER DAY! MOTHER BLEEPING DEER DAY!

I went to the principal to appeal. He told me an absence was an absence, even an excused absence. I’m sure the seeds of a lifetime of self-righteous anger and indignation were well-planted by that day, but let me tell you, they sprouted with a vengeance. I had been set up by that bastard principal. Set up to fail! I stayed pissed for quite a while. Still, in this moment, I’m seething with anger, wishing I could remember his name so I could look him up on Find-A-Grave and take a leak on his headstone the next time I’m in West Virginia.

I know I still have some forgiving to do. There are a few graves I’d like to piss on. Hopefully they or their relatives did not choose cremation. 😉

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#007 Fire and Rain

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain

I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end

I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend

But I always thought that I’d see you again

James Taylor

Swate drames uhn flahn’ mushaines ian paces own thuh growuhn’. 

I can’t help myself. I still speak in Appalachian, mostly to my dog and sometimes my wife. I don’t sing in my native dialect, though. I just wanted to see what it would look like transliterated and typed it out.

I miss the lush green mountains of the East. Michelle and I both love rain. And mountains. On a day off we head to the mountains more than the ocean. If we see it’s raining in the mountains we’ll often take an impromptu day off and chase the storm. We found Green Valley Lake by accident, chasing rain.

Everyday I daydream of our move. We’re thinking Portland, Maine or Winchester Virginia. I’m tired of the desert. I don’t want to wish my life away, but the next three years can’t pass quickly enough. I’m going to miss the ocean, but there’s another ocean or a river somewhere for us to live by.

My intention, yet another metaphorical brick paving my personal road to hell with unbought stuffed dogs (some Hemingway fan somewhere will someday get that literary joke), was that this blog would be about my music career touring the United States and a chunk of the world with various artists, bands, groups and productions. I’m finding it very difficult to write about those years without manslpaining why I got into the music business in the first place. It’s not an easy explanation. Sure I could give a paragraph and summarize it all very neatly, but my desire for self-expression, in spite of what anyone thinks, overrides that very quickly. I’d ask for forgiveness or permission, but I’ve gotten to the age I don’t need or care about either. 

You know, the joke about the older man being interviewed by the twenty-something HR girl? She asks him what he thinks his worst trait is and he says “honesty.” She replies that she would think that honesty is a positive trait to which he replies, “I don’t give a damn what you think!”

It’s weird. I care and I don’t care. I think I’m just sleep deprived from too much school and work. Sometimes my words flow better with the adrenaline of exhaustion, but I second guess myself and want to edit more. Anyway, lets get to the point, shall we?

As I begin examining and discovering my own latent reasons for adopting a gypsy lifestyle in service to those with artistic talent I’m seeing aspects of my life I had not even thought about. For me this is a cathartic experience. There’s also a dangerous feeling of overexposing myself.

I have no desire to be brief. I truly hope I don’t lose both of my readers over taking my time and meandering down whatever country roads I feel necessary. Trust that we are about to leave Romney, together, even though I could easily stay here for a few more posts. 

The tony side of LA is on fire this morning. As one takes Sunset to the sea, a la Steely Dan, one leaves the grit of Hollywood to pass through the flamboyance of West Hollywood to be surrounded by the mansions of Bel Air to pass north of Westwood and UCLA to cross the 405 and enter the wealthy suburbs of Brentwood. The hills become a bit more untamed. The canyons dead-end, instead of passing over Mulholland, dotted with largish homes. Brentwood turns into Pacific Palisades where Sunset meets the sea at the Pacific Coast Highway, smack into the Gladstone’s parking lot. 

The drive is lovely. It’s one of the first things I did when I got here 30 years ago. The scenery is unchanged. The road the same windy thread from downtown LA to the sea. I drove from downtown near Dodger Stadium, all through those neighborhoods, and had a seafood salad at Gladstone’s, so fresh and primordial that I discovered a little crab, alive, drenched in blue cheese dressing, between the size of a nickel and a quarter, at the bottom of the bowl. Cute little crustacean, it was. I’m fairly certain I didn’t eat him alfresco, but I don’t remember tossing him back into the sea, either. Today, all I can think about is wishing I would have cleaned him up and tossed him back into the ocean. I’m a different person now. I’d do it today.

So we’ve talked about the fire. Let me turn my attention now towards rain. It Never Rains in Southern California, as Albert Hammond sang back in 1972, but last winter we had much more rain than usual.

People either don’t realize or they forget that Southern California is a desert by the sea. If it weren’t for man’s intervention, this would just be brown sandy desert with very little green growth and no palm trees. But every year, sometime between November and April, it does rain either a little or a lot. The mountains green up. There were so much rain this past winter that the Hollywood hills literally looked like they had green hair growing out of them. The sky was so clear in Los Angeles that you could actually see the mountains way off in the distance and they were snowcapped. I had to check my sanity a few times, believing for moments that I was actually in Salt Lake City.

By June the greenery of the mountains and hills have turned brown. And by August and September any spark could set that dessicated flora on fire, as they did today.

I’ve never had to run from a fire. I’ve had to escape two different fireworks accidents over the years, one when I was younger than five, and another on New Year’s Eve in Rio at the turn of the century. Yes, sigh, another story for another time, which we will get to. I promise.

But I’ve had to escape a flood. You see, somewhere around 1970 or 1971, the tail end of a hurricane came up the Atlantic Coast and dumped butt-loads of rain in the mountains of West Virginia and everywhere else.

Perhaps you’ve heard me mention the little creek behind where I lived as a boy. That gentle little stream, the North Branch of the Little Cacapon, merges with the South Branch, which flows into the Potomac, which of course flows into the Atlantic Ocean. So my little stream, barely six feet across, swoll up to way over fifty feet in width and came to just within a few feet of our home. Mom and Dad bundled my brother and me up, and we drove away in the middle of the night to somewhere safe nearby, and waited for the waters to subside, which they did. 

I don’t know if I was scared or not. I remember it as an adventure. But it gave me one more reason to respect Mother Nature who I knew could be much more of a bitch than portrayed in the margarine commercials of the day.

Next week, we’ll be back to more music and the foundations of my Classic Rock upbringing, seeds planted by the age of ten that would sprout as I hit puberty and beyond. Those seeds would ultimately grow into the mighty oak of my love of music and that is what would drive me into the music business. 

In the meantime, ✌🏽❤️🖌

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#006 Can’t We All Get Along?

The ink is black, the page is white

Together we learn to read and write

A child is black, a child is white

The whole world looks upon the sight

A beautiful sight

Three Dog Night

I grew up conscious of both class and race. I didn’t exactly understand it at the time, I have always noticed differences. Malcolm Gladwell, remember “Outliers?”Chapter 6? He also wrote a book called “Blink.” In it he talks about “thin slicing,” how humans don’t take in all available information at once. We scan, grab bits and pieces, and evaluate. Sometimes we judge, or condemn. 

I used to describe myself as a scanner. If I am attuned, and I usually am, I pick up the vibe as I step into the room. Some would say it’s from growing up in a chaotic household, a symptom of PTSD. It’s a hypervigilence that still has me sitting with my back to the wall.

I’m not always talking, but I’m always watching and listening. Sometimes I’m a wallflower. When I was going through my Kerouac phase, reading everything he had written and everything written about him, he was described as the quiet one in the corner, watching everything and remembering it all. I’m no Kerouac, but stream of consciousness writing is my favorite way to write.

Growing up in Romney from 1970-1974, our local news was from Washington, DC, about 90 minutes to 2 hours away by car. On top of the mountain, we’d receive those TV stations clearly. I’d watch the CBS Nightly News with “Walter Concrete.” I’d see the draft numbers scroll by, see what was happening with Vietnam and at Kent State. There was mention of Patty Hearst, the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Black Panthers.

Of course, Watergate dominated the news. When we took our first real family vacation, other than going back to Kentucky for holidays, we went to the nation’s capital to see all the sights. The Watergate Hotel was one of them. Mom bought a book of matches with a plastic bug glued onto it.

On the local news it was all politics, in the same way local news in Los Angeles is all entertainment, but there was constant coverage of inner-city DC, race relations and talk of racial equality, of how the races should have “rap sessions,” to come together and understand one another. How the word “colored” was no longer cool, but “black” was. (Funny how the NAACP never changed its name.)

I would watch Soul Train before bed on Saturday night. Speaking into a hairbrush, pretending to be Don Cornelius, I’d record my own Afro Sheen commercials on the Webcor cassette player we got from the Fingerhut catalog. Why I did this I really can’t say. I was too young to be out dancing as if my limbs had joints other than hinges. I was too young for colorful clothing and bell-bottom britches, I was too pale to ever be included in such fun, but I knew old Don was one cool cat and his people knew how to boogie.

Our little town was all white, God how I hate using that word that way, but there was one black family in town and Patty, skin blacker than brown, her hair looking nothing like ours, was our classmate. One day, the teacher asked Patty to deliver a note to the principal’s office for her. When Patty left the room, the teacher told us all that the night before on the Johnny Carson show Muhammed Ali and George Foreman were his guests.

She proceeded to tell of how at one point they picked Johnny up, one on each side of him, and Mr. Carson remarked that he felt like the filling of an Oreo cookie. She, predictably, told us not to tell Patty. The class was a mixture of stunned, bewildered and amused. I went home and told my mother, who thought it was highly inappropriate.

I didn’t know too much about black folks. Back in Hazard there had been a few. I remember a man who seemed old to me named Alvin. Alvin, like one of the chipmunks, could peel an apple with a pocket know so that it was one long interrupted peel. There were also the black ladies up the street at the little market. At the age of 4 or so, I was trusted to walk up the block with a little change for a Blue Bunny strawberry ice cream sandwich.

Those rotund black women were barefoot, or maybe wearing sandals. I remember asking why the top of their skin was dark and the palms of their hands and soles of their feet were like mine. All I remember was them falling out laughing at the little white boy.

In Romney, I remember my father learning that Mr. Brooks, our minister at the local United Methodist Church, also was pastor to a small black congregation that I never knew the location of. When my father found out, he demanded that Mom, brother and I stop going to the Methodist church. Dad wasn’t the church type. He alleged that money going to the Methodists would makes its way to the black church which would make it’s way to the Black Panthers and would be used by them to buy bullets to kill cops.

Dad later made up for his prejudices. I’ll get to that someday.

You may be wondering how any of this has anything to do with the music business and my career. Believe me, it does. Stay with me, enjoy the ride, because if you take that bus, you’ll get there.

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#005 Take Me Home, Country Roads

Almost heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Bill Danoff/Taffy Nivert/John Denver

Homer Howard resigned from the Kentucky State Police in 1969 to take a job as a Special Agent with the US Treasury Department, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. His assignment in West Virginia was to find and destroy moonshine stills and arrest the distillers.  In Appalachia the word for such an occupation is “revenuer,” one whose responsibility is to enforce laws against illegal distilling or bootlegging of alcoholic liquor. I find this ironic considering his father, Ewell Howard, a once duly-elected jailer in Manchester, Clay County, Kentucky, once himself squeezed a little liquor out of corn. 

I sometimes imagine a comical parallel universe in which a first-generation Mexican-American ICE agent works the border, repelling the waves of Los IIllegales. I’m his son, going to school with kids browner than me. I think a lot of weird thoughts, more than I care to admit, being just another Spaced Kowboy drifting through the mulitiverses.

We left Hazard in Bryan Adam’s Summer of ’69 for the coal mining town of Beckley, West Virginia. I was five; my brother John was about six months old. We arrived there in time for the Apollo 11 moon landing which I remember watching on TV. I started first grade. The only musical connection I can make to Beckley is that our little community was named Harper Valley. Mom and Dad joked about the PTA. If you’d like a 3-minute treat watch this video: https://youtu.be/aOZPBUu7Fro

I just now watched this for the first time and coincidentally the resonator guitar being played slide-style looks exactly like the one I own that I play as an acoustic. Another glitch in my Matrix. It’s also interesting to see the mash-up of Country and City in Jeannie C. Riley’s outfit, like Nancy Sinatra meets Loretta Lynn.

Shortly thereafter, we moved again, this time to the town of Romney, in the Eastern Panhandle, where I joined another classroom of first graders already in progress. There was no coal in Romney, but the history of the War Between the States was deep, the town having changed hands between my native South and the Northern Agressors nearly fifty times. Remember Kentucky never succeeded from the Union, yet it was south of the Mason-Dixon line. Some local antebellum homes still had Minié ball holes in them that their owners would proudly show you. The mountains above the town still has trenches all around where troops and cannons dug in. It’s also the home of the country’s first Confederate Soldiers cemetery. Thankfully, the statues are still standing there. It’s one little corner of our country where history, for the sake of history itself, has not yet been revised.

I could write volumes on Romney. My former writing coach Kelly Morgan says it’s my vein of gold. My childhood memories include damming up the little creek behind where I lived, making myself a little swimming hole, trapping the crawfish for my amusement. The summers where wonderful. I picked wild blackberries that Mom would bake into pies. The mountain top was dotted with apple and peach orchards. I’d ride my bike through the dirt lanes in between the fruit trees. The fall foliage was beyond gorgeous. Freshly pressed apple cider every October just made the experience better. Winters were spent snow camping, deer hunting and playing Biddy Buddy basketvall. Spring in those mountains came with Dogwood blossoms, Little League baseball and the promise that fishing in the river and small lakes was just around the corner.

Dad’s exact motivation for turning on his own people and our traditional ways I’ll never know. He busted up a lot of stills in the several years we lived there. My father’s attitude towards alcohol was one of extreme moderation. I can only recall five occasions that I saw him drink, and then it was only one beer. He expressed to me his opinion of drunkenness which was not favorable. A beer every now and then with the meal was OK, he said. Dad worked a lot of car accidents while in the KSP. He measured skid marks and wrote reports and drew diagrams of where the vehicles and bodies ended up. I know his experience as a state trooper exposed him to many grotesque scenes, and I know the accumulated PTSD from all he saw, heard, smelled & touched affected his mental health.

He warned me of the dangers of drunk driving with a story of finding a deceased male who had missed a curve and ran off the road. While there were no visible signs of injury that could’ve produced immediate death, the autopsy later showed a beer bottle lodged in his throat. Apparently tipping that Miller High-Life skyward for the last swallow was both the cause of the accident and also of the young man’s demise.

While my dad was a gifted storyteller, he wasn’t prone to prevarication. I had to believe the tale was true. It wasn’t enough though to dissuade me from taking my chances with underage drinking and driving, nor doing so in my 20’s. Other stories for other times. 

Interestingly enough, he once told me all illicit drugs should be made legal, but heavily taxed. Dad was always a mixed message. Nonetheless, I have many more stories about my father, and many more stories about Romney, too.

Today’s story is really about hippies. Yes, that great horde of soap- & scissor-avoiding, dope-smoking, acid-dropping, war-protesting, free-loving, poetry-writing, art-making , guitar-playing hippies. I forgot patchouli-dousing. We must never forget patchouli-dousing.

You see, Romney was located about a two hour drive by micro-bus west of Washington, DC. Word got out that the fertile bottom-land of the South Branch of the Potomac River was a natural and abundant source for Mary Jane. You know, Lucifer’s lettuce. Wacky tobaccy. As a matter of fact, the word “weed” was spray-painted on the areas road signs that pointed towards Romney. This graffiti was a guidepost directing the young men and women who were spit on while trying to change their world to pot, free for the picking.

It’s also worth mentioning that the real name of that Great American and Woodstock clown, Wavy Gravy, given that nickname by BB King incidentally, is actually Hugh Romney. He and I had a laugh about that together a couple years ago. I’ll treasure those few minutes with Wavy forever.

So the mini-buses would roll into town, sticking out like the proverbial. While they might have stopped for briefly for gas and groceries, the VW’s would pass through town and head River Road. The hippies park along the almost non-existent shoulder, anything but inconspicuous, and would hike down the hill with burlap bags and gather plants by the pounds. Now I doubt there were gooey sticky buds growing, just the seven-pointed leaves that probably contained very little THC.

Dad would, just for sport, because harassing hippies was a past-time for him, accompany the West Virginia State Police, who would wait for the hippies to return to their micro-busses with the bags of weed. The youths would be placed in handcuffs and transported to the State Police post in town to be booked. Ironically, growing outside the back door of the Post was an eight foot tall marijuana plant, as if it were a mascot.

One particular Sunday evening, Dad came home and told a story about chasing down a few wayward hippies, ones who tried to escape, having forgotten his service revolver in the car. I told that story at school the next day and soon my classmate, Ann, now Dr. Ann, Ph.D., award-winning author of the book “Given Ground,” and of Appalachian life. Ann told her parents my story. Her dad and my dad being friends, well, you can imagine the talking to that I received about confidentiality and my father’s career.

I tried to contact Ann about 10 years ago after finding her book and reading it. It hit home for me as all the stories were directly or indirectly familiar. My writings in Kelly Morgan’s improve classes began to reveal my West Virginia years because of Ann. I tried contacting her in several ways. I was only able to speak to her partner. It still bugs me that she didn’t want to speak with me. I can’t imagine by fourth grade that I had already become that big an asshole that she didn’t want to speak with me forty-five-plus years later. I wonder how I might have alienated her in some way. I always blame me first, but people are strange, or so I’ve heard Jim sing.

What I do know, is that even then, I identified with those hippies, three-quarters of a generation ahead of me, and not my father, who I looked up to in so many ways. From that young age of nine or so, I wanted to try weed. I wanted to ride around in a microbus, wear a peace-sign necklace, grow my hair out and douse myself in patchouli oil. Those things would take a while, but eventually I would make up for lost time.

#004 Some Days Are Easy

Today’s post is not my usual Second Act Sunday post. Homework and an online exam will be occupying my whole day, so please accept this song I’ve written instead.

As always, thank you for reading and subscribing.

Some Days Are Easy

Some days are easy
Other days are hard
Some say I'm a genius
But I feel like a 'tard

Sometimes I'm effusive
More often I'm terse
My moods wax and wane
From better to worse

I've drank a lot of whiskey
And smoked a lot of dope
I've chased a few women
Most have said "nope"

Liquor can't fix my problems
Weed don't make me forget
But I get relief for a while
And don't give a shit

They say that eventually
Our brain cells are diminished
It's so hard to tell just
When a song is finished

Some days are easy
Some days are hard
I'd call myself a poet
If talented like the Bard

#003 Heritage

“Kantner once told me, ‘You’re never going to grow up,’ and I’m making a determined effort at it.” – Grace Slick

I’m doing my best not to grow up, but try as I might, it’s happening slowly. A couple of years ago, I decided I was finally mature enough for community college. School’s going well. I seem to have finally nailed how to focus, concentrate, memorize and regurgitate for a full three and a half months at a time. I celebrate such small victories.

Last year in my group communications class, populated with Gen Z’s and Millennials, our final project was called “Music Meltdown.” Each group of eight students was to put together a presentation analyzing  bands that had broken up. 

Our group chose The Spice Girls. Yawn. It wasn’t my choice, but I went along.

During the final class of the semester, each group made it’s presentation. One at a time, the other bands in question were revealed: NWA, Destiny’s Child, Led Zeppelin and *NSYNC. I sat in stunned silence.

My life keeps following me around. Call me paranoid. Call me whatever you’d like.

I wanted to raise my hand and announce that I had connections to all the groups. I had been Jason Bonham’s tour manager, Dr. Dre’s tour accountant on his “The Chronic” tour, *NSYNC’s merchandise accountant twice and Destiny’s Chid’s tour accountant in Europe right before Beyonce blew up into, well, Beyonce. 

What would have been the point? Although I’ve always been treated well by my fellow students, it’s hard to call them peers. Nobody likes a showoff, especially a showoff old enough to be one’s grandfather, or even great grandfather in a few cases. I had a vision of myself morphing into Grampa Simpson before their eyes. What would have been the point, indeed. No one would have believed me anyway. 

As David Byrne once posed, “How did I get here?” That, dear reader, is the $64,000 question. I promise you, if you come back week after week, and we both live long enough for me to unfold the story of my life from zygote to forty, you’ll get the whole story.

[Deep breathe.]

Let’s begin, shall we?

The number one song the day I was born was “Sukyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto. That’s only relevant for one reason: it’s such a major uncool song. Not that I’ve ever been cool, but only “The Purple People Eater” would have been worse. Were it not for the randomness of my mother’s fertility cycle, my song could have easily been “It’s My Party” by Leslie Gore or “Surf City” by Jan and Dean. Far cooler, in my opinion,

I was born in the tiny town of Hazard, Kentucky, population then and now around 5,000. Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Southeastern Kentucky, the region was, and to some degree still is, a time capsule of an earlier era. The dialect, music and simple way of life there have changed little over the decades. These attributes are more reflective of the original settlers’ English heritage, and given the geographic isolation immune to the rapid societal progressions of city folk.

Hunting, fishing, trapping, planting by the signs, using plants as natural medicines, distilling corn liquor, curing meat, dehydrating vegetables and cabin-building were but a few of the skills necessitated by their hardscrabble existence in those mountain hollers (hollows).

I’m proud of my English-Appalachian heritage. For the record, I detest the word “white” when it refers to my ethnicity, the word “Caucasian” being no better. Unless one is sight-impaired one can easily see that my melanin composition is actually a slightly-tanned beigish-pink. 

I far prefer the term Appalachian-American. For the record, yes, I am a Hillbilly. Use that word as a pejorative, however, and my first reaction will be to throat-punch the offender or worse. (The term “Saltine-American” is acceptable in all cases.)

If you care to know more, please consult Chapter 6 of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller “Outliers” which discusses in detail my Howard heritage and our propensity to shoot first, ask questions later and be slow to forgive.

My Howard and Combs ancestors abandoned Mother England for the New World in the early 1700’s, for reasons unknown to me, and landed in Virginia. Samuel Howard was my first forefather to be documented as born on this continent. He fought in the Revolution against King George and was present at Cornwallis’ surrender to Washington at Yorktown. 

Back in the 70’s, when the pre-internet genealogy craze hit after the mini-series “Roots”, my father and I spent hours looking at census records in the basement of the Perry County library. We sent for and received by mail from the National Archives Samuel’s narrative of his service in the war, written by his own hand, which was required as proof to qualify for a military pension.

[As an aside, I once ran into LaVar Burton at the spa I frequent. I didn’t recognize him. A couple of hours later I had the Aha! moment. My only excuse is that we were both naked at the time. I’ve seen Laurence Fishburne there a few times, too.]

From my mother’s side, I was told my great great grandmother, Nancy Parker, was full-blooded Cherokee. I believe it’s easy to see Native features in my mother, grandmother and pictures of their mothers. That would make me 1/16th Native. DNA analysis suggests I’m less than that, 1.2% to be specific. While far more than that of Elizabeth Warren, I nonetheless continue to self-identify as of both European and Native American heritage.

The music of Appalachia is derived from English ballads, as well as Irish and Scottish traditional folk songs, with fiddle, banjo and fretted dulcimer as the main instruments. The music from the motherlands evolved into the genres of Old-time, bluegrass and country music, and featured prominently in the folk music revival of the early 1960’s.

I’m listening to Gospel bluegrass right now as I finish this post. It’s my Sunday morning ritual, as close to church as I get these days. It’s a satisfying feeling to know that bluegrass was enjoyed and studied by the great American Jerry Garcia in his musically formative years. He actually visited Bean Blossom, Indiana and recorded with a portable reel-to-reel machine at Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festival. 

Coincidentally, my wife’s maternal grandfather was a luthier and picker, and one of Bill’s Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Michelle has such great stories to tell of her grandfather, Frank Beach. I’ll always treasure the memories of our private tour of Bill’s museum on a rainy January day a few years ago.

Music was around me from the time I was born. Though neither of my parents played an instrument then, music was always present. Incidentally, my mother now plays guitar and mandolin and sings beautifully in the Appalachian tradition.

My mother listened to Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Connie Smith and Dolly Pardon. She had an old Motorola console stereo that was more of a piece of furniture than it was a hi-fi. I wish I still had it today. I’m searching for a used one.

Until the age of 5, I was cared for by my mom’s mom while my parents worked. In that humble house, hand-built by my grandfather and heated by a coal-fired potbellied stove, Old-time and bluegrass played constantly on the AM radio.

My father loved music, too. I learned about bluegrass from him. I have a memory of being at a bluegrass festival with him, but I don’t think it was in Bean Blossom, yet it could have been. Sometimes I think I made that memory up.

He loved singing along with the car radio in his deep baritone voice. I remember singing “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” many times with him. On one particular fishing trip, while lunching on saltines and sardines, we sang along gleefully to “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” There was much more.

Especially heart-warming to me now is remembering my father enjoying “Sugar Magnolia” and “Truckin’” with a smile on his face. Although, he didn’t exactly hate hippies with the passion of Cartman, I don’t think he realized who the Grateful Dead were, and neither one of us could foresee who they would become. We couldn’t foresee who we would become, either.

#002 Introduction

”The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” – Hunter S Thompson

I started to call this “book”, chapter by chapter, “Second Act Sunday” because it’s about my second act in this lifetime. If you saw recently the picture of me at age 9 with the stethoscope playing “Emergency!” with my little brother juxtaposed with me now with my real stethoscope you know what I mean. 

I’ve decide to actually entitle this project “How I Screwed (Up) My Way to the Top.” Amidst much success there were also many mistakes and blunders, which now, I’m able to start laughing at. Actually, I’ve laughed about them for a long time, just not publicly.

In January of 2003, I accepted a job working in-house with the band I had just been on the road with. It paid less than I wanted, but in terms of a per annum figure it wasn’t that bad. The job had been offered to me even though I was highly unqualified for the position. 

I saw it as a chance to segue off the road to a different way life. I was tired. Being on the road nine months a year, year after year had taken its toll.

With hindsight, a lot of it, I wish I had taken six months off, or even three, but I had just bought a condo in Culver City. I wanted to stay in one place for a while and live in my first real adult home. My bank account was depleted in the purchase, so I felt motivated to get back to work. 

I also hated to say no to work. A-level work was A-level work. Plus, all involved had thought highly enough of me to consider me in the first place. I felt honored. They didn’t realize I was unqualified. More than once in my life people have thought me capable of more than I could handle. 

When I accepted the gig, I knew it would be challenging and a lot of work. I was my style then, as is still my style now, to jump off the highest diving board I could find only to be submerged way in over my head in the freezing cold water of the deep end of the pool and learn how to swim all over again.

By early July, I was told that I was rendered redundant. I’ll save those details for the final chapter. When I was let go, I felt as if I’d been set up to fail. I was behind before I even started. Even worse was the realization that ultimately, I, myself, was the one who set me up to fail. I should have said “I’m not your guy, buddy.” I’d like to think by now, all these years later, I’ve learned to say no. We’ll see. Just know that I had truly put my full heart and energy into the job. By the time I was let go, one of the band members had become insufferable and only now can I forgive him.

(Yes, chucklehead, I forgive you. I even began listening to your latest album this week. I wish you well.)

I stayed on for the next eight weeks at full pay, handing off to the next person who lasted on the gig about as long as I did.

At the heart of it all, I was embarrassed. I thought the firing would follow me around. I’d lost jobs before, or had not been invited back later, but this somehow felt different. I failed to recognize that sometimes being sacked by people known to be difficult  could be a viable calling card unto itself. It was little consolation that on their next tour they did housecleaning of personnel, anyway. 

A friend gave me an opportunity to interview at his company. I got the job. I was excited to start a new career in sales.

A few leads came in for road gigs, which with hindsight, might have been really great tours. I turned them all down or didn’t follow up. I, as has been my modus operandi with many a relationship, turned my back and walked away.

Music had been my life for forever. It had been more constant than any friend, lover or anything else. It had been my “thing.” Leaving the touring industry felt as if my best friend, no, a part of myself, maybe the biggest part of me, MY IDENTITY, had died.

I mourned. I grieved through the various stages of a denial, anger, bargaining and depression. I stopped listening to music. It took years to go to a concert again as a fan. 

I’ve never been diagnosed as manic-depressive, but I certainly have tendencies. All my life my moods have ranged from dysthymic to hypo-manic. If I’ve ever disappeared on you as a friend, just know it was me, not you. I, for whatever reason at the time, wasn’t in a great place and couldn’t stand the emotional  pain of answering the simple question of “How are you?” 

I’ve always regarded myself as a high-functioning depressive. I knew that sometimes the highs were too high and lows were to low. Life is, as Sue Marshall reminds me, about finding a broader middle spectrum. 

The last two years have been a time of reinvention. I’m truly happy, even though I’m making far less than I used to make. For now. School is beyond rewarding. My internship at the hospital fulfills me. I have a true inner purpose again and a reason to wake up every day before the alarm clock. I am in a great place emotionally with a new passion and career-beginnings, carving out my little corner in health care. 

Even though it’s been nearly 30 years, I feel the same buzz that I used to feel. Walking into the hospital feels like what walking into a load-in used to. Hearing a sick baby cry or someone scream in pain moves me more than the house lights going down and the punters cheering ever did. Comforting someone who’s afraid, connecting with them, human-to-human, feels better than faxing a show settlement at one in the morning and heading to the bus and the comfy confinement of my bunk.

I look forward to each new day and each new learning moment. I’m in my zone. I’ve found my new tribe. I’ve found my new “thing.”

Even Michelle doesn’t know much  of these years of which that I’m about to write. I just didn’t talk about, until recently. I can now write about my years in that cruel, shallow money trench, that long plastic hallway. 

I’ve finally reached acceptance. 

#001 Preface

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages…

William Shakespeare 

“As You Like It”

Published 1623

I’ll spare you the reading of the complete passage. Let us suffice to say for those who know or choose to know, that I vacillate between what the Bard called the “schoolboy” and the “soldier.” 

Four years ago, when I was 52, I noticed my life had this beautiful symmetry to it. Dividing by 4, I was looking at 4 distinct 13-year periods. 

Ages 0-13 were spent growing to adolescence in Kentucky and West Virginia. I had an idyllic Appalachian upbringing. I would not trade growing up on the top of a mountain for anything. Those years themselves could, and maybe will someday, be the source for much writing. 

Ages 14-26 were my Indiana years of puberty, high school, college and the beginnings of my music business career in Indianapolis with Sunshine Promotions. Oh, what wild times. 

Ages 27-39 I traveled to all 50 of our United States and nearly 30 countries, in service to a wide variety of entertainers and musical groups. These expeditions with so many minstrels and troubadours kept me very busy. That is truly the subject of this “book.”

Ages 40-52 were in one place, with one job, in my adopted hometown of Los Angeles, which I had used as a home base during the quarter before as well. 

The purpose of these writings is manifold:

One is to inform those who know me, but have no idea what I did before they met me at the age of 40 or beyond. 

Most people who knew me growing up, family included, have no idea about my young adult life. 

Another is for me, myself, to put it all together. I’ve forgotten more than I remember. At least it feels that way. With luck, by reflecting and typing it in, I’ll have a mostly complete recounting to share with you.  

Additionally, I just may be able to pull together a complete employment resume. 

This is not going to be a Hollywood tell-all. Don’t expect a lot of TMZ-style dishing. Under the advice of Bambi’s Thumper and my mother, Mary L. Woolsey, if I don’t have anything nice to say, I will be far less effusive than with those I admire. 

I’ll be starting with how I came to love music, especially live music, and how that passion turned into a career. The beginnings of my touring career with Sunshine Promotions in Indianapolis are as important to me as my 13 years on the road. 

These weekly Sunday installments are a grand experiment for me. Conflicting parts of me are shouting that I can’t, I shouldn’t or I won’t tell my story. I do and don’t want any commentary. 

Done correctly, a week at a time, this will take a couple years at least. 

Bear in mind that most long-term touring pros are humble people who simply do a job they love day-in and day-out. They do not boast and brag. They are not conceited. They are not of the “Hey, look at me!” variety. They sacrifice time with their families or maybe decided to forego the family route at all. Some suffer in silence over what is missing in their lives, as other parts are very full. It’s not an easy path to choose. Yet there are many rewards. 

I’m not trying to call attention to myself. At least not in the vein of “Look what I used to do for a living!” I generally say, when asked, that I did some behind the scenes stuff in the music business, and hope no more questions are asked. 

There are many who have done it much more than me, and done it far better. 

I’m not special. Yet, when I stop and recognize that I’ve worked for and with a Nobel Prize winner and 3 EGOTS, maybe there is a story to tell. 

Thank you in advance for reading. 

I want to thank the following people:

Jim Cimino  and Chi Neal for their incessant prompting. 

Kelly Morgan for helping me find my voice as a writer. 

Fred Schrott, Tony Collins & Sally Mann Romano, writers extraordinaire, for being salient, current inspiration. 

Michelle Minor Howard for her constant love, energy and support. We met each other way back when, and we are miraculously and joyfully married today. To you, my soulmate, life-support system and partner for the rest of my life, this “book” is humbly dedicated. 

Dave Howard

Long Beach, CA

15 September 2019