Reminiscing

A Song You Remember From Your Childhood

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 29: A Song You Remember From Your Childhood

“Sundown” is the title track from Gordon Lightfoot’s fifth album on the Warner Bros/Reprise label (his tenth album, overall). It was a number-one hit in the summer of 1974. I was just under five years old at the time, so it’s unlikely I have any real memories of the song in the context of that year. And yet somehow it’s become associated in my mind with a series of impressions that add up to a scene that very likely did occur around that time… so maybe I actually do remember it. Memory is such a weird, slippery thing, especially when you’re looking back across four and a half decades. But whether I’m experiencing a genuine memory when I hear “Sundown” or just something I’ve manufactured for myself that uses the song as accompaniment, it always conjures up a vision of riding alongside my pretty young mother in her 1956 Ford pickup truck, the one with rust-red primer on the fenders and an eight-track deck welded into the dashboard. A long bar of sunshine-polygons pivots across the curving sides of the windshield and the truck shimmies and squeaks as old cars do, like living things with a touch of arthritis in their joints. The sweet, floral smell of just-cut alfalfa flows through the open wing-window. Dad has a swather machine and picks up a few extra bucks on the weekends cutting and baling hay for the local farmers. We’re on our way to meet him with a midday snack, a box of his favorite raspberry Zingers on the bench seat between us, a styrofoam cooler on the floor between us loaded with cans of Fanta Red Cream Soda and Coke in tall glass bottles. I’m drowsy in the heat, and the world seems very large and uncrowded.

This memory is a safe place, a happy place that I find myself retreating to more and more often as I get old and current events become more grim and frustrating. Strange that it would be so tangled up with a song about a “hard-headed woman that’s got me feeling mean.” But like I said… memory is weird…

 

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My Friend Jaren

I didn’t make many friends in college.

It wasn’t because I was antisocial or anything like that. The issue was that I was a commuter student. As soon as I was done with my classes for the day, I was in my little VW Rabbit with the sun roof open, blasting for home 25 miles away. That made it difficult to participate much in campus life or get to know anyone outside of class. Looking back, it’s a huge regret, one of about a hundred things I’d do differently if I had the chance.

Even with that self-imposed obstacle, though, there were a couple people I became close with during my five years at the University of Utah. A guy named Jaren Rencher, for one. He was probably the first friend I made beyond high school. We met our freshman year, way back in the fall of 1987, in a course titled “Intellectual Traditions of the West.” ITW, for short. It was kind of an introduction to philosophy, a survey of all the important thinking — the intellectual traditions, if you will — that have underpinned western civilization over the past 3000 years, everything from Plato to Henry David Thoreau to Sartre and Camus. I loved it, if for no other reason than it felt to me like what college was supposed to be like.

The class was held in a musty brick building on President’s Circle, the oldest part of the university campus, where the trees are all one hundred years old if they’re a day. It looks like Hollywood’s idealized vision of a college campus, a place where Indiana Jones would’ve taught in between expeditions. Our professor for ITW was an eccentric gentleman who favored a 1970s denim leisure suit and wraparound Terminator shades. He showed up on the first day of each academic quarter with his thick white hair closely cropped… and then as far as I could tell, he never cut or combed it again until after finals. Our fellow students were nearly as eccentric as the prof. There were a couple people I’d known in high school. There was the smarmy pale kid who’d already read all the texts and couldn’t wait to demonstrate how much smarter he was than everyone else. There was the brilliant but fragile girl from the small Idaho town who had gray eyes and wore moccasin boots year ’round. I liked her. I liked her a lot.

And there was Jaren.

I can’t remember how he and I became acquainted. The class was a nontraditional affair loosely modeled on the Socratic method; we all sat in a circle and discussed the reading for the week, rather than the prof lecturing and giving quizzes, and it’s possible one of those conversations just carried on outside the classroom. It’s equally likely I spotted him doodling the Starship Enterprise in his notebook margin and thought, “He’s like me!”

Jaren was my first true nerd friend, you see, and I say that with the utmost affection and an admission that I, too, am a colossal nerd. Oh, I’d had plenty of friends before who liked Star Wars and Star Trek and Monty Python and Buckaroo Banzai. But Jaren was different…. he was what we would now call a fanboy, in the best, nontoxic sense of that term, and he allowed me to express my own fanboy tendencies in a way that my earlier crew had not. With Jaren, I could talk about the minutiae of starship design or Klingon culture or whatnot and not worry that he wouldn’t know what I was talking about, or that he was going to think I wasn’t cool. Jaren had read Asimov and Heinlein and Burroughs; he laughed at Larry Niven’s “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” and he had seen — and liked! — Forbidden Planet. He was the sort who didn’t just play D&D but designed his own dungeons and painted his own miniatures. And yet… he wasn’t that kind of nerd, the unjustifiably arrogant, socially inept Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons type. Indeed, I remember the two of us rolling our eyes at another mutual acquaintance of the nerdish variety who just took it all too damn seriously. There’s a fine line, and unless you’ve ever encountered a CBG type, it’s difficult to explain just where that line is. But he and I were in the same place just this side of it, and the other kid was way the hell over on the other side.

Jaren went with me to my very first Star Trek convention, a one-day affair held at the airport Hilton back when these things were small and simple and most of all inexpensive. I have a photo from that day, the two of us looking impossibly young, both of us baby-faced, both of us clean-shaven — well, aside from the mustache I’d been hopefully encouraging since I was about 13 — and both of us also impossibly happy, giddy even, alongside Nichelle Nichols, the lovely actress who portrayed Uhura on the original series, my first celebrity encounter. I also remember, somewhat incongruously, that Jaren bought a small die-cast version of the Enterprise-D that day, the latest incarnation of the legendary starship as seen on the then-new Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wasn’t too sure about TNG in those days, and I remember mocking him a bit for his treason against the one, true Star Trek.

But you know how these things go. Jaren took a couple years off to go on a mission for the LDS Church, as young Mormon men do, and when he came back to school, we were in different places with our lives. Then I graduated and fell into a midlife crisis while he went on to law school. I lost touch with him. A couple decades slipped away.

Then came Facebook, which for all of its downsides and corrosive, disruptive effects is also in a very real way a small miracle. One idle afternoon as I scrolled through its endless vortex, I happened to think of Jaren and wonder what had become of him. I searched for his name. I found him and sent him a friend request, wondering if he even remembered me, and if so, how did he remember me, as a dick or a good guy or somewhere in between? The usual insecurities brought on by technological reunion. He did remember, and evidently the memory was a good one. We reconnected easily, picking up our old banter and nerdy stream-of-consciousness conversation as if it had never stopped.

We reunited in the flesh at the 2014 iteration of FanX, aka (in those pre-lawsuit days) Salt Lake Comic Con, and I have a photo from that day as well. We’re older and a lot more bedraggled than in the first photo, but no less giddy. I met his wife and family that day, and discovered that he’d managed to inculcate in his kids a love of all the cheesy old stuff that had brought the two of us together years before; I nearly cried when I heard his teenage daughter proclaim that she loved the ’78 Battlestar Galactica and the Peter Davison era of Doctor Who.

Sadly, though, the intervening years between ITW and FanX had also brought Jaren a lot of troubles: financial, career, and most ominously, with his health. I soon discovered that we had diabetes and high blood pressure in common as well as classic sci-fi shows, but in his case, the ‘betes had been a much crueler mistress than to myself. A little over a month ago, he lost his foot and part of a leg to the damn stuff.

I messaged him the night before the surgery, trying to bolster his spirits a little with bad jokes and companionable talk. I promised that, later in the summer, after he had healed and this damn coronavirus pandemic had settled, I’d come get him in my old Galaxie and take him for a ride, just the two of us like it’d been when we were 18 and immortal. I followed that with an animated GIF of the Millennium Falcon launching out of Mos Eisley. He replied with a snippet of dialog: “Chewie… we’re home.” My vision grew watery, and I imagine that somewhere, miles away in a hospital room, his did too.

His surgery went well, as did his rehab. He came home two weeks ago, just in time to welcome his Battlestar-loving daughter home from her LDS mission. All seemed well, and I was looking forward to taking him on that ride, maybe in another month or so.

And then last Saturday, my old college friend, my nerdish comrade-in-arms, a smart, funny, kind-hearted guy who had published a few short stories and never stopped encouraging me to pick up my own pen again… died. At home, surrounded by his family, completely unexpectedly. A phaser-blast out of the blue. He was just shy of 50 years old.

I can only speculate on the cause, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve spent the last week thinking about him. About the old days in ITW, how we both crushed on the girl in the moccasin boots and on Nichelle Nichols. About the long years we were out of touch, and how many times we talked about getting together since we reconnected, but somehow hadn’t gotten around to it. How I’d hoped to recreate that old photo with him and Nichelle when she appeared at FanX a couple years ago, but again, didn’t manage to make it happen. How I’d promised to take him for that ride. And also, rather incongruously, about that little die-cast Enterprise-D I used to give him hell about. I found myself wondering if he still had it. Is it sitting on his desk or in a bookcase right now? I’ve never been inside his home. And I wonder.

I am grateful that we were able to reconnect at all. But I will forever regret the twenty-five years we lost and my failure to make good on spending real face-to-face time with him once we were in touch again. You all know that story as well, because we all do it and we all regret it when something like this happens. I knew that story, learned that lesson, years ago. Life is short, time is precious, we shouldn’t let those opportunities get away from us. And yet…

And yet.

Just for the sake of posterity, here’s what I wrote on Facebook about an hour after I got the news… my first unfiltered, unedited thoughts:

Jaren K. Rencher, from Intellectual Traditions of the West our freshman year to meeting Nichelle together… from nerdy conversations about Trek and Red Dwarf and Monty Python to middle-aged grumbling about the cards we were dealt… lost for years until the wonder of Facebook and Salt Lake Comic Con put us back in touch… now lost again to the undiscovered country. Save me a place at the tavern, dungeonmaster.

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Salt Lake’s Best Rock

Oh my hell…  in the previous entry, I mentioned remembering a TV ad for a Salt Lake radio station that used the opening drums from Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” right? So guess what I just just ran across on YouTube? The stuff you can find out there on the interwebz never fails to amaze me…

Incidentally, if you’re interested, I also found this brief history of the station as I was wandering cyberspace trying to confirm my fading memory, written by a dude named Paul Wilson in 2005:

CITADEL – KBEE-FM

In 1947, Salt Lake City had only two commercial FM stations…at 100.3 (Bonneville’s KSL-FM) and 98.7 (what is now KBEE-FM).  In the early 1970s, KCPX-FM (at 98.7) was known as “Stereo X” and was the home of a wide-ranging free-form album rock format…but under the direction of KCPX Program Director Gary Waldron, by the end of the 70’s the station had evolved into “Real Rock 99 FM”.  The playlist was short (only a couple hundred songs) and it quickly became the market’s top-rated station, combining the laid-back presentation of album rock with tight top 40 rotations a decade before Pirate Radio spawned the term “Rock 40”.  As the 80’s began, the station hired a full staff of announcers and “99FM” continued to dominate the market.  I was fortunate enough to hold the 7-midnight shift for nearly four years, until the musical pendulum swung back toward pop music and the station evolved again.  By 1984 there was a new crew of jocks, the format was CHR and “Hitradio 99” again dominated the market.  Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures had owned the KCPX stations (AM, FM and TV) for a number of years but sold the TV station in the mid 70s.  In the mid 80s they sold the radio stations to John Price, a Salt Lake based contractor best known for building massive shopping malls.  Under Price, the station evolved into “Power 99” and finally to AC as KVRY (Variety 98.7).  The historic KCPX letters were parked on a small AM station in Centerville for about twenty years (more on that later).  Price eventually sold the stations to Citadel; the format remained AC but the call letters were changed to KBEE (B98.7), which is how the station is known today.

Incidentally, it’s been 15 years since that was written, but KBEE B98.7 is still around, now owned by Cumulus Media and playing an adult contemporary format, i.e., mainstream soft rock. I rarely listen to it.

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Nostalgia’s a Bitch, Man, But She’s My Bitch

star-wars_anh_luke-on-tatooineSo, do you suppose that during all those years Luke Skywalker evidently spends standing on a rock in the ocean on Planet Ireland, brooding about how everything went to hell for him after his twenties, he ever got misty-eyed about the good old days of zooming around the desert in his landspeeder and hanging with Fixer and the gang at Toshi Station?

Just something that occurred to me this morning as I was remembering the little farm town I grew up in and the faceless suburb it’s become…

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I Dreamed of Projectors…

projector_platterI dreamed last night I was back in my old movie-theater projectionist job. One of them, anyhow, but maybe somehow both* of them simultaneously; you know how dreams are. The machines hadn’t been tended in a very long time — of course not, I haven’t worked in a theater in 22 years! — and they were caked with grease and that red powdery stuff you were supposed to wipe out of the film gate after every screening. I can’t remember what that was… some kind of lubricant on the film itself, I think.

In any event, I dreamed I was cleaning projectors and threading film, spinning platters and feeling the deep, white-noise thrumming of the motors in the soles of my feet and the pit of my stomach. I was on a schedule, of course. I had to get the movie started on time. But I was totally relaxed about it, riding the wave and letting muscle memory do all the work. I was in my element. And it felt really good to be back in that time and place. I was happy.

Now, I’m not one to read too much into dreams. I don’t think they have much meaning in and of themselves, and I find lengthy analyses of their symbolism both tedious and silly. (Sorry, I just don’t believe that a talking chicken represents that time I was teased by a girl in third grade, or whatever.) But I can’t deny that dreams definitely produce genuine emotional impact, or that those feelings sometimes linger in various ways long after you wake up. I’ve been thinking about this dream all day, remembering the physical sensations of contentedly working in the dark with obsolete media. And I’ve been wondering what exactly happened to me yesterday that might have shaken loose those old memories…

*I actually worked for two different theaters, under vastly different conditions, back in the day. So for my dream booth to somehow be both booths at the same time was… interesting. But hey. Dreams.

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The Tornado

Sixteen years ago, I was working in a job that turned out to be the start of my career in the editorial arts. Of course, I didn’t know that’s what was going to happen at the time. Back then, it was just another job. An incremental improvement over the previous one, better paying and a little more in line with my actual skills and interests, but still not anything to get excited about.

The company was situated in a modest, thoroughly anonymous two-story brick building a few blocks east of Salt Lake’s downtown core. I used to go out walking during my lunch breaks, and fantasize about buying one of the rundown Victorian houses that dotted the neighborhood and restoring it to its old glory. I remember trying to imagine what it would be like to live a more urban lifestyle than I enjoyed on the Bennion Compound at the other end of my commute.

However, for some reason, I didn’t leave the office on the afternoon of August 11, 1999. Maybe I had a pile of work to finish that day, or maybe I just plain didn’t feel like walking — I wasn’t nearly as conscientious about it when I was younger, because I didn’t yet need to be. The office had no windows, and there was no social media back then to flash trending news to everyone on Earth in a nanosecond, so I had no way of knowing anything was amiss outdoors. At some point, though, I became aware of a hub-bub in the office; a number of my coworkers were chattering excitedly about something. I caught the word “tornado” and immediately stood up to look over my cube wall like a prairie dog scanning for danger.

I couldn’t believe I’d heard correctly. After all, Utah isn’t known for trailer-park-devouring funnel clouds or little girls being whisked away to Technicolor fairy lands. Nevertheless, someone was saying a tornado had ripped its way through downtown a short while earlier, and they weren’t joking. A transistor radio was quickly located in somebody’s desk — remember, the Internet was still primarily comprised of GeoCities sites and Napster, so we weren’t going to get any real-time information there — and we soon had confirmation.

At first it was kind of fun and exciting to think about, in the way that any big, out-of-the-ordinary event can be. A tornado in Salt Lake City! Wowsers! And we were here to see it, or at least to hear about it and tell our future kids about it!

But then the grim details started coming in… damage to the Delta Center sports arena, and the tents comprising the Outdoor Retailers’ Show, the biggest annual convention this city hosted before Salt Lake Comic Con came along; old-growth trees in Memory Grove, a sheltered park at the mouth of City Creek Canyon and one of my favorite places in the whole valley, torn from the ground like weeds; homes in the adjoining Avenues neighborhood stripped of their shingles. Rumors that someone had been killed. Suddenly the idea of an urban tornado wasn’t so nifty anymore. And oh, by the way, did anyone know where Cristina was?

Cristina, my boss, the woman who’d given me a chance even though my resume didn’t really warrant it and whom I considered a friend, had left to meet her husband for lunch just before the tornado took shape. Nobody knew where she’d been meeting him, only that it was somewhere in the downtown area. Maybe somewhere along the path of the killer windstorm.

We tried to get back to work, but I don’t think anybody’s heart was in it. Mine certainly wasn’t. I recall the rest of that afternoon dragging past very slowly, and a sick, knotted feeling in my belly. That eased up after Cristina finally checked in several hours later. She was unharmed, but her car was a mess; it’d been parked on the street right across from the Delta Center, and it had been thoroughly sandblasted. Even though the tornado didn’t come anywhere near the neighborhood of my office, I found myself feeling like I’d dodged a bullet by not going for my walk that day.

The Salt Lake Tornado isn’t something I think about very often. All the damaged buildings were repaired within weeks of the event, and the replanted trees in Memory Grove have grown to maturity over the past decade and a half. It’s hard now to even remember what it looked like before. But for some reason this sixteenth anniversary seemed to get a lot more attention than in years past. Or perhaps I just happened to take notice of it this time around. In any event, I thought I’d pass along this commemorative video that ran on one of our local news broadcasts for anyone who might be interested. The tone strikes me as a little too “ah, shucks, folks” for the subject matter, but that’s to be expected from the reporter who narrates it, Craig Wirth. (Craig is a longtime fixture in Salt Lake television, a feature-story reporter who does warm ‘n’ fuzzy nostalgia pieces in his occasional “Wirth Watching” segments, kind of like Salt Lake’s version of Charles Kuralt.) Tone aside, though, it is a nice overview of what went down that August day so long ago…

 

 

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Musings on a Rainy Afternoon

“Do any of us get beyond the boundaries of the selves we start with?” — David Gessner

Raindrops pattered against my leather jacket as I walked through Salt Lake’s Avenues neighborhood the other day. I carried an umbrella in my hand, but the light drizzle wasn’t yet annoying enough to bother unfurling it. In fact, I was rather enjoying the sensation of rain on my face without the bother of getting spots on my glasses. (LASIK is a pretty amazing thing.)

The Avenues aren’t far from the campus of my alma mater, the University of Utah, and I often find myself thinking about my college days when my constitutionals lead me there. On this particular afternoon, the location, combined with the soft, gray light and an evocative podcast playing through my earbuds, guaranteed a wander down Memory Lane.

The podcast was an interview with the writer David Gessner, who has just published a book on the authors Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey. If you’ve never heard of those two, you’re probably not from around here. Although they themselves chafed at the idea of being called “regional writers,” they were profoundly influenced by the landscape and cultures of the American West, and they are enormously significant in the eyes of Western literati. I know Abbey by reputation only — I’ve never gotten around to reading him — but I studied the works of Stegner as a lit major at the U, and while I didn’t exactly idolize him, I found many things about him and his career worth emulating. I came within a whisker of meeting him, too: My professor for that class was acquainted with him and trying to set up a classroom visit just before the unfortunate car accident that took Stegner’s life in 1993.

I remember being utterly enamored at the time with the idea of Western writers. Up to that point, pretty much all the literature-with-a-capital-L I’d encountered had been Southern, or Eastern, or European. I’d studied Shakespeare and the British Victorians and the American Realists. I’d read Nadine Gordimer (South African) and Thomas Keneally (Australian), but somehow I’d never run across a literary novel with its origins in the Western United States. (The Mountain West, I mean; California doesn’t count, Frank Norris.) To discover, right at the tail end of my undergraduate career, that there were writers from my part of the country, who wrote about places I recognized and in dialects I knew, was revelatory for me. And I remember thinking that this revelation might be the key to my own future. I imagined a career for myself studying these writers, and writing my own novels and non-fiction rooted in the surroundings I’d grown up with.

I was so naive. It physically hurts to remember how naive I was then. There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t end up with a career in academia, why I didn’t even go any farther with my education than a bachelor’s degree, but if I’m honest, the biggest one is that I was just too damn ignorant to make it happen. I spent my college years so narrowly focused on the task at hand — making the grades so I could keep my scholarship so I could keep making the grades, rinse and repeat — that I never bothered to figure out what I was going to do after I graduated. When that day came, I didn’t understand how to research or apply for grad schools, or even where I could turn for help. It was as if I’d been sleeping off a hangover while a really important orientation session was held, or something. Needless to say, my last-minute, half-hearted, half-assed efforts to get into some kind of graduate program didn’t take me very far.

Looking back, it was probably for the best. From my adult, middle-aged perspective, I don’t think I’m very well-suited for the politics and the insular, ivory-tower irrelevance that I now see as the hallmarks of career academia. My idea of what it was like to be a professor came mostly from Dead Poets Society, and I now understand that my ideas of how one should study literature were somewhat… outdated. Superficial, even. Oh, don’t get me wrong… I don’t have a guilty conscience about whether I really deserve my BA. I read the texts, I wrote the papers, I passed the tests. I even learned some things along the way. But I could never make the cognitive leaps that my classmates did when they were analyzing something. In the words of a professor who tried to help me grasp what a Master’s in literature would require, I never dug deeply enough. It was like a blind spot for me; I just couldn’t figure out how to get beyond the high-school-level concern with themes and imagery. Moreover, I didn’t really want to. All of the esoteric critical approaches that were in vogue then — semiotics, deconstruction, a whole raft of political isms — struck me as vaguely interesting, but of little actual value. I still feel that way. Does a jargon-heavy thought exercise help ordinary, non-English-major people appreciate, understand, or enjoy literature any more? Or is it just about people within a exclusive little domain trying to impress each other? An intellectual circle jerk, if you’ll forgive the vulgarity? Further, it seemed like the point of these “critical theories” was often to tear a text down and show what was wrong with it, rather than admiring what was good and valuable and true in it, and that simply rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, yes, we all know Hemingway was a horrible sexist with a whole raft of psychological issues, but we’re still reading him, right? Why is that, if he and everything he stood for was so terrible? That’s the question the “theorists” never seemed to have an answer for. I didn’t want to destroy the traditional literary canon, I wanted to know why it was canon in the first place… to find the beauty in it. And to share that with others.

I’m pretty sure Wallace Stegner probably felt the same way.

Maybe this is all a rationalization built upon 20 years of hindsight. Certainly I remember being hurt when I started getting the polite “no, thank you” form letters from the handful of programs I applied to. And I was utterly freaked out to be without any clear direction for the first time in my life. But there was also a part of me that was relieved. And that speaks volumes about what I really wanted, or at least didn’t want, doesn’t it? Maybe. Maybe I just didn’t want to put in the effort.

I wonder sometimes if I gave up too easily. If I got lazy or scared or simply discouraged. Maybe I should’ve acted when the professor who taught my Stegner class offered to pull some strings on my behalf with a guy he knew at Louisiana State. If nothing else, taking that path might’ve helped me avoid a decade of floundering until I finally staggered into something that could be called a career. Or maybe not. Maybe I would’ve ended up a decade down a road I really didn’t want to be on, and then I really would have been in a pickle…

Just some of the things I think about when I’m walking in the rain and see a little balcony with French doors, and for just a moment it seems like I can feel the gravitational pull of other lives unlived, tugging at the membrane that forever holds them out of reach.

 

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The Sounds of Halloween

When I was a kid, my dad always made big plans for Halloween. We had the paper skeletons in the windows and the jack-o-lanterns on the front porch, but he wanted to do something more impressive. Of course, this was the 1970s, long before there was a seasonal Halloween super store on every corner and Hollywood-style special-effects gadgets available to the public. If you wanted something more than, well, paper skeletons and jack-o-lanterns, you had to figure out how to make it yourself. Like the time a neighbor of ours turned his barn into a “haunted attraction,” or, as we called ’em back then, a spook alley. (Basically, he would lead neighborhood kids on a twisty path through the barn while older kids in rubber fright masks jumped out from behind farm equipment and hay bales to scare the little ones. It was pretty primitive compared to what you could do these days, but it was effective.)

Dad’s ideas weren’t quite so grandiose as that. He wasn’t the sort to try and organize a small army of young helpers; instead his ideas focused on things he could do by himself. For example, he used to talk about getting a refrigerator box from Mortensen’s Furniture Store, painting it to look like a coffin, and setting it up on the front porch, so he could “rise” for the trick-or-treaters. Then there was his idea to put together a Headless Horseman outfit and ride our ghostly white horse Thunder through the dark subdivision streets behind our house, just so he could be seen. Sadly, neither of those schemes ever went anywhere. Dad worked the afternoon shift back in those days  — 2 to 11 PM — so he often wasn’t around on Halloween night.

But one of his ideas that did come to fruition was to rig up a speaker in the front-room window and play a record of spooky sound effects to set the mood for trick-or-treaters as they approached the house. As I recall, the record included the usual Halloween-ish fare like rattling chains, moans, and creaking doors, and also since this was in the post-Star Wars late ’70s, there were some “spacey” sounds like flying saucers landing and rayguns zapping. And somewhat incongruously, there was the sound of a giant gong ringing. I myself never found that to be especially frightening — I associated it with the old movies I saw on TV, actually — but based on the reaction of one small child, at least, I may have been wrong about that.

I remember sitting on the couch the Halloween we played that record, looking out the window as the kid timidly mounted the front steps of our house. His mother waited back on the sidewalk for him, and thinking about it with an adult’s perspective, I realize this was probably a big night for him… the first time he’d had the courage to venture out on his own a bit, perhaps the first time his mom had loosened the apron strings enough to let him do it. The kid had to stand on his tippytoes and stretch out his index finger to reach the doorbell… and by coincidence, just at the instant he pressed the button, that gong crashed out of the speaker and rolled into the night. The kid seemed to contract into himself like an accordion as he pivoted on one foot and ran screaming back to his mother. My own mother opened the front door and tried to lure him back for his candy, but the kid was too traumatized to set foot anywhere beyond the edge of our front lawn. I didn’t know whether to laugh or feel sorry for him. And now, over 30 years later, I really hope our inadvertent prank didn’t set back his development somehow.

You know, it’s odd… as many childhood relics as I can easily lay my hands on, I have no idea whatever happened to that record. I imagine my mom has it tucked away some place, or at least I hope she does. Because I really did love it. Not for the sound effects, fun though they were. But they were only one side of the LP. No, what I really loved was the ghost story on the other side of the album, which was like an old-time radio show with actors and sound effects painting creepy, hair-raising pictures in our minds. I must’ve listened to that side of the album a thousand times, even well after the month of October was over, giving myself a good case of the creeps in the middle of the summertime.

I don’t know what made me think of that record earlier this week. It’s probably been decades since I’ve seen or heard it. But some confluence of the decorations around the house or the movies I’ve been watching to get in the seasonal mood, or perhaps just the slanting, guttering light and fragile warmth of an October day… something jarred loose an old memory. And so, without even recalling the title of this ancient piece of ephemera, I started googling… and as ever, I found myself utterly amazed by what you can find out there in the back alleys and hole-in-the-wall curiosity shoppes that comprise the InterWebs.

It turns out I’m not the only one with fond memories of this record, as it was ridiculously easy to track down. It was called Halloween Horrors: The Sounds of Halloween (and Other Useful Effects), released in 1977 by A&M Records, serial number SP-3152, with cover art by a guy named Gary Meyer. And here it is:

Halloween Horrors_LP_front-cover

And here’s the back cover:

Halloween Horrors_LP_back-cover

I even found a version without the credits, so you can appreciate that fantastic illustration:

Halloween Horrors_LP_back-cover-no-credits

Isn’t that great? I love this album’s artwork, and I now recall spending a lot of time studying it as a boy. These illustrations are, to me, the very essence of Halloween: not the intense, deeply disturbing stuff that haunted attractions and horror films have turned into, but more the decrepit-house-on-the-hill Gothic sort of thing.

And now, here’s the most unexpected find of all, the piece de resistance… the actual story from the album, digitized and YouTubed for our modern convenience:

Children of the ’80s ought to pay especially close attention as they listen to that. Does the voice of the gas station attendant sound familiar? It should… that’s Peter Cullen, who played Optimus Prime in the old Transformers cartoon and continues to bring life to that character in the Michael Bay films today! As I said, the things you can discover out there on the Web…

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And Now for Something…

monty-python_2014

When I was about fourteen or thereabouts, my best friend was a kid named Kurt Stephensen, who lived a couple doors up the street from me. I suspect this convenient proximity was the major reason we became friends in the first place, but no matter… we shared a lot of good times at a fairly pivotal age, the time when we’re most open to discovering and adopting new tastes. While I can’t speak to any influence I might have had on him, I know he contributed a great deal to my developing aesthetic, particularly in the areas of music and comedy.

I don’t recall which of us was the first to become seriously obsessed with comedy as a thing, a fandom, to use a modern term that didn’t exist when I was fourteen. Possibly we came to that place independently, and our mutual interest in it was one of the things we bonded over. But however it happened, there was a period when Kurt and I collected and swapped comedy routines like other kids collected baseball cards or comic books. George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, and Robin Williams were our heroes, their records and VHS concert tapes our totems. They were our mentors in wordplay, attitude, and innuendo, our spirit-guides to the often baffling adult world we were still grappling to fully comprehend, and frankly they were our relief valves, too. Their irreverent voices and funhouse-mirror perspectives — not to mention their naughtiness and outright vulgarity — were a transgressive antidote to the alienation we often felt growing up in buttoned-down, uptight Mormon Utah.

And then there was… Monty Python.

Kurt was very definitely the one who introduced me to the seminal British comedy troupe. I’d never heard of them; in fact, my ignorance of them was so complete that the first time he mentioned their name, I asked, “Who the hell is he?,” mistakenly believing this Monty person to be a single individual. My familiarity with British comedy at the time consisted of Benny Hill and a couple of decade-old sitcoms that were running on our local PBS affiliate, Good Neighbors (a.k.a. The Good Life) and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (all of which I loved, incidentally). Monty Python’s Flying Circus was on PBS as well (very late at night, I might add!), and at Kurt’s urging, I checked it out.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of the show at first. I’m not ashamed to admit that I flat-out didn’t understand much of it. Many sketches didn’t strike me as funny so much as just plain weird. But the bits that connected… oh, those were good. And the Python movies — Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — were much better, in my opinion, especially Holy Grail, which still has the power to reduce me to tears. Gradually, with time, repeated viewings, and a deepening grasp of British history and culture (not to mention my own), I too became a Python fan… although nothing they’ve done has ever made me laugh quite as hard as the time my old buddy Kurt, with a wickedly mischievous gleam in his eye, recited Eric Idle’s “Penis Song” verbatim.

I’ve been reminiscing about those days with Kurt a lot this week, ever since Sunday afternoon when Anne and I saw Monty Python Live (Mostly), the last of 10 on-stage performances the surviving Pythons delivered this month in London. No, we didn’t hop a plane and go to London in person (although that would’ve been awesome); the show was broadcast in real time to movie theaters all across the globe, so we were able to see it from the comfort of our regular cinema in suburban Utah, which is pretty awesome itself, when you think about it. And more than a little absurd, too. Our species has devised this amazing 21st-century communications technology that enables us to beam a high-definition video signal around the world, and we’re using it to watch 70-something-year-old comedians perform 45-year-old material. Absurd indeed!

As you may have gathered, Live (Mostly) was essentially a medley of greatest hits from the old Flying Circus program. Some of them updated to be a bit more current — for example, the aforementioned “Penis Song” now has new verses that celebrate the female genitalia as well — and the whole thing was stitched together by video clips from the old days and song-and-dance numbers performed by sexy young people. While many reviewers cast a jaundiced eye on the show, complaining that the Pythons were cynically rehashing the same old stuff to make a fast buck off nostalgic fans, I saw it as more a celebration of their legacy. Yes, the guys are old now, a long way from the peak of their powers (a line of 20 dancers performed John Cleese’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” moves, presumably because he no longer can). And yes, they blew their lines from time to time. And I can’t deny there was something ridiculous about seeing these antiquated duffers performing some of this material (John Cleese in drag was never a pretty sight, and it’s far worse now, while Eric Idle’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink routine is… odd… coming from a geezer). But there was also a pleasant warmth underpinning the proceedings, and my overall impression was that they were really enjoying working together again. My understanding is that the Pythons have had rocky personal relationships over the years, and there were rumors going into this show that they never got along and never liked each other, but you wouldn’t have known from the energy they were radiating on this stage. In particular, Cleese and Michael Palin — my favorites of the bunch, for what it’s worth — had the easy fellowship of people who’ve been through thick and thin and come out the other side with a shared wisdom and affection for each other.

A number of surprise guest appearances, from Stephen Hawking to Warwick Davis, enlivened the show, and even the late Graham Chapman, the sixth Python, who died way back in 1989, was present in the form of video clips from the old days. Of the five surviving Pythons, Eric Idle was the most polished, which is no surprise as he’s been more or less constantly immersed in the old material for years, between his solo tours (Anne and I saw him in person a few years back) and his adaptation of Holy Grail into a musical stage show, Spamalot!. Michael Palin retains his boyish demeanor and energy, but occasionally seemed a little flustered, especially during his signature “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. (Honestly, though, that one always had a manic air to it; it’s really not one of my favorite Python routines.) Terry Gilliam seemed rather uncomfortable being in the spotlight after many years behind the camera as a film director, but then, his contributions always were primarily behind the scenes anyhow. (He was the animator behind all the warped little interstitials that have always been a Python trademark.)

It was Cleese and Terry Jones who appeared the creakiest to my eye, and they were the ones who notably blew their lines a few times (causing Cleese to ask “Where were we?” to an uproarious response). But this show wasn’t about getting the lines right; I daresay the audience knows them better than the Pythons at this point anyhow. This show was about seeing the band together again, for one last time. (Supposedly this was the final time the Pythons ever plan to perform together.) Even Carol Cleveland, the so-called “Python girl” who appeared in so many of their classic sketches and, most memorably, played Zoot, the sexy nun who menaces the chaste Sir Galahad in Holy Grail, showed up to do her parts. (She still has fabulous legs!)

In the end, Live (Mostly) was like a family reunion. Hearing “The Lumberjack Song” and “Spam” and “The Dead Parrot Sketch” for the umpteenth time was pleasurable not because of the material itself, but — like those stories of our parents’ first meeting, or Uncle Joe’s war exploits — because we find value in the ritual of telling the familiar old stories, and of spending time with the tellers. And when the show wrapped up with a bittersweet rendition of the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” I was both smiling and a bit teary-eyed. It felt like Anne and I had witnessed something truly historic… the end of an era. The last opportunity we’d ever have to re-enact that ritual. I’m glad we chose to take it.

It’s been a long journey from my old buddy Kurt’s basement…

 

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Just for Fun…

…I tracked down and scanned a photo of my favorite-ever Halloween costume I mentioned in the previous entry:

Halloween, 1979.

This was taken at my old elementary school during the student costume parade (do they even do that anymore?) in October 1979. I was in fifth grade, 10 years old, and this would be the last year I went trick-or-treating… the last full-blown costume I wore until I became an adult and started going to costume parties and rediscovered the joy of dressing up and role-playing. It was the best costume ever.

I also posted up some more fun vintage stuff tonight at my Flickr photostream. If you’re curious…

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