Tuesday, March 17, 2020


The last of my father Whitie’s brothers passed away last week. His name was Don.  He was the youngest of the four Newland Boys. He died of cancer. He had licked it once before, but not this time. The second youngest brother, Chuck, was the first of the four to go. Like his mother before him, he died of cancer in his sixties. The eldest brother, my Uncle Red, also died of cancer at seventy-five. And Whitie, the second-oldest brother, died at eighty, of cancer as well. You might speculate that it marks a hereditary trend.
With Uncle Don, near Apple Valley, Ohio, 2013, when he was 80. 
Reba Mae, my mother, always said that Don had been like a little brother to her. During World War II, when Whitie and his two other brothers were away in service—my dad in the Army and Red and Chuck in the Navy—my grandfather, Murel Newland, most surely at the behest of my grandmother, Alice Henry Newland, moved Whitie’s new bride out of the apartment she had rented “for the duration” and into their house in the four hundred block of North Defiance Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio, my home town. It wasn’t right, they argued, for her to be living alone as a newly married young woman. Her place was with her husband’s family while he was off at war.
Perhaps they thought she was too young—nineteen—too beautiful and too full of life to resist temptation for years on end. Or maybe they just couldn’t fathom how she could possibly be happy living alone when she was still so young. If so, they clearly hadn’t gotten to know her, because it was only with the greatest reticence that she finally went to live with them.
Don was the only brother still left at home. He was in grade school at the time. He went along with his dad to help with the preemptive move.  
My grandparents, and Don's father and mother, 
Murel and Alice Newland
Reba Mae came from a family with four siblings as well. She had an older brother, Gene, but she also had a sister, Marilyn, who was several years younger than Don, and a little brother, Kenny, who was a few years older. So she was used to being a bit like a second mother-type big sister, and Don was a quiet, likable kid who was content to tag along with her whenever she let him. My mother ended up living for three years with her in-laws while Whitie was overseas. She commuted fifteen miles each day to nearby Lima, Ohio, where she worked at the country’s most important military tank and amphibious vehicle factory, known as the Tank Depot. But having a kind, intelligent kid like Don around was a highlight in her home life when she was off work.
My Uncle Don was only sixteen years my senior. A generation of his own sandwiched between mine and my father’s. When you’re a little kid, sixteen years seems like a lot. But as you grow older, the relationship ends up being more like having an older brother than a young uncle. When he turned eighty, it was hard for me to imagine, even though I was already in my mid-sixties. I think it was for him too. Despite a string of health problems in his latter years, he always looked spry and fit and younger than his years. A few years ago, he told me, “You know, Dan, I’ve lived the longest of anybody in the family except Murel, a lot longer than poor Chuck, eight years longer than Bob (Red) and even a few years longer than your dad. The only one I still have to out-live is my dad.” He didn’t, but he at least tied. Both father and youngest son passed away at eighty-six, thirty-six years apart.
The family moved into that house on Defiance Street when Murel decided to leave the South End of Lima, where Red, Whitie and Chuck grew into their teens and thought of it as home. My grandfather moved the family to Wapakoneta after landing a job with the local office of the Western & Southern Life Insurance Company. For the older boys, it meant leaving behind their pals and their neighborhood and going to high school in a new place. But Don was almost fourteen years Red’s junior, so Wapakoneta was pretty much all he knew and became his home town.
Neil Armstrong's Blume HS senior photo
Don was a contemporary of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. That wouldn’t mean anything if Don were from, say, Butte, Montana, or Gnaw Bone, Indiana. But like Don, Neil was from Wapakoneta and they were, indeed, briefly at Blume High School together. After Neil landed on the moon, Red and Whitie liked to tell people that their little brother Don had played basketball with Neil in high school. And then as an aside, they would mutter, “Of course, Don was the team captain.” If you look at their birth dates, however, Neil was three or four four years older than Don, which means that if they did play together, Don would have been a freshman and Neil, part of the senior varsity. But it made for a good story and shows how proud Don’s two oldest brothers always were of him.
Actually, everyone was proud of him. In a family of rough and tumble hotheads, Don was different—quiet, soft-spoken, pensive, a reader, an intellectual, a deep thinker. There was a time when he was finishing high school that his mother began to worry about him. He grew even quieter than usual. He was preoccupied and sullen. And then one day, out of the blue, he told his parents that he’d had a calling and that he planned to go to college and to the Methodist seminary to become a pastor. My grandmother, who was a staunch Methodist, and my grandfather who was as well, but was also a member of the Gideon Society, couldn’t have been happier. It was not only that they were going to have a son who was a pastor, but also that Don would be the first in the family to go to the university.
I remember one summer when Don was at our house a lot. When I refer to “our house”, I’m talking about the house on North Defiance where Don and his brothers had lived when the family moved down to Wapakoneta from Lima. After the war, my grandfather sold that house to my father and built a much smaller one half a block away right at the corner of Defiance and Glynwood. So for Don, it was kind of like coming back home to come visit his older brother. I must have been about four and I can only imagine that Don was already studying at the university and was on summer break. Whitie had apparently talked his little brother into giving our house a much needed paint job so as to make a little “book money” for school. Don was handy and always enjoyed this type of work.
I liked watching him work, moving the ladder from one place to another, scraping off the peeling old paint and then brushing on smooth coats of pure white, stirring a powerful perfume of linseed oil into the air in the process. I followed him all around the property. Eventually, he said he had a gift for me. With that, he handed me a small, clean, but well-used trim brush, a peach can half-full of water and a short length of virgin wooden siding. He told me he needed me to “paint it” for him. He patiently showed me how, dipping the brush into the can of water and stroking it carefully onto the board, always with the grain, never against. As soon as it was dry, I was to brush on another coat. How many coats? As many as it took.
It was a ruse, I’m sure, to get me out from under foot, but I couldn’t have felt more empowered. Over and over I “painted” the wood, fascinated with how the water highlighted the grain, impatient for it to dry so that I could swab on another coat.
I think back now to how different his reaction was to that of, say, Whitie or my mother’s ever gruff father. Both of whom would have ordered me to get the hell out of the way and stop making a nuisance of myself. Don not only got me out from under foot but also made me feel useful and important in the process. When the day’s work was finished, he complimented me on the good work I’d done and said I could keep the brush. It was mine. I kept that brush in a little toy toolbox I got for Christmas or my birthday one year. I think I had it until I was in my teens.
That same summer, I believe, he promised my older sister Darla, who was about seven at the time, a trip to go rock-hunting. I tagged along. Darla was into rocks and insects right then. Her favorite insect was the praying mantis. Her favorite rocks were glassy quartz and smooth Ohio limestone. Don said he knew just where to find such stones.
Studebaker Champion
So one summer afternoon, he picked us up in a Studebaker Champion. I’m not sure whether the car was his or my grandfather’s because both men favored Studebakers for some years. Anyway, off we went on a road-trip, which to a four-year-old seemed like a great distance, but it was probably not far outside of town. At one point, we left the two-lane road and took a wide well-trodden gravel track that was flat for a time, but then steeply dropped and curved around until we were on the edge of a worked-out gravel pit. To me it looked like a wide, beautiful, bright green lake in the middle of a stark, lunar landscape. It was breath-taking and scary. On the other side of the water, I could see the old crew shanty. It had once, perhaps, been a tidy, neatly-constructed building, but it now was the stuff of ghost towns, the yellow paint peeling and powdery, the windows broken, the door standing open off its hinges. There could easily have been a picture of it next to the word “abandoned” in the dictionary.
While Don and Darla walked along the edge of the pit picking up a stone here and a stone there, rinsing the grey dust off of them in the green water, I stood alone, throwing pebbles in to hear them plunk. I eventually got bored and climbed back into the Studebaker for a nap. I awoke when Darla and Don came back to the car. I climbed down from the car and went back to the rear where they were standing and talking as they finished loading geological specimens into the trunk. Don’s patience and tolerance were again in evidence because he had let Darla take possession of every “pretty stone” she could find and the entire bed of the trunk was covered with rocks.
Now, Don, like his father before him, was already showing signs of becoming the heir apparent to the title of King of the Shortcut. And he said he knew one to leave the quarry by another route. He wanted to give us the grand tour. Only thing was, part of that shortcut went through the water in the shallows of the gravel pit and then up the other side to the road. For Darla, who was much more adventurous than I was, this was great fun!
Me, I was scared to death when the Studebaker rolled into the water and started moving across it. And my panic fully set in when the car, with the weight of the stones in the trunk, balked, hunkered down as if pulling through molasses, and then stalled out. Don tried several times to start it again, but it was no go.  In my own ever-dramatic mind, all was lost. This was the end of the line.
My confidence came back, however, when, without ever getting flustered, Don took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his trousers, climbed out into the shin-high water, opened the hood and began meticulously checking everything in the electrical circuit, blowing on this, drying that with his hanky, and finally, getting back into the driver’s seat and pressing the starter. The car ground then roared, to our gleeful cheers, and off we went through the rest of the stretch of water, up the grade and back onto the road home.
I remember attending Don’s first sermon. It was part of his applied seminary training. I must have been about nine or ten at the time. It was during a service at the Grace Methodist Church, downtown on West Market Street in Lima, that Ohio city’s main east-west avenue. I was impressed with church services as a little boy—the candles, the stained glass, the music, the images and the ritual—and this was only the second church I’d ever been in, the other one being the original, century-old First Methodist Church in Wapakoneta, located where the “new” Auglaize County Library stands today. Grace seemed like a vast cathedral by comparison and I was entranced. It was so thrilling to see my uncle, dressed in his vestments, come up the aisle from the back of the nave to the altar, his acolytes in tow, as the pipe organ made the entire sanctuary vibrate with the playing of the Prelude and Introit.
The whole family was sitting in one long pew. My grandparents, my parents, my sister and little brother, my other two uncles and their wives and kids. It was a major family event and we were all dressed in our Sunday finest. I think it was spring-time, or perhaps early fall. I only remember that it was a crisp, bright, blue morning full of diaphanous sunlight when we emerged and shook hands with Don on the steps of the church.
Old First Methodist Church in Wapakoneta
I also recall Don’s wedding to my Aunt Irma (née) Benny. It was the first wedding I’d been to. I was very young. But if I remember correctly, it was at the old First Methodist Church in Wapak. I can’t remember a great deal, but I do recall Don and Irma standing at the altar, exchanging vows and rings and then walking up the main aisle when the ceremony was over.
I also remember the excitement of the reception, which, I think, was held at the Wapakoneta Women’s Club—a former Presbyterian church and today the Auglaize County Historical Society Museum. There was a table with neatly wrapped wedding gifts on it, and another one bearing a small buffet. On the buffet table, there was a tray on which, among other things, there were English-type mint patties. They were white and pastel green and pink, and they reminded me of the silky gowns of the bride and the women in the wedding party. They were soft and smooth and melted in your mouth, and while everybody else was busy chatting, I ate so many that I spent the rest of the day with a stomach ache.
Soon Don and Irma were starting a family of their own and there were three new additions to our clan of cousins—Wes, Tim and Todd—who came in sequence after my little brother, Dennis James. That meant that we were now twelve cousins at every family event, since each of the four Newland Boys had three children, ten boys and two girls in total.
With Uncle Don and Aunt Irma near Apple Valley, 2013
Don’s missions as a pastor carried him to other parts of Ohio, always several hours by car from Wapakoneta, so we saw him, Irma and the boys seldom, but we always made up for lost time when we did, at Christmas, Thanksgiving and summer reunions. Christmas and Thanksgiving were always held at Grandpa Murel and Grandma Alice’s house, but the venues for the other reunions were set for someplace more or less equidistant between Wapakoneta and wherever Don happened to be pastor. As a result, we visited parks and picnic grounds in places none of us had ever known before and enjoyed each other’s company in novel surroundings.     
I doubt anyone was more studious than Don in his regular studies at Ohio Northern (a Methodist university) or later at the seminary. I remember him telling me once that his reading load in the latter part of his seven years of combined studies had been over two thousand pages a week. Although his brothers were fond of saying that their little brother was “a preacher”, Don was, in the truest sense of the word, a theologian. And his curiosity about not just religion and spiritual belief systems, but also about the world at large meant that he continued to be an absolutely prodigious reader throughout the rest of his life. The older he got, the more avidly interested he became in history, social injustice, civil rights, American politics, international relations, current affairs and science. And he did some very heavy reading on all of them.
My sister Darla and I were to become known as “the other liberals” in the family. Don was the first and unlike many Americans, his liberal mindset only broadened with age. Reba Mae always sought to steer the conversation away from politics whenever Don got together with older brother Whitie, because it was sure to end in heated debate.
Even long after retirement, Don still campaigned vigorously for the Democratic Party, often cold-calling door to door—something at which his work as a small-town pastor had given him a great deal of practice—to get people to get out and go to the polls. He and I shared a hardly unique admiration for John and Bobby Kennedy. But we also held the often unpopular opinion that Jimmy Carter was one of only a handful of truly great statesmen and diplomats of modern American history.
More than a preacher, Don was, indeed, a pastor. He was much more interested in his role as a spiritual and social counsellor than he was in the church ritual, and he had no interest whatsoever in the internal politics of the Methodist hierarchy. He was happiest working with youth and at his most uncomfortable with the projects of the local church authorities.
The church, to his mind, should be a vehicle for helping people with their problems and their existential doubts, not merely a Sunday venue in which to “practice” a certain cult within the broader Christian faith. He sought, above all, to demonstrate his humanity. He never waffled, never indulged in bullshit. In questions of faith, he knew that there were no absolutes except what each individual took in his or her heart as unquestionable truths. Religious dogma played no part in his relations with others. What he didn’t “know” from the standpoint of religious beliefs, he admitted, and he was quick to confess that he was as full of doubts as any other human being. The point of religion was to be of palpable help and comfort to the individual and to the community.  
The older he got the more, I think, church bureaucracy got him down. I recall once when I was back from Argentina on a visit, he had planned to get to Wapakoneta to see me. Pastoral duties kept him from it, so he called. We didn’t get to see each other often over the years, but whenever we did, we always had hours’ worth of topics to share. Even when the motives for our get-togethers were, as they increasingly tended to be, deaths in the family.  
He opened that call by asking me what I was doing.
“Well,” I said, “I’m thirty-nine and still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.”
Don laughed and said, “I’m fifty-five and still trying to figure out the same thing, Dan. And I think what I want to be is retired.”
Like most true intellectuals, Don was also imminently practical and valued the benefits of hard work. Like Jimmy Carter, the former president that we both admired, Don developed considerable skills as a home builder and remodeler. He built, remodeled and/or directed the construction of several homes of his own as well as helping others, including two of his sons, build theirs. He learned a great deal about all facets of home-building and very clearly took pride and pleasure in a construction project well-done.
That was the kind of life he sought to build for himself and his family as well, a sound structure, built on solid ground, with the integrity to provide peace of mind and the resilience to last forever.    

Saturday, February 29, 2020


For the past month or so, I’ve been focusing, when I’m not busy with my day job, on taking back my woods in Andean Patagonia. When I say my woods, I’m taking attributions that I don’t deserve, in a strictly legal sense. But in terms of my intimate relationship with this piece of land—seventy-five acres of natural forest adjoining my own acre and a half of woodland—in a very real emotional, spiritual and physical sense, it might as well be mine, since I’ve been its private warden for the past twenty-five years, fifteen of those with an actual power of attorney from the owners, a family-operated Argentine development company.

Company headquarters is more than a thousand miles away in Buenos Aires, and the owners have always appreciated my dedication and initiative. For New Year they send me wine or champagne and sometimes when the CEO or his brother come with their vintage Ferrari or Maserati or Alpha Romeo to participate in the Vintage Car 1000-mile Race in the Andes, they’ll stop by for a visit or invite me to a meal.
I negotiate the work required directly with the CEO of the firm. I bill the company for the labor and materials required to keep internal roads open and cleared of fallen trees and to mend fences and gates. But I have never charged for my own administrative services. I never wanted it to turn into a job. I see it more as a pleasant and useful mission that floods me with joy and fulfillment.
My loyal assistant, the one who puts together a crew every time there’s hard work to do, is Daniel. I’ve known Daniel ever since he was a wild little pseudo-bandido horseman of fourteen. He’s forty now.
Daniel grew up in a home with no father and several sisters. His two brothers were younger, so it fell to him to help out his mother from an early age. He was already working as a horse trekking guide in the mountains when he was twelve.
He could very well be resentful, and whine about how hard he had it as a kid, but he isn’t and he doesn’t. He’s grateful that he has always lived in the great outdoors. He seldom goes to town and when he does, he feels out of place and jittery as a dog in a canoe. Everything he has, he has earned. And yet he maintains a dignified gratitude for those of us who sought to help him along the way.
He is a good father. He has attempted to ensure that his own four children never want for anything, but that they learn the value of honest work. He became a father when he was nineteen. I remember when he brought the baby, Matías, to show him to me. Now Matías is in his early twenties. He works daily at his father’s side and is just as skilled, serious, resilient and reliable as Daniel has always been.
Daniel had started doing some work for me when he was seventeen. Besides being a highly skilled horseman and equestrian trainer, he had a natural talent for rural work—gathering and preparation of firewood, posting and fencing, tree-felling and surgery, land-clearing and lawn care. He did each of these jobs with the same meticulous quality. But his lack of confidence in himself meant that he usually worked for someone else.
I saw how good he was at what he did and encouraged him to step up and work on his own, to do his own contracting. I didn’t have any more than part-time work for him and couldn’t afford a full-time assistant. But after about a year of getting to know him, I bought him his first chainsaw. He was grateful but couldn’t understand why I would do something like that. I told him it was important to me to see valuable people advance and that I knew all too well how hard it was to be on your own from an early age, to be working on a tightrope with no safety net below.  We’ve been friends ever since.
That year he started cutting and splitting firewood for the neighbors and from then on his business as a top rural hand began to flourish. Today he, his eldest son and his two younger brothers have honed their skills in fencing, gate-building, well-digging, leech-bed construction, masonry, electrical installations, plumbing, tree-surgery, logging and carpentry. They seldom want for work.
Daniel and Matías act as my assistant woodland wardens as well. They help me keep the place under surveillance and to run out poachers who come to steal timber, topsoil and natural granite flagstone. We’ve been effective. There are fewer such marauders all the time. And the forest now is usually a quiet, solitary place.
For the last couple of years, I’ve leaned a great deal on Daniel and Matías, while recovering from cardiac electric shock treatment (known as cadioversion) for chronic arrhythmia and then from a fall in which I punctured a lung and nearly died. The recovery was slow and sometimes over a rough two years, I felt like I would never be the same again. But this year, I’m back!  I feel great. I no longer have breathing or heart issues. And I’m taking control of the forest again.
For the last month or so we’ve been taking advantage of the good Patagonian summer weather to hack and saw our way through crushed-down underbrush and fallen trees. Last year’s was a harsh, long winter, and a major snow in the middle of it had catastrophic results in the beech forests, where, in soft ground, century-old woodland sentinels heaved over and fell under the crushing weight of three feet of wet, heavy snow. They hauled smaller trees to the ground with them and smashed the undergrowth below into a matted tangle.
Spring and the first few weeks of Patagonian summer (December through March) were unseasonably cold and wet this year, and we all ended up burning the remainder of our winter firewood stock. It wasn’t until the weather got decent enough to get out and start gathering windfall timber again that we could ascertain the extent of the casualties among vintage beeches.
Daniel and brother David clear a fallen
Dozens of trees were down, some split down the middle, others, especially the ones in the swampy bottom land, uprooted completely.  And a number of them had taken out internal roads and fences with them. Virtually all of them were still green and vital. It will take years for their wood to dry out enough to be fit to burn in our stoves. But in the mammoth trajectories of their falls, sometimes covering the equivalent of half a football field or more, they dragged down a lot of deadwood with them.
So after organizing the clearing and fence-mending operations with Daniel and his crew, I have returned to a happy task that, for a couple of years, I’ve had to depend on my assistants for—the gathering, sawing and stacking of the ten cords of firewood that my wife and I will need to get through the next winter. And to do it before the rain and snow begin in May. In my ’95 Toyota Hilux, that’s about thirty or so truckloads, and I’m thoroughly enjoying every single trip.
Typically, I do this work in the last hours of late afternoon. We’re so far west that in early summer, sunlight lasts until nearly ten at night. Now, even in the waning days of summer, it still remains light until eight-thirty. So this leaves me time to go to the woods for two or three hours once I’ve finished my day’s writing work.
There is something fascinating and magical about being alone with your thoughts in the woods at that hour of the day, watching how the dense, tangled landscape changes as the sun drops lower and its acutely oblique and golden light casts eerie shadows and spotlights objects that one would otherwise never notice.
The hoarse, stuttering whine of my chainsaw chewing through fallen timber, the ring of my machete opening a path or the thonk of my axe biting into wood are the only sounds that split the silence, except for the warbles, screeches and twitters of birds gathering their last sustenance before roosting for the night. And then, as the light fades to dusk, and the night breeze rises cooling my sweat as the sun sinks behind Mount Capilla, there is only the clonk, groan and rustle of the branches and the first hoots, hisses and cackles of the owls that own the forest night.
As my truck climbs out of the bottom land to where the woods clings to the mountainside above, in the shadows of the retiring day, I see something large gracefully rise and soar ahead of me along the road that burrows through a tunnel of pines and hardwoods. At first I mistake it for a buzzard hawk straggler. But then I realize that the wingspan is too wide, the flight too ponderous. And then on a rise where the waning light still reaches, I see it clearly and stop.
I shut off the engine, set the brake and climb gingerly out of the cab. It’s a great horned owl. A juvenile, still a soft tawny grey, its head round and horns small. Its wingspan was perhaps a yard wide. But by the time he is full grown, that span will reach four and a half feet or more.
I lament not having a better camera with me. The one in my cellphone will never capture him in this light. But perhaps it’s better. I just stand still, afraid to move for fear of spooking him. But he’s not scared and we are both there for a long moment, contemplating each other, he sitting on a low branch, his pupils so dilated that his eyes look black, and I, looking up at him, breath held, standing stock still behind the open door of my truck.
He bobs his head, walks back and forth on the limb like a parrot on a perch, gazing at me as if wondering who and what I am. Then he nods my way again, and makes a gentle, throaty cooing sound before letting out a cackle and soaring off deep into the forest.
As I climb back in behind the wheel of the Hilux, start the engine and turn on the lights before heading on down to the gate, I can’t help thinking that the owl’s visit was no accident, that he maybe just dropped by to say, “Welcome back.”

Thursday, February 13, 2020


Take me back to Chicago
Lay my soul to rest
Where my life was free and easy
Remember me at my best
Take me back to Chicago
Where music was all I had
I tried to be good as I could
And sometimes that made me sad
Take me back to Chicago, to Chicago
Why don't you take me back
Take me back, take me back...
Lyrics from "Take Me Back" by Chicago

Music has always meant a lot to me. Even when I was little, before I realized that I too could be a musician. I spent hours on dark winter days playing my mother’s old 78-rpms on the console radio-record player we had back then. I recall that it was a lovely piece of maple-wood furniture with a speaker at the bottom, covered by a cloth screen, through which you could see the tubes glowing an eerie orange behind it. Doing their magic, in the days before printed circuits and transistors, to reproduce, endlessly, the sounds that great musicians, some living, some dead, had created one day in a studio far away.

On the left there was a narrow door, which, when opened, revealed two shelves to hold records. My mother’s collection was enormous, so only her favorites were kept there. The rest of her albums—big, heavy, scrapbook-like affairs to hold perhaps ten or twelve seventy-eights with one tune per side, were stacked high on a shelf in the spare storage closet. And finally, in the middle, the console featured two drawers. They rolled out to reveal two separate turntables, one at the bottom for 78-rpms and one on top for the much newer 45-rpms.
Seventy-eights stored every kind of music available from classical to swing, Dixie and country. The 45-rpm singles were newfangled and most often contained rock and roll and romantic ballads. My sister and I wouldn’t have any of those until later, when Whitie, my father, started buying them used and in bulk from Hank Perrin, a friend of his who leased and repaired jukeboxes.

However, the latest invention in data storage (which we just knew as music back then) was the 33-rpm LP (long play), which could hold entire albums on a single record! But we didn’t have any of those yet either. They had only hit the market in 1948, and upgrades didn’t happen nearly as fast as they do today. It was the fifties in Wapakoneta, Ohio, and buying an innovative new “hi-fi” on which to play LPs seemed like a luxury we couldn’t afford. By the time we finally got one for Christmas one year, my sister Darla was already studying music, and the first LPs she bought weren’t pop or jazz but classical: Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’ First, Schubert’s Eighth (The Unfinished), Greatest Overtures, and so on. It was amazing. You could get an entire symphony onto just one disk! I was enthralled. My very own first classical LP was the “Gay Paris” music of Jacques Offenbach, a Christmas gift from my Grandma Alice (Whitie’s mother). I treasured it and, at age about ten, loved it as much for the lively music as for the lovely legs, fancy garters and ruffled panties of the can-can dancers on the cover. 
But while I was younger, in the mid-fifties, it was the collection of jazz and swing that my mother, Reba Mae, had been accumulating since she started making her own money waitressing at seventeen. Paul Whiteman, Stan Kenton, the Dorsey Brothers (together and separate), Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Glenn Miller, the Andrews Sisters, Sinatra, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, all of the major exponents of what was generically called jazz, plus some real rarities, like composer George Gershwin conducting his Rhapsody in Blue, with his friend and greatest interpreter, Oscar Levant, at the piano.
It was amazing stuff, and I was addicted from the outset.
Those early days of digesting my mother’s seventy-eights instilled a deep love of jazz and swing in me, just as Leonard Bernstein’s Children’s Concert, sometimes televised on Sundays, encouraged me in my love of classical music. By the time I was old enough to play an instrument, I knew that I wanted to be actively connected to both musical genres.
I was fortunate enough to have a chance to indulge my love of symphonic music as an amateur percussionist—although I played everything, my specialty and first love were kettledrums (technically known as timpani)—with our extraordinarily good high school concert band, with the All-Area symphonic band, at an Ohio University summer clinic for gifted child-musicians—where I was head percussionist in both the symphonic orchestra under the direction of maestro Myron Pierce and in the symphonic band under the baton of the former director of the First Marine Band (known as the presidential band since the era of John Philip Sousa) Lieutenant Colonel William Santleman—and at the Ohio State University, where, during my first and only year there, I was the timpanist with the Buckeye Scarlet Concert Band.
But I had the privilege of earning my living for almost a decade as a jazz drummer. Included in the repertoire of the groups I worked with over those years was everything from New Orleans-style Dixieland and classic swing to avant garde and fusion music. To my surprise, since I was a jazzman at heart, I grew ever more attracted to “fusion”, the crossover of jazz and rock. And although I collected LPs of both modern jazz and Dixieland, I also began being seduced by the fresh new sounds of the jazz-rock hybrids: Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, Chase, Ramsey Lewis, Caldera, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Weather Report, and so on. And although we did a lot of straight commercial jazz in the places and in the bands I played with, the youngest of us were all starting to experiment with the bold fusion music sound.
By the time I was in the Army Bands in the early seventies, fusion music was solidly ensconced on the music scene. And for the year that I was assigned to the 72nd Army Band at Ft. MacArthur in Los Angeles, before being reassigned to the 30th Army Band in Germany, we played a lot of it with the stage band and jazz combos we formed. This was no martial music cum commercial gig. The Vietnam draft was still in full swing, so many of the conscripts and three-year Regular Army musicians I worked with, had been, just weeks before, playing on Hollywood sound stages or in LA nightclubs. And many of the others, like myself, were culled from the music scene in the heartland. If you were a musician and had to be in service, this was the way to do it.
But first, we all, and I mean all, had to attend the Army Element of the Navy School of Music in Norfolk, Virginia. When I say all, I mean even guys like my then-best friend, Paul Dickey, who had a doctorate in liturgical music and could have given master classes in harmony and theory to the entire teaching staff at that training facility. Oddly enough, even with all of the highly-educated monster talents that surrounded me there, I was “accelerated out” and awarded a “Meritorious Spec 4” rating. (For those unfamiliar with Army ranks, specialist 4 is the same pay grade as a corporal but is given to those with some specialization other than or in addition to combat). So with only about three months in the Army, I had already advanced four pay grades. I can only put this down to the facts that I was a competent percussionist in concert, marching and stage band, I had extensive training from my high school days—as a student and afterward as an instructor—in precision marching drill, and I had worked in a music store where I learned a great deal about instruments, parts and inventory.
This gave me some latitude since although I had to attend performance classes—basically band practice—and percussion lessons, with a guy who was a brilliant performer but, unfortunately, a less than adept teacher, I also had a regular job in the instrument issue department. Since I was treated as staff rather than trainee, I got more three-day passes than the regular students did. My then-girlfriend (later to be wife), Virginia, was studying at Bowling Green State University back in Ohio, so every time I could get a few days off, I would fly back on military standby—which meant hanging around an airport in your uniform until you could grab a no-show’s seat on a plane—spend a pleasant twenty-four to thirty-six hours and hitch a flight back.
Anyway, I got to thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I was working out. Whenever I do that, I always accompany the training with “my music”: Billy Joel, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton, Joseph Cotton, and so on. But lately, I’ve added some of my old fusion music favorites, since on a trip back to Cleveland a couple of years ago, I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and bought up every CD album I could of great fusion bands that I’d once collected on vinyl but now had no place to play them. The preponderance of that less than frugal purchase was made up of early Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears.
I mention all of this, because, in spite of my musical bent, I never cease to be amazed at just how powerful a trigger music is for memory. For someone like me, perhaps as powerful even as smell or taste. For instance, I can never hear Emerson Lake and Palmer without seeing my Army buddy Dave Zeiss, standing in his barracks cubicle at Ft. MacArthur in front of his Pioneer stereo with its impressive woofers and tweeters, hollering, “Hey, Newland, get your skinny ass over here. You’ve just gotta hear this bitchin’ sound!” And then standing there counting the beat out for me like a symphony conductor, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two, as Greg Lake set the crazy new rhythm for the EL&P innovation, Tank. This was new, different, experimental and we were intoxicated. Zeiss introduced me to it, and it’s Dave I see when I hear it. Not a memory. I see him, with his ornery face and crooked comical grin, just as he was then, even though we never saw each other again after that year almost fifty years ago.
So just like that, the other day when I was working out, I put on an early Chicago album, and just as soon as the first chords of Fancy Colors played, in my mind, it was 1970 and I was on a road trip with another Army buddy, this one from the School of Music, a wiry, rangy, tow-headed kid called Jim Farley. And as the album played on through Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is, Waiting for the Break of Day and a slew of other early Chicago hits, the drive kept playing out like a road trip movie in my brain.
Farley and I weren’t close friends. We didn’t hang out. But we were both percussionists and so spent a lot of time in drum-lines together. When you’re in the Army, you’re with people from all over the country. So when you meet up with somebody from your own neck of the woods, there tends to be a natural bond beyond the general one provided by the uniform. That’s what happened with Farley and me when he found out I was from Wapakoneta and I found out he was from Troy, down by Dayton and less than an hour from my home town.
Anyway, there was this time when we both had a three-day pass at the same time. He asked me if I was going home and I said yes. He said, “I’m flying home and then bringing my car back down to Norfolk. Want to come along and help me drive?”
“Sure!” I said, since I was always up for driving. I hadn’t had a car of my own since I joined the service. I still drove, but in my friend Paul Dickey’s Olds 98. He and some other friends and I went a lot of places together in the Norfolk area. Paul hated to drive (and was a terrible driver) and I was the only one he trusted to drive his big shiny Olds.
I liked Farley. He knew how to get around the Army chickenshit. His old man had been a lifer, a now retired infantry master sergeant. Farley didn’t like being in service and had no intention of following in his dad’s footsteps, but he was in his element on a military base. Even though I outranked him, he had a lot to teach me about getting by in the Army.
So Farley and I hitched a military standby to Dayton together. He introduced me to his dad at the airport. I impressed him by saying, “Pleasure to meet you, Master Sergeant Farley,” and then I introduced them to my folks who were waiting for me.
We set a time to regroup, synchronized our watches and Farley said, “See you Sunday.”
There was no Google then, no driving instructions, no ETA for road travel. Farley had just looked at a map, reckoned the distance “as the crow flies” and said, “I figure eight and a half hours tops to get back.”
I had no idea so said, “Okay,” but then added, “Sure you don’t want to leave a little more time, just in case?”
“Nah,” he said, “We’ll be okay.” Then he laughed and said, “I’ve got a real fast car!”
We both had a great weekend with family, friends and girlfriends. I drove my mother’s car up to BGU to see Virginia and drove her down to Findlay for dinner at the Ft. Findlay Hotel restaurant and nightclub. It was one of the nicer clubs I’d played in before joining the Army, and a great place to eat. We dined on sirloin and Champale and dreamed. It was a romantic late autumn day and evening that made it all the harder to go back to Norfolk.
Sunday at home was great as well. I got to see Whitie and Reba Mae, my little brother Jim, who was a very cool, very hip fifteen then, and my sister Darla was down from her home in Cleveland as well. Reba Mae made us all a big family breakfast with eggs and pancakes and bacon, after which Whitie invited us all, as was his custom, to go to church, even though he knew Darla and I would decline. And when he and my mother got back after services, there was wonderful beef, potatoes and carrots in the crockpot for lunch, with lemon pie for dessert, and we all ate as a family.
My father and I were getting along better than we ever had before. It was something about my being in the Army. We’d never really had much in common before. At best, there was always a tense truce between us. But the military was an equalizer. He was a veteran tech-sergeant and I was an Army spec 4. There were things we shared that others didn’t. We were finally on common ground.
It was Whitie who drove me down to meet Farley in Troy. On the way down, he said, “Do you ever think about staying, Dan.”
“Staying in.”
“The Army? Hell no!” I said. And then added, “Why would you ask that, Dad. You hated being in the Army.”
“Well, it was the war. But it wasn’t all bad. Sometimes I think it was stupid to leave. I’d have been retired by now with a good pension and medical coverage for the whole family. There are worse jobs.”
“Not really my thing,” I said.
“You’ve got a couple more years in uniform. You may change your mind. Think about it.”
At Farley’s, Whitie helped me get my duffle out of the car and then gave me a hug. That wasn’t a common thing for him to do back then and it took me by surprise.
“I love ya, buddy,” he said, and I got an instant knot in my throat because it had always been hard for me to think he did.
Farley shook hands with his dad, gave him a comical salute and said, “See ya, Sarge!”
His car was by the curb and ready to go. It was a ’64 Impala, a kind of bluish pigeon-grey. It had been spring-jacked a little in the back and had dual chrome exhausts and mag wheels. He even had a pair of giant, fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. It had a three-twenty-seven engine and had been fitted with a Holley four-barrel carburetor. It was a sweet ride and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
It also had an eight-track tape-player, which was a super-cool accessory at the time. And like me, he was a fusion music fanatic. Over the weekend, he had bought some new Chicago and it was going to be our background from here to Norfolk until we knew every drum lick by heart.
At the outset on that Sunday evening, we were both in high spirits and the Chicago sound filled us with a kind of euphoria as we drove along smoking and joking and laughing. We stopped at a greasy spoon for delicious hamburgers and bad coffee. And a couple of hours later, we stopped again at a truck stop for good coffee and better pie.
“Want me to drive?” I asked.
“Sure. Mind if I catch a few zees?”
“No, go ahead. Music bother you?”
“Nah,” he said, “I can sleep through a mortar attack.”
I felt powerful behind the wheel of the Impala and at first I was just enjoying the music and the ride. But then, as we drove through the mountains of West Virginia toward Virginia, it started turning chilly and very dark.
The road wound and doubled back on itself again and again through the mountains in the middle of nowhere, and now it was starting to snow. A late autumn snow. Not much was accumulating, but it was coating the road with a slick icing and the combination of a light rear-end and a very powerful engine meant that I had to be very careful on the sharp curves not to fishtail into a slide and spin out. Chicago played on and Farley slept like a baby as I struggled to stay on the road.

We were making very poor time and I kept wondering how much further it was, precisely, to our destination.
The Impala got mileage similar to a Sherman tank and we had already stopped to gas up a couple of times before Farley turned the wheel over to me. Now, as we came out of a particularly dark, tortuous and desolate stretch, I saw a truck stop up ahead and decided to stop. The Impala needed gas and I needed coffee.
Farley woke up when I pulled up to the pump with the lights of the truck stop shining bright through the windshield.
“Where are we?” he asked, rubbing his eyes and yawning.
“Damned if I know.”
“What time is it?”
I pulled back my sleeve and looked at my Bulova. “Wow, three-thirty! Four and a half hours till formation.”
“Are we in Virginia?”
“I think so.”
“Damn, what were you doing while I was asleep, Newland, coasting?”
“Don’t even ask. You missed out on a doozy of a stretch in the middle of an ice and snow storm, in the middle of the mountains.”
“Well, let’s fill up and go inside and ask where we are,” he suggested.
Inside, it was warm and friendly. We sat on stools at the counter and the waitress brought us coffee without our asking.
“Something to eat, boys?” she asked. Farley said he’d have a burger and I asked for rhubarb pie.
When the waitress came with it and warmed up our coffee, Farley asked, “How far are we from Norfolk?”
Norfolk?” the waitress said, looking at us as if we’d asked how far we were from the ninth circle of hell. “Danged if I know, honey. Just a second, I’ll ask one of the drivers.” She moved down to the other end of the counter and, addressing a three-hundred-pound guy in denims, engineer boots, wide red suspenders and a black Stetson with a swatch of bright red and green feathers on the side, she said, “Hey Buck, any idea how far from here to Norfolk?”
“Who wants to know?”
“These Yankee boys down here.”
“You goin’ to Nawfuck?” he asked.
“Yes,” Farley said. “Are we very far?”
“What’re you drivin’?”
“That Impala out there,” Farley said pointing out the plate-glass window.
“Well, I’d say, if ya kick ass, you got about five hours to go, maybe a little less.”
“Five hours!” we cried in unison.
“Hey, ain’t my fault,” the big man said. “That’s just how far you-uns are.”
The waitress was back to give us a warm-up. “More coffee?” she asked.
“If we can get it to go,” I said. And then we were paying, tipping and out the door.
Now Farley was driving and it was scary, because he had the pedal to the metal on the straight-aways, and that Impala would really go!
“Hope to hell a cop doesn’t stop us or we’ll be screwed.” I said.
“Me too,” said Farley, “but we’ve gotta make time or our ass’ll be grass and the ‘Top’ will be the lawn mower.”
He was right. We had a new first sergeant. He had replaced a kindly Filipino master sergeant bandsman who cut us a lot of slack. Except when it came to our appearance. When we were looking a little shaggy, he’d hand us a dollar bill and say “You got dollah, get fresh haircut.” But the new guy was all Army. A typical infantry first sergeant and twenty-five-year war-hardened veteran who must have been paying some penance to be sent to babysit with a bunch of musician trainees. He didn’t like us much, and the feeling was mutual.
We had come down out of the mountains by now and the snow and ice had turned to rain, which was good, but torrential rain, which wasn’t. There was a grey tint of a new day in the sky when we sailed past a still sleeping Charlottesville, a good two and a half hours out.
When we reached Richmond, it had stopped raining, and dawn was shining through a narrow crack on the horizon, with an hour and a half left to go. I was at the wheel again—Farley was exhausted from driving hell bent for leather for several hours straight and putting the Impala through its paces without flipping us over or fish-tailing off the road. I was doing over ninety, but Farley was still saying, “Come on! Get moving! We’re not gonna make it!”
“We need gas,” I said.
“No time. Don’t worry, we’ll make it without filling up.”
“Not at these speeds with that four-barrel.”
“Just fucking drive, man, and let me worry about that!”
It was zero-eight-hundred when I turned in and approached the guard post at the gates of the Little Creek Naval Base. That’s when the Impala choked on its last vapors of gasoline, coughed, spasmed and died twenty yards from the entrance. Farley and I pushed it off the road onto the berm, locked it and jogged up to the gate. We were in civvies. They didn’t know us from Adam. So the buck sergeant in charge said, “Is that your vehicle, sir?”
“Yeah,” said Farley, “but we’re late and it’s outa gas.”
“IDs please,” he said. And when he saw we were a spec 4 and a PFC, he said, “You’ll have to get that fucking vehicle outa there now.”
“Come on, man, give us a break,” Farley pleaded. “We’ve been driving all night and we’re late for formation. I promise I’ll get some gas and get it out of here as soon as we check in.”
The sergeant looked dubious, but finally, he sighed, handed our IDs back and said, “I’ll give you till ten-hundred hours, then I’m having it towed to the impound.”
“Thanks, Sarge,” Farley said, “I appreciate it. You’re a prince.”
“Get the fuck outa here,” the sergeant replied.
Now it was a mad dash across the base to our barracks. Formation was in the day-room and was already underway. When we rushed in breathless and disheveled, still dressed in our civilian clothes and fell in next to our well-groomed, freshly shaven companions in their starched and pressed fatigues, the first sergeant was reading announcements from his clipboard. When we fell in, he stopped midstream and clamped an icy blue-eyed stare on us for a moment, Then he went on reading.
Would he give us a break? We hoped. We prayed. Then he was finished and said, “All right, gentlemen, fall out!” And the congregation wandered off in different directions and lit up smokes on the way to their daily routines. We thought we had made it, but then the top sergeant barked, “Newland, Farley!”
We turned, came to attention and said, “Yes, First Sergeant!”
“Explain yourselves.”
Farley said, “No excuse, First Sergeant!”
But I quickly intervened and said, “We’re sorry, Top. We drove all night and ran out of gas. I guess we miscalculated the distance. That’s why we’re a little late.”
He stared at me, unblinking, and then he said, “You are not a little late. You are fucking AWOL! And I will have your asses swinging from a flagpole.”
We waited for days for the other shoe to drop, but nothing happened. We thought maybe if we just didn’t mention it anymore it might go away. But finally, we couldn’t stand the suspense any longer and went to talk to our platoon sergeant, a sergeant first class who, besides playing a mean trumpet, was also a decorated combat veteran, to ask him if he knew if any action was being taken. He was wearing his dress greens with a chest full of medals that included a bronze star and a purple heart, as well as a foreign service award from the South Korean government. He liked us both. Me, because I had made Meritorious Spec 4, Farley because he knew Farley’s dad.
“The Top was madder than hell at first,” he said. “But I’ve been talking to him, which is why nothing’s happened so far. He’s talking some bullshit about busting you both and jailing you for thirty days, but I figure that’s all it is—bullshit. I wouldn’t worry if I were you.”
But we did keep worrying for a while, Farley because he figured his old man would kill him, me because I didn’t want to lose my stripes or serve thirty days in a military stockade.
In the end, however, it all blew over, and the Top started treating us no worse than he treated anybody else. And besides, we were soon off to our next posts.
The point is, I never hear those old Chicago songs now that I don’t remember that trip, like a video clip seared into my brain. I see tall, lanky Farley, his cherry Impala and every curve on the dark snowy road from Ohio to Norfolk. I see us stalling out at the gate of the base and running like crazy to at least make formation in our civvies, even if we were late. And the whole time, those tunes are playing in my head.
It really takes me back.