Thursday, February 13, 2020

IT TAKES ME BACK



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.”
“What?”
“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. 


Tuesday, January 28, 2020

THE COMEBACK...SORT OF



I might have neglected to mention when I wrote about my New Year resolutions last time https://southernyankeewriter.blogspot.com/2020/01/new-year-resolutions.html that as part of my self-improvement goals, I’m not only determined to lose at least twenty pounds but also to get back into training. I was already doing this to a certain extent by alternating treadmill training with my usual walks in the mountains. The idea was to recover the respiration capacity I’d lost as a result of a life-threatening lung injury that I suffered a year and a half ago.
At first—a lot like when I first started blogging—I thought nothing much would come of it and that, at this juncture, I’d have to settle for “as good as it gets”. But to my surprise, the additional intensive training on the treadmill started working wonders, and the recovery of lung capacity was really noteworthy when I hiked up long steady hills, which, ever since the accident, had become my bane. (I was kind of beginning to think I was going to have to move from the mountains to the plains if I didn’t want to keep gasping for air like a fish out of water every time I had to face the tiniest hillock).
Well, so while I was doing this aerobic program, which I had started in physical therapy following the injury, I had to do my treadmill routine amidst my old weights that had been collecting dust for the past two years. I should note that weight-training has played an important role in my life off and on since I was in my mid-twenties. In fact, at one time and in one Buenos Aires gym or another—from the sleaziest (but best) facilities frequented by boxers, wrestlers, cops, fire-fighters and bodyguards, to some of the most dazzling modern weight and aerobic gyms in the city—I went through long periods in which I would regularly spend three or four hours a session, four times a week building strength, resistance and muscle.
Piñeyro in his prime
I had the good fortune to do my earliest weight training in a rough, down-at-heel gym where the clients were mostly guys who made a living with their bodies and really knew what was what when it came to building muscle. I was introduced to the place by my brother-in-law, Miguel, who had been an avid body-builder since he was fifteen and had won several titles, including Mister Buenos Aires. He was (and still is) close friends with the gym’s owner, Ernesto Piñeyro. I learned a lot in the beginning from both of them. And muscle became a regular talking point whenever Miguel and I got together.
Piñeyro had been a pro wrestler whose ring handle was “Mister Músculo”. He was a favorite for spectators because he was so small and so perfectly built and threw guys three times his size all over the canvas. But he was also a serious contender in his weight class in international body-building competitions, although he could never aspire to the top prizes because he was a five-foot-seven miniature. He was so well-formed that, at a competition in Miami, then-Mr. Universe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, asked Ernesto to pose with him for part of a photo-shoot. Ever deadpan, laconic and witheringly frank, Piñeyro thought about it for moment and then said, “Okay, but with you down on a knee in the background and me standing in the foreground.”
His cheekiness tickled body-building star Schwarzenegger, and with a hearty laugh, Arnold said, “Okay, whatever you say.”
Despite his tough-guy demeanor, Ernesto’s still waters ran deep and it wasn’t until I’d known him for over a year that I learned that he not only had a degree in physical education but also another one in fine arts.  
Bonavena and Ali
But the guy who trained me the most was Omar Patiño. Omar had been Argentine heavyweight champ Ringo Bonavena’s sparring partner. Boxing fans might recall when, before the famous match between Ringo and Muhammad Ali, the American champ had boasted, “He’s mine in nine.” But the hard-headed, flat-footed Bonavena went the distance, fifteen rounds with the world champion, and it took Ali three knockdowns in the last round to finally keep the two-hundred four-pound Argentine down on the canvas for a ten-count.
But Patiño was a lot faster than Bonavena ever thought of being, two hundred forty pounds of sheer muscle and no fat, a heavyweight who fought like a bantam. In fact, his own trainer coming up had been the 1948 Argentine bantam-weight champ, Cacho Paredes. Omar had also been chief bodyguard for several of the country’s top Peronist union leaders and was, as Rocky Balboa’s fictional trainer, Burgess Meredith, might say, “a very dangerous individual.”
Since I worked nights, I just happened to be in the gym at the same time of the morning when Patiño was training. Since he knew and liked my brother-in-law, and since we usually had the gym to ourselves at that hour, he started taking an interest in me. “No, pal, you’re doing that wrong. Better like this. It works the muscle deeper. Keep your back straight on the squats unless you want a herniated disk. Try doing some rowing over here. You need more strength in your shoulders. Don’t skimp on the crunches. Abs are your core strength,” and so on.
Patiño (right) with welterweight Lucas 
Matthysse in 2013, when Patiño was
already in his sixties. He was the welter's 
trainer and manager, and Lucas went on 
to win theWBA belt in 2018 before 
retiring from the ring.
I remember once when I was starting to feel pretty cocky and had loaded up a couple hundred pounds on the vertical press and about midway through my second set, I got a charley horse that stopped me cold. These weight machines, most of which Piñeyro had built himself, had no safety features or fail-safes and there was no way I was going to be able to get out from under without it falling on me if I abandoned the maneuver with my legs still doubled.
I finally managed to grunt, “Omar...little help.” And in one swift, smooth movement, he hefted the two hundred pounds of weight off of me with one hand while grabbing me by the sweatshirt and dragging my own buck-ninety out from under it with the other.
You gain a whole new kind of respect for a guy who can do that.
I think of him every time I start training again. And because of him, whenever I do start again, I don’t have to go back and correct the movements. He burned them into my brain from the outset and when you learn it from a guy like him, you remember it.
Omar has had an important gym of his own in Buenos Aires for years now and specializes in training and managing young fighters. Some of the best Argentina has to offer.  
But anyway, in the last ten years or so, despite having a fairly complete home gym, I’ve done less and less, letting advancing age, overweight and laziness lull me into apathy. Especially since the jobs required of living where I live—gathering, sawing and chopping firewood, for instance—plus my mountain and forest walks kept me in reasonably good shape. But the prolonged recovery period following my injury and the miraculous recovery that I’d undergone from cardiac arrhythmia the year before that, really took their toll. And I could see and feel the reduction in my muscle mass and in my level of physical resistance.
So, one thing kind of led to another, and I’m just timidly returning to a light resistance training routine. Now, when I say light, I really mean light. When I was at my peak in my late thirties, I was regularly benching two hundred forty or two hundred fifty pounds and doing squats with three hundred. That, as they say, was in another life.
In the last commercial gym I worked out in regularly, I learned a lot about the benefits of high reps and low weights in what was called “the circuit”. The circuit was made up of perhaps a dozen Nautilus-type and universal weight machines on which the idea was to do three sets of fifteen repetitions with only as much weight as you could comfortably do them and still make it through the entire circuit. There was a green light for each set and a red for each ten-second rest to help you budget your time. But in practice, it was a mad race from one machine to the next.
Circuit
One circuit was about five hundred forty reps that worked your entire body, and depending on the time I had to work out, I did between two and three circuits. At first it was absolutely grueling. This is when weights become not only resistance training, but also aerobic. And it’s not until you’ve done it for a month or so that you start really hitting your stride. But once you do, it’s exhilarating! Or at least it felt that way to me. And once I got so that the circuit was a pleasant routine three or four times a week that I never wanted to miss, I started alternating, one week circuit, another week heavy lifting. Eventually, I also added jogging to the mix and felt so healthy it was scary.
There came a time that I felt what well-trained athletes must feel. That was something I knew nothing about, because, as a teen, I was a nerdy musician bookworm, who thought anything connected with the world of sports was beneath me. The only thing I did well was swim, but I wouldn’t have thought of having any part of swimming as an organized sport. And as soon as I was lying on my towel drying off, the first thing I did was light up a smoke. But now, with this intensive weight-training, I understood that look of physical and mental confidence of the athletes I’d known in school. I felt like I could walk through walls and pick my teeth with the splinters. Even after Army combat training I had never been in this kind of shape, since, by this time, I had pretty much kicked my heavy smoking habit, which had followed me all through my Army days from my early teens. Suddenly, I felt physically confident and competent for the first time in my life.
I remember at the time that I was at a peak in that transformation, I was running the news desk in a newspaper in Buenos Aires. My cables editor was a retired sergeant major from the Argentine Army. It was the time of the so-called “dirty war” following a military coup that placed the Armed Forces in bloody charge of the country, and military and ex-military men did concealed-carry as a matter of course. They also displayed the arrogance of an unquestioned ruling class.
This aging ex-NCO was notorious for doing things like flashing his weapon to quickly end traffic disputes with other drivers or any other time that he felt the least bit threatened. When he came to work, he would walk to his desk across from mine on the news desk, open the top drawer, reach under his sport coat to retrieve his nine millimeter service pistol from his belt and deposit it inside his desk until time to go home.
So one night, I arrive carrying my briefcase in one hand and my gym bag in the other and as I’m taking off my blazer, rolling up my sleeves and getting ready to settle in for the night’s work, I see him watching me with a crooked, sardonic grin on his face.
“What?” I say.
“You’re getting big.”
“Am I?”
“Yes. I remember what a tall skinny kid you were when you first came here.”
“I was twenty-four and had been three years in the Army. Hardly a kid.”
He went back to cutting and separating cables and I got down to editing copy.
Then he looks at me again and says, “Now tell me this...”
“What?”
“Why do you do it?”
“What?”
“All this body-building.”
I put down my ballpoint pen and looked at him. “To feel healthy,” I said. “To get strong.”
He grinned that crooked, sarcastic grin again, and sliced a few more cables from the teletype roll. Then he stopped, laid down his ruler, and opened his desk drawer.
“Because, you know what?” he said.
“No, what?” I said, getting annoyed at the interruptions.
With that, he pulled the nine millimeter out of its hiding place, held it up for me to see, and said, “No matter how strong you get, I put a couple of pieces of lead in you, and you don’t get back up. And it won’t matter how strong or weak I am.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” I said, “but I’m getting pretty quick. And if I can get across this desk before you can chamber a round, aim and fire, I’ll snatch your heart right out of your chest and run the pistol so far up your ass that they’ll have to remove it surgically.”
He nodded, chuckled a wry chuckle to himself and put the pistol back in his desk. And that was the last time he ever flashed a piece in the newsroom again.
So anyway, as I was saying, what I’m doing now, at seventy, is mere recovery. Trying not to be so decrepit. But I have to admit that I tend to stop and read when I see stories about old men who have either begun or returned to weight training in their senior years and gotten into incredible shape again. Will I be one of them? Will I have the constancy and the willpower and the mental and emotional stability and discipline that it takes? I admit, it’s hard for me to imagine I will. But, as the great Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and just trying to get going again will be better than not trying at all.   

Monday, January 13, 2020

NEW YEAR RESOLUTIONS



I’m rushing to get this entry out before the year is no longer new. Plus, according to some statistics I’ve seen, New Year resolutions are usually broken, on average, by the nineteenth of January. So, that’s another consideration to take into account. No sense making resolutions the day before you’re going to break them.

But then again, I always hope that this year will be the one in which I break with tradition and actually keep my resolutions. And I usually figure that until about mid-February, when the year no longer seems impeccably new and hope starts to fade.
One that I had for this year was to not miss another deadline for this blog. I made it on December 27 and broke it on December 28, before the New Year had even begun. (My sincerest apologies to my readers, by the way). But since it was broken before midnight on the thirty-first, well, it’s still doable. So okay:
Resolution 1. Don’t miss any more blog deadlines. This is for this blog, The Southern Yankee, which comes out every thirteenth and twenty-eighth of the month (more or less). But I have another one...
Resolution 2. Set deadlines for the other blog: A Yankee At Large http://yankeeatlarge.blogspot.com That’s my political blog and up to now, I’ve written it at random and often very occasionally. Although I like to think the articles I publish there reflect the journalistic professionalism that I acquired during a twenty-year full-time career as a newsman and foreign correspondent, my inconsistency in keeping it up is anything but professional.  And I’ve promised myself to do a lot better from now on...but maybe don’t count on it. I already carry all the remorse I can handle.
Resolution 3. Lose weight. I think this is everybody’s, just about. Like a lot of fat guys, I’ve always had trouble thinking of myself as fat. And I wasn’t always. But I have struggled with weight since middle age. I know I’m big. I know I’m strong. And okay, maybe I could drop a pound or two. But other people are fat. Not me. Well, I’ve got news for you, Chief. You’re fat. Or have been off and on since your late thirties.

I remember once when Whitie’s older brother, my Uncle Red, had started getting pudgy. He went for a checkup to his doctor—a man who wasn’t known for his diplomacy and more than a “bedside manner” had a “bedside invective”. For instance, he was of Polish descent, and one time a few men with medical issues sitting in his waiting room cooling their heels until he could see them started telling jokes to while away the time. In honor of the venue, they soon sort of naturally fell into swapping “Polack jokes”. You know, like, “How many Polacks does it take to screw in a light bulb...” So anyway, they’re on about the sixth of these when the door to the consulting room opens a crack and the doctor sticks his head out.
“Hi Doc!” all the guys say in unison.
“I’ve got a riddle for you,” Doc responds. “What’s black and blue and moans?”
The guys all shrug, like, “beats me”.
And Doc snaps, “The next sonuvabitch that tells a Polack joke!”
Anyhow, Red goes in for this checkup.
“You’ve gotta lose weight, Red,” the doctor says after examining him.
“Why’s that?”
“Cause you’re fat as a friggin’ pig.”
“Think so?”
“I know so and I’m your doctor.”
“Tell you what,” Red says, turning the color of his name, “Let’s go out back and I’ll whip your ass, and we’ll see who’s fat!”
But there’s no use getting feisty over it. If you’re fat, you’re fat. Face it. And, there’s something you can do about it, I tell myself.
This year my wife was away with her family for the holidays and, other than work, I had no commitments. So I thought, “No reason to indulge in all of the holiday excesses. This would be a good time to start getting back into shape. I stepped on the scale for the first time in over a year and tipped it at just under two-sixty. Over the past ten years, that had always been the top weight at which alarm bells would go off and I would begin watching my diet and losing weight. And in that time I’d been down to two-fifteen, two-twenty several times. But as soon as I started feeling “light”, I always re-initiated my ascent.
Last time was a year and a half ago. It was the first time I sought help and didn’t just diet on my own. I went to a clinical nutritionist. I didn’t really learn anything new from her. I mean, come on, I know what makes me fat and if I want to lose weight I just stop doing it. But I found that it was a huge help to have to go weigh in with her every three weeks. Especially since she was a lovely young woman and it would have been really humiliating for me to go weigh in and be just as fat as I had been three weeks before. I still have a modicum of male pride. So, I ended up losing twenty-five pounds in under three months.
Then I couldn’t go anymore, because I had an accident in which I almost bled to death and it took me a long time to recover enough to be thinking about anything but recovery. The massive blood loss took my appetite with it and for the first time since I was a child, it became a torture to eat. A wave of nausea came over me every time a meal was set before me. My cardiologist who had previously always been urging me to slim down now said, “Eat whatever you want, whatever sounds good to you until you get better.” I needed to recover my strength. Hamburgers and potatoes and chocolate should do the trick.
Before I got my appetite back, I had lost another eleven pounds and was down to a trim two-fifteen. But by then I had already put calories out of my mind and was eating “whatever I felt liked” (doctor’s orders!) and kept right on doing that until I was back up to two-sixty.
Anyway, on December 22, I decided, once again, to renew my resolution. Lose weight. Since then, I’m down twelve pounds and if you ask me today, I’m going for another thirty or so. But I’ll let you know what happens.
Resolution 4. Publish. This has been a New Year resolution of mine for at least the past forty years. This, despite making my living with the written word for the past forty-five. It’s not like I haven’t published anything—hundreds upon hundreds of articles, essays, translations, blogs and ghost-written works since I was in my mid-twenties. But never a book of my own.
When I first got into newspaper journalism, being a newsman was only my immediate goal. I wanted writing and reporting experience. I wanted a daily audience. I wanted to learn more about writing from people who really knew how to do it. And I did. But my ultimate goal was to write books, to be a novelist. So I was following my unwitting mentor, Ernest Hemingway’s advice. The advice encompassed in his statement that everything useful that he’d ever learned about writing, he had learned from copy-editors as a young reporter.
But I liked newspaper work and stayed on. Eventually, I was a copy-editor myself and teaching other young men and women how to write. But in the meantime, I was writing short stories, novellas, novels and non-fiction essays. All of which ended up stowed away in the drawers of my desks at home and at work.
Grandma Moses, never too late?
Back then, if you wanted to publish something, you needed a literary agent or a friendly publisher, or both and I had neither. And I had no idea how to go about getting them. While I had myriad contacts back then in journalism, I had none in the literary world. So I fumbled from one New Year resolution to the next, never managing to reach my book-publishing goal. And then, for awhile, after several unsuccessful attempts to get agents interested in my work, I gave up. It was just too hard to break into the US literary market from a remote foreign country. You needed to know people. And that was next to impossible long-distance.
But then, I ended up living long enough to witness the most egalitarian event since the Gutenberg printing press. Namely, the birth of Amazon’s Kindle service for writers. A free portal in which to self-publish previously unpublished works in the form of e-books and/or print-on-demand. Launched in 2007, it has since become a mega-publishing and marketing operation with hundreds of thousands of titles and millions of readers. Numerous self-published authors on the Kindle Direct Publishing platform have even become bestsellers.
Much as I considered it a brilliant and democratic idea that gave voice to a vast community of writers who, otherwise, would never have been heard, I hesitated for a long time to go the self-publication route. My old-timer thinking made me question if, perhaps, it wasn’t a cheat. So I submitted my work to overstocked publishers and hoped for “discovery” but ended up on the slush pile. And the older I got, the less likely “discovery” seemed—especially without the ever more de rigueur English major pedigree from a top US university.
All of the sudden, last year, at age sixty-nine, I found myself once again putting “Publish!” on my New Year resolution list. And I thought to myself, septuagenarians are never “discovered” —with the possible exception of Grandma Moses, who didn’t begin painting in earnest until she was seventy-eight and who, before her death in 1961, aged a hundred and one, had become an American art icon—so, I told myself, from now on, for as long as I’m alive and lucid, I’m going to publish at least a book a year.
Last year, I failed to keep the resolution, although I did prepare an anthology of stories that is pretty much ready to go except for an ISBN number. So that resolution is once again on my list for 2020. Today, if you ask me, I’ll tell you, “This year for sure.”
Ask me again after January 19.