Wednesday, March 13, 2019

MUSIC DAYS—THE VILLAGE OF LANDECK



The Landeck Tavern was my second gig.
The first one had been a dream-like stroke of luck. A fortuitous fluke. A drummer had backed out at the last minute and, desperate, the band leader had drafted me. I worked with him at a music store in downtown Lima, Ohio, and it was like a drowning man latching onto the lifeguard come to save him. He was in his tiny studio waiting for a student and fretting about his drummer’s defection. He saw me going by his door toward mine carrying my drumsticks and was like a lightbulb had come on in his head. “Hey kid!” he said. “You working for New Year’s Eve?”
“No,” I answered.
Yes you are! You’re playing with me at The Milano.”

I was beside myself with pride and joy. I told myself he’d chosen me for my talent. But he hadn’t. He’d chosen me because I was there. Truth be told, it was an almost foolishly audacious move to book an inexperienced kid for a gig in the biggest club in the area, but when a union sideman backed out on you at the last minute for New Year’s Eve, you were pretty much screwed. Everybody made sure they were booked for that night, because it paid at least double the rate for any other night of the year.
“Thank you so much!” I gushed. “You won’t regret it!”
I headed on toward my studio to keep my appointment with a private percussion student, but the guy stepped out of his own cubbyhole into the hall and barked behind me, “Don’t you want to know what you’re gonna make, kid?”
“Oh yeah, right,” I said blushing as I turned to face him, since I would have played for free, if he’d asked. But not talking money was, I realized, so unprofessional! And these old union guys were really serious about professionalism.
“How’s fifty bucks for four hours sound?”
Great!
“Tough negotiator, I see,” he said, then added, “It’s a four-hour gig, ten to two. Give yourself time to set up. Don’t be late.”
As I say, The Milano Club was the premier nightclub in the area. They could have used it as a shooting location for a typical fifties mob club in a movie—plush but not stylish, heavy on the ornaments, lots of luxurious dark red and glitz, with patriarchal portraits near the entrance as a finishing touch. It was known for its Italian cuisine, but also for its steaks. Mostly, however, it was known as the playground of local high society—or of those who were spending what they didn’t have pretending to be.
Fifty dollars for four hours was a lot of money back then. In fact, I used that fifty bucks to buy my first car, a rust-laced ’57 Dodge Royal. But the night of the gig at The Milano, I didn’t even have a license yet. I was a high school sophomore and still riding the fifteen miles up to Lima from my hometown of Wapakoneta to my job at the music store with my high school band director who gave lessons there, and then driving back home on my learner’s permit with my ol’ man as my compulsory passenger when he’d come pick me up after work.
This was a big deal in itself. Whitie, my dad, had never been anything like supportive of much of anything I’d ever done. I guess, in this case, it wasn’t my music he was supporting but my willingness to work and make money in my chosen field. He respected work and money. He had no hobbies and couldn’t figure out, for the life of him, why anybody would do something for free. He considered work and money a sort of ground-cable for life, with everything else being acts of wishful thinking. So his willingness to pick me up from work was a pleasant surprise. And the ride home with him, with me driving, during those few weeks until I could get my permanent license I remember as one of the few times he and I really bonded while I was growing up. Usually back then, he didn’t get me and I didn’t get him, so we just sort of lived our separate realities. This, then, was a real treat for me, something we actually did together.
The Milano Club was run by Big Joe. Joe was a tough guy and looked the part. But I reflected that he really wasn’t all that big. When a guy was called “Big Whatever”, you half-expected him to be impressively, imposingly large. Joe wasn’t. But I would later meet and also work for Big Joe’s cousin, Little Joe, who ran another Italian club called The Alpine Village. If Big Joe wasn’t really all that big, Little Joe was indeed quite little, so suddenly the Milano Joe’s moniker made sense to me.
But anyway, after that stunning debut at The Milano, I wanted to go right on playing. I wanted to join a jazz band, but they all were well established, or they got together for specific gigs with the band leaders choosing from among guys they already knew. But musicians got sick, went on vacation, had to go out of town and died just like people in any other human group, so there must be some call for relief drummers, right? And somebody must know how to get me in.
So I asked my high school band director, who was president of Local 320 of the American Federation of Musicians. He’d already gotten me into the union, despite my still being a minor, when I excitedly told him about the Milano gig.
I think he probably gave me a hand more out of dogged loyalty to union labor than because of any personal feelings for me. I mean, he wouldn’t have tolerated a non-union musician playing in a major club, which would have meant sanctioning the band leader who hired me and banning union musicians from playing The Milano by way of punishment. And he was a regular at The Milano. It was just easier for him to call up the union secretary-treasurer and get me signed up. Which meant that on my first gig I didn’t have my driver’s license yet, but I was already a card-carrying member of the AFM union.
Anyhow, I asked him if he knew of any groups that were looking for a drummer. He said he didn’t but that he’d keep his ear to the ground. So then I asked if the union got requests for relief drummers. He said they did, but that the person to ask about that was Lippy. Lippy managed the piano and organ department at the store. But he was also the local business agent for the musicians’ union. He’d liked me from the outset and was always very nice to me.
If Lippy didn’t like you, you knew it right away. He was a stocky little red-faced man with a nice head of neatly combed silver hair. He had a hilarious sense of humor, a real bad-boy reputation, and a temper that was even quicker than his mordant wit. But me, he liked.
So I went to him and asked if he ever got calls for relief drummers.
“All the time,” he said.
“Think I could maybe get a gig now and then?”
“I’ll get you gigs all the time if you want, kid.”
“Great!” I said. “I’d really appreciate it.”
“No sweat. What do you want to play?”
“Uh...drums?” Although I was rather accomplished at it, that was all I knew how to play and he knew it.
Lippy laughed and said, “No, kid, I mean what kind of music do you want to play?”
“Any!” I answered quickly. It sounded presumptuous, I realized, but I meant it.
“You’re on, pal,” Lippy said. “Any calls I get for relief drummers, you’re the first one I’ll call.”
I thought he was kidding, but as it turned out, he wasn’t. And in my first year as a union musician, between the ages of sixteen and seventeen, I ended up playing with a score of different bands in just about every bar, club and lodge hall in the area that hired live music.
The first gig I got after The Milano, Lippy fixed up for me directly over the phone. He was back in the office at the store talking on the telephone when I came in to work. By this time I was driving my own car—my rusted out, two-tone, gold and black Dodge—up to work after school and was getting a lot of driving experience by taking all of the different alternative routes: I-75N, the North Dixie, State Route 501, and the so-called “back way”. All roads led to Rome, or Lima, as it were, and I wanted to get as much driving expertise under my belt as I could. And I wanted to get it as quickly as possible.
I had parked in the music store’s parking lot out the back door and across the street and was coming in from the loading dock past the office when I heard Lippy say to the person he was talking to on the phone, “Ah, here he is now, just a sec.” Covering the mouthpiece on the phone, he said, “Hey kid, wanna play this Saturday?”
“Sure!”
“Great!” he said, and then went on talking to the person on the phone. “Bob? Yeah, he’s free.”
I went on along the corridor onto the sales floor, said hi to everybody and then took up my normal place behind the small goods counter. It wasn’t long before Lippy came out of the office and brought me one of his business cards with the job information on the back.
“The Landeck Tavern,” I read. “Where’s that?”
“Landeck,” Lippy said.
“Never heard of it.”
“You going from Wapak?”
“Yes.”
“Okay, it’s maybe twenty-five miles. Take One-Ninety-Eight to where it merges with Ohio Sixty-Six. Take Sixty-Six to Landeck Road. Turn left on Landeck and it takes you right into town. Tavern’s on your right. If you pass a big church on your left, you went too far. Turn around and go back. But don’t worry, you can’t miss it. It’s the only club in town. Careful not to blink when you drive in, though, or you might miss Landeck altogether.”
It took about half an hour or a little over to get to Landeck on two-lane roads, the last one a narrow country road named for the village that had grown up there around the Lutheran Church. It served the surrounding rural community as a place to get supplies and visit the post office as well as to send their kids to school. It also served as a watering-hole and source of entertainment. I was headed to the watering-hole and I was part of the entertainment.
Now, half an hour or so seems like a short trip, especially along bucolic country roads. But for me it was a real adventure. I had never driven anywhere but to Lima and back, so Landeck might as well have been Timbuktu.
The job was three hours, from nine to one. I left myself plenty of time to get there and get set up. And I’d put my bass drum, snare and ride tom in the trunk of the Dodge and my floor tom, cymbals and stands in the back seat by five in the afternoon, so as to be sure not to have any last-minute rush to contend with before the trip up. Then, I shined my black wingtips, and later bathed, shaved, slapped on Russian Leather, and dressed up in my blue blazer, my grey wool dress pants, a starchy white shirt and a red and blue striped tie. It was winter and freezing cold out, so I also put on my hound’s tooth topcoat, my brand new Mallory of Fifth Avenue snap-brimmed hat and black leather gloves. I looked a little too serious for my age, like I might want to sell you a life insurance policy or something, but I was ready to go.
I refused the supper my mother, Reba Mae, offered me. I only accepted coffee. I was way too nervous to eat. I couldn’t wait to get into my car and out on the road where I could have a smoke. I wasn’t smoking at home yet then, but my pretending not to smoke and Reba Mae’s pretending not to know I smoked was, by that time, merely an unspoken formality that we both maintained. By a little later that year, the cat would be out of the bag.
It was winter-dark already when I left home. As my headlights scoped out the terrain on my way to Route One-Ninety-Eight, everything in my home town looked different, new, alien. But I was what was new. I was no longer a high school kid. I was a professional musician. One with his own car, and a license to drive it.
The trip would have been exhilarating if I hadn’t been so nervous about the job. But I tried to enjoy it anyway, rolling down the driver’s side window part way to let in the fresh, cold air, tuning the radio to the coolest music I could find, and smoking my sophisticated Salem menthols.
I navigated my way along One-Ninety-Eight past Spencerville to Sixty-Six and then northeast to Landeck Road. No problem. And my travel nerves were allayed. I sailed along the narrow darkness of Landeck Road, my punctured muffler lending the Chrysler eight-cylinder a satisfying roar, with empty fields and woodlots unfolding on either side until, up ahead, I could see the lights of the village.
I arrived way early at the tavern. I felt strange walking in there and, at first, the bored bartender and regulars at the bar looked at me like as if I were a Martian.
“Uh, hi,” I said. “I’m the drummer with the band tonight. Where do I set up?”
The bartender pointed with a shot-glass he was drying. “Over there on the bandstand, chief,” he said. And I went back out to my car and started hauling in my drum kit and setting it up at the back of a large-ish wooden platform, next to a worse-for-wear upright piano that already stood there.
In his celebrated Piano Man, Billy Joel sings:
It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
'Cause he knows that it's me they've been comin' to see
To forget about life for a while
And the piano, it sounds like a carnival
And the microphone smells like a beer
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say, "Man, what are you doin' here?"
That’s the kind of place the tavern in Landeck was. Friendly, unsophisticated, a gathering place for folks wanting “to forget about life for a while.” And Bob Reed and his raucous band of senior musicians helped them do just that on Saturday nights.
Reed showed up just as I was finishing setting up. He introduced himself and said, “Welcome aboard.” He was a wiry, nervous sort of guy in his fifties, a trumpet player brought up on Dixie and swing.
“You all set up?” he asked.
When I said I was, he said, “Want to give me a hand with the chairs and stands?” and I realized that he and his guys had had to tear down after their last gig so their regular drummer could get his set off the stage and I could get mine on. He and I quickly got the music stands and chairs out of the corner where they’d been stashed and set them up on stage just as the rest of the guys straggled in. In the meantime, more regulars and out-of-towners had started filling the place up, and my feeling of invading a private party from when I first walked in quickly melted away.
Reed and his guys had a huge, fat “fakebook” full of every swing, Dixie and polka tune imaginable. And Reed was the youngest among the band members. The others ranged from sixty-some to late seventies. It was a blast playing with those guys because they were long past being up-tight about their music. They were relaxed with themselves and their instruments and that’s how the sound—a decidedly Dixieland sound—came out. The people in the tavern loved it. It was a pretty big band for those times when most jazz gigs had been scaled down to trios and quartets or just a piano man. This one had piano, bass, trumpet, sax, trombone and drums. It was a big, blasty, raucous sound and I was in heaven.
The piano player was the only one I knew by sight and reputation. Jimmy Ell—a tottering man in his seventies with a pencil-thin moustache and dark-dyed hair, whom you never saw that he wasn’t at least slightly drunk. And when he got really snockered he was always good for a riotous story.
For instance, the day job of another bandleader, Haydn Snyder, was piano tuner. Whenever a bar called and asked him to tune their piano, Haydn would always ask, “Did Jimmy Ell ever play it?” If they said yes, Haydn would politely decline to take the job. Why? Because Jimmy Ell always had a mouthful of snuff while he played and whenever he felt the need to spit, he would stand up, open the top of the upright piano and let fly on the action and strings of the instrument. It didn’t make a lot of difference to the sound on those battle-weary eighty-eights, but it sure played hell with the work of the piano tuner.
And then there was the time he was playing a wedding at the upscale Shawnee Country Club. The father of the bride invited the band to partake of the wonderful hot buffet when they took their break. Jimmy Ell and another member of the band were blown away by the homemade beef and noodles with mashed potatoes. They ate a big plateful each and washed it down with beer, which Jimmy reinforced with the lip-wash he carried in his hip flask. When they’d finished, Jimmy Ell says, “I think I’ll get seconds.”
“Forget it, Jim,” the other guy says. “We’ve gotta get back up on that stage.”
“No sweat,” says Jimmy, “I’ll get it to go.” And with that, he walks over to the buffet table, grabs a big handful of mashed potatoes and stuffs it into one side-pocket of his dinner jacket, and then he grabs an equally big handful of beef and noodles and stuffs it into his other side pocket.
Wiping his hands clean with a linen napkin, he turns to his astonished fellow band member and says, “Okay, Jack, I’m ready. Let’s swing, Daddy.”
He was a wailing piano man when he wasn’t playing in the cracks between the keys, and that’s why he kept getting union gigs. But this night, like others, he got more and more inebriated as the evening went on. At one point, during a solo, he played right off the high end of the keyboard and fell off the bench onto the floor. The people on the dance floor thought it was part of the show and laughed and applauded. The rest of us just went right on playing until Jimmy picked himself up, climbed back onto his bench and caught up to us at the bridge.
Later on, he was playing The Beer Barrel Polka in one key while the rest of the band was playing it in another.
“Jimmy! Jimmy!” Reed hissed, but oblivious and apparently deaf, Jimmy Ell played on like nobody’s business in a key of his own. Then I was astonished to see Bob Reed pull a small, black revolver out of a mute bag under his seat and aim it at the piano-player. Apparently, no one else was surprised to see this, because I was the only one who seemed alarmed.
Then Reed cocked the revolver and pulled the trigger. There was a deafening bang even as we kept right on playing. Only then did Jimmy Ell turn toward the bandleader who was still training the smoking starting-gun on him and Reed hollered over the polka music, “You’re in the wrong goddamn key, Jimmy!”
But it hadn’t made a lick of difference to all the red-faced farmers and their dates out on the dance floor. They were literally polka-ing to beat the band and couldn’t have given a tinker’s damn whether we were in tune or not.
Out of the hundreds of gigs I would play from then on, this was one of the most fun and most memorable, and I was truly sorry when the three hours were up and Reed handed me a twenty-dollar bill and said, “Hey, ya done good, kid!”
Outside, as I was loading my drums back into the Dodge, it was starting to snow. On the way back home I stopped at a lonesome truckstop and had cherry pie and coffee to celebrate. I’d driven myself to my first real professional gig. I was on my way. I sat there smoking a cigarette and drinking the strong black refill the waitress had brought me, watching the snow coming down, blanketing the roofs of the tractor trailers parked beneath orange lights outside. Finally, with trepidation because of the snow, but with joy at being my own free agent, I headed back out to my car and into the night, along country roads back home.
I lit another cigarette and tuned the radio to a jazz station. I was excited. I couldn’t have guessed then just how busy a musician I was about to be. All I knew was that my music days had begun. And I never wanted them to end.


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

INDUCTION



My high school classmate Tee was really strung out. We were both at our induction physical for the Selective Service draft. It was 1970, the draft was in full swing, and we were both college dropouts. Tee had dropped out of college, I presumed, because he couldn’t take it anymore. I’d dropped out thinking I’d travel awhile. The Army, as it turned out, was going to make sure I did.
We hadn’t gone together to Ft. Hayes in Columbus for our physicals. We just met up there by coincidence, both having gotten “Greetings from the President of the United States” in the same batch. Now we were in a long line of other nineteen and twenty-year-olds, many of whom, with no special skills, Uncle Sam needed for cannon fodder in Vietnam. The others would be cast according to what they knew how to do and according to the needs of the Army and Marines. If there was no need for your particular skills, you’d probably end up in the cannon fodder category as well.
We were both skinny and shivering, maybe more out of fear than cold, but we gave each other a warm welcome when we met up. We’d never been close friends, just school acquaintances, but this was a place where you were glad to see a familiar face—any familiar face.
Like I say, we were both skinny, but he was skinnier, by a long shot. Christ-on-the-cross skinny, and I could tell he was hurting. He looked like a guy coming off drugs and I thought it was a pretty safe bet to guess he was.
I was thinking that he must have faced a real dilemma before coming here. If they found drugs in his bloodstream, he’d likely be out on a 4-F—unfit to serve on the basis of physical, mental and/or moral standards. But, in that case, wouldn’t they, perhaps, just turn him directly over to the narks? I couldn’t help but notice that there were State Police at the exits and didn’t figure they were there for show. From the looks of Tee, he’d opted to come in clean—if pretty shaky and paranoid-looking. Myself, I was thinking this experience would be a lot less daunting with a six-pack. Alas...
As if on cue, for those of us wondering what they were there for, the State Police sprang into action. There was a hulking guy who looked like a Caucasian sumo wrestler a few men up ahead in line, who suddenly stepped out of line, leaned up against the wall and lit up a Lucky. He stood there smoking placidly until a pint-sized buck sergeant with an MP armband and a chest full of ribbons on his dress greens, called out, “You! Hey, shithead! Put out that butt and get the hell back in line!”
The big guy feigned hardness of hearing and kept right on smoking.
“Hey, you, lard-ass,” the buck sergeant tried again, “you better douse that butt and get back in line before I count to three or you’ll wish to hell you had.”
The big guy half-turned and glanced at the sergeant with about as much interest as an elephant might look at a house-fly and said, “What’s yer problem, short-stuff? You ain’t got no authority over me, man. Go screw yourself.”
“One...two...” the buck sergeant counted as he moved purposefully up on the wrestler, who responded, “Screw you, hotshot!” tossed his cigarette and crouched in a fighter’s stance.
Draft protesters often gathered outside recruitment stations.
“Three!” shouted the sergeant and lunged. The big guy threw a wild haymaker, which the quick little guy easily ducked, and now the sergeant was behind the other fellow who was twice his size, grasping him by the back of his belt and a handful of collar and, with really impressive speed and uncommon strength, was rushing the hulk toward the exit, hurling him toward the two State Troopers guarding the door and shouting, “Get this sack of shit outa here!” And before the big guy knew what’d hit him, he was on the floor, face down, getting cuffed. Then the troopers pulled him up and hauled him away.
I wondered fleetingly if this all had merely been a show, some theater among friends to put the fear of God into the rest of us and keep us moving along without resistance, since, for all intents and purposes, we were still civilians—though not for long. But I didn’t figure it was a mystery worth solving.
They had just told us all to strip down to our shorts but to leave our shoes on. There were guys who were well adapted to this, wearing, as they were, the sandals that were popular at the time among college hipsters. They might have been going to the beach, if it weren’t Ohio, late February, and in the thirties outside. For my part, a musician nerd, I was shod in shiny black wingtips, which, with my size twelve feet, scrawny white body, extra-long legs, and white jockey shorts, looked anything but elegant. We were instructed to fold our clothes and carry them in front of us with both hands and with the folder full of forms that they’d given us on top.
The lottery system was a new addition to the Vietnam draft.
This was how we progressed through the large, warehouse-like building, from station to station, where medical personnel gathered data on us—height, weight, physical characteristics and maladies, blood pressure, pulse, etc. etc. At one point we were all lined up in a row in a large open space and were told to do an about face, and place our belongings neatly on the floor in front of us. Then an NCO bellowed, “Aw right, drop your drawers, bend over and spread your cheeks.”
There’s always a wise guy, and a fellow a few men down the line from me stripped down his underwear, bent over, stuck his index fingers into the corners of his mouth as if to whistle and spread his lips wide in double fish-hook fashion. A few of those closest to him chuckled, but the joker turned out to be the second one hauled away by the State Police. Now a doctor accompanied by a corpsman carrying a gross of rubber gloves passed behind us probing us for god-knew-what before permitting us to pull our shorts back up.
I had no problem with the subsequent urine sample since I’d been wanting to ask for the restroom for a long time by then. My only fear, as I stepped into one of the tiny stalls provided, was that the smallish plastic cup they gave us wouldn’t be big enough. But this test turned out to be a real challenge for Tee. I had already turned over my more than sufficient urine sample, and moved ahead in the line, while Tee remained for an inordinately long time out of sight behind the stall door.
Finally, a burly sergeant went up to the stall, hammered on the door and hollered, “Hurry it up, rookie! We ain’t got all day. What do you think, that were rentin’ you that goddamn stall?”
I heard Tee’s muffled voice from inside say, “I can’t piss,” to which the sergeant responded that he’d better figure out how to pretty damn quick unless he wanted to be a guest of the Army overnight. This must have literally scared the piss out of Tee, because within a few seconds he emerged with a paltry sample in hand.
The day dragged on from morning into the early afternoon. Finally we were done and were read our qualifications. Mine was 1-A, apt for immediate service. I was given a date in March to report for induction and active duty. Though I’d expected it, the reality of it hit me and I was stunned.
When I stepped back outside, the air was cold and clear and smelled like snow. It might have been the first time I’d ever breathed air for as sweet as it seemed. Not even the sentence of induction into the Army hanging over my head could dampen my joy at being back outside, at still being a civilian, at still being a free man, as I returned to my car.
As I was pulling out, I saw Tee standing by his battered Corvair, grinning from ear to ear.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, rolling down my window.
He held up a piece of paper that the classifying medical officer had handed him. “Four-F,” he grinned. And I immediately thought of his urine sample. But then he said, “Flat feet! Who would have guessed it?”

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

LETTERS FROM GOD



The letters came to me while I was news editor at the Buenos Aires Herald in the seventies and eighties. There were several over the years, neatly typed on a manual machine.

The first ones were addressed to the editor in chief. He would normally have tossed them into the waste basket—or simply allowed them to get lost in the avalanche of paper that he lived with and that littered every available surface in his cramped office. But since it was one of my duties to sort through each day’s mail, decide which letters to the editor would get into our readers’ section called “Your View”, and then edit them to fit the space allotted, the boss thought that it would be funny to send this particular crank message along to me noting that I should handle it, perhaps, since the guy was “from my neck of the woods.”
Each letter began with the same salutation: As Almighty GOD, I greet you. And it seems that Maple Heights, Ohio—my home state—was the new Nazareth. That’s where God’s son, Eugene Chaney, made his home. The letters came to Buenos Aires “FROM THE DESK OF EUGENE CHANEY”. God explained, more or less, that he was everywhere but that one of the trade-offs for omnipresence was the impossibility of physically writing the letters Himself—although I could only presume that he hadn’t lost his ability to sear letters into stone tablets, should the occasion arise.
There was always something divinely whiny in God’s letters. He had a bone to pick with the press. “It is almost unbelievable,” he wrote once, “that My Holy SPIRIT has been in My Son’s body for decades now. Unbelievable because of the eerie pall of silence which hovers over the newspaper industry. Editors and publishers suppress the news that I Am Actually Alive in My Son. Thus, humanity remains ignorant of My Existence.”
Certain of today’s so-called “evangelicals” might be interested (appalled) to learn that Almighty God was not the white supremacist deity that many of them seem to worship today. He was, it seems, indeed a white God, or at least he had chosen to materialize in the form of his white Buckeye son, Eugene. But he had a soft spot for minorities. “Just as the 12 tribes of Israel were My chosen people in Biblical times,” he wrote, “Blacks have replaced them in modern times.” They should know, he said, that “prayers of anguish that rise from humble dwellings and store-front churches do not fall on deaf ears.” And then he added, “Heaven is not only for Caucasians, but for Blacks and other denominations as well.”
He wanted to assure editors like myself, posted in what he considered far-flung corners of the earth, that “the Watchful Eyes of My Greater Spirit, which hovers over the universe” were emanating love to “all who are destitute and lowly in spirit throughout the world. Africa, India, South America, all underdeveloped nations are under My Watchful Gaze.”  
He confirmed that he formed part of a trinity—Father, Eugene and Holy Ghost. “Justice is not dead,” he said. There would be “Judgment for ALL humanity someday.” Those responsible for “the suffering of children and the aged” would have to answer for it when they met their Maker. “It is pathetic,” he continued, “the bloated bellies of starving children who cannot comprehend why their parents cannot feed them. Even in this affluent country, many children go to bed hungry.” Despite having an ostensibly flawed omniscience with regard to the level of development of some South American nations—at the time, Argentina, for instance, had one of the highest literacy rates on the planet, and had long served as ‘the bread-basket of Europe’ as well as being the sixth-ranked trading nation in the world for the entire first half of the 20th century—clearly, God was nobody’s fool. He indeed appeared to see a lot, including the pockets of extreme poverty in the otherwise wealthy nation of Eugene’s birth.
But his empathy was not for one class alone. “I love the poor in humble Churches,” he wrote, “not just the congregations of Posh Cathedrals. I Am for the frail, weary and broken-hearted—all who suffer throughout the world. But let it not be said that I overlook the affluent. I Love All of humanity who do not let Worship die, like the petals of a faded, Crushed Rose.”
Eugene, God explained, was not a carpenter, like The One to whom he alleged to be Successor, but a machinist in a metals shop. Eugene put in a 40-hour week there and then devoted the rest of his time to the work of his father’s “non-profit organization”. From what God said, most of what they did was write letters, “which we send first class using our own money.” It wasn’t always easy. “My Son has a paltry three thousand dollars in His bank account,” he explained. But God, evidently, provided when Eugene couldn’t.
Their mailing campaign was directed not only toward editors and publishers, but also toward politicians. He once sent me some excerpts from letters Eugene had sent to US senators. In them he voiced his opposition “to the horrendous arms escalation and the deployment of nuclear devices.” All I could think on reading this was that if God Almighty was delusional, at least his heart was in the right place and in keeping with his son’s inherited legacy as the Prince of Peace. This was surely more than I could say for the parade of multi-millionaire evangelists who had wended their self-righteous way through the halls of the White House and Congress over the years giving their blessing to every war that my country had either started or gladly participated in for decades.
“Billions upon billions of dollars for defense, but no dollars for the underprivileged—this is the sad state of affairs in both the United States and Russia,” God posited. “Both super-powers are hogs for defense capital, as prestige is the main source of power between the two nations.”
God admonished the lawmakers that he wrote to, saying, “I would remind you, Senator, that you and your colleagues are servants to the people who put you in office. You are, therefore, obligated to them as to how you spend their tax monies, and to spend them wisely and justly.”
And then the clincher, which, I feel, had the subconscious sting of a Gypsy curse, even for those who tried to laugh it off as the ravings of a madman: “You and your Colleagues are obliged to abide by My Laws as well as Man’s. The destiny of countless starving people around the world is in your hands and those of your Colleagues. In this life as in the life to come, the just and the unjust must be counted. No one can escape the cog wheels of destiny as they turn and grind out Justice.”
Sometimes he apologized for such outbursts, saying, for example, that his heart was “heavy-laden because this Letter must end on a sour note.” His closings were often sad and less than optimistic, like the one in which he said, “With tears in My Eyes and a Prayer on My Lips for a brighter future, as your CREATOR, My Holy Spirit has Dictated this Letter to you through My Son, who wrote My Very Words. My Holy Name is void of form, so it is never written on paper. My Son will sign this Letter, as He will also Pray for a future that is void of tears.”
It was signed,
“Prayerfully Yours,
Eugene Chaney”
I received a final missive in the latter part of 1982, following the Falklands War. After the sadness and confusion of that conflict, I could have used an encouraging word from somebody. But if I expected to receive it from God and The Desk of Eugene Chaney, I was out of luck.
It began, like all the others:
“As Almighty God, I greet you.”
But this one had a different tone. It was mildly defeatist and resigned. Its mood could best be described as “weary”.
“The days are dwindling for My Son who looks forward to early retirement,” God said. “Eugene will be sixty-two on the twelfth of November, nineteen hundred eighty-two.” Eugene had been a machinist for forty years by then. “On Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, My Son and I spend Our spare time mailing Letters and Books to newspapers. We have not had a vacation in twenty years,” he went on. “The grind has been devastating. My Son has been hospitalized several times for nervous fatigue.”
His son’s life savings amounted to a few measly thousands of dollars. And, despite having put in four decades working in a metals shop, Eugene had never managed to own real estate, or even a car.
They were looking forward to their retirement, he indicated. But he lamented that although they would have time on their hands, they would no longer have the financial resources to maintain their campaign to spread The Good News and the Direct Word of God far and wide. This was a campaign that they had been nurturing, he said, since 1960. “To say that Editors and Publishers have been unkind to Us by not publishing Our Works in their respective periodicals is an understatement,” he complained. However, he said, “My Son and I will always be alive, dispensing Justice, in this dimension of Time and Light, even though newspapers continue to see fit to suppress The Word.”
That was the last that I ever heard from Almighty God and Eugene. They cross my mind from time to time. I wonder what happened to them. I figure that Eugene, mortal as he was, very likely passed on, since he would be nearly a hundred years old if he were alive today. But at the risk of giving an unintentional nod to Nietzsche, I can’t help asking myself if, perhaps, father and son died together, or were truly one to begin with. Or did Eugene and his father simply reach the conclusion that the salvation of the human race was a lost cause and decide to take a permanent vacation from Earth?

Sunday, January 27, 2019

AUNT MAYME AND THE SCIENCE OF CHRIST



“The material world simply doesn’t exist, Norman,” Aunt Mayme was telling Whitie (whose given name was Norman). “Illness is an illusion.” And I could already see Whitie’s neck going red with irritation. He was a decorated World War II vet. He knew damn well that the physical world existed. He had low-crawled over a major portion of it in Europe just a decade or so earlier.
“Everything we perceive is an illusion,” Mayme went on. “Just millions of atoms arranged in this way or that. Us, this table, that tree out there, all just the same atoms that can be arranged any way God wishes.”

Wasn’t that the truth, though? He had surely seen some guys get their atoms rearranged during the war. Atomized to the point that you couldn’t tell them from the rubble they were splattered on. But then again, he didn’t figure that was what Mayme was talking about. She was talking about clean, little, non-violent-world atoms, a happy, homogenous, Christian world, a church-bulletin-cover world, with sunny blue skies and puffy white clouds, where you could arrange your atoms any way you wanted them.
Whitie gazed out the window at a tree, as if trying hard but failing to see the atoms. “It’s all about the spirit,” she said. “Through our spirit and the power of prayer, we can arrange our atoms to be sick or to be well, to hurt or to feel happiness. It’s all up to us. All we have to do is give in and believe!”
He wished he could. Believe in the most malleable of atoms. Believe in the intrinsic good. Believe in a world without fear and pain, in a happy, church-bulletin-cover world like the one Mayme was evoking. He wished he could make the pain and sadness go away, but he couldn’t. It had him in its grasp and he couldn’t seem to see his way clear to break free. He could only wrestle with it day in and day out, until another manic high suddenly came his way. He seemed to have no control over it. He didn’t possess it. It possessed him.
Whitie was going through some stuff right then. Hard stuff. Bad stuff. He’d had his first complete mental breakdown three years before and he’d been struggling ever since. Now it was physical as well. He’d had his back operated on but it hadn’t seemed to help much, at least not what was ailing him now, which was sciatica—quickly becoming chronic sciatica.
First Church of Christ Scientist, Boston
Usually, at this juncture, Whitie’s bullshit meter would have been tripped and he would have gone off like a scatter gun on whomever was telling him these things. But this was his aging aunt, his father’s sister, and he was biting his tongue out of respect for those facts.
Aunt Mayme was a Christian Scientist. When that had happened, no one seemed to know for sure. The family faith was Methodism. But Mayme hadn’t been around this area much. Chicago, Sarasota, Blowing Bluffs, Honolulu, Phoenix, she got around, and most of the places she wandered to tended to be interesting and high-end.
Of late, she was flying higher than ever before. In what was clearly a December romance, she had met and married Al Taft, a Cleveland millionaire who, we were told, had made his money in construction. He was, we were also told, somehow loosely related to the famed Taft political family of Ohio, whose most renowned representative was President William Howard Taft.
Mayme was already “older” at the time, and Al was “even older”. But they seemed happy together and Al gave Mayme the access to a higher society that she had always seemed to crave. When she was younger, she had wanted to be a singer. Maybe that hadn’t worked out, but from her silver fox fur coat to her fancy jewelry and expensive shoes, Aunt Mayme was a class act for those times. Still, among our family she was considered a bit of a loon, an assessment encouraged by the attitudes of her two older brothers, my grandfather, Murel Newland, and my Great-Uncle Dale. They seemed to share a contradictory attitude of awe and respect yet subtle mockery when it came to Mayme.
Mayme’s own immediate family lived in Chicago and they all seemed to be quite well off. We saw them so seldom that I could never keep straight which were family and which were in-laws, but every once in a while they would all come down to Wapakoneta, where we lived, to see Grandma Numbers—their and our grandmother and great-grandmother and Murel, Dale and Mayme’s mother. When they did, we’d have a rare family reunion, and the only two that I remember were held at the family restaurant, the Teddy Bear, which my father, Whitie, owned with two of his brothers, Red and Chuck.
It seemed exciting to me, in those pre-teen days, just to meet long-lost cousins, let alone people from the big city. Chicago was only five hours from Wapakoneta by car, but it might as well have been a million miles away. They all seemed so sophisticated to me, especially our distant cousin, Linda Vogt, who was my older sister Darla’s age and seemed like a teen-aged movie star to me. A sort of Hayley Mills, come to visit my world. She and Darla were, in fact, almost exactly child star Hayley Mills’ age. Linda and my sister were in a phase in which girls liked to go off alone together to whisper and giggle, but I would try to tag along anyway, even at the risk of having my sister slam the door to her room in my face behind them.
“So if you can just arrange your atoms any damn way you want and never be sick,” Whitie was doggedly saying now, “what about death? Why die, if we’re just atoms that can be rearranged to be healthy?”
“Death doesn’t exist either,” Mayme posited. “It’s a matter of transformation, Norman. Think of it as stepping from one room into another. That’s all it is.”
Whitie briefly considered this, but I could tell he wasn’t buying it, and so could Aunt Mayme.
“Listen, Norman,” she said. “I once was in a car accident. It was so bad that my automobile was destroyed. And I broke the steering wheel in two with my ribcage. Some people who lived nearby where it happened carried me inside and laid me on their couch, and then they called an ambulance. They were sure I was dying.
“I asked if I could use their phone and they brought it over to me. I had them dial for me, and called my Christian Science reader. I was crying and trying to tell her what had happened. But she told me to get hold of myself. There was nothing wrong with me, she told me. In my heart I knew that, she said. She told me to concentrate, to see myself well, to tell myself that nothing had happened, that my body was mine and Christ’s and that together we could cure anything. It was all just atoms that could be rearranged.
“You can believe me or not, Norman,” Mayme said, “but I told the people to cancel the ambulance and I got up off that couch and walked out of that house cured.”
This was, perhaps, the most outrageous story Aunt Mayme had ever told us, but not the only one. I could recall having heard about her talking the cavities out of her teeth and about no longer needing glasses to see.
“Yeah, right,” Whitie had scoffed when she was gone that time. “That’s why she goes, ‘Why, hello! How are you...’” and here Whitie squinted and moved forward mime-like with hands flat against the air in front of him, feeling his way with the caution of a kid playing blind man’s bluff, and then finished the quote, “‘...Norman?’ She’s blind as a goddamn bat, I tell ya.”
This time, once she’d gone, Whitie said, “Christ, I’m glad she doesn’t come to town any oftener than she does or she’d drive me nuts. I’d like to see her go out there and give that goddamn sugar maple a swift kick and see how rearranged those atoms in her big toe would feel. They’d be rearranged all right, that’s for sure!”
He ranted on: “She sounds just like goddamn Clyde Berry.” Dr. Berry was our family physician. “Always telling me my pain is ‘psychosomatic’. I’d like him to have the pain I’ve got in my back and then come and tell me how goddamn psychosomatic it is. I’ll bet he’d change his tune then!”

But I was no longer listening. I was thinking about what Aunt Mayme had said. Why would she lie about that accident—or about her cavities, for that matter? Maybe there was something to this Christian Science thing. Hadn’t Jesus said, “Physician, heal thyself?” Or was it somebody else who’d said that?
Anyway, my mother must have been listening too. And she was so desperate for Whitie to get well that she was willing to try almost anything. So after that visit from Aunt Mayme, new books started showing up in our library—The Power of Positive Thinking, by the highly mediatic Ohio-born preacher Norman Vincent Peale and Mary Baker Eddy’s seminal Science and Health among them.
As for myself, I decided to start that very day to think of myself as indestructible, as capable of warding off any and all diseases, as practically immune to sickness and death.
It was comforting to think that I could heal anything that befell me, that I could simply will myself not to be sick, ever again.
It lasted until I caught the Asian flu later that year.