The Summer of 1984 in England

My first airplane trip ever was to England for a six-week Study Abroad program during the summer of 1984. I was a graduate student majoring in history at a small public liberal arts college in central Georgia. My concentration was civil rights in the South, but I was also a fan of British literature and history. I had read Dickens, Trollope, Austen, Woolf, and many other major British writers while I completed a BA in English. I was fortunate enough to receive two different scholarships offered by my college, along with generous assistance from my parents, to cover the cost of the program sponsored by a university in Atlanta.

Not only was this my first flight, it was also my first time leaving the South. Up to this time I had ventured no farther north than Washington, D.C. and no farther west than Alabama. Flying was an alien form of transportation for my family. My father had flown one time in his life as a young man to Pennsylvania, but that was it. He loved the idea of traveling, and our family took road-trip vacations every summer to places in Florida, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. My parents had respectable jobs but not the kind of professional careers that afforded the luxury of air travel in the 1960s and 1970s. As far as I know, my mother died in her early eighties without ever boarding a plane, which is ironic considering that she worked at a huge Air Force base surrounded by aircraft. I will always be grateful for the sacrifice my parents made for me to travel overseas.

British Museum
British Museum

The program I was enrolled in allowed me to pick up several credit hours that would be applied toward my degree. Our class numbered about twenty students, and we were led by two professors teaching in Georgia. We were not officially affiliated with an institution in London where we were based for the six weeks. Our classes were informal and held in the dining area of the Haddon Hall Hotel we occupied on Bedford Place, a block from Russell Square and just around the corner from the British Museum. Haddon Hall was more like a hostel than a hotel by American standards. I had not lived in dorms as a student, so it was a bit of an adjustment to share a bathroom and showers with a large number of strangers of both sexes occupying a floor of the hotel.

Most of our curriculum involved field trips to museums and historic landmarks, and we were required to write papers based on what we learned on our tours of these places. As a class we visited the London Tower and saw the Crown Jewels. We also visited the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and other famous sites. The typical routine for the course was to meet with our professors for a lecture about the places we would visit, and then we would have follow-up discussions before writing down our thoughts and reflections.

Another major component of the program was the theatre — we attended numerous stage productions in some of the most famous houses in the city. We saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats” in the round at the New London Theatre (now the Gillian Lynne Theatre) when it was only four years old. We saw award-winning actors like Claudette Colbert and Rex Harrison in “Aren’t We All” and Peter O’Toole in “Pygmalion.” These were the first professional plays I had ever seen, and I was mesmerized. Our professors did a fine job of planning and coordinating all our activities, providing the class with meaningful exposure to British culture and history.

Queen Elizabeth II - Trooping the Colour
Queen Elizabeth II – Trooping the Colour

One of the most valuable features of the program was the free time we had to explore on our own. I was able to wander around London’s parks, avenues, markets, and squares for hours at a time, watching people interact with one another. I returned to museums the class had visited to spend more time in wings and galleries that interested me most. I also took advantage of opportunities that were not included in the class syllabus, like historic and literary walking tours, attending Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I stood just a few yards from Queen Elizabeth II as she rode by on horseback celebrating her birthday as part of the Trooping the Colour ceremony. I made day and weekend trips to Stratford-upon-Avon, Wales, and St. Albans. I took a hovercraft across the channel to spend the day on the west coast of France in Calais and Boulogne. I spent a fabulous day at Wimbledon during the Grand Slam tennis tournament and had the chance to watch athletes like Chris Evert compete on the grass courts while I savored mouthfuls of strawberries and cream.

At Wimbledon - July, 1984
At Wimbledon – July, 1984
Postcard of Piccadilly Circus
Postcard of Piccadilly Circus

Spending six weeks in London gave me some idea of what it would be like to live in the capital and the most populous city in England. I spent my free time in much the same way the locals do by enjoying the green-spaces, hanging out at Piccadilly Circus, shopping occasionally, strolling along the Thames, attending outdoor events, and traveling around the city in the Tube. Of all my immersion experiences in London, the evenings I spent at a neighborhood pub called The Plough were the ones that I remember most fondly. Pub food was undeniably the best of any I tried in England, and the meals I had at The Plough were authentic and delicious. More importantly, I was introduced for the first time there to hard cider, a perfect alternative to beer for people like me who have never “acquired a taste” for liquid barley, yeast, and hops. It would be several years before hard cider made its way to the shelves of stores in America, but once it did, the beverage became quite popular. I am never without bottles of cider in our refrigerator and find it on tap frequently now in bars everywhere.

There was an old professor from the University College London who must have spent every evening in The Plough. I don’t recall his name or even his face after all these years, but we developed a friendship, and I enjoyed hearing his stories about students, about being British, and about living in London. He was a serious music lover and was obviously proud of his LP collection, which he treated with all the care of an antiquities conservationist. As he put it, “Once played on a ruby, ALWAYS played on a ruby.” I frequented the pub more and more often, and he would recognize me when I walked in the door. With a bombastic voice in a heavy British accent, he would exclaim from across the room, “Come over here, you damn Colonial!”

The Plough
The Plough

My time in England as a graduate student was transforming and gave new meaning to the history and literature I had studied. It altered my thinking about so many aspects of life and what it means to be both an American and a human being. All of the students were required to keep a personal journal to record thoughts and feelings about our varied experiences. I still have mine, along with some memorabilia from those six weeks. Over the years, I have pulled out the journal several times and relived so many moments that will be with me as long as memory allows.

Bliss

“You need to clean your room, honey,” my grandmother says in her soft but commanding voice, and I know that doesn’t mean just shoving everything scattered on the floor into the closet. Why put everything away only to be bothered with pulling it all out tomorrow when I’m ready to play with it again? My mom’s mother lives with us, maintaining the household and making it possible for both of my parents to work. She knows how to hug and spank with equal skill.

I’d rather be walking out the back door, across the brick patio to the exterior two-bay garage to find my red bicycle waiting for me like a faithful companion. That bike takes me to the convenience store five blocks away to buy bubble gum. It takes me to my cousin’s house less than a mile away to play outside or curl up inside reading comic books. My bike has had many reincarnations: firetruck, racecar, motorcycle, roller coaster, spaceship.

I ride down the street, past houses of people my parents know casually but whom I only recognize as neighbors in cars and front yards. I would be shocked to learn, years later, that some of them drink alcohol, a substance of sin never permitted to cross the threshold of our baptized home. I cannot fathom that the housewife I never see next door beats her husband, and his shouts we hear from time to time are most likely cries of anguish, pain, despair.

My bike and I are unaware of nearby marriages crumbling, family financial crises, chronic illness, depression, or the fear of impending death. It’s inconceivable that some people on our street never go to church. Perhaps there are even parents who don’t pay attention to their children’s cluttered rooms. We are saved from the unimagined horrors that are carefully concealed behind neatly trimmed shrubs and front doors always closed.

Irma, the Unsolicited Landscape Designer

Homeowners go to great lengths and expense to harness nature and control their environments in order to create their own versions of paradise in the form of landscape gardening. These efforts may include grading, building retaining walls, terracing, hardscaping, designing planting beds, installing shrubs and trees, trimming tree limbs, or removing trees altogether. It can take months or even years to alter the property and establish the desired effect . . . or, nature can make the decision to completely change it all in a matter of minutes. Such was the case in our front yard in September, 2017, courtesy of Hurricane Irma.

Georgia is a state that experiences extreme weather conditions, from sub-zero temperatures in the mountainous regions to weeks of mid-day temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the southern and coastal areas. A soaking wet spring and summer may easily be followed by six years of very little rainfall at all. Dry conditions can lead to horrible wildfires, especially in south Georgia, while heavy rainfall frequently brings flash floods to the streams and rivers that carve through the hills of the Piedmont region. The influx of warm, wet air from the Gulf creates an unstable atmosphere over the state that results in severe electrical storms, strong winds, and heavy downpours, even if this activity is isolated. In the late spring and early summer, tornados are an ever-present threat. The greatest risk of widespread destruction comes in late summer and early fall — hurricane season. Catastrophic hurricane damage in the state is rare and limited to the coast for Atlantic storms and southwest Georgia for storms that come into the panhandle of Florida from the Gulf.

As is always the case with hurricanes, wind is typically a secondary problem to the primary issue of either storm surge or torrential rains and flooding. On rare occasions, high winds and rain from hurricanes come together in a deadly combination that inland forested areas are not able to withstand. Such was the case with Hurricane Irma. With the strongest winds ever recorded of any storm in the open Atlantic, Irma caused incredible damage in the Caribbean then crossed the Straits of Florida to eventually make landfall on September 10 in the Keys with sustained winds at 130 mph before swirling up the west coast of Florida towards Alabama. This was a huge hurricane with outer bands that spread out over several states at once: Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. The outer bands on the east side of the storm ended up causing the most damage to inland areas, such as the mountains of northeast Georgia where we live. In fact, we heard reports in the weeks that followed the storm that our county suffered more damage from Irma than any other in the state outside the coastal counties.

The worst weather from the outer bands hit our county between 5:00 p.m. and midnight on September 11. The wind began to pick up that afternoon around 3:00 p.m. Within an hour we were hearing the characteristic howling of the gusts as they came through in waves. The electricity went off at about 4:30 p.m. Over the next three hours the wind continued to build in intensity and the gusts were almost becoming sustained. We were most concerned about the large oaks closest to our house, located in the front yard in a landscaped “island” of mulch planted with an understory of shrubs and perennials. Every few minutes we would walk to the front windows and shine our flashlights out toward the trees to check on them. At about 8:00 p.m., we noticed that one of the oaks was starting to lean with the force of the wind, and the ground around the trunk was beginning to bulge as the roots were being pulled toward the surface. It was a frightening spectacle. By 8:15 p.m., two of the trees were uprooted and fell across the front yard, completely missing the house. We were sad to lose the trees but thankful the house was spared. The wind got stronger, and then it got dark. Not being able to see out the windows to tell how far the wind was bending the trees in the forest surrounding us was quite disconcerting.

First trees fallen
First trees fallen

Less than 30 minutes later, we heard a loud crash and felt the whole house shudder. We knew we had lost another tree, but this time, it fell on the house. I sprinted upstairs to look for holes in the ceiling or broken windows in the front dormers. I was greatly relieved to find that the roof had apparently not been breached, but all I could see out of the front second-story windows were the leaves and branches of the tree’s canopy resting against the roof over the front porch. Then I heard my wife shouting from downstairs, “The tree is in the house!” I rushed back down to find her at our open front door in a desperate struggle against tree branches that looked like a horticultural monster invading our foyer. A portion of the tree canopy had spilled onto the front porch, and when my wife opened the front door, the bent limbs sprang inside and almost knocked her down. It was like a scene out of Jumanji.

Downed trees on the house
Downed trees on the house

We managed to push the limbs back outside and close the door, realizing in the process that two trees had actually fallen on the house, for a total of four lost trees. Each of these oaks was over thirty feet tall with combined canopies covering an area over 1,000 square feet. The fallen trees caused damage to the porch, roof, and brick walkway, and completely demolished a light post. The destruction could have been much worse in that regard, as it was for so many people in our part of the state. The downed trees were removed two days later by a local tree company with some of the fastest and most efficient workers I have ever seen. Within a few weeks all the damage to the house was repaired as well. What Hurricane Irma left behind for us, however, was a completely altered landscape for our front yard and gardens. What had been a sheltered area for shrubs and shade-loving annuals and perennials was now exposed to full sun.

Post-storm island
Post-storm island

After our contractor removed the stumps and most of the roots of the extracted trees and smoothed over the scars in the ground, we brought in a fresh load of mulch to dress the area and replanted the under-story plants that had been temporarily removed to a safe location at the edge of the yard. The existing dogwood and redbud trees under the big oaks came out remarkably unharmed. Surprisingly enough, when the trees fell they completely missed our two large (and expensive) planters, and they only slightly injured the smaller plants in the island. We did purchase some ornamental grasses to fill in some of the new space, and we transplanted a red-blooming crepe myrtle from the backyard where it had been under-performing due to lack of sunlight.

Island in bloom for spring
Island in bloom for spring

For the 2018 season, we had to totally rethink our flower beds at the front porch. In the past, these beds were filled with impatiens, caladiums, coleus, and other shade-loving annuals. We switched to impatiens, Mexican heather, begonias, zinnias, and other annuals and perennials that enjoy morning and early afternoon sun. These beds were beautiful before, and as we learn more about what will thrive there with the new conditions, they will be just as handsome. Where we once depended more on foliage than blooms for color, now we have just the opposite situation. I wouldn’t say they look better, just different. I must admit, in the days following the storm I was a bit worried about how our front yard gardens were going to suffer with the loss of the trees. I think we are comfortably acclimated to the new look now. It’s going to be just fine. One thing I know for certain. I will not miss for a second spending hours of time in the late fall picking up large acorns before they have the chance to burrow and sprout. For that little gift from Irma, I am quite grateful.

Sunny front flower beds
Sunny front flower beds

Parking Lot Sex and Other Library Moments I Will Never Forget

I spent the first 15 years of my professional career in a medium-sized public library in a town in rural Georgia. During the last three years, I was the library director. Public libraries by their very nature are institutions serving an amazingly diverse audience, a cross-section of the local population. My tenure as a librarian was long before Amazon released the first Kindle, and although recorded books were available, most people in our community were still reading physical books. Our patrons ranged from the poor and homeless to some of the wealthiest people in the area. Our doors were open to people who could barely read, and I am excluding pre-school children here. We also welcomed professors with advanced degrees who were on the faculty at the local liberal arts college. Our children’s programs attracted mothers bringing infants who would have rather chewed on a book than look at the pictures, but we also had regular patrons who were approaching the century mark.

Public libraries have always been used for a whole host of activities that are not strictly reading, and our library was no exception: writing, math tutoring, drawing or sketching, chess matches, napping, restroom use (including makeshift bathing or changing clothes), professional meetings, private meetings, and very private meetings. Another common use for the library was as a holding station for after-school children who “hung out” until their parents picked them up after getting off work. No matter how we tried to convince parents that the public library wasn’t a safe or appropriate place for unsupervised children, our building was too conveniently located downtown next to a prep school for parents to pass up what was essentially free, if passive, baby-sitting service. Considering some of the characters who walked through the doors, the public library was only marginally safer than a bus station. Many of these young students were not mature enough to handle temporary independence and would not spend their time in the library working on school assignments or even reading for pleasure. They were bored and restless and often noisy or even destructive.

When I first started at the library, we had a retired elementary-school teacher working part-time doing some clerical duties and filing about 2-3 days a week. She usually worked in the afternoons when the school children gathered around the entrance and annoyingly traveled in and out of the building. This woman was in her mid-seventies, about five feet tall, and thin as a stick pretzel. But, she had an incredible sense of presence that was hard to ignore. I remember one day a large group of students was hovering just outside the library entrance, and several of us on the staff were standing behind the circulation desk grumbling and complaining about how unruly these children were and how we wished they would find someplace else to waste time.  In short, we were a bunch of cowards not willing to confront the little hellions. Our retired teacher quietly walked around the desk, made her way to the entrance, and walked out the door and right into the middle of the rascals. We watched in jaw-dropping respect as, one by one, the children picked up their book bags and walked in the library to sit down at a table or left the property altogether. After the group was completely dispersed, she walked back into the building and to the circulation desk. I asked her, “What in the world just happened?” She turned her head nonchalantly toward me and softly said, “We had prayer meeting.”

Some of the funniest, most outrageous moments I have ever witnessed happened at this library. For instance, there was the time when a retired college professor wearing a pair of shorts walked out of the restroom, and as he made his way across the reference section, my boss and I noticed that a pair of boxers peaked out of the bottom of one of the legs of his pants until they finally escaped and fell to the floor behind him. He never noticed it. We had to dash back to the break room suppressing screams of laughter. He was among our most affable patrons. Others were not so adorable, like the old cuss who lived at the veterans home in the county who apparently had plenty of money and believed his wealth came with certain privileges, including breaking library policies. He was deaf as a stone and was constantly adjusting his hearing aids while poring over the Wall Street Journal in our leisure-reading section. He never wanted to leave at closing time. We had to almost push him out the door, and he usually cussed at us under his breath as he exited the building. One day near closing time, I walked back to where he was seated and mouthed unrecognizable words to him. He adjusted his hearing aid up. I did this several times, and each time he cranked up his hearing aid until I could hear it emitting a high-pitched squeal. Then, I moved in closer to him and shouted “WE’RE CLOSING. TIME FOR YOU TO LEAVE!” It almost blew him out of the chair. I’m not above juvenile pranks against someone so deserving as that old fart was.

We had another faithful patron who lived at the VA home. He flew planes in World War II and was stationed at some of the sites where nuclear weapons were tested. The poor guy had to have skin cancers removed from his face several times a year. Some of the best dirty jokes I ever heard came from this man, who once told me that he was almost kicked out of the veterans facility because he refused to clean his room. Although he ultimately won that fight, I can’t imagine the condition of his room! We had some real characters who were avid readers, like the woman in her late seventies who came in every week and asked if we had gotten any new “heavy breathers,” her moniker for romance novels with explicit sex scenes. Or, the grumpy, wrinkled woman with wild eyes who devoured murder mysteries like chocolate. I eventually realized that she wasn’t really mean at all but just liked projecting that persona. I enjoyed talking with her when she made her weekly visits. Of course, I wasn’t surprised to learn that she was famous in the community for having murdered her abusive husband, a crime for which she was never indicted or convicted.

I cannot finish without mentioning the young couple who inspired this post in the first place. I’m not sure they ever checked out a book, nor even took the time to read anything from our shelves. They did use our restrooms, which is completely understandable, if not acceptable. Our library was a two-story building constructed of red brick, concrete, and insulated tented windows. Unless the interior lights were on at night, it was almost impossible to see inside these windows from outside the building. It was an oblong, rectangular structure with a second floor that extended out from the first floor by about five feet or so thanks to curved concrete supports at its corners and along its sides.

From our break room, with windows that extended to the floor, the library staff had an excellent vantage point to look out over the parking lot and into the front seats of the cars. Several times a week for a few months, the male driver of a beat up 70s model four-door sedan painted a nauseating color of Fuchsia would pull into the lot and wait. Usually within a few minutes, a small white car would pull in and park close by, and the female driver would get out of the automobile and into the man’s car. After a few minutes of chatting, the fun began. Her head would disappear in his lap, their bodies would contort, and, well, you get the picture. We soon began referring to his car as the “Fuchsia F*** Mobile.” These escapades took place in broad daylight, usually around lunch time. On several occasions we saw people walk right past the front of the man’s car, but apparently no one ever noticed what was happening. But we did. Some of us even took notes.

Pool Landscaping

One of the most satisfying aspects of home ownership that I have experienced is designing and maintaining our landscape and gardens. All properties present their own challenges, some more extreme than others. For over fifteen years I struggled with a yard that sloped at about 35 degrees, from the street all the way to a small creek that served as the back property border. Most of the top soil had washed away long before I ever began working in that yard. At first I was attempting to plant in clay that was more like a brick patio than dirt. However, I also built my first and most natural-looking pond in a portion of that hillside behind the house with lush ornamental shrubs, perennials, and annuals surrounding the area. Of course, it took nearly ten years for my back to heal from that project.

Water features have always been a landscaping necessity for me, a subject I have covered before in this blog. My wife and I are currently living in a house in north Georgia in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. We are fortunate to have national forest land in front and behind our house. It’s an ideal setting for various gardens within the landscape, as long as I keep spraying Liquid Fence to keep the deer from eating everything in sight. When we first moved to this location, I knew I wanted to incorporate a water feature. In an effort to avoid traction or surgery for me, we elected not to build a pond at this house. Instead, we contracted with someone to build a pool — not so natural in appearance but infinitely more versatile than a garden pond.

Pool waterfall plantings
Pool waterfall plantings

We splurged on the pool project with the use of natural stone around the border and in the retaining wall and by installing a waterfall made with boulders. We covered the ground inside the fenced area with river rock, and for the first year, the pool was functional but not necessarily attractive. What ultimately enhanced the backyard project and made the space come alive was the addition of a few decorations and some plants. We started with some containers next to the waterfall, which added bright color and contrast with the earth tones of the stone. Over the next few years, we added Knockout Roses along the edges of the pool decking. We also added more containers with annuals near the steps leading up to the deck above the pool level. A collection of large-leaf hostas fill a corner just beyond the table, chairs, and shade umbrella. A chimenea, globe lanterns, and landscape lights complete the accessories for the pool.

Poolside Knockout Roses
Poolside Knockout Roses

On the side of the pump house we hung an antique window that has a watering pot and flowers painted on the glass panes. This modest piece of art reflects our love for gardening and adds interest even during the off season. Just beyond the fence behind the waterfall we planted elephant ears, which create a tropical atmosphere close to the sound of running water. There is a row of dwarf nandina along the outside of the long section of the fence running the length of the pool, and they turn a deep shade of red and green during the winter. On the slope just beyond this section of fence, we have large clumps of ornamental grasses, several mountain laurel shrubs, taller nandina, and an expanding collection of butterfly bushes that attract their namesake, along with a few hummingbirds, all summer long. Finally, a row of loropetalum shrubs serves as a tall screen just beyond the fence next to the carport entrance to the pool. In less than four years, we have been able to create a little oasis in our backyard — a place of rest, relaxation, and escape. It was worth every penny.

Pool pump house art
Pool pump house art

Confessions of a Lazy Musician

Music has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember. My mother’s extended family members were faithful Southern Baptists, for whom music was the primary expression of worship and praise. I was raised in this environment and at an early age was encouraged to sing frequently, not only in church, but for elderly relatives on their sick beds, at occasional family gatherings, and during Christmas holidays. As a pre-adolescent, I became increasingly impressed with older teens who performed in church, especially those who played musical instruments. My older sister had taken several years of piano lessons, and we had an old upright in our dining room that she used for rehearsing. I was frequently scolded for “banging” on the piano.

In the early 1970s at around the age of eleven, I expressed interest in learning how to play the guitar, so my parents bought a starter instrument for me and located a teacher. My instructor was an old guy who loved folk music and wanted me to start with the basics by playing simple songs note by note. I was impatient, which in retrospect was unfortunate because this was my one chance to learn how to read music. Instead, I jumped ahead in my music books and began learning how to play open chords — the easiest ones such as C, D, G, Em, and Am. In a short time, I began picking out songs that were popular during that time from pop and folk singers, especially John Denver. I started out as an amateur musician at just the right time. Many of the songs that I loved during those years could be played well enough with 3-5 chords. I took guitar lessons for less than a year.

My primary incentive in learning to play the guitar was to accompany myself to sing the songs that my friends and I were listening to on the radio. The more I played, the better my hearing became adapted for learning songs; therefore, I never went back to trying to read a musical score. I expanded my open chord portfolio, but I was not willing to push through the pain of playing bar chords, which continues to limit me as a guitarist to this day. Soon I was given opportunities to play and sing in church. By the time I reached the 10th grade, I was playing well enough to accompany choral groups at school and sing in talent contests.  My sister and I, along with one of our female cousins, formed a trio and played at nearby churches and for community groups. I was nervous playing in front of crowds, but I became better at listening to songs and reproducing them well enough for the average, uncritical audience. It was great fun, and it was a way for a short kid with not much athletic ability to find acceptance, approval, and even admiration from peers and adults.

Like most amateur musicians and singers from my generation, I also tried my hand at writing songs. My earliest influences were church music and pop/folk performers, so I began writing songs that I could sing and play for worship services and just for my own fulfillment. Some of them were good enough that I continued to sing them into adulthood. Others were absolutely horrible, and they are now thankfully forgotten. I have had the opportunity to perform original songs many times over the last thirty years, and my audiences have been quite gracious and accepting of my efforts. I continue even now to write songs, one of which I copyrighted and featured in this blog.

Sometime during my early college years, I began discovering chords on the piano. At the small community college I attended in the late 1970s, there were no restrictions on the use of the pianos in the practice rooms in the Department of Music. I would often head over in the late afternoons, when most faculty and almost all students were gone, and spend an hour or more discovering the triad configuration of the major chords and a few of the minors. By the time I had finished my undergraduate degree, I had memorized all the major and minor chords, along with sharps and flats. I had learned how to make numerous augmented and diminished chords, the major and minor 7ths, and suspended chords.

Also, my ear was better allowing me to determine the, and I stress this adjective, necessary chords to reproduce melodies on the guitar, but even more proficiently on the piano. I was playing chords on the keyboard that I was never able to master on the guitar. Solely from a mechanical standpoint, the piano is easier for me to play, and I have always taken the path of least resistance as a musician. Soon, I was singing and accompanying myself almost exclusively on the piano for church services, and then several times a year at weddings. If I listened to a song and worked at it for a while, I could learn to play it well enough to accompany myself or someone else to sing it. In other words, I was faking it sufficiently for most audiences and the people who were either inviting me or paying me to perform.

In my early forties, a friend of mine invited me to come to band rehearsal with him. He played bass for a 5-member local band covering classic rock, Southern rock, and some easy-listening music. As it turned out, they were considering bringing in a sixth member to serve as a front man. He knew I had a fairly good singing voice because he had heard me perform at a wedding. I started practicing with them regularly, and within a few months, I was singing for them. Up to this time, their drummer was the lead singer, and he continued to sing about half of our set lists for the next ten years I was with the band. It was a good arrangement. The musicians in this group were all far more accomplished than I was, but occasionally I did play acoustic and even keyboards on a few of the songs I sang for the band. Playing in that band was such a rush and fulfilled a deep desire to perform the music that I loved so much. I will always be thankful for the opportunity.

Howard baby grand piano
Howard baby grand piano

I am also extremely grateful to my wife, who always encourages me and goes out of her way to convince me and others that I am not a lazy musician. Of course, I know better, but I love her to the moon and back for the confidence she gives me and the praise she pours on me every time I play music. She has also facilitated my musical endeavors in direct and significant ways through amazing gifts: a baby grand piano she bought for me ten years ago and a Takamine guitar as an anniversary present in 2012. The Howard baby grand is a beautiful instrument intended for someone with talent and skill that far exceed my own, but I am astounded at how my playing has improved on this piano. I hear sounds and find melodic movements that I never sensed on other keyboards. It may not be magic, but I also can’t explain it, so it’s magic to me.

Takamine guitar
Takamine guitar

 

My guitars
My guitars

The Takamine is hands-down the finest guitar I have ever played. It is an acoustic with a pickup and electronic tuner. I had the pleasure of playing it during the last year I was with the band, and I still enjoy playing it on my own now. It is the fifth acoustic I have owned, including my first learner model and a Stella 12-string I had in high school. Currently, I have a wood-grain Yamaha that I have had since college, a Fender with a deep blue finish that I bought from one of my band mates, and the Takamine. I need to play much more than I do, but what can I say? I’m a lazy musician. The most recent addition to my collection of instruments is a Roland FP-90 keyboard that features real wooden hammer-action keys, multiple banks of sounds (pianos, strings, organs, synth sounds, etc.), four on-board speakers, and inputs for a mic and an amp. I had a smaller Yamaha keyboard that I bought while I was with the band, but this Roland is like a Rolls Royce by comparison.

My Roland FP-90 keyboard
My Roland FP-90 keyboard

I have spent much of my life attempting to entertain others at home, at church, at school, at work, and in restaurants and bars. I have sung and played for weddings, funerals, parties, dinners, meetings, and other occasions. Even when I was providing music at church, deep down it was my need to perform that inspired me as much or more than any religious conviction. I addressed this issue as honestly as possible in another blog post. Music has always been my most creative expression, and I am so thankful that I had some raw talent and the right people — family, friends, teachers — to encourage me at a young age. I only wish that I had taken the time and put forth the effort to learn to read music, which would have given me so many more opportunities to give people enjoyment. And, in the end, that is the reward for me of being an amateur performer.

Our Final Destination

One of the most magnificent places I have ever seen is Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming. My wife, younger son, and I combined a visit to this park with our exploration of Yellowstone during the summer of 2015. Formed by a series of earthquakes dating back about 10 million years, the Teton Range rises an impressive 7,000 feet above the valley floor. The jagged, rocky peaks are quite a spectacle and can be seen for miles across the expansive meadows, forests, and flood plains that make up so much of the park’s terrain.

Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge
Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge

There are numerous options for staying overnight in the park, including campgrounds, cabins, and lodges. Jackson Lake Lodge is a full-service resort hotel that features a spacious lobby with two-story windows looking out on Jackson Lake and the 40-mile-long mountain range beyond. We didn’t actually stay at this lodge, but we spent some time in the lobby, out on the deck, and on the nearby trails where we could gaze at the ascending peaks still dressed in patches of snow even in July. As I wrote in a previous blog about this view, “Grand” doesn’t do it justice.

Grand Tetons near Jenny Lake
Grand Tetons near Jenny Lake

Human occupation of this region of the state began approximately 11,000 years ago when Nomadic paleo-Indians first entered the valley shortly after Pleistocene Ice Age glaciers retreated. The first euro-American explorer who may have entered the area was John Colter. He served as a member of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition, but he left the expedition in the fall of 1806 and traveled through this region in the winter of 1807-1808. As America expanded westward, survey expeditions mapped the landscape, documented natural resources, and scouted for future railroad access. Congress created the original park in 1929 to protect the Teton Range and several lakes at the foot of the mountains. More land from the federal government and from private donors was added over the next few decades, and by 1950 the park was the size that it is today: 310,000 acres.

Just inside the southern entrance to the park is a place that holds special meaning for my wife and me. The tiny Chapel of the Transfiguration was built in 1925 on land donated by Maud Noble. It was constructed so that the early settlers would not have to make the long buckboard ride into the nearby town of Jackson for Sunday services. The structure also served guests and employees of the dude ranches that stretched north of Jackson along the base of the Teton Range. It is still a functioning Episcopal church and is operated by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jackson. Services are held at the Chapel from late May to early September each year. A large window behind its altar frames the magnificent beauty of the Teton Range. A good friend of mine and a former Baptist minister of music once said, “It wouldn’t matter what the topic of your sermon was in that chapel. You’d always get an ‘amen’ at the end.”

Grand Tetons - Chapel of the Transfiguration
Grand Tetons – Chapel of the Transfiguration

My wife is a cradle Episcopalian, and I joined the denomination after we were married in 2008. We sometimes visit Episcopal churches when we are traveling, especially in historic locations. Although we did not attend a service at this little chapel, we were quite taken by its simple construction and its beautiful surroundings. In the summer of 2012, St. John’s created a Garden of Memories at the Chapel of Transfiguration for those who would like to repose their cremains on the grounds of this unique sacred place. Instead of being spread, ashes are poured into the ground and covered with soil. The names and dates of the deceased are inscribed on a plaque mounted on a large stone in the garden. We both decided a long time ago that we wanted to be cremated when we die, and after visiting this lovely place of worship in the valley below the Grand Tetons, we have chosen to make this garden our final travel destination.