MY DREAM GIG

jolz at chilli's
I had a wonderful experience in Hawaii that started last winter and continued through the end of April. This experience is ongoing and will last forever. I called an old friend of twenty-plus years whose name is Fred. Fred is a guitarist who also plays the ukulele, electric bass, banjo, lute, wash tub bass and just about any other musical instrument with strings. If it has a string, Fred will pluck it.

I was in need of an activity to occupy my mind and fingers during these years following my retirement from The Royal Hawaiian Band, so I sought Fred’s advice on buying an ukulele. During our chat Fred mentioned he was playing a gig, one night a week at a hotel near me in Waikiki. One lovely evening Barb and I decided to walk the short distance to the Queen Kapiolani Hotel to hear him perform.

He was part of a three piece group that was lead by a lovely woman named Jolene. She had a gentle and soothing voice that never over powered. Her voice felt like the serene trade winds. The trio played a collection of music that clearly resonated with me. There were  gentle swing tunes, bossa novas, fun hapa haole numbers and a few gorgeous ballads to accompany the Waikiki sunset. A bass player named Mike sang harmonies with Jolene. “Jolz” as everyone calls her, played an ukulele and would occasionally shake an egg maraca or a tambourine while she sang. The trio call themselves “Jolz ’n Jazz.” All of this was framed within the lovely indoor/outdoor venue of the Kulana Terrace, a gathering spot for visitors and locals alike. The patrons are happy to be here. Who wouldn’t be? Honeymoon couples, entire families on vacation and happy single people were there. They enjoyed fine dining under a thatched roof or lounged at the swimming pool area. Some simply sat at the bar enjoying a drink with an umbrella in it. Barb and I reclined on chaise lounges near the trio, drinking wine and beer while munching on nachos.

During their break, we chatted amiably with Fred who introduced us to Jolene and Mike. They were gentle folks, who were as polite as their music. There were no “rock star” or “chick singer” egos. They were just there for the music. Jolz asked if I’d join them in the second set and perhaps shake an egg maraca or a tambourine. Yes, there was more cowbell. It was my pleasure to join them and thus we enjoyed a rewarding musical experience, and new friendships were formed.

Jolene told me I’d be most welcome to play with them any time I wanted to sit in. It turned out that on Saturdays she appeared with a guitarist/singer whose name is Sanford. Their music was adorned with the graceful and fun stylings of a hula dancer named Kaliko, who also played a pretty mean cow bell. Sanford sang a lot of Elvis, (“Blue Hawaii” obviously) and an assortment of 50’s and 60’s Rock ’n Roll. And so it was “Jolz ’n Jazz” on Fridays and “Jolz and Sanz” on Saturdays.

I constructed a small drum kit consisting of a snare drum, an attached splash cymbal, a tambourine, wood block and cow bell. I used only brushes to maintain a low profile. Jolz would give me a ride to and from the gigs. I started showing up both nights. The pay was small in terms of money but abundantly wealthy in every other way. We had a tip jar that we shared, and although the revenue was not the stuff of which financial empires are made, the “after gig hang” made it all worthwhile. We would order our complimentary meal from the scrumptious dinner menu…a perfect pau hana time. It’s easy to make good music when you are working with people you truly like.

As Jolz and I worked both Friday and Saturday nights, Fred starting migrating occasional over to Saturdays to play his ukulele alongside Sanford (we call him “San”). Kaliko would dance occasionally on Fridays. The Friday night gang and the Saturday night gang started to mingle. We all become more social with one another. Jolz and I started having our Wednesday afternoon cocktail hour at the Kulana Terrace as we talked story with our favorite bartender. I can think of no better “business meeting” than afternoon cocktails in Waikiki with my new friends. Toward the end of our sojourn in Hawaii, Barb and I and the entire Jolz Band enjoyed lunch together at Chilli’s on our day off.

On one particular night we were playing “Hanalei Moon.” I looked to my left and there was indeed a moon rising over Diamond Head. I looked straight ahead and there was Kaliko interpreting the lyrics with her lovely hula hands. And to my right, the sun was setting over the Pacific while Jolz and San sang in sweet harmony. It was then I suddenly realized that I no longer needed a career in music that consisted of playing in symphony orchestras under the judgmental eyes of  temperamental conductors, and working with assholes who would freak out if they (or you) dropped a grace note. I had finally found My Dream Gig.

This bi-coastal lifestyle that Barb and I have been enjoying is not always easy. Making the 6,000 mile journey twice a year, back and forth between the East Coast and Hawaii can be grueling.  Make no mistake about it, we love Maine and I find myself complaining more and more about crowded conditions on Oahu. Add to it the continuing development of Oahu by greedy business people from other countries and the high cost of living in Paradise. Bananas for $1.49 a pound? C’MON!

But there is a seductive carrot at the end of a stick that keeps luring me back to the islands and back to Waikiki.  It’s not just the sublime weather that meteorologist Guy Hagi calls “the best weather on the planet.” The allure is simply music and friends. Friends like Jolene, Kaliko, Fred, Mike and  San.

It all reminds me of a scene from a favorite movie of mine, “The Boys and Girl from County Clare.” When the heroine asks her elderly bachelor uncle, “Aren’t you ever lonely? Is that all you ever think about? Music?”

He replies, “When you got the music, you’ve got a friend for life. That’s why I’m never alone.”

AMEN.

© 2016, William Emerson Wiley

EMERSON ESSAY 11.01.11

It Is What It Is

In memory of Mike Morita

I haven’t attended a birthday party lately and weddings are also rare events on my social calendar. It seems my close friends don’t wish to make a fuss about adding another year to their age, nor are they interested in adding a spouse either. If this alone weren’t sad enough, the funerals of my friends are starting to occur more frequently. This is a fact of aging I must accept but one I don’t like very much.

A few months ago, I attended a service for a close friend who passed away unexpectedly and far too early. His name was Mike Morita and he was two years younger than I. We met through our work in the Royal Hawaiian Band. Mike played the trumpet and played it incredibly well. Mike did a lot of things incredibly well. He strove for excellence in all that he did. Being a great trumpet player was only part of what was remarkable about Mike Morita.

As members of the Royal Hawaiian Band, Mike was my immediate supervisor. He was the personnel manager in charge of the brass and percussion sections. This meant a lot of paperwork, and lot of off-hours phone calls to fill positions when someone was out sick or on vacation. The job was demanding but Mike handled it with aplomb. He never lost his temper when others around him lost theirs. He treated everyone fairly, even those who tried to detract from him. When -problem or issue presented itself in the band, Mike did his best to remedy the conditions. A quiet Zen-like patience enabled him to accept the things he could not change. When his underlings complain about an unfixable problem, Mike would gently utter in his deep Morgan Freeman-like voice, “It is what it is.” Mike accepted the bumps in the road with rare gentility and usually with a quiet smile. He was a true gentleman, an entity far too rare these days.

I recall a time when we were short-handed in the percussion section and all the usual parttimers were unavailable. Mike called me up and asked if he could borrow a pair of drumsticks. I lent him a big pair of Vic Firth large marching drumsticks, perfect for training the chops of beginning drummers. He went on to develop those chops and play tenor drum in a parade. Later Mike added the bass drum to his arsenal of musical weapons. Did he play these instruments well? Of course he did.

Mike taught himself the valve trombone and played it on an Easter Sunday church job for which I hired him at Unity Church. I was honored Mike agreed to do the gig. Late in life he started declining offers to do freelance work, so I was especially pleased he chose to work with us. He played the piccolo trumpet solo on the same program. Mike was versatile and he demanded perfection of himself no matter what instrument he played. After the service I asked Mike what he thought of his own trombone playing. Always modest and with a slight chuckle he said, “It is what it is.”

But Mike wasn’t all work. He loved sports, especially baseball. He coached his son’s little league team. He knew the rudiments of baseball inside and out.

I had the honor of watching several games of the 2004 Major League playoffs with Mike. Those playoffs and the subsequent World Series were special to me, a Red Sox fan, but they were even more ingrained in my memory because Mike was there to share the experience. We watched Johnny Damon’s grand slam home run together at the Hawaii Kai “Shack,” as we shared pitchers of beer and fried bar food. The Shack had a talent for taking something healthy like zucchini and deep-frying it.  Mike would always try to talk me into having some of his French fries. He often succeeded.

Even when we both were safely tucked away in the comforts of our separate homes (with better food), we’d share televised games via the telephone. Mike would call me if there was a home run or a Red Sox picture got knocked out of the box.

“You watching the game?” Mike would ask. “How about Ortiz’s homer? It was clear over “The Green Monster.” ”

“Yep, I’m watching it.”

“Good game, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I said. We wasted few words.

I’m missing Mike and our baseball phone chats, now more than ever. The 2011 World Series (one of the most thrilling World Series ever) lost its fizz because Mike wasn’t there to share it. There were no trips to sports bars, no fried food and no phone calls to discuss the game.

Besides watching, we sometimes played sports. Mike was a much better golfer than I. He kindly took me to the Hawaii Kai, Par 3 course one day. He hit the ball well and gave me pointers, always being patient with my ineptness. We agreed we’d only play the front 9 holes then go to the clubhouse for a drink(s). The ninth green happened to be 200 yards away from the clubhouse. It was shorter just to walk from the 8th green to the bar. Thus we only played “the front eight.” We often joked that one day we would play “the back ten.” Whenever we drove by the golf course Mike would chuckle and say, “How about we shoot another 8 holes?”

Living in East Honolulu near Mike had its advantages. We’d often share a relaxed lunch together at The Kona Brewing Company in Hawaii Kai’s Koco Marina. No sports bar food here: The cuisine was excellent, the scenery was sublime. There was a beautiful view of the Koolau Mountains with clouds billowing above and the occasional Hawaiian rainbow to enjoy. From the outdoor deck, we would peer down at the marina and fantasize about which boats we would want to own. We decided in the long run it would be better to have a friend who owned a boat, as opposed to owning one ourselves.

Mike was incredibly generous and it was difficult to wrestle away the tab from him in a restaurant. He was always giving with his money, his time, and his friendship. He was especially generous with his pickup truck when we had something to move. And he was always on the other end of the cargo when we ferried it from one place to another.

Whenever I’d call him and ask for directions to a gig, his response was always, “Wait. I’ll come get you up.”

He once spent 4 hours on a Monday afternoon (our day off) repairing an electrical switch on my Subaru. I tried to pay him for his time., but he’d accept no money. I brought a bottle of an excellent Cabernet Sauvignon to his house the next day. Mike insisted I come in and finish it with him. And we did.

Mike knew his wines and knew good food and how to cook it. He knew sports and politics. He was as smart and informed as he was generous. He was the perfect friend.

I recently came upon about a dozen hard copy photos a friend had taken of the Royal Hawaiian Band at the Ala Moana Shopping Center. About half of them had shots of Mike in them. It begged the question in my mind: “Where the heck is Mike Morita now?

Science or religion might offer answers, but neither one can explain consciousness and what happened to Mike’s. I secretly hope the true believers are correct and St. Peter and God, himself met Mike at The Golden Gates and offered him one of those cabin cruisers we saw anchored at the Koco Marina. I hope they took him to The Par 3 Golf course at Hawaii Kai and they shot “the back 10” together. I hope the three of them watched the 2011 World Series.

But perhaps the energy that was once Mike Morita’s consciousness has scattered like a billion billiard balls and each of us who knew him get to hold onto a small piece of what was once Michael Morita. We are grateful for his life and the time we got to spend with him and we learn from his early death to seize the day.

Mike professed to be an agnostic but now he knows more than any of us. And if we could ask him where the heck he is now, he would offer his wry smile and softly answer, “It is what it is.”

EMERSON ESSAYS 1.1.11

The Fugitive

My favorite TV show when I was 15 years old was “The Fugitive.” Dr. Richard Kimble was my hero. I couldn’t help but to identify with the falsely accused doctor. I knew how it felt to be hounded about something you didn’t do. Kimble had to “run before the relentless pursuit of the police Lieutenant obsessed with his capture” (Lt. Philip Gerard). I had my old man ragging on me all the time. It was time for me to hit the road the way Dr. Kimble did every week. He usually hopped a freight train. I thought that was pretty cool. He had an idyllic life, it seemed: seeing a different part of America every week, and meeting new and interesting people. Kimble also got to make out with women like Angie Dickensen and Suzanne Pleshette. I always regretted that I was not as handsome as David Janssen who played Kimble. I gave up on the possibility of ever getting to make out with Angie or Suzanne.

But I did get a chance to get away from the relentless hounding by my father and ride the rails, ala Dr. Kimble, when I was fifteen years old. My best friend from junior high school had moved with his family to the Florida Keys. Once he was settled there, we established a pen pal relationship. He invited me down for  a few weeks in the summer. Surprisingly, my father trusted me enough to let me go.

My life up to this point had been sadly devoid of interstate travel. There were occasional day trips with my family to Gettysburg or sightseeing in Virginia. But the journey awaiting me on this, my fifteenth summer, would be far more exciting. I would be traveling through six different states during a 24 hour train ride.

More importantly, I would be traveling alone! I would be like Dr. Richard Kimble, with just a small duffel bag with a containing a change of underwear and socks. Well actually, I didn’t have a duffel bag. I had kind of a fancy suitcase and it contained several pairs of pants and clean shirts and my first can of Right Guard. But the suitcase was a small one. The Fugitive would have approved. I also had the advantage of having some sandwiches my mother had packed for me.

While Dr. Kimble hopped freight trains, I was to travel aboard a passenger train which ran out of Baltimore’s Union Station. My brother’s wife’s father was a steward on the dinner car of the train I was to take to Miami. He had the same first name as I so to avoid confusion, I’ll call him “Uncle Bill.”

I took little money with me, because like Dr. Richard Kimble I had to “toil at many jobs,” most of which paid very little. I  never had a lot of pocket money but on the day I was to leave, unbeknownst to my Dad, my mother snuck an extra $40 to me. Likewise, my dad slipped me $20 that my Mom didn’t know about. In his Ward Cleaver like manner he admonished me: “Don’t piss it all away the first day.”

Mom paid for my ticket at the depot in Baltimore. All aboard! I found my seat in the coach. The adventure was about to begin.

Uncle Bill found me immediately and told me to follow him to the dining car. It was then that I met his two female co-workers.  This being the days in which employers could hire people, based upon looks, they were both very pretty. They also seemed very mature to me (probably in their mid-twenties.) One was a blond, the other a brunette. Upon meeting them, I immediately had thoughts of Angie Dickensen and Suzanne Pleshette. I was beginning to feel more like Dr. Richard Kimble with each passing moment.

Uncle Bill gave me a white dinner jacket to wear and ordered me to pass out menus to the patrons of the dining car. When the conductor came around to punch our tickets, he assumed I was an employee of the railroad and never punched mine. I was later able to cash in my unused ticket for a refund.

I never felt more like Dr. Richard Kimble. Here I was traveling alone (okay, Uncle Bill was with me) and I was being treated as an adult, something that didn’t happen at home, that’s for sure. More importantly, Angie and Suzanne began flirting with me. I couldn’t really do much to cash in on this female attention. At the tender age of fifteen, my savoire was only faire. Ah, if only I knew then what I know now!

I watched the Carolinas go whizzing by. This was as far south as I had ever been. Did it count as having been in another state if my feet didn’t actually touch Carolina soil? In spite of all the excitement and fun, I eventually grew tired and needed to get some sleep. I asked Uncle Bill if it was okay if I went back to the coach and caught some Zs.

“Grab your suitcase and follow me,” he said. He led me to his private cabin, complete with bunk bed. “I hope you don’t mind taking the top bunk.”  Did I mind??!! This was a luxury I had never expected. To be tucked cozily away in a private sleeper car was as close to bliss as I had ever come. The staccato sounds of the rail ties beneath the train lulled me to sleep. The occasional plaintive wail of the train’s whistle woke me several times during the night,  but it only reminded me of where I was and how happy I was at the moment.

I helped Uncle Bill, Angie, and Suzanne with breakfast the following morning. I passed out menus, seated customers and cleared tables. The rest of the morning was spent watching the beautiful Georgia countryside from the train’s observation car. What a spectacular and large country we live in, I thought. Yet, I had only seen a very small part of it. It was a defining moment in my life when I realized how much I loved to travel and how much I wanted to see the rest of the USA. I had now been in six different states. Only 44 more to see!

We arrived in Miami around 6:00 pm. My friend (also named Bill, I’ll refer to him as “Billy”) whom I was visiting lived in Tavernier, Florida which was about a two-hour bus ride from Miami. My bus left at 9:00 that night. I had three hours to kill. Uncle Bill invited me to spend time with him at his hotel until it was time to head south.

“Do you feel like taking a little nap before you head south or shall we call the gals over for a night cap?” he asked as a bottle of Jim Beam appeared from his suitcase. I didn’t drink in those days but the thought of spending a few hours in the company of two beautiful twenty-five year old women (and a sixty-three year old man) appealed to me greatly. I opted not to sleep, I could do that on the bus later.

I downed several bottles of Hires Root Beer as my adult companions drank their bourbon. The women were friendly and seemed genuinely interested in what I was going to do during my two weeks in the Keys. Uncle Bill seemed genuinely interested in the two 25 year olds! Let the good times roll!

But a fugitive must keep moving. There is little room in his life for long time relationships. It was 8:30 before I knew it and I bade goodbye to my kind uncle and my new found lady friends. I hailed a cab  and rode to the bus depot.

It was late and I was tired. I slept on the bus. The driver’s voice coming over the loud speak woke me up. “Tavernier! Someone wanted Tavernier?” Thank God I heard him. I grabbed my small suitcase and departed.

There was Billy, standing along side the highway, waiting for my bus. It had been over a year since I had seen him. When his family had made the decision to go to Florida it seemed like he was moving a million miles away. But here we were, shaking hands along the side of Route 1, on a warm summer night in the Florida Keys.

Billy and his family lived in an apartment above the Western Auto store that his father owned. His parents were kind and hospitable toward me. He had an older brother who was cordial but didn’t really pay me much attention.

And there was Chrissy. She was Billy’s thirteen-year-old sister. She had eyes the color of chocolate fudge with matching tendrils of hair that fell to her shoulders. She did pay a lot of attention to me and we developed a good friendship. In spite of my recent experience in a hotel room with two beautiful twenty-five-year old women and a bottle of bourbon, I was still rather innocent and shy. My relationship with Chrissy remained just a friendship but I enjoyed her company and the talks we would have. I always encouraged Billy to include Chrissy on our outings but he usually just said, “Nah! She’ll just get in the way.” He just didn’t understand.

For the next two weeks I did adult things that I was never allowed to do at home. I rode down Route 1, on the back of Billy’s motorcycle, going from island to island, crossing the small bridges that connected them.  Without my father there to warn me of the potential dangers of the ocean, I snorkeled with reckless abandon in the clear blue Atlantic Ocean.

There was a day trip to Miami where I bought a gold colored butane cigarette lighter in a pawn shop. The asking price was $20. The sleazy looking Cuban who ran the place sensed my reluctance to buy. No way was I going to “piss away” all my money. He lowered the price in small increments until at last I paid the paltry sum of $3.00. I would later brag how I had “talked him down.”

We went to Sealife Park where I petted dolphins, saw Flipper do his acrobatic stuff and bought my little sister Lynn a Flipper T-shirt which she treasures to this day.

And there were limes! Billy’s yard had a lime tree (as did every yard in his neighborhood) and every afternoon we had limes in our ice tea. After supper we would have Key Lime pie for desert.  We made limeade. I ended up filling my suitcase half full of limes and bringing them home as gifts. I think I mailed my dirty laundry home to make room for the limes.

At night when the summer sun had finally set, Billy and I would take his small boat out and with flashlight and net, go hunting for craw-dads. The craw-dads, as I remembered looked a great deal like regular lobsters but had no claws. They tasted a lot like lobsters too.

This was Paradise! Free limes, free shellfish, motorcycling among the islands with my best friend, snorkeling, and a really cute thirteen-year-old girl who liked me. But there comes a time in the life of a fugitive when he knows he must move along. Friendships and other relationships are transitory. Besides, my mother was expecting me home.

My train was to leave Miami on a Sunday morning but there was no bus that would get me there in time unless I left Tavernier on Saturday night. “I’ll stay with my uncle in his hotel,” I lied to Billy’s parents. I wanted the adventure of fending for myself in a large city at night, the way Dr. Richard Kimble did.

Billy’s entire family saw me off at the bus depot. I shook hands with Billy, his brother, his father and his mother. I wanted to give Chrissy a hug but opted instead to just shuffle my feet, look down, and mumble simply, “’Bye, Chrissy.”

Now a pro at procuring taxi cabs, I flagged one down when I got to the bus depot in Miami. “Seaside Railway Company, please,” I said to the driver.

“You mean the train station? I don’t think they’re open this time of night., but I’ll take you over there.”

I had planned on simply sleeping on a bench in the train station but when we arrived, the station was indeed closed down for the night. A wrought iron fence forbade me access to the benches.

“There’s a hotel across the street,” the cabby said. “It’s not very fancy but you can get a room for the night if you want”

I thanked him, tipped him and with a suitcase half full of limes, began my night on the mean streets of Miami. I saw an all night laundromat, just the perfect place to sleep. There were benches galore. I had just settled down for a long summer’s nap when the sound of male voices speaking in foreign tongues awoke me. A gang of Cuban youths were headed my way. They’d surely beat me up, steal my money, my imitation gold butane lighter and maybe even my limes. I ran for the small hotel the cabby had recommended. It would be worth it to spend a few extra dollars for the safety of a locked room.

But this was no ordinary hotel. “I’d like a room for the night, please,” I said to the eighty year old geezer who was on the front desk.

“Hmmm…well we usually rent by the hour but I guess you can have Number Five at the top of the stairs. That’ll be $7.00 in advance.”

I was glad I hadn’t pissed away all of my money. Now I could afford the luxury of a private room in a whore house, deep in the bowels of Miami’s porn district.

“You want wake up service?” the geezer asked. “I can come knock on your door in the morning if you want. Ain’t got no phones in the room.”

I explained that I had an 8:00 am train to catch and a 6:00 am wake up would be appreciated. I really didn’t sleep much that night. There were there usual sounds of pleasures great and small, coming from the adjacent rooms and of course the occasionally gun shot or fist fight in the hallway. I also itched a lot that night. Morning mercifully arrived and I left the hotel quite early, cheerfully nodding good morning to the geezer. The train station was a short walk away.

Uncle Bill found me sitting on a bench in the depot and summoned me aboard the train. Angie and Suzanne were with him. The trip north was just as beautiful and just as much fun as my journey south, two weeks prior. It was also free again, as we fooled the conductor into not punching my ticket. And again I had the luxury of sharing the bunk bed with Uncle Bill. My accommodations were so comfortable, I overslept and nearly missed my stop in Baltimore. The train was continuing to New York so I said goodbye and thanks to my kind uncle.

Uncle Bill was one of those relatives (an in-law actually) whom I really didn’t see very often. We hardly knew each other. But his kindness to me on my trip was something that I shall never forget. When I wrote my thank you notes upon returning home, the note to Uncle Bill was an easy one to write.

No one from my family was able to meet me in Baltimore so more taxi and bus rides were in order to get me to my journey’s end.  As I rode in a cab from the Annapolis bus depot to my house on Van Buren Street, I thought I could hear the stern voice of William Conrad narrating my odyssey as he did for Richard Kimble every week:

 

For Richard Kimble the running must continue as he searches for the one-armed man and untimately truth and justice. But Emerson Wiley has found truth, justice, and beauty. For a brief moment, his running can stop…until his father yells at him again.

© 2011 William Emerson Wiley

EMERSON ESSAYS 1.1.11

A Super Sunday

Once upon a time, long, long ago there was something called The National Football League, (NFL). There were two conferences (East and West), each consisting of six teams. No one had heard of the Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys or Jacksonville whatevers. Florida and Tennessee certainly didn’t have teams. This was football they way the Good Lord had intended it. Twelve teams slugging it out for three months and the teams with the best records in each conference played one another for the professional football championship. There were no “playoffs” nor any “wild card” nonsense. There was simply one game that determined the best football team in the world.

Back in 1958, Baltimore had very little going for it compared to its east coast neighbors. It didn’t have the glamor and glitz of New York. Nor did it have the culture of Boston or the sophistication of Philadelphia. Beating the New York Giants for the football championship of the world became an obsession to the working class people of Baltimore.

The Baltimore Colts were as blue collar as the Baltimore steel workers and Chesapeake Bay oystermen who rooted for them. Johnny Unitas was the super star of the Colts. The Man with the Golden Arm they called him. Unitas had the All-American good looks of John Elway. But he didn’t sell his autograph for hundreds of dollars a pop the way today’s athletes do. He didn’t have a hi-tech radio receiver in his helmet transmitting plays from the bench. He called all the plays himself and led his team to many a last minute comeback. In spite of what Denver fans may think, I believe Unitas actually threw a football better than John Elway. It was Elway who became rich and famous as a result of his use of the “two minute drill” but let us not forget who invented it. Incidentally, John Unitas made one fiftieth the salary of John Elway.

On the last Sunday in December of 1958, my father took me to the Eastport Democratic Club to watch a football game on TV. The Colts and the New York Giants were playing for the football championship of the world. Dad bought me a coke and some pretzels and National Bohemian Beers for his friends. He let me play the one-arm-bandit slot machines prior to the game. And then at 2 pm, my father and I, along with two dozen of his buddies, sat back and watched the little black and white Philco TV, mounted above the bar. For the next two and a half hours, we watched the greatest football game ever played!

All pro football players who make a million dollars a year should be required to watch the film of that 1958 Championship game. They owe their livelihood to what the Giants and Colts did on that gray Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium. The game was broadcast nationally and it set in motion the entire industry of televised football. Before this game the networks were quite unsure if pro football could be sold on national TV. After that game, Americans fell in love with the sport and the TV networks now pay handsomely for the rights to broadcast pro football.

We had to watch the game closely, because there was no instant replay in those days. If Raymond Berry made a diving catch of a Johnny Unitas pass, we just had to remember how great it was. Berry caught twelve passes from Johnny U. that day.

That game had everything! See-saw lead changes. A goal line stand by the Giants that looked like it would win the game for them. But minutes later, the Colts got the ball back deep in their own territory with time running out. The Colts didn’t huddle, saving precious seconds on the clock. Unitas threw a series of sideline passes to Raymond Berry who would dive out of bounds, thus stopping the clock. When halfback Lenny Moore ran the ball, he’d gain the necessary first down yardage then head for the side lines. The Colts moved the football down the field quickly and efficiently. It was a beautiful thing to watch. They were three points behind. A touchdown would win it, a field goal would tie the game.

There were no high-tech clocks in those days. The field judge kept time with a simple stop watch. The Colts had the ball close but could not get it into the end zone. Just then, a technician at Yankee Stadium accidentally kicked a cable loose and football fans across America collectively gasped as the screen went snowy white for about 30 seconds. A chorus of profanities erupted at the Eastport Democratic Club. A cheer of happy profanities arose  as the picture returned.

The Colts had no time outs left. Their kicking team scrambled onto the field. The referee looked at his stop watch as Steve Myrah booted a 24 yard field goal through the uprights. The ref fired his pistol, the game was over. The game was tied. The referees, scratched their heads. What to do? This was a championship game. It couldn’t end in a tie. It was decided a fifth quarter would be played and whoever scored first would be world champs. A broadcaster coined the word “sudden death.” History was being made.

A coin was tossed and the Colts won the call. They would receive the football first. Johnny U. marched the troops down the field one last time. Raymond Berry caught more passes, Lenny Moore ran the ball with his usual grace and style. Even tight end Jim Mutscheller who usually stayed in for blocking purposes, caught a ball near the goal line.

“TOUCH….”, yelled Baltimore sportscaster Chuck Thompson. “No, he’s out of bounds on the one-yard line!”

What would the Colts do? It would be easy to punch over a very short field goal and end the game but the Colts had come this far, why not go for the touchdown.

“Unitas hands the ball to Ameche….the Colts are the World Champions!” The burly fullback plunged through a hole in the line so large, a Chesapeake Bay schooner could have sailed through.

The Eastport Democratic Club erupted with cheering, shouting, and cursing. Someone bought me my fifth Coke of the day. My father was grinning from ear to ear, something he seldom did.

“Remember this day, boy” he said to me, “you’ll never see another football game like that one.”

The old man was right. I never did. Yesterday’s Super Bowl was an exciting game but it just couldn’t compare to the day when Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Alan Ameche and the rest of the 1958 Colts gave the beer and crab Baltimorians something to be proud of. It was a Super Sunday!

 

© 2011 William Emerson Wiley

 

 

 

 

EMERSON ESSAYS 1.1.11

The Right Triangle

When I was still in high school I received my first triangle as a Christmas present from my mother. I knew how Mickey Mantle must have felt when he got his first baseball bat, or Johnny Unitas his first football.

My mother didn’t know much about triangles but she always did her research and always bought the perfect Christmas present. She called up my drum teacher, old Mr. Goucher and asked his advice. He found the perfect triangle for me in one of Washington D.C.’s better music stores. It was under the tree, waiting for me on Christmas morning.

The perfect triangle? Aren’t they all the same? Isn’t it just a piece of metal that you hit and it goes “ding?” No! Triangles are as diverse as  violins or flutes. There are good triangles and there are inferior triangles. The next time you hear a booming symphony being played by a hundred and ten piece orchestra listen carefully to the triangle during the loud parts. If the percussionist has selected the proper instrument, you should be able to hear the bright shimmering sound of the triangle above the large choir of trumpets and trombones. For smaller, more intimate pieces, a good percussionist selects a smaller more delicate instrument and strikes it with a small thin triangle beater for just the right sound.

A more interesting sound can be achieved by shaking the instrument after it’s struck. This gives the sound a vibrato. An artistic percussionist uses the vibrato on the triangle as discretely and tastefully as a virtuostic string player would on a violin or cello. Also, a good triangle doesn’t produce just one note, but a whole spectrum of other pitches called overtones, which have to sound pleasant with the rest of the orchestra and not clash discordantly.

The triangle Mom and Mr. Goucher select for me was perfect because  it had the power to cut through a large orchestra yet the finesse and élan to play in a smaller ensemble. This triangle was versatile. It was able to get “down and dirty” for pop music or add a happy splash of musical color to a Broadway show tune. I went on to collect other triangles but this is the one triangle that I’d want to have with me, if I were stranded on a desert island.

To play with the Boston Pops was something I had aspired to all of my musical life. As a teenager, while most kids collected Beatles records or Rolling Stones LP’s, I collected Boston Pops recordings. I knew what their percussion section sounded like, what instruments they used and how they played them. While other boys from Maryland had posters of Brooks Robinson in his Baltimore Orioles uniform on their walls, I had a poster of Maestro Fiedler brandishing his baton with much flair and panache.

It was the summer of 1970. I had just graduated from the New England Conservatory and I was freelancing in Boston. I received the phone call I had been dreaming of. Would I play for the Fourth of July concert with the POPS? Gee…let me check my date book.

There was to be one rehearsal at Symphony Hall. I was assigned most of the triangles parts. First on the rehearsal list was Rosinni’s “William Tell Overture.” I owned Fiedler’s recording. I knew how the triangle part went and I knew which instrument to use. I would use my favorite triangle, the one Mom had given me for Christmas.

While setting up on stage at Boston’s Symphony Hall I knew how hometown boy Tony Conigliario must have felt when he stepped up to the plate at Fenway Park for the first time in his rookie year. He applied wood to horsehide and slammed a homer over the Green Monster. My first note for my favorite conductor at Symphony Hall in Boston would be a gem. Arthur Fiedler would smile his avuncular smile at me, wink, and then give me a “thumbs up.” He would come up to me after rehearsal, put his arm around me, and take me across the street to Amalfi’s and buy me a glass of chianti.

“We’ll start with the Rossini”, my soon-to-be friend Arthur announced. My part would come about two minutes into the piece. I stood at my music stand, triangle in hand, ready to apply metal to metal, ready to play the most important note of my career. Mr. Goucher beamed down at me from that great Pops Orchestra in the sky.

The “William Tell Overture” starts with a beautiful cello solo then gets into a big thunderstorm scene, complete with timpani, bass drum, and cymbals clashing loudly. No triangle. Not yet. That lovely instrument is saved for the softer passage after the thunderstorm and before the Lone Ranger music. The triangle provides a quiet, tinkly sheen, as the sun peaks out from behind the clouds. I knew the proper mood, I had the perfect triangle, I had listened to my RCA Victor Red Seal recording with Arthur Fiedler smiling on the cover. I was ready for a musical home run.

The strings laid down a soft musical bed for the woodwinds. A flute trilled. English horn, bassoon and oboe did their thing: “doo…dee-doo-doo-dee-doo-doo…dee doo-doo-doodoodle-doo…”

My triangle: “DING!”

Arthur Fiedler bellowed above the orchestra: “Triangle, you’re too loud!”

He then put his left hand on his hip while continuing to beat time with his right hand. He glared at me with an exasperated look on his face for about ten seconds. It felt like a week and a half.

The rest of the piece went okay. The Lone Ranger section requires a lot less finesse. I hammered away at my triangle during the loud parts and Arthur left me alone for the rest of the rehearsal. But there was no  “thumbs up” or wink or chianti at Amalfi’s. After rehearsal I went by myself to The Lobster Claw and had a couple of Narragansetts.

It’s been almost forty years since my triangle and I had our 15 seconds of fame at Symphony Hall that summer afternoon. We are still together and have performed in orchestras great and small, usually without attracting admonishing glares. The next time you attend a symphony concert and you hear good triangle playing, do me a favor: Go to the stage door afterwards and seek out the triangle player. Take him across the street, buy him a glass of chianti, and toast him and the fraternity of triangle players who do it right.

© 2011 William Emerson Wiley

EMERSON ESSAYS 1.1.11

Pop Pop

Some people are lucky enough to know all four of their grandparents. Three of my grandparents had passed away before I was born. I only knew Pop Pop. His full name was Thomas Perry, and he was born in Yorkshire, England in 1877. One of my earliest memories was Pop Pop’s 75th birthday at my Uncle Mike’s and Auntie Dot’s house in Harford County, Maryland, where he lived with my mother’s sister and her family. I was four years old at the time and I recollect a tall, thin man blowing out candles as everyone around him made a big fuss.

Pop Pop would come to Annapolis every summer and spend a few weeks with us. I remember the never-ending supply of one-dollar bills he’d lavish on me during his visits. “Don’t tell your Mum I’m giving this to you, Billy.” Of course I couldn’t wait to tell her. Mom would just smile quietly, proud of her father’s generosity.

His summertime trips to Annapolis would coincide with my father’s vacation from the bank where he worked. Dad would take Pop Pop, brother Mike and me fishing in our small inboard motorboat. I never liked fishing with my father when it was just my brother and me along. Dad would usually have too many National Bohemian beers and then start yelling at us for whatever bonehead nautical mistake we made, like not tying the anchor rope tight enough.

But with Pop Pop aboard, things were different. Dad usually tried to show Pop Pop a good time, so he behaved himself and at times was actually in a good mood. It was splendid to drift along the quiet Severn River, looking at the faraway Chesapeake Bay Bridge, inhaling the salty essence of the bay, years before pollution took its toll. Fish were more plentiful then and usually easy to catch. On the rare days we didn’t catch fish, it was nevertheless a serene pleasure just to be there with my grandfather.

When it was time to head home, Pop Pop would sit next to me on the back seat as I took the rudder. “Steer her to port, Billy-Boy! Watch your bow! You’re doing a fine job, Skipper!”

“Aye, Aye, Cap’n Pop Pop!” I’d shout above the roar of the inboard motor as we lumbered toward Back Creek and home. Then I’d close my eyes, take a deep breath and inhale the smoke from Pop Pop’s White Owl cigar. Dad would smile and open another Natty Boh beer.

And how I loved the smell of Pop Pop’s pipe! No fancy custom blend for this rugged Yorkshire man, just Prince Albert in a can. I owned a small machine with which I could roll my own forbidden smokes. Pop Pop would give me some of his Prince Albert and with a few Zig Zag papers, I’d go into production. I’d climb the pine tree in our front yard, pull out my stash and light up. Pop Pop would sit beneath the tree in a lawn chair, smoking his pipe and watching for adult intruders who might spoil our fun.

“Any sigh of Mom or Dad, Pop Pop?”

He’d place four fingers above his brow and scan the front yard. “No sign yet, Billy. Let’s enjoy our smokes.” And so it went all summer long, my grandfather being my co-conspirator, enabling me to enjoy the pleasures of a good smoke on a summer afternoon. Yet he constantly warned me about the evils of alcohol. A heavy drinker during his early years, he lost several jobs and became less than the perfect family man. I don’t really know the gory details, but I know he “took the pledge” early on and enjoyed over 50 years of sobriety.

“Don’t ever start with the booze, Billy-Boy. It was almost the death of me. You’re better off without it,” he’d warn me in his rich Yorkshire baritone that carried a gentle strength and authority. I didn’t always follow Pop Pop’s advice, but deep down I knew his admonishments were proof he truly cared for me.

Pop Pop was an avid Baltimore Orioles fan and seldom missed a broadcast of their games. We’d commiserate over what a lousy team the Orioles of the late 1950s were. I knew a little more about the finer points of the game than Pop Pop did. I explained the infield fly rule to Pop Pop and why a player got an RBI for walking with the bases loaded. He’d listen intently and then finally say, “Aye, but the Orioles are still a rotten team.”

He loved to work in the yard. When he was well into his eighties and too stiff too bend over, he’d sit in his lawn chair and reach down with clippers to groom the lawn. He was responsible every summer for making our yard, enclosed by its white picket fence, one of the more attractive in Eastport. He couldn’t understand my reluctance to work in the yard. I was a lazy teenager at the time and always found something more fun to do than to help an old man trim grass. I have since felt badly about that summer when I thought it was “cool” to flaunt my ability to get out of work. I also thought it was “cool” to talk back to grownups. But Pop Pop gave me my first lesson in how good it feels to be the recipient of forgiveness. Our arguments always ended with his ruffling my hair and saying, “Aye, you’re still a good boy, Billy.” And he’d give me another dollar bill along with the warning not to tell my Mum.

Looking back I realize how musical Pop Pop was. His deep voice was always in tune, always ready with an English ditty. He often awoke before I did. After his morning tea, he’d come upstairs, lean over the bed and croon, “Oh, it’s good to get up in the morning, but it’s better to stay in bed.” He was also a percussionist of sorts. He had some old animal bones (don’t ask me what animal) that he played like castanets. He held them between his fingers and snapped jig-like rhythms as he sang one of his English Pub songs.

He was delighted when I become serious about music. I once showed him the percussion music to “Stars and Stripes Forever” and then I played the entire snare drum part for him.

“My God, Billy, I don’t understand how you make music out of all those little chicken scratches. But I wish you well, my boy.” He then gave me another dollar bill.

When it was time to go away to college he asked me to write to him. “Tell me all about what you’re doing up there in Boston and I promise I’ll write back to you the day I get your letter.” He was true to his promise. He wrote often. Those simple letters in his shaky scrawl are still among my most treasured possessions.

I never thought much about my English heritage. I thought it was kind of boring to be English. It didn’t seem as exotic as being Jewish or Irish or Italian. But in 1983, many years after Pop Pop had passed away, I went to England with my sister Lynn. We met several of our relatives on Pop Pop’s side of the family. We saw the little market town of Bedale where Pop Pop was born, and found the baptismal font in St. Gregory’s church where Pop Pop became an official Episcopalian back in 1877. We found my great-grandfather’s grave behind it as well as the vacant lot where his house had been. I picked up a shard of brick and imagined it to be part of his house. I’m not really sure it was, but I put that red sliver in my wallet and carried it with me for many years. I still have it.

I learned about the Yorkshire Dales. I viewed their gentle green slopes with just a scattering of farmhouses along the valley floor. This was where Pop Pop grew up and worked, caring for horses and hounds long before he came to America. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. Suddenly having British blood wasn’t so boring after all.

When I got back to America, I still couldn’t learn enough about Yorkshire. I read everything James Herriot wrote in about two weeks. I pretended I was English and began to enjoy tea. I bought a tweed cap and wore it as I listened to Gilbert & Sullivan recordings while drinking pints of Newcastle Brown Ale from a pewter mug. How I wished Pop Pop was still around so I could tell him all about my trip and ask him to tell me all about fox hunting on the Dales.

I have never felt cheated not knowing my other three grandparents. I had Pop Pop. I had those afternoons of fishing on the Severn River and those summer days of sneaking smokes together. I had a seemingly endless supply of one-dollar bills from an old man with only a small social security check. His belief that although I was lazy when it came to yard work, I was “still a good boy,” was priceless to me.

Several months after his death in 1970, I watched an Orioles game at Fenway Park. They were playing a three-game series with the Red Sox. Jim Palmer was pitching that day for Baltimore, and Brooks Robinson was playing 3rd base. After years of dwelling near the cellar of the American League, the Orioles finally had a good team. During the Star Spangled Banner I felt a little sad. Damn!” I thought. “I wish Pop Pop could watch this game with me.” I then looked out at the American flag in center field. Beyond it was a lone billboard atop the warehouse on Landsdowne Street. It was an ad for a popular bourbon.

It read simply, “Old Grand Dad is Here.”

© 2011 William Emerson Wiley

EMERSON ESSAYS 1.1.11

Mr. Wilkinson

I was hoping I’d get all good teachers for my senior year at Annapolis High. I didn’t want any mean ones. That’s why I thought I had been cursed when I was assigned to Mr. Wilkinson’s Problem’s of Democracy class.

He had a gruff manner and the husky look of an ex-Marine. His thinning hair was combed back and he wore gray jackets and thin ties. He smelled of Old Spice as a lot middle aged Republicans do, but I can’t be 100% sure he was a Republican.

As he lectured us, Mr. Wilkinson paced the floor with his hands behind his back. “During the course of this year, I will be asking each and every one of you if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Then I’m going to ask you why you are a Republican or a Democrat.”

That’s easy, I thought to myself. Mom and Dad are Democrats so I must be one too.

“And God help you if you tell me you are a Republican or a Democrat because your parents are!” My God! He can read minds!

We had to subscribe to Newsweek magazine which we discussed every week. He fired questions at us about current events, world leaders, and politics. We were expected to be well informed on such matters. That wasn’t easy for me since I hated to read.

Mr. Wilkinson fixed that. He assigned us each a specific book that we were to read and report on. “Mr. Wiley, your book will be “Something of Value” by Robert Ruark. It’s a violent, bloody book. I’m sure you can handle it.”

Reading about the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya didn’t seem like a barrel of laughs to me. The book was 619 pages of very small type. That wasn’t too funny either. But I was too scared of Mr. Wilkinson not to read it.

So I read it and I loved it! Okay, there is nothing particularly lovable about animal and human sacrifices or violence and blood shed in the name of racism and imperialism, but Robert Ruark tempered his book with just the right amount of action, adventure and sex. It was the perfect book for a 17-year old who hated to read. It was almost as much fun as a James Bond movie.

Later Mr. Wilkinson assigned the entire class two books by Philip Wylie. The world at that time was living in fear of a third world war so we had to read “Tomorrow” and “Triumph.” Nothing I had seen at the movies could compare to the images that danced in my head when I read those books! The descriptive passages of nuclear explosions made a lasting impression on me. Before reading Philip Wylie, my impressions of war had been based on the highly romanticized Audie Murphy World War II movies. I now began to think of the horrid possibility of the cold war turning hot.

No longer fearing long books with small print, I devoured Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent,” the granddaddy of all political novels.

Although the entire class was suppose to read it, not everyone got through it. I made some extra pocket money by writing several of my buddies’ book reports for them. Maybe there is something to this reading business after all.

By spring of my senior year, I no longer feared Mr. Wilkinson. His Socratic method of teaching still frightened me and I pitted a few shirts while waiting to be called upon in class. But I found him more approachable now. One day I brought a rare Philip Wylie paperback to school to show him.

“Hmmm… ‘The Smuggled Atom Bomb.’ Never heard of this one. May I borrow it?”

He read it in one night and returned it to me the next day. “Good story, Mr. Wiley. Thanks! Why don’t you stop over my place after school. I need some help moving some furniture and there’s something I want to show you.” He wrote down his address for me. It was only a half mile from my home.

I arrived right at 4 pm, as instructed. Tardiness in his class was unacceptable and I had assumed the same rule applied in his home. Mrs. Wilkinson met me at the door and was cordial. “He’s waiting for you in the back”, she said.

He summoned me from the back bedroom. “In here, Mr. Wiley. I hope you brought your muscles.”

Luckily, I had brought them, since he wanted me to help him move a very heavy sofa-bed. At one point, I accidentally smashed his fingers as we awkwardly negotiated the wide sofa through a narrow doorway. He didn’t swear or call me names as I feared. He only flexed his fingers a couple of times and with a wink said, “Only a flesh wound, Mr. Wiley, I’ll get over it.”

When our work was done, he gave me a Hires Root Beer. “Follow me. I want to show you something.” I followed. His den was not particularly remarkable, as dens go except for one thing. A huge bookcase covered an entire wall. It was was filled with paperback books. There must have been a thousand of them!

“I’ve read every one of these books. Some of them I’ve read twice”, he beamed.

“Wow!” I said.

He took a book from one of the shelves and handed it to me. A sultry blond wearing something pink and fluffy smiled at me from the cover. The small paperback was “79 Park Avenue” by Harold Robbins. A blurb below the title bragged: “…the best selling novel about the call girl racket…”

“There’s a bit ‘steamy’, but I think you’re old enough to handle it.” He also gave me a couple of spy novels to buffer the Robbins book.

It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to have a paperback book collection just like Mr. Wilkinson’s. My collection started with the books I read for his class. It has grown over the past thirty-something years to over 400 volumes, less than half the size of his collection, but then he did have a head start on me.

Every book I read goes on my shelf, in paperback form, alphabetized by author. Philip Wylie and Harold Robbins have been joined by Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Robert B. Parker. Steinbeck and O’Hara are there too. Thanks to 4th class postage, my paperbacks have followed me from Annapolis to Boston, to Maine, out to Hawaii and back, then back again to Hawaii.

After high school I saw Mr. Wilkinson one more time. I drove to Annapolis High and looked him up while home on spring break. Our meeting was brief, his handshake was firm, his smile wide and friendly. We were glad to see each other. He asked about my studies and did I have any time to read “just for the fun of it?”

“Yep!” I replied as I pulled a tattered copy of Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” from my back pocket.

A year later I learned that Mr. Wilkinson had left Annapolis High to accept a guidance counselor position at a school in the south. My emotions were mixed. I knew I’d never see him again but I felt his compassion and respect for young adults and his ability to guide them in the right direction, well suited him for his new position.

I look at the paperbacks on my shelves and I am reminded of the man who in one school year, went from curmudgeon to favorite teacher. Other teachers taught me how to read. Mr. Wilkinson taught me to love to read.

© 2011 William Emerson Wiley

Emerson Essay 06.05.10

Perfection (sort of)

Never before has the term “Kill the ump!” seemed more appropriate. Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers had retired 26 straight batters and was flirting with history. I’m not a Detroit Tigers fan but I am a fan of the unexpected, the miracle that happens in sports once in a tiger moon. I watched intently, waiting for the Perfect Game.

The 27th batter hit a grounder to the right side that was fielded by the first baseman. Galarraga himself covered the bag and took the throw. The announcer proclaimed, “Out!…No…SAFE!”

Galarraga was ready to jump for glee into the arms of his teammates, but it was not to be. It took two seconds for the “safe” call to sink into Galarraga’s consciousness. Instead of an outburst of anger, a gentle “I can’t believe it smile” spread across his face. Several of the other Detroit Tigers gave umpire Jim Joyce a ration of crap after the game but Galarraga was gracious and accepting.

Galarraga did get the 28th batter he faced to ground out innocently. He had a perfect game, in the sense that he got every singe batter he faced to make an out but he had to do it by retiring 28 batters not 27. The record books will never show him as the pitcher of a “perfect game.” There will be no mention of umpire Joyce’s incorrect call.

I did what any red blooded American sports fan who believes in justice would do. I posted a video of the play and recounted the incident on my Facebook Wall. I concluded with, “This makes me sick!”

I’ve had several days to process all of this. A bad umpiring call is no reason to get sick. I should save my “makes me sick” credits for other causes such as:  the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico or the Honolulu Symphony Executives Director’s salary. Bill Maher on the Left and Glen Beck on the Right make me sick. A baseball game should not.

This bizarre incident has simmered down to a kinder, gentler conclusion as the participants have apologized, accepted apologies, shook hands and shed tears. Jim Joyce’s apology to pitcher Galarraga after the game was contrite, sincere and had no strings attached. “That kid worked his ass off all afternoon and I kicked the shit out of the call.”

Armando Galarraga showed the most class of all with never a bitter gesture or word. During the pre-game exchanged of lineups the next day, Tiger management asked Galarraga to hand the starting lineup personally to umpire Jim Joyce. Galarraga’s handsome smile was genuine. Tears rolled down Joyce’s face as he slapped Armando on the back as if to say, “Go get ‘em, Tiger.”

This entire episode has sparked more talk of the use of instant replay in baseball. I have long held the position that instant replay wastes a lot of time. Baseball umpires and football referees don’t blow calls on purpose. They are human and they make mistakes. When they do make a bad call it’s part of the game and the players have to live with the results.

So let’s consider what did happen on June 2, 2010 in Detroit. The blown call had no bearing on the score or the outcome of the game. Armando Galarraga lost his right to claim he had pitched a perfect game and probably lost a lot of money in endorsements. But this game will be long remembered after the 2010 baseball season is finished. It has been talked about more than either of the two perfect games which preceded it this season.

Jim Joyce blew a call and apologized. Armando Galarraga accepted that apology with grace and dignity. Gentlemen being gentlemen. That doesn’t always happen in professional sports but when it does, it makes watching worthwhile.

I no longer feel sick.

© William Emerson Wiley 2010

Emerson Essay 05.04.09

Unsung Heroes of the Medical Community

I have a new right hip. It’s made of porcelain and on an x-ray you can see a few formidable-looking screws holding it in place. It will last a lifetime and doesn’t hurt like the old bone one did. As operations go, this was a standard procedure and I was lucky to have a great surgeon with an excellent reputation. There was little to fear and it turned out to be a remarkably successful experience, taking less than two hours at Honolulu’s  Kuakini Medical Center.

Hip replacement is not a glamorous surgery. There will be no Hallmark Hall of Fame Sunday night movie about my (or anyone else’s) heroic recovery from a hip replacement. This type of surgery is so common that on a recent episode of “30 Rock,” Jack’s octogenarian mother, who was carrying on an affair with a younger married man, had ordered a book on-line called “Sex After Hip Surgery.” 

Several friends suggested that my surgical experience would give me lots of material on which to base an essay, and they were right. But it’s not the surgery itself that merits attention. Instead, it’s the unsung heroes of the medical community I encountered during my hospital and rehab stay. I’m not talking about my brilliant surgeon or the astute rheumatologist who diagnosed my arthritis.  Instead I want to tell you about the nurses and a special physical therapist who brought me great comfort and were instrumental in expediting my recovery.

My first close encounter of the nursely kind actually happened two days prior to my operation. I had to report for an orientation on what to expect on the day of the surgery. My wife and I were greeted and educated by my “admittance nurse,” a charming 30-something local woman I’ll call “Doreen.” (I remember few real names of the nurses I met, so henceforth the names will be changed to cover for my poor memory that was further degraded by medication.)

Doreen was attractive, cheerful, and laughed at all my jokes. We hit it off immediately. Living on an island the size of Oahu, one experiences the phenomenon of “three degrees of separation.” It seems everyone I meet knows someone who knows someone who plays in the Royal Hawaiian Band (my “day job”). Doreen was no exception and we ended up talking about mutual friends and other island connections.

Doreen told us what to expect the day of the surgery. She walked us through the paperwork and showed us a video about Kuakini Medical Center. I felt safe and secure with her. I asked if I would see her the day of the surgery and how long would she stay with me. I selfishly wanted Doreen by my bedside the entire four days I was to be there. She told me if I showed up at 5 AM on the day of the operation she would be with me up until the time I was wheeled up to the pre-op area at 7 AM. I had to settle for two hours with Doreen, which would be a great way to start my Kuakini Medical Center experience.

This first encounter with nurse Doreen occurred on Tuesday afternoon. On Thursday morning at 5AM, my wife, Barb, and I found ourselves in the waiting room huddled around a small TV set, watching CNN and waiting to be called.

“William Willie?” said a voice.

“That’s WILEY and that’s me,” I said. Not only did she mispronounce my last name, she was not Doreen! Nevertheless, we were led into the very cubicle in which Doreen had interviewed us less than 48 hours before. This was a good sign. Surely Doreen would show up soon.

They took my vital signs, drew blood, and gave me more paperwork. I signed a lot of release forms. I guess the medical community has to cover its ass in case I ended up in a ten-year coma. I politely did what I was told by this non-Doreen nurse. Not wanting to seem rude and unappreciative, I did have to enquire about my favorite admitting nurse.

“So? Is Doreen expected in anytime soon?”

“No. She called in sick today.”

I smiled weakly, nodded my head and tried not to look too disappointed. In all fairness, although she lacked Doreen’s warmth, humor and good looks, non-Doreen did her job quietly and efficiently. Before I knew it, I was in bed, dressed in a embarrassingly small gown. I said goodbye to Barb, told her where all the important legal papers were hidden at home, that ten-year coma thing still nagging at me. I was wheeled into the operating room.

Here I met a model of efficiency, the O.R. nurse. Her medical knowledge and communication skills made me feel safe and secure. I was injected with something “to make me relax.” All thoughts of the ten-year coma vanished. The anesthesiologist arrived to explain what further meds I would be given. My surgeon poked his head in ever so briefly to nod and say he’d see me later…“in there.” That’s the last thing I remember until…

  ***************************

…I awoke surrounded by more nurses. They scurried around like ants building a colony, attending to my every need. Tubes were attached and inserted in places I didn’t know tubes would go. Vital signs were taken. The “no drinking liquids eight hours prior to surgery” rule was finally revoked. I was parched and it felt like I had been run over by a locomotive.

Summoning up one of the few bits of Scripture I remember, I spoke Jesus’ words: “I thirst!” Like a Roman centurion, a nurse mercifully wetted my gums with drops of water from a sponge. After a few hours, I was transferred from Intensive Care to my hospital room, where Barb was waiting. More nurses sprang into action, attaching me to countless monitors, checking the incision, and even smiling at my feeble humor when I tried a few one-liners like, “I’ve always wanted to see this room.” In addition to taking care of all my needs, the nurses went over my pain med options. I was now allowed to eat and drink, although during that first day, Jello and applesauce were about all I could tolerate.

The day after my surgery two nurses talked me into taking my first steps on my new hip. I walked about one yard and was totally exhausted. They were patient and understanding. It was always the nurses who were there. I saw very little of the doctors.

My favorite nurse at Kuakini (we’ll call her “Joy”) was a tall, thin, attractive young woman who was particularly concerned about answering my call button in a timely fashion. Joy would come running into the room and slide on her stocking feet…sideways. She would magically appear from behind the bed curtain, her palms upward at shoulder height, with a big grin, saying, “You rang?” She always went around in her socks…no shoes. But in spite of this frivolity Joy was the consummate medical professional. She was always ready with the knowledge, skill and concern to tend to the sort of medical emergencies that pervade the post-op room. When my blood pressure went plummeting and I broke out in cold sweats, Joy calmly and efficiently knew what to do, and when to call the doctor if she was concerned.

Nurses not only save lives, they are called upon to do a variety of tasks that would make the rest of us run and hide. Sponge baths and wet pants are the most benign of these tasks. Nurses do these duties willingly and without complaint or judgment.

I spent four days total at Kuakini Medical Center. During this time I came to appreciate the genuine concern exhibited by the nursing staff. The term “caregiver” is used a lot but with nurses one cannot over emphasize the care they truly give.

 ***************************

After my time at Kuakini was up, it was on to the Rehab Hospital of the Pacific. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect there. Would I be surrounded by Iraqi War veterans with multiple amputations trying to rehabilitate themselves back into society? A friend of mine from L.A. joked to me on the phone, “Rehab, eh? That term has a whole different meaning here in Hollywood.”

I was soon to learn that at a rehab center, people aren’t there to die. Everyone, even the very old and the severely injured, comes to get better. It was like the most positive hospital in the world with the most caring staff imaginable. There were several patients who had also had hip replacements. So much of recovery is determined by attitude. The nurses here had incredibly optimistic outlooks, geared toward the patient getting progressively better. They were always sure to state the goal of their treatment, perhaps so that the patient could start to envision it. “By the time you leave here, we’ll have you going up five stairs.” It seems inconceivable to me in the beginning, but they, of course, turned out to be right.

My two favorite nurses were Jodie and Myra. Jodie was a heavy set Samoan woman whose wide face always beamed with a smile. She worked the day shift so I would see her first thing in the morning, usually around at 6 AM.

“My God! Where have you been?” I would always tease her. “I’ve been waiting up all night for you!”

She would kindly chuckle, then take my vital signs. I’d always start the day with a smile on my face when Jodie was there. We become good friends and she told me all about her family, especially her kids and her husband’s softball team.

Myra was a cute, young Portuguese-Hawaiian woman, small in size but a bundle of good energy. My favorite experience with Myra was the day she told me I had to be sent to Saint Francis Hospital, about a half mile away, for an ultrasound on my leg.

“How will I get there? How will I know what to do?”

“Don’t worry,” said Myra, “I’ll be with you every step of the way.” And she was. We rode together in a handi-van. It was my very first day outside of the rehab center. Once we got to Saint Francis, Myra was great. Everyone seemed to know her. She handled all the paperwork and bureaucracy with the utmost efficiency. I felt such comfort with her. The ultrasound took a long time but I felt great knowing I’d ride back to rehab with Myra.

Not all the nurses were women. I remember one male nurse at the rehab center, in particular. He contradicted the gay male nurse stereotype. He came in at 11 PM one Saturday night, ready to work the graveyard shift. He sported a back-pack and a motorcycle helmet. He came in and introduced himself and assured me he’d be there all night if I needed anything. As it turned out I didn’t need anything that night, sleeping soundly with the knowledge that someone was always there…just in case. He came back in the morning just to say “good-bye” and asked how I slept. He told me he was just a part-timer who only worked an occasional weekend. I never saw him after that, but he struck me as the kind of guy I’d like to have a beer with.

But nurses and patients don’t stay in touch. There were no sad good-byes when I left. Nurses can’t get involved emotionally. I really wanted to say good-bye to Jodie and Myra but I left on a Sunday afternoon when neither of them was working. I thought it might be nice to send up a box of cookies or something to the rehab nurses after I returned home, but I never did.

A wonderfully kind nurse named Joanne processed me out of rehab. She went over my list of meds and all of the precautions I needed to take when I was back home, away from the immediate care of the rehab staff. Joanne went with us in the elevator on the way to the car and watched me delicately ease my healing hip and my tall self into the front passenger seat of Barb’s little Honda. I wanted to give Joanne a final hug…but I didn’t.

This homage to the unsung heroes of the medical community would not be complete if I didn’t mention someone who is not a nurse or doctor. She is my physical therapist with whom I am still working. Her name is Kelly and she is 30 years old. Don’t believe the myth of physical therapists being Nazi drill instructors. Kelly is an angel.

I have spent more time with Kelly than any other medical professional during this three-month journey. I spend hour-long sessions with her two or three times a week. She makes me lift weights with my leg, and makes my leg do things I never thought it could do. She massages my “bad leg” and puts ice on it at the end of our sessions. Her feedback is nothing but positive. She uses the word “perfect” more than anyone I’ve ever met. As I attempt to stand and lift my leg back and out to the side at a diagonal angle (30 times), I will ask her, “How am I doing?”

“Perrrrfect,” she coos, “perrrrfect.”

We have great chats during the time I spend in P.T. She had surgery on both her knees at age 16, due to her many years of playing basketball. She knows the science of rehab but also can relate to her patients needs from her own experience. She humanizes the rehab process. So we talk basketball. Kelly can name the entire 1992 USA Olympic “Dream Team.” We talk travel too. She knows the West Coast from Northern California to Washington State. She has eaten crab cakes in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. She’s become a good friend. When it’s time to say good-bye to Kelly, I will hug her.

Doctors get the glory, reputations and big bucks. But it’s these foot soldiers who I appreciate most. Thank you Kelly. And thank you Doreen, non-Doreen, Joy, Jodie, Myra, Macho Guy, Joanne, and all the others.

You guys are…PERRRRFECT!

 

© William Emerson Wiley

EMERSON ESSAY 3.22.09

Hoyt Wilhelm’s Masterpiece

When I was one month shy of my 10th birthday, an astonishing truth about sports was revealed to me: on any given day, in any given sporting event, one can witness history. Perhaps one can actually witness a miracle. On September 20, 1958, at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, I saw a piece of baseball history as I witnessed pitching at its finest. Maybe this is why we watch sports: to have the opportunity on any given day to observe the rare, the spectacular, and the historic.

My father was often given box seats to Orioles games by his business contacts. The tickets came in groups of four. Dad hated to drive to Baltimore, so Dad’s friend, Mr. Riley was our chauffeur that day. My brother Mike came along.

Mr. Riley’s first name was “William” but adults simply called him “Riley.” He was a short, stout man, with a red nose. Take away his Maryland drawl and replace it with a Cockney dialect and you would have a character fresh from Charles Dickens. Mr. Riley owned a bakery and several times a week he’d stop by the house with bread items that didn’t sell that day. We really liked Mr. Riley’s visits.

Riley showed up at our house at 11:00 AM. He was sporting a bag of mixed donuts, which he left with my mother.  He also brought along a cowbell to ring during the game. I was put in charge of the cowbell. He also brought a copy of the Baltimore Sun, which I read in the car on the way to the big city.

It was late in the season and the game was of no importance in the standings. The mighty Yankees had already clinched the American League pennant. The Orioles were perched in their familiar spot near the bottom of the league. The only big news on the sports page was the fact that Baltimore catcher Gus Triandos needed just one more home run to tie Yogi Berra’s season record for home runs by a catcher. Yogi’s record was 30 and Gus had 29 up to this day. The sports writers also talked about Wilhelm’s famous knuckleball. It was arguably the best knuckleball ever. A pitchers’ duel was predicted, as the Yankee starting pitcher was to be Don Larsen who had thrown a perfect game in the World Series the year before.

I loved going to Oriole games with my father because he was always in a great mood on those days. Although a grey sky hung over Baltimore and a few sprinkles spattered the pavement, it did not dampen my spirits. As we drove by the McCormick Spice Company, a hint of cinnamon and allspice filled the air. Or was it Old Bay? We reached 33rd Street and took the right turn down to the parking lot. Street vendors hawked pennants and other souvenirs.

Once inside, I was delighted to see our seats were right on the first base side, about 10 rows back. Refreshments were in order: hot dogs, peanuts, cokes, and of course National Bohemian Beer for Dad and Mr. Riley. Dad also bought a scorecard and I watched in fascination has he careful noted the names of the Oriole and Yankee players in the proper batting order. Dad’s script was graceful and ornate. I witnessed a rare display of the artistic elegance of which this man was capable. It was a side of Pete Wiley that he seldom showed his family.

Dad explained to me how he kept the box score. He showed me the abbreviations he used for each fielding position and for each situation in a game. A ground out to the shortstop was recorded as “6-3”. A strikeout was the letter “K”. He drew the letter backwards if the batter went down swinging. It was the shorthand that baseball writers used in the press box and somehow my Dad was privy to this information. Now he passed it on to me.

Together we scored the game and by the time the sixth inning rolled around neither team had scored. As we looked at the scorecard together it dawned on us: The Yankees had failed to get a hit. There is a superstition in baseball not to talk of the possibility of a no-hitter while the game was in progress for fear of jinxing the pitcher. But we talked about it. “We may be on the verge of seeing history today,” my father told me. He went on to tell me how rare a no-hitter in baseball was.

As predicted, it was a classic pitchers’ duel. The Orioles first baseman Bob Boyd had singled in the first inning, other than that lone hit, not much had happened offensively for either team. Two Yankees had walked, but one was thrown out trying to steal. Don Larsen’s pitching was nearly as flawless as Hoyt Wilhelm’s. I had little reason to ring Mr. Riely’s cowbell.

Gus Triandos, the burly Baltimore catcher led off the 7th inning. This would probably be his last chance to tie Yogi Berra’s record of 30 homers in a single season by a catcher. It took only one pitch and one swing of Triandos’s mighty bat. The ball went as high as I had ever seen a baseball fly and to straight away center field. It landed on the grassy mound beyond the fence and just kept rolling and kicking up rocks. I had visions of it rolling all the way to Harford County.

I was an unusually quiet kid but Gus’s homer gave me reason to not only cheer but to ring the bejesus out of Mr. Riley’s cowbell. The entire crowd was on its feet (even the portly Mr. Riley) cheering as Gus Triandos rounded the bases. Baltimore had its second hit but more importantly the Orioles had their first run. Would that one run be enough and would Wilhelm get his no-hitter?

The Yankees went down without a hit in the 7th inning. Even the legendary Mickey Mantle couldn’t hit Wilhelm’s knuckleball, striking out for the inning’s second out. The cowbell began getting a vigorous workout.

The top of the 8th brought a scare to Oriole fans. Yankee slugger Norm Sieburn sent a hot shot to the hole between 1st and 2nd base. It was the kind of shot that could ruin a no-hitter. The ball “had eyes” nearly seeing its way to right field. But the Orioles had a hot shot of their own, Billy Gardner, a light hitting but crackerjack fielding 2nd baseman. Gardner lunged for the ball, flying off his feet and traveling horizontally. He knocked the ball down, scrambled to his feet and threw quickly to 1st base. At that moment I learned why Billy Gardner’s nickname was “Shotgun”. The ball snapped sharply into Bob Boyd’s first baseman’s mitt. I swear I could smell the leather burning in the glove. “Yer out!” yelled the umpire. Five more outs to go. The next two Yankee batters went quietly.

The Orioles mounted a mild two-hit rally in the bottom of the 8th inning didn’t manage to score another run. The one lone run would have to stand. Hoyt Wilhelm had to get his no hitter.

In the 9th inning the Yankees sent to the plate Bobby Richardson, Ennis Slaughter, and Hank Bauer. Richardson flew innocently to center field. I banged the cowbell a polite mezzo forte. Ennis Slaughter didn’t go quite so easily. He hit a slicing liner toward the right field line. The Orioles had moved fleet-footed Willy Tasby to right field. Lucky they did. Tasby made a spectacular running catch. Baltimore went wild. My cowbell did a crescendo to fortissimo. We were all on our feet: all 10,941 of us in attendance at Memorial Stadium that afternoon. We were all here to see history.

Hank Bauer was the final Yankee batter. He lofted a high infield pop-up between 1st and 2nd base. Billy “Shotgun” Gardner circled under it. The crowd grew unusually quiet while the ball descended.  Gardner surrounded the ball with leather and squeezed. He ran toward Wilhelm holding the ball up and jumped into Wilhelm’s arms. The rest of the Baltimore Orioles piled on. Hoyt Wilhelm and The Baltimore Orioles had their no hitter. It was a bit of redemption for a team that had little to cheer about in 1958.

Some 45 years before Christopher Walkin told Will Farrell on Saturday Night Live, “I need more cowbell,” my father made a similar demand upon me. His face red with excitement and National Bohemian Beer, Pete Wiley turned to me and screamed, “RING THAT GODDAMN COWBELL, BOY!” And ring it I did as Dad, Mr. Riley and brother Mike and myself celebrated this historic moment.

Miracles happen in sports. Three months later I watched “The Greatest Football Game Ever Played” on television. Nowadays we witness historic moments in sports so often, that it’s hard to call them miracles. We can easily find the “Miracle on Ice” on YouTube. I’ve seen the replay of Carlton Fisk’s World Series homer at Fenway so many times I’ve lost count. I did see Kirk Gibson’s miracle homer in 1988 as it happened but I was 3,000 miles away, watching on TV.

That’s why Hoyt Wilhelm’s no hitter was so special. Don’t try to find it on YouTube. There is no video record of that game. I was among a very select few who witnessed it in person. So were my brother, my father, Mr. Riley and 10,000 plus other Baltimoreans. I’ve learned to appreciate and embrace those miraculous moments in sports.

I’ve also learned to celebrate all that is miraculous in real life as well. It feels good to turn off the laptop, the I-pod, and the TV and DVD player. Stop and smell the hot dogs and mustard. Taste the peanuts, popcorn, and crackerjacks. And as Pete Wiley implored: RING THAT GODDAMN COWBELL, BOY!

© William Emerson Wiley

 

 

« Older entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.