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

 

 

EMERSON ESSAY 2.11.09

Annapolis Redemption

The story you are about to read is true.

Some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

 

I’ve done jail time. Hard time…all of two hours. Stupidity and alcohol were involved as was a band I used to lead called The Silopanna Brass. I had formed the Silopanna Brass during my senior year in high school with my fellow band geeks. Herb Alpert was popular at the time and we were Tijuana Brass wannabes. We maintained a clean-cut image. We wore our hair short and no one in the band took drugs.

We all went away to college in the fall of 1966, but we continued playing together during our summer breaks. In 1968, I was a few months shy of turning 20 years old. It was the summer before my junior year at the New England Conservatory. A wealthy doctor who had a lovely home near Annapolis hired us to play at his pool party. I brought along the beautiful new marimba my high school had purchased during my senior year. My high school band director Mr. Page allowed me to borrow it during the summers.  I disassemble it and pack it into my parents’ station wagon.

The party was a blast and the good doctor and his wife treated us with the same generosity they showed their guests: lots of food and an open bar. We were situated near the pool, dressed in our tuxedos. This was upscale stuff. I fully expected F. Scott Fitzgerald to show up.

The guests loved our music. There were also several kids enjoying the fun. One particularly precocious 10 year old girl kept bringing us booze. Well she brought ME booze. This young lady was hell-on-wheels with a naughty twinkle in her eye.  She was close to my own little sister’s age. At that stage of my life, I had a pig’s appetite and a pig’s wallet for beer. Sam Adams Boston Lager had yet to be invented so it was nothing but “The King of Beers” (BUD) for me.

I had started that evening with a few beers but the impish 10-year old kept bringing me Old Grand Dad. Not being satisfied with merely getting a grown-up drunk, she tossed a bucket of water from the swimming pool over my head. I feigned indignation but thought it rather fun actually. No one paid much attention to our high-jinx; everyone else was getting blasted too.

One generous gentleman who looked like the “Monopoly Man,” staggered up to the band. In an inebriated mumble he uttered something about our sounding exactly like Herb Alpert, but only better! Monopoly Man then laid a $50 tip on us.

My fellow band nerds were drunk as well, but not as drunk as I was. When it came time to pack up and head home, our piano player, Dean, offered to drive my car for me. A prudent move, I thought, but I thought wrong. It would be wise to stop for coffee on the ride home as well, would it not? That was another bad decision. Little did I realize how drunk Dean was too.

Dean pulled the station wagon into a Harlee’s drive-in. We immediately spied two uniformed cops standing inside, enjoying their midnight coffee and donuts. At that point in my life, I wasn’t very good at pretending to be sober when I was actually inebriated. It’s a special skill I’ve since mastered with great proficiency but at this time we decided the safe move would be to simply find another place for coffee.

Apparently our sudden entrance and immediate departure from the Harlee’s parking lot aroused suspicion. With coffees in hand and donut crumbs dripping from their chins, they gave chase in their vehicle. We wisely pulled over. We then heard the crackling of the police car radio and then an all too human voice say, “Get out of the car with your hands over your head.” We complied.

What a disheveled sight we must have been. My bow tie was untied, my tux wet, and I was in my stocking feet. I’m still not sure what happened to my shoes that night. Dean appeared much the same.

The officers searched us for weapons and read us our Miranda rights, just like on TV. As I was being frisked, I made some lame jokes about hoping they wouldn’t find my water pistol and I called one of the arresting officers “Barney Fife.”  To their credit, the cops didn’t take umbrage at my smart-ass attitude. They merely chuckled softly and then it was off to the lockup for Dean and me. A tow truck was called to deal with my parents’ car containing the expensive marimba.

The Annapolis city jail was housed at City Hall, which happened to be the same building where my father was sworn in as an Alderman, some ten years before. The cells were empty except for Dean and me. There were no hookers in there–Annapolis didn’t have hookers. There was no “town dunk” sleeping it off like on the Andy Griffith Show. The former Alderman’s son played the role of the town drunk that night.

I refused my one phone call. Why wake up my father to come bail me out? I might as well get some shuteye and sort things out in the morning.

At one point a portly uniformed policeman came in and ask me, “What’s your name, boy? What part of town you from?”

“Wiley,” I answered, “from Eastport.”

“Pete Wiley’s boy? The Alderman?”

 “Yup,” I said. Oh the benefits of celebrity. Maybe he’ll allow me extra time in the prison library so I can study to be a lawyer and get my sentence reduced.

“I’m an Eastporter,” he said, his jack-o-lantern face beaming with pride. “Born and raised there. Your father is a fine man and was a helluva good alderman.” He then started to laugh and then shouted to the desk sergeant. “Hey, Joe! They got Pete Wiley’s boy back here in the drunk tank!”

Uproarious laughter from all the cops within earshot ensued. I shrugged it off and settled in for a long hot summer’s night on a metal bed. In about an hour’s time it hit me: I could call my brother Mike, a volunteer at the Eastport fire department. It was easier to awaken him as opposed to disturbing my father. Being a firefighter, Mike was use to being awakened in the middle of the night. He took up a collection from among the other firefighters and came downtown with the necessary $150 to get me released. Mike drove me home and I sneaked in the unlocked back door. The sun had yet to rise yet there was just a hint of a lighter sky in the east. The first morning sparrows had begun their chirping. Mom was in the kitchen waiting for me. She smiled, not knowing what trouble I had bestowed upon myself. She thought I was just out late having innocent fun.

“Mom, I’ve been arrested.”

“ARRESTED?” She told me to go upstairs to my room and sleep it off. She’d tell my dad about it when he awoke and came to his senses.

After getting about an hour’s sleep, I heard yelling from downstairs, most of it coming from my old man. Occasionally Mom would pipe up.

“Pete, the boy needs psychiatric help!”

“Christ, Evelyn!” said my father.

I had the hangover of a lifetime! The usual symptoms were magnified a thousand fold. My head throbbed as though a construction worker with a sledgehammer was administering a savage blow to my skull every ten seconds. I was dehydrated and my mouth tasted like the mud flats under the Eastport Bridge.

My first thoughts wandered to where the car had been towed. I wondered if the marimba still safe? As I lay in bed I vowed to myself to never drink again for the rest of my life. During this time my father made a few phone calls. The good news was the car was sitting securely in a service station parking lot in Eastport. Dad retrieved it with little difficulty. The marimba, unlike me, was doing fine.

Another pressing issue was the fact that I had promised my band teacher (Mr. Page) that I would perform with the Annapolis Youth Orchestra at the Fine Arts Festival that very afternoon. Mr. Page was in charge of organizing the event. There was to be a rehearsal that morning and then the performance at the Annapolis City Dock.  One of the pieces called for extra percussion so I was brought in as a “ringer.” Harry Brown (then conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony) would be on the podium. It was a big deal for Annapolis to have a man of his stature and caliber, conduct our Youth Orchestra.

I blew off the rehearsal. I was a professional, after all, and could easily sight-read the concert. I mustered up enough energy to make it to the dock by 1:00PM for a 2:00PM concert. As I was walking around the festival grounds, Mr. Page approached me. He had a huge grin on his face and stuck out his hand to shake mine. “He’s not pissed,” I thought.

“Wiley!” he said. We shook hands but as he squeezed my hand his smile disappeared. “Drop dead! Where the heck were you this morning?”

I was too ashamed to admit my indiscretions the night before. I simply blushed, stuttered, mumbled, stared at my feet for a while then uttered the words, “Uh…I dunno.” To myself I thought, “YOU drop dead, Mr. Page.” As a sad footnote, I need to mention that Mr. Page developed a brain aneurysm six months later and did indeed drop dead.

But that afternoon he did allowed me to play the concert, Although it was just a simple triangle part, it was incredibly irresponsible of me to not attend the rehearsal. As a professional musician, I had committed my first act of immature and selfish behavior.

My father’s anger dwindled over the weekend and on Monday morning he went into damage control mode. Being the powerful politician and businessman that he was, Walter Emerson Wiley did a song and dance for the police department and managed to keep word of my arrest out of the newspapers. He hired a lawyer for me, the same gentleman who also was retained by my partner-in-crime, Dean. The attorney’s name was Mr. Goodman and he ended up taking my case pro bono because I was “Pete Wiley’s boy.”  He did charge Dean for his services, however.

Because he had done the actual driving, Dean’s charges were more serious than mine. I was merely guilty of being intoxicated while under age. They should have tried me for being an asshole too but as we all know: that isn’t against the law.

My fear at the approaching trial hung over my head like a guillotine all summer. We had our day in court in late August. Dad testified that I was “a good boy” and had never given him any trouble prior to this. Attorney Goodman pleaded to the judge to “bend way over backwards and forgive this fine youth for his first offense.”

The judge was a heavyset middle-aged gentleman with a raspy voice and veins bulging on the surface of his nose. Apparently he enjoyed and occasional shot of bourbon as well. He lectured me sternly and told me I should be incredibly grateful that my father took the time from his work to appear on my behalf. “Do you know how many young offenders come into my courtroom without their parents?” he asked me. Instead of answering, I slipped into default mode: I just stared at my feet, shook my head, and mumbled something incoherent.

Dean was tried with me. We both received “verdict without decision.” There were court costs to pay, but no fines. Dean’s fees were considerable higher than mine. I had to pay $25.

Dad, Mom and I walked slowly back toward the car. At the top of Main Street, Dad parted company with us to head back to his job at the bank. He looked at me, a twinkle in his eye and said, “There’s some beer in the ‘fridge, when you get home, Boy, have one on me.”

One doesn’t go through a series of events like the proceedings of the summer of 1968, without learning a few things. I learned the following:

An intoxicated person is not of good judge of who should drive him or her home. I learned to not mix beer and bourbon. I learned to always show up for the gig, including the rehearsal. I learned to not wish someone would drop dead. It might work!

But most importantly, I learned: Beware of women half your age who bring you free drinks. You may end up with a bucket of water over your head and a jail record.

 © William Emerson Wiley, 2.11.09.

 

 

Another 25 Things You Don’t Know About Me

1) My favorite part of the “John Adams” HBO series was the tar and feather scene. I want to do that to the next person I find talking in the movies.

2) I’ve added Evangeline Lilly to my list of celebrity brunettes that I want to hang out with at Barnes & Noble and Chilies.

3) I think the world would be a much better place if instead of looking like humans, people looked like yellow Labrador puppies.

4) My recipe for a quick rush: make a sandwich of thinly sliced onion on whole heat bread with mayo and lots of salt and pepper. Eat it slowly while drinking a Sam Adams Boston lager quickly. You will soon belch. This initial belch is nothing short of an erotic experience. Savor the feeling because any subsequent belches will not be as intense as that first one.

5) I’m one of only 147 straight American males who doesn’t want to sleep with Sara Palin.

6) If I won $200 million dollars in the lottery, I’d underwrite the operation of the Royal Hawaiian Band for the rest of my life. The only strings attached would be I get to do all the hiring and firing. Noel Okimoto of course would stay but exactly 16.66666% of the trumpet section would be replaced.

7) I’ve been working on my (unfinished) novel for 10 years now.

8 )  I tried foreign currency trading a year and a half ago. In 6 months time, I took $1000 and effortlessly turned it into $218.

9) If I were on a desert island and got to choose one book to have with me, it would be “Late Night Book of Fun Facts” by David Letterman. The next 1281 books would be the complete works of Nora Roberts.

10) I use to write little chamber music pieces for holiday parties at famed Boston Pops violinist Kristina Nilsson’s and her husband Dean Rhode’s house. The instrumentation was based on whoever was at the party. I also wrote lyrics that I sang. It was sort of mixture of styles: Gilbert & Sullivan and Rap. My biggest hit was “Thanksgiving Day in Brookline.” Jenny Lind Nilsson was in attendance at several of these musical soirees. Boston Pops arranger Pat Hollenbeck was at one of my performances. He told me I was “a musical genius” and he thought I would be a millionaire one day. I thought he was just “being nice” so I didn’t pursue the millionaire thing.

11) “When I was 12 years old, my buddies and I accidentally killed a homeless guy upon whom we were trying to play a practical joke. We buried him in my Mom’s back yard. Just kidding…that’s just part of my unfinished novel. That didn’t REALLY happen.

12) When I was a teenager I had a “man crush” on David Jansen. It wasn’t really sexual. I just wanted to hang out with him and go around the country hopping freight trains the way the Fugitive did. I knew what it was like to be falsely accused of stuff I didn’t do.

13) I worked with actor Hector Elizondo while performing with the Theater Company of Boston. We shared a dressing room with a few other actors. Hector and I talked about Philip Wylie books. He was a really nice guy. This was before he became famous. I’ll bet he is still a nice guy but we don’t stay in touch.

14) My trip to Sante Fe with Barb and her siblings was pure magic! I enjoyed Taos also. I want to live there.

15) I use to pretend I looked like Bob Nieman, a dependable left fielder for the Baltimore Orioles from 1956 to 1959. He had a lifetime batting average of .295 and hit 125 home runs. He wore #4. Don’t ask me why I did this.

16) Once an arrogant tenor who was giving me a ride to a Gilbert & Sullivan gig we were doing together in Maine, yelled at me for slamming his car’s trunk too hard. I said nothing in my own defense but I did stare at the back of his head from the back seat and chanted to myself, “I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU.” That night on stage in the Finale of “Pirate’s of Penzance” he had a heart attack and died 12 hours later. This is a true event. I’m not making it up.

17) My first sex dream at age 13, starred myself and comedic actress Lucille Ball.

18 )  Since “30 Rock” is the #1 comedy on TV and “Family Guy” is the #1 cartoon, I’m starting to feel pretty darn good about our country once again.

19) I no longer play Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.

20) After having made a reference to veteran character actor Wilfred Brimley in my first list of “25 Things”, I have started to physically resemble him.

21) I’ve never read any Mark Twain but I’ve read six Harold Robbins novels.

22) I once took a comedy writing workshop with TV writer Danny Simon (Neil’s brother). He read several scenes from a script I wrote for the TV series “Taxi” in front of the class. He didn’t tell the class who wrote it, but he severely criticized the writing and made me feel like crap. I should have stared at the back of his head and chanted, “I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU,” but at the time I didn’t know the power my thoughts had.

23) I have a fantasy of hanging out with Norah Jones in New York on a summer afternoon. We will find a small, dark pub in The Village where we will shot pool all afternoon and drink many beers.

24) I have atrial fibrillation, an abnormality in my heart. I take blood thinners for this condition. Consequently any bleeding I experience could be fatal, even a bloody nose. So I try to stay out of fistfights. If anyone pisses me off, I just stare at the back of his or her head.

25) Once while playing for a convention on Maui, famed Los Angeles baseball manager Tommy LaSorda mistook me for a hotel worker. He asked me, “Where’s the Men’s Room, Sport?” I gladly escorted him to the facilities. He complimented me on what a lovely hotel we had. I didn’t tell him I was just the xylophone player.

25 Things People Don’t Know About Me

1) I am an actor, voice-over artist, composer, arranger, timpanist, percussionist, pit drummer, author of a half written novel, writer of non-fiction, foreign currency trader, thoroughbred horse race handicapper, public speaker, internet entraupeneur, blogger, and Irish folk singer. The secret to all of this is a COMPLETE DISREGARD FOR QUALITY.

 2) I was painfully shy as a child and young adult. I am still shy but not painfully so.

 3) I wish I could meet Julia Roberts and tell her:  GET OVER YOURSELF, GIRL! You are neither that good an actress nor that pretty. If you operated more from love and less from ego, you’d be a much better actress.

 4) I am President of my local Toast Masters Club (Winners’ Circle 2, Club #4822.) I’m very good at public speaking.

 5) I played Bob Cratchit in a production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL in Farmington, Maine in 1988. Hillary Rhodes and Erica Rhodes attended one of my performances.

 6) I am opposed to torture. I wouldn’t even torture Hitler or Osama Bin Ladden. But I do think Dick Chaney needs a good water boarding.

 7) I secretly wish Catherine Zeta Jones would leave Michael Douglass and move to Hawaii where she would hang out with me every day at Kahala Barnes & Noble. We’d also hang at Chilie’s after Sunday’s Royal Hawaiian Band concerts. We’d share a pitcher of Top Shelf margaritas but we would not have the bottomless chips. They are too greasy.

 8 ) I am more right brain than left. In fact I have almost no left brain activity at all. I was a poor student.

 9) My favorite sibling is my sister Lynn Fleming. I’ve known her since she was an infant…over 50 years! Our pilgrimage together to England in 1982 was one of the highlights of my life.

 10) I really admire attractive, hard working, brunette celebrity women like Rachael Ray, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Norah Jones. I’d like to hang at Barnes & Noble with any of them.

 11) I honor and respect all paths to God, except know-it-all “Born Agains” and know-it-all atheists. I dislike know-it-alls of all varieties.

 12) I’ve been in love with my wife Barb since 1977. We didn’t marry till 2001. I don’t like to rush into these things.

 13) I did the voice over for a Lion Coffee ad that ran for two days on The Perry & Price Show in Honolulu. The client yanked it. I don’t think they liked it.

 14) I can’t dance. Don’t ask me.

 15) I’ve had a series of health challenges for most of my life. Some of them I can’t even talk about. I take 6 prescription medications.

 16) I peed in my pants in 2nd grade because I was to shy to ask permission to use the bathroom.

 17) I usually discover musical trends several decades after everyone else does. I’m kind of into the Bossa Nova right now.

 18 ) I recently had a gay sex dream. Sadly the object of my arousal was veteran character actor Wilfred Brimley.

 19) Arthur Fieldler’s first words to me were: “TRIANGLE! You’re too damn loud!”

 20) For most of my life I resented the fact that my father was a crazy alcoholic. I’ve since moved on and have forgiven him. It wasn’t his fault.

 21) I suffer fools gladly. It helps me get through the work day at RHB.

 22) Vic Firth gave me a private tour of his drumstick factory last summer. I sometimes pretend he is my real father.

 23) I’m an alcoholic but have it under control. Well…sort of.

 24) I am friends with Mrs. Leroy Anderson. I’ve visited her home in Connecticut twice. I’ve held the original manuscript to “Sleigh Ride” in my hands and saw the studio in which Leroy composed it. I sometimes pretend he is my real father.

 25) I have difficulty finishing tasks and am currently patting myself on the back for finishing this list.

 

 

EMERSON ESSAYS 1.26.09

Travel Then and Now

My father was convinced that airplanes were evil and dangerous things, destined to bring harm to his family. So he sent me away to college on a Greyhound bus, from our hometown of Annapolis. That was nearly 43 years ago.

The journey to Boston to start my freshman year at the New England Conservatory was a miserable overnight trip of 14 hours. I transferred buses in Baltimore and in New York in the dead of night, scary stuff for an innocent young man-to-be. I had my luggage delayed for two days and a gay guy tried to pick me up at the Boston Greyhound depot. By Thanksgiving I was frightened to death of the big city and miserably homesick. Not unlike a pigeon, I felt an incredible yearning to fly home. No bus this time.  I went to the Eastern Airlines ticket office at the Prudential Center in Boston’s Back Bay told the ticket agent where and when I wanted to go. She opened a huge ledger book and read the available flights to me. I decided on a flight to BWI airport on the day before Thanksgiving and she wrote it into the ledger by hand with a ballpoint pen. As a backup, she made a phone call to another agent at the airport, whom I assumed also wrote it in her or his book. I wrote a check on the spot. Who had credit cards in 1966?  I was issued a paper ticket written in the agent’s own hand with her ballpoint pen,  four carbon copies all stapled together. The last copy was faint and impossible to read, but if it was good enough for Eastern Airlines, it was good enough for me.

The day of my first flight arrived. Boarding was a breeze. Not as many people flew in those days. The terminals were clean and easy to navigate. My fellow travelers spoke politely to one another, a definite step up from the bus crowd. Security check? Nope, not in 1966.

An apparition of youth and beauty served my meal. She resembled Playboy magazine’s Miss February 1966. She offered fresh scrambled eggs, link sausages, whole wheat toast and the most elegant fruit cup imaginable. The aroma of French Roast coffee filled the cabin. Silverware and cloth napkins adorned the food tray. Miss February asked if she could do anything else to make my flight more enjoyable. I vowed to write a thank-you note to Eastern Airlines.

The weather was crisp and clear, as splendid as November weather can be in New England. In a little over and hour our plane soared over the Chesapeake Bay. I recognized the Bay Bridge and could trace the highway right into Annapolis. There it was: my hometown that I had missed so much for those three months. As I stepped off the plane I could tell the temperature was above freezing. Mom and Lynn were at the airport, along with our next-door neighbors Catherine Davies and her twin daughters, Iva and Laura to meet me. I was so happy to see them, yet I hugged no one. I never hugged people in those days.

My first Thanksgiving back home was everything you’d see in a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. Well, okay, there was my gruff father, coming home from work, flipping through the mail on the living room table then spotting me.

“Hey, Boy!” He smiled but there was no hug from him either.  That’s about as warm as the old man ever got.

But reconnecting with Mom and Lynn again warmed my heart. Brother Mike was in Viet Nam and Tom was already married. The house where the six of us lived together for so long had dwindled to four occupants. On Thanksgiving morning I went to my high school football game. “Homecoming” they called it. Damned if I know why they called it that; nobody had gone anywhere except me.

I allowed myself to be swallowed up in the warmth of my childhood home. Mother cooked a splendid turkey dinner with mashed potatoes, green peas and “canberry sauce”, my term for cranberry sauce from a can that retains its cylindrical shape. Tom and his wife Mary joined us for dinner. We watched the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions play football on TV as we fell into our tryptophan-induced naps. Dad had a National Bohemian Beer-induced nap. Whatever floats your boat.

My long weekend at home proved far too brief.  I flew back to Boston on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, back to the cold big city and the competitive world of the conservatory. I had an extremely non-competitive personality, which did not serve me well in school, so I welcomed opportunities to return to Annapolis. I flew home again just a month later for Christmas break and again at spring break. I flew frequently between Boston and Baltimore during my four years at NEC. I came to love not only the visits but the traveling itself. I forever had my eyes open for Miss February.

Fast-forward 42 years: I now live in Hawaii. I rely on flying more than ever to unite me with my family and friends and have made nearly 75 round trips between Hawaii and the mainland. But it’s not the same. Unfortunately, the Cuban hijackings of the late 60’s and the events of September 11, 2001, have ruined everything. And the air passengers aren’t the clean-cut folks I remember. Airports now resemble that seedy Greyhound bus station in Boston where they gay guy tried to pick me up.

But there’s been an ironic twist to all this travel business. Last summer, Barb and I had to travel from New York City to Portland, Maine. I unwittingly booked the Boston to Portland leg on a Trailways bus as part of the train ticket I purchased on-line. We felt that train travel would be more convenient and a lot more comfortable than the airlines, but I didn’t relish the thought of a two-hour bus ride to Portland. I had flashbacks to my miserable overnight bus ride in 1966.

I hereby apologize to GreyHound, Trailways and all the other bus companies that I’ve badmouthed over the years. The bus ride was a delight! Miss February didn’t show up but the driver proved to be an enjoyable chap. Instead of reciting his opening safety monolog, he sang it over the P.A. system. His delivery was a little “pitchy” but his rhymes were clever and his cheerful energy permeated the bus.

He passed out pretzels and canned sodas, free of charge. There was even a movie aboard the bus displayed on a series of little monitors near our seats. Our fellow travelers were civilized and cheerful, mostly middle-aged to old aged folks like us, enjoying the New England scenery. As long as they don’t put TSA agents in the bus depots, I think the bus might be the way to go now. Now if only I could figure out a way to get from Hawaii to the mainland by bus.

C.S. Lewis once said, “We read to know that we are not alone.” I feel we travel to know we are not alone. One can live on a beautiful Pacific island but it’s important to get away to see other places and other people. And now when I travel to those places and see those people, I make it a point to hug them.

 © William Emerson Wiley, 1.26.09

 

 

EMERSON ESSAYS 1.19.09

Snow Day, Hawaiian Style

When I first came to Hawaii 33 years ago, I was shocked to learn that it snowed here. Not in Honolulu, not on Oahu, but on the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island. Both peaks are over 13,000 feet, so it certainly is cold enough up there for snow. But not down here in Honolulu and this makes me a tad wistful. I yearn for that enchanted experience I grew up with known as a “snow day.” I feel badly for Honolulu’s children who don’t know the delicious feeling of a snow day.

Yet on Friday, January 16, 2009, Oahu finally did get a snow day. Well, sort of. The Royal Hawaiian Band was schedule to play a school concert that day. On the previous afternoon I heard my cell phone chirp. I had voice mail. It was from Mike Morita, my supervisor at work.

 “Bill. No need to come to Likelike Elementary School. The concert tomorrow morning has been canceled. High wind warnings. But I’ll see you at Iolani Palace at 11:30.” 

I was secretly pleased. I wasn’t looking forward to an early morning drive through rush hour traffic. Now I had the luxury of sleeping late and casually making my way to the Palace by late morning. It was beginning to feel a little like a snow day.

Then, an hour later, my supervisor called again.  The forecast was apparently becoming more ominous. “Bill, don’t come to the Palace either. The city and county have declared an administrative leave for all non-essential employees. Stay home!” Non-essential? Me? The bass drum player? Sad, but true.

I turned on the TV to see what I could learn about the impending storm. Not much rain they said, but high winds, with the potential for significant property damage, and right at rush hour. Honolulu was in severe weather mode. All the local TV channels had their meteorologists working overtime. This could be really bad.

Barb and I started to pay attention. Just a few weeks before, the day after Christmas, we had had a freak lightening storm that killed our power island-wide, and we didn’t get it back for 22 hours. So we went into storm preparation mode. We made sure we had working flashlights and a battery-powered radio. Barb ran out to buy ice. I took my own precautions: I prayed the power wouldn’t go off till after I watched “The Office” and “30 Rock.”

The local morning news shows had the windstorm as its lead story. They announced that all the public schools on the island were closed and all non-emergency state and city employees were given a day’s leave. The winds were due to kick up after noon. 

When I was a youngster in Maryland, a snow day meant bundling up in layers of warm clothing and heading outdoors. We’d belly flop on our sleds, then glide down the hill in front of our house on Van Buren Street, snow spraying our faces, completely unaware of the cold. We would do that all day long, finally quitting in the late afternoon and heading inside. Mom had hot Ovaltine waiting for us, its malty aroma unmistakable.

But a snow day in Hawaii would have to be different. So I headed for my favorite Barnes and Noble café and found myself a table near a window. There had been a few drizzles of rain in the early morning but so far, the weather was still unremarkable.

Suddenly everything changed. The sky suddenly turned a darker gray and a thin rain began to fall. In my mind’s eye, the raindrops began to look like fine snowflakes. Although I couldn’t see the surface of the parking lot from where I sat, I imagined it to have a light dusting of snow. Barnes and Noble’s enthusiasm for extreme air conditioning gave a real chill to the air, so I ordered a hot chocolate. What the hell, I spent the extra 35 cents and got a Ghirardelli hot chocolate. I curled myself around the steaming cup and for a few minutes felt all the exhilaration and contentment I felt after a long day of sledding on Van Buren Street.

But as quickly as my snow day materialized, it suddenly vanished. The fickle Hawaiian sun emerged and even my childlike imagination could not bring back the magic. Truth was, the storm passed north of our island and only the North Shore had any wind damage. It was all one big fizzle and some people thought we shouldn’t have had a day off to begin with. The next day’s papers calculated the millions lost by the city and state due to the shutdown.

But I don’t think it was a total waste. Maybe Oahu’s children now know what a snow day feels like. And for one brief moment, the Barnes and Noble café at Kahala Mall, had the cozy feel and delicious smell of my Mom’s tiny kitchen back at Van Buren Street.  And the Ghirardelli hot chocolate I was drinking had an unusual malt finish to it.

Ovaltine.

 

© William Emerson Wiley, 1.19.09

EMERSON ESSAYS 1.12.09

The Club

 

Some of the best years of my childhood were spent with my father in a smoky bar. The Eastport Democratic Club or “The Club”, as we called it, was an organization similar to the Kiwanis or Elks Club.  It supported political candidates and performed other civic activities—although I am hard put to recall what exactly those activities were. I witnessed The Club in a much different light. As I saw it, the primary purpose of The Club was to have a place where white Annapolitan men could go to be away from their wives and to drink National Bohemian Beer. No women were allowed into membership and certainly no blacks. At one point a young ambitious politician joined the club and lobbied for women and minorities to be allowed in. The other club members looked upon him with contempt and his proposal died from a complete lack of support.

The Club building itself was located on 6th Street in Eastport, Maryland, about three quarters of a mile from our house. It was a large white house with a steep stairway that rose to a high front porch. The main floor housed the meeting hall. About the only time I saw this main meeting hall was when there was a social gathering: an oyster roast, crab feast or The Club Christmas party. On the last Sunday before Christmas, The Club always held a huge party for the kids there. There was a man with a banjo leading sing–alongs. The real Santa Claus was there of course.

The parking lot behind The Club was strewn with broken oyster shells, which were often used as a road surface in those days in the Chesapeake Bay area. There was an audible crackle and crunch when Dad drove the car into the lot. Like Pavlov’s dog hearing the dinner bell, I would become eager at hearing the sound of our car entering the lot. I knew what treats awaited me. I loved going to The Club with my dad.

The Eastport Democratic Club owned an adjacent vacant lot. Kids played ball there sometimes. On rare occasions I would join them but in general, I was happier being inside The Club. There was a set of stairs at the back of The Club, which led underground to a dank, musty bar room smelling of stale beer and cigar smoke. It was here that the true spirit of The Club lived. Here my Dad and I got along great. And it was here that Pete Wiley ruled.

My father was smarter than most of The Club members. But more importantly, he could handle six to eight Natty Boh beers without much speech impairment (and he always drove the three quarters of a mile home safely). He never got falling-down drunk. Such stalwart behavior was rewarded at The Club, where he was entrusted with the money, the keys to the slot machines and important doors, and given a lot of responsibility. He was also given a title: Chairman of the House Committee.

As Erasmus wrote, “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.” Among the collection of alcoholic Eastport waterman who frequented The Club, Pete Wiley was King. I was proud of him here at The Club.

Dad was a banker, having started at The Annapolis Banking and Trust Co. as a “runner” while in his early twenties. Over the years, he worked his way up to being a bank officer, its Secretary. He also served on the Annapolis City Council for four years. He could have been a member of the Annapolis Yacht Club and rubbed elbows with the town’s elite, but preferred instead to socialize in Eastport with the Chesapeake Bay watermen.

Dad went to The Club most often on weekends but any day of the week was a candidate. His ring of keys was always his excuse to go to The Club.

“I’ve gotta take these keys down to The Club. They are expecting them.”

We didn’t always drive to The Club; we could also get there by boat. The Club was just a half block away from Back Creek in Eastport. One of the members, Cliff Jones, had a house with a pier right on the water and across the street from The Club. Fishing trips with Dad often detoured to Cliff Jones’ pier.

When we returned home from “fishing,” my mother would smell my clothing and would know immediately we had been to The Club. She knew I had spoiled my appetite for dinner with the steady diet of Coca Cola and fried pork rinds there. Mother vehemently disapproved of The Cluband I knew it. Sadly, she seldom confronted Dad directly. I’m not sure it would have made a difference.

If we were to be at The Club for an especially long time, Dad would give me an entire roll of nickels. “Here, boy,” he would say as he handed me my spending money, “You have to make these last all day.” It was my earliest lesson in money management. Making that roll of nickels last all day was not an easy task, with the temptations of the one armed bandits that sat seductively on a knotty pine table.

During the 1950s Maryland was the only state other than Nevada that had legalized gambling, but allowed only slot machines. The Club owned two of them. One cost a nickel to play, the other took quarters. Dad would never let us play the quarter machine. No fool he, Dad knew that we’d get five times as many plays from the five cent machine, keeping us occupied longer. That was fine with us—it was five times the fun.

Mother disapproved of our gambling and of the slots. It was illegal for a 10-year-old to be pulling the handle of a one-armed bandit. I recall coming home from The Club, one weekday night, a huge smile on my face, so proud that I had hit the jackpot. My pockets were loaded with a hundred nickels.

Mom was pissed. “What if you got arrested and it got in the papers?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I can see the headline now: ‘Alderman’s Son Hits Jackpot.’” 

My sarcasm worked. My mother sadly walked away shaking her head. I was doing something illegal and it felt good. The Club was working its corruptive charm on me.

Card games were a popular activity at The Club. There were stacks of Aviator brand cards available on the bar. There were red decks, blue decks, regular poker decks and pinochle decks.  I played a lot of solitaire at The Club. At nearby card tables the waterman slammed down five and ten dollar bills (no fancy poker chips here), and swore when they failed to fill an inside straight. Occasionally the winner of a big pot would wink over at me and flip a quarter my way. Dad leaned on the bar sipping his Natty Boh It all felt so right.

One of my most vivid memories of The Club was when Mike and I accompanied Dad there on December 28, 1958. That was the date of “The Greatest Football Game Ever Played.” I witnessed it on a small black and white Philco TV along with three dozen drunken Annapolitans, including my Dad. It was the day that the Baltimore Colts won the World Championship of football before the first national TV audience ever. It completely changed the course of pro football in America.

“Remember this day, Boy,” my father said as we walked to the car. “You will never see another game like this.” He was right. I never did.

Dad had various reasons for going to The Club. Often he went if he were angry. It was his way of coping with any setback he suffered at home or work. He was better off going by himself while in this foul state. But when he was in a good mood, he took me, which made me cherish our times at The Club all the more

Dad was like the US Postal Service: neither snow, nor rain, nor dark of night kept him from his appointed responsibilities. When I was eight years old, he pulled me on my sled the entire distance from our house to The Club during a blizzard.  There was hardly a car or person in sight. That night in old Eastport had a Dickensian quality to it. Thick flakes of snow floated under each streetlight. The snow was a foot and a half deep, a rarity for the mid-Atlantic area. Dad and his slightly overweight body forged ahead, pulling his youngest son along. Of course, we had to make the trek. They were expecting the keys.

During the weekdays Dad would walk the mile and a half to and from the Annapolis Banking and Trust Company where he worked. He was diabetic and walking was good for his health. The four to six beers he drank every day at The Club were not good for his health. You have to take the bad with the good.

The bank was “over-town”, on the other side of the Eastport Bridge. On the way home, as he enjoyed his afternoon walk, Dad would stop at The Club and pick up a six pack of Natty Boh “to go” (taking beer from the premises was legal then). He would often bring us treats as well. The Club offered racks of Utz’s potato chips, pretzels, lifesavers and chewing gum available for takeout. On nights when there was a business meeting at The Club and he didn’t take us, he always made it a point to ask Mike, Lynn, Tom and me, “What do you need from ‘down the street’?” I’d put it in my request for pretzels or maybe a bag of Planter Peanuts or some “hog skins” (pork rinds).

Sometimes he’d simply surprise us. I remember running down the stairs in the morning to see what Dad had brought us from The Club. It felt like Christmas morn, waiting eagerly to see what gifts awaited.

During the summer of 1971, I enjoyed my last time at The Club with Dad. I was out of school and was enjoying some time at home before going back to Boston to work. I was almost 23 years old, so I could legally drink at The Club.  Dad asked me to join him to watch a Baltimore Orioles game on TV. Draft beers were 35 cents. I wanted to be a big shot and buy my old man a beer but he’d have none of it. He insisted on paying for everything. He kept asking between innings, “You ready for another one, Boy?” I matched the old man beer for beer. I think we had a beer every inning. Do the math, sports fans. I remember that walk to the car every bit as much as the epic 1958 Colts game.

He tossed me the car keys. “You wanna drive, Boy.” It was his tacit way of admitting he was drunk. I negotiated the three quarter of a mile drive home safely.

While these memories are the ones I choose to remember clearly, I can’t escape The Big Picture: When I was very small, he was a Ward Cleaver-type of Dad. I loved wrestling on the bed with him, riding in the car with him and being able to talk to him about anything. But when I was around 5 years old, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Treatment at the time consisted of one daily insulin shot which, combined with what I know now was alcoholism, gradually took its toll. A tragic childhood, punctuated by the early loss of his own father, left him angry at most anything, and often at me. Taking his kids to a smoke-filled bar was just one symptom of his craziness. Soon I became terrified of him and our relationship was never again a close one.

He spent the last eight years of his life at Perry Point V.A hospital in northern Maryland, after a short stint at Crownsville State Hospital for the Insane. His mental acuity gradually deteriorated. His anger subsided as he quickly and quietly aged. He died at age 66 from a series of complications from diabetes and his drinking.

Looking back, I know why he acted the way he did.  I understand now what made him crazy. But after years of dealing with my own anger at him, of struggling to become a whole adult, I’ve finally come to cherish the times I spent with Dad at The Club. I never watch a football game without thinking of the greatest football game ever played. Hearing Sleigh Ride at Christmas invariably brings to mind that magical sled ride where the only people existing in old Eastport, or in the entire world for that matter, were my father and me. I can smell the smoky Club and see the 5 cent Bally slot machine. I can feel the machine’s silver handle in my hand as I toss in my roll of nickels one by one. And like my roll of nickels that lasted the entire day, my memories of Dad and The Club have lasted a lifetime.

© William Emerson Wiley,  1/12/09

EMERSON ESSAYS 1.05.09

 

 

The Bicycle Shed

 

Traditions and rituals spring up at certain times in the calendar year. My family had many traditions, most of them occurring around holidays. Both of my brothers have been good about preserving these practices. As is my sister Lynn. She and I are responsible for initiating and perpetuating a yearly family tradition known simply as The Bicycle Shed. There is no specific date that The Bicycle Shed occurs. Suffice to say it is an event that takes place on the last evening of summer, or to be more specific: the last evening of my summer. It is a family event that will never die.

We had a very small shed next to our Cape Cod house in Eastport, Maryland. It had been fashioned from a wooden shipping crate by my father and a few of his friends. The shingles on its roof were the same color as the shingles on our house. It was built as a place for my brother Mike and me to store our bikes. The door to the bicycle shed faced our back yard. Eventually many things other than our bikes found their way inside the shed. Open the door to the bicycle shed and rakes, hoes, weed whackers, and other gardening tools were likely to come falling out. A few of our toys came to be stored there as well.

Our pet cemetery was next to the shed. Whenever I stood near the bicycle shed it was impossible for me not to think of the dogs, cats, goldfish, turtles and other creatures that had enriched my childhood. Adjacent to the pet cemetery and few feet from the shed, my mother would sit in her lawn chair and chat with our neighbor Catherine through the chain link fence. They did their crossword puzzles, a joint effort. An evening with Mom, Catherine was usually culminated with someone saying, “Who wants ice cream?” 

For a twelve-year-old boy about to enter a new school, the eve prior to the first day of 8th grade can feel like the end of summer freedom. It was an evening in early September of 1961 that I felt my freedom slipping away. This was the night The Bicycle Shed tradition began. I would be entering into junior high school this year, clear on the other side of town. I would now have to ride a school bus, a new experience for me. There would be new people to meet, and that was not an easy task for a shy teenager.

As dusk turned to dark and the first few stars appeared in the Maryland sky, I stood next to the bicycle shed and reflected upon my vacation. I recalled nearly three months worth of bike rides, softball games, hanging out with my best friend Skippy and listening to the Oriole games on my transistor radio. All of that was about to end.

This is the end of summer, I said to myself as I felt an end to my innocence. Tomorrow I’d be thrust into the frightening crowded halls of Junior High School with a whole bunch of new kids. I felt sad and I felt scared. I never forgot that moment in my back yard by the Bicycle Shed.

 

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I made it through 8th grade, remembering very little and wanting to relive none of it. Before I knew it, the summer of ’62 was upon me. And as quickly as vacation began it ended. Again I found myself by the bicycle shed, remembering the summer now about to evaporate forever. Seems like I’ve just done this, but it’s been an entire year, I thought to myself. Before I know it, I’ll be doing this again.  And I did do it again the following summer’s end. Except this time I invited my sister Lynn to join me. She was about to start first grade as I was going into 10th grade (the beginning of high school.) I explained to Lynn what the Bicycle Shed was all about. I told her how this simple ceremony would help her say goodbye to summer and ease her as painlessly as possible into the next school year.

“Don’t worry,” I told Lynn, before you know it we will be doing this again.” And we did…again and again! An incantation evolved that went something like this:

 

Well here we are again at the end of summer.

It seems like we’ve just done this.

Before you know it, we will be doing this again.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Amen.  

 

                    ****************************************************

 

On a September night in 1966, I left home to attend the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. I boarded a Greyhound bus and took the lonesome overnight journey away from home to the frightening world of being a man (almost) in the big city. Before I left for the bus station I needed to do our ritual. The Bicycle Shed gave me comfort as Lynn joined me outdoors for our final good-byes to a lot more than just another summer vacation.

I returned home the following summer to work. Those three months zoomed by. As we grow older time moves more quickly. I spent my summers following my sophomore and my junior years at home again in Annapolis. Lynn and I continued to do the Bicycle Shed ceremony each year on the eve of my return to college.

I graduated from the conservatory in the summer of 1970, and decided to spend my first year of official adulthood in Boston. I did return for a few weeks, to Eastport to spend some time with my mother and Lynn. Prior to my return to Boston to start my new life, I needed to do the Bicycle Shed again. This time my mother joined us. She watched quietly and chuckled softly, shaking her head and wondering what a couple of strange kids she had raised. Lynn and I did our ceremony, reflected quietly about the end of summer (and in my case the end of formal schooling). We did our chant. I was a grown up now, I was 21 years old, and I was about to go to the big city and seek my fortune. Thank God, Lynn, Mom and the Bicycle Shed were there to see me off.

 

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 I spent the years from 1970 to 1976, freelancing and teaching music in Boston. I also commuted up to Portland, Maine to play the timpani in their symphony and spent summers performing with the Lake George Opera Festival in upstate New York. I still always managed a trip back to Eastport, Maryland even if it were only a week or two. Mom was always there. Lynn and my two brothers were there as well, and of course there was always The Bicycle Shed.

 In the spring of 1976, a new era in my life began. I landed a one-year only gig as timpanist of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. I bade goodbye to the big city life of Boston and the foul weather of New England. I sailed into the western sunset (okay, I took a United Airlines 747) and said hello to sandy shores, palm trees and hula girls. I didn’t realize at the time that my stay in Honolulu would last much longer than the one year. I had only been west of the Mississippi River once before. I was now going a quarter of the way around the world. I packed up my few earthly possessions from Boston and spent a final month in Maryland before the trek into the tropics.

 My final evening in our back yard with Mom, Lynn and neighbor Catherine doing her crossword puzzles was a sad one for me. True, I had been out on my own now for six years but there was something a bit more melancholy about my departure this time. Lynn, Mom and I stood by the Bicycle Shed once again.

“Don’t worry,” said Lynn, “before you know it, we’ll be doing this again. It seems like we just did this. Has it been a whole year?” We then did our chant and said our “Hallelujahs.”

Mother shook her head and made the “tssk, tssk, umm, umm” sound that she so often did. “What a crazy family,” she said, and shook her head somewhat embarrassed. But I know she secretly enjoyed the Bicycle Shed as much as we did.

            I ended up staying on in Honolulu, not with the symphony but as a free-lancer. I held on to my summer job with the Lake George Opera Festival for six more years, and so I always traveled east in June. After Lake George and prior to my return to Honolulu, I always squeezed in a few weeks in Maryland. An annual family crab feast became a tradition. My brother Mike has been responsible in perpetuating this particular tradition and it has become an activity we all still enjoy.

Over the years as new wives, husbands, grandchildren, friends and lovers were invited to attend our Bicycle Shed ceremony; Mom always felt the need to apologize for the behavior of her two strange kids. “Are you sure you want to be part of this crazy family?” she once asked of Lynn’s soon-to-be husband. She asked the same thing of my wife Barbara years later.

One summer, the Bicycle Shed was not performed at our Mom’s house. We happened to be enjoying the crab feast and my final night in town at Lynn’s rented house in downtown Annapolis. We improvised a ceremony there next to an old tool shed, We decided that it was not the location as much as it was the spirit in which we celebrated. Lynn and her husband eventually built their own house ten miles south of Annapolis. Quite a few Bicycle Shed ceremonies were held there, alongside her storage shed. Lynn’s two sons (Andy and Ben) were taught about the Bicycle Shed. They now actively participate. Ben does an awesome chant sounding like the cross between a Native American and a drunken Chinese man. He can’t help it. He is part of “this crazy family.”

 

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In March 2002, Mom passed away. She was 85 years old. Everyone loses his or her mother but it is never easy. I flew from Honolulu back to Maryland to spend a final six days with her. She passed this earthly existence, well loved by her family.

I returned to Maryland that summer for a final Memorial Service for Mom. My siblings had since taken upon themselves the difficult task of cleaning out Mom’s house (and the Bicycle Shed). The house was close to being sold when I was there. It was empty. So was the Bicycle Shed, except for a few gardening tools we left for the new owner.

The crab feast was held at brother Mike’s house. Afterwards Lynn and I drove back to Eastport to say goodbye to the empty Cape Cod house and have a final Bicycle Shed ceremony. This was the most difficult part about saying goodbye to Mother. We had to say goodbye to the house in which we all were raised.

I walked through each empty room by myself. Lynn wasn’t even there. Without furniture, the house seemed so small, (or had I gotten larger over the decades?) It was hard to believe that six of us lived here at one time.

I had a small vessel of Mom’s ashes. I sprinkled some in each room of the house. Each room had its own set of memories. I stood in the very room in which I was conceived. That particular room later became known as “The TV Room.” I stayed in that room during my trips back home in the summer. I watched a lot of TV in that room with my mother next to me I recall her crunching hard candy and asking if I wanted any. It was hard to keep her still when we watched TV together. She would often run out to the kitchen and surprising me with a grilled cheese sandwich.

I went to my upstairs bedroom that I shared with Mike for so many years. It was here that Mom taught me the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. I played with electric trains for hours and hours as a child in this room. When other teenagers were out on dates I was in this room learning Tijuana Brass tunes on my marimba and listening to Boston Pops records. I learned music in this room.

I went downstairs again to Tommy’s room, where my oldest brother had slept. It was here that I read the “horror comics” on the sly. Mom thought they’d give me nightmares. Tom taught me how to play an ocarina and how to smoke a pipe in this room. All of us occupied that room at some time or another. It was where Mom spent her final years.

The living room, dining room and kitchen all seemed so very small. Mom had always wanted a bigger kitchen. I sprinkled a little bit of Mom around and spoke with her as I did it. Come on Mom. Join the family in one more Bicycle Shed.

I went out the back door and found Lynn, my two nephews and Catherine waiting at the Bicycle Shed. This would be our last ceremony at 1018 Van Buren St. in Eastport. We were saying goodbye not just to summer but also to our house and to our mother.

And there we were again. It seems like we had just done this. Had it been a whole year? It had been 41 years. Before you know it we will be doing it again. Traditions never die, not in our family. I hear Mom’s voice now: Are you sure you want to be part of this crazy family?

Yes, I’m sure.

 

© William Emerson Wiley, 1.05.09

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