Excuse me? As I ran north in the bike path on A1A, just north of Ft. Pierce, Florida, and south of Vero Beach, I spliced my way through a contingent of men wearing hard hats repairing power lines and placing new poles at varied logistical points on the east side of the highway. I kept a wary eye on the traffic zipping along at 45 miles per hour about five feet to my right. Although the sidewalk is much safer, it’s also the absolute worst substance to run on. However, since I am accustomed to defensive running, I continued on my steady pace, occasionally glancing across the road, admiring shoreline vegetation creating a natural buffer between the road and the Atlantic Ocean. The color of the water reminded me of Paul Newman’s eyes. As Butch Cassidy once said to the Sundance Kid, “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” When a person is biking, walking, or running on A1A, it’s best to have one’s eyes intently focused on the road. I’ve got vision.
And I was paying attention even though my mind was on the fact that I was not in Florida on vacation. My mother-in-law fell and fractured her pelvis two days after arriving in Florida in early October, so my husband and I are here to help in any way we can. So even though my emotional focus was on her, mentally I told myself to keep my focus on road. No bike riders were approaching me, I was in a cone zone, and the “Sidewalk Closed” sign gave me no other option than to run on that noodle of a bike path. Suddenly a man in a black SUV slowed down next to me and screamed: “Get on the sidewalk” while he angrily gestured towards the ugly strip of leg pain. I smiled and motioned downwards toward the clearly labeled “Bike Path.” What was his problem? Get on the sidewalk? Had he completely missed the “Sidewalk Closed” sign? I flashed the peace sign and went on my way.
This wasn’t my first time running on this particular stretch of road. I am respectful of bicyclists, and I always move out of their way by easing onto the grass or the sidewalk next to me so that they have a clear shot of the road. I am constantly amazed at their skills as they negotiate this busy highway. I am quite used to bicyclists, runners, walkers, animals, and automobiles sharing the road where I live around Higgins Lake, Michigan. There are no sidewalks, and far less traffic moves on the road. On a typical fall morning there, it’s not unusual to see more wildlife than cars or people. I’ve yet to have a turkey or deer try to run me off the road. In Florida, it seems the ornery wildlife drives an SUV. The man’s neck looked like a turkey’s neck as he screamed “get on the sidewalk.” The thing is, I don’t know if he was upset because I was on “his” bike path or if he just didn’t like runners sharing the road. I will never know. He didn’t exactly seem like someone I wanted to have a conversation with. Ever. I wondered if he would have screamed at a man running on the road. Perhaps I needed to puff out my chest or look mean or something. Luckily, he continued on his southward journey down A1A.
The next morning, I checked the paper and saw that low tide would occur about the same time as I normally run. I’ve tried running on the beach, but I always feel as if my hips are being displaced because of the angle of the land or my arches will never return to their normal state after being subjected to the squish-and-release sand traps. I decided I would power walk next to the ocean. I headed out with my walking sandals on and hit the beach. Paul Newman’s eyes beckoned.
As I journeyed north, I listened to the light crash, splash, breathing noises the ocean made as I made my way over thousands of sea shells. Osprey, seagulls, and pelicans flew above the water searching for a morning snack. Sanderlings, small and very entertaining shore birds, danced near me, constantly pecking at the sand with tiny black bills in their quest for buried edible delicacies in the sand. Fishing boats occasionally puttered past me or headed out to sea. Several jellyfish lay helplessly in the sand as if waiting for the tide to rise again and return them to the sea. A coconut in the distance momentarily made me think of my beloved dog with its dark brown texture. How odd, I thought, to compare my dog, dead for two years now, with a coconut. My vision segued into hallucinations but only for a moment.
After walking for almost two miles, I spotted another person walking towards me. With the exception of the “Get-on-the-sidewalk” screamer, most folks in Florida are all too eager to say hello and give a hearty greeting. I realized I wasn’t ready to speak to anyone yet. I imagined that I had lost the ability to verbalize. My solitary sojourn had somehow changed me: I was at peace with the world. My vision was clear. Despite all of the upheaval in the world and in my personal life, something about the push/pull of the water, the stick-legged birds daring me to run, and the absolutely reckless abandon I felt at not uttering a single word for at least thirty minutes had hypnotized me and washed away all negative thoughts. This was a hallucination I wanted to hold onto. I turned around to head back and avoid speaking to the man coming towards me, and much to my amusement, there were about twenty people at various distances behind me. I would have to speak. I cleared my throat just before I offered a cheery hello to the first passerby.
As I made my way back to the condo, I greeted everyone I passed. I stopped to take pictures of two very different looking and very dead jellyfish. I picked up several seashells for my collection. Shore birds continued zigzagging near me. The waves continued their hypnotic heartbeat. I felt lucky to be alive. There is always something about the ocean, a lake, or a river that gives me sustenance.
The next day, I headed out for a six-miler on A1A. Because of traffic, I stayed mostly on the sidewalk. I absolutely hated it, but no one screamed at me. In fact, an elderly gentleman walking with his wife, told me I was marathon ready. I always appreciate words of encouragement no matter how off the mark they are. I’m just working on getting back to my half-marathon running body. Another man apologized to me for not moving over as I came up behind him. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you,” he said as he adjusted his headphones. “No problem,” I said and gave him a thumbs up. Although my legs were sore from the pounding of the sidewalk, I was happy as I returned to the condo and greeted my husband. It was time to shower, get dressed, and head to the assisted living place my mother-in-law is recuperating in.
There are people of various ages at the facility. They work on healing their bodies or their minds just so they can negotiate a room or a sidewalk. Getting dressed can sometimes take an hour. Memories of my mother and her losing battle against Alzheimer’s disease flood my brain as I greet every patient I walk by. I remember how lucky I am that my body still allows me to walk on the beach or run along a road. I know that can all change in an instant. Get on the sidewalk? Sure, when I have to. Until then, I will run and walk when and where I can. As Matthew Wilder once sang, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna break my stride. Nobody’s gonna slow me down, oh-no.” Run on, my friends, run on, for as long as you can.
The morning’s gray sky dripped with humidity and the promise of rain. I could not wait for the rest of my day to get started. The members of the band I used to be in were coming to my house to play music. For several years, I had dreamed of the ReCremains reuniting and playing music on my lawn with Higgins Lake as the background. Mother Nature laughed at this plan. After 1.5 inches of rain fell, I stared at the large green sponge that used to be my lawn. This was no place for electrical equipment. We would have to rock in the basement instead.
One of my former students, Christi, arrived first. Bandmates Lori and Kirker arrived soon afterwards and began unloading equipment from their car. Their amps, guitars, cables, and percussion instruments were added into the mix of my guitars, amps, piano, and keyboard. After figuring out a plan for setting everything up, we warmed up our fingers and voices by playing a few songs. Our friends, Peggy and John, arrived to watch the band perform. We chatted in between songs and awaited the arrival of Mike, Bill, and their families. We needed our piano man and our bass player.
Even though I was among friends and at my own house, I had performance anxiety. I had not practiced with the band for over a year. When I retired from Saginaw Valley State University in 2010, and my husband and I moved to Higgins Lake in 2011, the commute to SVSU became problematic. When my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) tried to take over my life, I wasn’t even sure if I could play guitar again.
There is something to be said for both a runner’s high and the way one’s brain works on music. When I was recovering from brain surgery, I soon realized that I always felt better when I ran every day and listened to music. I finally attempted to play guitar. Again. I started writing songs. Again. I read and reread books such as This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. I soon discovered that although I could not remember things that happened six months prior, I could remember the words to practically any song I had ever heard whether it was Sinatra or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Music was the fix I needed; it was stronger than any medicine could ever possibly be.
After everyone else arrived, plus our neighbors from next door and my mother-in-law, Mike sat down at the piano, Bill fired up his bass guitar, and we began to play. I wished for our former drummer Frank, but he now lives in Virginia. I don’t remember what song we played first, but between songs, I spoke into my microphone: “I am so happy.” I repeated this many times throughout the afternoon and evening.
We ran through a bunch of our original songs, and when we played “Radio,” a song I had written years ago for the band, my fingers flew across my guitar, and my voice felt strong. We continued playing original songs we had written over the years: “Monkey Groove,” “Cream City,” “Carnival Clown,” “Swamp in My Heart,” “A Happenin’ Place (If You Happen To Be Dead),” “Highway Michigan,” “Lather, Rinse, and Repeat,” and so on. Occasionally we sang a cover song by the Stones or the Beatles. Christi sang Blondie’s “Rip Her to Shreds.” At some point, Peggy picked up a cowbell and joined us as we made merry music. We played “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison for Peggy since she had requested it. We also received requests for an Elvis song, and Bill broke out some major bass moves while singing “Jailhouse Rock.” Bill’s granddaughter Alara requested “The Alphabet Song” and “Wheels on the Bus.” We gladly obliged. She sang along and danced. Similar to a runner’s high, playing music had kicked my mind into happiness overdrive.
Eventually we knew it was time to stop. We were all exhausted. Although we had taken a break to eat dinner, we had been playing music for close to four hours. Or was it longer? My legs felt as if they might break. My voice was hoarse from singing and yakking into the microphone between songs. My neighbor, Jessica, suggested stand-up comedy might be in my future. I may seriously consider that. Not!
When I went to bed that night, even though I was exhausted, it took a long time for me to fall asleep as I relived the night’s musical madness. The next morning, I went down to the basement and looked around. The room that had been alive with music and mayhem seemed different now. Better. I had rocked in this basement with friends.
When I still taught at SVSU, author Ken Follett came to campus one year. My husband and I were lucky enough to be invited to the meet-and-greet. Instead of talking about writing, we ended up having a short conversation about playing guitar. He said that playing in a band made him a much better player. I realized this was true. The more I played music with Mike, Frank, Bill, Kirker, and Lori, the better I wanted to be as a musician and a songwriter. When Brei and Danielle, two SVSU students at the time, sang with us for a short while, I wanted to be a better singer, although I knew my alto voice could never compete with their vibrant sopranos. Despite this, I began to feel more confident.
Although Mike still encourages me to play lead guitar licks during songs, I still freeze up the moment he motions towards me. I am happy playing rhythm guitar and singing. I know I am the worst musician in the band, but they put up with me. They also seem to like the crazy songs I write, and with guidance from members of the band, those songs have become better than when I penned them as I sat alone with my guitar.
I am already planning on next year’s event: August 2015, on the lawn, under the light of a bright full moon. I am thinking of songs we could cover: “Moondance,” “Werewolves of London,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” But it is the ReCremains original songs that really highlight the heart and soul of this group of musicians. Our poetry. Our brains on music.
Imagine yourself sitting on the beach. You are enjoying the beauty of a skier zipping by you. You remember the days when you could jump the wake, fly into the air like some bikini-clad acrobat, and your slalom ski carved the waves like a surgeon’s scalpel. Now that you are older, you imagine bursting up through the water as the line pulls you forward, and releasing the rope almost immediately as you wonder if your arms are still connected to the rest of your body. Or perhaps you are out for your morning six-mile run, and the traffic has increased dramatically. Instead of ten cars passing you or trying to run you off the road, you now have fifty drivers frantically trying to get somewhere with no regard to your well-being. Instead of chirping hello to the usual suspects out on the road, you are now greeted by a bevy of skinny-pony-tailed blondes running past you or young men wearing the shortest of shorts and no shirts. At least they all wave at you—the tinsel-haired woman weaving down the road in her bright pink running shoes, trying to sing along to her running playlist and breathe at the same time. Then boom-boom-boom-boom—it is as if someone had twisted John Lee Hooker’s song into some sort of nightmarish blues ode. People are detonating what sounds like small bombs somewhere just because it is the 4th of July. Dogs bark. Babies cry. You swear. You miss the month of June.
There’s some sort of cosmic tilt in the universe when June transitions into July at Higgins Lake. In June, the mayflies may or may not come out, mosquitos roast marshmallows on your legs if you sit by the campfire at night, and the houses along the lake remain empty as if they are cottage-shaped morgues waiting for the night shift to arrive. It is quiet. You can think if you go outside at night. You swear you can hear the pulse of a distant blue star and slight variations in tempo as waves roll into shore.
When the 4th of July weekend arrives, you start to feel as if you are being forced to listen to the worst radio station ever as it alternates between AC/DC and Celine Dion. Not only are you thunderstruck, you wonder if your heart really will go on, because the constant boom, boom, boom, boom from bombastic fireworks have made you paranoid. You jump when your husband opens the refrigerator door. You cringe when you hear the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of someone’s stereo as they cruise by you during your morning run. You consider sleeping in your bedroom closet, because it might be the quietest place in your house. You pray for a downpour that is biblical.
In June, you were happy. You ran the Higgins Lake Sunrise Race with your husband and son. Even though you ran the race like a newbie, starting out too fast, imagining Commander Cody’s “Hot Rod Lincoln” pushing your pace, and finding yourself at mile 4 suddenly in Jabberwocky territory—you had become a slithy tove—you were happy as you chugged across the finish line after 6.2 miles. There were no booms to celebrate the accomplishments of people of all ages, shapes, and sizes. Instead, people clapped and shouted words of encouragement, and as you made your way to your family, smiles and words of congratulations rang through the air. You realized that you wished all celebrations could be like the end of a road race.
Although the people not far from you on the lake believe in the bigger-is-better school of fireworks, they must also realize that there is beauty in quiet fireworks. As the glowing reds, blues, greens, and yellows floated silently on the water, you could hear the oohs and aahs of people watching the show. But then a screamer or a boomer would spit through the sky as if no one could truly appreciate fireworks unless they were fracturing the night air.
It reminds you of running a race. Everyone is working hard with the same goal in mind: the big finish. But you know that it’s what comes after all of the hustle and bustle that allows you to appreciate what’s right in front of you. You will sit on your dock on a quiet evening. You might hear the murmurs from people’s conversations as they sit around campfires or voices carrying across the water as people cruise by in their pontoons. The sky will be an open book of possibilities. Chickadees, robins, and mourning doves will serenade you as you breathe in the scent of pine and wildflowers. You look forward to a good night’s sleep in your bed, the windows open, welcoming the night air.
Running on the icy/snowy/slushy roads near my house recently, dodging the snow plow truck guy who most likely thinks I am ridiculous, I realized how dealing with my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) for the past two-plus years has affected every aspect of my life. The drama of the grand mal seizure during the Zombie Run in Traverse City, Michigan, in 2011, learning I had SBT, undergoing Gamma Knife surgery (radiation to blast the tumor), and dealing with memory problems, emotions (“Cry Me a River,” indeed), and language issues (*^#^*) seemed to be a story I was ready to shed or at least shred into little pieces. As I listened to Hall & Oates’ words on my iPod, “Where do you dare me to draw the line? / You’ve got the body, now you want my soul,” I thought, hey, whoa, “I can’t go for that.” I needed to rethink my running strategies, face my fears, and set goals for running another 5K, 10K, or half marathon and not worry about waking up surrounded by Zombies at the side of the road. Time for a new game plan.
My one-year MRI in November 2012 showed that the tumor had shrunk a bit, but the edema was nasty and creating balance issues. My two-year MRI in November 2013 showed that SBT had shrunk a teeny bit more and the edema had “markedly decreased” since 2012. Since I had been feeling much better, I convinced my new neurosurgeon, Dr. Ma, to cut back on my anti-seizure medication since the dosage seemed to keep me in a perpetually stoned state and not in a good way. He scheduled me for an EEG, and on January 2nd, my son dropped me off at the hospital for my date with Angie and her electrodes. I sat in a very comfy lazy boy chair, feet up, blanket on, and waited while Angie dressed me up like some modern day Medusa, and she promised that the gel she used to stick the electrodes on my head would wash out easily. Two days later, I still felt like Cameron Diaz’s character in Something about Mary.
After a long series of tests to determine if I would have a seizure or perhaps slip into an alternate universe, Angie said she could see exactly where the radiation had zapped my head. Of course, I would have to wait for Dr. Ma to explain it all to me. I wondered if my brainwaves took a little detour around SBT as they guided me through my daily tasks. Was there still a possibility that I could have a seizure while running or watching NCIS? I anxiously awaited the results of my EEG.
My husband and I settled into the examination room and waited for Dr. Ma. Before long, he walked in wearing a very sharp suit. He informed me that I had passed all of my tests. The EEG did show electrical activities in the left frontal area of my brain that indicated the slight possibility of a seizure. Because of this, I would have to stay on my anti-seizure medication. He agreed to reduce the dosage even more than he had at our last meeting, so I felt this was a huge victory.
I asked Dr. Ma how those brainwaves work around the area where SBT is located and where the radiation burned a bit of a hole in my head, so to speak. Imagine a heart rate monitor where the blips of lines go up and down on a regular basis if your heart is in good shape. I had certainly seen enough of these as I dealt with my late father’s issues through the years of hanging out in the ER with him. Dr. Ma said that the EEG showed a distinctly different pattern when the brainwaves churned through the “damaged” zone. He then said something that made me want to stand up and cheer: “Live life. You can’t go back.” I can go for that.
I’m feeling lucky, and I am ready to get my running game on and get this body into a much sleeker shape. More miles and less beer ought to take care of that. SBT might be in charge of what my body can or cannot do, but I refuse to let it take my soul. As long as I can move this body forward, I am heading out the door into the unknown.
If a runner falls in the road and no one is around to hear her, does she make a sound? Does swearing count as sound? Ear porn for anyone listening? Recently, as I cruised along at my slow ten-minute-per-mile pace, I tripped on road debris and fell hard. I have a photograph of my right knee to prove it. My left hamstring and adjoining gluteus maximus are now speaking in tongues every time I sit down, stand up, squat, or stretch. I am tired of straddling the white throne as if it is a temperamental old horse just so I can do my business. Despite the ugly knee, the pain in the butt (and elsewhere), all I can think about is running, which is obviously something I should not do until I heal. I am a very impatient person.
I was out for a short 3.5 miler, and I needed to work off my massively sore car butt. After five days on the road that included stops in Peoria, Illinois, to visit my uncle in the hospital, stopping in Olathe, Kansas, to visit friends, and continuing on to Eureka, Kansas, to visit another uncle before turning the old car around and heading for home, I needed to stretch my legs and clear my head. The only real exercise I had within that time frame was a walk in Kansas with my friend Gretchen where the wind blew so hard that I wondered if we might actually be blown into Missouri.
Back home, I headed out on one of my usual routes around Higgins Lake. Sunny skies, 20 degree temps, and my “Summer Run” playlist on my iPod® provided me a sense of calm and relief. I glanced to my right towards a hill I had run up during the summer, but decided I needed to get my hill-legs back before tackling it again. As my head swiveled back towards the road, my left pink running shoe found a groove in the rough pavement and stuck. My upper body propelled itself forwards. My left hamstring pulled itself into an unnatural braking system that failed miserably. My upper body kept going. My arms became turbine-like, speeding up as if an out-of-control windmill. I was “Freefalling” as Tom Petty famously sings, but my landing would not be similar to the one depicted by the skateboarder in the music video. I reached out with my gloved hands and fell onto my right knee before the rest of my body slammed into the road.
November at Higgins Lake is a quiet and peaceful time. Spring, summer, and fall vacationers are nowhere to be found. Locals are at work or inside their homes keeping snug by the fire. Ducks outnumber people. Deer, always facing you with that startled look, turn and run back into the woods upon your approach, but turkeys give you the evil eye before forcing you to turn and run into the woods. On this day, the only witness to my folly was a pileated woodpecker who continued to amuse himself about thirty feet up in a dead birch tree. I yanked out my ear buds, and I listened to him laugh at me.
I sat on the pavement for a few minutes wondering if I could even get up. I was mad. There were no cars on the road in either direction. I finally figured out that if I rolled towards my left side, I could perhaps pull myself up. This painful move involved a lot more swearing. I noticed that my favorite running pants were torn where my knee had hit the asphalt. My gloves had tiny bits of gravel buried in them. I reached for my cell phone in my Armpocket® and thought about calling my husband to rescue me. I realized I was only a mile from home. Damn it! I would walk if it killed me. I tapped the icon for MapMyRun® and switched the app from running to walking. I did not want to miss out on the rest of my workout.
I started hobbling along the road, and about an eighth of a mile from where I had tripped the light fantastic, or something like that, a man walked out of his driveway and headed down the road away from me. I eventually caught up with him. He looked surprised as I passed him. “You came up fast,” he said. Was he being ironic? Sarcastic? An asshole? Or was he just some old guy who had not seen my tumbling routine in the middle of the road. I wondered if it was too early for a beer.
After an excruciating mile of limping home, I opened the door and walked into my house. I must have looked worse than I felt. As my husband looked at me, the concern on his face obvious, I said, “I’m hurt,” as I pointed at my ass. I then pulled up my torn pant leg to discover I was bleeding. I had wondered why my knee felt so warm. As I pulled the torn material off of my injured knee, I felt the material rip the skin off of my leg. I almost passed out, as I began swearing in an even louder voice than I had used on the road. After counting the imaginary stars in the ceiling, I grabbed my cell phone, turned off my mileage app, poked the camera app, and snapped a selfie of my knee. It was time to update my Facebook status.
I walked around for a while and tried to avoid the inevitable: I knew I was going to have to clean my bloody knee. I stripped down and entered the shower. Later, Jim said he could hear me in the other room as I swore and moaned when the water hit the wound. I managed to clean out the gunk, apply an antibiotic ointment, and wrap it all in some pretty gauze. Something oozed through the gauze in a pale-ale color. Even though it was twenty degrees outside, I put on a pair of shorts. I could not find a chair to sit in that my ass didn’t hurt and my hamstring didn’t screech like some sad violinist on Quaaludes. Freefalling…not.
Two days later, I told the nurse I was a bit sore as I climbed up onto the bed that would soon be slid into the open MRI for my two-year checkup. It was hard to believe that it had been two years since my Grand Mal Seizure during a road race and a freefall I have no memory of. I do remember surreal voices whispering “brain tumor” as friends and family circled my hospital bed. Weeks later, I had Gamma Knife surgery and imagined the radiation killing off the ugly thing that affects language, memory, and emotion. Months passed. My dog died. My father died. Other people I knew and cared about died, and I began to feel caught inside a spiral of death and despair, and yet my family and friends were there to catch me, forcing me to stand up, to get over myself. Deal with it. I began freefalling into a world of unconditional love and support. Faith. Mercy.
One week after my two-year MRI, I watched a bald eagle soar high above me before it started its graceful and pure freefall towards the lake as it swooped down to catch a fish. I ran inside to grab my camera. The eagle was too fast for me, and I missed the shot of it flying almost straight towards me before veering off and landing softly on a branch of a barren maple tree some two-hundred feet away. The eagle began the work of eating the fish. I watched through a kaleidoscope of trees, seemingly hundreds of arms and legs protecting the eagle from voyeurs or predators. After the freefall comes sustenance. Patience brings its greatest rewards.
In 1973, I graduated from Dodge City Senior High, home of the Red Demons. My hometown, viewed through a skewed lens of Hollywood-based thematic structures, was much more than a town filled with Matt Dillon wannabes, girls named Dorothy, and tornadoes. If you haven’t heard, read, or said “get outta Dodge” in your life, well, you aren’t paying attention. Some of us did leave Dodge City when we were younger, but many of us returned for weddings, funerals, and reunions. Since I had never been to a reunion, I recently decided it was time I got outta Michigan, where I have lived since 1977, and join the party. Although I had mixed emotions about returning to Dodge City, I looked forward to spending time with friends and reconnecting. As it turned out, music would play a pivotal role in my reaction to the weekend’s events.
Our reunion, billed as “40 Years of Peace and Love,” promised to be a spectacular party with the main events held at the Dodge House. The reunion committee, Jon Jambor, Jeanne Beilke, Micki Holladay, Rachael Livingston, and Cindy Day, worked tirelessly for over a year to create our three-day event. Along with all of the seventies-style memorabilia as table decorations, the seventies were also artistically represented by classmate Tara Hufford Walker’s 48″ x 48″ acrylic on Masonite reproductions of album covers adorning the walls.
Each piece, part of a silent auction during the evening’s festivities, would find a new home before the night’s end. On Friday night, we had a meet-and-greet, and on Saturday, the day started off with a golf outing, followed by a wine-tasting event. Saturday night began with dinner and conversation before Birth, our band from junior high and high school days, hit the stage. What better way for the class of 1973, a product of the seventies and its strong musical influence, to celebrate.
As Birth took the stage and began playing the unmistakable chord progression from “Smoke on the Water,” it seemed as if we had travelled back in time to those angst-filled teenage years. By the end of the first verse, I could hear the crowd singing along: “Smoke on the water…fire in the sky.” People started dancing, but I stayed in my seat near the stage and listened. I had this overwhelming sense of nostalgia and sadness, but I couldn’t figure out why.
To quote Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, “there’s no place like home.” But what was home for me? Was it the house I grew up in, the neighborhood now run-down and a place that would break my father’s heart if he were alive to see it? Or was my house in Michigan where I now lived, with its display of photographs and memorabilia of growing up in Dodge City, my real home? What exemplifies the concept of home? What role does the town itself play in one’s sense of belonging? Why was a song like “Smoke on the Water,” creating such angst in my rock-n-roll state of mind? My geographical markers seemed as if they had been hit with a flare gun. I felt as if I were returning to family, albeit a symbolic family, but nevertheless, a small part of a larger group of people I hadn’t seen in forty years.
As I began to make this connection, Birth walked off the stage after their first set, and classmate Linda Schnitzler Hungerford stepped up to the microphone. She read a poem dedicated to our deceased classmates. As she said their names, family members of friends stepped up to the microphone and said a few words to honor his or her loved one. Although the memorial, somber and funereal, created an awareness of our own immortality that perhaps had not been felt until that moment, it would be another classmate who would help us move from our sense of loss back towards our celebration.
Judy Neves David had heard Linda discussing the memorial on Friday. Judy, now a resident of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, suggested a “New Orleans tradition,” using a bit of “poetic license” as a way to segue back into Birth’s music as they began their second set. After Judy’s brief introduction, the song “Second Line” erupted from the sound system. Judy, taking the lead with a purple umbrella that would become our talisman for the rest of the evening, led a group of us through the crowd, dancing and tossing Mardi-Gras style beads to classmates seated at their tables. Other classmates jumped up and joined in. By the time the music ended, our “Second Line” had shifted our sadness into joy as we remembered the friends we had lost. And with that, Birth climbed back upon the stage and broke into an old familiar tune: The James Gang’s “Funk 49.” We moved from funk to funky in a short amount of time.
The night went by far too quickly. As the band started its final set, Birth’s guitarist and vocalist, Lewis Mock, strummed his acoustic guitar as he led us into Don McLean’s “American Pie.” According to McLean’s biographer, Alan Howard, “’American Pie’ is partly biographical and partly the story of America during the idealized 1950s and the bleaker 1960s.” Additionally, Howard says that “by 1971, America was deeply troubled. The Vietnam War was out of control.” In 1955, when I and most of my classmates were born into this idealized version of America, we could not have foreseen the changes in America that would take place before our 18th birthday and our graduation from high school. We had to rely on our parents, the nightly news, and, most importantly, our local radio stations to give us a perspective of the world we could only imagine. And it was through these radio stations and local bands that we began to make sense of our lives as we either stayed in Dodge City or left town in search of something else.
And here we were, a group of us on the dance floor singing and dancing to the music of Birth and Don McLean as if 40 years had not gone by. Although it seemed as if no one could remember all of the words to “American Pie,” we filled in the blanks for each other. The song turned into a giant sing along with some dancing thrown in. Many people spread their arms wide at the refrain “this will be the day that I die” as if it just might happen. It was as if this symbolic family had come to pay its respects to the past, the present, and the future. Not only had classmates joined in during other songs as the band played, but we engaged in what Daniel J. Levitin refers to in his book The World in Six Songs as “individuals who could bond into groups for the purpose of collective action” (183). Levitin further suggests that “something special happens when a group starts to sing together—something extraordinary” (182). Birth may have been the vehicle for our “collective action,” but friendship and our love of music seemed to take on a life of its own.
Later, I told a friend that our reunion, billed as “40 years of peace and love,” was so much fun that it should have been illegal. I’m not sure what I really meant by that statement, but I know that when my roommates for the weekend, Gretchen Leonard Steffen and Susan T., and I drove by my old house on our way out of Dodge City, I remembered one warm and windy Kansas day when I was inside that house and used music as way to argue with my mother without actually speaking to each other.
Our war of the stereos consisted of Tom Jones “What’s New Pussycat?” on her stereo in the living room, and in my room, a mere thirty feet away, I dropped the needle down on Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days.” As Jones’s and Robert Plant’s voices clashed in midair somewhere in the kitchen, I smiled when my dog, Charlie Brown, barked as if in recognition of the collision of sounds. I turned off my stereo and went outside with Charlie, and as I glanced up at the kitchen window, my mother waved at me. We both knew it would not be long before I would head out of that door one last time and into my future. Indeed, several years later, my mother would watch me pack my most important possessions, some clothing and all of my albums, into a black army trunk as I prepared to move to California. The Kansas wind, relentless as always, blew through my bedroom window that afternoon, creating an almost elegiac symphony for the last day I would ever live in the house I grew up in.
As Gretchen, Susan, and I drove down the dirt road I grew up on and headed out of Dodge City, I realized I was not ready to leave. I felt as if there was something I had left behind or as if I had forgotten to do something essential while I was in Kansas. Perhaps that is why we stopped at my grade school. As I stood in the doorway that led into the gym, I felt as if ghosts were lining the hallways waiting to remind me of the stories that took place in this building where I spent my days from first grade until 8th grade. But I heard nothing, so I stepped back outside where my friends waited patiently for me. I felt the Kansas wind against my skin, and I swear there was music in it if only I would listen.
Birth, comprised of keyboardist Chris Cave, bass player and vocalist Jon Jambor, guitar player and vocalist Lewis Mock, and drummer Bill Warshaw, formed around 1966/1967. According to Lewis, Birth’s name grew out of artwork he had been working on, and “it was more about something being created than the actual birth of a baby. The bloody logo (which [their] mothers hated) symbolized the blood and sweat involved in the creation of something.” Their first posters, based on “artwork and lettering from the Fillmore concert posters,” included the logo along with a ‘drip’ of blood coming down from the bottom of the word ‘Birth.’” Their mothers were charged with the task of taking their posters to the printer and had the drip of blood removed. When Mock confronted his mother, she said, “‘you’ll never understand until you have given birth.” As it turns out, mothers would influence more decisions regarding the band.
In their original formation, Robin Spencer, now deceased, had played guitar with the band. According to Jon, Robin’s mother was responsible for the band getting together, and she even lined up gigs for them. Birth performed at talent shows, birthday parties, and the Elks club, and eventually the band started renting venues. For a birthday party held at the Spencers’ home, the band “borrowed all of the equipment from Friar Tuck and the Monks,” a well-known band in Dodge City.
The dynamics of the band shifted after an event at the VFW. According to Lewis, the “VFW was the end for Robin. Banned from Birth by his mom.” Robin, Jon, and Bill’s older brother Eric, decided to visit Goddard’s Billiards after the band played at the VFW. Jon said that Goddard’s was about to be “razed for ‘urban renewal,’” and it seemed as if “it would be a pretty good idea to empty out its cabinets of the chewing gum and tobacco…since it was unlocked and going to be torn down anyway.” Unfortunately, the police caught on to this, and were waiting outside to greet the young men. According to Bill, Eric’s punishment was to get a job. Eric found a job as a disc jockey at KEDD and eventually moved to KGNO. Eric passed away in 1994.
As Birth forged ahead with its new configuration in the late sixties and early seventies, they played gigs at teen dances held at Fort Dodge, various churches, the Elks Club, Kitty’s Kitchen, the Demon’s Den, the Warehouse, the Bandshell at Wright Park, and the VFW. As Birth’s popularity grew, they continued improving their musical skills although as Jon says, “[they] made three times as much at the concessions stand than they made at the door.” Since they also lacked transportation most of the time, classmate Micki Holladay became their “transportation captain.” The band had a lot of heavy equipment, and Cave remembers when they had to “cut his Hammond CV organ in half, leaving the bass pedals intact” so that it could be loaded into a truck with the use of “a refrigerator dolly.” Whatever it took to get to a gig, the members of Birth did it.
According to Chris, the band members were “the best of friends,” and he says that they were “fans of the Beatles and started a Beatles club.” Jon says that Bill was a “member of the CBS Record Club and got all of the good albums. So many great songs, and [they] wanted to play them all.” Bill remembers “being asked to bring [his] drums over to the Cave’s house to fill in for Rod Mitchell. ‘Midnight Confession’ was the first song” that he learned. Jon says they played “Midnight Hour” and “Mustang Sally” because “they were the tunes that the big kids (e.g. Skip Cave) played and since they needed songs to fill their sets, they went with what they knew. According to Lewis, “Kick out the jams mutha@#%%^^^&&**(*!!!!!” became one of their songs, and Jon says “it was a song [he] sang with an obscene intro, and quite a bit of fun to yell out at dances [they] held at church facilities.” Not only was the band having fun, but Birth’s fans were also enamored of the guys in the band. Jon shares the following perspective from one of the band’s groupies who chooses to remain anonymous.
She states: “From the perspective of the small town girl…Birth was our local, home grown rock stars. All the other community dances had records to play, but there was nothing like having [the] guys up in front playing live. Just thinking about how everything was changing around us as a generation…all we are saying is give peace a chance…if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with…and then there was Woodstock and Viet Nam, and we all changed except for men like my father. They were the Archie Bunker models that were afraid of the changes. Birth was our glimpse of the world beyond 50 highway. We loved [them] because [they] represented something beyond Boot Hill and wheat fields. I really enjoyed the practice sessions and all the teenage angst. All the girls loved [the members of Birth] and I liked being one of those girls. It made me feel special.”
Anonymous has it right. We loved the music played by our local bands, and Eric Warshaw’s voice on the radio as he played requests from giggly girls calling in from the Kwik Shop. Yes, I was one of those giggly girls. Music fed our souls in a way that parents, teachers, and preachers could not come close to fulfilling. For our 40th high school reunion, it seemed as if we had taken a step back in time, and Birth played songs that mattered to us during our younger years but seemed to matter even more forty years later.
Q and A with the members of Birth:
What is your current job?
Lewis Mock (Colorado Springs, Colorado): I am a full-time musician. I am the bandleader at the Tavern at the Broadmoor. For twenty-two years I was also in private practice as a Doctor of Chiropractic, and for ten years was a professor at the Colorado Springs Conservatory where I taught musicianship to young people of all ages. Throughout all of these years of teaching and practicing Chiropractic, I always was playing music. (Please see the attached Mock Bio.)
Bill Warshaw (Dodge City, Kansas): Right now, I am newly retired. I still haven’t gotten used to it. I sold liquor, beer, and wine for a distributor for the last eleven years.
Chris Cave (Dallas, Texas): I work for myself. (Please see http://www.ccave.tv/ for a full description.)
Jon Jambor (Lawrence, Kansas): President, Kennedy Technology Group. (Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Are you in a band now?
Mock: As I said above, I’m the leader of the “World Famous Tavern Orchestra” at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs and have been there for almost 22 years. I have also performed as a sideman to Grammy Award Winner, Suzy Bogguss, and recording and Broadway star, Maureen McGovern, as well as Emmy winner, singer/songwriter, Jim Salestrom, and recording artist Nelson Rangell.
Warshaw: No, just Birth.
Cave: Yes. http://www.jumpbilly.com/
What musical moment at the reunion meant the most to you?
Mock: My favorite memory of the reunion was playing again with Birth.
Warshaw: I think it was watching people get up and dance with big smiles on their faces. Also, “American Pie,” even though we had never played it before.
Cave: When it was over. Pressure!
Jambor: Bill’s drum solo on “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
Will you be playing at our next reunion?
Mock: I don’t know for sure about the next reunion.
Warshaw: Sure thing. Looks like we will be playing next summer at the class of 1974’s reunion. The whole thing was such a blast, and it is just easy for me to play the drums when surrounded by such great musicians.
Cave: I don’t think anyone has committed yet.
Jambor: “You better believe it, baby!”
In the song, “Don’t Want Lies” by The Rides (Stephen Stills, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Barry Goldberg),” Stills’ sings, “What’s the shape of my future / as my life goes whistling by?” The song, reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash from an earlier era, has a bluesy feel as it poses thought-provoking questions about someone examining his or her life. Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time with family and friends in the past few years, travelling places or simply sitting around a campfire on the beach, I have felt the slippage of time, especially after I learned I had a brain tumor. I embrace solitude, but to appreciate the silence, I need my family and friends to create an infusion of laughter, love, and mercy into my life. I have discovered that road trips are the key to my future.
Warm summer days and cool nights transform winter-weary wanderers into road-warrior travelers. My husband and I drove from Michigan to Florida in February to escape brittle winter winds and the stratified layers of snow and ice surrounding our home. Earlier this summer, my husband, son, and I hit the road again and spent a few days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When my son asked if I wanted to take a road trip to Colorado so that he could attend the wedding of a friend in mid-July, I jumped at the opportunity to spend time with him, visit friends in Colorado, and put a few more notches on my “have-driven-through-these-states” belt. At six a.m. on July 18th, we quietly slipped out of Matt’s neighborhood as we began our road trip.
Matt drove the bulk of the way, and I took a few turns behind the wheel. After a fairly easy day of driving despite the extreme heat and the steady hum and grind of the semis on the roads through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, we sought a break from our travel and spent the night in a motel in Kearney, Nebraska. The next morning, we ate our complimentary breakfast and prepared to check out. I pointed out an ironing board in the closet, and Matt said: “Do you even know how to iron?” As someone who eked out a “C” in Home Economics in ninth grade, and no memories of my mother forcing me to iron anything other than a wrinkled hem, I had refused to iron as a grown up woman, and I laughed as we headed out of the motel. Colorado awaited us.
With Matt at the wheel, he drove past the endless fields of corn, cattle, and hay along I-80 as we headed west. One of Matt’s favorite radio stations is Lithium on Sirius. At one point, I turned to him and said: “Is this the Alice in Chains station?” I quickly followed up my question by stating: “It’s not a criticism, a witticism, or dipshit-ism.” Matt looked at me briefly before turning his attention back to the road. Instead of commenting on his music selections, I started mooing when we went past fields straddled with cattle. If we passed a field dotted with crescent-roll shaped bales of hay, I simply said: “Hay.” I am fairly certain I annoyed the hell out of Matt, but his tempered response of a quick eye roll and subsequent search for a different radio station seemed to be all he needed to put up with me.
We eventually cut south towards Windsor, Colorado. When Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird” came on one of the stations, I said I would rather hurt myself than hear that song one more time. In my “mom-entary” moment of madness, and perhaps hearing that song one too many times over the years, I actually wanted to hear another Alice in Chains song or something by Nirvana. Perhaps I, the intrepid road warrior, had turned into the song police. Thankfully, Matt would be free of my endless babbling after he dropped me off at Susan and Dick’s house. As I watched Matt head off to Boulder, I wondered if he would remember to pick me up on his trip back to Michigan. As he waved goodbye, Susan and I began to talk. And talk. And talk.
I met Susan the summer before ninth grade, and we became friends. Although time and geography have kept us apart, we have managed to stay in touch. We had seen each other during a Pretzel Tour trip (my yearly adventures with Micki, Rachael, and Jeanne) four years earlier, and I met Susan and Micki for lunch in Denver two years ago when I was in town for a wedding. For this visit, I had invited myself to stay at Susan’s house, and she kindly agreed. Of course, this was before she rediscovered my endless enthusiasm for telling stories, particularly ones from our years as smoking-hot-high-school chicks. Well, that’s how I remember it, and I am the one telling this story.
The next day, we went to Micki’s house in Greeley, ate lunch with her husband, and then with Micki behind the wheel, me riding shotgun, and Susan in the backseat, we headed to Estes Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. As Micki steered us up highway 34 through the Big Thompson Canyon, I marveled at the beautiful scenery. There is something singularly breathtaking about the beauty of the mountains where sheer rock walls and hardy pine trees merge with cool rushing streams of water as gravity shape-shifts the land. Micki turned onto Glen Haven road, and we worked our way to Estes Park; an elevation of 7,522 feet. My home at Higgins Lake, Michigan, has an elevation of 1,150 feet, so as my brain and body adjusted to the continuous upwards motion, I realized that I was certainly in “Freebird’s” terrain.
While in Estes Park, we visited the Stanley Hotel, an inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, complete with a Jack Nicholson doppelgänger holding an axe while seated on the front porch. Although typically a photo-op poser, I refrained from forcing my friends to snap a picture. After a quick tour of the hotel, we decided it was time to head back down the mountain. We made a quick stop roadside and stared off into the distance towards Long’s Peak, standing tall at 14,259 feet. Perhaps on my next trip to Colorado, I can figure out a way to “get much higher” as Joe Walsh famously sang in “Rocky Mountain Way.”
Micki headed down the mountain via highway 7 south of Estes Park where serious cyclists going up and down the mountain seemed as if they were enjoying the rise and fall of elevation. We eventually joined up with highway 66 in Lyons where we drove past a hippie van parked in front of a bar/restaurant. I wondered if I had slipped back in time somehow. As if to add to my musical reverie of the past, John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” came on the radio. The three of us began to sing along, although I seemed to draw a blank on many of the lyrics, something I now blame on oxygen deprivation caused by the ever-changing altitude. Growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, with an elevation of 2,550 feet, I had probably listened to Denver’s classic song at least a thousand times, but I had never heard the song while sliding a few thousand feet down a mountain road made up of hairpin turns and the tops of trees indicating where the road ended and a Thelma and Louise moment might begin.
We returned to civilization, and we spent the evening at Susan’s house reminiscing. Micki and Susan’s husbands wandered off as we took yet another trip down memory lane and examined our high school yearbooks. When I started reading aloud what I had written in Susan’s yearbook when we were mere sophomores, the three of us laughed so hard I thought we might spontaneously combust. I had filled up a page and a half with my deep-introspective-full-of-myself musings. I had been full of dipshit-isms even then. I hesitated as to whether or not I should read Susan’s yearbook from her junior year. I noticed a half page of writing and a very long poem taking up a full page in her yearbook. Smartly, during our senior year, Susan did not allow anyone to sign her yearbook, most likely because she was afraid I would find it and write yet another lengthy soliloquy about life, love, and angst as a teenager in Dodge City, Kansas. Since our 40th high school reunion loomed ahead of us in a few weeks, I decided it was best if I stayed far away from yearbooks or reams of paper in case I felt compelled to pontificate, or worse, share some “mom-entary-isms” or “dipshit-isms” with anyone still speaking to me. With that thought in mind, I headed to bed early. Matt planned to pick me up at six a.m.
As I knew he would, Matt arrived a bit early, and I was ready. We drove through Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and into Michigan without much of a problem. We had been constantly checking our various weather apps as we watched an ominous-looking line of thunderstorms crossing Lake Michigan aiming, as if guided by Google Maps, exactly towards us. By the time we rolled into Matt’s driveway around three in the morning, my body seemed to misunderstand what it felt like to be stationary. After a few hours of sleep, I headed home. I don’t really remember driving, but the car seemed to know the way.
There’s something to be said for spending time with family and friends, but for me, I think it boils down to feeling damn lucky. I feel blessed that I have a son who actually wants to spend time with me, especially side-by-side in a car driving through six states. I am also grateful for great friends who still put up with me even though they have known me since ninth grade and have heard some of my stories at least forty times. I am starting to think this brain tumor thing I have isn’t so bad, since I am finally catching on to what really matters in life. Our homes, wherever we end up living, exist in the physical world, but memories allow us the ability to time travel between the multiple relationships and elevations that shape us into who we are.