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!”
My husband and I left the blowing snow of Michigan in February and headed south. Our final destination was Ft. Pierce, Florida, where we would stay at his mother’s condo, inconveniently located on the tenth floor of a tall building. I am allergic to heights. Listening to ocean waves crashing the beach and watching sharks migrate northwards from our upper perch is something I love, but that damn black railing, all that stands between me and some grassy knoll below, looks more like dangling strings of black licorice. But before I would have to conquer my fear of heights again, we had to negotiate the turmoil on Interstate 75 on a Monday and Tuesday prior to the Daytona 500. It seemed as if everyone on the road was training to get some speedway action.
We made it as far as Cleveland, Tennessee, before we settled in for the night. Despite the fact that the fire alarms burst into action five minutes after we arrived, and the man across the hallway opened up his door exposing a lot of naked skin and some ugly boxer shorts, we had a good night’s sleep. In the morning, it was my turn to drive. Throughout Michigan and Ohio, we had maintained a fairly steady speed, and state troopers, occasionally sprouted from the medians to remind us to slow down our four-wheel missiles. In Kentucky, speeding seemed to be the norm, so we upped the cruise control to 77 mph.
Around 8:00 in the morning, we left the safety of our not-burned-down motel and the semi-naked man. I drove down the entrance ramp towards I-75, and quickly realized I had to hasten my pace to keep up with this rat-race pack of early-morning drivers. As I stepped on the gas of my bad-ass pickup truck into the southbound lanes of I-75 while doing some Sirius tuning, I heard the distinctive sounds of Golden Earring’s “Radar Love.” The guitar intro seemed as if it were a menacing riff warning me of potential drama. The drums kicked in, or perhaps it was my heart beating as I made my way into the madness. I turned to my husband and said: “These drivers are insane.” As we began, as Golden Earring would say, “speeding into a new sunrise,” I set the cruise control at 85 mph, and my life flashed before my eyes.
In Michigan, most days I drive between 35 and 40 mph where I live, with the occasional bump up to 55 in permitted areas. I am used to cruising around on local roads where golf carts and Polaris Rangers express the natives or weekenders’ joie de vivre. There is no radar love here, and cops will pull you over, no matter what type of vehicle you are driving, if you dare to buzz past at a mere 5 or 10 over. The cops here are very cool, but they don’t like speeders, meth labs, or dead animals at the side of the road. Neither do we.
One day my husband and I walked past a woman in her SUV as she pled her case to the policeman who had pulled her over. “But I didn’t see the sign,” she said. My husband and I looked at each other and laughed as we went on our way. Since the only obstacles to observing the speed limit signs are mailboxes and critter-proof garbage receptacles, we figured this gal was in for nice little ticket. As runners, walkers, and bicyclists, we don’t want any stinkin’ speeders zipping up and down our roads. “I hate out-of-town morons,” I said to my husband as we continued on our way. Weekenders, trunk-slammers, whatever, they should obey the speed limit. Unless, of course, you live in or are driving through Tennessee or Georgia.
Apparently people in Tennessee and Georgia are in a big hurry to get somewhere. I’d say they are trying to “get the hell outta Dodge,” but as someone who grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, I am really, really tired of that analogy. As I drove like a flying monkey (I know, I know), I thanked God I was in a bad-ass pickup truck where I could cruise next to the massive numbers of semi-truck drivers heading south, and snowbirds trying to escape the reality of Michigan in winter. I learned that size really does matter. I felt as if I had my cowgirl boots on and could kick anyone’s ass, except for a semi-truck driver’s ass, as I ducked and dived my way through traffic, seated on my throne where I could look down upon smaller cars passing me, most likely driving 90-95 mph. Quite a few of these drivers were either texting, eating, or smoking. My husband got tired of my swearing, so he pretended to memorize the map. This is when I learned a new game: Avoid the Cube.
For those of you who don’t know, a Cube is a car, a very teeny car that reminds me of an old phone booth tipped sideways, jammed pack with people, and gliding down the road on top of a skateboard. Cube drivers have apparently invented a game where they dare to dart in-between semis and bad-ass pickups as a way of showing their disdain for anyone in a larger vehicle. Would these be eco-terrorists, or are these people just plain nuts? After using multiple swear words in rapid succession (drumbeats—“Radar Love”),” my husband asked if I wanted him to drive. Hell no! Memories of my Audi TT convertible played out in my head. I was a fox! A speeding vixen! I was Danica Patrick!
Eventually, we had to stop for food and gas, no pit crew to save us the trouble. I relinquished the driving duties to my husband. As we neared the Florida state line, we noted the presence of state troopers waiting in the medians like suicidal raccoons, just waiting to pop out into traffic and cause major mayhem. Jim slowed down to 75 mph as we kept up with traffic and out of the radar-lovers’ view.
As we breezed along A1A, the sky melted into darkness filled with thousands of stars. We pulled into the parking lot at my mother-in-law’s condo, commenting on the various license plates from Ontario, Quebec, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and one lone car from Texas. We climbed out of our bad-ass pickup truck and grabbed our suitcases. We rode in the elevator up to the 10th floor, and walked to the end of the hall. Jim’s mother hugged us and asked about our trip. Jim and I looked at each other, and smiled. “Long,” he said. I walked out onto the balcony and listened as waves crashed into the shore, morphing into the sound of soft brushes sliding over the surface of some faraway drum. I slid my body forward and traced the inner rim of the balcony railing. The noises of the road became a distant memory as I settled into a new kind of joie de vivre.
Dodge City, Kansas, is a town rich with history. Known as the Cowboy Capital, its mainstays were lawlessness, buffalo, cattle, bars, fights, and the fictional character of Marshall Matt Dillon. Gunsmoke, one of the most influential shows my parents and I watched, provided an interesting look at how Dodge City was portrayed on television.
One of my favorite scenes from Gunsmoke is when Matt Dillon faces a group of men who want a prisoner released and says: “get out of Dodge.” Some of us did leave Dodge, but we chose to; no one forced us out of town. Nevertheless, after moving away, I could always count on someone saying one of three things: “Guess you got out of Dodge,” “Did you know Dorothy?” or “Are you a cowgirl?” Yes, these were typically pick-up lines, and, no, they didn’t work.
Gunsmoke aired in 1955, and Dodge City became even more popular. As I grew up, I noticed an increasing number of little girls wearing cowgirl outfits. I was reminded of this recently when several Dodge City cowgirl photos were posted on Facebook. Micki Holladay, Judy Neves David, and I were examples of cowgirls in our town, parading around in our cute cowgirl outfits, holding toy guns in our hands, and seemingly aiming at someone or something. In the photos of the three of us, I have to say Micki at least looks as if she knows what she is doing, or perhaps she is aiming the gun at whoever is taking the picture as if to say: Stop it or I will shoot. Eventually we tossed our toy guns aside, grew out of our cowgirl outfits, survived our teenage years, and moved on.
Micki “wanted to be a veterinarian” when she grew up. Her mother said she “could be anything she wanted.” Micki attended Dodge City Community College in 1973-1974 before getting out of Dodge in 1977, and moved to Las Animas, Colorado. She eventually moved to Greeley in 1978 and worked for Sears, a store she had also worked for in Dodge City. She returned to college in 1990 and began working towards a nursing degree, receiving her Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 1994 from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Micki’s mother always stressed the importance of “life-long learning,” and Micki continues to do so to this day. In 2010, she began working on her Master’s (MSN) degree at Regis University in Denver.
Judy wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. Judy and her sister would play school, and in sixth grade Judy met a “deaf education teacher that [she] admired,” and never “considered doing anything else after that.” Judy’s mother provided “exposure to the arts” and “encouraged her to write.” After graduating from Dodge City Senior High, she spent one year at Wichita State University before continuing her education at Louisiana State University where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Education (Speech and Hearing Therapy). In graduate school, she earned her master’s in Speech-Language Pathology. Although Judy did not grow up on a farm, she considers herself “an old farm girl.” Despite the outfit she had when she was young, the only cowboy boots she owned “were those ugly white ones with taps on the bottom that [she] wore for DCHS drill team.”
And what did I want to be when I grew up? I have no idea. I’m still working on it. My parents ran a restaurant, but we lived on a farm, raising cattle, pigs, and chickens. I had a horse until 1965, but Willie was just about as mean as a horse could be, and my father never brought Willie back to our house after the big flood that year.
I hated school. Despite the good grades I earned until I graduated in 8th grade from Wilroads Gardens, I took a sharp turn after riding the bus into town for 9th grade and junior high. By the time I hit Dodge City Senior High, I was more interested in skipping than actually attending class. My parents never seemed to be too upset about my report cards, and I finally found out why when I delved into my adoption information last year.
According to the State Department of Social Welfare of Kansas, circa 1955, my parents were “interested in family life” and “environment.” According to the document, “Scholastic achievement doesn’t seem to appeal to this couple as much as personality and ambition.” Unlike Micki’s mother who encouraged her love of life-long learning, and Judy’s mother who provided exposure to the arts and encouraged her to write, my mother was more interested in me having a good personality, and I did not let her down.
After high school, I wandered and made stupid decisions just about every day, and when I turned 21, I became a bartender at the Dodge City Country Club. My personality fit in well, but under no circumstances would my mother let me tell my grandmother I was a bartender. Cocktail waitress? Yes, I could admit to that job, but for some reason she did not want me to tell her I was a bartender. I made much better tips as a bartender, but that didn’t seem to matter.
One day, “get out of Dodge” seemed to burn a hole in my personality-driven brain. In August of 1976, I quit my job, boarded the westbound train to California, moved in with a friend, and got a job as a secretary at Laguna Sportswear. The personality child had found her space in the universe. College still didn’t interest me, but California boys and the beach certainly did. Life was good, and on August 26, 1977, I met a guy from Michigan who just happened to be visiting. Naturally, against my parents’ wishes, my friends’, and those of my boss at Laguna, and I packed up my car, convinced my friend Cari (originally from Michigan) to accompany me, and we drove from California to Michigan with a pit stop in Dodge City to visit my parents. I tried to convince them I wasn’t insane.
Instead, life got even better. I became a mother and settled into life in Midland, Michigan. Just as the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz thinks life would be better if he “only had a brain,” I decided it was time to see if mine actually functioned. At the encouragement of my husband and then seven-year old son, I went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree at Saginaw Valley State University in English/Creative Writing. I was actually in the Honors Program! I then went to Michigan State University for a degree in creative writing, and graduated with nearly a 4.0. At the age of 41, I had finally made my parents proud of me, found the ambition that seemed to go along with my personality, and realized I might turn out okay when I grow up.
I am a cowgirl. I am a farm girl. I am a mother, wife, daughter, and friend. Although Micki, Judy, and I wore our cowgirl outfits to please our mothers, or perhaps ourselves, none of us grew up to be cowgirls. But something always draws us back to the beginning, when the world was waiting for us, and we were waiting to pull the trigger.