Marvellaland

Essays on memoir, music, and more from Beatrice M. Hogg

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

What’s A Parade Without A Fire Truck?

Whoever heard of a parade without a fire truck? At the annual Memorial Day Parade in my hometown of Lawrence, Pennsylvania, we had marching bands, local, dignitaries, and best of all — shiny fire trucks.

Daddy was a fireman for the Cecil Township Volunteer Fire Department No. 1 and an auxiliary policeman, duties he considered an honor and a privilege.  On Memorial Day, auxiliary policemen were responsible for directing traffic. Daddy traded his black fireman’s hat with the big, white “1” in the front for his blue auxiliary policeman’s hat with the silver badge. Besides the hat, Daddy wore a police whistle on a chain. The sharp “toot” was loud enough to command the attention of any driver. But there was more to Memorial Day than just the parade. On the main street, Georgetown Road, there was an Honor Roll that commemorated the local men lost in wars. Every May 31, there was a ceremony at the Honor Roll that was attended by everyone in town.

Memorial Day was usually bright and sunny. Daddy would get up early in the morning to prepare for his duties. I loved to see Daddy in his uniform. No one else was as handsome as he was, standing straight and tall with the badge and silver buttons shining on his coat. His walnut-brown, freshly shaven face seemed to come alive when he was in uniform.

Most townspeople walked to the Memorial Park around ten-fifteen or ten-thirty to get a good viewing spot and to find their friends. When Momma and I walked to Georgetown Road from our home on First Street, I would look around for Daddy. There were four streets and several intersections in Lawrence and Daddy would be posted at one of them to insure that no cars accidentally got on the parade route.

At 11AM sharp, the fire siren blared to signal the start of the morning’s events. A color guard led the procession with the national and state flags aloft. The members stepped high in their white boots. The band marched up the street in their impressive uniforms. The majorettes twirled and strutted in time to the martial music. Local dignitaries and politicians appeared in big cars with banners on the sides.

My favorite part of the parade, though, was the fire trucks. Our hometown department led the pack, with the main white fire engine shining in the sun. The gold letters on the door gleamed. We were proud that our Department was called Number One, even though none of us knew how the designation was determined. But to every resident of Lawrence, it meant our local heroes were the best. We considered our firemen the strongest and bravest in the township.  I knew all the men on the trucks. They were my neighbors and the fathers of my friends. Most of them were Daddy’s co-workers at the mine. I looked at the ladders, dials, hoses, and axes hanging on the sides of the trucks, equipment that Daddy used to stop fires.

Interspersed with the bands and the dignitaries, the other two township fire companies displayed their engines. Each year, there were also fire trucks from volunteer fire departments in surrounding townships and boroughs: Avella, Burgettstown, North and South Fayette. I applauded until my palms started to tingle. After the parade, there was a ceremony at the Memorial Park. The bands sat behind the Honor Roll and played a patriotic tune. A local official placed a wreath in front of the monument. The pastors from the three local churches sat on wooden folding chairs that flanked the granite monument. They stood up together, and one pastor would lead the crowd in prayer. Officers from the local VFW club gave a twenty-one-gun salute. The report from the guns reverberated in the air. After the salute, boys in the crowd raced to get the shells that were scattered on the ground. The bugler from one of the marching bands played “Taps.” With that final salute, the program was over, but no one was in a hurry to get home. Everyone was in a holiday mood, talking and laughing. Momma and I stopped and talked to neighbors from other parts of town. Sometimes we went to Pete’s Dairy Bar for a chocolate milkshake.

Later in the day, Daddy would come home. He would go upstairs to change clothes. He would take off his uniform, carefully place it on a large wooden hanger and store it in his closet. Even without the uniform, he was still special. But at the sound of a siren, he was transformed into a brave hero, willing to risk his life for others. And at the sound of a siren on the morning of May 31, Georgetown Road became the perfect parade route—with marching bands, dignitaries, and of course, fire trucks. Who needed floats and balloons when there were shiny fire trucks to gaze upon?

A version of this essay was published in Reminisce Magazine in the May/June 2003 issue.

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Lenny Kravitz is My Homeboy

 

After years of intense observation, I have decided that what Lenny Kravitz needs is a good black woman, just like his Mama. I humbly offer my services to Mr. Kravitz on the auspicious occasion of his 48th birthday.

Okay, let me review the attributes of the above-mentioned rock god. It appears that Lenny is the only African American man who seems to really get it, who knows how to meld soul and rock in a way that garners fans from both genres and all races. For a rocker/funkateer  like me, that is one of the highest compliments I can pay to any man. To me, Lenny – in all of his West Indian/Jewish caramel deliciousness – is the kind of man I can relate to. He is a gifted guitarist, singer and songwriter, as well as a talented actor. He knows how to dress for success, as nobody can wear black leather like Lenny can. And all of those tattoos and piercings, how can anyone resist those? Yeah, I know, a lot of women don’t like all of that, but to me, it is sexy as hell. And his most important attribute is this: he was born on the exact same day as my best friend Mary – May 26, 1964. So it was meant to be, right?

I have yet to see Mr. Kravitz in concert or in person. But I haven’t given up hope. All I need is a concert ticket, a backstage pass or to be at the right place at the right time. I mean, Lenny goes to Las Vegas a lot and so do I. It would be fun to hang around with Lenny. He has been everywhere and knows everyone. Maybe we could go to Paris and he could buy me a Louis Vuitton bag, which I would carry to a café near the Eiffel Tower. There, we could write poetry or lyrics and talk about our lives. I could show him some of my essays about my mother and he could tell me about his. We could raise our champagne glasses to the strong Black women who raised us. We could discuss Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, as well as George Clinton and Bob Marley. Lenny could help me with my bass guitar lessons. He could teach me some chords and accompany me on guitar. I could help him write his memoirs. We could go shopping for hair products and jewelry. The possibilities are endless. No, I am not deterred by the fact that I’m broke and homeless in Sacramento while Lenny Kravitz lives in some fancy place in New York, or Miami or Los Angeles collecting royalty checks and going on world tours. It doesn’t matter that I am seven years older than Lenny, as that barely makes me a cougar. Love conquers all, or as Lenny says, “Let love rule.” He has loved and lost, and gotten stronger from the experience. He is a loving father, a beloved son, and a fine brown man.

Wearing the Lenny Kravitz tee shirt that my friend Rukiya bought me is probably the closest I’ll ever get to getting Lenny in bed, but I continue to dream. And isn’t that what rock and roll is about anyway – a dream, a sound, and an escape from the ordinary? Happy Birthday, Lenny. See you in my dreams.

Letting Go of the Bundt Pan

I held onto it for a long time before putting it in the box of things to take to Goodwill. I ran my fingers along its ridges and watched the light reflect off its silver surface. What was wrong with me? It was only a friggin’ Bundt pan! I hadn’t made a cake in it in years. It was one of those things that took up space in my kitchen cabinet, gathering dust. But now, I didn’t have a kitchen cabinet, or even a kitchen. I was homeless. What did I need with several boxes of pots, pans, baking dishes, cupcake pans and assorted sundry that I hadn’t used since Clinton was president? For the last six months, I had been scraping together seventy dollars a month or asking others to pay my storage rent, even while I was sleeping in a dirty cot at a crowded LA emergency shelter.

But the Bundt pan was different. It meant parties, special events, good times – I had made rum cakes in that pan. And nothing says party like a good ol’  homemade rum cake. Giving up that pan made me feel like I was giving up on life. Would I ever have a party again, or be invited to a potluck, or have any reason to make a cake again? It was silly, I know, as Bundt pans aren’t that expensive. Once I got back on my feet again, I could walk into any store and buy a new Bundt pan. But I felt sad anyway.

I looked at the boxes of belongings in the narrow storage unit – the effluvia of a life of mindless purchases, a large book collection, and more tee shirts than any one woman had a need for even in the best of times. Why was it so hard to part with my stuff? I had already done it several times before – when I sold my childhood home in Pennsylvania in 1984 and when I moved from Pennsylvania to California in 1988. But as I got older, it became harder. Maybe mentally I was already on my way to becoming an elderly hoarder, a little old lady who would be found dead one day, buried under a mound of old newspapers in a tiny apartment. That is, if I ever got an apartment again.

But that stuff was all I had. It was part of my identity. Over the years, I had become infamous for my excess – in the eighties, I wore a different rock star button on my lapel every day, in the nineties, it was a different purse and shoes every day. Later, I was known for my large library, consisting of books that I would never find the time to re-read, but didn’t want to lend out. Of course, some things, like the diaries from 1970 to 2009, photos, and that jar of buttons, were irreplaceable, but almost everything else could be replaced or wouldn’t even be missed. “More is more” had always been my motto – except when it came to my bank balance. Which was why I was sifting through boxes, trying to downsize without throwing away anything that I was really attached to. Which was why I was living temporarily in a friend’s spare bedroom and my cat was in a foster home.

I went through a box of ceramic cups. How many cups did a single woman need? There was the souvenir cup from San Francisco that I got when I first moved to California in 1988. There were two leopard print cups, the commemorative cup that was under my seat when I received my MFA degree, the cup my friend got at Harrods in London about ten years ago, a cup I bought in London in the late eighties, not to mention the treasured tan cup that had been the bearer of morning refreshment for my mother, who died in 1970. I never used the San Fran cup any more, so it was ready for a new home. A few cups randomly picked at thrift stores could be recycled. But I kept my alma mater cup, the London cups, a set of four matching cups, and about four other cups that had been gifts. The box was getting full.

I put the Bundt pan on top and closed the box for its trip to Goodwill. I could see a glint of silver peeking out from the small hole on the top. I sighed and picked up the box. I didn’t even like to bake…

(As I wrote those last words, I heard an ad on the radio for Bundt cakes – must be a sign! Photo from bbq-brethern.com. How could I resist a website that said “Fear the Pig”?!)

Momma’s Arms

My mother was a “smother mother.” As a child, I was embarrassed by her overly affectionate ways. She always wanted to hug and kiss me, even in front of my friends. The mothers of my friends did not act this way. I wanted my mother to be more like them. But now, over 40 years after her death, one of the few things that I remember about her is her loving caresses and kisses. I can barely remember the sound of her voice, but I can still remember how I felt in her arms. Momma was my favorite person in the whole world.

Momma was born around the turn of the 20th century. She was in her late fifties when she and Daddy adopted me. From the time that I was a toddler, I slept with my mother. Momma slept on the left side of the bed. I snuggled up to her on the right, as close as possible to her warm body. She stretched out her right arm and I placed my head on her arm. Sometimes, I could hear her heartbeat. The steady beat was a comforting sound, like being in the womb. The closeness that we shared each night in the dark room strengthened the bond between us. After a few minutes, Momma would say, “Get your hard head off of my arm. My arm is going to sleep.” Then I would lay my head on my pillow and drift off to sleep. I felt secure because I knew that nothing in the dark could bother me as long as I had Momma next to me.

During thunderstorms, I sat on Momma’s lap and hid my face in her ample bosom. She was terrified of storms. She passed that fear on to me. During every storm, she would tell me about the man in Lenoir that was struck by lightening while looking out of the window. I still don’t go near windows during storms. She would rock me back and forth in her arms and sing hymns. When I grew too big to sit on her lap, I would lie on the sofa with just my head in her lap. We would jump at every clap of thunder and hold each other tight. After summer storms, we would go for a walk down the street, chasing rainbows.

As I got older and taller, I was realized that my mother was very short. She was only around four foot ten. By the time that I was eleven, I was taller that she was. I would put her head on my shoulder and laugh. She admonished me to remember that she was still the boss. Even though I was almost a teenager, Momma still expected me to hug and kiss her all of the time. It became a game, where I would run from her whenever she stretched out her arms. I loved Momma, but I felt that I was getting too old for such displays of affection.

Around the same time, Momma started having problems with her memory.  She could no longer remember to take her daily shots of insulin. A nurse came to the house to teach my father and me how to administer the shots. I was shaking the first time that I tried to give Momma an injection in her arm. I hit a vein and blood ran down her arm. Momma saw my anguished expression and said, “It’s okay. You didn’t hurt me.” But I wasn’t convinced. I ran crying from the room. I never tried to give her a shot again. I could not stand the thought of inflicting pain on my mother, especially on those arms that meant so much to me.

A few months later, Momma had to go back to the hospital. She went into a coma. I cried when I saw the tubes on Momma’s arms that connected her to the machines that were keeping her alive. Momma never came out of the coma, but died after spending two weeks in the hospital.

But Momma’s love will never fade. In my dreams, I am with my “touchy-feely” mother. As adult women together, we hug and kiss and laugh and talk. When I am in need of comfort, she holds me tight and I cry in her arms. When I wake up, I still feel her arms surrounding me and keeping me safe. I will never forget Momma’s arms.

Dreams in the Dark: Remembering Ray Gillen

May 12 would have been Ray Gillen’s 53rd birthday.

 

I remember when I first heard about Ray Gillen. It was 1986. My best friend Mary and I were planning to see Black Sabbath in Pittsburgh, with the great Glenn Hughes as lead singer. We loved hearing Glenn on the new Seventh Star album. We went to the first date of the tour, which was at Public Hall in Cleveland, Ohio on March 21. The sound was atrocious, but we didn’t care, as long as we could see Glenn. Later that evening, we met Glenn in the bar of the Bond Court Hotel. Unlike the other members of the band, he was gracious and friendly. We drove back to Pennsylvania with good memories and anticipation for the upcoming Syria Mosque show. We had seats in the fourteenth row and we knew that the sound at the Mosque would be a lot better than Cleveland.

But on April 4, we found out that Glenn was no longer with Black Sabbath. An unknown singer named Ray Gillen was replacing him. We were so mad that we sold our tickets, practically giving away three tickets for $20. If Glenn wasn’t singing with Sabbath, we didn’t want to see them. Who was this Ray Gillen, this usurper who thought he could replace “The Voice”?

But a year later, Ray entered our rock radar again. I heard rumors that he would join Blue Murder with John Sykes, Tony Franklin and Carmine Appice, but that didn’t work out. In 1987, he was featured on the second Phenomena release, as was Glenn Hughes. Then, along with drummer Eric Singer, his band mate in Black Sabbath, Ray joined former Ozzy guitarist Jake E. Lee and bassist Greg Chaisson in a new group called Badlands. Once I heard Ray’s soulful, soaring voice on “Dreams in the Dark,” I was hooked. I had to admit, that boy was damn good, almost as good as “The Voice” himself! Mary and I decided that we had been too hasty in disregarding Glenn’s Black Sabbath replacement. I bought the band’s first release on cassette and played it until the tape was ready to warp. Then I bought it on CD. And once Ray was featured in Metal Edge, I realized that not only could he sing, he was stomp-down gorgeous! In 1989, I had a picture of Ray on the bulletin board above my desk as I worked as an eligibility worker in Redwood City, California. After the Loma Prieta Earthquake in October 1989, that photo was the first thing I saw when I got from under my desk after the shaking. The band’s second release, Voodoo Highway, carried on the funky, blues/rock vibe of the first album. I saw the band at Shoreline and bought a tee shirt, the back emblazoned with the words from the first album, “Feels so good to be so bad.” In 1993, Ray sang “Flesh and Blood” a track on George Lynch’s “Sacred Groove” album.

But a months later, Ray was gone, dying of AIDS on December 3, 1993, just ten months before one of my favorite relatives would succumb to the same fate. Even though Ray has been gone almost nineteen years, I still have my CDs of the first Badlands album and Phenomena II: Dream Runner and my cassette of Sacred Groove. I still have my Badlands tee shirt.

Ray has not been forgotten. On February 13, 2010, Mary and I went to Las Vegas to see Dokken. Before the show, eighties rock videos were displayed on a screen. One of the videos was “Dreams in the Dark.” As we watched, we absorbed the energy of the dark haired singer who was so alive and vibrant. The next morning, as we sat in our hotel room talking about Ray, the fire alarm went off in the hotel. We both started laughing uncontrollably. I looked up to the ceiling. “Yes, Ray,” I shouted, “We remember you. We still love you.”

I wish I could have met Ray, but I’ll always have his music. Because of his magnificent voice, he will never fade away. It is one of my dreams to write a book about Ray. But if I don’t do it, I hope someone will. Now is the time to celebrate the life and the career of the beautiful man with the voice of an angel, who left us way too soon. Happy Birthday, Ray.

Is That a Word?

Today, May 8, would have been the birthday of my Aunt Elizabeth, who died in 2000 at the age of 75. When I was in my twenties, I used to hang out with her a lot. She was fun and always ready for an adventure. But she was a terrible driver. In spite of that, she rarely went anywhere by herself. Friends, neighbors, granddaughters, and anyone else that needed or wanted a ride to Canonsburg, Donaldson’s Crossroads or South Hills Village piled in her big car as soon as she started the engine. Sometimes, we held on for dear life and made silent eye contact when Aunt Elizabeth got too close to a curb or another car. But to make a comment would be even worse, as she hated criticism and her hatred would be transferred to the steering wheel.

Aunt Elizabeth played Scrabble like she drove, without any rhyme or reason. A typical game consisted of my cousin Mary Ann and her daughters Bonita and Rhonda. Since we used the Official Scrabble Dictionary, usually most of the words Aunt Elizabeth made up were actual words somewhere. But we always challenged her unfamiliar choices. Her favorite word was “gip.” It seemed like she found a way to use it in every game we played. When we asked her what it meant, she would always respond, “You know, like an old ‘gip’ dog.” I have yet to find out what a “gip dog” is, but the word was listed in the dictionary meaning “to gyp.” Once she found out that the Dictionary listed “qua” as a word, she used it every time that she found herself stuck with the letter “q.” We used to have marathon games that lasted for hours. Aunt Elizabeth could not be rushed. She always strived to find a word with the highest word score. As we shuffled and sighed in our seats, she would contemplate different words, moving the letters around on her tray until she found the best one. In the summer, a game could start after Aunt Elizabeth cleared off the breakfast dishes and last until she had to start dinner.

She was compassionate, sometimes when I least expected it. In September 1980, I was devastated when John Bonham, the drummer of Led Zeppelin, died unexpectedly. Led Zeppelin had been my favorite band for at least five years. Aunt Elizabeth would constantly tease me about my love of  “white boy music.” But when I went over to her house the day after Bonham’s death, she had cut out an obituary from the Washington Observer-Reporter. Solemnly, she handed the piece of paper to me.

“I’m sorry to hear about Led. I know you loved him and his music.”

I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. As she was reading the morning paper, she saw the words “Led Zeppelin” mentioned in the obits, with a picture of Bonham. Recognizing the name, she cut out the piece, knowing I would be upset at the demise of “Mr. Zeppelin.” Even though she had the facts juxtaposed, I was touched by her gesture. It was one of the sweetest things she had ever done. I still have the obituary in my Led Zeppelin scrapbook.

If Aunt Elizabeth were here today, I would buy her some of the latest Estée Lauder cologne, as she loved Estée Lauder fragrances. I would pull out the big Scrabble board and sit down in her kitchen to play a game that might just last all day. And I wouldn’t consult the Official Scrabble Dictionary once, as I wouldn’t want to “gip” her out of getting a triple word score.

Thrift Town Rocks!

I love thrift store shopping and my favorite store is Thrift Town. Last May, while shopping at one of the three Sacramento area stores, I found a cool tee shirt. It was a black shirt with half of a guitar on the front below the name “Meniketti.” I knew that Dave Meniketti was the lead guitarist/vocalist of the rock band Y&T. I was planning to see the band at Ace of Spades in August, so I bought the shirt for ninety-nine cents. I refrained from wearing the shirt all summer, saving it for the concert. When I walked into the club on August 26, my friend introduced me to Dave’s wife Jill, who was handling the band’s tee shirt and CD sales. “Nice shirt,” she said. When I checked out the merchandise on the table, I discovered that the graphic on my tee shirt was the cover of Dave’s solo album. The show was fantastic and afterwards, I got to meet the man himself. His eyes lit up when he saw my shirt. Of course, I didn’t tell Jill or Dave where I got the shirt. (I guess they know now.) But in all of my years as a thrift/resale shopper, this is the best and coolest response I have ever gotten to a purchase. The tee may have only cost ninety-nine cents, but the experience was priceless. Y&T rocks and so does Thrift Town!

Waiting for the Beer Man

This is the opening essay in my memoir Montour Four.

 

In Hills Station, Pennsylvania, there were more places to drink than there were places to worship. This coal-mining town, with a population of around 500 people, had four streets, four alleys, six stop signs, two stores, one bridge, and no sidewalks.

Three bars, two clubs, and three speakeasies served miners thirsty for secular invigoration. After a week spent hundreds of feet underground, separating coal from rock and breathing the deadly air, a man deserved some liquid recreation. Babe’s Bar, owned by Babe Carlini, and Hills Tavern, owned by Tom McVerry, were near each other on Georgetown Road, the main street in town. Forno’s Bar, owned by Pete Forno, was located on the other end of the road, a few doors away from the Catholic church. Most men had a favorite bar, which they frequented regularly with their friends.

Since the early 1900s, Hills Station had been a company town. The houses had been built by the Pittsburgh Coal Company to house its miners. Most were identical two-story duplexes, with a kitchen, a living room, and two bedrooms on each side. But even within that limited space, several people found room to sell a little alcohol. These informal speakeasies were mostly frequented by black townspeople. Mr. Jenkins ran the most popular one. He lived on Third Street, directly across from the Baptist church. Behind his house was a garage with a jukebox and a small concrete floor for dancing. While the adults sat in the kitchen enjoying drinks and gossip, the kids danced to the latest records out in the yard.

Mr. Wilson, who lived two doors from my house on First Street, sold alcohol in his kitchen and ran numbers. At his place you could get a shot of booze and a shot at a jackpot. Townspeople were willing to pay a small fee to drink a few shots of liquor at the home of a friend. Spirits were expensive at the local State Store. In Pennsylvania, liquor could only be purchased at government-run stores. The nearest one was six miles away.

But beer was a different story. A man did not have to leave home to get his favorite brew. Beer was no farther away than the front door, thanks to the Beer Man. Years before Hills Station had pizza delivery service, there was beer delivery.

The Montour Four Mine was one of the largest mines in Washington County, a county southwest of Pittsburgh. It had been producing coal for over seventy years. By the early 1960s, many of the town’s miners, including my father, had retired. Old mine injuries and the coal dust coating their lungs were starting to wreck their bodies. They were ready to rest and spend their summers sitting on the front porches of the houses that they had bought from the coal company. They wanted nothing more out of life than a comfortable chair, a good meal, good friends and a cold beer.

Without fail, the Beer Man, Tom Cushey made his rounds every other Friday. He was a stocky florid-faced Irishman, with huge biceps, developed by years of hauling cases of beer throughout Cecil Township. In Hills Station, he had a lot of customers. He always had a friendly word and a smile for each of them.

Once he entered the town limits, Tom methodically went from house to house, picking up empty cases and depositing full ones. Each case held twenty-four bottles of beer and each bottle was sixteen ounces. His truck was laden with cases. Tom knew what brands to leave at each stop. Most people liked Iron City, the local Pittsburgh beer and official beer of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Some preferred Rolling Rock, which came in shorter green bottles. Carling’s Black Label, Keck’s, and Stoney’s were also popular selections.

In the summer, the retirees sat on their porches, straining their necks for the first glimpse of Tom. They had already stacked their empty cases by the front door. As Tom got closer, the rattle of the empty bottles being loaded onto the truck grew louder and louder.

Everyone liked Tom, even the church members who didn’t believe in drinking alcohol. He was a hard working man making a living for his family. Every retired miner understood the value of hard work. And Tom understood the balm that the golden liquid provided to men who had given their best to the Company, only to spend their final years coughing up black tar. Every now and then, Tom had to leave extra cases for funerals and wakes. Friends would toast the memory of a retiree who had lost his battle with the poison settling in his chest, weighing him down like a ton of fine-grade coal.

Hills Station was a town with four streets, six stop signs, two stores, one bridge and no sidewalks. It was a town built from and by coal. By the 1960s, the industry was dying out, and so were its workers. But until he was permanently returned to the Pennsylvania soil, a man could still sit on his porch, listen to the Pirate game on the radio, and wait for the Beer Man.

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