Saturday, February 28, 2009

Memories of 'M*A*S*H'

It was a big deal to stay up so late.

I don't remember much about Monday, Feb. 28, 1983. I do know I was staying with my dad. He let me miss my usual bedtime.

And, together, we watched the last episode of "M*A*S*H."

I don't remember much about that, either. I do recall Max Klinger (Jamie Farr) getting married. I recall that minute-long kiss between Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Margaret (Loretta Swit). I recall getting the distinct feeling that all this was historic.

So it was. The final installment of America's finest TV series (titled "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen") played as a 2 1/2 hour TV movie. Advertising cost more for "M*A*S*H" than for that year's Super Bowl. Tributes aired for days prior to the big night. Such publicity was unprecedented.

When it was all said and done, the last "M*A*S*H" attracted the largest audience ever to watch a TV program (an estimated 125 million viewers). It's a record that still stands.

I didn't appreciate "M*A*S*H" until I grew up. I've told you before that I prefer the later, more serious episodes, to the earlier, comedic ones. At its best, the show portrayed a group of doctors and nurses doing their best to exhibit grace in the midst of tragedy, humanity amid the carnage of war. And, yes, it could also be quite funny.

That final episode wrapped things up better than any TV series save "The Fugitive." The Korean War reached its end. The men and women of the 4077th went home. Hawkeye suffered a nervous breakdown. Winchester lost his love for Mozart. Margaret became her own woman. Klinger got married and stayed in Korea.

I like to watch "M*A*S*H" re-runs late at night when I can't sleep. I have seen all 251 episodes and never tire of my favorites --- particularly any show after Season 5.

"M*A*S*H" brought a dignity to the television sitcom, a sense of purpose, a gentle humanism -- all of which isn't found much on the boob tube anymore. It's too bad.

Since it was raining and I didn't feel like getting out tonight anyway, I watched "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen." Twenty-six years after I stayed up late with my dad -- and with most of America -- I was pleased to discover it still holds up.

I found myself wishing ol' Hawkeye Pierce was still around. Somewhere, amid reality shows and forensic dramas, surely there is room for something with depth.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

'I don't care if I ever get back'

So there I was, sitting on my usual stool, staring out onto the field, content.

It's my favorite spot in the whole wide world. (Next to Barley's on a Sunday night, of course.) In fact, if something ever happens, the only thing I would want named after me is the Halls High baseball press box.

Dustin Mynatt and I took our normal places next to one another. He works the scoreboard and talks on the PA. I take notes. We swap baseball stories, laugh a lot, talk about girls.

Tonight was a scrimmage. Pretty good one, too. Halls and South-Doyle worked through eight innings of scoreless ball. Per preseason rules, it ended in a tie.

You know how I feel about baseball. But, I have a special affection for high school ball. The kids have fun. They aren't making millions. Some of them are trying to get to college. For love of the game and all that.

It's funny to think about now, but I've missed four seasons of Halls High baseball since 1993. I don't get to every game, but I attend my fair share.

Now, I'm off to Mr. Gatti's to pick up a pizza on my way home. My world is at peace. Life is good.

Guess that's why I'm humming the words to that seventh-inning stretch standard.

"Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack. I don't care if I ever get back..."

And I don't.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How to fade a memory

I remember the date.

I remember the spoken words. I remember the music. I remember her eyes.

But, what I remember now, is disappointment.

They tell me I shouldn't put much stock in people. Human beings are just that, they say. Fallible. Flawed.

I am not wired that way, though.

I met her one January. It seems like another lifetime. I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't fall in love with her.

Through thick and thin I did what I could. It wasn't reciprocated when it mattered.

But that's the way of it, isn't it? You make your choices. Whatever else I am, I don't have to get drunk or take drugs to ease my conscience.

Whisper words of wisdom; let it be. It will fade in time.

Here's something funny, though. Earlier tonight, I saw the prettiest pair of dark eyes staring back at me. She was so beautiful, it hurt.

Made me forget all about a memory of a memory. .

Monday, February 23, 2009

Saying good-bye to the Gibbs guy

The tallest tree in the forest – or maybe I should say the greatest guy in Gibbs – died last week.

And, as trite as it may sound to say it, B.F. Dalton lived one heck of an American life.

Old family photos from the 1940s show a strapping, good-looking young man, with a tough exterior and a can-do countenance. He all but embodied the mind-set of postwar America, the self-confidence that comes with knowing you rule the world.

B.F. had seen his share of war in Italy as an engineer. He saw Mussolini hanging upside down in Milan. He built bridges. He helped paddle infantry across the Po River.

And, after the war ended, B.F. came home to build his life.

He married Mae in 1948. They soon bought a home and 13 acres of land on Majors Road. That house later burned. The couple has one daughter, Leann Berry (and son-in-law Allen). Somewhere along the way, B.F. went to work for the state highway department.

B.F. was a longtime member of Texas Valley Baptist Church, ate watermelon and whittled at the late Jesse Butcher’s DP Club, joined groups like the Gibbs Ruritan Club and the Beaver Creek Watershed Association. He was the last surviving director of the old Halls Telephone Company and never did sell his stock.

We just called him our “Gibbs guy.”

Remember I called B.F. the tallest tree in the forest? Well, everything about him was big. He was a big guy physically, especially back in the day, and swung his hands and arms out in front of him when he talked. When he finished his point, he’d let out an authoritative “Anyhow …”

He liked to raise Cain when he didn’t agree with something. I never will forget the time he sat through a presentation on the as yet built new Powell Branch Library at the Beaver Creek Watershed meeting. When it was over, he asked why the county was spending money on such a thing when his grandson, Alex, didn’t have a cafeteria in which to eat lunch. Soon thereafter, Gibbs got a new school.

Now, that’s my kind of guy.

He was a Democrat (“My daddy once told me if I ever voted for a Republican, I’d be sorry”) and said he thought Harry Truman had saved his life (by dropping the a-bombs over Japan). He liked Frank Clement and Estes Kefauver. He stood by Hillary Clinton last year even as Obama kept winning primaries.

Forgive a personal reference – we always talk about ourselves when somebody dies, don’t we? – but the last time I saw B.F., he came out to the office last August to tell me I wasn’t the only Mabe to finally vote for a Democrat. It seems he talked my late grandfather Kenneth into voting for Clement. Only B.F. could have done that.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. B.F. didn’t know what his initials stood for, or so he said. He claimed that birth certificate simply says, “B.F. Dalton.” Somehow, the story fits him to a T.

In a thousand ways, things won’t ever be the same without him. Part of me will forever hope he’ll walk through our office door one day, swinging his hands, reporting on some latest development in the 8th District. I couldn’t help but notice the rain the day of B.F.’s funeral. Guess God needed to cry a little bit, too.

After I left Mynatt Funeral Home last Wednesday night, I started humming an old Tom T. Hall song, “The Year Clayton Delaney Died.” Puzzled at first, it finally hit me why that song makes me think of B.F. Dalton.

"He’d made a big impression on me; even though I was a barefoot kid …"

We’re sure going to miss you, Gibbs guy.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Can't sleep again, naturally

Here it is 1 a.m. and I can't get to sleep.

No surprise there, huh? I'm watching reruns of "Hawaii 5-0." Love those old police shows. It helps me relax. Plus, it has plenty of pretty scenery, Hawaiian locales, Jack Lord's immovable hair, and native girls.

I would like to visit our 50th state. Five-0 and Thomas Magnum helped fan the fire. As it is, I travel through television, a James Michener book, native fiction somebody recommended.

Enjoyed the afternoon. The sun came out and it was quite nice. Took in a UT baseball game, kept score, talked to folks around me. Our national game always soothes my soul. Works better than any mood stabilizer.

Now it's freezing cold, raining. Forecast calls for snow. Go figure. It's East Tennessee.

Guess that's another reason I'm watching 5-0. Makes me think warm thoughts.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

My weekly treat

I like to begin Sunday mornings with an orange juice or some form of caffeine, Charles Osgood's velvet voice on the television, and read the paper.

The highlight of it, the one piece of work I savor, is Rheta Grimsley Johnson's syndicated column.

Which is funny because for years her political views drove me nuts. Seems like I wrote a letter to the editor of the News Sentinel years ago asking why they didn't run her on the editorial page. But, time and philosophical evolution give you a different perspective.

Besides, even when she caused my blood pressure to skyrocket, I knew Rheta could write.

A friend told me a story once, about taking her to an Olympic games as part of a national wire service's coverage team. And how adept she was at hunting down a story.

Rheta now leads one of those charmed lives about which a writer dreams, saying what she wants, for one column a week, from her base of operations way down South. Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. Rheta has a new book about falling in love with Louisiana. It is on its way to the Halls Branch Library in my name. I will tell you about it sometime.

Meanwhile, the rest of us lose ourselves in the minutiae of life, seek beauty where we can find it, toil at our vocation the best we can, do whatever it takes to make it through the wee small hours.

Me? Well, I laugh a lot, forget about the screams by cranking up the music, love and despise everything about small-town life, and curse the school board three times a month for keeping me from watching a good black-and-white movie on Turner Classics. (Just kiddin'. I love you guys. You're my free entertainment for the month.)

And, after waking up on Sunday mornings, I drink my coffee, halfway listen to CBS, read a crafter at the top of her game, and dream of what could be, and what might have been.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

A remarkable American life

It is haunting, this photograph.

The face is weary, exhausted, melancholic. The eyes are sunken into the face, blackened from years of stress. The negative is cracked, an apropos symbol of this man's fate.

It was the last image of Abraham Lincoln, taken days before his assassination, ironically at the moment of his greatest triumph -- the conclusion of the war that plagued his soul.

Today is Lincoln's 200th birthday. What can be said about him that hasn't already been said?

He is with us still. He is with us in all these silly comparisons to Barack Obama. He is with us in a plethora of books. He is with us in at least two new TV documentaries.

I have read more books about Lincoln than about any other human being save Richard M. Nixon. And, while Nixon remains a fascinating enigma, Lincoln remains a legend, the high-water mark of the American presidency; he is in so many ways the savior of our country.

Lest you accuse me of hagiography, let me say just a few short words.

Lincoln, more than any other president, ascended from humble beginnings. He literally was born in a log cabin. He received less than a year of formal education. He was a partner in a general store in his youth, heavily in debt, but honest enough to eventually pay each debtor in full.

He became a successful lawyer, one of the best on the Illinois circuit. He developed a talent for soaring oratory, engaging the most formidable Democrat of the time, the Little Giant Stephen A. Douglas, in a spirited series of debates leading up to the 1858 Illinois U.S. Senate election. And he lost it.

But, two years later, he was elected president of the United States, with only a few years in the Illinois House, and one term in the U.S. House, under his belt. If anyone was destined to lead his country at a particular moment in history, surely it was Lincoln.

He stumbled and fell at times during his first term. He knew personal tragedy, losing his son Willie in 1862. But he kept at it, refusing to give up, doing what it took to preserve the Union.

And he was a ruthless politician. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, suppressed the freedom of the press, made decisions (even choosing when to announce the Emancipation Proclamation) based on political calculations. Let's not forget, after all, that Lincoln was a flesh-and-blood human being, not the statue that forever stares toward the reflection pool.

I am no expert, but if you were to ask me to name my favorite Lincoln books, I would say these: "Lincoln" by David Herbert Donald; "With Malice Toward None" by Stephen Oates; "Re-electing Lincoln" by John C. Waugh: and "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I have James M. McPherson's "Tried By War" on my bookshelf. I have tried to read Carl Sandburg's epic biography. I will try again someday.

For those of you in the Knoxville or East Tennessee area, take an afternoon and drive up to the Abraham Lincoln Museum on the Lincoln Memorial University Campus. If you can, go in the fall, when the leaves begin to change. Harrogate in autumn is as pretty a spot as anyone can find.

And so today is Lincoln's birthday. We owe this man so much. Here's hoping that we stop to realize that Honest Abe is much more than the Great Rail-Splitter, the mythical monument, the face on the penny.

His is a remarkable American life.


Thursday, February 05, 2009

A gift in the mail

My baseball season tickets arrived in the mail yesterday.

It is my one splurge; it is my passion. I love the game. I love sitting in Section C at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, in the springtime sun of a Sunday afternoon, watching the shadows stretch across the field.

I love keeping score. I love watching the girls retrieve the bats. I love the symmetry of it -- three strikes, three outs, three times three innings.

I have told you how much I need an escape to stay sane. Our national game is just that.

And it's funny. As my enthusiasm has waned for the major leagues, I have come to adore the minor leagues and college baseball. I cover high school baseball, too. I told somebody once that the only thing I want named after me when I am gone is the press box at the Halls High baseball field.

If I could wave a magic wand and do whatever I wanted, I would steal Roger Angell's life -- at least part of it. William Shawn sent him to spring training one season in the early 1960s and said, "Write about what you see." Thus Angell has done in the New Yorker, on and off, for the last 40-some years.

I often think that the modern day sportswriter, feeling the pressure of working a daily beat, misses the story. They have to cover the game unfolding on the field. How many times Chipper Jones hits a home run. How many strikeouts Tim Hudson racked up in his last outing. And so forth.

I once watched Herman the usher dance and yell in the section in which I was sitting, somewhere along the third base line, at Turner Field. I had the story written before I returned to the keyboard. The Braves lost. And yet Herman smiled.

One opening day, I watched the sky turn from peaceful azure to brilliant pink. Seventy-three degrees. "Sweet Caroline" on the loudspeaker and an empty seat next to mine. I thought of a girl, big brown eyes and dark hair, and wished she were sitting to my left. These are the moments I remember.

John Updike wrote the best piece ever composed on baseball, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu." Guess how? The subject of an interview stood him up. So, he went to Fenway Park on an impulse, bought a ticket, sat in the stands, and wrote about Ted Williams' last at-bat. It was quite good.

Angell is a master, too. Oh, and W.P. Kinsella, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop (I'm still thinking about submitting a piece -- just to see if I can get accepted), wrote a magical little novel, "Shoeless Joe," that became a magical little film, "Field of Dreams."

Yes, I am sitting here in my living room, watching snow melt from the patio table, dreaming of spring. I can smell the peanuts and Cracker Jack, I can see the shadows stretch across the field, I can see that fellow in Section C, Row 4, Seat 3, losing himself in the national game.

Six more weeks of winter? Maybe. For me, though, it will arrive on Feb. 20.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A birthday I missed

I missed a birthday yesterday. It is one I should mention, too, because I've spent some time with this man's work.

James Michener was born on Feb. 3, 1907. He wasn't Dickens.

But he could tell quite a story.

A former colleague once said that "reading Michener is like climbing Everest." His 1,000-page novels can be intimidating. And difficult.

I have tried to read "Centennial," his epic story about the settling of a fictional Colorado town, at least twice. The first time, I became lost in the early passages about the formation of the rocks and the trek of a beaver. The second time, I made it to the saga of Our People. Then I became distracted.

So I gave up and watched the peerless NBC miniseries from 1978-79. It made such an impact that I wanted to move to Colorado. I bought it on DVD for myself last Christmas.

Since I'm not feeling well, and tend not to stir during the colder months, I may try to tackle it again in the coming weeks.

At Thanksgiving dinner, my friend Mike Finn recommended Michener's "The Drifters," a meandering tale about a group of free spirits. It was quite good and may be Michener's most accessible novel. If you have ever been a hippie, or if you've ever loved a hippie, or if the cultural upheaval of the Vietnam War era affected your life, you might enjoy that story. My guess is the Kent State shootings were much on the author's mind.

I also have "Hawaii" and "Alaska" and "Tales of the South Pacific" and "The World is My Home" sitting on my shelf. I will get to them one day.

I have this crazy theory that you read a particular book at the appropriate moment in your life; it speaks to you when you need it. That may sound crazy. I don't know.

Michener died in 1997.

There is no comment here, no grand point, no lesson to learn. No, it is simply a tip of the cap to an author I like, to a man with whom I would have enjoyed drinking a beer.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The day the music died

"But, something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.” Don McLean, “American Pie.”

Fifty years ago, at 1 a.m. on a snowy night, a plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa. Among the dead were that wild man from Lubbock, Buddy Holly; Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. The oldest (Richardson) was only 28.

Don McLean wrote a song about it a decade later; the crash thereafter became known as “The Day the Music Died.”

I remember hearing McLean’s song as a kid, and asking my dad what it all meant. And it’s always made me wonder what would have happened later. Holly — the most talented of the three — had already proven his genius. Valens, just starting out, showed promise. I don’t know about Richardson.

Rock and roll headed in a dark direction after the crash. Elvis joined the Army. The early R&B stuff gave way to packaged puffballs. It wasn’t until the Beatles landed in ’63 that pop became interesting again, and even then it was all-but-impossible for an American act to make it big, at least for awhile.

Maybe it looks bigger in the rearview mirror. I don’t know. I wasn’t around.

But, for me, The Day the Music Died is a symbolic reminder that we should make each second of our lives count.

And, it harkens back to something I’ve never known, driving the Chevy to the levy, drinking whiskey and rye, knowing she’s in love with him, ‘cause I saw you dancing in the gym.

In an ironic way, the music never died at all.

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Stream of consciousness

Author's Note: This is an experiment in stream-of-consciousness writing. Faulkner was the master -- I'm not even attempting to climb that Everest -- but others have used it with success. Michael Herr is another. He wrote a fine Vietnam memoir, "Dispatches," that is basically one long ramble. Or what's left of a bad LSD trip.

OK, here goes:

I want to read "The Sun Also Rises" again. Lady Brett. Bullfights. Remember when you read it that Memorial Day weekend at the lake? What was that, 1999? Brent Ford and beer. He tried to get a couple of girls to come up there. Can't remember what happened. Watched that movie, "A Bright Shining Lie." Bought the book; never read it.

Go away headache. Please go away.

Truck rumbles by on the road. Wonder if the ice has melted? TV guy said something about fog. Thin layer of ice.

Migraine. I think I'm going to throw up.

Hilary Duff on magazine cover resting on coffee table. God, when did that girl grow up? Reminds me of buying Vanity Fair, the one with Bobby Kennedy on the cover, at Walgreens, after I gave that speech at Halls Middle School. How did I make that jump in my head?

Wonder if I should act on an impulse? I'll think about her tomorrow. She's single, I think.

Wonder if pal Dean is still up? Nah, I need to go to bed, not talk on the phone. Headache. Work tomorrow.

Charlie Rose is interviewing some guy who wrote a novel called "Young Stalin." Looks good. Will have to see if the library carries it.

John Denver. LOL. Haven't heard this song in ages. "Come and let me look in your eyes..." I guess growing isn't hard to do, after all. Just stand against the wall...

I want to go to Wyoming. Drive out west. Maybe start in Utah and work my way to Jackson. Rocky Mountains and the open road. If nothing else, I'll watch "Centennial."

I hate these late nights. Sick. Can't sleep. Tired of being haunted by a memory of a memory. Go with the flow. Take a chance or two.

You think Bruce Pearl is feeling some heat? Nah, he's bought some time. I'm ready for baseball. When are my season tickets going to get here?

Gotta go to Tractor Supply and get a new western shirt. Still have that gift certificate. I want to go to Wyoming.

OK, man, take your pill and go to bed. Dream of warm weather, pretty girls and baseball.

Forget about life.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The last few weeks...

This has been such a fine few weeks.

I will overlook the illness. It isn't worth talking about.

But, yes, the last month or so has been one to savor, to sip slowly, enjoying every ounce.

I guess it started after Christmas, when I left Knoxville at 4 a.m. on a Saturday, headed for the Macon (well, actually the Bibb) County line. Dewayne was Dewayne. (Or should I say, DEWAYNE!) Jacob crawled in my lap, book outstretched, wanting me to read to him. Bridget let me borrow a wonderful little novel, Garrison Keillor's "Love Me," tailor-made for my temperament. Oh, it was sublime.

One night, we went to eat pizza, enjoying Coors and conversation, Otis Redding playing on the jukebox. I didn't want to go home.

The month was tinged with sadness, too. My pal Paul Wyatt died. So did John Updike. I lost myself awhile in the screams.

Facebook has been fun. New friends, old friends; literary talk and rambling about nothing; looking in on the lives of others.

I have read some wonderful prose, admired some beautiful women, seen some good movies, brooded in some solitude, gathering strength from it all. My joy comes from others, performing for them, writing to them, making them laugh.

How I long for springtime, for rejuvenation, for baseball, for days when I don't feel bad. I miss listening to Robinella, hearing her mourning dove's sweet sad songs, can't wait for the Sunday I feel up to returning to my corner stool.

I think about Bob Dylan, remember a line or two, and know it lies waiting around the bend.

Any day now, any day now, I shall be released...

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Super Bowl Sunday

The colors were brighter, perhaps, more sharp, more focused; the afternoon sunlight cast an ethereal glow.

Maybe it was the woman with the pretty voice singing a Neil Young song on the radio. I didn't catch her name. But, it was nice.

GK mused a minute with his usual eloquence about the passing of a legend. The words came together, as they always do for the greats.

I felt the warmth of an early burst of spring. I laughed at the motorcyclist weaving between cars on Broadway. I looked at the rubble that used to be the Target store, which before it used to be a grand old homestead, and thought about the times I ducked in there. It is sad, the passing of time. And yet, it is comforting, too.

Life renews itself. Why fight the change? It is as inevitable as the morning.

Now, I'm in Farragut, gearing up for our annual low-key Super Bowl party, hungry for wings and things.

I don't care much about the game. Not really. The Steelers were my childhood team. I wonder what happened to my Franco Harris jersey?

But, nah. Not that big a deal. I'm a baseball guy.

OK, I gotta run. There are hot wings to order. Better do it now before everybody and their dog calls, too.