Tuesday, June 30, 2009

M*A*S*H comes alive

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Well, I didn't see Klinger. But I did buy a hat.

One of my favorite spots discovered during the course of 10 years vacationing in Michigan is Maumee Bay Brewing Company here in Jamie Farr's hometown. They have good pizza. They have good beer.

Didn't have to do too much coaxing to get David and Jen to take me down here, an hour from their home in Michigan. They are good friends.

It struck me that "while in Rome" I needed to look up the joint that Farr made famous on "M*A*S*H" -- his beloved Tony Packo's Cafe. Fans of the greatest show in TV history will recall that Klinger often spoke nostalgically of Toledo -- usually before hatching some plan to get out of the army. Inevitably, Packo's would pop up in the conversation.

So David mapped out the city and found that Packo's wasn't too far from the brewery. I tried to contain my child-like grin. I failed.

I kept hoping beyond hope we'd see Jamie Farr. As close as I got to that was a picture in the gift shop of Jamie and "M*A*S*H" co-star Mike Farrell, reuniting at Packo's for some unannounced cause in 2006. It was cool. Also spotted Jamie's autograph on a hot dog bun (they are everywhere, signed by everybody).

I bought a t-shirt modeled in the old M*A*S*H style, Packo's logo on the front and pictures of Klinger on the back. And I bought a sweet lookin' hat that declares Packo's "The Best Buns in Town."

"I can't come to Packo's and not get a chili dog," I say to Dave and Jen. So we walk up to the bar. There, I discover that Packo's sells Schlitz beer! The original '60s formula!

I toasted Jamie Farr, and that gentle and sweet show, and Chuck Kincade and Matthew Shelton and Alan Alda and anybody else I know that loves "M*A*S*H."

The only thing missing was a camera. I always seem to be without one at such moments. Kinda like the time I met Tom Selleck in New York. With no camera.

"You'll be back," David says.

And I grin. Because I know he's right.

Here's to memories of M*A*S*H.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tug of war

I like the moon the way it is tonight, a tiny sliver against the setting sky.

When I was a kid, I used to think it actually changed shape, evolving from round sphere to a thin slice of cheese, and back again. In the second grade, John Bob Whitehead told me that his dad was an astronaut and had taken him to the moon one night. I asked him how he stood on it when it was a tiny sliver. He said he just did.

Where does it go? Second grade was 24 years ago. Older than some of these kids with whom I work.

Sometimes I get so tired of it all. Inman Majors calls Knoxville "paved hell" in his debut novel, which I'm reading now. Half the time, maybe more than that, I know what he means. I hate this place, says Nelson Mutz, throw a rock at the Sunsphere, knock it down. But don't you badmouth it, buddy, or I'll punch you in the face.

East Tennesseans are a strange bunch.

I sat out on the porch tonight, watching the remains of the day, wondering if this is all a bad dream or just a moment in limbo. None of it makes sense anymore. Or precious little of it anyway.

Saturday morning I will fly on an eagle into the northern sky, toward cooler climates and a little deliverance, precious peace for a scant few minutes. Nothing will matter, no ties, no responsibilities, no clock to punch, no phone to ring, no bell to answer. I don't need you, I don't need friendship; I don't need flowers in the spring.

And then you think about that radio interview with John Majors, laughing it up with a complete stranger about inane KnoxVegas politics, Marshal Andy and talkin' to Brandy, take home a pound or two of Tennessee Pride, real country sausage, the best you ever tried. How can I leave it? How can I ever go anywhere else?

It's the great tug of war inside this soul of mine, getting out versus staying put, thank you for being a friend or kiss my butt and don't let the slamming door hit your rear end. God, I hate the Volunteers, and oh, here's my check for this year's season tickets. Don't ever let me hear that damn song again; but now it's on the radio, so I'll crank it up. Osborne Brothers version, to boot.

Oh, hell. What's the point in introspection? It never solves anything and usually makes you feel worse.

I'm going to go watch John Wayne. I need a little black-and-white tonight.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Southern tale, better than naked art

My buddy John Martin Ramsey says that I go to the Bistro at the Bijou because I like nude art. If you've been there, you know what he means.

Funny line, yes. But, not really. I like the food. And, it's usually quiet on a sleepy summer weekday afternoon.

Thus it was today, when I met Fountain City historian Dr. Jim Tumblin there just after 5. I was nursing a cold beverage when Dr. Jim arrived. He spent the day downtown researching a column.

Dr. Jim seemed to enjoy his gumbo. I ordered an excellent fish sandwich (I think it was halibut). We laughed about local politics. Jim told me about a terrible rock band he went to hear last week. "They didn't rock, so I went home," says our favorite octogenarian.

It was a nice way to escape the heat. Boy, has that heat shown its face early this year, as if August has morphed into June, two months too soon.

Could have stayed in the Bistro for another hour or two, but I came downtown to hear Inman Majors read from his excellent new novel, "The Millionaires." It is a fine book.

Majors didn't say much about the novel's obvious connection to the Jake and C.H. Butcher banking scandal of the early 1980s. And, although it is certainly there, that Butcher stuff isn't the entire picture. From what he said tonight, Majors did what any writer worth a damn does -- scribbles what he knows. I suspect that has as much to do with his characters as anybody associated with that colorful clan from Maynardville.

But, those who remember the Butcher brothers, and the World's Fair, and the Knoxville of what seems like a bygone era will find much here that is familiar. At its best, though, "The Millionaires" is less about plot and more about character, piercing into sibling rivalries and ties running deeper than blood. Majors said tonight he has always been fascinated by his parents' generation -- the Southerners who made the leap from the family farm to the suburbs.

Others have criticized his technique -- not using apostrophes, writing some chapters as a screenplay -- but all of that is what makes this novel vibrant. Ignore the naysayers.

As all good storytellers should do, Majors keeps his audience glued to his story (I once stayed up reading until 7:30 a.m.). The two brothers at the center of the tale -- bankers Roland and J.T. Cole -- are what they are, but I found myself drawn to Roland's wife Libby, and to the central character of the book, political operative Mike Teague.

Libby handled her life with a dignified, understated grace. She knew about Roland's affairs. She knew about going home alone. She knew about unfulfilled dreams. The story ends before we know, but I suspect Libby endured her husband's fall from grace without so much as a public flinch. I thought about Libby long after I turned out the light.

Teague is the empathetic character in this tragic tale. Teague is a guy doing a job, fighting to keep his optimism, struggling to do what he thinks is right. In the end he is a victim of someone else's ambition run amok. And, yet, he lands on his feet.

I don't want to do the usual boring synopsis and I don't want to tell you much else. If you like good writing -- no, scratch that -- if you like GREAT writing, go buy this book. If you grew up in Knoxville, Inman's tale is a must read. If you are a political junkie, and like Southern tales of power and corruption and complexity, run don't walk to your local store or to Amazon.com.

The book is called "The Millionaires" and the author is Inman Majors.

Be forewarned -- it will keep you up nights. It might even make you do something really crazy. Like leave a cool bistro on a hot summer afternoon.

So much for that naked art.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

The coat and tie coach, gone for good

Read with amusement that Kevin O'Neill is going to USC.

Remember when he arrived on Rocky Top, big promises, fanfare and high expectations. The malaise that was Wade Houston was ending. Lopsided losses to Kentucky (on my birthday) would fade in time.

Slight aside: A friend told me once that his friend wandered into the athletic offices a day or two after a terrible loss. Houston had his feet propped up on his desk watching soap operas. When said friend held up the morning newspaper headline from the game, Houston straightened up, coughed and began to look busy. I don't know if the story is true, but if it isn't, it should be.

I always thought O'Neill was all mouth and no results at Tennessee. He was a foul-mouthed Yankee, bad representative for the university, sad example for the kids that might have sat a few rows up from the home bench.

Those who know more than me say he is a good coach, great recruiter, full of energy. I don't know.

I do know that he crept out of here with his 36-47 record, a literal thief in the night, for what he must have thought would be greener pastures at Northwestern. I still laugh at the image of Bob Knight insulting O'Neill after a game and Short Stuff trying to give it back to him. Amusing and pitiful.

Guess you can tell I never cared for him. And I don't care for that coaching style.

But, I'm out of touch. I like the old school, wear a coat and tie on the football sideline, stay stoic, know how to win and how to lose with class. Don't run your mouth. Be an adult. An added plus is when you show a little education, like maybe you know about a world outside of athletics.

I am one of about 10 people who still like John Majors. I still believe you don't show somebody who gave more to UT than anybody besides Gen. Robert Neyland the door without allowing the smoke to clear. I will never forget Johnny's mother, John Elizabeth "Bobo" Majors looking shellshocked that bleak Friday the 13th in Memphis.

"I gave one son to Tennessee," she said, thinking of her son Bill, assistant coach, who was hit by a train and killed in 1965 on the way to work. "Now I've given another."

But, then again, my alma mater is also the university that thanked George "Bad News" Cafego for a stellar multi-decade career upon his retirement by presenting him with a used van -- the means by which Tennessee's women's basketball team traveled to away games. Cafego never said a word, but it hurt him to the core. A bit later they welcomed back Doug Dickey with open arms, the Tall Guy who told his players he was staying, then slithered off to Florida.

The old-school breed of college coaches is long gone with the wind. I prefer solid defense to fun and gun offensive explosions. I dislike loud music at the stadium, a gargantuan jumbotron, fans cursing in the crowd. Doesn't matter now.

I'm waiting to see what Lane Kiffin delivers when talk must give way to what happens between the lines. We will see if the glitter turns to gold.

A good friend cautioned my do or die, show me soon, do so or I'm gone outlook. He needs two years. Give him a chance. He's inheriting a bad situation like we haven't seen since the end of the Battle years.

Maybe so.

But I just don't care for the arrogant, low-class Nick Sabans and Urban Meyers of the world, call a time out to throw another touchdown pass when the outcome is no longer in doubt. Outside of Howard Schnellenberger, we'll never see a coat and tie coach roaming the college sideline. Now it's visors and polo shirts, slobs that look like they just rolled out of bed, the Patriots coach sporting his homeless guy cut off sweatshirt.

The bright lights of modern college football mean win games or else. It is a business. Earn your bloated salary or take a hike.

The gentleman era is gone for good. I'm not so sure that is a good thing.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The day Hank tied the Babe

For a few glorious days in the spring of 1974, baseball knocked Watergate off the front page.

Henry Aaron, the dignified Atlanta Braves outfielder, tied -- and then passed -- George Herman "Babe" Ruth's mammoth career home run record. It remains one of our national game's special moments. It looks even better in the rearview as the page turns from the steroids scandal.

A few days ago, a friend brought me a yellowed copy of the April 5, 1974, edition of the Atlanta Constitution, the day after Hammerin' Hank tied the Babe in Cincinnati.

It was a cloudy, rainy Friday in the ATL. Tornadoes had ravaged north Georgia, killing 16. Gov. Jimmy Carter was touring the 13 disaster areas.

On page 2, the Nixon White House announced that the president would be all but "wiped out" after repaying $467,000 in back taxes. Jack Anderson, that murky muckraker, had plenty to say about that in his weekly column. The legendary James "Scotty" Reston celebrated the anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty in his weekly thoughts and mused a minute on the geopolitical ramifications of French President Pompidou's death.

But, even on the editorial page, you couldn't escape Hank's homer. The cartoon depicted the Babe's ghost following Aaron around the bases. "One more time," Babe says, as he pats a trotting Aaron on the back.

The front page story by sports editor Jesse Outlar told the tale. Aaron hit No. 714 during his first swing of the afternoon at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati off Reds pitcher Jack Billingham. Sports writer Wayne Minshew wrote the best lead, though. Back in the sports section, he said, "As far as Hank Aaron is concerned, a tie is something you get for Christmas. The big one is next."

And, in true Aaron fashion, Hank later said the homer didn't mean all that much after his team lost the game. Imagine who would say that today? Barry Bonds sure wouldn't.

One reporter ducked into an Atlanta bar to get reaction. Most were glad to see it. One guy said he let his entire crew off on opening day so they could witness history. Another guy said he loved it, too, but didn't want to give his name. He was supposed to be at work. Yet another patron griped about how many more at-bats Aaron took to catch the Babe. He was told to take a hike.

In April 1974, you could buy a Whirlpool automatic washer for $174. A portable television cost $88. Oh, and Frank Sinatra was singing at the Omni that next weekend. The expensive seats were 15 bucks.

A family could sit in front of the tube that night and watch "The Six Million Dollar Man" on ABC. "Serpico" and "The Sting" were playing at the cinema. JC Penney was having a 20 percent off sale on polyester pants.

Perhaps the best realization for me is that I could have learned all of these interesting tidbits that long ago Friday by coughing up a mere 10 cents. I'm too lazy to adjust the cost for inflation, but it would still be a better deal. Even if you overlook all the fuss over Aaron, the Constitution served up three big-time national columnists, solid sports coverage, an interesting feature story about an Amtrak ride across the country and a column on "Old Atlanta Mysteries."

In short, readers got their money's worth. I am not sure that happens today. Might be part of the reason national newspaper circulation is locked in a free fall.

Nineteen seventy-four wasn't a memorable year. Nixon resigned. Southeast Asia continued to smolder. Pundits and pocketbooks everywhere worried about an energy crisis.

But, on April 5, 1974, in the pages of the Atlanta Constitution, none of that mattered. Hank Aaron had tied a legend.

The world could wait.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

An orange-and-white afternoon

Tom Mattingly has some good advice for would-be writers.

Use more periods than commas.

Indeed. My version of it is to "think more Hemingway and less Faulkner." Don't write three page sentences, in other words. Three word sentences are much better.

Mattingly spoke this morning to a group of high school interns we're hosting at the newspaper this summer. He has become known as the Vol Historian. He's written a couple of cool books (including that sweet UT Vault thing), posts a daily blog on the News Sentinel Web site and writes a weekly column on UT football history.

Tom says a big chunk of publishing is getting lucky. Being in the right place at the right time. He should know. Tom is the only writer I know who received a five-figure advance for a book without having written a word. Perchance to dream. A wave and a handshake led to the official Peyton Manning biography endorsed by Peyton's dad Archie. Which meant that Tom received permission to use a lot of cool photos.

Tom is a great guy. Go buy one of his books. You can find them at Borders or Books-A-Million here in Knoxville. I'm sure they are on the Web, too.

Later in the day, Powell editor Greg Householder and I took the interns over to the UT campus. Marketing guy Doug Kose showed us around the ultra cool Pratt Pavilion, Thompson-Boling Arena and the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex. From there, we ducked into Stokely Athletic Center, that endangered species that holds so much history, to hear Halls guy Bud Ford talk about media relations.

Mattingly had said I needed to ask Bud about winning a Chevrolet Camero in 1969 at a football game. Bud did. He said it was an orange-and-white deal. He later wrecked it. Bud laughed when I asked him about it and said, "It was a long time ago."

Don't tell anybody, but I had as much fun as the interns did this afternoon. Maybe more.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

In a family way

A more beautiful sight you will never see than the countenance of a woman with child.

I was reminded of that last nugget last night when I spotted it on the face of somebody with whom I've spent the majority of my Sunday nights for the last two and one-half years. I speak of course of Robinella and, for once, I will refrain from waxing poetically about her and her music. You have heard it before. I am not sure I have much left to say.

But I noticed her radiant glow and marveled for the first time in awhile about what that must mean. I don't claim to know. I will, of course, never know. All I do know is it is beautiful.

Selfishly speaking I will miss my favorite singer these next few weeks. Depending on to whom you listen, she plans to take off for a few weeks or a few months. Whatever the case I wish her only the best.

Last night she sat on a stool and sang like her name, flying high in the air, full of the free spirit that makes her so endearing. I asked to hear my song; I needed to hear it once again to tide me over. And she sang it, not as picture perfect as on my birthday, but filled with that familiar passion that makes "Teardrops" the prettiest thing I've ever heard.

And as I sat at my favorite spot in the room, I smiled again at the healing power of music, nothing like it in the world, and felt thankful, blessed even. For five bucks these past few years she's let loose this intangible magnetic force, unpretentious, sincere, for all those who would listen. I don't mean those who casually listen, often over the irritating chatter that drives me batty, but those rare souls who are moved by the music, seared in the soul, mesmerized by the moment.

Hundreds of times this has happened; hundreds of times I've been touched. But, on a bitterly cold January evening years ago, she slipped into that part of my heart that nobody is allowed to enter, when I wasn't looking, when I was distracted by cigarette smoke from the bar (yes, you could smoke then), by the eyes of a young female server and by the stark, almost photogenic, beauty of my companion for the night. Through all this she managed to pluck those heartstrings with a sad song that would make George Jones green with envy. This is one of those ditties that conditions your life, alters your existence in the universe, makes you glad for the trip you've just taken to the stars. And, after the romance fades, the song lives, to be played later when you have purpose, and otherwise stored away in that locked corner of your soul in which you and someone you trust hold the key.

This illusion of continuity has been comforting. Me in my favorite spot, Mike nearby wearing his Hawaiian shirt, Robin and the boys up on the stage, that weird mix of aging Baby Boomers. college kids and n'er do wells who show up down there.

To say I will miss it would be an understatement, for these people, some of which I like, others I'd just as soon take a long jump into the Tennessee, have become old friends.

This long, hot summer, I will make my plans, prepare to break away, see just what's involved in living a dream. And, whether I end up in Oxford, Old Miss, Auburn, North Carolina, or right back over the Hill, I will remember one thing.

A woman about to birth her child looks as beautiful as any Hollywood movie star. Don't ask for proof.

You should'a been there on June 7, 2009, to see the evidence.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Glittering illusions

My first date was with six women.

Oh, not really. Six girls happened to be in the car for much of the night. I just tagged along.

I bring this up because I read a charming little tale written by my late, great professor Dr. Robert Drake about his character Eddie Williams' first date. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect the story was semi-autobiographical. Maybe not even semi.

He described the awkwardness, the feeling that life had changed forever and, for him, his ambiguous feelings about it all. (That story is collected in a wonderfully-titled book called "Survivors and Others." You can find it on Google Books.)

Anyway, my first date was a bit better than Eddie's. I never will forget getting the news while standing in the Halls High parking lot after school.

"Some girls want to take you out Friday night."

Forgive the language, but at the time, I could think of only one response.


This was heady stuff for a sophomore. These girls were upperclassmen!

Two picked me up. I had, er, admired one of them for months and months. I guess she finally heard about it. Or picked it up. I tend to be an open book.

So off we went, first to East Towne, to see a film called "Blink." Best I remember it was a murder mystery. I distinctly remember being amazed I was sitting there between these incredibly attractive young women.

From there, it was off to dinner at Ruby Tuesday. A host of people, probably 12 or 13, showed up. Then the six of us went driving around. Seems like one place we landed was called The End of the World. It was out off Hill Road somewhere. I tried to find it a few years later and got lost. Like I said, I was floating in a dream. Later, I was so excited, I never made it over to my dad's house. I ended up staying at home and forgot to call.

But I have to tell you about the two girls who picked me up. And the lesson I later learned.

One of them was blond, tall and striking, friendly, fun. The other was raven-haired, beautiful, perfect. Or so I thought.

We all went out a few more times that spring. I kept thinking it would end and, of course, it did. The reverse of Sinatra's shot down in April, riding high in May.

I fell deeply and madly in love with that dark-headed girl with the perfect teeth. On my end it lasted until she married. Perhaps afterward. On her end? Well, I don't know. She confused me for about four years.

I learned something, though. Perhaps a valuable lesson.

The blond-haired girl was beautiful in all the ways that matter. Not just physically. She possessed a magnetic personality, an honest heart and a fun-loving attitude. She was outgoing. She was fun. Best of all, she liked me.

But, I was smitten with Perfect Teeth, and for years thought she walked on water. Time and an incredible series of circumstances proved me wrong.

I've often thought that I wasted a lot of years chasing something that was never there, trying hard to re-create what had yet to be created. I had been smitten, lured by those bright blue eyes and the fantasy that she walked on water. It became my first heartbreak.

But, in a strange way, I'm grateful for it. My English teacher Sharon McNeeley always taught me not to write cliches, but in this case it is an apt descriptor, because Perfect Teeth taught me my first truth about affairs of the heart.

Everything that glitters is not gold.