1308 1/2 W. Hickory Street, Denton Texas, Spring, 1963: The movie ‘Hatari’ was unmemorable, but the Henry Mancini song called ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ had been on the radio for weeks and weeks and weeks.
That warm day, an abundance of visitors from the HobNob to my minuscule apartment somehow drove us all to clamber up onto the flat roof. We also had beer. That may have been part of it.
On the front edge of the flat roof, with our feet dangling two stories above Hickory Street, we lined up to tell stories and watch the students and passers-by across the street on the campus.
Michael Murphy had brought his guitar.
You may remember Murphy from later, because in 1975, along with Linda Ronstadt, John Denver, the Carpenters, Doobie Brothers, and Ozark Mountain Daredevils, his pop single was at the top of the charts with lots of airplay across our great nation. His song was about a horse and a blizzard, and some mountains in Nebraska. The song was called ‘Wildfire.’
(Want to hear it? It’s on this musical video from a tv performance.)
That song haunts me still.
Odd, too, because back on that day when we were all sitting along the edge of the roof, Murphy had earlier come busting into the HobNob, grinning and giggling and just beside himself. He’d just sold his first song, for actual money. He’d made $50. That was a *lot* of money.
For a song!
He’d sold his song to the New Christy Minstrels.
Murphy was a handsome kid then, with a square jaw, blonde hair, an engaging smile and a friendly manner. We didn’t know just how good he was. But he was focused. He was going somewhere. And I guess selling an actual song, for actual money, to an actual known group … well, maybe this was something that consoled him, drove him forward, perhaps he heard fate whispering in his ear, ‘You can do this. You can do this. Just keep on.’
But on that day, as was common, he’d brought his guitar, and after he scrambled to the roof, we passed it up to him, and so, sitting on the roof above the street, he played for us, and we sang snippets of popular songs.
The sun was warm, and we had beer and comraderie. I suppose school officials would have been horrified, but nobody noticed us there despite our catcalls and hooting and laughter.
Down below, an ongoing parade of people walking provided more amusement.
Then a very rotund girl came chugging up the sidewalk. It wasn’t that she was fat, though that was unusual in those days. It was something prissy about the way she walked. She was swinging her shoulders as she came, walking all prissy, and moving right along.
From the guitar, suddenly we heard a tune we all knew. Baby Elephant Walk.
We fell apart, laughing.
And that’s how we’ll remember that day, on the edge of the roof above the street, with friends and laughter in the warm sun, and the Baby Elephant Walk.
In one of the last scenes in the fun movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the heroine makes a statement about the leading man. She says, lovingly, “He’s a pirate.”
As you may recall from the movie, that young man started out hating the pirates, and yet, in the course of his adventures, he’s become bolder and he has dared great things, and by golly he has become a pirate. And that’s a good thing.
And so … why is it a good thing to be a pirate?
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
— Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate
Medford, Oregon, May 2, 2015 — Now that I live on Siskiyou Boulevard, next door is a sometime fiesta. That is to say, the Latino family next door has the house on the corner, and apparently a never-ending extended family and circle of friends. So often on a Friday evening there is a gathering with Spanish music and beer. And when one of the children has a birthday … oh, my.
So when I returned from an errand this afternoon, and saw an inflatable tent thing in which children can bounce and fly around, I recognized birthday in progress. Sure enough, around dark, headlights and cars arrived, families spilled out into the pools of light, and now as I go to bed there’s a wonderful party going on next door.
It’s summer, and I have the window open beside my bed, so I can enjoy the party almost as well as if I was there. Past my window, in their back yard, children run, and scream, and yell stories, accusations, laughter, curse words, and insults. In other words, they’re having a good time.
You might think this would disturb my sleep, but it doesn’t. Somehow I like it, and despite the startling loudness and excitement, it’s pleasant and soothing.
I drifted off, smiling, and then … [Read more…]
Henrietta, Texas circa 1970: Darrel Blain went to school with my brother, David Strickland, and sometimes rode his bike out to the farm near Hurnville to visit. Like any kid growing up in Henrietta, his mother bought his clothes at John’s Drygoods, and the Library Rummage Sale was a big deal.
But he was enterprising, and he got a job at the ‘Lo Boy, cooking burgers and making cokes.
Then one day, there was this lime.
The limes were kept inside the grey metal ice-maker, in a bucket. At that time, lime cokes were a hot item at the ‘Lo Boy. The formula is simple: make a fountain coke, cut a slice of lime, and squeeze it into the coke.
But not this lime. It was too beautiful.
Large. Deep green. Unblemished and perfect. It was just too pretty to slice up and put in a coke, so Darrel stuck it into his pocket instead.
Later that day, it happened that he biked out to the Hurnville farm. to visit with my brother David. While he and David were lounging around, my mother, Margaret was her name, saw the lime.
She said gee, that would really be good with tequila. She asked if she could have it.
Startled, he was. Actually somewhat shocked, for he had never seen anyone actually drink tequila, much less have it with a lime. He handed it over.
Nocona Texas, 1969: Bob Standley is my brother-in-law, because he married my sister Mary. But some time before they got married, when he was in high school, he had a Chevy Malibu.
He had a little job, I think it was at the boot factory, and he had to be very careful with his money. Each week on Saturday, he took $2, and he’d fill up the gas tank — it was a long time ago — and there was money left over to go to the drive-inn movie, and to buy a nasty little cigar called a Swisher Sweet.
Every week he followed this $2 routine, and so as to conserve his money, he drove his car only when he had to, so that the gas would last through the week.
But then one Saturday, something strange happened.
He was at the gas station, and he started to gas up.
But the gas splashed out of the tank.
He thought he’d made some sort of mistake, so he stuck the nozzle in again, and gave it a squirt.
Again the gas splashed out of the tank.
Suddenly he realized what had happened.
Just like saving money for a rainy day, his conserving the fuel had left him with almost a full tank, and the tank just couldn’t hold any more gas!
So he had the entire $2 still in his hand, today.
That night, he and his friends went to the movie, and they had cokes several times, and then they drove around, all over the place, all night long.
Shady Shores community, near Dallas Texas, 1964: Paul H. was the largest roommate, and visiting his girlfriend in Fort Worth, he drove that highway often. A large and quiet guy, when he returned that day, all excited, we knew something was up.
“What is it?” asked Hardy M., the art student, a rugged fellow of sour demeanor. Paul lowered his voice.
“It’s a boat, with two big Evenrude motors,” he said, “It’s just sitting on a trailor beside the highway!”
My roommates, and myself, instantly became criminals.
“You mean … just sitting there?” asked Pat M. Always affecting calm, always worried.
“Trailer hitch,” Paul said. “I’d have grabbed it but I don’t have a trailor hitch.” On his car, he meant. They all looked at me. My car had a trailor hitch.
“OK,” I said. And so off we drove, to steal a boat.
Along the way, Hardy in the back seat was dozing. Each time he nodded off, Pat jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow. “Stop it!” Hardy said, irritable. Pat told him not to be leaning on him. Hardy said ok, and a short time later, was dozing again.
With the two of them bickering like children, we drove. The day was late, and daylight fading. I’d forgotten a ham in the oven. We found it the next day, much smaller and very salty.
Watching for the boat as we drove, it seemed like we’d never get there. And finally, Paul said that either we’d missed it, or somebody had picked up the boat. So we turned around.
By now, Hardy was deep asleep in the back seat. He woke occasionally, but Pat told him we weren’t there yet. This continued until we were pulling into Shady Shores, where we lived lakeside in a concrete-block house.
About a block from our house was a small copse of wood, and, as it was now full dark, instead of going home, I pulled my car into that tiny wood. In the dark, the nearby houses were invisible from within the trees.
Hardy woke as we exited, but we told him we were going to get the boat, and needed him to stay with the car. Sleepy, he agreed, and promptly fell asleep again. We walked to our house, and stayed up late, talking about our big adventure — failing to steal a boat — and then eventually everybody went to bed.
Hardy, of course, woke up sometime during the evening, but didn’t dare leave the car. He didn’t want to be stranded in an unknown place near Fort Worth.
In the morning, about coffee-time. Hardy came through the door.
“That’s not funny,” he said.