We don’t know where she came from, what her original given name may have been, or why she had come into such dire circumstances. One day she began coming to the back porch of my daughter’s house. Although her long coat somewhat hid the fact, she was emaciated. Perhaps she was able to smell the presence of other cats in the house. Or maybe she just sensed the kindness of those living inside. We don’t know. But she came asking to be fed and cared for and was taken in. They named her for her most prominent feature at the time: Bones.
As a precaution, the kids (actually bona fide adults now) took the stray to their local vet to make sure she was in reasonably good health and free of any parasites that might get passed on to the other cats, both of whom had been rescues. Bones was sorely underfed and bore one broken tooth, which the vet indicated almost surely meant she had been ejected from a moving vehicle (he’d come across those in the middle of the road before). Otherwise, she was a healthy long-haired adult cat, estimated to be about eight years of age. They took her home and began caring for her. Don’t ask me what miserable excuse for a human being inflicts harm on a defenseless animal. I have no idea, but I do know that I would love to see the punishment fit the crime when it comes to animal cruelty. Can’t you just see it? I can.
One thing became clear early on: Bones liked to eat. In fact in no time at all, she was no longer grossly underweight. But she also liked to play with her fellow housecats, Dorian and Finch, who did not share her zeal for romping and roughhousing in the least. Spats ensued and Bones had to be separated from the others. The hope had been that the three cats could become acclimated to one another over time. That didn’t happen, though, and after months of trying, much to the dismay of all involved, it became apparent that Bones would need to be rehomed.
My daughter Teresa had begun to put out feelers, including a post on Facebook that just broke my heart when I saw it. (Author’s note: I have no right to complain, as some years earlier, I had shared a post on Facebook that resulted in Teresa and her husband-to-be adopting the kitten who would become their Dorian.) My wife immediately asked if I thought it would be feasible to take Bones in ourselves. Twenty years ago, I would not have hesitated. But now? Karen had been struggling with mobility issues, I wasn’t getting any younger myself, and just keeping up with the house had become a losing battle. Then there was Leia, our large, black Shepherd/Labrador mix, who had coexisted with a cat (and even a rabbit) before but was now enjoying life as an only child. “No,” I replied, “probably not a great idea.” Although Karen accepted my answer, I don’t think either of us was too choked up about the thought of Bones being rehomed.
It was a cold, lonely night at the end of November. Karen had been hospitalized following a freak injury requiring surgery. I was home alone, doing some Christmas shopping on my laptop. I had ordered a few gifts for Karen but had not yet happened upon the one “special gift” that I get her every year. What does one get for a woman who, once she gets out of the hospital, will be stuck in rehab for weeks? I surfed and scrolled and wracked my brain but did come across anything worthy.
Well, there was one thing, an idea to which my mind kept returning. I kept on thinking about that cat and how much I didn’t want to see her sent away again. But how to make it work? Once Karen got home from rehab, she would be challenged just to take care of her own needs, let alone those of anybody else. In recent years, due to declining physical abilities, she hadn’t even been able to keep up with the dog — and I had done a piss-poor job of compensating for that. We had never cared for a longhaired cat before, but I suspected the shedding situation would be extraordinary. Despite all the reasons I shouldn’t have considered the matter any further, my mind kept circling back. Why? Because my wife had a long way to go before she could come home and having Bones would give her a good reason to fight for her recovery.
I reached out to my daughter that very night and together, we began to scheme. Bones would stay at her current home until Karen was home and settled, sometime after the holidays. The kids would wrap Bones’ vaccination record for me to give as Karen’s “big” Christmas gift. And when the time came, Tre, her husband, and their housemates (long story) would assist Karen and me in learning what we needed to know about caring for a longhair. As was often the case when I was a young boy, I could not wait for Christmas to come!
A number of long weeks later, on Christmas Day, a group of us went over to the nursing home where Karen had been placed for post-surgical rehabilitation. She was still non-weight-bearing on her left leg and had already grown tired of not being able to do so many things on her own. She was putting up a great front for the holidays but we all knew it had only been a front, nothing more. After all, who wants to spend Christmas in a nursing home?
Things played out exactly as I’d hoped they would. We presented gifts of varying shapes and sizes, insisting that she save the smallest gift for last, a number 10 envelope with a red bow on top. In all candor, Karen seemed to enjoy all the “lesser gifts” she received, too. Then we let her open the envelope. She unfolded the single sheet of paper inside and read it over, probably a few times, before that telltale look of realization crept into her face. She looked up at us and said just one word. “Really?”
We all nodded in response. Things might have gotten a little emotional for a moment or two, but by far the overriding emotion in the room was joy. I am convinced that I had made the right choice, for Karen as well as for Bones. Heck, for me, too!
The weeks that followed were long indeed, filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Karen was still in rehab when our son left for his new home in Hawaii and also when her mom passed away. We managed to break her out for a run up north, to see Mom one last time and also to Teresa’s house for a farewell dinner for our son. Both day trips were undoubtedly helpful but neither of them was capable of making everything okay, and we all knew it.
The farewell dinner gave Karen a chance to spend a little time with her soon-to-be cat. Because the name Bones was no longer descriptive, Karen was tasked with giving her feline a new forever name, an assignment that my dear wife did not take lightly. She insisted that it must be a name with ties to royalty. Me, I had already gotten used to calling her Boney, but I was open to a change.
Once during the farewell event, I glanced over at Karen while she was holding Bones and in that moment, the look on my wife’s face told me everything I had to know. First, though Bones may not have realized it at the time, this kitty was never again going to have to worry about not having a place. But more than that, this cat’s forever “place” was in Karen’s heart. Boney cat, I thought to myself, you’ll be coming home soon. For good.
Right around the end of January, the nursing home’s PT/OT staff, the insurance company, and most importantly, Karen herself decided she was ready to be discharged. So on a chilly Thursday evening, three days after I had broken her out to attend her mother’s funeral, I brought my wife home. Two days later, our daughter and son-in-law brought Bones, who had not yet been renamed, over to her new forever home. They also brought with them a supply of food and a generous assortment of new cat paraphernalia.
I felt like a first-time adoptive parent, watching Boney look around in a state of bewilderment and hoping that she would soon adjust to her new surroundings. The initial transition took a little less than a week, probably not bad by cat standards but still a little tough on her new mom and dad, who at times feared that she would never warm up to them. In reality, after everything that she had probably been through, Boney just needed a little time before she would be inclined to trust again. We gave her that time, as well as some space, and before long we began to share experiences together.
Still, one question remained to be answered: What was her name? After weeks of consideration, Karen decided that the cat formerly known as Bones would henceforth be called Guinevere Bonaparte, the latter name added so that if I wanted to, I could continue calling her Boney cat. This proved to be unnecessary. Within short order, we both began calling her Guinnie cat. Similar phonetics, same number of syllables… hey, it worked.
And the rest is slowly unfolding history. Because of the broken upper-left canine tooth, which will have to be removed altogether eventually, Guinnie sometimes appears to have a bit of an Elvis sneer, but not always. She enjoys blanket-covered laps but if you overdo the petting, she’ll let you know. Guinnie cat loves looking out of windows (I can’t wait until more birds arrive) and despite being pretty small (about nine pounds, fur and all), she is utterly unafraid of Leia, the black princess, who is many times her size.
So far, Karen does all the brushing and shares some of the litter pan duty, because these are the things she can do. I do everything else, for now, which largely consists of feedings, vacuuming copious amounts of loose dog and cat fur, and cleaning up the occasional yark. On average, this puss sheds enough fur to produce another small cat every seven to ten days. Enjoys proximity when she’s not sleeping. Does not like to be picked up and held. And she has never actually bitten either of us but will occasionally do that soft “objection bite” thing to let people know when she has had enough.
One of our favorite new things is when we greet each other by touching noses. It’s the cutest thing. A little disconcerting when I’m asleep, though, and feel this small, cool nose pressing into my arm to let me know her highness has arrived. S’okay.
Her name is Guinevere, or Guinnie for short. This is her home now and she has decidedly become our cat. The journey continues.
People often use the phrase “life happens” as a sort of catch-all explanation for why things don’t go as planned. The implication is that life continually happens to us, the passive, unwitting masses. The actor Jim Carey has suggested that life actually happens for us. What I want to know is what do you do when life repeatedly and relentlessly attacks you from all sides? Huh? What do you do?
This story begins in late October, when my 95-year-old mother-in-law suffered what appears to have been a mini-stroke caused by multiple occlusions, which had until then gone undetected. Her son, a retired healthcare worker with whom she lives, rushed her to a local hospital ER, where she was diagnosed and admitted for treatment. Sometime after that, Mom was transferred to a rehab center for physical and occupational therapy.
A few weeks later, my brother-in-law and his wife were scheduled to be at a family wedding in North Carolina. The wedding was to take place on the same day as my daughter’s “big second wedding reception,” but I’ll get to that later. Our intent had been (a) for my wife to care for her mom in her brother’s absence, (b) to involve Mom in our daughter’s big celebration, and (c) to give Mom a nice Thanksgiving. In one fell swoop, all of this had become uncertain at best.
In the days that followed, after one of several visits with her mother at the rehab up in Lindenhurst, my dear wife suffered an unfortunate accident while getting into her car in a near-empty parking lot after dark. The result was an awkward fall that resulted in multiple fractures to her left leg and foot. She texted me from the emergency room of a hospital in Libertyville, “Please don’t get mad,” and proceeded to tell me what had happened. Our son, who lives in Rogers Park on the far north side of Chicago, miles closer than my own home, drove up to offer assistance. The medical staff at the hospital in question — and there seems to be a great deal to question — saw fit to splint my wife’s leg, told her not to put any weight on it, and promptly discharged her. Eventually, our son drove her home.
Meanwhile back in Plainfield, while our son was driving his mother home, our daughter, with the help of her husband and a friend, set up a corner of our TV room with a mini fridge, commode, food, beverages, and other accouterments, with the hope that my injured wife would be able to make do without risk of injuring herself further. In no time at all, it became clear that this was not to be the case. The following day, we were all working together to seek more competent medical attention for my wife.
I should mention that while all this is going on, I had arranged to work remotely in order to ensure that Karen would never be left alone in such a vulnerable state. I can only thank God and my employer, a family-oriented company not quite like any other I have experienced, that this was even possible. Even so, life just kept right on happening. I had been working away on an almost calm Thursday afternoon when the news came to me via email that my mentor of the past four years, also my direct superior, partner in crime, and friend, had “parted ways” with our company. This seemed odd to me, as only hours earlier I had neither seen nor heard any indication from the man that he had any intention of executing such a departure anytime soon. Hmmm. As is my nature, I reached out to people. No information was volunteered and I did not pry. I just let it go at that and went back to shouldering life as it continued happening. And believe me, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
A day later, a competent orthopedic surgeon examined my wife’s injuries, gave a rather alarming assessment of the “cookie cutter splint” that had been applied at the previous facility, scheduled urgent weekend surgery two days hence, and having declared that my wife should never have been discharged in her vulnerable condition, sent her to the emergency room across the street from his office.
Sometime after 3:00 AM the following morning, Karen was admitted to Silver Cross Hospital. One day later, on a Saturday morning down in surgery prep, we were informed that due to a testing oversight, surgery would have to be postponed. To say that Karen was displeased doesn’t quite cut it. Because she could not be safely discharged, my dear wife was now stuck in the hospital pending that surgery. Meanwhile, our daughter’s second wedding reception, two years in the making, was scheduled to take place that very evening.
You see, it’s like this. Two years ago, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our daughter got married. Teresa had always wanted a big feast of a wedding, like Karen and I had enjoyed so many years ago, but the pandemic restrictions rendered that impossible. At one point, Teresa and her husband-to-be had created a spectrum of contingency plans, ranging from a restricted ceremony with the two of them, a priest, and a witness at the low end, to a modest celebration of up to maybe 50 people at the high end. The latter is what took place, but the whole time, they vowed to follow up with a full-blown reception the following year, after all the restrictions had been lifted. Unfortunately, the following year still held some restrictions and much uncertainty. And so it came to pass that 2022 would be the year of the big second reception.
Karen had been in tears when she realized that she would not be attending our daughter’s big reception but nobody was willing to place her in harm’s way for the sake of attending a party. Still, we all vowed to do the next best thing. If we couldn’t bring Karen to the celebration, we would bring the celebration to Karen! All night long, an entire team was busy capturing elements of the celebration and streaming them to my wife. And believe me, it was a hell of a time. Being surrounded by friends and family enabled me to set aside all my concerns of the day, if only for the moment.
The following Tuesday, we were back in line for surgery, only this time it happened. Without going into the sordid details, the surgery ended up being every bit as involved as it had promised to be, involving substantial hardware to compensate for one repair that would not be possible. Still, it had gone smoothly, the surgeon assured me. As expected, there would be a lengthy recovery ahead.
Hours had passed before I was able to see Karen again. When they brought her back to her room, my wife looked like she had seen too many miles of bad road. I opted to let her rest and went to run all the errands she had assigned to me prior. By the time I returned to the hospital that evening, Karen was her old self again, with color in her face, a twinkle in her eye, and that unmistakable sense of humor that we have so long shared between us. We still had no solid indication of how much longer she would be in the hospital or exactly where she would go next.
Two days later, happy Thanksgiving! Karen was still in the hospital. Administrative red tape, undoubtedly lengthened by the holiday weekend, prevented us from knowing with certainty where she would be going from there, but we knew it would not be home. Based on recommendations from the social worker and from our primary care doctor, Karen selected a rehab facility close to home. But there was paperwork to be filed and then reviewed by somebody, somewhere, before we would have any kind of confirmation of the transfer.
Long before any of this had transpired, our son John had begun scheming an “event within the event” to take place on Thanksgiving Day, which would be hosted for the first time by our daughter Teresa. John assembled an entire team of accomplices, all working together below the radar of his significant other, Emma. Even her mom was in on it, agreeing to fly in from California the night before and be snuck into the house that morning, under cover of carefully orchestrated distractions. At the appointed moment, everybody came together and witnessed a beautiful and most eloquent proposal, all live-streamed to my wife’s hospital room, of course. There were many teary eyes, my own included.
Life, which always happens, had begun to cascade. The following morning, Emma would depart Illinois, first for her home in California and shortly thereafter to Honolulu, to start her latest job assignment. John will follow her sometime in January. Between now and then he will get their belongings moved from their Chicago apartment and move back home for a few weeks, along with their dog and cat. Then he, too, will be off to Hawaii.
But wait, there’s more! I woke up the Friday after Thanksgiving with telltale sinus issues that seemed to indicate I would be coming down with a cold soon. I was already committed to making a run up to see my mother-in-law and bring her some fresh laundry that I’d done a few days earlier. Not being able to make that run on Thanksgiving had killed me inside but with everything else afoot, it was impossible, simply too much — and I was the very last to admit it.
I stopped in Rogers Park to pick up John on my way up. During my last visit to see Mom, when I had picked up her laundry, she wasn’t sure who I was. I tried to help her remember, unsuccessfully, and went home feeling so deflated and alone. My son had this knack for drawing a reaction from his grandma, even if she wasn’t sure who he was, and so he gladly came along. We did better together than I ever would have on my own. I am grateful.
By all rights, this should be the end of my story and it would have been more than enough at that. But you see, life doesn’t just happen. Life continues to happen, sometimes relentlessly.
By Saturday morning, my “cold” symptoms were much worse and on top of all else, my senses of smell and taste had completely disappeared. After more than two years of testing negative for the COVID-19 virus, I had become convinced I was a “no-vid,” incapable of becoming infected. But my God, I had just spent a day surrounded by people celebrating Thanksgiving and then gone to visit my 95-year-old dear mother-in-law, stopping from time to time to visit my health-impaired wife in the hospital! Could there possibly be a worse time to contract this damned thing?
Of course you know what happened next. Not just one but two tests came back positive and I was instructed to quarantine for five days, to inform anyone whom I might have exposed, and to inform my employer and ask once again to continue working remotely. Please pause for a moment, look back on everything I have just shared with you, and try to imagine what this task might look like.
I do think I may be the most fortunate man alive. In addition to the outpouring of sympathy and understanding from my wife, my family, and my friends came nothing but solid support from my employer of almost exactly four years and a plan for moving forward from all concerned. And this is exactly what has enabled me to continue on in the face of life as it happens.
Now I am healing. My wife, still in the hospital, waits patiently for her rehab assignment. Various family members and friends are dealing with cold, flu, and covid infections, not all of which are related yet we recognize that we are related and hold each other up as we move forward. We have only one rule and that is to never ask, “What next?”
Unlike most of my stories, this one has no clear ending. Life happens, sometimes all at once. The thing is, life will keep right on happening until it ends. Whether you believe it is happening to you or for you, what you do with this ever-unfolding life is up to you.
Me, I’m still here, still standing, still moving forward. It’s been an interesting few weeks, though. And if you’re still here with me, reading along, thanks for hanging with me.
I finally decided I’d had enough. After having spent months working with my life story coach to free up my suppressed creativity, I found myself spending less time than ever in pursuit of my creative endeavors. After having spent all of 2019 and 2020 creating daily motivational slide images and then devoting 2021 to creating 365 slide images, one per day, dedicated to the subject of love… nothing. Well, almost nothing. There was still my professional work, my day job, which is steeped heavily in business and marketing communications. There was also the occasional poetic slide published on social media — less than one per month — and the occasional (read: even more seldom) blog post here on MGD Time, but none of this could ever pass for forward progress, not after the things I’d already accomplished.
My excuse? Life. I work 35 miles from home, fighting traffic both ways. I’m tired when I get home at the end of the day. My wife, who suffered a debilitating injury a year ago, needs my help with common household chores. So I help, during the week and on weekends. This all sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s bullshit. It’s not about time but priorities and when your actions do not serve your priorities, stress ensues — self-instigated stress, but stress nonetheless. There is no such thing as a writer who doesn’t write. Understanding that I had caused the problem, this began to bother me greatly. I needed to take massive, corrective action and fast. In other words, I needed a hard reset of sorts.
The Plan I had a bit of unused vacation time left at work, which would be lost if not taken soon. After consulting with my wife, I arranged to take the second week of October off and then use a portion of that week for a solitary, off-site writing retreat. Knowing full well that if I tried to do this at home, I would end up doing chores and then beating myself up for not following my own priorities, I began looking for affordable accommodations a safe distance from home, friends, and heavily populated areas. I set my sights on south central Wisconsin and soon found a place that met nearly all of my criteria.
I have ridden my motorcycle past the Round Barn Lodge, located in Spring Green, numerous times on my way home from other destinations over the past years. With its bright red buildings, the place caught my eye every time, yet I had no idea what the place was, nor did I really care until I began looking for rural accommodations with moderate rates and high-speed internet. As had been the case while riding by in real life, the Round Barn Lodge stood out like a sore thumb in my online search. Well-reviewed, fairly priced, and ideally situated, the lodge also offered a decent swimming pool, rooms with king-size beds, ample working space, and picturesque surroundings. Surely this must be the place, I thought to myself. After trading a few emails with their general manager, I booked her favorite room, a deluxe lodge-themed king room, facing away from the road and located on the second floor at the farthest end of the hall.
The Execution On Wednesday, October 12, I left my home in Plainfield under less-than-ideal conditions and things deteriorated from there. A frontal passage had been moving from the southwest toward the northeast and if I was going to reach my destination as planned, I would be driving through what appeared on the radar as a near-vertical line of red. Light drizzle gave way to moderate rain. Moderate rain gave way to heavy rain. The low point of my trip occurred near the Illinois/Wisconsin border, where my phone began chirping an alert from NWS of a tornado warning in my area. In all candor, the rain had already lightened up as the warning alert sounded, but just to be safe, I pulled off at the Wisconsin Welcome Center at Beloit and checked the radar. Sure enough, I had driven up behind the brunt of the storm, which was already east of my location. So it shouldn’t be a total loss, I made some small talk with someone at the tourism information desk, who turned out to be an active writer. She proceeded to hand over numerous publications that she thought I might find useful. I was grateful and we were both grinning ear-to-ear as we bade each other farewell.
As I continued north, moderate rain gave way to drizzle and before long, gray clouds gave way to beautiful blue skies. My first scheduled stop was just a few miles northeast of my final destination. My wife and I first began visiting Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac back in the mid-to-late 1980s. The late Bob Wollersheim was still living at the time and as I remember it, the main entrance to the winery was the arched doorway of what is now the entrance to their bistro. There was no beautiful, winding walkway back then as there is now. In fact, if I remember right, the parking lot hadn’t even been paved yet. But, oh, we adored this place and every weekend trip we took to that area included a stop at the winery.
Now celebrating its 50th year of operation, the Wollersheim complex includes not only a winery and vineyard but also a distillery — and a pretty good one at that. Me, I came for the wine and left with a half-case of my favorite selections, some of which I would drink during my self-imposed retreat.
The Round Barn Lodge turned out to be exactly what I had been looking for. As far as lodging goes, this place is a little unique. It’s situated on the edge of town, not that the town is all that big. It’s eco-friendly, as its field of solar panels indicates. The staff is helpful as well as personable. And if my room was any indication, the accommodations are comfortable, though not luxurious, and as clean as they come for an inn of this class. As soon as I checked in and unloaded my car, I knew I was going to do just fine there.
Rather than go out to eat on my first night, I opted to visit a local market, where I picked up some locally-made cheese, a box of crackers upon which to put the cheese, and some almond biscotti to enjoy for breakfast on mornings when I didn’t go out. Then I settled in and began to do what I had come to do.
The Work I spent all of 2021 producing daily free verse love poems for social media, 365 of them in all, published once daily using the hashtag #365daysoflove. At some point, I had in mind that I would publish a bound hardcopy version of the series. Unfortunately, I had produced the poems in no particular order — I just wrote them as they came to me — and it hadn’t occurred to me to somehow arrange them into a series as I wrote each piece. So arranging the series became my first hurdle, one that I had started months ago but never finished, until around 11 PM that first night. I went to bed tired but happy.
When I first began dropping my unedited love poems into a preformatted Word template, they seemed incomplete. What I had originally produced for social media looked nice and fit well on a tiny square image, but upon revisiting them, each piece seemed more like part of a free verse poem instead of the whole enchilada. So my second hurdle quickly became fleshing out the remainder of each poem, one at a time. This was not going to happen fast if I wanted them to be any good. At the end of day two, I had finished rewriting all of ten poems, less than three percent of the total. I went to bed tired but hopeful.
While finishing the task at hand was out of the question, quantifying it was not. I got up on day three, the last full day of my stay, with that outcome in mind. The only time I left my room was to have supper. Up until that time, and also after I got back, I worked on my poems. At the end of the night, I had rewritten my way through the month of January. Using that as my gauge, I reckoned that it would take the equivalent of six weeks in seclusion to finish the rewrite — not practical but still a very useful measurement, something to take home with me and put to good use. I went to bed utterly exhausted but satisfied and just a little more knowledgeable about my project as a whole.
The Fun Whenever I travel, I enjoy visiting local restaurants, drive-ins, bars, etc. that I could not experience while staying home. Even though I did spend some mealtimes snacking in my room, this trip was no exception. On the morning of my second day, I ventured out to Arena, Wisconsin to enjoy breakfast at Grandma Mary’s Café. I knew I was in a good place when I saw most of the parking spaces filled and several tables inside populated with locals — you know, farmers, senior citizens, and the like — all chattering away. I ordered my usual, a couple of pancakes with a side of bacon and a cup of black coffee, all of which I enjoyed very much.
That meal alone kept me full until suppertime, when I ventured all the way across the road from the lodge to a classic roadside establishment called RumbleSeats Drive-In, where I indulged in a burger called the Marilyn Monroe. Not for the faint-of-heart or the weak-of-arteries, the Marilyn is definitely not health food. In fact, it’s not even finger food! I had to use a fork and knife to eat this wonderful creation. I should point out that there is a major chain fast food joint nearby that probably had a line at their drive-thru. This place was much less busy. Why? Because the other place is a major chain, I guess, and by comparison, this place looks a little worn and dated. But hey, that’s part of the charm! Me, I’ll choose a decent local joint every time. If the food is good and service friendly, places like this deserve our business. When in doubt, go for that experience.
On my last night, the only time I had left my room that whole day, I went just a few doors further across the road to Arthur’s Supper Club for, what else, a traditional Wisconsin Friday fish fry. I started my meal off right, with a brandy old-fashioned that was big enough to last me through the entire meal. I opted to include the soup and salad bar, which was basic but very fresh. My batter-fried cod was crispy, flakey, and utterly delicious. The tartar sauce appeared to be homemade and was very flavorful. All in all, I enjoyed my meal as much as I possibly could while eating alone. Another good choice.
The Run for Home For the most part, the weather during my stay had been overcast and chilly with occasional drizzle. By contrast, there was nary a cloud in the sky when I packed up and headed for home. Having had a decent taste of personal productivity, there was a part of me that wanted to stay longer, but my objectives had been fulfilled. It was time to go home and apply what I had learned.
On my way out of the area, I stopped in Arena again, this time at Arena Cheese, the proclaimed home of Co-Jack, located directly across the street from Grandma Mary’s. After admiring their large fiberglass mouse outside, I went in and picked up a few different types of cheese for my wife and me to enjoy later. They only make fresh curds during the week, so I had to settle for day-old curds, but they still squeaked. Good stuff!
Before crossing back into Illinois, I pulled off in Beloit to get gas and fill up my abdominal cavity one more time. A little roadside research on my phone turned up a gem of a place called Doc’s Seriously Good Food. They weren’t kidding! Think fast food, only not quite so fast, and much better in terms of quality and flavor. That’s Doc’s. Here is one more instance where I would choose a place like this over a chain any day. I’ll be back.
The Lesson Did my controlled run away from home help? Yes it did, in several ways. For openers, it was fundamentally therapeutic for me to spend that many uninterrupted hours working at my craft, writing. Beyond getting something done, beyond working toward a goal that I had set sometime in 2021, I was living my guiding purpose. Everybody has one, that essential reason for living that gives meaning to their existence. Mine is that of a storyteller and guide, to share experiences, feelings, and ideas with others. This endeavor got me away from the distractions of my present life and back in touch with myself and my purpose. That’s what made it worth my time and money. No regrets.
Think about this. For a period of days, I was hiding. Only two people in the world, my wife and the general manager of that lodge, knew where I was staying. Yet throughout my time away, I was sharing glimpses on Facebook and now, just a few days afterward, I am telling you all about it here on my blog site. Why? To what end? Because this is what I do! And everything that I do means less to me if not shared.
There is a nice crescent-shaped pool at the Round Barn that looked most inviting. Even though I always carry a pair of trunks when I travel, I did not swim once during this stay. I would have had the pool to myself most of the time. No matter. I don’t care to swim alone, especially in a nice pool like that. For me, what’s the point if I can’t look across at someone and ask, “Isn’t this great?”
There was a large flat-panel television in my room that I never once turned on during my stay. I hadn’t driven 235 miles to watch TV alone. I came to work on something that would eventually be shared. The collection of poems will eventually be published and whether I sell ten copies or a million, I’ll have fulfilled my purpose once again, just as I’m going to do the moment I share this post.
I almost didn’t go. I’m ashamed to admit this now but it’s true. I had never attended the Midwest Motorcycle Rally by myself and as I am not a great alone person, I hadn’t found the thought of going alone particularly appealing. My son, who hasn’t attended with me since 2015, had really wanted to go this year but he ran into an unfortunate combination of circumstances that made going impossible for him. The best pillion companion/friend I could possibly ever hope for hasn’t initiated an actual conversation with me in a couple of years now and my invitation to her was simply disregarded. We hadn’t attended since 2019. The pandemic had nixed the 2020 rally, although some people still went to hang out at the hotel. Then last year, I canceled early on after my own circumstances had given me a viable excuse to not go. But the reality was, I just wasn’t sure I could face seeing one reminder after another of all the good times I’d had with my previous traveling partners over the years. I wasn’t entirely certain anybody would really miss me, anyway. It turns out I had been dead wrong, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me tell you about a series of catalysts that caused me to go this year. First and foremost, last September, a dear lady who had befriended my son and me on our very first day at the 2014 MMR, and with whom I had been friends ever since, passed away suddenly. That rocked my world because I had always assumed I would see her again sometime. There had been talk of possibly doing a memorial ride for her at this year’s rally, so there was that.
Then in the dead of winter, one of my better MMR buddies had begun petitioning me to attend this year. I still remember telling him, “that might mean going alone,” but that hadn’t deterred him and I really don’t enjoy saying no to my friends. At that time, my son was not yet out of the running so I reasoned that it would be easier to reserve a couple of rooms early and cancel later than to try making reservations after everything was booked — which happens every year now at this event. So ever the optimist, I reserved two rooms.
July was almost upon us when my son had to face facts that there was no way he would be able to make the trip this year, but in arriving at that conclusion, he made me promise that I would still go and that I would participate in the memorial ride for our friend. I had seen on the official MMR website that “Diane Colletta’s Memorial Ride” had been listed on the schedule of guided tours, a prominent feature of this Rally. Somehow, my being on that ride had become super important to my son, perhaps because I would in effect be participating for both of us. So I agreed and began putting the word out to my MMR friends that I would be coming out, most likely alone. Once again, the “alone” part phased nobody. All I got were words of encouragement and a few invitations from friends asking me to hang out with them during the evening gatherings. There was no turning back now.
On the morning of Wednesday, July 13, I left hours later than I had originally planned, but that’s the beautiful thing about going to this event on Wednesday: nothing is happening that day. So no matter how late you arrive, you’re still a day early. The ride from my home in Plainfield, IL up to Winona, MN is well over 300 miles, no matter which route you take, so the general plan was to spend five or more hours alone with my thoughts, enjoying the scenery, which is plentiful once you get clear of the metro areas. Have you ever ridden through a particularly beautiful stretch of country, taking slow, measured breaths and realizing that all the trees, shrubs, grass, and wildlife are also breathing? That’s like a Zen moment for me, to become present in the moment and breathe with all the other living things as I contemplate them.
My rolling meditation was temporarily disrupted when I pulled into Janesville for a meal and some gasoline for Miss Scarlett, my bike. Why do they make Cracker Barrel restaurants so difficult to get into, anyway? As I peeled off my new leather riding gloves for the first time in hours, it became immediately apparent that an abundance of excess red dye had been leaching out of the leather and onto my hands over the past few hours. Anybody who has had this happen knows that the dye, regardless of color, will take longer to get out of your skin than it took to get in there in the first place. Ah, well, my lunch was good and fuel prices in Wisconsin are substantially lower than they are in northern Illinois. Besides, I was on vacation!
Some time later, I was in Minnesota and approaching my destination as the sun had begun its descent, just reaching that annoying, blinding point in the sky as I made my final approach to the Plaza Hotel & Suites. I raised a gloved hand to block the sun while I was still about a half mile out, scanning the road ahead for my turn, when I heard a loud TAP and felt something bounce soundly off my palm. Eh, just a bug, I thought to myself as I continued scanning. Moments later, a searing, pulsating wave of pain on the inside of my right thigh clued me in that it had not been just any bug but a startled and angry wasp that I had taken out of the sky. I brushed at my leg as I continued riding, but it was too late. Fortunately, I had brought some hydrocortisone and Benedryl along. Eh, no matter, I had arrived!
I got checked in and cleaned up, addressed the sting site as best I could, and meandered out to see who I might see. I was moved by what proceeded to happen that evening. Old friends and acquaintances would see me, get this look of recognition in their eyes, and embrace me. Words of welcome, gratefulness, and affection were exchanged each time, removing any doubt as to whether I had made the right decision. It eventually reached a point where if one more person hugged me, I was gonna get choked up. But oh, what a feeling. And make no mistake, I was grinning ear to ear, every bit as happy to see each of them as they were to see me.
Each day was as good or better than the one before. Historically, the MMR begins on Thursday evening but every year, a group of people, mostly regulars, would show up a day or more early and take unofficial rides. The organizers eventually began listing the early excursions on the website. I went on the “Early Arrivals” tour, led by a couple of whom I have come to grow very fond. They used to live one town over from my own, but I first met them in La Crosse at the 2015 MMR. Anyway, the “Early Arrivals” promised a relaxed pace (trikes welcome), which suited me fine because my annual bike miles had been in a steady decline since 2019 and I wasn’t looking to be challenged. Our group had an awesome day on the bikes, I got to catch up with my friends over lunch, and as if that weren’t enough, we enjoyed fresh pie at the Aroma Pie Shoppe in Whalan. I returned to the hotel pleased with how well the day had gone. Moments later, I was making plans to join some friends for supper, which turned out to be a hoot in itself, and then our Thursday evening, like every evening at the MMR, concluded with much camaraderie and laughter down in the parking lot.
On Friday, I opted to go on “The Grand Tour,” led at both ends (ride captain and tail gunner) by another couple of whom I have become extremely fond. This may very well have been the first ride of theirs that I have done and in very short order, I felt terrible for having waited so long. Their level of expertise, attention to detail, and genuine care for their group made their tour that much more enjoyable. After having been delayed for a couple of hours due to inclement weather (erring on the side of safety), we went riding in Iowa as well as Minnesota and never saw another raindrop for the rest of the day. I even got to rescue a damsel in distress whose posterior had grown sorely fatigued by our ride captain’s scant pillion. She proved to be a most pleasant passenger to carry and even tolerated the “uncommon variance” of my music collection.
Friday evening unfolded with more and more riders returning from their tours and laughter once again filled the air, as friends old and new milled about the MMR parking area sharing hugs, toasting the day, and just basking in the whole experience. Friday night is outdoor movie night at the rally and this year, after the sun went down, we were treated to a screening of The Road to Paloma, a low-budget ($250,000) film that debuted in 2014, the same year my son and I debuted at the MMR. It was co-written and directed by Jason Momoa, who also stars in the film. It’s definitely not a “feel good” movie but was well-made, I think.
Then Saturday came, the last full day of the Midwest Motorcycle Rally, and of course I went out on “Diane Colletta’s Memorial Ride,” which was being guided front and rear by Diane’s son Ken and her grandson Ritchie. Having spent years living in the area, Ken is intimately familiar with all the good roads and backroads, some of which look like narrow ribbons of asphalt winding through the hills. The riding was good, the stops significant in that each of them had been a favorite of Diane’s. I had only been to one of them prior to that day, Soldiers Walk Memorial Park in Arcadia, but each place we stopped at was wonderful and it was easy to understand what Diane had loved about them. At Elmaro Vineyard, a lovely winery outside of Trempealeau, Ken and I drank a toast to his mom as we looked out over the acres of grape vines. The first time my son and I met Diane, she asked us if we wanted to follow her group to a pizza farm. I had never even heard that term used before. We opted to stay closer to the hotel, but I never forgot that invitation from that most friendly stranger, who quickly became my friend. Our last stop of the day was to Suncrest Gardens, that pizza farm, where we dined on wood-fired pizza in an alfresco setting, telling stories and laughing ourselves silly. Life is good, especially when moments like this are shared.
Saturday night at the Midwest Motorcycle Rally is all about the Biker Games, sponsored and hosted by Mean Machine Cycle Parts of Elkhart, IA. With events such as loudest bike, slow race, weenie bite, and balloon toss, this is a perennial favorite. The games conclude with a limbo contest, open to anyone willing to don a plastic grass skirt. It’s all good clean fun, of course. As I watched the games with friends, talking and laughing the whole time, I thought about the true nature of the MMR. This isn’t about badass bikers or extraordinary attendance numbers. This is more like a family reunion with motorcycles of all sizes, makes, and models. And you either love it and become a part of it or you don’t. I do love it so.
Sunday morning at the MMR is a bittersweet one for me every year. There are hugs and much talk of next year but it’s also goodbye for now. Many people had already left by the time I got my tired old self packed up and ready to roll. Still, I had no regrets and much to look forward to next year.
As luck would have it an extraordinary thing happened as soon as I got within a quarter to a half mile down the road from the hotel. I was riding along when all of a sudden I heard a PING as an inch-long black and yellow wasp bounced off my bike’s windshield and landed square in the center of my faceshield, right in front of my nose! Before I could ascertain which side of my faceshiled that bastard was on, it hopped off and I never saw it again. Still, for that brief instant, my heart froze. I mean, what are the odds? Surely there must be a nest of them somewhere near that point on US 14/61.
The ride home was uneventful, save for finding myself accompanied for a few miles in Wisconsin by an MMR buddy who happened to be going the same way as me. I stopped for lunch at an old A&W restaurant in Boscobel that still had an old table telephone ordering system in use. By early evening, I was home again.
You know, I talked about my MMR friends welcoming me back and hugging me and all when they first saw me, which was both wonderful and humbling, and it didn’t stop there, either. People also went out of their way to make sure I understood that my past riding companions would also be welcome with the same open arms if I were to them back again. Even my son, who hasn’t been seen there for seven years, they still remember him and how he took to the MMR just as as I did. I was grateful to know that my companions are loved there, just as I am. Of course, whether either of them returns or not is their choice. Me, I will keep on inviting them every year and I will continue to attend this wonderful little rally for as long as I am able. That’s my choice.
“Experience is the hardest kind of teacher. It gives you the test first and the lesson afterward.” — Oscar Wilde
In all candor, I have been unable to verify the authenticity of this quote. With that said, however, I do feel more than qualified to vouch for the truthfulness of the statement.
My son got into a rather nasty altercation with a laminate router he had been using last Sunday and as is usually the case, the router won. The blade ate into three of his fingers, causing a slight fracture in one and necessitating 18 stitches overall, along with a tetanus booster shot and a course of antibiotics. As I sit writing this, the full extent of his injuries remains unknown. There will be significant scarring. There may be some sensory nerve damage but he should retain mobility. He will be seeing a hand specialist, to get more answers and decide on a course of treatment. When he started calling people from an urgent care facility, he opened with, “First off, I haven’t lost any body parts.”
When a parent’s child is harmed, no matter how grown up they may be, the parent feels that. This parent does, anyway. The swell of emotions that I felt when I heard the news was extraordinary. In a single instant, I wanted to comfort my son, encourage the healthcare professionals who were treating him, and drag that sonofabitch router into a back alley to beat it into scrap metal with a sledgehammer.
He didn’t need to be told how much worse this might have turned out. He knew. A larger router would have taken the fingers outright, period. Fortunately, he makes his living as a craftsman and an actor. When we spoke on the phone, I half-jokingly told him, “Well, I guess you know you can kiss your career as a hand model goodbye.” But every half-joke contains a measure of truth in the other half. I quickly added, “but only three or four years ago, I kissed my own career as an Olympic weightlifter goodbye.” We both went with the wisecracks but we both understood. What’s done is done.
That incident as well as the conversation that followed brought back some memories, none of them happy ones. And each of them brought the same message: Life’s consequences are for life. Coming up on four years ago, as a result of my own foolish, careless actions, I traded my left shoulder for a prosthetic assembly of titanium and plastic that will never do the work of its predecessor. I can never again lift as much or as high and I may very well outlive the artificial joint that is now inside my body. Still, my recovery was better than 90% of those who have had this type of surgery. I chalk that up to sheer will. I was hellbent on riding my motorcycle and traveling with my pillion companion again, and for years to come.
During my college years and for one year after that, I worked for a packaging company that was headquartered in my boyhood hometown of Blue Island, Illinois. The closely held corporation ran four factories across the US, including the one I worked at just about every summer, and some holiday breaks, from 1979 until 1983. The place I worked at was a paper converting factory, filled with corrugating machines, slitters, die cutters, stampers, printing and embossing cylinders, macerators, and balers. Just imagine lots and lots of large, motorized cylinders and blades, all in motion 24 hours per day, six and a half days per week. Me, I was lucky. I was just passing through, a college kid working there only as long as I needed to. But over the course of four years, I met many wonderful people. And many incomplete human beings.
There were several middle-aged women, housewife types I guess, with one or more short fingers. I never noticed it right away because they were such positive souls, always hard-working and never showing any evidence of loss. There was an older guy with a southern accent. He knew every machine in the plant, so people would often take his advice on productivity matters. And he was so jovial, everyone was always glad to see him. I can’t recall his name but he was short a few fingers and, as he claimed, a couple of toes.
I had an aunt who was both a physical and occupational therapist by profession. She was the only college-educated member of her generation in our family and we were very close. I talked with her about the things I saw at that factory and nothing seemed to surprise her. The industrial injuries, she pointed out, were largely a matter of human nature, reflex reactions. “Your job is to run this machine. You’re working one day and suddenly something falls into the machine. Without even thinking about it, your gut reaction is to reach in and grab that object. The machine takes you in, too, but it’s too late.”
I saw that firsthand, working on a Sunday, when this kid — a young teen, probably working a summer job — was placing old newspapers onto a conveyor belt that fed into a macerator, which instantly pulverized the paper, to be used in the manufacture of insulated envelopes. The drive chain on the conveyor was a bit loose and always slipping off the gears, so at some point, the chain guard had been left off. You know, to save time. So the kid is sitting there, tossing old newspapers on the conveyor, when the drive chain slips off once again. He’d seen the maintenance workers put the chain back on, so he tries to feed it onto the moving gears himself, but his hand is on the wrong side and the chain draws his hand right in against the rotating gear wheel. He yanked his hand free at the last second and didn’t lose any fingers but his right hand was cut and bleeding badly. There was nobody on the limited Sunday shift to authorize anybody to do anything but work. Everybody is standing around trying to decide what to do. Blood is pouring from the kid’s hand. Me, I had nothing to lose, so I yelled, “Come with me!” I took the kid and one other guy to hold his hand up while I broke every law in the book to drive him to the local ER. No regrets. Nobody even questioned me about my actions the following week.
There was one guy, the sole member of the shipping department on the third shift (I heard they paid a buck-fifty an hour extra for people to work on that shift). He would have been in his twenties when I was there — older than me at the time but would seem like a kid to me now. Tall and thin, with thinning blond hair, he had a solitary digit remaining on one hand, which was always wrapped in a dirty whitish bandage. That lonesome appendage was long and judging by the way he used it, I thought that was his index finger. It was his thumb. A machine had taken the rest of his hand.
Some of my coworkers assured me that the guy I’m describing here had been guaranteed a job for life. I’m not sure how that played out, since the company was bought out the year I left and the Blue Island factory was shut down the year after. The kid drove a very nice Pontiac TransAm, metallic silver with the big firebird emblem on the hood. It was an awesome-looking car. I never once saw that young man smile, though. Not even once in four years.
These are the memories that flashed through my mind when I heard that my son’s fingers had gotten torn up on a Sunday afternoon. What’s done cannot be undone. Hopefully, though, we all learn from this harsh teacher called life, as we continue along. Thanks for hanging with me.
I have not named every vehicle I ever owned. Not even most of them. This one, however, needed a name. That became clear to me before I had even brought her home. Until a few days prior, I hadn’t been planning to buy a car, but that all changed when the Chevy I’d been driving for the past eight years lost its power steering and in the process, unveiled a long list of items I’d been neglecting, many safety related. So I went hunting for a good used car that had at least some of the features I wanted for as close to what I could afford (namely $0) as possible.
I’d had a great experience using CarMax in the past, so I went back, first online and then in person. Last time, I’d had it down to two cars before I made my final choice. This time, there was only one. An unusual find in my price range, the car to which I kept returning as I sorted and filtered my online search was a 2014 Volkswagen Passat SEL. The model year was at the older end of my range, but the SEL’s premium trim level would otherwise have been out of my price range. Although six years old, the car had just over 51K on the odometer — chicken feed for someone who drives as much as I do. Having ridden in and driven Passat models owned by a couple of my coworkers, I had a pretty good idea what to expect. If this car seemed nearly as nice in person as it did online, she would become my next ride in short order.
Oh, she was sweet. Getting into a Passat is not unlike going down the rabbit hole. It’s not exactly a small car on the outside but it’s positively cavernous on the inside. The backseat area has more headroom and legroom than does my old Impala, and that’s not all. The seemingly puny little 1.8L four-cylinder engine doesn’t sound like much — a Facebook friend of mine in Germany quipped, “my Windscreen Wiper has got a bigger Engine” — but it’s turbocharged and would have given my old Chevy a run for her money. The view from the driver’s seat is generous, which may help explain why the car seems almost deceptive in how smoothly she comes up to speed and continues right on to speeding territory. I’ve already caught myself up over the 100 mark while grooving to my tunes on the car’s Fender premium audio system. In other words, I gotta’ be more careful.
Obviously, I did not “do the ton” (British slang for going 100 mph) while taking my test drive so yes, I came home with the car. But the question soon became: What to name her? Now you may be asking, why name her at all? And you would be right to do so. As I’ve already said, I haven’t named all of my vehicles, just the special ones. And while, ever since I crashed my beautiful red 2005 Honda ST1300 sport-touring motorcycle, I have vowed to never again become emotionally attached to a mere machine, I understood that this car was going to be special. Special enough to warrant having a proper name.
When naming a vehicle, I have always striven to capture some essence of the machine itself. The last one I named, for example, was my 2012 Victory Vision Tour, a “full dresser” motorcycle that I ride to this day, when conditions permit. The bike is metallic red with black and gray as secondary colors. I named her Miss Scarlett not because of her predominant color, which in all candor may or may not be precisely scarlet, but because of the flowing lines of her rear end, which make her side bag luggage appear roomier than they really are. That red color, combined with the sweeping shape of her outer bodywork, called to mind the hoop skirts worn by the leading female character in Gone with the Wind. I never once thought to name her anything different.
Which brings us to the issue at hand: Why on earth would I come to name a gray car Hazel? That’s a fair question. Do you have a few minutes?
For a kid who was born into a blue-collar, Italian immigrant family, I was blessed with a most enchanted childhood. One of the people who made it so was my maternal aunt Erminia, who is solely responsible for my deep-seated wanderlust as well as my sincere appreciation for ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity. Born in 1923, my Aunt Erminia was the only family member of her generation to attend college — in fact she held multiple degrees. She never married and during my formative years, she worked as a physical and occupational therapist for the East Chicago, Indiana public schools. This is why she was able to toss my sisters and me into the back of her station wagon and take us on multi-week summer road trips. As such I have seen most of the 48 contiguous states and quite a few Canadian provinces as well. But I digress.
Auntie had a number of interesting friends — good friends — one of whom was named Mrs. Gray. Like many of my aunt’s friends, Mrs. Gray had been a school teacher, but she had also done many other remarkable things in life. A woman of color, Mrs. Gray had also been a civil rights activist and, according to stories told to me by my aunt, had gone to jail standing up for what she believed in. I only knew her as a very kind lady with a very nice family, a family with whom my family had gone on camping trips and other outings. And back then, in my single-digit years, I only knew her as Mrs. Gray.
Well, nobody would see anything clever about naming a gray automobile Mrs. Gray, so I set about asking my eldest sister abut her first name — because quite frankly, after more than 50 years, I wasn’t so sure about that detail. It was my eldest sister, the retired librarian with an awesome memory, who immediately filled me in. “Yes, I do remember Auntie’s friend, Hazel Gray… I have fond memories of her and her family, going on camping trips with Auntie and the Grays.”
Hazel! Yes, I remembered her being called Hazel by the grownups. I also remembered she had a daughter named Elmyra and two sons, Oscar and Arthur, the latter of which had died quite young, the victim of a rip current while swimming in Lake Michigan (it’s sometimes amazing what my mind retains). The only thing my sometimes OCD mind had to be sure about was the spelling of her name, just for my personal satisfaction. Was her name Hazel Gray or Hazel Grey? I had never seen the name in print, so I never knew. A little online research, using what I did know, produced an obituary for one Hazel Lucille Whitlock Gray, unquestionably the dear lady whom I had been seeking. I only wish I had a picture of her to share with you.
Well, this is where my explanation ends and my car’s new story begins. Her name is Hazel. It’s short for Hazel Gray and in my estimation, that’s a fine name for my automobile. I only hope this car can live up to the name I’ve chosen for her.
Some theologians profess that God permits evil in this world in order to bring about a greater good. I promise you that I am not here to argue theology but please bear this point in mind as I share a couple of stories with you because it may become pertinent. Now let me be the first to admit that I am no angel. In fact there are at least a few people out there who probably suspect the opposite about me.
From as far back as I can remember, I have always been a spiritual sort but despite this, I have repeatedly fallen in and out of conformity to the practices — and presumed good graces — of organized religion, specifically Roman Catholicism. I am writing this largely for the benefit of my children and any of their subsequent offspring that may follow, but the rest of you may be amused as well. Let’s talk.
I think I was about fourteen years old when I began to have feelings for this girl from Indiana whose mom was a work associate and good friend of an aunt of mine. By way of the ongoing friendship between those adults, “Agnes” (not her name) and I would meet from time to time and, being close in age, would get paired together. I saw my first major rock concert with her at a stadium in Bloomington, Indiana. We even went on a few trips together. We were too young to know much about love but at that age, the hormones were doing their thing and, well, suffice it to say that we liked each other and never hesitated to express our affections when we were without adult supervision.
One autumn day, I was tagging along with my aunt to run errands in her 1975 Caprice Classic station wagon. As is often the case with young teens, my mind was on that girl. At some point, my aunt commented, “You really like Agnes, don’t you.”
I responded without even thinking, “Sure!” I will never forget what my aunt said next.
“Well, just make sure you keep it friends because her family would never allow you to become more than that.”
I had no clue what she what talking about, so I asked why. The wind had already been taken from my sails and the conversation that ensued twisted my gut into knots. My aunt explained that the girl’s family was Serbian and they belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church. I hadn’t even known what a Serb was up until then, but I’d had Greek friends since childhood and therefore assumed that the Serbian Orthodox Church must be similar to their Greek Orthodox Church. Okay, fair enough, but that didn’t explain why Agnes couldn’t be my girlfriend. She couldn’t be my girlfriend because of her religion? Why not? I’d had a non-Catholic girlfriend before (my interest in girls started very early) with no issues.
Well let me tell you, the answers to my first questions may have unsettled me, but my aunt’s answers to that last one positively enraged me. Like the Greek, Serb culture is intertwined with their church and to keep that, they tend to marry within their own nationality and religion. I had naively assumed that religion was supposed to bring people together. You know, love thy neighbor and all that good stuff. But here it was, dividing people, just as it has done through the ages. The very idea that I could be declared off limits to a young lady because I was Italian and Catholic floored me.
And from that point, my opinions on religion — not just my own but religion in general — was forever changed. I began to question everything and the more I questioned, the farther I distanced myself. By the time I was halfway through college, I had become a professed agnostic. Not the most welcome thing to be at a Jesuit university, but there I was. And while I was still very spiritual at that point, by choice I was not practicing any religion.
During my last year of undergraduate study, something unusual happened. I became involved with a young lady named Karen, whom I’d known since the start of my freshman year. We had never dated each other nor shown the least inclination to do so. But the circles in which we ran intersected from time to time and on one magic night, something happened that would change the course of history for both of us: I kissed her.
I couldn’t tell you why I did it. I’m not sure I know now. We were sitting in a neighborhood bar frequented by students who lived nearby. We were there with a group of friends, not as a couple, but found ourselves sitting together after everyone else had left the table to play pool, load the jukebox, talk to other patrons, etc. I have no idea what we’d been talking about. I know there was a pause in the conversation and during that pause, I leaned forward and kissed her. Something I cannot define moved me to act in that moment. That’s all I know.
I froze, realizing what I’d just done and not knowing what to expect in response. Karen looked at me and without batting an eye, said, “Oh, come on, you can do better than that.”
I felt like I had slipped in to a dream sequence but not being one to ignore such a challenge, I did indeed try to do better. Apparently I did alright that second time because we continued on from there. By the end of that evening, I went home with my mind swimming in a whole new sea of possibilities. There was only one problem: That young lady was already engaged to another and everybody knew it, including me.
What the hell had I been thinking! We barely knew each other! She was scheduled to be married to another guy! Anybody else in his right mind would have run like hell, had he been foolhardy enough to do what I’d done. But no. I saw her again. And again. And again. The very idea scared the living crap out of her at first. She literally ran away from me the day after that first kiss, as soon as I gave credence to doing anything more than forgetting that kiss had even happened. But I ran out after her and a few blocks later, as soon as I realized she could run faster and farther than me, I begged her to stop running and come back.
Had she kept going, that would have been the end of it then and there. Remember, we still didn’t know much about each other at that point, so going our separate ways shouldn’t have been a very difficult thing to do. But that’s not what happened. She stopped running. She walked back to me. Why? I can only suggest that we both saw something in each other from which we could not run, no matter how utterly wrong moving forward may have seemed to anyone else.
We continued talking. We started going places together. Hanging out together. Spending more and more time together in an effort to discover everything we possibly could about each other. Our relationship grew in all directions, at an astounding pace. At some point, she broke her engagement off with the other guy. That’s right, this lady walked away from a sure thing to take a chance on nothing but the strength of a possibility that we might have a future together.
Most people don’t know this part of my story. There was surely no reason to brag about it. I don’t even think I told my parents about this. Not all of it, anyway. And believe me, I was hated for this. Not by everybody, not even by all that you would have expected to hate me. But by some. Her fiancée, for sure, although he and I never saw each other after what happened. My regular friends seemed to take it all in stride. Karen’s parents and grandparents seemed relieved that her engagement was off, and they were friendly to me from the first time we met, but I’m not certain they saw me as having been the catalyst for that broken engagement.
You want to know who really hated me? Karen’s roommate, who was also engaged at the time. As I came to understand it, my very existence threatened everything that was supposed to be a certainty in her life. She thought Karen was off her rocker and likely told her so. Me, I held no grudge against the roommate. I even attended her wedding. But I don’t know whether her opinion of me ever changed.
To Karen’s fiancée, her roommate, and others like them, I was absolutely the bad guy. What I did was wrong, against the rules, from the very beginning! Why would I even think about doing such a thing? Maybe because I saw past what was apparent on the surface. Maybe we had both been driven by the force of love before either of us had even realized it.
In the end, despite Karen not being Catholic, we did get married, almost three years after that kiss from nowhere. Whatever it was that drew us toward each other with so much force was in fact real and had driven us forward. The greatest possibility came to fruition and we are still married more than thirty-five years later. We produced and raised two children, who are now adults themselves. They would not exist today had I not done the wrong thing so many years ago. I know ours was not exactly a storybook marriage by any stretch of the imagination, but it has been beautiful nonetheless.
But please know this: What we have today was never a sure thing at face value. It was only a sure thing in the realm of possibilities. It is also the product of some wrongdoing. But despite all this, had we not done what we did, there would be no story to tell, no thirty-five-year marriage, and no two grownup kids.
Some theologians profess that God permits evil in this world in order to bring about a greater good. All I can say in this regard is that not everything is as it appears to be. Am I the bad guy? According to some, yes. Would I do it again? Yes. Everything that happened was supposed to happen. This I believe to be true.
Sometimes when the spirit moves us with such force, we’ve just got to go with it.
Ever since my son began riding his own motorcycle, he and I have kept up a tradition of taking our bikes out on Thanksgiving Day, as long as there was no snow, ice, or heavy residual road salt on the pavement. On really cold days, we would take a really short ride. On warmer days, we would take a longer ride. And we would always capture the moment with a photograph or video. This past weekend was no exception. With temps in the mid-to upper forties, it wasn’t exactly warm, but we did manage a halfway decent romp through the outskirts of town.
Mother Nature smiled upon me as the weekend rolled on and with temps at or near fifty on Saturday, I decided to take a solo run to Palos Park, home of The Original Plush Horse ice cream parlor, where a riding acquaintance of mine would be stopping with his wife and a few friends in honor of his birthday — and to try the parlor’s seasonal “Grinch” ice cream flavor. I had tried to get my son to come along, but he assists in teaching Taekwondo most Saturdays and could not make it back in time to make this run.
Well, it turns out I was the only person who arrived by motorcycle. That wasn’t such a bad thing, as there were plenty of other rider to wave at on my way from Plainfield to Palos and once there, we enjoyed a very pleasant gathering. I think the Grinch ice cream got mixed reviews — don’t look at me, I ordered the butter pecan and was not disappointed — but in general the Plush Horse makes very good ice cream and I do not hesitate to recommend this place to anybody. Do be aware that with current COVID restrictions, they are doing curbside pickup only. We phoned in our orders from outside and ate our treats in a socially distanced fashion, even donning our masks when interacting with the staff, who were all top-shelf, as usual.
It had been a long time since I’d stopped to visit with my parents and a few other assorted relatives at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery & Mausoleum in Alsip, not far from either that ice cream stop I’d just made or my boyhood home of Blue Island. So with what daylight I had left that bright, sunny Saturday, I rode over for a quick visit.
For those of you who don’t understand the point of cemetery visits, I’m afraid I’m not going to be much help. I am compelled to go out of respect for the deceased, yet I would be hard-pressed to explain what I get out of the experience, which is almost always a little anticlimactic. The spirits of the deceased never come out to greet me or thank me for stopping by, yet there is definitely a spiritual element to the experience. In any case, it’s something I do.
Then came Sunday, the final day of my holiday weekend. Although temps continued to hover in the forties, the forecast screamed, “Not for long!” So I did the right thing while Mother Nature was still playing nice and made a gas run. But first I stopped at the future home of Tazza Coffee Company in Joliet, where my son has been helping with the interior build out. I was able to see my son’s handiwork and visit briefly with the proprietor before leaving them to continue their work. The build out is coming along nicely and I look forward to enjoying the first of many cups of coffee when they open, probably in the spring of 2021.
Eventually, I came to the purpose of my outing, a final gas stop, possibly my last of the year, although I am never certain because even after winter preps, Miss Scarlett stands ever ready to make a winter run, if the opportunity presents itself and conditions warrant it.
As I bang out the last of this recap, evening temps have dropped into the thirties and the wind is whipping out there, signaling to me that the fun is over, at least for now. My trusty mount stands still in the garage, her tank filled to the brim with stabilized fuel and her battery connected to a smart charger that will monitor and respond to its needs.
Is this the end of my riding season? I can’t say for certain but have made all the necessary preparations if that should be the case. Meanwhile my mind stretches forward to next season and all the adventures that surely await.
Happy holidays and as always, thanks for hanging with me.
I was surprised when my phone dinged one Friday evening in late September, alerting me to an unexpected text from my friend Mark.
“You riding tomorrow?”
“I don’t have a plan… Whatchagot?”
“Nothing except looks to be an exceptional day to ride.”
Mark and I are both seasoned motorcyclists who appreciate how quickly the riding season can conclude as the fall season progresses toward winter. We texted back and forth a few times, sharing possibilities, and then decided to meet up near my home for a familiar run down old Route 66.
Technically, the Mother Road began at the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Me, I’ve always picked it up from Joliet and turned around in Pontiac. It’s a nice little day ride for motorcyclists. I’ve written about various aspects of this little stretch of the Mother Road before and for the sake of not being redundant, I strive to share some different angles each time. Please, enjoy the ride…
After meeting up with Mark and part of his family near my home in Plainfield, we picked up old Route 66 in the city of Joliet, as part of modern day Illinois Highway 53. As we rode out of Joliet and south toward Elwood, I thought about my mother-and-father-in-law, who drove out to California via Route 66 on their honeymoon, back in the late 1940’s. While on their trip, Jack (my father-in-law) shot some footage using an 8mm move camera that he had. Some years ago, as a gift, my wife and I had the films transferred onto VHS tapes, the modern technology of the day. I enjoyed watching all that footage and listening to my in-laws tell stories about their trip. That experience is what sparked my genuine interest in the Mother Road. Prior to that, Route 66 was just the name of a TV show from the 1960’s when I was growing up.
The first time I ever ran this part of Route 66 was via motorcycle, following a gentleman named Jim, who had ridden the entirety of the Mother Road on an organized tour. Jim took great pleasure in sharing this local portion of Route 66, from Joliet to Pontiac. He frequently included a stop at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, to which he referred as his future home. We briefly rolled through the cemetery on this run, but did not stop and took no photographs. I will say it’s a solemn site to behold.
Where we did begin taking photos was in the town of Gardner, which is home to two structures of historic significance. One is a two-celled jailhouse that was built in 1906 and used until the 1930’s. The other is a streetcar-style diner that has been preserved and donated to the town. I had been to the jail once before but for some reason hadn’t walked over to look at the diner. Both structures are worth stopping to see.
We also stopped at a restored Standard Oil station outside of Odell. This is a must-see for anyone into historic filling station architecture. I should also point out that there is another significant gas station in Dwight. Although that one isn’t as architecturally interesting as this Standard station, it holds its own place as the last operating Texaco station on Route 66.
There is another interesting stretch during which you will see segments of an older road running parallel to the current two-lane blacktop. That’s the original Mother Road and there is at least one spot where you can legally pull onto a piece of it and take photos. There is an old barn off in the distance with a Meramec Caverns ad painted on the side of it. We didn’t stop this time but it’s there and you’ll see it.
I frequently conclude my excursions on this portion of the Mother Road at the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame & Museum in Pontiac. It’s worth stopping for, if you’re at all into this sort of thing. With two floors of exhibits inside and a few goodies outside as well. Check out the VW bus as well as the hippie land yacht that once belonged to the late artist Bob Waldmire. Or the 1960’s radio station replica. Or the 1940’s home display. I just eat this stuff up every time I go there.
It’s not that there isn’t more to see further downstate — or across the rest of the USA to California, for that matter. I’ve seen other bits of historic Route 66, including an excellent museum down in Lebanon, MO. But the stretch of it that I’ve described here is my little bit of old Route 66.
Before heading back toward home, my friends and I walked over to the square in downtown Pontiac for a bite of lunch at the Acres Inn. Although the dining room was closed due to pandemic precautions, they did offer curbside ordering and outdoor seating. For a relatively small café and beer bar, Acres Inn offers a nice variety of items on their menu. I thoroughly enjoyed my smashed double cheeseburger, accompanied by house-made potato chips — I’m a sucker for homemade chips — and washed down with a lovely craft lager.
The sun was shining and there was much laughter in the air as we enjoyed our meal together. After that, we walked back to the bikes, rolled out toward Interstate 55, and headed for home. Before the rest of my group peeled off, a couple of exits before mine, I immersed myself in the sensations of riding the open road on a sunny and warm afternoon realizing that Mark had been right all along. It really had been an exceptional day to ride.
The last time I took a solo motorcycle trip of any consequence was in 2013. Things happened that caused me to stop doing solo runs. The magazine for which I wrote about my two-wheeled experiences folded. I had started riding with a pillion companion and since I’m not a particularly good “alone” person, I decided I liked two-up touring better. Sometimes time got tight, sometimes money got tight, and for whatever other reasons, I had stopped even thinking about going off on solo runs.
As the Italians say, i tempi cambiano, which literally translates to the times change. Sometime last fall, my pillion companion went away and within months, a global pandemic ensured that nobody of sound mind would be socializing much for a while. Fortunately for me, the industry in which I work was deemed essential by the state of Illinois, so I never had to stop earning my living. Others have not been so fortunate. Still, socializing, on or off my motorcycle, wasn’t gonna happen. I even took up social drinking online. That took a little getting used to but then so does everything when it comes to change. Oh, things have loosened up some but still, every organized event that I usually attend during the spring and summer months, was cancelled this year. I had taken a few day rides, with my motorcyclist son and/or with friends, but that was the extent of it… until last week.
My son works for a Chicago-based design, fabrication, and print firm called Redbox Workshop, which produces exhibits and environments for a variety of applications across the United States and around the world. He is currently managing a build out in Kansas City and is living and working out there pretty much through the months of August and September. Before he left, we had toyed around with the idea of me riding out to visit him and once he was out there, I decided to have a go at it. After seven years, it was high time for me to get on my bike, alone, and just leave everything behind, if only for a few days.
I was looking at five days, every one of them with daytime temps reaching the upper 90’s and not a drop of rain in the forecast. What could go wrong? As long as I stayed hydrated on the inside and lathered up with sunscreen on the outside, neither of which I was known for doing, I should be fine. So on the bright and sunny morning of Friday, August 21, I set out on Miss Scarlett, my trusty American-made full dresser touring bike. From my home in Plainfield, I ran down Interstate 55, a thoroughly unremarkable (other than the fact that it replaced a portion of historic U.S. 66) stretch of four-and-six-lane divided highway adorned with potholes and deteriorated lane seams. When I got to Springfield, I hung a right onto Interstate 72 and headed toward my intended mid-point lunch break in Hannibal, MO.
Ah, Hannibal! When I was younger, I had a crazy, single aunt who used to throw my sisters and me into the back of her station wagon and take us to all sorts of interesting places across most of the contiguous 48 United States and a good number of Canadian provinces, too. She introduced me to Hannibal, the boyhood home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to most by his pen name Mark Twain. To be honest, my first visit to Hannibal was interesting enough but hadn’t meant much to me. As the years progressed, though, I came to recognize Sam Clemens as an influence on my own writing. I have visited Hannibal many times over the past few decades, plus Florida, Missouri, where Sam was born, Hartford, Connecticut, where Sam built quite a showplace of a home for him and his family to live, and Elmira, New York, where the Clemens family kept a summer home and where they are buried. So you see, stopping in Hannibal that Friday meant more to me than just a lunch stop.
After a quick walk around, I decided to stop at a pleasant-looking storefront diner downtown called Greater Days. I was looking for a nice place to grab a good burger and I wasn’t disappointed. Greater Days is not a fancy joint, not a bar, just a nice little diner run by two very nice people. The decor runs along the sort of thing one might find in any small town America gift shop. Okay, maybe a small town America Christian gift shop, but not overstated in any way, shape, or form. The owners are delightful, a “seasoned” couple originally from Illinois. I found this out because the chef and I compared notes when he stopped by my table to greet me. My lunch, a blue cheese bacon burger on a homemade bun with a side of seasoned, cubed potatoes, was freshly prepared and quite tasty. I was delighted and I said as much before heading out on my way back to my bike.
Right next door to Greater Days is a shop to which I have been two or three times before, Native American Trading Co. If you are into Native American arts, crafts, gifts and goods, you might enjoy stopping here. I always do. The people at this shop are very pleasant and they have an extensive selection of merchandise with something for almost every budget.
I did not linger in Hannibal, although I wanted to. Everybody I saw in town seemed to be enjoying the day and some of the street-side pub patios looked very inviting. Still, I had another 230 miles ahead of me before I could stop for the day and it wasn’t getting any cooler out. In hindsight, this would have been an awesome time to reapply sunblock.
As I rode across the state of Missouri on U.S. 36, I found myself wishing I’d had my pillion photographer with me. Between the wooded areas, ridges, bluffs, and rolling farmland, America was all around me. How I wish I had photos of all that to share with you! Every so often, the air would become filled with a new scent. Newly mown grass. Dense woods. A fresh breeze off a small lake. A naturally fertilized cow pasture. As I surveyed the countryside, mile after mile, I thought about the people I’d seen and spoken with so far that day. That’s when it really hit home for me: One cannot truly experience America by scrolling on their electronic devices.
I pulled into my hotel in Overland Park right around supper time, hot, sweaty, a bit sore, and more than a little fatigued, both mentally and physically. I wasn’t used to long runs anymore. Still, I was happy to be alive. Thanks to modern technology driven by a global pandemic, my check-in process was done completely without human contact. Using my Hilton Honors App, I was able to check in a day in advance, enable my phone as my room key, chat with the front desk and eventually, check out. The app was ultra simple and easy to use, and I understand why they developed all these contactless features, yet I have real concerns about the long-term implications for hospitality workers who make their living by interacting with travelers. In all candor, I appreciate that human touch more than I do whiz-bang technological functionality.
My son drove out to pick me up and take me into the city for supper. We went to a delightful Creole place called Jazz Kitchen, where John proceeded to ensure that I would be overfed almost to the point of being in pain. We started with hurricanes and voodoo crawfish tails, then moved on to our main dishes (I had a blackened chicken fettuccine alfredo that was so tasty, I simply could not stop eating it), and finished up with bread pudding plus a plate of beignets, compliments of Toffee, our awesome server who is also a fan of my son. I loved every minute of it.
On Saturday, my son came back and picked me up in time for lunch, along with his roommate and another co-worker. I had told him that I wanted a hamburger from someplace I couldn’t find by staying home. My son did not disappoint. Hayes Hamburgers and Chili is a small place with a big following. Open only for curbside pickup, due to the pandemic situation, they accept no credit cards. We phoned in our order ponied up cash for all the food, and then went across the street, through an apartment complex, and into a municipal park where we sat down outside of a small baseball field and ate out fill. A nice little taste of America — and it was delicious.
We spent all of Saturday afternoon at the National WWI Museum and Memorial following a recommendation from a very good friend of John and me. We were expecting a nice, little collection of exhibits and artifacts. Instead we were overwhelmed by what turned out to be the most comprehensive collection of WWI objects in the world. We viewed exhibits, spoke with volunteers, learned much, and appreciated all of it. We remained through five o’clock, closing time, and had to depart without visiting the gift shop. No worries, we were back the next morning to collect up our mementos and souvenirs. This museum and memorial is a must-see for any war history buff. It’s the sort of place one must experience in order to understand.
After dropping off John’s coworkers Saturday evening, he and I decided that we weren’t hungry enough to eat another full meal. So instead, we went to a place not far from my hotel called Louie’s Wine Dive and Kitchen, where we enjoyed a couple of “small plate” appetizers, drank a fair amount of red wine, and philosophized into the night. Louie’s is a nice enough place but the tab we ran up for one wine flight, one bottle of Zinfandel, and two appetizers was more than I have paid for some good dinners and drinks elsewhere. Still, we enjoyed ourselves immensely.
Sunday was my last day in the Kansas City area and my last day visiting with my son John. That morning, after John scooped me up in Overland Park and then joined up with three of his coworkers, we descended upon the WWI Museum store, as planned, before going over to the original Q39 Kansas City BBQ Restaurant in midtown. The food was extraordinarily good, with a very pleasant beer selection to pair with it. On a more personal note, I really enjoyed hanging with these young gentlemen for a while. By including me in their conversations about food, drink, work, people, music, and more, they made me feel younger again. You know, like one of them. That was very cool.
This may sound a little nuts but my wife Karen had urged John and me to go find Kansas City’s Central Library Parking Garage. Why? Because of the Community Bookshelf that adorns the south wall of said parking structure. It’s a thing to behold that looks like a giant bookshelf of popular titles. My photos don’t really do the place justice.
As we were looking for a place to park John’s truck in the Library District, we spotted a bronze likeness of Mark Twain sitting on a park bench. My son immediately suggested that given my affinity for the author, we should go capture a quick meetup between Sam Clemens and myself after first shooting the community bookshelf. And so we did.
Alas, by suppertime, we were still so full of barbecue, we opted to skip supper altogether. John dropped me off at my hotel and thus ended our weekend visit. He had to go to work in the morning and I needed to head on to my next stop. Still, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t felt the familiar pangs of loneliness creeping in that Sunday evening.
By now you might be wondering why I chose to stay in Overland Park when my son and his compadres were being housed on the Missouri side of Kansas City proper and nearly all that we saw and did were on that side. Well, I’ll tell you. While I have ridden my motorcycle in the state of Missouri a number of times now, I had not previously ridden in the state of Kansas. Now I have. Besides, I knew Overland Park to be one of the nicer suburbs of the KC metro and on top of all that, I found an excellent value in the hotel in which I stayed.
I awoke on Monday morning as I often do, with a sense of purpose. The day had promised to be as hot and humid as ever and I was about to cross Missouri again, but not to go home, not just yet. I had a personal mission to fulfill, one that I had put off long enough. But first, I had to get out of the Kansas City metro. And before doing that, I had to have breakfast.
It was not lost on me that Missouri has something wonderful that Illinois utterly lacks: Waffle House locations. Don’t judge. I love Waffle House, at least in part because it’s something I don’t have at home. In fact, I hope they never come to (northern) Illinois because then they wouldn’t be special to me. Like so many others that have come to town from elsewhere, they might then become just another chain.
But there I was, in Waffle House country. There are fifteen Waffle House locations in and around Kansas City and I hit the jackpot at their Lee’s Summit location. Friendliest staff I could ask for, they all seemed to be having a grand old time greeting people, serving up breakfast after breakfast, and otherwise just working their butts off. I sat down at the counter, which had been marked off so that only every other stool was available, and ordered my usual — a pecan waffle, large bacon, and black coffee — along with a big old orange juice to help soothe my sinuses, which had been a little quirky lately. Through a minor mishap on the grill, the crew had ended up with one too many orders of sausage patties and after first offering them to an elderly farmer-type gentleman two stools to my left, my waitress called out to me from up the counter, “How about you, sir, would you like an order of sausage for free?” Now I ask you, what else could I say to such generosity?
“Sure!” And so there I was, chowing down on my usual, plus OJ, plus two nicely prepared sausage patties. But wait, there’s more! Upon finishing, I remasked myself and stepped over to the register to pay my tab. A young, equally masked lady stepped up to the register to assist me and motioning out the window with her head as she worked the register, she asked me, “Is that your motorcycle?”
“Wanna’ come back after work and give me a ride on it?” Who knows, maybe it was be kind to old guys day. I had to smile, even if nobody could see it through my respiratory barrier.
“I would love to, but I’ll be back in Illinois by then,” I replied.
“You riding that all the way?” She seemed incredulous but I had neither the heart nor the time to tell this sweet child just how far Miss Scarlett and I have roamed together, so I just nodded and laughed as I paid my tab. We were all wishing each other well as I left, quite happy and well-fed.
Man, it was hot out there! I spent most of that Monday running Interstate 70 toward St. Louis and no matter how hard I tried to stay sunblocked and hydrated, it felt like a losing battle. I drank water at every stop, but released most of it through my pores out on the open road. Reapplying sunblock actually stung my skin every time. But wait, there’s more! About halfway across the state, I became aware of an intense burning sensation on my calves, mainly the right one, which was closest to the engine’s exhaust. After a while, this escalated from annoying discomfort to searing pain.What could I do? I still had many miles to go. Repositioning my legs helped a little but a prior experience piloting Miss Scarlett across Wyoming in a severe crosswind told me that the damage had already been done. I rode on.
I circumvented St. Louis and once on the Illinois side, left the interstates behind for Illinois 3, a nice ribbon of mainly two-lane blacktop that took me farther and farther south. Eventually I came to Illinois 149, which would take me east to Murphysboro, where via highway 13, I continued on to Carbondale, where I would spend my final night on this road trip. These state roads were beautiful motorcycle roads, with easy sweeping curves and pleasant elevation changes, but I was too fatigued to fully appreciate them. Perhaps someday I will return.
I’ll spare you the graphic details but once settled in for the night, I confirmed that I had incurred a substantial second-degree burn to my right calf, a burn from which I am still slowly and painfully recovering as I write this, more than a week later. But let’s talk about Tuesday morning and the reason I’d taken this odd detour to southern Illinois from Kansas City.
I was eighteen year old when I first saw Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows perform. I was a college freshman and the band had been scheduled to play a Friday afternoon “Grill Concert” at Marquette University’s Brooks Memorial Union, which has long since been torn down. I was a regular at those free Friday afternoon concerts but had never heard of this band before. That quickly changed.
At the appointed time, the band came out on the stage and began to play. There was a guitarist, a bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and a two-or-three-piece horns section (I would later discover that some parts of the band evolved over time). Their sound was decidedly R&B with a touch of jazz and this band was tight, very precise in their playing.
After the band’s instrumental opening set, the front man walked out. Big Twist had a certain presence that filled the room — and I’m not just talking about his physical stature. Admittedly, they didn’t call him big for nothing. This guy was tall and… large. He wore a light-colored fedora hat and a silky suit. When he began to sing, his baritone voice complemented that band in ways I will not even attempt to describe. That was Big Twist.
After the concert, deep into my cups but so taken with the music I’d heard, I walked a dozen or so blocks to Radio Doctors, the premier record store of the day in downtown Milwaukee. Sure enough, they had an LP record album by Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows, their first ever, on the independent Flying Fish label. I took the record back to my dorm and played it over and over.
A year later, Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows came to my school to perform again. This time I was expressly there to see them play. I got there early and while the crew was still setting up, Big Twist walked out onto the floor and stood near one corner in front of the stage. People began going up and talking to him. I asked a friend to watch my beer as I did likewise. When my turn came, I extended my hand up and out, saying, “I saw you here last year and I just wanna’ say, I really enjoy your music.”
Twist looked down at me and gave me a warm, sincere smile. Then reaching down and closing a big, meaty fist over my hand (which isn’t small), he said just one word: “Alright!” That made my entire afternoon.
Over the years that followed, I saw the band perform numerous times, up in Milwaukee and at clubs down by my Chicagoland home. I introduced a number of friends, both from school and back home, to the music of Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows by dragging them to the concerts. In my own small way, I had become an evangelist for the band and made a few converts in the process.
It was my mother who broke the news to me of Larry “Big Twist” Nolan’s passing on March 14, 1990. I was not quite 29 years old at the time; he was 52. Bear in mind, this was still a largely analog world. I had no internet access, no smart phone to provide the latest news in near-real time. My dear mother spent a good deal of time in the kitchen, preparing delicious meals and listening to talk radio as she did. That’s why she was the first in our family to know. She told me and the Chicago Tribune confirmed it on March 15. As I understood it, Larry Nolan had died of heart failure, having endured kidney dialysis for over two years. And like many musicians of the day, obtaining health insurance coverage was difficult, even for the number one draw on the nightclub circuit. All I remember is that I felt empty inside. How foolish are we to be repeatedly duped into believing that there will always be a next time?
Once the information age had come around, sooner or later I began looking for more information about Big Twist and where he had been buried. There was none to be found but every so many years, I would try again. The gravesite super site, findagrave.com, had nothing, at least not at the time. I contacted his last recording label, Alligator Records. Somebody there thought he’d been buried where he’d been born, in Terre Haute, Indiana. At some point, I tried emailing Pete Special, the band’s co-founder, director, and guitarist. No reply. Only recently, I discovered that Pete had died in 2014 and it’s entirely possible that I sent the email after that. I even asked my eldest sister Maria, a career librarian, to see what she could find. She conducted a right and proper search but still found no information about where Twist might be buried.
I let the matter go for a while but never forgot. Then a few years ago, perhaps with the sharing of some resurfaced video on social media, I lamented my failed attempts to find that burial place. Lo and behold, a Facebook friend named Lori, who has sewn many patches onto my motorcycle vest, responded with a link to the information I had been seeking for years. As it turns out, she had dated the band’s trumpet player at one time. I was elated, to say the least, and vowed to visit that grave, located in the southern Illinois town of Murphysboro. Perhaps during a future run to Memphis.
More years passed and still I hadn’t made that trip. Then last month, while planning my solo run to Kansas City, it occurred to me that if on my way back, I veered southeast instead of east, I wouldn’t be that far from Murphysboro. And so I planned my detour.
I used Google Maps to survey the Tower Grove Cemetery. It was bigger than I’d hoped it would be, with no apparent directory or contact information available. How would I find this grave? I reached out to a total stranger named Paul Hoyt, who had put Larry Nolan’s grave on FindAGrave back in 2013. Perhaps he would recall the location.
Well, he did more than that. On a Sunday evening, this total stranger and his wife returned to Tower Grove, located the grave, took additional photos, and made them available to me, along with the latitude and longitude coordinates. Then, as an additional gesture of kindness, Paul transferred the FindAGrave record over to me because he sensed I had a stronger connection to Larry Nolan than did he as a cemetery photographer hobbyist. I will forever remember this act of kindness.
When I left Carbondale on Tuesday morning, the day promised to be as hot and humid as ever. I took the twenty-minute ride to the cemetery and had to smile as I passed the sign that reads, “Murphysboro, Ripe With Possibilties!” My personal mantra for decades was been, “Imagine the possibilities,” and I took that colorful sign as an indication that this one possibility, which I had envisioned for three decades, was about to come to fruition.
The Tower Grove Cemetery can be found on Murphysboro Lake Road, just north of Illinois Highway 149, one of the roads I had taken to get to Carbondale the night before. I was a little concerned about riding Miss Scarlett down into the cemetery, the drives of which appeared to consist of narrow two-track (it turned out to be badly deteriorated asphalt), so I parked around the corner at Mi Patio, a local Mexican restaurant, and walked into the cemetery.
I found the marker easily, thanks to the information Paul had provided. I sat by the grave for a short while, contemplating all that had transpired in order for me to be there. Sweat was pouring from my face as I shot a quick video for my Facebook friends. Then, after turning and thanking Larry “Big Twist” Nolan for all the joy he’d brought me, I walked back to my motorcycle, mounted up, and headed for home.
Seven or so hours later, I arrived at home, once again hot, sore, burnt, and spent yet in my mind, I was was already reviewing and preparing all that I would share with you here. In all, I’d run just over 1,200 miles and even though I’d been gone for five days, Miss Scarlett and I had covered those miles in three of them (I did no riding while visiting in Kansas City), so roughly 400 miles per day.
If you are still reading this, I am grateful to you for having come along all this way. You are the reason I wrote this. Thanks for hanging with me.