Her Name Is Hazel — Here’s Why

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.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Yes I Am the Bad Guy

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.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Closing In

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.

Bits of 66

Part of a mural at the Rt 66 Museum in Pontiac

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.

Acres Inn on the square in Pontiac IL

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.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Barbecue, Blisters, and Blues (Oh, My)

Miss Scarlett, my 2012 Victory Vision Tour

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.

Kansas City, MO

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?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“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.

Big Twist and The Mellow Fellows performing The Sweet Sounds of Rhythm and Blues

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.

The Ride

My last post, My Apolitical Take on Masking, went over like a lead balloon with my readers. Okay, I get that. I’m neither a health and science writer nor a political writer, so that was a bit of a curveball. Fair enough.

These have been most unusual times for many of us, in so many ways. I have close friends who are not yet able to articulate their fears about what has been going on in their lives. I am sympathetic to them because I have things going on in my own life that I don’t talk about, either. Moreover, circumstances are such that I have a deal of free, solitary, discretionary time, during my evenings and weekends, that I assure you, I never wanted to have. But I have it. So I did what any writer would do… er. well, almost.

I’ve been taking a poetry class. Not so that I could begin spewing out love sonnets — although that would be something — but because I wanted to push my boundaries further with regard to the way I use words to convey not just thoughts and ideas but also emotions and sensory experiences. Poetry.

The course I’m taking recently had a session on metaphor and included a writing prompt on crafting a conceit, where the entire poem becomes an extended metaphor. My readers can breathe easy because I didn’t write a poem about masking. No, I wrote something I called The Ride. It did okay in peer review, so I thought I’d share it here.

The Ride

My Apolitical Take on Masking

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On the evening of Friday, March 13, 2020, I drove to Berwyn, Illinois to meet up with a friend of mine. We started with supper at Capri Ristorante on Roosevelt Road and then walked next door to Fitzgerald’s to catch an awesome performance by Chicago bluesman Toronzo Cannon. On that day, fourteen new cases of the novel coronavirus called COVID-19 were reported in Illinois, bringing the statewide total to 46. Nobody outside of the healthcare field was masking in public yet, although I’m sure some people had already stopped doing things like going out for dinner and attending night club concerts.

On that day, Governor J.B. Pritzker had announced statewide short-term school and casino closures through March 30. More telling was an announcement that day by the Archdiocese of Chicago that public masses would cease beginning March 14. The thought had crossed my mind that the show might get canceled in view of developing circumstances but Fitzgerald’s stayed open and I was there. The only thing out of the ordinary that I observed, other than there possibly being a smaller crowd than usual (but not small), was the presence of a hand sanitizer station just inside the front door. The show was great and as far as I know, I didn’t get sick from having gone.

Of course we all know that things only escalated from there. The number of confirmed cases rose, deaths began to occur, short-term closures became long-term closures, and were expanded to include more businesses, institutions, and gatherings. By May 1, we had a statewide mask mandate but a number of communities had already put requirements in place by then. Throughout all this came the rise of individualistic rants against forced shut-downs and mandates of any kind, including masking. Somewhere along the line, a minority of the population began to mix politics into the pandemic health crisis. I guess that was inevitable, given the already toxic political culture in which the US finds itself, but I still find it pathetic.

IMG_8484I wish I could find the words to express how much I have come to detest politics, especially party politics. I identify as neither Democrat nor Republican. Can’t get far enough away from either. I think the current Republican president has substantial character flaws. On the other hand, I voted against his Democrat predecessor. Twice. I see the upcoming presidential election pretty much the same way I have viewed the last three: a case of two poor choices who are there not on any absolute merit of their own but by virtue of their perceived chances of beating the opponent. This time around we began with a field of many and if all plays out as well-planned by the two pathetic parties, it will all come down to a choice between two geriatric white guys — dumb and dumber. I hope I have made my political stance clear. Now let’s talk about masking, which is not and should not be political at all.

When it became apparent to me that I would have to wear some sort of face covering to do things like go grocery shopping, I took one look at the mask shortage of the time, as well as the exorbitant prices being charged by anybody who had some to sell, and IMG_8487_Momentimmediately went to my drawerful of biker bandannas. I discovered that I could tie one of these on bandito style and with a simple bit of folding, have four layers of cotton fabric covering my nose and mouth. Sure, there was a little bit of a struggle to keep it in place, especially if I turned my head to look at something on a store shelf, but I got the hang of it after a while. I even conditioned myself not to be so hyperaware of my breathing while wearing a mask. That took a little effort because at first, it was all but impossible for me to breathe normally while wearing the darned thing. What I found harder to deal with was talking to people — or to be more accurate, listening to them. I have a form of hearing impairment that makes speech recognition challenging and I have come to compensate for that by reading lips. That’s difficult to do when everybody has their mouth covered. But again, I have adapted and life goes on.

IMG_8549My work life never stopped because the industry in which I work was deemed essential by the state. We have followed CDC and state guidelines to the best of our abilities, prohibiting face-to-face visits, both inbound and outbound, permitting remote working when and where feasible, and enforcing a variety of hygiene best practices. I have only worked remotely on a few occasions and even held a few virtual social hours on Friday evenings. But for the most part, I chose to be with the rest of my office team and also to set an example.IMG_9013 I am a vice president at a company that employs people to work outdoors in order to provide our essential services. They are required to wear a variety of PPE, including masks when and where required according to state guidelines. In my heart, it just wouldn’t feel right for them to have to be out there, potentially exposed to the virus, while I stayed hidden in my house. We have daily cleaning routines, promote frequent handwashing, and even imported our own hand sanitizer when it was still difficult to obtain. Still, we never mandated mask use in the office and very few people have ever worn one there. We are prepared to strengthen or ease up on our in-office practices as the situation continues to evolve but to date, we have not yet had an employee out with COVID-19 symptoms.

IMG_9260At first it seemed like the COVID curve had begun to flatten but then things began to go the other way. Thanks to a variety of variables, some of which may have been preventable, the pandemic threat appears to be far from over. Misinformation abounds, the finger-pointing never stops, and people continue to die. From all appearances, the need to protect ourselves from this virus is going to continue for a while. Here in Illinois, it hasn’t been as bad as in some other states. More businesses have reopened, with restrictions and precautions in place. IMG_9261While my bandanna seemed fine for the occasional jaunt to the grocery store or gas station convenience mart, I didn’t think it would work so well at my local gym, which has reopened. Besides, all my friends and family members were already using disposable or reusable masks, usually the latter, so I decided to step up without making a huge investment. The option I went with is a mask made by Hanes — that’s right, the underwear people. The product appears to be made out of cotton tee shirt fabric and features three layers of fabric and nonelastic ear loops. They are washable, up to ten times, per the package label, and are sold in packs of ten for $20. For me they work just fine but I couldn’t live with the ear loops so I use a couple of split key rings and an elastic hair loop to convert my mask for behind-the-neck fitment. This set-up works for me.

A few thoughts about masking while doing physical work. Me, I come from a long line of sweaters on my mother’s side. I’ll swear I could break into a sweat just by looking hard at something. Put me on an elliptical trainer or rowing machine and don’t be surprised if it appears to be raining all around me. Now slap three layers of cotton fabric across my IMG_9472mouth and nose… yeah, it gets pretty damp pretty quick. But it still allows enough airflow through the layers so that I don’t feel like I’m being waterboarded.

Another interesting point: The gym I go to requires its staff to wear masks but not its members. This seems odd to me in view of all the other precautions they have in place. Every other cardio machine is taped off, as are the water fountains. Gallons of hand sanitizer are placed throughout the facility, along with bottles of purple disinfectant and rolls of brown paper toweling for wiping down the machines before and after use. Plexiglass shields are set up all along the front counter and the gym is cashless. Yet members don’t have to mask up. I do, my choice. Some others do as well. Most do not. Again, it’s not required. Nobody gives me shit for wearing one and I don’t give anyone shit for not wearing one. I am fairly sure, though, that each of us thinks the other looks goofy by their respective choice.

My dentist office opened up last month. You want to talk about potential exposure to a respiratory virus believed to be largely spread via the droplets they travel on? This profession has it if any does. My last appointment got canceled back in April, when the dental office shut down to all but emergency work. I had no clue how long of a wait I was in for to get back into my six-month routine but I got lucky last week. See, I had put in for some time off well in advance in order to take an annual bike trip with a loved one. IMG_9415That trip didn’t happen and I was plenty down about that but lo and behold, my dentist had a last-minute cancellation and they called me to ask if I could come in. A blessing in disguise? Hey, I stopped believing in accidents years ago.

It’s not like it used to be. I got prescreened the day before. Then per instructions, I phoned from my car when I arrived. Shilpa, my hygienist for the day, was ready for me so I was invited to come in. The empty waiting room only had a few chairs in it, well spaced out, and there was not a magazine in sight. I think those are a thing of the past. Per instructions, I wore my mask into and out of the “op”. PPE-wise, the staff has been wearing masks, gloves, and eye shields for as long as I’ve been going there (now 30+ years). The only difference I saw this time was that Shilpa donned a full face shield instead of the little glasses. Otherwise it was business as usual.

IMG_9258In the end, I’ll gladly don a mask when asked to do so or when I deem it necessary. I’ll also gladly leave it off if it’s not a requirement and  I deem it unnecessary. In both cases, I’m not having a cow over the matter but in both cases I am being a law-abiding grownup. I am also very fond of the businesses I choose to support. If all I have to do to keep them open is put on a mask and/or observe distancing guidance, I got no problem with that. All the more so if that’s all I have to do to help keep my fellow man/woman alive and healthy. To me it just makes sense.

IMG_9488One last thought… Despite appearances fed to us by the media, there really isn’t a political argument to be made for either masking or resisting masking. I have a number of ultra-conservative friends who are also immunocompromised and will absolutely tear into anyone who is “too stupid to put a mask on.” They don’t see a political issue; they see a life-and-death issue. I also have a number of ultra-progressive friends who are relatively easygoing about masking up. It’s probably not so much that they don’t care as they aren’t Pharisees. Of course the bigger question that some of you may be asking right now is, how can people on both extremes, political and otherwise, all be friends of mine and true friends at that? Easy. That’s not how I choose my true friends.

Thanks for hanging with me.

Something Worth Doing

 

As I indicated I would do last week (see For the Love of Poopy’s), I met up with a couple of friends last Saturday morning and rode out to Poopy’s in Savanna,  This post is going to be short on pictures and videos because (a) the only pillion photographer who matters was not on board to take the road shots, which I only wish I could share with you and (b) it never strikes me to take advantage of some photo ops when they arise. But in lieu of excellent visuals, I will share my story, if only because it seems to be worth telling.

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The two gents I rode with are experienced riders whom I got to know from two different facets of my life on two wheels. “Johnny B” is a retired music teacher who lives in the next town over from mine but whom I met as a regular attendee of the Midwest Motorcycle Rally, which is held hundreds of miles from our respective homes. Still, I’m glad we met. John has a knack for knowing which roads to take and where the good food is to be had. this is something that comes from experience. He may not be one to smile and pose for the camera but John is an asset to any riding group and has helped me out on more than one occasion.

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Mark and I go back, not only in terms of years but also in terms of our previous lives. He was a motorcycle mechanic — and a darned good one — at Fox Valley Cycles, the best Honda motorcycle dealership in west suburban Chicagoland and also the sponsor of the Illini Free Spirit Riders, of which I was once president. Mark and I have both moved on since then but have somehow managed to remain friends for the decade-plus that has since followed.

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We met up at a gas station, where I introduced my two friends to each other, and then headed out on US Highway 30, aka the Lincoln Highway, toward the Mississippi River and Savanna, home of Poopy’s Pub and Grub. Skies were sunny and the temperature was seventyish, with just the slightest cool breeze.

Folks, this was the first ride of any real distance I have taken this year. I could get into why but that would detract from the real story here. Just know that I went, that I needed to go, and that it was wonderful. There’s just something about being out on the road with friends. I can’t begin to tell you how quickly my day-to-day concerns faded away as I motored on, cool breeze in my face, iTunes blasting out on my sound system. As I am known to do, I greeted all the farm animals as I rode past..
“Hello, dairy cows!”
“Hi, horses!”
“Well hello there, beef cattle!”

There was this one point along US 30 where a group of turbines from an upcoming wind farm seemed to have been set up perfectly along our line of sight as we approached, the huge blades moving to some unheard symphony of flowing air mass. As much as I wish I could share photos or a video clip with you, I was equally glad nobody was there to hear me moments later when I’d caught my self singing along at the top of my lungs to whatever song had been blasting out on my stereo. I probably wasn’t singing in tune but what can I say, I’d been caught up in the moment.

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In what seemed like no time at all, we’d run the 115 miles or so to arrive at “Illinois’ Biggest Biker destination.” Interestingly enough, Poopy’s wasn’t all that crowded when we pulled in, right around the 11:00 hour, which made it easy for our merry trio to claim some prime seating along the main outdoor bar. Perched upon our padded toilet seat bar stools, we ate, drank, traded stories and people watched. It just felt so great to be alive!

 

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All the while, more and more bikes were pulling in, but the area never felt overcrowded, mainly because there is a lot of room outside (and even in) at Poopy’s. Nobody was wearing a mask but then again, nobody was in my face, either. I was okay with that.

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As we sat there chatting and admiring the young, beautiful bartenders who were working harder and harder to take care of everybody, I spotted Andy Pesek, who had organized the “Poopy’s COVID Relief” event, enjoying what looked like a fine cigar while seated at a card table that had been set up by one of the big garage doors, all of which had been opened on such a pleasant, sunny day. I walked over and introduced myself before dropping my donation envelope into the bucket on the table.

That’s pretty much it as far as the “event” goes. There was no big, formal parade, no raucus anti-tyranny rally, no political ranting of any kind that me and my half-deaf ears could pick up. What I did hear was plenty of laughter. I think most people understood why we were there — to enjoy the day and enjoy life while supporting a unique business that we had come to love and appreciate.

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One highpoint of my day occurred while I was walking across the premises and spotted a face that I had seen before, on the news as well as social media. He smiled as I look at him and so I felt compelled to ask, “Are you Poopy?”

His smile grew as he nodded at me, responding, “I’m Poopy.”

We chatted briefly and I thanked Mr. Promenschenkel for having shared my last blog post the week before. He seemed pleased to give me a moment of his time and came across as being quite genuine. Just as we were about to head our separate ways, I asked if we could get a quick photo. Poopy clapped an arm on my shoulder and exclaimed, “Sure, let’s do it!” The resulting selfie came out a little blurred but mere words can’t express how much I appreciated our chance meeting.

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All the while, more and more bikes rolled in. We departed well before mid-afternoon. Part of me wanted to stay and check out the live music, maybe see if the bikini pool bar next to the stage area would liven up, but a larger part of me wanted to ride home sober. And that’s what we did.

My only regret? I did not reapply sunblock before making the return trip. My face, neck, and especially my arms got a little burned but not so bad. I think John, Mark and I had a nice day together. Things being as they are, I’m just not sure what the rest of this riding season holds for me but if I can get even a few more rides in like this one, I will be so grateful.

Thanks for hanging with me.

For the Love of Poopy’s

Located on Illinois Route 84 near the southern edge of the city of Savanna, Poopy’s bills itself as “Illinois’ Biggest Biker Destination” and for good reason. The place is huge. The place is fun. And the place has earned its reputation as a worthy venue for motorcyclists to visit for food, beverages, and a wide variety of entertainment. Its owner, Kevin Promenschenkel, earned the nickname “Poopy” at a young age when a wayward bird let him have it, twice, during a Little League baseball game. The name stuck and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Well it seems history is being made again. Promenschenkel has been busy doing everything in his power to keep his business afloat during these trying times, including participating in a lawsuit against the state, asking his loyal customers to support him by ordering Poopy’s merchandise online, and most recently, opening the venue for Memorial Day weekend — a major weekend for his business, filled with events and entertainment. This was a violation of our governor’s current stay-at-home order, but with the support of county and local authorities, not to mention many loyal bikers who came from miles around, Poopy’s did indeed open. In addition to all this, a motorcycle fundraising run has been organized to provide direct relief to Poopy in this time of need.  I intend to participate in that fundraiser, assuming Mother Nature cooperates and I have people willing to ride out to Savanna with me. I am doing this not because I have excess cash to give away but because I have a great deal of respect for Kevin Promenschenkel, am sympathetic to his situation, and feel compelled to help him out in this small way.

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I’ve been stopping at Poopy’s since September of 2011. That’s the year my son went away to college in the Quad Cities area. A week or two after he left, I found myself missing the kid something awful and so decided to pay him a visit. My ride at the time was a silver metallic 2007 Honda ST1300, a sport touring rig that made short work of my 130-ish mile run out to the Mississippi River. After picking up my son, I asked if he had any interest in checking out this “Poopy’s” place that we’d heard others talk about. At the time, he wasn’t yet old enough to have anything stronger than a coke but the allure of visiting a real biker bar must have pressed his button that day. “Sure!” my son exclaimed and within minutes, he was onboard and we were headed north toward Savanna.

I should pause here and mention that Poopy’s is anything but a typical biker bar. Poopy’s is a destination, an experience unto itself. Sure, it has a bar — several, in fact — plus a restaurant featuring numerous namesake-themed items (e.g. “The Big Poop”), a gift shop, a parts counter, and more. They even had a tattoo parlor on the premises back when I first began going there. The outdoor portion of Poopy’s includes a sizable entertainment stage with overhead catwalk, a pool bar, even a campground. They host vehicle shows, combat sports events, and many, many concerts. As I said, Poopy’s is an experience unto itself and I have developed a deep sense of appreciation for this venue — and the man who built it — from the first time I set foot on the premises.

My son and I had ourselves a grand old time that day. Using my phone, our waitress took a great photo of us while we waited for our lunch. We walked the premises, admired the unique decor and ambiance, bought a few souvenirs, including my lucky Poopy’s bottle opener, and vowed to return.

And so we have returned a number of times. Not nearly often enough, because I don’t live nearby, but whenever the opportunity presents itself — and always with friends. I’ve made lunch stops, brunch stops, and “you just gotta’ come and check this place out” stops. And Poopy’s never disappoints.

My last trip there was a few years ago. My most favorite pillion companion in the world and I had ridden out to Iowa over Labor Day weekend to meet up with some friends from a few different states. During a wonderful all-day ride that we took, the group  had planned to visit Poopy’s for a mid-afternoon lunch. As we approached and entered the parking lot, my beloved friend rolled video, creating a very nice memento. We sat outside for quite some time, enjoying the live music, good food, and each other’s excellent company on that fine late-summer afternoon. Indeed, it’s been too long since I have enjoyed such a time at Poopy’s.

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And so on Saturday, June 6, 2020, I hope to join whatever companions I can assemble and ride west for the day. My motives have been questioned on several counts by different individuals. Without naming names, here are their questions and my answers.

  • Aren’t you afraid of getting sick… or worse?
    No. As the result of having worked in an essential service industry, I never stopped working during this pandemic. I have taken reasonable precautions, both at work and at home. And yes, I wear a bandanna face covering every time I go to the grocery store, pharmacy, etc. I will not likely go indoors on this trip and if I do, I’ll just don my bandanna. Also, as an avid motorcyclist, I am accustomed to tolerating a certain amount of risk. Believe me, it’s not that I don’t care whether I die. It’s that I dread not living during whatever time I have left on this earth.
  • But Poopy is a blatant Trump fan! Are you one, too???
    Does it matter? This is a fundraiser event for Poopy’s, not a political rally. Okay, here’s the plain truth: As an admitted member of the exhausted majority, I despise both the Democrat and Republican parties with a passion and in all candor, my opinion of “45” is less than glowing right now. But I am a real Poopy’s fan and therefore a fan of the man who has put so much of himself into that institution. Although I have never met Poopy in person, I like him and I suspect that if we drank together long enough, we would depart as friends. In short, I respect Kevin Promenschenkel and given that I, too, would not have been prepared to go more than a few weeks without an income stream, I am inclined to help him.
  • You’re just a badass biker with no respect for authority. I hope you get sick!
    Good day to you, too, ma’am! Yes, I am a biker. No, I am not. Okay, it depends on whom you ask and how that person defines the term. I am an avid motorcyclist and I have ridden across the country. My current ride is a 2012 Victory Vision Tour, a big-inch “full dresser” American V-twin, and I am no more loyal to any one motorcycle brand than I am to any political party. So there we are. If you fault me for riding a motorcycle, for respecting other riders regardless of what they ride, or for advocating for motorcyclist rights in general, then I am guilty as charged and your opinion does not move me.

In the end, I think it would be a dirty shame if Poopy’s were to disappear as the result of this horrific pandemic event and the shut-down of our economy — indeed of our society as we know it. I’m sure many businesses will not return as the result, through no fault of the independent owners themselves. So if I can help out one of them, this one in particular, by riding with friends for a few hundred miles on a Saturday and dropping some money in the till, I will gladly do so.

Whether you agree with me or not, I respect you for having read this far. And as always, thank you for hanging with me.

Now Don’t Get Mad

angry-2766265_640Many years ago, I worked with a guy named Gene. A genuine, likable man, Gene had been the warehouse manager at a Chicago-based business where I ran purchasing, customer service, and marketing (it was a smaller company at the time). Our job roles were such that we were each constantly orchestrating projects and processes that affected the other.

Over the course of fourteen years, Gene and I came to know each other very well and we got along famously, yet it was inevitable that from time to time, one of us would do something that displeased the other, to put it mildly. Between the two of us, Gene was much more even-tempered. He was older and more experienced than me, plus he had survived a bleeding ulcer that nearly killed him. As such, he had learned to keep a more even keel, no matter what happened in the course of our day-to-day business dealings.

Back then, and for decades that followed, I was not nearly so even-keeled. Whenever I got angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed, it showed. It showed at once. You would see it in my eyes, a silent flare of intense, negative energy. For whatever reason, I continued to let things get to me and in no time at all, I was the one munching antacids like candy. Gene picked up on this and in his own simple-yet-subtle way, helped me avoid earning an ulcer of my own. How?

After a while, without explaining why he was doing so, Gene would use a code phrase to alert me that I was about to receive potentially upsetting news. Before delivering the blow, so to speak, he would look me in the eye, smile gently and say, “Now don’t get mad.” When he first began using this phrase, I would indeed get mad but after a while, I became conditioned to steel myself for whatever came out of his mouth next. Simple, right? But it worked.

portrait-4573464_640To become frustrated, angry, upset, whatever, is an emotional response to some sort of stimulus. Whether that stimulus takes the form of an external event that actually happened or something that was merely imagined is quite immaterial. In either case, the stimulus is very real. And a negative response, especially one left unchecked, is rarely if ever a good thing for anyone involved.

Case in point, I have spent decades letting my emotional response be my first response in environments where individuals looked to me for leadership, support, and guidance. Bad idea. In doing so, I let them down every time. Mind you, I did no favors for myself, either. In letting my emotions get the best of me time and time again, I sabotaged my own career and probably derailed the career paths of a few others in the process.

IMG_7074It’s not only about business, either. I can recall another instance when, following an abrupt breakup with a person very near and dear to me, I woke up the next morning so emotionally distraught that I repeatedly (and quite painfully) sliced into my face while shaving, as the result of my inability to control my own shaking hands. Let those words sink in: my inability to control. To be controlled by one’s emotional state instead of the other way around, that’s such a bad place for anybody to be. To whose advantage my rage? I’ll tell you: nobody! Nobody at all.

Emotional responses, positive or negative, come from within. They have nothing to do with whatever happens — actual or perceived — out there. Good days, bad days, nice people, mean people, good fortune, misfortune, sunshine, rainstorms… stimulus. It’s all bullshit. Only you can determine your response. And your response is everything because that more than anything determines your results.

guy-2617866_640I’ve learned a little trick, if you’re interested, a four-step method to crafting a more structured response to whatever stimulus may hit you. I developed this with the help of two valued mentors and several published sources. It’s simple, yet effective. Check it out. Whenever you sense something causing you to lose your cool…

  1. Stop — Slam on the brakes. Call a time out. Do whatever you have to do in order to prevent any reaction at all, if only for the moment.
  2. Analyze — What has actually happened? Gather any real facts you have and weigh whatever options you can identify.
  3. Choose — Out of all the responses you have available to you, which is the best choice? Act on it.
  4. Close — After you have resolved whatever the problem was, then decide how you feel about it. By then, much if not all of that initial flare of emotions will have passed. And since the issue has already been acted upon, the world has already moved on. So should you.

Will this work every time? Unlikely. But with practice, we all learn. We can all get better.

Hey, have you stuck with me through this entire post? I’m grateful. Thank you for hanging with me.