Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Pineapple Story

In May 1980, the Godby High School Drama Club was having a Hawaiian style end-of-school-year banquet and all members were expected to bring something to eat. The day of the party, I drove to the  grocery store intending to ask for something "Hawaiian" to cook for the dinner, but a flash afternoon thunderstorm and an unusually deep puddle on Old Bainbridge Road ("A Canopy Road") stranded me and the 1973 blue AMC Hornet I was driving for almost 2 hours.

No cell phones back then. When I was able to start the car again, I was out of time to cook anything for the banquet. I went to Albertsons on North Monroe Street and bought something probably more tropical than Hawaiian for the banquet -- a pineapple. My pineapple served as a centerpiece for the main banquet table and I took it home after the party. To this day I don't know why I put it in the freezer, but it was absolutely essential to the rest of the story that I did.

A few weeks later, Godby's class of 1980 graduated in Tully Gym at Florida State University. My bowling buddies Chris and Steve were graduating, and although I was in the next year's graduating class, we were all the same age. We still are. I removed the pineapple from the freezer and put it in a paper lunch sack and after the commencement ceremony I gave the pineapple to Chris.

Chris and Steve invited me to come with them and Phil to the class graduation party at the beach and we left directly from Tully Gym and had a great time in the car talking and laughing -- all the way to Perry, Florida. Perry was about twice as far and in a different direction than our intended destination, Bald Point, one of the nearest beaches to Tallahassee. I'm glad I wasn't driving, or I would still be hearing about it. Someone took a wrong turn.

By the time we finally reached the beach, we had been in the car for over two hours for a 30-minute drive to the beach. I suppose if the trip had been less eventful, we might not have been mischievous enough to name Chris' pineapple Phred and connive to sneak up on the partiers from behind a dune on the beach and toss Phred into the bonfire. Since Chris was the varsity baseball player among us, he earned the privilege of hurling Phred the Pineapple into the fire. I believe he overshot by a tad.

Chris and Steve and Phil and I hung out with the crowd for an hour or so, then piled into the car and drove back -- to Perry. We corrected course and by the time they dropped me off at home first, it was getting light, and I had school and final exams the next day!

The next year after I graduated, also in Tully Gym, Chris brought me a pineapple in a paper sack.

Fast forward to my sister Matthea's graduation in 1986 from Rickards High School in the Tallahassee Leon County Civic Center. Her grade point average was the highest in the class, but since she graduated a year early, she was ineligible to be class valedictorian.

Matthea sat in the center of the second row of students from the stage with the National Honor Society members, so she was one of the earliest students to walk across the stage to receive her diploma and handshakes from attending school faculty and county and state school board representatives. I had a long wait.

It was my long-held belief that anyone can get away with just about anything during the singing of the National Anthem, and it was my intention to test and extend that theorem to a high school alma mater. For my sister, of course.

After all the seniors had crossed the stage and returned to their seats on the main floor of the Civic Center, a few words were said by the next speaker and then everyone rose to sing Rickards' alma mater. A string section from the band accompanied the students' voices.

As the music and singing began, I took a pineapple from a paper bag and cradled it with my arm. I walked down the stairs from where I had been sitting and climbed over the railing of the Civic Center and walked  out onto the main floor and strode purposefully towards the second row of seats in front of the stage. I held my gaze forward and steady. As the students were all standing, it was easy for me to walk through the second row in front of the students and then I stood next to Matthea and handed her the pineapple. At this time she did not know of my pineapple adventures years earlier.

"Mitch, what are you DOING here?" was Matthea's shocked response. 

"Shhh, keep looking forward!" I whispered as loudly as I could to be heard over the singing.

I smiled widely as everyone on stage and in the arena was looking at Matthea with her pineapple and me.

The alma mater droned on another minute. Matthea didn't know the words by heart and was reading from the program, so I was able to figure out where we were so I could give myself a bit of a head start.

I left Matthea with the pineapple and returned to my seat the way I arrived, just as the music stopped.

I tell myself to this day that if I was a 17-year-old senior graduating with honors at my high school commencement ceremony, I would want my big brother standing next to me to share the moment. And Matthea will always have that.

I tell everyone else: DON'T EVER DO THIS! There are armed guards and a much more wary public nowadays. I was lucky.

Years later when I earned a Master's degree, I received three pineapples from friends and family, including one from my sister Jennifer in Maryland via Federal Express. 

Gifts of pineapple are now a venerable family tradition for graduations and other momentous occasions.

Steve (left) received his personally couriered pineapple thirty years later in Maryland. 

Photo by Angie

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Shot Heard 'Round the World

The proficiently schooled American sports fan will recall that there were two shots. 

History does not record who fired the first shot of the American Revolution 236 years ago today in Lexington, Massachusetts, but in 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson immortalized the words in his poem "Concord Hymn," which begins:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

My father grew up in the Bronx in New York City and often rode his bike to see New York Yankees baseball games in the afternoons after school. It was a good time for an area youngster to be a Yankees fan. During Dad's first 27 years of life, the Yankees failed to finish first in the American League only seven times. Like many young boys, Dad collected baseball cards and autographs that his mom threw away when he went away, and like many mothers, her actions contributed to the relative scarcity and value of older sports memorabilia re-sold today.

As the games let out, Dad noticed how autograph hounds would gather around to shove their items at the departing ballplayers, and he came up with a better scheme to avoid all that clamor. Just as his favorite ballplayers would duck into their cabs, he would personally hand them a self-addressed stamped postcard to sign and return at their leisure. Of all the penny-postcards he received back, only several survived to the time my dad told the story to my brother Mike and I when we were young.

I was inspired to employ my own solution to obtain Major League Baseball player autographs. I used my second-grade writing tablet and wrote and asked for them, care of the teams' postal addresses, and enclosed a blank index card and a self-addressed stamped envelope. I was surprised by the number of positive replies I received. I still have autographed cards, baseball cards and photos I received from Robin Yount, George Brett, Nolan Ryan (all three of the 1999 MLB Hall of Fame inductees), Rod Carew, Don Sutton, Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax.

The New York Yankees only sent me promotional advertising in return. 

My family and I met New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson at a public appearance in 1977 at Gino's Kentucky Fried Chicken on Route 18 in East Brunswick, New Jersey. He was my brother Jonathan's favorite baseball player and my dad took a Polaroid photograph of Jonathan and Thurman Munson, and Munson signed it. I found the photo at my grandparents' house many years later and returned it to Jonathan. Thurman Munson was the Yankees' first team captain since Lou Gehrig, and Munson would live two more years.

I have been to baseball games at Yankee stadium three times, in 1977 for an old-timers game and a game against the California Angels, in 1978 against the Boston Red Sox, and the last time in September 1999 against the Texas Rangers, and the Yankees lost all three games. Friends who are fans tell me not to come back. In 1999, I also went to an Atlanta Braves home game, and both the Yankees and the Braves played each other in the World Series that year.

When the 1951 baseball season ended, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers were tied for first place. Eighteen years before season playoffs were initiated, a three-game series was held in  New York City to determine the National League Championship, and which team would face the New York Yankees in the 1951 World Series. After two games, the series was tied. With the visiting Dodgers ahead 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Willie Mays on deck and Jackie Robinson in the field, the Giants' Bobby Thomson connected with a Ralph Branca 0-1 fastball for a game-winning three-run home run, "the shot heard 'round the world," because American GI's across the world serving in the Korean War listened to the game on Armed Forces Radio. 

A few years ago, I looked up Bobby Thomson and found him living at a golf course in Savannah, Georgia. For the first time, I wrote a professional baseball player directly and included a self-addressed stamped envelope, and promptly received a reply with Thomson's autograph.

Bobby Thomson died on August 16th, 2010, and my dad passed away a month later on September 19th. The last time I saw Dad, he gave me his remaining childhood baseball autographs.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gramps and Apollo 11

Gramps loved to take photos of aircraft. In February 1937, he photographed the US Army's first three Lockheed Electra Y1-36 airplanes, of Amelia Earhart fame, and an autogyro.

The autogyro was an early rotorcraft analogous to the helicopter.

On June 5th, 1937, my grandfather's sister Augusta married my grandmother's brother Elmer in Dearborn County Indiana. Gramps and Grammy have been gone since 1981 and 2002, respectively, but Aunt "Gus" and Uncle Elmer are in their 90's and winter with their son Don and his wife Sharon in Maryland. In February 2010, my sisters Matthea and Jennifer and their families and I visited with them all for the first time since I was a child.

My grandfather served in the US Army Air Corps for over 20 years in the late 1930s, 1940s and 1950s before working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1960s. My parents and brother  Mike and I lived with my grandparents in Cocoa, Florida for a few years after Gramps started working for NASA and while my dad attended college at the University of Miami.

When I was four years old, my parents gave me a plastic tool set that included a pliers and screwdriver, with which I successfully removed the baseboard moulding in our kitchen in Atlanta. My family took notice of my destructiveness, if not creativity, and so my grandfather began bringing Mike and me old lawnmower motors to take apart. It was the first time I used real tools, and it required no small amount of torque to remove all the parts, but I never had any interest in rebuilding the motors. 

Gramps retired from NASA in 1971 and moved to Central Florida and personally built his home at the edge of a little lake where I love to visit to this day. He was a fisherman and community handyman for his remaining years, and I had the opportunity to visit a few times as a teenager while he was still around. It was very rural and woodsy at the time, the streets weren't paved, and residents had to take their garbage to a "transfer station" --  a couple of dumpsters by the side of a two-lane highway about a mile and a half away. It was there that I learned the difference between "trash" and "garbage," at least where it referred to household refuse. "Garbage" couldn't be (easily) burned, which is what they did with their trash in a wire basket once a week about a hundred feet away from the house.

Mike and I weren't satisfied with the frequency of my grandparents' trash disposal system when we visited, as that would mean that we would at most see a single trash-burning. We would search the house and nearby woods each day for combustible trash and then fortunately the trash needed to be burned every day. Until the aerosol cans started going off a few days later, Gramps was genuinely surprised at the amount of trash, believing our large family merely went through more trash than he was used to, because he would check the "legitimate" trash before putting it in the basket. We had been by-passing quality control to achieve greater quantity and effect. 

Whenever we visited, Gramps would always be sure to have plenty of .22 ammunition for Mike and me to use. The supply lasted long after he was gone. We lived in a suburban community in New Jersey for many of those years and our only regular opportunity to shoot was during visits to my grandparents' house. We would shoot at paper targets nailed to a tree until being repeatedly summoned to the next meal, or less reluctantly, to go fishing with Gramps.

I don't remember ever being too concerned about actually catching fish over the years, except during our first couple of visits, when we were much younger and learned that Gramps not only liked to feed the fish, but that he had also trained them. Gramps kept a small piece of wood on the dock and every afternoon he would bring out a handful or two of bread crumbs, and knock on the dock with the wood and then toss in the crumbs. Of course, by the time he showed us the trick, he had conditioned the fish to see him coming and they would gather around the dock to be fed. They were mostly small to medium-sized bream, but we would occasionally see a good-sized bass or catfish cautiously come swimming around.

Mike and I found a fishing net attached to a long pole in Gramps' shed and early in the morning we would catch minnows by the side of the lake to use for bait. We would take a bucket to the edge of the lake and SLAM the net down on unsuspecting minnows several times at different locations around the dock at the edge of the lake, and pick through the seaweed for the squirming fishes.

After we had collected our bait, we would each hook a minnow onto one of Gramps' cane poles and walk out onto the dock and knock on the railing like Gramps did and reel 'em in. Well, not quite at first. The fish certainly came around in a hurry, but we soon realized that the bait was too big for most of them and the others were too smart to bite. When we switched to bread balls, fresh bread rolled up in small balls, we did reel them in. When Gramps saw our catch, he told us they weren't worth cleaning and eating, because they wouldn't provide any meat. I used one bream I caught as bait and caught a nice-sized bass, probably still my best ever freshwater catch. Gramps told us it took weeks to re-train his fish after we left.

If Gramps wasn't running his riding mower into the lake, he was always building something. To be fair, there was a significant dry downward slope to the lake during cycles of low rain, and his only two incidents occurred in non-consecutive years, but Mike and I liked to ask him, "Remember when you drove the lawnmower into the lake TWICE, Gramps?" 

It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I can say that I was usually building something, but I had begun constructing things much earlier. A few people from whom I still hear might remember that in third grade, Mrs. Shaklee convinced me to play the Cowardly Lion in our class' production of the Wizard of Oz. I convinced Mrs. Shaklee to let me bring in various woodworking tools and materials to build several projects, including a lamp and burglar alarm. Some of the other kids worked with me, and one day Principal Ashley came to our class with a black and white Polaroid camera and took our photo.

My brother and I loved to play pranks on our grandparents, but mostly on Gramps. We short-sheeted their bed, we put minnows in his rain gauge, and when they would visit us, we set off a siren alarm in ordinary places, like when he opened doors or drawers, the magnet would pull off the switch and our split-level house would resound from the siren, while Gramps would loudly proclaim, "BOYS!"

I never washed dishes for fun except with Gramps. I only remember having to be asked to help with the dishes once. Mike and I would either bring dishes or dry them, while Gramps would wash them. We liked to spend time with Gramps, so we would as unobtrusively as possible send the cleaned dishes back into the dishwater after he washed them. Gramps would remark upon how many dirty dishes we all created when we visited, while Mike and I would bring him dirty and clean dishes until one of us would slip up and he would say something like, "Boys, I don't think we have this many thermos caps."

Some of my earliest memories are of watching space flight launches from my grandparents' back yard, especially at night, and looking at Gramps' many model rockets in his study. His Saturn V Apollo rocket dominated the room.

Area gas stations gave out space-related premiums for a fill-up. Shell had a bronze "Man in Space" coin collection commemorating Mercury through Apollo 11 missions and I collected them all. Gulf had something much less durable but far more interesting: a large heavy-duty sheet of paper with punch-out  pieces with tabs and slots with which one could build a lunar excursion module, and I remember Gramps making several with Mike and me.

I was living in Atlanta and was just old enough to remember those eight days in July 1969, when we landed on the moon. My parents made sure to tell me during the launch, "Your grandfather worked on that rocket."

Indeed, Gramps was a member of the Apollo 11 Space Craft Operations Launch team and knew the astronauts. I inherited a special gift to him from NASA in a nice case with his name on it.

Gramps also left me his army uniform.

I would meet Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin at a technology conference in Atlanta almost 30 years later. Buzz was the second man to walk on the moon, and at age 72 in 2002, physically defended himself against a filmmaker who refused to believe he had been to the moon. No charges were filed. I took this photo as Buzz signed my copy of "Encounter at Tiber."

Thanks to Gramps, and because of my Halloween costuming career, I am almost always designing or building a woodworking project, sometimes with unconventional tools. My four-year-old grandson Caleb often asks me, "Remember when I watched you build your fire truck last year?" and uses his Little Tikes plastic saw with great effect to cut cardboard like I do, but I prefer to use the serrated kitchen bread knife.

My grandmother's story is told in My Grandmother's Pennies.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dave and Jessica and Me

In 1989, the late Ron Leavitt's long-term girlfriend and Dave the Cat and I led a pet parade together in Birmingham, Alabama.

Jim Bakker, American televangelist, convicted felon and sinner, and his wife Tammy Faye co-hosted the PTL Club on TV during the 1980s. They made a lot of money and lived lavishly until 1987, when news of his dalliances in 1980 with a 21-year-old secretary named Jessica Hahn and financial accounting improprieties ended his ministry, marriage and freedom.

Jim served 5 years of an original 45-year sentence, in Minnesota and Georgia prisons, and has been out since 1994. He and his current wife Lori have broadcast the Jim Bakker Show from Branson Missouri since 2003. Jessica's notoriety landed her an appearance on "Married... With Children" and a life with the show's co-creator, Ron Leavitt, but she is now remembered for little else besides her involvement with Jim Bakker and the PTL, and a couple publications by Playboy.

Do Dah Day in Birmingham is a free annual music festival and parade to benefit the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and The Emergency Animal Rescue Service (TEARS). They have historically picked odd-ball celebrities to be grand marshals of the parade. In 1989, it was Jessica Hahn, and she was still big news. Dave the Cat and I had entered our prime, having led several parades already, and we were looking for any and all parades. When we heard about this one, we couldn't stay away.

On Saturday, June 10, we left Tallahassee in the morning while it was still dark and drove almost six hours to Birmingham, Dave's longest road trip. We parked near the gathered crowds and mounted up when the parade began.

Besides there being almost all dogs in the parade, I still vividly remember a little girl in the parade pulling a red wagon in which was nestled a glass bowl filled with water and her goldfish.

Dave and I rode our bicycle through the shady winding streets of Birmingham and quickly found ourselves alongside the parade marshal's horse-drawn carriage. We led the parade with Jessica Hahn.

The parade proceeded along Highland Avenue to the stage area at Caldwell and Rhodes parks, and everyone in town seemed to be there. Dave and I were invited up on stage to address the crowd.

We thanked them and told them how far we'd traveled to be there. Birmingham's mayor sent us a warm thank-you letter the next week. We picnicked with everyone in the park for a couple of hours and arrived back home after dark.

Shirt from Brad (I still have it), photos by Dana.