Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

The Secret Word.

Source: Dutch Toast

In high school I was in the Latin club—the Junior Classical League to those in the know. Like other clubs it had conventions, mostly on college campuses, where we took part in Latin and classical-themed competitions, including comedy sketches. Here’s a fun fact I learned in JCL: the famous Roman orator Cicero was nicknamed “Chickpea”, cicer in Latin, by his friends. There was also a kid in JCL named Jonas who could do an absolutely spot-on impersonation of Pee-Wee Herman. This gave his entire Latin class to put on a sketch called Chickpea-Wee’s Big Adventure Or Cicero Goes To Rome.

You might already know where this is going and if you do the story will sound familiar: Cicero’s special sedan-chair, sella in Latin, is stolen. He consults a soothsayer who tells him it’s in the basement of the Coliseum. He sets off for Rome, meeting a lot of weird and funny characters along the way, and although it turns out there is no basement in the Coliseum he still manages to find his sella and everything ends happily.

I’ve never forgotten that—it was one of the highlights of my time in JCL, even better than the time I won a prize for dressing up as Caligula, but that’s another story.

When I heard that Paul Reubens had died and all the tributes started I realized something about that JCL sketch, or, more specifically, about Jonas. He was a small kid for a high schooler—he might have even skipped a grade, or three, and he didn’t just do a Pee-Wee Herman impersonation. He looked a bit like Paul Reubens: same dark hair, which he kept cut short, even the same complexion and dark eyes. Watching him walk around the stage in a tunic—at one point he passed a road sign with markers all labeled “ROME” and he said, “I guess it’s true—all roads do lead to Rome!” and did a classic Pee-Wee laugh—it seemed like he really was Paul Reubens.

As a small, kind of odd kid—admittedly we were all odd in JCL—he might have been picked on but impersonating Pee-Wee Herman was a way he could fit in, even outside of Latin class. It made him cool.

Something I don’t think has been said in all the tributes is how much of an antidote Pee-Wee Herman was to the crass commercialism of children’s entertainment in the ‘80’s. Sure, you could buy Pee-Wee’s Playhouse toys and figures, but unlike He-Man, Transformers, or The Care-Bears, which were created just to sell toys, Pee-Wee Herman started out as a character for adults, appealed to children because he was childlike, and spanned generations because he encouraged everyone to be imaginative. And he gave kids like Jonas and, I’ll just say it, me, too, a way out of a world that at times felt pretty dark and cynical. He’s one of those standouts of what seemed like an oppressive time who didn’t just say, it’s okay to be weird. He made being weird cool.

Hail and farewell, Paul Reubens, and Jonas, wherever you are, I hope you’re doing well too.

The Game Master.

I have a painting that was made by three artists. All three signed it but I wish I had a fourth signature: that of the person responsible for making it happen. His name was Rembert Parker.

I’d been introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by my friend John and, early in our freshman year of high school, he invited me to go to a weekend D&D convention with him in Evansville. His father drove us and when we got to the hotel John introduced me to Rembert—an older guy who was just a little taller than me, with lanky hair, round glasses, and a friendly smile. John had met Rembert at a previous convention and they’d become friends but then, as I quickly realized, Rembert was friends with everybody. In the few minutes we chatted at least two dozen people said “Hey Rembert!” as they passed by. Rembert was also one of the organizers of the convention, so it wasn’t just because of his outgoing nature that everyone knew him.

Then John and I got invited to join a D&D game and we went off to a hotel room with a group of strangers. The game was part one of a module, called something like Road To Verangia, that would be played over the weekend. At the end of it everyone would vote for the top three players who’d then advance to part two. Those who didn’t advance could find another game.

The next morning all the attendees gathered in one of the hotel conference rooms. Those who’d advanced—including my friend John—went off to play Road To Verangia part two. Alone and unsure what to do with myself I sat down at a table and was soon joined by a friendly group of strangers. We chatted a bit and then a guy came over and said, “All right, looks like everybody’s here. I’ll be your Dungeon Master today. Let’s start the game.”

“What’s this one called?” someone asked.

“It’s called Certain Death To Your Characters” the Dungeon Master laughed.

Oh, thank goodness, I thought. For a moment I’d been afraid it was going to be a repeat of the previous night’s game.

Character sheets were passed around. I looked down at mine and realized I’d been given the same cleric I’d played the night before. I panicked and looked around, but the room was empty. Not knowing what else to do I just played dumb, and stayed dumb, not using my knowledge of what was to come to my or anyone else’s advantage.

Later that day I’d go to lunch with John and his father and they’d talk about a guy who’d been in the previous night’s game and who’d tried to sneak in to a repeat of part one and how terrible it was that some people just couldn’t obey the rules.

“I won’t be surprised if Rembert kicks him out,” said John’s father.

“And he’ll never come back to a convention where Rembert’s in charge,” added John.

I chewed my chicken sandwich glumly, certain that my own crime would be uncovered, wondering if I should throw myself on Rembert’s mercy immediately. But I decided to keep playing dumb instead. And, somehow, over the whole weekend, it went undiscovered—or no one said anything if they noticed.

I went to a lot of conventions after that, most of them organized by Rembert. He and John were still friends but I kind of avoided him. He was a good guy and fun to talk to but, silly as it seemed even at the time, I still carried a slight air of guilt. Over time I just assumed he forgot who I was. Everybody knew Rembert but he couldn’t be expected to keep track of everyone.

Every convention had an art room and on Saturday night there’d be an art auction. I liked a lot of the paintings and would usually bid on one or two. After losing a bid on one someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around. It was Rembert.

“Hey Chris, I noticed you liked that painting. I’ll talk to the artist and see if he’ll do one for you.”

This was surprisingly generous and, because Rembert was involved, a couple of other artists got interested and all three of them collaborated on the painting. I’m sorry I’ve forgotten the names of all three artists, although they signed the back as well as putting their names on the front so I can always open the frame if I ever get it appraised.

I’ve never forgotten Rembert, though, so I was sad when John told me he’d passed away earlier this month.

I didn’t realize Rembert had a blog where he wrote mostly about old and mostly forgotten songs “that the radio seldom plays”. Here’s his last entry:

Sadly, I’ve been in the Hospital with Cancer for a few weeks.
I hope to return to daily posts within a few weeks!

Funny and optimistic to the end. When John and I talked I brought up the painting, and John, who still goes to gaming conventions regularly, said that the ones Rembert organized were small—at most there’d be about two hundred people, which made it easy for Rembert to know the artists, and everyone else, unlike modern gaming conventions that have thousands of attendees. There used to be a stereotype of D&D players as socially awkward loners, but the small conventions really showed how untrue that was. We all got to know each other, even if it was just in passing, although they were just big enough that some noob who’d never been to one before could accidentally play the same game twice and have their mistake be forgotten while they were remembered.

Hail and farewell, Rembert. You were, as Nat King Cole sang, unforgettable in every way.

Just A Poet.

Cowboy poet Baxter Black, on the right, with Baxter the Dalmatian, at a Nashville bookstore.

Way back in 1999 my wife and I brought home a new puppy and were trying to decide what to name him. She wanted something with a poetry theme and, well, there was only one poet we could think of with a name that would fit a Dalmatian. We named him Baxter, after Baxter Black, the cowboy poet, whose occasional commentaries on NPR always brightened up our morning drives. He’d be introduced as a “former large animal veterinarian” and my wife would always ask, “What’s a former large animal?”

E-mail was still a fairly new thing back then and we didn’t have a digital camera yet but we did take pictures of Baxter. My wife scanned one, found Baxter Black’s e-mail address, and sent him the picture. He replied with, “Makes me wanna ride a fire truck!”

Not long after that he came to Nashville on a book tour for A Cowful of Cowboy Poetry, and, with a bookstore manager’s permission, we brought Baxter in to meet Baxter. They both seemed to enjoy it.

We lost our Baxter a few years later to cancer—much too soon, although there’s never enough time with any dog.

As for Baxter Black, while it’s been a while since I’ve heard him on the radio, I pull up some of his recordings occasionally if I want to chuckle—his poem “The Oyster” always makes me laugh.

And when I heard that he passed away I needed a laugh.

Hail and farewell, Baxter Black. I hope you enjoy meeting Baxter again.


Miniature Memories.

The last Howard Johnson’s has now closed and I’m shocked that there were any still around. There was one near where I live that hung on for several years, then sat empty and abandoned for several more years, but its bright orange roof could be seen from the interstate and stayed in pretty good condition in spite of being left. I guess they were built to last even if the franchise itself wasn’t.

Of course I’ll always associate Howard Johnson’s with miniature golf. None of them, as far as I know, ever had golf courses, but when my family would take summer trips to Florida there was a miniature golf course called Gulf Golf on Treasure Island, and after putting through eighteen holes of windmills, concrete alligators, and around palm trees, we’d go and have ice cream. I’d get a root beer float with coffee ice cream which was the perfect combination.

I don’t miss Howard Johnson’s—I can get a root beer float any time, even if I have to make it myself—but I do miss miniature golf, which is more fun and has less pressure than regular golf. There’s still one in my old Nashville neighborhood that I would pass by regularly going from my house to the now defunct Hickory Hollow Mall. It was an expensive course, though, and had an elaborate castle, a lighthouse, and other buildings. At least it still has the lighthouse, and it may be worth playing a round. I played there a few times with friends many years ago. The main thing I remember is that the castle wasn’t part of any hole. It just stood off to one side, which seemed like a terrible waste. One of my friends said the course was really hard, but he was the only one who noticed. I don’t think the rest of us even bothered to keep score. If you’re playing miniature golf competitively you’re playing it wrong.

Even closer to my home was a, well, a weird miniature golf place, tucked away in a wooded area. The intersection of Nolensville Pike and Old Hickory Boulevard was, and still is, a major shopping center, but many years ago, just to the south, it all suddenly gave way to farmland, woods, and, for a long time, an old rundown bar with a gravel parking lot. Some time in the mid-80’s the bar finally closed and the property owners got the bright idea to build a miniature golf course there.

There were two nine-hole courses that could be played separately. One was a seemingly random assortment—a life-sized plaster gorilla, a lighthouse, because of course every miniature golf course has to have a lighthouse, and finally a tic-tac-toe board where the center square was the hole that took your ball. The other side was supposed to be a country music theme but was really just painted portraits of Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, and Minnie Pearl on wooden panels that probably came from the old bar, providing backgrounds for simple putting greens. Once we actually saw the legendary country music disc jockey Ralph Emery there with his family, and I wondered what he thought of the pictures since he knew most of the performers personally. 

It was only two bucks per game which was ridiculously cheap, and at first my friends and I laughed at the shabbiness of it, but it was fun to spend a summer afternoon just knocking balls around the greens under the trees and strings of multi-colored lights. We never bothered to keep score, or worried about what we’d do afterward. The playing was all that mattered.

Late Night Friend.

Source: BoingBoing

Back in my early teens I was alone a lot on Saturday nights, which isn’t as pathetic as it sounds. My friends and I would spend the day together but then there was a point when we all had to go home but, being teenagers, that didn’t necessarily mean going to sleep. Sometimes I’d sit up most of the night and, with cable TV still a pretty new thing, going through various channels looking for something. The USA Network at the time was an oddball channel that filled late night time with The Ray Bradbury Theater, the sort of counter-culture variety/anthology series Night Flight, and various low budget and cult films like Eating Raoul.

And then they started packaging the low budget and cult films as USA’s Up All Night and added weird, quirky host who immediately caught my attention. He squinted and had a raspy voice and the classic “this movie is terrible, folks, but let’s make the best of it” attitude that most late night TV hosts have.

That host, of course, was Gilbert Gottfried, and he really did make the best of some terrible movies. Yes, Sorority Babes At The Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama is a real movie, and, no, I wouldn’t recommend watching it. In fact there were nights when I was either out or went to bed at a somewhat reasonable hour and would tape Up All Night, then fast-forward through whatever the movies were and only watch Gottfried’s bits, which usually had nothing to do with whatever the films were.

One night his segments were filmed in, I think, New York’s Dino Roar Valley. Was it a dinosaur movie? I have no idea. I’m not sure it mattered. I only remember a segment in which, after being billed as a “Dr. Gilbert Gottfried, Dinosaur Proctologist”, he held up a giant pill and said, “Boy, do I hate these dinosaur suppositories!”

Another time he hosted the show from a tattoo parlor and imagined himself getting inked and turning into a motorcycle-riding rebel. Then he got one of the tattoo artists to paint a design on his arm while he sat going, “Ow! Ow!”

He was in his thirties when he started hosting Up All Night—and already had a good career at that time, including a short stint as an SNL cast member, which I somehow missed, and he’d go on to, well, better things. But it’s Up All Night that I’ll always remember best. On those Saturday nights I was never really alone. Gilbert Gottfried was goofy and weird and funny, and though I was never lucky enough to know him or even meet him he was my friend.

Hail and farewell, Gilbert Gottfried.

Born To It.

Source: Wikipedia

The 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica was full of surprising plot twists even from the beginning, but, for me, the most surprising moment was when Dean Stockwell showed up at the end of season 2. It’s a pretty dark series, but Stockwell was one of those actors who, whenever he appeared on screen, could change the atmosphere entirely. Would change the atmosphere entirely. He didn’t have to be serious to do it either. On Quantum Leap he was second banana to Scott Bakula but, with the exception of that show’s finale, the producers wisely made Stockwell the one who knew everything. He was there to be a father figure, or, really, more like a funny uncle, with his cigar in one hand and, well, an early smartphone in the other, and off-the-cuff references to his ex-wives.

I didn’t realize how long his career had been until I watched the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement a few years ago and saw Stockwell’s name in the credits. I kept looking for him, expecting him to, well, appear as a funny uncle probably, waving a cigar around, or maybe a dark, shady character. It didn’t occur to me until later that he would have been ten or eleven at the time of filming, and that he’d played Gregory Peck’s son who sits at the breakfast table quizzing his father about why anyone wouldn’t like Jews. Even as a child actor there was something compelling about him—not just the way he delivered his lines but the seriousness with which he carefully sliced a banana into his cereal and sprinkling it with sugar. His actions were natural yet deliberate.

His onscreen presence got me thinking about the craft of acting and something I’ve thought a lot about when watching really great actors at work. Is it something that can be learned or is it innate? Stockwell had plenty of time to learn—he was acting on stage before he was eight years old and worked pretty much non-stop until just a few years ago, but was he in high demand because he worked so hard or did he get so much work because he was such a talented actor? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. And no matter how effortless he seemed in his roles he worked very hard at the craft of acting, giving special attention to detail. He has a hilarious story about the inspiration for his character Ben from Blue Velvet:

You know that thing that I do with my eyes? Carol Burnett had a character of this super snooty woman and she was always like this. I stole it and I told her one time and she laughed her head off when I told her.

Maybe great acting is a little of both: it begins with natural talent but that talent has to be honed and crafted until it just seems effortless, and that’s what he did.

And, on an unrelated note, when I heard he died I texted a friend and said, “Sorry to hear it. I know you’re a fan.”

He texted back, “Yeah.” Then a few minutes later he added, “But isn’t everybody?”

Hail and farewell Dean Stockwell.

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