As some of you know from recent facebook posts and other writing, I recently visited Wisconsin, my birth state and home until I was about 19. As is always is the case when returning to my roots, I think a lot about what formed me as a person and how I came to think the way I do. This trip was very much a journey of discovery in many ways. Hours alone in a car will do that to you. I had a lot of time to think, always dangerous, and a visit to my old high school really set me to thinking about how good education can be. When it truly is the school’s mission.
To be honest, I went to two fine high schools, Waukesha High School, a school that, by 1968 when I left for University Lake School, had reached an enrollment of well over 1,000 but was still providing an excellent public education. I will never forget the many experiences that helped form my early thinking and the many friends I have reconnected with through facebook and other means. I did all the usual stuff, got in trouble, played sports, was in the plays and generally had great freshman and sophomore years. But, it was a large landscape and I have always craved smaller, more intimate settings. If you know me… go figure!
Besides that I met a girl. Funny how that can change things, even at 16. She will remain nameless for a number of reasons, mostly because she has forgotten me or I am sure she would rather not be reminded… and then there are the lawyers. Anyway, she went to ULS and I was drawn by that thing that draws all 16 year old males… lust. My Mom taught Theater at ULS and unbeknownst to her I snuck out there, took the entrance exam and amazingly got in. You should have seen her, and my Dad’s, faces when I went home and told Mom that I would be going to school with her on Monday. I think she cried.
University Lake School is not a public school. It is a private country day school in the lake country in western Waukesha County, Wisconsin which is definitely an up scale area. There were, and are, a lot of kids from wealthy families who go to school there, but there were, and are, a lot of us who were scholarship students. I never once saw a distinction made between the two. Part of my high school scholarship was that most days after school I helped the elderly gentleman who was the custodian clean the place after a 135 teens, and younger, had inhabited it for the day. I learned a lot of stuff working for him. I learned at an early age that yes, women’s, or in this case girls, bathrooms are really scary places. And that is all I will say about that!
Now, before ruminating any further, to the meat of what I am rambling on about. I did not know what life had in store for me when I went out to ULS, and I did not know how much it would influence how I think today. ULS, to quote its mission statement; “is a college preparatory school that delivers an incomparable education driven by high standards and a unique approach to learning. Our dynamic and rigorous curriculum challenges the whole student by integrating innovative academic, leadership, athletic, artistic and service learning experience within a vibrant and joyful community.”
When I was 16 I could have cared less about mission statements. All I cared about was chasing that girl, who by the way wised up about two weeks later and cut me loose. Reverse the numbers and at 61 I realize that they meant what they said then and they mean what they say now. I stopped by the school on a whim and came away with a profound experience.
There are a four core values that the school teaches and puts up on its walls for all to see. Interestingly the symbol of the school is a pine tree which, for those of us in Southwest Virginia, looks an awful lot like the Lonesome Pine. John Fritzke, the Assistant in the Department of Special Events and Alumni Relations, explained that the core values of “Intellectual Curiosity, Original Thinking, Personal Integrity and Character Through Service,” are the four branches of the Pine. His passion for the concepts was evident as was that of the entire staff.
It thinking about it, I realized that somehow being exposed to this as a young, and very impressionable, youth somehow got inculcated in my brain. As it turns out, I have pursued these four goals throughout my life, with varying degrees of success. I was also turned on to a love of the study of History and the Socratic method of thought. That mode of thinking has always gotten me in more trouble than not, but I treasure its curiosity with life and getting questions answered, not ignored.
The ability to appreciate diversity was another concept that was first taught me at ULS. Thankfully I learned that it is OK to be different. I was taught that you can be a musician, actor and a jock. Richard Faye, my mentor, opened up the world of History to me and challenged me to dive in. I haven’t come up for air yet. Mr. Davidson taught me statistics but was also the teacher who gave me Socrates as a life-long mentor in thought. Mr. Thornton tried to teach me how to be a rocket scientist in physics but had to admit that was never going to happen. And, other teachers whose names have left my brain gave me gifts that have stood me in good stead all of my life. In short, the learning environment that I was lucky enough to fall into while chasing a girl fosters creative thinking and acceptance of difference in people as an advantage in life, and always has.
So, why write about it 42 years later. First of all, I was treated extremely well by all the folks I met who currently work there. They truly seemed to be interested in showing me the now much larger campus and were proud of their mission and its execution. I was made proud of the learning environment I had experienced as a teen, and realized, upon thinking about it back on the road, that ULS had a profound influence on my life and whatever contributions I have made to society and the communities I have lived in. That got me thinking about education and what it can be when given the respect it deserves. I know that University Lake School is a private school populated by youngsters who live a very different life than the kids I now live with in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. Many of its students truly have advantages that our children here may never see. But they might. And, there are those from the Appalachian Mountains that have attained every bit of the success and wealth of the lake country. Unfortunately most of them had to leave which is sad. I looked up per capita spending for public school students in Virginia at it was about $10,000 per kid. ULS’s tuition, which according to John Fritzke, is about $6000 less than the per-year full tuition for a student at ULS. But the actual amount that most student families pay IS closer to the same amount because of the many scholarships the school offers. Most of the children are on scholarships of some kind, as was I 45 years ago. That has not changed even though the school, like everywhere else has suffered in this economy.
Finally, what matters to me is those four branches of the Pine. It doesn’t cost more to truly teach Intellectual Curiosity, Original Thinking, Personal Integrity or Character Through Service. I was lucky enough to fall into that kind of education. Now days it is difficult in the face of a poor economy, to remember what made us such a great nation. One thing that has always made us great is the desire to create educational opportunity. It is those four core values and a lot of hard work on the part of students, parents and teachers that still adds up to great education. I did not get a college degree until I was 42 years old so what I learned at ULS and Waukesha High, had to get me through about 23 years of adventures until I did. I was very lucky and owe a debt of gratitude to my both old schools. Thank you.
One Final Word.
We can, and have, turned out great students here in Southwest Virginia but have also let budgets, consolidation, rivalries and politics get in the way. The kids at ULS may have some advantages that we may not posses, but that doesn’t mean our kids don’t deserve the same real commitment on the part of administration, boards and parents. Our kids deserve the same opportunities and advantages as those who may have more financial support. All it takes is a return to the great years of education here. In the immortal words of Rob Schneider in The Waterboy… “You Can Do It.”
After a long hiatus I am back in the proverbial saddle. Or at least writing again.
I have purposely stepped back over the last few months and tried to take stock of a number of things. Simple stuff like family, my own life and what is going on in the world. Here is some of what has percolated up through the mush that is my mind. For those who have encouraged me to write again, ya asked for it.
This Monday, August 13th, marked a number of milestones, the most important of which was the seventh anniversary of my daughter Buffy's marriage to Ben Kelly and the sixth birthday of their daughter Kodi.
A man should be so lucky. I am to be blessed with a growing family of children, and grandchildren, some of whom I hope will be able some day to support me in the style to which I would like to become accustomed.
I am writing this on the second birthday of Buffy and Ben's second daughter Jimmie. A wild Montana girl who is trying to reinvent ways to say "No!". While Kodi is remarkably gentile and easy, Jimmie (aka James Celia Kelly, aka Atilla the baby) has brought all the considerable talents of her Irish, Native American and Scottish nature to bare on the entire clan. I love it. Revenge is sweet for any grandparent who remembers the early conduct of their now adult children. It is not that Buffy was a difficult child, but, with the inclusion of Kacey, Jedediah and Zachary, the four of them combined for many memories of child rearing that I am still taking treatments for. Usually in the form of a 12 oz. can of Pabst.
Jimmie in "Safe Mode".
During a recent trip north to upstate New York Nancy and I were also introduced to our newest Grandbaby Tajny Rose Burakowski. Taj, as she is rapidly becoming known, is the daughter of Kacey, my oldest daughter and her husband Brian Burakowski. She is much too new, having come into the world in early June, for us to know how she is going to progress but, being Kacey's daughter, we know it will be interesting. Buffy, Ben and the kids live outside of Superior, Montana and Kacey, Brian and Taj live outside of Stowe, Vermont.
Taj with momma Kacey.
And, then there is Miss Olive Jeffrey, our granddaughter by Nancy's son Brian (lots of Brians) and Penny Jeffrey. Olive and her parents, who Olive tries to keep in line with her way of thinking, live in Durham, North Carolina. Olive is another blessing we are trying to figure out ways to spoil.
Miss Olive Mae Jeffrey, The Ice Cream Queen
That makes four female grandchildren. Now I am blessed to have four beautiful young ladies to spoil, but could someone please have a boy... please. Thankfully I still have Jed and Zack as a backup plan and my nephew Taylor Sweeney and his wife Katie are scheduled to have a boy out on the Left Coast fairly soon. If I am going to have any male grandbaby companionship (yes that is a mouthful) it has yet to be revealed. And, we are faced with a travel schedule for the future that just about covers the lower 48.
Anyway, on with the show.
While the Grandbaby report may be interesting to me, and the folks directly involved in the Smith, Kelly, Burokowski, Jeffrey and Sweeney clans, there is more to this story.
The other event that took place on August 13th is the one year anniversary of my following in the footsteps of one of my heroes, the late great George Carlin. Like George, who was arrested in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for saying the seven words you can't say on TV, on August 13th, 2011, during the last Guitars and Glasspacks concert in Wise, Virginia, and during a particularly stressful period of time getting ready for the show, I uttered "Don't %&#$ With Me," or so I was told later. Ya know, ya really shouldn't say that to a town councilman, even if he is being a jerk. Especially where people who are more than willing to exercise what they think of as their power and moral right to change your life can hear you. I now know that. Actually I knew that then but was pushed a bit too far that day.
The Fatal Day, Guitars and Glasspacks, 2011
Without going into detail, it cost me my job, much to the delight of my boss. That is how it goes. I was given the opportunity to resign. I wouldn't so I was fired and told to get out of the office by the end of the day by a supervisor who I believe was acting to further his own ends. He also made sure I did not get unemployment. It has been a really tight year financially.
The loss of a job that I had created and loved was a surprising blow. The way it was handled and the way I was treated has caused me to spend this last year thinking about a lot of things. In dealing with a certain amount of depression, reassessing where I am at 60 years old and dealing with a large amount of anger with myself and others, I am coming to terms with some things. And some things I realize that I will never come to terms with.
First, and foremost, I am truly sorry that it happened. I let myself and others down by reverting to saying something that was more appropriate in another place and time. I have watched as my program has been dismantled and the job has gone unfilled. We were making progress and I derailed that by my actions. There is much more I could say but have erased it because I just do not want to go further with it. All I do is get angry.
That is not a solution.
The anger is useless. All it has done is make me bitter toward a place that I love and have worked very hard at trying to improve. I am working on that one. I am still not there but working on it.
My heritage, even though I was not born here in Southwest Virginia, is Scots-Irish. We are a race that does not do well when pushed by unthinking authority. I come from a family that hates bullies, has a basic distrust of people who think they are "special" and usually responds fairly directly when pushed over the line.
I am proud of that heritage.
It can also get you in a lot of trouble, and has.
Throughout my working career I have taken stands that, while I would not change them, have not been beneficial. So it goes. I have learned a lot, started over a lot and have gained a perspective that at times puts me in harm's way.
So be it.
There will always be people who think that their position in life gives them some kind of power to do, and say, what they want. They believe that they are beyond being questioned and that they are right no matter what. They also will bend the truth when that suits their goals or covers their butt. There are flags flying a lot these days that say "Don't Tread on Me." I said about the same thing... only I used a four letter word instead of Tread. Funny how that one more letter makes everything OK. Again I hear George Carlin in my head.
So why write all this.
Like I said, I have been thinking... an always dangerous thing.
I have watched as the Presidential, Senatorial and House campaigns have increasingly careened out of control. The mean spirit that pervades the advertising is beyond anything I have seen in the 50 or so years I have been interested in politics and government. No it is not new, it is just worse. And I wish I could say that it is only the side I am not on that is doing it.
Not so. All are to blame.
But, who is really to blame? I great part of me believes that the American people have lost much more than their civility. If we ever had it. We have ceased to understand how our system of government works. If we ever did.
Now we can be swayed by speeches and ads that spout complete untruths. We watch ads and listen to politicians blame individual officials, aka governors, congressmen, senators, and yes, the President, for spending funds they can't spend, doing things they can't do and for making supposed "promises" that are wholly taken out of context.
We are ever so eager to believe the side we support and ever so eager to denigrate those we oppose.
Does anyone else see a slippery slope here?
We, the people, have abdicated our ability to think, make reasoned decisions and work toward solutions that actually make our lives better.
We do not even know how our governmental process work. I listen to how much one governmental official has spent knowing that chief executives only propose budgets. They do not pass them. It is bodies of people from both parties who make our laws and spend our money. But that has become too complicated to talk about. So we listen to attacks and platitudes, misinformation and distortions, and many of us conveniently suspend reality (not the shows) to believe what we want as long as it suits our already decided minds.
I thought we were smarter than that.
The debate should be about what is best for the country. Unfortunately, I believe it is now about how to gain, and hold, power, the welfare of the country be damned.
Yes I know that money and power are at stake. I have seen that everywhere from the lowest levels of public life to the highest. I know that acquiring perceived power is a very human goal. I have watched as those in power got rid of qualified, bright potential leaders at all levels because they were inconvenient or not of their political stripe. I have watched it happen to me (not that I am of any real consequence in this). A person would have to be out of their mind to try and participate in public service. And yet some of us still hope that this will change. I still see people of courage who stand up for what they believe and believe what they say.
What has happened to making sure that the least of us are taken care of. What has happened to our better natures. Are we so self centered as a people that we make up lies to justify our actions. I am starting to think so. I hope I am wrong.
I have also studied history.
George Washington was the most powerful man in America after leading us to independence. He could have been President for life, had riches beyond measure and about anything else he wanted from the American people.
Instead he retired.
He left the Presidency and power for his home in Virginia. He had honor, character and the good sense to know that power is a given thing. You can't take it, demand it or use it for your own ends for too long before it is taken back by those who gave it in the first place. Ask Hitler, Saddam or Osama Bin Ladin.
So, after this year of reflection I have come to the conclusion that while I may have been taken out of the game in Wise County I am still willing to try to make a difference. Now I just do so out of this area, some of the time in Washington D.C.. Believe it or not I still believe that this is the greatest system of government in the world.
I will be writing more about what I am currently involved in as things develop. I will also not give up my right to think, consider issues and make decisions based on what I believe to be true.
Let the Silly Season Begin.
Welcome to The Adventures of Bill - Part I
Well, it has been awhile!
A couple of misguided friends (bless them) have asked that I take computer in hand and write something. For those of you foolish, or kind, enough to read my ramblings, thank you. I feel honored that you will take the time to do so.
So what has been going on in Bill World? Well here is a brief (OK, OK, I know, I am never brief) recap of what has been going through my mind... what there is left of it. Today's ramble includes a look back into the deep dark past of H William Smith in an attempt to figure out what the hell happened. Yes it will probably read like the path of an Irish Setter on steroids but that is just the way it worked out. The only point of this self indulgence is this: I plan to write on a wide variety of subjects going forward. Some of my writings will be attempts at humor, others will be less so. At the age of 60 there are a lot of things going through my head as I try to remake myself yet again. I figure most of my audience is also going through stuff that challenges all of our ability to cope with what is increasingly angry and strange world. Here is my attempt at creating something of a baseline for why I think the way I think. PLEASE REMEMBER THIS IS FROM MEMORY SO I MAKE FEW CLAIMS TO GETTING ALL THE DETAILS ACCURATE. THINK OF IT AS THE MEMORIES OF AN OLD VETERAN... OF SOMETHING OR ANOTHER. In an effort to do so, I have spent time going back through pictures and picking some that illustrate some part of why I occasionally scare the poop out of folks, make them laugh or say to themselves, "This Boy Ain't Right". Don't worry I scare the poop out of myself at times too.
But first, a commercial!
If you live in Wise County, VA you know about "The Good Old Boys," or if you don't, you should. The Good Old Boys own and run the best local hardware store I know of. It is located in Norton and has been a fixture there for years. Occasionally strange beings can be found there. Pictured above is the elusive WOODBOOGGER. Rumors of the WOODBOOGER'S existence were made public by a television "Reality" show, Finding Sasquatch. Well, The Good Old Boys have found him. After some coaxing, and treats basically consisting of frosty beverages and Moon Pies, the WOODBOOGGER was enticed to Good Old Boys Headquarters where it settled into the rocking chair pictured above. It was also convinced that the Tee Shirt, also pictured above, was the perfect WOODBOOGGER outer garment for springtime in the Appalachians.
NOW YOU TOO CAN HAVE ONE OF THESE STELLAR GARMENTS!!! Drop on by Home Hardware in Norton to pick one up. They are only $15 and come in sizes from Medium to the Omar the Tent Maker version at XXXX. So go on by, get a Moon Pie or two, check out what may be one of the last true hardware stores on the planet and get a WOODBOOGER OUTER GARMENT for your very own. In addition to a great selection of WOODBOOGER outerwear, and other cool stuff like Septic Tank Treatment (my favorite) the Good Old Boys have consented to start carrying a new line of OTIS CAMPBELL SOCIETY merchandise. OTIS WEAR is a lot like WOODBOOGER outerwear only different. SO STAY TUNED!
Now, For Today's Ramble.
Earnest Hemingway hunting with my Grandfather, William Francis Smith in the late 1920s
I will start this with a picture that my sister Joey and I both treasure. It is a picture of my Grandfather and Earnest Hemingway. My Grand Dad was a tough old bird, one heck of a hunter and quite well known for it. As the legend goes, Granddad was asked by the head of South Dakota fish and game to take Hemingway hunting. According to my father's memory his father didn't think much of Hemingway as a shot. The Old Man was never one to hold back an opinion. I guess he figured that he was tough enough for just about anyone. He had been thrown out on the streets of the south side of Chicago as an orphan at the age of 12 in about 1900. Granddad had grown up a hunchback; made his own way by working on the railroad switching railroad cars carrying Coke (not the drink) into the mills of US Steel. He was honest, tough as nails, reasonably successful and really good at the thing he loved, which was hunting. My Granddaddy used to make me dance a jig while singing to me over the telephone. He died in 1954.
I guess I never really had a chance at "Normal". This is a picture of yours truly taken about 1956 during Christmas at my Grandmother's house in Chicago. Note the insane choice of my first instrument in the back ground. Yes that is a drum set, and yes I did drive them crazy. Mom was a big band singer when she met my Dad, a former athlete and combat wounded WWII vet. I was their first attempt at parenting. Dad loved sports and Mom loved performing. They got married in the context of post-WWII Mid-Western America. Both had wounds, physical and mental from the war (Dad almost died in a B-24 over Germany and Mom lost her boyfriend in the Battle of the Bulge) and the Depression. Like so many of the Greatest Generation, both of them wanted to get on with making life. Little did they know what was in store for them.
My 6th Grade picture. Little did I know what was in store.
Really, my youth was relatively normal. I was raised in Waukesha, Wisconsin after being born in Madison, a town that would have a pretty major influence on me about 18 years or so later. Waukesha is outside of Milwaukee but was really a separate world in the 50s and 60s. I remember well that the Summer of 1967 ignited riots that hit many cities including Milwaukee. We were relatively safe but Dad had to sneak past the National Guard to get home from work that first night. Waukesha was great arts town, growing rapidly and a great place to grow up. I come from Shanty Irish and English stock, what we know of it, that, and the influence of the upper Middle-West, defines much of how I was raised, and how I think. I have great memories of friends there and although I started leaving home at 15, I remember it fondly.
Music has always been a big part of my life. Here is a picture of one of my first bands, The Night Howls. Dixieland was one of my earliest influences and this was actually a pretty good band for a bunch of 15-year-olds. Ray Von Gunten, the sax player on the right, is still playing around Waukesha and Southeast Wisconsin and is a part of a band that was legendary when we were young, El Ray and the Night Beats. I have found several of these guys on face book and it would be great fun to play together again. I still have that bass. We were typical kids who were on the edge of changing times and didn't know it. Life was good.
Conne Cross Smith
This is a shot of my Mom, Conne Cross Smith, in the play "The Little Foxes," I think. It was in the early 1950s. Mom was nothing if not dramatic, and original. She was a tremendous actress, gifted playwright and wonderful teacher of theater to young people. She was completely unafraid of being on stage and afraid of most everything else. Mom had been orphaned twice in her life, once as a baby and once at 19. Living with her was an adventure and not always easy. But, I learned a tremendous amount about creativity from her and she paved the way for many talented young people to find their gifts. The last time I saw her conscious in the hospital she had the wizard's hat from Fantasia (my sister Joey has worked for Disney for years) on her head. She was truly one of a kind. Mom died on my birthday in 2003. She always knew how to make an exit. I loved her dearly and miss her. The funeral procession taking her body out to the cemetery was stopped dead in front of the Pix Theater, home of Waukesha Civic Theater on Main Street Waukesha by the funeral director without us knowing he was going to do it. He was honoring her for her work. I will never forget that.
My first of three times playing Earthquake McGoon, my seminal role in theater. I suppose Ole' Earthie made his imprint... or the other way round, pretty early.
The theater always was a big part of life at the Smith house, much to Dad's chagrin. Mom, along with several other folks, founded several theaters during her life. Nobody told them that they couldn't do that so they created opportunities for expression that had a huge impact on a lot of lives.
The first theater company that they created was Waukesha Civic Theater, which is a story in and of itself and is still producing work after more than 50 years.
Many of my earliest and dearest friends were involved in the arts.
We also lived in an environment where we could be in plays and on the football team with little pressure to conform to any one group. It was a great way to grow up. This is a somewhat shop worn photo includes Ed Dwyer, myself and Betsy Folsom, who would go on to manage a number of theater companies including Waukesha Civic.
The second was Par-Cay Players, a theater for children and the third was Penny Players, a theater company of high school and college aged actors. Penny Players was created so that those of us who wanted to could continue learning our craft. We did summer theater in old Horeb Park, were rained out two years in a row and from then on did shows in a circus tent at the park. Several of us became "Tent Guards" at night and had several "first experiences" in the process. Dang it was fun. The Penny Players alumni includes a number of folk who are still in the business. Waukesha Civic was where I first learned how to light a show by carrying lighting instruments for Danny Scioletti (forgive my spelling) the lighting director. Danny was my hero. By the age of 12 several of us kids were hanging around the theater, doing odd jobs and helping out. It is also at this time that I got my first Bass and an old Kay guitar that I wish I still had. In 1993 the Milwaukee Journal did an article on Mom and figured that about 40 of us were still working "in the business." I wish I had more contact with all of these folks but left Waukesha in 1972 pretty much for good and, sadly, have lost touch with too many of them.
1969 at University Lake School.
Here is one of the first folk groups I played with. The girl on the left, Bobbin Beam, was a radio personality in Milwaukee and now does major league voice-over work on the west coast. The guitar I am playing is the first Martin I would ever play. It belonged to the lanky fellow to my left who was a teacher at University Lake School, the high school I eventually graduated from. I can remember his first name was Bill and sadly, I can't remember his last name. H truly was our teacher in how to play as a group. The bass player is Gary Greenburg, a gifted piano player and musician. The Beatle Bass was mine. Note the old Blond Fender. Boy do I wish I had that amp. That summer I got my first job in technical theater working for the City of Indianapolis as a sound technician for the Parks and Recreation Department. The head of the department was a dear friend and actor who had moved back to Indiana to take that job. I moved to Indianapolis on the train and lived with a guy who also worked for the city and whose job as a roommate was to keep me out of trouble. It didn't work. We lived in the summer home of Eli Lilly, of Lilly Drug fame, which he had given to the city. It is now the Eagle Creak Wildlife Preserve. During that summer I experienced my first riot. We were working doing a show at the Indianapolis Indians Baseball Park that featured a number of national soul groups. Outside the ballpark a carload of fools shot a couple of young girls, as I remember it, and the whole place went crazy. We were on the infield with the stage and the crowd surged out of the stands, throwing chairs from the box seats and pinned us up against the sound truck threatening us with our lives. This was also the first time I saw true courage. The only Black Man on the crew, Thomas, stood in front of us and shielded us, saying that we were cool, not to blame and were with him. That took real courage. He was an amazing individual who by summer's end taught me not to be afraid of blacks by being a friend. I would go over to his house for dinner and visit his family. The riot was written about in Newsweek Magazine, I believe. Remember this was 1969. I was 17.
My 1971 promo shot. My how things had changed.
It is amazing to look back on this part of my life and think how lucky I am to be here at all. Any of us who were young then have our own stories. Mine, like most of us, certainly was complicated by the Viet Nam War. Between 1966 and 1971 I went through a transition from Young Republican (the party of my Dad) to radicalized and running around on the campus of the University of Wisconsin trying to buy dope and being a medic at the riots. My last two years of high school saw me leave Waukesha High, con my way into ULS (I was in lust of a girl) where I increasingly found my views challenged, changed and when I started hanging out with some Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, radicalized. I still don't talk much about this time in my life publicly. My parents' marriage was on the rocks, like many post-war marriages. My Dad and I were increasingly not speaking and I was getting involved in a lot of things that I won't talk about. When this picture was taken one of the places I was spending nights was in an Opal station wagon. Safe to say that I made huge mistakes, learned a lot about people, politics and cynicism. I developed a distrust for blind authority that I still have. I also lost 11 friends in 12 months to various violent deaths. Several died in Viet Nam, most others in wrecks and one band member committed suicide.
I was a mess but not alone in that.
To be clear, I never saw combat and was never active duty military. I was in the US Naval Sea Cadets, a JROTC program during high school until I blew out my knee playing football. As guys graduated from school they went on active duty. By that time, however, I had become absolutely against the war. Again, it was 1970 when I graduated high school, not 1965 like many of my older friends. By the time I graduated, the Navy did not want me and I sure as hell didn't want the Army. It was a truly confusing time that in many ways I am still trying to sort out. Again, I am not alone in this, I believe. One thing I do know, with a son and nephew in the Coast Guard, and a lot of friends who have served in the Military, I now do every thing I can to make sure that our service men and women are supported. I don't always feel the same about our politicians, but that is another story.
Outside Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 1970-71
This group of somewhat "alternative" folks collected around the house several of us lived at in Eau Claire, Wis.
The house, located at 609 Water Street, was also the home of the 609 Water Street Kazoo and Der-Der Band. For those of you who do not know what instrument a Der-Der is, the definition is a cardboard tube played by putting one's mouth to one end and going, "Der, Der, Da, Der, Der, or something like that. A Soprano Der Der is a toilet paper roll, Tenor is a paper towel roll and Bass is constructed from Christmas Paper rolls. We played at a bar called "The Joynt". You get the picture. We were nothing if not inventive. Also, broke 99 percent of the time. But, we had a hell of a lot of fun. The fuzzy fellow next to me in the back was a Viet Nam Vet who kept dynamite under his bed in the basement. It was definitely a crazy time.
1973 Three Rivers California. Livin' on the edge.
This was probably as close to over the edge as I got as a young man. I had made my way out to Colorado, got quite unwell there after working as a medic at the First Rainbow Family Gathering in Strawberry Lakes, Colorado. Got Beaver Fever from bad water, went back to Wisconsin with a dear friend who really kind of rescued me. After a stint in the hospital I met a girl and headed out to California. Does that sound familiar to anyone. In Colorado I had connected with this group of folks, (yes I am being vague as to names) and moved first to Anaheim. I eventually moved to Three Rivers, outside Sequoia National Park, a place that had a huge impact on me. This period of my life from roughly 1971-1974 was pretty blurry. It involved motorcycles, too many guns and about anything else you can imagine going on. I was a bit out of my league but was kept alive by a lot of really good people who admittedly would not be seen in the social register or at the debutante ball. Several of them would die within the next few years. It was a rough time all over America.
Well that brings us to the end of Part One of "The Life of Bill". I am sure anyone who has stayed with me this long needs a break from the self-indulgence as well. As I have been writing this, and looking at the pictures I have selected, it strikes me how fast life was changing even then. We were in a war fueled by bad political decisions, our society was cracking at the seams and a lot of young people were adrift, wondering who, and what, they could trust. It does amaze me that this was 40 years ago because it sounds a lot like today.
I am not sure when, or if, there will be a Part Two of "The Life of Bill." That will depend on whether the response is positive or negative. I make no apologies for its content, however. It was an interesting and scary time in my life and there was more to come in life that was equally interesting and scary as well. Luckily I survived. Many did not. I am sure there are a lot of similar stories out there. I am just crazy enough to talk about it.
Until Next Time.
But wait there's more!
One More Commercial. Tyler Hughes, one of Southwest Virginia's finest young musicians will be hosting the First Saturday Coffee House at the Southwest Virginia Museum in Big Stone Gap on Saturday, April 7. Stop on by and listen to the future of music in our mountains. Musicians, come play your own tunes and join in the fun.
Zachary Smith as Curly in "Oklahoma."
Fourth of July in D.C.
On the set of Gods and Generals.
The Smiths at the Barter with Roadside Theater
All the hoopla regarding the death of Whitney Houston, the Grammys and some recent experiences of my own have been rattling around in my brain (think of an empty tin can with a bee bee in it) today as I try for the upteenth time to figure out why making art is such an addiction, blessing and curse. Sadly, the death of Whitney Houston doesn't surprise me. The first thought I had when I heard of her demise was the word "Icarus". You know, the guy who flew too close to the Sun. The girl was blessed with pipes that only God, good genes and training can give. I am sure that her ability to sing with the power, subtlety and interpretive understanding she displayed had to come from all parts of her psyche, and experience.
The hard part, in my small opinion, was living with the demands that kind of talent placed on her, and the demons. Singing was the easy part. Being Whitney Houston (insert Elvis, Graham Parsons, Keith Whitley, Fredie Prince, and hundreds of others) was the hard part. From my own small perspective, the hard part is all those other hours in the day when art's creation has to give way to the other stuff. And anyone who had flown as close to the Sun as Ms Houston did was living a life of unreality. Most of the details are handled by staff, which leads to isolation and boredom. Isolation leads to life inside a protected bubble that doesn't allow for much true human interaction. Problems are smoothed over, not solved. Individualism often gives way to a perceived character that can become a cartoon of one's self. Dangerous stuff when you add easily obtained drugs, alcohol, misplaced love (I wonder what Bobby Brown is thinking this week) into the mix. Unfortunately, in Ms. Houston's case it led to an early death in a hotel room far away from her home. Loneliness can be a terminal thing. That is sad under any circumstances. It is also the life of a professional performer on the road. That potential is always there. I can understand the wide range of reactions I see on facebook and in the media. Yes, we make too much of a possibly drug addicted singer's death. No, I do not think that being artistically talented makes anyone more important than anyone whose talents lie in other areas. We all have our talents, demons and ways of dealing with life. Yes there are regular folks who passed away this weekend and certainly the deaths of our military personnel should be remembered with equal sadness. I agree with all of that.
In this screwed up world we live in (has it ever not been that way) art, of any kind, is often the thing that helps many of us make some sense of it all. For some folks it is sports (often theater of a grand scale and drama) for others it is hunting, fishing, sailing, (insert the thing that you love just because you love it) or being in the audience as it happens.
Big Theater in Green Bay, WI
It really doesn't matter. What ever it is that resonates with a person to a point that it helps them get through their life, to me is art. It is also as flawed at times as the people who make it. That is what makes it special. Whitney Houston, and again insert your name of choice from Walter Payton to Edgar Allen Poe, was, with all her failings, special. As are all of us humans.
OK... so I don't make great art, nor am I a great artist. I wang away at it and what comes out is a lot like sausage. The problem is... I like sausage.
Storytelling and music at Lynchburg's Point of Honor
And I just can't seem to get away from making it every chance I get. Whether it is the music I play; the words I write, the lighting designs I used to do or the theater based historical storytelling, something resonates inside of me every time I engage in the process.
Being an artist (what ever the heck that is) is such a pain in the butt. I look at my facebook pages, which is where I connect with a deep dark past in the arts and the people who I have worked with over the years. I see many of us who are still intimately involved in artistic processes of all types.
The Dixie Bee Liners
The Wolfe Brothers at the Barter
Dr. Ralph Stanley and Porter Wagoner at The Hills of Home shortly before Porter's death.
There are a few of us who have actually made livings at our art, or arts. Most of us have either starved at it or had to work day jobs to support our artistic habits.
Interestingly enough, most of us who have worked in some form of professional art form during our lives are still doing it.
Still gigging after all these years.
Lately I have been doing a bit of that at local venues. I have gotten tired of sitting in my chair and pickin' by myself so I am now inflicting that pain on others. I went over to Lays Hardware in Coeburn a couple of weeks ago to the Thursday night jam and had a ball. Last Thursday I went up to Wise and jammed at the open mike at the new Troubadour venue that is connected with The Tavern In Wise.
Pickin' at The Troubadour
A couple of things were true of that experience. One, I was the oldest cat in the joint.
Two, it was fun. It has been a long time since I have just hung around with other musicians and played. Was it chaos at times, yup. Did I like, or understand, all the music (Thrash, Power Rock and my favorite, Life Sucks Rock) no. But, it was fun to be a part of. If we are ever to have a music scene like this area had in the past, we are going to have to let everyone in on the game.
Us old folks are going to have to suck it up and let the kids play. That is how I, and most of my contemporaries learned how to gig. Music joints are few and far between in this age of "No Fun Allowed." Theaters are closing, as are galleries and museums because they can't afford to stay open. We need to support them when we can, share our own work at them and have a good time. And, buy a beer, cup of coffee or a bite to eat at them so that they can keep the place open. There I said it... beer. Yes, music, and a lot of other art, is occasionally alcohol fueled. It is the only way, other than door charges or donations, that a place can get the cash to afford to keep the place open and the lights on, not to mention pay staff and the musicians something. Artists of all types are usually the last to get paid in the deal. There is this interesting notion that an actor, painter, sculptor or musician does their art purely for the love of it and doesn't need to eat, pay bills, etc. When I figure out how to live on love, I will be writing one last blog and going to the happy place. Until then I, and my many artist friends will be working when we can, paying bills when we can, and having fun when we can. Just like everybody else.
A good night was had by all.
By the way, these pictures at The Troubadour were taken by Lisa Milanese from Big Stone Gap. She, like the rest of us was doing her art... and doing it well. Check her work out on facebook. She's good!
What A Concept
My instructor in the study of sloth, Buster the Wonder Dog and friend.
During the last six months or so I have focused my energies... or lack thereof, on the study of a comparatively new subject. The study has been detailed and ongoing. Study methods have been varied and thorough. I have been dedicated to the subject but am not sure if my examination is complete or ongoing. I am, however, ready to make my report.
Sloth is good...
to a point.
Last August I went from 95 mph to zip rather quickly. My schedule went from full to open and my social calendar suddenly cleared. Let's just say that things in my employment world changed rapidly in that all of the sudden I was free - or at least very inexpensive.
Now, free is a wonderful thing. Think of what the slaves thought when Mr. Lincoln said they were free. Think of being 13 years old and school just got out for the summer. Think of signing divorce papers. OK that last one was a bad example but you get the point. The only question is... Now What?
That is always the rub with freedom. Once you've got it, what are you going to do with it. My first inclination was to grab a trusty 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and head to the boat to begin my study. About 11:30 pm that evening I found myself turning circles out in the middle of Watauga Lake, helm over and watching the stars spin around the mast, thinking... "What in the hell do I do now?"
Freedom was a lot easier when I was 20, I was 10 foot tall and bulletproof. It was the early 70s, I had just moved from Wisconsin to California by way of Colorado; Montreal, Canada; Fargo, ND; and no, I do not remember much. At 30 I was still strong, fighting forest fires out of helicopters in Montana and was one of the local bull goose loonies (thank you Ken Kesey). Even at 42 I was still brave enough to to fall in love again, leave Montana (not an easy thing) and start over, yet again, in Virginia.
At 50 I began to notice that freedom was a bit scarier and now at 60 it has become down right interesting. Somehow I do not think I am alone in this one.
So... I have created this thing called Crooked Road Enterprises, a still mostly fictitious company that reflects my interests and experience. Friends have been asking, "So, what are you going to do with it?" The short answer is "Damned if I know."
But, here is what I have been thinking:
- Making money is more fun than not making money. But, for the time I have left in the making money category, I would like to do so in ways that please me and that I have some control over. If not, then I aspire to becoming a Wal-Mart Greeter.
- I believe that a dialog between Appalachian people, natives and non-natives who love these mountains, the culture, history and music, is needed. I also believe that out of that discussion can come ideas that can help us promote ourselves in ways that resonate with the people who want experiences that are more connected to what is really happening in "Appalachia."
- While I support, and have worked for, a number of government-funded projects aimed at developing the creative economy, I believe that our ultimate success depends on us.
- It is time that the direction of our development be dictated by the people of the region, many of whom do not have the connections that get them invited to meetings run by the government folks. While government funded projects such as Heartwood, The Crooked Road, Round the Mountain and the many others in the states surrounding Virginia are excellent and have born fruit. I sometimes think that they are becoming Richmond's (insert state capital of choice) view of who and what we are. They have also consumed millions of dollars that might have been better used out in the communities those projects are supposed to serve. When the money stops, and it always does eventually, what will we do to sustain forward momentum? I must stop this thread before I start to rant.
- My goals are pretty simple at this point of my working career. I would like to ease into retirement instead of crashing into it in flames. Hopefully there are some ways to make some money using the pseudo-wisdom I have acquired. As I said earlier, I am not sure how yet, but I'm thinkin' real hard on it... while sitting at the helm Changes In Attitudes at the lake.
- Please contact me if you need my sage advice or BS for your spring planting projects. Let me know if there is anyone else out there who thinks we are capable of determining our own economic destiny and is a bit frustrated by the current "Get the next grant, spend it out and start over," approach.
- I think that we can do better than that.
- If not, than I will continue to research Sloth and being a general pain in the butt. I am becoming quite good at both.
A face that can still stop dog fights. Continued research on Jan. 31. Maybe sloth ain't so bad after all. Just gotta get someone to pay me to do it. Please note the antenna sticking out of my head (that's what Nancy thinks it looks like). It is to pick up all those vibes of creativity beaming into what is left of my brain. Actually it is the back stay on the boat.
Before concluding this little opus (wasn't he a flightless bird?) I also would like to show off the work of a great friend and graphic artist, Pam Randolph. Pam has been kind enough to design cards and a logo for C.R.E. She is damn good at what she does, is a fine musician and is also someone who has put up with my crazy ideas and has a few of her own.
Let me know if you would like to contact Pam. Please do not hold her association with me against her.
Here are the two sides of the business card Pam designed. She works for Print Distribution, an excellent company that does all kinds of promotion work from business cards to extensive displays. They also distribute brochures all over the region. Good outfit.
This is the general logo Pam designed.
Here is a secondary version that I will be using in some applications.
Who knows what I will write about next time. We shall see...
Seaman Recruit Jedediah Smith, my son, during his Coast Guard bootcamp off base run. Company Zulu 185.
My nephew CG Petty Officer Taylor Sweeney at the helm of Rimshot. His first time under sail.
There are a lot of thoughts going through the old noggin' this morning as Nancy and I get ready to leave for Cape May, NJ and my Son, Jed's graduation from Coast Guard boot camp. To say that I am proud of Jed is an understatement. We are a Coast Guard family. Jed is joining Taylor, my nephew, and two of his cousins in the service. As a sailor myself, the Coast Guard has a very high place in my heart and mind. Their service is selfless, and no matter what a person thinks about the military, they truly are a force for good.
Last weekend I raced my boat "Changes in Attitude," in the 12th annual Frostbite Race at Watauga Lake as a member of the Watauga Sailing Club. Note I said sailing, not yacht, club. The emphasis is on sailing, not status. Improving your skills, sailing well and racing hard are the only requirements. Respect is earned and can not be gotten by position, status, wealth or words. I have a lot to learn but there are willing teachers and I am committed to being the best sailor I can be.
Anyway, the race is held no matter the wind, weather or temperature. On New Years' Day it was 45 degrees, driving rain and 20 - 30 knot winds as we started on the 3-mile course. With a crew of five other sailors on board we did our best. The responsibility for their safety weighed heavily on this rookie skipper's mind as we fought through the wind. On a day when nearly all of the 6 boats participating showed their bottoms at some point and we all were nearly knocked over, I got a taste of what my son has committed to take on. As we neared the finish line the boat ahead of me was hit by a gust of wind and his rig gave way. The entire rig, sails, mast, boom and stays went in the water. The skipper was thrown forward and cut his head.
At that point things changed from an exciting challenge to a boat in distress. To make a long story shorter than it could be, we, among others went to his aid and all turned out as well as could be expected. This was in 20 - 30 knot winds and seas of maybe two feet. What if it had been miles out in the ocean, 50 knot winds and 30 foot seas. That is what the Coast Guard does for a living. That is what my son and the members of Zulu 185, his boot camp company, have signed on for. Jed's goal is to crew on one of the 47 foot motor lifeboats. Not for the faint of heart, from everything I know about that craft. All of them have my undying respect and I am proud that Jedediah has chosen this service.
Another element of the experience of having a son in Coast Guard Boot, is the community that has grown around these young Seamen and Women. Unlike my father George, I never was active duty military. I was in the US Naval Sea Cadet ROTC program in high school but blew out my knee playing football before going to boot and the Navy was no longer interested in me. In 1969 I was not all that interested in the Infantry. So, when Jed graduates on Friday, he and my father, a bombardier in the 15th Air Corps and wounded severely over Germany in 1944, will share a bond that I will never know. Strangely, I am jealous. That kind of comradeship produces memories that are life long.
But, this is a much different world that Dad faced when he enlisted. It is a faster world that is very different than that of the Greatest Generation. We have Facebook, twitter, the internet and all forms of social media to make use of. Sometimes we use it for good and other times not so good. It is a wonderful thing when all these technical advancements are used to support very human thoughts and feelings.
As a parent I have been allowed to participate in a Facebook page started by the Coast Guard that is just for the families of Zulu 185. The bond that has been formed as we all have worried about our loved ones is one that I can share. Dad said that he wrote rarely when in boot camp and phone calls were out of the question. Jed was able to write several times but they were always hurried because if anyone thinks Coast Guard boot is a cake walk, they should know that the USCG uses the US Marine model. Nuf said. Anyhoo, a community of people, most of whom have never met, has formed in support of these kids and is one of the more unique experiences I have participated. Because no one who is not family or assisting with passing on photos and news, which several Coast Guard vets and wives have done, can participate, we have been free to voice our fears, thoughts, hopes and a whole bunch of other stuff on line. It has been an illuminating experience in how the internet can assist in the creation of tightly woven communities with like interests. In this case the like interests are our children, husbands, wives, lovers and their children. We will all meet at a dinner on Thursday night. I expect there will be hugs, tears, laughter and stories as we brag about our newly minted Coasties. When I think of all the vets of years gone by who experienced a much less coordinated support system, I know how lucky we are. This is one example of the Internet and Social Media truly being useful. To the members of Zulu 185 and my new Coast Guard family, I offer my deepest respect, support and love. We all have the opportunity to form community in this way. We just need good reasons. This is one.
My nephew Taylor serves on one of these ships I believe. This buoy tender is stationed in Homer, AK.
This Higgins Boat landed troops on Omaha Beach. Many Coast Guardsmen were at the helm of these on D-Day. Much of the boat is plywood.
This is the Time Bandit, of Deadliest Catch fame, heading out to sea from Homer. Think these guys love the Coast Guard?
Cedar Creek Battlefield. Sunrise is its own service.
I have to admit I didn't expect Christmas to get under my skin this year.
It has been an "interesting" year in our family to say the least and there could be several reason's for this to not be hailed as prime Christmas territory. But, the spirit has gotten into my bones this time. Family is scattered from California to Montana; to Wisconsin; to New York, Vermont, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and oh yes, Virginia. Still, there is a closeness this year that is different. All six kids are healthy, employed (or that best of all worlds, a student) and doing well. Got three Grandbabies and one on the way. And I am starting a new adventure in self-employment. Whoo Hoo!!
Best of all, Nancy has consented to put up with me for another year. We seem to be adjusting to both of us being around the house more reasonably well, we haven't killed each other and are enjoying ourselves a bit.
One thing that I know has affected my mood has been going up to Wise and wringing the bell for the Salvation Army for the last three days.
I am not particularly altruistic. I do it more for me than anyone else. I have been talking, joking with folks, generally having a grand time ringing the bell and getting in the spirit of giving by watching folks give to help others. I decided to ring the bell this year after not doing so for several years. I had forgotten what an enjoyable experience that kind of interaction is. This year's decision to do it again was one of my best as far as Christmas is concerned.
I have the sound of that bell in my head (yes I do have some other sounds in there as well) from when I was a kid. It is a good, solid, ding, ding, ding, that is like no other at Christmas. We all know that sound and what it means. I am proud to say that I rang the heck out of the poor little thing in my usual subtle way and loved it. Thankfully my dinger arm didn't wear out until the end of today's session.
A last thought on that... We have all seen the news reports about the Salvation Army being behind in its donations this year. I have an opinion on that (me, an opinion, no, really?). It isn't that people won't give. They will with a smile and a Merry Christmas. It is there are not enough people ringing the bells, standing by the pots and just being there to allow the giving to take place. I have had all kinds of folks put money in the kettles. Folks with money and those with a lot less, all gave. Parents put money in their children's hands to teach them the tradition and a whole host of other little interactions took place that proved to me that just maybe we ain't all grinches, or, dare I say it, Congress.
Maybe next year you will join in the fun. It's needed and it's worth it.
I said last time that the next blog would be: "Who Is This Guy and Why Does He Talk This Way." Well I have postponed that topic until next time because, like I said... I am in the Spirit. Gonna go back to Church tonight for the first time in a long time.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays Everyone.
"Changes In Attitudes" On Watauga Lake
Changes In Attitudes is my boat, refuge, challenge and favorite toy.
The name also figures into this Blog. About three and a half months ago I, rather unceremoniously I might add, left employment as the tourism director of my home county. Getting kicked out the door was tough. I loved what I was doing, was pretty good at it and was making progress, with the help of a whole lot of people, with establishing this part of the Appalachian Mountains as a viable tourism destination. I will miss working with some awfully fine people. And not miss some others.
There were two problems... wait for it... I was a pain in the ass. After 40 some years of working at a variety of professions, I don't play well with others. And. I don't suffer fools well. There were a few other things but we won't go into that right now.
That don't work when you work for the "County."
So, at 60 I am starting my own business. In a bad economy... in the Coalfields of Southwest Virginia... in the middle of winter.
Makes sense don't it?
It does to me. So, here goes, the sails are set, their is a fair wind out of the West and it's time to launch this puppy.
I return to the "Mother Ship," Lambeau Field.
Some things you should know... I was born into an interesting culture.
I am imprinted to be a fanatic Green Bay Packer and Wisconsin Badger fan. And no, we ain't right.
On the set of "Gods and Generals."
At "Martin's Station" on the Wilderness Road
and travel in both space and time are favorite pastimes of mine.
The intention of this blog is to create a forum for discussion about life here in Appalachia. Where do we want to go, what do we want to be when we grow up and how do we get there as mountain folk will be core questions that I am concerned about and will no doubt throw out there for consideration. Culture, Community, Mountans, Water, Music, Living History Storytelling, Teaching, Sports and getting "The Work" right are passions of mine. Each of these topics will probably appear fairly regularly. So will a whole bunch of other stuff. Also, and most importantly, I hope we laugh when we can, cry when we have to and try to have a sense of honor. I will write when I have something that I think is worth saying... or not.
By the way, this will probably be a bit of a bumpy ride at first.
So, let's get in the wind.
Next up: "Who is this guy anyway, and why does he talk this way."
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