QueenI was going to do a sweet piece of nostalgia to commemorate the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, but any such remembrance is inextricably linked to what went down at my childhood home, circa June 1953—namely a title fight between me and a new TV.

My parents were not exactly keeping up with the Joneses. If I wanted to watch a shoot-’em-up, I had to go to Bob and Chuck’s house and find a spot on their floor, because they and their parents had already claimed the couch and easy chairs.

But not having a TV had its advantages. For one thing, I learned to entertain myself.

I had these dorky hand puppets, Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd, that Aunt Rita had given me. With a puppet consisting of a rubber head and cloth skirt on each of my hands, Porky and Elmer took pokes at one another and did a lot of head-knocking until they learned to talk through different registers of my larynx, where they began making fun of everything under the sun, including the very aunt who had entrusted the puppets to my care.

Porky bumped my forehead and said, “She gave you me, instead of a new bike or a football.”

“Yeah,” Elmer agreed. “What a cheapskate!”

“Well,” I said, “we do have her to thank for ending our boredom.”

“Right,” said Porky, his rubbery head bobbing on my left hand. “Boredom is a thing of the past. No need to run off and watch the Howdy Doody Show.”

“Because we’ve got our own little show right here,” said Elmer, speaking with rubbery certitude from my other hand.

It was true. The three of us, nestled on the landing at the top of the stairs, had everything we needed to entertain each other forever.

But just then the doorbell rang. Mom ran from the kitchen to answer it, discarding her apron along the way. From our spot on the landing, my puppets and I could see a jolly fellow in white overalls on the porch: “A new TV for the Beukers household,” he announced. “Welcome to the modern age!”

“Come right in,” said Mom. “We’ve been expecting you!”

Well maybe she had. But I sure hadn’t. From time to time there had been parental mumblings about buying a TV—so I would be more inclined to stay at home instead of going next door to see what kind of mischief Howdy Doody, Buffalo Bob and Clarabell the Clown were getting into. But now that my puppet buddies and I had unlocked the door to infinite creativity, the mere idea of a television—the one thing that could spoil our fun—was shockingly repellant.

Our misgivings notwithstanding, a portable, streamlined, turquoise-and-cream TV set was now sitting on a small round table formerly used to display a spread of magazines. The deliveryman flicks the TV on, fiddles with the rabbit ears of the antenna, achieves perfect reception—“It’s so clear!” exclaims my dad—and departs, leaving us to enjoy the evening’s programming, which at the moment is identical across all three networks: a news show featuring Queen Elizabeth’s stately procession down the center aisle of Westminster Abbey, where she’s about to be crowned.

Mom was transfixed. “She looks just like a queen should look,” she said, “so beautiful . . .” Although Mom was an American through and through, she still had plenty of Collins and Cadwallader flowing through her veins and was understandably proud of this female icon. The two women, my mother and the queen, were the offspring of  a common history, with ancient roots curling into an age of enchantment. And when that crown was placed on Elizabeth’s head, Mom had her box of Kleenex ready.

I squinted at the new queen, who didn’t look all that beautiful to me, not back then anyway, obscured as she was by pomp and circumstance and many layers of finery—besides which, I was still feeling the effects of having my creative world blown to smithereens by the new TV.

It would be a while yet, several years at least, before a majority of those fragments settled down . . . a while before they reassembled themselves in a creative vision equal to the daily trouncing that came marching out of the device that delivered one icon after another in a continuous parade of spectacular moments not to be missed.


thumb_IMG_0036_1024A few weeks ago, on the occasion of Merle Haggard’s passing, rising country music star Drew Cooper posted: “I pledge allegiance to the Hag . . .” Well, that noble sentiment from a gifted newcomer got me thinking about all the times I saw the Hag—from 1972 in Harrah’s South Shore Room at Lake Tahoe (where he and his Strangers were backed up by the hotel’s mandatory bevy of tuxedo-clad violinists), to the Oakland Colosseum (where he did a sold-out gig with Marty Robbins of “El Paso” fame), to fairly recently when he teamed up with Kris Kristofferson at Saratoga’s Mountain Winery.

But one concert stands out from all the rest: a balmy night back in the Seventies when Merle played the main stage at Marine World/Africa USA, of all places, which was located on a prime piece of landfill in Redwood City, a spot that has long since been repurposed to host the circular towers of the Oracle Corporation. But on that magical night several decades ago, amid the jungles, waterways, and wild creatures of a family-friendly paradise, Merle—sporting a nifty powder-blue suit—strode to the center of the stage, tucked a cream-colored fiddle under his clean-shaven chin, and commenced to play a lovely chordal rendition of “Faded Love.”

My buddy Slick Rick and I were sitting in the aluminum bleachers set up around the ring that separated us and Merle, a ring that was ordinarily the province of a dancing elephant and large cats that obeyed the crack of a whip. Curiously, the stands weren’t full tonight. Maybe most of Merle’s fans had been unable to imagine how their working-class hero could possibly be appearing here amid the aforesaid wildlife and other exotica. So people had stayed away, which was too bad, because it wasn’t just Merle standing on that stage (although that would have been enough).

Sneaking in behind him was perhaps the mightiest contingent of cowboy jazz musicians ever assembled. Indeed, a couple of the guys on stage had belonged to the legendary Texas Playboys, who, with Bob Wills at the helm, had created the very genre of cowboy jazz—a musical phenomenon that Merle and his band were now celebrating. In addition to the customary bass, drums, and pedal steel, there were three swing-time fiddlers blazing away, a piano rocking out, and an entire horn section of trumpets, saxophones and trombones adding an undeniable punchiness that made your body feel surprisingly good.

But fabulous musicianship notwithstanding, something was a little off. Possibly the players were a mite nervous about so few folks showing up. Nonetheless, they finished their set to a solid round of applause—or as much noise as our mini-crowd could make—and quickly left the stage.

“God,” said Slick Rick, shouting into my ear, “I hope he does an encore.”

“Me too!” I yelled as we continued to clap and whistle and do our damnedest to summon the Hag.

And finally he and his ensemble did come back. They played “Okie from Muskogee”—the man’s theme song. Then the band left the stage again. Merle was following them out and perhaps looking forward to a stadium gig when suddenly he catches a whiff of the devotion that we have for this man and his music. Suddenly he turns our way and says: “So you want to hear what else we got?”

“Yes!” roars the crowd.

So he calls to his band, which is climbing aboard a bus whose open door is just visible beyond the stage. “Come on back, boys! They want to hear everything!”

The band members come back, pick up their instruments, and begin to play. They’re all really into it now, like their love for the music might be even greater than ours. And stretching things out, everybody gets to solo, trading the lead from player to player in number after number.

And then Merle says to us, his audience: “Come a little closer, everybody. There’s too much physical space between you and me!”

Which is true. He’s on the stage, we’re in the stands, and there’s nobody down on the actual floor of the animal ring. “You heard the man!” says Slick Rick, grabbing my arm.“What are you waiting for!”

We hurry down out of the stands and a few seconds later we’re sitting on the ground just below Merle’s pointy-toe boots at the edge of the stage. Others fill in behind us, Merle peers down at us—for a second our eyes actually connect—and says: “Well, this is more like it. Just like my living room!”

And then he’s playing again, with that beautiful band behind him as he sings what seems like every great song he’s ever recorded—from “Misery,” to “Mama Tried,” to “Rose of San Antone” and many, many more. The security guards are frantically checking their watches, and yet he plays on into the night for another half-hour and then another half-hour after that—with his musicians all going crazy, kicking their heels, and grinning like fools as they fly into musical orbits and somehow make it back to Earth again without ever missing a lick . . . so gorgeous it made me weep and I wasn’t the only one.

But that was a long time ago, and I sure do miss those lively licks now. Just like Andrew Cooper and Slick Rick and God knows how many others. . . .




wrong way

In the summer of ’64, on our way home from a job at a dude ranch in the hills outside Santa Rosa, I had a bright idea: “Let’s stop in town to see Aunt Rita. She’ll probably spring for dinner!”

“Dinner?” said Kevin, my work buddy whose old red station-wagon was loaded with our stuff. “Sounds great—almost anything would be better than the grub at camp.”

That wasn’t quite true. We’d been eating free-range beef all summer long. But I really wanted to see my great-aunt. She had often taken me to the movies—Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments,” Mario Lanza in “The Seven Hills of Rome,” Elvis Presley in “Flaming Star.” She was a cool old lady.

Soon Kevin and I were banging on the door of Rita’s 1890 gingerbread, built by her dad around the same time as the old stone church with the big loud bell across the street. When she came to the door I could tell by those smiling eyes shining out of her wrinkled face that she was delighted to see us. “What’s this?” she says, raising her hands as though to hug us both, “Two handsome young men to take me on a date?”

“Would you like to go to dinner?” I laughed.

“Sure would,” she said. Then she saw Kevin’s battered station wagon at the curb. “But I’ll do the driving!”

A minute later she was backing her “new” car—“only four years old!”—out of the carriage shed. As the big bell in the church across the street rang five times to signal the hour, Kevin and I beheld Rita’s ride—a 1960 Ford Edsel. Although the car was in mint condition, it was still homely as hell, owing to a bunch of shapes that didn’t quite mesh—a sporty grill, cumbersome fenders, and boxy cockpit that became a monument to blockheaded design the instant it rolled off the assembly line.

Nobody would ever accuse Rita of being pretentious. Paying no mind to fashion, she wore clothes that hid her lumpy body, protected her from the elements, and didn’t smell too bad. She actually liked her Edsel.

“Climb in, boys!” she said, and soon we were rolling down the road to her favorite diner a mile or so out of town. As she informed us of the offerings—the fried chicken, the cole slaw, the cherry pie—she somehow managed to get on the wrong side of the highway, no doubt thinking this the quickest way to Carly’s Smorgy. We could see the big red-and-yellow sign.

Kevin and I freaked out. “You’re going the wrong way!” we cried.

“Nonsense!” she shot back. “I’ve been going down this road my whole life!”

Well maybe so. But this particular stretch was now a divided highway, the rural rush hour had begun about the same time the church bell rang, and several cars were coming right at us.

“Oh, botheration,” mumbled Rita, and neatly—confidently—drove her beautiful Edsel over to the shoulder, which allowed us to make our way unimpeded to the restaurant.

“Best damn dinner ever,” said Kevin as we headed home with full bellies.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Thank God we lived long enough to eat it!”



Beautiful Sunset by Obie BeukersOh jeez, what was it with Grandpa Erle and sunsets? He had his hobbies—collecting plume agates for the Smithsonian, growing Grand Slam dahlias for the church, and deep-sea fishing out of Princeton Harbor. These pursuits, however, were slo-mo at best. But sunsets? His passion for capturing them was something else.

I was eleven years old, basically sitting around and waiting for Grandma Lucile to get dinner going, when Grandpa—a mostly bald man who liked a close shave—hustles into the breakfast nook. He sits down, opens the back of his camera, rips open a box of Kodachrome, inserts it, slams the camera shut, feverishly levers the film to the first frame, jumps up from the table and, like a man possessed, dashes out of the kitchen.

I follow him out the back door to see what all the fuss is about. Now he’s dragging a ladder out of the garage. It’s an extension ladder that reaches all the way to the second-story roof. With Camera swinging from his neck he goes up the ladder so quick it’s bouncing against the house to the point where I think it might go walking off on its own and dump Grandpa in the dahlias. But no, he gains the roof and disappears.

Curious as hell, I mount the ladder and follow in his footsteps, albeit more slowly and carefully. And gaining the roof I spot him climbing up the side of a third-story room he calls the Eagles Nest, where he already has a shorter weatherbeaten ladder in place.  I watch him climb it with the same insane speed and then he’s on that roof. He stands there facing the sea, as rigid as a flagpole, except for the click, click, click of his Pentax.

Having used up his long role of film, he comes down from the Eagles Nest, sees me standing there on the second-story roof and says, “You shouldn’t be up here, you know.” And then he shakes his head regarding some greater concern. “I was too late,” he said. “Missed it by a hair.”

Missed what?” I asked.

“The sunset,” he said, “when the clouds are on fire and God peeks through the blazing rivers of lava.”

Rivers of lava, huh. And God peeking through them? It was hard for me to picture what he meant. I lived on the ground, surrounded by buildings and things so much taller than me. When people spoke of sunsets I thought only in terms of a dull golden glow, with perhaps a hint of pink, as day passed into night.

“Oh well,” he said, “maybe tomorrow. Let’s get down from here.”

It would be many years before I, too, became a connoisseur of sunsets. And during especially glorious displays, I always remember—if only for an instant—Grandpa Erle standing at attention atop the Eagles Nest and click, click, clicking away.