“Bang the drum slowly” comes to mind, given the old trumpet player always liked a good downbeat. Throw in some laughter, because that was surely there—most days I’m sure. He had that kind of “life is ridiculous” take on most things, even though he understood probably everything through a mathematical steel trap that said emotion has no place. That’s where all that smooth jazz came in, the notes floating here, there, and everywhere (one of his favorite Beatles songs).
Strange: a couple of friends revealed around Christmas just past that they listened to Firesign Theatre back in the day. How many times did we spin those LPs? I repeated lines verbatim to my two friends, who had no way of keeping up. And then I learned the old trumpet player passed away on Christmas Eve. “All out for Fort Stinking Desert.” There’s that laughter again.
Laughter carried the day for him. He could laugh at math problems. He could laugh at physics. A beautiful woman passing by? A certain smile, I’m sure. Oh to be inside that mind of his, but no—no chance. One could get close. He was okay with close. He was okay with silence. He was okay with me and you and everybody else.
I last spent time with him in Portland, Oregon, his new-found hometown. It’s been almost twenty years. He picked me up at the Portland Airport. Ate at Jake’s downtown. Great West Coast seafood. He seemed content in Oregon. I enjoyed being around him, talking, catching up about the years that had zipped by. Laughter, there it goes again.
When I learned that he was gone, flying high in some super nova somewhere, I went to a bar on Earth and drank some Shiner beer. In his honor. To his memory. The old trumpet player and I were once tripping through the Hill Country, down by the Blanco, throwing horse shoes at a post. Debating, and laughing. So cool, so cool. The old trumpet player, my friend. Now gone. Keep flying, you super nova, wherever you are.
When my old friend Boston Bob sent me a Facebook message about a Barton Springs lifeguard reunion, the dream job image shot through my mind. Bob, a true New Englander, left Austin after his lifeguard stint in the early ’80s. We had played on the same softball team back then. I hadn’t seen him since, but Facebook reconnected us. He resides in Atlanta, but he’s still a Red Sox fan. No surprise there.
The problem for me with the reunion: I was never a lifeguard. Maybe I should’ve been. I certainly wanted to sit up on that tall white platform above Austin’s favorite watering hole. And since the lifeguard reunion would include the fine folks who actually did sit way up high from 1976-82, I might recognize some faces besides Bob’s. I was at Barton Springs all the time, swimming, snorkeling, checking out the scene. It was the place to be.
So on a sunny afternoon in early May, I showed up at Scholz Garten, another Austin treasure, to meet up with Bob and his fellow lifeguards. I got to Scholz’s just as the Kentucky Derby was announcing post-time. Bob wasn’t there yet, so I sipped a Real Ale Fireman’s Four and watched as the greatest two minutes in sports flew by on the big screen just above the bar.
The race was over and still no Bob, so I wandered out to the beer garden area. I sat at a table across from a guy who was there because his brother had been the pool manager back in the day. So here the two of us sat, neither of us lifeguards. From our vantage point at a worn out picnic table in an old Austin icon, we watched the joy of a reunion: hugging, laughing, and people maybe not recognizing each other.
I didn’t know a soul. One or two faces seemed familiar. Even lifeguards get old.
Bob did show up. As we talked, I realized the tough road he’d had. He was sober for one thing, and had been for nine years. I was glad for him. He was divorced for another, but remarried. And he had a twenty-something son he was very proud of. Showed me pictures on his smart phone. I was happy for him. About the divorce, he joked, “I didn’t get along with my wife’s boyfriend.” He grinned, and I saw the same confident look in his eyes from back in the old days when he was sitting up on the lifeguard stand.
As darkness descended and the twinkle lights in the trees came on to provide some outdoor lighting, a lifeguard (well, a retired lifeguard) with her smart phone camera asked everyone at our table for a group photo. I stood and moved to the side, but she insisted I get in the photo. Click! We all laughed and for one evening, I was a Barton Springs lifeguard. What a cool job.
Her aging eyes, cloudy brown after more than 90 years, smile sweetly. And it rings true: somehow we become the parents of our parents. Caretaking, giving, encouraging, sometimes sitting in a hospital room staring at a sleeping heart attack patient that once raised us, taught us, loved us. And still loves us.
The familiar laugh scratches its way to the surface of our minds, still unchanging after decades of heartache, of living life, of seeing friends and loved ones and husbands and brothers and sisters pass on. Missing each one day after day, beckoning a memory of a conversation to return, but only silence answers. Familiar nicknames whispered to no one now.
Doctors try, with gentleness, sometimes with a blunt statement, to ease those in their care into a reality unsought. A greater unknown speaks louder. The physicians’ wisdom is sought after in the hallway outside the room, their news often shattering instead of uplifting. The low tones and beeps, the blinking lights and the neon graph lines of the expensive equipment dangling near the hospital bed muffle and tweet and track across the screen. Young nurses in purple scrubs float in and out, tucking a sheet here, reminding their patient to follow instructions there, at last disappearing from a cold dim room.
Pills and potions, milliliters and injections, elevated beds and elevated blood pressure readings are all part of the daily routine. A Bible verse is flipped from a daytimer, a morning paper read in its entirety joins a stack from the days before on the side table of an easy chair.
At night the blinds are drawn on that eastern window, and in the morning they’re opened again. Frail fingers leave the walker momentarily to complete the task. Daylight to dusk, daylight to dusk. The passing of days, the passing of years, the passing of life.
Yet beauty is seen in those very hands. And love is felt in that laugh scratching the silence. And dawn gives way to daylight. And hope shines on the roses still sleeping in the morning dew.
He was the Texas Longhorns coach from 1957 to 1976. His influence on college football, on the University of Texas and on players and students alike is impossible to measure. I would love to have known him better, or gotten up the courage to say something when our paths crossed, which happened several times.
Take 1978 for example. Cisco’s on East Sixth Street was, at that time, the gathering spot for power brokers, legislators, sports notables and local celebrities. On a Saturday morning in October, especially with the Longhorns out of town for a game, there were maybe six people there. And one of those was Coach Darrell Royal. I was sitting a table or two away, but didn’t have the nerve to speak to him. He would be doing the color commentary on television later that day, flying up to Lubbock after breakfast to cover the Texas Tech-Texas game; it would be one of the first times for him to do a broadcast since he left coaching two years earlier.
Then in 1990, I again crossed paths with Coach Royal. In my job at UT, I had the great assignment of writing and producing a video on the life of Professor J. Neils Thompson, a professor of engineering. The college would be honoring him with a dinner that featured the video. Neils was the president for several years of the NCAA, the governing authority of intercollegiate athletics. He served as NCAA president back in the heyday of Coach Royal and the Texas Longhorns, the wishbone offense, national championships and a 30-game winning streak. Together, these two men made great strides for college sports. At the dinner, the video was played. The coach attended and was asked to offer some comments from the podium. It was one of the proudest moments of my life when he said—in that Southwestern twang of his—“Well, that’s one of the best videos of its kind I’ve ever seen.” Wow!
In the late ‘90s, I took our youngest son, Adam, to a Longhorns basketball game. I nudged Adam and said, “Let’s move down there.” Great seats. But about five minutes before tip-off, I glanced around to see Coach Mack Brown and Coach Darrell Royal coming down the aisle toward our row. “Please, Lord, don’t let us be sitting in their seats.” They breezed past us and sat across the aisle a few rows closer to the court. Whew! Kids came up to Coach Royal the whole game, asking him to sign their shirt or their cap. He never refused a single one.
Six or seven years ago, a friend of mine was in a band that played country and western music. I went to the airport-area hotel where the band was playing at a gathering for the Texas High School Coaches Association, and took a seat. Who should be at the next table but Coach Darrell Royal. People asked for autographs or stopped to chat with him, and it looked like he was enjoying every minute.
Finally, in 2007 I was honored by the university with a service award. Seated on the second row, I soon realized I was sitting directly behind Coach Royal, who also was being honored that day. I was called to the front by the university president, who briefly described my accomplishments. On the front row, Coach Royal was looking at me, listening and smiling, as if he knew all along that I would one day make him proud. I’m so glad our paths crossed. I will miss him.
He was referring of course to Bacon, http://www.baconaustin.com/the restaurant in Austin. It’s just off South Lamar on 10th Street. Historic Castle Hill looms to the west, its old Austin charm unruffled. To the east is the new look of Austin: a 30-story condo tower jutting skyward in the downtown area. The restaurant itself is an old Austin throwback. A framed house out of the 1940s, this structure has been remodeled with beautiful wooden floors, big picture windows and lots of cozy tables and wooden chairs in the dining area. Flat screens broadcast from the walls.
I had the waffle and Cherie had the French toast. (The most interesting man in the world was sitting nearby and chatted with us briefly.) And was it ever delicious. My waffle had bits of hickory smoked bacon cooked into it. Angled slices of fresh banana stretched their way across the waffle, adding to the presentation and the flavor. Cherie’s French toast, crisscrossed with two strips of crisp bacon, looked even better. Freshly brewed mocha java steamed from our cups nearby.
Jesse Fincher, the manager and someone we consider our unofficial fourth son, runs the place with charm. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all served here. Vegetarian meals too. Salads. Beer and wine. Trivia contests are scheduled. South by Southwest music gigs will blow the place up come March 2012.
As we left, I noticed the framed poster on the wall advertising the Elvis Big Biscuit. Where else could the most interesting man in the world possibly have bacon?
Gruene, TX, June 13, 2011 – At Gruene Hall, it can often feel like you’re in somebody’s living room listening to an old friend play some guitar. Sometimes it feels like it could be your own living room. And here tonight, Guy Clark felt like that old friend, just playing guitar and singing songs – songs that he wrote and that have become classics that defy a time period.
It was a sold out show. It was hot – 100+ degrees in early June. We got there early to stand in line with hundreds of others just to get a good seat when the doors opened. I looked over at one point while standing in line on the sidewalk, hot and sweaty and with the people in front of me drinking Dox XX beer to try to keep cool, to see a golf cart scooting down the street and there sat Guy Clark himself. He was being carted around for some reason or another and I just happened to see him – smiling at the sight of so many who came to see him.
A little later, sitting about seven rows from the stage, I watched him walk onto center stage slowly (and his knee was obviously hurting because he had entered Gruene Hall during Amy Speace’s amazing opening act wearing a knee brace and walking with a cane). Verlin Thompson and Sean Kamp came on with him and sat on either side of the songwriting legend. And over the next two hours, the three played some songs – as Guy Clark characterized them in the opening segment: “We’re here to play some songs we wrote…and some we heard…” The audience chuckled…and the three guitarists played them well, seemingly virtuoso…with some mandolin and fiddle thrown in. Effortlessly. And it sounded like pure beauty.
Guy Clark is a master of the American songwriters elite. Early on in tonight’s set, he made you feel the pain behind, “If I could just get off of that LA freeway without getting killed or caught.” It was a classic song and a classic moment. “Like Desperados Waiting for a Train” rang true as well. The audience was relaxed, receptive, almost worshipful – but not so shy that they wouldn’t shout out favorites they wanted to hear. “Rita Ballou” someone shouted out. Clark’s eyes shot stage left and then out into the edges of the audience over by the windows – knowing the song and simply saying, “We’ll get to that one later.” And smiling, knowing they would. And they did.
He laughed too – trying to tune his guitar, trying to sing over the fans that blew onstage to help cool the sweltering heat. He laughed at himself as he got “hung up” as he described it while watching and listening as Kamp banged out a guitar solo later in the show.
“Old Friends” was especially meaningful this night to this crowd. That living room feeling, perhaps you’re sitting somewhere in West Texas at a friend’s house and picking tunes together on guitars…that’s the feeling I’ll remember from this night. “Old friends…shining like diamonds,” Clark sang joyfully. The crowd was with him, shining – each like an old friend.