Saturday, February 19, 2022

Timeless Notes: Fathers

     I've been thinking about Shel Silverstein lately. The United States Postal Service is issuing a stamp in his honor later this year.     
     He's one of those Chicago writers who seldom make the casting call of Chicago literary talent, even though he was born here, grew up in Logan Square and went to the University of Illinois. He started writing and drawing for Playboy, living here until success hit and the moved, quite prudently, to a houseboat in Sausalito.
     Silverstein should be on the list, "The Giving Tree," featured on the stamp, certainly having as much impact on our culture as "Humboldt's Gift." He was an amazingly broad talent: he also wrote "A Boy Named Sue" for Johnny Cash, and deserves some hoopla in his hometown to go along with this stamp.
     But our Saturday correspondent, Caren Jeskey, beat me to the punch, at least with the opening quote to today's report, which I've delayed your reading too long already. Here it is:

I cannot go to school today!"
Said little Peggy Ann McKay
My leg is cut, my eyes are blue
It might be instamatic flu
I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke
I'm sure that my left leg is broke
My hip hurts when I move my chin
My belly button's caving in
My back is wrenched, my ankle's sprained
My 'pendix pains each time it rains
My nose is cold, my toes are numb
I have a sliver in my thumb
My neck is stiff, my spine is weak
I hardly whisper when I speak
My tongue is filling up my mouth
I think my hair is falling out
My elbow's bent, my spine ain't straight
My temperature is 108
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear
There's a hole inside my ear
I have a hangnail, and my heart is... what?
What's that? What's that you say?
You say today is Saturday? Ha-ha
G'bye, I'm goin' out to play”
— from "Sick" by Shel Silverstein
     Long gone are the days when I played sick to get out of an exam at school. I’ve barely been able to get off of the couch for weeks after an exhausting move, then the flu. I can’t wait to be well again. I am hoping I’ll be able to get out and play this weekend, maybe even today.
     These days, typical stressors can feel like a lot more to contend with than they used to. We don’t have room to process normal life phases right now. Even though a pandemic was inevitable, we are dealing with collective shock and grief. The texture of our lives has been altered. L
ife stages and aging cannot be sufficiently processed with the angst and pain of a bigger demon on our tails.
     Enter the gifts of the humanities, and of our own imaginations and memories to get us out of this mess.
     The original Whip In opened in 1986 and was a cozy, wood paneled convenience store with a small bar and restaurant with red vinyl booths that served generous portions of aromatic, authentic Indian food. It’s on a major interstate, I35 (the most terrifying Indy 500 wannabe thoroughfare I’ve ever travelled save Chicago’s current incarnation of the Dan Ryan), in Austin Texas.
     I stumbled upon it several years ago before it was sold (and sadly rearranged but that’s another story). The long side of the L-shaped bar boasted tap after tap of crafty beers, some brewed in house. The short side had just a handful of stools, wine on tap, and several shelves of cheap to fancy wines.
      I ordered some food and a glass of red wine. It was impossible not to notice the dapper chap sitting at the other end of the small bar. He was dark haired and grizzled in a handsome cowboy way. He wore a white fedora and it didn’t take me long to realize that it was James McMurtry, Larry’s son.
     His body language said Keep Out, and so I did. I chatted a bit with the barkeep, and very quietly told him that I was dying inside a little, one of my favorite songsters a few feet away. I’d been known to sell James’ music to my friends with “he’s one of the greatest living American poets!” And who can not dance to Choctaw Bingo?
     I once listened to James’ "Complicated Game" driving east down rural highways to a work training in College Station. In his music, I felt the southern blues in my bones as deep as Chicago and Gary steel mill rusty melancholy. Amidst the stark pain of dreams deferred and the longing sensitivity of an artist’s soul, James is witty and funny. When he strums his guitars they are an extension of the rest of his sentient being. He’s a joy to behold through the airwaves and even more so in person.
     The barkeep took the matters into his mains compétentes. “James! My friend Caren here is drinking the same wine you are!” An eye cautiously looked up at me from under the white felted hat. “Hmm, you don’t say?” Within a short time James had moved a few stools closer until there was just one in between us.
     I sat very still, having wooed a forest creature into trusting me. A woman came up and let him know “the boar sausage is in the freezer and ready for you to pick up!” James was pleased by this news. He generously regaled me with a tale about his recent wild boar hunting expedition with his crossbow.
     Here I was, the mythical McMurtry family the reality of my life.
     I’m not sure what prompted it, but suddenly James was telling me a long story. I dared not look straight at him, for fear of ruining the moment. I soaked up his gravelly voice in my left ear. As I recall, the story involved a saloon owner who, during the Gold Rush, travelled from town to town opening establishments in booming towns. When the area dried up, he’d pack up and move the gig to the next hot spot, sticking his sign into the dusty ground, tiny town after town, as he travelled.
     James said something about the moral of the story, and it was not something simple about industriousness. Maybe one day that memory will come back to me. I hope so.
     The story was told to him by his father, 
 Larry McMurtry who we sadly lost last year. (I think it’s a book too, but haven’t been able to find it yet. If you know, please let me know). It registered that James McMurtry just shared, in detail, one of his father’s magical fantasies with me. Time stood still. No amount of money can buy the most valuable things in life. James commented “oh. I reckon I just spoiled the story for you.” I assured him that he had not.


  1. Interesting how you recall some obscure details of the establishment, etc. but not the moral of the story. Makes you wonder where your mind was.

  2. I suspect that François recognized you as just as much a "forest creature" as James, and got you both together in the knowledge that you would enjoy each other's company, even briefly.

    I often base decisions on whether I would later regret doing something, or not doing it. For many years, I admired the work of a very famous Chicago-based TV and movie actor, but I'm not one to write fan letters or seek out meetings with celebrities, so I did nothing. Nevertheless, when he abruptly up and died one day, I felt a severe sense of loss at not being able to thank him for his work, and what it had meant to me.

    By some cosmic coincidence, my wife had gone to high school with his niece, and a few years after his passing, we went to her high school reunion. I found an opportunity there to have a few minutes of conversation with his niece, and was able to tell her how much I had admired his work over many years of TV and films, and how much I missed seeing him. She was very gracious, probably well-practiced from hearing that sort of praise at the funeral, and I left that evening feeling much better at having had a second chance to say something nice, after missing the first one.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Andy. There are a few folks I would have wanted to meet who passed away before I made the effort. These days Neil Young is on my list- not to meet, but at least to hear sing.


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