Strumming up a Storm

I sat on my bike looking up the highway for the paper truck. Normally I would be watching for birds, cool cars, and pretty girls passing by; anything but the bundle of papers that launched my daily paper route. But this day there might be more than the paper bundle, the truck might have my reward for selling subscriptions to the paper, and behold there it was; a rectangle unpretentious gray box without even a label to proclaim itself. I grabbed it from the driver’s hands and hurried back to my bike to peak inside. The content was an equally unpretentious bone white plastic hollow curved body with a neck and strings attached. I pulled it out and examined it with curiosity.

A mad woman exploded from a house nearby. “I haven’t seen one of those for decades!” she shouted. Out her gate and down the side walk she galloped. “Can I tune it for you?”

“Sure.” I don’t argue with crazy people.

She twisted the pegs, stretched the strings, cocked her head, twisted some more, then burst into a sunshine smile as she flogged the strings with her thumb and launched into “Five foot two eyes of blue…”, “Tiger Rag,” and several other classics from the basement of her memory. She handed it back to me, “Not a bad tone. I’ve never seen one made of plastic before.”

She cruised back to her house in her imaginary 1922 Bearcat Roadster, dressed in her imaginary raccoon coat, frolicking with her old college class mates and humming “Five foot two…”

“Let me know if I can help you learn to play it. You’ll love it,” she called back over her shoulder.

A ukulele will do that to you I found.

A couple of ukes later I was in a tent in the Idaho panhandle deep in the Kanicksu forest, miles from the nearest road. My uke and I were singing, “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “The Last Waltz,” and “The Lovesick Blues,” while my fellow laborers, young men from the south, tapped their toes, hummed along and wiped their eyes. Nobody ridiculed them. For one thing the group included The Golden Gloves heavyweight boxing champ of Oklahoma; for another, a ukulele to tired men on a quiet night can turn the most sophisticated jazz fan into a melancholy country boy.

In the 1940’s and 50’s my mother and every other mother in America except maybe those whose hearing aid batteries had gone weak, would never think of starting their day without the companionship of Arthur Godfrey on the radio. Frequently the high point of his low key homey talk and music show was Arthur, his baritone voice and baritone ukulele musically sauntering through “The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.”

Meanwhile at the junior high and high school assemblies my friend Dick Davis and I were knocking them dead with Homer and Jethro’s country takeoffs of current hit songs. This was high society hill billy at its finest. Great lines like these from the country version of “Kiss of Fire.”

“I touch your lips that’s when the trouble starts abrewin’

I cain’t resist the brand tobacco you are chewin’”

And this saga of a love sick sheep;

“He followed her over the mountain to see what he could learn

But she disappeared in the bushes. He didn’t see that ewe turn.”

Our rendition of Stan Freiberg’s take off of the country classic, “Dear John” reflected more innocent days. Neither Dick’s crumpled army hat, nor my comely wedding veil nor Freiberg’s lyrics stirred up a moral indignation backlash or a backside full of buckshot from the National Redneck Association (I assume there is one.) The lyric ended with:

“I have always been your best girl, but tonight I’ll wed another.

I couldn’t wait, so I have married your father.

That’s all for now, love mother.”

Our ukuleles got us invited to lots of parties where we met lots of cute girls.

On the home front our kitchen rang with ukulele strums and family harmony. My Dad particularly enjoyed singing the ballads he had courted Mom with.

Golden age two of the ukulele passed into history alongside the flappers and gold fish swallowers of the 1920’s. Dick and I added two more strings and graduated to guitars. My siblings and I married and took our music with us.

But good things never die. My cool dude grandsons, seniors in high school just got ukuleles. Recently my wife, Sharon and I taught a fourth grade class of 35 enthusiastic ukulele wielding future balladeers including Marcus, another grandson. My charming, stylish, yoga-teaching sister Jeanie is shopping for a ukulele. Racks of ukes are appearing in the music stores. Sweet, hot and happy strings are flavoring music again on radios and I pods. The ukes are rising again.

I am certain we will see a corresponding drop in sales of migraine and ulcer medications. So here is my invitation to lower your blood pressure and lift your spirits. Get a ukulele, learn three chords, and join us in strumming for a happier world.

My pleasure to present

“It is now my pleasure to present…,” said the man at the microphone. Hands throughout the auditorium were poised to applaud. The president of a nationwide network of motels was about to announce a program to build dinner theaters at the motels. For the thespians and performers including The Three D’s gathered in company headquarters in Memphis Tennessee, the circuit might be the greatest opportunity since Vaudeville.

The announcer uttered the president’s name. The welcoming applause was predictably thunderous from an audience with so much self interest at stake. The sound crescendoed to its peak, struggled then slipped as hands grew weary of clapping, whistling lips dried, and enthusiasm seeped away.

Meanwhile his Excellency the president ambled toward the microphone arriving several seconds after silence had replaced the jubilation. Sagged expressions replaced smiles on the faces of the audience members, all of whom considered themselves experts in stage technique. Across the table I heard one potential starlet of the circuit say to another, “He just doesn’t get it.” Her companion nodded.

What they accurately predicted was that any person who didn’t ride in on the applause of his or her introduction and use it as a launching pad didn’t know bean one about show business. Not a good omen for the proposed theater circuit. Not surprisingly the project never got off the ground. It was like asking a garden club president to race stock cars..

“You only get one chance to make a first impression,” as the saying goes. On stage, when the curtain opens, your chance to soar or face plant is multiplied by the number of people in the audience. Start off right and you are halfway to a standing ovation. Stumble, and immediately feel the flop sweat begin to seep into your shoes.

Sometimes the deck is so stacked against you it’s like having a hangman for master of ceremonies. I once performed for a national organization of university educators. Like many intellectuals, they considered the expanding world population a curse on the future of the earth.

The master of ceremonies meant well. He laid on the usual accolades, but finished with, “And he is the father of fifteen children.” I felt like a Christian being introduced in the coliseum by Nero. The silence was deafening. The stony faces and smattering of applause told me I was a ham sandwich in a synagogue. Introductions on stage are different only in degree from personal introductions. If we are introducing someone to another person or small group, consider beforehand the good things you know about that person, and particularly those things that might link him or her into the group. Introducing ourselves is a bit different. We obviously don’t want to open with a list of our accomplishments, but a word or two about who we are is certainly appropriate.

The next difference between public and private introductions is even more important in my opinion. On stage or at a podium or pulpit it is expected that we will deliver the presentation we have prepared. People would be confused if we immediately asked for questions from the audience or launched into a sing along.

But in private introductions I have found that after a brief statement of my identity, the best thing I can do is listen. If the other person doesn’t fill the silence with his own opinions or observations, a non threatening sincere question may break the ice.

The mechanics are also important, a firm handshake, eye contact, and a smile almost always open doors to communication. I have a pet peeve about people who want to dominate an introduction. A university president I met a few times was known for his hand shaking style. Particularly if you were taller than he which many people were, he would grab your hand and pull you off balance to let you know up front who was in charge of the conversation. I admired the man as a mover and a shaker. He didn’t need to try to intimidate me with hand shaking theatrics. I have a friend who instead of pressing palms grasps just the fingers of your hand and crushes them to one up you. An introduction should be an invitation to discourse, not a call to arms with verbal light sabers.

The Three D’s received many introductions over the years. Some were grandiose, some simple. My favorite intro of all time was from a scout leader introducing us at a Jamboree.

“Welcome The Three D’s.” He said, “Boys, we have a real treat for you tonight. The Three D’s will entertain us. And I want to tell you. I would sooner hear these guys sing than eat. (pause)

Because I have heard them eat.

“Welcome The Three D’s.”

Athletic Moves

“He said it seemed like a good idea at the time.” (Steve McQueen in the movie The Magnificent Seven, explaining why his flakey uncle jumped into a big tangle of cactus naked.)

I was considered an athlete in my youth: captain of our high school football and basketball teams; all region, and second team all state in basketball; and played for a year on Brigham Young University’s j.v. team.

I believed that good opinion of my athletic prowess up until the seventh grade. On the football field I was tall enough to catch passes over the defense. On the basketball court I was in my native habitat. For years my favorite pass time had been shooting hoops by myself or joining pick up games wherever I found them. I had some fairly good moves for a twelve year old.

Then spring came and with it a stunning shock to my all-American-athlete self image. The phys ed teacher introduced us to gymnastics. My long, smooth graceful (in my mind) body was now supposed to tuck into a tight ball and roll across the mat or fly through the air. Tucking for me was like trying to turn a grass hopper into a roll up potato bug. My tight tuck was a bent spine with elbows and knees sticking out in several directions.

Jay Brown, Mr. Cool in our class, was not built for football or basketball, but he was Bolshoi Ballet material on the tumbling mat.

Track and field, tennis, and other field events were more of the same for me. Even baseball where I had sometimes had modest success in the sand lot leagues despite my skinny arms and wide strike zone. These challenges convinced me I was not an all around athlete. They also made me grateful our little school didn’t have a golf, soccer, lacrosse, or broom polo team. I longed for autumn, winter and what I considered the real big time sports.

My new hard won humility brought with it a small shaft of insight. People have different gifts and talents. The key to happy relationships is to notice what others do well, encourage them in it, and find joy in their success as well as your own. Nobody is good at everything, but everybody is good at something. I believe that if you could design your own Olympics competition, you could capture the gold. In my case it would be a cross country race up the mountain behind our house where I jog most mornings, and know the trails well. In my Olympic run you would get additional points for each year of your age, how many children and grand children you had, if you took size 14 shoes and your left foot was longer than your right. If I needed to I would award more points if you could play “Malaguena” on the guitar, write left handed, and flip your left thumb out of joint. I think I would have a good chance of taking home the trophy in that race.

“That’s a stupid race,” you might legitimately say. True, but is it more stupid than hitting a boxing glove with a broom, throwing a ball into a fruit basket, or madly sweeping a broom ahead of a rock sliding on the ice? (The beginnings of baseball, basketball and present procedure in the sport of curling.)

But back to the point of this diatribe if there is one. Sports can be entertaining, participating can be healthful, but contrary to my seventh grade perspective they are no measures of the importance of one person over another.

Beyond the enjoyment and the health benefits of sports, are the skills one learns of any practical value? What is the real life usefulness of putting a ball in a basket nailed up on a wall when the basket has a hole in the bottom? How about carrying an inflated pigskin across grass while being pummeled by a stampede of human flesh. How about hitting various kinds and sizes of balls with various shapes of bats, clubs, or rackets, only to have to retrieve the balls or have someone else hurl or swat them back to or at you? Except for fighting through a Black Friday Christmas shopping crowd like a fullback driving for yardage, or sweeping your house clean in 23 seconds if you are a champion curler, most athletic skills don’t seem that practical.

But there is one sport that can be very useful in certain situations. The sport is gymnastics. The situation is when a car with a total idiot at the wheel (a.k.a. an 18 year old male driver) is accelerating like a drag racer down the straight away so the people hanging on to the side of the car will be afraid to jump off.

Fortunately the sport of car hanging has attracted only a small following. To participate you need fingernails of steel, white knuckles, skill in judging speed, and the intelligence of a retarded mealworm. Who would do this and why? Who? Jay Brown and me. Why?*

This is gymnastics on steroids. Procrastinating your jump a nanosecond too late as we did incurs a penalty. Jay hit the ground, took two giant steps across a field, snapped into a tight front roll, spun like a tumbleweed in the wind, and jumped up dusty with only a scratch on his nose. I flew off the driver’s side, took one giant step, made a five point landing on the pavement and skidded to a stop. I picked gravel and tar out of my hands, elbows and one hip bone for weeks.

As every athlete knows, it’s hard to win on the road.

* See Steve McQueen observation