Down the Line

 

    Despite the sad circus my place of employment has become, there’s still work to be done.

    On what would’ve been singer-songwriter Buddy Holly’s 75th birthday I kept an appointment in Saratoga Springs. While I wished we could’ve met at the horse track, preferably between educated selections of The Racing Form (a publication whose pages are prayed over more than any evangelical’s Bible), alas, the clients preferred wagering on whether our company could fulfill their request.

    One puckishly hopes we labeled the Saratoga Springs job “Longshot” and not “Out of the Money.”

    Secluded as the company is along the Connecticut Cold Coast these days, and piling construction delays on I-87 south of Albany, a two-hour drive nearly lasted three. Sure. I would’ve driven directly from my New York home, but a misplaced essential file was suddenly discovered in the office. Its contents urgently required my detour and collection before finally blazing north.

    My employers have never learned two vital work rules. First, never make your job harder. Second, don’t make another’s job harder, either. Reasons why require zero explanation.

    Once I’d left stupid in my dust and escaped suburbia for Upstate New York, I enjoyed thick summer greenery and sought listenable radio stations. Here in the East I’m a terrestrial radio kind of guy. But reception methods aside, I’ve begun favoring tunes from my formative and impressionable years.

    Not oldies … Okay. Oldies. Today’s beats fail moving me. They have nothing to say. Or I don’t hear what they’re saying. Perhaps they’ve intentionally excluded me from their listening metrics. Or in head-nodding recognition to predecessors who commented similarly about my generation’s rock ‘n’ roll, what today’s cultural ascendants term “music” leaves me cold.

    Since Buddy Holly how many stanzas have been written and sung as plaintively as “What to do now that she doesn’t want me?/What to do?”

    Plaintive, not aching.

    Fading signals forced me to seek and search plenty. Commemorating Buddy Holly, throughout the day Hudson River radio stations up and down the dial sprinkled their play lists with the 1950’s icon’s music.

    For those Gen X-ers and Millennials believing history only started at their births, yeah, Holly was that big a deal. Nobody from today’s youthquake comes close. Not even Jay-Z.

    How elemental is Buddy Holly? Without Buddy Holly there’s a crater in pop culture. Who motivates Paul McCartney? No McCartney, no silly little love songs which inspire and intimidate current songwriters.

    Averaging two minutes playing time, Holly’s compositions exalted or plumbed the most beguiling and unfathomable of our human conditions: young romance. His clear honest Plains voice complemented those spare but precise lyrics.

    Regarding one of Holly’s major hits, That’ll Be the Day, there is a fine piece of American mythmaking that’s too good to dispute. One evening Holly, a Lubbock, Texas, native (Lubbock, a city best viewed in the rearview at 70 mph.) watched The Searchers in a local movie theater. In it, John Wayne, his role embodying both extremes of Anglo conquest of the West, responds spitefully to a suggestion. From the actor’s response Holly crafted a musical touchstone.

    But the story could be wrong.

    After Linda Ronstadt recorded her crisp, loud, insistent version of That’ll Be the Day, and once toxic Islam unleashed itself on civilization, I wondered if her clarion could be used as a diversion. Instead of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, how about Ronstadt’s booming slicing through the void?

    Couldn’t that be the sort of thing which might dissuade all but the harshest practitioners from rocking the boat into good rocking tonight? No? Okay.

    I prefer the eastern slab of Hudson River Valley against its High Tor. Both sides are verdant yet eastern recollections offer respite from adulthood. Even the ride’s better. A sylvan Taconic Parkway skirts old appleknocker towns and pastures. The burly Thruway paralleling the Palisades grinds towards Albany and beyond. True, the relentless interstate is quicker.

    Starting in the late 60s through the mid 70s I spent a lot of hours in cars traversing each road. The eastside route ended in formative experiences. The other way informed me later in life.

    The bad first.

    After 11 years of marriage, whatever bound my parents frayed. Rather than divorce, they separated. Both were restless. My father especially. His inattention must’ve infected my mother. Otherwise she shouldn’t have been so acquiescent, but provoked.

    Instead of conflict they quietly compromised. Their whole arrangement remains a mystery, but among mother’s perks father uncomplainingly furnished were annual weeklong trips to Cape Cod for her then onto Montreal for us both.

    My parents remained a couple in limbo for the next 39 years. Though apart, they brandished their respective rings until his death. Despite father’s long-term girlfriend’s disappointment, my mother, his widow, retained his name and all rights accorded it.

    Good.

    During their early separation years mother kept company with a man dissimilar from father. “Kept company.” How quaint. There’s a phrase I’ve never used and haven’t heard since Lois spoke it. But she’s a whole different summer night.

    Castle was that hometown boy who scored an eternally memorable high school touchdown and parlayed his minute success into a lifetime of rewarding boorishness. Might he have stumbled before crossing that goal line he may’ve become a better person. Less an entitled braggart. Maybe thankful.

    What happened to him in the end was karmic. Even O. Henry couldn’t have written the payback Castle cashed.

    My father came from relations so poor, he was po’. He only saw high school on my graduation day. He shared glory with millions of Americans who served in World War II. And if he ever took his life for granted, it would’ve been news to him.

    Long years before his worm turned, Castle liked to scoop up mother and me and join him in attending an August afternoon or several of thoroughbred racing at Saratoga. We’d arrive at the track in style, swaddled inside the latest block-long piece of rolling Detroit flash. Those were Thruway cars. No way Castle’s beasts handle the narrow Taconic’s swerves. A few of his roadmonsters ought have been leaving wakes in the Hudson.

    Northward, Joe Tex monopolized the 8-track. After the day’s results and dinner at the soul food shack Castle always swore would improve his luck for next time, Brook Benton serenaded us homebound. While Brook crooned, I’d sprawl on the behemoth’s rear sofa and study stars until our suburban lights rendered them invisible again.

    I mentioned the Saratoga Springs trip to my mother. She wondered whether that soul shack still existed. If so, probably now transformed into someplace emphasizing Southern regional specialties. Every menu item at Northern prices.

    For the longest its memory put me off appetizers. They served fried okra as a stimulant. Why not go whole hog and plop down a bowl of succotash to further chill any anticipated savories?

    My mother recalled the establishment’s heat. Not vibe. The discomforting kind manifesting through bad circulation. No AC, fans that struggled against summer swelter.

    Nothing swears Southern authenticity like fat water drops beading on big glasses of iced tea and sweat dripping off one’s forehead into the entrée.

    Now the good.

    Parallel to Castle, Saratoga Springs pari-mutuels, the Thruway itself, the camp where I’d spend much of summer. At ours we didn’t make wallets. No three-legged races. Nor mangle campfire songs. Or whatever regular campers did.

    A grammar school teacher saw my potential. A k a, unrealized talent. Well. That fellow must’ve seen something. They let me join them.

    On 125 acres of ramble, bramble, and forest, the teacher’s organization established a retreat in one of those rustic towns off the Taconic. Minors roamed the land throughout summer. After Labor Day adults communed there for symposia. Our mentor and his wife, both French ex-pats, were Buckminster Fuller acolytes. Better him than Ayn Rand.

    Geodesic domes randomly bubbled in clearings and “Bucky balls” sat within grasps anywhere serious intellects met. While plenty of theory thickened that Upstate air, counselors did their utmost to develop our childish minds in the least imposing manners possible.

    If remembered correctly, nestled in all that wildness, we drew lessons from the nature surrounding us and applied them towards art, literature or music. Whichever medium an individual found most appealing. It was the gentlest regimentation one could imagine.

    I can’t help but reminisce upon it fondly. Of course we were kids. There was no shortage of stooge-slapping lunacy. Update the Little Rascals but excise the sweetness and that was us.

    Mid July 1969 began my second summer there. That year stands out among the seven I logged. Men on the moon and Woodstock.

    We witnessed the first on a TV whose signal must’ve beamed from Mercury rather than Albany. How many years passed before I clearly saw Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon? Whereas that Woodstock thing was reachable. At least in the minds of the older kids with the freshest of drivers permits. They reckoned all that needed doing was getting on Route 23, drive west through the city of Hudson, across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge south into Woodstock.

    Forget that “Woodstock the event” played in Bethel, far west of us. All anybody knew then was Woodstock … the nearby town.

    Harebrained in hindsight, the means availed. Those bigger kids had use, very local use, of two vehicles. Both would’ve fit Warner Brothers gangster movies. Only Tommy guns and fedoras were missing. Each car a 1930s model; the boxy sedan had running boards and the roadster a rumble seat.

    Only the hardiest would’ve ventured and my then 10-year-old self was wide-eyed enough to have gone. Even if it meant road-surfing on a running board. Especially if it meant surfing on the running board! To this day I don’t know what good fortune prevented us from going. Probably couldn’t cobble up enough quarters for gas and tolls.

    One of our more earthbound activities was peering at the nightly heavens through a telescope. In urban settings streetlamps douse all but the brightest glimmers. Upstate, one sees such illumination as oases in the desert. A vast desert.

    On those cool July and August evenings, our universe repeatedly revealed itself against a depthless black matte. The celestial riot made focus difficult.

    Fortunately, the same counselors who divined tarot cards also possessed working knowledge of astronomy, as well as astrology. If I’m correct, we spied Mars and Jupiter, and a plenitude of unknown bodies. One of which must have had its own gaping campers.

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