Sunday, February 9, 2014

Looking for Sunshine in De Kalb


Sunday, February 8.  Often it feels that since the first week of November, we have been hunkered down beneath a sky low with gray clouds, a closed pot, a chilly bucket of ice, the temperature always shivering between 20 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit.   Doesn’t seem to matter where we are:  New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas.  Looking for an 18th century relative’s grave north of Philadelphia, watching the boys learn to ski in Massanutten,  exploring downtown Knoxville with a friend who loves her new home town, visiting the beach in Wilmington, always it’s bleak days, jackets, and gloves.  We joked about my rainbow hat.  Now I am sick of it.  Sick of the mud.  Sick of pushing the big-ass truck when it can’t get traction.  Sick of the cold lick of ice on the face.  Sick of worrying over propane levels in the monster , worrying about pipes and holding tanks freezing, while we hole up in warm houses.  Sick of the boys not having much to do except watch some screen.  Sick of staying at Hundred Acre Woods most days because my running partner is occupied with her father and his recovery, and the boys have become as grouchy as tea-party voters.
Chilly Day at Hundred Acre Woods
I know it hasn’t all been sludge and misery.   I hopped on the bicycle a couple times since getting docked at Hundred Acre Woods, and I remember getting really determined because a couple of warm days in Texas got away from me before I assembled my gear.  But, God, how many places have we visited and fought the cold—standing outside Dixieland, Thomas Wolfe’s house, trying to get a still shot while shouldering the wind; rushing, rushing, rushing, as we pushed into the gusts the long path beside the crash site of United Flight 93,  and my ass freezing as I sat at the foot of Grant’s statue waiting for Boehner to give the go ahead to ignite the Christmas tree in front of the nation’s capitol.
What did we expect? It’s fall.  It’s winter.  Get a grip, Dude. It ain’t the end of the world.  We haven’t been caught in any blizzards.  It ain’t Minneapolis or Buffalo or Boston.  I have not had to maneuver the monster on a highway turned ice rink.  No newscopter puffing air above us stuck on a freeway clogged with stranded, wrecked, abandoned semi-trailers, school buses, and mothers’ little SUV’s, filming our despair as we gobble down our last bag of fiery crunchy Cheetos and final can of RC Cola. 
Yet Thursday when I tapped the cloudy icon on my iphone and saw the forecast for the next seven days to be more of the same, cloudy, chance of ice and snow, lows 20-30, highs 30-45, I cracked. “No more.  Help me.  Save me,”  I whimpered somewhere deep inside, imagining Wolf Blitzer hovering above the house in the woods filming for a CNN special.  “The Caravan of Winter:  Crisis in Wonderland.” Maybe it was Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil searching for a true and desperate survivor in the last stages of cabin fever, someone they could cure on air.  Help me!  I think Dr. J. and Captain Crunch felt it also.   After opening the gates for the cattle to hurry to their hay bales, Dr. J. sullenly sat at the dining room table and completed algebra problems.  The Captain argued over a writing assignment: “Describe a candy that you would create.”  “But I don’t know any ingredients in candy!  What am I supposed to say, glucose, red dye 92.”  He had a point, but I wasn’t going to give it to him.  “Choose natural flavors,” I said.  I tried to read scholarly articles on the Protestant Ethic and the Invisible Hand, but mostly fell asleep, so I tuned in to a marathon of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.   When at 10:00 that night the boys began arguing over who could use my computer, I cracked.  I started morphing into a weird character from a story that Flannery O’Connor would write.  I began to grow dangerous.  I felt it coming.
Our Friends in the Woods
But today’s media conglomerates help those who help themselves.   So instead of waiting for Wolf or Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil to save me, or killing my sons and burying them beneath hay bales, I hatched an escape plan.  It was time for me to hit the road.  While I was breaking down, Knightsmama was moving The Buckaroo, her father, from rehab to an assisted living facility.  Following his stroke, The Buckaroo has made amazing progress and is working his way up the chain of health care options from Intensive care to independent living.  He is now at level four in a chain of five or six.   Knightsmama was ready to let others care for her father and spend a couple of days with her boys.  With her blessings, Friday morning, I headed north toward the Red River.  I had a couple of pilgrimages to make, since I was in Northeast Texas.
On New Year Eve, at 5:15 in the evening, in 1985, a DC-3-N711Y crashed in a field near De Kalb, Texas.  That plane was carrying Rick Nelson, his girlfriend, and members of The Stone Canyon Band, who were traveling from Alabama to Dallas for a New Year’s Eve show.  Even though, following the crash, rumors spread that Nelson and others had been free basing cocaine, the cause of the plane crash was determined to be mechanical.  This particular plane, which once belonged to Jerry Lee Lewis, had a long history of mechanical problems.  While I really can’t say what I was doing when I heard the news—like I can tell you where I was when the Challenger exploded just 29 days later—I know that I was moved, saddened, at a loss, and the crash has stayed with me because for me Nelson was a hero and, I suppose, a kind of role model. 
Rick Nelson's Plane on Fire

Most people my age—at the tale end of the boomers—had other heroes, like Dylan, Lennon, Morrison, Reed, Bowie.  Lord knows, I admire these artists.   But like Christians say, I feel like I had a personal relationship with Rick.  I call him “Rick,” because I sympathized with his attempts to separate himself from “Ricky.”  While I cannot remember watching the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as a kid, no doubt with my sisters and mother, we must have.  Along the way, as “Lyman Jr.” I accepted my role as the cute and funny diminutive brother.  Maybe I even repeated Ricky's line:  “I don’t mess around, boy” for a laugh.   I seemed to have always known and loved the song “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In it?” his version, not Hank’s Williams version of the Clarence William’s song.   I felt the same way about his first recording, “I’m Walkin.”  I could sing along to “Travelin' Man” at eight years old, and still can sing the entire song, which, however appropriate for this road trip, has not impressed my sons.   But because I have some kind of innate love of old country and country rock, I was right there in 1970 when Nelson released his Troubadour live album, and I  purchased his new releases with The Stone Canyon Band as they came out.  Sure I liked “Garden Party,” but that wasn’t my favorite.  I love his version of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me.”  By this time, my sister, The Queen Bee, was encouraging me to where my long hair like Rick did. 
Travellin' Man

Because I am a fanboy (and a researcher/scholar type) at heart, I’ve read about and thought more about Nelson than an adult man should.  I have a set of DVD’s of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet that I attempted to interest the boys in several years ago when we didn’t have cable or gaming consoles.  Here are fun facts. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet played on the radio for 402 episodes from October, 1944, to June, 1954.  The brothers, David and Rick, joined that show in 1949, when they were 12 and 8, respectively.  Then they moved to television, and for 14 television seasons, 1954 to 1966, the show remained on ABC.  It ranks as the “longest running live action sitcom in television history."  (Of course, now in its 26th year, The Simpsons far surpasses it as the longest running situation comedy and longest running scripted show.)  So first, Rick was a child actor; then he became an instant teen idol in 1957, with his performance of “I’m Walkin” at the end of one of the programs.  Over all, he had 18 top ten singles, another 17 in the top 40,  and another 17 in the top 100.   Twelve albums reached the top 100.   We should not forget he had a great band with James Burton on guitar and later with Tom Brumley on steel guitar.
Now I will not proclaim that Rick Nelson is one of the greatest talents of the Rock and Roll Era. His career is strong, but he struggled to keep developing and to resist becoming purely a nostalgia act.  In the fifties, he helped bring rock and roll to a mass audience, and he was always a strong rockabilly act.   Sure, Elvis was rawer; Johnny Cash was a deeper and fuller artist.  Certainly Dylan and many others had greater genius.  But Nelson had a sweetness of voice and disposition that everyone admired.   After Nelson's death, Bob Dylan often included "Lonesome Town," one of Rick's classics, in his concerts.  I just like him.  He seemed to be a good guy.  And I admire that he never gave up.  Like Dylan after him, Nelson basically lived on the road in his own never ending tour.   Until it ended, in De Kalb.  Isn’t this, and isn’t “Travelin' Man," enough of a reason to drive two hours on country roads to see the town where the traveling man’s  journey ended?
Burroughs Adding Machine
For me, yes.  For you . . . well, I can’t say that I would recommend De Kalb for a visit, unless you are headed that way already.  I am not being mean, it’s just that there ain’t much there.  The De Kalb Museum, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, is a five-room wooden frame house that has the layout and feel of a junk shop.  But proving that somebody’s junk is someone else’s treasure, these rooms contain the history of the town through its material culture.  Mostly the items were donated by folks who have lived there, and their contributions are proudly noted.  You will find a Burroughs adding machine from Proctor’s Grocery and Hardware; an old photograph from a Texas A&M graduate who died in World War I; the uniform from a citizen who played years of minor league ball; tickets and photographs from a concert that Elvis put on nearby when he barn stormed North Texas in the middle 50’s; an electric hair dryer.  Knickknacks, furniture, kitchen equipment, military weapons from days gone by, all interesting.  They even include a replica of a quilt with secret messages like those used for the underground railroad. 
In one room, they devote a corner to Rick Nelson.  In addition to old 45s and concert photos, you can see a photograph of the plane while it was burning, and the sign in sheets of the volunteer fire department members.  I was especially moved by a book of photographs documenting a recent visit by Nelson’s guitarist James Burton, who has retired in Shreveport.  You want a treat:  go back to Nelson’s early recordings and listen to his electric guitar.  Class and style.
Dan Blocker as Hoss
And I must mention the other corner of this room.  It’s a shrine to one of their favorite sons, Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza.  Stand next to the life size cardboard statue and in spite of his sweet smile and all the memories of his humor and sense of justice, you can feel the power of his 6 foot 4 inch height and his 300 pounds.  Blocker was born in De Kalb in 1928.  If I ever knew it, I forgot, but Blocker was a seriously educated man.  He earned his bachelor’s from Hardin Simmons College, then his master’s from Sul Ross University in Alpine.  For several years as a young man he taught school, and though Wikipedia does not confirm the fact, it appears that he was working on a doctorate at UCLA when he was cast as Hoss.  Like Rick Nelson, he has the reputation for being a genuinely generous and kind human being.  Another similarity is that both Blocker and Nelson were fathers of twins.  Girls for Blocker and boys for Nelson.  And again, like Nelson, he starred in one of the longest running dramas in history of television.  One of the things I find ironic is that this icon of the American Western, according to a newspaper tacked to a wall in the De Kalb Chamber of Commerce Museum, moved his family to Switzerland.  His reasoning rings true today—when in a time that our nation needs so much to maintain civil, economic, and environmental balance, why are we spending millions or billions on warfare?  In his case, it was the Agent Orange dropped on North Vietnam.  In our case, well, take your choice.   Then as in Nelson’s death, the unexpected.  His weight or something caught up with him.  He had gall bladder surgery, but suffered a pulmonary embolism and died.   Age 43.  Rick Nelson, age 45. 
The Grave of Dan Blocker
So stepping outside the museum and walking around a portion of the remains of the plane that carried Rick Nelson, I left the museum and headed east for a few blocks, took a left between the Dollar General and a funeral home, found the cemetery and said good-bye to Hoss.  The sky was gray and wind still cold, but I was feeling a little better.  For a day or two, I was back on the road.  And I was paying homage to two men who made my life happier, and, I believe, represent something fully American.  Then I got back on the highway, headed west for Paris.  And that’s another story.





Soundtrack Triple Feature:  Bonanza Theme Song.

Rick Nelson.  "Travellin' Man"

Bob Dylan:  "Lonesome Town."


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