Our Trip to Virginia: Another Adventure

This post will be devoted to as much of the promised Trek to Virginia experience as the exigencies of time and space allow. My wife Betty and I went to Virginia to attend the wedding of our grand niece, Amanda O’Malley, in Norfolk; to visit friends and relatives in Charlottesville; and to give a performance of Love Letters of Lynchburg at the behest of the National Civil War Chaplains Museum,in Lynchburg. Here’s a photo of the happy couple (Amanda and Mike Calamari) and the cover of the Love Letters of Lynchburg CD—with its featured performers, Kitty Petruccelli (who would come down from Massachusetts by train), local Lynchburg actor Dallas Shipp. And me at the piano.

Amanda and Mike    LLL1

kITTY2    Dallas2   Bill at Piano4

The trek unfolded this way: we had a fine, safe flight from San Francisco to Chicago—switched planes easily (thanks to floating walkways and a shuttle train to another terminal: from “A” to “F,” literally), but when we reached Western Virginia a flight attendant announced that a “tornado warning” had been received, the storm headed toward Richmond (by way of Norfolk!), and we would, of necessity, be making not an “emergency landing” but a “diversion” landing in Roanoke, a city which resides 242 miles (or 389 kilometers) from Norfolk. Or, in the words of the gentleman across the aisle from me, who’d been reading a Bible throughout the flight and now put it down to inform the person seated next to him: “It’s a four hour drive by automobile.”

Once landed in Roanoke, an “official” came aboard and told us that we had “two options”: we could “deplane” (although he informed us that no rental cars were available, nor bus passage, nor could the airline provide lodging, because this was not a “mechanical” inconvenience, but one with “weather” at fault); in short, if we got off the plane, we’d be totally on our own, thrown back on whatever resources we could manage. The second option—which produced a collective groan and some verbal outrage—was: we could remain on the plane, fly “back to Chicago,” and take our chances on getting to Norfolk on a flight the next morning.

Betty and I “deplaned” (because of the Lynchburg gig, there was no way I was going to fly all the way back to Chicago). Even if we were forced to miss the wedding, we could take a bus to Lynchburg (two hours away), or to Charlottesville, where we had a room awaiting us at the Comfort Inn University on April 28. However, while waiting for our luggage, Betty overheard a gentleman (truly a gentleman!) say he had a van and was driving to Norfolk. The Good Samaritan who would save us was Josh Spates, a Field Service Technician who works for Heuft USA out of Chicago, a man who, as soon as the flight attendant had posted notice of our predicament, had the foresight to contact his company, which in turn secured a van for him in Roanoke.

Josh turned out to be an Iraqi War vet who had grown up in Troy, Michigan, about a mile from where Betty and I grew up, and also a “jazz nut,” like me. When I told him about the Lynchburg performance, he said, “Have you ever heard of Maynard Ferguson?” [whom he’d once seen and liked]—so I told him that, being “ancient” as I am, I’d heard Ferguson with Stan Kenton’s band at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in 1953, when that aggregate was also fleshed out with players such as Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Bill Perkins, Stan Levey, Conte Condoli, Frank Rosolino, Lee Konitz, and Zoot Sims—with June Christy on vocals. This revelation immediately made us fast friends forever, and Josh regaled us, all the way to our hotel in Norfolk (where he insisted on dropping us off, even though he lived in Virginia Beach) with stories of his mom who, assigned to house his motorcycle while he was overseas, taught herself to ride “the Hog,” and still does ride it, astonishing people when she pulls into a gas station and removes her helmet, disclosing the face of a sixty-year-old female bike fanatic. She and Josh plan to ride the Blue Ridge Mountains together soon.

The four hour ride to Norfolk turned nasty about halfway there—and Josh put in a masterful, heroic performance driving: lightning flashes igniting the silhouettes of trees, a fierce rain storm lashing the windows to what seemed to me (but obviously not to him) at the point of zero visibility. And throughout this stretch, he managed to keep up one of the most engaging conversations I’ve ever had, talking jazz and Michigan and family (his wife works as a manager at Applebee’s) and life in Virginia and just about everything else under the sun (although it was totally dark and wet outside). He did insist on depositing us right at the door of the Norfolk Waterside Marriott, and refused to take any recompense for the great and gracious ride (his company was paying for the van, he said)—until, because he’d told us of the big barbecue he was planning for family and friends the next day, we offered to help pay for the steaks, beer and potato chips, which he accepted. We also offered our Guardian Angel, this Good Samaritan, all the gratitude we could muster.

Checking into the Marriott, we saw members of the wedding party returning from the rehearsal dinner, which we’d had to miss. My sister Emily, her husband Doug, my brother Lance and his wife Margie all traipsed in, so we repaired to the bar (Shula’s Grill 347) for drinks, and some food for Betts and me (we hadn’t eaten all day!). More wedding party folks arrived: niece Ginny (mother of the bride), her son James, her daughter Amanda (the bride-to-be), Mike Calamari (groom-to-be) and his family—and another niece from Colorado, Louise, and her daughter Ashley.

On the ride to the airport in San Francisco that morning, I’d discovered another disaster (not knowing yet, of course, about the “diversion” in Roanoke). I’m a good packer (my Daddy taught me two things: how to carve a turkey and pack a suitcase), but, not having worn a coat and tie since the last wedding we’d attended (five years ago), I took great loving care to lay out a clean white shirt (which Betty had freshly ironed) and to select a suitable tie. Only problem was: I forgot to pack the suit coat I would need to wear at both wedding and the Lynchburg performance! I discovered this sin of omission around San Jose, I think. Consequently, on the morning of the wedding, I realized I would need to go out and “procure” a suit or sport coat.

Our nephew Lance (one of the coolest “cats,” one of the most hip “kids,” I know) took charge and marched Betty and me (and his son Dylan, who was looking for basketball shoes) over to MacArthur Center—to Men’s Wearhouse, where with his assistance (he took on the role of salesperson: “We may have to take a bit off the sleeves here, Sir … and let out the waist!”) and that of a legitimate salesperson–actually the store Manager, a delightful woman named Val–we came away with not only a coat but a new shirt and tie (which Val picked out herself) as well as creating a Sit Com all our own in the process. Val wanted to sell me a $659 suit, but when Betty put a stop to that—and several other extravagant suggestions—Val kept repeating, “She’s tough, she’s tough” (to which I responded, “I know! That’s how we’ve survived!”). Lance kept clowning it up in his cool witty way, and a good fun time was had by all, to the tune of $221.95. Val even insisted on having, after I tried it on, the white shirt ironed for me.

Amanda's Hair2

Once back at the Marriott, niece Barbara, my wife Betty, my sister Emily, the mother-of-the-bride Ginny, and niece Gail commenced “preparing” Amanda the bride’s hair.

We were all set for the wedding—which took place in what I thought might be a small simple church but turned out to be something of a cathedral: Christ and Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church on West Olney Road. Back at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott, we’d had to abandon watching a lavish NATO street parade in progress forty-three floors below us. Flags and representatives of nations passed by, as in the opening ceremony of the Olympics, albeit each of these was accompanied by a drum and bugle corps. I think we got as far down the line as Greece, then had to leave–but seeing the church, now, made that sudden departure worthwhile. I don’t know a whole lot about ecclesiastical architecture, but having entered this impressive edifice, I wished I did, for then I could elaborate on a possible groin vault with its two barrel vaults intersecting at right angles, or could acknowledge the ribbed vaults spanning the area transversely, each composed of diagonal ribs, the transverse ribs stilted, marking a horizontal central line to the roof like that of a barrel vault. Actually, I’m not sure this Romanesque church possessed any of these properties (or that it was even Romanesque!), although I do know that, entering and looking up, I was stunned by the height from floor to ceiling, elaborate embellishment everywhere, from pulpit to choir loft, an organ with impressive pipes presiding in the midst of the latter—the distance from where we were seated (in the second row, left-hand “family” side) to the altar equally august or imposing. I realized the wedding party would get considerable exercise that day—and not only at the reception later (where “exertion” on the dance floor would run rampant).

Once seated, I realized I was not only surrounded by architectural splendor, but relatives as well—a number of whom we had not run into the previous evening in Shula’s Grill 347. Here were my brother’s other daughters,  Barbara and Gail (the latter with her husband Pat, and daughters Mary and Kelly), my cool clothier Lance again, his wife Sarah and son Dylan, and a cousin I’d never met before: my cousin Alcorn Minor’s daughter, Lee. After acknowledging one another, we all turned to watch the wedding party solemnly yet happily parade up the main aisle, the maids of honor (a bevy of beauties) wearing dark blue strapless gowns; handsome young groomsmen in silver-grey (ivory?) tuxedos: my niece Ginny walking with her beautiful bride-to-be daughter, Amanda; Michael O’Malley (whom I’d talked to for first time in a long time the previous evening), the bride’s father leading, Amanda to a rail at which the groom, Michael Calamari, awaited her.

Amanda Wedding3  Amanda Wedding

It was all the good classic wedding “stuff”: the ceremony unfolding as prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer—presided over by the pastor of a church Amanda had attended since her birth, a man well acquainted with her life, and if a bit too long (just a bit!) in the homely, heartfelt, and rich with verbal tones. The couple exchanged their vows in tones equally clear and articulate (skills acquired at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, no doubt), folks received communion, the couple was given the pastor’s final blessing and pronounced man and wife, the wedding party filed out at a joyful pace—and we all gathered in the open air to talk it all over while photos were taken in another spot.

Thank goodness we didn’t miss this wedding because grounded in Roanoke—and thanks again to our Good Samaritan, Josh Spates! The reception  began with a cocktail party (and handsome hors d’oeuvres) back at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott, where a “grandparents” photo was taken (Lance and Margie, Doug and Em, Betty and me) and one of just the Minor siblings—and also afforded an opportunity to get truly “caught up” with relatives I hadn’t seen for some time, such as Gail Shouvlin and her daughter Mary, soon to get married herself (in September), to another Mike, who I would enjoy talking to later, at the large ballroom reception, because he’s a drummer with a band in New York. I also made the acquaintance (accidentally; we reached for celery sticks to dip in an artichoke sauce simultaneously) of a stunning young woman in a conspicuously flaming-red dress and amazingly statuesque  heels who’d been a good friend of Amanda at the University of Virginia.

Wedding Cocktail Party Minors  Wedding Cocktail Party Minors2

Betty and I drew a “family” table in the large reception hall, #13 (actually my lucky number), but everybody was roving about, so the good chatter and catching up continued—and the dinner was sumptuous: First course: Baby Arugula Salad with Goat Cheese, Figs, Candied Pecans, Virginia Serrano Ham, Strawberries with Red Wine Vinaigrette; Second Course: Tournedos of Beef Tenderloin with a Port Demi-Glace and Chicken Piccata with Yukon Gold Potatoes and Haricot Vert; Dessert: Tuxedo Dipped Strawberries (pick your brand of chocolate) and Wedding Cake.

The newlyweds arrived, and the party was on: speeches by everyone, including the groom’s sister, Vicki, who was one of the bridesmaids, and the bride’s brother, James O’Malley, who was one of Mike’s groomsmen. No band (I miss “live music” at weddings!), but a DJ, who was loud, loud, loud, and my Old Man (grandfatherly) status caught up with me, for I have an inner ear condition that makes it difficult to tolerate loud sounds, although I, even when the decibel count had grown outrageous, was having fun and hung in there for as long as I could.

Here are the newlyweds, arriving at the reception; their “first dance”; my brother-in-law Doug Roberts, niece Barbara, sister Em, and me; and Mary and Mike, soon to be married themselves.

Wedding Reception1  Wedding Reception2

Wedding1 Mary and Mike

In the elevator, when Betty and I went back up to our room, a large black man got on at the 18th floor, shaking his head in wonder. He’d seen a host of pretty girls in fancy gowns (from the wedding party) when he got on in the lobby, and dreamily, instinctively followed them out the door when they got off at the 18th floor. Now, safely back on the elevator, he was headed for the 21st (his own floor), grinning like a love-sick adolescent.

Next day, everyone (young and old) who’d stayed on after we left called the reception a total success, and had found the various dancers (if they had not been one themselves), and dances, impressive. My brother Lance and his wife Margie had to catch a plane that morning, so Betty and I went with them to the airport, so that we could say goodbye and also pick up the car we’d rented for the drive to Charlottesville. In spite of the elaborate GPS system we’d been granted, along with the car (but programmed for Charlottesville), we got lost trying to find our way back to the Marriott and ended up in Chesapeake, a frustrating but interesting diversion (we saw lots of country side and harbors we would not otherwise have been privileged to witness), and, unbeknown to us, such a detour would serve to foreshadow the history of missed turnoffs and wrong highways that would await us in Charlottesville.

Safely back at the hotel in Norfolk, we were able to CO (a friend of mine uses this abbreviation frequently now for: “Chill out’) and we joined my sister Emily, our cool hip nephew Lance, his wife Sarah, and their son Dylan on a large open deck adjacent to the 6th floor swimming pool—a warm sunny day (after the storm!) with a good view of downtown Norfolk. We spent the afternoon lounging there (Sunday, the Day of Rest), and when it got too hot, I retired to a shady area beside a wooden pavilion, where I continued reading (or rereading) Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the book I’d brought along with me on the plane.

Lance is a good Daddy, and, with the assistance of an inverted chaise lounge and then a more appropriate in height doorway, he attached a small backboard and hoop with net for Dylan, who lost no time in diverting himself “shooting baskets.” Lance also gave me (I thought he was just going to show it to me, but he bestowed it as a gift—thanks Neph!) an article which had appeared in The Wall Street Journal: an article called “Life During Wartime: soldiers and politicians, civilians and slaves—a vast chorus that captures the nation divided”: a review of a 3,478 page book, price $157.50 (!), called The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It. The review commenced with a homage to Herman Melville’s “sprawling book of poems” (70 of them) about the Civil War, then compared that work to this four volume collection of accounts written on the spot, one of which (discovered in the fourth column of the review) was by my great-grandfather’s first cousin’s son, Charles Minor Blackford (whose letters I had assembled, along with those of his wife Susan, in the Love Letters of Lynchburg piece I was just two days away from performing in Lynchburg).

The portion of the review devoted to Charles began: “In one unforgettable passage from a letter home, Confederate soldier Charles Minor Blackford recalls a seemingly trivial incident as he rode across the battlefield at Bull Run”—the discovery of “an old doll baby with only one leg lying by the side of a Federal soldier just as it dropped from his pocket when he fell writhing in the agony of death  … obviously a momento of some little loved one at home which he had brought so far with him and worn close to his heart on the day of danger and death.” Charles dismounted, picked up the doll and stuffed it “back into the poor fellow’s cold bosom that it might rest with him in the bloody grave which was to be forever unknown to those who loved and mourned him in his distant home.”

Out on that deck in the warm sun, we talked about distant relations, and I brought up something which has always puzzled me. My grandfather’s name was Launcelot, my father’s Lancelot (only a variant in spelling), my brother’s Lancelot (until he changed it to Lance), yet our nephew is Lance the Third? Why not “Fourth”—which is what we dubbed him (knighted him?) that day: Lance the Quarto We were having fun this way, feeling frisky, and Emily sent a text message to my brother, saying he was now “Lance the Turd”—a title he, not present at our totally playful time in the sun, may not have felt in a position to appreciate.

Lance and James        Em and I at Piano2

Our own small private party went on into the night, for we met Ginny, mother of the bride, and her son James (shown above with Lance the Quarto), in the lounge on the second floor, at “cocktail hour,” where a  piano was situated (Em and I sang a few tunes together), and then we all decided to “repair” to a popular Norfolk restaurant claimed to be within walking distance—which it proved to be only for the more hearty (healthy?) souls, Ginny driving the rest of us, in shifts, to the place, which turned out to be called 4-5-6 Fish (while an art student in Brooklyn in 1955, I’d played piano at a bar called the 456 Club, so I had my picture taken next to a sign that stood outside the restaurant). The food was fine and we all had a grand convivial time, changing seats so that we each had a chance to talk with everyone present.

All of my brother’s “kids” are seen below: Barbara, Ginny, Lance the Quarto, Gail, and Louise.

Bill outside 456 2    Lance Minor Kids2

Next morning, Betty and I, and Em and Doug set out, caravan-style, for Charlottesville. Em and Doug like to travel fast and furious and I feared we would lose sight of them in a flash, but they were quite considerate, allowing us to “tail” them gracefully—and the journey, replete with a cozy stop for sandwiches and coffee (espresso in my case) at Starbucks, was comfortable, the landscape made up of  graceful rolling Virginia hills the closer we got to Charlottesville—ending at the Comfort Inn University, at which we were booked to stay, on Highway 29, otherwise known as Emmet Street.

However, as for finding our way around the city itself—that was another matter. Had I not known that Charlottesville was founded as early as 1762 (formed by charter along a trade route called Three Notched Road, present day U.S. Route 250, and housing a Mohacan village called Monasukapanough before that), a road that led from Richmond to the Great Valley, I might have been tempted to believe that the city’s overall street design or patterns had been planned and set up deliberately to confuse Union soldiers should they have attempted an assault during the Civil War. Actually, unlike much of Virginia, Charlottesville had been sparred the brunt of attacks—a single battle taking place (the Skirmish at Rio Hill) in which “George Armstrong Custer briefly engaged with local Confederate militia.”

Consequently, the next great Virginia Disaster for Betty and me (having survived our flight cut short and the forgotten suit coat) did not occur until, once settled in our Comfort Inn digs, she and I set out on our own for the city proper, to meet Kitty Petruccelli at the Amtrak station , and then have dinner at the home of my First Cousin Four Times Removed, Lloyd Smith, and his wife Ashlin–at what I’d described to Kitty in letters as their “mansion” or “castle” on Park Street (and in a sense it is: a large handsome brick home filled, as I remembered from my previous visit there, with elegant heirlooms).

I thought that, once again in Charlottesville, all of the streets we would need to find, for destinations I had walked to on that previous visit, would come back to me “like a song”—but that was not the case. I misjudged the site for the Amtrak station, and conveniently switched south to north in my mind, so that we got thoroughly twisted around and arrived fifteen minutes late, but found Kitty waiting, patiently, a backpack slung over her shoulder. Once she was safely ensconced in our car, I next–as navigator–guided us to a location as far distant from Park Street as possible, and we ended up in a totally unfamiliar residential area on Ridge Road: not Ridge McIntire Road, near the Omni Hotel, where I’d stayed before, and from which Lloyd’s house, or mansion, was within convenient walking distance.

Fortunately, Kitty had a cell phone and we got in touch with Lloyd, whose sun, Garrett, gave us directions and, after just a modicum of wrong turns, we were actually able to arrive at our destination—just in time for a Colonel Sanders dinner (fried chicken and cold slaw) served on handsome heirloom plates. We were directed to the Sun Room, which I remembered well from a previous grand chat there with Lloyd over a family photo album—and scotch on the rocks.

Lloyd Smith Home  Lloyd Smith Interior

Lloyd Smith is a genuine scholar, the Real Thing. He’d been of much help to me on my previous visit to Virginia (to do research at the Special Collections Library on the University campus), and he’d sent me books he’d written for the Foundation of Historic Christ Church: books with awesome expansive titles such as Robert Carter of Corotoman: An Analysis of His Last Will and Testament; The Executors’ Letters of Robert Carter of Corotoman 1732—1738; and a monograph for which Lloyd wrote the Introduction and edited: A Letter from Uncle John: A Nineteenth Century Study on Carter Genealogy—a work that had a photograph of Charles Minor Blackford on the back cover (Uncle John was his uncle).

Here’s Lloyd at work in the Sun Room–and a photo of Aslin, another relative George Minor (who would later take us on a wine tasting tour), and Lloyd, in the living room

Lloyd Smith in Sun Room  Ashlin, George, and Lloyd Smith

Lloyd and Ashlin are also most amiable hosts. We had agreed that, because Kitty’s train did not arrive until 7:30 PM (and we had managed to miss that deadline), and because she’s not favorably disposed toward Amtrak cuisine, Lloyd and Ashlin would not prepare anything fancy for dinner, but keep it simple (Colonel Sanders chicken, but served on elegant plates). I also wasn’t sure just how late we’d be able to stay, in light of the next day’s performance in Lynchburg. Once we “repaired” to the Sun Room, I sat at a table with Lloyd, his very knowledgeable and congenial son Garrett (also a lawyer, like Lloyd), and Garrett’s wife–while Betty, Kitty, and Ashlin occupied the other end of the spacious but cozy room. Kitty was ensconced in what looked to be a throne composed of banana leaves, until I realized it was just a chair surrounded by vines and flowers.

I sipped my scotch and enjoyed the flow of conversation at our end, but regretted later that, having observed some paintings set on a wall nearby, I didn’t ask whose they were—for they were Ashlin’s, a fine but far too modest artist (she’d recently had an exhibit of her work), and because I spent five years in three schools studying art (University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, University of California-Berkeley), I wish now I’d had a chance to “talk shop” with her. Lloyd did move over to converse with the three ladies, regaling them with some of his youthful exploits and extending Kitty’s knowledge of the life of Susan Blackford, the woman she would be portraying the next night.

Lloyd and Garrett gave Betty and me explicit directions “home” (back to the Comfort Inn University on Emmet Street). Kitty would spend the night in a luxurious room in Lloyd and Ashlin’s home—and we agreed to pick her up early in the morning for the ride to Lynchburg.

My brother-in-law Doug agreed to take us all there in his car: a blessing, because otherwise Betty would have had to drive back to Charlottesville late at night, after “the show,” and neither one of us relished that prospect. In spite of the solid directions we’d received (take the 250 bypass to Park Street, etc.), we did manage to create our own somewhat wayward (and slightly “tardy”) route again; but Kitty was up and ready, and we had a fine early morning conversation with Lloyd and Ashlin before we hit the road (I think I even managed to fit in a couple of Irish jokes, Betty displeased because she’s had to listen to them over and over again). Once on what the navigator (me) managed, once again, to chart as a wrong course (due west rather than due south), we came directly in sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park, but did make a correction in direction, and finally set sail, securely, for Lynchburg—Kitty’s sparkling wit and Em’s uninhibited laughter adding to the journey.

And I’m going to leave you THERE, Friend Reader—for what followed was a story of a different nature (although just as full of unforeseen adventure), and I have spent more than a few words here–Bill’s Blog Baroque!–on what led up to it. Stay tuned. There’s more of the Virginia Journey to come!



Old Capitol Books Coming Attraction July 13, and Beyond

This may be a somewhat “selfish” blog (coming after a post in homage to my friend, the writer Jeff Whitmore), focused as it will be on a public service announcement for an upcoming event this Sunday, July 13–and also another pitch for my book, The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, by way of a favorable review I received some time ago, have permission to reproduce, and would like to!

This Sunday, July 13, I will be giving a “reading” of recent poems–with lifelong friend, Santa Cruz poet Robert Sward–at Old Capitol Books in Monterey (2:00 PM): an event sponsored by the Monterey Bay Poetry Consortium. I put “reading” in quotes because I have been writing lots of original music lately and have set most of my recent poems to music. I now regard them as “song” (where poetry started in the first place, with the Singing Neanderthals and, of course, the Greeks, whose poems were at one with music—had a musical counterpart).

I will be assisted on Sunday, July 13, by vocalist/actor Jaqui Hope, also a friend–who sings in many genres (jazz, soul, gospel, rock); has collaborated with much of the Monterey Peninsula’s creative community; and is gifted with a voice much like what someone once said about Ray Charles: “a voice like warm sheets on a Sunday morning.” Jaqui and I had a rehearsal this past Saturday that went very well, and I am excited (I’ll be on piano) about presenting the songs which the poems have become. Here’s Robert, Jaqui, and myself:

Robert Sward        Jaqui Hope 2        Bill Author

I’ve been attempting to branch out in the Brave New World of social media, and I am now on Red Room (http://redroom.com/member/william-minor), and you can find two of the pieces Jaqui and I will do together there: under Videos, Audio, and Images (“My Fingers Refuse to Sleep”) and under Writing, “My Father Sings.”

Robert Sward is a Guggenheim Fellow; was chosen by Lucille Clifton to receive a Villa Montalvo Literary Arts Award; and recently published New & Selected Poems: work culled from more than 50 years of writing (unpublished poems and selections from his 20+ books of poetry).

I am looking forward to this Sunday afternoon very much–to presenting an afternoon of poetry and song which, I feel, should be enjoyable, meaningful, engaging.

Old Capitol Books is situated at 559 Tyler Street in Monterey, just across from the Transit Plaza at the end of Alvarado Street. There’s a $5 fee–but that’s a bargain (if I do say so myself!). Hope to see you there!

And here’s my book again: The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir–available at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Inherited-Heart-American-Memoir/dp/1935530712/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405007331&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Inherited+Heart%3A+An+American+Memoir

Inherited Heart Blog Cover

And here’s the review by Marge Ann Jameson, which appeared in The Cedar Street Times, January 10, 2013 (three days before my birthday!):

“I grew up in a home where legends greeted one everywhere: on the walls…on book shelves…and in everyday speech…”
– Bill Minor

The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir–© 2012
ISBN 978-1-935530-71-8
Park Place Publications, Pacific Grove

There’s an American proverb that claims, “A man who prides himself on his ancestry is like the potato—the best part is underground.”

That’s probably the case for most of us, and gentle, unassuming, witty and self-effacing William Minor might claim it’s so for him, too. But if you’ve met him, or watched him perform, or read any of his prose or his poetry, you’d probably say the opposite is true of Bill. His ancestry, which he has the privilege of tracing back as far as the 1500s, all funnels down to the talented, generous writer, artist and jazz musician we know. He is the fruit of his family tree and the loving gardener of it at the same time. He says, “What a thrill, in the course of this project, to discover all of these relatives – distant or fairly close at hand – who were writers and left such remarkable accounts of their own lives! And to think that they, given the reciprocity of all things, are somehow part of me and I of them!”

The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir is his autobiography. Self-published and dotted here and there with tiny errors, it is still beautifully written and well worthy of being read over and over. Appointed the repository of the photographs, letters and even books written by members of his family, and the owner of what must be hundreds of pictures dating from the Civil War forward, Bill Minor has woven them all into what he calls an autobiography, but is more a series of brilliant, stand-alone short stories and essays, loosely organized by subject if not an actual time line.

His stories and his memories behave as our own thoughts and memories might: Sitting before a warm fire, the family album on our lap, we leaf through it, gazing at pictures and now and then explaining them to a grandchild, we are taken back and forth in time and memory, each image or story leading to another and then back to the first. We might not have been present but we have the tale, handed to us, of uncles and great grandparents, children buried too early, lovers lost and famous people our ancestors might have known, and, in turn, of stories they, themselves told. If we’re lucky, as Bill is, they wrote them down and didn’t trust the proof to capricious memory or some uninterested descendents.

A Pacific Grove denizen, he named his first “multi-media” piece after our city. It was a collection of poems and woodcuts, published in 1974.

Bill grew up in Michigan and graduated from high school in the early 1950s. He tells of his childhood in those hopeful years and his coming-of-age in a family where he was the middle child and beset by insecurities and allergies.

Bill in a coat closet, winning a round of Spin the Bottle: “There in the dark (in more ways than one) I groveled like the rank amateur I was and ended up kissing what must have been Fred Schittler’s raincoat – something very slick and rubbery and out-of-doors. Perhaps it was a pet seal the family kept in the closet; I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t Patti, or so I hope.” We know the disappointment of girlfriends who left him standing on the doorstep or never let him even that close, so we’re the more pleased to remind ourselves that he has been married for 56 years to Betty, a girl he lost but regained later.

How does one compete with an older brother named Launcelot, mentioned again and again as “precious” in his father’s diary whereas Bill is termed “sickly”? He says they have become closer in these late years, but not, probably, as close as he is with his younger sister, Emily. Nonetheless, the stories of the family of five resonate with those of us who have siblings and who grew up in those years of this century when change was the norm and we awakened every day to something new.

He seems not to have taken after – or to – his father. There’s a loose comparison to Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s Salesman, and an echoing of the word “loss” in connection with his father. But it’s clear he admires his mother, referring to her as the true ruler of the roost chez Minor. She is still alive and still beautiful, he says, at the age of 101.

But it is Bill who shines through the stories of his family in The Inherited Heart, as hard as he tries to steer us toward the generals and priests and physicians and authors in his family tree. We probably identify more closely with the kid who touched Harry Truman’s sleeve when he passed through Birmingham, MI than we do with any president’s close adviser, so distant from our own lives as to be unattainable.

When you have the chance, and you will Friday evening when he performs (with Heath Proskin and Jaqui Hope) at The Works, go listen to Bill Minor caress the piano keys. Find one of his CDs (they’re listed in the book) and above all, purchase a copy of this book for your own. But don’t ask to borrow my copy of the CD “Love Letters from Lynchburg” or The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir. I lent out “Love Letters” and can’t remember to whom, and my well-thumbed copy of The Inherited Heart awaits another reading on my bookshelf.

Bill’s Uncle Cabell (James Cabell Minor, M.D.) wrote a book, published in 1917, called The Plan o’ The House o’ Man, Sir! Or The Parts Water and Position Play in the Prevention and Treatment of Physical Disorders of the Body. It sold for $1. Bill has a copy he inherited. Bill’s book costs $14.95, and surely you’d rather own The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir. You can order it from Bill by writing him (he’s still that old-fashioned) at 847 Junipero Ave., Pacific Grove, CA 93950 and adding $5 for shipping. Or you can buy it at The Works [now Bookworks again], 667 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove [and also at Old Capitol Books, 559 Tyler Street, in Monterey–and also on Amazon.com].

Thanks again, Marge Ann! And thank you to all those who have a copy of this book–or soon will! I’ll close with some photos (from the book) of my mother, Dorothy, at age 21; my father, Lance, at age 14 (looking much older, having gone to work on Arkansas road crews at 13); and me when I began to play the piano at age 14.

Mom at 20      Dad at 14      Bill as fledgling pianist

Next Bill’s Blog: I will return to my revised “game plan,” and post an account of the trip to Virginia for the performance of Love Letters of Lynchburg in Lynchburg (the piece for two voices and original musical score that is a spinoff from The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir–and available as a CD at: http://www.historicsandusky.org/shop.htm)–and then: a full account of the JAM (Jazz Age Monterey) “Jazz Bash by The Bay”–its present and its future, and other thoughts on the state of jazz in Monterey, California.

Jeff Whitmore: Friend, Writer, and Beyond

Attempting to keep up a blog has, for me, become an experience all too similar to attempting to maintain e-mail correspondence with friends: difficult, sometimes impossible, but always rewarding if and when it takes place. I found myself beginning each e-mail letter with a disclaimer or apology for being “tardy” or having waited so long to write (and I’d begun to run out of “original” excuses or disclaimers, and pretty much just said the same thing with each “fresh” apology). And now, once again (and again), posting this blog, I must apologize for the fact that it will not include the full sequence I promised in my last post (“Coming Attractions for April,” March 29–all too long ago!), but focus on just one, the first subject I said I’d write about: another piece of homage (such as I offered on Bob Danziger and Dottie Dodgion) to a friend and local “artist”: Jeff Whitmore.

Having coffee (espresso in my case) with my friend Jeff Whitmore is a delight and something of an adventure, for Jeff has had ample “life experience” (abundant, in fact!) and has a host of tales to tell—tales that take place in several settings and under fascinating circumstance: all of which he relates with considerable wit and charm.

Let’s start with the time he, a “down-and-outer” sitting on the steps of a slum building, sipping from a bottle, was attacked by a herd of cats (cats which had been leaning from windows, running across an alley, even the “obligatory” cat pawing the air and hissing)—attacked and left for dead. This all took place in a film, of course (or else I would not, now, be able to spend time over caffeine and good conversation with Jeff “live”!)—a movie made by a producer with whom he shared the same lawyer in Hollywood, where Jeff was living in 1977, hoping to get rich in the film industry.

The cat scene—and Jeff’s role in it (smeared with cat food in order to attract the critters’ attention, and initiate the attack)—would end up on the cutting-room floor, the producer telling Jeff, “It just didn’t fit with the rest of the film.” “I never did get to see my acting triumph,” he says now, with modest remorse. Jeff and I share a joke: after learning that Saint Francis of Assisi said he wished to be known all over Europe for his … humility, we try to see who can outdo the other when it comes to self-effacement (he recently signed a letter, “Yrs modestlier than ever,”; not to be outdone, I replied, “Yours, in continued humility, modestlier than ever”—and the game was on.).

Here’s a photo of Jeff that accompanied an article he wrote about his Hollywood experience called “His Was the Face on the Cutting-Room Floor” (as you can see, he truly is fond of cats after all)–and here’s a photo of Jeff and me showing off our books for Patricia Hamilton’s Park Place Publications:

Jeff1  Bill and Jeff at Expo

And then there’s the occasion when ever-alert Jeff, compassionate to the point of sainthood, hoping to fill all voids when it came to legitimate human need, realized that “any stranger to our shores” (even those who find themselves in high-tech or executive positions) having mastered traditional textbook English as a second language, frequently found themselves at a loss when they encountered “swear” or “dirty” words —and were thus deprived of the full range of human communication.

Adopting the nom de plume or pen name Sterling Johnson (which he employs for his books) and sincerely believing that “communication is the name of the game,” hoping to enlighten these folks who couldn’t comprehend basic profanity, Jeff sat down and wrote English As a Second F*cking Language. The book was so successful (and proved so immensely popular with ESL teachers) that Jeff–or Sterling Johnson—penned another: Watch Your F*cking Language, which proved equally appealing, and of equal value when it came to inculcating knowledge that would allow anyone to “communicate effectively in the English language.”

The second book bears the same subtitle as the first: “How to swear effectively, explained in detail with numerous examples taken from everyday life.” I can say in all seriousness that both books are funny as … well, you can fill in an expletive of choice—very funny as well as being massively instructive, and useful. In the mood of what a newspaper article on Jeff described as “tomfoolery or shrewd determination,” he (or Sterling) sent a copy of the first book to author Stephen King (a fellow New-Englander and Red Sox fan), who responded immediately with a blurb: “Great f*cking book! Funny as a f*ck!”—words which stimulated further sales for St. Martin’s Press.

Here’s a photo of Jeff from an earlier time, when he found himself published alongside Stephen King in Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine:


Other incarnations in the life of Jeff Whitmore include a stint as standup comic (his daughter, a standup herself, invited Jeff to join her on stage at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, the Improve in San Jose, and elsewhere); and, as “Doc Savvy,” providing the Monterey County Herald with a humor column fleshed out with cartoons signed by “Roka” (another pseudonym). I first met Jeff when we both, working free-lance, wrote profile pieces for Monterey Blues Festival programs: the reward for which, having written about performers–and I did interview the first (but wasn’t doing very well until I mentioned a Detroit, Hastings Street, Ford Motor Company connection)–was to see and hear John Lee Hooker, James Brown, and Little Richard “live.” Jeff and I also shared space in Monterey Life, a magazine under the stewardship of mutual friend George Fuller, which Jeff previously edited.

Here are a couple of Roka cartoons–so much fun that I will include others throughout this post:

Roka1   Roka5

Jeff’s most recent literary project is a novel, also written under the name Sterling Johnson: Dangerous Knaves. I’d like to spend some time (and space) telling you about this, for the book is well worth it. The protagonist or hero is a three-foot six-inch wonder (and he truly is—or becomes so!) named Winthrop Mead. The novel not only tells the tale of his “coming of age,” but his encounters with a collection of highly unscrupulous characters (so “crooked,” as my Arkansas father would say, they “could crawl up into a corkscrew and sleep with great repose”). I won’t give away the eventual outcome of the entanglement—for it’s the means of getting there that really counts, and Winthrop has a host of wild adventures throughout “getting to” the book’s close.

Here’s the cover of Dangerous Knaves–which can be found for purchase on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Dangerous-Knaves-Sterling-Johnson/dp/193553078X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404258863&sr=1-1&keywords=Dangerous+Knaves.

Dangerous Knaves

 The setting is Boston, a city Jeff Whitmore (Sterling Johnson) knows well not only as an imagined entity (making that city come alive through the manner in which he allows his characters to experience it), but existentially as well—for one of the charms of the book is its occasionally “autobiographical” tone, as if the author knows every square inch of Boston well, from top to bottom, inside and out—and I more than suspect he does.

The novel opens with an epigraph from Cotton Mather, on “the notion of procuring Invisibility by any Natural Expedient yet known”: a goal the characters pursue, each in his or her own way, housed within the actuality (depicted on every sensory level, not just sight) of not just Boston, but Germany, Cape Cod, San Francisco, and Big Sur thrown in for grand measure—and for solid dramatic and humorous effect.

Sterling Johnson has a host of serious things to say about human “nature’ or behavior, but he is essentially a comic writer—and the very first sentence sets the tone: “Call him Ishmael?” followed by a single word, “Ridiculous,” this embellished by a description of Winthrop Mead as “an outcast, true … content to bear that solid New England name,” a creature who carries himself “with the grace of a natural athlete”; trim and fit, even though he only weighs seventy-six pounds.

We learn that “a tangle of events” had a hand (and another human appendage) in his birth (I won’t give away that side of the story, but it’s fun), yet that the birth was not at all well received by his grandmother, Elva Stone, a rich widow (banking: “a prominent figure in Boston society”), a woman who sizes up the father, Henry, as a potential prospect for her daughter, “like a racetrack tout evaluating a two-year-old” (a sample of Jeff’s, or Sterling’s fine phrasing), and then concludes, “Money and job security would soften the thud of her daughter’s lack of charm” (her daughter’s “matrimonial clock approaching midnight”).

Elva’s appraisal of her new grandson is just outright cruel: admonishing her daughter, she says, “You have whelped a monster,” and brought “discredit and shame to the name of Stone.” The author skillfully balances such discord with humor. The doctor tells Henry, “You see, Mr. Mead, your son is very small”; to which the father replies, “I imagine so. He’s a baby.”

Break time for two more Roka cartoons:

Roka4   Roka2

While all this is going on, we are introduced to a character named Otto Doppelman, a waiter at Boston’s “venerable Parker House,” a man of German descent who will figure prominently in the ensuing action. He is described as “thrifty,” but the busboys, with whom he does not share tips, call him a “stingy Nazi bastard.” In truth, he is a spy and anti-Semite who came to the US in 1928—who, after thirteen years of residence, considers anyone who offends him “a Jew,” the ultimate example being “President Rosenfeldt.”

Sterling Johnson handles this balancing act–of separate characters’ lives and habits–with seeming ease. The narrative thread is intriguing and enjoyable, graced often with both subtle wit and acute humor (but not too cute).

We are treated not only to the Meads and Otto Doppelman, but a host of characters whose lives get entangled in a myriad of ways—and we witness the “character” of Winthrop grow or develop through an extended account worthy of The Education of Henry Adams. We visit the South Boston Aquarium with Henry and Winthrop, where the three year-old finds the koi display “not pretty” (as Henry does) but “beautiful,” and he does not wish to leave. The boy learns to speak German and Spanish at age ten, takes up taxidermy and “banding” birds on Cape Cod, becomes an avid Red Sox fan, and masters karate with his sensei Mr. Nakada—putting the art to good use when two brothers, bullies (Tony and Angelo) attempt to deprive him of a box of cannolis Winthrop has purchased as a birthday present for Mrs. McGrail, housekeeper/cook, and “as much of a mother as he was ever going to have.”

The “development” of Otto Doppelman receives similar thorough treatment. We learn that, as a spy, he is visited by his recruiter once a month, and that “like most semi-professionals in the espionage business,” he is “suspicious to the point of paranoia.” Sent to Germany, he survives an American sub attack, and ends up on a deserted beach on the Coast of Portugal–but I won’t repeat the wild tale of what led up to landing in that location, or what lies beyond it for Otto.

Break time again for two more Roka cartoons:

Roka9    Roka7

That’s just about all the detailed plot and character disclosures you’re going to get from me, Folks—because I want you to buy the book and see for yourselves what has and will ensure. The plot thickens with the introduction of characters with names like Chuck Sibley, and the Reverend Ansel Hatch (CEO and President of Hatch Toys, the “second largest toy manufacture in US,” one of their items being an Indian doll that bleeds when you shoot it), Hatch a man who sincerely and thoroughly believes that “our past is our future,” and acts out that belief in dangerous ways. And we meet General Lemander Chesley “Half Moon” Bonnard, who will serve a significant (and hilarious) role in the overall story, a man who claims to “speak American wherever I am,” and feels that “emotions were best left to women and civilians.”

Readers are entertained by Winthrop’s first sexual encounters, his journey from the “theoretical” (information from a cabinet of books his father kept for him, and for himself) to fulfillment (or entelechy) by way of Hilda Langfeldt, “the new maid,” a German beauty who will also play a significant part as the total story unfolds. From this point on, the novel turns into a full-fledged adventure tale—and I will leave the delights of that to you, as future readers.

The author seems equally at home, comfortable, in nearly every genre or style: from science fiction to memoir to magical realism to comedy of the absurd. You name it and Jeff Whitmore—or Sterling Johnson (should Jeff fall short)—can do it. The author is no “message” monger, “in your face” always with something super-important to say or prove. He is having far too much good natured “fun” for that; although Dangerous Knaves does offer–as I suggested earlier–ample lessons to be learned when it comes to human “nature” or behavior.

When people failed to heed the sort of “lessons” Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. more than suggested with Slaughterhouse Five, he determined that only comedy–even jokes—was the way to go if you hoped your audience might take away something serious (as in “of  lasting value”) from your books (books short enough, Vonnegut said, so that even Presidents could read them). In an interview, when questioned regarding his “irreverence,” his “self-deprecating humor,” his belief that his books had become “merely collections of jokes,” Vonnegut replied, “I think jokes are a perfectly viable form of literature … I make my points and discuss my ideas with jokes, rather than with oceanic tragedy … the best jokes are dangerous, and dangerous because they are in some way truthful.” And to prove his point, when asked, “In 1981, you wrote that if a third world war should ever come, you’d be spry enough to dance again. You ready to dance?”, Vonnegut responded, “Sure, I’d love to dance, but not alone. And women don’t like to do it with me … the way I do it.”

Subtle “lessons” in humanity are among the delights that Dangerous Knaves affords, along with its extraordinary diversity of stylistic approaches, and humor. I was reminded, obviously, of Vonnegut (and other writers such as Peter De Vries, a favorite of mine, and Thomas Berger), reminded of Absurd Comedy as an art form—but I am also reminded, as I said, of The Education of Henry Adams, and (of all writers!) Henry James, in the manner Jeff, as Sterling Johnson, makes any two figures standing in the proverbial carpet come fully alive. And also reminded of Henry James because of all the rich Boston “stuff.”

Roka10     Roka8

Sitting over coffee (espresso in my case) at our favorite “hang place,” Juice n’ Java in Pacific Grove, California, Jeff tells me he wrote a first draft as far back as 1967, in a cabin in Tiburon just after he stopped working at University of California Press (he once took Carlos Castaneda to lunch when, employed in Sales and Promotion, he’d just read The Teachings of Don Juan in proof). While serving time in Hollywood, Jeff heard the proverbial “knock-on-the-door” with regard to his own manuscript, then called “The Erotic Cabinet of Winthrop Mead” (interest that ranged the whole route from “opt” to movie to TV pilot series—the works!), an “almost” writers (aside from Stephen King) are all too familiar with. He dropped the project until he took it up again and re-wrote the book as Dangerous Knaves—“a few years ago.”

Inspiration for the book came from contacts Jeff made while serving with the 24th Infantry Division in Germany: starting out as an assistant machine gunner and ending up writing for the Division newspaper. The character General Lemander Chesley “Half Moon” Bonnard reflected the existence of the notorious Major General Edwin Anderson Walker–who, interviewing Jeff, actually asked him, with regard to the then forthcoming presidential election, “Who are your parents going to vote for?”

The key ingredients in the book belong solely to Jeff Whitmore (and Sterling Johnson), for Dangerous Knaves is enjoyable on many levels, and they all come together handsomely in this fast-moving tale or “outrageous romp” (as advertised) through Cold War politics brought up to date by way of timeless insight, imagination, and verbal skill.

Talking with the author, along with reading the book, IS a joy—for the same wit, charm, and eternal relevance one finds in his work are embodied in what he says “in person.” The tales he has to tell are a delight—and it has been my good fortune, and that of those who know Jeff well, to be his friend.

And I’ll close out with two final Roka cartoons. Thanks Jeff–for ALL you do!

Roka3    Roka6