Sunday, July 24, 2011

Music Memories + Carpe Diem

Some of you might know that while I like good music, I was never a real connoisseur like many of my peers were. I grew up listening to local AM stations like 1450 WPAR, whose studios were next to the Smoot Theater. You could get the WPAR weekly “Top 40” list at the studio or places like the Record Department in the basement of Dils Department Store in downtown Parkersburg. This sort of practice was fairly common for most radio stations in the '60s and into the '70s. However, I was always too cheap to spend much money buying records (my personal vice was model cars and rockets). Plus, it was easier and cheaper to just listen to the radio (or my sister's record). When I had some money to spend on magazines, I preferred buying Popular Science or Hot Rod rather than Tiger Beat or Rolling Stone.

Speaking of local radio, it wasn't until high school that the first pop music FM radio station came to town (the earliest FM stations in our area were classical music). WXIL opened a studio inside Grand Central Mall during the mid-70s with a window where you could look in on the deejays at work. I remember that a guy named “Uncle Dougger” was one of their popular deejays. They also hired a girl from my high school class (Marsa Myers) who could be heard on the air from time to time. Just about everybody's car—including the 1970 VW Beetle we had—sported a WXIL Sunspot sticker in the window, in hopes of winning one of their contests. However, at that time, most cars (or at least the older cars most high schoolers had—if we even had a car) only had an AM radio. If you were lucky, you might have an add-on FM radio attached under the dash (and none of them were digital).

The Charleston Civic Center was the closest destination for concerts by big name artists as I came of age. Some Parkersburg High School students would make the trip down there to see concerts, but I never went. I remember my cousin Brent Jarvis went to see his favorite band KISS perform. My only concert prior to college was when Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons played at the Parkersburg High School Fieldhouse shortly after graduation in 1976 (a 95WXIL promotion, as I recall). However, a concert in a high school gym was not that memorable and hardly counts as a big-time concert.

I arrived at the University of Charleston in the fall of 1976, and figured that I might join the “cool kids” by finally going to concerts at the Charleston venues. For example, many of the UC students were much more into music than I was, and had already been to many concerts. There were lots of New Jersey kids who talked about seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band before they made it big (some of them said they saw Bruce at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park). I was impressed!

The very first chance I got during the fall of my freshman year was when one of my personal favorites, Harry Chapin, came to play at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium. I really wanted to go see him perform! However, there were three strikes against me: I didn't have a car, I didn't really know anybody well yet (especially as to whether any girls would enjoy hearing the story-song ballads of a singer/songwriter like Harry), and I didn't have much money. I decided to take the easy way out and not try to attend. I figured surely I would get another chance sometime in the future—I’d just catch him the next time he came through.

As it turns out, I didn't attend a big concert until near the end of my college career. In part as a reaction to disco (especially since I was not a talented dancer like Mike Gibbs or John Oplinger, to name a few), I took a shine to southern rock/outlaw country music. I used to crank stuff like the Marshall Tucker Band, the Charlie Daniels Band, and Willie & Waylon. When Rob Corrie asked me if I wanted to go to the new Huntington Civic Arena as a double date with his girlfriend Nadine and her roommate Skeeter (Melinda was her real name, but everyone knew her by this nickname), I jumped on the opportunity. We had a great time traveling to Huntington in Nadine's 1977 Datsun 200SX and saw Willie and Family put on a great show in the new and largest venue in the area at that time.

While at WVU, I only attended one concert—I went with Sylvia Parker to see Chicago play at the Coliseum for my only big-time concert experience there. I probably should have went to see other acts who played there, such as Duran Duran, the Go-Go's, and the Grateful Dead (especially since so many people think I look like Jerry Garcia). However, I just was never able to justify the high ticket cost with the transitory nature of a concert. With most acts, I might have liked a couple of their songs, but I was not an expert on their entire repertoire.

I did learn a heckuva lot about good music while in Morgantown, thanks to the tutelage of the Doctor of Rock, Steve Goff. I met Steve in grad school, and his apartment in Westover became a major source of my music education. He had thousands and thousands of albums on shelves all over the apartment, and loved playing deejay for his visitors. When I began teaching political science classes for WVU-P and wanted to include music connected to politics with my classes, he made a great mix tape for me. I think some of my students came to class just to hear the songs each night.

Since my college days, I've had the opportunity to see a lot of interesting live performances, including more than a dozen Mountain Stage shows (with acts ranging from Regina Spektor to John Hartford and Nickel Creek to Nancy Griffith). During my parenting phase, I saw Riders in the Sky as well as Ray Stevens at the Capitol Music Hall in Wheeling. A few years back, I enjoyed listening to Felix Cavaliere and the Rascals at the Italian Festival in Clarksburg with Anna (as well as Steve Goff and his wife). Anna and I also ventured to the Pittsburgh Post Pavilion with a couple of her friends to hear Rusted Root, the Clarks, and Donnie Iris. Of course, the best outdoor musical experience for us has been the recreations of the Woodstock concert by the incredibly talented folks at Shadowbox in Columbus. Their house band (known as Bill Who?) is phenomenal! However, none of these qualify as prototypical big time music extravaganzas.

The biggest real concert for me was two years ago, when Anna and I traveled to Dayton, Ohio, for a weekend visit. We got to hear not one—but three of my favorite performers at a single concert. First up was Willie Nelson (30 years older than the first time I saw him—and I thought he was old then!), followed by John (don't call him Cougar) Mellencamp, and capped off with the legendary Bob Dylan. It was under the stars on a blanket in the minor league ballpark of the Dayton Dragons, and it was a wonderful night!

The good news is that I got to see Dylan while he is still performing. I didn't want to miss the opportunity to see him, because I had missed the chance to ever see some of my other favorites. It wasn't but a few years after I skipped seeing Harry Chapin perform in Charleston that he was killed in an automobile accident on Long Island, never to be heard again. Now that the great Clarence Clemmons has left us, I'll never get to have a true Springsteen and the E Street Band experience (because Clarence's sax—not to mention his cool personality—was so crucial to that sound!).

There is a quaint saying to discourage procrastination: “Don't put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today!” It serves as a reminder to me of the lesson I learned my freshman year at the University of Charleston with Harry Chapin. I hope everyone keeps it in mind and makes the most of every opportunity afforded to them in life. I’ll close with a quote from one of my favorite movies, Dead Poets Society, where Robin Williams proclaims "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dating my big sister

Before anyone starts with some sort of Appalachian incest joke, let me state up front that I don't even have a big sister—except the Big Sister assigned to me when I joined a fraternity. This is another essay in my series of stories about college life.

Normally, first semester freshmen were not allowed to join a fraternity or sorority at the University of Charleston, in order to allow them to get better adjusted to college life (i.e., let them get a semester under their belt prior to Greek life). However, because I had taken the CLEP tests and already achieved college credits, I was technically not a first semester freshman. This allowed me bend the rules and join Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) during my first semester at college in the fall of 1976.

There is plenty to write about my fraternity days, but this essay focuses on just one aspect—my big sister. During the initiation phase, prospective members (pledges) were each given a secret “big sister” from the group of girls who had agreed to be members of our affiliated TKE Little Sisters organization. Girls became little sisters either through blood lines, or as girlfriends of a fraternity brother, or just because the brothers (or the other little sisters) wanted them. They had to be voted in by the fraternity.

One of their primary duties was to provide encouragement and support to the pledge they had been assigned—which might even include small gifts. This was done through secret notes back and forth that were tacked onto the Greek bulletin board in the Coffee Tavern (CT) on the first floor of the student union. [By the way, sororities had similar programs of big brothers for their pledges as well, and I was honored to have had this experience from “the other side of the fence.”]

This bulletin board at that time was divided up and decorated into eight segments. The fraternities (TKE, Alpha Sig, Theta Xi, and Sig Ep) were across the top, while the sororities (DZ, Alpha Xi, Gamma Delt, and AOPi) were across the bottom. In the ancient days prior to e-mail or instant messaging, anyone could write a message, fold it over and address the note to a specific Greek member (or to the entire group), and tack it on the board. [It seems so archaic in today's high-tech world!]

There was some trickery involved with the big “siblings” programs for the new pledges. Since anyone who might be sitting in the CT could see who was putting up the notes, so as a big brother or big sister you would often ask someone else to tack it to the board to maintain your secret identity. In fact, if you were a big sibling, you might even ask a friend to copy a note you wrote into their handwriting to prevent your little sibling from identifying you by your penmanship. It was all part of the ruse to keep your identity secret—and very quaint by today's standards!

In the TKE fraternity, we would not learn the identity of our big sister until we finished our pledge period, survived hell week, passed hell night, and then went to the fraternity formal that weekend (the TKE Red Carnation Ball near the end of the fall semester). During a break at the dance, the identities would finally be unveiled.

I enjoyed corresponding with my secret big sister. As a brand new college student, I was trying hard to find my place and establish my identity, so we exchanged notes frequently, sometimes with long letters. Having a secret friend was a good way for me to understand the college social scene better. My positive communications with this unknown girl led me to consider doing something novel—why not ask her to be my date for the formal? I didn't have a steady girlfriend on campus, and my first formal experience at Fall Festival (the pre-football era predecessor to UC's Homecoming weekend) had not gone all that well (on a whim, I had asked a commuter whom I really didn't know all that well), so why not ask this unknown girl who was being so nice in all her notes? She obviously knew me, but I wasn't sure which of the dozen or so little sisters she might be.

I decided to take a chance and ask her in writing. To my surprise, she said yes! So for a couple of weeks I knew I was going to the dance, but I had no idea of who might be accompanying me. It was an odd experience. I got a ride with someone to pick up a corsage at the florist shop down MacCorkle across from Krogers—a trip that probably included a stop at the “state store” for the requisite BYOB. Then I got all dressed up for the big event.

In those days, there was an office at the entrance to the girls dorm, and you had to tell the person working at the desk the name of the girl you were there to see. Well, I obviously didn't know the name of who I was supposed to pick up, but it had all been pre-arranged. I've forgotten who was working the desk that night, but they knew immediately about my situation, and “buzzed” the appropriate room (there was a buzzer system in the girls dorm to alert residents to come to the front desk).

I was anxious to finally see who my big sister was! It was a bit like the old “Dating Game” show, eagerly awaiting the date you selected to walk around the corner of the set. You really want to lay your eyes on the unseen person with whom you have been communicating. First, the hallway door opened up, and Jill B. called out to me “I'll be right out” before ducking back inside, probably to grab her purse, or put in her ear rings, or something women do like that. I quickly decided that I could obviously have a good time escorting Jill, who was a cheerleader. However, just when I thought I had finally found out the secret identity that had been hidden from me for months, another girl's head popped out the doorway and called to me. It was Fern S., telling me that she would be with me right away.

Now wait a minute—what's going on here? Is Jill my date, or is her room mate Fern my date? Had I misunderstood Jill's first announcement to me when she stuck her head out the door? Had she said something to the effect of “I'll be right out” or had she said “She'll be right out”? Was it just wishful thinking on my part that had caused me to misinterpret Jill's words? Who is my date for the night? Needless to say, I was confused! And they let me linger in that confusion for awhile.

Finally, yet another girl came out the door—this time it was sophomore Doreen R. It turns out that the third girl was my big sister all along, and Fern and Jill were part of the plan to mess with my head before I met my true date for the night. It was a memorable start to a wonderful evening with a great girl. Doreen had already made plans to transfer to a college back in her home state of New York, so she would be leaving campus soon. I only saw her one more time, when she came back to Charleston as my date again for the TKE formal in the spring semester. We only had those two “dates” but all the correspondence through notes tacked on the bulletin board had helped us to get to know each other on a deeper level than we would have otherwise.

I always admired Doreen, and thought of her often over the years, but in the pre-Internet days, it was hard to keep in touch with people. Fortunately, the modern technology of Facebook has allowed me to reconnect with Doreen (now living in California), as well as Jill and Fern. In fact, it was great getting to talk with (and even get hugs from) Jill and Fern at the Governor's Cup Regatta this past spring. I hope all the folks from my era will attend the Governor's Cup alumni events which will be held during the last weekend of April next year (contact UC Alumni Director Bridgette Borst for more details). See you on the riverbank!

Rockefeller's Blizzard

As the heat of July cranks up, I am sharing some memories of the cold winter during my freshman year at the University of Charleston.

Early in 1977, Jay Rockefeller had just been sworn in as governor of West Virginia. It was in the middle of a cold spell that had seen the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers freeze over from bank to bank for the first time since the '50s. Political Science chairperson Dr. Evelyn Harris had prime tickets for the inaugural ceremony that she was giving away for any of us students to attend. I thought I had a ride with Christy Velasquez in her butterscotch colored Ford Maverick, but she decided it was too cold after all. I wasn't all that disappointed, because it was bitterly cold, plus I had already seen an inauguration four years earlier with Arch Moore.

While I didn't get to see the inauguration itself, I did get a last minute offer to attend the Inaugural Ball that night. Robin D.'s friend Terrie D. needed a date for the ball (I think she had a boyfriend at Marshall who wasn't able to get back to Charleston), and so I got drafted in the CT to go with her. We had a great time partying in the auditorium of the new office complex with the Charlie Daniels Band and in the Great Hall of the West Virginia Cultural Center with Les Brown and his Band of Renown. Going to college in the capital city definitely had its benefits!

Less than two weeks after being sworn in as governor, and still in the midst of a frigid winter, the National Weather Service was suddenly predicting a huge winter storm to hit West Virginia. Emergency announcements were being made on the radio stations. The new governor went on the air and warned everyone on that Friday afternoon that a blizzard was coming from the west. It was going to be worse than the infamous Thanksgiving 1950 storm that us kids had heard our parents tell such tall tales about.

My friends in Cox Hall at UC decided we had to prepare for the impending ordeal. Jay S. had a car on campus, and we would make a run to Krogers in Kanawha City. This was not just any car Jay had—it was a 1941 Chevy that we called “Black Beauty.” We gathered monetary contributions before hopping into Black Beauty and heading down MacCorkle Avenue to buy the essentials necessary for a guys' dorm—beer and snacks. However, former Boy Scouts Eric F. and Roger B. insisted that we also needed to get some survival food. Besides normal party essentials like bags of potato chips and pretzels, canned goods like Spam and pork & beans had to be added to our shopping list, since we didn't know just how many days (or possibly weeks) we would be snowed in. After all, the governor had declared a state of emergency!

The inside of Krogers that afternoon was crazy. Everyone had heard about the coming blizzard and were stocking up for the inevitable isolation. I have never seen such crisis shopping in my life, as entire shelving units were being depleted. The lines at the checkout were horrendous! It was quite an experience. I remember it any time the television news show similar episodes prior to hurricanes coming ashore.

As we hunkered down in the dorm for the night, we had plenty to party with as the snow started to fall (although we saved the cans of pork & beans and Spam for later when we would need them to survive). We were determined to have a good time as we rode out the storm. We were certain that the next morning would involve attempts just to dig our way out of the doors on the first floor—if that would even be possible.

However, by the time most of us awoke (which was by no means early that Saturday morning), it became apparent that the big blizzard had not lived up to its billing. For all the emergency proclamations by the governor, and for all the madhouse behavior at the grocery store, this supposedly gigantic blizzard was hardly worse than a typical winter snowstorm—it was measured in inches, not feet. The only thing huge about it was the party in Cox Hall the night before.

While we don't remember it for its epic amounts of snow, we will always remember the hype that went into Rockefeller's Blizzard.