Thursday, October 30, 2014

NNAOPP Update - October 2014

October 2014


I've always enjoyed learning new words.  The English language is uncommonly generous in its offerings, so I often encounter something new in my readings that sends me to the dictionary.  In order to imbed these new treasures, I quickly endeavor to put them to use. While reading Zane Grey's The Rainbow Trail, published in 1915, I encountered the word 'revivify', a fanciful upgrade for the more banal 'revive'. Some may have noticed that I invented an occasion to use it in a recent NNAOPP update. 

Recent readings introduced me to an uncommonly cool word, callipygian, meaning, having well-shaped buttocks.  This appeared in a non-fiction account of Theodore Roosevelt's days as police commissioner of New York c. 1895, Island of Vice.  The author described the naked, golden statue of Diana perched atop Madison Square Garden as, "particularly comely and callipygian with breasts like tangerines."  I immediately Googled the word and learned that it means having well-shaped buttocks, making it imminently useful for future purposes.

Callpygous also caught my attention owing to its similarity to another arcane word that tickles me, steatopygia, defined in Webster's as an extreme accumulation of fat on or about the buttocks.  For aging KC Royal's fans who may remember Hal McRae, it's not difficult to envision him running to first base at full speed with a champagne flute situated on his shelf-like buttocks, spilling nary a drop. I can't explain the abundance of five-dollar words with Greek origins describing buttocks given the paucity of monikers for other body parts.



Speaking of the Royals.  After 29 years in the wilderness, the boys in blue pulled off a magical October.  Imagine what might have been had third base coach, Mike Jirschele, gave Alex Gordon the green light as he rounded third on the misplayed double.  There were two outs, home team down by a run, bottom of the ninth, seventh game of the World Series.  If he's out sliding into home, the outcome is the most exciting denouement in World Series history.  If he's safe, the Royals tie the game on an improbable inside-the-park-home-run. The crowd erupts, and the jubilant, storybook ending no one would have envisioned three months earlier would surely have ensued.  It was still pretty darn sweet.

We were privileged to witness the event along with all of the home post-season games excepting the first game loss against Bumgarner.  One of my many memories of the October run occurred as Judy and I were driving home after the Wednesday afternoon game when the Royals beat the Orioles 2-1 to win the American League pennant.  We were directed to a route opposite of our destination taking us onto old Highway 40.  There, we observed a bevy of scantily clad beauties waving Royal's flags standing outside a windowless box of a building..  I noted innocently, "Judy, look even the strippers are going crazy for the Royals." 

Judy responded in a mildly accusatory tone, "How do you know they are strippers?"

I murmured inaudibly, knowing fully the best response was no response.  But I thought to myself, "There are more than a few subtle clues dearest.  If the 'Bambi loves Hos' sign' weren't sufficient, I'd go with the flashing 'Nude Dancers' beacon."

At the very least, future travels while wearing my old, green KC hat should no longer engender puzzled queries about the Knights of Columbus.



A few weeks ago we hosted an event at our farm attended by many children and their parents.  I was wearing my standard farm outfit of bib overalls and a gray Carhartt jacket.  I chatted with one of the Dads, an architect whose 7-yr-old son was in the vicinity.  We stood by Ft. Waverly and the nearby teepee.  He was complimentary about the fort's design, and he asked about the teepee.  I told him that I had slept in it the preceding weekend, and added, "It was a bit chilly and around 2:30 am I was awakened by the exchanges of hoot owls that seemed to have me surrounded.  Later, I heard the piercing yips of a band of coyotes coming from the distance."

I didn't think any more of this conversation until a thank you note arrived from the same man.   Among other things it said, "Our oldest son had a great time and kept talking about the 'farmer guy' who sleeps in the teepee with the hoot owls and coyotes."  I like his version better.



In case you have the urge to parade nude in public at a time and place other than Mardi Gras in NOLA, please be advised such behavior is legal in Topeka.  I recently heard an interview with the goofball who has been walking around Topeka unclothed.  The police were unable to charge him with a crime as the city fathers must have missed this particular peculiarity in writing their laws for the past 175 years.  It's plausible that it just hasn't come up.  I very much like the ring of "Legal in Topeka" and will peruse a possible purpose for this title.

Over breakfast recently, a good friend was describing his recent efforts de-cluttering his home.  He was using Craigslist, ESPY, and other means of selling and giving away stuff.  I asked what he intended to do with the proceeds.  "More and better wine," was the understandable reply.  From that came, "Waterford for Wine."  Surely there is a use for this.


Post Office

I journeyed to our neighborhood post office to mail a copy of my book to an eager reader.  The nice lady behind the counter inquired as to the content of the package, and I told her it was a book. 

I am an inherently shy person, but I noted that I was the only customer in line so I uncharacteristically chose to be chatty and added, "Don't you recognize me?  I'm the non-famous author of that book."

She politely took the bait, and I told her the title.  She said, "That sounds interesting."  And she started to write it down on a little yellow post-it pad, stopping only to ask how to spell 'peculiar.'  She inquired how she'd find a copy.  I told her it was available at Bruce Smith Drugs and on Amazon. Then the clerk at the next counter weighed in, "I think I'd like that also.  How much does it cost?"  Upon learning that this literary treasure could be had for the low, low, everyday price of $10, she said she'd buy one.

Pleased at this unexpected response, I told them to hold on, as I only live a few blocks away.  I left for my fulfillment center, picked up two copies, returned, signed them, and walked off with sufficient funds to buy lunch.  What a great day.


It's not too soon to start thinking about that perfect Christmas gift for someone you truly loathe.  Copies of the fourth printing of NNAOPP are in inventory awaiting a new home.  My able fulfillment center staff stand ready to handle the anticipated seasonal demand.

Go Royals 2015.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

NNAOPP Update September 2014

September 2014

Book Club

Last week I was the guest speaker at a men's book club.  Each month a member selects a book, and my friend Phil Love, graciously introduced NNAOPP to his colleagues.  The club consists of a dozen professional men of varying ages.  The attendees were kind with their comments and asked thoughtful questions about the book.  The discussion quickly turned to the idea that everyone has interesting stories, and I listened with enthusiasm.  Many of the stories shared a musical theme.  Here are a few snippets:

"I felt like I was reading a story about my own life.  I attended Indian Hills Junior High, Shawnee Mission East HS, delivered the KC Kansan, and I play the banjo.  The only thing I'm missing is the Mardi Gras trip.  Got any openings?"

"My father-in-law, Judge Andrew Jackson Higgins, played in your Dad's swing band in 1938.  When he died two years ago his obituary referred to your Dad as one of the people who shaped his life.  I made the connection after reading your book."  Small world indeed.

"After selling my business, I took up the harmonica.  A few weeks ago I had my inaugural performance at the Phoenix Jazz Club.  I worked hard on one song, had a good backup group, and it went pretty well."

"After college I went out to LA to try to make it as a stand-up comic.  I took acting and voice lessons and received my Screen Actor's Guild card.  I was struggling to survive when one of my instructors took me aside and said, 'there are over 30,000 SAG members, but only a few hundred make over $20,000 per year.'  I packed it in and got my MBA."

One of the participants holds a PhD in organ and told of his experience playing the new organ at the Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Performing Arts Center.  "The sounds are intense in the theatre, but even more so sitting at the keyboard.  It almost blows your hair back."

And my favorite came from Phil, who, among other things, plays standup bass fiddle and is a brilliant lyricist. He crafted this little ditty with friends over drinks.

Puff, the magic maggot,
Lived in the trash.
Frolicked in the banana peels,
And in the cigarette ash.

Little Teddy Tapeworm,
loved that maggot, Puff.
Brought him dead dogs two weeks old,
And scabs still moist with pus!

A maggot lives forever,
But a tapeworm's not as tough.
Teddy ate the banana peels,
But he croaked on the scabs with pus!

Puff was broken-hearted.
Losing Teddy really hurt.
But not as much as hunger did,
So he ate him for dessert!


Walnut Valley Festival (aka Winfield, KS Bluegrass Festival)

"Banjo will get you through times with no money, but money will not get you through times with no banjo"

"My next husband will be normal"

Tee shirt wisdom

It was a beautiful fall day as I journeyed through Flint Hills of southeast Kansas.  Leaving the interstate, I headed south on Highway 77 from El Dorado.  My route closely followed the meandering Walnut River to the handsome city of Winfield.  The river forms a levied crossbow encircling the Crowley County Fairgrounds, home to the 43rd annual and aptly named Walnut Valley Festival. 

Three years ago I purchased my Ome Trilogy Tubaphone II open back banjo from Jim Baggett, the owner of Mass Street Music in Lawrence.  He told me he bought the banjo at the Walnut Valley Festival, and he suggested I attend a future event, as it was a Mecca for acoustic music fans.  But I procrastinated.  Then I met a fellow banjo player at the aforementioned book club.  He reminded me that this was the weekend for the Winfield bluegrass event and added,  "I'll be there for the entire four days.  You'll have more fun than a banjo player is allowed to have."  And so I went.

I arrived at noon on Friday and was amazed at the huge crowd (estimated at 15,000) and the thousands of RV's assembled. The attendees were friendly, eclectic, and attractive.  During a quick walk around, I observed an abundance of young families with little ones, farmers and cowboys, old and young hippies, boomers, knitters, and even hipsters.  There was a noticeable dearth of tattoos.  Instead of pigs and sheep, the exhibition barns were full of vendors of serious musical instruments, food stands, and arts and crafts.  The sounds of music echoed from every direction.

Four stages were set up offering live music running on the hour from 9 am to 12:30 am.  Thirty different professional acts were featured along with several hundred amateurs.  A fifth stage consisted of dozens of jam sessions held in the campground area.

I rotated from stage to stage to try to see and hear as much as possible.  I also sat in on a few of the contests for amateurs.  Friday's contests featured hammer dulcimer, mandolin, and old-time fiddle.

I listened to four contestants, out of 45, in the amateur mandolin contest.  A large lady ambled up to the microphone and announced without enthusiasm,  "That was contestant number 9.  Next will be contestant number 10." Out walked a high school age boy wearing a Dekalb seed ball cap who proceeded to play an intricate Bach Contata with remarkable skill.  Then came a youngish man in a ponytail who played so skillfully he reminded me of Ricky Skaggs.  Then came a man in his 50's who played "Buffalo Gals" at near-tyro level mindful of my banjo plucking.  This made me contemplate the formerly unimaginable, "What's the worst that could happen?  46th out of 45 in the banjo contest?"

It was easy to see why the crowds were so large and appreciative.  The musicianship and showmanship of the professional groups, none of whom possessed familiar names, were nonpareil.  In addition to standard bluegrass bands, I listened to cowboy western, western swing, Celtic, solo instrumentalists, and folk.  A local Winfield man accompanied two of the groups on the bones.  (Bones players use two slightly convex shaped, 7 3/8" pine splints in each hand.  When properly applied, they snap together to create a delightful rhythmic, percussive sound.) I've been working sporadically trying to gain a modicum of competence on this particular instrument, thus far with little success.

One folk performer, John McCutcheon, demonstrated virtuosity in clawhammer banjo, bluegrass banjo, flat pick guitar, hammer dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, and piano, all in a one hour show.  Interestingly, he was accompanied by a signer.  I couldn't figure that out.  Can the deaf sense and enjoy music?

Performers came from Australia, Ireland, North Carolina, Montana, Michigan, New York, and of course, Kansas.  One of the very best groups hailed from nearby Wichita, started by twin brothers, who first attended the festival as infants.  In their formative years as a band, they added their banjo and lead guitar members from musicians they heard at earlier WVF jam sessions.

Like many of you I'm sure, my iTunes collection features a playlist devoted to yodeling, but never before had I heard a song featuring two-part harmonic yodeling, until WVF.

Between 5 and 5:30 pm Stage one featured the top three finishers in the previous day's finger style guitar contest.  All were great, but the most memorable was the second place contestant, a young man who came from Osaka, Japan.  He won an earlier contest in Japan, and his first place prize was a trip to Winfield, KS for the festival.  He should have won first place in my humble opinion.

It's hard to pick a favorite performer, but my choice goes to Jacob Johnson, a solo, spikey-haired, hipster, guitar plucker from NC.  He attained the most unique and agreeable sounds from his instrument that I have ever heard.  I later encountered him on the midway, introduced myself, and told him how much I enjoyed his music.  I asked him how he achieved the harmonic sounds solely with his left hand.  He was appreciative and said kindly,  "The key is a good pickup so the audience can hear the subtleties, brand new strings, and 20 years of dedicated practice."  "Oh! That."

Next year, I'm taking camping gear and will stay for the duration.


A few days ago I was bitten on the tip of my nose by a wasp.  The bad news was that it hurt, it made my face swell up, and my appearance scared my granddaughter.  My upper lip was roughly the size of my thigh. The good new came from amusing consolations, "Good thing you don't play the trumpet" and "It makes your wrinkles disappear."  Better than botox.


I'm pleased to report that my blog has now eclipsed 5,100 hits.  Lamentably, the audience originating in the United States represents less than 60% of the total.   The others are, in descending order, Germany, UK, Russia, India, China, and Yemen.  France and Romania are coming on strong.  Given the lack of known sales to these regions, I can only surmise these are disappointed porn seekers.

That's the news from here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

August 2014 Update

August 2014

Judy and I recently traveled to the Jersey Shore as guests of new friends. I was expecting something akin to Bagnell Dam on steroids (a cheesy, tourist trap at the Lake of the Ozarks), but instead encountered communities resembling the toniest one might find in the Hamptons.  We caught crabs, boated, rode bumper cars on the boardwalk, dined exquisitely, and greatly enjoyed our visit.  We also learned one goes Down the Shore, not Down to the Shore.  Don't ask me why.

Afterwards, we journeyed to New York City to meet up with son Ben and his girlfriend, Deb.  We rendezvoused for Sunday brunch at a popular, uber-foodie restaurant, ABC Kitchen, in the Union Square neighborhood.  Reservations are required days in advance.  The back of the menu expounding on the "Kitchen's Commitments" caught my eye and assured diners that all ingredients hailed from:

- organic small farms
- cruelty free / humanely treated livestock
- free of pesticides, insecticides, synthetic fertilizers, and GMO's
- organically cultivated on fair trade cooperatives
- celebrating and honoring sustainability, artistry, and global diversity

After being revivified by the tasty, but tiny, $15 meal of scrambled eggs and humanely slain bacon, we journeyed to nearby Madison Square Park to meet a college friend of Ben's.  Chion, a delightful young man, lives in Seoul, Korea and works for the electronics division of Samsung.   Serendipitously, he was in town for a few days of meetings giving us the chance to get reacquainted.   

It was a beautiful, sunny day in NYC, and the park was full of prosperous people.  I pulled out my 6-year-old iPhone to take a picture of the others in the shadow of the Flatiron Building.  Shortly afterwards Ben, Deb, and Judy went to a nearby concession stand to buy beverages, leaving me chatting with Chion.  The conversation went thusly:

Chion, "Chuck, I hope you don't mind me saying this, but your phone is very outdated and is quite untidy."

His observations were in fact correct.  My phone is almost antideluvian, and the plastic covering was smudged, scratched, and bulging in all the wrong places.

Chion continued as diplomatically as possible, "In Korea a son is judged, in part, by the quality of his father's electronics."

In other words, had we been in Korea, I would have brought shame upon Ben.

Chion,  "Let me help you with this."

He then began to vigorously clean the phone making a marked improvement.

Chion, "Here, this should be better, but you still need to get a new phone."


The following day, Judy and I planned to meet Ben for lunch at Bryant Park.  We arrived early so I ventured into the nearby New York Public Library.  While in the majestic lobby, I noted a display of index card-sized signs labeled, "What Are You Reading".  I added one more entry, and am proud to report, that NNAOPP is now, or at least was for a while, prominently listed among the must-read books in this magnificent edifice.


On more than one occasion whilst shamelessly huckstering my book, I have encountered a fellow amateur author.  This should not be surprising as there are over 350,000 books published each year in the U.S.  They'll say, "I too have written a book," and proceed to tell me about it.

Recently, we traveled to Vail, CO for the wedding of one of Judy's childhood friends, oddly the first time I've attended the wedding of 67 year olds.  Beforehand, I had occasion to lunch with two other guests and the Lutheran pastor who would be performing the services.  Pastor Jim is 73, now retired, and through an unusual set of family circumstances reminiscent of the song, "I Am My Own Grandpa," is the nephew of the bride.

After learning of our common interest in story telling, we agreed to swap books.  Tales From Trinity, by Jim Bornzin, sat on my desk for a few weeks ignored.  The title didn't grab me, but I decided to take a gander and quickly became immersed in the tales.  It's a fictionalized account of the life of a parish pastor in the Midwest.  The stories are well told and thought provoking.  I'd recommend it to anyone interested in a captivating glimpse into the uncommonly complex lives of ordinary people.


A few weeks ago I received a call from a friend and former client I hadn't seen for many years.   Someone had given him a copy of NNAOPP, and he called to say that he enjoyed it.  Later, he stopped by, and we had a visit.  I'll paraphrase some of the stories he shared:

"Your basic training story, particularly your experience of speaking up during the character guidance session, reminded me of my own experience during the Korean War.  After two years attending MU, I was drafted.  After completing basic training several officers took me aside and asked me to sign up for officer training.  I declined, but then, in an offhand manner, expressed concerns about the war.  They apparently didn't care for my political views, and one week later I was in Korea."

"By December of 1952 the war had reached a stalemate.  U.S. forces had ceased offensive operations, but the Chinese were still going full force.  We were positioned on a series of hills on one side of the valley that later became the 38th parallel (now separating North and South Korea), and the Chinese were on the mountain range on the opposite side." 

"My platoon was positioned in the 'point' bunker, aka the closest to the enemy and furthest from friendlies.  Every night the Chinese would probe our defenses, and we were engaged in constant skirmishes.  I was one of only 25 in our company (out of approx. 200 men) who came home unscathed.  General Maxwell Taylor (then head of all forces in Korea) decided to take a tour of the front lines, and I was chosen to be his guide. When General Taylor learned that this particular sergeant played bridge, I was invited to complete a foursome with two other senior officers.  Bridge gave me several days respite from the front lines, perhaps saving my life."  

"We once went 45 days without eating a hot meal.  I went nine consecutive months without eating at a table, so I constantly dreamed of a home-cooked meal sitting in our family dining room.  When I returned home, my Mom announced she was having a picnic in our backyard with friends and family to celebrate my safe return.  She noted my disappointment at hearing of this, and I explained.  She then adjusted the picnic to be inside."

Yes, people do have interesting stories.


I had occasion to observe grandson Finn's encounter with an older girl with whom he was obviously smitten.  After testing her arithmetic acumen, "How much is 32+32?" and receiving the correct answer, he continued:

Finn, "How old are you?"

Girl, "11.  How old are you?"

Finn,  "I'm four now." Pause. "But I'll be 11 soon."


Last week I placed an order for the fourth printing of NNAOPP, as I am now out of copies, save for one from the original printing that I am keeping for posterity.  Admittedly, the latest order is for a meager 25 books, but who's counting.

That's what passes for news from here.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

July 2014 Update

July 2014

Weeks earlier a friend who grew up in western Kansas said, "Since you're headed to Colorado you should stop at the Trader's Post in Kit Carson.  It's the best breakfast place in the entire world, and it won't be too far out of your way.  So it came to pass that Judy and I pulled into the heralded dining spot at 10 am on a Tuesday morning.  The unpaved parking lot was flooded, a consequence of the preceding week's torrential rain, highlighted by a deluge of 3" in one hour the day before.  Presumably the citizens of this high plains region were pleased with the drought busting moisture.

The building looked like a western trading post giving credence to its name, but there were signs of neglect.   We found a dry spot to park and strolled to the front door.  There we noted a prominently posted 'For Sale' sign, not a good omen.  Upon entering we noticed both a paucity of customers and an abundance of flies.  The latter presumably attributed to the two large cattle trucks sitting in the parking lot.

We tried to find a table with the fewest flies, but this was futile.  We were greeted by a well-rounded, in a Rabelaisian way, and pretty young waitress.  I mentioned that we had been told that Trader's Post offered the best breakfast in the world, and we had traveled some distance to see for ourselves.  She responded boldly, "Well, we do serve very good food here."

The menu offered a generous variety of options.  I asked the waitress for her recommendation, and she said, "Make sure you order something with bacon."

So I ordered the Hungry Man featuring two hotcakes, two eggs, bacon, sausage, hashbrowns, and toast for the tidy sum of $6.95.

Judy was a bit snarky and asked if they provided flyswatters with their meals.  The attractive server politely responded that the health department didn't allow that, presumably preferring living flies to dead ones amidst ones' meal.

I'm not a bumper sticker kind of guy, but if I were mine would say, "If You Don't Like Bacon, You're Wrong."  The bacon was good, but not noteworthy, in keeping with the rest of the meal, and the search continues.

As we were finishing, a well-dressed woman in her 40's walked in.  She looked even more out of place than we did, so she caught my eye.  She approached the counter crowded with sweet rolls and slices of pie and asked our waitress, "Do you have iced coffee?"

And the reply was, "No."

And she walked out.

This encounter brought me back to my New Zealand trip with Ben.  On more than a dozen occasions Ben would enter a coffee shop and request iced coffee.  The predictable exchange would go thusly:

"Do you have iced coffee?"
"Do you have coffee?"
"Do you have ice?"
"Together, we can work this out." 

And he would pour his coffee into a cup of ice.

My friend provided some other helpful suggestions for our trip to Colorado.  We toured the Garden of Eden in Lucas, KS about 16 miles north of I-70.  Then we dined at the Western Kansas Saloon in Wakeeny.  All worthwhile side-trips if you're not in a hurry.  And even though the breakfast in Kit Carson wasn't spectacular, the drive along Highway 40 from Oakley, KS to Limon, CO is much more scenic and interesting than the I-70 route.


It started out innocently, 4-year old Finn sitting on a stone wall with his little friend, who was eating a cupcake.  Owing to the inherent goofiness of little boys, he inexplicably decided to take a dive for his Mom just as she took the shot, resulting in an unintended action photo:

You'll be pleased to know that the cupcake survived the inadvertent disturbance.  No children were harmed in the creation of this memory.


One of my fraternity brothers, Jim Silkenat, is a very successful lawyer in a giant NYC firm.  This past year he was elected the president of the American Bar Association's board of governors.  One of the prerogatives of this position is he gets to select the location of the annual board meeting, so he chose his hometown, KC.  He hosted a welcoming reception for the group at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum with a dinner catered by Jack Stack's set up on the baseball diamond that is the centerpiece of the venue.

The after dinner entertainment for the event was me.  Amazingly, Jim read and liked NNAOPP, and he wrote to say that very much enjoyed the read, particularly as we have quite a bit of shared history.  He said he'd like me to talk about the book at the upcoming meeting.  Then as the date approached, he reaffirmed the offer, but he upped the ante saying, "Why don't you play a few banjo tunes as well?"

All I'm willing to say about the evening is that no one was injured.  I told a few of the stories and did my little schtick about the process of writing the stories that evolved into NNAOPP, the unsuccessful attempts to get an agent or publisher, the process of self-publisher, and the transformation of a shy, introvert into a shameless book huckster.  That went reasonably well.  Sadly, while standing amidst the life-sized statues of Negro baseball greats and within earshot of the Jazz Musicians Hall of Fame, my banjo fingers turned to jello in front of the distinguished crowd of 100.  Songs that I thought I owned didn't come out as well as I would have liked.  I will, however, persevere.

Jim, thanks a million for your kind efforts in giving me a forum for the book.


Last week Judy and I went to a Royal's game and sat next to a very chatty man and his wife.  As I returned from a concession stand visit, the man was asking Judy, "Your husband looks familiar, is he someone I should know?"  I returned in time to assure him I was a nobody, but I did write a book.  He listened with what appeared interest as I told him about NNAOPP.

The next morning I checked the Amazon website and was pleased to see that the sales total increased by one that evening, presumably thanks to the chatty Royals fan.


Prospero's Book Store at 39th and Bell, in KC, MO has joined the list of fine retailers carrying NNAOPP.  Bruce Smith Drugs continues to be the sales leader at the retail level.  Sales now stand at 1,320 copies.  I'm getting close to being unembarrassable.

Happy 4th of July.  God bless America.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

May 2014 Update

May 2014

C- Grandfathering

A few weeks ago Lucy asked if I would be interested in accompanying 5-year old Waverly and her pre-K classmates to an event at Royal's stadium.  I quickly accepted the welcomed task.  There would be a morning educational weather program at the stadium followed by an afternoon game against the Rockies.  Lucky me, thought I.

Here are two different versions of what transpired.  First, from my vantage:

At the appointed hour, I picked up Waverly, and we drove to the stadium.  It was a chilly blustery morning, but we were dressed for the occasion.  We chatted amiably on the drive, and arrived to see hundreds of busloads of children from all over the metro area.  We walked into the lower level and began searching for our group.  Finding no one, and since it was open seating, we sat two rows behind the visitor's dugout.  We snuggled under a blanket and watched four skillful skydivers land gracefully in the outfield grass.  We doffed our hats, held our hands over our hearts, and sang the national anthem.  We were well situated when a local weatherman started the program.

Then I received a text from the Mom of a classmate telling us where to rendezvous with the remainder of the class.  We relocated, and that was problematic.  Waverly does not like loud noises and crowds, both conditions now being prominent once removed from our preferred seating.  She whimpered as we were greeted by one of the pre-school teachers.  She comforted Waverly and said, "You can sit in my lap if you like." 

Waverly said, "I just want to go with Papa."  And we left.

Walking out of the stadium I encountered a disheveled man who said, "Got any extra tickets?"  I said, "sure," and gave him our two soon-to-be-unused ones.

Then Waverly and I went on to spend some quality time, breakfasting on waffles, going to the grocery store, having a tea party, reading stories, picking flowers in the backyard, and taking a big hike.

I returned her to the bosom of her mother around 3 in the afternoon, and felt pretty darn good about a day well spent.

I called Lucy the next day to check on Charlie's earache and learned of a differing view of our time together:

"What did Waverly have for lunch yesterday?"

Her censorious tone made it perfectly clear she already knew the answer, thus rendering prevarication worse than useless.  So I replied truthfully,  "If memory serves me, I believe she had a donut with chocolate icing and multi-colored sprinkles.  I know she prefers vanilla icing, but none were to be found.  What can you do?  Why do you ask two dogs?"

The response was an exasperated sigh followed by a micro-lecture on the importance of a healthy diet.

"Why did you leave the stadium so early?"

I explained how the crowd and the amplified environs upset the little tyke.

"Dad, she just played you.  That was a school day activity.  You don't just abandon ship because she manipulates you.  We paid good money for those tickets, what did you do with them?"

And I told her.

Even more exasperation, "Great, you enabled a homeless bum to sit in the midst of a group of pre-K kids.   The other Moms will be so pleased."

"I'm certain he was a scalper, and he was going to sell the tickets, surely to some fine citizens."

Ever the teacher, she said, "You get a C- for the day's grandparenting."



I was apparently forgiven for these shortcomings, and a few days later I was once again entrusted with the care of Waverly.  We were walking back to our house from a nearby playground.  We crossed a creek, walked up a steep sidewalk through a tiny forest, and encountered a very lightly traveled side street.  Waverly was holding my hand and said, "Papa, you're kind of old, and I'm kind of young, so I'm going to help you cross the street!"  And she did.


In late April we attended a small family gathering in Carlsbad, CA.  My cousin, and our host, is a retired Marine Corps Clonel and was formerly a fighter pilot with 300+ carrier landings (60% at night) to his credit and a Topgun instructor.  He served as our private docent when we took a tour of the decomissioned aircraft carrier USS Midway located in San Diego harbor.  He shared the following tidbit that I found amusing, "Every pilot on a carrier receives a grade for each landing.   There are five possible ratings.  The highest and best is 'OK'.  The fifth and worst is NAFOD (no apparent fear of death).  Receipt of the latter shortens ones' flying career, one way or another."


I sent a copy of last month's NNAOPP update to the banjo maker who graciously spent the day with me.  I had earlier mailed him a copy of my book along with a thank you note and received the following in reply:

I finished your book shortly after receiving it.  It was very well written, entertaining, and very informative to someone like myself who has never had the desire or courage to travel as you have done.

I seldom know the background of the many visitors who stop by the shop, so I try to keep my approach to them as simple and common as possible. Had I not read your book I would never suspected the degree to which you have accomplished so many things.

One correction is in order.  My advanced schooling was in electronic engineering.

When you travel through Tennessee again, please stop, and we might talk about some of my favorite characters that have graced the world stage, such as Warren Buffet, Armand, Hammer, and Will Rogers.


Sales of NNAOPP continue to trickle in, now eclipsing 1,308 copies.  At the current pace I should reach the 1,500 level well before my 100th birthday.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tennessee Banjo Trip

April 2014

I knew I would be driving through middle Tennessee near the hometown of the company who built my second favorite banjo, of the two I own.  I had not bonded with this particular instrument, so I called the number on their website and told the owner of my concerns, making it clear I was a tyro player.

"Everything sounds too tinny and bright." I said.

The banjo maker, who I would later learn had been a first rate performer in the 1960's and 1970's, told me, "Yes, I've had arch tops, and I'd love them for a period of time, and then I'd prefer something a little softer.  However, six months later I'd want to return to that harder sound.  I have a conversion tone ring on order that will change an arch top to a flat top.  But, I'll forewarn you there will come a time when you'll want to return to the arch top sound."  I told him that I was interested in the conversion kit and when I might be traveling his way.

A few days later, I received a package in the mail with a CD featuring my new acquaintance, two hats with his company's logo, a new set of strings, and a bridge that would lower the action (the space between the finger board and the strings) on my not-so-beloved banjo.

Before heading through Tennessee, I called again and inquired of the status of the conversion kit and confirmed the date of our rendezvous.  He told me of his difficulties getting the needed parts from the machinists and chrome plating operations on which he depends, but said, "I'll have something for you when you arrive."

I called the morning of our appointment to say, "I'm here."  The man with whom I had now spoken to on three occasions said, "I'm glad to hear from you because I've got all the pieces to convert your banjo.  I hope you've set aside some time, because I'm prepared to spend the day with you."  He gave me directions, along with a warning about a speed trap along the way.

I was halfway expecting to meet a geezer in overalls with a chaw of tobacco wearing a moonshiner hat.  But it wasn't to be.  Instead, I arrived at a 500-acre estate nestled in the heart of walking horse country, with a federal style home overlooking immaculately groomed grounds.  I was directed to two outbuildings on the property comprising the banjo manufacturing operation. 

I was greeted warmly, introduced to some other guests who quickly departed, and then received the full attention of my host.  I spent the next seven hours with a man who knew nothing of me other than I had purchased, used, one of his banjos, and that I had only been playing three years.

My host was a chatty fellow, but also very interesting.  While it is my nature to want to get on with things quickly, I was sufficiently intrigued to recognize that this was a time to 'just go with it.'

He said, "Did you get a chance to walk through the barns?"  Then he took me on a tour of his farming operation including a building housing dozens of immaculately restored trucks and cars, most impressively featuring two 1948 International Harvester coal trucks, one red the other green.  His array of large and small tractors, dozers, backhoes, and assorted other machines was sufficient to give me a major dose of farm equipment envy.

I said, "You've got a lot of toys."

To which he replied, "Yes, I do."

Then it was off to the banjo operation that was surprisingly small, consisting of two buildings, one the size of a mobile home and the second the size of a double wide.  They contained an immaculate woodworking and machine shop, a ventilated paint/varnish room, assembly area and storage.  He walked me through the entire process of building a quality banjo including how he shapes the necks, sets the pearl inlays on the fingerboards, builds the resonators, etc. 

He demonstrated the nuances in sound between walnut, mahogany, and maple necks and trim and chrome, gold and nickel-plated tone rings.  Walnut/chrome (what I have) creates a bright, bold sound.  Maple/gold plated is softer and more melodic.  The tone ring, the metal piece that clamps the head down on the frame of the banjo, is the most critical piece of the puzzle.  He said, "When I started to make banjos in the early 1970's I focused my attention on the tone ring.  I would start with a relatively heavy casting, assemble the banjo, play it, shave 1/10 of an ounce off, re-assemble, and play again.  I'd do that until I thought I hit the sweet spot, note the weight, and then keep going."

I said, "Are you self taught at building banjos?"

He expounded, "Yes and no.  I knew a lot, but I didn't know how much I didn't know until I hired a genius from Gibson.  He had learned from the masters who built the Gibson banjos in the 1930's and helped me take our craftsmanship to a higher level."

He said, "I'm sure glad you showed up, because I made two extra trips to Nashville to get these castings machined and chromed for you.  Let's take a look at your banjo."

He picked it up and started playing.  In his hands my banjo sounded like the most perfect instrument ever created.  He said good-naturedly but sternly, "It would be a crime to convert this banjo to a flat top.  This is one of the best sounding arch tops I've ever made. Are you sure you want to change it?"  Until this point in time, I had little appreciation for the distinction in tone created by one skilled v. one deficient in such matters.  I gave pause, and he added, "You will be a much better banjo player if you learn on an arch top.  It will force you to play more crisply.  You'll hear every mistake you make."

"And that is a good thing?"

"Yes, it is."

It was noonish, and he said, "I'll call my wife, and we'll take you to lunch."  She drove down from their home, and we were introduced while he went off to give some instructions to a part-time farm mechanic.

We drove along a winding country road to nearby Bell Buckle, TN to dine.  During the course of our trip we chatted amiably.  They mentioned that they were both from the coal country of southwestern Virginia near the Tennessee/Kentucky border and were married at age 19.  I mentioned my basic training tussle with a redheaded 'Deliverance-like' boy from the hills of eastern Tennessee.  My host's wife commented, without a molecule of mirth, "You are very lucky to be alive to tell the tale." She went on to say, "Growing up in that region, you learned early to stay way from those folks.  They are born with a rifle in their hands, and they'll use it."

Bell Buckle is an old railroad village of preserved and restored Victorian homes and churches. The Bell Buckle Cafe features a giant display of Moon Pies for $.91 and terrific food.  I enjoyed a tasty lunch of chicken fried steak, pickled beets, black eyed peas, oatmeal cake, and coffee.  The place was packed and for good reason.

I offered to pick up the tab for our lunch, but my hosts' would not hear of that. "You may not pass this way again, so I've set aside the day to show you around my shop, introduce you to my collection, and I'll give you a lesson while we're at it."  And he proceeded to do all of the above.  And this man did not know me from Adam. 

He started playing banjo at age 5.  I asked him how he got interested in banjo at such a young age.  "My uncle was a serious player, and he left his banjo around and encouraged me to play around with it if I wanted to.  And I did." I told him of one of my grandson's interests in sitting in my lap and strumming along, and he said, "Just leave a banjo near him and let him know he's welcome to pick it up.  The worst he can do is break a few strings."  (I didn't argue the point, but three days after this conversation I was attending my twin grandson's 4th birthday party, where I was to provide the accompaniment for a game of musical chairs.  I left my banjo in its case in the presence of a few small boys and later espied one of them trying to ride it like a rocking horse.)

I mentioned an article I read in the WSJ saying it takes about 10,000 hours to become accomplished with an instrument.  He responded with the following anecdote.  "A fellow once encountered Chet Atkins, possibly the best guitar player ever, and said, 'I'd give anything to play as well at you.'  And Chet responded,  'would you give your life?'"

In 1969, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt split up their band, the Foggy Mountain Boys.  Lester needed a banjo player to replace Earl, and he offered my host the job.  He declined, and I inquired, "Why?"

He said, "Lester offered me $200 a week, but I was making many times more than that with my coal mine.  In addition to being a banjo maker and performer, I would learn that I was dining with a tycoon with a degree in electrical engineering.  He and his wife have owned coal mines, apple orchids, radio stations, and cell phone towers, all dwarfing the banjo business in dollars, if not in passion.

After lunch, we took a tour of his mountain on which one of his cell towers stands.  He told me of the necessity of getting a DC law firm specializing in FCC matters when negotiating with Verizon or ATT.   If one were to judge this man by his dress or dialect, he would severely underestimate his sophistication.

After the mountain tour we went to his studio situated above his four-car garage.  Four banjos were on stands in the middle of the room along with two guitars, a piano, and a standup bass.  Two of the banjos were 1934 and 1935 Gibsons, gold-plated and engraved, possibly the most valuable banjos that exist.  One of them was previously owned by Earl Scruggs and was used in the recording of his Foggy Mountain Breakdown album.  The two guitars were pre-WWII Martins.  A nearby closet contained about 50 pre-WWII banjos of varying makes including a Gibson Florentine and several Degas.  I noticed a photo dating back to the 1960's of my host jamming with Jerry Garcia, John McKuen, and Steve Martin.  I was duly impressed.

He played a few tunes for me and rhapsodized about times past performing in the 60's.  He picked a catchy version of "Puff the Magic Dragon", first on one of the Martin guitars and then on the 1934 Gibson banjo and said, "I would introduce this song by saying, 'now we're going to play some hard core bluegrass.'  Folks loved it.  We'd get our biggest applause of the evening."

Then he said, "Okay, it's time for a lesson.  Get out your banjo."  He listened and watched me play a few tunes.  He winced slightly when I mentioned the beginning instructional books I'd been using.  Then he had me mimic a few rolls he played, each a little more complicated than before, and then he declared, "You have what it takes to become a banjo player." 

We went into his recording studio, and he put an Earl Scruggs record on a turntable.  He slowed it down, and played along, then speeded it up.  Then he put on one of his records and did the same thing.  "See how crisp that sounds, at both slow speeds and fast?  Spend time trying to play these songs in time with the record.  Start real slow, and then get up to speed."

He gave me some helpful tips, showed me how to replace broken strings rapidly, as if one were on stage, but mostly he encouraged me in my quest.

Although he had incurred a significant expenditure of time and money getting a conversion kit ready for me, I decided to follow his advice and leave my Walnut Deluxe arch top unaltered.  I offered to compensate him, but he declined.  "I'll be able to sell those kits to someone else."

As I was leaving, his wife came out of their house to bid farewell.  They gave me directions to the interstate.  I left in a state of bewilderment with my arch top in tact.


Sales of NNAOPP continue to trickle in and are now up to 1,294.  If you're in their respective neighborhoods, please patronize the Sanibel Bookshop and Bruce Smith Drugstore.  They continue to be my best selling venues.  I've been invited to speak to a Rotary group in a few weeks, so I haven't gone completely dormant.  Best wishes to all.

Charles A. Wells, Jr.
3317 W. 68th Street
Shawnee Mission, KS 66208
816 289-1924
Author of: Nude Nuns and Other Peculiar People
Now available in print and Kindle format at
Available at:
  Rainy Day Books, 2706 W. 53rd Street, Fairway, KS
  The Raven Bookstore, 8 East 7th, Lawrence, KS
  Architectural Salvage, 2045 Broadway, Kansas City, MO
  Sanibel Island Bookshop, 1571 Periwinkle, Sanibel, FL
  Twisted Sisters Eclectic Gifts and Floral, Albany, MO
  Bruce Smith Drug Store, Prairie Village, KS