Thursday, November 12, 2015

San Miguel de Allende

November 2015

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Earlier I wrote of having dinner with 84-year-old friend, Bob Fay, when he shared stories of friends he has come to know while spending the last sixteen winters in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.  I was mightily entertained, and he assured me that his retellings represented merely the tip of the iceberg.  I told him, "I would love to meet these guys."  By the next morning Bob wrangled an invitation from Howard and Bill, former Kansas Citians, now permanent residents in San Miguel, to stay in their home to listen and record some of their remarkable adventures.

Below is a snippet from the emerging story about their time with Sally Rand, the celebrated burlesque fan dancer from the 1930's:

Anna was an elderly black lady who oversaw the operations of Bill and Howard's 8,000 square foot Hyde Park (KC) mansion.  They would explain,  "Anna ran the household, she just let us live there."  On the first morning of her stay, Howard was in the kitchen with Anna when Sally walked in totally nude.  "Good morning.  Got any coffee?  Do you have any garlic salt?"

Anna handed her a cup of coffee and poured a dash of garlic salt in Sally's hand, and she disappeared.  She was 70 at the time, but she had the body of a 30-year-old.

On the third day Howard encountered an irritable Anna in the kitchen.  "What's the problem?"

"Mmm! Mmm! Mmm" she murmured, "We're sure seeing a lot more of Miss Rand than we want to.  I have a feeling she is going to be here for some time."  Sally followed the identical routine every morning for the next five years, much to the delight of the gardener who timed his coffee breaks accordingly.  And after the prickly start, Anna and Sally developed a deep friendship becoming inseparable.

We arrived at Queretaro two hours behind schedule, but Howard was gracious and waited even though we were responsible for his being over an hour late for the fundraising luncheon he and Bill were hosting for 70.  

We drove down a narrow, cobblestoned street surrounded by tall stone walls and entered the handsome gate leading to Howard and Bill's one-acre estate.  We walked into a courtyard packed with well-dressed people.  Howard made introductions and began working the crowd.  Liveried waiters offered margarita’s and hors d'oeuvres.

We were seated at a table set up on the lawn and began the first of a five-course dinner. A 10-piece Mariachi band serenaded the crowd.  Howard took me aside to comment on the piece being played, "Lost Child."  One of the trumpets played a wailing lament from somewhere distant in the house.  A second answered boldly from the gardens.  This continued as the trumpeters moved about, finally coming together, all to the accompaniment of four violins and four guitars.  

Bob introduced me to our dining companions, and several said, “Oh you’re, the Nude Nuns guy”, and they would recite a portion of the book.  Bob told them I had come to write about Howard's stories, and I was quickly invited to Chicago to speak  to a ladies' book club. 

Their home is one part art gallery, two parts Architectural Digest gracious living, and three parts world-class botanical gardens, all enclosed in immaculate white adobe, tile-capped walls 9' high.  There are over 100 different species of trees in the garden.  A museum quality display of American Indian and pre-Columbian artifacts fills the entryway. The living room is long and narrow with art covering the interior wall. Even though my art appreciation capabilities are non-existent, I did note the presence of a Thomas Hart Benton.  The exterior wall features a large fireplace bracketed by glass doors leading to a veranda and on to the gardens. Bill's jewelry studio occupies one corner of the hacienda with a separate entrance off the front courtyard.  I was most impressed by the bronze-framed and beveled glass doors and windows.  It was like looking through a chandelier.

We rested after lunch in preparation for a 6:30 dinner party.  Our guests arrived, both attractive 50ish women, neither of whom knew the other. The first just moved to San Miguel from Palm Beach having just sold her orchid growing business.  She knew all of the characters in the book, The Orchid Thief, and proclaimed that she, too, was an orchid thief.  She told of a trip to the Peruvian Amazon basin searching for orchids.  Her companion, the chief botanist for the St. Louis botanical garden, was arrested, but she escaped.  The also spoke of a trip to Burma in search of exotic orchids.  She is tall and slender and told of once losing to Chris Evert in a national level junior tennis tournament.  She is an heiress of a family whose name you'd recognize, and she despises Chilangos, the nouveau-riche Mexicans who apparently treat everyone shabbily.

The second lady hailed from Toronto’s aristocracy and was uncommonly gracious. She seemed genuinely interested in my book and the stories that brought me to Howard and Bill’s.  We learned that her godfather was Edward Brooke, the late senator from Massachusetts, and her cousin is Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  I told them that I know the owner of the now defunct Prairie Village Standard station.  At one point in the conversation, I mentioned ‘my wife’, and she seemed mildly disappointed saying, “Oh! I thought that you and Bob were partners.”   

Howard kept us on a busy schedule throughout our seven-day stay attending cocktail parties, lengthy comidas (lunches), dinners, impromptu gatherings and house calls in and around San Miguel.  We made side trips to nearby Queretaro and Celaya, traveling by car and bus. The premo bus from Queretaro to San Miguel offered luxurious accommodations, think first class on Lufthansa, for the modest sum of 115 pesos ($7 U.S.).  My expectations upon arriving in central Mexico had sadly and erroneously been formed from exposure to border towns.  Open eyes quickly dispelled these misconceptions.  San Miguel and Queretaro are beautiful and prosperous cities.  

Our visit was timed to coincide with the Dias de la Muertas festival.  I'll readily concede that the Mexicans do a superior job of honoring their dead.   On Sunday, November 1, deceased children are honored.  We strolled past several blocks of street vendors en route to the cemetery.  They offer everything needed to create shrines and decorate tombs for the dead.  They also sell tasty treats, my favorite being long sugared donuts.  The cemetery was packed wall-to-wall with celebrants.  Men were scraping and repainting the white gravestones.  Children played nearby, even sitting on the tombs.  Artistic shrines were created from the petals of yellow magnolias, colored sand, and photos and personal items of the dead.  Mondays are even more crowded when adults are honored.

The dominant architectural feature of San Miguel is the Parroquia, located in the center of a 64-square block section of town dating back to 1520.  It towers over the Jardin (Garden), the largest of the town's plazas ringed with laurel trees manicured in the shape of giant drums. Seventeenth, and eighteenth century haciendas border the square.  They were once the homes of the wealthy owners of the silver mines in nearby Guanajuato.  Most, but not all, of the grand haciendas are repurposed as hotels, restaurants, museums, government buildings, and retail shops. They are typically two-story edifices built around a large courtyard.  Entry is gained through a wooden or metal gate sufficiently large for carriages, and each stone threshold reveals the wear of centuries of carriage traffic. One can almost imagine the grand lifestyles enjoyed by their 17th century inhabitants.

San Miguel de Allende was recently designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  Situated at 7,200 feet, it is known for its moderate temperatures, flowers blooming year round, steep cobblestone streets, and 16th and 17th century colonial architecture.  There are no stop signs, stoplights, fast food restaurants, or evidence of use of motorcycle helmets.  There is a large expat community estimated at 5,000 full time and another 5,000 seasonal residents.  The restaurants, shops, parks, and plazas bustle with activity.  A car is unnecessary.  Most destinations are in easy walking distance, cabs are readily available, and first class inter-city buses are easy to navigate. 

In the evenings, party-goers packed the Jardin and the surrounding areas.  On Sunday morning we watched teams of artists build shrines around the square. The two adjacent cathedrals on the square held mass before a full house.  At night people dress in black and paint their faces in varying interpretations of what the dead might resemble.  This usually involves a white base with the mouth outlined in black and extended with stitches like the Frankenstein monster.  Everyone was friendly and festive.  Hank's New Orleans Oyster House and Bar, just off the Jardin, is one of the most popular bars in town, and they were showing the Royals / Mets game.  Go Royals!

One evening Howard and Bill hosted a cocktail party for a dozen people, and everyone gravitated to the veranda.  Abell, the butler, expertly served drinks and hors d'oeuvres, an interesting assortment of guests chatted, and all was convivial.  Howard called for everyone's attention and said, "You may not realize it, but we have a famous author in our midst."  I thought to myself, "Cool.  Who?"  Then he held up a copy of Nude Nuns and Other Peculiar People and continued, "It is customary that we have the author come forward and read the last page of his book.  Chuck."  I was caught unaware, but I was able to stumble through the story about the Nude Nuns in the hot tub, and I appreciated Howard's kind setup.  He would repeat the stunt on two more occasions with different audiences. 

We met Hugh Carpenter for dinner at The Restaurant .  He is a friend of Howard and Bill's, a frequent visitor to San Miguel, a wine and food critic from Napa, CA, the author of several cook books, and a nice guy.  After being introduced, he said, "Oh, so you're Howard's biographer?" 

I noticed that his publisher was Andrews McMeel in Kansas City, and I shared the story of receiving a speedy rejection letter from that fine firm and being told, "We don't accept book submissions from people like you."  He explained the fickleness of dealings with publishers,  "I've had books that did well and sold over 200,000 copies, and I've had some that were bombs, barely selling 100,000.  By the way, how many have you sold?"  I mumbled into my hand with a barely audible, "closing in on 1,500."


Howard, 80, is the scion of a pioneer KC family, an art collector, former college administrator, the headmaster of a private school, a horseman still riding 2-3 hours daily, and a hands-on philanthropist. He is funny and uncommonly irreverent, and he gets away with it.  He will say or do something outrageous, and the recipient will say something like, "Oh, Howard!  You're such a pill."  Anyone else would be clubbed to death like a baby seal.  Bill, 72, is the son of a barber growing up in Mexico, MO (later creating confusion when in the process of becoming a Mexican citizen), a decorated combat Vietnam War veteran, a one-time escort to Imelda Marcos, and now a celebrated jewelry designer.  He is also a calming influence on Howard.

Howard, Bill, Bob, and I shared three formal story-telling sessions, each lasting 3-5 hours.  As Bob foretold, the Sally Rand tale, was but one layer of the onion.  Once home, I wrote feverishly trying to get as much on paper as possible while still fresh and ended up with 33 pages of material.  The Howard and Bill and Sally story is still a work in progress, but it will definitely find a prominent place in Book II. 

I'm still chasing a few other stories, but my goal is to self-publish Book II in the next few months.  I am confident that dozens await. 


Being run ragged by an 80 and 84-year-old this past week has given me an entirely new perspective on aging.  A few years ago, a 95-year-old acquaintance told me, "Chuck, if you've got anything that needs doing, best get it done before 80."  I somehow let that self-limiting notion settle in my impressionable psyche.  Time spent with Howard and Bob has proven to be the perfect antidote.

Quite a few sales trickled in during the trip to San Miguel.  People who said, "I'll go online and buy your book," did.  On a totally different note, Lucy and I had articles published in the November issue of 'Mission Hills Living Magazine.'  I'm sure father / daughter articles have appeared before in a single publication, but it can't be that commonplace.  Go Lucy!  She is far the superior scrivener.  I'm now gaining confidence that I might some day earn literally tens of dollars from this writing gig.  I'm not exaggerating! At the very least, I'm meeting some interesting people.

And that is what passes for news from here.


p.s.  If you have any interest in additional San Miguel tidbits, read on:

One of the many interesting people we met was Mary Calderoni, a strikingly pretty artist from a small town in Texas.  She once earned her living whipping cigarettes from peoples' mouths, ala Lash LaRue.  She offered to demonstrate, but I declined.

The highways to Queretaro and Celaya follow valleys bracketed by distant mountain ranges.  The natural terrain features scrub trees, grasses, and cactus of varying kinds.  There are large swaths of land reminiscent of U.S. corporate farms lying in stark contrast to smaller cornfields still harvested manually with hand-stacked cornstalks dotting the fields.  Ancient stone fences border many of the properties, especially the vineyards.  It's not England-like tidy, but I found the countryside to be surprisingly pleasing.

Queretaro is a large, modern city, 1.5 million, founded in 1530.  It is growing rapidly, presumably as the spillover for commerce from the overwhelmingly large Mexico City, population 25-30 million.  The dominant architectural feature is an aqueduct built in 1738 that still brings water from the nearby mountains to the central city.  The parks and plaza are beautiful, clean, and busy.  The cathedrals compare favorably to anything one might see in Italy. 

The road system is not radically different from the U.S. with two-lane and four-lane highways. The two-lanes become four when the slower traffic moves onto the shoulder.  This forms a 'sort of' passing lane in the middle.  It was a bit disconcerting at first, but I eventually calmed down.  One must die of something.  The biggest surprise was the ubiquity of speed bumps.  Hitting one of these treasures at 40 mph would launch a vehicle skyward and destroy every working part.  Accordingly, people slow down, but then speed up quickly.  It's not quite as terrifying as riding in a car in China, but it's close.

The roads in the colonial district of San Miguel are extremely narrow with room for one car only, having been designed for burros. There are wider streets that allow two small cars to pass, only if one stops, and the other inches past.  It's absolutely amazing that cars retain their side view mirrors.  The major thoroughfares are paved with flat stones, offering a smoother ride, and easily accommodate trucks, buses, and the heavy traffic for the city of 150,000.

Houses require neither heating nor cooling systems.  Fireplaces are used infrequently in December and January.

While traveling back to Queretaro to catch our flight, we encountered two disheveled young guys standing in the middle of a busy, high-speed two-lane highway at the intersection of the KC Southern rail line.  They held up signs saying, "Need money to get to U.S."  Howard speculated that they were most likely from Central America and would soon be hopping a northbound train, assuming they don't first get squished by an 18-wheeler.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival
October 2015

In September Judy and I journeyed to Winfield, KS for the 44th annual Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival.   The town population doubles for four days as many of the assembled enthusiasts settle in the tree-lined campgrounds nestled in the oxbow of the Walnut River. 

People-hauling tractors collect day-trippers from the parking lots, and the sounds of fiddles, banjos, and mandolins resonate.  Four stages at the Cowley County Fairgrounds offer nonstop performances starting at 9 in the morning ending after midnight.  Thirty-four acts are staggered throughout the weekend along with amateurs vying for top honors in one of seven contests.  Dozens of campground jam sessions proffer opportunities for players of all abilities.  The abundance of unheralded, but gifted musicians, amazed and entertained.  The crowd was festive, and, apparently in tribute to last year's World Series appearance, those wearing Royal's attire outnumbered those with tee-shirts proclaiming, "Paddle Faster I Hear Banjo." 

While rushing from one venue to another, I noticed a pretty young woman in a wheel chair, one with canted wheels like those used by athletes.  I didn't want to stare, but I did gaze furtively.  She had a little girl, about three I'd guess, sitting in her lap, but she didn't have a lap.  She had no legs and only a vestige of stubs.  She appeared too young to have been a victim of the Thalidomide disaster dating back to the 1960's.  Whatever the origins of her misfortune, she carried herself with a quiet dignity, and one couldn't help but admire her grit.  And we continued on our way to the mountain dulcimer contest.

Later we were sitting in the bleachers of Stage III awaiting the performance of a Scottish band, The Tannahill Weavers, as they were setting up.  My mind wandered aimlessly wherein I pondered that the Winfield High School teams should have been named the Wipers.  What a missed opportunity!  Then I saw something that touched me to my core.  The young lady who earlier caught my attention was wheeling our way, once again with the little girl sitting in front of her. 

It rained hard earlier in the afternoon.  As her wheelchair reached a grassy surface, the wheels slipped and started to sink into the soft earth.  Then the little girl hopped off and started running forward but immediately circled around and began to push her Mother's wheelchair.  She was consciously building up speed to insure she would be of the greatest assistance.  It appeared the little tyke had done this before.  Together they managed to reach drier ground and settled in for the rousing performance featuring pipes, fife, fiddle, and four strong voices.

And she was joined by a second woman, also legless and wheel chair bound, presumably her identical twin.

And I was reminded of the ancient proverb, "I cried because I had no shoes, and then I met a man who had no feet."

Other stuff

The first draft of Book II is now about 80% complete.  I'm chasing stories that have taken me to Wickenburg (AZ), Gig Harbor (WA), Lakin (KS), New Orleans, and soon to Mexico.  It would please me greatly if people enjoy reading the stories as much as I have had seeking them out.  I'll keep you posted.

NNAOPP continues to plug along.  Sales have now eclipsed 1,450.  I'm now down to the last 6 copies in my fulfillment center and will soon be ordering a sixth printing, 25 more.  It's not too soon to start thinking about those stocking stuffers.

That's it from here.  All the best.

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 at and
Available at:
  Rainy Day Books, 2706 W. 53rd Street, Fairway, KS
  Sanibel Island Bookshop, 1571 Periwinkle, Sanibel, FL
  Twisted Sisters Eclectic Gifts and Floral, Albany, MO

  Bruce Smith Drug Store, Prairie Village, KS 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Mt. Evans

Mt. Evans
August 2015

Mt. Evans is unique in many aspects, mostly because one can drive on a paved road to a 14,150' elevation visitor's center.  This leads to a well-maintained and relatively short walkway to the 14,264' summit.   We chose a more challenging route.

Mt. Evans is also the rockiest of the Rockies with which I've gotten up close and personal.  The top 1,000' consists of a pile of unimaginably large boulders.  Near the summit one could behold a boulder the size and shape of a small office building cantilevered into space.  We wondered with amazement at the geological magic that made this possible.  At lower elevations we passed rocks resembling windswept sculptures, almost as if they were cast out of bronze.  One boulder formed a perfectly shaped rock bridge about ten feet long and two feet wide.   Slipping off the uphill side would take you down a few feet into a darkened cavern. A misstep towards the downhill slope would have required a helicopter rescue or recovery.

We chose Mt. Evans thinking it would be the 'easiest' of those not yet hiked by our group of four.  The website describes a route with a relatively modest 2,000' ascent, a 5.5 mile roundtrip, and an exposure (to danger) rating of 2 (on a scale of 4).  The trailhead was nearly 500' above the tree line eliminating the often, soggy slog through the tundra.  A cakewalk, I unwisely thought, although wisely concealing any hint of hubris.  Mt. Elbert, in contrast, features a 4,100' ascent and an 8.5-mile roundtrip from trailhead to summit.  But we were younger then.

We left our motel in Georgetown at 5:15 am and drove the 30 miles to the trailhead, arriving in time to see the city lights of Denver give way to the rising sun.  The headlights provided a narrow view of the road, cloaking the surrounding terrors of hairpin turns on shelf roads giving way to steep drops.  Like other roads to 14er trailheads, there were no guardrails.  On the return trip I tried to comfort myself by silently calculating how many times our Ford Explorer would roll before hitting a boulder or reaching the bottom.

Three veterans and one rookie formed this year's climbing team.  With seven 14ers under my belt, most of the anxiety associated with the unknown had dissipated.  My worries were confined to the questions of training, body parts, and weather.  Had I prepared sufficiently?  Will the weather hold?"

We followed the forecasts and radar closely, which indicated there would a window from sunrise to 1 pm before the rains began, providing sufficient time for the round trip, absent any misfortune.  The sky was regrettably red, as we were all familiar with the sailors' ditty, "red sky in the morning, sailors take warning." Rain squalls showered Denver and the plains to the east, and dark clouds dominated the western horizon.  It was windy and cold, 30 mph winds and temps in the high 30's.  We assembled our gear and departed.

The views were possibly the most majestic of those I've experienced.  We hiked through a pea soup mindful of the movie The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the misting clouds opened periodically yielding sightings of the nearby craggy peaks and verdant valleys below. 

Early in the climb we began to express doubts about the '2' rating assigned to Mt. Evans on the website.  We encountered a succession of rock walls requiring us to secure our hiking poles to our packs and climb hand over hand.  Shannon, a fit veteran of nine 14ers and the strongest in the team, proclaimed, "This is real mountaineering.  I love it."

During the periodic breaks in the clouds, we would garner a glimpse of Mt. Spalding, elevation 13,842', over which we would pass en route to Mt. Evans.  Somewhere around 13,000' the trail disappeared, and we subsequently relied exclusively on cairns.  They varied from a few fist-sized rocks to those resembling a mini-temple.  They were not always easy to spot, so we spread out and called to one another when we identified the path.

We crossed several false summits before finally reaching the top of Mt. Spalding.  It was unusual to actually ascend the summit of Spalding, rather than passing by a shoulder.  The reason quickly became apparent, as there were no shoulders.  We then hiked down about 1,000' to the saddle between the two peaks, and made a mental adjustment to the website notation of a 2,000' ascent.  It started to mist, and I put on my rain pants.   The wind was ferocious with periodic gusts that would push you off your feet.  Everyone's hands and feet were cold, in spite of the high level of exertion.  I was fortunate to be wearing heavy-duty ski gloves and three layers of clothing.  I never once broke into a sweat.

We encountered a young man returning to the trailhead after his trip to the summit.  He had to have started several hours before daylight.  We learned he was a firefighter at Ft. Sill, OK, and he looked the part.  We were two hours into the hike and figured we had to be covering ground at 1 mph putting us close to the end.  "You're about half way,' he said, and our hearts sank.

So we marched on.  Shannon was hiking in the lead a few paces ahead of me when we reached the first of several false summits.  I heard her exclaim, "Holy crap!"  When I joined her, we beheld an intimidating view of a boulder field knifing skyward into the clouds.  A large cairn was visible leading directly towards the edge of the knife.  I entertained thoughts of retreat, as this route appeared to be beyond my abilities, and I was worried about the increasing likelihood of an unwelcomed rainstorm.  We were comforted somewhat as we climbed down to the cairn, and viewed a second marking revealing a less dangerous passageway along the steep shoulder of the boulder field.  Fortunately, we had crossed to the lee side of the mountain providing relief from the constant assault of the wind.

On the few occasions when the clouds would break, we garnered a view of Mt. Bierstadt to the west and a large mountain lake several thousand feet below.  Because of our relatively slow pace, we were now being passed by a handful of younger climbers.  They greeted us warmly before speeding ahead.

It took a little over 4 hours to reach the summit.  Oddly, we descended several hundred feet into the Mt. Evan's parking lot, and walked a few hundred yards to a well-maintained path leading to the final 100' ascent to the summit.  The enjoyment of the view and feeling of accomplishment was in no way diminished by sharing the moment with motorists.  While taking pictures of the panorama we conspicuously avoided the incongruous green pump truck parked near the highest public toilets in North America.

We visited with a park ranger, who told us that sleet and snow were fast approaching.  He recommended that we hitch a ride down.  Needing little encouragement, we did. 

Trip captain Fred, now a veteran of 18 such climbs, is six weeks shy of his 75th birthday.  His wife, Linda, 72, successfully completed her first 14er.  Shannon and I were the relative youngsters.  Fred later summarized, "I thought I selected a relatively less difficult 14er, Mt. Evans, for Linda's first.  Wrong!  The weather was cold, extremely windy, and foggy.  The trail was rated a class 2, but it was really a significantly more difficult 3 as the last half-mile crossed a steep boulder field.  We were often on all fours getting up and around the big rocks.  Fortunately, she handled it well."

The ride down the mountain was predictably horrifying, and again Shannon said it best, "I feel very good about myself after doing this."  All agreed, and amazingly, we started planning our 2016 climb.  Lord willing.

p.s.  The hike was undertaken on August 27.   Aspen leaves and ferns were already losing their color.  Surprisingly, wildflowers were still in bloom at the higher elevations.  The picture below of a living bouquet was taken in a cranny of granite at 14,050'.


I recently read a letter from a friend about the daughter of an acquaintance whose book has now sold 2 million copies.  NNAOPP is only 1.9985 million shy of her staggering achievement, and if the current pace of sales continues, I should reach that level well before the next ice age.

That's it for now.


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 at and
Available at:
  Rainy Day Books, 2706 W. 53rd Street, Fairway, KS
  Sanibel Island Bookshop, 1571 Periwinkle, Sanibel, FL
  Twisted Sisters Eclectic Gifts and Floral, Albany, MO

  Bruce Smith Drug Store, Prairie Village, KS 

Monday, June 8, 2015

June 2015 Update

June 2015


Recently my inexorable journey to geezerhood took on an unexpected and unwelcomed hastening.  After enjoying a wine tasting dinner with friends at the Capital Grille, we were standing on a curb awaiting our ride.  Two attractive youngish ladies were also waiting, so we chatted. Then a giant of a man approached, presumably the husband or boyfriend of one of the women and said rudely, "Say goodbye to the old-timer. Let's get out of here."  Ouch!  If his intent was to wound, it worked.  When I think of old-timers I'm thinking Marjorie Main, not me.

My 73-year-old barber is a chatty fellow and is appropriately named Windy.  He is also a gifted musician and performer, and he has encouraged me in my banjo pursuits.  I sought his counsel on how to counter my stage fright problems, and he shared this comforting story:  "I was 15 when I first performed in front of a fairly large audience.  I was playing lead guitar on a slow blues tune, and you can't hide from your mistakes on a slow blues tune. I got off a beat and panicked and couldn't get back in sync with the rest of the band.  I stopped, started over, but it was too late.  When it was time to exit I noticed a pretty woman in her 20's waiting to come onstage to perform.  She smiled sympathetically at me, and I thought, 'maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought.'  But she put her arm around me and said, 'I really felt for you out there.'  I was crushed by her kindness."

Pretend farming

It was a warm, windy spring morning, and I headed out to the land we own near Eudora, KS for a day of pretend farming.  I hooked up a 6' brush cutter to my John Deere 5075E and began mowing on a patch of high ground that happens to be the second highest elevation in Douglas County.  The added height of the tractor enhanced the already pleasing views of the Kansas River valley to the north, Blue Mound to the west, and the greening, rolling farms and fields to the south.  As an added treat I watched a thunderstorm form in the southwest and felt the fringe of the nearby squall.  Majestic cumulonimbus clouds were unleashing gray sheets of rain on my neighbors' fields.  It was clear that the contained storm was going to pass by to the south and west leaving me sitting in the sun.  It was morel season, and a quick downpour would most likely have brought out a burst of the flavorful fungi.  Still the sweet smell of the spring rain wafted my way.  We are fortunate to live in such a beautiful part of the world.

One of my favorite pretend farming pastimes is problem solving.  Virtually all the problems I solve are those I create, so I shouldn't be running out of challenges anytime soon.  On one occasion I backed my mower into a concealed stump bending the heavy-duty steel housing inward thus impeding the 1/4" thick swinging blade revolving at 540 rpm.  The clanging of metal on metal made it clear that I had done some serious damage. After uttering a few bad words and thinking to myself, 'I wish I hadn't a done that', I shut everything down and proceeded to address the problem.  After a bit of pondering, I returned to the barn, drilled a 1/2" hole in the dented area, and inserted an eye bolt.  Then I positioned the mower, still attached to the tractor, at an appropriate angle near a large tree.  I hooked a come-along to the eye bolt at one end and to a heavy chain wrapped around the tree.  For added leverage I placed a 3' iron pipe over the handle of the come-along and started ratcheting.  As everything tightened up I prayed to the farm gods that nothing snapped, and amazingly, little by little the metal housing returned to its former shape. 

I quickly forgot that it was my own boneheaded action that caused the incident and instead reveled in the solution and moved on to more pretending.

More recently, my farm day involved a trip into Lawrence to pick up a few necessities.  I was dressed in my customary attire, blue jeans, long-sleeved work shirt, and a day-glo ball cap.  I was also sporting my tick avoidance gear featuring jeans tucked into my socks then sealed with duct tape.  This achieves the desired intent of keeping ticks off of my person, and, as a bonus, presents a natty look.

Immediately upon entering the super Wal-Mart in Lawrence I encountered a well-dressed, pretty woman pushing a shopping cart.  We exchanged smiles, and I watched her gaze move from my face down to my socks.  Then she motioned her head to guide her companion's eyes to my obvious fashion faux pas.  They both hustled on making little effort to hide their snickers.  This pleased me greatly, as I like to spread a little mirth each day.  I'm not aware of anyone taking my picture to add to those one sees in emails of oddly attired Wal-Martians, but be on the lookout.

Landing on Lily Pads

Judy and I had dinner recently with Bob and Susan, friends who have spent the last decade of winters in San Miguel de Allende, a mountainous region located 170 miles north of Mexico City.  We are told it is a charming 17th century town noted for its Spanish colonial architecture and cobblestone lanes.  It is home to many artists and wealthy expats.  Bob told us several intriguing stories about their friends, Howard and Bill, that formerly lived in Kansas City, but now reside full time in San Miguel. 

While in KC they were major benefactors of the mid 1970's renovation of the Folly Theatre.  Sally Rand, once famous for feathered fans covering her naked body, appeared at a fundraising event.  Afterwards, Howard went into Sally's dressing room and observed she was crying. When asked why she sobbed, "Kansas City is my home town, and I've got to fly back to LA tomorrow." 

He offered, "Why not change your flight and be our guest."  And she did, and she stayed for five years.

Her new hosts owned a large and beautiful home in the Hyde Park neighborhood.  It was staffed with a cook, cook's helper, maid, laundress, and gardener.  When the host returned after an out-of-town trip he was approached by his cook, "Mr. Howard, we have a problem."  And she proceeded to explain. "Every morning at precisely the same time, Miss Sally comes down the stairs for her tea and breakfast.  But she is stark naked.  The gardener just happens to be looking in the windows every morning at the appointed hour and then joins us for coffee.  It's a bit unsettling."

Howard said he would speak to her, and he did.  The next morning 70+ year old Sally came down in a sheer negligee.

I told my friend, Bob, "I'd love to meet these guys and put some of their stories on paper.  They would be a veritable treasure trove of material. 

At 8:30 am the next morning, Bob called and said, "It's all set.  They will be glad to host us at their home and spend a few days telling stories.  I will accompany you and show you around town, maybe we can spend some time in Mexico City also."  We settled on a date that coincides with the Festival of the Dead.  Hopefully more stories will follow from Mexico.

I later told this account to a friend, and he said, "You land on more lily pads than anyone I know."  And I'm hopeful it lasts.

Sales of NNAOPP have now crept up to 1,408 copies.  Thanks to all.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Appearance on the Randy Miller Radio Show 4/27/15

Hi All,

Yesterday I was honored to make my radio debut on the Randy Miller Radio Show.  It’s a comedy podcast that airs daily on  Randy has been a successful radio personality in the KC area since the 1980’s.  He’s made a name for himself for being LOL funny.  My appearance came about through the kindness of Michael Seward whose parents Barry and Patty are long time friends.  Michael produces and co-hosts the show with Randy.  He introduced my book and a few of my recent updates to Randy who then said, “This is some funny stuff.  We need to get this guy on the show,”  and they did.

I was above average nervous, but Randy and Michael were gracious hosts and made me as comfortable as one might be under the circumstances.  Both had kind words to say about NNAOPP and added an abundance of plugs.  They also served a nice red wine for the occasion.

Below I’ve pasted the posting Michael made to my Facebook page about the show.  It lasts about 50 minutes.  In case you want to hop around, I’m introduced at the 10:15 minute mark, and I play a banjo solo at the 41 minute mark.  I hope you enjoy the show at

I’d also encourage you to tune into Randy and Michael’s show on a regular basis.  I think you’ll find their humor brightening your day.

All the best.

p.s.  For those who remember the story last month about Steve Martin and his song “The Great Remember (For Nancy) and who might have an interest in listening to it played by its author, here’s the link:

Michael Seward shared a photo to your timeline.
11 hrs · 
Fun show today with special guest Charles Wells!
Nude Nuns and Other Peculiar People (NNAOPP)
Charles "Chuck" Wells, Jr., Harvard graduate and author of NNAOPP, tells some of his peculiar encounters. 


Randy Miller, me, Michael Seward

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Banjo Stuff

Banjo Stuff
April 2015

I started playing the banjo a little over four years ago.  I purchased an intro book to 5-string bluegrass (aka three finger or Scruggs style) banjo and diligently worked my way through the basics of learning how to read tablature (aka musical nomenclature for dummies on stringed instruments), forward rolls, backward rolls, and simple chords.  These modest tools eventually built my skill level to a point where I could produce sounds remotely resembling music.

Three months after first picking up the instrument I attended the Suwannee Banjo Camp.  The experience was helpful, inspiring, and intimidating.  I owned the distinction of being the worst player among the 120 participants, but one has to start somewhere, and I could begin to envision what might be possible.

At that time I was introduced to nuances in the banjo world that were previously unknown to me, most notably the existence of a style called 'old time' or 'clawhammer' banjo. The first time I heard the 'old time' style played, I loved the sound and the foot-stomping beat, but I was put off, because it appeared too difficult.

Bluegrass style is probably more familiar to non-enthusiasts and was made popular in the 1970's by the likes of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs with familiar tunes like Foggy Mountain Breakdown, The Theme from Deliverance, and The Ballad of Jed Clampett.  Bluegrass style is typically played loudly and boldly with picks on the thumb, index, and middle fingers. 

One year later I again attended the camp and decided I wanted to learn 'old style'.  But it meant starting over, not unlike switching to oboe.  With clawhammer, one strikes the strings with the thumb and fingernail of one finger, middle in my case.  The four fingers of the right hand are held in a claw-like fashion, thus the name, and to the casual observer not much is happening, but, in fact, all is quite busy featuring fun-sounding embellishments like double drop thumbing.

I didn't give up on bluegrass style, but I spent the next year focused on the basic elements of clawhammer.  I bought the beginner books and worked through the drills that basically add tools from which one can eventually construct a song.

Last weekend I attended by fourth camp in lovely Live Oak, FL, and have had another revelation.  I've advanced somewhat from novice to the intermediate level, and I have been introduced to new nuances that have greatly piqued my interest. One session in particular, Round Peak style clawhammer, really called out to me.  The origins are distinctly Scotch Irish, but the toe-tap-defying tunes and the picking style took on an American flavor from denizens of the Appalachian hollows of northwest NC and SE Virginia in the late 1900's. 

These distinctions are meaningful to no more than a few hundred people on the planet earth, but I've now discovered, I am one of them.  I was contemplating taking up poisonous snake collecting, but I think this will be a better fit for me.

Mark Johnson

For those who enjoy acoustic music, the faculty concerts at the Suwannee Banjo Camp are an absolute delight.  My two favorite performers are Adam Hurt and Mark Johnson.  They are virtually unknown to the broader world, but they are remarkable musicians, capable teachers, and nice people willing to share some of their knowledge with those less gifted.

I had a class with Mark on Saturday morning that was enjoyable, and as I was packing up my banjo case, he said, "Come to my afternoon class, I think you'll enjoy it."  I told him it was listed as 'advance', and beyond my ability, but he said, "Come anyway."  He's a big, handsome man with a commanding presence, and I told him I would.

Typically 6-7 students show up for each session, but it turned out I was the only guy to show up for 'clawhammer: advanced techniques,' resulting in a one-on-one lesson.  I knew of Mark from an earlier camp, at which time I purchased two of his CD's.  I listen to his tunes often on iTunes, usually while mowing the grass or farming.  I know you've never heard of the guy, but in the micro world of banjo pluckers, he's a big honking deal.  He produces unique tones on his specially crafted Deering instrument in a style he created called clawgrass, eponymously blending elements of bluegrass and clawhammer.  And he has a very pleasing voice.

We chatted a bit.  I'm moderately inquisitive so I asked him about his background, how long he's been playing, what it's like to be an accomplished, but unheralded musician.  And he told me a little of his story.  He's been playing since 13, he's now 59, and he plays and writes music, because that's who and what he is.  In 2012 he won the third  'Steve Martin Banjo Player of the Year Award' that yielded a $50,000 prize and an appearance on the David Letterman Show.  His music is played regularly on the Sirius bluegrass radio channel, and he starts a 6-week performance tour in Europe next month.  But he also has a day job as the director of the emergency agency of a coastal county in northern Florida.

Then he said something that's both odd and rare for one who has earned a semblance of modest fame, "Enough about me, tell me a little about yourself and your banjo journey."

He listened politely to a brief recitation of my humdrum existence, and he said, "Play some of your best stuff for me.  Maybe I can offer a few helpful hints."

I tuned to double C and started with, "The Great Remember (For Nancy)" my absolute favorite clawhammer tune that happens to have been written by Steve Martin.  He listened patiently and quietly as I played.  About half way through he started playing harmony and counter-melodies, gently overlaying my many deficiencies, blending some pleasing sounds heard only by the two of us.  When we finished, he said, "Can I tell you a story about that song?"  And I said, "I'm all ears."

"For several years, I have been giving lessons to Steve Martin.  He once invited me to his home in NYC for dinner and a jam session.  I brought a gift of special Florida orange marmalade as a hostess gift for his lovely wife and arrived at the appointed hour at his upper Westside apartment.  I told the doorman that I was a guest of Mr. Martin.  He motioned to some security type folks near a bank of elevators.  They made a call and then gave the sign to allow me to proceed.  He told me to go to the 11th floor, and I asked 'What apartment number?' and he shook his head in disbelief to ensure I knew I was a rube.  He said, 'Just go to the 11th floor, you'll figure it out.'"

"The elevator opened into one of the most elegant dwellings I'd seen featuring panoramic views of the New York City skyline rising above Central Park.  Steve and his wife could not have been more gracious hosts.  Shortly after I arrived, his aging dog Wally ambled in, and he introduced me to the dog.  Then he got down flat on the floor to chat with Wally.  He's a playful and nice man, it's not just an act."

"We had an exquisite dinner, and afterwards played banjo for four hours.  When it was time to leave he volunteered to walk me to my hotel, and he did.  I was scheduled to return the next evening to perform for some of his friends at a dinner party they were hosting.  He stopped and put his face about a foot from mine, eyeballed me, and said, 'There will be celebrities present tomorrow evening.  Will that be a problem?'  I assured him it would not.  People are people, no big deal."

"When I arrived the next evening I learned the celebrities included: Meryl Streep, Paul Simon, Lorne Michaels, Kevin Kline, and many others.  My partner (Emory Lester, who plays guitar and fiddle) had arrived from Toronto for the event, and we played a one-hour set.  Afterwards, a stunningly beautiful blond woman came up to me and said, 'That was truly wonderful.  I had no idea a banjo could produce such delightful music.  I'd like to introduce you to my husband and some of our friends.'  Nancy took me over to meet her husband Martin Short.  They were generous with kind words, and said they'd hope to have me come perform at some events they host at their home in Canada."

"Six months passed, and I never heard a word from them.  No big deal, I figured, stuff happens.  Later during a session with Steve he introduced me to one of his new songs, 'The Great Remember (For Nancy)', and he told me that it was written in memory of his friend, Nancy Short, who passed away several months after the dinner party."