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  http://www.amazon.com
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 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

NNAOPP Update - March 2014

March 2014

Did you know that alligators cannot digest food if their body temperature falls below 89 degrees?  They most likely would die if they ingest food at the lower temps, thus giving Florida snowbirds a much needed respite from danger.  For years I listened to geezer Florida golfing companions say, "Don't worry about the gators in the winter, they only eat in the summer."  And now I've learned that there is merit to the claim.


I overheard Lucy chatting with her Mom the other day and received a mild shock when she said, "I ran into so and so the other day (a former 8th grade teacher), who inquired, 'Are your parents still alive?' "  Hopefully that query is a bit premature.  Lord willing.


It was around 5 pm on a recent Tuesday afternoon.  I was practicing my banjo diligently when Judy walked into my studio, aka WHQ, Southern Command.  I said, "I think I'll sign up tonight for a set at George and Wendy's open mic night."  The Judester rolled her eyes in a manner that wordlessly, but emphatically, stated, "Are you out of your frigging mind?"  Her concerns were partially attributable to our having attended an open mic night two weeks earlier as observers, whereupon I was humbled by the simple fact that almost all of the performers were extremely gifted musicians.  I may have given voice to my innermost musings that I wasn't quite ready to expose my euphonious shortcomings to a clamorous crowd made more so by alcohol.

But despite this spousal crisis in confidence and being crap-in-my-pants nervous, I journeyed on.  As instructed, I arrived at 7 pm to receive a time slot from Captain Mike who organizes the weekly event.  Also waiting to sign up was a very pretty woman visiting Sanibel from Pennsylvania.  She said she saw a flyer and thought it would be fun.  I would later learn she has a voice like Allison Kraus and was a very polished performer.  She signed up for the 8:45 slot.  Lamentably, I was to follow her. I went out to the parking lot to keep my plucking digits limber and returned in time to listen to those playing before me.  It was dispiriting.

It turned out that I was one of nine performers during the 8-11 show.  Four were professionals who play at various venues on the island, and one of the remaining five was the babalicious wunderking from PA, leaving only four untutored souls.  I can safely state, without fear of contradiction, that I was the worst of those assembled.

There wasn't an empty seat in the place.  It was extremely boisterous, increasing my anxiety.  It was loud inside, so before my set I went outside again to check my tuning.  I sat on a bench and plucked away a little with an audience consisting of two kitchen guys taking a smoke break.  They asked in heavily accented Spanglish, "Hey, eez zat some kind of banjo?"  And I replied in the affirmative, passing on the opportunity to be a smartass.  Then it was show time.

Captain Mike got me situated and placed one microphone close to the head of the banjo and another near my face.  I did a few test strums, but I couldn't hear anything.  This was my first time playing with a mic, (and my first time in front of an audience), and I was surprised to learn that I couldn't hear myself playing.  This was disconcerting.  I introduced myself and opened with my strongest tune, a clawhammer version of Steve Martin's "Daddy Played the Banjo", but it couldn't be heard.  Mike adjusted the mic, and I started over.  This time the audience could apparently hear, but I couldn't.  I think I plucked a pretty clean version and received a polite applause over the din of a crazy, busy bar.  I quickly went to the mournful tune "Farewell to Whiskey" and again received a polite applause.  Then it was on to an upbeat medley of Wildwood Flower, the Ballad of Jesse James, and Arkansas Traveler, all received favorably and concluding the positive part of my set.  

I then, unwisely, switched to blue grass (aka Scruggs) style, but it was truly awful, somehow flicking my middle finger pick onto the floor midway through Foggy Mountain Breakdown.  People were polite, but precious few ladies were throwing their bras or panties.

I wrapped it up, said thanks, and then moved back to my barstool to listen to the remainder of the show.  Amazingly, people were extraordinarily kind in coming up to me to say nice things.   The pulchritudinous Pennsylvanian approached to say she loved my version of Wildwood Flower.  Best of all, the bar manager offered a drink on the house, which I humbly accepted.  Conspicuously absent amongst the well-wishers was a plea from Captain Mike to "stick around for another set."

All in all, a satisfactory experience, but I need a lot more polish before returning. Sadly, my musical progress is glacial.  

I shared this story with a fellow musical aspirant.  He summarized the experience thusly and alliteratively:  "The praise of a pretty Pennsylvanian, the kind compliments of the mic-night-minions, a liberating libation compliments of the publican...what more proof is needed that your plucking wasn't sucking?"


A few weeks ago, a friend of a friend contacted me to say, "I tried to find your book at the Sanibel Bookshop, but they're out."  Once alerted, I hastily rode my bike with a basketful of books to this fine establishment, and was pleased that they graciously accepted my invoice for those sold and accepted a supply of replenishments.  Sales continue to trickle in. In a display of optimism, bordering on hubris, I recently took delivery of my third printing.   Thanks to all.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

NNAOPP Update - January 2014

January 2014

We brought our twin grandsons (Finn and Charlie age 3 1/2) to Sanibel to spend a week with us.  After the first couple of days, I was getting pretty antsy about the idea of spending seven entire days, unassisted, with the boys.  I suggested to Judy that we shorten the trip by a few days, and she said, "Man up for God's sake."

Each day became a little less stressful.  At 7:15 am on Day 3 I heard Charlie calling out to Finn, "Are you awake yet Finn?"  No response.  Charlie then ramped it up a few decibels, and Finn responded. Then I heard them chattering for a few minutes before one said to the other,  "Let's go look at him."  Him presumably being me, as the door to our room opened and two little boys peered in and quickly ran away.  Then it was snuggling and reading and breakfast time and a few hours (literally) of playing hide and seek.  Fortunately, all I had to do to hide was to cover my head in a blanket.  They'd then run all over the condo shouting where I wasn't before then uncovering my head.

Then we went to Ding Darling (a conservation area) and happened upon one of the best birding days we've ever experienced.  This was mostly lost on the boys, but we saw two immense flocks of white pelicans.  These are giant birds, rarely seen, and the adults have a wingspan of 9'.  We also saw a large flock of Roseate Spoonbills, my all time favorite.  We climbed a viewing tower and took a pretty good hike, then headed to Doc Ford's for lunch.

Once again, the boys' favorite spot for after lunch stuff is the playground.  They are getting more and more coordinated in climbing all the various apparati. There were only two other kids present during our stay.  I usually don't chat with strangers, but somehow I found myself in conversation with a man about my age.  He spoke with an English accent, and he asked about the twins being identical.  He then shared that his twins, a boy and a girl age 6, were in fact his kids not his grandkids.  He also has a 46-yr old son.  Our twins really fastened upon his twins, who were nice in return, and it was a very pleasant time at the playground.

He said he and his wife live full time in the Cotswolds, but they are now living in Sanibel for six months giving it a trial.  His kids were both enrolled in first grade at Sanibel grade school, about which he spoke glowingly.  He said, "I'm in the process of getting my non-resident green card, and we'll most likely move here permanently for the school year, but return to England for the summer."

When he mentioned he was a songwriter, I asked him if he was famous.  He said, "Not really, but we did once give it a go, and our group still performs."  As it turns out he was the lead singer and keyboardist for Manfred Mann (He explained that one of the band members was Manfred Mann, but the record execs thought it would make a good band name).  He co-wrote and did the lead on "Do Wah Ditty", and he also wrote "Build Me Up Buttercup" (most recently featured in the movie Something About Mary).  He said it's very frustrating trying to get through all of the handlers to get someone to listen to his songs.  "I used to just be able to call Rod Stewart and ask him to give a listen, but alas no more."  I told him I sympathized, although I had no experience in such matters. 

He is also in the process of writing a book and was interested in my book and experiences trying to sell it.  I told him that I hope to have my debut performance at the open mike night in a couple of weeks at George and Wendy's Seafood Grill.  He said, to let him know, and he'll try to stop by.   He added, "Maybe they'll have a spare keyboard."

He mentioned that another reason for their six-months hiatus in the States was to focus on the book his is writing, a memoir.  This obviously piqued my interest, and I mentioned my nascent writing career.  He seemed genuinely interest about NNAOPP.  He inquired about the self-publishing world and the origins of the title and was puzzled by the use of the word 'nude'.  "Why not 'naked'? 

I started to tell him the story about the encounter with the lesbian nun lovers in the hot tub when, inexplicably, Judy came sliding down the nearby giant slide, overshot her mark, and landed on her bum into a pile of woodchips, unintentionally, but convincingly, confirming Newton's second law of motion (f=ma).

We went over see if she was okay, picked her up, and dusted her off.  I made a brief introduction including the Manfred Mann reference.  Judy then began what I thought was the worst rendition every of "Do Wah Diddy" and then walked away. She later explained that she was singing "Build Me Up Buttercup" further cementing her vocal credentials.

Later that evening after we got Charlie and Finn readied for bed, I pulled up a 1964 version of 'Do Wah Diddy' by Manfred Mann on Youtube.  Finn said, "Is that our friend, Papa?"  And it was.  And Charlie added, "And my friend too."

We flew back to KC to return the boys to their Mom and Dad.  While home I stopped in the Prairie Village Barber Shop to have my thinning locks trimmed.  I caught up with Windy, my 73-year old barber, and the composer and performer of my song "Three Funerals Shy of Paradise."  Windy is a country music performer extraordinaire who cuts hair as a sideline.  I told him of my upcoming 10-minute banjo set at George and Wendy's and said, "Wish me luck.  Any advice?"

He said, "It's natural that you'll be nervous.  But remember, if it looks like you're having a good time, then they will too."

Hope all is well with each of you.

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 all ebook formats at:  http://www.smashwords.com/b/96530
and in print and Kindle format at  http://www.amazon.com
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 

Monday, December 2, 2013

In Brooklyn with Ben

aka Bowling (badly) in Brooklyn on Ben's Birthday
With a touch of Burma and Bulgaria
Thanksgiving 2013

On Friday (11/29) we celebrated Ben's birthday dining at a delightful Brooklyn restaurant, Five Leaves, with Ben, his girlfriend Deb (a lively and lovely young lady), and several of his friends.  Ben and I enjoyed the house burger special, a tasty concoction of a ground beef patty topped with pickled beets, a slice of fried pineapple, a fried egg, and tomato.

The evening was capped off bowling until 1:30 am, an unusually late hour for the Judester and me.  The 8-lane venue shared space with a bar and was nestled in an isolated, industrial neighborhood, presumably a former warehouse.  The loaner balls were almost round featuring crevices in which one could secret a bag of corn nuts.  I bowled badly and even managed to bugger up my most important banjo finger (thus postponing indefinitely the date of my coming out performance), but it was a frolicsome group, and a fun celebration.

Deb's family is from Burma, thus adding alliterative luster to the lead.  One of the guests at Ben's Thanksgiving feast was an effervescent girl from Bulgaria, adding yet another B to the string.  Maria came to the U.S. for college and ended up at Cottey College in Nevada, MO, surely a culture shock.  Her family operates a dance troupe featuring classic Bulgarian folk routines, and they have performed all over Europe.  I told her she was the first Bulgarian I had ever met.  In her impeccable English, she said she was glad to help broaden my horizons.  From her I learned a new word, which I like, concordantly.  Ben can be counted upon to assemble interesting company.

For those with a modicum of interest, here are a few observations:

The nicer neighborhoods of Brooklyn are mindful of 1950's small town America.  We purchased our turkey at a small Italian butcher, then went across the street to a wine store, then dropped the heavier packages off at Ben's apartment, then back to a corner grocer for final provisioning and a stop at a small hardware store.  We patronized a variety of nearby restaurants, all of the Mom and Pop variety, and all excellent. Even though it was a gray, rainy day, people were uncommonly friendly and in a festive spirit, presumably attendant to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

Giant corporate enterprises are few and far between.  It's difficult to imagine how the merchants prosper in their tiny spaces given the high rents and difficult logistics, but they do, and there are few empty storefronts.

The food, both from restaurants or local stores, is consistently outstanding in even the most nondescript places.  Ben's friend, Peter, noted that the power of social media insures that any business not providing good value immediately will die quickly.

Our stay was brief, 4 days, so we confined our travels to Brooklyn, which I find to be quite pleasing.  We're becoming fairly familiar with Ben's Williamsburg neighborhood and have hiked to Prospect Park.  We took the East River ferry down to Brooklyn Bridge Park, hiked through Brooklyn Heights, then to downtown Brooklyn, and stopped at the NY Transit Museum (a worthwhile destination).  Brooklyn has a much larger population that Manhattan (2.5m v. 1.6m), but it is noticeably less congested, occupying triple the square miles (71 v. 23).  The pedestrian and car traffic is intense, but rather mild compared to most Manhattan neighborhoods.  Tourist sightings are negligible.  I espied few children on our Brooklyn walkabout, but there was no dearth of dogs.

Interestingly, one encounters few overweight people.  I presume this is attributable to the necessity of walking as a mode of transport.  Even the subway requires navigating many levels of stairs.  Upon leaving Brooklyn we flew to our southern WHQ in Sanibel, FL.  We stopped at an Olive Garden near the airport for dinner and were comforted by the presence of large numbers of very large people.  Cracker Barrel would have been even more comforting I'm sure.

Ben lives in a neighborhood largely inhabited by hipsters.  I know this owing to the ubiquity of porpkie hats and black, tight, short jeans worn by men.  There is a noticeable lack of color adorning the citizens.  Occasionally you'll see a dash of gray, brown, or dark green sprinkled amidst the dominant black attire.  It was quite cold during our stay, concordantly I wore a day-glo stocking cap that I thought might add a bit of cheeriness.  It did insure that I was not mistaken for a deer, but otherwise this micro-act of fashion rebelliousness went unnoticed.  People walk fast and with their heads down, seemingly impervious to their surroundings.  It's mindful of an Orwellian streetscape.

If one is not already sufficiently aware of their insignificance in the grand scheme of things, a trip to a very large city will put you in the right frame of mind.


It's a miracle that more people don't die riding in cabs here.  Our visit started off, as it almost always does, with a harrowing cab ride from LaGuardia.  Our driver was either from India or from the Land of Stans. I can't be certain.  The only understandable English words he used in my presence were, "Where to." 

I told him, "Take the BQE to the Metropolitan exit, and I will guide you from there." 

He offered no acknowledgement whether he heard or understood this response.  He just took off, and we buckled up.  We successfully got on the BQE going the right direction, so things were semi-okay save for the speed at which we were traveling.  It was dark, raining heavily, and the traffic was predictably severe.  Our driver was taking up two lanes engendering honks, and presumably unmentionable mutterings, from the proximate gasoline trucks, semis, and cement mixers. 

Then our driver started chanting and gesticulating wildly whilst driving.  At first I thought he was speaking to Judy and me, but then I surmised he was listening to something on an earbud.  I'll never know the true source of his agitation, but I leaned forward to remind him that the Metropolitan exit was nearing.  He was still in an interior lane, then swerved to the right through two lanes of traffic to exit on Meeker Street shouting something like, "Metropolitan! No good!"  This was not pleasing, but we were still alive and blessedly now forced to go more slowly.  With the ad of Google maps, I guided the cabbie to Ben's address ending the turbulent trip.  Ben was quickly at curbside with an umbrella.  What a good lad.  My terror of NYC cabs may be a function of advanced age, but I don't think I'm alone. 


Real estate in Brooklyn has been on a tear lately with the highest values placed on locations closest to subway stations, particularly those with the fewest stops to nearby Manhattan.  One might classify Ben's Williamsburg neighborhood as a "middle class" enclave based on outward appearances, but certainly not on price.  Ben lives one half a block away from a subway station that is two stops from Manhattan, concordantly it is a highly desirable location.  Most of the buildings are three stories with each story serving as a condo or apartment.  Usually the buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with shared walls, but occasionally, there is a walkway between structures leading to tiny backyards. 

On street parking is reasonably available, but it is still quite a hassle to own a car.  Many of the buildings are newly renovated and quite handsome, some are rundown, but all are expensive. Ben showed us a small two-story building that is uninhabitable with an asking price of $800k.  Decent residential space in his neighborhood goes for $800-$1,000+ per square foot and rents run in the range of $3-4,500 per month, but walking around you don't get the feeling you're surrounded by prosperous people.  Ben explained, "Looks are deceiving."

The sidewalks and streets are not particularly tidy.  What passes for a front yard, features an iron fence and gate surrounding a 6'-8' enclosure between the sidewalk and the house.  This space is typically filled with garbage cans and bikes chained to the fence.

Ben lives on the third floor of a 150+ year-old house that was built as a three story flat.  The stairway leading to his top floor unit is steep and narrow (30") giving one a sense of wonderment how the furnishings arrived.   The handsome banister and wide board flooring in the common areas are similar to the apartment in the French Quarter that serves as our Mardi Gras WHQ.

In contrast, the interiors of the buildings are remarkably nice, if Ben's building is any indicator.  His sunny place features a modern kitchen and bathrooms, attractive flooring, brick walls, and skylights. Ben's street is lined with large London Planes, close cousin to the Sycamore. They provide a welcome sense of hominess to visiting Midwesterners.  Ben has taken up his Mom's passion for gardening and he keeps an abundance of well-tended plants including a 5' Ficus tree growing in his dining room.  He also has a tiny backyard that is home to a variety of interesting flora.


I was waiting on the stoop outside of Ben's home, and I finished leaving a phone message for a client while watching two young men get out of a nearby, parked car, a silver Hyundai.   They were both heavily muscled, handsome, with military style haircuts.  The one nearest to me pulled something heavy out of the backseat and tossed it to his comrade.  They both proceeded to put on bulletproof vests that covered their torsos well below the belt line.  They slipped on unremarkable shirts, boldly surveyed their surroundings, and walked into the building directly across the street.  I'm thinking "Pulp Fiction?"

When Ben and Judy came down, and I described the scene that had just unfolded.  I asked Ben, "What do you think that was all about."  His uninterested reply, "I have no idea."

On Wednesday we dined at Roberta's, a five-stop subway ride into the bowels of Brooklyn.  It is noteworthy for their tasty pizza and a prominent sign one might expect in a less urbane setting, "Farts are just the ghosts of dinners past." Ben shared that on an earlier visit to Roberta's, the lead singer of the Grizzly Bears was dining at a nearby table.  Seminal events such as this make life worth living.

The subways on which we rode were all shiny and clean, unmarred by the ugly graffiti that used to be commonplace in NYC subways.  Kudos to the Giuliani and Bloomberg eras.

Did you know that a license for a single cab in NYC currently goes for $1.2 million?

In the 1880's the new minor league baseball team was named the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, a pejorative term hipper Manhattanites used in describing the conveyance avoidance habits of their cross-river neighbors.  This was later shortened to the moniker now more familiar to fans in LA.


I sat next to a lady about my age while waiting for our flight out of LaGuardia.  She asked if there was a banjo in my case.  I replied affirmatively, and the conversation went thusly:

"Is it a four-string or six-string banjo?"


"My Dad used to play banjo.  He was born in 1903, and he was really good.  I still have his old banjo.  Do you think it would be worth much?"

"Depends.  If it's a Gibson, it could be quite valuable."

"I don't know about that, but it did have two light bulbs inside it."


On Thanksgiving Day I checked my Amazon account and was pleased to note the sale of 2 copies of NNAOPP sometime during the last 24 hours.  Thanks to whomever that might be.  Sales continue to trickle in, and I'm closing in on 1,300, but still a long way from my goal of 1,750. 

May the special blessings of the holiday season be with you and your loved ones.  Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

October 2013 Update

As long as I can remember I’ve hated butter.  Nothing is less appetizing to me than seeing a greasy glob, or even worse, a liquefied pool, of butter adorning a morsel of food.  The smell of frying butter evokes waves of nausea deep within my core.  The shiny glaze of clarified butter on a stalk of broccoli instantly renders me incapable of ingesting the now offensive item.  This preference provides an opportunity for mischief for friends and family.  “Gee, let’s bury a shitload of butter in this dish and see if he notices.”  For some reason, if the noxious substance is sufficiently disguised, as in pie and cookies, I’m content.  It’s only when visible that I get such a visceral repulsion.

I credit my Dad for this aversion.  As a child I remember drinking a glass of milk and my Dad said, “I don't see how you can drink that stuff.”  Mom said something to the effect:  “Jesus Christ Charlie, do you think you could keep your deleterious dietary druthers to yourself?” It wasn’t too great a stretch to extend my newly acquired distaste for milk to all dairy products.

Once while Judy was carpooling Lucy and her friends when they were in junior high, she overheard Lucy tell the following story to her classmates:  “My Dad is so brave, he fought in Viet Nam, but he never, ever talks about it.” As further evidence of gallantry she continued, “Once we had dinner at my Aunt Maggie’s and she served chicken Kiev, the kind of dish that spurts a geyser of butter when pierced with a fork.  She had prepared it perfectly, so when the chicken breast was first cut it released an explosion forming a deep pool of liquefied butter on the plate.  My Dad hates butter, but he didn’t make a fuss and actually ate it.”  Later Judy explained to Lucy, “Your Dad wasn’t in Viet Nam which helps explain why he never talks about it.”  Lucy said, “Oh! No matter, it’s the butter bravery that counts.”

Earlier this summer I took Finn and Charlie, known collectively as the Bubbas by their sister, to First Watch for a tasty treat of waffles and blueberry pancakes.  As is my custom, I requested that no butter adorn my cakes.  The ever-helpful Charlie contributed even greater clarity to my order by firmly adding, "And no cheese either. Please."

I was running errands this morning and stopped at our local library.  I arrived a few minutes before they opened, so I waited with a handful of others and checked my emails.  I couldn't help but overhear the odd conversation of three haggard looking goofballs standing near me, one in his 40's, one in his 50's, and one in his 60's. 

Fiftyish guy, "You know I'm six foot tall."

Sixtyish guy, "That's odd, I'm 5'9", and I almost tower over you." (This was a true statement from my vantage point, as fiftyish guy appeared to be about 5'6")

Fortyish guy, "Well, if it makes you feel better, I say go with it."

Fiftyish guy was now getting testy, "I'm not joking.  I'm really 6' tall."

Sixtyish guy to the faux six-footer, "Do you have any idea how much an elephant weighs?"

Fiftyish guy, "Well that depends."

Sixtyish guy, "On what."

Fiftyish guy,  "Whether it's a baby or adult.  If it's an adult, the answer is 5,000 lbs., and they're decimating them for their ivory.  There might not be any more elephants before long.  It's tragic."

And then a nice lady came and opened the door to the library before I could garner any more useful tidbits from these gentlemen.

Lucy was shopping at the Country Club Plaza a few weeks ago with her three little ones in tow, twins Charlie and Finn (3), and Waverly (4).  Lucy was holding hands with each of the boys and said to Waverly, "Grab one of the brothers' hands."

Two black guys standing nearby said, "I thought she was talking about us."  And they laughed.

I had lunch with Albany John recently and he told me he was at a board meeting he was attending for Northwest Missouri University.  He was approached by an attorney that works with the board, and she asked him if were "the" Albany John.  When he replied in the affirmative, she asked him to autograph her copy of NNAOPP.  He reveled in his fame.

While attending a friend's 70th birthday party I met a young woman who was the celebrant's neighbor.  We chatted and she politely mentioned that she understood I had written a book.  I needed little encouragement to expand on that theme once given the slightest nod.  She then told me that she used to work for a publishing house doing PR work to help promote authors and their books.  She asked where she might find a copy of NNAOPP and told me she would check it out.

She then told me tales of woe in trying to get her clients to promote their work on radio talk shows and expanded, "You appear to have a functioning personality, which is not the norm with many of the writer's I've met.  I felt like I needed to be their ventriloquist to get them to talk in an interesting way about their book."  Unfortunately, she is now a full time Mom and doesn't take on lost causes.

I'm happy to report that I got my first hole in one at Falcon Ridge golf course.  It was a 115-yard par three to a green sticking partially into a lake.  It was a downhill shot that allowed our foursome to see the crisply hit orb hit the front of the green and roll into the cup.  All witnesses yelled with enthusiasm, and it was quite pleasing.

It's not too early to starting thinking about a Christmas gift or stocking stuffer for that special someone.  Copies of NNAOPP, second printing, are awaiting their new home.

Monday, August 5, 2013

August 2013 Update - La Plata Peak

August 2013

Every once and a while, you catch a break.  In my case this came when I serendipitously learned that July 27, 2013 happened to be National Day of the Cowboy, and there was a yodeling and cowboy poetry concert held to honor same. The location of the event just happened to be in a large machine shed on a ranch in the Flint Hills, near Manhattan, KS, and the date and time coincided with the timing of our scheduled 14er trip to Colorado. 

Next to a professional whistling, I can't think of anything more pleasing to the ear than cowboy yodeling.  The headliner of the concert was none other than Judy Coder, last year's winner of the Patsy Montana International Yodeling contest.  We would quickly concur that this was an honor well deserved

The warm-up act was cowboy songster and poet Jeff Davidson.  It amazes me how many gifted people are out there performing their craft in relative obscurity.  From him we learned the origin of the word, "gringo."  It seems that the Anglo cowboys riding herd on Texas cattle en route to Kansas railheads loved the song "Green Grow the Lilacs" and sang it often.  The Mexican vaqueros often comprised a portion of the crew of drovers, and they were puzzled by their counterparts' love of this strange song.  So they called them 'green grows'. 

In between acts we were treated to a tasty BBQ dinner and to recitations of cowboy poetry.  We shared a table with some nice people from Overbrook, KS.  Of the 125 or so people in attendance, all but two were dressed in jeans with big belt buckles, cowboy boots and hats.  Judy and I stood out in our distinctly non-western, suburban, summer attire.

La Plata Peak

The days leading up to a 14er climb comprise a mixture of anxiety and excitement.  Negative thoughts abound. "Has my training been adequate? Will I become a burden to my comrades? Is this really worth the effort?" On the flip side, fond memories linger from earlier climbs of the glistening dew adorning the aspens, the thrill of breaking out above the treeline, the wildflowers dotting the alpine meadows, the elation upon reaching the peak, and all the while pausing to reflect on the grandeur of God's creation.

We rendezvoused in lovely Buena (pronounced bewna) Vista, CO, a town nestled on the banks of the Arkansas River lying in the shadow of the Sawatch Range, home to fifteen of Colorado's 14,000-ft peaks including Massive, Elbert, Huron, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, and to La Plata Peak, 14,336' this year's choice for our antediluvian cluster of climbers.

Our group once again featured our lionhearted captain, Fred, along with last year's new members, John and Dave.  Dave's wife, Shannon, also joined us, lowering the average age and increasing the comeliness of our band of striders.    All were in good spirits as we met at the town's elegant Super 8 for refreshments and headed to the Eddyline Cafe for an early dinner.  The bonhomie of the reunion with friends and fellow climbers washed away any pessimistic thoughts.  Our only concerns were weather.  It had been raining intermittently all day, and the forecast was for more of the same the next few days.

On Friday morning we rendezvoused at 4:45 am and were on the road to the trailhead.  Predictably, the last 3-4 miles were bone jarring in the extreme.  Fortunately, Fred's Ford Explorer had mountain tires and high clearances and capably got us to the trailhead at 10,700' at 6 am. It was 42 degrees when we departed, as glimmers of daylight revealed a cloud-covered sky.

The recent rains made the trail was slightly muddy and the vegetation sparkled.  It had been a wet July so the greenery was dense and lush, particularly at the lower elevations.  According to the 14er's guide, the southwestern route to La Plata Peak was 3.5 miles in distance with a 3,636' ascent, exactly 1' of ascent for each 5' distance, about the incline of the lower deck of Royal's stadium.  It was relatively steep from the trailhead to the treeline, but we made good time, and everyone appeared to be hiking strong.  The wildflowers were uncommonly bountiful and colorful, owing to the abundance of rain.

Emerging from the treeline we encountered a dense forest of Barrenground Willows through which we hiked for about one half mile.  A narrow trail had been cut through the woody plants making passage possible along a muddy path.  The willows towered over us, so it was impossible to see more than a few yards ahead.  I was following Fred fairly closely when the path widened through a boggy stretch.  Fred went to the right side of the trail seeking more suitable footing, and I unwisely chose the left, whereupon my left foot sunk into the mud over my high-top boot.  I was fortunate to not lose my boot when pulling it out of the muck.  Bootlessness in the Rockies is not to be desired.

Coming out of the thicket we came to a gently rising stretch of grassy bog dotted with tiny alpine ponds.  It was relatively easy, but squishy walking.  Then we reached a steep wall of scree and loose rock forming a bowl cresting at a saddle that was the entry point to a rocky ridgeline leading northward to the peak.

We were hiking from the east, and, as the sun rose from behind, we could see a continuous stream of gray clouds converging from the west.  At one point we viewed the false summit leading to La Plata Peak totally shrouded in a dark mist. We were concerned about lightning, but decided to proceed to the saddle to gain a better view of the weather coming out of the west before deciding our course of action.  It was an arduous climb.  Fred later noted, "The 500-foot wall leading up to the saddle may be the hardest stretch I have encountered on any 14er."

We reached the saddle, about 13,000', at 8:30 am, (John took a picture of his watch that showed our elevation, barometric pressure, time, and temperature).  We'd come about 2.5+ miles, a fairly fast pace for our group.

The skies were dark and ominous, so we pondered our options.  We were feeling pretty strong after the ascent up the bowl, and it appeared we had now done the heaviest lifting in getting to our goal.  It was 44 degrees, and the wind was blowing 20-30 mph from the west when we came over the lee of the saddle, adding to the chill.  We estimated we were less than a mile (an hour of hiking) from the summit, but we were at least an hour and a half above the tree line and any form of shelter.  

Fred wisely observed, "There's less than a 1% chance of getting fried, but that's too high."  We saw other climbers a few hundred yards ahead of us that were plodding on, but we headed down.  A passing hiker reminded us of the bronze plaque set on the ridge leading to Mt. Princeton memorializing a hiker killed by lightning.  We needed little persuasion.

Fred said he had never seen worse looking weather so early in the morning during any of his seventeen climbs.  I agreed, although working from a smaller sample size.  It's uncommon for a storm to gather so early in the morning in the mountains, but on this day they did.

I decided that since we had done 90% of the heavy lifting getting within hailing distance of our goal, that we could count La Plata Peak as .9 of a 14er, thus 6.9 down, 47 to go.  When we got back down to the trailhead Fred asked if anyone wanted to try again tomorrow.  He wasn't joking.  All declined politely.

In spite of failing to reach our objective, it was a beautiful climb.   We were never away from the comforting sounds of rushing water; we caught a glimpse of the surrounding panorama from the saddle; and we again tested our abilities.

My training and acclimatizing was adequate, so I felt strong.  Had the weather not interfered, it would have been a relatively easy jaunt to the top. My regimen wasn't meaningfully more rigorous than in year's past, so I believe my improved condition was a consequence of having consumed large quantities of Gatorade before and during the early portions of the hike and to the vitamin B tablets I'd taken.  (Thanks Ben for the training tips.)

We returned to the trailhead around 11:30 am, ate the lunch originally intended as the summit-reaching-treat, drank a few bottles of Moose Drool, a tasty Missoula, MT ale, and consoled ourselves in the failed attempt by noting that we all returned safely.

Jim, our intrepid but absent comrade, astutely wrote upon learning of our decision to abandon the climb, "There are old climbers and bold climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers."

Trip captain, Fred who will celebrate his 73rd birthday in a month, is scheduled to climb another 14er next week, Mt. Sherman, with his 13-year old grandson.  Adding even more luster to his manly, mountaineering prowess, he told us that he has been working as a volunteer this summer with the forest service maintaining trails near his home in Steamboat Springs.  This involves hiking 3-5 miles with a two-man handsaw clearing fallen logs off trails.  Fred is my role model.

Two days before heading to Colorado, I had a meeting in Andover, KS.  I stopped at the eponymous tollbooth off the Kansas turnpike to pay.  The pleasant toll lady overheard the book I had playing in the car and inquired, "What are you listening to?"  I told her.  Then she told me about her book.  There was no traffic behind me, so we chatted for a few moments.  She shared some of her favorite authors and titles.  Then, I suggested, "You know the book you need to read?"

What, "She said."

"Nude Nuns and Other Peculiar People." Said I and continued,  "by none other than moi", as I touched both cheeks with my slightly rotating index fingers.

She laughed, and I drove off.

One day later, as is my custom, I checked the Amazon sales register and noted a purchase occurred the previous day.  Makes one ponder.  Am I capable of even more egregious pandering?

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 all ebook formats at:  http://www.smashwords.com/b/96530
and in print and Kindle format at  http://www.amazon.com
Available at:
  Rainy Day Books, 2706 W. 53rd Street, Fairway, KS
  Bruce Smith Drug Store, Prairie Village, 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