Glen Campbell in the Old Sod

Nebra waiting on concert time, with me.

Glen Campbell died today, and I was glad to have seen him perform in person one time, in Ireland no less in 2006.

I had bought tickets for Nebra and me for the Midlands Music Festival primarily to let my favorite singer, Van Morrison, mesmerize me again, only this time in his native land.  I didn’t even realize then Campbell was on a card with Don McLean and the headliner, Dwight Yoakam.

We were on our way back toward Dublin from the West Country and had stayed the previous night in a B&B at rainy Mullingar, about 25 miles distant. The rain faded, and the next afternoon we drove up in the rental car to the festival site at Ballinlough Castle as sun broke through clouds.

It was surreally beautiful.

The 17th Century castle stretches out on a rural hilltop overlooking two lakes with the stage on the slope. I recall seeing some colorful clothing hanging out to dry in a castle window as we swilled a few beers (photo) and waited. Only a few thousand hard-core fans showed up defying the prospects of more rain, most laying out like us on blankets spread in the summer grass.

Campbell was not at his best that day. Alzheimer’s had already started its dirty work on his mind. His daughter, Ashley, sang at his side, raising her voice when he stumbled over the words or sang off key. I remember thinking it was an embarrassing performance.

But now 11 years later, I don’t care so much about the quality.

It was a great moment to see Campbell fighting to do what he no doubt loved, and doing it in front of a crowd, even if they were mostly Irish..

Yes, that, and realizing the tragedy that was unfolding.

Walking along the Columbia

The Riverwalk. Looking east.

The Riverwalk. Looking east.

In Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River, you can walk along the shore on an asphalt path.  The path is called the Astoria Riverwalk and runs almost 13 miles from one end of town to the other and beyond that to the east.

The Riverwalk runs parallel to railroad tracks layed down more than a century ago. A 1913 trolley regularly rumbles down these tracks, noon to 6. The single car is usually crammed full, standing room only.  That’s one of the reasons Nebra and I chose one late afternoon to travel the Riverwalk by foot into town for supper. It is only about a mile and a half from the lodging on 34th Street and Leif Erickson.

Tanker in the Columbia.

Tanker in the Columbia.

The air is invigorating, cool now in the 60s with a light westerly breeze in our faces. We wear wind-breakers. Unbelievable that in 48 hours we have gone from an inferno in Phoenix to this in Oregon.

Only  a few pass us on the Riverwalk.  Some afoot, some jogging, a few on bicycles.

Season for harvesting wild berries.

Season for harvesting wild berries.

The Columbia has little activity. Several huge tankers are anchored in mid-stream waiting for what I do not know. Across the river to the north, the hills and mountains of Washington rise up as an emerald wall.  To the west, the horizon is broken only by the 4.1 mile Astoria-Megler  bridge that leads to Cape Disappointment and other interesting and historic places in Washington.

A tug boat ushers a tanker under the bridge, guiding it around the treacherous sandbars. The Columbia’s mouth is known as “The Graveyard of the Pacific.” A sign listing those sailors who have perished in these waters rests at the side of the Riverwalk.

IMG_2116Between us and the river is a lush strip of wild bushes and a few trees.  Nebra stops to examine wildflowers and patches of blackberry and huckleberry.  My camera is busy shooting the mossy-coated, green piles sticking out of the water. At one spot we see gulls (or are they terns?) resting atop of every one, all facing west to the setting sun.

As we close in on Astoria’s downtown, a concoction of museums, like the Maritime, restaurants and brewers pop into view. The main drag, Commercial Street, is up a few blocks on the left.

Astoria Megler Bridge.

Astoria Megler Bridge.

At 8th Street, we swerve south into the main part of Astoria. It is at this point of departure from the Riverwalk, we find at the Buoy restaurant. It’s No. 2 on Trip Advisor, says Nebra, who venture inside to check the menu.  She says there is a window in the floor looking down on the docks where a sea lion lazed.

Night on the river.

Night on the river.

And so the walk ends. It has been pleasant.

The Riverwalk, I think, is an ideal way to become acquainted with this little logging and fishing city at the edge of America near where the Lewis &  Clark Expedition made history.

The way a writer flies

Arrival at Portland International.

Arrival at Portland International.

A writer is a writer. You don’t have to write a novel.  Or get a magazine article published.  It’s the way you think. That’s what makes a writer a writer. It’s the way you fly.

I remember a story about the humorist James Thurber.  James is sitting at a supper table with his wife and some friends.  James is not eating and he is not conversing.  Wife looks over at James and sees his lips moving.  “James,” she says, nudging him,  “Stop writing.”

That’s a real writer for you. Always composing.

Taking notes, writing actually, filled up much of our flight to Oregon. It’s a little crazy, I suppose.  But this is how I fly.  Somehow this info may regurgitate into something special. Maybe no more than a line in an entire book I may write someday.

A label-maker has written “Oregon 2016,” and I have stuck it to the cover of a skinny 4″ x 8″ reporter’s notebook. I number the inside pages in red ink, upper right corner.  I am ready to begin.

I started Day 1 of our journey with the date and a little drawing. It is a circle with little lines radiating from it.  Everyone knows that means sunshine, which is the state of the weather right now in Phoenix.

It is Saturday, Sky Harbor Airport.  I have paid a Yellow Cab driver $15.25 for delivering us from the house.  In truth, I fling a $20 bill at him and say, “Keep it.”

Saturday afternoons are slow at airports generally.  It sure was today. We checked bags, got  boarding passes and sailed through security in all of 30 minutes. We arrived at Gate C-1 at 2:32. A screen behind the Southwest Airlines counter says it is sunny and 75 in Portland. Very good news. This is all in my notebook.

We lift off at 4:12. Forgot to note the time the plane pushed away from the gate. I usually do that. Two and a half hours to PLX, which is airlines shorthand for Portland International.

Hours and some sleep time later, just as I see the snowy top of Mount Hood west of Portland, a huge mountain emerges on the port side of the plane.  It is so close to the plane that it fills up most of the window.  I later ask the lead stewardess, “Do you know what mountain that was?”

“No,” she said. “You’ll have to ask the pilot. We’re not allowed to look out the windows.” Really? Now that’s valuable stuff.

This stew is pretty silly.  I hear one of the passengers across from me, a tall, long-legged blonde in shorts, call this “a party flight.”

At one point, this middle-aged stew asks us to sing “Happy Birthday,” to 6-year-old Ryan who is sitting near the front of the plane. Not only that but we are asked to make candles for an imaginary cake. Everyone turns on their overhead lights.  Soon, Ryan is requested to blow out the candles.  And so off go the lights, or most of them anyway. Ryan will no doubt treasure this moment forever.

Touchdown at PDX at 6:31.  Arrive at Gate, 6:33.

And suddenly we are in the airport proper, heading for baggage claim.  Welcome to Portland! Our escape to Oregon has begun.

These are valuable notes. Anyone can see that.  Should you read a book someday and notice any of the above information in them, I hope you will give me a call.  I’m not against suing someone for stealing my notes.

 

 

Escape to the Oregon coast

A coastal trip in the Great Northwest.

A coastal trip in the Great Northwest.

It has been a dreadfully-hot summer here in the arid lands of Arizona.  We are closing in on a record number of days in which the temperature has reached 110 or above.  That number is now about 25 days with no end in sight. The record is 33 days, in 2011, and, not eager to further punish ourselves,  Nebra and I plan to do what millions of other Arizonans have done over the ages.

Run for cover in the cool climes of the Pacific Coast.

For us, it’s a sea-change from the sunny beaches of Southern California.  We’re Oregon-coast bound. Think 60-degree weather, clouds and, hopefully, not much rain.

We have only a passing acquaintance with the Beaver State.  I’ve driven through Portland a few times and seen a few episodes of ” Portlandia.”

Our itinerary takes us to Portland by air, then rental car to Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River, then south along U.S. 101 and numerous seaside towns.  I count 30 of them on the visittheoregoncoast.com map, Washington’s border to California’s.  A friend of Nebra’s tried to play down the negative by simply saying the coast is “uh, very busy” in the summer.

The 101 highway, by the way, is a famous route, now diminished by Interstate 5, an hour’s drive to the east. It runs almost the entire width of the nation, north and south, Olympia, Washington, to Los Angeles, a distance of 1,550 miles. In California, it is known as El Camino Real (The Royal Road).

Oregon, I read, has 363 miles of “enchanting” coastline, but our idea is to travel no farther than 237 miles of it, to Coos Bay, the largest of the coastal communities.  Coos Bay, an old but still active fishing port, is far from a village, population about 16,000.  From there, we go inland and begin doing the second part of our three-pronged trip.  Visiting the college towns of Eugene and Corvallis and walking up the steps of the capitol in Salem.  The third part is hiking around Portland and in the Mount Hood region.

How our heat-wracked bodies adapt to a 50-degree drop in temperature is a mystery I’m eager to engage.

 

At Omaha Beach

A now-serene Omaha Beach.

A now-serene Omaha Beach.

As a child living in a small Kansas town, my attachment to World II was strong and, I admit, romantic.

I drew war cartoons in pencil on cheap white paper.  Most of them were about air battles.  Hitler being shot dead.  Japanese “zeros” in flames, the slanty-eyed pilots writhing in pain.  U.S. soldiers always won of course.  They never bled.  I delivered the cartoons to neighbors while standing on the back of a tricycle pedaled by a friend.  I folded them up like a newspaper and threw them into the yards.

On summer evenings after supper, my parents would often go out into the front yard of our cottage and listen to war reports on the radio, which was set up in a bedroom window.  I don’t remember anything at all about the reports.  But I do remember the excitement I felt.  And I was content, if nothing else because we were a family, all together and safe, and I was rolling around on a green lawn.

One of a crew clipping grass around graves.

One of a crew clipping grass around graves.

Perhaps we were out in the yard on June 6, 1944, listening to Ed Murrow describe D-Day on the Normandy beaches in France.  Hemingway observed from a ship in the English Channel.  Maybe Murrow was there too.  Perhaps the reporting covered some of the blood-letting on Omaha Beach.

Jump ahead 71 years.  It is September 2015, and I am shuffling through the gray sand and rock of Omaha Beach.  Nebra is walking with me but I am enveloped in my own world.  I  wonder if I am stepping on a spot where someone died or was wounded.  I wonder if his spirit lingers around this spot.  I can’t say what Nebra is thinking.  Maybe she is thinking the very same things and of her Nebraska hometown of Omaha.

American Cemetery flag at half-mast for 9/11.

American Cemetery flag at half-mast for 9/11.

Omaha was one of five D-Day landing beaches.  It along with Utah Beach is where U.S. troops landed.  You hardly ever hear of Utah Beach.  “It was a cakewalk,” Gen. Omar Bradley was quoted as saying of Utah.  On the other hand, Bradley said, Omaha Beach was “a nightmare.”  Many U.S. casualties, many deaths.

From the beach, we walk uphill in green grass growing in sand toward high forests where German soldiers fired down on the beach.  Hedge rows abound.  They carry red fruit, like cherries.  It is idyllic.  We pass the Visitors Center and finally arrive at the American Cemetery, the one with all the white crosses overlooking the now tranquil blue sea.  The cemetery you likely see in magazines.

The crosses are perfectly aligned.  Even diagonally.  The lawn is immaculate.  It has been freshly mowed and a crew of men use mechanical blowers to disperse the clippings.  Another crew using stand-up tools snip blades of grass around the crosses where mowers can’t reach.  Crowds of visitors ease along paved pathways.  They seem solemn, reverent.  It is no place for joy.

Some venture out into the field of crosses to look more closely at the names, the dates of death, the home states.  I search for crosses from my native state of Kansas, and find a couple.  I locate the grave of Teddy Roosevelt’s son, Teddy Jr.  He was 57 with a heart problem and insisted on being there on D-Day.  He died on July 12 of ’44.

A Kansan buried here, either S/Sgt Bert E Hymer or Capt. James S. Hartzell. My notes are unclear which.

A Kansan buried here, either S/Sgt Bert E Hymer or Capt. James S. Hartzell. My notes are unclear which.

We tread along the paved path away from the sea.  An American flag is ahead.  I am startled to see it flying at half-mast atop a tall pole.  Nebra reminds me of the date.  September 11.  The 14th anniversary of 9/11.  Another layer of emotion sweeps over us.  We stop to take photos.

That night we come back to our comfortable room with neatly-trimmed lawns and orchards in back, and we stream the film, “Saving Private Ryan,” the one with Tom Hanks playing Capt. Miller.  It is sad and glorious at the same time.  Men on a mission, trying to do something humane in a crazy world of bombs and gunfire, blood and gory deaths.

I guess I will always hold fond those memories of long ago.  Out there on the green Bermuda grass of a safe summer, with my parents, listening to accounts of war amid the static of poor radio reception.

But now, having seen Omaha Beach, and truly understanding the dreadful price paid there, all the young men who may have changed the world but died there, that has left those childhood memories with a far less sentimental view of those years.

I wonder, knowing what I now know, what changes I would have made to those cartoons.

‘Mockingbird’ town

Monroeville street banner.

Monroeville street banner.

Outside of connecting with my family history at Pine Level, there was nothing more appealing on our Alabama trip than a visit to Harper Lee’s hometown in Monroeville.

Lee’s story had gripped me for a long time.  In 1960, at the age of 34, her bestselling novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published and won the Pulitzer Prize.  It has become an American classic.  What engaged me was the fact she stopped writing.  One book and that was it.  Her controversial and yet to be published “Go Set a Watchman” pre-dated ‘Mockingbird.’  In fact she has often called ‘Watchman’ the parent of ‘Mockingbird” and saw no reason to have it put into print.

Nothing like a whiff of fragrance from the spirea.

Nothing like a whiff of fragrance from the spirea.

Now, here it was, 55 years after ‘Mockingbird,’ and she was still alive, at age 89, residing in a care facility in Monroeville with the ‘Watchman’ controversy surrounding her.  The new-old novel apparently was discovered by Lee’s attorney, sent to a literary agent with the author’s approval and is set to be published on or about July 15 by HarperCollins in the U.S.  It will also be published in Great Britain.  Many of Lee’s friends in Monroeville question whether she is mentally competent to OK a book that for more than a half century she has chosen not to publish.  Many think it is an attempt by others to enrich themselves and to bring new fame and tourist business to her hometown.

Also, at least in my mind, was the question of her authorship of  “Mockingbird.”  Her late cousin and celebrated author of “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” has long been linked to at least having an editing role in ‘Mockingbird.’  As a young boy, Capote, spent summers in Monroeville, living next door to the Lee family, and becoming close friends with Harper.  In fact, years later Lee accompanied Capote on his reporting trip to Kansas for “In Cold Blood.’

All this stirred my interest, although there was one apparent setback to our visit.

Crowd awaits start of the play.

Crowd awaits start of the play.

Since 1990, local amateurs have been putting on a two-act play of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the old Monroe County courthouse in town.  To see the play in Lee’s hometown while she was still alive and nearby was the big attraction.  Trouble was the play, which runs several weekends each spring, was sold out.  Every performance.  I knew that as we left Sikes and Kohn’s Country Mall in Pine Level and steered south for the 120-mile drive to Monroeville.  At least, I thought we could do the “Mockingbird” walking tour and check out the museum in the old courthouse.

Despite storm clouds moving in from the southwest, the drive proved enjoyable.  Alabama seems to me nothing more than a zillion small towns, most of them interesting.  But I saw none as nice as Luverne, between Troy and I-65 at Greenville.  Luverne bills itself as “The Friendliest Little Town in The South.”  Some of my distant kin live here to this day.  In my notebook, I jotted “very pretty place.”

Then there was tiny Rutledge where on the west side I saw a Confederate flag flying high.  It was the only one I would see during the entire trip.

The traveling was greatly enhanced by the fragrance of spirea blooms along the roadside.  Growing an estimated 15 feet high in places, the sweet scent of these abundant bushes and their cascading white flowers permeated the Yaris as we drove along.  Getting off 65 at Greenville, we stopped to take a closer look and a whiff of this intoxicating flower.

Capote house's ruins.

Capote house’s ruins.

It was mid-afternoon when we finally reached Monroeville.  Plenty of time to look around.  And maybe, just maybe, we could luck in to a pair of tickets to the play.  A woman at the museum I’d talked to by phone was not encouraging.

We had turned back north on 21 highway after seeing the sign to Monroeville, “The Literary Capital of Alabama.”  Two writers, Lee and Capote, have made that boast plausible.

Coming into town from the south, the “new Monroeville” emerged.  Sparkling signs dotted Alabama Avenue. Wal-Mart, Sonic, Shell gas for $2.29, the Monroeville Inn, McDonald’s, Burger King, you name it.  The main town was quite different.

The old courthouse rests in a town square with store fronts on all sides, some empty and gathering dust.  It appeared to be a poor town in decline.  I thought, if it were not for “Mockingbird” and Harper Lee, this town would have dried up and blown away years ago.

The museum covers two floors in the courthouse.  Separate rooms are devoted to Lee and Capote.  On the west side is the court room itself, clean and sparkling as if it were awaiting the next trial.  It became the model for the Hollywood set in the “Mockingbird” film of 1962 that starred Gregory Peck as the defense attorney, Atticus Finch.  The film won three Academy Awards including a “Best Actor” for Peck.

We picked up a map of the walking tour and set out south along Alabama Avenue.  The map shows 33 points of interest.  Only two caught my eye, Nos. 14 and 15.  They are the sites of the houses where Lee and Capote once lived side by side.  Both houses are long gone.  The ruins of a foundation and rock wall are all that remain of the Capote place, that and a metal plaque in front with bio notes and brief history of the house.  Lee’s old home, just to the south, has been replaced by Mel’s Dairy Dream, a confectionary that dispenses tasty strawberry shakes, etc.  The sites are just two blocks south of the courthouse.

Act 2, inside the courthouse.

Act 2, inside the courthouse.

While I napped in the car, Nebra poked around the area.  I awoke to an excited rap on the window.  Nebra had run across two tickets for the play at the regular price of $50 each.  The play would start in about an hour, at 7 p.m.  Sprinkles of rain had started.  We walked over to The Courthouse Cafe and had a pleasing supper.

The two-act play began on time.  It lasted 2 1/2 hours.  Act One is performed outside at the west end of the old courthouse.  When it is over, everyone gets up and walks around to the  courthouse entrance and into the courtroom  where the trial of the black man, Tom Robinson, is held.  At the end, audience and cast intermingle.  It was a powerful moment, the troupe’s director describing how much the play meant to everyone and the town.

As in so much of my life, good fortune had visited again.  That we were able to get tickets to the play at the last minute, that the rain clouds had stayed away, well, it was a memorable evening.

Now, it was on to a motel in Greenville for the night.  The next day we hoped to travel to Selma for some of the most important history in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

So much to do, so little time.

 

Sikes and Kohn’s Country Mall

About 50 cars parked  here during noon hour.

About 50 cars parked here during noon hour.

It is 12:20 p.m. on a Friday and the parking lot in front of Sikes & Kohn’s Country Mall  is lined with 50 cars or more.  The large, plain building looks more warehouse than mart.  And “mall”?  It’s one big store in the Alabama boondocks.

“You come here for the discounts and brands not the atmosphere,” a poster on Yelp writes.

Inside, big and impressive.

Inside, big and impressive.

On the mall’s north side is a water tower.  It says “Pine Level, AL.”  That’s 26 miles south of Exit 9 at the nearest big city, Montgomery.  The water tower and the mall.  That’s it.

On the mall’s east side is lightly-traveled U.S. 231.  The road takes you to Troy 15 miles to the south.  Along the roadsides it is trees and more trees.

Spit cups not allowed.

Spit cups not allowed.

The store has been around since 1970, I read.  “Blue Jeans USA,” proclaims a sign above the front door.  It is the area’s answer to the modern outlet malls.  Other signs along the road list the brands of men’s and women’s clothing, hats, shoes, sun glasses, gear, etc.  Columbia, Cole Haan, Ray Ban, Oakley, Levi’s, Ariat, Justin, Allen Edmonds, Guy Harvey, North Face, Teva, Kavu.

Nothing elegant.  Sign has seen better days.

Nothing elegant. Sign has seen better days.

Nebra wandered through the large store for a while and decided against shopping.  Time was short.  We had a destination to reach by mid-afternoon. Still, Nebra the shopper, said there were many good deals.

An unusual store in an unusual location.  I am beginning to see we made a mistake in our travel plans.  No way to do it all justice in only five full days.