Music: Doobie Brothers “South City Midnight Lady”

 

During the heyday of 33rpm records – the 1970’s-  there were a few albums that could be found in every collection you encountered. They weren’t always Grammy winners or even particularly good, but they showed up everywhere. Some examples are:

  • Other Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
  • Rumors by Fleetwood Mac
  • Saturday Night Fever soundtrack

The Captain and Me by the Doobie Brothers enjoyed that status for most of 1973. It contained a couple of well-played singles like “Long Train Running” and “China Grove” but the music worked best when it was played in sequence, though it wasn’t really a concept album like Pet Sounds or Rubber Soul. The hits were great, but my favorite was the second track on the B side: “South City Midnight Lady”  a mellow ballad and a marked contrast to “Without You” which preceded it. It was penned and performed by Patrick Simmons, the only member of the band in all its incarnations:

South city midnight lady I’m much obliged indeed You sure have saved this man whose soul was in need I thought there was no reason For all these things I do But the smile that I sent out returned with you


I love two separate passages in that song: The break, which features a beautiful guitar solo backed with strings, and the last couple of measures that lead into the fade-out, which again features beautiful guitar work, but laid over the backing track of an ARP synthesizer.

When I returned home in the early summer of 1973 I found that my job at Swanson River had fallen through…and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find work until three weeks before going back to school. I spent most of my summer working on plastic models1, watching television2 and binge-listening to The Captain and Me. I spent so much time listening to it on the stereo that it began to run through my brain all the time – like a Walkman without the earbuds.

There was one other thing that occupied my time: making a long-distance reconciliation with my Best Friend after our break-up the previous spring. She was back up in Fairbanks and while we’d been regularly writing and calling the discussions had hit a plateau. As was the case when I totaled the Maverick 3, it was at this point when I was in trouble that my Dad made a connection with me and showed himself to be an incredibly caring and sensitive man.

We were on vacation camping on the banks of the Little Susitna river in the same place we’d camped in 1970. There was one big difference this time?  The Parks Highway had been completed and it was possible to drive all the way to Fairbanks. Dad must have noticed the times I’d wistfully look north because after we’d packed up and got in the Microbus, Dad turned around and said “You know, we haven’t been to Fairbanks since 1967. Let’s drive on up!”

I would have never thought he’d piece together the reality of my broken heart and without saying a word administered the best medicine. Later, that day we reached Fairbanks and 30 minutes later I had found and made up with my Best Friend and for a short season everything was OK.

Because that mental stereo had been playing The Captain and Me I will forever connect it with that trip. I have one special mental snapshot of us driving along the highway next to Denali (then Mount McKinley) with the closing instrumental to “South City Midnight Lady” playing in my head. I can close my eyes; my family is put-put-putting along under the mid-summer Alaskan night sky painted with magenta and orange. Patrick Simmons plays a slow crescendo on the synthesizer and it’s all good.

__________________________________________________________________________________

 

  1. A 1/25 scale kit of a German Tiger Tank by Tamiya. It has a complete interior and the tracks were made of individual polyethylene segments that had to be snapped together.

It took almost an entire month.

  1. Mostly Watergate hearings and on-going discussion of the passage of Roe vs. Wade the previous winter.

 

  1. See 1969: Blue Paint and Dry Pavement

1973: Rusty Old Tin Cans

It was a message that few people younger than 60 would understand – a T-shirt with a map of Viet-Nam printed on the back with an inscription on the front that said, “Southeast Asia War Games: Second Place”. I couldn’t help but marvel at the change in society’s attitude towards the military over the last fifty years. While the vote on who-beat-who will be out for years to come, at the time there was no question about a young man’s choice to participate.  If you were called up in the draft it was your duty to go, unless you obtained a deferment, failed the physical or took an extended vacation in Canada1.

Evading service never occurred to me. While it was true that our family had a long tradition of military service I also had a healthy dose of transpersonal commitment and a desire to serve my country. Experience as a military dependent convinced me that becoming an officer was the best route to take and while he never let on, my father was pleased to see me pursue a commission. He even attempted to stack the deck for me and through his connections  arranged a way for me to obtain an appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland…and he never got the credit he deserved for not throttling me when I turned the opportunity down because I didn’t want to cut my hair.

Truth be told it wasn’t the length of my hair that sunk my prospects of a naval career. I had thoroughly enjoyed spending Armed Forces Day of 1963 & 1964 at FT Richardson riding on tanks, firing blanks from M60 machine guns and making practice jump exits from the C-130 mock-up.  There was also my marathon viewing of The Longest Day at the Fourth Avenue theater; three consecutive showings of that star-studded epic film about D-Day and the Normandy Invasion insured that my choice of the army over the navy was a slam-dunk affair.

As I was only going to be attending the University of Alaska for two semesters I didn’t sign up as a cadet, but I did occasionally talk to the recruiters downtown and the ROTC cadre on campus. During my application for transfer to Ricks College I noticed that the Army was starting a brand-new cadet program there, so I made sure to include Military Science 101 when registering for my fall classes.

I was totally blindsided by the anti-military attitude prevalent at the school and the surrounding area. Putting on a uniform was an invitation to harassment and we were:

  • Mocked by room-mates.
  • Viewed with suspicion by town merchants.
  • Ridiculed in class by instructors.
  • Intentionally splashed with mud by passing cars.

Even my Best Friend made alarmingly sarcastic comments about my involvement in the “Rusty Old Tin Cans”2 and I soon found that I was not alone. Unfortunately, the harassment got to some of the other cadets who ended up dropping out –  or seriously considering that option but just as prospects for an ROTC program seemed most dire we were assigned a new Regular Army instructor who turned the entire situation around.

Gary Tomlinson was a military police major and to everyone’s delight a “southeast Idaho boy” having grown up near Pocatello. He was taciturn but warm, professional, practical and wasted no time in quietly making friends and forging a good working relationship with the school. This soft-spoken diplomacy helped him to develop a solid professional program with the use of very limited resources.3

At the same time, he worked at developing a relationship with the Idaho National Guard and was successful in getting their support for the extracurricular activities that had proved to be the best way to recruit and retain cadets. He put together a regular schedule of alternating recreational and military activities:  One time we’d go rappelling, the next time we’d practice patrol fundamentals, and the third-time orienteering – and so on throughout the year.

One of the first adventures happened on a Saturday early in September and consisted of a float trip down the Snake River starting at the bridge at Swan Valley and ending near our favorite rappelling spot at Heise Hot springs. While we’d be using army issue rafts and life preservers, it wasn’t a tactical exercise but rather just adventure training, a trip casual enough for Major Tomlinson to bring along his elderly father. We were teamed two to a raft and I would be making the trip with Randy Hamblen, a friend of mine from church and one of the very few married students I knew at Ricks College.

It was a warm day when we started out and the moderate current made for a trip that was not over-tiring – the biggest challenge we had was avoiding the deadfall willows that projected into the water along the bank. However, as we got close to noon the sky began to cloud up and a cold wind kicked in  – and as we rounded a bend it became a headwind for us and we stopped making good time. As we beached the rafts to rest at noon a check of the map revealed that we were less than halfway to our pick-up point. Most of the participants had anticipated a quick morning trip and didn’t bring any food or water but in my never-ending state of paranoia I had brought along a  small field pack, which in addition to spare socks,  held several packages of Lipton’s Instant Soup and some Trioxane solid-fuel tablets which I used to warm up as many of my fellow cadets as possible.

Grey skies got darker and began to spit intermittent raindrops at just about the same time the current picked up and we encountered modest rapids. Most of the cadets were not experienced rafters and the rough water separated/spread out the rafts until the bends in the river limited our sight to just a couple of rafts at a time – and vocal communication was dicey as well.

 “THE MAJOR HAS FALLEN IN!”

…. or at least that’s what the distant half-muffled voice seemed to be saying. Randy and I looked at each other and without a word started turning around, a task much easier in the talking than in the doing. Despite our most vigorous paddling we didn’t seem to move backward very quickly, and we decided that it might be best to beach the raft and cross the distance to the overturned raft overland. After looking in vain for a break in the downed willows lining the bank we tried moving close and grabbing at the branches, but then through a combination of such factors as:

  • Wind
  • Current
  • Direction of travel
  • Orientation of the raft
  • Height of the branches above the water

…. Randy and I were swept off the raft and into the river as cleanly as a spatula scrapes off leftover hash browns off a greasy spoon’s grill.

My thinking immediately shifted into Tardis-time where thought happens much faster than exterior events.  My first thought was that partially deflating my life preserver for a more comfortable fit had not been a good idea. Then as I bounced along the bottom of the river my second, third and fourth thoughts came to mind:

  • What I would tell Randy’s wife Maxine if I brought back a drowned husband for her?
  • There were an awful lot of empty beer cans along the bottom of the Snake River, more than I had ever seen in any river back home in Alaska.
  • I really didn’t want to drown and miss the New Seekers concert that evening.

The fifth thought that came to mind was that the cold water was making me fuzzy-headed and I needed to get out of the river as soon as possible.  I managed to kick back up to the surface, take a lungful of air and splash over to the side of the river where I found a just-as-wet-as-me Randy hanging on to the lead rope from our raft.

As we dumped the water out of the raft and tried to shake ourselves dry we could see that we weren’t the only rafters to end up in the water. Three other teams were also up on the banks battling wet clothes and gear, a sight that turned from grim to farcical when the Major and his father finally drifted slowly past us, dry as the moment they got in the raft. It turned out that it had only been the major’s thermos that fell in the river, but the background noise of the river and dispersion of the rafts had distorted the shouted message.

It also turned out that during all the drama we had ended up a lot closer to Heise Hot Springs than we previously thought and it wasn’t long until all the cadets had arrived, the rafts were all deflated and packed and we started our bus-ride back to Rexburg; some of use shivering even  though the heaters were running full blast.

Later that evening

“Ils ont change ma chanson, ma / Look what they done to my song, ma”

No wonder it never made sense. The fifth verse in “Look What They Done to My Song” was sung in French –  and I’d have never figured out the reason for my three-year long befuddlement had I missed the New Seekers concert that evening. Not that getting to the show had been easy – my hour-long shower had warmed my body but my toes still felt as icy as they did when we got out of the river …which made the simple act of walking a challenge.

Maxine’s glare had been equally icy when I brought Randy home looking more like a wet rat than the husband she’d sent off that morning.  She vainly attempted a disapproving glare, but she was glad to have us both back safely – and that we’d had a good time.

…but for now, the New Seekers were starting up with a set of slower songs and I started to nod off a bit. “I’d like to teach the world to sing…”  Who cares it started out as a jingle for Coca-Cola – it was a nice song just like today had been a good day. Not exactly what I’d expected but any day you beat the Reaper was a day to put in the win column.

 

 


 

  1. There were even fewer options when the regular draft was replaced by the draft lottery. There were no deferments with the lottery – you finished the current semester then went in the army – and if you didn’t show up they sent people to retrieve you. I had a company commander on active duty whose career started with being “escorted to the entry station.
  2. Probably the least derogatory explanation for the initials R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officer Training Corps)
  3. Another one of my “board of directors” (see blog post Board of Directors Part One: Richard Bird)

1973: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is like the hot cheerleader’s younger sister –the one that everybody chats up just to get a chance to meet her much lovelier sibling. Stores start putting up Christmas displays right after Halloween and when people discuss a day of that long weekend in November they’re more apt to be talking about the day after Thanksgiving – scoring bargains on Black Friday. That wasn’t always the case and in 1973 my Thanksgiving was infinitely better than my Christmas despite the lack of deep discounts on home electronics.

I was winding up my third and last semester at Ricks College and I was on a roll. I was working hard and doing very well in my classes, I had lost thirty pounds and was in great shape…and in a month, I would be reunited with my Best Friend. The Thanksgiving holiday was almost more a hinderance than a respite and when I told Conrad1 I was staying put and working on a project instead of going to Provo with him he was not very happy. After a few rounds of our usual bickering we compromised on an abbreviated visit with his sister Chris at BYU, after which we’d speed home, so I could finish the project.

The trip started out nicely enough as we sped south on I-15 with two other room-mates who would be riding just as far as Malad ID crammed in the back of Conrad’s Mustang. We laughed, joked and talked about girls until someone pointed to the sky to the southwest at an ominous storm front blowing in. Someone joked about singing hymns to somehow divert the storm but as we passed Pocatello we started to run into real trouble. The Mustang began running rough and within minutes we were stalled.

At this point our two backseat passengers decided to bail, leaving us with a non-personalized check for their share of the gas money. In a string of minor miracles, we waved down a car, rode in wrecker and put the Mustang’s 8-track tape-deck in hock to pay for the services and finally got the Mustang running again. By then it was obvious the Provo trip was a bust, but we were still a long way from home and it was late at night. Luckily our ROTC instructor MAJ Gary Tomlinson lived with his family in Pocatello and kindly put us up for the night.

We woke up to a cold cloudy morning and drove back to our apartment in Rexburg, stopping at a Circle K to buy our Thanksgiving feast: a freezer pizza and an apple pie. We were both thankful we’d gotten out of the predicament losing only the tape deck and not our lives, but with our four other room-mates gone (along with most of the college student body) it was going to be a rather bleak holiday.

It was at that point that an idea came to mind which shortly had me resorting to one of the most bald-faced shameless acts of manipulation in my life. I went upstairs to talk to our landlords the Hansen’s, who were surprised to see us. I responded: “Oh, we had car trouble and had to come back, but we’re OK. We’ve got a freezer pizza and an apple pie between us – and we’re buddies from way back, so it will be just like being home… almost” trailing off into a barely audible sigh as I went back down to our apartment.

Stephen Hansen was a good-hearted man and I could predict almost to the second what he would do after our conversation. I started counting down “Five – four – three – “

Conrad was lost “What’s going on?”

“Shh -two – one! “

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK!

It was Brother Hansen “Now boys, we want you to come upstairs and have Thanksgiving dinner with us” to which both Conrad and I made the requisite protests, which we ceased when he got to “I won’t take no for answer”. We trooped upstairs for a grand feast – and in the process got to know them as individuals with personality and depth and not just one-dimensional characters hammering on their floor when we got too rowdy in the downstairs apartment.

The storm that had stranded us left a thick blanket of snow which made our street look like a Christmas card and the bulk of the holiday was quiet and I spent most of the time finishing up projects and studying for tests. We did manage to get out of the apartment a couple of times; stocking up on some groceries, attending a consolidated church meeting and viewing “Willi Wonka and The Chocolate Factory” at the Manwaring Center Cinema more times that I ever cared to. I was surprised at how quiet Rexburg was, but then I’d never been in town when school was not in session.  As I said: the days were quiet, but the evenings turned out a little differently.

Even though I had never seen it in use, our living room was equipped a fireplace complete with a small supply of wood. Midway through the holiday we decided a fire was in order and as we were preparing I noticed  several short lengths of 1”X12” wood in the wood-box, leftovers from a remodeling project. During my brief marital arts training I’d learned if you properly positioned a plank between supports and swung your hand “through the board” with the grain you could break it without hurting yourself.

After demonstrating the process to Conrad by splitting a few boards I coached/coaxed him into giving it a try. I helped him position the plank and stood by while he took several deep breathes, wound up and swung his hand with a deafening cry.

“HI-YAH!”

Thud!

“HI-YAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”  It was like watching the Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon. Conrad jumped up –  board intact – and continued  jumping up and down around the room, grabbing his hand and screaming that he’d broken it. Upon inspection we found that a bad bruise was the extent of the damage and when he calmed down we went back to building the fire.

I laid the kindling and wood in a neat log cabin formation, and when we put match to paper it all started to crackle and flare in a most warm and satisfactory manner. We were most pleased…. until we realized that the smoke was not going up the chimney but in fact was pouring into the apartment.  I quickly doused the fire but not before the smoke had collected along the ceiling which had the apartment looking like a New York City summer afternoon.

…and the smoke didn’t look like it was going anywhere soon, no matter how hard we tried to fan it out the door. We also found out why the smoke had poured out – the fireplace damper had been firmly closed – but we had to clear the smoke and smell out of the apartment before our roommates returned and/or the Hansen’s found out…which is why we both slept fully clothed that night, wearing our winter coats and hats while all the windows in the apartment were left slightly open.

We were lucky – when the other guys started drifting in the next day the smoke was all gone, and the slight woodsy smell was easily explained away as dinner getting burned the night before. Conrad and I listened to everyone’s holiday stories and we all happily went into our usual “night before” drill, cleaning up, setting out clothes and planning the next day’s activities when the final Thanksgiving adventure happened.

“EEEWWWWWWWWWW” It was Syd, pointing at one of our bedroom windows and looking like he’d just lost his lunch. He stammered “It was horrible – I looked out the window and saw the ugliest guy in the world looking in. His face looked like it had been burned or doused with acid and was sloughing off like an old scab AND THERE HE IS AGAIN!” pointing out our window.

I looked over to see the lower torso of a man’s body standing in the snow then turning and bolting away from the window.  I ran for the door and when I reached the sidewalk in front of the house I could see footprints leading from the side of the house out to the street and up the hill. Glancing up I saw a ragged figure briefly illuminated by a street lamp, but the deepening snow ruled out any sort of pursuit…. for which I was grateful. Between Syd’s description and what little I saw of the prowler I was not sure I wanted to confront the guy. . I also kind of wanted to stick close to the neighborhood; channeling as ever for Batman I wanted to keep a watchful eye out after a cursory check revealed that our prowler had been loitering around the windows of two girls’ apartments located nearby.

It was almost midnight by the time I got into bed, but I was too jazzed from the chase to fall asleep. Lying in my bunk, I couldn’t help but think back over the long weekend:  every Thanksgiving before this one had been very predictable and comfortable, either spent with my family or my Best Friend’s relatives, but I felt more thankful than I had ever before. It had been more of a slapstick comedy than a holiday, with one disaster after another, but each disaster had been resolved without serious harm.

It was the best Thanksgiving of my entire life.

 


 

  1. Donald/Don/Donny Thomas: somehow Don acquired “Conrad” as a nickname just before we left for school in the late summer of 1973 and he was known by that name to all our other roommates.  My oldest son Conrad is named after Donny in this manner

1973: Taking One for the Team

Goat picture

As I grew up my father’s changing employment situation had us moving around a lot and by the time I earned my high school diploma I had attended seven public schools. I went on to earn an Associate’s degree, a Bachelor’s degree and a Master of Fine Arts degree while attending three different universities and one junior college – and when you add those academic institutions to places where I have taught the total comes to sixteen schools with which I have had extensive experience. Of all those bastions of academia Ricks College (now known as BYU-Idaho) was the best, with the fall of 1973 being my best term of my entire collegiate career. I made the honor roll with a 3.8 GPA while carrying 19 credit hours, I was actively involved in the establishment of the first ROTC detachment set up at the school, held multiple responsibilities in my church congregation and earned a small scholarship as the cartoonist for the student newspaper.

As I have learned several other times in my life being actively engaged in so many worthwhile things did wonders for my morale, but that doesn’t mean that semester started out as a happy situation.  I felt out-of-place, having transferred to Ricks the year from the University of Alaska, not because I wanted to go there, but because my Best Friend wanted to go there.  The change from a state school to a private faith-based institution was so abrupt that at times I would break  into hives from the stress. How that rocky start evolved into lofty academic achievement is told elsewhere; suffice it to say that at the time of this story I was starting my third (and final) semester in Rexburg 4000 miles from the most important person in my life while living in an apartment with five strangers who were not particularly friendly.

Initially I handled the situation as any other thoughtful mature young man would – by retreating to my bedroom and throwing a low-grade tantrum. Half my spare time was spent writing letters to my Best Friend, listening to Neil Young on the record player,  and mentally living a year or two in the past. The other half was spent writing more letters, listening to the Moody Blues on my record player, and mentally living a year or two in the future. I had little interest in anything other than marking days off the calendar as I waited for our happy reunion and a new life.

Given this behavior you may ask why we were separated to begin with. The story behind the split is very messy, involving unreasonable pressure from  my family  against the relationship developing any further* but we had patched our couple-hood  together during the summer after I went through a  Saul’s-conversion-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience which left me vowing “never crash and burn again”. Unfortunately my lofty intentions didn’t change the fact that my financial and academic situation required us to spend one last semester separated.

Then wonder upon wonder, things started getting better.  I got off to a good start with my classes, our new ROTC instructor got us out on weekends to go rappelling or rafting… and most important I found out that long distance phone calls weren’t as prohibitively expensive as I’d assumed. It was amazing what an occasional call back to Fairbanks would do to raise my spirits.

…then one of my room-mates mentioned the word “football” and my stress level skyrocketed again.

Football.

When people ask me about my football career I reply  that but for one problem  I could have played  professional football – that problem being that I was just not very good at the game. I was a late bloomer, gaining strength, coordination and general physical ability a couple years later than my team-mates. That didn’t keep me from loving the game, and I made up for lack of ability with enthusiasm. Fans weren’t quite so over the top as they are now – no face-painting or giant foam headgear for us – but I did closely follow my favorite teams during the season, and linebackers were just as apt to show up in my sketchbooks as sword-wielding barbarians or caped superheroes.

It was when I got involved with actually playing or talking about playing that my love for the game that I began to feel  stress. My basic insecurity and paranoia would gnaw at my confidence, so when one of my new room-mates suggested we try to get a pick-up game going with guys from the dorms I was torn between being excited about playing, and fear of demonstrating my ineptitude. Playing with this new set of room-mates brought on its own peculiar challenges as well – I was the only returning tenant that fall and it seemed like the new guys brought with them an undercurrent of criticism and negativity that kept us from bonding in quite the same way we had the previous year. I got the feeling that if I played with them and didn’t do well I’d be the goat for the entire semester.

(Don’t ask me what “being the goat” entailed – I picked up the term while reading an advertisement for a Jonny Unitas plastic model kit)

…but I really, REALLY wanted to play football so shortly thereafter we were lined up against a half-dozen dormitory denizens. We started out with a casual game of touch football but as coeds began to gather to watch, the testosterone level started to rise and before you could say “Vince Lombardi” the captain of the dormitory team challenged us to play tackle ball.

To my surprise and delight I played quite well, operating as a combination guard/tackle on offense and a linebacker on defense. Scoring had started out a bit casual, with the two teams either tied or within one touchdown of each other for most of the game, but got serious about the same time we switched from touch to tackle rule, when the girls started watching.

Despite playing well I was still edgy.  Out of both teams I was the one person who had actually played high school football; most of the others being wrestlers or gymnasts.  For some reason being the only one who’d ever had “scabs on the bridge of my nose” caused animosity and the comments got a more caustic as the contact got harder and more abrupt….and that was from my own team. It got to the point that I considered departing the field for my record player and Mr. Young’s nasal balladering when I heard a yell “Deitrick – watch, he’s coming around your side!”

A member of the other team was running the ball around my side of the line with just a couple of yards between him and the goal-line. We seemed to be a match in terms of speed but I wasn’t sure I could anticipate his intentions and stop him in time – and at that point I went into Tardis-time where my internal clock was running much faster than time was passing in the outside world.

My internal monologue kicked in: “Why am I bothering with this. These guys don’t know the kind of injuries you can get playing tackle ball. I do. I have no wish to spend the semester in a cast after killing myself for people that I have absolutely nothing invested in. All I am doing is killing time until my Best Friend and I are back together again. Who cares if they like me – I can just listen to music and live in my head.”

Just then I glanced at the room-mate closest to me and saw an expression that I  couldn’t identity. It was an open expression I had yet to see on anyone’s face in the apartment: hope, pride, friendship?  – certainly not the contempt I was expecting. There was a flash – I don’t know if it was adrenaline or the fear of sustaining a skull fracture but in that moment I had an epiphany –   the disconnection was as much my fault as the new guys; that no matter how badly I missed my Best Friend I had to stop marking the days off my calendar and start living outside my head.  I turned back toward the ball-carrier, bulled my head down and made a text-book perfect tackle.  The runner collapsed like a sack of potatoes and fumbled the ball, setting us up for the winning touchdown a couple of plays later.

It was dizzying. There had been so few times in my life that I had been the hero but in the back of my mind I knew that there was more going on than just grid-iron glory.The walk back to our apartment was not much different than walking to the field had been two hours earlier, but I felt different.  On the surface the dialog continued to be that of brain-dead 18-20 year old young men but the comments were not quite as caustic or clipped.

It was a very small difference – it was a definite improvement and a foreshadowing of the overall change that was just over the horizon for me.

(* I still can’t watch the fifth Season of “That ‘70s Show”)