The Guys at Breakfast

In Fort Worth, Texas, the “go to” place for good food and great service is the West Side Cafe.  If you stop there on a Tuesday morning, don’t be surprised at the mob of guys sitting in the back room talking, laughing and enjoying breakfast together.  The restaurant knows to expect this crew and, though doctor’s appointments and other alibis can cause the numbers to fluctuate, a solid ten to twenty guys make it a point to show up every week.

I am proud to count myself a member of this merry band.  All of us are neighbors at Overture Ridgmar, a 55+ Active Retirement Community where, on Tuesday mornings, we form up and car pool to our weekly gathering.  

A casual diner walking into the West Side Cafe and seeing this crew, might be inclined to write us off as simply a rag tag collection of “old guys” with grey hair (or, in some cases, no hair).  But that would be a mistake.  Having had the good fortune to spend time with these fellows and get to know a little bit about them, I can testify to the fact that the experiences, depth of knowledge and record of accomplishments around that table are, in a word, remarkable.

Many of my breakfast colleagues have founded and managed businesses, others have performed design work in aeronautics, there are medical professionals, men with legal backgrounds, advanced teaching credentials, two preachers, a musician, and a banker.  A common theme among most of the fellows around the table, though, is military service.  You would never know it, however, from listening to the Tuesday conversations … nobody aggrandizes their time in the armed forces.  You have to ask … and ask again … to learn what they have done in service to our country.

As a police officer, I learned early in my career that, from time to time, people would decide to resist arrest.  Occasionally, somebody would raise their fists and declare loudly: “I’m going to kick your *** … I’m not going to jail!”  Caution was always important, of course, but in most cases I found those bold declarations to be little more than bombast.  On the other hand, the people who always impressed me were those who quietly assumed a bladed and balanced stance, kept their hands free, made direct eye contact and didn’t say a word.  It was clear that those folks knew how to handle a physical confrontation … they didn’t have to broadcast how tough they believed themselves to be.

In my experience, what I just described is much the same with military veterans.  Maybe it is just me, but when someone repeatedly (and unsolicited) tells everyone around him of the heroic things he did while in the military, I tend to be suspicious of their declared credentials.  It is the quiet one, though … the one who has to be prodded to talk about his experiences … he is the one that usually has the most impressive story.  

For example, among the men at Tuesday breakfast are a number of retired Viet Nam veterans including a KC-135 pilot, a member of a B-52 crew, a Helicopter pilot, a Swift Boat crewman, a West Point graduate who commanded an artillery battalion, and a number of enlisted “ground pounders.”  Our group also includes a veteran of the Korean conflict who, at age 19, parachuted into North Korea.  None of the men around our table talk about their military experiences unless prompted, but each is rightly proud of what he has done in service to our country.

When someone walks into the West Side Cafe on a Tuesday morning, he may find himself seated near a large group of older guys who seem to be talking about things like the Texas Rangers current losing streak or a new medication for aches and pains.  In truth, though, there is a lot more going on at that table, and I have been privileged to sit, listen and learn from some really remarkable men.

Having sold our home and moved to Overture Ridgmar less than two years ago, my wife and I remind ourselves, on a daily basis, how much we enjoy our new living arrangement.  There is much to celebrate in our new digs but, for me, one of the most rewarding benefits of our move has been the opportunity to meet and interact with this remarkable group of guys with whom I go to breakfast each Tuesday.

Frequently Wrong: Never in Doubt

For anyone thinking about quitting their day job to start earning big bucks as an author, think again.  James Patterson, Stephen King, Bob Woodward and other literary luminaries are, of course, the exception, but when you are writing and self-publishing brief memoirs, well, it is a good idea to make sure the mortgage payment does not rely on this months’ book royalties.

Knowing this, when I sit down to write I do so for entirely different reasons.  The fact is, I enjoy putting ideas down on paper and, hopefully, providing a worthwhile experience for the reader along the way.  And if, on occasion, the final draft turns out well, I give full credit to two important people … Miss Goodman, my High School English teacher … and Sergeant Herbie Stahn, who was merciless in reviewing reports that I wrote … and rewrote … as a young Trooper with the New York State Police.

I also enjoy writing and self-publishing because it puts me in touch with people with whom I enjoy interacting.  In the area where I reside, there is a community-oriented chain of stores named Half Price Books.  Their shops are always fun to visit, and they even provide “book signing” opportunities for local authors.  I have taken advantage of a number of these events and, though books sales are always modest, the conversations with customers and passers by always make for a delightful experience.

Most of the time.

At one recent gathering, a number of folks stopped to talk about my book “Dear HIppie … We Met at Woodstock,” with many sharing their recollections of what was going on in their lives at that time and place in history.  There was a lot of laughter and much discussion about that iconic festival, and many theories about why people are still talking about it today. 

Around the middle of the afternoon, a woman walking past my table noticed the book and its’ title.  She stopped, looked at the cover and said: “Woodstock … I saw a move about that once.”  The conversation that followed went, essentially, like this:

Me:  “Yes, I was there, and that’s why I wrote the book.”

Her: “The movie showed that it was wild and out of control, with people doing all kinds of drugs.”

Me: “I worked there as a police officer and, yes, there was a lot of marijuana being smoked.  But the fact is the youngsters were extremely cooperative and kind.”

Her: “The movie said that people were drunk, stoned and having sex all over the place.”

Me: “Well, like I said, I was there and I did not see any of that.”

Her: “Well, maybe you should watch the movie.”

Me: “Um … I was there.”

Her: “Well … okay then!”  

After giving me a look of haughty disdain, the woman turned and stalked away.  As I watched her disappear into the crowd, I was reminded of Earl Landgrebe, a Republican Congressman who, in 1974, registered his adamant opposition to the impeachment of Richard Nixon with these memorable words: “Don’t confuse me with facts.  I’ve got a closed mind.”61CHJRGEDWL._SY445_

There is more to be said on this matter but, for now, I must move on to something far more important.  I have to go in search of a copy of the “Woodstock” movie from 1970 … and once I lay hands on it, I may finally be able to find out what really happened over those magnificent three days in August, 1969, in Bethel, New York.

No Room at The Inn

Whenever we plan a vacation, it has always been my practice to make all the arrangements well in advance.  Since my wife and I like to travel by car, I always plan our route, list the sights we will be visiting, calculate where we will be stopping each night and, of course, make hotel reservations.  We are both excited about the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Festival only one scant year away, so with twelve full months to prepare, I decided to look into hotel accommodations in the area.

With most hotel chains allowing rooms to be booked one year in advance, I thought I had a pretty good chance of scoring a room relatively close to Bethel, New York.  I was wrong.  It appears that many of the original 400,000 attendees are still around, and that they were all ahead of me in line to book a room.  The closest place I could find was eighty miles away, with the hotel site calculating the drive time to Bethel as one and a half hours.  TRAVEL ADVISORY: If Route 17B looks anything like it did in 1969, it would be smart to plan for an additional ten hours of drive time each way.

The apparent level of interest in making the trek back to Yazgur’s Farm is amazing, especially since plans for the anniversary celebration have not yet been formalized.  I had the good fortune to have worked at Woodstock as a police officer, and my wife and I have been back to visit that place on two occasions.  This time around, though, we are looking forward to being in the company of so many others who were there in August, 1969, as well … or, at least, who claim they were there.

With hotel rooms in such short supply, one can only guess at the arrangements people will be making.  VW buses have been replaced by Winnebago RVs, of course, and those who relished the charm of sleeping in a pup tent with a dirt floor now prefer “glamping” with king sized beds and gourmet meals.  The living and sleeping accommodations in 1969 were grim, a fact illustrated perfectly by one “Woodstock Veteran” who posted this memory in an online discussion:  “I went to Woodstock with $350 in new camping equipment, and came home wearing somebody else’s shoes.”

We will be trekking back to Woodstock next year, and making the best of the hotel arrangement.  Note to self: make sure the room has a suitable TV, and a refrigerator for refreshments.  That way, if the weather, the crowding and the traffic turn out to be anything close to the original, we can simply stay in air-conditioned surroundings, a “cold one” in hand, watching the festivities on every channel.  And even though we will be sitting eighty miles from the stage, we can comfort ourselves that we made it closer than many of the folks who tried to get there in 1969 and couldn’t get past Poughkeepsie.

And we will be going home with our own shoes.

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Where Has That Half-Century Gone?

Hard to believe, but the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Festival is only one year away.  Many of us have, no doubt, begun to make arrangements to return to Bethel for the jubilee but, for those unable to join us, do not be concerned … this celebration is certain to be thoroughly recorded and reported upon; at least six film and documentary production groups from the United States and Europe have projects under way, with a number of print media series’ in development as well.

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The Psychedelic Bus on display at the Museum at Bethel Woods

Given the certainty of wall-to-wall coverage, it might not be a bad choice to simply remain home and watch all the hoopla from the comfort of a recliner.  If you intend to show up in person, though, you will likely notice a few differences from the last time we got together in that soggy meadow in rural upstate New York:

 

Clothing  Tie-dyed fashions seem never to have gone out of style, but I suspect that some of us now purchase our jeans with expandable waistbands.  And while huarache sandals will surely be in evidence, many of us may opt, instead, for comfortable walking shoes.

Alcohol and Drugs  Yes, we will be drinking some wine but, given the passage of time, we will probably be consuming a goodly amount of Metamucil as well.  And when it comes to drugs, any substances we consume this time will be less “recreational” and more “therapeutic” (think cholesterol, blood pressure and arthritis).

Traffic Jams  Unlike the region-wide gridlock we all endured in 1969, this time the roads will not be clogged with Volkswagen Beetles and dad’s station wagon.  Any traffic tie ups during this gathering will result from tour buses stopping to drop us off where Yasgur’s Farm used to be.

Mud   During our last get together, it was cool to get a running start and then slide in the ever-present mire.  That won’t happen this time; many of us have learned how hard it is to get back up once we have fallen and, besides, somebody could break a hip.

Public Nudity  Many of us have gained a few pounds and are less sure-footed than we were during those glorious days in 1969, so skinny dipping may be more challenging.  Be sure to take extra care climbing in and out of those local bodies of water.

So, with those cautions and nuggets of advice in mind, it is time to start some serious planning.  Somebody should call Wavy Gravy and ask him to make sure the Hog Farm bus is tuned up and ready to roll.  And for a culinary trip down “memory lane,” ask him to bring along the granola recipe he prepared as his iconic “breakfast in bed for 400,000” in 1969.

Finally, it will be important to have adequate medical services on hand this time.  Dr. Bill Abruzzi (the “Rock Doc”) achieved stardom for his treatment of “bad trips” at Woodstock and other rock concerts, but his talents (if he can even be located) may be less in demand this time.  For next year’s anniversary, organizers should line up medical staff with skills appropriate to the needs of those most likely to be in attendance … in other words, doctors with experience in geriatric medicine … who accept Medicare.

Paging Doctor Leary

Anyone who came of age during the cultural upheaval of the 1960’s and 1970’s, will likely recall the name and exploits of Dr. Timothy Leary.  An accomplished Harvard professor and researcher, he was well known for his advocacy of mind expansion drugs, with his hallucinogen of choice being LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide).  Leary was also well known for his signature exhortation that we should all: “Tune In … Turn On … and Drop Out.”

When his college research with LSD was discredited by lack of scientific rigor and his failure to adhere to established protocols, Leary was banished from academia.  Not to be dissuaded, in 1966, he founded the League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD) and proclaimed it a church.  He also declared the holy sacrament of his church to be … wait for it … LSD.

Interestingly enough, LSD has been around since 1938.  Though considered, at one time, to be potentially beneficial in treating alcoholism and various psychiatric conditions, its widespread recreational use in the 1960’s resulted in prohibition (See Leary, Timothy).  Nevertheless, Leary continued to urge us to expand the capabilities of our minds through the use of LSD, a position which resulted in his being pursued, arrested, imprisoned and otherwise excoriated.

LSD (also known as “acid”) was, of course, in evidence at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.  In one memorable statement, a stage announcer named Chip Monck (yes, his real name) warned the assembled masses:  To get back to the warning that I’ve received, you might take it with however many grains of salt you wish, that the brown acid that is circulating around us is not specifically too good. It’s suggested that you do stay away from that. Of course it’s your own trip, so be my guest.

Now, here is where it gets really awkward … despite all the bad publicity at the time, Leary may have actually been on to something! 

Some recent and closely controlled studies seem to show that, in very small doses, LSD may, indeed, be of some medical benefit.  According to researchers, hallucinogens appear to “harmonize” parts of the brain that do not usually work together, meaning such drugs could potentially be useful in treating certain disorders including PTSD and chronic depression.

In early 1995, Leary was diagnosed with prostate cancer, passing away on May 31, 1996.  Near the end of his life, he looked upon death as the final trip, and outer space as the great new frontier.  On April 22, 1997, Leary’s ashes (along with those of 23 others) were lifted into space in an American Pegasus rocket.

In his novel The Colorado Kid, Stephen King put it this way: “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.”  If so, then there is little doubt that Tim Leary, that charming huckster, is smiling somewhere.

Woodstock Everlasting

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was neither the first nor the last of a number of similar gatherings in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  In many ways, though, it holds a place of special significance in any discussion of the vast cultural changes so characteristic of that era.  Other concerts … Monterey … Isle of Wight … Altamont … Powder Ridge … contributed to the music and protest scene of that time, but only Woodstock has its own special and enduring brand: Woodstock Nation!

Since the initial publication of “Dear Hippie,” I have been invited to speak about Woodstock before a number of groups.  Across those sessions I met only a few folks who claim to have been in Bethel, but a vast number of others who, though not physically present, have vivid recollections of what they heard or read about those remarkable three days in August of 1969.  What I found especially impressive was that, young and old alike, people were acutely aware of Woodstock, and had a sense of what it seemed to meanIMG_1512 during that vibrant period.

While the conversation about Woodstock has allowed me to resurrect a number of fond memories, it has also shown me how deeply that singular event and that distinct period of time have touched so many people.  Clearly, if there is such a thing as a “Woodstock Nation,” its influence is felt well beyond the corporate boundaries of Bethel, New York, and is not limited solely to those with boots (or sandals) on the ground at the festival itself.  And though elusive, there is something about the texture of those three days that continues to resonate.  Having had the good fortune to be there, I suspect that it springs from the unexpected enormity of the event, and the fact that some half million people, effectively cut off from the rest of the world, persevered through an intuitive spirit of cooperation and good will.  And, yes, there was some music as well.

 

Some fifty years after the fact, the question remains: why does this event, originally billed as a mere music and art fair, remain so indelibly imprinted on our consciousness?  Theories abound, but Richie Havens, the first performer to take the stage at Woodstock, put it this way:  Though it’s frequently portrayed as this crazy, unbridled festival of rain-soaked, stoned hippies dancing in the mud, Woodstock was obviously much more than that or we wouldn’t still be talking about it in 2009. People of all ages and colors came together in the fields of Max Yasgur’s farm.

Nostalgia has a way of smoothing off the rough edges, so I am not surprised that those incredibly long hours, sodden fields, gridlocked roads and throngs of people seem less overwhelming today than they did in 1969.  Instead, my mind is drawn to more pleasant memories … smiling faces …  acts of kindness … expressions of appreciation … and the sense that we were involved in something bigger than all of us.  It was a very special time and place and, as the saying goes, if we didn’t do foolish things while young, we wouldn’t have anything to smile about when we are older.

For a lot of us, those days three days at Woodstock … well, they make us smile.

Of Jelly Beans, Chimneys and Such

Police officers and other first responders often find themselves working on holidays.  And while this inconvenience is understood to be “part of the job,” there is no denying that being on duty while others are celebrating with families can be difficult.

Cops, though, have a way of lightening the mood.  On Easter, for example, it was a common occurrence for the dispatcher to send a midnight shift officer to an accident where a vehicle had struck an “unknown animal.”  Further details in the radio transmission would typically run something like this: “ … uh, witnesses do not know what sort of animal but … uh, it is big and fuzzy … and, uh, there are numerous jelly beans spread around the scene.”

At Christmas, night patrol officers expected, at some point, to be dispatched to a call along the lines of: “ … report of a suspicious person on the roof … uh, caller describes the suspect as chubby and dressed in red … and, uh, he appears to be trying to climb down the chimney.”

Patrol officers had a way of getting a laugh at the expense of dispatchers as well.  Back in the “old days” when vehicle license information had to be obtained through a radio transmission to dispatch, cops would sometimes reach into their store of “special” license plates that they knew were issued to some recognizable names.

One such scenario involved an officer calling in an apparent abandoned car.  The cop would tell dispatch: “ … there is nobody around, but I found a complete set of men’s clothes on the floor of a phone booth next to the car.”  The dispatcher would then be asked to check the license plate on the vehicle which, naturally, came back to Clark Kent (the mild-mannered newspaper reporter who, when duty called, would turn into Superman).  Coincidentally, one of Clark Kent’s favorite places to change from street clothes to his superhero leotards was in a phone booth!

Another “abandoned car” prank began with a cop telling dispatch: “ … there is nobody near the vehicle, but the inside is filled with hamburger wrappers, french fry containers and soft drink cups …”  When the license plate was checked it came back, naturally, to Ronald McDonald.

The sorts of shenanigans mentioned above would, generally, take place on quiet overnight shifts when things were slow.  And while most officers looked upon these antics as harmless horseplay, there was not always universal agreement across a given shift.  Sometimes, senior officers – who wanted nothing more than radio silence – would make their views known by broadcasting on the car-to-car channel: “Knock it off … we are trying to get some sleep!”

Rightsizing … One Year Out

Wow, that year certainly went by quickly! It is hard to believe that we just passed the one-year anniversary of our effort to “rightsize” our lives but, that being so, we got to wondering how we might measure the results of our endeavor. We had high hopes, of course, that the move from a house to an apartment would be a good one but, now that we are settled in, what is our level of satisfaction?

In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey suggests that each of us “start with the end in mind,” and that is exactly what we did before starting down this road. In preparing for this transition, Bonnie and I discussed and settled upon who we are, what we wanted from life, and how we wanted to live now and into the future. With that established – and using that vision as our goal – we made a “leap of faith” … we sold our house, got rid of a lot of “stuff,” and moved into an Over 55 Active Retirement Community.

And the result has been better than we had any right to expect.

For example, one of our goals was to live in a comfortable and maintenance-free environment. Our apartment home surpasses all of these criteria … it is quiet, comfortable, roomy, and well-appointed. Further, on the very few occasions when a maintenance issue arose over the past year, it was handled quickly, professionally, at no cost and … here’s the best part … the work was done by someone else!

Moving to a new community always presents a range of potential social concerns: How will we connect with people? Will our new neighbors compare favorably with those we left behind? For us, any worries were erased immediately by the warm and welcoming reception we received from everyone we met. We now find ourselves among folks from a demographic niche much like ours and, to our delight, many of our new neighbors have interests and life experiences very similar to our own.

Individually, Bonnie and I have joined groups that bring us enjoyment and growth. For instance, once each week I go to breakfast with a band of ten-to-fourteen men whose backgrounds and accomplishments are amazing, while Bonnie has connected with a group of women who enjoy a variety of activities and interests. Together, we have befriended several couples with whom we enjoy going to lunch, dinner or area entertainment venues on a regular basis.

If asked to complete a satisfaction survey evaluating the way we “rightsized” our lives over the past year, we would have to rate the experience as “exceeded expectations” in every way. And while we celebrate having made this transition and what it has done for us, we continue to struggle with one nagging question:

Why didn’t we do this sooner?

“Liking” Boot Camp

Upon occasion, memories of my experiences at Air Force basic training come rushing back. In particular, I recall clambering off the bus that first brought us onto Lackland AFB in the middle of the night, and the shouted commands of a drill sergeant who ordered me to start running, telling me that I should not stop until he got tired. I don’t recall what I might have eaten earlier that evening, but I am certain that I left it along the side of road as I ran for my life in street shoes and civilian clothes. Ah, sweet memories!

The reason why this trip down memory lane resonates with me today is simple … my grandson is in US Army basic training, and he is on my mind. He is a fine young man who I know will succeed, and I have no doubt that he will be a different person when he comes back home in a couple of months. But compared to the basic training experience I remember so vividly, there is at least one significant change in how things are done today … his training company has a Facebook page!

I am sure this news will make some older veterans shake their heads, as they wonder aloud about what has become of today’s military. Facebook? What’s next, issuing an Xbox to every recruit? Or perhaps an Uber account so they can call for a ride if they are too tired to complete a training run. I have no doubt that some disaffected old salt, upon learning of this digital window into recruit training, will lament that it’s not like it was in the old days … back when ships were made of wood and men were made of steel.

For me and the rest of my grandson’s family, though, a peek at the Facebook page for his unit revealed something remarkable … young men and women becoming accomplished members of the military. I saw pictures of his unit on the obstacle course … on a march … at the firing range … and, yes, getting yelled at by drill instructors (some things, thankfully, never change). There are, of course, both good points and bad about the technology we have at our fingertips today. But being able to get a glimpse at how this young soldier and his team are doing was uplifting, encouraging and inspirational.

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Hippie Holidays!

So anyway, I’m sitting here trying to come up with some Christmas gift ideas for my bride, when my eyes fall upon an ad for something called “Instant Pot.” Whoa! Can this really be what the name suggests? Has some genius finally designed a system for creating weed without having to go through the whole planting, cultivating, and harvesting thing?

Alas, upon reading further, the full details of the “Instant Pot” became clear … it is nothing more than a new kitchen appliance that can be used to cook a wide range of foods in a variety of ways. Sigh … well, I guess that is a pretty good idea as well.

In my defense, my initial thoughts about this product were likely driven by fond reminisces of my recent visit to the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, and the fact that 25299353_10155944387606730_3239219049300052954_nthe 50th Anniversary of that singular event is just over the horizon. But come to think of it, perhaps there is more to it than just that … maybe there is, as some have suggested, some sort of a magical connection between Hippies, marijuana and Christmas.

For example, what should we make of the fact that the words C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S and W-O-O-D-S-T-O-C-K have the same number of letters? Or that S-A-I-N-T-N-I-C-K and W-A-V-Y-G-R-A-V-Y are identical in length? What about M-I-S-T-L-E-T-O-E and M-A-X-Y-A-S-G-U-R? Are these all mere coincidences? You be the judge.

There is even some speculation that Santa, himself, may be an occasional toker. Those who take that position cite, as evidence, several of his well known behaviors that are common to regular users of marijuana. For example:

Munchies It is a well known fact that smoking marijuana creates an appetite for copious amounts of tasty and binge-worthy food. Santa loves cookies … think of how many he eats in just one night!

Forgetfulness One notable side of effect of marijuana use is the way it is said to affect memory. Santa needs to keep a list for everything and, as we know, he has to check it twice. The guy can’t even remember who’s naughty and who’s nice!

Paranoia Like many marijuana users, Santa goes to great lengths to conceal his location and even his very existence!

Always Happy Stoners readily admit that, when high, it is difficult to suppress their giggles. Santa is always smiling, laughing and generally jolly. What does that tell you?

As we all cross our fingers wondering what we will find under the tree on Christmas morning, stoners can breathe easy. In North Pole, Alaska, a member of the city council by the name of Santa Claus (yes, his real name) took exception to a recent ordinance that prohibits a marijuana business in his city. He even went public with his objection noting: “Cannabis users will not be getting coal in their stockings unless they have done some other thing that might be considered egregious.”

Hippie Holidays!