Category Archives: Memoirs

A Final Parting

Word came to me through a grapevine late last week: a woman I met 30 years ago and dated for not quite three years passed away last November. I’m not quite sure how to feel, or what to feel.

I’ve shared rooms with a lot of people over the years, men and woman. The commonality? Once they walk out the door they never return, not to knock, not to crack the door to even sneak a peek.

This woman was no different. The relationship ended badly for me. She was eight years my senior, a user and a manipulator. But that’s what I was back then: a rescuer. Show her enough love and she would come to reciprocate.

I never got closure after the breakup. For me, from what I wrongly believed was love to hate to compromise, the getting over took a long time. The anger is gone. I forgave her long ago, and myself, too, for the role I played in staying far too long in a toxic relationship. I certainly have no fond feelings for her, having dated several other women since she and I split, and marrying the best of them. I now know it was never love between us. The lesson she taught me was not about what I wanted, but about what I didn’t want.

So why do I feel so unsettled?

Maybe there are a whole heap of whys.

I confess: there were times over the years I thought of her, wondered if she ever met that 747 captain she always dreamed of marrying (she was a gate agent for a major airline). She was looking for someone to take care of her, enable her to quit her stressful job. Maybe I wanted to know if she’d met him, although she was then, after we broke up, over forty. Too old, I thought then in my anger. Anyone with a six-figure job flying 747s can have their pick of flight attendants—younger and more beautiful. Why settle for an over forty Italian even if she is well-preserved, eats well, exercises often, keeps her figure? But I never told her that. In time, after I let go the anger, I wished her well, hoped she found what she sought. That’s the kind of man I am: I don’t wish ill on anyone.

Maybe I still wanted that closure I never got. While she was still, in my mind, alive and kicking, like the alcoholic going through the steps of recovery, she might yet get in touch to apologize for the pain she caused me. Not like I fell off the planet. Now she never will.

She had ample time to make her peace, if she’d wanted to. She didn’t want to. And I’m fairly certain she never gave me a thought in the twenty-seven years after she broke up with me.

Today I’m ashamed to admit I considered, after my first book was published twenty years ago, sending her a copy of it, wondering if she might recognize herself in the antagonist. Nah, she was too self-absorbed. Or maybe she’d matured, grown wiser. I’ll never know.

Maybe it’s just a microcosm of life, that she was mortal, that I’m mortal. Losing my parents drove that point home twenty years ago. Hell, I already know I’m mortal. Six years ago I wondered if that Mazda I bought might be my last car. Now I’m wondering if the car I might purchase in the next year or two or three might be the last one.

Learning a couple years ago about the passing of my first boss—he was not yet even sixty—hit me hard, in part because another part of my life, a part from my long ago youth, was gone forever.

But she’d been gone, after the not quite three years we dated, for nearly twenty-eight years. Might as well have been the forever of nearly half my life.

More maybes? Maybe. Maybe the right maybe just hasn’t yet occurred to me.




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Can You Miss What You Never Had?

It’s been said you can’t miss what you never had: a father who passed away before you were old enough to really know him; a sister who chose to never be a part of your life; children you never had because you found the right woman too late.

I disagree. I miss the dad my father became after my mother passed away—he was gone too soon and I miss him still, nearly twenty years later. I miss the sister who treats me as a stranger, because I see other brother-sister relationships, caring and tight knit. And I miss the children I never had, seeing others grow through parenting, being called “Dad”, leaving behind a legacy, a part of themselves to live on after they’re gone.

I sought, learned, and grew,
desired, dreamt, and hoped.

Although caring, I feared risk,
risking mightily, carelessly, where I ought not to have.

aching and grieving and weeping,
I longed, oh, so longed,
to connect…

… with those with whom I shared a room for brief moments:
a father more marine than Dad;
with women my desire for their flesh I mistook for love;
with people who entered and left, oblivious of my presence.

And in dying,
in taking my final breath,
I realized no one would ever again say my name…

I would be –

—From A Retrospect In Death

let go

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A Life In Retrospect

“Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care? If so I can’t imagine why. We’ve all got time enough… to cry.” —Robert Lamm

Wise words written nearly fifty years ago by a man in his long ago youth.

Yet in preparing for death, and in preparing for the loss of a loved one, there is never enough time.

Funerals are strange affairs. People attend them for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most popular reason is to pay one’s respects. Unlike Rodney Dangerfield, who never got any respect, apparently some people feel the dearly departed is deserving of a whole heap of it. I’m not sure what that means, paying ones’ respects. Did they pay them respect while they were alive, when it truly mattered? That, to me, is one of life’s great mysteries: why we withhold telling those who mean the most to us what they mean to us until it’s too late. Maybe we assume they know. That’s a travesty.

Others attend funerals in support of the family left behind, and that’s a fine sentiment. When someone loses a family member it provides much comfort to know that others share your grief.

And speaking of grief, yes, funerals are in large part about grief, the sharing of it. A burden is more easily carried by a multitude than by an individual. But more important than grief, funerals are—or should be—about a celebration of a life shared.

A man’s life should never amount to a few hundred words spoken after he’s gone. If a man’s life is measured by what he left behind, then John’s life is a fortune of the greatest value. He left behind two fine children who in turn became fine parents, giving to their daddy a chance to be a fine granddaddy. What greater gift could they give in return?

He also left behind a wife who adores him. He was the true definition of a biblical husband. He cherished you, Joan, and took care of you. In fact, he took care of you so well you had to call your son a few weeks ago, after John was admitted to the hospital for the last time, because you had no idea how to turn on the air conditioner.

By the number of people here today, I know he touched the lives of many others as well, mine included.

John was a simple man who enjoyed the simple things in life. Polish beer, watching a Wings game, time spent with family. A good card game. Especially a good card game. He enjoyed laughing, and enjoyed even more making people laugh. He took at least as much pleasure in giving a gift as the recipient received in its receipt.

John got it: life’s meaning. That he was here to give and not to receive. John received in the giving. He understood it’s not what you gather throughout a lifetime, but what you scatter that make up a memorable biography.

It’s okay to grieve loss, to shed a tear or three; but that’s not what John would want. He would want us to remember him the way he was in life, the way he lived his life. He would want us to remember that boyish grin, that mischievous glint in his eyes, his laughter. So grieve, and weep if we must for a man taken too soon. But he’d be taken too soon had he lived another twenty years. But smile, too. That should be our everlasting gift to him in return for all he gave us.

Yes, we lost one of the good ones. One of a kind, sui generis. And so today we mourn our lost John. But lost isn’t the right word. Lost is what happens to pennies when you can’t find them, or a sock. And then you do, between the cushions of the sofa or in the dryer. Nothing is ever really lost. You just need to find it.

But take joy in that there surely must be much dancing on the other side of the Great Divide over John’s arrival. Indeed, in addition to his heart of gold, Heaven has received:

  • a mischief maker
  • a rascal
  • a rogue
  • a scalawag
  • and one of one the luckiest card players I’ve ever met.

Yes, John, our debate is over: you have to be lucky in order to be good. God, I suspect, has met His match at the euchre table.

Long life to you, John. The Red Solo Cup that contained your essence may have broken, but who you were in life, who you are, lives on. Just as you live on in the memories of your children and grandchildren, your Joan, and all who already miss you. We are all better for knowing you.

Thanks, John, for all the cherished memories. Keep a seat open at the euchre table for me, will you?

God keep you.

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Twenty Years a Fatherless Son

Dad: It’s been nearly twenty years since you went away, and this is my twentieth Father’s Day spent without you to share it. I sit this morning writing these words with a heavy heart, even as the chipmunks run, chasing each other around, going about their chipmunk lives. The cigar I wish I could share with you brings little comfort to me.

Today is a day to honor you, to share with you, and sadly this is the best I can do: a few words, not nearly enough—words I hope you care enough to read, looking over my shoulder to read them as I type them.

My memories of you are pleasant, yes, even the not so good ones. I’ve forgiven you for much, understanding you were handicapped in many ways, and that as a father, you did the best you could.

I, too, have done the best I can, handicapped in my own way, falling short often, always seeking, striving to find understanding, while failing to achieve my many dreams. At times I’ve considered giving them up, knowing my race is drawing to a close and losing my drive. If you’ve been following my life, I know I’ve disappointed you, perhaps more than many other sons.

Still, I’ve found a measure of happiness, marrying a wonderful woman, but pained that you never met her. I know you would love her. I continue to endeavor to make my final dream come true. I think you know what that dream is.

I’ve written nine novels, and aspects of you appear in nearly all of them. Not always did I depict you in a favorable light, but hey, it makes for good reading. Still, I always showed you with redeeming traits, a sympathetic character. In one of my books I wrote you as the father I always wished you could’ve been. I hope that doesn’t bring you pain.

Know on this day that you are missed, as you are every day. I feel no less an orphan than I did the day you left. My world has been much colder without you.

I hope these words bring you some measure of comfort, more than they bring me, because writing them reminds me how much I miss you. (By the way, I’ve kept your watch running since you left it to me. Wearing it brings me comfort.)

Happy Father’s Day, Dad, with love and understanding,

Your son, Joseph Conrad


Dad, with J. Conrad, circa 1957

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Mother’s Day 2017

Mom: This is my 20th Mother’s Day without you. I still remember the first one as if it were last year. A family once five now three joined together, sadly for the last time, to celebrate the life of a cherished departed member.

Mother’s Day has gotten less painful over the years—did you ever imagine me this old?—even as I miss you more and more.

Many unanswered questions unanswered because they were unasked because I never thought to ask them at a time when you could answer them. Another of life’s mysteries. Wisdom, enlightenment, often (if not always) comes too late.

I can’t know where you are, Mom, whether you’re bound by time and space, but I choose to believe that you, some part of you, still exists. I’m happy today, as I was twenty years ago, that your suffering is at an end. I suspect you’ve found peace and, hopefully, reconciliation. That last, I know, was important to you.

I don’t know whether what goes on on this plane matters to you, or whether I even mean anything to you anymore. But know this: you still matter to me, and perhaps that’s more important than the obverse. The measure of any mother is what she means to her children after she’s gone.

I’ve fallen short so many times over the years, failed to achieve many of my dreams, and have often wanted to give up. But I haven’t, even as my race tires me as it draws to its end.

Dad told me shortly before he joined you that no man gets out of life without a few regrets. We don’t, to my knowledge, get to choose our parents. But if we did, I’d never regret choosing you.

I can only hope you don’t regret me.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, from your baby boy.


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Yearning for Simpler Days

My first car was a 1965 Beetle that I purchased from my dad for $200 (he bought it new for $1,795). I was probably eighteen years old. Panama beige was the color. He’d purchased it, sans a radio (Dad tended to be miserly), and a summer or two later the family (Mom, Dad, my sister and I) drove from Michigan all the way down to D.C. for a Marine Corps reunion. Imagine the four of us—I was eleven or twelve and already five foot seven or taller, my sister thirteen or fourteen—baggage for all of us for three or four days, no radio, making that trip today.

A few years later, after I got my driver license, Dad taught me to drive the stick shift in the Bug. I was petrified, not by the clutch but by Dad, the retired marine who was more drill instructor to me in my youth than Dad. But it turned out well. I was a quick study and thereafter anytime I asked for the keys to the car Dad would make a point of asking me where I was heading and how far it was. Then he’d go out to the car to record the mileage on the odometer. A few years later, after I brought it up to him, he told me it was a father’s duty to distrust his children. Ouch.

So when I bought it from Dad the first thing I did was install a quad stereo radio/eight-track player in the dash. Then I added a Hurst short-throw shifter, replacing the knob with a Coors beer can. This was before Coors could be gotten east of the Mississippi. I knew a pilot who flew to Colorado on occasion and I often had him bring me back a case of the beverage. Strange today how I never purchase Coors and drink it only when family or friends have it at their homes.

A ten-inch three-spoke steering wheel and wooden dashboard ended my, in Han Solo’s words, “special modifications.”

By the time I took it off my dad’s hands the running boards had rusted off, as had the back bumper. On cold winter mornings when it wouldn’t start, Dad had to push me with this car, backward, down the street. I’d wave him off just before popping the clutch to jump start it.

Kissed a girl (not my first) in that car at a drive-in movie (can’t recall the title).

Some grand memories, although one or two might not have been so grand at the time.

I sold it three years later for maybe $75 to a kid with whom my dad worked and bought my first new car: a Datsun B210 for (if I recall) just over $3,000, and I thought nothing of that Beetle for many years.

But then I wrote about it for one of my novels—most of my novels contain biographical moments from my life. In A Retrospect In Death, my protagonist trades his Beetle in for a Toyota Celica, and as he drives his car off the lot he sees his old Bug in the lot and feels a certain remorse I didn’t when I’d been his age, as if he’d broken up with an old girlfriend for a prettier model, one with more baubles but little personality.

It’s been said we become old the moment we begin to look back, reflect more on the past than looking ahead to the future. Maybe that’s human nature. After all, I have far more years behind me than ahead of me, and I can only hope and pray my future won’t be laden with adverse health issues.


Just like my old friend, including the half-moon wheel covers

Anyway, I’m not sure this is worthy of taking up space on my blog, but there you have it.

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Doesn’t Seem Like Twenty Years

“It was twenty years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile
So may I introduce to you…”
—Lennon and McCartney

It was twenty years ago yesterday, Mom, that you departed this world for a safer, happier, healthier place, and my world became much colder. The last shred of my boyhood innocence was gone.


A Happy Mother

So much has happened over those twenty years—some good, some not so good. But I still remember the night you went away as if it happened last Sunday and not a Sunday two decades removed.

You passed easily, deservedly so. No death’s rattle for you: you simply took one last breath, and never let it out.

I grieved your loss from me then, but was happy for you that your suffering was at last at an end. Nearly a score of years battling Parkinson’s disease, a relentless foe, a battle you could not win. But in my eyes you were valiant until the very end.

I’ve kept you alive in my fiction and non-fiction, perhaps seeking a reason for your affliction, an answer to your own question: “Why me?” Perhaps one day I’ll find it. Maybe, having become a writer, I already have.

It’s been said that our lives are made up of a series of rooms. If that’s so then I was blessed to share a room with you for a time far too short.

I miss you, Mom, and I will until my memory abandons me or I take my own final breath. I hope you’ll be waiting for me—your little boy.

Until then, to “she who bears the sweetest name, and adds a luster to the same; long life to her, for there’s no other who takes the place of my dear mother.”


Sweet Sixteen: Destined to Become My Mother


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A Day to Look Back

Well, Dad, nineteen years ago today you left this world for bluer skies. I’d ask where have the years gone but I know the answer: into the past. Gone but not forgotten.


Dad, with J. Conrad, circa 1957

Did you ever think I’d live to be sixty, ever imagine what I might look like? I didn’t. It’s not that I have a death wish, but I wonder if anyone ever views themselves as old. Inside me there is a twenty-five-year-old wondering, “What happened?”

I think about you every day. And as I sit here sipping a White Russian—one of your favorite cocktails—I hope you don’t mind that I’ve written about you often, in memoirs mostly; but aspects of who you were in life appear in my novels, too. My way of keeping you alive, I guess, and of tipping my hat to you because I feel you were a better man than me. Your firstborn doesn’t approve that I write about you and Mom, but what the hell, she never liked me anyway.

We had our differences, you and I: days and sometimes weeks when we didn’t speak. But in retrospect I can honestly say I never felt unloved or unwanted.

Still, you weren’t very nurturing to me in my youth (I forgave you for that long ago). Whether that’s good only you can know. Perhaps one day I’ll find out. It would be nice if I learned the answer before I step over to your side of the Great Divide. That’s been a problem for me as I age: expecting that every question has an answer. Some just don’t and never will, not while I live and breathe at least. Probably the greatest unfairness in life, that we must die in order to learn some of life’s great mysteries.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes and have my share of regrets. You once told me no one gets out of life without a few. Sometimes it feels as if I have more than most. Maybe that’s a sign I’m getting old. In my defense, being introspective and reflective, I find it difficult not to look back at the past, especially since there are far more years behind me than ahead of me. You once told me it’s okay to look at the past, because we learn from it. But I suspect I tend to stare too long. Do that too often and you miss what’s in front of you.

Yet I’ve found a measure of happiness, having gotten remarried nearly three years ago. You and Mom would love her. Her name is Colleen and she’s part Polish, which should please you, and I can honestly say she’s getting my best.

Say hello to Mom for me, will you? And tell her your baby boy misses you both.

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Desire for Acceptance

I never met my wife’s father; but he left me a great gift. He knows that I promised, in my wedding vows, to always cherish his daughter Colleen’s heart as the treasure it is to me.

I was fifty-seven when I married for the second time, after a hiatus as a bachelor for nearly thirty years. After my divorce I figured to marry again, but at some point—and I can’t say when—it stopped being a priority.

I dated several women, had serious relationships with five. Four bloodied my heart. The greatest lesson they taught me was that the lessons I learned in those relationships didn’t always apply to the next one. The fifth taught me that I’d much rather someone inflict pain on me than to be the one inflicting pain on another. Flaws

I told Colleen shortly after we met that I wasn’t looking for someone to fix me, to which she replied that she wasn’t looking for someone who needed it. That’s not to say that each of us hasn’t accumulated some baggage along the way, the result of choices we made, paths down which we traveled that led to some nasty destinations, childhoods that left us handicapped. We accept that baggage, carry it together, and try to enhance each other’s lives.

There are days when I’m not very likeable; and yes, there are days when I don’t much like Colleen. But that doesn’t mean we love each other any less.

Also from my vows: “Some have told me that I’m an acquired taste. To them I say, ‘Acquire some taste.’”

I never was much of a follower, even in my youth. I never marched to the beat of a different drummer. I marched to the beat of my own drum, which hasn’t always been a good thing. Sinatra may have done it “my way”, but no one calls me “Chairman of the Board.” Some have called me a writer of no small talent, while others have said I’m a shitty writer. Hemingway had his detractors, as all writers surely do; but I can’t say it doesn’t hurt. Creative types are sensitive, perhaps more so than others.

I’ve ruffled some feathers along the way of my life, but I long ago gave up trying to please others in an effort to get them to like me. It doesn’t work. Accept me as I am, a man reaching to make his dreams come true—or what’s a life for?—who endeavors to enhance the lives of those his touches, who tries to do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do but sometimes falls short, who tries not to judge others but holds them accountable; or accept me through my affiliation through my wife, until I prove otherwise.

I’ll say it again: I’m not perfect. No one is, which is not an excuse. I haven’t always lived my life as if it were an open book, but Colleen makes me want to be a better person. Each day with her by my side is a new day, a chance to do better than yesterday, a day of discoveries—of myself as well as her. That she loves me and accepts me as I am should be enough.

To those who accept me I raise to you a glass of Booker’s (because sometimes I prefer a good bourbon to burn). Thank you.

To those who don’t and won’t even try, I’m sorry, but only because it’s your loss.

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I Miss You, Dad

I try to honor my father every day of my life, even as I acknowledge I fall short more often than I care to admit.

Dad has been gone from me for eighteen years, and he occupies my FtCusterPlaquethoughts this time of year more than at any other time because of Memorial Day—he served in the South Pacific during World War II—to be followed next month by Father’s Day.

Father’s Day is painful for me because I have no one in my life who ever called me “Dad” or “Daddy” or “Father.” So it’s natural, I guess, for me to focus on the dad who left me behind. It’s gotten easier as the years have flown by to accept that I’m orphaned, but that doesn’t mean I miss him any less.

I discovered the pleasure and medicinal benefits of cigar smoking two years too late. It’s a ritual I’m certain I would’ve enjoyed with Dad, over glasses of bourbon chased by bottles of beer as we listened to a ballgame on the radio. He liked Rolling Rock, maybe because he fancied himself as Sisyphus. Now there’s a question I wish I’d asked him.

I was forty-one when he passed away. I thought I’d been around long enough to know what questions to ask before he died; but I was wrong. In eighteen years I’ve amassed quite a long list of “I wish I’d thought to ask Dad that while he was still around” questions. Most of them aren’t easy questions. Not of the “But why?” category of my long ago lost wonderment of the world around me, a world that was much safer, and certainly less complicated. But I may be looking back over the years through a certain colored pair of spectacles.

I’m struck by how similar certain aspects of our lives match now that I’m a few months shy of commencing my seventh decade. I met and married a wonderful woman, but struggle with career and publishing. Dad married a wonderful woman late in life, too, although not nearly as late as I, and also struggled with jobs late in his life, finally taking a job on an assembly line, a job he joined the Marine Corps in his twenties to avoid.

Dad loved to read, naming me after his favorite author, but once asked me what I was doing wasting my time writing a novel—my first, January’s Paradigm. He never told me how proud of me he was after he read the second draft. But he showed me he was.

I once asked him, shortly before he left, if he had any regrets. A silly question, I know, but he humored me: he smiled and said, “Of course. No one gets out of life without a few.” I never pushed him for specifics. I don’t know if I was being polite or simply foolish, or maybe ignorant—not knowing the questions to ask.

I don’t know why, but it weighs heavily on me the older I get, possibly because I never fathered any children of my own (a minor regret easily parried by thoughts of my first wife and what might’ve been had she birthed a child or two), but if I could ask my dad one question as we sat smoking cigars and sipping bourbon and Rolling Rock on the back patio of the house in which I grew up while we listened to a Tigers game on the radio, it would be this—I ask only because I never knew him as a marine.

My mother told me that after eight years in service of our country his mother urged him to leave the Corps, find a job, get married and start a family, like his two brothers. Dad always struck me as a free spirit, and today I wonder if he felt we, my sister and I, held him back, tied him down.

“Dad: did you regret becoming a father?”

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Paths We Take

If life is a series of choices, a variety of inviting paths we take, why does it seem that the universe so often plays favorites, beckoning to the privileged few, “Take this path to fame, fortune, or power, to love and happiness”? Those few favorites stumble here and there, sometimes wander off the path into the rough, but always the universe seems to bring them back to that same path. They can’t help but succeed, and can’t seem to fail, even if they try.Two-paths-600x451

The rest of us? We’re the bungled and the botched. The paths we come across are simply ours to take as we wish, even those same paths the favorite few take to achieve their dreams. No otherworldly affirmation of “Yes” or “No” for us as we glance left and right contemplating our options, making our list of pros and cons. Often it isn’t until much later that we find the path was a poor one for us, despite our care in choosing it even as we watch others soar; but it’s too late to go back: it’s a one-way path. So we tell ourselves, “That’s okay, it’s not important.” And because it’s not important we say it doesn’t matter. So we move forward, making the best of our choice as we look for the fork in the road ahead we hope will lead us to a better outcome, that will be more to our liking, result in fulfillment of our dreams.

Unlike the universe’s favorites—ushered by its open arms to take the fork that will best benefit them as if it were a birthright—the rest of us are left to make our own choice, or as Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” So we take it, unknowing of what lies ahead, around the corner, hoping it’s the best path, but learning after it’s once again too late that our choice was the poor one.

Then we get to a point when we look back at our life and realize that our choices were nearly all poor—except that last one, the one onto which we dearly cling hoping, praying it won’t disappoint us again—but that all of them (our choices) led us to this place. Not a great place, we know it could be much worse; but it’s not nearly what we envisioned in our youth. And we conclude, again, that it’s just not important, that it doesn’t matter. Which means that we’re not important, that we truly don’t matter. We never did.

So all we have is our wonderment over just what it is the universe wants from us, and, if anything, for us.

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Home is Where You Lay Your Head at Night

Circumstances today led me to a town to which I hadn’t been in nearly thirty years.

Lapeer is a tiny municipality in the lower portion of Michigan’s thumb. Think a northern Mayberry, RFD. During the final two years of my first marriage I drove each morning from Pontiac, about thirty miles south of Lapeer, to do the morning show at the AM radio station in Lapeer.

The station, call letters WDEY, was run by a guy named David Sommerville, a forty-something high-strung guy who suffered from Crohn’s disease. Bought a cat as a sort of station mascot that I loved to torment after the overnight DJ left and before the receptionist (Diane) and sales staff (one woman named Donna) arrived. Don’t ask me how I remember all that. All I know is I remember it, although I can’t recall what I had for lunch last Thursday.

My mission this day was to see if one really could go home again.

I had little trouble locating the historic district downtown. A beautiful church—more than a century old—was right where I’d left it; as was the post office, although a new one had since opened down the street. The old one is now a historical landmark.

Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception Church

A few blocks straight ahead, on the left, the facades of the buildings looked similar to what I recalled, but somehow different. The five and dime under which the radio station sat atop, was no longer a five and dime, and although the shortwave radio antenna still sat on the roof of the building, no evidence of the radio station existed.

Downtown Lapeer

Historic Downtown Lapeer

Other landmarks I recalled from my days as the morning show host—E.G. Nicks for example, a bar and grille for which I’d done plenty of ads, was still there. But Lapeer Tire had become Belle Tire. The car dealership was still there, but I couldn’t recall the name it had been, only that it wasn’t what it is today.

From Lapeer I took Michigan Highway 24 south to Pontiac—the route I took daily when I worked the morning gig at WDEY. My show started at six and I liked to arrive at least twenty minutes early to get a coffee and prepare for my show.

I recall one morning drive north on this mostly two-lane highway, with occasional stretches of four lanes through Lake Orion (where there is a Ford plant) and Oxford. It was dark and a motorist behind me was hot to get me driving faster than the five miles per hour over the limit I was driving. Traffic coming southbound was brisk—UAW employees on their way to the morning shift at the Ford plant.

This guy was right on my bumper, weaving from side to side in our lane, flashing his high beams at me in an effort to get me to go faster. Of course I only slowed which, for some reason, seemed to incense this motorist.

Noticing some debris ahead in our lane, I managed to drive over it without hitting it. Not so the guy I had in tow. A few seconds later he pulled off onto the shoulder of the road with what I guessed was a flat tire. I laughed my ass off at that, and devoted more than a few minutes discussing it on the air. It never occurred to me that the guy might listen to my show.

On a whim, as I neared Pontiac, I decided to drive by where I once lived with my then wife, a tiny mobile home park on M-59 and Elizabeth Lake Road in Waterford. It was so tiny they couldn’t accommodate double-wide homes. I had visions that it had been razed at some point over the years to make room for a strip mall or a McDonald’s. I wondered if I would be disappointed to find another part of my life erased forever. Imagine my surprise when I found the park still existed.

I pulled into the driveway wondering if the old home might still be there, but I couldn’t recall the street name. As luck had it, the first street to which I came was Marge, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. A name I’d used in my very first novel written nearly twenty-five years ago, “Large Marge” was a security guard who played a bit but humorous part in January’s Paradigm.

I wheeled my car to the right—the only way I could turn. There, not thirty feet from the intersection, a dark gray home.

No, I thought. That can’t be it.

Then I noticed the address, painted on a rock next to the driveway: “16”. A second ton of bricks hit me: Sixteen Marge was the address on my license for the short time I lived there, before my first wife and I parted company.

I slowed to a stop in front of the place; it had bay windows on the end of the house facing the street. Our home had bay windows like that. I used to sit at my kitchen table on Sunday morning sipping my coffee and staring out that bay window at the house across the street, contemplating my marriage and my unhappiness.

This aged home fit well in this old park, better than it had more than thirty years ago when it was delivered, brand spanking new with that new mobile home smell. I left the park for home through the only other entrance wondering how many families had lived there over the years since I moved out.

As I drove home to Dearborn, nearly twenty miles further south, my thoughts drifted to all the homes in which I’ve lived over the years. Excluding the house in which I grew up, I’ve lived in six, and only one, the current home, was a brick and mortar house. The others were a mobile home and apartments.

All of which left me to conclude that one’s efforts to go home can never quite get you there—except the one in which you currently lay your head. My current home, which I share with my wife, Colleen, is the best.


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Regret Never Sweet

“The past is a great place and I don’t want to erase it or to regret it, but I don’t want to be its prisoner either.” —Mick Jagger

There are few things in life worse than regret. Sadly, none of us gets out of life without amassing a few.

I learned today that a friend of mine passed away three years ago, from melanoma. I received an alert from Facebook that today was his birthday; but when I clicked over to his page to give him my best, I found his page had been memorialized.

Mike was more than a friend: he was my boss in the first job I ever held after graduating high school. I disliked the job—pumping high octane gasoline and jet fuel into cargo aircraft at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Michigan, an airport that was designed and built by Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. It was not a difficult job, but although there was no place hotter in the summer and no place colder in the winter, it paid for the first new car I ever purchased.

Opened in 1942, “Willow Run” was synonymous with the American industrial effort that contributed to Allied victory in World War II. Operated by the Ford Motor Company, the Willow Run manufacturing plant produced a total of 8,685 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers. Today, one of the airport hangers houses the Yankee Air Museum, which showcases a large collection of vintage aircraft.

As bosses go, Mike was the best boss I ever had. He was one of us grunts, fun to be around, and unafraid to jump in and work when necessary. He made the job bearable. He often had me over to his house for dinner. When my mother planned a surprise twenty-first birthday party for me, Mike was there with his wife and, at that time, only daughter, who was maybe five. She delighted in playing with our dog, Ginger.

Mike left Willow Run Services for greener, richer pastures shortly before I did, but he attended my first wedding. We lost touch shortly thereafter. Such is life: it’s what happens while we plan other things.

We reconnected on Facebook a few years ago, but Mike seemed to have little interest in getting together, wrapped up in his own life and seemingly satisfied with occasional FB exchanges. I learned that he and his first wife divorced sometime in the eighties and he remarried. He fathered two daughters with his first wife, the second born with a hearing impairment. Mike learned to sign and became an advocate for the hearing impaired.

Those two daughters have grown into beautiful women who in turn have married and have children of their own. They love and miss their daddy, but carry him with them today, as do those he left behind, those whose lives he touched in so many positive ways, mine included. Be proud, Mike, of the legacy you left behind.

I love Mike in my own way: for the man he was, for the friendship we had, and I regret that I never pushed harder to get together, to share a few laughs, to reminisce about our time at Willow Run Services, before he passed on. I think he was sixty or sixty-one, far too young.

Life is short. Always too short.

Today I’m a prisoner of yet another regret.



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Bottom of the Ninth, Two Outs

This first appeared online at Cezzane’s Carrot, in 2006.

September 1968: The Yankees are in town for a weekend series, it’s late in the game and the Tigers are comfortably ahead with Denny McLain on the mound. The Tigers are destined to win the World Series next month. McLain will win 31 games, a Major League record, but Mickey Lolich will win the Series MVP award.

Old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, before they tore her down

Old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, before they tore her down

I’m eleven years old and sitting alongside my dad behind first base at old Tiger Stadium—at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit—when Mickey Mantle steps up to the plate.

Beyond the twilight of his career, he’s in that crepuscular place reserved for athletes who have overstayed their welcome in a game in which, at some point, experience no longer counts. He’s lost his timing, along with much of his grace, and he routinely swings wildly and misses pitches that, a few years earlier, he would have sent into orbit.

McLain looks in to Jim Price for the sign. He shakes off the first, as well as the second. Then he leans back, steps off the rubber, and holds up the ball for Mantle to see, seeming to ask Mickey where he’d like the pitch. The crowd, which has grown complacent with the home team’s lead, senses something is up. Mantle gamely swings his bat—arcing gracefully through his wheelhouse—to indicate where McLain should leave the ball for him. McLain nods, goes into his wind-up… and bloops the ball right where Mickey wants it, and Mickey fouls off the pitch.

McLain looks at Mantle as if to ask, “What do you want from me?”

McLain lobs the next pitch in the same place and Mantle launches the ball into the right-field bleachers. The crowd erupts.

Mantle has certainly hit longer and more important home runs, but the crowd perhaps has seen the writing on the wall, although they may not yet have read the text: this is Mantle’s final appearance at Tiger Stadium, and the home run will count as the next-to-last round-tripper in his, if not long, then illustrious career. Mantle will retire from baseball the following spring.

I’m retired myself now, Mantle has been long dead, succumbing to a bad liver nearly three years before my dad died, in 1998, and the Tigers have been playing in Comerica Park for thirty years, having abandoned Tiger Stadium at the end of the 1999 season. Several times over the years, the City of Detroit nearly tore down this landmark where the likes of Cobb, Gehringer, and Kaline all played, before finally renovating the old structure to allow minor league baseball to be played on its hallowed ground.

I’m standing on the pitcher’s mound at Tiger Stadium; it’s taken me seventy-four years to make this dream come true. I’m not clad in traditional baseball garb, nor am I grasping a baseball by its seams. I glance down at the plastic bag in my right hand. As the early June light wanes, my mind flashes back to 1998, to just a few days after Dad passed away, to a ringing telephone.

“Michael, it’s your sister.”

“What’s up?”

“I was over to the VA yesterday to fill out the paperwork for Dad’s death benefit. Did you know that as a veteran, he’s eligible for burial at Fort Custer National Cemetery near Battle Creek?”

“That’s not in line with his last wishes.”

She seemed not to have heard me. “He spent half his life in the Marine Corps; they’ll have a ceremony with a twenty-one-gun salute, and I think he’d be really thrilled to be buried there.”

“Will they take Mom, too?” I asked. Mom preceded Dad by eleven months. Having an aversion to being stared at in a coffin, she insisted on cremation. Dad, diagnosed with terminal cancer a few weeks before Mom passed away, also expressed a desire for cremation, telling my sister and me to expense the cost out of the estate after his death and purchase a niche in the mausoleum at St. Hedwig Cemetery. While we waited for Dad to pass, I kept Mom’s remains, in an urn, at my place.

“Well, yes, they’ll take Mom, too, but honestly, I can’t in good conscience inter her at a military facility. I don’t think she’d want that.” She seemed certain she knew what Mom and Dad both wanted, despite the fact that, to my knowledge, Mom never expressed a wish to be laid apart from her husband, and Dad overtly expressed his last wish to be interred with his wife.

“So what will you do with her remains?” I asked.

“I’m having her interred with Grandma and Grandpa at White Chapel.”

“I see.” What I saw was my sister making a yearly sojourn to White Chapel to visit Mom and our grandparents, and afterward, girlfriends in tow, making a day of it having lunch and shopping at Somerset Mall.

I wondered why she wanted me to accede to this change of venue. As executor, she was free to do as she pleased; then it hit me: If anyone in the family questioned her decision to part Mom and Dad, she could say, “My brother and I decided…”

“What do you, say?” she said. “Dad spent half his life as a Marine—”

“First,” I said, “Dad spent eight years in the Marines and was married forty-three years to Mom. Eight years is but a tenth of his life; forty-three years, by my reckoning, is more than half.”


“Second, he expressed his wishes to be laid to rest at St. Hedwig along with Mom.” I was angry, but I wasn’t sure why.

“Well,” said the voice in my ear, “I’d hoped to have your consent in this, but as executor, I really don’t need it.”

“No, I suppose you don’t.” I hung up.

For the remainder of the day, I wrestled over what to do. Did it matter any longer to Dad, or Mom, where they were laid to rest? They certainly must be beyond caring, and hopefully, in death, they had reconciled their many differences.

In my youth, when I needed him most, Dad had been absent, and so we hadn’t been close my whole life, until that final year, after Mom had gone, when he needed me most. Was I really championing Dad’s last wishes, or merely arguing against my sister, tired of her having her own way? What did it matter to my sister, who was close to neither of our parents? Perhaps she chose to blame Dad for our mother’s illness. Eighteen years battling Parkinson’s. Had it been genetic or brought on by depression, the result of her husband’s oppression and a failure to achieve any of her own dreams?

The next morning I awoke with a start, as well as a solution. My sister had her own aversion—she couldn’t stand the thought of having the remains of our parents in her home. I had held onto Mom’s urn until Dad passed away, then picked up his urn from the funeral home and kept them both at my place. After his memorial service, my sister would take custody, interring Mom at White Chapel, Dad at Fort Custer.

The solution was simple: I opened both urns and combined their contents in a much larger bag, then returned to each urn half the contents of the bag.

The plastic bag in my right hand as I stand atop the pitcher’s mound contains a small portion of both my mother’s and father’s remains, which I kept in a small nondescript container after I sent their urns off with my sister more than thirty years ago. I never told her, and she went to her grave a few years ago, happy that she’d succeeded in granting Mom the divorce she never received while alive. Now, with my own days growing short, I wonder if I did right—both assuring that Mom and Dad rest together, albeit at two different cemeteries, and not telling my sister what I’d done.

Dad loved Mom, of that I’m certain. He showed it as best he could, taking care of her during her long illness; but perhaps he feared love, or the risk associated with it. Through his example, I, too, learned to fear intimacy. An excuse, for lessons learned can be unlearned. We make our choices, are responsible for our own happiness.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” I whisper into the growing darkness at Tiger Stadium, “for laying so much blame on you for so long.”

During his final year of life, I asked him if he had any regrets. He laughed cynically and said, “Many. Every man does.” He said it as if he took comfort in being part of the crowd, which was strange. A devotee of Gary Cooper and John Wayne, Dad had always prided himself as a loner. I couldn’t know then anymore than I do now whether I was one of his regrets—through my birth, that I didn’t follow in his footsteps by joining the Marine Corps, or that he failed in being more nurturing to me when I was a boy.

The sun dips behind the grandstands that line the third-base line, and I feel a chill, more the result of poor circulation than an atypical late spring evening. I set the plastic bag down on the pitcher’s rubber, reach into my breast pocket for an Onyx Vintage ’97—I purchased a box back in ’99 and kept just this one, waiting for a special occasion. I guess this moment qualifies.

I inhale the fragrance of the wrapper, hold it a moment, exhale, clip its end, light it, and take a long, satisfying drag. I let the smoke warm the back of my palate, and a moment later I exhaust it with a long sigh. I discovered the pleasure of cigar smoking two years too late. I’m convinced that this custom is something Dad and I could’ve enjoyed together. I envision us sharing a smoke on a Saturday afternoon over a couple of glasses of bourbon or scotch as we listen to Ernie Harwell call a Tigers game.

Baseball was my first love. As a kid, I dreamed of roaming right field, as Al Kaline had during his illustrious career, making spectacular catches to the delight of the cheering home crowd, of hitting the ball all over the field, of setting records, and of winning the World Series.

But it never happened. None of it.

I never discovered if I had the arm to play right field, or if I’d be able to hit Major League pitching. Both Mom and Dad had discouraged me, fearing I’d get hurt, advising me that Major League Baseball was for only a privileged few, and that I was sure to fail. Despite Dad’s adage that there is no failure in failing, only failure in failing to try, I learned to avoid risk. Today I’m a more tightly wound imbroglio of indecision than I ever was in youth.

I look over to the grandstand behind the first-base dugout. Somewhere in that sea of blue are the two seats from which Dad and I watched, nearly sixty-three years ago, Denny McLain serve up the pitch that Mickey Mantle deposited into the right-field seats. I pick up the plastic bag and whisper, “Did you remember that day, Dad? I wanted to ask you, during those final few days at hospice, whether you remembered, but I feared that you’d forgotten what was for me such a memorable event.”

I’m startled by the sound of Dad’s snort, no doubt heard through the passage of time, for it certainly had not come from the plastic bag.

“He should be fined, maybe even suspended,” Dad tells the eleven-year-old boy I once was.

“Why?” I ask with all the innocence of youth.

“He’s paid to get Yankees out,” he tells me angrily; in my youthful naiveté I’m not certain his anger isn’t directed at me for asking such a silly question. “He’s paid to get opposing players out, not serve up pitches for them to drive out of the park.”

I realized, years later, after Mantle died, that Dad had known more about Mantle’s off-the-field behavior and drinking habits than I did when I was eleven, and that perhaps played a part in his reaction that long-ago afternoon.

I sigh and look toward home plate, where the likes of Lance Parish, Bill Freehan, and Mickey Cochrane once caught baseballs for Jack Morris, Denny McLain, and Elden Auker (the latter long before I was born).

I slowly turn to look toward third base, where Hall-of-Famer George Kell once played, setting a Major League record, in 1950, for fewest errors committed by a third baseman in a season, which stood for twenty-four years; to left field, where Willie Horton played, uniting a city torn apart by race riots in 1967; to shortstop, where Alan Trammell paired with Lou Whitaker as one of the premier keystone combinations for more than fifteen years, highlighted by a 1984 World Championship and that incredible 35-5 start; beyond second base toward center field, where Cobb, the most famous Tiger and the greatest ballplayer of all time, once roamed (I read a biography that described him as relentless, sliding into any base, spikes up, and climbing into the stands behind the dugout to brawl with fans, retiring to manage for a time before fading away, dying friendless, having turned even his own children against him); to right field where Kaline, my boyhood idol, played for twenty years; finally, to first base, where, in 1934 on Yom Kippur, Hammerin’ Hank Greenburg chose not to play, prompting Edgar Guest to write in the Detroit Free Press:

We shall miss him on the field
and we shall miss him at the bat
But he’s true to his religion
and I honor him for that!

First base, where Stormin’ Norman Cash played. A member of those World Series Champions of ’68, Cash would die tragically several years after retiring, falling off a pier in northern Michigan while drunk, to drown.

It’s nearly dark; no lights will be turned on for this night game. I take a long, last drag on my Onyx Vintage, wondering how it could’ve burned down so quickly, and cast it away.

I look around this grand old place that even in silence boasts of so much history—from the first game played in 1912, just five days after the sinking of the Titanic, to Babe Ruth’s seven-hundredth round tripper on July 13, 1934; to Reggie Jackson’s rooftop shot to right field during the 1971 All-Star Game, and others that left the park altogether; to six World Series Championships…

I step onto the rubber and, facing center field, turn the plastic bag upside down to empty its contents onto the back third of the mound.

I recall another ballgame Dad and I attended, this one in 1976, in which Mark Fidrych pitched. Fidrych was affectionately dubbed The Bird for his Big Bird-like hair and mound antics, which included talking to the baseball between pitches and getting down on his hands and knees to manicure the dirt between innings. I smile at the memory and, with effort and a grunt—a sound I often playfully chastised Dad for making when getting up from his La-Z-Boy (he took my sport with grace, no doubt fully aware of what lay in store for me)—get down on my hands and knees to blend the ashes with the dirt.

A few moments later, I struggle, gasping, to my feet, greeted by the familiar dizziness that comes to one taking meds to control high blood pressure.

Regrets. I have my fair share of them: lost loves, missed opportunities, and unfulfilled dreams. But this isn’t one of them. Not today. And not thirty years ago. Tiger Stadium is Tiger Stadium, no matter that Major League Baseball is no longer played here. Somehow it seems fitting that I lay to rest the remains of Mom and Dad here: Dad for passing on to me, if not his love, then his love for the game; and Mom for understanding, if too late, the importance of dreams.

I slow-turn my way around the pitcher’s mound one last time, taking in the majesty of this grand old ballpark—“Tiger Stadium,” I hear Ernie Harwell say in his unforgettable southern drawl. I wave to an imaginary crowd, imagine them cheering my performance tonight, then step off the mound and hobble toward the dugout.


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Don’t Wish Me a Happy Memorial Day

Am I alone in my offense of people wishing me a happy Memorial Day? Have we forgotten what Memorial Day is?

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act amended the federal holiday provisions of the United States Code to establish the observance of certain holidays on Mondays. The Act was signed into law on June 28, 1968, and took effect on January 1, 1971. In short, Memorial Day, which originally fell on May 30, was moved to the final Monday in May, but never to fall on May 31.

Today Memorial Day is viewed as the official opening of the summer season. It’s a weekend of barbecues and sporting events. People wish each other a happy Memorial Day with friends and family as if it’s Thanksgiving Day or Christmas.

It’s different for me. I’m the son of a World War II veteran. Memorial Day for me is somber. It’s a day of remembrance. Dad is gone from me, and he shared little of his experiences on Okinawa. I had to read about them in With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, by Eugene Sledge, who also served on Okinawa.

Dad lays at Fort Custer National Cemetery

Dad lays at Fort Custer National Cemetery

It’s horrific, what we ask our young men and women to do in times of war, hiding behind words like honor and country, two things that, once the bullets start flying, take a backseat to survival and the kid in the foxhole next to you. They fight to see another sunrise, and the right to return home to family and loved ones.

Dad was proud of his service to his country. He attended many Marine Corps reunions over the years, and corresponded with several marines with whom he served. But whatever he did, whatever he saw on Okinawa, he took with him when he passed away.

I’ll watch the Indy 500 tomorrow, a sort of tradition for me. Dad took me to my first 500 in 1966. It was the first time I’d seen him cry, when Taps was played. It was a few years before I understood the why behind Dad’s tears. Freedom comes with a high cost.

Don’t wish me a happy Memorial Day. It shouldn’t be a happy occasion. It should be a day to remember and honor not only our fallen men and women, but all those who served and return to us broken, mind and spirit.

But then, Memorial Day should be every day.

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Thanksgiving Day 2014

According to Wikipedia, Thanksgiving Day became an official Federal holiday in 1863, when, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. This feast, which lasted three days, was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”—days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.

Today, Thanksgiving is considered the harbinger of the broader holiday season, merely the announcement that Christmas and New Years are on their way. The day after Thanksgiving is considered the biggest shopping day of the year. Black Friday and the days leading up to Christmas are used as a measuring stick for how well the economy is doing.

Wikipedia claims the term Black Friday originated in Philadelphia, where it described the heavy and disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic that took place on the day after Thanksgiving. Use of the term started before 1961, and began to see broader use outside Philadelphia around 1975. Much later, it took on a financial meaning: that retailers operating at a financial loss (“in the red”) from January through November began turning a profit (“in the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving. For large retail chains like Wal-Mart, whose net income is positive starting from January 1, Black Friday merely boosts their year to date net profits.

On Thanksgiving Day, many gorge themselves on turkey and all the stuffings that go with it, watch football, and perhaps bicker with family members they haven’t seen since last year. How many of us think let alone speak of all for which we should be thankful?

In a world that grows smaller day by day—a world filled with ugliness and violence, hatred and terrorism—in our country, where lies govern politics and politicians govern for their own gain and no longer represent the will of We, the People who elect them to office; where individual rights overshadow the rights of all; where 10% of the population owns 47% of the nation’s wealth, and one percent of that 10% is one hundred times more well off than the next nine percent; where the middle class dwindles as more corporations offshore jobs to increase profits; in a nation that once led the world in many categories and now leads in only three: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending; where mention of God in public is at best politically incorrect, at worst offensive; where holding government accountable for the poor job they do is considered unpatriotic or even racist; in a country where profit is more important than morals, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find reasons to be thankful, even as the rest of the world envies us.

This Thanksgiving Day, I’m humbly thankful for the love a good woman, the roof over our heads, the warmth under it, the food that nourishes us, and for the God who provides it all, who shows grace to us mortals who don’t deserve it, who one day will welcome us for a job well done, for not worshipping materialism, for our generosity in thinking of others, and giving to others even when it was a hardship.

We take none of our earthly possessions with us when we die, so it is my hope and prayer that more Americans come to realize that and so, instead of hoarding, give something to those in need.

Happy Thanksgiving to all who read these words: you have much more for which to be thankful than you perhaps think.

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Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon: 2014

I sat down on the bench outside of Lafayette Coney Island, set my cup of coffee next to me, and proceeded to toast my cigar; a moment later I lit it, puffing several times, watching great plumes of smoke rise up into the air, and then glanced at the head, glowing a cheerful cherry red, to make sure it was evenly lit. The October morning air—chilled to thirty-five degrees—felt invigorating as I settled in for some people watching.

Soon, a man of a certain age stepped out of Lafayette zipping up his jacket, looked at me, and said, “It’s cold.”

I laughed. “You think this is cold? This isn’t cold. Last January was cold.”

He laughed in return and moved on.

A few minutes later, a young man of about thirty walked past me; our eyes met and he grinned a wide, toothy grin and said, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”

“No better way to start a Sunday than with a coffee and a cigar,” I told him.

I watched people pass in front of me walking in both directions: couples, groups of three, four, and more, all engaged in idle chatter. Several spared a glance for me on my bench, my Tigers cap on and braced against the chill, whenever I exhaled a plume of smoke. One or two looked at me with disdain. A young woman smiled at me and said, “That’s a good idea.” I smiled back at her and nodded my thanks. “I have them from time to time, even at my age.”

She laughed and walked on.

A middle aged man with a camera, a big—I mean big—telephoto lens on its front, stopped to aim his camera at me. I struck a pose and smiled for him, and he took his picture. As he passed, I asked him if he was going to post me on his Facebook page. He laughed but said nothing. “You have my permission,” I called to his receding back.

A homeless woman approached me, smiling a toothless smile at me, and asked if I had a cigar for her.

“Sorry,” I said, and she moved on, seemingly disappointed.

Another Lafayette patron, about my age, came out, pulled out a half-smoked cigar and lit it. From the label I hazarded a guess: “What’s that you’re smoking, a Rocky?”

“Yeah. How about you?”

“A Baccarat.”

“Never had one. Is it any good?”

I chuckled. “I wouldn’t be smoking it if it weren’t.” Then I added, “Funny thing about cigars. No such thing as a bad smoke. It’s just personal preference.”

He nodded and asked, “Is it strong?”

“Mild to medium.”

“I prefer dark wrappers,” he told me.

“I like maduros and oscuros, too. But I don’t like a cigar that competes with my coffee.”

We chatted a few minutes about cigars, and he handed me a Nub to take home with me.

“Sorry I can’t reciprocate,” I said. “If only I’d known you were coming.”

“Not a problem,” he said. “Next time.”

I nodded and he left me.

A few minutes after eight, the first marathoner ran past me in long, loping strides. I watched him, admiring his form, until he rounded the corner. It was a full minute before the next runner ran past. NASCAR this was not.

They came faster after that. Running in pairs, small groups which turned into larger groups before giving way to a never ending parade of runners, and some walkers, all wearing a host of running gear. The serious runners were dressed for the elements, and they ignored the cheers of the onlookers, conserving their energy; the not so serious runners… well, they wore anything from jeans to sweat pants to super hero costumes—Spiderman and Captain America had come out for the event. One competitor carried an American flag as if to ward off potential terrorists. Another guy ran past dressed as the Cat in the Hat. They tended to respond to family and friends who lined the street to cheer them on, raising their arms and calling out, and I wondered if they’d have enough energy left to finish the event.

An hour and a half later my cigar was nearly finished, and the last swallow of my coffee had gone cold. I’d given up my seat on the bench to stand curbside and had just about given up, thinking I’d missed seeing her. But then, in a small group, I spotted her: red hair gleaming in the bright morning sun. Colleen, my wife, running for World Vision, an organization that brings fresh water to those in Africa not as fortunate as we.

I called out to her: “Colleen!” Her head spun toward my voice and a smile came to her lips. The smile I’d fallen in love with nearly two and a half years ago. I held up my coffee cup—Styrofoam, and said, “This coffee’s for you, momma!” Colleen is a coffee snob—Starbucks or nothing. “Finish strong,” I added. “Finish strong.”

She blew me a kiss and then she was gone, taking with her my love and admiration, leaving me with my regret that my aging knees wouldn’t let me share with her this moment: her second Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon.

When my cigar was finished, I grabbed a second cup of coffee and slowly made my way back out Michigan Avenue, toward the World Vision hospitality tent, stopping along the way two or three times to people watch. Across the street a woman held up a sign for Erica: Run Like Justin Bieber is After You!

A middle-aged man stopped me. He’d run a relay. “You know where I can hail a cab?” he asked, and I had to laugh.

“Try the MGM Grand,” I told him, pointing toward the casino about four blocks away.

“But I need to get down to the riverfront,” he said. The riverfront was in the opposite direction, maybe eight blocks away. The man had run a relay—a mile or two, or maybe five miles, I didn’t know how far. But he couldn’t walk back to where he’d left his car?

“Jefferson is the finish line,” I told him. “I can’t imagine anything is running down there other than marathoners.”

“Oh.” He sounded troubled.

I left him as he tried to decide which option to take.

A couple hours later Colleen joined me in the hospitality tent. She was ecstatic that she’d knocked off forty minutes from her time a year ago, and I was proud of her—a good woman doing a good thing for those who are not as fortunate as we.

A nation rich in resources and unmindful of waste, we think nothing of leaving a half a glass of water on the table at a restaurant, of taking our car to the car wash or washing it in our driveway on Saturday afternoon, of watering our lawn after three days of rain—while a three-year-old child in Africa is given a fifty-fifty chance of making it to age five because her village lacks fresh water.

On behalf of those to whom you’ve given life and hope, Colleen, thank you, and I love you!

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Mooning Over My Honey

“In a restless world, like this is,
love is ended before it’s begun.
And too many moonlight kisses
seem to cool in the warmth of the sun.

When I give my heart,
it will be completely,
or I’ll never give my heart.”

—Edward Heyman

June 29, 2014—Colleen and I hadn’t really discussed before our wedding what we’d do for our honeymoon. There’d been talk about going overseas, maybe to Italy or even Israel, but I had no passport, and there would be issues obtaining one. I was born with a different surname—Dad had changed it when I was in the third or fourth grade—so even though I don’t look Middle Eastern, there’d be questions about the name on my birth certificate.

J. Conrad and wife Colleen at one of baseball's last cathedrals.

J. Conrad and wife Colleen at one of baseball’s last cathedrals.

The morning after the wedding we talked about going to Boston, where the Cubs would play the Red Sox Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Colleen is from the north side of Chicago and a diehard Cubbies fan. A woman who wanted to attend three ballgames on her honeymoon: did I choose wisely or what?

Once we decided we were Boston bound, Colleen got online and placed a bid on a nice hotel within walking distance of Fenway Park. Then she managed, how I have no idea—I’d thought the three games were sold out—to score two tickets for each game. They were great seats, too, at field level.

Getting to Boston was problematic. By flying, we’d have to go, from Michigan, through the Twin Cities. So, with my fear of flying, we decided to drive.

After spending thirty minutes packing, we loaded the car and were on our way a little before eight in the evening. We figured we’d drive four or five hours, which would get us a short way into Pennsylvania, before bedding down for the night, and depart early the next morning. Our ETA in Boston was a couple hours before the game—time enough to check into our hotel, maybe get me some Cubs gear to wear, and get to our seats before the first pitch.

We were unable to score me a Cubs cap before the game, so I wore my Detroit Tigers home jersey and cap, with the old English D on both. Armed with a couple of Fenway franks—not nearly as tasty as those at Wrigley—and brews, we sat next to some locals behind the visitor’s dugout, on the third base side, for game one. One of the guys took one look at me and for the rest of the night, to him, I was “Magnum.” It must’ve been the Tigers attire because never in my life have my looks mistaken me for Tom Selleck.

Funny thing about Boston. During a previous trip with another woman many years ago, I found the locals to be rather rude. Maybe it was the company I kept back then, or maybe it’s Colleen’s infectious smile that immediately wins over people, but on this night, and for the remainder of our stay, I found Bostoners friendly and good-natured. We freely told nearly everyone we met that we were newlyweds on honeymoon and received only congratulations and good wishes.

Game one was a good old fashioned pitchers’ duel, the kind of game I enjoy most. When the Cubs scored, Colleen let out a whoop and treated the crowd to a long and shrill whistle her dad taught her. She drew a few looks of admiration, and I felt my heart swell with love and pride.

Meanwhile, the Cubs’ starter took a no-hitter into the eighth inning.

“Get your Fenway franks,” called out the vendor. “Franks!”

I’m superstitious about no-nos, and didn’t mention it to Colleen for fear of jinxing the feat. But the Fenway faithful did all they could to jinx it—urging each Boston hitter to break it up and groaning when they didn’t.

During the seventh inning stretch, I leaned over to look at the guys seated next to us and, grinning, said, “You know you want to see it.” I was careful not to mention what “it” was, but they knew.

They grinned back and one of them said, “You’re right, Magnum, for the history. But I gotta root for my Sox.”

Then I told them I’d been at Comerica Park a few years ago the night first base umpire Jim Joyce blew a call that was not even close for the final out of the game against Cleveland that cost Tiger starter Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

“You have my sympathy, Magnum,” one of the guys said. “Whatever happened to that kid?”

“Last I heard he was playing in the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan.”

“You don’t say?”

“I just did say.”

After recording two outs in the bottom of the eighth frame, the Sox broke up the no-hit bid; but the Cubs would win the game 2-0.

On our way back to our hotel, we stopped at O’Leary’s where we enjoyed a couple of cold ones and met a few Cubs fans who were staying at the same hotel.

We slept in Tuesday morning, but took a subway to Hennessy’s Pub in Faneuil Hall in the North End, where we watched Belgium knock the United States out of the World Cup.

I spotted a bottle of Irish whiskey I’d never seen before: 2 Gingers. Although it was well after noon, Colleen decided against ordering a glass, but after sampling mine, promptly ordered one of her own. We spent some time searching several liquor stores for a bottle to take home with us, but came up empty.

After finishing our 2 Gingers, we ordered a couple of very tasty Sam Adams Brick Reds, available only on-tap at venues on Boston’s Freedom Trail, and two more with lunch.

At a souvenir shop on Yawkey Way, across the street from the ballpark, we purchased a Cubs cap for me to wear.

“Get yer Cracka Jacks heeyah. Jacks!”

Game two was another close game, with the good guys defeating the home-towners 2-1.

“Get yer ice cold bee-ah heeyah. Bee-ah!”

Game three was a laugher, with the Cubs scoring early and often; but the Sox hitters got on track to make it close near the end, losing by a touchdown 16-9. By then, many of the fans had abandoned their team, although one diehard fan in our section, on the right field side and just outside the infield, sarcastically called for “the comeback of the century.” For him, it was not to be.

We returned to Michigan late Thursday after a nearly thirteen-hour drive, encountering some heavy rain in central Pennsylvania and several slowdowns for road repair. We were happy that the Cubs swept the defending world champion Red Sox—Colleen recalled that she’d attended a three-game series in San Francisco last year, with both her sons, noting that her Cubs swept the then defending world champion Giants.

But as I fell asleep Thursday night in Colleen’s arms, I couldn’t help but think that I was the real winner.

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Get Me to the Church on Time

“I got to get there in the morning;
ding, ding, dong, they’re gonna chime.
Kick up a rumpus, don’t lose your compass.
Get me to the church, get me to the church …
Pete’s sake, get me to the church on time.”

—Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner


Like marriage, no wedding is perfect. In fact, like imperfections that often draw us to someone—a lopsided smile for example, dimples, a tiny mole perhaps—a wedding in which all does not go according to plan results in lasting impressions that will in time create memories of grand warmth. Our wedding—mine and Colleen’s—left us with several such lasting impressions.

The photographer stopped by the house at eleven o’clock to take pictures of my shoes, cufflinks, my jacket on a hanger and, eventually, me in my tux; Colleen had left for her makeup and hair appointment. I wouldn’t see her again until she came down the aisle. After he left, I took the box bearing our unity cross, a two-piece cross that Colleen and I would assemble during our wedding ceremony to represent the two of us becoming one, along with the marriage license and Colleen’s ring (in a black box) out to the car. I placed them all in the backseat—the license (an original and two copies in a manila folder) on top of the box that bore our unity cross, and the ring box on top of that. Then I went back into the house for a final bio stop and to check myself out in a mirror.

A few minutes later, Rory, at age thirty-one Colleen’s youngest son, and I got into the car and proceeded to start for Mark’s place. Mark is my best man. He and I go back to the days when our ages were single digits. Rory had flown in from L.A. to, in the absence of Colleen’s father, give away the bride.

Halfway down the street, I looked on the dashboard for the ring: it wasn’t there. I patted myself down; no ring. After a moment of panic, I recalled where I’d put it. I called to Rory, who was in the backseat with our jackets, the unity cross, and the marriage license, to confirm the ring’s presence.

“Nope,” he told me after a moment. “Not here.”

Hard braking, I wheeled the car around and went back to the house to get the ring. After spending twenty minutes looking everywhere I could think to look—several times—with no luck finding it, I called the photographer thinking that maybe he’d grabbed the box inadvertently when he picked up his gear. He hadn’t. I checked everywhere a third time, under my bed, under the dresser, in the closet, the bathroom, the trashcan, even the bushes outside the front door. Then I asked Rory to check the car again while I called Mark.

“Houston, we have a problem,” I told him.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I can’t find the ring.”

We spent the next few minutes retracing my steps of the morning—that is after I’d, as my dad used to say, shit, showered, shaved and shined my shoes—to see if we could jog my memory. We failed.

“What size ring does Colleen wear?” he asked.

“Four and a half.”

“Not a problem,” Mark said. “Kim wears a four.” Kim is Mark’s wife of thirty-six years. She was arriving later for the ceremony, driving separately from Mark. “That should work for the ceremony. Worry about your ring later. It’s someplace in the house, right?”

“Right,” I said. But I wasn’t certain. The only thing of which I was certain was that Colleen would not be pleased with me for losing her ring. Rings, with an “s.” She’d placed her engagement ring in the box. When the time came for me to place the ring on her finger, I’d place the wedding band on first and then the engagement ring.

So Rory and I piled back into the car and started for the second time to pick up Mark. A minute later, Rory handed me the black ring box from the backseat.

“Black box,” he said, “on black upholstery. It must’ve slipped onto the seat when we hung up our jackets.”

We got to Mark’s place and I told him we were good on the ring. “It was in the backseat all along. Black box, black upholstery. We missed seeing it three times.”

“Good news indeed.”

“My colon agrees, and I’m sure Kim will be so pleased to keep her ring.”

Mark chuckled.

“Do you have Nick’s phone number on your cell?” I asked.

I don’t own a cell phone. But Colleen thinks I should have one even though I don’t like them, so that will change after we’re married. The things we do for love. Nick is the pastor we selected for our ceremony. Mark and I were supposed to meet him at the church at noon. We’re already late and, with I-96 closed until October for road repair, easily thirty minutes away by surface streets.

“Yeah,” Mark told me.

“Dial him up and tell him we’re running behind.”

A minute later I hear Mark leave Nick a voicemail: “I’m with Joe and Rory. We’re a little late and will be there …” he glanced at his watch, “about twelve-thirty-ish.” After he broke the connection, he told me, “Twelve-thirty-ish I figure buys us up to twelve-forty.”

“Good thinking.” It seems I chose my best man wisely.

I picked up our speed, hoping to make the next light, thinking (in a poor Scottish accent), I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain. We made the light but missed the next two before we made the fourth one. I tried to time the lights, a practice Mark loathed whenever he rode with me when we were kids. It was a story he shared with Colleen upon meeting her for the first time. “He’d drive twenty-eight miles an hour in a thirty-five mile an hour zone so he wouldn’t have to stop at the red lights. I used to hate that.” Timing the lights here didn’t work, so I threw all caution to the wind and just picked up my speed whenever I could, risking five to ten miles an hour over the speed limit, which didn’t seem to work any worse.

We arrived about 12:35; guests had been arriving for a few minutes. I greeted Colleen’s family—those I’d previously met—most of whom had come from Chicago, and my own family, and a few minutes later, the ceremony started.

A couple weeks earlier, Nick asked Colleen and me to each send him a few words describing our first meeting, our courtship, and how I proposed. He planned to use parts of each of our perspectives in the ceremony. So we, along with our guests, listened as he described how I was taken, the first time I met Colleen, by her auburn hair, emerald eyes, and beautiful smile.

A few minutes later, Colleen and I exchanged the vows we’d written for each other. These went off without a hitch and we later learned that there wasn’t a dry eye in the chapel. Afterward, I heard Nick say something about Colleen’s “emerald hair.” Sheesh, I thought. If I heard it, then surely our guests heard it, and it’s captured on video now, too. So I turned to Nick and in a stage whisper said, “Auburn.” Nick laughed, as did family and friends (it’s a small chapel), and he corrected himself and went on.

After Nick pronounced us husband and wife, he told me that I was free to kiss my wife. Afterward, he presented us to the congregation as, “Mr. and Mrs. Guest,” and I asked him, “Does that mean we can change our Facebook statuses?”

Another woman might’ve been angry with my levity; but Colleen isn’t another woman. I’d dated women who turned out to be Miss Wrong, and others who maybe weren’t Miss Wrong but certainly weren’t Miss Right. I learned a few weeks after meeting her that Colleen was a keeper. Colleen laughed, as did everyone who witnessed our marriage, and today, as I sit typing these words a week later, I’m happy to call Colleen, “My wife.”

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler


Filed under Love, Memoirs

Classic Dad

Dad wasn’t always a “classic dad” to me. A retired marine drill instructor, he was often hard on me and not very nurturing. As a young man, I had my differences with Dad; but we were always able to set them aside to share a shot of bourbon and a beer while we listened to or watched a ballgame. It wasn’t until the final year of his life, after he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer, that we finally connected. We nurtured each other during that final year, and the student I always was became the teacher in ways I wouldn’t have dreamed possible, and I helped him find healing and peace as he, with eloquence, prepared for death.

Although he didn’t share much of his battle experiences—he fought on Okinawa, where some of the bloodiest fighting took place—he unloaded some of his pain and regrets he’d carried all his life, and I understood a little better why he was the way he was.

Today I have fond memories of Dad teaching me to drive a stick shift, to shave, and to tie a Windsor knot.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I miss you and carry you with me every day. I hope I continue to make you proud, even as I’m sure I disappoint you from time to time.

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