A little help from (and for) James Taylor

In a past life (it seems), I played a lot of guitar and did a lot of singing in a variety of places over many years.

I was playing in a coffee house in Boston one night in the early ’70s. The performer who went on just before I did seemed to be his own biggest fan. He was competent enough singing and playing his guitar, but he also offered an air of smugness. And his set featured a running attempt to belittle James Taylor. I attribute this to an underlying jealousy.

There were snide remarks here and there. Then the crowning touch was his singing “Sweet Baby James,” but when that phrase recurred, he said “Sweet what’s-his-name.” JT, of course, wrote the song about his nephew, who had been named for him. Writing such a song about oneself would take a different kind of person. Maybe someone such as this guy on stage ahead of me that night.

When he announced his last song, he snarled in a tone that left no room for dispute, “I always end with this song. Always.”

Some months before that, I had seen James Taylor perform in the UNC football stadium. He had opened with his then-new arrangement of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” I liked it enough to work it into my repertoire.

I generally started off with something fast and loud, but that night I made a quick decision to begin with the JT-styled “With a Little Help from My Friends.” After I finished and after the applause, I said, “I never open with that.”

I explained that I had recently enjoyed seeing James Taylor open a concert in our mutual hometown with that song. Since it had worked for him, I decided to try it, I explained.

Right off the bat, I had lampooned my predecessor’s introduction of his closing song, and established the object of his derision as my homey.

The opener had acted as if the audience members were fortunate to get to hear him. My attitude always was that I was grateful they wanted to listen to me, realizing that I also had to be good enough for them to want to listen. I’m pretty sure I conveyed that feeling that night. I genuinely appreciated them, and I performed well enough for them to appreciate me.

It was one of my better gigs. There was that always-sought, mystical “connection” with the audience. My “last song” was followed by a mandated encore. Maybe the contrast with the opening act contributed to my success.
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Memories of a friend

The word “unique” gets tossed about too casually. Often it is used incorrectly. It means “one of a kind.” Thus the word takes no modifiers. Not “most unique,” “somewhat unique” or “very unique.” Just “unique.” Many times the appropriate word is “distinctive,” which refers to someone or some thing that is quite special and rare, but allows that there may be a few others with similar characteristics.
I am about to tell you about a unique individual.

When I relocated to Chapel Hill in the fall of 1965 to enter the University of North Carolina, I became involved in the Baptist Student Union (BSU). One of the regulars was a guy named Bill Colclough. He was older — how much, I was to learn, was part of a delightful, on-going mythology. He had graduated in some previous year and immediately began working on his master’s degree in summer sessions while teaching school. After completing his graduate degree, he continued taking classes. More on that in a minute.

I think my introduction to the myth came one evening at BSU when we were singing songs from mimeographed sheets. When we got to “Too Old to Cut the Mustard Any More,” it was dedicated to Bill. He smiled appreciatively and waved his arm as if to direct while we sang.

Yet while the myth — enjoyed by no one more than Bill — was that he was ancient, the reality was that he seemed ageless. He was at home in each generation of college student. He seemed never too shocked by current trends and was not judgmental. He was accepting of his friends and genuinely interested in them. I’m sure these qualities contributed to his success as a teacher and guidance counselor.

One memory illustrates his subtle wit and his proclivity not to say anything bad about anyone, as well as his perceptiveness. A past mutual acquaintance, a guy prone to affecting an air of wisdom, came up in a conversation one time. “As I recall,” Bill commented, “he was studying to be an intellectual.”

I witnessed these characteristics through the BSU community for many years. And then there were all those decades of courses.

Sometime, maybe in the early ’90s, I was in a gathering of BSU alums. We were introducing ourselves. I said I graduated in ’69. Others similarly said, ’72, ’80 or whatever their class year was. When it was Bill’s turn, he said slyly, “I graduated in June.” In a sense, though, he was a member of each class.

As long as possible, Bill’s summer break featured attending both summer sessions at UNC. Eventually, the shifting schedule limited him to only one session. He was a little disappointed. After he retired, he moved to fall and spring semesters, taking one class in each. He chose from among courses offered on Tuesday and Thursday, 9 a.m. or later. Most, if not all, were in history, his undergrad major, or English. There are few courses in either department that he never took, and I think that in time he may have revisited some.

Bill attended each year’s graduation ceremonies, as well as other commencement weekend events. One of those was the “Friday Frolic,” at which each reunioning class had its own tent. Bill dropped in to most or all. He once told me about running into a young woman who remembered him from a class or two they had shared. Though she was with her classmates, Bill was the only person there she knew.

This ability to relate to college students continued the rest of his life. In recent years, he had gotten to know some students at his church who eventually made him a member of their fraternity.

Many years into our friendship, Bill told me the actual year he graduated. It would be inappropriate for me to divulge that, but I will say, it was later than the 1910s. Still there is the myth. . . .

One evening in the early ’70s, a group of us were at a UNC baseball game in the then-new Cary Boshamer Stadium. Mr. Boshamer himself was there. When he was recognized, it was noted that he was of the Class of 1917. We all turned and looked at Bill. He smiled, nodded and said, “I remember him well.”

Bill often attended UNC games and various other campus activities. He rarely missed a football or men’s basketball game. I dare say he is the only person who was an enrolled student in the years of all six of the Tar Heels men’s basketball NCAA championships.

My wife and I saw Bill at so many events on campus, we grew to assume he always would be there. That tapered off some in more recent years, but it still seemed that he was always around. It will take time for me to stop assuming he’ll always be there.

Bill’s email address referred to him as “Wild Bill.” This was wonderfully ironic. He was a gentle man, who walked the straight and narrow, albeit with a sharp wit. Each email included a header that said something like: “A message from the past.” The default signature was: “Your best friend, Bill.” I’m sure he intended both to be humorous, though there was a lot of truth in the latter. Taken together, they present the myth and the man.

Diversity 101

The house my parents bought the year before I was born had a dirt-floored basement, usually called a cellar. Many houses were like that at the time. I think it must’ve been 1956 when we had it concreted. I tend to remember that I was 9. It was summer time.

The man hired to do the work was African American, though that term would come into use decades later. The polite term then was Negro. The derogatory corruption of that word was used by some, though not in our family.

This man brought his son, who was about my age, with him. At first — I don’t remember if it was part/most of one day or parts of two days — the kid just hung around while his father worked. An afternoon rain changed that.

There was a garage-sized space under our front porch. Perhaps it was intended as a garage-without-doors, though we never used it as such. The door into the basement with within that space. Even with our junk, there was plenty of room for the boy to stay reasonably comfortable while sheltered from the rain.

Yet, up in our living room, watching TV with one or more neighborhood friends, my sister and I concluded it was ridiculous for the workman’s son to be under the porch, probably bored out of his mind. She went out and invited him in — with his dad’s permission — to watch TV with us.

He was pretty quiet, but I think there was a little interaction around whatever we were watching. The next day, as my friends and I played, we included him. It was a good fit.

One play-time activity popular with boys my age at that time was to reenact scenes such as those we saw in movies and TV shows about World War II. Armed with toy weapons, we would sometimes track and fight an imaginary enemy. Just as often, we’d divide up into Americans and Germans. One specific memory I have of playing with our visitor was an afternoon in which he and I were on one side versus two boys from the neighborhood.

At first, he and I were the Americans. Later, we switched up, and he and I were the Germans. None of the four of us thought about — and maybe weren’t aware of — the reality that a white soldier and a black soldier would not have been in the same platoon in the U.S. Army in WWII. And we were completely oblivious to the irony of his joining me in portraying German troops. We were just a bunch of typical 7- to 9-year-old boys in the USA, mid-’50s.

At the same time, my parents were having a new, modern tub put in the bathroom. The old one was in the yard awaiting removal. My friends and I had a great time crowding in and pretending it was a boat. Our visitor joined us in this activity as well.

A few days after the concrete job was finished, the workman came back by to make sure all was OK. This time he brought not only his son, but also his wife. I was in the “boat” with one or two other boys when they drove up. Their son hopped out of the car and ran toward us, shouting “Wait for me!” We made room for him to climb in. His parents seemed amused. In the short time his dad was inspecting his work, we kids were zipping along the water in a speed boat.

This was, as I said, 1956. Black people and white people lived in different parts of town. We went to different schools and churches. Opportunities for personal interaction were limited by the way society was structured. Taking advantage of that particular opportunity seemed and proved to be the right thing to do.

Twelve days leading to Epiphany

Realizing that celebrating Christmas is something we get to do, not something we have to do, I try (within my human limitations) to approach it this way:
After September and October have come and gone with Labor Day and Halloween, respectively, I turn my attention to and enjoy Thanksgiving. Then for most of December, it is Advent, the time of preparation for Christmas, which arrives December 25.

The “preparation” doesn’t primarily mean shopping, putting up decoration, wrapping presents, etc., though it necessarily does include these tasks. I get more out of Christmas with some mental/spiritual preparation. I try to keep that in mind during the logistical preparations. Sometimes it helps to stop a minute, take a breath and refocus.

I think it’s also helpful to remember that Christmas will come whether or not we get all the decorations up in exactly the right places. At our house, we decorate modestly, about a week before Christmas. It’s enough to keep us mindful of the season, without overpowering the meaning. I guess what I’m saying is that the decorations are the means, not the end itself.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day can be quite busy for many of us. It’s mostly enjoyable, but still busy. I’ve grown to appreciate how much Christmas is enhanced for me by celebrating all 12 traditional days. No, we don’t give gifts everyday, though for families such as ours, there may be additional gift-opening sessions on subsequent days of Christmas after day 1, depending on individual schedules. It may not be the 25th, but it is no less a Christmas gathering.

A value of acknowledging all 12 days of Christmas, I’ve come to realize, is that there is more time — even some occasional down time — to stop and remember that it’s Christmas and think about all that truly means. It’s not just keeping the tree up until Epiphany because that is what tradition dictates. It’s walking past the tree and being reminded of — and feeling — the love and joy of Christmas at random times, after the hustle and bustle have subsided.

To the extent I can follow this plan — and I am not always successful — Christmas is less something I have to do and more something I enjoy in a meaningful way.

Teens stumble upon Christmas spirit

[Excerpted from “Let Nothing You Dismay” in Life Among the Letters: Selected Short Stories by John Becton. ]

By morning three to four more inches of snow had accumulated. There was some melting during the day and refreezing after sunset.

“No wheels tonight,” Bill told George over the phone. “But I’ve got to get out of here. My parents are driving me crazy.”

Each 16-year-old had his allotted share of teen angst.

“Mine too. Let’s go over to Barry’s. He won’t have to get permission to take his own car out.”

Barry had a different idea, however.

“I ain’t taking my baby out in this,” he said. “It was starting to get bad when I came in from work. Let’s just walk over to the bowling alley.” He pulled a heavy gray coat out of the hall closet and called out, “Mom, I’m going over to the bowling alley with George and Bill. We won’t be late.” There was a muffled reaction from upstairs. “No, we’re walking.”

Outside, Barry took in a deep breath, let it out with a satisfied “Ah!” and said, “Well, just a couple more days.” There was no response from his companions.

The bowling alley was over on the main highway, about a 10-minute walk from the Barry’s house. The highway came down a steep hill from the west, leveled at the bowling alley and then became a long, upward grade as it headed east toward downtown. Two cafes, a convenience store and a small office complex had replaced homes along that stretch. The city had recently lined the road with bright street lights.

“This will be like glass before long,” Bill said as he and his companions hurried across the highway and into the building.

“Man, it’s getting colder,” Barry said, stuffing his gloves and toboggan into the pockets of his coat. “Let’s get some coffee.”

Their three cups drained the pot. George took a sip and exclaimed, “Tastes as bad as it smells!”

“I wonder how many hours it’s been sitting there,” Bill wondered aloud. “Well, it least it’s warm.”

The local Top-40 station blared over the PA system. There was a lot of loud talking and laughing, as well as the continual sound of bowling balls crashing into pins.

“There are more people here than I expected,” George noted. He stuck a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and let it flap up and down as he talked. “Lot of locals. See those guys over there? They’re from Westfield High. That’s the problem with living on the edge of town — too close to the farm boys. Probably looking for trouble. They might find it.” He lit the cigarette. “I guess we might as well bowl a game or two.”

“I’m ready.”

“Me, too.”

After Barry picked up a spare, Bill sent his ball down the right side of the lane. He leaned back to his left while watching the ball slip off into the gutter. “Damn thing wouldn’t hook,” he said as he turned around.

George gazed up from the scorer’s table and off to the side. Barry looked at George and then off in the opposite direction. Bill knew what this meant: “We didn’t see it. So it didn’t happen.” He pressed the pick-up button and rolled an official score of 9 for the first frame.

During the seventh frame, they saw the four Westfield students leaving. One looked back, smiled and waved.

By the time Bill, George and Barry had finished bowling, cars heading into town were beginning to slip and slide coming down the hill toward the bowling alley. Even though there was less traffic, crossing the highway would be more of an adventure than before.

“We may never get across,” Barry observed.

Bill motioned toward the now-icy grade that led to downtown. “Look at that.”

Three large trucks were stuck at various spots. One had slid over into the outbound lanes.

“This is getting to be one big mess,” George said. Then he grinned. “Well, we can stand here and watch cars pile up.”

As the boys continued to wait for a chance to cross the highway, a white Chevrolet Bel Aire came across the hill from the west, followed by a red Plymouth Fury. When the cars hit the ice, they slid sideways, bounced off each other obliquely, spun around and collided again.

A third car managed to get around them, but a maroon MG came across the top of the hill too fast and crashed into the Fury. A fifth car clipped the back of the MG and slid off the road. The next one stopped at the top of the hill. Drivers and passengers all got out, apparently uninjured. They began pushing the cars to the side of the road. Even though there were more than enough people, Bill said, “We’d better help.”

“Yeah,” Barry replied. “It’s a good thing we’re here.”

“You two take care of things here,” George said. “I’m gonna stop traffic from coming over the hill.” He trudged up and beyond the top of the hill. He diverted two cars onto a secondary road and stopped a Trailways bus.

“You’ll never get into town this way,” he told the driver. “It’s solid ice on the other side and there are three tractor-trailers blocking the highway on the other hill.”

“You think we can get through these side streets?” the driver asked.

“Yeah. The city buses go that way.”

“What about the conditions?”

“They’ve got snow, but not ice.”

As soon as the wrecked vehicles were out of the way, the car at the top of the hill inched down toward the bowling alley and turned onto the road by the office complex.

George rerouted two more cars, but another refused to stop for his signal. The driver looked straight ahead and kept the wheels spinning steadily toward the top of the hill.

“Son of a bitch!” George yelled, jumping to the side. From the top of the hill, he watched the offending vehicle approach the wrecked cars. The brake lights came on. The car slid into a telephone pole on the left.

“Serves you right,” George muttered. His traffic shift apparently over, he moved on down the hill to examine all the damage. A police car arrived about that time. Before the officer sorted everything out, he got to witness three more fender benders.

“I’ve had about enough of this,” Bill told Barry. “We’ve seen about a dozen cars pile up. It’s getting boring now.”

“Yeah, let’s go. Hey, George, let’s get out of here.”

They cut through the 7-ll parking lot to Mimosa Drive.

“Could you believe the way that Chevy and Fury smacked each other?” George chuckled.

“Man, it was something,” Barry said. He let out a small laugh. “That S-O-B that tried to run over you wrapped around that pole pretty good, didn’t he?”

They didn’t dwell on the subject for long because talking made their teeth hurt. Two blocks down Mimosa, they turned on to Spring Hill Road, which would take them into their neighborhood, just across Parkview Road.

“Man, I’m cold,” Barry said. The other two just nodded. George put his gloved hands into his coat pockets. Bill folded his arms across his chest.

The residential streets had the old, incandescent street lights at three- or four-block intervals. The one at the intersection of Mimosa and Spring Hill was not working. All the houses they passed were dark or dimly lit. There was no traffic. The powdery snow cushioned their footsteps. It was so quiet, it was either serene or deafening, depending on your state of mind.

At the intersection of Spring Hill and Parkview, a white compact car sat silently facing east on Parkview, its right side in the shallow ditch. The boys walked up to the driver’s window.

Behind the wheel was a woman in her late 20s. There were two small children in the back seat. All three occupants looked frightened. The doors were locked.

“Need a push?” George called out.

The woman rolled the window down only a couple of inches. “Oh, yes, thank you. That would be so great, if you could.”

The boys had little trouble getting the car back onto the road. They jogged along behind as it crept around a curve. When the wheels began spinning on the incline by the park, they started pushing again. After a long block, the road leveled.

The car proceeded several yards without their help, then stopped. They walked around to the side. The woman rolled the window more than halfway down. She looked relieved.

“Oh, thank you so much. I think I can make it from here.”

“How far you going?” George asked.

“Malvern Woods.”

“Just a couple of miles and no real hills. Yeah, you should be OK,” Bill said.

She opened her pocket book and reached in. “What do I owe you?”

Each boy stepped back. “Nothing,” Bill said.

“Well, I want to give you something for your trouble.”

“Oh, it was no trouble, really,” George insisted. He started making zig-zagged lines in the snow with the toe of his right boot.

“You were so nice to stop and help. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you fellows hadn’t come along. And you look like you’re really cold. You could be home with your families in your warm houses.”

“No, we’re OK. Just fine,” Barry said. “We’re just glad to help.”

“You just don’t know how much I appreciate it.” She took three one-dollar bills from her pocket book and held them out the window. “Please take this.”

“It really isn’t necessary,” Barry protested. Bill and George shook their heads in agreement.

“I insist.”

The boys didn’t budge.

“Well, here. It’s yours. Merry Christmas.” She threw the bills down in the snow and drove off.

They stood staring at the money.

“I wish she hadn’t done that,” Bill said.

“Me, too,” Barry agreed. “You boys keep it.”

“Nah,” George said. “I don’t want it. You do something with it. Or you, Bill. Put some gas in your Dad’s car.”

Bill just watched snow starting to fall on their reward. Then he looked in the direction the woman had driven away. Then at the tracks the car had made while they were pushing it.

“Boys, this money is just going to get wet,” Barry said. He picked up one of the dollar bills and shook the snow off of it. George and Bill reluctantly did the same.

“I still wish she hadn’t done this,” Bill said.

“Yeah,” George said. “I feel like we owe her.”

Five days of beach sunrises

This blog post is a little different from my usual. I just wanted to share five days of recent beach sunrises. My wife and I spend a week each year on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, in Kill Devil Hills, close to the site of the Wright Brothers first airplane flights. A highlight for me is greeting each day’s sunrise.

Here’s Monday, October 28, 2019:

Tuesday, October 29:

I get up an hour or more before sunrise. Daylight has already begun. I think of this time as the “pre-show,” as various colors come and go in the sky. Sometimes I find myself getting impatient to see the sun appear. But it’s pretty easy to remind myself to enjoy what’s going on at the moment. It’s effective practice in living in the present. Anyway, the sunrise is all the more dramatic after the build-up.

Wednesday, October 30:

Once the sunrise starts, it happens rather quickly. When there’s a layer of clouds on the horizon, it can happen a little past the appointed time. As long as it is not completely overcast, there is a sunrise. The clouds help give the day its distinct look.

Thursday, October 31:

Friday, November 1:

I’m glad I went

It was a milestone celebration at a church a plane ride away from my home. It’s an outstanding church, and I was part of it a long time ago. The church has long been known for its active involvement in social justice. Sunday morning is big, but it’s a seven-days-a-week church. It contributed to my theological education for two years.

Part of my role was on-the-job training in campus ministry at an adjacent prestigious university. More visible to the congregation was my guitar playing regularly in “folk worship” and occasional other times. One Sunday a month, the Sunday worship service was one I helped plan. Two other musicians — a pianist and an upright bass player — and I led it. I also participated in myriad meetings, retreats and anti-war protests. I think I was a brash enough young adult to speak my mind in most gatherings. Shortly before I completed my degree and moved away from the area, I preached there one Sunday morning. My “License to Preach and Administer the Sacraments” was granted by that congregation.

I enjoyed the recent celebration. It was good to be back in the building. The liturgy and other activities were appropriate and meaningful. As the history of the church was recounted, a good chunk of it was presented by some of the very people with whom I have a history. They covered a lot of that shared history.


At this point, the cynical reader might expect the insertion of a “But.” Not here, though. It’s more of a “That said. . . .”


I went with hope but not delusion. There were several people still in the church that I remembered from my time there. It would’ve been great if many/most (all??) had greeted me like a long-lost friend. Yet I had visited a couple of years ago, and only two of those remembered me. One was someone with whom I had been close. The other was someone I knew, though not as well as a couple of people who seemed to have no recollection of me. I expected it would be the same this time, while holding out hope that the occasion and my being there for much of the day would jog some more memories.


It was as expected. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. The same two seemed to be the only ones who remembered me, though when I spoke to others, I made a point of saying when I had been there.


Countless times, I’ve heard someone say about some service opportunity in which they’ve participated, “I got more from them than they got from me.” I guess I always realized this to be true about my time at this church. I just wish the score hadn’t been so lopsided.


I knew going in that I was at most a blip on the screen in the long history of a church filled with dynamic individuals. I had just thought — wished rather — that the blip were less imperceptible. It wouldn’t be honest not to admit to feeling some disappointment, yet I wasn’t blindsided.


Still, it was good to be in a place with a lot of great memories. To see faces still recognizable despite the years, even if mine wasn’t recognizable to them. To recount the illustrious history of the congregation and to see that the characteristics that drew me to them are still at work today.


I enjoyed the personal memories that flashed through my mind. I was able to share a couple of these verbally with one person or another. Yet feeling more like a welcomed guest than a returning family member, I found I was taking in the festivities primarily from a third-person point of view. I know and appreciate that for many there it was first-person.


To resort to an overused cliche, it was the hand I was dealt. So I played it. I was just glad to be in the game. It was a learning and a growing experience.

_______________
Note of possible interest: This is the church to which I referred in “Wearing Your ‘Sunday Best’” when I said, “I was a young adult, in a church where people wore anything from jeans to suits or dressy dresses, when I realized that one of the negative things about Sunday morning in the past had been the hassle of getting dressed up.” For this recent occasion, I was the most dressed up I have ever been in that church building — dress pants, button down shirt and sports jacket, along with my black sneakers and, of course, no tie.