Legends of Rock

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I was a sophomore in high school when I first heard the Rolling Stones on the radio. I must have been about fifteen years old, the same age that my granddaughter is now. I went to Gulfgate Mall to purchase their single recording, Satisfaction, which I played over and over again. I nearly wore the thing out, and luckily my mom was cool enough that she never complained about the volume nor the repetition of the same song for hours. In fact she danced around the house proclaiming that she too enjoyed the music, which grossed me out just a bit. It seemed incongruous that an older woman would share my adoration of the Rolling Stones.

It would be years before I did the math and realized that my mother was still in her thirties at the time that I thought she was being a wee bit immature. She was a young woman by any standards but I was part of the Baby Boomer movement that was proclaiming that we would never trust anyone over thirty. I only gave my mom the benefit of the doubt because she really did seem more hip than most parents, and besides she was the rock of our family.

My love for the music of the Rolling Stones has never waned. I am now a bit more than fifty years older and I still want to get up and dance around the room whenever I hear the strains of their many hits. I often joke that one day there will be events in nursing homes that feature Satisfaction blaring through the speakers and residents moving in sync in their wheelchairs. The Rolling Stones are now a legendary band, icons in the world of rock that I had the pleasure of seeing perform in their No Filter Tour that came through Houston in July.

The affair was supposed to happen in April but was postponed because Mick Jagger required open heart surgery. It didn’t sound too good for the future of the band, but those of us who held tickets were assured that we would soon hear of the new date for the affair. I was both disappointed and concerned. I worried that age had finally caught up with Mick and that we might not get the same performance level given the seriousness of his health scare. I saw the concert as a kind of last hurrah for the band and a sure sign that I wasn’t fifteen anymore.

Mike and I were like two teenagers fraught with expectation as we arrived at Reliant Stadium on the night of the event. I laughed at all of the white and grey haired spectators in the audience. In my head I felt sure that neither of us looked as old as the other folks who like us had been around when the Mick was still strutting around like a crazed rooster. It unnerved me a bit when younger fans asked us what it was like to hear the Stones back in the day as though we were oddities from a long ago time. They were reverential and respectful to point of making me realize that we probably did indeed look as old as our peers whose youthful bloom had faded into wrinkles, baldness and fifty shades of grey.

We played a game of “where were you when” with several folks as we waited somewhat impatiently for the music to begin. We sat through the front band, Bishop Gunn, with a kind of painful realization of how ordinary they were compared to the great Stones who were to follow. Lots of older women chose this time to take one final bathroom break knowing that their bladders probably would not hold out if they didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

In what seemed like forever, the lights finally dimmed and the first strains of a familiar song drifted up to the rafters of the stadium while a cheer of anticipation filled the air. The Rolling Stones were on the stage performing as though they were young twenty somethings, perhaps with a bit more polish and self assurance than ever. Mick Jagger was slim and trim and as energetic and captivating as ever. Keith Richards had eschewed a bandana to allow us to see that he was indeed going bald which didn’t matter to us in the least as he ran his fingers so nimbly over his guitar. Ronnie Wood still looked the image of a rocker with his sixties style hair and jewel colored shirt and coat. Charlie Watts was the picture of calm and sweetness as he banged out the tunes on his drum. The guys looked absolutely fabulous and played even better.

The band was in fine tune with an even better performance than the last one I had seen a few years back. They played with the confidence that only comes from natural talent, charisma, and experience. They used their tried and true formula to enchant the crowd and for the next two hours they gave us a show that we would never forget.

I felt as though the members of the band had personally contacted me to find out what I wanted on the playlist because they performed every one of the tunes that are my favorites, Start Me Up, Brown Sugar, Jumping Jack Flash, Paint It Black, Sympathy With the Devil, Gimme Shelter, Satisfaction. As the evening progressed everyone on the stage and in the audience became ageless. White hair, no hair, seventy or seventeen didn’t matter in the least because we were as one in the knowledge that we had witnessed rock history, a moment of greatness that we would never forget.

I remember being in a speech class when I was a senior. We were divided into two sides each of which was asked to prepare persuasive arguments designed to convince the class that either the Beatles or the Rolling Stones was the better band that would be remembered for the longest time. I was assigned the Beatles and my team lost to a group advocating that is was in fact the Stones who would become timeless. Ironically while it might be argued that both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones have become the undisputed icons of the sixties and perhaps all of rock history, it has been the Rolling Stones who have evolved from decade to decade and still mesmerize a crowd. Luckily I got to see them just one more time, and if they decide to come back again one day I will most surely be there again.

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It’s Nice to Remember

El PatioLike many big cities much has changed in Houston since I left my childhood home fifty years ago. My family moved a time or two until my father died and then we stayed in one place until my brothers and I were grown and finally gone.

The first place I remember was on Kingsbury Street just a few houses from South Park Blvd. which is now known as Martin Luther King Boulevard. Ours was a quiet and modern neighborhood that echoed the growth of Houston and other American cities after World War II. Our neighbors were young like my parents save for a couple of older folks here and there. There were a slew of kids with whom I played, and we were free to roam around all by ourselves even though some of us were not yet old enough to attend school.

The area began with little more than our subdivision and a U Totem convenience store where a man named Shorty regaled all of us with his humor and friendliness. Eventually one of the first ever shopping centers, Palm Center, was built just within walking distance of our house. It was like a wonder of the world to us and we spent many an hour wandering through the stores or just walking around gazing into the shop windows.

My father was doing well with his engineering career and he grew weary of driving a rather long distance to his job near the refineries along the Houston Ship Channel. His coworkers told him about a brand new area just a bit farther into the suburbs that was booming with progress and attracting great schools and a quieter form of life. Best of all it was only about ten minutes away from the plant where he worked.

Before long we were moving into Overbrook and an all brick home that my father and a builder had custom designed. Our place on Northdale sat close to a wooded area along Sims Bayou clustered among homes so new that they still smelled of fresh paint and just sawed wood. I was sad to leave behind my friends on Kingsbury Street but in no time I was riding my bicycle through the streets and playing with other children who would literally become friends for life. Ours was a kind of kid heaven that seemingly had no restrictions as we explored the Bayou and trudged through the woods.

The neighborhood was filled with young families just like mine and every house was teeming with life and possibilities. A bridge linked Overbrook with Garden Villas, an older area with huge lots and pecan trees around homes many of which had been built in the 1930s. Together the children from each subdivision filled the schools and sent up the joyful sounds of playtime that echoed happily into the open windows of homes not yet fitted with air conditioning.

My father was as changing as the city of Houston itself and before long we were following him to California and even bigger dreams. For reasons that I will never know things didn’t work out for him and within months we were back in Houston again looking at even newer and bigger properties. His untimely death changed all of our family plans, and my mother decided to move us back to Overbrook for the sake of continuity. There we would be able to reunite with friends and make new ones on Belmark Street.

Ours was a very happy place to be back in the nineteen fifties and sixties. We had little need to venture far from the confines of our neighborhood. All of the conveniences we needed were close. Eating out was still a kind of luxury, and even when we splurged now and again we had local favorites that we visited. Our mother took us to the Piccadilly Cafeteria at the city’s newest shopping mall, Gulfgate, where we were admonished to only order one meat and two vegetables or one meat, one vegetable and dessert. We usually chose the later.

I suppose our favorite place was El Patio Mexican Restaurant on Telephone Road. As kids we thought that their dishes were gourmet delights, especially the cheesy enchiladas. Since our mom was devoted to cooking healthy food for us, getting to deviate from vegetables was a treat.

I suppose that if I had to pick one food that I would be willing to eat over and over again it would be a hamburger, and back then I thought that the very best came from Chuc Wagun. There was no indoor dining there. Instead a clerk and a cook worked inside a tiny building designed to look like a covered wagon. The beefy guy who made the delightful sandwiches was gruff and married to his work. He grilled beef patties by the hundreds and chopped his onions and tomatoes like a Ninja warrior. The resulting burgers were pure heaven.

We bought all of our cakes at the Kolache Shoppe on Telephone Road. My mom loved the lemon ones and even years after we had all moved I would sometimes return to that spot to get her one for her birthday. The kolaches were rather good as well.

My brothers and I spent many a Saturday morning at the Fun Club inside the Santa Rosa movie theater. Our mom would drop us off with a quarter each which was enough to purchase a ticket and a candy sucker that lasted for the duration of the double features. The event included games with great prizes and films suitable for kids. It was a wonderland for us and a great break for our parents.

Most of the places that were so delightful back then are either gone or very different from what they once were. The neighborhood itself has a worn look and nobody would dare allow their children to roam freely anymore. It would be considered too dangerous. The Disney like atmosphere that defined my youth is now just another memory from my past. When I take my grandchildren to see the places where I played and grew, they have little understanding of the lifestyle that I describe. Theirs has been a more structured way of doing things, a routine of play dates and adult monitored activities. I suppose that my stories of southeast Houston don’t ring true to them as they see fifty years of change that have transformed the places where I lived.

My friends and I all agree that ours was a glorious time to be young. We were innocent and unafraid as we roamed together finding adventure. By the time we were young adults we learned about hardships and injustices that were unfamiliar to us. We revolted as a group against the signs of racism and unfairness that we finally saw. Our city grew i and grew and grew in the name of progress consuming much of what we had experienced in our youth. Now and again we like to look back to a time when we didn’t have a care in the world. Its nice to remember.

I Needed This Reminder

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One of the best aspects of being retired is that I now have time to ponder more than I did when work required me to adhere to a strict schedule. I am able to read more and even to indulge in moments of sitting in silence with my thoughts for long stretches of time. I still serve my many grandchildren with my educational expertise whenever they require a bit of guidance or encouragement with their studies. Each summer I read the same books that they are assigned for their pre-advanced placement and advanced placement classes, so that I might help them to analyze and discuss the works when they return to school in August.

One of my grandsons is reading Martin Luther King Jr. I Have A Dream: Writings & Speeches That Changed the World edited by James M. Washington. When my daughter requested that I familiarize myself with the text so that my grandson and I might talk about its implications I was more than eager to delve into the heart of the essays. I have long considered Dr. King to be one of the greatest orators and most influential leaders of the twentieth century and indeed the entirety of history. He is a hero of mine, one of the people I would love to meet when I eventually make it to heaven.

I grew up in the era during which Martin Luther King Jr. did his incredible work. In the year I was born Dr. King was ordained a minister following in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather. He had been a child during the Great Depression, growing up in Atlanta, Georgia when segregation was still very much a fact of life for blacks just as it still was for most of my own youth. In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation was unconstitutional Dr. King was the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama and I was about to head to the first grade.

A year later, in 1955, Rosa Parks famously refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man, an act for which she was arrested. Her brave action led to a boycott and Martin Luther King Jr. was elected president and voice of the efforts to integrate the buses in Montgomery. By then I was joining droves of Baby Boomer children in second grade classrooms that were still mostly segregated in spite of the earlier Supreme Court ruling. I would overhear rumblings of discussions from my father and grandfather who believed in those days that children should be sent from the room when politics were the subject of conversations. I was a nosy child who would hide behind a wall listening to their voices as they spoke of the coming changes.

In 1957, President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard to allow nine black children to enter a previously all white school in Little Rock. I did not watch or witness the historic moment on television back then, but I vividly recall the many times that my dad and granddad talked about it when we visited my grandparents’ farm in Arkansas. That year Martin Luther King Jr. was elected as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and  the reach of his crusade for justice widened. I would enter the third grade at the same time that those little children so bravely struck a blow for freedom in Arkansas. I was not totally unaware of the importance of that school year in the struggle to end segregation but I would not be affected by it in the little bubble that was my neighborhood.

The work to break the hold of Jim Crow laws and segregational policies continued throughout my elementary and middle school years. By the time I entered high school the Civil Rights movement was in full force and Dr. King had become one of its most admired voices. The concept of non-violent passive resistance was being used to integrate restaurants and universities and to expand the voting power of black citizens. Just before I entered my second year of high school the famous march on Washington D.C. captured my attention and I listened to Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech with rapt admiration. I was hooked by its message and forevermore there would be no turning back to the ugliness and injustice of segregation for me. I was a devoted disciple of Dr. King and would hang on his every word and action. His influence over me would be enormous.

Just before I entered my senior year of high school President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Sadly the arc of justice was still far from complete. In college I would become more and more passionate about causes of equality and fairness. My generation was literally taking to the streets to protest all signs of legally condoned injustice. The laws of separate but equal were no more, but the seeds of racism still grew like weeds and I was eager to pluck them wherever they grew.

In the spring of 1968, I was planning my wedding when I heard the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I had been washing dishes when the word came and I remember slumping onto the floor in front of the sink where I sobbed uncontrollably. I was devastated beyond words and wondered how our country would be without the conscience and profound thoughts of this great man. His insights stay with me and guide me for the next fifty years of my life.

I am a seventy year old woman now. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and influence have been a defining force for me even to this day. Reading his speeches and essays once again has brought me to tears and helped me to consider both the progress and the difficulties that remain in the long fight for justice. We have yet to achieve his dream, and of late we seem even to have slid back into a kind of ugliness that he had hoped to one day eradicate.

If Dr. King were still alive today he would be a very old man. I wonder what he might say about the state of our union. There are certainly things of which to be proud, but the work is not done. Would we be farther along in our progress if we still had his voice of reason and love, or would he be discouraged that we still have remnants of violence and hate? Whatever the case, reading his words has enlivened my own spirit and told me that the road to making his dream a reality is a worthy albeit difficult pathway.

As I write this I am gratified in knowing that my grandson is unfamiliar with concepts of segregation. I love that he innocently sees no color in his friends. The fact that I have to explain the evils that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of indicates to me that we have indeed moved the arc of history ever closer to the ideals of agape which Martin Luther King so eloquently explained as “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return…when we rise to love on the agape level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves us. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. With this type of love and understanding good will we will be able to stand amid the radiant glow of the new age with dignity and discipline. Yes, the new age is coming”      (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Facing the Challenge of a New Age, 1957)

I needed this reminder!

What Have You Done For Humanity Today?

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I am a true baby boomer, one of the millions of children born in the immediate aftermath of World War II. I grew up in a time when stories of that horrific conflict were less like history and more akin to the kind of vivid recollections that parents recount from their own lives. The people who taught me about what happened there had endured the hardships, but all of their memories paled in comparison to those of the Jews and outcasts who were caught up in the murderous horror of the Holocaust. From the very personal diary entries of Anne Frank to the images of the camps that I saw in grainy black and white detail, I grew up wondering how the moral degeneration that overtook so many Germans can overtake ordinary humans. I have been haunted by concerns of man’s inhumanity to those different from themselves that seems to be  repeated a common theme in the long story of mankind. Nonetheless I remain optimistically hopeful that quite slowly we humans are inching toward more and more acceptance and protection of the rights of each person.

Recently I came across the story of a quite interesting individual whose biography and philosophy give me great expectations. His name is Ben Ferencz, and he is the last living prosecutor of war crimes at Nuremberg. At ninety eight years old he is still quite outspoken in his belief that wars have the capacity to bring out some of the worst possible instincts in people, causing ordinary souls who might otherwise have offered goodness to the world to evolve into monsters. His solution to this problem is to work as hard as possible to prevent and perhaps one day eradicate war entirely.

Mr. Ferencz is an interesting character who has lately been featured on the CBS Sunday evening program Sixty Minutes and in a Netflix documentary, Prosecuting Evil. He is now ninety eight years old, born in what was once Hungary and now is Romania. His parents managed to immigrate to the United States in 1919, traveling to New York City on a steamer ship much like the ones that brought my own grandparents to Galveston, Texas in that same decade. He recounted the hardships of being a third class passenger sleeping on the deck in all kinds of weather. Once he and his family reached America things did little to improve. Their lives were difficult and they felt very alone, but much like my grandparents they always believed that as bad as things were here, they were infinitely better than the conditions that they had left.

Mr. Ferencz had a special teacher in high school who recognized his giftedness and encouraged him to attend college, something that neither he nor anyone in his family had ever thought to do. Eventually he earned a law degree at Harvard University where he duly noted how out of place he felt among his well dressed wealthier classmates. Nonetheless he forged an alliance with one of his professors who was engaged in research into war crimes and human rights. That connection ultimately led him to Nuremberg at the age of twenty seven.

Ben Ferencz is a small man who had to stand on a pile of books to be seen over the podium from which he would prosecute the war criminals. He had no experience inside a courtroom, and yet the images of Auschwitz that he had experienced from a visit propelled him to find justice for the millions who had been murdered. Thanks to the meticulous record keeping that the Nazis used to keep track of the slaughter, he had more than enough evidence to convict.

Mr. Ferencz described how he and the others who tried German citizens for their crimes had purposely selected people like doctors, lawyers, formerly respected businessmen as their defendants to emphasize the diabolical nature of what had taken place. He noted that each of the men had been highly educated and seemingly on the road to exemplary careers until the machinery of war and propaganda had warped their sense of right and wrong to the point of turning them into unthinking monsters. He was particularly surprised that none of them were ever willing to express sorrow for what they had done, instead insisting that they were attempting to prevent an even greater danger from overtaking the world. To this day it is difficult for Ferencz to speak of the horrors that he uncovered or the degradation of the character of people should have known better.

Mr. Ferencz continued to work for the rights of all people throughout his long career. He built a good life for himself in America along with his wife of many decades who is also ninety eight. His children say that they grew up with a question that their father asked them regularly, “What have you done for humanity today?” It has been his life’s compass, guiding him to the conclusion that our ultimate goal should be to one day find a way to eradicate wars forever. It’s a tall order but we might begin by doing something for mankind one day at a time, one person at a time. If enough of us begin that process perhaps a tidal wave of goodness may one day overtake the world. 

Flying High and Rocking with the Angels

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I did not really know him. I mostly knew of him. He was my neighbor Betty’s son-in-law and his name was Mike Wade. Over the years he and his wife Vickie would come visit Betty at Christmastime and other occasions. I’d see them and then later Betty would tell me all about them just as loving mothers so often do. She was proud of her daughter and the man who was more like a son than an in-law.

After years of having Betty right next door to be a kind of mentor and confidante, Mike and I moved away. Not long after that Betty’s husband, Dave, died. We were worried about how she would do living all alone in the neighborhood that was rapidly changing, but we needn’t have been so concerned because her children all made generous offers to move her closer to one of them. Betty chose to go to Pittsburg, Texas where Mike and Vickie lived. They built a wonderful new house for her on land that lay right next door to their own place. I was so happy that Betty would  be loved and safe. I had heard all of the stories of her children and felt that all would be well for her.

Mike and I traveled to Pittsburg a couple of times to visit Betty, staying in our trailer in Bob Sandlin State Park. We learned that the little east Texas town was a lovely and inviting place where Betty was living a quiet and comfortable life. It warmed our hearts to know that she was doing so well and we vowed to continue our little journeys to the area so that we might see her now and again. We felt so renewed spending moments with her and reminiscing about the old days. She’d ply us with homemade cookies and stories of what she had been doing in the times since we had parted ways. 

On our last visit to Pittsburg we finally had the opportunity to spend some time with not just Betty, but also her daughter Vickie and son-in-law Mike. It would be an understatement to say that all of us hit it off immediately. The two Mikes, my husband and Mike Wade, were particularly taken with each other. They were essentially the same age and shared a love of music and history. It felt as though they had been friends forever as they chatted about this and that for literally hours.

Mike Wade was born and raised in Pittsburg, Texas. He had even played saxophone in his high school band and was known for being quite talented. After his graduation the war in Vietnam was in full swing and he was a patriotic soul who believed that he was being called to serve. Eventually he enlisted in the Air Force and proudly gave several year in service to the country.

It was at a swimming pool on an Air Force base that he first saw Vickie, a cute blond girl who was the daughter of an Air Force mechanic, our friend Dave. Vickie and Mike hit it off almost immediately and eventually fell in love and married. For a time they lived in Houston, but the piney woods of east Texas were calling Mike, and so they ultimately moved to Pittsburg where his heart seemed destined to always be.

Mike was an electrician, a truly bright man who loved his wife, his work and his hometown. He had a big smile and a sense of humor that led to lots of laughs. Like many children of the sixties he was taken by the music of the times, and he not only possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the songs and the lyrics, but he was able to discuss the complexities of the instrumentation. On the day that we visited with him, he and my Mike were soon in a conversation of their own, talking of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and talented guitarists from both the past and the present day.

We also learned of Mike Wade’s health issues and how on the very day that Betty was life flighted to a hospital in Tyler for emergency heart surgery, Mike too ended up undergoing his own surgery for issues with his heart. They recovered together under the watchful eye of Vickie who is a nurse. Betty and Mike joked about the scooters that they rode to get around and how neither of them were letting any grass grow under their feet in spite of their health problems. In fact, on the day that we visited Betty, Mike had just finished riding over his property on his lawn mower in order to keep both his lawn and Betty’s looking well groomed.

We talked and laughed and dined and enjoyed Mike and Vickie’s generosity for literally more than nine hours. We might have stayed even longer but for the worry that the state park where we were staying might close the gate and lock us out of access to our trailer. We left vowing to return soon. We had felt so welcome and the old feeling of being loved that always enveloped us whenever we had been in Betty’s presence now seemed to be expanded to include Vickie and Mike as well.

We’ve had a busy year, but we often spoke of going back to Pittsburg to see Betty, and hopefully Mike and Vickie as well. Thus it was with great sadness that we learned that Mike Wade had died in April. Of course we worried about Vickie and Betty, but we also found ourselves grieving for this man whom we had really only known for those few hours. It is a tribute to his openness and magnanimity to realize what an impact he had had on us so quickly. We have spoken often of just how much he impressed us, and now we know that we will never see him again. Somehow, nonetheless, we will always remember this man whose smile and love of life touched our hearts.

Mike Wade lived without bounds. He was a devoted husband, father, and son-in-law. He enjoyed his work as an electrician and found joy in the quiet and simple life of Pittsburg, Texas. He loved his country, his family and his hometown. He embraced the people around him, giving whatever he might have to those who needed help. I know he will be missed by those who knew him best, but he will also me missed by me and Mike.

I have learned that Vickie is planning to move into the house that she and Mike built for her mother Betty, and that Vickie’s son Aaron will live in the home next door that she and Mike shared for so many years. It will be a good arrangement for everyone, family members taking care of one another in an old fashioned but quite lovely kind of way. I suspect that it would please Mike to know that they will be alright because that is the sort of thing that seemed to matter most to him.

I feel privileged to have shared that special day with Mike. It was a visit with Betty made even more special for us because of his presence. It has always warmed my heart to witness the unconditional love that Betty and her husband Dave always offered to everyone. Now I know that their warmth and beneficence took root in their children and, in the case of Mike Wade, in their children-in law as well.

Rest in peace Mike Wade. You were a righteous man who strove to give your very best to everyone that you encountered. I hope that you are flying high and rocking to the songs of the angels. I believe that you truly earned your wings.