Cemetery memories

Wear a white shirt, you’re going to spill coffee on it. There’s one thing I know ahout life and that’s it.

Still, I’m grateful to the checkout guy at the EVEN Hotel in Omaha for offering me a free cup from the machine at 6 a.m., Nov. 5. Lucky it had cream or something and was very light instead of black–as I generally take it–and it was an old well-worn off-white and yellowed t-shirt commemorating Ernest Tubb Record Shops’ 50th anniversary–which had to be at least 20 years ago–and the stain was unnoticeable for the most part,  mostly on “the original ET”’s jacket and maybe a bit of his guitar. I’d met him in Nashville outside his Grand Ole Opry outlet in a previous life, after his post-Opry Midnite Jamboree radio performance just before he hopped on his bus heading out with his Texas Troubadours on some gig somewhere.

I think I got on that same bus some years later, outside the Lone Star when it was on 42nd Street, when Asleep at the Wheel was using it, after their gig. In this incarnation it was thick with marijuana smoke, with Ray Benson relating how they’d been stopped by the highway patrol somewhere out West, and they brought a dope-sniffing dog on board. There was so much pot either stowed away or smoke-infused in the fixtures or both that the dog went insane and they had to let the band go. I went so insane that I got lost walking the five blocks up Broadway to my office building, then spent an hour walking around in circles in the seventh floor elevator bay.

None of this is meant to diss ET, of course, and I’m confident he’d be okay with it. Maybe there wasn’t a nicer guy in all of country music—and beyond. Hugely influenced by country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers, Tubb so impressed Rodgers’ widow that she lent him her husband’s signature guitar, the back of which was emblazoned with the word “THANKS” in big block caps, such that ET’s gratitude could be expressed whenever he flipped it. He really was the coolest.

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The last time I’d been to Omaha was before I’d started writing, and I think this was the first time I’d spent the night in Omaha–but I might have stayed over that last time I was there, also the last time I was in Nebraska. Like I said, it was before I started writing, which I think was in 1977 or ’78–my memory’s too limited and I’m too lazy to figure it out. I would have still been working as a clerk/typist at the State of Wisconsin in Madison, a block South of Lake Monona, where Otis Redding’s plane went down.

Otis Redding memorial plaque overlooking Lake Monona

Instead of going to hear live music every night, as I soon would, I was attending a Taekwondo school a couple blocks from where I lived, three blocks east of the State Capitol and a five-minute walk to work. In two years I’d only achieved green belt in our system–up from no belt, white and yellow. I’d been in one tournament—in Madison—and won my first fight and lost the second. I’d driven in a carload of guys from the school to participate in my second and final tournament, in Omaha, where I lost my only fight but somehow managed to place in the forms competition. We either drove back that night or stayed over at someone’s house.

Otherwise, I would have spent a little time in Omaha before visiting my mom’s cousins there on our way to or back from Lincoln, where she was born and grew up, an hour or so southwest of Omaha.

The last time I was in Lincoln had to be 1967, to bury her dad, my grandfather. Sadly, it was the day of Bobby Kennedys funeral. I loved Bobby, and was crushed by his killing. Having to drive from Madison to Lincoln–10 hours, as I recall–meant I missed all but the end of his funeral train trip from Manhattan to Washington, D.C. and Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried just up the hill from his brother.

My grandfather was a big deal to the family—the family patriarch–but I don’t remember him very well. I would have been 15 when he died, some years after his wife, my mother’s mother. All I remember from the funeral was a cousin walking over to me, and in an angry shout-whisper admonish, “You’re standing on Grandma’s head!”

And now it was Mom’s turn. She made it to 97, but her last years marked a steady decline in faculties to the point where we finally, against her will, put her in a hospice. She’d suffered from increasing dementia for years, and when I’d gone back three months earlier in July to see her, every 10 seconds she’d ask me the same question I’d just answered. She’d also kept asking when her older sister Selma would show up–Selma having died in 2007 at 89. She also once asked where my dad was, forgetting that he was in Arlington, since 1994, when he died at 85.

His burial was quite something, right out of President Kennedy’s. I, my mother, brother and sister stayed in a hotel near the cemetery in Virginia. I’d been doing some writing for USA Today at the time, so I went over to the paper’s headquarters nearby in McLean to visit the guy I worked for, then into D.C. to hang with some dear Russian journalist friends at the TASS News Service bureau. Walking back to the train to get back to the hotel I noticed that Marie Osmond was starring in the lead role of Maria in The Sound of Music at a theater a couple blocks from the station.

I was a big Marie fan, and had met her annually in Nashville at the opening Country Radio Seminar party at the Opryland Hotel, as she was signed to Curb Records there. I always said hi to her and figured she’d remember me. But I tried the box office first, and to my surprise was able to talk myself, as a Billboard correspondent, into a pair of tickets for the night’s performance. It was great, and afterwards I hung out at the backstage door and got her to sign my poster of the show.

My father was buried the next day at 9 a.m. in Arlington. It was a beautiful spring day, ironically, the same day of Nixon’s burial in California in a similar but grander ceremony. Dad had served nobly in both World War II and the Second Nicaraguan Campaign of the early 1930s (an early forgotten Vietnam), meriting a burial with military honors. This meant he had a horse-drawn caisson, flag-draped casket, drum-and-brass corps, and rifle party firing a three-volley salute prior to a lone bugler’s taps.

The right thing to do, I figured, was to smoke a fat one just before leaving the hotel. My sister drove the rental, and when we got to the cemetary we were instructed to follow the caisson, which was moving steadily but slowly. But she hadn’t smoked a joint, and when we reached Bradley Drive she lost it, as our father had served in WW2 with Gen. Omar Bradley. Much to my shock, Mom asked me to take the wheel.

I was wasted, but I somehow managed to stay in line behind the horses, and when they stopped near the gravesite, so did I. We got out of the car as the honor guard detail carried the remains some 50 yards up the hill to the site, where enough chairs for us and the Army representatives were set up. It was a beautiful service, but I have to admit I had to bite my tongue not to laugh hysterically over an incident that happened just as we got out of the car.

Like I said, it was a beautiful spring morning, Dad’s site was within sight of the Pentagon. It was also, fitting for a cemetery, very quiet, peaceful, still. That is, until one of the horses, I will always believe deliberately and with disdain, chose this most solemn moment to let loose with the longest, loudest piss, maybe in history, resounding among the fallen and otherwise eternally sleeping, splashing an equine “Fuck you” on the pavement. The steamy urine stream continued until we reached our seats.

To this day I humbly respect that horse.

The service itself was brief, and when the uniformed pallbearers folded the flag and the Army rep brought it over to my mom, leaned over and handed it to her with the traditional, “On behalf of a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation [for your loved one’s] honorable and faithful service,” I, too, finally lost it.

And now we were returning Mom to Lincoln and her family, on the day, November 4, after the election. She’d died a week before in Madison, from where my sister and her daughter—my niece—had driven to Omaha and were to pick me up at the airport.

The Election Day result, as we know, was still far from decided. I’d put in an exhausting 17-hour day (5 a.m.-10 p.m.) working the poll a block away, this following nine days straight of grueling early voting poll work at Madison Square Garden. I was able to get in a two-hour nap before heading out at 2:30 a.m. for LaGuardia, which isn’t so easy during the pandemic—as I would find out the hard way.

As usual, the big problem was me. I thought the trains were back to running all night again. But I went down into a neighborhood subway station on Monday—the day before Election Day and the day after Early Voting ended—and asked the booth clerk, to make sure. He either assured me that they were running, or I misunderstood him, for when I went down to the station at 8th Ave. and 42nd Street a little before 3 a.m. (my flight was at 6:30), it was closed. So I went to 7th Ave.—the heart of Times Square—and as some workmen were pushing some equipment out of a door at the station between 7th and Broadway, I slipped in, only to be told by two other MTA guys at the clerk’s window that it was closed, too, until 5 a.m.

Now I was frantic. I didn’t have the money for a cab.

“How the fuck am I supposed to get to LaGuardia?” I yelled at the Brothers.

“LaGuardia?” one answered. He had no idea. Neither did the other guy, nor the woman in the booth behind the glass. Hardly comforting. But I gotta give them credit: As I approached them, they whipped out their phones and started trying to figure if I could do it by bus.

I’d come there to take the E to Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue in Queens and then board the Q70 bus to the airport—but obviously, that was out. My only hope was to get to 125th Street in Harlem and take the M60 to LaGuardia, but how would I get there. Luckily, the guys found that the M104 was leaving from 8th Ave. and 41st in 13 minutes, an easy walk—or so I thought: I was so disoriented when I got to 8th I crossed over to Port Authority thinking I’d catch the bus on that side of the street. After freaking out a couple minutes I realized I was on the wrong side and crossed back over—but I couldn’t find a bus stop at 41st and started walking down a couple blocks with no luck. So I turned back and realized there was a bus stop on 41st and 8th—but for a different bus.

I should say now that my Hell’s Kitchen nabe has become pretty scary since the pandemic, especially after dark. As I was out at 3 a.m., I’d normally be carrying a weapon, except I was going to the airport. I remember one summer I’d thrown on a pair of shorts without checking, and when I got to the airport and reached into my pockets to empty their contents into a tray in the metal detector, my hand came out with a knife….

Standing at the wrong bus stop and looking down 8th for approaching buses, a big, clearly unfriendly guy came over to me and asked for money. The one thing going for me now is that even though I was hindered by two shoulder bags—and because of health issues knew I wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight—with long hair, scraggly beard, missing teeth and menacing glare, I looked more like a toothless, bearded hag than easy prey, plus I was jangling the keys hanging from a subtle black C-shaped fistload like a threatened snake’s rattle. He was either drunk, drugged, mentally ill or a combination, and came close but backed off when I barked that I didn’t have anything.

But I was getting desperate. I looked around, and there was a “NOT IN SERVICE” bus parked around the corner on 41st Street. I went over and waved the driver to open the door, then asked how to get to the M60. He told me to hop in. This is where I was supposed to go to catch the #104, and in fact, this was the #104, which took me up Broadway to 106th Street, where after a 15-minute wait I transferred to the M60. I got to LaGuardia in plenty of time—even having to catch a shuttle to Terminal B when I got off at D after hearing the bus driver wrong. It was smooth flying to O’Hare and then Omaha, as I slept all the way. My sister and niece were right there when I hit the street.

Weaving in and out of consciousness during the hour or so drive to Lincoln, I drifted back and forth between the election results and long-ago memories of that interminable 10 hours from Madison to Lincoln. The worst part—driving (after crossing the Mississippi) through Iowa, which seemed to last forever, from Dubuque—then the shittiest looking town imaginable, but probably a wonderful place now—to Council Bluffs, all on undivided two-lane highways. (But I must say this about Dubuque: We stopped off at some joint to get something to eat–must have been 1967–and out of a bin full of 45 r.p.m. singles I found and bought The Troggs’ 1966 hit “I Can’t Control Myself.”) From Council Bluffs we crossed the Missouri River to Omaha, and then to Lincoln.

Momentarily awake in 2020, I looked up on the right and saw a series of blue Trump-Pence signs–reminiscent of the old sequential Burma-Shave (shaving cream) proverb signs (example: “Keep well/To the right/Of the oncoming car/Get your close shaves/From the half pound jar/Burma-Shave.”) that used to dot highways back then—and I recalled the desolation of that drive and the scenery. Nebraska is the center of the Great Plains, where the Coen Brothers shot much of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in what was a very long production in the state’s western Panhandle region. I’d emailed Ethan in the middle of it, asking if he was having any fun. “Are you insane?” he replied.

Half an hour out of Lincoln, I texted him and said that I myself was now in Nebraska, “home of Buster Scruggs.” “Canvassing?” he wondered. “Didn’t help.”

Yeah, Nebraska is a red state–though Grandpa was a socialist, and my family was always blue. I can never forget the state’s slogan “Go Big Red!” from when I was a kid, and the University of Nebraska was always one of the top college football teams, while the Wisconsin Badgers, at that time, were always one of the worst. But we did somehow manage to beat them 21-20 when they played us at home in early 1974, a slight detour on their way to a Sugar Bowl victory. I’ll never forget the disbelief and dejection of my Uncle Leo and Aunt Betty, who traveled to every Cornhuskers game as their team went down to shocking defeat. That night bonfires were lit on State Street, between the UW campus and State Capitol, as they had been in 1969 when we finally won a game after losing 23 straight.

And now I was at the cemetery where Uncle Leo and Aunt Betty were buried in the same row as Grandpa in the family plot, Mom being lowered the next row down and a few sites to the left. Leo was her brother. Her sister Ruth, who died at 34 of MS before I was born, was there, too; she played the harp in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with the likes of Buddy Rich and behind the likes of Jo Stafford, and Frank Sinatra—who showed great kindness to her and the family when he learned that she was sick.

Also there was my cousin Joe Hill, whom I barely knew, but liked a lot. He was an actor, went by the name of Joseph GillGoff. I remember he was good friends with fellow Nebraskan Sandy Dennis, and died at 28.

It was just me, my sister, brother and niece, and our cousin Gary, Joe’s brother, who still lives in Lincoln, also a lady who was a tour guide at the State Capitol, who met my mom when she brought people there for tours, and became good friends. And two men from the funeral home. If I didn’t step on Grandma’s head this time, I certainly stood on everyone else’s, since it was all a pretty tight fit.

Unlike the rest, I didn’t wear a black facemask, rather, a colorful but toned-down one made up of postage-stamp sized portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I figured Mom would have approved.

There was no horse. There also wasn’t a lot of time. My brother had to leave immediately to move to a new city and job. I had to get back to New York early the next day in order to avoid a two-week quarantine required of anyone returning to the city without being tested within three days of the trip–by getting back within 24 hours. As it turns out, I only had to fill out a form, and there’s been no follow-up so far.

There’s not much more to say about it, really. We’re a small family, and because of COVID, there could be no funeral in Madison, and no other relatives or friends able to make the trip to Lincoln if they had so desired. Gary made some very nice remarks, and it was over by early afternoon. But before returning to Omaha, I wanted to revisit two of the four places in Lincoln we used to go to when I was a child. As it was November, there was no point in going to the outdoor municipal MUNY Pool, though when I looked it up I found that it had closed in the ’70s.

But I also learned that some African-American boys were found wading in the unfinished pool in the 1920s, after which came calls to drain the water. According to a 2013 article in the Lincoln Journal Star about a move to declare the still existing bathhouse a historic site, the boys were then denied admission when the pool opened. According to a newspaper report, one of the fathers, Trago T. McWilliams, protested to then-Mayor Frank Zehrung that “there was an element of injustice in barring negroes who were good citizens in every respect.” The mayor agreed, “but pointed out that there were comparatively few colored people in Lincoln and that a much larger number of white people would feel that it was unjust to permit negroes to use the pool.”

But McWilliams kept at it—for decades—and finally, in the late ’50s (after a “street shower” had been installed in the city for Blacks), the policy was changed.

On the contemporary bigotry front, cousin Gary had been involved in establishing the Nebraska Holocaust Memorial, located in another cemetery nearby, so that was our first stop after the funeral. As my cousin Murray, who grew up in Lincoln and is six days older than me, said by phone the next day, “What else do you do after a funeral but go to a Holocaust memorial?”

Nebraska Holocaust Memorial

From there we went to Lincoln’s Sunken Gardens, a dug-out 1.5-acre multi-level garden that’s been a mid-town attraction since 1930 and the only Nebraska garden listed in the “300 Best Gardens to Visit in the United States and Canada” by National Geographic Guide to Public Gardens. Warm as the day was, it had snowed the week before, and the season’s annual plants had already been removed. I did run up to a higher-level garden and got a picture of the Reveille statue, and then we were off to Pioneers Park Nature Center.

Sunken Gardens

Since Mom died—and I realized it would be possible to attend her funeral after the election—I was obsessed with Pioneers Park Nature Center: 668 acres of tallgrass prairie, woodlands, wetlands, wildlife and a stream–and right next to it, a golf course! I had vague memories of visiting it (without the golf course) on more than one occasion after it opened in 1963, and as it turned out, my main memory—of there being an immense statue of Buddha—was ridiculously false (and I’ve been unable to find it anywhere online). There was however, a big statue of a Native American sending out smoke signals, which took so long for us to find that my young niece, whose supreme disinterest in her aged uncle’s ungainly need to relive his childhood was, even to him, completely understandable, brought me to the brink of giving up until I stepped out of the car in a parking lot adjoining a picnic area, turned to my left, and voila, there it was!

The other thing I remembered—and this proved to be real—was that there were wildlife exhibits in the park, and we did come upon one with a few bison. They were ‘free-range,’ for lack of a better way to put it, and looked bored as shit. Reminded me of one of the great lines from Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (which I’d just seen for at least the thousandth time), where Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) says to Josey (Clint), “I didn’t surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.”

Bored bison

The only other site I remember of Lincoln was, of course, the 400-ft. tall State Capitol building, a National Historic Landmark and the second-tallest state capitol next to Louisiana’s. There was no need to go there since it’s visible from almost anywhere.

We were all beat when I got back to the EVEN, which brings me, next to Mom’s death, to my one regret of the trip: I didn’t make use of the hotel. Then again, I’d never even heard of the chain—which I hereby heartily endorse. When I got to my room—and figured out how to turn on the lights—I noticed an unusually large area between the bed and the bathroom, with a wooden pole of sorts against the wall with half a dozen lugs, upon one of which hung a braided, double-handled fitness tube. Neatly stored in a box on the opposite wall was a sanitized yoga mat and yoga blocks, and in the space on the floor next to the TV were two large blocks which I took to be leg rests—but I was wrong.

The blocks were also exercise equipment, as I learned when I turned on the TV and it immediately went to one of at least a score of in-room workout videos. It turns out that the all even-numbered rooms “hotel brand concept” opened its first location in 2014 with the goal of incorporating wellness and productivity into their clientele offerings; there were videos for the equipment in my room, with other paraphernalia, including Pilates, probably available in other rooms or from the front desk–and all accompanied by instructional videos.

The only problems were that the pole for the fitness tube placements was on the same wall as the TV, such that I couldn’t watch the videos while trying to do the workouts—this and the fact that I couldn’t watch them anyway, since I was stuck on MSNBC for the first night of continued ballot counting after Election Day.

When I came down the next morning to check out and the guy at the front desk gave me the cup of coffee that I spilled on Ernest Tubb, I looked up as I was about to leave and saw that the glass-walled second-level fitness room overlooking the lobby even had a heavy bag! I hadn’t been able to hit a heavy bag since the start of the pandemic, and even the gyms that have them still won’t let you use them for the time being (though I think I’ve found one that will if you bring your own gloves).

As the return flight to O’Hare took off–and just before dozing off–I thought of Larry, the Omaha airport shuttle driver, who thanked me for the conversation on the way to the airport. It helped him start his day, he said, and I thanked him for helping me start mine.

For what it’s worth, Larry is African-American, as was the EVEN front desk clerk. Both couldn’t have been nicer, same with everyone we interacted with on the trip—the funeral guys, the Sunken Garden workers, the Pioneers Parkers who gave us directions to the statue. It didn’t matter, but I wondered who they all voted for in this still-red state where we’d just buried our mother and where the Coen Brothers filmed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Maybe that has something to do with why I dreamed last night of running into Tim Blake Nelson, whom I’ve met a couple times at Coen screenings, who was so great as Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and in the title role in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I breathlessly told him that he should have won an Oscar for his performance in the latter.

As for Mom, I was glad it worked out that I could be at her “farewell party,” to use the title of an old country song, a big hit in 1979 for Gene Watson, even if it was a bitter love song not lyrically applicable to Mom, whom Cousin Gary correctly lauded for her thoughtfulness and kindness. More than anything, I’m glad she got to vote, even if she didn’t get to celebrate its outcome.

I realize that this piece is nominally about my mother’s funeral–and my father’s–and that I haven’t said a whole lot about them and have made it all about me. I want you to know that I do feel guilty about this.

In all honesty, I was a rotten kid. Called into the principal’s office on the loudspeaker every morning. Hung out with the hoods. Peddled dope in the halls. One of those.

And our parents were way older than us. Too old, even, to even like The Beatles. But I’ll say this about my mom: She ended up liking one of my best friends, Don Smock, and I name him because he’s been dead quite a while, now, gone through at least three livers by my count, maybe four. Hepatitis, if I remember, from needles. I got off lucky in that respect, just thrombophlebitis at one point, and lots of missing veins.

Lots of my high school and post-HS friends have been dead a long time. O.D.’s, suicides, at least one murder and a few naturals. Many were bigtime drug dealers and did prison time. Don got a tattoo when we were in junior high, “J.D.,” for juvenile delinquent. Mom always pointedly pronounced his name “Shmock,” but he was a loyal friend, kinda turned his life around to where he became a private investigator, and was so considerate about my mom that she eventually grew to like him: When his body gave up and he was hospitalized in a coma, she actually went to visit him, and when he died, she asked me if she should go to his funeral. I assured her it wasn’t necessary, that after 30-plus years I had no idea who–if anyone–would be there, and if anyone were, they’d likely be fellow former, if not present, dopers and dealers.

And now, a brief aside, but first, a musical interlude!

I first saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys in Madison at the Great Hall of the Student Union in 1972, I think, five or six years before I started writing about music. Pictured second from the left next to him is Keith Whitley, who was with him then, and would later become a huge country star, whom I got to know, before drinking himself to death. I knew Ralph, too, and have always been grateful that he did a radio commercial for Obama’s first presidential campaign–extraordinary, in that he came from and represented deeply conservative political and musical territory–and let me interview him about it.

But that’s not the aside I pointed to. It’s this: Unlike most of my articles, which I post links to on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, I’m giving this a “soft open”; you’ll only see it if you stumble upon it, or if one of my hundred or so subscribers sends it to you (and yes, I know it says 2,000-something, but that’s total horseshit, some kind of technical error or bots attack that I’d have to spend a lot of money to correct). It’s just way too personal, and I don’t know what my siblings would think. And last time I posted parental passings on Facebook, it brought me unimaginable grief: First came last June when I cut-and-pasted Rob Reiner’s tweet in quotes announcing his father Carl’s death and attributing it Rob, and over a hundred Facebook friends read it to mean I was somehow announcing my own father’s death and expressed their sincere but misdirected condolences. Same thing happened in September when I did the same thing with Diana Rigg’s daughter’s announcement of her mom’s death. Everyone somehow thought I was sharing my mom’s death! Total, unbearable fucking fiasco.

And besides, as Murray said to an emotional friend of his mother (Aunt Selma) when she called to console him when Selma died at 89: “Lady! She was 89!”

Anyway, I thought of all this on the plane, and I thought of the scene at the beginning of The Chinese Connection, where Bruce Lee, overcome with grief, jumps into the grave of his teacher at his funeral. And had to laugh at my brother’s offer–tongue in cheek, presumably, yet with due reverence–should I have decided to follow suit in Lincoln, that he’d do the shoveling. I had considered it for a moment, maybe, then decided against it. Maybe, if I’d been reverently wearing my Ernest Tubb t-shirt, even with a coffee stain. I’m confident he’d be okay with it.

One last photo:

Awaiting extinction at Pioneers Park

And in honor of “the original E.T.,” Ernest Tubb:

And here’s a rare glimpse of Aunt Ruth with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra!:

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