Posted by: Bill Tracy | November 28, 2015

Thanksgiving, Resolved

After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.
-Oscar Wilde

Thanksgiving has always been a troubling day for me. It’s probably the same for a lot of people. Fulsome promise usually crumbling to grinding disappointment. So it seems fitting last year’s Thanksgiving Day is a bittersweet memory.

My oldest Thanksgiving pal. He was rescued from atop a supermarket cake nearly 20 years ago. Together ever since.

My oldest Thanksgiving pal. He was rescued from atop a supermarket cake nearly 20 years ago. Together ever since.

Mom was alive on Thanksgiving day last year. She had been invited to different family dinners with her children, but she wasn’t up to going out. I spent the day at her house, just the two of us. Nothing special; we just sat and talked as always. Fortunately, we agreed on most things, at least things of any import. Disagreements were things like Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels. While I acknowledge that he’s a better than average pitcher I don’t much respect him. She worshiped him.

Turkey wasn’t really on the menu for last year’s Thanksgiving Day. Mom’s turkey roasting days were well behind her, and I was not inclined to put on the chef’s hat. It was easier to get a take-out turkey dinner from a local diner. It was all-inclusive, salad to pumpkin pie, and none of it was very good. It never occurred to me they would serve something other than freshly roasted turkey — but there it was, turkey that looked like it came from a deli slicer covered with a pale, gelatinous liquid posing as gravy. I feel bad her last Thanksgiving had come down to such a disappointment. Later in the evening my sister Kathy stopped by with some leftovers from her real turkey dinner, so at least there was that. A few months later I did try to make up for it with a real fresh, hot roasted turkey breast from the local supermarket, a can of cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, etc. She really enjoyed it. But on her last Thanksgiving Day she deserved better, and that weighs on my soul.

Given that experience I felt pretty lousy about Thanksgiving this year. It wasn’t like I could conjure up a great turkey dinner and bring Mom back. So, I wasn’t much in the mood for spending the day with family. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Finally, I decided to just spend the day alone; maybe it felt like a proper penance. Sometimes however, fate has something else in mind.

I went outside to talk with a neighbor in the morning. Sunny and warm, such weather was nothing like a day you’d expect in late November. In shirtsleeves we discussed the melancholy of Thanksgivings past. His children are raised and gone and far away. Only he and his wife for Thanksgiving this year. Another neighbor sat alone with a bottle, already drunk on his porch; I declined an offer to join him. Getting out and away was my solution. I eased into Mom’s car and drove without destination in mind. Probably no surprise by mid-afternoon I ended up at the cemetery. No way family there can disappoint, I guess.

Mom, Dad & the family.

Mom, Dad & the family.

First I visited with my Aunt Edwyna who died two years ago. [We Lost Our Darlin’] Last Tuesday I visited with her husband, my Uncle Basil in Wilmington, DE. At 87, he has some dementia and sometimes sees what we do not. He told me he has been talking with my Mom and Dad and his wife, Edwyna; these were the major people of his entire life, and he misses them desperately. He told me they report heaven isn’t quite as great as they expected it to be. The rooms are small, and the beds take up most of the room. This was the most precious thing I’ve heard, maybe this whole year. It makes me smile every time I remember it.

Next I wandered over to the grave of my maternal grandmother, Catherine Cullinan. She was the love of my life and died age 92 in 1991. She is buried in a grave with Jacob Bielarski, a man her daughter Florence was married to. I had a very close relationship with him when I was a teen. He would drop by our house at 1 AM, get me out of bed and take me surf fishing on Long Beach Island on cold November nights. The “Striper Derby” for the best striped bass catch was something he dreamed of winning. He and I would argue philosophy (Like me, he had also at one time been in a seminary.), and he took my thoughts seriously. I was reading Thoreau at one time, and he tried to convince me it was all youthful idealism. He died suddenly around age 35 while installing insulation in his attic; he shot a staple gun into an electrical wire, and he was electrocuted. A truck driver, he was a deeply spiritual man of great charity. He and Florence at one time had taken an old homeless man in to share their home. That’s a gravesite where I always leave with fewer tears than I came with.

It’s a short walk from there to my Mom’s grave. She’s with Dad and his Mom. There are six names on the tombstone. Until this year there were five, and I always stared at the empty space knowing Mom’s name would be there before long. Now that empty space is in my heart. Maybe Uncle Basil’s story got me going, but I decided if he could talk with them, I could get into the act too. Since last year’s Thanksgiving dinner was so disappointing, I decided I’d take Mom out for a dinner this year. So I invited her to sit next to me in her car where she always sat when I took her places.

Brooklawn Diner

Brooklawn Diner

Not quite dinner time, we went over to the river and watched river traffic and birds for a while. The little riverfront park in Gloucester City was eerie. Normally there are at least a few people around; this day not a single one. A recreational pier extends out into the river, and we sat on a bench enjoying the mild air and moving water. Not much traffic on the river; the Spirit of Philadelphia did come by. It was probably a Thanksgiving dinner cruise, and there were a lot of people aboard. I took a few pictures as I always do, boats, planes, etc.

At sunset I knew it was dinner time. We decided on the Brooklawn Diner. Mom, Dad, Basil and Edwyna used to love the place. It closed a couple of years ago, but over the last year or so it was entirely rebuilt and now looks great. I’d never been there, but given Mom’s recommendation…. I didn’t feel compelled to have the turkey dinner they offered; Mom would surely want me to have what I’d really want. So I ordered an omelet, and it was excellent. Our pregnant waitress remarked that she was eating for two these days; I didn’t tell her I was too. Since she was away from home and serving people she didn’t know, I figured the waitress deserved special attention. We left a 90% tip, and Mom heartily approved.

Mom enjoyed her Thanksgiving dinner this year, and I feel good about that. I also feel good that the troubling notion of Thanksgiving has now been solved. Every year from now on, Mom and I will have Thanksgiving dinner together at the diner. Drop by if you’d like to say hello. Mom would enjoy seeing you.

 

Thanksgiving Day sunset on the Delaware River.

Thanksgiving Day sunset on the Delaware River.

Posted by: Bill Tracy | November 10, 2015

Back in the World, Killing Softly

Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
-Sung by Roberta Flack, 1973
-Writers: Charles Fox, Robin Spielberg, Norman Gimbel

Aboard the Cape May Ferry, September 2015

Aboard the Cape May Ferry, September 2015

The real killing is over. That’s now in a faraway place and time for these war veterans. They now engage the world with guitars, drums, big amps and speakers and an undertone of spirituality. Sadly, our government has replaced them at war with a new corp of young people who will follow orders without thought or question. These veterans have left all that behind and come back to the world. Their pain now gets played out in the Blues, a personal music of redemption and hope. This is a musical band of brothers now, and the call sign is “Then There’s Us.”

I was on the Cape May Lewes Ferry crossing Delaware Bay one overcast Sunday last September when I found Then There’s Us on the back of the boat, belting it out for bikers. This trip was a “motorcycles only” ferry to accommodate motorcyclists who had spent the last few days at a bike rally in Ocean City, Maryland. Ferry management wanted to soothe the savage beasts with music, I suppose. Most of the savage beasts upon motorcycles today are not the “Wild Ones,” of 1953 — more like middle-aged, middle-class folks gasping for a breath of freedom in this land and finding it outside the choking confines of seat belts, airbags and child seat regulations. This band looked like a Rolling Stones redux, at least from an age perspective. Old folks, mostly.

Then There's Us. Front row (l to r) Bunny Foster, Sgt. Ducky, Tommy Larkin, Randy Pomykacz. Back row: Bob Sherwin [sound] and Jimi Prettyman.

Then There’s Us. Front row (l to r) Bunny Foster, Sgt. Ducky, Tommy Larkin, Randy Pomykacz. Back row: Bob Sherwin [sound] and Jimi Prettyman.

The drummer had a Vietnam veteran cap hanging on his drumset. I asked between songs and found most of the guys were Vietnam vets. Maybe it was the long vistas in the middle of the Delaware Bay, maybe it was the music, I don’t know, but something sent me into what probably looked like the thousand yard stare. I was transported back to Vietnam, and my fellow vets and I were there, and young again. In Vietnam, our number one thought/goal/fantasy was to “get back to the world.” We had been taken from our world and transported to a place we didn’t want to be, doing things we didn’t want to be doing and collecting combat pay because death was just being neighborly. Getting “back to the world” meant everything. We each had our own ideas of what getting back to the world meant, but first we had to get there.

When my Vietnam flashback ended I looked again at these musicians. What I saw were the guys who had made it back to the world, and I smiled. Each of them was doing exactly what he wanted to be doing in the place he wanted to be, back in the world. There was bliss on each face. And in that vision was peace. Blessed peace was right there for anyone with eyes to see. Truly, back in the world, that world we had envisioned and yearned for from that place of war.

Sgt. Ducky on bass, lost in the land of peace.

Sgt. Ducky on bass, lost in the land of peace.

Armistice Day is about peace. What we’re now calling Veterans Day was first called Armistice Day. It was created in response to the never-before-imagined horrors of World War I. That war formally ended at 11 AM on November 11, 1918. Thereafter, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, bells were rung all over the world to keep horrible war at bay and peace in our hearts. I guess after World War II happened we gave up on peace. The U.S. government changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day, and the emphasis went to honoring those who had served (and are now serving) in the military. It would be hard to argue against recognizing those who put their lives on hold and sign up to do whatever it takes on behalf of the country. Yet, I do wish we thought better of peace; perhaps just one day each year  to recognize the possibility?

Anyway, I decided to spend some time with the folks of Then There’s Us. I wanted to know the stories of Randy playing a guitar behind his head and Jimi flashing peace signs with his drumsticks and Sgt. Ducky, lost in his bass guitar the way a young man is lost in the eyes of his lover.

Lead vocals and guitar Randy Pomykacz belting it out aboard the ferry.

Lead vocals and guitar Randy Pomykacz belting it out aboard the ferry.

Randy Pomykacz is the band’s hyper-energetic music director and spiritual linchpin. Originally from Philadelphia, he went through 12 years of Catholic school, then decided he might become a priest after high school. “I went to the monastery,” he said. “I was going to be a Franciscan priest. They showed me a real shrunken head one of them had from doing missionary work. So I had to make a decision between the band and the priesthood.” He had his first guitar around age five (Harmony Rocket) and studied with Edgar Stanistreet. Over his career he’s played with Hall & Oates, Ernest Smith (Wilson Pickett’s bass player), Herb Brown (Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”) and others.

They play a lot of original and obscure music considered Blues. What I hear reminds me a lot of Jimi Hendrix. Randy says his mission is to send a message. “As a priest you can only do it with one person at a time,” he says. “But with the microphone I can reach thousands.” He mentioned the Jimi Hendrix song, Belly Button Window as an anti-abortion message he likes to send. Lyrics include:

And I’m looking out my belly button window

And I swear I see nothing but a lot of frowns

And I’m wondering if they want me around.

Sgt. Ducky (Kenneth Mallard) is the bass player and leader of the band. He’s placid and laid back as bass players often seem to be. Yet he exudes a strong authority, and you can see yourself following his lead. Legal problems as a teenager in Jersey City forced him into the military and Vietnam. He talks of being a sergeant and spending all his time in the bush on special ops missions and having been captured as a prisoner of war. His first gig back in the world was with the New York City Police. After eight years, apparently things weren’t going so well. “I hold the record for the least number of people ever arrested,” he said. “I think I arrested 13 people in eight years. I just found other ways of dealing with it.” Then he went to work for New Jersey Department of Corrections as a Correctional Sergeant. “I was always a sergeant, except for New York police,” he says. That career ended in a prison riot that sent nearly 30 officers to the hospital. “I lost my eye and teeth, and I think they broke every bone in my body,” he says. “They didn’t think I would live.” When asked if there was any song that transported him back to Vietnam, he said Manic Depression by Hendrix.

Jimi Prettyman drumming for peace.

Jimi Prettyman drumming for peace.

Jimi Prettyman is the band’s percussion master. “It was jail or the military,” he says so he left the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia for the U.S. Army. He also said, “I thought Vietnam might actually be safer than the streets where I grew up.” Today he says the song, Hey Jude takes him back to Vietnam. Back in the world, he got out of Philadelphia in 1979 to raise his family in the safety of South Jersey. Retired now from wrenching on automobiles and such, he spends his time doing music and taking care of his 90-year-old mother. He said if he had to die 10 minutes from now, he’d go out listening to Rain Song by Led Zeppelin.

Tommy Larkin is working his way onto the stage as the band’s singer. He was banging a lot of tambourine the day I saw them play. Younger than the rest, he went to war in Iraq in 1991. After the military he spent years as an elementary school teacher and a couple of years working in prisons. With the soul of a caregiver he said if he were to die right now, he’d want to be listening to John Lennon singing Imagine.

Bunny Foster never went military, but she did a great job learning to play keyboards. With a light-up-the-stage smile and a good voice, she backs up some vocals while doing the keyboard duties. She’s not retired and maintains a full-time job and family.

“You can listen to all those other bands,” says Sgt. Ducky, “Then There’s Us. For what we do, we’re the best band around.”

Nice to know on Armistice Day there are war veterans who have come back to the world and found their peace.

To contact the band, email thentheresus@gmail.com

Jimi Prettyman, drummer

Jimi Prettyman, drummer

Randy Pomykacz, lead guitar and vocals

Randy Pomykacz, lead guitar and vocals

Bunny Foster, keyboards and vocals

Bunny Foster, keyboards and vocals

Tommy Larkin

Tommy Larkin, vocals

Sgt. Ducky (Ken Mallard)

Sgt. Ducky (Ken Mallard)

Older Posts »

Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 44 other followers