Bye Bye, Bill, With Love

When other people were afraid to touch my son Joe, for fear of breaking him, Bill Cochran picked him up and danced with him near an outdoor stage in a rural mountain valley, two Deadheads blissfully tasting the locally grown live music.

Bill was in Sautee with his family, wife Kathryn and daughter Annabelle. This was the kind of vacation they were used to – traveling to music festivals. I liked them immediately. This was an early 2000’s version of getting on the bus.

Both fellas, Joe and Bill, had come to this place on the road, between the proverbial ‘dawn and the dark of night’ by different routes. Joe was four or five at the time, and had just recently become a Deadhead. We’d rented The Grateful Dead Movie from Netflix, and he lit on the concert/documentary film like a moth to a porchlight, watched it three times before we mailed it back a few days later. Mom and Dad were paying attention. We bought him some GD CDs, and he was hooked. We all were.

For Bill, it started as a kid, when he was 12 or 13. On trips to Atlanta, while his mother shopped he’d walk to Piedmont Park, where the Allman Brothers and the Hampton Grease Band (featuring Bruce Hampton before he became known as ‘Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret.’) used to play. “The bus came by and I climbed aboard and it’s been an ongoing story,” Bill said about eight years ago, when he and Tommy Deadwyler and I had backstage passes for Widespread Panic in Myrtle Beach.

The other day, Bill took his permanent backstage pass, finally giving in to cancer. He’d beaten the cell-fucking sonofabitch decades ago, which means he finished with a 1-1 record against cancer. But Bill had an astonishing winning percentage in the so-called game of life. He experienced so much in his nearly 62 rotations around the sun.

He was a terrific writer, an entrepreneur, a salesman, a bartender, a father. He absorbed every drop of what he could from life, discarding the divisive bullshit, holding love close. He loved music, and his poems often sounded like songs. I think if we could see a physical manifestation of Bill at this moment, he’d be doing a victory dance. At any rate, he definitely won me over that day at the Sautee Jamboree, when he asked if he could dance with my son.

I imagine him being greeted in the ethereal backstage by Bruce Hampton, with a pinky handshake. While he was on Earth, Col. Bruce had a number of special powers, one of which was his ability to correctly guess birthdays. I’m not so sure it was guessing. He could usually tell your birthday upon first meeting you, when he felt like it. And I can clearly remember when Bruce finally “guessed” Bill’s birthday.

They’d known each other for years. Bill had seen and met Bruce bunches of times, at venues across the country, but Bruce had never guessed Bill’s birthday – never tried. One night, the stars aligned. I happened to be at Smith’s Olde Bar, on the spur of the moment, to see Bruce’s band (it was either late Pharaoh Gummit or early Madrid Express) play at a fundraising event. I was both delighted and not surprised to see Bill there – all the way from St. Simon’s, also on the spur of the moment. So we hung out all night.

Before Bruce went on, the three of us were sitting in a booth downstairs when Bill asks, “why haven’t you guessed my birthday yet? Can you do it now?” Bruce said, “it doesn’t work like that, not when you ask me. It has to come to me.” Later in the evening, backstage, it came to him. Bruce pointed to Bill and said, “Bill Cochran, you’re a Leo … August 21.” Nailed it.

Bill was there last May, in 2017, at Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton in the Fox Theatre, when Bruce collapsed on stage during the encore, and died. As Bruce was being carried away from the Fox Theatre on an ambulance gurney, Bill saw a feint light emitting from Bruce’s shirt pocket – his cell phone, probably. Later, Bill said, “it was God texting Bruce.”

Not very long after that, Bill was on his way to a job interview in Athens. As he walked down the street, he heard Bruce’s voice in his ear, “Bill Cochran … Leo.”

Bill recalled, “It was like he was walking right next to me. I turned to look, almost expecting to see Bruce. I saw a door with one of those lion door knockers. Leo the lion.”

Noting the address on the door (which was probably 821, but I can’t remember for certain), Bill hurried to the nearest store and bought a lottery ticket, played the address, and won 50 bucks. Of course he did.

Bill had a knack of being in the right place at the right time, then leveraging that energy into the greatest adventures for himself and those fortunate to be around him. In fact, I probably owe my life to Bill. Here’s the short version:

Me and Bill and his nephew-in-law Glenn hitched a ride with what seemed like a harmless neo-hippie couple following a Widespread Panic show a few years back. We were in the Alpharetta outback, miles from our hotel, the shakedown having been shut down rather early by the local constables.

The very pregnant woman behind the wheel said, as we squeezed into the car, “the problem with being pregnant is I can’t do as much acid as I’d like.”

We took her at her word and climbed in, Glenn and I into the backseat, next to a not-yet-used baby seat, and Bill huddled in a fetal position under the hatchback. We hadn’t gone a few yards when Bill said, “stop the car and let us out.” Turns out, there were guns in the back, loose and sliding around and poking Bill. The hippie woman kept driving, not in the direction of our hotel.

“Stop the fucking car and let us out,” Bill said. “I’m being poked by guns back here!”

The husband dude in the front passenger seat shouted, “I know my second amendment rights!”

Finally, she pulled over and we sprang out and took off. Bill and Glenn had bought some merchandise, and Bill had a bottle of moonshine – all of it left in the car. “They were going to rob and kill us,” Bill insisted as we hurried off. “I just saved your lives.” I’m not one to argue.

Last weekend, as the expiration date in Bill’s DNA inched closer, Tommy and I drove down to the hospice center in Brunswick to spring him for a little while, hustle him off to the beach, “where my soul resides,” Bill said, the three of us knowing it would be our last time together, this side of the curtain. Bill was heavily medicated and exhausted but fully present.

Saturday night, as we prepared to go out for dinner, changing out of our stinking clothes, Bill needed a clean shirt, but the t-shirt in his overnight bag was a pain to get over his head, because pretty much everything hurt. He wanted something looser, easier to put on. “Something like this,” I asked, tugging at my red, black, and gray polo shirt. “Yes, that one,” he said.

We spent most of Saturday night watching YouTube videos of recent Dead and Company shows – Bill had wanted to take his daughter, Annabelle, to the Atlanta show. Even though he was getting tired by 10 p.m., and in a heavy chemical haze, Bill felt the music. His head nodded rhythmically, he tapped one foot. When Bruce Hampton played, he opened his eyes and smiled, held a hand up. We sat there in the condo with the sea noise and the rock and roll until Bill was ready for bed.

Tommy, who has been Bill’s guardian angel these last few months, monitored our friend’s every need – medication, and so forth. He tucked Bill into bed. After we all said goodnight, Tommy sat on the bedside a few moments, his hand on Bill’s chest. It stopped moving, like he was holding his breath, or …

“Jerry, he’s gone,” Tommy called, sounding a little panicked.

We both expected that Bill might not last the weekend, so neither of us would have been surprised if he’d decided to take flight right then. And on a certain level, I think we both would have been relieved. But still, this is Tommy’s oldest friend, his big brother. They’d been part of each other’s lives for almost 50 years. For Tommy, most of the important lessons about being a man in this life came from Bill.

“He’s gone,” Tommy cried, turning on the bathroom light to illuminate the room. I nearly choked.

That’s when Bill raised his head, fully alert, and blurted, “Who? Me?”

We laughed our asses off over that and Bill wouldn’t let us forget it the next morning when he called from the bedroom, “Hey, Tommy … he’s gone!”

On Sunday, we took him to the beach in a special wheelchair with big rubber wheels and flotation devices on the side. The thing moved easily, like the sand was glass, and we got as close to the water as Bill wanted, then stood there soaking up the sun and listening to the water and the laughter of families. Bill dozed, opened his eyes, smiled, contemplated, breathed, stretching the minutes like saltwater taffy, stretching them into hours.

He wanted to move back to the deck overlooking the beach. He was getting tired, but didn’t want us to take him back to the hospice center yet. It got to be late in the afternoon and Bill started thinking about that bed. It was time to go back to Brunswick. On the way, Bill reminded us again how much he loved the Sidney Lanier Bridge. From the backseat, I looked at geography and colors that Bill had captured in hundreds of gorgeous photographs over the years, pixelated love offerings for the world of his world.

At the hospice center, we arranged his stuff, tucked him in, and said our goodbyes. The last time I saw my friend, he was still wearing the shirt off my back, wished that I could give him more, and realized as we turned north on Altama Avenue that I’d forgotten to tell him how much I appreciated that dance, all those years ago, when he spun around a green grass field with my little boy in his arms.

Advertisements

Depression: The Invisible Bullet

Anthony Bourdain had the best job — world-traveling storyteller and eater. And he was really, really great at it. And he took his life. Depression is as real as a bullet. This is something I wrote a few years ago (with a few recent additions) in the wake of another “successful” man’s untimely death. Sometimes, it’s a struggle. If there’s a bottom line to the essay, maybe it’s this: There isn’t one way out, there are many ways forward, and there are people and services and other things that can help you find the way!

Robin Williams did a lot of stuff that I’ll never forget, but there’s one standup bit that my wife and I have consistently borrowed over the past 30 years. It’s the one where he puts Mr. Phallus on the witness stand and asks him what he remembers about the night in question. Mr. Phallus answers, “Let’s see, it was light, it was dark, it was light, it was dark.”

Today it’s dark. Really, really dark. Today, nearly four years after Mr. Williams took his own life, we learn about the suicide of another seemingly unstoppable human force, Anthony Bourdain.

I didn’t know either man, and I rarely get choked up when a celebrity shuffles off for his backstage pass. But in Williams’ case, I was not ashamed to be part of the mob that said, “this one got to me.” And in Bourdain’s case, I’m left shaking my head, mumbling to myself, “dude had the best job in the world … why?”

Well, for one thing, life and death isn’t all about the work that you do or love.

Anyway, I can understand a little of what these men must have been going through, I think. Depression is the soul’s dark implosion; hope, will and desire sucked dry of momentum; no reason to live, no reason to try, microwaves of pain constricting and expanding in a nasty mockery of rhythm, and the nagging persistence of a beating heart to mark the endless hours. Or something like that. I’ve pulled over when the convulsions of depression rendered driving impossible, when I wanted to cry or scream, or die where I sat, alone, forgotten and hopeless.

I’ve also suffered a rotator cuff injury patting myself on the back for finding whatever courage or common sense it took to get back on the highway and show up for whatever I was driving to.

So, about 15 years ago I wrote a magazine story titled, ‘Down Time: The High Cost of Depression.’ It was written by a breadwinner, a husband and father whose infant son had recently been diagnosed with cerebral palsy – his little boy, who seemed to be facing insurmountable, unfair challenges.

It was written by a man taking some sudden sharp turns in his life, a guy who loved and loves his family with a gut-punching fury, a self-pitying, miserable man who felt well suited to approach the subject of depression with a measure of understanding.

The story focused some on the financial toll depression had on businesses, and some on the personal struggles of a few big shots, CEOs and the like, and these dudes shared their serious-shit depression stories.

“I felt enveloped by a darkness. I was going down, down, down, down. It was like being in a deep well that I couldn’t climb out of,” Tom Johnson, the former head of CNN and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, told me. He described times when the anxiety was so smothering, he sought refuge in the safe place under his desk. Hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Turns out, depression is a great equalizer – CEOs and regular shmoes stand side-by-side and front-to-back in the Prozac line. According to the experts I interviewed at the time, environment (the stress of raising a child with profound disabilities, or a demanding job, for example) accounts for about 60 percent of the risk for major depression, and genetics (dad was depressed, so you might be, too) about 40 percent. Those are risk factors. It’s not the job’s or the kid’s or your old man’s fault that you’re bummed out. Basically, it’s your biochemistry, which doesn’t always react to those factors in a healthy way.

The lions of industry that spoke with me faced their depressions with different arsenals. Drugs, therapy, even shock treatment were part of their assorted proverbial toolboxes. They all agreed on one thing. There was (and still is, God help me) a stigma associated with depression. “Even in today’s enlightened society, you tell someone you’re going to a psychiatrist or taking an antidepressant pill, and you are sort of singled out,” said J.B. Fuqua, an Atlanta businessman and philanthropist who died in 2006.

Boy, was he right on. A lot of so-called enlightened people still have a hard time accepting the validity of the vice-like choke hold that depression can have on a person – even if they’ve experienced it themselves (depression doesn’t come with the automatic power of empathy, unfortunately).

That article from long ago ends with a contention from Johnson that treatment – drugs, therapy, whatever – isn’t necessarily a cure. “Sometimes, you just have to make a change,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to get away from whatever is pulling you down.”

It only occurred to years later, when I dug up the old article, what a chilling statement that is. Johnson didn’t mean it that way. He meant, distance yourself from the thing that is destroying you. For Tom Johnson, it meant leaving CNN. But for Robin Williams, and way too many others, it means leaving everything. For them, the sound of their own breathing was something to escape.

I’ve heard people say – people I otherwise respect – that ‘hope’ is for the lazy, that ‘hoping’ is a passive way to avoid the responsibility of actually ‘doing.’ That is misanthropic bullshit. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul.” For a lot of people, hope is the thing that keeps them going. Hope is the breath of life.

It’s difficult to fathom (especially for a scribe who has, from time to time, pursued the “big gig”)  how someone as seemingly self-assured and fulfilled as Anthony Bourdain could be so far down, there was no climbing back.

And while I understand that Robin Williams already was battling incurable Parkinson’s disease, it’s still heartbreaking to think that someone as gifted and beloved as he was, an artist who unleashed such a positive spirit and energy on the world, can be totally incapable of drawing hope or support from the big love surrounding him. This powerful, positive presence in the universe was utterly hopeless. And if it could happen to him …

Well, that’s why it got to me.

Bruce Brought the Joyful Noise

We were idling at the traffic light on Peachtree Street where it crosses 10th, three talkative men in quiet darkness, while Atlanta’s glass and concrete and light glittered around and above us. Joe Zambie had just called from the hospital.

“He’s gone,” Joe said in a rickety voice we could hear over the blue tooth, and then a deep breath, and then, “Bruce is gone.”

Jim Basile was driving with Johnny Knapp in the passenger seat and me in the back. It was a little after 1 a.m., May 1st having bled into May 2nd.

The words, “oh no,” came from Johnny, a painful rasp sucked out of him like an atmosphere, and we floated down Peachtree in self-contained outer space, yanked into the numbing void by the gravitational pull of Col. Bruce Hampton, who collapsed on stage an hour or two earlier that night.

“Our friend is gone,” Joe said, an amplified and inarguable tone of finality.

zambi bruce

Bruce was the class clown of rock and roll, a shy extrovert, a conjurer and performance artist with the manic energy of a pinball, a bandleader and musician who delivered the greatest swansong in the history of live music when he collapsed during the encore of his 70th birthday celebration concert at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta a year ago. It was easily the ultimate surreal moment of a surreal life, and certainly the most dramatic ending in a long history of rock and roll drama; tragic and triumphant and real and raw, too perfect to be plausible, and a complete emotional drain.

Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton was going to be a night to remember no matter what happened. The concert was arranged as a rotation of different lineups. Bruce came on early and left after a few songs. Then a series of all-star groupings came and went, musical dream teams honoring Bruce, who blazed a global trail and helped make some of them rich and/or famous and/or infamous.

After several hours of these rotating super groups, Bruce returned to the stage with a lineup that included Johnny on piano (he needed help getting on stage in his wheelchair), old Aquarium Rescue Unit bandmates Jimmy Herring, Jeff Sipe, and Jeff Mosier; John Bell and Dave Schools of Widespread Panic; Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi; and Jon Fishman of Phish, among others.

Johnny improvised a “Happy Birthday” moment as the set began. “It’s his birthday and I was surprised that nobody sang to him yet on stage, so I took the initiative,” Johnny said later. He plunked out the song and pointed up at his friend, and Bruce sat on the stool with a guitar, grinning like a fool.

Later, after playing I’m So Glad (the Delta blues number by Skip James), the band left the stage. Johnny was wheeled off, and the techs came on to make preparations for a hellzapoppin’ finale featuring an eclectic electric lineup – an updated version of Bruce’s old Zambiland Orchestra. This lineup included most of the artists who had played that evening.

The last song of the night was Turn on Your Love Light, one of Bruce’s favorites. He always preferred the Bobby Bland version of the song to all others, and even gave it his version of the guttural Bland growl.

During that number, Bruce turned his back to the audience and motioned to 14-year-old guitar wunderkind, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, to step up and take a solo. Then, he dropped to his knees, arms in front of him, as if paying homage to the young guitarist, as if Taz was just blowing him away – the kind of stunt Col. Bruce had been pulling for ages with other musicians who’d blown him away.

Denny Walley was among the musicians standing closest to Bruce when he went down. Walley, former guitarist and collaborator with Frank Zappa and Capt. Beefheart, remembered, “The guys who have played with him a lot more than I have, they’d seen his antics, so when he went down in front of Taz, and the other guys were laughing, I laughed, too. Then I stepped forward, between the two monitors and saw Bruce’s face, and it looked like he was sleeping like a baby.”

Bruce didn’t get up. Instead, he soared. There’s a picture that someone took during the show’s final moments, one of the last pictures taken of Bruce while he was alive. You can see a ghostly radiance surrounding him, “maybe it’s his spirit leaving him,” Johnny Knapp said. That’s what Johnny thinks, that it was Bruce’s spirit, or soul, leaving town.

It was the most extraordinary event of Walley’s life. “It was totally life changing,” he said. “I have never seen someone die before, and I knew Bruce said more than once that he’d rather die on stage doing what he loves, and I guess that would be my first pick, too. But, it blew my mind. I was in shock probably for a month. To go from that high moment, that ecstatic moment, with 4,600 people on their feet, to … well, you know. It’s overwhelming to think about.”

It is. So I’ll continue here without thinking:

Shortly before he went back on stage for the last time, Bruce stood near Johnny, his pal, his hero, a New York musician who’d battled polio and had a long and distinguished career playing jazz and society music. Bruce, who had fostered so many young musicians on their way to something bigger, had become Knapp’s chief artistic benefactor, embellishing on the piano player’s already remarkable career. “He played with Louis Armstrong in barns where they piled horseshit in the corner to keep flies away from the band,” he said during one of the weekly lunches at an IHOP in the Atlanta suburbs.

The lunches had been every other week, arranged by Hampton and Graham to bring exposure and friends to the aging piano player. But after Johnny’s wife, Dee, died in February 2015, Bruce increased the lunch schedule to every Tuesday, and the group – almost all of them Atlanta-area musicians – kept showing up.

Anyway, Johnny and Jim waited there in the wings at the Fox while the band started the encore set, and the expiration clock in Bruce’s DNA secretly counted down to zero. He stood near Johnny’s wheelchair, and Johnny said to Bruce, “thanks, Bruce, you’ve made me so happy tonight.”

Bruce said, “Thank you. You make me happy every day.”

Johnny said, “Well, you’ve got five minutes. An encore, then it’s over.”

Bruce said, “Johnny, I’ll be glad when it’s over.”

A few days later, when he could talk about it without crying, Johnny said, “And here I thought we were talking about the concert. Maybe we weren’t.”

•••••

Several days after Hampton 70, the Madrid Express played their regular Thursday night show at the Vista Room, and the place was packed with supportive, mourning fans. While some of the musicians from the Fox show blended back into their routines – touring, recording, and so on – many of the Atlanta locals showed up at the Vista Room to jam with Tyler Neal, the young singer and finger-picking guitarist who’d taken on the herculean task of serving as the band’s de facto leader.

They kept the Thursday thing going a while longer, a month or so. “It was something we had to do, something Bruce would have done,” said Neal. “It was Thursday night. There were times when we could really feel him with us.”

Walley went for a few Thursday shows. He went that first Thursday after Bruce died, when the band was lifted by a wave of energy, feeding on the crowd’s emotion. But as the weeks rolled on, the crowds diminished, and the energy changed, lives moving on, in different directions.

“I went that first Thursday to support the band, to help keep Bruce’s spirit alive,” Walley said. “I went back that second time and had to leave after the first set. It was too much and I couldn’t handle it without Bruce there. I really loved the fact that Tyler and the guys were trying to keep it going, but without Bruce … it’s hard to explain.”

This kind of thing was not without precedent in the Bruce Hampton universe. He was a band’s leader and its creativity glue – not a mentor as much as a facilitator of genius who scouted, then surrounded himself with exceptional free-range talent, and let it run slightly wild, a controlled kind of frenzy that resulted in some of the most brilliant music you’ve heard, a diaphanous sonic thread effortlessly connecting blues to jazz to rock and other places.

When you lose that glue, that connective human tissue, that otherness that Bruce Hampton gave his bands – when you lose that, you often lose the band. About two months after Bruce’s death, the Madrid Express stopped playing regularly as a unit, reuniting for the occasional gig honoring the Colonel. Otherwise, these artists had their own projects, other opportunities to pursue or create.

They had to move on, with intention. It’s what Bruce would have expected. It’s what Bruce would have done. It’s what he did.

Jimmy Herring remembers the slow, quiet, and certain death of the original Aquarium Rescue Unit, which soldiered on for several more years after Bruce, who’d assembled and guided the band, up and quit.

“I’ll never forget this one gig,” Herring recalled. “There was this girl standing near the stage, watching us. It was months after Bruce had left. She said, ‘What happened to that joyful noise?’ I told her, ‘the joyful noise has left the band.’”

Hank Aaron Goes Deep

This story about Hank Aaron was originally published eight years ago in a magazine that used to pay my salary. I’m waving this slightly edited version in front of your faces right now, on April 8, 2018, because it’s been 44 years since No. 44 broke the Babe’s record. 

 

Hank Aaron was baseball’s humble virtuoso. Consistent as sunrise, he set an unmatched standard of sustained excellence as a player, breezed into the Hall of Fame and into the Atlanta Braves front office, started a business empire and a philanthropic foundation, had a Major League hitting award named in his honor, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, settled gracefully into his position as an elder statesman of the game, and into the collective American mindset as one of the greatest players of all time.

Aaron, the quiet superstar radiating organic poise, never sought the spotlight, though it eventually found him. But just in case anyone was watching, he always made being Hank Aaron a full-time job.

“You have to carry your dignity a little bit further than the field, you know,” Aaron says, as if you really should know this. “Just because you’ve taken the uniform off doesn’t mean you stop being a professional. You try to live your life and play the game in such a way that others would want to emulate.”

If Aaron sounds like a Boy Scout, he comes by it honestly – he was one. And he says his scouting experience, while growing up in heavily segregated Mobile, Ala., “was the greatest thing that happened to me as a kid, and it taught me the rules and regulations of life,” while his parents – Herbert and Estella – instilled in young Henry an adherence to the golden rule.

“That’s what they expected from me, that’s the way they wanted their kids to be,” says Aaron. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Of course that never applied to pitchers, whose favorite nicknames for Aaron were “Bad Henry,” and “The Hammer.”

In athletic mannerism and grace he seemed most similar to Joe DiMaggio who, like Aaron, was an outfielder who could hit for power and average. But Aaron took his cues from Jackie Robinson, whom he considers his role model.

Aaron was a young teen when he first saw Robinson play in an exhibition game, and remembers evenings spent around the radio whenever Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers were on the air.

“Here was the first African American in the big leagues, someone the black community could really look up to,” Aaron says. “And he really set the example of what it takes to be a professional athlete – beyond hitting home runs and base hits. It wasn’t in what he said, but the way he carried himself.

“You start idolizing someone, you watch their every move. The way they walk, the way they talk, the way they carry themselves. He didn’t have to say anything to me, because I was paying attention.”

Good thing Robinson didn’t say anything, because Aaron – the man who stood up to vicious racism and death threats while chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record – says he probably would have been tongue-tied and paralyzed with fear. Robinson was to Aaron what Aaron became to legions of baby boomer ball fans – an idol.

 

RECOGNIZING ROBINSON

So when the Georgia Historical Society announced that Aaron (along with Ted Turner) would be named a Georgia Trustee this year (2010), the tribute was particularly sweet because the society was simultaneously recognizing Robinson as its Georgia Days Honoree.

“It’s difficult to put into words what this honor means to me,” Aaron says. “Not only because I grew up in the South and have spent most of my life in Georgia, but also because of what Jackie Robinson meant to me, as a baseball player and a role model. This is something I’m very proud of.”

As a player Aaron was the coolest of customers, his easy tranquility disguising an intense focus and passion to succeed. To some observers, he looked as likely to take a nap in the batter’s box as he was to commit violent abuse on a baseball, which he did with alarming regularity.

His career might best be viewed from a distance, from a vantage point of years. Aaron didn’t hit moon shots like Mickey Mantle, didn’t lose his hat running down fly balls like Willie Mays – he didn’t play in New York. He wasn’t flashy. But he was rock solid and relentless, more durable than Mantle or Mays.

He also hit for a higher average than they did, collected more base hits, was probably their equal in the field, drove in more runs than anyone who ever played, and on April 8, 1974 passed Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader when he belted No. 715 in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium against the Los Angeles Dodgers and their starter, lefty Al Downing (who had been the first black pitcher in New York Yankees history).

“What a marvelous moment for baseball,” said Vin Scully, voice of the Dodgers, calling the game for a national audience. “What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.”

He broke into baseball as a teenager with the Mobile Black Bears, a semipro barnstorming team, and moved up to the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League before being signed by the Milwaukee Braves, making his Major League debut with them in 1954. Aaron moved with the club to Atlanta in 1966, returning to the South as an established superstar. He was a Milwaukee Brewer when he hit his last home run, No. 755, in his final season, 1976.

On a cold December day, two months before his 76th birthday, he patiently guides a visitor through the maze of Atlanta Braves administrative offices at Turner Field, walking with the aching gait of a retired guy who rarely missed a day of work in 23 years of demanding, physical competition against strong, fast, often rough men.

“Things were a little different in those days,” Aaron says, smiling. “Especially the pitchers. Take a guy like Bob Gibson. He was not only dominating, he was scary. And tough. I saw him hit guys when he knew full well that he was going to bat the next inning – and that he would probably get thrown at.

“The great ones – like Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal – had a real toughness about them. When they got into the sixth or seventh inning with a one-run lead, there was no way they would leave the game. Lot of guys today, by the sixth inning they’re looking for somebody to come in to relieve them.”

Aaron relished the one-on-one confrontation with pitchers and he’s proud of his accomplishments with a bat, but only if you ask him even then, in an understated way, because he had to face some savage racial punches while rewriting the record book, and much external baggage came with his records and it left some scars.

The chase for Ruth’s record was brutal. While players and most fans, especially in Atlanta, cheered Aaron’s run at history, he received piles of hate mail from anonymous racists who did not want a black man holding baseball’s most cherished record.

“I think that home run was one of the greatest moments in baseball history, one of the great thrills of my life and a great thrill for the black community. But it was not easy,” says Aaron, mellowed by time, understating the pressure. “There were people, a lot of them, who simply were not ready for me to break that record, because of my skin color.”

In 2007, Barry Bonds, who was under investigation for using performance-enhancing drugs, passed Aaron’s home run record.

“It was bound to happen,” Aaron says. “I held it for a long time and enjoyed it. But just as I passed Babe Ruth and Bonds passed me, somebody’s gonna come along and pass him. That’s the nature of it. Records are made to be broken.”

Of all his baseball accomplishments, Aaron is most proud of the fact that he was able to play at the highest level for almost all of his 23 years in the Major Leagues.

“That’s the kind of record you achieve with the help of others,” he says. “In baseball, for me, that meant great teammates, guys like Eddie Mathews hitting in front of you or behind you in the batting order, protecting you.

“Even before I started playing, when I was still chasing my dream to play in the Majors, had it not been for other people helping, reaching out, I never would have made it, in spite of my ability. Plain and simple, anyone who has meant something to this country, who has done something great, had someone else giving them a hand along the way.”

 

DREAM FOUNDATION

And that’s what Aaron wanted to do when he retired as a player – well, that and get into business. He had a great run with his BMW dealerships and sold them just before the economic bust, still runs a thriving restaurant company and sits on numerous corporate boards, including the Atlanta Braves.

In the mid 1990s, he and his wife Billye started the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation. The foundation became fully active and heftily funded in 1999, when the Aarons threw Hank a 65th birthday bash and fundraising event. President Bill Clinton was among the dignitaries who helped raise $1 million for the foundation, which helps underprivileged children participate in activities they otherwise can’t afford, like music and sports. Major League Baseball and Boys and Girls Clubs have partnered with Aaron’s foundation to create a college scholarship fund also – they’ll give out 44 each year (Aaron wore No. 44).

Aaron, who was vice president of player development for years in the Braves organization, now has an untitled post that allows him to pursue his philanthropic passions, like helping to increase the number of African Americans in baseball by promoting the game to kids.

He counts ambassadors, presidents and CEOs as his friends – they all want to meet him. He’s comfortable with his life, modest in spite of his many awards and honors and accomplishments – he and Mays have become interchangeable in the “greatest living player” appellation. But his eye, as always, is on a bigger picture.

The foundation, his work with kids, it’s all about achieving their dreams, he says. Not his. He already chased his down.

“I love baseball, it’s given me so much, but that’s my world, and it isn’t everything,” he says. “I’d prefer people said, ‘Hank Aaron helped people,’ rather than ‘Hank Aaron hit that home run in the ninth inning’ – which is all right, too. It’s fine.

“But it means more to me when someone says, ‘Thanks to Mr. Aaron, I know how to play the harp,’ or ‘I know how to dance,’ or whatever it is they dream of doing. See, that’s what life is made of.”

Joe and Cajun John

It’s Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month. And March 25 is National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day. My son is a person with cerebral palsy. This story is about him and his best friend.

I spend more time than is healthy wondering about whether or not my son Joe is lonely, and what that feels like for him. For me, like a lot of people, loneliness can feel shitty. But everything is relative. Right? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and so forth.

So I wonder about Joe. He doesn’t have friends who visit him, friends who are inclined to just hang out with him and do the things he enjoys, like go for a long walk-n-roll, maybe sit quietly and take in a movie or music, or let loose a sudden series of vocalized notes, and fling them joyfully into the room for no particular reason at all, or because it was time (his timing, and his pitch, are usually right on).

But I’m not sure if he’s lonely, per se. I have a sense, based on my observations of him and the feedback that he can muster, that Joe is well-adjusted to his social situation, and is comfortable in his skin.

He’s got a winning smile and when he can open his hands, a firm handshake — qualities that might get him elected to something if he tossed his hat into the ring. The problem is, he’s more of a listener than a talker, and he’s 100 percent honest, so he’d probably be a terrible politician.

This is a quiet young man with a magnetic personality. People are drawn to him, like he’s some kind of beacon, and it’s made him some interesting friends. Take Cajun John.

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about Joe called “My Son Is.” Later on, Atlanta magazine picked up the essay and ran it in their pages as a kind of glorified caption to some spectacular photography by Matt Moyer. That’s the version that Cajun John saw. The photos (and I’d like to think, the words) touched John’s heart and inspired him to reach out.

What followed has been an ongoing letter exchange between Joe and John. We’ve sent John some of Joe’s artwork, and John sends us heartfelt, handwritten letters from the Florida prison where he is incarcerated.

In his most recent letter to Joe, Cajun John explains that he’s been researching Joe’s “situation” (cerebral palsy), so he could, “understand better what you deal with daily. What I found out is what a strong person you are. I see some men that have less issues with weaker minds. You are my super hero Joe. I am so glad I saw your article. Man, it changed my life in so many ways.”

When he gets a letter from our house, Cajun John shares it with his fellow prisoners. He writes, “all the guys want to know who wrote me. Then they ask what’s up. Man, when I show them the photo they see why I’m so lucky.”

John is 50 years old, a Christian who found religion in prison, where he works in the chapel, making sure church services are ready to run on time. He speaks at orientation, when anxious new arrivals enter the facility, and he helps guide them toward, “programs we offer here, so they can get involved with positive people. I really do enjoy people and seeing people accomplish goals.” He wants to help others, like the therapists and other professionals in Joe’s life. “It’s a daily work to do all I can,” he writes.

John prays for Joe and our family and wonders in print, “who knows what God will allow you to accomplish,” then closes with, “Your Best Friend, Cajun John.”

And here I was, trying to convince myself that I was Joe’s best friend (thanks a lot, Harry Nilsson). I’ll gratefully settle for being his dad. And it’s that guy, Joe’s dad, who is happier than a three-tailed puppy that these two friends – these treasures – managed to somehow find each other.

 

 

Fickle Football Fans

So, I was sitting at a bar on Sunday, watching a few minutes of the Saints-Packers game, actually paying more attention to my beer than the television, when an old guy sitting at a table behind me yells, rhetorically, “what the hell is that on the TV?”

He had a tiny ponytail, his thin white hair pulled back so tightly that the eyes bulged as if his thyroid was raging.

“Football game,” I said, startled for a second by his Marty Feldman eyes. “Saints-Packers.”

“I know what it is,” he said. “Why the hell is it on?”

I looked around the bar. The only people there were me and him and the bartender. “Because people like watching football,” I said, not entirely convinced.

Then he cursed the players, echoing his president, “sons of bitches. Too good to stand for the National Anthem. Turn that shit off.”

No one did.

He was really pissed off at the National Football League over the take-a-knee protest by players during the National Anthem. So he’s boycotting the NFL, like so many other folks, many of whom are still involved in fantasy football leagues, which utilize the stats of NFL players, proving that the righteously angry can have it both ways.

The air in the barroom turned an ugly, stressful shade of red, as the the old guy fussed and fumed over, “those goddamn prima donnas,” and their disrespect of God and country and the soldiers and the policemen, etc., etc., etc.

While this was going on around me I wondered if this guy and his fellow disgruntled fans or their chickenhawk president or any other football consumer got this irate over the NFL’s feeble response to the spate of domestic violence carried out by players. Of course they didn’t. That’s because in the land of the free, taking a political stand – or knee, in this case – is way more offensive than beating the shit out of a woman.

Either way, the attention span of the average irate sports fan is kind of like the old man’s pony tail – short and insubstantial.

And when the players get tired of protesting (probably before then), those same morally outraged fans will be back in record numbers to support “those goddamn prima donnas,” filling up stadiums and watching their big screens, many of them doing what they typically do during the National Anthem, which is, drink beer, binge-eat, scratch their asses, and thank God for football … while standing, of course. You can’t scratch your ass very well if you’re sitting.

More Bang for your Butt

Here’s a health care story that isn’t getting enough coverage.

I know what you’re thinking. “Great. What kind of ardent hyperbole is Captain Comedown going to try and trick us into reading this time? More fanatical garbage about conservative halfwit politicians trying to bully his son into submission, I’ll warrant …”

And most of the time, you’d be right. But not this time, my enthusiastically dispassionate friend, not this time. If you’re more interested in trolling for silly GIFs and mocking the unfortunate with picture memes than in actually giving a shit, this one is in your wheel house.

It begins with a question: What would you be willing to risk to have a bigger, perkier ass?

This topic has bugged me for a long time, which is to say, about 11 minutes, since I read the emailed pitch from a public relations drone before deleting it. The missive asserts that “we’ve all seen the many news stories” of women getting botched buns, “or even worse, dying, following Brazilian Butt Lift surgeries.”

So I googled “Brazilian Butt Lift surgeries,” and discovered a few startling things.

First, it turns out, “Brazilian Butt Lift” doesn’t need to be capitalized, except for the “Brazilian” part. Also, it wasn’t invented in Brazil. It got that name because the first such surgery (in which fat is transplanted from the torso to the tush) was performed (in the U.S.) on a woman from Brazil.

Turns out it’s a fairly common if extensive cosmetic procedure – more than 18,000 of them were performed in the U.S. last year. The great majority of these were performed on women, but apparently there also are plenty of men who want low gravity moons (more than 6 percent of butt-lift patients are dudes, all of them ass-men, one would have to assume).

Anyway, it’s also a potentially dangerous and deadly procedure. The complications that may occur include blood clots, hematoma, bruising, excessive blood loss, complications of anesthesia or liposuction, oil cyst and fat embolism. In the space of 10 months, two women died following this procedure at the same Miami clinic.

The press release continues, “… we’ve also seen women who come off of the operating table looking lumpy and deformed.” Ugly, maybe, but a sight better than dead, I’d say.

The reason for all of this butt lift trouble, according to the press release, is due to unqualified doctors performing back-alley surgeries. And yes, the PR agency really did use “back-alley” in reference to rear-end surgery.

Naturally, the flack-meisters have a solution, and it’s right there in the third paragraph of the release: “A local Atlanta plastic surgeon who specializes in body contouring created the BRAND NEW procedure exclusive to his office called the Georgia Peach Lift … to keep up with the demand of ‘bigger backsides’ while at the same time, he’s giving women professional care and a great result.”

I don’t want to waste too much time on the miserable construction of that third paragraph, but … what would be the demands of a bigger backside, besides bigger pants? I assume the writer intended to write “for” instead of “of” … but I’m quibbling as I digress.

Suffice to say, this Atlanta-based descendent of Hippocrates is giving his patients the kind of fart box they’ve only previously dreamt of, and now they’re sitting on it.

The Georgia Peach Lift promises a more natural looking caboose AND takes fat from places you don’t want it, which got me to thinking: I’m wondering if I should have the fat removed from my head, because then I can pull my ass out of my head for a change.