Love, Grace, Loss, and Longing

The Helen to Hardman Heritage Trail has become our favorite local trail, because of its accessibility and beauty — a lovely, wheelchair friendly path built on an old railroad bed, meandering through the North Georgia woods along a river. Recently we had an experience on the trail that I hope to never forget.

As usual we parked at the Hardman Farm lot on top of the hill and worked our way down the long, multi-tiered wheelchair ramp to the trail. About halfway to Helen, we saw a guy walking kind of funny from the other direction. He was clutching a camera with a long lens and he looked at us closely, like he knew us and wanted to say something, but all he could manage was an awkward, “hey,” which we returned in kind.

I didn’t trust the man. His smile seemed false. I realize now that in a way it was false, but not for the reasons I had imagined. Right then, I thought he was unsteady, possibly wasted. After our brief greeting he stared at us for an uncomfortable moment, looked at Joe, kept smiling. So we moved on and when I glanced back I noticed he was still looking, his hands on his camera. I thought he was going to take our picture. Anyway, I put myself between Jane (who was pushing Joe’s chair) and Joe, and we continued on our way.

On the return hike to Hardman here came the guy again. This time he stopped us, looked into my face and fumbled for words between nervous chuckles. “I was just noticing how much your boy reminds me of my son,” he finally said. “He had cerebral palsy, too.”

He guessed, or knew, that Joe has cerebral palsy. But I was stuck on the word, “had.”

“He loved being outdoors, he would have loved a trail like this,” the man said, again punctuating his words with a nervous chuckle. “He was 29 when he died.”

Right after his son died in May 2017, the man explained, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. She died last October.

“Can I … can I say hello to your son,” he asked, inching closer to us.

Jane and I had been standing between Joe and the man, with Joe pointed in the other direction, which is sometimes an instinctive move for us when other people get caught up in staring at the kid in the wheelchair. Some looks are fearful or pitiful or cruel, which are sometimes all the same thing. But some are sincere and honest curiosity. Some are love and grace. And some, I now know, are about loss and longing.

“Sure,” Jane said. “He enjoys fist bumps.” Because Joe often keeps his hands in raised fists, fist bumps are an appropriate greeting, better than shaking hands, although we’re working on that, too.

The man, who was visiting the area from South Carolina, came around and gave Joe a fist bump, smiling, saying, “hey Joe, hey buddy,” and all the while nervously chuckling, probably to keep from crying. I know that move. I’ve used that move.

The man didn’t have to tell us how much he missed his wife and son. It was all right there on his devastated, smiling face. Finally, I did the only decent thing I could come up with and offered my hand, said we were pleased to meet him, said, “God bless you, man,” even though I’m not sure who or what or if God is.

It seemed like the appropriate thing to say to this man, like maybe it was what he wanted or needed to hear, this smiling, shattered man who looked like he wanted something from us, who did want something from us. A reminder, a connection.

He ambled on toward Helen. We rolled back to Hardman, up the twisting ramp, then drove home. But I can’t stop thinking about that helpless man with the nervous chuckle. God bless him. Please. And while you’re at it, send him an angel.



Happy Birthday, Croc Hunter!

Google has a great Doodle today, honoring the 57th birthday of Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin. If you’ve got Google (you do), check it out. It’s a tearjerker and a really lovely animated tribute to a wonderful human. In our house, we used to dig his show. He brought great energy and sincerity to the small screen, and a welcome air of positivity and adventure to his role as an ecological hero. And we loved the way he said, “pressure bandage.”

Back then, in my twisted imagination, I wondered what it would be like if you took Steve’s upbeat personality and placed it inside someone else who also was an outdoorsman, but not at all a good guy. This grossly perverted version of the Crocodile Hunter hosted a conceptual program that I called, in a bad Australian accent,  “Fucking With Nature,” in which the main goal was to annoy sharks and bears and the like by getting close enough to poke them with a stick (aptly called a ‘poking stick’).

Each imaginary episode would end with some awful disaster befalling the host, due to his callous disregard for wildlife and the space that it needs to be … well, wild. I’d be lying if I said, “I never imagined that Steve himself would be killed doing his job.” Obviously, I imagined it could happen (given the risks he took, risks he understood and embraced because that’s what a hero does). He must have imagined it, too, famously saying, “I have no fear of losing my life – if I have to save a koala or a crocodile or a kangaroo or a snake, mate, I will save it.”

So back then, we were staging a show in our community several times a year called Late Night Off Center, which featured a diverse range of mostly funny, mostly live shenanigans (there was the occasional film). At the time, there was an awful tourist attraction in the area, the Black Forest Bear Park in Helen. I never stepped inside the place, but it looked soul crushing from the outside, this depressing concrete hovel that was basically a prison for bears. Eventually, mercifully, the prisoners were rescued and sent to live in a Colorado animal sanctuary, and the bear “park” was closed down.

I remember thinking how much Steve Irwin would have hated that place.

About a year after Steve died, we did a themed edition of Late Night, a spoof of our local community story play, Headwaters (which I co-wrote and helped produce), which we called Bedwetters. While Headwaters (like Steve Irwin’s show) was “family-friendly,” Bedwetters was most certainly not, what with stories about a mobile meth lab, and strip-tease dreams, not to mention the man-eating, sodomizing bears.

Yep, so in the piece about the bear park, tourists are given poking sticks as they enter the facility, to antagonize the downtrodden bears (played with animal authenticity by my friends Roger and John, two firemen). After getting poked repeatedly by tourists, the angry bears bust out of their cages, attack the customers and go on a rampage through the woods. One scene ends with a bear pulling the arm off a tourist and eating it (“Tastes like chicken,” the bear growls), and another ends with both bears dragging a screaming camper into the forest — after they exit stage right we hear the camper sing in a terrified, falsetto voice, “Sweet mystery of life, at last I found you.”

It helps to have the unsettled mind of a 14-year-old to really pull off this high-brow comedy stuff.

Anyway, I’m sure that the perverted comedy bears had little, if anything, to do with the eventual demise of the park. That was PETA’s doing (good job, PETA). Our Late Night bear skits only reflected what most local people already knew – the bear park was a truly wretched place.

But I like to think that, in exploiting the plight of abused bears for cheap laughs, we were somehow striking a blow against animal cruelty, and that somewhere in the ethereal cheap seats, Steve Irwin was watching and smiling as the bears dismembered an abusive tourist, shaking his ghostly head, saying, “crikey that bloke’s gonna need a pressure bandage for sure.”

Georgia boy Smith undone by the Babe in first Dodgers-Sox Series

The 2018 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox was the first meeting between these two ancient clubs since the 1916 classic, when Boston had a superstar left-hander named Babe Ruth on the mound and the Dodgers were synonymous with Brooklyn, but they weren’t called the Dodgers. They were the Robins, named for their beloved manager, Wilbert Robinson.

As in 1916, the Red Sox won this year’s Series in five games. Game 3 this year, an 18-inning marathon, was reminiscent of Game 2 from 1916, which established the previous World Series record for longest game at 14 innings (a record for innings matched twice more, in 2005, when the White Sox beat the Houston Astros, 7-5, and 2015, when the Royals beat the Mets 5-4).

But something happened in the 1916 long game that will never happen again in big league ball. The starting pitchers went the distance, two left-handers working all 14 innings (in today’s game, it’s rare for a starting pitcher to log 14 full innings during the entirety of a World Series). Ruth outdueled Brooklyn’s Sherry Smith, a Georgia boy, 2-1 in a game that finished just ahead of the darkness.

Many years ago, I wrote about the relatively unknown Smith for a now defunct publication, Oldtyme Baseball News. I came across the clip it while digging through old boxes in my basement, read it again for the first time in decades, and got sad because right there in the lede it references the late, great novelist Raymond Andrews.

I’d hear from Raymond (younger brother of the painter Benny Andrews) or run into him occasionally back then. He was living nearby, in Athens, Georgia, and he’d call the community newspaper where I was being underpaid at the time, to talk sports or to offer feedback, or moral support. At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky I was or how short time is. Raymond was younger than I am now when he shot himself.

My friend Jesse Freeman, a filmmaker (who I remember as a little leaguer in Madison, Georgia) made a wonderful documentary about Raymond Andrews, Somebody Else, Somewhere Else. See the film! And read about it, in Jesse’s words, right here.

So, here’s Sherry Smith. A good bit of this was taken from that old piece in OBN, but some of the best stuff isn’t:

Raymond Andrews, the award-winning African-American novelist, was 14 years old when he first heard about Sherry Smith. Of course, he knew Smith was the chief of police in Madison, Georgia, “but I didn’t know what he was all about,” said Andrews, one of 10 children in a family of sharecroppers, who grew up in Plainview, an unincorporated community a few miles from town. “I found out on August 16, 1948 who Sherry Smith really was. It was the day Babe Ruth died.”

This would have been about 30 years before Andrews won the James Baldwin Prize for his novel, Appalachee Red (the first volume in what would become the Muskhogean trilogy).

“I listened to the radio as the Madison chief of police was being interviewed about his knowledge of the Babe,” said Andrews, whose 1990 memoir was titled, The Last Radio Baby. “The following Saturday I went into town just to get a look at this guy, the man who had pitched against Babe Ruth in the greatest World Series duel ever.”

Sherrod Malone “Sherry” Smith, born in Monticello, Georgia, pitched 14 seasons in the big leagues, compiling a won-lost record of 114-118 against and alongside baseball immortals that evoke images of an early 20th century Illiad. Smith earned a reputation as the greatest pickoff artist of his time – only two bases were stolen against him, in a time when baserunning was the prime offensive weapon in a ballclub’s arsenal.

“Daddy used to say he would purposely walk a batter just so he could pick him off,” said Smith’s daughter, Sara Anderson of Macon, Georgia (Mrs. Anderson passed away in 2016, leaving behind two loving sons, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren).

“(Smith) was the only pitcher I ever saw who could completely conceal his intentions from the runner,” said Max Carey, the leading base stealer in the National League for years, who swiped more than 700 bases in his career, but not one against Smith.

George Moriarty, one of the era’s best regarded umpires, said Smith had, “a miracle move. For years baserunners tried timing it, but to no avail.” Moriarty added that Smith rarely, if ever, witem_31409_1as caught balking.

After breaking into the big leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1911, Smith was dealt to Brooklyn, where he enjoyed some of his best years. In 1916 he matched his career high in wins with 14, including four shutouts. After nosing out the Philadelphia Phillies for the National League pennant, the Robins went to Boston to play the mighty Red Sox, who had won the Series in 1915 and would win four during the 1910s.

Boston took the first game, 6-5, setting up the Game 2 matchup between the two young southpaws, Smith (25 years old) and Ruth (21). Brooklyn took a 1-0 lead on a fluke home run by Hi Myers, whose drive took a wicked tricky bounce over centerfielder Tilly Walker’s head. Myers tore around the bases for an inside-the-park homer, the Robins’ only run of the day.

Smith (who hit a double in the game, one of six hits off Ruth) shut down the Red Sox until the third, when Ruth drove in the tying run on a grounder to second, scoring Everett Scott, who had tripled.

Then the two lefties stacked up a lot of zeroes. Ruth became more dominant as the game progressed, but both pitchers dodged disaster along the way. In the bottom of the ninth, Boston had runners on first and third with nobody out. But Myers engineered a clutch double play from centerfield, making the catch and throwing out Boston’s Hal Janvrin at home plate. Then Ruth got an assist from left fielder Duffy Lewis in the 13th, when Smith had a chance to help himself at the plate. With a runner on second and two outs, he hit a short fly to left field that Lewis snared to end the inning.

In the bottom of the 14th inning, with dusk looming, the Sox finally got to Smith. First baseman Dick Hoblitzel walked and took second on a sacrifice bunt by Duffy Lewis. Boston manager Bill Carrigan replaced Hoblitzel with speedy pinch runner Mike McNally, and Del Gainer, pinch-hitting for Larry Gardner, singled to left, scoring McNally to win the game for Boston, 2-1.

The 14-inning game lasted an economic two hours and 32 minutes. Winning pitcher Ruth, making his World Series debut, threw 171 pitches and gave up six hits. Boston collected seven hits off Smith, who added to his reputation as a hard-luck ace. Earlier that season, he lost a 19-inning masterpiece to the Boston Braves, 2-1.

Smith’s tough luck in close games elicited sympathy from some fans, including one who sent him a small Hebrew flag for luck. Smith’s daughter, Sara Anderson, had the flag along in an old scrapbook.

Game 2 marked the only appearance by Ruth and Smith in the 1916 Series. Ruth, of course, would go on to become the centerpiece of baseball’s dynastic New York Yankees – this was just the first of many Fall Classics for the Babe. Smith would get one more chance, in 1920, when he pitched for the Cleveland Indians against his former employers from Brooklyn. He pitched a three-hitter to beat the Robins, 2-1, in Game 3. But he lost a 1-0 decision in Game 6 (Cleveland would clinch the title in Game 7).

Smith’s most memorable victory came during his years with Cleveland. He defeated the great Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators, 2-1, in 12 innings. While Smith was outdueling Johnson in Washington, his wife, Addilu, was giving birth to Sherrod Jr. back in Cleveland. After the game, he received a telegram: “Wife and newborn son are doing fine.”

Smith’s road to the big leagues and his confrontation with the Babe took root in the cotton-fields of central Georgia, where he learned speed and accuracy while throwing at rabbits. Years later, after being dealt to Cleveland in the American League, he and Ruth became friends. Whenever Ruth’s Yankees visited Cleveland, he stopped by the Smith home, “because he loved mama’s country ham and red eye gravy,” Sara Anderson recalled.

He finished his pro baseball career as manager of the Macon Peaches, then entered law enforcement, and one hot August day, when he was the chief of police in Madison, his old friend Babe Ruth died, and he was asked to share some stories on the radio. An African-American teenager named Raymond Andrews happened to be listening.

“I never looked at the police chief in quite the same way after that,” Andrews said.

Not very long after that, Smith moved to Reidsville, where he became captain of the guard at the federal prison. On September 12, 1949, Addilu, an accomplished pianist who had studied at the Julliard School of Music, stepped out to play a recital while Smith stayed home to relax, a rare day off. When Addilu came home, she found that her husband had died of a heart attack. He was 58.

As keeper of her father’s scrapbook, Sara Anderson said she looked far and wide for any bit of memorabilia she could dig up, but she could never find a baseball card of her father, although one was issued by American Caramel in the 1920s. She and her family attended baseball card shows for years with no luck. Her son, Bob, actually saw the card once at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

“We go to Philadelphia, occasionally, to visit Bob,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Maybe next time we’ll drive on up to Cooperstown.”

It would be worth the trip, she added, just to see her daddy immortalized on a strip of consecrated cardboard in baseball Valhalla.


Johnny Knapp at 90

Atlanta’s jazz community squeezed into 800 East Studios to celebrate Johnny Knapp’s 90th birthday last Sunday. To these people (musicians, mostly, and others) Johnny, a professional piano player for about 70 years, has been a friend, a teacher, an inspiration, a bandmate, a hero, and a ball-buster.

One guy stood up and called Johnny a national treasure. He might be. But I don’t really know any national treasures to compare him with because Johnny is incomparable. It blows me away just knowing he’s been a working musician since Harry Truman was president, because I know plenty of musicians that don’t work. To me, Johnny is mostly a good friend and frequent dinner companion.

I got to know him about five years ago and wrote a story about him for Atlanta magazine about three years ago. Since then, our friendship has deepened as I got sucked into his gravity, like everyone else who meets him. Col. Bruce Hampton introduced us at the IHOP and the first thing Johnny said as he shambled into the restaurant with Bruce was, “Jerry, it’s nice to meet you. Bruce and I were just talking about 1951. Do you have any thoughts?”

So I blurted, “The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant …”

Johnny rasped, “son of a bitch!” He’d been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. We’ve been pals ever since. When I changed jobs, which meant that I couldn’t make the weekly Tuesday lunches with Johnny and Bruce and the gang, I started meeting Johnny for dinner on Thursday nights, arranging my Atlanta work commute around that.

Johnny and Me

Every Thursday, or every other Thursday, I’d pick him up at his home in Lawrenceville. First, we stashed his walker in the back of my car. As mobility became tougher for him following a series of mishaps, we folded his wheelchair and stuck that in the back. The point is, he never wanted me to bring dinner to him, he always wanted to go out. Usually, it was either a Chinese place that never let him pay for a meal, or later, Dan Thai in Lilburn, with occasional forays to Golden Corral, which he loved (he mostly loved the Ethiopian waitress, Helen). Sometimes we’d go see a band.

For the past few months, he’s been recovering from a heart procedure, spending all of his time in either the hospital or a rehabilitation center, and will hopefully be returning home at some point, with a caregiver. If and when that happens, I intend to start backing into his driveway again, so the passenger side is close to his man cave door, so we can meet Helen again, or go to Dan Thai.

In the meantime, he’s making the transition to 90 at his own pace (he won’t actually “be” 90 until later in November). But when I think of Johnny Knapp at 90, I think of all the people he’s met and known and affected, like the good people at his birthday celebration, including my siblings, and the stars whose orbits he’s influenced, like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Col. Bruce Hampton, etc., etc., etc. Truly a list of legends, and Johnny might be the biggest of them all. Col. Bruce used to say the two greatest jazz piano players are Art Tatum and Johnny Knapp.

Tal Farlow, the pioneering jazz guitarist, would probably have agreed with Bruce. Once, when Johnny had a conflicting gig out of town, he enlisted a young Chick Corea to take his place in Tal’s mid-60s quartet, a jazz supergroup. When he got back with the quartet, Johnny asked Tal, “how’d Chick do?” Tal said, “He was good, but he was no Johnny Knapp.”

When I think of Johnny at 90, I keep going back to Johnny at two, Johnny with polio, and his frightened parents, Czechoslovakian immigrants who could barely speak English.

“I had to teach them English,” Johnny told me. “When I got polio, my father found out they were coming to get me to put me in quarantine. My parents didn’t understand what was happening. If you can’t speak English, what the hell does quarantine mean?”

When the police arrived at their door, John Sr. picked up baby Johnny and ran up the fire escape, to the roof. So here’s baby Johnny, lame with polio, God bless him, in the arms of his terrified father, fleeing the cops, flat foots in blue scraping pebbles on the tar rooftops of Manhattan tenement houses in the depths of a Great Depression.

I think of his hard working immigrant parents – his mother a cleaning lady at Radio City Music Hall, his father waiting tables. I think of how the doctor suggested they should move to the country for Johnny’s health, so they moved to Brooklyn.

When I think of Johnny at 90, I think of nine-year-old Johnny in lock-up leg braces, and his father giving him an accordion, asking the little boy, “do you like this?” And Johnny lighting up, beaming, “Yeah!” I think of Johnny riding the dumbwaiter up to the third floor, where they could tie him to a fire escape to keep him from falling. And he’d sit there with the accordion on his lap, his first gigs, and from down below came the voices of Eastern European women calling through the zig-zagging lines of flapping laundry, “Johnny, play us a song!” That was 80 years ago and we’re still calling out, “Johnny, play us a song!”

When I think about Johnny at 90, I think of a young man trying to make it in the music business, his mother getting a phone call from Woody Herman who wanted to hire him for a gig, then telling Johnny later in broken English that someone named Forest had called. I think of Johnny playing piano for gangsters and New York Yankees at the Copa, and teaching Charlie Parker simple melodies – teaching Bird, and Bird visiting Johnny’s pad just to jam! And Bird asking Johnny to go out on the road with his band, and Johnny begging off because he couldn’t afford the pay cut, and didn’t care for the drugs.

I think of kindhearted Johnny, who used yoga to get out of his leg braces then gave his yoga books to suffering Charlie Parker, because he really thought they might save doomed Bird, and gave thousands and thousands of dollars to out-of-work friends, and never told his wife Dee while she was alive, “because then she’d know why we’re so poor now, and I’d never hear the end of it,” he said.

When I think of Johnny at 90, I can’t help but think of Dee, his beautiful wife of 53 years, and how they met.

Johnny said, “I was going with another girl at the time, and I had a pad on 71st Street and, who do you call, Julius Baker was on that street, and Burt Collins, and Gene Quill. A lot of very good musicians lived on that street. And I had this pad and my piano, and I’d have sessions. People would come up and play, and one day I happen to invite Carmen Leggio, a very good tenor sax player who worked with Woody Herman at the time, and I liked the way he played. Very aggressive. And I invited him, and he invited this girl to come with him, this singer, Dee.”

Dee told Johnny that she liked him and asked him to call – good thing Johnny’s girlfriend wasn’t there that evening. But Johnny, he wouldn’t call, not for a while anyway, “because I was one of those schmucks who believed that if I cheated on her, she would cheat on me, and I didn’t want that. So Dee would ask me every time we saw each other, ‘why don’t you call me?’ Finally, I broke up with my girlfriend. Maybe she was fooling around with a few guys. I never asked. I was afraid of the answer. But I was a free thinker anyway.”

Dee was singing with a band, the only white singer in an all-black band in Yonkers. And she got to be good friends with Duke Ellington. One of their first nights together as a couple, Johnny went to see Dee perform in Danbury.

“She was in the band opening up for Duke,” Johnny recalled. “Another singer, Babs Gonzalez, was hitting on her. She was a real dish and Babs was laying it on thick. He said, ‘you know how to make it in this business? You gotta pay your dues?’ And Dee says, ‘is there a vocalists union?’ And Babs says, ‘no, I don’t mean those kind of dues.’

“Duke was on the other side of the ballroom, rehearsing the band, and he walks over and says, ‘Babs, don’t fool around with her, she’s a nice kid …’ Then he kisses her and walks off and I said, ‘wow, you really know Duke.’ Yeah, Dee and I really liked each other from the moment we met. And let’s face it, we’re married 52, 53 years on April 15, income tax day – we married on that day on purpose, because I knew I’d never forget our anniversary that way.”

Johnny told me that story when Dee was still alive. She died in February 2015. “I was supposed to go first,” stunned, broken-hearted Johnny said.

When I think of Johnny at 90, I think of Johnny at 86, a recent widower living alone in their house decorated with her fabulous sculptures, annoyed at Dee for leaving him. I think of the night he went to the Velvet Note, a few weeks after Dee died, his friends asking if he wanted to play.

“I was heavy hearted and I didn’t feel like playing,” he said. “Then I heard Dee’s voice in my head saying, ‘Hey, schmuck, get up and play.’ Clear as hell, from the other side she’s still telling me what to do!”

So he played. He thought about Dee when they were both young, about the dinners at her Italian family’s house.

“They were so loud,” he said. “They screamed across the table, ‘pass the bread, you need more sauce, feed the kids!’  This fucking cacophony! That’s how they talked, and that’s how she sounds in my head. So I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna play like she talks.’ Loud. I also played it like that because its the best way to show how pissed off I am that she passed away. But just as I was finishing, in my mind, I could see her dancing, so pretty. That’s why I played the tarantella at the end. I don’t know how it sounded. I haven’t seen the video. It was painful.”

It’s all there on YouTube, Johnny Knapp’s furious, heartbreaking rendition of “Softly as a Morning Sunrise,” his face intense, even as he imagines his dancing wife and he plays the dancing rhythm, and all of it the truth.

When I think of Johnny at 90, I think of one of his favorite quotes, a line from the poet Sidney Lanier. “Music is love in search of a word.” So when I think of Johnny, I think of all the sonic love he’s spread in 70 years of playing, or 170 years – Col. Bruce used to say that Johnny performed at Lincoln’s second inaugural ball.

Anyway, last Sunday at 800 East Studios, you could hear the love, and it had a beautiful, ageless sound. Happy Birthday, Johnny Knapp.

I Miss the Weylman

Steve Weyl (as in ‘wile away the day’) was the most potentially dangerous friend I’ve ever had. He was my big brother Steve’s friend first, part of the tribe of fake Indians that used attacked the train at Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad as part of the old Wild West show. The Steves and some of their friends preceded my generation of fake Indians by a few years.

I call Weylman ‘potentially’ dangerous because he talked a dangerous game, and he always had weapons. Never used them on another person, that I know of, but he had them. And if I had a nickel for every time he threatened to put my head on a pike or impale me or skin me alive or just plain shoot me, I could have bought the presidency. And if he had a nickel for every time I threatened him in similar fashion, he would have died a very rich man last Saturday, when he took his backstage pass.

If there is such a thing as a backstage pass to the universe, as my friend Marlin Geiger promised, then Steve Weyl is no doubt using it to meet some of his musical heroes, like Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, or Chris Squire, or George Harrison, and definitely John Lennon. The only time I can remember seeing Weylman cry was while listening to Lennon’s song, “Woman.”

It was two or three weeks after his mother had died, maybe three months after John was murdered. I was visiting Weylman at his old hobbit hole, probably March 1981. We were on our way to a place that made Chinese calzones (“you have got to try this place,” he said, pointing the way while I drove). The song, still new at the time, played on the radio. We listened for a few seconds before he snapped it off. “Goddamn that song,” he said. “It’s beautiful and it reminds me how much I miss my mother.” He wasn’t one to wallow.

Steve, who rarely had a job, played trumpet and flute. He once played in a band with my brother Steve (bass/piano) called Guerilla Ontologists. Their lead singer’s name was Spaz.

If my family was an ongoing Seinfeld episode, than Weylman would have been Kramer, without the hair. I can’t tell you how many Thanksgivings, Christmases, birthdays, and other gatherings he crashed. It was just implied. On the one hand, Mom or one of the other grown-ups in charge (i.e., not the men of the family) might grumble, “why didn’t you tell me he was coming?” On the other, in those rare times that Steve didn’t show, you might hear, “I made extra calamari, where the hell is he?” The man lived for the calamari and spaghetti we had every Christmas Eve.

He became so close with our clan through the years that he was basically part of it – he was treated like everyone else. He called Mom, “Mom.” He was one of us. For years, Steve, and my brothers, and I went on annual weekend trips, usually to some Civil War battlefield or state park. We took many hills together, picked off many fantasy generals waving plumed hats. In the end, he had his priorities straight – his last thoughts, I’m told, were all about the health of his old dog, Guinness.

Steve’s dogs were always old. I think they were born that way.  The first one I remember was Socrates, who lived to be about 18 and shambled around Steve’s tiny hobbit hole (that’s what we called his house, set back 100 or so yards from Highway 29, between Lilburn and Lawrenceville, in the back of a lawn surrounded by woods). It was part Shire, part Neverland, and back in the day we ingested the kind of chemistry that added all of the appropriately fantastic colors. He had the best, undulating lawn for frisbee, football, and bottle rocket battles. Most of my first ‘other-worldly’ experiences, back in the 1970s, were had there.

Some were had at the Stone Mountain railroad Wild West show. You’d never see such a show today, and for good reason. We were too young, stupid, and high to understand how racist it was. But that job left its mark on all of us who worked there – I mean, hell, we got paid (got paid shit) to play Cowboys and Indians! This truly was Neverland, a bunch of overgrown boys (teenagers mostly, plus a few ‘old’ guys, college students in their 20s), running around with guns and fake tomahawks, playing poker and drinking liquor between shows.

Many years later, we’d have occasional unofficial reunions. Our last pilgrimage, sometime in the early 1990s, ended memorably. All of us had passed the age of 30 by now, so we definitely would have been tried as adults if we’d been caught, because we definitely broke some laws – sneaking into Stone Mountain park after midnight, hiking up the back side of the mountain, then breaking into the old Wild West show set.

It was mostly façade buildings, the fake town broken in two by a covered bridge over a rain pond (where Weylman used to comically bathe himself as a train filled with tourists pulled into town – that gag always got big laughs, while mayhem and murder was happening all around him). This particular night was around Christmastime, and the set was decorated for the holiday. We could see the candy canes and Santa dummies, the doused lights strung across the buildings, our eyes now accustomed to the 2 a.m. gloom. The set, the the park, the world was cold and quiet.

Then my brother Steve noticed a switch that had been installed on one of the posts in front of the barbershop, the only real building on the set. I can see it all in slow motion, the other guys reaching out, trying to stop my brother from flicking the switch as we cried, “noooooooo …” Too late. There was an explosion of light and sound that would have given the Grateful Dead seizures. “You better watch out …” came screaming from the speakers hidden inside the barbershop.

We stared at each other a moment, overgrown Lil’ Rascals. Someone, probably Weylman, yelled, “Run!” Then four or five grown men sprinted down the train tracks like punks as Santa Claus is Coming to Town continued its admonishing, ear-splitting loop. And here’s the thing. All of us, except for Weylman, were in reasonably good shape. Weylman’s knees were mostly destroyed. He’d had injuries and surgeries, had even broken his neck once while working the Wild West show. He was always just barely stitched together, and he was a large man – tall and wide, not fat really, not then. Just large.

My brother Steve, brother-in-law Will, and I were all pretty fast, pounding those cross-ties four at a time, in a full sprint. But here came Weylman from behind, gathering steam like a locomotive, huffing and moving like rabbit in flames on his two wrecked knees, screaming, “get the fuck out of my way!” And he burst through and past us, bolted down the tracks, then suddenly dove left into the woods, yelling, “follow me!”

We could hear the police sirens by then. Moving from tree to tree, like cartoon characters, and hiding behind walls, we inched our way to safety through the woods by the faint glow of our cigarettes.

Steve Weyl, I remember you.


A Letter From my Father

My father, Tony Grillo, Sr., died 31 years ago today. On some level, I’ve missed him or thought about him every day since.

This was a guy who grew up without a father, a man who loved all five of his kids equally and unconditionally, while cultivating a unique bond with each of us. If you talked to my four siblings, they could all describe the distinct, individual relationship they had with Dad, each with its own special theme. He knew what interested us, so he became interested in those things, too.

For example, when I was six and dinosaurs were the most important thing in my world, he told stories about the stray dinosaur he adopted, a brontosaurus named Al who eventually died of a broken heart when he accidentally crushed his sweetheart underfoot (a tiny chameleon whose name I can’t recall).

A few years later, after I read a biography of Willie Mays, he found a new way to connect with me. Sure, there were more wonderful bullshit stories, but instead of a pet dinosaur, these centered on his incredible exploits in sports – like the yarn about a ball club of senior citizens he managed to a pennant. But then, he’d also seen DiMaggio and Mantle and Mays and Robinson in their primes. He told those stories, too, and I found something that interested me more than the dinosaur buried in the front yard. I was hooked.

For a few years as a kid, I was an annoyingly rabid fan, my whole life depending on wins and losses (becoming a sports writer years later tempered those emotions a little). My home team was the Atlanta Braves (we’d moved to the Atlanta suburbs), so there were plenty of losses. But I also loved the New York Mets, the first baseball team I can remember being aware of, having been born on Long Island. 

The year 1973 was particularly huge for me as a sports freak – my beloved Miami Dolphins (we had previously lived in the Miami area for five years, and they became my team) completed their perfect season with a Super Bowl win over the Redskins in January. I played Dixie Youth ball, starting in center field (the same position as Willie Mays) for the Cardinals and had a high old time. Then, during the Major League Baseball season, Dad took me to half a dozen Braves games, including at least one against the visiting Mets, featuring Mays in the last season of his career.

What a season. Hank Aaron chased Babe Ruth’s career home run record, belting 40 dingers (not bad for a 39-year-old) as three Braves smashed 40 or more (Darrell Evans and Davey Johnson were the other two). Hank was one homer shy of the Babe’s record, with 713, heading into the last game of the season. Dad got us tickets so we could see Hank catch the Babe. He had three hits against the visiting Astros, but none of them was a homer. Still, even though he didn’t get the record that day, Hank received a stirring, well-deserved ovation following his final at-bat. It was magic. I still get chills. I think my father cried.

The Braves finished near the bottom of the division, but the Mets … well, it was a terrific postseason until it wasn’t. Willie was embarrassing and the Mets lost to the hated A’s after leading in the Series, three games to two. My 13-year-old soul was shattered. 

But my father turned it all around for me. He left on a business trip before I woke up Monday morning, and I found this letter (handwritten) on the kitchen table:

October 22, 1973

Dear Son:

I know how you feel about going to school today and facing all those kids that’ll tease you about the Mets losing. I just want you to read this first. (I’d made bets with friends and had boasted obnoxiously, and when the Mets lost Game 7, I had a fit that bordered on a tantrum. I was not looking forward to school on Monday and my come-uppance, and Dad knew it.)

First of all – the Mets only lost a game – nothing more. They won about 20 of 25 games in September to get them into the playoffs. Then, they won three of five games to win the pennant. Then, they won three out of six games to get them to Game 7 – and that’s the game they lost. They’re not losers. But, you won’t be able to make your friends understand that – so don’t try. (I didn’t.)

It’s a funny thing about winners and losers, Jerry Joe. (Dad always called me Jerry Joe).

I could tell you how to win real easy … just try your best. But losing. That takes a great person. You have to have a lot of guts to be a good loser. Watch your friends closely today and smile when they tease you. And watch the ones (the winners) that don’t tease, and show that they can win like sportsmen. They will be great and so will you.  (I don’t know how great I was, but I did smile a lot that day — a sincere rictus.)

It’s not so bad. You’ve been a winner before. Now show yourself you can lose also, with class. When it comes to losing, Daddy knows what he’s talking about – remember how many times you beat me in ping pong. (This part of the letter always breaks my heart a little, because I never thought of him as a loser … besides, he probably let me win some of those games.)

Remember the ovation Hank Aaron got when he didn’t get the 714th – I’ll bet it wouldn’t have been any better if he did.

Have a good week, Jerry Joe. I know you’re a good winner – I’ve seen you. Now, show that you’re a great loser … it’s not so hard. (Dad was right. This was a lesson in perspective – like he said, it was just a game.)

Be kind to your brother and sisters and especially to Mom.  (Now we get to what was probably the motivating factor behind the letter. Dad was, above all things, a great husband to my equally great mother, who had a bunch of kids, a job, and other responsibilities at home … he wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be a little asshole that week.)



(Love you, too, Dad)

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.