I wrote this song about a friend, a goodly hearted cat I grew up with in Clarendon Hills. We were Little League heroes together. Endless one-on-one hoops in the driveway. Lots of girl talk. During high school years, we would drive up to Lake Forest to woo exotic damsels—exotic because we were unknown to each other. He always had girlfriends who didn’t go to our high school.
A bit after high school he enlisted in the Army out of penance to his dad, who was President of a local American Legion chapter. He survived Vietnam and came back with good weed. A couple pounds of it. Back when it was easy to smuggle. We smoked, connecting the days of our youth with now, while fantasizing about some idyllic future that involved beach life. A couple of years later, he introduced me to my wife, Linda. While he explored Mexico for a spell, Linda and I watched his little mutt, Thunder. He was the best man at our wedding, As deep a friend as you could have. A goodly hearted cat.
Somewhere during this time he moved to Arizona and eventually started a business— packaging and selling mesquite charcoal sourced from the Yaqui tribe in northern Mexico. On a quest to outrun his suburban, Catholic upbringing, he had become entranced with the Teachings of Don Juan and the Yaqui ethos. At the same time, he was getting involved in medium to large scale weed trafficking. My Little League pal was now living the desperado-in-the-desert lifestyle. One time he escaped a raid by the feds, snuck through the desert and somehow ended up on our doorstep in Lawrence, where we were living at the time. With a chainsaw. He had hitchhiked from Arizona while cradling a chainsaw. You had to be there.
Take Your Pick
Maybe ten years later, when Linda and I had moved back to the Chicago area, he came through town on desperado business. When I met up with him he was holed up in a drab, city hotel with no view, chain smoking and absently watching TV reruns. He had changed since the last time I had seen him. You could feel he was in the midst of a stressful transaction. He didn’t give me the details and I preferred not to know. We grabbed cheeseburgers at the Billy Goat and within a year or two he died of heart failure. Speculation was that it was caused by too much stress—he also had a wife and two kids—the lingering effects of malaria from Vietnam, too many cheeseburgers, too much smoking, a ten year freebasing habit, a history of family heart disease, take your pick.
Back to The Song
I wrote most of the song decades ago but finished and recorded it with Geoff DeMuth maybe five-six years ago. This is not a literal depiction of something that happened to my friend. I took artistic leeway or poetic license or fool’s liberty, whatever. Sadly ironic when a goodly hearted cat dies of heart failure at a young age. Especially someone who was a Little League rival. We’ve missed him for 30 years.
In the late 1970s in Lawrence, Kansas, I was hardly working. Every morning, when Linda left for her job at the Casbah Café and later, when she began teaching first grade, I sat down to write for at least two hours.
My meager income to date had often relied on skills that required my back, my hands, and my patience—but never my writing skills. During these morning sessions I began to write short stories, primarily because they were short. Seemed easier to write something short. I attempted that one true sentence technique ala Hemingway. I bought a copy of the Writer’s Digest and versed myself in the art of the submission. A few of my stories received hand-written rejection slips with words of encouragement from the editor or publisher. Being politely rejected was progress of sorts. Most of the stories were never sent to anyone or seen by anyone but Linda and a close friend or two. They currently rest in a file cabinet to my right.
In this age, prior to personal computers, a yellow legal pad and a #2 and-a-half pencil or a ball point pen were my writing tools. I sat on the same upholstered chair every day, in the same tiny house—that we referred to as the cottage—legal pad on my lap with scattered stacks of other legal pads and loose papers at my feet and on the surrounding furniture. At the end of the writing day, I would straighten the papers into a stack, which Linda referred to as “my piles.”
During this time, I wrote lyrics for a song that I finally recorded in June 2021. Have a listen:
Chapter #1 from Hardly Working, my memoir of jobs and work.
Caddy in Clarendon Hills, IL. 1960
The first time I set foot in the clubhouse of the Hinsdale Golf Club was on the occasion of my 50th high school reunion. That October night, the club was crawling with weird, saggy renditions of my former classmates. I didn’t feel saggy, but I also looked far different than the picture on my name tag, taken during my senior year for the yearbook. Over 50 years before, the club had provided me my first job: caddying for the esteemed members. Though I had often been on club grounds, I had never seen its innards until this reunion night. It had been off-limits to me fifty years ago.
My caddy career began a few months short of my thirteenth birthday, when I still harbored notions of becoming a major-league pitcher. From 23 Blodgett Avenue in Clarendon Hills, I walked ten minutes down the street and across the peat bog, which had recently been turned into a park. On the other side of this ex-bog was Chicago Avenue. There sat the Hinsdale Golf Club.
Hinsdale is the next town east of Clarendon Hills on the Burlington train line, but the country club was—and still is—in Clarendon Hills. No club member actually lived in Clarendon Hills. That was against the rules. Members had to reside in Hinsdale, home of the rich uncle, the corporate titan, the live-in housekeeper, the afternoon martini, the sprawling, manicured lawn. Coach houses. Brick streets. Columns. A few old money families still employed butlers. Although it had a large section of ordinary middle-class neighborhoods, the town’s reputation was predicated on wealth.
Soon after I began my caddy stint, I started attending Hinsdale junior high. On many Saturday afternoons my father would drive me in the Rambler wagon over to the proverbial other side of the tracks to a newfound friend’s house. I recall one occasion when, in the midst of our pickup football game on the lush front lawn, a live-in housekeeper called to my new friend, “Hubbard. It’s time for your lunch.” Hubbard went into the house with his shoulder pads still on, to dine on pork chops prepared by the cook, to dab the corners of his mouth with linen napkins. Although this rather elaborate lunch struck me as far different than the baloney sandwich I might have had at my house, it mattered little to me at the time—wealth made scant impression on me as a kid. Most of my new friends from Hinsdale took their lives for granted, as did I.
My town of Clarendon Hills was modestly middle class. Most homes had one bathroom and three or four kids who shared bedrooms. It would be several decades before Clarendon Hills transformed into Hinsdale Lite, though the new muscular, trophy homes—too big for their lots—would never be the rambling mansions of an earlier era’s wealth.
For those who lived along the brick streets of Hinsdale, membership at the Hinsdale Golf Club was a must. “The Club,” as it was referred to, was a gathering place for those who had arrived. It was where like-minded, well-bred folks with similar aspirations gathered; folks eager to showcase their faith in the status quo while being catered to and smiled at. Club members shared a belief that they were blessed, that there was a divine element involved in their good fortune. Sure, hard work got them to this exalted position—maybe not their hard work, but someone’s. “We are so blessed to have all this” was a frequent mantra. These were God’s creatures, steeped in an aura of entitlement and a knack for conversations about golf swing mechanics, the renovation of the fourteenth tee, membership rules, recent purchases and investments, second homes, booze-fueled gossip, and how swell things are if we can just keep them this way.
To caddy at the Hinsdale Golf Club, you had to be at least 13. I was still only 12 but tall for my age, so I passed. Caddies were divided into three descending classes—A, B, and C—subject to the judgement of the caddy master. For the record, most of the C caddies were pipsqueaks. Numbers were then assigned to us, ranging from one to ninety-nine and the lower the number, the more qualified the caddy. At least that was the theory. In spite of my age but because of my height, I was assigned number A-13. Class A! Being tall is a natural confidence-builder.
What stands out about the job was not the actual caddying, or the members, but the caddy master, Doc, and his cohorts Moose and Harry. These characters were of a type I had never been around, and very different from the dads I knew. They were certainly not Little League coaches.
Doc was about 40 years old and clearly not from Hinsdale. He dressed like a golfer, wore thick glasses, and his beard was a permanent five o’clock shadow. He reminded me of Sergeant Bilko from the 1950s TV show; a bit of a hustler and a schemer, and definitely a gambler. Club members had a winking appreciation for this rogue in their midst. It was Doc who decided which little creep was going to carry which golf bag for 18 holes at the going rate of $3.00, a sum enough to keep me thick in baseball cards and milkshakes from Parker’s drugstore, where I had begun to ogle Darlene, the 15-year-old, tight-sweatered soda jerk.
Moose was Doc’s enforcer. He had a world-class menacing stare and didn’t hesitate to frighten a suburban caddy. Looking back, I’m not sure he had any other function than terrorizing us. His black hair was well-greased, his gut pushed out above the waistline of sans-a-belt slacks. He wore shiny shirts of a pattern and color unknown to the dads on my block. He was from an entirely different world. He was Moose.
Harry was downright scary. Gaunt. Way tall. Pock-marked complexion. Doubtful that he’d ever seen a dentist. The demeanor of Frankenstein. He was a professional caddy and a golf hustler who spoke double negatives through broken teeth. In downtown Clarendon Hills I had glimpsed him getting off the train in his cracked, wing tip golf shoes then followed him at a safe distance as he strode up Blodgett—right past my house—to his job at the Club. Was he one of those guys who lived on skid row?
When things were slow, Doc, Moose, and Harry played cards and swore and accused each other of cheating or bluffing. This was my first exposure to real cursing. It wasn’t practiced in my neighborhood. At least not in front of the kids. When word came that a member was ready to golf, Doc leaned out of his office and peered through his thick glasses at the pathetic collection of caddy boys, all of us cooling our heels on the bench that lined the walls of the shack. He seemed to delight in this moment. He knew which members were ball-busters, and which ones had low handicaps and needed a competent caddy. Which scrawny kid would he pair with a captain of industry or the well-coiffed wife of the bank president? “Here, Bain,” he’d say, handing me a card with a member name and number on it. “Go pick up the clubs for Mrs. Templeton. They’re on the first tee.” I was always gripped with a moment of giddy anxiety on the way to the pro shop to pick up the clubs, knowing that I was about to undergo a three-hour golf etiquette examination.
The club had a no-tipping policy, with signs posted in the pro shop to reinforce the idea. Seemed a bit cheap even to my young mind. On occasion, though, a member would hand me twenty-five cents at the turn, golfspeak for passing nine holes, which I’d spend on a Baby Ruth and a Coke in the caddy shack. A quarter was a small amount to truly be considered a tip, but it still created a minor conspiracy between the member and me. The offer and acceptance made us both complicit. We were bending the rules together.
I recall a general air of indifference when it came to the members’ relationships with caddies. Some tolerated my existence, a few noticed that I was alive and breathing. Some ignored me altogether, an invisible arm handing them a club. Occasionally one would ask where I lived or where I went to school or if I played golf, pleased to be displaying a concern for the welfare of the help. Some wore plaid pants. Some had wives who drank too much. Some had red cheeks. Many owned the firm. All believed that golf is what civilized people did.
I had played golf a few times with my uncle, who was a real ace, and on public courses with kids in my neighborhood. Through playing, you pick up a sense of the rules. My only other training was the occasional tidbit from Doc or Moose about how to hold the flag or to be sure that my shadow didn’t cross paths with the line of the putt. Always keep your eye on the ball. Speak when spoken to. Never laugh at a duffed shot. Don’t make your player wait for you. And keep the clubs from clanking too much as you walk down the fairway.
Caddying provided a good opportunity to sing under your breath whenever your golfer was at least twenty yards away. If the member was good enough and he hit the ball far enough, I’d get to sing a whole song between the drive and his next shot. Most songs were two minutes or less. How long did it take to explain that Betty Lou Needed a New Pair of Shoes or that it was Finger Poppin’ Time? I didn’t yet know about Muddy and Wolf and Little Walter.
I eventually doubled my pay by doing doubles—carrying two bags at once. This also doubled the work, especially when one of your golfers had a slice and the other a hook. Golfers can get aggravated waiting for their pitiful caddy to help them find their Titleist in the rough even if the caddy has been waylaid helping his other lousy golfer 100 yards away in the bushes on the opposite side of the fairway. An aggravated golfer decreased your chances of the 25cent bonus at the turn.
One nice perk was that caddies could play free golf at the Club on Mondays when the course was closed for maintenance. We had to dodge the sprinklers and skip any greens that were being repaired but who cared? We played 18 or 27 holes, practiced our cheating, and tried out some of the cuss words. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, two sides of America were being exposed to my growing mind. Where else could I be hanging around Doc, Moose, and Harry one minute, then handing a club to Mr. Comiskey or Mrs. Johnson the next? Right off the bat, I’d stumbled into a job that revealed a swath of our social strata. As I matriculated through Hinsdale junior high and high school, I became friends with many club members’ kids, but I never thought to myself, “One day, I’ll become a member.” Not because I felt that I couldn’t, but I found Doc more intriguing than any of the members. Chalk one up for the salt of the earth. There had to be more options than either hitting the balls or carrying the clubs.
I had the Hinsdale Golf Club in mind when I wrote and recorded this decades after my stint as a caddy:
Live long enough and you will experience something new. America’s election of a black president was certainly in that category, but that was something I voted in favor of. The coronavirus was something new over which I had no control: an unseen enemy that lurks everywhere, that shapes the daily life of the world. Look out the window and all appears “normal.” But a collective uncertainty permeates the atmosphere.
A nagging feeling that life is passing me by set in, that simple things like shaking hands, hugging, inviting friends into your home, going to restaurants and music clubs, was now becoming a part of the past—with no clear understanding of when these social constructs would resume.
I was in Key Largo as the pandemic began its grip on our daily life. As I played my guitar each night after dinner ( often fresh yellow tail snapper), I had a clear view of the sunset. It looked and felt the same as it had the month before and the year before and the years before that. But the feeling was different. Because I knew. We all knew. Was it still possible to be funny? To laugh? Would laughter be best practiced alone, where droplets wouldn’t reach a fellow human?
I wrote many verses, tried several different chord progressions and melodies, before ultimately finishing the song in early summer after I had returned to my home in Arlington Heights. I recorded a version into my phone which I sent to son, Anthony, who suggested some edits to streamline the lyrics.
In August, I drove to Geoff DeMuth’s Little Pink home studio and recorded acoustic guitar and vocals. (Usually I take Metra but wasn’t keen on taking public trans.) Good thing that Geoff has a vocal booth that allowed for safe distancing. We wore masks the rest of the time and never got closer than six feet. In the ensuing couple of months, Geoff recorded Jim Seidel on upright bass, Victor Camacho on percussion and finally, his own pedal steel part. It’s a nifty little four-piece band. There is a tropical feel to the tune because the tropics is where it gestated.
Something that should have brought us together has torn us apart. Be kind, everybody. Enjoy the song!
Songwriters write about anything you can see, feel, taste, or think. Thousands of songs are about love, but two of mine are about the love of beans. I composed a brace of bean songs mid-decade during the 1970s and thought I had discovered a new genre of songwriting. Maybe I did.
Both of my bean songs feature the
pinto bean. The songs are quite different in musical style, yet each professes
bean love. Pinto Bean Blues is played in the style of Blind Lemon
Jefferson. The other song, Frijoles, is a Slavic march sung in Spanish.
I had been introduced to the wonders of pinto beans by an amiable fellow I hung out with in San Francisco in 1971, John Lopez, who was from East LA. John taught me to barely cover the dried beans with water, add salt, pepper and cumin, bring to a simmer and keep adding water as needed until the skin furls off when you blow on one. Usually takes a couple of hours depending upon altitude and kitchen vibe. John frequently made a pot of pintos, then refried them—mashed them in hot oil in a skillet. Spread this delightful result on tortillas with some chopped onion, shredded cheese, avocado and salsa and you’re set.
The inspiration for Frijoles! came in 1974 while Linda and I were staying at the Hotel La Riviera in Playa Rodedero near Santa Marta, Colombia. An eight-year-old girl from Bogota, Olgita, was vacationing at La Riviera with her dad and uncle at the same time. The hotel was situated a block from the beach next to a rubble pile with a trash heap across the street. It was lovely.
I conjured Frijoles! as entertainment for Olgita. After playing it one time, she and her drunken uncle made constant requests for encores. They were wild about the song. The uncle, a medical doctor from Bogota, would sit there plastered on afternoon rum and request a performance: “Rogélio. Toca Frijoles!” I am certain that Olgita, now a grown woman, would still remember Frijoles!
Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Clarendon hills, the beans we ate were green, often from a can. Nice that we have expandable palates. Long live legumes!
The first time I took Linda on a west coast road trip, we left Carbondale with $300 and stretched it nearly three months, thanks to the kindness of friends, acquaintances, cheap gas, free rides, hitchhiking and a diet of canned tuna, avocados, cream cheese, peanut butter and jelly, pinto beans, hard rolls, and eggs. A reader might think that surely this is an exaggeration: only $300 for an entire summer road trip of thousands of miles? This was 1972. We had no car, no rent, no insurance, bought no clothes and never went to restaurants except for a truck stop apple pie or fried rice at the Moon Café in San Francisco, which cost a dollar.
We’ve all heard this description applied to somebody who is well off, often uttered by somebody who wishes that they were as well off. It is the ultimate praise in our capitalist society. God is rich but this person is richer. The richer you are, the more god-like. God is money. God could replace Bennie Franklin on the $100 bill, if only we could figure out how to illustrate God’s likeness. A stack of Benjamins would become a stack of Gods. Cocaine sniffed through a rolled up hundred would, in a way, have God’s blessing. Or, at least, HIS assistance.
Does God have mortgage payments, pay for Impossible Whoppers, owe membership dues at Augusta, possess a garage full of vintage Aston Martins? Does God owe back taxes? Child support? No. God has none of these markers of wealth. A need to be transported in a helicopter? Overdue health insurance premiums? No-no-nah-no-noh! God has a credit card with no limits.
On reflection, don’t we all have more money than God? Forget it. That was a stupid notion. God is so well off that he doesn’t even need money? God is a penniless, omniscient presence who owes nothing, oversees everything, who is worshipped by billions. The poor one in the family was God’s son. He was notoriously poor. But he developed a lot of followers. He went viral. Since his passing, trillions have been raised in his name. It is a thriving business because there are a lot of customers with an insatiable demand for the product.
You know who has more money than God? Who is rolling in dough? The devil. Here is a mischievous dude adept at the financial arts, able to live high on the hog by whatever means necessary. The colloquial saying should be: “He has more money than the devil.” That is a more accurate statement. If you really have a lot of money, the devil is your guy. Like God, the devil needs your dough.
Remember. God never picks up the tab, but the devil might
buy you a few drinks. Maybe even a nice dinner and a show. Would you rather be
in Vegas with God or the devil? Would God frown on your gambling or would he
turn a blind eye, which of course is impossible because God sees everything at
The next time someone say, “She has more money than God,”
keep this in mind.
I taught myself how to play guitar so I could write songs about whatever I fancied. Truck Drivin’ Astronaut is one of the first ones I wrote, probably around 1973, though I can’t specifically pin down the date. The moon landing was an obvious inspiration.
My astronaut is an everyman who remains grounded even while in space. He’s the cowboy next door who takes out his own trash and sips beer on the front porch. Commercial endorsement rewards will soon be coming his way as they do to many successful Americans. In the last verse, now that he’s been in space, he’s uncertain that he prefers his earthly existence.
It’s also possible that the protagonist is not even an astronaut but instead is just a dreamer. Or a songwriter.
Many of the photos are from a Sunflower Cablevision video shoot for Randy Mason’s program “Bringin’ It All Back Home.” They were shot in and around Lawrence, Kansas. Probably around 1979 but not certain. Pretty sure the photog was Jim Jewell. The outfit is compliments of my dear friend, Jim Vaughn, who was working for a fire retardant company at the time. I photographed his visit to my wife Linda’s classroom at Wakarusa Valley Elementary. The shot of wife, Linda, and I (me in the cowboy hat) was taken by our friend Steve Burkhart near Lake Powell, Utah in 1973. The astronaut with wine was shot last week by Linda. Space shots compliments of NASA. The suit is still in our attic and one day will be donated to either to the Smithsonian or Good Will.
Last May our current President asked,” Why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” That presidential musing was the genesis of Why Oh Why? Upon writing this song, I knew that I had to visualize it. The images are from the public domain.
•Thanks to Geoff DeMuth for the evocative horn and background vocal arrangements.
•Jack Mazzenga for the banjo and mando accompaniment.
• David Prusina on Civil War snare
White folks often say about black…”The Civil War is over. They can vote. Can’t they just get over it?” This lays out the “it” that they must get over.