Cloister Commentary, Day 120: Splash, So Long

I have had a decent portion on my plate lately, so I was happy to hand a very healthy certified check over to good ol’ Sharon Dothage at Hickman for deposit into our account for remembering our departed friend George Frissell. My first experience managing a GoFundMe campaign was pretty positive, but also nerve-wracking. Would I do it again? Depends.

Thanks be to McKnight Tire for bringing my ’93 Ford Ranger (formerly known as a Splash until I had the evidence removed–didn’t quite go with my image) up to long-distance travel-speed. They have treated that vehicle lovingly for almost 30 years, and after the new owner has them put a set of tires on it, they shall see it no more, and will eventually meet my Chevy. I hope they get along.

How many hours in a day can you read? Providing my damn phone is buried somewhere, I can get seriously lost in a book, but I happened to have my nose in an in-demand book I’d checked out from the DBRL that was, um, five days overdue, so I had additional motivation. Finished it with time to spare, which I used to…read another book.

The dark side of the day was learning that 30 fellow Stephens employees lost their jobs. I’m pretty convinced the leadership did everything they could to prevent taking that measure, but COVID-19 gives no quarter. Had we done a much better job refusing any ourselves–say, starting in January–we’d be in a better place now. But more and more it is appearing we are in a hell we had a hand in making.

Random shout-out: I was delighted to see one of my favorite administrators and edumacational wizards, Dr. Andrew McCarthy, yesterday. Andy’s smart, dedicated, hard-working, funny, positive, patient, and nice. What else could one require in an educator?

Streaming for Strivers:

How ’bout some snap, crackle, and pop?

Cloister Commentary, Day 109: Strode Rode

Dropping off some checks for our fundraiser for the late George Frissell at Hickman High School, I had a delightful conversation with the school’s long-time administrative assistant Sharon Dothage–actually, she runs the school. We got caught up on gossip, the future, Hickman history–and I found out she was once a Stephens Star! I also chatted with financial secretary Heather Croy, who put my mind at ease about several nerve-wracking fundraising concerns. AND I logged a Dr. Andrew McCarthy sighting. AND I was excited to learn my good friend and former colleague Leia Brooks is moving into a) the ol’ Frissellian lair on the second floor, and b) a new home on the north side, with her boyfriend. AND I previewed for all the new city mask ordinance (better late than never).

I came home from that jaunt to discover that our long-time pal and stalwart Seattleian Beth Hartman had sent us a care package that included pickled Brussels sprouts (once branded by John Waters “those little balls of hell”). She wisely intuited that I would enjoy such an oddity, and I did, though I did not make a dirty martini with them as threatened. My brother Brian sent me a Bluetooth mic that I can’t wait to use but need to figure out how.

Accomplished: the Chevy Silverado Dad left behind and Mom and Brian gifted me is now officially mine. Next up: accidental death insurance labyrinth, and getting my old Ford into the Wright hands.

I am sick to death of gun violence.

Speaking of Fords, Nicole and I chillaxed and watched the first half of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

A truly great film with serious star power but also entertaining support from crafty veterans like Woody Strode, Andy Devine, and Edmond O’Brien (all of whom made me think of my friend Rex Harris, who appreciates such memorable characters). Our fatigued bodies and minds forced us to our pillows at 9 pm.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

Testifying tunes from a West Coast pianistic prince.

Cloister Commentary, Day 106: Best-Laid Schemes

Yesterday was the first day I’ve felt relatively myself in two weeks. My body and mind still compelled me to take a nap, but I find when I obey them I’m better off. I also read 10 pages of a book without stopping, so that too was a good sign.

I was thwarted in my second attempt to get my dad’s truck licensed over to me; the DMV had what I am sure is a well-deserved early day off for the 4th. I guess I’m in a toot so I can get my old red-orange, bumper-stickered ’93 (or is it ’92) Ford Splash sold. It’ll be nice to once again be able to drive inconspicuously.

In preparation for today, I revisited Frederick Douglass’ 1852 4th of July address. I’d bought my dad David W. Blight’s outstanding Douglass biography for Father’s Day, and after having a great discussion about race and white privilege the afternoon before his eventually fatal accident, I had a feeling he’d love it. “The best-laid scheme o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley….

More on that speech. Dr. Mark Lomax II is a force.

Facebook deservedly gets a bad rap at times, but I’m thankful it allows me to stay connected to important figures from my past. In the early evening, my former student Joseph Kenney and I had a terrific Messenger chat about his new podcast (“It’s a Rap”), Columbia’s racial history, books, Scarface, Hickman’s radio station, and much more. Joe was an athlete, scholar, and a presence any teacher would welcome: passionate, outspoken, funny, curious, and challenging. One day I hope I can see him again in person; I might show up on one of his future podcasts.

Nicole did an amazing job replicating one of Mom’s dishes (in fact, the first home-cooked meal Jane and I ate after Dad’s passing). If you’ve not had a chicken breast baked with a crust of Parmesan and Panko, or petite taters baked in olive oil and fresh rosemary, I highly recommend it.

Streaming for Strivers:

When I think of Joe Kenney, I think of ‘Face.

Cloister Commentary, Day 71: “LIBERAL P**SY!!!!”

Nicole and I gathered safely at Hickman with our friends Susie, Kendra, Henry, and Paige to discuss a possible memorial project for Susie’s husband George Frissell. We stood around the labyrinth that George helped bring into being for a fallen comrade a few years ago, and weighed the details. It was very nice to be in the company of a small group outdoors on a beautiful morning, and we made excellent progress. In some ways, Paige may have replaced George as the Kewpie Griot: before we left, we took an amusing and varied dive into Hickman’s past.

We were out twice today and of course wore masks. The last couple of times I’ve done so, I’ve thought about someone in Nashville I read about who did the same and was screamed at for being a “liberal p**sy,” and wondered if that might ever happen to me. “Liberal p**sy” does not accurately describe me (quite), but I know what someone who would feel the need to scream that at me in public would mean by it. The thing is, I realized, that’s like screaming “MUSIC LOVER!!!!” at me. “Yes, and?”

In the evening, we took in the documentary AKA Jane Roe, and I’m very glad we did. I learned much, including things I didn’t want to know, but needed to. It’s streaming on Hulu.

I woke up again at 3:15 (!!!) thinking about Minneapolis and wondering if my Stephens students already know what to do Monday morning at 9. We shall see.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

Playing in my head for the last several hours, one of my all-time favorite rap rekkids that I now must foist upon you all…

George Frissell, Obfuscation Abjured

George

George Frissell in his sartorial prime. (Photo by Wally Pfeffer)

George Frissell was the griot of Columbia, Missouri’s Hickman High School. When he retired in 2013, and especially when he passed away on May 14, 2020, he took a truckful of stories and 100 terabytes of institutional memory with him. Most of us look to distinguish ourselves in some way; George distinguished himself in too many ways to efficiently keep track of, to which his official obituary and a recent op-ed attest (note that the authors forgot one of his most important of many honors bestowed on him by his community, a “Columbia Values Diversity” award). The high school class he created and taught the hell out of even inspired a popular ongoing podcast that will keep his passion alive.

George and I had been fast friends almost from the moment I began working at Hickman. I’d looked up to him from afar for awhile–he was ten years my senior and very confident–but one unusual moment broke the ice for us. A new teacher was being introduced to the faculty at an all-school meeting, and when given a chance to speak, she mentioned that she was a devout Roman Catholic. I was sitting about 10 feet away and said, not fully under my breath, “Welcome to Hell!” Metaphorically, I was referring to the academic competitiveness among teachers, but judging by the seconds of silence that followed my remark, I was understood differently. But the stillness was broken by someone’s helpless laughter rolling in from behind me: George’s. From that moment, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, who’s always valued camaraderie, we “swore / forever friends.”

When our pal and peer Hank Landry called and told me George had passed, I learned the meaning of shock. Once that sunk in, I hugged Nicole and we bawled. Then we went on a long drive and cranked some of George’s favorite music, and in the midst we could see from social media the news was spreading virally–this truly was a man who was loved by many, many thousands. We returned home, and I truly had no choice but to speak on his passing on my Facebook wall:

I’m in a bit of shock tonight because one of the very best friends and colleagues I’ve ever had, George Frissell, passed away unexpectedly today. He was 68 going on 28, one helluva piquant breakfast conversationalist, and hands down the most inspiring teacher across these dismal decades that I’ve ever known. When Nicole and I moved to Columbia in 1990, he immediately made us feel extraordinarily welcome, and he’s been a constant source of joy in our lives ever since (and will continue to be til I die). George drove three and a half hours to attend our wedding, and by choice of an inside pew position is in almost every picture. That’s the kind of guy he was.

I often functioned as George’s tout. I always asked my students at Hickman if they’d scheduled or already taken his legendary classical ideas and world religions class; if they said no, I considered failing them. When I transferred to Smithton Middle School, I admit to having brainwashed vulnerable 6th and 7th graders into taking him when they got to Hickman. He changed minds, and lives. Hell, I wanted to take the g-d class and I was an adult.

You may not believe me, but eff off if you don’t: my grief is nothing compared to the storm of thousands of students whom he encouraged to think outside the box, and to learn broadly. To those thousands, I say: you know many, many ways to think about and respond to death, and I ask you to pass this test today and in the coming days. You have the tools.

I am a bit too wrecked by this shock-sadness-anger-acceptance-staring into space-laughter cycle to go on much longer, but Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ this guy was layered: an athlete, a scholar, a gambler, a bawd, a monad, a teacher, a student, a prankster, a devotee. He might have had a reputation in the eyes of some of being a hippie, a “mere” liberal, but he was an extremely tough-minded humanist with the highest expectations of himself and others. We should all be so multifaceted.

I’m pissed he got snatched by The Reaper, but he’d want me to be smiling. I texted him last night; I was missing sports, I was watching “Bullet” Bob Hayes highlights on YouTube, and I remembered a hero of my prepubescence: Warren Wells. I realized that, in this age of tech, I’d never looked up why he suddenly disappeared from the NFL after a few all-star years. When I went to Wells’ Wiki page, I noticed he was born and had died in George’s hometown of Beaumont, Texas. My immediate text message went thusly: “When you hear the name ‘Warren Wells,’ what’s your reaction?” I would have called, but the wuss goes to bed early. When I awakened at 5 this morning, I checked my phone and saw his 10:45 (?) reply: “I knew Warren Wells. They were scared of him in the Pear Orchard. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He was the kind of guy you could talk to about Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Lightnin’ Hopkins or…Warren Wells–they don’t make many of them these days, do they, Lee [his brother]? I texted him this morning to tell me a good time and I’d call him, but he stepped on a rainbow before he could do so. I’m a materialist, and don’t go for that spiritual crap, but why did Nicole get a copy of Tricycle right around noon.

Facebook is insufficient to represent George: he really did contain multitudes, and thus I will post the Classical Ideas and World Religion theme songs below. I raise a skull-shaped shot glass of tequila to you this evening–you cannot be replaced, but I will try to extend your strivings through my own doings. I love you, bud.

George’s sudden death had blown a hole in me big enough to float the Dark Star through. Partly just to hold him in this world, partly to let those who didn’t know him see what they’d missed, partly to fight anger and sorrow, I shared an amusing story about him on Facebook the next day. After reading it, a former student, student teacher, and peer of George’s asked me to give her and the rest of the large audience who did know him a story a day. I figured I could do that for a week, and I barely made it. What follows are the seven stories together, in chronological order, beginning with a May 15th entry the day after George’s departure from material form.

I: Free P—y

For over twenty years, George sponsored the Hickman High School chapter of Amnesty International, an organization dedicated to freeing prisoners of conscience worldwide (including the U. S.). On principle, George expected students to choose a case they were interested in (unfortunately, there are always many to support), then at meetings, together, they’d conduct a learn-in and write letters to the powers that be, demanding the prisoners’ release. Yeah–I didn’t stutter! How cool is that for a high school club?

Anyway, one year, the club members chose to support the Russian political activists and sometime-music makers represented by the shirt I’m wearing in the pic below. Of course, George green-lighted it. The problem was, he was uncomfortable saying the group’s name, so he turned to the obvious person to guest-lead the discussion: me. I jumped at the opportunity and we had a great time. I’m pretty sure I wrote a letter myself, and we watched several of the group’s “actions” via video.

Fast-forward a few months, and George appeared at my door with a gift; he never traveled anywhere without returning with gifts for friends. And leave it to him to buy me a shirt that is difficult for a professional to wear in public! I’ve only done so once…

When George was retiring from Hickman, his current and former students and fellow teachers wanted to celebrate him in the school commons with a surprise gathering. I, too, was retiring (desperadoes waiting on a train), so I wore the shirt in his honor–what were they gonna do, fire me? The local paper showed up to cover the event, and snapped some photos, including one where I was in the frame that, if memory serves, landed on the front page.

I was wearing a dress shirt over the t-shirt; I should have worn it under the t-shirt, in Frissellian fashion, but I wasn’t that bold. In the photo, the only verbiage visible was the first two words of the demand. I never heard anything about it, but George and I wept with laughter over it later.

In hindsight, I suspect he feigned discomfort just to maneuver me into an amusing position.

Free Pussy

Not the easiest shirt to sport if you’re a professional.

 

II: The Trip to Champa’s

My very good friend and a bright educational light, MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy, has requested I share a story a day about our recently deceased friend George Frissell, and I will try to sustain that for a week. Believe me, it’s hard right now–but it is also a joy. If you didn’t see yesterday’s, it involved some piquantly named Russian political activists. If you didn’t know George, you would have wanted to.

One thing for which George was justly famous is his having (annually, for years) brought a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Champa Lhunpo, to speak to his classical ideas and world religions students at Hickman High School. One thing for which George was justly infamous was being a, shall we say, distracted driver. On one fine Sunday in our lives, these two distinctions joined.

Typically always thinking of others, George was going to Kansas City to visit Champa’s temple (the Rime Buddhist Center) and thought we might want to come along. Nicole and I jumped at the opportunity; I had met Champa briefly but had never heard him speak, nor had either of us attended a Buddhist service. A beat or two after excitedly accepting his invite, we realized George would be driving, and the potential for terror loomed. He had a great sense of humor about this–he realized he was like Jordan Baker behind the wheel–but I honestly think it was an extension of his vast, intricate, eccentric, and tightly organized mind. I don’t think he could ever JUST simply drive, if that makes sense. He was too nice to have invited us for us to offer to drive (check that: insist upon driving), so we accepted the risk.

We were pretty deep in discussion and anticipation on the way up to Kansas City, so our attention was (mostly) focused away from the side-to-side drifting and gravel from the shoulder spitting up from under the car’s wheels. We actually picked Champa up at his home to take him to the service, which was wonderfully educational and uplifting, and took him out to eat in downtown KC afterwards. But then, as we started to take Champa home, a torrential rain descended upon us.

You know that labyrinthic highway exchange involving I-70 and I-35 in the center of the city? It’s tricky if you know where you’re going and you’re an accomplished driver. I am talking thick sheets of water–and George did not even seem to give the rain the right of recognition. I swear I saw a flicker of fear in Champa’s eye! We got him home safely, but I was almost resentful of him that we had another 90 minutes of motorized madness ahead of us.

Open up YouTube, and just type the following into its search engine: “Annie Hall Christopher Walken driving scene” (I’ve helpfully provided it below). Click on the first thing that comes up, and, if you subtract the Walken character’s suicidal tendencies and add George’s carefree, blissful ignorance of the dangerous conditions, you have a fairly good approximation of what our return trip was like. At times–often checking on Susie, to whom he was deeply devoted, via cell–he seemed to be actually pointing the car at the ditch, and his lack of concern about “shoulder driving” is well-known among friends he’s transported vehicularly. Beware riding shotgun with a man who has deeply internalized the impermanence of existence!

We returned safely, but I believe we immediately, hands shaking, poured a drink when we walked in the door. The thing is, though, with George one always had much less difficulty being in the moment and feeling alive–he never had much time for filler. I’m just happy I’m here to report that fact. Bottom line: we will never forget “The Trip to Champa’s.” (I wish we had a picture with George in it, but of course he was taking the pictures.)

Trip to Champas

(left to right: Champa Lhunpo, Nicole Overeem, the author)

 

III: East – West

A fellow English teacher and cat lover, MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy, has asked me to share a story each day for a week about our recently departed friend George Frissell. I’ve agreed–the joy is greater than the pain–and this is Day 3.

George created and brilliantly taught a classical ideas and world religions course at Hickman, so brilliantly (and so fairly) that his students always wanted to know HIS belief system. He pledged that if they came back and had coffee with him after graduation, he’d tell them, and, to my knowledge, he stuck to that to the end. However, he was not above using the mystery to mess with folks’ minds. Case in point…

One day in the late ’90s, George and I were having lunch in Brady Commons over at Mizzou, waiting for a multicultural studies class we were both taking to start. We both had bought a bag of chips and opened them. I was explaining something to him (probably about Elvis Presley) when, keeping his beady snake eyes focused on me, he reached over, grabbed some of my chips, and calmly ate them right in front of me. He hadn’t even eaten his own–nor had I even had one (OF MY OWN). If the scene had played out in a movie, I would have pinned his hand to the table with a dagger; in this case, I didn’t even address the infraction, and possibly only registered a millisecond of incomprehension (which I’m sure he detected). Why?

I never once asked George what his belief system was. I am not religious myself, and I figured if he wanted to share, he would. But I, like anyone with a brain who knew him, suspected he leaned to the East. And unlike a lot of people who claim a religion, he seemed to live devotedly by such tenets. Which is why, as I watched him grinding MY chips into dust, I asked myself: “Is he putting my Western inclination toward attachment and acquisitiveness to the test to make a point?” Yes, I actually thought that. And kept thinking it when, on a morning he bumped into my parents and us at Ron’s Country Breakfast Bunker, he baldly took a piece of bacon off my plate and crunched it while I was bragging on him to them. And kept thinking it when, as we dined on his famous Thai chicken once over at his house, he reached across the table, pressed his fingers against a little island of rice on the corner of my plate, and air-lifted it into his mouth. Strangely, not only was I silent in these cases (though by this point in time stewing), but no one else said anything, either!

I kept it to myself until one day I entertained a group of peers in the Hickman teachers lounge by re-enacting those scenarios. After the spewing of drinks, my friends were equally incredulous. Why did this gentle, unselfish, polite, highly evolved soul insist on being a grub-pilferer? Was he indeed trying to reveal me as a possession-driven culinary skinflint and demonstrate the superiority of the middle path?

Finally, George got his comeuppance. I was asked to speak at his 60th birthday party, which was attended mostly by close friends, family, and long-time colleagues. After landing a few easy jokes about his intense dedication to cargo pants and his loose relationship with his most important keys, I moved in for the kill:

“Who among you has watched your own extra crispy bacon eaten in front of you, sans permission, by the guest of honor?”

I was not surprised when multiple hands shot up.

“Who among those suspects that the guest of honor has been using our respect for his Eastern leanings to feed his face?”

I don’t remember any hands raised. What I remember is a sea of initially puzzled faces that ever so gradually morphed into nodding heads.

The last time George hoisted a fork of my eggs to his hungry lips, he asked to try them first.

(See George’s and my “Breakfast Meditation” series, which begins right here. The damn Reaper just stomped it.)

Cafe Berlin

George and I at Cafe Berlin in Columbia.

 

IV. A Rock and Roller

This is Day 4 (of 7) in a sharing of stories from my friendship with George Frissell, as requested by his former student teacher and current master educator and feline facilitator MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy. George recently stepped on a 🌈, and it’s painful but ultimately helpful and joyful to recall how many fascinating things he was.

He was a rock and roller. He was raised in Beaumont, Texas, just outside The Pine Curtain, in the stomping grounds of George Jones and the Winter brothers (their mom was an English instructor at his school, Edgar was his Sunday school teacher, and his brother Lee ran with Johnny), and in the fertile heart of zydeco and blues country. I’m not given much to envy, but George actually laid eyes on Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Rock and roll first linked us. When I first started working at Hickman, I was a smidge intimidated, but I quickly met a (then-) longhair with a slight forward lean to his walk who insisted on always shaking my hand in the hall. I intuited that he had the great shakin’ fever in his veins, sounded him out, and discovered he was a bit of an Anglophile–he actually owned a copy of the legendary “Butcher’s Block” version of The Beatles’ Yesterday and Today. Lee reported to me recently as we were discussing George’s obituary that George had immediately called him to say that a rock and roll fanatic had joined the faculty, but was “insufficiently knowledgeable and excited about The British Invasion.” He always set a high bar. Nonetheless, as was his wont with folks, he dubbed me Hickman’s “PhD in rock and roll by fiat.”

bad_peel

The infamous “Butcher’s Block” cover. George’s copy had been papered over with the new (and current) but much less cool cover shot, which also flowed into the “Paul is dead” urban myth. See more in the link in the paragraph above.

George was a dedicated gift giver, and wherever he went he was on the lookout for anything rock and roll-themed he could bring me (see the pic). Past the point where I actually was, he considered me the ultimate Elvis fan and authority, and we actually sat and twice watched together the entire uncut eight-hour bootleg rough draft of This is Spinal Tap that our shared student Josh Slates (now a film director and auuteur himself). had scored for us. The ultimate extracurricular sponsor, he encouraged me to create a Spinal Tap club with two students we shared, Aaron Seibert and Regan Schoengarth. The three of us met and wrote a test that interested students would have to pass to become members, one that was never taken but that we shed tears of laughter writing in the old Gold Room.

Students of George’s classical ideas course had no choice but to memorize Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” (the opening guitar figure would have been his lead-in had he been invited on Letterman), The Byrds’ Ecclesiastical “Turn, Turn, Turn,”and The Melodians’ multilayered reggae classic, “The Rivers of Babylon.” The last thing I ever bought George was Lloyd Bradley’s Bass Culture, a book I felt he needed because he was worried–at 68!!!–that he wasn’t sharp enough on Rastafarianism and reggae.)

George was Hickman’s longtime Quiz Bowl master, and once prevailed upon me to collaborate with him on a rock and roll version that he hoped would serve as an annual fundraiser. The first and only one was a classic, wasn’t it, Sadie and Bill? My questions may have priced us out of the business.

George lived in a way that he had few regrets, but one of them I remember well. Mini-KISS was playing in Boonville, I think, and he called me breathing heavily and wanting to go. We are both very dedicated to having fun with our spouses whenever possible, and we ended up talking ourselves out of it. Many times, out of the brief silences that occasionally visited our times together, he’d look at me and say, “Why didn’t we go to Mini-KISS?” Later, when we had an opportunity to see Texas country master Ray Price at The Isle of Lucy, I mean Capri, in Boonville, I got us tickets without discussion and we had a great double-date.

When my student Dave Kemper, his friend Dylan Raithel, and I founded The Academy of Rock at Hickman (for me, partly under the sway of George’s influence), George instantly employed us to provide live rock and roll for his Amnesty International club’s fundraisers, which he’d been doing already for over a decade ago. Just a month ago, he was still raving about local legend Witch’s Hat’s performance at one, and he gave many Hickman student bands the opportunity to woodshed and entertain their peers. Raise your hand if you played an Amnesty show!

I was talking to his daughter Melody a few days ago, and she fondly recalled the night, she, her friend Ryan Matticker, George, his wife Susie, Nicole and I “broke in” to Hickman to eat treats and watch a documentary about Texas rock and roll giant Roky Erickson in my classroom (this was when it was cool to project movies on smart boards, if it ever was). We didn’t exactly break in, as George and I both had the keys to damn near everything back then, but Melody told me she felt excitingly like a criminal being one of the only ones in the school that night, and as such had a blast. We all did. If you don’t know Roky, well, it’s a tribute to how deep a fan George was. And by the way? Good luck finding that documentary today.

Before school had opened a few years George and I retired from Hickman but were both teaching there part time, I came in early on a work day to get a head start in organizing my room and writing my first unit. A bit groggy, I unlocked the door, slouched behind my desk for a bit, started thinking about a good quote to write on the board–then peered over to the space where I’d be writing the quote at a surprise. This poster was taped up in that space, with the accompanying message scrawled to its right:

Crue

 

 

 

Satan's Anus

 

 

I knew the scrawl well (I cannot replicate it, as it resembled a disturbed soul’s), and came from around my desk to fold my arms, chuckle, admire it, when from behind me someone boomed, “Mr. Overeem, am I catching you at a bad time?” I wheeled to find the new principal also standing with arms folded, contemplating the display himself.

“Um, yes, must have been a prankster did that,” I reasoned nervously. Yes, a prankster in cargo pants.

Months later, due to budget cuts and enrollment numbers, this same principal contacted us both, telling us he would have to decide which of the two of us would stay the following year, since both of couldn’t. I volunteered to go, not wanting visions of pentagrams to be further associated with me in his mind.

Our last real rock and roll escapade happened when Johnny Winter came to The Blue Note shortly before Johnny passed. George called me, begging me to go with him to a meet-and-greet being held at Slackers. He was 10 years my senior, but I felt like I was taking my little nephew to the fair. Standing in line, he snatched up multiple Winter CDs, and as we inched closer to the blues great, I worried that George was going to throw the folks ahead of us aside to quicken the process, but when he finally came face to face with Johnny, he asked him if he remembered his senior English teacher back in the Beaumont days–to George’s everlasting glee, he said, “Yes, Mrs. Frissell.” George’s mom had taught both Johnny and his brother Edgar when they were 12th graders. Winter wasn’t in great shape for the show, but George couldn’t quit reminding me that Trevor Judkins, the guitarist for the opening band and a Hickman grad, had played an Amnesty benefit.

George and Johnny

George and Johnny Winter at Slacker’s in Columbia, Missouri.

 

Nicole and I drove around sadly and aimlessly the afternoon just after George died, blasting his faves and tearfully singing along. My only real regret as an educator was that I never was able to create a rock and roll class to run parallel to Classical Ideas and World Religions–but that’s the difference, really, between George and the rest of us.

To everything, turn, turn, turn…

God of Rock

Just a few of the gifts that George snagged for me (his brother Lee got me the tie).

V. A Lesson After Dying

“New Generation” teacher MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy has charged me with remembering our dear friend George Frissell, who’s gone to meet Elvis, with a story a day for seven days. This is Day 5. I hope they’re helping you with the pain, because they’re helping me.

This story is about a book.

George is famous for having taught Classical Ideas and World Religions at Hickman, but he was also (despite his unsteady spelling, proficiency at which is the bragging right of the conformist, anyway) a terrific language arts teacher. He taught senior English for several years of his career, and during the rowdy but wonderful early ’90s in Kewpieville practiced it through the ancient art of the adepts, CWC.

During the last quarter-mile of our careers, George and I found ourselves in a professional development group of 12th grade teachers. He had happily moved beyond being asked to lead; I had only recently accepted that mantle, and in this case had been asked to facilitate, in a harbinger of questionable things to come, the alignment of our practice. In this group were two teachers who absolutely despised each other and could be less than charming in the best of situations, and one who had a talent for micromanaging a collaborative conversation into a Sisyphean endeavor. Every time we met as a group, I watched through narrowed eyes as George’s eyes twinkled to see me struggling in vain to establish harmony and make progress. He’d earned that privilege.

We were trying to agree on materials to use, and I’d suggested a novel by Ernest Gaines titled A Lesson Before Dying. I’d used it with sophomores, but argued it would be even more effective with seniors. I pleaded eloquently, I thought, but to no avail, and the meeting ended as usual, with me feeling a total failure. George sidled up to me in the hall and said, “I’ll try that book! Fuck ’em!”

I should have known George would buy in. I didn’t really realize it then, but it struck many Frissellian chords: set in his birth state (Louisiana, in Cajun country near Baton Rouge), it examines capital punishment (which he stringently opposed), exposes the virulence of racism and unjust incarceration, follows the classical bildungsroman pattern (such an ugly word for a beautiful thing), and reserves an important place for music at its core. Also, as a young teacher in Baeumont, George had taught, coached, and sponsored (a chess club) in a traditionally African American school, Hebert. We had to wait until the next year to launch the unit, but George attacked it with characteristic passion, verve, and innovation.

George at Hebert

George with his students at Hebert High School in Beaumont, Texas.

I remember him bursting into my room to say, “Hey, did you know there’s an audiobook for this?” I’d barely assented, it seems, before he’d purchased a copy for us to share, and not with department money. Readers of the book know that the first-person narrative shifts for only one chapter from a teacher in a segregated 1948 school to his former student, who is days away from being electrocuted by the state. The student’s chapter is in epistolary form (a page from a journal the teacher has labored to convince him to keep), and it is too linguistically difficult and heart-rending for most teachers to read aloud–which it must be if a classroom is going to fully enjoy it and appreciate its sheer power. George instinctively understood this, and we played the recording of that chapter religiously every year we taught it, to great effect. He also dug in and found an HBO adaptation of the book, and brainstormed an analytical writing assignment for us, asking students to detect and support shifts in meaning between the two accounts. You might also notice that both of these innovations adapted the content for a range of learning styles.

I began to feel pressure to keep up with the dang guy! I’d taught it for many years but he was the one performing as if he had the experience. I was able to add one feature to our unit: the condemned character gradually reaches a key moment of understanding through the teacher’s gift of a radio, which the jailers only grudgingly allow the kid. At night in his cell, he listens to WLAC out of Nashville (now a crappy talk radio outlet), and the legendary DJs John R and Randy Wood, who introduced thousands of listeners to the glory of rhythm and blues. It’s a relatively small detail in the book unless you know the mass of the iceberg under the surface, so I ripped CDs for us to play that approximated what a WLAC show would sound like. Muddy Waters, Louis Jordan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Champion Jack Dupree, The Pilgrim Travelers, Hank Williams, too–where else were our students going to get that exposure? We used the playlist as background for their class time reading of the chapter, gave them each a menu of the artists and songs, and asked them to respond in writing to their favorites. It took George’s enthusiasm and influence to move me in that direction, and of course I frequently muttered to myself–a well-worn teacher mutter–“Why didn’t I think of that earlier?!!”

This song, by the intense Julius Cheeks-led gospel group, played a key role in our teaching of the book. It deals with Christ’s hauling the cross through throngs of degraders, a moment the teacher in the novel tries to get the condemned kid to connect with his own dilemma.

George and I shared many books over the years, but A Lesson Before Dying occupies a special place in our friendship. I can’t count the number of times we referred to it in our casual conversations about other subjects. It’s about time for me to re-read it, and I suggest you sample it if you haven’t.

 

Lesson

One HELL of a good book. Read it if you haven’t.

VI. Never Trust a Man Who Doesn’t Love Animals

My friend MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy asked me to spin a historical tale about the departed George Frissell every day for seven days. This is Day 6; soon I hope to edit them together so those who may have missed some can catch up.

A cultural icon I admire, Humphrey Bogart, once said (or I’d like to think he said), “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink.” Considering George, who I only occasionally saw quaff a single libation at a sitting (except that time he fell in love with Nicole’s sangria), he was eminently trustworthy. For him, though, the quote should be changed thusly:

“Never trust a man who doesn’t love animals.”

George did. He loved the smaller things at least as much as he loved us big things, and that would be very much. The roll call through the years of pets that occupied my lap when we visited him is evocative: Pixie, Leaf, Beyoncé, the immortal Baby Boy, Parker, Mia, and Jack are some who come to mind. To the end, though Jack was a danger to any squirrel who dared passage through George and Susie’s back yard, he was making sure those pesky but cute rodents were sheltered and well-fed–he had many bags of nuts in storage for that purpose.

Two great pet-related memories of George involve our rescue dog Louis. A border collie who experienced extreme trauma straight out of the womb right up to adoption, his behaviors can be unpredictable. One summer, when Louis was a pup, George dropped by to plan the 1st (and only) Annual Rock and Roll Quiz Bowl at our kitchen table. George was sporting flip-flops, and Louis immediately began licking his toes and ankles. Horrified, Nicole and I sprung into action, but George waved as back into our seats–it wasn’t bothering him! We both can vividly remember that periodically, during our brainstorming, George would suddenly sit bolt upright and burst into a surprised, almost gleeful, “Woah!” The last time we would ever walk Stephens Lake Park together, George impulsively reached down several times to pet Louis (never a recommended approach), but Louis trotted on, tongue lolling out happily. To that dog, he was blessed among humans.

I cannot tell you how many cities we have vacationed in (New Orleans and Seattle are notable ones) where my phone has pinged and I have been greeted with a selfie of George sitting on our couch caressing our complicatedly sweet ‘n’ sour tabby Cleocatra, who loved loved loved her some George. He watched our cats so many times when we traveled that I began to express feelings of guilt, to which he always replied simply, “I love cats.” He never did get to meet Spirit and Junior, who are a little scared of strangers. Their loss!

Anyone who’s known George for long knows he was always available to you in times of stress and sorrow. In 2013, Nicole and I were living with her mother-in-law Lynda, helping her in her battle with brain cancer. George and Susie checked on us and raised our spirits several times, and when we realized that, upon Linda’s passing and because of Louis’ volatility, we could not keep her faithful dog Jack, they unhesitatingly stepped in to give him a loving home. Only Jack has appeared in more selfies with George than Cleo–I will miss their picture-of-the-week. I talked to George and Susie’s daughter Melody yesterday, and in her playfully ironic, understated way, she told me one question that’s currently circulating the house is, “Who’s going to love Jack now?”

I know that many of you are honestly wondering what you’re going to do without George. I know I am. But let’s take a moment to reach out to the current and future furry folks who will also be missing out on his kindness. They were trusting he’d be here today.

I don’t know this monkey’s story.

Monkey

Sexyman George and friend in Costa Rica

VII. Beginnings and an Ending

 

I’m grateful to my fellow teacher MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy for charging me with sharing a story a day for a week about George Frissell, who passed away a week–a week?–ago today. It has helped me grieve healthily. In turn, I present a challenge: I would like each former student of his who reads this to do something for us–share a classroom story, tag me, MacKenzie, Susie, and George in it, and (at your will) make it public. So many (including me) never sat in on a Frissellian lesson in Room 230, and you can give us a taste.

I will close this series with a reflection on beginnings and endings.

Yesterday, on a walk, Nicole and I talked about the first and last things we experienced in person with George. He was one of the first new friends we made when we arrived in Columbia 30 years ago, and he wasted no time introducing us to its glories. One night he invited us to eat at Bangkok Gardens, then across from The Blue Note on 9th Street, only a few blocks from our very, very humble digs on Hubbell, and still one of our favorite restaurants. Neither of us had eaten Thai food before; I remember he implored me to try the coconut curry chicken, which we both ordered and wolfed down. Nicole wore a dress to dinner, which he nicely complimented. I am sure he educated us entertainingly about Thailand’s monarchy, and if memory serves, he introduced us to both the proprietor and the main chef. We’d walked, so after dinner George asked us if we wanted to go for a brief saunter at a neat spot. He drove us over to Capen Park, where we hiked up to a quietly majestic bluff and looked out over woods and river in contemplation–we will be returning there soon. Many of you will attest this is a familiar kind of night with George, but we had no way of knowing it then.

AED70EB0-C3AE-4723-B3D3-E6ABE9877A7B

The blogger at that spot in Capen Park.

On March 11 of this year, Nicole and I met him for our final time at Love Coffee, an enterprise with Hickman ties that George could not wait to try and all three of us were thrilled to support. When we walked in, George had already found us a table, and as we approached with hands extended (of course), he met us with a fist, our first bump of the pandemic. We shot the bull about national and local politics, tried every kind of pastry the shop was offering, I think I’d brought him my copy of the Missourian (he rightly cherished the political cartoons of John Darkow, and often clipped them for people), and we promised to make the spot a regular early morning stop.

In the weeks between then and last Thursday, we frequently talked on the phone (the last time about Little Richard’s demise), and (maybe on that same day) he borrowed my old Ranger for one more hauling job. Because of The Crap, I just left the keys in it, so he could grab it, go, and return it without us having to endanger each other. Missed opportunities. I did put a greatest hits collection by Beaumont’s George Jones in the CD player, but I’ll never know if he cranked it up.

Yesterday, as I was struggling to figure out how to end this series, someone suggested I write about what kind of human George really was. I feel I’ve been doing that, but there is this: George inspired you to be like him, but if you actually set about trying to do so, you’d better pack a lunch, as they say. If you wanted to help save lives, were you prepared to be the Wayne Gretzky of platelet donors? If you wanted to help the homeless and houseless, were you prepared to spend a night–more than one, every winter–with them at Room At The Inn? If you wanted to be more devoted to your family, were you prepared to move your ailing mother next door to care for her to her last days? If you wanted to succeed at betting the over-under, were you prepared to devote yourself to deep dives into mathematics and sports statistics? If you wanted to support your school, were you prepared to enthusiastically attend football, basketball, baseball, volleyball and softball games? If you wanted to get up early enough in the morning to fool George, were you prepared to set your alarm for 4:30 am?

It’s a facile, mashed-together quotes-grab from a work he prized, but it fits: “He was a man, take him for all in all…I shall not look upon his like again.” Good night, sweet prince, from a guy who only strove to be your cut-rate Horatio.

Love Coffee

Hello–and goodbye–from Love Coffee.

 

Cloister Commentary, Day 32: “Old Friends are Always the Best, You See / New Friends You Can Find Every Day….”

I’m sure I’m not the only one striving to strengthen connections with old friends, since I’ve more time on my hands and can’t easily see them in person. Yesterday, I called one of my best and oldest educator friends, Karen Downey, to catch up.

Karen and I worked together for 16 consecutive years as a special education-content specialist team in what was then called “class-within-a-class” mode. One, we planned lessons, assessments and units together to ensure all material could be sufficiently modified for our students who had individualized education programs (IEPs); two, we strove to deliver that material in the classroom in such a way that, if someone dropped in, they couldn’t be too sure who the content area specialist and who the special ed specialist was; and three, we had fun teaching together.

When I first accepted an assignment to work with her at Hickman in 1990, I was reluctant. I was 28, so I thought I knew it all. She also seemed a little conservative, and I worried she would cramp my freewheeling style. Plus–horrors!–she was 10 years my senior, and I didn’t need an oldster slowing me down. Well…10 years wiser, was more like it. In very short order, she taught me 90% of what’s really important about teaching to every kid in a classroom, she brought me closer to the middle (and I brought her closer to the left margin), and her precise historical knowledge and quicker-on-the-uptake classroom (and school building) vision radically enhanced what I was able to deliver to my kids. As a bonus, we became very close friends and quickly found ourselves able to communicate across the room with the flicker of an eyelid. Former students of ours will not only verify this, but also that she was the brains of the operation. With any text or lesson, at her suggestion, we could set up (among other strategies) a politically- or gender-based dialectic that could immediately make the material more interesting and relevant for everyone involved. One of my favorite aspects of our partnership was the visual we presented: I can’t think of anyone less stoic in front of a class than me, or more stoic than Karen! If a kid wasn’t able to connect with one or the other of us, they were probably not trying.

I’ve run on here, but she was the best thing that could have happened to my teaching, and I’m very grateful. We picked up yesterday right where we left off, as we always do. You ought to touch base with someone today who had a similar effect on your career.

We’ve found (it’s pretty obvious) that we’re spending much less money in this mess; we are lucky to have some. We’re also a bit frustrated we can’t get out to physically help to any serious extent. So we decided yesterday to double our monthly food bank donation, contribute to The Homieslocal effort to feed hungry people and help food service workers survive this, and make a big delivery order from Love Coffee, which “provides job skills training and employment in an atmosphere of love to individuals with disabilities and barriers to employment” (their mission). I don’t communicate this in order to signal our virtue; these are just some pretty easy local things to do that really do help, if you are able to do them.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

To balance the goody-good and celebrate a wily septuagenarian…

Cloister Commentary, Day 27: “Small Circles”

Sheltering in place is sometimes hanging out on social media and gathering wisdom from friends, or gathering wisdom friends have have gathered and hope to pass along. My pal Ken Shimamoto is both a wise man and a discerning gatherer, and this quote he shared from composer Arvo Part really resonated with me, especially after I said (sarcastically) to two other friends in phone calls (see below) that we have passed beyond the COVID-19 “honeymoon period.” Here is the quote, which I must pass on to you:

“This tiny coronavirus has showed us in a painful way that humanity is a single organism and human existence is possible only in relation to other living beings. The notion of ‘relationship’ should be understood as a maxim, as the ability to love. Although this is truly a high standard, maybe even too high for a human being.

Our current situation is paradoxical: on the one hand, it means isolation, on the other, it brings us closer. While isolating ourselves, we should be able to – we are even forced to – appreciate our relationships in a small circle and to tend to them. All of this we have to learn before we expect, or even demand, love and justice from the whole world. In a way, the coronavirus has sent us all back to first grade. Only once we’ve passed this test can we begin to think about the next steps. This is a very long process.”

Sheltering in place is sometimes hanging out on the blower, jabbering, sparring, plotting, and speculating with old friends. Yesterday, I had great conversations with two unique individuals I have known for almost 30 years. My former student and longtime fellow hip hop head Alex Fleming spoke with me as he moved vehicularly through his hometown of Chicago. We compared theories about the other mess we’re in besides COVID-19; we talked about caring for, loving, and jousting with family; we groused about the simple fact that it is difficult to have an intelligent discussion with an elder (the kind of person we are both geared to respect) when he does not know (or often care to know) the historical background of the issue; we compared notes, agnostic to Christian, on the positive value of Biblical lessons and the modern failings–and bad bargains–of evangelism; we didn’t even get to music (other than Chicago’s International Anthem label, and that was just me raving), but we will next week. We closed by singing the praises of George Frissell, whose Classical Ideas and World Religion class Alex took in the early Nineties at David H. Hickman High School here in Columbia, MO–and whom I owed a return call, which I made when Alex and I closed. George and I did our usual: breaking down the most recent Better Call Saul episode, and threatening to watch it and its companion series all over again, again. George’s favorite characters: Mike, Kim, and Nacho. My favorite characters: Nacho, Kim, and Mike.

Sheltering in place is sometimes just sitting on the couch with your soul mate, watching some quality programming, sipping tea, and eating five of her peanut butter cookies a piece. I must say that, having read Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Hulu’s given us a winner of an adaptation, though one episode remains. Should you choose to watch it, you will see some of the best acting done by (presumably) teenagers in quite awhile. Episode 7, in particular–the penultimate one–showcased these youth nailing very complicated and realistic scenes so effectively both Nicole’s and my nerves were jangled afterward. As far as the adult acting goes, Reese Witherspoon has delivered a classic hateable performance (Ng’s original conception of the character is not so much so), and Kerry Washington’s spot-on as one of the more complex streaming TV protagonists I’ve ever seen.

You all hang in there, and attend carefully to your small circles.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

I’m sending this out into the air for this just-COVID-19-snatched jazz master Lee Konitz. He doesn’t play on it, but I know he dug it.

GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP 3: JJ’s Cafe

(Thin-skinned snowflakes of all political stripes, read no further. Also, with this entry, I am caught up in the documentation George has threatened me that I must do. You really think he’s non-violent?)

This is one of our favorite breakfast haunts from before our tour, and will continue to be. But it is a unique experience. Should I enter the restaurant with a book (I am almost always carrying), the good ol’ regulars seated at the “big table” stop their discussion cold and look me up and down for signs of my preference; George is from Texas so his aura gets him a pass. Also, George and I once met two fond former students at JJ’s, which may have been the first time an Indian and a South Korean ever set foot on the premises (it was a gently tense situation)–we happily take credit for internationally integrating the restaurant. Upon getting seated, I always interpret the conspicuous sign hanging on the far wall–“Keep Calm and Carry”–as referring to my book or newspaper. Our service is warmly stellar, and one of our favorite servers, Sean, is a Hickman grad who, of course, only remembers George.

ANYWAY, though I am known to be intense, edgy, and demanding, I always make it simple: country-fried steak and pepper gravy, two eggs over-medium (and they purt-near always are), hash browns however they arrive, no toast necessary. George, supposedly the gentle, flexible, accepting, laid-back ’60s survivor, demands “EXTRA CRISPY!” bacon or hash browns…or back they go. My adaptability softens his attack, fortunately for the servers.

Discussion: usually we talk state politics just loudly enough to be heard. Also, Bob Dylan’s old “Theme-Time Radio” shows crept into our chat, and I reminded George that he stood my wife and me up last time (he was dodging the prospect of paying for three). At least he didn’t leave any of his personal items at the table as he seemingly dematerialized upon our having licked our plates!

Based on the number of times we’ve broken fast there, we rate it a 10, and enjoy demonstrating we aren’t interested in division–that is, unless unity ISN’T extra crispy!

JJ’s has free Wi-Fi–but no website…

See you next stop!!!

PASSING TIME, PART 6: Extracurricular Fun, Part 2–Pierced Arrows Invade Hickman High School and Justify Their Legend

Fred in LT

Note: I did not teach this lesson.

“…they won’t wear your t-shirts now….”

Local H, “All the Kids Are Right”

Through a good friend, I had heard of Dead Moon in the mid-’90s: “They’re garage rockers, but their lead singer’s about 50 and has been playing since the ’60s.” I had checked out their album Trash and Burn, which was lean, mean, raw, and wiry, with vocals that reminded me of Bon Scott’s, but, at the time, I was being deluged by so much music and stuff-o’-life that the rekkid got lost in the shuffle, even though it spoke directly to things that matter most to me about rock and roll. When they played a club here around the same time, I knew about it–but it was on a weeknight and, being a good-boy teacher for the moment (I was erratic in that area, at best), I skipped it. To what will be, I am sure, my eternal regret.

Fast forward to the mid-‘Oughts. I am sure most owners of record collections numbering 5,000-plus will relate, but, one weekend, sniffing around for something to listen to, I fetched Trash and Burn from where it had been hiding for a decade, slid it into the player, and stood back as it lit our house aflame. Both my wife Nicole and I exclaimed, in spontaneous chorus as old marrieds often do, “Where has this band been all our lives?” With the Internet now at our fingertips, we delved deeper, and found out about a documentary about the group called Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, and immediately ordered a copy.

As will happen, I swear, to anyone who watches this film, we were stunned, then joined in lifetime loyalty to Fred and Toody, “The Coles,” as they are known to cognoscenti. Married for almost 50 years at this writing, successfully applying the DIY ethic yearsway before it was hip in the rock biz to everything from home improvement to instrument repair to music production and distribution to child-rearing, functioning as pretty-damned-equal partners in singing, playing and writing, these two dyed-in-the-wool rockers not only defined the rock and roll life in a way that didn’t get you looking at your shoes, but also served as a textbook case of true family values. I am not going to describe it; you just order the film, podnah. We have been pushing it on every vulnerable soul for seven years.

Concurrent to this discovery, at the Columbia, Missouri, teaching gig that was subsidizing my record collection, I was experiencing some surprising turns of event with an extracurricular club called The Academy of Rock, which a student of mine and I had founded in 2004. A couple of enterprising students had suggested that we try to convince bands who came through Columbia for shows to stop by our meetings and chat about songwriting, the rock life, and anything else fun. The worst that could happen was being told “No,” so onward we went, and, literally before we knew it, Amsterband (the future Ha Ha Tonka), Cary Hudson (former Blue Mountain and Neckbones), The F-Bombs (a local punk band), and–I had marks all over from pinching myself–eventually, The Drive-By Truckers and The Hold Steady had played–played, not stopped by to chat–in our school’s Little Theater, for free, with deep-ass Q&A, friendly autographing sessions, and invitations to come to their shows with guest-list privileges. So, when Nicole and I discovered that The Pierced Arrows, the Cole project that rose from the ashes of Dead Moon, were playing The Record Bar in Kansas City, we decided to go and maybe strike up enough of an acquaintance to ask them to swing by Hickman.

True to everything we had heard about them, Fred and Toody sat with the rabble through both of their opening bands’ sets, drinking beer, smoking, and obviously engaging with the groups’ music. Between sets, I tip-toed over to Toody, and begin shooting the shit. When I told her about our club and our (by now) tradition of bringing in bands, she enthused, but said, “Well, we’re heading for Europe next week, and we’ll be there for a few months, but, if you give me your phone number, I’ll get in touch with you when we’re back in the States.” Returning to terra firma after a shattering Pierced Arrows set (for the uninitiated, the only real difference between Dead Moon and The Pierced Arrows is slightly heavier guitar and slightly steadier drums) and hitting the prairie pavement back to Columbia, I turned to Nicole and said, “Well, we did get to meet them, we do have Toody’s phone number, and the show kicked ass–but surely after two-three months they’ll forget about us.”

Wrongo. Almost three months to the day of that show, Toody called me out of the clear blue sky and asked, “Hey, we have a day off coming up between Columbus and Kansas City, could we [YES–“could we?”–I shit you not] play at your school then?” I was so gobsmacked that about 10 seconds of silence followed before I Marv-Alberted a “YES!” into the receiver. We quickly agreed on details–we’d pay for their hotel room and food after the appearance, since they’d have to hit the road immediately following for the Kansas City gig–and I proceeded to pinch another red mark onto my arm.

The day before the band was due to play, I was moderating a Socratic seminar for my British literature students in our school’s office conference room when my cellphone began buzzing. I don’t get phone calls much, especially during the day, so I sneaked a look, and saw it was Toody. I put the temporary kibosh on the seminar–do you blame me?–stepped outside, and took the call.

“Phil, we are so, so, so sorry we are late! I think we can set up in ten minutes once we get there [they were 30 minutes outside of town] if you can still make it happen!”

“Toody–it’s not until tomorrow.”

“You’re shitting me! [Turns away from phone, shouts “It’s not ’til tomorrow,” is met by jubilant screams from the rest of the van’s occupants….] Fantastic! We are tired and hungry and need to decompress…but, hey, come by the hotel room and say hi!”

 

I am not making this up.

 

Nicole and I swung by to see them, but they were obviously beat, so we just gave ’em some dining recommendations and double-checked the details. We were particularly careful about the latter; when The Hold Steady visited, they arrived an hour after they were supposed to, and at the very moment that, in front of a packed theater, I was running out of steam stalling the crowd with their biographical details–sanssoundcheck and sans anxiety, since they drifted in on a cloud of cannabis cologne. Fred assured us they’d be on time for a soundcheck, so we left them to get their rest.

I had arranged to have a substitute take my afternoon classes the next day, and, late that morning, as some Academy of Rock club members and I were setting up the PA in the theater, my phone began buzzing again.

“Hey, Phil, we’re here.”

“But Toody, you didn’t need to be here for another hour-and-a-half!”

“Oh, that’s OK! We want to meet some of the kids and hang out if it’s OK […if it’s OK????].”

“Well, hell, I’ll send a couple of ’em to come get you.”

We spent the next 90 minutes not just sound-checking but actually hanging out and talking about everything under the sun, with Fred giving some of the school’s theater tech kids, who were helping us, tips about rock and roll sound. For example, since he had lost 70% of his hearing by that point [no big deal!], he preferred to have two monitors on each side of him, facing each of his ears. That was just one of the many things the kids learned from him in that very information-rich hour-and-a-half.

The performance? Titanic. Also, easily the loudest in Hickman’s history (the DBTs and Hold Steady had played unplugged–but you don’t unplug Fred Cole). We recorded it, but, unfortunately, we screwed up Fred’s vocal levels; it’s still power-packed and worth a listen, though (see below). The band played all of their then-new album Descending Shadows, plus the best of their previous record, Straight to the Heart.

After the sixty-minute show, they then took student questions, which–if they weren’t already excellent, which most were–they would cannily reconfigure for the best possible responses. I would recap it, but, if you search intelligently, you can read the Columbia Tribune cover story about it. The amount of wisdom shared in the nearly three hours they were in the theater was mind-boggling, and, even when the bell rang to dismiss students for the day, they were not yet done.

Toody

I sidled over to Fred, Toody, and their awesome drummer Kelly Halliburton, who matched them word for word, note for note, gesture for gesture in sheer rock-band fan-care, and said, “Well, district rules forbid us from getting gift certificates for visiting ‘educators,’ but here’s $40 to go eat some pizza and drink some beer at the local-favorite pizza joint. Let me draw you up some direct—-“

Fred: “Hey, just bring some of the real big fans and come eat with us.”

“You’re serious?”

“As a heartattack! Just let us have one of the kids to navigate!”

As it happened, one of the kids was already thoroughly inured to the ways of The Coles through our having forced Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story on him and his having avidly explored their discography. (Oh yeah: we also took him to the aforementioned Pierced Arrows shows in the guise of our nephew, since it wasn’t all ages and the manager had given us permission–don’t try that one at home, fellow teachers!)  So we sent him along, and, people, I have never seen a student happier. He even got to bum a cig off of Fred!

At the pizza joint, we bought several pizzas, the band knocked back a few pitchers, and we had a total blast. To the end, though, the Coles and Mr. Halliburton were fan-centered. I had expected dinner to be a barrage of questions from the kids about rock and roll history (Fred goes back to the mid-Sixties through his involvement in The Weeds and The Lollipop Shoppe, and knew Janis Joplin well), but, instead, the trio queried the kids about their lives, their tastes in music, their experiences in bands, and…just life.

PA + Kids

That kid on my right was a ninth-grader. As I drove him out to his folks’ house, neither of us could keep from shaking our heads in amazement that, along with rocking our asses off, they lived up to their advance notice and more. And as he told me,”I can’t believe they came to my school!”–it wasn’t his yet, but it would be the following year–I realized that it was probably the finest moment I’d ever experienced (could probably hope to experience–and, no, it ain’t been topped yet) as a public school educator. Beyond the educational impact, the encouragement the Coles’ chemistry and commitment gave Nicole and me, who have approached marriage unconventionally in more than a few ways, continues to resonate.

Fred had successful heart surgery earlier this year, and just turned 66 last week (Author’s note: Mr. Cole passed away in 2017). I am sure, however, that he will be back on the road with The Pierced Arrows soon, and, if they come to your town–go. They are about rock and roll, but so much more. Be sure to bring t-shirt money, whether you are a kid or not.