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Threads: My Father and Me

Letters written by me, updated January 2004
to include the period 1983-1990

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Background:  After the death of my mother in 1982, my family was reduced to my father and me.  He lived in Ohio; I lived 250 miles away in Pennsylvania.  We each pursued our separate interests but got together often for travel and other activities.


Monday, January 24, 1983

Deep apologies!  It's been 13 months since I've sent a letter your way.

The reason for the interruption was that my mother died from a sudden heart attack on April 24 of last year.  (Her brother had died the same way ten years before, with no previous history of heart trouble in either case.)

Mother was riding in the car near Richwood when she told my father, "I'm feeling dizzy," and collapsed.  He drove her directly to the doctor's office, but it was already too late for anything to be done.

My father is lonesome now, but he keeps involved with the church and the local senior-citizens group, the Civic Center.

In July, he and I drove to Kentucky to see some of the relatives, then on to Florida and back.  This trip included a visit with my uncle Phil, who's retired from the coal industry but is now the business manager for a recording studio (which he showed us; I got to experiment with a synthesizer for awhile), and a visit with my high-school classmate Terry Rockhold, who's now the internal audit manager for Burger King, headquartered in Miami.

Since that trip, I've been working an average of 63 hours a week.  To my TV3 duties have been added others with TCS Productions, another division of our company, which produces sports for broadcast (not cable) television including a weekly Penn State football highlights show.  My specialty has become "electronic graphics." 

After working half a dozen Pittsburgh Pirate baseball games last summer, I went to nine of the eleven college football games of the eventual national champion, Penn State.  This included away games at West Virginia, Boston College — a beautiful place to visit in October — and Notre Dame.  Each was a 48-hour escape from Western Pennsylvania.  And in December, I returned to my other alma mater to work the Ohio State at Syracuse basketball game from the Carrier Dome.

So the hours have been long, but it's been a lot of fun.


Monday, June 6, 1983

So how is the new addition?  I don't suppose he's had time to express a preference yet, but do you expect him to refer to himself as Doug or Douglas or Chris or Christopher?  Fortunately, you've given him some options.

My family called me Tommy at first, so that was my name until junior high school, when everyone started calling me Tom.  Now, here at work, there are several other Toms around, including Tom Huet and Tom Clark and Tom Mechlin and Tom Purnell.  So some folks have started referring to me as T-squared (for Thomas Thomas).  One of the other Toms suggests that I use my middle name and call myself Buck, but I'm resisting that idea.

My father and I just got back from a one-week vacation trip to Florida, including three days at EPCOT Center.  We had been to Disney World ten years before, so we paid only a brief visit to the Magic Kingdom this time, but spent most of the three days going through EPCOT.  It's sort of a permanent World's Fair, divided into a section on new technology and the like and another section featuring various countries of the world.  Quite interesting.


Friday, June 8, 1984

On a postcard picturing the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum:

I'm back in Baltimore for Orioles baseball; a big series vs the Tigers starts tonight.

One unusual railroad car at this museum measured the clearance inside tunnels.  Thirty arms pivoted out from the sides and top like porcupine quills.  The tunnel walls would push them back in partway.  Then a protractor on each pivot would give the dimension in that direction.


Sunday, March 31, 1985

In April, I'm taking a week of vacation and going with my father to Phoenix.  It'll be our first trip there since 1980.

So I'm going to miss spring in Pittsburgh this year, because I'll be spending all my time in other, warmer climes.  Oh, well.  Springtime in Pittsburgh isn't all they claim it to be, anyway.


Thursday, August 22, 1985

As far as book titles go, lately I've been reading The Historical Evidence for Jesus by G. A. Wells, a professor of German in London who has researched the theological literature and has come to suspect that there never was a real Jesus.

The New Testament epistles make their arguments by quoting Old Testament scripture, rather than by quoting the teachings of Jesus (which had not yet been written in the gospels).

Wells proposes that "Jesus" (or "Joshua") was first a name applied to a Suffering Servant abstraction.  To the apostles, he appeared by "revelation."  Paul writes as though Jesus had been crucified in obscurity sometime in the indefinite past.

Later, to counter arguments that Jesus had never really suffered, efforts were made to discover the "historical" facts about him.  When did he die?  It must have been just before the apostles became active, which would put it in the time of Pontius Pilate, who was a notorious persecutor anyway.  Where was he born?  No one knows, but scripture speaks of Bethlehem Ephrathah, so it must have been there.  And so on.  Wells, of course, goes into great detail.


December, 1985

I've just finished my first trip through the book Lake Wobegon Days.  Like Garrison Keillor, I grew up in a small town in flat Midwestern farming country, and there are a lot of resonances in what he says.

For instance, his observation that small towns are examples not so much of free enterprise as a sort of voluntary socialism.  Under free enterprise, my family would have bought an appliance wherever we found the best value for the money.  Probably that would have been some big store in Columbus.  But we lived in a small town, and Eddie Gulliford who owned the hardware store had bought a car from my father, so we bought the appliance from him even though it cost more and probably wasn't the best brand.  Loyalty prevails.

And the facts of life in a small town also put a major restraint on "freedom of the press."  Little scandals, common knowledge at the restaurant uptown, never appear in the weekly newspaper.  (Keillor says his town's editor has a philosophy of journalism that runs, "Hey, I have to live here, too.")  Local dramatic productions always get glowing reviews.  ("All the children are above average.")  Yes, the forces of living in a small community sanitize the press as surely as if it were controlled by a government.

American individualism may thrive in the city or in the wilderness, but not in the small town.

Until this week, I'd never deliberately tuned in Keillor's radio series A Prairie Home Companion.  Rather, I'd be listening to the radio, checking to see what was on the classical-music station, and there it would be.  A unique program.

One week I heard two consecutive songs that I knew only from printed music:  a Norwegian hymn, "The Great White Host," and a George Root Civil-War era song, "The Vacant Chair."  I had never heard them performed by anyone but myself.

And then there was the week in August when Keillor's monologue was about going back to "Lake Wobegon" for his 25th high school reunion.  I had just been to my 20th, so I listened intently.  He was surprised that a Danish woman who had been a foreign-exchange student had returned for the reunion.  He had admired her in school; now he fell in love with her.  Listening, one could tell that this tale was not fictional.

In fact, the couple would later move to Denmark for a time.  Here's how Garrison Keillor recapped the story in his monologue of November 23, 1985.

That's love.  Mmm.

Well, it's all I can think of.  It's all I can think of.  Mmm.

How much should I tell you?  How much have I told you?
Probably told you a lot more than I thought, huh?

Well, I sit around thinking about her all the time
and thinking back to when I met her, again, this summer
and we talked
and we said goodbye
and she walked away
and I watched her go
and, without meaning to, I followed her
and I started running
and I caught up with her
and I took her hand
and I looked at her
and she was laughing.

And I never turned around.

Is she real?  I hope so.  I hope she's not a story that I made up.


Thursday, January 15, 1987

I'm planning to take a week of vacation February 16 through 20.  I'll arrange it around the Raycom Metro Conference basketball schedule as follows:

On Tuesday, February 10, my father and I will leave Pittsburgh by car, headed south.  We'll probably stop for the night in North Carolina.

On Wednesday, February 11, we'll continue to Columbia, South Carolina.  That night, Tom Huet and I will work the 9 pm Louisville at South Carolina game.

On Thursday, my father and I will visit the Charleston area, returning to Columbia on Friday evening.

On Saturday, February 14, Tom Huet and I will work the 1 pm Florida State at South Carolina game.

On Sunday, my father and I will set out across the South, visiting various places during my vacation week and arriving in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Friday, February 20.

On Saturday, February 21, my father will head north to visit his brothers in Kentucky while I stay in Hattiesburg to work the 3 pm Virginia Tech at Southern Miss game with Tom Courtney.  Following the game, I'll fly back to Pittsburgh that night with the truck crew.

Therefore TCS does not need to buy me a round-trip ticket to Columbia for February 11-12, nor a round-trip to Columbia for February 13-14; and I won't need a flight to Hattiesburg on February 20, only a return on February 21.

Since I'm saving the company 2½ round-trip air fares, I'd like to request that the company upgrade my hotel reservations somewhat.

1)  In Columbia, Saturday should be added to the schedule, so that I'm there on February 11, 13, and 14.

2)  For those nights plus February 20 in Hattiesburg, instead of sharing my room with another crew member, I will need a room by myself which I will share with my father.


Thursday, June 4, 1987

In looking for a greeting card to welcome you into the over-40 club, I discovered that there are quite a few that refer kiddingly to folks our age as being washed up.  Over the hill.  They have black balloons to celebrate 40th birthdays.  Now we know that it's not really all downhill from here.  Hopefully we still have half our lives ahead of us, and now that we've learned from our mistakes, we should be able to do an even better job of living the second forty years than we did the first forty.

Even our parents are still going strong.  You wrote that you mother remarried last fall and honeymooned in the South Pacific.

My 77-year-old father, since my mother died five years ago, has been doing a lot of traveling with the Richwood (Ohio) senior citizens group. 

They've gone to Denver, the Kentucky Derby, Cape Cod, small towns in Indiana, you name it. 

[Here the group views downtown Pittsburgh from the deck of the Gateway Clipper.  I don't think I even knew at the time that their tour bus was in town.]

[And I still don't know where my father found this woman.]

[Of course, he had to keep up with the stock market quotes each day, even on the road.]

And he goes out often with a widow whom we've known for over thirty years.

[For more about Ruth Sprague, click in the blue box below about the birthday-party picture story.]

So there will be no black balloons from me.  Have a beautiful birthday!


Thursday, August 25, 1988

I finally added air conditioning to my apartment this spring, after living here without it for 7½ years.  Actually it's just a window air conditioner, but it helps.  I certainly picked the right year to do it.


On October 29, 1989, a surprise party honored my father on his 80th birthday.  Click here for the picture story.

December 15, 1989

Pepsi has been running a commercial celebrating the opening of the Berlin Wall.  You've probably seen it; the music is the "Hallelujah Chorus."  I'm not sure that's an entirely appropriate choice.  Barriers have been removed in Eastern Europe, but we have not yet reached the point where "the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord."

However, another of my favorite pieces of music comes to mind, and it's a German work at that.  I'm speaking of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  Included with a CD I bought this month is a program note by Martin Cooper which says in part:

"The great radical orator in Beethoven . . . makes his last appearance in this symphony . . . with words which had attracted him 30 years earlier as a young man in Bonn.  Although they are taken from Schiller's 'Ode to Joy,' it was an open secret that what the poet was apostrophizing was not joy (Freude) but freedom (Freiheit), a word with sinister connotations for government censorships ever since 1789."

So if Friedrich Schiller really was writing not about joy but about one of its sources, freedom, then the words which Beethoven set to music can be translated as a joyous 1989 hymn to Lady Liberty.

Freedom!  Spark from flame immortal,
     Daughter of Elysium,
Ray of mirth and rapture blended,
     Goddess, to thy shrine we come.

Let thy magic bring together
     All whom earth-born laws divide!
All mankind shall be like brothers
     Where thy gentle wings abide.

Freedom, from a cup o'erflowing,
     Bounteous Nature freely gives,
Grace to just and unjust showing,
     Blessing ev'rything that lives.

Wine she gives to us, and kisses,
     Loyal friend on life's steep road.
E'en the worm can feel life's blisses,
     And the angels dwell with God.

The Ninth Symphony was performed on Christmas Day 1989 at the Schauspielhaus in the former East Berlin, in celebration of the breaking down of the wall.

The audience overflowed into the square outside, while, with many others, I watched on television. 

Leonard Bernstein (who would live only until the following October) led an assembly of musicians from all of Germany plus the former occupying powers.

I was thrilled to hear the key word sung not as Freude but as Freiheit, freedom.

Baritone:  . . . sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen, und freudenvollere.  Freiheit!

Chorus:  Freiheit!

Baritone:  Freiheit!

Chorus:  Freiheit!

Baritone: Freiheit, schöner Götterfunken . . . .

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The portion of the 1989 performance quoted above.


I didn't chronicle it at the time, but my father and I took brief California vacations several times when he was about 80 years old.  Here are my recollections, written in May 2007.

From 1987 through 1993, I traveled as the graphics operator for Pittsburgh Pirates telecasts.  But KDKA-TV aired only about 50 of the team's 162 games each summer, so there were gaps in my work schedule.

If the Pirates went to the West Coast for a week to play the Dodgers and the Padres, we might televise only the Monday and Wednesday games in Los Angeles; then we might have no further telecasts until the Saturday game in San Diego.  Going home for a couple of days wasn't an option, as two round-trip flights across the nation would have cost too much.  So I got to spend my days off enjoying California.  The same applied to the rest of the KDKA traveling party:  the producer, director, and audio man.  (Here's our little group enjoying Colorado.)

Sometimes the four of us did things together, going out to dinner in San Francisco or attending a taping of Dennis Miller's syndicated talk show in Hollywood.  But sometimes we were on our own.  On one such occasion in 1987, I entertained myself by visiting such attractions as the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose at Long Beach.

Before long, it occurred to me that these side trips would be more fun with a traveling companion.  I arranged to use some of my accumulated Frequent Flier miles to fly my father out to join me.

In the Dodgers-Padres scenario I mentioned above, our crew might drive from L.A. down to San Diego on Thursday morning.  I'd meet my father at the San Diego airport that noon; we'd be tourists through Friday (maybe driving to Palm Springs and back); and then I'd see him off on Saturday morning before heading to the ballpark.

On one occasion, we retraced my steps to Long Beach, where the Queen Mary's display about World War II reminded him of the ocean liner that carried him to India in 1944.  Sometimes the schedule allowed us to take overnight trips.  From San Francisco, at various times we went to Monterey, the Napa Valley, Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, and even Reno.

I remember one day in particular — I'm going to guess that it was in 1990 — when we visited Santa Catalina Island, about 26 miles offshore from Los Angeles.  (I didn't bring a camera.  The pictures below are from a 1991 issue of Smithsonian magazine.)

My father had been to Catalina before.  It was more than 50 years before.  In 1936, as a carefree 26-year-old bachelor, he bought a yellow Chevrolet coupe and set out with a buddy.  They drove to California, then sold the car in Los Angeles and returned home by train. 

He remembered staying overnight on Catalina and visiting the ballroom at the Casino, which was well-known from the nationwide big band radio broadcasts that had been airing nightly on CBS for the past two years.  “From the beautiful Casino ballroom, overlooking Avalon Bay at Catalina Island, we bring you the music of....” 

Our visit would be only a day trip.  We left Long Beach on a ferry in the morning, with a return ticket for late that afternoon.

En route, I couldn't help noticing the flying fish near the bow of our boat.  Perhaps, I thought, they perceived the ferry as a giant predator, so they swam really fast and leapt out of the water and spread their fins to glide through the air for ten seconds or so, eyeing us, before dropping back into the Pacific.  I made a mental note to look up "flying fish" when I got home.

After an hour or so, we arrived at the semicircular harbor of Avalon Bay.  On the far end was Sugarloaf Point and the Casino.  This landmark dance hall, like much of the rest of the town of Avalon, was built in the 1920s by Chicago Cubs owner William Wrigley Jr.

We walked through the small town.  My father pointed out a back street where he had rented a room on his previous visit.  Near the Casino, someone was teaching a scuba class and a glass-bottom boat was offering tours.  But we opted for the tour of the building itself.

Downstairs, there was the 1250-seat Avalon Theatre (below), built especially to accommodate talking pictures.  Our guide said that this Art Deco jewel still showed movies from time to time.  Someone asked, "What's playing now?"  The answer seemed incongruous:  Rocky IV.

Upstairs, there was the huge, empty ballroom, 15,000 square feet, circled by balconies overlooking the bay.  As our tour group entered, a brief recording of a big band set the scene.  But it lasted no longer than the flight of a flying fish.

I remarked to my father that it would have been better if they could have at least played a whole song.  However, on reflection, I suppose that if they had done that, some in the group would have spontaneously begun to dance and call for encores.

Here's a picture of the Casino Ballroom in 1932.

My father recalled that when he was there in 1936, Jan Garber was playing nightly.

Garber’s orchestra was usually in residence for July and August, the height of the summer season.  Admission was 25¢, or 40¢ on weekends.

Elsewhere on the Internet, I’ve found a note that 24-year-old Ross Thornton from Cleveland was also in California that summer of 1936.  “He socialized on his off-time with his friends Leonard (Smitty) Smith and John Kirsch.  They went bowling in the evening, and on some Friday nights they took the water taxi over to Catalina Island to the Avalon Ballroom to meet girls and listen to the Jan Garber Orchestra.”

Few remember Garber nowadays, but his band sounded a lot like Guy Lombardo's.

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Listen to a stereo Jan Garber performance of "The Birth of the Blues."

And here’s a YouTube link to a 1937 recording of “Avalon.”

Later, we joined other tourists on a tram that took us into the interior of the island.  The narrow road led up a mountain to a tiny airport.  Along the way we encountered a placid herd of buffalo, descended from extras in a silent movie filmed there long ago.

At the appointed time, we boarded the ferry to return to the mainland.  As we left the dock, the view from the stern was three-dimensional:  the Wrigley Mansion high on the left, the concavity of the curving harbor in the middle, the Casino on its peninsula jutting out on the right, the mountains looming behind.

But as we pulled farther away, Avalon and its bay flattened again into a two-dimensional dream.

As Al Jolson sang:

           Every morn my memories stray
Across the sea where flying fishes play
  And as the night is falling.......
     I find that I'm recalling.......
That blissful all-enthralling day
                       Beside the bay

                  And I sailed away




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