Remembering what to be thankful for

patI learned today that Pat Elchlepp, a high school classmate of mine, passed away last night at the age of 47. He was a couple of months younger than I was, so the Grim Reaper has my full attention as I type this out, trying to come to grips with how very, very short life can be.

I write about death a lot, in this space and elsewhere. I drive through cemeteries and go to estate sales to remind myself that everyone’s number–mine included–will come up someday. But when someone that I was acquainted with three decades ago moves on to whatever comes next, it hits hard. We can’t begin to know how many more days and months and years it will be until our time is up, but we must keep on living them all, with an appreciation that our lives are meant to be savored for as long as they should happen to last.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and there is much to be thankful for. But the biggest blessing of all–and the one I will not lose sight of–is that I’m still here to get stuck in traffic, and taste a cup of coffee early in the morning, and sing along with an old song on the radio. They’re simple things, but my classmate Pat isn’t able to enjoy them anymore. I hope he’s in a good place today, and I thank him for reminding me to be grateful for today, tomorrow, and every day afterward.

R.I.P. Patrick Elchlepp

Griffin High School, Class of 1986

August 13, 1968 – November 24, 2015

If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly


Seeing a copy of Def Leppard’s Pyromania album on vinyl this evening made me happy. It took me back to when I was a teenager living in my parents’ house in Jerome, Illinois.

I don’t have too many memories of that time in my life, other than wanting to move away and live somewhere else. Anywhere else. And I knew that starting college was the only chance I was going to have for making that happen.

So I did what I could to bide my time. I kept my grades up, but I would be a liar if I said I worked very hard at it. And I found escape in the music of the day. Def Leppard came along at the end of my freshman year of high school, and from then on it was a procession of Motley Crue, AC/DC, and what are known today as “hair metal” bands. There was some Springsteen thrown in for good measure, and some Led Zeppelin–lots of Led Zeppelin, really–and others like Night Ranger and Loverboy and even some Ratt. I owned at least two Ratt albums on vinyl, back in the days of my high school angst.

I never owned Def Leppard on vinyl, though. I had a copy of Pyromania on cassette, and even a copy of their first album On Through the Night on cassette. And I was in college by the time Hysteria came out, so I never owned that one at all. Loved the music, but never got around to buying it.

I took the copy of Pyromania out of its inner sleeve and looked at the grooves of the vinyl. I was reminded of what a tactile experience it was to hold an LP in your hands, so you could put it on the turntable and drop the needle onto it. CDs are smaller, and the feeling is less pronounced. And a cassette hardly felt that way at all. Maybe it was the plastic involved, or the portability of a tape that allowed it to be carried around in a car. Vinyl LPs never had any of that. You kept them in your room, or wherever the turntable happened to be.

As I was looking at the grooves of the record, my eyes wandered into the middle, where the needle would have gone to after the last song of a side was through playing. There were always a series of little scribbles or numbers in there, but nothing worth looking at too much. But Pyromania–at least the UK pressing of it that I was holding in my hands–contained a special little treat that I, as a cassette owner of the album, knew nothing about.

On side 1, in small but still legible capital letters, the words “IF YOU’RE GONNA BE A BEAR” appeared. I got a good laugh when I saw it, because it seemed like a weird thing to have on a record album. But then I started thinking about it: If your’re gonna be a bear, then what? The obvious thing to do was flip it over and see if there was anything else. And it turns out, there was. “BE A GRIZZLY” appeared in a similar place on side two.

The quote appeared in the movie Cannonball Run, which came out before Def Leppard’s album did, and so it’s possible–although not terribly likely–that someone was making a reference to that movie. The quote was originally attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, so perhaps whoever did this had that as their source of inspiration. But whatever it was, it felt like an old secret was revealed to me tonight, and I’m happy to spend a few moments writing about it here.

Unta Glieben Glauten Glomen….

A Lincoln gallery


One hundred and fifty-three years ago today, Abraham Lincoln began the process of righting America’s greatest wrong. Slavery had existed for centuries, sanctioned by law and practiced by many of the men who spoke of human liberty when they applied it to white folks, but were more than willing to deny it to those who did not look like them. Hypocrisy at it worst, it appears to me.

But Lincoln upset that apple cart. He said that slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. He was elected president, and the slaveholding states (most of them, anyway) decided to leave the Union before they accepted him as their leader.

Lincoln held firm to his position that secession was not allowed for in the Constitution, and was therefore not a legitimate course of action. Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and the rest did not leave the Union, because they could not leave the Union.

The first year-and-a-half of the Civil War was a fight about preserving the Union. But in the fall of 1862, Lincoln gave the abolitionists what they wanted. It’s true that not one slave was freed as a result of this action. It’s also true that slaves in Missouri and the other border states were not affected by Lincoln’s action. But the die had been cast, all the same. Slavery became the war’s defining issue, from that moment forward.

We can never do enough to honor what Abraham Lincoln did. I have tried many times to explain what Lincoln means in this space, and here’s a sampling of them on this day.


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I’ve said many times that Lincoln is with us still, so long as we want to see and acknowledge him and the new America that he brought about. May we never lose sight of this.

A vote of confidence


Saturday morning, Chicago

I was out walking my dog this morning when I had to find a dumpster. The dog had completed his task for the morning, and I had dutifully–an ironic term there, I suppose–picked it up in a plastic bag. Disposing of it in a dumpster was a necessary prerequisite for returning home and giving him his treat. Every dog owner knows this routine.

After disposing of the dog’s business, I spied a penny on the ground in the alley. More than half the time I see a penny on the ground, I pick it up and look at the date stamped on it. It’s given me food for thought on several instances, such as with 1995 and 1968 and 1986. There are a few others, but I don’t want to take away from today’s find more than I have to. Because 1983–the year stamped on today’s penny–was a pretty significant year for me.

In the fall of 1983, I tried out for the school play. I was a sophomore in high school, and wanted to try my hand at acting. It’s not clear to me today why I did it, because I was an awkward and shy kid at that stage in my life. What made me want to get on stage and recite some lines is something I still don’t fully understand.

I got a small part, a General of some sort, who had maybe two or three scenes in the show, which was M*A*S*H. The final episode of the TV show inspired by the play had aired earlier in the year, and the juxtaposition of these two was probably not a coincidence. “Suicide is Painless,” the haunting theme song for the show, was played as we came onstage to take our curtain calls at the performances. I’ll always have fond memories of being in that show, and regret that I never seriously thought of acting again after this show. But the things you didn’t do in life cause more regrets than the things you did do, and I understand that now. Not so much when I was fifteen, though.

The big moment of this play, and the reason I’m typing this out today, is because of the director of the play, Brother Vince. He was a rather heavy-set guy who was something of a priest-in-training. He spent one year at my high school, and was my religion teacher. He also decided to direct a play, so at least I knew who the director was. I doubt I would have tried out for the show, otherwise.

I wasn’t a football player–which is what everyone wanted to be at my school–and my parent-imposed exclusion from the jock culture left me to explore other options, instead. I started writing for the school newspaper, which I enjoyed a lot, but I wanted something else to go along with it. And the school play seemed to be a good outlet for it. Three decades later, both of my daughters are in every play they can find, and I think of this as carrying on whatever it was that I once did, but to a degree I never thought possible. And I’m so proud of them for doing this.

But back to M*A*S*H for a moment. I attended an all-boys high school, but the girls from the all-girls school up the street also auditioned for the play. I wanted to be around the girls, as any hormonal teenager would, so being in the play gave me a chance to admire them from afar. No way did I have the confidence needed to actually speak to any of them. But being in their presence was enough for me, at that stage of my life.

I had learned my lines for the part I had, and one day the director, Bother Vince, offered me the role of Trapper John. It was one of the meatiest roles in the play, and the guy who was originally given the role–a junior who also played on the school soccer team–either quit the play or was made to decide between the team and the play. The latter option had never occurred to me before today, and what the true story is I’ll likely never know.

I knew that this role offered more stage time, which I wanted, but would entail having to learn a lot more lines than I already had. I didn’t want to let my director down, but I was hesitant to take on the added responsibility. I finally agreed to take the part, because I reasoned that the offer would not have been made unless he thought I could handle it. I took it as a vote of confidence, and I accepted the challenge that came with it.

I learned the part, and found myself tremendously emboldened by the experience. The soccer team’s season ended a week or two before opening night, and the guy who had the Trapper John role may have wanted to reclaim his old part. It was never asked of me to relinquish the part, and I don’t know what I would have done if this had happened. In my mind, it was my part, because I had put in the time to make it so. And so it was, when the curtain went up on a weekend in early October of 1983.

Acting gave me a sense of self-confidence, which is something I had never had before. When I was on the stage, everyone in the audience was looking at me, and hearing my voice. For a kid who had spent his life seeking out the shadows at every opportunity, this was an elixir of a kind I had never yet known.

A great thing happened to me, some 32 years ago. I found a sense of confidence that needed some discovery and some nurturing to fully reveal itself. Whatever happened to Brother Vince after that year, I have no idea. But his decision to stage a play, and to offer me a bigger role than the one I originally had, and then stick with me through to the end, is something that I’ll always be grateful for.

My older stage diva needs a ride to her college class, so I better wrap this up. But I’ll see her on stage again before too long, and I’ll be sure to think of Brother Vince when I do.

I was once a Cardinals fan

Can't go there anymore, April 14

Forty years ago, I was a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. My dad took me to my first baseball game–a doubleheader against the Mets at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis–in late July of 1975. It was the most exciting thing I had yet experienced in life, and the result was a love for baseball that continues to this day.

My time as a Cardinals fan was brief, however. I found the Cubs and Wrigley Field on a TV broadcast in late September of 1975, and they have been my choice team ever since. I couldn’t watch the Cardinals on TV in those days, and that was enough to shift my loyalties to the team from the north.

Had I remained a Cardinals fan, which there are more of than Cubs fans in the city I grew up in, life would be different, I’m sure. The Cardinals are accustomed to winning, and their success makes them the red yang to the Cubs’ blue yin.

This season could offer more of the same, as the Cardinals have the best record in the game, and the Cubs are trying to chase them down over the last six weeks of the season and into the playoffs. However it turns out, I’ll always look back at that short two-month period in 1975 as an example of how life can bring about changes.

And with that in mind, go Cubs!

Return of the Red Rocker


Probably the best concert I ever saw in my life–and this varies with whatever mood I happen to be in– was Sammy Hagar at the Prairie Capital Convention Center, way back in October of 1984. Any concert when you’re 16, and newly able to get around without needing a ride from somebody’s parent, is a good thing. But at that point in life, Sammy Hagar was the Man.

I was a big fan of his work as a solo artist, and as the lead singer for Montrose. When he joined up with Van Halen a year or so later, I was about the happiest I could be at that point in my life. But all that was still in the future back in 1984.

Music videos had exploded as the artform of choice for teenagers like me, and Sammy’s “I Can’t Drive 55” was one of the more amusing ones at the time. It’s worth pointing out that 55 was the speed limit on the interstates back then, and it wasn’t raised to 65 (or even higher, depending on where you are) until 1995. But that’s just an example of how much has changed since those days.

I held onto the ticket stub because that was one of the ways to remember a show. There was also the tour T-Shirt, of course, and here’s me wearing mine, probably in the summer of 1986.998073_10202078525579178_1108930424_nThe shirt’s long gone by now, but the little scrap of purple paper they gave me got buried in a box and somehow came back to me, all these years later.

Ticketmaster fees? No way, at least in those days. These were physical tickets, and the only way to get them was to go to the box office, preferably on the day they want on sale. I didn’t get these tickets, and I’m not exactly sure which of my friends did, but to get anything in the second row took some waiting in line. That’s how it was back then.

Section AA was in front of one very large pile of amplifiers, and Section CC was in front of another large pile. Section BB was in the middle, and perhaps those people were spared some of the sonic assault that I endured for two hours and more. But sonic assault was exactly what I was there for. My ears rang for three days after the concert, and I loved it. And any hearing loss hasn’t caught up to me yet, either.

When the lights when down and the music started up, the stage was flooded with homemade banners proclaiming “Sammy’s the best, Fuck the rest.” There were literally dozens of them, and they were displayed for the approval of those in attendance. Great minds all think alike, apparently.

At the end of the show, after taking several requests from the audience, Sammy promised the crowd that he was going to come back to Springfield again. And so far as I know that hasn’t happened, an least until this upcoming weekend. Hagar will be playing with his band at the Illinois State Fair, and it should be a Rock and Roll Weekend for those who can make it. Sadly, though, that won’t include me.

Part of me realizes that concerts are a commitment of both time and resources, and part of me doesn’t want to disrupt the memories of the VOA tour back in 1984. To mix old rocker metaphors for a moment, Eddie Money once put it pretty well:

I wanna go back, and do it all over

but I can’t go back, I know

I wanna go back, cause I’m feeling so much older 

But I can’t go back, I know

So I’ll just heed Eddie’s advice and take a pass on seeing Sammy this weekend. Reminiscing about it here is good enough for me.



Twenty-nine years ago this weekend, I graduated from high school. At that point in my life everything called for a drink, and the culmination of high school was cause for something huge. And that something was going to be a party at some very remote cabin.

Since I had been to the cabin once before, a month before graduation, I agreed to drive several of my classmates to the party. My old Dodge Dart was packed to the limit, with probably four or five guys besides myself.

But I didn’t know my way around out in the boondocks nearly as well as I thought. As night fell, I became more frantic in my search for classmates and whatever substances they would have at their disposal. And make no mistake, the substances were the point.

At the end of the night, all of the guys in the car were pissed off that they had missed out on what was sure to be an epic bash. I didn’t blame them, either, because I felt like I had earned it, and by God I was going to enjoy myself, and make it possible for them to do the same.

But with the benefit of many, many years of hindsight, I don’t see it that way anymore. I now recognize that my failure to locate a high school graduation party that night was a good thing. It seems counterintuitive to think that, but everything happens for a reason.

Had I found that cabin way out in the woods somewhere, things would have spiraled out of control. That was the reason my classmates and I wanted to be there, after all. And then it would have come time to go home.

I never was one for being a designated driver, at an age when I had no business doing otherwise. And I wouldn’t have backed away from the challenge of navigating back home, with as many inebriated classmates as I could fit into my car. It was a recipe for disaster, and I was too young and stupid to realize that.

Someone would have ended up dead or paralyzed that night, and if I was lucky enough to escape either the morgue or the hospital, I likely would have found myself in prison with a lifetime worth of regrets. So whatever cosmic being out there is controlling what happens here on earth took us out of that situation, instead.

None of the guys who were in the car with me that night are in my life anymore. I’ve forgotten who they ever were, and I’m glad of it. The memory of what happened on that night back in 1986 is now lost, except for one critical detail. Someone or something was looking out for me–and the rest of us–that evening. And I’m so very happy they were.

Well I’m takin’ my time


This morning Boston’s Foreplay/Long Time came on the radio, and I listened to it for the I’ll-never-know-how-manyth-time.

Twenty-nine years ago, I used the opening lyric (It’s been such a long time, I think I should be going) as my parting words to my graduating high school class of 1986. Griffin High, the school I graduated from, went kaput a few years later, but I still keep in touch with some of my classmates, mostly on Facebook.

Four years in the same place does seem like a long time, when you’re 17 and itching to get out and see the world. Now, almost three decades later, I realize that four years can pass in the blink of an eye. It’s all about perspective, I suppose.

Another line from the song that I like is “There’s a long road I’ve gotta stay in time with.” That long road has led me out of Springfield Illinois to Chicago, with assorted side trips along the way. Where it leads from here, I have no idea. But I’ll be sure to stay in time with it, all the same.