Thursday, May 9, 2019

Baseball as Religion Part III: Ephemera

I've notated it more than once on this blog, the effect of baseball on my youthful life.  Especially in 1982.

I became a completionist that year as well.

It started in the fall of that year.  A trip to a convenience store with my sisters Linda and Pee Wee had me spending the 50 cents I had in my pocket (Linda covered the sales tax) on a pair of Topps baseball wax packs.

Yes, they were that cheap, and you got 15 of those rosary beads in one shot, along with that pink, brittle, and powdered stick of what apparently was gum.  It was awesome.

Still have two of the yield from that day, worse for wear,  and you can see them below:

1982's Topps series was probably among the least attractive of their baseball sets, but I wasn't aware of the aesthetics in the moment.  Sadly, it was late in the year, the shelf-space wouldn't be occupied by baseball cards much longer, as Halloween and Christmas items would begin to replace them, but the appetite was whetted for my new hobby.  That same fall, a trip to Ben Franklin (the noted five and dime store my Mom liked to frequent) brought to my attention the Topps baseball sticker album.  The whole book was only 25 cents. Where they got you was the packs of stickers required to fill it.  They charged .25 a pack, and you got about 7 per pack, if memory serves.  Mind you, this was 1982.  A quarter was not breaking the bank, even that far back.  So trying to fill these things was a blast and something fun my dad and I did together.  I wasn't able to put very many in the album, for as was the case with the cards, the time for the stickers to be on the shelf was short.   So I would bide my time for next season.

This was just on the fringes of the era where adults would come in and ruin a kids' activity (as they did with comic books and record collecting) with appraisal, marketing, price guides, inserts, and chase cards.  All that miserable shit was just around the corner.  The piece de resistance of card collecting at that time was simply finding or trading for a player's "rookie" card.  Nowadays that term doesn't really matter all that much.  People just want that 1 in 300 pack insert opportunity that has turned the hobby from hero worship into slot machine-lottery ticket buying.  I'm getting off topic here, as a bitter old man is wont to do.

Back to Dad and I.   He really was a backer of my interest.  So much so, that he'd often stop on the way home from work and pick up several packs of cards or stickers.  He'd then hide them in various spots around the house for me to find.  It was a ton of fun looking for the packs between couch cushions, between books on shelves, tucked amongst the breakfast cereal.  As good as he was with hiding small items, Dad was practical with the overflow too.  Like with the Reggie Jackson-emblazoned 1983 sticker album. When doubles started to build up, we picked up a second album and put them in that book.  Eventually, we did fill the first one, but ended up having to buy so many packs to get the last couple to fill it, we filled 3/4 of a second one. Along the way, Dad was just as interested and having as much fun with it as I was.  Realistically, this would be difficult to do today, as 25 cents just doesn't go as far as it once did.

One year for Christmas, my parents shocked me with complete sets of 1982 and 1983 Topps baseball cards.  When Donald Trump collapsed the USFL with his raging litigiousness, he rushed across town and bought me the only sets the Waco, Texas sports card shop carried.  He contributed the 1963 Pete Rose to my collection, as well as the coveted 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly, among many others. In hindsight, that may seem frivolous to many, but over the years those cards eventually became financial backing for a young man yet to be blessed with health insurance, and saved his ass from either of the unwanted fates of not getting needed health care, or going into massive debt getting it.

I seem to remember him making the prediction that this was a possibility over 35 years ago, and 8 years before it became true. Thanks, Dad.  Imagine doing something so that was so much fun at the time, and down the road it ended up with a result somewhat like playing the stock market with cleverness.  

I do miss those cards now that most of them are now gone, but damn if it wasn't a hoot of an investment.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Spectrum Files: The Wanderers

In the late 70's and early 80's it seemed that movies involving street gangs were kinda in.  Walter Hill's The Warriors raked in box office cash (while inciting riots), The Outsiders had everybody talking, and Boulevard Nights was quite popular as well.  Something about that us vs. them mentality of these films must have tapped into America's zeitgeist at the time. I myself was too young to tie anything together in that regard.

And then there was The Wanderers. 

What can I say about Philip Kaufman's take on Richard Price's novel?   A lot.  As a kid I liked it for reasons that it really doesn't hold up for now.  The "tough talking" kids battling over territory, the wise-crack humor, the street battles?  As a 10 year old, I guess these things may seem attractive, but I feel almost embarrassed at the fact that these plot points (particularly in this film) were what drew me to it.  Those elements now seem juvenile.  They aren't so cool anymore. Not even close.

In reality, what's good about the film now differs greatly.

Other films, (American Graffiti and Grease, in particular) show a strange similarity with The Wanderers regarding the late 50's and early 60's.  The commonality is these hyperkinetic, fast-talking,  annoying teenagers with what seem to be boundless energy and limitless stupidity.  Due to these common denominators, I'm led to believe people that acted like that were somehow the era's norm.  That shit would have driven me insane.  I may have been forced to deal Ritalin on the street corner to quell the loudness of my schoolmates.  Of course these films' young Category 5 morons hung around brutish sleepy-eyed Lords of Flatbush look-a-likes that pretended to have a grip on things, but were really just as dumb (and scared) as the hang-abouts running circles around them.

The Wanderers is a bizarre film indeed.  It takes place in1963 New York, and in this particular neighborhood all of the kids appear to be members of different gangs as opposed to cliques, and none of them get along.  Besides the titular gang whose members are all of Italian descent, there's the bizarre Baldies, the all-Asian Wongs, and a final gang comprised of the neighborhood's African American representatives, the Del Bombers.  It is a bit of a cartoonish separation of sorts, but by films end, there seems to be a peace brought about by familiarity that actually works despite the insanity.

This stylistic exclamation of visual differences (shown in even-more neon exaggeration in The Warriors) was one of the things that drew me to it as a kid.  Did I want to be in a comic book gang or something?  God, I hope not.

There's one more gang that I will refer to in a separate paragraph.  When these guys, known as The DuckyBoys, are on screen the film takes a creepy, if not disturbing tone.  This gang is huge, and seems to be comprised of child molesters in training.  They take things to a level the rest of the "kids" in this film are hesitant to go to, and for good reason.  That level is awful, violent, and laced with sadism.  The DuckyBoys send out an aura of cult-like violence that seems to cast them in almost a boogeyman light for the rest of the gangs in the film.  They are indeed frightening.

Oddly, I don't really remember the DuckyBoys from the Spectrum days.  It was only in a recent re-watching that I was taken aback by these DuckyBoy sequences and found them to be the most striking of the film. 

Much of the dialogue, especially early on in the film is racist, vile, and stupid, much like most of the principals.  Sadly, it is probably representative of the era and the location, and I'm sure the filmmakers are aware of this.  It doesn't come across as a message, but a recording.  Make no mistake, The Wanderers are young, dumb, and lack the ability to function as human beings.  Their development of that much-needed quality, a degree of maturity, is what the movie is about.  In my recent viewing, I wondered what the hell I ever saw in most of these low-lifes as an adolescent.  I really did.

The performances in this movie are excellent by all involved.  The cast was comprised mostly of then-unknowns, but Kaufman picked the right crew to lead this film.  Ken Wahl is excellent in his film debut as the leader of The Wanderers.  He was a good-looking youngster with screen presence and toughness, but had no trouble conveying his character being in over his head.  Also outstanding is a young actor named Tony Ganios as Perry, a quiet but pivotal character.  His performance is subtle, often intimidating, and vulnerable.  Perry quietly often proves to be more of a leader than Wahl's Richie, but never tries to subvert The Wanderers.

There's really not a sour note in any of the acting in the film.  Early on, the energy level of a few characters make it difficult to concentrate, but it comes together nicely if you can get through the early maelstrom twisting across the screen.  When I was a ten year old, I found myself liking Ken Wahl's character a lot.  37 years later, it was Ganios' Perry that struck me as the most interesting and satisfying of the film.

The conflicts, battles, and spastic energy of the film and its characters is what kept me hooked multiple times as a youngster.  All that seems superfluous now, as the The Wanderers sudden growing realization that the world is shifting becomes something I didn't notice back then, but gives the movie its current existing power.  Their world is changing hard, violently, and without patience.  It will not wait for The Wanderers, and it's both beautiful, sad, and often powerful to see how all the different members of the gang face that knowledge.

It's amazing how times changed for me too.  Many years ago,  (after an older sister almost blocked my viewing due to a just-after-the-Orion Pictures-production-logo interlude between Wahl's Richie and his girl) I absorbed a truly strange, kinetic, sometimes confusing, and often violent film and really dug The Wanderers a lot.

I do now, too.  Just for completely different reasons.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Spectrum Files: Cleveland Smith

Often during pauses between Spectrum's features, there would be short films. Some of them innocuous, others surprisingly disturbing, others heralding an era that Spectrum could have no way of knowing they were previewing.

Everyone by now is aware that Sam Raimi came out of Michigan in the late 70's, friends in tow, and embarked slowly but surely on the pathway to becoming a Hollywood legend.  The films he's responsible for are the first Spider-Man trilogy, Drag Me to Hell, and Oz, the Great and Powerful, not to mention the cult trilogy that spawned a successful television series, Evil Dead.  Many of the friends of his that I mentioned still work in the business in one form or another. The most famous of which is probably Bruce Campbell, an actor who worked his way up from B-films to supporting roles in A-list pics, to eventually becoming a small screen icon with a taste for occasionally directing.

Some of Raimi's friends made a short film way back when that starred Campbell (and Raimi as a nazi) called Cleveland Smith, Bounty Hunter, a parody of the hugely famous Raiders of the Lost Ark.  One evening, while I was bouncing around the tube, Spectrum dropped Cleveland Smith.  Somehow these enterprising youngsters had managed to get their short little film broadcast on television.  Michigan, as you know, isn't far from Wisconsin and Illinois, so its not logistically impossible that this would happen, but it spells out how entrepreneurial these young men were in attempting to get their material out there to be seen.  Especially during the 3-year long intensive blitz to get the original Evil Dead made and distributed.

I had forgotten Smith a long time ago, but during my Bruce Campbell hero-worship phase of 25 years ago, little flashes of recognition bubbled up in my consciousness that I couldn't quite get a handle on in my memory.  It was eventually clarified and confirmed when I read Campbell's hilarious autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, springing me to a website on Campbell that mentioned the film in detail.

Spectrum.  Film School for Wisconsin Youngsters, and heralds of the cinematic future.

For Your viewing pleasure, Cleveland Smith, Bounty Hunter.

 "Oh, Dear God, a towering Oak!"

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Late Night Landscapes

If you've been reading my shit for the last 10 years you know by now that for some period of time I was left to my own devices at night at a pretty young age.  I didn't find myself looking for trouble as a ten year old.  I was looking for occupations.

Of my hands, my mind, my spirit.

The house wasn't empty, but it was often dark and quiet, and I wasn't.  I took advantage of the holes in activity and discovered what late night television had to offer.  Out in the sticks of Kenosha County we didn't have cable.  We had both Chicago and Milwaukee television stations, decided by the pointing of the aerial, suspended high on the house's tower. I liked using the rotor,  as it was kind of a kick to hear it's mechanical whir in sync with the gradual clearing of the foggy static and emerging images on the screen as the antenna reached it's desired directional goal.  We also had Spectrum, as faithful readers of this blog well know, but the mercurial pay channel's evening material often drifted into the steamy category, and I wasn't interested yet.

Yes, WBBM 2, WTMJ 4, WMAQ 5, WITI 6, WLS 7, WGN 9, WISN 12, PBS' WMVS 10 and WTTW 11,  independents WVTV 18, and WFLD 32 provided a bevy of late night options.

Saturday nights were an interesting dish of varying materials.  Long after The Love Boat and Fantasy Island existed a veritable treasure trove.  It was at this time that I fell in love with Saturday Night Live and SCTV which followed directly after those ridiculous ventures into Captain Stubing/Mr. Rourke inanity.  Both SNL & SCTV's comedic styles helped shaped my sense of humor, which I tap into on Looking for Laughs on this blog.

It was the stuff after my beloved comedy that I found really interesting.  It was often a mixed bag, but when it hit right, it could be an interesting duffel of material.  Don Kirschner's Rock Concert , Midnight Special, and Austin City Limits helped expand my musical horizons as watching the musical variances of artists like Earth, Wind & Fire, Ian Hunter, Joe Walsh, Leon Redbone, Lou Reed, and others showed me there was much more out there than the WMAQ country that rang through the house on my mom's airwaves, or the heavy metal thunder blasted by my siblings.   Late night movies were often a paradox.  Sifting through melodrama at its often worst was often rewarded by the discoveries of Dirty Harry, The Brotherhood of Satan, Bullitt, High Plains Drifter, Billy Jack, & The Odd Couple.  

Of course there were the late night sitcom reruns, and I took in The Odd Couple, Laverne and Shirley, The Honeymooners, M*A*S*H, and others.  It is indeed pretty cool when a 9 year old kid develops respect for the writing of  Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, and Garry Marshall.  I knew good comedy when I saw it, and developed the sense of it from the genius scriptwriters of an era I was watching reruns from.  A video window into comedy history.  Siblings would often pop in to see what the hell I was laughing at.  Probably Colonel Flagg,  or Ed Norton.

As Saturday drew to a close, WFLD out of Chicago presented Keyfax's Night Owl after sign off.

An 8 bit animated full color illustration of the day's news, entertainment, and sports presented with quasi-massage music, was a surreal watch, but informative and strangely soothing.  It was the perfect antithesis to what came before on the evening, and an effective wind-down before finally turning my sad boyhood in for the night.

Even as a boy, I liked to stay informed.

This stuff is pretty clear in my memory, and it is probably because a seed was being planted here in some way.  And I'm grateful for it.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Baseball as Religion Part I: Civil War

I've written in this blog in the past about how, 37 years ago, my brother moved back home and introduced me to baseball.   Click this shit below to read it.

Along with Danny's baseball wisdom, came a deep love for the Milwaukee Brewers, or as they were known at the time, Harvey's Wallbangers.  Incidentally, for a great composite of how I like to remember this team, from another's point of view anyways, check this out:  Cardboard Gods  by the great Josh Wilker. 

This was the summer of 1982, (obviously, from the suggested reading I just plugged above) and my brother Dan and I immersed ourselves fully into Harvey's Kuenn's band of crazy, lovable, powerful, goonish baseball knights in blue pinstripes.  These rawhide chesspieces were a great vehicle that my brother used to school me on how the game worked, and he was good at it.  It eventually spread out into the backyard, where he taught me to catch a tennis ball, after helping me break in a new glove, and started bestowing on me the skill of how to swing a baseball bat and not look like a complete doofus while doing so.  

The Brewers were good, good enough to take the Cardinals to Game 7, but not enough to win it.  Short closer Rollie Fingers due to a rotator cuff injury, they just couldn't put the Redbirds away, and due to this fact I will forever hate that team with a burning passion for the hot tears that they caused to roll down a 10 year old boy's cheeks on late October evening.  

Otherwise, those were fun days. 

Jump forward a couple of years.  My folks and I moved into a house in town and with that residence came a new novelty, cable television, and with that, WGN-TV and daily Chicago Cubs games.  Due to the fact the Cubbies were in the National League, unlike my Brewers American League residence, I felt no guilt in becoming a fan.  Unless a mutual I-94 World Series occurred, there was no harm, no foul in rooting for the Baby Bears. 

 It was also a benefit that the Cubs, in this summer of 1984, made the playoffs for the first time since the dinosaurs were made extinct.  They were fun to watch with youngsters like Ryne Sandberg, Jody Davis and Bob Dernier, intermingling with grizzled vets Ron Cey, Gary "Sarge" Matthews, and Larry Bowa.  Thanks to that bastard Steve Garvey and his upstart San Diego Padres, the North Shore Cubs jaunt into the playoffs only lasted one painful round.

Little did I know this little factoid: Danny had a mutual love for the same Chicago Team I had and for the same goddamn reason.  They were on TV every day during the summer.  That's right.  WGN-TV carried all Chicago Cubs games, home and road, all season long.  And ten years prior to my discovery, my brother had the same one.  Unbeknownst to me. 

Mind you, Danny and I had watched countless hours of the national pastime as experienced by the Brewtown Bombers together, we listened to Bob Uecker and Dwayne Moseley calling Crew games on hot summer afternoons while we shot the frisbee, the baseball and the shit.  He had taken me to numerous games at vaunted Milwaukee County Stadium, where he bought me sodas, hot dogs, and Cracker Jack, all while watching our heroes in blue, white, and yellow.

All the while, his number one team was the Cubs.

I had no idea. 

I found this out years later when the ultimate nightmare for two baseball-loving people in my brother and I's position was revealed to the world.  MLB moved the Milwaukee Brewers to the Senior Circuit.  

And put them in the same division as the Cubs.

I said it like that, in a sentence separated from a paragraph, to of course be dramatic.  Where the hell else would you put a team that resides in Milwaukee?  I digress.

And when my brother and I came to discuss this seeming abomination committed by the league, he said it while on a telephone conversation. 

"I'll be rooting for the Cubbies, Rob."

My head spun, I dropped the phone, my legs got weak.  I never spoke to that son of a bitch again. 

I'm kidding, of course.   His indoctrination into the Grand Ol' Game was the age-old Northern Illinois stalwarts. You always imprint on your first experience with something, as I did when Dan first blessed me with the Milwaukee Brewers.   You can't change after that, it's impossible.  It just can't be done, at least not without withdrawal, irritation, and eventually excruciating pain, and really, it's just baseball.  There's no need for that shit. 

He rooted for the Brewers in '82 for the same reason that I rooted for the Cubs in 1984.  The Brewers were in a completely separate league from his team, and he saw no sin in pulling for the local Milwaukee boys as their success started to bring them into the limelight.  

Same damn thing I did with the Cubs in 1984 as they made a run. 

The Brewers were just the baseball ride Dan chose to take me on in that moment, as the 1982 Cubs finished 73-89 and 19 games out of first place.  The Brewers were successful and far more exciting. Who could blame that beautiful bastard for making that decision.  I couldn't be happier with how it worked out.

The only difference is, despite the fact that he will always put his beloved Cubbies first, Danny wishes no ill will on the Brewers.  I myself have however disowned the Baby Bears.  A heavy taste of the Lou Piniella-led out fit, containing the likes of Derrek Lee, Carlos Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano, and Geovany Soto, et al's antics, circa the late 2000's, really turned me off.  I'm sure the Brewers have had their share of idiots in recent years, but Danny has chosen not to hold that against my favorite team. But me, I'm a homer.

I guess he's just a bigger man than me.

I do find it fascinating, the parallells at work here.  The similarities in the reasons that we did things in regard to these two baseball clubs, but for the opposite team.  There was just a fork in the road in terms of personal preference, and we went in different directions, chose different paths.  

Danny's got a World Series however.  Jealous of that as I may be, I shall hold no ill will. 

I love my brother for many, many reasons.  Baseball's just one of them.

Thank you, Danny.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Bound to the Past: Walt Disney's America

When I was very young, I was enamored with the film Old Yeller.  There were Disney animated films at this time, but they weren't the frequent audio-visual market-controlling dominations that they are now.  This was long before Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, and Pixar Studios.  Disney's old live-action films still made frequent visits to the small screen, and there was always the Sunday Night Disney TV show.  Like many, I was driven to tears by the conclusion of Old Yeller, but I kept returning to viewings of it anyway.  It wasn't because of any sort of experience with dogs.  At this particular time of my life, aged 7 or 8, the family had one dog for a short period of time that I don't remember being all that fond of.

A wiener dog named Hunts.

There are family stories about this pooch.  Like the time my Mom left the house, and driving away from the family home, she glanced into the rear-view and spotted Hunts chasing her car from behind.  After Ma had locked up, Hunts had bashed out what Wisconsinites call a "screen window" in the bathroom, made a jump that would have killed an ordinary dog, and began chasing my mom's car.

He was an irritating beast.  I seem to remember him being a lazy sort, who lay about, I think with a monocle on, barking at people with a German accent. (this may be my imagination speaking)  He was like a Dachshund Colonel Klink.  As I said, I don't remember liking him much, but occasionally the son of one of my parent's friends named Gibby (I don't think he went on to be the famous Gibby from the Butthole Surfers, but of this I can't be certain) always acted like the dog was his.  That pissed me off.  Hunts was a Nazi dog, but he was our Nazi dog.

The true family dog was yet to come, the legendary Ginger.

I digress, but that's a story I must get to eventually.

Old Yeller was a favorite film of mine, but this was way pre-VCR. The best I could do to revisit the classic was by reading (or having read to me) Walt Disney's America, one volume of a 1961 4-volume Wonderful World of Disney hardcover book set, one that I had inherited from a sibling somewhere along the line.  One of America's chapters was the literary breakdown of the Yeller saga.  The book also included the sequel, Savage Sam, which didn't tickle my fancy nearly as much.  I loved having my parents read the tale of Yeller and his family and their frontier life, before the immovable object of Yeller's impending doom darkened the horizon.  The pictures of Yeller, consumed with Rabies terrified me.  My mind equated it as some sort of demonic possession, and that beautiful Retriever mutt was the last creature on Earth deserving of that terrible fate.  My folks did a great job explaining why the end was the way it had to be, but it didn't stop the tears from flowing.

 America dominated the other books in the series, which were Fantasyland, Worlds of Nature, and Stories from Other Lands.  This Volume contained, besides Yeller: Ben & Me, Johnny Appleseed, & The Shaggy Dog, among othersIt was a great book for parents to read to kids right before bed.  Just enough text and great pictures to look at. I wish I had still had my copy when my kids were growing up.

It was, among others in this blog series, a book I returned to time and time again when I was at that age just before I was able to read.  I wish I knew what it was about this era that continually draws me back.  Maybe it is because that time period was the safest I've ever felt.  Maybe its just before the true drama of life made itself known. (which it would very shortly)

Maybe the earlier days of all media were simply just better.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Pick Up A Book: "There is No Other Way to Worship Them"

 Order The Book

As a young kid, I can remember days when the summer sun was so bright you were forced to squint to keep from going blind.  When that happened it caused you to do a sort of tunnel-vision, hyper-focus on a very limited area.  You'd end up considering a piece of receipt drifting through the street, a pre-civil war era piece of gum, a crack in a tire that shouldn't be there.  You had to pay attention to that object, something you'd never even give the time of day to.

The sun forced you to.

That's what happens in Sam Snoek-Brown's book, a short story collection called There is No Other Way to Worship Them.   These stories and their characters are so detailed, so alive, that you find yourself feeling like you're staring at them instead of reading about them.  It's almost a sense of voyeurism or eavesdropping your experiencing.   From major life decisions to everyday minutiae, the characters fictional lives feel real to a degree and depth that most writers can't communicate.   Most of the stories are Texas/Mexico based, and range from a war fought before your grandparents' birth to the present day.  There is humor, there is dense drama, there is often suspense, twisting around each other.  Good or bad, the people feel real, and you find yourself caring for them.  Sometimes.... when maybe you shouldn't. 

Though I may not be smart enough to often understand what Snoek-Brown may be trying to say underneath the waves in some of these brief storms across the imagination, the characters and narratives are so powerful, the experience is rich.   And when the chapter ends and you set the book down, its not unlike when a cloud would step in front of that blaring sun on those childhood days, and you're suddenly set free from the sun-forced stare.

Whether or not you realize it, this man pulled you into a dream.

Click on the image and above, to get the book.