Monday, March 31, 2014

Chapter 31 –The American Invasion of Britain

Preparations were being made for our upcoming wedding on June 9, 1990 by the Scottish contingency. In America, Donna and I were getting excited by the thought of tying the knot and sealing our love with a pledge of forever. We were amazed at how many of my family members had decided to come over to join in the celebration. My sister, Susan, Uncle Ellis and Aunt Enid, my brother, Robbie and his wife, Carol and their two children five year old Max, and baby Emily and of course, Mom. It was going to be a great adventure for her and a wonderful distraction from all of the sadness and well wishers she had to put up with. Plus, she would be travelling with Susan, landing in London Heathrow and driving a rental car all the way up to Glenrothes, Scotland. They decided to leave a fortnight early so they could bloody well take their time touring the countryside.
 The first night in London they stayed at Susan’s friend Helen’s flat and although my sister had a good time reminiscing about old times, my mother found Helen to be a bit of a snob. Knowing Mom, she probably told her so in the most subtle of ways. The next day they headed to Bath but didn’t stop at Stonehenge and my mom loved it there and wished that she could afford to live out her golden years in that ancient British town where  archaeological evidence shows that the site of the' main spring was treated as a shrine by the Britons before the birth of Christ. A temple was constructed in 60–70 AD and a bathing complex was gradually built up over the next 300 years.
From Bath they cruised up the motorway to Birmingham where Susan had spent her sophomore year at the university back in 1969 – 1970. It brought a tear to her eye and my mom said, “Is this what you were crying your eyes out about for all these years? It’s nothing but a bunch of old bricks and gargoyles.”  They frolicked in the Lake District and then Susan saw a sight that struck her sense of artistic wonderment. There was a herd of Highland Cows grazing in an open meadow and the way the light was streaming down on the heads made them look as if they were angelic, mythological creatures from a different time and place. Finally they crossed the border in Carlisle into Scotland and from there it was a mere two hour drive into Glenrothes where the Smollett’s welcomed them with open arms.
Robbie, Carol and the two wee Haymer’s landed safely at Glasgow airport about a week before the wedding. They had rented a couple of rooms in a farmhouse with plenty of acreage just outside of St. Andrews. One evening, just after the wedding rehearsal at the kirk in Leslie, Robbie was driving home and got pulled over by the Royal Scottish Police. He wasn’t drunk but because he was not used to driving on the opposite side of the road he kept as close to the curb as possible. Every time he felt himself getting too close to the center divider, if there was a center divider, he would jink his car back erratically toward the curbside. The officer got out of his car and approached what he thought was an inebriated driver and said in a thick Fife accent, “I’ve reason ta b’lieve you’re driving affected.” Robbie conjured up his best lawyer negotiating resources and explained to the cop how he got scared every time a car would pass on the opposite side of the road. The polite officer was nice enough and when he realized he was dealing with inexperienced Americans, he let him go with a warning to be more careful, maybe try practicing a wee bit in parking lots before attempting to navigate the open Scottish roads.
Speaking of the wedding rehearsal, it was held a couple of days before the big event in the small kirk (Scottish for church) on the green in Leslie, Scotland which is about ten minutes west of Glenrothes and just off a golf course. In fact, much to my pleasure, everything in Fife seems to be just off a golf course. The kirk was built in the late eighteenth century (one of the newer kirks) made out of stone and granite that was indigenous to the area. It looked like a place where James Barrie or Robert Louis Stephenson might have gotten married. The interior was all dark wood. Even the pews were hand carved with religious symbols. There was no way my mom and sister were going to kneel down on wooden benches, but I, being an honorary Scot, would comply with tradition. I was told by Donna not to worry since only Catholics kneel and this was a protestant kirk. The stained glass windows were exotic and ancient and all of them depicted some type of scene from the Bible. They were beautiful beyond description. In fact, Donna’s Uncle Alec had actually created one of the stained glass windows in the place about forty or fifty years earlier. Alec was an energetic man in his late seventies who insisted on calling me Jamey. He was one of my favorite new relatives who was an art professor in Glasgow and a collector of rare fossils, and I didn’t mind. He was also a brilliant photographer and snapped the photo of me dressed in a kilt while playing my Gibson J-200. His father, who everyone called Uncle Bob, was in his early nineties and was one awarded an MBE for his service with the Boy Scouts taking trips to Ireland and all over the Scottish Highland with his troop. Even at his advanced age, he would spend hours and hours in his wee garden, tilling the soil and sewing seeds. What and amazing man!
Reverend Thompson finally arrived from his chamber and brought out a large wooden cross. I thought my mom was going to faint. Susan and Robbie knew that their brother was marrying a shiksa but had no idea how Christian the atmosphere was going to be but rolled along with those punches. But Mom, she had been a Jew much too long to see her oldest son be blessed by a symbol of Christianity. Whenever they would sing Christmas carols in school when she was a little girl, every time the name Jesus was sung she would tighten her lips and sing, hmmmm, never wanting to betray her faith. Now this. I could see she was struggling with it and hoped for the sake of family relations she wasn’t going to make a scene. She kept it together by the skin of her teeth and we got through the rehearsal without a war. That would come later.
The night before the wedding I stayed over at my future bother-in-law, Roy’s parents, Ian and May’s house on the other side of Glenrothes. It is tradition that the prospective bride and groom should be in separate places as sleeping together was a definite no-no. They brought out a Casio keyboard and insisted I play and sing all of my songs, and a few Scottish favorites they had marked down in the wee songbook. On the morning of the wedding the weather was hot by Scottish standards. It had to be in the eighties and the Brits were thanking the Lord above for global warming. I had a pub breakfast in the neighboring town of Auchtermuchty and as I was walking to the B & B where my mom and Susan was staying, I almost considered walking the other way and keep on going until I reached the sea, maybe then hop a steamer and head for Norway. Was I really going to get married? I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and decided that I was doing the right thing to marry Donna, even though I knew there was going to be a culture clash. I had no idea how much of a clash was going to occur.

I arrived at the Archdoile House at about noon and saw my sister and mother waiting outside in the driveway by the taxi.
I said, “What are you doing down here, I would have met you up in the room, we do have an hour or so until we need to be there.”
Mom said, “Jimmy, the kicked us out.”
“What! Why?”
She went on to explain that the night before my mother had removed her make-up and used a black towel to wipe off her mascara. She didn’t think it was a big deal but apparently the owners did. It was the last straw that broke that camel’s back. I knew that my sister and mother were, by British standards, pushy Americans and they were beginning to have arguments between themselves maybe from feeling the pressure of the upcoming events. My sister, you must remember, is a producer and is used to giving directions in a somewhat demonstrative manner and I guess their loud voices and demanding behavior would not be tolerated by the owners of the B & B any further. I was appalled. How could these people be so insensitive to their guests who had traveled over five thousand miles to attend a family member’s wedding?
“Jimmy, could you please go upstairs and bring down our suitcases?” My mom asked me. I was already dressed in my tuxedo and the sun was peeking and the temperature was spiking. I was sweating and trying to control my temper.  You can tell by the photo pictured here that I was not a happy camper. I was going to retaliate in some way to these proprietors, but first I had to get married and I thought that things would go smoothly from then on. I was wrong.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Chapter 30 – She Said Yes!

The funeral was held at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles on Forest Lawn Drive overlooking Warner Brother’s Studios on Tuesday, November 20th in the early afternoon. It was only fitting that my dad would have a view from his interment of the studio where he spent so much time in life. Driving up the winding road to the wall crypts of Abraham tiled with portraits of famous Jews such as Einstein, George Gershwin and many others was a surreal experience. The mosaic depicts the history of Jewish people in America from 1654 to the present. My mother was still in a state of shock and my sister, brother and I had to keep it together for her the best we could without falling apart at the seams. I have to thank Donna for her part in holding my hand and guiding me through the service. My dad loved Donna and, even though she wasn’t Jewish, thought she was a terrific woman who was perfect for me. They are so much alike. They both love a good bargain and are both hard working, level headed, no nonsense people. He would have been proud to know we are man and wife and are still very much in love.
I had written a song when I was eighteen called, My Final Bow, and I was asked to play it at the service in the small synagogue. The first verse and chorus went:
Curtain up and all is open and now the fool that lives inside                       me must go on. Lights turn on, the stage door opens. I’d like                               to take my final bow and then be gone.
It’s such a task to wear the mask that covers up the face you                       think you see.
 Haven’t you a single clue that what you really see is only me?
 I had no idea how I was going to get through it without breaking up, but I did. Afterwards I was told by the mourners that it was one of the more moving and emotional moments they had ever experienced. They marveled at how an eighteen year old could write such a song that was far beyond the depth of his years. I later explained that writing songs is like fishing. You just have to throw your line in the water and be there to pull the fish out before it gets away. That was one big fish I caught that day. I don’t even remember singing and playing it—I guess I was on automatic pilot.
After the service everyone was invited back to the house on Canton Drive in Studio City to sit Shiva and partake in the celebration of my father’s life. I heard so many stories about my dad that I had never known. My Uncle Ellis told me of the time my dad came back to St. Louis from World War II and how everything had changed. His father, my grandfather Joe Flieg, (my dad’s real name was Haymer Lionel Flieg) had been killed in 1946 when he was hit by a train trying to make a delivery to a chain of small kiosks in the Mid-West. It was around sunrise and he was driving all night and had fallen asleep at the wheel. I was named after my paternal grandfather who I never had met. So many stories were told of his love of show business and how he worshipped the ground my mother walked upon. He used to brag about his kids all the time and I felt honored to be his son.
The week after my dad’s passing I knew that life was for keeps. I was in our bedroom in our 600 square foot apartment on Vine Street with Donna by my side. I don’t remember if we just had dinner or were watching TV but I said, “Donna, I want to take you downtown and buy you a ring.” That was my proposal. I didn’t get down on one knee like a knight in shining armor; I didn’t have a chilled glass of champagne or any of the other romantic protocol that gentlemen are supposed to employ to win the heart of his beloved. Still she said. “Yes!” I did hold her gently and sealed the agreement with a loving, passionate kiss. Now the words I had spoken to her in Pitlochry were not just idle ramblings. I had made good on my oath and was the happiest person I could be be—which is saying a lot for me.
The next day we drove downtown and met with Beverly Hills High School alumni, Steve Safan, who graduated in the same year as me. His father had a jewelry store in the diamond district in downtown Los Angeles, and he showed us a variety of rings. At first I didn’t want to get a ring thinking it would interfere with my guitar playing or I would take it off and lose it. But after seeing the selection of rings, I thought a plain gold band was all that I required. I actually liked it. The funny thing is, I haven’t taken that ring off in twenty four years. I’m not sure if it would even come off now without surgery. Donna’s selection was a beautiful double ring set; one engagement in a single diamond setting and the other a wedding band with a small but exquisite inlaid diamonds wrapped around a golden band. They weren’t the most expensive rings but they weren’t exactly Diet Pepsi ring tops either.
Later that night we were looking in Sidney Omar’s astrological forecast in the L.A. Times under our particular signs. It read for Scorpio: Cycle high, timing is on target, dramatic confrontation lends spice. Circumstances suddenly turn in your favor. Member of the opposite sex declares. “I would be with you anywhere!”
Taurus: You no longer will be traveling alone. There will be ties, legal and otherwise. This is an excellent time for forming partnerships, considering marital status. No lie, this really was our forecast! We cut the clipping out and it still resides in the photo album of our early history together.
I knew that this was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. The woman I wanted to have children with and grow old with. I, of course, would grow old a little faster being almost twelve years her senior, but she still calls me her old teenager, maybe now I’ve graduated to being a twenty-something.
Now it was time for her to break the news to her mum and dad in Scotland and I was a bit nervous about how they would receive the news.
“Hello mum, it’s Donna.”
“Oh hello Donna, how are things?”
“Fine. How’s dad?”
“Just fine. He’s oot with the motorbike trials in Fort William. He should be back directly after tea.”
“Guess what? James and I are officially engaged.” There was a brief moment of silence. Olive Smollett was in two minds and Donna could tell. She wanted what was best for her eldest daughter and of course she wanted her to be happy, but marrying an American meant that she would live over five thousand miles away.
“Oh heavens above,” Olive gasped. “I wisny expecting that so soon.  Yer dad will be as pleased as punch. I canny wait to tell him. Do you ken when the big day will be?”
“We’re thinking in June and James mentioned having it over there in Scotland,” Donna said while picking up the phone and carrying it into the living room. She didn’t feel comfortable with me eavesdropping in case something negative was said. “But it will have to be a church that will condone a mixed marriage since he is Jewish.”
“Aye that’s right. No worries, I’ll find ya one close by. It will be brilliant.”
The conversation digressed to the weather and the health of all he relatives and then Donna told her mum to put a list of all the Scottish folk that would be invited. I was listening to my fiancée’s side of the dialogue and I could tell that the news was received well. One down and one to go.
After Donna got off the phone I called my mom.
“Hello Mom? Are you doing okay?”
“I’m hanging in there.” She sounded weak and tearful and I tried my best to break the news to her as gently as I could. “Susan has been by my side every minute and there’s so much food here you could feed an army. Do you need any turkey or roast beef?”
No we’re good. Listen mom, I wanted to tell you the good news.” I set the scene by telling my mom that since Dad died I had been thinking about my life and what I wanted to do with it. There was no reason to be out in the crazy world of singles bars and night clubs anymore and I knew I had found a girl who was bright, funny, and sweet and above all, she made me happy. I was ready and I knew it. It was time to tie the knot. Even though Donna was almost twelve years younger than me, I knew as we got older the gap in our ages would mean nothing. Sure she didn’t grow up with The Beatles; in fact, she was born the same year they played on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. She never saw my wilder side when I was drugging and drinking and carrying on when I was in Silverspoon. That was the good news, but just the same, I felt like she missed a big part of my life and I could never explain to her the craziness that went on in those magical years. But now there was a new magic, a calmer and more grown up magic.
When I told my mom the news it seemed to lift her spirits. I told her we were thinking of having the wedding in Scotland and how it would be great for her and my surviving family to get away from the sadness and the constant reminder of my father’s passing. She was crying again but I couldn’t tell if it was from the thought of how proud my dad would be of me and that he was going to miss his oldest son’s wedding or if it was from happiness of my future plans with a woman that she thought the world of. Maybe it was a little of both. She told me she loved me and turned the phone over to Susan.
“Hi Jimmy.”
“Hey Susan. Is mom doing okay?”
“She’s up and down, mostly down. You should come by tonight and help us eat some of this food before it goes bad.”
“I will. We’ll probably be by tonight. Listen I don’t know if you overheard the news but...Donna and I got engaged.”
Oh my God, really?”
I told her about the plans of having the wedding overseas and at first she thought that I was running away from the problems in L.A. and leaving her and Robbie to be the ones to deal with Mom, but then she became excited when I told her it wasn’t until June. I said it would be a mitzvah to get Mom away from town and that it would be a great idea if the two of them could maybe fly into London and drive up to Scotland. They could tour the countryside and visit Oxford, Stratford-on-Avon and even go back to Birmingham where she spent her sophomore year of college in 1970. She was beginning to like the idea more and more. Then she became silent and I asked her what was wrong.
“Does this mean I am going to lose my favorite brother?”
“No Susan. It means you are gaining a sister-in-law. I’m only getting married there not moving away.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! Look, I’ll see you later tonight and we’ll talk more about it. Okay?”
“Okay Jimmy. You’re such a good son and a great brother. I love you, Bye.”
“Thanks, I love you too.” I hung up the phone after Susan had said her usual sign off to a conversation complementing me on my duties as a nice Jewish boy who was good to his mother and sister and how I was her favorite. I wasn’t so sure about any of it. The only thing I was sure about was I was making the right choice and there was no turning back now. It was going to be a June wedding and the American contingency was making plans to invade the British Isles. It was going to be beautiful and totally insane!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Chapter 29 – Dad

We didn’t make it to Ayr this trip but instead we went to the cozy resort village of Pitlochry which is set in spectacular scenery and is located in the Perthshire Highlands around seventy-five miles north of Edinburgh. We visited the salmon hatcheries on the River Tummel and watched those resilient devils swim upstream in something called the salmon ladder.
While hiking through the brambles, heather and gorse I told Donna I felt like Jim Bowie blazing a trail through the wilderness. She asked me who in the world Jim Bowie was (she pronounced Bowie as if it rhymed with WOWIE or HOWIE). She has the cutest accent ever and it was one of the reasons that I asked her to marry me that day. We now were unofficially engaged and it all started in Pitlochry.
Back in Glenrothes at the Smollett home, Donna and I were preparing for our trip home. We didn’t tell anyone yet about our engagement but we knew that soon it would be known to all, maybe when we got back to America. I packed my Vox AC30 in the oversized suitcase and stuffed it with clothing and pillows. It must have weighed over seventy pounds. I prayed to the gods of amplifiers and baggage handlers that it would arrive in Los Angeles in one piece. At the airport, it was a tearful goodbye for Donna and her mum and dad and her sisters, Beverly and Heather. They told me to take care of her little girl and I promised that I would.
We arrived at LAX in a late June evening and my mother and father were there to pick us up in the Mercedes. When my dad tried to lift the suitcase with my amp he asked if I had a dead body packed inside. I noticed that my dad looked a little pale and I asked if he was feeling alright. He said he felt a little weak but chalked it up to being a little under the weather. Back at Canton Drive, we picked up Bridget and Ginger and headed home to our little apartment on Vine Street. The place looked even smaller than we remembered.
The next day Donna went back to work and I called a few of my customers from Universal Data Supply to see if they needed any more computer supplies. I had a lot of catching up to do but I found it difficult to concentrate after still being in vacation mode. My niece Emily (Robbie and Carol’s little girl) was now almost nine months old and she was the apple of her grandparent’s eye. Max was a great big brother to her and would spend hours with my dad and the three dogs, Danielle, Jean Claude and Oliver in the backyard gathering ,throwing and breaking sticks, his favorite pastime. I think it was around this time that Max began taking piano lessons and he was already playing Mozart. The kid was a prodigy and I have to admit that I was a little jealous. I wished that I had started music at that age.
By the end of the summer my dad’s health didn’t seem to be improving so he went to the doctor for tests. He seemed a bit weak and was struggling to breathe. We thought it might be some kind of walking pneumonia. You have to understand that my dad was a guy who never got sick; I can’t even remember a time when he had a cold or the flu. So this was a little disconcerting to see him in such a state. It was now the end of August and he was sent to a specialist, Dr. Decker, who had a sneaking suspicion that the diagnosis was a little more ominous that any of us had expected. My parents had a trip planned for Paris and the doctor told them not to cancel it. He would have the results waiting for him when they got back in early September.
When Donna and I went to the airport to pick my parents up it was a shock. My dad came off the plane in a wheelchair. What happened? Here was a man that seemed so vital and alive a few months ago and now he couldn’t even walk? We drove back to the house on Canton Drive and I helped my father out of the car. He struggled to make it through the front door and when he stood at the bottom of the stairs as white as a ghost, I saw that he couldn’t climb them. He went to the emergency room at Cedars and soon we found out that he had a sarcoma of the lungs. I was in denial at first when he was admitted to a smaller hospital called Brotman Memorial but after the first week there things started to progress quickly in the wrong direction. My sister, Susan was a wreck and my brother, Robbie seemed to internalize his feelings—too upset to even talk. If it wasn’t for his wife, Carol to help him through the disaster, he would have been comatose. Our father was dying but I refused to believe it. They released him from the Brotman and his and my mother’s bedroom was converted into a sick room with oxygen and medical equipment I couldn’t even begin to fathom. By the end of October he was readmitted to the emergency room at Cedars in the ICU where the doctors gave him a week or two to live. Now things were becoming real for me.
Just after my 37th birthday on November 2, Susan called me and told me to hurry over to the hospital because he was going fast. Donna and I jumped into the Nissan 200SX, the car my dad used to drive, and I drove like a maniac from Vine Street weaving in and out of cars on Santa Monica Boulevard trying to make it down there before it was too late. He was holding on but we knew it wasn’t going to be long.
Was this the same man who was signing autographs in the driver’s seat of our 1962 Cadillac convertible when we moved from Jericho, New York to California so he could be a part of that newfangled idea called the situation comedy on television? The same man who took me with him to Wallingford, Connecticut where he played the part of Mr. Applegate in Damn Yankees. Not only did I get to hang out backstage with the showgirls who pinched my cheek and said, “he’s so cute Johnny, he’s going to be a real lady killer just like his old man,” I also played second base the next morning in a pickup game at the motel where the cast a crew were staying—it just happened to have a ball field in the back and all the male members of the cast had Spalding signature Whitey Ford baseball gloves since the show revolved around baseball and the unfortunate Washington Senators. I felt like the luckiest kid in the world and I will never forget that trip as long as I live.
Moving to Beverly Hills, on the suggestion of Carl Reiner who said, “whatever you do Johnny, you have to get your kids in the Beverly Hills school system, was a shock to my system. In New York my dad was considered something special—there weren’t too many thespians in Jericho. Now in the hills of Beverly I was just another progeny of another actor—a character actor at that, who didn’t even have a major role in a weekly television series. In my senior year I had to hitchhike to school from the corner of Olympic and Doheny and sometimes people like Tony Sales would fell sorry enough for me to give me a ride in his girlfriend, Nancy Allen’s Camaro. The happiest day for my dad was when he was hired by Woody Allen (no relation to Nancy) to play the part of the comic in Annie Hall. Woody is famous for using real life characters and situations in his films and this was no exception to that rule. Woody Allen used to write skits in the mid-fifties for my dad’s act with his partner Paul Seers in a place called Tamiment. I still have those skits on the original onion skin paper. He finally did get his own series, (even though he was a semi-regular on M*A*S*H playing the part of Supply Sergeant Zelmo Zale) called Madame’s Place. He was over the moon even though he had to play second fiddle to a puppet. My duo, Two Guys from Van Nuys, even did a guest spot and performed a song we wrote called, Make Way for Madame. It wasn’t an act of nepotism because we had to audition like everyone else who crossed the paths of directors, producers and casting agents.

My sister, brother and I stayed at my Grandma Betty’s apartment on Arnaz while my mom and dad rented a cheap room at some motel on Pico until moving to Oakhurst Drive, a half a block north of Whitworth. It was considered Baja Beverly Hills but it was good enough to get us into the suggested school system. Now looking at my father’s gray skin and faded brown eyes, all those memories came flooding back with the tears that I tried to stuff inside. I couldn’t keep them contained.
 My mom was being a real trooper and keeping a brave face but I knew it was all an act. She was trying to be strong for him and for us. They had just celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary in January of that year and my dad would turn seventy the following January 19th. He wasn’t going to live to be a septuagenarian. He died on Saturday, November the eighteenth at three thirty in the morning.
We stayed at the hospital until the sun rose in the eastern sky, like it always does, but this particular sunrise would occur without my father. It was a gloriously beautiful morning without a cloud in the sky as I drove Mom, Susan and Donna in the Mercedes back to Canton Drive. My mom said that the beauty of the day was a dedication to the man she had spent three quarters of her life with. She was never going to be the same again after that and would spend the next twelve years in mourning with her health failing. They were a team and the team was no more. At least she had us and her two beautiful grandchildren (there would be three more on the way in the near future).
How was it possible that less than a year ago we were watching The World Series in Robbie and Carol’s house on Hesby Drive witnessing a half crippled Kirk Gibson hit that amazing home run to put the Dodgers ahead in game one? We couldn’t believe it was possible and when we saw Gibson’s feeble, one-handed swing loft the ball high over the right field wall, we jumped out of our seats cheering and screaming at the top of our voices. It was a day I will never forget and it will always remind me of my wonderful father.

Johnny Haymer, born Haymer Lionel Flieg in St. Louis, Missouri on January 19, 1920 had a wonderful career in show business and if you want to see his amazing accomplishments you can Google it or go to He did what he loved and loved what he did. He was lucky. But the most amazing thing he ever did was to marry Helyn Sylvia Graff, a twenty-one year old ingénue from Detroit by way of Brooklyn. He loved her more than life itself and, I am more than sure, he loved his three kids profoundly. This is something you didn’t see on the internet before, but now you will. My dad was a hero to me. I love him still; I always will.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Chapter 28 – Vox Populi

The ancient steps were shrouded in shadows beckoning us to follow the path to the iron crossed wooden doorway built when America was only a twinkling in the eyes of Leif Erickson. We were the only visitors that day to the Draconian castle known to all as Culross Abbey (pronounced Currus) in the heart of the Kingdom of Fife. The residents of Scotland took for granted the historic importance of their castles as we, in America negate the Grand Canyon, Empire State Building and the celluloid hero’s of Hollywood’s golden age. We entered the ruins of the abbey with trepidation and, I for one was soaking in the ambiance like a sponge.
 “I grew up with this and it’s all new to you,” Donna said rubbing her belly as if a fish and chip dinner was more on her mind than the dead faces looking back at us with majesty and valor. We ventured on to Edinburgh Castle where the firing of the one o’clock gun could be heard from Holyrood Palace all the way to the Forth Road Bridge. That ancient edifice that rose out of the fog and mist like an gargantuan, blue specter in the center of the great city, where the likes of James Barrie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.K. Rowling and Sean Connery all cut their teeth.
“Don’t you realize how amazing this place is?” I said to her as we crept along the red carpeted walkway surrounded by paintings of James I, Mary, Queen of Scots, Rob Roy, William Wallace and Bonnie Prince Charlie who seemed to be telling tales of battles lost and won and treasures horded by the ancient realm of days gone by.
In my mind I was plotting a way we could move to this amazing island, but Donna was getting Americanized and wasn’t ready to retreat to the place of her birth with all the rain, restrictive and backward thinking and such. I was imagining getting a job as a greenskeeper at the Royal and Ancient Golf Course at St. Andrews or restoring old British roadsters I would find out of the local papers while pursuing my solo career as a singer/songwriter. But what would I do with Bridget Bardog and Ginger? I couldn’t think of bringing them over and subject them to six month of quarantine. My great plan would have to wait.
At this point the idea of marriage was a long way off but if I were to tie the knot, Donna was the only woman I would consider. I was and still am almost twelve years older than her but that seemed about perfect. She was very mature, most European women are, and I was still a teenager in my mind, maybe a twenty year old. Although I didn’t hide anything  from her, Donna had no idea of the kind of crazy stuff I went through with Silverspoon— all the drugs, parties, famous rock and movie stars I hung out with, not to mention the ex-girlfriends. She was no innocent babe in the woods, but our backgrounds were as divergent as night and day. We could have been from different planets or solar systems. The common bond was our sense of humor, moral code and a deep physical and mental attraction. She’s no dumb blonde by any stretch of the imagination.

I was browsing through the local paper, The Fife Free Press, looking for anything interesting or valuable when I came across and ad for a mid to late 60’s Vox AC30. Besides maybe a 1959 Fender Bassman, this amp was considered to be the Holy Grail of amplifiers. After all, it was used by The Beatles, The Yardbirds, Hank Marvin and too many others to list. The Vox AC30 was originally introduced in 1958 as “big brother” for the fifteen watt (15 W) AC15 model at Hank Marvin’s request because the AC 15 was not loud enough with the screaming fans at Cliff Richard’s concerts. The amp sported a thin white covering ("Rexine") with a small printed diamond pattern and larger diamond pattern grill cloth. It reminded me of an old television set my mom and dad used to have in the fifties when we would gather around the living room and watch The Ed Sullivan Show. With all the personal devices in vogue now I wonder if people still do that kind of thing anymore.
I called the number in the paper and asked the youthful gentleman on the other side of the phone when I could see the amp and how much he was asking for it. He said I could come over directly and the going price was three hundred pounds, which would have translated to about five hundred dollars. Donna and I headed over to Livingston, which is not far from the Edinburgh airport, or about forty miles from the Smollett home in Glenrothes.
We rang the buzzer at the modest home and a young man of around twenty years old opened the whitewashed door. I thought to myself this kid was pretty hip to have such a treasure in his possession and wondered why in the world he was selling it. Was there something wrong with it? He plugged in a reissued American made Fender Telecaster, which is my guitar of choice, and he fired up the amp. That familiar warm tube sound filled the air and the smell of old British electronics permeated the tiny room. He handed me the guitar and I played Ticket to Ride or the solo from Nowhere Man. It was love at first note. I had to have the amplifier but the price, even though I knew it was worth three times what he was asking, was still a little out of my range. I offered him a hundred and fifty pounds. We settled on a hundred and eighty and the amp was mine. Oh rapture, oh joy, I silently exclaimed, like the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz shouted out when he got his brain.
We loaded my new prized possession into the yellow Vauxhall trunk and it barely fit. We were good to go. I knew how expensive it would be to ship it back to America since the amp weighed at least sixty, maybe even seventy pounds. I decided I was going to pack it in a suitcase and take my chances with the airlines baggage handlers—a risky proposition. Where in the world was I going to find a suitcase that large?
The next day, Donna and I went into Kirkcaldy, a small seaport town in Fife just across the Firth of Forth and the gleaming city of Edinburgh. We went to a few second hand shops but no one had a piece of luggage large enough to fit the dimensions of the Vox. I was rummaging through the last second hand shop we were going to visit for the day and I saw a Glengarry hat with a pin in front that read, Scotland forever. It is similar to a beret with a wee tail of a ribbon hanging down in the back. I bought it for ten pounds. I asked the lady behind the counter if she had any large luggage. She told me there was an old suitcase upstairs in the attic that might work. She brought down this giant olive green monstrosity that looked like something my grandmother might have used when she came to America from England in 1910. I didn’t care about aesthetics, it was functionality that concerned me and it knew it would work like a charm. I bought it for three pounds, fifty. I couldn’t wait to bring it home and introduce it to my 1958 Telecaster and my 1964 Gretsch Anniversary—two guitars that I am proud to say I still own. But tomorrow Donna and I were off to Ayr and would be spending a couple of days on the shores of the beautiful and freezing Irish Sea. It would be the first time we would be alone together in days. The amp would have to wait in the closet of the council home in Glenrothes. The first night in Ayr, I heard the jingly-jangly chimes of golden arpeggios ringing in my dreams.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Chapter 27 – Meet the Parents

With the ominous presence of Big Al Fohrman always looming, Donna and I knew it was time to move out of Camrose Drive. Besides, with two dogs and a raise in rent, a change would be welcome. We scoured the classifieds and checked out Homefinders, but it wasn’t until we began driving around the foothills of Hollywood did we find it. Just before the corner of Primrose and Vine we saw a for rent sign in front of two side by side apartments. One was 2107 and the other was 2109 Vine Street. I liked the poetic symmetry of 2109 Vine but, alas, we moved into the southernmost at 2107. There were two apartments below only accessible from the rear of the complex by either driving or walking down a steep graded driveway. If it ever snowed you would have a tough time getting your car up that mountainous asphalt path. My dad helped us carry all of my belongings into the rented or borrowed van. At sixty-eight he was still vibrant and a lean machine. Unfortunately, things for him were changing.
 Did I say the apartment was small? It was a matchbox. How the designer managed to cramp three bedrooms into a 600 square foot space I’ll never know. Obviously the rooms were tiny and there was only one bathroom without the luxury of a tub. I’m a bath guy. I knew I would miss soaking in the giant tub that took up over half the space in the bathroom at Camrose. Some of my best ideas came out of a tub—I still have a few of the water-stained lyric sheets to prove it. We claimed the middle bedroom as our sleeping quarters while the front bedroom became the office of Universal Data Supply. The back bedroom that overlooked the Jacaranda and bougainvillea trees was used as a dining room/music/sewing room. The kitchen was modern enough to please Donna, and I guess I liked it well enough but anything with a sink, refrigerator and stove would suit me fine. It dive have a cool feature, one of those cutouts in the wall that lead to a counter in the living room. You could just cook it and serve it up and slide in on through—we ate most of our meals there.
The owners of the property were a couple in their early to mid thirties by the name of Bob and Cynthia who lived downstairs in the largest of the four units. They had this annoying little Yorkshire terrier that barked all the time. I can still hear the painful echoes of Bob’s voice calling, “Duke...Duke...” outside our bedroom window in the early morning. The only time Bridget or Ginger ever barked was when someone knocked at the door. They were very well behaved and thankful to be rescued from the mean streets of Los Angeles.
I was still in contact with my lady friend, Nicky Graham, who I had met when I was looking for a place to live with Maria a few years back; she now had given up the American dream and had moved home to London. Even though Nicky was a Sassenach, (a term used by the Scottish to describe the upper-crusty English), I knew Donna would enjoy her company and hearing stories of merry ole England.
Nicky believed in my music and had secured a job at a pub in SoHo for me over the summer and had invited us to stay with her in her flat in Barnes located in the southwest part of London. Nicky and her speech writing husband, Wytham, who only lived with her in intervals, told us to meet up at one of the oldest pubs in London right by the Thames. We got a table in the back overlooking the long and winding river. There was this chap with a seven- iron in his hand who wanted to place a wager. The bet was a pound note if I could knock the ball across the river that didn’t seem excessively wide to me—maybe a hundred and thirty yards tops. It was game on. I steadied myself as close to the bank as I could. I was confident that I could hit a measly seven-iron at least a hundred and fifty yards so I fired my best shot. It was a high lofting draw that exploded into the cloud laden sky and...landed right in the middle of the Thames. The chap laughed as he took my money and then admitted it was over two hundred and fifty yards across. Looks can be deceiving.
Donna and I had already made plans to visit her mum and dad in June so London was a pit stop. Olive and David Smollett were going to get a first look at their daughter’s cheeky American boyfriend. The Smollett’s lived in Glenrothes, a small town in Fife, and I had a choice to either bring my guitar or my golf clubs, I couldn’t manage both. Scotland, being the home of golf, left me little choice. I figured I could always buy a guitar over there but having to get used to a borrowed set of clubs was out of the question. I took my golf clubs—I should have used my three-wood to carry the Thames but, alas, I had left it in the rental and was too lazy to unpack it.
Before the meeting at the pub, we landed at Heathrow airport in the middle of June of 1989 and hired a car, an economy vehicle; I think it was a Vauxhall or a Renault. Donna was worried about my driving on the opposite side of the street, but I assured her that I was a quick learner, besides I wanted to experience the thrill of racing through the roundabouts and cobblestone streets of old London town. After unpacking and settling in to Nicky’s flat, we ventured forth to look for the club I was hired to sing and play in down in ole SoHo. It was called Mitchell’s Pub. I was getting lost so I pulled over in the middle of a roundabout to check the map. Donna freaked out screaming, “you can’t stop in a roundabout. They’ll smack right into ya.” She convinced me to keep going. One a narrow street, not wanting to drift past the center divider, I got a little too close to a parked car. Crack! My door mirror sideswiped the mirror of a Range Rover or Jaguar. Not wanting to stop illegally in another roundabout, I panicked and kept driving hoping nobody saw me and took down my license plate number. The glass in my mirror was a spider’s web of cracks, but the housing was intact. I guess I should have taken out insurance but I didn’t want to pay the extra forty pounds. I should have listened to ole Ben Franklin’s adage, “Penny wise pound foolish”.
Donna said her dad was fairly handy at fixing things, so we decided we would deal with it when we got to Glenrothes. I managed to find a parking spot a few blocks from Mitchell’s Pub. We were famished and saw a wonderful little curry place a few stores down. Great Britain has some of the best Indian restaurants in the word and this place was no exception to that rule. I ordered a chicken Vindaloo and it was so spicy I had to douse my burning mouth with nearly a gallon of sweet tea. It didn’t help. The mint ice cream cooled it a little.
After checking the meter on the rental, we walked over to Mitchell’s pub. I asked the woman at the counter if the manager was in and she told me he was in the back and would be out in a few minutes. We ordered a pint of lager and waited at the bar. I wondered what kind of club didn’t have a stage, I couldn’t see one anywhere. All I could see was a mixing console and disco lights in the ceiling. When the manager finally arrived, I introduced him to Donna and mentioned I was scheduled to appear in a fortnight. He shot me a confused look. “Appear?” he queried.
“Yes. Nicky Graham had arranged an engagement here for the end of June. You might want to check your booking schedule.” I said.
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but, we don’t have live acts here anymore,” He said in his stiff upper lipped manner.
“You’re kidding!”
“I’m afraid not. We just hired a DJ.”
“Come on Donna, let’s get out of here.”
I was pissed off. I could have killed Nicky and probably would when we got back to her flat in Barnes. Donna tried to console me by saying, “James, they have plenty of places to play in Scotland. Plus you were the one who decided to leave your guitar at home and bring your golf clubs.”
“You’re right,” I said after taking a cleansing breath to calm myself down. I would find out later that she was right about 99% of the time. That night, instead of reading Nicky the riot act, we all got a little drunk, something Nicky was very adept at. I don’t know if it was the change in the weather or the germs that were flying through the air ducts on the plane, but Donna was coming down with something. She had a lie down on Nicky’s couch and was burning up with a fever. Nicky gave her some antibiotics and a cup of tea. She was out for the night. The next morning, after loading her up with more pills and tea, we headed north on the M1.
By nine that evening we made it to Wilmslow, Cheshire, just outside of Manchester to the home of my cousin Jason and his lovely girlfriend, Nicky. Yes, another Nicky. Donna was amazed that I had relatives that were more British than her own family, especially when we were invited over to dinner the next evening at Jason’s mum and dad’s place. She couldn’t believe that the food was covered with doilies and David Sacks had such a strong English accent, nevermind the tea and biscuits. It was an anglophile’s dream. After dinner we went back to Jason and Nicky’s flat and my cousin brought out a guitar and a big bass fiddle. We had a rollicking jam that lasted to the wee hours while Nicky number two and Donna traded stories of growing up in the Isles.
The next morning we said a fond farewell to Jason and Nicky and got back on the motorway. We noticed as soon as we crossed the border past Hadrian’s Wall how the roads suddenly became less desirable. Donna told me that the Scot’s were treated like second class citizens by the English and didn’t care what kind of shape the Scottish motorway’s were in as long as they had their tea and crumpets in the morning and their Pimm’s cups at night.
By five thirty we had passed the small town of Lockerbie and I thought about that night we had our Christmas dinner on the floor of our Camrose apartment with Irene and Fiona. I could still see the burned out rooftops and blackened patches of grass in the distance. It was a real eye opener and a foreshadowing of future terrorist events that I had no idea at the time would happen. 9-11 was still a dozen years into the future.
By seven o’clock we were crossing the Forth Road Bridge that led to the Kingdom of Fife. In thirty minutes we would be in Glenrothes and I would be face to face with, what I hoped might be my future in-laws. Donna saw her two sisters, Beverly and Heather, waiting on the wee patch of grass outside the council flat on Bilsland Road. She got out of the car and they gave her a welcoming hug that was genuinely reciprocated. They stared suspiciously at me but then after an awkward moment, hugged me gratuitously. We left out things in the car and walked in the front door where Olive and David Smollett were in the living room. Olive burst into tears when seeing the daughter that had left for America a year and a half earlier and enveloped her in her shaky arms. David was having trouble concealing his teary eye and gave me a bone crushing handshake. It was a long overdue reunion. David’s accent was so thick I could barely make out half of the words. But Olive! Oh my God! I don’t know if she was nervous to meet me or what; not only did she have the thickest Scottish accent I had ever heard, but she stuttered. I smiled and nodded my head when I thought she asked if I wanted a cup a tea. They were genuinely nice people who were trying to be accommodating as possible to the strange American that would soon whisk their daughter away to the States for good. At that point I had no real way of knowing that, but I think they knew.
David did help me find a mirror replacement in an auto parts store in downtown Glenrothes just outside of Kirkcaldy. I wouldn’t say the mirror looked as good as new, but it wasn’t bad either. The car rental company never called so I guess I got away with it. Lucky, I guess. I hoped the mirror on the Jag or Range Rover I hit in London was faring as well. My sleeping quarters was Donna’s old bedroom and it was awkward being so close to the future in-laws with nothing but a paper thin wall separating me from them. I was hoping Donna would sneak in to my bed in the wee hours of the night, but she convinced me to wait until we got our next destination—the ancient castle at Stirling (pictured), in the central section of bonny Scotland. It was only a few days away and I told her I could wait—but not too long! The next morning was golf at Ladybank in Fife (pictured) with David in the cool mist and rain without the luxury of golf carts (real golfers walk the course). Ah Scotland, the home of golf—I was in my element and ready to attack the fairways and greens with a vengeance. Fore!