Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Car Tunes

I caught myself yesterday singing in the car.

I haven't sung in the car in a long, long time.

It seems that as my work-life soured more and more through 2012, one of the habits of mine that just seemed to drop off the table was singing in the car. Buried, I guess, by stress, disappointment, anger, boredom, frustration, and the general malaise that was hanging over my head each workday.

When I was let go in April, there wasn't much to sing about then, either.

Summer/Fall/Early Winter? More stress in the job hunt. Not a lot of tuneful opportunities while alone in the car.

But with the return to employment in December -- plus the good timing of a playlist full of singable Christmas classics -- I started humming along. Then tentatively joining in a chorus or two. Then full-bore vocalization: "Fallllll on your kneeeeeez. Oh heeeear the angel voooooices!"

Felt good. Felt right. Felt like it had been gone from my life for too long a period.

I come from a long line of car-singers. As a kid, our vacations were often long road trips, as the expense of air travel was beyond our budgets back then. We drove to the Appalachians and camped in Kentucky. We drove to Niagara Falls. We drove to Orlando. Five people (three boys and two adults) and a trunk jammed with suitcases and miles and miles of open roadway.

There were no iPods then, no back-seat DVD players. Heck, the car didn't even have air conditioning!

So we sang.

My dad -- from whom I inherited my own musical abilities -- was very musical. He played piano as a child. And in his teens and early 20s was a member of the Navy Chorus. In his civilian life, he sang tenor in our church choir for years and years, and my first foray into choral singing was at his side.

My mother -- who loved music -- was a terrible singer. She had a godawful sense of pitch and made up the words she couldn't remember. But she raised us in a musical household, as she stacked our stereo turntable high with LPs and let them flop forward in succession as she housecleaned. I can easily remember being put down for a nap while the sounds of Hollywood and Broadway musicals played in the living room.

And Mom warbled along, washing windows or defrosting the freezer: "Do, a deer, a female deer; Ray, a drop of golden sun!"

In the car, we had a rather unusual repertoire. Sure, we annoyed each other with 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall and Old McDonald. But my parents brought forward the songs of their youth, and we enjoyed the out-of-date references and awful puns. PC thinking was not prevalent at the time, so no thought was given to lyrics that today's ears would now find offensive.

For instance, Dad learned a few ditties as a Boy Scout, including one called "The Poor Old Slave."

This was a progressively difficult song, as nonsense syllables were added and the speed was increased.

"The poor old slave has gone to rest, we know that he is free/His bones, they lie, disturb them not, way down in Tennessee."

And then that became "The pickety-poor old slickety-slave hase gickety-gone to rickety-rest, we knickety-know that hickety-he is free-oh-free-free."

And so on until only Dad could handle the final verse at breakneck speed.

Mom liked this little ditty:

"There was farmer had a cow/Golly, ain't that queer?
She drank one day from a frozen stream
Her tail stood out like an iron beam
And ever since then, she's been giving ice cream
Golly, ain't that queer?
Some cow... Some cow... Some cow... MOO!"

It had full-on harmonies that Dad was terrific at.

This one must've come from a Bible camp somewhere in their past:

"Young folks, old folks everybody come
Come to the Sunday School and have a lot of fun
Please park your chewing gum and raisins at the door
And we'll tell you Bible stories that you never hear before."

There were dozens of verses to this -- addressing everything from Adam and Eve to Moses -- but Mom and Dad seemed only able to recall a few.

Dad also had one about a billboard that had half washed away in a rainstorm, leaving humorous messages in the tatters that remain:

"Come smoke a Coca Cola/Tomato-ketchup cigarettes//See Lillian Russel wrestle/With a box of Castorettes."

We got a lesson with that one, as to who Lillian Russel was (an actress/singer at the turn of the last century) and what Castorettes were (a laxative).

As we grew up, the roadtrips faded away. Our vacation spot became the Jersey Shore, and the shorter commute didn't really lend itself to singing. And as we all started to drive by ourselves, we were no longer traveling en masse anymore anyway.

But to this day, when I'm alone in the car, if you pull up beside me at a red light, don't be surprised to see my mouth open and my head swinging in time.

I might very well be belting one of those Bible camp verses my parents taught:

"God made Satan
Satan made sin
God made a hot place to put Satan in

Satan didn't like it and he said he wouldn't stay
And he's been actin' like the Devil ever since that day!"

Monday, January 7, 2013

I Get a Kick Out of You!

We have de-Christmassed the house. The trains have been packed away for another year; we vacuumed the tinsel out of the carpet; the stale un-eaten Christmas cookies were fed to the garbage disposal; and the house is silent of carols.

It'll be a long, dim January/February, highlighted only by the lengthening daylight each morning and evening, signifying that slow, celestial move toward spring and summer.

Un-decorating the tree is very much like decorating it; the ornaments go back, as they came out, stirring stories and memories of where they came from or what they signify.

The same old stories get told. And re-told.

Among our unusual Christmas ornaments is this one:

For you non-SciFi fans, that's Robbie the Robot from the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet. It was a gift from my good friend, Rich, who saw it and thought of me. Forbidden Planet is among my favorite SciFi classics, partly for its 1950s kitschy charm and partly for is Shakespearean undertones (see: The Tempest).

Robbie holds a special place on our tree not so much because of who he is but, rather, a story that rests on his titanium shoulders.

Robbie has a small chip in his mechanism, and at the push of a button, he utters one of a handful of phrases from the script of the film.

Our middle daughter, Claire, was examining him closely one Christmas past and pushed his button.

"I have been programmed to respond to the name 'Robbie,'" the metal man intoned.

And in a lapse of logic but a leap of faith, Claire answered him: "Hi, Robbie!"

I was utterly charmed by her naivete at the capabilities of a tiny plastic Christmas tree ornament, burst out laughing, and kidded Claire about her mis-assumption.

It has become one of Those Family Stories -- you know, the ones that seem to get trotted out year after year, triggered by some memory or other.

So, yes, this year, when Robbie made his appearance, one of us was heard to utter: "Remember when Claire thought Robbie could actually speak...?"

Claire laughs, with the rest of us, at her innocence from back then, a good sign that she takes this ribbing in the gentle/loving/kidding/familial manner in which it is offered.

I'm glad she's okay with it and not angered or shamed or resentful. 

I know I've got my own edition of Those Family Stories.

One involved my Aunt Margie, my mother's sister, who came to mind just the other day when I came across a commemorative plate she had given me on the day I was born, listing my time/day/weight/length.

Aunt Margie, always one to appreciate a good edition of Those Family Stories, kidded me about ours -- her's and mine -- for years and years. 

Like Claire, I didn't mind, really. It's kind of fun -- I daresay somewhat of an honor -- having your childhood actions become the stuff of folklore.

The episode that prompted my edition of Those Family Stories was this: My brothers and I were at Aunt Margie's, being sat while my parents were out. Being the youngest of the three Weckerly boys, my aunt had instructions to put me to bed first, with the intent, I guess, of Mom & Dad bundling me from a spare bed to the car and then home, where I could be nestled under my own covers and remain (mostly/hopefully/please God) asleep.

But I saw this as a great injustice. My brothers weren't going to be. My cousins weren't going to bed.

Just me.

So I protested. A lot. And my temper flared unto a full-force tantrum.

Until, in utter frustration...

I kicked Aunt Margie!

My brothers were appalled: "You kicked Aunt Mawgee!" they shamed. 

Truth be told, I do not remember this incident at all. I don't know what my parents' reaction was. I don't know if there were repercussions.

I do know that the story got legs and hung around for a long time, brought up -- joshingly but continuously -- through the years. Even in our wedding video, as I leaned in receive Aunt Margie's congratulatory kiss, she can be heard kidding: "Today, I forgive you for kicking me all those years ago."

"Thanks, Aunt Marg."

Aunt Margie is gone, now. So is Uncle Charlie. And Uncle Connie. And Uncle Bill. My parents are gone, too. And with them, the story is starting to fade. I'll revive it every once in a while (my girls have heard it ad nauseum, but they're now of an age where they feel that way about all my stories), but considering the main cast of characters is no longer around, it doesn't seem to have the same impact.

Oral history is like that, I suppose. The details blur. The main points lose focus. The relatives involved move on into history.

Which makes me think about Claire and her children.

And of the day she'll relate being good-naturedly jibed.

"Hi, Robbie!"