Aug 27, 2014

The Big Dog House in the Sky...

Sheila, on right, being chewed by Goldie
For a few weeks, Sheila, my shepherd mix dog, had been growing more feeble and losing weight.  Her abdomen appeared to be distended.  Monday, I took her to the vet where she was diagnosed with a large tumor.  I had to have her euthanized.  I could not bear to see her suffer.  She was a gentle, loving creature and I will miss her greatly.

Sheila sharing her dinner with Belle

Aug 25, 2014

Latest Project

A few weeks ago we had the kitchen floor replaced.  The previous floor was a beautiful Brazilian Cherry laminate.  When we decided to use a laminate product, it was a decision driven largely by the fact that the laminate is supposed to be so durable.  What no one told us is the fact that laminate doesn't tolerate wetness.  On two different occasions, we had to replace it because a water leak caused water to seep into the space between the subfloor and the underside of the laminate.  When this happens, the individual "boards" of the floor warp and the floor is ruined.  We decided to replace the laminate with vinyl.

We picked out a beautiful dark graphite textured, commercial-grade vinyl.  The crew who installed it put in a completely new subfloor and did a magnificent job with the installation.  We were very pleased with the dramatically-changed result except for one item: the stairs leading from the great room into the kitchen.

At the time we had installed the laminate floor, I had built the two steps leading up into the kitchen.  I stained the treads to match the floor and used laminate to cover the risers.  It worked perfectly and lasted many years.  But now, we decided that the steps needed to match the kitchen floor rather than the great room floor.  That was when I discovered that I had both nailed and glued the steps.  I apparently wanted them to last without squeaking.  It made the dismantling process very interesting.

The results of my latest effort are very satisfying.  I cut new treads of oak, then glued the vinyl to it and routed the edge carefully to ensure that the edge of the vinyl aligned perfectly with the edge of the step.  In the meantime, I ordered some bullnose molding of white oak from a mill in Kentucky.  When it arrived, I stained it with an ebony-colored stain, finished it with polyurethane, cut it to length, and nailed it to the edges of the tread.  I carefully cut and glued the vinyl to the vertical surfaces.  The result is quite satisfying...

Aug 15, 2014

Recalling T-Bone McDonald...

1212 Woodland Drive, Norman, OK
In 1966, I was living in Norman, Oklahoma.  I had moved there a year earlier to teach in the Naval ROTC unit at the University of Oklahoma.  As a member of the faculty bowling league, I had made friends with Forrest Frueh and Jim Mouser.  Forrest and Jim were both attorneys and constituted the entire department of business law in the college of business administration.  All three of us were bachelors and we decided to become housemates.  Forrest had just bought a house at 1212 Woodland Drive in Norman.  It was the perfect bachelor pad.  The house had been designed by Bruce Goff, a well-known architect who had been the chairman of the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma.  It was constructed of redwood and glass.  It had no 90-degree corners.  Every room was either a hexagon or an elongated hexagon.  It sat well back from the street, surrounded by large trees, with a bamboo garden in back.  Except for having only one bathroom, it worked well for Forrest, Jim, and me.

One afternoon, I was the first to arrive at the house.  As I was going through the day's mail, I heard a loud knock at the door.   I opened it to find an extremely large gentleman standing there holding a small suitcase.   I asked if I could help him.  He responded, in a bigger-than-life booming voice, "Howdy.  My name is T-Bone McDonald (he pronounced it "Ma-a-a-ck Donald") and I'm an old friend of Jim and Forrest's.  I need a place to spend tonight and I'm sure Forrest wouldn't mind if I spent it with you boys."  It sounded logical.  He knew my housemates' names.  We had a spare bedroom.  I did the only hospitable thing and let T-Bone in.  He was our roommate for the next several weeks.


T-Bone knew Forrest and Jim because as undergraduates at the University of Oklahoma they had been members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon social fraternity.  T-Bone had been the chapter adviser.  When Forrest and Jim arrived home, they naturally asked T-bone what brought him to the house.  It became clear that for reasons unspoken, he had been uninvited from his home and it only seemed natural that he should move in with us.


Over the time we shared, I learned a lot about T-Bone.  His full given name was Leon J. McDonald.  He had gone Oklahoma State University, which at the time was still known as Oklahoma A&M.  As to the moniker, the NewsOK Website describes it this way: "The name originated in 1918 when his father, also named Leon, was dubbed T-Bone when he ordered a T-bone steak while on a track trip for Oklahoma A&M College, now named Oklahoma State University.
"

The T-Bone I knew, also an A&M graduate, was a center on the Muskogee High School's state championship football team when he graduated in 1941.  Another accomplishment, which is rare today, is that he had four years of high school Latin, according to the Website.

In the 1960s, T-Bone made his living as a traveling salesman representing Frisco Paint, a line of paints produced by a company in New Jersey.  He had a huge territory, and each week he'd hit the road in his trusty Ford station wagon.  His slogan: "Cadillac paint at Chevrolet prices."  And I suspect he sold an enormous amount of paint.   Sometimes, T-Bone would visit a local freight office in the towns he visited to inquire whether they had any unclaimed or distressed freight.  He'd rent a trailer, buy and haul the freight home, and find a buyer.  He would have really loved eBay if it had existed back then.  One time he pulled into the driveway with a trailer in tow and asked, "Bob, who uses nitric acid??"


He never met a stranger and loved to talk.  And talk he did.   He was not shy about sharing his life story.  Forrest, Jim, and I were the beneficiaries of his homespun wisdom.  What follows is my best recollection of some of those remarkable tales.


At the outbreak of World War II, T-Bone had completed two years of ROTC training at Oklahoma A&M.  He enlisted right after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.   After some basic training and a series of short-term assignments, he found himself heading to North Africa where he ended up on General George S. Patton's staff.  He was with Patton throughout the North African campaign, into Sicily, thence to England, where General Patton headed up the disinformation campaign prior to the Normandy invasion.  After the invasion, Patton was restored to command of the third army in its drive across Europe.  T-Bone was there for all of this.  And to hear T-Bone tell it, Patton could do no wrong.


Forrest, Jim, and I heard all the great stories more than once.  They were so consistent that we were convinced of their credibility, regardless how outrageous.  And the following was among our favorites, told as accurately as I can remember it.  I can't swear that I recall every detail correctly and I certainly can't guarantee that it ever really happened.

After the Battle of the Bulge, Patton's third army was pursuing the retreating German army across Europe.  As T-Bone described it, they sometimes would be approaching a town and could see the retreating Germans on an adjoining hill.  The Germans, even as they retreated, would be firing mortars and artillery shells back toward the Americans.


T-Bone (by now, in early 1945, a Staff Sergeant), and his Corporal were in a jeep approaching a town being evacuated by the retreating Germans.  As the Nazis shot back toward the advancing Americans, an artillery shell made a direct hit on the vault of the main bank in the town.  As a result, T-Bone and his Corporal arrived in a town with substantial quantities of cash in the streets around the bank.  As T-Bone described it, there were "Dutch Guilders, German Marks, French Francs, Italian Lire -- just about every kind of European currency."  T-Bone and his comrade did the natural thing.  They gathered up as much money as possible and stuffed it into two military duffel bags that they had in their jeep.  They had no idea of the total value, but it was substantial.


Not too long afterwards, Eleanor Roosevelt got the brilliant idea of selecting the "High Pointers" from each unit and sending them to the French Riviera (now in Allied hands) for a little R&R.  T-Bone and the Corporal were the high pointers in their unit (I don't recall what size unit this was) and got to ride a train to Nice for a few days.  Naturally, they were accompanied by their duffel bags of cash.


The Red Cross, USO, and other service organizations had jumped at the opportunity to provide recreational outlets for the planned arrival of hundreds of the so-called High Pointers -- all combat-hardened troops, by the way.  What could be more exciting to these men than card-playing tournaments, badminton competition, shuffleboard, and lots of healthy food?  ...Not to mention water sports on the French Riviera?


T-Bone told us that the troops had learned that the center of intelligence in most European towns was the local barber shop.  When he and his buddy arrived in Nice, they and their duffel bags headed for the largest barber shop they could find.  They made a deal to trade their cash for recreational outlets of a different sort than envisioned by the "Red Cross Ladies."


The next morning was greeted by train cars of French prostitutes descending on the railroad station "with their poodle-dogs and maids" and truckloads of cognac to be distributed to the U.S. and allied servicemen free of charge.  All contributed by some anonymous benefactors.  I've often marveled that this scenario, if it really took place, never became the subject of a movie.  It would make a great one.

T-Bone McDonald speaking at
the Oklahoma City Kiwanis Club
Not long ago, I was telling a friend (who happens to be a retired army officer) about T-Bone.  I became curious whether my old roommate was still living.  After all, we have lost Jim and more recently, Forrest.  I did a Google search and to my amazement, there were 4 YouTube videos featuring T-Bone speaking to a Kiwanis Club in Oklahoma City on February 1, 2010!  There he is, bigger than life, with the same booming voice as I recall, telling part of the story.  Check him out at T-Bone 1, T-Bone 2, T-Bone 3, and T-Bone 4.  He's one member of "the greatest generation" whom I will never forget.

Aug 10, 2014

Encountering Cecil Null...

Cecil Null
On August 26, 2001, Cecil Null died.  CMT News reported it this way: "Songwriter and performer Cecil Null died of cancer Sunday (Aug. 26) at the Bristol Regional Medical Center near his home in Bristol, Va. He was 74. Null's most famous composition was "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know," a No. 1 hit in 1953 for the Davis Sisters. Bill Phillips had a minor hit in 1970 with Null's "She's Hungry Again."

Null's longtime friend, journalist Bill Littleton, says Null was also the guiding force in uniting Chet Atkins and Merle Travis for their Grammy-winning 1974 album, The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show."  Their article went on to describe Cecil's biographical details.  They included the reason I got interested in Cecil and tracked him down, "A student of American folk music, Null became an expert at playing and designing autoharps and ultimately served as a consultant for a manufacturer of the instrument. His 1964 song, "Mother Maybelle," was inspired by Maybelle Carter, perhaps country music's foremost autoharpist."


For many years, I subscribed to a magazine catering to the small community of people who love and play the Autoharp, a stringed instrument of the chorded zither family.  The magazine was published by an Autoharp enthusiast on the west coast named Becky Blackley.  She was absolutely relentless in her search for people who had played various roles in the history of the Autoharp.  She would find them, interview them, and write extensive articles detailing their contributions to the musical tradition that we all embraced.  One such article, published in the Spring, 1985, issue featured a profile of Cecil Null.  After his music career in Nashville, he and his wife, Annette (also a musician), had gone into the hospitality industry.  Becky found them managing an Econolodge motel in Lynchburg, VA.  Later, when I wanted to meet Mr. Null, he and Annette were managing the Old Pottery Factory Econolodge in Williamsburg, VA.

My late wife, Margo, was attending a convention in Alexandria, VA, in 1985.  She called to see if I was interested in flying into Washington National airport and helping to drive back home to Tennessee.  She had driven to the convention hauling a lot of equipment and papers.  Now the car would be relatively empty for the return trip.  I took a few days off and flew to Washington.  That's when it occurred to me that it wouldn't be very far out of our way to go meet Cecil and Annette Null in Williamsburg.  In fact, we might even be able to spend a night in their motel!

I got on the phone and spoke with Annette, sharing the fact that I was an enthusiastic autoharp player who wanted to meet them and maybe even spend some time hearing about their careers.  She made a reservation for us and said they'd love to spend some time with us.  The day the convention ended, we drove to Williamsburg and found the motel

As we walked into the modest lobby, we couldn't help noticing a giant painting or print, perhaps 4 feet by 6 feet, elaborately framed, showing Cecil and Annette in full, sequin drenched, performing regalia.  He was holding a large Gibson guitar, Annette was by his side, looking adoringly at his cowboy-hatted presence.  And on the wall, next to the giant picture, hung a gold record of Cecil's most famous and successful hit, "I Forgot More..."

Annette was at the desk.  We introduced ourselves and checked in.  She informed us that Cecil was out running errands and that they would be eating dinner as soon as he returned.  We agreed that I'd come by the desk around 7:00 PM to meet him.  Margo was exhausted and decided she could do just fine without meeting my soon-to-be-friend.  We went out for a bite to eat and she went to bed.

Cecil Null was a very big man with a booming baritone voice.  He greeted me most warmly and invited me into their apartment which was just behind the registration desk.  I could see immediately that he had retreived some boxes of artifacts to share with me.  In the 1950s and '60s, Cecil Null had experimented with the design of the Autoharp.  He had built several modified acoustic instruments and he experimented with a solid-body electric design, even winding the hair-like wires on his experimental pickup.  He had gotten out a number of his early experimental Autoharps, both successes and failures, to show me.

Cecil retrieved a bottle of Jack Daniels from their kitchen, offered me a drink (which I declined), and began to talk.  He talked pretty much for the next three hours.  He was mesmerizing.  He and Annette knew everybody who was anybody in Nashville.  He told me he had probably written over 2,000 songs -- that melodies and lyrics simply flowed out of his mind.  With regard to his biggest hit, he said that he had composed it shortly after his Navy service in World War II.  He circulated it and many other songs to dozens of potential studios and artists in the industry to no avail.  In 1953, the Davis Sisters (a duet made up of Skeeter Davis and her high school friend, Betty Jack Davis) recorded the song.  Within a few days of its release, Betty Jack was killed in a car crash.  The song went to number 1 on the country charts and remained there for 26 weeks!  "I Forgot More than You'll Ever Know About Him" has been recorded by Tex Ritter, Sonny James, Archie Campbell, The Statler Brothers, Jim Ed Brown, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Slim Whitman, Anita Bryant, Johnny Wright, Kitty Wells, Vernon Oxford, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Patti Page, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Guitar--and countless bluegrass bands.

A much-younger Cecil Null, pictured
on one of his album covers
Cecil began to retrieve partially-completed Autoharp bodies from the boxes he had gathered.  His hand-carved solid-body instruments are like no one else's.  I have included an image here of one of Cecil's LP record jackets.  The Autoharp he's holding is typical of the ones he showed me that night.  Outrageously flamboyant, and extremely heavy, by the way.  They were carved from solid maple.  He had several partially-completed Autoharp bodies to show me, including one, hollowed out from a solid block of maple, that was going to become an acoustic instrument.  He said he had given some as gifts and showed me a picture of his brother-in-law, Fred Carson, a Hollywood stuntman, holding one of Cecil's creations.  There could be no doubt that Cecil had been at this creative endeavor for many years.


Several years ago, I ran across this Cecil Null coin on eBay.  On the front is an image of Cecil with the words, "CECIL NULL" and "THE WILDWOOD ANGEL."  On the obverse is an image of the Autoharp he made for Fred Carson along with the text, "KING OF THE AUTOHARP."  I'd love to know the origin of this strange artifact.

He spoke about his years working as a consultant to Mr. Glenn Peterson, who at the time owned Oscar Schmidt International, the company that manufactured Autoharps.  Cecil's design ideas had spawned the Appalachian model which became very successful.  He also authored a book on playing the Autoharp in a style similar to his own.  Mr. Null was a prolific writer and composer.

We went on to talk about how he and Annette had traveled for years playing at festivals and coffee houses and clubs and what a rough life that was.  His undying love for her was obvious.  They had just released a new album entitled Royal Country, and I bought a copy that night.  After a few more of Cecil's yarns, I retired around 10:00 PM.  I never saw him again, but I wouldn't have missed that evening for the world.