There’s Just Something About Herbie…

Were you ever been bitten by the Bug? 

You’re a baby boomer.  You know what I’m talking about… 

Our collective, massive passion for the Volkswagen Beetle.  Officially named by Volkswagen as the Type 1—the original Volkswagen—“The People’s Car” born of the visions of Ferdinand Porsche and the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler.  The Volkswagen Type 1 has touched our lives in ways we haven’t even fathomed.  It has affected our subconscious.  It has driven right smack into our souls.  There’s no getting it out of our minds. 

Virtually everyone and anyone you’ve ever known has driven a VW Beetle. 

If my street back home in the 1960s was any indication of a good cross section of America, there was at least one Volkswagen Beetle on every block.  Any shopping center parking lot across America had dozens of them at any one time.  Their puttering pancake air-cooled four-cylinder engines could be heard anywhere.  If it wasn’t a VW Beetle, it was a dune buggy concocted from a Beetle.

If you need help understanding this one, consider how far reaching this cultural icon has been since it was first conceived in pre-war Nazi Germany in 1938. Hitler saw a very definite need for a simple affordable automobile for the masses. It was a terrific idea that sold well for decades.  It was produced from 1938-2003. 

More than 21.5 million were produced worldwide. 

The VW Beetle has been so far reaching that Walt Disney Productions did a comedy film, “The Love Bug” in 1968 starring Dean Jones, Michelle Lee, David Tomlinson and Buddy Hackett about a 1963 VW Beetle race car named “Herbie” that takes on a life of its own in a wild and crazy comedic film that roars to the very extent of our imaginations.  It is truly a typical silly Disney fantasy flick that made viewers fall in love with Herbie.  I personally would like to know what happened to VW Beetle sales in the wake of “The Love Bug.” 

Herbie got his legendary “53” racing number from the film’s producer, Bill Walsh, who had a great appreciation for Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose retired number was 53.  Herbie even received billing in the closing credits, which was undoubtedly the first time an automobile was ever credited in a movie.  Herbie was credited in every “Love Bug” sequel to follow. 

Every so often, one of the real Herbie Bugs shows up at a car show somewhere around the world.  And, goodness knows how many Herbie replicas have been built since the 1968.  C’Mon…you know you want a Herbie replica.  This insanity is on a par with untold thousands of 1967 “Eleanor” Mustang replica fastbacks that have been built since “Gone In 60 Seconds” hit the big screen 20 years ago.

Seems everyone has a VW Type 1 story, including those who claim the world’s record for the greatest number of people crammed into a Bug when they were in college when a phone booth just wasn’t enough.  Or, how many sports jocks it took to pick up a Bug and move it.  I had a buddy in high school who liked to take his VW and chase people off sidewalks around town.  He was slightly left of plum mentally and enjoyed tormenting others.  He also enjoyed moving VWs from one parking spot to another several rows away with the help of a couple of buddies. Just release the parking brake and put it in neutral. It was easy with help from friends.  This was a very popular stunt in the high school faculty parking lot, which kept a lot of educators wondering where their Bugs went, only to discover they were in a different spot.

How many thought they were losing their mind?

The Volkswagen Type 1 was a hot seller for all the years it was produced in at least 21 assembly plants around the world.  Brazil was a big producer of VW Type 1s with 3.35 million Beetles alone.  Sales of the Type 1 ended in the United States when these air-cooled transporters failed to meet even tougher federal emission and safety standards.  They continued to be produced and sold around the world long after sales ended here. 

One of the greatest elements of Volkswagens was the hysterical television commercials that aired in the United States in the 1960s.  There were so many it is impossible to remember them all.  One American carline that gave the Type 1 a run for the money was the 1970 Ford Maverick, base sticker priced at $1,995.00 against the Beetle’s base sticker of $1,829.00.  The Maverick was considered more car for the money and college-bound baby boomers snapped them up like crazy.  The 1970 Maverick outsold even the original classic 1965 Mustang by a wide margin at well over 579,000 units that first year.  In sharp contrast, Volkswagen produced 378,222 Beetles that year.  To spur Type 1 sales, Volkswagen stretched the Beetle two-inches and gave it a better optional suspension system and called it Super Beetle for 1971.

Whether you liked your Beetle standard or stretched, one thing is certain, the collective passion for classic Beetles along with great memories remains strong and not likely to go away any time soon.  Attend any car show across the continent and the Beetle’s continuing popularity will speak for itself.  The Volkswagen Beetle and its corporate cousin Type 2 bus remain hot commodities some 82 years after the Bug’s original introduction.

What about your VW Beetle memories? 

Do You Remember Going To The Airport

Most of you who read this column remember The Jet Age.  Unless you were living under a rock, you will recall the futuristic 1950s and 1960s along with the roar of jet planes and older propeller-driven pistonliners. 

My earliest memories of planes were in Arlington, Virginia just north of Washington National Airport (I am a native Washingtonian who refuses to call it “Reagan” National) at the cusp of the 1960s.  There was always the nostalgic roar of piston-powered Convairs, Connies, Martins, and Douglas airliners overhead. A big thrill for me and a lot of kids in those days was a casual trip to the airport for a few hours of plane watching. Though some would consider it boring by today’s standards, it was rewarding for kids back in the day.  It allowed us to burn off energy and work up an appetite for the airport snack bar or a trip to a hamburger stand afterward. 

My aunt would take us out to Friendship International Airport (now Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International) outside of Baltimore, which had what seemed a mile-long observation deck where you could hang out and watch planes for 10-cents a head for hours on end. It was a great entertainment value.  This beat the pants off any video game a kid can immerse themselves into today. Planes would take off and we always wondered where they were going.  They’d also arrive leaving us wondering where they’d been.  Passengers deplaned from these glistening airframes dressed up in suits, ties and dresses. That’s just the way it was at the time because, despite jet travel, flight was still a relatively new phenomenon considering Orville and Wilbur took to the skies a half-century earlier.

When jets arrived long about 1959, plane watching became an entirely different dynamic.  For one thing, jets didn’t have propellers, which made it challenging to understand how a plane flew when you couldn’t see any visible means of propulsion. Jets made a tremendous amount of noise and smoke when they left – especially in a water/ethanol-injected takeoff. It was a smoky thundering roar you could hear for miles around. 

My dad explained to me that in order to make a lot of power, jets had to make a lot of noise. That was his reasoning.  Explain that to airport neighbors and environmentalists at the time when conversation in a backyard could not be had at peak departure and arrival times.  Whenever I see a new high-tech Boeing 787 or Airbus A350 takeoff today void of noise and smoke, I think of that statement from 60 years ago. 

We’ve come a long way. 

Going to the airport when I was a kid was a great pastime.  It got kids out of the house and into the sunshine where they could learn something new in the process.  The airport fueled my passion for aviation, which remains strong a half century later.  Flying commercially back in the day was different than it is today.  Passengers board airliners today like they’re getting on a bus.  They don’t even pay attention to the flying experience, which remains remarkable to me even today.  They don laptop computers and personal tablets, turn on their favorite TV show, close the window shade, and zone out without even thinking about where they are—traveling eight miles in a minute six miles above the earth. 

The way people dress today for travel on an aircraft is remarkable too.  They look like they’re on the way to a racing event or a barn raising.  This attitude began with young baby boomers during the hippy era when nonconformists boarded aircraft in sandals, torn up jeans, and tie-dyed tee shirts.

The way we fly hasn’t been the same since.

Although flying commercially has become routine for a lot of people, it will never be routine for me. To feel a jetliner accelerate down a runway and feel it go into the sky draws raw emotion. To me, flying remains a miracle of physics where lift defies gravity and thrust keeps you in the sky. I can hop on a jet, strap in, and be 3,000 miles away in a matter of 4-5 hours. How can anyone actually take that for granted? I never have. And, consider this. You can board a Boeing 777 in Los Angeles and be in Sydney, Australia in 15 hours.

Imagine…

The late United Airlines Captain, Denny Fitch, who entered the cockpit of a very sick DC-10 (United Flight 232 at Sioux City, Iowa) with a blown engine and no hydraulics to help save lives, said that for him it was a very religious experience to take a plane into the air. Those were the words of a truly passionate aviator and humanitarian who understood the amazing element of flight. He’d flown thousands of hours and millions of miles, yet he never lost his fascination with flight.

Fitch, who was a passenger in First Class, raced to the cockpit, grabbed the jump seat between Captain Al Haynes and First Officer Bill Records and managed the power of the DC-10’s remaining two engines, which enabled them to at least maintain some control of the aircraft. They crash landed at Sioux City on a closed runway. Of the 296 souls on board, 112 died. Had it not been for Fitch, all 296 would have perished.

Plane watching isn’t what it used to be. For reasons of security, airports don’t have the viewing locations they once did in the United States. Observation decks are gone and have been since the early 1980s. The British never allow terrorism to deter their plane watching. They still line up along the fences on step ladders for a closer look, acting on their steamy passion for a pastime that seems to have been lost here in the States.

    

The Beat Of The Brass

It would have been challenging to have grown up in the 1960s and have missed Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass.  In 1966, I was 10.  It was Christmastime and we had been out shopping.  My mother popped a fresh vinyl LP on the turntable and Herb Alpert’s “What Now My Love?” began rocking the house on a 1940’s vintage turntable.  Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass was a sound so alive.  It made me so excited to be alive, and I was just a snot-nosed kid.  It was such a positive sound—a mix of Latin and Jazz, which worked so well together yet seemed the unlikely duo. 

Christmas Morning of 1966, there under the tree was Alpert’s “South of the Border” album, which was even better than the first.  I couldn’t get enough of it.  For my birthday in 1967, I unwrapped Herb Alpert’s “Going Places,” album which further punctuated my passion for the Brass.  I got into band class in elementary school and learned to play trumpet.  I didn’t play very well nor did I go very far.  Automobiles got my attention at age 14 and my Bundy trumpet got left behind.

However, Herb Alpert & the TLB never left my soul.  I have most of the albums Herb Alpert and the TJB produced during a very heady time.  When I was young, I saw Herb Alpert as a great trumpeter.  I thought he was Hispanic.  However, I knew so very little about him.  Herb Alpert grew up and came of age in a faraway place called Los Angeles, California a continent away from my native mid-Atlantic.  My home and my roots were in the National Capital Area on both sides of the Potomac. 

I’d close my bedroom door, put Herb on my humble phonograph, and time would melt away.  I’d get so lost in his music and the talent he amassed to conceive the Tijuana Brass.  Night would come and I would gaze through the frosty glass at the street lights and snowfall listening to the Tijuana Brass.  As the months and years passed, my album collection grew thicker.  There was “SRO,” “Herb Alpert’s Ninth,” “The Beat Of The Brass,” “Volume 2,” “Sounds Like…” and a host of others that remain with me today.

Ironically, Los Angeles has been my home for 27 years and all the great mysteries about L.A. are no longer mysteries.  L.A. is no longer a faraway place.  When my career brought me here three decades ago, I’d drive by what used to be the Charles Chaplin Studios and A&M Records at 1416 North La Brea Avenue on my way down to Wilshire to work and get lost in a daydream of what that place was like in the A&M years.  I thought of the times spent in my bedroom back home in Maryland listening to Herb and the Brass trying to get my mind around the music and that little spot in big L.A.

Herb Alpert was born and raised in Boyle Heights, a close-in suburb on the East Side of Los Angeles.  He was born to Jewish immigrants—Tillie and Louis Leib Alpert—from the present-day Ukraine and Romania.  They were a musical family and Herb Alpert came by his talents honestly.  He started playing trumpet as a kid, which continued to evolve into his time in the Army and really began to flourish when he got out.  He pursued his passion for music, which caught fire in the 1960s with that first TJB album, “The Lonely Bull.”  What followed was a whirlwind rise to the top of the charts.  The Tijuana Brass became a household name and sound, which could even be heard on game shows, commercials, and—yes—even “The Brady Bunch.”

The Tijuana Brass rode the high of success into the 1970s when they all concluded the passion was gone and it was time to move on.  One can only imagine was it was like to be so successful and in the public eye.  Though many envied their great success, it took a toll on each of them.  Times were changing and it was time for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass to move on.        

In the post TJB years, Herb never stopped growing as a seasoned musician and a great artistic talent.  What he’s done in the decades since is no less than remarkable.  Yet—“Mexican Shuffle” and “Tijuana Taxi” continue to play in my head. 

Some things will never change.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

Do you remember the controversial 1967 Columbia Pictures movie “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” with Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Portier, and Katharine Houghton?  This was a terrific movie that turned racism into an enduring, time-honored love story.  Each family, each race, had something to learn about the other—turning a negative into a positive. 

Why are we still at odds about our differences a half century later?

This awe-inspiring film reminded me of a friend of mine—a black man—who was married to a lovely white Jewish girl in the early 1950s.  They bought a home in a Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District in 1953, which is where he continues to live today. The demographics of the neighborhood has changed considerably since. 

If you remember America in the early 1950s, you will remember racial tensions at the time. Marvin received death threats from her family.  Neighbors shunned him and took a very dim view of her.  They hated him, yet they had no idea who he was.  They only knew he was black.  She was wholly and completely committed to him. So much so that she said goodbye to her family forever. Marvin and Helene were deeply in love with one another. All they wanted was to be together and live in peace. Sadly, she died from breast cancer, ironically, in 1967 when this movie was made.

My buddy is 87 these days and in poor health.  He never remarried. 

When I consider this one interracial couple story, I think of how far we’ve come since the mid-20th century – or have we?  I am troubled by the ongoing discussion about race because we still haven’t come to accept our differences and live together peacefully.  Race is that 800-pound gorilla in the living room Americans have been uncomfortable discussing for the better part of our post-war lifetime.  Question is—why did race ever need to be discussed in the first place?  What makes humans so uncomfortable with the physical and cultural differences that exist in one another?

What shakes us to the core about our differences?  Because humans are uncomfortable with anything or anyone who is different than we are.  If I speak English and you speak Spanish, German or French, that makes us uncomfortable.  We perceive ignorance in one another because we don’t speak the same language.  In truth, we speak different languages and that’s all it is.  Think of it as Apple versus IBM PC—a failure to communicate and interface. 

Race is all about perception—what we believe each other is whether it is true or not.  There was a day when whites believed blacks could never make it in baseball.  Or, a day when it was believed a black man would never be president and live in The White House.

It was the election of Barack Obama in 2008 that surfaced our decidedly ugly racism like sewage rising out of the muddy soil. Whites looked at President Obama with a raised eyebrow.  There were whites who just couldn’t live with the idea of a black man in The White House while proclaiming some their closest friends were black and their criticism of the man wasn’t racism at all.  Racism, which was never really discussed in a post war America, has become a topic of conversation again a half-century later.

Why?

Because we still haven’t come to terms with our differences.

Instead of discussing race, perhaps it is time to walk the walk.  What about peaceful interaction without extensive discussion and judgement?  Is it not possible to just view one another as Americans – human beings – without thinking of skin pigmentation?

What about that?     

Celebrating Darkness, My Old Friend

What makes us feel so blue in the fall? 

I’ve lived in Southern California for 27 years— however, I am an East Coast boy at heart in a far-flung place called California.  I grew up in Washington, D.C. and have lived in Maryland, Virginia, Texas, Florida, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, and Tennessee.  I know what the darkness of winter feels like.  I’ve had saliva freeze on my lips scraping a windshield in the subzero cold of Michigan.  I’ve also lived through the hellishness of devastating humidity and triple digit temperatures in the deep South and the mid-Atlantic.  I’ve swatted gnats and mosquitoes in Florida and wondered where flying insects of any kind were on the California desert.  

Suffice it to say I’ve lived through virtually every type of climate imaginable while my 12 year-old son has never seen anything but warm sunny California weather.  He’s in for quite the awakening should he ever journey beyond California’s largely uneventful climate. 

Even the slightest rumble of thunder scares him. 

When you’ve lived in Southern California for most of your life, you forget the dread of oncoming winter because it doesn’t get all that cold here.  The weather here in So’ Cal’ doesn’t change much from day to day.  It is sunny, hot and dry most of the time.  Some winters bring not one drop of rain.  There’s endless sunshine to where you grow downright sick of the sun and blue skies. You long for a cloudy rainy day.  Winter rains bring the growth of green lush brush and tree growth.  Fires burns all that growth away when things get dry and crunchy and humans get careless.  Dry lightning is responsible for the rest.  Winter rains following a long drought and fire bring mudslides because all that fresh plant matter has been consumed by fire.  You haven’t seen dry until you’ve lived in the dry and dusty Southwest—where rain can be absent for years at a stretch. When it rains, the grateful desert yields a fresh aroma unequaled – that smell of wet concrete for the first time in ages.

When I lived in the East and Midwest, those first chilly days of fall were refreshing—yet with a certain amount of dread because it was about to get really cold.  When you’ve lived the darkness of winter and the bone-numbing cold of north winds, you develop a certain amount of contempt for Old Man Winter.  That said, fall brings dread for a large segment of the population.

What I love most about fall is the calming effect of autumn.  The sun slips lower and lower in the sky into the lazy sleepy days of winter.  Because I live in California, the days tend to be longer for me in winter than those of you who live in the great white north.  In the north, winter days are short and quite cloudy to where you wonder if you will ever see the sun again.  Yet, in the summertime, the north witnesses days that never seem to end.  Here in California, summer days are shorter than they are in the north—proof the Earth really is round. 

Mother Earth is never what you think she is.

Autumn welcomes the onset of winter.  Winter is a time of rest, hibernation, popcorn, and a sleepy afternoon watching old movies.  What is it about old movies on a cold winter afternoon with a roaring fire in the fireplace?  Ted Turner knew what he was doing when he founded Turner Classic Movies (TCM).  CNN is for news hounds.  TCM is for the romantic at heart.  I’d like to return to the 1940s and the way people dressed and styled their hair.  In those days, people had class and dignity in a spirit of mutual respect—with simple courtesies long since forgotten.

I believe we should each embrace the seasons in all their forms because they always pass.  Instead of dreading fall and the arrival of cold air, embrace these elements because they will pass in short order.  Take a deep breath, inhale the woodsmoke, and bask in the rustle of leaves.  Another year is passing.  A new year is pending.  The holidays are coming.  The snow will fall. 

It is a time of regrouping and starting over.    

Autumn Air and Back to School

My mind is abuzz with memories from long ago as we enter yet another autumn.  As the air begins to cool, we are again reminded of the passage of time.  Fall does that.

Do you remember autumn, the cool air, and heading back to school?

Those first few days back in a classroom in the 1960s were always hot and humid, which made it challenging to learn anything.  Our minds were numb from the heat.  We didn’t have air conditioned classrooms in 1965.  I recall hot sticky late summer days and the resonance of Katydids echoing throughout the trees.  The air was moist, heavy and alive with the sounds of Mother Nature getting ready to bed down for a long winter’s nap.  Katydids, also known as “Bush Crickets,” signaled the end of summer.  We associate that sound with the dog days of summertime.  They began their concert with short chirps in July that grew into a steady buzzy roar as late summer ensued. 

Of all the seasons, fall has always been my favorite.  It is a season of calming, settling in, and preparing for the darkness of winter.  For some, autumn is decidedly depressing.  There’s less daylight, which affects our moods.  The trees and grass gradually become grey and barren. The rustle of leaves and chilly northern breezes signal the onset of winter.  Nature goes to sleep in a process of rest and regeneration. It is surely true more people die in the fall than in any other season. 

Fall is all about closure and the end of another year.

Ironically, those first hints of autumn are also times of great anticipation.  The sweet wonderful aroma of woodsmoke in the air is a smell we become conditioned by early on.  Doesn’t the smell of woodsmoke from neighborhood fireplaces and cookouts remind you of Christmastime?  That’s our conditioning from the time we can toddle.  It seems to begin long about Halloween and becomes sweeter as autumn deepens.

Back to school was always a dreaded time. Shoes that were too tight. Time in a dressing room trying on all sorts of clothes – including heavily-starched shirts and pants that did not fit. That first early morning breakfast of the school year – Cheerios and white toast with not enough butter. The smell of a school bus that had been closed up all summer. Passing the same line up of homes and businesses. Turning the corner and roaring up in front of our schools. A new and different classroom. A fresh face teacher you either liked or immediately hated. The issuance of book covers with local business ads.

Madison Avenue liked starting brand loyalty early.

Unless you really loved school, each school year was long, boring, and monotonous. “Get out your arithmetic books and turn to page 24…” Because I personally hated math, it was challenging to turn to page 24 and actually be interested. The good news is – I loved English and History.

Springtime was always an awakening.  Trees began to bud and life returned in a rush of euphoria.  As swiftly as school began, it wound down to a close and all those goodbyes from teachers and classmates.

See you in September… 

The seasons and the school years were but the beginning of a lifetime of endless turnover, which led us all to where we are now—amid reflection…

Holding On and Letting Go…

From the time we are born, we begin the fundamentals of relationships beginning with our parents and ultimately siblings and extended family.  Those first interactions are with the soul who has given us life—our mother.  Close by under the best of circumstances is our father.  Together, they teach and mentor us as we make our way through childhood.  If they’re fortunate and been on top of our upbringing, we emerge into the world as responsible adults. It is a fragile formula and something like Oklahoma weather in May.   

Being a parent has never been easy.  It is easily the toughest job we will ever have with the greatest responsibility, and certainly the most thankless—and that’s okay.  We’re not in the parent business for gratitude.  As parents, we are supposed to stand by our children through the toughest of times—keeping them on course to where they don’t become a burden to society. 

If you bring a child into this world, you must first be willing to accept responsibility for them, and that’s a tough one to chew in the hardest of times, especially if you’re a parent with a teen out of control.  As your children grow into adults, you have to begin letting go and allowing them to make their own mistakes and bask in their own success or misery. It is the only way they will ever learn how to be responsible adults. Pain teaches…  It is always good for you to be there for your kids as an advisor, especially in adolescence.  However, in letting them make their own decisions, allow them to make and accept responsibility for their own mistakes. 

What hurts the most as a parent is watching your kid go through being hurt because what hurts them surely hurts us.  My wife and I are late-in-life parents.  We adopted our son, Jacob, at birth at 50 and 52 respectively.  It is remarkable how many people comment on our grandson, only to be politely corrected that he is our son. 

At 52, I was more ready to be a father than I was at 32 when my first born arrived in 1988.  I had a lot to learn about being a father at 32 and had a long way to go. There was so much I didn’t understand about what a child needs.  I made a lot of terrible mistakes as a father—and as a long-distance father two-thirds of a continent away, huge mistakes and erred judgment—which did indelible damage to my kids because they always needed me close by. 

I made a tough career decision in 1994 that moved me in Los Angeles where a career decision should have been more a personal one—where I would have put my kids ahead of my career. My kids remained in Tennessee.  A divorce followed, further straining an already fragile relationship.  No one has ever said on their death bed they wished they’d spent more time at the office.  The deepest regret has always been not having spent more time with the family.

No matter how much you love your children, distance puts incredible strain on the relationship you have with them.  As a faraway parent or grandparent, you miss a lot of important moments in their childhoods though you do manage to make a few of them. If you and your ex have an adversarial relationship, kids suffer the most. 

As a long-distance father, it was never been easy for me to watch my kids growing up far away.  They’re all grown now, two of them with children of their own.  It is surely something watching them raise their kids and watching another generation unfold.  And, no matter how much I want to be a part of their lives, it will never be the same 1800 miles away.  I never kid myself.  I am little more than a figurehead grandfather in faraway California.  I have to stay on top of video chats with them, which don’t happen as often as I’d like between my schedule and theirs.  

Chances are good you’re a long distant parent or grandparent.  You understand how challenging it is emotionally to miss your kids and grandkids.  If you have a tight budget and can’t travel to see them as often as you’d like, rely on technology to keep you close.  There are video chat apps that enable you to stay close to those you love.  What’s more, these apps are largely free which means you’ve run out of excuses.

I’ve learned with my kids not to hover over them as adults.  I know they’re on the same trip I was as a young man.  Sometimes, there just isn’t the time to call or write. Life gets darned hectic.  A child is but the one relationship you as a parent have where your child grows up and goes out into the world—without you.  This is where you have to be strong enough to know how much your child loves you—and find the courage to let them go.  If you hear from your kids on a regular basis, you are fortunate because not everyone has that. There are parents who wonder where their grown kids are – and that has become the norm. 

I’ve said this before—whether it is your child, a friend, or a member of your family, it is always best to set them free emotionally and see where it goes.  If you hear from them, you have a healthy relationship.  If you don’t, you were never connected to begin with. It is never good to remind anyone to think of you.  Healthy relationships don’t require constant reminders.  They just happen naturally. Let them know what they mean to you, then, step back and see if they circle back to you.

Growing Up In The Car Culture

Have you ever noticed the passion boomers have for automobiles?

Cars haven’t been just transportation for most of us, but also something cool to be seen in—or not be seen in.  Cars used to be rolling works of art or really bad road commodes.  It was all about style and looking cool back in the day.  Cars were an extension of our personalities.  It was tough being stuck with the discarded family clunker to drive at age 16.  This was especially important in our teen years when it was time to go cruising.  No one wanted to be seen in a clown car—Mom’s old broken down grocery getter or your older sister’s cast off.  Maybe, your first car was a clown car—a smelly old station wagon or one huge pile of a four-door sedan with rust holes in the quarters.

My first car was a 1960 Valiant sedan.  Talk about culture shock in a styling studio by the late automotive stylist, Virgil Exner?  Some journalists of the period called him “Virgil Excess.”  My Valiant was one of those finned cat-eye taillight Valiants with a slant six engine, pushbutton automatic transmission, and that ridiculous continental spare tire treatment in the deck lid. That first year, Valiant was just a Valiant – not a Plymouth Valiant. Chrysler intended to create the Valiant Division just like Ford did with the Edsel – Edsel Division. When Chrysler saw what a disaster Edsel was, it scrapped plans for a Valiant Division. Valiant became a Plymouth model in 1961. 

I loved my Valiant.

A lot of us had VW Beetles as first cars, which is why they command such a high price today. Boomers love them.   It’s the sweet nostalgia of a VW Beetle that keeps us hanging on to our youth.  Beetles were plentiful and cheap back in the day.  They sat on used car lots everywhere for a few hundred dollars a copy. 

Put $100 down and buy a car… 

Virtually every college from coast to coast sported dozens of VW Beetles along with the disgusting aroma of unburned exhaust hydrocarbons.  Nostalgic baby boomers want them and will pay anything to get into one.  So many are gone or survive as dune buggies.  A buddy of mine bought and restored a 1957 Beetle with the rare oval rear window.  He wanted a split-window bug, but good luck on that one.  Although so many of us called them Bugs and Beetles, Volkswagen called them the Type 1.  The hippie busses were called Type 2 models.  The Type 2 really was the first minivan.  It was so grossly underpowered that Consumer Reports deemed it unsafe because it took forever to get up to highway speed—but who cares? 

We just wanted to have fun. 

VW Beetles were no fun on a cold morning. It took forever to get warm.  Exhaust fumes would come into the cabin and give you a headache.  However, for whatever they were, they sure beat walking or, heaven forbid, being seen on the high school campus on a bicycle—with a banana seat, baskets, and a generator set with a light and taillight.     

When we were growing up, cars were king.  Every fall, new car dealers would paper up their showroom windows and tease us.  We waited in steamy anticipation.  “Come See the new Fords for 1965!!!” or “See the USA in your Chevrolet…” as sung by Dinah Shore.  My God, who could resist? 

It was pure magic.

As age 16 grew near, we watched the calendar and started marking off days until we could take our driver’s test and walk out of the motor vehicle bureau with a driver’s license.  It meant heading out on our own for the first time without an adult in the passenger’s seat.  You could leave the parents behind. 

Free At Last!!!

Back in the day, you could identify an automobile by its styling.  At a glance, you knew if it was an Oldsmobile or a Buick.  Not only were brands unique and unto themselves, so were the corporate divisions.  There was a distinct difference between Ford and Mercury, and Dodge and Plymouth.  GM had a class pecking order too.  It went something like this— Cadillac/Buick/Oldsmobile/Pontiac/Chevrolet.  GMC Trucks was a step up from Chevrolet, but not by much.  Would you agree that was the pecking order at GM, especially if you were a GM family? 

If you were just starting out in adulthood, you drove a Ford.  In time, making a little more money, you drove a Mercury.  And, when you finally arrived in the big time as a division manager or vice president, you moved up to a Lincoln. 

There are legendary brands and generations that excited new car buyers and have held the imagination of generations.  The 1955-57 “shoebox” Chevrolets—the “Tri-Fives”—have long been hot collectibles.  Yet—did you know Ford outsold Chevrolet in 1957?  The ’57 Fords, though quite handsome, haven’t gained the notoriety of their Chevy counterparts in terms of collectability.  The sexy finned ’57 Chevrolet still stuns the masses 63 years later like no ’57 Ford or Plymouth ever has. 

Whenever we think of the cool street corner 1950s with cigarettes rolled up in shirt sleeves, leather jackets, and greasy kid stuff, the ’57 Chevy in all its forms comes immediately to mind along with the song “Runaway” by Del Shannon.  It was a great time to be young, attractive, popular, and hanging out with friends at your favorite cruising spot on a Saturday night.  For guys, it was cruisin’ for chicks.  For the ladies, it was flirting over a car hood to see who would try to pick you up.

No other place in the world knew and embraced the car culture like Los Angeles, California.  This was especially true right after World War II ended and it remains true today.  Angelinos love automobiles and they especially love being seen in cool cars.  The more striking the vehicle the better they like it.  Those native to Los Angeles knew great cruising spots like Van Nuys Boulevard, which seems to be the most legendary in Southern California.  Van Nuys isn’t the place to cruise anymore because it has become unsafe, but it was for a long time. 

The whole car culture phenomenon emerged from the vastness of Southern California where you could drive 100 miles and still be in Los Angeles.  Although it can be debated by many, cruising and drag racing were born here.  It was LA’s perfect climate of year-round sunshine that made cruising and drag racing favorite pastimes.  Enthusiasts hopped up their cars and just couldn’t get enough of it.  It is well documented the first official drag racing event happened in Santa Ana at an old shuttered Army base in July of 1950 according to Hot Rod Magazine Feature Editor, Tim Bernsau.  This makes drag racing official 70 years old.  Yet—real drag racers never grow old.

Robert “Pete” Petersen founded Hot Rod Magazine out of the trunk of an old jalopy and the car magazine was born.  Hot Rod grew to be very successful.  It birthed dozens of other types of car magazines and the culture flourished.  Other automotive publishers popped up all over the country, but primarily in Los Angeles.  Shows and racing events surely followed from coast to coast.  It was an exciting time to be alive and into cars.

Cruising and drag racing swept the country like an aggressive California wild fire.  The music.  The cars.  The clothing.  The attitude.  Main Street in dozens of communities across the land.  Small Town USA.  Drive-In burger joints.  Good food.  The ambiance of Americana—an element lost to the times.  We’re not what we were in 1960.  The good news is we have sweet wonderful memories.  Ideally, you were born in 1946 through the early 1950s and have the kind of memories witnessed in the great American movie classic “American Graffiti.”  Such was the way in 1962 as those first baby boomers came of age.  They wanted to cruise. 

As we came of age, automobiles became more exciting and more powerful.  That was the undoing of some of us.  A friend of mine was killed right in front of his house a Nova on a wild and crazy Saturday night horsing around.  There were others in my graduation year lost to tragic automobile accidents.  We remember this period as the muscle car era.  Chevelle, GTO, Roadrunners and GTX, Corvette, Mustang, Camaro, Firebird, AMC’s glorious two-seat AMX, the 426ci Hemi Cuda, Challenger, Olds 4-4-2, Buick GS and GSX, even the seemly vanilla Rambler Scrambler.  These were bad ass cars.  The more unusual your muscle car, the more attention it got at the local drive-in. 

We romanticize classic cars for their beauty and power—however, quality and efficiency have vastly improved since the middle of the 20th century.  Classic cars are always exciting in someone else’s garage.  Though they were easier to drive when we were younger, they can be challenging when you’ve cleared your 60th birthday.  I still have my ’67 Mustang high school car my mother gave me long ago.  I love the way it looks.  However, I’m not much on driving it anymore.  Why?  Because it’s darned uncomfortable.  Mom would agree…

Stuck In The Middle With…You?

I love Washington, D.C.

It was where I was born and raised.

I come from a long line of Washingtonians who’ve called Washington home and experienced this great city. I have ancestors who were members of The Oldest Inhabitants of the District. I love the District of Columbia for its awe inspiring beauty, charm, and the majesty of the many memorials honoring our founding fathers and those who’ve fought and died for the freedoms we take for granted. This is the greatness America has to offer in a nutshell despite its problems. Washington is very symbolic of who we are as a nation and certainly humbling.

That said – it’s time for a rant.

Do you ever feel like we’ve lost our way? And, do you find the two-party political system tiresome?  I find myself squarely in the middle—neither right nor left—or perhaps just a pinch of both. Some call this being “Progressive” or “Moderate.” Some might even call it being indecisive. Both parties have become decidedly disconnected from the average American. Each takes a lot for granted.

What has either party really done for you?

A far right buddy of mine said that if I wasn’t right nor left that I didn’t have an opinion.  Oh really?  Being neither right nor left doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion, it means I am free to have an independent viewpoint. I try to think outside the two-party box.  Being stuck in one mindset limits our potential. An open mind invites change and growth. As free Americans, we are free to question the judgment of our leaders. In fact, it is our responsibility to question our leaders. Have you reached out to your representative lately?

Do you even know who they are?

Best I can tell, America needs a third party—a party with staying power that can grow and and infuse positive change in our political system. An alternative political party that can make a real difference. A movement that can break this destructive cycle of political and special interest fueled by money instead of what’s good for the People.  Imagine a third party that’s a mix of liberal, conservative, and independent beliefs. 

Yes—really…

We really aren’t that far apart as free Americans. We just need to talk – with civility.  The system as it currently is isn’t serving the American People.

The current two-party system is broken. 

America need a neutralizer.  

Here’s something we should all be able to agree on – Our Veterans… Both parties have failed to honor and take care of our Veterans despite all the campaign rhetoric.  Politicians promise. Politicians forget – or choose to forget.  They’re elected and promptly disregard those who have fought and died for their freedom – and ours. Politicians have completely forgotten those who currently serve around the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Our greatest patriots sit in these forward positions wondering what happened. They wonder if anyone really cares about them.

It is a wonder anyone joins the military. It is becoming harder to recruit and retain good people because there’s no incentive to sign up. Our Veterans who have served valiantly continue to be left behind to sleep under bridges and in homeless shelters without the dignity of having served their country. The best example I can think of are Vietnam era Vets. No one has said thank you. We owe each and every one of them a better way of life and the respect they have surely earned.

Oh sure – it is easy to thank them for their service on the fly in the supermarket or in the mall. Helps us feel better about ourselves. That’s where it ends. What have any of us really done to serve our Veterans as they have served us?

Not much…

What does this say about us?

My grandfather was a Republican who had very little patience with the GOP.  He always said when Republicans were in power hard times came with them.  Except for the Reagan years, which were long on optimism and recovery, this has been proven consistently by the GOP.  Yet – my grandfather remained a Republican until he passed in 1966 a the age of 72. He was very committed to the party. He walked the walk of party loyalty.  I remain a Republican too, but can’t honestly tell you where I will be in a year.  My mother and the rest of the family were staunch FDR/Kennedy Democrats.  I grew up believing the GOP was the evil empire.  When the family learned I had become a Republican, it changed things considerably.

I liked Reagan – hence the switch.

Isn’t it something this crazy divide between left and right when we need to be unified and focused on just being free Americans?  The divide between the parties was never as bad as it is now.  Back in the day, the two political parties worked together even under the most difficult of circumstances. 

President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill knew how to sit down, kill a few beers, and come to a mutual agreement where both sides benefited. They had great respect for each other and wanted what was best for their country. These gentlemen understood the art of respectful disagreement and compromise.

Americans used to agree to disagree on the issues and remain civil.  As a rule, people just didn’t discuss politics. They just didn’t go there.  These days, disgruntled Americans who cannot agree take their marbles and go home—never to speak again. The divide has never been greater when what we need most is unity. Instead of concentrating on our differences and attacking one another’s character, why aren’t we focusing on what we have in common?

When I consider the great political divide, I recall the crash of an Eastern Air Lines Douglas DC-9 on approach to Charlotte in 1974.  Two professional airline pilots flew this Douglas jet into the ground on final approach.  Some 72 of the 82 on board were killed.  The NTSB’s crash investigation revealed the two pilots were involved in a heated political discussion and ignored the rate of descent and altitude.  The crash, which happened three miles short of the runway, ended their discussion and a lot of innocent human lives.  That’s how dangerous politics can get when people can’t keep it all in proper prospective. 

On Election Night of 2016, I knew we were in for the worst years of our lives because one party then had all of the power and was calling all the shots. I didn’t understand how far reaching the corruption would become. I see it now. There has been no one with the courage to police this corruption. This is how it works when one party is in charge and we’re void of a political watchdog.  This would have also been true had the Dems taken both houses and The White House.

Absolute power corrupts—absolutely—regardless of party. 

Power intoxicates. 

There have been horrendous abuses of power under the current administration and the Congress.  This is why a balance of power and operating with a true commitment to the American People is important.  This has been proven time and time again throughout American history.  The United States Congress has become something of a country club and a flop house in recent decades where modest income-earning newcomers are elected to the House and Senate and remain there for a career.   

Well, what the hell is that? 

Some stress the need for Term Limits, yet it’s like complaining about the weather.  Everyone complains, yet what can anyone do about it?  The logic against term limits is stability and having constant Congressional turnover. In theory, it limits corruption because it’s a short trip. It prevents excessive amounts of power and influence gained when a member of congress has been there a long time.  It would also limit the power of special interest.

Being a member of Congress was never intended to be a career. Our founding fathers viewed it as an opportunity to serve the country.  It should be done for honorable reasons and a real desire to serve.  A good example is the perks congressionals vote for themselves including outlandish pay increases and unlimited benefits. That isn’t serving, that’s taking.  Special interest adds insult to injury.  Term limits mean fresh ideas and new approaches instead of the same old complacency. When members hold the same seat for years, they get complacent and stagnant. 

Nothing gets done.

Fresh faces sport new ideas. 

It can be safely said voters dislike the increasing role money plays in our so-called democratic government. Money dictates the plan.  Congressionals feel the added pressure of raising campaign funds instead of serving the people.  The primary duty of any member of Congress is to serve the American People.  This isn’t happening today.  They’re only serving themselves.  Our president is only serving himself.

Is anyone in Washington really serving the American People?

The down side of Term Limits is it would actually limit the freedom of the people to continue to vote for elected representatives they want.  Voters develop a loyalty to a member of Congress they come to know over time.  Voters continue to re-elect the incumbent because no one likes the unknown.  We like what’s familiar.  Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham are but two examples as are Diane Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi.  All have had long standing careers in Congress.  They’ve served their constituents well.  However, it remains unclear just how well these folks are serving the American People—which is the primary reason why they were elected to begin with. I believe some of these people need to go.

We are stuck in a terrible rut despite all the rhetoric promoting the great job Washington believes it is doing.  It has failed to effectively lead and manage a horrible pandemic, which is only growing worse as I write this.  It is one thing to promote one’s self and quite another to actually do a great job.  Doing a great job involves a lot of hard work in the trenches serving those who elected you. And—without needing a constant pat on the back for doing the job you were elected to do.

Americans develop a loyalty to their representatives and want them to stay in office indefinitely, which is why incumbents get re-elected. The logic among voters is the longer you’re in office, the better you should become at doing the job. Voters don’t like the unknown.  Not all lawmakers can legitimately claim such success.  Some are just dead weight occupying a congressional seat who need to go.  

In theory, lawmakers on local, state and federal levels who have proven themselves effective leaders should not have their service cut short by term limits, which is why there will likely never be term limits.

When I was a boy, I listened to my parents hashing out the issues of the day—the Vietnam War, racial and gender inequality, poverty, the horror of Richard Nixon being elected to The White House (remember, they were staunch Dems), and landing on the Moon in 1969. Our greatness.  The issues my parents debated 50 years ago weren’t much different than the issues we’re facing now.  We still have two wars going in the Middle East (the longest in American history) no one talks about.  Racial and gender inequality remains a topic of discussion even though we elected a black man to the presidency in 2008. We still have systemic racism.  On Main Street, racial inequality remains a huge challenge.  The same can be said for income inequality for women.  Women still aren’t getting a fair shake.    

The Democratic Party, it suffered a horrible defeat in 2016—losing it all to the GOP and Donald Trump.  It can be safely said the GOP has become the party of Trump and will continue to be so in the fall when Americans vote.  The American People aren’t worn out enough yet.  My issue isn’t just with the GOP and Donald Trump, but also Congressional Dems, who aren’t earning their pay either.  I see Washington as a complete and total failure of government.      

We need the kind of spirit America had in the post war years when we were young, on the rise, and were hell-bent to do great things—like going to the Moon, building jumbo jets, and erecting the tallest buildings in the world in New York and Chicago.

Do you know what stopped us short?  Complacency…  We stopped rolling up our sleeves and doing the grunt work necessary to remain the greatest nation in the world.

We lifted…

As the late Pete Pastere, former editor of Popular Hotrodding and a friend of mine, once said – “Never Lift!” He knew what he was talking about because Pete never lifted, which was what made him great. Pete was killed tragically in a motorcycle accident nearly 30 years ago doing what he loved most.

Pete would strongly suggest we never stop reaching for greatness.  Never get off the throttle.  Keep on keeping on—only better.  The Dems are telling us to “Build Back Better!” Then by golly do it and stop talking about it. Do it.  Take the defeat of 2016 and turn it into greatness.

Don’t just talk greatness.  Be great.

We’ve all got to put the work in.

Remembering The Town Crier

In this age of cell phones and internet service, I recall the most basic form of mass communication back in the day—public address sirens.  These guys sounded the alarm from coast to coast in communities all over America.  One Baltimore area radio announcer (WBAL) called them “Baltimore’s sirens in the sky…”  These high on a pole screamers kept people informed.  They prompted attention.

Sirens have served a number of purposes—fire, Civil Defense, severe weather, earthquake, blast warnings, mine collapse, and even the Noon whistle some places.  Whenever Washington, D.C. civil authorities sounded Civil Defense sirens all over the National Capital Area, my mother always called them the “12 o’clock whistle…” even though they sounded at different times.  She didn’t quite understand it was a Civil Defense test, nothing more.    

The most common Civil Defense siren was the Federal Signal Thunderbolt 1000T. Whenever we think of a nuclear attack warning, the 1000T comes to mind. It made a creepy bizarre sound in the middle of a school day that roared across the treetops for miles. It was an even more unsettling sound when they shut it down and it wound down to a stop. If they cycled the 1000T on and off, it became almost unbearable. It roared up and down, echoing its powerful voice through a long horn. People would run for Civil Defense shelters just to get away from the roar of a Federal 1000T.

When you heard the 1000T, you knew it was important.

Where I grew up in Maryland, local volunteer fire departments had alert sirens high on poles or on top of buildings.  They sounded three times for fire and once for the rescue squad.  Each community had its own unique siren.  My hometown had a Federal 3T22 siren, which emitted a high/low tone.  There was a time when the siren failed and both pitches sounded at the same time to produce a harmony.  They repaired the 3T22 and it was back to the familiar comforting high/low tone.  We could all sleep better.

There was nothing quite like hearing this siren blow at 2 a.m.  You knew someone was in big trouble in the middle of the night.  If it blew three times, even bigger trouble.  I will never forget the morning we had a fire in our home.  Nothing quite like hearing the 3T22 – knowing they were coming to your house. As my father and I fought the fire and choked on the smoke, the roar of those Detroit diesel-powered pumpers coming up the street was comforting. Bowie’s Company 39, and that 3T22, saved many a life and property. We can all be grateful for their service.

I’ve also lived in the Midwest where tornado warnings were announced by a collection of different sirens that created a bizarre harmony across the community.  Every once in a great while, authorities tested these sirens.  That got everyone in a panic.  Such is life in the heartland with its very unpredictable weather patterns. I recall a YouTube video where a Pampa, Texas tornado took out one of the warning sirens.

Talk about shooting the messenger?

Electronics has taken all the fun out of the siren song.  I recall sitting in my bedroom at age 7 back in 1964 listening to firefighters horsing around with the newfound bark of an electronic ambulance siren behind our apartment complex.  I couldn’t imagine what on earth that sound was.  It didn’t sound like a siren.  They played all of the different settings.  In time, that electronic “yelp” became routine.

I can remember the thrill of Federal Signal “Q2B” blower sirens on the front bumper of firetrucks.  We’ve all heard it. Federal Signal still makes it.  It is a huge centrifugal blower with choppers and orifices that let out a scream you could hear in China.  Federal Signal, manufacturer of all sorts of warning sirens, designed this puppy to make at least 123 db, which could be heard above all else, including your Bose sound system. There’s no way you wouldn’t hear it above Led Zeppelin.   The Q2B is so effective it has never fallen from grace.  It makes an incredible amount of noise.

Noise to some.  A symphony to others – like firefighters.

Alert sirens became white noise in the background for a lot of communities.  We heard them as we got about our business.  The 3T22 in my hometown became an old friend.  If you were in the shopping mall parking lot where this siren was behind the firehouse, it was startling and attention getting whenever it blew.  I’d stand there in front of the bowling alley and listen to its voice.  I’d hyperfocus on it as it wound down to a stop. 

It was an awe-inspiring sound.

Today, that old 3T22 screamer remains atop a wooden pole some 30 feet in the air full of birds’ nests and other debris. Its bright yellow finish has been bleached away by the elements over time.  It hasn’t sounded in decades—yet there it remains.  It is impossible for any of us native to the suburban Washington community of Bowie, Maryland to imagine Company 39 without that siren.  It became a familiar voice that accompanied us the whole time we were growing up. I’d come home for a visit from the Air Force and hear the 3T22, signaling memories that would remain forever.

Sirens remain a distant memory we would welcome hearing decades later.