Rich Wilhelm

Archive for February, 2016|Monthly archive page

Kids Take You Places

In fatherhood, parenting, Uncategorized on February 28, 2016 at 1:35 pm


Kids take you places. If you’re any kind of decent parent, you go along for the ride.

Yesterday, Chris and I visited the ruined pump house that was part of Phoenixville’s once-thriving iron industry. Left to my own devices, I might have spent those early morning hours at home, but Chris was insistent that he needed footage of this particular industrial relic for a video he planned to make that day. So we went out for a chilly walk, took each other’s pictures in the ruin, and were back home by 9:00.

I’ve been along for the ride (even though I am, of course, the driver) for many of Chris’ excursions recently. Yesterday, it was Phoenixville’s lost industrial field; last week, it was the Very Best Restaurant on Pottstown’s main drag. Chris’ quirky interest in retail spaces has led us to visit several area shopping malls. Not to shop, mind you, but to study the architecture and aesthetics of the places. Chris and I talk during these trips about why people don’t shop in enclosed malls as much as they used to, and why Radio Shack closed most of its stores, and what led to the demise of Deb Shops. These are topics I never would have thought of on my own. In his way, Chris is getting his dad to think more deeply and broadly at the same time, an impressive feat for a 13-year-old kid.

Of course, being along for these kinds of rides did not start with Chris. Chris has an older brother, Jimmy. Practically from the moment Jimmy was born–with the surgeon singing Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open” in the operating room–he’s been leading me down all kinds of paths, and I’ve been happy to be along for the ride.

Like a lot of kids, Jimmy became enamored of professional wrestling. This is something that I always managed to avoid, even during the glory days of Lou Albano and Hulk Hogan back in the 1980s. But Jimmy’s love for it was irresistible, to the point that I happily took him to a couple of the big WWE events, where I finally gave in to the sheer ridiculousness of it all for myself.

The best WWE moments that Jim and I had together though, were the trips we took to George’s Collectibles, up in Levittown, to meet pro wrestlers, including the very cool Steve Blackman. We made three such trips, building time into those Saturday mornings for me to drive the extra 30 minutes or so to Princeton, New Jersey. There, on one of those Saturdays, Jimmy and I got completely drenched with pummeling rain while running around Princeton Cemetery to catch the gravesites of Aaron Burr and Grover Cleveland. Then we headed back to George’s to meet the wrestlers. Combining my love of old cemeteries with Jimmy’s WWE  obsession was clearly one of the best father/son bonding experiences ever.

More recently, I was literally along for the ride when I taught Jimmy how to drive. Again, this led me down mental paths I’d never known, since it had never occurred to me that I had it in me to teach someone to drive, even though I’ve been driving for decades. But that’s not all. While Jimmy was driving around, I let him pick the music we’d listen to. He inevitably picked this Kanye West mix that he made for himself, but also to educate me on Kanye’s work. Hearing the man’s music has given me a wider perspective on Kanye West and, while I still think he says lots and lots of jerky things, I’m not going to fall as easily into a knee-jerk middle-aged “hey-kid-get-off-my-lawn” guy reaction to All Things Kanye as I might have if Jim had not made sure I listened to the music.

These days, Jimmy is in the second half of his senior year in high school, and he’s got his mom and me along for the ride again. This ride could very literally lead us to the very same college dormitory that I led my parents to back in the fall of 1983. As this process unfolds, what Donna and I are learning is the gradual art of letting go, as Jimmy begins to move forward with his life.

I am learning now that letting go and letting kids grow up is tough, but it is the ultimate goal of parenting. Fortunately, if you’ve done it right, your kids might just let you occasionally come along for their rides into young adulthood and beyond. As long as I’m around, I’ll continue to enjoy coming along for any rides in which Jimmy and Chris care to include me.



Bono at WaWa

In FB status poetry, U2, Uncategorized, WaWa on February 27, 2016 at 12:21 pm




I walked into WaWa

earlier today.

Bono was warbling over WaWa Radio

that he still had not found what he was looking for.

I thought to myself:

“O, Bono!

How can you be in a WaWa

and not find what you’re looking for?”

The Somewhat Better

In journal, journal keeping, not quite Walden, Philosophy/Creativity on February 21, 2016 at 12:38 pm


For the third Sunday morning in a row, my dog Jolie has assured that I am wide awake far ahead of the rest of my family, giving me some time to sit down and type a few words. If Jolie is any indication, I should have this early Sunday morning time slot available for months to follow.

When I started this new set of entries/essays/whatever, the idea was to distill some of the wisdom that I’d woven oh-so-poetically into the prior week’s worth of daily journal entries. The conundrum is when the daily entries become every-couple-day’s entries, largely devoid of anything approaching coherence, let alone wisdom. This problem is amplified when one of the few daily entries has the word COMPLACENCY splattered across it:


Now, granted, I stuck the Star Wars guy–though I’m thinking he’s a bad guy–there to slay my complacency with his light saber, but still…complacency. I also wrote the word INERTIA in large letters on the same page.

The fact is, complacency and inertia have played huge roles in my life recently. But I’m working on it. I am working on the Somewhat Better version of myself.

Some of you might think that going for Somewhat Better isn’t very ambitious. That maybe I should go for Very Best, like the owners of the restaurant my son Chris and I visited in Pottstown, Pennsylvania yesterday morning. The Very Best restaurant recently closed its doors but it existed for nearly 100 years in Pottstown. It seems safe to say that the Very Best would not have lasted that long if it had been called the Somewhat Better.

People, though, are not restaurants.

Don’t get me wrong: striving for personal excellence is a wonderful thing. This kind of striving has inspired all manner of astounding human accomplishment in the arts, sciences, sports and elsewhere. Unfortunately, it has also inspired every inane striving-for-my-Very-Best coronation song that American Idol winners have sung, as well as other entities and events even more heinous than those songs but that does not dilute my point: striving for Very Best can be a good thing.

Me though? I am sticking with Somewhat Better. At least for now. The reason for this is simple: Somewhat Better gives me goals I can see, not too far ahead of me. Destinations I can reach, and then perhaps move beyond.

I will be honest here, without getting bogged down in detail: I do not feel that I have been Very Best–in any particular area of my life–for years. In short, I have fallen short.

Lately though, I’ve realized that falling short hasn’t necessarily been the problem. The problem is the effect that falling short has had on my confidence and on my ability to fight back against a nagging complacency that has settled in around me. Sadly, I’ve often directed the frustration that this has caused me in the wrong directions. In a sense, I’ve often used a passive-aggressive version of the Dark Side of the Force to combat this dilemma and therein lies my problem. It’s all been in my approach.

Now, though, I feel like I’ve turned a corner. I’ve been attempting to confront the demons, such as they are, with a lighter touch. Instead of letting the anger and frustration calcify into rage and despair, I’ve tried to tap into the happier undercurrent of my life, which has been there all along. Maybe replacing a Star Wars bad guy with a Star Wars good guy to tackle the complacency and inertia.

I am talking about the time I spend, individually and collectively, with my wife and two sons, as well as other family members and friends. The strolls through Laurel Hill Cemetery and, occasionally, other places that inspire me. The time spent sipping coffee, listening to Trini Lopez Live at PJs and Three Dog Night–Their Greatest Hits, and tapping out these thoughts in this messy room on this late February morning.

So many great little moments happen in our lives and it is up to us to appreciate them. Cherish these moments, both monumental and tiny, for their very existence. At the same time, realize that it is the positive, life-affirming moments that give us the strength to tackle, in a positive way, the central challenge of life: not necessarily to be Very Best, but to gradually be Somewhat Better.

That’s about all the wisdom I’ve got for today. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it is early yet and I have a bit of Somewhat Bettering to do before the day is done.




In 1980s, high school, nerdism, nerds on February 14, 2016 at 1:12 pm



I woke up thinking about nerds on this very cold Valentine’s Day in Pennsylvania. This has nothing to do with my romantic life per se. I just woke up thinking about nerds.

It all started late one evening last week. I caught the end of the 1984 movie, Revenge of the Nerds. I first saw this cinematic masterwork in a theater, with a couple of my nerdish friends, within a week or so of its original release. Hell, we may have seen it opening night.

I suppose we thought that the [SPOILER ALERT!] ultimate triumph of the goodhearted nerds over the mindless, evil, social-climbing prep jocks was a validation of our nerdish existence, and maybe we were right about that. In many ways though, Revenge of the Nerds is not an easy movie to watch in 2016. It is awash in ethnic, racial and sexual stereotypes. Not only that, the scene in which the main nerd uses the mask he is wearing to trick the main jock’s girlfriend to have sex with him in a moon bounce is seriously uncool, even if it all works out OK in the end.

Of course, all of that is looking at a 1984 movie through the lens of 2016 sensibilities and I am not really interested in a debate about whether current standards should be applied to any sort of art (including Revenge of the Nerds) from the past. Besides, I betcha the whole plot and cast of characters from the movie was stolen from Shakespeare anyway.

The movie did get me thinking about my high school friends–who shall remain nameless here, but should they happen to stumble upon this, they know who they are. We clearly were living on the fringes of high school society, or so we thought. This, despite the fact that we were all Caucasian, straight (as far as I knew) males. But this is not really surprising: while nerds comprise all races, ethnicities and orientations today, a certain strain of straight while males were clearly the nerdiest of the nerds in early 1980s teen culture, despite the more diverse (but stereotyped) cast in Revenge of the Nerds.

I realize that I am basing this on my very limited experience. Clearly there were black nerds, Asian nerds, girl nerds, gay nerds and all other manner of nerds populating high schools in 1982. It’s just that I knew what I knew at the time and, in retrospect, what I knew was pretty damned limited.

As for my friends and me: we played Risk while listening to Rush. The epic Moving Pictures and its new wave-influenced follow-up Signals were the big Rush studio albums of my high school days, but it was the live album, Exit…Stage Left, that seemed to be the most common Risk soundtrack. Because it rocked.

Of course, there was that sleep-over that happened not long after one of my nerd friends had fallen in love. He thus made us listen to the three hit songs–“Lost in Love,” “All Out of Love,” and “Every Woman In the World”–from Air Supply’s first big album over and over again. But he wouldn’t listen to the rest of the album, which is why I am still not conversant on what the best Air Supply deep album tracks are.

We played Dungeons and Dragons as well, or at least some of us did. There was another fantasy game that took hold of as well. I think it might have been called Ysgarth, or something like that, and it was one step beyond D&D.

I was never fully enmeshed in the fantasy game scene–even as a teenager, I found actual reality surreal enough, thank you very much–but I was there sometimes when the games were being played. I was not a huge Rush fan–the new waver in my kept the prog rocker in me at bay–but I was there when we were listening to the Rush records.

But it wasn’t as if I was simply a nerd-by-association. I could recite the names of all the U.S. presidents by the time I was seven years old. The graveyard obsession that has ultimately led me to become a cemetery tour guide followed shortly thereafter.

So yes, I was a nerd. Or a geek, or a dork. I know there are subtle differences among those three words, but it’s all just semantics. My friends were nerds too, though looking back, we each approached nerdism in our own specific way. Just like every single kid, before and since, has approached the development of their own personalities in the sometimes harsh world of high school society. My friends and I were fortunate in that we were able to work through the nerdishness–which, let’s face it, is really just code for “being true to oneself”–and emerge unscathed. Sadly, we all know that is not always the case, which is perhaps a topic for another time.


Searching for My Walden

In Henry David Thoreau, journal, journal keeping, not quite Walden, Philosophy/Creativity, Uncategorized, Walden, Writing on February 7, 2016 at 12:28 pm


Early, oh so early, on a Sunday morning. I have walked the dog and she is snuggling in our bed now with my sleeping wife. One kid is sound asleep in his room. The other is presumably sound asleep as well, though not at home this morning. He is hanging with friends at the college campus he will call home come this fall. Even through the clangorous din of a new wave album that I’m listening to through headphones, I can feel the Sunday morning quiet.

I could have gone back to bed after Jolie and I returned from her walk, but I like this time on Sunday mornings–at least those Sundays when I don’t wake up feeling anxious. This was not really one of those fretful days. Or maybe it was, and I turned it around by putting a pen to paper and fingers to a laptop keyboard.

I am searching for my Walden. Yes, I am referring to Henry David Thoreau’s classic book, beloved and despised both in its time and now. No, I am not comparing myself, at least not in any more than one way, with Mr. Thoreau.

Henry and I do share one very important trait though. At heart, we are both journal-ists.

Not journalist, as in my major in college. Journal-ist, as in lifelong keepers of personal journals.

I started keeping a journal around 1980. Within a year or so, I had gotten serious about it–all thanks to Valerie Shulman, my 11th grade English teacher. I have been writing, with varying degrees of frequency, in my journal ever since. At this point, I have been keeping a journal longer than Thoreau did, due to his ill-health and early demise. He was more dedicated to it though and, of course, his journal is the foundation of canonical works of American literature. I, on the other hand, am eternally distracted by any number of things, most of which Henry would have surely disapproved.

However, I recently found a old ten-inch record containing the self-help exhortations of one Earl Nightingale, giving listeners “The Strangest Secret.” I picked up the record and turned its front and back cover into my latest journal notebook:IMG_0812

I still haven’t gotten around to discovering what “The Strangest Secret” is, but making the notebook has inspired me to get back to writing daily one-page entries, which I’ve been doing since January 22. I’m trying to incorporate some art into the journal too, basically because I like colored pencils very much and what they say about the current “adult coloring” trend is true: I find spreading color across a page to be very calming.

This latest spike in my journal-keeping is something that I am doing for myself. Keeping a journal, and trying to be consistent about it, is a process that I find personally helpful, and I also want to make sure that I have a decent record of this era of my life once I get a little older. In recent years, I have occasionally turned to my old journals to confirm the details of certain long-past life events and I’d like to be able to do that for these days as well.

So, this is for me. And yet, I know that Thoreau crafted much of his work–including Walden–from his journals. I have always been intrigued by the concept of a journal as a mine for more fully-formed works. I figure, with 30+ years of journal-keeping behind me, I’ve got some kind of Walden in those pages somewhere. Again, I am NOT comparing myself to Henry and his work, other than to note that he pulled from his journals to create essays and books and that I’d like to do that as well.

Of course, one way to accomplish that would be to craft blog entries–on some kind of semi-regular basis–that find their roots somewhere in my journals. These days, I make no such solid promises. But, given more quiet Sunday mornings, who knows what could happen?



Happy Birthday Mr. Burlison (My Greatest Rock’n’Roll Moment)

In Uncategorized on February 4, 2016 at 5:37 pm


My greatest rock’n’roll moment–greater than when I walked Debbie Harry to her car and greater than when I told Robert Hazard how much his song “Escalator of Life” meant to me when I was in high school–happened when I met Paul Burlison on a train bound from Philadelphia to New Carrollton, Maryland. My good friend Ed Whitelock once requested that I tell this story and, like an aspiring lounge singer hoping to make it to one of the “big rooms” in Vegas, I take requests. Here’s my story.

First of all, Paul Burlison is the man who played guitar on the early rock’n’roll masterpiece, “Train Kept A-Rollin'” by the Johnny Burnette Trio (I believe they were originally called the Rock’n’Roll Trio, but the compilation that I have is credited to the Johnny Burnette Trio). This song is frequently cited as the first song in which feedback is intentionally used as part of the sound of the song.

It was a Saturday morning, March 26, 1988. It was my last semester of college at Temple University. I was pretty burned out on college at the time, in part because I had been robbed at gunpoint just before Christmas but also because I just wanted the whole education thing to be done at that point, even though I didn’t exactly have a clear idea what I was going to do once I graduated.

Probably because of the frame of mind I was in at the time, I was enjoying my Saturday morning acting class that semester far more than the class I was taking in my major, a magazine editing class. On that particular Saturday, I had headed from Temple’s Center City campus to the train station, where I boarded the 1:47 Amtrak headed south to go to my friend Greg’s parents’ house, where a bunch of us were headed for his 21st birthday. Everyone else was already there, but because of my class, I was taking the train trip on my own.

As I walked through the crowded train cars, I was wearing a t-shirt that featured the cover of Elvis Presley’s first album. This is the iconic image of Elvis with an accoustic guitar and the words “Elvis Presley” in pink and green. If you don’t know it, maybe you know the cover of the Clash’s London Calling, which replicates the look of the Elvis album. The t-shirt attracted the notice of a middle-aged man sitting in an aisle seat who called out to me as I passed by him, “You know, this is the man who drummed for Elvis.”

I’m not sure if I realized at first that he was talking to me, but within a second or two I did and swung around to see who was speaking to me. It was Paul Burlison, who was soon introducing me to D.J. Fontana, the drummer who played on nearly all of Elvis Presley’s recordings once he left Sun for RCA. As other travelers squeezed by me, Burlison offered me the unoccupied seat next to him and I immediately accepted.

Once I sat down, Burlison told me that he was now playing in a band called the Sun Rhythm Section. The band was made up of Burlison and Fontana, along with Sonny Burgess, Jerry Lee “Smoochy” Smith, Marcus Van Story and Stan Kessler. Collectively these six guys were a living, breathing textbook of the thriving rock’n’roll scene happening in Memphis in the 1950s and early ’60s. Sonny Burgess and Marcus Van Story both recorded at Sun. Stan Kessler wrote “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone,” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” both of which were recorded by Elvis at Sun; Kessler later went on to produce “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs. Smoochy Smith, in addtion to having rockabilly roots and an amusing nickname, played keyboards on the Mar-Keys’ classic instrumental, “Last Night,” which was one of the first big hits for Stax Records.

(Oddly enough, this might very well have been my second encounter with D.J. Fontana that month. I had been in Memphis on spring break just two weeks before and when I was crossing the street in front of Graceland, a car drove by with a license plate that read DJFONTAN.)

The Sun Rhythm Section had played in New York City the night before and was headed to Richmond for a gig. And, for a little while, I was riding along with them, as the Amtrak train kept a-rollin’ through Pennsylvania, Delaware and into Maryland. Burlison was happy to talk about his experiences playing rock’n’roll in the ’50s, though, to be honest, while I was familiar with “Train Kept a-Rollin’,” I didn’t know that the name of the guy who played guitar on it was Paul Burlison until I found myself sitting on a train with him.

The band had an album out at the time called Old Time Rock’n’Roll (see photo above) and they sold me a copy at the Poor College Student discount and then they passed it from seat to seat so that each of them could sign it. At some point Burlison, Fontana and Kessler went to the diner car to get a drink and they invited me along. I probably asked Fontana about Presley, but I don’t remember him saying much. All of them were very nice to me though and seemed to appreciate that a younger person was taking an interest in their music.


Eventually, I reached New Carrollton and had to say goodbye to the Sun Rhythm Section. I was bursting to tell my friends about the amazing train ride I had just taken, but when I got to Greg’s mom and dad’s house, it was to find a gloomy group of friends who had just watched Temple’s basketball team lose a tough March Madness game to Duke (probably the most heartbreaking game of that era in Temple basketball). My babbling about Paul Burlison, D.J. Fontana and company was greeted with somewhat muted enthusiasm.

No matter though. I had met legends of rock’n’roll and I had the autographed album to prove it.

Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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