Rich Wilhelm

Archive for the ‘memoir’ Category

HooplaThon Day 4: Starship Versus a Nap. Starship Wins!

In 1985, memoir, Music/Memory on September 15, 2016 at 1:06 am
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HooplaThon Day 4 HooplaMeter: The Hoopla is beginning to feel like quicksand.

Back on Day 1 of this adventure, I noted that one of the reasons I was launching this Starship enterprise was to battle back my recent instinct to take an early evening nap, from which I subsequently wake up at midnight and can’t get back to sleep.

Tonight is one of those nights. The sleepy siren songs are calling me, and yet Starship is calling me louder, telling me that you can’t build a city on rock’n’roll–or any other foundation really–if you’re sound asleep before your 14-year-old kid is, and then wide away in the wee small hours. So here I am, freestyling it. That’s right–it’s straight from my brain to the keyboard tonight.

The thing about Starship and “We Built This City” and Knee Deep in the Hoopla, is that there really is so much to say about it all. It’s all about what constitutes bad music, what good versus bad taste is, what the ’80s were like and how bands that started in the ’60s coped with being middle-aged rock stars in the era of Prince, Madonna and Michael.

It’s about synthesizers and power ballads; selling out and buying in; the meaning of “hoopla” then and now; ironic listening. It’s about Marconi and mambas.

So, OK, let’s start with those mambas. You’d think Marconi would be playing a “mambo,” but it sure as hell sounds like Mickey and Grace are singing “mamba.”

Thanks to my dad, I know a thing or two about mambas. I know that there are green mambas and there are black mambas.

And, again, all thanks to Dad, I know that the black mamba is the most poisonous snake on earth. Even more poisonous than the cobra.

This is the kind of information Dad was prepared to offer anytime, anywhere. I think he would most often talk about mambas when we were walking through the reptile house at the Philadelphia Zoo, but I have a feeling that there were random moments throughout my childhood when Dad would discourse on the awesome, overwhelmingly venomous, way-more-deadly-than-the-cobra great black mamba.

So, oddly, when I hear “We Built This City,” I think of Dad. I have no idea what Dad thought of the song but I can almost hear him exclaim, “What the hell is Marconi messing with a mamba for? Doesn’t he know how freakin’ deadly they are?”

I’ve been thinking about Dad this week anyway. I always do when I drive his Jeep, which I’ve been doing this week. The radio/CD play doesn’t work–even when Dad was with us, he claimed the CD player only worked when the temperature was plus or minus two degrees of some number. When it did work, the only CD he listened to in the Jeep was Led Zeppelin Live at the BBC. And maybe the Ry Cooder film music compilation. But definitely not Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

Anyway, I’ll listen to my portable CD player sometimes in the Jeep, but there are times when the silent commute is nice. Contemplative. Except this week, all I can contemplate is Starship. “We Built This City.” Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

I’m working on theories about all this. “Looking for clues,” as the late, great Robert Palmer once noted, though I doubt that Starship was among his concerns.

There is some kind of unifying theory that explains “We Built This City” and Knee Deep in the Hoopla. And one of these nights, during this HooplaThon, I’m going to crack that code. It’s not looking good for me revealing any of my revelations tonight, but soon. It’s all going to happen. Nothing’s going to stop me now. Because I’m layin’ it on the line and it’s not over ’til it’s over. But for tonight, it’s over.

As always, I’d like to thank my sponsor for the HooplaThon, Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!

 

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A Tale of Two Rock Shows

In 1980s, 1982, 1983, concerts, high school, memoir, Music/Memory, R.E.M., Uncategorized on August 21, 2016 at 12:46 pm
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Blondie, JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, August 21, 1982

This is a tale of two rock shows that happened almost exactly one year apart, back in the days when every kid in the Philadelphia area knew that the words “JFK Jam” were an invitation to a rockin’ good time. The anniversary of each of these shows is this weekend, so I thought I’d take a moment now to remember them. Starting with…

August 21, 1982

This was the line-up for the first of five shows I attended at the crumbling JFK Stadium during the 1980’s:

  • Robert Hazard and the Heroes
  • A Flock of Seagulls
  • Blondie
  • Elvis Costello and the Attractions
  • Genesis

I don’t remember when I first heard about this show. It was, however, exactly from that moment that I knew I would be there, no matter what. The third act on the bill was my motivation. I was going to see Blondie, my favorite band at the time, at any cost. It had to happen.

Making this crazy rock’n’roll dream of mine a reality wasn’t as easy as it sounds, but it turned out to not be that hard either. I don’t remember my parents putting up much resistance, even though this was the first big rock show I was planning on attending. I rounded up a posse of five and tickets were purchased, though I don’t remember where or how. I wasn’t driving yet, but one of the five was, so I felt safe in the all-important question of How Will We Get There?

The thing is, back then, you could never really feel safe in the all-important question of How Will We Get There?, at least not until you’re there. At some point, our driver informed me that he wasn’t going to the show. There may have been extenuating circumstances, but the way I remember it, he had decided that he just didn’t feel like going. In any event, the whole venture was now in peril.

The fix was easy enough: one of the other of the five of us had an older brother who could go to the concert and drive us. In the end, this worked, though it turned out to be a drama-inducing solution that ended with us having to leave before Genesis was through with their awesome light show/concert, as well as with our driver tossing his brother out of the car after we arrived at our meeting place ten minutes late.

But this isn’t a story of my steely determination and Machiavellian machinations to be in the presence of Deborah Harry. Well, now that I think of it, it is kind of that story, but we’re going to move along with the show itself.

We arrived at JFK to a scene of general depravity the likes of which I had only witnessed once when I stood outside a Yes concert after leaving a Phillies game. It was only around 2:00 in the afternoon, but clearly some of  concertgoers that we encountered immediately upon entering the stadium had already partied way too much. I remember suddenly wondering if coming out to this huge rock show was such a good idea after all.

We missed the opening set by local legends Robert Hazard and the Heroes, thereby missing our chance to see the band perform the epic, “Escalator of Life” in front of a festival crowd. Years later, I met Hazard and told him that “Escalator of Life” loomed large in my high school musical memories. He often heard that, he replied. He seemed pleased with this knowledge, but I didn’t get to hear him play “Escalator of Life” that night either.

We hit the stands just as A Flock of Seagulls were wrapping up a short set. Even as that ghostly final guitar chord of the Seagulls’ hit, “I Ran (So Far Away)” echoed throughout JFK and floating away into the South Philly sky, I was anticipating the upcoming appearance of Blondie.

My patience was eventually rewarded and I am sure I greeted Blondie with rapturous applause. I don’t remember if the rest of the audience matched my enthusiasm, seeing as the crowd was baking in the late August afternoon sun, but I was there, my favorite band was there, and all was right in my world at that moment.

Blondie did not disappoint, delivering a performance that Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Ken Tucker described as “peppy,” despite that fact that the band was touring behind its tepid album The Hunter, which had long since flopped by the time the band hit the JFK stage. I certainly enjoyed the show, maybe even more than the band itself: at some point after their JFK performance, Blondie canceled the rest of their tour, essentially fell apart, and never played again in their classic line-up.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions were up next and, wow, did they ever perform that day. It was Ken Tucker’s opinion that Costello and company won the day with their set and, Blondie bias aside, I can’t disagree. I remember being compelled by Costello, even when he and the band weren’t playing a song that was immediately familiar to me.

Decades later, I discovered that someone had videotaped the Attractions’ show that day. At least 17 videos from the performance (along with a few from Genesis’ show later that evening) are now in YouTube. Here is one of them, Elvis & the Attractions opening their show with “Accidents Will Happen.”

 

As for Genesis, well, Genesis was Genesis. I’ve never loved Genesis, and Genesis was not my reason for being at JFK that day. At the same time, I’ve also never hated Genesis and this was just before that period in the ’80s when you couldn’t trip over a radio without hearing a Genesis/Phil Collins song. In short it was a good time to see Genesis. It was the new wavishly Abacab period of Genesis and I could easily get behind that. If you’ve ever heard the band’s Three Side Live album, you’ve heard exactly how Genesis sounded at JFK on August 21, 1982. All you’re missing is the wicked awesome light show.

Oh, also “Supper’s Ready.” You’re missing “Supper’s Ready,” the early, lengthy epic that Phil and the boys played at JFK that night. The thrilled exclamations among hardcore Genesis fans when the band launched in “Supper’s Ready” were a joy to hear, let me tell you.

Finally, a post script on the photo of Blondie that appears at the top of this entry. I did not take this photo. I took the “no cameras” policy of ’80s rock concerts very seriously! It was years later, when I was working as a media services guy at a local college, when I found this picture in a stack of photos from past student events. It was the only photo from the JFK show in the stack, but I recognized the event immediately and snatched up the photo.

August 20, 1983

So there you have it. A JFK jam, circa August 1982. I started my senior year of high school, Blondie and Costello songs still rattling around in my brain, soon thereafter. Nearly one year later, on August 20, 1983, I reentered JFK and this is who I found:

  • R.E.M.
  • Madness
  • Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
  • Police

This show was much different for me than the one just a year before. For one thing, there was no drama, aside from the fact that, again, one of the guys who was going to go, suddenly could not. That was certainly not cool, but my other friend and I did go. We found ourselves at a show that seemed much more organized, and much less decadent, than the previous year’s JFK Jam. But maybe I just just slightly more used to the big rock concert scene by then.

This was one efficient rock show. Started at noon, ended by 6:00. Everyone was home long before sunset. I am not sure if it was the Police’s Sting who demanded such efficiency, but if so, he got it.

Speaking of Sting, he remarked about the weather that day, “It is 98 degrees. That is the temperature of blood.” Could he have possible said something more Stinglike? I think not.

All of the performances rocked that day. Madness was all kinds of good fun; Joan Jett rocked hard, just as she continues to do; and the Police were riding high on Synchronicity. But, for me, the day turned out to be all about the “breakfast act,” R.E.M.

R.E.M. had released their debut album, Murmur, earlier that year; in fact, it was released–to much eventual critical acclaim–the exact week of my senior prom. I wasn’t fully clued into the band at the moment Berry Buck Mills and Stipe hit the JFK stage that afternoon. I don’t even remember if I owned Murmur at the point. I think I did, but still hadn’t full delved into it. But R.E.M. at JFK won me over, utterly and completely. When I entered college two weeks later, I was the archetypal–to use a word the Jung-loving Sting would appreciate–college kid R.E.M. fan. And I suppose I have been ever since.

But that was then, and this is now, the present. The present is all about my son Jimmy, just days away from starting college; and my son Chris, who is headed into high school, but who right at this moment, mostly just wishes I’d go grab him some breakfast. Therefore, now is about a quick trip to the supermarket for donuts, as well as dog food for Jolie, who also wishes I’d grab her breakfast. Now is about now, and not about the long-since-demolished JFK, back when it was just crumbling in ’82 or ’83. But don’t be surprised to find me humming some tunes from those long ago JFK Jams as I negotiate my way through now. Because, generally speaking, they’re still damn good tunes.

 

 

 

“The Night Juice Newton Waved to Me” and Other Juice Newton Stories

In 1980s, 1983, Cheap Red Wine, country music, family, Juice Newton, memoir, Music/Memory on July 30, 2016 at 11:41 am

I was reminded early this morning that I have several Juice Newton stories. Everybody knows that I once walked Debbie Harry to her car, but did you know that Juice Newton once waved to me?

Way back in 2009, I recorded the video shown above. It was the first official episode of my now-dormant “Cheap Red Wine” video series, and it was about the night Juice Newton waved to me. Not to my dad. To me.

Here is the basic story, though you are welcome to watch the video. It was a September night in 1983. Our family had gone to see country music superstars Alabama at Philadelphia’s Spectrum. Juice was one of the opening acts. At one point during the show, I screamed “JUICE!!!!” and she looked up in our general direction. She waved, presumably to me, though in subsequent years, Dad would humorously note that it was actually him to whom Juice Newton waved.

Later that evening I happily purchased a “Juice on the Loose!” t-shirt.

So, that’s one Juice Newton story. But there are several more.

Like the time I was in church more than 30 years ago and the priest brought Juice Newton into his sermon, citing Brenda Lee’s “Break It To Me Gently,” but noting that Juice Newton’s more recent version was pretty darn good and we ought to check it out. I think the point of the sermon was that Jesus never broke anything to anybody gently, but my  takeaway was that there was at least one priest in the world who listened to Juice Newton, and that had to be a good thing.

Then there was that time in college. I was sitting with friends in the dorm cafeteria when another friend, Ed Masley, bounded in, as only Ed can bound. He was wearing a Juice Newton t-shirt (the “Juice on the Loose” edition? I don’t think so.) and extolling the virtues of a Juice Newtown show he had just seen, I think at the now-long-gone Valley Forge Music Fair.

Years later, Juice played a show at a water park, right here in Phoenixville. I strongly considered going, but it was 2003, the summer Dad was sick and ultimately, my heart wasn’t into going to a concert, especially since Dad wouldn’t be able to go. But if you watch the video, you’ll see that I invited Juice to come back to Phoenixville anytime. I promised Juice that I’d personally attract big crowds to the Colonial Theater, should she want to perform there. That offer stands, as long as the Colonial is OK with it.

As for the “Cheap Red Wine” video, my late friend Tommy loved it, and told me so. He particularly liked how I demonstrated the way I yelled “JUICE!!!!” at the Spectrum that night so long ago.

A few months before Tommy died of cancer, I sent him some of my Really Cool Notebooks, which are made from old record album covers. One of the notebooks was made from a Juice Newton album cover, and he told me in a thank you note that when he opened it and saw a “JUICE!!!!” notebook, he smiled and actually laughed, for the first time in months. Imagining the moment Tommy — who I never met in real life — opened that package, found the Juice Newton notebook, and smiled and laughed is something that has always made me glad I got to know Tommy to the extent that I did. We touched each other’s lives, if only for a few years, and Juice Newton played a part in that.

So those are my Juice Newton stories. Do you have any?

 

 

“Don’t Go To The Malls!!” A Record Store Day Tribute to Sounds of Market

In 1980s, Friendship, memoir, Music/Memory, record collecting, Record Store Day, record stores, records on April 16, 2016 at 11:16 am

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Today is Record Store Day 2016. To celebrate, I may stop by Deep Groove Records, here in Phoenixville, to say hi to my friend Frank, who owns the store. But I thought I’d also reach back and republish the following entry from my old blog site. It is about Sounds of Market, one of the classic record stores in my life. Sounds of Market closed for good a few years ago, but this is how I felt about it after I visited in February 2008.

When Rick, Greg and I first met, it was all about the music. They were freshmen at college and I was going into my third year when we all wound up on the same dorm floor. Listening to music, talking about music, acquiring music and talking about acquiring music were the first bonds we shared as friends. As time went on other common interests would reveal themselves for the three of us, as well as various things that Rick and Greg would be into, or me and Greg or me and Rick, but at first, music was the driver of our early friendships.

Of course, back in the mid-1980s, the compact disc had just been introduced and no one yet connected the letters “M” and “P” and the number “3” to music. If you wanted to find music, you actually had to go to a record store and the record stores of center city Philadelphia played a great role in all of this music bonding that Rick, Greg and I shared. I had been acquianted with these stores since starting at Temple University and even a little bit earlier than that.

I remember one Saturday afternoon when I was a senior in high school, participating in a radio internship program at KYW, the leading newsradio station in the city. I walked down Market Street from KYW to the Penn Center train station that day and I was completely beguiled by the stores I passed along the way, stores with names like Funk-O-Mart. Exotic music, then often referred to as “urban,” spilled out of the doorways of these stores, but I’m not sure I was ready at that point to walk in and find out what was inside. This was music that sounded very intriguing to me, but I wasn’t yet certain if I was “allowed” to like it.

By the time I met Rick and Greg though, I had been visiting the center city record stores for awhile and I was quite happy to now have a couple of guys who were usually just as ready for a trip downtown as I was.

These trips would often take place on Friday afternoons, but also on Tuesdays, the day when new albums were released. The journey on the Broad Street subway line would usually take place after classes, though it may have occasionally happened that classes would be skipped if something particularly hot, like say Prince’s Parade album or the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work (which I believe Greg, a big Stones fan, bought on his birthday) or even Yes’ Big Generator or Heart’s Bad Animals albums, were set for release that day.

Our first stop once we hit the City Hall area would usually be the Sounds of Market store at 13th and Chestnut Street. Sounds of Market was a chain of three stores, another being at 11th and Ludlow and the third being…well, I can’t remember where the third one was, but I know it exisited. All of the Sounds of Market stores were run by people with vaguely Middle Eastern accents, though I don’t think I ever accurately determined the ethnicity of the folks running the stores. I do remember that at the 13th and Chestnut store, one of the managers would exhort all of us shoppers to buy more music and would warn us, “Don’t go to the malls” for our music buying needs.

He was right about that, of course. Sounds of Market had it all over Listening Booth or Sam Goody in terms of selection and (especially) price. Records were typically a few dollars cheaper and the promos that they sold (on the sly, I would guess) were even cheaper than that. I remember one day I went in and bought a new album that I didn’t even know was coming out, for $3.99. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew the artist so I figured for four bucks I’d give the album a shot. It was Graceland by Paul Simon.

With the price and selection, Sounds of Market encouraged adventurous listening. Rick and I once went downtown vowing to each buy five new albums by artists that we were only vaguely familiar with. I remember that we both bought The Sound of Music by the dBs (largely, in my case, at the instigation of my friend Ed’s stellar review of it). I bought a Fetchin’ Bones album and Rick bought Game Theory’s Lolita Nation that day as well.

Another time, on some kind of ridiculous whim that was fairly common to all of us in those days, Greg bought two huge hit albums of the era–Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA–simply because he disliked both artists and wanted to make fun of their ubiquity by buying into it. Or something like that. Somewhere around here I have a photo of Greg, sporting a Phil Collins album (the cover of which eventually became a scratch board for his and his wife Kim’s cat) and a smug expression on his face. Sure, the logic behind his purchases that day was twisted but the whole thing became an event and I’ll bet even today Greg might listen to “Sussudio” now and then, had he not given me his record collection on my 40th birthday. Speaking of which, here is the Phil Collins album cover in question (note the scratch marks; clearly it was Collins and not Mr. Ted Nugent who gave Greg and Kim’s cat “Cat Scratch Fever”):

This is the building that used to be Sounds of Market at 13th and Chestnut. It’s currently vacant [at least it was in February 2008]:

Once we were done shopping at 13th and Chestnut, we’d head up to the 11th and Ludlow location. At that time, audio equipment was sold in the front with the records in the back. The staff here was just as entertaining as at the other store. Once, while the very brilliant Prince b-side “Shockadelica” was playing, one of the regular clerks played an air guitar solo that eventually had the guy sliding across the floor on his knees. I wonder if that guy has discovered Guitar Hero; he’d be a natural at it. Incidentally, Prince b-sides, in all their flaming weirdness and glory, were the perfect soundtrack to the Sounds of Market experience.

And, of course, Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show” would always sound just right at Sounds of Market.

The 11th and Ludlow Sounds of Market still exists and here it is, just this week [Note: that is to say in February 2008. And of course, in April 2016 SoM no longer exists.]:

The exterior looks pretty much the same way it did 20 years ago, but inside it’s a different story. The audio equipment is still upfront on the first floor, but the back section that used to house the music is now empty. You need to go up to the second floor to check out the hip-hop and rhythm and blues and world music sections, while the rock, folk, jazz and blues sections are all the way up on the third floor.

Obviously there is no vinyl to be found, but that’s not the only big difference. Everything now seems just a bit more sedate and sterile than it did when I was frequenting Sounds of Market. The music isn’t playing quite as loud as it did back then, the salesmen don’t exhort you to spend your cash and clearly no one on staff needs to wear kneepads in the event they are moved to slide across the floor while air-jamming to a Prince b-side. The selection is predictably fabulous and the prices are still cheaper than the malls (if there are indeed music stores at malls anymore), but only marginally so.

So, the store is still there, but for me anyway, the adventure is gone. I’m still looking for new interesting music and sometimes I even find it, but stores like Sounds of Market don’t have any role in that quest.

That’s OK though. I still have the music I picked up “back in the day” at Sounds of Market and, more importantly, I still have the friendships. Which is really what the Sounds of Market experience was all about anyway.

Plus I still have Greg’s copy of No Jacket Required, which will come in handy if we ever get a cat.

Row. And. Stop.

In 1979, high school, memoir, school, Writing on March 25, 2016 at 9:33 am

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Ninth grade was one of my weirder years. But isn’t ninth grade one of everybody’s weirder years?

For me, the weirdness was enhanced by the sense of dislocation I was feeling the day I started ninth grade. Just a few months earlier, I graduated St. Joseph School, after eight years of Catholic education. Within weeks of this auspicious event, my family left the house in which I had grown up. My parents had bought a new house in the next town over but, seeing as it wasn’t quite built yet, we moved in with, first, my grandmother, then my aunt and uncle. This is where we were living when I started ninth grade at a public junior high school, at which I knew nobody.

I can still detect the ever-so-slight remnant of the knot I felt in the pit of my stomach the morning I walked into Chichester Junior High on the opening day of school. It hurts, a tiny bit, even now.

Also, did I mention that it was 1979? Therefore, this is me in Grade 9:

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Life for me as a ninth grader was rough at first. As you can imagine from the photo, it wasn’t long before the class bullies introduced themselves in no uncertain terms. I was fortunate that these introductions never became physical, but it was still disconcerting to be told that my face was soon to be broken.

Gradually, I found myself. My family moved into our new house. I made some friends, who were just as weird as I was. I confused some of the kids in my art class by bringing in records by Chuck Mangione (“where’s the singing?”) and Flying Lizards (“what the fuck is this?”). I joined the school musical, Cheaper by the Musical, in which I: a) played a football player; b) sang; and c) danced. I did not do any of those three things well, but I had fun.

Amid all the craziness of my ninth grade year, I remember one island of total zen calm and stability, though I’m not sure I saw it that way at the time.

Typing class.

fff ddd sss aaa jjj kkk lll ;;; fff ddd sss aaa jjj kkk lll ;;;

“Row. And. Stop.”

Those words were intoned by our typing teacher, Mrs. Peters. I do not remember Mrs. Peters’ first name. I am not entirely certain I knew Mrs. Peters’ first name as I sat banging away at manual typewriter keys in her classroom. But Mrs. Peters was there to do a job — teaching a motley crew of ninth graders to type. She did it well, calmly instructing us to “row. and. stop.” after each line we typed.

Mrs. Peters’ voice and the clacking of keys were the only sounds ever heard in typing class. No Flying Lizards allowed.

Mrs. Peters was unflappable, so much so that I remember being somewhat startled when she enthusiastically engaged in an animated conversation about golf with one of my classmates. It just seemed so out-of-left-field that Mrs. Peters should be thinking about anything other than rowing. and. stopping. This, of course, had way more to do with my somewhat limited view of the world at that time than it did with Mrs. Peters’ interests outside the typing classroom.

And a note about that classroom: it was on the other side of the rather large school from my core classes. This was probably intimidating to me at first, but that’s another reason why I remember typing class as being an oasis of sorts. It was simply so far away from everything else.

I think I spent the entire year with Mrs. Peters and her typing class, but I might be wrong. It may have just seemed like the entire year. I’m not sure what my typing grades were, but I’m thinking they were just average. In either case I know this: once I stepped out of typing class for the last time, I never saw Mrs. Peters again.

I have typed nearly every day  of my life since the last time I saw Mrs. Peters. Both my typing speed and accuracy are top-notch, though even today, if I start thinking about how fast I’m typing, I immediately start making misteakss. Mistakes, that is.

So much of my life’s work, both as a professional writer/editor and as someone who frequently writes personal work as an avocation, is about my hands translating via a keyboard what is going through my brain at that moment. It is true that I’ve always kept a handwritten journal, and have even successfully revived that practice this year. However, much of what I write these days, including this essay, moves straight from brain to keyboard. Through my hands, without the intervention of a pen or paper. Using the techniques Mrs. Peters taught me 37 years ago in the faraway deserted island typing classroom filled with big old manual typewriters at Chichester Junior High School.

When I think back on all the stuff I learned in high school, it’s a wonder to think that ninth grade typing class may have been my most important takeaway of all. But, with all due respect to the many great teachers I had, typing class clearly had the most profoundly practical effect on my life from 1979 straight on up to this morning.

I have the mysterious, golf-loving Mrs. Peters to thank for that.

Row. And. Stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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