From The Archives: 1987 Selfie

Twenty-plus years before it really became a thing, I gave taking a picture of myself a go. Five of my Transy friends had driven up from Lexington to meet me at my folks’ house and go see the Reds play. Afterward, it was back to Florence to have dinner on the deck in back. I took half-a-dozen pix of the festivities; I came across them recently while looking through a bin of photos I inherited from my parents.  Since Mom had a camera similar to this, it wouldn’t surprise me if that were the one I used. For one of the shots, I held the camera out with my left hand and tried to get my face, along with James and Michaela, in the frame. I’m not sure I’d ever tried anything like that before. I couldn’t know how successful I was until the film was developed, but I was pretty pleased with the result!


I’m not sure about the date–it’s decently likely that the game was this one, as it’s the only Saturday day game the Reds played at home in July or August of 87. It’s certainly plausible, as I might have come home from Illinois for a quick visit around then before final preparations for qualifying exams later that month. If this is correct, it also would have been two weeks before the gathering of these same friends (and others) I wrote about in my “Bad Attitude” FB post back in May.

From The Archives: Memories Can’t Wait

This is a slight revision of a Facebook post from May 2017.

The prep for my music posts regularly includes some Internet research, part of which is looking for videos on YouTube. While digging for Honeymoon Suite goodies for the previous post, I saw in the list of suggested videos another of their songs, “Bad Attitude.” The title sounded familiar but nothing played in my head in reaction. I clicked on the link and soon realized that I did indeed know it. It has to be close to 30 years since I’d heard it, but there I was, singing along with the chorus after the first verse: I belted out “Twisted views, (bad, bad attitude)” and “No one likes to lose” right on time! I can’t place which stretch of 86 I heard it enough to internalize some of its lyrics, but this was an unexpected, joyful (re-)discovery, and while maybe I shouldn’t be too surprised, it did take me aback a bit to have lyrics to a song I’d long forgotten right on the tip of my tongue.

This brought to mind recent experiences I’ve had with memory, forgetting, and what can resurface suddenly; here’s one. Just over a year ago I had my 30th college reunion, which allowed me to reconnect with some old friends. A few weeks later, I came across photos that featured many of these friends (but not me). I scanned and circulated them; the recipients went scurrying for their photo albums and diaries, but in the ensuing lively conversation and sharing of other pix, NO ONE could remember the occasion, date(s), etc. One, a picture of my friends on a boat on the Kentucky River, was particularly vexing. Was it from 85, while we were in college, 86, right after we graduated, or 87, later still?


In January, I went down to the dark recesses of our basement and dove into my bin of correspondence from the 80s (I was once a big letter writer. Email has fairly killed off the need for that, but I really miss it sometimes.). Talk about bringing back things you’d forgotten! The prize of this excursion, though, was a letter that pinpointed the gathering from which all the pictures came. It described who attended and group’s activities, which included a trip on the Kentucky. August 87. I didn’t remember anything about it because I didn’t attend–I was in IL, prepping for some exams that would allow me to move on toward my degree. Of course, I’d forgotten that my friend had sent me the pictures in that letter!

Sometimes I feel like I spend entirely too much time living in the past, including listening to the music of my younger days. But then something like a 30-year-old picture or “Bad Attitude” comes along, bringing me unforeseen pleasures from way back when and likely ensuring that I won’t stop these trips particularly soon.

From The Archives: Willie

William Thomas Goebel Harris, my father’s father, was born 120 years ago today. He’s the one grandparent I never knew, dying about 27 months before I was born. My dad idolized him, which is probably why I received his first name.

My grandmother called him Willie; my assumption is that many other folks did the same. However, his stationery and signature always read “Wm. Harris.” As a tribute, sometime in my mid-20s I started somewhat regularly signing my name that way. A few of my grad school friends noticed and began calling me WM (pronouncing both letters–I didn’t mind at all).

He attended Transylvania from 1916-18. It would be several years before he would go back to school to finish his Bachelor’s degree and even more before he got a Master’s (in math and physics), both from UK. He married Mary Elizabeth Brown in 1920; they waited 11 years for their only child to come along. He was a lifelong educator and farmer and an accomplished surveyor. In the mid 1930s, he served as superintendent of Gallatin County Schools, being one of the leading forces of its consolidation.   In 1938, he moved to the Kenton County system, where he was at various times elementary school principal and high school teacher. Dad taught math alongside him at Dixie Heights High School during the 1957-58 academic year. Immediately afterward, he returned to Gallatin County for another turn as superintendent, where he stayed until his death at the age of 64.

Willie (I mean no disrespect, but I never had a grandparental moniker for him–I’m guessing it would have been Grandpa) was a hard worker, probably too hard. He wasn’t very tall–maybe 5’ 6’’–but he had a wiry strength. He was diabetic, though, and didn’t watch his diet. I’ve been told he’d eat whatever he wanted and then take a double dose of insulin in an attempt to make up for it. My father and his mother were on a trip out west in late summer 61 when he suffered a heart attack. It wasn’t initially fatal; they raced back to be with him at the hospital. Mom and Dad had recently started dating.   I imagine they both knew their relationship was pretty serious by this point, but Mom hadn’t yet been introduced to my grandfather. Such a meeting was not to be. He didn’t want to first see her as he was attempting to recover, and he passed away on November 10.

It’s certainly possible I inherited my aptitude for math from him–my dad told me many times as I was going through school how proud my grandfather would have been of me. And I think of him often today, since my own son demonstrates talent and real interest in both math and physics. It certainly makes me wish all the more that my grandfather and I could have had some years together.


From The Archives: Tin Man

The peak of my drama career occurred when I was six years old, on a stage in the basement of the Lancaster Presbyterian Church in late May 1970. Our year-end kindergarten presentation was The Wizard of Oz; I had been selected to play the Tin Woodman (as it’s listed in the program).

The Stanford school system in 1969 (Lincoln County hadn’t consolidated yet) didn’t have a kindergarten program, so when my parents decided that I should have that sort of experience, they cast their nets about and found one they liked in nearby Lancaster. My mother told me several times over the years how, to her horror, she found me away from all the others (including adults) when she came to pick me up after my first day there. I was outside, sitting on the church steps big as you please; I guess I’d figured I knew my way around well enough already and simply struck out on my own, certain that Mom would find me.

The teacher’s name was Mrs. Mercer. I remember her as both friendly and kind. I’m sure she read to us regularly. She helped us make butter once; she encouraged naps. And when it came time for us to learn to follow the yellow brick road, she lent a steady hand.

The action scenes were fairly brief, punctuated by plenty of unison singing of all the classic songs from the movie. My star turn came when Dorothy and the Scarecrow found me rusted up by the side of the road. I’d been instructed to stand stiff and to squeak out “oil can” between my teeth. The night of our performance, I gave it my all. The stage lights were on (we hadn’t practiced with them), so I couldn’t really see those in attendance. I gave my squeakiest, stiffest “o-il…can” not once, but twice. The laughter from the audience still rings in my head. I suppose I wasn’t upset by it, but I was plenty surprised.

Several of my classmates were from Stanford (a few from my church, even), and I was with those folks the next couple of years in elementary school. I moved away in June 72, almost two hours to the north. My family went back only every once in a long while, and naturally I lost touch. That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a little bit about some of them over time. I re-established contact with Susan (Wicked Witch), and to a lesser extent Jeff (Munchkin next to Mrs. Mercer in the photo), during our senior year in high school; I met up with Susan once or twice soon after she started at UK and I at Transy. Paul (Uncle Henry), who absconded before the picture was taken, is an uncle to one of my next-door neighbors’ son’s best friends. And Tommy (Scarecrow) has taught piano in Lexington to the son of my college friend Judy.

It’s a long way back to then. We’re all 52 or 53 years old now, and I’d be curious to learn what we’ve made of ourselves and how spread out we live. I’m thinking, though, that closing my eyes and clicking my heels three times won’t get me any nearer to finding out.


From The Archives: The King of Rock and Roll

A few disconnected reflections on the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis A(a)ron Presley:

1.  I have a memory–accurate or not–of how I heard about Elvis’ death. I was 13-and-a-half years old. We weren’t back in school yet–I was soon to enter 8th grade. What I see in my mind’s eye is riding in the car with my mother and my sister. Once we were old enough, Amy and I fought over who would get to sit in the front seat with Mom on out-of-town trips. At some point we came to the sensible compromise that one of us rode shotgun on the way out, the other on the way back. My recollection is that as the older child, I got first dibs on the front seat, but maybe Amy has a better memory about that.

So, we’re in the car (a blue 70 Ford Fairlane Torino), heading south on US 25 between Florence and Walton (I visualize it as around the intersection with Industrial Road), listening as we did in those days to 1360 WSAI. It’s a late Tuesday afternoon, and it’s hot. I believe that car didn’t have air conditioning, so the windows would have been down, and I probably would have been in the back seat.   When the DJ broke the news about his death, it was quite a surprise, but really, I was too young and not cognizant enough of his historical role to mourn. While I know my dad loved “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” I didn’t grow up listening to lots of Elvis. I’m certain that we heard a ton of his music on the radio over the next few days, though.

2. My grad school officemates were John, Paul, and Will (one of the reasons I went by William in grad school). We shared 123 Altgeld Hall, in the basement, from Jul 87 to Jul 92. I don’t exactly recall how it started, but over those first couple of years we built a shrine of sorts to The King. Of course we had to have a velvet Elvis, which wound up hanging over my desk. Aside from postcard-sized pictures and a commemorative plate, our main source of material was the Weekly World News: some of the featured headlines were “Painting of Elvis Weeps Real Tears,” “Caveman Looked Like Elvis,” “Elvis is Alive!,” “Haunted Elvis Lamp Sings ‘Burning Love’,” “The King Has Lived Many Times Before,” and “Elvis Talks to Me From The Grave” (the WWN had a hard time deciding whether he was truly gone or not). Before we left Illinois, we talked about bundling our collection of “memorabilia” in a manila envelope, lifting one of the tiles of the dropped ceiling and placing it up there as a time capsule of sorts–I think we did that?



3. Over Labor Day weekend in 87 I flew down to Memphis, where my high school friend Bill was working. While there, I did make the pilgrimage to Graceland, taking in the cars, the jungle room, the grave, etc., etc. I’m sure I picked up a thing or two for the shrine. As it was just after the 10-year mark of his passing, I’d lost out on the chance to join the festivities noting that anniversary.

4. Now that I’m older and have some perspective, I can definitely say that my favorite Elvis period is what came right after his 68 Christmas special: “Kentucky Rain,” “In the Ghetto,” and in particular “Suspicious Minds,” the only song I’ve ever done karaoke to. The drugs and the fried-peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches hadn’t really taken their toll yet, and maybe he actually had acquired an ounce or two of maturity by then; I see it as the sweet spot of his career. While I find his very early stuff pretty good, his film career and the flavor of musical kitsch that came with it aren’t anything special to me.

5. He had talent and he had charisma, but Elvis also had very little self-control. It was all too easy to poke fun at him because he didn’t keep it together when he could have had the world on a string. That’s not to take away anything from his musical achievements or his fans, since in the end it really was a loss that he didn’t give himself the chance to make great music in his 40s and beyond.

6. Elvis almost was on the first AT40 chart I recorded: the double-sided “Hurt/For the Heart” dropped off that week from its peak of #28 (“Bohemian Rhapsody” is another one that fell off then). He had two appearances in 77: “Moody Blue/She Thinks I Still Care” (reached #31) was on in February, and “Way Down” was there right before he died–it re-charted in the aftermath (#31 the first time, #18 the second). Out of all the tribute songs that were written immediately following, only one–“The King is Gone” by Ronnie McDowell–made the Top 40, reaching #13. Yes, it’s both saccharine and maudlin, but it’s also honest and from the heart. Elvis, you have been missed.

From The Archives: W-V Beta Club, Spring 1982

Sometime after my high school senior yearbook was published, I must have had the opportunity to rummage through the photos they’d taken for it to take what I wanted.  This is one that didn’t make it into the yearbook, for one pretty obvious reason.  At least everyone else in it looks great!

I think the occasion is a year-end induction ceremony for new Beta Club members, even though all but one of the students pictured here was about to graduate.


From The Archives: Papaw

Today is the 115th anniversary of the birth of my mother’s father, Wilbur Russell Houston (funny how I share his initials but none of his names). He grew up in Grant County, attended my place of employment for one year, and in the late 20s graduated from the Eclectic Medical School in Cincinnati. (The term “eclectic medicine” was first used by Transylvania professor Constantine Rafinesque.) In September 1927 he married Lucille Barton Haskell; they had three daughters, my mother being the middle child. He became a family physician and volunteered for the U.S. Army during WWII, spending about a year toward the end of the war at a medical camp in the Phillipines. He returned to family practice afterward until 1966, when he moved to Eastern Kentucky University to serve as the head of their medical services. Upon retirement in 1973, he moved back to the iconic “old stone house” on US 42 just north of downtown Union, KY (they’d purchased it in the mid 50s). He loved to tend to his gardens and fruit trees there. Toward the end of his life he suffered from macular degeneration. Even though his sight had dimmed, it seemed like he never met a stranger.

On a personal level, one could say I owe him my life–he was the one who introduced my parents to each other! My dad was one of his patients, and one Sunday in 1961, he elected to take my grandmother and mother to Bromley Christian Church, where Dad was pastoring. They took Dad out to lunch after the service; a first date soon ensued, and the rest is history. I have many fond memories from my youth of being at “the farm,” as we called it–holiday family gatherings, picking blackberries, learning to drive his Cub Cadet tractor. He is certainly at the center of many of those! Happy birthday, Papaw.


From The Archives: Operation Hometown

In 1963 my maternal grandfather served as President of the Campbell-Kenton Medical Society. He held on to many items–meeting minutes, his acceptance speech, a plaque honoring his year of service–from that time. Another of these artifacts was a packet with suggested copy for ten radio spots speaking against King-Anderson, which we now know as Medicare. Operation Hometown was in large part an effort of the American Medical Association.


A reminder that the fight about health care goes back many decades.