Saturday, March 29, 2008

2 Years in the Suburbs

Okay, maybe our tree houses weren’t quite as nice as this but they were close. It seemed like wherever I lived highway 44 was under construction in my back yard. In 6th and 7th grades I lived in the suburbs.

We lived in a small unincorporated area between Webster Groves and Kirkwood called Oakland. For a city kid it was idyllic. There were a lot of trees and creeks. We found real fossils in the creeks.

The construction sites made building materials available to us. The first tree house we built was in my friend Brad’s yard. It started in a tree but expanded until it finally reached the ground. We painted it green so you couldn’t see it through the trees.

It had electricity, beds, and screened windows you could open by pulling a rope. It was so nice that Brad’s older brother ran away from home for a week and rented it from us. He stayed in there with his girlfriend.

We smoked cigarettes in there. We were curious about alcohol and talked some older person into buying a pint of Jack Daniels and a bottle of Mad Dog.

We laughed all night but wondered when we would get drunk. We were so excited we didn’t realize we already were. Kids are naturally giddy and it didn’t occur to us that alcohol did more of the same.

I had a tree house outside my second floor bedroom window complete with a trap door to its roof. I used to jump across from my window.

Our gang consisted of Greg, Brad, Jeff, and Don Belk. I can use Don’s full name because he died a few years ago. Maybe this story will be his legacy.

Don talked us into stealing a small bike and a lawn mower to build a mini-bike. The lawn mower had to have a horizontal shaft and somehow we found one. From that point we began to steal more bikes. It got out of control.

One day Brad was riding one of them and, without looking where he was going, ran into a light post. He ended up in the hospital. His little sister rode the bike and was stopped by a cop. She spilled the whole story.

I was in a department store in Sunset Hills when I heard my name come across the store’s sound system. I had a belt on I had just shoplifted. I went to the counter to find my mother waiting for me. She was in tears. “How could you do this to me?” she asked.

We ended up going to several townships identifying and recovering bicycles. I was put in a cell for a moment at the Webster police station just to see what it was like. At juvenile court they couldn’t believe we weren’t a ring led by an adult. We had recovered something like 75 bikes. I remember being interrogated good cop – bad cop style at the Kirkwood police station. We were put on probation until we became legal adults.

I wonder now why I didn’t think about how bad the kids we stole from felt. It had happened to me when I was younger and I was devastated.

Some of my friends’ parents blamed me because I was from the big bad city. I wasn’t allowed to see them anymore.

Some of these kids eventually did time for selling drugs and armed robbery.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Drugs and Skydiving

I know there’s something that just doesn’t seem right about the title of this piece but I do have a few words on the subject.

To begin with when I started jumping I was pretty much done with drugs. Iggy Pop’s take on the matter pretty much summed it up for me. When you’re young, your body is like a party everyone wants to come to. Everyone’s having a great time. At some point you want everyone to go home.

Skydiving is an activity for extreme personalities and it stands to reason drugs will find their way in there somewhere.

When I first started jumping I would sometimes look around for a friend I’d been jumping with and people would tell me, “Oh, he’s at a safety meeting.” I soon found out that was a euphemism for smoking dope.

For a lot of people jumping is an alternative to drugs. The experienced jumpers would say speed is your friend. Eventually I found my comfort zone in a small, very fast canopy. When you’re able to accept high velocities, you find every subtle movement affects canopy control. If you’ve ever been in the euphoria of good drugs you know the sense of control I’m talking about. Unfortunately, with drugs, every high is followed by its relative low. The crash can be terrible.

The high of velocity is more than just energy and dopamine. It’s a sense of control, a kind of dance with nature (sorry but I can’t think of a better analogy). There’s no crash, unless of course you misjudge your landing or have a malfunction with your canopy.

Once we were jumping at a friends operation in Tennessee. 12 of us were dirt diving. This is when you go through the formations on the ground that you plan to do in free fall. There was a young kid who just couldn’t seem to remember his moves. We had to go over the dive with him several times. Somehow the jump went off without a hitch and we turned several points. This means we made it through several formations. I found out the kid with the memory problem was tripping. I know for me the sheer over stimulation would have thrown me into a seizure.

For the most part drugs came in at the end of the day, after jumping. Just for the record drugs are not condoned in the sport. There are as many different personality types in sky diving as anywhere else.

Here are a few of my personal experiences.

I’ve already mentioned the time I got high and heckled a cop in a police station on Beale Street in Memphis.

There were sometimes more than 4000 jumpers living in a tent city for 10 days a year every summer at our World Free Fall Convention in Quincy, Illinois. One year we were sitting around a camp fire when Batman jumped out and started dancing in and around the fire. Just as suddenly he disappeared into the night. Later as I walked along a make-shift road I could see the cape and cowled figure leaning against a wall between RVs smoking a joint. Batman smoking a joint? I won’t mention any names but of course it turned out to be a good friend of mine.

The year the drop zone opened at Eloy, Arizona I went down there with a friend of mine. I think it was 1991 or 1992. Eloy is about half way between Phoenix and Tucson. We were returning from an evening of bar hopping in Phoenix when we were stopped in our rental car in the middle of the desert. My friend had been rolling a joint in his lap. He handed me the baggie and said, “Stuff this down your pants.” I didn’t smoke and said, “No way.” I shoved it under my seat.

We were obviously drunk. The cops wanted to put him through a field sobriety test because he was the driver. The cops couldn’t believe we had come to the middle of the desert from St. Louis to skydive.

My friend told the cops he had relatives that were lawyers and had been told that he didn’t have to take the test. I thought either we were going to jail right then or they’d just kill us right there in the middle of nowhere. To my surprise the cops agreed and let us go. I still can’t get over it!

Eloy has since become the home of the world champion free fall team - Arizona Airspeed.

One year a good friend of mine and I went down to Tennessee for a skydiving Halloween party. We were in full costume doing mushrooms in my tent. She and I never even made it into the party that was being held in a large hanger. From the tent stretching out into the vast darkness we could see small glowing objects. It was like stars filling a country sky. We wandered out into the darkness to explore. I reached down and scooped up a little soil that contained one of the glowing objects. To our horror it was some kind of small writhing larva. We screamed and ran back to the tent. This was my first experience with glow worms.

Pics of me in Cessna 182, with my buddy Pat Harrington at Mike Mullins' DZ in Tennessee in the early 90s, and a 5 way for my 200th jump in 1991 (I'm upper right in sandals)

Saturday, March 15, 2008


The television show Dragnet opened with the LAPD badge. When I was a kid my dad would always point to one of the windows of the court house on it. “I used to live right there,” he’d say. He was referring to the jail.

He told me he was arrested for serving a minor. I have since learned he may have been incarcerated for stealing groceries from the back of someone’s car. He was young and starving in L.A. He actually tended bar as a minor but no one suspected.

Coincidentally my mother spent a good deal of her childhood in L.A. but this was before they met.

When my father would come home to visit his parents it would be at the motel in Hardy, Arkansas. I’m pretty sure that’s where my parents met.

My mother doesn’t want me telling this story but I think it’s incredibly romantic.

My dad picked up some kind of genital critters from a girl on the beach in L.A. He brought them back and ended up giving them to my mom.

Hardy is a very small town. In fact it’s still dry. My mother’s folks still have to drive to Missouri to buy alcohol.

They couldn’t go to a doctor because it would cause a scandal. They ended up buying some kind of pet product and applying it to each other. It must have worked.

When my folks got married they wanted a small civil ceremony but all the relatives insisted on a church wedding. One was quickly thrown together.

They had to drive to St. Louis to get the best man, my dad’s friend John Chapman. I remember this name but I haven’t seen him since I was very young.

My cousin Joe sent an 8mm clip he digitized of the wedding. It gives me chills to see my parents when they were still in love.

They moved to St. Louis.

I remember waiting for the train at Union Station with my dad to go down to Hardy. This was before Amtrak and the trains were completely different back then. There were even bald porters in white coats. Picture the Uncle Ben image on a rice box.

I loved it down there. My grandfather had a kennel filled with beagles on the side of the motel. Every morning he’d go into the woods with a pack of dogs to hunt. I think the noise of the happy dogs scared away anything he might have shot because I don’t remember him coming home with anything.

The room my father and I stayed in had a large plastic cow just behind the door. It used to terrify me and still creeps into my dreams.

The collage shows my brother Patrick and me in the grass in front of the motel – my dad on the streets of Hardy (A giant among men) – my folks in January of 1958, my birthday – a matchbook provided by my cousins Joe and Mike.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

New Story

I just published a new story at Associated Content based on my homosexual ghost story. Check it out at-

Saturday, March 8, 2008

My Dad's Side of the Family

Last week my cousins Joe and Mike sent pics of old Udell’s Motel matchbooks for the blog. The motel is the reason my parents met. Before I get to that I wanted to do a little background on my family.

My grandfather’s dad was a prolific painter. He was deaf. My grandmother made sure we at least knew the alphabet in sign language. I have a few of his paintings. You can judge for yourself whether he was self-conscious about his disability by this 1934 painting he did. I don’t even know his first name. He signed his paintings R Udell.

My grandmother's dad died in a motor cycle accident in 1907.

I was told my grandfather went to th 1904 World's Fair when he was 5.

My grandmother’s brother Bill was a successful violinist and dancer. He’s pictured with his second wife Betty. He and both of his wives were billed as Mark and Marquette. He must have maintained a good relationship with his first wife because the 3 of them worked together for a while. I’ve seen great photos of them dancing on cruise ships in South America in the 30s. I believe he even used his dog in the act. I’ve seen a staged photo with him playing to the dog. My grandmother told me he had a Stradivarius. I wish I had these photos.

The newspaper clipping is about one of his dogs jumping into a geyser at Yellowstone. He jumped in but it was too late. The dog was dead and he had third degree burns on his legs. They had to cancel a tour of Greece. The doctors told him he would never dance again but my grandmother told me he wouldn’t accept this prognosis. He worked hard enough to regain complete use of his legs. Click on the clipping to read it.

My grandfather had a newspaper distribution route. He was hoping to pass it on to my father. It was the Post -Dispatch, I think, but they also had to deliver the free county paper. My father hated the job so much he would throw the county papers down a sewer. When it came time to retire my grandfather sold it so he could buy a motel. They looked at Lake of the Ozarks first but didn’t think it would ever take off as a resort area. Instead they were lured to Hardy Arkansas near an retirement community called Cherokee Village (Oh well).

My grandfather had a heart attack and died in 1962. They had given up the motel by then and moved to a house in St. Clair, MO. My brother and I were staying with them when it happened.

Years later, before my grandmother had a stroke and had to stay in a nursing facility, I used to visit her. She’d open a couple of beers and we’d talk. She told one story she said she hadn’t ever told anyone. Apparently she had a still born child before my dad. This was very personal for her and must have still hurt.

The collage shows my 12 year old grandmother with her mother Gigi, pronounced Gee Gee(hard Gs), and her brother Bill – My grandparents in 1922 – My grandmother’s dad Geo C. Mack – Bill and Betty – and Udell’s Motel.

All corrections are welcome. I’ll have more later, this is leading up to my parents’ meeting.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


Just try hanging onto a good drummer if you’re in an art band. I can’t count how many times we lost Ben to paying gigs in the late 70s. Somehow through all of this we always found great replacements. Probably the best and longest lasting was Keith Hittler.
His family did have a little trouble with the surname during WWII even with the spelling difference.
Eventually Keith found a paying gig in Florida and left the band. He came back years later to be a founding member of the swing band Swing Set. Keith, bassist Michael Jackson and I made a brief attempt at a power trio but it only lasted a few rehearsals.
During his time with us (I believe it was 1977) Ben got a job in a lounge act on the roof of a hotel downtown. He’d swish brushes behind Suicide Is Painless, the Theme From Mash, and go home with real cash. Dan Gibbons of The Heaters was in this group but it would be several years before I got to know him.
It was during this time Dominic and I decided what the band needed was a real singer. After several tryouts we decided to work with Theo Johnson. It was more because we fell in love with the guy than anything else.
For more than a year Theo was my best friend. We did everything together. I’m epileptic and this was the period in my life when I had most of my seizures. One winter I went into a fit in the snow in front of my apartment in the West End. Theo somehow carried me upstairs and took care of me. He seemed to know what to do. I remember looking up from my bed with hallucinations of the ceiling tiles expanding and contracting. It made me realize how fragile our grip on reality is. I haven’t had a seizure since my late 20s. Good thing considering all my skydiving.
We did a lot of drugs together and turned each other onto a lot of music. Theo’s favorite record was The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
I’m sure it must have been an alien environment for him. He came from a rough background on the north side. St. Louis is pretty segregated. One of his friends told me that, as kids, they would tie 2 cats together by their tails, throw them over a clothes line and bet on which one would survive. I was horrified.
I was still living with M then. She and all my friends loved him.
I got an email from him a few years ago. He was recording with someone in Cleveland. I checked their stuff out at It was pretty New Age, but it was good. He also told me one of his sisters had been on Star Search.