Thursday, December 30, 2010

Clean Hands, Closed Mind

Spring signaled the start of festival season in the South, when small towns block off their Main Street for events like: The Daylily Festival, Old Fashion Plow Days, and The White Squirrel Festival. It was a good excuse get out of the big city for a few days and explore new places, drink beer, and eat greasy food. However, I learned long ago that part of the fun was the journey, and if I can quote myself, “No journey truly begins until you’ve passed a blindfolded horse.”

I decided on the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I’m not going to turn this into a tourism promotion, but the place is a living landscape painting. However, it’s not perfect. It can have its dangers, especially mountain predators like cougars and wolves. Regardless, the area is an enclave for Yankee retirees, artist and hippy-types, and if you drive the same route I did, you might just share a beer with 1950’s country folk.

My Google-approved route sent me via single lane mountain roads for most of the trip. About halfway in, a curve signaled the journey’s starting point, grazing at the side of the road was what appeared to be a blindfolded horse. While was in question, I nailed the horse-eating-grass part. I know what you’re thinking, blinders. No, I’ve seen the Kentucky Derby. Not blinders. Blind-fold. Like an ACE bandage wrapped over most of his horse head, not yet severed over movie dispute involving one of the Blue Collar comedians.

As I continued, the road twisted and wound as I got higher into the hills. Around a sharp bend in the road and there it was, “Bob’s Place”. To call this place “ramshackle” would insult abandoned 1930’s Oklahoma, Dust Bowl era farm houses that today barely stand. The structure appeared as sturdy as most children’s forts built from construction site scrap wood.

There was no town accompanying Bob’s, just a few abandoned shacks adorned with biker graffiti. The exact phrase escapes me, so I’ll go with “Bikers love Crème Brule!’ ”.

I had to see Bob’s. It was either a bar or general store. So I got out and said hello to the three people sitting outside on the porch, interrupting their conversation, which I’m certain had nothing to do with particle accelerators. They invited me to have a look inside, knowing my reasonable teeth meant I wasn’t local, and it was probably my first visit.

Bob’s Place is a bar. Good news as I’d already bought pickled green beans at an earlier stop. At a glance, the empty bar appeared to be the classic local hangout where people staple things to the walls and ceiling. It was like dozens of local spots I’d seen throughout my travels.

I decided on a can of Bud Light. Something told me I wasn’t finding a blender for Daiquiris. I tried to tip the bartender, who was outside when I arrived, but I didn’t think he understood, and handed the money back.

The plump, white haired old lady in the tented house dress owned the place. Enchante, Bob. The bartender, local president of the James Dean Fan Club, with his Bryclcreemed hair and sleeves rolled up above the elbows, and thin build, put me in the mind of a dancer in a local theater production of Grease. The beer bellied man in the wife beater undershirt was a patron/bar historian, as he proceeded to tell me about Bob’s past, the bar, of course. A beer bellied man never tells…about his only beer source for miles.

I was definitely an outsider. The owner and bartender didn’t have a whole lot to say to me. The patron did most of the talking. Actually, I gathered that the bartender’s not accepting of my tip was a hint.

The place had been there for 100 years, used to sell moonshine out of it. Pretty sure they still kept some next to the 1975 Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

I was told the place was pretty popular at night and on weekends. Bands even played there, so check “Yes” in the amenities column for electricity. However, check “No” for indoor plumbing as I was advised the working outhouse was around back. I took his word for it, as there was no way in hell I was going to check the outhouse’s soundness. Bad vision of this city slicker being locked inside. Yes, they called me a city slicker.

I couldn’t help but notice a big bottle of hand sanitizer next to Bob. Evidently, after a trip to the outhouse for a potty, even the worst racists clean their hands.

Ok, it’s slippery slope time. How to properly address what happened next without offending. The patron then went “N-word” on me. For this story I will substitute that word with “kitty”.

Memorable feline quotes:

“You won’t find any kitties up here.”

“We had a kitty come in here one time with the delivery man and he tried to get a Coca-Cola. He reached for it and he got shot three times in the stomach with a pellet gun. He was bleeding, rolling around across the street .” He laughed as he told me, as if it was actually funny.

“We don‘t care if you can read or not, if you‘re a kitty keep on driving.” (Referring to a sign use to be posted nearby)

He had more to say about the surrounding areas, giving me the idea that the region did not provide a diversity in hair care products.

Some might say they were just exaggerating to shock a tourist. The figure painted on the door told otherwise. A black man’s silhouette painted on a white door, with a target over his heart and a caption of “Oh shit.” The artist didn’t sign it, but something tells me his initials were KKK.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


July 1969. The summer of love. The summer of Apollo 11. Woodstock. “This is Tom Jones” debuted on ABC! Really, Tom had a TV show. Nonetheless, some would say it was a year that altered a nation and changed lives forever. How the hell would I know? I was six. To me, it was the year of our summer vacation to Florida. Seeing Apollo 11 blast off, walking the beach at the Gulf of Mexico, and George.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

We drove from Chicago to St.Pete and stayed right on the gulf. It was unreal. Getting up early and walking the beach with Mom and Dad. The beach actually had foam on it, not a pollution thing, more like a leftover bubble bath. Not sure what caused it, but it was all part of this new world I experienced.

Apollo 11 was out of this world, literally and figuratively. Watching that explosion as the rocket rose out of a huge yellow fireball like the sun exploded, stages breaking away until it became a speck in the bright blue sky. A few days later we watched as those same people landed on the moon.

What I didn't bargain for was George. I was on vacation. Vacation, as I still think of it, is a time when you pretty much do what you want. Kids don't go to school, parents don't work. One thing kids definitely don’t do is swimming lessons.

George taught swimming lessons at The Tides, an apartment style hotel where we stayed. Perhaps also a safe haven for certain European immigrants (wait for it). Mom and Dad found out about him and immediately signed me up. "Mike, they have swimming lessons here!" Somehow Mom was selling this as a good thing. Why didn't they just say, "Mike, they give free throat cultures here!" Things like this just aren't supposed to happen on vacation. A kid's first trip to the beach. Sea shells, sand castles. Astronauts! Teach me basic physics for the launch, just no George!

The bargaining power of a six year old, on vacation or not, if harnessed to produce electricity would generate enough energy to, absolutely nothing. I am going to swimming lessons. Two days worth of George. He guarantees that I'll be jumping off the diving board in two days. Once I hit the water, I’m evidently on my own. I believe that part costs extra.

That afternoon my big sister, Debbie, feeling sorry for me, joined me at the poolside snack bar for a pre-swim drink. The beverage of choice for a scrapping, young, future 100 meter butterfly champion is beer from the root. “Large or small.” she asks. A choice? What’s this? I’ve never been offered a large. Look how grown up I’ve suddenly become! Large it be. God bless the big sister with disposable income.

As the be-dunking hour approached, drink finished, I joined the group of youngsters waiting for George. Finally, we were met by a tan, barrel of a man in a big straw hat, fringes of gray hair visible, and a zinc-oxide covered nose.

George was a very literal fellow. When he said jump right in, that's what he had in mind. The first thing we're going to learn about swimming is...swimming. Our mission was swimming the width of the pool. No technique. We’re supposedly part Golden Retriever and will instinctively take to the water. George put us in the deep end. Let’s be honest, deep end means anywhere in the pool for a six year old.

If he was checking for survival instinct in six year olds, it could be a short exercise. If he’s wanting to push us to a Lord of the Flies situation where we tear his face off, then people might want to get out their cameras. There are a few of us that think we can take him out.

Things got a bit hazy here, as I focused on staying alive. Sinking was outdoing swimming. I was losing my first swimming across the pool challenge. George was in front of me the whole way, just far enough to enjoy my suffering without me clinging to him like a Titanic survivor to wreckage. Was George reveling in my suffering? I’ve often wondered if George’s earlier work experience was spent years guarding people who wore striped uniforms in 1940’s Germany camps. What was that he whispered as a swam? “You can do it” or “Drown”?

All of my efforts kept me a few yards short of success. George critiqued my performance, suggesting that my face needed more exposure to the water. I had an idea! "Hey, Georgy-boy......why don't I go to the pool steps and touch my front teeth to the second step 100 times, immersing my face as I go?" He was cool with that. A dunking I went. Truth be told, all his idea.

Funny thing happened with that large root beer. It didn’t sit well when dunking. From that moment on, the pool at the Tides forever had a little frosty mug flavor as my large became two smalls, one still in me. After I advised George of my heave, he did see fit to give me the rest of the day off.

I never liked my sister's generosity more than at that moment.

Did I say that this was two day's worth of lessons? Day two. No root beer this time. I was all business.

In defense of George, mostly because, as I write this, he's probably passed things like running juvenile boot camps for wayward teens, the second day did go smoother. I made it to the other side of the pool. George was there, bringing this retriever home.
Maybe it was because I was playing in front of the home crowd, but it seemed to go easier. Mom and Dad filmed, other siblings at the other end of the pool. George and I jelled. He had me doing things I never thought possible. Swimming. Sort of. Flailing, thrashing approach. Reminiscent of an attack victim in Jaws. We had done ok, but the true test awaited. The diving board.

Diving boards were higher for six year olds than for any other member of the species. Look it up. Our first jump was a bit George-aided. I went about 3/4 down the board, then off to the side and jump. Proved an easy enough approach. George was below making sure we make it ok, and his good name was intact.

Second jump...the big time. Breathe, Mike, breathe. Straight off the board. Everything moved in slow motion. Mom watched as Dad films. I think, "Good, better for documenting evidence for the lawsuit." I stepped towards my destiny, the board's end and the watery abyss below. My stomach was empty. Where was he? Where was my mentor? "Jorge!" I seem to shout. Hey, I don't know Spanish. George? Where was that big old, zinc-oxided nose? I neared the edge. My time had come. My teacher, my man from Atlantis, the guy that almost drowned me yesterday. He's ready to bring me home. He waited in the water.

My leap came easily. Splash. Thrash. I'm at the ladder. As the water cleared from my face, I rose out to applause and cheers. The filming stopped. I looked back to the water. George looked up to the board. Our moment had past. I must now move on. George, this leather-skinned, Aryan took two days to deliver as promised, a kid jumping off the diving board. Perhaps not much for 1969, but a lot for a six year old. Not landing on the moon, but a pretty big leap downward nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On The Road To Memorial Weekend 2010

I headed to the mountains of North Carolina to explore a couple of festivals. I’m not going to turn this into a tourism promotion for the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it’s pretty nice up there. It’s become an enclave for northern retirees, artist and hippy-types, and if you look in the right places, you’ll find portals to the 1950s.

My Google-approved route sent me on the interstate half of my drive and single lane state roads the rest. The state roads were more fun because they took me through the mountains. Part of the fun was the journey, and if I can quote myself, “No journey really begins until you’ve passed a blindfolded horse.”

And that’s what happened. I rounded a curve in a foothills area and at the side of the road was what appeared to be a blindfolded horse eating grass. While blindfolded was in question, I nailed the horse eating grass part. I know what you’re thinking, blinders. No, I’ve seen the Kentucky Derby. Not blinders. Blind-fold.

The ride continued. The road winds and I got higher into the hills. Around a sharp bend in the road and there it was, “Bob’s Place”. I’ll let the photo do the talking.

I passed it a few times and knew I had to stop. It looked like a bar, but could have been a general store. There was no town, just a house across the street and a few abandoned shacks. Some graffiti about bikers, the exact quote escapes me, so I’ll go with “We Bikers love crème brulee!”

So I got out and said hello to the three people sitting outside on the porch, interrupting their conversation, which I’m certain had nothing to do with particle accelerators. Turns out the place is a bar. I got a can of beer and stood outside to find out more. I never got any names, but I found out the 70-something woman owned the place, the gentleman with the 1950’s Bryclcreemed hair and shirt sleeves rolled up above his elbows was the bartender, and the potbellied man in the muscle shirt was a fellow patron.

I was definitely an outsider. The others didn’t have a whole lot to say to me. The patron did most of the talking.

The place had been there for 100 years, used to sell moonshine out of it. Pretty sure they still offered it. Was told it was pretty popular at night and on weekends. They even had bands perform there, so check “Yes” in box for electricity. Plus, the jukebox was loaded with Debbie Gibson CD's!

Ok, it’s slippery slope time. How to properly address what happened next without offending. The patron then went “N-word” on me. For this story I will substitute it with “kitty”.

Memorable quotes:

“You won’t find any kitties up here.”

 “I’m country. We’re not like city slickers.”

“We had a kitty come in here one time with the beer delivery man and he tried to get a Coca-Cola. He reached for it and (couldn’t understand his accent) and he got shot three times in the stomach with a pellet gun. He was bleeding, rolling around across the street over there.”

“You’ll be ok up here. No one will bother you.”

He had more to say about the surrounding areas, giving me the idea that local stores did not provide a diversity in hair care products.

Check “No” for indoor plumbing. There was an outhouse behind the bar. Thankfully, the owner had a big bottle of hand sanitizer next to her. Even the worst racists potty then wash their hands.

If you think I over-exaggerated my experience. My photo of the artwork on the side door should cause you to rethink that.

Coming soon: Never fear, the rest of the weekend was fun, involving all sorts of nice folks.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Down The River and Through The Woods...To A Certain Death

At last we read, our hero had just documented his demise from a certain rhino attack while enjoying a nice canoe ride through a National Park in the Kingdom of Nepal, his first kingdom, mind you.

With two hours to go, we were pretty sure of no more rhino encounters as the river is much wider and we were farther from the shore. People relaxed, some dangled their feet into the water. We Brennans aren’t know for our flexibility. I was lucky enough to keep my legs crossed for a few hours without passing out. If I tried to move around, releasing the tension in my legs would’ve vaulted me out of the canoe like a surface-to-air missile.

Our guide told us that the river had crocodiles that attack and we shouldn’t dangle feet into the water, then, as if on cue, we heard scurrying in the grasses and saw the croc dive into the water. Right out of Wild Kingdom. “We scared it.” we’re told. Seemed our reputation from the rhino incident preceded us.

Once we got the additional ground rules and the feet dangling ended, the ride was pretty nice. It was a canoe ride as promised; a couple of hours to the tented camp where we would spend the night, surrounded by wild animals. I had a pretty good idea that we’d be safe there. I was more interested in what exactly these tents were all about. I expected basic sleeping-on-the-ground stuff when trekking, but this tented camp in a jungle had me curious. Regardless, an interesting country for one’s first camping experience.

Finally, we pulled ashore. As we got out of the canoe, our shortest guide took out his stick and swung it like a baseball bat (keep in mind, we weren‘t aware of his job title at this point). I've been living "Wild Kingdom", and this guy wanted to play stick ball.

We stretched and compared notes about the last few hours’ attempt at survival, then our main guide interrupted us with serious “Shhh’s” and requests for silence. He explained that we have a bit of a walk to our vehicles, then a short ride to the camp and adds, "We have to have total silence. Here in the jungle it is very dangerous. It is full of rhinos, Bengal tigers, and sloth bears. If you get charged by a rhino, hide behind a tree.” I looked around, no trees. He saw that I’ve noticed this minor flaw in his plan. “If there are no trees, don’t panic.” He said something about what to do if a tiger attacked, but let’s face it, if a short man with a stick couldn’t fight off a tiger, what hope was there for any of us?

He continued explaining our final way to die given our current circumstances. It just got better and better. “And sloth bears are the most dangerous of all. They attack for no reason and they go for the face.” First off, who the hell knew what a sloth bear was, and what did it have against any of our future modeling careers?

Well, suffice it to say, our potential attackers left us alone. We spoke softly and Mr. Animal Fighter’s stick was…oh hell, you all see the pun coming.

That night, we were paired up for our tent assignments. My buddy, Pete and I in a tent for two equipped with cots and sleeping bags. A sound sleep. As well as a baby in the middle of a wilderness filled with animal sounds only familiar to the Keepers of the Bronz Zoo. For as much as our safety was assured by the staff, waking up in the middle of the night to wild animal noises and knowing they’re really wild animal noises. More so for Pete perhaps, as I found out later, when I woke to the nightmare screams of him being mauled by…eh…

Never mind, his face was fine.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Meet Mr. Chompers…

Though 1000s respectfully admire Mr. Chompers, surprisingly little is known about him. We do know that he was cast in “100 and 1 Dalmatians” as a puppy. He is Yale-educated and a member of secretive Skull and Bones society, along with business leaders, former presidents, and Rin Tin Tin. Mr. Chompers made a fortune inventing a door to fit around the one used by dogs, so humans upright walk into their homes.

Mr. Chompers has agreed to write an occasional column for Mike B. Writes! called Ask Mr. Chompers. Before doing so, he sat (and stayed) for a series of questions, answered through his people.

Occupation – Bon vivant, Raconteur

Marital status – Mr. Chompers keeps his private life private.

Residence – Mr. Chompers winters in St. Bart’s. He summers in his villa in Switzerland.

I stay home to watch – Anything in black and white.

The car I drive – seriously???

Limo and driver – that’s more like… Yes.

The last good book I read – Cujo

The last movie I saw – Mr. Chompers saw Avatar in 3D but struggled keeping the glasses on.

Prized possession – There’s a certain fire hydrant he picked up in the south of France.

Nobody knows I wish I could stop – Sniffing inappropriately.

My fantasy is – Neutering Mike Vick.

Pet peeve – When a human rub its butt on the carpeting.

Someone I’d love to meet – People line up for miles to spend five minutes in Mr. Chompers presence. Next question.

Because you can? – Again, Mr. Chompers keeps his private life private.

Favorite food - …pause

A sunny spot now appears on his oriental rug and Mr. Chompers lays on it. Obviously, he’s grown tiresome of these questions.

Editor's Note - No, he's not my dog.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

My First Canoe Ride

Once settled in the front of the canoe, I looked forward to a relaxing, three hour trip to our campsite. Moments later, screams of terror interrupted my relaxation: "Rhino, Rhino, Rhino!!" Disney’s Jungle Cruise with an over-excited guide? Not quite…The Rapti River, Royal Chitwan National Park, Kingdom of Nepal.

Our adventure began when the five of us arrived at Kathmandu for ten days of trekking and safari. The Land Rover ride from Kathmandu to the park was enough to bruise even the strongest kidneys. Potholes that made the moon look smooth as a baby's bottom. After an eternity or two, we reach our safari destination.

After a brief rest, we prepared ourselves for a trip to what our hosts called "The Tented Camp", a campsite in the jungle where we’d spend the night. Personally, I’d prefer the monorail ride to the Polynesian Village. Had a hankerin' for some poi, I guess. A long canoe ride was a chance to unwind, watch a great sunset, listen to the birds, and inhale fresh air that brought me back to a childhood of summer vacations in Northern Minnesota.

Our canoe was definitely made by Lewis and Clark (Jerry and Roy). Carved out of a log, "seaworthy" isn’t a word I'd use in describing it. Something closer to "the timber Titanic” came to mind. As we rested in it, water inched towards the top. Two guides came with us, one steering from behind, the other pushing from the front with a long bamboo pole.

The ride eased away our tensions. It'd been a long, hot day of dust, potholes, and car sickness, but now vacation began. With the setting sun on the horizon, I enjoyed the sounds of a nature that today's western man rarely experiences, only to be interrupted by the occasional camera shutter. Occasionally, the guides pointed out a birdcall. I pretended to hear it. Although, I am swear I heard the Country Bear Jamboree in the distance.

Fifteen yards ahead, the river at this point only forty feet wide and partially covered by a shadow, had a bend to the right.

I saw it just before the guide, ten yards ahead of us in the river, a small horn out of the water.

A rhinoceros. Of friggin’ courseros.

Using his pole, the guide tried to stop us. He screamed to his partner of the danger ahead as I shouted bad words. We stopped about twenty feet from the animal. We were completely defenseless and this Rhino, first, is an actual Rhino, and we are an actual group of five, twenty-something Americans who, though we expected to see some wild animals the next few days, did not expect be sharing bath time with one a few minutes after our naps!

Feeling the need to document my impending slaughter, I snapped pictures. The guide slapped his pole in the water to frighten our friend. I continued photographing the beast as it moves out of the water. It circled us, making the hoof scraping dirt, charging bull motions. The size of the creature was amazing. It was as big as a van, but it appeared to be afraid of five tourists and a bamboo wielding Nepalii.


The incident lasted only minutes, but I realized this vacation was different. I am in Nepal. This place has its own little fifteen minute time zone. If I died, no one will know for a week. Disney, this isn’t. Ok, back in the boat…

After a quick change of underclothing, the trip continued.

We were only a few minutes into what was a two-hour trip. We stopped to get into a larger canoe, because we had to pick up another worker carrying a stick. It was at this point we found out that no guide had ever been as close to rhino when not riding an elephant. That’s funny, same here!

Oh… the worker we picked up, he was our “animal fighter”.

Coming soon…
Part Two: It’s a nice day for a stroll, as long as you don’t get attacked by a rhino, Bengal tiger, or sloth bear.