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Catch the Blues

2009 story submission by Bob Ferguson

My windows were down on a balmy August night. I’m ecstatic that my critique group finally liked something that I submitted. I had just left St. John’s Pub and was headed east on Lombard going home to the Couve to tell my wife of four decades, Karla about the groups reaction.

“What was that incredible sound,” I say out loud to no one.

The breaks on my ’97 Camry squeak as I round the block. This time I’m looking for where that sound came from. The music of a mandolin, guitar, harmonica, and bass blend into a heavy beat that rushes out the open front door of the Mock Crest Tavern.

The outdoor blackboard sign reads, “Johnny Ward and the Eagle Riding Pappas.” With a name like that I expected to see a motorcycle gang playing music. The Pappas consist of an old timer wearing a newspaper boy hat, Hawaiian shirt black shorts and sandals. He plays the steel guitar with a harmonica frame around his neck. He sings the male vocals and plays the jug for some of their tunes.

The bass player has a gray pony tail dangling past his waist. He hugs the huge instrument while wearing a navy blue T-shirt advertising Budweiser, khaki shorts with a ton of pockets and flip-flops.

The mandolin player is a plain, but pretty gal in her late forties wearing a long flowered dress that reminds me of the hippy days. She not only is a mean picker on any stringed instrument, but she sings the female vocals with a haunting lilt in her voice.

The percussion section is held down by another gray pony tailed gent using thimbles to strum a miniature wash board attached to his chest by leather shoulder straps like a reverse backpack. He wears a long sleeved plaid shirt with old jeans with a big cowboy belt buckle. He rhythmically plinks a C pitched cow bell and an antique wooden box that makes the background beat for the other instruments.

They don’t look like much, but their rhythms are tight, their voices pleasant and their music sounds like something from the Mississippi Delta. I worm my way to the back of the narrow rectangular bar that is crammed with people.

In one corner of the dimly lit bar it looks like a tattoo convention and in another it’s fresh faced students out on a pub crawl before returning to the University of Portland. The stand-up table is surrounded by bearded men in baseball caps wearing the Carhartt pants that they had worn to work on the docks earlier in the day.

There is one chair at the table in the back where a couple in their eighties is sitting; they look like a small isle of conservatism in a sea of liberal sub-cultures. The gentleman is wearing tan pants a pale blue polo shirt and white tennis shoes and socks. The lady is dressed in a scooped neck purple blouse and white slacks. The ensemble is topped off by large purple ear rings.

As the waitress weaves her way between the jostling bodies I order the drink that is on special for the night, “I’d like a Sledgehammer please.”

I stand in the back of the group. Everybody is shuffling their feet and bobbing their heads to the down beat.  I do the same while holding my drink. I soak up the soulful music about “losing my baby,” “working for the man,” and “trying to earn a dollar.” The pounding rhythm invigorates the blood in my veins and makes me feel young again.

My youthful burst is short lived and my recently wrenched back begins to complain and I need a place to sit down. I eyeball the empty chair at the table of the nattily dressed couple. He sees me gawking and says “Have a seat young fella.”

“Thank you. I’m Phil Judson, from Vancouver,” I said.

“I’m Arnie Mills and this is my wife Velma.”

The band took a break just as I sat down. They went outside to grab a smoke.

Do you live close by?” I asked.

“We used to live a few blocks down on the bluff, but now we live in a retirement home just around the corner,” Arnie said.

Velma didn’t say much, she smiled at everybody that walked by and I began to wonder why the chair had been empty. Had their age made them irrelevant to the younger crowd? Did they have nothing to offer? Maybe they really wanted to be left alone and I had intruded.

The combined shots of Jagermeister, Goldschlager, and peppermint schnapps were giving me that fuzzy feeling and I now understood the moniker, Sledgehammer. It was cheap, but not my cup of tea. Too strong and the minty taste belonged in after-dinner mints.

“Do you come here often,” I asked.

“Only when they start the music at six, much past that and we get tuckered out.” Velma smiled in agreement with Arnie’s declaration.

Next to his pint of beer sat a black baseball cap emblazoned with “US Army” arched over “WW II Veteran.” Maybe the chair was empty because he was one of those guys that liked to sit and tell war stories. I was about to find out.

“Thank you for serving,” I said, pointing to his cap. “Where did your travels take you?” I asked.

“I was in the third assault wave on Omaha Beach,” he said. “From there we moved all over Europe until the war ended.”

I didn’t know if he would reply, but I had to ask, “What did you do in the Army?”

“I was a squad leader the whole time and we never did anything stupid so we had only 3 guys out of our ten get wounded and none were killed,” he said.

“It’s not every day that I get a chance to meet somebody that saw the invasion from the start to finish,” I said as the band tuned up.

The blues is a music you feel. The guitar riffs grab your mind and you feel the bass through your feet. Why had I waited until I was sixty three years old to sample blues music?

I walked Arnie and Velma to the door. I followed his lead, and put a few bucks in the tip jar, which was woefully low on cash.

I told my wife about the critique group, but not my foray into a blues bar for a few hours. I wasn’t sure she would understand.

The next month after the Thursday night meeting of the critique group was over, I headed to the tavern. Arnie and Velma were again at the small table in the back of the crowded bar with an extra chair. I didn’t wait; “May I join you once more?” I asked as I shook Velma’s hand.

“It’s nice to meet you,” she said.

“She’s a little forgetful,” Arnie said, “But you don’t throw away 58 years of marriage for a little inconvenience like that.”

Velma smiled at Arnie. I saw commitment in her eyes. They no longer twinkled or sparkled, but they looked at him like she must have gazed at him when he was a dashing young soldier.

For an entire year I became a monthly regular at the Mock Crest. My drink of choice was Pabst Blue Ribbon. It was cheap and I could afford to buy Arnie a round. Velma always greeted me with, “It’s nice to meet you.”

A few days after one of our sessions I was shocked. It was an obituary.

“Arnold Mills died peacefully in his sleep. He served with distinction in the U. S. Army and was awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star for extreme heroism.”

Arnie hadn’t exactly lied to me, but he was one of the three wounded in his squad and he never told me the story about the Silver Star.

“He returned to his home town of Portland and became a machinist and worked in the Portland ship yards. He married Velma May Torson, his high school sweetheart. She still lives near their beloved house on the bluff where they moved after losing their first home in the Vanport flood of 1948.”

Like everybody else at the tavern, I really wasn’t interested in their life. I didn’t want the old folks to tell me more than I wanted to hear. That’s why the chair was always empty. For a year we chatted, and talked, but we didn’t commune. I had frittered away an opportunity to hear about a richly lived life.

“A viewing will be held at St. Agnes Cathedral at 7:30 p.m. on Friday the ninth of April with a military service at Willamette National Cemetery on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. the tenth of April, 2009.”

I skipped the viewing. I wanted to remember Arnie sitting in his usual chair drinking his customary, one pint of PBR nodding his head and tapping his toes to the blues. As a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran I wanted to honor Arnie for his service to our country. I had never done anything for veteran’s organizations, but I would, by damned, honor the life of Arnie.

Two black limousines pulled up next to a small pavilion where I saw a casket draped with the American flag. I knew that was Arnie. Another limo continued on about another hundred yards. I didn’t know the young man with her, but the other person was Velma holding a bouquet of red roses. The rows upon rows of white crosses always seemed to be lined up no matter which way you looked at them. They climbed and descended a small knoll like a giant white rolling wave. She was laying flowers on a grave, but whose? What more had I missed.

A lieutenant colonel barked “Atteeenhut,” and two corporals in a crisp, but solemn manner folded the flag in front of the small audience of about twelve elderly people seated in two rows of chairs. I stood behind them with a few others. I was the only one from the tavern.

A staff sergeant played taps on his bugle as the flag was being folded. Velma was handed the flag by a soldier in his Army dress green uniform. He was a good looking kid with a chest full of medals showing his tours in Iraq. She reached out her hand and he took off his white glove and gently shook her hand and she said “Thank you,” looking at him with eyes that may have lacked youthful vision, but were filled with understanding and gratitude for her long life with Arnie.

I walked down to the row of crosses where Velma had placed the roses. The inscription was simple Patrick Mills, Pvt. USMC—March 12, 1949 – August 18th 1968. They not only lost their house to flooding in ’48, they lost a son in Vietnam in ’68. Arnie could have told me lots of sad stories, but our conversations were always upbeat, looking towards the future and how Velma’s memory seemed to be getting a little better. Maybe he was right. She knew right where to place the flowers.

The ride back to the Couve seemed longer than its thirty minutes. It was difficult to be sad for a good ending to a life well lived, but I had the blues, which have only one cure.

“C’mon dear, the Eagle Ridin’ Pappas are playing at the Mock Crest,” I said as I opened the door.

We ordered, what else, a Blues Burger Basket. We were now the senior members in the tavern sitting at the small table with an empty chair. Like Arnie and Velma we had become invisible to the young folks. I vowed to break the mold of our generation.

Remembering back to the first time I me Arnie I said “Go ahead and sit down young fellow.” He had several tattoos and reluctantly took the chair. “Tell me about your tattoos. I’ve always wondered how a person decides what tattoo to get,” I asked. “Can I get you a PBR?”

“No thanks, I don’t drink anymore. In fact, this flying eagle carrying a banner with the date of January 1, 1998 is the day I gave up alcohol and drugs and I’ve been soaring ever since.”

My view of every tattooed person in the bar changed that instant. As the band tuned up, I ordered a PBR for myself and two diet cokes, one for Karla and one for our new friend Brent. The blues never sounded so happy, the beer was never so cold, the chair has never been empty since that night, and my critique group says my writing has never been better. Thanks Arnie Mills.

© 2009 Bob Ferguson


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