Touched by the Holocaust

Many years ago, after our first year of teaching, my wife and I spent the summer camping around Europe. We had picked up a rental car and a tent in Paris and drove to Florence, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Salzburg, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam. In 1967, the Renault had no seat belts, and only one rear view mirror in the middle of the windshield.

While driving on the Autobahn from Vienna to Salzburg in Austria, I attempted to pass a car slower than us, but as I pulled into the the left lane, ZOOM! came a car from behind out of nowhere, and I quickly pulled back into my lane, started to fishtail, and rolled over several times, sliding to a stop on the roof. With no seat belts, we had violently bounced around the interior, acquiring lots of cuts and bruises. My wife had a pulled muscle in her back and spent the night in the hospital. The car was a total loss, but it was insured.

One of the policemen who helped with the accident spoke English. He was very kind to us, and helped me find a room in a Gasthof in the center of the nearby little old town of Enns on the Danube river. He said he had learned English as a prisoner of war under the Americans during The War. They had treated him kindly, and he was happy to return the kindness.

Wife was returned to the Gasthof the next day, but spent the next week in bed, on a straw mattress on the third floor of the 400-year-old inn. The walls were stone, and even the floors were stone. As I remember, we were charged $7 per day for the room.

Clock Tower in Enns, Austria

Clock Tower in Enns, Austria

While she was recuperating, I went for walks around town and would come back and tell her stories of my adventures. I climbed the old clock tower just down the street from our Gasthof and watched a boy ring all the bells. A plaque on the side of a house in the town declared that the building was the birthplace of composer Anton Bruckner. Further investigation found that he had been a choirboy in St. Florian, a nearby town, and for most of his life had been the Kappelmeister there, and was entombed there.

On another walk, I found a church that was being renovated. With the floors removed, I could see that it was built over some ancient Roman ruins. Next to the church was a cemetery. Many of the monuments in the cemetery had photos of the people printed on porcelain and attached to the stone. One picture still stands out in my memory: a young man about my age (mid 20s at the time), wearing a Nazi uniform. Next to it was a picture of his real grave in Poland, showing a simple swastika. The monument said he was a home owner and coal handler in the town, as his father had been.

My mind was spinning! How could this beautiful and peaceful Austrian village with such kind and charming people, provide Nazi soldiers to the War?! How? The same way that American towns provided soldiers to the War. Had we met before the War, I was sure that man and I would have been friends. But the War… I prayed that he was conscripted as a soldier, and not one of the SS guards who ran a concentration camp.

When our week there was ended, we arranged to rent another car. It was a small DAF with a two-cylinder engine and a two-speed transmission. Wife was still very leery of any car, and I had to promise to stay off the Autobahn as much as possible. The folks in the Gasthof had told us how to find Bruckner’s church, and also suggested we visit Mauthausen, which had been a concentration camp during the War.

The church was lovely, with a high ceiling that created a ringing echo for Bruckner’s music. He created a set of short motets and I have since conducted two of them, and both had a section of soaring crescendo followed by a sudden and dramatic grand pause to allow the church to sustain and amplify the chord and send it to heaven. Many years later, my choir sang his “Ave Maria” motet in the Baroque cathedral in St. Galen, Switzerland, and memories of that beautiful music and the vibrant grand pause in the sanctuary still bring a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. American churches tend to quash the sound of the choir.

We visited the old concentration camp at Mauthausen, where the horrors of the Holocaust became more vivid than we could have imagined. The granite quarry there was an important source of stone for Hitler’s building projects, and was also planned as a final destination for many thousands of prisoners.  In fact, 14,000 victims are buried on the grounds, and many more thousands were disposed in the crematoriums.

Mauthausen Concentration Camp

Mauthausen Concentration Camp

The quarry was lined with cliffs from which the SS guards would throw prisoners who were too ill to work. The steps carved into the cliff provided access to the bottom of the quarry. They were called the “186 steps of death” because prisoners would be forced to transport 50-pound stones on wooden racks balanced precariously on their backs as they climbed the tortuous, steep, high, jagged, and uneven steps. If a prisoner stumbled with a load on their back, they would tumble down the steps, taking other prisoners with them. Sometimes the guards would roll stones down the steps to see how many prisoners they could destroy with one stone.

An estimated 197,464 prisoners passed through the Mauthausen camp system between August 1938 and May 1945. At least 95,000 died there. More than 14,000 were Jewish. – Holocaust Encyclopedia

In May, 1945, the U.S. Army liberated 40,000 prisoners in the Mauthausen camps. In the weeks and months after liberation, several thousand of them died because they were too ill or weak to survive, despite receiving food and medical care. The Army had to burn some of the filth infested and disease-ridden barracks to protect the survivors.

When we were there in the summer of 1967, there was a memorial to those who suffered and died there, then in 1970 a larger memorial was built on the grounds. During the Holocaust of World War II, the Nazis killed six million Jews from many countries in Europe, and about 20 million Russians, Poles, Czechs, and other Europeans.

When the concentration camps were liberated by the American Army, General Eisenhower insisted on preserving the event in photographs because otherwise, no one would believe this had actually happened. (Search for “Eisenhower’s Proof”)

After we left Austria, we drove along the back roads through Germany, sort of tracing the border between East Germany and West Germany. The border would remain in place until the reunification of Germany 20+ years later. We followed one road that went towards the East until it came to an end with a simple wooden barrier followed by a deep ditch with a tree planted in it. About 10 yards beyond the ditch was a chain link fence about 10-feet high with razor wire coiled along the top. About 20 yards beyond that fence was an identical fence, then a ditch with a tree, and then another wooden barrier and the road continued into the countryside beyond. Between the two fences was bare ground with coiled razor wire and no vegetation. Beyond the border were some trees and farmland.

I remember thinking that I could easily get around that barrier and across the ditch, and perhaps even scale the fence, but decided that would be a dumb idea. We drove by a border crossing a few miles north where we could have turned right and conceivably crossed into East Germany. We kept going North instead but picked up a pamphlet that described how the border was structured. It showed that the bare ground between the fences was a live mine field, and that there were watchtowers hidden in the trees.

When we got home and developed our pictures, we could see a watchtower partially hidden in the trees on the other side of where we were standing. A Stasi or Russian soldier with a gun probably had me in his sights as I looked at the wooden barrier and pondered…

For more info:
St. Florian Church and Monastery
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Mauthausen Concentration Camp
Fortifications of the inner German border – Wikipedia

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The Three Baritones at Resonance

My voice teacher for many years, Phyllis Peterson, a mezzo with many Carmen performances under her belt, often said that in spite of the tenor usually being the romantic lead in operas, she always preferred to go home with the baritone. Her husband, baritone Robert Peterson, would just smile.

Years ago, “The Three Tenors” made a big splash, and even though those guys were probably the top three opera tenors in the world, and all at the top of their skills (or nearly so), it was a terrible show. The egos and natural competition between them overshadowed the music so much that for me, it was unbearable.

Saturday night in Bellevue, Washington, at the Resonance in SOMA Towers, I heard three excellent baritones sing a joint program of songs, arias, and even a couple of opera scenes, as well as a nice variety of Christmas pieces. Although they gave each other a lot of good banter, it was the music that was most important to each of them, and it showed. The singers were Brian James Myer, Gabriel Preisser and Nathan Stark, who is technically a bass-baritone. At the piano was the wonderful David McDade, principal coach at Seattle Opera.

They opened with the Toreador Song from Carmen, passing the verses among them as they would a carafe of wine at a party. Nobody got left out, and nobody was outdone by the others. Then they did a set of Christmas songs, beginning with “Fröliche Weinacht überall”, a lusty traditional German carol sung by Nathan, “Gesu Bambino” sung by Gabriel, and my favorite Russian-Jewish-Christmas song, “White Christmas”, sung by Brian.

Then they took a perfectly nice, romantic ballad from Camelot, and turned it into a hilarious satire on the cliche of every romantic pop singer who sings to a selected lady in the audience as an attempt to rev the motors of all the ladies in the audience. Kudos to Peggy who was daft enough to volunteer to be the center of their attention. “If Ever I Would Leave You” has never been funnier. It was followed with Brian and Gabriel singing the delightfully edgy and rapid “Agony” duet from “Into the Woods” by Sondheim, which was the first of several pieces for two baritones from the opera and musical theatre repertoire.

After Nathan deftly sang the Catalog Aria (“Madamina”) from “Don Giovanni” by Mozart, Brian sang probably the last aria anyone would expect in a Christmas concert: “Tanzlied des Pierrot” from “Die Tote Stadt” by Korngold. (The title of the opera means “The Dead City”!) Having sung that aria at a concert only three days earlier (in the first of my “2nd Annual Farewell Tour” concerts), it certainly stood out in the program, and was especially fun for me. He didn’t explain the song, which was good, but he didn’t pull any punches with the music, either, which was wonderful.

After “Leise rieselt der Schnee”, a lovely traditional German carol in a three part harmony setting written by Brian, Nathan did a delightfully silly imitation of Elvis in “Blue Christmas” with the other guys hamming it up as the backup singers.

During intermission, I learned from the other folks around me that none of them knew any of the singers and were there because they had simply read about it in The Seattle Times. After the concert, Nathan told me that it took several phone calls to get the paper to mention it. Yay for him for being persistent, and yay for them for coming!

Gabriel didn’t come out with the others after the intermission, and as they wondered where he might be, they told David that he should just play something while we were waiting. So, he started playing the intro to “Largo al Factotum” from “The Barber of Seville”, making it no big surprise to me when Gabriel came in through a side door as the bragging barber. What was a surprise, was that woven within the quite difficult aria was a blatant commercial for their CD, “Christmas Around the World”. This could have been way over the top, but comedy always has that risk, and he nailed it. Besides being musically on target, hearing the commercial pleas skilfully scattered among the Italian lyrics at a breakneck speed was a real kick!

The breakneck lyrics continued in the next piece which was the “Cheti, cheti immantinente” duet from “Don Pasquale” by Donizetti, with Brian and Nathan. This is probably the main reason I’m a terrible reviewer: I have way too much fun at concerts! As this piece is intended to do, it brought belly laughs and cheers from the audience, including me.

Now for something completely different: Brian sang “There But For You Go I” from “Brigadoon”, which I sang in my “1st Annual Farewell Tour” three years ago. It is a great song, and he presented it directly, and with heart.

Gabriel then took another turn into comedy with “Where Is the Life of Late I Led?!” from “Kiss Me Kate”. The song lists a number of ladies with whom the character had been romantically entangled, and he wandered through the audience pointing them out and singing directly to them, to their delighted surprise.

Brian’s three-part a capella arrangement of the familiar carol “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” was a musical highlight for me. The melody sometimes changed from one voice to another mid-phrase, and though that shouldn’t have worked, it did work, because of the skill applied by those voices with subtlety and loving care.

A Christmas concert with this variety has almost no chance of getting out the door without a rendition of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)” by Mel Torme and Robert Wells. Yes, I sang it in my program earlier that week, and though Nathan did a nice job with it, I was struck by how nice and original the piano accompaniment was. After the concert, I asked David where he had gotten the arrangement, and it turns out to be the exact same as the one I had used. He said something about perhaps having “made up some of it”. Yeah, right.

The end of the concert was the finale from “Don Giovanni” with Nathan as the statue of the Commendatore, Brian as Leporello, and Gabriel as Don Giovanni. I love that piece; Giovanni finally gets sent to hell. Ah, sweet justice. However, as I told the guys after the concert, I really missed seeing the demons drag him off.

Their encore of “O Holy Night” was a very nice finish to a really enjoyable evening.

Most of their Christmas songs also appear on their CD, but after listening to the CD, I would also like to have heard Brian sing “Petit Papa Noël” by Raymond Vincy & Henri Martinet. This is a French song I’d not heard before, and now I love it.


This was one of the best examples of what a voice recital could be and at times should be. First, there was a wide variety of first rate music performed with professional integrity and skill. Second, there was also music that both aunt Jenny and uncle Fred and their bowling buddies would love, too. In other words, it included at least some music that was instantly accessible by anyone. If you tell your audience they aren’t smart enough to “get” your music, you deserve to not have an audience. However, not everyone can or should do comedy, at least not without a good coach and perhaps even a director. You also must pay very close attention to your audience and their responses.

Also, by swapping in some non-holiday music for the Christmas songs, this kind of program can be done any time of year, and (with a little planning, some publicity, and one or two rehearsals with a top accompanist) it can be done in any city where the guys happen to show up. Every actor in the country has, or should have, a “one-man/one-woman show” in his or her back pocket so they have something to work on and to make a little money with when they are out of work, which is, by the way, inevitable for both actors and singers. Every singer should have a voice recital in their back pocket for the same reasons. However, it absolutely cannot be an academic recital that only your professors back in college would love. It MUST be a program with a wide appeal that respects and appreciates your audience where they are, and draws them toward more of the “good stuff”.

My only complaint for this event would be the printed programs. Black and gold print on dark red paper? I couldn’t read it until I got home and put it under some harsh light. Another recital I went to this year had a pretty design, but used a type face that was too small for old eyes like mine to even see, let alone read. Who has the time and money to go to concerts? OLD PEOPLE DO! Be kind and invite them to enjoy the concert, and make sure the programs add to the total experience for everyone.

I’m not a fan of the separate sheets of translations unless you know you will have lots of professors or compulsive/obsessive folks there. Tell the audience what a song is about or provide a paraphrase of the text in the program, then let them just listen to the music and imagine what the meaning might be. This encourages your audience to be active, rather than passive, listeners.

Great show, guys!

© 2016 by Michael Kysar
All Rights Reserved.

Brian James Myer - BaritoneGabriel Preisser - BaritoneNathan Stark - Bass-Baritone

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Don’t You Love the Disasters?

Yes, disasters are funny, at least most of them, and often only in hindsight. Here are several disasters, beginning with a really big one. Our wedding!

It is ALWAYS too soon to panic!Yakima, WA – 12/19/1964 – Temperature: 14 degrees F. Snowfall that day was about 10 inches, but I could have sworn it was two feet! The event was to begin at 8:00 pm, and we expected between 100 and 200 people, but it was still snowing. At the scheduled time, there were only two people in the pews, and they had come because they heard the bride had designed and made her own dress, and thought it would be a lovely wedding.

We postponed for an hour while a string trio played some Mozart. My Best Man was a buddy from high school, but had to stay on the farm to help keep his cows from freezing, so my roommate, an Air Force ROTC officer, was pressed into service. A few more people arrived late, mostly those who were to be in the wedding party. My family still hadn’t arrived, so we postponed another hour while another friend improvised some Christmas carols on violin.

My family had taken the train from Seattle because of the weather, but the train was trapped in the snow on the pass for five hours. We postponed for another hour, and the string trio may have started over, I don’t remember. I do remember the bride’s mother was pretty much horrified, “You’re postponing again?” By the way, she wore a very nice pink dress with silver flakes in the fabric. Later, you’ll understand why I mention this.

Finally, the service got under way. Bride’s sister, stood at her side as the Matron of Honor, and tried to keep a close eye on her 4-year-old daughter, who was the flower girl. My Best Man was at my side. We all bowed our heads, and I noticed the Best Man was standing awfully close. He was leaning into me; in fact, he was tipping over toward me. He had fainted, and was on his way to the floor.

One of the groomsmen helped me lay him on the floor just inside the altar rail, with his feet off to my right. The priest kept going with his prayer. One of the groomsmen went out the side door and crawled back in on the inside of the altar rail and pulled the unconscious body of the Air Force guy, who had locked his knees, out through the side door behind the rail.

The wedding party, standing with us were all very aware of the disaster taking place, but were trying to be cool about it. The flower girl, however, started to cry and ran screaming down the main aisle, followed by her mother.

It was very quiet up front, with no Best Man and no Matron of Honor. The priest did his pronouncement thing, and we were off to the reception, during which my family arrived from the train station. There was no time for them to change into dress clothes. After greeting the bride’s family, my mother told me she was so relieved that there was no time to change, because she had brought a very nice pink dress with silver flakes in the fabric. The exact same fabric as the mother of the bride.

Wife says that the flower shop delivered the wrong flowers, but the right cake was delivered on time. Since there were more people in the wedding party than in the pews, there was lots of cake left over.

For our honeymoon, we took a bus from Yakima to Port Angeles where a restaurant had offered a free dinner and a motel had offered a free night. The next morning, we got back on the bus to go home, then all the men had to get off and give the bus a push to get it started, because it had frozen.

There are weddings, and there are marriages. Some would call our wedding a disaster, but in reality, like most all disasters, it wasn’t a zero percent disaster. And the marriage turned out great! Today marks year 51, and I think there’s a good chance that we’re gonna make it work.

Yes, in hindsight, disasters are fun to talk about. Get any group of performers together and tell about some disaster, and they could laugh and tell stories for hours.

More Fun Disasters: First Student Recital

As an undergrad for my very first solo at a student recital, right after the words, “What are we waiting for, oh my heart?” My mind went blank. All I could do was stop and sweat. My pianist started to giggle, and finally said to me and the audience, “I don’t know, what ARE we waiting for?” I think I laughed; we started back a couple of phrases and finished the song.

Cue the Applause

A Facebook friend wrote, “I finished the first half of the performance before the intermission, and there was no applause. There was no distinct cue for me to exit or for the intermission. After waiting what seemed like an eternity, I started to exit. The audience slowly started to applaud, but I was already almost to the wings and by then it was too late to stop or go back. In retrospect, it’s hilarious, but weird at the time.”

A Traviata Dress

A Seattle Opera chorister was just offstage, ready to waltz into the light with his dance partner when she caught her dress on a nail and ripped the whole side off of her dress. There was their cue, so he reached down, grabbed the loose cloth, trapped it under his hand at her waist, and away they went. Neither cast, crew, nor audience ever noticed.

It Happens to the Best

In a stage play with James Stewart many years ago, a guy was supposed to come in the door on a certain cue. Stewart gave the cue. Nothing. Then he saw the doorknob twisting, but the door wouldn’t open. “I think someone’s trying to open the door,” he said as he crossed to the door and gave it a tug. The one-piece set, had been dropped in from above the stage and was balanced by sandbags so it was almost weightless. When he tugged on the doorknob, the whole set suddenly came up off the floor about 3 feet. The man outside the door crawled under the set into the room, and continued the play as Stewart put the set back on the floor. I’m pretty sure there was applause.

The Guns of Tosca

This story has been around a long time: A touring production of “Tosca” had recruited some college students who didn’t know the opera to play the firing squad for the final scene. They only attended one blocking rehearsal and didn’t even get to finish the scene. They asked when do they exit, and the director was busy and gave the standard, “Exit with the principals” instruction.

The tenor was at center stage with his hands tied, and the soprano was behind him and to his right, wringing her hands. The squad marched on stage, and realized that they hadn’t been told who they were supposed to shoot. They had a 50% chance of getting it right, so they aimed at the soprano and the shot rang out. The tenor fell to the floor. The soprano finished the scene and ran to the back and leaped off the parapet out of sight. Then the firing squad followed her, jumping off the back of the set.

One more: The Conductor’s Stripe

My wife was away on a business trip, and I was dressing to conduct a concert in a silk tux that I had inherited from my dad, who didn’t know it was a tux. I had just put on the trousers, and sat down to put on my shoes. Rip! My pants had ripped from the crotch up the back, almost all the way to the belt line. I remembered that my wife had some ribbon-type stuff that could be ironed onto a seam to hold it together. It was hard to find, but I found it and mended the tear. When I held the pants up to admire my repair, there was a white stripe down the back of my black pants. I hadn’t ironed it on exactly right, and the ribbon stuff was white, and since conductors always raise their arms while conducting, I had to act fast. Solution: cover the white gap with a black felt tip marker. I was only slightly distracted during the performance.

Now it is your turn.

Please add your disaster story in the comments. I can’t wait to read them.

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Christmas at Grandmother’s Farm

Grandmother was a sweet little lady with polite and elegant language — sometimes. She could also swear like a sailor, and since this story is true, the language might be too colorful for some readers.

I squished my way up the muddy driveway from the school bus on the last school day before Christmas. When I approached the front door, I stopped and listened to the shouting going on inside the house.

Lester with Scrawny Tree

My favorite Christmas tree picture with Lester.

“Shit Melinda! You bastards track mud all over the goddamned house!” She was shouting to no one, since she was alone in the house. Grandmother didn’t talk like other kids’ grandmothers. I don’t know who “Melinda” was, or how that name became paired as it did, but it was always shouted as a pair.

I couldn’t see her from outside, but I knew she had a cigarette in her mouth and was probably getting irritated with the broom for its inaccuracy and lack of effectiveness. Later, she would sweetly ask if I could be a dear and sweep the house for her before dinner.

Lester was Number 9

As I approached the door, Lester Perry (rumored to be her ninth husband) was over by the barn. He whistled and waved at me, and slowly said, “You don’t want to go in there right now.”

He always talked slowly. I saw him move quickly once when he was dodging the hind leg of an irritated dairy cow, but other than that, he moved slowly. Lester usually wore denim jeans, often with red suspenders, over a plaid flannel shirt. A baseball cap sat on the back of his round head on a thick mass of gray hair, and a pair of rubber boots covered his jeans up to his knees. He had a slim build that belied the strength of his muscular hands that developed from years of being a dairy farmer before the days of automatic milking machines. Lester always had a good sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. I especially enjoyed his soft, slow, “Heh, heh, heh” when he thought he or someone had said something funny. “She’s gittin’ ready for Christmas, an’ we need to tread lightly till it’s all over.”

Grandmother loved Christmas

Actually, she loved some of it. She loved the family gatherings, the presents, the decorations, the lights, the food, and especially the moments when she was at center stage. However, she detested all the work required to bring about the parts she loved. Cooking, cleaning, and decorating all required more of her than she could bear quietly. Any frustration was met with “Shit Melinda!” and other colorful epithets more suitable in a ship’s galley than in any other grandmother’s kitchen.

She was born as Jessie Romaine Barrere, but for most of her life she was known as Joe, a direct descendant, so she said, of a pirate from the ship of Jean Laffite who saved New Orleans during the War of 1812.

In 1959, she was known as Jessie Perry, wife of a dairy farmer, member of the Eastern Star, the Grange, and the Ladies Aid Society, if there was one. The church ladies she socialized with had no idea that she was once an expert horsewoman on the plains of Montana, or that she was once known as the legendary “Ptomaine Joe” who ran a saloon named in her honor, or that she was rumored to have had nine husbands, not counting a few very close friends.

Her adventure at the saloon came to an end on Halloween, 1950, when she vanished during a masquerade ball in the bar on the eve of its financial collapse. (See “Ptomaine Joe Vanished on Halloween“.) There had been rumors after she vanished that she had gone to Idaho, or to Las Vegas, but the only record of her I’ve found is that she went to stay with her Aunt Cora in Washington State. I think she was looking for a new husband who owned some property, and that’s how she found Lester, whom she married in 1955.

My first Christmas on the farm

This was my first Christmas with Grandmother and Lester. Almost everything about her was new to me. I had come to Washington for a visit over the summer of 1959 and found a job at the pea vinery. A conflict with a diesel tractor put me in the hospital for about a week, but most importantly, it required me to start my junior year at the local high school so I could be close to my doctor for several months of checkups.

I had already attended eleven schools in five other states, and in four of those states (North Dakota, Colorado, California and Oklahoma), we lived in the same house. Somehow I persuaded my family that if at all possible, my last two years of school should be in the same place. After the tractor squashed me, I talked Grandmother and Lester into letting me live with them on the dairy farm. Dad, who at that time was living in the Mojave Desert, made some comment about me living with his ex-wife’s mother would certainly be an educational experience, and somehow he talked my step-mother into going along with the plan.

My mother and father had divorced in Idaho when I was barely two and when Dad left, my sister Vivian and I left with him. When I was almost four, he and Mary were married in Oklahoma, and she loved my dad with a joy and passion that burned brightly for all the rest of their lives. As a result, I was raised in a loving religious family, and although dad was an ironworker and could handle salty language when necessary, I had never been around people who yelled or used language quite the way that Grandmother did.

Theatre of her mind

“Christmas at Grandmother’s Farm” was an imaginary theatrical piece that was alive in Grandmother’s mind. It was drawn from Currier and Ives, Walt Disney, Coca Cola ads, and Perry Como holiday television specials, as well as every other sappy feel-good story and poem she had ever read. The starring role of “The Grandmother” was a role for which she had lived her entire life. There were other roles, too: “Grandfather” (although Lester was more of a Grampa than a Grandfather), “The Loving Family,” “The Turkey,” and so on.

The script for the theatre in her mind did not include cooking, cleaning, or the other stuff of reality. As I said, these tasks were endured outside of her performance, and not very quietly, in order to make the performing parts possible. When she was in her role of “The Grandmother,” she was sweet, eloquent, charming, and supportive. However, the real Ptomaine Joe could emerge suddenly, so we had to be on our toes.

Michael at 16

Yeah, this is Michael at 16. Wish I still had the hat.

I still had to do chores

Lester and I stood there by the barn, looking at the house, listening to her cussing out the broom. His advice was well taken, but I had chores to do, which required me to get into the house and change clothes.

I made it into my room without her seeing me, but on my way out, she spotted me. While I stretched into my old coat and put on my cowboy hat, she put down the broom and crunched out her cigarette. She was wearing a flowered “house dress” with a white apron. I guess that’s what she thought farmers’ wives should wear. Her hair had been bright white for years, often permed up with lots of tight curls. Her face had more wrinkles than anyone I knew, and her eyes had heavy folds over the eyelids that made her squint when she smiled. When she laughed, it was loud and hearty, except when she was around the ladies in town.

She came over to me, smiled sweetly, and said, “Mike, dear, Christmas will be here next week. What’s on your wish list for Christmas?”

I thought for a second (obviously not long enough) and noticed my old coat was in pretty bad shape, so I replied, “Grandmother, I don’t really need much of anything. How about sewing a new button on my coat?”

Now this seems like a simple request, but it didn’t fit her idea of my role as part of “The Loving Family.” Her sweet smile immediately disappeared. “Hell, do it yerself! I don’t sew for shit! Let me know when you know what you want for Christmas!” And with that she turned to light up another cigarette. I escaped to the barn.

The characters of Christmas

Christmas Eve was Grandmother’s day for baking pies. She never baked cakes because cakes don’t do well when the cook kicks the oven door shut. Early on Christmas morning, she would start banging pans, smoking cigarettes and swearing at the damn turkey. During the cooking part of the day, she referred to it as “the damn turkey,” but when it was placed upon “The Christmas Table,” it was “The Turkey.” After watching her bang and puff her way around the kitchen, mixing up the ingredients for the dressing, I was convinced the dressing probably included some cigarette ashes. I shook my head to get that thought out of my mind. I knew we would eat the stuff anyway.

The role of “The Loving Family” had several sub-roles. My mother was born Aileen Lane, from Grandmother’s first marriage to John Denver Lane. She grew up as an only child in the shadow of her mother’s enormous ego. Grandmother was known as Joe, and mother was known as Little Joe. When Grandmother was basking in the warmth of attention and admiration from fans and friends, Mother was required to stand quietly aside and fend for herself, both physically and emotionally. Still, she admired her mother for all her good qualities, and was resigned to occasionally being required to play her role as “The Daughter.”


Jessie with Great-Granddaughters Leanna and Patty.

“The Grandchildren” role was assigned to my sister and me, except that Vivian and her husband, Gene, had children of their own, so you would think they would be “The Great-Grandchildren,” but no, Leanna and Patty were part of “The Grandchildren.” I remember her specific instructions: “You must always call me ‘Grandmother.’ Not ‘Grandma,’ ‘Great-Grandma’, or ‘Gramma,’ and especially not ‘Granny!’ ” The latter name was snarled with a bitterness that indicated pretty clearly how she would react if addressed carelessly. No one in their right mind would do such a thing.

Language and poetry

“Where’s the goddamned turkey pan? Mike, have you cleaned your room yet? Oh, and straighten up that crap on the back porch! Lester, go park that damned truck on the other side of the barn! We’ll need room for Aileen and Harold to park. They’ll be late anyway! Those bastards didn’t get here till 4:30 last year, and the damn turkey was almost dried up. That’s piss-poor manners, if ya ask me!”

It’s poetry, ain’t it? Some of what she said really didn’t make sense if you thought about it. Calling her own daughter a bastard seemed to reflect more on herself than “The Daughter.” Oh never mind.

Timing was always off for someone

Christmas Dinner was always scheduled for four in the afternoon, but it never happened then. Vivian and her family would arrive an hour or so earlier with a vegetable dish, and she was allowed to help out in the kitchen. Men weren’t allowed in the kitchen during the holiday meal preparations, and for lots of reasons, the men were very glad. They sat in the living room watching football and drinking beer, except for me, who didn’t get any beer. Not that I wanted any. As I said, I grew up in a religious family where beer virtually did not exist, although it was beginning to have a little bit of interest for me.

As the afternoon approached four o’clock, the noise in the kitchen grew and the air grew more blue from a combination of her smoke and her language. “Shit Melinda! I knew those bastards would be late! Lester, can you see ‘em yet? The goddamned dinner is almost ready! I’m not putting the damned turkey on the table until they drive up the road!”

The men put the kitchen table in the living room and extended it to its full length, then added a couple of card tables to the end of it, making a long table with lots of room for food, plates, glasses, and elbows. As we worked, we looked out the window for Aileen and Harold’s car. Finally, we saw them coming up the road. “Here they come!” someone shouted, and we all looked at our watches: four twenty-five.

Just watch her transform herself

“Shit Melinda!” She exclaimed as she quickly wiped her hands, put down her cigarette, and ran out the door shaking her fist. “I knew you bastards were going to be late! What the hell did you think we were going to do with that damned turkey?!” As she approached the car, she slowed a little, began to smile, and you could see her change to her role as Grandmother.

“Merry Christmas! I’m so glad you could come! How have you been feeling, dear?” Then over her shoulder, “Mike, get yer ass out here and help carry their things into the house!”

Mom and Harold have arrived

I was already reaching into the back seat, gathering presents to put under the tree. After Grandmother finished with her sweet greeting for Aileen and Harold, she hurried back into the house to take charge of getting the food on the table. I gave Mom a hug and Harold gave me a smile and a gentle slap on the back.

Looking a bit like a larger version of Harrison Ford, my mother’s second husband, Harold, was a Norwegian longshoreman who drank very strong coffee with a teaspoon of butter in it. They lived in a houseboat on Lake Union in Seattle, in the neighborhood where Tom Hanks would have lived if “Sleepless in Seattle” were about real people. In those days, boathouses were not the charming, upscale neighborhoods they are today. It was definitely a working class neighborhood for longshoremen, sailors, and factory workers. Their house was tied to an abutment for Aurora Bridge, which essentially meant that they had free moorage for their house. Harold was a good man. He was kind to my mother and took good care of her. Considering she had over thirty major surgeries in her life, often suffered long periods of dark depressions, and also couldn’t cook worth a darn, his devotion was especially appreciated by everyone who loved her.

Every year on Christmas Day, Aileen and Harold spent the morning with his kids and grand kids in Bellingham, then drove out to the farm near Sumas later in the afternoon. It isn’t always easy to get away from family on time, so they were always late arriving at Grandmother’s for dinner.

When they came inside, there were handshakes and hugs all around. The food migrated from kitchen to table, and finally Harold was called to carry in “The Turkey.” We sat around the table in a sort of pecking order with the kids, Leanna, and Patty sitting the farthest from the head of the table, where Grandmother sat next to “The Turkey.” This was the real beginning of the meal. Grandmother stood, beaming at feast and family gathered before her.

Let the play begin!

“It’s so wonderful to have my family together for Christmas,” she said warmly, clasping her hands in front of the brightly colored Christmas apron she wore over her house dress. A tear was almost visible at the corner of her eye, and her voice had a slight quake of emotional sincerity.

“It’s time for The Blessing,” she said with her eyes closed opening her arms wide as if to enclose us all in a huge hug.

“Heavenly Father, thank you for bringing our family together at this wonderful time of year. We ask that you continue to be with us and bless us as we walk the journeys of our lives. Bless each person here today, and especially bless those who aren’t able to join us. Thank you for this wonderful meal, and we humbly ask that you bless it to the nourishment of our bodies. We ask this in His holy name.” Then after a pregnant pause… “Amen.”

She opened her eyes and for a long moment smiled at each of us with warmth and love. A bright twinkle in her eye indicated this part of her performance was over. She said crisply, “Let’s eat!” Then she sat.

‘The Turkey’ serves its purpose

Harold carved The Turkey and dishes were piled high with food and passed around the table. Conversations clattered along with the silverware and plates, and like families everywhere, we hummed when the food tasted especially good.

Harold loved little practical jokes. One of his favorites was passing the butter. Even though each of us knew he would do it sometime, he was always able to catch someone off guard, and it was my turn. “Could someone pass the butter, please?” I said, looking around the table to see who had it. Harold grunted and held out the butter dish, pretending to look the other way. I reached out to take the dish, and when my hand was in exactly the right position, he quickly moved it about two inches closer, burying my thumb in the soft butter.

“Oh! Yecch…” I said, grinning and wiping my thumb with a holiday napkin. Everyone reacted to his prank with chuckles and smiles. The little kids thought it was hilarious, and covered their mouths when they giggled.

From Lester, came a slow, “Heh, heh, heh.”.

“The Christmas Dinner” wound to a close. Pies were cut and passed around, accompanied by more hums and the older men performed the traditional belt-loosening. Afterward, we gathered around the scrawny little tree for “The Gifts.”

Time for the tree and Santa and a story

She loved playing Santa, kneeling beside the tree, reading the tags and handing out the presents. She always made a special event of handing her own gifts to their recipients, and would smile and glow in the appreciation and praise offered to her in return. She enjoyed receiving gifts, too, but that wasn’t as important to her as the appreciation and attention she received for her gifts to others.

Grandmother loved poetry, and every family gathering included pleas for her to recite some favorites. I don’t remember her ever reading a poem to us, she always shared them from memory. Her preferences were epic adventure poems like “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, or “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service. Although this was my first Christmas with this part of the family, her poetry wasn’t new to me. Over the years, every family visit had always included one or more sessions of Grandmother’s poetry. Even my dad, who had no fondness for her, remembered many evenings after she closed her Montana bar when she would invite the remaining patrons of cowboys and ranchers to gather around the fireplace for literally hours of stories and poems performed by the famous Ptomaine Joe.

She never just recited the poems. Her voice made them come alive for us and we felt every emotion, every fear, every longing, every triumph, and every failure. We held our breath when she expressed terror with quiet intensity. Our hearts leaped to our throats as she shouted the pounding “Charge of the Light Brigade.”

When she finished the poem, there was never thunderous applause, but there was a long moment of silence, then soft exclamations of “That was wonderful, Grandmother.” Both the adults and the children nodded their heads and stared into the distance of their imaginations. If there were a crowd of thousands, she would give no less. She would give her all for even one listener, much as the soldiers in the Light Brigade gave their all.

Finishing the day

After “The Dinner,” after “The Gifts,” after her wonderful poetry, and after the cows were milked for the evening, there was still some food on the table. The refrigerator never had enough room for the remains of the damned turkey, so its carcass stayed on the table and folks picked at it as they walked around that end of the table. None of us ever died from salmonella, but the longer the turkey sat on the table, the more risky it was to eat any of it. Thankfully, there wasn’t much left after dinner. My sister and her family went home after a while, and being new, I expected the evening’s festivities to end.

Grandmother pushed whatever was still on the table to the far end by the turkey carcass, and threw the tablecloth back over the food and dishes. She went into the kitchen, brought back a deck of cards, an ashtray, some glasses, and a bottle of whiskey. She put them on the table and issued her order, “Deal!” She laughed and sat down. Harold, Aileen and Lester pulled their chairs up to the card table, and began an all-night binge of Canasta, jokes, and laughter.

I climbed up to the attic, my temporary quarters for the holiday, where I had a sleeping bag and an old army cot. I liked it up there. It was quiet and dark, even with the light on, and yet I could hear the continuing merriment downstairs. As I sipped the beer I smuggled into the attic, my part of “Christmas at Grandmother’s Farm” had come to an end, but from faraway downstairs, I heard a hearty laugh and “Shit Melinda!”

© 2000-2015 by Michael Kysar
All Rights Reserved

Posted in Family, Memoir, Ptomaine Joe | Leave a comment

This Messiah Was a Kick!

In the beginning was dance. Millions of years ago, when our ancestors first felt the need to communicate, I believe they did it through dance. Over millennia, they added chanting, then singing, then melodic instruments were used as a metaphor for singing, and percussion as a metaphor for dancing, then eventually, vocal sounds became words and language was added to singing.

Bellevue City Opera Ballet MessiahThe idea of having a ballet as part of a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” was intriguing, but I had no idea how they would carry that off. At the Bellevue City Opera Ballet performance this last weekend at The Theatre at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, Washington, my love of this piece was renewed. All Baroque music is based on dance forms, so for me, I feel that listening to the music should make me want to dance with it, even in the slow movements. (Toe tapping and head nodding satisfy the brain’s primal need to dance.)

I’ve heard too many “Messiah” performances that would have been much more fun if I were singing rather than listening. As an audience, I must admit that much of the second half was often the most difficult to sit through. Before the performance, a lady asked me how long it might last. I said “Some performances can be a good three hours,” and she kind of sagged and said, “Oh dear.”

Well, I have seen the light. Turns out “The Messiah” can tell the story in a wonderfully compelling way. And it was only two and a half very lively hours, because of the cuts, brisk tempos, and the performers’ vitality and skill.

Conductor Phillip Tschopp, along with choreographer Sayoko Knode provided a skillful foundation for the chorus, orchestra, soloists, and dancers to make Handel’s score and the epic story come alive on several levels: intellectual, emotional, and visceral.

The first highlight for me was the recitative, “Comfort Ye My People.” This piece is almost more of an aria, but is in recitative form, and has often started the oratorio with a bit of a thud. Tenor Alan Wheaton walked across the stage amidst the dancers and made the song a truly lovely and comforting message.

I loved that the audience applauded after this and many of the pieces. Applause gives the audience a chance to physically participate in the performance. It keeps them engaged, and that is always a good thing.

And it was the perfect preface to “Ev’ry Valley,” sung by tenor Brendan Tuohy, who happens to be about twice as big as Wheaton. The music worked, even at a break-neck tempo.

Speaking of break-neck tempos (or tempi, if you prefer), when Tschopp began “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” I almost expected the singers to slow it down when they came in, but not only did they keep the tempo, they performed it from memory with choreography for both singers and dancers.  To be honest, most long-time chorus singers have done the piece many times, and doing it from memory wouldn’t be that difficult.

One of my favorite scenes was the “Annunciation to the Shepherds.” Two young men joyfully danced and frolicked around the stage as shepherds, petting their imaginary sheep. When the host of angels (dancers and chorus) raised their arms and broke into “Glory to God,” the shepherds fell flat onto the stage in astonishment and fright. The audience laughed out loud. It was fun, and the choreography for chorus and dancers in that scene along with the music, made it a truly glorious moment.

The second part of “The Messiah” can be tricky in performance, and for some audience members it has been an opportunity for a quick nap. But not in this production. “He was Despised and Rejected of Men” was staged with dancer and soloist alternately stepping into, and out of, a starkly lit rectangle at center stage. In the dark theatre, it made them seem to appear and disappear before our eyes. The dark and spooky words and music were the perfect material for countertenor José Luis Muñoz. And a countertenor was a perfect choice for the aria. Countertenors (male altos) performed solos in “The Messiah” in Handel’s time, and it was a thrill to hear that voice applied to that music in the midst of compelling dance.

Hearing Charles Robert Stephens sing “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together” made me wish all the world would really “get” those words. Listening to it sung at 90 mph made it difficult for me to breathe until it was over, but it was exciting.

The choreography made the “Hallelujah!” chorus come alive all over again. The fellow sitting next to me didn’t know why the audience stood up for it, but the way it was presented in the performance compelled the audience to participate, and they jumped at the opportunity. I think someone down front joyfully sang along, but not well.

For the finale, the chorus and dancers lined up across the stage and sang “Worthy is the Lamb” that includes the “Blessing and Honor” section and the joyful and triumphant “Amen” fugue. It was a fitting and an emotional finish.

The standing ovation went on much longer than the performers expected. Phillip Tschopp and Sayoko Knode led the bows, then they had to do it again, then they had to do it again, and yet again.

Other soloists who performed with distinction were alto Marjorie Bunday with “And the Glory, the Glory of the Lord” as well as soprano Caitlin Cisler and mezzo soprano Erin Calata, with”Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” among other solos, and mezzo soprano Cherys McLeod Lewis with “Then shall be brought to pass.”

Dancers of note were Nathan Cook as the Messiah, and Shannan Behrens as Mary, but all were true to their craft, to the music, and to the story.

The orchestra could have benefited from one more rehearsal, but so could all of us. I did see some former outstanding musicians from the Performing Arts Festival of the Eastside in the orchestra, such as Evan Hjort, Evan Johanson, Takumi Taguchi, and Esther Lee.

I wish so much that I could write more knowledgeably about the dancers’ work, but I’ll just bring it back to the beginning and say that language and music in humankind was made possible because of dance. Yes, I danced along with my head, my toes, and my heart.

In Italian, the word “opus” refers to a work of art, and the word “opera” is the plural form. This production of “The Messiah” truly brought together a wide variety of works into one “opera.”

© 2015 by Michael Kysar
All Rights Reserved

Posted in Opera, Performances | Leave a comment

An Outlaw Visits the Ranch

Butte-MTShe stood on the edge of a Montana butte with her horse at her side. From there, the teenager could see the colors of the far off sunset just beginning to sweep across what had to be the biggest sky in the world.

This butte was one of her favorite places; there aren’t many places out on the plains to get an eagle’s view of the world. The view far surpassed the descriptions in the Western Romance novels she loved to read. She also loved poetry but even more than all that, she loved riding her horse in what would someday be called “Big Sky Country.”

The shadows from the distant mountains moved across the endless plains and the badlands. The only sounds were the gentle breathing of her horse, the chirp of a cricket, and the occasional cry of a bird in flight or the bawl of a calf in a far pasture. Amidst this overwhelming beauty, her voice quietly broke the silence, “I swear, you can see the whole damn world from up here.”

I was about sixteen when Grandmother first shared with me her memory of the stranger’s visit to their ranch when she was a young girl. It’s true as I remember it, but there may be some parts I’ve made up to fill in the spaces between the available facts. Yet even those parts are based on the truths I’ve learned about the girl who became the legendary Ptomaine Joe.

Jessie Barrere turned seventeen on April 1st in the spring of 1910. She was slim and fit, wearing some old trousers and a solid leather belt with a few extra belt holes punched in it to keep her pants around her waist. Her shirt and boots were well worn and plain, but there was no mistaking her for a boy. Her flowing blonde hair and a slight shape to her body were the surest signs. Her hat was pushed back, resting on her back, hanging by the leather strap.

A momentary flash of reflected sunlight from down below caught her eye, then it was gone. She scanned the area around the trail she knew. Just before it flowed into the valley, there it was again! A small flash, like the sun glinting off something shiny. She stared hard, and could barely make out a lone rider. He probably had some silver on his saddle or bridle. As soon as the trail dropped into the valley, the sun could no longer glint off the silver, but there was enough light and she could still see him.

“Who do you think that is?” she asked her bay mare, Sunshine. “He’s not a cowboy; there’s silver on his saddle. Nobody like that would be comin’ from any of the ranches around here. I’ll bet he’s traveled a very long way.” Sunshine snorted softly.

She imagined him coming from some far away exotic land, or from even as far as Denver. He was a real stranger! She was getting excited.

Whoever it was, that trail led directly to her folk’s ranch. He probably needed food and water, and there was nowhere else to get provisions for many miles around. She had to get to the ranch before he did.

She pulled her hat up, pressed it firmly on her head, and tightened her chin strap. “We need to get home, fast. Let’s go!” she said as she swung her body into the saddle.

Sunshine knew immediately that her young rider was looking for some adventure. For an athletic horse, adventure means running, and she loved to run. Sunshine leaped into a dead run across the flat top of the butte, toward s trail that wound to the plain below. On reaching the trail, they hardly slowed at all. This was familiar territory; they both knew every turn and stone. They trusted each other, and their bodies moved as one, shifting their weight back and forth with the twisting trail.

On reaching the flats, they charged on toward her family’s ranch house, where she anticipated meeting a real stranger. The wind in her face made her eyes water, but this was the most fun she had had all spring. A real mystery requiring a mad dash across the plain. Life couldn’t get better than this!

As the ranch house, barn and corral came into view, Jessie could see her half-brother, Earl, four years younger than she, standing on the corral fence, watching her. She gave a sharp whistle, and he jumped down to open the gate.

Sunshine knew just how Jessie liked to make her entrance. They ran through the gate, sped around the outside edge of the corral, and skidded to a stop with a flourish and a cloud of dust right in front of Earl. Jessie leaped to the ground and handed him the reins.

“There’s a stranger comin’ to the ranch! I’ve got to tell Pa! Here, cool her down for me. I’ll be right back.”

She ran off toward the house. “Hey, I don’t want to… Aw, hell!” said Earl as she left him in the dust, holding the reins. Sunshine panted and tried unsuccessfully to stand still.

Jessie burst through the front door shouting, “There’s a stranger comin’!”, pushing her hat back and letting her blonde hair free. “Where’s Pa?”

Jessie’s mother, Rachel, called from the kitchen, where she balanced one-year-old Bobby on her hip, “Jessie, stop yer yellin’ and act like a lady!”

“But there’s a stranger comin’, and I’ve got to tell JR!” Jessie said.

Rachel put the baby down on a blanket on the floor, took a hand-rolled cigarette out of her mouth, and said, “He’s comin’ in the back door now, but don’t run at him shoutin’. You know he don’t like that!”

John Robert Schneider (“JR”) stomped the dust off his boots as he took off his leather gloves. He growled, “What’s all the racket about?!” He looked up and saw Jessie coming into the kitchen. “I thought it would be you. What’s yer latest disaster?”

“I was up on the butte and saw a stranger riding toward the ranch, and I knew you’d want to know right away,” she said, hoping that he would appreciate her effort.

“Yeah, well, how do you know he’s a stranger? He’s probably a cowboy from one of the other ranches.”

“He doesn’t look like a cowboy; his gear has buttons that reflect the sun, like silver, and he looks like he’s traveled a long ways. You think he might be bringin’ trouble?” asked Jessie.

JR frowned at his step-daughter. “My god, you are one dramatic child. You shouldn’t be readin’ so much. Everything that happens around here is an adventure or a disaster to you. Life is usually just plain. Get used to it!”

Earl poked his head in the door and said, “Pa, there’s somebody comin’ and I don’t think we’ve ever seen him before.”

JR looked out a window, and finally got a look at the fellow riding toward the ranch. “Earl, go on out there and let him water his horse. See what he wants.” Jessie started to follow him, but JR said, “You stay in here!”

“But I saw him first!” she snapped, and went to a window to watch.

JR watched from the other window as Earl walked out to greet the visitor. They couldn’t hear what he said, but they saw Earl motion to the watering trough, and the rider dismounted to lead his horse to the water.

JR went out to join them and they all stood by the trough. Jessie thought that since they were all men, they were probably talking about horses, sheep, cattle, the weather, and other stuff amounting to nothing at all. Except for horses; she really liked horses.

Earl came in after a while and told his mother, “The stranger will be havin’ supper with us, and Pa wants you to pack up some food that the fellow can take with him, ’cause he ain’t stayin’.”

He turned to go back out, and stopped next to Jessie and whispered, “I think he’s a gunslinger. He’s got two six-guns and says he came from St. Louis. But then he said something about Santa Fe, so I don’t know where he’s really from.”

When the stranger came into the house, Jessie finally got a good look at the man. He did indeed have two six-guns strapped to his thighs, and his gun belt had silver buttons, just as she expected. Probably matches his bridle, she thought. His vest, gun belt, and boots were made of matching leather tanned in a dark brown. His hat was about the same color, and had a woven leather band with pheasant feathers and Indian beads woven into it. Jessie guessed that he was probably in his late twenties, but his face had a look of weariness that might be more suitable on an older man.

He took off his hat as he came in and nodded to Jessie with a lingering look and a slight smile. Jessie thought he was kinda good looking. He had dark eyes, and his nose was a little crooked like he’d been in more than one fight.

He turned to Rachel and spoke hesitatingly with a husky voice, “Thank you, ma’am, for lettin’ me stay for supper. I’ll try not to be a bother to your family.” He put his hat on the mantle, and stood with his back to the fireplace.

JR barked, “Jessie! Get the man a cup-a-joe.” Then to the stranger, he said, “My wife’s name is Rachel; you’ve met our son Earl, and Rachel’s daughter Jessie will be bringin’ you some coffee. That’s our son Bobby on the floor. I already told you my name’s John Robert, or JR, but I didn’t catch your name.”

The stranger looked around the room then quietly said, “Bill. My name’s… just Bill.” Jessie brought him a hot cup of strong coffee, and he said, “Thank you, miss.”

JR’s attention turned to Earl, who had just come in the door.

“They call me Joe,” she said to the stranger, pretending it was true. “That’s quite a hatband ya got there. Did you make it yourself?”

“Nope. I won it in a card game with a… a former friend,” he said.

She watched his eyes for a reaction when she smiled and said, “Maybe we could play cards later. I could use a hatband like that.”

“I don’t play cards with little girls,” he said.

A bit of fire flashed behind her eyes. “And I don’t play cards with old men. It’s too easy to beat ‘em,” she snapped.

“I’ve never seen shiny six-guns before,” said Earl. “I don’t suppose you’d let me look at one of them, would ya?”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t,” said the stranger, who looked into the boy’s eyes with an unwavering, but not unfriendly, gaze.

Jessie looked around to see if Rachel or JR was watching, then leaned a little closer to the stranger and quietly said, “Well, if you change your mind about playin’ cards, just let me know.” She smiled, turned with a flip of her blonde hair, and went into the kitchen. The stranger and Earl both watched her leave, but Earl shook his head and rolled his eyes.

JR invited the stranger to sit with the family at the supper table, but he declined, and asked that someone just bring him a plate of food by the fireplace. He stood with his back to that stone fireplace all through supper. As the sun was almost completely set behind the western hills, he thanked everyone for their hospitality and said he had to be moving on. He accepted some beef jerky and bread with appreciation, then put on his hat with the fancy hatband, went out to his horse, hung his replenished water bags on his saddle, mounted up and rode off to the west.

“A fellow who rides out into the sun at sunset, don’t want nobody followin’ him,” said JR, “He might be on his way to Canada to avoid the law.” Then he went into the kitchen to get his pipe.

“And a guy who wears six-guns, and won’t turn his back on you, is probably an outlaw with a bounty on his head,” said Earl.

Jessie asked Earl, “Did you cool Sunshine down?”

“Yup,” grunted Earl.

“Well, I’m gonna go out and check on her anyway,” she said as she walked into the kitchen toward the back door through a small hallway with parkas and hats on hooks. Below the coats was a worn wooden bench with a variety of boots and shoes on the floor underneath. She grabbed a coat and her hat, and pushed open the outer door, walking toward the barn.

She saddled her horse, and swung into the saddle. After looking to the west, where the stranger had disappeared, she smiled, and pointed Sunshine to the north, and urged her on. Sunshine walked up and out of their valley, over the top of the ridge.

Later that night, Jessie and Sunshine walked into the barn, where Jessie removed the saddle and was brushing Sunshine in the dim light of a lantern when Earl walked in.

“Did ya find him?” asked Earl.

“That’s none of your business,” Jessie said with a wry smile.

“Well since I think I’ve seen that hatband you’re wearin’ somewhere before, I think you did find him, and apparently he can’t play cards worth a damn,” Earl said.

She smiled, but didn’t turn around. “Actually, we didn’t get around to playin’ cards.”

Other stories about Ptomaine Joe

© 2015 by Michael Kysar
All Rights Reserved.

Posted in Ptomaine Joe | Leave a comment

Ptomaine Joe’s Invitation

PtomaineJoeOnPiano-Fix02My grandmother, Jessie Barrere, (that’s her on top of the piano) bought a little one-room bar with a bunch of land in the southern Bitterroot Valley, near Darby, Montana. It was about 1945, and she named it “Ptomaine Joe’s Bar.” Over the next two years, she built a lodge onto the side, and created a real western saloon. She also created her own legend.

Many years later, I visited the lodge and asked some of the people who live in Darby what the word “saloon” meant to them, and they said first of all, it is a bar with food, and it had to have a piano and maybe a band on weekends. Having some rooms available upstairs for the “girls” was also important. I know, however,  that for part of the year, those rooms were rented to hunting guides.

This invitation, which I only recently discovered among her things, was written by Ptomaine Joe herself. I love the lumpy rhythms and the irregular stanzas.

Come to Ptomaine Joe’s

Have you ever spent a long lonely night
Or lost your only friend?
Have you ever been hurt by someone’s spite,
Been broke with no money to spend?

Have you ever wished for a spot to hold
And call just your very own?
Not a place too hot nor yet too cold,
In a place you could call your home?

Have you ever wished you were free from care
When troubles burden your heart?

I know you have. We all do, you know;
Man and woman, we’re all the same.
Load up those worries and come to Joe’s,
You’ll never be sorry you came.

That lonely night will be the forgotten past,
The lost friend, the acquaintance you knew,
Your spiteful hurt will never last,
Being broke will be fun for you.

Just relax yourself by her fireplace,
It’s cozy and it’s home to all.
Your troubles will vanish into empty space,
You’ll be so glad you came to call.

Remember this, friend, when you’re feeling low,
And you won’t be long with care.
Just bundle your troubles and come see Joe,
You’ll be right damn glad you’re there!

© 1945, 2015 by Michael Kysar
All Rights Reserved

Posted in Family, Ptomaine Joe | 2 Comments

My Love Affair With France

128px-the-statue-of-liberty-in-new-york-vector-clip-art-704716The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to America in 1886. My first concert tour with The Boeing Employees Choir was 100 years later, in 1986. At the invitation of the Seattle Sister City of Nantes, we met the French people, and I am forever changed.

We performed a lovely concert for a full house in the Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, and the next day (I think) we were taking a touristy dinner boat ride to see the beautiful homes along the river. The boat full, with about 350 mostly French people. The choir was in the main room. As we almost always did, we sat at our tables and sang. For our first song, we started singing “Le Chevaliers de la Table Ronde” (The knights of the Round Table), of which we had learned the chorus and one verse earlier that day. We were so proud of ourselves.

Wow, every person on the boat joined in with hearty voices, going on to sing all nine or so verses, which we mumbled along with. It was such fun! Everyone applauded afterwards. So, we who love applause, sang one of our rousing American spirituals. They loved it and applauded heartily. Then, all of them sang a French folk song that was charming and beautiful. We were delighted, and there was more applause. We took turns singing more songs for much of the evening.

Dinner had included wine, and I mention this only to explain the crazy thing I did next. As conductor, I asked our choir to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” So we stood, and in a confined space with over 300 fiercely patriotic French people, we sang the American national anthem, having no clue how it might be received in a foreign country.

To our astonishment, everyone on the boat stood up, gathered the candles from their tables, and held them over their heads in a salute that stuns me still to this day. In fact, it was difficult to sing because of the lumps in our throats. Afterwards, they put their candles down and everyone applauded. Immediately, someone started “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, so we Americans stood and held our candles high over our heads.

When we got back to the dock, we were immediately surrounded. Many people, little children to old people, gave us two kisses on each cheek. Some spoke in French, or Hungarian, assuming we understood their words, but it was OK; we understood their faces and their voices. Some said they had been to America or had relatives who lived there. And I may have heard someone say, “My cousin lives in Cleveland. Do you know him?” Maybe not.

On that same tour, in fact, on the Fourth of July, we visited the cemetery near the Normandy Beaches, where thousands of American and British soldiers lie in graves marked with crosses, stars of David, and Islamic crescents. Every one of them died to free Europe on D-Day, which marked the beginning of the end for Nazi terrorist rule in Europe.

A small chapel on the memorial grounds had the history of the D-Day invasion covering the walls. We read the history in reverent silence, and just before we left, we sang our national anthem. It was extremely difficult to sing that song, on that day, in that place. When the song ended, we quietly turned to leave, and surrounding the door outside the chapel, discovered a group of French school children on a class visit to the memorial. They were standing in quiet reverence, and parted to let us pass. As we were leaving, several of them said, “Merci, America.”

Since then, my wife and I have been to Europe numerous times, and have always tried to make sure that France, and especially Paris, is in the plan. On our last visit, we had taken a bike tour along the Loire valley with a bunch of old people (us); biking from castle to castle, with evenings spent in lovely country inns. Our trip ended with several days in Paris in a hotel room with a terrible bed.

No worries, there is always breakfast. This is probably our most treasured morning pastime anywhere in France. First, we walk down the street to find a patisserie where we buy two of the most yummy croissants in the world. That is, if we can resist buying two of some other of the best pastries in the world. Then, we walk further down the street to find a café, and if the weather is warm, a sidewalk café. As we walk in, I call out,”Deux grands cafés au lait , s’il vous plaît!” It makes me feel so French.

When the waiter sees our little bag of pastries on the table, as a common courtesy when brings our coffees, he also brings plates for our pastries.

I only know two complete sentences in French that aren’t in a song. Most of my French consists of two or three words at a time, and they aren’t always the syntactically best choices. But because I try to at least pronounce them correctly, I am always forgiven. The other sentence that gets a lot of exercise on my visits to France is “Pardon, je ne parle pas français,” which means, “Sorry, I don’t speak French.” If I get the pronunciation just right, they are confused as to what they should say next, and in what language. But because I care and I try, I am forgiven.

On that trip, the highlight of our last night was a lovely dinner at a sidewalk restaurant near Montmartre. Just before my last bite, I stopped to enjoy the evening, my wife, and the atmosphere in Paris. Suddenly, the waiter swooped by and tried to take my plate. “Non fini,” I said very quickly. He nodded and went his way. Later, he came back, motioned to my plate as if to ask if I am now finished.

I nodded, and said, “Je fini.” Which means, “I am finished” in my oddly characteristic two-word syntax.

He looked a little surprised, smiled and said, “Monsieur, you have just told me you are dead!”

I laughed so hard I almost slid under the table. “Ah! C’est fini!” I babbled through my laughter, which means “IT is finished,” a far more appropriate response even with only two words.

Yes, I love France, and especially Paris. I am grateful that the people have forgiven me for so many faux pas. Today, in November, 2015, when so many died in Paris from terrorist attacks, my wish for France and for the world, is that peace, joy, grace, and yes, even forgiveness, spread across the planet and deep into the hearts of all its people.

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Ptomaine Joe Vanished on Halloween

The legend of Ptomaine Joe was still alive in 2008. We learned that when we asked about her at the museum in Hamilton, Montana. Whenever I said she was my grandmother, the response was always, “Really?!”

They told us her lodge was still alongside the highway and that we just had to stop and see it. I hadn’t been there since I was seven years old.

My sister Vivian (“Bib”) and I were put on the train in Oklahoma City, and thinking about it now, it boggles my mind that our dad and step mom would have let us take that journey alone when Bib was thirteen and I was only seven. The train was fun, I think. I have some vague memories of running up the aisle, and being gently scolded by the frustrated staff. Our mother and her husband, Harold met us at the station in Missoula. Back then, it seemed to take forever for us to get to the lodge.

PtomaineJoeCougar-Fix02“There it is!” Built of logs harvested on the property in the 1940’s, and nestled against the hill, was Grandmother’s lodge, looking somehow familiar. Wife and I  parked and went into the restaurant. It was all ready for the lunch crowd but there were no customers yet, and no staff that we could see. However, I clearly remembered the big fireplace. Resting on top of it were three big pictures of my grandmother, and one that also included my mother.

This part of the restaurant had a two story ceiling, with antlers and stuffed deer-head hunting trophies hanging on the wall. Part of the second floor was visible as a balcony that surrounded the room. A stuffed bobcat stood up there, just inside the railing. A shiver went up my spine as I vividly remembered seeing that same old dusty bobcat in the exact same spot when I was a small boy. I hadn’t thought of it in years.

“Good morning. We’re not open for lunch yet. Anything I can do for you?”

“I was told this place was still here, so we just just stopped to visit. That’s my grandmother,” I said, pointing to her picture.

Jessie1945-Fix02“That one? Your grandmother was Ptomaine Joe?!” Her eyes were wide, and her jaw hung open. Suddenly she said, “Stay right here!” She spun on her heel and ran out. She quickly came back, followed by the lady from the gift shop and the cook.

The gift shop lady just stood there for a while, staring at me with her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open. “You are Ptomaine Joe’s grandson?!”

“Yeah. Her name was Jessie, and I lived with her for two years when I was in high school.”

I told them who the people were in the photographs, and how I came to stay with her. They had lots of questions, and were most curious about what happened to her immediately after she left Montana.

PtomaineJoesBar-Fix01Jessie Barrere White bought a little bar and 620 acres in 1945, then persuaded a fellow named Ole to build the lodge and a larger bar onto the side of it. Apparently, the deal with Ole was that he would do the work in return for drinks in the bar and other “favors.” What she wanted was a lodge that could serve as a real saloon for this part of the Bitterroot Valley. When he finished the lodge, it is said that he still owed her $50 for drinks and those other “favors.”

One of the stories about building the lodge is that Ole didn’t have enough lumber for the underlayment of the roof, so he added some spacers between the planks to make the available lumber cover enough to support the shingles. Years later, while replacing the roof, suddenly shots rang out and the workers scrambled down. It turned out that some of the spacers Ole had used to evenly separate the planks was live rifle ammunition.

PtomaineJoeBarSceneFix02The bar had been updated at some time, but when we went in to see it, the memories were more general than specific. I do remember that there was a small bandstand there, because that’s where I did my first saloon singing with a band. The song was, “If I Knew You Was Comin’ I’d-a Baked a Cake.” (Brahms and I have one little thing in common. I sang only once or twice, but he played piano for many dances in places like this when he was a kid. It was probably German country music.)

JessieLodgeLobby-Fix03Grandmother loved being the host. At night, after closing, some of the local ranchers, assorted cowboys, and staff would often hang around, settling around the fireplace in the lobby of the lodge. Joe would tell stories and recite poetry from memory for several more hours. Sister and I always loved Grandmother’s poetry.

Making a saloon consistently pay for itself in those days, before and during World War II would have been pretty difficult. Joe’s banker tried to help her keep the lodge, but her financial woes just wouldn’t go away. Late on Saturday night, April 15, 1950, the law waltzed in, and out waltzed Joe’s liquor license, as the staff explained it. And as far as they knew, it was never renewed.

Sister and I were there during the summer of 1950, and being kids, we wouldn’t have been aware that the bar had to have been operating without a license. In fact, it kept operating up until October that year. They said some people had told them that she put a coffee can on the bar and told people to just but some money in it once in a while. How she kept the place going like that for months is a mystery.

Her banker tried to help her business survive, but eventually he told her the only thing she could do was sell it. Six months earlier, she had turned down an offer of $30,000, but it appraised at only $10,000. He was able to find some people to buy it for $18,000, and her time had run out by October.

PtomaineJoeOnPiano-Fix02Joe loved being the hostess at her bar. She always loved parties, and had originally opened her new lodge with a big dance. So, it was fitting that to close out this chapter, there should be a party. It was a masquerade ball (using the term loosely here) on Halloween. For her ball gown, she wore her mother’s black wedding dress. It was apparently quite an affair.

But that wasn’t the complete story. Sometime before the end of the evening, Ptomaine Joe vanished. Nobody saw her leave, but she was nowhere to be found. In fact, no one saw her or heard from her ever again. Until I walked in over 50 years later, they had no idea what had happened to her.

The cook said that sometimes they can hear someone walking around and coming down the stairs, but no one is there. One of the waitresses told me that she was sitting around a table with the current owner and the manager after closing the bar late one night. While they were chatting, Ptomaine Joe walked into the bar, stopped and looked at them, huffed dismissively as if she didn’t appreciate them sitting around when there was work to be done, then walked out through the wall on the other side of the bar. They all looked at each other, “Did you see what I just saw?”

In December, I’ll tell you what it was like to spend Christmas at Grandmother’s farm.

Posted in Family, Memoir, Ptomaine Joe | 2 Comments

Musical Theatre and the Common Gestalt

Many a stage actor and singer is told that there is a little old man who loves this show but can only afford a seat on the very back row of the theatre, so project your voice all the way to him. In many companies now, that no longer applies, or so they think.

Snapshots-VillageTheatreVillage Theatre is a professional playhouse near us that like many companies, puts a microphone on every performer for the purpose of making sure that the little old man can hear every line. Well, I am now that little old man and I do sit on the very last row of the house, along with a bunch of other people with white hair. Although every voice can be heard, not every voice can be understood, and not every voice sounds good.

When they produced “Mary Poppins” last season, the show was absolutely super, except for the two children’s roles. The kids did a great job, but their voices were completely unintelligible and shrill, and I don’t think that was their fault. Perhaps the sound system?

I spent many years working as music director with young people in musical theatre (“Oliver!”, “Oklahoma!”, “Brigadoon”, etc.). We had no mics and no amplification system, and a 1200-seat house (and walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways). For child roles in musical theatre, I am not a fan of the “Annie” school of voice production for children. It strains their voices, and worse, makes them think that this is THE way to sing, which puts a terrible limit on their vocal and even career possibilities as they grow up.

Sets are beautiful three-dimensional models of the world in which the story takes place, and the performers move around in that space with wonderful three-dimensional choreography. However, the amplified sound is two-dimensional, and it is worse for me because I love to listen to the singers, but am saddened by the loss of vocal color from some of the voices because of the amplification.

Last week, I saw the Village Theatre production of “Snapshots”, a wonderful revue of Steven Schwartz songs. It was a delightful show and the cast was superb. I was one of the first with the standing ovation. However, we often had to guess as to what they were saying or singing. We were able to pick up enough to get the story, but it would have been more fun, and may have had more meaning, if everything was clearly understoodable (my word).

Hugh Hastings played Dan, and Beth DeVries played his wife, Sue. The story is about a midlife marriage crisis, and they are played in flashback by four other very talented pros. We could understand everything Hastings said or sang, but lost a lot of words from the other members of the cast. In the second act, I think I noticed that the women’s mics did not pick up all ranges and volumes of their voices equally, and from many of the cast, their consonants were simply too soft to be picked up by the mic. Hugh’s voice seemed to work better with the mic, but he also delivered every consonant to the little man in the back row with skill and purpose.

For an example of the soft consonants, one of the songs seemed to be “Smara Cre-aysha” as sung by the cast. Turns out, the title was “Spark of Creation”, which has three extra consonant sounds that weren’t intended to be optional. This phenomenon may be caused partly by the sound system, and partly by the performer’s delivery, which is partly based on the assumption of a common Gestalt on the part of the cast.

What?! To our brain, making sense of our environment is a matter of evolutionary survival, and when the input is incomplete, the brain tends to fill in the details to make a whole from the parts, which is called a Gestalt. It is “connecting the dots.” When you look at puffy white clouds, you will “see” shapes of animals and people. When a child looks into a dark closet, she may “see” a monster hiding in the darkness. If you obscure the bottom half of the letters in one line of printed text, you will probably still be able to read the text because your brain fills in the missing shapes and assembles the information for you.

When you listen to someone speak, your brain fills in missing consonants to decipher their meaning. Actors and singers use this common Gestalt to their advantage when expressing a character. Depending on the context, “Wheh ya gone?” can not only be understood as “Where you going?” but it also can be used to paint the character as a backwoods bumpkin. By changing to “Wheah ah you going?” the same words project a totally different character, yet both rely on a common Gestalt in the audience.

The greatest problem of communication is the illusion that it is taking place. – Anonymous

Obviously, when the brain is unable to fill in the missing parts, the perceived meaning will have some blank spots, or those blanks will likely be filled with the wrong information. How many times have you heard, “Did she say what I think she said?”

Village Theatre will present “My Fair Lady” soon, which includes some real singing. It will, no doubt, be a great production, and since the plot requires it, all consonants will be clearly pronounced when appropriate, and I hope the sound system sends the warmth and color of the voices all the way to the little old man in the back row.

© 2015 by Michael Kysar

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