Floating on my back staring at the endless cloudless blue sky, a white hot sun warming the water of my backyard oasis, a breeze tousling palm fronds along the fence line, grooving to the surf rock channel on Pandora through a Sonos wireless speaker, hoisting floaters and jump shots and baby hooks at the poolside basketball hoop, guzzling California Honey blonde ale from Pizza Port in Carlsbad … reminders of summers past, stark realizations of current conditions and situations …
Today, I took shot after shot with my father’s old Voit basketball with a fast leak at the Lifetime Poolside portable basket (the greatest second-hand virtual garage sale purchase ever made) with a feeling of melancholy … the shadow over the pool growing ever longer as the hour grew later, remembering the last several 4th of July pool basketball games with friends and family visiting from out of town and how the Coronavirus cancelled this year’s game … socially distancing and limiting family gatherings and all that. No blood no foul. I still have a scar on my left hand from last summer’s game. My right shoulder screaming in agony with every off balance shot because of three months solid of football throwing in the park down the street due to distance learning and the 13-year-old needing to meet a “gym” requirement. Thoroughly enjoyed the time, but my shoulder doth protest. Every time the ball left the pool and I had to retrieve it, I launched a shot from distance, with varying degrees of success. Every time the ball hit nothing but net, I called out “Squish,” because I was immersed in water for crying out loud.
Each time I launched myself across the length on a boogie board purchased after last year’s summer vacation in anticipation of an excursion this year, I thought of last summer and my birthday swim in the Pacific, and how I almost looked really cool body surfing until that one wave buried me in the surf and trying to get up all suave and still proclaiming, “I am the sea!” Ending the day with 15-year-old Scotch and thinking, “So, this is 50?” And now contemplating a glass of the 18-year-old Scotch that came with 51 …
The wave runner waterproof and water-optimized football harkens back to every beach … playing football on the beach is required … sometimes you have to go all “Johnny Utah.”
And then there’s the music … yeah man … digging the guitar riffs of Dick Dale and the harmonies of The Beach Boys … wondering why it took me 12 years to dial up “Surf Rock” (Yacht Rock is just 70s easy listening) on any number of streaming devices or music catalogues … playing air guitar with the pool net/pole to Miserlou, the greatest surf rock song ever recorded … splashing and jumping and diving to Jan and Dean, the Rivieras, The Ventures, the Surfaris … these tunes are where it’s at surrounded by palms while basking in the “warm California sun.” After a few tunes, you start to understand why Quentin Tarantino mines this stuff for his soundtracks.
For a few brief hours on any given hot, sunny afternoon (which there seems to be more and more of these days), I can shed the skin of the grey flannel suburbanite and escape to a beatnik paradise … never mind that it is a suburban terrarium I escape to … I’m Jack Kerouac at Ferlinghetti’s cabin under Bixby Bridge at Big Sur … I’m Daniel Craig as James Bond emerging from the warm Caribbean Sea in the Bahamas in Casino Royale … I’m Captan Jack Sparrow … it’s last summer body surfing in Carlsbad or introducing the dog to the ocean at Carmel by the Sea … I’m anybody I want to be and I’m anywhere I want to be … the only Corona has a lime in it … and instead of a typewriter or a notebook, it’s a MacBook with a killer WiFi connection.
With all the craziness in the world … crazier than usual it seems … the racial unrest, the global pandemic, rampant unemployment (yours truly included), political division, climate change, and any number of issues I could mention, it’s somewhat ironic that a commercial for Corona said it best … find your own beach … but right now … keep your feet on the ground and find one a little closer to home.
My good friend and old Navy buddy Chris Ingalls of http://www.popmatters.com joins me for another podcast as we discuss ways to beat boredom during stay-at-home, Stephen King, books, TV, the passing of Fred Willard, and much more.
As many who know me already know, I am a fan of the novelist Stephen King. Leave it to the master of horror fiction to craft a tale that relates and reminds, resonates, and stirs echoes, if you will. In his latest work, a four-novella compendium titled If It Bleeds, the first tale is called Mr. Harrigan’s Phone. The story revolves around a young boy and his relationship with a wealthy, elderly neighbor. As I read more and more about how this acquaintance grew into a friendship, I was reminded of my own childhood experience with an elderly neighbor.
I never knew my grandparents. My father’s parents died before I was born. My mother’s folks … my Korean grandmother passed away in 1953-ish and my Korean grandfather, well, that’s a story for a different day. There’s more to the grandparent narrative, but, that too will have to keep for now.
When I was four years old, we moved into a duplex on Michigan Street in Rochester, N.Y. We lived in the upstairs flat of a house that had oil heat, a spacious backyard, and a two-car garage with a basketball hoop affixed to it. Chain link fences on either side separated the backyard from that of the two next door neighbors. Eventually, we moved to the downstairs flat.
I vaguely remember the neighbors whose house and yard were adjacent to the empty lot at the end of the street, but I remember the neighbor who lived on the other side. My memory is fuzzy on a lot of the details and you’d think the internet would be able to help me fill in the blanks, but you’d be wrong.
That’s all I know of the man’s name. That’s all I never needed to know I suppose. I think that’s how he signed the birthday cards I used to get from him. And I think his return address labels only displayed “McKinley” above the street address. See, fuzzy on the details.
If you have ever seen the movie Monster Squad, then you’d know about “Scary German Guy.” I often confuse this character with the experience the kids in The Sandlot have. Mr. McKinley and his yard were an amalgamation of the two. However, his yard wasn’t unkempt and full of drooling, growling, baseball eating terrors. It had a basketball puncturing menace instead.
I am no botanist and I couldn’t even begin to tell you of the flora that grew in Mr. McKinley’s backyard. I do remember mums, tulips, rhubarb (who the hell plants rhubarb?) and rose bushes. Those goddamn rose bushes. More on those in a moment. Mr. McKinley’s rows and rows of perennials and annuals made my parent’s fence line of geraniums and marigolds look like weeds.
As I mentioned, my garage had a basketball hoop and my driveway might as well have been the Boston Garden from roughly 1976 – 1984. From one-on-one to damn-near five-on-five half court, my driveway was the place to be for basketball. Sure, we could’ve gone to the park on Santee Street that was what, a quarter mile away? What fun was that?
A stray basketball is how I met Mr. McKinley. A carom off the rim and a bit too much air in the ball would sometimes result in a bounce over the fence into Mr. McKinley’s yard, and more often than not, a rose bush and her thorns would grab the rebound. I can’t tell you how many basketballs those thorns ruined.
If he was nowhere in sight, we sheepishly hopped the fence as fast as we could and retrieved the errant basketball as fast as we could, and hopped back over as fast as we could.
If he was out working in his garden, Mr. McKinley would reluctantly return the ball, usually without a word and usually with a scowl on his weathered reddish-pink face. He was approximately 6’2″, 200 pounds or so, his hair was shock white tinged with yellow. He always seemed to be wearing gray slacks, some sort of button-down shirt, and sturdy shoes.
He wasn’t German. He was Scottish. And he wasn’t wealthy. If he was, you’d never know it. I don’t remember when his demeanor toward me changed. Or why.
Before long, Mr. McKinley was routinely inviting me over to help in his garden. I helped weed the flower beds and mow the lawn with one of those god-awful manual push mowers. You don’t know lawn care if you’ve never used one of those suckers. His garage always smelled of fresh-cut grass and motor oil. Did he have old license plates tacked up on the wall? I think he did.
Helping in the garden graduated to sitting in wicker chairs on his closed-in porch and drinking lemonade, and spending interminable Sunday afternoons watching golf on his console television in his austere old person’s living room. I still don’t like golf. I don’t remember what we talked about. If memory serves, much of the time we didn’t.
Mr. McKinley was originally from Scotland, lived alone, was never married, his house had three bedrooms (according to real estate web sites, it only has two), and he slept in them on a rotational basis, and then made all three beds at once. He explained this during the 50-cent tour. He had a sister I think. I think I remember meeting her once. Funny the little details you remember, and the big ones you don’t.
Once you got past the Scary Scottish Guy bluster, Mr. McKinley was a sweet old man who had taken a genuine interest in me. I came to view him as a surrogate grandfather.
In August 1984, we moved one block over to Curtis Street and I’m sad to say, I never saw Mr. McKinley again. At least not that I remember. I don’t know why. I rarely traveled the enormous distance of one block to Michigan Street except maybe while I was out for a bike ride. Most of my friends lived on Curlew Street which ran perpendicular between the two streets or I made new ones on my new street. Before long I was lost in high school endeavors and more provincial pursuits.
In 1987, I graduated high school and joined the Navy. Over the course of the next 10 years a lot of things died – my dog, a few cats, my first marriage … Mr. McKinley. I remember being sad, but I don’t remember when my parents told me he had passed. I’ve tried looking him up – real estate records, obituaries, etc., with no luck.
The houses on Michigan Street are still there, but the garage in my old backyard, the backdrop for many an epic basketball game, is long gone. My old neighborhood is long gone. Mr. McKinley and his wonderful botanical garden are long gone.
I try to live life with no regrets, or as few as possible. I regret I never went back to see Mr. McKinley and offer to help in the backyard or sit on the porch and drink lemonade, or watch a round of golf, or just say “hi.” I was a selfish kid, and in many respects I’m a selfish grown-up. As I read King’s story, I was stunned by what I remembered and what I didn’t, and I was shocked at how well it resonated.
People come into your life at certain times for certain reasons. Some are just passing by, some sit awhile. Mr. McKinley stepped into the breach when he saw an only child next door who needed a wise, older person besides his parents to guide him. I just wish I would have remembered the greatest lesson he ever taught me a lot sooner. Sometimes, it’s just about stopping by, sitting and talking (or just sitting), even if for just a little while. I wish I had remembered to go back and see him and I wish I knew why I never did.
As a published author of horror fiction, it stands to reason that I would have influences. Truth be told, I have several in many different genres. And, as an avid reader, I have favorite authors. Due to numerous reasons and events, I feel compelled to write about one of them – Stephen King. Widely considered a “horror” writer, King is so much more than that. What I don’t think gets acknowledged enough is the creation, and the care and feeding of the King multiverse.
I believe that the first cinematic universe was created by Universal films in 1925 and it extended into the 1950s. From the Phantom of the Opera to the Creature fromthe Black Lagoon, Universal created a world of monsters – human and otherwise – with far-reaching influence. Universal used literature for some of its stories, most notably Dracula and Frankenstein, And, invariably, some of their movies were novelized.
The second such “multiverse” began soon after in the comic book world. DC Comics, and eventually Marvel, published interconnected tales and crossovers for decades. I am by no means an expert when it comes to comic books. I will not pretend to be able to explain. Marvel’s recent cinematic universe (MCU) caused DC to try to emulate it, and Universal even got into the fray with their failed Dark Universe and a reboot of their classic monster movies. What DC and Universal couldn’t replicate was the organic, viral nature of the MCU. The MCU started with Iron Man with Robert Downey, Jr., and spawned a total of 22 interconnected films filled with origin stories, crossovers and epic battles to save the Earth and mankind. Whether or not Marvel intended to create this multiverse in the manner in which it did, I have no idea. But what I do know is, planned or not, the MCU worked because of its organic nature. It never really appeared forced with the exception of a few of the films. Audiences were introduced to numerous characters and heroes, for better or worse, folks wouldn’t have sought out for themselves.
In the early 1970s, a fiction writer from Maine began what I think is the most interconnected, intricate multiverse ever created in entertainment. These connections are not merely asides or passing references because many of the stories take place in the same geographic region. The world that Stephen King has created is truly remarkable and it all started with a bullied high school student with telekinetic abilities. Movie adaptations, comic books and TV mini-series round out the King multiverse. The man has said that he doesn’t plot his novels, but there has to be some level of planning that goes into the interconnectedness of everything he does. Whether it’s characters, locations, villains or just references – it sure looks like everything he has ever produced is tied together.
There are a couple of great diagrams and flowcharts you can find online that illustrate my point. I found them when I read the first story in the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger. There was discussion about what the stories of the Dark Tower were tied to. Further investigation brought me to the larger charts.
King, now is his 70s, has written more than 60 novels, more than 20 novellas, and dozens of short stories. His books have sold more than 350,000,000 copies. From a sales standpoint, he is one of the most successful writers of all-time, up there with William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Danielle Steele, Sidney Sheldon, Dean Koontz, Jackie Collins and Nora Roberts.
Not everyone likes King’s writing and the film and TV adaptations are hit and miss. He has branched out into different genres and I think his writing is just as strong regardless of the subject matter. Again, there are those who view him as strictly as a “horror” writer. My only complaint is that sometimes, believe it or not, King doesn’t go far enough.
I wrote something when I finished IT. In that post I mentioned that I haven’t read all of King’s works. I listed the books that I have read. I am pleased to say I have made more progress in that endeavor. Consciously or unconsciously I have decided to at least read everyone of his novels. However, he keeps publishing short story collections and I think his short stories are fantastic.
I was first introduced to King as a kid with the movie adaptations of Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining and The Dead Zone. Creepshow was sandwiched in there. But I didn’t read anything of his until much later. Now I am trying to go back and read his early stuff. The funny thing is as I am trying to go back and read novels for movies I’ve seen, it’s difficult because I have too many preconceptions. I do enjoy seeing the differences between the words on the page and the scenes on the screen. I prefer to read the book first and then watch the film. I think the first thing of his that I read was the Night Shift collection of short stories.
I thought I would take a moment to update the list of King’s works that I’ve read so far knowing I still have a ways to go. You might be surprised to know that The Dark Half is my favorite.
In no particular order:
‘Salem’s Lot Night Shift The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Pet Sematary IT The Dark Half Needful Things Gerald’s Game Bag of Bones On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Dreamcatcher Full Dark, No Stars Doctor Sleep Joyland Mr. Mercedes Revival Sleeping Beauties The Outsider
I own the next three or four in the Dark Tower series, Carrie, Finders Keepers (sequel to Mr. Mercedes), The Stand, Hearts in Atlantis, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Black House (but I’ll have to read The Talisman first), Four Past Midnight and maybe a few others.
I’ve seen quite a few of King’s movie and TV adaptations, several without reading the book that spawned them. The quality is all over the board – even from first film to sequel. Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Shining, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, IT: Chapter One, The Outsider, the first Pet Sematary, 1408 and Creepshow are among the best. IT: Chapter Two, The Dark Tower, the new Pet Sematary and Maximum Overdrive are among the worst. Christine, Sleepwalkers, and Doctor Sleep are okay and worth a watch. There are plenty more. IT with Tim Curry as Pennywise and Salem’s Lot with David Soul are worth a re-visit.
You might be surprised to know that King isn’t my favorite author. That honor, if you can call it that, belongs to Dean Koontz. Unfortunately most of the movie adaptations of Koontz’s work have not been good. However, actor Corey Haim is probably the one person who has appeared in one of King’s and one of Koontz’s – Silver Bullet and Watchers respectively.
King has dabbled in fantasy, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demonic clowns, rabid dogs, possessed cars, global pandemics, and all kinds of other baddies. What always seems to come through in his writings and films is that the human monster is the worst of all.
Stephen King isn’t for everyone, but I wanted to share why I enjoy his works and it does seem like the multiverse he has created – purposely or organically – is far beyond what any other writer or movie studio has concocted. Interested in his work but you really haven’t given him a try? There are many entry points to King’s multiverse.
I’ll try to consume what he has created, in no particular order. However, because of King, I have no desire to live in or even visit Maine because that’s where all the scary things are. He has been a tremendous influence on my reading and viewing choices, and certainly on my writing.
I recently had the opportunity to be a guest on Angelica Goncalves’ podcast, A Little Bit of Everything with Me. I enjoyed speaking with Angelica about my journey as a published author and my creative outlets. Check out my appearance and be sure to listen to other episodes of her award-winning podcast.
In my profession, I have had the occasion to meet people from all walks of life and from the far reaches of the globe. On this episode of Get the Knaak, my good friend Hyden Nadolny from Australia joins me for some conversation.
Erotic romance author Marie Tuhart makes her second appearance on the Get The Knaak podcast. We discuss events and trends in the book world, how to keep yourself entertained during the COVID-19 pandemic, and much more. Repeat guests are rare for me, and Marie is definitely a fun interview.
Check out the season premiere of the Get the Knaak podcast. I can’t believe I have been hosting this podcast for four years now. My good friend and old Navy buddy Chris Ingalls of www.popmatters.com joins me to kick off a new year of great conversation.
Before Mattel Electronics Football and Coleco Electronic Quarterback, before Madden Football (and numerous other football video games), there was a Tudor Games Electric Football. I got my first one when I was just seven years old. It ranks as the greatest Christmas present Santa ever placed under the Knaak family Christmas tree.
If you are not familiar, the game consists of a metal board painted to look like a football field. The board has a power cord and a switch. A typical electric football game comes with two teams – either painted National Football League teams, or blank paint-them-yourself-teams. Jersey number decals are also included, along with a scoreboard, goal posts, yard markers and foam footballs. Two “triple-threat” quarterbacks (haha) also come in the box. You get two sets of “bases” – either rookie bases that run straight (in theory) or Total Team Control (TTC) bases which feature a wheel that enables you to set players off in a desired direction or pattern (in theory). You also got an order form so you could send away for more teams and/or accessories.
My first board was as generic as they come. No NFL branding, no college markings, just two blank teams – one yellow and one white – with associated jersey number decals (black and blue). My father and I were fond of assembling plastic model kits and there was always an abundance of enamel paints (Testors and Pactra) of all colors on hand. My father set to painting the figures. The white team ended up looking a lot like the Raiders (my team) in their road uniforms, and the yellow team, well, let’s just say they ended up yellow and two shades of blue.
I grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and by the time Christmas rolled around winter had pretty much set in. As an only child, cold winter nights got a bit boring. As anyone who grew up lower middle class in the 1970s can attest, we had one TV. I read comic books (and chapter books when I was old enough), played outside with my friends and watched TV with my parents for entertainment. Electric football changed everything.
My father couldn’t stand the game. I begged him to play. He would hem and haw and finally give in and then bail out halfway through the game because his players stubbornly refused to run in a straight line or as the ball carrier was headed for paydirt, he would inexplicably dart out of bounds short of the goal line. So, I learned to play by myself – “solitaire” games as they are called now. My friend Joey got a set within a year or two of me. He got the ABC Monday Night Football edition that came with the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. I’d go over to his house to play – he usually won, he always won when we played games. I also used to take my game over to other friends’ houses to play.
Within two years, the power switch started to short out. My father, who was really good at fixing things, would get out his soldering iron, some solder and flux, and fix the switch. This happened more than once.
By this time, I had taken to ordering teams and accessories. When I was a kid, Cremora non-dairy coffee creamer came in tall glass jars. We used to keep our spare change, mostly pennies, in rinsed out Cremora jars. I would sit with the order form and roll pennies until I had enough for what I wanted + shipping and handling. The unpainted teams were always cheaper than the pre-painted NFL teams, so I would get blank squads that Dad and I could paint. I would give my dad the rolls of pennies and the completed order form. He would take everything to the bank, get a money order, and then mail off my order to Tudor Games in Brooklyn, N.Y. Four to six weeks later, a small brown padded envelope would arrive with my football dreams inside.
By late 1979, I had more than a few teams and I was playing the game regularly. On December 3, 1979, the Oakland Raiders were in New Orleans to take on the Saints on ABC’s Monday Night Football. I had the mind to play the game out myself with electric football. I had the Raiders and I had the Saints. While my father watched the game on our 19-inch Zenith television in the living room. I set the board up in the floor near an electrical outlet in the dining room. I plugged it in, got the teams out, performed the coin toss, set up for the opening kickoff, kicked off with the triple-threat quarterback, placed the foam football under the kick returners arm, and flipped the switch. Nothing. No telltale buzz. Not even the usual thunk of a closed circuit. Just a dead switch.
It was a school night. It would be a few years before I would get special dispensation to stay up late when the Raiders were on Monday Night Football. I knew my time was limited. I lost my mind. I was nine and I balled like a baby because my game was broken. My father, after much begging and pleading by your humble narrator, got out the soldering kit and fixed his only child’s game. I was able to stay up a little later and play. The Raiders beat the Saints that night in one of the greatest come-from-behind victories in their franchise history. It’s been my job to tell that story for the last 20 years.
Some years later, I finally got a new game for Christmas – the Super Bowl edition. The board was huge and the field was sunken in. Rather than buy labels for the scoreboard, I made my own copying team logotypes, coloring them in and cutting them out in the proper shape for the scoreboard. By this time, electric football had gone from just a game to a full-blown hobby. My dad and I spent hours on end painting teams, often more accurately than what you could buy from Tudor Games. I used my dad’s tape recorder and announced play-by-play for my solitaire games. My cat Siam would crawl up on my shoulder and watch the action.
I also had taken to getting out my dad’s old Remington typewriter and banging out rosters for each of my teams. I eventually had 22 of 28 (at the time). I made schedules and one year I played an eight-game season for the whole “league.” Marcus Allen would lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl title – funny how that worked. Art imitates life (even if the fix may or may not have been in).
Everyone I knew had the Mattel Electronic Football handheld game. I got the Tudor Games version – talk about brand loyalty. I had the Coleco Electronic Quarterback before that. Neither compared to electric football, but they did help with the long car rides on family vacations, until Dad told me to turn off the, “beep, beep, boobeep.”
I had been in the Navy four or five years and I had taken the game and my teams with me to Washington, D.C., the final duty station of my Navy career. As I was moving from one rental to another in Maryland in 1996, I left everything in the attic of the townhouse where I had been living. I had forgotten one of my most prized possessions.
Eventually, I put electric football away in the deep recesses of my mind. Over time I figured Tudor Games went out of business.
In 2001 (I think), my now wife and I were traveling back east from California. I happened to flip through the Sky Mall catalog and lo and behold, what should I spy with my little eye? A page full of ELECTRIC FOOTBALL! Tudor Games had been purchased by a company called Miggle Toys out of Chicago and the Sky Mall catalog had three sets featured.
Santa Claus brought me the ABC Monday Night Football edition with the lighted stadium! The game came with the Green Bay Packers and the Jacksonville Jaguars. I didn’t rightly care which teams were included. There was a newsletter in the box. There were leagues all across the country. There were tournaments and a Super Bowl of electric football. Who knew? On Christmas Day, I set it all up and the Packers and the Jaguars had it out in Living Room Stadium on the coffee table. It was 1977 and I was seven years old all over again.
And then I put it away. It went right in the closet. Don’t ask me why. I really don’t know. I didn’t get it out again for more than a decade. Three or four years ago, I dragged it out and taught my now 13-year-old how to play. It was still Jaguars vs. Packers, but it didn’t matter. Last year for Christmas I got him the Raiders in home and away uniforms. We recreated Super Bowl II, a couple of times. We just did again last night (the Packers won 21-13).
The game is still maddening. The players don’t run in straight lines. They run out of bounds at the one-yard line just before they’re about to score, they run around in circles. The kickers are too powerful and you spend almost as much time scouring the floor for the football as you do playing the damn game. Passing is almost a joke. You need the patience of Buddha and the manual dexterity of Michelangelo to complete a pass. People have come up with all kinds of tricks and workarounds for the passing game.
Tudor Games bought their progeny back in 2012. Now there’s a website where you can order game boards customized for every team in the NFL. There’s even an Army/Navy version. You can get pre-painted teams, you can get blank teams, you can order two types of jersey numbers, players in true action poses, paints and decals, referees, cheerleaders, chain gangs, you name it. Tudor Games is very active on social media these days. There’s even an app that will do the (simulated) kicking and passing for you. I tried the app, it’s more frustrating than playing the game. I’ll stick to the old ways, and the “vintage” game board.
When my friend, colleague and neighbor, Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown, passed away recently, Tudor Games posted a photo of Brown’s iconic 75-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XI in an electric football setting. I got choked up. It was one of the best tributes to “Old Man Willie” that I saw.
I’m 50 now. I can’t tell you what it means to be able to play electric football and share it 43 years after getting my first one. Kids I knew who had a set abandoned it within weeks or months after getting it. Not me. I had electric baseball too, but it didn’t have the exciting gameplay or the charm of electric football.
There’s something about setting up the players in formation, placing that little foam football under a ball carrier’s arm, flipping that switch, hearing the “thunk” of a completed circuit followed by that all too familiar “bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz,” plastic gridiron heroes skittering across that metal board heading for the end zone … “he’s at the 30, the 20, the 10, the five …”