My Surrogate Grandfather

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The house in Rochester, N.Y., where I lived from 1974 – 1984.

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.

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Mr. McKinley’s house.

Mr. McKinley.

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.

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A dreaded manual lawnmower.

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.

Rest assured, I’ll never forget him.

The King of Fiction

EDUwYotU4AAtzCQAs 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.

51842368_2157286350984378_569776730923859968_nThe 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.

36916323_1844562398923443_4002267950542225408_nIn 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.

IMG_0364Not 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.

35654820_1808645752515108_6635525069873348608_oIn 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

IMG_0379I 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.

Season Finale of the Get the Knaak Podcast

Listen in as my good friend and old Navy buddy Chris Ingalls of www.popmatters.com joins me for some conversation about anything and everything. Thanks for listening this year everyone. Hopefully you have enjoyed the conversation and interviews. The podcast will be back in January. In the meantime, here is an hour and eight minutes of your life you’ll never get back.

 

My Favorite Christmas Songs

Earlier, I posted my favorite fall/winter seasonal songs as I made the argument for separating seasonal and Christmas songs. For numerous reasons, Baby It’s Cold Outside, which is not even a Christmas song, will not be on this list. As I mentioned in the previous entry, I am curious to know in what year these songs were written, recorded and released. Many of them are just flat out timeless.

I, again, enjoy the original definitive version of these songs, and I really don’t care for any “new” Christmas music. I make one exception.

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Brenda Lee recorded this song when she was all of 13 years old and it was released in 1958. I enjoy the rockabilly sound. One of the more popular Christmas tunes, it hit the Billboard charts more than once.

Silver Bells

When I was a kid, I loved the Bob Hope Christmas specials, mainly to see the Playboy (later Associated Press) college football team. I eventually learned about Hope and his efforts to entertain the troops. I also learned to appreciate Hope’s humor and his legacy. On every Christmas special, Hope would perform a duet of Silver Bells. The song was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and released in 1950.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It may as well be a Christmas anthem. Upbeat and festive, this song, made famous by numerous singers, heralds the arrival of the Christmas season. I couldn’t have this list without something from Mr. Christmas himself, Andy Williams. Williams made Christmas his own cottage industry in Branson, Missouri. He too was known for television Christmas specials.

Mistletoe

This is my one exception. Colbie Caillat co-wrote this with Mikal Blue and Stacy Blue in 2007. I love this tune. I am a fan of Caillat’s music and this song has a story and a melancholy to it I really like.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Another Christmas anthem that rings in the season, this song was written in 1951 by Meredith Wilson. Numerous artists including Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis and more recently, Michael Bublé, have recorded versions of this classic. I’ll leave you with Bublé’s version. His Christmas album from a few years ago is a treat.

Santa Claus and His Old Lady

When I was a disc jockey with Armed Forces Radio, we would start the season with one Christmas song an hour and build up the frequency as December 25 approached. I discovered Cheech and Chong’s Santa Claus and His Old Lady, played it for the first time, and fell out of my chair. More spoken word performance than song, it’s hilarious.

Christmas in Hollis

Okay, I lied. There’s another newer, original song I like. I grew up on hip hop music and one of the first groups of which I became a fan was Run DMC. And yes, they did a Christmas song. It has an infectious hook and a great beat. It’s different and a sign of the times, 1987 to be exact, the year I graduated high school.

Little Drummer Boy

I am not a big fan of this song, but Bing Crosby and David Bowie combined for an unexpected version of the song on Crosby’s last Christmas special, and I just had to include it. Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote the tune in 1940 and it was first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers in 1951.

Carol of the Bells

The song that everyone sets their computerized outdoor light display to, and the only song of its kind that I like.  Written by Mykola Leontovych and Peter J. Wilhousky in 1914, I prefer Trans Siberian Orchestra’s version.

The Christmas Song

Written in 1945 by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé (The Velvet Fog), this one has become an endearing Christmas classic. Covered by countless artists, this song evokes images of warm Christmas wishes. I prefer Nat King Cole’s version.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

I spent 10 years in the United States Navy and I spent many a Christmas away from home. I also traveled quite a bot for the profession I have been in for the last 20 years, and missed a few Christmases working. This song hits home for numerous reasons. Written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent in 1943, it was recorded by Bing Crosby the same year. I like Frank Sinatra’s version.

A Holly Jolly Christmas

I just had to have something from Burl Ives. Written by Johnny Marks in 1962 and included as part of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Ives recorded the definitive version. This is one of the more popular songs for current artists to cover.

White Christmas

I’ll end this list with what has become my favorite Christmas song. I don’t like musicals, can’t stand them, but a few years ago I finally gave White Christmas a shot and I was hooked. The song, written by Irving Berlin, debuts in 1942’s Holiday Inn, but it became a staple when Bing Crosby’s hit musical of the same name took off in 1954. This is one of the most popular songs of all-time. Here is Bing Crosby with Frank Sinatra.

 

My Favorite Seasonal Songs

Something struck me as odd this year. I love Christmas music and I prefer the traditional, definitive versions … and in many cases that means the original. I also started to wonder when some of these songs were written because of the myriad musical styles represented in the catalogue of these songs. But, during the evening commute recently, I was listening to Holiday Traditions on SiriusXM and I realized that many songs we identify as “Christmas” songs are actually seasonal and have nothing to do with Christmas. I can be a little dense at times. That doesn’t mean I like them any less, they just deserve their own lists.  So, I decided to split them up.

Here are my favorite fall/winter seasonal songs.

Winter Wonderland

Winter Wonderland, written in 1934 by Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard Bernhard Smith, has been recorded by countless artists over the years. It’s a fun, upbeat song that we all know and can sing by heart. I prefer Johnny Mathis performing this one.

My Favorite Things

I am not sure how this song, most famously performed by Tony Bennett, got to be associated with Christmas. Perhaps the visuals and references place it around Christmastime. It originated in 1961 with Julie Andrews on The Garry Moore Show’s Christmas special. Andrews performed it in The Sound of Music, both on Broadway and in the film. Written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, this has become a seasonal jazz favorite.

Happy Holiday

This is another song that is commonly associated with Christmas although it was written for a movie encompasses all holidays. Written by Irving Berlin and performed by Bing Crosby and Martha Mears in the 1942 film Holiday Inn (and yes, the hotel chain was named after the film), this version references the holiday-themed hotel Crosby’s character opens.

Sleigh Ride

This is another song that I really don’t know how it became associated with Christmas. It is my favorite fall/winter seasonal song and Johnny Mathis’ version is the one I prefer. This great tune has been recorded by countless artists as well. Written by Leroy Anderson in 1948, Sleigh Ride is considered an orchestra standard and it was first recorded by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in 1949. Mitchell Parish added the lyrics in 1950.

Jingle Bells

There’s a theme here. I have no earthly idea how this song became associated with Christmas. It just might be the oldest seasonal song that surfaces during the holidays. Written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857, zipping along in a one-horse open sleigh might have been the preferred method of transportation during the winter months when the song was composed, although it was supposed to be a Thanksgiving song. Numerous variations of the lyrics have been recorded over the years, including what would be considered politically incorrect (by today’s standards) references and accents regarding winter in Mexico most notably recorded by the Glenn Miller orchestra. Let’s go with Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Marshmallow World

This song was practically tossed on the scrap head of forgotten seasonal songs until SiriusXM resurrected it, and when it was recently used in a commercial. Perhaps the best version was recorded by Dean Martin. Written in 1949 by Carl Sigman and Peter DeRose, the song celebrates playing in the snow. I like the version with Martin and his pal, Frank Sinatra. “Hey, how about an eggnog … ?”

Let it Snow

Written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne in 1945, this song doesn’t exactly celebrate snow, rather extols the virtues of staying in and getting cozy. Since this list is pretty male heavy, let’s go with the great Doris Day for this one.

Coming soon – my list of my favorite actual Christmas songs. Thanks for indulging me. Happy holidays, everyone!