Plenty in the cellar when it’s gone

Today (September 30th) is my brother, Dicky’s 65th birthday, and ‘though he won’t be making it to the party, I’ll be raising a glass in his honor.

One of the lesser-recognized advantages to being a younger sibling in a large family is the large swatch of popular culture you become exposed to and can assume as your own.  The 15-year age difference between my older and younger brothers covered a multitude of fads through the years. So after his first brain operation in early 2005, when Dicky drolly referenced Spike Jones’ 1959 song, “Teenage Brain Surgeon” I instantly imagined it (sung by Thurl “Tony the Tiger” Ravenscroft) and envisioned the album cover with Spike and friends hovering over the Frankenstein Monster … one of the cherished parts of our family’s hi-fidelity collection.

Although the experimental procedure was a success (“the entire recovery room was ebullient,” Dicky later observed), Glioblastoma multiforme, or “Glio” as they call it in the brain surgery biz, results in a notoriously aggressive tumor that even when whittled away by computerized-laser surgery, and bombarded by radiation and chemotherapy, has a hydra-like way of bursting back.  This he knew. When adjoined to a Stage 4 diagnosis he also knew that every monkeyshine counted.

Born in 1911 in Long Beach, California, Lindley Armstrong Jones was all about monkeyshines.  His father was a railroad agent with the Southern Pacific and early on he acquired the nickname, Spike due to a scrawny physique that resembled a railroad spike. Having procured his first drum kit at the age of 11, he was taught to play kitchen implements as musical instruments by a railroad restaurant chef.

After countless gigs with theater pit orchestras, Jones had become a highly accomplished percussionist and managed to parlay an appearance with the Victor Young (studio) orchestra into a series of radio engagements, including those hosted by Burns and Allen, Al Jolson and Bing Crosby.  As a matter of fact he was percussionist on Crosby’s original recording of “White Christmas” in 1941.

But soon after forming his band, the City Slickers (perennially on-tour as the Musical Depreciation Revue), the name Spike Jones had become synonymous with musical zaniness and satire.   Although a two year strike by the American Federation of Musicians prevented him from releasing commercial recordings until well into 1944.  He was able to make records for radio broadcasts and for “Soundies”.

Soundies were basically music videos (on film) that could be viewed on coin-operated “film jukeboxes” found in bars, nightclubs, arcades and malt shops.  Today’s 1942 selection, “Clink! Clink! Another Drink” featuring a vocal by Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety and Sylvester, as well as Barney Rubble) is just such an example.

“Clang, clang, who cares a dang? What’s the difference when you’re on a spree?” could just as well have been a theme song for that madcap final stretch, at least my apportionment of it.  Although we hadn’t always been close, sometimes going years without seeing or talking to each other, by the time Dicky got sick I was living in the next town and my work schedule was such that I could serve as a driver for many of his medical appointments.

With the invariable (sometimes maddening) slippery-slope delays that meant that I truly had to plan around my driving days.  It also meant that there was lots of time to catch-up and just-plain-visit.

My brother reveled in in the arcane, whether talking about a particular shade of blue (cerulean for example), or the pronunciation of a little used word (like adumbrate), or girl’s softball strategies (he had two sons and no daughters, but had played in the Army and by golly he was going to pass on that knowledge, so he became a coach).

Although it didn’t start out that way, ours ended up a multi-faith family (six kids, six faiths) and of course Dicky had much to convey about the debate raging amongst “his” Conference of Catholic Bishops over proposed textual changes to the Nicene Creed (I could only point out that “my” UUA’s slightly less nuanced debates generally concern such broader topics as: whether or not there is a God).

But my brother was an attorney and the one topic that was guaranteed to illuminate even the dankest of waiting rooms was “The Law” in all its impenetrable vagaries. I can only affirm that in my observation he wasn’t proven wrong in his assessment of the then-new Chief Justice John Roberts when he simply opined, “Stare decisis, bro.”

“Starry Decisis?”

“He’ll be fine, we’re talking Legal Studies 101, ‘Stare decisis et non quieta movere,’ which clearly is Latin for ‘stand by decisions and don’t disturb the undisturbed.’

If we timed it right and the appointments didn’t overrun by too many hours there would be time for some lunch, and if I didn’t have any meetings scheduled or wasn’t under a deadline I would join him in a drink or two when we got there, always toasting with the happy acknowledgement…“Because we can.”

That’s when the conversations would really get interesting. I venture to say that anyone brought up in an old New England family is sure to be privy to the occasional skeleton in the closet.  I knew I was privy to a few and was exceedingly pleased when he wasn’t aware of them.  But then he escorted a few of his own to the table and it was if all those little skeletons began to cha’ cha’ cha’ in a little Danse Macabre around the dishes. Terrible circumstances, breathtaking insightfulness.

I note this date now and remember the cherished observations, the confessed regrets and especially the advice.  Trust me, Dicky was remarkably adept at mounting that big brotherly pedestal for every living second that I knew him.

I especially remember one particular long-cut through the western suburbs of Boston.  I had collected Dicky from his chemo appointment at the Dana Farber Institute (never easy to pick out a bald, middle-age man in that lobby) and he was hankering for some Minestrone soup. So we agreed on a place we both knew.  Although I had easily driven this route one hundred times, he was adamant that he knew a better way.

“Take that right.”

I tried to argue but he put on his stentorian tone, like he was arguing in court (did I mention that he never lost a case?).  “Take that right!”

I did. We traveled for a couple of miles.  I’d never been down this road and finally turned to my well-medicated brother.  “What now?”

He looked around, shrugged.  “I don’t know where we are.”

“But you insisted that we take this route.”

He shrugged again, “What do you expect when you take directions from someone with Stage 4 Glioblastoma, who has undergone three brain surgeries?

“Clink, Clink, because we can,” my brother.  Here’s to that courage, sangfroid and sense of humor to the end…  Okay, and to those pink elephants too.  

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Saturday 29 September

Clink! Clink! Another Drink

 Clink, clink, another drink

Plenty in the cellar when it’s gone

Drink, drink, the glasses clink

Making tinkly music till the dawn is breaking

 Clang, clang, who cares a dang?

What’s the difference when you’re on a spree?

Over the teeth, behind the gums

Look out stomach here she comes

Hi! Have another drink on me

 Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle, gurgle

Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle, gurgle

 Trinkle, trinkle, trinkle, trinkle

Slice of cheese and bite of pickle

Doesn’t even cost a nickel

Now to wash it down

 Clink, clink, no more to drink

I had a cellar full, but now its gone

Drink, drink, the glasses clink

Like the anvil chorus and my head is splitting

uh, brinking, uh, busting. Oh brother!

 Oh, ow, what’ll I do now

Pink elephants running after me

Oh, that stuff is smooth as silk

From now on I’ll stick to milk

Nothing else to drink for me

2 thoughts on “Plenty in the cellar when it’s gone

  1. Nice tear jerker! I did not know that Dick shared a birthday with my daughter Lauren. It is interesting to me how often Dick’s laugh rings through my head, especially when I see Michael or pictures of your family. I loved his stories of growing up a Pettingell.
    Anyway, thanks for the beautiful piece and introducing me to “thisrightbrain”.

  2. It seems odd to say I’m grateful that Dick became ill, but had he not I wouldn’t have had the opportunities of getting to know him while shuttling him around. We needed the reminder that our time is finite, and that shared time is most precious.

    My eldest is off to college, and I’m reminded how much I rely upon him (and his sister) as a repository for those (and countless other) shared memories. My wife’s uncle has become a little confused of late, asking me how we are doing with my mother-in-law’s death (though it happened 14+ years ago) when we stopped by on our way back from VT to MA on our first parent’s weekend visit. He seemed disappointed it wasn’t at the forefront of our concerns, until I explained about the gap in time. And yet, the passage of time has removed the sharpest pains but left those day to day thoughts of fondness. I miss them all, the departed, but am happy to continue on with them as companions.

    Love, Warren

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