Thomas Paine, Mo Rocca and prettiest girl ever

While my beautiful wife Patty and I have been in isolation like millions worldwide, I’ve made use of my time by contemplating what none of us ever want to think about: one’s own demise.

I’ve also pondered Thomas Paine, a guy named Mo Rocca and my memory of the darn-tootin prettiest girl in the history of the universe.

I decided to pen my own obituary after attending the memorial service of a friend who wrote his own obit. It sounded good, more accurate than his family could write. This was in the pre-coronavirus days, all of the way back to the first week of March.

My friend was a writer and I suspect he believed people get too serious in obits, so he decided to write in some fun details—like how his father, an old-time pilot—flew over the family farm, which was snowbound, and dropped a note to let the older children know that their mother had given birth to a son in a nearby city hospital.

Tragically, too many grieving families are now fretting over what to write about their loved ones lost to coronavirus. I’m not planning on catching the illness (no one does), but, just to be safe, I decided time spent on my obit might be a practical gift for those I leave behind.

So, after sighing, contemplating, sighing again, I got off to a stellar start, inserting the “?” at strategic spots where facts are yet to be determined: Gary Kimsey died on _?_ at _?_. He was _?_ years old. During his life, he….

My brain power suddenly drained away at the “he….” Sigh. Which of my great deeds should I record? Sigh. Maybe my great discovery of two arrowheads in our backyard (my kids thought it was pretty neat) or—more sighing—maybe I should just make up stuff?

After destroying too many brain cells pondering how great Gary Kimsey should have been in life, I moved on to a book, Mobituaries, by Mo Rocca, a correspondent on CBS Sunday Morning. Mo—he seems like a guy okay with being called by his first name—updated obituaries “for great lives worth reliving.” Maybe Mo’s obits could give me ideas for making my life great in my obit.

I’m an occasional nonfiction reader (give me a good ol’ thriller novel instead), but my uncannily patient friend Jerry Kelsey, who has miraculously put up with me since we attended high school together in the late 1960s, had kept saying the word Mobituaries to me since the book was published in late 2019.

So, just to appease the Kelsey chap, I finally decided to get it on my Kindle. I checked Amazon and then asked myself, “Is Mo really worth paying $14.99?”

Well, shucks not. I suspected Mo would squander my $14.99 on a lavish lifestyle.

On the local free library website, I discovered (hey, maybe I can use this discovery in my obit?) that Mo’s a popular dude. However, I had to wait 10 weeks because so many people were in the online checkout line ahead of me.

Eventually Mobituaries arrived on my Kindle. Unfortunately, the library lets people check out online books only for 21 days. Yesterday, ye gads, I discovered (hey, a discovery for my obit?) that 20 days had swept by. I had yet to read a Mo word. So hurriedly I decided to read at least some, lest the Kelsey gent makes an inquiry.

One of Mo’s obits was about Thomas Paine, the fellow who wrote Common Sense, which got Americans jazzed up about fighting the Brits. Paine led a hero’s life gone misunderstood. His story—as told by Mo—is something we never learned in high school history class.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

I was surprised to discover (ah, another discovery for my obit) that Mr. Paine coined the sentence “These are the times that try men’s souls” so often used today.

I blame my learning oversight on the snoozy style of my high school history teacher. Lest you think otherwise, my oversight had nothing to do with keeping close attention on the pretty girl at the nearby desk, right? Now, a half-century later, I recall she was certainly very, very pretty, but have no idea what she looked like. Or her name. Or the color of her hair. Or, I wonder now, was she a figment of my teenage imagination, a distraction to keep from snoring in history class?

Let’s put that aside aside and go back to Mr. Paine’s sentence: He wrote it to describe stuff Americans faced around the time of the Revolutionary War. I hope, but am uncertain, that when he penned “men’s” he also meant women had souls that could be tried, too.

Today, Mr. Paine’s sentence can easily be used to reflect what’s happening in today’s world. This time of coronavirus indeed tries our individual and collective soul. Infection rates continue to soar. Deaths are so plentiful that some stressed communities are storing caskets of loved ones in refrigerated trucks until something can be done with them. No end is in sight.

In the inevitable end—as leaders have promised—we will have muddled through this. Revolutionary Americans survived. So shall we.

Fanny Brice

Fanny Brice circa 1930

Meanwhile, I found Mobituaries to be an engaging book structured so the reader can skip around hither and tither. After reading Mo’s obits about dragons and Paine today, I swiped across my Kindle screen to the story of Fanny Brice, the early 20th century singer, comedienne and inspiration for Barbara Streisand’s 1968 film Funny Girl.

I got as far as “Fanny’s troubled love life was…” when the library very rudely and very abruptly snapped away my online book, leaving me screeching, “What? What? What was her troubled love life?” My 21 days had expired.

I hurried to the online library to check out the book again, only to I discover (hey, another discovery) that it wouldn’t be available for at least two months.

Two months! Two months? What about Fanny’s troubled love life?

Amazon’s $14.99 looks pretty good right now, even if I am supporting Mo in a life of what could become decadence, debauchery and debasement.

Meanwhile: Gary Kimsey died on _?_ at _?_. He was _?_ years old. During his life, he made great discoveries, like Mo being a popular dude, 21 days go by fast, Tommy Paine wrote that thing, takes forever to check out a good book, and the prettiest girl in the universe may only be a figment.

Well, dagnabbit, that’s a hoot of an obit, ain’t it?

How I spent my 70th birthday

January 29, 2020—how in the holy heck of hell’s bells tinkerbells did this day arrive so quickly?

The age of 70 is something that happens to old guys, not young whippersnappers like me.

For most of us, birthdays—even milestone ones like, gag and yuk, 70—are usually routine days in the routine times of our routine lives. Maybe a party is in store. Or a special dinner. Or some gifts.

Pretty much, though, we pass through the day without much thought to where we’ve been or where we are now. Every birthday, however, should be coveted as more than the routine of life. We’ve made it another year. We’ve conquered the calendar again. We’re still breathing. We’re still moving, loving, enjoying, although probably much slower than we did at age 18.

My first thought this morning: Why, it was just yesterday when my friends Richard Hutchcroft and Brad Thomas and I sped across the Missouri state line and into Kansas so we could drink beer at the Anchor Bar, a sleazy 3.2 joint in Kansas City, Kansas.

That was on the night of my 18th birthday and we went Kansas-bound because in the state of Missouri, where the three of us lived in Independence, a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., the drinking age was 21. In Kansas, it was 18. Richard had turned 18 years old just 27 days earlier but had been partaking of Anchor Bar brew for a while before then. So had Brad who, well, was just a kid who wouldn’t 18 until February.

Today, the good thing about turning so mature (hey, no way I’m saying “so old”) is that everyone pays due homage to you. They all have great respect for your age and accumulated wisdom, you know, and they revere you. Right?

Ah, gosh, early this morning I received this text from my nephew Ron West:

“Happy birthday! So how does it feel being so old? When you were young, the Dead Sea was just sick. Dinosaurs roamed the earth. You’re old enough to remember when emojis were called hieroglyphics. But don’t worry. Your doctor says everything is normal for your age; of course, dying is normal for your age. Ouch! You are so old you get nostalgic over Neolithic cave paintings. OK, one more: Aging gracefully is just a way of saying you are slowly looking worse. Hope you have a nice birthday!”

Well, what can you say? Ron is 13 years my junior; he’ll eventually get to this point. So I’m saving his text to return to him then.

And there you have it, a portrait at age 70, cherry pie at the Englewood Cafe.

I started off today in sort of a routine way. A friend, Jerry Herman, is staying with us in Independence for a few days from his North Carolina home. Jerry, who my lovely, good-humored wife Patty and I went to high school with in Independence, came to see his mother, who is in an assisted living home.

This morning Jerry and I went to a local Denny’s Restaurant to have breakfast with a bunch of guys I call the Breakfast Boys. Most are retired. Among them is Richard Hutchcroft, my old (er, my mature) friend from the Anchor Bar run.

Except for me, the Breakfast Boys are all Trump supporters and they are occasionally prone to speak less than kindly about those worthless Democrats, those damned liberals, those…Well, you get the picture.

I know for certain, if I had been back in Colorado today—where Patty and I live in the warm months of the year—and I took to breakfasting with local Breakfast Boys there, theirs would be pithy comments about worthless Republicans, that damned Trump…. Colorado is more liberal than Missouri—how’s that for a broad, fact-free generalization? You know, of course, that I can get away with such generalizations. After all, I am of a more mature age today.

I’m at an age where I appreciate people’s different views on such things as religion and politics. I take it all in stride, figuring that on such topics I’m not going to change anyone’s opinions. And, frankly, it doesn’t make much difference to me what people think. I’m at the more mature age where I know that for me the most important view to pay attention to is my own opinion. In other words, my opinion is right and yours is blaaaaaaa … imagine my tongue and lips rapidly flapping as I scoff out a raspberry. I can do stuff like that now and people just excuse it by blaming it on my more mature age.

I wanted to eat at Denny’s this morning because breakfast is free for a customer whose birthday it is. I tried to order my usual—boring, bland oatmeal—but the waitress informed me that for a free breakfast I had to order “Build Your Own Grand Slam”—four breakfast items from the menu. So I had eggs, bacon, hash browns, and buttermilk pancakes. I put on five pounds of carbs and fat by the time I finished and belched. Us more mature guys can belch any time and any where we want.

Throughout the day I received happy-birthday texts, Messenger messages, Facebook posts, Facetime calls, or emails from my daughter and son, and from friends, some just barely younger than I am; others, decades younger. Their missives were all sweet and fun. This was a day when I reflected on how fortunate I am to have such friends and relatives.

One text came from a friend who is just a young whippersnapper himself. Jerry Kelsey—he’ll be 70 this year—and I played on our high school’s basketball team back in the day, along with Richard. Our team had the distinction of setting the Kansas City School District record for scoring the lowest number of points (26) in a game; our opponent in the game set the record for scoring the highest number of points (118) in all of the school district’s history. Our respective record-setting scores were posted for years and years and years up on a wall board at the fieldhouse where all of the Kansas City teams played. The record still stands, unfortunately, as far as I know. When you get old—I mean, more mature—you fondly gaze back on medals, awards or recognition you’ve received over the many years. In my case, 26 to 118 is a recognition scrawled in indelible ink on the thin parchment of my memory.

Jerry Kelsey’s text: “Congratulations on another trip around the sun. Notables sharing your special day: Tom Selleck, Oprah and Adam Lambert. If you had the looks, money and eye shadow of those three I could say I knew you when I could run and dribble a basketball off my foot at the same time.”

Jill Clark, a young lady I worked with before retiring in 2014, sent this text: “Happy Birthday, Master Kimsey! How are you celebrating today? I hope it may involve a nap, a book, a good movie, and some cheap but delicious beer. Cheers to you!”

Now, I don’t know how Ms. Clark knew my routine so accurately but she pretty much described every day for me, including birthdays. Please understand, it’s tough being retired. Even on your birthday, you have to decide whether to get up in the morning and wait a while before taking a nap…or, instead, just pull the covers back up again and take a nap. After all, why waste energy getting out of bed?

Patty, who I’ve known since we were 13 (we met the year JFK was assassinated), asked what I would like to do on my birthday. I’m sure she envisioned my answer would involve going to a good movie, reading a book, napping, and/or drinking cheap but probably not delicious beer (hmmm, I wonder if she’s ever mentioned my routine to Ms. Jill Clark?). Or—Patty secretly may have hoped—a nice dinner at an overly expensive plush restaurant that has white tablecloths, lemon slices in the water and snooty waiters with noses stuck so high in the air that you can see their nose hair and—again, gag and yuk—other things.

To answer Patty’s inquiry, I blurted out: “I want to go to Englewood Café for a piece of cherry pie.”

I hadn’t been there for more than a year and I was long overdue for cherry pie. In case you didn’t know it, cherry pie is a well-known elixir that will restore you to a less mature time of your life.

For those of you who don’t live in Independence, the Englewood Café is one of those classic decades-old greasy spoons where blue-collar workers and your parents and grandparents hang out. My parents dined there almost every day in the last years of their lives.

The décor is simple. There is a big picture of Marilyn Monroe hanging on one grayish wall. On the back counter are pictures of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. The counter has space for nine stools—the padding on the tops don’t all match and two stools are missing. The swinging door into the kitchen is so worn in the area pushed by the hands of waitresses that the paint is gone and the area is now blackish brown. Meanwhile, tile squares on the floor are chipped and well-worn by countless shoes stepping on them. To the café’s credit, however, all the tables and booths appear to be level. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating. We only sat at one table.

The daily specials are written on a chalkboard. Today: Corned beef hash, 2 eggs, HB (hash browns), toast—$6.79. Hot tenderloin sandwich (you also get breaded tomatoes, corn and green beans)—$6.59.

Gollygeewiz, it’s hard to beat those prices.

My quest, though, was cherry pie. The list of pies is scrawled on another chalkboard hanging on the back counter. Today, there were 11 types of pies offered. Pies are baked elsewhere and are delivered on Tuesdays and Fridays. So you have to get there on those days or immediately the next day to have a good selection before this or that type of pie runs out.

One cherry pie for me (including a big scoop of ice cream), one coconut cream for Patty, a coffee for each of us. Total: $12.36.

As we ate, we eavesdropped on a waitress, who was in her forties, quizzing a customer sitting at the counter. He was an old guy—that is, definitely more mature than me—and she was trying to help him remember where he misplaced his cell phone. Finally, she said she didn’t want him to go around phone-less so she promised to take him to get a new phone. This is the type of place the Englewood Café is—waitresses go out of their way to help customers, especially mature regulars who sometimes may have difficulty helping themselves.

My cell phone rang—this happened moments after I had checked to make sure I hadn’t indeed misplaced my phone, too—and the caller was Bruce Horovitz.

Bruce is the best writer I know. He is a genius at turning a phrase; he makes wonderful poetry out of words and sentences that other writers only make dull. I’ve known Bruce since we worked at the same college newspaper. He became a long-time business reporter for USA Today until the newspaper offered a buyout about three years ago. He was outa there in a flash but is still writing, now stuff that he wants to write. He said over the phone that he has added a new twist to his life: volunteering to help the needy in his hometown of Falls Church, Va.

Years ago Bruce related an interesting personal story about how he met his wife Evelyn, a gracious and kindly lady. I couldn’t quite recall all of the details, so today I asked Bruce to again tell me the story so I could pass it on to Patty, who enjoys hearing romantic stories.

Bruce was vacationing in Copenhagen and just happened to meet a beautiful young lady outside of a castle. They conversed a bit and then each went on their own way. As sometimes happens with tourists moving about in the same touristy areas, they kept running into each other that day.

The next morning Bruce went into a coffee shop and from somewhere behind him came a woman’s voice: “Bruce.”

He says he knew two things at that very moment. First, he wondered who in the hell knew him in a foreign country where he hardly knew anyone. Second, he was captivated by the voice.

“It had such a musical lilt that I knew that’s the woman I was going to marry,” he told me today.

He turned around and happily discovered that it was the voice of Evelyn, who just happened to be in the same coffee shop. Yes, they did marry, and now they have two daughters: one in college, the other in high school.

At the end of the afternoon today, Patty’s daughter, Amy Broughton, came by with, among other things, a sack full of birthday gifts from World Market, a place that offers exotic items: a big bag of popcorn popped in coconut oil and seasoned with pink salt from the Himalayas; waffle caramels; and chocolate-covered dates. Patty’s other daughter, Kelly Teegarden, mailed me a box of tasty Bateel dates stuffed with almonds, hazel nuts, pistachios, and dried orange rinds. They came in a fancy metal box. I think Kelly sent me this gift not so much for the dates but for the nifty box—she knows I like boxes (and that’s a story for another day).

So, this was my day, my birthday, the Big 70. How was your day?