Herbie Goes Bananas

14 Jul

A70-3309My best friend in third grade was a ginger-haired, freckley kid named Rob Fairchild.

Even at nine years old, Rob had a swagger of someone who expected success. He won at every sport he played, and was one of the best golfers for his age in the state. He was a straight-A student who finished his homework each afternoon before getting off the school bus, and whose diorama book report on Charlotte’s Web was something the teachers raved about for years after the fact.

He was a good-looking kid, a kind of a 1970s, bowl-cut version of Ronnie Howard, whom you could easily imagine yelling “Hey Kool-Aid!” in those ads than ran between our after-school cartoons.

The teachers loved Rob. The parents admired him. The girls wanted to do the Hokey Pokey with him at the Skate Inn every Saturday afternoon. The boys liked Rob as much as you could possibly like someone who towered over you in every measurable way.

“Sure,” they’d say, eyes twitching around the schoolyard to see where he might be lurking. “Rob’s pretty cool.”

We didn’t have a term for it back in third grade, but Rob was an Alpha Male. Years later, he applied all that charisma and confidence toward becoming a successful entrepreneur. He patented a bath towel with a Velcro strip that make it easier to wrap around your waist. He called the invention The Belly Hugger. Rob sold millions of Belly Huggers on late-night television and became a minor celebrity in the process. I understand he now has his own island now somewhere near the Caymans.

Rob and I had little in common in third grade. I was a “B” student whose mind wandered into a world of talking cars and space adventures at the first mention of multiplication tables. I played soccer, which in those days was the sport of choice for kids not coordinated enough to throw and catch. I also took piano lessons, which was not real high on the coolness meter back in elementary school.

We were best friends mostly because our dads had management jobs for the same company, and we were the only two kids our age in the still-developing neighborhood between the local golf course and the lake. Nevertheless, Rob and I shared a bond. We used leftover lumber from the home construction sites to build a network of little forts in the woods that surrounded our houses. We stockpiled pine cones to hurl at Rob’s sister on the rare occasions she tried to play with us. We fished, we swam, we rode our bikes and we built rock dams in the creek beds. We often played until sundown and then got yelled at by our moms for tracking red clay into the house. It was a Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn kind of life, and it didn’t seem to matter that Rob could already drive a golf ball 120 yards while I was lucky to get mine past the ladies’ tees.

Things were different between us at school. Rob was aloof and standoff-ish around me. During recess, he was more interested in playing sports than Kick The Can or tag with me and all the motor skill-challenged kids. Then he got mean, heckling me when it was my turn at the plate in kickball, teasing me when a teacher caught me not paying attention in class. Of course, he managed to do all this in a disarming, Opie Taylor sort of way that made the teachers want to do little more than squeeze his freckley little cheeks.

I didn’t get it. Rob and I were best friends back in the neighborhood. We were “blood brothers,” like Bo and Luke Duke. Why would he turn on me in front of the other kids? Many times I wrote the friendship off, certain that Rob Fairchild wanted nothing to do with me, and I with him.

Every afternoon after school, however, my phone would ring. Even before picking up, I knew it was Rob.

“Whatcha doing?” he would ask.

“Nothing,” I’d say, still miffed about the latest schoolyard indignity.

“Come up to the house,” he’d say. “I just found my dad’s Playboy.”

Or something to that effect. I usually went because there wasn’t much else to do but watch a re-run of “Happy Days” or play with my Star Wars figures. And each time I went to Rob’s house, it was good times again: exploring the woods, jumping our bikes off rickety ramps, snagging lumber from a construction site to build our latest fort. Rob and I, to borrow a phrase from America’s most beloved simpleton, were like peas and carrots again.

But the school days were bad, and I tired of my friend’s split personality. The sensible thing would be to ask him to stop being such a jerk. But you just didn’t do that in the Boy World. It was much better, I felt, to conspire against him and plan his eventual demise.

The summer of 1980 was a troubling time. There were hostages in Iran. The oil crisis was looming. Dudley Moore and Burt Reynolds were considered major box-office attractions.

It was also the summer I declared war on Rob Fairchild. It started with a phone call.

“Watcha doing?” Rob asked.


“Come up to the house. I got a new tetherball set.”


A pause. “What did you say?”

“I said, ‘no.’”

“Why ‘no?’”

I took in a deep breath.

“Because,” I said. “I don’t want to.”

He let out a little gasp, as if this were the first time anyone dared defy him. Then he hung up.

Oh, it was on after that. Rob and I recruited foot soldiers from around the neighborhood for the inevitable showdown. I got Marcus McLaughlin, a soon-to-be-second-grader whose chief skill was screaming at an intolerably high pitch. Curt got Aoki, whose family just moved in from Japan and who spoke about three words of English.
Marcus and I struck first, trashing a fort in the woods behind Rob’s house. Then Rob and Aoki ambushed us with a brutal pine cone attack. Then we had a wrestling match near the creek bed, which ended with Rob hurling a large rock at me and Marcus as our moms called us home.

It was a high point in the campaign, to be sure. But to claim total victory, I wanted to beat my enemy at something he held dear. Rob played 18 holes of golf almost every day that summer, usually with boys much older than him. He was becoming something of a local legend, and he almost won his age group in a statewide tournament that year. If I was to bring Rob down, it would have to be on the links.

I was under no illusion that I could do that myself, of course. But I had a friend, a ringer, whom I knew Rob despised and couldn’t resist playing. I set up a four-hole tournament between Rob and Jason Payne, with the prize being a packet of orange Titleist balls. My ace-in-the-hole was a little rule that, for every cuss word one of the players uttered during the event, a shot would be added to their score. Rob’s cussing addiction was well-known by then, even by the adults. I was confident he couldn’t play four holes without swearing.

I was right, sort of. He said, “God-dangit,” after teeing off on the third hole, which cost him a stroke and the match. There was a hot argument at the final green over whether or not this qualified as a true cuss word before Rob pinned my friend to the ground, grabbed the tournament prize and ran home.

Furious, I marched over to the Fairchild residence to retrieve my golf balls.

“You know, Rob won the tournament fair and square,” Mrs. Fairchild said when she answered the door.

“Yes ma’am,” I replied.

“He’s upstairs crying right now. He’s very upset.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“I’m giving you your balls back because I don’t want any more trouble between you boys. You used to be such good friends.”

“Yes ma’am. I know.”

I felt bad about the tournament. If I could have articulated it in my soon-to-be fourth grade mind, I would have said the whole thing made me feel petty and foolish. I had taken things too far, and I thought that maybe it was time to make peace with Rob Fairchild. Beside, another school year was looming around the corner, and I soon would be in the same room with him seven hours a day.

A week or so after the tournament, I bumped into Rob at the swimming pool, waiting his turn to go off the high dive. He sat on a concrete bench, making little white marks on the armrest with a spare golf tee.

“That’s pretty neat,” I remarked. “I didn’t know you could draw with a golf tee.”

“That’s because you’re stupid,” he said. Then he climbed the diving board and made the coolest back flip anybody had ever seen.

A few hours later, I was at home, watching an old episode of “F-Troop,” when the phone rang.

“Watcha doing?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“Wanna go see a movie?”

I paused before answering. “What’s playing?”

Herbie Goes Bananas.”

In those pre-cable, pre-Internet, pre-everything days, you didn’t turn down an invitation to a movie, even from your nemesis. It just wasn’t done. Besides, I had always liked ol’ Herbie and had seen multiple advertisements about the new movie on TV. For a night, anyway, Rob and I could be friends.

“Okay,” I said.

Sitting in the front row of a theater watching a movie about the Love Bug breaking up a counterfeiting ring in Mexico might not seem like quality entertainment to you, but to a nine-year-old boy in 1980 it was about the most exotic thing imaginable. Rob and I ate our Sweet Tarts and chewed our Lemonheads, and there was no mention of our three-month war as we took in the talents of Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman. Afterward, Rob and I sneaked into The Blues Brothers and got to watch the scene where the National Guard and about 50,000 Chicago police chase down Jake and Elwood. The car crashes, we both agreed, were top-notch.

“Whatcha doing tomorrow?” Rob asked before his mom dropped me off at my house.

“I dunno,” I said. “Watching TV, I guess.”

“Come over to my place. I got a new Sea Monkeys set.”

I pause for a moment, suspecting that we were falling back into a familiar routine.

“Okay,” I finally said, “that sounds cool.”

Book Review: The Harrowing

8 Jul

The author of this book, Kenneth W. Barber, was a classmate of mine at LaGrange High School in Georgia. Back then, we knew him as Kenny. He was a funny, all-around good guy who worked with me on the high school newspaper, The Granger Blues. So even back then he was interested in writing. None of us had any idea of the dark, fantastical images that were lurking inside his head, however.

Now we know. The Harrowing is an apt title this suspense thriller that contains many vivid moments of gut-wrenching gore and nightmarish violence. This is Kenneth’s first book, but he already displays a knack for the genre as well as an uncommon talent for scene-setting and description. When private investigator Zoe Flynn notices a distant, darkly cloaked figure everywhere she goes, you can envision the cruel, demented grin hidden just beneath the figure’s black hat. Here’s how the writer describes it:

Across the rain-shrouded street a figure stood, watching. It was impossible to determine if it was a man or a woman. The clothing was all black and the brim of a large, black fedora obscured the face. A long, black trench coat wrapped the stranger in a veil of indistinctness. The rain had slacked to a misting wall of moisture that danced with wisps of fog and obscured the mysterious face to a wraith-like state.

At 265 pages, Harrowing is a fast-paced, entertaining journey. I had a hard time putting the book down as I tried to figure out what kinds of creatures were tormenting poor Zoe and her family, and why they were doing it. The battle being waged over the detective has many unexpected turns and takes a deeper look at human existence and spirituality than many horror novels. I found The Harrowing to be an engaging, thought-provoking first novel by a promising author. I’m looking forward to Mr. Barber’s next book.

A Website for Pridemore

2 Jul

After a few technical delays and frustrations, I am happy to share that the website for A Plot for Pridemore is now live. Many thanks to my good friend Shawn who spent several hours designing the pages and then patiently uploading them to the web hosting company. Check the site out for the latest reviews, events and other cool stuff related to A Plot for Pridemore! More to come in the near future!

The Differences Between Facebook and LinkedIn

28 Jun

On Facebook, you would never consider connecting with that export manager in Beijing you’ve never met before. But on LinkedIn, why the hell not? She might get you a job one day.

On Facebook, people are delighted when you post photos of your cat basking in a patch of sunlight on the living room carpet. On LinkedIn, not so much.
On Facebook, when you want someone’s friendship, you send him a request. On LinkedIn, when you want a connection, you have to explain how you know that person, whether he is a friend or a colleague, what company you worked at together, how much capital gains he reported in his 2013 1099-DIV, etc., etc. Otherwise, LinkedIn gets kind of bitchy.

On LinkedIn, you can tell how many people have viewed your profile and, in most cases, who they are. On Facebook, you have no idea who has been clicking through your photo album, “Let’s Go Crazy–Cancun Spring Break 2009.”

On LinkedIn, your post announcing that you have successfully negotiated a truce to the civil war in Syria will garner two or three likes. On Facebook, your pronouncement that you just ate Count Chocula cereal for the first time since the early 1980s will get 46 likes, 13 enthusiastic comments and two shares.

"Awesome! My thesis on how to end our dependency on foreign oil got two likes!"

“Awesome! My thesis on how to end our dependency on foreign oil got two likes!”

On LinkedIn, your profile pic is a corporate photo of you in your best business suit. On Facebook, your profile pic is an iPhone photo of your kid running through the sprinkler in his diaper.

On LinkedIn, you can ask your top connections several times to please write a recommendation for you, and they never will. On Facebook, you can ask your friends what kind of dishwasher you should buy, and within minutes you will get 25 lengthy, detailed, unique pieces of advice.

On Facebook, you can rant and rave about your pet political issues as much as you want. You can do that on LinkedIn, too, if you think you will never have to look for a job ever again.

With Facebook, you might scroll through your newsfeed and even post something while sitting on the toilet. You would never do that with LinkedIn. It wouldn’t be professional.

Finally, on Facebook, you can visit a friend’s profile and immediately know their politics, how many kids and pets they have, whether or not they are divorced, and whether or not they are mentally healthy. On LinkedIn, all you know about a person is they worked 11 years at KPMG LLP and they like to share articles like “10 Can’t-Miss Accounting Software Solutions.”

“We Would Be Honored if You Would Join Us”

25 Jun


There’s a scene from The Empire Strikes Back that has always intrigued and fascinated me. If you are my age or younger, you may know this part of the movie by heart. Han Solo, Leia and the gang have just arrived at Cloud City, and Lando Calrissian is playing the good host by taking them to dinner. They arrive at the dining room and the door slides open to reveal Darth Vader at the end of a long table. Han fires his blaster a couple of times at Vader, who deftly blocks the shots.

Vader says, “We would be honored if you would join us.” Lando gives Han and Leia some lame excuse about the Empire arriving in town just before they did. “I’m sorry,” he says.

“I’m sorry, too,” Han replies. Han, Leia, Chewbacca and Lando enter the dining room, Vader sits at the table, the bounty hunter Boba Fett walks in behind him, and the door closes.

I have always wondered what happened right after that door closed. Most likely, the Storm Troopers rounded Han, Leia and Chewie up and took them immediately to the detention center. But Vader’s remark haunts me: “We would be honored if you would join us.” Maybe the Dark Lord planned some chivalrous gesture by treating Han and his friends to a nice dinner before hauling him off to be frozen in carbonite. I know that would be out of character for Vader, but that is what I want to believe happened. I mean, they had food and drinks laid out on the table as if they were getting ready to entertain. You can’t let that much food go to waste.

And if they did, in fact, sit down for a last supper, as it were, this is how I imagine the dialogue:

VADER: This is a day that will be long remembered.

SOLO: (Not looking up.) Could someone please pass the rolls? (Boba Fett passes a basket of rolls and Han takes one.)

VADER: The Emperor will be most pleased.

LEIA: You really think this is the end, don’t you? You may have caught us, but there are thousands out there just like us. Hundreds of thousands. I may not live to see it, but your empire will crumble someday soon, Lord Vader.

SOLO: (Placing a hand on LEIA’s arm.) Honey, now is not the time.

VADER: (Leaning back in his chair.) No, please… Let her speak. I find her lack of tact amusing.


SOLO: Chewie, stop it!

FETT: (Checking his watch.) I say we end this charade and freeze him.

VADER: The Empire will compensate you for your time. Has everyone tried the green bean casserole? I obviously can’t eat it, but I sense that it is very tasty.

LANDO: (Taking the dish.) Thanks. Want some, Han?

SOLO: Sure, why don’t you hand that over? Just like you handed your friends over to the Empire.

LANDO: (Whispering.) I had no idea you were coming. I hadn’t seen you since, what, since the Kessel Run? Then you just show up. (Taking a sip from his wine glass.) Look, I did the best I could.

SOLO: Oh, I get it. You’re a real hero.

LEIA: (Leaning toward LANDO.) When Luke hears about this, he’s going to blast your little floating city out of the sky.

VADER: How is Luke anyway? Has anyone seen him lately? What’s he up to?

(Everyone stares silently at their food.)

VADER: I only ask because, well, I do have a certain fondness for the boy. He clearly has talent. The emperor and I are quite certain that he can be turned.

LEIA: (Almost spitting.) He’ll die before he joins you.

VADER: (Lifting a gloved finger.) We shall see about that, princess. We shall see.

SOLO: You might have fooled us, but Luke’s too smart to fall into one of your traps.


LEIA: (Picking at her lime fluff jello salad.) Can I have another roll? Please?

FETT: Solo ate the last one.

VADER: (Lifts his hand, and a roll rises from the basket and lands on LEIA’s plate.) No…there is another.

(LEIA nods to the Dark Lord and takes a bite from her roll.)

- END -

A Night to Remember

19 Jun
The line was long at times.

The line was long at times.

On Saturday, we hosted our much-anticipated book launch party for A Plot for Pridemore at a venerable Kansas City mansion called The Writers Place. Attendance was around 70 people, we sold 31 books and I signed even more copies than that. We had two chocolate fountains, lots of wine and beer, and a wonderful, oversized projection of the book cover looming over the event. It was an exhilarating, exhausting night, one my wife and I will never forget. We also got to take home two coolers of beer and several Tupperware containers of strawberries, pineapple and melted chocolate. I guess we will be having a pool party soon just to get rid of the stuff.

To everyone who has purchased my book or attended any of the Pridemore events in the past three weeks, thank you so much for your love and support. It is amazing to me the range of people who have taken the time to tell me how excited they are about my novel. I am truly humbled and blessed to have such wonderful friends.

One thing I have learned in the past few weeks is that almost everyone who approaches me about the book asks the same question: “When is your next one coming out?” The answer is, I don’t know. I have completed about 80 pages of a new book, and I hope to concentrate more on it this fall. I’ll post more about this work in the future as I become more certain about its potential.

I have one more book signing scheduled in the very near future:  1 p.m. this Saturday at the Barnes & Noble in Kansas City’s Zona Rosa shopping center. After that, I have a few weeks off before the next event. My book continues to sell as a sporadic pace, according to the numbers I am seeing on Amazon.com. On Sunday, The Kansas City Star featured this little review about Pridemore and several other new books by area authors. It is always nice to get some positive local press.
That’s all the news I can think of regarding the book. I promise my next post will be about something different!

First Event for A Plot for Pridemore

9 Jun

My first book signing was Saturday at the Barnes & Noble in Overland Park, Kansas. Several friends showed up and we sold 19 of the 20 copies of Plot for Pridemore that the store had ordered. Thanks to all of you who showed up. If you had not been there Saturday, it would have been a long two hours of making awkward eye contact with shoppers. I hope I didn’t write anything too embarrassing or indecipherable in your copies of the book.

Here are few images from Saturday’s event. It was a lot of fun feeling like a rock star for an afternoon. Thanks for having me, Barnes & Noble.

One of my many star-struck fans.

One of my many star-struck fans.

The big banner will travel with me this summer as I share the good word about Pridemore.

The big banner will travel with me this summer as I share the good word about Pridemore.

The author, in a quiet moment of reflection.

The author, in a quiet moment of reflection.

Next stop for Pridemore is a book launch party this Saturday and a book signing at another Barnes & Noble in Kansas City on June 21.

June 6

6 Jun

I cannot even comprehend the idea of landing at Omaha Beach under heavy artillery and gunfire on June 6, 1944. I feel very fortunate and blessed for the American and Allied soldiers who put their lives on the line and stormed Normandy 70 years ago today. The world would be a very different place if they had not.

The Reviews are Coming In…

4 Jun

Here’s a very nice review of A Plot for Pridemore by Trina Carter of ForewardReviews.com:

Exaggeration brings humor to the publicity stunt this mayoral main character has in store.

Machiavelli would have admired Monroe Tolliver. He isn’t a prince, just a mayor, but he has a plan to save his town. The fact that it involves explosives, kickbacks, and trickery is all part of the plot to get Pridemore, Missouri, going again. For if there’s one thing Tolliver has learned in his nearly fifty-year span as mayor, it’s that real goodness can be a liability, but the pretense is always very effective.

Set in America’s heartland, A Plot for Pridemore is a send-up of small-town politics. Pridemore is in danger of dying out. The new bypass has funneled traffic away from what was once a prosperous place for tourists vacationing in the Ozarks. The mayor seizes on the fact that Lewis and Clark passed close enough that way to turn a natural bridge and network of caves into a roadside attraction. Like Br’er Fox constructing a doll out of a lump of tar, the mayor dresses up his plan with enough made-for-television sensationalism to lure the media to Pridemore to cover the rescue of a slow-witted kid trapped in the cave.

It’s a sticky situation all right, and Roth spins his tale with a sure hand. He uses omniscient narration to keep his plates in the air with multiple viewpoints even as the publicity stunt goes awry. He uses exaggeration to poke fun at civic pride with almost Twain-like humor, like when he calls the town hall “one of those brick monstrosities that had all the charm of an East German dormitory.” He also creates characters to root for, including a jaded young newspaper reporter fresh out of journalism school, and characters that defy easy stereotyping, such as an aged skateboarding spelunker and beer-buzzed engineering expert brought in to save the day.

Some of these same characters are never fully developed, however. For example, the reporter remains the hapless onlooker, the kid in the cave is the clueless victim, and the old mayor stays the villain masterminding the whole fiasco (though he is the most complex and interesting character). There are also a few inconsistencies regarding the high-tech era in which the story supposedly takes place—battered maps rather than GPS, bedroom phones rather than cell phones, among others.

This is the kind of novel that begs to be read.

This One is for Max

31 May

100_0029Late May is always a bittersweet time for our family. This year, it is especially complicated. May 31, 2006 is the day that our first child, Maxwell, was born. We lost Max nearly three months later to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Every year since, we have celebrated our son’s birthday by looking at his pictures, putting flowers on his gravesite, and releasing a couple of blue and white balloons.

I have mixed feelings about the balloons. Letting them go and watching them turn into tiny specks against the blue sky seems almost too similar to how we have had to let go of Max. I guess that is also what makes the balloon release such a perfect gesture.

This month, we are also celebrating the release of my book, A Plot for Pridemore. The novel, which I finished writing in the months after Max’s death, is dedicated to him.
A couple of months ago, when A Plot for Pridemore was first posted on BarnesandNoble.com, I couldn’t help but notice that the publication date listed for the book was May 31.

Is it coincidence that my book is coming out around Max’s birthday, or is there something else at work? I wish I knew.

Happy birthday, Max. We miss you.


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