Rockin’ in La Plaza Major (de Madrid)

Summer of 1977

Madrid, Spain

Funny, the ancient memories that slowly come back to life as we get older and have more time to reflect.   Sometimes all it takes is an old tune not heard in 40 years to bring things back to life.   Incredible to think it has been that long since I lived in Madrid.

Real Summer jobs were no fun.  Sure, the paychecks were more steady than playing rock and roll in smokey bars, but life’s so short and even at 17, I knew you had to grab your fun while the going was good and carefree.

And that sure was the case in Madrid back in the day.   No restrictions on the weekend and pocket change got you a Metro ticket to the heart of the city.   So, I’d drag my acoustic guitar in its case and head down to the old center to play for “bar cash”.

Back in the day, I had “big”, blonde hair and a bit of a wild attitude and so when I emerged from the depths of the underground, suddenly the streets were alive with people on their way to restaurants, discos, and cafes and I knew it was just a flight of stairs up and through the grand arches into the old Plaza Major.

Past the steamed up window of the place that sold fresh Calamare sandwiches, a place almost impossible to resist.   Then a little more into the center and I’d open my guitar case and let the old rock n roll tunes begin…

Johnny b Good, some Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a few classic tunes from the Stones.

… and some Aretha, naturally.   “R   Eee  S  Pee  Eee  See  Tee!”

but, Johnny b Good was by far, the crowd favorite.

Easy and recognizable tunes and before long, I’d have a sweet crowd of about 40 to 50 people merrily singing along.   It really didn’t matter that I kinda sucked…   so long as I projected the right energy, all was good.   There was always an extrovert in the crowd who helped me woo the crowd.   Always.

… and then, the pile of Pesetas and coins would build and when things finally died down, I’d smile and thank the crowd and not infrequently, would be invited to party in the area at the outdoor cafes, the nearby discos, or the Flamenco places that were around the corner down cobblestoned streets and a couple of flights down in some dungeon.

Magic was always in the air on the weekend in Madrid.

And as I sit now in my camping chair in my garage high over the valley, here in this remote part of Colorado enjoying another glorious sunset over the mountains in the distance, I smile as I reflect of a simple and carefree chapter of my youth, now long, long gone.

… well, not in spirit.


When you need a friend…

Sleeping in the back of my truck, next to my spare tire and the camping gear piled upon it here up high in the Colorado Rockies with the Milky Way in full view out my windows, a random thought whirled into my tired mind; my companion, my old Airedale Percy.

Funny how in life, we come into people and animals and, in those precious and rare times, a true bond forms immediately.   And this was the case with my companion, a true loyal friend who never betrayed me, who never judged, who always greeted me after school hoping that I’d take him for long, long walks through the still-battle scarred streets of Warsaw so many years ago.

I saw him again two years ago, though it really wasn’t him but someone else’s Airedale, the two having recently come back off trail…   Perfect timing for a chance to say “hi” to these two.

“I used to have one”


“Yes…”, and my hasty exit onto the trail must have seemed odd to these two.

The heartbreak of seeing him being given to a new family back in the Spring of 1973 was still too painful to bear and it hits me every time I see an Airedale.   Odd how the memories of these wonderful animals still seem so fresh decades later.

Walking home from school a few days prior, I could see that my mom had some tough news to deliver.   She’d see me grab the leash in the early afternoons and wouldn’t expect me and Percy to be back until dinner.   Those long walks were like a sweet therapy to the end of school days in a place I never felt I belonged anyway.   Never gave it a second thought.   Always preferred the reliable tranquility that came with quiet time with Percy in the Northern Virginia woods.

We’d been uprooted every couple of years and finally, it seemed, my furry friend could be a constant in a very confusing though fascinating upbringing…

“Alec, we can’t bring Percy to Turkey with us.   The Turks don’t like dogs and will likely kill him if he were ever to escape”, my mother did not seem like herself as she broke the heartbreaking news.

The day that the new family came to pick him up, I remember standing by the front door numb.  If I work a little, I can still see the excitement in the younger children in the back of the large station wagon and the mother with a very sad and compassionate expression as I said goodbye.

“Mom.   How come come some of my friends here have dogs?  I thought you said…”

And as I reflected on this a couple of days ago, listening to the soothing sounds of the rushing creek under the billions of stars so high up in the mountains, I realized it was my dad who would’ve given the tough job to my mother to deliver.

She loved him as much as I had.  I know this.   Dad, well, what to say there.  I can still remember coming home to see him beating my dog, when I pulled him away to go for a long, long walk away from his inner turmoil.

Now, as I go deep into the mountain wilderness here in the Rocky Mountains, I sometimes feel as though my old friend is still by my side.




Waiting on a Second Life

He wondered what it must have been like back in the day.    Rolling off of the assembly line and into the shiny showroom,  buyers admiring her graceful lines, ladies in fashionable dresses and wearing white gloves, men in proper suits and sporting their fedoras.   Who would have been the first to drive her off of the lot?

Duke Ellington is playing on the brand new radio as his mind drifts.

And he wonders what places this forgotten automobile had seen in her long life?   Had it been an ordinary one, going to and from home and work, or had its first owner had the luxury of time, energy, money, and a romantic eye to the horizon?   What had been this car’s fate back in 1938?

His thoughts travelled to a world long faded from view and far away that evening in the empty car lot.

He could begin to see the older man shaking hands with the new buyers of his modest home, somewhere near Taos, New Mexico.   Yes, that’s it.   Now, his wife is smiling at their fresh possibilities, their  Airedale Terrier jumping willingly into the back seat as they drive off into the dust and on down to places yet to be discovered.   He’d deposited the royalty check from his last novel and now it was time for the two to explore.

Finally, the line approached and off they were, unencumbered with regret, second thoughts, or the slightest doubt.  Dues had been quietly paid over the years and no-one had been betrayed in their quest to live free.  Oh, certainly, there were times when the floor seemed soft like quicksand and their vision obscured with distraction, but somehow, they found a way to lean forward in the direction of their dreams and the day had finally come.

Reaching in the back seat, the woman opened the case to her prized violin, brought it to the front and began to play an inspiring melody that seemed to match the moment perfectly.  Looking to her, he noticed tears running down her cheek as she settled in to her instrument, her white scarf flowing in the wind along with the notes in the air.  Rare, they knew, that such freedom could lift their souls so effortlessly.

“Hey there, she’s a beauty isn’t she?”, exclaimed the salesman.   “Sure is.   I’ve just got to wonder what she’s seen in her long life.”

“An old lady called me a few weeks back and said she had something she thought I might be interested in, something that had been gathering dust for years.  Imagine that!  I’m closing up, but you’re welcome to stay.  Just shut the gate behind you when you leave. Oh!  And here’s my card.”

He smiled and turned away as the salesman returned back to his office in the warehouse, turning off, one by one, the bright lights outside.  The breeze picked up a bit and there was a sudden chill in the evening air.

Returning to his daydream,

The young, Bolivian child looked up and turned to see a plume of dust winding its way across the altiplano.   Cars were rare in 1938 and the sound it made was quite unusual.   The closer it came, the more excited he became.   And as it neared, it slowed down and stopped along the old, dirt road.  Roosters fluttering their wings by the mud brick hut near the road.

He could see two people in good spirits with a large piece of paper in hand.

“Excuse me please, child, could you tell me in what direction the village of Challapata may be?”

The excitement in the little boy was contagious as he pointed with great enthusiasm in the general direction of where they would need to go.  Mount Sajama was beginning to reveal herself in all of her glory as though rising magically from the far-distant horizon.

Bidding him farewell, they continued down the primitive, lonely road to their next day’s paradise and before long the land was once again still, save for the sounds of crows above.

“She’s had a great life”, came the voice from behind.   Turning around, he found a beautiful older woman, half sad, but somehow come alive, her long, gray hair flowing in the gentle breeze, a note clasped in her hands.

“I can only imagine”, he said as he walked slowly over to her.   “Did you know the owners?”

“Yes, I certainly had.   They used to live in New Mexico years ago, when they decided to sell it all and travel down to South America.  Had a wonderful, carefree time for almost a year.”

Stumbling back as he felt himself get a bit dizzy, recovering quickly to see if he wasn’t dreaming.

“My word…  really?”

“Yes, dear.  I can tell you all about it if you have a little time”, the evening sun revealing a weathered face filled with stories to tell, sad eyes almost, but a gentle and inviting look to the old woman.

“Of course!   Please do.”

And in her wistful way, she began to unfold a wonderful story of exploration, of dreams, of writing poetry on the beach, of quaint villages and wonderful, simple restaurants along their route to the tip of South America.    He’d been the love of her life and theirs had only grown sweeter with time.  Rare, she knew.

So when the illness was diagnosed the year before, they understood that they had little time remaining and so it was that they had embarked on their grand adventure to the end.

The old woman’s voice was strangely comforting as she told her story.   The sun was getting ready to disappear, casting its growing shadow on where they stood.  Turning to the old car, he asked her,

“It must have been a magnificent chapter in your lives…”

No response.   And as he turned around to ask again, she was gone.  Disoriented, he looked everywhere and could not imagine how she could have vanished so quickly in the open space and then he noticed a piece of paper left under the left windshield wiper; something not there the moment before.

Carefully unfolding the note, it read,

“When the sun has set, no candle can replace it”, a serpentine line drawn from the words into a violin being lifted by two hearts.

Leaning on the old car, he wondered what had just happened.  Had he imagined it all? Maybe though, perhaps… maybe not.   More and more, he was surrendering to the notion that there were no coincidences in life, just the occasional guides along the way if we should ever slow our thoughts and open up our minds.

[Image: and filtered through the Prisma app for artistic effect.]

Befriending a Polish WW2 Ace (Warsaw, 1971)

Józefa Mianowskiego 16, Warsaw.   Searching through an old, beat up footlocker, I found the old address rubber stamp with its ink pad now dry for many years.   The ancient memories now came flooding back and for some unexplainable reason, I thought of the day I met my bigger-than-life friend, a true fighter pilot ace from the early days of World War Two.  It was a chance encounter, one made possible by the kindness of a passerby.

I loved the Poles.  It was something in their undying spirit, their ability to suffer and to come back to life; maybe a learned, fatalistic view, one fortified by centuries of war and of shifting political boundaries; The Germans to the West, the Russians to the East – surely not an easy place to call home.

I was about ten when I met my Ace.   My younger brother and I had been given Polish bicycles in the days before iPhones, the Internet, and Cable TV… and how fortunate we were to be so deprived!   In fact, the little 10″ black and white TV rarely came on.  You see, there was only one channel back in 1970 and it only broadcast between three and eight, or something like that, and let’s not even talk about the quality of the reception!

So we were always outside doing something and the day my bike broke, I slumped down to sit by the road, the chain off the thing, dangling when a kindly, older woman came up to me and placed her hand on my shoulder.   I looked up to see a genuine smile of concern when she placed her purse on the ground to sit with me.   Reaching into it, she tore off a scrap piece of paper from her journal and wrote down the address and name of an older man who might be of use.   Motioning down the curved street, she made a gesture to the building’s location.

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 7.22.38 AM

Certainly not fluent, I spoke enough Polish to make sense of the kind lady’s directions and so I thanked her and began to walk down the old street.   In this magic age of Google, I see that my old home has had a tremendous facelift, for almost all of the buildings that survived the war had been hastily patched, leaving the bullet holes around the windows and doors still visible under the mortar.  There’s a wonderful photo of my mother standing on that balcony (left; 2nd floor; photo above).

The chain kept wrapping around the gears, making the short walk quite difficult.   But something in the woman’s way left me feeling hopeful and so I continued until I found the building and number.   It must have been one of these (photo below) and there, after 46 years, the bullet holes remain (upper, center of photo, below).   I see that there are now modern shops at street level, something I know did not exist back in the day.

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Approaching the entry, I grabbed the handle to the massive, ornately carved wooden door that opened into the sad and dilapidated foyer, lit only by a dangling, exposed light bulb from what was at one time an elegant chandelier.   The old building now housed many more families than it had before the war as evidenced from the rudely inserted bank of mailboxes into the fine, wooden paneling.   And over there was the door to the basement, as the lady had told me to find.

Down the stairs I went, again lit crudely by a lone light bulb in the lower level.   The smell of the soft, brown coal dust was in the air of the dimly lit room.   Looking left, I could make out the small, sooty windows and the large pile of coal by the furnace… and there he was, watching the ten year old kid struggling down the steps with his bike, the dangling chain hitting each tread as I descended.

Before I could come to the last step, the gentle looking man had met me half way to take the bike, motioning me to sit a spell at the old worktable.   There were other bikes in various stages of repair and he placed mine next to them.  Somehow, we had no problem communicating and in his way made me feel relaxed and welcome and so we talked.

“You are from America, yes?”

“Yes sir, I am.  And you speak English?”

“I do, but not well.”   Studying me, he relaxed into his simple, wooden chair hesitating for just a minute before he pointed up to the wall over the work table.  As I slowly looked up, I could not believe my eyes for on the wall was a collection of dusty black and white photos of the man’s days in the Royal Air Force.   It was a marvelous collection of old photographs, undoubtedly of his comrades, many of whom would have given their lives to the cause.

He stood up and pointed to the one photo in the center, the one of a young aviator wearing a parachute on the front side, standing proudly by the old Spitfire.

“This.   This is me.   I flew with the RAF.”, placing his open hand to his heart.  The man, my age now come to think of it, looked wistfully at the image and turned back to what had to be a kid in awe.   Who can say how long I visited with my new hero-friend.  It is a memory that I’ll keep to my dying day.   What an incredible moment in time.

Why I never thought to make more visits to the Ace, now a janitor in charge of keeping the old building warm in the winter months, I will never know.  The distractions of youth, I suppose, and I know now that the old chap would have understood.

Funny who the people are that we meet along the way.   Many, as I have come to learn, are the plain looking quiet ones, you know, the ones with the great big stories to tell if only we slow down a bit to sit and visit a spell.


[Main photo; from blog post:  Polish Greatness}

Still My Favorite

Funny how an image can reach into one’s soul and stir up passions.   I can still feel the key in my hand and hear the throaty sound of the engine come alive as I start her up in my mind. It was a simple ride, the car almost an afterthought to the engine that powered it.   That I am alive to tell this tale is almost a miracle in itself.

The ’69 Firebird was a young 10 when I took delivery from a friend.   Poor guy needed the cash for the next semester and I could feel the weight on his shoulders as he handed me the keys.   He was a good sport and must’ve seemed ok with it, given my enthusiasm at the time.  I’d give him a ride to the racket ball courts every so often and he’d ask to drive back.

“Here, take the keys.   Let’s go.”

In an age seemingly hamstrung with caution, the free spirit of this car reminds me of a much simpler and innocent time; a time marked by fewer distractions and worries, but maybe I’m just fooling myself.

So many stories with this beast.   Running a 350HO with a 3-speed racing clutch, I could do 60mph in first gear…  not that I ever did (wink).   It was like riding on the back of a bull.   Left only the driver’s seat in when I ditched college for a high-paying union job in the spring of 1980.  I’d  throw my hard hat, pick and shovel for the two hour ride to the site in south Georgia.   $13/hour was serious cash back in the day.   Just sayin’.

So much caution these days.   Almost as though people are afraid to express themselves anymore.   No law against letting loose every so often.

Nothing since this sweet ride has ever come close.   I can still remember waiting for my mom at Dulles Airport that summer of 1981, having returned from Berlin.   Can still hear that deep, throaty engine coming up and around the final stretch with my elegant mom behind the wheel… a hilarious contrast.

A swore I saw my old friend the other day.   Happened so fast, I wonder if I’d seen a ghost.