So what did you do with the body?
Singer/Songwriter Terry (H. Hamilton III) Gilkyson was three years younger than my own mother. Carson, my oldest brother, had served a stint in Terry's group "The Easy Riders". ('Rollin'', Terry Gilkyson and The Easy Riders, is a winning exemplar in the how-to of putting the folk/roots idiom in a seamlessly arranged frame-work. Durable as denim, with a nod to the Sons of the Pioneers).
Although Terry's aw-shucks signature was hung on many great hits (written after his arrival in Pasadena with wife Joan in '47), he was an astute genre-hopping songwriter. Terry could get the blues should he choose to peruse the daily news. His first commercial triumph, 'Cry of the Wild Goose', would be Frankie Laine's last number one hit ('47). Terry was really on a roll.
Yet, this rusticated H.H. Gilkyson III was more 'n just an average ol' saddle buddy. He'd rambled on out west from a pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia elite — that Philadelphia which stood for brotherly love. It had turned out some collectable furniture, and maybe one day might vie to be the Nation's capital. Terry wrote of railroads leading west from the Golden Spike.
This cowpoke was blue-blood but didn't post. He rode western. It could be said he married up. Jane descended directly from Henry Hudson, and a framed map of Hudson's Bay appeared on their front staircase, drawn and signatured by Hudson himself. All the contents if their capacious library were reflected in that home's focus, conversation, and social drill. It's as if they'd read those books up there. Their home had been built for some O'Melveny or another, from that So-Cal Anglo founding family.
Since the O'Melvenys owned and co-operated the biggest law-firm west of Chicago, the home they built on Garfield at the border to San Marino sure should be the most solid Moorish Mediterranean. And that it was, within a walled, eventful garden.***************
The first time I ever put a nickel in a juke-box, it was in a diner in NYC. I was ten. So I chose 'Memories Are Made of This', it was 1953. Terry wrote that song. "Good choice," the waiter nods in approval.
That pizz bass walk-down intro had a sensational, pivotal, and indelible musical impact on me. True.***************
To be absorbed into such social fiber as the Gilkyson family was to know one had "arrived". Carson and I house-sat one summer month while they went off, headed East to some clams by the shore. Lots of tales of boat-set weekend sails to Catalina and stuff. Withal, as good as it could get, in loco parentis.***************
Terry met Carson, who shared the stage at Pasadena's Ice House, Bernie Armstrong. They called themselves "The Steel Town Two". Their duo monopolized that coffee house stage with guitars and repartee, for months. They amused Pasadenan Brahman Willard Chilcott, who opened the place in '61, to play to the folk fad fanned by the Weavers and Kingston Trio.
There was great intricacy in their repertory and cosmopolitan menu. Bernie played requinto masterfully. Piccado como un Flamencista. ¡Torero! Their music went south of many borders and open seas. Eclecticism wasn't viewed as an illness in those days. It was applauded, and audiences were taken places in the "real" '60s.
Soon, other comedians and comedian harmonists would join the ranks at The Ice House — viz George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Steve Martin, Lilly Tomlin. and countless others, all of them bombed and bounced back on that stage. They brought a liberal stamp to that conservative community.***************
I got cut into some sessions that Terry got in music for film. Terry took us to Nicodell's, a restaurant on a diet of customers who ran Paramount Studios — the lot next door. Carson and I got other film-related guitar work. We were able sight readers, and sufficed the modest demands of Oaters' folk-music gambits amid the real music under-score work surround. Dimitri Tiomkin actually attended one such Easy Riders' sesion. Terry could sure work that room — our best bet network to work. And work we did.***************
Carson and I decide on Pasadena as a fine place to rent an unfurnished apartment (left unfurnished). With a communal swimming pool below. It's usually bathed in sunlight — more Winslow Homer than David Hockney. More '50s than '60s.***************
On my first trip west, my mother and I had a cabin on El Capitan, one of two fabulous Luxury trains running from Chi to LA. Dore Shary's office had booked our tickets. We weren't yet to LA, and as the train idled at the Pasadena stationed, I learned the trip was over. "Have we run out of money?" I asked my mother. Turns out that Mr. Shary (head of MGM Studios) wouldn't let any of his actors be seen disembarking in LA's déclassé Union Station. Pasadena fit Quality folk, and that we were. A chauffeur named Limey loaded our bags into a limousine and off we set for Hollywood. Our suite at the Chateau Marmont, 3D, was directly across the hall from Eartha Kitt.***************
LA in '63, a decidedly more rusticated affair. We visit Easy Rider Rich Dehr. He lives way out in Topanga Canyon. Rich's only drinking problem probably would be in just running out. His wife watches him like a hawk, yet Rich is the chef de Cuisine at his "Discovery Inn". A splash of Madeira might be followed by a cleansing shot of brandy, to give the palate proper perspective. For those sophisticated sauces, Rich weighs-in kinda Continental. More James Beard than dear Julia Child. And, he can sing. I don't know if he's lying when he tells us he and Terry once got plastered and lost in a Mexican whorehouse with Ledbelly. But it seems plausible.***************
Rich Dehr's Discovery Inn is just down the street from Will Gehr's place, where Woody Guthrie's found refuge. That shrine is there yet, at Will Gehr's Topanga Theatre.***************
On hanging up the receiving end of the day's first phone call, Terry rushes up to us fellows in no time flat. Our parents had tried to call us. We had no phone. (I know not why not.)
"Ben died yesterday," Terry says.... His dormant stutter surfaces as he tries to find the proper syntax for the morbid context.
Ben was second oldest of us four boys. This news arrives in the early a.m., July 20th, '63, two days after his 24th birthday.
I know right off I won't ever get to laugh with Ben about JFK's gaffe (calling himself a German donut and everything). Ben would have loved that, as he loved a good bilingual pun. He was equipped overall. Fluent in Russian, French and German. JFK called him "Baby Ben".
Yet, he was full bodied and well-rounded of mind. The Lion of the litter. Tell all the cats. As captain of Washington's lacrosse team, he played a game in which some Russian toughs threw their stick across his knee, breaking through cartilage and requiring a cast. "Accident prone", my mother said.
At Penn he was captain of the football team. They won the Ivy championship. As a senior, he edited the Year book. Offered a kick-back by a printer, he went to the next lowest bidder, rather than do business with such a man. Ben was second All-Ivy Lacrosse. He played it like a Cherokee. And yes, he was accident prone.***************
In my second night here at The Kronprinz Hotel, that "Berliner" pastry still sits, shrink-wrapped on the desk. My thoughts of '63 are as well, tightly packaged. I unwrap thoughts of "foreign service" cautiously, as I lament Ben-who-will-be-forever-young.***************
To float us the money for 2 black suits and the airfare to and from the burial site, Terry had me pushed on a fast-pass through membership in American Federation of Musicians. He would advance us, so we could fly back up to Pennsylvania, to slide Ben's purported remains into a slot at Plum Creek Cemetery, so near Parks Township and Parnassus, where there lived no Gods.***************
I audition for the AF of M with Chopin's 'Ballade in G minor' in front of some old lady, to prove I could play. She's way outta her league, I believe, and lets me get past her, to our mutual astonishment and relief.
I have only one admission office to go to get that union right-to-work card. Just beyond my worst fears is the office of AF of M Union President John Tranchitella. Old John is straight outta Damon Runyon. No time for sympathy, he is one tough cookie with buckets of big-band street credentials when Carson and I step in to make my plea in collective bargaining. No way, sez the prez. "Your driver's license reads 'Seal Beach'. That's another chapter's jurisdiction, in another county."
I get in anyway, after some of my Twistier melodramatic tactics play out.***************
The union session is for Disney's 'Jungle Book'. The song, 'The Bear Necessities'. Terry hobbles in a job title for me, as I'd cobbled a chart of sorts for a glorified rhythm track. Carson gets "leader" scale. I get an emeritus "arranger" payment, with pension and benefits.
I just love Disney union session checks. Their faces are emblazoned with Mickey Mouse, waving a three finger salute. That always cheers up the tellers.***************
We bivouac with the extended family in the outskirts of Pittsburgh, it still belching out pig-iron, and US steel, with an asphyxiating grunt and the thud of our collective carbon footprint. It's the Donora effect, déjà vu, all over again. We all meet up at Dr. Bill and Helen Hunt's house by the country club and golf course. Stiff drinks in liberal rotation steady the nerves of those adults who'd always led us so gamely, but are now helplessly muted.
Where's the body? What have they done with the body? That's the big poser. My mother's oldest brother Sam is starting to get pissed and pro-active. He's had just about enough to drink. "Get Dean Rusk," he barks. "No, not Alexis Johnson. Dean Rusk. Look, we're all sitting here long enough." Uncles Fos and Ben nod approvingly. Good choice of words, it would seem. By now, we resemble a trembling gelatinous mass of tapioca pudding. They are Christians after all, for all that promise, for Christ's sake. My brother Dick calls State, and asks to speak to Alexis Johnson (Deputy Under Secretary of State).
Johnson gets Ben's body air-lifted from Frankfurt within a day. It is a light payload, at public expense.***************
Many of Ben's peers at State. Dean Pitt shows up. He'd been Dean of Men while Ben was at Penn. How he heard about Ben's death, I have no idea. Yet, they'd corresponded since Ben's graduation in '60. Dean Pitt says he'll hound the forensic trail to substantiate the cause of death.***************
Pitt wonders why Ben, a French scholar, was reassigned to Germany so abruptly. We all do. I marvel at Ben's impact on Penn's Dean of Men. Could Pitt be a direct descendent of Wm. Pitt the Elder, who awarded our forbearers Parks Township?
That ten square mile Pennsylvanian land grant in Armstrong County actually belonged to the Delaware. Yet, a land grant from the time of King George II was testament to some familial English social provenance. The Parks brand had flourished west of the Allegheny Mountains. Their they had the first iron smelt. They could make their own nails and horseshoes. They gilded their own china through great Dairy production and subsistence farming, incorporating as "Farmer's Delight", a major supplier to "Sealtest" until the Teamsters broke its back in the '60s. Still, two hundred years ain't that bad, in corporate life span. As doctors with small town secrets, there they would stay, prescribing cocaine, morphine, and laudinum from their pharmacist brothers' drugstore....remedies for depression or just "the vapors", inviting great unregulated pleasures and exoticism.
When I was a kid. the town's folk called Cousin Harry "Squire". Harry kept a mistress, and got her a pink Cadillac. Rose. It all felt like an Anglo continuum. Not a Papist dog in sight.***************
Funerals and weddings. Great conventions of memories. The distaff maiden Aunts had studied music at Cincinnati Conservatory. Vocal tutorial from Caruso, piano from Paderewski and Anton Rubinstein. Beyond and before the of the New England Conservatory of Music, Cincy was the only place in the USA to study back to Bach. They spent their lives as virtuosos, forswearing all love but a service to education and the Presbyterian church, Organ & choir loft.
I wondered if it was Pitt's line that put the Pitts in Pittsburgh, and if so, how much they had brought to Ben's sense of place. I wondered a lot.***************
Carson looks at the body that finally arrives with an American flag. We can use that flag at the funeral. It'll look good on the closed casket. Carson, Dick and I practice folding it properly. Ben had been a US Marine, surviving Camp Pendleton. Decorating his box with the Stars & Stripes seems meet and right so to do. It is a beautiful flag, isn't it though. We use a 48 star flag (replaced by the 50 star flag in '60), for guarded personal reasons. I'm not about to get too personal.
Melvin Jacobs owns the funeral home. He's never seen without a pinned tie, and his french cuffs are stayed by gold Tiffany. Melvin brings a panache to all he undertakes.
Unavoidably, determining "Cause of Death" becomes the family's cause célèbre. As if it might somehow snap us out of this cauchemare. Finally, someone puts it as "blunt mandible trauma". That seems to hold things on track. So, our family gets crammed into the black limousine and follows that body to the grave.
My dad says, to no one in particular "....I just hope he's not alive.................somewhere in a vegetative state".
We're all of one accord on that point. It's evident that there can be no greater insult on the psyche than that being levelled at my parents now in a life with no Ben. Being predeceased by one's own child is anything but natural. It flies in the face of DNA and evolution itself (our parents, though devout, firmly believed in Darwin's "theory").
So, we dispose of the body properly, at Plum Creek, in the company of the family generations that preceded.
My mother's heels sink in the wet ground as she trudges back to the limo. We try to keep it country.