Random musings on a writer's life & times, with occasional input from acquaintances


Thursday, September 25, 2003

Where was I? Oh, yeah, I was going to tell you about my third trip of the past summer ---through the High Desert of north-central Oregon by bicycle.

Biking is one of my favorite activities, because I look SO GOOD in bike clothes. Those clingy black shorts and svelte shirts? Oh, my! Do I look fine in those, or what? You have to realize that I have, shall we say, slim lower extremities. My son Mickey has been known to call me “chicken legs,” in fact. But I make up for those by having a pot belly and a sway back. So, all in all, in bike gear I look kind of like a pouter pigeon. Add a purple helmet with attached rearview mirror and I’m just the sort of guy you want to be spotted with on a downtown street.

Oh, well, as my wife, Cookie Jean, says, nobody looks good in bike clothes. She’s been pedaling away for years, undaunted by occasional glimpses in reflective store windows. “Think of the exercise,” she says. “Think of the scenery.” I say: “Think of being invisible.”

She’s right, though, pretty much. The exercise is good for you (I lost about ten pounds while training for this summer’s week-long trip), and the scenery can be gorgeous, when you’re not in too much pain to appreciate it.

The trip we took is called the Oregon Bicycle Ride, which is not to be confused with Bicycle Oregon, for which columnist Jonathan Nicholas pimps every year in the Portland Oregonian newspaper. The Oregon Bicycle Ride operates on the same concept -- pedal 50 to 90 miles a day and sleep in a tent for a week -- but does so with a tenth or less the 2,000 folks who clog highway breakdown lanes for Bicycle Oregon. Our bike ride, which Cookie Jean has done ten or more times and I’ve done six, is organized by people in Bend, some of whom we knew when we lived there years ago.

This year’s ride started in Madras and went east along the Crooked River to Prineville and Paulina, north to John Day, Spray and Antelope, then southwest back to Madras. We had a two-night stay in John Day, with optional Wednesday rides to see local scenery. I opted out to wash clothes at the local coin-op -- laundry is my life! -- so I wound up pedaling 393 miles during the week. Cookie Jean rode to a lake outside of town with a friend, so she logged about 430.

Adventures are many on the Oregon Bike Ride. Some years you get snow. Some years you hop off your lightning-rod bike to hide from thunderstorms in ditches. Some years monsoon-like rains practically drown you. One year a man died when he tried to ride a tandem bike alone down an icy mountain road, lost control and zoomed off a cliff. This year’s challenge was heat.

The day we rode 74 miles from John Day to Spray, the temperature was 103 degrees when we staggered off our bikes. Cookie Jean and I immediately set out in search of water, only to discover we had to hike two miles or so to find the nearest John Day River swimming hole. When we finally got there, we plunged in wearing our bike clothes. What a relief! The next day, we rode 69 miles to Antelope, including an ascent of the infamous Clarno grade, an eight-mile climb up a 6 percent slope. (I don’t know what 6 percent slope means in technical terms, but in my terms it means awfully damn steep!) We spent three hours climbing the grade, and by the time we reached the top it was 105 degrees. As Roseanne Rosanna-Danna used to say on TV: I thought I would dah! Thank god the rest of the ride was downhill. Still, the entire journey took us eight and a half hours. That was my second trek up the Clarno grade, and I swear it was my last. Hand me that stack of Bibles, Cookie Jean.

Life becomes very basic when you engage in something like the Oregon Bike Ride. Food, even bad food (leather pancakes, mystery meat curry, red licorice), tastes great because your body craves fuel so desperately. When you collapse into your sleeping bag at night, insomnia stays a stranger. Your outdoor toilet skills receive a lot of honing. Throbbing body parts (blistered butts, strained thighs, cramped hands) that would have you whining at home are tolerated stoically as “part of the experience.” The experience is, as a rule, cool. From a bicycle traveling 11 or 12 miles an hour, you see the countryside a lot more clearly than you do from a car zipping along at 55 or an airplane doing several times that. The land we rode through this summer is among the starkest around, but it has its own rugged grandeur that can be appreciated much more truly from a bicycle. Riding through the valley that contains the John Day fossil beds, with its frothy river, rugged peaks and many-colored rocks, is truly an awesome experience.

Of course, there have to be events that keep things in perspective. One night in John Day, nature called. I walked over to the line of porta-potties the bike ride operators haul from campsite to campsite, selected one and stepped inside. As I was taking care of business, the door of the porta-potty next to mine squawked open and thumped shut. Someone clunked around over there and sat down. After a few seconds of silence, I heard that all-too-familiar sound: a cell phone's ring. “Hello!” barked a male voice from the next porta-potty. “Yeah, go ahead. What’s up?”

Dude, I wanted to say, you rode a bicycle 198 miles to reach this isolated dot on the map and spend a couple of vacation days. Do you HAVE to answer your cell phone in the porta-potty? But -- what the heck. I guess life can’t be all frothy rivers and rugged peaks. Or even blistered butts and cramped hands.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

My sons Mickey and Joe have decided to start a band and call it The Burt Lancaster Disaster. This is a fairly frightening prospect, because when you mix their musical tastes you get a cross between Venice Shoreline Chris and Van Morrison. Ska meets white-guy blues. Think “Ex-Darling” dates “Slim Slow Slider.” A match not made in heaven.

All that aside, I was surprised to learn from The Mickster that he and Joe chose the name for the band because they like the sound of it, not because they wanted to pay tribute to that fine, toothy actor Burt Lancaster. In fact, Mick admitted, they really don’t know much about ol’ Burt, except that he portrayed aged ex-ballplayer turned doctor Moonlight Graham in “Field of Dreams,” that most excellent of baseball movies.

Such being the case, I thought I should bring my expertise as a former movie reviewer to bear and offer them a tutorial -- or, if you prefer, a Burtorial. Lancaster (1913-1994) was a rather fascinating character who started out as a circus acrobat, mostly doing stunts on the equivalents of parallel and horizontal bars, and became a heavy-duty Hollywood player as well as a famed actor. As he rose to cinema stardom he dragged his old circus partner Nick Cravat, an ugly little monkey of a man, along with him, giving him parts in his movies and keeping him on-salary as a gopher for years. There were even rumors of a homosexual liaison between the tall, lithe-muscled star and his runty buddy, but no one ever pinned it on them. Biographers spoke more of Burt’s affairs with leading ladies like Deborah Kerr, with whom he starred in “From Here to Eternity” (1953).

Lancaster rocketed to fame in his first movie, playing “the Swede,” an ex-boxer with a shady past being hunted by gangland hitmen in the 1946 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Already a knowledgeable veteran of show-biz hustle by the time he made that first movie, he parlayed his acting into pioneering business success by establishing his own production company, outside the control of the then-dominant movie studios. He garnered big bucks, and blazed some important trails for today’s film industry, besides making dozens of good flicks, ranging from the rousing derring-do of “The Crimson Pirate” (made in 1952, with Cravat as his sidekick in swashbuckling) to the semi-scandalous, at the time, take on libidinous evangelists that won him a best-actor Oscar, “Elmer Gantry” (1960). All told, he was nominated four times for the best-actor Academy Award. He continued acting until his death in October 1994.

So there’s the Burtorial. Which was really just a set-up, and an excuse, for what I REALLY want to do with this screed. That is -- suggest songs to be performed by The Burt Lancaster Disaster. Are you ready, boys? Here they come:

“Killing Me Softly With His Song” (from “The Killers”)
“Alley Oop” (from “Brute Force”)
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” (from “I Walk Alone”)
“Pennsylvania 6-500” (from “Sorry, Wrong Number”)
“Papa Oom Mow Mow” (from “All My Sons”)
“Werewolves of London” (from “Kiss the Blood off My Hands”)
“Tie Me Kangaroo Down” (from “Rope of Sand”)
“Backfield in Motion” (from “Jim Thorpe, All-American”)
“Don’t Be Cruel” (from “Vengeance Valley”)
“Basketball Jones” (from “Ten Tall Men”)
“A Pirate Looks at Forty” (from “The Crimson Pirate”)
“Cut Across, Shorty” (from “Come Back, Little Sheba”)
“Ninety Miles an Hour Down a Dead-End Street” (from “From Here to Eternity”)
“Free Fallin’ ” (from “Trapeze”)
“Hit Me With Your Best Shot ” (from “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”)
“Alice’s Restaurant” (from “Separate Tables”)
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (from “Sweet Smell of Success)
“Losing My Religion” (from “Elmer Gantry”)
“Billie Jean” (from “The Unforgiven”)
“Lost in the Jungle” (from “The Young Savages”)
“Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” (from “Judgment at Nuremberg”)
“Disco Duck” (from “Bird Man of Alcatraz”)
“One Week” (from “Seven Days in May”)
“Stray Cat Strut” (from “The Leopard”)
“Ticket to Ride” (from “The Train”)
“Never on Sunday” (from “The Professionals”)
“Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny, Polka-Dot Bikini” (from “The Swimmer”)
“Please, Mr. Custer” (from “The Scalphunters”)
“I’m Just a Bug on the Windshield of Life” (from “The Gypsy Moths”)
“Sexual Healing” (from “Valdez Is Coming”)
“I Will Follow Him” (from “Lawman”)
“Paradise by the Dashboard Light” (from “The Midnight Man”)
“Itsy Bitsy Spider” (from “Ulzana’s Raid”)
“You Talk Too Much” (from “Conversation Piece”)
“You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” (from “Buffalo Bill and the Indians”)
“The Old Lamplighter” (from “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”)
“Treat Her Like a Lady” (from “Cattle Annie and Little Britches”)
“Blinded by the Light” (from “Zulu Dawn”)
“Atlantic City” -- you know the one, where The Boss sings: “meet me tonight with gigantic titties, meet me tonight with . . .” No, wait, that’s the way I sing it in the shower --- (from “Atlantic City”)
“Leader of the Pack” (from “Local Hero”)
“Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” (from “The Osterman Weekend”)
“Heart of Glass” (from “Little Treasure”)
“Bad, Bad LeRoy Brown” (from “Tough Guys”)
“The Only Ring You Gave Me Was the One Around the Tub” (from “The Jeweler’s Shop”)
“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” (from “Field of Dreams”)

What a repertoire The Burt Lancaster Disaster will have if the boys master this play list! They could turn out to be the next Hollywood Argyles, the next Archies, maybe even the next Partridge Family! I can hardly wait.

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