Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sudden reminders of what matters

Reading about extreme weather, I was reminded of the twister I saw/endured 40 years ago. It had been heading straight for where I was standing, struck still with awe, before it slammed into a low-rise storage building, maybe 500 yards away in an open field. After a slight pause, to chew up and spit out half of the building, the skittering blue-black funnel turned hard right and your narrator is here to tell the story.

The mysterious role chance plays in life was palpable that day. Although it’s hard to say exactly how that tornado experience changed me, it surely did.

A year or so before the tornado, by chance, I stopped by my mother’s apartment on the Boulevard to find it in flames. She was asleep. After I carried her to safety, I went back in to fight the blaze in two rooms with an old foam fire extinguisher I had liberated a year earlier from an ancient apartment building that was being demolished.

Soon I passed out in the thick smoke. I don’t even remember feeling dizzy or falling down.

When I woke up I was flat on the floor with flames around me on two-and-a-half sides. I came to hearing a far away voice calling my name, but no one was there. No comment on what that voice could have been.

Anyway, I scrambled reflexively away from the heat -- seven times hotter, hotter than it ought to be -- jumped up in a coughing/drooling panic, and escaped without even being scorched. The fire department was there in another five minutes, maybe less. The professional firefighters scolded me for trying to put out the fire. I didn’t tell them about how close I came to being roasted.

In my travels as a young man, I once had a switchblade suddenly at my throat in an after-hours shot house. A couple of other times guns were pointed at me. One time I got beaten up by a group of cops, while being held. No doubt, I learned something from those incidents. Each must have changed me in some way. After all, our experiences carve us into whatever we are.

In the last week I’ve been transferring a bunch of old VHS and S-VHS video tape to DVD. It is footage of all sorts of things. Included in that mix is about an hour of the last days of the Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe. I’ve got the last Burnt Taters appearance, the bagpiper who played "Amazing Grace" there the last night, and the auctioning off of the art and memorabilia from the walls.

The money went to the Jim Bradford Scholarship fund. With Bradford in mind (he died in 1997), it was impossible not to notice the other guys caught on that tape who are also no longer among the living.

Other tapes are from a couple of weekly television programs I produced 18 years ago. The air-check of the Sept. 18, 1990 Mondo City show was easily the most striking. It features a half-hour live interview I did with a two-man band that was popular at the time -- House of Freaks. Watching Johnny Hott and Bryan Harvey joke around was a strange treat.

If the reader doesn’t know it, Harvey -- along with his wife and two daughters -- was murdered the morning of Jan. 1, 2006. (Click here for background.) Seeing and hearing him speak from all those years ago, so long before his name became forever linked to a bone-numbing tragedy, was like discovering a lost artifact.

Of course, the interview, itself, was hardly an in-depth expose, or anything like that. It was all quite lighthearted and won‘t win any awards. Yet, watching that tape of how quick-witted and urbane Bryan could be in a situation like that -- the show really was on live -- was both compelling and uplifting.

The senseless deaths of the Harveys tore threw elements of Richmond’s arts community like a tornado. Whatever their killers have said, or ever will say, will never really explain why that family had to die. Perhaps they were chosen by the grim reaper just as randomly as the poor folks who have died in recent tornadoes and floods.

Not only were many in Richmond changed by the bitter loss, we were changed by the reaction to that loss ... the sense of being part of a community we felt as we attended ceremonies for the Harveys, clinging together in the terrible days immediately after their deaths.

During the ceremony at the Byrd Theatre (Jan. 7, 2006) those in attendance were asked to remember the Harveys, as they were. Not at saints, but as four generous people who loved their friends and enjoyed life. We were told to remember to laugh.

As a reminder of that, it sure was good to watch Bryan wisecracking with Johnny and me on that tape.

Update: To see a short clip from the interview on YouTube click here.


Bruce said...

Any chance of ever seeing that interview posted anywhere? I'd seriously love to hear Bryan's voice again.

F.T. Rea said...


I'm just learning how to work with this process.

Eventually, it will be made available. Before it's available to the public, I want to do some editing. The interview was live and some parts are better than others.

And, I want to give a DVD copy of the entire interview to his brother, and so forth.

Bruce said...

That's good to hear. I know Mark would cherish it.