Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #12 – ‘St. Louis Blues’

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THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

Last Tuesday my wife Gwen the Beautiful and I packed up the truck and took a nice, leisurely drive to St. Louis. The first leg of our five hour journey was from the ranch up to Branson, Mo., home of Andy Williams, Mickey Gilley, and all your favorite entertainers who died twenty years ago but are keeping it quiet.

From there we continued up to Springfield, home of Bass Pro, the makers of fishing gear treated by my neighbors pretty much the way I imagine the ancient Israelites treated the Ark of the Covenant.

The remainder of the drive consisted of three hours of straight four-lane highway, definitely a major treat. The highlight of this stretch was the drop-off of the Ozarks at Rolla, where all traces of Southern geography abruptly vanished. From there to St. Louis it was pure Midwest.

Neither Gwen nor I had ever stopped in St. Louis before. Turns out it’s a nice little city of about 270,000 people. Small by urban standards, but bigger than anywhere I’ve been in years.

St. Louis is a city of neighborhoods, laid out on a rectangular grid. Easy to navigate, and easy on the eyes. Classic Midwestern architecture. Brick buildings. Cafes, bars, and international cuisine. We gorged ourselves on delicious Indian food.

The people we met were much different from those we’ve become used to in the South. Their body language clearly established that we were in the North.

In the South people lean back even when they walk forward. In St. Louis everyone I saw was angled forward into their lives. Their movements were quicker too. The scratching of a nose took place in the blink of an eye, a task to be gotten over with. At home in the South taking care of an itch is an experience to be savored, something worth doing in and of itself.

In St. Louis, people walk with a vengeance. Putting one foot in front of the other is a means to an end, and that end is reaching their destination as quickly as possible. This can be especially gratifying in a restaurant, where you know your wait person is getting your order in for you while it’s hot.

In the South, walking is a kind of kinetic sculpture. When a wait person walks to the kitchen he or she is creating what I can only think of as a scenic cruise – a body rolling casually and, on a good day, seductively into its next adventure.

The way people speak in St. Louis is of course much different from the way we speak in the south. Intonation is flat, slightly nasal, and the word “all” sounds more like “awl.” We’re not talking anything as strong as in the states bordering Canada, but I could hear the beginnings of the habits that blossom in St. Paul.

Here in the South English has evolved into a more inflected language. Meaning and communication come not only from what word is used but also from how a word is said.

It’s not a matter of irony or sarcasm – very little of that makes its way past the polite Southern exteriors that have continued from ante to post-bellum days. It’s about varying syllabication.

The same word can be pronounced with one syllable or two or even three. Gwen, for example, can be “Gwyn,” or “Gwy-un,” or “Ga-we-un,” depending on who’s saying her name and how they feel about her and how they want her to feel about herself.

I liked St. Louis. As tourists, Gwen and I had a great time. We’ll go back and sample more of its culture. We may even explore the possibility of me spending a few months as a visiting professor at one of the zillion universities there. But my St. Louis Adventure taught me that no matter what the North has to offer, I’m really a Southerner at heart.

Not just because I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, but because even though I’ve traveled and lived pretty much all over the world, I find that the one thing I can’t imagine living without is the sound of a Southerner’s soft-voiced “Hi…”

Because in spite of how low-key it seems, every word a Southerner says is packed with everything the speaker has to give.

And you can’t find that kind of attention anywhere else on this earth.

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #11 – ‘Saying No to Stars’

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THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

All the Bad Boy Stars on the news lately have been like a blast from the past for me. The not-so-distant past at that.

About a year ago I was contacted by a Good Old Boy whose best friend is an Outlaw Country Music Star We All Know. GOB wanted to put together a film about his bud’s life and asked me to partner up.

That’s not what I moved here to Paradise for, but I enjoyed Outlaw Star’s music and GOB assured me that, “He’s a real good old boy. You’re gonna love him. And—you’re gonna direct!”

I said I was in, and GOB and I flew to California to meet with Outlaw and a group of Oilmen who wanted to finance the movie because they were big Outlaw fans. We were going to thrash out the broad strokes of our deal.

That’s when the Bad Boy Star thing reared its head.

Outlaw Star’s first words to me were, “It’s people like you who’ve destroyed the music business…” followed by two hours of details that might’ve made sense if I’d known who “people like you” were.

After he’d finished lifting his leg on me, Outlaw Star turned to his much younger wife. “Baby, bring me the pipe.” She handed him an Indian peace pipe stuffed with—ahem—“herb,” and Outlaw toked up in the open doorway of our motel room.

While this was going on GOB was fetching the Oilmen at the airport. They got to the room just as Mrs. Star stashed away the pipe. The Oilmen told Outlaw they couldn’t wait to hear about his film.

“Oh, I don’t want to do a movie,” he said. “I want to do a TV show. ‘Bout politics.”

The Oilmen’s eyes narrowed. GOB, who’d invested a lot of time and money already, started to sweat. “C’mon, Outlaw,” he said. “Tell ‘em about the movie anyway.”

Outlaw Star sighed, sat back, and told stories about his prison life that made all of us weep. Especially his wife, who he screamed at so loudly that she ran from the room. Everyone was shocked, but nevertheless they were hooked by him. Including me.

GOB saw this and whipped out a piece of paper with some numbers on it. “We’re all gentlemen here,” he said, “so why don’t we sign off on what we’re doing so we can go home and get started?”

The Oilmen reached for their pens. In a second we’d have exactly what we needed to make an exciting new film. But before they could sign Outlaw shook his head.

“Being as how we’re all gentlemen here we don’t need to sign no piece of paper. We just need to shake hands and get me on my way. I’m going on tour tomorrow.”

And with that Outlaw Star shook hands and left, the shocked Oilmen doing the same. GOB looked like he was going to cry. Then his cell phone rang.

It was Outlaw. GOB held the phone up so we could both hear. “Who needs those Oilmen?” Outlaw was saying. “This is a great idea. We can finance it ourselves.”

“I’d have to hock everything to get my share,” GOB said.

“Well, what’re you waiting for?” said Outlaw Star.

After we flew back to Arkansas, GOB did just that and went to see Outlaw again. He showed him his letter of credit and a contract establishing their company.

Outlaw looked at it and smiled. “Why, GOB, you and I’re gentlemen, aren’t we? We don’t need to sign nothing. A simple handshake’ll do.”

And that was all she wrote.

How could GOB risk every penny he had on a partnership with the legendary Outlaw Star if, best friend or not, Outlaw wouldn’t commit? For that matter, how could they still be friends?

Because, believe it or not, they are. In fact, when GOB told me this he was calling to ask a favor. “For Outlaw,” he said. “He needs us to help him out.”

So there we have it. Whether it’s Michael Jackson, Russell Crowe, Robert Blake, or Outlaw Star, stars shine all over the world, their magic dust getting into even the most isolated pores.

If it were up to me I’d start a campaign based on tough love: “Just Say No to Stars.”

Only trouble is, I can’t imagine anyone I know, even here in Paradise, stepping up to that plate.

Especially if Outlaw says “You can direct.”

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #10 – ‘Dreamin’ About Those Big Box Stores’

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THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

Last Saturday night, as my beautiful wife and I were having a romantic candlelight dinner of chicken pot pie and white wine in a box, Gwen gazed at me dreamily and said:

“Know what I’d really like to do tomorrow? I’d like to go out. I’d like to spend our Sunday afternoon the way other people do.”

Now I’m a romantic guy, so I leaned forward and said, “Whatever you want, my love. Would you like to have a nice brunch? Go out on the lake?”

“I was thinking of something we used to do in L.A.,” Gwen said.

“You mean–?”

“Yes! I want to go to Home Depot! I want to buy some gardening supplies!”

And so, Sunday became a very Big Day. It’d been almost four years since the last time we cruised through a Home Depot, back in L.A. Until Gwen mentioned it I didn’t realize how much I too wanted something from our former lives.

When Home Depot opened in Mountain Home it hadn’t meant much to me. We already had a lumberyard and hardware store just a few miles away, and whenever we needed seeds or plants our neighbors were always happy to bring some over and grab a shovel. One of the highlights of our second summer here was when we gave a two-day party where the main activity was building a couple of raised beds for our vegetable garden.

Our Sunday excursion wasn’t just an afternoon away from the ranch. It was a tribute to the past, and we treated it that way.

Gwen put on an outfit she hadn’t worn since our big move and brushed her hair big. I wore clean jeans and trimmed my stubble. As we drove into the Home Depot parking lot we both were excited.

“Look!” I said. “It looks just like every Home Depot everywhere!”

After we got out of the truck Gwen gripped an orange lumber cart. “And it feels like every Home Depot too!”

Hand in hand, we raced inside like kids, joining the other customers wheeling their carts through the store. We headed down a random aisle, passing a little TV set that automatically came to life when we reached it, going into a spiel about “A new kind of lighting, just for you—“

Gwen hugged me and sighed. “It’s just like being home again,” she said. “Like we went through a space warp.”

“What if we really have left the Ozarks and are back in L.A.?” I wondered.

Gwen put her finger on my lips. “I know a surefire way to find out.” She looked around. Pointed. “There! Pergo!”

“Pergo!? Nobody local has Pergo flooring. They make you buy real wood!” I wrapped my arms around her, started dancing down the aisle. “We’ve been transported back to our old life of high tech and fake floors—”

“May I be of assistance?” We were interrupted by a distinguished, white-bearded man with the highly trained voice of a radio announcer. I recognized him immediately as someone I’d seen before— on TV.

“And actors!” Gwen said. “With day jobs as salespeople. We must be in L.A.!”

“Uh, Larry, Gwen?” The white-bearded actor and Home Depot Sales Associate shook his head. “It’s me.” He pointed to the badge on his orange vest. “Jim Smith. Boy, Gwen looks fantastic. What’d you do to your hair, Gwen?”

It was like waking from an especially vivid dream. Jim Smith is an actor. I’d seen him on TV because he was a regular panelist on the Mountain Home public affairs show I’d produced. We weren’t in L.A. We were in a big warehouse that only seemed beyond time and space because it was part of the wave of big companies changing the face of commerce in both the North and the South.

Was that really what we’d wanted? Was that what we’d missed?

When we got home Gwen and I tried to sort it out. And realized that the high point of our day hadn’t been the shopping but talking with Jim. “That’s what we came here for, isn’t it?” Gwen said. “The people.”

I held up a glass of box wine. “To the people!”

We clicked glasses. Gwen smiled. “I love the people,” she said. “But I still reserve the right, if I start missing things again, to spend a day shopping in fake L.A.”

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #9 – ‘Larry B & the Original Settlers’

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NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

Several readers have expressed interest in knowing more about the Original Settlers’ Cabins at our place. I know how you feel. From the time I first heard about them dreams of historic hundred and fifty year old dwellings danced in my head. Finding the cabins was one of my first priorities after we moved in. All I knew was that they were “down a ways behind the house” and the forest was so thick with midsummer growth that the only to even look for them was to blaze a trail.

For the first month we lived here, regardless of the weather, I suited up in my grungiest jeans and jacket and Wal-Mart high-topped boots, picked up my weed whacker and tree trimmer, stuck my machete into my belt, and went to work slicing my way downhill.

My starting point was the sparsest point where the woods met our clearing, and I went in and down in whatever direction seemed easiest. At the ten day point I looked out from the hundred yard long, three foot wide path I’d cleared so far and saw the roofs of a couple of buildings farther down, in the only copse of pines on this side of the property. It was like seeing land after six months at sea. I felt like Columbus – or at least Dan’l Boone.

It took another week to reach the cave-lined ridge bordering the overgrown clearing where the two cabins stood. I gave the caves wide berth. The most dangerous animals I’d found in the woods so far were ticks and chiggers, and, they were dangerous enough. Whoever named itching “low-grade pain” was a pretty funny old boy. Believe me, the suffering I felt from our tiny friends was Premium grade. Arms covering my face to protect it from whipping branches, I leapt off the ride and ran to the cabins. Rough-hewn wood siding, sagging porches, hand-carved doors, flat-rock terraces. They were beautiful. Works of art.

Then I noticed the garbage.

Tire carcasses and empty beer cans and whiskey bottles. Cracked plastic containers and bowls. Teflon cookware. I looked more closely at the roofs. Particle board? And the nails. Just like the ones I bought at Miller’s Hardware.

I peered through an empty window into the smaller cabin. The walls of its one room were lined with flattened cardboard boxes. I went up the rotted stairs of the larger cabin. Stepped inside. My foot went through the quarter-inch plywood floor. More beer and whiskey empties were piled in the corners. Along with a decaying foam mattress.

Over the next couple of weeks I blazed and cleared and cleared and blazed, going all the way down the mountainside, past the cabins to a little outhouse with a composite toilet seat and a pigsty with water bowls made of cut-down five-gallon feed cans. Wanting to hold onto the romance of Original Settlers from a hundred and fifty years ago having lived here I worked out my own theory of why the area looked the way it did. The way I saw it, local hunters had been using the empty cabins, rebuilding them as needed.

Then I met Donald Fields, a grizzled old refugee from the Northeast who lives about half a mile up the road. He came over one day just to say hello. I took him for a walk down to the cabins, and when he saw them he shook his head. “They sure don’t look like they did last time I saw them,” he said.

“You’ve been here?” I said.

“Sure. Your house was woods then. I was friends with the squatter couple that built these, about twelve years ago. Old hippies from New York.”

“Twelve years? That’s all?”

“Yeah. They wanted to live like pioneers. No electricity. No plumbing. Raising pigs. Man, did those two stink! They left after three or four years. Said they found the same kind of place in Missouri but with electricity. And cable TV.”

So that was it. Original settlers yep. Old settlers, nope. End of fantasy. End of romance. I still loved the property, but the death of the legend was a big let-down.

Until, that is, last week.

As I was walking to the pond at the entrance to the ranch I saw something glimmering in the sun, and picked up what sure looks like an old arrowhead.

Who needs the “Original Settlers?” This was Indian Land!

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #8 – ‘Buck and the Flag’

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NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

My friend Buck the Ex-Navy Seal is the best neighbor anyone could have, a long haul truck driver who’s good with his hands and doesn’t think I’m an imbecile because I don’t know a monkey wrench from a baboon. Name any mechanical breakdown and Buck can repair it for you. Name any home improvement project and Buck can do it for you. And will, because as far as he’s concerned that’s what neighbors are for.

Last week was Buck’s birthday, and Buck’s wife, Delly, invited Gwen and me over to their place for dinner. We wanted to bring him a gift, but what do you give 65 year old Ex-Navy Seal who can make just about anything he wants or needs with his own two hands? We couldn’t come up with a thing until, while looking for an envelope, I opened a cabinet and saw a folded piece of yellow fabric on our office supply shelf.

It didn’t look familiar so I unfolded the fabric and discovered I was holding an eight foot long flag of Vietnam. At the top were the words, “Vietnam Veteran.” Along the bottom were the names and insignia of the U.S. military units that had served in the war. Buck hadn’t talked much about ‘Nam other than to say he was there, which made him like most Vietnam vets I know, but this seemed like the perfect gift.

That evening, Gwen, Delly, and I watched as Buck opened the box I’d stuffed the flag into and unfolded it. He looked at it closely. Kept looking.

“Buck?” Delly said. “Buck, you all right?”

Buck put the flag down on the floor so everyone in the room could see it. Tears welled in his eyes. “I’m not a Vietnam Veteran,” he said.

“Sure you are, honey,” Delly said. “You were there—“

“Yeah, I was. But not officially. Our unit’s not on this list. It’ll never be on any list.” Buck got down on his knees at the map. His finger traced various routes around and into the northern part of Vietnam. “We were Top Secret. Our job was to rescue American troops. Downed pilots, mostly. Guys who’d been bombing North Vietnam.”

He looked past us, at something far away. “You know, sometimes you can’t help it. You get into situations. You do terrible things. You kill people. Real people. Maybe good people. You kill them because you’ve got to. Because they’re trying to kill you. And sometimes you don’t kill ‘em. You hurt ‘em. You hurt ‘em so much they wish they were dead…”

“Buck…you never told me any of this…” Delly’s voice was a whisper.

“It’s not exactly a man’s finest hour, Delly!” Buck yelled without looking up. “Not something you want to talk about. Or remember.”

The tears were pouring down now. Delly tried to wipe Buck’s face with a napkin. He pulled away. “They tried to kill me,” he said. “They were trying to save themselves while I tried to save our guys. We did so many terrible things.”

I sat down beside him. “Buck, I’m sorry,” I said. “This present is a mistake. It’s not for you…”
Buck took a deep breath. Made the tears stop. Picked up the flag and folded it expertly. Held it while his other arm went around Delly, holding her close.

“Yes it is,” he told us. “This is a birthday gift from great friends. I’ll never be able to thank you enough.” He hugged Gwen and then me. I can still feel that hug, even though I can’t remember what time we went home.

As I write this, Buck and Delly are on the road. Before they left I lent him my twenty foot ladder so he could start framing the barn he’s building. When he returned it he stayed to fix the starter on my lawn tractor. As I watched him, he laughed. “You must’ve been an officer,” he said. It’s the closest either of us came to referring to that night.

Buck the Ex-Navy Seal has no war stories. It’s been thirty years, and only now are his wounds starting to heal. How can all of us understand and come to terms with the horrors for which there are no words?

I have another question too. About that Vietnam Veterans flag. Where did it come from? Who do Buck – and I – have to thank?