Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #45 – “The Past Comes Calling”

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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

One weekend, while I was paddling down the Buffalo National River with Gwen the Beautiful, Brannigan the Contractor, and Brannigan’s girlfriend Sweet Jane, Jane asked me if I miss show business. It was a fair question, and I gave it some thought. My mind went all the way back to the Prehistoric Era of the late ‘60s, when I first got into the “Biz.”

I remembered how awed I was by everything Hollywood. I was completely overwhelmed by the fact that entertainment was the main business of the huge sprawl of ambition that all of Southern California had become. I loved the fact that everyone I met was part of showbiz in some way. Even the waiters and waitresses (we didn’t have “wait people” then) were really actors waiting for the rocket to stardom to zoom them away.

I reveled in the conversations that took place around me at the gas station or in a department store. Words like “deal,” “option,” “post-production” gave me chills. I still remember the first time I saw a real live star. Rick Nelson, standing ahead of me in the supermarket check-out line.

I remember the second time too. I was stuck in rush-hour traffic on the Hollywood Freeway, sweating in my un-air-conditioned ’66 Mustang. I looked to my left and saw a familiar face behind the wheel of an exotic Italian car. Steve McQueen. He saw me looking and gave me his trademarked crooked grin. And a sly thumbs-up.

Only a few weeks before, I’d been living in Iowa City, Iowa. You didn’t see fancy sports cars or Steve McQueen there, that’s for sure. Although there were a lot of crooked grins—deliberately copied from the cool Mr. McQ.

Over the years, as I toiled at studio jobs that, regardless of their sometimes fancy titles, were still just long, exhausting hours of “workin’-for-the-man-and-payin’-the bills,” I grew disenchanted with a way of life that never went beyond who was making what movie or TV show and how much they were getting paid. Oh, and who was having how hot an affair with whom.

Nothing else in the world seemed to matter. Not the cure for cancer. The end of poverty. World peace. Not even taking care of your kin. One day I was in the office of the head of what is now Sony Pictures. “Of course we’re worth more as human beings than doctors or scientists or even the President of the U.S.!” he thundered. “If we aren’t, why are we being paid so much more?”

It was the day after Father’s Day and I was wearing a new watch my pre-teen son and daughter had given me. The studio head glanced down at my wrist.

“Rolex?” he said.

“Seiko,” I told him.

The studio head stared at me in disbelief. After that meeting he never spoke to me again. Later, when my contract came up for renewal he cut me loose because, he said to someone we both knew, “He let me down.”

Yep. I sure had. I’d proudly worn a $50 Seiko instead of a $5000 Rolex. How could I do such a thing?

Thirty-plus years in any business can take a huge toll. Showbiz is no different. Creatively, I did the best I could and was part of some shows that made me beam with pride and others that made me ashamed. Sometimes they were the same show.

I did the best I could personally too, with similar mixed results. Although most of my pride there is in how well my kids have turned out in spite of me and the shame has to do with mistakes that were all my own.

I’ve got no qualms about having moved on to a place where the only foreign cars I see are Toyota pick-ups and instead of waiting for a rocket to stardom everyone’s working hard just to survive. Where money doesn’t define a person because everyone knows it’s not what we’ve got that’s important but who we are inside. And where instead of playing roles on the screen, folks are starring as themselves in their own real lives.

Do I miss show business? That weekend on the Buffalo, after Sweet Jane asked me that question I closed my eyes, just for a second. And during that second I missed the rush of the river and tangled green of the trees growing along its bank more than I’ve ever missed anything about Hollywood.

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #44 – “Hazardous Material”

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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

Few things are as all-encompassing as being part of a group of people who are on the same wavelength. It’s a feeling of belonging you can’t get any other way.

Last week I found myself in such a group. All because of Chet the Unhandyman.

What happened was Chet got a new job. Financially, it was everything anyone in Paradise could hope for. Full time. Health insurance. Pension. The highest hourly rate for unskilled labor in this part of the state. All for operating a forklift all day.

Okay, there was a slight downside. Chet’s forklift would be carrying hazardous material. Extremely hazardous material.

As in:

“Don’t touch it!”

“Don’t eat it!”

“Don’t even breathe it!”

Chet’s risk was his friends’ gain. Right after Chet said he’d been hired, Dwayne the Earth Mover called me excitedly. “I’ve been thinking about how Chet’s job could shorten his life expectancy,” he said,. “and I’ve got an idea.”

“What kind of idea?”

“Insurance,” Dwayne said.

“Insurance?”

“Life insurance. What say we take a policy out with us as the beneficiaries? This job’s bound to kill him in a few years, and we’ll all collect.”

“Doesn’t sound right to me,” I said.

“Chet owes you money, right?” said Dwayne. “This way you’re sure to get it. Think about it, okay?”
An hour later Brannigan the Contractor roared into our clearing. Jumped out of his truck. Stuck his hand into the mouth of Belle, our dog who always bites him. “Let’s get this over with!” he said.

Belle obliged with a crunch. Brannigan laughed. “I love this dog! And I love Chet!”

“You love Chet?” I said. “Why?”

“Didn’t Dwayne call you about the insurance policy? Isn’t it perfect? Chet’s gonna make us rich!”

Before I could reply, Gwen the Beautiful came out on the front porch. “James Marshall’s on the phone. He said he’s got the insurance information you need.”

James Marshall is a part-time insurance agent in Paradise. Here on the Mountain he’s known as, “that fast-talking SOB who keeps trying to sell us what we don’t need.”

I turned to Brannigan questioningly. “Yes!” Brannigan said. “This boy is sharp! I only called him fifteen minutes ago.”

Gwen handed me the phone. James Marshall went right into his pitch. “Here’s how we have to do it. You’ll be the beneficiary. That’s because you’re the only one with what we call an insurable interest in Chet. Because he works for you, the law assumes you want him alive—“

“I do want him alive!”

“Sure. We all do. But you, Brannigan, Dwayne, and I will be paying for hundred thousand dollar term insurance at the rate of ten dollars a month each—“ James Marshall broke off. “Got another call. Hold on a minute.” A minute later he came back. “That was Tommy from Chicago,” he said. “He wants in too. Oops, hold on…”

Three more “Oops’s” later, James Marshall’s math had changed. “Let’s see now. With Tommy, Doug the Dog Breeder, Lily the Librarian, and Old Fred aboard we can double the payoff to two hundred thousand. And then, when Chet joins the dearly departed, you give us each our share.”

“I don’t even know Doug the Dog Breeder,” I said.

“Oh, he’s a good old boy,” said James Marshall. “You’ll get along fine.”

Chet started his new job last Monday. Wednesday all the “partners” gathered at our ranch to watch me sign the insurance policy. To make sure I went through with it even though Gwen and I both had our qualms. At the time I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do.

James Marshall laid the policy on the kitchen table. Dwayne the Earth Mover thrust a pen at me. And then the telephone rang.

“Let it ring!” Brannigan roared.

But Gwen answered, handed it to me.

“Hello, this is Nurse Rollins at Baxter Regional Medical Center. There’s a patient in the Emergency Room by the name of Chet the Unhandyman. He wants you to know t he won’t be home tonight. He fell off his forklift and broke his foot.”

And there it ended. Our group had no choice but to disband. From now on I’m calling him Chet the Escape Artist. Once again, he’s lost a job in the first three days. But this time it may well have kept him alive.

And, almost as importantly in these parts, it kept me from disappointing the boys.

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #43 – “The Road to Hell”

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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

Paradise didn’t seem much like Paradise last week.

It was a lot more like Hell.

I’m talking about the hell created by an 18 year old whose assault on the value of human life began in a Massachusetts gay bar, and ended just outside Mountain Home.

It’s a story I didn’t want to follow. But I couldn’t help myself. Everything that happened, happened so close. A fugitive. A traffic stop. A death. A shootout between the perp and the police.

It was very big city. Very Hawaii Five-0.

Urban crime. Hollywood action. The unreal made all too real. And so achingly reminiscent of a way of life I’d thought I’d left behind.

And just as my churning feelings were subsiding, Dwayne the Earth Mover brought them back. The Earth Movers and the Brodys had dinner together at our place the other night, and afterward Dwayne and I stepped out onto the front porch while he had a smoke.

It was twenty-eight degrees and snowing just a little, and we stood hugging ourselves, watching the big flakes drift down from the murky sky.

“Terrible thing, what happened in Gassville,” Dwayne said. He flicked an ash onto the snow. “Don’t you have a bud on the Gassville Police Department? The officer writing the ticket—that wasn’t your friend, was it?”

I don’t have a bud who’s a police officer in Gassville, but I’ve gotten e-mail from one about this column. The kind of e-mail that makes you hope someday the sender will become a friend. Because of that, Dwayne the Earth Mover’s question struck a chord.

In fact, when I’d heard about the traffic stop, and the shooting, my first thought was, “Oh no! Was that J.D.?” And I’d clicked around the web like a lunatic until I found out it wasn’t.

“No,” I told Dwayne. “It wasn’t him.”

Dwayne dropped his cigarette. Ground it out with his work-booted heel. “Glad to hear it,” he said. “Bet you were relieved.”

I started to reply, but I couldn’t. I was shivering and shuddering and shaking, and not from the chill. What was getting to me wasn’t the weather. It was what I’d almost said. A thought I still can’t get out of my mind.

Last February 5th, a man died. Unexpectedly. Brutally. Bloodily. A police officer in the line of duty, doing something he must’ve done, oh, thousands of times without any problem.

A man I didn’t know.

And because I didn’t know him, because I’d never gotten an e-mail from him – or been stopped by him for speeding or helped by him when my tire went flat on Highway 62—when someone asked me how I felt I came oh-so-close—this close—to echoing “relieved.”

As though the victim and his life, his history and his hopes and his dreams, his family and his friends, his very humanity, didn’t count as much as they would have if he’d been my friend, or my co-worker, or my relative. Or me.

I know Dwayne meant well. But how could I—how could anyone—feel “relieved” just because a tragedy wasn’t as horribly immediate as it might have been?

Every day we walk this planet we make choices and judgments. It’s what we have to do in order to survive. So we can act in our best interests, and in the best interests of those with whom we share our lives. I understand that all too well.

But as I grow older I see that much of what we do and think and feel is automatic, the continuation of a past pattern instead of a new response to what’s here.

In this case, my pattern probably would’ve made it easier to face the fact that I had no control over a heinous crime.

In this case, “easier” doesn’t cut it. (And between you and me, I can’t think of a case where it would.)

So here are the hard words, the true words, about a tragedy that’s got me shuddering again as I write.

On February 5th, in Gassville, Arkansas, police officer Jim Sell was senselessly murdered. He was 56 years old. He was a human being who walked a path of duty and courage. He deserved better than he got.

I didn’t know Jim Sell, but I offer my sympathies to all those who did, and who must deal with his loss. I honor Jim Sell in print and in my heart.

I mourn.

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #42 – “The Angel of Arkansas”

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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

I spent last night in Conway, at the home of Wanda Fincher, the Angel of Arkansas.

If ever a human being deserved sainthood, it’s Wanda, who would go to her death denying she deserved any honors not bestowed on everyone else.

From the very first time this tall, dark-haired, string bean of a gal wrapped her strong arms around me and gave me a typical Wanda hello I knew I was in the presence of someone special.

Raised as an orphan in the little town of Walnut Ridge, for a while Wanda took the last name of her first husband—Lovelady—and being a loving lady is what she’s all about.

The calling that took her out of Walnut Ridge was nursing. Wanda became an Air Force nurse. She’s divorced now. Never had any children. But Wanda’s raised zillions of foster kids.

Not official ones, that the county gives you. Unofficial sons and daughters. Drop-offs from shamed mothers. Babysitting jobs that ran years instead of hours.

She adopts adults as well. Through her church, Wanda became involved in an outreach program for convicts, and countless parolees have lived on her big lakeside property. Just as she’s cared for the abandoned children, so Wanda has watched over these troubled grown-ups. She’s gotten them jobs and, several times, spouses as well.

Wanda has never met anyone she didn’t love in the best way, and if you love people you’ve got to help them, right?

Need money but can’t go to the bank because your credit’s deader than a flattened rabbit? Have a drug habit you can’t shake? In pain over abuse you were afraid to report?

All you’ve got to do is run into Wanda somewhere, and the minute she finds out your problem she does what she’s got to do. Often without you even knowing.

When Gwen the Beautiful first went blind, Wanda was at our ranch every week, bringing us the next week’s worth of meals and cleaning our house.

She brought a gardener too, and plants from a nursery owned by a couple she helped get started. Why, she even tried to get Chet the Unhandyman a job!

Wanda’s not just a goody-goody. She’s smart and funny and does the kind of physical comedy that could’ve made her the Lucille Ball of the South. Why tell a story when she can act it out?

Which isn’t to say that she’s a quiet woman. Wanda knows how to talk, all right. Even Robin Williams would have to let her have the floor.

What brought me to Wanda’s last night was her standing offer of the finest in hospitality. I’d dropped Gwen off in Hot Springs for a weekend with some old friends, and just couldn’t stand the thought of the long, lonely drive home.

It was a typical Wanda evening. We had dinner with her two nieces, Sarah and Charla, who live in Wanda’s guest house while they’re going to college in town. And with her next door neighbor, Ashley.

And her best buddy Freddie and Freddie’s teenage son. And another buddy, Linda the Private Detective.

Oh, and another friend, David, who mistakenly thought this was Bible study night, but stayed for the laughter and the eats.

And there was a lot of laughter.

Especially when Gwen called and Wanda told her, “You can be proud of your husband, lady. He’s here with five women, and hasn’t hardly laid a finger on one. ‘Course the other four’re powerful tired…”

But this morning when I was leaving, Wanda looked troubled.

“Lordy,” she said. “I’ve got all these ideas. Half-written books. But the only writing I’ve been able to finish was writing I did for other people. People who’re famous authors. While I’m just the ol’ gal from Walnut Creek.

“Sometimes,” she said, “it breaks my heart, to not be known as the writer I am.”

Then she shook it off. “But not now! Lordy, not now!” and with a hug and a little kiss she pushed me into my truck.

As I drove home I thought about what Wanda had said, and how much I disagreed. She’s every bit as good with words as those people she worked for. And, books or no books, everyone who knows her—including Almighty God—knows what a brilliant author Wanda Fincher is.

We know it by the way—every moment of every day—the energy-filled Angel of Arkansas writes her loving, giving, hilarious, and utterly bodacious life.

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #41 – “The Ghost Dog”

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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

I’ve written before about the fact that the original owners of our ranch sold it to us at a more than fair price because they thought the house and land were haunted.

Gwen the Beautiful and I have seen and heard many signs of spirits during our time here. Old men. Singing divas. Wisps in the night. This week, after living on the property for almost two years, Chet the Unhandyman joined the club.

He saw a Ghost Dog.

Chet’s a catnapping kind of guy. Doesn’t sleep more than a few hours at a time. Four in the morning is a common wake-up time for him.

Usually it’s no big deal. But for the past several nights, when Chet looked out the window of his bedroom in our old singlewide he’s seen one of our dogs lying near the center of the clearing.

Not just anywhere near the center but at the highest part of what we call, for lack of a better word, the “Mound.”

The Mound is a pitcher’s mound sized area where nothing grows. It’s the very top of our Mountain and looks suspiciously like all the mounds in the Southwest that cover ancient ruins before they’re excavated. I’ve always wanted to dig it out, but good sense and the cost of renting a backhoe have prevented that.

Now, the problem with Chet seeing one of our dogs out there is this: It’s impossible.

Under our current living arrangements, Emmy the Bold AKA the Itty Bitty Pitty Mom, sleeps on the bed with Gwen and me, Tiger the Troublemaker sleeps tethered on the front porch, and Decker and Belle sleep in a fenced dog yard nearby. Not one of those dogs can be the one sleeping on the Mound.

But Chet insists he’s looked out at one. Says it’s caramel-colored and short-haired and the general size and shape of Emmy’s kids. Sometimes the dog looks over at him. Sometimes it rolls around. Sometimes it stretches in its sleep.

And none of the other dogs barks at it, he says, “like it’s not even there.”

Well, when you’re living on a haunted ranch, that “like it’s not there” thing rings a bell.

Three years ago, Emmy gave birth to twelve puppies. Emmy refused to nurse one of them. Pushed it away. That puppy died the second night. I discovered it in the morning, while mother and children were napping and quietly put it outside, in the trash.

When Emmy woke up, she looked at her pups…and started to howl. She went to the door to be let out and looked for her missing pup all around the clearing. Under every building. In every hidey-hole.

She went out looking three or four times a day every day for weeks. Continued her search at longer intervals over the next several months.

At birth, that puppy was caramel-colored and short–haired, and if it had lived it would’ve been the general size and shape of what Chet’s been seeing.

I’m fascinated by the idea that Emmy’s Lost Puppy has returned to its pack.

I’m fascinated by the idea of a Ghost Dog sleeping in front of our cabin every night, atop what I like to think of as our Mystery Mound.

And I’m more than fascinated by the idea of learning more about the Ghost Dog. What, after all, could be more exciting than getting to know the Ghost Dog as it seems to want to know us?

Tonight I’m setting my internal alarm clock for four a.m. I’m getting up and going outside to see if I can spot what Chet’s been seeing. To get as close to it as possible. To learn the truth.

I’ll bring my camera and see what happens when I snap some pix. Maybe I’ll bring my spotlight in case something goes wrong and I need to flood the Mound with a million megabeams of light to save myself from a dangerous, ghostly monster by forcing it to disappear.

Who says mystics can’t be scientists too? Or that I can’t have as much fun as an adult as I did when I was an eight-year-old believing a towel safety-pinned around my neck was a cape, and that I was flying so high my parents couldn’t see what I was up to no matter how much their necks craned?

If you don’t hear from me for awhile, blame the Ghost Dog.

Or Chet’s imagination.

Or mine.