Gone, But Not Forgotten -- “Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia Fit”


 I was searching for “By and By (1989)” on the streaming YouTube app.  The first thumbnail suggestion was not for the vid (it was second).  Rather, it was for the now classic western “Lonesome Dove” (specifically, “Western Movies Lonesome Dove 1 1989 Robert Duval, Tommy Lee Jones & Danny Glover”).

 I found that curious.  Did “1989” trigger some algorithm?  I had not searched for anything related to “Lonesome Dove”.  But what was really strange is the unique place that miniseries has in my life experience.  So unique, in fact, that the apparent synchronicity of its appearance ("what is 'Lonesome Dove' doing here?") overrided my connecting "(The) DOVES" and "1989", as the search engine obviously had.  Its suggestion led me on an interesting -- to me -- path down memory lane.  And back to the present, in a musical sense. 


 Having recently messed up my back severely enough to impose a forced period of recuperation, and even causing the canceling of a show, I had been watching a little more TV than usual, in lieu of more active pursuits.  So, when the recommendation of “Lonesome Dove” came up, I thought “why not?  I wouldn’t mind seeing at least some of it again…”.

 I can remember when it first aired, as a miniseries.  Trena watched it, and remarked that it was really well done.  I didn’t.  Watch network TV?  Me? Hah.  That was far beneath my youthful pretension.   Wiki says it aired in February of ’89.  That was shortly before we moved from the house on Foster Place that had the garage where the “By and By (1989)” video footage was shot.  We moved over to Briarcliff Road, not a half mile from Mark Storey’s studio, where the audio was recorded in the fall of that year.

 It was while living on Briarcliff that two of the dearest people to me came into my life.  The first was Noma Petty, an elderly widow who lived next door.  It was probably that same month (Feb. ’89) that Trena and I walked the short distance from our then current home (Foster Place), to our new one (we were soon to close on it) — the old “Patton House”, what was then a farmhouse when it was built in 1910.  Noma was outside tending to her yard as we walked toward the house.  She approached us forthrightly:  “are you the ones buying that house?”  She obviously wasn’t daunted in the slightest by my size (6’3”), urban commando attire, or shoulder length hair.  “Yes ma’am.  We are”.  Oh boy, I thought.  Here we go.  This feisty little old lady is going to be a problem, when we start cranking up the amps and drums next door to her.  The old expression “you could’ve knocked me over with a feather” could not be more applicable to my reaction, when she took my hands in hers, and looked warmly into my eyes and said “I am so glad to see young people moving into that house.”  My waxen heart melted entirely.  She was the loveliest, dearest person and neighbor during the time we lived next to her; and friend, until her passing in the latter 1990s.  

 It was during our time on Briarcliff that the band evaporated.  There were other adversities that defined that period, as my 20s rolled over into my 30s, that I will refrain from revisiting here.  The term that comes to mind, in reflecting on that period, is “transitional”.  One of the transitions associated with it started with phone a call from Noma’s son:  Lawson Adolph Petty.

 He went by the name “Skeeter”, and for the more than 20 years I knew him, I never heard him called anything else, not even by his mother.  He occupied the garage apartment behind the family (Noma’s) house.  The main house was built roughly the same time as ours, when that area of Macon, “across the river”, was un-annexed and unincorporated.  Rural.  It retains a great deal of that rural flavor, with large swaths of wooded areas throughout the neighborhood, as well as the untamed reaches of Jackson Springs Park (so named because the General — and future president  —stopped there to water his horses at a spring on his way to war against the Seminole Indians).  Our houses lay between the affluent suburb of Shirley Hills, and the burgeoning “marginal” neighborhoods that were becoming treacherous for foot travel even then — especially at night.

 I had met Skeeter only once when when he called me up.  I had seen him coming and going from his car to his “house”, which was on the other side of Noma’s from ours — probably returning from his job as an aircraft replacement parts engineer at Robins Air Force Base.  He didn’t strike me as anyone I particularly wanted to know.  Quiet, seemingly a loner.  He was older than I was — by about a decade, as it turned out.  Beard, glasses — there was nothing in his bearing or manner or unfashionable attire to suggest that we had anything in common.  That was confirmed when he and a buddy of his appeared at our back door one night during a practice session.  He was bearing a gift of homegrown “herbal supplement” that had been given to him, but for which he had no use.  He explained that he figured musicians probably did.  He and his buddy were what my ilk called “good ol’ boys”, which is a term that is difficult to define, but which is pretty much the opposite of “metrosexual”.  Guys that didn’t use body wash, or exfoliate (to be clear — nor did I).  Who drove pick up trucks, and actually used them as such.  Who didn’t listen to Echo & the Bunnymen, The Jam, The Clash, The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs, or REM (to be clear — I did) .

 As it turned out, however, we did have an area of common ground.  I’ll never forget his first question to me, in that first phone call.  “Do you like to drink beer?”  “Sure”, I responded.  “I was just wondering if you might want to come over here and have a beer with me.”

 ‘Umm, uh, yeah sure…’ I thought.  I was more than a bit wary.  But how could I refuse?  ‘I wonder what this old codger wants…’.  “Sure.  I’ll be right over.”

 It couldn’t have taken more than 30 seconds to make the trek to Skeet’s door.  He was waiting at the chainlink fence to let me in, and to shield me from his German Shepherd-type cur dog, an ancient arthritic old fellow named Amos, who still had the moxie to sink his remaining teeth into you if he got the chance.   Skeet pulled open the heavy sliding barn door that led into what was once a garage.  In his younger days he had added a loft to it, and remodeled it into a home for him and his first two wives.  There was not one remaining iota of femininity remaining from their presence there, however.  Everything in it was made of wood or metal — iron, steel, bronze, copper, brass — or brick.  Every item was intended for bachelor comfort, convenience, or utility.  There were tools and gadgets and books and artifacts of all kinds — and just plain junk — everywhere.  Some of the tools were heirloom, big heavy pieces of steel and ironmongery that looked like something you’d see in “The Lord of the Rings”.  Skeeter directed me to a barstool at an L-shaped counter that served as bar, table, and kitchen countertop in the first, and main, of two downstairs rooms (the other being the bedroom).  The room was dimly lit, and smelled of years of cigarette smoke and alcohol and masculine solitariness.  Nothing in it was really clean, and the grime of neglect filled every cranny.  Skeeter offered me a cold Natural Light, and I sat down on a barstool and reached for a cigarette while surveying these strange surroundings, and the somewhat slight and scruffy and strange man with bony fingers who was the lord of them.

 I have a limited memory of what we talked about, that first visit.  Early on, Skeeter relayed that he had been in the Marines (but was not an “ex-Marine”, as he was quick to point out years later, when I used that term in reference to him — “…after all, you’re an ex-Marine…”.  “There’s no such thing as an ‘ex-Marine’”, he said, without the slightest trace of irony).  We talked about his visit to our jam session, which must have been well over a year earlier.  I told him I no longer played in a band, that I was doing odd jobs while trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.  I intuited that wouldn’t be anything he would be troubled by, concerned with, or judgmental of, in the least.  I remember him showing me a few of his firearms, and my trying to act like they were something I saw everyday, in an effort to to disguise my actual alarm.  Which might’ve been expressed as “I hope this scary old dude doesn’t get drunk and try to shoot me.”

 I don’t really know how, but after that first visit, Skeeter and I began to become good friends.  It was probably him asking me to lend him a hand with something.  Leading me to reciprocate by  borrowing one of his tools.  Skeet always had a beer in his hand, whenever I saw him — and soon, I would, too.  Usually one of his.  I got to know the man.  And got to like him.  More than that, I got to trust him.  He was “honest to a fault” as they say.  I used to say “If Skeeter Petty ever tried to tell a lie, it would get stuck in his throat.”  He was who he was; he did not try to pretend to be anything else; and if you didn’t like it, you were welcome to find somewhere else to be.  Obviously, Skeet had what people refer to as a “drinking problem”.  Though it wasn’t a problem from his perspective.  If you didn’t like his drinking, that was YOUR problem.  He was one of those people who got sweeter as he got drunk; he was never loud or violent or mean.  And he didn’t drive drunk.  Though he would gladly be a passenger in that condition, which led to some interesting and amusing public encounters.  He was friendly, and liked people.  But between his failed marriages, a broken neck suffered in a car accident in which he was a passenger, a DUI conviction, and the AIDs epidemic of the 80s (which had alarmingly spread into the heterosexual population), he was content to work his job, drink his beer, watch his TV, and let the world go on without him.  He had, in fact, become somewhat of a recluse.  Early Saturday morning he arose to buy his 2-case supply of beer for the weekend.  And then he proceeded to consume it, while engaging in whatever projects or pursuits struck his fancy.  His social life consisted of the parade of old friends who were always dropping by, as became my habit, too — occasionally with one of my friends; some of whom took up the practice, as well.  There was something very de-stressing about entering Skeeter’s world.  You didn’t have to watch what you said or did.  You could thump your ashes on the brick floor.  You could drink and laugh and tell “loud and nasty jokes” and be as uncouth and profane as could be.  

 The more I got to know him, the more I came to realize how genuine the man was.  And that the crusty shell he had grown for himself was to protect a genuinely tender, kindly, dear old soul.  He may have raced his Corvette down I-16 in his youth, and trained to be a RIO (Radio Intercept Officer) on an F-16 as a Marine, and flown through the Grand Canyon in one, and ridden on “The Vomit Comet” (a KC-135 Stratotanker which flew parabolic flightpaths to simulate zero gravity) as part of his training; but I truly believe the world (with all of its falseness — i.e., bullshit) was a harsh place to him.  And that his drinking made it less caustic and abrasive; was indeed a form of self-medication, to soften its hard edges.

 Back to “Lonesome Dove”:  at some point during that initial visit, Skeeter asked me if I liked it.  I told him I had never seen the series.  He had a VHS tape of it in his VCR — recorded from the broadcast, at slo (lo-res, even for videocassette) speed.  “Let me show you something” he said, and soon a scene was playing on his old 13-inch TV.  It was the one, about halfway through the first 2-hour episode, where the two ex-Texas Rangers, Gus McRae and Woodrow Call (Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones), step into a San Antonio saloon, on their way from the story’s titular town to Montana, with a herd of cattle.  The bartender’s attitude towards them is condescending and disdainful, which leads to a lesson in manners -- and customer service -- delivered by Gus in a satisfyingly forceful manner.  I could attempt to describe the action more fully, but far better is to enjoy the tableau directly, HERE.

 At the conclusion of the scene, I determined it was time to begin the process of — politely, respectfully — taking my leave.  It was clear to me that this crusty old Marine was sending me a distinct message.  And if I had done anything to unwittingly offend him, I resolved to be more careful in that regard in the future.

 Of course, that didn’t last long.  It wasn’t too long before we were comfortable enough with each other that he was telling me the story of his enlistment.  He was sitting in a classroom at UGA, on a fine Spring afternoon in 1968.  A sophomore.  A half a world away, the Tet Offensive was raging in Viet Nam.   He said that just didn’t seem right, that he was sitting there, happy, safe, secure; bird-dogging coeds while young men his age were fighting and dying so that he could enjoy the comfort and safety and security and good times they were deprived of by their service and sacrifice.  When the class ended, he walked straight to the Marine recruiting office on campus and signed up.

 I sat there, looking him directly in the eye as he relayed the tale.  And held that gaze for several seconds after he finished; and while I told him, in a somewhat hushed tone, and with the deepest sincerity:  “Skeet, ol' buddy -- I do believe you gotta be the stupidest sonuvabitch I ever heard of.”   He just nodded a time or two, and turned aside with a little semi-shrug to reach for his beer.

 That story, to me, captures the essence of who the man was.  He really did share the same sort of laconic, ironic matter-of-factness and ingrained integrity (in the sense or being “of a piece”) so well expressed by the characters in “Lonesome Dove”.  He would’ve fit in well with the trail crew, alongside Deets and Dish and Newt and Pea Eye.  One day, he handed me a piece of paper upon which was written a phrase, in Latin:


 He wanted to know if I could find out what it meant.  I still had my old high school Latin textbook, and set about to give it a try.  I don’t remember what I came up with.  The phrase appears in one of the opening scenes of “Lonesome Dove”, as the motto on a sign for Gus and Woodrow’s Hat Creek Cattle Company.  As part of reviewing the series, I googled it.  Apparently, it is a miswritten version of another phrase (from Juvenal), and there are several variant interpretations.  For instance, “a grape changes color (ripens) when it sees another grape.”  But my favorite is “A grape is changed by living among other grapes.”

 This "grape" was certainly changed by “living among” that other grape.  For one thing, he is indirectly responsible for my finding a meaningful career.  He had a longtime friend who was the Program Manager at a non-profit that provided support for adults with developmental disabilities.  Who had mentioned to Skeeter that he was looking for someone to fill an entry-level position in their sheltered workshop.  Skeeter told him that he thought he knew just the man for the job:  me.  I met Rick, the PM, and soon recognized a kindred spirit.  And I spent the next 22 years in what I call “the catchall basin for lost toys” —  Human Services.  Populated, in terms of employees, by recent graduates with degrees in Social Services; former GIs; itinerant preachers; or just drifters on the cultural landscape, like me.  Rick and I worked together for over 20 years, and I rose to the supervisory position of Quality Improvement manager.  We are lifelong friends, and we had many an amusing adventure along the course of our employment together — some involving winding up at Skeeter’s after a night of carousing, with a crew of tagalongs, almost like an “after hours” club.  

And to conclude the topic of “Lonesome Dove”:  many a weekend night would find me next door at Skeet’s.  Drinking beer, sharing tales of what was even then our youthful exploits and misadventures.  Trena hardly approved — but at least it was better than being at the taverns, spending money I didn’t have.  One time, Skeeter asked me if I cared for a game of chess.  I didn’t know the game.  He taught me, and it turned into a relaxing pastime.  Our games would last into the wee hours, with frequent interruptions for lengthy digressions; or diversions such as watching a scene from the 8-hour “Lonesome Dove” he often had on as background.  I saw the entire series, but never consecutively.  One night,   Gus and Pea Eye might be trying to escape from a phalanx of Comanches;  a week later, Woodrow would be teaching a lesson to an Army scout about the consequences of rudeness; and the next time, we might be at Clara’s ranch with poor ol’ July Johnson.  Or Gus might be with “Lorrie Darlin’” at the creek, warding off an ominous visit from the menacing Blue Duck.  It was a jumble, but I didn’t mind.  The vignettes were entertaining enough on their own merit.  It was probably a year or two before I read the book, and watched the series, in order.  I can still see ol’ Skeet, studying my latest move intently for a moment, before reaching out his gaunt talon of a hand to lay his rook on its side —  the signal, in chess, for “pause”.   A pause which might last half an hour or more, occupied with a scene from the movie, or some memory from his training at Paris Island, or a recollection from Lanier High School, or the time ol’ so-and-so did such-and-such outlandishness.  Or to hear a tune from Emmylou:  another video he kept in heavy rotation, those early days, was “Emmylou Harris at the Ryman Theater”.  I became very (very) familiar with that performance, and those songs, which are outstanding (Skeet had an unerring ear for what was both quality, and commercially viable.  His taste was defined by those two factors, starting with an early appreciation for the Kingston Trio.  Later, you were likely to find him playing an album by The Indigo Girls or Mary Chapin Carpenter, if you dropped by unannounced, on the CD player I convinced him to purchase, 'kicking and screaming' against the 'new technology'.  Or he might just have a demo of an unknown new talent that he’d heard on the country music station on the way to work, and stopped by a record store to see if they had any of her product — a 13-year-old Leann Rimes.  He always reminded me, in that sense, of the Walter Brennan character in “Meet John Doe”.  Of whom the Gary Cooper character said “if he likes it, they’ll like” — meaning, “the public”).    

A final (?) digression:  it wasn’t long before Skeet disclosed that an important part of his infatuation with the Emmylou concert was that she reminded him of his first wife, and true love, who he met and married when he was an active duty Marine.  A marriage he foolishly (by his own admission) threw away, in a bout of youthful pique and pride, exactly as described by Roger Miller (“…pride is the chief cause in the decline in the number of 'Husbands and Wives'”).  I believe the loss of Shirley haunted him for his entire life, in ways that he dared not acknowledge to himself, but which were manifest -- very much as Gus pined after Clara in "Lonesome Dove".  In the best “Indie Movie” tradition, they remarried during his sunset years — she, after a successful career as a NYC investment broker, and having returned to the South to live.  A platonic, long-distance marriage -- she lived in Florida -- entered into so that he could bequeath his retirement benefits to her (did he perceive that as a sort of 'payment', for a debt he felt he owed her?), as the shadow of his terminal lung cancer grew ever longer… 

 Which brings us almost to the end of this appropriately rambling account of my friendship with the late Lawson Adolph Petty.  Except to say that one of the entries produced by my google search for the Hat Creek motto was a music video (!).  Of course, I had to see a video that used that motto for a title, and was delighted at the result.  It really is in the same ballpark with what Trena and I are doing — very independent and genre-defying.  I close with links to that video, by the Bay Area band Sugar Candy Mountain:

 “Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia Fit”

 And one more:


"Ol' Skeet -- drinkin' his Clorox... and smokin' his cigarette..."