We certainly know how that would feel, after the cruise last Christmas with Debbie’s parents, Bill and Audrey Wallace. An ostensible deal, on paper: five-day Western Caribbean Carnival Cruise, departing from Mobile, Alabama (close to Bill and Audrey’s house), $400 a head. But on the first day, it didn’t seem like such a bargain. The boat was eight hours late in boarding, so we spent an entire Saturday playing Mexican Train in the Mobile Civic Center, waiting with approximately 400 unhappy families. Turns out our ship was Carnival’s oldest, built sometime after the Monitor sank -- it’s the same one that was used for humanitarian purposes during the Katrina catastrophe. Ever had one of those hotel beds where, if you put a quarter in the slot, it would vibrate you to death? Well, we didn’t need one of those, as we were situated right above the 30,000 cubic-inch diesel engine. All the way through Mobile Bay to the Gulf, we were shaken and stirred by vibrations that were less than good, thus averting a Beach Boys copyright suit. (We later learned that the vibrations were mostly caused by the shallowness of Mobile Bay, and they diminished considerably once we had made it to the open sea.) We got off the boat in Cozumel. Then, we turned right around and got back on. The Third World looks better on television, and safer. The rest of the cruise was spent winning trivia contests, going to shows, eating wonderful food, and exploring such burning issues of the day as, “Can a bartender from Turkey make a decent martini?” Turns out he can, indeed –- in fact, after the first night, the waiter remembered my martini specifications down to the last twist of lemon. The professionalism of the servers on these cruises is a marvel to behold, particularly after many years of sullen, lip-pierced, teenage-style service at the local fast-food depot. Sometimes they were a little too professional. At dinner, Debbie made the mistake of mentioning that she is lactose-intolerant -- so the ship assigned Karen, a stunning young Filipino woman, to be Debbie’s personal “Lactose Nazi” for the balance of the trip. “Dere vill be nein cheating!” (Darn it.) It was a wonderful cruise. We had a great visit with Debbie’s parents, and the diesel engine bade us farewell in the best way it knew, by shaking loose our gold fillings on the return through Mobile Bay.
My buddy Ray and I went again to the Eastern Trombone Workshop, where we heard some very nice college trombone ensembles, along with the incomparable U.S. Army Blues Jazz Band. The trombonist in the Army’s jazz solo chair is a thin fellow named Harry Watters, an amazing player, who sports the best pompadour seen in the D.C. area since Ronald Reagan. Every time he played, I’d nudge Ray and say, “There he goes again!” In April, I got to play a solo with Dr. Dave Champouillon’s jazz band at Eastern Tennessee State-- an old standard called “Makin’ Whoopee!” I was hardly the star of the show -- Dr. Dave had three guest trumpeters, all respected pros (one of them had played lead trumpet for Harry James). Just to show what a great sense of humor he has, Dave scheduled me to go on right after the trumpet soloists’ flashiest number – which was like following the Battle of Britain with a Sunday nap. Dave just needed a cushion of about five minutes so his soloists could rest their chops before the big finale -- so I like to think of my contribution as having provided the necessary Whoopee cushion.
We mentioned our sun room re-modeling project last year, and now it is completed -- a terrific place to sit in the summer evenings and watch the robins duke it out just before sundown. At the moment, it is a Nor’easter room, as we are (presently) in the throes of one of those charmingly nasty North Atlantic storms that pulls down the power lines -- and makes me feel like the whole world’s a big cold-water rinse cycle and I’m a sweater with a ketchup stain. This year, we tackled the master bathroom, because Debbie had spotted a crack in the floor of the fiberglass shower stall. We didn’t know the half of it, as it turned out. When Carl (our remodeler) tore out the old shower stall, there was an even bigger crack in the concrete slab underneath the shower; it was about two feet long and eight inches wide, following the path of the drain pipe -- which was attached to, well, nothing. All we had was an open trench to the dirt beneath our foundation, and the drain pipe to nowhere. We know the master bedroom was a room addition to the original house, but we will never know whether the building contractor ripped off the previous owners, or the previous owners ripped us off. Either way, a dirt hole in your bathroom isn’t code -- not even in Virginia Beach, where the building inspectors think it’s just fine for highway runoff to drain through a private condo’s garage (ask us how we know). But long story short, the new bathroom is gorgeous, beautiful enough to bring a picnic basket and gaze at, in awe. There’s even a nice place to sit.
Our other “big money” project this year was on our car. We took our 1982 Checker Marathon to an auto-restoration place in Norfolk called FantomWorks; two months and many dollars later, we drove off in a class-A restoration. The hardest part was picking the color. At first, I thought maroon would be great -- until Dan (the restorer) explained the good and bad of metallic paint. Rats. Then, I considered doing it up like a New York cab (since that is how most people remember Checkers), but who wants to drive around town when tourists on the sidewalk are trying to hail you? So I asked Debbie, “What color do you think would look good?” She replied, “It’s your car, Lee, you have to pick a color you’ll be happy with.” So we went through a dozen paint chip books. I’d proclaim, “I like this color!” only to watch Debbie squinch up her nose and say, “Well, paint it any color you like, but I don’t like this one. Too washed out.” Hmmm. “Hey! Here’s a nice one!” Debbie shook her head, “Too dark.” Wow. Picking colors is harder than I thought. “Now this one is great!” Debbie cocked an eye and said, “Too boring!” After many such exchanges, Debbie had a revelation: “Look, here’s a wonderful sky-blue! The top could be white and the car would have a great Fifties look!” So, we painted it sky-blue and white. It really does look fantastic, in a time-warp kind of way, and Debbie is always very good about complimenting me on my choice of colors. I have to admit it was inspired.
Debbie made her goal with Weight Watchers this year -- she's lost a total of 60 pounds -- and in two months she will have maintained her “goal” weight for a year. She’s also been watching a lot of episodes of “What Not to Wear” on The Learning Channel, and has taught herself to dress in accordance with Johnny Mercer’s famous lyric: to “Accentuate the Positive.” I never have to harbor paranoid fears anymore about people staring at me, when Debbie is on my arm. She is even more beautiful than the lovely young lady I married almost 27 years ago. Her name was Debbie, too.
An elementary school was closed, and the year-round schedule schools were changed back to the standard Sep-Jun school year -- so Debbie lost her cherished schedule. She is still the music director at our church, despite her lapse in taste of letting me be her primary male vocalist. (I do a mean Jim Morrison impersonation, however -- not that this would help her case with the church’s elders.) She has also impressed the men at the church with her ability to prepare breakfasts for the men’s meetings – in particular, sinfully, wickedly delicious Krispie Kreme Donut bread pudding. It puts our church’s elders in an awkward position -- eating every morsel of Debbie’s dessert, and then having to subject her to church discipline for tempting the weak.
We’ve added another cat to the menagerie. We thought Gabby, our huge 17-lb. female Siamese, needed a companion, so we went to the SPCA and came back with Buster, an even more huge 22-lb. male Siamese. So how did that work out? Gabby spends all of her time trying to ignore him, while Buster keeps clamoring for her attention. Does this remind anyone else of high school dances? Gabby has become Greta Garbo in track shoes, having to beat feet constantly to escape her Brobdingnagian suitor. When she runs, the feet move, but the body is still -- like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon character. Buster, on the other hand, lopes like a constipated raccoon, which is about half right. We want him to lose weight so the vet will quit glaring at us.
No one knows what the future brings in these uncertain times. But we’re fortunate in knowing that we have a Lord who looks out for His people. It brings comfort to know that a leaf does not fall from a tree without His approval. The Child born in Bethlehem sits at God’s right hand, and all is well. Debbie and I wish you the merriest of Christmases, the happiest of new years, and the blessings of the almighty King who brings joy and meaning to an otherwise empty and pointless existence. Spend a few minutes this Christmas season to remember the greatest gift of all -- God’s own Son, to redeem the sins of many.