Monday, January 2, 2017

Merry Christmas 2016!

Merry Christmas 2016!

I don’t even have to check the calendar to know it’s December.  Lots of trombone gigs, for one thing -- we trombone players use a little calendar book to keep track of all our gigs, it’s called “Year at a Glance.”  The Steelers are starting their playoff charge.  And Virginia’s mostly sultry weather is tending now toward an icky, cold drizzle.   The battle lines have begun forming around Lynnhaven Mall, and pretty soon it will be all shock and awe, as the bank cards stab, parry, and thrust toward the weary but disciplined cashiers.  The teenagers are wearing their best winter shorts and T-shirts.  The liquor store is selling box sets of holiday cheer with free festive shot glasses -- visions of pink elephants adorned in Christmas lights dance in our heads.  Church parking lots are making deals on evergreen saplings destined for the living room, and then for the trash heap -- their short lives spent enticing children to smile and cats to knock them over.  Oh, and Rudolf’s nose is scheduled for laser surgery.  It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Actually, a lot happened beginning just the day after last Christmas.  Debbie and I, along with several cousins and friends, embarked on one of those Viking river cruises in Europe.  This cruise was on the Danube River, starting in Budapest, Hungary and ending in Passau, Germany.  I’d never been to Europe before, and we thought it might be a good idea to visit there while it’s still European.  Our flight was a Delta/KLM flight (KLM is Delta’s Dutch affiliate), and it would have been a wonderful flight, if only our legs were retractable.  Of all nationalities, I have no idea how a Dutch airline can get away with that -- I'm here to tell you, the Dutch are very tall people.  The shortest stewardess was an inch or two taller than me, and I’m 5’10”.  All the stewardesses were pretty and charming, and they got even more charming as they started handing me glasses filled with complimentary Scotch.  Strangely, I soon forgot all about my cramped knees.  We changed planes in Amsterdam, and arrived in Budapest around lunch time the next day due to the time difference.  A tour bus took us to a grand old hotel in the Buda part of Budapest – the sort of hotel where you half-expect to see Peter Lorre’s watery eyes and sinister grin lurking around the corner.  Hungarian food is big on beef and root vegetables, and heavy on the paprika.  Hungarian wine was not bad at all, and may have been the only menu item that wasn’t based on turnips.  Ba-dump!  I’ll be here all week.  Try the turnip popovers.  Budapest’s architecture is a hodge-podge.  Our Hungarian tour guide was a short, solid-looking and serious woman of about fifty who knows her architecture.  She explained that whenever any army wants to invade another country, they always practice on Hungary first.  Let’s see if I remember them all -- in succession, they have been invaded by the Celts, the Romans, the Huns, the Goths, the Magyars, the Mongols, the Turks, the Germans, the Germans again, and the Soviets.  Hungary has been enjoying a rare period of independence since the Iron Curtain rusted away like a Chevy Vega’s motor mounts.  However, each conquering culture left behind a little something to remember them by.  The Soviet Union’s contribution consisted of these immense, square, concrete apartment complexes -- Hell’s dormitories.  They looked like they were designed by the same team that gave us grain elevators and sewage treatment plants, after first running their plans through the DMV for final approval.  The tour guide felt obligated to apologize for them.  “We know they are hideously ugly, but they’re useful as slums.”  I’m paraphrasing.  The national language in Hungary is not Hungarian, but Magyar (she pronounced it “maiee-YARR”).  “We haff many nationalities livink here togedder in Booda Pesssht,” the tour guide said.

I asked, “Are there any Russians still living here?”

She glared at me .  “No!!!”

Next stop was Bratislava, Slovakia.  Slovakia achieved something almost unheard of: peaceful secession.  They broke from their parent country on a handshake, without a shot being fired, probably the only civil war in history that really was civil -- and with the demise of Czechoslovakia, spelling bees the world over lost one of their best tie-breakers.  Slovakia looks like Allentown – hilly, rocky, and quaint.   The biggest difference is that Bratislava has a big white castle, whereas Allentown has a White Castle.  Bratislava claims to be the honey capital of the world, but are in fact the world’s biggest car manufacturing town.  However, all the cars are named Peugeot, Kia, and Volkswagen (VW acquired Skoda in the early 1990s).  The beer was good, cheap too, but they have a nasty habit of leaving all the lights on in their saloons.  It’s like drinking a beer in a school cafeteria.  If you want to make a secret rendezvous, you’d better use the public library.  Then on to Vienna, Austria.  Here is where sarcasm fails me -- Vienna is a stunningly beautiful city, even on a cold, wet day.  Stunning beauty comes with a price, as always:  Debbie and I stopped at a coffee shop and paid the equivalent of $20 for two cups of coffee with cream and a strudel for Debbie.  However, this was Austria, not 7-Eleven, so no Coffee Mate for the Viennese -- they just scooped huge dollops of genuine 100% cow cream straight out of a big tub.  Now that’s what I’m talking about!  We also stopped in Salzburg, where the tour guide explained that not only was Mozart born there, but also Christian Doppler, and just then a European police siren traveled away from us, DARR-DEEE-DAarrr-deeee-darrrrrrrr-deeeeeee, and lowering in pitch.  So this is where Doppler invented that effect.   That huge castle, nestled way, way up in a nearby mountain, looked very realistic, but there was no sky-writing witch to spell out “Surrender Dorothy!”  Did I want to walk up to the castle? asked Debbie.  No thanks.  Last stop was Passau, Germany, where ABC -- another beautiful church -- hosted the world’s fourth largest pipe organ.  Then, twelve more hours of bashed knees and Scotch-tippling on the KLM flying sardine can and we were home.  We highly recommend taking a Viking river cruise, if our trip was representative.  The food was great, the bar was inexpensive (unlike the trip itself), and the service was friendly and professional.  I might have eventually gotten bored being waited on hand and foot by young, smiling and beautiful East European women, but I’d have to give it a few more centuries to know for sure.

Within a couple of days of our return, I went into the hospital for right shoulder surgery.  On our trip, I’d discovered my left shoulder, the one that was not to be operated on, was actually the one that hurt the most.  Too bad -- surgeons don’t like it when you call an audible at the line of scrimmage.  The right shoulder actually feels pretty good now, after almost a year of healing and therapy.  Not anxious to have that process repeated on my left shoulder, I asked the surgeon, what are my alternatives?  He gave me a cortisone shot.  It made me want to kiss the hem of his coat.  I’m used to old cars needing repairs, but now I’m the one who’s going in and out of the shop, and the warranty has run out.

Debbie’s dad, Bill Wallace, passed away last year, and we hosted his memorial service here in Virginia Beach; the Wallace clan gathered here to honor Bill’s life.  Debbie and I met up with her older brother Bill Jr. at the Pensacola Naval Air Station last June, where Bill’s ashes were interred -- a Blue Angel pilot gave us a fly-over.  Then we drove down to Pine Island, FL, to visit our friends Kurt and Patty Rauscher.  Kurt and Patty took us out fishing on their boat, and we saw a manatee.  They’re huge.  But none of the “Visit Florida!” ads I’ve ever seen showed any photos of manatees doing what huge vegetation-munching animals do for about 24/7 -- they’re not called “sea cows” for nothing.  And that’s no manatee.  Hope is not the only the thing that floats.  We saw Kurt’s dad, Merle, who was like a second father to me, growing up – as it turned out, it was to be our last visit with him.  His last words to me, delivered with a grin, were, “Give ‘em hell, Tiger!”  I always have.  We attended a memorial service both for him and his wife Irene in Altoona, PA a couple of months ago.

As I write this, we’re coming into peak music season.  I have four performances of “The Nutcracker” with the Ballet Virginia International (one down, three to go).  I love Tchaikovsky, and Tchaikovsky loves bass trombone.  Then there’s the Handel Messiah, and that about wraps things up.  Debbie has conducted her final school orchestra concert for the season, and is busy preparing our church music schedule.  Sitting here listening to Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, and acknowledging the Lord’s many blessings.  We wish you a merry Christmas and great things to come in the new year ahead.

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