The chill wind of autumn

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Fifty-one years ago I knocked on an apartment door on the south side of San Jose, out near Tully Road, an unremarkable act that I did not realize would change my life.

I needed to use a telephone to get phone service for the apartment two doors down where my three San Jose State roommates and I were entering our senior year at the school. A little toddler opened the door, followed by a nice young woman who allowed me to use the phone. While I was on the line with Ma Bell I noticed an Italian-style bowlback mandolin hanging on the wall.

“Does someone play that?” I asked.

“My husband,” she said. “He’s a reporter at the Mercury-News. He’ll be home in a few hours.”

How serendipitous! I was a journalism major! So after supper I took my guitar next door and met the man who would become my brother-in-law, then my “brother-out-law,” mentor, friend and almost the brother I never had. We sat down and discovered we knew a lot of the same folk tunes and country songs. But he new a bunch of rag-time and traditional jazz songs as well, which he proceeded to teach me.

That was in September. In January the lady of the house announced that her sister was coming from Illinois to stay a while and possibly relocate to California. This piqued my interest, as I had just lost a girlfriend, and my informant was a really nice person, bright, funny and attractive.?? It took about a month but one February day I went next door and there was a beautiful, dark-haired girl sitting at the kitchen table. She wore a white blouse, flared skirt and one of those little round pins about the size of a quarter that were all the rage back in the 1960s. I remember thinking, “this could be the one,” and not long after, we started dating.

I finished my journalism degree and got a job in Richmond, near my home town. The neighbors, including Barbara, moved to San Francisco, which was convenient. I got a lot of free tickets to things in San Francisco (I was the second-string entertainment writer) and I would put my suit in a cardboard box, ride my motorcycle to Russian Hill, change at their place and take the cable car with Barbara downtown for dinner and whatever I was reviewing. (Old-timers may remember that cable cars were once public transit, not a carnival ride. They cost 25 cents and you could just climb on at any street corner where they stopped.) After the show I’d re-pack the suit, ride the bike back to Richmond, write the story and sack out for a few hours on the ladies’ room couch until my copydesk shift started at 7 a.m.

Feb. 6, 1964, we were married in a simple courthouse ceremony and we’ll be celebrating our half-century anniversary in a few weeks. But that isn’t what this column is really about. This is one of those “I tell you that to tell you this” deals. This story is about having a musical friend, Lynn the mandolin player, for more than 50 years.

In the early years our families got together often, and spent holidays and summer family camp vacations together, always with our music and usually with friends playing as well. Then there was a divorce but I continued to hang out with Lynn both because of the music and because we both worked for newspapers, I at the Oakland Tribune and he at the San Francisco Examiner.

As I learned banjo and got good enough to play for others, Lynn was a part of my first bluegrass band for a while. But he didn’t want to do gigs, so he dropped out but remained in my musical orbit.

When the Knowland family sold the Tribune to a big conglomerate, working conditions there deteriorated so badly that I wanted out. Lynn tipped me that there was an opening on the Examiner copy desk and I’m sure he whispered a good word about me in the proper ear. I got the job and joined him in San Francisco, where I worked 20 years until the Hearsts bought the Chronicle, and even one year after that at the Chron.

Last week we attended a music party in San Francisco, and played tunes with our long-time friends. Lynn is 80 years old now. He’s had a couple of heart attacks, and doesn’t sing much anymore since a stroke affected his speech.

One of the tunes we played that night was “When You and I Were Young Maggie,” and when I got to this part…

A city so silent and lone, Maggie,
Where the young and the gay and the best,
In polished white mansions of stone, Maggie,
Have each found a place of rest,
Is built where the birds used to play, Maggie,
And join in the songs that were sung;
For we sang as gay as they, Maggie,
When you and I were young.

…I struggled to sing the words. I have sung that song for decades, but the emotional impact only showed up as I began to wonder, how many more times will we play together? How many more times will we share a meal, or a joke?

We have hiked together, vacationed together, watched our children — favorite cousins — grow up and become adults. We are both grandfathers now, and Lynn is a great-grandfather. I treasure countless memories and I ponder what is coming our way next. How long our future will be is unknown, but it won’t be as long as our past.

Life no longer seems infinite. Every day is a blessing.

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