The Talkin’ Mystery Anniversary Flight, Waiting for Dubya, Late for Zulu Blues (an extry long Horribly True Tale)

Shortly after Christmas this year, my wife Ashley began dropping hints that something was afoot concerning our impending wedding anniversary.  In the three years we’ve been married, I’ve become accustomed to such hints.  They’re an annual reminder that our February 5 anniversary is a little over a month away and it’s about time I start thinking about what I’m going to do about it.  Kind of handy, really.

“I think I know what I’m going to get you for an anniversary present,” Ashley said.

“Do you, now?” I said.  This is what I always say when I don’t have a similar declaration to make.

“Yup,” she said.  “You’re going to like it a lot.  But it’s going to be expensive.”

I take all statements of this nature very seriously.  As one half of a couple that is going mind and wallet-numbingly into debt to pay for medical school, I take all financial matters seriously.  I do admit, however, to having something of a blind spot when it comes to money being spent on me.

“What is it?”

“A secret,” she said.  I knew it was futile to ask, but I had to try because she pesters me to no end for hints whenever I have secret gifts for her.  Unlike her, though, I actually supply more of a hint than just stating I’m planning a secret present.  In fact, I’m very proud of my ability to come up with perfectly structured, even layered hints that tell both everything and nothing about the gift.  Nostradamus would have been proud to pen some of the hints I’ve given.  To date, Ashley has yet to crack one, even though I usually give her two or three beautifully crafted hints for each gift.  When it comes gifts for me, the hints get scarce.  I can only assume my evil powers of perception are too great a threat, preventing her from giving me anything but the barest of hints.

“C’mon!  Gimme a hint!”

“You’ll like it,” she said.

Great.

The trouble with a gift that’s expensive and likable, though, is that I feel obligated to come up with something similar for her.

Then, as if reading my mind, Ashley said, “Don’t get anything for me.  I’m going to share yours.”

Hey, I liked this present already!  Still, I wasn’t giving up until I got a decent hint out of her.

For most of January, I tried multiple crafty assaults upon her secret gift knowledge, all destined to failure.

“What time is class tomorrow?” I would ask in low, measured, semi-hypnotic tones.

“Nine.”

“What time will you get home?”

“Around four-thirty.”

“What do you want for supper?”

“Food.”

“What’s my anniversary present?”

“A secret.”

“D’oh!”

In mid-January, Ashley let it slip that the anniversary present was going to be a bit late in arriving.  I took this to mean it was on back-order and would be shipped later.  I began dreaming up notions of DVD players, DVD Box Sets, or—dare I say it—a Panasonic Replay Hard Disk Video Recorder so I’d never miss recording another episode of 24 or the Sopranos due to having a crappy VCR that refuses to be programmed again.  While these items certainly fit the expensive part of my provided hints, they didn’t seem likely.  Especially after Ashley said that under no circumstances was I to schedule anything for February 9-10, a Sunday and Monday, nor was I to look at our on-line bank statements for any large purchases, nor ask any questions concerning why.  Curiouser and curiouser.

Days later, while we were watching TV, Ash asked, “Have you ever ridden on a snow-mobile?”

“No,” I said.  Granted we had just seen a snow-mobile on TV, so the question wasn’t exactly out of the blue.

“Well, you might get your chance some day,” she replied with a knowing smile.

I took the bait.  Took it and ran with it.  Between myself and the ladies at the library where I work, we managed to spin this bit of information into a ski-trip.  Ash had often threatened to take me skiing, just so she could have the pleasure of laughing as I plummeted down a mountain, so it was feasible.  We even had our hypothetical ski-trip’s prospective destinations narrowed down to the Snowshoe Ski Resort, the closest and nicest of the four ski-resorts within driving distance.  Seemed like a mystery solved to me.  That is, until Ash dropped more information on me in late January.

“Look, I don’t want to spoil this, but I need to ask you about a variable in our anniversary present,” she said.  “We have a choice between something that will be very nice, but more expensive or something that will be nice but not quite as nice as the first, and less expensive.”

Ah ha!, I thought.  It’s a choice between staying at the ski-lodge or a private cabin. 

“It’s a choice between staying at a Howard Johnson’s or the Radison,” she said.

“Oh,” I said, suddenly realizing my speculations had just been dashed.  I just couldn’t imagine Snowshoe having either a Howard Johnson’s or a Radison. 

“It’s a $60 price difference,” she continued, “but that’s on top of what the actual present costs.”

Intriguing.

“So the hotel is not the present?”

“No.  I wouldn’t have even told you that, but it’s a five hour trip to get there and if you wanted to stay someplace special we can do that.”

More intriguing.

“A five hour trip, huh?  In what direction?”

She seemed to consider denying me even this tidbit, but finally said, “North.”

“Straight north or north east?” I asked, already trying to mentally calculate the distance between Lewisburg and Washington D.C., where I seemed to recall Cirque Du Soleil possibly having a permanent station.  Maybe not.

“North, but slightly north-east,” she said.  Well, that put D.C. out of the way.  If there was a Radison in this mystery city, though, it would have to be a fairly large place.  Knowing how my mind works, Ashley immediately forbid me to go on the internet to cross reference Radison and Howard Johnson’s locations nor to dig out an atlas to see what cities lie to the north, but slightly north-east.  This didn’t prevent me from thinking about it, though.

On the afternoon of Thursday, February 6, one day after our official anniversary, a great heap of snow fell upon Greenbrier County.  It was accompanied by a visit from Vice President Dick Cheney.  You’d think it would be something of an honor to have visits by such world dignitaries as the vice-president of the United States, and maybe it should.  Frankly, I think we’re all sick of it, because his visits cause nothing but problems.

You see, Cheney is a semi-regular visitor to the nearby Greenbrier Resort—occasionally with the president in tow.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Greenbrier, it’s a swanky, sprawling, complex of ornate buildings located in scenic White Sulphur Springs, WV.  The place has been something of a magnet for assorted world leaders and the rich and famous for the last century.  I’m not exactly sure why, as I’ve been in the joint twice now and while it is quite beautiful from the outside, its interior decoration looks as though it was designed by the unholy love-child of Rip Taylor and the Joker.  The attraction probably has something to do with the Greenbrier’s inherent hoity toitiness, five-star restaurants, obscenely expensive shops, a $500 greens fee-laden golf course, private bungalows, access to the refreshing natural springs of the area, and probably because there’s a massive,112,544-square-foot,  Cold War era bunker located within and beneath its West Virginia Wing.  This is the formerly secret bunker that members of Congress were to be stored away in in the event of nuclear war.  It was outfitted with the best radiation shielding, communications technology and heaping stockpiles of frozen food supplies 1962 had to offer.  To hear the locals tell it, they knew something weird was going on at the Greenbrier for decades.  Kind of hard not to when the Greenbrier’s excuse for digging up 112,544 square feet of earth amounted to, “We’re putting in an indoor pool.”  The bunker’s existence has only been widely known, though, since a 1993 expose in the Washington Post prompted the government to declassify and decommission it.  But the bunker is still very much there.

The trouble is, whenever either Cheney or Bush pop by for a visit, traffic in Greenbrier County becomes, to use a favorite military acronym, F.U.B.A.R.  They fly in to the Greenbrier Valley Airport which is 13 miles away from White Sulphur Springs and the Greenbrier Resort.  The quickest way to get from point A to point B is by Interstate-64, so in order to accommodate national security, that busy interstate must be completely shut down while our leaders play connect the dots.  Subsequently, any road that intersects I-64, or is just inconveniently close to it is also shut down.

Word at the library, a.k.a. information central, was that we were in for a double whammy weekend, for not only was Cheney flying in on Thursday, he was to be followed by President George W. Bush sometime on Saturday and they would all be departing on Sunday.  (Which leads one to ask just how secure our leaders are if a bunch of librarians have access to their itineraries?)

At last, Sunday, February 9 arrived.  Ash told me to pack only what I wanted to wear on the trip back since we would be leaving directly from church and would just wear our Sunday best to our anniversary present.  By this time I had pretty much concluded we were going to a concert, but was trying to imagine what kind of concert we would wear church clothes to?  I could think of very few acts from my CD collection whose concert I would feel comfortable wearing a churchy sweater and dress shoes to, unless maybe it was something from the classical section.

“By the way, are you afraid to fly?” Ashley casually asked as we were preparing to leave.

“Fly?” I asked.  “That depends on what I’m flying in.  If it’s a plane, fine.  If it’s a jetpack, not so good.”  This smelled like a red herring—something designed to throw me off an already badly marked trail.  In fact, her snowmobile line was fishy too.  Then again, you never can tell because my wife is a Tricksy Hobbitses.

Before leaving, I phoned our neighbor Beth and asked if she would come over and press record on my VCR that night, so I could tape the Simpsons episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio while we were gone.  This is the kind of thing people with crappy VCR’s and bad tech karma have to do.  As I stepped onto the back patio to walk around and give her a key, my foot slipped on a patch of the lingering ice from our recent snow deposit and I took a header into the yard.  Stupid dress-shoes!

“You know that ice is really slippery,” Ash said, after determining I wasn’t injured.

We left church early, around 11:40 a.m., because Ashley was starting to suspect our schedule might be a little tight otherwise. On the way out, we hit the ATM for cash and Subway for  grub, then headed toward the interstate only to run smack into the Presidential Traffic Jam.

A gaggle of state troopers had blocked off the junction of Hwy 219 and I-64.  Other than the troopers, there were only a handful of cars stopped ahead of us, so the jam had probably just begun.  If we’d been even two minutes earlier, we might have slipped by.  Instead, we were stuck, waiting for Dubya’s motorcade to pass on its way to the airport.

With the Greenbrier Resort only 13 miles away and no traffic in between, you’d think a motorcade would be able to book it right along at a nice clip.  Not so, evidently.  After all, when you’re the president, everyone has to wait for you.  For instance, in 1993 two runways at LAX had to be shut down for an hour, costing the airlines an estimated $76,000, all so Bill Clinton could get a $200 haircut aboard Air-Force One.  In essence, the schedules of several major airlines, not to mention the people flying on them, were thrown into chaos because Bill’s `do was a bit bushy that day.  Now I’d heard no such horror stories about George W. but really wasn’t in the mood to experience any when we were on a tight schedule ourselves.

During our forty minute wait I had plenty of time to consider the mind-boggling amount of money it must take for the president to go ANYWHERE.  Think about it.  He flies in to Greenbrier County aboard Air Force One, a jet with a fuel budget no doubt rivaling the GNP of most nations.  From the specs I’ve been able to dig up since, Air Force One has a fuel capacity of 53,611 gallons, which at current jet fuel prices of around $2 per gallon, would cost $107,222 for every fill-up.  Once on the ground, the president has to board a presidential limo, part of a presidential motorcade of at least three identical limos.  Those limos have to be either driven there (no huge trip from D.C. to WV, mind you), or flown in on a cargo jet.  (I happen to know these particular limos were flown in, days in advance, and stored at the White Sulphur Springs Fire Department.  Again, proof that small town libraries are Information Central.)  That’s the major cost right there, but factor in the salaries of all the people necessary to make such an event happen, plus the president’s staff, sundry entourage, air-force one crew of 26, plus the press corps and you’ve got another heap of cash to add to the pile.  Add to that what it costs to send in a dozen or so Secret Service agents and sniper-nest-spotters, days in advance, to make logistical plans, do background checks on local citizens of questionable loyalty and sort out any number of other security concerns, plus the cost of flying in official secret service helicopters to scout out the area for potential security threats and to shadow the motorcade when they’re on the move.  Now factor in that they had to do all that TWICE, both for Cheney and for Bush and we’re talking more money than most of us will ever see in our lives.  Then consider how much more it has to cost for either of them to travel internationally and you begin to see how easy it is for our country to be $6,414,708,153,391.81 in the hole.

Around 12:30, with no Bush in sight, I was beginning to wonder if he’d stopped off for a hamburger somewhere.  Then at last at 12:35 a Secret Service helicopter, official seal on the sides and everything, soared low over the area, circled around and then followed a line of big black cars headed north on 219 toward the airport.  I figured we’d be in for another twenty minute wait until Bush left the ground, but traffic began to flow almost immediately and we were able to escape Lewisburg.

You might think on a trip like this the last person who should be driving is the guy who has no idea where he’s going, but drive I did.  We headed west on I-64, passing into Virginia, then turning north onto I-81.  We continued north through the snow-covered countryside until we passed back into West Virginia, then into Maryland and finally across the Mason Dixon line and into Pennsylvania.

We rolled into Harrisburg, capital of Pennsylvania and our mystery destination, at around 4:45.  Ashley’s printed internet directions lead us right to our Howard Johnson’s.  (I chose to stay at Howard Johnson’s instead of the Radison because I’ve stayed in semi-swanky hotels before and beyond being a lot more expensive and having more associated fees, like $20 a day for parking, they’re not much different from a Holiday Inn.  Howard Johnson’s was more our speed and price-range and proved to be one of the more comfy hotel stays we’ve ever had.)

We settled in at the HoJo around 5 p.m. to wash up because, according to Ash, we had a long way to go yet, but didn’t have to be anywhere until 7:30.  Now her comment about flying didn’t seem as fishy to me.  If we were flying somewhere, though, where the hell were we flying to?  And at 7:30 at night?  The only thing that came to mind was some kind of air-tour of Pennsylvania Dutch country, but it seemed like this would be pretty crappy after dark—the Pennsylvania Dutch not being known for their spectacular ground to air light shows.   Maybe the hint about flying wasn’t to be taken literally.  The mystery event we were to attend might involve actors flying around on wires or something.  Perhaps she’d hooked us up with tickets to a Peter Pan revival.  I might even wear church clothes to that.

Over a tasty dinner at Doc Holliday’s, Ash offered to outright tell me what the present was.  I declined to know.  I’d waited over a month already, so I may as well not ruin the surprise now.  I did agree to her offer of a short series of yes or no questions, though.

“Are we going to a concert?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Is the concert for a band, as opposed to a solo act?”

“Yes.”

“A band, then?”

“Yes.”

“Do I have a CD by this band?”

She thought for a bit.  “No.”

That threw me good.  Now I had to come up with a band that both she and I would be interested in seeing but which I did not own a CD by.

“Do you own a CD by them?” I asked, sensing a technicality.

“No.”

Damn.

“Is this band involved in some kind of musical production.”

“You mean, like a Broadway musical?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“No.”

There went Peter Pan, or my Plan-B choice of a revival of the Abba-member-spawned musical Chess.

We left for the mystery concert at 7:05, this time with Ashley at the wheel.  She said I wasn’t to look at the marquee or at any posters in the window once we had arrived at our venue.  She wanted me to be completely in the dark on the band’s identity until they hit the stage.

“Are you nervous?” she asked.

“No.  Not nervous.  Just sort of anxious, in a pit of the stomach, Christmasy kind of way.”  And it was true.  I hadn’t felt this level of anticipation about a present since I was a child.

We arrived in downtown Harrisburg around 7:15 and headed to the Market Street  Theater.  Even among the grid of one-way streets it was easy enough to find.  Empty parking spaces, however, were thin on the ground.  Ironically, there were plenty of vast empty parking garages, all of which were closed and shuttered.  We would have to park on the street, but doing that involved a lot of driving around the same three block area in the hope someone had vacated one.

At 7:22, eight minutes from the start of the concert, Ashley began to go into stress out.

“We have got to find a parking space!  The tickets say there will be no late seating!” she said.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t behave very well under pressure, particularly in cars.  So many of my life’s bad experiences have revolved around cars making me naturally inclined to lose my grip, get snippy and curse a lot.  It’s almost just as bad when I’m not driving, because my inner control-freak is convinced that things would be so much better if I was driving.  It’s not necessarily true, but it sounds nice.  This time, though, I realized I was slipping into stress mode too, a dangerous place to be when Ashley was already there ahead of me.  I didn’t want to start swearing about our situation and sour the evening before it got started.  But I could feel myself getting more frustrated that we seemed to be going around the same block over and over, trying to find an alternate entrance to the same closed and locked parking garage.  I also had to keep my eyes peeled for stray parking spaces while at the same time avoid looking at the Market Street Theater itself whenever we passed by it on another trip around the block.  Finally, three blocks away from the theater itself, across the street from the Pennsylvania State Capital Building, we spied an empty metered space.  We had no change to feed the meter, but all the other meters lining the the block read -9.57, just like ours, so we wagered we were in an after hours safe zone.

My car’s clock read 7:28, which I knew was at least 2 minutes fast, but that still didn’t give us much time to make it to the theater by curtain time.  We quickly walked past a series of expensive little shops, bars and coffee houses, all closed, before crossing the street to start down the next block.  There we caught a break because the corner third of that block was taken up with an open parking lot with plenty of empty spaces.  We were able to cut across it, saving valuable time.  In retrospect, I bet we could have parked there as the giant signs reading “Restricted Parking By Permit Only” probably only applied during the week.

By the time we had crossed the lot and retook the sidewalk I was outpacing Ashley by several feet.

“Slow down!  I can’t keep up with you!”

            Slow down? I thought, continuing to power-walk.  The idea is to get there as fast as possible.  You speed up!  But before I could unwisely put this into words, I was interrupted by a voice to my right.

            “Excuse me, sir.  Could I interest you in taking a look at something?”  The voice came from a man on the sidewalk beside us.  He was dressed warmly and was standing in front of what looked like bundles of incense, lined up in rows, leaning against the face of the building beside the parking lot.

“No.  We’re late,” I said, not slowing my pace.

“On the way back then?” he asked in a hopeful tone.

“Maybe,” I called back over my shoulder.

We hit the corner of the third block, across from which was the Market Street Theater itself.  The theater is a very modern structure that from the front looks like two multi-story, brownish, partially-glass-fronted boxes, with slanted roofs, sandwiching a third, grayish box, rotated on its axis at a 45 degree angle to the first two.  While gazing up at the theater, though, I forgot to avert my eyes and accidentally caught sight of a poster in the window before I could shift my gaze back to the sidewalk.  Oh, and the image was stuck in my head now!  Fortunately, the poster was for a Lewis & Clark IMAX movie, which didn’t sound at all like our concert.  I was probably still safe.

There at the corner, I waited for Ashley to catch up.  No use running ahead into the theater when she had the tickets.  As we crossed the intersection, I reached out to take her hand in order to gauge her mood.  She snatched her hand out of reach, which I took to mean she was angry at me for walking too fast.  Later I found out she just didn’t want me to drag her around the street at my top speed, risking a fall.  At the time, though, I was irritated.  This was supposed to be a happy, joyous evening but was starting to smell otherwise.  We already had enough problems with circumstances conspiring against us without getting mad at one another here in the home stretch.  It was enough to make a guy angry!

Through the glass doors of the Market Street Theater we could see a long line of people.  The line snaked through the lobby—or what I dared to see of the lobby, lest I accidentally spy another poster—and part way up a staircase where people seemed to be joining it.  I didn’t know if this was the line for reserved tickets or just to get in the door to the theater itself, but at least there were still people waiting to get in, so we wouldn’t be shut out after all.  I followed Ashley into the lobby and up the steps to join the line.  Then she stopped short and turned around to look at me.

“Oh…” she said in a whimper.  There was a mixture of shock and despair in her expression and her eyes had begun to brim with tears.  All of my previous irritation vanished.

“What?” I said.  Then it dawned on me what she was about to say before she even said it.

“The tickets…  They’re in my pocketbook… in the car.”

Now it had occurred to me, five minutes and three blocks ago when we were locking up the car, to ask about tickets.  However, since everything but the presidential interference and the quest for parking had gone to plan, I figured she already had them and I kept my gob shut.  As the power-walker of the family, I knew it now fell to me to go back to the car and get the tickets.  Even more disturbing: I knew I would never be back in time if I merely power-walked.  This was going to require something that I hate doing.  This was going to require running.

Let me just state, I’m not built for speed.  Never have been.  Other than holding the uncontested world record for repeatedly beating my cousin Cameron in a foot-race from his front door to my grandma’s doorstep across the street, I make no claims of being a runner.  Maybe in college, when I was at the height of my walking regimen and could take all three flights of Carpenter Hall’s stairwell (Now-With-Extra-Gravity-For-Your-Convenience!) without even breathing hard, maybe then I could have run to the car and back without stopping.  These days, though, I’m wildly out of shape.  The best I could hope for was to make it to the car and back without my heart exploding or any organs being coughed up.  As painful as I knew it would be, it had to be done.  My bride of 3 years had gone to a lot of effort on my behalf and I was going to be damned if we would have to listen to the mystery band’s concert from the lobby.

So began my actual anniversary flight.

Out the theater doors I went and down the side-walk I ran, at top speed.  Real runners would probably have advised me to pace myself for a while by merely jogging to the car and saving top speed for the return trip.  And had any of them been nearby to offer this advice, I might have taken it.  Instead, my logic suggested that the longer I could go at top speed, the closer I would be to the car.

“Now I’m late with no tickets!” I shouted to the incense peddler as I passed him.  My legs were already beginning to tire causing my pace to slow.  I was practically pooping out at the starting gate!

I came to the big parking lot, intending to cut across again.  Only as I reached the entrance to the lot, a car pulled into it and I had to stop to avoid being run over.  The driver slowed to give me a perplexed look before driving on past me at this new slower speed and proceeded slowly along the exact route I was going to take.  I was forced to detour between the rows of parked cars where I had to dodge piles of snow and near-invisible puddles of ice.

The lot’s exit put me at the half-way mark for the next block, shaving yet a fraction more off my journey.  I staggered across the street, blood pounding in my ears, my knees and ankles beginning to sob.  When I reached the sidewalk, my foot hit a patch of ice and slipped, but I was able to catch myself before falling.  Memories of my earlier header into the back yard returned and the sudden fear of falling, breaking my ass and having to drag myself to the car by my finger-nails gave me pause enough to stop blindly running.  I tried to downshift my legs into a power-walk, but that gear was slipping, causing me to lurch along awkwardly.

I turned the corner onto the block where our car was parked—at, of course, the opposite corner—and started down the last leg toward the mid-point of my journey.  I tried to start running again, but could only go for short bursts before sinking back into a wobbly stagger.

Finally, I reached the car and retrieved Ashley’s pocketbook from the back seat, but decided against fishing in it for the tickets because A) I didn’t have any time; and B) I’d probably see who the band was in the process.  I slammed the car door and began shambling back toward the theater.

As much of a party as it had been getting there, the return trip to the theater was even more miserable.  My knees and ankles were by then really feeling the stress of having to drag the rest of me along and they were protesting by becoming wobblier by the minute.  My lungs also decided to join in the protest by burning fiercely with each intake of frozen air.  By the time I had made it back to the half-vacant parking lot, I had given up all pretense of running and had broken into a less than solid hobble.

Mid-way through the parking lot, it occurred to me that I should have just driven my car over and parked in this lot, thus halving my journey and getting me back sooner.  It was far too late to go back and try this now, though, so I hobbled onward through the lot and then back onto the sidewalk.

I didn’t have the lung capacity to spare on any kind of quip for the incense peddler as I passed him.  I was more concerned with my schedule.  I knew that 7:30 had come and gone by now, so our chances for seating were entirely dependent on there still being people in line inside the theater’s lobby.  The line had been huge when I left, so surely it would take a while for the people in it to be seated.

No!  That was a rationalization allowing me to walk when I should really be pouring on the speed, I thought.  So I tried running again, but it seemed like far more effort than I was capable of expending.  I had to explain to myself that I was going to be in pain and misery at the end of my journey regardless so I may as well run now to end that journey as soon as possible.  This reasoning worked and I started moving a little faster—not in a run so much as a barely controlled, falling, stumble that carried me across the final street and toward the theater itself.  I kept my eyes on the ground, avoiding the giant marquee above me and any windows, so it wasn’t until I was directly in front of the glass doors that I could see that the lobby was now empty, save for Ashley.  She saw me stagger up and opened the door for me.

“We’re okay, we’re okay!  We’re not late,” she said.  “The tickets say 7:30 but the sign here says 8.”

I nearly collapsed then and there.  All that running.  All that effort.  And we weren’t even late.

“Ehh… huhhh…. huff… herrgh… eheeh… here…” I managed to say, thrusting the pocketbook into her hands, followed by my coat, which had suddenly become quite hot.

Ashley guided me further into the empty lobby, where everything was a dazzling white with occasional flashes of a pinkish hue as my eyes responded to the blood surging through my skull.  Ashley advised me not to mouth-breathe in front of people; we were, after all, in the North now.  She pointed me toward the bathroom where I could splash water on my face, then took our coats to the check counter.  Later, she told me that the check counter girl gave me the strangest of looks as I passed on my way to the can.

“He had to run back to the car for our tickets.  He’s not very happy about it,” Ashley told her.  Then, in unison, she and the check girl both said, “He’ll live.”

As we followed an usher to our seats within the concert hall itself, I could actually hear my heart beating.  This had nothing to do with finally getting to solve the mystery of who we were there to see, though.  My cardiovascular system was still in run-mode, I was still having difficulty getting enough oxygen and had returned to mouth-breathing as a remedy.  Then my brain noticed a strikingly unfamiliar middle-aged white guy on the stage.  Of course, there are thousands of strikingly unfamiliar, middle-aged white guys in rock & roll.  This particular one didn’t have any instruments, and was wearing a suit, but for all I knew he could have been one of the Moody Blues or even Peter Frampton.   I found it difficult to pay attention to what he was saying, what with having to crawl over nine people to get to our middle of the aisle but still comfortably close to the stage seats.  Once seated, lungs still a-heaving, I noticed that behind the fellow on stage was a giant sheet of cloth, hung from the theater’s fly system, on which had been painted a mural.  The central figure on the mural was a gigantic African warrior and surrounding him were depiction’s of the African countryside as well as such painted phrases as, “Land for all”, “Wozani Kwa-Zulu Natal”, “Free Mandella”, “End Racism”.  There was also a very telling phrase that read, “Ladysmith, 200 km”.

My mouth dropped open even further than it had been.  There was only one group in the world that was likely to have that painted on a mural at their concert.

I leaned close to Ashley and whispered, “Ladysmith Black Mambazo?”

She smiled and nodded.

“Coolness!” I whispered between gasps of breath.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the group I was beaming about, Ladysmith Black       Mambazo is a South African acapella group who sing and dance in style traditional to the Zulu tribes of the region.  They have incredible, vibrant harmonies that remain pitch perfect despite their high-kicking, tip-toed dance style, present on nearly every song they sang.  (And no lip-synching.  Take that, Brittany!)  It was a style suppressed by the South African government’s Aparteid policies of the 1980s.  They’ve been wildly popular in their homeland for decades, but only came to recognition in this country after their collaboration with singer Paul Simon on his 1986 album Graceland and in the subsequent tour.  (Ash’s hint that I didn’t own a CD by them was true.  Being my generation’s hugest Paul Simon fan, I do own Graceland, in L.P, cassette and enhanced CD forms, but it’s not technically a Ladysmith album.  And while I do own one of their albums, it’s on cassette so her hint was excused.)

By the time the opening act had finished, I was back to breathing through nostrils only and my pulse had slowed to a reasonable rate.  My lungs continued to burn well into the concert, but it was hardly even a distraction to my enjoyment of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s performance.  It was an amazing, funny, and touching show, particularly considering that Ladysmith’s leader, Joseph Shabalala, recently lost his wife, Nellie, in a shooting in South Africa.

After the show, as we walked very slowly back to our car, passing by the capital building and enjoying the winter beauty that downtown Harrisburg has to offer, Ashley leaned close and whispered, “Was it all worth it?”

“Yes.  Yes it was,” I replied.  “It was a wonderful present.”

“Happy anniversary, Poo.”

“Happy anniversary, Swee.”

We then climbed into our car and proceeded to get horrifically lost trying to find our way back to the HoJo.

Copyright © 2002 Eric Fritzius

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