Peter Shelton

The Heart of Saturday Night

Posted in Personal History by pshelton on May 8, 2018

Hunder really wanted a ski day on Mt. Bachelor that would supersede his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day fifty-some years ago. He was a student at the University of Oregon then. Made the three-hour drive over the Cascade crest only to find that a not-uncommon sequence of rain followed by cold temperatures had turned the snow to blue linoleum. His edges skittered and skipped. His fillings rattled. He never went back.

He wasn’t Hunder then. Neither was I Sven. He was Mike and I was Peter, and, although we grew up a mere six miles apart, on the southern California coast, we had not yet met and become friends.

Ellen and I moved to Bend, Oregon, from Colorado four winters ago. I’ve regaled Hunder almost weekly since with tales of Mt. Bachelor’s better snow angels: powder so soft it’s called Cascade Cream, playful terrain features the volcanologists term “furrows,” ribs and gullies that remind me of open-ocean swells, waves frozen white and tilted toward the lakes below. The high-quality skiing is a big reason we made the move. As recently as November of last year, Hunder said he was hoping to make it out finally, Colorado to Oregon, this winter. Not to erase the old bad memory – he was too good a storyteller for that – but to add to the thread. Hunder and Sven adding story, making new memories on the slopes together.

We met in Telluride in 1976, both of us Californians, both new to Colorado. I hired him to teach kids in what was then a very new ski school in a fledgling ski town 65 miles from the nearest stoplight. He took to the task with gusto, a big man with a blond crew cut, six-two or three, well over 200 pounds, but possessed of quick feet and an irrepressible delight. Aptitude that was itself childlike.

One of my first Telluride memories is of dropping Mike off after work and him rhapsodizing about the dinner he was about to whip up. Bacon blue-cheese burgers. Ellen and I had not eaten meat for the better part of two years, but the way Mike enthused about it, the bacon sizzling, the bite of the blue cheese – his mouth pinched in stifled laughter, eyes wide as saucers, a big ruddy-cheeked leprechaun – well, that was the end of our experiment in vegetarianism.

My Ellen and Mike’s wife, Megan, were preggers together. Our first daughters were born a week apart. Mike and Megan and baby Caitlin lived above town, in the ex-silver mining hamlet of Ophir. Their cabin that first winter was heated solely with wood, and it was so cold I remember the sheet-metal woodstove glowing red and dancing, actually vibrating, on its hearth. Mike and Sharky, another ski instructor, put together The Ophir Band: two guitars, the mayor of Ophir on drums, Megan on sax, everybody singing harmony. My favorite song was their cover of Tom Waits’s “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.”

 

Well you gassed her up

Behind the wheel

With your arm around your sweet one

In your Oldsmobile

Barrelin’ down the boulevard

Looking for the heart of Saturday night.

 

But that was part of the problem – the heart of Mike’s Saturday nights. We didn’t know how bad the drug thing was at first. We knew he liked to smoke dope. On slow afternoons, with no ski lessons to teach, he and I might share a joint and ski the velvety spring corn. But Mike was doing much heavier shit than that. Megan found him almost dead in the bathroom of a Telluride dive bar one night during an Ophir Band gig. He’d shot up a speedball, a scary mix of cocaine and heroin, and was unconscious on the stall floor. A year or so later, Megan insisted the family move to San Francisco, where she was from. If Mike wanted to get his act together and join them there he was welcome, but she’d had it.

And he tried, back in California. Lord, he tried. He adored his family; they had added a son by then, and would have one more. But it wasn’t long before Megan found needles taped to the inside of the toilet tank and she kicked him out for good. He worked jobs driving truck and baggage-handling for Amtrak. But he got fired from that one when he was caught rifling people’s luggage for cash and stuff to fence.

Decades later, clean and sober and remarried, he moved back to Colorado, not far from where Ellen and I had settled, an hour down the road from Telluride. He and Patty bought an old farmhouse in Paonia, on the North Fork of the Gunnison, surrounded by cherry trees. We started skiing together again, and he decided I was Sven. “Sven! Powderhorn tomorrow? The Weather Service is saying five to seven overnight!” He signed his e-mails Hunder.

On chairlift rides, I heard more of the backstory. He grew up a broad-shouldered, albeit fair-skinned, surfer in 1950s Laguna Beach. His dad, Bill Gwinn, was a radio and TV personality, a game show host (What’s the Name of that Song?), a piano-man singer of American standards, and an alcoholic. A charming alcoholic who could hold a room spellbound and leave everyone laughing.

Mike apparently inherited all of the above. His early life sounded like a kind of fantasy paradise. He surfed Brooks Street on single-fin longboards. While still in high school he dated Candy Calhoun, one of two blonde, beautiful Calhoun girls, daughters of blonde, beautiful Marge Calhoun, the first-ever women’s world champion surfer. He met Timothy Leary at a party in Laguna Canyon. He formed, with two surfing buddies, the “acid-folk” trio Gabriel Gladstar, which toured California and the Pacific Northwest for a couple of years in a converted school bus. They tried more than once to enter Canada at Vancouver but were turned back. Vietnam was raging, and “We were not welcome,” Mike said. Their sound reminds me now of spacey Seals and Crofts, with Pentangle-like interwoven guitars. Very sweet. “Sail Away,” with Mike singing lead, can still bring Ellen to tears.

The Gladstar “family” expanded and contracted, hippie-commune-school-bus style. Mike fathered a son. The band recorded an album. But when offered a record deal by Ahmet Ertegun, whose acts included The Rolling Stones and Ray Charles, they turned it down. They wanted to be free, and Ertegun had insisted on axing their flute player. “The Beatles were going independent then,” Mike told me. “What we didn’t get at the time was that the Beatles were already huge when they went off on their own.”

When we met in Telluride, Mike was already a pretty good skier. Hollywood paid Bill Gwinn well, and the family had spent a fair bit of time at June Mountain, next door to Mammoth, in the southern Sierra. In Telluride in the late 70s, he and I shared a then-heretical preference for short skis. We liked their quickness in the trees and the way they slipped through the troughs between bumps. Our free skiing was just a little freer, a little more fun – so we thought – than the traditionalists on their 205s. When he came back to Colorado some 25 years later, we took up where we left off, working the tools, figuring it out, getting better. All skis were shorter by then, wider, curvier, more talented. Mike was even bigger as a middle-aged athlete, but with those 170s on his feet, he quick-stepped through Powderhorn’s aspen glades like he was finding trim on the nose, hanging five.

Patty didn’t ski. Her passion is cat rescue and adoption. (Mike built her an indoor/outdoor “Cathmandu.”) She never warmed to me. She didn’t hide her suspicion that our ski outings might be leading Mike to imbibe again. The two of them had met at AA in southern California. She was fierce about no relapses, and Mike made it clear to his old friends that he owed his life to her. We honored her hopes and his wishes and never smoked in his presence. Instead we listened on chairlift rides – captive audiences – as he told stories. About his hair-brained year in Costa Rica dredging a jungle waterfall for gold. (“One leg half way into my swim trunks, and there’s a tarantula as big as my fist!”) Or the time near Bellingham in the Gladstar bus they were so hungry they made seaweed and mollusk stew.

And the jokes. He always had two or three in his back pocket. Most were goofy puns, but some he spun out as shaggy dog stories. You’ve probably heard the one (I hadn’t at the time and practically fell off the chairlift laughing) about the widower who was about to turn 90. And his friends thought it would be neat to give him a thrill for his birthday. So they hired a prostitute to go to the old man’s apartment. When he answered the door, she said, “Hi! I’m here to offer you super sex!” And the old guy thought for a second and said, “I’ll take the soup.”

In Paonia, already in his sixties, Hunder put together a new band, Mike Gwinn and Northfork Flyers, with horns and base and drums – a jazz-fusion big band. With Mike as arranger, lead singer, guitar, and chief songwriter. “Jazz Standards Man” rhymes Lady Gaga and Indian raga. “Social Network Blues” bemoans screen-time loneliness. The upbeat “Still Goin’ 70 in a 55” is clearly autobiographical: “Tried to throw my life away/But I’m still alive/Pray I’m sober on the day I die/Still goin’ 70 in a 55.” He took up fishing again, spin casting, like the fishing he’d done with his dad on the east slope of the Sierra. He was writing up the Gladstar bus stories, memoir style.

The Northfork Flyers didn’t play crunchy rock ‘n’ roll, though they could have; Mike had a gift for it. I guessed Patty would have frowned on it. Too redolent of the bad old years, as if the music itself could be a gateway drug. I did attend an Arts Guild house concert/lecture in Ridgway – just Mike and his bass player – that was all about the relationship between jazz and its rougher blues roots. They put together a fantastic primer. Everything from call-and-response to Coltrane, Monk to Mose Allison. “He was probably bipolar,” Gwinn said of Monk. “A genius madman. If you get a chance, see Straight, No Chaser. There’s a scene where Monk is walking in circles, backwards, at an airport. Monk couldn’t handle airports.” At one point Mike stopped and said to the audience, “The saddest blues song of all [pause for a liquid, improvised lick on the guitar] is the one that starts out, ‘I didn’t wake up this mornin’…’”

Like most people, I never thought about him not waking up. He had been living with Hep C for decades. Figured he got it sharing needles. But he had been dealing with it, successfully, we thought. Then one day in December my phone rang.

“Sven!”

“Hunder!”

“Howz the skiin’? It’s nineteen degrees here and not a flake in sight! WTF! Powderhorn’s opening is in doubt.”

“Slow start here, too,” I said. “But we are skiing. The carving’s pretty good on Bachy’s groomers.”

“Sven, I’ve got a favor to ask…”

They’d found a mass on his liver. “Big as a baseball.” Test results weren’t back yet, but there was the obvious fear that this was liver cancer. “Plus they’ve spotted some possibly worrying nodules on my lungs.” He wasn’t sure he was getting either the timely communication or the best treatment advice in Grand Junction. In fact, he was frustrated as hell with his docs’ opacity. Would I ask Dr. Cloe (our Cloe, born the week after Caitlin) what she thinks he should do?

He traveled for some second opinions, got some answers, and decided he was getting good care in GJ. He got on an experimental chemo regime, paid for by the drug maker. It was taking a lot out of him, but he remained hopeful.

He died on Saturday, March 10, 2018. He was 75. Our Powderhorn ski buddy, Jack, called me that morning. It was a gut punch, but not a total surprise. Mike had gone quieter since the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, which we obsessed about (“Ester Ledecká!”) as he watched from his bed at home. And I’d seen a revealing video on Facebook of a gig at Louie’s Pizza in Paonia that Mike had put together around the time of his birthday in February. Three of his kids had flown out from the Bay Area to play with their dad and the Flyers. Mike’s voice was weak, and he looked gaunt underneath his pork pie hat.

Jack said that he had been on hospice for just a couple of days. “He had a morphine drip, but you know how stubborn Mike was. He’d only give himself one trigger out of the four allowed. Kudos, you know. He’d faltered a time or two, but he was diligent about his sobriety the last 14 years.” The decline happened so fast, Jack said, “You could almost feel his spirit backing up into the shadows.”

I went up to the mountain the next day. Mt. Bachelor was not showing off her best soaring-volcano, ocean-swell features. But the summit was open, and there were strips of wind-burnished Styrofoam snow on the open slopes of Serengeti Plains. The strips were just wide enough to fit an arc, silent and yielding between fields of hard rime ice. I tried to channel Hunder when he had it going on: that big body rock steady above quick, almost dainty foot movements, finger pickin’ guitar chords, eyes sparkling like he – we, all of us – were getting away with something. Something fine.

 

Tell me is it the crack of the pool balls, neon buzzin’?

Telephone’s ringin’, it’s your second cousin

Is it the barmaid smilin’ from the corner of her eye

Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye

 

Makes it kind of quiver down in the core

‘Cause you’re dreamin’ of them Saturdays that came before

And now you’re stumblin’

Stumblin’ into the heart of Saturday night

 

 

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