You, Too, May Be a Winner

Image The plant where I worked until yesterday has a requirement of tying-off whenever one climbs a ladder higher than the fourth rung. Tying-off means “wear a harness and secure to a retractable lanyard.” It is fall protection. The ladder must also be secured by lashing a rope from the top of the ladder to some nearby secure point. This includes step ladders over 6′ tall.

I’ve never understood the point of tying-off at 4′ when the lanyard has 6′ of “give” before it catches. According to my math I’ll hit the ground two feet before the lanyard stops my fall.

I used to tell my students, “There are two kinds of OSHA rules: Common Sense and Pain-in-the-ass.” This falls under the latter category. (Though, in fairness, I think the particular height is site-specific; OSHA requirement is 6′.)

The crews at this plant had devices called beamers which secure a retractable lanyard to steel I-beams for times we needed to move around atop equipment of the steel superstructure. This was an ordeal of a nature of which any description would be inadequate.

First you have to climb the ladder no higher than the 4th rung and tie it to a secure point. Then you set up a beamer on an I-beam. Then you use all your contortionist skills to reach behind you and grab the metal ring set in the center of the harness with one hand while taking the lanyard’s D-ring with the other hand and clip the one to the other. Then you maneuver to the elevated position and set another beamer, clip its retractable lanyard to the harness ring, and detach the first lanyard. If you need to proceed horizontally you have to return to the first beamer, remove it, take it beyond the second one, and attach it to the beam in a new spot. Then clip the lanyard to the harness, remover the other lanyard from the harness, return to the beamer, detach it, move past the second one, and set the first in a new spot.

It is tedious beyond measure. More so if you have to negotiate obstacles along the way.

That is all just exposition.

A week or so ago I was working in a part of the Tank Farm (a bunch of huge chemical tanks used in bio-diesel production) called Heat Trace. These are temperature monitors for the tanks. I was atop the metal cabinets, attached to a beam by a retractable lanyard some 10′ away.

The contractor’s safety officer walked past with one of the Lead Men. They stopped to observe us, pointed out that my lanyard was stretched too far and, should I slip, I would swing like the pendulum in a grandfather clock.

I made a quick correction (attached to another, closer lanyard) and the Safety Officer tossed me an unopened Klein 10-in-1 screwdriver. I guess it was reward for taking suggestions and following directions.

I said what people always say when they win something: “I never win anything …” But even as I said it, I realized it was not true.

It’s interesting that winning can come by effort or by chance. The Universe—and Quantum Mechanics—being what they are, Chance always plays a part, even in contests involving skill, strength, or wit. But beyond that are those things which can be won through some form gambling. Pure, random Chance.

The Online Etymological Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php) traces the word win to the Old English winnan = “struggle for, work at, strive, fight”. This, in turn, comes from Proto-Germanic:*wenwanan1 (compare Old Saxon winnan, Old Norse vinna, Old Frisian winna, and Dutch winnen, all meaning “to gain, win,” Danish vinde “to win,” Old High German winnan “to strive, struggle, fight,” Gothic gawinnen “to suffer, toil”). It is perhaps related to wish, or from Proto-Indo-European*van- “overcome, conquer.” Merriam-Webster online says it is probably related to Latin venus = sexual desire, charm, from Sanskrit vanas desire or vanoti “he strives for”.

One could probably construct an entire thesis on the relationship of winning and sexual desire—probably using Charlie Sheen as exemplar—but that is beyond my scope.

Examples of winning through effort include sporting events, games, contests or elections. Such as when I was elected student body vice president as a rising high school junior. Or when my fellow members of Thespian Troupe 3133 voted me both Best Actor and Best All Around at the close of the 1976-77 school year.

Examples of winning through random occurrence (i.e. luck or fortune) include lotteries, raffles, or radio contests where they take, say, the 9th caller. I won a ticket to see The Alarm at The Boathouse in Norfolk, Virginia by calling into a Public Radio show called “Defenestration 895”. The open-format show on was WHRV-FM the brainchild of edgy disc jockeys Carol Taylor and Jeremy Coleman. Defenestration is “the act of throwing something out the window”. 89.5 MHz was the station’s broadcast frequency. Taylor & Coleman threw the rules of commercial radio out the window and played less mainstream, more progressive music before there was a genre called Alternative Rock.

I also won a ticket to see Prospero’s Books, Peter Greenaway’s re-imagining of The Tempest, from that show. Greenaway was my favorite director, at the time.

But the best thing I have ever won came from another Hampton Roads radio station.

After the Grateful Dead‘s Jerry Garcia died in 1995, some of the band members endeavored to continue the touring tradition. Because the Dead really couldn’t be the Dead without Jerry, they toured with bands which had been side projects for years. In 1996 percussionist Mickey Hart took his band Mystery Box on tour with guitarist Bob Weir’s band Ratdog and a couple other acts including Los Lobos. They called the tour The Furthur Festival. (Furthur was the name of the Merry Prankster’s bus made famous by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.)

The following year another incarnation of the Festival toured. Hart was with a different group, Planet Drum, and 1960s folk icon Arlo Guthrie was along for the ride, and the Atlanta-based Black Crowes headlined the tour. They were playing the Virginia Beach Amphitheater in late June. I knew there was no way my wife and I could afford tickets, but one of the local Classic Rock radio stations was giving away tickets.

It was a huge promotion. The station gave away sets of tickets several times a day for a week or so leading up to the show. Their Grand Prize—chosen from among all the ticket winners—was an opportunity to go backstage and watch the Black Crowes’ set from seats onstage.

With the radio station’s number set on speed dial, I telephoned in several times the Saturday before the show. I had a series of disappointing, “You’re caller number six,” “You’re caller number sight,” “You’re caller number three” never quite hitting the mark. It was easier with Public Radio, where the Vinn diagram of listeners overlapping interest in the particular promotion often left me connecting as caller 3, 5, 7 … so I could time it and win.

Finally, in the late afternoon, I heard the voice saying, “Congratulations! You’re caller number nine. Who am I talking to?” and the person on the other end of the line told me to go to “Will Call” to pick up my tickets the day of the show, “and you’re automatically entered for our grand prize drawing …” yadda yadda yadda.

Yeah, yeah. Right, right. I wasn’t even thinking about that. There were plans to be made, tie-dyes to find, costumes to assemble. I come from what might be termed a family of Deadheads, with three of my five siblings belonging to that club. Several times we attended shows together. My sister the Gypsy and I traveled together from Florida to California, catching concerts along the way and imagining how we could meet the members of the band. My wife and I had taken her son to see the Dead’s last show at RFK the summer before Jerry died.

In those days my hair and beard were both much darker and much longer. I had a collection of tie-dyed shirts (and one pair of jeans) purchased from vendors in parking outside of Dead concerts; we had scarfs and bandanas and earrings and all manner of accoutrements for our concert-going party.

My wife, Marjorie, was a few years older than me: Class of ’69, grew up listening to the Beatles on the BBC while her Dad was stationed in Norway. She had seen the band a few times before we met, and it was one of the things we first could talk about when we started getting to know each other a few years before.

The next week was back to work as usual. I was working with my younger brother, Mike, who was teaching me the electrical trade. We were renovating a school in Isle of Wight County. On Friday one of our coworkers called to me. “Hey, man! I just heard your name on the radio.”

“What?”

“You won something.”

I knew I had tickets to the show, but couldn’t figure what else they were talking about. So I called Marji.

“They drew your name for the Grand Prize,” she told me. “You weren’t home, so I answered the phone and they told me.”

“Cool,” I said.

“That’s what I said. But the guy who called said they were recording the call and asked me if I could give a more excited reaction. So I said, ‘Woohoo!’” And it sounded just that corny.

It might not seem that much, but to me it was exciting. I could hardly wait for the day of the show. Marji and I drove over with Mike and his wife, Jodi. Marji wore her gypsy attire: cotton print skirt, white peasant blouse, huge hoop earrings. I had an outfit I used to like to wear to shows that consisted of one of my tie-dyes, a purple rayon skirt from India , sandals, an ankle bracelet, and a long, purple silk scarf I wore as a bandana.

The skirt … lots of guys wore them to Dead shows, and they were tremendously liberating garments. I used to describe it to non-Deadheads as a “kilt” but it was really a “twirling skirt”: when I spun around dancing the skirt would fly outward like a flower’s petals opening. It had a string belt festooned with bells that flew outward at the same time. Marji was totally NOT freaked out by me wearing that skirt, which was something I really loved about her. I was wearing it as I walked beside her outside RFK and a couple guys in bike leathers grinned, gave me a “thumbs-up” and said, “Now that’s cool!” Marji talked about that for months.

We were dressed much the same as we walked into the amphitheater and found a place to sit on the lush hillside. We spread a blanket, opened some beverages, and got comfortable with friends and family.

One of Mike’s and my coworkers, Tim, a guy I had known since I was a senior in high school, met up with us. So did the Gypsy and her current Friend. I told Tim, “Winning these tickets and Backstage Pass is the best thing that’s ever happened to me!”

“The best thing?” he insinuated, with a glance toward Marj.. “I’m sure something better has happened.”

“No, this is it.”

“Something that involved another person here, maybe?” Tim tried his best to suggest I might just want to consider marrying Marji as the best thing that ever happened. I was obtuse.

Tim might have been right. I probably should have expressed it differently. Then, again, considering Marji showed me the door two years hence, maybe I was right. (“Causation is a funny thing,” a friend told me just today …)

The music began in late afternoon with a set by the Buffalo-based jam-band called moe., Arlo played a song, then an artist named Sherrie Jackson performed a bluesy set that included Hendrix’s (Stand Next to Your) Fire.

Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum performed their percussive set next, Arlo had a ukelele interlude, then the Airplane‘s Jorma Kaukonen played a set with former Hot Tuna band-mate Michael Falzarano. Bob Weir’s Ratdog performed a number of old Dead standards along with their own tunes, then Arlo played a set ending with a spirited version of Flying into Los Angeles.

Local-boy-made-good Bruce Hornsby did a set before several of the musicians from various bands joined in an acoustic jam. Then it was time for The Black Crowes to take the stage so Marji and I headed to the spot where we had been directed..

A fellow associated with the promotion met us and gave us the run-down. He showed us to two folding camp chairs that he said were ours to take. (Some of the musicians had signed the canvas backs: Mickey Hart, Crowes singer Chris Robinson, and others.) He cautioned us to remain unobtrusive, “In some other cities the winners acted like they thought they were part of the show, getting out on stage and dancing and playing the fool.” We assured him we would not. We took our seats and the set began, to the uproarious applause of the fans out front.

Our seats were off to the side, and neither we nor the audience could see each other. Marji and I sat beside each other, fingers linked, enjoying the music. I was pretty high on the whole experience.

I didn’t notice where he came from, but a man materialized from somewhere backstage and walked over beside us. “How y’all doin’ tonight?” he asked.

“Real good,” I said, nodding. And I looked up at him.

It was Bruce Hornsby.

“Are you a Black Crowes fan?” he asked me.

“Actually, I’m a Grateful Dead fan.” He nodded and laughed, a real down-to-earth individual. “I always liked when you were playing with them,” I told him.

“Thanks.”

We watched the rest of the set pretty much in silence. Toward the end the burst into a rousing rendition of Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, like only a Southern band can play it. It was a floor stomper.

As the Black Crowes finished their set, the gentleman who brought us backstage returned to escort us back among the groundlings. As we were making our way toward the rear of the staging area, I saw a group of men talking. I instantly recognized Bob Weir. Ignoring the promoter’s calculated glances I hung back, waiting for their conversation to lull. When it did I gushed, “Bobby, I just wanted to say how much I’ve always enjoyed your work, and how much a fan I am of the Dead.”

“Well, that’s great!” he said without the least tinge of who’s this asshole? in his voice.

Marji and our escort hustled me away and he & I went to meet back up with my brother and sister-in-law, as sundry combinations of the evening’s musicians played a three-song electric jam to finish the night.

“Guess what?” I asked the Gypsy when I saw her.

“What”

“I met Bob Weir.”

“No way!”

I just smiled.

1You may remember from an earlier blog that the asterisk, in linguistic, indicates a word which is extrapolated, rather than evidenced directly. You may not care. But this kind of stuff fascinates me.

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About Mark Matzeder

By education a filmmaker, by trade an electrician, by avocation a writer and sometime scholar. Occasionally I wring an essay out of some observation I have made or experience I've had and share them here. Sometimes I'll share short fiction. Sometimes a poem. But mostly it's just my spin on this strange trip.
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