Itsy Bitsy Part 1

At this point I would like to introduce a new feature to the podcast, as yet to be titled. My working title is Ma valise mal à l’aiseMy Uncomfortable Suitcase–but I haven’t had a chance to check the French.

A couple of podcasts back, my co-host said to me, “Look, you’re going to have do some kind of feature or monologue because there’s just too much of me in this thing.” My reply was, “But I’m okay with that.”

As is described on the website, the idea for podcast came about because of the conversations Grace and I have had over the phone over the last ten years. Once a week, we’d have a long chat about recent political and cultural events. Grace would generally dominate these conversations for a number of reasons, but mainly because he likes to talk. That’s not quite right. He likes to think about things and talk about them. And more  often than not, I would listen to this process. Since it would sometimes result in original thinking and conclusions, I enjoyed listening. And I enjoy talking to him because he is one of these people who actually listens to you and responds thoughtfully, as opposed to a person who politely waits for you finish and then continues talking as if you’ve said nothing.

But now we’ve gone public and my co-host is saying there’s too much of him on the show  and I have to step up to the plate. Okay then. Of course the problem is what to talk about. I could do book reviews, but then I’d have to read a lot of books, and I’m actually a slow reader. I could just flat out copy Grace and come up with a list, vary it a little bit so it wasn’t so obvious; something like A Half a Year of Half-Assed Hits; My 26 Favorite Songs that never made the Top 100; Week 10, from 1965 Jody Miller singing “Sea of Heartbreak,” arranged by Billy Strange… But no, no.

I’m not much of an opinion monger; that’s never been my strong suit. So I’m NOT going to craft a give-’em-hell editorial for the show. As a professional journalist I was more of a present-the-facts-and-let-them reveal-a-new-angle kind of reporter. I was fairly good at finding overlooked but important details, quite often finding them hiding in plain sight. But this work can take up a lot of time and it actually requires the help of a network of sources which, now, as an official washed-up journalist, I no longer have.

And so, with the deadline here, and actually passed as I record this, I am at the point where I have to find an easy topic, and the easiest topic to talk about is myself. Yes, big let down. But there it is. Okay, so this is how I’m going to frame it.

On the 2kevins website, on the page describing The Hosts, I reference a couple of hitchhiking journeys I took as a young man and I mention how this influenced me politically. Truth be told, politics played a very minor part in the whole business at that time. Most of the political stuff came about afterward, on reflection, looking back and going “OH! I see…” I traveled through communist countries in eastern Europe and most of the time I was just in shock, and most of my observations were pretty shallow; like “wow, well, that place was a real dump” or “whoa! these cigarettes are crappy!” or “what gives? What’s with all the cement? You people never hear of PAINT?” or “(cough cough) they can actually drink this stuff? GAG!” That sort of thing. Not a lot of context.

These journeys in the mid-1980s will give me the framework for my feature, or at least the starting point. The timeline will vary widely. The inspiration will come from two boxes of memorabilia from that era that have traveled with me over the years.

Rarely have I had the inclination to examine the contents of these boxes. They’re filled with typical pre-digital memorabilia stuff; letters, postcards, photographs and negatives, half-filled diaries, addresses scribbled on torn matchbook covers, a frayed map or two, strange looking coins, a few plain looking small rocks of tremendous personal significance, that kind of thing. The reason I have avoided looking at this junk is that there is some pain in there. The reason I’ve kept it? Well, this is my life. This is my late-in-life show and tell. These are my exhibits. Perhaps I’ll have to prepare some sort of defense in purgatory and need to brush up on the evidence.

So here is the framework for the first journey. In 1982, at age twenty, after having worked for a year and then completed only a year of college, I decided that I wanted to take off from my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, and see a little bit of the world. I went down to the local army surplus, bought a bunch of rugged gear, and then to a camping store and bought some less rugged gear, cut my hair really short (short for the time and place) and headed for the highway south of town. I had a vague plan of going away for two months, traveling to California and back along the coastal highway. I never made it to California. Instead, a year later I ended up in Israel pining after a dark-haired Israeli woman, by way of Alaska, and then a year after that back in Alberta, but this time up in Fort McMurray, home of the oil sands; I, managing a small business in a shopping mall, married to a pretty young blonde Australian woman who was carrying my child. To quote a popular song of that era, “Same as it ever was…” These are the key points of that journey.

I met many interesting people along the way. I will be describing many of these folks as I recount this period. And there were many of them. I’m not sure if it’s a hard and fast rule, but you tend to meet more people when you travel alone for the simple reason that, to strangers, you are more approachable when you are not constantly yakking with a constant companion. At least that’s the way it was back then. And by the way, I will force myself not to use that phrase “that’s the way it was back then,” or something similar, too often. At times it will be unavoidable because many things have changed and these things will require some footnoting for younger listeners to make any sense of them. For instance, there were no cell phones back then, no email. Calling home while on a hitchhiking journey in Europe required a special trip to a special place, usually the main post office of whatever city you were in, from which one could place a collect call. A big hassle. Letters and postcards took a minimum of two weeks to be delivered. And being a young man footloose in Old World, the priority was wine, women and song–I mean literally wine women song–and not on keeping the old folks of fond memory up on where you were. I think the longest my long suffering parents went without having a word from me or any idea whether I was alive or dead was about three months. I lived to regret this though it took many years of living and many more mistakes before I did.

So what’s my first exhibit? Exhibit one is a bit of a mystery. It is a letter of recommendation from my employer in Alaska, a small construction company that I worked for for about six months. It was while working there that I was able to save the money to make the next leg of the journey across continental Europe to Israel. The letter is signed by the owner of the company Brian and I’ll omit his last name for the time being. I will say this, it is an Italian name. That fact is important to my story.

The fact that my employer even wrote this letter is amazing. I had lied to him at the beginning of the job. You see, I was an illegal alien. That’s not the strange part of the story. The strange part is that in the time that I had worked with him I had been to his house twice. On his walls he had a few gold record awards. One of the gold records was for a song called “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini.” The guy, my boss, I was told first by my co-workers, and then by his wife, was none other than Brian Hyland, one of these Italian stallion heart-throb boy singers from the late-1950s. My boss seemed pretty shy about this. He never actually told me about it. I did have occasion to ask him about it and all he said was something about the music business being full of crooks, or something like that. He made it pretty clear he was much happier out here in the clear air, with the tool belt on, marking out the floor plan of the bungalow we were about to frame. One time at his house, his wife–2nd wife I seem to recall being told–grabbed me by the arm to drag me to the hall and show me the gold records, and him blushing red over his graying beard, and looking at me with a “Yeah, sorry about this, but just go with it because it’s kind of her thing” kind of look.

So that was neat. But here comes the mystery. It’s many years later and the internet has been created, making research a breeze. I look up Bryan Hyland and I can find no evidence the guy was ever in Alaska. My co-host did his own research and independently verified my finding. The pictures of Hyland look something like the guy I knew, but the guy in the pictures is thinner and without a beard. I wrote to Hyland via a website I found, describing my experience, the letter of recommendation, my gratitude and asked for confirmation or denial that he was the man I knew. I wrote that I would never reveal part of the story that I had been told as to why he was kind to me, without checking with him first. I never got a reply.

Next week, I fill in few details that might shed some more light on the mystery. They offer at least one possible explanation. But then again these details could be all bogus. It was stuff I was told at the time. Who knows? Maybe Hyland will hear this and that might prompt a reply. I mean, why would anyone impersonate Brian Hyland in Alaska? And impersonate him while working as a construction contractor under another name?

This is the first podcast script of my feature Ma valise mal à l’aise (My Uncomfortable Suitcase) that I wrote and recorded for Episode 12 of Grace & Steel.