Prosecco region: Valdobbiadene

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We are definitely enjoying this change of pace in the Prosecco hills, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. We are staying two days in town of Valdobbiadene, famous for its Prosecco production. Since our favorite libation is Prosecco, this is heaven. We arrived early last evening at Villa Barberina and were greeted with a bottle from our host and shown around this 18th century Venetian grand residence. We are paying twice the daily price of our accommodation in Lazise, but this lodging appears worth it.

The website chronicles that the villa belonged first to people from Treviso, then to the Pivas, a family of silk entrepreneurs who were benefactors for Valdobbiadene and its inhabitants. At the beginning of the 20th century, Celestino Piva bought it for his sister Barberina. Thus, the villa namesake.

The expansive grounds of the walled country estate contains a vineyard with an alley of cypress. Behind the house there is an inviting swimming pool. We’re not far the centre of the town.

The villa features five bedrooms with bathrooms, large living-rooms, library and a dining-room. There is plenty of green space, giving you the feeling that your are in a wonderful retreat, just like the rich Venetians who used to spend their summer holiday in the villas around this region. Teresa and I and Laura share one wing of the grand house.

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Our gracious hosts at Villa Barberina
The present owners Primo and Anna Lisa Franco are wine-producers. The harvest in the area begins next week, and the very hot weather is a God-send to the success of the gathering of the grapes. What wonderful hostess, suggesting our local itinerary and inquiring about our U.S. locale and backgrounds. Primo wanted our mailing address to invite us to a wine producers party in Boston area this fall. He and his wife often were seen with grandchildren and a puppy in tow. And Primo talked like an expectant grandfather about his vineyard: “you know the grapes are near ready for harvest; they too are our babies.”

This is a bed and breakfast, and the morning offering was excellent with cereal, croissants, cheese, homemade jams, yogurt, coffee and juices and the best cantaloupe I have ever eaten. And I come from a long line of fruit and produce dealers.

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Adding to our leisurely-outdoor breakfast was the charming acquaintance of the only other guests we have seen. A German couple arrived a few hours ahead of us yesterday driving down from Berlin.

The gentleman was about my age and is in the advertising field and quite knowledgeable about European automobiles and motorcycles. He and Laura traded stories about motorcycle tours through Europe and South Africa. His wife understood English well and was quietly enjoying the conversation, pulling up photos on her Smart phone of cars and motorcycles. Laura did the same. Not great car and cycle enthusiasts, Teresa and I, still found the conversation interesting.

Our German house mates complimented us on being Americans who are not afraid to try different locales in Italy, and that this was a wise choice. He spoke about their travels throughout Europe, and that he enjoyed seeing the old Europe of his youth in places like Slovenia and Poland.

I was reticent to ask about his origin, whether he grew up behind the Berlin Wall. He said he moved to West Berlin in his youth. He enthusiastically told of the evening when he was watching television when the East German leader was making a speech with great difficulty.

“I told my friend something big is going to happen. We then got news that night that the wall was being torn down, we went to see it first hand. It was the first time I had seen a real Carnival for the German people,” he reminisced.

It is a treat to get a fresh perspective of issues of the world including topics of current music (he liked singer, rapper, songwriter Kanye West), the economy, taxes and politics — but nothing too extreme.

They too are only here for two days, and we ran into them during our tour of a nearby villa in the town of Maser.

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The Villa di Maser.
The Villa di Maser (Villa Barbaro) is a great example of the work of Andrea Palladio (1508-80), whose architecture and literary contribution, Quattro libri dell’Architettura, is the basis of so many buildings around the world including the U.S. One of our favorite buildings in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla. is the Palladium Theatre which has the same classic form.

The owners live on a downstairs level (a reversal of the Downton Abbey floor plan?) We visited six rooms with frescoes by Paolo Veronese, which represent his largest and most important fresco works. There were beautiful stuccos by Alessandro Vittoria. Laura rightly pointed out that the grand architectural villa would seem like an empty canvass without the frescoes and stuccoes depicting mythological figures with the original resident family members, including their pet dog. One of the drawing rooms was named for the dog. I liked the music room, but the baby grand piano was “non toccare”. A tour official said members of the family do play the handsome piano. I would have loved to play an Italian standard or two to hear the music fill such a grand venue.

The villa estate also produces wines and of course, our favorite Prosecco. Our choice had to be narrowed down from extra dry to Brut, which is even drier. We went with the Brut and purchased three bottles for the toast at the upcoming birthday party.

En route to the villa we had stopped and looked around the town of Asolo. Oddly enough, it was swarmed by a bevy of motorcycle enthusiasts. They must have just stopped for an espresso, because by the time we found a parking place outside the major palazzo, they were mounting their bikes and were quickly gone.

On the way home, we decided to pick up panini sandwiches and spotted a road-side bar. We noticed a large group of patrons dining outside. We went in and tried to order. The bar keeper ran outside and brought back a female patron. She announced herself as Azura and that she spoke English, having lived for eight years in different parts of the States including Hawaii, New Orleans and Las Vegas. In fact, she had to return to Italy when her green card was not reissued by our government. She shrugged, saying that it was okay, time to go home. What a true character, very demonstrative in her speech and gestures, reminding the three of us of the Hispanic actress Sofia Vegara. She invited us to dine with her neighborhood friends celebrating the end of summer season. All the time, she stroked the coat of her long-hair Chihuahua, Martino, who looked exactly like the dog in the Villa di Maser frescoes.

She interpreted our order and made sure it was to our liking. While it was prepared, she began speaking about Italy. She was an Oracle for the politically right in any sovereignty on the subject of immigration. Azero proclaimed, ” the people of this area, you might call racists, because we do not want the North Africans here. Maybe two thousand have been brought to our area. What does the government think sending them here, giving them so much help? You think we who live here are just having fun. We have to work. ”

She went on to discuss a recent attack of young girl in town by a North African immigrant.

No matter how frank her outpouring, she remained extremely friendly while on this Italian roadside soap box. And she finished by saying how happy she was to see Americans in this region. “Americans ONLY want to go to Toscany. It is beautiful here, too. I guess I am jealous of Toscany.”
We hated to tell her that’s where we were headed next as we were exiting. The outdoor crowd waved and shouted, Ciao!

By the way, the cost of the three panini sandwiches was 9 Euros, about $10.

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Lake Garda d’ Addio

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We rose early and departed Lazise and headed north along the Veronese coast to Malcesine. This town too has a Scaligeri castle, situated strategically in the foothills of the mountainside. Our mission was to take the cable-car Funivia, a high-end funicula, to the summit of Mount Baldo. First, we had to find a parking place, not an easy task with heavy tourist traffic with everyone having the same goal. We had to back out of an entrance to a parking garage that must have been full and found parking a good walk up the road.

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The Funivia was an adventure in that it climbs to the summit rather swiftly with maybe 30 riders, many Germans, with young children. An occasional sway in the cable car motion brought universal “oohs and ahs”. The trip included a transfer at mid- station where you could see there were automobiles and a small community of buildings. We noticed a few mountain bikers preparing for the summit and what surely must be a neck-break ride down.

Gazing up toward the top, close to 6,500 feet, you could spot a few cliff-kite divers demonstrating dare-devil flight. Laura, a commercial airline pilot, said it reminded her of the myth of Icarus who dared to fly too close to the sun with his waxed-feather wings. Strange, how at times like this you recall the morbid — the true- life cable car horror in 1998 when an American fighter jet flew too low and severed a cable sending 20 people to their death.

All went well for us, and we believe also the cliff kite diver, and in about 30 minutes from take-off, the Funivia delivered us to the summit where it was cooler but still bright with a bit of haze hanging over the mountain and the pristine, blue waters of Lake Garda below. Molto bene, we agreed.

Laura went in search of photographing bell-tolling dairy cows grazing on the summit. There was ample grazing terrain. Teresa and I headed in a different direction, for a short hike. It was a setting worthy of the Sound of Music. We then headed back to the Funivia station and found Laura to make our descent.

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We were tempted to lunch on the summit, for there was a bar/restaurant/outdoor beer garden. The buffet on display looked appetizing, with a great assortment. The dark red wedges of watermelon made my mouth water. But we had planned to have a late lunch at the next stop in Riva del Garda on the very northern end of the lake.

Riva del Garda is one of those postcard- perfect locations, just as we had expected.

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Teresa and I made this a must-stop because our good friends, Fred and Sharon Reineke, had spent several days here with their daughters, Erika and Sophia, competing in the junior world and European sailing competitions. You could readily tell this was the quintessential sailing venue with Lake Garda narrowing with deeper blue water with mountains reaching down to naturally funnel for strong winds they call “Ora.”. There were countless sailboats along the shore and testing the wind and a like number of wind-sail boarders dotting the blue lake water, making for a truly idyllic setting.

We didn’t have a lot of time here, but we made the most of it, first getting our feet in the water at the dock area that featured a low platform, probably for wind surfers. Teresa and I thought the Lake Garda water temp inviting. Laura is used to warmer water of Florida.

The town was abuzz with another important sailing regatta this weekend, and we just beat heavy traffic coming into town on Saturday afternoon. In addition, there was a town- theme — store keepers and waitresses dressed in Little Red Riding Hood attire. We were told by our waitress at lunch that there is a week-long drama festival of that forever-young fairy tale saga. I wondered if there we going to bring in Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs to do their 1960s billboard hit, Hey, There Little Miss Riding Hood. Laura, more than a decade younger than me, wasn’t familiar with that tune. I hummed a few bars of Wooly Bully to identify the group of my teen generation.

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We went off the beaten path to find a good trattoria that had vegetable lasagna and another equally pleasing arrabbiata pasta option for Teresa. The proprietor recommended we try a Caprese salad with black tomatoes. We had never heard of tomatoes of that hue, but it was delizioso!. She also asked if we were from England. We got a good chuckle out of that because we can’t imagine anyone thinking we have a British accent, although the last flick I watched on the flight over starred Hugh Grant.

After lunch, we took another stroll around the harbor area and headed out for Prosecco country.

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Ferry to Sirmione

We made plans to take the 11:30 a.m. ferry to the town of Sirmione on the southern end of Lake Garda. The large ferry boats run steady and often in the Lake Garda region. We decided on Sirmione because it is well known for a harbor castle, and who doesn’t like touring a medieval fortress, especially one with a moat?

it took about 35 minutes to cross from Lazise, and it was nice day to be out on the water and view towns by this perspective.

Sirmione was even busier with summer tourist traffic than Lasize. It appears to have more Old World charm than our home town on the lake, and probably demands a higher price for rentals. The shops ranged from the standard to high end.

A men’s clothing store caught our eye as we headed for the castle. The ties on display in the window were the most beautiful Teresa and Laura have ever seen. We had to go in and check the price. Talk about fit to be tied; the beautiful men’s neck ware with sparkling Swarovski crystals sewn in the fabric were 200 Euros, approximately $225 U.S. currency.

The proprietor was very gracious showing us the neck ware, and you could tell he knew this high-priced haberdashery was way out of our league.

I joked maybe I could spring for one of the beautiful blue neck ties and rent it out to help defray the price.

We moved on to The Scaliger Castle, an impressive example of medieval fortification, because it features a very rare fortified port jutting out on the peninsula surrounded by a moat. We climbed 150 steps to the rampart walls which provided great views of the town and the small harbor.

I had read that Sirmione had been originally called Garda back in Roman times, and that this region was under Venetian rule from 1405 to late 1700s.

It was warm and the hot sun drained us. We took a late afternoon ferry back to Lazise and rested up before the evening passeggiare.

There was live music in one of the small squares. Teresa and Laura went shopping for an hour while I tried to find the best place in town to access the free but sketchy WIFI. I was looking for a bar I had stopped in the day before that had its own connection, and my smart phone would remember the password. However, all the streets looked the same, and I kept bumping into Teresa and Laura.

We had to have another gelato before retreating to the apartment where Laura and I climbed another flight of the spiral staircase to the top of the tower and a rooftop patio where the WIFI was strong enough to post the first two blogs.

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From the lake shore to the hills

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We awoke at 7 a.m. to the sounds of a market setting up, just as Georgio told us. We didn’t expect vendor trucks with awnings to be right smack in front of our iron gate entrance . Good thing we were not going anywhere by car today.
We milled around Lazise and made plans for the remainder of our time in the Lake Garda region. The weather has been bellissimo.
From the maps and panoramic view of the lake, we can tell that Lazise sits on eastern shore at the widest part of the lake, Italy’s largest “Lagos” . No beach access near where we are. Anxious to experience how cold the lake water is here. Teresa and I braved the ocean waters where we live in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, last week and found it warm up enough to wade right in. So we are used to brisk dips.
As for the town, it is very clean and menu prices are reasonable considering it is a tourist destination. In our exploration, we came upon an interesting-looking castle, but was told by merchant that is a private residence.
Ferry boats regularly stop not far from our place, and we plan to take a cruiseon Friday to the town of Sirmoine on the south side of lake to tour a castle.
Laura and Teresa scouted out shops for shoes, handbags and other gifts. The market vendors lined the pedestrian streets of the town, which is much larger than we expected.
Street performers for the many bambini set up along the lake at sunset. Most of the tourists are German and Danish. Haven’t noticed that many Americans.
We ate pasta dinner at a lakeside hotel terrace around the corner from our tower apartment and called it a night .
Day 2 we decided to take the car out and drive the nearby hills. We had no particular destination. Teresa wanted to find some vineyards to photograph grapes.
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It was my turn to drive and I felt comfortable behind the wheel of the Audi station wagon because of the GPS (Teresa prefers the map and following the signs of towns ahead) but also it has automatic transmission. I have had some harrowing experiences driving a standard transmissions on the very narrow and steep stratas throughout Italy.
We stopped at a park and hiked a short while to a couple of trail spots with waterfalls which was good exercise after a couple of days of pasta and pizza. Lunch of mixed salad and homemade pasta was excellent. The proprietor evidently enjoyed talking to us because we were from the States. I was surprised to find he knew where the state of Maine was located (many Americans can’t identify Maine on a map).
” Were you not one of the colonies at the top?”, he asked . He was sort of right because Maine was part of Massachusetts at that time of our Independence in 1776. Of course, Maine became a state as part of the Missouri compromise in 1820.Maine was a free state, and Missouri entered as a slave state. I always joke that there was a second Missouri compromise in 1973 when this young University of Missouri graduate journalist decided to take a newspaper job in Maine.
Before we left the trattoria in this little town, the proprietor asked “two Novembers from now, who will you vote for? “
We had been discussing politics over lunch perhaps too loudly. But I could tell the German tourists at a nearby table could speak English and were listening intently. I wanted to ask them their opinion of EU and Greece’s financial crisis affecting the Euro.
We headed onward and upward and enjoyed the view of the farmland and vineyards. Vino is very good and quite reasonable, as is the case in Italy. Why, Laura, not driving, had a glass of white wine at lunch for one Euro. Albeit, it was a small glass, but our friendly host refilled the glass for free. As we headed back down to the coast, we could see glimpses of Lake Garda.
We veered off course to Lazise to make brief stops in sister lakeside towns Torri del Belanco and Garda.
We made the descent from a handsome hilltop town of Albisano. The roads became narrow and steep with switchbacks, but with automatic transmission it was practically worry free.
We noticed these locales, definitely tourist destinations along the lago were very well-appointed and perhaps a step above our town. Perhaps it was the tree-lined shoreline with the picturesque, sentinel cypress adding stature to the setting.
There were many bathers along the stone beaches as we drove.
One reason we stopped in Garda was we were told it was one of the only places to exchange currency. Laura had tried two banks in Lazise with no luck. Her exchange rate was certainly better than at the airport in Milan. We exchanged our money at Bank of America, which had no fees, before leaving. The Euro was much more affordable on this trip compared to prior trips to Europe. I have always been puzzled by the Euro advantage over the U S. Dollar that has narrowed considerably on this visit.
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Ritorno Italia

After a wonderful trip to Italy last fall, we figured we wouldn’t be returning to the enchanting boot of Europe for a while.
But the Roman goddess Empanada was smiling on us, beckoning us to return. Our good friend Lisa Tripler, also one of Teresa’s loyal clients, invited us to help her celebrate her sixtieth birthday in Tuscany on Sept. 5. It didn’t take us sixty seconds to consent to join her and husband Dan Rapaport, daughters Julie and Carly and other friends and family.
We will spend a few days at the villa they have rented just outside Florence. And for good measure, we are tacking on a several days before and after for another three-week stay in sunny and a warmer Italy than we are accustomed to since we usually tour in late September through mid October.
We found an excellent fare, $550 round trip on Emirates, which we flew to Italy last fall, out of JFK to Milan. .
When we told our friend Laura about our ritorne to Italy, she made plans to meet us, coming from St. Petersburg through Atlanta and onto Milan, arriving a few hours ahead of us.
There she was waiting outside customs just as we hoped. She had already checked on reservations for a rental car, but we had to go back and add me as a driver because we are staying a few days longer. Laura will veer off after a few days lodging in Florence next week as we head for the birthday celebration. She will thentake a train to Rome to fly home. Our airline pilot friend is a true world traveler, recently having visited Norway and Copenhagen with her sister, sailing on a Tall Ship as a working passenger on the very ship her father served on as a young Norwegian sailor over sixty years ago. Check out her blog atvolovecto.wordpress.com.
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Our first destination on this Italian adventure was the town of Lazise on Lake Garda, a two-hour drive from Milan. Lake Garda is not far from Verona, a town we spent an overnight on our late visit. We had regretted not having enough time to tour Lake Garda, so this time we are spending four days on the lake, an expansive body of water with mountains on the far side. It is a contrasting venue compared to most of our Italian trips usually spent on the coasts of the Tyrennian Sea in Almafi region and Italian Riviera, Barre region on the Aegian, and the major cultural centers of Rome, Florence and Milan. But then again, we have explored many inland medieval towns to our culinary delights over the years.
We decided to go by car this trip and not trains. The rental car, an Audi station wagon — the largest car we have ever driven in Italy — has GPS, but we couldn’t figure out how to input the address destination. Fighting off fatigue and jet lag, we settled on the town of Lazise and “andiamo”.
After negotiating a couple of tolls we turned off the highway and headed the last few kilometers to Lazise. Now to find the location — 22 Longalago Marconi. We knew our apartment was on the water. But after a first pass along the lakeside, we parked the car and headed off on foot and found it.
We were to meet Georgio, who Laura had confirmed with on the phone from the States a few days ago, at. 5 p.m. sharp. We had an hour cushion and devoured a couple of pizzas and strolled over to the apartment, tucked away in a Midieval-looking tower.
The iron gate was unchained as Georgio instructed. But there was no Georgio! We waited 20 minutes under the arbor in the front yard. I was beginning to worry that maybe this was one of those Internet scams where someone advertises a rental and collects a deposit and does not own the property.
Teresa and Laura went back to the car to retrieve Georgio’s phone number. I had talked Laura into our adding international-pay-as-you-go plan on our Verizon accounts with texting capability at 50 cents a transmission. On our last trip to Italy, we had a similar mysterious SNAFU when the contact person was not there, and we had no way to contact her, other than asking a waitress to use her cellphone.
The texting worked on Laura’s phone, and Georgio messaged backed, “so nice that you are there already. I will be there in 20 minutes.”
He soon arrived and showed us around the apartment . He forewarned about the wooden spiral staircase to the bedrooms in the tower. Mama mia, the steps were shoulder width, as tight as the final stages ascending St. Peter’s Basilica or the Duomo in Florence. .
The bedrooms are decent, but Laura will have to negotiate the stairway to reach the second bathroom.
There is a kitchen and dining area, and we will enjoy the arbor area in front yard.
We joined the passeggiare of townspeople and tourists, checking out the many shops. After a much deserved gelato, we headed back, fortified us in the tower for slumber.

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Tribute to my piano teacher, Alex Johns

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By AUGIE FAVAZZA
I had my baby grand piano tuned the other day by Dave Clements of Falmouth and sadly learned of the death of Maine jazz pianist Alex Johns in Portland, Maine, back in April.  I had missed his passing, because as snowbirds, my wife and I, had not yet returned from Florida for the summer.
Alex was my piano teacher. Back in the mid -1980s, my then-fiancee and I had bought a baby grand piano on a lark and on my pledge to learn to play.
I asked popular local musician and band leader Tony Boffa, a golfing buddy of mine, for a name of a good piano teacher. He wholeheartedly suggested I give “Coolie” a call.
When I did, Alex quickly quizzed me about how long I had been playing. I replied I had never played the piano. With that, Alex lived up to his well-known nickname and “cooly” responded,  ”I don’t teach beginners.”
But before he hung up, I brought up Tony Boffa’s name which apparently eased his fears or anxiety of working with a neophyte. Alex inquired, “Do you like to drink scotch?”
I answered,  ”Sure, on the rocks.”
He then quipped, “Good, come over this afternoon, and we’ll get started.”
That afternoon Alex began to dangle before me the keys — 88 black and white ones — that opened a door to a world of joy and passion for the piano.
Now I am probably one of Alex’s least talented protégé and certainly not a professional, but there is not a day that goes by where I don’t want to sit at the keyboard and pound out a tune, mostly from the old standards.
That first lesson in 1985, Alex asked, “What exactly do you want to learn?”
I confessed I had no classical music aspirations. I knew basically how to read music from boys’ choir as a kid. I told him I wanted to play tunes like “Misty”‘ , “The Way We Were”, “Moon River” and, forgive me, that 1980s lounge- lizard ballad “Feelings”.
Alex took a drag from his cigarette and smiled.
“I will teach you the “stride method” and some basic chords,” he said.. ”Most basic arrangements of songs, have pretty much the same chords – C, G, F, D.”
Alex had a hip, devilish personality at times. Why sometimes, during a lesson, he would listen to me struggle through a tune and say “move over”. He would break the tension by playing the same tune expertly, sometimes with hands behind his back or lying prone on the floor and reaching up with his fingers, magically traversing the keyboard.
Well, that first lesson, he showed that devilish demeanor and proposed, “We’ll make a pact. If you practice the chords I show you with your left hand and read and master the melody line with your right hand …. WELL, YOU WILL NEVER BE ANY GOOD, BUT YOU WILL SURE AS HELL SURPRISE A LOT OF PEOPLE.”
“You got a deal,” I beamed and sat down at his mahogany baby grand Kawai in the basement of his home in the Deering section of town and began to learn major and minor triad chords.
For a year or so, I would go for a weekly lesson of an hour that would sometimes stretch into two as I made steady progress.  Alex would get after me at times, not so much for not practicing, but for relying on an ability I possessed to remember tunes I had played a few times.
“You’re not reading the lead sheets,” he would deduce. “You’re playing from memory.”
I had to give up my lessons with Alex when my wife-to-be and I moved to Florida in 1986, along with my baby grand. In Florida, I never did find a teacher I was so comfortable with.  But I still loved playing every chance I could at home or wherever. I’m not sure if Will Rogers tickled the ivories, but I never met a piano I didn’t like.
And so I play piano. Many people will confide in me that it was their dream to play. And they surmise I must have taken lessons as a child. They are stunned when I tell them about Coolie and how he taught me at age 35.
“And don’t be afraid to play in front of people,” Alex would say. “Few people will know you made a mistake. “
I’ve heeded his advice and have played in hotels, restaurants and even recently in the Charlotte, N.C. airport during a long layover. One of my favorite piano impromptu gigs was performing on a baby grand in the favorite cafe of the famed composer Puccini in the town of Lucca in Tuscany. I regret I had not yet mastered “Nessun Dorma”.
My wife and I returned to Maine in 1989. But with a new business to run, I put off taking up lessons again with Alex, although I talked about it with “Coolie” whenever we found time to hear him perform at a local hotel lounge. Why bigger crowds never were on hand to enjoy the talents of a man, described in his on-line archive obituary, “as a giant in Maine music scene” always bewildered me.   I knew he studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, but I didn’t really know of his sterling reputation as a musical arranger during his Navy career. I wished I had seen him perform with Maine’s big bands like Al Corey and Don Doane.
The last time I saw Alex was quite a few year ago at a Christmas party of friends in Cape Elizabeth. They had bought a Young Chang grand piano and needed a tuner. I had recommended Alex, and they hired him to play for the party, as well. Alex played brilliantly that night, and when time came for him to leave, with the party still going, I took a seat at the piano. I remember someone playfully remarking “well, look who’s going to clown around at the keyboard.”
I played quite few of those standards and a few Christmas carols by ear-and-memory to the amazement of the party-goers. Before, Alex went out the door, he came over and whispered in my ear, “I TAUGHT YOU WELL, YOU SURE AS HELL SURPRISED ALL OF THESE PEOPLE.”
The Piano Man’s parting words were music to my ears.

SW 45th Reunion

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By Augie Favazza, former sports reporter, editor and columnist for the Portland, Maine Newspapers. He began his writing career on the Southwest Pioneer as a sophomore.

I didn’t heed Thomas Wolfe’s novel title, “You Can’t Go Home Again“. So two score and 5 years later, I went back for Southwest High School Class of 1969 Reunion in St. Louis, Mo. this past weekend. I had attended the 10th, 20th, 30th, and 40th. As student council president, I felt a definite connection, an obligation, a natural longing like a swallow needing to return to Capistrano.

Our old high school doesn’t exist anymore, and an increasing number of the Southwest Class of ’69 have died with the passage of 4 1/2 decades. One death I sadly learned about this weekend was Rick McAnnar, an elementary school classmate and fellow Boy Scout.

Dan Siefert and I at Ted Drewes.

Dan Siefert and I at Ted Drewes.

Dan Siefert from Dallas, John Pearcy from Baltimore and I came in three days early and shared a suite at a suburban hotel . Over the years, we have always tried to reunite somewhere ever so often, even though we live far apart. Of course, we lived only a few miles apart growing up in south St. Louis. This trio visited old haunts, including driving by the high school and stopping at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard stand, a historic site on Old Route 66. Too bad it was cold and damp, not exactly frozen custard weather. We visited our old neighborhoods. The houses we grew up in looked pretty much the same. We agreed that the large, Victorian-style homes overlooking the small picturesque pond in the Clifton Heights Park made much more of an impression than when we were teenagers cruising that and other neighborhoods on a dollars’ worth of gas.

Block after block, we drove and pointed out where classmates lived, friendships grew, and pranks and  bullying took place.

John Pearcy... raffle winner.

                                                        John Pearcy… raffle winner.

We drove downtown to the third version of Busch Stadium where John, a dutiful father for the first time after the age of 50, bought Cardinals playoff shirts for his two young sons. Dan and I didn’t have kids and were shocked by the prices for baseball jerseys, hats, shirts and coats. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a Stan Musial No. 6 uniform shirt, no matter how big a baseball hero he was to me. The city was buzzing with playoff baseball fever.

As the reunion drew closer, the preliminary list of attendees remained sparse on classmates.com. Many fellow alumni evidently didn’t share the same connection or curiosity. Hopefully, they will feel differently for the golden 50th reunion.

We picked up classmate Bob Gebhardt, who needed a ride to the reunion event, after a dreary Saturday afternoon, weather-wise and having watched the Missouri Tigers get throttled 34-0 by the University of Georgia on TV. Was the reunion going to be a downer as well, the three of us wondered?

As we entered the door to the main bar area of the Seamus McDaniels Irish Tavern in the Dogtown section of the city, we recognized a familiar face, Dave Prokopchuk, who came in from Tulsa with his wife.

We walked through the busy tavern dining area and into a back room. There were our reunion classmates, many more than we expected. There was Joanie Roberts DeGregorio, still with a face that would launch a thousand ships. She was at the helm of this gathering, signing classmates and guests in. Mary Boekesch assisted in handing out gold SW Hello Day name tags with our senior pictures on it. For a moment you did feel like an incoming high school freshman shaking hands and making introductions to strange classmates. But wait a minute, I did know that person and so many others. As Janie Bennett Peterson hinted, it is the eyes that reveal the identity. (Janie probably aged the least of us) I informed Randy Brinkman that he looked exactly the same. He chuckled and said what about my beard? I hadn’t really noticed.

Sam Cardinale , with Patti Tamme and John Mullen. Sam attended to prove he was still with us.

Sam Cardinale , with Patti Tamme and John Mullen. Sam attended to prove he was still with us.

It was so good to see fellow alum and baseball summer league teammate, Sam Cardinale. With a white-gray beard and thick mane, he fittingly resembled Mark Twain, taking great satisfaction in announcing that reports of his death at the last reunion were greatly exaggerated.

During the evening there was talk about careers past and present, families,  and SW teachers (Miss Kinderfather, a girls coach and phys-ed teacher was in attendance at age 90). We lamented and toasted deceased classmates (most recently close buddy Mike Macey) We spoke of retirement and the demise of our high school. It was a combination of city politics, shrinking post-Baby Boom era enrollments, and the flight of white city residents to the suburbs of St. Louis that closed its doors but could not shut out our memories. It’s worrisome now to see the home town and nearby municipality of Ferguson in the national news about racial strife.

John Pearcy wondered the night before over dinner how the four African Americans in our class felt being such a tiny minority. We bantered about people, places and things, and dubbed Steve May, our historian. Steve lives locally, wasn’t sure he would attend until we three weekend roommates twisted his arm, including dinner Friday, when we met Janet Bley Wiese and Julie Otto, close friends a year behind us. We encouraged them to crash a reunion that might need a few extra attendees. Julie did show and was warmly received.

For the record, our old high school is experiencing a rebirth of sorts as the Central Visual Performing Arts High School. I still think it was a shame the powers-to-be didn’t name this new school, the Southwest High School of Performing Arts.

It was great seeing high school sweethearts Don and Sharon Poliette, who I hadn’t remembered at past reunions. Don said sedentary, early-bird dinner retirement in Florida is not for him. He still is a regional sporting goods salesman, a career position well-fitted because he was a fine ballplayer. I would have loved to step outside with him for a game of catch. Not sure my right-throwing arm of yesteryear would agree.

Paul Discher pulled me aside to a table where there was looping DVD “A Photographer’s Scrapbook” of still photos he took of our Southwest days, complete with background music. I recall Don was a mainstay in the audio visual club, and he did a wonderful job chronicling SW students being students. He had a DVD copy for every member in attendance. it is available to purchase on line for any of the class of ’69 who couldn’t make it. Naturally, he is in the business of video conversion, photography, and digital scanning at (www.dischercreative.com)

There was a contingent of special alumni who attended, along with me, the Isaac Mason Elementary School— Mabel Leong DeLuca, Sheryl Rietz Graber, Louise Wilcoxen Wilson, Mike Showers and Cliff Shepard. Cliff and I probably vied for man- mile award. He came in from Los Angeles, and I from the other coast in Portland, Maine. Mike Showers was a much more confident individual from what I remembered as he told me about his career as a Teamster Union negotiator.

Louise Wilcoxen, myself and Loyd Shantz enjoying the evening.

Louise Wilcoxen, myself and Loyd Shantz enjoying the evening.

Louise Wilcoxen had been my chief rival for scholastic honors in grade school. We laughed about how we shared a mutual admiration and innocent infatuation back then, although we never dated.

Loyd Shantz, who attended University of Missouri at Columbia with me but joined another fraternity, hadn’t changed a bit. He handed me a photo from the University of Missouri freshman yearbook. The photo was of my freshman dorm floor with SW alums Steve Berra, who was not in attendance this evening, and Bob Gebhardt, kneeling alongside me. After graduating from the University of Missouri, Loyd worked and eventually took over his dad’s business, Modern Imports, while I moved 1200 miles to the East coast to work in newspapers. Loyd didn’t venture away, because well, as he puts it, “it’s pretty hard to move a junk yard.” I left the newspaper profession in the late 80s, but I was glad to see Bob Watson is still at it, as a reporter in Jefferson City.

A lot of SW women in attendance area stay regularly connected through Facebook and meet every other month at Debbie Rizzo’s Pizzaria. Along with organizer Joanie, Patty Tamme Trares, Rosie Tamminga-Mack, Sydney Johnston, and others, they were the nucleus of this gathering.

Facebook has made it easier to stay in touch, and Terry Trayanoff Mulverhill said she followed my travel blogs in Italy from a message link. I was glad to see Jeanill Eyermann Curry, a close classmate, in the very rear of the room. I told her how I cherished an official Western Union Telegram from her mom and dad the day I was elected student council president. Can you send a Western Union Telegram these days, we wondered?

Another long-distance attendee was Marilyn Wilds Davis, who brought a raffle basket of goods from the State of Washington. She admitted to crying when seeing her old house, not far away, in Dogtown. My initial thought as I approached her to say hello was that I had crowned her Miss SW over 45 years ago. But it couldn’t have been that long ago, not by her youthful looks.

I have to admit, with a graduating class of about 600, I didn’t know everyone and that included this evening. But I did my best to mingle through the attendees and make acquaintances.

Joan sincerely hoped I could help in the planning for the Golden 50th reunion and to rein in a few alumni I stay in touch with who didn’t come in for whatever reason. John Mullen said he hoped I would influence Ron Bryant, class president, who lives near my winter home in St. Petersburg, Fla., to show up for the next big reunion. John and Ron went to grade school together. I pledged I would do my best, and reasoned some people probably regarded the 45th anniversary as just another year.

Joan, John Pearcy and I talked about what kind of affair would be right for the 50th. I think we agreed the cost of a band or DJ would be too much. We agreed those who showed up Saturday night and hopefully those who attend the 50th would prefer a setting, a little more formal, but quiet enough to mingle and share memories. Our location Saturday evening was perfect, a neighborhood bar that provided a very reasonable package of food, drink and space. Joan had considered my cousins’ up-scale Favazza’s Restaurant on The Hill, which would have made the event all the more special for me. But it was too expensive for this not-so- marquee milestone.  I suggested for the 50th a pre-party afternoon gathering and tour at the old high school and will try to make that happen. I made an unofficial visit there a few months ago when I was in town. The performing arts school principal said such a gathering might be possible with the present students performing for us grads of 50 years.

I even think author Thomas Wolfe would have loved this reunion’s cast of characters. In the novel, he did opine, “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.”