New Year’s Thoughts


Today, the news of the day and the quiet time following New Year’s Day have driven me back into the recesses of my memory. January can be a let-down after the 2-month build-up of the Christmas season, so I circumvent it with a relaxing memory scan of the past year, or years. It never fails to clear my head and redirect me..

Today, for instance, I’m thinking about how calm my life is now, how easy it has become in the past few years. Oh, I appreciate it, believe me… like most of you, it hasn’t always been easy. A few quick memories is all it takes to remind me how great my life is today.

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Ever think about where you’ve been, what you’ve done, that surprises even you when you think about it? Being retired, I’ve had plenty of time to think, to remember the special times in my life, some of the truly adventurous experiences that I’d never have imagined would happen to me. I’ll bet a lot of you have those, too. How unusual, how unique those experiences were depends, to a large degree, on your frame of reference.

What constitutes a unique and exciting experience can be wildly different from person to person. What’s different and exciting for us might not be unique, if a million people or so have done the same thing. The element of danger is usually a consideration, as is location. Who you’re with or not with can play a part, as can the circumstances of the moment.

What I think is equally important is this… where does our ego live in all these memories, in all this speculation as to what is exciting, unique? Is it enough to sit by the fire in a winter’s evening, remembering unusual times with your brandy close at hand? Or do we want others to know what we’ve done, where we’ve been, what strange and crazy things have happened to us in the course of our amazing lifetimes?

My particular ego, in the past, would swing from remembering and feeling good about myself and my life, to wanting others to know some of what I’ve experienced… perhaps in the slightly sick hope that they’ll see me in a different, better light. Now, however, my desire to share a few of my special times has a better purpose… that of triggering your memory of your life’s experiences, to remember them, relive them and smile. For my part, I want my son Dillon to know some of my stories, just as my dad made sure I knew some of his stories.

We’ve done some crazy shit, haven’t we? For me, There’s a lot that I’m proud of and satisfied with, and a few that I’m ashamed of, and refuse to share… with anyone. I guess that nearly anyone who has lived a long and full life has at least a few of these dark memories. A good friend of mine put it clearly… “Sure, I’ve done some things I’m not proud of.”

On the good side, I clearly remember dreaming of playing in a restaurant on top of a tall building in a big city back East, mostly because my jazz piano hero at the time, Oscar Peterson, recorded a fabulous album in a restaurant atop a tall building in downtown Chicago. Yes, I wanted to be like Oscar. The epitome of jazz in a tall building has always been the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center in New York City. I’ve been there, but was never able to play there. I did play the restaurant atop Prudential Center in Boston, which was easily Boston’s tallest building at the time. (1968) Best part was that my folks were in town visiting me, and were dinner guests for the occasion! It was a special time for sure! A dream realized… how lucky can a person get? Do I regret not making it to the Rainbow Room? Not for a second. If The Top Of The Pru were to be the high point in my jazz life, I’ll take it in a heartbeat! Actually, there were a lot of high points in my life of jazz and music in general, but that evening at the Top Of The Pru will always stick out.

On the down side, I really, really wanted to be a pilot. I’ve loved flying since I was 7, still do. As I’ve previously written, flying wasn’t in the cards for me… wrong personality for making cool decisions in the air, no math skills, poor eyesight. Yikes! Do NOT let this person be a pilot! But, but… sorry dude, no go. A big disappointment. Ego, self-worth, self confidence wounded, limping, questioning. What to do?? Easy. Pretend you really could have been a pilot, and invent a few pictures to prove it, then move on and begin doing the things you really are good at. And here they are –

There used to be this niggling little question in the back of my mind, that of “How would my life have been different if I could have been better… perhaps a well-known pianist, or composer?” Because, you see, our culture has somehow ingrained in most of us the spirit of constant improvement, to be better, always be better… to keep reaching. Ever hear anyone tell you that you’ve done enough, gone far enough, accomplished enough? Probably not. It’s so easy to slip into the trap of “I could’ve/should’ve done more…” I suppose sometimes it’s true for some of us, but often it’s a rabbit hole. My personal struggle with that thought came to a quick and beautiful conclusion when I realized I had reached my personal peak in Atlanta, and had sense enough, or lucky enough, to stay there.

There’s a saying I know you’re all aware of – “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” It’s true, hell, even Sinatra sings it in the song “New York, New York.” I played in New York City several times and found the music talent there to be totally intimidating, way worse than Berklee and Boston. L.A. was the same. I played and did recording sessions there, too, and had this one experience where the producer of the session for Susan Anton (yes, I’m name-dropping) decided to have a piano play-off between me and the other potential pianist, who happened to be Russell Ferrante, of the Yellow Jackets. Well, you can guess how that went. I played well, and Russell totally burned me. He played piano on the session and I instead did the string arrangement… showing me where my real abilities lay, and how I measured up to L.A.’s talent base.

The point of all that is this – the realization that I would never have been competitive in either New York or L.A…. That I had found the exact right place and market for my talents, in Atlanta. Looking back on it, Atlanta was totally nurturing to almost any young artist trying to work their way up the ladder, and I had the good fortune to fall into several groups of folk who helped me so much along the way. The answer to the question “Could I have been better?” is answered in no uncertain terms, and the answer is “No! Atlanta gave you countless opportunities to be the best you could be, and you were able to stretch creatively as far as you could, over the years.” And right there, the whole question is finally put to bed. I’m tempted to say that probably we all end up where we’re ‘supposed to,’ but it’s not true, and I don’t believe it. I do hope, however, that you ended up ‘where you were supposed to’ or better, ‘where you wanted to’ and that you are at peace with the results of your life.

I have a few friends whose lives were more colorful than mine. I would love to name them here, because some of you know them, and would smile. But I won’t… it would put their privacy at risk. One name should be safe enough. Darren L. and Joe G. in Maryland; Ron Abbe in Mexico, who is deceased; Jimmy Helms in France; Ray T. and John C. in Colorado; Rick G. in Texas; Steve D., Lyn D. and Johnny M. in Georgia; Buster O., Rex B. and Larry G. in North Carolina; Jack W., Craig S., Jon L. and Roger Williams in Montana.

Roger might be the strangest of the bunch… he has lived most of his life in a 50-mile radius of Virginia City, Montana. How exciting can that be? Well, for starters, he’s a heavy equipment operator and owns most of his own equipment. He’s been the engineer on a steam locomotive on a short line railroad for several years. He’s been a miner, a water commissioner, a fire chief, a mechanic who works on his own heavy equipment, even the locomotive he engineered. I’ve found him digging in the old sewer lines, deep beneath the Virginia City streets. He’s been an active member in the city’s politics forever, and has been it’s mayor… probably several times. I’ve found him hiking up in the high country, and I’ve found him in that locomotive, rolling down the track in the cab in the middle of summer, with the cab temp right at 124 degrees. How many of us have done that?!

I could tell you what I know about each of these guys, where they’ve been, what they’ve accomplished, and each one would fill an entire blog. Each of their resumes are unbelievable, and I love knowing men like this, men who have done so much, who have lived so fully. Their ladies are remarkable as well, and have contributed much in their own right. And that should be no surprise.

I am proud to know these people, proud of them and their amazing accomplishments. I wish, from time to time, that they would have a blog, that they would write their stories… I know how colorful they are. But few of them, to my knowledge, have even tried to write about their lives, or anything else, for that matter. They are probably still too busy living it. Roger once told Jack Waller and me, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a thought worth writing down.” Ha. And I remember Jack saying, in his inimitable style, “Oh Roger, I don’t think that’s true…” And he was right, of course. Roger could fill two books in a heartbeat if he ever decided to, even if they turned out to be operations and maintenance guides to everything from a dirt bike to a steam locomotive.

This is as close as I care to get this year with any sort of resolution:

Another hot cup of coffee, topped off with a touch of brandy. It really is chilly day here today, yet I am warmed by these memories of my friends and my life, and am constantly amazed that it has gone so well for us all, difficulties aside. Can’t help but wish any who read this could be sitting here with me, I would love to hear your stories! But as it is, I will quietly slide into this new year with the hope that we will all thrive in good health and prosperity through the year. There’s a seagull cruising past our window. Cool. I’m going to take that gull as a sign that all is well, and is going to stay well, for at least the immediate future.

Steve Hulse