Friday, September 10, 2021

Mel Tormé - Sky Marshall or (How the "velvet fog" saved an American Airlines flight)

Mel Tormé - Sky Marshall

By Jay K. Johnson

As a modern day foot-note: If you do not know who Mel Tormé is - Google him.  He was an incredible talent, nice guy, ultimate 50's hipster and known by all the crooners of the day as a "Singer's Singer".  

In 1984 Mel Tormé was in the golden days of his career. The music industry had changed and male crooners were seen as "of an era". He was still well known in Japan because of their almost cultural love of American Jazz.  Then Rinehold Wiggie wrote "Night Court" and things changed.  

Since my best friend was cast in the roll of Harry Stone on Night Court, I was in on some of the unpublished moments of that series.  In the pilot Wiggie wrote a line for Judge Stone that spoke to his off beat character.  A court clerk comes into Stone's office and the Judge is listening to  a walk-man with head phones.  He notices the clerk, takes the earphones off and says, "I have every album that Mel Tormé ever recorded." It was meant as a laugh line... the off beat judge was a fan of an obscure crooner.  After the pilot aired Mel called Rinehold Wiggie and Harry to thank them for the shout out.  Harry was, in reality, a big fan of Mel Tormé and the two became fast friends.  For the next decade Mel Tormé became the mascot of Night Court making several guest appearances to an entirely new generation. 

But this it a story about a passenger disruption on an American Airlines flight.  

I was on my way from LA to Chicago to do a show sitting in the fourth row of first class.  We made it to Chicago on time but the airport was socked in. Rain and snow flurries kept us from landing so we circled.  The captain was giving us the updates and said that we had enough fuel to circle for a while until we could land. The circling continued for the next two and a half hours. 

Emotions were running high with frustration as the captain came back on the intercom and said, "Well, we have exhausted all of our excess fuel and we are still not able to land in Chicago. We need to refuel so... we are headed to the St. Louis Airport to gas up.  After that we will head back to Chicago and hopefully the weather will give us a break."

It took us 40 minutes to fly to St. Louis and we landed. However, air traffic held us at the edge of the airport because there were no gates available. Captain said we would have to get to a gate when it became available to refuel.  We waited.  

That wait continued for another 2 hours and frustration gave way to grumbling.  St. Louis was no ones destination on this flight and we could not even get off the plane.  There is suddenly a commotion coming from the back of the plane. I hear a flight attendant yelling, "Sir... sir, sit down... keep your seat. We are on an active taxi way... Sir.... Sir."  An Asian man flew past me running toward the cockpit, yelling he had to get off the plane. NOW. He seemed to be in a classic claustrophobia panic attack, and determined to get into the cock pit.  

He was stopped at the galley by two other attendants who struggled with the man ordering him to sit down. He had adrenline fueled strength and was really a hand full for the crew.  I was craning my neck to watch and it seemed to be at the point of no control. Just then a man sitting in the first row bulkhead seat stood up. With out touching the man, and with a calm beautiful voice said, "Hey, Babe, why don't you go back and sit down, they are doing the best they can," 

The man turned on his heels like he was going to punch the guy when he recognized who was speaking.  It was Mel Tormé.  The man stopped immediately and melted like a fan boy with eyes wide open in amazement. He blurted out, "It's Mel Tormé...Mel Tormé... that is Mel Tormé." Mel sat back down. The man turned into a puppy. As if he had seen divinity he calmly walked to the back of the plane repeating... "That was Mel Tormé... Mel Tormé" and took his seat.

In less than half an hour we were at the gate getting fueled up.  We all got to get up and stretch our legs. I had met Mel on several occasions with Harry so I made my way up to the front and said to Mel, "Thanks for saving the flight from being taken over."  After what was then 8 hours locked on this plane Mel says,

"Jay, Babe are you on this flight?"  

Today when every new cycle has a story about violence on various airplanes, it is a shame we don't have more legendary iconic crooners to defuse the situation.  Hope you and Harry are having a good time, up there together,  Mel. I'll see ya both some day.

As you were,




Monday, May 03, 2021

Saved by Instict

A company has a problem if you remember the commercial very well, but not the product being advertised.  Such is the case with an ad going around television now days.  The premise of this commercial is the narrative of a spoof seminar/life coach who is teaching people how NOT to act like their aged parents.  If I say “The waiter does not need to know your name” it might spark a  recollection of that ad for you.  It is similar to a real life ongoing conversation I occasionally have with my youngest son. 
When I walk Harry the Wonder Dog I have a habit of saying “Hi” to people I pass in the neighborhood.  Some will wave back or say hello, some will ignore me and others have headphones on and never know that I said anything.  I admit it is more of a habit than a real interest in a friendly encounter.  The times my son has walked with me he will say, “That is not necessary, Pops, they do not care and they don’t want the intrusion, so why do you even bother?” 
He is right.  Rarely do people in the neighborhood say hello to me first, so why do I bother?  Like I said it is mostly an involuntary habit.  

While walking this morning I suddenly had an epiphany.  I might have come to the realization of why I have a habitual instinct to say hello to strangers.  

If Mr. Peabody will set the “way back” machine to sometime during the fall of 1974, we’ll start there.  Back then, Sandi and I worked for a supper club called Charlie’s Place.  Charlies Place was a club located in the basement of the Texas Hotel in Downtown Fort Worth, Texas.  It featured a variety show with dinner a couple of times a night, and if there was anyone left to watch, a “Good Night Show” which was a short choreographed medley of songs containing the words Good Night.  Of course we had to wait around till the beginning of that show before we were dismissed for the evening.  I would say it was a 70 percent chance we wouldn’t do a Good Night show on the week nights.  

The show changed every couple of months or so and for this particular show I did my guitar act, which involves my wrist watch and the guitar coming to life an taking over a song I was trying to sing.  Squeaky,  my main partner before Bob, was featured in the goodnight show.  It was my habit to take the guitar out to my car before the Goodnight Show so I didn’t have a double load at the end of the night.  
Downtown Fort Worth was at the time not a bustling metropolis after hours so it was usually very dead when I went to the car.  To save a dollar and a half we sometimes parked in a deserted alley a block away from the hotel which was the case this night. 

I remember my thoughts were a million miles away that night.  I had no sense of my surroundings as I walked the dark streets to the alley, I was remembering the show that particular night and doing a critique in my mind of the performance.  As I crossed the street to the spot I parked I suddenly became aware of something.  It might have been the acrid smell or the weird gutter mumblings of  the person sitting on a curb between me and my car that hooked my attention.  I made a halting step which caught the eye of the man on the curb. He was dressed in clothes that had clearly been worn for too long in too many dirty places.  His hair was tangled and ratted and the incoherent mumbling stopped abruptly as his reddened blurry eyes locked on mine.  I continued walking past him thinking that if I didn’t act completely at ease it might be seen as a threat.  His eyes narrowed as I got closer, and in a nervous reflex I said, “Hi. How you doin’” like we were old friends.  That seemed to work. He went back to his guttural mumblings and strange forward and backward rocking in his position on the curb.  

Trying not to stare but taking in every detail I could,  I saw that as he was rocking back and forth he was brushing a very large hunting knife up and down on the outside of his bent leg.   There was very little light on the street but the chrome blade of the knife flashed at the apex of each upward brush.  I was relieved  to get past him and to my car  twenty yards behind him in the dark alley.  I took out my keys and opened the trunk of my 2 door Plymouth Scamp.   As I placed the guitar into the trunk I heard the sound of shoes scraping the concrete behind me and got a whiff of that acrid smell again.   I felt the man behind me and shut my trunk  before turning around.  

He was 6 feet away from me in an aggressive posture with the knife pointed at my upper torso.  I was frozen with indecision. I had never been in a situation like this before nor felt this threatened.  I do not know exactly how long this stand off lasted.  His blurry reddened eyes narrowed.  It felt like this was the moment something was about to happen.  A strange glaze took over his eyes and he said,  “No.  NO. You are a good dude.”

His posture changed. The arm with the knife dropped to his side and he turned his back to me and shuffled away.  I carefully retraced my steps back to Charlies Place.  Safe in the bowels of the Texas Hotel I sat down in the green room.  One of my performing friends looked at me and said,  
“Oh my God are you okay? you are white as a ghost”.  
The color had drained from my face as reality set in.  I told the story to my wide eyed performing mates.  It was decided at that moment that a dollar fifty was not too much to pay for a safe place to park.

I don’t know much about what makes the human mind work, but I do know this.  I saw this would be mugger and thief make a decision standing in front of me.  Was he going to mug me, cut me, stab me, steal my car and the guitar or not?  I saw the indecision in his eyes as he contemplated his next move in that alley way.  He sized me up and the only thing he knew about me was that I said, Hello to him on the street just moments earlier.  I didn’t back away, I didn’t look at him in disgust or disapproval I just said hello and continued on my way.  He decided that I was a “Good Dude” based solely on a three second interaction.  Never mind that for me it was an instinctive knee jerk reaction to being suddenly startled, what came out was not threatening to him.  I will believe to this day that had my instincts been anything other than to say hello to a stranger on the street, this story would not have a positive ending. 

So why do I bother saying hi to people on the street?  I can make a case that at one time 40-odd years ago it could have potentially saved my life.  

As you were,

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Harry the Wonder Dog

Ultimately this is a story about judgement.  Sometimes based on our experiences both real and imagined we draw a conclusions about people not based truth but assumptions.  Unless those assumptions are corrected or proved wrong we carry them around in our mind like it was empirical fact. 

It has been a long time since I felt like I could write again. I lost my writing partner, then there was a Pandemic, I wasn’t doing any shows and soon the news was nothing but the saga of a failed attempt to overthrow an election, by sedition.  All very happy subjects to deal with. And since the Pandemic has us all circling our own nest in continually smaller concentric circles, there has been nothing much that I thought worthy to write about.  My one real obligation, during the shut down, has been to take Harry the Wonder Dog out for long walks.  He is a tiny dog but loves to walk and our average is three miles a day. There is only one distraction to these lovely dog walks through the Encino/Sherman Oaks area, and that is Harry’s agitation toward other dogs.  It used to be aggression but through a lot of patience, treats and training he is doing much better. 
Sandi and I are fully vaccinated as are most all of our friends, so yesterday was the first time since last April that Harry and I took our walk and I did not wear a face mask.  When that is your thrill of the day, you know you have been away from a stage and an audience for too long. Over the past year Harry and I have bonded on our walks and his distrust of other dogs is now “semi” under control.  For the longest time I thought there was some pattern to his barking out.  I thought it was only big dogs he barked at, then he would go crazy when a very tiny dog would walk on the other side of the street and he would dash my scientific theory.  I still do not know what will occasionally cause Harry to turn from Chihuahua mix to Chupa Cabra but I am always on guard when we are approaching other dogs.  
One thing for certain: if the “other dog” shows any sort of aggression or barks at Harry, Harry the Wonder dog  immediately turns into Joe Pesci.(thank you Donna Marie for that image)   If all other disciplinary actions and treats fail, he is small enough to lift off the ground and into my arms by way of his leash and harness.  When approached by aggressive dogs who are not on leash this method becomes very effective.

Needless to say sometimes my walks with Harry could be less stressful if he was less “energetic” but we pick times when there are less dogs on the street.  I would say that most of the time I am on DEFCON 3 when walking Harry. I scan the horizon for any person with a dog on a leash.  We will usually cross the street if they are are approaching us.  There are tense moments as we pass and I feel like I am walking a tightrope for a few minutes.  I pretend I am a member of the Secret Service guarding a President, ready to react at a moments notice. Harry seems to know when my guard is down and turns into the Tasmanian Devil so.... even thought I like the walks I am always watching out for other dogs.  

There needs to be a side bar at this point in my story.  Since the Pandemic I have become hooked on the Judge Judy Show which airs every afternoon here on a local station.  I know that your opinion of me has suffered just a little bit because of this attraction but I am drawn to Judge Judy like a curious fly is drawn to fresh shit..(which is a perfect metaphor).  I know she is a judge but she is so judgmental, so condescending and so sure that she knows exactly who is a loser, I am baffled that anyone could be so much like the second grade teacher I loathed when I was a kid.  She is combative, outspoken, unflinching and opinionated.  

Here is the connection. I would say that a large percentage of cases she hears involve dogs.  The big dog hurts or kills the small dog, the little dog bites a person and there is a dispute on who pays the doctor or vet bills.  Judy herself is an avid dog owner of Shitzus.  It is always easy to predict who will win a case when one of the dogs is a Pitbull.  The Pitbull always loses.  She hates Pitbulls and makes a point to say that home owners must pay extra for insurance if they have such a breed of dog. Judy will berate the owner for being careless with a vicious breed of dog, but will also point out that in her opinion no one should have this kind of dog, period.  I believe it is mostly the fault of the dog owner not controlling these big dogs which are bred to fight, but it appears that Pitbulls like many big dogs can suddenly turn for no reason into a very dangerous animal. 

 We return you now to the story about Harry the Wonder Dog.  

Yesterday when I was enjoying my first “unmasked” walk, Harry and I were strolling though the neighborhood.  I know most of the dogs along this path.  I anticipate the dogs that are likely to bark even from behind a fence which might release the Chupa Cabra I am tending.  We are on a street where I have never noticed any dogs to be cautious about before.  I would not say my guard was down but I would say I was at DEFCON 1 at this particular moment.  Half a block away I spot a large, very well groomed, very muscular, ominous Pitbull ahead of us on the opposite of the street.  I tighten Harry’s leash and began my routine intervention..  Harry notices the dog before I do. I then  realized the dog is not on a leash.  He is standing by a tree near the curb at the edge of the yard.  Harry hesitated but continued walking and began to huff and puff which I know as a precursor to an outburst. I am thinking that if this dog even looks this way, Harry is going to go crazy.  

I did not see the owner of this dog as it looked our way.  I became ready to haul Harry in by his leash.  The Pitbull’s gaze does not linger toward us long enough to light Harry’s fuse. Instead, the Pitbull turns to look at something else: from my angle now I can see a man  with salt and pepper short hair, of medium build standing  a few yards from the dog.  He is standing, in my opinion, too far away to be of much help if the dog charges our way. I am relieved to see him and assume he will take control of this potential killer now that he knows we are across the street.  He does not. 

Harry and I are now across the street and even with the Pitbull.  I am holding a ticking Chihuahua who is ready to explode at any moment. The dog looks in our direction again.   I am  disturbed that the owner has made no preemptive actions to keep this heavy weight from charging Harry and me. He has not even said the name of the dog nor make any sound. We keep walking carefully,  never taking our eyes off the big dog.  I immediately think of the story I will tell Judge Judy.  “The owner of the dog did nothing to restrain the Pitbull who was not on a leash at the time...your Honor.. he is a very irresponsible dog owner.”   
“Judgement for the plaintiff ... and you sir, are a negligent dog owner who probably should not even own a dog of any breed.”  That is what I was thinking.... Judging this dog owner and giving him the worst thoughts I could muster.

That is when the man turned to me and I saw his face clearly.  It was Caesar Millian zen master of dog training and television celebrity.  I was aware  he lived somewhere near but didn’t know where.  If you click on his name link you can see a picture of the Pitbull.  Harry and I could not have been safer at that moment from the attack of a Pitbull.  I was so ready to judge the dog and the man assuming he was a careless dog owner. The facts about this dog and this owner could not be more uninformed.  

Never judge a situation by the worst thoughts you can muster.  Never judge a person until you really know who they are. The evangelicals keep talking about judgement day coming... since we all seem to be judging each other not based on truth, I would say judgement day might just have arrived.

As you were,