Saturday mornings I listen to The Del McCoury Band, Doyle Lawson, or Rhonda Vincent. For breakfast, I eat a blueberry glazed donut, and drink a carton of chocolate milk.
There are people who come into our lives at a time of need, or bring an energy, perspective, or spirit that affects our every breath. Whether by character or chronology, they become part of our DNA. I am blessed to know many, but I work to live my life in homage to The Amazing Dick Bass.
If I speak kindly or extend a hand it is in hopes that when I’m Glory bound, I’ve earned the words said, and the tears shed the morning of Sunday, April 25th, 1999, at the Cobb Creek Baptist Church, in Atlanta, Georgia.
I came to know The Amazing Dick Bass at the University of Illinois. He was in pursuit of his PhD in Electrical Engineering, and I was in vet school. In order to step outside the haughty realm of academia and ensure happy hour Friday night did not segue into hangover Saturday morning, Dick and I would meet a block off campus at the Ye Olde Donut Shoppe at six o’clock.
Dick would have a blueberry glazed and a chocolate milk. He’d celebrate the first chug like a quart of Perrier in Death Valley, “Aww, so delicious, jes feel it coat your throat, all the way down to your belly.” I’d have a white Long John in memory of Sunday mornings on the way to church with Dad.
We’d talk to Porter Kaise about the finer points of finishing asphalt and courting women from a front porch, with a pitcher of sweet tea. Porter drove a Lincoln Town Car, and wore dress slacks to the donut shop. To this day I don’t speak his name without hanging on to the-aise-for a half-note, and a nod.
One Saturday, we found ourselves in defense of the Andy Griffith show. Bernie the Plumber thought the rural references denigrating; Dick and I found the show romantic.
One nasty Saturday in December, staring down the barrel of finals week, I turned to Dick in numb resignation, “You know, this place does not have the best donuts ever.”
“Naw, Billy Stork, I can’t really argue with you there,” as if Dick Bass would argue about anything. “Not to mention, this pond water in porcelain tastes like they’ve been using the same filter since Watergate.”
We agreed it was all about the folks, put $2.50 on the counter, and wished our blue-collar brothers a good week. I pitched a dozen stalls, watered and fed four sick calves at the vet school, and had my head buried in clinical pathology notes when the library opened at nine.
I was oblivious to Dick’s absence for the rest of that Saturday. Eight o’clock Sunday night, the door tapped open, and in walked a four-foot-tall stack of Krispy Kreme donuts. A bent pair of wire rim glasses peeking over the top, he was grinnin’ with his whole head.
Dick didn’t know sickum about the mechanism of macrolide antibiotics, but his antidote for my anxiety over the pending exam was to drive to Louisville, Kentucky, and retrieve a truckload of the gold-standard pastries, decades before they could be found at every corner gas station in the corn belt.
On fall Saturdays, Champaign-Urbanites would use the influx of football fans to empty their garages and basements. Hippy Christmas for college students. We paused at a table that had prolapsed onto the sidewalk. It was piled with an ironing board, ab-rollers, a coffee pot, and a coda phone. By the garage, Dick moved a blender aside, and held up the broken neck of a flat-black mandolin, the bridge and body hanging from four rusty strings. You’d a thought he’d just found Barbara Eden’s bottle. “How much for the mandolin?” (pronounced man-a-lin)
Without bargaining he handed the lady a five and thanked her.
He tucked the sad little instrument under his arm like it was Bill Monroe’s ’23 F-5, and we walked the three blocks home without a word. Dick Bass was one of those guys - if initially he isn’t making sense, he will. In time, my curiosity trumped my patience. I’d heard him play banjo, guitar, and piano.
”Dick Bass, you know anything about the mandolin?”
“No, Billy Stork, but it seems when folks down home get together to play, we’re always missing a mandolin player.”
For weeks the lonely instrument hung like a barn coat in the breezeway. Week-by-week the strings were off, the neck was clamped, the bridge, was glued, and she was strung again. Suspecting the spray paint was holding it together, he never tried to refinish.
The pursuit of a PhD is like the frog who jumps half-way to the wall. Writing a thesis is tedious, with lots of formulas, numbers, and collaboration. Lab-mates, instructors and - if you’re Dick Bass - strangers on the street become family. He’d host Thursday and Sunday family dinners. We’d stack the dirty dishes and retire to the front porch where he’d pass around a black three-ring binder with Big Square Grey House Book of Songs slipped into the cover, and we’d have a sing-a-long.
I’d request “Please Don’t Bury Me”; Dick would twangle a banjo intro and deliver us to the first verse:
Woke up this morning,
put on my slippers,
walked into the kitchen and died.
I’d mumble and mouth the refrain until my favorite verse:
throw my brain in a hurricane,
and the blind can have my eyes…
And so we’d spend Thursday evenings. If there was a break between songs, and a slow-moving Toyota crept past, Dick Bass would put down his banjo and chase it to the stoplight on Lincoln Ave. A newbie asked him why he chased cars. “I had an old dog that used to, down on the farm. He always had a big ole grin on his face when he was coming back up the driveway, so I thought I’d give it a try. Dog was right.”
Dick Bass was a county fair caricature of an engineer. He spoke the learned diction of Jimmy Carter, with an occasional colloquialism sprinkled in. He was slightly built, with shoulders a bit sloped, disheveled red hair, freckles, and spectacles the size of a saucer. He’d take an elbow to the nose on the basketball court, and for weeks his gold wire rims would be taped in the middle, until he could get back to a soldering iron in the lab.
Compared to EEs, veterinary students are a little more diverse. A gumbo of farm boys, army vets, Cajuns, rednecks, and a street musician who were prone to half-barrel, back-yard bonfire, stress management. I asked Dick if he’d like to go along one Saturday night. “Sure Billy Stork, I’d love to meet some of your friends.”
We arrived in a forty-degree drizzle, a pair of old Pioneers in the window distorting Lynyrd Skynyrd:
Old Curt was a black man
With white, curly hair,
When he had a fifth of wine
He did not have a care
Lou, Lou, and Harry (Jon, Tom, and Hal) were proselytizing on education, fishing, and religion. Their faces glowing red, sitting on mini-van backseats around a blazing pile of pallets. I parked Dick next to the fence while I went to fetch a couple of Red Solo Cups. En route I found myself locked into conversation about waterskiing and etouffee with Elizabeth Clyde. Self-conscious, but only mildly concerned I’d left my friend for over thirty minutes, he was right where I’d left him, semi-circled and slapping knees with Matt, Chris, and Paul.
His PhD thesis was titled, “Large-Signal Tools for Power Electronics: State-Space Analysis and Averaging Theory." He had worked to advance adaptive and mobility devices for the disabled. His defense drew interest from the IEEE staff, the Veterans Administration, and General Electric. The auditorium was packed. Several hours into his defense, he paused, “Man, I’m getting a little tarred in the head.” At which point he passed out boxes of donuts, gallons of chocolate milk, and laid acetate copies of Dr. Seuss on the overhead. And he read:
I do not like green eggs and ham.
Research says the downest day of the week is Tuesday afternoon, which is when Dick Bass would lead students, faculty, and administrators of the University of Illinois Electrical Engineering department, high stepping and singing through the dank marble caverns of Everitt Hall:
I’m a Pepper,
she’s a Pepper,
we’re all Peppers,
wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper Too?
They’d convene at the soda machine for a few moments of camaraderie then get back to research.
I’ve previously written of how he aspired to Kermit the Frog, until the day we found him serenading a flotilla of pontoon-boat partiers on Lake Shelbyville, kicked back on an inner tube, picking his banjo, “Billy Stork, Kermit the Frog ain’t got nothing on me today,” the closest I’d ever hear him get to bravado.
Dick received his PhD in 1990. He returned to his native Georgia to teach at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and be four hours from his Uncle Johnny who raised Vidalia Sweet Onions on his farm near Blackshear. At GT he quickly ascended to associate professor and accumulated several awards for excellence in teaching. At Uncle Johnny’s, they picked bluegrass on the front porch until a train came by so they could play countin’ and guessin’.
I graduated in 1992 and migrated across the cheddar curtain, but the Amazing Dick Bass is the friend from whom you never stray. He and Johnny Bass wouId record ninety-second pickin’-and-grinnin’ comedy skits, then play them into our answering machine. And he’d send letters.
Dear Billy Stork,
Things are great down here in Georgia. Cathy and I joined the choir at our Baptist Church, they were fine with our singing, but had to teach us all about Rhythm.
Just got back from a week with Cathy’s family in France. They heard Americans like Coke and potato chips. After a week, I was ready for a little something different. The French don’t get up too early in the morning, ‘cept Cathy’s brother. Since he didn’t speak a lick of English, and I only know a few words of French, the only thing we could do is play Scrabble.
There are moments… The birth of my daughter. Hugging and holding my friend Ned when the plane flew into the second tower. And the call from our friend Bernie to deliver the news: The Amazing Dick Bass was dead. I tried to twist the cordless phone like an empty water bottle, then pressed it to my forehead until it started to crack. As if it were the phone’s fault. He was en route to the hospital to be with his dad when he rear-ended a semi.
My first call was Kish, who’d introduced me to Dick Bass. We decided we’d find flights to Atlanta, and rendezvous when we got to town. A moment after we’d hung up, I walked to the screened porch and hit redial, “Kish, we’re celebrating the legacy of a man who made every minute of every day and every mile of highway special…”
He finished my sentence, “…road-trip.”
Kish and his wife Anita, Gary, and I met at the foot of the Alma Mater statue on campus at the U of I. I told of the time we helped move the dilapidated upright piano in the back of Dick’s truck. Since I could handle a clutch, I got to drive. Moving day was Gridlock on Green Street, so Dick Bass the Bluegrass man started banging out pop tunes sitting on the fender well of the brown S-10, fielding requests from pedestrians and delivery trucks stuck in the jam.
We paused before the Big Square Grey House, and Everitt Hall. Before we headed south on Route 55, we had burgers at Murphy’s. Kish launched himself off his bar stool. Dick was known to spontaneously fall off his chair into the middle of a bar, spewing papers from his backpack.
We made the iconic Bluebird Café in Nashville by Saturday night for songwriters in the round. As the night drew to a close, Hayden Nicholas brought the house to its feet with “Better Man”, which he co-wrote with Clint Black. Only to be trumped by George Terry doing a little song he wrote with Eric Clapton called “Lay Down Sally”.
A lesser-known and slightly-built writer named Jason Blum sat at the end of our table. When his turn came he humbly leaned his lips to the microphone. “Well, I’ve never written for Clint Black or Garth Brooks, but I did write a song for the victims of the Paducah Kentucky school shootings.” He sang a whisper and barely touched the strings:
I asked for strength,
and you gave me mountains,
I asked for love,
You gave me strangers in need
He dropped his head and strummed the last chord. The respect in Bluebird was broken only by a golf clap and the scuff of boots and Birkenstocks, as folks filed towards the door. The four of us streaming tears, he turned and nodded, wishing us strength on our journey.
He had no idea of our pilgrimage. We had no idea our journey would be twenty years, and counting.
We were pulling onto Interstate 24 Sunday morning as the sun rose over the Smokies. Under the fog, on the horizon rolled a cloud of gravel dust in the medium. Kish speculated construction. I pointed out the time and day; he hit the hazards. We arrived just as a Suzuki Samurai was making its final barrel roll. Still rocking on its roof, the door was buried in the number four road pack. Kish, Gary, and I were able to rock the little roller skate to the point we could tear the door from its hinges. Windshield cracked like a spider’s web, and blood dripping from gashes on his forehead, the driver called for his buddy. A few more motorists must have stopped; I recall Anita directing them down the ditch for a man hunt. He was able to hold his head up so I deduced he had not broken his neck. His pupils were appropriate and responsive and he knew his name (or a name), so I figured it was safe to attempt an extraction. With his full weight hanging against the button, I could not free him from his seat belt. I stuck my hand behind me and Gary laid his pocketknife in my palm like a relay baton with a razor’s edge. I crawled my body under his, and sawed the belt free.
If I were a fiction writer or didn’t have three witnesses, I’d have us diving in the ditches as the car burst into flames.
A Tennessee State Trooper arrived in time to sympathize, “Ah, I wouldn’t worry about his so-called buddy, he’s just drunk.” The ambulance arrived in minutes. We briefed them, they thanked us, and we were once again southbound.
We found a filling station at Route 102. Evidently, blood-covered Yanks at 6:00AM Sunday are nothing new to Gomer Pyle. When I asked for the bathroom to scrub the blood and change, he just nodded and threw me the key: a dog chain through an inch-and-a-quarter socket, to ensure I didn’t accidentally put it in my pocket and head to Atlanta.
Kish drove tangents and tapped the brakes through the Monteagle Grade; I searched for the symbolism as we sunk into the clouds that hovered in the treetops.
We were fourth in line at the Krispy Kreme in Chattanooga, slightly nauseous, yet salivating like Pavlov’s dogs, as the fried dough rose from the bubbling grease vat and crept down the conveyor to be sprayed with white icing, like Matchboxes through a car wash. The dozen glazed gut-bombs were down to six before we were back on the interstate, ten minutes before they were rightfully cool enough to eat.
We made the dusty parking lot at the Cobb Creek Baptist Church as the first few mourners trickled in.
Strangers bound by kinship. When words failed, we’d nod and extend a hand. We found a bathroom in the basement to tie our ties and un-ruffle our suit coats. We nodded at the church ladies sorting silverware, tending casseroles and ham loaf.
Minus the only two white faces, the Cobb Creek Gospel Choir spread across the altar left to right. They swung slow in their white flowing robes, singing “Down to the River to Pray” and “I Can’t Even Walk”… on low. Only a few polite decibels, their voices like a hug, filling every space not otherwise occupied by a person, pew or Bible.
Dick had told me about his bluegrass gospel outfit. “You know Billy Stork, it don’t matter Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, we just like to liven up the service a little bit.”
Around no microphone they gathered. Bass, fiddle, guitar, and banjo. At the bottom of their U, in missing man formation, a chrome stand featured a two-tone Sunburst Gibson A-12 mandolin. The stem of one white rose wedged under the tuning pegs. They struggled through “I’ll Fly Away”, and “Old Rugged Cross”, then fell silent. The guitar player crossed his hands over his instrument and made no attempt to catch the tears.
“Not only did we lose one of the finest man-a-lin pickers and tenor singers I’ve ever heard, we’ve lost a friend. Dick Bass had a spirit. I can’t tell you if it was a pause, an inflection, or a single bent note, but the minute that man stepped into our circle-and every time since-it was like songs we’d been singing for the last twenty years, were brand new.”
The stained-glass windows propped wide, the parking lot filled with Cadillac sedans, Mercedes SUVs, and farm trucks. Inside, the congregation swelled. The cavernous house of worship and joy filled with faculty, graduate students, kinfolks, and friends until we all stood shoulder-to-shoulder. I made small talk with the Dean of the College of Electrical Engineering who stood to my right. The choir decrescendoed and the minister shuffled the ribbons in his Bible.
The silence was broken by a few coughs, several sobs, and then the screech of the brakes of three city buses.
With their eyes to the floor and wrists together like prisoners of war, in filed the residents of the Atlanta YMCA, group homes, men’s shelters, soup kitchens… and the street. Dressed in the throw-aways of the well-to-dos in the pews and Goodwill, the men, homeless and destitute, crowded the vestibule and the back of the church. After only a moment’s thought, the minister spread his arms and motioned for them to sit among us. In the likeness of the man whose life we’d gathered to celebrate, loss knows no education, status, or fortune.
Looking to stifle the back-of-the hand murmurs and crinkled noses, I leaned to the Dean, “Have you ever asked what Dr. Bass does before he commences his research and teaching each day?”