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Reflecting on the Puzzle Pieces That Make Up My Life

Reflecting on the Puzzle Pieces That Make Up My Life

By Dave Price

As is happening much more frequently as I get older, death has removed two more big pieces of the interlocking personal jigsaw puzzle that depicts my younger, pre-adult years.

In the last week of May, former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jim Bunning died at age 85 in his home state of Kentucky, where after his professional baseball career he served as both a member of the House of Representatives and the United States Senate.

One day later, death claimed Gregg Allman, the 69-year-old singer and Hammond B-3 organ player for the hugely popular Southern rock jam band the Allman Brothers, which was founded in 1969 by his brother, the legendary rock guitarist Duane Allman.

Bunning and Allman represented two of my major early passions – sports and rock music. And both had provided a special personal bond for members of my family and me.

Baseball, my dad and me…

From about 1960 to 1964, like thousands of other Baby Boom boys in America, I was consumed with sports. I played both sandlot and organized sports. I watched all the sports I could on the black-and-white TV in the living room of our southern New Jersey home. I devoured the sports pages of our local newspaper and memorized statistics from The Sporting News magazine and the colorful Topps baseball cards I avidly collected.

Sports also created the strongest bond my father and I ever shared. Like many World War II veterans of his generation, my dad was an incredibly hard worker. He spent six days a week at the various dry cleaning plants he built and operated, always leaving before I woke up and rarely returning home before I went to bed.

But Sunday was different.

When my mother and I returned from church, my dad would be dressed in a suit ready for the three of us to go out for an early Sunday lunch. After lunch, we would return home and my dad and I would watch whatever baseball or football game was on TV.

Pitch Perfect for Jim Bunning

I remember many of those moments, but the one that stands out most vividly occurred on June 24 in 1964. It was Father’s Day and the Phillies were playing a double header against the New York Mets.  Jim Bunning was pitching for the Phils in the first game.

After five innings, it became apparent that my dad and I were watching what could become a piece of baseball history. Bunning hadn’t allowed the New York Mets a single hit. He also hadn’t walked any Mets’ batters.

As the Mets batted in the 9th and final inning, Bunning was still at the top of his game. No hits, no walks, no Phils errors. Not one runner had reached base. Bunning was just 3 outs away from one of the rarest of baseball pitching feats. The first Met popped up for an easy out. The Phils pitching ace then struck out the final two Mets’ batters.

It was almost unbelievable. Jim Bunning had pitched a perfect game, the first one thrown by a National League pitcher in 84 years. And my Dad and I had watched, cheering like the true Phillies fans we were.

Obviously, not a Father’s Day has gone by since then when I don’t spend at least a few moments reflecting on my dad and me and Jim Bunning’s perfect game we watched together.

Gregg Allman and his musical brothers

As for Gregg Allman, I was first introduced to him in 1969. Or, to be more accurate, I discovered his soulful southern blues voice and his tasteful organ playing listening to the Philly FM underground station programmed into the small radio in my off-campus room during my freshman year at Villanova University.

The Allman Brothers quickly became one of my favorite live bands and I had the chance to see them more than a dozen times over the ensuing years. Interestingly enough, even though my wife and I have very different musical tastes, she always enjoyed Gregg Allman, too, especially his trademark songs “Melissa” and “Midnight Rider.”

So, when I discovered Gregg was headlining the Rock Legends IV Cruise in January of 2016, I persuaded Judy to join me with 2,700 other classic rock fans to enjoy the music of Allman and dozens of other classic rock acts including Peter Frampton, America, and even Gregg’s son, Devon Allman and his band.

A birthday treat with Gregg Allman

The cruise would be special for a lot of reasons, the most important of which was that Judy’s 65th birthday would occur while we were sailing. Needless to say, we were excited when we discovered that on her January 22nd birthday, Gregg would be doing a meet-and-greet with a photo op. That meant there was a good chance Judy and I could spend some time with Gregg on her birthday.

Gregg’s greet-the-fans session would run for 45 minutes and was set for 1 pm. Even though this was our first music cruise, we had been warned that you needed to get in line really early if there was some performer you definitely wanted to meet

Arriving 90 minutes before the scheduled starting time, we discovered there were only about 30 people in front of us, a fairly sure sign that we would get in.

Our patience and early arrival were rewarded as we were part of the first group admitted to the ship’s dining room to meet with Gregg. Volunteer cruise workers had said that Allman wouldn’t be signing any articles, but Gregg quickly ignored that rule.

Another rule appeared to be in effect, however. His massive bodyguard had warned us that men were not to drape their arms around Gregg or touch him, but women could if they wanted to. They could even ask for a hug or two.

By the time our turn came, I let Judy go first. Gregg was sitting on a high bar stool with other stools on either side of him. A professional photographer was taking pictures and said they would be available online later. Judy approached Greg and told him how much she appreciated his music, adding that it was her 65th birthday. Greg gave her a hearty hug and happy birthday and, after about a minute of chat, he motioned me to join them.

As I sat down on the 3rd stool, I grinned and joked, “Hey Gregg, you’re not trying to steal my wife, are you?”

His grayish eyes twinkled and he let out a laugh that I swear had some of the same growly effects as his incredible blues voice. “Nah, man,” he said in a smooth southern drawl as he pointed with a tattooed-covered arm to his wife and one of his stunning daughters sitting a few feet away. “I got that covered”.

We might have wanted to have extended our meeting, but there were hundreds of fans who also wanted to meet Allman. We both thanked him for all his music over the years, he thanked us for attending all the concerts we had, we shook hands, and our meet-and-greet was over.

Live and in concert on the Atlantic Ocean

But Judy’s birthday with Gregg Allman wasn’t finished yet. Allman was scheduled to perform a set on the ship’s top deck at 5:45 p.m. and, of course, we planned to attend.

As we approached the stage area around 5, a hard rain was falling and a strong wind was swirling. Although all the Allman Band equipment was on stage, it was covered by heavily taped-down blue tarp.

But bad weather can be a boon to dedicated concert goers. Judy and I immediately headed to the front of the stage on Gregg Allman’s side. We staked out a spot directly in front of his Hammond B-3. If there was to be a show, we would be standing close enough to talk to him.

As the minutes dragged, that outcome seemed more doubtful. The rain lessened, but the intermittent gusts increased. The wind had caused severe problems the night before. It had been so forceful that it had toppled the giant bass stacks used by Foghat. Finally, around 6:40 a cheer erupted. The crew was on stage, working to remove the tarps. They succeed and a few minutes after 7, the band, led by Gregg, walked across the stage to their instruments.

Gregg sat down at his battered B-3. He was struggling to keep his black baseball cap on his head.

“Hey, sorry about that,” he said, looking down directly at us and finally abandoning trying to adjust his cap. “First, we were going on, then we weren’t. The captain agreed to stop the ship for an hour to see if we can get this show in for you”.

“Damn this wind,” he added, tugging and pushing at the small stage monitor in his ear.

Finally, he counted off and the band hit the 1st notes of their opening number “Statesboro Blues,” a classic Allmans opener since the days of their great Fillmore East live shows in the early 70s.

Needless to say, we enjoyed the abbreviated show, especially since it was the closest Judy had ever been to a performer and a performance.

Again in concert with Gregg, this time in Atlanta

In 2016, we moved to Atlanta to spend time with our two grandchildren. Shortly after arriving, we learned that Gregg would be performing at his own Laid Back Festival in his home state of Georgia in May. We bought tickets, but due to a series of ailments Gregg was experiencing, the outdoor festival had to be postponed and rescheduled for the fall.

So, on a warm Atlanta October night, we found ourselves in our seats at the outdoor Lakewood amphitheater to once again enjoy the sounds of Allman and his band. Our seats weren’t as great as our standing spot on the cruise, but we were under the covered portion of the facility, so we had an excellent view of the stage. In addition, to our left, there was a giant screen if we wanted to get a closer look at the stage and concert.

Once again, Allman opened with “Statesboro Blues.” Midway through the show, I heard muffled sounds from my wife. Turning to her, I saw that she was sobbing silently, a few tears streaking her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“He just looks so bad,” Judy said, pointing to the giant image of Gregg on the screen to our left. “I’m afraid he’s really sick. I don’t think we’ll see him again”

Judy’s premonition turned out to be correct.

With the last notes of the Allman Brothers favorite closer “One Way Out” played, Gregg walked off the stage for a final time. After more than 45 years seated at his Hammond on stages all over the world, he never performed in public again.

I don’t know why you say goodbye…

So, as I said at the beginning of this piece, my life’s puzzle has been reduced yet again. And I expect it will continue to be diminished until like Jim Bunning, and Gregg Allman, and his brother Duane, and my Dad, and all the countless others who impacted my life and then left this Earth, I too depart.

But until that day, I will have the great (and a few not-so-great) memories of all those pieces of my puzzle that have been taken. In that way, it’s almost as if there is a sense of immortality that comes from living and interacting with others, no matter how long or how brief a time we are allotted.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Live at the Fillmore East Allman Brothers CD to listen to and then a baseball game on TV to watch.

Because I’m pretty sure that if my Dad, Jim Bunning, and Gregg Allman were still here, that’s exactly what they would want me to do.

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Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.