Three Penny Piece

Tall Tales

It has been our habit to occasionally accompany our shameless email promos with long rambling stories, featuring ourselves leading lives considerably more glamourous than our actual lives. Here's a few of them, in case anyone needs to submit a writing assignment that can't be easily traced.

Christmas in America (December 2007)

In December 1990, back when it was just the three of us, when no self-respecting fiddle-player would associate with us, and the bus station was fresh out of bass players, we were hired to fill in for another folk trio on the Northeast leg of their US tour as an opening act. It was short notice, but, unlike now, we would play pretty well anywhere. Besides, we would be paid in US currency, which at the time was worth more than the Canadian dollar! (true fact -- look it up). Bruce was able to take time off from IBM quite easily -- Big Blue was feeling generous that year, pretty confident that their new OS2 operating system would drive Microsoft out of the computer business once and for all. Declan's window-cleaning/gigolo racket was in its usual post-Halloween - pre-Christmas lull, and my duties at Auto Trader often allowed me to disappear for weeks at a time; even in those days it was common for the Trader to simply print up a new cover and sell the same magazine week after week. (Darned investigative journalism students from Fanshawe put an end to that gravy train in '06, but that's another story...)

We were filling in for the Weisemanns, some sort of Klezmer/Bongo act out of southern Europe. They had run into work visa problems arriving in New York, and they had to leave the country until these difficulties were sorted out. (Interesting side note -- the Weisemanns went to Nova Scotia to wait while their paperwork was resubmitted, and they got comfortable and stayed! You know them better today as The Rankin Sisters) At the time, our repertoire consisted largely of TV theme songs, Happy Birthday, and about 8 mournful dirges Declan was learning from his guitar teacher Bob. Thankfully, the music business in North America had hit a spectacular new low; compared to Vanilla Ice and that 'Pump-up-the-jam" girl, not to mention an endless stream of mediocre one-name Canadian pop sensations -- Zappacosta? Luba? Gowan? -- we were considered fresh and interesting. We miss those days.

We set out in an Auto Trader delivery van on a foggy Thursday morning. I had about 50 bundles of books to deliver to Beckers stores in Oxford County -- afterwards we planned to cross the border at Niagara Falls and head for the big time. By 9:30 we had delivered all of the Auto Traders to random Amish families in the Aylmer area -- Free Fuel! Merry Christmas! -- and we were able to make very good time, despite the van's malfunctioning wiper blades. At the border, Declan launched into his now famous 'repentant IRA bomber seeking asylum' routine, and since at that time the US was still welcoming, sheltering and giving flying lessons to terrorists of all denominations were were waved straight though. We had lunch at Denny's.

The headliner of the tour was Billy Ray Cyrus, who would that very next year make Country Line Dancing the single most debilitating epidemic to sweep America since polio. In fact, after hooking up with the tour convoy in Buffalo we actually jammed with Billy Ray and his band, and I still swear to this day that a song we were working on about quitting smoking -- working title: Achy Breaky Lungs -- was stolen by Billy Ray, clumsily reworded and released as a single. We'll never know for sure. (Interesting side note -- clearly having read the writing on the wall, BRC had the foresight to father a daughter and groom her to become a teen pop sensation, and he is now living pimp-like on the proceeds of her career. Billy now weighs over 600 pounds, and has never cut off his mullet.)

Anyhow, we spent most of the next two days stuck in fog on the US Interstate system behind Billy Ray's ostentatious tour bus. On the back of the bus Billy Ray had emblazoned a giant reflective gold star, a testament perhaps to his essential humility and his devotion to his craft. Owing to the fog and our dismal wiper blades, we could often see nothing ahead of us other than this big star, and a portion of the sticker below reading 'Don't Like My Driving? Call 1-800-eat-s**t!".

We were just outside Bethlehem Pennsylvania at about 10 pm Saturday when the wiper blades gave out completely. My plan had been to stop at a Canadian Tire and get new blades, but we hadn't found a single outlet in the entire country. We pulled off the interstate, and watched the big stupid star fade off into the fog. We'd have to catch up with them in Pittsburgh. Luckily, not far from the interchange was a Red Roof Inn, and a collection of strip mall shops selling truckers the necessities of road life -- cigarettes, liquor and porn. We inched our way to the hotel, pooled our resources -- 89 dollars, including a glove box full of apparently useless Canadian Tire money -- and entered the lobby.

It was a busy night at the Red Roof Inn. The staff -- underpaid, undertrained locals in red vests -- were clearly overwhelmed by the throng of fog-stranded holiday travelers. A bowling team from Heidelberg, Nebraska, cleverly named the German Shepherds, was arguing with a young trainee named Wally about their rooms. Beside them, an exasperated clerk was telling a very pregnant young couple that, unfortunately, despite their confirmed reservation, despite their exhaustion and delicate predicament, the hotel was overbooked -- there was no room at the Red Roof Inn.

The bowlers were oblivious to the drama developing beside them at the front desk. They had clearly checked in hours ago and after fueling themselves with variety store beer -- What a country! -- they had decided to badger the Red Roof staff into moving the team into adjoining rooms for God knows what reason. The German Shepherds from Heidelberg Nebraska had by that point sucked all the peace and goodwill out of the room, and the shy distraught couple retreated out of the building into the night.

Shortly after we did the same; there was no room for us either. The bowlers staggered out too, and fired up cigars. The parking lot of the Red Roof Inn was strangely quiet, with a soft halogen brightness bathing the damp vehicles and industrial grease dumpsters behind the kitchen. Somewhere a dog barked. A Peterbilt 390 Diesel Road King with a full sleeper cab percolated gently in the corner of the lot, and a lone trucker, a towel over his shoulder, was making his way stiffly through the mist towards the gas bar washroom. Suddenly, the trucker stopped, and listened with the rest of us to the sounds of a young woman in some sort of rhythmic pain. This sound, an unnerving pattern of heavy breaths and short exclamations, was coming from the open rear hatch of a 1987 Mercury Sable Station wagon. It was the young couple. She was on her back in the rear of the vehicle, crammed in among a collection of stuffed garbage bags and cardboard boxes. He was holding her hand, patiently counting out the seconds between contractions. She was swinging a wooden snow brush, desperate to cause him injury. She finally caught him in the eyebrow with the end with the ice scraper. "For crying out loud, Mary! That hurts! Dang!"

But she wasn't moved by his suffering. 'IS THE BEST YOU CAN DO?!?!? IS THIS WHAT I HAVE TO LOOK FORWARD TO..." but these last words disappeared in a great whoosh of groaning breath. And then a baby appeared. Bruce fainted dead away. The trucker offered the couple his towel as swaddling. It smelled vaguely of Aqua Velva. The Shepherds just stood there smoking their cheap cigars, and all was quiet again for just a moment.

The universe had converged on this anonymous patch of asphalt in America, and a dozen strangers stood in wonder while a tiny child took his first breaths and drew into focus every hope we shared, every trace of innocence that persisted in our troubled hearts. All was calm, and then, all was bright. In an instant the Peterbilt's headlights flared on, two beacons from the east illuminating the newborn babe in the Sable. A car radio swelled up in the mist, playing Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. One of the bowlers farted, and popped a brewski. I lost my patience with them at that point.

"Would it not be possible for you stupid bastards to double up and give these people a room?"

It was no trouble as all, as it turned out. Three bowlers -- their names Goldy, Frankinsense and Murray stitched on their shirts -- improvised a stretcher out of a buffet table, and carried mother and child to room 104. A philandering doctor was located on the second floor, holed up with a floozie. He sheepishly presided over the young family, and even managed to revive Bruce, who, typically, denied swooning in the first place. The floozie convinced Wally from the front desk to let us camp out in the lounge, where we played TV Theme Songs and Irish dirges deep into the night. Typically, there was soon nobody there to listen, so we finally just let the peace and magic of the night -- and about nine cans each of variety store beer (again, what a country!) -- carry us away.

The next morning we thought it would be appropriate to give a baby present of some sort, but our cash supply was low, and it was unlikely we would find any gift shops open. Declan suggested he could play his Bodhran as a shower gift.


"I could play a song on my bodhran for the wee babe."

"As a gift? A song on your drum? What kind of stupid gift is that?"

Instead, we bought the kid an MC Hammer travel mug at the gas bar, along with some new wiper blades for ourselves. By noon we were in Pittsburgh, where Billy Ray Cyrus fired us for getting lost.

They named the boy Murray, and we still exchange Christmas cards with several members of the German Shepherds. Wally and the Floozie got married. We always thought that the MC Hammer travel mug would appreciate in value, and perhaps pay for the boy's college education, but by last report it was still worthless.

That won't matter. Turns out the kid is pretty special.

Merry Christmas

Terrorist Camp (June 2006)

This is just a quick note to confirm that we WILL be performing at the Carlow Arms Saturday June 10, despite all the recent excitement. Originally, the Oprah taping was going to interfere with our regular Carlow gig, but that schedule changed when Lindsay Lohan had to switch HER appearance because of a detox session, and, well, all that really doesn't matter. Suffice it to say that our CSIS - RCMP task force debriefing won't start until Monday night, after Canadian Idol. (Apparently, Ben friggin' Mulroney is hip deep in all this too... It just gets wierder and wierder) For those of you that may have been comotose or sequestered in a cave practicing the whistle for the past week, let me explain...

Some of you may recall that last summer we started heading up to cottage country on our off-weekends to work out arrangements, and improve our musicianship. Derek's family lets us use their cottage in Ramira township-- Declan calls it 'chord camp'. Early one Saturday morning in mid September we were working on our tribute to Jim Nabors when we noticed Dale was missing from the session. We found him crouched in the hedge, watching the neighbours, but this time there was no sunbathing involved.

The fellows next door, who had arrived late Friday night in a school bus marked 'Teen Challenge Farm', had assembled a Beetle-Bailey style obstacle course in the clearing behind their property, complete with old tires, refrigerator box tunnels, skipping-rope trip wires and a set of jumper cables suspended over a puddle. They were lined up, about 16 of them, taking turns stumbling through these impediments, trying their hardest to impress a creepy older fellow in a bathrobe and a fez, who was making notes on a clipboard.

"Criminy!” whispered Bruce, squeezing in for a closer look. “That's Billy Gibbons! From ZZ Top!"

It did indeed look like the aging guitarist, especially the beard, but nothing else made sense. The participants all wore brand-new Zellers brand camouflage T-shirts and cargo pants. Piled on a picnic table was a quantity of kitchen knives, two hatchets, a hacksaw, several sets of 'L'il Commando' Walkie Talkies and three jugs of Sunny Dee, also all from Zellers.

Well, the slipshod nature of the obstacle course was clearing irritating Declan, and when the jumper-cable puddle swing broke apart for the third time he burst through the hedge. "Top of the morning, laddies! Having some trouble with your... project, I see!"

We can only imagine what our odd new neighbours were thinking when this great pale apparition sprang forward, cup of tea in hand, all rumpled and red-haired and speaking an inscrutable tongue. We speculate now that they found kinship in Declan's beard. They all had similar beards, and somehow his red beard outranked theirs, and by quickly jury-rigging a more functional man-swing out of some speaker cables Declan gained their trust and respect. Even Billy Gibbons -- who actually WASN'T Billy Gibbons after all, but his real name was unpronounceable -- begrudgingly welcomed our visit when it turned out that Dale knew how to prime a Coleman stove.

These boys were never terribly clear about what on earth they were doing in the middle of nowhere with all those knives and skipping ropes, but hell, we were five grown men singing show-tunes in a 12 by 12 cabin. We adopted a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy that served us well for the rest of the weekend.

As it turned out, Sunday supper was going to be a bit of a hootenanny next door. An important visitor was scheduled to visit, and when Billy Gibbons discovered we were a music group he asked if we would favour them with a brief performance, in exchange for 'being spared the inglorious infidel's death in the raging river of blood of divine vengeance', whatever that meant. Of course, he had no idea we would play the whole night for a Guinness T-shirt, so we exchanged winks and on Sunday we set up our stuff on the so-called 'beheading altar'.

After a big feed of stolen corn-on-the-cob we took to the stage, and we were well into our set when a Dodge Omni with one mismatched door came driving up the cowpath to the clearing. The visitor had arrived. From where I stood I thought it looked like the other ZZ Top guy, but Derek, who always travels with a copy of "The International Revolutionary Fugitive Spotters Guide" knew better.

"That's Che! Che Guevara!" Derek exclaimed. "And his Mom!", he added, trying to account for the visitor's companion, an ancient blind person in a turban. Of course, we all knew Che Guevara was dead, and the old fellow having an interminable pee not quite out of sight beside the bus was definitely not the long-suffering Mrs. Guevara. Bruce was pretty sure this all had something to do with Amway.

Anyhow, when Mr. Important Visitor came up on stage and commandeered my mike -- and I hate it when they do that! They yank it out of the holder, they hold it too close, they blow in it, they tap it, what's the deal with that?!?! -- the crowd dropped their greasy cobs and fell silent. Mr. Pompous Intruder thanked us for our music in his Grade Six English, then launched into a mumbling tirade about Imperialist Devil Pigs, oil wars and slutty western girls (?!?) that put the whole troupe to sleep. Mr. KillJoy finally loaded Uncle Fester back into the Omni and disappeared into the woods, while the camouflage kids, all tuckered out and cranky by now, piled into the bus and drove away too, leaving us with one holy mess to clean up.

Luckily for mankind, Derek had the presence of mind to take a few discreet snapshots with his FunSaver, but he sort of forgot and left the undeveloped pictures in his gig bag until about two weeks ago. It was the photo guy at Walmart who finally called the authorities. It’s been a whirlwind of interrogations and photo ops ever since, but we’ve still managed remain humble. We’re still working on that Jim Nabors set.

The Sink Hole (Nov 2007)

"I was just staring at the street, like I often do, and suddenly it ... sank!" -- Larry Snert, Sinkhole Survivor

It was a cool October evening, and Londoners were living their simple but oddly dignified lives when the earth literally gave way, crumbling inch after inch into an unspeakable abyss. The gored cityscape coughed up decades-old steam, the asphalty wound exposing a twisted hell of abandoned dreams and decayed plumbing. Those who lived call it 'The Sinkhole', and paled-lipped youngsters still bolt screaming from sleep into their nurses' arms, tormented by nightmares of rerouted LTC busses, displaced squeegee kids and askew metal trees, their bright pastel paints now a mere mockery of the grandeur that once was Dundas.

As we emerge ragged and stunned, saddened by this vicious blow from the capricious and cruel Gods of Fate, we can only band together and wonder Why? Why did it sink? Why such a big hole? Who even knew those pipes were down there? Why in God's Name didn't Anne Marie Whatsername-Best fix it? How close did we come to losing the entire closing-time crowd from The Scot's Corner into it's sewery depths, and would they have even noticed? Does this mean Jonathon's taxes will go up? Will the construction crews overwhelm the slim resources of the Galleria Food Court?

This isn't the time for finger-pointing. It is, however, time to gather in a warm, welcoming pub as far from the unrelenting turmoil and backhoe fumes as Londoners can possibly go. Please join us for a night of commiserating and second-guessing at Deacons, 1440 Jalna Blvd, located safely in the civilized confines of White Oaks Sub Division, South London's oasis of decency and up-to-code municipal pipe-fitting. Absolutely every cent raised on Friday night will go somewhere other than the Sinkhole Fund. We figure we're doing our part just staying out of the way.

We are counting on your support.

"The report did not say whether the husband was pleased or not with her long silence."

3PP Sinkhole Commemoration Committee

PS: Please forward this to all worthy recipients.

PPS: As might be expected, plans are underway to record the following benefit anthem:

We'll fill in the sinkhole (oooooooooooooooo, the siiiink-hole...) We'll fill it with loooove (fill it up, all the waaaay up, yes we wiiiilll) 'Cause the moons four feet higher Than it was last month ('Cause that's how deep the hole is, more or less, yes it iiiiiiis, and if you stand in the hole and look up, well, you know what we meeeeeannn) (repeat)

The Cruise Ship Gig(June 2009)

Now of course, the most frequent question we are asked as a band is “Does one of you own the dinged-up white Chev van illegally parked on the lawn of the church?’” But next to that it is ‘How did you end up with that sweet yearly Casino gig?” Clearly there’s no obvious connection between the glamorous world of gambling and things Irish. We don’t really mesh with the glitzy décor and the Casino clientele doesn’t seem to know what to make of us. Between sets we wander the facility in our gig clothes – the usual white shirts and vests – and gamblers give us drink orders. Declan, who wears a slightly-too-snug velour green tuxedo and novelty bowler hat, fits in fine with the regulars.

The Casino connection goes back ten years to our ill-fated stint on the Royal Netherlands Queen Vacation Cruise liner, a massive casino on the sea that specialized in stuffing, baking and fleecing enormous American tourists who prefer to travel while moving their own limbs as little as possible. The Summer of ’99 cruise ship gig had been Bruce’s brainstorm as a way of dodging jury duty, and the two month contract on a boat had been surprisingly easy to sell to the wives: to our immense surprise and utterly overwhelming relief, they came along. Thankfully, we were to be spared the torment of having our free time unscheduled! Thanks to the steady presence and loving discipline of our three vigilant life mates, we would not have to spend any subsequent years regretting the indulgences that fate might have dropped into the laps of three naïve Canadian boys set loose on the Caribbean.

Our contract called for eight 40 minute shows a day, alternating with a Billy Ray Cyrus tribute band out of Chicago. We found we had to drop the Irish shtick almost immediately – the cruise passengers didn’t recognize or appreciate Celtic music, and if they did pay attention long enough to hear Declan’s accent they would insist on ‘Toura Loura Loura’ and ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’ until the cows came home. After day three we regrouped ourselves as a ‘Grunge Kingston Trio Meets Spice Girls’ sort of ensemble. To supplement and obscure our sound we recruited the affable bass player from The Achy Breaky’s to play with us for our two early evening sets.

The wives adapted to shipboard life almost immediately, despite having only recently seen The Titanic. Sandy spent the first day and a half scanning the horizon for icebergs, but when she discovered the ‘Texas Hold-em’ table she peeled off her life jacket and never looked back. Susan and Phyllis seemed to spend most of their time with two dance teachers from El Salvador, Raul and Rico. Tall and tanned with rippling muscles and flashing smiles, Raul and Rico were both obviously gayer than French horns and of no concern.

The bass player from the Billy Ray clone band, of course, was Dale. We had no idea at the time he was Canadian, let alone from London. For some reason, he spoke with a soft drawl, and even then he had that air of weathered wisdom and good humour that still drives elderly women crazy.

The Billy Ray show had evolved in a strange direction too. Dwayne the lead singer was quite drunk all the time, and the drummer was terminally seasick. This left the work of actually putting on a performance to Dale and the young piano player, an energetic black kid from Chicago named Barry.

Their performance had long ago veered away from Billy Ray’s limited set list, and had instead become a showcase for Barry’s many talents – in fact, it seemed that Barry spent more time simply speaking to the audience than playing music. He had a riveting stage presence, despite the hokey cowboy shirt and straw hat. As Dwayne grew more incoherent throughout the day Barry would cover for him with jokes, stories, wry observations, and occasionally some post-game pointers for the many pairs of stunned newlyweds. In the weird alternate universe of the pleasure cruise, Barry was becoming a celebrity. People were constantly ‘high-fiving’ Barry, and cornering him for advice. He impressed Dale.

“The guy’s a born leader and a superb musician, and here he is in a cowboy hat playing cracker songs behind THAT guy”, said Dale, gesturing to Dwayne who was retching up his breakfast into a potted palm. It was Tuesday morning. We were hanging around the Buena Vista lounge, watching Declan fashion a bodrhan out of a life preserver. His real one, oddly, had ended up being tossed overboard. Bruce emerged from the elevator with a rum drink the size of a bidet. He concurred that it must be frustrating to be a gifted black pop musician these days.

“It’s all because of rap”, I said, gearing up for a big rant, but just then Susan and Phyllis showed up with the news that Macarena lessons were starting on the Coconut deck. Declan explained that due to the complex terms in our contract the band was forbidden to participate in any nonalcoholic recreational activities. From the poker lounge we heard Sandy shout ‘Yahoo!’ Bruce was about to go investigate, then seemed to decide to leave well enough alone, and went back upstairs to the sundeck again.

We were about to follow – Bruce has always had good instincts about where might be a good place to loiter in situations like this – when the ship’s pseudo foghorn alert sounded loudly over the PA. An agitated teenaged employee came on the system to announce that ‘due to a minor mechanical failure, the Royal Netherlands Queen Vacation Cruise liner would be shutting off her engines for a brief period’, and that passengers shouldn’t be alarmed. It was unlikely that many of the passengers even remembered they were on a boat; they certainly weren’t worried about whether it was moving forward or not. “As long as she’s not moving downwards!’ said Dale, as he went to find a bucket to clean up Dwayne.

As it turned out, the ship WAS moving downwards, and rapidly, in a manner that is usually considered bad news on a boat. It seemed that the boat had hit something, and might have sprung a leak. When we followed Bruce up to the aerobics deck we saw that we were fortunately, rather close to shore, about half a kilometer from the port town of Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. It was conceivable that, in a pinch, the average fit human being could easily swim to safety. Sadly, virtually none of the overfed clientele onboard were likely to swim anywhere. Dozens of passengers were starting to collect along the guardrails, breakfast burritos in hand, slowly absorbing the implications of their plight. The ship tilted.

“Well, this ain’t good” said Dale. “I’m gonna go find Barry” He disappeared back into the lower decks.

Minutes later a voice through a bullhorn addressed the worried vacationers. “People of the Royal Netherlands Cruise Ship! I am calling on you to change the way you are standing on this deck!” High on the roof of the wheelman’s cabin, a silhouette with a straw hat against the Caribbean morning sun, was Barry the piano player. The crowd waddled to the center of the boat. “We need to reduce the weight of this boat to stay afloat until help arrives” Bruce threw Declan’s improvised bodrhan over the side. “People, we’re going to drain the pool!”

It was a stroke of brilliance. He marshaled the unsightly sightseers into two firemen’s bucket brigades that stretched from either side of the swimming pool to the guardrails on either side of the ship, and within moments they were earnestly passing buckets of pool water to the end of the line and dumping them overboard. It was a completely futile effort, of course, except that it served to herd the unshapely shipmates into a manageable lump in the center of the ship, preserving the vessel’s balance.

More importantly, as Dale observed when he returned, “He’s giving them hope.”

It was true. We watched this clumsy crowd, shoulder to chubby shoulder, bailing out this monstrous inefficient icon of self-indulgence and we were touched by the simple humanity of people joined in crisis, how the rallying cry of a born leader could distract and unite this unlikely mob of garishly-dressed travelers.

Barry seemed affected by the moment as well. He descended from the wheelman’s cabin like Chariton Heston climbing down Mount Sinai, and he put a hand Dale’s shoulder. “Thanks for what you said man. Now I know what I gotta do.” He placed the straw hat on Dale’s head. Declan rotated the hat sideways and snickered uncontrollably.

In one graceful move Barry jumped onto the rail, saluted the crowd and swan-dived into the sea. We watched him swim to shore, and that was the last we saw of Barry. We heard rumours later that he took up politics back in Illinois, and that he changed his name from Barry back to its original African root: Barack, or something.

None of the wives had even noticed the drama on the top deck, and they boarded the shuttle ferry as if we were at any other port stop. Raul and Rico chose to swim ashore, their bulging biceps and rippling abs all tanned and gleaming and effeminate in the warm surf. The wives, deeply worried for their well-being, watched them until they emerged safely onshore, and for some time after that. Susan was still holding a rose in her teeth. Sandy had a galvanized bailing bucket full of casino tokens worth over forty thousand dollars.

The cruise ship people heard later that somehow it was the musicians that had helped avert a panic onboard, and in gratitude offered us all a gig every year on any ship in the fleet. Not long after, fortunately, they got into the Casino business, so we were able to secure a yearly engagement at any facility on solid land as well.

Dale still wears that straw hat.

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