Happy Birthday Papa B

Have you ever thought about old friends or relatives, people with whom you share memories, people who stand out in the landscape of your life like a proud oak tree in an otherwise level pasture, people who have influenced your ethics and integrity…have you ever felt the need to connect with these individuals only to realize that you’ve waited too long or that you’ve wasted your opportunity to express proper gratitude because you’ve been too busy, you had work to do, the kids have a game, you feel stupid for waiting so long? (Jesus! Speaking of long…that’s last sentence has to be some kind of record, even for my long-winded ass.)

To answer my own question in one word, yes. Yes, I’ve done all the above and more and I’ve lived long enough to regret it from time to time. In recognition of my own gratitudinous ineptitude, a condition defined here for the first time in medical history, I would like to draw the reader’s attention, and man, does he need attention, to a man who is most assuredly my oldest friend in this lifetime. I say my oldest friend for two reasons. First, we’ve afflicted each other since the time I was just entering my my highly impressionable teen-age years and secondly, if years were pounds he would be at least a welterweight. For those of you unaccustomed to counting in pugilistic units, that makes him about 147 and easily older than anyone I know on this side of the churchyard wall.

I first met Ben Bollinger Sr. or “Papa B” playing pick-up basketball when I was in the eighth grade. Papa B’s son was to become my most influential mentor in music as in other things and had invited me to come play hoops with a few of his high school singing students. I was tall for my age and when we were choosing who we were to guard Papa B looked me up and down and declared. “Let me teach Stilts here how it’s done.” The next two hours were like nothing I had experienced before. I couldn’t decide if my ribs were cracked from laughing or from Papa B’s elbows. He looked normal enough but I swear the man’s elbows had to have been sharpened on a lathe. I instantly knew Papa B to be a generous man. He doled out punch lines and rib-crushing elbows as if they had no value on the open market. And his timing? His timing was exquisite. As we ran down the court side by side he would set up a funny story. Then as the play developed he would build to the punch line and just as I had a chance at the ball he would pop the line, I’d start laughing my ass off and he’d elbow me in the solar plexus rendering me frozen in time just long enough for me to miss my chance.

There are a lot of good things about Papa B that he probably wouldn’t feel comfortable being aired publicly so I’ll stick to what I know and have experienced personally. Suffice it to say that he has done more for the less fortunate than most can hope to accomplish. Now…back to the good stuff. During my college years we did a bit of traveling and I’ll be damned if one of us didn’t always pull the short straw and end up as the other’s roommate. I learned a lot during that time about how to handle myself when on the road. Those lessons served me well later in my career as a road musician.

Rule number 1 is that no matter how thoughtful you might think the hotel people are, if you eat and drink all the shit in that little ice box under the sink…somebody has to fork over some cash. And rule number 2 is that if you are sharing a room, you must always lock the bathroom door…no matter what religion the chick is. There’s a whole lot that can go sideways when you tour as a rock musician, but over the years these two rules or some slight variation thereof have kept me out of a ton of trouble so Papa B…thanks for that.

As far as humor…simply the best. The friggin’ corniest…but the best. His repertoire is endless but I want to take a moment to share a few tidbits. Now you have to understand that the jokes themselves are long and depend on Papa B’s inimitable delivery for a successful outcome and this couldn’t possibly come across on the written page. But friends of Papa B’s will recognize these as being among his best punch lines.

1.”Fifi, I said get out from under the couch before this man shits all over you.”

2. “Oh that…that’s his asshole, he’s not used to stopping so fast. ” and my favorite…

3. There’s the fizz, the fuzz, the fizzy-fuzz, the poop, the poopedy-poop, the tear-ass and the rattle.

Now it’s about a hundred years later and I hear through the grapevine (Janice) that it’s Papa B’s birthday. I can’t wait to walk into the presence and be met with his usual greeting, “Aw Jeez, Strobl! You never knew anything and learned even less. Come here you worthless bastard. I always knew you’d never amount to anything!” Goddamn man, that cake will have so many candles that it will show up on GoogleEarth.com, won’t it? If he can blow out a conflagration of that magnitude I hope he remains healthy long enough to go help out those guys running the wind farm out in the desert.

On the serious side, Papa B has influenced me more than he can know and I’m very grateful for the chance to let him know about it. He’s a hell of a man with compassion and a sense of humor equal to someone ten times his weight class. Those who have been blessed with knowing him are much better people for it. Standing next to him in line at the airport is infinitely better than going to the opera, the circus or a strip club with anyone else, and more rewarding. Papa B is all sunshine and good intentions and I know I’m not alone in wishing him not only the happiest of birthdays but many healthy returns of the day. As Duke Ellington might have said, had he been fortunate enough to know my oldest friend, “Papa B, we love you madly.”

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