Mundane Moments: Caught in the devil’s bargain.

The Mundane Moments series of posts is an ongoing effort to dredge my grandfathers’ photos out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then.

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History is written by the victors.

This explains why all those 50th-anniversary-of-Woodstock stories you’re reading right now don’t include any mention of Sunlight Rider, a quartet from Connecticut who fell, shall we say, just short of glory.

But their story deserves to be heard anyway. So here, for the first time, we present the oral history of Sunlight Rider and the Woodstock Festival, as told by the four once-young men who lived it.

A group picture of Sunlight Rider in their early days, taken shortly after they performed at one of their first house parties.

MIKE COVELLO, organ: You’ve heard the story of Sunlight Rider, even if you haven’t.

DONNIE ELANNA, guitarist: We were four teenage nogoodniks in high school in Stamford, Connecticut. Didn’t wanna know from school; didn’t wanna know from the football team; didn’t wanna know from varsity letters. Just wanted to play that magic rock n’ roll we heard on the radio.

WALLY DEROSIERS, drums: We’d sit in the bleachers in the cold after school, and cadge cigarettes off each other, and talk about being on Ed Sullivan someday.

DONNIE ELANNA: We’d all played a little bit — string bass in the orchestra, snare drum in the marching band, piano at the recital, that kind of thing. We got together in the basement and put our skills to new use.

MIKE COVELLO: At first we were called Six Minus Two. We never had six guys in the band — we just thought it sounded mysterious.

WALLY DEROSIERS: Then rock music started to get more colorful, so we changed our name to Sunlight Rider.

DONNIE ELANNA: Sunlight Rider. Yeah, that sounded classy. Professional.


DONNIE ELANNA: We were doing pretty good in the basement, but we knew we needed some help to make the gigs start coming. That’s where Rocky Malvelli came in. He was a friend of a friend, I forget whose.

WALLY DEROSIERS: Pirocchio “Rocky” Malvelli. I was never quite sure when to trust him. He was only six or seven years older than us but he seemed to have the inside line on all kinds of things. Some of which were even legal.

MIKE COVELLO: He was the kind of guy who could shuffle two decks of cards in each hand, while at the same time talking his way out of a felony charge.

DONNIE ELANNA: That, by the way, is not a stretch. I saw him do that very thing one time. That exact thing. It was about 1:30 in the morning outside the YMCA in Danbury, and … yeah, the Y in Danbury. Leave the past to rest, as my mother used to say.

MIKE COVELLO: Anyway, he said he would make things happen. And he was as good as his word. Not a month after we met him he had us working four nights a week at Smiley’s at the Turnpike in Norwalk.

WALLY DEROSIERS: Smiley’s. That place was mobbed to the gills.

DONNIE ELANNA: I remember what we used to say: “Smiley’s at the Turnpike … where the steak isn’t really steak.” Capisce?


WALLY DEROSIERS: We started as a Vanilla Fudge/Iron Butterfly cover band. We got real good at “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Play it three times a night and that tends to happen.

MIKE COVELLO: Then we started working up our own originals and mixing them with the covers.

DONNIE ELANNA: A lot of it was blues, really — which there ain’t nothin’ the matter with, by the way. What do you sing when you’re down and out? The blues. What do you sing when you’re happy? Again, the blues. The blues is the language of the universe.

MIKE COVELLO: We worked on our harmonies too — three parts, four parts. Harmony opens lots of doors for you. Girls enjoy harmony.

WALLY DEROSIERS: Our big original tune was called “Escape of Aeneas.” It had four parts and went on for fifteen minutes, at least. My favorite part was always the bolero ending. We built up to it long and loud, and when we got there, it hit you like the New York, New Haven and Hartford.

DONNIE ELANNA: The title “Escape of Aeneas” was Mike’s idea. He had more of an education than the rest of us skids. That’s one of my rules for a good band: You gotta have a guy in the band who reads. It gives you depths.

MIKE COVELLO: That ass Stuey Varzuk used to call it “Escape of Anus” and laugh like hell.


DONNIE ELANNA: It was probably May of 1969. In fact, I know it was, ’cause my girl was just finishing her junior year of high school. Rocky Malvelli comes into the basement, grinning ear to ear, and says, “Boys, I hooked you up with a big one.”

WALLY DEROSIERS: He’d met some guys who were arranging a big rock festival in the middle of August in Wallkill, New York. They were signing up big bands but they wanted some newer talent to mix things up. It was gonna be 50,000 people there — a real step up from Smiley’s at the Turnpike.

DONNIE ELANNA: None of us hesitated for a second. “Sign us up,” we said. A rock festival! We all saw stardom.

MIKE COVELLO: A week later or so, Rocky dropped by, still grinning that grin, and he said he’d signed the contract. We were all good to go. So we settled down to work.

WALLY DEROSIERS: Those next two or three months, those were the most intense months of my life. When we weren’t at Smiley’s, we were camped out in the basement, practicing and practicing. We didn’t barely even notice the sun rise or set. We barely even stopped to eat.

DONNIE ELANNA: I remember we talked about whether to tell our friends about Wallkill. In the end we said no. It’s our first big gig, we thought. What if it doesn’t go well? Let’s play the first big gig, and when we knock ’em dead, then we’ll come back and tell everybody. ‘Cause once we make a name for ourselves at a rock festival, we’ll be playing the big gigs every day.

WALLY DEROSIERS: Sometime around late June, we stopped seeing Rocky. He didn’t come by and we couldn’t raise him on the phone. It bothered us a little — he was our connection to Wallkill. But he said he’d signed the contract, so we just put our heads down and kept rehearsing. We weren’t gonna blow the gig by not sounding good.

DONNIE ELANNA: We bought new stage clothes, even. No matching suits for us — we wanted to show the crowd we were four individuals. I had an orange jacket and a maroon pair of bell-bottoms, and a necklace made of pinecones, for a rustic touch, like back-to-the-earth, you know.

MIKE COVELLO: The big day came, middle of August, and we got up before sunrise and loaded up our van. It felt like we were packing it with dreams.

WALLY DEROSIERS: I remember rolling through the hills of Connecticut, Stu Varzuk practically sitting in my lap, barely enough room in the van to open a bottle of Coke, and knowing in my bones that something big was about to happen.

MIKE COVELLO: As we got closer to Wallkill I started craning my neck, trying to look around every corner and over every hill. I was sure the big show was just around the bend. I was looking for a guy with a flashlight to wave us into the backstage parking lot.

DONNIE ELANNA: So we finally get to Wallkill and … no concert. No concert on the main roads. No concert on the side roads. We get our map out and we drive past every blank spot, every open field in the freaking town. No sign of a concert.

MIKE COVELLO: Finally we pass a gas station and there’s a pump jockey there with longish hair. I figured he would be straight with us. So we get out and ask him where the Wallkill rock festival is …

DONNIE ELANNA: … and he just stares at us, like we have twelve heads and a sunburn …

MIKE COVELLO: … and that’s when we learn what every hippie in the Northeast who hasn’t been locked in a basement rehearsing has known since July: There is no festival in Wallkill, because the town wouldn’t give them a permit. The festival — Woodstock — is an hour away, in someplace called Bethel.

WALLY DEROSIERS: “Sunlight Rider?” he calls, as we’re pulling frantically out of the gas station. “Break a leg!”


DONNIE ELANNA: So off goes Sunlight Rider tearing ass toward our big break in Bethel. Except, fifteen miles outside town, we get stuck in stopped traffic. Stopped stone dead.

WALLY DEROSIERS: We turn around, eyes glued to the map, and we try another road. And we get stuck again. By now hours have gone by. And we try a third road, creeping along, half-lost. And, miles and miles from Bethel, we get stuck. Again.

MIKE COVELLO: We get out of the van, on the side of the road, and we look at each other. And suddenly we all realize the same thing at once.

WALLY DEROSIERS: We have no contacts at Woodstock. We have no way to get ourselves there. We have no way to get our gear there. We are nobodies from nowhere, stuck nowhere, going nowhere. And then fists started flying.

MIKE COVELLO: We hated that we’d been sold this dream, and we hated that we’d bought it … but there was no one to take it out on but each other.

DONNIE ELANNA: So there, by the side of some godawful country road, in the heart of Woodstock Nation, in the Summer of Love, the career of Sunlight Rider ended in the nastiest, bloodiest fistfight you ever saw.

MIKE COVELLO: We just … exploded. We had lost out, and been so stupid, and we were so frustrated and so angry, and we had no one to take it out on but each other. So that’s what we did.

DONNIE ELANNA: That stunad Stuey Varzuk, he kicked me so hard, I was no good to a woman for three months afterward.

J. ALAN DEVINE, attorney for Stuart Varzuk, bassist: On behalf of my client I must decline all comment related to this article.



MIKE COVELLO: I don’t even remember how I got home.

WALLY DEROSIERS: I haven’t touched a drumstick from that day to this. I went back to Connecticut and I was just so shattered. A week later, after the bruises faded, I got a job driving a refrigerator truck for a dairy in Bridgeport. I did that for a long time. A long, long, long time.

MIKE COVELLO: They found Rocky Malvelli — what was left of him — three or four years later, lying in an open field near Meriden. He’d been shot in the four points of a cross.

DONNIE ELANNA: A waste of three good bullets, if you ask me.

WALLY DEROSIERS: I can barely stand it. Every time a Woodstock anniversary comes around I don’t read the papers or listen to the radio. Makes me think of what could have been. What should have been. What we thought should have been.

MIKE COVELLO: I still can’t figure it out. Between June and August of 1969, I managed not to hear one single word about Woodstock. And ever since, it seems like I can’t go 48 hours without hearing about it someplace.

DONNIE ELANNA: Never have rock n’ roll dreams, kids. That’s the moral of the story. Never have rock n’ roll dreams. You’ll always wake up sweating and screaming, every time.

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I always wish I could leave these Mundane Moments fantasies right where they are, to muddle the Internet fact-pool.

But honesty compels me to say out front — just in case someone hasn’t already guessed — that the preceding 1,900 words are fiction. There was no Sunlight Rider, and the individuals quoted are entirely invented, with no specific resemblance intended to anyone living or dead.

As for the photo, my maternal grandpa took it in Stamford, Connecticut. It shows my late Uncle T.J. and a couple of his buddies, apparently in the middle of a game of horseshoes. I have a date of 1974 for it, though my guess is it’s probably at least a few years older than that.

That’s about it. Don’t take the brown acid.

Mundane Moments: The winners take it all.

This post is adapted from an idea posted on my Instagram feed, where nobody noticed it. I thought it deserved to be grossly overinflated and posted here for a second chance at obscurity.

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The Mundane Moments series of posts is an ongoing effort to dredge my grandfathers’ photos out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then:

The setting is a quiet wooden cabin in the Nordic summer countryside, comfortable but spartan. It has been chosen principally for its obscurity, as its occupants have no interest in being observed.

On wooden seats around the big central room sit two greyed, bespectacled men and two women of similar age. The cut of their clothes suggests good fortune, while the tone of their conversation suggests both familiarity and caution.

They are discussing the resumption of a long-halted and extremely successful business relationship in the realm of recorded music.

The men, Benny and Bjorn, are the sellers. They pace, gesture with their hands, consult notes, and bring out the occasional chart or bit of data in support of their proposal — a potential reunion album.

The women, Frida and Agnetha, are the skeptics. They raise questions, point out concerns, glance at each other with ruffled brows, and make points that can’t always be easily countered by the occasional chart or bit of data.

We join them in progress. Some worries have been soothed, while some are newly rising.

“A comeback at this age worries me. We are so old. We are grandparents,” Agnetha says, and all four flinch gently in the way people sometimes do when reminded of advancing age.

“Will we seem out of touch?” Frida adds. “Will the kids have any interest at all? Why would they want to listen to people our age? We might fall flat.”

“We have the songs, as strong as ever. Benny and I have been seeing to that over the past eight months,” Bjorn replies, his voice solid with certainty. “We have cultural momentum also: The most popular pop producer and songwriter in the world is a Swede like ourselves.

“But most of all, we have a lasting popularity all over the world that very few performers have ever attained. Our songs are played at clubs and weddings every night, while the work of many of our contemporaries goes by the wayside. Our music appears on Broadway, and people flock to Broadway. Our music appears in movies, and people flock to the theater.

“There is no need to be modest among ourselves about what we have built. We split apart before we could make bad music, so our legacy has never been tarnished. Our group is to pop music what Moet et Chandon is to champagne, or what Rolls-Royce is to motor vehicles. We are the gold standard. We were then. We still are.”

Frida nods; but something in the mention of gold has stirred an objection in her.

“We do not need the money, and at this point in my life, I do not need anyone to think I do,” she says. “Why should I open myself to that public speculation?”

“That,” Benny replies firmly, “is where The Foundation comes in.” He takes out two thick folders and passes them to the women, giving them a few minutes to read before he resumes.

“We’ll let the public know that we won’t take a penny. One hundred percent of the profits from this music will go to a special foundation, which will distribute it to help solve the most pressing needs of our country. Fields will stay green forever, and hungry children will sit down to full tables. We can make the future bright for decades to come.”

“It is ingenious,” Bjorn adds. “We give the record buyer great music and the satisfaction of donating to the public good. And the money goes straight to the foundation; it doesn’t trouble us at all. Who can resist?”

Agnetha’s brow has been knit throughout the meeting, and finally, she speaks her mind.

“Being in a group again … what about all the things that came between us before? Not just the couples, but all four of us. I cannot forget them.”

Silence holds the room. Benny looks at Bjorn, whose expression indicates the point is Benny’s to carry. He picks his words carefully.

“My friend. My colleague,” he starts. “None of us will ever forget the difficult days. That would be impossible. But that is not what we are suggesting. What we are suggesting is to focus on the magic.

“The four of us together have something many have tried to copy but no one has ever captured. Millions of vocal groups have come and gone. Some have sold many records. None have ever had our magic, our signature, our charisma.”

A handheld mirror sits on a side table. Benny picks it up, holding it to the faces of each person in turn, and finally to his own.

“Someday soon one of us will be gone,” he murmurs, “and then? No magic. No group. Forever. On the day that happens — and I hope it is well into the future — the other three will wish we had stepped through that door again while we had the chance. While we had the magic.”

“We are not trying to recapture our youth,” Bjorn adds, finding his tongue. “There will be no form-fitting jumpsuits. No glamor photo shoots. No tours that pull us away from our homes for weeks on end. No appearances in music videos — that is what actors and actresses are for.

“What we are recapturing, we won’t even need to try for. It is the magic.

“The magic of us.

Silence reigns. At last Frida rises and says the only words necessary — perhaps the only words possible.

“Very well,” she says, and exhales deeply. “We are a group once more.”

The four men and women meet in a circle, hands interlocked. A sense of quiet power, of something being unleashed, fills the cabin. Signatures on a contract will be just a formality later on; this is the true moment of reconnection.

Then they break the grip and step slowly outside, one by one, where a gentle wind is tousling the trees, and where a hired photographer has been patiently waiting to capture the moment.

The biggest comeback in popular music history begins with the click of a lens.


(The actual provenance of this photo is unknown except that my grandpa almost certainly took it, my grandma’s definitely in it, and it dates to roughly 1974. The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself.)

Mundane moments: North of the grass.

Part of an ongoing effort to dredge my grandfathers’ photos out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then:

As best I can determine, there is no Tumblr site devoted to Pictures Of People At Their Own Graves.

When there is, maybe I’ll have to tip somebody off to this one:


They look amused enough, don’t they?

We’ll start with the guy on the right. That’s my Great-Uncle Jimmy, or James W. Cahill to the taxman and the stonecarver. If you’re a long-timer here, you’ve read about him before.

The woman in the middle is my maternal grandma, and also Jimmy Cahill’s sister. Her husband, my grandpa, is presumably behind the camera.

(It might be their big blue Oldsmobile parked in the background, as well.)

And the woman on the left is my Great-Aunt Jean, a.k.a. Eugenia N. Cahill, Great-Uncle Jimmy’s wife. Her maiden name was Okonenko, and Marie, the other future tenant of this grave-space, was her sister.

I can only wonder what brought about this visit. Clearly they were not there for someone else’s funeral; they weren’t dressed for such an occasion.

Perhaps they were passing the cemetery en route somewhere else, and Great-Aunt Jean and Great-Uncle Jimmy had just bought their stone, and they decided to show it to my grandparents since it was something new.

Or maybe their graveside stopover was driven by the desire to laugh at death — or celebrate life, the other side of the same coin.

One of the Cahill siblings was killed in World War II. Another brother died, roughly 15 years before this photo was taken, from the long-term effects of alcoholism. A sister, who was mentally disabled, spent many years in the care of the state of Connecticut.

So maybe my grandma and her brother took enjoyment in the thought that they were on the right side of the grass, and still reasonably healthy, and free to go order a big steak and a cold beer if they felt like doing so.

These are things we often take for granted, but could stand to acknowledge a little more often than we do. Death will get us all in the end … but it hasn’t yet, and until it does, we might as well strut our stuff here.

I don’t suggest we start turning our cemeteries into party destinations or anything, but laughing at the future site of one’s grave seems as whole-hearted an embrace of life as any other I can think of.

(Great-Aunt Jean doesn’t seem to buy it like the others do. Maybe it’s an Irish thing.)


Part of an ongoing effort to dredge my grandfathers’ photos out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then:

Top 10 Things My Brother Might Have Seen In December 1973
That Would Have Had Him Spellbound
But Were Apparently Invisible To The Rest Of The Family

xmas731. Santa Claus removing his suit to reveal … Ronald McDonald.

2. Secretariat cantering across the front lawn.

3. The Tardis.

4. The inexplicable but fast-approaching popularity of “Seasons In The Sun.”

5. The endless psychedelic wonderland of lights caused by the silver-foil Christmas tree reflecting in the big front window.

6. Danny Glick, asking to be let in.

7. Up With People.

8. A time traveler with an iPhone, blithely looking up the address of the nearest Thai takeaway.

9. The Black Winterqueen.

10. The sum of all human toil.

Mundane Moments: Hockey night in Canada.

Part of an ongoing effort to dredge my grandfathers’ photos out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then:

ROCHAMBEAU, Quebec (AP) – When the streets ice over and the snow falls thick, the natives here still tell dazzling stories about Lyle and Jean-Claude Montraineau, the schoolboy wonders immortalized in Canadian history as “the Rochambeau Rockets.”

“I never saw anything like them, me,” local farmer Brien Saint-Denis said, nursing a beer at the bar and restaurant that sits beneath the town’s only stoplight. “They had une tete — one brain.”

“Remember when they scored in their sleep?” chimed in Jean Renard, the town shopkeeper. “No joke. They were asleep on their feet. You could hear them snore from the stands. And they each scored. They were tired from milking the cows, they said later.”

“You weren’t safe going to their games,” Saint-Denis went on, “because they used to put pucks through the glass. All the time. No one was safe. It’s a wonder someone isn’t avec les anges.”

The snow keeps falling, and the stories go on:

– The goal Lyle once scored in mid-fight.
– Jean-Claude’s astonishing ability to go from full speed to dead stop, and vice versa, in the blink of an eye.
– The brothers, arriving late at a game, splitting a pair of skates between them — one apiece — and still dominating the course of play.
– The “Montraineau Rule” briefly put in place by provincial youth-hockey authorities, limiting the brothers’ teams to permanent shorthanded status whenever they were on the ice.
– The number of opposing goalies who quit the sport and became preachers, convinced they had seen le diable lui-meme in the Montraineau brothers’ eyes.

“Gretzky?” summarizes the town’s librarian, Michel Arneault. “Gretzky avait rien. I saw the Montraineaus.”

It’s been 35 years since the “Magic Montraineaus” became the talk of their nation. And the mists of time have only added to the inevitable question:

How much of this actually happened, and how much of the legend is simply a self-serving folktale invented by bored farmers trying to put their town into the spotlight?

The Montraineaus’ most famous moments took place out of the camera eye, in countless identical youth-hockey rinks scattered across the farmlands of Quebec. There is no tangible proof of their achievements — and, to add to the mystery, many of the coaches and players they opposed refuse to discuss them.

“No. Rien,” shudders Claude Benoit, a longtime youth hockey coach in the area. “Some things, one does not talk about.”

The Montraineaus’ absence from the discussion only strengthens the doubters’ arguments. The boys who rumor said could have started for the Montreal Canadiens as middle-schoolers never pursued professional hockey careers.

Lyle developed a life-threatening allergy to Zamboni fumes, while Jean-Claude fell in love with the pedal steel guitar. Today, the older Montraineau is a computer programmer in Vancouver, while the younger plays in country-and-western bands in the Toronto area. Neither has visited Rochambeau in years, and neither speaks publicly about their hockey exploits.

“There is nothing to say, vraiment,” Jean-Claude says in a brief phone interview. “There is nothing to prove.”

No matter. The legend of the Montraineaus is deeply enough ingrained to withstand the futile search for details.

Especially in the farm towns of Quebec, where the brothers live forever in memory as tousled, heart-stoppingly gifted youths — like the pre-teen Paganinis of the national game.

“You should have seen them,” Arneault, the librarian, sums up. “Tabarnac. You should have seen them.”


In real life: Rochester, New York, circa 1980.
Mike Eruzione had nothing to fear.

Mundane Moments: Harry’s new companion.

My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then.

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Harry, I speak for all of us at the firm when I wish you a long and happy retirement. As long as any of us can remember, you’ve been on the job, quick with a smile and eager to help.

Now, as you head off to enjoy your golden years, we’ve all chipped in to get you a small token of our esteem.

*sound of paper ripping*

Yup. It’s a brand-new television!

Y’see, Harry, regular interaction with other people is gonna go from a daily reality to a distant memory, sooner than you know.

With your new television set, you can establish rewarding interpersonal relationships with the casts of such quality programs as “Occasional Wife,” “The Monroes” and “Pistols n’ Petticoats.” Pshaw, Harry! Retirement need not be lonely.

And when the arthuritis locks your knees so badly you have to sit still for three or four hours, your TV will allow you to live vicariously through the antics of the Yanks, Mets and New York Football Giants. Yes, nothing keeps a man quite so young as televised sports!

But that’s not all. Sister Bertrille — and yes, red tartan looks fantastic on you, Sister — would you tell Harry more about his new television set?

It’s not just any television set, Harry. It’s portable!

That means watching the TV never has to be boring. When you get tired of watching in the den, you can move your set to the kitchen. Then, after a few weeks, you can move it back to the den. And in the summer, you can even move it to the screen porch.

(As long as you’re still physically able to lift it, that is.)

There’s nothing like a TV set to remind you you’re alive, Harry.

Why, I was up late the other night after a couple beers, and there was this actress in an old black-and-white movie who looked just like a girl I dated when I was 19. Yeah, we were real close, she and I. In fact, seeing that face felt like somebody had grabbed my heart and turned it about 90 degrees counterclockwise. That’s what I mean by feeling alive, Harry.

Anyway … we’ll all miss you.

But now that you’ve got America’s best friend to keep you company — in any room of the house! — we know you’ll be just as busy, engaged and on top of things as you were in your days at the firm.

Want some chocolate cake, Harry?

June 1967, Stamford, Connecticut.
It was a retirement party; that much is true.

Mundane Moments: Atom plant, mother.

My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then.

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See those green bushes in the foreground?

What we have here is a rare picture of the atom plant (Marginafolia sacreclaudensis.)

Scrubby and unprepossessing, the atom plant grows in tight clusters in a geographic area roughly equivalent to that traveled by the Marquis de Denonville.

It’s believed that, at one point thousands of years ago, the atom plant dominated the landscape between Albany and Buffalo.

In his journals, the ill-fated 17th-century French explorer Normand Grosgrain cursed the endless acres of atom plants in which he would eventually surrender his life: “They mock my hunger with their fruitlessness … the wind through their twigs is the very call of Death.”

Later settlers found different uses for Marginafolia sacreclaudensis. When soaked in water at length, its branches yielded a refreshing, mildly intoxicating beverage. The effect, the settlers discovered, was even more potent when the roots were included.

Pioneer journals indicate that white and red man alike devastated the landscape throughout the 19th century, tearing acres of atom plants up at the roots to savor its herby, head-swimming tisane.

By 1920, the atom plant was approaching extinction. It clung to life in scattered thickets and fields, primarily in the watersheds of the Genesee and Mohawk rivers.

Slow to regenerate, it has made only a limited recovery in the past century, nurtured by a dedicated few nature lovers who understand its former significance and omnipresence.

No surprise, then, that my grandpa would whip out his camera when he came across a stand of the atom plant and record the moment for posterity. He knew he might never see this rare bird of the floral kingdom again in his lifetime.

As for that half-finished building that happened to be in the background, I dunno what they make there. Hot water or something.

Ontario, New York, 1969.

Mundane Moments: The five people you meet in heaven.

Tartan terror!Normally, the Mundane Moments series of posts takes a photo from my grandfather’s archives and submits it to great indignities.

In keeping with the Edinburgh Exorcism series of posts, I’m going to look at a different sort of picture this week.

I find the music on the Bay City Rollers’ Dedication album to be well-scrubbed, catchy in spots, but ultimately just a little too bland to merit repeated listenings.

The album has a couple of well-chosen cover versions — including two of the all-time teenage-sex-from-the-boy’s-perspective pop songs, “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Let’s Pretend.”

But I don’t know why I’d want to hear the Rollers sing them when I could hear the Beach Boys and Raspberries do them instead.

No, the best part of the album is the gatefold picture. It’s one of those rare pictures you can hear just by looking at it.

And it sounds like eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!


The liner notes thank the Toronto Sun for the photo, so we’ll assume this is a crowd full of mild-mannered Canadian chicks cumulatively doing their best impression of a jet taking off from YYZ.

Like the Zapruder film, this seemingly innocuous pic lends itself to all manner of analysis. Who are all those faces? What are they doing?

Let’s find out:

1. Damien’s sister. This ordinarily meek lass has never loathed anything or anybody quite so much as the flatfoot who stands between her and Eric Faulkner.

Now in his comfortable retirement, the gray-haired old cop still thinks of her expression sometimes, and it makes him shiver and reach for the whiskey.


2. The Instamatics. You know those people who say we’ve all become too busy snapping pictures with our iPhones to live in the moment?

They don’t know their history: The photographic urge is a strong one, and deeply rooted.


(I used to have a camera exactly like the one obscuring the girl’s face — of course it’s a girl — in the foreground; and in the background you’ll see one of those long skinny cameras. They’re making that film again nowadays, for some warped reason.)


And then there’s the professional photographer whose lens intrudes into the scene at very bottom right, like a shadowy figure seen shambling away over a grassy knoll:


3. Happy to be here. There are very few men in this picture, and most of them (at least, the ones who aren’t onstage) seem to be scowling or dutiful.

In the midst of the madness, though, is one policeman caught by the cameraman having a wonderful time.

This is all part of life’s rich pageant, he seems to be saying. Beats the hell out of taking evidence at murder scenes, anyway.


4. The loyalists. A handful of Rollers fans brought signs and banners with them to the big rally.

All the signs that are legible in the photo say “WOODY,” in honour of the Rollers’ babyface guitarist, Stuart “Woody” Wood.

I am at a loss to explain Wood’s apparent popularity advantage over his four bandmates, but I certainly hope he enjoyed it.


5. The unseen. Those two curved buildings in the background remind me of Toronto City Hall, though I don’t know enough about Toronto to know what they really are.

All the curtains are drawn … except for one. There is no one visible in the window; but perhaps he has stepped away, as shadowy secret operatives and double agents have a knack for doing.

What did he know? When did he know it?

And who was his favorite Roller?


Mundane Moments: The Porch of Secrets and the Pumpkin of Fire.

My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then.

# # # # #

All day the little boy had felt something strange coming, a sense in his bones that unusual things were about to happen.

But he hadn’t expected the ragged-looking yet somehow friendly giant to step out from behind the bushes and corner him just as he went outside to play.

“You didn’t know I was coming for you,” the giant said, reading the lad’s confused expression in an instant. “Your parents haven’t been giving you your mail, have they?”

“I… I … mail?”

“Never you mind,” the giant said, emitting a vast, vaguely peaty sigh.

Then he hunched down to the boy’s level and began to explain.

“You have secret powers,” he burred, in an exotic accent quite dissimilar to the nasal tones of the lad’s hometown. “You are a wizard, boy. A special wizard. An agricultural wizard. The soil is your dominion. The worm and the cowflop are your allies … corn rot and drought, your implacable foes.

“People very close to you gave their lives for you to inherit this power. Enemies of the soil do not want you to thrive. Your life is in danger, laddie. Make no mistake. That scar beneath your puddin-bowl haircut? You didn’t really get that falling off a teeter-totter.

I’ll be back in the morning to take you to the academy. Pack your things. There is wizarding to be learned and no time to be lost.

“For now, keep this gourd. Hold it close. It is your destiny.

“I’ll be back.”

And then a puff of smoke … dissipating in the early autumn wind, leaving only a slack-jawed little boy, slowly awakening to his special, life-changing gift and its heavy responsibilities.



Penfield, New York, 1974.

Mundane Moments: They say she dresses all in white…

My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then.

# # # # #

“Sit still for your grandpa, Kurty. He wants to take a picture.”

“Nooooo! Ghost!”

“Don’t be silly, Kurty. Sit still. And smile, would you?”

“Ghost! Coming out of the post!”

“Kurty! Sit still and behave! Smile for the camera!”



Ghost from the post.

Penfield, New York, 1974.