The oddball: My friend and former co-worker Jim has invited me back to his hometown of Apollo, Pa., for Thanksgiving many times in the past, but I’ve always declined. Understand, I’m a smoker and none of his family smokes — but this year I decided, what the hell, I’ll go. While there, I was certainly the oddball. Often the house had as many as 12 people in it, but while I think they all knew about my smoking habit, they were nice about it. None of them said a word when I went out the back or front door constantly to light up. Jim even provided me with an ashtray — an empty diet pop can.
Young at heart: We all stayed at Jim’s mother’s house. His mother, Nancie, is in her early seventies. Her sister, Dolores, is in her late seventies. You would never guess it. They’re young at heart, witty, smart, engaging people. This gives me hope that when I reach their age, I won’t be drooling on myself and blabbering while I’m trying to gum down applesauce.
Home of Nellie Bly: Apollo is about 35 minutes northeast of Pittsburgh. If the town has 2,000 people in it, I’d be surprised. It’s more than a little hilly and homes made of brick are few and far between. It’s a bit of a throwback, a place where you wouldn’t expect to find Internet access, and I didn’t. Apollo is home of Nellie Bly, a famous journalist from back in the 1800s. Jim drove me by her birthplace. I can’t help but wonder what Nellie would think of computers. Would she be pissed about the poor Internet access?
Joe the busboy: Before arriving in Apollo, Jim and I had lunch at the Cracker Barrel in Cambridge, Ohio. I didn’t know it, but this is where legendary busboy Joe works. He’s been at it for over 18 years. This man can clear a table in a matter of seconds — loading up his tray with precision and speed.
I watched him at work a couple times and then asked him to clear our table. It was fascinating and surreal. If any of you busboys out there need training, Joe’s your guy.
Giving thanks to a box fan: Jim’s brother Dan and wife Lisa are very nice, friendly people but Dan has a bit of a problem. His and Lisa’s bedroom was right across from mine, and Dan — how do I say this nicely? — snores like bloody hell. On the two nights I stayed there, I was thankful for a box fan I found in my room. I turned it on low and let the sound of the fan drown out Dan’s snoring. It occurred to me a few times to invite Dan’s wife Lisa into my bedroom so she also could get some sleep, but I figured that might seem a bit uncouth.
Nieces, nephews and Rock Hero: Jim has two nieces and three nephews and they were all there during this Thanksgiving weekend. Brent and Derek are in their twenties and are nice guys. Janelle is 15 and is a Crystal Gayle look-alike. Melissa is a smiling 10-year-old, and Tommy is very active at 20 months. Except for Tommy, they all have one thing in common: They love those Rock Hero, Guitar Hero, whatever the hell you call them, video games. I watched in amusement as they beat on fake drums and played fake guitars and thought about what they were learning from it. I still haven’t figured it out.
Cracker Barrel runs: When Jim and I had lunch at Cracker Barrel before arriving in Apollo, we both had the big breakfast — two eggs, grits and biscuits and gravy. After we got back on the road, those dreaded stomach pains started happening in my stomach. Thank god there was a gas station open. After “going” twice, I apologized to Jim for the delay in our travel time. A couple more miles up the road, Jim had to stop at a rest area to use the restroom. We figure it had to be the gravy.
Men and football: The evening after Thanksgiving, I met Jim’s older brother Mark, his wife Jackie and their family — all down to earth people. After eating, I couldn’t help but notice that the women stayed in another room while the men, including Mark, gathered round the television. It brought back memories of my married days when my brother-inlaws could think of nothing else after eating a meal than to watch a football game. I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now. Maybe Jim doesn’t either. We mostly stayed with the women.
Bells and rainbows: Jim’s a ukulele player, I’m a mandolin player and nephew Brent plays the guitar. After Thanksgiving dinner, we decided to have a bit of a jam session. While we spent more time tuning our instruments than actually playing them, we did manage to piece together a pretty mean rendition of “Jingle Bells.” Afterwards, Jim played his ukulele while Nancie and Delores sang “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” There was something warm and wonderful about it. It was the most peaceful few minutes I’ve felt in a long time.
Bonding with oatmeal: On that Saturday morning when we left Apollo to head back to Cincinnati, Jim’s mother Nancie fixed me some oatmeal with raisin, apple and walnut. Nobody else wanted any except Nancie and me. We shared a little tray in the living room. It felt like bonding to me. My mother is long gone and it occurred to me to ask Nancie if she could adopt me. I decided not to ask.
CONTACT LARRY GROSS: firstname.lastname@example.org