Humble Ambition 1
By Lou Blodgett
Vernon loved Green Rooms. That is, rooms backstage where performers wait to perform, or decompress afterwards. The rooms reminded him of home, where he wanted to be, and what he was working toward. I met him a year ago during a sweetly frustrating sortie of cuke harvesting.
You see, cucumbers go to great lengths to hide, and, as a result, some are never harvested in time. I think this is evolutionary. Cucumbers replicate quickly, and my theory is that they’re working toward not being eaten so their seed is more likely to survive.
My garden is lush, with tomato cages that catch and lift cucumber vine overflow. I was surprised to discover the many ways a cucumber can make use of that thickness if it doesn’t want to be picked.
I’ve nearly been fooled when a cuke mimics a milkweed leaf, even though there’s no milkweed around. I’ve seen them curl around their own stem, thus, looking all stemmy and thus, inedible. I’ve seen it all. I mean it. Cukes are camouflage artists.
But last summer, at least in my garden, the cukes took it to a new level and started disguising themselves when seen.
For example, the first time my cuke search became really mysterious was when I leaned into the garden from the other side of the retaining wall that partially borders it, and felt my hand on a cucumber there on the ground that I hadn’t seen going in. It was so unexpected that it rolled beneath my hand and I nearly sprained my wrist leaning on it. I lifted my hand and looked, and there was just shadow. I could see clumps of dirt there. I reached into the shadow and, feeling the cucumber again, I lifted it. As it came closer to my eyes, the cucumber seemed to give up the ruse, growing out of the shadow. Like a special effect. As in, what space exploration away teams find in the science fiction stories, but in my own backyard. But, that Shadow Cucumber, I can attest, was good. It had a rich cukey flavor no matter how thin it was sliced.
Toward July, the cucumbers in my garden went further. For example, one day I poked my head in amongst the vines, and saw a bright green chipmunk perched on the rung of a tomato cage. I think that the cuke was able to get the chipmunk shape and physicality down, but had no energy left to change from green to tawny. I found that even cuter. I knew that he wasn’t a chipmunk, but a cucumber, since he was the wrong color, and the vine led from his tail. I couldn’t bring myself to pick the cucumber/ground squirrel, though. I just left him. In that case, the cucumber won.
I realized, now that I was on my guard, the cukes had to keep upping the game to fool me. The next day, I went back to the garden ready for anything, and I got it.
I pushed a huge leaf aside and saw, deep in my little garden, the country/pop star “Smilin’ Bud Westcott”, whose hit song “Then, Return My Heart” was on top of the country charts three weeks in a row, back in June, ’65. But, I’d heard about his passing fifteen years ago. I think he played a stint in Vegas toward the end. So of course this was just a crafty cucumber, but I couldn’t not believe that he was Bud Westcott, sitting cross-legged with a guitar on his lap, plucking a few strings. He looked just like he would on his later album covers, in a red-checked gingham shirt and blue jeans. Except he wasn’t, like, leaning against a rail fence with a windmill and red barn in the distance. He was just sitting in the dirt. He looked at me and said,
“Gonna play a little song, goes somethin’ like this...”
He sang a verse, then the cooing refrain of the country standard ‘Cattle Call’, while I crouched there, peering into the garden, stupified. He sat within a kind of green cupola, in green twilight, crooning in an exact reproduction of recordings I had heard.
I knew that he was only a cuke. I could even see where he connected with the vine, there on his right elbow. But, it was hard for me to fathom that he was actually a cucumber.
Needless to say, I was mesmerized. After he finished the yodeling refrain, I declared that it was ‘incredible’.
“Well, thank ya kindly. Wouldn’t exactly agree with the superlative, but I appreciate the sentiment.”
“No, I meant that it’s incredible what you would do to not to be picked.”
“No!” He chuckled charismatically. “You seem to have me mistaken for another one of those cucumbers. I’m Smilin’ Bud Westcott. I had five songs high on the charts, and starred in a coupla films. I met Nancy Saint Croix on the set of ‘Steel-Belted Mayhem’, and married her. Twice.”
“You’re not Smilin’ Bud.”
No, what I was interacting with, I was sure, was another clever cucumber. But, I felt that I somehow already knew this cucumber guy. I wanted to help him. I told him again that he wasn’t fooling me, and asked him, if he didn’t want to be picked, what he really wanted.
The cucumber gave in, and told me about his hopes and fears. We came up with a plan and a verbal contract. To avoid being eaten, and give back to the world, my new cucumber friend would masquerade as local musician ‘Vernon Kelleher’, and front a Bud Westcott tribute band in live performances. All proceeds would go to creating a wild cucumber preserve, with a place set aside where he could return to being a plant. That was something that he was sure he could swing. At all possible times throughout the venture, his environment had to be a humid 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and at no point in the process would he be eaten. In other words, all I had to do was take a cucumber in human form and keep him in a safe, produce section environment as I made him a star. A simple task, but the devil’s in the details.
Vernon, and the band we assembled, lent a lot of help with those details. I was manager, and gave myself a manager’s salary, but I was just implementing their ideas of what would make for a good show. You see, Vernon and I auditioned and hired a quartet of musicians who were between engagements. With that group, Vernon and I were totally on the up and up, except for the personal detail that Vernon was really a cucumber. The band got competitive salaries and conditions, and we told them we were with a non-profit that was raising funds for a nature preserve in Espera. We weren’t lying. That’s what Vernon wanted. I had all the documents in order.
So, I was the head of a non-profit! There was some trial and error, but I took to it well. Then, with style! I’d always wanted to be an impresario. On performance nights, I wore bright silk shirts with pencil ties and a pork-pie hat. I stood deep in the wings, brushing my fingers on the brim of that hat to one and all in a kind of salute, and watched the show while keeping my secret. No one else knew that the frontman of “Still Smilin’” was really a Cucumis Sativis, a cucumber who was the spittin’ image and voice of Smilin’ Bud Westcott. Early in the meeting/practice phase with the band, Clarissa, our bassist, just up and asked him,
“Are you somehow related to Smilin’ Bud? Like a son or a clone?”
Vernon told her that he wasn’t related in any degree to Bud Westcott. He said he was just lucky, he guessed. And that he came from an entirely different line.
I was wondering how club owners and theatre managers would react to what Vernon needed for his show, but, as it turns out, they’ve seen it all. So, they didn’t mind that his dressing room had to be kept at or near 45 degrees Fahrenheit. They didn’t mind the request for dim lighting and soft spotlights, or that Vernon needed a mist machine onstage with him, or he’d start to pucker.
Things evolved quite quickly for the show in the fall. A lot of it is a blur to me now. The college dates started filling larger venues, and that turned out to be our main niche. Word got out on social media that there was a benefit show with this mystery guy, Vernon, as “Smilin’ Bud”, who kept a jug of water on stage along with a mist machine. Signs began to appear in the audience-
“Stay Hydrated, Bud!”
Of course, a lot of Smilin’ Bud’s repertoire was Country and Western. Our audience liked songs from that genre early in the show. We followed the format of the musical performances that they had in episodes of “Smilin’ Bud Westcott’s Feel-Good Family Show” which was on CBS for thirteen weeks back in ‘75. That was around the time when Bud had just got on the pop charts and had that infectious humble ambition. To start the episode of his show, he would do a tune from ten-fifteen years before, and then, later in the hour, he worked toward what was on the pop charts that month, or something like it. Back then, many people tuned in for the Country and Western, and stayed for the crossover performances. I knew that we could do that on stage, but I also knew that the songs toward the end of the show had to be much more recent.
Eventually we all realized, sort of organically, that the rest of the group was so good that we could take some focus off Vernon as Bud. They could perform as much as an ensemble as a one-star tribute band could. That was ok with Vernon. He saw how it would work, and the better the show, the bigger the cucumber preserve. And, man could that band harmonize.
Considering the tunes themselves, Smilin’ Bud Westcott’s overall repertoire had been always shored up with country standards and popular ballads. Although those were good, they were just covers, which doesn’t make for the best tribute act. But the backing quartet in our tribute band made our jobs easy, suggesting songs for Vernon that, perhaps, Smilin’ Bud wouldn’t have touched. Since the band was mostly electric, there was versatility toward that. Those covers dipped a bit into the funds, what with the royalties, but made the act.
It was Vernon himself who suggested a particular treatment of ‘This Boy’. The band knew it, or, as Skip, our drummer and a former Army Ranger said,
“I can play drums on this piece with the proper ‘wipe’.”
The first time we tried ‘This Boy’ was in Peoria, which is pert-near apropos. We used it to end the first set, and Vernon sold the tune, jutting his chin forward from want, with his ‘just-not-yet-discovered’ movie-star looks.
Then, it was Lester, our utility guitarist with a great voice and the nickname ‘Egg Head’, who took us deep into the stacks and coached all of the band through a half-acoustic version of ‘Hello It’s Me’, with himself on mandolin. The group had been working on it before we played a Valentine’s Day concert on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. We didn’t fill all four-hundred seats of the auditorium, but there was plenty enough of an audience for our purpose, our checkbook, and the cause. The band finished with another one of Smilin’ Bud’s country hits- ‘Lonesome Set of Footprints’, but, when I met them in the wings, it was hard to converse, what with the clapping and stomping. The encore would go on. The crowd had enjoyed some of the sideways covers we’d done, and knew them for what they were. Clarissa kept looking back along the stage, as if she’d lost something next to her bass. What she was looking for was business that we all knew had to be finished, as claps and whistles continued. The group was asking me- “Hello It’s Me?” and I told them that they were the ones who had to go back there with something, but if I had a vote, certainly, they should premiere that version. I told them that I thought they were ready with it. At that point they were already quickly heading back onstage, with Lester shouting- “Fire up the mist machine again!”, and Skip chuckling and muttering- “…if I had a vote…” And Clarissa was half-doubled over as she headed out, giving me a funky ‘never seen a manager like that’ look. Then they played ‘Hello It’s Me’ better than I’d ever heard in practice, and I’d been impressed then. Sometimes things turn out that way. Lester was closest to stage left, and he looked over at me at once during the song. I brushed the brim of my pork-pie hat and ended it with a conspiratorial point. He got a kick out of that. That day I’d lined up a gig in a bistro in Menasha to tide us over before a big performance in Green Bay later in the week. I’d also rescued Red’s jacket from a feckless dry cleaner shop, where they hadn’t cleaned it and had even lost it for a while. I was a good manager, if I say so myself. The tune was greeted with a hum of sighed exclamation as it was played, and, when the band finished, there was a bracing cheer and sustained applause that was louder than at any other point that evening. The audience was satisfied and seemed to leave on a cloud, having seen and heard something old, but also very new.