I grew up hearing live country and easy-listening music in our living room and I hated it. Kids rarely have the same musical taste as their parents and my guitar-playing dad, Gary Anderson, embarrassed me on a regular basis – whether he was crooning a moldy old Jim Reeves tune like “Make the World Go Away” or singing one of his funny parodies. In later years, it tickled him that I wrote country music. But that’s not what I want to write about here. I want to tell you about my father, one of my greatest musical inspirations and a wonderful guy who was loved by many. I know a lot of obits say stuff like that, but it was really true. It wasn’t a party until Dad arrived.
He was born in Alma, a small town in central Michigan, in 1937. His young parents, Harold and Lucille, had barely tied the knot before he was born. Grandma and Grandpa loved each other deeply, went on to have two more kids, Jim and then Judy, and lived together the rest of their lives.
Dad loved nothing better than to run around with his group of buddies. He once told me a story about building a raft and floating it on an old sluice pond, all the time joking about the chemicals that must’ve been lurking in the water. His sister, Judy, wanted to tag along with his group, but was told that he didn’t want his little sister hanging around with him and the boys.
Dad was a skinny kid with asthma and glasses, but that didn’t stop him from hunting with Grandpa. Grandma was the homemaker. I don’t imagine that things were easy for them, raising three kids so close in age, on a factory worker’s salary. I never heard Grandma and Grandpa complain, though. There was a lot of love in that little frame house.
Grandpa Anderson loved to play the bones (spoons) and entertain. The acorn didn’t fall far from the tree. Dad got a ukulele for Christmas when he was eleven and I’m sure it wasn’t long before he was entertaining his friends.
Dad joined the Air Force when he was seventeen. Grandma and Grandpa had to sign papers since he was a minor. He took his ukulele with him. He got a guitar not long after joining the service.
He was stationed in Yuma, AZ. Grandma suggested he look up some distant relatives in Phoenix. One of them was my mother, Joy, who was engaged to someone else. They fell in love anyway. Dad used to hitchhike from Yuma to see her. Just a few months after meeting, they were married in Mamaw and Papaw’s (my maternal grandparents) living room. Almost nine months to the day, I was born. Two more kids arrived in quick succession, my brothers Kelly and Todd, each of us a year and a half apart. Cris was born a few years later.
My family moved to Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix, in the early 60’s, and that’s where I grew up.
After he left the service, Dad held several jobs, once working as a welder until a huge piece of metal fell on his foot. Sometime in the 60’s, he started selling insurance and that’s what he did until he retired. He began by selling door-to-door and built the business up from there. It doesn’t surprise me that he was successful because everyone loved my dad. He could sell snow cones on Mars.
If the radio in the kitchen wasn’t on, there was often live music. I remember singing “You Are My Sunshine” and other songs with Dad and the family. We sang in the car, too – rounds or maybe Christmas carols. If we weren’t singing, the car radio would be on while Dad sang harmony and tapped out the rhythm on the steering wheel.
When my folks went to a party, it was inevitable that Dad would pull out a guitar and sing. Sometimes it only happened late at night when we kids weren’t supposed to be listening. After we were older, I found out why – most of those funny songs were parodies that Dad wrote and they weren’t, shall we say, approved for all audiences. He even had a dirty version of “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
He taught himself the bass and started a band with friends called Gary and the Good Times. Their flyer advertised that they did songs, “fast and half-fast.” That’s my dad.
If you asked about his work, he’d tell you that he sold insurance, but he always played music on the side, whether it was for drinks at his favorite bar or at a party in the desert with his friends.
We played music together a few times although it was hard – he played classic country and I mostly knew my own songs. We found some common ground, though. I could play the chords for “Today” (the Randy Sparks tune) while he sang the melody and I added harmony. I could also sing on a few of his favorite songs like “Crazy” because I heard him sing them so many times. One time we got together with my brother Kelly and my nephew JD. We didn’t know the same songs, but that didn’t stop us from trying. JD was learning to play then so we told him to just play one chord every time it rolled around. Now he’s a young adult who writes his own songs. Another acorn, another tree.
Dad loved the outdoors, whether he was hunting, camping or riding his motorcycle. One time, when the family went camping in Mexico, I found him on the beach by himself, just watching the water. He was like that in the woods, too. Often, his excuse was because he was hunting, but in his later years, he told me that he didn’t take a gun, just a camera. We had this running joke about him going out to “shoot Bambi” every deer season so my response to that was, “Good, Bambi can live another day.”
He got interested in four wheeling after buying a huge SUV. We joined a four wheel drive club and spent some time tearing up the desert. (I know, I know – we weren’t environmentalists.) When it came time to get a new vehicle, Dad took the only one on the lot that had all the extras he wanted. Never mind that it was pink. He had some jokes about it, including making his CB handle “Pinky.” One time someone stole the damn thing and it was found not much later at a house just behind his office. Never steal a pink car, folks, especially if you live just behind the spot where it’s often parked.
One time my Senior Girl Scout troop came over and somehow, I swear it all happened when my back was turned, he had them all in the backyard, trying chewing tobacco. Which was handy, since most of them hacked it right back up. He laughed about that for years.
Around the age of fifteen, I picked up one of his guitars – a classical that I figured he wouldn’t miss much. I learned every chord in a Mel Bay songbook and was soon playing on my own. He joked about my “hippie songs,” but he was always proud of me and my music. He came to several of my gigs. I could hear his booming laugh above everyone else’s. I never gave that guitar back. Now, it hangs in my teaching studio.
Dad claimed he didn’t like cats, but on more than one occasion, I caught him petting and cooing to one of mine. He loved dogs. In his later years, he had a couple of spaniels that were spoiled rotten.
My parents divorced in the 70’s. Dad dated different women, then met and married Gail.
In the 90’s, after Grandma Anderson died, he traveled back to Michigan to help go through her possessions. I asked him if he’d bring back some photos for me. One of my favorite things to do when I visited Grandma was to go through shoeboxes full of old photos – some dating back to the early 1900’s — and ask her about the people. After Dad returned home, I met him at his house and was excited when I saw the grocery bag full of pictures. We sat down at the kitchen table and to my surprise, every photo but one were of me! Dad couldn’t understand my frustration. There was one photo of him as a baby, though, so I snatched that one up. He thought it was funny that I would want that one.
A few years ago, Dad had a stroke. Scared the bejesus out of all of us, but I knew he was going to be okay when I heard him telling dirty jokes while still in the hospital. His speech was so mangled, they didn’t quite understand him, but these were the same jokes he’d told for years so we could fill in the blanks for the befuddled nurses and doctors.
He regained most of his speech and learned simple tasks like dressing himself. There were many things he couldn’t do any more, though. He was never able to play guitar again. He gave away most of his musical equipment. I am the proud owner of his small amp and his ukulele. (Not the same ukulele he learned on. I wish I knew where it was.)
Even though his mobility was limited, he still loved going to their cottage in Mexico, where they had a circle of friends and he could enjoy the beach. He had a golf cart he could tool around in and knowing Dad, a favorite bar or restaurant where he could hang out and tell his bad jokes.
I was able to see him once a year, when I visited for Thanksgiving or Christmas. It was always great to see him. Last December we had a nice dinner with with Gail and my partner, Pat. Pat brags that she’s the parent whisperer and she proved it by engaging Dad in a long conversation about his two favorite topics – motorcycles and good whiskey.
Not long ago, Dad and I sat down with one of his old songbooks. I played the chords and tried to sing the songs with him, but I didn’t know all the melodies – it was just lyrics and chords – and he was frustrated about not being able to sing on the beat or reach the notes. Still, we managed to get through a few songs.
He was diagnosed with cancer recently. We thought the chemo had helped him, but he suffered a relapse and it spread. He wanted to stay at home and thankfully, Gail took care of him so he could. He passed away last Monday.
There was no service. If you want to do something to remember my dad, put on some old country songs and sing along. You could also make a donation in his name to the American Cancer Society, the American Legion in Tempe, AZ or to the Santa Claus Club in Rocky Point, Mexico. If you know our family personally, please don’t contact Gail. She’s overwhelmed and even an email with an offer of help is too much for her to deal with right now.
I don’t need cards or flowers either, but I’d love for you to post a response, especially if you knew Dad. Please tell us your favorite Gary story.
Here’s a song I wrote for him a few years ago. He used to take his friends to the computer, play this video and cry. I told him he didn’t have to do that, but he always protested, “It’s a good song.” There’s a few photos of him in it that I wasn’t able to scan. The skinny kid in glasses is him and so is the goofy guy playing the guitar.
I miss you, Dad.
I’d love more photos. Most of the ones I scanned didn’t turn out very well. If you have a good photo of Dad, especially if he’s playing an instrument, I would love to have it. You can e me at tsunamiinc at aol dot com. Let me know if it’s okay to add it to this post or if it’s just for me personally.
I don’t usually write about my family in this blog. I wrote this for two reasons – one, Dad was my musical inspiration. If he’d been a jazz drummer, I suppose I would’ve picked up the drums. Two, there was no service for Dad and I thought this might serve as a good place for his friends and family to remember him. As I say above, please leave your responses below. I’d love to read your stories.