Mom and Music and Cigarettes
A Remembrance by Tim Carroll
When I was six the family moved from San Francisco to a town 30 miles
away. Dad got a job in the county administration building. It was the only
tall building in town.
Right after we moved a Rice-A-Roni commercial made me cry. Mom
asked what was wrong and I said, “Rice-A-Roni is the San Francisco treat,
not the Martinez treat.” At first I wasn’t happy to live in Martinez.
Martinez was in a beautiful California valley surrounded by golden hills.
John Muir lived there until he died. Then they ruined the place by
building a giant oil refinery there. It was a working town; all the dads
worked for Shell Oil or for county administration.
One hot summer day in 1966 mom took me and my two brothers for a
drive. She took us to this new suburban town they were building, a place
called Hercules. Weird name for a town, right?
Mom thought like a kid. She really knew what boys liked. Hercules was
full of full of tractors and earth movers and concrete culvert pipes and
stacks of two-by-fours and huge piles of dirt The perfect playground!
While we fooled around in the construction site, mom sat in the two-
toned ‘56 Ford and listened to her station, KSFO 560 AM. She loved
music. Once she took us to the studio in the Fairmont Hotel “High atop
Nob Hill” to watch the DJ spin records and talk. Al “Jazzbeaux” Collins
was behind a big glass window, looking like exotic animal in a zoo.
Wherever she went mom smoked.
The Ford had a dashboard lighter that glowed orange. Curious about how
it worked, I once touched it. A puff of smoke went up and the lighter
burnt circles onto my fingertip that looked like a target.
When mom smoked I liked to watch the fire travel down the white paper
tube, with grey ashes bringing up the rear. It looked cool, but it stunk
bad. I was never tempted to smoke cigarettes, just on account of the
While mom sat in the car we played army. We armed ourselves with
lumber scraps and fought hard to conquer the Matterhorn. Nazis were
always conducting sneak attacks on whoever the J.I. Joe was at the top.
Getting killed wasn’t losing. It was fun to show off how good you were at
dying. We’d die as dramatically as possible, doing it in slow motion, and
drawing out the agony.
After an especially dramatic death scene, rolling all the way down the
face of the Matterhorn, I ran to the Ford to ask mom for her review of my
I asked mom, “Did you see that? Pretty boss, right?”
Mom was distracted. She sat there smoking a Salem Menthol and
listening really hard to a song on the radio.
When the song was over she sighed. Then mom said, “Do you know
what’s going to happen when that man dies? Do you, Timmy?” I was
confused by what she was talking about, but I knew it was important.
“When Louis Armstrong dies the whole world will be sad,” she said.
Years after that day playing at the construction site, sometime around
the time dad ran off with his dental hygienist and moved to Sacramento,
mom switched from Salem Menthols to Virginia Slims.
This made sense. Her name was Virginia. And, cigarettes made her slim.
Mom got a job at a pie shop where the waitresses wore sexed-up outfits.
We'd hang out with her for an hour before she went off to work at 3:30.
Until she got home, around midnight, we were on our own. We smoked
pot, listened to Led Zeppelin, rode bikes, and went on long hikes in the
hills. We were hippy Huck Finn kids in the seventies. Huck Finns who got
to eat pie every day.
One day in 1971 there was this big funeral on TV.
Watching TV with mom she suddenly socked me real hard on the arm,
and yelled, "Didn't I tell you the whole world would be sad?! Didn't I?!"
At first I didn’t know what she was talking about. She was crying a little,
and Louis Armstrong was dead. Then I remembered what she said to me
that day in 1966 at the construction site. Mom had a photographic
memory for some things.
Together, we watched the Louis Armstrong stuff on TV. Mom was right,
the whole world was sad. Except for Noah – our cocker spaniel with
dreadlocks got to eat lemon meringue pie on the floor that day.