Brushes With Greatness

"Fame, it's not your brain, it's just the flame that burns your change to keep you insane ."
David Bowie

We tend to place a great deal of value on fame. These days, several nights per week of TV 'reality' shows are dedicated to making someone famous and hopefully, for more than Warhol's requisite 15 minutes. As you know (if you have wasted more than a few minutes perusing my website) I am from a small town in Kansas and I even attended college in a different small town in Kansas. Spending a significant portion of my life in such locations tends to limit my exposure to fame or even to famous people. Fortunately, I do get around a little and I have actually been able to rub shoulders with a few famous (or semi-famous) individuals over the years.

With that in mind, here is a list of celebrities who, due to circumstances beyond their control, were forced in some way to acknowledge my presence:

Gospel singer, Randy Matthews

Randy Matthews - Christian recording artist circa 1976.

Randy Matthews performed at Ottawa University. He set up in the university chapel and the microphones for his guitar and voice were connected to a PA head which was parked in about the 10th row. They were basically in my lap and it was my job to manage the sound. As he was introduced and began tuning and testing the mike, he shielded his eyes against the glare of the spotlight and asked, "Where's my sound guy?"

I said, "Right here."

He turned in my direction and asked, "What's your name, man?"

With a bit of reluctance, I said, "Randy."

There were a few laughs at that and after a lengthy pause, he said, "That's a stupid name, man."

He was an entertaining guy. After the show, it was the job of my roommate, Richard, to drive him to his motel. Since Rich and I had skipped dinner to prep for the concert, we dropped him off and headed next door to the Country Kitchen for a bite to eat. We invited Randy Matthews who begged off, saying he was tired.

But about the time the waitress finally took our order, Randy strolled in and joined us. The Ottawa, Kansas Country Kitchen is a hangout for truckers and farmers, mostly. Randy Matthews had blonde hair hanging past his shoulders and lizard-skin cowboy boots with his jeans tucked into them. He drew some stares which he seemed to ignore.

And for the record, he had the Clamhopper Platter.

Gospel Singer John Fischer

John Fischer - folk singer, and Christian philosopher.

John Fischer performed at OU in my senior year. He had just released an album called "Johnny's Cafe". The title song was about how if Jesus returned today and began his ministry again, he would hang out at the local cafe where there were checkered tablecloths and people at the bar discussing the weather and the waitress called everyone "Honey" and you could just order the special and know you were having a good meal.

He did the first half of the show with acoustic guitar which placed him right in the front row of the audience in our chapel, a huge, cavernous building with a massively high vaulted ceiling. He came out for the second half of the show and kind of got lost. He was doing this half on piano and the piano was up on the stage, about ten feet and several marble steps above the audience. He was suddenly fifty feet away and way up in the air and he seemed completely disoriented.

He started his new title song, "Johnny's Cafe" and literally forgot the words, having to restart the song. Twice. The second time, embarrassed and confused, he looked out at us and said, "This is weird. You guys are suddenly so far away."

And as one, the two or three hundred people at the concert got up, filed up on stage, and surround him at the piano.

He would refer to this in interviews, concerts, and articles for years as 'the night the audience came up.'

Anyway, John spent the night in the guest room at our dorm and the next morning, Kevin Angell and I were supposed to make sure he got fed in the school cafeteria. Instead, Kevin and I drove him to downtown Ottawa and took him to breakfast at Lee's Downtowner Cafe. They had checkered tablecloths and a handful of locals were at the bar talking about the weather. We walked in and sat down. The waitress came up and poured coffee and asked John, "What'll you have, hon?"

John hadn't even opened the menu. He just smiled and said, "I'll have the special."

He made a big point of thanking us for breakfast.

Bonnie Raitt - rock and blues legend

Bonnie Raitt - blues guitarist, singer, composer, and my secret celebrity crush since 1975.

In 1989, Bonnie Raitt performed at the Cotillion Ballroom in Wichita. I was, and still am, a big fan of her music. I got tickets to the show and my friend, Brian, came down from Manhattan to see the show with me. In the week prior to the show, I came down with a nasty upper-respiratory infection and was barely recovered the night of the show.

The Cotillion has about 2000 seats. It is a big round building with a walkway with small tables surrounding the main floor. The main floor was completely full and I had a suspicion I was still potentially contagious so Brian and I took one of the outlying tables well away from the stage. It would have been pretty upsetting to me to infect Bonnie Raitt with a nasty cough.

The table we were at was right next to a door which I assumed led to some sort of service area. About fifteen minutes before the show started, a guy came around the walkway leading Bonnie Raitt to that door. As he opened it for her, she smiled down at us and asked, "How you doing tonight, fellas?"

Brian said we were doing fine.

I was holding my breath trying not to infect her and looking like a complete dork.

Scott Crossfield - legendary test pilot

Scott as he looked in 1993, still a pilot and still cool.

I was the special assistant to the director of the 1993 National Congress on Aviation and Space Education. I spent 90 days in Washington helping plan this convention and then spent 11 days in Disney World helping run the convention itself. We had several celebrities of the aviation world involved in the convention. Scott Crossfield was one of them.

Scott is an aviation legend. He was the first man to fly mach 2 and he was also the test pilot for the X-15 program. I know what you're thinking: all the X-15 pilots were test pilots but Scott Crossfield was the test pilot who tested the X-15 before they would even let the other NASA test pilots get into it. He was literally the test pilots' test pilot.

At the time, my nephew Hal Lange was very interested in aviation so I thought it would be cool to buy a book about the X-15 and get Scott Crossfield to sign it. He flew himself down to Florida from his home in Virginia in his single-engine Cessna Cardinal. They got him installed in his suite on the concierge floor of the Contemporary. I found him up there in the hospitality area munching on Cheetos. I offered him the book - Milt Edwards' 'The X-15 Rocket Plane' and told him my nephew was a future pilot and asked him to please sign the book. We had a brief conversation:

Scott: This is Milt Edwards' book.

Me: Yes, it was the only one I could find in the Smithsonian book store.

Scott: I wrote a book, too.

Me: I guess they didn't have it in stock.

Scott: Figures. Sure, I'll sign it if you'll sign something for me.

He handed me his fuel bill for the flight down to Florida. He did sign the book and left an orange Cheeto thumbprint next to his signature. I'm happy to say Hal treasures it. Both the signature and the thumbprint.

General Chuck Horner - hero of Desert Storm

Chuck Horner - war hero and master of military strategy

One of the keynote speakers at our convention was General Chuck Horner, architect of the aerial campaign in Operation Desert Storm. Because Desert Storm's ground war was rather anticlimactic, due to the overwhelming success of the air campaign, Horner was really a big celebrity in the aviation world at that time.

I met up with him in the green room before he went onstage at the Contemporary Convention Hall. We had a memorable conversation:

Me: General Horner, I'm the assistant to the convention director. Is there anything you need?

General Horner: Where's the men's room?

Me: It's just outside down the hall to your left. I can show you --

General Horner: Nah, I can find it.

I tell you, you just don't meet up with that kind of inspirational leadership every day.

George Brett - Baseball hall of famer and KC Royals legend

George Brett - 3 time AL batting champ, Hall of Famer, current batting coach for the Royals

After I left the FAA, I spent a romantic weekend in Kansas City with an FAA friend of mine named Lisa. We shared a room in a hotel on the Plaza and one day, we had lunch at an Italian restaurant a few blocks away. During lunch, I noticed over Lisa's shoulder that George Brett, his wife Leslie, and a friend were having lunch a few tables from us. As they got up to leave, I stood and shook George's hand, congratulating him on getting his 3000th hit that previous year and telling him I was a big fan.

He said, 'Thanks.'

Lisa, no baseball fan, asked me, "Who was that?"

Joe 'King' Carrasco - Tex-Mex party band legend

Joe 'King' Carrasco - recording artist, band leader, fun guy

In the late nineties, I was standing in line at the mini-bank at a grocery store in Georgetown, Texas when I noticed the guy in front of me was tall, had shoulder-length blonde dreadlocks, mirrored shades, and sandals. It was February and the temperature outside was forty-seven. What really blew my mind is that I thought I recognized him and was struggling to place him. Then it hit me.

I asked, "Hey, aren't you Joe 'King' Carrasco?"

He lowered the shades to look me over and said, "Yeah."

"I saw you play the Opera House in Lawrence, Kansas back in 1980," I said.

He laughed and said, "To be honest, I don't think I remember that. Hell, I don't remember 1980."

He deposited a check and took off.

It is easy to see why we have TV shows just to stalk celebrities so that we can see the mundane details of their lives. I mean, just think through these varied encounters of mine. Something a simple as dinner in a diner or standing in a bank line is transoformed instantly into a major memorable experience just by the mere presence of a celebrity - a celebrity who will no doubt not remember that meeting one hour in the future.

If that sounds too snarky, I am being ungracious. These are people and offstage, they are just people. None of them had the enormous ego required to make them think these mundane encounters should be memorable. To all of them I was probably a mild annoyance, possibly slightly amusing or flattering, but entirely forgettable.

When I am a universally famous blogger and recognized world wide for my acumen, wit, and literary prowess, I promise to do what I can to make these encounters memorable. I once read that when Isaac Asimov did book signings, he would make each signature personal. I mean really personal. Let's say your name is Jane and you are at a convention where you ask Dr. Asimov to sign your copy of "I, Robot" Asimov would write something like, "To Jane, in the memory of that delightful evening by the ocean when we, as you put it, went 'all the way'. Yours, Isaac Asimov." And for the record, I have two distant encounters with Asimov. Back at El Dorado High School, we had an annual creative writing workshop and the English teacher, Mr. Matthews, would ask us to submit names to invite. I suggested inviting Isaac Asimov. We got a gracious letter from him explaining that he was going to be in England the week before our workshop and would not have time to return to the US as he does not fly. He explained that everyone is entitled to an irrational fear and he apparently had a fear of flying.

I also have a signed first edition of his book 'Prelude to Foundation' which I received a couple of years before his untimely death to AIDS following a blood transfusion.

So, if there is a point to this rambling column, I guess it is this: you see a lot of celebrities on TV acting like total assholes. In my few, limited, encounters even the ones who weren't exactly friendly (Brett and Horner seemed mildly annoyed) were still essentially courteous. Most of them were downright warm and gracious. Asimov seemed to take a delight in interacting with fans. even from a distance. So overall, based on my extremely limited experience, celebrities are cool.

They are also way too abundant and given way too much attention. But that is a rant for another day.