Saturday, January 30, 2021

Phred Comes Home

Yesterday morning, I picked up my brother’s ashes from the funeral home in Winston-Salem. From there, I headed to Triad Park to get in some much-needed hiking and geocaching. It was a stroke of fair fortune that I ran into fellow cacher and friend Dave (a.k.a. Rhodorooter), who happened to be going after some of the same caches as I. A little later, I set a course for the old homestead in Martinsville, this time by way of the residence of friends and fellow geocachers Tom & Linda (a.k.a. Skyhawk63 & Punkins19). They had a nice little care package for me, which I greatly appreciate. Among the goodies were some chips and ghost pepper salsa, which fiercely hit the spot (although I might have overdone the salsa a bit).

Once at Pleasant Hill, I carried in Phred’s ashes, which I have put into a nice rosewood container. I carried him up the same stairs from the basement to the kitchen that Mom carried him up when she brought him home from the hospital for the very first time in 1964. This simple act somehow felt like... symmetry. My little brother was home once again, this time for the last time. Just after dark, I scattered some of his ashes in the front yard, where as kids we loved sledding when it snowed. Then I scattered some in the woods where we used to camp out in warmer weather.

Phred’s longtime friend Jon had contacted me a while back, and we decided to spend some time together at the first opportunity. That was last night. He came over to the house for a while, and we set ourselves up at opposite ends of the downstairs family room to avoid sharing any death cooties. We did share lots of memories of times together when he and Phred were pretty much inseparable. We raised and sank a few drinks in the process. It was the best kind of quality time during a sad time.

Headed back to Greensboro this afternoon by way of Danville and a new geocache. Despite the hard, sad time dealing with Phred’s loss, in the past couple of weeks, there have also been many wonderful, important celebrations and remembrances of his life that lifted my spirits.

Here is a video I sent to Tom & Linda, which chronicles my first taste of the Ocracoke Variety Store Ghost Pepper Salsa they gave me.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Phred’s Posthumous Profile in the Winston-Salem Journal


A nice posthumous profile of my brother in the Winston-Salem Journal today:

Alan “Phred” Rainey, Owner of Earshot Music, Has Died

I most appreciate that the piece features a video of him from 2014, when he was healthy. And I love being able to hear his voice again.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Universe Takes a Good One

It is with the greatest sorrow that I must announce that my younger brother, Alan “Phred” Rainey, has passed away following a long struggle with leukemia. He had been hospitalized for quite some time, and we had hoped he might get to a point where he could go back home. But over the past several days, his condition worsened, and a couple of days ago, he was admitted to hospice care. This evening, he slipped away peacefully.

Old dude (pre-old), Oolie-Poolie, Dad

Phred was born in May 1964, five years and two days after me (we always figured our folks might have been aiming for the same month and day; they never told). I well remember Mum bringing him home from the hospital for the first time. She came up the stairs to the kitchen from the basement, bearing a weird, prune-like bundle wearing only diapers. My first words to him were “Hello, dye-dees!” (Some derivation of “diapers,” I suppose it was.) Brother had lots of nicknames as a wee young’un. My 1969 diary indicates that “Oolie-Poolie” was the preferred sobriquet of the day. Countless entries refer to Oolie-Poolie and our beloved dog, Patty (“Patty bit Oolie-Poolie” appearing most frequently). “Phred” didn’t come along until his adult years, sometime post-college. I can’t recall the origin or significance of “Phred,” but he surely made it his own. To this day, I think few people, even his good friends, know his given name was Alan.

Oppressing the peasants

Brother and I had a fairly idyllic childhood, and we got along in the typical way of siblings with an age difference of several years. One of my favorite recollections of brotherly love was when I was 11 or 12, which put him at 6 or 7. Our parents had finally warmed to the idea of letting me stay alone with him for fairly short periods. One night, they went out and left me in charge for about an hour, after which a young lady named Sherry was to come round to babysit us for the rest of the evening. During that hour, due entirely to circumstances beyond my control, I locked Oolie-Poolie out of the house. Before I knew it, a brick came crashing through the backdoor window. Against my better judgment, I let him back in so he could clean up the glass. At this point, marginally peeved, I threatened to stab him with my pocket knife. I ran my thumb along the blade to test its sharpness (I mean, who would want to stab his little brother with a dull blade?), and in the process sliced my finger wide open. So, for a fair spell, I stood there, fussing and bleeding, trying to make sure he understood that his behavior was unacceptable. Soon enough, Sherry arrived to find a broken window, a brick, and a mess of glass and blood in the floor. She bandaged my gaping wound, taped Saran Wrap over the door’s, and told us she never wanted to see either of our faces again. (This was not true, of course; she babysat for us many times in the coming days, and only rarely did Oolie-Poolie cause as much trouble as on that particular night.) Once reconciled (all thanks to Sherry), brother and I devised the perfect alibi: we decided to blame the property damage on Dwayne Sigmon, our mortal enemy from the neighborhood. So, first thing next morning, when pressed to explain events, I told my understandably irate Mum and Dad that Dwayne had come out of the woods and heaved a brick through our backdoor window.

“Really? Why?”

 “Oolie-Poolie must have upset him.”

To this day, I will never understand why Mum and Dad refused to accept this interpretation of events, or why they wouldn’t allow me to babysit for my brother until I was 15 years old.

Despite the harmonious relationship between my brother and I, which you may have sensed from the preceding anecdotes, we did have the occasional rocky moment. Early 1972: I had painstakingly created an audio cassette recording of one of my monster stories, complete with music and sound effects. When I went to play it back, I discovered, not my monster story, but Oolie-Poolie singing along to The Partridge Family Sound Magazine album. Of the unforgivable offenses from childhood, this ranks near the top.

Like so many little brothers, young Phred tended to follow me around, often annoying me to the point that I wanted to shoot him in the butt with my BB gun. One time — I think I was in ninth grade — I shot him in the butt with my BB gun. To my eternal mortification (and yours too, I’ll wager), he violated the sacred trust between brothers and tattled, which resulted in my BB gun being confiscated for a period of two weeks. It may be worth noting that Mum was not known for her ingenuity when it came to hiding things, so whenever she wasn’t around, I grabbed the gun from her closet, shot things to my heart’s content (not little brothers at this point), and re-hid it before she returned.

As kids, we loved visiting our grandparents in Georgia, and we spent every Christmas with both sets of them until they passed away. (Most of the furniture in Phred’s house originally belonged to one set of grandparents or the other.) I would venture to say that, for both Phred and me, spending time at our grandparents’ was truly our version of heaven. Now, Mum’s mother, whom we called “Neenie,” was not necessarily slight of frame. In those days, we always said the blessing before every meal, and it was customary for our grandfather (“Papa”) to ask “Who’s going to say the blessing?” On one visit, four-year-old Phred brought the house down by pointing to Neenie and shouting, “Let Chubby say it!”

In the bedroom where he and I slept at Neenie & Papa’s house, the door to the living room had glass panes, which were covered by a diaphanous drape. One Christmas Eve, Neenie was wearing a chain belt that jingled, and she happened to walk by the door just after we had gone to bed. Upon seeing her silhouette on the translucent drape, Phred shot out of bed and cried, “Santa!” He suffered marginal disappointment to discover it was only Neenie, but Santa that year (as he was every year), proved very good to both us young rascals. 

A typical Christmas: Dude with gun and brother blowing his bugle

In elementary school, Phred developed a special affinity for music. I taught him to play guitar, and it wasn’t long before his proficiency surpassed mine. He also played clarinet in the school concert and marching bands, so people started calling him “Pete Fountain.” Over the years, he learned to play other instruments, including bass guitar, keyboards, and drums.

In his high school, college, and post-college years, Phred formed a number of bands with similarly talented musician friends. He headed up The Stars & Bars Band, Industrial Soldier, Joe the Fireman, and countless unnamed duets and trios. He wrote, performed, and recorded craploads of songs, sometimes with other folks, sometimes solo. Wherever he lived — from Blacksburg, VA, to Chapel Hill, NC, to Winston-Salem, NC — Phred attracted a considerable local following. A decade or so ago, he played frequently at a club called The Garage (sadly, now defunct) in Winston-Salem, which inspired Brugger and me to play music of our own there from time to time.

Phred provides musical accompaniment to Mum’s reading of The Night Before Christmas

During his Virginia Tech years — and for a long spell afterward — Phred worked for a music shop called The Record Exchange in Blacksburg, VA. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he ended up living several miles out of Blacksburg near Craig Creek in the Jefferson National Forest, where he introduced my (now ex-)wife and me to the joys of exploring endless networks of narrow, winding mountain roads in his pickup truck. We discovered what turned out to be one of our favorite places on Earth: a huge wall of slate cliffs above Craig Creek, with a clearing at its base perfect for camping out — which we did countless times over a couple of decades. On one of our truck outings, we took some random dirt road through the forest and happened upon a stone memorial, standing out there in the middle of nowhere. This turned out to be the site where legendary actor and WWII veteran Audie Murphy had died in a plane crash. Nowadays, the road to the memorial is more heavily traveled (and there is a geocache there), but back then, as near as we could tell, we were the only living human beings for miles around. For me, it was a transcendent experience.

In the early 1990s, Phred acquired a beautiful black lab, whom he named Luther. He loved Luther deeply, and that sweet dog was his constant companion whether he was at home or traveling. When Phred and I got together on our many rural excursions, Luther always accompanied us. One time, though, while just the two of them were out roaming along Marrowbone Creek in rural Henry County, VA, Luther went running after something and, as he often did, joyously leaped into the river. On this occasion — after a period of excessive rainfall — the water was high and fast, and the current swept Luther away. Panicked, Phred ran along the riverbank, trying to keep up with him. When it was clear that Luther was not going to be able to get out on his own, Phred, with no thought of his own safety, jumped into the river and swam after him. Eventually, he caught up to Luther, grabbed his collar, and managed to drag him to the bank and safety. I still get chills thinking about what might have happened to one or both of them. But you know what? I understand it. Like me, Phred loved animals and was fiercely loyal to those in his care (even Patty, who took such pleasure in gnawing on his bones).

Phred and Luther

After Blacksburg, Phred moved to Chapel Hill, NC, to manage The Record Exchange store there. He and I got together there a number of times, but by then, his busy schedule precluded sharing as much social time as he had in the past. After a couple of years in Chapel Hill, he moved to Winston-Salem, again to manage the local Record Exchange store. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the Record Exchange went out of business. However, this ended up offering Phred an opportunity that was too good to pass up: he became owner/manager of Earshot Music, which opened in the same space The Record Exchange had occupied.

Despite having established himself as a mature and responsible adult,* Phred enjoyed releasing his inner child whenever possible. From our school days until my dad’s death in the early 2000s, our family owned a timeshare condo at Myrtle Beach, where we all met every summer. Phred loved that place and looked forward to going every year. One time in the late 1990s, when he lived in Chapel Hill, he and I rode down to the beach together. When we got there, he got so excited that he did an expert handstand in the middle of the living room. Did I say expert? Actually, he overbalanced... kept going over...  and CRASH! — right into the lovely glass-topped coffee table. Glass everywhere! Finger-pointing at Dwayne Sigmon! Groundings! Okay, well, no groundings, not this time. My folks were by now pretty well accustomed to Phred’s excesses and simply made him call maintenance and explain to them what had happened.


In the mid-2000s, Phred decided to revisit his fondness for acting. In high school, he had acted in several school plays and proved himself quite adept. In Winston, he joined up with two or three acting companies and performed in a number of stage productions, some comedy, some drama. There was one production at small venue in Winston called The Stained-Glass Theater, which had once been a church. I cannot recall the name of the production, but it was a two-man drama, with him playing one of the two leads. He knocked that role right out of the ballpark.

Unfortunately, the rigors of managing a music store eventually crowded out most of Phred’s favorite creative endeavors. Acting went by the wayside, as did his forays into making music. Still, over the years, Phred became something of a local legend — for his talent, his knowledge, his warmth, and his passion. Since his passing the other day, seeing so many comments from people whose lives he impacted has brought me to tears. 

When we lost our mother last summer, the blow hit us both, but he took it particularly hard. He did not see her as regularly as I did, so on those occasions that he did, her decline appeared far more dramatic. I believe this devastated him, and he became somewhat more withdrawn.

When Phred was diagnosed with Leukemia, he was stoic, determined to overcome the challenges he knew he would face. For a long time, with all the treatments he was getting, he held out hope that he could eventually have a stem cell transplant, which would offer him a new lease on life. However, he continually suffered infections that resisted antibiotic treatment, and it was clear they were inflicting greater and greater damage. The past nine months, he spent more time in the hospital than out of it.

Last week, he and I had been shooting a few messages back and forth regarding Mum’s estate, which is still a long way from resolution. The tone of his texts were “normal,” with an occasional lighthearted quip. We were about done for the evening when he asked if we could talk on the phone. Of course we could, I said.

When I heard his voice — weak, pained — I knew it was bad. “Mark, it’s about time for me to say goodbye.”

Those words hit me like none ever spoken to me. He told me in some detail how he badly he had declined physically; the doctors gave him only a few more days. He asked if I would care to come see him in the hospital the next day, so I headed over to Winston very first thing.

We had a meaningful visit. He was lucid, which wasn’t always the case, given the meds he was on. He couldn’t speak much, as it hurt him and brought on serious coughing. A while back, I had found some of his old diaries in Martinsville, so I took them along and read him some passages that I thought he might find uplifting. I believe he did. The last thing he said before I left was, “The universe is getting the better end of this deal. It’s taking me away.”

Two days later, Phred was moved to hospice care. Once again, I went to see him, and this time, it was clear how little time he had left. He mostly slipped in and out of consciousness, though — thankfully — he was aware of my presence. I sat next to him while he listened to ambient music, which he appeared to find relaxing. When we were kids, back when we visited Neenie & Papa, if either of us didn’t feel well, Neenie would lightly rub our heads, which we both found soothing. So I rubbed his head for a while and reminded him of how Neenie did that way back when. He seemed to find genuine solace in this, and he told me that it really did feel good. After that, he faded away a bit; he just listened to his music and hummed.

Before I left, he reached out and, for the very last time, I held my brother’s hand.

Phred desired to be cremated (as do I, when the time comes), so his wishes are being honored. He asked that his ashes be scattered in several places that were special to him, including some of those I have written about here. Those wishes too will be lovingly honored.

I will never say that my relationship with Phred was without serious complications. We sometimes had them. Outside his more social relationships, he was an intensely private person, and he habitually kept those he loved — and who loved him — at arm’s length. Sometimes, we did not understand each other, and the results weren’t necessarily pretty. Yet, he and I shared a deep, unbreakable bond that I always valued and now treasure. The universe did get the better end of this deal, for it is taking back a gentle, warm, generous, formidably intelligent, sometimes frightened, oftentimes insecure, youthful soul whose life clearly touched many, many people. I can’t count how many of his friends have followed up to check on me. Each and every one has my gratitude.

I will miss my brother till the day I die. Wherever he is right now, I imagine he is running from Patty, who is surely ecstatic to be able to again engage in her favorite activity: chomping on Oolie-Poolie’s leg.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

A Stellar Start (NOT)

2021 has not exactly kicked off on a stellar note. DC riots and Capitol-storming aside, things on the family front have not quite gone as hoped. My brother, Phred (a.k.a. Alan) is in dire straits, health-wise, and this has cast a pall over even the more pleasant aspects of life. Dealing with Mom’s estate has presented me with more than its share of challenges, but right now — thankfully — I am able to step back a little to deal with other priorities.

The other day — Thursday, I believe it was — I took a little respite by heading up to the Laurel Bluff Trail, up at Lake Townsend. Friend Natalie had placed a slew of Munzees out there, and while I’m only so enamored of the Munzee concept, it gave me a fine excuse for an early evening hike. The sunset was gorgeous, and I ran into scarcely a soul out there, which made for a relaxing, contemplative outdoor experience.

On Friday, Kimberly and I headed to the old homestead in Martinsville, primarily to take down the Christmas decorations, which is always rather sad; perhaps more so this year, with Mom gone and Phred not doing well. We did have a fine dinner from Third Bay Cafe, watched The Mist, and played a bunch of fun tunes on YouTube till the wee hours. Once back home on Saturday, we set to work on the house upgrade; got a good spot of painting done in the kitchen.

Today, I hiked on the Blue Heron Trail to do some cache maintenance, which wasn’t as much fun as hiking to find caches, but it provided me with some much-needed exercise, and the weather was just right.

I’m putting the finishing touches on my Ameri-Scares novel, New Hampshire: Ghosts From the Skies, which I anticipate turning in this week. Then I have a short story lined up for an upcoming Lovecraftian anthology, which I hope will fly. Those are the high points, I reckon, but the low ones will be lurking around every corner. There’s just no way around them at this point.

But we maintain. Peace out.

A lovely evening on the Laurel Bluff trail, with the sun's last rays highlighting the trees across Lake Townsend

Fresh paint and primer brightens up the kitchen a bit....

Monday, January 4, 2021

How Very TruXXX

Letter from my (BIG FUCKING BANK):

"As a long-time client of (BIG FUCKING BANK), you are our number one priority. Our mission is to provide you, our client, with the finest possible customer service and convenience. As you are aware, we have recently merged with (OTHER BIG FUCKING BANK). In order to continue to provide you with the most convenient access to our services, we are closing the (BRANCH NEAREST YOU) as of January Whatever 2021. Rest assured that we are blah blah blah blah blah blah."

Friday, January 1, 2021

Zooming in the New Year

It wasn’t quite the way Brugger and I have typically ushered in a new year — or hoped to usher in this one — but one could hardly characterize 2020 as in any respect “typical.” For some time, we had dared hope the pandemic might have abated sufficiently to hang out with friends for New Year’s; mais alas, it most assuredly has not. So, in our typical undaunted fashion, Ms. B. and I made our own little New Year’s celebration, as we have a few times in the past, and actually had a damn fine time of it. I was pleased beyond pleased that a new geocache had published early in the day, over in Glen Raven, near Burlington. I went after it just before darkness fell and, as I was leaving, ran into friend Night-Hawk (a.k.a. Tom). Thus I got to wish one of my favorite fellow geocachers a miserable, socially distant new year. I’m sure he will take it to heart.

Not unlike our private little Christmas holiday, our New Year’s Eve proved intimate and mellow. Brugger had selected a couple of mighty fine wines for the evening, and I made Chicken Vindaloo for dinner, which turned out respectable. We watched Logan’s Run, which I hadn’t seen in many years and which she had never seen, and Liar, Liar, which she wanted to watch again after quite a few years. At midnight, friends Terry and Beth appeared on our computer screen for an impromptu bit of long-distance whooping and hollering via Zoom. Unlike most years, fireworks (and gunfire) from around the neighborhood was sparse. 2020 may have taken the bang out of more than a few folks.

I can’t say 2020 didn’t bring some good things, such as the publication of my third Ameri-Scares novel — Ohio: Fear the Grassman! — and Borderlands 7, which includes my story, “Escalation”; having my work published in Borderlands has been among my primary literary aspirations for many years. Working at home has been a godsend. But in the grand scheme of things, 2020 was a miserable spell, most notably because I lost my mom to COVID-19 back in July. Pandemic aside, having to deal with estate affairs has dominated a massive portion of my life, and I will be so ready to move beyond it, hopefully later this year.

No, there won’t be any immediate, miraculous changes on the horizon, but I do hope, over the long haul, 2021 brings about some much-needed healing — physically, mentally, and emotionally — for so many in this nation. We cannot continue on our dark, gloomy, divided path without totally coming apart. Maybe sooner than later. I don’t think many of us want that.

Happy happy happy. K?