“O’Neill’s Roadside Cafe”
I talked to my friend Mahlon Blue today. He has been battling cancer for three years now, his “lounge warrior” days having caught up to him, the result of playing his music in night life venues for the past thirty-eight years. Mahlon is a man of indomitable spirit; even though we were out of touch all these long years until about six months ago, he has always been a source of inspiration for me.
We served together in the U.S. Army, overseas in the Republic of Korea, in 1972-73. We clerked in the 199th Personnel Service Company, and ran in the same circle outside the office. Our crowd included those who preferred to find entertainment within the confines of the hooch (barracks), rather than amidst the night-life available in the clubs.
Blue, of course, perpetually had his guitar resting lightly on his lap; when he didn't, it was because he was eating or sleeping. Born in Louisiana, his drawl was soft and warm, and his John Lennon spectacles always made it seem that he was laughing inwardly, at some joke that we were all welcome to share with him. He was the same height as me, about five ten, and he looked out of place in a military setting. He wore a blue work shirt, when he wasn't in fatigues, and he wasn't in fatigues any more than he had to be.
Midway through my sixteen month tour of duty, I went home on leave, married, and returned to Korea with my wife, to reside off-post, in the capital city of Seoul. Our apartment was open to my fellow brothers, who were able to escape hooch life and get a glimpse of normalcy for an evening. We listened to music on technologically advanced systems, available in the PX, at ridiculously cheap prices, and recorded our own musical efforts, in an ongoing battle to forget that we were seven thousand miles from home.
After a particularly enjoyable occasion, when Mahlon and three of the guys had been out for dinner, and a relaxing evening, Mahlon composed a little musical ditty entitled “O’Neill’s Roadside Cafe.” He and the other three played and recorded the song, and presented it to us the next time they were out at the apartment. I was overwhelmed by the gesture, not to mention that the ditty itself was quite enjoyable.
The song impacted me profoundly, helping me get through not only the rest of my tour of duty, but many hard times along the path since. Inconceivable to me now, is the fact that I did not maintain contact with Mahlon when we went our separate directions, he to North Carolina, and I to the San Gabriel Valley, twenty miles east of Los Angeles.
While writing a narrative of my military experiences last spring, I googled Mahlon’s name, and found a picture of him onstage, in a nightclub venue on Hatteras Island, North Carolina. From this source I was able to get a phone number, and subsequently contact him.
With all of the rush of emotion that accompanied our reconnecting, came the knowledge that I had missed the passing of another military brother, Steve Addis, by a mere eight weeks. I also found out that Mahlon had been battling the whole time alongside Steve. There is nothing I can do to change the fact that i was not there when Steve passed, but I am here now, so I keep in close touch.
Mahlon told me on the phone a couple of weeks ago, that on his recent trip to Duke University, where he has been undergoing some very sophisticated treatment, he was being rolled out on a gurney, when he encountered another gurney, this one with a seven-year-old girl on it. One glance told him that she had been undergoing chemo therapy, and he told himself, “You think you have it bad; you ain’t facing nothin’ like this little girl.”
Even in the midst of his own battle, he is able to see that others have it worse. When I talk to him on the phone I want to tell him how much his words have meant to me all these years, and how much his spirit still means to me today, but I can’t seem to find the right language. How do I say something like this without sounding depressing or even maudlin? I think I’ll use plain English, and I think I’ll do it today.