Remembering my Friend, Mike MacNaughton (Part 2)

Part 2 of frustratingly incomplete memory snatches of my best friend, Mike MacNaughton, who died unexpectedly in his sleep recently.

I’d known him for 50 years, so any tribute is obviously abbreviated. Even spreading some of these stories out over more than one blog entry still means skipping bunches of great stories, reducing others to telegraphic headlines instead of full-blown renditions (definitely more to the story about Mike shooting fireworks off in our college rent house), and accidentally omitting others.

How could I forget to mention Mike drove 5 of us — me & the four Mikes, my 3 roommates & former house resident, Mike Janik — out to the middle of nowhere in the hill country on the evening of August 1, 1973 to become part of Texas music history? See, Janik showed up saying KOKE announced a live recording by Jerry Jeff Walker for anyone with a dollar who could find Luckenbach, practically unknown back then. “I know where it is if someone else can drive,” he grinned and off we flew into the night.

Viva Terlingua album coverThe recording turned out to be for Jerry Jeff’s phenomenal album “Viva Terlingua,” That’s right — listen closely to the audience singing the refrain there at the end of “London Homesick Blues” and you can hear me & Mike & Mike & Mike & Mike (and another hundred or more people) belting out, “I wanna go home with the Armadillo…”

See what I mean? Just another story. Just another adventure with Mike. Just another chapter in the legend.

After our college daze (sic), Mike headed out to California and I meandered westward a bit from Colorado to Idaho to Banff to Washingon before rolling down to California myself. Both MacNaughton and our friend, Mike Miskei, were temporarily crashing at Miskei’s mom’s apartment in San Francisco proper. When I showed up at the door, she looked alarmed until her son assured her I was not trying to crash there, too. I found it easier to stay in Berkeley, sleeping in my van as I had all summer, and just drive over to visit them.

There was that one night when Mike & I sat in the front seats, drinking some beers and visiting a little too loudly until a little too late, and I decided just to crash there, drawing the drapes closed and lying down on the bed in the back to sleep — until I was awakened by a cop pounding on the side of my van. I said I was too drunk to drive (first test of a long practiced excuse) but was sleeping it off and would be gone before sunrise. He grudgingly warned I’d better be gone by the time he came back in a couple of hours and left me alone.

Later, they moved into an apartment in Pacifica atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. I was stunned by the view afforded by a full wall west window looking out over the ocean, commenting how great sunset viewing must be. Miskei snorted & assured me, “Hardly. It’s the same damned thing every night: red ball sinks into dark ocean. No clouds, no drama, nothing…night after night. Boring. Gets really boring a lot quicker than you would think.”

Mike moved back to Texas but we made one foray back out to California together in 1979 to visit Miskei in Sausalito. Having Brutus along on that trip led to several travel stories. In fact, leaving Brutus with Mike for a week a few months later when I ran up to Chicago with a friend resulted in several of my best Brutus stories. After all, combine one canine adventurer with a storyteller and what do you expect?

Circa 81 or so, Mike worked distributing a film throughout the southeast. They were giving away a Rolls-Royce as the big publicity stunt. Only, now they needed to have it moved from Atlanta to Houston — to sell it off instead. The movie stank, lost money big time, and the investors figured to recoup some losses at least. Mike drove it back and I went along for the ride, so naturally, we headed north out of Atlanta first (the wrong direction) into the Great Smoky Mountains just in time to beat the road closing due to a blizzard.

We did have minor concerns about driving such a conspicuous car with no license plates (Georgia expected you to register it immediately–no temporary tag) with wires dangling from under the dashboard (failed attempt to disconnect the odometer) as a publicity stunt for a movie that no one had heard of called “Hotwire.” Fortunately, we never got stopped.

Things finally got real in Texas: we looked out the window to see cop cars surrounding the Rolls at the Texarkana hotel. Turns out they were just curious, having never seen one before. A mechanic asked if he could take a picture of the engine. And then there was the poor fellow loading wife & kids & groceries into a beat-up station wagon heading home after church looking over at me & Mike getting into the Rolls with a load of beer with this startled but hangdog look on his face that practically whimpered, “Why, oh Lord? Here I am doing everything right, and yet…”

Then, there was Mike’s first marriage. Let’s say it never looked like a good idea from the start. He was close to turning 30 and suddenly decided he needed to get married. Kate, the woman who had followed him out to California and back, was not, however, what he considered “wife material,” I guess. Instead, he started dating an 18-year-old girl: cute, smart, and funny — but EIGHTEEN! When I asked him about marrying someone so much younger, he said, “I want to marry someone young enough to mold her into the wife I want.” Um…that’s not how it works, Mike. I knew right then exactly how big a mistake it would be. And no, it didn’t work out.

They moved to East Texas, and the next thing I heard, Mike was living at Old MacDonald’s farm (no kidding) beside a scale-model replica of the Holy Land. The owner, Mr. MacDonald (who was indeed old), had created this little landscape of devotion, complete with small signs designating points such as Mt. Sinai, the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem. I kid you not. The thing was, this scale-model Holy Land more closely resembled an abandoned miniature golf course than anything biblical.

MacNaughton, me, and Patrick O’Connor (another source of nearly endless stories) — sometime in the 80s at an Auditorium Shores event

Mike moved to Dallas in the wake of that disastrous first marriage dissolving, and he started coming down to Austin regularly for quick weekend escapes, complete with minor escapades such as my backyard beer bashes and free music shows down the hill at Auditorium Shores.

We started hitting a high-end “All You Can Eat” Sunday brunch at a fancy new downtown hotel, featuring an abundance of standard breakfast fare but also such delicacies as unlimited lox & cream cheese with fresh bagels, just-carved prime rib, and an omelette chef standing by to prepare your custom request.

They also featured “all-you-can-drink” champagne — unless, as it turned out, you were with us. More than once, our Sunday gathering of merry revelers got cut off after numerous rounds of champagne. I think we got cut off the first time when we asked how many bottles our table of 8 had already emptied. Once they counted up how many (34, I think — we’d been there several hours), that was it for us. Or maybe it was asking to take the melting ice sculpture home —although they did let us leave with the sculpture.

It was a fun season of excess. Likely, it lasted too long but it sure produced some interesting spin-offs. One particular champagne brunch segued into an afternoon spent with our old friend, Paula, dreaming & scheming a plan to launch an advertising-public relations company. The three of us would’ve made a kick-ass team, no doubt. Combining our talents, we could’ve done some great stuff. But the dream, like a morning mist, was gone by day’s end amidst a basic disagreement about how to start. Mike wanted to borrow the startup money upfront. Paula wanted to bootstrap ourselves and grow as we went along. I was with Paula, wanting to ease into the idea project by project since I had finally and painstakingly worked my way into a decent position at the Brown Schools. It was a great Sunday afternoon fantasy while it lasted.

Please note: Mike later got sober. I gave up bottomless champagne brunches. After all, he’d paid my ticket — as had often been the case. It was convenient being best friends with someone who tends to pick up the tab. Did I abuse that privilege? Probably — but no more than he expected, I suspect. I tried not to go overboard and I bet he felt like he got a sufficient “return on investment” in the form of a companion and sidekick, not to mention all the stories and adventures. Oh, the stories and adventures…more still to come here soon…

To be continued…probably forever…


About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
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