The term “bucket list” is defined as a list of things that one must do before he or she…well, kicks the bucket. The Bucket List is also a bittersweet comedy starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, about two terminally ill men who skip the cancer ward and head out to fulfill their to-do list. These days, I’ve heard the term used by thirty-somethings, even twenty-somethings, so it’s just not an “old person” or “terminally ill” thing.
I didn’t call it a bucket list when, many years ago, I first thought about three places that I absolutely HAD to visit before I croaked. That’s a pretty short list, I’ll admit, but I’m easy to please. Since then I’ve seen two of these places, each of them twice. Wow, only one left, and being in my mid-sixties I should still have enough time to get there.
BUCKET LIST ITEM NUMBER ONE: THE ALAMO
Ever since I was a kid, The Alamo stood at the top of the list. I was a huge Davy Crockett fan, coonskin cap and everything, and I could never forget the sight of Davy (Fess Parker) and his sidekick Georgie Russel (Buddy Ebsen) fighting till their last breath at the end. Without a doubt, I had to get to The Alamo. But for a New York City kid who never set foot on a plane or went any farther than the Jersey shore until the age of nineteen, that didn’t seem an immediate possibility.
So here’s a weird story: I get drafted after college but enlist in the Air Force instead, one reason being that basic training is at Lackland AFB in San Antonio. Hey, I get to see The Alamo! They have to give you a break, or a leave, or whatever they call it.
A few weeks into training (this was 1968) I pull guard duty on a quarantined barracks. Some guys had died from spinal meningitis. (A year or so earlier an epidemic killed a bunch more guys there.) A couple days later I have most of the symptoms, including 105° fever. I survive, and they discharge me from the military. Hey, I enlisted, prepared to do my part, but this was the Vietnam era, and I really didn’t want to go, so being discharged did not break my heart.
Bureaucratic snafus keep me around the base for so long that I start to believe I’ll never get home. Finally I’m handed my walking papers and a plane ticket. I take a bus from Lackland into downtown, where I’m supposed to catch another bus to the airport. It’s at least three hours before the flight leaves when I arrive downtown. The Alamo is a couple of blocks from the bus station. Plenty of time to run over and see it. BUT I DON’T GO.
I’m a dumb kid of twenty-one, and I’m paranoid that they’ll catch up to me and take me back to the base. So I go to the airport instead. Hey, I got here once, I reason, so for sure I’ll get here again.
I finally did—THIRTY-FIVE YEARS LATER. I accompanied my wife on a business trip to Dallas, grabbed a shuttle to San Antonio and spent a couple days on the hallowed ground. Sure, The Alamo now sits in the middle of a large, modern city, but you can still feel the ghosts of Davy Crockett and his Tennessee volunteers, of Jim Bowie, Colonel Travis, Captain Dickinson, and the other brave men that died in this old mission on March 6 (my birthday), 1836.
A few years later I returned to San Antonio when my wife’s beloved Iowa Hawkeyes played the University of Texas in the Alamo Bowl. I of course took her to see The Alamo, which for me was anti-climactic, but still pretty cool.
BUCKET LIST ITEM NUMBER TWO: COOPERSTOWN, NEW YORK
So let me get this straight, Mike. You’re a seriously addicted baseball fan, you grew up in The Bronx with an equally fanatic dad, you lived less than 200 miles from Cooperstown—and you never went to the National Baseball Hall of Fame until you were fifty-eight years old!?! And lived in California!?! (See the previous entry for stupidity.)
Once again it took one of my wife’s business trips to get me going, this time to Baltimore in 2004. After we saw an Orioles game at Camden Yards and visited the Babe Ruth Museum I took a flight up to Albany and drove the seventy-five miles to this historic town, named after the father of James Fenimore Cooper—a fellow writer! So was it everything I’d hoped it would be? To paraphrase lines from my favorite movie: “Is this
Heaven?” “No, it’s Cooperstown.” For a baseball fan, this is not a visit—it’s a pilgrimage. All I could think of was, “What took you so long, schmuck?” Being off-season, I practically had the Hall to myself, as well as the old inn where I stayed. Yeah, it was heaven.
I went back in 2007 to see Tony Gwynn inducted into the Hall of Fame, along with Cal Ripken, Jr. This time there were over 70,000 people crammed into the tiny town, and I had to stay in Albany. Not as much fun—but seeing Mr. Padre inducted was worth it.
BUCKET LIST ITEM NUMBER THREE: DEVILS TOWER, WYOMING
Okay, this is the one place on the list that I’ve yet to see, and for good reason, probably. I mean, who goes to Wyoming?! Even if my wife still made business trips (she doesn’t), it would doubtless not be to anywhere in Wyoming. One of my writers lived in Wyoming while I was working with him a while back, but he’s since moved to California. Something about the weather…
Still, I’ve been semi-obsessed with the Devils Tower since it served as the centerpiece for Steven Spielberg’s 1977 science fiction classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind—definitely one of the fifty films that I include in my Top Ten. Now I may not be as obsessed as Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who built a ginormous clay-and-dirt model of the thing in his living room while trashing the house, but I’d like to get there almost as badly. Even more so when I came to learn the significance of Matȟó Thípila (Bear’s Lodge, in Lakota) to the Native American people of the area. Many tribes have cultural ties to this imposing monolith, which stands 1,200 feet above the surrounding area. Being already in the Black Hills, its summit is nearly a mile above sea level.
The Black Hills? Isn’t that where Mt. Rushmore is? Yes, the two monuments are about a hundred miles apart. Okay, another excuse to go there. But really, do I need an excuse? My wife, Jacqueline, is always right to the point: “You want to see the Devils Tower and Mt. Rushmore, let’s just go. Find the nearest city with a real
airport, fly in, rent a car, visit the sites, fly home. Simple.”
Indeed. I may just do that soon, and the bucket list will be complete. “Okay dear, I promise to get all of the dirt and clay and other crap out of the living room! But really, it’s starting to look like the Devils Tower…”