Monday, September 30, 2013

Mat Yeates: Ground Control to Major Tomkat

Todd, Jenny and Mat Yeates.

I was an extremely quiet child, a slightly terrified 8-year-old, in fact, being introduced to a brand new church class in our new town of La Crescenta, Calif. Standing at the front of the class as the teacher made the obligatory intro, I looked around at the mostly blank faces of people who would eventually go on to become some of the most important people in my life over the next 10 years. But I didn't know that then.

Most of the kids in the class, at least how I remember it, seemed to give off that "Don't sit by me, new kid" vibe as my eyes darted around the room — you know, like when you're walking down the aisle of a bus and people start subtly moving their belongings into the vacant spot at their side.

No hint of future mischievousness here!
One exuberant boy, however, greeted me with a smile, not only offering up an immediate hand of friendship, but also the seat next to him. And that was how I met Mat Yeates.

I didn't know it then, but I'd just made a friend for life. But, isn't it always that way?

This blog is usually about music, but today it will be about Mat. Sure, there will be some music involved. We not only went to some great concerts together way back when (some paid for, some as the result of sneaking in) but we also shared a brief, but memorable visit with Mr. Jan Van Halen at the VH homestead in Pasadena, Calif., on the afternoon of his sons' first performance at the Forum in Los Angeles. (That's a tale I have been promising to write for a long time, but have failed miserably at delivering.)

Mat died recently, leaving his vast array of friends shocked and saddened. Saturday was his memorial service back in La Crescenta. I couldn't be there in person – but I was there in keyboard. I guess that's appropriate, because that's probably how Mat communicated most since the advent of Facebook. Dude could certainly fill up a newsfeed with oddball links from around the world, pithy observations, and comical commentary on everything from his disgust for Brussels sprouts and hotdog water to his love for bacon and quirky cat photos — including one profile pic of a cat in a spacesuit that he dubbed Major Tomkat. The day Mat stopped posting on Facebook was like the day the music died.

"No Googling!" "Stay classy, Libs!" "For the win (FTW!)" "Bite me!" Those were some of Mat's favorite Facebook catchphrases.

My goal here is to share some of my favorite Mat memories. They may not be in order, there may not be great transitions and they may not be the most superbly polished accounts. But they will be what I have been remembering and thinking about — stream of consciousness-style — since receiving word of his passing

Mat was voted the smartest of his class at Clark Junior High. (Probably because of the Wallabys.)

Mat showing off an early penchant for Hawaiian shirts.
We all came out to Montreaux: Many of my early memories of Mat involve our days in Boy Scouts. Both our dads were assistant Scoutmasters, and the Grand Poobah, as it were, was the father of another friend, Mike Baker. We spent many a night sleeping out under the stars, or huddled in tents thinking of ways to prank our compatriots. There were snipe hunts and searches for left-handed bacon strainers. There were 50-mile hikes through the High Sierras, with our backpack-laden loads made somehow lighter along the trail by the chorus of a dozen kazoos playing "Smoke on the Water," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" or any other popular song of the day. I found it interesting that in the weeks preceding his death, Mat attempted to revisit those days, starting what he said would be a mention of each trait in the Scout Law while offering a story behind it and how it applied to some experience in life. Sadly, he only got to one: Loyalty. He told of a time he should have defended his brother, Todd, but didn't. He reached out and apologized for that instance, all these years later. I will always wonder what revelations he had in store for the remaining 11 virtues.

The Rossell Incident: Mat and I each had younger brothers close to the same age, and so we enjoyed many combined sleepovers. The ones I remember most seemed to happen on New Year's Eve — when we would take the opportunity to slip out and TP some neighbor's yard. Despite carefully plotting out our paths for retreat or hiding places beforehand, on one occasion we were surprised by an approaching car. While sprinting for cover, Mat and I ran straight into each other, Keystone cops-style, banging our heads together. I got the worst of it, and ended up with a black eye.

Since we all enjoyed sports as well, we often organized heated games of 2-on-2: My brother, Dennis, and I vs. Mat and Todd. We played football at Dunsmore Park and basketball at any local elementary school. We all remember these contests as being very one-sided.

Where's Mat? Graduation night photo op with the Yeates clan.
Pomp and one circumstance: It's funny how photographs maintain our memories. I don't have many specific memories from the night of my high school graduation ceremony, but I do have a photo that shows me with Mat's dad, his brother Todd and his sister Jenny. I've always wondered, "Where's Mat?" He was probably off reciting Shakespeare to one of the cheerleaders.

Rock and Roll University: We both went to BYU our freshman year, but in a complete coincidence, ended up being assigned to the same dorm floor. When we realized our good fortune, we immediately set about trying to convince one of our assigned roommates to switch quarters so Mat and I could room together. Mat's roommate was a strictly-by-the-books kid from Idaho, and he immediately refused to go against even the slightest perceived hint of protocol. At this point, Mat devised one of the most poorly concocted cover stories in history. His plan was that when meeting with my roommate, that we should pretend that I was this hardcore punk rocker – the idea being that he would be more than happy to make the switch rather than remain with me. As it turns out, I hadn't even met my roommate yet — we'd moved in at different times and hadn't crossed paths yet. Mat had a few Ramones records, and maybe a couple other punk recordings, so he brought those down and displayed them prominently on my side of the cramped room. At some point my roommate showed up and Mat launched into his act, describing how he and I were fantatical punk rock fans, went to shows together and listened to the stuff loudly all day long. If I hadn't seen Mat in "South Pacific" back at Clark Junior High, I'd say this was the highlight of his acting career. But it was all for naught — my roommate didn't seem to care, and he also declined to switch spots. Looking back, it was probably for the best. We got in enough trouble just living down the hall from each other. The irony? I hate punk rock.

Partners in Prank: Mat was probably the most intelligent person I ever knew. He was flat-out brilliant in the ways of math and science. But he also had an extreme fun streak. I was more of a detail person. Put us together on a prank and the results were impressive. (At least we always thought so.) In fact, I mostly remember that freshman year as one long series of pranks, interrupted occasionally by classes and other school-related activities. I'm going to relate a series of our most-memorable adventures, mostly because I think they should saved for posterity and partially because the statute of limitations has run out.

Penny for Your Thoughts: I come from a long line of prank pullers. I grew up listening to my dad tell the story about how he and some friends had managed to pack some large amount of limestone up a mountain in Salt Lake City when he was in college and turned the block "U" on the hillside (for the University of Utah) into a "Y" during Rivalry Week. He even had a newspaper article documenting the event as proof. It was my dad who taught us how to "penny a door" shut, by pushing in on the door and sliding a stack of pennies down the frame toward the door handle to the point where there was so much pressure that the person inside the room would not be able to turn the handle and get out. We enjoyed working on this technique, and then adding to it. Mat brought something to the table, which he dubbed a "shaving cream bomb." You would take a slick folder — in our days the Pee Chee ones were especially popular — and securely tape the bottom and long side shut, leaving only the top side open. Then you would literally fill the inside of the folder until it was bulging with shaving cream. After making sure our intended target was in his room, we would quietly penny his door shut, and then surreptitiously slide the open end of the shaving cream-laden folder under the door. At this point we would produce the biggest textbook we could find, or maybe a couple of them, and position them just above the folder. One of us would hold the book(s) and the other would take a two-footed leap right on the books, resulting in a spewage of shaving cream throughout the room. We loved that prank and kept expanding on it. One time we were able to get in a target's room when he wasn't there and disable his phone. Then in the middle of the night, we pennied his door shut, unleashed a shaving cream bomb and also deployed a Water Weenie under the door aimed in the direction of his bed. Perfect!

The Phone Booth: A local radio station at the time was running a popular promotional contest. The station would call the number of pay phones around the city. If you answered the pay phone with the phrase, "(Name of station) plays all the hits!" then you would win a designated amount of money. So we came up with a prank to play off that promotion. There was a pay phone just outside the main cafeteria of the entire dorm complex. This pay phone was also conveniently located near the bottom of a long walkway that came down from the main campus. We enlisted the aid of some accomplices back in the dorms, who wired up their telephone to stereo speakers in their room, so everyone there could hear the results. We supplied them with the pay phone number and the instructions to call the number every five minutes. Mat and I then went up to the pay phone and loaded the earpiece with shaving cream, and hid behind some nearby bushes. It was at night but there were still plenty of students returning from campus. The phone rang, and sure enough, we got an immediate victim. Then another and another. In fact, this was the prank that kept on giving. Between every victim, we returned to the booth and loaded up the earpiece with more shaving cream. In a way it was an unfair competition, like shooting fish in a barrel. It was hilarious to watch human nature at work. When the phone started ringing, inevitably, people's first reaction was to ignore it. But then there was that moment of recognition, when the thought of the contest crossed their minds and they immediately hurried over to the phone and regurgitated the required phrase. Some of the reactions were priceless. Some people started laughing, others angrily slammed the phone down or left the receiver dangling in disgust. Some were convinced they still might have won something and hung on the line, trying to clean out the receiver so they could hear instructions from the other end. The over-the-top winner in the best victim sweepstakes were two separate students who were walking down the pathway from campus, heard the phone ringing from a distance and literally raced each other to the booth to be the one to answer. Mat and I still laughed over that incident all these years later.

The Great Helaman Halls Smokeout: I mentioned how intelligent Mat was, right? Being a science geek, he somehow had obtained a copy of "The Anarchist's Cookbook." One entry showed how to make a smoke bomb. That type of thing was beyond me, but it was child's play to Mat. He made a small dose of the concoction, just to test it out, and it worked fine on a test run. Based on the amount of smoke it produced, Mat figured it would be OK to double or triple the recipe. So he mixed it all up on a tin foil plate and we went searching for a place to set it off. We found the perfect opportunity at a neighboring dorm building. We noticed an open window on the second floor. It was one where the window pane fans out, and there was a ledge of a couple feet running all the way along the building just under the windows. Mat climbed the ledge, walked over and set the contraption right under the open window. As it turns out, the door to the room was open (into the inside hallway) and it was unoccupied. Mat took a match and lit the pile of powder. Let's just say that Mat had vastly underestimated the amount of smoke that batch would produce. A gigantic belch of smoke emerged, with most of it being perfectly guided by the extended open window right into the vacant room. Mat hurriedly jumped down and joined me at a spot where we could enjoy the results of our handiwork. To say it created quite a commotion would be an understatement. Smoke started pouring into the inner hallway, and the building was evacuated, with people standing outside, us among them, looking up at the open window and smoke, trying to figure out what had happened. The cherry on the top of that prank was literally seeing some student walking from the hallway into the room wearing a gas mask. "What kind of student just happens to have a gas mask lying around?" we wondered. We did realize that effort was probably over the line in terms of perception, so we never attempted anything like it again. But the sight of that kid wearing the mask was more than enough takeaway from that incident to generate a lifetime of laughs.

Mat taking a selfie in recent years.
The Mask: Speaking of masks, we had several nights of fun with a particular one. I've always found that the masks that deliver maximum effect are not the most grotesque ones. No, the best results are the ones that look human enough on first glance or from a distance, but only reveal their more hideous nature upon closer inspection. I had one of those that year in college, and we would occasionally sneak up on the female dorms at night time. Now, it should be pointed out that this was nothing involving Peeping Tomfoolery. But we would find ground floor rooms where the curtains were wide open, and often there would be a girl or two sitting at their desks doing homework or something. The person wearing the mask would approach the window and just stand there, waiting for the intended target to notice. Sometimes it would take a minute or two, but those occasions would often produce the most scream-worthy results. If only we could have captured some of these scares on video.

The Laundromat Shakedown: One night we set our alarms for a pre-determined 2 a.m. mischievous meetup. During our search for prank opps, we were in a main stairwell when we heard a bunch of racket downstairs. We followed the noise to the door of the laundry room. Coincidentally, there had been a rash of burglaries in the dorm laundry rooms, with someone jacking up the machines in order to get the money out of them. We were convinced we had stumbled on the burglar in the middle of the act. We hurried back upstairs and decided we should inform our Resident Assistant — an upperclassman assigned to each floor to help keep track of the students. So we knocked on his door and after a couple minutes managed to get him to come to the door. We told him our story and he followed us downstairs. Sure enough, the loud metallic racket on the other side of the door was still in progress. We all tip-toed to the door and the Resident Assistant flung it open, catching the interloper completely off-guard. Except he wasn't ripping off money from the laundry machines. He was tap-dancing. Yes, tap dancing. He claimed that it was the only time and place where he could practice without bothering anybody. We always thought it was just because he didn't want anybody see him. As we returned upstairs, the obvious dawned on the R.A. He turned and asked, "What were you guys doing up wandering around at this hour anyway?" As I recall, we didn't really have a good answer.

Key to the Kingdom: Speaking of the R.A., he took a vacation once and left his master key (to all the rooms on our floor) with a trusted student (Read: Not Mat or I.) But a day or two later, Mat somehow came into possession of the key. From what I remember, this student had been helping someone and happened to leave the master key there. Mat picked it up, and that led to more than a week's worth of fun for the two of us. After making sure no one was inside certain rooms, we would enter with the master key and set up all kinds of pranks: Shaving cream in the phones, short-sheeted beds, turning the volume settings all the way up on stereos. Stuff like that. Mat had also figured out a new trick. As you entered each room, you would flip on a light switch by the door. There were also vanity lights by closet mirrors near the door, and you could set them to turn on when the main switch was flipped. At the vanity mirrors, there was also one electrical outlet, that was somehow connected to the vanity lights. Mat figured out that if you stuck a tinfoil gum wrapper in the outlet, that when someone entered the room and flipped on the main light switch that it would short-circuit the vanity lights with a loud pop. So he set up a few of those to go off, too. We had tremendous fun with that key for a week or two. Until Mat accidentally left it in one of the rooms we targeted. But no one ever figured out it was us messing with everyone.

Mat taking in a show with some some high school friends.
Concert firsts: I was with Mat the first time I saw two of my favorite groups in concert: Van Halen and Styx. The Van Halen experience was already documented on this blog (you can read that HERE) and Styx has gone on to be the band I have seen the most in my life. It's hard to think of either band without thinking of Mat as well. We were discussing Van Halen just a month or so ago and agreeing that "Unchained" was one of the best songs ever written. As for Styx, there were two separate occasions in the past couple years where I was interviewing or meeting with members of the band, where Mat asked me a specific question. One dealt with a lyric in "Blue Collar Man" and the other with how the band was able to get a photo of an ice block on fire for the cover of "Equinox." (It turns out that Mat and Todd had actually tried to recreate that cover themselves way back when, and had been unable to do so.) It was fun for me to get pretty immediate answers directly from the band and relay them back to Mat. I think he got a kick out of that.

"Remember My Name": It was that freshman year that Mat made a bold musical forecast. "Legs Diamond will become one of the biggest bands in rock within a few years!" Who? Exactly. We hit the motherlode on Van Halen, but he was miles away on Legs Diamond. I took much glee in reminding Mat of the complete and utter failure of his prediction throughout the years.

Christine vs. Stevie: While Mat and I agreed on many things musically, we didn't always see eye to eye. For some oddball reason he maintained to his dying day that Christine McVie was more integral to Fleetwood Mac's success than Stevie Nicks. Can you imagine? I baited him on several occasions to make his case — so I could completely and meticulously tear it down and show him what pure folly the idea was — but he never would. (I told you he was smart, right?) He would occasionally post a link with some rumor of Christine returning for the current Fleetwood Mac tour and I'd keep refuting it with links of flat-out denial from the band. Then literally a few days after he passed, it was announced that Christine would indeed make a short guest appearance with the band at only a couple dates in Europe, where she now resides. Coincidence? I think not. Still, even now that he's gone his own way, I still think I win the Christine vs. Stevie argument.

Have Mercy on the Criminal: As near as I can remember, the last time I saw Mat in person was in 1986 — where we attempted to sneak into an Elton John concert at Universal Amphitheatre. (What can I say? Some habits die hard.) These escapades were always more about the thrill of the hunt than anything else. I was back visiting Southern California for a few days and I rang him up. He was the same fun-loving guy I'd always known. We traipsed around the hills surrounding the venue to no avail — the terrain was unfamiliar to us and we were just trying to find a way to actually get close to the amphitheater where we could at least hear the show. After walking all over we finally cut across what we determined was the road that the tourist tram followed to reach the back lots, etc., and even found ourselves walking through some of the recognizable stops on the tour. At that point we realized that the risk-reward ratio was way unbalanced and we abandoned our mission. It remains a fun memory, though.

Mat in Robin Hood attire with classmate Vicki Adams Dorosy.
The King of Facebook: Mat made everybody laugh on Facebook. He just did. He couldn't help himself. He had no TMI filter. When our high school graduating class held a gathering to celebrate the year most everyone was turning 50, Mat showed up to the party wearing what can only be described as a Robin Hood outfit. He feigned surprise to learn that it was a "middle-aged celebration" as opposed to a "Middle Ages" party. This was pure Mat. His humor was mostly on target, even if slightly left of bulls-eye. Mat believed as I did, that pretty much everything in life could somehow be tied to a "Seinfeld" episode. We held ourselves to that standard often — offhandedly mentioning obscure "Seinfeld" references in the comments of each other's posts. I think Mat gave me the most treasured compliment I have ever received on Facebook. I can't remember the exact circumstance, just that I caught him offguard with a "Moores-Mopes" reference from "The Bubble Boy" episode. Mat's immediate followup comment was: "You magnificent bastard." That is high praise coming from Mat Yeates. I wear that name tag proudly. I wish I could have attended the post-memorial service lunch gathering on Saturday — if only to make sure no one double-dipped their chips.

Rock on, Major Tomkat. Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do.

2 comments:

  1. I can hardly comment....a beautiful story about a beautiful friendship.

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  2. Well said! I 'met' Mat on Facebook in the past couple of years, obviously never met him in person. But he surely left an impression on me and many other people!

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