Charlie, Alison, and the Best Concert I’ve Ever Heard — Part One.

posted in: Day In The Life, Family, Paean 6

I'm 99% sure that's Charlie! Photo by Jordan Fischer, 2005, via Wikipedia. (Annotation mine.)


A few summers back, Mom was up at the lake house with Mark.

One perfect afternoon, Mom went down to the shoreline with Scrabble, who surely wanted to rustle up some seagull jerky. There at the water, from waaaay down the beach, at the bend about a half-mile south of our place, she heard what sounded like someone playing a horn.

Yes, it sounded to Mom like someone playing some kind of brass instrument, though she couldn’t place which kind. It wasn’t a trumpet. Maybe a French horn? This wasn’t the first time Mom had registered the sound, either. As she went to fetch Mark for a second opinion, my mother looked back once more and saw a golden flash of sun glinting off metal. It was a horn! But it wasn’t on shore. Was the player standing in the water?? Playing a horn while wading?

That’s how we met the Vernons.

You see, Mom was right. There was a dude out there practicing music in the water. But it wasn’t just any dude, and it wasn’t just any music, either. Our Island neighbor turned out to be none other than Charlie Vernon, one of the world’s most celebrated trombonists, a man who has graced the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) for over 20 years and counting. Charlie’s wife, the luminous, whip-smart, first-draft-pick-in-the-zombie-apocalypse Alison Vernon, is a musician, too. Her lilting soprano voice would stir even the iciest of hearts, and that’s when she’s singing on an actual stage. I haven’t heard her singing while standing in Lake Michigan, but I want to.

I tell you all this because the Vernons had a huge hand in this terrific recent birthday of mine. This post is in two parts because there are two equally terrific sections to share and I don’t want anyone skimming!


Jack, Rebecca, and I arrived at the Island on Friday. Mom had made reservations for five at the perch fry at Findlay’s restaurant that night. It was pretty much non-negotiable when we decided we were coming “up Island,” as Mark likes to say; the perch fry is not to be trifled with. The longstanding Island dinner only happens Friday nights; you have to have a reservation; you have to tell Mrs. Findlay when you call if you want baked potato or fries; you get cherry pie at the end, and if you’re local (or close enough, like us) you know to ask for your pie a la mode. The Friday night perch fry has been happening in this exact manner since the Pleistocene era because if it is delicious, please do not fix it.

We had just been seated when who should walk into the dining room? Charlie and Alison Vernon!! We immediately scooted so they could sit with us and it was cozy and perfect.

Toward the end of the last platter of fish, Mom asked us kids if we had ever heard the story about how Alison and Charlie had been integral in the campaign to get Maestro Riccardo Muti, the world-class, virtuoso conductor, to come to Chicago and lead the city’s symphony. We sort of knew about that, but no, none of us knew the full tale.

Now, I’d like to think my family has a catalog of great stories, but Friday night we were delighted to be out of our league, big time. The story Alison and Charlie told of how a community of musicians in a major metropolis fell in love with a conductor and wrote him personal letters to get him to Chicago — and how these two dear friends of ours were so committed to helping the whole process because they believed, to their core, Muti was The Man — kept us utterly in thrall. Oh! That story is a tear-jerking, nail-biting, heart-swelling, gloriously triumphant tale and two of the lead actors were our personal storytellers. Heaven.

Anyway, the next day, there were more gifts from the Vernons. And you won’t believe what I have to tell you. You just won’t believe what happened.