Thursday, July 30, 2009

A storm amid the hills........

Just a few weeks ago, I stood at the sliding glass door in my dining room and gazed out into the gloom of evening as incredibly bright bursts of color exploded above the tree tops and brought brief, intense illumination to the landscape as far as the eye could see. It was the closing night of the Smithsburg carnival, and, as is the yearly tradition, a quite impressive fireworks display was heralding the end of the week-long festivities. I looked out over the housetops below the hill where my street meanders and found my gaze repeatedly falling on the view immediately opposite. There was nothing all that spectacular about the scene itself, just a dense treeline along a winding road that leads from the edge of town down into the entrance to my development. But, as I had done on other occasions, I determinedly shifted my gaze back to those trees, caught with surprise as each pyrotechnic burst cast a momentary flash of near-daylight over that distant slope. Each percussive slam of the exploding shells rattled the glass in my kitchen window and echoed in a slow-dying slapback from one ridge to the next, rolling like an almost infinite thunder between the towering hills which surround our tiny western Maryland town. Some distant dog, terrified by the cacophony, barked a frantic, forlorn chorus of agitated yelps that somehow merged in a melancholy tapestry with the thunderous claps and short-lived blossoms of intense light. As the finale unfolded ten minutes later, the last booms rebounded through the farmland and the closing burst of light lit the smokey shrouds which drifted lazily on the warm night air. Then it was over, and the nearby dog gradually regained his composure, and Alison and I turned the lights back on, snapped suddenly into the commonplace sight of the living room as it always looked, and the same old town beyond the same old neighborhood out the same old window.....

None of this would be all that incredible in most towns in America, just an age-old expression of festivity in the incredible realm of a summer night, some noise and smoke and fun, and nothing deeper or more profound than a replay of a tradition we occasionally slip on like an old shoe, comfortable and familiar. But my town, like so many of the others tucked away amid the hills of Washington County, Maryland, holds the special distinction of being the site of a Civil War battle, certainly not on the scale of what unfolded just a few miles down the road in Sharpsburg, but, to those who fought here and to those who stood by and watched in a horror of fascination as it unfolded around them, every bit as terrifyingly real and agonizingly unforgettable. Much of the Civil War history of Washington County is entangled in the complex series of events which occurred in the aftermath of the conflict at Gettysburg, as the Army of Northern Virginia made its desperate retreat to the Potomac, fragmenting so as to not move as a single target for the Union Army, a 17-mile long wagon train of the wounded and dying in tow, and with the logistical nightmare of transferring a gigantic military machine back to the safety of Virginia. For both sides, it was cavalry units which played a huge role in the maneuvers of early July, 1863, as the pursuer and the pursued sojourned across the mountains from Pennsylvania back into Maryland. And so it was on a rainy Sunday, July 5th that none other than Brigadier General George A. Custer led his brigade of Michigan cavalry regiments down Water Street and into the midst of a celebratory throng which gratefully poured into the streets to welcome the Union troopers. The townspeople set up tables and served the horse soldiers a stunning array of food and drink, while a cluster of young people sang Yankee Doodle and Hail, Columbia. A family living on South Main Street invited Custer to join them in their home for Sunday dinner, and the general aura throughout the town was one of jubilation.

Custer's divisional commanding officer, General Judson Kilpatrick, arrived with the other brigades, and defensive positions were established with artillery deployments guarding the mountain passes near Raven Rock, immediately opposite the town. As the afternoon wore on, the festival atmosphere gradually evaporated as a threat began to emerge on the mountain -- the Confederate cavalry units of Major General J.E.B. Stuart. Stuart had incurred the disfavor of Robert E. Lee by initiating a largely fruitless ride around the Union army which had caused his absence as the battle of Gettysburg unfolded, depriving Lee of badly-needed intelligence gathering and a shielding device for the infantry against the reconnaissance of the Union troops. Determined to clear the way for the retreating Army of Northern Virginia and resolute in his efforts to restore the confidence of his commanding officer, Stuart moved down from Raven Rock toward Smithsburg. When it became obvious that there was a large Union presence in the town, his artillery unlimbered and began to shell the distant houses. What traces of the party-like atmosphere of the morning remained were completely decimated as the shells began to rain down on streets. A shot dropped into the pottery of Joseph Kimler on Water Street, and another struck the end wall of Leonard Vogel's house across the street. The Confederate cavalry dismounted and engaged the Union troops at the base of the mountain in a short, hot firefight as artillery on both sides pounded away in the late afternoon hours. As Stuart shifted his troops down from the mountain, Kilpatrick became convinced that his position was untenable, and he hastily ordered a complete withdrawal from the town, with his units retreating to Boonsboro. By early evening, Stuart's forces moved directly into the town, and Smithsburg earned the distinction of being occupied by the forces of two different armies in the same day. By 9:00 that evening, Stuart led his men down the Smithsburg-Leitersburg road, and the citizens of Smithsburg caught one last glimpse of the gray invaders moving over the rolling hills, with wreckage in their wake, and a turbulent vision that would forever remain in the collective memory of the small town I call home.....

Sometimes on Sunday mornings, when I'm walking from my car to my church at the corner of Water Street and Main Street, I picture them all there, Custer and Stuart and Kilpatrick, and the hundreds of troopers and horses that rolled up and down the hills and the muddy streets. I try to imagine the unbridled panic that must have swept through the sleepy farm village on that long-vanished Sunday, when explosions rocked the buildings and lead tore through the hot air. Some of the buildings are virtually unchanged since that short battle, old weathered brick and gray stone foundations, with only the occasional power line or satellite dish here or there to destroy the image of what Custer might have looked up and saw. In Veteran's Park, at the base of the hill where the town library sits, a historical marker describes the action and the principal players in that bloody dance one ancient July. But it's the small details that I find the most affecting. The cannonball that struck the Vogel house is still there, embedded in the brick and mortared over by Leonard Vogel 146 years ago. Just down the street is the Bell House, which served as a field hospital, and it's strange to picture men lying in the small bedrooms, suffering and distraught, hundreds of miles from their own homes. The house Custer dined in is still there, just a few doors down from the railroad tracks, nondescript and practically hidden in the long string of others which sit anonymously along the hilly street. It's easy to picture the young boy general, all of 23 years old, basking in the adoration of the young ladies and the grateful old men, and tiny children caught up in the splendor of something they were too many years away from even being able to comprehend. I think of Custer, extravagant and brimming with confidence, absolutely convinced that he would be an endlessly victorious commander, completely unaware that thirteen years later, as the United States celebrated its centennial, he would recklessly lead his men into a deathtrap called the Little Bighorn, and fall at the hands of the Lakota under Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, facing an enemy he completely underestimated, he and his men vanquished in a Montana battlefield far removed from the little town of Smithsburg. In a glass display case in his basement, my brother has a small leather pouch that was reclaimed from the Little Bighorn battlefield, the possession of some now nameless Sioux warrior, a strange modern-day connection for me, knowing that it came from the field where Custer died, the same man who once jubilantly paraded down the street I drive on every day.

But there are two reminders I find most poignant, made somehow more so by their odd juxtaposing against the commonplace banalities of everyday life. One is something I see each time I take the recycling to the big dumpster behind the fire hall on North Main street. As I turn back the small alley to where the bin is located, I catch a glimpse of the tiny corner of the graveyard behind the Lutheran church. There, almost against the fence, is a small, slate-gray tombstone, rubbed smooth by a century and a half of western Maryland winters, and I sometimes see a small Confederate flag stuck in the ground beside it. There most likely was never a name on the stone, but I find it heartbreaking to think that it denotes the final resting place of some forgotten horse soldier, from either Virginia or North Carolina, based on the states of origin of the troops who fought here. A few feet away lies another stone, equally small and unadorned, which has been identified as the marker of a Union fatality, and there is something painful and awe-inspiring in the realization that these two forgotten veterans once looked out across the smoke-shrouded hills and saw each other's battle lines, and now they lie in the quiet corner of a churchyard together, far beneath the green grass, just a few feet from where laughing children climb unaware on playground equipment in the Maryland summer sun. I sometimes look at the little stones and wonder if each of the men who lie beneath them had a wife and children somewhere, maybe back in some little town not that unlike Smithsburg. I wonder what the men looked like, and what they did for a living....I wonder what dreams each shared with his wife as he held her in their distant home, and I sometimes ask myself whether or not either wife ever really knew what happened to her beloved, or where he was laid to rest.

Probably the little lasting memory of the battle that touches me the most is one I rub elbows with when I drive home at night after a quick trip to the grocery store, and find myself moving down that twisting road along the ridge directly opposite my house, the one I watched lit by fireworks. My window glass had rattled and the dog had barked, and the booms had echoed forever off the ancient hills, and I couldn't help but think that those brief moments had been the slightest taste of what Smithsburg
must have sounded like on the old, almost forgotten day of battle. But my fascination still lies with that little ridge, not for anything incredibly significant, but due to the fact that a company of Union soldiers had been assigned to that particular piece of ground. And, driving down that ridge, I almost always find myself thinking about them. They were in one of Custer's units, Michigan Wolverines, men who had drawn the duty primarily because they were outfitted with repeating rifles. The logic was that their armament gave them a tremendous advantage in guarding a critical road out of the town, and they were deployed to secret themselves in the tree line along the ridge, not in the combat, but standing on the side, vigilant, ready, watchful as the drama unfolded. What these men learned with horror was that, as the battle fizzled out and Kilpatrick made a mad dash to Boonsboro --to, in his own mind, save his command--they were left behind. This special detachment with their special rifles, completely overlooked in the evacuation, suddenly confronted with the reality that all of their comrades were gone from the field, and the only troop movement on the streets of the town was by ragged men in gray and butternut.

When they finally realized what had happened, they were able to safely withdraw, but I think sometimes of how awful it must have been to be left on that hill. Most of them were probably just kids, 18 or 19 in many cases. Child soldiers in a brigade with a 23-year-old commanding general, in a sad, tragic war that stubbornly refused to end, abandoned on a tree-lined country road winding out of a small farm town surrounded by towering hills. Today, no discernable trace remains of the Michigan boys who ensconced themselves in their lonely vantage point, save for the fact that the tightly-clustered unit of townhouses at the base of the hill sits on a cul-de-sac with the bittersweet cognomen of Sentry Ridge.

I always find it humbling to think about, the sacrifice of young men who desperately fought each other in a town where some families had members on each side of the war, where loyalties and allegiances were complicated and sometimes painfully blurred. I grew up in this county which has the ghoulish distinction of being the site of the bloodiest day in American history, September 17th, 1862, the Battle of Antietam, but even I never knew about the battle of Smithsburg until I was 41 years old. Most of the people who live here, especially the younger ones, are equally oblivious.....they see the Food Lion and the convenience stores, the bank and the churches and the old brick houses, but they remain unaware of those few brief hours when something desperate and awful unfolded in these common, unremarkable streets that crisscross what we call daily life.....

I guess that's where the story ends.......nothing profound, no great pronouncement of anything. I just like to think about what happened here, because it bears repeating, not because it was so vast in scope, but because it was a human experience, a dreadful one our modern lives are far removed from. But it did happen, and it was one small component in the complicated path that lead us to America, 2009. It may not carry enough merit to be discussed at length, or even to hold the attention of the casual observer for more than a few seconds, but I choose to honor the memory of those boys from so long ago, not with anything grandiose or elaborate, but with a simple and humble acknowledgement. It's not my goal to analyze, to judge, or even to understand.......just to try always, at least in some simple way, to remember........

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The old-fashioned summer of 2009

One hundred and forty-six years ago tonight, Union General John Buford bivouacked with his troops at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Earlier in the day, his men had happened upon the lead elements of Confederate General A.P. Hill's corps as it advanced from nearby Cashtown, down the dusty roads and through the hills which would soon be filled with the turbulence of a cataclysmic confrontation between the two opposing armies. The bloodiest battle in American history would be played out under the auspices of the seminary and farmhouses, churches and barns, old ridges and endless rows of gently-swaying wheat and corn. Like iron filings being drawn helplessly to a magnet, they would come, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, two enormous masses of men who would decide the fate of the country in the blazing sun of the first three days of July, 1863. After a bloody grudge match which dragged through two sweltering days, the apocalyptic climax unfolded in the early afternoon of Friday, July 3rd, as James Longstreet directed George Pickett to initiate a direct assault across the open fields against the fortified defenses of the Union center, Robert E. Lee's last futile gamble to procure victory north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nearly obliterated in the desperate charge, the Confederates fell back, tragically wounded but still with an iron resolve. As the Fourth of July unfolded, Ulysses S. Grant was securing Vicksburg, Mississippi and dealing a second crushing blow to the Confederacy as the United States celebrated the anniversary of its independence. Two more years of blood were to come, but the events of that summer were eternally etched in the character and legend of America, and the drama which played out on those fields became another component in the unfolding, the evolution of the American Experiment.

I thought about Buford tonight as I watched the last vestiges of daylight drop behind the hills. As I contemplated the onslaught of July, I felt like he must have as he ruminated on the coming Confederates who would arrive in the morning. Summer is only a little over a week old, but the days are already getting shorter, and I'll awake tomorrow morning to July. Summer is hard for me to even fathom anymore.....even seeing my step kids
out of school doesn't really register. There's something about the crushing monotony of adult working life that manages to strip all the wonder, all the magic out of that brief, balmy expanse between Father's Day and Labor Day. What was once the incredible allure of the arrival of warm weather is now nothing more than the reality of a sweaty commute to the office, walking across a parking lot you could fry an egg on and longing for those late September days when the clouds drift like long-dead dreams across a young autumn sky. But it is summer, and, at 44, I sit here trying to redefine what that means to me. One month bleeds insidiously into the next, so it might as well be February. I took a week's vacation in the middle of June and sat through a frustrating expanse of soaking wet days as punishing thunderstorms ripped the sky apart and a daily deluge of rain rendered doing anything outside an impossibility. Now, back at work, the weather is temperate, generally clear and warm, and so far, relatively devoid of the suffocating humidity that too often defines a western Maryland summer.

I don't know for sure, but I think my family and I were in Walt Disney World 35 years ago today. It was 1974, our second visit there, and we were staying on property for the first time, at the Fort Wilderness Campground, in the 17-foot trailer that my mother observed seemed to somehow shrink about two feet every day we were in it. To the best of my recollection, 35 years ago today I went through Pirates of the Caribbean for the first time, decades before Jack Sparrow and the 2006
refurb of the ride which infuriatingly removed my favorite scene, a finale depicting a treasure room where a group of drunken pirates blearily fired their pistols and celebrated their plundering. Now the scene is gutted, all the pirates gone, and the only original figure still there is a parrot perched beside the newly-installed Jack Sparrow, an astonishingly well-animated figure who reclines in a chair with truly uncanny movement. But the buccaneers of my youth are gone. Midway through his spiel, the Sparrow figure proposes a toast to 'my many shipmates lost at sea', and I can't help but think he's referring to those figures I first fell in love with three and a half decades ago today. I feel like Robert Louis Stevenson, who, in his poignant preface to Treasure Island, offers the wish, 'May I and all my pirates share the grave where these and their creations lie!' A whole generation of kids whose parents weren't even born when my family and I first cruised through Pirates 35 years ago today can love it, and be amazed by it, just as I first was, but they'll never know or care about what used to be there, and about what was forever altered to conform to the changing sensibilities of an ever-more fickle world.

....which got me thinking about just how much has changed since that summer of '74. The Internet,
Youtube, Facebook, My Space, Twitter, cell phones, Ipods, texting, and the rest of the digital inundation that floods our lives would have seemed like something from Star Trek in that vanished summer. It's permeated the fabric of society now, and the entire weave of the family, and not having those things would strike a younger generation as a heinous deprivation, but we came home from that Walt Disney World vacation in '74 to a world that would seem as removed to today's kids as John Buford at the Seminary is to me tonight. In '74, my parents still had a party line, which we shared with about four other families on our street. Placing a call meant first delicately, quietly picking up the phone and checking to see if someone else's conversation was occurring, and, if so, to then gingerly hang up, coming back five minutes later, and ten minutes after that, if necessary. Crazy and anachronistic today, but we didn't question it. It was what it was, and patience came with the territory. It was the only game in town. We turned on our Zenith TV and sat for what seemed an eternity while the picture tube glowed slowly to life, like the aurora borealis tentatively drifting across a night sky. Our reception was limited to about five or six channels, in a day when there was only ABC, CBS, NBC, a smattering of shows on PBS, plus a couple of oddball channels we could occasionally pick up from Washington D.C. and Baltimore. If there were too many 'ghost images', Dad would turn the knob on a black box that sat atop the TV cabinet called a 'Tenna-rotor'. Outside the window, on the metal tower which clung to the side of the house, the antenna would squeakily rotate, and the picture would improve-hopefully. I remember turning on WBFF channel 45 from Baltimore in the afternoons to watch Captain Chesapeake, a locally-produced kid's show with a host who wore a jaunty skipper's cap and welcomed us all aboard with a hearty 'Ahoy, crewmembers!' His sidekick, Moandy the Sea Monster, was always at his elbow, with a stiff, paper mache-looking head and a shiny costume. He looked like a refugee from one of the Japanese action shows like Ultraman or Johnny Socko and His Flying Robot which formed most of the staple programming for the good Captain, who sat with his reptilian sidekick on a bare-bones set with a blue screen rear-projection of scenes which looked more like the Potomac River than the Chesapeake Bay. All the while, a giddy, zippy organ piece played in the background, a cheesy but instantly recognizable undercurrent as powerful as the choppy, lapping water we saw on the fuzzy background. It didn't even matter that about every eight seconds the camera angle on the background footage changed. It was enough that we were spending the afternoon with the Captain, until that time he wished us bon voyage with 'So long, crewmembers!' Goetz's Caramel Cremes was always the sponsor, and the Captain's endorsement of this filling-disgorging confection was as much a constant as the odd water views which formed a backdrop for this strangely compelling afternoon pastime.

The evenings were a continuous loop of mid to late Sixties reruns
: Gomer Pyle, Hogan's Heroes, Gilligan's Island, I Dream of Jeannie, The Munsters, The Addams Family. My favorites were the oddball stuff like Wild, Wild West, The Avengers, and of course, Star Trek, which captured all of our imaginations in an era when something like a hand-held personal communication device seemed a hundred years away. And, when the evening had wound down, the real treat came at about 11:07 as we tuned in my brother's portable radio to the local CBS channel, broadcasting from the tiny, forlorn station just down the street from our house, situated across an empty field we always called 'the playground' because of the ancient sliding boards and merry-go-round the radio station had installed for the neighborhood kids to play on. We locked onto the station and listened with anticipation to a creaking door, followed by spooky music and the intonations of E.G. Marshall welcoming us into the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. Every night was another macabre story, and it made it somehow even more mysterious knowing that the distant signal from New York was coming through that tiny local station, beaming out through the looming transmission tower we could see from the windows of my parents' den, a few wan, red lights blinking endlessly through each night as a warning to planes flying toward the nearby airport. That the station sat on a desolate stretch of road, beside a deserted manor house, across from a cemetery and a couple of dilapidated barns, combined to make something that was the very embodiment of 'suspense', and, when the hinges creaked and the music played at the end of the episode, only then did we realize it was midnight, and we would go to sleep with the windows open and listen to the distant roar of traffic on Interstate 81, miles away.

Summer was all about food, and we had some definite classics. John Denver once observed that the only things money can't buy are true love and home-grown tomatoes, and you would believe it, too, if you could have sampled some of the crimson beauties harvested from our neighbors' sprawling garden. Then there was corn, amazing, delectable Silver Queen, bought out of the back of Mr.
Stockslager's decrepit pickup truck. When we saw the relic of a vehicle pull up at his daughter's house across the street, we knew the best of the summer eating was here, but we also knew that summer was winding down, because he usually came in the first week of August, so it was not only sweet corn, but bittersweet, too. And then there were those unique dishes my mom made--her amazing, breaded 'Maryland Fried Chicken'; corn fritters that tasted like she had deep-fried summer itself; sweet rice pudding she always served warm; her signature potato salad which she must have made truckloads of during my childhood ("Take more", she would say - "there's thousands!"). And to wash it down there was the tea she brewed from the spearmint which grew at the end of the yard. The guy next door had planted it in the late Fifties to use it in mixed drinks, and, when the plug grass he had installed in his yard had crept under the fence, it had decided to bring the mint along for company. My mom had a grove of it down there, and she would sometimes let me help pick the fragrant leaves. My dad's specialty beverage was lemonade he squeezed in the old metal juicer, with a judicious blending of sugar that he measured like a chemist, resulting in a taste I've never experienced in these subsequent years. And, if we really felt exotic, we'd build a small fire in the makeshift stack of bricks on a rock in the backyard and roast a wannabe-Polynesian concoction of skewered Spam chunks which had been basted in brown sugar and crushed pineapple.

When the lightning bugs started to come out, we'd take sticks that had fallen from the huge willow tree which draped like an umbrella in the back yard and stuck the ends of them into the fire until a small flame
leapt from the tip. Then we'd blow it out and run through the darkened yard, waving it through the blackness and making figure eights with the glowing red embers, an improvised sparkler. Those same sticks would end up harpooning marshmallows, and we would scald our tongues trying to carefully eat the blackened goo we always ended up with. Sometimes we'd round out the evening just sitting on the patio in the dark, with the only illumination being the pale shaft of light from a flicker bulb my brother had inserted in a cast-iron lantern he had suspended from the patio ceiling. We sat for hours in that mesmerizing light, and I experienced a virtual time warp this past Saturday as I sat with my mom and dad on that same patio, and looked up at that same flicker bulb, and talked with them about the glory of faded summers when we were younger and the world was younger, and life moved at a very different pace down a very different road. The lightning bugs still drifted through the old trees at the end of the yard, just like they did in that summer 35 years ago when we came back from Disney and engaged in the simple pleasures that defined my youth -- late night rides in our '62 Rambler convertible with the top down, looking through my brother's telescope at the moon, lying on blankets on the hill in the back yard and relaxing in the cool of the night.

A few weeks ago, on Flag Day, my wife, kids, and I were driving on the Beltway
enroute to Fredericksburg, Virginia to visit some friends of ours, and I found my mind racing back to summers gone by. I realized that 30 years ago that day, I had spent my last day in the eighth grade, at the old middle school we joked was held together with bubble gum, in an auditorium that looked exactly like the the one from A Charlie Brown Christmas where Linus walked out to deliver the Christmas story from the book of Luke. My homeroom that year actually met on the stage, and I could sit there during roll call and look up at the rolled, painted backdrop that said Scrooge and Marley, and recall the days I first saw the play when my brother was at the school and I was just a little kid, a lifetime ago. But now it was Flag Day 1979, the last day of middle school, when we had assembled in the auditorium to watch a crazy old Disney movie with Ed Asner called Gus, about a Hungarian soccer player who trained a mule to play the game. Before the film started, in honor of Flag Day, they asked us to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I recall sitting beside a girl named Blythe, and, when I rose from the wooden folding seat, it clattered to the floor, somehow a fitting commentary. We were the last eighth grade class to ever graduate from that school, and our underclassmen moved into a new building with a tiny gymnasium, and suddenly our old alma mater was gone.

But now, it's
all gone. We used to climb that radio antenna on my parents' house on Saturday mornings when my mom was making breakfast, and the smell of pancakes and bacon would waft out of a vent high on the side of the house, and it seemed somehow even more aromatic in the open air, twenty feet above the driveway, looking down on a world and a summer where the simplest things were the greatest adventures. I'd like the rest of 2009's summer to be like those old ones...basic, uncluttered, a celebration of being together as a family. A world where technology didn't matter, and money wasn't a prerequisite for fun. I can't step into that world of 1974, but I can still sit with my elderly parents and bask in the glow of the flicker bulb, a 'poor man's Disney World'. In the throes of vegetarianism, I would probably not partake in Mom's chicken, but sometimes that taste drifts through my head like the lightning bugs bobbing around the back yard. Life is too much, and adulthood is more complicated than I ever thought possible. Just like John Buford, I'm sitting here watching something bigger than I am pressing its way into my path with urgency and resolve. There's too much to figure out, so maybe I won't worry about it. You can't live in the past, but you can sure drop by to visit, and I'd like to find a way to spend at least some of summer 2009 like we did when things were a lot easier to get a handle on. Old fashioned? I wouldn't have it any other way.......

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Baseball, Dad, and what I learned in the seventh inning.....

Well, here I am, true to the form I've unwittingly established as this blog has evolved with painful slowness over the last several months. It's the last evening of April, and I find myself hurriedly pulling some thoughts together, hopefully with a modicum of purpose that makes them even slightly worth reading. It was a rather unremarkable April, a passage of four weeks that were each basically like the one before. But the one bright spot which differentiated this month from its predecessors was the annual event which still stirs my heart no matter how blase' and jaded I've allowed my demeanor to become--the start of baseball season. It's a love of baseball in general, but the Baltimore Orioles in particular. I liken it to my being a Christian first and foremost, but a member of the Brethren in Christ as my specific descriptor. With baseball, it can't help but ultimately be the Orioles. Having been born and bred in Maryland, there was simply too much history and legacy generated from the complex entity we fans lovingly refer to as 'the Birds' to sit by oblivious to it all.

As a native of Hagerstown, the Orioles drama was always unfolding 70-odd miles away, so it carried a heady mixture of being the 'home team' and yet being isolated in the rarified realm of the sprawling harbor city we visited only occasionally in my childhood. When my brother relocated to Baltimore in the fall of 1980, the dynamic changed, and the Birds suddenly felt more like the boys next door. I remember sitting in the nosebleeds at the old Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street with my brother and Dad on a muggy July evening in 1984, drinking it all in, my first live immersion into the Orioles kingdom. There was a new relevance being able to watch the action unfold before me, and I remember being overwhelmed by how enormous it all was, not just the ballpark, but the game itself. The mechanics of the play, as these incredibly skilled athletes wove an intricate tapestry beneath the glaring lights, struck me as being epic in every possible way. That was the moment when something so fundamentally right about the game ensconced itself in the fabric of who I am, and I felt like I was witnessing life from some wonderful and privileged vantage point for the very first time. I remember feeling the amazing contradiction of being profoundly, intimately connected to 25,000 other people, and yet keenly aware of being a tiny element juxtaposed against a gigantic monolith, like a child standing by the ocean. It may not have been the defining moment of my life, but something forever changed in my perspective as I watched the Orioles work their magic in the Baltimore summer night.

But it's the hazier memories of my childhood that are the sweet ones, as I, a clumsy, Coke-bottle eyeglassed, overweight, uncoordinated loner who was always picked last for teams in gym class sat beside my dad on sweltering summer evenings and watched as the action unfolded on our fuzzy old Zenith TV, the picture tube glowing, lightning bugs flitting by the window. In the panorama of that faded past, the truly amazing year was probably 1973. That was a magical summer for the eight-year-old me; our family made its first trip to Walt Disney World, and the Orioles slugged their way through the season with what was arguably their most classic line-up. The mere mention of the names from that '73 roster conjures up the awe I felt as I watched them flow together like a supremely well-oiled machine -- Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson, Doug DeCinces -- and Jim Palmer flinging powerhouse pitches with the grace of a classical dancer and the aim of a sniper, all of it with a sharp-edged undercurrent of determination and purpose. I remember feeling a tremendous kinship with Mark Belanger due to nothing more than the dumb connection of us sharing the same first name. But I recall thinking to myself that it felt somehow empowering when I would put on my Orioles cap and pick up my plastic bat for a family game of pseudo-baseball, and count myself every bit a Bird. On those fleeting occasions when I would actually make a decent hit, it felt good to know that I was, at least in my own mind, in the company of the guy I watched on TV with 7 on his uniform who plied his trade 70 miles away as the crow flies, and a million miles away in reality.

The 1970's wore on, and I found myself gradually distracted with a seemingly endless string of interests vying for my attention: Star Wars, Walt Disney World, the Beatles, playing guitar, model railroading, home movies, creative writing, and perhaps the most derailing of all -- girls! Before I knew it, the Orioles had slid far down on the ladder of significance, and I wasn't reminded of the old glories again until the fall of 1983, now out of high school and struggling to find where I should go in life. I remember sitting at the house of a girl I had been dating, in the company of her rather unpleasant father, with her off doing homework or something, as we watched the Orioles battle the Phillies in the World Series. So much looked the same as when I had watched ten years before, but changes had crept in, too. Jim Palmer was still there, his form and command as flawless as ever, racking up a win in game 3 in a battle of wits with Steve Carlton. But there were new names and a new team dynamic, a slew of personalities who were carving out their own Orioles legacy a decade after the boys of '73 -- Al Bumbry, Rick Dempsey, Eddie Murray, Ken Singleton, and, most notably, Cal Ripken, Jr., who would go on to define the very essence of the integrity which had always represented baseball at its finest. The Birds pounded away through the five games, losing the first, then claiming victory in the remaining four, resulting in their most recent World Series victory to date.

Something eroded, or at least tarnished, as the years went by. Cal proved himself the inarguable Iron Man, but then retired, and the Orioles, and all of baseball itself, were less for his loss. My modern-day hero was now B.J. Surhoff, a disciplined ace who had proved himself throughout many solid seasons and whom I felt an empathy for by the nature of his being seven months my senior, the guy trying to still prove his validity as forty closed in. But then, Surhoff, too was gone, voted by the fans one of the top 50 Orioles of all time, and then suddenly playing his final game in October of '05. In the wake of Ripken and Surhoff, the Orioles drifted through a frustrating quagmire of lackluster seasons and managers who just didn't seem to understand their own players' strengths and weaknesses. The theatrical but effectual leadership during Earl Weaver's tenure as skipper was a distant memory, and for every powerhouse player now coming to the forefront, there seemed to be a counterweight erasing his contribution. Eric Bedard and B.J. Ryan were, respectively, awe-inspiring as a starter and a closer, but Daniel Cabrera and Sidney Ponson threw away games with frustrating frequency and racked up humiliating ERA's. Melvin Mora, Jerry Hairston, David Newhan, Corey Patterson, and various other talents brought solid fielding into alignment with consistent batwork. But Miguel Tejada and Raphael Palmeiro cast a grim shadow over the club in the midst of the MLB-wide pandemic of performance-enhancing drug use.

Somewhere in the middle of the decade, it was somehow a respite to start turning my attention to the Hagerstown Suns. After all, they had once upon a time been in the Orioles farm organization, drifting then to the Toronto Bluejays, finally jumping over to the National League, from the Giants to the Mets to the Nationals. There was something wonderfully refreshing sitting in the old stadium where Willie Mays had made his professional debut, watching the very different world of Single A ball, where mega-salaries and global recognition were blissfully absent. Going to Suns games became somehow healing, and invigorating. I sat huddled beside my girlfriend in the air of a cold April afternoon and shared a wonderful time with her, and came away feeling like new breath had come into me. Although I can't give the game all the credit, I did propose to her the next day. She accepted, and now, as my wife, she still patiently sits with me through games, even if they lurch into extra innings, and it still feels like that first game we ever went to together. But probably my greatest live game moment was one I experienced with my dad. It's the absolute cliche of cliches to paint baseball as the defining connection of fathers and sons, the glory and honor of bygone times wrapped in a bittersweet envelope of Americana that would make Ray Kinsella blush. But that's exactly what I experienced along the first base line in the bleachers at Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium one night in July of 2004. I think the Suns lost that night, but it didn't even matter. I sat in my father's company and basked in the afterglow of something from decades before my birth, and I saw this veteran of World War II who had headed to the Philippines wondering if he would ever come home again acknowledge something as he sat with his son and watched the long balls driven deep into right field, just beneath the advertisements for all the old local businesses I had known all my life.

It was nothing earth-shattering, but we stood for the national anthem, and my dad, in his late-seventies and with an amazing array of life experiences defining who he is, placed his hand over his heart and looked down at that field with moist eyes. The sun was dipping behind the skyline of Hagerstown, those roof lines and church steeples I've been looking at for forty-four years, and lights were starting to come on along the streets as the last magenta hues of daylight slid away. Then they threw out the opening pitch, and the innings unfolded with me thinking incessantly about the simple, beautiful image of my dad acknowledging his country, and the game, and special moments with his son in the sanctity of an old stadium in a small city in western Maryland. When we stood for the seventh inning stretch, everybody sang along as 'Take Me Out To the Ball Game' crackled over the PA. I looked over at Dad and smiled, and I knew that I had just been party to one of the most blissfully pure moments of my entire life, when we didn't say anything but the game around us said everything, and we understood it all completely, and unquestionably.

I went to a Suns game for the last time in '05 and sat beside my stepson, feeling what I hoped was at least an inkling of what swept through Dad's heart just a year before. The Suns, the underdogs, the true home team in my true home town, are probably my best shot at a live baseball connection these days. And I haven't made it back to Camden Yards in five years....marriage and kids and all the odds and ends of life clamoring for attention have made things shift back to where they were thirty-five years ago. Now I watch the Orioles on TV again, like on those July nights when I was eight. These days, it's Brian Roberts who captivates my interest, this incredibly versatile and determined young man who plays every game like the future of the world hangs in the balance. They started this season like gangbusters, winning the first three series with a humble might that echoed days gone by. Then it all seemed to unravel, and the season has begun to look more like some of those bleak expanses in the last ten years. But it doesn't really matter to those of us who are orange-blooded. Even if .500 ball remains elusive, it's enough that they'll always be the Birds, our Birds, from a Baltimore that in my heart will always be the Baltimore of 1973, when you walked into the Inner Harbor and were overpowered with the amazing aroma of the old McCormick Spice factory, a permeating odor that is as vanished as the summer evenings when Brooks and Boog and Jim wowed the world from 33rd Street, and awkward boys could watch fuzzy innings at their father's side, and all was right with the world as long as the ball just kept flying......

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ides of March

I love it when an old adage is played out in the reality of unfolding life. It didn't happen as March ended this evening. At the end of February I wrote about March coming in like a lion as snow started to fall. In actuality, it wasn't much of a storm, just one of those teasing dustings that appear every now and then as if to lull the casual observer into believing that one of the old western Maryland winters of chilly days gone by is rubbing its elbows with us again. The flakes fell and the brown grass was crusted with a reasonably full cover which had melted away by the time I got home from church around noon that Sunday. A pretty modest showing, but technically enough to be classified as inclement weather, so the month should have rounded out this evening like a lamb. But the wind has been rattling the windows across the back end of the house like the endless breeze at Nag's Head pounding a beach house, and the first minutes of April will enter in the cold air. Tomorrow is supposed to see the temperature climb into the mid sixties, which would certainly be a welcome change from the biting breeze of this evening.

A month ago I lamented my lack of self-discipline to compose an entry each week, as I had initially hoped when launching this literary ship in the first week of January. Now, here I am again struggling to put something coherent together just for the sake of rounding out the month with one entry under my belt. Writing couldn't help but fall by the wayside in the onslaught of alternate creative exploits which seemed to blossom in profusion in the last four weeks. March was the music month, to be sure. My friend, Bobby, and I exported our odd brand of troubadouring to our favorite local haunt, Port City Java, as well as to a small Pennsylvania enclave. Due to our propensity for playing and singing a probably disproportionate amount of Beatles music, we've officially been referred to at gigs as 'those crazy Beatles guys'. But somewhere between Rocky Raccoon and Polythene Pam we've managed to slip in the occasional Waterboys, Damien Rice, James Taylor, and even a few originals. It's been a great time of not only getting our feet wet in the playing-live realm again, but also a time to meet some fascinating fellow musicians. We've sat in the presence of a jazz pianist who could have made Vince Guaraldi run for cover and a blues-rock guitarist with some absolutely killer chops. And we've been inspired by all that influence to branch out and try some new things ourselves, the culmination of which will occur this Thursday as we convene at Port City to perform a set comprised of three songs which will be played on acoustic guitar and piano. Two are compositions by Snow Patrol, but the third, in honor of the open mic emcee, Tommy, will be none other than A Day in the Life, the climactic closing track from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper.

Bobby and I started dusting off our songwriting skills lately and have even started to collaborate on a couple of decidedly Beatlesque numbers. The still-evolving plan is to start recording an album of all originals, which will hopefully get under way within the next week or so. The last full album I recorded was one I was working on six years ago this week, Dust of Jericho. It was a disjointed collection of some of the strongest writing I ever came up with juxtaposed against some absolute crap that should have never made it past demo form. But there were nuggets of value here and there, and I'll always remember those strange recording sessions I conducted in my brother's basement in the wilds of West Virginia during the tail end of the winter of 2003, the last year that we had one of those classic winters, with a certifiable blizzard and a seemingly endless array of smaller storms thereafter. I listen to those old tracks now and marvel at how raw and primitive they were, recorded on a digital four track with a ten-dollar microphone. There are only two recordings from the entire set that I think have aged really well, and there's something unarguably compelling about them. I can listen to those simple takes and remember what it was to be alone in my brother's basement on a chilly Saturday afternoon, pouring out everything I had into that cheap microphone. Amy Grant once commented about how an album is like a snapshot of exactly what is going on in your life at a given moment. It's like a commentary about what you're thinking, and fearing, and hoping for. Bobby and I will start recording soon, and it will be a new set of music, and a new collection of recordings, and I'll listen to it when I'm fifty and remember the me that ambled around western Maryland in April of 2009, and the immediacy will pour of the old recordings like a perfumed love letter pulled out of envelope pushed all the way at the back of a drawer somewhere.

My earliest blog entries were truly infinite ramblings. Now, there's a self-imposed brevity that's born more out of the realities of a forthcoming early-morning commute than out of any fundamental change in my observations. I'm listening to Paul McCartney's alter ego 'The Fireman' as I write this, and this fascinating music will become one of the soundtracks of the spring of my forty-fourth year. There will be writing and recording in the days ahead that will be the next in the long progression from the first time I picked up a guitar in 1973 to whatever lies ahead. Somewhere in the midst of everything new, I may even pull out some odds and ends, including a song or two I wrote when I was about fourteen, that have never been refined to where I truly celebrate them. Yet something in that rough-hewn proto-music is the essence of who I am, and who I will be the next time the recorder is on and the guitar is resonating, and the gift God planted in me is pouring out like April rain. The sounds may never be earth-shattering, or innovative, or even worthy of a second listen. But they'll always be my narrative, and the story will unfold with each note, like my life itself. It would be impossible to imagine anything more, and a grievous error to embrace anything less.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The act you've known for all these years.....

Whew--close call on the deadline with this one. There are less than two hours left of February 2009, and then I'll get to see if my birth month of March comes in as a lion or a lamb. Probably a lion, if the weather forecasts can be trusted. Snow seems to be encroaching on the mountains of western Maryland, so the first day of March will probably find at least a dusting on the ground, and possibly even a measurable accumulation, something virtually unheard of in these recent years. And so, I sit here typing frantically, trying to put together something coherent in the fading ides of February. The deadline is probably corny--I certainly deal with enough of them at work to make the idea of struggling to meet one on a Saturday night highly unpalatable. But here I am, two months (and only three entries) into my blog, and already realizing that my original, somewhat unrealistically-conceived plan to write an entry per week is looking less credible each day. I was going great guns, then suddenly everything in life seemed to get in the way of my journalistic ramblings. But, as my wife, Alison, always lovingly reminds me, "a writer writes." And so, I'll enter the third month of '09 writing about the most recent development which has served to not only capture my attention, but also to crystallize my creative focus for this year.

My previous entries have both been musical in subject, not too surprising a concept for anyone who knows me well. And also quite in keeping with my personality, they were inherently depressing recollections of musical moments of my past, treasured for what they meant to me at formative times of my life, but now bittersweet and elusive as they have faded into the lost annals of my youth. So how surprisingly refreshing, then, that tonight I'm actually examining my musical present (and future) -- an extremely unusual concept indeed. When I ruminated in my January entry about my obscure high school band called Scotland Yard, it was very much from the perspective that those days of live performance were special and meaningful, and quite likely to never happen again. I probably was unnecessarily melodramatic (as is my wont) in making it sound as if I've been strumming my guitar in a cave for the last quarter of a century. Nothing could be further from the truth, as for the last year and a half I've been actively involved in the worship group at my church, sometimes on bass and occasionally on piano or acoustic, even leading every now and then. But somehow, the dimension of participating in praise and worship seems rarified by the very nature of its purpose. I can't help but feel that much of the time I'm flowing in those worship sets, it's more the Holy Spirit doing the work and me just holding the guitar. It's always a case of trying to balance the live performance of music with the humility of not performing.

But one of the fundamental character flaws I still am trying to resolve is that I'm a ham. Have been since at least the age of four, when my mother says I used to do imitations of Richard Nixon to the amusement of the neighbors (which I vaguely remember, outstretched arms giving the peace sign and brow appropriately furrowed). So I've had a lifelong, comfortable relationship with being in front of people, speaking or performing. But many years in fact had passed since I had done anything in the actual 'performance' capacity. Probably the last occurrence on record was a concert I did with four friends in a hastily-assembled ensemble in May of 1997 at the bandshell of the Hagerstown, Maryland City Park. We were intended to be the musical accompaniment for the foot-weary participants in a Muscular Dystrophy Association charity walk as they concluded their course. We decided that it might be fun to put together a few sets of oldies (but specifically quirky oldies), and we practiced diligently for several months in anticipation of the event. With a ton of equipment, a professional mixing board, and another friend who was a skilled sound engineer, we set up on the stage, ran through a quick check, and prepared for what we thought would be a fulfilling culmination of all our work.

And then the heavens opened up. It was early May, and what was at first a comfortably cool day soon deteriorated into a drenching, raw expanse of unrelieved misery. The MSA walkers finished and climbed into the dry refuge of their cars, and the only audience we had were the wives, girlfriends, and handful of other foolishly-faithful souls who sat huddled under rainwear on the open-bench seating as we ran through our repertoire with something less than exuberance. My fingers were so cold I could barely play, and our guitars were starting to drift out of tune into that sickly, flat tonality so familiar to anyone who has ever played in the damp. It was a nasty, penetrating wetness, and I could feel my voice starting to become raw. My friend, Andy, seemed impervious to the suffocating anguish of the weather, stomping about with his Hofner bass, pounding out gutsy runs while delivering killer vocals in his classic rock voice. I felt a great deal less enthusiasm, struggling to sing the lead on Crazy Love and becoming acutely aware that I sounded horrible. We drifted through some Springsteen and Billy Joel and Doors, and then it was my turn again, singing lead on a song by Buddy Holly's old backup band, The Crickets, called T-Shirt. Andy introduced me, bounded to the side of the stage, and I moved in to the microphone.

By now the rain was coming down like somebody had opened a couple thousand fire hydrants directly above the bandshell. There was just enough air moving that moisture was drifting toward us from the overhanging eaves of the stage, and I was soon to learn that this was not the ideal environment in which to perform electrically-amplified music. I slowly strummed the opening chord of the song and sang, 'Could've seen my tears a mile away'....and then I saw my life pass before my eyes. As I leaned toward the mic, I saw in my peripheral vision an arc of clear blue-white light that jumped from the ball of the microphone and connected itself to my lower lip. I think my heart stopped for about five seconds. Somehow I kept playing, and struggled to remember the lyrics, the whole time convinced I would drop dead at any moment. I couldn't help but cynically think what a crappy ending to my life this would be, electrocuted on stage at the age of 32 singing a song about lost love to a crowd of fifteen people who themselves were trying not to drown. I listened to the cassette of the concert today and I think I could detect the exact moment when the arc of electricity lunged at me, a bit of a click on the tape and a subsequent change in my voice that seems to indicate a man learning about the theories of electrical grounding firsthand. We somehow limped through the rest of the concert, but all in all it was quite less than what I had originally hoped it would be. The greatest irony of all was that we booked the bandshell on a Sunday afternoon about a month later in hopes of being able to finally play our sets in the warmth of a June afternoon. We played the first chord of our opening song, Here Comes The Sun, and a violent burst of lightning crackled through the air. A few seconds later, a monsoon rain let loose and continued for the rest of the afternoon. We packed up and went home, and that was the last time I ever performed in public.

The last time, that is, until last Thursday night, when I was struck with electricity again. But this time it didn't come from equipment, but from the atmosphere of the coffee house where my friend, Bobby, and I made our debut, singing and playing our acoustic guitars. We play together every week at church, but here we were in the decidedly different performance mode, and we were loving every minute of it. The first time I ever heard him play, I was totally blown away, and when we began playing together at church, the musical chemistry started to flow. I soon realized that here was someone I connected with in all things musical in a way I couldn't have ever anticipated at this stage of my life. That he is in his early twenties and I'm in my mid-forties seems completely immaterial as we indulge ourselves in our beloved Beatles, or in the odd Irish and English singer-songwriter numbers that we treasure for their obscurity. We opened with If I Needed Someone, and suddenly I was twenty-three once more, and music was again very freeing and amazing, and the electricity I felt this time came from partnering with someone on the same musical wavelength with the same basic disposition, and seeing a crowd react to our outpouring of lovingly played and sung notes.

And now, in the company of Bobby, I've found something I forgot even existed. We're just getting started, but the productive sessions I yearned for in my first blog entry in January are washing over me like a tidal wave. It was certainly worth the wait, and I'm loving being drenched.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A few notes on Dot's piano

In the vast span of the forty-three years which have defined my life to this moment, there are amazing instances of what I like to think of as 'overlap'. I find it utterly fascinating to consider the stunning array of physical items we pick up, unlock, tie, wrap, drink from, strum, stir, hammer, shuffle, wash, dry, throw, untangle, iron, repair, fold, spindle, and mutilate in the course of a lifetime. It's intriguing to me that there may be a plastic fork in a landfill somewhere that I used to eat coleslaw in 1978, completely shrouded from the eyes of man, buried in the absolute obscurity of obsolescence. For a few brief moments when I was 13, it was incredibly useful to me, it was my fork, and it was the perfect tool to address my immediate need. Then it went into the trash can and I went back to watching the original Battlestar Galactica (during its initial run), struggling with my algebra homework, totally relegating this only recently useful item to complete forgetfulness. But, somewhere amid the coleslaw forks and shoelaces and oscillating floor fans, there are inevitably the truly important items, those whose purpose in our lives is measured by the deeper significance of what they touched in us, rather than the mundane definition of their intended purpose.

There was a strange and difficult season of my life not too many years in the past when I found myself displaced and suddenly trying to cram the myriad bits and pieces that comprised the mesh of my existence into cardboard cartons and Rubbermaid tubs. "From here on out, I want to travel light," I demonstratively told my brother. The plan seemed drenched in Spartan practicality--don't drag anything along that didn't stir instant emotional connection, and anything I was undecided on could be moved into my parents' basement (which looked remarkably like the closing warehouse scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark). The concept held true for a short span of time, but was ultimately shot to pieces in the reality that I am incurably sentimental, unashamedly enamored of those elements of the past which have come to encapsulate the best awareness of life, reflections of moments when everything seemed right and there was nothing negative to distract or dilute the pristine pleasure of the moment. And so, as my hitherto iron resolve gradually disintegrated amid the happiness I was finding as a husband and step dad, I slammed the volitional brakes on, spun the wheel of my focus back to every inanimate object which had ever blessed my younger years, and soon began to pull every morsel of nostalgic essence back onto my plate.

It was in the midst of this season of sentimental accumulation that I wound up with my Aunt Dot's piano prominently displayed in the living room. The very sound of that description seems always overwhelmingly insipid - your aunt's piano - but it stands against the wall that abuts our garage like a defiant sentinel forbidding the past to run away. That it is so large and cumbersome, and that so much sweat and strain were utilized bringing it here, somehow makes it more invaluable than I could have ever imagined. Moving it or removing it are not easy options, and its own leaden steadfastness reminds me each day of what an important marker it is in my life. Proverbs 22:28 says, 'Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your forefathers'. That seems incredibly appropriate in regard to this massive musical instrument. It has come to serve as a delineating factor which speaks of the past, both my short one and the much longer ones of all those others associated with it, not the least of whom is my Aunt Dot.

Dot was one of the great, constant factors of my life, in her own right as immobile in my memory as that gargantuan set of 88 keys. She was my mom's sister, and the two of them were lifelong best friends as well as incredibly close siblings. No matter how many years passed, they remained two giddy schoolgirls at heart, lovingly described by Dot's husband, my Uncle Jack, as the Famous Chaney Sisters. Long before either had married, the Chaney girls had formed their lifelong bond in their tiny hometown in the throes of the Great Depression. Dot was the elder, and she left home at an early age to marry the dashing Jack, a recent Bible school graduate and circuit evangelist who had meandered east from Iowa and caught the eye of the young girl. I've seen pictures of him from that era, and it was obvious he modeled much of his physical charm after Clark Gable, right down to the distinctly-trimmed mustache. In an exceptionally short span of time, they married and departed on a whirlwind journey, crisscrossing the country, preaching the gospel, and touching lives at every turn. As the years passed, three sons filled their home with rambunctious activity, and it became a truly challenging chore to keep up with the Jones's. As Jack preached, Dot was always at his side, playing piano and organ, accompanying him as he strummed acoustic guitar. Their life was the gospel, and music, and the two elements overlapped inextricably, exactly as it should be.

By the time I came on the scene in the mid '60's, they had settled at a small church in Joppa, Maryland, just a stone's throw from the outskirts of Baltimore. Their sons were grown by this time, creating the odd situation whereby my first cousins were practically old enough to be my father. With just Dot and Jack living in the parsonage, visiting them was a wonderful experience, especially to a four-year-old. For some reason, I remember being there at about that age, reading a Jerry Lewis comic book in which he was delivering pastrami sandwiches and wound up on a rocket by mistake, and I remember looking at a full page ad on the inside of the back cover which showed famous movie monster kits by Aurora. But I mainly remember just being in the house itself. There were many wonderful aspects to that house, so different from my parents' one story bungalow in the suburbs, in the western part of the state. Dot and Jack's house enthralled me by the mere fact that it was two stories. One of the earliest memories I have is of standing at the top of the stairwell, which was surrounded with a balcony, dropping plastic figures of David and the soldiers of ancient Israel down the steep slope to crush some unseen foe. But for all the fun I found upstairs, the room which hopelessly captured my interest was the living room, not so much due to the room itself, but due to the one amazing element it contained which I had never laid eyes or fingers on before--the piano.

It sat against the wall, silently powerful. I vaguely remember sheet music piled on it--Dot always seemed to have mountains of hymnals and individual songs. In the direct center of the piano, behind the music stand, there sat a small, decorative clock which was made to look like a fireplace. In the opening of the hearth were miniature plastic logs, and an ingenious mechanism which rotated a colored cellophane disc to simulate the roaring blaze. High above the piano, on the wall behind, hung a neon-bright painting by a friend of my aunt and uncle's named Jim Reeser. It depicted a sharp, clean view of a lazy meadow with a millpond and stone-encased housing for a spinning waterwheel. To sit there and stare up was somehow amazing, transporting. Making the entire scene all the more magical and heartwarming was the presence of their beloved collie dog, Brownie, who would curl up on the floor and rest his ancient chin on stiffened paws. I would sit there for hours, doing the kind of loud, dumb things annoying four-year-olds do on pianos, but none of the adults ever criticized or shooed me away. There was too much talking, too much laughing, too much love in that house for anyone to ever make me feel that I needed to do anything more than dabble happily. I remember my brother teaching me to play 'Chopsticks', my first real flirt with music a full five years before I would first pick up a guitar and begin a lifelong love affair with that instrument.

Many years passed, and Dot and Jack wound up at a church in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania suburb of Camp Hill. Life had changed infinitely--my brother was in college in Virginia, I was now a teenager, and Brownie was long gone. But Jack was still preaching, and still playing guitar, and I remember him singing in his distinctive voice, 'I'm so glad I'm a part of the family of God'. Dot was still playing piano, and so it went, and I would occasionally tinker on the keys when we visited them, but I was now a guitar man, and the wonderful old instrument of my childhood seemed to have faded somewhat. As I drifted deeper into the selfishness of teenage angst, I thought less of those faded days, and gradually seemed to be drifting away even from myself. And then my Uncle Jack died. With stunning suddenness, the world changed forever, and the years I had almost disdainfully plastic-wrapped somewhere in the back of my mind became a cloudy vapor I clutched at desperately, hoping to find substance that appeared to have vanished. Hardly missing a beat, Dot plunged deep into the waters of ministering to others, in this case, to widows like herself, and ended up forging a powerful outreach to widows and widowers which she flourished in for more than 14 years.

Then, in the awful aftermath of 9/11, Dot suffered a stroke. The woman who had been the go-getter, the preacher of the gospel, the piano player and comforter of the sorrowful, was stricken flat on her back. The endless energy seemed to have drained out of her like melting snow, and when I visited her in the nursing home, I saw a tired and depleted shadow of the woman who had been a loving and caring fixture of my childhood, my mother's best friend, a light of hope and happiness to hundreds of people. The old twinkle was still there in her exhausted eyes, and she could still laugh with the same playful mirth, forcing itself out through lips rendered stiff through illness. Shortly before my wife and I married, I took her to meet Dot, and felt a sadness that she couldn't experience my aunt as the joyous woman I had known all my life, but I saw the gleam in Dot's eyes and knew she approved, and that made my new-found love all the more special.

Dot left us to walk into the Lord's presence on a cold day in November of 2005. We went to the funeral in a penetrating, stinging rain, and stood at her graveside, between where my uncle Jack and my grandparents lay, and my mother clutched my father's arm, and I looked in her eyes and knew that her best friend was gone. We went home, and life went on, and there was a gigantic void. Her house sat empty, vacant, damp rooms stuffed with thousands of pictures from trips her and Jack had taken to the Holy Land, the piles of sheet music, Jim Reeser's painting on the wall, and the beloved piano, mute and grim, somehow empty without her touch on its keys. As her sons began the painful scrutiny of deciding who to give what to, I uncharacteristically jumped in and told them I would be honored if I could have two items--the piano, and Reeser's mill scene. No one else in the family really played piano, and I knew that I couldn't bear to see it sold or packed away.

My long-suffering best friend, Mike, rode beside me in a rented Penske truck on a Friday in April of 2006 as we followed my parents to Camp Hill. We entered Dot and Jack's house for the final time, reverential, like opening some ancient tomb, and the memories that flooded over me as we swung open the front door were powerful enough to eclipse even the palpable must. We loaded the piano on a dolly, struggled and fought it onto the truck, and drove to my house. Under my father's direction, we navigated it through my cluttered garage and stumbled up the step into my living room. It was like moving a Volkswagen. And so it was transported to its resting place, where it resides now, and for the first time in years, I sat down and struck the keys. All my life it had been slightly out of tune, and years in an unheated house hadn't helped. Everything I played reminded me of the silent movie-esque piano from The Beatles' Rocky Raccoon. The soundboard is probably shot, so it may never be able to survive an attempt at tuning, but I don't really mind. I have sat for hours and played mildly sour renditions of my favorite piano songs -- Allentown, Martha My Dear, Scott Joplin rags, bits of Tori Amos stuff-- much in the droning, sustain-drenched inflection of George Winston. The sound is new, and immensely old, and almost too powerful for words.

Sometimes I sit at the piano when I'm alone in the house and let my fingers drift aimlessly across the keys, like I did in 1969. One of my cats, Jack, inexplicably finds it soothing and mesmerizing, and he crawls under the bench, just inches from my feet. I hear the slightly discordant clusters of notes, not unlike the ones I pounded out in Joppa a lifetime ago, and suddenly Jack is Brownie the dog, quietly, faithfully listening to each note, peaceful and snug, just like me. Until the day that I'm actually able to hang Jim Reeser's millpond scene on the wall above, all I need to do is close my eyes as I play, and my mind focuses easily on the winding stream, and the russet reeds, and the stark, clean stone walls of the mill set against the blaze of autumnal maples and wispy evergreens. I can almost hear the gentle lullaby of the motor in the long-vanished fireplace clock spinning, and the Aurora monster kits and Jerry Lewis flying to the moon with pastrami sandwiches flit through my brain. I imagine that I hear Uncle Jack laughing in the background, shooting the breeze with my dad about boxing or the book of Exodus, and the famous Chaney sisters are giggling in the kitchen while my brother reads a book on the sofa. Then I open my eyes and find that they're all gone, and a drowsy cat is looking up at me with questioning eyes, and my own eyes are moist as I run them across the yellowed ivory, listening intently as the last, flat notes drift somewhere forever........

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Productive sessions?

Forty years ago this week, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr ambled into the drafty, cavernous Twickenham film studios in London, England. After a two-month hiatus following the completion of the sessions for the White Album, the group was re-assembling to commence work on a project destined to polarize fans into two distinctly passionate groups--the enthralled and the totally bored. The Beatles were uncharacteristically working a morning-to-evening shift, eschewing the middle of the night session schedule which had dominated their operating procedure since they had begun work on Sgt. Pepper more than two years before. The intended plan was for the sessions to be filmed as a documentary, outlining the gradual evolution of their new compositions from embryonic acorns to the full-blown mighty oaks they had proven themselves capable of in their past recording efforts.
As the rehearsals progressed, the group planned to work toward the final culmination: a live television concert, their first public performance since they had played Candlestick Park in San Francisco at the end of August, 1966. They had entered the last year of the '60's with a renewed optimism and fresh enthusiasm to do something new, but as the month of January rolled by (along with miles of film through the motion picture cameras), the wide eyes were beginning to squint beneath furrowed brows as the tensions within the group started to work against their hopeful intent. The television concert began to wane, and now the discussions were turning toward the prospect of an exotic locale. McCartney expressed the theory that the QE2 ocean liner would be a perfect venue, an idea which Harrison summarily dismissed as insane. Lennon was frustrated that the newness of the project had somehow morphed into a redressing of the old Beatles routine--locked in a studio again--and ruminated about the concept of working somewhere out of the norm - Los Angeles and France were suggested -- just for the sake of fresh surroundings. Starr was a generally complacent participant in the proceedings, active but not pro-active, but was adamant about not traveling for the sake of the project.

Time and tempers quickly grew short. By late January, George Harrison had left the group after a heated exchange with Paul McCartney. He quickly returned to the fold, but an undercurrent of tension continued to run through the remainder of the sessions. As the month drew to a close, so did any long-range plans of live performance. Exhausted and disheartened, the group rounded out the project with a final, exciting flourish. McCartney had suggested that, in lieu of the nebulous concert, the band should perform in an unusual venue, with the specific purpose of being forcibly ejected, ushered out by the police as the cameras rolled, a suitable non sequitur to close out a frustrating chapter of the Beatles' most recent endeavors. With an unexpected show of group unity, the other three agreed, and the Beatles performed for the last time ever in public on a freezing Thursday afternoon on the rooftop of Apple studios, with the surrounding business district drawn into the streets as the strains of Don't Let Me Down drifted through the frigid London air. As secretaries and bemused passersby strained for a look, the group watched the arrival of bobbies, exactly as McCartney had theorized, and managed one final performance of Get Back despite Harrison's guitar being disconnected from its amp by one of the officers. The song ended, Lennon offered his classic comment about hoping they had passed the audition, and the Beatles stepped away from the fans for the very last time. But, during the spring and summer of '69, they somehow patched the cracks, at least temporarily, managing to overcome their personal differences to write and record what was possibly their masterpiece work, Abbey Road, arguably their greatest showcase as composers, instrumentalists, and vocalists. After its release in the fall of '69, the group reluctantly turned its attention back to the unfinished session tapes from January. Against Paul McCartney's wishes, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr inducted the troubling, aptly-named producer, Phil Spector, to breathe his own odd resuscitation into the work.

The project had traveled a long and winding road from its original inception. The working title of the sessions had been Get Back, but by the time the album and accompanying film finally saw the light of day more than a year later, it had shifted to Let It Be, a fitting commentary on where the group found itself in April of 1970. Three number one singles were culled from the sessions, and the album reached the top chart position as well as winning the 1970 Grammy for best soundtrack album. It was a strangely shallow success, as the group had disintegrated by the time these events unfolded. But, as the decades passed, a stubborn appeal lingered from those troubled times, and even the surviving Beatles weren't immune to it. McCartney and Starr reinvented it once again in 2003 with a remixing of the session tapes (minus the Spector tinkerings) in pristine digital form under the humorous title Let It Be...Naked. A second disc included with the LIBN album was a 20-minute composite of some of the most memorable snippets of music and dialog from Twickenham, including just-this-side-of-arguments. This is a fitting distillation for the casual listener, all most would ever care to hear from the unreleased aspect of the sessions. But then there are those of us who find it all endlessly fascinating (I really don't know why), and I am counted among their number. In the late '80's, on vinyl nonetheless, someone actually released a 100-disc bootleg set of the sessions, with enough crushing minutiae to overwhelm even the most ardent listener.

Sitting here today, four decades after it all went down in London, I still find something strangely compelling about that recorded work. Maybe it was the apparent intimacy it gave, the privileged feeling of being in the inner circle. But the hopeless romantic in me can't help but feel that the great attraction is that there was masterful expression in the midst of dire apathy and frustration. There were endless, tedious jams, and more run-throughs of Two of Us than you could count on an abacus, but then there were the breathtaking moments--the unadulterated, pure emotion of The Long & Winding Road, the exuberance of For You, Blue, t
he soulful groove of Don't Let Me Down. And, in the end, I can't help but feel that some wonderful and lasting musical importance was etched in that long-vanished January when I was three.

Fifteen years after the Beatles came down off the roof at Apple, another band with English leanings convened on another bitingly cold afternoon at the end of January to record a Lennon-McCartney composition. The band was Scotland Yard, and I was one of the three members in attendance. There had been four of us - me, Andy, Snook (we jauntily always called him by his last name), and my lifelong best friend, Mike. Now Andy had headed off to college in the even colder environs of upstate New York. We three remaining members were, just like The Beatles 15 years before us, trying to gasp out a last musical moment together before facing the mundane task of getting on with our lives. We were 18, attending the local community college, and each would be heading off on a different path in the years ahead. We had been good friends and bandmates, but our musical confederacy was tenuous at best. We were completely out of touch with contemporary music trends and didn't care. Synchronicity by The Police was the most current influential sound, and Van Halen was about to rewrite the book on guitar-based rock with the release of 1984. But we were still singing Homeward Bound, obscure Peter, Paul & Mary stuff like A-Soalin', and of course our beloved Beatles. Our life as a band had been little more than a pleasant diversion in our senior year as we commiserated with each other about our rejections by the girls we pined for. There had been a smattering of personal appearances, including being the guest band at the Smithsburg High School Senior Tea, itself a wonderfully archaic social event more in step with our parents' high school days than with May of 1983. And, perhaps, our greatest moment had been when a recording we had made of an a cappella, four-part harmony rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, was played over the PA system at the start of a Hagerstown Suns baseball game.

But, on that cold Friday, it was nearly all behind us. Mike, Snook, and I all had open class schedules on Friday afternoons, so we left school that day and headed to Mike's parents' house in the country, dragging our ramshackle array of second-hand guitars and Radio Shack castoffs into Mike's room to create our own pale copy of Abbey Road Studios. We ate hot dogs and then got to the business at hand, recording our rendition of Dear Prudence, Mike on the battered acoustic we struggled to keep in tune, me on the white Mayfair electric I picked up in a pawn shop (it was intended to look like McCartney's Hofner bass), and Snook on the old Hagstrom bass I had loaned him when we formed the band. We plopped a cassette in my little deck, positioned the couple of cheap mikes I had, and ran through the song. Something flowed that day, something incredible that may have been uniquely reserved for that moment in our lives. We played the cassette back, ignoring the tape hiss and boxiness of the sound, and heard ourselves as if we were someone else. It was breathtaking. I say that with humility, as well as the realization that, if I heard it now, I'd probably cringe and lambaste myself for ever thinking it was good. But I believe it was. In retrospect, it probably wasn't a very accurate cover--the Travis picking and dropped-D tuning that are so integral to the song's structure seemed very elusive to me a quarter of a century ago. But the performance was tight, the harmonies crisp........Mike moved us steadily along, Snook adding a decorative bass riff, me the repetitive progression. It was amazing.

That was twenty-five years ago. To the best of my knowledge, we never played together again. Snook and I tinkered around until about 1986, but never did much. The last time I ever saw him was in '87, when he spent a night at my place, but I don't think we even picked up the guitars. The year before, he had given the Hagstrom back to me, and the neck reeked of his after-shave lotion for about five years. I finally ended up giving the guitar to a missionary visiting my church, and it wound up somewhere in Nigeria, doing good work a universe away from that Friday in January of 1984. We had a wonderful time together on that brief visit in '87, I waved goodbye as he drove off, and now we haven't talked to each other in over twenty years. I rarely saw our missing member, Andy, again, but forged a tight friendship and collaboration with another Beatles fanatic named Andy, and we went on to write and record multiple albums together through the 90's. Mike and I wound up playing regularly together for 10-years in a worship group at the church we were both attending, and it always seemed like old times, like when we were 14 and sang Simon & Garfunkel in my room at night, and called ourselves the Streetlights because that was the only illumination spilling through the window. But Scotland Yard has all but vanished from my mind, and I only occasionally find myself thinking of the old band when I watch Sherlock Holmes and he is enlisting the aid of the police.

Now, I find myself in another January, 40 years since The Beatles played on the roof, and 25 years since Scotland Yard recorded Dear Prudence. Mike and I still talk about the recording, but nobody knows where the cassette ever got to. It's very late at night now, as I sit in my wife's office, and the day when we made beautiful sounds on a primitive cassette deck seems eons removed. In the corner of the room is a digital 8-track with about a quarter of an album I'm writing and recording already finished and stored on the hard drive. It's a collection of praise music, some I penned 15 years ago, others from this new and strange season of life. It's 2:00 wife is asleep in the room above me, the kids down the hall. Even the cats have sacked out. I have to head off to bed for a token five hours, then drag back into the office. At 43, I find myself wishing for the kind of January sessions the past has held. I was going great guns on my album in the fall, even overdubbing exotic things like my grandfather's banjo, acoustic guitars with Celtic tunings, and Irish tin whistles, but now the drudgery of life has draped itself over my creativity. The music is in there, just like it always was, but now it's all but obscured, and I have to find a way to pull it out. I can only hope that, like the Liverpool lads in '69 or the Yard in '84, this version 2009.1 of me can flow in the creativity like I once did. I want to pull something out of this January that is worth listening to next month, and two years from now, and when I'm 64. The longer I live, the more I feel like my life is a series of sessions. You strap on the guitar, turn on the recorder, ramble and meander and drift down streams of sound, and hope that something wonderful, and meaningful, and life-affirming comes pouring out. I want to remember the joy and purpose of the day we laid down that perfect take, and I want to infuse that back into the draggy, wearied life I find myself trudging through far too often. And some day, if I ever get the energy to rummage through the garage, I want to move heaven and earth to find that cassette.....