Category Archives: Thinking About “Why?”

Thoughts on researching and writing about past.

The Old Man’s Gift: Part 4 (Dad, Me, & Hank)

Chapter 5 in The Old Man and The Boy is titled “September Song”. In it the Boy relates his memories of surf fishing as autumn began to usher winter in off the Atlantic. The song he describes is the stuff of nature and memory. My Dad and I had a similar song, but he also taught me a more traditional approach to the muse.

We used to sit in the old, gray family Ford and listen to the radio as my Mom was doing something or other when we were out together. The station was always playing country music. Most of the “crooners” have long since slipped into his eternity and my senility. Yet, two are frozen crystals in my memory. The two Hanks, Snow and Williams forever remind me of the long road toward understanding the lessons my Dad handed me.

Hank Snow was fun. His voice and rapid tempo music is hard to forget. I’m Movin’ On always brings a smile when the radio spills those chords and words into the air. The image of a old eight-wheel steam engine driving a train at high speed reminds me of traveling with my Dad and dreams of exiting the past quickly.

In between the Hanks, Dad taught me the words to Ghost Riders In The Sky. The moment I realized the eternal ramifications of those lyrics is lost in the fog of memory, but I can still sing along when my ears hear the first notes. Over the years I have come to appreciate the evocative imagery created by Stan Jones, the songwriter. Eventually I would be drawn into the world of imagery through poetry and lyrics.

The lyrics that began to lure me across the frontiers of awareness came in a form my Dad could never appreciate: the imagine driven Bob Dylan. Yet, the trail to the borderland began deep in the work of the second Hank. The sounds of Your Cheatin’ Heart almost always brought my Dad out of his natural taciturn state. I am relatively certain that it was either the first or second song he taught me to sing. (Ghost Riders might have come first)

Growing older but less wise I spent some time distancing myself from most country music. Just as my Dad never appreciated rock and roll, I failed to appreciate Hank Williams. As Dylan wrote, “I was so much older then” until I began to delve into the depths of music’s root ball.

The reality is that I never really escaped Hank Williams’ music; I simply failed to recognize its influence. The intensely personal yet universal emotional foundation of his lyrics and his delivery were things I found appealing in Dylan’s work. His use of traditional imagery touched the historian’s nerve in my being even as I failed to make the connection. Hank’s themes were all over Dylan, but I could not “see the light.”

Eventually I became fascinated by the influences and origins of Dylan’s work. Then in the immortal words of Hank, “I saw the light.” Slotted into a biographical piece on Dylan was his statement that he believed Hank Williams to be the greatest American songwriter. Synapses fired, connections were made. Hank Williams was the great American white bluesman. He and Dylan were voicing many (but not all) of the deep seated forces confronted by the great American black blues artists.

Yes, black blues was never a form my father favored or even listened to as far as I know. That issue misses the point. My father with or without intent introduced me to a form of human expression that touches the soul and spirit at the deepest level. He and Hank taught me to hear and feel things in a manner seldom available in mere conversation.

Now as I literally enter the autumn life my Dad and Hank have paved the way for me to have my own “September Song.” They gave me the desire to find it in whatever form reached to my deepest senses. When I am “so lonesome I could cry” Dylan gives me Shelter from the Storm.” I never thought I would miss that old gray Ford.

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The Collection

Sliding into retirement one receives numerous dollops of “sage advice” from those who preceded you. Some caution to take at least a full year before deciding what new path you will pursue. Others note that you will undoubtedly begin to reflect on your career, now that you have the luxury to do so. The “you are going to love it” group are never shy with their enthusiasm.

Then reality arrives with no dinging alarm, no commute, and no meetings. What comes with reality is a growing collection of moments that can loosely be categorized as “awareness”. Night ends with silence, and the timing of leaving the bed’s layered warmth is a choice. Breakfast is an agreed upon activity with only self-imposed time constraints. Coffee is a peaceful transition into the day; not a supercharged jumpstart.

Every morning outside my window the cardinals appear like early 19th century Hussars emerging from the hedges and brush on the edges of my patio. Bright red males like Murat leading an assault surrounded by numerous colorful, but less flashy females forage for breakfast. While watching them and appreciating their inherent beauty, a kind of calm rolls in silently like the tide on the bay.

If the mind is cluttered the mile and a half walk into the center of town begins the clearing process with an additional few tenths of that distance finding the shore of the Bay. Move slightly over 1400 more feet and the end of pier thrusts all clutter into the breeze sailing across the salt water.

As Jimmy Buffett once opined, “the days, they don’t have names.” Sunday is an exception, but most of the weeks have days named, “Doctor’s Appointment”, “Tennis”, or “Nothing Planned.” Peace comes in the form of a calendar marked by blocks of anonymity. It is Tuesday somewhere, but here it feels like Saturday.

Two or three times per week the day is organized around tennis. A fifty-year love affair now finds a new motivation. The need to win concedes to the pleasure of competing, and the joy of playing. Finding the sweet spot on the 16×19 hybrid grid that constitutes my racquet’s face is a reminder of the evidence trail to pure joy. Hansel and Gretel, eat your hearts out.

The awareness of life’s greatness becomes a collection of moments and visuals. Together they dampen the noise and pull the soul into the light that so often is dimmed by decades of daily grind.

Peace.

Good Morning R.P. & J.M.

(I miss you two.)

“Now you can take some Black Diamond strings
And put ’em on a J45
You hit them chords, you get that thump
You downright sanctified

Or you can take a lipstick pickup
And play it through a Fender tweed
Oh, it’s sweet,”

—–Ray Wylie Hubbard, “Down Home Country Blues”

Somewhere Beyond the Border

In the process of straightening up and trying to clean out my life, I came across these thoughts scratched on the back cover of a graduation program. It was the last in a series of 40+ that I attended.

Date: 5/19/18

The line arouses itself and begins to extend toward the future. One soul, twelve steps continuing into the fog of uncounted tomorrows. Hope plundering the shadowlands of uncertainty in the carriage of youth.

One last out and in. Grace in the cloak of repetition. The ease of innocence–some even genuine. Raging talent unprotected by the cloak. What pagans are gathering in the borderlands of the next sunrises? Or are the pagans sires to the Messiah? The chosen ones; but to what journey?

History Lesson: Winter Term, February 8, 2019

Today, two hundred and twelve years ago the French were losing. They had slept in the snow on a freezing night. Irony personified, on the day before they had died in droves in the cemetery at Eylau. With failure a reality Napoleon unleashed the flamboyant Joachim Murat and his 10,000 cavalry against the Russian center.

The following day Marshal Michele Ney rode the field and noted: “Quel massacre! Et, sans resultat.”

Valkyries

in the darkness,
            I saw the Valkyries.
they are real.
their faces were my old lovers,
            pale and silent,
arriving on the sun bound side of darkness.
they came not for me.
they came for the Brave from the past.
To what Valhala?






Quick Thoughts On The Return

It has been over 30 years. It took a little time searching and futzing, but now it is revived. “It” being my turntable that plays vinyl albums. The recent trend to “return” to vinyl by “aficionados” who had never touched a real album before the year 2000 is not at the heart of this musing. Here, we consider the return to personal music as it came to my world in the 1960s.

The first album to bring me to the world of rock and roll was The Buckingham’s Portraits which landed in the album bins in 1967. I had to play it on my mom’s crummy self-contained stereo with fidelity somewhat better than the radio and an old “record player”. I went off to college sans stereo, but in tandem with the explosion of FM radio playing great music not available on day time AM radio. College revealed dorm mates who had real stereos. My friend who eventually was the presiding minister at my wedding introduced me to B.J. Thomas and Bob Dylan with the needle noting every imperfection and illuminating musical subtleties blotted out by the radio. Later another friend, who eventually became a nationally decorated poet, helped me find my way to Neil Young via the rotating table and album covers at his family’s home. (Yes, Andrew, I remember that the jeans on the back cover of After The Gold Rush look better in the picture than they do in real life.)

Unfortunately, just as I became initiated into the realm of significant music the 8-track tape proliferated. With a choice to be made, I took the seductive trail, and my early music collection was almost entirely blocks of plastic with no liner notes and ultimately limited shelf-life. Wait a few years and the tape rots. Yet, the music persisted in my life unchallenged by access to vinyl.

Finally, after the poverty of graduate school began to slide into the shade, I got my first real turntable attached to a real amplifier/receiver and great speakers. They came just in time for cassette tapes to sweep into popularity because they could be played in your car. Then came CD’s. My vinyl and turntable became objects moved from dwelling to dwelling with no use for over thirty years.

Now in retirement, finally settled with the albums intact, the turntable refurbished and tuned up, The Flying Burrito Brothers are pouring out of my new Klipsch speakers. Much of the impetus for the return to the table and needle is the gift of a vinyl copy of Neil Young’s Live At Massey Hall 1971 album from my friend Jack. I suppose, gentle reader, that one might scream “old man’s nostalgia”. So be it; but the sound, the feeling, and the ability to read about the construction of the collection is a combination not to be had from a streaming service.

Believe as you choose, listen as you will, but I am about to drop the needle of my Technics SL-BL3 on Side 2 of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Thanks Bruce.

Sailing on December Rain

December came four days late. She was dark, cold, saturated, and uneven. Your soul needed a boat. Magellan ordered the the mainsail reefed. Noah asked for Job’s advice. Darkness and water were locked in a connubial embrace oblivious to the needs of man.

A year and four days later man was still marooned in the darkness of Winter come thirteen days early.  The sky settled in as hammered steel with no hints of azure to be imagined and darkness closed to ink.   Job had no answers save ideas.

The sails were unfurled even as the wind accelerated. The voice in man’s darkness was Ishmael’s: “Steer in the wake of the Rachel. Ride the edge of the storm, faith requires neither sun nor a port.”

Salt Water Time

"The dissonant bells of the sea
As they sing of the ages asleep
not so near or so far"
-----Gene Clark, "Spanish Guitar"

I grew up loving the Gulf of Mexico. It defined salt water for me even though most of my salt water activity occurred on and in Perdido Bay. As a boy the bays seemed tame and even boring unless we were near the mouth of a creek slowly unfurling its contents into salt water. The intersection of waters offered the fascination of life in collision and symbiotic embrace.

But bays lacked the rolling waves, blinding sunlit white sand, and eternally distant horizons.  Big water launched a boy’s testosterone driven  romantic dreams of the beyond. The Gulf was the lord and owner of power and wonder. A lifetime of distance from consistent contact with that lord witnessed the ebb and flood tides of those imagination driven dreams. Life powered by the throbbing engines of routine, mini-dramas, and adult- imposed ambition stained the dreams and blurred the soul’s vision of wonder.

Retiring to the rim of Mobile Bay reestablished consistent interaction with a big constrained body of salt water. Here the horizons are not so distant; the waves lack the size and power of the Gulf; the beaches barely exist. A less restless old man now refines his focus on the wonder of the small, the quiet, the confined life of the Bay. Life on the Bay lacks the noise and bustle of Gulf Coast beaches. Humans populate the waters of the Bay with less density and less noise than their brothers and sisters on the Gulf beaches. The worst offenders rip the waters of the Bay with jet skis when the sun and clear skies turn them steel blue. The offense seems great when one contemplates the virtues under assault.

The Bay impresses with subtle shifts in an otherwise stable world. Ever present gulls congregate in diverse formations always stimulating the question of “why?” Pelicans generate a persistent feature with wonderful behaviors and enigmatic personalities.  On occasion they find repose on the surface of the water like 18th century men of war. Their lines are elegant and unmistakable as  they ride at anchor or sit becalmed. When the survival urge drives them to flight they emerge in the 20th century like WW II dive bombers circling a target, calculating the angle of attack then penetrating air and water as if they were in pursuit of a terminal meal. 
You have seen nothing until your eyes behold airborne pelicans on the edge of a storm.They ride the stiffening breeze like helicopters, often turning into the wind and adjusting their wings and speed to hover in a solitary piece of sky oblivious to the bombastic peals of thunder driving the wind.

Weather in the world of the Bay provides another nuanced experience. Squalls sweep in from the Gulf and attack one shore or the other or engulf the entire basin. The anger of a squall can drive north, up the Bay, with its gloom lingering even as it surrenders to the late afternoon sun. Such days are not beautiful, but they are authentic. Low tide; sun sliding in and out of the clouds; breeze washboarding the surface of the water; a gull clinging to one isolated piling; and a pelican owning the next nearest post. The squalls can seem to surround the Bay with lightning flashes challenging the weak but persistent sunlight.  Angry thunder expressing the lightning’s complaint that the sun will not yield.

Finding an intersection of land and salt water is an enduring reality on the Bay. There is a mystical and hypnotic effect stimulated when viewing tidal pools and cuts when the bright mid-day sun allows the careful observer to see the sand bottom through the clear water. Wind on the water leads to optical realities that contribute to nature’s message.

The Gulf will always be the most important gateway to the things that stir my soul, but I have come to love the Bay and appreciate the mysteries it holds.

HOT FLASHES

“Entre la espada y la pared”

The fire descends on the head like Diablo’s hand.

No choice.

Fan blades ruffle the air,

No noise.

A mild chill glides across the body on the bed,

No relief.

The burn moves south to the thorax,

No light,

Just a flash as the treatment continues.

Just a reminder.