April 25, 2013
Excerpt from “Never Met a Stranger,” my next book, a work in progress:
When I read his obituary in the Athens (GA) Banner-Herald a few years back, I swear that I broke out in a sweat and my back started to hurt.
He was the hardest-working man I ever knew. The frequency with which I was assigned to work on his crew gave me the sneaky feeling that the management of the town’s sanitation department had my own horrible death set as a goal in their black and shriveled hearts.
Dolphus was a hard, lean man, all knots and roots and ugly as a skinned weasel, and carried about him a strong smell of sweat and chewing tobacco. A tangle of thinning blond hair under a bleached out gob hat helped shade flinty little eyes that never seemed to acknowledge how hard he or anybody else had worked. It was never hard enough. He never said so. You just knew.
I would like to write that one of Dolphus’ virtues was that he was killer accurate with his tobacco juice, but that would be an exaggeration. Dolphus’ brown trajectories would have been good examples for an anti-predestination clergyman to describe the random nature of the universe. Dolphus’ blue city dump truck had long brown streaks running down the driver’s side.
Not on the doors, though. The department head (reference “black and shriveled hearts” above) removed the heaters and doors from our trucks so that in the winter we would not huddle in the trucks to keep warm.
Not that keeping warm on Dolphus’ crew was a struggle.
Dolphus ran a brush crew, which meant that he and two helpers wandered from street to street picking up brush, fallen limbs, and chunks of trees left by residents on the curb to be picked up, and stacking them into an old blue dump truck, of which Dolphus was the Lord and Master.
Normally, those of us engaged in this effort loaded the dump truck up to a nice mound of brush and headed off to the county landfill, which gave us about an hour’s break. Most of us thought three loads was a fair day’s work.
So did Dolphus. Trouble is, Dolphus had a different idea of what constituted a load. To him, a load was when you couldn’t get any more on. That does not sounds like a big deal, unless you are one of the ones trying to jam one more branch, one more tree trunk, onto that teetering mass that loomed over the cab of the truck.
We were a sight to see. More often than not, the height of the stack in the truck was greater than the length of the truck itself. People used to just stand on the roadside to watch us pass. The load was stacked so high that one of us had to sit near the top and use a length of 2×4 lumber to lift the electrical wires out of the way while Dolphus eased us through. It took forever to get to the landfill that way, but somehow, Dolphus always managed to haul in three loads a day.
The one on top of the pile was usually me. Dolphus was the official driver, and there was no way on Earth either I or Frankie, the other helper, was going to get to drive that truck.
That was just as well in Frankie’s case, since he was usually stoned. He grinned a lot. Giving him the wheel of an overloaded dump truck stacked 20 wobbly feet high with logs and such would have been unwise. Also, Frankie was given to talking to people who were not actually present in any corporeal sense, and we all feared he might try to dodge around some of them if he was driving.
Perching him on top of that load did not seem like a kindly thing to do, either.
Dolphus didn’t talk to people, invisible or otherwise. He’d hand you a tree branch 12 feet long and bent six ways from Sunday and tell you “Here.” At the end of the day, if he said anything, it was “eenin,” which was the word “evening,” as in “good evening,” filtered through a Deep Southern accent and percolated through about a pint of tobacco spit.
Too bad he’s dead. I would like to say that Frankie and I came to a kind of pride that we could hang with Dolphus all day without suffering severe bodily injury or staining by gummy arcs of masticated Red Man. In the grand scheme of things, it was not a minor triumph, but I’ll take it.
March 25, 2013
“It takes a sweet little bullet
From a pretty blue gun
To put those scarlet ribbons in your hair”
(excerpt from “A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun” by jazz singer Tom Waits
Last minute night meeting in Mercersburg, up in the high county in southern Pennsylvania, 50 miles from home. Meeting done, story filed from the laptop. Tom Waits, voice gravel and sorrow, singing in the Bluetooth, snare drums hissing, tires on the road.
The road a shiny black ribbon through black velvet, a light rain, and fog rising from this morning’s late March snow. Dark jazz, street jazz from the dirtier sides of every city, oddly good company for twisting through apple & dairy country, tense with the temperatures dancing around the freezing point, and Tom tells me that “Romeo is bleeding but nobody can tell/And he sings along with the radio/With a bullet in his chest/
And he combs back his feathers/And they all agree it’s clear
That everything is cool now that Romeos here…”
The music resonated with the wet dark; the bass with the hum of the Oldsmobile’s engine, the snare with the hiss of the road. The neon from the all-night diners smearing church-window colors on the asphalt palate, the red arrow from a shut used car lot writing scarlet ribbons in the gleam.
The Olds coasts down the last slope to the flats, motor relaxing to a rumble. Suddenly, signs of home, the familiar stores, restaurants, and the last bridge before home. Put Waits away. Enough blue jazz for a while. A mile of quiet, then the glow at the window
March 12, 2013
By T.W. Burger
Way back in Colonial Times, at least according to movies like “Drums Along the Mohawk,” one character might be heading out of the territory on a hunt, on business, or spying for the British or whatever.
“Good luck,” his friend or wife would say.
“Thanks. Look for me in the fall,” or something like that.
Can you imagine that sort of world-view today?
Think about it, if I am talking to somebody over the phone here at my desk (OK, here in my recliner, where I do most of my work,) and they ask me what time it is, I glance in the lower right hand of my laptop screen and say, 8:50.
Where I come from, the answer would be “’bout nine.” Oddly enough, if I looked at my analog wristwatch, I would still probably answer that the time is “about nine.”
Yes, I still wear a watch, though many people just use their cell phones or tablets, which have the advantage of being very accurate. I have two watches, and they are both analog, which means I know how to tell time, not just read numbers. Yes, I know analog is obsolete, as are watches. I am a dinosaur. Shut up.
This all came up yesterday when we were driving around doing errands. Sue asked what the temperature was. We had just walked from the house to the car. Both of us knew very well that it was cool. Not cold. Not really mild. Cool. We both know what “cool” feels like.
Nevertheless, I poked at the screen on my smart phone, which told me that it was 52 degrees Fahrenheit.
Before we entered the digital age, I would not have had any idea what the exact temperature was. In fact, the exact temperature where I was at any given time mattered not at all. When I drive around in my ’97 Olds, which has a digital thermometer right on the dash, it tells me that the temperature outside will vary by several degrees at various spots within five minutes of my house.
Yesterday morning, in all those assorted places, it was cool.
I am part of a volunteer program that measures rainfall in a hyper-local area. I think there are six of us in my county alone – we are all over the US – and we all have identical rain gauges. In theory, we each check our rain gauges at 9 a.m. at the latest every morning, or as close to that as possible. I am lucky I get it done by nine, but that is another story.
Before I got into the rain gauge thing, I might look at the birdbath outside the door and report to you that this morning we had about an inch of rain. Now I can tell you we had 91/100s of an inch of rain.
I understand why the climatologists want the information in such fussy detail, I really do. Now, if somebody asks me how much rain fell “out your way,” I am more likely to say “91/100s of an inch” rather than say “about an inch,” or “a bunch. It rained pretty good.”
Look, I predate the Space Age. I remember when we filled orbital space with any number of encapsulated rats, dogs and monkeys. Some of them are probably still up there, which is sort of sad. Back then, the math had to be exact though, to be blunt, space is big and I am sure it is not that hard to hit.
On the other hand, only a few years ago we fired a satellite at Mars and missed a whole doggone planet. Somebody goofed on the math. Oops.
Mars is a lot farther than an orbit that is maybe 250 miles away. Heck, at 250 miles you can probably shoot from the hip and come close.
Mars is a “whole ‘nother” matter. I forget how far away it is. A few numbers followed by a whole mess of zeros. It takes six months to get there, even at something like 50,000 mph. That is twice around the earth in one hour. Zoom.
It was time to put away the slide rules (for you young folks, those are artifacts from an ancient civilization occupied by your grandparents. You would never be able to figure them out. You would waste half a day figuring out where to plug in the charger) and get out the supercomputers. Even then, you might miss the freaking planet.
What is my point? You need a point? See, that is sort of what I am talking about. We are addicted to the point, and all the numbers that come after it. Relax. Life is too short to worry about the last few gazillion numbers of Pi. Near enough is good enough. Was good enough for our forbears, and ought to be good enough for us.
Unless you are shooting at Mars.
© 2013 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
- Author of “The Year of the Moon Goose,” Available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other places.
- Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:
January 13, 2013
By T.W. Burger
On the morning of January 17, 1989, a loser named Patrick Purdy attacked Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California. He fired more than 100 rounds from a Chinese assault rifle, killing five children and wounding more than 30. Purdy then committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Sounds familiar, does it not?
Exactly one month ago, Adam Lanza, using an American-made assault rifle not significantly different from the weapon used by Purdy, killed 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Authorities say he fired about 100 rounds. Then he shot himself in the head.
Four months after the Stockton shooting, I wrote a column with a title similar to the one on this piece. It ran in several newspapers. The hate mail was interesting, and included death threats.
I offer the column again, with a few rewrites to update some references that might not be familiar to younger readers. I did not change all that much, because not all that much has changed.
The imagination is a curious thing.
Individuals are never really just one person. There are all sorts of different editions of each one of us; who one is at the job, at the bar (a.) with one’s mate and (b.) without; the person one is in front of one’s children and, of course, the one who lies in bed on sleepless nights, haunted by facing specters, disappointments, and dreams that have grown shabby with time and neglect.
We live in our imaginations.
The existence that most of us lead is hardly what one would call daring or adventurous. It is a reality at total odds with the stuff we watch in our millions on TV, where the heroes on the assorted CSI and NCIS shows blast their way through the sleazoids, and any number of improbably fit and sexy actors and actresses sizzle and plot in the perpetual California of prime-time.
We get up from watching the tube, shuffle around, put out the dog, floss our teeth and go to bed, to rise in the morning and go to our jobs as secretaries, parts clerks, fast-food managers and, I suppose, reporters.
On two occasions in recent months, I wrote items on the issue of gun control. Every day in this and every other newspaper in the country there are stories concerning questions that are every bit as important to the future of the collective citizenry of the United States as is the subject of gun control.
Yet nothing cranks up the letters to the editor faster than any perceived effort to control the access by ordinary citizens to firepower equal to the cinematic baloney of Sylvester Stallone and his ilk.
If the average American were so careful a watchdog over other issues as he or she is of matters concerning gun control, then this country would be a much better place.
Sadly, this is not the case.
When we in this profession write about birth control, abortion, drugs, congressional scandal, organized crime, or the environment, we often feel that we are throwing our stories down an empty well, for all the response we get.
However, when we report that some source has suggested that maybe magazines that hold upwards of 100 rounds rounds, a portion of gun owners heap ashes on their heads and bewail the loss of their rights under the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Imagination is the answer.
This is America, and guns have a lot to do with our national identity and our fantasies.
I know this from an incident that had nothing at all to do with guns.
During the heyday of the CB radio craze, I had a job that involved driving a truck all over the southeast, delivering custom accessories for four-wheel-drive trucks. Naturally, my truck had a CB radio in it, partly for entertainment and partly as a sort of surveillance device, the ordinary citizen’s version of a spy satellite to keep watch for cops on the highway.
One sultry summer night, I had been enjoying the repartee between two folks, one male, one female, whose respective “handles” were The Gray Ghost and Sugar Britches.
The conversation was too racy to be recounted here; if radio waves were visible, these would have been purple.
Ghost was quite the stud, all baritone and swagger. I pulled into an all-night convenience store for a snack and coffee and kicked back to listen to the pair carry on. They were coming in loud, clear and shameless.
After a while, I knew why.
Across the parking lot was a not-very-new station wagon, a little beat up. I remember walking by it on the way in and out of the store and noting that the back seat bore unmistakable evidence that the family had several small children.
A man sat in the car alone, lit by the glare from the store. He was small and pale, in a Polo shirt and cardigan sweater. He was bald, middle-aged, and drinking a diet soft drink.
He was also talking on his CB.
The figure in the station wagon raised the mike just before The Gray Ghost’s confident baritone boomed out of the speaker, and lowered it just after the Ghost stopped speaking.
That’s when it hit me. I knew in a flash that somewhere out there a woman, perhaps a harried homemaker sitting in a housecoat, her head festooned with curlers, heated up the airwaves with the throaty, teasing words of the doubtless beautiful and slightly dangerous Sugar Britches.
The man in the battered station wagon had a harried look. The Gray Ghost was above all that.
That is the key, of course. We have created a wonderful thing with our electronics, from the CB radios of several decades ago to the role-playing computer games and social media, reality can take a back seat and balance the checkbook, fret over the kids’ report cards, worry about the job.
The Gray Ghost and Sugar Britches, meanwhile, stride through the world, above it all.
There is History and there is what we like to think happened. In America, it is impossible to separate gun lore from our image of whom and what we are. “Guns Made America Great!” said a recent bumper sticker.
The statement will not hold water.
What made and makes America great are its ideals and its system of laws.
Those ideals and laws have made possible the peaceful if noisy transitions of power in national and local elections for more than 200 years.
On the other hand, look at the places in the world where men and women armed with assault rifles and other tools of mayhem wander the streets freely. The picture is ugly, deadly, and has provided nothing in the way of order.
I read recently that “Half of all the mass shootings in the history of the United States have occurred since the assault gun ban expired in 2005.” The author is a journalist and friend who does not post things he has not researched, so I buy it.
“Guns Don’t Kill People…People Kill People.” We hear that a lot.
Wrong. People with guns kill people. People with baseball bats and knives kill people, too. I have seen a number of people refer to an attack at a school in China where a deranged man stabbed 22 children and an adult or two. What the references fail to mention is that nobody died.
I could be wrong, but I think that is an important point.
On the day that Vice President Biden and representatives from the National Rifle Association sat down to begin talking about these issues, there was another school shooting. Fortunately, the shooter wounded one other student before being talked into surrendering.
God help me, I almost wrote, “Wounded only one.” In our world, a single victim seems almost reasonable.
Decades ago, state and federal governments thought it was a good idea to close mental health facilities and instead use pharmaceuticals to control the former inmates’ symptoms.
The idea was to save money.
Not to be insensitive, but what we have inherited is a percentage of our population consisting of mentally unbalanced people under the influence of various drugs afloat in an environment where weapons of awesome killing power are relatively easy to obtain.
Bad idea. Well, a good idea for pharmaceutical companies.
Do I think banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines will solve the problem? Hardly. There are an awful lot of those weapons out there, most legally obtained, I imagine. Unhinged people will still be able to get them. Continuing to make it easy, however, is hardly a responsible approach.
Besides, the argument is not about whether or not to control guns. The argument is where to draw the line. I grew up around firearms, and have owned a number of them. Many of my friends own guns. I am not afraid of them walking into a crowded building and taking out a dozen or so people.
If I had a neighbor who felt he or she really needed an assault rifle in order to sleep well…that’s a different matter. I wonder what fantasies drive them?
In any case, we have to do something. If the two sides would stop screaming at one another and start talking about sensible, real-world solutions, progress will be possible, but not before.
© 2013 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
- · Author of “The Year of the Moon Goose,” Available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and select book stores.
- · Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:
- · http://burger2go.wordpress.com/
- · http://burger2goclassics.wordpress.com/
- · http://rockthecapital.com
December 8, 2012
As I write this, jazz great Dave Brubeck has been dead for just a day.
He died just a day shy of his 92nd birthday, and his life covered most of the history of jazz itself.
I don’t consider myself a big fan of jazz, though I like some of it well enough.
For his iconic tune, Take Five, however,I always pause and give a listen, if I can. It was the sound track of my heart’s first great adventure, after all.
Take Five was certainly an easy listen.
“Take Five was a musical milestone — a deceptively complex jazz composition that managed to crack the Billboard singles chart and introduce a new, adventurous sound to millions of listeners, read an Associated Press story on Brubeck’s passing.
Oddly, record company executives dithered a whole year before releasing Brubeck’s seminal album, Time Out, in part because the tracks on the album, including Take Five, were done outside of the usual ¾ or 4/4 time. The “suits” figured people would not buy the record because it would be hard to dance to.
I say “oddly” because Take Five is the only tune I can remember dancing to.
Dancing itself is something that has always mystified me, and dancers leave me in awe.
When I go to parties where people dance, I have to go through my usual embarrassing routine of explaining that, no, I do not want to dance, thank you very much.
It is not that I hate dancing. The fact is that I hate to dance. Dance is fine, as long as I am not the one doing it.
Nothing pleases me more than to go somewhere and see a person or a couple who dance as though born to it. It is a thing of art, a thing mastered that I myself do not have to master to appreciate. After all, I can enjoy a painting without knowing how to paint.
Though I have never loved dancing, that is not to say that I have never danced, let it not be said that I have never danced. Oh, no, I danced earnestly, with great determination, and for love. That is where Take Five came into my life.
See, I took lessons.
It was not my idea. My well-meaning parents foisted the instruction on me because they were concerned that my social development would wither if I did not have whatever dances were popular in the mid-1960s in my social armory.
I protested without any great enthusiasm, because I knew what my folks were like when they made up their minds. I figured I would do so badly that they would be OK when I quit soon after starting.
Then, I met the teacher.
It was love at first sight, and for the very first time.
People laugh at kids who fall in love at 14. That is a mistake. Love at that age has no governor, no limits. It is like a caged bear, or a fire in an oil refinery.
So, there I was, with a skin become a minefield of tiny volcanoes and a voice that bounded from a passable baritone into the reaches of the ultrasonic without a moment’s notice. I tripped over invisible barriers when I walked. Every flub convinced me that I was the world’s greatest fool and the kindest thing would be to take me out behind the garage and shoot me.
In other words, I was a typical teen.
Joan, on the other hand, was an older woman, about 20, with dark red hair, freckles, and eyes of a rich, deep hazel. She wore a black body stocking and smelled of talcum powder. A dance major at the university, she earned extra money teaching ballroom dancing and ballet in the back room of a construction company office near my home.
Sometimes, I would arrive early, while she was still putting a gaggle of shrill little girls through their ballet lessons. She moved the way good poetry sounds, like tall grass on a breezy day.
The girls moved like chickens.
Watching Joan was a little like….well, I still cannot describe it. Sure, she was attractive, but her movements were not so much provocative as evocative, and inevitable, is some wonderful way. I could but watch, and try to remember to breathe.
Eventually, the little girls would be gone, and it would be my turn.
Joan would put the needle down on Brubeck’s Take Five, and she would move out onto the dance floor like a swan, beckoning me to follow. I would trudge out, a lovesick buffalo, hopeless and enthralled, my palms sweating. She danced, I clicked along like some hapless wind-up toy gone to rust, feet moving mechanically, taking exactly the right steps in the worst possible way, the overhead lights reflecting gaily off my orthodontics.
She taught me, or tried to, slow dances, too, but I cannot remember a thing about any other music she played then because I could not hear it over the pounding of my heart and the roaring in my ears. I only remember standing that close to her, and how good she smelled, and how she only smiled when, inevitably, I stepped on one of her feet.
My parents were shocked when I asked to continue my dancing lessons. I must have gone on for months. They never knew that I would have asked the same thing if Joan had been coaching algebra.
Such is love.
It ended of course.
One night as the lesson was beginning; she told me it would be my last.
She was going away to get married.
We dipped and reeled to slow dances for the whole hour. The industrial lighting of the room seemed an awful lot like chandeliers.
That is how I chose to remember it, anyway.
And so, I do not dance, thank you very much. But now and then, when I walk into a room and see people moving like wheat in a summer wind, I check the air for the scent of talcum.
And always, when I hear Take Five.
Rest in peace, Mr. Brubeck.
© 2012 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
November 19, 2012
I am told that “The Year of the Moon Goose” will be available for Kindle within 24 hours.
November 17, 2012
My new book has just been released on Amazon! (Notice the artful way I wrote that as though this were an everyday occurrence.) As it happens, we’re just coming into the Christmas gift-buying season. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence!
September 25, 2012
I have a good friend, an economist by training, and the former head of a hedge fund, who is always giving me grief about my liberal economic views.
I like this guy. We usually get together a couple of times when our vacations in Maine coincide and we sit down over seafood dinners and laugh our heads off about things.
By unspoken agreement, we don’t talk about politics and economics and stuff like that because our conversations could easily turn into food fights. I’d lose because I eat more than he does and I’d run out of ammo sooner.
On Facebook, however, Bob is sometimes driven to near apoplexy by my opinions. (Sometimes that’s because, in my enthusiasm, I sometimes forward postings that are not factually accurate. It drives me crazy when I do that, and I feel really stupid afterward.)
That said I have to say that the charts and graphs and figures that Bob posts are very likely correct; He’s good at math, apparently; my own math skills double when I’m barefoot.
My problem is that I can’t help but think that somehow we’ve taken math and conjured it into a tool of oppression.
Let me see if I can explain.
The way we’ve been figuring our economic structure for the past several hundreds of years, it always ends up with a sliver of the population having jars full of cookies, while the larger portion, having created the avenue for those cookies to get in the jars, wind up with crumbs. Or less.
Recently we’ve heard a lot of noise about those on unemployment, Social Security, Medicare, and other programs being a burden to the society and to all those decent, hard-working people who comprise it. But aren’t most of the people who are at least partially supported by those programs also part of that class of decent, hard-working people who paid for those programs?
Oh, sure: There are welfare cheats, and the unemployed who try to extend their Unemployment Compensation benefits as long as possible before really looking for a job. Just as there are people who vote without being eligible (four in Pennsylvania, where I live, in the recorded history of the Commonwealth, I believe.)
First we have to ask 0urselves if the numbers of people who game the system are of sufficient number to be more than a nuisance. I can’t think that anyone would seriously shut down or cripple those programs because there are cheats. The real answer is to tighten rules and enforcement to stem the seepage.
It doesn’t help that we have a party in the U.S. who, in the same breath, will complain about high unemployment and suggest that those on UC and Welfare “should just get a job.”
Right. There seems to a failure at play, either of thought or heart. Incidentally, minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. Do the math. Don’t forget to take out taxes. Just sayin’.
And why don’t we hear more about the people at the other end of the spectrum, whose own wealth is, if not caused, then augmented because they know how to game the system. Nobody argues that being able to hide one’s money from the taxman in the Cayman Islands is illegal … it’s not. But is it right? That’s a question the answer to which is more tenuous.
It seems to me that the folks who floated to the top pay loud lip-service to the work ethic while looking down their collective nose at those of us who actually have to do it.
What the hell is going on here? We are well on our way to being a feudal nation of serfs and royals; we are not the wealthiest nation in the world –not even close. Our infant mortality rate is shameful, as are our scores in literacy, math and science. How else to explain the fact that a high percentage of people in the United States believe in the Biblical theory of creation and deny the scientific explanations discovered first put together Charles Darwin?
I can tell you, from nearly 30 years of covering school districts, that their board memberships included significant number of well-meaning and frustrated board members who nevertheless were less-well educated than the students whose tutelage was their ultimate responsibility.
No, paragraph above is not off-track. Funding for public schools has dwindled steadily, and a lot of subjects are either not touched upon or merely skimmed. It all comes down to money. Public schools in wealthy areas and tony private schools are doing a much better job. The relatively new science of ecology applies to just about everything: Just as causing the extinction of one species can cause devastation to an entire ecosystem, so can pinching off the blood supply to something as important as the care and feeding of a large portion of a culture’s inhabitants.
So, my friend can fume all he wants. I still believe we’ve somehow been putting square pegs in round holes, and too many of us have been trying to convince the rest of us that it’s a good fit.
A math whose vectors result in most of the wealth clogging the heights while those below, including workers with so-called “good jobs,” struggle to choose between owning a home or eating well, or between having healthcare or getting more than a threadbare basic education for their children, or choosing between a second or third job and having somebody home when those kids come home from school -– is simply insufficient.
September 25, 2012
This is not a book that will teach you how to garden, or fish, for that matter.
If you are worried about thrips and nematodes or where best to plant your okra, or how to hook a prize bass, you won’t find a lot of help in these pages.
On the other hand, if you want to discover Moon Goose crying on the water at midnight, and that it is perfectly all right to let your imagination come along on a year in one ordinary man’s garden on a hill above a creek full of music and wonder, well, this might be just the book for you.
I would like to invite you over for a visit. Put on some old clothes and a hat to keep the sun out of your eyes.
A note of clarification. This book is loosely based on newspaper columns, stories, and journal entries from a number of years. They are strung together chronologically by month and date, but not by year. So, if in one day I speak of drought and in the next of a flood, it doesn’t mean I’ve lost my mind. I lost my mind long ago when a nightmare crawled out of a dragonfly’s head, but that’s another story.
I wanted to start my tale with winter, because that season is the most remarkable to me, given that I was raised in the South, where winter is a dank, miserable, half-hearted thing with temps in the 30s for the most part, and a lot of rain. I feel colder in Southern winters than I do in the winters of Pennsylvania. Here it gets cold enough for the water to freeze out of the air.
There is also the sense of starting from a dead stop. Winter seems dead for some, though it really is anything but. It’s a huge coiled spring of life just waiting to crack through the ice and take off, and the marsh stoneflies come out, and our snowdrops, winter aconite and lesser celandine are suddenly up and blooming.
My garden lies on a ridge above Marsh Creek, just to the south of the town of Gettysburg. The creek snakes through some of the country’s most historic ground, then makes its way south and east to join with other creeks and trickles to become the Monocacy and then the Potomac.
I don’t write much about the battle that took place here all those years ago, though it permeates everything. Maybe that’s why.
It is not that I don’t think about the battle. I discovered a few years ago that I had cousins who charged across that heartbreaking ground with Pickett. When I drive through the park where that fight happened, I feel differently than I did before I knew about the role of the Burger boys from Fincastle, Va.
They were grandsons of Heinrich Burger, who was a Hessian soldier whose unit was rented by his prince to King George. When the war was over, Heinrich stayed behind. He lived for a time somewhere a few miles to the west of the new town of Harrisburg, and then moved with the family he would eventually marry into down the great valley to Botetourt County in Virginia, where he farmed and began peppering the landscape with progeny.
But I still don’t write much about the battle, even though Union troops camped right here where I live. One neighbor who owns a metal detector comes up with the occasional buckle or Minié ball.
The garden is another thing. The time I spend when I’m not writing for a living I like to spend in the garden. The garden is where I keep in touch with the basic rhythm, with the beat that was here before us and will surely outlast us.
My neighbors sometimes see me standing in the garden, leaning on a hoe and staring at nothing. It’s not what they think. Well, not usually. I’m writing, or thinking about a thing that will be written. Trust me, it’s harder than it looks.
My home is a little frame house on a high bank perhaps 20 feet above the creek. The house is one of a group of weekend get-away houses built in the 1920s and 1930s by assorted businessmen, doctors and attorneys as a place to get them and their families away from the swelter of town in the days before air-conditioning. I like to say that it was Gettysburg’s Riviera.
At one time the neighborhood, called Marsh Creek Heights, was full of kids, who swam and fished in the creek, and played cutthroat baseball in the field across the creek. This was no simple sand lot, but a prepared field with grandstand and bleachers. Neighbor Dan said you used to be able to stand a dime up on edge between the blades of grass, the field was that smooth.
The field has gone to weed, and the amenities are simply gone. The owner mows it once a year, probably because of township regulations. As I write this, the only man-made things in the field are a picnic table, a bright pink ice-chest, and a red pickup truck stuck in the mud roughly in the position of shortstop.
My house sits upstream from an ancient dam, built to power a mill that is also long since gone. The creek here is maybe 100 feet wide, and usually tranquil. The dam is of the variety called “low-head,” meaning that it is less than six-feet high. The state, for a number of reasons, is slowly working its way around to removing all the low-head dams in the state. There has been a dam here since as early as 1817, depending on who you ask. The dam, with some tweaks over the years, remains sound, but it really is an unnatural barrier. Even so, I hope I am gone before they get around to this one.
From my deck I can watch the carp patrol when the sun is still in the east. Later in the day, the creek throws back only sky, and there’s no telling what is going on down there. I can’t stay away. It calls to me with its fogs and fumes, it’s shimmering stillness, roiling floods, and with its giant carp lurking, bronze blimps just under the surface, or churning with crazy passion during the mating season.
The creek throws up a smorgasbord of sounds. The whine of the four-lane highway more than a mile away rolls upstream. On still nights you can year the rasp of the little green heron, and in the heat of the day the croak of the great blue, the caws of crows, cries of osprey and red-tail hawks, and the splash of carp throwing themselves out of the water during their rut.
We begin, then, in winter, when everything is cold, and seems dead. But we know better…
On Marsh Creek,
August 27, 2012
We shuffled and limped into the theater in downtown Gettysburg, men and women of a certain age. Some waggishly wore hippy gear; head-bands, tie-dyed shirts and skirts, and so on. Frankly, the gear looked better on us all a few decades back, but we knew that. Everybody looked excited and eager.
Inside the theater our youth was waiting.
Well, as much of it as remains to us. A Beatles tribute band, “1964-The Tribute,” played at the Majestic, and I thought it would be a lark. It was much more.
When I was a kid, my dad would walk through the house at night, humming old Glenn Miller pieces, sometimes cupping his hands over his mouth and mimicking a trombone solo.
Inevitably, I would roll my eyes, embarrassed, and irritated, somehow. It was music from the distant past, ancient, meaning more than 20 years old. I actually liked Glenn Miller music, but I wasn’t about to admit it. It was of my parents’ world, and therefore not to be trusted.
The theater was packed. There may have been a couple of empty seats, but I couldn’t see them. Even the balcony was full. A sea of geezers, me included, all chatting excitedly. It was an Event.
I had never heard a tribute band before; there are plenty of them, for all sorts of defunct artists, from Mozart to, someday, I suppose, Justin Bieber, if they can find a 12-year-old who can sing. I was not prepared to be impressed.
After all, we live in an age when there is no “Yesterday,” (sorry, Paul). Not in the sense of media, anyway. Time, I thought, was safely tucked away in millions of little electronic pockets, in iPhones, computers, and compact discs, everywhere. Heck, I still have all my original Beatles LPs.
I got my first album from the lads from Liverpool when I was 14 and visiting relatives in western Pennsylvania. It was “With the Beatles.”
There was a record player in my aunt’s basement, and I spent a big chunk of the Christmas visit sitting in that dark space listening to that one album, over and over.
It must have driven the adults mad. But they let me have that.
I am no musicologist, but I have read critiques of the music, especially the tunes penned by Lennon and McCartney, extolling their talent and the impact their work had on music of many varieties from that moment on. If you weren’t around, I can tell you that American pop music just before the so-called “British Invasion” was nothing if not blah.
Though there have been a number of albums, many of them were mere mashups of previous work. According to at least one source, all of the massive effect the Beatles had arose from the core Beatles discography recorded during the 1960s roughly 10 hours of original music. Just 10 hours, a little more than an average American work-day. And only one of the group, George Harrison, could even read music.
Back at the Majestic, theater director Jeffrey W. Gabel came out and did the usual rah-rah stuff about the theater and its funding needs.
And then he introduced the band.
With the wigs and the suits they could pass, sort of, for the original Fab Four. They have been touring for 28 years, but they managed to look a lot younger than they probably felt at the end of the two-hour show.
But. Oh. My. God. The music.
Not exact, mind you. The playing was close enough, but the voices, naturally, not quite the same. Lots of Beatle-y banter in what may actually be a Liverpudlian accent, though the band members actually hail from places like Indiana and Ohio, for god’s sake.
But the difference between the pretenders and the real thing blurred by nostalgia and aging eyesight.
It worked. They started playing and time fell away, except for the creak in my knees when I stood to cheer, clap, and sing.
I surprised myself by knowing almost all the lyrics. I could tell because I was singing them along with everybody else I could see. The cheering at the end of most songs shook the rafters, or whatever is holding the Majestic up other than wealthy donors. “Twist and Shout” nearly resulted in a riot and, I suspect, a couple of coronaries.
Now and then I remembered that I am by profession and inclination an observer, and took time to look around: Row after row of friends, neighbors, people I flat don’t like, and people I just know by sight, all of us in various stages of decrepitude, all of us dancing and creaking in place, transported by a common joy, old faces lit by memory.
Suddenly, I was laughing and singing along, yelling at the top of my lungs, joyful. I didn’t even do that when I was a kid. It’s just that I had this happy energy in me, and there was nothing else to do with it but hurl it out into space, in joy and against time and all that dies.
I have come back to Earth, now. But changed, somehow. Not sure how to describe it. Cleaner, I guess, or at least buffed and waxed and shinier than I was. It’s a good feeling.
I’ve been walking through the house, humming Beatles songs for the past several days, now and then throwing in a Glenn Miller tune. Here’s to you Dad. I get it now.