Athens, GA — The man was not old, but weathered, like a well-used hammer.

He had come into the office of the concrete plant where I worked to buy sand for a project “back to the house.”

He dug the money for his purchase out of a ragged leather wallet that he must of bought when Ike was still in office. I think some of the money had been in there that long, too.

“How much?” he asked.

I put down the book I had been reading. I have forgotten the title, but it was about human evolution. The volume lay open on the computer console in front of me.

On the page, a row of skulls stared vacantly outward, with the cranium belonging to the oldest member of the human family on one side, and modern man’s vaulted white dome on the other, with assorted way stops lined up between.

It was one of those rainy days, late in the Georgia summer, when business was slow, and there was time to talk, to do things at an idle pace. We weren’t busy anyway; several days of rain had turned the Georgia clay into something like pudding. I had sent most of the drivers home.

I looked up the price of that particular grade of sand, added the tax and gave him the total. He counted out the exact amount, digging in his bib overalls for the change. He leaned against the doorframe and lit up a cigarette.

“Wet,” he noted.

“Yeah,” I replied, “not much going on.”

He was as dry as beef jerky, impervious to the rain. The daylight pouring in through the office window wrapped around him in the same way that lamplight embraces wood that has been carved into shape and oiled.

His eyes drifted to the book, the skulls looking back from the page like the portraits of family members in an old home.

“That there about evolution?” he asked, giving the first letter the sound of a long “e.”

Uh, oh, I thought, nodding in assent.

“You believe in that there?”

“Yessir, I do,” I answered. “Do you?”

“Surely do not,” he said, new steel rising in his voice. “I believe unto the Lord, and unto His Word.”

I was a little more than halfway through my university study, and a little bit more than half arrogant. I knew things. I believed in things that I could see and feel and smell.

“Look here,” I said. “You see those pictures there. Those are skulls, real ones. A long time ago there was meat on those skulls, and brains in them. Something or someone lived in there, do you believe that?’

“Yessir, I believe that. They’re real, all right.”

I stood and picked up the book, excited. Perhaps I was going to make a convert. Perhaps, having stepped into the swampy world of Religion Vs. Science, I may have managed to win an argument.

I pointed out to him what little I thought I knew for certain regarding the evolution of human and pre-human anatomy. I talked about progressively larger brain cavities, different jaw structures, flatter faces, flipping pages in the book as I spoke. I felt flushed with power.

“So, can’t you see that there seems to be a definite progression in these, from the oldest to the modern?”

He agreed that it seemed to be so.

“Do not you agree, then, that these creatures were real, and that they may possibly have been our ancestors?”

“No sir, I can’t accept that,” he said, the gray light from outside enhancing the lines and angles of his craggy face. “They are not ours.”

He took a long drag off his cigarette. The smoke hung around his head, something else obscuring the air between us.

“Well, if they are not our forebears,” I said, a little exasperated, “who are they? What are these bones?”

“They are the bones of fallen angels,” he said.

The air rushed out of my lungs, the way it does when one unexpectedly steps waist-deep into frigid water.

I think about that man now and then, with his measuring eyes and his hard hands. Sometimes I see him in my mind as clearly as I saw him in that doorway all those years ago.

I think about him sometimes when I am plodding my way through court records, preparing to cover the trials of accused rapists, child molesters, murderers and drug dealers.

We are influenced by thousands of unseen forces, my educated mind tells me. We are the products of our environment, of our heritage, social and genetic. We create our own Hells.

The man in the doorway stares forever through smoke. “I believe unto The Lord, and unto His Word,” he says.

Like anyone else, I want the world to make sense. Things can be explained, dissected, explored, named. Give me a thing I can name and the name will make most of the fear disappear like smoke.

I say this sometimes with the assurance of the man in the doorway, a man worn by toil and as set in his convictions as a post in the ground.

And sometimes I say it with the shrill bravado of a small boy whistling his way through a dark graveyard.

Usually, reason wins. But now and then I find myself in an interview across a table from someone who seems made of wood, shaped from something no longer living, dead in some sense that goes beyond sensibility.

In times like those, I sometimes see him again, drawing fire to his mouth, speaking through smoke, to a world where angels could fall bereft of God to crash into the cold stones of the world, and I wonder which one of us has found the best answer.

There Is No App For That

August 31, 2014

By T.W. Burger

Guns are not dangerous in the same way that a sharp knife or a hammer is not dangerous.

There, I said it.

It’s the people. It’s us. We are the danger.

It’s not quite the PC thing, I know. It is quite the fashion now to rage against firearms, as though they are the embodiment of the devil himself.

I like guns. With a couple of odd and mostly inoperative exceptions, I don’t have any, but I like them. I grew up with guns. I had my first gun, a Daisy Model 25 BB gun when I was 11. (If you don’t think a BB gun can be dangerous, talk to any ER physician.) I got my first grown-up gun at about 14 or 15, a single-barrel 16 gauge shotgun, and had a number of firearms afterward.

I never once killed anyone, though I confess to have thought about it once or twice.

As far as the use of guns, well, I like to keep fantasy and reality segregated. The infamously bad movie “Red Dawn” (1984 and again in 2012) and its plucky gang of high school students defeating an invasion by the Soviet Union in the first version and a rogue unit of the North Koreans in the second made everybody feel good.

Despite what we see on TV and at the cinema, it’s not bloody likely. Witness the mess in Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan. It seems that absolutely everybody in those places is heavily armed. Do those places seem placid and safe? Take note, NRA.

So, guns are OK by me. Idiots and crazy people are something else. Put a gun into the hands of any member of those two classes and bad things can happen, and often do.

For example: “People just want to experience things they can’t experience elsewhere,” said Genghis Cohen, owner of Machine Guns Vegas. “There’s not an action movie in the past 30 years without a machine gun.”

Ghengis Cohen? Really?

Cohen was commenting on the recent death of an instructor at just such an establishment who died after a 9-year-old girl was unable to control an Uzi. The Uzi is a submachine gun that fires about 600 rounds a minute in calibers from .22 to .45. On August 25, this little girl from New Jersey was on a family adventure and got to fire a real machine gun.

The instructor, Charles Vacca, a 39-year-old combat veteran, took a bullet to the head when the girl lost control of the Uzi. He died. God only knows what psychological injuries the child will have. Some adventure, huh?

There is no way to keep everybody safe. Not in the real world, not even in our own local country, with more than 300 million people bumping into one another every day. Outlawing guns is not going to happen, and it wouldn’t solve the problem anyway. Better control of who can have a firearm is a good idea, but unlikely to be anything but a move to make us feel that at least we’re doing SOMETHING.

One is tempted to suggest that we need to improve ourselves as human beings. Personally, I think that is the only thing that will likely make any real difference. But creating better humans is beyond the reach of government. Such a leap requires introspection and genuine regard for one’s fellow humans.

Somehow, I don’t think that there’s an app for that.



© 2014 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.

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August 12, 2014

Originally posted on Burger to Go:

By T.W. Burger

I found it, naturally, while looking for something entirely different.

In a box on a bottom shelf in my office, jammed in with some other mementos, was my old Mr. Trash hat.

It was filthy.

Of course, it was filthy when I put it away, sometime back in the early 1980s.

The grime is easy to explain. Mr. Trash was a “refuse removal business,” which most of us would still call “garbage company.” I was the field manager, though I’m not sure I had any formal title. I ran the crews. We started out with five trucks. I’m not saying the trucks were worn out, but their continued presence on the road had to be due to divine intervention. This was 1981 or ’82, and one of trucks was a Dodge. Dodge stopped making trucks any bigger than pickups in 1968.

I was in management in about…

View original 582 more words

August 12, 2014

By T.W. Burger

I found it, naturally, while looking for something entirely different.


In a box on a bottom shelf in my office, jammed in with some other mementos, was my old Mr. Trash hat.


It was filthy.


Of course, it was filthy when I put it away, sometime back in the early 1980s.


The grime is easy to explain. Mr. Trash was a “refuse removal business,” which most of us would still call “garbage company.” I was the field manager, though I’m not sure I had any formal title. I ran the crews. We started out with five trucks. I’m not saying the trucks were worn out, but their continued presence on the road had to be due to divine intervention. This was 1981 or ’82, and one of trucks was a Dodge. Dodge stopped making trucks any bigger than pickups in 1968.


I was in management in about the same way a staff sergeant is an officer, i.e., not much. Oh, I had a desk in the office and a pager (this was way before cell phones) and a pickup truck. But I also ran the crews and picked up garbage, usually by swinging by the homes of customers who had been missed by my crews.

Mr. Trash

Mr. Trash

Garbage workers never catch a break. Even today, I believe, people look down their noses at them, no pun intended. Which is a shame, because it’s not easy work, and if you don’t think their work matters, let your garbage men go on strike for a couple of weeks. In summer. We had a strike in Atlanta when I was in my 20s, I think. We lived 70 miles away and used to joke that we could smell it.


One clever fellow in the city figured out how to get rid of his own trash. He would put the bags in a box and gift-wrap the box. Then he would drive into the city and park his car for a while on a side street and go for coffee, leaving his windows open. When he got back, et voila’, the garbage was gone.


Anyway, it was a challenge balancing my crews and the company owner, who, I suspect, had never before worked with anybody who didn’t wear a coat and tie.


For example, I had prepared color-coded maps of the county for each workday, with different color on the map for each crew. The boss went to the trouble and expense of having color copies made for each of the drivers. He presented each man with the maps. The drivers looked a little baffled, but dutifully stored the maps in the cabs of their trucks and drove off to the day’s work.


“They didn’t look very happy,” Boss Man said. “Well,” I replied, “only one of the drivers can read. They know their routes from memory. Roger can’t even read house numbers, but he’s got a tremendous memory, when he’s sober.”


One of my crew was attacked by a pit-bull whose owner had failed to secure it in its doghouse. Larry heard a noise and turned to see this animal snarling and heading toward him like a surface-to-Larry missile. The dog launched into the air. Larry grabbed a one-gallon pickle jar from the trash can and killed it with one blow. I arrived about 10 minutes later to find the homeowner screaming about lawsuits and such, and berating Larry with all sorts of insults. I interrupted to point out that if I had just seen a man kill my pit-bull with his bare hands, I might be a little more circumspect in the way addressed him.


So, after about a year of similar adventures, Mr. Trash and I parted company. The hat went into storage with hats from other jobs. And yes, it’s smudged and smeared by various substances whose origins I don’t care to think about much. I can remember it being so soaked that sweat dripped off the hat’s bill. I wore it for awhile the day I found it, and I do believe I could still smell garbage.


Still, Sue asked me if I would like her to put it in the wash. She has a sort of hat-shaped cage thing she can clip onto it so it won’t lose its shape.


I think it’s a girl thing. Wash my Mr. Trash hat?


No way.


It’s an historical artifact.





Beyond the last buoy

April 16, 2014


On realizing that I am a year older than my father when he died.

I am swimming in a dream.
Far out, beyond the last buoy,
Far from the noisy beach and shouting
Children and their bright toys,
What am I doing here,
Out in this murk?
The sea is smooth,
But featureless,
And the water dark.
T.W. Burger


By T.W. Burger

One of the interesting features about getting to what used to be considered “retirement age” is that you realize that you have seen an awful lot of this stuff before.

Take the current furor over raising the minimum wage to something over $10 per hour.

“It will destroy the economy!” scream critics of the idea, mostly well-to-do white people. “We’ll have to lay off workers,” they moan.

Excuse me. Couldn’t you guys (and it is mostly guys) at least come up with some original gripes?

I am about to turn 65. When I entered the work force, the minimum wage was $1.40, or $56 per week. It had just been raised from $1.25. Guess what the opponents said.

This is why I giggle when the well-to-do and fatheads like Limbaugh say that the poor would be better off if they would just manage their money. As in, “I wonder how I can fit this grand piano into this inflatable lifeboat I’m clinging to.”

The “manage their money” stuff comes to us from people who are standing on top of an ever-growing mountain of money.

My pay covered my rent, which was $50 a week, and my car payment, which was the same. After groceries and utilities, there wasn’t a lot left to “manage.”

Something is clearly amiss.

A young man, a freshman at Boston College who plans to major in economics, told me recently that in just about any economic system, most of the money and power ends up in the hands of the one percent anyway.

I’ll give him that point. In all those other systems, though, we usually call that one percent the bad guys, or words that mean pretty much the same thing.

So, how is it that our American one percent is anything other than the bad guys?

Yes, I’m being overly general. There are members of the one-percent who are good people who try to give back to the people who made them rich. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and a few others come to mind. I don’t think they are in the majority. Think of the Koch brothers and their ilk, and their efforts against organized labor.

Before my conservative readers jump on the “unions ruined everything” bandstand, even Samuel Joseph Wurzelbach, aka “Joe the Plumber has said he had no problem with unions….the problems arose from corrupt and greedy leaders.

When I was a boy in the 1950s and 1960s, My parents’ generation worked in factories, offices, and taught school, and most of them belonged to unions. The town where I was born boomed. Almost nobody in my family drove a car that was more than two or three years old. Everybody had a nice house.

Fast-forward. The big wheels at the local steel mill refused to update their aging equipment and siphoned of really big helpings of the income. The Japanese, with new factories and equipment, made steel more efficiently, and the industry here in the U.S. started to die. Finally, the local steel company was raped and murdered by a corporate raider who very nearly managed to make off with the former workers’ pensions as well. I think similar stories have been written all over the country.

The minimum wage has been raised several times since the late 1960s. Between 1978 and 2009 it increased eleven times, to $7.25. Guess what the opponents said.

Under the system that “floated all boats,” many of the smaller boats started to founder. In time, the storms worsened and increasing numbers of ever larger boats took on water and sank.

Yeah, there were rich people and poor people when I was a kid, but most of us swam happily in the middle, and the rich people were only 40 or 50 times wealthier than the folks in the middle class. Now, their wealth is measured at hundreds of times greater.

As I said…I’m no economist. If I had the solution, I would be both rich and famous. In any case, what I posit is this: Any economy in which all the wealth flows in one direction is stagnant, dysfunctional, and evil. I don’t know what to call what we have now. Most keep calling it capitalism because that title still has a cozy ring to it. But what we have is not that. What we have is broken[jam21] .

Back to minimum wage: The argument that a wage increase will kill jobs doesn’t hold water, not in the long run. Remember, Henry Ford famously paid his own factory workers more than most people made in similar jobs. He realized that if workers didn’t have any money, they couldn’t buy cars, and selling cars was sort of the whole idea.

I think that people having money to live decent lives and be able to better themselves was the whole idea overall. Has that changed?


© 2014 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.

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 [jam21]I’d like to see a little discussion of why the “job-killing” argument hasn’t held water. Something along the lines of how many people were laid off the last time minimum wage was increased.

By T. W. Burger

There he was, throwing everything out of whack.

He roamed from room to room, weaving erratically, and chaos followed him. Desks sat empty, pens and pencils lay willy-nilly where they had been dropped. Computers hummed vacantly to themselves. Electric typewriters buzzed, abandoned.

There was a kid in the courthouse.

I do not mean the slack-jawed nitwits with their hats on backwards, the ones I usually see up before one of the county’s judges. I mean a rug-rat, a cookie-cruncher, a toddler.

Cute as a bug’s ear, too.

Not that I’m an expert. I have always shied away from having kids. Too selfish, I suppose. Now and then, like when I saw this little guy bonking around inside a couple of courthouse row offices, I get this wistful feeling that, gee, wouldn’t it be nice…..

When that happens, I go visit someone who has teenagers and it goes away.

But there is a thing that happens whenever anybody brings a little one into the courthouse. I call it PMS, or Persistent Mommy Syndrome. (Boy, will I catch hell for this.) Most of the employees in the row offices are women. Anybody brings a tyke there had better be good at sharing.

Everything stops.

Everybody comes over and pokes and coos. The reactions from the kids vary, but I think most of them respond like this one did: Bafflement followed by “died and gone to heaven.”

I watched, frankly, with something approaching envy. Virtually every woman in the place had to take her turn holding the little guy, bouncing him up and down and generally marveling at him.

The kid, of course, was just eating this up.

I made some wisecrack. One of the women suggested I was jealous.

“Somebody did the same thing to you when you were this little and cute,” she said.

Yeah. So how come it doesn’t happen now that I can appreciate it more?

Do not answer that question.

Years from now, as a grown man, this guy will wonder why it is that every time he walks past a courthouse he gets a big smile on his face.

If I were another kind of writer, now would be the time where this column would dutifully grouse and grumble about all those “man-hours” (an interesting term, all things considered) “wasted” fussing over some kid while the paperwork languished, boxes unchecked, corners unstapled, triplicate copies unfiled.

Sorry. You have the wrong guy. The paperwork can wait. Personally, I think the world could use more people with PMS. Maybe if more kids got that kind of attention, I wouldn’t be seeing so many of them standing before the fierce gaze of a judge.


© 2014 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.

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Boots in heaven

February 20, 2014


Overall, I’d say my experiences in church have not been entirely positive. I blame this on the denomination in which I was raised.

I will not name it, but in a South famous for its Hellfire and Damnation types, in the land that bred Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and other members of the “grab’em by the liver and make’em sweat” School of Theology, I managed to be born into a congregation devoted to boredom.

In my church, there was no joy, or any great terror. During the services, we did not sing the old hymns that everybody knows, but rather some of the newer, complex pieces. It was like singing an instruction manual.

In my church, as in others, Hell was something to be avoided. In ours, however, there wasn’t a lot of talk about lakes of fire and all that. I had the impression that our Hell was more like a bad neighborhood or tacky friends. Pastor Zack painted for us a sort of pastel damnation, where lackluster demons slouched around pestering the unlucky souls who had stumbled into the place, trying to make them read religious pamphlets.

Now, the tent revivals of the more colorful sects were something else again. I remember one in particular, though I do not recall where. The preacher was a stocky, sweating man with the shoulders of a professional wrestler and the eyes of a cherub who has imbibed too much Tabasco.

This preacher didn’t fool around with any suburban, split-level, air-conditioned Hell. No Sir. This man’s Hell was a wicked place, turbo-charged with fire and brimstone, cranked wide open with sin and misery, patrolled by lean, mean demons who loved their work.

In the cricket-laden nights you could almost feel the hot gusts of the flames in the summer breezes blowing in off the fields, almost hear the earth-crack with the shrieks of the damned.

Now THERE was a Hell you could believe in.

One left those tent meetings feeling small, contemptible and unworthy. A preacher like that could strip you of all your false pride and make you look again at the desolation you had made of your life. The feeling sometimes lasted for hours, and left you feeling purged, as though coming just that close to those flames had burned away a row or two of spiritual weeds.

Years later, in Mississippi, I was able to take part in what became a religious experience for a large number of people. It was an accident and, predictably enough, nobody thanked me for it.

I had rented the attic of the house next to my apartment to use as a studio. I had a chair and easel and a few odds and ends up there, nothing fancy.

The house was owned by a local architect named Phil, who regularly bought old houses and restored them. In this case, he had leased the bottom floor to a group of very religious, longhaired youths who wore tie-dyed shirts.

One weekend, the folks next door had a guest. He was a preacher, well known in their denomination, they said. A friend in the local police department said the person was a thief and a swindler, but the kids were convinced that the guy could all but walk on water.

That Sunday I sat in my studio working for several hours. After awhile, the rooms below filled with all manner of people come to hear the Reverend speak.

He didn’t speak. He bellowed. He shrieked. He damned. He exhorted, fumed and ridiculed. He made an awful lot of noise. So much so that I gave up trying to paint and stood, stretched, and walked across the attic in my heavy boots and clumped down the stairs and out the back door.

As it turned out, Phil and his girlfriend were downstairs, having been invited to the services by his tenants. Phil was of Italian extraction, and from an old-fashioned Catholic family, and was terrified.

“There were people having fits,” he said later, sweating, “They were talking in tongues, just like you read in the books, and they rolled around on the floor.”

I tried to explain to him the mysteries of the charismatic movement, but he stopped me.

“You should have seen the preacher’s face,” he went on, breathless. “He had been going on and on about the sins of the congregation. He raised his hand up and pointed toward Heaven, and also toward your room upstairs.”

Uh-oh, I thought.

“He said, real loud: `Lord, if I’m lyin` to these folks, I wish you’d send down a sign,”’ Phil said, beginning to laugh. “That’s when you decided to come clumping down the stairs in those clodhoppers of yours. That preacher’s jaw dropped almost to the floor. For a second there, I thought he was going to say: ‘Wait! I was only kidding!’”

I have no idea if my clattering exit from the space above the flock had any lasting effect. I know that the Reverend never returned to the little congregation on Central Street. I also know that the kids who lived in the house eyed me suspiciously from then on, as though there might be more to me than met the eye.

But, who knows? Maybe some doubter had his faith uplifted and nailed into place by the wooden hammering of my boots up there toward Heaven. They do say, after all, that the Lord works in mysterious ways.

February 5, 2014: Ice

February 5, 2014

Feb. 5, 2014

Feeling feisty after three cups of coffee, but not feisty enough to go out and take my chances on the ice, at least not until it starts to soften up some.

It looks as though we got about half an inch if ice on top of the snow that has been on the ground now and is looking tired, as though completely bored with the place but lacking the money or will to leave.

The glaze on the trees is a treat to the eyes, but it doesn’t do them a lot of good; I suspect we will have a lot of broken branches to clean up as soon as we can get to walking around without risking injury.

Out the kitchen window, I can see our row of yews, bent over as if suffering heavy grief.

It is a good day, then, for writing and reading, good music on the stereo (between power outages, anyway,) and perhaps some more coffee.


January 30, 2014

By T.W. Burger, (c) 2014

Virgle and meVirgil chatted happily as he snipped and buzzed around my hair and beard.

I was home.

Short and stooped with a proud nose below a high forehead, Virgil Rossi moved thoughtfully, stopping often to dredge up memories and to talk.

Virgil gave me my first haircut. He has been cutting hair in the same shop for 74 years.

It had been a long drive west through the mountains of Pennsylvania, in winter, the Turnpike looping through clouds of leafless trees smudged with evergreens.

I was home; not where I live, but where I began, the town where I was born but left when I was still small. I have ancestors in the ground there going back four or five generations, including my parents.

I sometimes visit their graves, not because I think that they are there; what is down there are ruins; spent machinery, abandoned vehicles, vacant houses, the occupants long gone. I go there to think, about them and me and my brother and how we all fit together, however poorly, in the scheme of things.

From the front stoop of the little barbershop I can look to the left to the stony hill where they lie, on a steep slope overlooking the Shenango River, where my mother and her father used to gig for frogs.

George Young Miller was a rough, profane steelworker with a fondness for liquor and a disdain for the soft college kids who came to work at the mill in summer. Martha “Bunny” Miller was a tomboy who used to beat up the boys who picked on her sisters. She got her nickname because as a little girl she was fond of pulling carrots from a neighbor’s garden and eating them on the spot.  She spent WWII in the U.S. Coast Guard, and was once demoted for laying her immediate superior out on the barracks floor for bullying one of her friends.

Mom and I drove one another crazy, but she was one of the strongest people I have ever known.

My father was a grocer’s son, raised by his mother and grandmother. His mother was the grocer. She died in the 1970s with a lot of people still owing her money.

Dad’s father, the son of an itinerant fire-and-thunder itinerant Baptist minister, was a notorious drunk and womanizer who worked sporadically as a night watchman. I still have one of his pistols, a Harrington & Richardson five-shot hammerless revolver that couldn’t hit a wall if you fired it in the house.

Dad and I bought a box of cartridges once and set a Blatz beer can on the ground about 10 feet away. We used up the whole box and never hit the can once, though we dug up the ground around it pretty well. It was one of the few things Dad and I ever did together.

Dad’s father, Bill, disappeared for several years in the late 1940s. He showed up again on the mean streets of Sharon, wearing the same suit of clothes he wore when he disappeared.

I have only a handful of photos of him. His face reflected the various ruins he suffered. I went to his funeral at the age of three months. Mom said my father wept, but I don’t remember.

Dad went to West Virginia’s Bethany College on a basketball scholarship – he was president of his fraternity — but could not afford to go on to the graduate level. He married his first wife, had a daughter, joined the Navy, fought in the Pacific in WWII, and then went to work in a steel mill.

He divorced and remarried, had two sons, became an engineer through night school, and then went to work for a major corporation, which used him up and spat him out, as major corporations are wont to do. He was passed over for promotion any number of times because, as it turns out, night school engineering degrees are a lot less shiny and impressive as are those earned by younger men with the wherewithal to go to graduate school.

Until he had his first major stroke, he would sit alone in the darkened living room, chain-smoking Viceroys and staring at the wall. We never knew what he was thinking.

Just before she died, my mother said she wished Dad had been better at fighting. He didn’t even cuss well. Mom, however, could make the air crackle when the mood hit her just right.

The Rossi & Rossi Barbershop is a rectangular wood building maybe 10 by 20 feet, clad in gray asphalt roofing tile. Its front sits parallel to a chain-link fence that stretches out on either side and surrounds an old steel mill that looks abandoned.

The shop could pass for a guard shack if not for the sign and the traditional red, white and blue barber pole.

I had wanted to stop by the shop for some time for a haircut from Virgil.

He is the only Rossi left in the shop. His brother, Ralph, died several years ago.

Virgil is 89. I am 64.

He’s kind of a big fish in Sharpsville. This past December 10 was declared “Virgil J. Rossi Day” by the mayor.

My first haircut was a while back, probably 1950 or 1951. I sat in that shop, in that same chair, probably on a padded board stretched between the armrests of the Koken chair, and probably cried most of the way through the process. I don’t really remember crying, but I do recall sitting in the bay window reading comic books and sitting in that chair getting my ears lowered.

My dad, my brother, and I all had our hair cut there until we moved away in 1957 or so.

From the bay window, I would sit listening to the men talking about work, that place where my dad disappeared to every morning and from which he returned, weary, every afternoon between 4:30 and 5:00. Some of the men listened to baseball games on the radio, cheering or jeering. I think I learned some of my more colorful vocabulary there.

Virgil did not remember me, but then he had been cutting hair at that same space since 1940. Not at the same chair, though. He was working at one of the two “new” chairs that had been installed in 1950, a year after I was born. They were genuine Koken chairs, invented in 1900 by a German immigrant. The name brand is still around, but it owned by a Japanese company.

The old chairs had been in use since 1927, when Virgil’s dad opened the little shop a few blocks away. Some years later, the Rossi’s had the whole building picked up and moved to its present location. I think I remember hearing that it was hauled by mules or horses, but I’m not sure.

As I said, Virgil didn’t remember me. He asked who my father was.

“Ralph Burger. He played basketball for Sharon High.”

“Oh, Sweet Jesus!” He exclaimed. “Hell yes, I remember him.”

Virgil lives in the house where he grew up. He shares it with memories. Papa and Mamma Rossi are gone, as are his brother and sister.

“I come home after work,” he said. “I look around and I remember where they all sat. I look at the clock and it says 6:30. I say to myself ‘Virg, it’s time to go out to dinner.’”

He played clarinet and alto sax in the Carl Marks Band and the Joe Cann Band, when big bands were still the rage, and there were venues for them.

The bands are gone. He was the soloist in two of them, and for one he is the sole surviving member. The local venues are gone, too; Yankee Lake, Idora Park, and others.

He still performs in concerts for two local concert bands. And he still solos.

And he still works six days a week. He awakens, eats breakfast, packs a lunch, and walks to the shop. He has never taken a vacation. A friend called him from Las Vegas not too long ago, and asked him if he could take a month off and sit in for an ill clarinet player in a show band. He could stay with his friend.

“I had to say no, but it broke my heart,” Virgil said. “It was like a dream come true, but too late. And who would run the shop?”

He finished my hair and trimmed my beard; a little shorter than I had planned, but no matter. It will grow back.

He showed me photos pinned and taped to the walls; family. His first cousin, Carmine Orrico, better known as actor John Saxon, photos of the Mercer Community Band, a gathering of gentlemen of a certain age, including Virgil, arrayed in their chairs in matching white shirts.

Virgil allowed me to take some photos. It was a big day for me, a step back into a time when the world was a lot smaller, and I believed in Heaven, and the angels in the cemetery on the hill watched over me.

It was time to go. I had obligations, and I had already spent more than an hour steeping in my own history.

Virgil would only take 10 bucks for his work.

Trimmed, blown off, and newly-scented, I shook his hand and thanked him for the trip back to my childhood. He grinned and told me to come back any time, even if I didn’t need a haircut. I stepped out into the faded industrial street, part of me still basking in the 50s, when the town was full of jobs and new cars. My ’97 Olds wallowed in potholes as I turned the corner and headed back to the present.



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