Note: This piece was originally written shortly after my father’s death in 1981. I have re-posted it, with some changes appropriate to my own life and sensibilities as a write require, on occasional Father’s Days ever since.
The essayist Loren Eiseley once wrote that: “Everything drifts by fire and flood and ruin into the final ambiguous lettering of the Earth’s own book of stone.”

I was startled to realize that my father has been gone for nearly three decades now. His passing marked the end of a period of several years in which most of the giant figures from my childhood faded and fell; my grandmother, an aunt, two uncles, and then my father.
They have faded in my memory now, shadowy figures sitting on the front porch, or the men, in slacks and white t-shirts, standing on the postage-stamp front lawn, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and talking about work at the mill.

They are almost all gone, now.

That untamed, indefinable thing that once swept up the mute salts and minerals of the earth to fling them about in a mad dance has departed as mysteriously as it arrived.

The weary particles sifted down, stunned and silent.

I read once that the universe in which we live was created from the dust of previous generations of stars. I don’t have enough science to argue either for or against the notion, but it pleases me to believe it.

At funerals I have heard the solemn clerics speak of death as a mystery.

They are wrong. Death is the common denominator of existence. Almost everything that is, is dead or dying, from stars to salamanders.

Whatever life itself is, that is the mystery, the one great joke that flouts itself in the face of the vast, stony cosmos.

Speak if you will of water into wine and conversations with burning shrubbery; I say look around; every square foot of our own back yards bears enough miracle to keep us staring and breathless every waking moment, if only we would shake of the blinders of familiarity. A square foot of typical soil can contain as many as a million microscopic spiders.

It beggars the imagination. The poet Dylan Thomas once remarked that the books in his school could tell him everything there was to know about wasps except why.

Look at you. Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, a little sulphur, if I remember my biology, wet with a generous portion of water and stirred like a wizard’s concoction into a spell of action, thought, poetry, baseball scores and how to score a dart game.

The whole construction takes in energy, grows, stands, strides about the world making a great noise. Then, and one day, the strange vortex subsides, or goes on to other business, and all the clever pulleys and wires fall away to nothing, vacant and bare, clattering into the darkness, discarded toys.

Now and then, plowing through boxes looking for something, I will come upon something of his; a pistol that belonged to his father, a dedicated drunk and a hard man from a hard time; a construction-paper shield, with a crudely crayoned dragon and coat of arms, with childish letters on the back spelling “Lolly Boy;” a photo of him near the gun emplacements he commanded on a Navy ship in the Pacific, shirtless, his hat far back on his head, younger by many years then than I am now, and a whole lot more “go-to-hell” glint in his eyes than I have in mine now.

It has been nearly 10 years since I visited his grave. I had meant just to stay for only a few moments.

But I sat under the old maple on a hill overlooking what used to be a steel town and talked with him, or with his memory, for a full hour.

I’d like to say he left me some profound legacy; pithy wisdom, secret lore. I can remember little, and nothing profound. He liked Glenn Miller’s music, and the women in my family said for all his size, he could dance like nobody’s business.

I have a tin ear and dance like a footsore bear.

So, in all those ways he is truly gone.

But he is still here in other ways. I hear his humor echoed in my own, and in photographs of myself I see that same impudent and sometimes imprudent grin.

At the cemetery, the sun had gone, a cold wind had begun to tease its way from the river and through my clothes.

The throaty calls of the crows seemed briefly more harsh, and then died away.

I stood up from my perch on Grandfather George’s headstone, noting a stiffness in my joints that I hadn’t remembered from earlier visits. The bronze plaque over his grave gave his Navy rank, his name, and the dates that formed the ark of his life in time.

In my mirror, and in the faces of my brother and my half-sister, I see him sometimes peering out; the shape of skull, the ridge of bone over our eyes, the eyes themselves. Something of him walks across my face when I am angry. I see him, gazing out when I am quiet and take time to look for him.

This is what I have of him, then; no heavy philosophy, but shreds and tatters of memory; no monuments, but a certain heaviness of bone, some movements and gestures that I think I have forgotten until I make them.

What else is there to say? He was an ordinary man, a particular stirring for 64 years among some particular stardust, a miracle, certainly, but of ordinary proportions. It will have to do.

© 2009 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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Some of the best people I have met, and some who moved me deeply, have been people whose lives I’ve been prying into.

It’s really amazing.

During one of the worst times in my life, I gathered a lot of strength from a family whose oldest son was fighting leukemia. He eventually died, not from the disease, but from the cure. They, especially Joyce, the mom, helped get me through a long heartbreak.

You hear a lot of talk about objectivity in the news. Too many pundits have talked themselves hoarse defending, repudiating, or redefining the concept of objectivity, and I’m not going to add to the fog.

The average Joe takes “objectivity” to mean that a reporter is unaffected by the stories he is covering, that the reporter is to be sort of a junk-food-powered recording device.

Well, without getting into the whole business of what “objectivity” means outside of the basic concept of reporting accurate information, I can tell you that the best writing is not objective at all.

Objectivity in the sense of the reporter as bionic recording device kills good writing. If your heart won’t break, or quail, or sing with the people whose lives you are stepping into, you have no business writing about them. These are not wrigglies under a microscope, they are all of us, bleeding and fallible, saintly and joyful, and trying to figure it all out.

That doesn’t mean that a writer’s powers of observation and analysis should be tossed out, but those powers must be wired in to his feelings, or he might as well be writing an accident report or reporting the results of an autopsy: “the subject was ejected from the vehicle…cause of death was severe blunt force trauma.”

That tells you everything that happened in the sense that it tells you that the subject hit the ground hard, and nothing about who he was and who had to go tell his mama that her boy wasn’t coming home, and it doesn’t let you hear mama sitting on the couch holding the boy’s photo against her flower-print dress and talk about how proud he was of that car that killed him.

Sometimes I suffer from a kind of over-exposure.

I have been at this so long that it’s hard to remember that when I first got into it I loved to make the words in every story sing, and make readers sit up in their chairs and say “Damn!”

It comes of trying to weld that lyrical impulse to the daily slog of deadlines, “feeding the beast,” as we call it sometimes.

I wish I had wise things to say about what to do about that. I have this blogsite so I can take my soul out for a walk from time to time, but I would really love to be able to make my stories sing, every day. Silly, I know. Sometimes, a simple police report is really all that’s called for. And yet….

Everybody out there is a story. I say all the time that there is no such thing as a boring person. There are certainly writers that might fail to make somebody interesting, but that is a failing of the writer.

I keep promising myself that I’ll pull the strings tighter, make that sucker hum when I pluck it. I know it won’t always happen. But I can remember hitting those notes before. I know that music is in there somewhere.

© 2009 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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This is NOT a column, but DEFINITELY worth checking out. If you’re anywhere NEAR Gettysburg during the dates listed and love photography, and/or love New York City, please go see this exhibit.


June 14, 2009

Remember that old saying, “What you see is what you get?”

It’s not really accurate, you know.

What you see is all you’re gonna get. There’s a lot more out there that you’ll never see, hear, or smell.

It’s been a little more than 30 years since I found out about all this and I’m still p.o.’d.

Imagine stuffing cotton balls in both ears and up your nostrils, then pulling a pasteboard box over your head with a single wee pinhole poked in it for you to see through, and you’ve sort of got an idea about how we make our way through the world.

It’s a wonder more of us don’t break our necks.

What you see, hear, and smell is just a sample of what’s out there. The human eye and its wiring see only a very narrow range of the radiation (that’s what you see, you know, energy…) that’s flying around out there. Lucky bees and moths and other critters can see a lot further onto either side of the visual spectrum.

Same goes for our hearing. We’re practically deaf, compared to a lot of our neighbors on the planet. Watch your dog sometime, tilting his head this way and that into the shadows at night, apparently growling at nothing.

Or watch him sampling the breeze of a summer evening. Heck, he’s reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica while you’re over there cleaning out your ears with your car keys and reading the church bulletin.

When I finally put together all this stuff I had learned, I caught myself standing stock-still in a public garden somewhere, looking around and wondering what I was missing.

To quote some famous figure in baseball, “We was robbed!”

A friend of mine pointed out to me the other day that there are a number of primitive societies that believe this whole experience we call the “real world” is nothing but a dream or an illusion.

Funny, huh, that we’ve always looked down on people like that and called them ignorant?

Weird Weather

June 11, 2009

Now and then we get this, a heaviness in the air, a feeling like dread.

Any movement raises a sweat, though the temps are only in the low 70s. Multicolored lines on the TV radar maps scroll and noodle across the hemisphere while jolly weathermen chuckle about “bad day for your golf game,” while the Midwest cringes under Old Testament storms.

Here in the mid-Atlantic, the weather today is less Wrath of God and more like a middle-aged man suffering from depression or a hangover.

Today, clouds the color of steel wool, fat and almost impervious to light, churned overhead, their bellies scraping over the bristles of the Blue Ridge. Sheaves of fog slipped through the woods, and skulked down the creekbed.

The air seemed too thick to breathe.

Lines on the weather maps shifted while darkness fell. The blackness overhead growled and glared. Rain hissed in the creek like a sigh of relief. The heaviness scattered like squirrels chased by a playful pup.

Here in the house, we relish the new coolness pressing through the screens, though the cats give the evil eye back into the night at the diminishing drumbeat.

© 2009 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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I’ve mentioned fairly often that my own religious beliefs don’t entail a belief in an actual conscious entity out there that is looking out for me or, worse, looking for me.

But I was raised in that tradition, for sure. You know, the one where your parents and the other vast beings that rumbled and boomed way up there over your head, warning that this or that bad thing was going to happen to you if you did or didn’t do this or that.

It was a tradition that taught you that failing to dress up properly for church, or not going at all, showed a disdain for God, and he was gonna getcha for that. And mercy on the pore chile that fell asleep while the preacher droned on and on, though it seemed to be OK for the older members of the congregation to do.

It’s all about ignorance and superstition, as far as I’m concerned, though I have often been moved how faith can get people through some really awful times. I guess you could say I believe in faith, but not so much in the object of that faith.

I was reminded of my own programming in that regard the other day in the newsroom, when the librarians were throwing out a lot of old books, including, to my sorrow, a whole set of encyclopedias. I spent a lot of happy hours as a kid thumbing through our set of Colliers, stumbling upon one wonder after another.

One of the books in the scrap bin was a Bible. I am, as I said, an athiest, an admirer of Dawkins and Hitchins, and of Sam Harris. And yet, seeing the Bible in the trash bothered me, I mean “bothered” as in slightly afraid that bad things would happen because we threw away a Bible. It was an enlightening experience.

Maybe I should go find my copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Panda’s Thumb” and throw it away, just to make up for it.

Nah. Not happening.

© 2009 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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The old man was taller than I, maybe 6’4”, lanky and craggy, with a shaved head and bushy eyebrows. I was there to interview him for the newspaper.

He wanted to go across the parking lot to the community room at his retirement center, but first he wanted to show me something.

“Look at the view I have,” he said, proudly, with his thick Philly accent. “I love to come out here and watch the birds.”

The little second-floor deck was about four feet deep and maybe eight feet wide. He pointed out his two tomato plants growing just under and to the side of his deck. He didn’t know what kind of tomatoes, he said with a little asperity when I asked. They’re just tomatoes.

“Look at that,” he said, happily, sweeping his arm along the horizon.

In the immediate distance, in all the directions I could see, stretched condos and houses, all in a buttery beige shade of vinyl siding. He had boasted about the view. But I live in the boonies, where I can see wildlife right out the bedroom window. To me, his ‘view” seemed a jumbled suburban mess.

But he didn’t seem to see that. He saw the mountains far beyond, far past the rooflines of the VA hospital, and over to Fort Indiantown Gap. Beyond the rooflines, against the blue-gray of the mountains, flocks of geese stood out in silhouette.

“See? There,” he said, rapt.

I don’t think he even noticed all that clutter in the middle ground, all that mess that was all I let myself see, until he pointed out what I wouldn’t let myself observe.

We left his place and did our interview. I had learned a lot about energy conservation, the topic of the story. I also learned a little bit about knowing how to look.
© 2009 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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I never could figure out if the mouse butts were a gift or a punishment.

I’d come home in the wee hours and hunker through the wintery air, open the trailer door, and there they’d be, from one to as many as 10, little hineys poking up out of the dog-vomit-green shag carpet, nothing left of the little Mickeys but hindquarters and stiff little tails, pointing they-went-thataway every whichaway.

And there would be Phyllis, curled up contentedly in my late Aunt Audrene’s former favorite overstuffed chair, staring at me the way that cats stare at their humans.

I never did figure out if my reactions were the right ones. I’d pluck the miserable little mementoes out of the shag and toss them out the back door, by way of warning to future mice “All hope abandon ye who enter here.”

Apparently, none of the mice had read “Divine Comedy,” because they kept coming.

Phyllis took a long time to adjust to the move from the suburbs of the Georgia university town to a trailer on the edge of a cornfield in the wilds of Pennsylvania. I wasn’t sure if the furry little fannies were a snub for disrupting her life or a grateful sharing of the bounty.

Phyllis Killer was my cat for 17 years all together. Sleek, quick, black and white, with a white blaze shaped like Italy across her nose. She was a one-man cat, and didn’t cotton to anybody else, or any other cats.

In her youth, when I still let her roam outside, she rarely came home without some near-dead critter hanging from her teeth. This she would drop in the middle of the floor and watch while I caught and disposed of it. I think she was attempting to train me to hunt. She always looked vaguely disappointed.

The source of the mice was no secret. It was a cold winter, colder than most. The cornfield, a regular field mouse metropolis, came up to within 20 feet of the trailer, which was a lot warmer than the iron ground of the field. The mice found their way in, attracted to the warmth of the wood stove and gas furnace and, to be honest, my less-than-immaculate kitchen houskeeping skills.

But Phyllis was good at her job. Typically, she ate her prey from the head back to the hams and then, for reasons known only to her, stuck them on the carpet.

Typically, after a day at work, I’d find one or two of them. Once away for a week, I returned to find the food I’d left for her mostly gone and a grim forest of wiry little tails in the coleslaw-colored carpet.

And Phyllis, of course, curled in her chair, watching my reaction.

I think she had finally given up on training me to hunt. The mouse butts were handouts.
© 2009 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.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites: