By T.W. Burger

“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.” 
― Aldous HuxleyBrave New World




Huxley may be correct. I don’t know. Some remorse is easier to shed than others.


There is the secret son.


This is more painful than most of what I write.


It speaks more of personal failures; failed relationships, lack of responsibility, of not caring about consequences.


I am in full support of a woman’s choice when it comes to pregnancy. On the other hand, I won’t take any of the philosophical shortcuts that make the consequences easier to bear.


Just as I support scientifically based thinking on evolution, I must believe that an embryo is a human at the point of conception, or at least a human-in-the-making, a biological process that, if uninterrupted, will produce…one of us.


The whole business of choosing when it is no longer OK to terminate a pregnancy is more semantics than reality; at any point in that process, a human life ends. I support choice, but pretending that a human life is not interrupted in process is dishonest, I believe.


It is what it is.


All the same, I believe that is the choice to be made by the female human, the one who must do all the hard work of carrying, birthing, and, very likely, raising that child.


But enough philosophy.


I found out when my partner decades ago had a miscarriage that it was her second. I was stunned. We were supposed to be on birth-control. Our relationship was falling apart and she thought having a child would keep us together.


Her doctor gave me hell, until he realized that I had no idea that she had even been pregnant, had stopped taking The Pill, and didn’t know about the first miscarriage.


My emotions were complex. Worry for her, sadness for both of us, not a little anger as well.


The relationship did not survive much longer.


There were two abortions with two different women. I was not careful, did not use protection. Not something to be proud of, and not a case of pretending the actions were of no consequence. One of the two women, raised in a very religious household, named the dead embryo after the procedure, and often said that “they took my baby.”


I don’t remember the name that she gave the child.


I went with her to the clinic. The waiting room was full. Several of the women joked that having the procedure done gave them a “vacation” from having to have sex with their men.


That turned my stomach. For me, it was a very solemn event. Like an execution without a prior crime. Not a thing to be taken lightly. I became a lot more cynical about humanity that day. And about myself.


I was the only man there. I don’t understand that, either.


Around the same time, a woman with whom I had become involved became pregnant. She was married and intended to stay that way. It was the 1970s, and sex was still a playground. No thought for consequences.


I went by once to meet my son. He had my eyes, my ears. He had a club foot.


I held him and talked to him and, drawing a strange look from his mother, apologized and told him that I was happy that he had made it so far. After all, in those days the odds had been stacked against him.


I try to keep track of him. The last I knew, he had settled in Asheville, North Carolina. I found his house on Google Earth, a little brick bungalow at the corner of two streets in a modest neighborhood. From the satellite photos, I saw toys in the yard, a swing set in the back. I have grandchildren.


I have grandchildren.


No issue, as the Bible calls it, but a son and grandchildren and probably great-grandchildren who do not bear my name, do not know my face, or even that I exist. Yes, I have been tempted to contact him, spill the beans, because I have a selfish desire to connect.


But that would mean telling him that the life he has had for nearly 40 years has been a fiction in part, that the man he called Dad for all those years was not, at least biologically. I know, I am assuming some things, but any other assumptions I make would only be to make myself feel better. I don’t deserve that.


So, yeah, I lived through the sexual revolution, firing wildly from the hip.


I’m still standing. But there are bodies in my wake, and wounds I cannot heal.


Brave new world, indeed.


It was not a very large cemetery, tucked away between the back end of a large brick church and a row of some houses that had seen better days.


There were no grand mausoleums, no pigeon-anointed angels atop granite columns, waving their swords and managing to look at the same time fierce and slightly distracted, as though they had just wondered where they had put their car keys.


This was a narrow rectangle of graves, 30 or 40 of them, of men, women and children buried during the years between the American Revolution and two decades before the American Civil War.


The church of which these sheep had been the flock had long ago moved to larger and more grandiose quarters a few blocks away. It has since changed its name. The old building is gone. All that remains are the stones, and the whispers of the names they bore.


I was there, as usual, because there was bad news. A number of the headstones seem to have been broken, cast down shattered on the grass the night before my visit by person or persons unknown.


Probably the latter. Thugs like that rarely act alone, as they need one another to crank their courage up.


Plainly, this was not the first time it had happened. While many of the broken surfaces shone white and new, as many more were old, weathered. It seems that these dead have been an affront to someone for a very long time.


It is hard to imagine why. The victims were all, by now, a thin stratum of darker soil in the surrounding clay and shale. On the stones, most of their names had been eroded by time and weather into vague ciphers. On some, the names were plain, but the dates, those points on the continuum between which the stories of their lives unfolded, were obliterated.


On those that are legible, the dates gave a much more careful accounting of that time than we are used to in the late 20th century. Joseph Heagy, we learn, for example, died in 1844, having lived exactly 63 years, seven months, and 17 days.


Another stone gives a hint of what may have been a wrenching story. Mary, wife of Ludnik, died on Sept. 14 of 1804. Ludnik, still at her side, died two days later.


These are people, I thought as I walked in the perfect autumn day, who lived in the tumult between the birth of the nation and the times that nearly tore it apart. It was a time of high passion, but they and their passions were by now dust and whispers. So why the anger? Why the fractured markers?


I stopped and looked again over the field of fallen stones, amused at myself. This had nothing to do with the vanished remains, or the people who had once worn the names etched in the marble and shale. Here, I had assumed the culprits had a reason. I had assumed that the spate of vandalism had been the result of something reasoned through, a solution to a problem.


Silly me.


This was, I reminded myself, a simple skirmish between order and chaos.


It was a fight between life and the vast, endless darkness on either side of it.


I suppose there is no better reminder of that final blackness than a tombstone, standing there solid, part of which bore the inscription “The Last Brick Wall you will ever hit.” Maybe that is where the anger comes from, a sudden despair that your brief moments above ground will mean nothing and your end even less.


I tucked my notebook in my hip pocket and stowed my pen, walking back toward my car. My anger at the vandalism had not abated, but alongside had grown a little understanding, and perhaps a little sympathy. The idea that you do not matter and will not be missed when you go is a painful one, I know.


If kicking over memorials to the forgotten dead is the best idea you can come up with as a stance against that great, crushing anonymity, you had better get used to being a nobody.


I knew right away I was going to like Nate Nicholls when I saw his yard.

I was sightseeing in 2005 on some of the back roads in the area of Maine where I like to vacation, and there it was, inhabited by guys leaning on shovels, giant chickadees, giraffes, assorted frogs, cactus, oversized flowers, and the odd dragon or two.

Everything was made out of junk, scrap metal, propane tanks, rakes, shovels, railroad spikes, nuts, bolts, lengths of rebar, this and that.

I whipped the car onto the shoulder and walked around some, taking photos, hoping the owner would show, but he wasn’t home.

But there was a big, hand-lettered sign. The sign said that the township is telling him that no business in the township can have items for sale unless they are screened from view. So, his sign says, nothing you can see there is for sale. Unless, that is, you look at it through a screen. He provides the screen, of course, a square of framed wire mesh that he made himself.

“Ok,” I said to myself. “I GOTTA meet this guy.”

The next day, I did.

Nate Nicholls was no trained artist. He was a high school dropout, then 43, who eked out a living harvesting and processing wild Maine blueberries, doing odd jobs, and from the occasional sale of a piece of his art.

Turns out, he was born only about 50 miles from where I live, in Lancaster, Pa. He was married and lived with his family in a white wood frame house adjacent to his workshop and his, well, it’s hard to say what it is. Display area, museum, and storage lot. Prop lot for some very strange stage production. Something like that.

Nate, who had collected mostly metal junk for his hobby for years, got serious about welding and bolting odds and ends of stuff together after his mother died about three years before I met him.

“She was artistic. After she passed, I just felt like I had to do something, and this is where it went,” he said.

He also said he got a little ticked off with the local government because they told him he couldn’t keep all that junk in his yard.

“So, I started welding stuff together, and called it art. I said, ‘now it’s art, what are you going to do now?’ “

He said the township didn’t like him very much.

Nate’s prices were arbitrary. He had a steel sheep he made and set the price at $6,000, because he’d seen one made by a famous sculptor priced at that figure.

“And my sheep looks more realistic,” he said with obvious pride.

The sheep, I had to admit, looked pretty darned real. OK, it looked like a sheep in chain mail, but this is art, right? The convention/menagerie in Nicholl’s yard includes people of all shapes and sizes, an elephant, giraffe, one whole red and orange dragon perhaps 10 feet tall hatching babies out of propane tank ‘eggs,’ parts of several other dragons, a self-portrait of the artist, one squid, one octopus, a pair of tiny dogs made from car springs that I would swear were modeled after a pair of miniature poodles I know, any number of birds, lizards…all made from old gears, snowmobile mufflers (great for peacocks and pelican bodies, as it happens,) nuts, bolts, pitchforks, shovels, picks, shears, screwdrivers and chain-link fence.

Nate said he spent a lot of time in scrap yards, and sometimes people just bring stuff for him. One fellow, I believe, provided a couple of tons of railroad spikes, which have evolved into hundreds of tiny figures romping, dancing and marching around Nate’s five-acre property.

Sadly, Nate is not making any more fanciful creatures.

One July day he was welding a small metal frog when his heart failed. He was rushed to the hospital in Damariscotta, but nothing could be done to bring him back. His kids had him cremated and buried his cremains in his sculpture garden, and covered his grave with bouquets of flowers made from gaily-painted flowers fashioned from outdoor spigot handles.

I make a point to stop at Nate’s on every visit to Maine. Sometimes I chat with his son Josh, who lives in the big old house, and sometimes chat with his daughter, Alissa, on Facebook.

Like many artist’s Nate’s life stared back at us from his work. He once had a run-in with the state highway department. They said his stuff was too close to the road. He countered by listing a number of more usual businesses on the same highway who keep their products as close or closer. In honor of the dispute, Nate built a highway department guy leaning on his shovel, a stumpy cigar stuck between his teeth and a woman giving him hell about something.

To celebrate his warm relationship with his township, Nate has a figure carrying a skull around on a platter. He said the head represents a figure from the local government who is sometimes a pain in the butt.

The biggest problem Nate had, aside from his hassles with the local and state government, is that he gets attached to each piece, knows the story behind every part of it, who brought him this spring, that doohickie, and what inspired him to make it. It’s sweet, but it doesn’t help his cash flow.

“I can’t mass produce these things, but if I have only one of a piece, I can’t sell it. And of my very favorite pieces, I can hardly bring myself to sell them at all,” he said.

He did sell stuff, though. He picked up a turtle made of railroad spikes, its shell made from old steel nuts welded together. It was about eight inches across. He said he makes them pretty often, because people walk onto his property and offer him a hundred bucks for one.

He said he figures he could get $10,000 for the 10-foot-tall red-and-orange dragon, babies and eggs included.

At his memorial service Alissa read from a poem Nate left behind:

There really isn’t much difference
between this old man
and a chunk of rusty mooring chain.
I grow weak
from both the weathering of time
and the brine of existence.

Since Nate’s death, his kids have moved some of the sculptures around. Some of the pieces have been stolen, but they are doing the best they can on a limited budget. They want to maintain Nate’s Recycleart Garden Gallery and the garden for as long as they can. The garden is free and open to the public, and they want to keep it that way.
Recycleart sculpture garden and studio


January 16, 2011

The email came through over my phone as I was driving home from an assignment Wednesday night. Logan was dead.

I pulled the car over to the side of the road and sat there for a few minutes.

Logan was just 20, the son of a good friend from a lifetime ago, one of those friends you keep, and feel close to, even if you rarely ever see them.

David and I became friends while we were both at the University of Georgia, back in the 70s. He studied marketing and communications. I didn’t really study much of anything. We had a lot of good times together, and what bad times there might have been never mattered.

David and Logan came and visited us in Gettysburg six years ago. Logan was 14, and had taken an interest in the Amish, and the trip gave the two of them some quality father-and-son time on the long drive north from Atlanta.

The four of us piled into my van and were off to the back roads of Lancaster County. We tried to avoid the touristy places. We had a great time. Somewhere, I have photos. It was a good enough time that I realized what I had missed, never raising a son.

Logan went to military school, then high school and started college. He was a member of the swim and lacrosse teams and coached another swim team. He was also a wrestler. His Facebook page shows him, fit and buff, in high-energy hijinks with lots of friends, and being cozied up to by an enviable number of attractive young women.

And then, about a year and a half ago, Logan wasn’t feeling well. He went into the hospital for some tests. The diagnosis was leukemia.

Logan and his family fought the disease like Apaches, relentlessly seeking blood and marrow donors, doing everything they could. I think it was almost enough.

On Logan’s Facebook page is one photo very different from the others. He is standing outside, holding the German shepherd puppy he got in October, when the docs told him that his cancer was gone. He looked like a concentration camp survivor. I kept flicking from that photo to the earlier ones, unbelieving. Surely that’s not the same person?

But it was, and he was cancer-free and on his way to recovery, even beginning to eat solid food.

And then, five days before Christmas, Logan and his family learned that the cancer was back. This time, there were no more treatment options. Everything that could have been done had been done. Logan went home to his mother’s house.

The docs said he had days, months at the most.

David said that when the leukemia came back, “It was almost as if it was pissed off.” It charged in full bore, ravaging Logan’s already weakened defenses. Tuesday night, it ended.

I sat there in my car, traffic hissing by on the wet highway, looking at my cell phone as though it might offer helpful suggestions. I spent 25 years as a reporter, calling families and friends of people who had died from long battles with terrible diseases, from injuries received in crashes, some of them on that very highway, or had died from gunshots and knife wounds. It’s something reporters have to do. They don’t like it, but they do it. It’s part of the job.

And here I couldn’t call one of my oldest friends and talk about the death of his son. This wasn’t an effort to flesh out a name in a police report or an obituary. This was somebody I knew, who was going through something that words really don’t cover. Words are what I do for a living, and yet I found none to use.

I dialed the number anyway. Dave picked up.

“Dave? It’s Terry,” I said. “I just got your email…”

Frankly, I don’t remember what I said, and I wouldn’t share the words if I did. It was personal, in a way few other things are. I hope the words conveyed what I felt, at least a little. There are some things that words just can’t accomplish.

I remember in one of my favorite episodes of “The West Wing,” after the senseless death of Pres. Bartlett’s beloved friend and personal secretary. Bartlett asked to be left alone in the cathedral, and spent a few minutes blaspheming and giving God hell, and called him a “feckless thug.”

It’s one of the things I have always envied in believers, that occasionally they can bristle and fume and the one in charge. I don’t have anybody at which to curse. But I can definitely be angry.

NOTE: Should you be so inclined, contributions can be sent to the Atlanta Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at or call 1-800-399-7312. Logan also requested that his friends register to be bone marrow donors at the Be The Match Registry at or call 1-800-Marrow-2.






© 2011 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:

Note: This column appeared in the March 20, 2010, edition of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg.

Known for his coon skin cap, Fess Parker as Davy Crockett was an idol to many young baby boomers.

When I opened up the Web site for my hometown newspaper, out of the corner of my eye I saw a photo of Fess Parker in the far left column, the one reserved for the obituaries of famous or infamous people. I hesitated before I would let myself look.

Davy Crockett was dead.

“LOS ANGELES (AP) — Actor Fess Parker, who became every baby boomer’s idol in the 1950s and launched a craze for coonskin caps as television’s Davy Crockett, died Thursday of natural causes. He was 85.”

He got me drunk once. Well, a little tipsy. More on that in a minute.

If you’re of a certain age, you remember that tall, lanky figure dressed up in fringed buckskin, fighting his way across the mythic American frontier of the first half of the 19th century, wrestling bears, fighting or befriending Indians and besting bad guys.

OK, it was the frontier as imagined by Walt Disney, which had little relationship to reality, but never mind. Disney was all about imagination, and he gave us somebody bigger and better than real life — a hero, a straight-shooter (literally and figuratively) and a guy we all wanted to be.

Parker later sort of reprised his role as Crockett in a TV series about Daniel Boone, playing the title role and, for all appearances, wearing the same suit, expression and personality.

Back in the spring of 1997, I was in the Santa Barbara area on vacation with Sue. Her dad had worked for Disney for a long time and during an occasion where he and Parker were receiving Disney Legend awards, Parker had said if we ever got up his way, to stop in and visit his winery.

A few years later, we did. We went in, sent a message to the offices upstairs, and went to look around in the gift shop.

“He’s not going to come, you know,” I told her. “Somebody will come down and say Mr. Parker is tied up, but they will be happy to give us a tour.”

A few minutes later, I’m poking around wondering if I could live with myself if I bought a Fess Parker golf shirt, because I don’t golf, when a voice, THAT voice, called out Sue’s name as a question.

Sue, Fess Parker, and me, slightly inebriated.

I turned, and there stood Davy Crockett.

He looked about nine feet tall, with a mop of white hair, a cotton shirt and blue jeans. Solemnly, I shook his hand and introduced myself. I am a newspaper reporter. I have interviewed my share of famous and notorious people. I am cool.

In my head, though, a small blond boy inclined to chubbiness and wearing a coonskin cap charged forward to the front of my mind and squealed “It’s DAVY CROCKETT!”

It went pretty much like that all day.

It was like hanging around with an old friend. Part of that, for me, was because I had known him forever, had been him, in important ways, wearing my coonskin cap and slaying swarms of bad guys in scores of backyard battles.

He invited us to a private wine tasting. My memory is foggy, but it was from nine to a dozen wines. He was giving me a lesson in why wine lists use words like “earthy” and “woody” to describe background flavors in various wines. By the end of the tasting, I was pretty buzzed.

He piled us into his enormous old Mercedes sedan and hauled us into the village of Los Olivos for lunch.

On the way, he told a story about little Fess riding his dad’s mule into nearby Fort Worth. The animal got into the middle of an intersection and decided he had had enough traveling for one day, and simply stopped. Parker said his father had to come to town to jump-start the beast.

All the while, though I remained outwardly calm, that dumb kid in the coonskin cap kept running around in my head, issuing war whoops and being obstreperous.
Finally, I told him about that little hellion stomping around in my imagination.
“Don’t worry,” he said, with that lopsided grin, “I get that a lot.”

I’ll bet he did. Goodbye, Davy.

Note, this “Burger to Go” ran as an item on the Review & Opinion page in Jan. 17,2010 Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa. Part of the text was adapted from an earlier “Burger to Go.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would be 81 this year, perhaps gone frail and a little dotty. Thinking back on his arc as firebrand and martyr, that is frankly hard to imagine.

Those of us who were around in his day remember him differently than younger folks do.

While he was alive he was, depending on where you stood, a visionary, a man of God who held his country’s collective feet to the fire of its own founding documents or a royal pain and a threat to the (white) American way of life. Some saw him as the devil himself.

Since his assassination in the spring of 1968, he has undergone a sort of apotheosis and elevation almost to a kind of deity. That’s too bad.

What was remarkable about King was that he was, in the end, an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things. His death by an assassin’s bullet was unusual only in that he was in the forefront of the national awareness when it happened.

The Ku Klux Klan and any number of groups and individuals scattered fear and death across the landscape in those years, indeed, for decades beforehand.

One of the most heinous Klan murders happened 15 minutes from the house where I grew up in Athens, Ga. I was 14. It was in the summer of 1964, just nine days after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The victim was Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn of the Army Reserve, and a Washington D.C.-area educator, husband and father.

He and two colleagues were on their way back from a Reserve event at Fort Benning, Ga., when three KKK members pulled up next to the out-of-state car and gave Penn blasts from a pair of 12-gauge shotguns, blowing off the back of his head.

That happened at home, MY home. This wasn’t a grim photo of a lynching in the rural South. This was now.

People I didn’t know, but knew by sight, had done this. The world looked just like it always had. People went about their business, shopped for groceries and did laundry. Adults talked about it in hushed tones, some fearful, some gleeful. Some of the kids at school joked about it. A good start, some said.

Years later, one of the Klansmen involved in that murder, though not one of those in the car, owned a greasy spoon called The Open House Cafe across from where I worked the night shift at a print shop.

I used to go there for coffee and watch him. If it was me the way I am now, after 20-plus years as a reporter, I’d have asked him what he was thinking that night, what they thought they’d accomplish. But I was 19 or 20 then and afraid.

It was a different time. Almost a different country.

I mean in the sense of “Whites Only” signs over water fountains, and public rest rooms labeled “Men,” “Women” and “Colored.”

Fast forward nearly 50 years. Things are different. Not perfect but different. Change has come to America, as President Obama said in his acceptance speech, if at a glacial pace. It wasn’t fanaticism we saw on those faces in Chicago’s Grant Park that election night, despite fearful comments to that effect.

To be sure, there were and are fanatics on all sides, some of whom would deify Obama and some of whom would gladly put him in his grave rather than see him succeed.

The light in those faces late on Election Night was not the deification of Obama, but that of people who have for centuries stood out in the cold of our nation’s further reaches, allowed only to look in the windows and dream. On Nov. 4, 2008, they suddenly saw the door to that house open and a hand beckon them to come in.

Yes, there is still racial hatred and violence. Witness the 2008 beating death of a Latino man in Shenandoah, not so far from where you probably sit reading this.

But I can tell you that in 1963 that story would likely have never made even the local news outside of a one-inch police blotter entry, if that.

Even if it had, nobody would have investigated to the point that five locals, including three cops, would have been indicted in the case.

Back then, it would have been a thing whispered in bars and in sitting rooms. Some might even have called it a shame.

We can only speculate as to what Dr. King’s take would be on the movement he helped spark.

On the one hand, the same nation that once enslaved African-Americans has elected one to its highest office.

On the other, well. Look deep into your own heart. What do you see?

(Note: I believe all four of the Klansmen are now dead. One of the triggermen was shot in the chest—by a shotgun, ironically—by a man with whom he had been arguing.

The last time I drove by The Open House Cafe, which had been closed for some years, it had become a church.)


© 2010 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:

Ringo is 69

July 8, 2009

Ringo Starr is 69 years old today.

For those of you who need the reminder, Ringo was the drummer for the Beatles, a British band terrifically popular mostly in the 1960s who pretty much changed music forever. For those who have forgotten or never heard of them (if there really are such people,) they were Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison.

It was sort of all about the youth movement.



I note with interest that the Beatles were hitting their stride when The Jackson 5 with tiny phenom Michael Jackson hit the scene.

I’ll spare you the details of how I feel about the Beatles versus Michael Jackson. Imagine me comparing the style of the Ford Company’s autos with those of the Studebaker Company. It would have no meaning if you had no idea of what a Studebaker looked like.

I still have my first Beatles album. It’s a record, an actual vinyl disc, sort of a paleolithic early CD.

Ringo Starr is 69. John is dead, killed by a nutjob. George is dead from cancer. McCartney is licking his wounds, having been gutted by a divorce.

I think I will sit back, drain a fifth of Geritol, and ponder my misspent youth. Hell, I feel so old I think I misspent my youth in Confederate money.


© 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:

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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Forgiving the Mouse

January 19, 2009

The little bastard looked right peaceful, smooth slate-gray fur, tiny ears, soft as velvet, his eyes closed. He was curled up in a crouch, there on top of the mysterious box of wires that told the furnace what to do and when.

Notice the past tense of the verb “to tell.”

He was dead as a box of rocks.

Long ago I did some reading about modern scientific thinking and theories and all that. Most of it was way over my head. I remember feeling something like vertigo when I tried to wrap my mind around what they call quantum physics, which is complicated enough that one scientist said “anybody who says they understand quantum physics doesn’t understand quantum physics.”

Anyway, one of the things I read had to do with the interconnectedness of things, and the consequences thereof. It went something like: “a butterfly fanning its wings in this country sets off a chain of events that results in a typhoon in Burma,” or words to that effect.

Being a simple soul, my first thought was, “damn. Musta been one BIG butterfly.”

Did I mention that I didn’t do all that well in the part of science that required logical thinking?

Well, the late field mouse on the box has a lot to answer for.

Don’t get me wrong. I confess that I rather like rodents. I once lived in a mobile home set on the edge of a cornfield in a windy valley, a place where the winter winds would sometimes pluck bits and pieces off the structure, never to be seen again. Sometimes the wind twisted the trailer enough that the hanging lamps would sway.

My only company was my cat, Phyllis Killer, and any number of field mice who would risk Phyllis’ appetite and prowess to come in from the corn for a little warmth and food.

I was not a very good housekeeper. At night, sitting at the table writing, I would watch as the little fellas would slip out of hiding and nibble on macaroni noodles I had left on the counter during one of my minimalist post-dinner cleanups.
They (the mice, not the macaroni) would sit upright, nibbling away and watching me with their bright little button eyes.

But, back to the rodent curled in state atop the box next to the furnace.

He was dead because he had been chewing on things. Rodents do that because their front teeth never stop growing, and they have to chew constantly so that the incisors will not grow overlong to the point that they do not allow the critter to eat.

Everything went fine for the little guy until he started chewing on one of the wires coming out of the box. His teeth met on the 24-volt copper wire. It arced and popped apart and the mouse died. Think of that butterfly, flapping up a typhoon in Burma.

The wire ran from the control box through the walls to the vacant upstairs apartment in the old farmhouse. The thermostat, set as low as it would go to keep pipes from freezing, was no longer able to send instructions to the furnace.

The temperatures plummeted the single digits. The pipes in the baseboard heaters froze, and one burst. Then, Sunday, the temperatures climbed above freezing. The pipes thawed. Hot water, pushed by the pumps elsewhere in the system, spread out over the floor, steaming in the frigid air. The smoke detectors identified the steam as smoke and signaled the alarm company that the 200-year-old farmhouse was on fire. By the time we got there, three fire trucks had arrived, and a small tribe of volunteer firefighters.

The firefighters made sure there was nothing actually on fire and left us to our chores. A couple hours of wet-vac and mopping – and a visit from the plumber – later, and the place was in a condition where the only thing to do was keep the heat on and fans running and hope not too much of the flooring or ceiling would have to be replaced.

And, of course, put out some tempting, tasty poison in the furnace room.

Sorry fellas.

© 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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Charlie and Somoza’s Piano

February 11, 2008

The headline in the local paper read “Town mourns passing of the man who loved it…Former Borough Manager Charles W. Sterner was 56”

Naturally, it being the times we live in, a lot of us knew it already from phone calls and email.

The other shoe had finally dropped.

Charles W. Sterner III retired after 26 years as Gettysburg’s borough manager in June of 2006, figuring it was time to do something else. He worked part-time for a local engineering firm and we all pretty much figured he was going to spend a lot of time doing things with Bernadette, and spending more time hunting and fishing.

One of my favorite memories of Charlie isn’t really mine. Gettysburg has a sister city in Nicaragua, Leon, about 50 miles northwest of Managua. Charlie went there a couple of times with a local group called Project Gettysburg-Leon.

“Charlie was a big proponent of the three sister-city relationships between Gettysburg and St. Mere Eglise, France; Gettysburg, South Dakota; and Leon,” said Barbara Benton. “He visited all three sister cities from time to time and had a special place in his heart for each. On one occasion” (he was part of a group that) “went to Leon to attend an international sister-city conference.”

The group visited the Palacio National, now a cultural museum but once the formal residence of dictator Anastacio Somoza. In a former ballroom remained a grand piano that Somoza, himself, had once played.

“Charlie, wearing comfy travel togs and a backpack, sat down at the grand and, to the delight of everyone present, proceeded to play a pretty good rendition of Scott Joplin’s rag, “The Entertainer.” In response to the laughter and applause that he’d provoked, Charlie said [off camera] to the ghost of Somoza, “Take that, you bastard!” It was a unique moment and typical of Charlie’s sense of humor,” Barbara said.

Not long after he retired, Charlie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The news jolted those of us who knew him. It was just wrong. Not him.

As a reporter, I have my own memories of Charlie Sterner. When I covered the borough years ago, he was always accessible, didn’t seem to mind when I called him at home – apparently, there were no “off hours” for Charlie – and gave straight answers in complete sentences, without a lot of gobbledy-gook and jargon.

Unless you’ve ever been a reporter, you have no idea how rare that is.

He fought hard. Most of those diagnosed with the disease, to be blunt, are dead within six months. Charlie wrestled it for 18 months.

Charlie and friend in Leon, NicaraguaIn April, Charlie and his wife Bernadette were there when the town named a new building at the Rec Park after him. From the photo in the paper, you would never guess there was anything wrong. A smiling couple in the bright spring sun, holding hands.

The next month, surgeons opened him up to see what could be done, and closed him right back up again. It was too late.

April 2007 dedication

I talked to him once on the phone, not long after the diagnosis, but never went to see him. Pure cowardice on my part, really. I didn’t want to remember him, fading visibly, and in pain. Selfishly, I did not want to carry that memory. The image of Charlie I’m keeping in my head, though, is not of a public servant poring over budget documents with a baffled reporter or describing the intricacies of municipal government to the borough council, but laughing and tickling the keys of a deposed thug’s instrument. That’s a memory to hold onto.

I’ve gotten to know a lot of people over the years. Charlie, without a doubt, was one of the best.

You can see a video of Charlie playing Somoza’s piano at


© 2007 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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