Dudley Walker

We are saying goodbye to a fine man and great friend today. Anyone who knew Dudley Walker knew how openhanded he was. His hands were large and rough with thick fingers, hands well-suited for a job of work, but those hands were so often open, open in greeting or in lending a hand or in offering a thoughtful gift. In the 40 years he and Dean lived next door to my parents, I never returned from a visit without something from his garden, greens or tomatoes, squash or okra. He made the bluebird house in our backyard during his birdhouse building phase and tried to give us a doghouse during his doghouse building phase even though we didn’t have a dog.

 

Mr. Dud’s open hands were an extension of his open heart. He was not the kind of neighbor to wait for you to ask for help or even the kind to ask if you needed help. Rather he was the kind of neighbor who saw a limb down on your fence and just went over and started cleaning it up. Or who might just come over and mow your yard because you were spending a lot of time at the hospital with a sick family member

 

My father and Mr. Dud loved each other. There is no other or better way to put it. They were both farm boys who weren’t afraid of hard work and loved to talk and laugh. No sooner had Father retired from the phone company than he was out with Mr. Dud mowing fairways at the city golf course. They spent untold hours together on each other’s porches talking and laughing or standing at the fence between their two yards chatting about the weather. They shared the fruits of each other’s gardens, the hopes and dreams and successes and challenges of their own lives and the lives of their children. Even after Father slipped into Alzheimer’s and remembered less and less, Mr. Dud would listen patiently.

 

I lived far away during my parents last few years as age and illness slowly took their toll. Increasing distances and responsibilities of work and my own growing family made trips to Tupelo less frequent but knowing that Mr. Dud was right next door gave me a comfort, a peace of mind for which I can never repay him.

 

And now he is gone leaving his wife Dean, four grown children, a passel of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and friends too numerous to mention. Yes, he is gone, but we are so much the better for having known him. If ever a man laid up treasures for himself in heaven, it was Mr. Dud. But he laid up treasures here on earth too, treasures of love and gratitude and care and concern and laughter for which he never asked for nor expected recompense or repayment. He simply gave and gave freely whenever he saw need, and in doing so taught all who knew how to give. And that may have been his finest, final gift.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

INTO THE DELTA – Chapter 5: Sadie

I recently heard from a cousin, once-removed, whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting. She was enjoying reading stories about her grandfather, my uncle, and asked if I had considered adding illustrations. I admitted that I had not, but coincidentally or providentially (take your pick), my father-in-law asked the same question the very same week. I mentioned the idea to my wife, and she agreed it would be a good idea. So, with that groundswell of support, I will begin adding illustrations. Most of them will come from my private collection; most of them will be contemporaneous. I hope they add to your enjoyment. And now to Chapter 5: Sadie.

SADIE

Sadie watched Grady carefully place his coffee cup back in the saucer and sigh with contentment. Her four-year-old sister Maurice fidgeted at her side and Sadie knew why. Her sister’s sweet tooth rivalled that of their older brother who slid his cup and saucer back indicating he was finished.

Sadie knew the bottom would be coated with a slurry of coffee and undissolved sugar. Mother was forever chastising Grady for using so much sugar. Sadie picked up the saucer and cup and, with her mother’s nod of approval, set them in front of Maurice who immediately plunged a forefinger into the cup.

“Use your spoon, Dear,” Mother admonished.

hotelirving

The Hotel Irving

It was just the five of them again. She and Grady had been up early to see Father and Morris Bailey off with the wagons. Morris Bailey was only three years older than her, but he looked so grown up sitting up there on the wagon. He had grinned down at her.

“See you tomorrow, Curlyhead. Don’t forget to mind Mother. And Grady.”

She had looked about for something to throw at him for that last part but ended up just laughing.

Then he and Father had clucked up their teams and rattled off down the brick street in the pre-dawn dark.

She looked over at Willye who was staring out of the window at the people and automobiles and the occasional wagon passing up and down the street. Her half-eaten breakfast was growing cold.

“Willye Pauline,” Mother said. “Finish your breakfast. We cannot go shopping until you do.”

Willye was only seven, but she already liked dressing up a lot more than Sadie did. Sadie would have worn pants if her mother would have let her. She envied the freedom her brothers had.

Grady rose from the table.

“I believe I’ll take the Ford down to a garage and make sure all is ready for tomorrow,” he said.

Sadie turned anxiously to her mother.

“Mother, may I go with Grady?” she pleaded.

Grady gave her a baleful stare.

“You know you have outgrown your Sunday dress,” Mother replied. “And this is the perfect time and place to replace it.”

Her shoulders sagged, then she perked back up.

“Couldn’t you shop for Willye and Maurice first and me later when Grady looks for his new suit?”

She was about to give up when Mother relented.

“Ask Grady if he minds,” Mother said.

She turned expectantly to her older brother who rolled his eyes, then said, “Only if you promise to mind me and not be a nuisance.”

Well, that the first part rankled, but she would pay that price, to some degree.

“I do, in both cases,” she agreed.

She dabbed at her mouth with her napkin, then placed it back on the table.

“Mother, may I be excused,” she asked.

Mother smiled and said, “Of course you may, Dear.”

She followed Grady out of the dining room, pulling on her coat and tugging her hat down over her head. They crossed the lobby, and stepped onto the sidewalk. It was all she could do to keep up with his long strides.

“Grady,” she implored. “Slow down.”

“You keep up,” he replied even as he slowed his pace, just a little.

“What is our new home like?” she asked. She envied him. He had actually been there once with Father.

“How many times have I told you? It’s flat,” Grady answered.

“Grady! You know what I mean.”

He mashed her hat sideways on her head.

“I think we’ll like it a lot. The house is an adequate house, although Father plans to build a larger one as soon as possible. The land is really good, perfect for cotton. You saw how the fields stretched away as far as you could see when we were coming into Greenwood? Well, that’s what it looks like.”

That certainly was flat, she thought.

Grady went on, “It’s a big place too. Over two thousand acres, more than three square miles.”

“Gosh,” was all she could think to say. “There will be lots of hands then.”

“I imagine so.”

“How far is it to school?”

“A little over four miles to the school in Sumner. Over five miles to the high school in Webb.”

By now they had reached the car, and Grady pulled out the choke before giving the crank two half turns to prime the engine.

“Let me crank it,” Sadie pleaded.

“No, too dangerous,” Grady said.

She gave him her most dejected look.

“But you can help,” he relented as he handed her the key. “Get in, put in the key and turn it to Battery.”

She jumped up on the seat and did as Grady told her.

“I know what to do next,” she said eagerly “Push the lever on the left all the way up.”

“That’s right. That retards the spark.”

She stretched her neck and grinned at him over the hood.

“And pull the right one down a little,” she added.

“Exactly. Three clicks should be enough,” Grady said. “What else?”

She thought for a moment.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Pull the hand brake all the way back. That’s done.”

“Here we go,” Grady said as he grabbed the left fender with his right hand and taking the crank in his left, gave it a quick turn. The engine coughed into life and the car rocked and vibrated roughly.

Grady walked up to her window.

“Pull down on the throttle. Just a little,” he said as he reached in and pulled down on the spark lever.

The engine smoothed out.

Grady opened the door.

“Slide over,” he said.

“Let me drive. Please.”

“Slide over,” Grady repeated. “Not in town.”

She could tell from his tone of voice that cajoling would not work and she reluctantly slid over. Grady climbed in, then flipped the key to Magneto, depressed the Reverse pedal, and backed their Model T into the street. Engaging Low gear, they chugged down the street.

Sadie leaned her face toward the window. She liked the rush of cold air on her face and pulled off her hat so that the wind blew through her hair. She closed her eyes and shook her head in the whishing wind.

“Let’s drive to California and see the Pacific Ocean,” she said dreamily.

She looked over at Grady who looked back at her but said nothing, only shook his head.

The streets were lined with glass storefronts. People were walking up and down the sidewalk. She tried to imagine where they were going. To one of the upstairs offices? Shopping in one of the many stores? At the corner they pulled into Crump’s Oil Company. The two-storied building was built right out to the street, but part of the ground floor was cut out creating a covered area where the gasoline pumps were located.

Grady pulled under the covered area and up to the pumps. The place smelled of oil and dust. It tickled her nose. There were shiny new cars for sale behind the large glass windows.

A man approached as Grady climbed out of the car. He was short and dirty and looked to be about 30-years-old. Grady towered over him.

“What can I do for ya, young fella?” he asked, wiping his hands on a soiled rag.

“I would like to top off the gasoline. And check the oil and the pressure in the tires, including the spare,” Grady answered.

Grady sounded so grown up, she thought. Well, he was five years older than she was.

“I’ll see right to it. Shouldn’t take too long,” then man said.

Sadie could not help but notice that the man’s words sounded soft and drawn out, almost like he was softly singing. Their waiter both last night at the Elite and the one this morning at the Hotel Irving had sounded like that too. She got out of the car and went to stand beside her older brother.

Grady watched as the man checked all five tires, crawled under the Model T to check the oil, then lifted the front seat to get to the gasoline tank. He dipped and removed a measuring stick, then inserted a hose and began operating the hand pump.

Sadie watched the globe at the top of the pump fill with amber liquid and whispered, “Grady.”

“What?”

“Does everyone in the Delta talk like he does?”

Grady snorted. “Guess so,” he said. “I imagine we will too soon enough.”

She smiled to herself.

“I hope so,” she sighed. “It sounds so – beautiful.”

Grady looked down at her, laughed, and taking his big right hand tousled her already windblown hair.

“You just won’t do, Sadie Belle.”

The man replaced the hose.

“That’ll be four bits,” he said.

Grady paid him, and they got back into the car.

“May I drive now?” she asked.

Grady did not even answer her this time. He just adjusted the spark and throttle. The man turned the crank for them and off they went.

“Grady, can we cross the river before we go looking for Mother, Willye, and Maurice? I want to see Grand Boulevard.”

He gave her a conspiratorial look.

“Let’s,” he replied.

She scooted to the edge of her seat for a better look.

“Father said it is a swing bridge. Maybe there will a steamship coming through and we will have to wait for it to pass,” she said.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Grady answered. “I expect that bridge has not been swung in years. The railroads ended most of the river traffic.”

bridge2

Old Yazoo River Bridge

They crossed over to Fulton Street and headed towards the bridge. Grady was right. The only thing on the river was a small boat with two boys. They were fishing and did not even look up as the car rolled across the span. They passed several cars and trucks headed into town.

Suddenly they were on a divided street with a few large homes here and there set well back from the road. Young, slender, bare trees lined the street. Brown, winter grass covered the median that ran down the middle of the road, Grand Boulevard.

As they motored up the street, her head swung back and forth taking it all in. The houses were certainly large and grand, but …

“It’s not as grand as I imagined it,’ she sighed.

“It will be,” Grady said. “Given time. Those trees will grow and spread and it will be all shaded and peaceful looking. Like our yard back home. Or Grandpaw’s. Only with bigger houses and wider lawns.”

She looked up at her brother, surprised. He had a dreamy look she had never seen before. Two young girls in pretty frocks waved to them as they passed. Sadie waved back and suddenly she saw Grand Boulevard as Grady saw it, shaded lawns and families at leisure.

grand1

Grand Boulevard

Soon the houses became fewer and further apart. Grady nodded to the left as they crossed a wide street.

“That’s the road Father and Morris Bailey took this morning, the way we’ll take tomorrow,” he noted.

They continued until they reached the Tallahatchie River where they turned around and retraced their route. The two little girls were gone. Colored maids were out sweeping off porches and sidewalks. She pulled her coat more tightly around her, jammed her hat down over her ears, and scooted back across the seat to lean against her big brother.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

INTO THE DELTA – Chapter 4

HENRY

Henry held up his right arm to alert his younger son, then pulled his team to a halt on the wide metal bridge. Behind him Morris Bailey called out, “Whoa, mules” and drew up his own team. The boy was doing a fine job, maybe better than he expected. Grady, responsible Grady, Sadie tagging along, had been up and out with Morris Bailey and him well before dawn as they checked on the condition of the teams and the wagons. He knew Minnie and the girls were in good hands with Grady.

Henry pulled out his fixings and rolled a cigarette. He snapped the head of a match with his thumbnail, cupped the warm, yellow flame, and lit his cigarette. He released a plume of blue smoke and simply stared around him. It was cold. Not as cold as yesterday morning, but cold.

The lightening of the sky to the east gave the promise of a clear day, and although the sun had yet to come up, its rays were painting the horizon with a thin, vivid streak of red, so unlike the hilly country they had left behind.  He looked forward to the sunshine; its warmth would be welcome.

The Yazoo River seethed below them. In the pale light, it was a wide, murky, brown ribbon stretching to the right and to the left before fading in the pre-dawn gloom. Although they had actually been in the Delta since rolling down that last, long hill west of Carrollton yesterday, the river felt like the true dividing line. It separated the hills from the Delta, the known from the unknown, their old life from their new one.

For nearly 15 years he had farmed leased land, sold and delivered trees for Stark Brothers Nurseries, and saved every penny that he could. Minnie had sold her extra eggs, butter, and milk too, both of them dreaming against the day when they could own their own place, a place large enough for their growing family. That’s what it was. Dreaming against the day.

Then Father’s old friend from the war, Henry Ferguson, who he had been named after, had passed away. Mother and Father had attended the funeral; he had come with them, brought them actually. He could vividly remember the first time he had seen the place at Friendship, acres and acres of cotton and hay thriving in the deep, rich black soil divided by irregular verges of tree and thicket and cut by lazy, meandering bayous. He had been drawn to it immediately and had been surprised to learn that none of the Ferguson heirs wanted to farm the land. They had decided to sell the entire place.

He had returned and met with the Fergusons about buying the place. Despite the difference in their ages, he and William had become friends. Soon they had negotiated the price and agreed to terms. In the bright comfort of McLemore’s law office, the enormity of it had begun to sink in when he had handed over the bank draft for his down payment. One piece of paper that represented all he and Minnie had worked for since they had married.

When he had signed that last of the paperwork and had become a landowner. No more leased land now. He was a landowner or would be when he paid it off. He had ten years, ten crops, ten good crops he prayed, to pay it off. He exhaled another stream of smoke and stared again at the river.

Once they crossed the river, they would be committed, he and his family. He had crossed this bridge, this river, several times in the last few months, usually on horseback, alone, although Grady had come with him once. But each time he had crossed the Yazoo, he had known he would be returning in a few days. This time? Well, he had no idea when he might return to Choctaw County, to practically everyone he knew, his own large family, his parents and his brothers who were still in the area, plus aunts, uncles, and cousins, and of course, Minnie’s father and sister and her family. Sometimes he thought he was kin to everybody in that part of Choctaw county, and through either marriage or blood he just about was: the Woods, the Lees, the Turners, the Porters, the Blackwoods. All kin.

And they were leaving all that behind. His excitement, his anticipation shouldered aside, at least for the time being, his sense of loss. A phrase popped into his mind, unbidden and unexpected: Crossing the Rubicon. He struggled to remember where he had heard that before. Some old saying? Something he had learned in school? It lurked there in the back of his mind, but try as he might, he could not tease it out.

He shrugged. It would come to him. Or not. He had smoked his cigarette to a nub. He broke up the remnants. In the still morning air they fluttered down to surface of the bridge. He raised his right arm and swept it forward., then clucked up his team, slapping their brown rumps with the flat of the reins. He heard Morris Bailey behind him call out, “Giddup, Mules.”

Then, just as unbidden it bubbled up. Of course, Julius Caesar leading his army across the Rubicon River and into Rome and starting a war. The Rubicon had been Caesar’s point of no return as the Roman army was forbidden to cross into the Roman province. Well, we’re not breaking the law or starting a civil wage war like old Julius Caesar, but I guess this is our point of no return, Henry thought.

He smiled to himself. No wonder it had taken so long to remember. He was 35 years old and those lessons had been what? Twenty something years ago? Maybe 25? Way back in his school days, back in Choctaw County.

Both mule teams leaned into their harnesses, and with a lurch, both wagons with all their earthly possessions rattled across the bridge and into the Delta.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

INTO THE DELTA Chapter 3

For those who may be following this blog, let me clarify a few things. This is not only a novelized account of my grandparents’ move to the Delta, but it is also fictionalized to some degree. In telling the story through the viewpoints of my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and later my father, I have tried to take the personalities of people I knew as adults and imagine them at various stages through their lives, a task both challenging and rewarding.

Many of the stories are ones that I heard hundreds of time growing up. Yes, I was that kid always anxious for another story at some family member’s knee. Through family stories and research, I know where they lived, when, how they got there, and why they moved. Some scenes are completely fabricated. For instance, I do not know how my grandfather arranged to buy the Ferguson place. I do not know the logistical details of their move to Friendship, or whether they rendezvoused in Greenwood. But Greenwood was a major cotton market in those days. It seems possible they likely spent the night there, and that vibrant little Delta city, where incidentally I was born, was a perfect backdrop to introduce this rather large and growing family in the middle of a life changing relocation from the Hill Country to the Delta.

Thank you to all who are reading and for all of your positive comments. Without further ado, here is Chapter 3.

MORRIS BAILEY  

                Morris Bailey settled his hat on his head, looked in the mirror and adjusted it to a more rakish angle over his thick, wavy hair. He turned to his brother who was stretched out on the bed they were sharing. Grady’s socked feet were crossed at the ankles, his right arm was folded and tucked under his head, and his eyes were closed. He looked entirely too comfortable to Morris Bailey.

“Let’s go see the town,” Morris Bailey said.

“I’m too tired,” Grady replied.

“Tired? All you did was laze around with kinfolks for two days, then drive a car one day. I’ve been handling a team of mules for three.”

Grady always seemed to be harnessing his strength for when he might need it next, and Morris Bailey could not help but goad him about it regularly. He was rewarded when Grady opened one eye to glare at him.

“Go away,” Grady said. “All you had to do was sit there and let your team follow Father’s. You probably slept most of the time. I had to pay attention to the road, tend to the car, and take care of Mother and our sisters.”

“Sure,” Morris Baily replied. “I’ll bet Mother took care of the girls, and all you had to do was avoid wagons and stop for gasoline and oil. Besides, you have all day tomorrow to see the town, but Father and I will be leaving with the wagons at first light. I only have tonight.”

Morris Bailey ran his hand into his pocket and fingered the few coins there. “My treat at the first soda fountain we come too,” he said.

Morris Bailey knew his brother well, knew his love of sweets as well as his tendency to hold on to a nickel. His enticement worked.

Grady swung his feet to the floor and began pulling on his boots.

“Go ask Father and Mother if they mind.”

He dashed out of the door before Grady had his first boot laced and tied.

He heard Father’s deep “Yes” in response to his knock.

“It’s Morris Bailey, Father” he said, and his voice came out like a croak. It had been doing that a lot lately, and he found it somewhat embarrassing.

“Come in,” Father answered.

He opened the door enough to stick his head in. Mother was sitting on the arm of Father’s chair, and Father had his arm around her waist.

“Excuse me,” he mumbled.

“What do you need, Son?” Father asked.

“May Grady and I go out for a bit? Just to see some of the sights?”

“You know you and I are leaving mighty early in the morning. We have a long day ahead of us.”

“Yessir. We won’t be out late,” he pleaded.

Father looked at him like he wasn’t sure, like he was having a hard time deciding. Father never seemed to make a decision quickly. He shifted from foot to foot. Mother gave him a slight smile.

“Henry,” Mother said softly, like a mild admonishment.

Father’s expression changed. His eyes suddenly had that mischievous gleam they had when Father was teasing him.

He grinned back at Father.

“I expect you to be dressed and ready when I knock on your door in the morning,” Father said.

“Yessir,” Morris Bailey nodded and began to close the door.

“And I don’t want to look back a see you sleeping rather than handling your team tomorrow,” Father added.

“Yessir,” Morris Bailey nearly shouted and quickly closed the door, only to re-open it again just as quickly.

“Thank you,” he added as he closed the door again. He could hear both Mother and Father laughing as he ran back to the room he and Grady shared.

 

The sidewalks were lined with street lamps that created regular pools of soft, electric light on the sidewalk. The two boys walked from pool to pool, staring through the windows, some brightly lit, some dim. Conversation and the soft clatter of dishes spilled from the open door of a restaurant, laughter and the click of billiard balls from another storefront.

Morris Bailey had never seen so much of everything: churches, law offices, cotton factors, hardware stores, general stores, doctors’ offices, and restaurants. Greenwood was a world removed form Ackerman. He already found it hard to believe that he had thought of Ackerman as a town. He felt particularly fine and grown up, out on the town with his older brother.

He tried not to let Grady know it, but he looked up to his brother. He was quiet, strong, and steady. Grady’s voice had changed too. It must be grand to be fourteen, he thought, and almost grown. Suddenly, Morris Bailey spied a drug store.

“There. Let’s go in there,” he pointed across the street.

The boys waited as a couple of automobiles, a Ford and then a Winton rolled by, then trotted across the street. There were only a few patrons and the boys took seats at the counter. They placed their orders, and Morris Bailey slid a precious dime across the counter to pay for their treats, a Barq’s root beer for himself and a vanilla cream for Grady.

Morris Bailey swiveled his seat around to take it all in, sipping his Barq’s slowly to make it last, while Grady silently worked on his vanilla cream.

“That was mighty good,” Grady said wiping his mouth after draining the last sip. “Especially the price.”

Morris Bailey grinned at his older brother. Grady might be quiet most of the time, but Morris Bailey knew him well enough to appreciate his rare flashes of humor. After all, they had shared a bed ever since he could remember. They rode the bus and went to school together although they were two grades apart. They shared the same chores.

Morris Bailey slid off his stool.

“Let’s walk down to the river,” he suggested.

“Alright,” Grady answered with feigned resignation.

The boys crossed over to Fulton Street and turned north. The steel bridge was only two blocks away. They buttoned their coats and hurried through the increasing cold. Automobile traffic was heavier here, this being the only bridge over the Yazoo River in town. Electric lights on the metal framework cast crazy shadows on the road and reflected off of the steady flowing river, a dark, hissing, moving mass twenty feet below.

“That’s the biggest river I’ve ever seen. Bigger than the Big Black, and I thought that was big,” Morris Bailey said.

“That’s a lot of water,” Grady nodded. “Makes you wonder what the Mississippi must be like.”

“Do you think we’ll get to see it? The Mississippi?” Morris Bailey asked.

Grady turned to face him.

“Sure, I do,” he said. “You know how Father likes to hunt, and I have always heard that along the River is some of the best duck hunting there is.”

“Do you think Father will take us if he goes?” Morris Bailey asked.

His older brother turned and leaned against the rail, then grabbed his hat that the wind tried to snatch away. Settling his hat firmly, Grady stuffed both hands deeper into his pockets and stared up at the night sky.

“Of course, he will. Me anyway. I’m his favorite,” he said.

“Grady!” Morris Bailey exclaimed as he swung at his brother who only shrugged, taking the mock blow on his shoulder.

“You’re too easy,” Grady grinned. “I’m sure he’ll take us both.”

“I hope so.”

Grady shoved him back towards town.

“Let’s head back,” he said. “I’m ready for bed.”

“Me, too. I guess.”

He did not really want to go back. He was too excited, but he knew tomorrow would be a long day as Father had promised, and he had to be up and dressed before Father knocked on the door.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

INTO THE DELTA, Chapter 2

MINNIE

Minnie hummed to herself as pulled her personal items from her valise. She paused for a moment. Had it really only been this morning that they had left Concord? It had been a long day, but Greenwood and the Delta were so different that she felt they had traveled for weeks rather than one day to get here.

She smiled to herself. Grady had surprised her today when he asked if she would miss all the family they were leaving behind. It was something she might have expected from Morris Bailey, always the more sensitive of the two, not from the normally taciturn Grady, fourteen years old now and beginning to look more and more like a man. Actually, he looked just like Henry. In her innermost heart, she thought of Grady as Henry’s son and Morris Bailey as hers.

She had even expected Grady to accompany Henry in the second wagon while Morris Bailey drove her and the girls, but Henry had decided otherwise. Now she was glad he had, otherwise she would have missed that glimpse into her first-born’s heart.

She placed her last few items on the bureau and looked about at the finely furnished room.

“Henry, are you sure we can afford to stay here?” she asked as she admired the rich colors of the heavy damask drapes.

She rarely asked these sorts of questions. She handled their household expenses, and Henry handled everything else. When he said they could afford to buy the car, she had trusted him. When he had decided he wanted to purchase the Ferguson place at Friendship, she had trusted him. They had been married 15 years now. They had five children. He had worked hard for all of them. They both had.

The crops had been good. Henry’s father had practically turned over management of his farm to Henry and his brother George, the other brothers having pursued other interests. And Henry had done especially well as a representative of Stark Brothers Nursery.

“Still, it is so … opulent. It must be expensive,” she added, fingering the heavy fabric.

He looked up at her from the chair in the corner of their room, his long legs stretched out before him. He looked tired, his face ruddy from the long days in the cold with the wagons.

“Mother.” He had called her that since the day Grady had been born. It was what he called his own mother, but with a subtle, indefinable yet distinct difference. She knew that he loved, honored, and respected both her and his mother, but when he called her ‘Mother’ she also heard ‘You are dear and precious to me, the mother of our children, the anchor of our lives.’

“Mother, we can afford it. It is just this night for Morris Bailey and me and two nights for you, Grady and the girls,” he said with a weary smile.

“Still,” she said as she crossed to him and perched on the arm of the chair. He put his arm around her waist and squeezed.

“We had so much to do preparing for this move, and we have plenty of work ahead of us at the new place. It is an indulgence, I know, but we can afford it and I thought we all could use a treat, especially you,” he said. “Was it a hard day?”

“Mostly long, rattling, and cold. But the girls were reasonably well-behaved,” she answered. “You would have been proud of Grady. He took very good care of us. He even took us by Papa’s so that I could tell him and Lennie and her children good-bye.”

Henry hugged her a little closer.

“What’s it been now? Four years? Do you think Lennie will ever remarry?” he asked.

Minnie missed Lennie already. They were as close as sisters could be, often mistaken for twins. Their mother had died shortly after Minnie had been born. Minnie had never known her mother, and she carried that loss deep in a secret place in her heart. She never mentioned to anyone except Lennie, who had only been two when Mother had died and did not remember her either.

Grandma Bailey had moved in with Papa to help raise the girls. She was the only mother the girls had ever known, and she was gone now. Henry’s brother Swint too was gone, married to Lennie and the father of her children.  When he had died in 1914, Lennie had taken Jewel, Brice, Lucy, and little Mae, born just before her father died, and moved back in with Papa.

“Wool gathering?” Henry asked.

She nodded.

“Hard not to,” he said. “We are leaving a lot behind.”

He paused. “But the opportunity to buy the Ferguson Place. That was too good to pass up.”

She stared into his gray eyes set in his wind-chapped face and tried to smile. She knew he was right. Understood his burning desire not just to have his own place, as strong and consuming as that was, but also his desire to provide for her and their growing family. It truly was a wonderful opportunity. She had not even told him she suspected that she was carrying their sixth child. This baby would be born in the Delta, part of the new life they were creating in a new place.

Henry laid his large, calloused hand gently against her cheek.

“I love you, Minnie Bailey Catledge,” he said. His voice soft and laced with the love she knew he had for her.

She leaned down and kissed her husband who in turn put his other arm around her to hold her that much closer. He still smelled of cold and faintly of cigarette smoke.

“I love you, too, Henry Gray Catledge,’ she whispered in his ear.

Leave a comment

Filed under Delta, Life, Loss, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

INTO THE DELTA

 

Chapter One of INTO THE DELTA, a novelized account of my family’s move from the Mississippi Hill Country to the Delta. 

JANUARY, 1919

GRADY

They had been driving nearly all day. Grady glanced over at his mother in the passenger’s seat. Stray strands of her auburn hair had slipped from under her hat and whipped in the wind. Her cheeks were ruddy with the cold. He assumed his were too as well as those of his three sisters huddled in the back seat. Not that is was particularly cold today, not for January anyway, but unlike some of the newer models, their Model T had no glass in the windows on each side, only a windshield.

The first part of their trip, winding through the wooded hills of Choctaw County on gravel or dirt roads, had been dusty. But most of the roads in Montgomery County and now in Carroll County had been paved, thankfully. Still, they had stopped often at places like French Camp, Kilmichael, Winona, and Carrollton, for gasoline sometimes, but mostly to stretch their legs and step into a local store to get warm.

Here, the road was as straight as an arrow, due west through alternating stretches of fallow, brown fields and thick stands of forest, black tree trunks and limbs bare of leaves. A pale-yellow sun hung low in the sky ahead of them. Grady estimated it would be dark in two hours. They chugged up the next hill, slowing as they neared the top. Grady reluctantly downshifted. They topped the hill and started down the far side just like they had been doing for the last three hours.

Grady’s father and his brother Morris Bailey were somewhere ahead of them in the two wagons loaded with all the family owned. They had left three days earlier. Grady and his mother and sisters had stayed with Granpaw Lige and Granmaw Becky on their place outside of Concord, giving the wagons a head start. Grady expected to overtake Father and Morris Bailey by the time they reached Greenwood.

The Model T crested yet another hill, and Grady quickly braked to a halt right there in the middle of the road. They were atop the last hill. From here the road went down, down, down to a flat expanse of farmland, clad in winter’s ochres and grays, broken only by thin verges of brown forest and the serpentine courses of rivers and bayous, some fringed with evergreen cypress. Sadie Belle, Willie, and Maurice craned their necks to see. Sadie hung her head out of the window.

Grady stared straight ahead, his eyes drinking in the view, as he spoke, as much to himself as to his mother.

“I’d heard about the Delta, how flat it was. Father described it often, but I was not prepared for that first time I saw it last month with Father. Seeing it is another thing altogether, isn’t it?”

He turned to look at his mother who was staring straight ahead at the flat expanse before them.

“What do you think, Mother?” he asked.

“I think this place will be good for us, for all of us. Your father is a good farmer,” she said.

He turned back to stare across the Delta. He stretched out his left arm and turned his closed fingers perpendicular to his palm, then measured the distance from the sun to the horizon, just like father had taught him, an hour per hand-width, fifteen minutes per finger. Yes, they would reach Greenwood before dark.

“I imagine that it will not be long before more of the family heads this way. Your father’s parents are already considering the move,” Mother added.

Sadie punched Grady in the shoulder.

“When will we get to Greenwood?” she asked. “I want to see a real city.”

“Me, too,” the other girls chorused.

“And I’m cold,” Maurice, he youngest, added.

“Not long at all,” Grady answered. “Should be a good road, and flat.”

He imagined that he could see Greenwood from the hilltop although he knew he could not.

“Carrollton was our last stop. We’ll be there soon.”

Grady had memorized the map, knew every town and distance between Ackerman and Greenwood and on up to Friendship just west of Sumner. He pressed the pedal to engage low gear, pulled down on the throttle, and they started down the last, long hill into the Delta.

To his mother he added, “Still, it is hard leaving all of our people back at Concord. Harder than I expected. Won’t you miss Grandpaw Bailey and Great-grandmaw? I know I will. Father’s folks too.”

For the first time in his life, Grady felt somewhat lost. He had grown up surrounded by kin, mostly Catledges, Granpaw Lige’s two brothers and their families, five of Father’s six surviving brother’s and their families, but also Mother’s father and grandmother, the Baileys and Porters, and Mother’s sister and her family, not to mention all of Granmaw Becky’s Blackwood kin. They were leaving all of that behind, along the hills and creeks he knew so well, for a flat, near featureless land filled with strangers.

Mother nodded and turned away from him.

“Yes, it is hard,” she whispered, the wind from the open window whipping her words away.

They sped down the flat, paved, straight road and soon reached the outskirts of the city. In the distance, water towers and tall buildings rose above the housetops. They rolled into town on the Carrollton Highway and crossed the railroad tracks just above the station. An engine sat huffing steam and smoke as passengers came and went while freight was loaded and unloaded. Warehouses lined the rails to their left. the streets were paved with brick.

“Grady, do you remember how to get to the hotel?” his mother asked.

“Yes, Ma’am. We take a right up ahead on Howard Street. The hotel just up from there on the left, the Hotel Irving.”

By now all three of his sisters were staring out the windows, pointing out this or that to each other. They did not sound cold or tired now. The passed by storefronts filled with merchandise, occasionally pulling around a horse- or mule-drawn wagon. But mostly the streets were filled with cars and trucks.

At Howard Street, they turned right and there a block away on the left was the Hotel Irving, four stories high, all brick, practically brand new, the finest hotel in Greenwood, maybe the whole Delta. Grady pulled up and parked on the curb in front of the hotel. He quickly got out and was about to open the door for his mother when he heard a clatter and a swish of spraying water. He leapt to the running board just as a black truck with a large black tank rattled by spraying water. On the tank it read “Commercial Division-Greenwood, Miss.-Street Cleaning Dept.”  Grady stepped down to the freshly-cleaned bricks, opened the door for his mother, and helped her out. His sister tumbled out right behind her.

Holding the heavy door for all four of them, Grady entered the lobby of the hotel. He strode across the slick marble floor and up to the immense wooden front desk like he had been doing this sort of thing all his life, or at least he thought he did.

An elderly, bespectacled man behind the desk smiled.

“May I help you, young man?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir,” Grady replied. “We are the Catledge family. My father, Henry Catledge, and my brother should have already arrived and made arrangements for all of us.”

Grady nodded in the direction of his mother and sisters.

The clerk placed his forefinger at the bridge of his eyeglasses and pulled them down his nose to peer over the lenses at Grady.

“They have indeed,” he said. “And if I may say so, I see the family resemblance.”

Grady blushed slightly, embarrassment and pride comingled. He worshipped his father and secretly relished the comparison.

The clerk continued, “I believe your father and brother are in the dining room off the lobby. Do you have luggage?”

“Yes, Sir, we do.”

“If that is your car out front, I will have a bellboy take your luggage up to the rooms your father reserved. The ladies will be able to freshen up very shortly.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Grady replied. “I think we will step into the dining room.”

“Very good.”

Grady turned. His tall, slender mother and his three sisters, stair-steps at nine, seven, and four years of age, all clad in dark colors dusty from the drive, waited with various degrees of patience near an array of potted plants. He smiled to himself as he crossed to them.

“Father and Morris Bailey are in the dining room. Shall we join them?” Grady asked, humor lacing his tone, a rare thing.

“What about our luggage?” Mother asked.

“It will be taken to our rooms. You will be able to freshen up soon. Let’s go see Father and Morris Bailey first.”

Grady extended his left elbow and his mother slid her right arm through his. Sadie took Willie and Maurice by the hand, and Grady led them all into the adjacent dining room.

The dining room was elegant, chandeliered and wood-paneled room, like nothing Grady had ever seen before. He heard a collective intake of breath from his sisters behind him, and Sadie whispered, “Golly.”

Soft light filtered through the tall windows and fell on the few, scattered patrons. China cups and saucers clinked above the low hum of conversation.  Grady spied his father and brother immediately. They were seated at a table drinking coffee deep in discussion.

A young man approached and offered to seat them. Grady was about to answer when his father looked up and spied them. As his father rose a smile split the familiar angular features. Morris Bailey turned and his face too broke out in a grin.

The two groups converged and met in the middle of the dining room. Abandoning all decorum, they all embraced and kissed as if it had been two years, not two days, since they had seen each other. Grady did not mind at all. This was the first big adventure in his young life.

4 Comments

Filed under Death, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized, writing

At Starbuck’s

Since retiring from the corporate world, a little over three years ago and devoting myself to a lifelong desire to write more, I have probably spent an average of twelve to fifteen hours a week at my local Starbuck’s. It is a small L-shaped space wrapped around the bar with four club chairs, one large table, and half a dozen small tables with chairs. There are another half a dozen tables on the sidewalk outside; a few have umbrellas.
Spring, summer, fall and winter, hot weather or cold, rain or sunshine, in almost all weathers, I usually arrive at my Starbuck’s between 5:30 and 6:00 AM, every Monday and Friday, and sometimes an afternoon in between.
The morning begins with a grande Pike Place no room for cream and either a Blueberry Muffin with Honey and Yogurt (not warmed) or a Sausage, Cheddar & Egg Breakfast Sandwich (warmed). Then I fire up the laptop, clean out the spam filter, read and respond to email, and check the news feeds. Then I get down to business and start writing.
In the last three and a half years, amid the clatter and chatter of customers coming and going, of running into to old friends and making new ones, I have conservatively consumed something north of 100 gallons of coffee while finishing my first novel (120,000 words), a volume of my outdoor adventures (48,000 words), a novella (30,000 words), and any number of mostly forgettable poems. Additionally, I am 68,000 words into a memoir of my junior and senior high years and 17,000 words into a novelized account of 20 years of my grandparents’ lives. Oh, and I blog.
That is a lot of coffee drunk and a lot of words written, mostly at the second table from the front door by the window with the view of the traffic circle in the small shopping center. My window faces east and catches the sun as it rises over the stores on the other side of the traffic circle.
The sun’s rising over the stores’ façades serves as a rough calendar. In the height of summer, the sun rises over Total Wine. By fall it rises over Sun ‘n’ Ski Sports to the south. In winter is rises over Anne Taylor Loft. With the winter equinox the sun begins working its way back north over Sun ‘n’ Ski in the spring and back to Total Wine. On bright days, I must pull the blinds just to see my laptop screen.
From that window I can watch the changing of seasons. As I write this the trees are all clad in autumn browns and oranges, the small patches of lawn are lush and green, swept clean by the yard crew. In winter, my window drips condensation. In the spring, rain cascades and puddles around the sidewalk tables and chairs chasing everyone inside. Heat shimmer rises off of the pavement in midsummer.
My wife, who prefers minimal or no distractions when concentrating, once asked, “How in the world can you write at a Starbuck’s?”
I thought for a moment and replied, “I guess after nearly 40 years in an office with constant noise and interruptions, it just seems normal. If I hadn’t learned to concentrate in that environment, I’d never have gotten anything done.”
Besides it’s not all writing. There is the regular crowd at the first table: Mark, Jim, Butch, Charlie, Mario, William, Gordon, and Larry, to name a few, all engaging and entertaining company, some still in the workplace, some retired. They gather daily, and each arrival is a Cheers moment. I am a peripatetic member, allowed to enter or withdraw from the general conversation at will.
Sometimes an old friend from the corporate world walks in, a co-worker or a vendor with whom I dealt, like Braden or Bob or Mark or Matthew. There is that initial, brief glance, then the flash of recognition as the mental tumblers fall into place. It is a time to catch up on life and families and friends still punching the clock or finding fulfillment in other areas.
And then there are the hours spent on research. Having written one period piece and in the process of writing another, one must purge any modern colloquialisms that might creep into the text and to have some idea of what a cotton farmer in 1905, in Mississippi, might expect to get for a bale of middling, long staple Delta cotton. Then on other days it might be preparing and uploading a manuscript for self-publication or updating my website or trying to generate some activity on social media or blogging or designing a book cover or even trying to find a literary agent, a process yet to yield any fruit.
Through it all, the line for coffee ebbs and flows as the morning progresses. At one table is a business meeting, at another a sales pitch or a Bible study group, or someone just touching down to make a call or to check email at a Wi-Fi hotspot. People shake hands or embrace depending on what brought them to Starbuck’s and with whom they are meeting. People of all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors come and go in suits, casual wear, or workout gear, speaking in accents or even languages from far away.
There is also the relentless carousel of baristas. Most are congenial, some more reticent. Some sport piercings or tattoos or hair of hues with which no human has yet been born. For many it is a first job or a second job or a stop-gap job. For a few, it fills idle hours of retirement. Most are well educated. Many have phenomenal memories for customers’ regular orders.
It is a comfortable milieu, a retreat, one on which I have become so dependent that in a life no longer ruled by the alarm clock, I invariably wake up by 5:00 AM on Mondays and Fridays. That is rarely the case on the other five days of the week.
Around noon I am well into my second refill of Pike, and it is time to start wrapping up for the day. There may be an errand or two to run, then back home to Sherrie for a quiet lunch and maybe a short nap, before an afternoon of chores around the house and in the yard.
But I will be back at Starbuck’s in a day or two, maybe for a morning of writing or an afternoon meeting with Scott, my best writing and critiquing buddy, but I will be back to that small hub of familiar faces and friendly chatter, that little writing home away from home, my neighborhood Starbuck’s.

Leave a comment

Filed under Autumn, Uncategorized, writing

Songs of Death and Life

On the second anniversary of my father’s death

 

Let us not delude ourselves with platitudes

The end of suffering

Heaven’s aching need for another angel

Burdens lifted from the living

Joyous reunion

 

No, let us not delude ourselves

Death is a brute, a thief

Who takes from us those we hold most precious

 

Time and distance may separate us

From the beating heart of a dear one

But that heart still beats

That love is still tangible

In the warmth of flesh

In touch and embrace

Needing only to be reunited

If only briefly

But death rips that away

Stills that beating heart

Chills that once vibrant flesh

Erases the gentle smile

On that familiar face

 

Death is an ogre

One whose features are not softened

By familiarity or frequency of visit

Remorseless, it intrudes

With shuddering suddenness

Or lingering expectancy

 

Memory, the cruel consoler

Delivers images of both joy and remorse

Days of burnished beauty

Words that could not be unspoken

 

The faith core within

Affirming that death is not the end

That ultimately even death will be conquered

Is still assailed, battered by the loss

The carnage of shattered souls

Longing

For one last word

One brief smile

One final embrace

 

Let us not delude ourselves

For us, the living

Dark days will alternate with bright

The vivid image of a loved face dims

Some memories fade

While others remain deeply etched

Roiling through the mind

And heart

Bringing an unexpected, fleeting smile

Or a wistful moment of melancholy

 

Let us not delude ourselves

There can be no loss lest first there be love

 

On All Saints Sunday

 

For each name intoned

A single votive is lit

A single bell is tolled

Resonant, the solemn peal diminishes as

Another name is intoned

Another votive is lit

 

The long litany of names

Each another life

Severed from this world

In this last year

Leaving its wake

Of love and sorrow

Laughter and regret

Wistful smiles and soft sighs

The entire arcing panoply

Of human feeling

 

Congregants stand in serried ranks

Solemn array of bowed heads

The soft sheen of tears on cheeks

A quivering lip or shudder

A too firm grip on a pew as

Another name is intoned

Another votive is lit

 

Fresh grief released or stifled as

Their lost one’s name is uttered

Old anguish renewed as

A loved name or face from last year’s list

Or the year before or the year before that

Rises unbidden but embraced as

Another name is intoned

Another votive is lit

 

 

A fellow mourner’s comforting touch or

Firm arm around a shaking shoulder

The questioning face of

An uncomprehending child

Who somehow senses something amiss as

The last name is intoned

The last votive is lit

 

 

Then the other litany

The litany of faith and triumph

The surety of the resurrection of the body

And reunion

Why else conquer death or

Resurrect the body or

Preserve all the things

Body and mind and spirit that

Make each of us ourselves

Except we should praise

Each in our own distinct voice

Arrayed about the throne of the Almighty

Heaven and earth reconciled

See the Lord and each one gone before face to face

And rejoice

Leave a comment

Filed under Death, Life, Loss, Poetry, Uncategorized

ONE MORE CUP OF COFFEE

It was about 5:50 AM in the morning, and I was pulling my laptop out of my daypack when Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” came over the Starbuck’s sound system, a deep cut from his 1976 album, Desire. My head began to subconsciously weave back and forth to Carmen Rivera’s sinuous, seductive violin line. I closed my eyes for just a moment and was transported back to the Reed Green Coliseum on the campus of Mississippi Southern. It was May 1, 1976, and the Rolling Thunder Review was on tour, Bob Dylan and a rotating caravan of musicians including Joan Baez, T-Bone Burnett, Kinky Freidman, and Carmen Rivera. They were performing “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”.

Music in all of its forms had been important to me ever since I can remember. Being born in the Mississippi Delta and growing up close to Highway 61, I may have had no choice. My first musical memory was of fellow Mississippian Elvis Presley on the radio in 1956. I was three-years-old and “Hound Dog” ruled the airwaves. Our family did not have a TV yet, but Mother had the radio on all day long. Early rock-and-roll, country, gospel, and dance music was the background of our lives, but ironically, I never heard Mother sing. She did however make me a cardboard and rubber band guitar so that I could strum along to my favorite songs.

Father, on the other hand, sang constantly, improvising lyrics as it suited him. He taught me all the words to On Top of Old Smokey and The Red River Valley among others. My grandfather, Father’s father led the singing in the small Baptist church they attended in Brazil, Mississippi. I sang my first duet there during revival week. Mother’s father played the fiddle, her mother the pump organ.

I played a drum and sang in the cheesiest pre-teen garage band ever, The Strummers. We were heavily influenced by The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, The Rolling Stones, and Paul Revere and The Raiders. One of our band members, Johnny, had a younger sister Martha who took us to task for our name. “How can you call yourselves The Strummers?” she asked. “Greg and Peter don’t strum their drums.”

Mike was quick with the absolutely perfect reply, “And The Beatles don’t beat their guitars either!”

Our concerts were held on the back porch where we thrashed our instruments and sang along to our favorite hits, all 45 RPM records, spinning on Johnny’s record player. Cheesy.

I later sang in the youth and adult choirs at Calvary Baptist Church in Tupelo for years and played and drums and percussion in the junior high concert and marching bands. In high school, my friends, Stuart, Vergil, and I would listen to the radio as we rode around, almost always singing along, usually in harmony. In our senior year of high school, we all secured singing and dancing parts in Annie, Get Your Gun, our lone experience in a high school musical.

By the time I entered college, I had been exposed to practically every genre of Western music there was: Delta blues, rock and roll, jazz (both traditional and avant garde), opera, classical, pop, big band, country and western, bluegrass, and hard rock. And I liked it all. In fact, one of my college roommates, Danny, once exclaimed, “Your taste is so broad as to be no taste at all!”

At Mississippi College, I auditioned for and joined the Vesper Choir. In addition, we listened to FM radio, WZZQ “The Mississippi Mutha” which played new albums in their entirety. We knew the drop date of the next Hendrix or Stones album like kids today know the opening day of the next Star Wars movie. Like so many others, I picked up a guitar and began playing and jamming with friends.

With a life so steeped in music, I was immediately drawn to the burgeoning live music scene in Jackson, Mississippi. Memphis, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Mississippi Southern, and the University of Alabama were within easy driving distance, and were popular tour stops for most of the major acts. We attended every concert we could: The Rolling Stones; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Joe Cocker; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Yes; Jethro Tull; The Guess Who; Chicago; and on and on. We believed in music and still thought it could change the world.

That May Day of 1976 at The Rolling Thunder Review was not my only visit to Reed Green Coliseum that year. In September, we were back to see The Band, one of our favorites. How a former rockabilly cover band who had backed up Dylan and wrote and recorded music with an old-timey Appalachian feel which was completely out of step with anything else in contemporary music is a story for another day. But we loved them, and we made the trek to Hattiesburg. Ostensibly, they were touring to promote their latest album Northern Lights/Southern Cross, but, unbeknownst to us at the time, it was actually their farewell tour. The Chris Hillman Band opened, fronted by the former Byrd, Flying Burrito Brother, and key member of Stephen Stills’ Manassas. Both their performance and that of The Band were outstanding.

Ten weeks later, The Band would gather with some of their favorite musicians, including Dylan, Neil Young, Doctor John, Van Morrison, and Muddy Waters, on Thanksgiving Day for The Last Waltz concert which Martin Scorsese would film. That configuration of the Band would never perform together live again.

That year, 1976, was not the first time I had seen Dylan, or The Band either, for that matter. No, that had been January 23, 1974, at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, the first time Dylan had toured since his horrific motorcycle accident six years previously. And to top it off, he was touring with, The Band, the same group that had backed him in 1965 when he had gone electric and alienated all his folkie fans. Tickets were a staggering $8.00 each, available by mail order only. You could order a maximum of four tickets. Music fans were in a frenzy. Shows sold out everywhere they played.

The girl I was dating at the time was still a senior in high school and her parents would not let her go to a concert on a school night. That Wednesday afternoon, I along with several friends from Tupelo rendezvoused with my old buddy Vergil, who was at Ole Miss at the time. We joined a cavalcade headed north on I-55 to Memphis.  Unfortunately, as we worked our way into the Mid-South Coliseum, we ran into Vergil’s girlfriend who had turned down his invitation to attend the show with him, apparently so she could go with some other guy whom she was hanging all over. Vergil now believed what his friends had been trying to tell him for quite some time about the nature of her fidelity.

Despite that downer, the show was fantastic. First The Band backed Dylan, then The Band did a set of their own material. With no intermission, The Band turned the stage over to Dylan for a set of solo acoustic numbers, and finally The Band rejoined Dylan onstage to tear the house down. That concert had it all. Probably no group of backing musicians ever pushed Dylan like the guys in The Band. Check out Before the Flood, the live album from the tour for proof.

In addition to backing his 1965-66 going electric tour, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson had spent most of 1967 playing with Dylan in the basement of a pink house in Woodstock, NY, documented by their album The Basement Tapes released in 1975. Those sessions also produced Music From Big Pink, The Band’s seminal first album. These guys had played together, a lot, and it showed.

It is arguably the best live concert I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of great performers. In addition to those mentioned above, I have seen Eric Clapton, Eagles, Paul McCartney, Jerry Garcia, Yes, R.E.M., Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Weather Report, pre-Buckingham Nicks Fleetwood Mac, Bonnie Raitt, and Little Feat, some of them more than once. But I feel especially fortunate to have seen the Band on their two most iconic tours and Dylan on two of his three most historic tours. I had to miss the 1965-66 tour; I was only twelve.

It was just 3:43 minutes of music, but I had been transported back, if only briefly, to those heady and formative days and surrendered to the cascade of life experiences that led to those days. Music must be the most abstract of all art forms. A work of visual art, a book, a play, or a movie, all of which, no matter how profound or moving, seems to enter through eye and ear, then proceed to the brain for processing before making their impression on our hearts. Music, on the other hand, a collection of sound waves, unseen, ephemeral, hovering then fading, seems to proceed, with no cognitive filter, from the ear directly to the heart where it makes its immediate impact.

Of course, it only just seems that way. The mind is surely involved; else why would music make our hearts swell or our pulses quicken? Why would it calm and soother or flood us with sadness or strengthen our spirit? Why would it trigger deep transporting memories as few other things can? Why would we remember every word to every verse of a song we first heard over 50 years ago?

I sat down with my Grande Pike Place, no room for cream, just as “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” ended, the last notes shimmering above the soft clatter of the two baristas. I flipped open my laptop and began to write what you are reading now, trying to encapsulate all the things that had coursed through my mind in those few minutes.

The door sighed open with another customer and a bit of autumn’s chill air. Daylight Savings Time had ended the previous Sunday. Autumn’s colors were barely visible on the trees outside, a muted palette in the dim light of not quite yet morning, less vivid than the memories that one song by Bob Dylan had triggered.

Leave a comment

Filed under Autumn, Memory, Mississippi, Music, Uncategorized

October the seventeenth

At last
The first cool morning of autumn
The first morning to dig out a flannel shirt
Or a sweater

Against a freshly washed morning sky
Still green leaves quiver and shimmer
Burnished gold and bronze
By the low, slanting rays of the rising sun
Foretaste of their impending change

Scattered brown leaves crunch underfoot
Haphazard mosaic
On the newly lush lawn
Harbinger of more, many more to fall

A breathtaking change
After late summer’s many long dry, desiccating days
Then suddenly one day of thick, rolling clouds
And rain

Splashing, soaking, puddling rain
Dripping from leaf to leaf
Washing clean summer’s
Weary and fading verdure
Painting trunk and limb black

Then a nighttime of steady wind
Fleeing clouds and clearing skies
And tumbling temperatures

All leading to this day
October the seventeenth
Sharp, crystalline
As if the cycle of the seasons
The regular, relentless tilting revolution of this old earth
Conspired to produce this one perfect day

This day of chill, brisk air
Ironic, invigorating herald
Of the approaching death, decay, and slumber
Of the shorter days and longer nights of autumn and winter
Yet oddly energizing on this morning
Of breathing deeply

Pondering that ambiguity
For long, languorous moments
Willing that this moment might linger
To hover just a bit longer
Accepting that it will not
Except in memory

Leave a comment

Filed under Autumn, Memory, Poetry, Uncategorized