The SWITCHYARD ARCHIVES: Past Stories by Robert Morgan Fisher
Buncha Damn Songwriters
Mournful silence followed the song. The two audience members waited to clap until the emcee stepped up to the microphone.
“Horace Vogel, everyone.”
By that time, Horace was already buckling his guitar case shut. Horace turned to the boy and girl, sitting at separate tables.
“I have CDs for sale.”
They regarded the poky singer-songwriter with suspicion. Horace had squarish, plastic black frame eyeglasses and a conservative thatch of brown hair. Also, his mouth seemed undersized for the rest of his face. He was soft around the middle.
At last, the boy said, “That last song was sick.”
“Thanks,” said Horace.
“I’m broke but I gotta have that song. Is it on the CD?”
The boy turned the CD over in his hand, noting the absence of shrinkwrap. It was obviously home-burned. It did not deter him. As he dug into his pocket for ten bucks, he compared the picture on the CD with Horace’s face. He checked the name on the CD against the coffeehouse marquee. He said, “Who the hell is Manny Hopper?”
As Horace’s rust-pitted Mercury Tracer cleared the Youngstown city limits, he mentally reviewed his set. He’d opened strong with two Manny Hoppers then did one of his own. That was a mistake. Going from a Manny Hopper to a Horace Vogel was like following filet mignon with tuna. His own songs were improving slowly—how could they not when he judged every verse and melody against Manny’s masterpieces?
Horace constantly asked himself: What would Manny do here? How would Manny say this?
But nobody knew Manny Hopper—that was the thing. It was Horace’s mission to correct that injustice. Other times, when Horace was feeling really desperate, he’d fantasize about simply claiming Manny’s songs for his own. He could probably get away with it. Who would be the wiser? But Horace would know. That was all that mattered. Horace was not the world’s best singer or songwriter, but he loved good songs. He collected, polished and proudly displayed them with almost evangelical zeal. Most of his gigs were in western Pennsylvania. This was his first trip across the Ohio border, hardly surprised to find Youngstown not vastly different from Pittsburgh.
He wished it were daylight so he could see the countryside, find some inspiration. Horace loved to travel. He believed seeing the world fed creativity. Then again, Manny Hopper spent years isolated in the misty mountains, rarely coming into town. Some writer said every person by the age of twelve or something has seen enough of this world to write books for the rest of their life. Manny must have been that breed.
Horace was different. He was a seeker. That was how he found Manny in the first place.
He remembered Mom inviting him up to Church Camp for Fourth of July weekend two years ago. Horace hadn’t been to that camp since he was a little kid. Furthermore, he’d stopped attending Sunday services sometime around the end of middle school. His first instinct was to decline Mom’s invitation, but a voice in his head kept nudging, assuring Horace it would good thing, a worthwhile venture. It would make his mother happy. “Besides,” Mom said, “you can bring your guitar and lead the sing-alongs. It’ll save us some money.”
That was one way to barter one’s weekend fee, leading the sing-alongs. It beat clearing tables. Horace really wasn’t a Kumbaya kind of guy. He vaguely remembered a binder of songs the camp used for sing-alongs. It contained a lot of hymns and standards. Horace preferred to wing it, to play songs precisely right for the moment. He reluctantly said okay, thinking he’d find a way to get around the camp’s ingrained, unimaginative approach. He wanted to put on a show, connect with people. It was a little self-centered, he knew. But long before he discovered Manny, there were songs in Horace’s repertoire he felt people needed to hear.
That was the summer he first worked at the Granite Ridge Storage Facility in Buttram. People see Granite Ridge trucks in cities all over the country, never realizing there’s an actual Granite Ridge. The company shreds and stores corporate documents. But miles beneath the earth, in an abandoned Pennsylvania coal mine, there are treasures beyond measure. Horace’s Uncle Ed got him the job. Uncle Ed had worked at Granite Ridge for years. He put in the good word and Horace was hired. Even so, Horace had to undergo a background check that stopped just short of a body cavity search. The vetting process started in January and he was approved just before college graduation.
At the time, he’d been at The University of Pittsburgh, Journalism major. The previous fall, word started trickling in: newspapers were on the way out. Horace couldn’t believe it. Journalism grads started posting warnings on the Internet—the very thing sucking life out of newspapers—that there were no jobs to be had in print media. The race was on to find imaginative ways to turn your worthless Journalism degree into something relevant. Horace’s Journalism retrofit included taking as many computer courses as possible, but in the end it felt like he’d been swindled in a higher-education pyramid scheme. He was graduating with a worthless sheepskin buried somewhere in a demoralizing pile of debt. He’d been forced to move back in with his parents up in Buttram. The Granite Ridge gig was supposed to be temporary while Horace figured out his future, but he wondered if the 1.7 million square foot subterranean facility might turn out to be an early career grave.
Horace was now halfway through nursing school, of all things. That summer at Granite Ridge gave him fresh perspective. He saw things there, archived items that blew his mind. One of these was an original edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the handmade book Whitman had self-published. Its value was incalculable. Minerva, Horace’s vituperative supervisor, had allowed Horace to examine Leaves of Grass on his first day there—wearing rubber gloves of course. She didn’t know Walt Whitman from Walt Disney, only that this was a thing of verified value. The real worth of all these archived items was that they empowered her: without them she would no longer be the all-important gatekeeper.
Seeing an original Leaves of Grass, holding it, inspired Horace to rediscover Whitman in his spare time, research the man and his work. Whitman had been a nurse during the Civil War, it turns out. The poems he wrote about that experience were amazing to Horace. That fact, the idea of helping others and the practical need to generate income (the nursing shortage was acute), settled it for Horace: Nursing would be his day job. It would feed his art. It felt right.
Yes, that was one positive thing that resulted from Horace’s summer at Granite Ridge. But again, the truly significant, life-changing encounter of that summer occurred Fourth of July weekend up in the mountains.
All through dinner in the lodge house, Horace mentally prepared himself for the dreaded sing-along. He eavesdropped on conversations. Based on overheard snippets, he concocted a set list for the postprandial proceedings. He knew a million songs, rarely flubbed a verse. It was a gift.
The food was way better than he remembered: chicken done to a turn, green beans almondine with crispy bacon sprinkled on top, mashed potatoes with finely chopped greens and garlic mixed in. Food was exceptional, in fact. What was up with that? His parents and big sister Glynis, who came up regularly, took the gourmet fare in stride. They’d brought along a bottle of wine and Horace helped himself to a glass. His family had told him he’d be impressed with the food, but he’d dismissed it as hype. Even the coffee was perfect—not the camp-crap coffee of his youth. If Horace were a cat he would have started purring.
While everyone cleared tables, Horace stationed himself near the fireplace and began to tune up. His guitar was a fine, handmade instrument. The camp leader—a lissome, athletic woman named Wendy with long gray hair tied up in a ponytail—read after-dinner announcements about the next day’s hikes, craft activities and personal growth workshops. Then she smiled and pointed.
“And in just a few minutes, Horace Vogel will lead tonight’s sing-along!”
Horace affected a look of humility. He remembered this Wendy woman back when her long hair had hung like a sable pelt. He’d had a crush on her back then.
Wendy asked Horace if he wanted a microphone set up. “No,” Horace said, “let’s just have everyone gather round close to the fire—it’s more homey that way.” This pleased her.
People began to sit down, lights were dimmed, firelight flickered across every face. The elevated fireplace was huge with a protruding cement hearth. It served as a bench for people to cozy up to the heat, but which Horace now stood upon as if it were a stage. He launched into a funny story song, an obscure chestnut that always made people laugh. It was a good opener, but it certainly wasn’t a sing-along. Someone tried to voice a request from the binder, but Horace plowed into a mash-up of his best songs. Again, nothing the audience would know, but absolute masterpieces of songcraft.
Horace was establishing his ground rules, laying claim to the spotlight. He then took aim at specific audience members. He sang each song clearly and well, making eye contact.
Horace’s Dad got up, said he was tired from the drive and wine, called it an early night. As he left, Horace’s mother and sister held up the binder, mouthed SING-ALONG! Horace allowed a few requests from the binder. He knew just about every song hollered out but pretended he didn’t know many of them. There had to be a certain spark to get him to play a song; a certain element of heartfelt inspiration was required. It wasn’t out of spite. He just didn’t feel comfortable playing a song unless it was something he wished he’d written himself. If he didn’t feel that—then the song was just an embarrassment to play or hear. I don’t care if it was a number one hit, he once told a fellow player, if I’m not jealous I didn’t write it then I sure as hell don’t want to sing it.
Horace sang one of his own compositions, prompting polite applause. He was just about to do another of his originals, bringing the audience to heel, when someone called out:
“Let Manny sing one!”
Horace looked to the kitchen entrance just to the right of the fireplace. Manny Hopper was still wearing his chef’s apron, dabbing sweat from his forehead as if he’d entered the room from the fire itself. He shook his head. Several more people urged him to play a song.
“Come on, Manny!”
They called out titles that meant nothing to Horace then, but would mean everything in the weeks and months to come. Manny removed his apron—not with the intention of singing, but just to cool off. The crowd took this as acquiescence and began to clap. He made tentative, shy eye contact with Horace who was by now curious about this interloper but also wanted to appear magnanimous. Horace removed his guitar, handed it over.
Manny sat down on the hearth almost directly in front of the fire. Horace noticed the nails on Manny’s right hand were long and tough—the nails of a picker. Manny was lean with wiry red hair, cut short. He had a perfectly straight nose jutting out of high cheekbones, and each cheekbone had exactly five freckles that almost seemed dabbed on with a Sharpie. He rapidly tuned Horace’s guitar into some open-key droning modality. When Manny strummed, Horace could feel it resonate deep in the pit of his gut, just behind his navel. He’d never felt a guitar strum do that to him before.
When Manny finished singing his song, the audience went crazy. They wanted more, so did Horace. He’d never heard a song built upon such perfect, pretty words paired to such an exquisite melody. The chord changes were outrageous. It was a long song, but Horace wished it to never end. As far as he could tell, it was about a girl—but also much more. Big themes adroitly woven together, narrative explored and expanded with absolute ease and originality.
The crowd pleaded for more. Manny retuned the guitar and gave it back to Horace.
“Sorry, gotta get up early,” said Manny. He thanked Horace for letting him sit in. Then he vanished.
Horace knew better than to try to follow something like that. He quickly put away his guitar. People stood, stretched, began to fall away. Horace waited until they were all gone, then tried without success to open-tune his guitar the way Manny had done. He tried duplicating the chord changes in standard tuning but it sounded terrible. Rather than mess up the memory of the song, he replayed what he could recall in his head all the way up the hill to his cabin. Once there, he lay down on his bed, fully clothed. Dad snored in the bunk below. Horace fell asleep with his glasses on, visualizing Manny playing the song. He hoped Manny’s song might resurface in dreams and indelibly imprint itself upon his subconscious. Perhaps it would seep down into his fingertips like water finding leaves at the end of a branch.
At breakfast, Horace kept glancing at the kitchen door, hoping to get a glimpse of Manny. The food was, again, excellent: eggs benedict with fried potatoes and fresh berries. Coffee tasted like the beans had been slow roasted. After everyone had eaten and gone off to scheduled activities, Manny finally appeared.
Horace introduced himself.
“What was that song you did last night?” he said. “Did you write that?”
“Yeah,” said Manny. Horace now saw that Manny had alpine green eyes. Manny looked down at Horace’s guitar case.
“I’ve got some time before lunch,” said Manny. “Let’s play.”
In the years to come, Horace would often describe this moment to audiences, the moment when the great Manny Hopper said: Let’s play.
Horace followed Manny out the door and up the hill. They came upon what Horace thought must be a little storage shed—but turned out to be Manny’s living quarters. It was built snug into the hillside. Honeysuckle and mountain laurel surrounded the door and up top a little black chimney stack for the potbellied stove inside protruded out of the dirt with a conical black rain cap.
“What are you,” said Horace, “Pooh Bear?”
The walls were earth and wood—a log cabin sunk into the hillside. It was tiny and dim. The smokiness of woodstove mixed with aromatic honeysuckle. A door to one side led to a tiny bathroom and shower. Skylights negated any need for artificial light during the day. Manny had shelves of poetry, fiction.
Manny’s guitar, a battered Sunburst Gibson J-45, hung from a peg. The place was wired for electricity, yet there was no TV or computer. Not even a radio. Kerosene lamp for emergencies. No kitchen really, just a mini-fridge for snacks and some cabinets with food. Manny couldn’t have been much older than 35, but it was as if he’d lived there for 70 years.
Questions ran through Horace’s head: Did Manny build this place? How long had he lived here? Did he entertain girls in that bed?
Horace broke out his guitar and Manny played a well-known standard. After Horace finished, he waited for Manny to gush and praise—after all, it was one of the classics that Horace “owned.” But Manny Hopper was not some wide-eyed-easy-to-impress coed. He was the greatest unknown songwriter on earth. Manny nodded his head, took down his Gibson from the wall, expertly open-tuned into some enigmatic key, then rattled off his own song that was twice as long and ten times better. Horace just stared.
“When did you write that?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Just now.”
Manny shrugged in such a way that Horace knew he was probably telling the truth.
“Songfight!” said Horace.
“Songfight. You ever see Fight Club?”
“I read the book,” said Manny. He pointed to a shelf where, among the spines, Fight Club was visible.
“Anyway,” said Horace, “When my friends do a guitar-pull and we’re trying to outdo each other, someone says ‘Songfight!’ Then someone says ‘The first rule of Songfight—’”
“—is that you never talk about Songfight.’ Got it.”
Manny strummed his guitar once. “What’s a ‘guitar pull’?”
“Buncha damn songwriters swap songs.”
“I got a song about that,” said Manny. He proceeded to play the best song about songwriting Horace had ever heard.
They played for a while, Horace coaxing songs out of Manny. Then they met up after lunch and played some more. While Manny took his customary afternoon nap, Horace went on a long solitary walk. He needed to be alone.
Manny Hopper’s songs were rich—dense even. He was all over the place, but it worked. Everything fit together like the inner workings of a Swiss music box.
What impressed Horace most was the utter absence of clichés. Good songwriters banish them from their work; Manny seemed to have loaded all his lame lines into a rocket and blasted them into deep space. He apparently approached songwriting the same way he fixed meals: freshest organic ingredients prepared with clever, imaginative authority.
Horace walked through the wilderness in deep contemplation for hours, until he realized he’d become lost and it was getting dark. Just as he was about to panic, he heard what sounded like gunshots. He realized they were firecrackers. He followed the noise, as if drawn to a battle, and made it back to camp.
Horace opened with a couple of sing-alongs just to get them and himself out of the way. Then he turned things over to Manny, who barreled on through until midnight. Horace used his cell phone to get some video and stillshots of Manny. After Manny was done with what had only felt like an hour’s worth of music, as opposed to the actual three, he went to bed.
To fulfill the remainder of his “sing-along barter,” Horace agreed to sing at the Sunday morning outdoor service. Afterwards, he searched out Manny, who was just finishing up his kitchen duties. Time was running out. Horace would be heading back to Buttram soon with his family. Horace hurried up the hill so he could hear more Manny music.
After more amazing songs that Horace had never heard before, he asked Manny if he’d written any of these down or made some demos. “I keep a journal of ideas and finished songs,” said Manny, “but I never made a record. No interest in that.”
“Well, maybe you don’t have any interest, but the world does.”
“I doubt that.”
For someone so out of touch, Manny’s apathy bordered on astute. The old rescue fantasy of getting “signed” to be a “singer-songwriter”—that career path simply no longer existed. That is, if it ever had existed. Most record deals had been indentured servitude swindles, firmly fixed in the record company’s favor.
Now it was supposedly possible to support oneself with one’s art, but one had to be a businessman about it. Horace tried to be that way, but he didn’t have a brand yet. His songs at this point just weren’t good enough. Manny, however, had a brand, something Horace was sure people would want to hear.
“You have to do that,” said Horace. “You have a responsibility to make a record.”
“No, I don’t. That’s ridiculous.”
Horace surveyed all the books on the shelves. Could Manny Hopper really have read all those books and then distilled them into fifty immortal songs?
“If I send you the equipment, could you record your stuff so I could learn it?”
All the way home, Horace stared out the window.
“It sounds like you made a good friend at camp,” his mother said.
“It was,” said Horace, “a religious experience.”
His mother and Glynis turned their heads. Dad’s eyes found him in the rearview.
“What do you mean exactly?” said Glynis.
“I mean that Manny Hopper is the greatest songwriter I’ve ever heard. Period.”
The next day, driving to work at Granite Ridge, all Horace could think about was getting a digital recorder to Manny. He had to learn those songs as soon possible.
Horace’s job was essentially to be Minerva’s bitch-boy. Sometimes this was a good thing; she’d send him off on an all-day errand where he’d get to make the rounds of every department and storage area. He’d seen it all: original patents, master recordings, manuscripts and film prints.
There were also miles of “informational assets”—monolithic computer servers backing up God knows what. 5,000 years from now it would still be intact. Granite Ridge was 100% earthquake-proof and dry as a fossil. Everything was stored in foil, the rooms were quadruple insulated and one wasn’t allowed to touch anything without surgical gloves. Security cameras were ubiquitous.
A pair of armed guards waved his car through the hidden entrance. Then it was four long hallways on foot and two elevators with multiple stops. He was only five minutes late but Minerva was pissed.
“I’d appreciate your being on time, Vogel,” she said.
Horace had no coworkers to chat with—it was just him and Minerva. Another reason he couldn’t see this job as a career. He wasn’t claustrophobic yet, but could definitely feel it starting to take hold.
“How was your holiday, Minerva?” Horace inquired.
“You’re needed over in Finance.”
“Yes, ‘oh.’ Putting you in Music was a mistake. You spent ten minutes gawking at the contents of some box! You can’t gawk here, Vogel. You gawk and you’re gone.”
“Got my eye on you, Vogel.”
On the way home after work, a high-end digital audio recorder was procured and shipped to Manny Hopper. It cost over $600 and it was all the money Horace had in the world.
He enclosed a note that read:
This is a very expensive piece of equipment. Instructions enclosed. You can record everything on this and I’ll come up there Labor Day Weekend to get it back.
Horace told his mother to call him at work if anything arrived from Manny. It became a running joke: “Horace is waiting on the second coming of Manny Christ.”
But there was nothing for Horace in the mail and Manny didn’t respond to the postcards and letters Horace sent every week. Friday afternoon of Labor Day Weekend he raced up to the camp, stashed his stuff in the cabin then sprinted over to Manny’s.
He wondered what he would find—did Manny record all or even any of his songs? What if he hadn’t been able to figure how to operate the machine? That was certainly a possibility. If Manny hadn’t recorded his songs for some reason, whether it was out of shyness or some technical difficulty, Horace was more than ready to step in and midwife the delivery that weekend. Horace was ready for anything.
Or so he thought.
He knocked. The door opened and a 47-year old Hispanic man stood before him in his underwear, blinking as if he’d been roused from a nap. Horace peered past him.
“Where’s Manny?” said Horace. The man’s mouth fell open in a sad, confounded reaction. He was trying to put together a very specific sentence and lacked the right words. Horace could see all traces of Manny were gone from inside—the books, his guitar. He obviously didn’t live here anymore.
“Habla ingles? Donde esta Manny?” said Horace.
“Horace,” came a woman’s voice from behind.
Wendy—a stricken look upon her face.
“I’m so sorry. Manny died.”
It had happened a month before, around the beginning of August. Manny developed a sudden fever and crushing headache. Wendy had awakened to find the sheets soaked with sweat and Manny incoherent (she occasionally slept with him, it turned out). He’d complained of a stiff neck before turning in. At dawn, he was throwing up and had a screaming aversion to light. By the time Wendy realized they were dealing with Meningitis, Manny had gone into convulsions.
He died at the hospital the following morning. What with funeral arrangements, trying to notify next of kin and the busy summer season, there hadn’t been time to post a notice in the church newsletter or answer any of Horace’s postcards to Manny. She’d only recently hired Eduardo to take Manny’s place. Needless to say, Eduardo was no Manny Hopper in the cooking department. “Too much red onion in everything,” she tried to laugh.
This could not be happening. Yet Manny’s ashes were already in an urn on the mantle above the lodge fireplace.
“What about his family?” said Horace.
“Manny never knew his father. I think his mother’s dead—I had a number for a brother in Denver, but it was disconnected.”
“Where are his things?”
“Why—do you want his guitar?”
“No, actually his family—his brother—should get that. I sent Manny a digital recorder so I could learn the songs …” At this, Horace broke down. To him, those songs were Manny. It seemed unlikely Manny had taken the time to do what so dearly needed to be done. Manny had started feeling ill a few days before he died—no idea what was about to go down. That left only about two weeks for him to learn how to operate the machine and record the songs. There was just no way.
Wendy took Horace to the storage area. There, among piles of books and clothes, was Manny’s coffin-like guitar case.
“You’re going to want to keep that guitar stored inside—temperature extremes will destroy it,” whispered Horace. Wendy dutifully removed the guitar case. Behind it was the box for the digital recorder, seemingly unopened. Horace took that and Manny’s notebook of lyrics and slowly walked back to his cabin where he stayed for the rest of the weekend.
Horace was all settled into his new apartment in Pittsburgh. Nursing school was going well. One sleety Sunday afternoon in November he decided to break out his guitar and record a few of his own compositions. His songcraft had improved substantially since meeting Manny. With a fresh cup of coffee at his side, he opened the digital recorder box and was shocked to find a playlist in Manny’s handwriting of about 58 songs.
His heart began to accelerate. He’d assumed, incorrectly, that Manny had not shared Horace’s sense of urgency. Cursing his own stupidity, he plugged it in, cautiously hit play and waited.
The first thing he heard was crickets.
This was followed by the unmistakably balanced timbre of Manny’s Sunburst Gibson. Horace listened to song after song, some familiar, others new. The incredible thing was that not only did Manny record each selection without a mistake, but he evidently did all of it out in the woods, so there was an orchestra of nature lending support. It sounded as if Manny had recorded over several days, in different locations. Owls, coyotes and bullfrogs all seemed to know exactly when to chime in.
Horace immediately dumped all the songs onto his computer hard drive for safekeeping and just stared at the playlist. When he finally calmed down, Horace Vogel did what any devotee would do: he began to commit the Gospel to memory, one prayer at a time.
The following summer, Horace signed on for one final hitch at Granite Ridge. He didn’t need to do that, his parents were now paying for school and his original plan had been to plow straight through and get his nursing certification as soon as possible. But there was unfinished business. Minerva was still there, of course.
“Thought we’d got rid of you,” she said.
She couldn’t have known what Horace was up to. She couldn’t have known that he’d started his own label, Granite Ridge Rumblings, and that the star of that label was the late great Manny Hopper. Manny’s debut album, Left Some Kind of Record Behind, was building quite a word-of-mouth following, thanks in no small part to Horace’s tireless weekend touring. The money he made on sales went to cover duplication and promotion. At this point, all Granite Ridge Rumblings were home-burned. But as soon as Horace graduated and started making money all that would change. He’d start with a professional pressing of 1000 and see how many of Manny’s CDs he could move at gigs, on his new website and through any other means of distribution. At some point, Horace hoped to find Manny’s long-lost brother and cut him in for his inherited share of the profits.
But all that was in the future. Right now, Horace was on a mission of extreme importance. He waited nearly all summer for his chance. For weeks, Minerva had him collating files in Patents or cleaning air filters in the Computer Vaults. Finally, one day in early August, almost a year to the day Manny had passed, Minerva told him to fetch a box of master tapes from Music. Horace got up from his desk, stretched and sauntered in that direction.
Once inside the vast vault, he put on his rubber gloves and searched out the box in question. Then, using his previous knowledge of where exactly the cameras were aimed, Horace found an appropriate drawer in the “H” section and, hunkering down as covertly as he could, withdrew from inside his shirt a single foil-wrapped copy of Manny’s CD and filed it.
When he returned to Minerva’s office a pair of unsmiling guards handcuffed Horace. They frisked him but of course didn’t find any stolen items. Still, the unscheduled stop was a breach of protocol. Minerva smirked.
“He was gawkin’ that’s all,” she said. “He’s always been ga-ga over Music Assets.”
Horace said nothing.
“I been checkin’ up on young Horace, boys. We got ourselves a musician. Likes to perform, don’t ya? Well, you’ll have plenty of time for yodelin’ now, won’t ya? You’re through at Granite Ridge, Vogel.”
Horace looked away. The handcuffs, Minerva’s gloating—it was all a bit much.
She said, “Don’t look like much of a singer to me.”
“Actually, I’m a singer-songwriter.”
“Oh, pardon me. Well, what do you have to say, Vogel? Was it worth it to get your ass fired over … what? A buncha damn songwriters?”
And at this, Horace couldn’t help but smile.
The companion song to this story can be heard at:
Father Was A Warrior
I WAS THE SON OF A WARRIOR. The first ten years of my life, we moved from one military base to another – Pensacola, Norfolk, Naples, Alameda – anywhere we could find a defendable position. When I was 13, at the height of the war, my family was taken prisoner. We’d been driven to the farthest peninsula, of the final island, in the remotest corner of the lower forty-eight: Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington. Enjoy the sun while it lasted, we were told, winter would be long and misty. The years remain shrouded in that mist, a pewter cloudiness making the sun’s existence almost hypothetical. Infrequently, a sunbeam shattered damp dimness as if an omnipotent giant straddling the Cascade Mountains had momentarily lifted the marine layer with the detached curiosity of a boy searching for snakes under a board in the woods. When I think of that giant today, decades later, it’s almost impossible not to picture him as myself. And he is an unhappy giant: angry, rueful; impatient with those who insist on repeating mistakes of the past. I try to disguise this mythical figure with a beard: the long, white, quartzite kind of whiskers that have more in common with cuticles than hair. It was popular in those days for young people to affect long beards and the countenance of wise elders, because so many actual elders were not acting very wise. I try to conceal the giant’s features behind a monkish hood or make him altogether faceless. But it never works. My own face creeps back in there somehow and I have to accept that he is me. And that I was also that boy in the woods looking for snakes.
It was early June. We’d traveled north from San Diego. Mom had wanted our northerly migration to be a “nice leisurely trip up the Pacific Coast Highway.” I’m sure she envisioned quaint roadside picnics on a bluff in Monterey – wine, cheese, French bread – followed by an afternoon stroll down Cannery Row. By Morro Bay, they were bickering; by Big Sur, Dad was threatening to stick Mom on a plane to Seattle. By San Francisco he’d had enough and broke east for the interstate. He gunned our station wagon like it was an armed jet aircraft in search of a viable target. The monotonous contention of our trips was mitigated by my occasionally breaking out the Robert W. Service Treasury. Poetry, at least an appreciation of it, was a Gillen family tradition. Service, Kipling, Whitman – the easy, narrative poets, that was the gold standard. “Bad poets” some might say. But what is bad to an academic is merely accessible to someone like Fred Gillen. Dad was a product of the New York state school system. He was articulate to the point of pomposity and could expound at length upon any subject, literature being a favorite. Flying jets requires a firm grasp of physics and math and he claimed that, because of the New York state school system, he’d mastered these disciplines before even learning the alphabet. All Irish blarney, of course – yet I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a slide rule tucked away in one of the zippered compartments of his jungle-green flight suit. He was no simpleton, my father, but warrior’s work is all about split-second decision-making. He had a respect bordering on love for any kind of acronym, or for any ingenious streamlining that made things, even something as simple as a poem, scan faster.
The heavy text lay open on my lap while my father squinted behind Aviator Ray-Bans. I’d close my eyes and try to recite from memory:
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun … by the men who moil for gold …” How does one “moil”? I’d savor the word a tad too long. Then Dad would prompt me:
“The Arctic –”
“Augh! Lemme … The Arctic trails have their secret tales … darn.”
“That would make your blood run cold.”
“Yeah. The Northern Lights … “
“Ahhhhh – I give up.”
“The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see, Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge I cremated Sam McGee …”
Marge – where does she fit in? I’d sigh with defeat as he droned on through the entire thing, drunk with power over the poem. It was admirable and awesome in a boastful way, an American Way. You waited for him to trip up, half-hoping that he would, half-hoping that he wouldn’t.
“Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows. Why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows …”
Stephanie, two years my junior, stared out the window in a concerted attempt to distance herself from the proceedings. Lately, she’d been convinced that my father had wanted another son instead of her. In her head, “Stephanie” was an emasculate version of Stephen. Naturally, I jabbed at this wrongheaded fear as any brother would by occasionally calling her “Steve.”
“Here, Steve,” I said. “You read one.”
I looked to my mother for some kind of remonstration, but she stared out the window, eyes red from crying over Bobby Kennedy’s death. We’d followed every bulletin on the radio and the nightly news in our motel rooms each night. We were bred to the bone Catholics and the increasingly martyred Kennedys, at least in those days, were held up as royalty to the papal populace. The sunglasses my mother wore gave a striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy, soon to be Jackie O. The ritualized deprivations and blind allegiance of military life make a good fit with Catholicism. There is no other religious discipline that I can think of, really, where suffering and exploitation are worn like badges of honor. Well, maybe Islam. But Catholics are truly an Army of God, with a hierarchy of generals, captains and foot soldiers. And the most important thing, I suppose: an enemy.
As we closed in on the Washington state border, the woods got thicker, mountains bigger. Dusk was noticeably cooler and quieter when we pulled into a motel outside of Kelso, just across the Columbia River. Each room was a freestanding cabin. Cozy. Smoke curling out of chimneys. We ate a fine meal at a rustic restaurant. Then my father announced:
“We’re taking a walk.”
“Do we have to?” said Stephanie. My father lighted a cigar, tried to put an arm around his daughter, but she squirmed away.
“She’s tired,” said Mom.
“Suit yourself, kiddo.”
“I’ll go,” I said, eager.
Walking through nature with Dad – a favorite activity. He was full of useful information (“You can gut and clean an entire deer with a penknife, long as it’s sharp enough …” and “Did you know there’s enough food under that rock to sustain life for an entire week?”). Mosquitoes ate me alive but didn’t care much for Dad’s cigar smoke. With something as simple as a stogie, he could seemingly inoculate himself against all harm. We came across a stagnant spring, water now brown and brackish, old cup rusting in water. Next to the spring, or puddle was more like it, stood a stake with a severed string dangling from a nail. My father crouched down and I followed suit.
“Young punk comes across the source of a stream deep in the woods,” he began. “There’s a tin cup tied to a string on a stake for travelers to take their refreshment. He rips off cup, pisses in the spring. Why?”
“Because he’s an Unclean Machine?”
“Affirmative. And what does the Unclean Machine manufacture?”
“Roger that,” he said, standing upright. “Beware the Unclean Machine.”
We walked on.
“How long are we gonna be stationed at this new place?”
“I don’t know, Audie.”
“Are you gonna deploy again?” Deploy – one of my favorite military words. It sounded so organized and certain.
“Sure,” he said. “Eventually. Why?”
“I was just wondering,” I said. “I was hoping you’d be home for a while this time.”
My father belched comically, hocked and spit. His face hardened with a cold smile. I admired his profile: crewcut, strong jaw, nose like the prow of a battleship. He leaned into me, playfully faked a jab at my gut.
“You don’t fool me,” he said, “when I’m gone, you and Steph’ turn into a couple o’ JD’s – am I right?”
The jabs tickled. I put up my dukes like he taught me and tried to retaliate through my own laughter, which sounded embarrassingly shrill and girlish to my ears, not at all like the juvenile delinquent my father imagined me to be.
“I guess so.”
He mussed my hair. “You need a haircut.”
“You know, we’ve never been camping. Do you think we could go camping?”
“Sure,” he said, mind already deployed.
Our station wagon approached the gate and was saluted through by a pair of uniformed guards. A sign read WHIDBEY ISLAND NAVAL AIR STATION – OFFICERS CAPEHART. Military reservations I’d seen up to that point had all been built around the time of the Second World War, 700 coats of glossy gray paint barnacled by 30 years of cigarette residue. An ancient gray bus passed us, headed in the opposite direction. It was a virtual antique, kept in service by strictly-enforced daily maintenance and attention to mechanical detail. As we rounded a curve, runways and hangars came into view. I braced myself for the beautiful contrast of old-fashioned architecture and vehicles sitting alongside the most high-tech aerospace engineering on earth, but I was shocked at the desolation.
“Where are all the planes?” said Stephanie, giving voice to my confusion.
“This used to be the old Seaplane Base during WW Two,” said my father. “Ault Field’s over on the other side of the island.”
We passed cracked runways and long-abandoned hangers. I could see the base had been built on an isthmus which connected up with an exclusive-looking peninsula. The road wound its way over a forested hill and emerged onto the split-level expanse of Maylor Point. Officers “Capehart” – whatever that meant. They were nice houses, by military standards. The only two-story home on the entire base belonged to the Admiral. Vast expanses of fresh-mown grass gave neighborhoods the feeling of a country club golf course. There were three main circular drives in Officers Capehart. Though they had names – Mountain, Rainier and Cascade – common shorthand was to say first, second and third circle. When people say “circle,” you automatically think cul-de-sac – but these circles were single-entrance streets, shaped like a lariat. They mirrored the compartmentalized, self-contained nature of the base itself. The streets reminded one of circled wagons fending off hostile attack. Units on the outer edge, like our first-circle Mountain Drive home, offered pastoral, unobstructed backyard vistas.
The moving van pulled up just as my father whipped the station wagon into the carport. He checked his watch, which he wore on the underside of the wrist as if to protect the crystal should he have to backhand his way out of trouble at any moment, and said: “Outstanding.” Dad took a quick tour of our new quarters, again checked the time and left to sign in with his new squadron over at the main base. While movers began a long transfer of boxes into the house, Mom made a phone call.
“Judy DeLaria, please.” And after several seconds: “Just say her sister called.” She examined the phone and receiver, then shrugged. “I don’t know our new number yet. I’ll call back later.”
She hung up and I checked the fridge which was, of course, not only empty but spic & span clean. I loved unpacking in new quarters: wet paint, disinfectant and the smell of a fresh start. I wanted to explore.
“I’m gonna recon the beach, Mom.”
“Take Stephanie with you.”
Stephanie whined, “Do I have to?”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” said Mom.
Whidbey Island started out as a 40-mile long moraine of gravel and boulders deposited by the last ice age. Over time, it became green and glorious like the rest of the Pacific Northwest. Our slender isle lay an hour north of Seattle, key point of entry being a bridge on the north end spanning a deep strait of treacherous whirlpools called Deception Pass. During the war with Japan that necessitated creation of a Seaplane Base in this corner of the country, armed guards patrolled the brand new bridge 24 hours a day. Cars could only display parking lights, lest the workmanship of the Civilian Conservation Corps become an attractive a target for night-bombing. Not that Whidbey ever saw a single Jap Zero, but England was under dramatic, daily siege from the air and two words remained on the tip of everyone’s tongue: Pearl Harbor. I was, even in 1968, mindful of the fact that recitation of a pair of words could legitimize anything, from locking up Japanese Americans to unleashing the power of an atom. Later, it’s a pair of numbers: 9 and 11, a date of infamy, fixed in time that rules everything. But back then, rich but rocky dairy land could be seized with Manhattan-like compensation of just a few dollars an acre, all in the name of patriotism. All by simply invoking the name of a decimated Hawaiian port. Back then, PBY Seaplanes buzzed the bay nonstop and because they sunk millions of tons of enemy ships thousands of miles away, no one complained. Before anyone knew it, the PBY’s would be gone; but the chapel of the union, the base itself and marriage between Navy and town, let no man put asunder.
Just below Deception Pass, on the upper west side of the island, overlooking the wind-blown Strait of Juan de Fuca, sat Ault Field, the main Navy base. Ault Field nourished the economy of Whidbey’s heart, the town of Oak Harbor, just west of where I now stood and plainly visible across the harbor from Maylor Point. As I stood on the porch, admiring my view of the town, a lone rabbit sitting back on its haunches scrutinized me. The hare had emerged from a meadow of waist-high grass that tumbled downhill for eighty yards like a green, turbulent tributary splashing into a copse of blackberry brambles, madrona and pine trees. Below that, on the Point’s tip, lay a hundred acres of sand dunes and marshes hemmed by a rocky beach. The tide of the channel entrance into Oak Harbor flowed back and forth, daily, like a reversible river. Warrior kids take sonic booms and contrails for granted. Every few minutes, a low-flying formation of Intruder Jets split the sky. Off to the right, a plume of indigo smoke mushroomed. Years spent on military bases had taught me the smoke was probably from a crash drill – on the other hand, it could well be the real thing. One never knew for sure until the men in black cars came calling.
I gave chase, but lost track of the rabbit in a blackberry bramble. It, and a thousand more to take its place, laughed at me from inside the thicket. Still, temptation to brave the thorns was overpowering. I tried – then gave up, cursing my stupidity, but knowing beyond all doubt that I’d be back sooner than later. The berries tasted like black sugar bubbles, trophies of futility. Much to my amazement, a bald eagle passed overhead with a salmon twitching in its talons; wings beat the air like the blades of a chopper. I walked on, plucked a golden delicious apple, polished it on my shirt, bounded down a path through the briars and caught up with Stephanie.
“Did you see that eagle?” I said.
“This place is far-out, don’t you think?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I hate it.”
There were military exercises underway in a cove: three-foot long battleship boards stacked with flat stone turrets and driftwood cannons, launched onto the tide then bombarded by rock-bombs and stick-missiles. The winning Navy was led by a rangy southpaw with white-blond hair. He was my age, only taller, and possessed a deadly throwing arm. Twice, we watched the opposing fleet set sail only to be pulverized by his fusillade. Other kids heaved huge boulders that missed their mark by a mile, or little pebbles that pinged harmlessly off the boards. The blond kid chose baseball-sized rocks that cracked against stone turrets with authority, sending an imaginary crew to a noble death. After finishing my apple I tossed it at one of the cleared decks and, amazingly, it impaled itself on a nail sticking straight up. Blondie took aim and decimated the apple core.
“Man overboard,” I said.
I joined the underdog side to even things up. I’d been an all-star little league shortstop in San Diego. The blond kid rose to my challenge with a skull and crossbones grin. Others soon fell away and it became a battle between us two. After we finally cleared the decks on both our ships, we climbed onto a log that stuck out over the cove and, in a joint military operation, released 20-pound boulders until both boards were broken in half.
He extended a hand. “Dan Draper.”
I shook it.
“Audie Gillen. My dad’s new C.O. is named Draper – VAQ-186?”
“One and the same. Two years running.”
We walked uphill. Stephanie’s eyes betrayed a blossoming crush on Dan.
“We just got here. This is my little sister, Stephanie.”
“Hi,” she said, blushing as if the bitter young thing I lived with had never existed. My newly-issued buddy and I continued on, Stephanie alongside. Dan’s family had been stationed in their second circle home for almost two years. We parted ways, veering off towards our house, for there were many boxes yet to be opened.
Not surprisingly, we ran into the Drapers at mass the next morning. I was supposed to start confirmation class that year. I sat next to Dan, paying more attention to a beautiful lass several rows back with green eyes and a curly latticework of soft, amber hair. Dan said her name was Colleen Heffernan and that she was a “hippie chick” yet a hippie chick with “a thing for jocks.” I knew the hippie type of girl, though none with a jock fetish – that was certainly unusual. I was not surprised to find that she’d moved up from California the year before. Her family lived in one of the “Enlisted” Capeharts – specifically, a dilapidated enclave of apartment-like dwellings over by Ault Field. She seemed unencumbered, lovely in an earthy way. Flower child. Angelic. As the priest intoned the rote word of God, she made eye contact and smiled in such a way that I knew I’d somehow qualified. Made the first cut.
My father and Jack Draper were already well-acquainted, having met the previous day. They had wound up getting drunk together at O-Club happy hour. Mom was none too pleased with his subsequent tardiness. She showed her displeasure by slamming plates into cupboards and then yelling at him when he returned home long after Stephanie and I were in bed. It was like they were breaking in the walls of the house, introducing the tenor and tone of their marriage. A heated exchange, as one might fire up a stove to season a skillet.
Where my father was more of a compact, pugnacious warrior, Jack Draper was tall and swaggering; where my dad’s hair stood up like a rust-colored brush, Jack was bald on top. Tufts of hair stood out from under the back of Jack’s shirt collar. He was broad in the shoulder, narrow at the hip and forearms as big around as my waist. Dan got his blond hair from Shelly, who reminded me of a whitebread TV mom.
“Jack, this is my wife, Rose,” Dad said as we walked to our respective cars. “Rose, this is Jack and Shelly Draper.” This formal introduction, which should have occurred prior to mass was delayed until afterwards because we’d been late – trying to find the base chapel. A dedicated Catholic Church looks like a church, unlike any other house of worship, but the Ault Field Base Chapel was multi-denominational and rather generic. Plain, like any other government office except with a few stained glass windows and a cross. After mass, Baptists took over. Through all the “nice to meet yews,” I couldn’t help noticing how different my mother and Shelly were: Shelly was blue-eyed, outgoing, capable – my mother’s smile seemed forced, her façade cracking ever-so-slightly as she took Shelly’s hand. Dan also had a little sister named Patty and a five-year-old deaf brother named Joey. I’d never been around a deaf kid before. The hand signals were totally cool.
We walked along, breaking into smaller units: dads, moms and kids.
“Jack tells me you moved from San Diego,” said Shelly.
“Yes,” said Mom. “We’re from New York originally. I’m getting pretty sick of all this moving around.”
This was news to me. Mom had always taken our peripatetic military lifestyle in stride. Maybe she was just making conversation.
“Trust me, honey,” said Shelly, “eventually it gets to be second nature.”
“When are they going to deploy? Have you heard anything?”
“Didn’t Fred tell you? They’re shipping out next week.”
My mother lobbed a look of disdain at my father. Dad was engrossed in animated conversation with Jack and didn’t notice. Mom picked up her pace, as if she were late for an important appointment, as if a countdown had already begun.
Our house took on the temperament of cold war: verbal exchanges between my parents were measured and clipped, ice cubes plunked into glasses with just a little too much force, flatware clanging onto empty plates at meal’s end, the faux quietude of discontent. My parents decided to have the ritual pre-departure fight behind the closed door of their bedroom the afternoon before my father’s final night at home. The Drapers were due over at four for a going away party. Stephanie and I watched TV in the den with the sound turned down so we could hear them go at it. My father was packing, so there was a lot of drawer and closet slamming. A late Saturday afternoon Creature Feature provided a haunting, if not tinny score for muffled sobs and gruff growls wafting through the wall. The movie was a low-budget, black and white account of a family trying to survive the aftermath of nuclear war out in some California state park. Ray Milland was lecturing Frankie Avalon about how doing little things, like shaving every day, could boost morale. The doorbell rang. The bedroom door flew open and I heard my father say:
“They’re here. Square yourself away.”
My father and Jack immediately shot out the door to make a booze-run at the base package (liquor) store to get what my sister and I ruefully called Jet Fighter Juice. To this day I wonder if Dad mentioned even one word of the altercation that had been going on just minutes before. Jack was Dad’s commanding officer, his C.O. – would the knowledge that Fred Gillen’s wife had been giving him grief about deploying have worked against him in some way? The first thing, my father often reminded us, that investigators ask when there’s a crash, the first question out of their mouths is: Was there a problem at home? I have to think that, as Jack and Fred shot downhill and veered off onto the gravel road that presented a convenient shortcut to arguably the most important retail outlet on the base in time of war, they probably talked shop. Departure times, rumors from the war front, weather for the flight out. My father probably didn’t say word one about the fact that his wife was furious over his impending absence. It was something he probably took for granted.
By 17:30 hours, adults were looped, laughing and loud, kids holed up in back of the house. Stephanie occupied the youngest snowy-haired Draper siblings while Dan and I sifted through my record collection. I plugged in my phonograph. We listened to the Beach Boys and my then-current favorite LP, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Using one of my football trophies as a microphone, I mouthed the words to “Cocaine Blues.” Dan said he was into Jefferson Airplane. I told him we were discouraged from listening to what my father called “hairy-headed draft-dodger music.”
“What about Beatles?” said Dan, holding up Rubber Soul. “They’re gettin’ pretty shaggy.” And that album was two years old. I had to agree, but advised him not to tell my father – who thought the Beatles were still four kids chirping “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The ‘Airplane would’ve definitely crossed a line. I could just see him, during a surprise inspection of my record collection, launching into a diatribe about “subversive musical influence.” I’d have to placate him by putting on Glen Campbell, Roger Miller or some other officially-sanctioned balladeer. We’d analyze lyrics together. “Prove” the song’s worth. Dad wasn’t a song fascist, per se, he wasn’t a John Bircher or anything. He was a Democrat, surprisingly liberal about certain things for a warrior. What irked him was lack of authenticity; if you were going to sing about hard times you’d damn well better have lived it. I remember him screaming about Bobby Goldsboro on TV one time as Bobby sang about working on the muddy Mississippi line and being cash-poor. “Look at him! Look at those fat cheeks – he’s never had a hungry day in his life!” Dad was wrong, it turned out. Goldsboro was not, by any means, born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
Our parents’ drunken laughter and a fog of cigarette smoke drifted into the room. I thought it strange that things should be so raucous what with Bobby Kennedy not even cold in his grave yet. And Martin Luther King. What on earth was going on? Something profound; something so large and close that we wouldn’t be able to accurately quantify or describe it for years to come. There were clues in music, clues on TV … clues in a footlocker at the foot of my parents’ bed, packed tight and ready to go. Everything was shifting and every little moment was a measure of patriotism and loyalty. But there was no rationing this time around; my parents often talked about how in 1942 things were stark and lean. Now there was simply too much fruit on the trees to see or need anything clearly. The further along we got, the more conveniences we invented to clutter the landscape, the harder it was to recognize the right thing.
Stephanie, Joey and Patty entered. Seeing my Beatles’ records fanned out across the floor prompted her to declare, almost defiantly: “I prefer the Monkees.”
“The Monkees?! They don’t even play their own instruments,” said Dan.
“That’s right, Steve,” I said. “It’s a big fakeout.” Stephanie’s eyes arched into woeful consternation and her mouth puckered into a pout, so we took it all back, assuring her that, yes, the Monkees were nothing less than the American Beatles. The noise level in the living room suddenly dropped. I checked my watch. Sure enough, it was time for the news.
Aside from the Kennedys, the other thing considered sacred in our family was the nightly news. My father said he “rubbed shoulders every day” with people who “shaped the world” and the news was his “briefing” on what to expect tomorrow. The news had become bizarre and macabre; protesting students bludgeoned, political executions … and The War, which we only addressed in superficial, abstract terms. Every Thursday night they announced the weekly body count, Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, as amorphous as Wall Street stats. We were lulled into believing that since our fathers piloted jets high in sky, miles out of harm’s way, nothing like what we saw on TV could ever happen to them in a million years.
The radio competed quietly, irrelevantly, with Walter Cronkite as we kids entered to witness the following tableau: Jack and Fred each standing, stein of beer in one hand, dram of whiskey in the other, watching ground troops onscreen and Navy fighter jets dropping their payload before climbing. Mom and Shelly sat off to the side, like spectators, on the couch. They looked demure and resigned.
“Go get ‘em, baby!” said Dad.
“YEAH!” Jack yelled.
They simultaneously dropped shot glasses into their beers, as if arming a couple of Jet Fighter Juice Nukes, and chugged down the ballistic boilermakers. Dad finished first, stood on the coffee table and struck a pose:
“WHO’LL CARRY THE MAIL TO THE AWSHAW VALLEY?!”
Jack joined Dad on the table:
“I’LL CARRY THE MAIL THE TO THE AWSHAW VALLEY!”
I’d never heard of the Awshaw Valley. Didn’t matter. The flimsy coffee table collapsed and Mom covered her eyes with embarrassment. My father put on Ray-Bans and cranked up the radio as the news went into a commercial. Goofy “hippie” music that, had he been paying attention, he would’ve reviled and switched off. The kids all laughed. I looked to my mother and she tried very hard not to smile, but my dad had a talent for the kind of complete mental commitment that makes for good, broad physical comedy. He shimmied and clogged across the floor, leaning back as if he was performing the Limbo. We kids laughed till it hurt. Mom’s reluctant smile gave way to a chuckle and it was all but over. Dad took her by the hand, pulled her off the couch and put his arm around her waist. His comical gyrations decelerated into a slow dance, in spite of the rock and roll, which was by now climaxing in one of those out-of-control, electric guitar “rave-ups” so popular in those days. I took the stein from my father, empty shot glass rattling around the bottom like a coin in a blind man’s cup. Mom clung to him, wiped away a tear. Then the news came back on and we all sat down to watch.
The next morning, our families piled into our station wagons, footlockers resting in back like coffins, and made the solemn, intense drive that only families sending their fathers off to war can understand. Instead of driving through town, we exited out the back gate, along Torpedo Road. It was as if my father wanted to slip away, undetected by the local populace. The black forest seemed impenetrable, brambles and nettles lining the road like barbed wire. For some reason, my mother drove, Dad riding shotgun. The sun was barely up, but already he had on his sunglasses. I imagined blue, hungover eyes behind them. He turned to me, took off the Ray-Bans and I was surprised to find the whites of his eyes surprisingly clear.
“I’ve got an assignment for you,” he said. “There’s a poem by Rudyard Kipling called ‘If’ – are you familiar with it?”
“Have you heard of Rudyard Kipling?”
“Yessir. He wrote The Jungle Book.” Stephanie and I had seen the cartoon movie the year before. Bear Necessities and all that. Kipling was no stranger, Dad frequently tossed off fragments of “Gunga Din.”
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs …” he intoned. “Grandpa Gillen can recite it from memory, top to bottom. Sure you never heard of it?”
“I don’t know.”
“What the hell are they teaching you kids in school, anyway?” he frowned. “I need you to find that poem, copy it down and send it to me. You may have to dig around a little. Think you can handle that?”
“I want to hang it on the wall of the Ready-Room,” he said. “When you read it, you’ll understand.”
He swiveled his gaze like a mounted machine gun towards Stephanie. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of it either.”
She just glowered at him. He winked.
“Hey Dad,” I said. “What’s a Ready-Room?”
“It’s where we get ready,” he said, putting sunglasses back on and looking ahead, “for war.”
We descended the steep hill overlooking Ault Field and saw transport planes and attack jets taking off and landing. It looked just like an international airport – which it was, in a way. Guards saluted us through the gate and a few minutes later we parked in front of the designated hangar of our new squadron: VAQ-186 – The Airhawks. The Drapers were already there. My father and Jack Draper grabbed their duffels while a couple of enlisted guys in sailor uniforms took care of the footlockers. Our dads marched off with purpose, taking large steps. Mothers and kids had to run to keep up. As Jack and Fred strode on, I noticed how, with each long step away from us they carried themselves less like fathers and more like fighters. It was an impressive thing to see your warrior father assume the battle stance; a reassuring feeling to see him walking tall, chin out and shoulders thrown back. Navy “drivers,” they were called. Their commanding cocksurety made it easier to climb into our station wagons afterwards and motor away as if we were just seeing them off to “another day’s work of fighting,” as my father used to say, “for the oppressed peoples of the world.” We were used to these rigid good-byes and never cried. Duffels and footlockers were stowed onto the transport while in the distance, a flock of A-6s was readied for departure. Dad turned to Mom and Stephanie, offering awkward hugs and kisses.
“I’ll see you soon,” he said.
My mother’s smile was frozen on her face, tense. Dad moved closer to reassure, but my mother could no longer hold back tears. Dad looked distressed, as if Mom had just broken a mirror.
“Hey now! There’s nothing to cry about,” he gripped her tight. “Come on, straighten up.”
Mom slightly pushed away, still in his grip. She took his chin in her hand, looked him in the eye and said: “Goddammit, be careful.”
“I will. This is what I do. You know that.”
“It’s what I’m good at.”
“Don’t worry.” And he turned to me, extended his hand but it turned into a brusque embrace. Then one for Steph’. He kissed my mother one last time, headed for his A-6. He carried a flight helmet under his arm, PHOENIX stenciled across the brow.
The ride home was as silent as a fossil. Mom lighted a Virginia Slim and cracked the V. The sky darkened, threatening rain. I rode up front, the seat still warm from Dad.
“You okay?” she said to me.
“We never went camping.”
I looked back at Stephanie, the same view my father had minutes before. I mimicked Dad and said, “I have an assignment for you, Steve.”
“I hate it here,” was all she said.
Mom took a leisurely detour through Oak Harbor on the way home, as if to delay the finality of Dad’s departure. Like any good warrior son, I’d already mapped out the terrain of the town but was still amazed by how close everything was in proximity to Officers Capehart. An easy walk. That lurching old gray Navy bus trundled every half hour between Seaplane Base and Ault Field, making several stops in town. We passed the local drive-in, Kow-Korner. Dan Draper had mentioned it was the preferred hangout. My stomach walls were collapsing with hunger and I cracked the window to inhale the smell of deep fried food and grilled ground beef mixed with impending rain. Kow-Korner. This was an accessible proximity to civilian life that I’d never fully experienced. Ah, to live in a place with an actual drive-in. When you’re a military brat, you long for the stability of Main Street, USA; self-contained, secure and uncomplicated. A place where family histories run as deep as the roots anchoring trees; mighty oaks with canopies of bird-filled branches, sheltering storybook homes from all harm. I longed to live right across the street from a civilian school, to exist as a character in an Archie & Jughead comic book. We turned right off Midway onto Pioneer Way, passing a movie theater, bar, music store, gun shop …
“Is there a book store?” I wondered out loud.
“Yeah,” said Steph’. “Right there.”
She indicated Island in a Storm Bookstore on the right. The street was wet and gloomy with fresh rain. The stores on the left side of Pioneer Way leaned out on pilings over a rocky beach. Everything looked warm and cozy inside. In the front window of the bookstore a couple played a game of chess. Our own Maylor Point – which we could see across the harbor – stood like a sentry over the town; a hilly, green spiked collar of forest partitioned our neighborhood from the manmade isthmus of obsolete Seaplane Base taxiways and launching ramps which chained our little peninsula to the island. I thought about my father, no doubt already airborne, his mind focused on larger issues. I wondered why he seemed so panicked at Mom’s unexpected tears. Years later, I suspect that maybe he was afraid he’d start crying too. Or maybe not.
The rain drove Dan and me to the refuge of my bedroom. We dug through my stuff – some of it still in moving boxes, for anything that might serve as a portal, an escape route for incarcerated imaginations. First, I showed him my coveted comic book collection: Superman, Dennis the Menace, Blackhawk, Sgt. Rock, Mad Magazine, The Incredible Hulk, Archie … When he was sufficiently impressed, I broke open another cardboard box and dumped the contents onto linoleum. We sorted through squirt guns, a jar full of dead hornets, plastic Army men, my 4th grade perfect attendance award, a fake shrunken head on an elastic string, a stack of 45s – the junk that defined me. Various gewgaws and talismans freighted with required familiarity. Inside a metal strongbox, silver dollars that Grandpa Gillen gave me two Christmases ago, a deck of dirty playing cards and a well-worn issue of Playboy salvaged from a San Diego neighbor’s garbage can. Next, I opened books: Golden Books about animals, plants and rocks; illustrated catalogues of space travel, football and, of course, warfare. As Dan leafed through a biography of gridiron legend Gale Sayers, I reached for the treasury of Service poems and opened it up to “The Men That Don’t Fit In”:
There is a race of men that don’t fit in
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will …
In a thick volume entitled Best Loved Poems of the American People, I located Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”
“Whatcha readin’?” said Dan as he unfurled the Playboy gatefold with a delicacy reserved for Dead Sea Scrolls.
“Lookin’ up something for my father.”
“A poem he wants me to send him.”
“Gillen Family Tradition,” I explained, handing him Service. Dan took it in one hand and removed the shrunken head on its elastic string from the bedpost with the other. He randomly opened and blathered the first words he saw.
“Hark to the call of War!” he said, affecting a pompous, stentorian tone. “Over the gorse and golden dells, Ringing and swinging of clamorous bells, Praying and saying of wild farewells –” Brimming with pretense, the crescendo:
“– WAR! WAR! WAR!”
I laughed, a little perturbed at Dan’s irreverence – but entertained.
“What’s a gorse?”
“What’s a dell?”
“Maybe it’s like Farmer in the Dell.” I handed him the other book. “It’s this one.”
Dangling the shrunken head, Dan recited, a la a lisping Vincent Price: “If you can keep your HEAD when all about you are losing theirs … BWA-HA-HA-HA-HAAA!”
I took the book back, slammed it shut and tossed it aside. At that moment a shaft of sunlight plunged into the room.
“Hey,” he said. “Rain stopped.”
Down the street and across a sopping meadow, Dan showed me a trail into the woods. With jeans wet to the knees, we trampled a springy carpet of damp moss, dead pine needles and decaying leaves. My lungs filled with the peaty perfume of wet ferns and towering firs. The sun freed itself completely from clouds overhead, yet barely filtered down through the crowns of mighty trees. Every few minutes, one of us shouted War! War! War! and we’d howl with atavistic exuberance. Deep in the forest, we left the regular path and hopped over a gully swollen with fresh rainwater. After crawling under branches of Christmas tree-like firs, we entered Fort Dan. He’d nailed some support beams around a thick oak tree and attached a slanted roof of redwood shingles. Residual rainwater trickled off the roof as if we were in a grotto.
“I waterproofed the top with some plastic I found in a dumpster behind the Exchange,” he said. “I bought the shingles myself – they were pretty cheap.” There was a locking cabinet containing a few girly magazines, a tin of moldy cookies and a jar of Planter’s Peanuts. A chess set sat at the ready on a folding card table with rusted legs and warped top. The whole fort rested on a plywood base which encircled the tree, supported underneath by dozens of two-by-fours which kept the floor raised and relatively dry. We relaxed for an hour, ogling nudie girls and sipping bottles of root beer chilled in the nearby stream. A huge raccoon waddled into view, sniffed in our direction, then scurried out. Dan’s last fort had been destroyed by older junior high kids, so he made sure that this one would be impossible to discover. By Dan’s account, the older boy to watch out for was Rupert Lord.
“You’ll see. He’s got a hideout with a stereo and everything.”
He fell silent, looked as if he were about to say something more, but didn’t. We listened to birds chirping, stream gurgling. There’s something primal about the woods, makes you want to hunt something down and kill it. In that moment, I longed to find Rupert Lord, destroy his luxury fort, screaming henchmen chasing us through the forest. We’d elude them for days, we would. We’d set elaborate traps until Rupert and his gang were utterly vanquished.
War! War! War!
We slipped comfortably, eagerly, into the subject of sports. “My specialty’s shortstop,” I said, “but I wanna pitch.” I described long hours in my San Diego backyard practicing on a Pitch-Back, pretending I was Sandy Koufax. Dan said he’d done the same thing, only with track and field; running uphill from the Exchange like mile 26of the Olympic Marathon, imagined crowds lining both sides of Coral Sea Drive, cheering him. The Summer Games were scheduled for Mexico City in a few months. I’d always thought track was for pansies and said as much – running with a “baton” and everything.
“Tell it to the Greeks who invented it,” he said. “They were incredible athletes who fought to the death. What about the javelin? The shot put? What about the marathon? It’s a 26-mile race. 26 miles. Have you ever run even five miles?”
“Sure,” I lied. We let the tension of the moment torque with an extra beat or two of silence. The sun went dark as fresh rain clouds returned. Suddenly, we broke up, laughing long and hard. For now, the futility of fighting, the treacherous tidewaters of government-dispensed glory – those things could not reach us in this place. And, looking back, I know that I made a mental note to remember this sanctuary, this unlocked closet in the long hallway that led to the time and place of our death. Death-literal, Death-figurative. There were surely many Deaths awaiting us and I was grateful to have found such a fine pal, someone who let you have your own opinion even if it was different from his. Dan Draper was resourceful and fair; a natural-born leader – and all warriors respect a good general. Besides, our fathers were in the same squadron and that was tantamount to a family tie. After a while, when we were all talked out, we got up and let the crunch of twigs under our sneakers, resumed rattle of rain and subsonic hum of the woods wash over us like the serene eye of a holy hurricane. By the time we ascended to the meadow, the rain had once again stopped. The sun seemed to pause between a break in the clouds on the western horizon, as if God were reluctant to call it a day. I let the final rays of light toast my face while Dan knelt down to retie wet shoelaces. Evening breeze began to blow in off the water, every rustle of the leaves a throaty chuckle.
War! War! War!
I cocked an ear, hoping to catch the growl of a feral animal. Or perhaps the rumble of a roving pack of older kids, closing in. I listened hard for the sound of the enemy, but heard nothing.
The companion song for this story can be found at:
“A Life In Music” is part of Robert Morgan Fisher’s most recent collection, CABARET NATION – stories that cohere around the idea that all peripheral performers enforce a sacred contract with the world.
A Life In Music
MY NAME IS DJANGA. I WAS born in a pinecone on the tallest Sitka spruce, raised by a forest at the edge of the Bering Sea. Felled at 580, you might think all those years would blur together. But I remember what went into creating every ring: each hard freeze, spring thaw, drought, windstorm, lightning strike, all the fires. Every rumor of war and revolution settled into my permanent record. I absorbed traces of every animal that ever called me home or fed off me; I recall every beetle larvae, eagle’s nest and every grizzly that ever scratched its back on my bark. And somewhere in those 580 years, a soul crystallized into perfection. It took careful cutting and handiwork to release it, for that lucky day at the sawmill was where my life truly began.
The journey from forest to sawmill started with separating me from my roots. I was familiar with men and saws and I’d wondered if someday they would come for me. I knew that after I crashed to the ground all my branches would be stripped, followed by immersion into the sea. I had long desired to feel the embrace of those rippling, frigid waves. I sensed there would be more for me beyond our little family forest. I could smell it. And with that first splash, I tasted it: salt. My grain eagerly soaked up the seasoning. I intuited that it would serve me well, wherever this journey took me. All the harvested trees were lashed together into one huge raft and hauled down the coast. I did not yet know I was bound for a mill; at that point I even imagined that I might metamorphose into one of those Orcas gliding alongside. But it was not meant to be. For while I did manage to break away, my family and the Orcas left me behind. I became what they call a sinker.
For 96 years, I rested at the bottom of Norton Sound. When I was thoroughly permeated with the salt of the sea, a once-in-a-hundred-year storm lifted me to shore.
Scooped out of the shallows with a forklift payloader and set out to dry, I wondered what could be next? My soul had been sawed, stripped, soaked and salvaged. Something greater awaited me, I was sure of it. In fact, during my entire time in the salty silt as I became the barnacled host of several generations of king crabs, I never once doubted this undefined destiny. And as my salinated soul steamed and smiled in the sun, I tightened and toned every sliver of my being, ever ready.
In short order the same payloader deposited me onto a log deck and I awaited my turn to enter the carriage. I saw the trees that had come before were now cut and divided into many symmetrical lengths. There was another tree ahead, pushed forward into a magnificent spinning circle, which sheared off slabs from four sides exposing her rings and creating mounds of tree dust. When the spinning circle slowed to a stop, I saw that it was a circular disk wielding many sharp teeth. A man sharpened those teeth with a file.
I welcomed him – not as executioner, but as surgeon. I desired the paring away of imperfection, for my initial edges to be plumb and smooth. I needed to bare my soul to the world. I leaned into the quarter-inch kerf and did not flinch. The man – a “sawman” – was pleased. He set me aside into a special stack. The salty sea had done what 580 years in the forest could not: turned my body blue, lavender, yellow and burgundy. What’s more, my grain now displayed what they call silk – little cross-grain windows of strength to ensure no undue torquing would take place. Why this mattered and for what purpose I was intended, I still wasn’t sure. But the sawman remarked: “If there was ever a Sitka spruce made of melted star sapphires, why that Sitka spruce would be you.”
As I lay resting from my birth in a wooden storage shed, I attempted conversation with some of the other freshly cut wood but no one answered. They were without souls and as inanimate as the gray weathered walls of the shed.
The next day, a kind-eyed man came and took me away. He trembled as he touched me and his hand went straight to the place where my soul was hidden, as if it were a plainly visible knothole. Every sliver aligned towards this man like iron filings to a magnet. I was loaded into a truck and taken to his workshop. The sign on the street said: Luther Djanga – Guitar Maker.
Guitars everywhere: some being assembled, some repaired, different shapes and configurations. Some boxy and hollow, some simply solid like a shark fin. One of the solid ones called out to me. He said his name was Planck. He asked me my name and, not knowing what else to say, I replied: Djanga.
Planck and the others laughed.
We’re all Djangas, he said.
Luther went to work on me that very day. I was quartered, sanded, fitted and matched. Looking around, I could see what was in store: I would become a celebrated Djanga dreadnought! Over the next several weeks, I was conjoined with exotic companions: a one-piece mahogany neck from the West Indies was attached to rosewood back and sides from the rainforests of Brazil. My bracing was carefully sculpted and scalloped to maximize sound without compromising strength. Around the exclamatory mouth of my sound hole, Luther inlaid marquetry of minute multicolored wood chips giving tender attention to detail. This was followed by a molding of herringbone purfling wherever it could be squeezed in around each edge of my body. Varnish lovingly layered over a period of several days and allowed to dry, sealing my salty soul in a paper-thin, protective, transparent shell. Frets were attached and spaced at precisely expanding mathematic intervals up the length of an ebony fingerboard liberally inlaid with abalone shell. Finally, the ball ends of the brightest bronze strings money could buy were threaded over a bone saddle, into an ebony bridge and then secured with whale-bone pins. Up top, loose ends of the strings wound around gold-plated tuners beneath a scrollwork headstock so elaborate it might’ve once served as a figurehead tucked under the bowsprit of a clipper. I could feel a delicious tightening, my neck bowing into a delicate arc, strings floating off the fingerboard to where they were neither too high nor low then all six stretched and tuned to a harmonically perfect turn.
The first chord to ever emerge from me was a strummed G. It shattered the silence of the workshop like a small cannon firing shards of crystal into a harp.
All through the night Luther wept as he sang songs from the old country – a place called Czechoslovakia. He couldn’t put me down and I didn’t want him to. And when the sun came up and he hung me on the most prominent peg in the workshop, he said that I was the greatest of all his guitars. He said, “You are the Djanga!” This pronouncement, along with weeks of exclusive attention he’d given to my construction, caused Planck and the other guitars to somewhat resent me. But I didn’t care. I was Djanga.
I think the reason Luther strummed and fingerpicked me for the duration of that wonderful night was because he knew I wouldn’t be hanging on that wall for very long. And sure enough, the next afternoon a man of great wealth and power came to Luther’s workshop and demanded to see the finest Djanga dreadnought. What could Luther do but show him the Djanga? Of course the gentleman paid handsomely, but he didn’t even strum me – not once! He was merely infatuated. I couldn’t blame him, but I’ll tell you this: a guitar is meant to be played – well and loud. That’s what we like.
The man’s name was Lars Dinwiddy, a famous oil baron. He remarked on my exquisitely versicolored top. While certain areas of me dazzled – inlays, marquetry, purfling – they were the lesser parts compared to my solid Sitka spruce top. That was where my soul resided. Submersion in salt water had produced a spruce top as variegated as Hawaiian koa. I certainly looked loud. The last thing I remember hearing Luther say, before I was locked away inside a case and transported back to Dinwiddy Manor, were these words:
“The guitar never falls very far from the tree.”
I had a long time to consider that, for I was not to see the light of day for ages.
Four years of suffocating darkness. Lined with plush purple velvet, the guitar case felt like a casket. Even worse, I was shoved into a remote upstairs closet, doubling the intensity of isolation. Sometimes I’d hear a faint voice, footsteps – but it was never my liberator. Not even 96 years of submersion in the sea were this lonely. At least then I enjoyed the company of crabs and salmon, the gently rocking amniotic bliss of gestation. Mummified in this way, there was a danger that I might dry up and wither. Fortunately, Luther had the forethought to improvise a natural humidifier: he’d punctured an apple with cloves, wrapped it in a handkerchief and hid it inside the case. How I loved that apple.
The guitar never falls very far from the tree.
What did that mean for me?
I tried to see beyond the obvious. But the truth was locked up inside. I longed for release, longed to be played in a robust manner. Memories of my final night with Luther always remained strong and I missed him terribly as one would miss any father. And sometimes my prior life as a tree seemed unreal, like 580 years had never happened. I languished.
Then one day the closet doorknob clicked. Someone approached and tipped over the case and pushed it out across the rug. Latches rattled and suddenly – light! And air! And the curvy smile of an eight-year old girl.
Her name was Demetria. A younger brother, Ezra, could be heard downstairs banging a wooden spoon on pots and pans. The nanny stood in the doorway.
“What have you there?” she said. “Oh look, a guitar!”
Nanny knew something about playing guitar. She pulled me out of the case and commenced to tuning. How wonderful it felt to be played – even tentatively. She directed Demetria to a nearby piano and ordered her to produce an E note.
The piano secretly announced itself to me, said its name was Calliope.
How do? I replied through the tedious tuning of E – A – D – G – B & E.
“What a gorgeous instrument,” said Nanny. “I wonder why we’ve never seen it before?”
“Daddy buys lots of things and hides them away,” said Demetria. And indeed, I could now see that the closet where I’d been stashed contained many other instruments. This was all part of the Dinwiddy family music room.
Nanny strummed for a while, then handed me to Demetria and taught her some rudimentary chords.
Harder! I thought. Play me LOUD.
But Demetria was a novice. Her untrained fingers lacked the strength to chord for any extended period. Still, it was far better than four years of enforced darkness. I was curious to find out about this place I’d been kept. To prevent Demetria from getting discouraged, I lowered the action of the strings on the fingerboard so as to make chording easier. This I accomplished by arching my neck ever so slightly. I also brought the full force of my wood to bear, endlessly sustaining each note and chord. I desperately wanted Demetria – or anyone – to feel the urge to play me every minute of the day. And the best way to ensure that would be for Djanga to produce nothing less than ear candy.
It worked. Thereafter, Demetria was never far away. I became her special compulsion as she threw herself into mastering me. She also became quite proficient on Calliope the piano, alternating between us two. Soon, her little brother Ezra toddled into the picture. He was a caution: always looking for something to destroy. I feared him.
Eventually, Lars and his wife Tricia returned from abroad. Lars seemed pleased that Demetria had discovered me, as if he’d planned it that way. But I could tell that he’d completely forgotten his Djanga. Had his daughter not opened the closet door that day, I’d still be up there atrophying in complete isolation.
Music books were provided and a teacher. In time, Demetria was performing for guests and friends, both on Calliope and myself. I was able to relax my neck somewhat as her fingers lengthened and strengthened – and this was even better, for the lowered action had compromised volume and I so dearly wanted the full force of my soul to be heard. Yet, as loud as Demetria strummed me with her bare fingers, it still wasn’t enough. Strange to say, I longed to be handled with total authority. Punished even.
I had been rescued from the clutches of little brother Ezra on more than one occasion. From the moment he started walking upright, he wandered from room to room in search of things to break. As the years wore on, he slowly outgrew his more heinous impulses. He arrived at the age of reason none too soon and acquired a somewhat grudging sense of practicality. Years passed.
When Demetria abandoned me to study piano at the University, Ezra pounced.
I was propped up in the corner of the music room where Demetria had left me. As I tried to console Calliope over Demetria’s departure, 16-year old Ezra appeared in the doorway. His hand concealed something. I was worried it might be a knife or a hammer, but it was too small for that. He looked angry – he always looked angry.
He didn’t know how to chord yet, so he did the only thing he knew how to do: thrash my strings with his right hand. I wailed with shock and pain. He attacked the strings even harder with that stiff little oval in his hand. After he’d satisfied his urges, he wedged the thing into my strings just above the third fret where I could now see it was a tortoiseshell guitar pick. Everyone who’d ever played me up until then had used naked fingers. The brutality with which Ezra played had loosened up the grain in new unexplored areas, stimulated my soul. I liked it.
His friends came over. They were all angry like Ezra. My first barre cordscor came from these boys. Ezra’s technique improved. They also showed him how to arpeggiate individual notes all over my fingerboard, another thing I found pleasurable. They smoked while they played and wedged smoldering cigarette butts in the strings on my headstock, next to the nut. The ashes reminded me of ancient fires I’d survived, including the one that liberated me from my pine cone at the beginning of my existence.
Ezra decorated me with decals that felt like slutty tattoos. This dampened my sound, which I didn’t care for. But Ezra played hard, and that made up for it.
That’s it, boy – more!
Sometimes he’d hurt me, break a string. Sometimes his cigarette would burn down and singe. Once, a lick he was trying to master got the better of him and he almost threw me across the room.
One day, Ezra’s friends brought over a guitar with a wire that plugged into a box that plugged into a hole in the wall. It reminded me of Planck. A switch was thrown and the strings came alive. It was louder than I could ever be, but still I couldn’t detect a soul and there was no response when I called out to this paddle with strings.
I’m Djanga, I tried to say over the dissonant din.
This wasn’t unusual; I found many wooden instruments lacked a soul. At the same time, one never knew when an everyday household object made of wood might suddenly start up a conversation. One time, one of Ezra’s pals chewed on a toothpick that shyly announced itself to me. There followed a brief, awkward conversation about our futures and what might have been. Of course, Ezra and his friends couldn’t hear any of it and the toothpick was soon discarded.
The “electric” guitar got its magic from the hole in the wall, so the strings were thin and action absurdly low. For Ezra, playing this thing was like lifting a pebble instead of a boulder. He became drunk with the power of playing fast. They referred to it as an “axe” – and indeed, it was meant to cut me down.
Ezra took me to a pawnshop. The pawnbroker had never heard of a Djanga, and I was still covered with clownish decals, but I sounded nice and played easily enough so he allowed Ezra to trade me for the electric kind.
Over a period of several months I was bought, hocked, re-bought, re-hocked … The owners ranged from dilettantes to drug addicts. None of them could really play with any kind of force or passion.
Then came the day that changed my life forever. I was hanging in the pawnshop, having an imaginary conversation with a plywood potato-bug mandolin that was more decoration than instrument, when a vagrant wandered into the store. His name was Gyp. He carried a battered guitar case. The pawnbroker seemed to know him.
“Get out of here, you,” he said. “You smell bad and you don’t have any money.”
“I got money,” said Gyp. “And I want to see that guitar hanging in the window.”
He pointed at me. The pawnbroker reluctantly handed me to Gyp.
“Don’t dirty it up.”
I thrilled from the second Gyp grasped my neck. His fingers were massive and strong. The calluses on the left hand told me this was a seasoned player. His strum was expert and authoritative. Gyp had a beard, smelled like the earth. His hair was long like wild grass; eyes black as a pair of varmint holes: deep – like there was no telling what was in there.
“‘Djanga,’” he read the headstock, as if addressing me by name.
Gyp grinned like he’d heard me.
He and the pawnbroker haggled and ultimately arrived at an acceptable arrangement: Gyp’s old guitar and some cash in exchange for my freedom. I was taken back to Gyp’s room in a fleabag flophouse down by the water. I couldn’t wait to be played by this man.
He removed me from the case and laid me out on his cot.
“I knew Luther Djanga,” he said. “He made some very fine guitars.”
I had not heard Luther’s name in years. Gyp added:
“May he rest in peace.”
While Gyp gently soaked the decals from my body with a damp washcloth, I lay there in shock trying to come to terms with the fact that my creator, my father, was no longer alive. I’d heard what happened to people when they passed out of this life. What happened to guitars when they passed? As Gyp polished my wood, massaged linseed oil into my ebony fingerboard and bridge, as he brightened up my tarnished tuners, it reminded me of embalming – a process that had always puzzled me. Humans think they’re preserving for the afterlife, but they’re only delaying. In order to be reborn, we must be utterly dismantled by nature.
Gyp was preserving and preparing me. He had plans for Djanga.
“I’m you’re new best friend,” he whispered when every last trace of Ezra was gone. Gyp strung me with heavy-gauge strings and tuned me up. The first strum was rapturous.
I became a real guitar in the hands of this man. Gyp was a street musician, a busker by trade. It was his job to know as many songs as possible and to sing and play them LOUD. Sometimes we’d go for days without repeating the same song. He followed the weather like a bird – south for winter, north in spring. For over 30 years we wandered: Pike Place Market, Fisherman’s Wharf, Venice Beach. Sometimes he’d get a wild hair and dash off to the other side of the continent, as if to musically balance the land. We’d work our way up the Eastern Seaboard: Savannah, Greenwich Village, Harvard Square. We played subways and streets with equal ease. One year, Gyp signed on to a freighter and we played all the busking capitals of Europe: London, Dublin and Stockholm. Gyp kept to the port cities, it was where he felt most comfortable. And I loved the proximity of the salt that had given so much to my soul. He hitched rides with truckers, stowed away on trains and walked. Lots of walking. The roar of heavy-gauge strings shook out every last bit of tension in my wood. Each grain became kinetic yet crisp. The little windows in my Spruce top filtered every note, neutralizing all disharmony. Sometimes a honeybee would fly into my soundhole and hang transfixed by the sustained sweetness of my notes. Gyp would find the dried husk weeks later, a smile on the dead bee’s face.
While the circumstances of Gyp’s existence occasionally veered into dire poverty, he always made sure that I was kept from harm. This included weather extremes, which can kill a fine guitar. Even when Gyp had to sleep outside in the winter, it was I who merited the safety of the heating grate. Drinking whiskey was an occupational necessity at times like these, for Gyp needed the antifreeze. Under such conditions, it was easy for Gyp to overindulge and nurse a capricious dependence upon the rye.
Once, a woman of great substance and beauty stopped to hear Gyp playing in Boston Common. Gyp was on a roll that spring: sober, pulling in regular money, bathing daily and wearing new clothes. He aimed me at that woman, chose songs that would cause my soul to resonate with her heartstrings. When the crowd fell away, she was still there and invited us back to her brownstone. She fed him, sent the maid and the cook home early and took Gyp to her bed. We lived with her for over a month, I was sure I was going to lose Gyp. But in the end we quietly slipped away one morning before the sun came up. There were other women, but they were desperate types one finds living in the street.
Gyp was very clear about his life choices.
“I’ve lived a life in music. I’ve lived for music,” he’d say. “When you give yourself to something like that, it’s a service to mankind. I know there are some who might think me selfish – but I’m just giving of myself. There are some who might say I took the easy way out. But believe me, it hasn’t been easy. Not by a long shot. Long ago, I abandoned any delusions of fame. I don’t begrudge others their success, but that’s not why I do this. This world and I, we don’t owe each other anything.”
People would try to steal the money Gyp collected in his guitar case while he sang. Or they’d try to steal me and out came Gyp’s knife. He was vigilant and quick, but as time wore on his reflexes slowed. After several decades on the fly, we had a run of bad luck that found us stranded in Seattle, feverishly trying to raise enough money for a warm room. It was raining as it can only rain in Seattle, and cold like we were back up in Alaska. Gyp had been playing all day in Pike Place Market, but the economy was bad and no one had anything to give. He had no food, whiskey or money. What little we’d made was sitting in the guitar case. Gyp’s lungs were so full of sickness his voice could scarcely be heard over my big, booming beat. During an extended coughing fit, someone ran off with every last dime we’d made. Devastated, he packed me up and said it was high time we headed south.
But we only made it as far as Portland. For a long time, Gyp had been having problems with his fingers: arthritis. All the years of playing out in the raw elements had taken a toll. We were sitting in the bus station in downtown Portland, Gyp trying to attract a crowd. He’d long lost the ability to play barre chords, now it was just simple first position triads. He hugged me and wept. I knew what was coming.
“I’m sorry, Djanga,” he sobbed. People looked at him the way I’d seen Gyp look at down-on-their-luck characters years before. Now it was Gyp’s turn to live in extremis. The rain had followed us south, so Gyp carried me through the deluge to a pawnshop and got what little money he could in exchange for his dear Djanga. He gave me one last embrace, tears and raindrops from his beard commingling in a final, bittersweet, salty kiss.
He said he’d come back for me. But I never saw him again. I’d lost my true north.
Now a funny thing happened. I’d expected to languish in the pawnshop window for weeks and months, if not years. But within a few days a man passing by looked up and stood shock still. I thought: Do I know you? Turns out I did not, but he knew of me. Djanga had registered instantly with him in a cryptic, profound way. He snatched me up, didn’t even haggle with the pawnbroker.
He was not a player, much to my great disappointment. For someone to seize me with such zeal, I’d expect to get something out of it. It had been years since Gyp had played with any measure of power – the age-old lover’s complaint of declining desire. And as much as I missed old Gyp, I was still very playable. I had a lot to give, just needed someone to take it. The man took me home to his modest house. One of those ticky-tacky boxes you see in clusters not far from the cities, each one indistinguishable from the other. He got on the telephone and started making calls. He confirmed information about me. Visitors began to arrive, some from far away, to gawk. A news reporter came and took my picture. Apparently, I had acquired some kind of rare pedigree and my value was now incalculable. Long-lost Djanga Discovered in Pawn Shop said the headline. But still, no one would play me – at least not properly. There were respectful, tentative strums, some wistful fingerpicking, but no one really seemed to want to hear.
An auction was arranged down in San Francisco. I wish Luther Djanga had been alive to witness it. The bidding escalated until it came down to just two, a man against a woman. Every time the woman made a bid, the man topped it. Finally, the woman capitulated and the man came forward to claim me. It was then that I saw the woman was Demetria and the man, Ezra.
She’d done well for herself: a career as a concert pianist and the inheritance of the Dinwiddy oil fortune. But her resources were no match for Ezra – for you see, he had his inheritance and rock ‘n roll money. He’d become one of the most famous electric guitar players in the world. Even there at the auction, he was trailed by a coterie of handlers and sycophants. Ezra’s hair was spiky like a porcupine and his body sported strange piercings of metal. He looked like a walking torture chamber.
“Why wouldn’t you let me have her?” cried Demetria. “You don’t even play this kind of guitar!”
“It’s a Djanga,” said Ezra. “As you’ll recall I used to have one just like it.”
“We used to have one,” said Demetria. “Until you hocked it.”
Apparently, it never occurred to either of them that I might be the exact same Djanga from those halcyon days at Dinwiddy Manor. Granted, the last time Ezra saw me I was still wearing those ridiculous decals and since then many years had passed. Now Ezra was the one with decals – his entire body covered in tattoos. But still, you’d think he’d remember. Sadly, I realized that Ezra had no intention of playing me. I was merely a trophy. He frowned.
“The first thing I need to do is put some lighter-gauge strings on.”
I was proudly displayed with all the other guitars in Ezra’s collection. Hundreds of them; most were electric and most had souls, so there was no shortage of conversation. In fact, I was set in a glass case next to Planck, the solidbody electric Djanga I’d first met at my conception in Luther’s workshop. It seemed that Planck and myself were the only two surviving Djangas in the world. Had it really been that many years? Had Luther really only crafted such a small number of instruments?
He was a perfectionist, Planck reminded me.
Planck had mellowed with age. He seemed to realize that his talents were limited to circuitry and hardware. Ezra had only acquired Planck because he was a Djanga. There were plenty of other electrics that Ezra preferred to play. I wasn’t the only acoustic in the collection, but I was the most prized. For months, I endured the neglect of not being played. Sometimes Ezra would plug in an electric and rattle the walls and I would settle for the vicarious stimulation of secondhand sound waves.
Hans was the estate caretaker; an old lumberjack but really a jack-of-all-trades who’d spent years supervising oil fields for Lars Dinwiddy. I remembered him. He’d visited the manor once, attended one of Demetria’s recitals. Ezra entertained an eccentric attachment to the institutions of his youth and when he needed a caretaker for his 300-acre estate on the California Central Coast, he’d searched out Hans up in Alaska and coaxed him out of retirement. Ezra regularly abused and humiliated his employees, but he always stopped short with Hans out of either fear or respect.
One night I was awakened by the sound of my glass case being opened. The lights were off – was I being stolen? Oh please, I prayed. Let it be true! I was lifted out of the case by strong, capable yet unfamiliar hands. Hans sat down in the dark and tuned me.
“Oh, I’ve waited a long time to play you, Djanga.”
Hans had apparently coveted me ever since Demetria’s recital and he could play reasonably well. He knew I was the same Djanga. The guitar collection was far enough away from the main house that there was no danger of being heard, yet at first Hans was overly timid in attack. After a while he couldn’t hold back anymore and tore into a thunderous G chord. Then he tuned me to an open-D. I was ecstatic. He pulled out an old shot glass and used it as a slide. I’d never experienced this way of being played. Like a cat being stroked, I arched myself ever so slightly, raising the strings high enough to prevent fret rattle. One of Ezra’s prized guitars was an old steel-bodied resophonic – something every rock and roller was supposed to have, apparently, and I copied that guitar’s posture. Ezra sometimes played blues on it, affecting a rather comic imitation of an old black man.
But there was no such pretense in Hans’ approach. He played authentically and hard until dawn, then quietly re-tuned me to standard and put me away. I slept contentedly all through the day. The next night Hans returned – and every night after that. We were into a romantic rhythm that could not be denied.
Unlike Demetria, Ezra had never taken a spouse, nor had any children (that he knew of), but there was a revolving door of worshipful women running in and out of his life. I know this because every time a new flame visited, one of the first stops on Ezra’s grand tour was the guitar collection. He’d pick up an electric and blast out one of his signature hits and the girl would predictably fawn all over him. Lustful, shameless scenes often played out before our very eyes. One lady had Ezra positioned behind her while he indulged specific requests.
Do you know Under My Thumb? Planck sniggered.
I liked Planck, especially since Hans had entered my life. Planck said I was getting some on the side with Hans. Planck was my electrified brother. He couldn’t care less if anybody played him. He too had passed through a succession of colorful owners, from wildly proficient to complete amateurs. It was hard for him to make any distinctions; after a while, all he could really feel were subtle variations of voltage. Nor could he recall anything about his life as a tree. Planck reminded me of Gyp when his brain became addled with whiskey. He said that after I left the workshop Luther never stopped talking about me, that he regretted having sold “the Djanga” so soon. Planck and I had thoroughly pleasurable conversations where we’d reminisce and embellish, trying to one-up each other. I hadn’t felt this close to a fellow instrument since Calliope the piano.
Then one day Ezra entered in a foul mood. A visiting lady friend had abruptly packed her things and left. She was an exceptional woman, you could tell, a step up from the others. But she was a little on the young side, even for Ezra. He was not aging gracefully; despite his years there was no seasoning: bare patch of skin on top of his head steadily doubling in size, stubborn paunch around the midsection. And the worst part was all those tattoos were starting to go blurry, like Sunday funny papers left out in the rain.
He threw himself into playing his electric at full volume then seemed to change his mind. His attention turned to me. There was something in his eyes, that old anger.
He opened the glass case and yanked me out.
“Been a long time since I played me one of these.”
I should mention that a few of Ezra’s electric guitars were merely cadavers. He sometimes destroyed guitars on stage as part of his act. Dropping, smashing, burning … whatever passed for rock ‘n roll theater. They were not displayed with the others – rather, he stored them in a separate room, which Planck called The Morgue. I don’t know why I was thinking about that at this particular moment, but I was.
Ezra gave me a hearty, open-string strum. Then he attempted a barred A on the fifth fret. He stopped. His hands were weak and fingertips soft. He tried yet again but I’d bowed up my neck to accommodate trysting with Hans and even with light gauge strings I was virtually unplayable for Ezra. The last thing he tried was a pentatonic scale at the octave –
I don’t remember hitting the wall. I do remember flying through the air, but the impact and initial minutes on the ground are thankfully erased from memory. I came to with an image of Ezra’s arms pinned behind him by Hans, Ezra’s steel-toed Doc Marten poised to finish me off.
“Stop it, boy!” said Hans.
Ezra cursed me as Hans pushed him aside and knelt down.
My neck was intact, but my body had sustained significant damage. There was a hole in my rosewood back and I could feel a couple of braces rattling around inside. I was in great pain, though thankful that my Sitka spruce top was only slightly cracked.
“She’s ruined,” said Hans. I was still playable but my collectability was moot. I would never recover my original value.
“Remove it from my sight,” Ezra sneered. He stormed out like the petulant child he had always been.
Hans gathered me up, including every splinter.
I moaned a farewell to Planck on my way out.
Rushing back to his caretaker’s cottage, Hans said, “I’ll fix you, Djanga.” And he did just that. Using glue, mirrors and braces, he surgically reconstructed my interior. Then he repaired the hole in my back to where it simply looked like a finish crack. Instead of returning me to the glass display case, however, Hans packed me up with all his belongings and drove back up to Alaska just as the leaves were beginning to turn.
Hans had a family cabin near the shore, not far from where I grew up. He loaded in provisions and we sat on the cedar log porch swing, watching the leaves fall and winter come on. He felled a couple of hemlocks with a chain saw and divvied them up into firewood, which he then split with an axe and stacked in record time. He was an old lumberjack, after all. When it became too cold to sit outside, we spent hours together in front of the fireplace. Like Gyp, Hans knew thousands of songs and played them over and over, sometimes falling asleep with me in his arms. I never fully recovered from Ezra’s cruelty. The soul spirits of trees set free by the flames would sometimes enter me and perform a little aerial ballet before rushing out of my soundhole and up the chimney, into the cracking cold, where they contributed shimmering shadings to aurora borealis and pondered the next incarnation.
One day Hans didn’t wake up. When they found him frozen and still, his Djanga locked in the eternal embrace of rigor mortis, it just seemed natural to bury us together.
Now I lie here at rest in a stand of Spruce trees, ten billion songs still beating within me. The lumberjack molders, I dream of decay. We live one large life made up of many shorter existences. As I give back the salt one grain at a time, I see the crystals are square and there is a design to things far beyond what I can comprehend. Salt: essential to all animals, toxic to most plants. Yet it gave me everything. Someone once called Gyp “the salt of the earth.” It’s not just the salt, I know, but that’s the common element, isn’t it? Roman soldiers were paid with it. I know this to the core of my being because I have always belonged to the ages. Lot’s wife was punished with it. She looked back when she wasn’t supposed to. I am required to look forward, to shed the encumbrances of this world. If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear, does it make a noise? This one did. When those roots breach the pine box, I will proclaim: I lived a life in music! As the Sitkas consume me, I’ll confess what I know and try to preserve what matters. And I’ll laugh because Luther Djanga was right: the guitar never really does fall very far from the tree.
The companion song for this story can be found at: