Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Be Careful, Davey.

After a generous hug and a big kiss on each other's cheeks and a long look into each other's eyes I stood up. I sluffed around there in front of Aunt Clara in her wheelchair. I was a little embarrassed and at a loss for words. Embarrassed, I suppose, because only an hour before, I had felt afraid. Afraid that I was teetering on the outer fringes of sanity. Afraid of Aunt Clara. I was at a loss for words, but she was not. She touched my arm and said, "Would you mind  bringing me another drink of water, Davey, please?" I looked at her and instinctively reached up and touched my mustache and beard. The goatee she had said she liked. I felt fear once again. This time I was afraid to look away from her. Afraid to turn and walk to the water cooler at the other end of the room. I was afraid if I looked away she would not be there when I turned back to her. "Don't worry," she said, "We've still got some time left tonight."
"Tonight?" I asked, "What about...?" Aunt Clara touched my arm again and tapped her finger gently there and said,
"Davey, swallow your fear and go and get your old Aunt Clara a drink of that delicious, cold water. Then we'll talk a bit more before we say good night. Okay? Get yourself a cup, too. I know you're thirsty, aren't you Davey?"
I still couldn't bring myself to look away, much less turn away, so I began slowly walking backwards, still looking at her. "Davey," she said, "Don't be a Doubting Thomas. And don't fall while you're walking backwards!" Feeling a little foolish I stopped and closed my eyes. I waited only seconds before opening them and smiling because Aunt Clara was still there, only a few feet away, gently shaking her head as if to say "silly boy". I looked at the floor and turned gradually, and continued walking towards the water cooler. After going only about ten feet I just couldn't stand it and had to look back. I slowed my pace, turned my head, and looked over my shoulder. Aunt Clara was still there, only now she was waving at me with just her fingers, as if she were waving at a small child. "Be careful, Davey," she said, just as I bumped smack dab into the large rack which holds dozens of cans of shoe polish. The cans clattered to the floor, making a terrible racket. "Now you've got a mess to clean up, Davey. I told you to be careful and now look what you've done! Will I ever get that drink of water, Davey?" I took a long, drawn-out deep breath letting it out in a sigh, closing my eyes simultaneously. I opened them, not looking in Aunt Clara's direction. I turned and continued my walk to the water cooler. I was thinking to myself- "If she's there, she's there. If she's not....what? Then what? What if she's not there?" It took everything I had to keep from turning around, but I didn't. I think I picked up my step a little as I walked the last ten feet. I filled one cup and sat it on top of the cooler. Then, slowing my actions to show myself, and her, that I trusted her. She would still be there. I'm sure...I'm sure...almost. I filled the second cup, picked up the other one, and carefully turned toward the other end of the big room. Even in the darkness, I could see. I could see...she wasn't there. My heart sank. My mood darkened, like the room itself. Then, in a flash, I thought of something that made me smile. I smiled because not only was Aunt Clara not there, but neither was her wheelchair! I gazed towards the ceiling and there she was, Aunt Clara and her beautiful wheelchair, spinning in...I would call it...a bubble. A bubble of light.
"Fooled you, didn't I, Davey? But you caught on quick." I nodded my head yes and raised a cup in her direction. "Mmm, be there in a second," she said. I walked to the bench and sat down, taking a sip of water and noticing, for the first time really, how good it did taste. She was right. It was delicious and I consciously tasted it as I watched Aunt Clara in her wheelchair float, not unlike a leaf in the breeze, gently to the floor. I started to stand up, but she said, "No, Davey, keep your seat." She wheeled across the room to where I sat. "Oh, thank you, Davey," she exclaimed as she reached out with one hand to take the cup of cool, ever-so-delicious spring water. She raised it to her lips, closed her eyes, and drank.
Lowering the cup, Aunt Clara raised an eyebrow and asked, "Any questions, Davey?"
"Well, I've got one," I answered timidly, "Uncle Don seemed to hang up on me too quick. When I told him I wasn't dead, he sounded to be in a real hurry to get off the line. Why?"
Aunt Clara shifted in the wheelchair and said, after taking another sip of water, "Because he knows he's not supposed to speak with...anyone who's...well, on the other side. Your side. The so-called 'living' side."
"What about you?" I asked, "You're not talking to me on the phone, you're actually talking to me right here in the shoe shop, face to face."
Aunt Clara brightened and said, "Oh, I know. And talking in person with you is a double no-no, but I don't care. You know, Davey, I've always been fond of breaking the rules. I wasn't supposed to work and make money and be a vital part of society either, but I did all those things. I was supposed to depend on others, not be depended upon, but I was, and I liked it that way. So now, here I go again. Old Clara Pearl, breaking the rules. Talking to the living. Talking to you, Davey."
      "Yes," I replied, "You are." We both smiled and touched our plastic cups together.
      "Here's to us," she said, "And them."
A thought occured to me then and I asked the question, "Aunt Clara?"
      "Yes?" She answered,
      "What about...during the day? When Yvonne and I are here in the shop? Customers coming in and going out all day long? Where are you then?"
      "Believe it or not, I've asked myself that question from time to time. Sometimes, I think I'm really...nowhere. Or maybe, everywhere?" Then, she continued, "All I really know is I'm here right now, I'm here, alive, with you."
        "Yes," I said, "You are."
Aunt Clara yawned a short little yawn and said, "Oh, Davey, I'm getting sleepy." I shuffled my feet and drank the rest of my water. She finished hers and handed me the empty cup. "Good night Davey," she said, "Don't forget to lock the back door. C'mon, give us a hug." I stood, then leaned over and hugged her neck.
      "Good night," I replied,
      "Don't worry," she said, "I'll clean up your mess."
      "No," I said, "That's okay, I'll clean it up."
      "Too late," she said, grinning. I turned and looked and saw that every can and jar of polish was back in its place on the rack. I shook my head, laughed a little, and turned back to Aunt Clara. She was gone. Or, at least, I didn't see her there. The wheelchair was there, but not her.
      "Oh my Gosh," I said out loud. "I'll be damned," I thought. I reached out and touched one of the cranks on the wheelchair. I touched a photograph on the wall. I took several deep breaths. I looked to the other end of the room, to the water cooler. I began walking towards it, turning only once to look back. I got a cup of water, that delicious spring water, drank it in a few gulps, looked towards the wheelchair--empty, and went out the back door, making doubly sure to lock it behind me.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Aunt Clara's Telephone (Continued)

      I got up off my knees and began walking slowly to the other end of the big room toward the water cooler. I needed that drink of cold water more than ever. I pulled a plastic cup from the dispenser and filled it up. I raised it to my lips, closed my eyes, and drank. I filled the cup again and just as I was raising it again, I heard a slight creaking sound. I knew that sound. I'd heard it many times as a child. It was the sound of Aunt Clara's wheelchair. Her adjusting herself in it, causing the wood to squeak just a little. I closed my eyes again, half sighing, and slowly turned and looked towards the other end of the room. Towards the wheelchair. And there it was. And there she was. One hand on one of the cranks, the other under her chin. She grinned at me and motioned with her index finger for me to come down there. I set the full cup of water on top of the cooler and started towards her.
      "No, no," she said, "Bring the water, Davey, I'm thirsty, please." I picked up the cup and carried it with both hands. They were shaking and I did not want to spill the water. "It's okay, Davey. Don't be afraid. I love you, Davey. You know that, don't you?" I shook my head yes and felt a smile spread over my face. As I got closer to her I felt...what? I felt...that's it...peace. Long remembered joy. "Don't worry," she said, in a reassuring tone, "Isn't the water good? I love it, don't you, Davey?" I shook my head again and handed the cup of water to Aunt Clara. At the same time I knelt in front of her and laid my head in her lap. With one hand she smoothed my hair and whispered, "Davey, Davey, Davey, why are you crying? There's no reason to cry, Davey. Come on, tell Aunt Clara why you are crying, huh?"
     I lifted my head from her lap and looked at her face. I looked at her gentle smile. As our eyes met she said, "Why?" I wiped my eyes on my sleeve and whispered,
    "Because I've missed you."
    "Well," she said, "What a silly thing to do. Why should you miss me? You have me in your dreams, right? By the way, Davey, it's fun sometimes to be standing up. I wouldn't want to do it for a long time, but it's fun for a little while, like when I am in those dreams of yours. I know you like me standing up in dreams, but in real life I think you like me better in my wheelchair, right?"
   "Yes," I said, "I do." Aunt Clara said,
   "Now, let's see. You have me in your dreams. What else? Well, you have all of your wonderful memories of me. We had a lot of fun, Davey. Remember? I showed you how to fill the bird feeder beside the front porch. And how about when I showed you how to strike a match so that you could burn the trash in the big barrel out back? Well, the first time you tried you burned your thumb and I know that wasn't fun, but you got it right the next time and I was very proud of you. And you were proud of yourself too, right?" I smiled and said,
   "Yes, I was."
   "So," she said, "Dreams, memories...what else do you have, Davey?" It came to me then, as a revelation. I stood up there in front of her and said,
    "I have your...love." Quickly she laughed and clapped her hands.
    "That's right, Davey. You've got my love. I told you then, when you were just a little boy, that I loved you bunches and bunches and that it would always be that way. And it still is! So you see, you shouldn't cry. You can't miss me. I haven't gone away! I've never gone away!"
    The phone rang again. I looked at it. I looked at Aunt Clara. She rolled her eyes and shook her head no. "Don't answer it," she said, "It's Don. He still calls me on that old static-y phone. And all he does is complain. I love him, don't get me wrong. He's my brother, but I just get tired of all his negativity. Plus, he's a little boring. He still wants to talk about prohibition. It's either prohibition or the Great Depression. Or, Lord have mercy, politics. Phooey, phooey, phooey. I'm just not interested. It would be a little better if he'd call me on the cell phone. I'm glad you added that to your collection. It's much clearer and easier to use. When I turn on the speaker I can talk on it when I'm flying around the shop, but you know that. You saw me last night, didn't you?"
    "Yes," I said. "I did."
    The old phone had stopped ringing. "Orville always calls me on the cell. Wilbur too. It took me a while but I've convinced a few others that those old phones are simply outdated."
   "Like who?" I said.
   "Well, besides Orville and Wilbur there's Helen Keller. Such a person she is. She was always one of my heroes and now she's one of my best friends. Then there's Sam. Sam Clemens. He is so funny to talk to. A bit of a pessimist but he's still hilarious. And let's see...oh my, yes, I love talking to Will. Will Rogers. I wish I could get Don to call him sometime. I think Will could maybe help Don look at things in a better light, but Don's stubborn. I'm the only one he calls and he always calls me on this old thing."
   She motioned me to the benched and I walked over and sat down. I had a feeling about what was to come and I was anxious about it. I sat and watched Aunt Clara turning the cranks on the wheelchair. She rolled to the center of the room, winked at me, and began to slowly turn, clockwise. In a few moments she was gracefully spinning around and around and she was laughing. I clapped my hands like a child and, naturally, slapped my knees in happy fascination. She came to a stop facing my direction, smiled big, held open her arms and chimed, "Davey, Davey, come give us a hug." I rose from my seat and walked towards my Aunt Clara as the light on her face spread to mine and soon filled the whole room.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Aunt Clara's Telephone

        I went back to the shoe shop the very next night, at the same time as the night before when I'd witnessed Aunt Clara flying in her wheelchair, but this time she wasn't there. No wooshing sound, no elegant gliding in the half-light around the room. All I saw was the room with its myriad of antiques and collectibles, including Aunt Clara's wheelchair, just sitting there. I swallowed hard, gritted my teeth, and rounded the corner. In the incredible silence I slowly walked to the far end of the showroom. As I made my way to where the wheelchair sat on display, my mind was spinning around the vision I'd had the night before. The gentle gliding of the chair and the radiance on Aunt Clara's face. I did not want to think that it might've been a figment of my imagination. It was too real. Too beautiful. Still, I couldn't help doubting my own eyes. It was also too fantastic. My mind still spinning and my heart pounding, I reached out and touched the photograph of Aunt Clara which hangs on the wall near the wheelchair. In the photo she is sitting in her chair in front of the telephone switchboard. She is wearing headphones and a small mouth piece. She is plugging a wire into one of the small holes on the switchboard. I think the photograph was taken in the nineteen twenties or early thirties. I brushed the picture with my fingers and then walked over to a bench on the other side of the room and sat down. I was simply gazing at the wheelchair and the many pictures of Aunt Clara on the wall behind it.  In the dimness of the room there, I suddenly felt overwhelmed with exhilaration. At the same time a wave of fear washed over me.
       I needed a drink of water. I needed it badly and was just about to make my way to the other end of the room to the water cooler when there was a clanging sound over by the wheelchair. Clanging? No. I realized as the sound continued, that it was a ring. The ring of a telephone. "Brrrring, brrrring, brrrring, brrrring..." I don't know how many times it rang before I got up from the bench and leaped across the room towards my collection of telephones. I picked up the receiver on the nearest phone and put it to my ear, but the ringing continued, and I hung the receiver back on the cradle and reached for another one, an even older phone. This was the one which had sat beside the couch in Aunt Clara's living room. Her personal phone. As soon as I picked up the receiver the ringing stopped. I raised it to my ear and reached out with my other hand to the wheelchair, to steady myself. I felt dizzy and weak. Then a voice, amid the static said,
"Hello...hello, Clara? Clara, is that you? Hello..."
      I dropped the receiver and it fell with a dull thud to the floor. I bent down quickly, shaking, and grabbed the thing. I held it an arms-length away, staring at it. I was breathing hard now, but I could still hear the voice, whoever it was,
"Hello? Hello? Clara?"
     I sat it on its cradle and lowered myself to the floor and rested my body against the wheelchair. I wanted to run but I couldn't. I could only sit there and breathe, heavily. Actually, I was gasping. Had that old phone actually rang? Had I heard the voice on the other end? Was it real? Had I lost my mind? I'd had dreams about Aunt Clara many times in my life. I was ten years old when she died so I remember her well. When I was five or six, I remember standing on the footrest of the wheelchair and Aunt Clara riding me all around the house. Sometimes we would ride out onto the large porch. Then I would sit in the porch swing and watch as Aunt Clara deftly turned the wooden cranks just so, and would slowly begin to spin in place, the small swivel wheel in back making this possible. Very difficult, but possible for someone like my Aunt Clara. I would clap my hands and slap my knees wildly, as she spun around and around laughing and laughing. Then she would bring the wheelchair to a stop, facing me. She would give a big smile and open her arms wide, saying, almost singing,  "Davey, Davey, come give me a hug," and I would jump down from the swing and run to her and she would wrap her arms around me, whispering, "Davey, Davey, Davey."
       Later on, after she's passed away, I began having dreams about her. Not bad or unpleasant dreams, just dreams. The only thing that might be a little unusual about them is that she's walking. Or rather standing, usually by her kitchen sink or stove, but never in a wheelchair. Also I don't remember her even speaking in my dreams.
      But now, I wasn't dreaming. I was sitting on the floor of the shoe shop, leaning against the wheelchair, remembering. I was breathing normal now and my heart had calmed down and I was actually wishing, hoping, that the phone, her phone, would ring again. I wanted to know who it was. Who was trying to call Aunt Clara? Then, again, I began to question my own eyes. I had seen her flying the night before. I doubted my own ears and yet I had heard, just minutes before, the ringing of the phone. I had heard the man's voice. Hadn't I?
     Then, indeed, that phone rang. Again. Not believing, but knowing it was real, I swallowed hard and began to crawl across the floor. I reached the phone and picked it up on the tenth ring. I put the receiver to my ear. Static. Then a distant, muffled voice.
     "Hello, Clara? Clara? Hello? It's Don, your brother Don. Hello?"
I took a short breath and spoke into the receiver. "Hello....who is this?"
     The voice, Don's, said,  "I can't hear you, speak louder. Clara?"
I said, much louder now, "Hello, who is this? Who are you?"
     "It's Don, Don LeMaster. Clara LeMaster's brother! Who are you?!"
I said, "This is David, Aunt Clara's great nephew, but...Aunt Clara's...dead. She's been dead for more than forty years..."  It felt strange, even awkward, nearly shouting these words.
     Don said, "Hell, I know she's dead! I'm dead! Aren't you?!!"  Static. Then Don, again. "Aren't YOU??"  Static. My own silence.
     Then I said, too softly, "No, I'm not...I think..."
Then Don said, "Did you say...you are NOT...dead?!"
     Louder now, I replied, "No, I am not dead."
Uncle Don answered, "Well...alright then, David...goodbye. Goodbye, David."
Static. I said nothing else and hung the receiver in its cradle, my heart telling me this conversation was over. My heart was also telling me I was not dead. Crazy maybe, but not dead.

(To Be Continued)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Aunt Clara's Wheelchair

        Aunt Clara flies. Seriously, in the old shoe shop, Aunt Clara flies around in her wheelchair.
        That same wheelchair which is on display in my shop. The chair she sat in, on this Earth, for sixty-six years, from eighteen ninety-nine, until one morning after a bowl of Cornflakes, a small glass of milk, and a cup of coffee, she sat right there beside her dining-room table and died, in nineteen sixty-five.
       She was born in Texas in eighteen eighty-eight. In Dallas, I think. Her father took her from there to Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in eighteen ninety-four. I'm pretty sure that's about the time she got sick. She got the Scarlet Fever. Of course, they didn't have anti-biotics back then and it was a fever so they just put her to bed. They should've kept her up and exercised her legs, but instead, they put her to bed. Well, her right leg crossed over her left leg just below her knees and they stayed that way until, like I said, she left here when she was seventy-seven.
       Sometime in the nineteen nineties my mother gave me Aunt Clara's wheelchair. It was out in the little aluminum building in mom's backyard. I took it out of there and put it back together again. It is not your normal wheelchair.
       Originally, the maker of the wheelchair, I believe his name was Lucerne, had cut the legs off of a nice office chair of the day. He attached three bicycle wheels to the chair. Two large wheels in the front and one, off of a "Penny Farthing" bycycle, in the center behind the chair. This wheel is much smaller than the other two and it swivels. Attached to hubs of the large wheels are sprockets. Then there are two more smaller sprockets, one on each side of the chair, combined with two common pump handles of the day. Two bicycle chains, one on each side, connect the two sprockets and, by turning the handles, one on each side, she could propel the chair in whatever direction she chose.
       It is not an easy task, but she became an expert at operating this complicated and elegant contraption.
       I was ten when she died, almost the same age she was when her father, Henry, had that wheelchair commissioned to be made for her, as a little girl. 
       She loved me very much and I still love her and she has always been an important part of my life.
       Far from being "handicapped" she was, and is, dynamic.
       In nineteen seventeen when she was twenty-nine, the town fathers installed a telephone switchboard in Aunt Clara's living room. She became our hometown's telephone operator until the dial system came in, in nineteen sixty-two. That is forty-five years! No one hired "handicaps" in nineteen seventeen, but she went to work and did a bangup job of it. 
       That is the reason I collect telephones. I've got one of the old wooden crank phones that you would mount on your wall. I've also got one that is like the one on the Andy Griffith show. You pick it up, jiggle the "cradle" and Aunt Clara's voice would say, "May I help you?" Then you give a 3 digit number, or maybe the person's name you were wanting to talk to, and Aunt Clara would connect you. Of course, she was long gone by the time cell phones came along, but I collect those too, just because I think she would've liked them. She loved phones. She invested in Bell Telephone and made a lot of money.
       But that was then and this is now. Not long ago, in the middle of the night, I had to go to back to my shoe shop because I'd forgotten something. I unlocked the back door and shuffled around in the dark, trying to find the lightswitch. Just then, I heard a voice. I had not heard Aunt Clara's voice since I was a kid, but I knew right away that it was hers. I heard, "Orville, how in the world are you, and how is Wilbur? Oh, good, yes, yes, I'm fine." There was a long pause, then she said, "My goodness, you wouldn't believe it, but this chair is as good as ever. Yes, oh yes, very smooth. I just sail right along and I've become quite adept at manuevering the sharp turns. Yes, the space in the shop is limited, but I like it. They keep it changing all the time. No, I never get bored..... oh, you wouldn't believe it, Davey is in his fifties now and sporting a go-tee, it looks rather nice I think. Oh, I wish I could've known Yvonne, Davey's daughter, when I was on Earth. She is so cute. And smart, very smart. She's really the one who keeps the shoe shop interesting. How old is she? Let me think. Twenty-two. Yes, she's twenty-two. You would love her for sure. Alright Orville, I'll let you go now, but you keep in touch, okay? Happy flying to you too, Orville, and don't forget to give my love to Wilbur. Alright, oh yes, the reception is much better nowadays, isn't it?! Okay, bye-bye, love you much."
       Then there was near silence. Silence... except for a whispy, smooth, wooshing sound. I stepped, carefully, a few more feet and looked around the corner and out into the main room. The "showroom". It is 65 feet long and 20 feet wide and bedecked with all kinds of stuff. Mostly antiques. Toys from when I was a kid, Great Grandma's dresser. Aunt Clara's wheelchair. Only now, as I looked on in utter disbelief, Aunt Clara's wheelchair was hovering and gently sailing all around the old shoe shop. It was one of the most beautiful sights my eyes have ever seen. Aunt Clara's face was serene and radiant as she glided gracefully around the room. Then, just as I was about to fully turn the corner and make my presence known, Aunt Clara, in her wheelchair, hovered for a moment beside my collection of telephones and settled gently to the floor, exactly to the spot where the wheelchair remains on display today. I glanced around the room for just a second and when I looked towards the wheelchair again, there it sat. Just as always. Just the wheelchair. The chair that her daddy had had commissioned to be made for his little girl in eighteen ninety-nine. 
       Lucerne, the master wheelchair maker and his good friends, Orville and Wilbur, builders of bicycles and, oh my God, a flying machine. 
       My Great Aunt Clara, my hero, could not walk.....but she can fly. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wild Bill And Me

Wild Bill And Me

The first two weeks I was in town I had enough money to rent a room at the San Davis Hotel. It was downtown, just off lower Broad. I owned a backpack, a few clothes and a guitar. I was twenty-four and had written some songs and was ready to start some more dreams.
I had hitchhiked all over the United States more than once over a period of seven years and now I quickly fell in love with Music City. I played for tips in the bars, but soon realized that I couldn’t make enough money to survive by singing my heartfelt songs or even songs by the Great Hank Williams Sr...or Bob Dylan.
My money was running out fast, but I was determined NOT to leave Nashville. I would stay there, hell or high water and I would make it love me, too.
In the beginning of my third week in town I began sleeping in a couple of different places. In a churchyard and in the park. The cops never bothered me and the nuns were kind to me, so I never considered myself to be one of the homeless. There were a lot of homeless folks. Men, women, and children, but I was never one of them- I was merely sleeping outside.
One day in that third week I walked into a place called “Tortilla Flat”. It was small, and, as I recall, a little bit stinky. Just my kind of establishment. I set my guitar case off to the side near the makeshift “stage”, and took a stool at the bar. There was no one else in there except me and the bartender. He was at least in his sixties. His name was Wild Bill. After just a few minutes Wild Bill said,
“Looks like you need a job, huh?”  I didn’t  even think about it. I just said,
“You’re right, I do.”
Well, I slept in one of the booths that first night, after washing the dishes and sweeping and mopping the floor. The next morning, Wild Bill showed me how to make tacos and burritos and re-fried beans. He showed me how to hook up a keg of beer.
Opening time was ten a.m., I think. “Don’t burn the beans, and no credit to anyone!”
Believe it or not, folks started strolling in by five after ten. By happy hour at three o’clock, which actually lasted three hours, the joint was jumping. Pabst Blue Ribbon Draft was twenty-five cents a pint-sized Mason jar-full. The beer was cheap, the food was good as well as cheap, the jukebox stayed busy and I was in my element.
On about the third or fourth day of my new job, my new life, I was sitting on a stool playing my guitar and singing my latest ballad. Wild Bill came in from the kitchen area and walked over and handed me the key to the front door.
“You go ahead and open up. I have to go to traffic court. I’ll see you later on.” Well, I did not see him all that day. Or the next day, or the next. In fact,  I never saw Wild Bill again. I was told he went to work in one of the bars down on Lower Broad. I just kept opening up every morning and serving the beer and cooking the Mexican food. I counted the money at closing time and put it in a zippered bank bag and put that in the freezer in the kitchen.
One day, after ten days or so, a guy walked in and looked at me behind the bar and said, “Where’s Bill?”  
“Uh, he went to traffic court...uh...ten days ago.” I replied.
“Well, who’s running the place?” He asked.
“I guess I am,” I answered.
“I guess you are.” He said, as if this was no surprise.
His name was Terry and he owned Tortilla Flat. Heck, I’d thought Wild Bill owned it.
Anyway, I worked there ‘til he sold the place and then I kept on working for him after he bought another bar just around the corner. In the new place I didn’t have to sleep in a booth. I had my own little room with a T.V. and an air conditioner. Even with all that, sometimes I slept on the pool table. Sometimes on the stage. I would close up at three a.m., stash the bank bag and sit on the raised platform--the “stage”, and play to an imaginary crowd. Then I would lay down right there, my guitar as my pillow, and go to sleep only a dozen feet or so from the spot where the Great Hank Williams Sr. had thrown up in 1950!
I worked there for the next few years and got to meet and even get to know some of the best singers and songwriters in that incredible town.
Wild Bill left before I could get to know him, but I think he knew me. He’s gone now and so is Tortilla Flat, but Terry is still there and he still owns that bar. It’s called Springwater Supper Club and Lounge, and whenever I go to Music City I always stop in and Terry and I raise a hearty toast to one another...and to Wild Bill.

“There’s a bar down in Nashville right beside the park
No matter what the time of day the place is always dark
I used to meet some friends down there and sing and play guitar
And solve the World’s problems, one by one.”

...Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Grandpa Mack

I have told you some about one of my grandfathers, now I will tell you some about the other. As I've said before, Grandpa Young was a hard worker in every sense of the word and knew how to earn a dollar and what to do with that dollar, but Grandpa Mack, the other one, would fit another description.
       He was born right at the turn of the century in 1901 in West Virginia. Grandpa Mack's given name was William McKinley Thomas. Named after the president, of course, but I don't know if anyone ever called him William except maybe his mother.
       Just in case you've never seen it for yourself, I will tell you now that there are few places anywhere as beautiful as those old hills of West Virginia. Not to take anything away from other parts of the country, or the rest of the world, but that is just how I feel about it.
      Grandpa Young- the hard worker- dug holes and planted trees, mostly hemlock, on the hillsides and made a good living at it. Grandpa Mack on the other hand, put it on canvas, in oils, and made works of art. He hardly made a dime much less a dollar, but he was passionate about it and dedicated to a life of trying to capture and express that beauty I told you about earlier. It was a life of study, contemplation, spirituality, and aloneness.
       He did other things, too. For instance, in World War II he was a tail-gunner on a plane. At least that's how the story goes and I believe it. I've seen a photograph of him in his dress uniform. At some point he was also a school teacher. My mother, his daughter, was one of his students in the seventh grade, I think.
       I don't know if he was a good soldier or not, and I don't know how he was as a teacher, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't fired from either of those jobs so I guess he wasn't too bad at fighting war or teaching English in school, but all along, from early on, he painted.
      There were articles about him in the paper from time to time and several of his paintings took places of honor behind pulpits in churches and over mantels in living rooms in West Virginia and even some in Ohio. I almost forgot to tell you-he was also, (from time to time) a fine preacher of the Gospel. Don't forget though, he was an artist above all and therefore as is not uncommon with artists, he was also fond of drinking rum (from time to time). In the last years of his life he was supported mostly by his sister, my Great Aunt Clara. She was wheelchair bound, but made a living as a telephone operator. She had a switchboard in her house and was very good with her money. She made sure Mack had paint, canvas, and brushes and she was proud of his art. As a matter of fact on of the last letters Mack wrote was to her and it said near the end, "Thank you for a supreme effort to make a Man." Grandpa Mack died in a sanatorium of tuberculosis. He was sixty.
        At the start of this story, I might have made it seem as if one of my Grandfathers worked harder than the other, but that is not quite true as I see it now. Grandpa Young worked hard at working hard and having some of the finer things in life, which he deserved, but Grandpa Mack worked just as hard at being an artist. At being a searcher. A bit of a gambler too, but mostly he worked at simply Being. I am sure there is some of both of them in me.

Pa Thomas

    That dern corn on his toe was just about to wear him to a frazzle, but he couldn't worry about that right now. His little granddaughter was here for a visit and he wasn't about to let a sore toe put a damper on that. In his long life, Pa Thomas had been through a whole lot worse things than a sore toe. In another century, the nineteenth, he came over here from Holland and fought in our Civil War. I'm not too sure about this part, but it seems like I remember someone in our family sayin' somthin' about him getting caught as a stow-away on a ship halfway between here and Holland and then having to spend some time as an endentured servant, doing some kind of farmwork. Anyway, he served for the North out of West Virginia. After that, all I know is he got married to Ma Thomas and they started having children. As automobiles came along later on, in the twentieth century, Pa Thomas would hitch-hike into Charleston on the week-ends to see his children, now grown, and that was a danger in itself. Especially since he stood in the middle of the road to do that. I'm sure the roads, the few there were back then, were really bad and maybe there was just no place to hitch-hike on the SIDE of the road. That must be it because I'm also sure that Pa Thomas was not doing it that way because he was just dumb. He was not. 
      On the day we're talking about, the day of the corn on his toe, Pa was getting his picture taken. He would be sitting on the front porch, not all dressed up, but nice and clean and tidy, and his granddaughter would be sitting on his lap, playing with his long, white beard and his long, white hair which came down past his shoulders. Photography had come a long ways by then and the picture is pretty clear. Pa is wearing glasses and one hand lays on his right knee and the other is on the small of the little girl's back. He is wearing suspenders so his shirt is tucked in. He is looking at her and she is looking back at him. It is a somewhat comical picture and it radiates a lot of love. It is a picture of my Great Grandfather and my mother.
      I understand that just a moment after that photograph was taken, the little girl jumped down off the old man's lap and took off running across the yard, chasing her dog. It was hot and Pa took out his hankerchief and wiped the sweat from his neck and forehead and commenced immediately to untie his right boot and take it off, then gently remove his sock. Then he stood up and reached in his pocket for his penknife, limped over to the edge of the porch and sat down there. His right knee was up against his beardy chest and his foot, the one with the corn on the toe, was planted firmly on the deck. The other foot was resting on one of the wooden steps. Pa Thomas then simply cut the dern corn off!
    In the end, that little toe really did wear Pa to a frazzle. It killed him. A few days after that lovely picture was taken, he got blood poison and died. 
     Mama always spoke admiringly and sweetly of that old man and I've always wished I could've known him. I've got some of his shoemaking tools and that'll have to do, I guess. Well, I've also got a nice little write-up about him from a local newspaper. Near the end of the article it says, "There were  three living Veterans of the Civil War and now, with the death of 'Pa Thomas', there are only two."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

St. Augustine

At age 18 I began hitchhiking all around this country and I kept it up untill I was 24, when I landed in Nashville. Granted, it wasn't always fun, but for the most part, the adventure and constant change outweighed the underlying sense of fear. It was worth the risk, I guess.
       Anyway, as I said before, a few years later I drifted into Guitar Town with the notion of settling down and writing songs for awhile. I worked real jobs during the day such as washing dishes and bussing tables. I was also a construction laborer for a couple of years. At night I played my songs in the cafes and bars of the city I'd developed a great love for. I had never lived in any one place longer than I had been in Nashville.
       I should've quit while I was ahead, but for some dumb reason, when I turned 30, I got the itch to travel again and began making plans to thumb my way to the oldest city in the country, St. Augustine. I had been there, but only in passing through. This time I thought I'd see it for real.
       In the old days of my rambling I would'nt have even considered carrying a backpack, but this time I decided to travel in style and went out and bought a nice one. I boldly and happily told my friends about my new plans. They were not impressed. "Duffy", they said, "it's dangerous out there. Why don't you just stay here and write songs about hitchhiking instead of actually doing it?"
       Well, a hundred miles or so and a day later, I knew in my heart that they were right. This time, right off the bat, the fear outweighed the adventure, but I couldn't turn back now, could I?
       Several short rides later I decided to get off the interstate and take the backroads. The "rural route" as the great Hank Williams would say. Pretty soon I was standing beside a scenic blue highway, like a drowning rat, cursing the pouring rain and every single vehicle that passed my by.
       It was probably around midnight when I finally got a ride. A nice man and his wife pulled over in an old pick-up truck and I put my backpack and my guitar in the back and crawled up in there myself and settled in for a nice, if wet, nap. Not to be, Twenty miles and thirty minutes later the nice man pulled over to the side of the road and said, "Well, son, we're goin' west here...so...uh...good luck. Here, let me help ya with that." He lifted the backpack out the truck and set it down beside me. He wished me good luck again, got back in the driver's seat and they took off, leaving me standing there wondering what the hell I was doing. Why was I not back in Nashville in my favorite bar, singing one of my original songs? No, not me. Instead, I was stumbling around in the dark, making my way to a railroad bridge in the distance, sitting under it, eating a can of sardines and mumbling, like a crazy person, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry". 
       Next morning I walked the short way back to the main road  and stuck my thumb out. I was feeling a little better because the rain had stopped and the glorious sun was shining down again on me. Seven hours later I was burning up and cursing that glorious sun and, again, every car, or truck, that passed me by. Sometimes they waved. Those were the ones I used the foulest language on.
       I was never so glad to see a cop in my life. I was kind of hoping that he would haul me off to jail, but no such luck. He gave me a lift to the county line where he got on his radio and, before I knew it, another cop took me to the next county line and so on and so on. The police took me, in turn, all the way across the state of North Carolina! It's true, but they didn't do it just because they were being nice. A hitchhiker had been killed in a hit and run a few nights before and they were bound and determined not to let that happen again.
       Anyway, I finally made it to St. Augustine. I stayed in a small campground, in my tent, not far from town. I played music in a couple of different bars, hung out on the beach and had a pretty good time for about a month. Then, one morning, I walked a long ways to the Greyhound Bus station and bought myself a one-way ticket and hightailed it back to Nashville. Back to work. Back to play. Back to my friends. They were glad to see me and I was glad, and grateful, to see them. 
       I could still be wild and free. I just didn't need to be worn out and cold and lonesome to do it. I could be a Gypsy and a rover in my mind and not go around worrying everybody. I'm still a Gypsy and a hobo. A rambler and a gambler...and a writer.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Couch

In Nashville, they'll use any excuse to have a party and it was Easter Sunday. It was a beautiful sunny day and my buddy, Bill, was throwing a barbeque so I fired up my old pick-up and drove the ten miles or so out to his place. I parked a little ways into the field near the house and walked through the gate and into the front yard where quite a few folks were already mingling. There was John Allingham, a fine Irish fellow, sitting on the porch singing a song he wrote. It was called "Barbeque City". 
     Well, among all those other folks wandering and talking in the yard, I noticed, sitting on a log, a most pretty gal with very long, thick, red hair. She didn't see me, I think, but I sure saw her. I walked on into the house and found Bill in the kitchen. He was standing in front of the counter cutting up vegetables and shucking ears of corn. "Bill," I said, "Who's that redhead sitting on the log in the yard?" He said, "Oh, that's Mary, she hitch-hiked up here from Texas. I met here downtown a week ago and she's been sleeping on my couch. She's real cute, but she doesn't really seem interested in me. Why don't you ask her if she'd like another place to stay for a few days?"
     I went back outside, stood around on the porch for a few minutes, sat down on the steps for a few minutes, formulating the plan in my head. I got up and started meandering my way over towards that wandering, beautiful, Gypsy girl. As I  approached her I took my hands out of my back pockets just as she looked up at me and gave me just the hint of a smile. Well, sir, I nodded a slight hello and promptly, lest I chicken out, got down on one knee, looked her in those eyes of hers and said, "Howdy ma'am, how'd you like to sleep on my couch for a few days?" I thought I was breaking the ice by being funny, but she said, "Why not?" and got up and walked away without showing any sign of amusement, but...she had agreed. A little cool, but an agreement none the less.
      Later on, as the party was fading like the sunshine, she gathered her small suitcase and backpack and we walked out to my pick-up truck, threw her stuff in the back and headed on towards town and sixteenth avenue where I lived in a small basement apartment. So far my plan was working. She hadn't said much, but she was nice and I was now preparing my mind for the next step in my pursuit of this redheaded wonder. I walked in first and switched on the kitchen light. Like I said, it was a small apartment. It had a kitchen with a stove and refrigerator and a table with three chairs. Then you would go through a doorway with no door and there was the bedroom. Or, rather, a room with a bed in it. She set her little suitcase on the floor beside the table and went to the sink, got a cup from the cabinet above, and let the water run for a minute before filling the cup with cool water. Then she sat down on one of the chairs, looked around skeptically and said, "So...where's the couch?"
      "Okay," I said, "Uh...well...uh...actually...I don't have a couch, but you can sleep in the bed and I'll take the floor...okay?". "Yeah, sure," she said, "Why not?"
      Now, to make a long story short, we've been together  for twenty-five years or so and to tell you the truth I can honestly say that I can't recall that woman EVER sitting down on our couch, (We got one later on, after we moved out of the 16th Avenue apartment), much less SLEEPING on it. However, as for me, the teller of the little lie in the first place, I have slept on that damned couch... at least a thousand times.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Friend Tom

      Yesterday, when I was in my mid twenties or so, I drifted into Guitar Town. After a few days I ran out of money and got a job slinging beers in a bar. Most places have a thing called "open mic", but in Nashville it's called "writer's nite" because you are expected to play original material. Well, I had written a couple dozen songs by then and so I joined in the fun like everybody else. Among the folks who were playing their songs around town was a fellow by the name of Tom. He was, and still is, a terrific songwriter and I was proud to meet him and even prouder to actually get to know him. I thought I was a pretty good writer at the time, but after meeting Tom and hearing his songs I knew I had a long ways to go. Tom was kind...but honest. "Duffy", he said, "it's not your guitar that's out of tune." 
      Well, one night I was off duty and on the wrong side of the bar and me and Tom were having one...or two...and solving the world's problems, as we often did. Another fellow walked into the bar and took a stool next to me. I was now positioned on the stool between Tom and a guy by the name of Harlen Howard, who happened to be one of the most, if not THE most, prolific songwriters to ever hit that town. From the nineteen fifties thru the 90's there was almost always a Harlen Howard tune on the charts. Look him up if you don't believe me.
      Okay, it hurts, but I might as well get to point. Here I was sitting right between what I considered, and still do, to be the two best songwriters I had ever met. I thought I'd be cool and asked Harlen, "Mr. Howard, how in the blue blazes do you write so many hits!?" Well, he took a sip of his drink, tipped his head to one side, grinned, and said, "well, sir, I don't write hits! I just write a song and throw it in a box and when they want a hit they just reach in the box and pull one out!" We all laughed at that and ordered up another round. I let the laughter settle down, then bowed my head just slightly, closed my eyes and said, not too loudly, "Lord, I sure wish I could write a hit before the world blows up....ya know...?" Harlen looked at me and said, "son, I just don't know what to tell you." Then he looked at  Tom and sort of shrugged his shoulders and said, "boys I guess I'd better be gettin' on home. I'll see you later." Me and Tom both shook hands with him and he walked out of the bar and we ordered one more before the walk back to our appartment on Sixteenth Avenue. We talked some more about Harlen Howard and some of the other great writers we had met and heard. I was rather enamoured of some of those successful folks, but Tom was not. He respected Harlen and the others we'd talked about, but he never put them any higher up there than anybody else. To Tom they were just people, but I couldn't help it, they were heroes to me and it took me quite a few years to realize that heroes are people first. 
      Anyway, Tom and I left the bar (it was closing time) and headed up the street to home. On the way, after too much silence between us, Tom cleared his throat and said, "uh...Duffy...in case you didn't know it....uh...your job as a writer is not to write a hit. Your job as a writer....is to write. And just one more thing. I don't think you want to write a hit before THE world blows up. I think you want to write a hit before YOUR world blows up!" 
      Told ya he was honest.                                                       

Friday, March 4, 2011

oh, these kids today....what do we do with 'em?

     The other day someone at the bar said, "facebook is the devil! Just wait and see! I'm tellin' ya, facebook and that whole internet thing are the devil!" "Well, maybe," I said, "but, just to play the devil's advocate, I don't think the fact that those young folks over there in the middle-east and Africa, overthrowing a bunch of  old farts and trying to get a better life, has anything to do with the devil. They're not the first generation to revolt, they're just the first generation to have the world at their fingertips and they are using it to change their world. And ours. The kids in Cairo are on the kids in Jordan's side. They all want the same thing. Freedom. They may not know what's next or who will run things down the road, but they do know that they sure as hell don't want the bastards that are running things now. I say God bless them and best of luck to them. It ain't gonna stop there. It will move to Korea, I bet, and even South America. This is a generational thing being driven by the energy and the passion of youth and they are using the tools at hand, just like every generation that came before. Only, this time, the tools are the internet and that evil thing, facebook. Wow, if only the hippies and that damn "love" generation had had such a thing!"

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


 Some things are easy to do. Some things are difficult.Occasionally, it is both at the same time. This time is one of those times. Up and down, happy and sad.
      It is easy to talk about Lynwood because he was a good friend. I was just one of his many friends and we will all miss him, so it is hard, also. He was only fifty-two, younger than me, so I am reminded again not to take this living thing for granted. I don't believe Lynwood took anything for granted except, perhaps, that the pan of biscuits in the oven was going to taste great and that the day was too perfect to not go fishing and surely catch a stringer full. He loved his family and he didn't hide that fact.
     He and his brother were good buddies and they were proud of each other. There was a lot of laughter there. I know this because he told me so.
     The women in his life are all strong and beautiful. His mother, smiling and dynamic, amazed him in many ways. I know this because he told me so. His sister, solid like a rock and tender like a flower, will never find it hard to recall many good stories and memories of him.
     His wife, the love and light of his life, made him grin and blush a little whenever he spoke of her.
     I was priviliged to get to sing at their wedding and I won't ever forget it. She laughed and he cried and we all had a great party.
     Today his family and his many, many friends gathered at the chapel and then in the cemetary to say good-bye to him. Then we all met at Captain Sam's Landing to laugh and cry and remember, and to drink a hearty toast...to Lynwood. Here's to Lynwood!!!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Going to Memphis

Sometimes, often when we are young, we decide to do somthing and just do it. That is what I did when I made up my mind to go to Memphis and pay my respects to the king, Elvis Presley.
      I had been hitch-hiking around the country for a few years. I'd thumbed my way to Texas and California and Colorado. I'd slept in churches and roadside parks from Virginia to Mississippi to Illinois. I'd sung "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" in nursing homes in Ohio and biker bars in Georgia. Sometimes it was only because of that beat up old guitar I was carrying that I got a ride at all. Also, I'm sure my rendition of the Jimmie Rodgers' song, "In the Jailhouse Now", actually got me out of jail a little sooner than I expected. Perhaps the cops were moved by my poignant performance or, maybe, they could stand my off-key shenanighans no longer! In any case, I was free. Young, a little wild, and free.
      One time down in Texas, in July, I headed out for Austin. Willie Nelson was having a big picnic and I determined to go out there and meet this saint of country music. Just outside of Houstin, after walking all the way across that monstrosity, a nice grey car pulled over and  I got in and what a ride it was! Just imagine being a twenty somthing year old, somewhat lost and a little scared, excited and searching for who knows what (the meaning of life?) just out there being lazy and being free and catching a ride all the way to Willie's picnic, breaking out my guitar and singing "Mr. Tamborine Man" and fourteen other Bob Dylan songs and thinking, "oh my God, I am rolling across Texas in a Rolls Royce!"
      That little whim, the picnic, turned out to be a fine idea. The great Merle Haggard was there and I got to meet him and Willie both. When it was over and I walked back out to the highway, I didn't get a ride in a Rolls, but I was happy. Happy, inspired, and free.
      I made my back across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and on down to Ft. Lauderdale, in the Sunshine State. I worked odd jobs. I goofed off at the beach, partying and playing, and waiting for spring break. Well, spring break came and one night, around a campfire on the beach,after not making too big a fool of myself by singing one of my own songs, I met a pretty girl. Her name was Pansy and she was only a few inches taller than me and we fell in love pretty quick. We sang and danced and had the kind of time that only the young can have, really. But then, rather sudden, the air got cool, downright chilly, when she discovered that I was really just a sort of a hobo, hanging out, broke, and living in a pup tent in a vacant lot just down the road.My young heart was broken for a few days, but then I was saved by another wild idea...I realized the only thing to do was to make my way to Memphis. I must go to Graceland!
      Well, this time I decided to go in style. I called my older brother, collect of course, and begged him to wire me enough money for a train ticket. He was in the Air Force in Alaska and had a steady income. Besides, what are big brothers for? He agreed and in a few days I was showing off in the club car on the Amtrak bound for Elvis Presley Boulivard.
      Guess what? We had a three hour layover in Nashville and I thought I'd take a little walk up Westend Avenue. Three hours later I made another fanciful decision. I saw a help wanted sign hanging on the door of a place called Tortilla Flat. I took the sign off the door, walked into that dive, and said, "I'd like to work here". The old man, Wild Bill was his name, put me to work. I swept the floor, made greasy tacos, poured cheap beer into mason jars, and sang Hank Williams, Dylan, and, by now, quite a few of my own songs.
      I had never lived anywhere, in my whole young life, more than a year or two, but I stayed there, in Guitar Town, almost ten years. I never made it to Graceland, but I still have full intentions of going there.....someday.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Twenty One and Eighty Two

     I went to live with Grandma and Grandpa in late spring. She was eighty-three and he was eighty-two. Grandpa was still more active than most folks his age. He worked almost everyday, or at least when he wanted to, on his tree farm. He could still shoe a horse and drive his jeep, but he was not as well, physically, as he'd once been. He had fallen off a horse the year before and now had to use a cane. Grandpa was not one who cussed often, but he cussed that damn cane. His mind was sharper than ever. He had a keen wit and his eyes looked at you knowingly and with clear direction.
     Grandma, on the other hand, was kind of the other way around. She could carry a bucket of coal from the coalhouse out back the fireplace in the livingroom. She could go for a walk down the road or through the woods on the pathway Grandpa had made for her. At the same time, her mind was slipping somewhat. She might, for a moment, think it is 1948 in the autumn when it is actually springtime in the 1970's! Grandpa just kissed her sweetly and went on reading or doing whatever he was doing at the time.
     Well, growing up, us brothers and cousins... the grandkids, had a sort of theory concerning Grandma and Grandpa. We all agreed that if Grandpa went first, which probably wouldn't happen, poor Grandma wouldn't last another week. She would just not be able to stand life without Grandpa.However, if Grandma died first, which probably would be the case, Grandpa would grieve and be sad for awhile, but then he would be okay and just keep going on. It's not that he wouldn't miss Grandma terribly, but he was just stronger and more able to cope with such a loss.....well, we were wrong.
     It is a hot day in July now and I am twenty-one. I'm driving Grandpa, in the Willy's Jeep, over to Aunt Olga's house, five miles away. We're going over to fertilize some baby Hemlock trees. Now I am walking along a few feet behind him. He's carrying a bucket and spreading the fertilizer by hand. When the bucket gets low I pour it half full from a fifty pound bag. We are nearing the end of the last row and his bucket is almost empty and there's not much left in the bag either. I say to him, "is it going to work out alright, Grandpa?" He turns and says to me, almost laughing, "my boy, everything will work out just fine." My cousin, Paul, is talking to a friend, a boy we called Moose, in the field just a few feet away. The old man walks over to the boy and thanks him for helping out earlier in the summer. Moose had helped Grandpa build a splitrail fence. Grandpa reaches in his back pocket and pulls out his wallet saying, "I wouldn't want leave here owing anybody any money." He takes out a five dollar bill and, as he is handing it to the boy, Grandpa sways a little to the side and begins to fall backwards. I try to catch him, and almost do, but I go down with him and his head is now on my lap. He takes a deep breath in and then out and Paul and I are looking at each other. One of us, I don't remember which, says, "Grandpa's gone", and so he is.
     Grandma is shattered when told the awful news and we all worry about her, but the days turn into weeks and months and years. Nine more years as a matter of fact. And although Grandma could no longer live by herself, she was "at home" at Uncle Fred and Aunt Marge's. She may not know what she'd had for breakfast an hour ago, but she'd talk about a Saturday morning in 1904, when she was a girl, like it was yesterday. And, sometimes, I was my father when he was a little boy. And, often, Grandpa had just gone down to Griffie Morton's store to get some milk and butter and he would be back in a few minutes.