Redemption Song

I knew Elmer Kimbell was a bad man long before I found those stories from the 1950s on the web about five years ago. Those stories certified my judgment in bolder detail than I could have ever imagined. Elmer was my mother’s second husband and he took every cent she had and then used her as a punching bag for 10 years before my mother gathered her courage and divorced him.

She died a few months after the divorce in 1977. She was 57. Because police had answered so many abuse calls at their little house in Jackson, TN  they immediately suspected the worst, but the autopsy revealed death by natural causes.

There weren’t many redeeming details to my mother’s life after my father died. She became addicted to tranquilizers while I was still in high school. After he died, she took them in numbers that surely took her to the edge of death more than once. She could fool you with her ability to pull herself together for a time. But it never lasted. She was having one of her good periods when she met Elmer. She had taken a job cooking on boats that pushed barges up and down the Mississippi River. She had done well enough at it to be on the edge of getting union certification which would increase her salary and give her jobs on better boats. But before she could make that jump, she met Elmer on a low-paying job on a boat out of Greeneville, MS, near Elmer’s hometown.  They may have made more than one trip together. I am not sure.

I left home at 17 and stayed as far away from her as much I could even before Elmer arrived. So, I do not have strong memories of how the marriage unfolded. My sister said Mama brought Elmer home in the winter of 1966 to meet her. Maybe I met him then, but I don’t remember it.  After my father died, I felt I had no real home. I saw my mother as a whirlpool of disaster that would suck me down if I let it. The only way I knew to avoid it was to stay as far away as possible. I was not always kind in the ways I kept my distance. When a family starts to drown, it’s one person to a life jacket.

The first time I remember meeting Elmer was the day after they were married in Jackson in the spring of 1966. I got a call to come to the Holiday Inn on the north end of town. It was a month or so after I had ridden the rails to New Orleans.  When I walked into the motel my mother, still in her night gown, introduced me to her new husband Elmer Kimball, a man with a face so red and weathered that you could see the booze dripping off him even before you smelled it. He was a bottom feeder, and in my mother he had found a woman too damaged to see that his party mask was upside down. Elmer was one of those drinkers whose view of himself expanded with every drink. And he had become so practiced at being a drunk that he sounded like it even when he wasn’t. One big story after another. That first day he was deep into his con about what an important man he was on the river boat, what a wonderful woman my mother was and about how good he was going to be to her. They had big plans, he said. My mother smiled knowingly at his antics but still showed a hint of pride. “He may be a fool but he’s my fool,” her face said.

I spent the next three years avoiding them. In the summer of 1969, I planned on avoiding them again.  I had plenty of job options but the year in seminary had eroded faith in my decision-making. One possibility after another became roads not taken until I found myself in their house in Lexington, TN. My problem was that jobs weren’t equipped to give what I most needed, redemption. I had thought seminary a sensible move that would produce more good than bad, but I had counted on receiving more aid than I did and being able to volunteer my time to good causes. I ended up having to take a job for pay on a loading dock. I was disappointed early and never bounced back. I drank enough to identify with the priest in Tennessee Williams’ play “Night of the Iguana.” Most of my classes gave me little stimulation though the level of scholarship in them was outstanding. I am afraid my effort matched my interest. It was a bad year and I was about as messed up as I had ever been.

When summer came, I passed on more adventurous offers to apply for a job working with kids on a playground in Jackson, TN. I longed to feel clean and thought working with kids might give me some of what I had gone to seminary hoping to find. To do it, I would have to stay at my mother’s house, and I somehow convinced myself that would work. It was fine with her, but as I slowly discovered not so fine with Elmer, who in my vulnerability smelled blood in the water.

Mama was in a bad way when I arrived, alone and bed-ridden, almost unconscious from the drugs. But she responded well to me being there and seemed better than I could remember her for a long time. “I do so much better when you are here,” my Mama said, as if I had been there at all in the last five years. I knew that kind of talk was a trap, and my mother wanted nothing more from me than to take care of her the rest of her life.

I played two songs repeatedly that summer Johnny Cash’s “Peace in the Valley’ from the Live at San Quentin album and the Box Tops cover of Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released,’ redemption songs both, but redemption was only occurring in songs that summer. I was still waiting for “the lion to lay down with the lamb” and that day, “any day now” when “I shall be released.”

My mother and I did well when we were alone.  Our peace, however, hung on a little string that that had some wretched knots in it.  Elmer, you see, came home after a month to spend two weeks. This was his regular work period. His presence marked times of trial for both of us.  Elmer made sure that I understood the rules for his house were not the same as my mother’s apartment where they had lived the first two years. If I was going to stay there, I had to obey his rules and not expect to sponge off him.  Because playground work was not his idea of a real man’s work, I passed on the job to keep peace in the house.   I did a little of his kind of work to satisfy him, but there wasn’t much decent work in Lexington, not even as good as the loading dock in Dallas. The only steady work was at the arsenal in Milan. Since I was trying to stay out of a war I thought was morally wrong, supporting myself with a war industry job was a conflict I couldn’t stomach though I tried.  I almost left to go back to selling books. It had been only two years since I made $4,000 in eight weeks but it felt like a lifetime ago. I ended up using what little money I had to take a couple of literature courses at my old college. I paid for part of the tuition by working on campus. I would only have to get through a couple of more weeks with Elmer back in the house. I hoped that he would see that I was almost out the door and ease up on me.

Elmer returned shortly before the end of the summer, and my solution to the summer didn’t please him. I didn’t know how much till I came home one night and found him passed out on the couch and my mother with bruises on almost every part of her body. I had never seen anyone beaten so badly. She said she had tried to run and hide under the bed, but the bed provided no safety.  With the butt of his shotgun, he had slammed away at her, caring little where the blows landed.

I can’t tell you how much I want to lie and say I confronted him or that I called my Uncle James, the sheriff, or even that I went out in the front yard and cried to the heavens for help. I have no worse confession to make than this one: I did nothing. In a few days, I left early for Dallas and except for taking both my wives to meet my mother, I never set foot in their house again when he was there.

Elmer and Mama lived out their private hell for seven more years. She would check herself into Western State Psychiatric Hospital periodically to get off the pills and have a vacation from him. Finally she gathered the strength to divorce him. The divorce had been final only a short time when she died of a heart attack. She had been out on a boat after years of not working, and she wasn’t up to it. She became sick from an infected tooth. She got off the boat in Memphis and took a bus home. When she opened the door of the house, a month of August heat hit her in the face. She had a heart attack before she could turn on an air conditioner. It was almost a week before anyone found her.

It took four of us most of following week to clear out the house. Elmer’s dog was still in a pen in the backyard, so we were looking over our shoulders most of the time expecting trouble.  He never showed. I  didn’t hear anything about Elmer until 1989 when one of my aunts told me that she read his obituary a few years before in the Jackson Sun.

Living or dead, he haunted my dreams.  I have replayed that ugly scene of finding my mother beaten into massive bruises many times. Until he died, my fantasy was that I should have grabbed my old baseball bat from the hall closet and, before he could rise from his drunken sleep, broken both his arms and legs. After I found out he had died, my fantasies became more violent and I would beat him to death in dreams. Killing him after he was dead didn’t seem like much of a crime. But it didn’t bring much relief either because he never stayed dead. He was always around, waiting for one of my weak moments, to torture my sleep.

Every now and then I would do a web search to see if I could find out anything about him. My mother had said that Elmer bragged about killing a man though she never took the claim seriously. All her bruises to the contrary, she thought Elmer was mostly a blowhard. I searched anyway. and found nothing. Then one day about five years ago while searching under the name he had used when marrying my mother, I found the notation “Also see Elmer Kimbell.” When I searched for Kimbell, Google spit out about a dozen or more links to stories. All of them were related to the killing of a Clinton Melton in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi in 1955. This was the same county where Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager, was brutally murdered earlier that year. The Till case became one of the seminal civil rights movement’s moments when Till’s mother opened her son’s casket at the funeral , so people could witness the brutality inflicted on her son before he was murdered. The two men accused of the murder were freed after an hour’s deliberation by a jury even though there was substantial evidence against them.

A month after the Till case trial, another white on black killing occurred in Tallahatchie County. Clinton Melton, a black gas station attendant, was gunned down by Elmer Kimbell in a dispute that began over the amount of gas the white man had ordered. Elmer was driving the car of J. W. Milam, a friend who was of  one of the defendants in the Till case. After Melton filled Elmer’s tank, Elmer claimed he had only an ordered a dollar’s worth of gas. Enraged by the cost of the gas, Elmer left in furry, only to return with his gun and killed Melton in front of three witnesses. The jury deliberated two hours longer than in the Till case, but in the end the verdict was the same. Not guilty.

This story is even worse than I have told it. Before the trial began a vehicle forced a car carrying Clinton Melton’s widow and two of his children off the road and into a bayou. The children were saved by a relative, but Mrs. Melton died. The death was ruled an accident, but opinion in Tallahatchie County remains divided largely along racial lines to this day on whether the motivation for the crash was accidental or criminal.

A kindly priest once told me once that I suffered from the sin of spiritual pride. I did not believe I could be forgiven. When I hear my burden named like that, I feel like a foolish man who turns his back on living in the here and now to dwell in the hurtful land of regret where no blow is ever softened, no mistake corrected, and no one ever forgives anyone. And so perhaps I hold onto this story of Elmer Kimbell not because I am central to it but because the slender cord that connects me to it winds its way around my neck and makes all the regret I feel palpable. I rub against it not because his sin was my sin, but because I feel somehow the need to regret this, if only as a distant stand-in. I am after all as practiced in regret as he was in hatred and because, in dreams at least, I know how it feels to hate someone you hardly know enough to kill.

Down in the Hole

Donny came by in the afternoon. We were in the seventh grade and it was one of those days when so little had gone on that it felt like two. As I often had since I was 8, I found the solution to my boredom in a wooded area that ran behind the houses on the street my house faced.

The hollow, as it was generally called, was a little streak of wilderness running through my hometown. Hickman overlooked the Mississippi River, and the work of water, in one way or another, had put the town together. From my house, I could walk to the top of the little hill and see the river or head the other way behind our house to a pathway just a few steps away that led to the hollow.

My parents worried that the hollow might be dangerous for a child and cautioned me about it from the start. To me, the hollow was almost an extension of our backyard, but at the same time a wild place.  I had played my childhood games of war and cowboys there on its edge. As I grew older, I camped out in the hollow going deeper into its moss and vines each year.

The only woods I had known were near my grandparents’ home. My mother’s family lived deep in the woods on a dirt road near the Tennessee River outside Scotts Hill, Tennessee.  The woods were dense with trees back then, surrounding the few open spaces people had carved out for farming, but there was far more land that had not been cleared than farmland. “Son,” my grandma would say to me, “you wander off in them woods and the Gypsies will get you and take you away with them for sure.” I had no idea who Gypsies were, what they would be doing in her woods or that the warning was a European folk tale that the settlers had brought to this country.  Later in life, I knew a former federal agent who had worked around Scotts Hill hunting moonshiners.  He said that there were stills you didn’t want to stumble over in those woods and laughed when he heard my Grandma’s tale of Gypsies.

My parents never were very specific about their warnings about the hollow. “You have no idea who else might be down there” is about all they would say. Still, the hollow was also a social boundary and there were areas on the other side that housed people we didn’t know. Some of the residents were stable and had lived there for years but there was also a more transient element who came and went.

Because over time I rarely had seen anyone down there, I had gone deeper and deeper into the ravine, moving up and down it freely if not climbing the other side. When I had started camping out, I had moved from my backyard to the Hollow and then worked my way down to my favorite place where the remains of a metal walking bridge that had once connected the two sides remained. The bridge’s walkway, once made of wood, had rotted away, but the bridge itself had the aura of another time. The other side of the hollow was thick with kudzu, planted no doubt to stop erosion, but for me adding to the mystery of the place. For reasons, I couldn’t say, that old bridge was one of my favorite places in town. It had the power of enchantment and just being near it transported me somewhere I had never been.  Donny and I were heading to the old bridge that day in 1959 when the meaning of the hollow would change forever.

As we moved down the hollow, a group of boys approached us from the other side. We only knew one of them, Carl, a boy from our class. Although the other boys were taller and seemed older, ninth graders from another town I suspected, Carl was the ring leader. They all had B-B guns and were looking for something to shoot. Having found nothing else, they decided we would do well enough. I was an overweight soft kid and my friend was skinny and uncoordinated. They could have looked awhile and not found easier marks.

Carl and I had never had any trouble, but his face was already settling into an angry sneer of resentment at what the world hadn’t given him. To him, I was the boy from across the hollow who lived in a brick house, had all the breaks, but wasn’t smart enough to toughen up. At least that’s how I figure it now. They encircled us and shot some BBs at the ground near where we stood.  Not enough satisfaction in that. “Take off your clothes or we will shoot you.” Feeling trapped, we complied. They had already humiliated us, and I hoped that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t. They all fired shots at our legs from a close range. The BBs stung and our pain was their pleasure. Standing naked in the woods, I was less worried about the pain in my legs than what might come next. I am not sure I knew the word “rape” but I knew I could be violated. “Cornholing” was what we called it. But they were bored with their game, and they let us go when I told them I was expected at home.

I would have kept this secret, and did with my friends, but I told my parents because because I was in so much trouble for making us late for dinner. My father called the other boy’s father and told him he would call the police if anything like that ever happened again.  It was never spoken of in our house after that day. Carl and I never spoke to each other again that year or the next. Still, the memory lingered and made the world more complicated. I had been a fearful kid of things both real and imagined, but that day in the hollow brought a new kind of fear. There might not be ghosts under my bed, but there were people to be feared in ways I had never imagined.

My parents worried about the red spots on my legs. Those spots just showed me I could stand pain. What I could not bear was the humiliation of standing naked and knowing I could be raped if they chose and there was little I could have done about it. It was the humiliation of a rape that did not happen but could have that I have carried 60 years. I remember it more clearly than any birthday, Christmas, or academic honor. It is a rock in my pocket to remind me that no matter how people appear, you never know what will happen next.

Don’t pay heed to temptation
For his hands are so cold
You gotta help me keep the devil
Way down in the hole

Tom Waits, “Down in the Hole”

(Donny and Carl are fictional names. I don’t know what became of the real people to which they refer. My purpose here was not to out anyone. It was to capture the childhood fear of being bullied and how it follows you through life. For the first time, I was stumped for a song. My friend Mark Neumann came through with the Waits tune, which was perfect.)


In My Life I Love You More

It is late May of 1967 and I am driving from Tennessee to Connecticut where I am going to work for the summer. I have drifted through three years of college, doing well in courses I liked and trying my best to be a fraternity boy. In the summers, I have made enough money selling dictionaries door to door not to be very mindful how I spent it and so come summer, I was back on the chain gang knocking on doors, smiling that smile, selling those books. Still, somehow my life feels empty. I am alienated from mainstream Southern white culture, don’t have many friends with common interests, and I have never fallen in love.

The summer of 1967 is going to change all of that.

I am heading toward a sleepy old resort hotel in Madison, Connecticut on the Long Island Sound, a few miles east of New Haven. Though I made up a lot of reasons for coming, the kicker was that I knew someone who had worked there. He really didn’t have to tell me much. When he went up there, he didn’t know who Bob Dylan was and he came back talking of nobody else. I wrote the owners and they offered me a job washing dishes for $295 a month and room and board.

I pull into the hotel about dusk. It’s a sleepy place from another time, three stories high with a long front porch facing the Long Island Sound. Just beyond the end of the street that dead ends into the sound by the hotel is a pile of large rocks small enough to pose no threat to any adventurous child but large enough to give definition to the hotel’s part of the beach.  I will learn that the most soothing sound at the hotel is that of the waves hitting those rocks. And on many nights, I will find my sleep in that rhythm.

I already know the hotel is organized on a form of vacation that is disappearing—the American Plan. Many of the guests have been coming there for many years. They take the train from New York to New Haven, where one of the hotel’s drivers picks them up in a vintage Woody and brings them to the hotel. Room and all their meals are included in one price. And on Saturday night, the staff, at least the people who live off tips, serenade the guests in a hootenanny that closes every week with “Goodnight Irene.”

With the exception of the owners, a couple of managers, and the cooks, the rest of the employees are students from colleges and universities, mostly from the East and Midwest. Young women clean the rooms or wait tables. Young men are driver-bellmen and dish washers. Both men and women work as desk clerks. There is also a houseman and a night watchman.

I arrive a couple of days before Memorial Day when the hotel will open. I am ushered to the attic where most of the young men stay. Before I can unpack my bags, Jeff, an art student, sits me down on the side of his bed and plays the full album of Sgt. Pepper’s, only just out. We share a passion for the music and talk for about an hour about the meaning of the album. Before I fall asleep that night, I have figured out I am in the right place.

By afternoon of the second day, I have met the houseman Pete, who has worked at the hotel many years and oversees a lot of details related to the laundry, trash, food supplies and repairing equipment.  We talk far less about the hotel than Bob Dylan. Pete plays and sings and was at all of Dylan’s Newport performances. He knows a lot and I just stand there and suck it all up.

The old hotel, I am discovering, has a soundtrack, and it plays my kind of music. The music suggests a lot of things, that some of the people at least are interested in the art and politics of song and have spent time thinking about it. Ever since I heard Phil Ochs in 1964, I have been on a lonely pilgrimage through through folk music and then the electronic music that followed Dylan back down Highway 61. Even after Dylan went electric I continued to listen to much of the folk music that preceded it. Neither the socially conscious folk music nor Dylan himself were big items on Southern college campuses in the early 60s. The hotel was another world. When I think about the old hotel, even now, I hear it better than I see it.

So much of the summer is organized around music. In nearby New Haven, there is a folk club where a regional hero Randy Burns plays often. There is a series of concerts at the Yale Bowl. I am able to see Simon and Garfunkel and the Loving Spoonful one night and The Four Tops and The Temptations another. And then there is the coastal highway which takes us to Newport, Provincetown, Boston and New York. In Provincetown, I hear Tom Rush on one visit and the Jim Queskin Jug Band on another. In Boston, we sit on a hill outside a sold-out performance and listen to Velvet Underground through the windows. At the Newport Folk Festival, we see Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and many regional folk musicians. We go to New York a number of times but one day get exceptionally lucky. We see Richie Havens for the first time in a free concert and then later that night we get to see Neil Diamond doing all those great early Brill Building songs in a village club.

In the kitchen, Top 40 radio rules. It is the summer of “Sgt. Pepper,” ” “I Want Somebody to Love” and “The Letter,” but the song that lights up the dishwashers is “Light My Fire.” Up in the men’s quarters, it is mostly the Beatles and Dylan, though a Virginia boy knows only one song and sings it all time, James and Bobby Purifier’s “Shake a Tail Feather.”

There is a bit of dating among the staff, though less than I imagined. A few folks solidify into couples. I take out a woman from Ohio a few times, but I have my eye on a pretty young woman from Pennsylvania. She is perfect, an English major with dark black hair, a big smile, and an openness I find admirable. The only problem is that she is hooked up with the Mr. “Shake Take a Tail Feather” almost from the start.

So, for much of the summer I have a great time, but my love life is mostly an imaginary one with the Pennsylvania gal. Then near the end of July, The Tail Feather and one of his friends shake their own and, for reasons I cannot understand, leave for Buffalo to work in a pickle factory. And so, Sue, that was her name, walks out of someone else’s dream and into my life, and I fall very hard and very fast. But the best thing is: she falls as well. I have never had the experience of feeling like life with another person was absolutely perfect.  Almost from the start, we spend every spare moment together.  Over the summer I have been shifted from dishwasher to houseman. This means I pick up and distribute the laundry, make runs to the trash dump and to New Haven to pick up seafood.

One of the perks of being the houseman is that I have a small hotel room to myself. At night Sue slips from the women’s quarters located in a cottage behind the hotel into my room.  We are sexually inexperienced but sleep little, mixing fits of passion with long hours of tenderness. In the early morning, she sneaks out in order to escape the eyes of management. We count the hours by the routine exchanges the days afford and by stolen moments for lunches at restaurants in the town.

The days and nights are perfect, but the coming and going of each one makes the end of the summer closer.  Finally, Labor Day arrives and the season ends. It takes a few days to get the hotel ready for winter. After that, Sue and I drive to New York for a few days and then I take her home to Pennsylvania, where I spend a couple of days. I wish for more privacy, but I am nonetheless happy to be with her and torn about leaving. Sometimes, I have thought that if we had a $1,000 between us we would have gotten married right then. Still, being with her any way I can is better than not at all as I will discover the morning I leave to drive home. It is the loneliest drive of my life.

Fall semester is difficult though we manage to see each other four times. Sue is willing to transfer to Lambuth the following semester. We talk of marriage after that. It is so perfect being together, but I am also fearful. What if she came and it didn’t work out? Could I handle the responsibility for her uprooting her life?  I had never faced these questions before. I didn’t realize then these questions would haunt me every time I considered marriage. In the end, I am afraid for her to make the move, and things fell apart after that.

It is easy to think we were young and really didn’t know what we were doing. I have thought that sometimes. But I have been haunted by another thought, a more romantic one, that we were a tight fit and would have weathered whatever had come. It didn’t work out that way though. We both were married twice, and we thought of each other when our marriages failed but always found the other one married at the time. We had a moment, but we weren’t given another one.

The hotel changed me in other ways. It showed me that the pool of people in the world was much bigger than that I had experienced in the South,  that music was a great connection when you found people of a common mind, and that I didn’t need a lot of money to be happy.  When I went back to school, I dropped out of the fraternity and made new friends, more intellectual and political, both men and women, and my first black friend. I took mostly courses in history, literature and philosophy. It was the best year I spent in college and I was sad to see the year end.

A few years ago, before the old hotel was torn down, I spent a couple of nights there. It was a changed place to fit a new culture, but still housed in the old buildings. There wasn’t much to roll a memory up in except the sound of the water splashing up on the mound of rocks where the road to the beach ended. I opened my window so I could listen to that sound throughout the night, as we had done all those years before, but no magic put Sue in the bed beside me. I had gone on a trip for reverie but found melancholy instead.

I was in my 50s and I wondered if the only love I was ever sure of was love I hadn’t received or that I had walked away from. The other kind, the marriages that added up to 15 years and an engagement that had added a couple of more years, had come to nothing and left me with little. I didn’t know it when I met Sue, but, though I longed for love more than anything, I surrendered to it poorly, vexed as I usually was by inability to make the commitment.

Throughout the night, the waters of the Long Island pounded in my head posing a question that seemed like the question of my life. What would have happened had I reached out for what I wanted with Sue?  The adult in me insisted this relationship would have fallen into a familiar pattern and ended like all the others. But the young man, still alive, countered that life with Sue might have changed the pattern and set me on a different course. In the pre-dawn hours, the pounding of the water on the rocks brought up something from that summer and changed it slightly to make it more dramatic.

We are on a ferry leaving the Newport Folk Festival. We have spent the day there and heard a lot of music. Judy Collins is everywhere, giving workshops, talks, spreading a lot of good will, and she is there at the end of the last concert as fog starts to surround the stage. Lit by violet lights, she stands in the middle of a stage that slowly becomes so covered in fog that she seems more and more dreamlike, visible one minute and the next only a haunting voice that seems strong for all its invisibility.  She is closing with the title track of her big album of the summer, “In My Life.” Though the Beatles song is very familiar, I feel I have never heard it until now. Finally, the show is over and we make our way to the ferry.  The boat makes its way through the fog guided by buoys with bells that keep it on course. We press close enough to feel each other’s breath. The fog is so dense it is impossible to see anything and yet the little bells ring, we are close and the course is true. We can still hear Collins’ voice and we know she is singing just for us.

Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life, I love you more.

It is a movie, I know. Two lovers stand close in a fog guided by an unseen hand.  You can tell by the soundtrack that the boat is not going to crash, that the lovers will land safely. And you know by the intensity of the scene and its uniqueness that this is an exquisite metaphor for romantic love, so exquisite that you don’t want them to leave the boat. You would rather they just travel back and forth in the fog, guided by the bells and the sound of Judy Collins’ voice. But because we are adults and live in a broken world forever incomplete, the ride can go on forever only in the movie.

Still in the memory of one lover, and perhaps two, it lives on almost 50 years later as one of life’s most beautiful moments that changed you somehow and has made bearable life’s darker elements, the sickness, the hurt, the tears, the anger, the hatred, all of the people who come only to ultimately leave.

Like other responsible adults, you have lived a life devoted mostly to looking for something and moving on though jobs, cities, people, yes even marriages.  And still you are beset by a restless longing that seems to go on and on in a world where there are few bells in the fog. You don’t know that a time awaits you yet when there is nothing to do but to accept the life you have lived, to surrender to the solitude it has left you and to know that it is all past and if nothing new beckons you to something akin to love, the power of your past to hurt you ebbs as well. You aren’t where you expected to be, but at some point the only thing you can do that makes any sense is to accept the fog, shed a tear for the missing partner and keep one ear attuned for a bell.

Dusty Box Car Walls

From the back window of my bedroom during my high school years, I had a clear view of the tracks that carried the Illinois Central from Chicago to New Orleans.  I liked to watch the trains rumble by. Most of them were freights and I was always on the lookout for hobos. I only saw a couple in three years, but that didn’t stop me from believing others were there huddled in the corners. What I saw just couldn’t compete with an imagination created by train songs and the old black and white movies from late night television.

Catching a south bound train, like hitching a ride down the line, conjured up a world of freedom. Whatever they were, Southern small towns were not citadels of freedom and that was particularly so if you were a minister’s son.  And so I dreamed often of the varied ways to “get out of this place.”

“Freight Train,” an old Elizabeth Cotten song Peter, Paul and Mary polished up in 1963 knew my world.

Freight train, freight train, goes so fast
Freight train, freight train, goes so fast
Please don’t tell what train I’m on
They won’t know where I’ve gone

I had a headful of train songs by the early 1960s, many of them plucked from the folk tradition, a few from the pop charts: “Casey Jones,” “John Henry,” “Chattanooga Chou-Chou,” “Midnight Special,” “500 Miles,” “Rock Island Line,” “Wabash Cannonball” (courtesy of Dizzy Dean), “Night Train,” and “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.” These songs built a fantasy world of riding the rails whether it be first class or boxcars.

The train song that got stuck in my head, though, was by one of those Greenwich Village guys that emerged just behind Dylan. Eric Anderson’s “Dusty Boxcar Wall” had all the liberation of “Freight Train” and the loneliness of “500 Miles” and seemed just the song for me:

I’m going away my baby
I’m gonna leave you pretty gal.
For a train passed by while you lay sleeping.
I’ll write you a letter on a dusty boxcar wall.

The idea of hopping a freight started with the songs. My friend John Gurley sang in a trio that played many Peter, Paul and Mary songs.  John and I lived on the same floor in the dorm, and a bunch of us would sit around at night and sing folk songs. What took the idea from being a mere fantasy to a possibility was John’s connection to someone who actually worked for Illinois Central. John took our fantasy trip to his brother-in-law and came back with real information about how to hop a freight. At that point, the group thinned a bit. Four or five of us remained committed, but when spring break came and it was time to go, it was down to John and me. On the night before we were to leave, a couple of other guys jumped in out of nowhere.

Our plan was to ride the IC to New Orleans and then hitchhike from New Orleans to Panama City. Panama City had not yet become the citadel city for spring breaks, but there was a little action and it was a lot closer than Fort Lauderdale. We never stopped to think we might be over doing it, that riding the rail to New Orleans, spending a couple of nights there and then catching a ride back would be adventure enough for one spring break.

There were problems to be faced. Right before our trip, Illinois Central went out on strike. This meant we had to take a smaller regional line that would have the added burden of picking up Illinois Central’s load. We didn’t translate this change into hours and we should have. A 12-hour trip stretched to 24.  John did go down to the train yard and scouted out what the change would mean in terms of boarding a train. The greatest barrier to hoping a train, at least back then, were the inspectors in the train yard. If you got by them, you were home free. That being said, those guys were scary.

We got to the train yard mid-morning. John did a remarkable job of steering us through a complex network of tracks to our train. We hopped onto a floor that was a deep carpet of dust. And then we sat for about three hours before the train moved. When the train finally started the run, it started slowly to wind its way out of the yard. We were tucked in the forward corners to avoid being seen.  Finally, we moved through town and out into the countryside that would so dominate the trip. We were taking the best back road in America.  The engineer knew we were on the train and stopped once to tell us to put our legs in. And later at a crossroads, some train inspectors, whose job was to watch the train as it passed, spotted us.  They checked our IDs and asked if we had money. John was smart enough to assure them we did. One of our group who seemed to still be drunk from the night before almost tried to yell out no, but John and I knew we would probably get arrested for vagrancy if that were true.  We showed them our IDs and we were on our way again.

We hadn’t brought food for 12 hours, much less 24. John knew through his brother-in-law that the train made a short stop in Louisville, Mississippi. He used the stop to make a run for some supplies–milk, cheese, and Vienna sausage. As the minutes ticked off, we became nervous.  He stepped onto the train just as it was starting up again. When a small group of black children saw him, they shouted, “Look at the hobo, look at the hobo.” John was certified.

We had been on the train most of the day and traveled only about 200 miles. Between Louisville and Jackson, the sun went down, and we became cold. We came dressed for the beaches. We didn’t even have sleeping bags. Someone got up and partially closed the train door, and we all fell asleep.  A couple of hours later, we were awakened by an abrupt bumping of cars and the slamming of the train door. I had never seen darkness this black. I got up and made my way to the door only to discover there was no way to open it from the inside. At this point, three of us were about as scared as you can be. Mr. Wrong Advice must have been nursing a bottle through the day because our situation didn’t bother him at all.  “Just leave it alone. We will get out in the morning,” he advised. The rest of us had darker imaginations. I thought we could have been left on one of those side tracks in the middle of nowhere with no one around for miles to hear our pounding. Weeks later they would find our decaying bodies or maybe just our bones.

If yelling and beating on the door were an indicator of who was most afraid, it was me. I beat that door till my hands were bruised and we all joined in a ragged chorus of “Help, Please Help.”   After a time that seemed endless—the whole incident probably lasted 15 minutes—we heard some noise outside and the door opened. We weren’t on a sidetrack in the wilderness. We were in Jackson, Mississippi. A brakeman had heard us and was opening the door. He was a very kind man. He entertained us with tales of discovering just the kind of bodies we had feared we would become.  He also offered us practical advice on how to avoid that happening. The door had slammed shut while the train was coupling up. The train door could only be locked in two positions—fully open and closed—so we had tested the fates when we tried to improvise a middle. He showed us how to brace the door so it wouldn’t slam shut.   He also told us how much time we would have and pointed us to some bathrooms. That guy was a saint in our book. We laughed hysterically for a bit, but all of us felt a little more alive because we thought we could have been dead.

We weren’t bold enough to brace the door.  We just locked it in the open position and shivered ourselves to sleep. When we woke up it was dawn and we were coupling up again, this time in Bogalusa, Louisiana. We still had three hours ahead of us, but we would be seeing country we weren’t accustomed to and then crossing Lake Pontchartrain. All we could see as we crossed the lake was water. It was easy to imagine that the train was floating to New Orleans. Eventually we started into the city and began to see signs of urban life. We had no idea where we should get off. We knew we didn’t want to wait until the train stopped and have to deal with the complexity of the railroad yard. The train was slowing down. Thinking we were nearer downtown than we were, we decided it was time to jump. We knew enough to jump with the movement of the train and then roll. Everyone did it smoothly and no one got hurt.  We were proud of ourselves.

We were a long way from downtown, but very luckily we were right on the highway we were to hitchhike out on the next day. We had no idea how filthy we were until we left the train and walked among normal people. My hair was so dirty I couldn’t I move it from my one side of my head to the other. The people at the first motel we approached were visibly appalled at our filth. When we inquired about a room, the clerk told us the vacancy sign was an error and directed us a short ways down the road to a motel built in the 30s or 40s. It was clean, with no frills. The motel accepted us with open arms and mostly cold showers. We were just too dirty for the small hot water tank in the little bungalow units. It took us hours to get clean, even with some of us using the shower by the tiny swimming pool to get the first layer off.

We had a great night in New Orleans. We wandered the French Quarter a bit. I had been there the year before and the burlesque acts were shrinking.  Lilly St. Cyr was still queen of the French Quarter and novelty acts such as “the woman who changes from stone to flesh” hadn’t disappeared. But we train hoppers settled down in a folk club for nearly the whole evening and enjoyed it enormously. Probably the most fun night of the trip. We were still into the adventure and the next day didn’t disappoint. We hitchhiked along an old coastal highway in pairs on a sunny day. We went through Biloxi, Mobile, Destin—just a little fishing village then—and finally just after dark arrived in Panama City.

The rest of the trip was an anti-climax. The party culture of the beach was pale compared to the adventure of the rail and trail.  The two worlds were so different. It would be difficult to find people who liked both. I still clung to the notion I was one of those people, but was losing faith fast.  The Beach was just a big boring version of the Frat culture I was coming to loathe–propelled by business majors, Ivy League fashions and a shallow predictability that knew nothing of the adventure of the road. I was glad when it was time to go home.

Hitching  proved a different kind of adventure on the way back. John left early and I split off from the other two along the road.  I cut across Mississippi to US 51, was propositioned for the first time in my life by a man who took rejection well, I thought, until he dropped me off at Starkville in the dark. When I finally got to 51, I haunted a truck stop until  I found a trucker who took me into Memphis, where I called a friend.

The freight train came out of mythology and for a short time it made us feel like mythical adventurers, guys onto the search for some other life untethered by all the collegiate norms that in one way or another tied most of us in knots.  It represented possibility for something else, something I couldn’t name yet, another way of life where I would feel at home with the world around me.  I was busy being born, but it felt like a slow birth. The songwriter Butch Hancock captures the sense of possibility the freight can have in a song I heard many years after our trip, but provided a better soundtrack for why we went than any of the songs I heard before the trip.

Now if you ever heard the whistle on a fast freight train

Beatin‘ out a beautiful tune

If you ever seen the cold blue railroad tracks

Shinin‘ by the light of the moon

If you ever felt the locomotive shake the ground

I know you don’t have to be told

Why I’m goin‘ down to the railroad tracks

And watch them lonesome boxcars roll





The Empty Seat

My father and I forged a relationship through basketball. He had tried fishing, hunting, and gardening—the things he liked to do—but I took to none of them. We faced the added burden that from the age of 7 on I was afraid of him. Daddy was the enforcer in the family and he had switched my legs lightly throughout my early childhood mostly for my talents as an escape artist. I was never where they left me, it seems.  But when I was 7, I did something that shocked him. I was spied through a window in an old shed behind our house playing doctor in the buff with a little neighbor girl. My father made me kneel on the floor in front of him and he whipped me very hard with his belt. It was the last time he ever laid a hand on me. He scared himself that day, my sister would tell me years later. He frightened me too and it lasted for years.

Though he was generally gentle and kind to me, I clung to my mother throughout grade school. He could be irritable, but not just with me. When teaching my sister to drive, he took her for one lesson and made her stop the car and he got out.  She got the rest of her lessons from someone else.  Still, both my sister and I loved and respected him very much. For me, it was mostly from afar until I started playing basketball.

Basketball gave us something to talk about. I was an overweight kid with flat feet so I didn’t have a lot to recommend me. I managed to start on the seventh grade team when I was in the eighth grade, mostly because I worked so hard and had gotten to play so little the previous year.  By the ninth grade, though, I started to look like a player.

That year, we moved to Newbern, TN, a small town famous for a football team that played and beat much bigger schools and traveled outside the state for games as well. As for basketball, well, no one even kept track of the seasons much. I was lucky though. The year we moved there, Newbern hired a basketball coach. I got to play a lot for a freshman and started the next three years.  I didn’t have an ideal body for basketball even in the slimmed down version.  I was a step too slow to play guard and a few inches too show short to be a forward. I was a “tweener,” and I found my place in the lineup because I could shoot the ball well from distance, something a lot of guys, large and small, couldn’t do back then.  I also had good ball-handling skills, and I understood the game well. I developed my shot from endless hours of solitary shooting on a goal outside my house and the other stuff from being a gym rat and playing in any pickup game I could find.

After every home game, I would walk up the stairs from the dressing rooms to find my Dad and Coach standing in the corner of the empty gym talking about the game. They respected each other, and Coach, in many ways, became the legs of my father, taking me to games all over West Tennessee, to the state tournament one year and to see Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain play an exhibition game another. We played countless hours of pickup ball. Coach even taught me how to drive a car. After the game, my Dad and I would go home and analyze the night, focusing on defenses, good plays, lapses. Daddy knew the game well. He had assisted a good coach at one of the small towns in Kentucky where the family lived before I was born, and he had gone to games every season since.

He and I didn’t have much to celebrate most of the time. The only good team I played on before my senior year was in the tenth grade. It was probably the best collection of talent I played with, and we were in every game. We just didn’t know how to win them in the last two or three minutes. It was a hard year to bear. You have to win some games to know what winning is about, and despite our athleticism, skill, and coaching, we just couldn’t beat both the other team and the losing tradition of Newbern. I could see it in the opposing players. In the last two minutes of the game, their eyes always said, “Come on, this is Newbern. We aren’t going to let these guys beat us.” We played Kenton in the tournament and should have won the game, but our two big men couldn’t pull the trigger on wide open shots under the rim. It was disheartening. I played  well as a junior, but one of our key players didn’t make his grades and we were a doormat all season. My Dad, perhaps more than Coach, kept my spirits up through the worst of it.

From basketball, my father and I went on to other topics, particularly my leadership skills. I was president of my class at school two years and held important positions in Methodist youth organizations at the local church, district and conference levels. My Dad gave me a lot of advice on how to talk to groups, large and small, how to motivate people, how to react when someone let you down. In a way, he was teaching me to be a pastor, though I never thought about it like that, and I don’t think he did either. He was just teaching me what he knew.

No one was as important to me as he was, and I nursed him as best I could when he became sick. I took him everywhere he went after his amputation. My mother was psychologically fragile, and I tried to be the house watchdog. When he was taken back to the hospital for his final stay, I stayed with him a week to relieve her. When he died, I took care of all the arrangements for the ambulance and our ride home. At home, there was a lot to attend to with all the church people helping out. After greeting everyone, I took my Mom to the funeral home to pick out the casket. The next day I was at the funeral home all day by myself greeting visitors and stayed on into the evening when she came. I had assumed so much responsibility it made getting along with my mother very difficult later.

I  had prayed one prayer for months: to have strength to face what happened. And I felt that prayer was answered. As the year went on, I learned that I also should have prayed for compassion. The year would demand more of that than I had.

Everything that had been easy before became harder that year, getting along with my teachers, even Coach. I was particularly hard on people I didn’t respect.  I put a good face on it all, but for the first time my life, I started to feel like a performance rather than a reflection of who I was. The Beatles arrived with a lot of happy tunes that provided some distraction but not much solace for my problems. I didn’t find that in popular music until a year later when I heard these lines in a tune by the Animals,

Don’t you know no one alive can always be an angel?
When everything goes wrong, you see some bad.

But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

Basketball was my greatest diversion from all the problems at home. Our first game of the 1963-64 season was about a month after my father’s death. As it always was, the game was with Kenton, this year in our gym. We lost by four points but it was a wonderful game to play in. For four years, I had played on teams that no matter what the level of skill just didn’t have much heart. This year was different. We had never started the season with so much fire. For me, it was the greatest game of my life up to that point. I scored 27 points and made about 50% of the shots I took. Most of them were from long range. As a team, we played together and rooted for each other.

Still, during warm-up and from time to time throughout the game, I found myself looking toward my father’s seat.  It was empty.  And when I left the gym after the game, so was I.  I would carry the weight of this emptiness into every game that season. During the heat of competition, I would push the feeling aside, but it would always be waiting for me when the game was over.

What I didn’t know until I saw that empty seat was that I played basketball to shine in my father’s eyes. No amount of praise from anyone else in the stands or from my coach or teammates could ever make up for not having that.  This turned out to be true not just for basketball and not just true for a year or two either. This was to be the pattern of my life—always aspiring to be a major player at whatever I put my mind to, but never really able to take much satisfaction from the success.  I have been a fortunate person. Many people tried to fill that empty seat. I have had many good mentors, a wife who worked tirelessly at it, and close friends who supported me with much encouragement.  It took me a long time to understand that the empty seat was not out there in the world to be filled by one success or another, one person or another. The empty seat was in me.

500 Miles

My father hardly spoke that Saturday in August, 1963. Our day together began with the two of us heading toward Memphis from Western Kentucky, where he had been staying a few days. I was driving. He was giving directions. Mostly, he used only one hand, the one resting on the stump of his left leg. Sometimes, there was a word or two of explanation, but for the most part there was only one sign. Whether he wanted me to turn, speed up or stop, he would pat his hand downward as if he were telling a choir to sing lower.

On Friday night, I had returned home from a church youth leadership assembly at a small college in North Carolina. I arrived at our house in West Tennessee to find the house dark, my parents gone, and a note on the door for me. It was from my sister and told me that our father was at her house in Western Kentucky and our mother was in a psychiatric hospital in Memphis.

The next morning I drove to my sister’s. My father seemed better than any time since the amputation of his leg two months before. He sat in his wheelchair with his grandchildren around him in a room flushed by the sun. The children drew out a more playful, younger man, and my sister, who combined the skills of a nurse with a depth of love and affection, had seen to him well.

He was happy to see me, but we didn’t have much time to savor our reunion. As he laid out our schedule for the day, it became obvious we faced a difficult day of driving. Two hundred miles of driving.  Half of it with my unpredictable mother. Although her doctors thought my mother needed to remain in the hospital, she hated it there and called every night to remind him of how much she wanted to come home.

I wanted to tell him what had happened to me in North Carolina.  The assembly had been a powerful experience, the first integrated event I had ever attended. It was organized around the role of the church in the social world, and mostly dealt with civil rights issues. I made friends with James, a black student from Nashville like me entering his senior year of high school. We spent a lot of time together. It began with ping-pong games and grew to talks about how each of us lived our lives in a segregated society. The sessions stretched me, and since there were a lot of college students, I listened more than I talked. James and I talked, and those talks were as important as the formal sessions.

On the last night, we were asked to maintain silence throughout the evening. For hours I prayed in my room or the chapel or just walked the campus in silence. I don’t remember praying very deeply until my father became sick. For months, I had prayed only one prayer, for strength to bear whatever came next. On this night, I prayed another prayer as well, for wisdom to know what to do with my life.

I came home committed to becoming a minister, and I wanted to tell him.  The trip to Memphis wasn’t a time for that. The weight of the day bore down on him harshly. It was taking every ounce of his strength just to get through it.  Nonetheless, on the outskirts of Memphis, he insisted that he drive into the city. Getting him from the passenger seat to the driver’s was difficult. He had to slide on the seat with no left leg for leverage. His arms were also weak. It had been months since he had been able to lift anything. Between us, we found a way to get him into place without banging the still tender stump.

The small private psychiatric hospital looked idyllic. It was a huge stone well-kept building from another era. The lot was landscaped with plants and flowers, all in full bloom.  I lifted the wheelchair out of the trunk, then lifted my father into it and pushed him up a ramp to the entry level. My mother appeared shortly, and we were back in the car and heading home.

Although Mother was so furious she could barely contain herself, she managed somehow to bury her anger in a silence full of noise as she continually shifted in her seat. My father hardly moved, stoical in the small emotional space his brokenness left him. He let me drive out of the city, and I was relieved. It gave me something to do.  The tension transformed the real space of the car, where three bodies were actually pushed toward each other, into a giant symbolic triangle made from space so vast that only lonely souls could exist there.  I moved to turn on the radio, but my father asked me not to do it. I hummed quietly to comfort myself, probably “500 Miles,” a folk song I loved and sang for many years.   We were headed back to our own house, less than a hundred miles away, but I already could see my home vanishing in the rear view mirror.

Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two
Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four
Lord, I’m 500 miles away from home.





Little Birdie, Come Sing Me A Song

When I found the music of Steve Young, I had been heartsick awhile, and he was singing songs that told stories about a world I knew. It’s a world where you go somewhere and aren’t sure how you feel about it, where you feel the past pushing you away and pulling you back, where you cover sad feelings with crooked smiles and bitter words, where you make tough choices and always pay the price for them. Often those songs seemed to speak the story of my life far better than I could. Steve’s voice, full of grief, anger and tenderness, all fighting to be heard at once, lifted me out of myself and then sent me back home,  as if  his voice were my own at last discovered.

February, 1975. It’s an unseasonably warm, sunny day in Carbondale Illinois, and I am buying groceries at the mall. I wander through the JCPenney  store on the way out and stop to thumb through some record cutouts. I pick up an album with a lime-green cover with a small photo in the center of a young woman walking across a bridge, Seven Bridges Road. The cover seems perfect for a Bread record, but I pick up the album nonetheless.  The back side is more interesting, dense with information.  There is a small black and white photo of a young man and woman walking toward the camera, eyes cast down. I survey the list of songs to discover that the singer wrote “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” the title cut of a Waylon Jennings album I own.

I have listened to Seven Bridges Road three times, and it isn’t dark yet. I feel like I have found a much weathered family Bible, so inscribed with my own family’s history that it is hard to know whether the book’s importance comes from the printed word or the handwriting that covers the margins. These songs are Steve’s stories, but they are at once the story of a people and, yes, my story too. The songs are sung with great passion and propelled by the same contradictions that move me forward some days, hold me back on others, and on the worst days collide like two full force gales.

I first found some of my tensions and contradictions mirrored in the great Southern novels. Last year I took a course on Southern Literature and Culture at Southern Illinois University where I am a doctoral student. We read 15 Southern novels spanning more than 100 years.  I was drawn particularly to Faulkner and Penn Warren. In Faulkner’s magnificent Absalom, Absalom, Quentin Compson, a son of the South studying at Yale, tells his roommate the awful history of his family taming the wilderness of frontier Mississippi and the great sins that flowed from that conquest. Torn apart by conflicting impulses toward his home and the South, Compson pronounces the only benediction he can manage, “I love it, I hate it, I love it.”  In Penn Warren’s  All the King’s Men, Jack Burden offers a tortured tale of politics and class in the New South:  “And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.”

Quentin Compson and Jack Burden express contradictions that I feel, but they are both from the aristocratic South, which seems a long way from the world of tenant farming that my parents carried with them and talked of often enough that I feel it is my legacy too. The course took a stab at this element of Southern culture in Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. Our time would have been better spent on Steve Young’s songs, “Long Way to Hollywood,” “Montgomery in the Rain,”  “The White Trash Song” and “Seven Bridges Road.”

In Steve’s songs, sometimes the hardscrabble culture of the South shows its kind face as in “Long Way to Hollywood,” a song about leaving the South.

All them ole Depression people, Babe, I know they took a heavy load.

All their children, my kinfolks and cousins, still walking down Tobacco Road.

Well, they still talk about Hank Williams, Lord they’re clinging unto his fame.

I’m of the same race. I’m from the same place. Got the same lonesome blood in my veins.

The lonesome blood that takes the singer away produces moments of nostalgic longing in “Seven Bridges Road.”

Sometimes there is a part of me has to turn away and go,

Running like a child beneath warm stars down the Seven Bridges Road.

More typically, the remembrance is bitter and sad as in “Montgomery in the Rain.”

I know I look funny to you all honey, but I am just one

Who was once from here and now who’s come back again.

I ain’t asking for nothing but my song and a cemetery wind. 

I understand all of these things that day, but I will appreciate the songs more deeply as time goes on. What I don’t understand is how long these songs will endure as part of me, how I will lean on them through some of the greatest crises of my life until, finally, I face one that will require me to put the songs away for a time to be rediscovered later. I also don’t foresee that someday the singer and I will be friends and will grow old together in in the same city.

This February day, it is enough to have found songs that my own heart cried to have written. Had I known enough and believed enough, I would have prayed for these songs.

Like a lot of people, I take the presence of songs for granted. Songs appear and disappear. Sometimes they reappear in another’s voice. Sometimes they come back in the same voice. I hold onto a few, some from my adolescence, some to mark periods in my life, some to help cherish peak experiences, and a few just simply because they are truly wonderful.  Still, for the most part, I treat songs as disposable commodities, not as great art that speaks my experience in some enduring way.

Mostly, I long for a song to speak how my life is right now. Once this immediate desire is fulfilled in a moment of clarity, I move on. Before I know it, a fog returns to obscure the nature of things.  There I am, gripped once again by an insatiable longing to be understood, taught and comforted. Art that endures calls out my name not just one time but many times and changes along with me.

When I was 17, I preached a sermon for the first time. I took as my text part of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In the beginning of the letter, Paul discusses the relationship of “suffering” to the “glory of God.” I was more interested in the connective tissue that linked those two terms: endurance, character, and, most importantly, hope. It was two months after my father died, and I was looking for a redemptive element in his death. Paul argues that suffering builds endurance, and endurance yields character that gives us the capacity for hope. I don’t know if what Paul writes is true or not, but I do know that I have always had to have hope to go on. I want to believe that longing is the seedbed of hope. In Steve Young’s songs, I find traces of what I have endured and hear my life named. That afternoon and for some time after, these songs give me a way to understand my past and to live with my conflicted nature. Later, Steve will write songs that are more hopeful and recast how I hear these earlier songs.

The novelist Jonathan Lethem has written that the listener, some of us at least, longs for “the voice, and what’s behind it.” What we want from that discovery “is to be with ourselves but not alone.” On a February day forty years ago, fate smiled on me, and I found the work of an enduring artist at an industrial dump site—the cutout bin—and felt I was not alone.

 Everything is its own sigh at being what it is

 And no more, an unanswered yearning

 Toward what will be, or was once perhaps,

 Or might be, might have been, or . . .

From “The Evening Star” by Rainer Maria Rilke

(Translated by Randall Jarrell)

(This is the first of two posts on the music of Steve Young. This post is a bit more conceptual than usual, but I shall return to my storytelling form in the second half. Some of the material here appeared first in my long essay “That Same Lonesome  Blood” in the music issue of Oxford American, 2001. I owe a special debt to Marc Smirnoff for publishing that essay and for all of the help he gave in its editing. My friend Mark Lucius offered some valuable suggestions and caught a number of mistakes in this essay. Thanks Mark for the close reading.)

Dance Me Through The Panic

It was the year after I stopped teaching in the spring. The spring of 2011. I hadn’t had a drink in  more 30 years and I didn’t this night either, but the night was still one of the most frightening, confusing and disorienting nights of my life.

A friend of mine from my dancing days in the 1990s was calling a dance in Bloomington, Indiana and I drove down to have dinner with her and go to the dance. I palled around with a bunch of gals from Cincinnati when I was dancing.  The dance culture is organized around weekends and these women and a few other friends were  my home group. We stayed at each other’s houses, pitched tents together, and even crowded into hotel rooms together when the situation called for it. Darlene was one of my best pals.

So, I am in the middle of a depressive episode when I head out to Bloomington. I was already taking meds for depression, but this episode was far bigger than any meds I could take or even imagine.

I got there late, very fatigued. I parked off the square on a side street, and we ate at a restaurant downtown. After dinner, I headed back to my car before realizing I had no idea where I had parked. I became frantic and started running and fell, separating the bone in my little finger from where it connects at the wrist.

Finally, somehow I find the car. Only to discover that the keys are locked inside.  I try to call a locksmith but discover he can’t come until the next day. I try to take a cab to the dance but discover I have no cash. I search and search until I find an ATM for some money.

I get a few dollars and am relieved for a minute or two before I realize I left my card in ATM and the machine has eaten it  I take a cab to the dance. at least my body does. My pants are covered in blood stains so I spend the night trying to hide. Finally, I just sit there. I am so frantic.  Dance me through the panic, till I’m gathered safely in, Leonard Cohen sings.

Darlene loans me the money to get a room and stays with me until the locksmith comes the next afternoon. I drive to Chicago happy to be moving but even with all the caring help, I feel defeated beyond words.

Since that night in Bloomington, I have grown a little better at knowing if I am lost or found and if I am lost, just how lost I am. I stay in place through habits. Without them, my life falls apart easily and I find myself anxious and angry. Moves are very tricky for me. This week was tough. I stopped working with my trainer last week, and he was an important element in organizing my week. Without anchors and dealing with a seemingly endless  of calls to make, and things to  remember to do today, and then the inevitability of a tomorrow when I would have to do it all over again, I have floated in and out of anxiety.

A hard week. When I was child, I was afraid of elevators. My father worked out this method to get me through my anxiety. He allowed me to pinch his leg from the time the elevator began to move until it stopped. I am sure that this must have been painful for him, but he never let on. So, with his strong heart beating out my time, I make my way through another of life’s in-betweens and place this prayer in the Chicago winds: Lift me like an olive branch, be my homeward dove. . . .and dance me to the end of love.

(This post began as an email to my friend Lynne Butler, and, due to her response and efforts, it remains largely as the email was written. Between us, we made a few changes, but very few.  As always, I thank her for her wisdom and guidance.)

Gimme Shelter

I have lived my life full of longing to leave one place for another only to find myself after a time longing to go back.

Perhaps the pattern started in my childhood. The son of a Methodist minister, I moved every four to six years. But the pattern became my way of life when I started making my own decisions.  I left one college for another only to go back to the first. I left my first newspaper job for graduate school only to go back to the newspaper job. When I went through a divorce, I had a yearning for home and headed for Tennessee. I worked on a newspaper in Memphis for a year before heading off to graduate school at Southern Illinois University. I was there three years but almost left every year. Finally, I settled in Milwaukee. I spent the first three years looking for a way out before the city captured me. I was there for seven years, and I yearned to go back for a long time after. I spent the next eight years at the University of Utah until another divorce and another case of homesickness brought me back to Tennessee, this time Nashville. I thought I would stay in Nashville the rest of my life, but after a good ride at Middle Tennessee State University, the university had a major administrative change and I no longer felt I fit. Through the good graces of a former graduate student, I was able to go to Loyola Chicago. I loved the students there, but the administration treated me like I was starting over again and created more hoops than a man 60 years old ought to jump. I headed back to my job in Tennessee for a couple of years, but I loved Chicago so much I kept my primary residence there.

I am very good at complicating my life, and I am on the verge of doing it again, moving back to Chicago while keeping a small place in Nashville, for a little while at least. This move has made me remember all the moves but particularly the one I wrapped in songs. That was the one from Milwaukee to Salt Lake City in 1983. The University of Utah had offered me an excellent job in a program with a top ranked graduate division. It was the first place to ever offer me a job in large part for my intellectual strengths. I accepted the position eagerly.   But as one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs suggests, what looks like freedom can feel like death. The contrast between my waking life and my dream worlds as the move approached was out of Blue Velvet. In the daylight, I smiled and slapped my leg and said how glad I was to go. My dreams and fantasies told a darker, more tortured story. I coped with the duality of these feelings by compiling a list of songs. For the road? No, not that road. The songs were for the end of the road, my death.

As the summer went on, my songs or “the funeral list,” as I called it, evolved into a full-blown fantasy that included a service, mourners and a few remarks. My wife and I both hated to leave Milwaukee.  At first, we had thought of the city as a stopover. Barb believed we wound up there because I hated to fly and I could drive to the interview. It was a sleepy department in a building about ready to fall down that hadn’t made a hire in years. I was the only assistant professor. I liked some of the faculty members, but the biggest hook was that I thought it was a place I could have a role in helping to build something. The city had all the advantages of a big city, excellent museums, a wonderful park system, big league sports teams and, like Chicago, a shoreline on Lake Michigan.  It had been a city built by working men and women, and its politics still reflected that. The Socialist Party had been strong in Milwaukee, and until the 1960s, the city had a Socialist mayor. We arrived in the mid-70s, but you could still feel the winds of the 60s blowing through the city.

Milwaukee did have its downside.  Though it was large, it was a provincial city and a hard place for newcomers to get a toe hold. Tucked away from the major transportation lines, it was a city long on residents with deep roots to the city or rural Wisconsin and short on the kind of strangers who come and go and contribute to cities being more fluid. In Milwaukee, people remained connected to the people with whom they had attended high school and college and to the ethnic traditions they grew up in.  We felt out of place at first, but somewhere along the way, I fell in love with my students, tough kids mostly from working class neighborhoods, and I worked hard to help build a better department. Barb completed a master’s degree and found a job she liked working in public access cable. This was back in the day when it was still possible to dream a little dream about cable as a democratic force.  We both developed friendships and ties, and we fell in love with the city’s basketball team, the Milwaukee Bucks, or as we thought of them, “Don Nelson’s Bucks.”  We had season tickets for five seasons and watched a team almost good enough to win a championship climb and climb, but never quite get over the hump.

The city and the university proved much harder to leave than I thought when, hurt and angry from a bruising but successful promotion and tenure year, I said yes to a very good job in a highly ranked department at the University of Utah.  I was proud of the achievement. It was wonderful to wear, but when I came home and took my clothes off, the move filled me with dread. There were a lot of good reasons to stay: Barb had a full fellowship to work on her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and promises of support at the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern as well. I had taken the lead in recruiting good young faculty to our program who had stood by me during a dreadful year and were expecting me to become chair of the department.

Still, I see now that I had too much of the wrong kind of pride and would hurt myself and everyone who cared about me to exercise it. I had been taught better.  My father was a humble man, more of a healing minister than a builder or orator. His obituary captured this dimension of his life like this: “Imbued with a rare talent, Reverend Eason had mastered the art of living in brotherly love with his fellowman.” When he was nearby, I felt that I was learning a bit of that art as well. But after he died, I developed an exaggerated, if fragile, sense of myself.  The threat of defeat at one university tore a hole in that image. I had to reclaim it somehow. I imagined that I was open to counter arguments, but I really wasn’t and my wife and friends knew that. I had become one of those guys you can’t tell anything, a master of “You can’t do that to me. I won’t stand for it.”

The only problem was that my unconscious mind wasn’t with me on this decision, and it kept me thinking about death rather than new life. The song list, and plans for my memorial, though full of serious ideas, kept these dark thoughts playful.  The service was to take place at my favorite tavern, Tony’s on South Second, where some students late in the summer actually held a going-away party for me. In my fantasy, the small room was packed with true blue friends. No one attended in an official capacity. There were some wonderful testimonials to me as a teacher, friend and thinker and though my bones were in a small container near the tap beer, I floated somewhere above the bar, in tears at what a wonderful person others believed me to be.

The songs were the centerpiece of it all. I imagined them sung live and thought my friends Mark Lucius and Terry Perry could handle them. At some point, I thought people might take up a collection to bring Steve Young there. The list kept changing, but here are a few of the songs and some of the important lines that I remember:

So have all of your passionate violins

Play a tune for a Tennessee kid

Who’s feeling like leaving another town

With no place to go if he did

Cause they’ll catch you wherever you’re hid

“Brand New Tennessee Waltz” by Jesse Winchester

This song grew out of Winchester’s flight to Canada during the Vietnam War. I identified with his sense of being hunted and hounded in 1969, but the feeling had continued for me long after the war was over.  Its origins were probably in the prying eyes small towns turned on the minister and his family in the 1950s. I had grown up in a fish bowl that it usually took more than music to make disappear.

. . . The early dawn cracks out a carpet of diamonds

Across a cash crop car lot filled with twilight Coupe Devilles

Leaving the town in a-keeping

Of the one who is sweeping up

The ghosts of Saturday night . . .

“The Ghosts of Saturday Night” by Tom Waits 

This song reflects my urban romanticism and celebrates the liberation inherent in city life. I came to believe that I had found my greatest freedom in bars like Tony’s.  I would always carry a heart full of nights when I closed the place and drove home through a city that seemed to have been asleep for hours.

There were others, a John Prine song “Please Don’t Bury Me” to add a little humor, Gram Parsons’ “Wheels” to add a sense of movement, and a traditional spiritual “Peace in the Valley” to suggest some final resolution.

The only recorded piece of music was Nina Simone’s almost 19-minute version of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” a version where she adds many gospel flourishes and inserts a poem near the end by Last Poet member David Nelson titled “Today is a Killer.” Harrison’s version of the song is that of a man on a spiritual path and is therefore a song of great faith. Nina Simone turns the song into an agonizing call for a hidden God to reveal himself. The song moves from crescendo to crescendo in intoxicating rhythm. The phrase, “Won’t you show yourself Lord?” — repeated again and again–is the most succinct statement of the song’s plea. God must show himself in the words of Nelson’s poem, because “Today is a Killer.” Simone uses the words of this poem, sung alone with only her piano, to slow the song down and amplify her themes:

I often sit there at the sea and dream dreams

and hope hopes and wish wishes,

as I listen to the wind song dance for me.

But these moments never seem to last too long

because after the hopes, the dreams and the wishes,

after the singing of the dancing wind,

after you and me in a stolen moment of happiness,

after a glimpse of the timeless natural universe

moving in evanesce, moving in evanesce

moving in startling beauty

comes the reality of today

grinning its all-knowing fiendish grin

knowing everything I say

everything I feel

everything I think

every gesture that I make

today, today,

pressing his ugly face against mine

staring at me without life in his eyes . . .

Because today is a killer.

Today is a Killer by David Nelson

She adds “and only you can save us lord” as a transition back to Harrison’s lyrics. After what seems a journey through a hellish god-less world, the song ends with a powerful Hallelujah.

Back then, I thought I was a person who knew what was happening in me so I didn’t really explore the fantasy. Mostly, I just made a joke of it. Now I wonder, what was driving this drama? Was I merely reveling in my own sense of importance? Was it the return of my childhood fear of death? Was it just separation anxiety, a fantasy to tame my fear of the unknown? The answer I have settled on is that it was an act of mourning for a part of myself I feared I was losing.  My childhood had prepared me to perform a self that was expected of me. Ever since my father’s death, I had struggled against the artifice of that life, naively believing I could easily find a persona that was really me. My teaching position in Milwaukee had allowed me to simultaneously have the status of being a professor but also to fancy myself as a bohemian rebel.  My tenure battle had taught me that maybe it was impossible to live this dual life.  And the promise of Utah, an excellent academic department that offered to support me in ways I had never imagined, had to be balanced by a loss of personal freedom as I would have to fit into a department organized around cocktail parties in suburban homes, going to athletic events as a group in the university’s colors, and a score of other sacramental social events such as the annual soft ball game between the faculty and graduate students. Was a part of me that I felt was central to my sense of being going to have to be sacrificed?

Autumn came and I moved to Utah, leaving Barb in Milwaukee to sell our house. The university was wonderful in the ways I had anticipated and a struggle for me in the ways I feared. I drank more and more to hold it together or to imagine I was. But sometimes even strangers saw right through me.  On a flight back from Memphis, two years into our stay, I encountered one such person. She was going from Memphis to a professional meeting in Denver. I was heading back to Salt Lake from a professional meeting.  I was drinking straight gin, my sedative of choice when flying. We began a casual conversation that revealed more of our thoughts and feelings as the flight went on. This was not romantic foreplay. It was just a very intimate personal conversation between two people who would never have to face the consequences of anything we told each other. I don’t remember what I told her or what she told me. I suspect I talked the most. All I remember is that by the time she got up to go, I felt very naked. She had a tender, quality and seemed to be as touched by the conversation as I was. When she stood up to get off the plane, she looked down at me and said softly but fondly:  “I will always remember this plane ride with the saddest man I have ever met.” I felt both recognized and ashamed.

A couple of years later I stopped drinking and started the long process of changing my life. I didn’t make these changes fast enough to save my marriage or save either of us from some difficult emotional times. The world didn’t change magically, at least not for long. Still, I left Utah in 1990 with a clearer head and saw that road stretching from Salt Lake City to Nashville as one of possibility, not of death.

That one trip, of course, didn’t mean the end of wanting two things at once as my movement between Nashville and Chicago in the last 10 years attests.  I have given up predicting where I will be next or for how long. I am keeping one foot in Tennessee by holding onto a small place to stay when I’m here. But who knows? In five years I could be in two new towns or have added a third. I am not a road warrior. I don’t like the in-between.  I have come to think of myself as a transient in residence, a person who likes to burrow into the fabric of everyday life but never manages to stay long enough to see what the cloth turns out to be. If there is an afterlife, I hope it has many realms and that there is a special place for people like me where we can request reassignment periodically or at least move between realms. Surely such souls could come in handy where other lost souls continued to kill themselves again and again.

If it be your will

If there is a choice

Let the rivers fill

Let the hills rejoice

Let your mercy spill

On all these burning hearts in hell

If it be your will

To make us well.

Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will

(A number of writers offered support and suggestions on this one. I am particularly grateful to Lynne Butler, Bonny Holder and Barbara Bennett.)

In Dreams

One of my favorite writers, Fred Exley, asks of dreams: “What good are dreams, really, if they come true?”  I have carried this quote of the hometown writer of one of my many hometowns with me through the years. It is an enduring conundrum, my own answer wavering somewhere between Freud (“We are all murderers in our dreams.”) and Waits (“You are innocent when you dream.”). All that I remain certain of is that some of the time all we can do is dream.

My first love came to me in a dream. She was too old for me, 15 or 16. I was only 11. She had blonde, curly hair, chewed a lot of gum and only danced with girls. She lived a thousand miles away, and I would never meet her in the flesh. Still, five days a week in the late afternoon, I was there waiting, hoping to get a glimpse of her on American Bandstand.

I didn’t know her name, but she was she was a regular, though not one of the big teen personalities. She was often only visible in the corner of the picture.  I don’t remember why I first noticed her or how my fascination evolved. Still, it was far from casual. I saw her sometimes in my nocturnal dreams, and even when I was awake, I saw her in a dreamy way.

I was a little fat boy with a bad case of eczema on my arms who had been so scared of his fifth grade teacher that he refused to go school, once for a whole six-week term. When I fell for my dream girl, I was in the sixth grade, and my life was some better. Still, I wasn’t ready for a real girl yet. A year or so later, I held hands with a girl named Jeanie at the movies, mostly because she took my hand. The next Saturday we kissed because she put her arm around me and kissed me. This was all OK, but it didn’t make my heart flutter. I was a boy made for dreams.

Despite the magic I felt, my meetings with my Bandstand sweetheart didn’t go like clockwork. Reception for the local ABC affiliate in Harrisburg, Illinois was not predictable at my house. That meant I couldn’t count on seeing her even if she were there. To be certain of reception, I had to walk around the top of the bluff and and up the hill toward the school to Jim Powers’ house where the Harrisburg reception was always sharp and clear. I watched many a Bandstand there. After I had a sweetheart, though, it felt less delicious to be watching her in front of Jim. So mostly, I had to suffer the pangs of living with a sweetheart who was sometimes absent and, often fuzzy, all alone at home.

It was a small price to pay. I had found someone to receive all of those bubbling new feelings I was starting to have. She was wonderful. She never embarrassed or challenged me or asked me questions I couldn’t answer. All she had to do was chew her gum, dance, and soak up all of that love I was sending her. Surely, it must be getting there. The boys her age were too dimwitted to dance with her. Maybe a kid like me would have a chance.

Since I didn’t really know how to dance, it was hard for me to imagine us dancing fast to “At the Hop.” If we slow danced to something like “Tears on My Pillow,” it would be far too obvious that I was a bit short for her. If we did something like “The Stroll,” everyone would be watching when it came our turn to stroll down the lane and see that I was not the best dancer and maybe didn’t deserve her. At last, I settled on the idea of a cha-cha to a song like the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to do is Dream.” I didn’t think this up on my own. I had seen couples cha-cha to this tune and knew it was possible. I could somehow imagine us in this rhythmic back and forth motion, a turn perhaps, and then back and forth again. Held steady by her eyes, I would magically discover I knew the footwork. I never thought about what came next. To me the dance was the whole she-bang, all that I wished for, and because it was the cha-cha, I didn’t even have to hold her in my arms.

The touch of melancholy in the song went right over my head. “Dreamin my life away” seemed the best of alternatives to me. The Everlys’ sweet harmonies tamed that blue note anyway and made our cha-cha jubilant:

When I want you in my arms,

When I want you and all your charms

Whenever I want you,

All I have to do is dream,

Dream, dream, dream



As I aged, I tried not to dream of things that could never come true, but set my mind on what seemed to be real possibilities. I had friends who chased the counterculture to a commune in Arkansas, but I wouldn’t let my mind, much less my body, go there. That’s how I ended up being a professor, which perhaps was, at its best, a dream. All that talk about the Ivory Tower to the contrary, the university gave me a lot but it took away as much as it gave. The rite of passage was as difficult to cross as that bridge that separated Brooklyn from New York City in “Saturday Night Fever.” After a time, I lost track of all I was having to discard to make the deal work. Seven years in, I had all but lost the ability to dream in daylight.

The nights were another matter, but in the professional world, isn’t that where dreams belong? I wish I had kept a record of my dreams, but most of them arose and passed away. I do remember that my dreams often came wrapped in songs, movies and TV shows. There were the inevitable endless hallways and sometimes, I was stuck somewhere with no way of getting out. Some of my best dreams involved finding another world beyond or below our everyday world. Too often, I was in a place that seemed safe but very quickly became so dangerous that I feared for my life.  Generally these were not the kind of dreams you want to come true, though perhaps they already have.

Just the other night I had a slice of a dream created from memories of old television shows and songs. I was in an apartment with a dark-haired woman who resembled Suzanne Phleshette, Bob the pscyhiatrist’s wife Emily on the old Bob Newhart Show back in the 70s.  She was older now, and there was no Bob in sight. Her hair was short, a pixie-cut that had grown shaggy. Her face was less rounded and revealed her bone structure more clearly. Her apartment was tiny but contained all kinds of fascinating little figurines and small sculpture. Abstract paintings covered the walls. From the ceiling hung various kinds of bead work and little interlocked metal pieces that made noises like wind chimes when you slid through them.  The decorations made the small space even smaller and as intricate as a scarf from India. We sat across a small counter from each other, sipping tea.

I am not sure what Suzanne was saying or who she was speaking for. Perhaps she was my mother who had dark hair or my former wife Barbara who had an angular face. Barb and I watched Bob and Emily every week. I do not know who it was tap, tap, taping at my cellar door. I suspect I fell into a Leonard Cohen song and substituted one Suzanne for another. Whomever the dream woman was, she had me “on her wave length.” That part is for sure.  She did not seem half-crazy, but I did feel that she was somehow instructing me, perhaps, even showing me “where to look among the garbage and the flowers.”

As young boy I dreamed easily and believed. I had not yet learned to distinguish the imaginary from the everyday world. Life was a big romance novel where eyes meet, and suddenly you know you are made for each other. My Bandstand sweetheart was made from my own vision and contributed almost nothing but the act of appearing. I didn’t know then that the people I’d meet in my dreams might often, to steal a line from one of several Amy Rigby songs on this theme, “fail to measure up to who they were when they were just someone I had in mind.” I anticipated a soft voice, but maybe she was loud. I imagined her to be understanding, but perhaps she was self-centered. Although she danced great, maybe she knew nothing about movies and basketball.

When people do fall in love they can lose themselves as well as find themselves in the couple they make together. There is nothing, a beautiful song written by Rowland Salley says, “sadder than losing yourself in love.”  When it is necessary to pull apart, there is so much raw skin that everything you do afterward can be terribly painful. And all the regret that comes with this pain makes life harder than you ever imagined. A child is saved from knowing that sometimes all you can do is go on alone. And then somehow you do it and become so good at it that there is no other way for you to go but alone:

There are heroes in the seaweed

There are children in the morning

They are leaning out for love

And they will lean that way forever


While Suzanne holds the mirror

(I am lucky to have the writer Lynne Butler read my work prior to publication. She has an eye for the good sentences and a  nose for the bad ones, and my writing wouldn’t be the same without her counsel. A long time ago, I taught her a few very simple things about journalism, but she has taught be much more about narrative.)


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