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Joseph E Bird

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non-fiction

Finding Ricky.

This won’t mean much to anyone except my family. My apologies.

Today I read that the Kennedy Space Center is going to start displaying the Apollo 1 capsule as a tribute to the three astronauts – Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee –  who lost their lives in the launchpad fire fifty years ago. Around that time my family was living in Houston and my dad took me to the Johnson Space Center there to look at the rockets.

Today I went to Mapquest to see how long it would take to drive to the Kennedy Space Center.  13 hours, more or less. Then I checked Houston. 18 hours. While I was on Mapquest, I zeroed in on the old neighborhood. The apartments we lived in are long gone, but I recognized the streets. Japonica. Ilex. Redwood. Rustic Lane.

I thought about my Houston friends, and like I have done in the past, I searched the internet for clues of their whereabouts. Mostly I struck out. Then I found one. In an obituary in Louisiana.

Ricky.

the-band-3-for-web

He’s the one with the maracas.

I wasn’t sure it was him until I watched a memorial video on the funeral home website. The pictures of him as a kid were unmistakable.  The obituary said he lived in Louisiana for almost fifty years. That left little time for living in Houston, probably the few years that my West Virginia family lived there. We were all transients, apparently.

So many of our friends disappear and we never hear from them again. We wonder whatever happened to them.

Looks like Ricky lived a good life and had a loving family. Which is exactly what I hoped I would find.

 

We need to talk.

a glance of the eye, the innocent look
the curl of your lips, was all that it took

That’s the first two lines of a song I wrote a few weeks ago. The narrator is beguiled by a look, a smile. It’s a wonderful thing, even if upon reflection, it seems a little superficial. Though the moment may come and go, like so many moments in a lifetime, it might be the beginning of a relationship.

we talked without words, there was so much to say

In this case, it was just the beginning. They moved beyond the magical, natural physical attraction, and they talked. They had a real relationship. Because the conversation is the relationship.

In the case of the song, it was a romantic relationship. But the conversation is also the platonic relationship. The familial relationship. The business relationship. The political relationship. The faith-based relationship.

If you want a relationship, you need to have the conversation.

Years ago I had a friend with whom I had one thing in common: our faith. We had long conversations about the fundamentals and the subtleties of our faith. Because of that, we were friends. Our situations changed, however, and he moved away and we lost contact.

Twenty years later, the contact was restored. I quickly learned that we no longer had common ground regarding faith. But there were other things. He was (and still is) an excellent writer. So we had conversations about writing. The relationship was maintained. But over the past few years, we have come to realize that our viewpoints had diverged too far to maintain meaningful conversations about anything. Neither of us said it, we just quit talking. Which is ironic, because he was the one who first articulated that fundamental truth to me. The conversation is the relationship. I still consider him a friend, but we no longer have a relationship.

That kind of thing happens all the time. Maybe Chauncey Gardner was right. Maybe it’s seasonal. Spring, summer, fall, and finally winter, when things go dormant.

And then there are all of you out there in internet land, most of whom I will never meet. At various times, we have joined in conversation about many things: music, writing, faith. Any given exchange may be only one or two sentences, but over the course of weeks, months, and years, we get to know each other because we talk. Sure, it’s in bits and pieces, but we talk. And because of that, we have relationships.

Weird how you can have friends, yet never sit across the table from each other. Never see an expression of surprise or concern or contentment. Never know what their laugh sounds like. Never hear the sound of their voice, even while you’re having a conversation.

Maybe it’s not weird at all. It’s just good.

Here’s wishing for more of the same in the years to come.


Footnote: The author Susan Scott is credited with the concept of the conversation being the relationship. In her book Fierce Conversations, she discusses the importance of the conversation in all relationships.

They once lived here.

mountains

It’s morning, one hundred years ago.

The men are in the mine. Or working the tipple. Or loading the rail cars.

The women are at home with the children. Or teaching school. Or at the company store.

Deep in the New River gorge, coal mining began in 1873 in the remote town that bears the name of its founder, John Nuttall. For more than 80 years, families lived, worked, and died in Nuttallburg. By 1958, it was all over.

All that remains are the ruins. You can still go there, but the trip itself is a harrowing descent down the steep hills that will burn the brakes of your car. And once there, the isolation is eerie. You can see the coal tipple and almost hear its noisy operation echoing through the valley. There’s nothing of the company store other than its foundation. Likewise with the houses that once grew from the hillside. Try to imagine the mothers and kids playing on the dusty paths as they scraped together a life that was as hard as the sandstone their husbands used to build the town. There was probably a doctor to tend to the illness and injuries, and a preacher to tend to those who didn’t recover.

Listen. Hear their voices. They once lived here.

tipple.jpg
From the tipple, the conveyor disappears into the forest, where the men of Nuttallburg loaded coal that would help power the country.
tracks.jpg
The natural process will not be stopped.

 

company store.jpg
All that’s left of the company store.
morning
And the sun still rises where children once played.

Over at True North Nomad, Lily Burgess writes about her adventures through wild and wonderful Canada. The other day she published a story about a ghost town in Ontario which reminded me of my visits to Nuttallburg.  Check out her work.

the band

the-band-3-for-web

the-band-for-web
My music career started early.

When I was 11, my family was living in Houston and I got together with the guys in photo and formed my first band. Ok, my only band. We had a name but I don’t remember what it was. The guys, however, I think about all the time.

From left to right:

Ricky Penton, guitar player, I think, in addition to maracas. His nickname was Pinto Beans.

Randy Crabb, singer, bongo player. I think those were my bongos that I got on a trip to Mexico. I liked his older sister, Cheryl.

Lance Berg. He’s holding a drumstick and a snare drum, so yeah, he’s the drummer.

In center front is Scott Bert, singer. Older brother of Lance. The Bergs were talented. Scott wrote our first original song, Made a Mistake. More on that in a minute.

In the second photo, the kid holding the Polaroid Swinger camera was me. The picture was taken on my birthday and the camera was probably a gift. I’m guessing my older sister, Adele, took the picture.

I was a guitar player.

The kid in the doorway with the cat-eye glasses is my younger sister, Sarah. She’s always been on the cutting edge of fashion. Not sure if she was a fan.

We played two songs, Little Red Riding Hood (which is the same chord progression as House of the Rising Sun, so if you know one, you know the other) and Wipeout. And then there was Made a Mistake, which consisted of counting by five until Scott purposely made a mistake in the sequence. Then the hook, made a mistake, made a mistake, made a mistake. About as bad a song as one could write.

And yet, this was the peak of my musical career. That tells you all you need to know about my level of talent. I still play Little Red Riding Hood and Wipeout occassionally, and since then and I’ve learned a few more chords. But I’m just a pretender, a hack wannabe living in the glow of those glory days in Houston. We played one gig, the big going away party for our family just before we moved back to West Virginia. It was a short set.

And I never saw the guys again. That’s the way it is in the entertainment biz. Fame is fleeting. Everything is fleeting.

Carpe diem.

 

and it was

and it was on nights as this

hot but not quite as hot

as it had been

a few brown leaves on the ground

promising those

cool nights

when the windows can open

 

and it was on nights as this

the voices of joe and marty

crackling over the radio

on the floor of the porch

my grandfather stretched out

on the glider

listening

 

and it was on nights as this

that I envied him

though I had no cares

I was just a kid

with my own radio

waiting for johnny or tony

to win the game

 

and it was on nights as this

I would stay up late

alone in my room

with the voices I knew

but would never know

their easy cadence

three up three down

 

and it was on nights as this

I knew my grandfather

would be smiling

content with his family

with his faith

with his gardens

with his life


copyright 2016, joseph e bird

Stories

Ever notice my profile pic? Looks like I could break out in song on a moment’s notice, right? When I was still on Facebook, I had the same photo on my Facebook page. One day an old friend, a very accomplished musician, saw my picture, stopped by my office and invited me to join him and his friends for their jam sessions. Sounds cool. But just because I’m holding a guitar doesn’t mean I’m good enough to join in with real musicians.

I declined.

There’s a lesson in that little story.

There are lessons in all good stories, even stories that are completely made up. Fiction, in other words. In fiction, we meet people, get to know them, and learn from their mistakes. We feel their pain, rejoice in their victories. Kind of like life.

I’ve heard people say they only read stories that are real. They mean history, biographies, and reference and self-improvement books. All good and beneficial. But by skipping fiction altogether, they’re missing nourishment for the heart and soul.

Same with art. And music. And dance. And poetry. And other forms that engage the right side of the brain.

Relying on feelings too much can get is trouble. But we risk missing out on so much if we live only in logic and reason.

“We dance for laughter,
we dance for tears,
we dance for madness,
we dance for fears,
we dance for hopes,
we dance for screams,
we are the dancers,
we create the dreams.”  — attributed to Albert Einstein

Is this really necessary?

Inculcateverb: to teach and impress by frequent repetitions or admonitions.

Socrates inculcated his pupils with the love of truth.

What a clunky word.  Sounds like a medical procedure. If you left off the last phrase of the example sentence, it would sound like Socrates had vision problems.

Socractes inculcated his pupils. 

Maybe he used eye-drops.

But he’s talking about the love of truth.

Love and truth. Two beautiful words. Noble concepts. What a better place the world would be with more love of truth. Or just more love, for that matter.

So let’s inculcate truth. Sounds like something politicians do all the time.

Let’s inculcate love. Yikes.

Why not use a word everybody understands?  One that has the same air of nobility as love and truth?

How about instill?

Socrates instilled his pupils with the love of truth.

I like that better.

The meaning is clear. The thought is uplifting.

Just because words are out there, doesn’t mean we have to use them.

Tales from the home.

We were sitting in my grandfather’s room at the nursing home, talking about nothing, as you tend to do.

She walked in like a scary Joan Crawford, glancing at us before looking elsewhere as she made her way to the other side of the room.

“Are you looking for someone?” one of us asked.

She stopped cold. Her eyes widened. “Maybe I am.”

It was chilling. And later, funny. A short story that would be told often.

Her name was Joanne. She hadn’t meant to be scary. She hadn’t meant to offend. She was just disoriented. As are most people in the nursing home. That might not be an accurate statement. It’s just my casual observation.

I don’t know when nursing home visits became part of our routine, but they’ve been a fairly steady occurrence for the last twenty years or so.

My great uncle was a country preacher back in the day. A stern-looking man, very conservative, but with a good sense of humor. His last months were spent in the nursing home. He did not go gentle into that good night. He would lay in his bed and yell. And curse. At the top of his lungs.

It was scary. It was funny. But most of all, it was sad. It makes you realize that life is a struggle to be the kind of person you know you should be.

My grandmother, his sister, was in the same facility, although I’m not sure if it was the same time. She spent two years there after her stroke and was as quiet and gentle as she had been at home. My grandfather and two of his sons visited her almost every day. We would talk to her, tell her about the garden, the weather, and her great-grandchildren. Most times, there was no response. The visits were more for the visitors.

There have been more relatives, friends, and neighbors.

It can be heart-breaking, especially if you think about it too much. It helps when you realize that most of the residents are living in the moment. They all want to be someplace else. We all wish they could be.

This year, we’ve visited a friend who really doesn’t want to be there. When we would show up, she wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t even look at us. This continued for weeks.

Still, we tried.

Finally, she started to warm up. And though she’s far from normal, she at least welcomes our visits. We don’t know what brought about the change, whether it was meds (or lack of meds) or just an attitude adjustment. And we know it could go back to being icy on our next visit. Even if it does, we’ll go back.

Not because we get anything out of it ourselves. It can be taxing.

Not because we’re making the lives of those we see that much better. Most of the time they’ll forget we were even there.

Do you remember the last time someone smiled when they saw you? Do you remember how that smile made you feel? Just for that moment?

That’s it.

It’s just a better moment. For everybody.

Vroom.

Lawnmower Update (as if you really care):

My wife is one of the Boone County McDerments. Her dad (and his brothers) could build or fix anything. She obviously inherited those genes. I came home after work and she was finishing up the carburetor repairs. She didn’t even watch the video.

It started on the third pull.

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