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Joseph E Bird

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and then came lawrence

There was no way this was happening. He was fearless, for sure, this shirtless little man with stringy, dark hair to his shoulders. But there he was, on top of Brando, sweat flying in every direction as he flailed at his head. He wiped his eyes with his glove and spit on the ground.

It wasn’t a fair fight. Wasn’t really supposed to be a fight at all. And it definitely wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.


Thirty years ago? Forty?

We were taking our turns boxing against Brando. Gary, Kevin, and me. I was first. 

Brando could have laid any one of us out with one punch, but I wasn’t scared. Because we weren’t really fighting. We were role playing as much as anything.

I moved in circles around him, peering over my gloves. I’m Ali. Lithe. Quick. Float like a butterfly.

A quick jab.

Barely even touched his gloves in front of his face. He was smiling. I was just trying to look the part.

Jab. Jab.

Sting like a bee. Though really, there wasn’t much stinging going on.

Brando’s the plodding Frazier. And true to form, he was much stronger, but I was quicker. 

Jab. Jab. Jab.  

Then a quick right to his head. 

Brando blocked it easily with his massive forearms. It’s what I expected.  The last thing I wanted was to connect and have him come after me. We were just fooling around.

Brando threw a few jabs of his own, but they never connected as I leaned back out of his reach. 

I circled to my left, on my toes. Dancing. The Ali shuffle.  That earned mock whoops of praise from the other guys. 

Maybe I really was a boxer. Maybe I had what it took. Maybe with a little training I could learn to throw a solid punch and maybe…

And then I was on my back looking up at white, fuzzy clouds against a blue sky. The side of my face was numb. I never saw it, but it had to be a left hook, because I was watching his right hand, knowing it would follow one of his easy jabs. But it didn’t.  I heard the howls and then the laughter. I sat up, my eyes watering as I tried to focus on Brando’s canvas sneakers in front of me.  To my right, sandals. Gary. To my left, Kevin was barefoot. He walked to me and I thought he was going to see if I was all right. He bent over and pulled off the gloves. It was his turn. I sat there for a few more minutes.

Kevin was the guy most likely to spend time in an eight by ten cell. In school, he couldn’t help being a smart-ass.  Seemed like it was just his nature. Even with the teachers. He was always being sent to the principal’s office. Always in a fight with someone. And when he fought, he went for blood. No wrestling matches with Kevin. A punch in the mouth was just to get things warmed up. A knee to the face and a broken nose was how his fights usually ended. Or so I was told. I only saw one of his fights and it was so frightening I left before it was over. Everyone was scared of him. Everyone but Brando.

I don’t know if Kevin had ever watched a Muhammed Ali fight. Don’t know if he knew who Joe Frazier was or George Foreman or Sonny Liston. Don’t know if he knew the difference between a boxing match and a street fight. Don’t know if he knew he couldn’t grab or push or kick or bite or put a knee to the face. He didn’t look like a boxer and if not for the pads weighing down his fists of stone, I would have bet money that Brando was going down.

He stood, arms to his side, waiting for Brando to do something. Brando laughed, then threw a serious jab and hit Kevin square in the face.  Kevin countered with a hard right that Brando easily slipped. He laughed again.

Kevin faked a left then threw another right. Brando blocked it with his arms. Then Kevin feigned the right again and came from the other direction with a looping left hook. Brando managed to get his gloves up just as the punch smacked him in the side of head. Had it been a little more direct, it might have been big trouble. As it was, it it merely signaled to Brando that Kevin had a lesson to learn. They sneered at each other. Something was about to happen. It wouldn’t take much to turn this into a real fight.

Kevin backed off, threw a couple of hard jabs that Brando slipped easily. Then Kevin went downstairs. A right to the side of Brando, who let out a grunt as the air left his lungs. Then a hard left in the middle of his stomach. Brando doubled over, and as Kevin was loading up another right, Brando pushed him backward. Brando straightened up and I could see there was no trace of a smile, no play in the eyes. Kevin knew he was in trouble.

Hey, sorry, Brando. Low blow.

Appeasement got Neville Chamberlain nowhere and it didn’t help Kevin. Maybe a little. Looking back on history makes judgments easier. Kevin still got what was coming to him, a brutal combination that bloodied his lip and nearly sent him rolling down the hill toward Gary’s back yard. But it could have been worse. Brando could have drawn out the punishment, could have really made him pay. 

Kevin got to his feet and walked back up the hill toward the rest of us. He untied the gloves with his teeth and flung them toward Brando’s feet.

You’re one tough son-of-a-bitch. 

He laughed as he said it. It was over. The equivalent of the lessor dog on its back, submitting to the alpha. Brando grabbed him in a headlock and tapped his head a few times with his gloved fist. Then he pushed him away. Kevin forced another laugh as he soaked up the blood running down his lip with his shirttail. 

So that was it. What next?  We were an easily distracted bunch. We had gathered that day to play music. Or try to play music. Brando, who had somehow acquired a bass guitar and learned the opening riff of Smoke on the Water, thought he needed a band. I had a guitar and knew three chords so I was in.  I don’t know why Kevin was chosen as the singer. As far as I knew, he had no musical background at all, but I did sense a dangerous charisma, like Jim Morrison or Mick Jagger. Maybe that’s all we needed. And then there was Gary.

Gary was a quiet guy.  He had no interest in taking on Brando, even though he probably knew more about boxing than the rest of us. It was Brando who had noticed the boxing gloves hanging from a nail in the garage and suggested we give it a go. They were Gary’s brother’s gloves and I have no doubt that he and his brother had sparred, but I got the feeling that he had no patience for high-school kids sullying the sweet science. Yeah, Gary was too brainy for our little group. He loved electronics and was always tinkering with something. Later that day we’d tool around on a mini-bike he had built. But Gary had a drum set and could keep a beat so there we were at his house.

Gary gathered the gloves and we headed toward the garage.  

And then came Lawrence.

He cruised in on his bicycle, coasting to a stop at the top of the driveway, looking down on us. Brando and Kevin exchanged a glance and it was Brando who made first contact.

Lawrence!

I had no idea who he was, this skinny, scraggly guy with no shirt, riding a bicycle with streamers on the handle bars and a horn on the front. He was older, but I know now that it was by no more than ten years. Still old enough to not be riding around on a pimped-out, beater-bike, old enough to have better things to do than look for company with school kids, old enough to have enough sense to recognize real trouble in the form of Brando and Kevin, who had enough mean in them to put some serious torment onto the meek and the lowly, and all it would take was the sniff of arrogance, the notion that Brando and Kevin, though physically superior to almost all who crossed their paths, were not on the same playing field intellectually, or that over time, righteousness would reign and the meek and the lowly would indeed inherit the earth, and the beast would be cast into the lake of fire. As I would learn much later in life, God’s plans are fulfilled in God’s time where a day is like a thousand years and though justice would eventually prevail, it might not come soon enough for the victims of Brando and Kevin. The scars of their torment could linger for years.

And so I wondered, what of Lawrence?

But I could see it coming.

So Brando knew him.

Lawrence got off his bike and dropped it to the curb. He walked bow-legged down the gravel driveway, limping a little, or maybe not quite a limp, but something was wrong with his gait that made him look like he could fall apart if his foot hit a gopher hole at the wrong angle.

Kevin wiped his lip one last time and spoke.

Lawrence. How the hell are you?

Lawrence stopped, cocked his head to one side and peered through squinted eyelids as he looked at Kevin.

Do I know you? A slight nasal twang.

Oh yeah. Kevin took a couple of steps toward him. We go way back.

The expression on Lawrence’s face didn’t change.  Still studying.  Still trying to find something familiar.

I couldn’t tell if Kevin was just messing with Lawrence or if the story he told him actually happened. 

Down by the river a couple of months ago. We were drinking and smoking weed. Don’t you remember?

Maybe. Them funny cigarettes made me sick. Was you there?

Kevin rattled off names of other people who were there. I recognized some. Older kids.

Kevin continued. You were telling us you were part injun.

Lawrence raised his head a little and looked Kevin square in the eyes.

I am. Cherokee.

Easy, Chief, I ain’t looking to start nothing. Kevin took another step toward Lawrence and threw a left and a right to his midsection, pulling his punches before making contact. Lawrence flinched and pulled his arms in front of his stomach, but it would have been too late had the punches been real.

You’ve got good reflexes, Lawrence. Kevin glanced at Brando. Think you could go a round with him?

Gary had stopped halfway to the garage and stood watching, boxing gloves in his hands.  No, we’re done.  He turned and started walking toward the garage, but Brando caught up to him and took the gloves.

Gary spoke softly. Come on, Brando. Take it easy.

I’m not going to hurt him. Just going have a little fun.

Kevin had set the table. Brando was going to serve. He held one glove out for Lawrence and with no protest whatsoever, he slipped his hand in the glove.

Have you ever boxed, Lawrence?

Yeah, I’ve boxed.

His response was unconvincing. Brando put the other glove on and tied the laces. Then he slipped the gloves back on his own hands. I was with Gary on this one. There was something about Lawrence. Innocent isn’t quite the right word. Naive, maybe. I could see that he didn’t know he was being taken advantage of. Didn’t know they were laughing at him, not with him. Didn’t know that he was a victim.  But who was I to stop it?

Yeah. Who was I. Wrong guy in the wrong crowd.

Joe Average.

Not exceptionally smart. Not stupid, either, but I wouldn’t know the first thing about electronics or building a mini-bike. I was no Gary. Teachers liked me because I was quiet and never caused any trouble. Unlike Kevin, I was the least likely to end up in jail. I always followed the rules. And that thing about the three guitar chords?  Only a slight exaggeration. I was no musician. All of this combined to make me easily forgettable, a trait I carry with me to this day. 

But over the years I’ve learned that people see me like they see a friendly dog. There are dogs you know to stay away from. Pit bulls and Dobermans. There are annoying dogs.  Terriers and Chihuahuas.  The are the popular dogs that everyone loves. Retrievers. And then there’s the mutt. Just a regular dog that keeps to itself, doesn’t bark a lot, doesn’t nip at your heels doesn’t bite the hand that feeds it and is no threat to rip your face off.  That’s me.

So what was I doing there with Kevin the pit bull, and Brando the German shepherd, and Gary  – well, what was Gary?  Border collie, maybe?  And Lawrence, let’s just say he was a free-range breed of his own.

I was there because of Brando.

It wasn’t that long ago that he was the new kid in the neighborhood. Moved in with his mother and sister. I never knew anything about a father who wasn’t there. Before he grew to be the behomoth that no one would bother, he was a slightly overweight, soft kid with red hair. Might have been a target himself. So when he discovered the harmless mutt that would be friends with anyone, we started hanging out together. And as his body and confidence grew, so did his circle of friends. I learned that he was pretty sharp, this wild, beast of a boy, and guys like Gary challenged his intellect. But there was a side of him that craved adventure. He once rode a bicycle down Elm Street, the steepest street in our neighborhood.  At the end of Elm Street was a block wall. The bicycle had no brakes. He wore no shoes. He tried to stop and tore up his feet. And then hit the wall. The bike was ruined. He was able to hobble home and the legend of Brando was born. 

It’s no surprise that he would start hanging out with guys like Kevin.

So there you have it. Who am I in this pack of alpha dogs? I stayed silent as Lawrence banged his gloved fists together.

They moved to the level spot in the yard that had served as the boxing ring. Lawrence wobbled as he walked, the over-sized gloves hanging by his side. Gary tried one last time.

Come on, Brando. You’re three times his size.

Brando winked at Gary.

Lawrence turned around, holding the gloves out to his side, as if ready to throw a punch. 

Don’t matter. I’ll kick his butt.

We laughed. Gary shook his head and threw up his arms. He walked to Lawrence and pulled the gloves up high in front of his face. 

If you’re gong to do this, keep your hands up. Try to block his punches. Then he pushed Lawrence’s feet with his own, spreading his stance to shoulder-width, one foot slightly in front of the other. 

Are you left-handed, Lawrence?

I throw a ball with my left hand, if that’s what you’re getting at.

Gary adjusted his stance for a southpaw boxer.  Then he whispered to Lawrence.

Just keep your hands in front of your face. Keep moving. Throw a jab now and then and don’t do anything crazy. Just let him have his fun.

Lawrence tried to brush the hair from his face and rubbed the worn leather across his eye.

Brando was anxious to start the show.

Come on, Angelo, enough training. Let’s get it on.

Brando held out his gloves for Lawrence to tap, the age-old sign of respect that boxers engage in before trying to knock each other’s brains out. Apparently Lawrence was unfamiliar with the tradition.

He jumped up and swung a wild right hand over Brando’s arms and across his nose. Brando was stunned.  He reached up with his glove and touched his nose. Blood flowed onto the thumb and his eyes watered. Before he could react, Lawrence had come from the other side and slapped a left to the side of Brando’s head.

This thing was out of control already. Gary yelled at Lawrence, trying to get his attention, trying to get him to back off, maybe save him from the beating that was sure to come.  But it was too late.

Lawrence came at Brando again, this time launching himself right into the chest of Brando, and though he was a skinny runt, he hit Brando at just the right angle with just the right momentum to knock him backwards. They stumbled onto the ground, Lawrence on top, pummeling Brando in the face with everything he had. For a moment, I really thought Lawrence was going to kill him.

Gary moved to pull Lawrence back but before he could, Brando had gathered his senses and tossed him aside. He got up and pulled back his foot to kick Lawrence, but Lawrence rolled out of the way and was circling behind Brando as his foot sailed through the air. Lawrence jumped on Brando’s back and was holding his neck with one hand and punching the side of his head with the other.  Brando reached over his shoulder and pulled Lawrence over, throwing him to the ground in front of him. Lawrence hit feet-first but his momentum pulled him over and he face-planted on the hard, trampled ground.

Now it was Lawrence who was dazed. Brando reached down and pulled him to his feet and we could see dirt and rocks embedded in his face and blood starting to flow from his nose and mouth. Brando held him up with his left hand and drew back his right as Lawrence started to squirm and punch the air. And then Brando saw it.

Lawrence was already beaten, the fight lost, even though Brando had never thrown a punch. There was plenty of fight left in Lawrence. There always would be. But he would never win. Brando saw that, and instead of punching his lights out, he pushed him away. In one motion, he flung his gloves to the ground and then held up his hands.

You win, Lawrence. I don’t want any more.

Lawrence gathered himself and faked another right to Brando.

Damn right.

Brando smiled, blood running from his nose over his lips. 

Gary untied the gloves.

Come on, Lawrence. I’ll get you a pop.

We followed them to the garage, sat around for a little while, then spent the rest of the day riding the mini-bike. Our band never played its first note.


We saw Lawrence a few more times that year.  I even boxed with him once.  I was scared to death.  I knew he was crazy. But no more blood was spilled.  Lawrence never even came close to matching the fury he showed us that day.  

Winter came and by spring we were already forming new alliances.  Friendship is a fleeting thing when you’re young.  We graduated and I haven’t seen those guys since.  

Gary died shortly after high school. Cancer, I think.

No idea what happened to Kevin. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was a Wall Street broker. Or if he was doing life at Rikers.   

I heard Brando is a NASA engineer. Now that surprises me. 

As for me, I work in my hometown and live in the same neighborhood I grew up in. I stay out of trouble and off of Facebook. I know a couple more guitar chords.  So, yeah, I’m still forgettable. 

A few years ago I was sitting at a stoplight.

And then came Lawrence, walking down the sidewalk.

It had probably been twenty-five years since I last saw him, but he hadn’t changed a bit. Same long hair, same wobbly walk. He was wearing a football helmet.  

I wondered where he was going.  Why was he wearing a football helmet?  I had always known that he wasn’t quite right, but now I wondered what it was that made him Lawrence.  Where did he live?  Did he even have a home?  Did he have friends?  I wondered if the kids today adopted him as we had so long ago.  Or was he more alone than ever?  Lots of questions, little time for answers.  The light turned green and I drove away.

A few months later I was walking into the supermarket and I saw him again, standing alone by the recycle bin.  This time he was wearing an Indian headdress – feathers, beads, full chief-of-the-tribe headdress.  I couldn’t help but to smile at the sight.  Knowing he wouldn’t recognize me, I almost walked on into the store, but something made me stop as I stepped up on the curb.  Our eyes met.

Hey, Lawrence, I said, trying to convey a sense of casual warmth. 

He gave me that same look he gave Kevin twenty-five years earlier. Do I know you? he asked through those squinted eyes.

I knew you a long time ago.  I’m Joe.

Joe.

Yeah.  How are you doing?

OK.

It’s good to see you.  It was hard to make conversation.  I couldn’t ask him what he was doing these days.  The answer was obvious.

You say you’re Joe?

Yeah, Lawrence, Joe.  We used to hang out a long time ago.  You doing OK?

Yeah, he said turning his head away.  Just waitin’ for a ride.

Well, I guess I’ll catch you later.  What else was there to say?

I paused for a second, wondering if I should do more.  I turned and walked into the store.  When I came back out he was gone.

I saw him a few times after that and he looked more bizarre each time.  People who didn’t know him were afraid of him and went to great lengths to avoid him.  Who could blame them?  I couldn’t help but smile every time I saw him.  I kept telling myself I would talk to him again, to try to find out more about him, maybe help him in some way.  I never did.

Lawrence is dead now.  The obituary didn’t say much.  No mention of family or friends.  Apparently no service.  Cunningham Funeral Home is in charge of the arrangements, is all it said.  I hope he had family. I hope he had a friend. I could have been one.

But it’s over before you know it. A day is like a thousand years. And a thousand years is like a day.


copyright 2019, joseph e bird

Although based on true events, this story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

how did i get here?

you may ask yourself

Sunday, October 27. Mingo County, West Virginia.

We’re visiting my brother-in-law, Paul, at the nursing home on top of the mountain in Williamson. It’s a typical visit. We bring Coca-Colas and 7-Ups. Not Pepsi. Not Sprite. Coca-Colas and 7-Ups. We drop them off at the dining hall where a local gospel group is beginning to play. Two men, two women. An acoustic guitar wired to a little Fender amp. They sing loudly, all feeling, no nuance. Gathered around are the usual assortment of residents in wheelchairs.

Paul is there but he has no interest in staying so we go back to his room to visit a little. After a while, it’s time to leave. We hear the music from the dining hall so we go back to listen for a bit.

The music is as country gospel as you can get, full of twang and southern West Virginia. They’re singing a song I’ve never heard.

I Can’t Even Walk Without You Holding My Hand.

Of course not like the video I just linked, but it’s the same song.

And there’s a lady lying horizontal in a wheelchair, clutching her sippy cup, her eyes closed. And she’s singing along.

In the back is another lady mouthing the words.

Gertrude, who says she’s ready to be with the Lord, is singing too.

John Michael looks to be in his thirties. He wheels up and asks for a microphone and one of the ladies obliges. John Michael sings his heart out, even if his voice is not what he wants it to be.

It’s hard not to be touched.

We finally leave and make our usual stop at Mickey D’s for coffee for the long ride home. Over the sound system, the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime, is playing.

I remember the quirky alternative-rock song from so many years ago and it gets stuck in my head. I can’t remember all the words and when I get home I find it and play it.

you may ask yourself,
well, how did i get here?

David Byrne’s philosophical musings about how life blazes by and here we are. How did we get here?

Most folks in the nursing home are probably not prone to introspection, but there a few. I’ve talked with a veteran with no legs and he may ask himself.

Larry has family issues that haunt him. He may ask himself.

Our friend Peggy would. My God, what have I done? Not a question she would ask in vain, but a sincere pleading.

And so it goes.

Same as it ever was.

i could see it coming.

And then comes Lawrence.

He cruised in on his bicycle, coasting to a stop at the top of the hill, looking down on us.

I had no idea who he was, this older, skinny, scraggly guy with no shirt, riding a bicycle with streamers on the handle bars and a horn on the front. He was older, but I know now that it was by no more than ten years. Still old enough to not be riding around on a pimped-out, beater-bike, old enough to have better things to do than look for company with school kids, old enough to have enough sense to recognize real trouble in the form of Brando and Kevin, who had enough mean in them to put some serious torment onto the meek and the lowly, and all it would take was the sniff of arrogance, the notion that Brando and Kevin, though physically superior to almost all who crossed their paths, were not on the same playing field intellectually, or that over time, righteousness would reign and the meek and the lowly would indeed inherit the earth, and the beast would be cast into the lake of fire. As I would learn much later in life, God’s plans are fulfilled in God’s time where a day is like a thousand years and though justice would eventually prevail, it might not come soon enough for the victims of Brandon and Kevin. The scars of their torment could linger for years.

And so I wondered, what of Lawrence?

But I could see it coming.


copyright 2019, joseph e bird

This is an excerpt of a story in progress and is fiction, although it is based on true events. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

will the circle be unbroken

I just finished watching a 16-hour documentary, Ken Burns’ Country Music.

I didn’t want it to end.

Rock and roll. Rhythm and blues. Funk. Soul. Classical. Americana. Roots. Never country. Almost never.

There was my Dwight Yoakam period. Guitars, Cadillacs, and Hillbilly Music. He was so country and old-school, he was hip.

Not long after that, Johnny Cash teamed up with Rick Rubin and produced American Recordings. Cash was old, the production bare, stripped down to Cash’s raspy, but still strong voice singing Nine Inch Nails and gospel and old folk songs. One of my favorite albums of all time.

I knew a little about Hank Williams. Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly. Williams died in Oak Hill, West Virginia.

Kathy Mattea was born just a few miles from where I was.

And somehow I knew that the music I listen to now, The Avett Brothers, Tyler Childers, Parker Milsap, has its roots in country music.

And then there’s this whole songwriting thing I’ve been tinkering with.

So when I heard about the Ken Burns film, I knew I was going to watch it from beginning to end.

And here’s the thing. Yes, it’s about music. There are beautiful voices, virtuoso instrumental performances, showmanship and charisma. But also performers who wouldn’t make the first cut in today’s made-for-tv singing competitions. Modest talent. Three chords and the truth. The truth being what it’s really all about. Triumph and joy, but more often struggle and heartbreak. Stories set to music. No achy-breaky heart. More like Roseanne Cash singing I Still Miss Someone at her father’s memorial.

If you’re a writer, you’ll find inspiration in the film. If you’re a songwriter, you should be required to watch it. It features some of the best songwriters ever.

I’m so lonesome I could cry. – Hank Williams

I’d trade all my tomorrows, for one single yesterday. – Kris Kristoferson

I’m crazy for trying, crazy for crying,
and I’m crazy for loving you. – Willie Nelson

Go rest high on that mountain
Son, your work on earth is done.
Go to heaven a-shoutin’
Love for the Father and the Son. – Vince Gill

I think I may be the only who saw it. Every time I try to start a conversation about it, seems like no one else has watched it.

Have you? If not, you can still watch the entire film online. Click the link below.

https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/country-music/

it takes a thief

“Don’t worry about parking the car,” says the art thief. “Anywhere near the museum is fine.” When it comes to stealing from museums, Stéphane Breitwieser is virtually peerless. He is one of the most prolific and successful art thieves who have ever lived. Done right, his technique—daytime, no violence, performed like a magic trick, sometimes with guards in the room—never involves a dash to a getaway car. And done wrong, a parking spot is the least of his worries.

— Michael Finkel, from GQ Magazine.

A fascinating story by a great writer. It’s got to be a movie some day. Click the link below to learn everything about Stéphane Breitwieser and the art of the steal.

https://www.gq.com/story/secrets-of-the-worlds-greatest-art-thief

Musical Chairs

Matt Diffee was a starving artist. A failed comedian. And then…

A few years ago he told his story on The Moth. It’s an entertaining twelve minutes. Click the link below.

https://player.themoth.org/#/?actionType=ADD_AND_PLAY&storyId=413

as they may believe again

The night was falling down from the east and the darkness that passed over them came in a sudden breath of cold and stillness and passed on. As if the darkness had a soul itself that was the sun’s assassin hurrying to the west as once men did believe, as they may believe again.

Cormac McCarthy, from The Crossing

the year was 1968

A little more than 50 years ago, the USS Pueblo was commandeered by North Korea. One man died. The remaining crew of 82 was held captive for 11 months. The ship’s skipper, Commander Lloyd Bucher, was tortured, both physically and mentally, and threatened with death. When the crew was finally released, Bucher faced a military trial for giving up the ship without a fight. To this day, the Pueblo is held by North Korea.

The trial of Bucher captivated the nation, and as we do today, people took sides, for or against. It was 1968. The modern feminist movement was just beginning. My mother was 38 years old and dedicated to raising her three kids. Her sensibilities were typical of those of her generation. She was never going to be on the cover of Life magazine with Gloria Steinem. Yet she was moved by the story of Bucher, moved by his humanity. So much so that she felt compelled to write about it, to come to the defense of the so-called stronger man. Some of her thoughts may not resonate with the 21st century woman, but there is a truth that she expresses that is timeless. It is this:

The world is a better place when we’re not afraid to show compassion.


Commander Bucher, commander of the Pueblo, has finished his testimony about the capture of his ill-fated ship and I, for one, am glad. If ever a man had strong convictions that he had performed his duty to the best of his ability, it is him. When the Court of Inquiry first began putting him on the witness stand, I was so outraged that I wanted to wire the President to stop this seemingly inhuman treatment of Bucher. I was stopped by the announcement from the Commander’s lawyer that he knew this was military procedure and he did not feel that the court was being unduly cruel.

The point of relating this story is that once again my emotions had to be stifled. My compassion had to remain bottled up because I had, in effect, been asked to believe that a man can “take it”, no matter what, just because he is a man.

Women are supposed to be the weaker sex and I am glad that there are a few of us who glory in this title.

The men of the court are to be pitied as much as Commander Bucher because surely every one of them has had some misgivings about some of the questions put to the Commander. They had to do their job. They had to follow the rules, no matter how much their hearts were touched. They had to listen objectively as this man related in public how much he loved his wife and called her name when he thought he was going to die.

I’m glad to be a woman. I can cry without being called weak. I can make mistakes and know that people can excuse some of them because, after all, I’m a woman.

I do not understand the laws of the sea. I do not pretend to know many things. But there’s one thing I do know. I saw a real man in the form of Commander Bucher.

Men, as a rule, pretend that they cannot understand why a woman cries when the Star Spangled Banner is played. Or why she cries when she receives an unexpected gift. But I suspect they really know and have the same feelings, but because they are men, they are supposed to shrug their shoulders at any show of emotion.

The best Christmas I ever had was when I was twelve years old. My mother took me and my brother to the photographer’s studio and all three of us had our pictures made for our father. Christmas morning, when he opened the pictures he was so overcome with the simplicity of the gifts, so overcome with the love he knew we had for him, that he shed tears of joy and love. He offered no apologies for his show of emotion and I was proud of my daddy.

I am certain that most men are sympathetic to Commander Bucher because he has shown that it is not a crime to give vent to emotions through tears.

I do not advocate a nation of hysterical men, but I do say that a mark of a true man is his ability to show compassion for his fellow man.

Yes, I am glad to be a woman.


copyright 1968, gloria clatworthy bird

Clint Eastwood and the White Wool Coat

In the movies, it’s called a meet cute.

The boy rounds the corner and knocks the books out the girl’s hands. They bend down to pick them up and before they know it, there’s a spark. There’s an awkward, yet endearing, conversation. She smiles as he watches her walk away. You know right then where the story is going. It will be – eventually – a happy ending.

That’s the movies. Let me tell you about my real-life meet cute.

It was in a coffee shop. No surprise, right? Almost a cliché in itself. But I like coffee shops. I could tell you why, but truthfully, if I have to explain this to you, you might as well stop reading right now. The other day I overheard a co-worker tell someone that he didn’t like coffee, that he would have no reason to stop by the new coffee shop on the west side. I find it hard not to hold his dislike of coffee against him. You’re really missing the point, man. You don’t like coffee? Fine. There are other options.

A couple of years ago my nephew spent the night at our house over Christmas. When he said he didn’t care what he had for breakfast, my wife started making oatmeal. We didn’t learn until he was finished eating that he had been lying. He should have said he didn’t care what he had for breakfast, as long as it wasn’t oatmeal. Too late. But the oatmeal he ate that morning was unlike any oatmeal he had ever eaten. If you take plain oatmeal, bland as it is, and add a little brown sugar, some raisins, apples and walnuts, topped with a little cream, what you end up with is a big bowl of oatmeal cookie. Who doesn’t like oatmeal cookies? My nephew did.

So, co-worker man, if coffee is a little too bitter for your still-developing child-like palette, they can foo-foo it up (as my wife would say) and give you something sweet and mushy. But then again, going to a coffee shop isn’t really about the coffee. It’s about people. Seeing people, talking to people. Just being among other human beings.

Back to my meet cute.

This coffee shop is just a couple of blocks from my office. I don’t always stop there in the morning because they’re not open when I go to work before seven. It’s a quiet and peaceful place. Soft music is always playing. People doodling on their laptops. Quiet conversations.

So I’m at my office on a Friday morning a week and a half before Christmas and I find myself at a good stopping point in my work. The sun is shining and it’s an unusually pleasant day for December so I grab my coat and head out the back door and make my way to Main Street. I’m going to get a cup of coffee, maybe a muffin, and sit at a table by the window and watch people go by. I can just take off from work like that because I’m an important executive and I’m a salaried employee and I come to work early and stay late and if I want to take a few minutes for myself in the middle of the morning I have the moral right to do so. I also have so many weeks of vacation built up that it would be nearly impossible for me to use them all. For those of you who have a propensity for delving into a person’s psyche, this little tidbit about my inability to use my vacation time will tell you something about me, though I don’t think I would care to know what this tells you. Not that it matters.

I get to the shop around 10:30 and stand in line for a few minutes and then it’s my turn and the owner of the shop says hello, calls me by name, and takes my order – a medium black coffee. No nonsense. No cream, no sugar, no flavors, no steamed milk, no holiday blend. Because I’m a man. A grown man. Clint Eastwood drinks his coffee black. Maybe. I don’t really know. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, this hipster, and I’m sure not all the world’s problems result from his generation’s socialist leanings, but I’m getting old and my time has passed and it’s the role I must play, the only other option being the teetering, out-of-touch relic from another time. But I don’t teeter (yet) and if I’m going to be an out-of-touch relic, I’m going to be a hard-edged Eastwood-type who the kids actually fear when I tell them to get off my lawn. That’s right. Black coffee. And one of those scones. Cranberry.

I’ve moved down the counter now, standing, waiting for my coffee. And my scone. The hipster stands to my left, looking trim and fit, skinny, really, his jeans rolled neatly up to his ankles. He’s wearing a slim-cut suede jacket and a knit cap. A backpack hangs from his left shoulder. He’s texting on his phone, his thumbs flying. He’ll take a table near the window, maybe my table, and pull a laptop from his backpack and begin to do whatever people do when they have a laptop in a coffee house. Facebook? No. He’s young. Instagram. Or maybe some other app that I don’t even know about. A young girl who looks like she’s fifteen but is probably twenty-five – I can’t tell anymore – shakes a can of whipped cream then squirts a mound of foam on the skinny latte with cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg and the contradiction of the skinny latte and the whipped cream is lost on the poor hipster boy. Or maybe it’s not, because what does he care about calories? She hands him the drink and he goes straight to my table.

Get away from there. I shout this across the room. In my head.

The girl hands me my scone in a paper bag and I’m waiting for my coffee, anxious to find another table and set about the business of relaxing, and then she hands me the cup, my name printed neatly on the side of the cup.

There’s a stack of napkins to my left. Had they been to my right, I probably wouldn’t be telling you this story. But they were to my left. I’m holding the scone in my right hand, the coffee in my left. I need my left hand free to grab a napkin, so I transfer the coffee to my right hand, holding it just with my thumb and index finger, the scone in the bag below the cup. Not a good grip at all.

And this is when it happens. My meet cute.

I didn’t see her come in. I didn’t know she had been behind me when I ordered. I didn’t know she had moved down the counter to wait for her order. I didn’t know she was standing so close to my right.

And I turn to go toward the front of the coffee shop, and before it even registers in my mind that she is there, I bump into her and my coffee falls from its high perch, tumbles toward her, hits the front of her coat – her beautiful white wool coat – and the lid pops off and the coffee flies everywhere and I watch as the cup empties itself completely, and a horribly beautiful, artistic, brown stain flows downward to the hem of her coat and drips onto her brown leather boots and finally puddles on the floor.

I hear gasps from the people nearby. Then the entire shop goes quiet, except for me, mumbling an apology, grabbing the pile of napkins on the counter.

She hasn’t moved, this young woman, save to hold out her hands, hot coffee dripping from her fingers. I start there, wiping her hands, apologizing the whole time, and when her hands show no more signs of coffee, I start on her coat, trying to soak up the brown stain, and I realize that I have to stop because my actions are highly inappropriate, even if my intent is plainly obvious.

By now the shop owner has made his way from the other side of the counter with a handful of paper towels and he faces the same dilemma I faced but he thinks more clearly and asks her to take off her coat which she does and he lays the coat on the counter and begins sponging up as much coffee as he can. It’s a losing battle.

She hasn’t moved.

I’ll see if I can rinse it out, he says, and without asking, he takes the coat to a back room.

She still hasn’t moved, but she turns to look at me.

She’s a lovely woman, much younger than I, though not so young that I shouldn’t notice her loveliness. She appears to be of Asian descent. And her eyes are filling with tears.

I’m so sorry, I tell her. I don’t know what to do.

The young girl on the other side of the counter hands me more paper towels and I kneel down and start to sop up the puddle on the floor. She takes a step back, allowing me to get to the puddles that have pooled behind her and I see the coffee in drips and runs on her boots and without thinking and without asking I start to wipe off her boots, first the tops of her feet, but they’re boots and they rise over her calves and again I cross that boundary of propriety without thinking and without any intention other than trying to right the wrong and clean up the mess and I’m on the floor where shoes have trod and spills throughout the day have dried into dark circles and crumbs from scones and muffins and cookies are scattered like tiny boulders and my hands are getting dirty and the knees of my executive slacks are wet and gathering grime and I no longer feel like Clint Eastwood but more like Willy Loman and I feel the blood rushing to my face and now I want to stay down among the other shoes that I see gathered around because to stand will reveal my reddened face and expose my shame and confirm my humiliation.

But I rise to my feet and again tell her I’m sorry and she’s not quite crying but there are tears and she is sad. I take off my coat and put it on her shoulders because everyone else has a coat except her and she looks cold and lonely and though she probably isn’t, I don’t know what else to do. I tell her I’ll go check on her coat and I walk to the back of the shop where I imagine a food preparation area but there are only bathrooms. The door is open and the shop owner is trying to dry the coat with paper towels. It looks like the coffee has washed out but I look closer and see the stain, lighter, but still there. The shop owner has done all he can. I thank him and take the coat.

The young woman is sitting at table by herself, her own coffee drink in front of her. She moves it away from me as I approach, carrying her coat draped across my arm, holding it out from my body as if it’s a blemished lamb, because that’s exactly what it is. I shake my head. I lay it on the table and sit at the table across from her.

I’m so sorry, I say again for what seems like the tenth time and she manages a smile and tells me it’s ok.

I’m really sorry. Eleven.

I’ll pay to have it cleaned. And I’m already thinking that I’m going to buy her a new coat because the stain is likely there forever.

She puts her hand on the coat and strokes it lightly. It was my mother’s coat.

The phrasing of the statement is not lost on me. It was her mother’s coat. Her mother has died.

I’m so sorry. Seventy times seven will not be enough.

I don’t actually remember her wearing the coat. Or her, for that matter. She died when I was a child.

I stop myself from saying I’m sorry again.

Old photographs my father had. The three of us. Mother, Father, me. Mother wearing the coat. I thought it looked so sophisticated on her. After she died, my father held on to her things. He died two years ago and it was all left to me. I found the coat in a trunk.

So, I’ve not just ruined a coat, I’ve ruined an irreplaceable keepsake. I’ve ruined the one connection this poor woman has to her mother.

I had it cleaned. Sewed some seams that were coming apart, and then just hung it in the closet. And this winter I thought it would be nice to wear it, to think of her, to let her live a little through me.

I’m trying to think of something to say, something other than I’m sorry, thinking there must be a phrase or an expression of remorse that goes beyond mere sorrow, one that puts me on my knees, not to beg forgiveness, because what’s the point in that, because it’s not about me feeling better, it’s about somehow finding words or actions that can make up for what I’ve done. But it’s done and can’t be undone.

I just shake my head. I tell her again I’ll pay to have it cleaned. I’ll buy her a new coat, I tell her, and I feel stupid as soon as I say it, as if a new coat would have the same connection to her mother. But what else can I do?

It doesn’t quite fit. She was a little smaller than me, apparently.

I’m silent, because there are no words.

It’s only a coat. It was my mother’s coat, not mine. I’ll have it cleaned as best I can. Then I’ll keep it in the closet. I’ll bring it out now and then, and think of her, but really, I have no memory of her to recall. Just a mother and father and a little girl in a photograph. That’s all.

She’s smiling now. A sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. She reaches for her coffee and I move her coat away from the table and lay it across the back of a chair. She laughs a little. We talk.

Her name is Janine. She lives in New York. She’s an accountant in town performing an audit of the local bank. She travels a lot and likes to explore the towns she visits. She’s traveled to Japan twice to visit the families of her mother and father, but there are fewer of them now, and in Japan she is a stranger in a strange land. And here she is, in a small town coffee shop, with a coffee stain on her mother’s coat.

She needs to get back to the bank.

I apologize again and I’ve lost count of how many times, and she assures me again that it’s ok, that I don’t have to pay for dry cleaning or buy her a new coat or in any way try to make things right. Because we both understand that I can’t.

How can you be so gracious after what I’ve done?

She offers no answer. She stands and realizes my coat is still around her shoulders.

I believe this is yours.

She hands me my coat.

And this is yours.

I help her into her mother’s coat. The front is still damp and she looks at the stain and sighs. It’s all I can do to keep from apologizing again. Instead, I thank her, and in the moment, I’m not sure what I’m thanking her for except that the kindness and understanding she showed to me was so undeserved.

We walk out of the coffee shop together, our conversation now just the usual chatter that people who really don’t know each other make as they’re about to leave each other’s company. The ordinary, the forgettable. Nothing witty, nothing charming.

It wasn’t that kind of meet cute. Meet truth is maybe a better description. She’ll go back to the bank, back to New York with a story to tell.

And me? I’m still here. Still drinking my coffee black. Still imagining I’m Clint Eastwood. Still working too much.

But this Christmas is a little different. I understand a little better. I’ve experienced grace.


This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

copyright 2018, joseph e bird

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