Amidst the clutter,
Dad’s last bottle of Old Spice.
Today, I’ll wear some.
Amidst the clutter,
Amidst the clutter,
Dad’s last bottle of Old Spice.
Today, I’ll wear some.
A recent trip back to my old hometown prompted some haiku.
Thomas Wolfe may have said “you can’t go home again,” but you actually can. It just won’t be the same as it was.
I’m not sure if there were any satori moments on this trip, but there were pangs of the heart. I’m posting this as a Father’s Day remembrance.
The old hometown seems
Smaller than I remember.
Once, it was magic.
Last time going home,
The old place sitting empty.
Memories and dust.
Mother and Father,
And all three of my brothers.
I alone remain.
Well over sixty
Dad built a barn by himself.
Now it, too, molders.
Father’s old Bible
Held together with duct tape.
Now he’s face to face.
(A few years ago, on an earlier visit, my brother and I walked through the town cemetery)
Last time I saw him
We strolled between tombstones.
Now he has his own.
I left to find truth.
Yet here I am seeking scraps.
Scraps of memories.
Today is my wife’s birthday, so I’m giving her a little poem.
What I miss most …
What I miss most when I’m away
Are the small shared jokes, the spoken and unspoken
Tokens of affection, the markers of our common history.
Like whenever you can’t find some misplaced thing
And I say, “It must be with your credit card,”
Which you lose like clockwork once a week
And then miraculously find again after a couple of days.
Or when all I have to do is ask, “You awake?”
To get a chuckle from you remembering
That old joke about Swedish foreplay,
Which leads to the joke about Scottish foreplay
And one of us saying, in a really bad accent,
“Brace yourself, Lassie!”
And then there’s that good old standby, “Want a backrub?”
That holds the promise of so much more.
Then there’s the way you have of so badly mangling
Ordinary, everyday sayings so as to make them
Almost unrecognizable, yet which make sense
In some altogether new, mysterious way.
How can I be jealous when you see some actor on TV,
And offer your careful, studied opinion,
“I wouldn’t kick HIM out of bed with a ten-foot pole.”
Or even though you may be mad at me
How can I do anything but laugh
When you stand there hands on hips and scold,
“You don’t listen to me two hoots!”
And I had no idea what you were talking about
When you said, “It was spreading like hotcakes!”
But I knew, whatever it was, it was going to be a big deal.
And of course, I had to just stop and marvel
When you described some half-baked effort of mine as
“Just a dent in the iceberg,”
And I didn’t even care that I knew I had a lot more work to do.
And it’s funny how our daughter seems to have inherited
Your gift of mixing words to make brand new verbal gems,
Or, as she so aptly put it just the other day,
“The spawn doesn’t fall too far from the tree.”
And there’s the way we can order dinner for each other
And just about always pick the right thing … because we just know.
Or the sound as you talk on the phone to some girlfriend
And I don’t even care what is being said on the other end
As long as I can eavesdrop on the music of your voice.
Or the way you propose some outrageous adventure
And then shortly thereafter change your mind,
Just to, I can only suppose, keep me on my toes.
“Never a dull moment,” is how I describe my life with you,
And, really, can there be a better endorsement?
Through accidents of timing and draft lotteries, the last person in my direct line to fight in a war was my paternal great grandfather, Frederick Nathaniel Ball.
His last battle happened to be memorialized in a famous poem. I’ll tell you more about that in a moment.
Frederick was a Yankee. He was just a young man from Connecticut, who found himself serving in Colonel Phillip Sheridan’s Union Army during some of the most decisive action of the Civil War.
Sheridan’s orders were to take Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in order to stop the Confederates from using it as a base for attacks into the North. He was further ordered to render it useless as a source of provision for the Southern army.
This meant commandeering livestock, destroying railroads, burning barns, mills, and crops. Sheridan executed his orders so thoroughly the campaign was called “The Burning” by Southerners.
The scorched earth tactics used by Sheridan foreshadowed the more extensive March to the Sea through Georgia by Gen. William T. Sherman.
The turning point in the Shenandoah Campaign came at the battle of Cedar Creek on Oct. 19, 1864.
The battle started out as a complete rout by the Southern troops. The Yankees had been surprised at dawn by Jubal Early’s Confederate veterans.
Sheridan was returning from Washington and had spent the night in Winchester, several miles away from the front. When his troops were attacked, he heard the artillery, and raced on his horse to get to the fight.
Legend has it that Sheridan arrived just in time to rally his soldiers and turn the tide. This legend was amplified in a heroic poem by Thomas Buchanan Read called “Sheridan’s Ride.” The poem helped made Sheridan a hero in the North, and is even said to have helped Lincoln win re-election.
My great grandfather was right in the thick of this battle, and his experience has served as both a point of pride — and a cautionary tale — in my family down through the decades.
As the story has been handed down, Frederick was shot through his side. He stuffed a rag in the bullet hole to staunch the bleeding and managed to crawl back to safety. In this time before antibiotics, the odds of surviving a serious war wound was not great.
Frederick was one of the lucky ones.
In a few months the war would be over. He would head west to seek better prospects and cheaper farmland in Iowa. He married, raised a big family, which included my grandfather. Eventually the tribe drifted down into Missouri.
I can still remember my parents taking the book “One Hundred and One Famous Poems” down from the shelf and reading classics by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Whitcomb Riley, and Eugene Field.
And whenever we came to Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem, my father would repeat the story about our ancestor who was on the scene, and who survived. As he said, “if that Rebel soldier had been an better shot, none of us would be here.”
My taste in poetry has changed a bit since those days when I sat enthralled listening my father read Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem. But it’s a good example of a panegyric ode and it tells a rip-roaring good tale.
Here, for your edification, is the complete text of “Sheridan’s Ride.” They just don’t write poems like this anymore!
by Thomas Buchanan Read
Up from the South, at break of day,
Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste to the chieftain’s door,
The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,
Telling the battle was on once more,
And Sheridan twenty miles away.
And wider still those billows of war
Thundered along the horizon’s bar;
And louder yet into Winchester rolled
The roar of that red sea uncontrolled,
Making the blood of the listener cold,
As he thought of the stake in that fiery fray,
With Sheridan twenty miles away.
But there is a road from Winchester town,
A good, broad highway leading down:
And there, through the flush of the morning light,
A steed as black as the steeds of night
Was seen to pass, as with eagle flight;
As if he knew the terrible need,
He stretched away with his utmost speed.
Hills rose and fell, but his heart was gay,
With Sheridan fifteen miles away.
Still sprang from those swift hoofs, thundering south,
The dust like smoke from the cannon’s mouth,
Or the trail of a comet, sweeping faster and faster,
Foreboding to traitors the doom of disaster.
The heart of the steed and the heart of the master
Were beating like prisoners assaulting their walls,
Impatient to be where the battle-field calls;
Every nerve of the charger was strained to full play,
With Sheridan only ten miles away.
Under his spurning feet, the road
Like an arrowy Alpine river flowed,
And the landscape sped away behind
Like an ocean flying before the wind;
And the steed, like a barque fed with furnace ire,
Swept on, with his wild eye full of fire;
But, lo! he is nearing his heart’s desire;
He is snuffing the smoke of the roaring fray,
With Sheridan only five miles away.
The first that the general saw were the groups
Of stragglers, and then the retreating troops;
What was to be done? what to do?-a glance told him both.
Then striking his spurs with a terrible oath,
He dashed down the line, ‘mid a storm of huzzas,
And the wave of retreat checked its course there, because
The sight of the master compelled it to pause.
With foam and with dust the black charger was gray;
By the flash of his eye, and his red nostril’s play,
He seemed to the whole great army to say:
‘I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester down to save the day.’
Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan!
Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man!
And when their statues are placed on high
Under the dome of the Union sky,
The American soldier’s Temple of Fame,
There, with the glorious general’s name,
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright:
‘Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester-twenty miles away!’
My recent Hawaii trip sent me back to the files digging through old poems. As I mentioned yesterday, being in Hawaii puts me in a haiku state of mind. Here are a few from previous trips to Hawaii.
More Hawaii Haiku
Sometimes don’t you wish
It could be like this always?
Mai tais at sunset!
Odor of mildew,
Shelves too full and disheveled.
Bookstore in Hilo.
Excited by blurs,
Cold night on Kea.
One night we visited a cousin of our friends on the Big Island. Our friend’s cousin had married a woman from Polynesia. His mother-in-law was the first to greet us, coming out of her garden. I was struck by the similarities of simple country folk, wherever they come from.
Hands full of basil,
The woman greets visitors,
So like my mother.
While we were at Hilo, a strong storm blew in from the northeast, with wonderfully big waves. At first we watched the waves from a home safely atop a high cliff overlooking the sea.
To merry clinking glasses.
The night of big waves!
We drove down to a seaside park for a closer look. Then, an especially large wave came …
When you dared the wave,
It came, all right, making us
Climb trees like monkeys.
One adventure involved a very long hike through the Kilauea volcano park. It was like another world.
Lava and cinder,
Much more than I’d imagined,
Lava and cinder.
Warming themselves by steam vents
Whenever I go to Hawaii, I fall into a haiku mood.
Not sure if it is the Japanese influences there, or if it’s all in my head, but I start thinking in short bursts.
Frankly, between the sun and the water and the tropical drinks, it’s a wonder I write anything at all. Maybe 5-7-5 is all I can muster in such taxing conditions.
Here are a few from my recent trip to Maui:
At Haiku Marketplace, Maui
Tried to buy poems
But they weren’t selling any.
Torpid Maui days
Lazy, languorous, and slow.
Kiss writing good-bye.
Give Maui credit
As for my wife, I must say,
She looks younger here.
Kapu is kaput,
The old gods are long banished.
You wonder who lurks.
So long Hawaii
Sure hate to leave your warm sun.
I have things to do.
Poet Mary Karr recently delivered the most awesome commencement speech ever.
Not that this is a category with a lot of tough competition. I cannot say I can remember anything from any commencement address I’ve ever heard.
One exception: Sen. Thomas Eagleton spoke at my high school graduation and told us impatient about-to-be-hippies-and-rebels to “work for change, but work within the system.” Advice we promptly went out and ignored.
Likely the only reason I remembered this: a couple of years later George McGovern picked Eagleton to be his vice presidential running mate in the 1972 election.
When the press dredged up records that Eagleton had been treated for depression McGovern declared he stood behind his running mate “1000 percent.” But a couple of days later Democrat party leaders got to McGovern and convinced him that Eagleton was a big liability, the idealistic McGovern dropped him.
Working within the system didn’t really wok out for Eagleton all that well. Or for McGovern. He went on to get trounced by Richard Nixon in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history.
Commencement speeches are notorious for bland bomfoggery and inane clichés.
I can’t even remember who spoke at my college commencement. Likewise for any other graduations I’ve attended as a guest.
But I’ll wager that the Syracuse class of 2015 and their loved ones will long remember Mary’s little talk.
She ends her speech with a tribute to her mentor and benefactor from her own undergraduate days, Professor Walter Mink, of Macalester College. She says he inspired her to teach college. But he did much more. A generous and wise man, Mink could see into the souls of his students and give them what they needed.
In Mary’s case, Mink and his wife gave her understanding and encouragement until she began to find her way. (In Mary’s third installment of her memoir series, Lit, she details the many remarkable kindnesses lavished on her by the Minks, ranging from outfitting this poor Texas girl with warm clothes to withstand the bitter Minnesota winters to persuading her to get counseling.)
In the speech, Mary tells an interesting anecdote about a physiological psychology class taught by Mink. During my time at Mac, which overlapped with Mary’s I took that same class. Professor Mink was a wonderful teacher and a compassionate man.
(He was so beloved that three of his students formed a punk rock band and named their group “Walt Mink.” He was that inspiring.)
One of our major lab assignments that semester was to implant electrodes in the brain of a lab rat. The plan was to stimulate various parts of the brain with electric current and record the behavior.
Each team of students was given a rat. I named mine Sparky. We had to do all of the prep on the rat ourselves, which meant giving the rat a shot to anesthetize it. (I’m deathly afraid of needles.) When the rat was safely numb and groggy, we were to secure its head in a device that closely resembled a toy vise grip.
Then came the fun part.
We were to use a scalpel to slice open the rat’s scalp, pry back the skin, and then drill tiny holes through the skull to create access points for the electrodes. I didn’t realize that the skull of a rat is only about as thick as an egg shell.
So, as I was drilling away, the bit broke through the skull and sank deep into the poor creature’s brain. Poor Sparky. His brain certainly got stimulated!
As his little arms and legs were jerking back and forth in a seizure, Dr. Mink rushed over assuring me that the rat could not feel a thing and that he would be okay. He extracted the drill and helped me patch up Sparky and get the electrodes properly implanted, the mounting glued to the skull, and the scalp sewn up around the mount.
But poor Sparky never was quite right. Our brain experiments on him produced some very strange results that semester.
Let’s just say I quickly discovered I was not created to do anything remotely medical, or anything requiring fine motor skills.
But I want to make it very clear: I was NOT Mary Karr’s lab partner. If you read her speech, you’ll understand why I emphasize this point.
I’m sure you’ll agree that when it comes to selecting a commencement speaker, this speech makes a strong argument for considering hiring a poet to do the job.