A wise man once opined
That nothing so focuses the mind
Quite as much as knowing
That you’ll be hanged in the morning.
And while that may be true,
That knowledge is not really new.
Another wise man said
Soon or late we all wind up dead.
NOTES: I can’t imagine what it must have been like in Hawaii Saturday when the alert of an incoming ballistic missile was issued by mistake. Hopefully, all of the sober reflection that occurred during those tense minutes will bear some positive fruit.
The leaves, the leaves are gone except the oak,
Which cling to trees and rattle needlessly.
The others flame and fall for all to see.
They streak and sizzle, leaving only smoke.
But oak leaves hang as by some unseen yoke,
All browned and curled awaiting sympathy,
Or sap to course and lend vitality —
The leaves cannot perceive the sorry joke.
For spring will end the lie and they will drop,
To drift and rot and turn in time to dust.
As sure as buds will burst to make a crop
Of new, the old will flutter down — they must.
The falling leaves like lovers never stop.
It’s hardly gentle, but ’tis just, ’tis just.
NOTES: It was a mild and beautiful and extended autumn here in the Pacific Northwest, but the rains and winds have returned, knocking most of the remaining leaves off the trees over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Oak trees are not as plentiful here as they are back in the Midwest, where this poem was written some 35 years ago. But if there is an oak around, you can bet it will be hanging onto its leaves long after all the other trees have shed theirs.
We really only had one book of poetry in the house, a leather-bound volume entitled One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1929. It contained remarkably robust collection of poems, and she read them aloud to me often.
You exuded cool.
We all wanted to be you.
And now you’re gone.
NOTES: With great sadness I learned yesterday of the loss of a classmate. Tom Nicholas grew his hair long and sported leather jackets before any of the rest of us. He seemed to float above the traditional cliques and intrigues of high school.
Tom was cool without being a jerk.
His passion was rock and roll, and he pursued it with zeal. He got good, Really good. Played in some bands. Cut some records.
When Tom’s band Estus put out its self-titled album in 1973, it included Marc Bell on drums. Bell would go on to play in the Ramones for 15 years as Marky Ramone.
Tom would never make it big– like fill-stadiums-big — but he could play guitar and sing like crazy.
THE DAY TOM SETTLED THE MATTER
My most vivid memory of Tom was from the only all-class meeting of our senior graduating class of 1970. (I first wrote about this incident in a post last March.)
We were debating a motion to eliminate Honor Stations, a tradition that recognized the male and female student who best exemplified one of 4 qualities: Most Industrious, Best Citizen, Most Courteous, and Best Sport.
This was the fall of 1969, and revolution was in the air. The class immediately before us had voted to eliminate the position of Miss Fair Marshall, as it was considered a sexist relic of a bye-gone era. Now there was a push to finish the work of our predecessors and eliminate Honor Stations as a musty vestige from the past.
There may have been a person or two who spoke in opposition to doing away with Honor Stations. Most of our classmates were still fairly conservative.
But I distinctly remember the debate ending after Tom stood up.
Tom strode forward, leaned into the microphone, and pronounced with authority, “We have a word for this. It’s called ‘ego-trip.’” (That exact moment is preserved in the photo at the top of this page.)
That pretty much sealed the deal. Honor Stations were ego trips. The question was called, and the motion overwhelmingly carried.
The Class of 1970 had finished the work of the class that came before us. We had killed off the Honor Stations and drained the pomp from “Pomp and Circumstance.”
But, for better or worse, I’m pretty sure that never would have happened had Tom not spoken up.
The day the call came
We had just dished up the ice cream.
A special treat for a Friday farm dinner,
(Not to be confused with supper.)
Mother had made it early that morning in ice cube trays.
“Freezer ice cream,” she called it,
Vanilla, made with Junket tablets to keep it creamy,
Even as it froze.
Not as good as the real, homemade ice cream cranked by hand,
But a whole lot easier.
And America was just starting its long affair with convenience.
The call came over the telephone
Mounted on the farmhouse wall.
With two bells for eyes,
You spoke into its honking, beaklike nose.
The earpiece cradled appropriately
Where the right ear should be,
While a hand crank made a poor excuse
For a drooping left ear.
It was a party line,
So the snoopy widow woman down the road
Knew as soon as we did.
The call came, and the man on the phone
Said Grandpa had just keeled over dead
At the auction over in Poosey.
So, we all got up—Mom, Dad, Big Brother and me,
And climbed into the ’50 Ford sedan
Dad was so proud to own.
The first car he’d ever bought brand new.
By the time we got to the auction –
It was a farm sale, really —
Where the worldly possessions of one farm family
Were being sold off.
One at a time.
By the hypnotically fast-talking auctioneer.
Not as depressing as the foreclosure sales
That were all too common
Just a few years before in the Depression.
This was a voluntary sale,
But a little sad nonetheless.
Some farmer was getting too old to run the place,
And didn’t have kids—or leastwise kids who wanted to farm.
A lot of boys joined the service in those days,
Or headed to Kansas City to find work, and a little excitement,
Rather than stay and try to coax a living
Out of that hilly, rocky dirt.
The man at the auction told us
Grandpa had been standing there in the sun with everybody else.
They were just about to start the bidding on the John Deere hay rake
When he grabbed his chest and fell right over.
Years later, they told me when he was a grown man
Grandpa had gone down to the river,
And been baptized, and filled with the Holy Ghost,
With the evidence of no longer speaking in profane tongues.
For, it was well known Grandpa had been gifted
In the art of colorful language.
“He used to could cuss by note,” was how Mother put it.
But after the washing with water and the Word,
Grandpa was never heard to swear again.
I only knew him as a white-haired old man
With a merry smile, and infinite patience
With Grandma, who required it.
And that was it, really.
Nothing more to say,
Except for the understated condolences
Of the country folk.
Nothing more to do,
Except for my father,
Now lately promoted to the role of the family elder,
Who assumed the duties and made the necessary arrangements.
Although I didn’t know quite what had happened,
I felt a lurch … as something shifted beneath me …
And I was yanked one more notch forward.
By the time we got back to the house,
The ice cream had long since melted
And now was returning back to solid state,
As it curdled in the September heat.
NOTES: I got the news this week that a friend’s grandfather had passed away. This death was expected, and from all reports, merciful in coming. But there is still grieving to be done and respects to be paid. You can be happy your loved one is no longer suffering, but terribly sad that they’re gone.
This all got me thinking about my own grandfather, and day close to 60 years ago, and a bit of a poem I wrote about that day as best as I could recall it. It seemed fitting to haul this out of the vault, dust it off and publish it again.
Back in the 1950s on the farm, we didn’t have air conditioning. Shoot, we had just gotten electricity a few years before.
So when the long Missouri summers dragged on and the humidity rose, folks headed outdoors to keep cool. When the nights were really hot, we’d sleep outdoors.
The poem is about a day pretty much like the one documented in this photo. In fact, the events took place not too many days after this photo was shot.
When I came to his poem “Touch Me,” I had to pause. This poem seemed to be hitting some of same notes. Much deeper, but with little glimpses of the same melody.
The two poems are very different on the surface — mine is a sonnet, his is free verse. He makes different observations about nature.
But the season is the same — late summer. And there is something similar in the underlying emotion. Here’s his poem:
Touch Me –Stanley Kunitz
Summer is late, my heart. Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only, ++++++++++++++ and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.
Late summer’s sun has baked the grass to brown.
The days grow shorter with each passing day,
Soon, autumn’s chill will make the leaves fall down.
All of this aching beauty will decay.
And yet I love the shadows’ slanting trace,
The once green grain gone golden in its rows,
And how I love the lines etched in your face.
It’s funny, as love ripens how it grows.
The number of our days we do not know.
No sleeper knows if he will ever wake.
So come, let’s join above, between, below.
My dear, let’s cause our fragile clay to quake.
Let us make love as if it’s our last go.
Let us embrace like dawn will never break.
NOTES: It’s not really late summer yet, but it feels like it. It has been hot and dry, giving us the sense of late August when July hasn’t even ended.
The seasons seen to come and go more quickly of late. Perhaps I’m paying closer attention. Perhaps I realize more summers now lie behind me than still ahead.
Something in the air caused me to pull this sonnet out of the vault today. I snapped the photo on my late afternoon walk.