Of course, it represents the founding of the my country, which has been a remarkable blessing to he world. Although America has not always lived up to its ideals, those ideals make it unique among nations.
And those ideals have made it a magnet for untold millions who seek freedom and opportunity.
I still get a little lump in my throat and a tear in my eye when I hear the national anthem or “America the Beautiful.”
But, for me, the Fourth holds personal significance. That’s because it marks the anniversary of my certainty that I had found the love of my life.
It goes back many, many years ago to a particular Fourth of July night in Minneapolis.
The wind and you played in my hair,
You lambent in the moon,
The night arranged as by design,
Afresh the breeze and warm our hands,
So lately introduced,
Traced so gently new found lands,
From tyranny aloosed.
While all around with fire and bang
Our freedom was proclaimed,
A nation’s liberty was meant,
To us, two hearts unchained.
Long before I discovered girls, my first love was baseball.
I cannot begin to total up the hours spent playing baseball, watching baseball, collecting baseball cards, sorting baseball cards, reading about baseball, and dreaming about playing in the World Series.
I knew the starting line-ups of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City A’s by heart.
When I played one-man whiffle ball against my friend Royce, we would pick a team and go through the line up as each individual player. If the guy batted right, we batted right. If he batted left, we batted left.
(We drew the line at pitching left-handed, because neither of us was truly ambidextrous.)
Our spare time was spent searching for discarded pop bottles which we could turn into the neighborhood grocery store for two cents apiece. Every 5 bottles meant we could buy two more packs of baseball cards.
Somewhere between the ages of 12 and 13, we moved on to other interests. A long and winding path led me to the love of my life.
We were married 30 years ago today.
The inspirations for this poem are multiple. Several years ago, it was coming on to midsummer and my wedding anniversary.
I was feeling that sense of my youth slipping away. But I was confident that good things still lay ahead.
I was also listening to a lot of Van Morrison. His song “Madame George” was stuck in my head. (Quite possible the more poignant song ever written.)
In particular, I was hearing the line where Van does his improvisational thing where he repeats the words “love” and “glove” over and over in an almost hypnotic chant.
My story is about a very different glove, and a very different love. But that merging of the two words was lodged in my mind.
The result of all of this ferment was this poem.
The only time I’ve ever read it in public, I was told it was “an audacious metaphor.”
I’ll take that.
Today, upon the occasion of my 30th wedding anniversary, I submit this little poem. It’s as true today as when I wrote it years ago:
Here Comes Midsummer’s Milestone
Here comes midsummer’s milestone of our love,
Years since our selfish selves we pledged to yield,
So we’re as broken-in now as the glove,
I wore so long ago while in the field.
Fresh from the store unworn straight to my room,
Rubbed in the oil and every crease explored,
All through the night I savored the perfume,
The musky linseed leather I adored.
Come sober daylight with our job to do,
All awkward stiff not giving either way,
How many sweaty strivings’ deja vu
It took before we as one flesh could play.
Some ragged days I’d spit and pound the palm,
Or hurl the thing against the dugout wall,
But all the while a magic mute and calm
Mutated hand to glove with every ball.
The softening was gradual but sure.
Soon nerves and muscles seemed just like they spanned
From fingertips to join the glove secure,
As if I had been born with one webbed hand.
We’ve come now to the eve of middle age,
Well worn but with a lot of sport to go.
We must each for the other one assuage
Those stinging blows life certainly will throw.
We’ve held through wins and losses and through rain,
That etched new cracks not there at all before.
But loves like this were made to take the strain,
Just like that piece of cowhide that I wore.
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!
Sheridan’s Ride 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!’