Nooby Abba Naba

The quiet morning hours are my favorite, before most humans began moving about their bustley days, when the sound of tires whirring against the pavement are sparse and distant, and the palette of stars prepares to yield the field for the sun’s watch.

Leon, faithful canine companion, and I strolled softly through the grass, inhaling the sleepy sights and sounds and smells of the vanishing night.

It was temperate this morning with temperatures in the mid-fifties. The stars lost their luster behind a thin veil of cloud, but a thin lunar crescent clung to the gnarled chiaroscuro branches of a stately trees across the street like the fabled cradle. A handsbreadth north of this rocking watcher, the sun’s prow pushed a pink wake of dawn streaming into the cloudscape.

The earth began to gently quake and beyond neat rows of simple homes a mournful wail wafted toward me with rumbling building a crescendo as the locomotive passed northward.

The trees slowly came alive with strains of morning song from the warblers waking and flitting branch to branch. The notes rang behind us, before us, beside us, surrounding us with myriad avian arias blending together in a glorious salute to the sun.

There was nothing to do but sigh and say, “It’s great to be alive.”

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Treated This A’Way

Saturday was moving day. Saturday it snowed.

Monday night five tornadoes tore through the metro. Wednesday we were outside in shirtsleeves. But it snowed Saturday. Such is March in Missouri.

I had reserved a truck to move my worldlies from the suburban house where I’ve lived the past fifteen years to an apartment over a shop just south of Rockhurst University. Things don’t always work out like you plan.

This move has been a long time coming. Turning the page or turning over a new leaf are clichéd metaphors for a deliberate change of Life’s direction. So is starting a new chapter. I’m closing a book and choosing a new volume.

Before moving to Jackson County I never lived anywhere as long as five years. I’m a Vietnam-era Army brat. The 1960s Pentagon shifted men across the board like some Vegas prestidigitator or back alley purveyor of three-card Monty. Dependents were baggage, packed and toted behind the soldier to his next assignment, stored in post housing until the next move. It never paid to get attached to any community. You would be ripped from them, soon enough. Or they from you.

That’s neither to credit nor blame Army culture for my rootlessness. That is mostly my own doing.

My parents settled in Virginia once the Army assigned my father to Ft. Monroe. That’s on the tip of Point Comfort, overlooking the entrance to Hampton Roads. Up until recently there has been a fortified military base at that position since the early 17th Century. There was when my father joined TRADOC in 1968 after returning from Saigon. There were five of us children at the time and the post had no quarters suitable for a family our size so my parents bought their first home in Hampton. After that though Dad had a number of other assignments—including a second tour in Nam—the rest of the family stayed in place.

In 1972 my parents moved into the Westover Estate, in the small York county town of Poquoson. That’s been the family home since, and I’ve lived there several times after graduating high school, but I was really one of the pioneers of the Yo-yo Generation, moving in and out of the family home with several successive forays into school or marriages. Things don’t always work at like you plan.

I moved to Missouri to personally meet the fiery Brynhildr, whom I had known online in chatrooms and other fledgling tries at internet social media. In the 1990s internet relationships stayed on the QT, because anyone you told was just certain you were going to end up hanging from a meat hook, but by the early 2nd Mil it was a common form of dating. We had known several mutual friends to meet that way. As many are still together as those who’ve met at school or 12-step fellowships.

In a whirlwind we met and fell in love and bought the house in which we lived, planning to grow old together. Things don’t always work out like you plan.

So now I had a deadline to get out of the house.

My life has been a cycle of good news/bad news tales; my search for a new place to pitch my tent proved no exception. Barely had I begun my search than Opportunity picked a lock and threw open a door for me. With lease in hand I started making arrangements to transfer my small cache of worldly possessions into the new place.

Boxes of books and clothes and music, some objets d’art, electronic accoutrements. The plan involved loading boxes into my car at night, swinging by the apartment after work, thus transporting the bulk of my possessions. I also began pricing the cost of hiring a mover for a few pieces of furniture.

Setting plan in operation I delivered three boxes to the apartment on Wednesday. Thursday my car’s timing chain gave up the ghost in a head-in-the-hands, sackcloth & ashes kind of way.

Things don’t always work out like you plan. Go to Plan B.

I priced a truck rental, do-it-yourself moving. It wouldn’t be the first time. I found a place online. It’s great living in the 21st Century. (Except I distinctly remember promises of rocket packs and orbiting space colonies.) The address was on 40 Highway, just down the road from the house about a mile, an easy walk. I could pick up the cargo van Saturday afternoon, drive home, load it, drive to the apartment, take the stuff inside, and still have time to swing by the grocery before returning it.

It snowed Saturday.

It was a light snow and didn’t stick to the streets. I walked an asphalt path up and down the hills between my home and XYZ LLC, who were rental truck agents (among oh-so-many other things, I had dealt with them before, paying a utility bill, they acted as if it had been an imposition) and when I got there they were closed. Locked tighter than a drum. With a different company’s logo and material visible inside through the windows.

Shocked, I walked back home and double-checked the emailed receipt.

In the trades they tell you to measure twice and cut once. That’s always good advice. It turned out what I thought was XYZ LLC was ABC Ltd, which was a mile further up the road. Things don’t always work out like you plan.

I could wallow in it, or I could roll with it.

I walked to ABC to get my truck..

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Smoke & Mirrors

I work construction. I’ve worked construction most of my adult life.

My current job involves putting the finishing touches on the newest Big Box in a nearby Missouri suburb. I’ve been on the job two months. I’m a hired gun. I remember joking with other coworkers—decades ago—while working on a remodel for a different Big Box, “We’re mercenaries in the late 20th Century Store Wars!” and that got a big laugh, mostly for the pun. We were contingent workers, skilled labor working through temp agencies to fill gaps in a contractor’s workforce. I still am. They always complain we’re too expensive. We’re not as expensive as hiring some kid off the street and training him on the job.

The General Contractor just turned over possession of the building to the franchise’s corporate overlords. Their proxies, actually, and the new manager’s team is working fist in glove with district and regional representatives to assemble and stock all the gondolas full of merchandise. We sparkies are still dealing with the piddly-ass stage of the job. Loose ends. As a contingent workers, I am normally not on a job at this point. An electrical contractor typically sends me down the road and uses his own people. Which is fine by me.

Big Box, Incorporated, uses local temp labor to unpack and assemble the shelves and gondolas and display cabinets. They are a symbiotic organism, an ant colony, scurrying backwards and forth to unpack crates containing pieces, assemble them, and place them according to some grid. In the morning they sign in, take a midmorning cigarette break, then sign out at lunch, staying busy in between. They quickly become facile at their tasks. It’s pretty rote.

If anyone would know about myriad reasons for choosing work through temp agencies it would be me. I scan the crew’s gothic Midwestern faces, chiseled like Rushmore from years of wind whipping on the plains and hail hitting on the hills and sun beating down over what Icarus considers fly-over country. I wonder who among the group is a struggling writer or rapper or painter or sculptor or experimental digital artist.

If any. These appear pretty much what you’d expect to find working as day laborers: high school dropouts, felons, single-parents, white-chip collectors. There’s lots of ink and dental problems. Maybe a few young guys are working their first job; maybe they’re making an impression.

I have worked temp labor, unloading boxcars of produce. I still work temp labor, the only difference being they call me skilled and pay me more. It’s a hell of a way to make a living. I thought it was a good idea at the time.

A face among the crew stops me short. Through a glass darkly. It’s like looking at myself in the mirror, not because he bears me any resemblance but he looks like me, demographically. Beaten face. Weary eyes. Middle-aged white guy.

What leaves a man my age schlepping boxes for minimum wage on a catch-as-catch-can basis? That question is one of empathy, not judgment. There are a million paths to that destination. All of them are lined with stories.

I was well along that path, myself, wandering from dead-end, low-wage position to dead-end, low-wage position. But I was blessed. I was privileged. I had a younger brother who had shouldered his grindstone into crew with a Virginia Beach electrical contractor, and Mike was willing to teach me, tolerate me, and mentor me into the trade. It opened a different set of doors.

Seems electricity runs in our blood. I have two brothers who are electricians. Our maternal grandfather was IBEW back in the Depression, working at a hydroelectric plant in southeast Kansas at a job considered so vital to American infrastructure that it kept him out of the draft during WWII.

It’s a skill set which has proved valuable to me over the last quarter century. It kept me working most of the time. And most of those times I focused on the forest and not the trees.

At this point in this job it’s all about trees.

As I hauled a stepladder and my hand tools from one task to the next I noticed someone had purchased a batch of shiny new cordless drills for the installation. As shiny as plastic can be. Battery drills are faster than manual assembly. Labor is always the most expensive part of a job. One battery drill replaces a known quantity of human workers. It’s a trade-off. Sucks to be the worker.

It was a Craftsman™ drill. I’m not endorsing any product, and only mention it because it’s germane to the story. My experience is Craftsman makes an excellent around-the-house product but it doesn’t hold up for commercial use.

My father bought me one for Christmas one year. It was a long time ago. He knew I needed one for work, so he gave me one. My father used to reach out to me a lot and I was too stubborn to know it. He had definite ideas about gifts. Once, as I agonized about an appropriate gift for someone—my mother, perhaps, or whichever wife I was married to at the time—Dad told me, “Give her something nice she wants, but wouldn’t buy for herself.” He understood people on a tight budget prioritize their own desires last. The memory trickled to the back of my mind.

There’s a passage in Poe’s Rue Morgue where Dupin divines his companion’s thoughts by following his gaze and deducing the associations flowing through his consciousness. Such is the nature of memory: bubbling up from long buried reservoirs sensory experience. Altering each time we access it. Ricocheting off random bursts of recall. Ripping off scabs. Assuaging pangs of remorse. Summoning some childhood comfort.

So it was memories of my cordless drill soon scraped away the memory of another gift from dad. It was a camera. A Nikon. 35mm. It was not commercial grade, but it was more than a step up from the instamatics that flooded the markets so we could capture instants from our lives in fuzzy, out-of-focus freeze-frames that forever anchored the lability of their essence to the vantage of the family shutterbug.

I had used one of those cheap instamatics one afternoon, wandering in the woods down the street from the family home one snowy afternoon, exploring the chiaroscuro contrasts of virgin snow on the deep earthy hues of fenceposts and fallen trees, carefully composing the shots to highlight strong lines and textures.

I don’t even remember how old I was. Eighteen or nineteen. I was studying Theatre at Christopher Newport. I thought I wanted to make movies. I thought I wanted to be a combat photographer. Those were analog days and the medium was celluloid and the cost of both buying and processing film hamstrung many a hobby photographer.

After I developed the roll of film I showed the photographs to my parents.

In truth, Mom and Dad probably asked me to show them the pictures. As a youth I was unenthusiastic about interacting with my parents, even less so about them knowing anything about my activities. I never talked about what I thought I wanted to do with them. Maybe if I had they could have dissuaded me. Or directed me.

I doubt it. They never wanted to push me into anything.

I promptly put the encounter out of my mind. I know it happened. I can reconstruct a scene based on snippets from other incidents: Mom and Dad complimented me on the shots. I shrugged off the compliments. Compliments make me uncomfortable. It’s a parent’s job to praise their children. With a perfunctory shrug I slipped away and sequestered myself in my room.

Fast forward. Some Christmas morning. My parents’ house. I opened a medium, oblong box with a bit of heft and gift tag printed in my father’s neat, distinctive hand. I was bowled over to find this single-lens reflex Nikon. “When I saw those photographs you took,” Dad told me, “I wanted you to have a decent camera to work with.”

My father used to reach out to me a lot and I was too obtuse to realize it.

I went on to study photography. When I’m puffing I’ll say, “I went to film school.” Actually I went to a private liberal arts college and studied Journalism, Broadcasting and Film. I never made movies. I never became a photojournalist. But over the years I’ve found some level of satisfaction as a hobbyist. I grudgingly made the shift to digital and still enjoy composing shots to accent a line or a texture or a contrast that catches my eye.

I sigh at the realization of his confidence in me.

The thought is bittersweet.

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The Rising Sun

On the northwest corner of Shepherd and Moore sits a barnacled cocoon transforming into some new species of working class home for an up and coming young family with scrimped down-payment and heads full of dreams.

When I arrived in Blue Springs—lo these many moons ago—the house resembled Tom Bombadil’s abode set off from the street atop a rocky crag. The landscape was a cacophonous collection of Found Art, some incoherent combination of the kitschy and surreal with shadows of sundials and chipped plaster gnomes and vintage farm tools all reddened with rust melting over tableau edges of handmade berms and small circles of stones sitting sentry over the field of smaller stones covering the ground from the sidewalks to the property line so no one ever had to mow.

It was either an eyesore or the pinnacle of folk art.

The back yard sat behind a tall privacy fence of pale, weathered planks that failed to conceal a ramshackle garage or carport or shed shambling behind the house, drunkenly clutching it to keep from collapsing. And obviously holding the horded memories of three quarters of a century or more.

The old man who lived in this house had bought it when he returned from the war—the last declared war—the Great War—the one that had heroes who defeated the greatest monster of history. Or that’s how it’s billed.

He came home fresh mustered and battle-hardened to tickertapes and claps on backs and crowds of younger kin—and older, too—who wanted to know what it was like over there when all he wanted to do was forget and find some kind of normal that the brothers blown to bits beside him would never see. And he found a normal job—at a Ford plant that hadn’t even been an option when he was drafted away from the dust bowl farm in the midst of what History knows as the Great Depression though when he was growing up it was the only reality he ever knew. The shooting of rabbits and squirrels for a morsel and breaking up dirt clods with a much-mended hoe and hauling wood and water up from the crick and eking out existence on a piece of dirt that had been in the family since great grampa’s grampa had unhitched the Conestoga from the ox and set up shop.

Somehow Roosevelt and the Great War had shifted everything, had yanked the rural west into the Industrial Age and somersaulted the city/country ratios and lured the bulk of the population if not into the cities than into the suburban hives where millions of worker husbands returned each night to their sundressed wives and 2.3 children. And since eight out of ten people were no longer needed to produce enough food to feed the world we let two do it and used our American Ingenuity to invent a cornucopia of trinkets the modern housewife just couldn’t do without and whispered to husbands that Jones was way down the road ahead of them in displaying the fruits of his earnings. Having bombed the rest of the First World into the late Middle Ages, Americans bought up Park Place & Boardwalk, cornered the markets for a generation, and persuaded ourselves what we called prosperity was because we were Exceptional. It was our birthright.

The man who lived here worked one of those good union plant jobs that let him buy this house and provide for a wife and raise two strapping sons to expect a life better than their parents had known which was better than the life their parents had known and on back to the wagon-training forebear cresting the wave of Manifest Destiny. The man who lived here put forty years in that plant and retired with a pension and a watch just as Ronald Reagan was raising the banner of American Triumphalism again—after the ugly, tumultuous 60s and post-Viet malaise—like Ira Hayes over smoldering Iwo Jima. Between his plant pension and social security the couple enjoyed their retirement in a house where the mortgage was paid and wondered that the boys could never seem to get ahead and that their wives found it necessary to work outside the house which was kind of against God, to hear Preacher tell it. They knew the world had changed yet still could not connect the matrices that skewed the playing field. The oldest boy was at the plant and seemed to do well for himself, he always had late-model trucks, though why his wife still had to work was anybody’s guess. The youngest joined the service and is stationed far away most of the time so they never saw him but didn’t see much more of the elder, who moved to Wyandotte county and rarely comes to the Missouri side except to work.

The sleepy little town had grown into what they called a city, though it was still just a bedroom community for workers in the city and the county. There were lots of retail shops, that come and go.

The neighborhood had changed, too, from when he first bought the house. The gentle wooded slope across the street that led to the railroad cut grew thick with other houses. Most of all the old neighbors had died or moved away. Lots of the homes were now rentals, many of which were revolving doors for the kind of kids who couldn’t pay their bills. The kind who let their houses go to pot.

People in the neighborhood rarely saw the old man who lived here, but puttering about the back or on the porch with back half-hunched and a wary squint from out his leathered hide and they never saw the old woman except as shadowy shape behind the screen door or in the blinded window. Until one day neighbors noticed they had seen no one for a while but unfamiliar cars parked beside the drive on Moore. And then one day the cars no longer came. And the odd pieces of lawn ornamentation disappeared. And a truck came and scraped away the rock. And Tom Bombadil’s abode looked just like every other property on the street.

A new family is coming to make it their own.

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Effie’s Walnuts

The September late afternoon sun streamed through a leafy canopy arching over the cracked and patched asphalt street as through skylights in the nave of a deciduous cathedral. Blue was leaking out of the leaves, infusing the sky, and curling the greens toward yellow, preparing them to someday sooner rather than later carpet the ground.

Down by the Holler I noticed our last big wind had shaken loose some sizeable boughs, depositing one along a faint fence line where two weathered wooden posts are all that remain from a previous owner but I still see serpentine sections of rail running along the hillside, keeping Mr. Mill’s cows out of Mr. Moore’s corn. If the road is a nave then the Holler is the sanctuary.

What kind of tree was this? I wondered before noticing a single green orb—about the size and shade of a tennis ball—clinging to a twig at the tenuous end of one of the offshoots. It was the green husk of a black walnut. Jugians nigra. Smooth and unbroken, probably not even fully ripe when the winds ripped the bough off the trunk of one of the flourishing local walnut trees.

Them are Effie’s walnuts.

A voice from the past.

There is a model of the universe where past, present, and future exist simultaneously. That means it’s possible to glimpse the Past—or the Future, though that’s more difficult since it hasn’t created as deep a rut, yet—where it occupies the same spatial dimensions. The Temporal Veil is downright flimsy, if you’re sensitive to it, and I’m enough Celt it’s sometimes more effort not to see through it. There are thin places all over.

Effie’s walnuts. I knew right away. Rhoda Effaniah Harris owned this land once. Long ago. She and her husband William bought it from the US government. A hundred acres in Sni-A-Bar Township, townships being the government’s way of plotting land and controlling expansion on the western frontier.

In 1830, when Bill & Rhoda loaded a Conestoga with essentials and joined a train headed by Old Man Reuben Harris, Missouri was the western frontier. It was as wild as it came. Reuben, Bill’s father, had some land coming to him in consideration of his infantry service during the War of Independence. The Federal government had been embarrassingly slow fulfilling its obligations to the only group of American veterans who ever actually fought to win American freedom. Even after President Jefferson doubled the country’s size buying what was left of French North America the government kept tight reins on settlement. Washington was obsessed with maintaining equilibrium between states were slavery was allowed and states where it was illegal. When Massachusetts ceded Maine as a Free State, Missouri was admitted allowing slave-holders.

Both banks of the Missouri River, from St. Louis to Kaw Point, flooded with settlers from Southern states, saturating the land to the point it was called Little Dixie. The group of Baptists who left Virginia’s Patrick Henry country in 1830 included several slaves. Patriarch Reuben Harris brought slaves with him. So did his son William and wife Effie.

It’s pointless for me to pass judgement on them. I understand them within the context of their times, a fact which neither condones nor excuses them. Humankind officially considers the idea of owning other humans as despicable. And yet it persists to our time. If you need to pass judgment there’s a pretty big target right there.

Effie were a witchy woman. That’s what some folk said.

Like most of the clan that followed Old Man Harris out of the foothills of Patrick Henry County, Virginia, Rhoda Effaniah Burnett was of Ulsterman stock—that is, Scots-Irish descent. She came from a long line of women who understood which plants did what. Which ones healed. Which ones helped you find thin places.

Effie, like her mother Effie before her, cultivated her herbalist craft and helped her neighbors when fever struck or some other ailment passed the point of prayers and broth. From her first days off the wagon from Virginia she planted a large herb garden, blending potions and elixirs for medicine. Over each vial she chanted “Slan-jah vore akussa yu-lay yanak do” words without meaning to her, except as a prayer for the infirm, words passed down from her mother and her mother before her to the very fringes of antiquity.

Effie had married Billy Harris when she was seventeen and he was twenty. She bore him fifteen babies. The last eight were born in their Sni-A-Bar Township farmhouse. All but one of them grew to adulthood, and that was unusual in an age when one in three babies died in their first years. Effie boasted she was from good stock. She must have been.

She carried scions of walnut and black locust from the Virginia highlands, wrapping them in strips of linen, rooting them, tenderly planting them with help from Jessie, her eldest boy, so many folks eventually called the winding road built alongside their property (the) Walnut Street, a name it bears to this day.

Sometimes I glimpse Effie as a younger woman. She was only 30 when she arrived her and started roaming these hills, these same hills, minus the houses, minus the streets, minus all the steel and plastic and utilities overhead and railroad running to the east and interstate plowing across up north. She and 12-year-old Jessie fashioned mud bricks by hand and dried them in the sun while William broke the soil with a barshear plow. Through 21st Century eyes she looks much older than her thirty years. She had already borne seven children in twelve years and spent long hours toiling under the sun. There was nothing bucolic about pioneer existence and it swallowed as many as survived it.

Other times I see Effie looking like Granny Clampett, standing with an old-style shotgun cocked and loaded, her faded yellow homespun dress flapping in the breeze, facing down some blue-jacketed Union officer who sat on horseback as his corporal read General Order 11 exiling Miss Harris—and all the civilians of Jackson County—for the duration of the war.

Effie always had been a staunch supporter of the Southern cause. It’s how she grew up. It’s all she knew.

When the War broke out Effie was 60. That was old by the standards of the day. Old for hard frontier life. She had already buried a husband and four sons.

Effie knew Billy Quantrill. Sure she did. Capt. Quantrill formed his band of Raiders—some called them Bushwackers—right down the road from the Harris farm. She kept her ears open. She passed along what supplies she could to them. News, once in a while. Couple of her kin rode with him. One of her own boys, Marion Lee, fought for the Rebels under Sterling Price. Company A, 9th Missouri Infantry. So it was no surprise when the Federals forced her and those of her surviving children still in Missouri from their homes.

Effie was not happy when the Yanks made her move. She set her jaw and stared them down. It was a Lost Cause. It was always a lost cause. The Yanks torched her crops and wrecked her buildings and turned her out for the duration of the war. Her Daddy fought against the British with the 10th Virginia. He must have been just spinning in his grave.

I was looking at the walnut husk on the dead branch, protecting the nut within and thinking of the roots that gnarled their way back to the soil of the 19th Century and the woman who walked their progenitors here from the Virginia mountains. And I was remembering those beautiful Blue Ridge slopes—where I had lived before moving here, as if there is some magnet pulling westward over those mountains. They used to call it Manifest Destiny, a Mongrel Horde of vagabonds riding collectively into the sunset.

Them are Effie’s walnuts I heard and looked around for the speaker, wondering if it was inside my head or outside, but I didn’t see him.

What I saw was a withered crone, the Widow Harris, older than I had ever seen her.

I see you, she said, looking straight at me.

I started. No one had ever seen me, before. “I see you, too, Miss Harris.”

She looked taken aback, but only for a second. You have me at a disadvantage, there, sonny she said. But which of us is seein’ inta th’ future? Hmm? she scowled. She gave a wave of her bony fingers, as if fore-casting was not even worth the trouble.

She touched the patch over her eye. She sighed, ancient and full of days.

I knew I was seeing her near the end of her life—though what, really, does that mean when everything is always … somewhere. Some time. I remembered she lost her eye after the War, when she was old even by 21st Century standards. I think it was a riding accident. Thrown as she dashed to an outlying farm to midwife a first-time mother. Or run like Absalom into a thicket which pierced the eye.

She looked agitated.

I remembered something. Something. Seemed she died in the same kind of accident, riding in a storm to deliver her elixirs to a feverish farmer. I could not refrain from thinking it, knowing as the words formed in my mind I was conjuring her doom on some level.

Long fingers once again touched the eyepatch. Begone! she said, made a sign with her hand, spat on the ground. She lifted the patch, opening the gaping socket, like Lazarus’ tomb, a swirling abyss, the Black Hole of Miss Effie Harris spinning pinwheel vortex sucking away all remnants of her and her time from my view.

I looked around. I was far from my usual path. About a half mile west. Northwest. I stood among a sea of gravestones and other monuments townsfolk who lived and died a stone’s throw from here . I drive here from time to time and wonder about the bones that lay beneath the grass, about the living, breathing souls who once wrapped around those bones and had lives and loves and suffering and joy. But I don’t see my car and sure don’t remember walking here.

At my feet lies a weathered, faded piece of carved rock to faded to read but I know from earlier visits this is little Lewis Franklin, Effie’s 3-month-old baby she bore in her forties and buried too soon on a hill on the family farm. It’s the oldest stone in the cemetery. 1843. Beside him lies his daddy, died of the cholera just five years later. And Effie, who lived long enough to become a crone—highly regarded among her people but little understood by the immigrants and easterners who flooded in on the back of the industrial revolution and the Gilded Age and made a whole new America than the one she rolled through the Appalachians and over the Mississippi to create.

Her gravestone said she died September 9th. I shivered.

“Hey, Miss Harris, thanks for the walnuts,” I said. And made my way back home.

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Smiling on a Cloudy Day

I saw comic AJ Finny at Stanford’s Comedy Club in Overland Park last night.

I first met AJ at the Uptown Arts Bar during their 2nd or 3rd commemoration of the Berkley Human Be-In. It had to be the Be-In because I was wearing my Hippie Clothes, meaning for sure the tie-dyed jeans I got from some parking lot vendor at a Grateful Dead show when I did the Southern States Tour in 1988, the Steal Your Face t-shirt my most recent wife bought me because she knew I was a Dead Head though she never really “got” it—Big Red Flag, fellas—and a purple silken scarf I wear on my head bandana-like. There was a time when all my clothes came from parking lot vendors and I had a pile of tie-dyed tees stacked, folded, to my waist. I’m a short guy, but that’s still a lot of colors.

AJ complemented those jeans as I passed which—being half-bard and all—I could not let pass without pausing to reminisce about the Tour while trying to remember at which venue I bought them. I am not usually talkative amongst people I don’t know. But get me started about one of the topics which have caught my fancy for more than a minute and you’ll never get me to shut up. It’s embarrassing.

AJ and I fell to talking about all things psychedelic and I asked how many shows he saw. He regretted he had been too young when Jerry’s death parked the bus, but he really dug the culture. We hit it off immediately, both being what some call Sixties Freaks, and not always in a complimentary fashion. The biggest difference was AJ started a generation after I did. That makes him something of my spiritual … not son … but nephew. Or much younger cousin.

I first saw AJ perform the previous New Years, also at the Arts Bar. His exuberant performance sprinkled stories from his 12-Step experiences and the road that brought him there. “I’m part Irish, part Native American,” he confided to his audience, “Or, as my AA sponsor calls it: a Natural.” His manic pattern wove a tapestry of yarns seamlessly from anecdote to anecdote that kept us all in stitches. Every comic fabricates his own, unique perspective and AJ’s trippy perspective on incidents common to us all draped around his stage presence with shimmering synergy. I don’t know his influences—any artists incorporate everything we experience either consciously or un into our work—but aspects of his act reminded me of Cheech & Chong, of Gallagher, of Carlin in his Toledo Window Box Period.

At the Be-In it took a minute talking with him before some synapse connected and I exclaimed, “You’re a comic!” He smiled. “You played here New Years’ Eve.” He confessed it was so and with promises to connect on social media we each returned to the circles we were running before my loud psychedelic jeans that people tell me men my age should hide made tangential connection. Dead Heads won’t need an explanation of the experience—everyone else should willingly suspend disbelief. In the interest of narrative.

Since that chance meeting AJ has generously blest me with tickets to his shows when he is in town. My work schedule sometimes makes it impossible to take advantage of the tickets, but I always make the effort. I enjoy his show that much. When I do avail myself of his generosity I feel it’s the least I can do to patronize the venue, to do my part to make it worth their while to book him. From each according to his Ability. I’ve got this down pat.

In principle I hate buying liquor in bars. That’s because bars use alcohol sales to cover every other expense, so mark-ups verge on obscene. By the time I buy two drinks I’ve bought the bottle. I know how long I had to work to pay that tab. I remind myself bars are selling a social experience. It’s not my natural habitat, but if I remain calm I should make it out alive…

Beyond my miserly attitude toward money in general, in particular I hate spending money in Kansas. Because Brownback. Kansas is the toxic petri dish of Sam Brownback’s Great Conservative Experiment of giving businesses the farm—so to speak—eliminating all their taxes and regulations that they might flood the state with thousands of new low-wage jobs thus invigorating the economy. Since Supply-Side Economics has never, will never, and can never work the Legislature balanced the budget piling regressive sales taxes on the backs of the Working Class. I hate there being any possibility I might contribute to the success of such an oppressive economic program.

I eschew spending money in Kansas. I’ll work there all day but wait until I’m back in Missouri to buy anything. Gas. Food. Anything. But I was willing to make an exception to support AJ’s work. It takes cajones for any performance artist to work without a net. It deserves encouragement.

AJ enjoys a special relationship with Stanford & Sons Comedy Club in all of its many incarnations, taking the plunge as a comic at a Stanford’s Open Mic and returning to them like Disaster Area to Milliways.

I saw him at the Wyandotte County Stanford’s once. That was at the Legends Outlet Mall, up by the Kansas Speedway. Or, as I like to call it, BFE. Up in the northwest tentacles of Kansas City, Kansas reaching the Legends from my home in eastern Jackson County, Missouri, feels arduous to me. It’s only 37 miles but geography conspires to funnel westward traffic through a concrete Gordian’s Knot called the Downtown Loop. Cars have been known to disappear never to emerge again.

With no traffic it’s a 50 minute drive at posted speeds. In theory. During stretches when every employed person in the Metro jams onto the highway it can take well over an hour. I’ve driven in much worse traffic than Kansas City but it’s maddening. Particularly during high-density periods.

I remind myself in 1928 the drive just from Blue Springs to neighboring Independence along RD Mize Road took an hour each way. All day, by horse and wagon. Perspective.

When I went to the Legends I invited my cousin and his wife to join me. Griz is my only local relative. His mother, my aunt, is only a couple years older than me. She was always more like a big sister than an aunt when we were growing up. That means Griz is my daughter’s age and when I hang out with him I really feel my age! I was relieved they both laughed enough I didn’t feel like I was recommending Henny Youngman.

I also caught his act when Stanford’s operated out of the Uptown Theater’s Conspiracy Room on Broadway. But this newest Overland Park location was the best yet. It’s near where I’ve been working the past few months. It feels much more accessible.

Last night AJ’s show was all new material. New to me. He’s broken out of the regional confines, toured nationally, done television and film and kept that sharp, twisted perspective that drowns his audience with laughter. I laughed so hard I sounded like a stranded heffalump.

It’s been a rough two weeks and I didn’t know until the last minute if I’d be able to use the tickets, but I needed a laugh. And AJ delivered.

Thanks a million.

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Cries From the Ground

Beaver Cleaver he don’t live here anymore.

He used to. Back before my time. Back before Ed Sanders moved to New York City and formed the Fugs. Back when people of color kept to their own neighborhoods and their own schools and made themselves as inconspicuous as possible whenever they ventured to the homogeneous, milk white world, when working class white neighborhoods never noticed any disparity and liked it that way.

In the booming post-War economy, unchallenged by the smoldering ruined factories of Europe and Asia, selling the world the things needed to rebuild, ordinary Americans were making money hand over fist. The general prosperity erased all memory of two centuries of Boom & Bust and to the young ambitious it really looked like the American Dream of each successive generation achieving better than the one before was gospel.

Dozens of servicemen, sons of local farmers and merchants, chiseled by years of war into triumphant warriors, came home and took good-paying factory jobs in the Ford plants or Lake City Munitions and leveraged their service into college degrees or loans for one of the scores of homes springing up in the green hills of south of the Missouri. Whites bought near whites and blacks settled near blacks—and nobody told their white brothers-in-arms that Negro soldiers couldn’t buy outside certain prescribed areas. Or maybe they did tell. A Whites Only neighborhood was a selling point for many couples in those days. Everyone accepted Like sticks with like.

With soldiers returning to good-paying jobs, young couples bought homes developers built on rolling acres of H.S. Mills’ estate south of Walnut and west of Shepherd. These weren’t yet the cookie-cutter homes suburbs came to symbolize. These are each different from its neighbor. Over the years some of the original homes disappeared—burned or otherwise damaged past repair—being replaced by a newer model. Others have had room additions, patios, garages built onto the original structure. The original owners still abide in some. These are fewer every year. A 20-year-old soldier discharged in 1945 is over 90 today.

In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s these neighborhoods in the hills southwest of the railroad thrived as hermetic petri dishes of cultural homogeneity. What people knew of the outside world came in books or newspapers or the newfangled technology of television. The TV families looked just like the families in the petri dishes. Maybe Mother didn’t wear heels and pearls in the kitchen, but other than that the houses pulsed with a collective hope that tomorrow would be better than yesterday.

That was a generation ago.

On a summer Sunday morning I sat and watched the sky transform from purple to pink to pale blue eyes as the second cup lingered on my palate— massaging aroma memories—and unseen birds serenaded to woodpecker percussion on perches hid in canopies of foliage of shapes and size and all shades dancing between blue and yellow.

It was that Magic hour film directors covet, when resurrecting sun rays highlight leaves and curly peels of birch and the pocked complexions of all the branches sheltering all the rooftops all in a line along my street with a warm otherworldly glow.

The homes across the street sat silent. No lights. No stir behind the shades. No ripples on the windowpanes.

In hours to come they will awake, their doors will open, cars will come and go. People I barely know or know by sight to nod or wave. People who have complex lives and jobs and family members hanging invisibly about them as they move about their starring roles in lives where I am but a background extra. People who have thoughts like mine and emotions like mine and concerns like mine.

We tell ourselves that once upon a time neighborhoods were Sesame Street or Mayberry, where everyone knew their neighbors by name and occupation or avocation and Mrs. Jones felt free to scold Johnny Green for throwing kittens down the well. We idealize those times and choke on cheap sentiment we cut into our bitter cups of rue and regret.

We remember times that never were. Or, at best, gild the lilies we pick for maximum contrast and effect.

Without so much as a knock from me the drawbridge of my memory palace slams down and crowds who lived in the neighborhoods of my youth come flooding through the gates. With pitchforks and torches. No. That’s something else. Damn memories. So fickle. Grabbing elements from other times and places, things that happened, other peoples’ anecdotes, some made-for-TV movie, a scrap read in a book somewhere.

These are the ghosts of neighbors past, not aged a day from the moment I last saw them. Some are now dead. All others are much, much older. Many I would not recognize were they to bump into me on the street.

They tell me when I was younger Everybody knew All their neighbors.

They tell me I should know all of mine. If I were just less antisocial. If I were just more extroverted. And would it hurt you maybe just to try?

That’s not fair. I do know some of my neighbors, at least to wave.

A kid named Philip lives in the house on the corner with his mom. I say kid; he’s my stepson’s age, a teenager when I arrived in the neighborhood. He’s in his 30s, now, with a daughter he’s raising with his mother’s help. He picks up day labor and hustles scrap metal for cash.

A couple lives in the cottage beside Philip’s place. He’s a commercial painter named Paul. He’s my age. His partner is a younger woman, Christine, the neighborhood gossip, from whom I can get an earful of more information than I really want about all the soap opera swirling around us. My preferred strategy is smile and nod and remember something pressing I must do.

Then there’s Billy, a widower, a retired civil servant staying active in his waning years. He leaves early for his social club and sometimes entertains some gray-haired lady in his home. Billy might be an original owner, though he doesn’t look that old.

There’s a couple on the other corner, the second or third to live there since I arrived. They have each had children, and dogs which yap around their fenced back yard, and I’ve never known a one of them by name. Or even to recognize so I could identify them in a line-up. The house seems a starter home for starter families.

Straight across the street a young single woman, Kati, has put her fingerprints all over a tall-roofed white, wooden house. Only a window in a gable on the roof reveals the second story. A porch stretches across the front of the house where Kati rearranges a growing collection of quaint, folksy furnishings—like the pieces for an Appalachia dollhouse—antique wooden bureaus and rockers, wicker headboards, a tall terra cotta fire pit, a wrought iron log rack, a bellows.

The previous owner was an older Vietnam vet, his big-boned, much younger Ol’ Lady, and their tow-headed kid. Turned out he was a mean drunk and spent some time in jail behind it. She took their kid to parts unknown before he finished his time and he could never keep up the payments on his own so this young professional woman bought her first home on the Jackson County Courthouse steps.

The first month after she moved in I wondered what kind of job she had where she could wear yoga pants every day. Then I realized she stopped at the gym. I forgot people do that.

Kati has her Gentlemen Callers: clean cut young men in khakis & polos. For all I know it might just be one guy. God knows they all look alike.

A US flag hangs flaccid from a pole on Kati’s front porch column, affirming for any strangers lost wandering the sleepy streets of Blue Springs that this is the United States of America, by damn, that we are the land of the free and the home of the brave, and no politically correct elitist liberal media is going to dissuade us from letting our free flag fly. Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

For an instant in my imagination Kati becomes old Barbara Frietchie, waiting in defiance for the Stonewall Brigade to pass before her veranda—Shoot if you must this old, gray head—though her hair is far from gray, and I can’t imagine her in flannel nightie and stocking cap shouting out the gable window.

Mrs. Frietchie’s defiance played out in Maryland when the Army of Northern Virginia made its first of two unsuccessful invasions of the North.

Around these parts the officer involved would more likely be Quantrill. And few farmhouses in the Blue Springs of yore were unfurling the Stars & Stripes.

Sometimes, in the grayish gloom of dawn or dusk, if you squint just right, you can tear the veil of the Temporal all the way from Now to Then and peek behind at shades and shadows of what used to be. You may even see the shade of Captain William Clarke Quantrill.

You’ve read of Quantrill. Quantrill’s Raiders are the most famous pro-Confederate guerilla “army” of the War Between the States. Civil War buffs surely know him. So will aficionados of the James Gang. Frank & Jesse, not Joe Walsh.

Capt. Quantrill led an irregular collection of deserters, local Rebel sympathizers, and renegades in hampering raids on Federal logistics. That may be a charitable interpretation. History is written by the victors and Yankee History remembers William Quantrill as a war criminal, operating independent of any command, robbing banks, murdering civilians, and destroying infrastructure.

Federal forces hanged several captured members of Quantrill’s band.

Technically all Rebel soldiers were committing treason against the Constitutional Government and subject to execution. Lincoln insisted on magnanimity. Partisans invited less nuanced approaches.

Partisans always enjoy fewer protections under whatever Rules of War are in current operation.

It was Quantrill who led the bloody raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863. Whether or not one calls it the Lawrence Massacre still, 150 years later, depends on sympathies. I have heard neo-Confederates describe it, with a straight face, as “a great day in History.”

History remembers Quantrill’s Raiders as it would the French Resistance—had Hitler won. There are still scholars, mostly amateur, arguing the Confederacy was the true protector of the constitutional government—that the Federal government of the mid-19th Century was corrupt—that activist judges were betraying the original contract of the Union.

People can justify anything.

What many people don’t realize is William Quantrill was a Yankee, by birth if not allegiance. Once again the American Civil War proves more complex than just South bad; North good.

Quantrill was Ohio born and raised. Ohio was a Free State from its admission to the Union, and there’s no indication the young Quantrill gave the issue of slavery any thought at all.

The eldest of a dozen children, young Billy took a teaching job at 16. A year later his father died of consumption; the family fell into crippling debt.

Teachers’ wages were worse than meager on the frontier, so Billy drifted between menial jobs to help feed the family. He was often on the wrong side of the Law, implicated in thefts, run out of town for killing a man. To protect him, his mother persuaded a couple neighbors relocating to the Kansas Territory to take the youth with them. In Kansas he met vociferously pro-slavery southerners who converted the youth to their views. He joined groups of bushwhackers long before the war began. His comrades took him to the Indian Territories (Oklahoma).

After the election of 1860 set in motion the War Between the States, Quantrill and a companion joined the Confederate 1st Cherokee Regiment, which marched to Missouri to join forces attached to Sterling Price, a former Missouri governor who raised rebel troops after Federals put the state under martial law. In August, 1861, Private Quantrill fought under General Price at Wilson’s Creek. In September he was at Lexington—known as the Battle of the Hemp Bales—where Price’s troops soaked bundles of harvested hemp in the Missouri overnight, then used them in a Birnam Wood gambit, advancing on Federals, pushing the bales ahead of themselves. The hemp absorbed Federal ball & shot, the damp bales never catching fire from the heat, though the smoldering haze may have left both victorious rebels and captured federals a bit dazed and confused.

Shortly after Lexington, Quantrill—frustrated with Price’s timidity—slipped out of camp with seven companions. They made their way west to Jackson County where pro- and anti-slavery forces on both sides of the Kansas state line had been murdering each other since before the war. They rendezvoused on the Widda Crump’s farm, alongside the road connecting Independence with Blue Springs. Three more men joined them on Christmas Day, 1861, and the band swore a blood oath to oppose the Union.

Quantrill considered himself a Southern patriot. He traveled to Richmond, seeking a colonel’s commission and permission to raise troops. The Confederate government denied both. He returned to Mrs. Crump’s and recruited disaffected locals. The counties surrounding the Missouri River were settled by slaveholding Virginians, Carolinians, and Georgians. Federal authorities burned out rebel sympathies with an iron fist. There was plenty of resistance to the Occupation. Jim and Cole Younger from Lee Summit joined him. So did Frank and Jesse James of Clay county. Several hundred other men rode with Quantrill at various times. During the 1862 Battle of Independence, Quantrill received a Captain‘s commission. In his mind this legitimized his command.

That command bivouacked in the Sni-A-Bar environs: Blue Springs, Lone Jack, Pink Hill. All the farmers knew him. Unionists bit their tongues. Rebels gave him supplies and horses and sons. Capt. Quantrill and his men became local fixtures. And Billy Quantrill found himself trotting into Blue Springs to visit Miss Katie.

Sarah Katherine King, to be precise, but everyone called her Katie or Kate.

Kate was 13 when Captain Quantrill first spied her, hauling water from the well on her daddy’s farm. Robert King appreciated what the Marauders were doing, but he was none too pleased to see that man come a’courtin’ his daughter.

It wasn’t Kate’s age. Thirteen was not an unusual age for a young woman to marry in mid-19th Century rural America. But nothing good could happen if the Union garrison in Independence got wind of the dashing young guerilla’s visits to the King Place. When King discouraged the visits, Kate sneaked out of the house and made her way to Quantrill’s camp.

She lived with him as his wife for the duration of the war, calling herself Kate Clarke (from his middle name) for anonymity. As the war was winding down Quantrill headed east to Kentucky. Kate accompanied him as far as St. Louis, where she took shelter and awaited his return.

He never did. Captain Quantrill and his closest associates, spreading mayhem through western Kentucky in Union-blue uniforms, rode into a Federal ambush. Two minie-balls hit him, one severing his spine. Union troops captured him. He died a short time later.

In a sense, he hasn’t died yet. Reenactors portray Quantrill and his Raiders in carefully choreographed echoes of those 19th Century skirmishes. The William Clarke Quantrill Society still meets, though all the original members have long since died. Years after the War ended survivors of the old band met to toast the old days and remember their dashing young leader—forever young, astride a pale horse.

There’s a yellowed clipping, mounted under glass, announcing the reunion of 1888 in Blue Springs. That year Frank James arranged the presence of Caroline Quantrill, their leader’s mother, at a reception in her honor at the Chicago & Alton House, a stone’s throw from my porch.

I recall my daughter’s Pampaw, her maternal great-grandfather, met Frank James. Pamp was just a boy and Frank an old farmer by then. They were kin somehow. Though neither of us are from here there are headstones in the Blue Springs Cemetery I know are Pamp’s relatives. He had an unusual surname.

There’s my six degrees of separation.

The Universe is funny like that.

* In the earlier version of this I mentioned Caroline Quantrill without making clear I meant the mother, who I had never mentioned before by name. That could have led to some confusion with Catherine, and I fixed it. 8/14/16

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