Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

I sat in the audience in the school gymnasium with all the other parents, eagerly waiting to watch my eldest child, Short Stack, take the stage with his class. It was the spring concert and my little boy was about to do what he loves: preform. I wouldn’t say that he’s really a show off, but he does loves the chance to do what he can do for an audience, especially if he’s worked hard at it. Especially, if he can sneak in a little flourish here and there.

Okay, maybe he is a bit of a show off. It’s always a good show with Short Stack

Lulu Belle, his younger sister sat as patiently as a five year old could in my lap. I didn’t admonish her incessant wiggling because I understood what she was going through. If Short Stack’s love for performing was likened to the fire of a lamp, hers is a volcano lighting up the sky. For her, kindergarten doesn’t start until next fall, and she understands that her time to be in the lime light will come, but in the mean time, the pressure she must have to exert on her impulse to run up, front and center, must be like the pressure behind the little Dutch boy’s dyke.

Wiggle, wiggle.

Short Stack had been practicing with his class for some time and he hand given my wife a sneak peek performance a few days before in our living room, but I sadly have to admit that I was distracted with any number of household duties at the time and had listened with only half a ear from the kitchen. I registered his little voice singing in the background, but the lyrics had drifted through my head and directly out the window before I had a chance to gather them up and file them away. I was eager to hear them again with all my attention focused on him. All I could remember was that he had told me the first song would be, “Rocky Mountain High.” In my mind, a vision of John Denver, crooning and strumming, leapt to the fore. What could be cuter than kids singing John Denver?

I don’t know either.

What I do know is that it didn’t turn out to be John Denver.

As his diminutive class took their postitions on the risers at the front of the stage, the music director gathered together their attention such that any one can, and set the pitch. Then they began to sing.

Rocky mountain, rocky mountain, rocky mountain high.

When you’re on that rocky mountain, hang your head and cry.

Do, do, do, do, do remember me. Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

Sunny valley, sunny valley, sunny valley low.

When you’re in that sunny valley, sing it soft and slow.

Do, do, do, do, do remember me. Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

Stormy ocean, stormy ocean, stormy ocean wide.

When you’re on that stormy ocean there’s no place to hide.

Do, do, do, do, do remember me. Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

It is obviously a very old song and each verse came with hand gestures to hammer the points home. The crying on the rocky mountain was traced with a finger from their eyes, down their little, round cheeks and in the sunny valley, heads were hung and they sag to their feet. The literal choking point for me was on the stormy ocean, though. As this group of six and seven year olds sang of the horrors of being caught in a violent storm at sea, they covered their faces, fingers up, palms pressed against their eyes. My vision got a little blurry at this point, so I’m a touch vague on any further visuals I might have missed.

I’m an overly empathetic person at heart, and I know this well. For whatever reason, it’s always been a tendency of mine to dive into the history of things and imagine the situation of those who set that particular bit of the past into motion. When I walk through an old house, I inevitably wind up noticing some small detail, a decorative bit of molding or the head of a square cut nail, and I wonder who put it there. What did they look like? Was it the homeowner? Who struck that nail struck home? It can instantly transport me back to a time a hundred or more years ago and I feel like a ghost, watching silently and undetected over the shoulder of a hunched figure, dutifully working away to complete whatever project it might have been. I don’t know why, but it’s what my mind tends to default to. Add to that my love of history and a possibly unhealthy obsession with trying to do things the old way my self, and it all equals to me sort of living in the past quite a good deal of the time. I quite like it there, even if it seems to unexpectedly smack me in the face with melancholy every once in a while. It can be powerful stuff.

Two more songs were sung by his class, though I can’t remember just now what they were. That first one had deeply taken root and held my mind fast. I enthusiastically applauded with the other parents and welcomed Short Stack to the empty seat I had saved for him next to me and we watched the rest of the performance as the other grades cycled though, each with three songs of their own. It was an enjoyable time and the children all looked justifiably proud. We were all proud, parents and children, alike.

That song though…

Over the next few days, I caught myself humming it as I bustled about doing various chores and even singing it outright as I made dinner. This never failed to catch the attention of Short Stack and he would remark on it. Not in an accusatory way, but more in the astonishment that he could have taught me a song that so struck me.

“Dad.” A big smile crosses his face. “what song are you singing?”

About a week later, I found my self in the unusual situation of having some time to burn in town, and today I had planned for it. There is a very venerable cemetery here in Portland, which contains all that remains of many of the founding families from the settlement era of our coastline, and that was where I headed. There are Longfellows buried here. Those Longfellows. There are innumerable captains, and of not just sailing vessles of trade, but captains of warships and crew members too. Their stories are caved in slate, quarried hundreds of years ago and patiently hand lettered and inscribed with their names and duties. There are a lot of stories in there. Every stone stands as a monument to another story. Knowing them is the hard part.

Some years ago, I had discovered head stones bearing the same surname as my own, and I had made it a point to do some care for them. I plant flowers in the fall so that they may bloom in the spring. I make note of any deterioration and do what I can to mitigate it. Today, I had brought a pair of hand shears to clear the grass that grew tall against the faces and backs of the grey stones.

Snip, snip.

As I knelt, back hunched to the sun, I grabbed the grass in tufts and carefully cut it away in long strokes. Without warning, the song came back to my lips in a hum.

“Do, do, do, do, do remember me.”

Glancing around to make sure I was alone with my ancient company, I decided that singing was better. What, after all, could be a more fitting song? So, I sang, quietly of course, but still, it felt good to say the words, if not a trifle sad as well. To be fair, I don’t remember these people. I’m not even sure if they are relatives or not. I do know that my kin came from this general area, but on the coast, there was always a lot of migration of people and whole families.

They might not be any relation at all.

Honestly though, I don’t care. They are family to me.

Here, laying in this ground before me, is all that remains of some who had climbed mountains, crossed valleys and, since one is a sea captain, even ridden on oceans packed high with angry, white toped waves. They had all left family either though immigration or mortality and due to the confines of the era, had to rely on memory alone to visit them again. No photographs. No telephone calls. No quick visits from a hundred miles away. Choices were more permanent back then, much like the slate they used to mark the passing of soul.

Who knows how long these particular stones have stood unattended? A hundred years or more of grass grown high and unkempt seems likely and I can’t help but think about that as I clear away the weeds and timothy. Who held onto the tops of these stones when they were first planted so that they may refresh the memories of those now buried beneath them? They too are long gone now

I’ll remember them now, to the extent that I can. Keeping the plots clean and kept is a duty I happily take on and my children, always looking to be a help to daddy, happily join in with the quick and easy task when they join me.

Finished with both the song and my clipping, I look down with a smile at the neat job the shears had done. In a sea of overgrown grass, it stands out as an island of order and I feel proud. I wonder who these possible family elders of mine were and what they looked like. What did they talk about? Whom did they enjoy to speak with? A favorite food, a often told joke or even, were they happy with their lives? Some hundreds of years later, who can say? What I can do is remember to remember them. I’ll stop by when I can and neaten things up, plant more flowers and show my kids, again, where the stones stand in the crowded jumble of lost memories and relatives that reside there, faces grey and hard in the summer sun.

Here, there are stories to be found. All we need to do is look for them and then, if the story is discovered, share it. Tell your children and their children. Write it down and show anyone with an interest. Let it live on past your own memory so that we all have a chance to remember.

Do, do, do, do remember me.

Cast Iron Seagull, part II

“Seagull engines! They’re an outboard motor, from England. The company’s defunct now, but their engines were just wonderful. I find them as basket cases and rebuild them with other found parts. They’re amazing. You should try one!”

This sounded dubious. Outboards are notoriously finicky little creatures and the idea of getting an old one made by a company that no longer exists just seemed like a recipe for disaster. I listened as Ian went on espousing the benefits of his much loved Seagulls and as he explained why he was so enamored of them, (i.e. their simplicity, durability and love of salt water) the prospect of having one seemed better and better. In retrospect, this might also have has something to do with me refreshing my cold compress a few more times at the beer cooler. Eventually, he talked me into it and later that week, I dragged home the scruffiest, most disreputable looking outboard I’d ever seen outside of a Warner Brothers cartoon.

There was going to be a learning curve on this thing, to be sure.

The power plant (and I use the word, “power” gently here) weights only about nine or ten kilos, or a little over twenty pounds and is easily carried in one hand, providing that you don’t mind coating your self in a light sheen of oil and gasoline as you tote it down the ramp to your boat. There are no cans or hoses to deal with since the gas tank is bolted firmly to the top of the whole unit, just behind the flywheel. No pressure bulb to squeeze here! Good old gravity feeds the system.  Meanwhile, on a Seagull, the afore mentioned flywheel does not sport the expected, teardrop sleek cowl over it and the internal guts such as you’re used to seeing on outboards. If it did, you wouldn’t be able to hand wind the starting rope around the flywheel to get the thing running. As I screwed the contraption down to the wooden transom of our little rubber boat, I eyed the whole thing with a mixture of pride and dubiousness. My family and the marina attendant looked on with their own mixture. I believe I detected both amusement and fear.

It was “go” time. Would it work?

Though Ian had gone over the startup procedure with me two or three times, it had been several days since. Now, looking down at it clamped to our boat, the finer bits of the sequence became fuzzy.

I’d just wing it.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

First of all, there’s the remembering what buttons need pushing and what knobs need pulling and then there’s the throttle setting and then… there’s the flywheel. Most of us are familiar with the old yank line that’s used to start up the small engines we’re forced to deal with such as lawn mowers and snow blowers. But even these are now fast disappearing with the arrival of smaller, electric starters entering the fray, and honestly, who doesn’t like an easier to start engine? Still, I had been assured that in this case, my engine would not disappoint. The Seagull’s design is a throwback, even in its day, and uses a system that is the predecessor to the modern pull cord starter. In my hand, I held the starting rope, a knot in one end and a small chunk of hand whittled wood tied to the other. It is detached from the motor in every way. Don’t loose it. The knot fits neatly into a notch on the top of the flywheel and you coil the remaining length around and around in a little groove until you reach the end, which I now did.

“Ready?” I looked up at my family (worried) and the marina attendant (smirking) who were lined up in revue at the dockside. Deep breath now… “How hard do I pull this, I wonder?” went through my mind and I thought back to every 1930’s cartoon I could think of that involved an outboard. Surprisingly, there are really quite a few. “Just a gentle, little yank” I decided.

Bad choice.

With my anemic but long pull, I did manage to start the motor on the first try, but NOT dislodge the end of the starting rope from the flywheel. As the ancient outboard barked to life, it began to swing the chord over its head like medieval knight attacking peasants with a flail. The wooden toggle tied off to the end of the line made an unexpected and formidable weapon, smacking me three times in quick succession right in the back of the hand that started it. It was if I was being angrily punished for waking it from its long slumber. It only took a second for me to figure that this was going to end badly, possibly with me in the water, if I didn’t jump in and try to kill this thing fast. Reaching below the visible arc traveled by the whipping length of rope and wood, I stretched my injured hand toward the throttle switch while covering my face with my good one. With a quick flip, I shut the gas supply off and the mad thing coughed to a stop with what seemed to me, an air of smug satisfaction at having drawn first blood.

I clutched my teeth as well as my injured hand and looked down at my attacker through narrowed eyes. “So that’s the way it’s going to be, eh? FINE!”

I glanced back up at my audience.

My children looked rather worried while my wife and the attendant were doubled over laughing. Soon, so was I. Though the Seagull had indeed laid a good and bruising beating on me that smarted like crazy, I also didn’t want to worry my kids. That, and I could only imagine how funny that whole situation had looked. As it turned out, imagining my self as a cartoon had been closer to my reality than I had expected it to be.

“Okay, let’s try that again, but this time, without the death rope.”

I didn’t wait for a response since the adults were still laughing. This time, it worked. It really WORKED! And I didn’t have to jump back from an angry flail monster or anything! There were still finicky bits to work out on the thing, naturally. Engines of this vintage and level of, let’s be honest here, crude construction always require a “feeling out” period. You have to get to know their quirks, what sounds right and what sounds wrong, when to lean the mixture and how to stay the hell away from that damned flywheel. Also, with a Seagull, you have to get used to having no way of going in reverse. The engine only goes in one direction and you cannot, in any way, turn it farther than about sixty degrees in either direction, let alone spin it all the way around. Riding with one requires some forethought.

As it turned out, that’s fine. For all its idiosyncrasies, Ian has been proved one hundred percent correct about the little, stinky marvels. Mine has been humming and sputtering along the bay on the back of our rubber boat for three years now and considering that it was manufactured some time in the sixties, that’s pretty impressive. We’ve come to rely on it, if not for needed transportation services, then a source of summer fun. With the imminent end of the warm seasons upon us, it was time to consider pulling our rig out finding it a home for the winter in a corner of the basement. But first… we needed to have just one more outing. The day was beautiful, the air crisp and the last of the mixed gas for the Seagull, just begging to be burned. Plus, it was a drainer.

Everywhere you looked, islands showed off their lower reaches and what normally are no more than a few rocks even at low tide, were now throwing open hidden beaches, most often reserved only for sea life. How could we resist?

With the tourists mostly gone, the boat traffic was sparse to say the least. Even the ubiquitous flotillas of sea kayaks had fled the waters around our island home. It was heaven. We packed our life jacketed kids into the boat and putted off. Visiting a near by, tiny uninhabited island, we marveled at how it has grown with the receding big tide. We poked about, found hermit crabs, saved a beached fish and skipped rocks on the glassy surface of the ocean. The kids were in their element as they charged around and around, making a circuit of the beach. The low light of the end of the day lit up the trees on the coast like they were in spotlights and the whole world seemed to just stand still. It was amazing. I guess that’s what having a boat is all about, really.

Motoring home, I hummed happily to myself, assured that my family wouldn’t be able to hear me over the thrum of the Seagull. It’s a loud little sucker, but it runs and runs reliably. I was a very happy boater and tried not to think about having to wait a whole season before doing this again. I don’t know how or when exactly it happened, but I had turned into a boat guy. “What we need,” I caught myself pondering, “is something bigger. Something that we can take out a little farther. I wonder if I can find a longer inflatable?” Naturally, we’d need a bigger engine.

Luckily for me, Seagull made them.

I guess it’s time to go talk to Ian again and see what he’s got hiding on the work bench. I don’t’ know how I’m going to make time for this new hobby, but at least I can justify it. Hey, I live on an island, after all!

I NEED a boat!

The Old Ways

I have always had a fascination with cemeteries, the old ones, anyway.

Growing up in New Hampshire, the heart of the “old”, New World, gave me some wonderful opportunities to spend rather a lot of my younger years walking among the stones, reading the inscriptions and appreciating the handwork that went into them. My particular hometown was settled in 1735, and though there are other towns and cities a few hundred years older in these parts, I always thought that the mid 18th century was a respectable time for a New England town to start. It also gives the old burying grounds some wonderful character.

It gave them slate stones. And there is nothing like a slate stone.

Slate is simply amazing material. It is both fragile as glass and stronger than steel. It will shattering easily if hit by anything of any hardness, (a lawn mower, a car’s bumper, even the frozen ground if it falls in the winter before the snow covers the brown grass) but if left unmolested, it will hold the smallest detail of the craftsmen’s chisel for hundreds of years without wear or blemish. It will not take a high sheen, and yet, it will not loose any of its beauty for lifetime, after lifetime, after lifetime. I have always loved slate stones.

On weekends or long summer evenings, I fondly recall going for bike rides with my Dad, a man who also enjoys a good stroll through a graveyard. It was he who really got me interested in the stories you could find there and the two of us would often wind up in one after a bit of peddling around our end of town. I can think of one burial ground in particular and for two distinct reasons. The first is that it is located on a very old crossroads, not more than a stones throw down the street from an old, 18th century tavern, now a private home. The character of the whole place seems frozen in time and I have no doubt that if you could bring a town man from 1780 to that spot, he would know exactly where he stood.

If not for the fact that he would also be very, very dead.
But hey…!

The echo of ages past is strong there and adds real gravity to the tall, black slates standing like quiet bedsteads in the tall grass and leaves. The second reason that particular place stands out in my mind is because it’s where I ate a spider. It’s the sort of thing that you don’t forget and it’s not something I’d recommend making a habit out of.

As I walked through the old grounds, I had turned my head to say something to my father. At the moment my neck swiveled back forward, I walked between two stones, directly into the web cast between them and, POP! The spider went right in. It was an… interesting moment. The problem was that he was pretty far back there, past my tongue, actually. Spitting him out would have required more tonsil control than I had, so, there was only one thing to do. I didn’t even have any water to wash him down. I recall a lot of grimacing, squinting and dry swallowing.

Despite my little impromptu meal, I still enjoy visiting these places, though now, with a wary eye cast about for unexpected webs.

I tend to travel with water now, too.

Spiders or no, I keep going back. I can’t help it. I find these places to have a magnetism I simply can’t pull away from for long. Oddly, they make me happy.

Well, maybe not happy. Peaceful.

Alive.

Serine.

I think I know why. Here, in the burial ground, everyone is good. They are mothers and fathers. They are sons and daughters. They are old, young, middle aged, and missing but for a stone. Their past transgressions are lost to time. They are just families.

And sometimes, more and more now, it seems, the families are there, but missing stones, which brings me to Susan Jane.

In the ancient cemetery down the road from my house, lays in rest a mother and two of her children. A son, George, died as an infant. He daughter, Susan Jane, died when she was five years and eight months old. The year of Susan’s passing was 1835 and that’s more important that you might think. The mother, Lucinda, had passed away only a few years after her daughter, and her slate slab stands true and clear to this day. The V cut letters are bold and easy to read. If you get close enough, you can see the individual chisel hits in each letter. Only the telltale scrapes at the bottom from careless lawn moving mar the smooth surface. Lucinda’s slate stone stands out sharply in comparison to her children’s unreadable white lumps. By the 1820’s, slate was fast falling out of favor for gravestones and marble soon took over completely. You might wonder then, why her stone was slate, while her children’s were marble. Well, even if you didn’t, I’ll still tell you why:

A lot of people bought their own grave markers in their young adulthoods. They would simply store them in the attic, shed or basement until they were needed. It was seen as a way to get what you wanted on the stone as well as being a courtesy to your family. That, and you didn’t have to set aside part of what you left behind to pay for your marker. Think of it as grave insurance. I’m willing to bet, this is why Lucinda’s stone is slate. It would have still been in vogue when she entered childbearing age. Her young children had passed after the age of slate had pretty much come to a close. And this is a problem.

We are loosing about a hundred and seventy years of history in the blink of an eye, because it’s cut in marble.

Marble is a beautiful stone. It’s wonderful to carve, brilliant when polished and, sadly, melts like salt when exposed to air pollution and acid rain. When I first found Lucinda’s stone, I crouched down to read the inscription, checked her age and then, looked around. She was married and in her thirties so there were probably children here too. To her left, a small marble stone and to her right, a slightly larger one. They were nearly unreadable. The only parts I could decipher from the smallest stone was, “GEO.” at the top, and the word, “died” Everything else was scrubbed away. The larger stone had slightly more. The name was obliterated through pitting, but, “Daughter of Benjamin and Lucinda” as well as the month and day of her death. Most of her name, the year of her death and her age were missing.

It was a worthy hunt.

One of the wonderful things about a small community like the one in which I live is that someone is bound to know local lore, and mine was no different. It only took about three tries before I found the right person to talk to. In her possession was a book compiling all the inscriptions, names, placements and dates of everyone in that particular cemetery. It had been made long ago, before the ravages of pollution had done such a number on our past. She had everything I was looking for. I was ready for the next step.

Now, the family to whom Lucinda and her children belong has long since left this island. They are scattered to the winds and I have never heard of any of them returning for a visit. At least not in the past eighty years or so. I wouldn’t know where to begin to start looking. What I do know is that in just another five or six years, the last traces of text on George and Susan Jane’s stones will have disappeared forever. The pieces of marble that mark their final resting place are now broken at ground level and crumbing like bread. Soon, they will sink away into the soil. This will happen within my lifetime. Marble has betrayed yet another piece of history. But slate though…

So, with my love of the old ways, much of my time spent doing one form of art or another and my particular interest in this one family, their last mark to show they were here, I’ve decided to do something. I’ve decided to carve in slate.

Some people don’t even call slate a stone at all but simply metamorphic rock. I don’t really understand this but the semantics really aren’t important. What are important are these facts:

Slate carves like nothing else. It is so soft that you can scratch it with a hard fingernail, and yet, it will stand unmarked by three or four hundred years of weathering.

It has a very fine composition, unlike the fat crystals you’ll find in granite and so the detail you can get in slate outshines the finest granites.

Also, slate is the best at resisting that enemy of graveyard inscriptions everywhere, the lichen. Granite might be stronger and Marble more brilliant, but both succumb to lichen quickly and loose their identity beneath a thousand islands of the little blooms of growth. Slate, so long as it isn’t toppled or split, will out live all other options by centuries. Plus, I find it beautiful in its simplicity.

I have decided to start with Susan Jane’s stone first and have already done some test pieces. The profile of her original stone is still identifiable and so, I’ll mirror that in her new stone as well. As for decoration, if there ever was an image at the top (called the tympanum), above her name, then it is gone entirely now. This took some serious thought and in the end, I picked something that I hope would have made her parents pleased. Here in Maine, the black cap chickadee is not only our state bird, but a sweet little bird as well. It stays here all year long, through all seasons and its call is immediately recognizable and beautiful. Hearing and seeing one has always made me smile. It’s a tiny little thing, but then, so was Susan Jane.

What has surprised me the most about this endeavor is the reaction I’ve received from those whom I’ve talked with and the positive remarks have been very encouraging. So now, I have some more work to do this winter. Right now, the ground is frozen hard as the grave markers in the burial yard and a fresh coat of snow has been pulled over the children’s markers like a heavy down quilt. It will be some months before I can bring in the new, purple-black marker and set it home beside Susan Jane’s mother. I’ll bury the old stones just below the sod so they can be retrieved if desired, but I think it likely they will rest there with the occupants for a long, long time.

Who knows? This could be habit forming and with time and practice, I might just become proficient enough to make some real work out of this. In the mean time though, I’ll happily continue on in this fashion. I’ll look for the shattered or pitted slabs, now unreadable or just about to become so and see if I can help out in my own way.

Perhaps some day, a hundred years or more from now, some wandering soul taking a walk through the cemetery will stoop over to read the stone of a little girl who died when Andrew Jackson sat in the White House, read her short story and marvel at how crisp the letter cutting is. They might reflect on what she saw in her brief years and remember her name for just a little while longer.

What I do know is, without a new slate monument, she will never be seen at all. And that would be too bad for all parties involved.

So, I’ll make my self a sandwich for lunch and sit down with it, the blank stone and chisels and eat as I chip away on this sunny afternoon. We shall see how it turns out and if it’s worthy of marking such a long lost treasure.

Just hold the spider, please.

Memento Mori Revisited

On this Memorial Day weekend, I decided to look back at some of the things I’ve written in the past. This brings me to a favored veteran of mine: Captain Henry Metcalf. When looking up the post I wrote about him, I came upon something that caught me completely off guard. Something, in fact, I never thought I would see: Henry’s face.

I’ve known about Capt. Metcalf for many years now, but the only image I’ve had of him is one I’ve made up in my mind’s eye and that of his head stone. Today however, I found this…

It’s great to see you at last, Henry. Very, very good indeed.

And now… Here’s the post from May, 2008 where I introduced him to the rest of you. I hope you’ll help me remember him on this Memorial Day weekend.

Nothing fun or or humorous today, I’m afraid. Just a post about a day and a man, very important to me.

Memorial day, in my mind is second only to Armistice day. What ever your feeling are on the topic of war and regardless of what ever war you are thinking about, this is a day to remember those who, as Mr. Lincoln put it, “Gave the last full measure of devotion.”

What ever your thoughts are about the conflicts this nation has seen, this is the time to remember them and their passing.

And so, I will tell you the briefest story of a man whom I never met and know only a little about.

His name is Henry Metcalf and he was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1833. At the out break of the Civil War, he signed up with a volunteer outfit that was assembled in Cheshire County and left his trade as a printer to fight for the North. He rose to the rank of Captain and was one of the thousands who found him self on the fateful battle field at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On the second day of the battle, he was ordered down into the Peach Orchard with his men, far from the union lines. It was a foolish order from a glory grabbing general that got them there. It was an exposed position with little cover, but those were the orders and so that’s where he was.

As Captain Metcalf and his men came under heavy fire from the Confederates, the battle line became disjointed and broken. A lower ranking General than the one who sent them down there, ordered Captain Metcalf to straighten up his line. Henry moved along and through his men and repositioned them to better hold their ground. Once the men were where he wanted them, he turned to his commander and spoke these words: “How’s that, General?”

It was the last thing he said. A moment later, a bullet struck him in the head, killing him instantly. Soon after, the Peach Orchard position was abandoned as unholdable and the remaining men retreated back to the Union lines.

Captain Metcalf’s body was returned to Keene and he was buried in the Washington Street Cemetery. His resting place is marked with a stone made of white marble. If you go there looking for it, you could easily miss it. Time and acid rain has scrubbed at his name and most markings on its surface. Many are blurred into total obscurity. Some are still just legible.

I know what it says though. When I was younger, it was easily readable and my father and I found it one day. My Dad spent a lot of time researching Henry, and found out everything I just told you. Later, we went to the Peach Orchard in Gettysburg and stood near the spot where he spoke his last words.

He was a soldier, doing his duty. He never came home to live a happy life. His work went on with out him, as did his family. He wasn’t anyone of real historic note. Just a man doing what he felt was his duty.

I feel that it’s my duty to remember him. So today, I’ll talk about you, Henry. I never knew you. You are not kin to me, but you are not forgotten. I’ll visit your resting place and make sure that you have a flag on your marker this Monday. We owe you that much.

Chopping Block

Standing in my front yard at the foot of the colossal pile of what was until very recently, a good sized maple tree, I reviewed things to see just where my convictions wandered off to. This was going to be tons of work. Literally.

Being a child of the 70’s I had the honor of living through the now largely forgotten Opec oil embargo, though as a wee kiddo, I naturally noticed it hardly at all at the time. My only real memories of it are some footage I remember on the nightly news showing lines at gas stations and the fact that my Father’s cars seemed to get smaller with each passing trade in. And then, there was the big, hulking beast that moved into our basement whom needed feeding every few hours. This was our wood stove. Calling it a stove is actually a bit of a misnomer because just by looking at it, you could see that it had far more in common with the oil gobbling furnace a few feet away than anything you’d try to make pancakes on. From the outside, the two were pretty indistinguishable actually. Both were beige, seeming made from sheet metal and connected to the chimney by big pipes. Oh, and it was nothing a kid was allowed to mess with. The wood, in short, stove was nothing to look at and definitely nothing that you’d want in the living room, but that was sort of the idea. It was a workhorse, plane and simple, not an objet d’art; and work it did. Having an unusually deep firebox, it could take very large logs and happily convert them into heat and ash in abundance. The only drawback to this was that someone (first Dad and then later, Dad and I) had to get the logs from the back yard into the basement where it cooked away and heated our house. This doesn’t sound too bad until you start to picture deep snowdrifts, fifteen pound logs frozen together with thick ice and a path that you’d trudge back and forth on with mind numbing frequency. Or perhaps it was the New England winter that was the numbing factor.

Either way, the effect was much the same.

Then there was dealing with the wood long before you ever had the chance to convert it into carbon. One summer day, just as the blackfly and mosquitoes really got their blood lust on, a huge rack sided truck would arrive and back over the lawn, wheels biting deep into the soft turf of the otherwise unmolested green. As soon as the load was dumped, the stacking and chopping could begin. As a small child, my only real job was to stay away from the entire project while my Dad smashed away log after log with the splitting maul.

For those of you who don’t muck about with wood splitting, you might be unfamiliar with the maul and assumed that what you’d use is an ax, and really, you could. It comes down to a matter of chopping style and preference. To split large, full logs with an ax, you need to find the grain direction, line up carefully, take a slice off the edge with a well aimed blow and then start working your way in to the center. It’s slower than with a maul, to be sure, but it’s somehow elegant and I enjoy thinking it through and honing my blade placement. A maul is a very different animal and splitting with one changes the strategy: You pummel it into submission.

Simplicity its self.

To get a maul, just get a sledgehammer and an axe into a breeding program and after a while, voila! You get this beefy offspring, as wide as dad, but sharp like mom. The only down side is that the young are sterile.

Still, with its cutting edge, squared off back and substantial heft, it would tame just about anything you smacked it with. The only issue is that you have to swing it over your head a few thousand times.

Enter, my teen-age years.

As they say, “With great puberty, comes great responsibility” and the splitting and stacking of firewood soon became one of the duties I shared with Dad as the years went on. I began to dread the day of dead tree delivery. In all honesty, it was sort of fun in a back crippling, blood blister forming, mosquito devoured sort of way, but the shine wore off the apple after the tenth or twentieth log. This fact was only heightened by the indisputable fact that I was a bit of a cream puff in my younger years; a mantle I have been proudly able to shake off with the application of age, determination and muscle strain. Regardless, as I moved on in life to the point where I too owned a house in need of heating, I swore that as much as I enjoyed a crackling fire, I would not, ever-never-ever have a wood stove. As nice and even as the heat is that’s thrown by one, I remembered the mess, the splitting, the stacking and the schlepping from the woodpile to the mouth of the ravenous fire.

Then three things happened. The first was that last winter seemed colder and windier than usual. It might have been my age or possibly the fact that we live in what is essentially a century old wooden colander, the likes of which entreats every passing blast of frozen arctic air in for a full tour of the place. The second was more universal. The cost of home heating fuel went bonkers. A few years ago, a leaky house didn’t cost you your children’s college fund to heat, but now… hoooo boy! That was a pricy winter just to keep from freezing to death under a pile of down comforters. Lastly, and most importantly: Free trees.

A good friend of ours had simply had it with the bunch of hooliganish trees in his back yard. They had been dropping club sized branches on breakable things for some time now and doing considerable damage, including to a fence once and the power lines for the neighborhood twice, Their latest adventures in regional blackout making was the final straw. They were coming down. AND they were maple trees.

Maple burns wonderfully; slow and hot

People who know me understand that my ability to say “No” to free stuff, especially free stuff that would otherwise go into a landfill, is pretty much nonexistent. This is doubly hard for me if it’s something immediately useful, like wood to heat my home. Never mind that I don’t have a chimney yet. I’ll work that out this summer…

…sometime.

Hopefully…

In the mean time, I have had several shipments of giant tree carcass delivered to my front yard via the same friend’s backhoe. Now, in addition to splitting and stacking, I get to use a chain saw to zip the battering ram sized chunks into easier, splitting sized chunks, which though a lot of work to be sure, is also a HELL of a lot of fun. I try very hard to remember (and am often reminded by my mother and wife, lest I forget) that it’s all fun and games until someone commits chainsaw seppuku on the front lawn. So, I’m as careful as possible as well as enjoying every drop of testosterone that waving around a two cycle engine attached to a chain with fangs brings out in the average male. That is to say: a lot. It’s tiring, but in a wholesome, satisfyingly noisy way. The added benefit being that I can more easily justify that third brownie after lunch.

With much of the cutting to length now done, I’m mostly confronted with the chopping, or “axing” as my adorable and literal son has put it, and that’s what has led me to my most starting discovery.

Axes are, apparently, specialty items now.

It’s discoveries like this that make me feel old.

The ancient axe that came from the post-passing yard sale of my neighbor served me for about the first cord of wood, (a cord being four feet by four feet by eight to the power of your lower back muscles giving out) but all too soon, the already abused handle gave way and I was reduced to trying to split thirty pound logs with the only thing I had left: my hatchet and I can imagine that this is most comical to watch. What I needed was a new axe handle. No problem, right?

Wrong.

My trouble began when I started noticing that axe handles, when requested by me to the clerk of whatever home or hardware store I was in, met with a confused and befuddled reaction.

“You mean, just the handle? Not a whole axe?”

“Right. I just need a new handle. That’s it”

“Woah. Why not just get a new axe?”

This goes directly against my grain. I had a perfectly good axe head. It’s perfectly serviceable as long as it has a pole to swing it on.

“Um. No. I really just want the handle. I have an axe.”

“Gee. I’m not sure if we have those. I’ll have to check.”

And so it went. As things turned out, I did find some, and, they were… haw shall I say this… Utter CRAP. All that was available anywhere I actually found ax handles were the same garbage. Rough, bad grain and, just for some icing on the cake, the wrong size. They were either too long, the wrong shape or simply horrible. Even the new axes that they were selling had these same worthless handles or even *shudder* fiberglass ones, which is patently unholy and an abomination of nature. It was back to work with the hatchet for me. It was while lamenting this predicament to my father that he pointed out that I could always borrow… the Maul. Ugh.

As so, here I find myself, wailing away with a brutal, pointy free-weight on a stick at some persistent chunks of tree, which are mocking, yes MOCKING me with their stubborn refusal to split. Off to my side at a safe distance, my children cheer me on with positive words and enthusiasm at each failed attempt.

Lulu Belle: “Hit it harder, Dad!”

Short Stack: “You’ll crack it open this time! I’m sure!”

WHACK!

“Yaaaaaaay! You got it! Do that one next, Dad!”

The blister forming on my thumb is right where I expected it to appear, gloves or no gloves and I’ve been depleting the ibuprofen bottle pretty rapidly, but still, it’s a good kind of ache. It means that I’m doing something hard and the pile of split logs is growing to the point where it needs to be stacked soon. I’ll get Short Stack and Lulu Belle to help me with that part, even if they can only carry the small pieces one at a time. It will be good family work. Builds character… or some such nonsense. I know it builds blisters anyway.

This winter, as the frosty winds move the curtains in our drafty house, we can sit by our fire until we’re rosy red and smile at the payoff of all the hard work. It will be wonderful, I’m sure. Then, as the flames die down, I can turn to my children and say, “Hey. Fire’s getting low. Go out side and grab us some more wood, okay?”

…At which time, my wife will point out that they are three and five and getting the wood in is my job, and as I walk out into the dark, cold air, I’ll think back to thins spring and marvel how this tree has managed to warm me three times: Once splitting, once stacking and then finally, burning.

Pity that two out of those tree times I didn’t need the heat.

Tiny Pieces of Childhood

I stood in the childhood driveway of my best friend’s house and simply marveled at what was before me. This is how a pirate must feel after digging up a lifetime accumulation of treasure, long left in its chest and now excavated in preparation of a well deserved retirement. I don’t know for sure, but it felt like my eyes might actually be twinkling. It was that kind of a moment.

“Wow” was the best I could pull off.

The Doctor smiled on and basked in the glow of a happy friend.

“Enjoy!”

The happy moment I now lived had begun decades ago, but its fruition had only been set into motion two years before…

It had been a beautiful summer day as Action Girl and I drove along the winding roads of New Hampshire, Short Stack snoozing heavily behind us, strapped into his car seat. The trees were deep green and broad leafed and overhung the rural roads with muscular ancient branches, turning our drive into an undulating and twisting tunnel, dappled with the light of the sun. Being native to this part of the country, my wife and I have an abiding love of it and miss it quite a bit. It’s the type of place where we feel instantly connected with the land. I love where we live now, but being “back home” makes me nostalgic and drunk with memories.

Lost in my own private thoughts, Action Girl jolted me back to the moment at hand by reminding me that I was under the gun, so to speak, and totally unprepared. We were almost to the place where my all-but-blood brother would soon be married. The Doctor and I have been best friends since the third grade and this being his wedding, I was the best man, and as such, I was going to have to speak publicly about him at length during the reception.

Naturally, I had done nothing in preparation for this moment.

That’s how I roll.

Since it seems to be a spouse’s job to try and save their significant other from making a total bumbling ass out of themselves, she decided to see if she could help me overt a verbal train wreck that was looking all the more likely as the miles ticked off and we got closer to our destination.

“Okay.” Action Girl pulled out an old scrap of paper and pen from the car console. ”Give me some facts about your friendship”

As I ticked off various points, thoughts and entertaining moments from our long friendship together, Action Girl scribbled them down in the form of a bullet list. I’m pretty good at talking off the top of my head and rather than reading from a scrip, a good list like the one being compiled would be just what was needed. Most of the items I recounted barely got a response from her, until one in particular made her stop writing and look up at me.

“Really? Wow! That’s the one. Talk about that, for sure.”

We pulled into the parking lot and roused a sleeping Short Stack from the comfort of his seat and strapping him to my wife’s back, headed down the beautiful carriage road that lead to the idyllic, garden setting of the wedding.

The choice of venue was beautiful, as was the bride and the ceremony as well. Things went off mostly as planned and I got to spend a wonderfully surprising amount of time with The Doctor just prior to and after the nuptials. It was a perfect day.

We sat back to enjoy our after “I Do” meal and after a fashion, staff appeared dutifully filling our empty champagne glasses, Action Girl gave me a gentle prod.
“Now’s probably good.” A smile and then, I’m fairly sure, a silent prayer that I wouldn’t make an ass out of my self.

Show time!

I’m not a bashful or reserved person when it comes to the public, which can surprise some people since I’m not normally interested in being in the thick of what ever is going on. I’m a periphery sort of guy and prefer to watch than direct. When I get to talk, however, it can be hard to get me to shut up again and go back to listening. My dear wife has pointed this out roughly fifty-two thousand four hundred and sixty five times. With a reassuring gulp of beer, I stood up to address the crowd of friends and family.

I don’t recall a lot of the specifics that I spoke about, drink in hand and mind wandering. I can recall the smiles and various heads bobbing in agreement as I described my extra-familial little brother and I took that to be a good sign that I was neither boring nor off track. I forged ahead.

“I could tell you that The Doctor and I have been close and constant friends for years, but that’s really a cliché that we’ve all heard before at occasions such as this. What I want is to give you an idea of just how deep our loyalty to each other goes.” I scanned the crowd of wedding guests and took in a vista of scientists, engineers and other proud nerds. They would understand.

“I’ll just say this: We pooled our Legos.

Gasps and murmurs bubbled up from the guest tables. Perfect! I had read my crowd correctly.

Legos, for those of you who somehow do not know, are those little, multi-colored, interlocking bricks that have become the ultimate prized item for any geeky child and the ultimate bane of their parent’s. Filling the categories of being tiny, easily lost, both painful and likely to be stepped on and, oh yes, unimaginably expensive, amassing a good Lego collection can take a lot of convincing on a kid’s part. In the end however, they are totally worth the work.

When The Doctor and I first began our friendship, we were only half way through grade school and our own individual caches of plastic mini-bricks were modest, but adequate. As I look back, now as an adult, I marvel at how much of their discretionary income my parent’s spent to feed their son’s Lego habit. Legos have always been pricy and for the money spent, you didn’t get a lot in the way of pieces. It’s a testament of their devotion to a happy child that I had what I did. They didn’t have a lot of money, but I did have a nice little bucket of Legos to play with.

Then, The Doctor started to come over to play.

The two of us spent innumerable hours on our hands and knees, driving our creations across floors in both his house and mine. So, many, in fact, that I can, to this day, clearly remember the pattern and texture of all the rugs throughout each of our homes. Whole days may have passed when neither of us were more than a foot and a half off the ground. T was what we did. Eventually, as the years passed and our friendship came to be an obvious rock of permanence in our lives, we dared to do something that only people who were close as brothers would ever consider.

Through years worth of birthdays and Christmases, each of our collections was something to be proud of. They were impressive in terms of both diversity and scale. Together though, it would be something of childhood legend: A resource that would enable a Lego builder to construct just about anything. Possibly two of anything!

And so, we did it.

One day, into the hopper they all went and from this mountain of plastic, we extracted the materials for one wondrous project after another… for years. Just about every weekend, we built together and creating a cornucopia of beweaponed space ship fleets and mighty fortresses to do battle with. Then we’d break them down and start again. It was wonderful.

As time moved along, Legos, like so many focuses of childhood, moved to the back burner and then off the stove completely. Eventually, our huge collection of plastic bricks was packed away and forgotten all together. We had moved on.

Then, the day of my friend’s wedding came. After I had wrapped up my soliloquy with the necessary champagne toast to the bride and groom, the cake had been cut and eaten and things calmed down to chatting and strolling, I couldn’t help by find The Doctor and ask.

“Hey, what ever happened to all those Legos?”

He grimaced a bit as he thought about where they could have gone.

“Eesh. I think they went to my cousin. You can ask her if you want. She should be at table four. I doubt she has them any more though.”

It was worth a shot. I looked over at my little boy playing in the grass with an adoring wedding guest and guessed that someday, he too might get the Lego Fever. When I found the cousin, the outlook got worse.

“Oh, wow. My mom never hangs on to anything like that and I haven’t seen those Legos in ages. I’ll ask though, if you want?”

Over the years I have learned that in situations like this, you say, “Yes” to questions like this. You’ll regret it later for sure if you don’t and I wasn’t going to regret not trying this time around. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but hey, why not?

Two years later on a visit back to my hometown, I was reaping the benefit of my inquiries.

“Are you sure? Don’t you want to hang on to at least some?”

The Doctor just smiled back and shook his head. There they all were. A huge box, filled to overflowing was in my arms and I honestly wondered how I was going to get it in the car. I’d find a way though!

The pile has now been passed on and happily, is in the very capable hands of one Short Stack and is appreciated just as much by him as it was by us. It has in fact, become part of my life again as well. After Lulu Belle is put to bed, teeth have been brushed and jimmies put on, it’s time to break out the Lego box.

I’ve built him a new one just for this purpose and it is the size of his mattress and just barely clears the bed frame. Inside are thousands of little pieces of memories of a happy childhood from long ago as well as the fuel for one being woven today. Just about every night, the two of us play and build and as I lay on my side on his bedroom floor, I can just about see the world through the eyes I once did. The Doctor might not be here to build and play with me anymore, but Short Stack makes a great playmate. I hope that he thinks his dad does too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some space ships that I need to get back to constructing. You see, we have a launch schedule to keep…

Halloween Story Break…

There was a time not so very, very long ago that I wasn’t sure.

Oh, I suspected! That was, after all, easy to do. How could a child not? Though we live in what we believe to be an age of reason and technology, the less than subtle hints from popular culture, invade our lives from every turn.

Ghosts.

Haunts,

Those whom should be gone…

…but are not.

Growing up, I was a pretty jumpy child. Skulls in particular scared the Hell out of me. There was something in those black, empty eyes and the malicious grin that made me want to scamper straight up a tree. I can remember a book I had of popular ghost stories which unsettlingly had a large, white and slightly befanged skull on its front and though I was drawn to reading the “true accounts” that were written in its pages, the cover so unsettled me that I kept it under, rather than in my bookshelf. Like most young people, I was deeply curious about the notion of ghosts, but had to hang on to my skepticism in an effort to also hand on to my cool and well as some impartiality. I had been taught by my parents not to simply swallow what was handed to me, but to think about and experience things for my self. To make up my own mind rather than have it made up for me.

Good advice.

The problem with all things spooky though, is that it’s a very nebulous thing. What can very much unsettle one person might not even appear on the radar of another. Take graveyards. Personally, I love them and find them quiet and contemplative places. I have long said that my dream job would be Cemetery Keeper, and I whole-heartedly stick by it. No, cemeteries don’t bother me. At least, most don’t.

When I had gone away to college, I didn’t know my own thoughts on ghosts. I had been scared before, but never seen anything. There were places that I didn’t like for no good reason, but there was nothing conclusive in that. I had had some bad experiences which I could not adequately explain, but haven’t we all? I was neutral. I neither scoffed, nor bought in.

Then I moved into room 201.

My school was a small liberal arts college located in the old mill town of Manchester, New Hampshire. In the valley, a strong river flows and here, at one time, the largest textile mills the world has ever seen ran nonstop, their productive noise ringing through the city. It was an icon of the industrial revolution and on the hilltops, high above the clamor, were the houses of the mill owners and managers. My freshman year dormitory was located in one such house.

Long since converted to student living, it had once been a very nice, three storey Victorian and my own room was located in what was called, the “Florida Porch.” Essentially, a south facing room with large windows to let in as much light as possible, a welcome place in any house, it would have been especially refreshing back in the days predating electric light. It was here, that my roommate and I lived for several months and it was here, where my opinion about the supernatural was solidified. There was no other opinion to take.

Mike, my roommate, was set heavily in the “No” camp when it came to ghosts. To him, the idea was foolishness and when stories would come up among the group of us in the dorm, he could be counted on to scoff, point an incredulous finger and laugh. He didn’t buy it. It was all foolishness. I disagreed.

Over the course of my year in this old, creaky house-come-student housing, I had had my own experiences, which had become progressively stranger and more overt. Things that defied easy explanation or even, the more complex. Some were simple if not baffling. The light switch which would turn its self off. Not merely the light, mind you, but the actual switch. “Click!” You could hear it snap down and you were left in the dark room to fumble across it in the effort of getting it back on. Or my bed, which, all joking of nocturnal dalliances aside, had a tendency to shake, sometimes violently and for minutes at a time with me, bug eyed, in it. Oddly enough, other than to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, it never really freaked me out. There was nothing to see after all. Nothing to hear. It was more odd than frightening and besides, living with a bunch of other young guys, the practical jokes flew fast and thick and you had to be on your guard. It was however… curious.

Late in the year, long after the initial newness of school and uneasiness of fresh friendships had faded into routine, Mike and I had settled into our own. Though roommates, we were not friends and though not adversaries either, we simply didn’t click. The room was ours though and we got along well enough to live amicably and eventually, settled on a layout that included bunk beds to maximize space: he on top, I on the bottom. Oddly enough, for what ever reason, this arrangement stopped the bed shaking I had previously lived with on a nearly nightly basis.

It was late. Very late actually, and the house was quiet. The actual time I can’t recall but in the small hours, advanced enough that even unsupervised eighteen year olds had turned in. I was asleep and deeply so.

Then… I wasn’t.

It was an odd sort of awakening. I wasn’t startled. I wasn’t groggy. I was simply… awake. My eyes opened and I there I was, in bed. If anything, I was confused. Then, my eyes shifted to the open wall opposite our end of the room. Though covered with the normal layers of posters and whatnot that you find in college rooms, what I noticed, noticed right away in fact, was the shadow.

It wasn’t human. It wasn’t animal. It didn’t seem to have any real shape at all. What it was doing though, was moving… and changing.

All across the wall, an amoeba like thing seemed to flow, parting into pieces, only to rejoin again. A rolling sort of blob moving almost aimlessly, but still, looking a bit like it was hunting for something. Reaching out to feel every nook and edge of the room. It was not a shadow cast from leaves out side. They had long since fallen. It was not from the streetlight across the way. That had been blocked by a pulled shade. If the shadow I saw was cast by something, it was something that broke apart, moved in pieces and reformed like oil on a hot skillet. I watched transfixed, silent, and scared.

Honestly scared.

Then I heard a voice, thin and from above me. It belonged to Mike.

“Do… you see…?”

I clipped in quickly before he could name it.

“No, Mike. Go to sleep.”

Nothing more was said.

Some how, at some point, we both did just that. I don’t know when.

The next morning, as was our normal way, the two of us roused, dressed, completed our bathroom ablutions and walked wordlessly across the road to the cafeteria for breakfast. Neither of us were morning people and preferred not to speak until coffee was had in hand. There we sat, facing each other over scrambled eggs in the light of the morning sun and our eyes met.

Mike arched his eyebrows.

“I had the strangest… dream.”

The hair on my arms prickled. “No…” I bit my lip in remembering it. “I don’t think so.”

His eyes widened with the understanding and I knew that he would not be laughing at the stories we recounted late at night any more.

“That happened, didn’t it?”

“Yah. It did.”

Over breakfast we compared experiences and they were pretty much identical. He had woken in the exact same way and somehow had managed to speak to me, assuming that I would be watching the form on the wall as well. He couldn’t have known I was watching too. Being in bunk beds after all, he couldn’t see me. He said that he just assumed I was awake as well. We tried to figure it out, what could cast such a shape, and come up with nothing. There was no explanation that passed muster that we could find. It was simply there and was unnerving as Hell.

In the end, it wasn’t the skull or the hand or the cloaked shape fear of my childhood imagination that had convinced me, but something shapeless and hunting. Something, which seemed to pay little heed to us but moved with its own concerns, its own destination in mind. It moved. We saw it. My mind has been made up since that day, and Mike’s was changed 180 degrees.

Though we were fine after that night and never saw it again, it also solidified two things in my mind. First: There is something out there which we do not understand and to be in its presence is one of the most deeply unsettling things a person can do. Second: Ghost hunters, people who actively seek out the supernatural, are fools who have yet to experience this. Once they do, if they do, they will not look for it again.

At least, if they have any common sense at all.

Happy Halloween!

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