Stone Blue

For Ellen

A long time ago when my youngest son was around 14 years old, a tragedy happened in our community.  A girl, too young to have a driver’s license, borrowed her parents’ car keys for a joy ride.  She picked up four friends who slipped out of their homes and sped away into an Alabama summer night.  Wild and free, the yearning of a teenaged heart and the fear in every parent’s.

The drive ended on a stretch of blacktop where the road just seems to fall away.  I imagine they were looking for that feeling, the one you get at the top of the rollercoaster just before you drop into the abyss, but they never made it.  The car left the road at the crest of the hill and smashed through the trees on the side slope.  Two little girls were killed. One of them was my son’s classmate.

There was an outpouring of community grief, especially at the school.  Soon a little memorial appeared on the shoulder where the car left the road.  Flowers. Photos.  Little handmade crosses.  A place where classmates gathered to cry and leave notes to their friend on colorful scraps of paper.

A few days after I drove my son past the crash site.

And then I said a hard thing.

“It’s nice that the girls are still crying and you’ll have made this for your classmate.  The emotions are all fresh and raw and it seems like she will never be forgotten.  But the truth is, all this stuff will be gone in six months.  In a few years you’ll have a hard time remembering what she looked like, and not long after that you won’t remember her at all unless someone mentions her name.  You will never totally forget, but you won’t really remember, either.”

It was a blunt and maybe too soon, but I tried to teach my sons the hard truths of life early — what was coming as they grew into men.  In this instance about how life goes on after tragedy, transcending the moment.

I knew this from experience.

I think she was a couple of years younger than me.  Shoulder-length auburn hair and skin covered with freckles.  What I call “country-girl pretty.”  Jeans and t-shirt pretty.  Long, lanky, athletic.  A girl you would pick first on a cool October Friday night when a scratch game of coed touch football broke out on the church lawn.  Or ask to the Spring dance if you had the courage.

She liked good music.  What’s called “classic rock” today was the soundtrack of our lives then.  When most of the girls were Bee Gees and Barry Manilow, she was Zeplin and Skynyrd.  I thought that was cool.    

She liked a group called Foghat.  Especially a song not heard today because it wasn’t a big hit.  But it got some airtime in ’78, and I remember some of the lyrics:

Wind tearin’ through the backstreet, I hear the rhythm of my heartbeat
Rain blowin’ in my face, I’m tired of being in the wrong place
Turn up the radio higher and higher, rock and roll music set my ears on fire

When I was stone blue, rock and roll sure helped me through

She died one rainy Friday night when a drunk swerved across the center line and hit her car head-on.  Her friend in the passenger seat survived, but it was touch and go for a while.  Some called it a miracle.

I heard the news, but I had been away at college for a while.  I wasn’t there for the memorials and the grieving.  It was sad, but I was detached from it, and after a while most of my memories just faded away.

The song lived on.  Whenever I have heard it over the years it brings back those scant memories.  I think of the lyrical irony.  In my mind’s eye I see her tearing down that rainy highway, heart beating wild and free.  Foghat in the 8-track, volume cranked-up higher and higher.

Mostly I think about her being in the wrong place.

My memory is stone blue, and I wonder if it is so neglected and faded that the details are no longer accurate.  So much time has passed.

When the song ends life goes on, transcending the moment.  I never totally forget, but I don’t really remember, either.

The Encourager

I have an unpaid debt.  It is long overdue, and I am going to try and pay it now.

I started writing when I was a child.  Mostly scraps of poetry.  Truthfully, I was a little embarrassed by it.  I spent most of my youth trying to prove I was a “tough guy.”  Just hit home runs, strike batters out, and bust somebody’s head every now and then for good measure.  Writing didn’t fit the persona I was trying so hard to create, so I kept it to myself.  To paraphrase the late William Gay, “you don’t spend two hours at football practice trying to crack open someone’s skull, then come back into the locker room and say ‘Any of you guys want to hear the sonnet I wrote this weekend?’”

Being a writer wouldn’t put the fear in the boys and more importantly, it wouldn’t impress the girls.

Then one day I was exposed.

I was in a ninth grade English class when I first met a “real” writer.  He was our “Poet in Residence” for a few months.  I still don’t know how he got a gig like that.  Probably some sort of Federal Endowment to Enlighten the poor art-deprived kids in a little central Alabama town.

Now he was the image I had of a writer.  A kind of funny-looking little man dressed in jeans, flannel shirt, and one of those coats with the elbow patches.  He didn’t look like he’d ever been in a fight, unless of course someone had beaten him up.

He talked to our class about poetry, then asked us to write one.  In the next few minutes, I scratched one off.  I looked around.  Almost everyone else just sat staring at their blank piece of paper.

“Now who’s got something for me to read?”

One thing for certain, it wasn’t me.  Not only due to my secret, but also because my first line was “A short, funny-looking man in a flannel shirt asked me to write a poem about writing a poem.”

What I didn’t know was that the girl sitting behind me had been peeking over my shoulder.  She reached around me, snatched the paper off my desk and said ‘’Here’s one!”

I was mortified, but it was too late to stop it.

The poet came over.  He took it from her, read it to himself, and smiled.

“Listen.  This is just what I’ve been talking about.”

He read it.  I looked around.  The teacher was smiling.  A few of my classmates were smiling.  I think I might have even heard a “Hey, that’s pretty good.”

Now everybody knew my secret.  I felt like a circus freak.

But the thing was, I kind of liked it.  I had written something that somebody thought was pretty good.  That made me feel good.

Now I won’t say that girl completely changed the entire course of my life.  I didn’t go on to become the next Great American Writer.  You won’t find me in the bookstore, unless I’m browsing.  I wrote off and on over the years, but I still kept most of it to myself.

Then about ten years ago, I started writing this little blog.  It isn’t easy, because I am my own harshest critic.  I spend hours at it, but I am never completely satisfied with the result.  It could always be better.  It should be better.  A word more here – a word less there.  Why am I doing this?

But now and then I get a little note from that girl who sat behind me all those years ago.  It’s always something like “Hey, that was good.  I really enjoyed it.  Keep it up.”  Then that feeling I had in the ninth grade returns, and I sit down and try to do it again.  To do it better this time.

I’ve never repaid that debt to her, but I am now.

Thank you, Leslie. You are the one who gave me the courage to be a writer.  If it wasn’t for you way back then, no one would be reading this now.

You didn’t know?  Well now you do, and so does everyone else.

The Narrow Gate

The Narrow Gate

I have driven past the church hundreds of times.  Perched on top of a little open spot in the woods, it hardly merits a glance, unless of course you like to look at old wood-framed country churches.

I do.

Today is a Saturday, and I’m in no hurry to get back to a never-ending series of projects at the homestead.  The roof is leaking again.  A rotting facia board needs to be replaced.  Bare ground where holly and yaupon have been ripped out of the front flower bed, awaiting azaleas and camellias that haven’t even left the nursery.  Seems like a fine time to stop and give this church a more thoughtful consideration.

It is well-kept.  Not a blemish to be found.  Not even any peeling paint.  I have stopped to look at a lot of these old structures in my travels across Alabama, and this one may be the best-maintained I have ever seen.

A sign out front tells a story.  Back in 1905, a group of nine Presbyterian pilgrims left a brush arbor to build a sturdier place of worship and a cemetery on this site.

I have driven by here on Sunday before.  Nine members look about right.  Maybe three cars and a couple of old pickup trucks in the parking lot.  If Preacher Calvin was correct, it would seem the Good Lord hasn’t done a whole lot of “choosing” in this spot over the last 113 years or so.

I walk around back to the cemetery.  Like the building, it is neat as a pin.

I am captivated by the two columns at the entrance, which the sign indicates were added in 1930.  Tallapoosa field-stone, probably gathered from a congregant’s field not too far down the road.  Angels carved from Sylacauga marble, the quarry a day’s wagon trip if the mules had a pleasant disposition and momma didn’t dawdle among the sundries at the dry goods store.

I step for a closer examination.  I am transfixed.

angel

The finger is pointed at me, left hand beckoning through the gate to the markers beyond.

“Come on in traveler.  There’s a quiet spot right over there.  Enter and join the community of the dead, those who lie in wait of ‘The Shout and the voice of the archangel.'”*

I consider the proposition for a moment, then I’m back in my truck, boot heavy on the accelerator.

All of a sudden those chores at the homestead aren’t looking too bad.

 

*From The Holy Bible, 1 Thessalonians 4:16.