I stole the title of my blog from an entry in David Eason’s blog, longingforasong.com. It’s a site exploring connections between song and life, and I think–like me–you’ll find David’s style, tone, metaphors lyrical and moving. And although I have my own interpretation of “ample margins,” it’s only fair that I offer up David’s context for the term:
My city [Nashville] is one where art and industry battle daily, but I am not much interested in the mainstream that emerges from this strife. Though it is wide, deep and powerful, the mainstream creates ample margins. . . .
“Waiting and Wonder,” 21 Mar 2014.
“Addicted to Love” is the title of a Robert Palmer song. You may remember it. Of course, that was 1986, so maybe not. What does it have to do with . . . anything? That’s what kick-started this piece. What I used to tell my students: “Write until something good comes to you.” Or, in my case, “Write until you find that connection.”
You can’t sleep, you can’t eat
There’s no doubt, you’re in deep
Your throat is tight, you can’t breathe
Another kiss is all you need
The connection is not the heat of passion. Not lust. Nothing to do with sex. So what is it?
I roll out of bed most mornings with a song playing in my head. It’s none of my doing. Each song is a subconscious selection. A jukebox that doesn’t accept coins or requests. Some songs stretch back to my mother’s era (Cole Porter’s”Begin the Beguine”). Others to my teen years (The Champs’ 1958 hit “Tequila”). Some are perverse (Ohio Express’s 1968 bubblegum hit “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (I’ve got love in my tummy).” It’s almost embarrassing to write those words. At one point, Bonnie Raitt sang “I Can’t Make You Love Me” for days. It was poignant. It was sad. I just couldn’t let it go.
I’m not sure when this Morning Hit Parade began. But I’ve sometimes thought it might be a subconscious reminder: tempus fugit. Or a bucket list of music. A kind of countdown where the final song is . . . well, the final song. But I think the slender thread connecting my morning ritual to David Eason’s blog theme is that the music I wake up hearing always evokes a certain era and a specific mood. My mother’s music was sentimental and innocent (to me). The 1950s music slick, often syrupy, and packed with suggestion. In the 1960s, we all got liberated: turned on, tuned in, dropped out. Let it all hang out. The music became the message. Oh, yes, and only younger listeners with acute hearing heard the lyrics. The rest of the century was a music montage, as if sampled for a rap/hip hop construction (I don’t mean to be snide; I just can’t bring myself to call it “music,” which probably makes me the living embodiment of the expression “last of a dying breed”). Later, as we got serious about “making something of our lives,” music was what we heard on the car radio in that commute between work and home. So that if I wake up hearing music from that period, it’s no more than a tidbit–not so much a “tune” as a few notes attached to a mood or atmosphere.
I love music, many kinds of music. Melody and harmony sustain me, while words (generally) escape me. Once in a blue moon, the lyrics (“I saw you standing alone”) come to me; otherwise, I’m reduced to humming or whistling.
I was 5, living with my parents and my twin sister, Dee (now Meredith), in a trailer built for two. So small, in fact, that Dee and I had to step out of the trailer so that the dining table could be let down from its perch on the wall. This was probably late 1948. A popular tune at the time was “Buttons and Bows”.
East is east and west is west
And the wrong one I have chose
In memory, the song just drifted in the air like cottonwood seed. It was in my head as I dug in the dirt outside our temporary home. Off down the road somewhere was Ft. Knox, KY, my father’s first assignment after rejoining the army following service in WWII.
Below the trailer was the Dixie Highway, a raw white scar that ran between banks of red clay. There was nothing in view to match the modernity of the highway, and in fact hardly anything of any description to distract your gaze. I was trying to take this move in stride (maybe that’s easy to say now because of the nearly 70-year separation). Without the towering trees and the majestic St. Lawrence River, I felt lost, I think, and a little afraid. Because this was an alien space. All red clay with the odor of rust. And it was everywhere you looked, everywhere you stepped. So that, at the end of the day, when red earth and red sun declared a truce, the clay remained, clinging to clothers and shoes like primordial ooze.
Eventually, we were able to move onto the post (we reserved the word “base” for Air Force installations). First, a trailer park, then an uninsulated wooden structure overlooking Chaffee Avenue, where tanks thundered by on their way to the firing range. I was seven. To be more accurate, my twin sister, Dee, and I were seven.
By the time we turned eight, our family was living in a proper “unit” in a complex called Goldville (after the gold depository a few miles down Dixie Highway). The Weavers were singing “Goodnight Irene” almost everywhere I rode my bike. It was a song first recorded by Leadbelly in 1933. (NB: Fred Hellerman, who formed the Weavers with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Ronnie Gilbert, died at 89 on September 3 of this year. He was the last surviving member of the Weavers.)
And here’s a thing about “Goodnight Irene” that I’ve worked out only now. It made love (pretty much only a word to me until then) a real thing. Real and kind of complicated. The Weavers sang that love could be fickle. That you could lose the one you love. That you could lose your way. To make this thing called love last, the Weavers said: you’ve got to be constant.
Stop your rambling
Stop your gambling
Stop your staying out so late at night
Go home to your wife and family
Stay there by the fireside bright
This was a time when I became aware of discord in our family, angry words, sometimes loud, that I didn’t understand. My father drank, and when he drank he became short-tempered at home. I had run afoul of his drinking a few times, enough to be wary of that initial late-afternoon or evening encounter with him. The worst of these encounters had ended in a spanking in front of my best friend, Billy, and then in exile, standing in a corner facing the wall. The humiliation I felt then has stayed with me, almost as fresh as the day it happened. And the feeling of powerlessness.
One evening, a year or two earlier, my parents had thrown a party for their friends. For me, the party had started off with a bang: a guest’s daughter, older than Dee and me, performed a trick involved an eaten peanut–I watched closely as she chewed and swallowed–that miraculously emerged from the girl’s mouth intact. It would turn out to be just one of the evening’s “highlights”. He must have been drinking steadily and around friends he was congenial, even high-spirited. In this haze of goodwill, my father suddenly came over to me, picked me up, tipped me head forward, and marched into the laundry with me tucked under one arm. Dangling me over the sink, he stuck my head under the spigot and turned on the water. Laughing as I screamed in terror. This was waterboarding before it had a name. He called it “kidding” with me. In the background, my mother’s alarmed voice rose above the din telling him to stop. The rest is a blank. I must have been toweled dry by my mother. I may have donned dry clothing, probably pajamas. Shamed and damp, I retreated to my bedroom under the gaze of my parents’ guests, including the girl magician.
Later that evening, creeping out of bed and peeking through my partially opened door, I watched as a pretty nurse, call her Lieutenant Nichols, gave my father hell for flirting with . . . maybe her. But someone not his wife. “Evelyn doesn’t deserve that,” she said. She may also have told him to “shape up” or maybe “straighten up and fly right,” a phrase made popular by the Nat King Cole song of that title. Lt. Nichols had my father, a sergeant, braced against a doorframe just down the hall from my room. I had never seen my father bested by anyone. I had never seen a powerful woman. If I was impressed by this show of strength, I was also mystified. Because I didn’t know, until that moment, that a woman could possess such strength, such power. Certainly, my mother didn’t command that respect.
I stayed at the door, peeking out from time to time, until my father’s body went from “at attention” to simply tense. When he followed Lt. Nichols back into the living room and rejoined the party, I crept back to bed. I lay awake listening to the party wind down. I must have fallen asleep before the last guest left. Otherwise, I would have been listening for the voices of my father and my mother, anxious that an angry word might spark a confrontation. I’d seen my father in action. I knew what he was capable of.
Today, as I recreate the scene in my mind’s eye, I wonder if I wished Lt. Nichols could have protected me from my father. That thought or wish must have sunk in on some level and stuck. Today, I can hardly believe that I passed most of my life not realizing a simple fact. That I sought out strong women like Lt. Nichols. And maybe I still sought their protection.
Life returned to being whatever it had been before father’s transgression and his reprimand by Lt. Nichols. What we called normal. Though there were hushed exchanges between my parents, and these were tinged not with anger but with anxiety. Finally, mother told Dee and me what she and father had been discussing. “The army is sending your father to Korea,” mother told us. How long, we asked, how long will he be gone? That depended. Probably, though, a year. But maybe longer.
It turned out to be much , much longer. Not even his physical remains returned home.
The telegram that arrived in late June, 1953, announced only that my father was “missing in action”. But we knew (or my mother feared that she knew) what it meant. Later, she told Dee and me that she had dreamed of his death days before the telegram arrived. He was dancing in jerky movements like a marionette and he was wearing red pajamas. I don’t recall her actually saying this, but I think it’s true: “Maybe I could have done something. If only I had known.” It sounds true to me. That’s the way she talked. That’s how she thought.
Howard, wounded and dying. She would have to relive the moment of his death a third time, too, after the Department of the Army finally concluded that my father had died in combat. Telegrams on cheap paper, stuffed into canary-yellow Western Union envelopes, are pretty much a thing of the past. But you can ask anyone who has lost a loved one in more recent conflicts, and I’m certain you’ll hear that the rituals of death and grieving haven’t changed.
It was in this interval–between the first and second Western Union telegrams–that I told a friend, “I hope he never comes back. I hope he dies!” Alarm spread across my friend’s face. “You can’t say that! It’s bad luck!” he exclaimed in a distressed voice.
He was killed, we later learned, in the final battle of Pork Chop Hill. Just days before an armistice was declared and hostilities ceased. His unit had gotten caught up in a game of “jockeying for position” to win back lost ground before the truce was official and the dividing line between North and South firmly settled. And in the midst of my mother’s grieving, my thoughts turned to the last chorus of “Irene”. By now, the song seemed “old-fashioned,” a bit quaint now that the airwaves were filled with Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” and Perry Como’s “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes.” But I heard the Weaver chorus, even so.
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams
Like the song, my childhood was now a thing of the past, too. The first telegram had arrived less than two weeks before my (that is, our) 11th (and most somber) birthday. People started saying, “You’re so mature for your age.”
He was 42 years old at the time of his death. I was 42 before I finally forgave him. Or forgave myself. Because I, too, had dreamed. I was sitting inside his bunker on Pork Chop Hill, the bunker thrown together out of sandbags and raw-lumber. A window–more slit than window–gave me a view of a blasted landscape, barren of all life, stretching brown and sere to the limits of the dream’s frame.
I have no sense now of my state of mind. Was I scared, curious, puzzled. I can’t be sure but I think I was numb inside, waiting in the primitive hut for something to happen. And, finally, it did. Into the bunker walked a figure that could have been a man or an apparition. I couldn’t see clearly enough to tell. The light was viscous and sepia-toned. And in the way of dreams, I was partially immobilized and so couldn’t turn to face the indistinct figure. It was only in my peripheral vision, then, that I saw him lean over me and say in the softest, the gentlest, the kindest of voices, “It’s all right.”