Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Grand Mal


Emergency aid for seizures has evolved since I was a kid.  Be sure to read the postscript * at the end of this piece to learn how to help a person experiencing a seizure today.

I sat across from Darrell and I thought he was acting funny.  We sat in wooden chairs behind wooden desks.  Except for plastered walls and ceilings everything was wood; smooth varnished wooden floors, buttery old desktops, complete with empty inkwells and grooves for pencils, that had been sanded so many times the corners were smooth, built in wooden cupboards and shelves, the teacher’s desk, the chalkboards with wooden frames and wooden trays that held erasers and chalk running their length.  The doors, the window frames, and the trim were shiny dark wood varnished over and over for years and years.  Only under us did the material change.  A tiny gray forest two feet high of twenty four hard steel structures held up our desks which were in four rows, one behind the other, aisles leading up to the blackboard.  We were on the second floor of a school building built in the first part of the 1900’s.  From our windows we saw cornfields beginning to yellow.  It was sunny and warm.  We were in eighth grade. 

Darrell was so quiet.  I looked at him and he seemed to be staring at nothing on his desk.  Usually he fidgeted, looked around, reacted to everything that was said.  Not today.  I watched him on my left.  Was his head dipping lower?  Was he going to sleep?

Mr. Matson was teaching history.  He had a map pulled down over the chalkboard.  It was a blank map of the United States with states in different colors.  We were reviewing America’s states and capitals.  Mr. Matson pointed at states and called on people in the room to tell him the name of the state and its capital city.  I don’t know if he saw Darrell but I was afraid he would be called on and get in trouble.  I was about to reach across the aisle and touch Darrell’s shoulder to wake him up when his head jerked back, his mouth gaped, and his eyes opened wide only to roll back, showing their whites.  He stiffened and fell from his seat into the aisle.  Something was terribly wrong with Darrell.

“Everybody stay in your seats,” Mr. Matson barked.  “Jolene, go get Miss Sawyer.”

Instead of being rigid as he first appeared Darrell began to thrash.  His forearm hit the main steel post under my desk so hard my desk moved.  Right away I could see an angry mark on his skin.  Mr. Matson was beside him trying to hold his arms down.  It seemed like Miss Sawyer was there right away.  She brushed Mr. Matson aside, pulled Darrell to the center of the aisle, pulled her dress up and straddled him.  Her black orthopedic shoes, toes down, were back by Darrell’s shins.  She sat on his thighs and pressed down on his shoulders, pinning him to the floor.  Without looking at Mr. Matson she put one hand in the air and simply said

“Give me your billfold.”

Mr. Matson  looked white.  He dropped his wallet before putting it in Miss Sawyer’s hand.  After calmly prying open Darrell’s teeth she stuffed the leather billfold in his mouth.  Darrell began breathing furiously through his nose, blowing snot on his face and Mr. Matson’s wallet.  Then he began to jerk. 

Despite Miss Sawyer’s efforts to keep Darrell still his head rocked violently up and down hitting the wooden floor.  His back arched up and crashed back down in rhythm with his head.  Miss Sawyer began to rise and fall as his legs pushed her up then let her down.  Darrell was not a big kid.  That he possessed the strength to lift Miss Sawyer was incredible. 

“Hold his head,” Miss Sawyer barked to Mr. Matson who hopped around her and knelt on the floor.  He seemed reluctant to touch Darrell.

“HOLD HIS HEAD,” Miss Sawyer said.  She had a booming low voice.  Mr. Matson managed to get Darrell’s head between his hands and was finally successful in preventing the loud thuds that had filled the room.

Mr. Matson was just out of college.  He coached every sport and taught PE and history.  He was short, cocky, and always wore his whistle.  Miss Sawyer was the math teacher.  We stayed in our rooms and the teachers came to us for different subjects.  She was tall and when she walked down the hall she took long strides that ate distance.  If Miss Matson liked me or approved of me in any way at all, in any fashion, I could not tell.  She had dark eyes behind thick black frame glasses.  When she looked at me I thought she saw right through me.  I was scared of Miss Sawyer.  I think we all were.

But on that day I was scared of what was happening to my friend Darrell.  I know now why people long ago without the benefit of science and education believed in demonic possession.  As I watched Darrell go that day from torpor, to rigidity, to convulsion it was as if something had entered my friend’s body and taken over.  It wasn’t Darrell but someone else.  I thought it impossible that what was coming out in Darrell had been within him all along.  Something outside of him was surely causing this.  I could only imagine how Darrell felt.  I hoped he didn’t know what was happening. 

Darrell finally stopped convulsing and slumped into a kind of sleep.  Mr. Matson let Darrell’s head go and placed it softly on the floor.  Miss Sawyer took the wallet from his mouth and handed it to Mr. Matson, who accepted it gingerly.  It was wet and there were bite marks in the leather.  Miss Sawyer swung her big leg over Darrell, knelt beside him, and picked him up in her arms.  With those long strides she walked towards the door.  Darrell looked so small.  Mr. Matson ran ahead of her and got the door.  She walked through the door frame and disappeared without a word.  Mr. Matson shut the door, walked to his desk, sat down, and put his head in his hands.  The class was silent.

After many moments he looked up.  He had a look of surprise on his face, like he was surprised we were all looking at him.  Finally he began to talk.

“Darrell had what you call a seizure.  He’s going to be all right.  A lot of things can cause seizures and I don’t know what caused Darrell’s but I can tell you this.  He may have had one before, may have one again, but chances are he’ll be fine.  He’ll see a doctor and I imagine he’ll be back in school again pretty soon.  When he comes back try not to ask him a lot about what just happened.  He may not remember, and it’s probably pretty embarrassing.  So let’s just get back to our states and capitals.  What do you say?”

I was amazed that we continued with states and capitals after the kid next to me almost died but that’s what we did.  Mr. Matson pointed to a state near Iowa and called on me. 

“Nebraska,” I said.  “Lincoln.”  My heart wasn’t in it. 

We kids talked about it in the cloak room and on the bus but we found none of us knew much about seizures.  As soon as I got home I told my Mom and Dad what happened.  My Dad had some knowledge to relate.

“That’s an epileptic fit David.  They can’t help it.  I’m sorry you had to see that because it’s frightening.  I was little and my uncle had a fit one Thanksgiving.  Stiffened up and slid right under the dinner table in the middle of the prayer.  My Dad had had to haul him out from under there.  They wrapped him in a blanket.  I thought he’d gone nuts.  They didn’t tell kids much back then about stuff like that.  I’m not sure they knew.  I didn’t really know till I got to Chicago and the nurse at the office described what we should do if someone had a fit like that at work.  Training sort of.” 

“Why did they stick a wallet in his mouth?”

“So he wouldn’t swallow his tongue,” my Mom said.

“I’m not sure you really can swallow your tongue Catherine but it does keep you from biting your tongue or the inside of your mouth.”

“That’s what they always told me, it was for swallowing your tongue.”

“Yeah well they’ve told us a lot of stuff haven’t they?” my Dad said.

“What makes it happen?”

“I’m not sure they really know but I’m pretty sure it’s something in your brain.  You’d have to talk to a doctor to really find out.  But I know this.  Darrell is still Darrell.  This doesn’t change him.  He may have another fit or he may not, but he’s the same kid, just with some kind of illness.  Don’t treat him any differently.  Let his parents and the doctor figure out how to help him and you go on being his friend.” 

That’s pretty much what happened.  Darrell came back to school after a day being out and I don’t think he or we said anything about it.  Except for an angry purple bruise on his forearm it was like it didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen again that I know of, not at school at least. 

School is a learning place and we certainly learned a lot that day.  We learned the hard way about epilepsy, but another thing we learned is that if you were ever in real trouble the person you wanted helping you was Miss Sawyer.  No matter how scary she was, we learned she was a take charge person.  I never forgot it.

*The way my teachers responded to Darrell’s seizure in the mid 60’s may have been recommended at that time, but guidelines for aid and comfort to seizure victims has changed.  Here’s a summary of what the Epilepsy Foundation recommends today.  For a complete first aid discussion and more information on epilepsy go to :


  • Loosen clothing around the person's neck.
  • Do not try to hold the person down or restrain them. This can result in injury.
  • Place something soft under their head to prevent them from striking the floor
  • Do not insert any objects in the person's mouth. This can also cause injury.
  • Reassure concerned bystanders who may be upset and ask them to give the person room.
  • Remove sharp objects (glasses, furniture, and other objects) from around the person to prevent injury.
  • After the seizure, it is helpful to lay the person on their side to maintain an open airway and prevent the person from inhaling any secretions.
  • After a seizure, the person may be confused and should not be left alone.
  • In many cases, especially if the person is known to have epilepsy, it is not necessary to call 911.
  • Do call 911 however if the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes, or if another seizure begins soon after the first, or if the person cannot be awakened after the movements have stopped.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Baling with the Muellers, Walking Beans with Bill


We traded baling help with Bob Mueller for a while but he and his son took on a lot more land and cows.  Because of that they had to bale much more hay for the winter so they had to go it on their own.  Trading help worked when each farmer made more or less the same amount of hay, like three cuttings a year for three days work.  It was like a circle.


Dad, Darrell Schwartz, Bill Linden, and Paul Mozer all had about the same number of cows and kept nearly the same number of acres in alfalfa or clover. Darrell Schwartz owned the baler, an International.  That group even bought a hay crimper collectively, splitting the cost four ways, figuring they only needed one.  A couple other farmers would bring their sickle bar mowers the day another cut hay.  Mowing was slow, but you could run the crimper flat out and keep up with three mowers.  On baling day each farmer in the circle showed up with their boys if they had them, brought a tractor and rack wagon, and worked till the last bale was in the barn.  The wife of the farmer at whose place we baled would feed us when we were done.  The only money that changed hands went to Schwartz for the cost of the baling at so much per bale; you know, the investment, twine and all, wear and tear on the machine.  Bob Mueller ended up buying his own Case baler, had a bunch of hay fields, and with his son Larry baled what seemed like all the time. 

The Muellers farmed their own ground, rented more, and filled all the barns with hay and the cribs with corn.  That was back when every place had a barn and a corn crib.  When the Muellers went big and began to bale all that extra hay they hired me to help them at $1.50 an hour.  Bob wrote me a check each day I worked.  Sometimes he'd round up the half hour.  It was pretty good money for a kid in 1966.  I baled hay seemed like all summer.  They’d call Mom when they needed me and she would ask which place’s barn they were filling.  We knew the names of all the places by the farmers who owned them originally, even if they hadn’t farmed them in fifty years.  Mom would drop me off there in the car.  Jeans and a tee shirt.  Baseball cap and yellow cotton gloves.

Bob drove the baler while Larry and I stacked bales on the rack wagon.  The Muellers stacked their hay four high and a tie, the tie being a bale bridging and holding together two columns of four bales stacked side by side.  When Dad traded help with the neighbors they only stacked them three high and a tie.  The Muellers would fill their own three racks and then take them to the barn, where Larry would put them on the elevator which would run them up into the barn and dump them in the hay mow.  Bob and I carried the bales across the mow and stacked them carefully two layers at a time.  The hay was soft under your feet and there were cracks between the bales.  It got hot in those mows, under the barn roof, and dusty.  Not much air in a hay mow.  Hardly ever a breeze.  Unless the hay was totally dry it gave off heat too.  Most days we would sweat our clothes through, sometimes our boots.  We’d bale three loads, put away three loads in hay mow, and repeat till it was done.  Some afternoons I worked for the Muellers right through milking time at our place.

Depending on the amount of moisture and the length of the bale each one could weigh sixty pounds or more.  If you were paying a guy by the bale you wanted them big and heavy.  If you owned the baler and were baling for yourself you could make them smaller and lighter, but you did so knowing you would repeat each action more times, stacking the bales on the rack, putting them on the elevator, placing them in the mow.  Either way you moved the same amount of hay.  Because I stacked half the bales on the rack, alternating with Larry, and half in the mow, alternating with Bob, I picked up half the bales twice.  So if in a day we made 1200 bales, which was a good day’s work but not uncommon, especially on the first cutting, I lifted 1200 bales, six hundred on the rack and six hundred in the mow.  If they were sixty pound bales that was 72,000 pounds.  35 tons.  I tried to remember that it would make me strong.

On the rack Larry and I would talk to each other from time to time over the noise of the baler but in the mow Bob hardly said a word.  So I didn’t either, which was ironic because it was quieter in the mow.  The flat chains on the elevator, which we called the dump, screeched on the sheet metal some but we were far from the noise of the tractor turning the speed jack from the power take off that ran the dump outside.  Bob worked slowly, so I did too.  We fell into a rhythm that coincided with the gap between the bales on the elevator and its speed.  Once in a while Larry would put the bales too close together and they would pile up under the dump.  When that happened Bob refused to speed up but rather would get to the hay door and yell loudly

“Slow it down!”

Those three words could be the only ones spoken during the whole load. 

Between loads the dump stopped and there was a break in the action while Larry pulled the empty wagon away and replaced it with a loaded rack.  During that time Bob would sit, mop his face with a big red handkerchief, and we might talk or we might not.

“You need a drink?”  He  had an insulated jug up there.

I usually did.  I got sick once from the heat and Dad said it was because I didn’t drink enough water.  We would both have a pull from the jug.  The farm wives usually put ice in them but the jugs were cheap and it melted quickly.  Sometimes I would splash a handful on my face and put some on the back of my neck trying to cool off.  Bob never did that.

If Bob talked it was always about farming. 

“You been seeing all that burdock by the creek in my pasture there by Route 9?”

“I really hadn’t noticed Bob.”

“It’s washed in from the Gunn farm across the road.  Came in from the high water we had with that big rain a few months ago.” 

Bob explained things so definitively you couldn’t argue.  He was a guy who killed mystery by presenting everything as fact, as if that was the only possible explanation.  I don’t think Bob ever wondered about anything.  He just knew.  And because he was so convinced it was impossible to imagine refuting him. 

“There’s rules about that you know.  You’ve got an obligation to control your weeds.”

I wasn’t sure there were actual rules but if there were no one enforced them that I knew of.  We had Canada thistles in the sheep pasture that washed in from the neighbor’s conservation acres but we pretty much accepted that, as least Dad seemed to.  He may have complained softly to Mom and I once or twice about the thistles but he never would have mentioned it to anyone else.

The Gunn family hadn’t farmed that place during my lifetime.  The Gunn place was farmed by a tenant whom Bob didn’t mention that wasn’t particularly good about taking care of weeds before they went to seed.  He and I both knew who that farmer was but neither of us would say his name.  Burdock was a weed that had leaves a lot like cocklebur but sent up a flowery top stem loaded with brown seed.  It was a lot like sourdock.   There was no catalog of weeds defining names and types to my knowledge, just what the farmers called them in the area.  There were so many.  Burdock and sourdock were both especially hard to get rid of.  The best way was to eliminate weeds like dock (sour or bur) and Canadian thistle was to dig them before they went to seed with a spade, shake the dirt off the roots, then let it dry up and die.  Farmers then would never think of using weed spray in a pasture where cows could get to it.

“Makes me mad about that burdock,” Bob said. 

He talked very slow and looked directly at me.  He had pale eyes and a big chew of Red Man in one cheek.  He’d pause and just look at me.  I felt on the spot.  I felt I had to say something but I didn’t know what.  In those situations, I learned from listening to my Dad talk, it was best to be non committal.  There were lots of things you could say that meant next to nothing but still counted as a response.

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, and I’ll tell you something else.  You let that burdock get into your soybeans, let it get tall with those thick stalks, and when you harvest it’ll clog up your combine to beat the band.”

“You don’t say.”

I wished Bob would talk about the Cubs.  I could care less about burdock. 

Bob may have worked slowly but he worked all the time.  We would be driving into town on the hard road to go to church and Bob would be out there in his pasture digging that burdock of a Sunday morning. 

“Good God does he never stop?” Mom would ask in a loud voice.

“NO,” my Dad would answer.

Bob and his son Larry, who looked just like him, didn’t wear gloves to do anything, even bale hay.  I didn’t wear gloves all the time when I worked, but I sure did when I baled.  The baling twine would cut into your fingers and give you blisters.  Picking up 1200 bales in a day, even with a hay hook on the rack wagon dragging them from the baler and tossing them up high, was hard on your hands.  Why the Muellers didn’t wear gloves was beyond me.  I thought it a form of stubbornness.

The weed thing, I was convinced, was not about weeds robbing the crops of nutrients, or clogging up your machinery, but pride.  Back then farmers planted their soybeans in wide rows and walked through them cutting and pulling weeds.  No need to spend money on spray if you could walk your beans.  Sometimes they walked the beans twice if they were first walked when weeds, barely sprouted on the first pass, grew tall.  Later in the year the farmers drove slowly in their pickups and cars looking at their neighbor’s fields. 

“I went by the Ploenes place on my way to Graff’s in Minier to get those cultivator parts,” Mom said. I knew what farm she was talking about.  It was the Ploenes place but it wasn’t farmed by Ploenes.

“That bean field he’s got by the Stringtown road is just full of corn and butterprint.  Looks awful. 

“Yeah,” Dad would say shaking his head.  They talked about weeds as if their very existence was shameful.

The only time I would ever see Bob Mueller not working was when he and his wife played pinochle with some of the other farm couples on Saturday nights in the winter.  When they played at the little card tables in our living room I’d pass through on my way upstairs and have to speak to everyone.  When I was a little kid Mom made me pass out the tally cards on a little plate but I got too big for that.

So there was Bob wearing a flannel shirt and regular pants with shoes.  It was odd not seeing him in bib overalls and boots.  The cards fanned out in his big callused hands looked small.  Not only did he look out of place he seemed uncomfortable.  I don’t think he especially liked cards.  He couldn’t control what was dealt him.  No liquor at those parties, just lemonade or coffee.  I looked closely at Bob’s cheeks to determine if that one side sagged down more than the other seeing it wasn’t packed with chewing tobacco.  He looked back at me quietly.  Farmers at a card party let their wives do most of the talking.

Bill Linden, who lived two places away towards town until Bob Mueller later bought it and started farming it, didn’t have sons so he hired me to help him walk his beans, starting when I was pretty young.  I forget how much he paid me but it was less than baling hay.  Walking beans was so much easier.  I liked being under the sky all day, feeling the air and sun.  We‘d each take four rows at a time, reaching over the rows with a weed hook or a hoe to cut down the corn, but always pulling and shaking out the weeds.  From time to time one of Bill’s daughters would help us but not often.  When they did they always put a hand to the front of their blouse when they bent over to pull a weed, which was disappointing.  I‘d take my shirt off to get tan but Bill, like all those farmers round there, wore a long sleeve shirt rolled up.  Except for their forearms, neck, and face (but not their forehead, protected by the bill of a cap) their skin was white as snow. 

Bill talked comparatively more than the other farmers.  Occasionally he would even ask you a question, which was unusual.  Bob Mueller for example always talked about himself and farming, and always in declarative sentences.  Once Bill and I were walking a bean field close to his house and I heard music and singing coming from inside.  No commercials.

“You got records playing in there Bill?”

“No, that’s Frances (Bill’s wife).  She’s playing her autoharp and singing them old hillbilly songs.  I know when she’s doing that she’s lonesome for her family down South.”

She sang nicely, high and nasal. 

“Autoharp huh?” I had no idea what that was.

“Yeah she knows lots of songs.  She can play mandolin a little too.  You ever play music David?”

“No.  Just whistle. Sing once in a while.”

“Me neither but Frances, she likes her music and I’ve come to think it’s actually good for a person.”

He paused and looked back towards the house over his shoulder.  He smiled.  I thought he looked wistful.  Something.

“Yeah, she’s an old hill girl but I like her plenty.”

Those men never talked about feelings let alone their wives.  I was surprised to hear Bill say words that so dangerously bordered on being sweet.  I couldn’t think of a response.

That’s the way it was, working with those men, those solitary farmers, when farming was simple and hard.  I never imagined it being any different.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Dinner in the Field


My Dad grew up on a farm near Danvers, moved to Chicago at age nineteen or so, and came back ten years later to farm on his own.  I think it changed him.  He had more to talk about somehow.  Among the farmers I grew up with talk was sometimes scarce. 

Their wives on the other hand were champion talkers.  But because the lives and the roles of men and women were more separate then, the conversational skills of the farm women didn’t seem to rub off on their husbands.  Nearly all of those men had wives, with the notable exception of the bachelor brothers, two farmers who never married and ended up single and stranded in their dead parents’ farmhouse north of us, with no women to look after them.  What the quality of life was like for the bachelor brothers no one really knew, despite all the conjecture.  It was assumed by all that housekeeping was lax and their diet was terrible, but that was just gossip.  They seemed happy to me.

Farmers spent a lot of time alone and grew comfortable, I think, with silence.  There was one seat on the tractor, and while I used to ride on the fender from time to time, my Dad spent most of his hours in the field as a solitary man.   Because implements were small he farmed at the most four rows at a time.  Until I was in high school his biggest plow was a two bottom.  He and our closest neighbor Henry would recall days spent behind a horse going between corn rows with a one row cultivator.  That was how Henry acquired most of his pretty extensive arrowhead collection.  Those horses knew what to do, he explained.  He simply sat on a low seat a few feet above the ground, tied the reins onto the implement, and watched between his knees at turned over dirt as the small spade was dragged down the middle of the row.  Men did this for hours and hours day after day.  Without ear buds.  Just the sound of the horse and the rustling of the corn leaves.  Imagine that for just a minute, then multiply it by several thousand minutes.  That was the kind of solitude and quiet those men experienced during their lives. 

As tractors replaced horses loud noise erased the silence but nothing changed the being alone.  My Dad would go off on the tractor in the morning after chores, sometimes he came back to eat, but often I would take dinner out to him in the field at noon.  I’d take my dog Champ with me.  In the south field, past the waterway, there were still some hedge trees we could sit under.  I liked to meet him at the end of the row where the trees were.  When he saw me he would make the turn, shut off the tractor, and climb down stiffly.  We would sit in the grass and let the quiet catch up to us.  Especially Dad.  No wonder his hearing went bad.  After the muffler rusted out on the Minneapolis Z he cultivated with he put a piece of rain gutter straight up from the exhaust port not four feet away from where he stood straddling the seat.  No sound protection at all. 

It was usually baloney sandwiches on white bread with with Miracle Whip and lettuce.  Mom packed other stuff; bags of chips and apples, maybe a candy bar, and glass quart jar of milk.  We shared it; both drinking from the cold jar.  It would sweat in the heat and get slippery.  I remember all of it tasting wonderful.  Dad kept a water jug on the tractor.  If we thought Champ was thirsty we would pour some water in the lid and give him a drink. 

We didn’t necessarily talk much.  It wasn’t like Dad to save up things to say.  Talking to Dad, and all those farmers, was casual and easy. 

“How’d the Cubs do yesterday?”  He left for the field before the Pantagraph came and didn’t always catch the sports on the WJBC. 

“Lost.”

“Cardinals?”

“Yeah.  Lost big too.”

“Who pitched?”

“Dick Ellsworth.”

“Ellsworth hasn’t won a game in a month.”

He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed.  After he swallowed he went on. 

“Anybody do anything for the Cubs?”

“Lou Brock stole second twice.”

“He’s going to be a good one that Brock.”

Mom cut the sandwiches straight across in two halves.  He would eat one half, leave the other piece lying on the brown paper sack, then eat the chips before going back for the rest of the sandwich.  I ate my sandwich all at once.

“We need rain.  The leaves on the bottom of the stalks on that rise in the east corner are drying up.”

“Doesn’t look like it’s going to rain.”

“I don’t think so either."  As he chewed Dad looked up at the clouds.  His eyes were as blue as the sky.

“This would have been a good time to cut hay.”  Dad continued to study the weather.  I never knew what he was thinking when he did that. 

“Did you help Mom wash the milkers?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you hoe the garden like she wanted?”

“Not yet.”

“Do that will you?  It helps her out.”

“I know.  I will.”

If it was a nice day Dad would stretch out on the grass and put his cap over his face.  He was bald and the top of his head was real white.

“If I go to sleep don’t let me sleep long.”

“I won’t.”

“Dad you want all that candy bar?”

“No, you take half.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”  We were pretty polite to each other.  It was a nice way to live.

The trees above us grew bright green hedge apples the size of softballs.  I’d look in the grass for them and pile them up, then throw them at a fence post.  The fence posts were made of hedge, most likely from trees that once grew where those stood then.  If you got a direct hit on a fence post the hedge apple would blow up in a burst of pith and seeds.  That’s what I was going for.  When they were gone Champ and I would go down the fence row looking for things.  There was always something to find.  Little birds called Killdeer would scurry away from their ground nests.  Once I scared up a blue racer snake.  I liked it there.  It was quiet. 

Dad never needed waking.  He had that short after dinner nap down pretty good.  When I saw him sitting up Champ and I would go back to where he was. 

“Time to get back to work David.  For both of us.”

“Yep.”

“Thanks for bringing my dinner.  Hoe that garden.”

“I will.”

“You want to ride down to the gravel road?”

“OK.”

You couldn’t ride the fender very well on the Z so I stood on one side of the platform, careful not to step on the brake, while Dad stood on the other by the hand clutch.  Each wheel had a separate brake.  If you spun the wheel sharply and tromped the one brake you could make real tight turns.  To start the John Deere you still had to crank the flywheel by hand but the Z was newer and had electric start.  Dad  gave it throttle then hit the starter and the engine cranked over then caaught.  You could see the engine in front of you and imagine the parts working inside it.  For a little tractor it was loud.  The rain gutter didn’t help.

Other times Dad would let me steer the tractor but he didn’t let me cultivate ever.  If your mind wandered and the tractor went off course you could wipe out a four row patch of corn stalks real easy.  We called them lightning strikes.  My mind wandered quite a bit.  Since we had only one cultivator that fit but one tractor Dad just did that job himself.  He was good at it.  I thought he was good at everything.
Before he let me out at the gravel road he put his hand on my head and smiled at me.  His face was so tan.  It was only a short walk back.  Champ, who had followed the tractor through the field, walked home beside me.  I’d go slow, not at all anxious to start on the garden. 
I miss those summer days.  Dad was in the field, Mom was in the house, my dog was with me, and everything was good.












Thursday, July 2, 2015

Alone Again




I swear tunes migrate from one part of my brain to another and come out of my mouth spontaneously as a whistle. I don’t know where they come from and I don’t know why. At times I don’t even know the name of the song until I hear myself whistling the tune and recognize it. And from time to time they remain just random unnamed tunes. Sometimes I know why that particular song leaps out, because I’ve thought of a related topic, or see something printed that is relevant, or someone speaks words that trigger it in conversation. It’s almost eerie. I must have hundreds of both musical scores and sets of lyrics up there. Because I don’t read music they can’t be visual like sheet music. I don’t know what they are. But both the notes and the lyrics come from somewhere. I hit the right notes with my whistle, usually right away, or I know without thinking what notes to sing if I give voice to the lyrics, also imprinted in my brain. 

Let me give you an example. I was working at our church cleaning second story gutters and one of the guys I was working with was talking about the sorry state of our chapel. As we moved the ladder to the next spot I began to whistle a set of eight monotonous notes: four the same, the fifth a step higher, the sixth the same as the first four, the seventh a step lower, and the last note the same as the first. I repeated it again only a little higher.

“What is that song?” the guy at the other end of the ladder asked. I whistled it again. 

“I don’t know.” I whistled it again. After a few more notes it came to me.

Going to the Chapel, and we’re gonna get married.” I sang the words. It was a Motown song by the Dixie Cups, Chapel of Love produced by Phil Spector (I looked that up). It came whistling out of me because my friend said the word chapel. That’s what happens up there in my head.

I found myself whistling a song in the shower at the YMCA last week, for what reason God knows. A guy who swims laps when I do recognized it and sang a few lines from the chorus.

It seems to me that there are more hearts
Broken in the world
da, da, da, dadada (going up the scale)
Da, da, da dadada (going down) What do we do?
What do we do?


“What’s the name of that song anyway?” he asked.

“Alone Again, Naturally by Gilbert O’Sullivan.”

“Well thanks for the ear worm,” he said as made his way out the door. “I’ll be humming that the rest of the day.”


The words he didn’t remember are: That can’t be mended, left unattended.


Alone Again (Naturally) brought to mind something I’d felt and things that happened one summer very long ago.

I helped my brother closest in age to me, who died of lung cancer six years ago, at the age I am now, build a house. It was the house in which he raised his family and where his wife still lives. He, his wife, their first child (then a baby) and I lived in a two bedroom apartment the summer between my junior and senior year of college. The year was 1972. My brother and I worked long days.

My brother’s friends would come out to the worksite in the country after they finished their jobs to help us and drink beer. Sometimes we saved heavy tasks for when they arrived, like standing up stud walls we had fabricated on the deck during the day. Some of those guys would go out for more drinks as the day ended and take me with them. One of them, an ironworker named Mel, liked to go to a strip club in downtown Elgin, really more of a bar with a small stage and lots of mirrors. I don’t remember a pole. The girls would emerge through dark curtains from the back, play songs on the jukebox, hopping up on stage in their high heels quickly after putting in quarters and punching in their selections. One beautiful young woman always danced to Alone Again (Naturally) by Gilbert O’Sullivan. 

We all smoked cigarettes then. Like our Dad my brother smoked Camel straights, unfiltered, while I had switched to Camel filters. I would quit smoking 15 years later. Sadly he never did. Mel smoked Pall Malls. 

Smoke filled the beams of colored light that shined on the strippers. The colors changed and were controlled by a foot pedal on stage by the dancers: blue, red, purple, yellow, orange. The girl who danced to Alone Again (Naturally) looked best in blue. She had long dark hair. She never smiled and looked at the men looking at her only fleetingly, preferring to look at herself in the floor to ceiling mirrors whenever possible. I didn’t like to look at the men either. We looked desperate I thought. Awful. It was a working man’s bar with an occasional suit wandering in. We were dirty, having come straight from the job. I had red smudges on my white tee shirts from the chalk line. The bar wasn’t air conditioned. Despite spinning ceiling fans the place had that stuffy stale beer smell and it was hot. As we leaned forward watching the girls our forearms stuck to the varnished wooden bar top. There was no cover charge but beers were expensive. Mel and I peeled the labels off bottles of Old Style as we drained them. 


We tend to dismiss the lyrics of pop songs but back then these were haunting. It was not only the words but his delivery of them in a dead pan voice.

And as if to knock me down
Reality came around
And without so much as a mere touch
Cut me into little pieces
Leaving me to doubt
Talk about, God in his Mercy
Oh if he really does exist
Why did he desert me?
In my hour of need
I truly am indeed,
Alone again, naturally.


The beautiful girl, in the smoky blue light, mouthed the words silently to herself. Her hair swung back and forth, shiny, as she danced to the tune. Sometimes when she sang she closed her eyes. Her practiced moves came so easily. She had long legs. You could hear her shoes scuff softly on the linoleum stage as she turned and spun. As she danced I asked Mel:


“What do you think she’s really like?”

“She’s a stripper David.”

“I know that but she’s still a girl. A real person. I wonder what she’s like as a person with clothes on?”

“Why are you asking me? I have no idea.” Sensitive was not a word one would use to describe Mel.

The girls came out and sat at the bar only once in a while. When they did I was way too shy and scared to approach them. I didn’t think my stripper girl was much older than me. I was about to turn 21. If I had been able to talk to her I decided I would ask her what subjects she liked in school, if she had brothers and sisters, you know normal things. I wouldn’t have talked to her about sex like probably every other man in the bar. Oh, I imagined having sex with her, but I knew I wouldn’t. Even then I knew I was not good at having sex with strangers. It just didn’t work well for me. I was uncomfortable being there in the first place. But I watched like all the other men. Oh, I watched all right.

I imagined she played the song because she loved the words. She and the song became the same for me, like she had written the lyrics and lived the narrative they described. I thought I knew her. When she closed her eyes and mouthed the words I thought I knew what she was feeling. I thought I felt what she felt. And though I had never talked to her and never would I felt close to her. When she came through the curtains and put her money in the juke box, the first few bars of the song filling the room, I felt like we were almost together, even if she didn’t know me. I worried for her. It was the song that got me. 

In a little while from now
If I’m not feeling any less sour
I promised myself to treat myself

And visit a nearby tower
And climbing to the top
Will throw myself off
In an effort to
Make it clear to whoever
What it’s like
When you’re shattered


It would be such a terrible waste if she really did that; so young, so beautiful, and such a good dancer. I thought I could help her. A little drunk, twenty, and na├»ve like farm kids can be I imagined myself getting her out of that bar, bringing her to ISU, finding her a job as a waitress. She’d make great tips. I had a whole plan.

Looking back over the years
And whatever else that appears

I remember I cried
When my father died

Never wishing to hide the tears
And at sixty five years old
My mother God rest her soul
Couldn’t understand why the only man
She had ever loved had been taken
Leaving her to start
With a heart so badly broken
Despite encouragement from me
No words were ever spoken
And when she passed away
I cried and cried all day
Along again, Naturally.


Oh God, she’d lost her parents. I ordered another beer and looked at her more. She moved hypnotically, eyes closed, reaching for her bra clasp. Poor girl. She had no one but me.

After she was with me for a semester or so she could start taking classes and be a dance major. I imagined her as very smart. She’d never have to dance in front of sweaty working men again. She would take her clothes off only for me. I’d buy blue light bulbs for my room. I’d be good to her. I’d make her breakfast. After a while she could move in to my room, or we’d find a place of our own, just her and me.

My brother might know she was a stripper but the rest of the family wouldn’t. I’d take her to the farm and my Mom would teach her how to cook. (Why did I assume she couldn’t cook?) She’d love my Mom and my Dad. My only sister would think she was great. I wished she had been able to meet my older sister who just passed away, also from cancer, leaving a husband and three kids.


I knew how sad she felt. I’ve felt the pain that hits you when people you love die, just like she felt. I knew what despair was. I could help her.


 
Left standing in the lurch
at a church where people are saying,
My God, that's tough
He stood her up
No point in us remaining.
We may as well go home
As I did on my own
Alone again, naturally



Oh please, not that too! No wonder she’s suicidal. I’d never do that to her. She’d learn I was reliable. She may not trust me at first but I’d prove to her that I was safe and caring. She could count on me.



We’d be so happy.


Truth is I was terribly lonely and alone that summer. I drank too much. My oldest sister, who I relied on so much, was gone. She was the confident one, the exuberant one, the organizer in our family. I didn’t know what I was doing really. I was making it through school but I didn’t know what I would do when it was over. I felt lost myself. And there I was in some crappy joint fantasizing about a girl I didn’t know and was afraid to talk to. It was heartbreaking. Even now when I whistle that song and see her dance in my head, in smoky blue light, I feel it again.



As it turns out Gilbert O’Sullivan, an Irish song writer, experienced few if any of the emotions he brought to life so vividly in the music and the lyrics of Alone Again (Naturally). He readily admitted, years after the song was a monster hit (six weeks as #1 on the American Billboard), that it was not autobiographical. His mother was alive when he wrote the song. He did not know his father well, who had mistreated Gilbert’s mother and died when his son was 11. Whether he ever contemplated suicide is not known. It is not believed that he was jilted, left waiting at the altar as it were. The lyrics without the sound of the voice and the music, now that I I’m older, seem sappy and awkward. But, as the Irish are known for, Gilbert certainly told a dramatic tale. He had me going there, in a hot clammy bar, smelling of beer, in dim blue light, watching a beautiful girl dance 43 years ago.




I think of her still when I whistle that song. My dancer would be in her sixties now. I hope things worked out for her. I hope she quit stripping and found someone who took the time to know her as a person. With any luck she learned not all men are like those sweaty guys who stared at her over their beer bottles in 1972. I hope she’s OK.



Sometimes those songs in your head are more than just songs. I think that’s why we remember them.