Night bird, white bird

My first great love? I was 19 and she was 18, and we met at college in upstate western New York. There’s one perfect word for it: I was smitten. She had long dark hair, pale white skin which freckled in the summer, a wonderful smile, and a sweet New England accent that buckled my knees and was the result of what seemed to me an idyllic childhood in a small Massachusetts town near the New Hampshire border – where she lived with her parents and 11 siblings – 10 brothers, one sister. They all played hockey on their own pond. Summer nights, they hung out at some place called the DQ. They all had those accents. One of the brothers was a smart, eccentric friend I’d met the year before – he introduced this Yonkers boy to the music of Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck and Todd Rundgren, as well as the essays of C.S. Lewis.

The girl and I were certainly in love, but it was a fledging, first-time love — and it succumbed to the strains of youthful angst and inexperience. We were together about six months. When we split up, I was devastated. I’d lost my first and only true love.

I ended up taking a semester off from school, heading back to Yonkers, in order to lick my wounds, contemplate what had happened, and figure out what was next. I missed her terribly. We tried a couple of times to try to get back together, but it didn’t happen.

Going home to Yonkers was a bad mistake. I worked five nights a week, midnight to 8, as a security guard at an IBM office building in White Plains. Go ahead. Laugh. I did, indeed, look pretty funny in my guard uniform and my shiny badge. And of course I was in no position to protect any IBM computer guys from whatever it was they needed to be protected from.

But I WAS in a position to read a book per night for the entire six months of my service to the Gleason Security Agency, which was certainly the best part of working the midnight shift with no one around and a security’s guard’s key to the stockpiles of food in the executive dining room.

The other two nights of the week, though, I was lonely and miserable. And now I’m getting to the point:

My life was saved by a bird – Alison Steele, the Night Bird, late-night DJ on free-form WNEW-FM.

She always began her radio shows with a poem – usually something reflecting those times – hippie stuff like “The Prophet” or something by Rod McKuen.

And then there was the carefully chosen music, a certain genre that fit the “Night Bird” theme so perfectly, our generation’s version of “The Milkman’s Matinee,” songs of lonely late night: “Riders on the Storm,” “Moondance,” “Free Bird,” “Piano Man,” “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and “Streets of London” by Ralph McTell all come to mind – and have stayed there in my memory.

Romantically and remarkably, my Girl from the North Country came back to me — and I to her — decades later, after fulfilling lives and marriages that had  turned topsy-turvy and sad.

Part Two was much better than Part One…this truly felt like a miracle…but miracles require three proofs, and maybe we had one or even two, but after about three years of bliss mixed with sorrow — and, again, conflicting expectations — our great love fled among the stars once more.

And so it’s the wee, wee hours, and the milkman’s making his lonely rounds, and I feel like hearing the soothing  sound of Alison Steele, the Night Bird, who’s telling me: “Come fly with me…

 

Hard rain (October 1962)

I was a very little boy but I sensed something big was going on. My father had rushed home early from work. Now he was sitting in front of our black-and-white TV as the president — Kennedy — delivered an address on what we now refer to as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This happened fifty years ago, in October 1962.

Spy plane photographs had revealed the presence of Soviet missiles — missiles capable of being armed with nuclear warheads — in Cuba, a stone’s throw from Florida and within range of American cities in the South and Northeast.

This was at the height of that war of nerves and ideologies called the Cold War.

The U.S. demanded that the Soviet Union remove the missiles. The Russians refused. We were on the brink of nuclear war.  Kennedy and his advisers, history tells us, believed it might take a miracle to forestall Armageddon.

My father — and 150 million other Americans — sensed this.  I could sense his concern — and his fear.

Fifty years later, the whole thing now seems so distant and unreal: the air of crisis, the talk of fallout shelters, the naval blockade, the standoff, the wait…and the Soviet Union backing down. Fifty years later, we know now about the back-channel communications, the military men who wanted to bomb Cuba, the clever (and lucky) diplomatic and strategic ploys.

I think of the line from young Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” when he sings about the “fear to bring children into the world” and his awful and beautiful song “Hard Rain,” inspired by the Cuban missile crisis.

Fifty years later, I remember my 29-year-old father — just 29! — and the worry I saw in his eyes when he looked away from President Kennedy’s flickering image on the TV and looked at my mother and me, when the reality of men’s folly made it clear that life’s fragile light could flicker and fade in just the few moments it would take for someone to give the order to flip the terrible switch.

Watching the river flow

I warmed up for the celebration of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday by attending a great show — Blondes on “Blonde on Blonde” — presented last Saturday as part of the Concerts at the Crossing series held in Titusville, N.J., near Washington Crossing, where, yes indeed, Washington crossed the Delaware and invaded Trenton.

I know…we should have let the British keep Trenton. But I lived there with my parents right after I was born. My young father was serving in the Air Force, stationed at Fort Dix. So if Washington hadn’t crossed the Delaware and routed the Hessians, I’d be speaking with a British accent and…

I know.,.I’m drifting too far from the shore…Here’s a video of one of the “Blondes on Blonde on Blonde performers,” Sloan Wainwright, singing “Meet Me in the Morning” from “Blood on the Tracks” —

On the actual Bobday — Tuesday, May 24 — I sat by the banks of the Raritan River in New Jersey, reading a poem by Allen Ginsberg of Paterson, N.J., .listening to “Things Have Changed” by His Bobness…and watching and listening as an Orthodox Jew with a cantor’s voice stood alone at the riverside, first with his hands on his hips and then with his arms opened wide to the sky. The man chanted and sang a tune I did not recognize and words I did not understand, and he looked out over the holy river, and it was a confluence of Jewish poems and prayers, a meeting of the orthodox and the avant-garde, as the cantor and I sat and watched the river flow on Robert Zimmerman/Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday,

Here’s the song I was listening to, sung by the birthday boy himself:

And here’s Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton watching the river flow…

Embers

Whiteout. Blizzards of regret. Drifting thoughts. Snowed in by sorrow. Thin ice.

No need for any more wintry words…they won’t stoke the warming fire…they won’t quell the howling wind….

See that she has a coat so warm….Dylan and Cash…eloquently…sounds that come from deep within a heart where persistent embers flicker with the remnant spark of love…

Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go…

Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide…

The title of this post — of course! — is from the song “Uncle John’s Band” by the Grateful Dead.

Let me take you down ’cause I’m going to…
I’ve been staying recently in my old hometown of Yonkers, N.Y.

A time to mourn…
One morning a few weeks ago I acted on an impulse and visited my father’s grave — more specifically his pullout drawer high up in the marble wall of a creepy mausoleum in Hartsdale, N.Y.

To everything there is a season…

The depraved piped-in organ music and the sickly funeral-home smell of flowers got me thinking about my own funeral plans.

Little trip to heaven…
Basically I have no plans. I do know I’d like to be cremated. I do know I don’t want a funeral.

Imagine all the people….
I think I’d like my friends and family to gather for an informal nondenominational memorial celebration.

May you stay…forever young…
I’d like my younger daughter to read one of her poems. I’d like my son to play something on his guitar. I’d like my older daughter to choose and read some samples of my own writing.

No need for greed…no hunger….
I’d like donations to me made in my memory of anti-hunger groups, peace groups or literacy groups.

And…most important of all perhaps…

May your song always be sung…

I’d like there to be a really good sound system set up
to play these songs (in no particular order):
“Uncle John’s Band” by the Grateful Dead
“Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles
“Little Trip to Heaven” by Tom Waits
A Bach cantata
“Forever Young” by Bob Dylan
“Turn Turn Turn” by Pete Seeger
“Amazing Grace” (no bagpipes, please!)
and, of course, “Imagine” by John Lennon

Someone who’s more than dear to me wants her final farewell to include Eva Cassidy’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World…”

My poor father requested “Ave Maria.”

So many other songs would be appropriate and meaningful and sprung from the heart. So maybe I’ll add a few more songs and someone can burn a CD…it would make a nice departing gift for everyone in the studio audience to take home — and take to heart.

Retreating

Spending a week in a small town in the Berkshires, at a writers retreat, I find myself wondering…”retreat?”

Am I retreating from life? No. Am I retreating from life’s pain? No. Am I retreating from life’s joys? No. No. No. Am I retreating from the having to worry about overdue bills? No — my cellphone is turned on and I check my email several times daily.

So what kind of retreat is this writers  retreat? Perhaps it’s more accurately described as a refuge, a haven, a safe house. It’s a place where the rules are that there are no rules except to respect the solitude of others, to whisper, to tread softly.

And it’s a place where it’s OK to step into an empty church in this small town and sit and contemplate and pray in one’s own way of praying, to remember and cherish and wish and dream.

And it’s place where around a bend in the road blooms a field of wildly yellow wildflowers…

Where one road leads to home and another leads to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst and I choose the road less traveled and stare up at Emily’s window and imagine her white ghostly beauty…

Where the home housing this writers retreat overflows with books including, of all things, a book of Korean love poems, including a poem called “Unforgettable:”

If you cannot forget,
Let it be unforgotten.
One day you will forget.

If you cannot forget,
Let her go unforgotten.
Some part, or all, will fade one day.

But you will answer still
“How can I forget
When this flame burns in my heart?”

There is no way to pull back or retreat, I say. A heart given fully can not be retrieved.