Learning To Dance

When Wendell Douglas come back from the war he looked to be about a foot taller.  He’d volunteered as soon as he was of age and shipped out right before the Allies took the beaches in Normandy.  He didn’t see combat, but he sailed on a troop boat to France and worked as a guard in a hospital there for nearly a year.  I saw him come home.  He stepped out of the bus in uniform and carrying his duffle.  It was freezing cold and wind blowing snow everywhere, but he just stepped out onto the sidewalk and walked the two blocks to his house down on Allen Street.  I knew things would pick up in the neighborhood after that, and they did.

In the year that Wendell was overseas I still walked over to White’s Confectionery every now and then.  I’d have a root-beer float and sit there and talk to Mrs. White or her fat daughter, whoever happened to be serving that evening.  The juke box was almost never playing and no one was ever on the little rectangle of a dance floor. The Whites made their money on the junior-high crowd.  The school was only a block away and the kids would flood into there at lunch hour and pack the place and the music would be blaring and kids eating hot dogs and drinking sodas and dancing for all of the forty-five minutes between the two lunch bells. Same thing for the hour after school let out.  I hadn’t been a part of that since I had moved up to the high school.  Evenings at Whites were nothing like that.  Sometimes I was the only customer in the store.  Some winter nights they even hurried me out of the place so they could close down early.  They’d have the lights off before I got out the door.

I’d walk around the neighborhood for a while, even in the cold and snow, just looking at the houses and watching the cars on the streets and up on the state road.  On Wednesday evenings they’d be having prayer meeting at the Church of God and I’d walk by the lit-up windows and sometimes hear them singing, Wendell’s mom playing the piano. Down the next block I’d usually see Missy Harless on the corner of Second and Allen Streets. She’d be standing there under the street lamp in her coat and hat, waiting on the bus to take her to the hospital for the evening shift.  She always spoke. Always called me by name.

By now there were gold stars in the windows of at least one house on every street I walked.  I knew some of the boys who had been killed.  Didn’t know some of the others

I knew that Danny Turley and Doug Griffith and that bunch were somewhere around. Guys who had already graduated but who the Army wouldn’t take.  Danny had somehow managed to get himself a car and he drove it up and down the state road in town and all around the neighborhood, shifting gears and squealing the tires.  My grandpa had told me to steer clear of those boys; that they were heading for trouble, sure as the world.

Every now and then I would get up the nerve to go two blocks over and walk by Janet Thompson’s house.  I’d been inside it a few times when we were little kids, just playing.  But now it was a kind of mysterious place, one I hoped to be inside of again, but not in the same way.  Her house looked different than the others: the yellow light in the windows, the neatly-shoveled and swept walkway and porch steps, the red mailbox by the door.

But when Wendell came home there was no more time for walking around.

Wendell was the only one of us who wasn’t afraid to dance and when the girls found out he was back in town the evening traffic at White’s Confectionary picked up right away.  He’d head over there right after dinner and order a soda and fill the jukebox with nickels and have the music going strong before the girls started to filter in. For the first few weeks he wore his uniform nearly everywhere.

He’d learned new dances in France and the girls were wild for him to teach them.  In a few weeks it became obvious that he had a strong preference for Beverly Thompson.  None of us were surprised by that; she was the beauty of the town.  But I’d had my eye on her sister Janet for a long time. Since junior high at least.  I saw her standing in her yard one day.  I was on the way down to the school courts to look for a basketball game and she was just out there by the little maple tree.  She saw me and smiled and I admitted something to myself then and there that I had probably been feeling a long time and just didn’t want to own up to.  I liked her. Almost enough to make a public confession of it.  Almost.  But I worried. What if she didn’t want to hear any such thing from me?  Or what if I said it and then changed my mind?  I’d done that kind of thing before.

And so, it was never anything more than polite hellos between her and me.  I had a class with her once, but didn’t sit close to her. Other guys took her to the school dances and I just never asked anybody.  But once Wendell came home and people started congregating in White’s Confectionary again, I got up the nerve to talk to her and I swore to myself that when the opportunity came, I’d ask her to dance, two left feet and all. I’d asked Wendell if he could tell me anything that would help me get those moves he’d learned in France but he just said it wasn’t the kind of thing you could learn by talking about it.  “You just got to get out there and move.  I don’t know what I’m doing half the time.  Just go on and get out there.  Nothing is going to happen unless you try.  She don’t really care if you can dance.  She only cares about whether you’ll ask her.”

Well, one evening Janet and Beverly and Wendell and a bunch of other kids were there. We’d been talking a lot that evening and there were other people around talking, but then there were just the two of us and “Wonderland By Night” came on the juke box and she looked at me and smiled and said “This is my favorite song.” And I had been told that slow dances were the easiest to fake and I knew that this was it, this was my chance, and that she knew it too and if I passed this one up there might not be another one and so I said “Let’s dance,” and we stood and she took my hand and before I knew it, we were dancing and it was so easy. I’ll tell you the truth, I’d thought a lot about Janet Thompson.  What it might be like to be with her.  Have her choose me.  But I had never imagined how dancing with her would feel.  I moved and she responded.  It was as if she was weightless.  I started that evening hoping I’d never have to dance and I ended it hoping that dancing with Janet would never end.   Everybody in town – well, almost everybody – thought her older sister was better looking, but Janet was the better dancer.  No question about that.

After that night, Janet and I kind of got in the habit of sitting at the same table with Wendell and Beverly and listening to his stories about what he’d seen and done in France. Wendell had got on down at the lumberyard and he told me that they were hiring right then and that I should get down there and apply.  “You’ll be in the yard for a while,” he said.  “But with the war over and everybody coming home, the lumber business is going to boom.  They’ve already bought three more acres just to stack more boards.  The way business is going you’ll make it into sales in no time and start getting paid on commission.”

 Janet was enthusiastic about that, and when I told her I’d got the job, she was straightforward about getting married.  “What’s the point of all this flirting around if we aren’t going to do it?  You know, the whole thing?”  I wasn’t really ready for the question, but the answer was easier than I thought it would be.  Things had been going well for me down at the yard.   I had a knack for estimating costs and amounts and I felt confident that I’d be able to handle it all, sales and everything. I knew what my grandpa would tell me to do without ever asking him.  

“We should get married,” I said. “Why not?”

Word of our decision got back to Wendell real quick and I guess that Beverly must’ve asked him something like what Janet had asked me.  Wendell told me that they were going to do it – tie the knot.  “Why don’t we do it together?’ he asked.  “You think the girls would like that?  Their church is just over there on the corner.”

It was easier than I thought it would be.  Their folks were both happy about it and the preacher was ready for us.  Wendell wore his uniform at the ceremony.

His mom played the piano.

copyright 2021

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Poem for August

It is always August.

If time would stop, it would stand still

Under the dog star.

Winter lingers, but all of that season is labor

Boots, gloves, scarves and coats

Off and on, on and off

Snow shovels and firewood

What shivering creature stops to contemplate a grey sky?

We spend March and April longing for June

And in May we are ecstatic and the days pass

Almost without our knowing

July is full swing

Long-planned travel, hours in the car

Hurry up and rest, hurry up and enjoy

.

Spring is bursting birth

and fall, dramatic death

But August is stasis

and we sit in the warm evening

by the still-warm water

and think it will always be this way,

it should always be this way.

There is no rush into August

Nothing is planned there

We sleep late

And sit outside all night

Who works or worries then?

There is no rush away from August

No one wants to hear that first bell.

Stop time.

Stay here.

Breathe.

Copyright 2017

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Afternoon Post, August 5, 2021

When Wendell Douglas come back from the war he looked to be about a foot taller.  He’d volunteered as soon as he was of age and shipped out right before the Allies took the beaches in Normandy.  He didn’t see combat, but he sailed on a troop boat to France and worked as a guard in a hospital there for nearly a year.  I saw him come home.  He stepped out of the bus in uniform and carrying his duffle.  It was freezing cold and wind blowing snow everywhere, but he just stepped out onto the sidewalk and walked the two blocks to his house down on Allen Street.  I knew things would pick up in the neighborhood after that, and they did.

Wendell was the only one of us who wasn’t afraid to dance and when the girls found out he was back in town the traffic at White’s Confectionary picked up right away.  He’d head over there right after dinner and order a soda and fill the jukebox with nickels and have the music going strong before the girls started to filter in. For the first few weeks he wore his uniform nearly everywhere.

He’d learned new dances in France and the girls were wild for him to teach them.  In a few weeks it became obvious that he had a strong preference for Beverly Thompson.  None of us were surprised by that, she was the beauty of the town.  But, I’d had my eye on her sister Janet for a long time and when the opportunity came for me to ask her, I did, and we did the best we could to follow what we’d seen Wendell do.  Sometimes we’d sit at the same table with Wendell and Beverly and listen to his stories about what he’d seen and done in France. Wendell had got on down at the lumberyard and he told me that they were hiring right then and that I should get down there and apply.  “You’ll be in the yard for a while,” he said.  “But the way business is going you’ll make it into sales in no time and start getting paid on commission.”

 Janet was enthusiastic about that, and when I told her I’d got the job, she was straightforward about getting married.  “What’s the point of all this flirting around if we aren’t going to do it?  You know, the whole thing?”  I wasn’t really ready for the question, but the answer was easier than I thought it would be.  Things had been going well for me down at the yard, and I felt confident that I’d be able to handle it all, sales and everything. “We should get married,” I said. “Why not?”

Word of our decision got back to Wendell real quick and I guess that Beverly asked him something like what Janet had asked me.  Wendell told me that they were going to do it – tie the knot.  “Why don’t we do it together,’ he asked.  ‘You think the girls would like that?  Their church is just over there on the corner.”

It was easier than I thought it would be.  Their folks were both happy about it and the preacher was ready for us.  Wendell wore his uniform at the ceremony.

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Riding The Elk River Rail Trail

When I first see the trail, I don’t know which direction to start in.  I’m in Duck, West Virginia, at the northernmost point on the expanding Elk River Rail Trail.   I’m parked in a cinder lot, obviously made for trail users, next to what was once a railroad crossing.  This lot, I surmise, may have been the town’s station decades ago, when the trains still ran this route.  From my car it looks like the trail goes both ways, but I know that I am at the northern terminus of the groomed trail.  But, at the moment, I just don’t know which way is south.

It’s not hard to find this spot, you take exit 46 off of I-79 onto Servia Road and follow the signs some 2.8 miles to Duck.  It’s that simple, but there are so many twists and turns on the Servia Road that I have lost my sense of direction. 

This lot would accommodate around 15 vehicles, but as I arrive, at 11:30 on a Friday morning, there is only one truck on the lot. A couple of nearby houses, but not a soul to be seen anywhere.  As I pull my bike from my car, I spot the corner of a building a block or two to my left with an “OPEN” sign lighted.

When I actually get my wheels onto the trail it becomes obvious which way I must go.  I try going left and find that the surface is soft there.  My wheels sink and I slow to a crawl and I see that this is the beginning stage in creating a rideable surface.  This is part of the ongoing expansion project.

So, I do a one-eighty and ride onto the hard-packed, crushed gravel of the groomed trail and in minutes I am entunnelled in the shade of hardwoods, speeding merrily along the banks of the Elk River.

For the first several miles I am averaging about 13 mph, which is pretty good for me on a trail such as this.  Almost all of the gradation on converted railroad beds is minimal.  You never have to pull hard up a grade and you don’t coast downhill.  Very little gear shifting involved.

For the most part, the going is smooth, but I do notice an unusual number of dead branches on the trail.  Unusual to me, at least.  I have ridden the Virginia Creeper Trail from White Top Mountain to Abingdon and the Greenbrier River Trail from Cass to Anthony in West Virginia.  Those trails are the same idea as this one – converted from abandoned mountain railroad beds – but they are more heavily traveled and, apparently, better maintained than this one.  The fallen branches I encounter are no thicker than a Magic Marker and can be ridden over, but their frequency requires a greater degree of concentration on the trail ahead than the other trails.

To my left there is a steep, wooded drop-off and then the river.  The water is beautiful today.  The Elk River is a sandy-bottomed stream, dotted here and there by little islands and rocky spots where it breaks up into riffles and shoals.  Today the water is a clear green and in the shallow runs you can see the golden riverbottom. Trouble is, on a summer day like this one, with the overhanging trees in full foliage, the river is pretty well hidden most of the time.

Now and then I pass over bridges spanning the little creeks feeding into the river.  These bridges look newly constructed and are very substantial, solid and safe – just as good or better than those on the other trails.

I don’t know where I’m going.  The literature on line about the trail is dated and there are no signs along the way indicating what’s ahead and how far.  I’ve just decided that I’ll ride 15 miles or so and then head back so I’ll be back home in Saint Albans – about 60 miles away – before the quitting time traffic starts.

Given the limitation of the view, every turn in the road looks much the same.  Really pretty, but little variation.  Eight miles in, I have seen at least five deer, but not another person on the trail, no cyclists, no hikers, no runners, no one on horseback.   Once in a while I pass an old house or riverside camp, almost all of which appear to have been abandoned.  There is one such house in particular, right off of the trail, that is intriguing. A two-story, white clapboard house, now overgrown with vines, that was a beauty in its day and must have some interesting stories to tell.

At about the ten-mile marker I come out of the forest and cross a paved road and I see another cyclist, obviously a local, peddling toward a row of houses.  “Where am I?” I ask her.  “Ivydale,” she responds.  I remember Ivydale as being a hotspot for traditional Appalachian music some fifty years ago.  The Morris Brothers lived and played here then; I think.  But there is no sign of music-making as I pass.  There is a line of houses parallel with the trail here.  I see a Methodist church and another, larger church with a playground, but there is no evidence of a store or any other commerce in sight.  On my right, as I head out of Ivydale, I pass a man sitting on his back porch with his dog.  I wave hello.

Then I am back into the forest and back into the same narrow shady tunnel.  I ride another five miles and see no sign of any kind, there is no break in the tunnel and so I stop the bike at a random spot and eat my snacks.  By now I’ve been on the trail well over an hour and I still haven’t seen another rider or walker going either way.  As I chomp my apple the voices of two men waft across the river and I hear cars passing on the highway on the other side of the river.

On the way back I focus less on making good time – I know that I will beat the traffic home – and I stop at places where the foliage breaks enough for me to get a photograph of the river.  I see another five or six deer, including a doe with two fawns, and a big turkey, waddling down the trail before it flies off into the high branches above. 

When I am within two miles of the trail’s end I at last see a pair of cyclists coming my way.  Before I am done, I’ll see one other pair.

With my bike put away I decide to check out the little store down the road.  I’m glad that I did, and not just because I got a cold drink there.

I expected a local convenience store. Sort of a mom-and-pop version of a Seven Eleven. But that’s not what I found.  This place is Nottingham’s Self-Service Store and it is a true, old-time general store.  You walk inside and see old folks sitting around talking and you see the inventory of hardware and fishing gear and groceries.  But this store is not a museum, it’s a going concern.  There were customers before and after me.

At the checkout I start a conversation with the man who is obviously the proprietor of the place.

 “What was this rail line primarily used for back in the day?  Coal or timber?” 

“More coal than timber, but the main traffic was trains of tank cars coming out of Charleston, carrying chemicals from the plants in the Kanawha Valley to Gassaway and a junction with a trunk line going into Baltimore and other eastern cities.  Some of them more than a mile long. There would be three or four trains a day in the busy years.  I remember when it was steam locomotives.  That old whistle would blow.”

“Was there any passenger service?”

“There was.  I remember my first train ride.  I was five years old and my mother was taking me to Gassaway.  I was scared to get on.  Took three or four people to handle me.

I used to get part of my inventory off of the train.  I sell farm feed and that came by boxcar.  I also used to deal in men’s shoes and I bought from an outfit in St Louis.  They shipped by rail and I’d know when the train was coming.  It would slow down as it passed here and the man would toss the boxes of shoes out and I’d pick them up and bring them into the store.”

I asked him other questions about the work being done on the trail and he told me the next step was an extension of the trail north to Frametown.  He also told me that if I had kept going south for another five miles I would have arrived in the town of Clay.  Clay is a county seat and there are accommodations there.  If I had known I was that close, I might have kept going.

There are also efforts underway to extend the trail farther south, from Clay to Clendenin.  That would make the car trip there much shorter for me and would make the trail more attractive to the population in the Kanawha Valley.  This trail is still a work in progress.  It’s nice enough the way it is just now, but it has the potential to be a major attraction once it gets closer to the Kanawha Valley.

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Morning Poem, April 28, 2021

First thing I hear is the sound of a train

Did it wake me?

I know its route

It comes out of the south

Will it take me?

It bellows and moans, like a calf in pain.

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Evening Poem, March 25, 2021

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At twilight the great birds gather

In the naked sycamores

Their black wings rasping as they move

From branch to branch

Now they lift slowly

As if through water

Their wing whispers multiplied

Wild and magical sound of blessing

They drift now, and swirl

Following some leader

And vanish into the shadows of the pines

And the coming night

.

.

copyright 2021

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Morning Post, February 17, 2021

Remember snow days when we were kids?  While it was still dark Mom or Dad would crack the bedroom door and say ‘You can sleep in, buddy. No school today.’  Was anything ever more relaxing; more welcome?  Then breakfast was a leisurely affair. We didn’t know what leisure was.  Life was a rush of assignments and activities, a coping with teachers, some of them crazy, and coming to terms with ourselves as we changed, day by day, and as the world around us whirled like a kaleidoscope.

I would stand over the floor furnace, straddling the grate, looking down into the lines of blueflame jets and then step to my window and look out through the ice-rimmed pane at the grey sky and the empty streets.

Time stood still long enough for me to find myself in it.  That is, to feel in some wordless way how early was the morning and how rapid was the river.

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Afternoon Poem #2, February 16, 2021

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The ice sheet hovers atop the lawn

Pierced here and there only by those spikes of grass

That survived October’s last cutting

A thin, translucent membrane, never seen before

The roof for some tiny night world that will thrive and disappear

Like the rest of them

.

copyright 2021

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Afternoon Poem, February 16, 2021.

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The heavens are miserly this day

Even with the snow

The flakes blow sidewise

In a mad dance

I could count the petty few of them

Even the sluices of heaven are frozen

Like the doors of some abandoned house

There is no music or song

No white blanket

Only rigid edges and brittle branches

.

.

copyright 2021

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Please Let Me Wonder

“And now here we are here together...”

Posted on August 25, 2016 by labeak52

The whole trip had been my idea, but it hadn’t been hard to sell. We drove 200 miles from Charleston, West Virginia to Roanoke, Virginia last weekend to see Brian Wilson in concert. We were lucky to have all our schedules open for the date, but it happened and so my wife, my two adult sons and I jumped into one car on Saturday morning and by mid-afternoon we were standing in line outside the Elmwood Park Amphitheater in downtown Roanoke in the August heat waiting for them to open the gates.

Wilson belongs to my generation, but my wife, whose tastes were formed in the eighties, has learned to love his music and our two boys, both millennials, have, in their separate ways, developed a real appreciation for him. We’ve watched Love and Mercy, passed around copies of Pet Sounds and discussed the life and music of Brian Wilson hours on end.

Our older son is a drummer with experience in several garage/frat-party bands. He has learned something about the history of rock and roll and through his own reading and listening to my stories has come to appreciate the truth that the real explosions in rock music occurred in the sixties and that pretty much everything that has happened after that has been echoes of that first thunder. He’s an unabashed twelve-bar- blues-progression guy and he locks on to the big Beach Boys hits – Barbara Ann, Help Me Rhonda. Our younger son is a guitarist who has played some electric in college campus bands, but is essentially bent toward more pensive stuff. He knows Pet Sounds inside and out by now.   My wife loves it all, but, bless her beautiful heart, she gets something extra just from seeing me as happy as that music makes me.

And it does make me happy. I was fourteen when Brian Wilson was twenty-four and right at the peak of his powers. I lived in Houston, Texas for the 1966-67 school year and the Beach Boys were everywhere then. Like everyone else in those days, I would wait by the radio until the DJ played the Beach Boys and then I would turn it up. At night I listened to In My Room while I was in my room, doing my dreaming and my scheming and lying awake to pray. And did I mention that down there in Texas there was this girl. I loved the colorful clothes she’d wear and, oh, yeah, the way the sunlight played upon her hair.

I stayed loyal to the Beach Boys even when I was in college and it was uncool to like that kids’ stuff. My friends looked for the unusual and esoteric in the record stores and I was still cranking Don’t Worry Baby. Living in landlocked West Virginia, I nonetheless bought a surfboard and found ways to get down to the Carolina beaches every summer. They thought I was crazy. What I learned then was that I just wasn’t made for those times.

On the way down to Roanoke we talked a little bit about why Wilson had undertaken such a monster tour. He’s seventy-four years old, for crying out loud, not in great health, either, and this juggernaut consists of 73 dates in places as far away as Norway and Iceland. I think we all came to agree that he doesn’t need the money.

There could be many reasons. Maybe he’s more than a little steamed at cousin Mike Love for cutting him back out of the Beach Boys, Inc. that Love now owns controlling interest in. Maybe he wants to show Mike that he can still do it – still withstand the rigors of the road and still draw crowds. Maybe he wants to prove that whether Mike Love will admit it or not everyone else realizes that Brian Wilson was and is the Beach Boys. Subtract any one of the other founders and not much would change. Subtract Brian Wilson and you would have had four or five teenaged Californians who, if they had a band at all, would never have made their way into anything grander than local high-school dances.

The Elmwood Amphitheater in Roanoke is a pretty comfy place. The terraces going up the hillside are lush grass and the seating is generous and uncramped. We arrived early and staked out seats directly in front and only a few rows back from the stage.

I had seen the Beach Boys once or twice in my younger, concert-going days, but I had never seen Brian Wilson. He didn’t tour with them back then. I knew that when I saw him I would nonetheless feel some recognition, all of it emotionally based. I knew that when I saw him, I would feel like I knew him. But that’s not what happened. At least that’s not all that happened. When Brian Wilson lumbered onto the stage and sat down at his piano, he looked into the crowd. Into the crowd in front of him and a few rows back. He looked at me. And the feeling I got was not so much that I knew him, but that he knew me. Why not? He has written my life.

And I knew then why he took on this tour. It was to see me and people like me who have lived on his music but who he missed the first time around. This was one last gift. This one was for me.

During the encore, a generous helping of powerfully and faithfully-rendered Beach Boys’ up-tempo hits, I stopped my own singing and dancing and took a look around at the crowd.  All inhibitions were gone and the air was incandescent and filled with joy.  Most were dancing, but a few stood simply entranced, smiling and nodding.  Yes, this is it, they may have thought.  This is exactly it.

What is it?  What are these songs that light us up like nothing else can do?  I’ve heard them described several ways – as anthems, even as hymns.  But the better analogy is this:  the songs of Brian Wilson are the Psalms of young Americans, reminding us, on the one hand, that our struggles are real and shared and, on the other, promising us surpassing happiness in some place without dissonance or grief where all the kids surf and dance, drive hot rods, get the girl, make the varsity and stay true to their school.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

The songs of Brian Wilson gave us solace and our first hope of glory.  What would our generation have been without them?

God only knows.

copyright 2016

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