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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
A case I thought I had settled blew up again. My star witness gave a statement to the defense. I don’t know why and everybody in the office seemed to blame me for that although I had no idea. I’d given the guy every warning. You don’t have to talk to them, I said. It can only hurt your case. They aren’t your friends, I told him. I don’t know what they want me to do to keep a lid on. Threaten the guy. I don’t know. I thought this would make a good month for me. And it was about time. Now it’s just one more staff meeting where I’ll have to ask for patience; tell them it’s coming.
I hope it’s coming.
And then this call from the school. I’ve done my best with Duane ; given him lots of time; lots of encouragement; lots of instruction. I do remember school myself, what a bunch of idiots there were there. How they worked to make life miserable for anybody that didn’t pay their dues. Made life miserable for me. Don’t want that for my kid. Do about anything to keep that from happening.
In one passing moment just now I allow myself to think again of all I had hoped for for Duane: that these high-school years would be good ones, happy ones, for him. That he would have friends, be respected, have dates, dance, play ball. All that.
Duane is a good kid and that’s not just me talking. Anybody would tell you that – his teachers, his friends’ parents, anybody. So, that much is good. The way it ought to be. But I worry about other things. Him being the one who gets picked on; always getting the short end of the stick. He’d settle for that, just to keep the peace; I know him.
But I also know that in this world he’ll inhabit for the next four years settling to keep the peace will not keep the peace. It will invite further abuse. The more you give in this context, the more they’ll take. Anybody who has been through it will tell you the same.
And now here I am in the waiting room outside the principal’s office. Called in from my office. A meeting about my son and no word at all from him. I don’t know what this is about, but I have a strong hunch that he’s gotten into a fight and gotten whipped and is now in trouble with the school even though he was not the aggressor. I want to blow up against the principal if I find this to be the case but I remind myself that that will be counterproductive in the long run and that I need to keep my cool.
As I sit I am already feeling terrible for Duane. I don’t want him living in this rut that I lived through and I want to stop this sad music from repeating itself and I feel powerless. I have done all I could do to prevent this. Hanging that heavy bag in the basement when he was seven years old, so he’d learn how to punch. Telling Duane that if he gets picked on he can let it all loose and it’s alright. I’ll answer for any damage if that was the case. But Duane, that’s not his impulse. He’s not a big guy, either.
Now the secretary opens the door to the office.
“Mr. Davis, won’t you come in?”
I walk inside, doing my best to look calm. To look like I do this every day. Like I know what I am doing. Like I am ready to defend my son. I’m even carrying a folder with a legal pad inside as a prop. The first thing I notice is that Duane is not in the room. At first I am relieved. Whatever this is should be easier for me outside of Duane’s presence. But then it strikes me that he may not be here because he is hurt and somewhere in a dispensary or even hospital.
The principal, Hobart Bailey, is an older gentleman who many would say is so far past his prime that he can’t keep up with the goings on at the school. He stands, nods to me, then points to a chair before his desk and tells his secretary that he wants to speak to me alone. She obviously knew this was coming and closes the door quietly on her way out. I am almost sick to my stomach with apprehension; with fear. We both sit down.
“I wanted you to get this straight from me, unfiltered. And the reason for that is that I actually saw everything that happened. . .”
“Excuse me, sir,” I interrupt, “But I don’t have any idea why I am here. Is my son okay?”
I am almost shocked at his response. He smiles and chuckles. “Oh, yes. Duane is in fine shape. He’s in the library right now and you’ll pick him up in just a minute. But I want to explain to you a few things, man to man.”
“Well, your son was getting picked on. Just outside the door of the shop class. I was inside a classroom just across the hall. The light was off in that room and they could not see me, but I saw everything that happened. You’ll be pleased to know that after the other guy – an upperclassman – slapped your son he grabbed the guy by the neck and had him on the floor in no time. Duane held him in a stranglehold headlock and the guy was gasping for air. I came out into the hallway, but I didn’t intervene immediately. I’ve had trouble with that other guy time and again these past two years and I’ll tell you that something in me – this was not the most professional response, I know – but something in me just reveled in seeing this guy just his just desserts. So I let it go until the other guy was gasping and just about to pass out and then I told Duane to let loose. The other kid was completely disoriented and almost unconscious by then. It was a thing of beauty, I’ll tell you. I wish it had been my son that did it. But here’s the thing, David. I am stuck here. There is a written policy here in place at the school that anyone who gets into a fight must be disciplined. You know how these rules are these days. I’ve got no discretion in the matter. I guess when they wrote this policy they didn’t allow for those cases where the principal himself saw the whole thing So, Duane is going to have a week of detention hall. Half an hour after school for the next five days. It was the other guy’s third offense, so he’s kicked out for two weeks. I can’t stop that from happening, but I wanted you to know that Duane was in the right and that he acted bravely and that he has probably put one of my major disciplinary problems to rest for the year. I don’t think Duane will be having any more problems like this for the rest of his time here. I wasn’t the only one who saw it. Word will get around.
“I know that both you and Clare are working now and I know that Duane being kept after for half an hour will present a problem. He’ll miss his bus, I know. But here’s where I can help out. I leave for home at about the time Duane will be getting out of detention hall. I can bring him out your way and drop him off myself. It’s no trouble for me, and to tell you the truth, I’d like to get to know this young man a little better.”
He has finished his speech, but I am so moved that at first I cannot speak. This is an answer, no, the answer, to my most secret prayer. I don’t know that I have ever felt more grateful or more gratified. I try to maintain my composure and act as if what I have been told is exactly what I would have expected from my son.
“Well, sir. I thank you for this. I appreciate the offer of the ride for Duane. I’m sure we’ll take you up on that. I’ll get out of your way now. Did you say that Duane is right across the hall?”
“He is. Sarah will point you to the room.”
I stand and turn and Mr. Bailey speaks again. “David. This has nothing to do with the fight, but we got Duane’s standardized test scores back today. Just a coincidence, I guess. I want you to look at this. Look at his score on the math section.”
He hands me the print out and I scan it and orient myself to its format and in the lower right corner see the 800 score on the math section.
“That’s a perfect score, David. We see something like that once every ten years, maybe. It puts Duane in the top one-tenth of one percent of the test takers. He’s one in a thousand. That means an academic scholarship is in his near future. Maybe even Ivy League. My idea right now, David, is to keep this quiet for the time being. You agree?”
The law was here an hour or two ago. Wantin’ to know about that car that’s been parked over there by them trees. Been there for days. I didn’t know how it got there, I told them. They asked if I’d been drivin’ the thing and I told ‘em no. They said they had a witness. No, they had witnesses, they said. Had me drivin’ that thing down in town the other day. Well, I said, I might of had it out just for a spin. The keys was in the damn thing. Just settin’ there, by them trees, keys hangin’ in the ignition. Who wouldn’t of taken it out? I’d forgot about doin’ that, I told ‘em. I could of been drunk, I said.
They was two cops. Deputies, really. One of them was rubbin’ me the wrong way, actin’ like they knew I stole the damn thing. I don’t know nothin’ about it, I said. Whose car it is. Nothin’. Wouldn’t want the damn thing, I said. Hell, if I was gonna steal a car, go to all that trouble, I’d of got me something better than that. Make it worth my time, I said. One of ‘em laughed at that. The other one just kept on me. Wouldn’t let up. I don’t even know who owns that property over there anymore. Ain’t nobody lived in that house for twenty years, I told ’em.
I think that feller that laughed at my joke might be related to old Gary Watson up at Ashford.
They wanted to know where I was Saturday night. My whereabouts, they called it. Told them I couldn’t remember right off, but I might of been huntin’ all night. They asked me what was in season and I told ‘em I was a’huntin’ coyotes. There ain’t no season for them mongrels. You can shoot ‘em all year round. Any time of day. There’s plenty of ‘em around and they’re a damned nuisance.
Who was you with, they wanted to know. Said I don’t remember that either. Sometimes I drink when I’m in the woods. Particularly at night. Particularly if it’s cold. There’s some boys around here that I hunt with, but I don’t know if any of ‘em was with me Saturday night, if I was out in the woods. People come and go at night. None of us makes plans. You never know who’s gonna be up on that ridge of an evening, dogs a runnin’. Who might it a been, they asked me. Give us names of who it might of been. I don’t know, I said. Could of been anybody. Just can’t remember right now.
Where’s the keys? They asked me. You got the keys here in the house? Far as I know them keys is still out there still in the ignition. They ain’t there, they said. Could we look in your house here? No, I told ‘em. You ain’t got no warrant and I ain’t about to let you go diggin’ around in my house. My family home, for cryin’ out loud. Ain’t about to do it. Man’s home is his castle, I said. We can get a warrant, they told me. Be back out here in an hour. You go right on ahead, I said. Go right ahead. That’s the last I said to ‘em. They ain’t been back. Maybe they’re comin’. I don’t know. Cops talk big sometimes. Try to put fear in you. They come back here they ain’t gonna find no keys in this house. Them keys is still in the ignition out there. I checked right after they left. There they was, just hangin’ there in the ignition, like before.
Why would they of lied to me about a thing like that?
On sunny summer days I travel in time
With the music on the breeze
And the light on the slow clouds
(Always backward, I know no future)
To steep riverbanks and wet stones
Where I stood with the rope swing in hand
And arced into the air above the blue water
If I could seize a day
I would capture this one
With its gigantic white clouds
Drifting in the sun
And no clock ticking
And in the afternoon a breeze
A faint taste of heaven
That wakens memory
I hear the saxophone and piano
Stream melody and chords
From a window down the lane
And wish that the song
Would go on forever.