I read recently about a former Marine who was attacked by four armed thugs – two of whom had guns – as he walked home from his job at an Atlanta restaurant.

Thomas Autry, who is 36, was jumped as he was walking home from work. He called for help and pulled a knife out of his backpack, and got busy. The upshot: One attacker dead, one in critical condition, and two in custody.

Only a Marine would take a knife to a gunfight and walk away the victor.

Police, sensibly enough, did not charge Autry. Of course, Atlanta is the South, where I grew up, and, for good or ill, the South has always viewed weapons of any kind as educational tools and instruments of attitude adjustment.

I guess every guy dreams about having his own “John Wayne Moment.” I had one once. There is a song that says “life is different than it is in your dreams.”

My John Wayne Moment came late one summer in the late 1960s. My wife and I lived in a little wooden farm house on Turkeyfoot Road in Clarke County, Ga… The house sat back in a clearing in thick pine woods, at the end of a long dirt driveway.

We were hippies, sort of, and the house was small and isolated, but had most of the modern amenities. Well, there was an outhouse that you had to chase the copperheads out of when you needed to go, and the electricity was limited to a single light bulb hanging from the center of each of the rooms. But it did have running water, though no water heater and we had to bathe in a washtub on the front porch.

Still, it was $50 a month and we liked it. Until the strange car started showing up.

It was an old white Ford Falcon station wagon, not in good repair. There were always three or four guys in it. The car would drive to the edge of the clearing, stop, and just sit there, idling.

The men just sat there, watching. I approached them the first time, thinking they might be lost. They backed up and left. They came back several times over the next few weeks. I didn’t like the way they looked at us, especially the way they looked at Mary. They always had beer.

We did not have a telephone.

After about the third visit from the Falcon, I drove to my parent’s house and dug out my old Stevens .22 automatic rifle and a couple boxes of cartridges.

And a good thing, too.

In the small hours of the next day, the Falcon was back. This time, it drove right up into the yard. A man got out of the front passenger side, and strode right up on the porch. He walked right past the bedroom window. In the moonlight, I could see he had a knife.

It was hot, so the door was open, the screen latched. I heard him cut through the screen.

I don’t remember this part, but Mary said I rose up off the mattress, cursing and praying in the same breath, and, scooping up the rifle, ran toward the porch.

I was a good shot, back then. My buddies and I used to hunt rabbits with .22’s. This was a fat man in a white shirt on a moonlit night. I figured he was mine.

The man jumped off the porch and ran toward the far side of the clearing. I ran out into the yard, raised the rifle, and fired all 15 rounds at him.

At that point, I remembered the Falcon wagon and the fat man’s three friends. The car was about 10 feet to my left.

This was my John Wayne Moment. One bad guy, I thought, perforated in the piney woods. Three drunk bad guys and a ton or so of steel to my left.

And me, long hair sticking straight out every which way, wearing nothing but a St. Christopher medal, a Timex watch, and an empty rifle. Not even a cowboy hat.

It was a moment, all right. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more naked.

I don’t know how long we all stood or sat there, respectively. Seemed like a long time to me, but I didn’t check the Timex. The driver of the Falcon threw the battered old heap into reverse and tore down the driveway without bothering to turn around. I guess he didn’t realize my gun was empty.

Suddenly, there I was, all alone, under the moon in the piney woods, standing barefoot in the red clay dust, wondering if I had made the whole thing up. I mean, it was the 60s, after all.

I think Mary came and got me back into the house. I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I did not sleep.

Nothing ever came of it, except the white car stopped coming around. I never called the Sheriff to report the event. The guy was, after all, running away from my house, so if I had hit him, I would have been the one going to jail.

I got a bunch of friends to come over and walk around looking for a fat guy with a lot of holes in him, but we never found him. I finally had to admit that I was so angry and afraid that all of my shots had gone wild. I have to say, though, that I never saw a fat man move so fast.

© 2006 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

PS: Do you know anybody else who might like to receive “Burger to Go?” Send me their email address and I’ll put it on the list. Thanks!

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Hanging with Dolphus

June 2, 2008

First published December, 2006: I read his name in the obituaries from my home town paper and I’ll swear on a stack of bibles that I broke out in a sweat and my back started hurting. Well, maybe not a stack. On one, anyway.

Dolphus was the hardest-working man I ever knew. The regularity with which I was assigned to work on his crew made me believe that the management of the city sanitation department had my own horrible death set as a goal in their black and shriveled hearts.

He was a hard, lean man, all knots and roots and ugly as a skinned weasel, and carried about him a strong smell of sweat and chewing tobacco.

I would like to write that one of Dolphus’ virtues was that he was killer accurate with his tobacco juice, but that would be an exaggeration. Dolphus’ brown trajectories would have been good examples for an anti-predestination clergyman to use to describe the random nature of the universe. Dolphus’ blue city dump truck had long brown streaks running down the driver’s side.

Not on the doors, though. The department head (reference “black and shriveled hearts” above) removed the heaters and doors from our trucks so that in the winter we would not huddle in the trucks to keep warm.

Not that keeping warm on Dolphus’ crew was a struggle.

Dolphus ran a brush crew, which meant that he and two helpers wandered from street to street picking up brush, fallen limbs, and chunks of trees left by residents on the curb to be picked up, and stacking them into an old blue dump truck, of which Dolphus was the Lord and Master.

Now, normally, those of us engaged in this effort loaded the dump truck up to a nice mound of brush and headed off to the county landfill, which gave us about an hour’s break. Most of us thought three loads was a fair day’s work.

So did Dolphus. Trouble is, Dolphus had a different idea of what constituted a load. To him, a load was when you couldn’t get any more on. That does not sounds like a big deal, unless you are one of the ones trying to jam one more branch, one more tree trunk, onto that teetering mass that loomed over the cab of the truck.

We were a sight to see. More often that not, the height of the stack in the truck was greater than the length of the truck itself. People used to just stand on the roadside to watch us pass. The load was stacked so high that one of us had to sit near the top and use a length of 2×4 lumber to lift the electrical wires out of the way while Dolphus eased us through. It took forever to get to the landfill that way, but somehow, Dolphus always managed to haul in three loads a day.

The one on top of the pile was usually me. Dolphus was the official driver, and there was no way on Earth either I or Frankie, the other helper, was going to get to drive that truck.

That was just as well in Frankie’s case, since he was usually under the influence of one or more illegal substances. He grinned a lot. Giving him the wheel of an overloaded dump truck stacked 20 wobbly feet high with logs and such would have been unwise. Also, Frankie was given to talking to people who were not actually present in any corporeal sense, and we all feared he might try to dodge around some of them if he was driving. Perching him on top of that load did not seem like a kindly thing to do, either.

Dolphus didn’t talk to people, invisible or otherwise. He’d hand you a tree branch 12 feet long and bent six ways from Sunday and tell you “Here.” At the end of the day, if he said anything, it was “eenin,” which was the word “evening,” as in “good evening,” filtered through a Deep Southern accent and percolated through about a pint of tobacco spit.

Too bad he’s dead. I would like to say that Frankie and I came to a kind of pride that we could hang with Dolphus all day without suffering severe bodily injury or staining by gummy arcs of masticated Red Man. In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor triumph, but I’ll take it.

© 2006 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

PS: Do you know anybody else who might like to receive “Burger to Go?” Send me their email address and I’ll put it on the list. Thanks!

Daniel Bartlett, August 1, 1960-Mary 21, 2002.

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

(from the funeral card.)

JoAnn told me Dan’s service would be held in a small chapel, so I promised not to use any big words.

On the way up here from Gettysburg, it struck me that perhaps our most persistent sin as humans is our sloppiness toward time.

We spend it like the government spends money, as though we had an unlimited supply. Time is our greatest thief, and now it has taken Danny away from us.

In the few short years I knew him; it never passed my mind that I would attend his funeral. Certainly not this soon.

We had a lot of fun when we’d get together, usually with our significant others. We didn’t see each other all that often, actually. We had work. We were busy. There was so much to do. There would always be time…later.

Well, later is here, now, and look where we are.

There is a lesson here, somewhere. I just know it.

Those who really knew Dan Bartlett will not be surprised to learn that most of our get-togethers involved food and laughter.

One of the many reasons I enjoyed hanging out with him was that he was one of the few people I know who could eat more than I. How he arranged to do that and have ME gain all the weight, I’ll never know.

His enthusiasms were as quick as they were energetic. I remember one time Dan and JoAnn were over for Sunday breakfast at our house. I’d made up a mess of biscuits. One of the condiments we had on the table was a jar of soybean butter. Dan gave it the old hairy eye-ball and announced that it must be simply God-awful, and he’d have none of it.

Well, I talked and cajoled and pleaded with him to give it a try.

Reluctantly, he agreed, and smeared a modest gob of the stuff on half a biscuit.

About 20 minutes later, 3/4 of the contents gone, I had to threaten to whack him on the head to get what was left of my jar of soybean butter back.

Dan’s sense of humor stayed with him until almost the end. A week before he died, JoAnn took him to see his neurologist, as he’d had two very bad seizures the night before.

“Well, Mr. Bartlett,” the stern and humorless physician said.”What brought you here today?”

Without batting an eye, Dan replied:”An Oldsmobile.”

All kidding aside, the thing that stands out most in my memory about Dan Bartlett is his persistent and spontaneous humor. Even as he approached what we all assumed would be his middle age, I think he still looked on the world in a very joyous, childlike way, and was very quick to see the humor in almost any situation.

And yet, here we are. We have all lost a good friend, and I know the world seems today a little darker, and a little less interesting.

© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:

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Volkswagens in Love.

July 24, 2007

(First published in the summer of 1995.)

The flower garden was going pretty well until recently, when I noted that a number of leaves had gone to lace, as though putting on airs. Japanese beetles.

As a kid, I always thought Japanese beetles were kind of pretty, like small jewels.

That was then. This is now.

Now, there they were, uncountable clusters of them. I swear, on quiet afternoons I can hear them chewing.

So, what to do? I have no experience in these matters. A friend suggested a new kind of trap, the nature of which I still find vaguely disquieting.

Apparently, bug scientists have come up with bait for these traps that not only attracts the beetles, but fills them with desire. No, not desire; raw, drooling lust is more like it.

“It’s really simple,” my friend said. “The beetles are fooled into this mating frenzy, and then they fall into this trap and can’t get out.”

Frankly, it sounded an awful lot like my life during my 20s and 30s. But, putting my queasiness aside, I got some of the traps and placed them in strategic positions around my garden.

Oh, my.

It is a scene I find nearly impossible to describe without leaping far beyond the boundaries of good taste. Think of an armored office Christmas party, or an orgy of animated beans. Think of Volkswagens in Love.

The idea behind the traps is that there is this little thing that holds the bait, some little sponge or something sopping with lust-making beetle pheromone juice. The beetles, thoroughly porcupined by Cupid’s arrows, clamber all over the upper part of the trap and, in this case, the branch to which it is tied, cheerfully greeting and getting to know 20 and 30 of their best friends, one after the other.

Finally, exhausted, they fall into an hourglass-shaped plastic bag, from which there is no escape.

They don’t stop, um, greeting one another in the bag either. I made the mistake of picking one of the bags up in my cupped hand when it must have had a couple hundred beetles in it. I will probably have nightmares.

But, nightmares aside, the traps worked. Sure enough, the cannas, the ones that haven’t already been turned into brown doilies, are standing in the sunshine un-munched and peaceful.

The question arose of what to do with this embarrassment of beetles once they have greeted themselves to death. Remembering that someone I know swears they make great fish bait, I took a squirming bagful to the back yard and dumped them into Marsh Creek.

A shimmering wad of Japanese beetles plopped into the water and bobbed to the surface, separating as they made it to the surface. A few managed to drag themselves up onto the bank, there perhaps to reflect on what must have seemed a remarkable day.

The remainder of the flotilla paddled around in the grip of the main current, swinging out into the broad body of the creek above the dam. It was still the hot part of the day, so the big fish had not yet started feeding, but a few smaller fish began to thin the numbers of the convoy, some of whom seemed to be merely waving their legs around drunkenly.

Perhaps they still thought they were at the party.

The galaxy of dizzy jewels drifted out of perception. It would be twilight soon. I did not think they would be swimming for long.

The thought struck me as I headed back up the hill that whatever substance so love-struck the beetles might make its way into the fish population of the creek. By that time the next day, Marsh Creek could be filled to the brim with randy bass, lovesick carp, and catfish inclined to compose bad verse. What have I done? I thought.

I went to the tree to sling the plastic bag back under the bait. The leaves on the branch above bore a darkly shimmering mass of very friendly beetles.

“The wages of sin is death!” I yelled.

Nobody listened. Nobody ever does.

In the winter, I forget about fireflies.

I don’t know how this hap­ pens. How can I be so jaded to take them for granted? I guess it’s because there are so many of them we think of them as common, simply so much background glitter.

Late one evening I stood in the driveway taking in the night. The fields stuttered with a galaxy of fireflies, blinking the lusty Morse code of their brief mating season.

The black expanse under the clouded sky swarmed with them, as though the Milky Way had come down after all this time to see what all the commotion was about.

Taking fireflies for granted makes sense, I guess. As we grow up, we like to act cool, like we know it all. Miraculous old world. Ho-hum.

The firefly is doubly misnamed, in fact.

The light has nothing to do with fire. Its scientific name, Lampyridae, means “torch­ bearers.”

Also, it’s not a fly, but a beetle.

America has about 100 species of firefly – out of 2,000 across the globe – each with its own flash pattern.

The members of a Southeast Asia species flicker their tail-lights in unison. Must be quite a sight.

The light show you see in the open on summer evenings are the males of the species, looking a little girlie action.

The females remain on the ground, mostly out of sight, flashing back.

One naturalist wrote that the males can be attracted by squatting near the ground and flashing a penlight at two-second intervals. I’ve never tried it, so I don’t know if it works.

The firefly’s light, called “bioluminescence,” is caused by the internal mixing of two substances in the bug’s body called, wonderfully, “luciferin” and “luciferase.”

Don’t be alarmed. The materials were not named after the devilish Lucifer, but after the one in Greek myth, the light-bearer who brings in the dawn.

Almost all of the chemical energy expended by the firefly results in light.

Compare that to the light of a 100 watt bulb; 94 percent of the energy it takes to run it is wasted producing heat.

However interesting all that is, it has little to do with what is so magical about fireflies.

Science can tell us, to paraphrase poet Dylan Thomas, everything about fireflies except “why?”

A famous Dutch philosopher was once a summertime houseguest of a friend of mine.

During a dinner party held on his first evening in the country, the old man walked out onto the deck that over­ looked the woods behind the house.

After a long while, my friend went looking for her guest.

He stood transfixed, staring at the fireflies, which he had never seen, awed that such things could be.

Everybody else at the party was inside, talking shop, and playing office politics. Only the philosopher thought to look around. Only he was open to wonder.

Sometimes I think that only children, philosophers and poets retain wisdom in this world. The rest of us are too busy with email, meetings, cell phones and lawnmowers.

And that’s a shame.

Herman was a good friend from my boyhood. We lost track of one another, but when I first visited The Wall in D.C., I remembered him….with the impact off a howitzer. I wrote a column about him every Memorial Day for several years. Maybe I should have kept it up. We seem to have forgotten the lessons of that war.

 

Every year for Memorial Day I write a column about Herman.

Herman and I were in the same Boy Scout troop a long time ago. He was a garrulous, goofy, tow-headed farmboy with an endless supply of brothers and an infectious, horsey grin.

I remember one night at Camp Rainy Mountain, Herman set the whole troop laughing when, tossing in his upper bunk, he rolled out of bed and tumbled six feet to the ground.

Faking the voice of a little boy, he cried out: “I fall down go BOOM!”

Less than 10 years later, two days into his second tour in Vietnam, Herman stepped on a landmine and came home, accompanied by the usual telegram and flag.

At the Vietnam Memorial in D.C., Herman’s name is there, along with those of 57,000-plus other men and women who died for something they couldn’t see, feel or touch.

I didn’t believe in the war. I was one of those hippies who stood on the sidewalks and yelled obscenities at busloads of soldiers going to the war. I know now that I was yelling at the wrong people.

I don’t know if Herman believed in the war. But he believed in the system, however flawed it was. I suppose, coming from a large family, he knew that something could be imperfect  and full of dissent and still work.

Maybe that was stupid. Herman didn’t think so.

Now and then I get into D.C. and stand before the Black Rock. If you’ve never been there, the black granite from India is polished to a mirror finish. Into this surface is incised the names of the dead, in the order in which they died. It is that long fog of names stretching out in either direction, and the awful chronology of it, that helps chill one’s heart, makes one’s breath come hard.

I am told that there is no time of day or night that there is not somebody standing vigil at the wall, near some name that once went with a living person, some Herman that someone came to remember.

I once saw a grizzled old biker, his gray hair in a braid, his bare arms purple with tattoos, weeping unashamedly at the wall, his fingers resting on one name.

People often touch the names they know. It’s that kind of place. In the polished surface, reflections stare back silently at the visitors, like ghosts.

War is the stuff of history, a convulsion against which the milder records of treaties and coronations serves only as a backdrop. It is the breast at which callow historians nurse and the last tonic they imbibe in their dotage.

But it is not the historians who pay the price of the show, nor the policy-makers, who ordain that such things should be, but Herman, multiplied by 57,000, by however many millions of farm boys and store clerks who fell forever silent into some forgotten mud.

“The tumult and the shouting dies,” wrote Rudyard Kipling. “The captains and the kings depart.”

A wall full of names is too great a thing to contemplate. Who, after all, can envision that many deaths, individually, one by one hurling through the air like broken dolls? Not I.

I just think of Herman, and try to hope that in some way his short final arc through the jungle air meant something more grand than it seemed at the time.

 ==============================.

 

© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:

http://burger2go.wordpress.com/

https://burger2goclassics.wordpress.com/

 

In my job, I am occasionally called upon to use a camera.

It’s not one of those complicated rigs used by the pros. Mine is a little box with a minimum of buttons and no folderol. One points, sights through the little window, and pushes the button.

Over the years, I’ve stopped a lot of moments with that little camera; happy times, silly sights, mundane civic ceremonies, fender-benders, and tragedies.

Often, people ask me not to take their pictures. Sometimes I go along with them. I know how they feel; I get a funny, naked sort of feeling inside when somebody points a camera at me.

Members of primitive societies are often fearful of cameras and photographs. They believe that the camera contains a demon that steals their soul, imprisoning it on the photographer’s paper. Some aspiring actors, actresses and politicians might agree, when photographs of themselves appear, taken years earlier in inconvenient situations or positions. The devils, in these cases, are usually those in possession of the photographs.

What the photographer really does, of course, is steal time.

Perhaps “steal” is inaccurate. The photograph is more like a tracing of an event, inexact, often blurry, certainly only two-dimensional and lacking the sounds and smells and motion of the event depicted. It is a whisper, a hint, as fossil dinosaur footprints imbedded in shale only hint at what may have been the drama of the creature’s final moments.

As a traditional repository of family snapshots, the refrigerator is a sort of fossil bed, an enameled steel La Brea Tar Pit of our abbreviated histories. Under cute magnets disguised as everything from doughnuts to farm animals are pinned grocery lists, notes to remind us to pick up Aunt Harriet at the bus terminal, invoices from the kid who delivers the Sunday paper, and photographs, of friends, children, kith and kin.

Part of this past holiday season I spent at the home of my cousin Tom in western Pennsylvania. Like other families in what the social scientists are now calling the Post-Industrial Age, ours is as scattered as papers on a windy street, to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, California. The holidays are the one time of the year when as many of us as can manage come together.

I can remember Tom driving me around in my uncle’s yard in his first car. He piloted the vehicle self-consciously over the brown summer grass. I don’t remember what kind of car it was, only that it was huge, black, and round as a beetle, and it smelled like all old cars smell. Tom was 16, then, and I was 8.

Now he is 48, graying, an engineer. In his garage, aloof from the two everyday cars in the drive and hidden under a tarp in the semi-darkness is a Corvette. It lurks there, muscular and sexy under the canvas, like a secret passion, an incarnation of what that first car probably was in his teenage dreams. It seems to be waiting for a secret release. I don’t know. I have never ridden in it, never heard its engine.

The visit to my cousin’s house carried with it all the emotional depth that such things bring with them. Mostly, that is a good thing. Caught up in my job and with the everyday details of my immediate family and acquaintances, it was good to go back to the center, to tap into the root of blood, time and experience and rediscover, if not who I am, then at least the common cloth from which I was cut.

Notable by their absence, even after some years have passed, were those who had died. Their likenesses peered down from the walls and from desktops, smiling outside a Florida condo or staring stiffly from a brown studio portrait taken sometime in the early decades of this century.

There are faces I have never seen in person, yet behold echoed in the mirror every morning, and glimpsed, transformed and altered by heredity, standing and sitting in the living room of Tom’s house.

On the refrigerator in the kitchen, along with the memos and grocery store coupons and notes are photographs of Tom’s sister, Lynn, and her two children. The photo of the youngest, Nicole, looked so much as her mother had as a toddler that I had a giddy moment when I slipped 30 years back, when smiling people carried a sleeping girl into our home in Georgia after a long drive through Appalachia on two-lane highways.

Of course, it was only an illusion, a trick of the brain. Memory and perception had tangled with predictable results. I was only looking back a little way, seeing a few links in a long chain of time and converging ancestry.

Looking at the picture of Nicole, whom I had mistaken for her mother, I had a moment of sudden fear, as though I had found myself standing at the very edge of a dark abyss.

I realize then that on the night I remembered, when the weary travelers had come through the door in the small hours of the night, that I am now the same age as were the adults who stood in that room.

With only two exceptions, all have now gone, their atoms returning to the still earth, leaving behind a few material items, some photographs, and some moments in the minds of a few who still live.

I carefully put the photo of little Nicole back under its magnet. In the reflection of the oven window I could see the ghost of my father walking in the bones of my face. I saw others in there as well, looking out from time, from a particular mix of genes.

From the next room came a loud burst of laughter; there was conversation and merriment going on out there, and I was standing in the kitchen, communing with ghosts. I picked up my coffee cup, grabbed an extra Christmas cookie from the tray while no one was looking. I looked back at the reflection, gave us all a wink and went back to the party.

I don’t think anyone took any photographs that night. I hope they did. And, who knows, maybe someday, 30 years from now, a young woman named Nicole, visiting her Uncle Thomas’s home in Pennsylvania will look at a dimming old photograph in the family album and wonder who all those laughing people were.

 

 

==============================.

© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:

http://burger2go.wordpress.com/

https://burger2goclassics.wordpress.com/

 

 

This column first ran in November of 1988. A year later, the “family” I wrote of was long gone. Much has happened in the nearly 20 years since then. But somewhere tucked away in a box is an old vinyl briefcase full of letters, more brittle every year….

 

I was writing the date on a check the other day when I thought of her. The figures I had just scribbled onto the paper were the same as her birthday, September 28.

Part of my mind focused on keeping up the light-hearted social banter at the checkout counter. The rest of me went tumbling down a well of memory. It was a time when we were going to save the world. We looked at the lives of our parents and decided we would be different; nobody was going to tie us down, gnaw away at our time with worry about mortgages. We had nicknames for one another that could have come straight out of The Lord of The Rings.

All that was a long time ago. But there is something about a first love, a first marriage, a first divorce. Autumn is a time for looking backward, with the cold coming and flames of the world burning low.

My sudden melancholy had as much to do with me as with the season, with the number of hairs I’ve been finding in my hairbrush the last few years, with my thickening middle and thinning expectations.

The last time I saw her was about this time of year, a wet, sullen time in the weather of the south. We had sat through the divorce hearing holding hands, which perhaps puzzled the gnarled old judge. We drove away, I alone in my car, she and her sister in a huge, lumbering old Chevrolet sedan. I happened to look up into the rear-view mirror just as the behemoth behind swung left at the intersection. That was the last sight I had of her, a silhouette in the smudged window of an old car.

Everyone said we were too young. They were right, but we were in love and who can reason with love? I was 19 and she nearly a year younger when we got married. I was visiting her in Mississippi when we decided to “elope,” with her mother’s blessing. We got married across the river in Arkansas, because the waiting period was shorter and we didn’t need the permission of her father, who was in Vietnam.

The man who performed the ceremony was a justice of the peace and a mechanic. He crawled out from under a car, swept some things off the counter, and did the thing right there, grease and all. At least, that’s how I remember it. I gave him the two dollar fee and he gave it right back. He said he wanted to give us our first wedding present.

We got lots of wedding presents, the one from Ray the JP, and more traditional ones from relatives; appliances, crystal, china. Within the first year we had hocked most of it just to pay bills.

It was like that throughout our entire marriage; just one step ahead of the bill collector. I suppose it’s like that for a lot of people. We never got out of it. Probably a lot of other people never do, either.

I still have an old vinyl briefcase full of the letters we wrote to one another when we were in high school. The letters are what you would expect; gushing, full of that damn-the-torpedoes sort of love of which only the young and the hopelessly inebriated are capable. Even alone, the rest of the house fast asleep, I blush reading them. Or maybe I redden because the dreams failed, as dreams do; the world intrudes, we compromise, we become less-and somehow more-than we had intended.

And then, one day, we awake, middle-aged, worrying about mortgages, drugs and schools, car payments, dental bills. These are all the things that should properly concern me, I know. And yet…

Last summer I went through the letters in the vinyl pouch. I was packing to move, and thought, as I do every time I move, that I’ll throw the old pages full of tortured prose away, every last, heavy-breathing one of them.

“I don’t need them,” I tell myself. “They only take up space.”

Then, I zip the old case back up and find a space, somewhere, in all the other flotsam of my life.

Today, I thought about those letters and how I feel, even now, when I see, like a scratchy old film, that green Chevy, forever and ever turning down that street in the rain. Nostalgic? Only for who I was, and who I thought then that I was going to be.

Do I miss her, in the same sense that I would miss my current family should I lose them? No. We were unhappy together for good reason: as we grew and matured, we grew apart. By the time it was over it was well over.

But one can’t annul the years spent with another person, the way one would erase a recorded tape. In half a dozen years she and I shared a lot of fine moments, and some beguiling dreams.

In his work Jurgen, James Branch Cabell wrote: “At the bottom of my heart I no longer desire perfection. For we that are taxpayers as well as immortal souls must live by politic evasions and formulae and catchwords that fret away our lives as moths waste a garment: we fall insensibly to common sense as to a drug; and it dulls and kills that which in us is fine and rebellious and unreasonable: so that you will find no man of my years with whom living is not a mechanism that gnaws away time unprompted. I am become the creature of use and wont; I am the lackey of prudence and half-measures; and I have put my dreams upon an allowance.”

It has been at least a dozen years since the Chevrolet turned that corner. I do not look backward wishing to be where or who I was then. All told, I was immature, childish, self-centered. Now I am middle-aged, childish and self-centered. Progress comes slowly. I love my family and would kill to stay with them. But I look down at the other end of that long well and I sometimes wish I had more of that: “which in us is fine and rebellious and unreasonable,” because there is still enough vinegar in me to resent being the lackey of prudence.

I heard that she remarried, that she is successful, that she has two kids. That makes me happy: she always wanted children. I hope she is well and happy, I hope that the world is giving her all the things that she needs, and I hope maybe somewhere she has an old briefcase, full of letters she doesn’t need and can’t throw away, a well of time with some spirited and unreasonable faces swimming in its deeper waters.

© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

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