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I turned 61 a few days ago.  Something of a non-event.  I almost let it pass without comment.  Odd, for me, to not celebrate the season if not myself. But times change and people change, and perhaps it is not so odd after all, but right and natural for the person I am becoming.

We voted early last Saturday.  For a black man from Hawaii.  When I was born, Hawaii was not a state, and the concept of a Colored Man as president of anything would have been the set-up for some sort of joke.  In 1947, in 1957.  In 1960 it was enough of a shock that the candidate of change was Catholic.  We debated the merits of Kennedy and Nixon in school, and did not ignore the elephant of his religion.  Obama’s race is in the pot, but the haters pretend that it is not the ingredient that makes him poison for their country.  They lie to themselves.  But then, anything we fear partakes of all the things we fear, so perhaps he is a socialistic Iranian Muslem terrorist, at least within pockets of the  ubermind.

Hell, the idea of early voting alone is damn near radical.  There were no computers in 1947.  No cell phones.  Most of us were on party lines, which were like extension phones in multiple households, each with its own pattern of rings, all with an expectation of evestropping.  And even local calls were through an operator.  Within scant blocks of the state capitol and the downtown shopping area were neighborhoods with no indoor plumbing in the second half of the twentieth century.

urbanrenewal3And so it goes.

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(I’ll see your thirty and raise you, dyl)  The finest birthday poem, period.

POEM IN OCTOBER

  It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
Summery
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sunlight
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and the sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singing birds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

Uncle Will, Wilburn, was a batchelor, which was a shame because he was better with kids than any of his brothers (and among them they had plenty). He took care of the farm for my grandparents. He had hound dogs: fox hounds and coon hounds, and he and his neighbors went out on clear fall nights and listened to the dogs run. They’d have a fire and tell lies and (I have reason to suspect) pass around a Mason jar. The only thing I knew him to bring back from one of those evenings was a fox kit in a burlap sack. He brought it into the living room and tipped it out onto the floor. It was small and scared and I wanted to make a pet of it. Uncle Will used his pen knife to cut a chew of tobacco off a plug and with the same knife whittled bits of twig to fit in spools for me to use as twirling tops or dolls. He died after he got caught in the rain riding my mare Gypsy to McEwen to be bred, and my grandmother blamed the horse, not being the sort to blame the child. During his wake the men sat out all night in folding chairs in the front yard and the women in the front room. It was all a quiet buzz. Upstairs, I couldn’t sleep. I’d look out the front window and watch the cigarettes flare and burn, go out, and start up again.

I don’t sing around the house, not as much as I used to. When you spend most of your time alone, you may forget you even have a voice.

When I was a kid I sang. When I was eight and nine and ten. In the back yard, I sang, swinging. With Joan next door I performed on our big, slanted doghouse roof, song and dance numbers ( the Gillette Razor Theme from the Friday Night Fights). The picnic table was off limits because, “somebody might want to eat on there some day.” I always wanted the car windows down so that the Mickey Mouse Club Talent Scouts would be able to hear me. I was disappointed that it never happened, and felt a little bit betrayed by them.  I liked Doris Day in the fifties. “Secret Love” was one of my favorites. I shouted from the highest hill.
I wasn’t the only one who sang around the house.  Mama did, too, but only when she was depressed or angry. She would whistle snatches of depressing things and begin singing them–always off-key.  Songs like “…if I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly.”  Hymns, too.  She rarely knew whole sets of words, and so would sing what she did know over and over again.  That first low whistle was a sign that she was close to the edge of her temper.  To this day, hearing someone begin to whistle in the house makes me want to find a place to cower.

There is only one time I remember Daddy singing. I’d been with him down to Dickson to see the relatives. Mama and Glenn had stayed in town for some reason. It was late summer and within a week or two I would be going away to college. Going away anywhere for the first time. At some point, about three quarters of the way home, he started up on “Red River Valley”.

From this valley they say you are going.
I will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile.
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway awhile.

Come and sit by my side if you love me.
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
But remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy that loves you so true.

This from my never-affectionate, barely expressive father. Don’t ask me what I said to that. I was seventeen. Our conversation, what there was of it, turned on books and bicycles and fishing, anything but emotion. The memory is of excruciating embarassment, a hot flush; staring straight ahead at the dry grass on either side of Highway 70, and the bend in the road toward the shadows.

We have never been easy people. My brother survived more gracefully than I did. Still, while he does make music for his own self, I have never heard him sing.

Rock City.  If you are a Southerner of a certain age, those words ring:   Fat Man’s Squeeze, See Seven States, Fairyland Caverns.  The mind’s eye produces red barns with black roofs and white letters,  day-long rocky paths bordered with rhododendron. Swinging bridges.  It was a fact of life.

It was there that I got my first inkling that there was something wrong with my world.  I was young.  Old enough to read, but still interested in every word in sight.  We’ll say I was 6, which might have made it 1953, though it might have been a little later.  Not much.

At the entrance was a ticket kiosk, faced with warm, yellow sandstone rocks.  It provided the only shade in the whole hot, concrete-paved area off the parking lot.

There were three water fountains on the back of that tan stone wall.  One was labeled “White”; another, “Colored”; and the third, a knee-high faucet with a metal bowl beneath it, “Dogs”.

I was six: I was Southern: I was still shocked.