Sunday, May 28, 2006

Taps

For Memorial Day Weekend, a re-run, but one I like, and one I picked after a long-lost friend discovered me (the amazing world of Google) and mentioned that she was working with the Music for Youth Foundation. Music, perhaps the oldest formal way humans have expressed emotion. Don't let our absurd devotion to "academic subjects" drive it from our schools.

Taps

Justin plays his trumpet at funerals. Military funerals. Or really, up until now, the funerals of veterans who die, every week these days, forgotten. The VFW tries to help. The local National Guard post tries to help. The VFW brings a flag to drape the coffin. The National Guard shows up with three uniformed men bearing rifles loaded with blanks, ready to fire the salute. But nobody had a trumpeter. They brought a tape recording of taps. Justin heard this while reading in a park next to a cemetery last summer and was horrified. A whole life lived, all those sacrifices, commitments, attempts, failures, and successes, he figured, deserved a real human with a real horn playing this real retreat. So he started coming. He puts on his suit. He drives his struggling 1989 VW Fox to the cemetery in question, parking far enough away so the rumble of the failing exhaust system doesn't disturb. He walks to the grave site. Waits his turn. Plays the notes in exact cadence but with the hint of emotion that makes his music rise. Turns and strolls away without looking into the tear-filled eyes. His ghost-like appearances and retreats have mythic impact. In not yet two years of his service he has become the town's standard bearer of that last full measure.

One plays taps to learn bugling when one is serious about the trumpet. One learns to play taps the first time it truly matters. For Justin that moment came at his great-grandfather's grave on a chill November day when he was just twelve.

This Saturday morning the clouds threaten as they roll out of the west: towering gray breakers that advance across the late morning sky, lit in extravagant brilliance by the still climbing sun. Justin approaches across the deep green of a July with too much rain and as he does, becomes alert to differences. This is neither the many-generationed crowd of a World War II veteran, nor the sad, eclectic mix when the deceased has fought in Vietnam. This is younger, louder, more deeply aggrieved. Yet as in all other cases the crowd silently parts and allows him in. Today there are seven soldiers he notes with unexpressed surprise. Today a red-eyed child dominates the scene. Today the widow is barely older than Justin himself.

When he played at his great-grandfather's funeral, his own dad fighting the pressures to "get a professional," he had let one note crack. But it was the sixth note. The one cracked at Arlington Cemetery on November 26, 1963 as President Kennedy had been buried. And the power at that unintentional allusion had overwhelmed all present. It took five days after that for Justin's grandfather to find a videotape of that day and play it for the pre-teen musician, who still, at that point, only dimly understood.

On this morning Justin's notes slice the air. With each phrase he counts back through his generations of warriors. The physical limps, the endless nightmares, the persistent alcoholism that link all the males before him stretching back beyond his grasp of the family tree. And with each phrase his peripheral vision catches glimpses of the grief surrounding him. Parents, grandparents, wife, friends, children. The sky itself perhaps. At 18 he cannot find anything that might ever be worth that. He wonders if he ever will.

The soldiers salute as he completes the last note. Justin nods slightly, tucks his trumpet under his arm, turns, and walks away. Before he reaches the VW, the rain is falling.

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copyright 2004-2005 by Ira Socol

for the "JFK taps," click here. For perhaps my favorite literary summation of war, John Dos Passos' Body of an American (from a post at Veterans' -Armistice- Day)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

03



The scent of ozone pushes from where the lightning has split the air, across the fields and woods, against my face, through my nostrils, and flat against the uncontrollable part of my brain.

The woods are empty and stunningly soft in the last light of this evening as the season's first thunderstorm rolls in from the big lake and until certain gray matter is attacked by this smell in this light I am slipping into a quiet trance.

Roger was the guy you wanted to work with on a night like this and Colin was off and so was Joey and so I said, "you and me pal," because it was one of those glorious early warm days when the plantings in Bronx Park were starting to pop and Roger, who had turned an Iowa State football scholarship into a degree in Botany of all things before coming home and being a cop. A cop who knew the names of all the plants, who could describe everything about what grew along the banks of the Bronx River or take you on Mr. Wizard-quality tours of the salt marshes where the Hutchinson River met the Sound. And on an afternoon like this, with so much to see if the radio would cooperate, I used my "I went to college in the Midwest too" line to get the partner I wanted.

I stand frozen at the tree line, caught out of time, and trying to pull down the personal control menus I need at moments like this. "Stay in the present," the shrinks all say. "Remind yourself of where you are." But that is the problem. Where am I?

The call had interrupted a deep lesson in the differences between natural flora of the type that flourished along the unkempt riverbed and the survivors of the deliberate plantings of those early twentieth century urban idealists who had designed a middle-class wonderland with pseudo rustic parks never more than six blocks from any apartment. No. Not really. First the explosions of lightning and thunder had interrupted that, sending those in the park scampering back into the neighborhood and, in the way of sudden storms, turning a slow Tuesday evening into a momentarily silent one.

Part of my brain is working. Part of it is. I'm working to recall other spring moments. Peaceful spring moments. Elegant spring moments. Transcendent spring moments. Surely I have lived some of those. But it is a hard fight. Once certain buttons are pushed...

"Dispute, the downtown platform at Gun Hill and White Plains," and we'd gone, lights and siren in hopes they'd hear it and disappear but it was boyfriend-girlfriend and they were passionate, I suppose, and were focused on each other and screaming and hitting at the far end of the platform and even our approach made no difference: of course not, she was being accused of sleeping with someone else and he was being accused of being an asshole and the rain was pouring down and Roger tried to talk to her pushing them apart and I tried to talk to him, pushing him the other way, and lightning flashed and the ozone smell rose up and suddenly I got scared and turned to see if Roger was OK.

It was a little knife the guy stuck into me in the moment my back was to him. It was little but it was sharp and he got me on the side where the vest didn't cover, and it hurt beyond belief but as he tried to run past me and she screamed I tripped him as I fell and Roger, thinking much faster than me pistol-whipped him, knocking him out so he wouldn't move as he came to help me and the bitter taste of too much adrenaline bit into my mouth and I heard Roger yelling into the radio and I think now I heard a siren but if I did it was probably unrelated, and then I suppose I was out.

In the woods I am soaking wet. The scene has played itself out. There might be the antique sound of a needle scratching against the end of a vinyl record or a film flapping free from a projector. I am not awakening in a hospital bed, but here, at the tree line, in the stunningly soft woods. It is today. I walk slowly back to the house. Go inside. Dry off.

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copyright 2005-2006 by Ira Socol
a slight re-write of a piece from a year ago

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Storm


The rain fell in full sheets. You could watch it drive itself across the swamped pavements. And we pressed against each other and against the closed shop door in time with both the wind gusts and our excitement.

Last night I had lain in bed, the small window as open as the ancient lacquer would allow as the temperature dropped and the storm arrived. Yesterday it had been nearly summer. Today it was as if the calendar had leapt forward and October was racing over the Donegal hills.

Last night she had lain in bed, her closed window pelted with water, the wind driven through the poor glazing pushing the lace curtains into a dance. Yesterday I had told her that I loved her and she had put her finger to my lips and said, "Hush, you would use powerful words before you mean them." But I knew that she had wanted to hear me say that.

Had the weather held we might have run to the hills today, somehow, but it had not. So we had shared interior spaces instead. Tea and a shared pastry bought with too much of the money in my pocket. No, not too much. Poetry read to one another near the top of the stairs in the flats. Did sea define the land or land the sea?/Each drew new meaning from the waves' collision./Sea broke on land to full identity. A long hour in the choir loft of the cathedral. Et introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

Now what there was of the day's light was draining out toward the lough and the sea. And pretending that we were staying as dry as we might, we absorbed what we could of each other. Then the clocks began to strike the hour, and she ran off to her home.

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copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Degrees of Damage

It is a place of red hand flags and heroin and thick Protestantism, the politics not the religion really except that it is in so deep, and the new Sainsbury's and the new cinema really can't cover it up no matter how much the district council talks of new jobs or how many kids go to the integrated college, because, well, that's the top and the top doesn't tell you much. Never has.

So the Reverend Paisley will make phone calls and will pretend that he prays for the lost child. And Sinn Fein will insist that this proves that they are not the bad people here. And in houses across this "province," if it is that, or "occupied territory," if it is that, because, holy fuck, it is both and neither and we all know that, more will stoke their offspring with hatred than will stoke them with sense, all the while blaming "them" – Taigs, Proddies, Brits, Provos, Orangemen…

Michael McIlveen went to see a film on Sunday. He was fifteen and, well, I do not know. I did not know him. But I was fifteen once, and an angry fifteen at that, in an angry place, and fifteen-year-old boys run in packs, and they say things, and they challenge each other. It was what they do, what I did, what you did. It is one way we test the world. So, no matter that his family says he was just a "wee quiet one," and, yes, he may have been, as I said, I don't know. It does not matter. Was he quiet? Was he angry? Was he quiet at home but boisterous in his group? We know lads like that, do we not? It does not matter.

Michael McIlveen went to see a film on Sunday in Ballymena. An ancient town where the bells of ancient churches rhyme through stone streets and echo across the land. A Catholic kid among Catholic kids in a Protestant town. A kid in a place people have divided because they like power and privilege and because they do not care. And perhaps, just perhaps, at the cinema he said something, or someone said something. Things are always being said, but we all know they do not need to be.

Michael McIlveen went to see a film on Sunday in Ballymena and sometime after the film was over he was chased down a street and beaten with a bat and stomped by other boys, damaged boys, because he was Catholic, because the Reverend Paisley likes power, because Tony Blair will spend billions of pounds on Iraq but cannot be bothered with his "province," because the London literati announced last year that The Troubles were over, because the world has grown tired of this, because not enough people will stand up and say "stop."

Michael McIlveen went to see a film on Sunday in Ballymena and now his family will bury him in the cocoa-coloured soil of the north of Ireland, and the rains will fall, and the bells of ancient churches will rhyme through stone streets and echo across the land. Everyone on the island has expressed their regrets – as I am sure they should.

In London the Prime Minister could only say, "My legacy is a fourth term for Labour." The Queen said nothing at all.

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copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Line of Sight


"We have no prairies," he is quoting the Nobel Laureate, "To slice a big sun at evening/Everywhere the eye concedes to/Encrouching horizon." "Yeah," I agree, "he wrote that." We have been pounding the pints for hours now. Arsenal played the early game and here the rain is slashing down and while my computer is here, is on, is wirelessly connected, and I will still claim to anyone asking that I am working on writing something that must be in Monday morning, I have added a total of seventeen words since I got to the pub five hours ago. "You grow up burnin' the peat in the stove?" he asks. "That I did, but fuck, you know us northerners, primitives all." He smiles, gets up to get more Guinness. It is his turn. I type three sentences in while the barkeep watches the ale settle, then delete two. "But you know the prairies over there in the states too." He is back, banging the glasses on the hard polished wood. "Aye, laddy," I croon, "I have crossed the Great Plains, I have sailed the Great Lakes, I have climbed the great towers." I pause, drink, whisper, "They do not know about digging up ancient swamps and burning them for warmth in America." "They have always had oil in America," he tells me conspiratorially. "They have always had everything they want in America." "But you came back." I nod. I drink. I nod again. Liverpool is winning on the telly. Outside the very air seems to have turned sea green under the downpour. "The scrotum tightening sea," I say, "Ah, Joyce," he slurs. Then, "Joyce never came back, why did you?" "You can see too far in the States," I tell him. "You can see so far ahead of you that you forget to look in back of you." "And that would be no way for an Irish lad to live," he either states or asks, I am not sure. We both take long drinks. "No, I suppose it is not."

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copyright 2006 by Ira Socol
photo copyright Todd Adams 2005 poem by Seamus Heaney "Bogland"