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Jack and Pal guard the woodshed, February 1969. I would join them in September 1972.

The screen door from the kitchen to the woodshed always slams four times behind me: once with authority, then a pause followed by three quieter slaps in rapid-fire succession. SLAP – slap-slap-slap. Closed. This is the sound of running outside into summer at the farm.

There are two steps, covered in green carpet, in the woodshed. The first step is slightly below the height of the kitchen door, and a jar of kerosene always sits on it. Just left of the steps is the wood box. We fill the wood box in the shed, and pull the morning kindling and logs out of the box in the kitchen. A rolled up copy of the Kennebec Journal, a little kerosene, a flick of a kitchen match and the woodstove roars to life, taking off the dawn chill.

On top of the wood box are my grandfather’s work gloves and a can of OFF! Hanging to the right of the door are threadbare leather leashes for their dogs Jack and Sally. Both Jack and Sally are now deceased, but Max, the giant retriever owned by Dennis, who lives in the log cabin up the road, will be lying in the grass outside the shed, panting and alone.

The woodshed is dark, and always smells of fresh sawdust from the endless stacks of firewood. I love this part of the shed. Directly across from the kitchen door is the door that leads to the attic above the woodshed and also the door to the henhouse. I am terrified of this part of the shed.

The attic is filled with bric-a-brac that feels old and creepy. Rattan baby carriages with iron wheels, porcelain dolls with noses or eyes missing, broken wood and wicker chairs, plastic deer lawn ornaments. It is blazing hot and stuffy up there, and I always feel like I’m about to fall through the floorboards.

The henhouse entrance is worse, though. There is a dust-covered grain barrel, then a slatted wooden door, and then the coop itself, dirt-floored and rickety, with hens charging me as I open the door with a scoop of grain in a trembling hand. The sound of the hens squawking as I approach fills me with the kind of fear that makes my ears pop and my heart race.

But, at twelve years old, I am running away from the attic and henhouse and toward the lawn. The barn doors of the woodshed are always latched open, thus I have no time to adjust to the blip of dark in the shed between the kitchen and the outdoors. The door slams (SLAP – slap-slap-slap): I am down the green-carpeted steps, and I take one step on the plank floorboards of the woodshed, and then I’m outside.

Immediately I have to jump over an oblong semi-circle of mud. Then, like a wide receiver, I do a cut move around Max on the lawn by the cellar bulkhead, and I’m across the dirt driveway to the big lawn. Here are the lawn chairs, picnic table, kettle grill, games of Wiffle ball, Nerf football and the general joy of summer in Maine, thousands of miles from our new Florida home.

To this day my ears pop and my heart races whenever I get near the door to the attic and henhouse. So I don’t. I stay close to the wood box, bounding out to the lawn in three steps and keeping the slap of the old screen door in my head, keeping all the summers of my youth close at hand.

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Image Source: Andrea Westbye http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrea_w/

Blink and you’ll miss it. But if you do blink, the parade turns around and comes back for a reverse lap of triumph. Just don’t blink and miss that.

Sure, there are small-town parades on the 4th every year. But none of them are the Whitefield, Maine July 4th Parade, held every year on the birth date of this great country and also on the birth date of my brother Eric.

Whitefield, Maine, sits on the Sheepscot River in Lincoln County. It’s about halfway between Wiscasset and Gardiner, so it’s mostly lumped in as a Capitol area town, since Augusta is only about fifteen miles away by Rt. 17. It is small (population 2,273 as of the 2000 census), with a surprisingly mixed population of farmers and artisans. The town was named after British evangelist George Whitefield, who apparently never ventured anywhere close to his own town. Whitefield was settled in 1770 and officially incorporated in 1809.

The sculptor Roger Majorowicz created a magnificent installation in a field along the Sheepscot, featuring his interpretation of Don Quixote astride Rocinante. This collection has greeted motorists entering Whitefield on Rt. 194 out of Wiscasset for as long as I can remember.

Whitefield is small enough to be serviced by the fire departments of Jefferson, Coopers Mills and King’s Mills, and naturally all have a major fire truck presence in the July 4th Parade.

Here is the 10,000’ overview of the parade: 10:00 Sharp (the sign doesn’t lie!) fire trucks with sirens on 11, livestock, antique cars, random protest float, patriotic floats, antique tractors. Turn around and repeat.

From each float you will be pelted with bags of Swee-tarts, Pixy Stix and Werther’s Originals, and you risk losing a finger by A. foot or B. tire in the stampede to grab as much candy as humanly possible. This is if you are still upright after hours of heatstroke, CO2 inhalation, hearing loss and claustrophobia, of course.

And then it’s time for games, shopping and eats! Bean bag toss, pig scramble, pies, hot dogs, home-made paintings, History of Whitefield books alongside old Jackie Collins masterpieces alongside Loverboy cassettes, town gossip and innuendo…brother, walk a block and the world is yours!

Eric usually loads up on post-breakfast/pre-lunch dogs, and then we head home. His day has always been a bacchanal of friends and family, presents, grilling and general American merriment. The day goes on, and is ultimately taken over by sparklers and fireworks on TV.

It is an occasion on the calendar second only to Christmas over our years. His day is our day in the sense that most of America embraces it, of course. But the fact that it’s really HIS day only makes it OUR day that much more. Just don’t blink: the day only comes around once a year.

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Image Source: Fred Herzog

I swear, sometimes I think I’m gonna lose my nut. It’s….it’s all too much sometimes. Always something telling ya where to park, where to not park, what kind soft drink to buy, what kind coffee, where to get jewelry, how to pay for the jewelry on credit installments…I can hardly take it sometimes.

I got a room at the Empire, an’ sometimes if I have to go out I feel like I ain’t gonna make it back in one piece. Like one of them billboards is gonna come to life and shove a Coca Cola down my throat, or a giant neon coffee cup is gonna tip over and spill scalding coffee all over my head.

Car horns honking all day an’ night, people yelling, sirens screaming…

If I do get back to my room, I jump under the covers an’ bury my head under the pillow an’ try to block it all out. But it gets so damn loud in my head that the noise never gets blocked out. An’ what I hear in my head…I, uh…well, I get some bad thoughts in there sometimes.

I just don’t understand this world, is all. I don’t get along so well with so many other people an’ so much noise an’ all the signs an’ the city hitting me over the head…I just…just…like, I wish I could move out an’…

I don’t even know anymore. I just want somewhere quiet, you know? Someplace quiet and sort of pretty, where I can hear myself think and I’m not tripping over piles of rotting garbage and smelling a cesspool every block. An’ someplace where I don’t have to be around too many people.

People hurt. People hurt me. Always laughing behind my back and trying to sell me dress shirts and cigarettes and Chevrolets and saying nasty things under their breath… Too much pain. Too much noise. Too much…too much, ya know?

I’m not made for this place. I just want to get out.

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Image Source: Digital Horizons

And suddenly she was there, gray green and more magnificent than life in the mist of morning.

Ten days aboard a transport ship from Le Havre or Gibraltar had led to this moment. 1,200 men all topside, all fresh from the horror of Guadalcanal or Burma or the Remagen Bridge or Omaha Beach. They were men in the sense of experience, but most were barely old enough to shit by themselves chronologically. And here they were, all returning home from the dirty business far overseas.

The ship sailed through the Narrows, into the greatest harbor in the world, heading for the West Side piers. And from there, home. Abilene and Albuquerque and Boise and Bangor and Chattahoochee and Consohocken. Des Moines and Decatur and Exeter and Esperance and Frankfort and Framingham. Gainesville and Greenville and even Gettysburg. All ports of call all across the great America. All home.

As the ship passed into the harbor, the Lady, enlightening the world, stood guard, and these men, so recently removed from such unspeakable bravery and valor, began to cry. This was what it was all about. This was the symbol of their cause, the reason they went through such hell and agony. This was the sight they had dreamed of, sweltering in Pacific Theater bunkers or freezing in European foxholes. This is what they were seeing…and what so many of their valued platoon-mates were not seeing. This was Lady Liberty, lighting the way Home and holding high the torch for a world settling into a just and lasting peace.

This lady is what they fought for. And here she was, lighting their way Home.

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Image Source: Lisa M. Robinson

I came here often after I kilt her. Maybe I was hopin’ the snow would purify my mind, or cleanse the blood. I don’t know that it did, but it sure was a pretty place to sit ’n think.

I don’t know why she done it to me. I always treated her decent, gave her money ’n took care of everything. An’ she done gone steppin’ out on me. Sure, maybe I deserved it, always drankin’ and steppin’ out myself. But I never laid a hand on her or nothin’. Besides, a woman is suppose’ to stand by her man, right?

This is a hard land, with hard people. Nothin’ but snow and nothin’ for miles around. Barren lands and barren minds. Takes a certain kind to be able to stand up to it. And maybe she want that kind.
But settin’ here, lookin’ at all that snow, it sure makes a man think. Ain’t nothin’ but pure, unbroken white. Undisturbed, like a man should be. One set of tracks in that snow, and the whole landscape is out of balance. Kind of like our relationship. She brought that other set of footprints in, and everything done went haywire.

Sure, I shouldn’t’a done it. But a man don’t like havin’ his balance thrown off.

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New Pen, Blank Page
Image Source: New Buddha

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever connect with a thought (again).

The words escape, trickling away from my conscious, until they gather behind a wall, mocking me. Ideas swoop in and out, never staying long enough to present themselves. Flickers of notions, here and gone before I can get my pen out. Not to be.

Sometimes the thought of trying to write another piece, no matter how short, leaves me paralyzed with fear. I try to start and can’t, and I convince myself that I will never finish another sentence again. I try to reach the words behind the wall, but they remain trapped, never to see daylight. The blank page screams in triumph, and I cower in defeat.

Often the exhaustion gets to me. Trying to form and finish a narrative against the backdrop of reality: extremely stressful day-job, long, soul-sucking commute, mortgage, bills, aches and pains, daily maintenance, feeding and watering. Some days it gets to me, and I give fleeting credence to the naysayers in my head, the voices screaming quit and rest.

But I can’t quit and rest, you see. Because I have no choice. Because I am so close to things happening and opportunities presenting themselves and my goal of self-sufficiency through the written word actually maybe, just maybe, becoming my reality.

I have no choice but to continue. So it starts with one word…one word interrupting the purity of the blank page…like a cheap run turning a 10-0 blowout into a 10-1 ballgame…one word leading to two…one thought connecting to another…

One thinker trying to connect with a thought (again)…

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Image Source: Saul Leiter

Funny, ain’t it? I been staring at this framing for years, an’ I never really thought nothin’ of it. It ain’t much to look at, an’ it ain’t in no tour guides, so why would I think anything of it? It’s just a door frame, an’ I ain’t got the time or the inclination to go ‘round starin’ at door frames, if you know what I’m sayin’.

But one day, outta nowhere, I saw that frame, an’ I noticed all them patterns in it, from all them cracks. And son of a buck if it wasn’t all of a sudden one of the most beau-tee-ful things I ever did see! I can’t tell you why or how I saw it: I just saw it. I saw the patterns, an’ all of a sudden that door frame looked like one of them paintings up at the museum by the park. Can you imagine that?

Well, I don’t know nothin’ about art, or much of anything else, for that matter. But seeing all them cracks, it really made me think. I started wondering how they all got there, like from gettin’ hit by briefcases an’ purses an’ delivery boxes an’ all like that, an’ maybe from the building settling.

An’ some of the patterns were perfect an’ looked kinda like stuff, like faces an’ like that. An’ some of the patterns were broken an’ went nowhere. Just like life. Lots of bums goin’ nowhere, but overall it’s beau-tee-ful an’ perfect.

It ain’t much of a discovery in the grand scheme, nothing like curing polio. And I ain’t turning into some kinda pixie that goes around starin’ at every door frame in town an’ talkin’ about what I see. But it was kinda nice to be able to see that frame a little different, like to see it up close. Sometimes seeing things a little different makes all the difference.
 
 
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Image Source: NCRTV

It actually was a lot like The Oneders.

And like all life-altering moments, it’s now a blur. We were in the car heading for…the practice space? Or a live interview on WBCN? Or maybe it was WFNX…no, it was a gig at the Linwood and Juanita played it on WBCN. That’s it, yeah. I’m pretty sure.

I became obsessed with rock ‘n roll and music in general early, and from the moment I picked up my first acoustic guitar ($35 new, tobacco sunburst with lousy intonation) I was dedicated to making it. Played it ‘till my fingers bled, if you will. I dreamed of touring with Van Halen (Diamond Dave forever!), selling out Madison Square Garden and, of course, enjoying all the spoils of decadence in the bus after the show. And I dreamed of hearing myself on the radio.

I dreamed of Berklee College of Music in Boston. At the recommendation of my band teacher in high school, I started with a year in the jazz program at the University of Maine at Augusta first. That turned into four years in a brilliant, enriching program, and by the time I got to Berklee I was young and disillusioned. I stayed in Boston and schlepped through my 20s, working data entry, call center jobs and feeling very much like a Langston Hughes Dream Deferred.

And then I started playing again. My band, The High Ceilings, went into the studio with Sir David Minehan, figurehead of the legendary Boston band The Neighborhoods, and we emerged with a sparkling EP, “Wavelength.” Sparkling enough to get airplay and a spot in the 2001 WBCN Rock ‘n Roll Rumble. Past winners included Till Tuesday and …The Neighborhoods. Nice!

And it was in the lead-up to the Rumble that we heard our single, “Look My Way,” on the radio. We were in the car heading to our space/interview/gig (or maybe it was our ritual de-briefing beers), and there we were, beaming out to Boston and beyond at 104.1 MHz. The moment of a lifetime had arrived.

We all played it fairly cool, keeping the moment close to the vest. No “I AM SPARTICUS!!!” and kissing cutouts in the appliance store for us (this would’ve been difficult to pull off while driving), but ultimately we couldn’t help it, and a four-way shit-eating grin spread across the car. We had goddamn made it! There was some back-slapping, but mostly we kept calm and carried on, since this would, of course, be only the first of many such times.

It happened a few more times after that, but that was the beginning of the end. We lost the Rumble in the first round, artistic and personal differences, day jobs, wives and kids…typical story. But I have that moment: the moment when dreams solidified and the grand payoff was mine.

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All Images: Lewis Wick Hine via George Eastman House

I feel the rush.

I am securely on the ground, looking at the photography of Lewis W. Hine, but I feel it all: the rush of gravity at 1,000’, the rush of the wind at that inhuman height, the rush of America, reeling from depression but rising to unimaginable heights out of unprecedented lows. I feel the rush of greatness that comes from watching mere mortals doing extraordinary things, and I feel the rush of pride that says my people did this.

I see ordinary men, discounting their feats and fears. They mock gravity, traipsing untethered across 6” wide beams a quarter of a mile above the safety of the grounded Earth. They toss and catch glowing hot rivets in a dance for which they alone know the choreography. They pound, tighten, seal, hoist, pull, push and will the King of All Buildings into existence. And they think nothing of the heart-stopping danger, nor the exhilarating posterity of their work. It’s just a job. Just tryin’ to feed my family during hard times. The long-term impact of their work rushes past their short-term humility.

I see the building rise and I feel the shock of the times. 1930: The Great Depression, bread and soup lines, Hoovervilles in Central Park, no jobs, no hope. Hard times and hard, lean men desperate for work.

The building is financed by a shadowy, speculating CEO and chaired by the beloved former governor: John Jacob Raskob and Alfred E. Smith are the stuff of American biography themselves. 3,400 men find work at the nadir of American employment and spirit. The building rises to 102 floors, 1,250 feet, in 14 months. 4 ½ floors per week. It is ahead of schedule and under budget, with only five men lost during construction. This is our greatness. This is what my people – my fellow humans – can accomplish. This is the rush of Americanism.

And as the building rises it becomes an inextricable symbol of the zeitgeist. I hear Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and see Scott Fitzgerald lamenting his Lost City and the Babe still hitting 40+ homers in pinstripes, still larger than life. I hear Ellington and Langston Hughes and Woody Guthrie and see Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams. I see Chaplin the tramp and Errol Flynn and Astaire and Busby Berkeley. I see the greatness of American art in 1930 and 1931, and it all becomes a pastiche around the rush to the sky in the middle of Manhattan in the middle of the depression. I feel the rush, not just to recover, but to conquer.

I feel this rush of American Exceptionalism, now nearly a century old, and realize that there is nothing greater in the world.

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One of the greatest names – and THE greatest delivery – the game has ever known belonged to Van Lingle Mungo

It returns on a brisk day, the kind that requires a few extra layers. It’s the kind of day we normally rue and call miserable, but today it’s the most beautiful day ever. Today is rebirth and rejuvenation, summer and Christmas in April. Greatest day of the year.

The grass outside is dead and brown, but inside all will be June-worthy emerald green. The sun glares through an icy sky, the winds whip and summer seems years away. But today summer begins. Today we step off the street, through a turnstile and into a dreamland of warm nights, weekends that seem endless and escapism from the hard facts of life.

Today is Opening Day.

Today is the day that has whispered all throughout the winter. It’s all about bunting and Americana and having the exuberance of a kid again. Great seats! Dog and a beer, and time to break in that new cap. Grab a score card and get inside the game.

The winter of our speculative discontent is over. All the could have and should have trades are done, and the roster is set. Hey, let’s play ball!

Our kid pitcher looked good in spring training, but the first visiting batter looks good too. The mental cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and hitter is on, and we play inside ball in our seats, second guessing, anticipating and discussing with seat mates. This turns to reminiscing and swapping stories, and buying rounds.

We sit in the chill of a brisk April day for a few hours, watching the game of youth and feeling the warm nights so soon to come. We marvel in the beauty of a perfectly executed double-play and a bang-bang out at the plate. We jeer as the opposing pitcher throws to first one too many times, and we talk about the greatest games we ever saw, in these same seats and in other parks. And for a few hours we leave our mundane worlds behind and enter the dreamland.

Today is summer and Christmas, and we are reborn and rejuvenated, despite the sharp April winds and sepia landscape. It’s Opening Day. Greatest day of the year.

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