Kathryn & the Sycamore

We pulled our car into the driveway, narrowly missing a huge sycamore tree while striking the curb with the front wheel, and I told Karen that one can guess the age of a particular house by the width of the driveway. This house was from the Leave it to Beaver era.

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Dinner at Picasso’s in OKC with Lauren, Beck, and Karen

Nowadays, these mid-century Edmond, Oklahoma houses are being transformed into California Craftsman Bungalows by youthful attention to the style du jour. Although, Kathryn’s home is pretty much as it was in the 1950’s, except for the sunroom added to the back of the house, where she spends her time watching the OKC Thunder on television and planning her 98th birthday party.

Kathryn loves sports and she tells me the Oklahoma City Thunder need to devote more effort to offensive rebounding. I watched the game later that night and thought, she’s absolutely right. She is an athlete after all. Although now her knees hurt and she has a soft brace around one knee as she recounts her exploits playing tennis as a young woman. She once came to Wann, Oklahoma, not far from where I live, to stay for a few weeks in the summer because her cousin lived there and they had a tennis court.

We went to Edmond to see babies. We also went to visit with Nanny, the grandmother of our son-in-law, Beck. The babies are the daughters of good friends. Beck’s grandmother, Kathryn Lyon Martin, once an Oklahoma A&M Redskin Beauty, has grown stately and majestic for 98 years, along with the sycamores of her middle America neighborhood.

kathryn martin young

Kathryn spent three years in the 50’s living and working at Tinker Air Force base while her husband Marshall served in Korea. But most of her adult life has been spent in this home in Edmond.

The babies we visited were incredibly cute. I made faces at Eloise and Ramsie the whole time and tried to make them like me, but that’s a tall order. I didn’t make any faces at Kathryn, but I did say yes when she asked me if I wanted a cookie. I always say yes to 98-year-old grandmothers who ask me if I want a cookie, knowing it won’t be as good as Karen’s cookies. I just do it to help them recover some of that old memory.

And the memory of this home and a life that once revolved around food and kitchen and children in the backyard and neighbor kids coming inside to ask for a cookie. I don’t want to be a smart alek (even though I am) like Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver:

June Cleaver: Eddie, would you care to stay for dinner? We’re having roast beef.

Eddie Haskell: No thank you, Mrs. Cleaver. I really must be getting home. We’re having pigeon pie this evening.

So I always say yes to cookies from grandmothers.

Kathryn still lives in the same home where neighbor kids came to play in the backyard unencumbered by fences that now restrict passage from yard to yard. There is a heavy round pipe swing in the southeast corner of the backyard and I imagine many swing set rules being violated, children falling in the grass laughing, crying, bruised, yet happy.

Life was different then. Not necessarily better, just less regulated.

She grew up in Geary, OK where there wasn’t much to do in a small town. So she would go to Catholic Mass with the neighbors even though she wasn’t Catholic. And when they left town, it was an event with life changing possibilities. Kathryn told us about a 1926 road trip to North Dakota when she was 6 years old. Her Mom and Aunt were driving a Ford, and I’m picturing the old coupe with the rumble seat. They went around a curve somewhere south of the Dakotas and lost Kathryn as she slid off the back trunk and fell head over toes into a borrow ditch. After a quick visit to the hospital, she was proclaimed fit, and they continued down the road.

Sensing an opportunity to gather perspective from someone who has seen a lot of history, I asked Kathryn about what events really shaped her, what was memorable to her. I was thinking three-character moments like 9-11 or JFK or FDR, but instead she shared a story about skinning cats.

beck & kathryn

old man & girl kathryn martin
Kathryn Martin was an artist…this is one of many pictures she painted after the children were gone, while Marshall was on the golf course

Which meant something entirely different years ago, and as Kathryn told the story, I watched my daughter, a cat lover, turn a shade of gray.

But skinning cats doesn’t mean that…it means just hanging upside down from a tree limb and flipping yourself through your own arms, or other crazy such flipping and jumping about. Which is what Kathryn was doing one day with her little brother and he was underneath a slab of wood when Kathryn flipped over onto the wood and it fell down onto her brother breaking his leg.

I was looking for deep meaning and got skinning a cat with a brother’s broken leg…which seems more real and American anyway. 

Beck and Lauren have a long-haired gray cat named Smokey. Kathryn’s husband Marshall was nicknamed Smokey, and Kathryn told us a story about a gray cat getting caught in the wall and birthing a litter. One of the cats was called Gray ball. Kathryn said, “Smoke tied some rags together and fished them down the wall but he couldn’t get the cat out…” So a fireman cut a hole in the wall. And so Smokey who tried to get a gray cat out of a hollow in the wall is now the great-grandfather of a gray-haired cat living in Denver with his grandson. 

The world has changed a lot in 98 years. Kathryn spread her limbs like the sycamore as she listened to FDR on the radio and saw the headlines of VE day. She wondered about her husband in Korea for three years and watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. She experienced the birth of radio, television, air travel, interstate highways, several gray cats, and four children. She grew with that sycamore, in her neighborhood filled with children swinging and playing in that great backyard without a fence. 

We live in a digital world that’s full of firewalls and privacy fences. We hear a lot of talk about privacy these days. But we sometimes trade our unfenced backyards for the security of lives never shared. Life sometimes seems virtual, a digital world of ones and zeros. There is something rich and authentic about living in the moment, skinning cats and flying into ditches, and knowing at the age of 98 just what the Thunder need to win.

Kathryn’s life along with that sycamore tree seem very real. I enjoyed listening to her stories and viewing her pictures and paintings. Her reality is analog, a continuous stream of stories and experience, backyard swings and old sycamore trees and children playing and cats trapped in walls and broken legs and flying from a car into a ditch somewhere south of the Dakotas.

Talking to Kathryn made me think of Virginia Woolf who wrote this about memory:

Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world…may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the under linen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.

Memory exposes our family linen to the gale winds of life and we find out how much our linen looks like everyone else’s. That gives us comfort. For at some time in each of our lives, we’ve felt beautiful and broken, guilty and redeemed, welcome in our neighborhoods and tossed into a ditch. This is life.

Happy Birthday Kathryn! Thanks for telling your stories and painting your pictures and raising your family and serving your country. 

You’ve helped bring us all a little closer to home.

 

 

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New York & Toronto: journal 2

August 24-25, 2017

We drove to the Adirondack Mountains with Toby & Debbie Taylor with plans to kayak the Moose River near the village of Old Forge. We wandered through Old Forge Hardware established in 1900. It’s squeaking groaning oak floors tells stories of those from another time walking these same boards with hunting boots, saddle shoes, and blue leather Mary Janes.

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Dr. Toby Taylor who is 1/256 Cherokee Indian standing next to the drug store indian at Old Forge Hardware store.

On main street there are slabs of oak and red elm and butternut standing at attention like surf boards at the beach awaiting a buyer to transform them into breakfast bar tops. There is a candy shop with mini donuts and chunks of fudge and brown bottles of Saranac Root Beer. We came to kayak, but we never made it, losing ourselves in a 1970’s time warp of batting cages, go carts (yes, Karen cut someone off), an arcade with redemption games like pinball and skee ball, Pac Man, and Galaga, and right next door there is a dairy shack with a roof top ice cream cone where you can get a frozen custard cone rolled in crushed heath bar. I ignored my age all afternoon and acted 14 most of the day.

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according to, Kathleen McMichael Mulligan, this is my mom’s wedding picture with Karen’s Aunt Rose n my Dad Roy Fairbanks n her GMA’s other two sisters Aunt Mary n Aunt Bertha…

We drove west to Syracuse on Friday, then north on Interstate 84 to the Canadian Border crossing at Thousand Islands (salad dressing originated here) and then connecting with Canada’s 401 West.

As we drove north along interstate 84 in upstate New York, I listened to my wife go through a box of old pictures given to her by her sister Debbie after her mom had cleaned them out of the house before moving to Arizona from New Jersey. It felt like listening to Jack Buck call a Cardinals baseball game, very entertaining, but visually I have to create some of the images from verbal reactions and comments from Karen as I drive in a strange land on strange roads. Karen reacts to a picture of herself in a bikini on the roof of Cathcart dorm as a 9th grader visiting Harding University in the late 1970’s and I steal a glance since I would have been a freshman there at the time.

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Thom Mason in his James Dean rebel years. This picture was taken not long after a car wreck. He and some buddies were raiding a farmers watermelon crop and were chased away. In the scramble to escape, he did not sit in his usual seat in the car. Thom’s friend sat in that seat instead. His buddy died in the accident.

While we are still on I-84 in New York, Karen reads a letter written from her mother Anne who was pregnant with Debbie in August 1957. It is addressed to her husband Thom who was serving as an Army Reserve cook at Fort Drum in upstate New York. Karen always wondered about her Dad serving as a cook in the Army, where the love of cooking and making eggs and bacon for his children first began. Karen has always wondered where Fort Drum is. She looks up from her letter and spies a green interstate highway sign not far from the Canadian border just east of Lake Ontario. It’s an exit sign for Fort Drum.

Memories from the Class of 1977

I always loved talking to Harry Whittaker. He made you feel better than you had the right to feel about yourself. We played the same position on the football team, wide receiver and cornerback, and during scrimmages, we blocked and pass covered one another. On one particular play from scrimmage, Harry was getting pretty vocal which he was good at, getting in my grill. On the next play I busted him pretty good and split his lip. I felt bad about busting him in the chops. But in typical Whittaker fashion, through the blood streaming from his mouth, he slapped me on the butt, a peculiar habit we boys had which thankfully didn’t carry over to the office, and he said, “Way to hit tata bud…that’s the way we play!”

I remember the last time I saw Harry. We were standing in a pasture in the gathering dusk of a late May evening in 1977, just hours removed from walking across a stage at the Adams Gymnasium in a flat hat while shaking the hand of Dennis Pannel. We talked that night and reminisced and in parting, he wished me well in life and we shook hands. Harry slipped a five-dollar bill into my hand during the handshake, the settling of a bet we had made about some game I can’t even remember now. It was a friendly, spurious bet we had made, maybe the Super Bowl, and I remember refusing payment, saying it was all in good fun. Harry never forgot and his parting handshake was his way of saying you are a good friend and I didn’t forget you.

I also remember the last time I saw Carol Lynn. I don’t remember ever speaking to Carol Lynn Creel before I became her “little brother” in Mrs. Smith’s class. She was beautiful and a pom girl and I was the golfer with unkempt hair and Sansa-belt slacks. But somehow we became friends inside the refuge of Sue Smith’s class. And during the summer of 1977, we were both together somehow on a paddle boat in the middle of Sunset lake paddling around aimlessly and talking about things that people talk about when their entire life lies before them. During our golf game this past weekend, someone said Sunset lake is dried up, but that summer, on that paddle boat with Carol Lynn, it seemed like an endless ocean.

Each of us can write a similar story about these classmates from the College High School Class of 1977 who have left us.

  • Carolyn Adams
  • Kathy Axsom
  • Lonnie Barnhart
  • George Beazer
  • Vicky Bernard
  • Melissa Carver
  • James Cottle
  • Carol Lynn Creel
  • Veronica Cueller
  • Marla Cunningham Wood
  • Lee Hardt
  • Monty Hays
  • John Hernandez
  • Rhonda Ishem
  • Becky Jones
  • Carolyn Landrum
  • Geneva Marshal
  • Cindy Ramsey
  • David Shaw
  • Lynn Sutherland
  • Egynn Thomas
  • Ethie Weaver Radanovich
  • Harry Whittaker
  • Mark Williams

Class of 1977 40th reunion

This past weekend our stories were unpacked from dusty attic boxes in our memory and yet, surprisingly, once the dust is blown away, they are fresh again, renewed by the remarkable magic of human interaction, as conversation and hugs sprout scenes from our salad days like suddenly appearing mushrooms on a misty lawn.

Seven of us played golf Friday and as I watched left-handed Tom Vogt swing, one memory jumped out at me like a grinning leprechaun. One day Tom and I played nine holes and we swapped golf clubs. I played lefty and he played righty, and I felt like a beginner once again. That memory would have stayed locked away without seeing Tom this weekend. That and the memory of three good friends from Limestone Grade School, who all lived on Whipporwill ct, David Staats, Tom, and Tony Hayes.

Memory becomes who we are. We are College High Wildcats, but that is pretty meaningless if it sits in a box in an attic gathering dust. We affirm who we have become by looking back at the experiences that have framed our identity, and the people who have busted our lips and loved us with passion and sometimes with a glorious awkwardness.

We are after all, collectors, dealers in memory. Keepers of time and space. It’s really all we have. Our money doesn’t travel well, our houses need painting, our cars break down, our clothes wind up at Goodwill. But moments in time, that’s the stuff we keep.

Here are the stories and quotes I’m stuffing into my memory box from our 40th reunion.

  • I remember Thomas Benson well, the hard-tackling linebacker for the Oklahoma Sooners in the early 1980’s who later played in the National Football League for nine seasons. He was not at my high school reunion, but I did sit next to his brother at dinner, Allen Benson, (Regina’s husband) a genuinely nice guy, who did play college football for the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Allen introduced himself to my wife Karen, and Steve Osborn’s wife, Susan. “Hi, my name is Walter.” Apparently someone had approached Allen and said, “Walter, glad to see you here. Thought you couldn’t make it.” This joke was lost on the two ladies as they didn’t know Walter Reece who once busted my front tooth in 9th grade as we shadow boxed and he forgot his power and cracked my tooth. (Allen looks nothing like Walter by the way) Steve chimed in, “You all look the same anyway.” Can he say that?

 

  • “You OK?” Allen Benson to his wife, Regina Benson, who had a heart attack unbeknownst to them both, and as a result, Regina got no sleep, while Allen would occasionally roll over and ask, “You ok?”, then go back to sleep. The next morning…Allen says, “We had a tough night last night didn’t we?” After the heart attack diagnosis, “I’m gonna take out three of them and then the other two will back down!” Regina Benson to the five health care attendants in the emergency room after they prepped her for a treatment.

 

  • “Please, get up, coach Switzer will kill us.” Tom Vogt telling about the terror of taking out a Heisman running back playing pick-up basketball at OU as Steve Osborn undercuts a 5’11’ guy with cornrows who had taken off from the free throw line to slam dunk. They didn’t recognize Billy Sims who usually had a huge afro, as he sprang back to his feet without using his hands like a Ninja warrior. (Steve seems to struggle with facial recognition)

 

  • “That’s what he just said to me as we were walking into the reception.” Shawna Thill, after they had walked into the Friday reception and I told her what Howard said to me during commencement at the Adams Gym May 1977 while Lt. Governor George Nigh spoke about Pink Floyd and something or other about education and youth of today… “Hey, tata bud, I gotta pee like a racehorse.”

 

  • “He was a good man.” Mike Seals after I told him how much my Dad used to love watching Mike play basketball.

 

  • The Hillcrest Men’s Grill after the golf game Friday, “………………………..” I’ve taken a vow of secrecy, but it reminded me of driving home on the bus after a basketball or football game.

 

  • “I watched 40 years flash before my eyes!” what many people thought when seeing someone they hadn’t seen since May 1977. Actually, several people said this to me.

 

  • “You look exactly the same.” all the people who were lying or talking to Regina or Kathy or Adele

 

  • “Steve, where did you go to college?” Kathy Garrison Hadden to her life-long designated chauffeur, friend, and confidant. Steve’s answer… “OU, just like you…I was in the dorm right next to you.”

The Unfolding Highway…part 1

I remember watching my Dad fold a road map on vacation while driving the highway. It is a lost art and the original texting while driving. Those maps had memory, and if you ignored the memory creases, there could be a thousand ways to fold the map, but only if you got in a hurry. So you looked or felt the memory at the fold line, the crease.

My family has always loved maps and the great American car vacation. Sometimes we unfold that highway map and see Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, the Gateway Arch, a Disney cup in a small world after all and a runaway mine train in Silver Dollar City. I saw the folded paper and squiggly lines as a treasure map and the longing for the highway was passed down from the ghosts of Okies travelling route 66 to California. Dad and Mom have always enjoyed driving vacations and seeing the country and the sights.  

This love came mostly from Dad because he was afraid to fly. That was my theory anyway, but he would insist that driving the highways of these United States is a love affair, topographical intimacy at 70 MPH that goes deeper than asphalt, into the soil of our nation and those who have built cities and bridges and monuments and National Parks. I inherited this love like a dog in a Norman Rockwell station wagon, head out the window and tongue flapping in the breeze.

Although, I must confess my sins of omission, that I skipped a family frontier photo shoot at Worlds of Fun and I also skipped a Washington state vacation to play in the Little League state championship. Once, while vacationing in Orlando my junior year of high school, I flew back alone to Tulsa for a golf tournament. That first airline trip was a rite of passage, a happy moment. And even as I felt a bit alone leaving my family in Orlando, I felt a sense of independence, that my Dad and Mom had confidence in me to let me fly back on my own. I flew Delta Airlines and listened to canned airline music on my headphones, Eric Clapton’s Layla and Marry Me Bill by the Fifth Dimension. It wasn’t as manly as the Inuit Indians sending off a sixteen year old brave into the Arctic Sea in a sealskin canoe to hunt for caribou on a distant island, but it made me feel grown up.

My penance though, for missing those vacations is to write about the moments I remember.

I remember vacationing with the Davis cousins in Washington state and playing whiffle ball with Mark, Brooks, Greg and Toby, and riding a pony. Listening to Mom read doses of literature, her medicine from Reader’s Digest or the Bible was enabled by captive attention, our ears within the sound of her voice for extended hours as we drove. This was her highway pulpit encased in steel and glass, and as we listened, we were oblivious to the fact that the fuel needle was below “E” and Dad had speeded up to accelerate the resolution of out-of-gas suspense. Mom used teachable moments before anyone thought to call them teachable moments.

Sister Terri two-stepped and fell down the steps in front of 35,000 fans at Busch Stadium, the same place a $5 bill was pilfered from my 9-year old fingers at the hot dog stand. I was fascinated by a thousand cars leaving a stadium parking garage descending a corkscrew driveway, and addicted to chocolate malted ice cream frozen like arctic ice, and the ubiquitous lyrical serenade of wandering vendors, “Hey, ice cream…hey, hot dogs, hey cold beer.” At the Houston Astrodome I snagged a foul ball hit by Jesus Alou on a pitch by the Cardinals Nelson Briles.

Before Ralph Nader and the NHTSA, all 7 of us could fit in a red 1967 Ford Mustang driving to church and we piled 8 into a Chrysler Imperial for a vacation to California. We drove west a lot in those early years, to California, Colorado, Texas, and we once calmly watched a twister travel across a plowed field in west Texas like it was an antelope running across the prairie.

Once in Texas, after staying overnight at the Cochran’s in Spearman, Texas, Mom left a 10 dollar bill stuck in the door as some kind of tip or bed and breakfast fee and Aunt Nordeen took offense and they passed back that 10 dollar bill back and forth, screen door to wiper blade, through the mail slot and back to the car visor…I thought we’d never leave because these two children of the Depression were fighting over $10.

To be continued (part 1 of 2)

His Folger’s Can is Empty

The man with the shepherd crook disguised as a dust mop has died. There is a melancholy in the closet where the mops lean against the wall and the Folger’s can is empty, no longer filled with Brach’s candy. Rusty gave it all away.

General Douglass MacArthur said, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away,” except for one soldier in my youth who will never fade. Albert “Rusty” Matthews was a war hero, unbeknownst to me. I knew him as the custodian, the guy with candy who knew my name and treated me as if I was worthy of a grown up conversation although I was only ten years old. His office was a supply closet scented with pine cleaner. He was a guidance counselor in janitor clothing, counseling the shy and socially disconnected in a school hallway with a dust mop and pockets filled with hard candy waiting for an orphaned moment of childhood insecurity.
Rusty the Janitor
So many children loved Rusty. We knew so little about Mr. Matthews, except he loved us and watched out for the lost children, the quiet ones, the cast aways, the unpopular. He didn’t have an MBA, but he was a police officer, a lumber man, a janitor, a decorated war hero. My daughter recently asked about furthering her education and I told her a few things about getting an MBA degree, but I wish I had told her this.

Be like Rusty. Live your life with a sense of wonder, a gleam in your eye, and candy in your pocket. Love the gentle, the shy, the broken, the hurting. Do the menial, the necessary, the dutiful, and when you are able, the heroic. But mostly polish floors and sweep away dirt and shine your life with gems of friendship, hard work, and a reputation beyond reproach. And then people will judge you for who you are, not by what hangs framed on your wall. Get a long handle dust mop to guide lost sheep while you work, a generous pocket of candy, and speak with those who don’t know how to talk yet…those things are hard to frame and hang on a wall…but immeasurably more valuable than any degree.

Rusty, we’ll miss you old soldier, sweeper of floors, watcher over children. You will never fade away.

A Choir of Donkeys and Angels

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.  

~  Victor Hugo

I had a reputation as a youngster that enshrouded me like cigar smoke hovering over Churchill on a still summer evening. I sang pretty well. I sang because my church sang a capella and everyone sang. If you stole our hymnals we would sing, because we knew the words and music by heart.

We sang during chapel at Harding University for an entire semester sans songbooks when a guy I know but won’t incriminate hid 3,000 hymnals in an obscure corner of a storage area near the Benson Auditorium. The books were discovered by the Secret Service detachment of former President Gerald Ford as they did their standard facility search. It didn’t stop the Christians at Harding University from singing in chapel in the days before Powerpoint. We sang from memory. We had no choice. If we didn’t sing, the rocks and the pews would burst forth in song.  And so we sang using only the song leaders pitch-pipe as a mechanical helper, although there were some who viewed that instrument with suspicion along with pianos.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4ww1LLr4NM   Our National Anthem at Harding University and everyone is singing!

That reputation for singing brought with it expectations, responsibilities, and pressure. Because of the reputation my church esteemed for singing simply and beautifully, those who knew us well, believed singing must be passed along to each congregant like holy elixir. This wasn’t true. Our church sang with a common passion but with a diversity of talent, like the host surrounding Jesus in the manger. Donkeys bellowed, cows mooed, chickens squawked. But while the barnyard animals made a loud noise, many of our church sang like angels hovering over baby Jesus, beautiful, surreal. And most of us were painted with the same reputational brush, “Hey, those Church of Christ folks can sing.”

My music teach knew this about me, this reputation for hanging out with the church of unadorned singing. I was loitering in the hall outside Mrs. McDonald’s 7th grade music class at Central Junior High, waiting for my 4th hour class while 3rd hour was still in session. Suddenly the door opened and Mrs. McDonald pointed a crooked finger at me. She said, “Come in here, I want you to sing.” I sheepishly shuffled into the room and stood beside her piano. Her music was open to an Irving Berlin song, “Mary’s a Grand Old Name”, and she jauntily began playing as I sang for the 3rd hour students. I finished and walked back out into the hallway. I was shy but never felt uncomfortable during the impromptu exhibition, perhaps because singing is easier than talking to a beautiful cheerleader. My heart seemed bigger when I sang, my mind calmer, my feet no longer mired in clay.

There is something evocative in the way our souls mournfully waltz to music when we bury our dead and stand taller when we sing the Star Spangled Banner. Our souls burn to the beat of rebellion and the disharmony of revolution when we are stupidly young, our souls soar sublimely as we sing to our children. Music gives voice to the broken, courage to our warriors, and megaphones to our injustices. And all of this articulated in tones which softens the calloused and awakens the indifferent.

Music strums and hums and changes us in keys that sound more reasonable and beautiful than words alone. Music is the stuff that comes out of us when we can’t speak, notes shaped like the essence of our unspoken emotions.

Music does something that logic cannot, it changes me, softens the edges, and raises my hackles. My creative nature affirms the lyrics of Chris Martin singing “The Scientist”…”I was just guessing at numbers and figures, pulling the puzzles apart, questions of science, science and progress, do not speak as loud as my heart.”

Holy Scriptures also affirm this in Ephesians 5:19, “…speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.”

Ray Charles speaks of music in the biological sense, that it was a body part, or perhaps an organ or one of his senses. “I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me – like food or water.”

I wonder if music ever goes away? Do songs from our lives hang in the air forever, the shaped notes hanging in the ether? I still hear Sunrise, Sunset from our wedding day, and my wife singing Hush Little Baby Don’t You Cry to our mortally injured dog Cocoa just hours before we took her to the vet and said goodbye. I hear pastel smocked teens singing Up With People at the old Bartlesville Civic Center in the Sixties, and the screams of teenage girls on the Ed Sullivan show as The Beatles sang, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Like hot air balloons hovering over our world, musical memory shapes and influences our thoughts, our legacy, our souls.

Music notes in space

My earliest musical memory came from furniture. My parents RCA stereo console doubled as fine furniture and music savant. I cut my teeth and the living room rug on Al Hirt’s Fancy Pants and Herb Alpert’s This Guy’s in Love, which led me to a love of big brass and Chicago’s Beginnings.

I remember walking down the aisle between scarred metal chairs at Green Valley Bible Camp to the strains of voices singing Just As I Am before I was baptized in the camp swimming pool. I hear Paul McCartney and Wings, Band on the Run driving west on Highway 60, travelling to a junior high golf tournament in Ponca City. The next year in Norman at the state high school golf tournament, I played the worst round of my competitive career, 88, and trudged down the seventeenth fairway, head down, distraught. From the open window of an apartment near the fairway, the Beach Boys soothed my sagging competitive soul with the soaring Help Me Rhonda.

And I sang when my daughter Lauren was born, alone in my car on a pastoral New Jersey highway, driving home from the hospital on a December night, “You don’t know what it’s like to love somebody, the way I love you.” I sang with the Bee Gees as I drove and thought about how happy I was to be a father, serendipitous happiness, like I had found a secret door to Heaven. So I sang, although the sentiment with which I sang wasn’t what the Bee Gees sang about. I didn’t care, that’s how I felt, like nobody understood the joy of having a daughter like I did in that moment, so I sang like Pavarotti in the shower.

I have a good friend and old college roommate from Harding University who can’t sing but does anyway. He drove a white 1970 Dodge Charger and called it The General. We sang Jimmy Buffett’s, Son of a Son of a Sailor, while driving in The General and sang Marshall Tucker Band’s, Can’t You See What That Woman is Doin’ to Me, on Friday nights in our living room when we had no female companionship.

And when we attended ball games, we sang only the last line of the Star Spangled Banner, …’and the home of the (Atlanta) Brave.’ It was funny that Ralph loved music. He didn’t seem the type to love music, but I often thought of Ralph later in life when I sang to my kids before I put them to bed. I sang An American Trilogy: Dixie, All My Trials and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a trio of songs arranged by Mickey Newbury which originated as American folk songs from the 19th century and popularized by Elvis in the seventies.

I thought of the stories Ralph told me about being young and hearing about the Confederacy from his Mom and listening to songs about the South before bed. I was from the Great Plains and thought all Americans were like me, and yet one of my best friends still spoke of the South, and he spoke of the War of Aggression Against the Southern States and he laughed when he said it but I knew the truth buried in the humor was complex and textured and layered with pain, heartache, pride and honor.

And of course I married a beautiful Yankee from New Jersey. And so I sang that Trilogy of songs to my kids and thought about how great our country was and is and how we are all different, yet the same, and how many have died for that ideal. And that Ralph and I are friends despite being cut from different bolts of geo-political-cultural cloth.

We are unique, we are the same, and I sense that every time I hear An American Trilogy and every time I see the Stars and Stripes waving in the breeze while singing our National Anthem, which Ralph and I now sing with a different understanding, with the correct ending, standing older, but taller, more proud and respectful, and grateful.

Grateful that many have died fighting for the principle of freedom and liberty and the United States of America. And grateful that floating out there somewhere in our memory ether is a jukebox of music carved from our voices, hovering around us like Winston Churchill’s ubiquitous stogie smoke that magically never blows away.

Saying Goodbye to Jimmy

My cell phone rang on a Sunday in May and I knew it was Jimmy. I said goodbye to Jimmy although I had no surety of goodbye, only the palpable sense of completion that comes with finishing a great book, that our friendship was graduating summa cum laude, and that we had both been blessed by our friendship beyond understanding.

Jimmy had just been released from OU Medical Center. He had been given bad news and his brother David had given me the details. I walked into my back yard and sat next to the pool and remembered another pool where I was baptized, at Green Valley Bible Camp on a sweltering July day in 1972.  

Jimmy and I talked like the old friends we are. We haven’t stayed in touch much through the years, but we melt back into conversation like warm butter on hot corn. We talked about his Dad, William, who is buried beneath a headstone that reads, ”A great man has fallen” II Sam, a reference to 2nd Samuel in the Bible, which was sounded out by his brother-in-law as “A great man has fallen, aye-aye sam.” In the face of grim news Jimmy still laughed like he did in the old days, when we were young and smart and knew things. His voice was peaceful, calm, measured, intelligent, even as our conversation was tinted with brokenness, our voices cracking with emotion, laughing and crying all at once.

He was my coming of age friend, the friend Richard Dreyfuss, playing a writer reminiscing about his youth recalled, as he typed on a crisp white page in the final scene of the movie, Stand by Me, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.” “Friends come and go in our lives like busboys in a restaurant,” wrote Stephen King. But the good friends never fade away. They live on, they inhabit our souls and our hearts as they touch us from a distance with the music we made together and when I hear that music, Jimmy’s full-throated laugh and dancing brown eyes light the hallways of my memory.

I feel Jimmy at my side when the church sings Just As I Am and it’s 1972 at Green Valley Bible Camp as Jim and I stand together singing, 

“Just as I am, thy love unknown hath broken every barrier down;

I hear Jim’s easy laughter as I tell stories, my first recollection that storytelling inhabits my soul, riding on a bus to that same church camp, two of my buddies, Jim and Tim, sat listening as I told a story fabricated from details I saw through the bus window. I was born a storyteller on that bus and I was born again in that camp pool a few days later, a story begun and a second birth, writ from places once dark, Jimmy by my side, helping to light a lamp in dark places with that laugh and gentle humor.

That summer we listened to The Eagles Take it Easy and Bill Withers Lean on Me on Jimmy’s low tech cassette recorder and it was my first memory of my own music…or at least my own through my friend Jimmy.

Sometimes in our lives, We all have pain, we all have sorrow But if we are wise, We know that there’s always tomorrow Lean on me when you’re not strong And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on For it won’t be long, ‘Til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.    Bill Withers

Jimmy was a wonderful pianist and one of his favorites artists was Billy Joel. We hung out in his room listening to Joel’s The Stranger and the album Toulouse Street by The Doobie Brothers. Jimmy and I managed to float the Illinois River just about every year from 7th grade through my Senior year in high school. We once lost a canoe under a fallen tree in the fierce outer current of the river, we jumped from the trusses of the river bridge and lived, we talked about God and when we paddled past a couple of girls in a canoe, our senses heightened and we grew silent, waiting for conversational privacy to evaluate what we had just seen, and plan accordingly, perhaps to casually bump into them later downstream, maybe tip their canoe, what did we know, we just knew girls made us goofy.

We were two kids learning how to live without a filter, without someone peering over our shoulder, here on our swirling river, as beauty and hormones competed for our attention along with God’s great outdoors and our innate mischief. Jimmy was fifty-four when he passed from this life on July 14th at 9:00 AM surrounded by his family.

Jimmy Burns

He told his older brother Eddie, “I’m going to see Pop first.” He said goodbye in the same graceful and light-hearted way that he lived, reveling in his answers to aggressive sales folks on the phone when asked why he was cancelling his phone service or subscriptions, “The reason I’m cancelling is I’m dying, I’m going home.”

I miss my friend, although I still hear his tenor voice when the church sings Just As I Am, I still see his shining eyes when Lean on Me comes on the radio, I still see the back of his head every time I sit in a canoe, and whenever I hear the Eagles, I think of Jimmy and think I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jimmy lived with a faith that moved mountains and someday I’ll see him again, I believe that, and look forward to one day sitting on a crystal clear river floating in a canoe looking at the back of Jimmy’s head, wondering how he’ll be different, how he’ll be new, and how amazing the music will sound dancing off the sparkling surface of a perfect flowing river.

Until we sing again, Dr. Jim Burns, my good friend, may the Lord bless you and keep you, and make His face shine upon you, and give you peace.