Friday, December 8, 2017

Sepia Tone

                            Sepia Tone
 The boisterous group of college kids staked out a place about two thirds of the way into the movie theatre. They were all out on a whim to see a movie about a superhero. These types of movies usually attracted kids and at least one parent to supervise. Even at a late showing on a Saturday night, there were plenty of kids in the theatre. And at a movie about Spiderman, the boy kids outnumbered the girl kids by about two to one. The college kids settled in but didn't settle down.
  Mark ended up next to a girl named Kaitlyn. He had seen her around at various student events and the word on the quad was that she had noticed him too. So when his friends made sure he was sitting next to her, he kind of knew he was being set up. He thought to himself, "it's only a movie night, Who knows, we might just hit it off.''
  Kaitlyn broke the ice with a comment about Tobey Maguire.
 "I don't know how I feel about Tobey as Spiderman. I mean after seeing him in Cider House Rules, this seems like a step backwards for him.''
  "I know, right. I loved that book. Wait, they made Cider House into a movie? I have to go see that next,'' said Mark.
  "You don't get out much, do you? That one was three years ago.''
  ''No, I don't. I guess I'm kinda backward too.''
  A lady with three kids shushed them and the movie started. Actually, the fifteen minutes of ads and trailers started. The college kids continued to talk amongst themselves but with a slightly lower volume.
  "So, what was the last movie you saw?,'' asked Mark.
  "Cider House Rules. I don't get out much either.''
  "These superhero movies aren't really your thing, I'm guessing.''
  "No, I grew up on Disney stuff. When I was a little girl, I thought I was a princess.''
  "What happened?''
  "I grew up. I hocked my tiara and ripped my ballgown into cleaning rags.''
  "I get it. Sort of like Cinderella in reverse. But you do kinda look like a princess.''
  "I actually am a princess. I'm a descendant of Pocahontas.''
  "You mean Matoaka? I can see it now. In your eyes and the shape of your face. But how do you feel about it?''
  "What do you mean?,'' asked Kaitlyn.
  "How does it feel to be descended from both the oppressor and the oppressed?''
  "You mean because she may not have willingly married John Rolfe?''
  "That and the fact that he was the first slave owner in English America.''
  "I heard something about that. You should tell me more sometime.''
  ''How about at the beach after finals. Do you like the beach?''
   The lady with multible kids shushed them again and they stayed quiet for the rest of the movie. Afterwards they agreed to meet and go to the beach when school was done. Mark had a difficult time keeping his mind in the books. It seemed he thought about the Girl who used to be a Princess every day.
  Mark asked Kaitlyn out to dinner about a week later. He had chosen a Indian place that he had been meaning to try. Kaitlyn was into yoga so Mark thought it would be a good choice. They sat down and studied the menu.
   "You know I'm a vegan, right? I only eat vegetables," she said.
  "I know. I'm a pescetarian. I only eat Pesces.''
  "What's a Pesce?''
  "Very funny. Lucky for you I AM a vegan and have a high tolerance for Corn. That was pretty damn corny.''
  ''I'm sorry. Sometimes I can't help myself. My Mom says I get it from her father who might have been the corniest man on earth.''
  "Is he really that bad?''
  "I don't know. He passed away when I was young. I didn't really know him that well. I do remember when he would come over to the house for holidays. He always loved to swim in the pool. My mom says that's also where I get my fantastic swimming abilities.''
  "We'll see about that at the beach when we go. But if you can swim like a fish, don't you feel bad only eating your own kind?'
  "I see you inherited a corny gene from somewhere too,'' he said.
  They both laughed and Kaitlyn said,"my joke was just a little more intellectual than yours.''
  "Would you say it was a tad more, or maybe a tadpole more.''
  "Really you have to stop. I hereby declare that you are allowed only one corny joke per day.''
  One week later, Mark and Kaitlyn spent the day at the beach. They had gone out for coffee a few times since that night at the movies and had the one real dinner together. The school year was over and both of them thought they had done pretty good. Kaitlyn had a writing workshop later that summer but for now she was free. Mark had written a short paper for his journalism class that earned him an "A". He spent most of that day telling Kaitlan about it.
  The paper was titled Social Justice in a Socialist State. Mark was very passionate about social justice. He had been since grade school. No one seemed to know where he got it from, he had always been very thoughtful and kind as a young man. It was one of the many things he and Kaitlyn had in common.
  As they were leaving the beach, Mark noticed a photo booth on the boardwalk.
  "Hey, let's do the photo booth thing. Do you have a quarter?,'' he said.
  "I think it costs more like a dollar nowadays. But we've been on the beach all day and look terrible. My hair's messed up. I'm tired and sunburned. I don't want my picture taken.''
  "Come on, you look great. If it doesn't turn out, we can throw it out. But I want a memento from this day. It'll be fun.''
  "Okay, but you owe me a dollar. And I get to keep the pictures.''
  They both squeezed into the booth and fed the machine it's due. They both smiled and tried not to laugh. Kaitlyn leaned over and kissed Mark in one of the snaps.The pictures came out in black and white except it was really brown and white.
  "What is this? Is the machine broken?''
  "It's called Sepia Tone. I set the machine to it. I thought it might hide how messy we look. Plus, I think it's more romantic like this,'' said Mark.
  They continued on the way to the car and passed the pictures back and forth a few times.
  "We should do this again next year, and every year after.''
  ''Whoa, methinks the young man assumes too much. We've only been going out a few weeks. How do you know we will still be together in a year. I might get bored with you in a month and kick you to the curb,'' said Kaitlyn.
  "Maybe, but I don't think so. I think and feel that you are never gonna get rid of me, Kaitlyn.''
  "That does sound romantic but also kind of stalky too.''
  Mark was right. By the start of the next school year, they had moved in together. All their friends told them what a cute couple they were. And some of them tried to tell them they should get married. They agreed that might happen in the future but for now they wanted to finish school and get good jobs.
  But the next summer, they went to that same beach and sat in that same photo booth again. They both looked the same but somehow different. They no longer looked like separate people but like two flowers growing from the same stalk. Mark had used this analogy several times with Kaitlyn. He had read it somewhere in book about Buddhism. He used it so many times that now Kaitlyn called him Stalky as a sort of pet name. She never used it in public, just when they were alone together. The double meaning was also a joke that only they knew about.
  Eventually, they did get married and get good jobs. They bought a house together and were all set to live happily ever after.
 And every summer, on the exact date when they had first gone to the beach together, they would go back. Even if they didn't have time to spend all day at the beach, they still went to take those four Sepia toned photos. The price stayed the same but the booth itself seemed to get older. The chrome parts were no longer as shiny and the vinyl seat was cracked and worn. But it still took excellent photos and Mark hoped it would forever.
  Time marches on and seems to be harder to manage as it does. After five years, Mark and Kaitlyn just didn't have time to go to the beach and take the photos. They had discovered over time that they weren't really Jersey beach people. They liked deserted beaches but not crowded Jersey beaches. They much preferred a tropical jungle with a waterfall and a deep pool at the bottom. Mark seemed to love to jump off rocks into the pools. Now all their vacation photos featured a shot of him doing just that. So, for many years, they were out of the country when the anniversary of the  "Beach Date" came around.
  The old photos themselves were stored away in a box somewhere and never even looked at. Until one day, Kaitlyn was re-organizing a closet and pulled out that box. There was a thin layer of dust on top and she blew on it to clear it .A cloud of dust took flight and she sneezed. The cats all came running in to check what was going on. They always seemed to be bothered whenever she sneezed and would come running.
  "Chill out, children. It's just some dust.''
 She set the box down and all three came to look.
  "This isn't your box, Cats. Go play in the kitchen.''
  They completely ignored her and all sat down to observe the box action. Kaitlyn started going through the stuff and pulled out the pictures. There were four of them; each representing one of the first four years she and Mark had been together. She put everything else away in the box and put it back in the closet. She took the pictures into the living room and sat down. She stared at them until her eyes started to tear up. The cats all tried to comfort her by jumping in her lap.
  "It's just the dust, Kitties, just the dust.''
  Kaitlyn left the photos out on the kitchen counter for Mark to see when he got home. He saw them right away and reacted instantly.
 "Wow, I forgot all about these. How could I forget?''
 ''Once upon a time, you said we would do this every year. What happened to us? When did we get old?''
  "We're not old just yet. We just got sidetracked by life. But we can get back on track. Let's reboot the tradition. We can go down this weekend,'' he said.
  "But the anniversary was last week. We missed it.''
  "That's okay. I don't really care about the actual date. That's just a number. It was the togetherness, the love that mattered. We go to my folks summer beach bash every year but forgot about our own.''
  Mark's family rented a cottage every year on the Eastern shore of Virginia. Sometimes as many as thirty people showed up. It was fun but it felt like an obligation and not an impulsive act of young love. Lately fewer people were even showing up for that. All the third generation kids were growing up and had lives of their own. But this photo booth thing belonged to just two people. How could they let it die out?
  "Then it's settled. We'll go down Saturday and take a bunch of pictures. I don't care if it costs a million bucks.''
  "But we don't have a million bucks. I hope the machine is still there,'' said Kaitlyn.
  They drove down early on Saturday and parked on Sixth Street like they always did. They walked the two blocks to the boardwalk in silence. As they walked past the amusement park, Mark didn't even smile. Usually just seeing the kids on the roller coaster or the merry-go-round was enough to put him in a great mood. But it was overcast and chilly and only a few kids were out.
   They got to the boardwalk and thought maybe they were in the wrong spot. The machine was gone. Mark was freaking out. He looked all up and down the boardwalk hoping that it had just been moved. Finally he went in the closest place to ask about it. There was a Dairy Queen just across from where the photo booth used to sit.
  Mark asked the man behind the counter," hey, what happened to the photo booth that was out there? Did they move it?''
  "That thing's been gone for years. I think cell phones killed it. But check the gumball machine by the door. I think the same company owns it. They might know something about it.''
  "Thanks, man.''
  Kaitlyn had followed him into the DQ.
  ''Any luck?''
  "No. But the man says the gumball machine is from the same company. Maybe there's a phone number or address on it.''
  "Good, I'll copy down the info while you get us two cones. We can walk around while we eat and look for it.''
  Kaitlyn knew ice cream always had a calming effect on Mark. Sometimes it was the best medicine. They walked a few blocks south and then north again. There was no sign of a photo booth anywhere on the boardwalk.
  The gumball machine had a metal tag on it that read, Seaside Amusements and Vending, Vineland New Jersey. There was no address and no phone number. They both knew where Vineland was; they had rode right past it to get to the beach. Kaitlyn used her map feature on her phone and found it after some searching. There was no website for the place and still no phone. It was just a dot on a map. She showed Mark.
  "It's just a few miles off the main road. Let's try and find it on the way back. Maybe we'll get lucky,'' she said.
  They walked back to the car and set off on their quest to find the missing machine. They got off the main road and headed into the depths of Vineland. Kaitlyn's phone directed them to a mixed commercial/industrial area full of warehouses and vacant lots. There was a check cashing place across the street. It looked a little scary to both of them.
  ''My phone's map app says this is the place. It look's abandoned,'' said Kaitlyn.
  They parked and walked to a door that looked like a main entrance. There were two vans and a pickup truck parked near the bay door. There was a sign over the door reading, Seaside Amusements and Vending.
  "This must be the place," said Mark as he pulled on the door handle.
  It was locked, of course, so then he tried knocking. He waited a few moments and knocked again. They could hear sounds of  someone moving around inside. Suddenly, a voice shouted through the door.
  "Go away. What do you want?''
  Mark and Kaitlyn looked at each other quizzically. The voice couldn't seem to make up it's mind.
  "We want to ask you about a machine you own. One of the photo booths from the boardwalk?'' said Mark.
  "I took all those out two years ago. Do you want to buy them?,'' said the voice.
  "Yes, we want to buy one particular one. Can we please come in?''
  They heard the deadbolt turn and a big burly man opened the door. He had a dirty tank top on and a stub of a cigar  perched in the corner of his mouth.
  "Come in, come in. Welcome to the land of make-believe. My name's Joe but most folks call me the Candyman, on account of all the gumball machines I run.''
  "Thanks for letting us in. I'm Mark and this in my wife Kaitlyn. We were looking for a photo booth machine that used to be on the Ocean City Boardwalk. It was between Seventh and Sixth Streets.''
  "All those machines are here. I took them all out. I was losing money on them. Nobody was using them anymore because of cellphones. The electricity to run them was more than they were pulling in. Now I just rent them out for parties and such.''
  ''Do you remember that particular machine?''
  "Sure, I remember that one. Somebody whacked it with a sledge hammer to get at the money box. I might get around to fixing it one day. Do you want to buy another one that works?''
  ''No, we have to have that machine, it's a long story.''
  "I got a few hours. go ahead with your story.''
  Mark told him about the first date and the first kiss on film and how much the machine meant to them. The Candyman was smiling but it looked like his eyes were watering.
  ''You kids are breaking my heart, but I can't let that machine go for less than a thousand bucks,'' he said.
  "But it doesn't even work. You said it was smashed. I was hoping for a much lower price.''
  ''The picture taking part of it works just fine. It's just the money box that's beat all to Hell.''
  "Can I look at it? Can I touch it? I'll know then if it's really worth anything to me,'' said Mark.
  "Sure, right this way.''
  The Candyman led them deep into the bowels of the building. They walked a maze made of every kind of vending machine you could imagine. There were rocket rides, mini pony rides, crane grab prize machines and all the way in the back, photo booths. Kaitlyn stayed close to Mark. Only about half the overhead lights were working. She also thought she heard scurrying sounds along the wall.
  "Mr. Canyman, is anybody else in here with us?,'' she asked.
  "I'm not a psycho-killer if that's what you're thinking, but them sounds you hear are the rodents. I can't get rid of the little bastards.''
   They got to the last machine and Mark could tell it was the one. He reached out and touched it.
  "Yup, this is the one. it looks pretty beat up alright. I'll give you three hundred for it.''
  "No way kid. I'll tell you what. Five hundred and I deliver within fifty miles. How would that be?''
  "That would be good. My shop is outside Philly. But where do I get supplies for it. The paper and chemicals and all that?''
  ''Just paper and ink is all it takes. No chemistry like the old days. It's a camera to printer process. I can throw in a roll and you can buy from me when you run out. You get the ink at any office supply place.''
   "But where are you going to put this, Mark? And don't we need to get it fixed first,''asked Kaitlyn.
  "I'll put it in my shop but I won't charge people to use it. Besides it will probably be just us who uses it once a year.''
  "One more thing kid. You have to help me get it on the truck. You got a sunken loading dock at your place?''
  "No, but I have a forklift. I think we can get it off in one piece.''
  ''Great, let me back my truck up to the dock and we'll push her on. It's got wheels up under.''
  They loaded the machine on the truck and strapped it down. Kaitlyn pulled out her checkbook and paid the Candyman. Mark gave him one of his business cards with the shop address on it. They shook hands all around and walked back out the way they came in.
  "See you kids Monday at about ten. Don't be late.''
Kaitlyn and Mark got in the car and headed west. They didn't speak for about ten miles. Finally Kaitlyn said what was on her mind.
  "You know it's just a machine, right?  It's not magic. It can't fix what's wrong with us. We have to do that.''
  "I disagree. Not about the magic part but the idea that we are broken. I think we are fine but the world is broken and it's collective peer pressure is pushing us where we don't want to go.''
  "Maybe you're right. But it was us who let ourselves get off track. We have to resist that pressure. What happened to us? What happened to everything? We lost track of what's real, of what's important,'' she said.
  ''But it's not too late. we need to find ourselves, to make time and space for us and us alone. Sort of like Sinn Fein. that's what that means; ourselves alone,'' said Mark.
  "Yes, exactly like that but without the IRA and their bombs and guns and killing. We don't need that mess.''
  "But we do need a revolution of some kind. Not of hate but of love. A revolution of love and of heart. That's what we need. With that maybe we can change the world.''
  "Viva la Revolution d'amour,'' said Kaitlyn and kissed Mark on the mouth.
3604 words

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Old MacDonald's Farm

                    Old McDonald's ate a farm
  I spent the first six years of my life in Richmond, Virginia. I was too little to remember anything about the houses on Grove or Patterson, so my first memories are of the house on the corner of Broad Street and Peachtree Boulevard. Peachtree was really only a short street that ran between Broad and Monument. So whoever named it a boulevard thought perhaps it would grow into the name. That part of town was actually outside of the city limits and still is. So technically, I lived in Henrico County for three years.
  The house itself was beautiful. It was typical Antebellum, three stories with covered porches centered front and back. An old barn sat out a few paces from the backdoor. It wasn't a particularly unusual or rare house, Richmond has dozens, maybe even hundreds of houses just like it. What was unusual about it was that it sat all alone on a whole city block, although the city was a half mile away. The number I remember hearing growing up was that the property was ten acres. It was really like a small farm.
  We didn't do much farming though. My dad was too busy working for a living and my mom was too busy raising 11 kids. I suppose we could have tried some kind of farming if we had made the effort, but we were just renting the place and knew we wouldn't be there very long. I do remember some apple trees behind the barn that produced some meager fruit in the fall. If tended properly those trees could have been coaxed into producing more.
  The southern border of the property was a dirt track called Cherry Lane, another street with an overly ambitious name. There wasn't a cherry or cherry tree in sight, just some big snails and a water moccasin to eat them. The water source for these semi-aquatic creatures was a spring or artisian well on the next property. It fed a small creek that wound it's way east and then north and dove under Broad street through a manmade culvert. This little creek had no name that I recall but it emptied into Jordan's creek, which is probably a familiar name to many Richmonders.
  I say we never tried our hand at farming but we did have a pair of chickens for a short time. One Easter, we got two cute little chicks from somewhere and tried to raise them as pets. My sister named them Pick and Peck.  They both grew up to be roosters and they were mean. It's not a good idea to have roosters without hens, it just pisses them off. They would chase us kids and fight with each other until finally one got run over in Broad street. We gave the other one to our cleaning lady and she ate him for Sunday dinner.
  Sometime in our stay at that address, a McDonald's restaurant was constructed across Broad street from us. It's still there and I believe it's one of the oldest in the country now. Broad street is six lanes wide there and traffic is always steady. We weren't allowed to cross it and after the chicken incident we weren't allowed to go anywhere near it. Being the intelligent children that we were and the smell of french fries tempting us from across the road, we found a way around this parental legality.
  We would wander down through the woods and hop down into the stream bed and cross under the road. Then after spending our hard earned pennies on burgers and fries, we would go back home the same way. My mother was no fool and asked why we were never hungry at dinner and why our shoes were always wet. We could only say we had fallen in the spring so many times before she started to disbelieve us. She soon got to the bottom of it and our bottoms suffered for it. Then the creek and the culvert were off limits.
  As I said, the McDonald's is still there and the culvert but the house was torn down many years ago. I didn't find this out until a few years ago when I was in Richmond on business. I stopped by the old neighborhood and found the house gone. I went into the McDonald's and asked about it.
  "What happened to that house across the street, they tore down my old house," I said to the girl behind the counter.
  She must have thought I was crazy or having a senior moment. She sat me down and gave me some water. She asked if I was all right and if she should call someone for me. I guess I sounded crazy to her, asking about a house that didn't exist anymore. Now, I'm not implying that McDonald's caused that house to be torn down but that's kind of what happened. New American "fast" culture is bulldozing it's way over old historic stuff all the time. People say," that's progress," and shrug it off. That house was old and had some history to it. We were told that it was some kind of hospital at one time, perhaps during the Civil War. But as I said earlier, Richmond has hundreds of these types of buildings and can't afford to preserve them all.
  I hate to see so little value placed on old historic stuff and the new plastic culture being glorified. The only bright spot in this sad little story is that a Barnes and Nobles sits in the exact spot where our house once stood and there's a Petsmart where the barn stood.
William Huber, former Richmonder.  2015

Frank Zappa

    Frank Zappa saves the day
On December 4 1971, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention played a concert at the Montreux casino in Zurich, Switzerland. A Czech refugee named Zdenek Spicka shot a flair gun at the ceiling and it caught on fire. Frank got on the microphone and told the audience to calmly go out the exits. He stayed on the mic for about a minute, repeating his words. He did not yell or scream. He succeeded in maintaining order in that very dangerous situation. The band, support staff and some of the audience were now trapped in the front part of the concert hall. In a Swiss television interview the next day, Frank states that somebody broke the large glass windows overlooking the pool deck. The windows were broken and everyone was able to jump out and escape. Claude Nobs, the owner of the casino and organizer of the event, says that Frank himself broke the glass with a heavy bodied Gibson guitar. All the group's equipment was lost in the fire. But what about that guitar. Frank states that the only equipment to survive was a cowbell.
  One week later, the group was playing the Rainbow in London with rented equipment. Another crazed fan, named Trevor Howell, rushed the stage and pushed Frank into the orchestra pit. He fell twelve feet and was severely injured. Howell was detained by the roadies until the police arrived. He was tried, convicted of assault and sentenced to a year in prison. It took about a year for Frank to recover. His larynx had been crushed and his voice permanently lowered a third of an octave. His broken leg healed shorter than the other one and Frank made reference to it in the songs "Zombie Woof'' and "Dancing Fool.''
  Frank was kind of a humble guy in regards to his own accomplishments. Certainly he was outspoken and sometimes rude but he rarely tooted his own horn, so to speak. I think that's why he took no credit for breaking the window and saving all those people.
  Deep Purple were just down the street, waiting to record their latest album and wrote a song about the events of that day.  Some of the members of Deep Purple were actually at the show. The song was "Smoke on the Water.'' So millions of people are now familiar with the song but not with the tragedy that inspired it.
   I think Frank was a hero that day and I will always remember it even if no one else does. Not one person died in that tragedy and only a few were injured. One other loose end in this story is about the tape. A complete tape of the concert still exists and can be heard  on Youtube. I will post a link in the comments. It runs all the way to the end and contains Frank's voice telling the folks to "calmly go towards the exit, ladies and gentlemen.'' So how is that we still have this recording. I think Frank had the presence of mind to rescue the tape as well as all those people. Frank was, is and always will be a hero in my book.

Life and Onions

                    Life is like a Deep Dish Pizza
   I have heard that it was Carl Sandburg who said, "life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time. And sometimes you weep." People quote this, misquote it and paraphrase it to suit their particular literary needs all the time. It has even found it's way into children's cartoon movies. A good example of this is the movie, Shrek, in which ogres are compared to onions. I think it's one of the stupidest metaphors for life that I have ever heard. I could create a better analogy in my sleep and I did just last night. The idea came to me in a dream.
  I could say the universe is like an onion and I would make more sense. Just using the layered aspect of onions, I would say that a multi-dimensional universe is like an onion with many layers. Many physicists are now saying that the universe we live in could be made up of many different dimensions or layers. Some physicists, like Brian Greene, are saying that our universe could just be one of many that exist in a multi-verse universe. This is all very deep stuff.
   Interestingly, many religions and spiritual world views also say that we live in a layered universe. Both Eastern religions such as Buddhism and indigenous American systems like the one outlined by Carlos Castaneda in his books put forth the proposition of a multi-layered universe.
  All this sounds good on paper but I rarely get that deep. I'm just a simple meat and potatoes kind of guy. But sometimes I like to put some onions in my hashbrowns. I also like them in an omelette or some finely diced in my tuna salad. I am just one man by myself so I rarely eat an entire onion at one time. I cut off a little bit to use in my food and put the rest back in the fridge. Just recently, I had used about a third of an onion and forgotten about the rest . Over a week went by and I found it while putting away some fresh onions that I had just bought. The part that was cut was starting to go bad. It was soft and mushy and turning black. The other end of the onion, however, was sprouting a green stalk and trying to regrow a new plant.
   In this regard, an onion IS like life. Parts of it are dying while another part is thriving and trying to recreate itself. The wheel of life turns and the old becomes new again. But what about potatoes? What part of the universe is like a potato? None, I think. I think a potato is just a potato.
   I do remember a cool movie in the 70's about some surfers traveling the Australian continent in a VW bus. They would prospect for gold and search for waves. The meager nuggets they found would finance their adventures for a few more weeks. During hard times, they would live off of potatoes and onions. I think I feel some more inspiration coming on. Yes, life is like surfing and the quest for the perfect wave. But I think that's a topic for a whole other blog. And it's probably been done and over done many times over. So, to sum up, life is like life. It's pointless to try and make all these stupid comparisons. Life is life, so just get busy and start living it.
  I think I'll just head out to that steakplace and get a blooming onion and think about life. Wait a minute, I think it was that pepper and onion pizza I had that caused me to have the dream in the first place. And the wheel keeps turning. Deep dish stuff, man.
   Have a gnarly g'day mate, Bill Huber 2016
  Bill Huber is a writer of fiction, social commentary and sometimes satire. Born in Baltimore and raised in Virginia, he is a man of all seasonings with a taste for irony.

Gallows Pole

  I woke up this morning with a Led Zeppelin song in  my head. That song was "Gallows Pole.'' They didn't write the song, they had heard Leadbelly's version and had adapted from that. But Leadbelly didn't write it either although many Americans believe that he did.  Or they believe it had it's origins in American folk music. The song is far older than most people think. I think it's cool that we can listen to a song that may be hundreds of years old and still enjoy it. Versions of this song are found all over Europe. Iceland even has their own version of it. The Sami people (Laplanders)  of North Scandinavia also have their own version. There is even a version in Sicily. It may have it's origins in a French folktale  called "Bluebeard'' that was first documented in 1697 by Charles Perrault. No one knows how old this folktale was before it was written down. It could have been passed down by word of mouth for centuries before that. In my travels in Europe, I heard versions of it everywhere. In Scotland, they claim it originated with them sometime in the Middle Ages. The Scots are very proud and claim to have invented most everything you can think of. But I think they may be at least partly right. The song made it's way to America with the first settlers in the 1600's.
  Let's use some of my history hunting skills and see if we can determine the song's source and age. The first technique I use comes from writer, Tony Hillerman. His fictional Navaho policeman, Joe Leaphorn, used it in many of his books. Leaphorn would put a map up on the wall and mark each place where a related incident had occurred. For instance, if bodies were found that had been murdered in a similar fashion, he would group them under one M.O. The center of all this activity was usually where the killer could be found. It's a very sound technique and has served me well in the past. So, if you take a map of Europe and mark where a traditional version of this song is known to exist, you will find a geographic origin. The furthest points of this study are Iceland, Lapland, Russia, Slovenia, Sicily and Northern Spain. The center of all this activity is North Scotland or South Norway.
  Now let's examine the subject matter of the song itself. In every version, hanging is the fate from which the person wishes to escape. Ransom of silver and gold is paid to keep that person from the Hangman's Pole. In some versions that person is a man but in most, it is a woman. Hanging was a common form of capital punishment throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. But in England, it had been used since Anglo-Saxon times (500 AD). Public hangings were thought to be a deterrent for crime and usually drew a large crowd.
  During the Crusades, captured noblemen were ransomed from the Turks by relatives or by means of raising money from the commoners by special taxes. Commoners captured by the Turks were rarely ransomed but usually ended up in slavery and not at the end of a rope.
The  word ransom itself is of a Middle English origin deriving from the surname Randolph.  The surname Ransom is still found throughout England.
  As I stated earlier, it was women about to be hanged in most versions of this song. James the Sixth of Scotland, who would become James the First of England, had an obsession with witches. At the Berwick trials in 1590, over seventy people were executed as witches. Most of them were women. Only a handful were actually burned alive at the stake. Most were strangled and then burned. James even wrote a book on witchcraft and demons in 1597 called Daemonologie. In it he went into great detail about the practices of witches and how to detect them.
  One hundred years later, this obsession re-emerged in the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials in 1692. I wonder if James' book was still in use then to help the prosecutors in the trials. When it was all over, 20 people, mostly women, had been executed by hanging. None of them were burned alive. In both sets of trials, none of the accused were allowed to ransom their lives. At Salem, four of the women were pardoned. Only one, Dorothy Good, was released on bond. I suppose that could count as being ransomed.
  Here in Virginia Beach we have our own local story about a witch. This is Grace Sherwood. The myths surrounding her life are many and varied. In the northern part of Virginia Beach, we have a particular set of stories about her. Most of these were compiled by judge B. D. White in 1915. These stories were further embellished by Louisa Venable Kyle in 1973. Sometimes myths and legends are based in facts and one has to peel back the layers to get at the kernel of truth they may contain. I learned about many of the myths and legends about Grace from Belinda Nash and her daughter Danielle Sheets. They wrote a book about Grace Sherwood called "A Place in Time, the Age of the Witch of Pungo in 2012.
   As one travels south in this city, the stories about Grace change subtly. At the south end of Virginia Beach is Knotts Island. The stories told there about Grace are very different from the others. Grace's maiden name was White and many Whites still reside there. One story that some of the old-timers tell is about Grace's escape from jail and from hanging. They say that Grace asked a passing boy to bring her two unwashed pewter plates from the tavern and she would reward him. She put the plates under her arms, flew out of the jail cell and escaped being hanged. The real events happened in 1705-06 in north Virginia Beach, not on Knotts Island. One has to ask, why was she not executed but kept in jail for over seven years. She was found guilty by water trial just down the road from the church and adjacent courthouse where her trial began. Other less famous witch trials occurred in Virginia. In those cases, the charges were either dismissed or the accused was found guilty and hanged. Grace was a poor farmer's wife. I wonder if she had just a little gold and silver. Maybe she had just enough to keep her from the rope but not enough to buy her freedom.
  So whenever I hear that song, I always think of Grace and her close call with the Gallows Pole.

Oysters and Englishmen

Oysters and George Percy
 The first local food eaten by English colonists in Virginia were oysters. How this happened is one of the strangest stories in American history. It was April 27th 1607, and the English had just landed at Cape Henry and been attacked by Savages. How and why this occurred we will never know. Two English were wounded. The account doesn't say how many Indians were wounded. The 105 English men and boys had just completed a dangerous voyage of four months and the food supplies were getting low. They had stopped in Puerto Rico and several other islands and taken on fresh water and some wild game and fish but staples like flour and salt were in short supply. The famous John Smith was not there those first few days because he was locked up aboard the ship for plotting a mutiny. When the colony's charter was opened and read, John Smith was named one of the seven man governing council.  He was reprieved from execution but would not be released for several more days. It was not until arrival at the Jamestown site that he was freed and could get back to his job of soldiering.
 The man who chronicled the events of those first days and weeks was George Percy. Percy and Smith never got along but had to work together for the survival of the colony. Percy kept a journal and later wrote an essay to counter what Smith was writing in his memoirs. Percy claimed Smith's account was falsified to make him look like a hero. Percy was a lesser son of discredited nobility and probably resented Smith, a farmer's son turned soldier. Percy's uncle had been beheaded for his involvement in a plot to free Mary, Queen of Scots. George Percy's father was imprisoned in the Tower for suspicion of involvement in the Gunpowder plot of 1605. So George thought it best to get out of England for a while and try his luck in the new colony of Virginia.
 So, the next day, a party set off to explore further inland. This time, the Indians must have seen them and ran off. The explorers came upon a large fire pit with fresh oysters roasting in it. They stopped long enough to consume all they could eat and continued on their way. George Percy declared them to be, " very large and delicate in taste." The men were all familiar with oysters as they had been harvested and eaten in England since at least Roman times. So roasted oysters were the very first local food consumed in Virginia. If the Indians had been roasting corn, would the colonists have eaten that, being unfamiliar with ears of corn? I think they would have eaten whatever they had found no matter what it was. They were hungry after all and had already eaten many strange and new foods in their island stopovers.
  On the fourth day, the famous cross planting occurred at Cape Henry. The colonists had brought with them a small boat called a shallop in pieces. They put it together and used it to explore the shallower waters feeding into the bay. Later they used the shallop to do some oystering in a smaller bay that sounds a lot like Mill Creek in Hampton. Christopher Newport was captain of the Susan Constant but Edward Wingfield was now head of the council. Both Smith and Percy would occupy that position in the coming months. The two men did not like each other at all and each in turn could have put the other under arrest when they were in charge. The complex politics of those early months probably stayed their hands. Smith came close to the gallows on a few occasions. Eventually, a real Governor arrived and Smith was sent back to England under arrest. He would clear his name in England and eventually write his questionable memoirs.
 I did a little oystering back in the 80's and almost went to jail for it. I like all kinds of seafood but I like free seafood even better. The Lynnhaven oysters were off limits at that time due to bacteria and other nasty stuff from runoff. The river is much better now but all shellfish were illegal at that time. I would go out at night in my little skiff and harvest a bushel at a time. I wasn't selling them so I thought I should be allowed. The entitlement of youth was my logic for breaking the law. I always left the oysters in clean water for 24 hours and cooked them thoroughly before eating them. I preferred roasting just like the Indians did. I was out until dawn one night and the game warden caught me. He made me dump my catch and warned me never to be seen on those oyster beds again. It only occurs to me now that I could have been harvesting oysters in the same way as the first colonists of long ago.
 As I researched and wrote this, a poem by Lewis Carroll in his children's book, Through the Looking Glass, came to mind. Lewis Carroll's real name was Charles Dodgson. That poem is of course, "The Walrus and the Carpenter." I doubt if it occurred to Mr. Carroll that his characters could be the two men from the Jamestown Colony. Many scholars over the years have tried to attach symbolic or hidden meaning to Carroll's work. I think it is pure coincidence and probably hasn't even occurred to anyone but me. In my mind, George Percy is the Walrus and John Smith is the Carpenter. I'm not sure who the oysters are. They could be either the Indians or the other colonists. In light of the recent evidence of cannibalism during the starving times at Jamestown, either comparison would fit.
 In the book by Carroll, Alice discusses the poem with the Tweedle brothers after they recite it to her.
 "I like the Walrus best," said Alice, "because you see he was a little sorry for the poor oysters."
 "He ate more than the Carpenter, though," said Tweedledee. "You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn't count how many he took: contrariwise."
 "That was mean!" Alice said indignantly. "Then I like the Carpenter best—if he didn't eat so many as the Walrus."
 "But he ate as many as he could get," said Tweedledum.
 This was a puzzler. After a pause, Alice began, "Well! They were both very unpleasant characters—"
   Bill Huber 2015
  Bill is a writer of historical fiction and social commentary who lives in Virginia.

The Tempest

             Will Shakespeare and the Jamestown connection
   Most everyone in the English speaking world could probably tell you that Will Shakespeare was an English playwright. One of his best works is The Tempest. Very few of those people have ever seen this play or any others by him performed. And only the most devoted fans of The Bard could tell you that this play is based on actual events that occurred just off our shores in Bermuda.
  The year was 1609 and a fleet of ships set sail from England for Virginia. These seven ships; Sea Venture, Falcon, Diamond, Swallow, Unity, Blessing, Lion, and two smaller crafts, were loaded with much needed supplies and new colonists for the Jamestown colony. The flagship of that fleet was the newly constructed Sea Venture. This was to be her maiden voyage and also her last. The fleet encountered a great storm or hurricane and the Sea Venture was separated from the rest of the ships.
  The oakum caulking between the planks had not set and cured properly and the Sea Venture began to take on water. The island chain of the Bermudas was known to be close by and Sir George Summers himself steered for that as best he could. Having spent many years on the high seas myself, I know this is not an easy task. Sometimes you just have to point your bow into the storm and ride it out.
   So the ship was run aground on Bermuda and all the people and most of the supplies survived. The ship itself was unsalvageable and broke apart. Some of the wood from it would eventually be made into two smaller boats that the survivors used to get to Jamestown.
  In the ten months in between, there were numerous fights, mutinies, murders and executions. There were also happy times including two births and a marriage. One such birth was to the wife of John Rolfe. The girl child was christened Bermuda but soon died on the island she was named after. The wife, Sarah Hacker, died shortly after the group arrived in Virginia. John Rolfe went on to marry Pocahontas and was the first successful tobacco farmer.
  Aside from the murders and executions, and the births, the Shakespeare play contains all of these dramatic events. The characters of Antonio, the Duke of Milan, and Prospero, his brother and former Duke of Milan, have been compared to Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Summers. They were the two highest ranking men on the ship and often at odds with each other. Christopher Newport, the actual captain of the ship, could be compared to the honest Lord Gonzalo.
  William Strachey chronicled all the events of the Sea Venture and the eventual arrival at Jamestown. He wrote all this down shortly after the events and sent the manuscipt back to England in 1610. He called it,  A True Reportery of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates. He returned to England shortly after that. There is no proof positive that Shakespeare and Strachey knew each other but certainly they must have known of each other. The parallels between The Tempest and A True Reportery are too numerous to have been coincidence.
  There are some really hardcore Shakespeare conspiracy theorists that claim they were one and the same man.  Some others also claim that Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. This is known as the Oxfordian school. I don't subscibe to any of those schools of thought. I think Shakespeare was a real person and not a pseudonym for someone else. I believe that Shakespeare read Strachey's work and borrowed heavily from it. Both of their lives are too well documented for them to have been the same man. The title of the first chapter of Strachey's work is A Most Dreadful Tempest. Many other specific words and phrases are found in both works. For instance, Strachey writes about ''the sharp windes, blowing Northerly'' almost exactly matches Prospero's line about ''the sharp wind of the North.''
  Caliban could be seen as representing the Indians, especially those Powhatans hostile to the English, such as Opechancanough, King Powhatan's brother.  Powhatan himself would then have to be Ariel. That would make Miranda a representation of Pocahontas and Ferdinand a representation of John Rolfe. No one but me has ever made this comparison because the time line is all wrong. John Rolfe didn't meet and marry Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka, until well after both Strachey's story and Shakespeare's play were written. According to the anthropologist Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas "revealed her secret name to the English only after she had taken her new Christian name, Rebecca"
 The marriage of John and Pocahontas, now renamed Rebecca, didn't last very long. She gave birth to their son, Thomas, and died in England shortly after. In fact, she died just as she and John were on a ship headed back to Virginia. But while they were married, there was relative peace between the Powhatans and the English. Rebecca/Matoaka was a guest of honor while in London and even met with the King, James the 1st.
  One can only wonder if upon first setting eyes on England and the English, did she say, " Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in it?''
  Somehow, I doubt she said anything like that but we will never know for sure, will we?
          Bill Huber 2016