River Reflections

That light orange sliver of a hot new crescent moon had long ago set in the dawning horizon and it was  boys’ day out on the Green River, three of us, grandfather and grandsons. You know what they say about the apple falling not far from the tree? It was palpable.

Questions, questions and more questions, some traipsing toward perilous waters, the current heading for tangled roots overhanging a deep corner pool where big trout lurk and kids drown, others quite harmless, drifting off on placid water where we swam under bright, scorching late-morning sun, frisky dogs splashing, eating it up, Jordi, 7, joining the water-borne ecstasy.

Ah, to be young again. You can’t go back, but I am thankful on this, the day after my mother’s 84th birthday, to have been afforded the foot-free childhood freedom I enjoyed exploring woods, fields, swamps and mountains of the small, cozy town that sure ain’t what it used to be. What small town is nowadays, with that ubiquitous shadow of authority always snarling?

Arie, soon to be 4, was in a different psychological place, worried about “pinchers” he spotted fleeing along the sandy riverbed, the water clear and flowing stronger than normal for mid-July. “Don’t be afraid of those little crayfish,” I pleaded. “Can’t you see they’re afraid of you? That’s why they scoot away. Plus, you’re wearing your water shoes. Even a big pincher couldn’t hurt you through them.”

Seems I’m too often assuaging the boys’ fears, such a horrible emotion to be dominated and controlled by, a hideous plague for those who pathetically succumb to it. But who could blame these young boys for harboring fear and uncertainty after losing their father so young? My job as a surrogate is to help make them brave, adventurous and independent, plus confident in their ability to solve daily problems. I try to instill self-confidence and high self-esteem in my own homespun way. It isn’t always easy, given what they’ve been through, the devastating loss endured when the boulder to which they were moored was ripped from their tranquil bay.

As I extended my hand to encourage Arie across the river with Jordi and the dogs — Lily creating quite a commotion chasing scent through tall, dense riverside bamboo; Chubby just chilling, slurping cool belly-deep water, watching, listening to his mother’s antics — I caught a passing overhead shadow, looked up and spotted this dark, sinister, odd, lizard-like creature with long legs, neck and beak flying awkwardly upstream.

“Hey, boys, look at the Great Blue Heron,” I said, pointing upward, unaware that both had already spotted it, landing gear dangling, gliding to a west-bank touch-down at a river bend. The big, leggy bird hit the shore in front of a prostrate tree trunk, it extending slightly over the river, before walking into flat shallows to hunt small dace with its spear-like beak, the bane of hatchery managers. But not so fast! We weren’t the only ones watching the bizarre bird. Chubby, in statuesque focus, was onto it in a big way and soon splashed off in pursuit, quickly flushing and chasing it farther upstream before I called him back with the worn, black, deep-tooth-dented stag-horn whistle on my lanyard. Seconds later, sure enough, here comes that gangly heron right back at us in boomerang flight. It passed low, right over our heads, across the Christmas-tree fields and toward an invisible beaver marsh some 200 yards south. Its U-turn hadn’t eluded Chubby. No sir. He froze until the bird passed and then pinned back his brown floppy ears, sprinting world-class after it. Despite knowing he had no chance of success, instinct had consumed the young fella and off he raced, busting through the brushy riverbank border and disappearing partway across the field before returning on his own, smiling broadly and panting for a drink. No problem. He wallowed through shallow backwater, lay down and refreshed himself with loud slobbering slurps generally associated with a pigsty … or worse.

“Well, boys, what’dya think of that?” I asked. “Ever seen one of those weird birds?”

“No,” replied Jordi. “Cool.”

“Yeah, that was cool,” echoed Arie, enthralled in big-brother worship.

“But, Grampy, why was it alone?” Jordi chirped.

“Good question, Jord, one I cannot answer. Seems I seldom see two. In fact, I don’t remember the last time. No matter where I am, seems there’s just one. Haven’t given much thought to why, though. If I really wanted to know, I could look it up on the Internet or in a book. That’s research, Jord, finding answers. It’s fun. Easy, too, with computers.”

I can recall nothing else extraordinary occurring over the remainder of our two-hour river romp, which took us maybe 500 feet, crossing two rattling riffles at a sweeping S-turn in the river. There young, timid Arie rode me piggyback as the dogs rollicked and Jordi ran ahead to impress us with his riverside courage, not to mention be the first to discover what greeted us around each corner. In a set of knee-deep downstream rapids exiting flat deep water where we stopped briefly to swim, Jordi found submerged what he called a “super-soaker” plastic squirt gun. I fiddled with his prize long enough to empty the gravel and get it squirting before heading back to the truck for our return trip home a short distance away. There Joey, the boys’ “Nanny,” would undoubtedly have lunch under way.

I fired up the truck and drove down the double-rutted path between freshly cut hayfields, where a young sun-drenched farmer on a tractor was teddering — field swallows swooping and swirling, darting and diving, Mississippi John Hurt finger-picking, singing his baritone blues on my CD player, cranked up loud, of course, just how I like it. The artist and genre were new to Jordi, who was curious, a desirable state in my world.

“Do you like this music, Grampy?” he queried.

“Yup, Jord, love it, That’s Delta blues sung by an American original named Mississippi John Hurt.”


Nice! A teaching moment.

I told him Hurt has been dead nearly 50 years but remains popular in some circles. What I respect most about old Mississippi John, a poor black man, likely the son of slaves, is that he as a boy taught himself to play a cheap guitar, then as a man learned to write songs with message and soul. Later in life, famous musicians taught by the best teachers at elite schools, many of them virtuoso pickers playing vintage Martin guitars in the land’s finest music halls and biggest ballparks, begged him to teach them his unique finger-picking style, a curious three-finger method no one had ever seen. Yes, that’s my kinda man, I told Jordi: self-taught and original. Today, people know his songs but have no clue who wrote them. Of course I was tempted to introduce the word autodidactic right then and there but decided against it. The kid’s too young to use such a word, would likely be deemed an egghead.

It’s funny. I’ve owned that “Best of Mississippi John Hurt” CD by Vanguard for at least 20 years and just happened to dig it out on a wayward whim a month or so back, ending long exile on a lower shelf of the built-in Taproom bookcase I store my music in. It’s a live album recorded during the Sixties folk revival at Oberlin College, which gave me a great opportunity to address education. I told Jordi Oberlin was a good “alternative” college a friend of mine graduated from, and that I’d be proud to send him there if I could find a way. He just flashed a warm, inquisitive smile and asked what I meant by alternative. Different, I answered, a school that encourages thinkers to figure things out for themselves, like young Mississippi John figured out how to play that cheap guitar. It’s not the type of college people who want to be cops or soldiers or bankers typically attend. Jordi’s too young to grasp that concept. He’s still learning to read and speak. I didn’t expect he’d understand, just figured I’d plant another random seed, one of many I’ve sown into his fertile gray matter during seven short years, will continue planting as long as I live — about as close to a farmer as I’ll ever get.

Confused by the new ideas bombarding his intellectual sphere like swarming white-faced hornets, the boy reached deep into his bag of tricks for a clever escape and, with an abrupt, adroit interjection, changed the subject as we hit the pavement leading home. All the while, Arie sitting silently in the back, soaking it all in, hopefully gaining priceless perspective, little gems from mysterious origins buried deep in subconsciousness for future release into introspective freshets.

“What’s FM 2?” Jordi asked, pointing at the dashboard sound system. “I like country, country and rap. Can we listen to the radio?” And off on a radio adventure we wandered, one short in duration, him pushing one button after another before we turned into my driveway and a new realm. Our impromptu conversation about music and alternative colleges had somehow brought me back to a ride I once took with the boys’ dad. Jordi may or may not have been alive at the time. Not important. Gary was in town for the weekend and we were taking a country drive up the Green River that dirt road to 10-Mile Bridge, listening to bluegrass in my white Toyota pickup. I don’t remember what CD we were listening to, maybe Tim O’Brien, Steve Earle or Garcia & Grisman, possibly Doc Watson or a good many others. Definitely bluegrass, though. That I vividly recall. We were listening to one of many ballads about euphoric love gone terribly bad and bitter, when doleful lyrics were abruptly broken by an uplifting mandolin riff that caught my attention.

“Listen, Gary, do you hear that mandolin giggling?” I asked. “It’s vindictive laughter at a woman who left and lost, her misfortune his delight.”

What sparked that spontaneous comment I can’t say, but I’ll never forget his reaction. Our eyes met and Gary’s were blurred in bewilderment. Then, just like that, they became crisp, clear and focused. He smiled, nodded and I knew he “got it” as I looked into those soft, blue, intelligent eyes. A new concept, he understood the role of mood-driven instrumental riffs. He had by then played the guitar for many years and was venturing into songwriting, probing personal fears and anxieties, his distrust of authority figures who’d assaulted him, and was finally writing about it, just getting started, putting things together. He continued writing and singing right up to his untimely death, gaining confidence by performing for the kids, who sang and danced at home, accompanied him to open-mic coffeehouse gigs. He knew he could die young but hid his anxieties well. His music tells me he was haunted by his own mortality, especially after he became a registered nurse. Then, lo, he did die young, leaving a widow, two young boys and a beautiful home in an upscale Montpelier, Vt., neighborhood; to Jordi now only a distant memory in dense fog. Sadly, I doubt Arie has any conscious memories.

It’s no wonder Jordi has a few times asked, quite out of the blue, “Why did Daddy die?” It’s a question I have not answered. How can anyone try to justify such a devastating loss to a young boy? I just look him in the eye — eye-contact crucial — and tell him he’s not alone, that other boys lose fathers and succeed.

That response may sound cruel, but it’s all I’ve got for this bright-eyed grandson carrying his father’s legacy, and mine, yoked with a heavy burden that disrupted a good life he knew and loved.

I suppose the French would just shrug and say, “C’est la vie,” which totally ignores the question of fairness.

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top