A War Widow’s Prayer

Inspired by “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

Lord.

I shot a Yankee today.  I know it ain’t right to kill a man. That’s what the Commandments say. I had no say in the matter. He come snooping around. Wanting to know where Peyton was. I didn’t dare tell him Peyton was off fighting Yankees down at the bridge.

Little Eli, he told the Blue Coat to git. The man was having none of that. He just laughed and laughed like he knew something we didn’t. He knocked my boy out of his way and come at me, looking like he had something dreadful on his mind.

I pulled that pistol Peyton done give me out of my apron. It was hard cocking that gun but I done it. I shot that Yankee in the face and killed him.

My oldest, Noah, was out plowing the field. He heard the shot and come running into the house and seed the dead man, lying on the floor. He rolled the Yankee’s body onto the rug I braided last winter, rolled that red rug up, and tied that rug around the body real tight. Then that boy, only thirteen, threw the bundle onto his shoulders. With that body of his, all tall and muscular like his granddaddy, he toted the bundle out to the back of the house. I stood there on the back porch and watched my boy bury that Yankee and cover the grave so there’s no trace.

He said to me that we got to speak some words over the man. Ain’t right to leave a man in his grave without some words, no matter how mean he was, or how much he’s out to do the bad things this Yankee had on his mind, So that was what we did. We stood over that grave and my boy said them words just like the preacher would’ve. Noah made me so proud, him taking charge and all.

About the time Noah got hisself cleaned up, this Yankee lieutenant come riding into our yard. He was real spit and polish sittin’ on the back of a mighty fine horse. He calls down to me, “Ma’am, we hung your husband. He’s on that wagon there. Where you want him?”

I never cried. I would not cry. I would not wring my hands. I would not grieve. I would not let that Blue Coat of a lieutenant see me weak like he was expecting. I give Mr. Spit-and-Polish directions to the little church down the way. Then me and the boys followed that wagon to the church. Preacher tried to comfort me, and I was comforted best I could be. It was best to get the burying over with, and that’s what we done. We sent Peyton on to You, Lord. I just want You to know that Peyton was a good man. The best man I ever knowed. And I’m wanting You to take good care of him, y’hear. I’ll be much obliged if You do.

There’s just me and my two boys left now. That Blue Coat lieutenant told us to gather our things and git. We couldn’t stay at the house. The Yankees aimed to burn the house and the barn down, and the crops too. He give us no choice but to hitch up our wagon with the mule. So we’re going now.

Oh, Lord, strengthen me for the road ahead in these dark times. Lead this husbandless woman with her two fatherless boys safely through the wilderness and to the promised land of my sister’s house.

I got to go for now. Night will be upon us soon. May light return on the morrow, and may Your grace light all our tomorrows.

Amen.

Before the walls

The old man Priam came to the tent of Achilles
to plea for the body of his son, the old man came
for Hector slain before the walls where Patroclus fell
before the walls, before the walls of the city
where ten thousand Greeks were cut down,
and ten thousand Trojans more.

Priam mourned and Achilles too, they cried for all
the dead that night, these sons of Mars grieved the deaths.
They spoke of heroes, of horses and the sea.
“I was a child once,” the king said, “the city my home.”
“I was a boy too on an island a distance away.”
“I was a rider of horses.” “I a runner of races,” Achilles

unburdened his heart. “Then I took up the spear.”
“And I the shield.” “King, you make a good shield.”
“You are a great spear. Without you, the Greeks would be gone.”
“Why did my cousin die?” “Why did the gods steal my son away?”
“You are a king and I but a man, yet we grieve the same.”
“This is why the gods gave us tears,” the old man said.

And what did the Warrior say? “Tears are not enough.
The grief that I fear will never fall away.” “Nor mine.”
The old man carried his son home to the Funeral Games
before the walls that were once the city of Troy,
home to Helen and Paris, Andromache and once Hector,
the first-born of Hecuba and Priam inside the walls

of Troy.

The Band That Saved Rock ‘N’ Roll

It’s the 57th anniversary of the Beatles first appearance in the United States.

You’d think February would be no big deal of a month, being as short as it is. But it’s the month that the world’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, does or does not see his shadow. It’s the month George Washington was elected President. It’s the month Queen Elizabeth II became queen.

And it was Feb. 3, 1959, the day the music died. The day Rock ‘n’ Roll lost its soul. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, and the promise they brought to American music, died in a plane crash. No more “That’ll be the day.” No more “Peggy Sue.” No more “Chantilly Lace”. No more “La Bamba”. Then, on March 24, 1958, a day referred to as “Black Monday”, Elvis was drafted into the Army. When he got out in March, 1960, he wouldn’t be the same king of rock ‘n’ roll that once upon a time he had been. He was Col. Tom Parker’s watered down version. Jerry Lee Lewis was banished from rock ‘n’ roll hero-dom and Chuck Berry was in jail. Only Dion, Roy Orbison and the Everlies remained standing. But they weren’t the threats to Western Civilization Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the early Elvis were. The glory days of rock ‘n’ roll were over.

Teenagers were left with the likes of Frankie Avalon, Connie Francis, Bobby Rydell, Paul Anka, and David Seville and the Chipmunks. Weak imitations of the glory that had been rock ‘n’ roll in its heyday. Only the Beach Boys gave us any reason for hope. And their sound was much more smooth than the authenticity of the music that filled the airwaves from Philadelphia, PA to Los Angeles years earlier. There seemed to be no place for the real stuff that had blasted out of our radios and created a revolution of sound. Instead of Buddy Holly, they were now given Bobby Vee. Rock ‘n’ roll was drowning and it had no saviors to throw it a lifeline. At least, not in America. Parents were pleased.

But, across the pond we call the Atlantic, a new sound was being created in the streets and the underground clubs of towns like Liverpool and Manchester, Andover and London and Hamburg. Born out of early rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, and skiffle, this sound would change the world of music forever. Like a storm that starts with a little rain, they would give teenagers back their battlecry of freedom. They would show America how music should be made.

Just as a February day killed off the dynamics and energy of what was once a great sound, it was reborn on another February day in 1964 On the ninth day of February, 1964, history was made on the Sunday night broadcast of the “Ed Sullivan Show”. With a one-two-three-four, John, Paul, George and Ringo in their moptops played “All my loving” and “Till There Was You”. Then “She loves you”. There was a pandemonium in the studio with all the screaming pouring out of the audience. It was Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry rolled into one. Seventy-three million people watched as the four performed songs from their first Capitol album, “Meet the Beatles”. Within twenty-four hours of their performance on Sullivan, there were few in the country who did not know their names. These Beatles from working class Liverpool were not only musicians and singers, but they wrote their own songs. And they were personable. And funny.

Suddenly a flood of British musicians were breaking down the walls of American radio and television. The Rolling Stones. The Kinks. The Hollies. The Animals. Herman’s Hermits. And dozens more. But they were only stepping into the footprints left by the Beatles.

Then there was an August tour and a movie. Only Elvis had his own movies. But now here were the Beatles with their own movie, “A Hard Day’s Night”. Not only did the director Richard Lester capture on film the songs but also the spontaneity and the spirit that were the Beatles without taming them the way Hollywood had tamed Elvis. It was a jolly good case of pretend with all its madcap zaniness, and even better songs. It was something to see, musicians successfully performing comedy. With the two films and the songs the band wrote for them, it was clear that the Beatles were growing as songwriters, as musicians and as performers. They were emerging as the best thing since Elvis. Soon they would bypass Presley as the new Kings of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

In a time when bands did not perform in large arenas, the Beatles were filling stadiums. In those early years they steamrolled across America in a way that no artist before or since has. Other bands were taking up the mantra of out-Beatling the Beatles. Everybody from the Rolling Stones to the Beach Boys to Buffalo Springfield to the Byrds to the Hollies. Just when the others thought they had beat the Beatles at their game, the Beatles upped the ante and blew away all the competition.

Soon the craziness of Beatlemania made them quit the touring. They went into the studio and innovated, not just once but again and again, producing magic the way no group before or since has. Working with their fifth Beatle of George Martin in Abbey Road Studios, they produced one masterpiece after another, the mature “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”, the innovative “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” and the unsuccessful “Magical Mystery Tour”. Then the straight-up rock ‘n’ roller, “The White Album” and finally what may be their best album, “Abbey Road”, ending their career as a group with the Phil Spector produced “Let It Be”. Their power as musical artists can be seen by the fact to they performed “All You Need Is Love” on a live global television link and were seen by 150 million people in 26 countries on June 26, 1967. They didn’t need gimmicks. They were the real thing.

For seven years, they changed the way we saw things, setting trends not only in music but spirituality, fashion and art. It was the Beatles who introduced Indian music into the mainstream of Western music. Musically they never stood still. They were always evolving, exploring, using different styles to serve the music they were producing. It was the Beatles who made popular songs that were a way to express not only love but other things few songwriters of popular song had dared to express.

It was always the music. That amazing music. Song after song of it pouring out of these four extraordinary artists. Again and again they hit a bulls eye with “And I Love Her”, “Eight Days a Week”, “Ticket to Ride”, “Here, There and Everywhere”, “Norwegian Wood”, “Yesterday”, “Penny Lane”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “In My Life”, “A Little Help from My Friends”, “A Day in the Life”, “She’s Leaving Home”, “The Fool on the Hill”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Lady Madonna”, “Get Back”, “Here Comes the Sun”, “Something”, “The Long and Winding Road” and so many more. Songs that have been recorded by hundreds of musicians, maybe thousands, everybody from Frank Sinatra to Aerosmith to Wes Montgomery to Stevie Wonder to Tori Amos to Billy Joel to Norah Jones to Pat Metheny to Guns N’ Roses to Elton John to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Jason Mraz and Michael Jackson, and these are only the names of some of the artists who have tried to put their stamp on some of the greatest popular songs ever written. Cirque du Soleil produced a major show based on the Beatles songs, and who knows how many directors have put their music into a soundtrack.

Without the Beatles, rock ‘n’ roll likely would have survived. But it wouldn’t have had the impact it has had. It would only have been a shadow of the self it became. Those three guitarist and a drummer, from the very beginning on that Ed Sullivan stage, made it look easy, made kids everywhere want to pick up those same instruments and play. When “Rolling Stone Magazine” ticked off the greatest musical artists of the twentieth century, it was not Elvis, it was not Ray Charles, it was not Bob Dylan who was number one. It was the Beatles.

It’s Christmas, 1183. Let the Games Begin

Peter O’Toole is Henry 2, King of England; Katherine Hepburn is his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. What a pair. You don’t need to know a lot of history to know that “Lion in Winter” is “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in a castle, only the George and Martha of this story have three sons. And all of them have knives. As Eleanor says, “Of course, he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians.”

The movie, “Lion in Winter”, is set in a castle in the Middle Ages. The only way to heat the joint up is with a family fight. It may be Christmas but Eleanor hits that proverbial nail on the head when she lets out with, “It might as well be Lent.”

And what’s Christmas without a family get-together? The Plantagenets gather at Daddy’s place in Anjou for a jolly good time. Henry is the Lion and Eleanor the Winter, two great forces baring their teeth at one another and using their sons to do it. Henry wants John, the youngest, to be the next king, Eleanor wants Richard to take over the family biz from Dad. Neither parent seems to care much for Geoffrey. So he gets Burgundy. Isn’t that the way it is with middle children? Don’t they always end up with Burgundy?

Along the way, they’ll use Philip, the King of France, to get what they want. As Eleanor tells Richard, “Promise him anything.” It’s the Plantagenet way. But Phil has some tricks up his sleeve too. However, he is never a match for Henry–and Eleanor. The question is: Is Henry a match for his three sons? And his wife of thirty years?

For Hepburn, it is a new career. She had only completed three movies between 1957 and 1968. Much of that time she tended to an ailing Spencer Tracy. He had passed on in 1967 shortly after doing “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. It seemed that now she was liberated, and she gave this magnificent performance, one of the best in a career of great performances. Here she is a match for Lawrence of Arabia, and he too delivers a stunning performance, portraying one of history’s great kings. In addition to these two, there’s a future James Bond as the King of France and Anthony Hopkins, years before he became Sir Anthony, playing Richard.

If you don’t think writers matter, think again. James Goldman’s script, adapted from his play, has some amazing dialogue. It only goes to show how good a director and actors can be with a good, and in this case, a great, script.

Here’s just a sample of a conversation:

Eleanor: You look fit. War agrees with you. I keep informed; I follow all your slaughters from a distance. Do sit down.

Prince Richard: Is this an audience… a good night hug with kisses… or an ambush?

Eleanor: Let’s hope it’s a reunion.

Give yourself a treat and see “Lion in Winter”. I think you’ll love it.

How much fun were the Middle Ages?

Depends on who you ask. The lords and knights had to walk around in all that metal. One wonders what happened when the knight had to go toilet. Couldn’t toilet on the armor. That would cause rust. Think of all the blisters on their assets, and the metal poisoning too. Then there’s the draft. In those days it wasn’t the serfs who went off to war. It was the knights. And there’s the castle upkeep. It was hard to get a decent moat. What is a castle without a decent moat?

Of course, these knights would fight over anything. My castle is bigger than your castle.You have a moat and I don’t.  I killed more infidels in the Crusade than you did.. You name it and they would fight over it. They spent thirty years fighting over whose rose was prettier in England.

If there had been an SPCA in those days, the knights would have been fined for mistreatment of the horses they rode. The horses had to carry around the weight. No wonder they had bent backs.

If you were a lady, you were required to wear el chastity belt. Man, that thing is heavy. Besides what do you do if you have to go take a pee and your hubby is off at the crusades. Who is going to have the key? Lady Godiva really wasn’t in her all-togethers. She still had on her c.b. But she’d always wanted to go into showbiz. Riding through the town in her purt-nears was as close to Vegas as a girl got in merry old England.

The serfs were a little better off. They only worked two seasons of the year, Spring and The Rest of the Year. They didn’t get drafted because they had to stay home and keep the old homestead going. The crops went to the lord and lady of the manor, who were living high off the hog. All the serfs ate was gruel, except at Harvest Time. Harvest Time was a regular party after they brought in the crops. There was real food and booze too. The nice thing about serfing was they didn’t have to wear underwear, so during the summers they’d go skinny-dipping.

Often the castle was downwind of the serf. From time to time on a particularly windy day in winter time, the lord and lady of the manor complained about the smell. The serfs only took baths in the summer. The rest of the year it was the old pee yew.

In fact, nobody worried about taking a bath. That’s why they had pilgrimages and why England had a town named Bath. Once a year everybody took off and went on a pilgrimage to a town that had baths.

Then there was the Plague, or should I say Plagues. The Black Death. The Blue Death. The Red Death. Here a death, there a death, everywhere a death death death. That’s what they get for living with all those rats. A few cats could have gotten rid of all that disease. Why my Buster Buzztail can take down as many rats as he sees in one day. You think we have rats here at our house. No way, José.

Now, if you were Pope, you could really party hardy. All the booze and women you wanted. You could come up with an indulgence to keep you out of hell. If you were bored you could start a Crusade. As you can see, being Pope was the bees knees and more.

The people who had the most fun were the Bards. They got the best booze and the women loved them. You see, in those days, there was no such thing as You Tube or CNN or Fox. So the Bards were the news anchors of their times. If you wanted to know what Uncle Waldo did at the Battle of Agincourt, just ask the Bard. If you wanted to know why the king down the road turned chickenshit and ran away from Saluddin, ask your Bard. If you wanted to know what great granddaddy Groucho was during the First Crusade, ask the Bard. He’d tell you and he’d make it rhyme too.

To paraphrase one of the great bards of our age, Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the bard.” Bards didn’t have to wear armor or a chastity belt. Bards didn’t need a moat. Bards got to take baths. And the clothes, man. If you wanted to know what the latest men’s fashions were, check in with a bard. He’d be wearing them, and he’d have photos of the latest fashion show in Paris. As you can see, it was a pretty good life. For a Bard.