Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (14/19) — Chapter Fourteen, Iris (3/4)

OUR IRISES OR ‘FLAGS,’ as some folks call them, have bloomed profusely in our front yard for the past six or seven weeks. These yellow-and-white bearded irises grew right alongside the street.


MORGANTON, N.C. (May 10, 2020) – Memory is a funny thing. I remember my mom always talking about her “flags” blooming in the spring, but I had no idea she was referring to irises. Maybe it isn’t my memory that’s the problem. Maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention to everything going on around me.

But I swear I don’t remember Mom’s flags or irises or any gorgeous white, purple, yellow or blue flowers with curvaceous blossoms like the ones that have been growing in our yard for the past six or seven weeks, about as long as we’ve been quarantined.

Having at least two close blood relatives with memory issues, I’ve been concerned for some time about whether or not I’m headed for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease myself. I didn’t play football beyond Pee Wee League, and I didn’t have any major collisions sliding into home plate that resulted in concussions. No one dropped a big rock on my head. As far as I know, I was never dropped on the old bean as an infant.

NOW AND THEN, in the front yard next to our circle driveway. This purple iris was the last color of ‘flag’ to bloom this year (left), but the first to bloom three years ago. The time of day or angle of sunlight affects the color.

Still, one older sibling waited until three years ago to tell me that relatives had recently decided I was autistic as a child and undoubtedly still am, to explain some of my peculiarities—or just to have a good laugh among themselves, maybe. Also, as I have described elsewhere, I was struck by an auto when I was eight and did hit my head on the pavement a couple of times. And I did bang heads with another basketball player once and see stars for a minute. That the other player was a girl is no consolation. Her noggin was still hard.

Now, I’m not exactly Sheldon Cooper of Big Bang Theory fame, but I do have an obsessive-compulsive streak in me. Take how I write on a word processor, for instance—like right now. I work really hard to keep the right margin of my composition close to being justified or straight as I type. I’ll write and rewrite words and phrases and whole sentences until that right margin is aesthetically pleasing to some weird writer’s sense in my brain. I justify—get it?—this obsessive-compulsive behavior by figuring it’s simply how I revise my work as I write.

There are other odd things I do. I get obsessed with things—with songs, poems, images, books, movies and the people connected with them. These preoccupations can last for years. I’ve written before about “dreams” I remembered for decades until finding photographic proof that they were actual events in my life—childhood traumas, actually, like falling off a pony once and flailing in deep water another time. I have always been proud of my memory. But now, at 60 and 3/4, I’m starting to doubt what I remember.

Now I need proof—an old photograph, a scratchy tape recording, a yellowed paper, even an old letter or email.

Obsessions can be beneficial, of course. As a writer, being preoccupied with a good story, characters and theme can help me guide a long, tangled-up plot to its denouement. One of the novels I’ve written took 10 years to complete, others two or three years. Even this particular nonfiction project—Rutherwood, my most personal and revealing writing ever—requires resolve to be finished on the schedule I’ve set. And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m writing more about others than about myself, and most of them are deceased.

No, those folks can’t argue with me about what I say about them, while living and breathing people can take issue with my observations—there’s that, if anyone wants to be cynical about my motivations. But I figure that as long as a person is alive, their story is still being told, and it is theirs to tell. How another person’s story overlaps mine can be debated, but only in terms of the facts, not as to my intentions. No one can tell me what I thought or think about anything, only what I said or did—and then, only with good proof.

Here are two examples of my latest obsessions, both involving music and memories. As a former news reporter and still a decent researcher, I know how and where to find answers to my questions about my first musical preoccupation; however, getting answers now in the middle of a quarantine, regardless of what phase we’re leaving or entering, is next to impossible. As a result, I’m left to my own devices. In this case, one device is a tape deck that still plays those brittle old compact cassettes that were once so popular.

Before I got my driver’s license, my dad drove me into town for my high school band concerts. I was a trombone player, a member of the lower brass section, which was exceptional from top to bottom all four years I was a band member. We might not have been trusted with the melody very often, but we sure could lay down some killer low harmonies and a funky bass line. Back then, I wasn’t crazy about all the classical numbers or marches we played; I liked our renditions of pop tunes, like songs by the Beatles and Chicago.

Well, there was one piece we were assigned to play that did fall into the Pop Music category—only it was popular music of generations past. I didn’t particularly like the melody or harmonies or interplay of musical themes or whatever; I fell in love with the song’s title: “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise.” It was written in 1918 by concert pianist Ernest Seitz and lyricist Gene Lockhart. I didn’t even know the song had words until about 20 years ago. It’s been covered at least 100 times by various popular artists, with Willie Nelson being one of the most recent, though Willie hasn’t been a spring chicken for two or three seasons.

I was so taken by the song in the summers of ’07 and ’08 that I based one of my novels on the tune and used one character’s obsession with it to drive the plot, literally, on a road trip from Socorro, N.M., to Knoxville, Tenn. That novel is my modern retelling of Mark Twain’s American masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I finished my manuscript during my short residency in Elmira, N.Y., at Quarry Farm, where Twain himself, Sam Clemens, spent a few summers writing his original road trip novel.

Back then, I thought that being awarded a Quarry Farm Fellowship through Elmira College’s Center for Mark Twain Studies—almost unheard of then for a fiction writer—would guarantee my novel’s publication. By the time I finished the manuscript on the Sunday morning we left the farmhouse for home, I had decided to entitle my book For the Sunrise. In it, I explore just about every connection I could make with the song in popular culture through the years, as one main character is a young musician, the other is a budding astronomer. But not so fast, ol’ buddy.

For whatever reason—not the least of which being that only a few people have actually read the book—it remains unpublished, along with nine of the other ten novels I’ve produced over the past 40-odd years. And, yes, some of those years were pretty odd, as I worked for two hardware stores, an outdoor drama, four small-town newspapers, two radio stations operating in the same building, a medical office management and billing software company, a county emergency services headquarters, two secondary schools, and two post-secondary schools at various times since 1977. And those were just my paying gigs.

But back to “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” my questions about it mainly dealt with my visual memory of the piece. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the sheet music of the 3rd Trombone part—that’s the third group of trombones, not the third-chair or third-best trombone in the section. If that was the 1973-74 school year, my ninth-grade year, I sat seventh chair—again, if memory serves. The sheet music had been hand-notated, I think, and then Xeroxed, and was fairly hard to read, due in part to the arrangement’s difficulty. Also, I seem to remember that an old friend of our esteemed band director had arranged the piece as a favor. Or maybe the arranger was a friend of that friend.

My band director is worth an essay all his own, but the focus here is on his old friend, who at that time was band director at McDowell High School in Marion, N.C., and had performed as a child musical prodigy in the early 1920s, even billed in The Musical Messenger as “The Greatest Cornet Soloist in the World Today!” Ralph K. Ostrom had been a cornet soloist in the renowned John Philip Sousa Band and in the U.S. Army and Navy bands of the ’30s and ’40s. A retired Army officer, he answered to “Capt. Ostrom.” He also composed my high school’s fight song, as well as McDowell High’s Alma Mater in the 1970s.

Anyway, all those years ago, my father would come to my band concerts before I could drive myself, and he’d record the concerts, either to play for my mother and younger brother who had stayed home, or to listen to himself later on. But those old cassettes were relatively short—either 60- or 90-minute tapes with only 30 or 45 minutes per side. So Dad usually paused the recorder between songs as my band director introduced the next selection. It made sense, because sometimes my band director talked for two or three minutes between pieces. That was the case when Dad captured this “Sunrise” on tape.

I had found three of those cassette tapes several years ago and had digitized two of them. Looking for something else last week, I was browsing through those digital files and found the band concerts. Fast-forwarding through both of them, I ran across one selection that sounded something like “Sunrise” but was different from the version I later found on YouTube for comparison. The online “Sunrise” featured a baritone or euphonium solo, and that distinction rekindled the memory that led me to find at least one “Sunrise” I was looking for. As you’d expect, the solo “Sunrise” was on the tape that I hadn’t digitized.

So, this past Tuesday evening I threw together a YouTube video of this solo “Sunrise,” illustrated by a few photographic sunrises that I and a couple of friends had recorded, and I posted a link to my video on Facebook, asking old band friends if they knew anything about that other mysterious, Ostromian, visually displeasing “Sunrise” of my teenage memories. Maybe ol’ Capt. Ostrom had arranged the one with the solo, I wondered, as the arranger wasn’t identified on the YouTube comparison video I’d found. No one I consulted could answer my questions about the arranger of the solo “Sunrise” or the hand-notated “Sunrise.”

Now, understand, as I’m obsessing over all this, listening to different versions of this old tune over and over, getting more and more flustrated with each repetition and comparison that I try to make, my poor wife Timberley, totally confused, is asking me simply, “Why? Just … why?” But she knows the answer.

Just because. It’s what I do.

It’s what I’ve always done, even as a child, later as a teen, and now as an adult, though I’ve never been tested and diagnosed with Aspurger’s syndrome or any other type of autism. If I were, in fact, “on the spectrum” growing up and continue to be as an adult, I’m high functioning and happy to be the person I have become. I should thank my older sibling and that relative and their spouses for figuring out the big difference between me and them, and then for bringing it to my attention, as if I didn’t already know the problem. As Jimmy Buffett or his old pal Jerry Jeff Walker once said, “Assholes are born that way, and they ain’t gonna change.”

I know. It’s a deep-seated anger that I shouldn’t let distract me from far more important things—like my obsession with music trivia. Oh, about that. A couple of days ago I pulled down a school scrapbook and turned to my high school pages. In the sleeve for ninth-grade clippings and papers, I found the program that my father apparently saved from one of those concerts he had recorded. As I immediately saw, the seventh number listed on the program is “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” arranged by H. Alford, who I later learned was Harry Alford. Oddly enough, Alford was a close friend of Sousa and lived near Ostrom’s boyhood home in Illinois. Coincidences? Maybe.

That this popular song about a hopeful sunrise was originally published in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic while I’ve been obsessed with the song during our own COVID-19 pandemic can’t be entirely coincidental. Or can it be?

My other, totally unrelated musical mystery last week involved a music video I saw late one night in late ’80 or early ’81, I’m guessing, when I lived alone in Valdese and regularly visited a friend across town whose TV picked up more channels than mine did. Also, this was months before MTV went on the air in August of 1981, even if we’d been watching cable TV that night. Still, the simple facts of the matter are, we were watching a regional late-night show that featured music videos; I had consumed a few adult beverages—I don’t remember exactly what—and was feeling no pain; and I was taken aback when a hard-driving rock tune by an unfamiliar, New Wave-style band came on the portable TV’s screen and tinny speaker.

It was Huey Lewis and the News. The video I remember was in black and white—though my friend might not have had a color TV; I didn’t have one back then—and the band appeared to be standing either in the ocean surf or in front of it on the beach strand. And I remember saying to my friend or maybe just to myself, “That’s the best song I’ve ever heard in my life.” I remember the rhythm but none of the words.

As with the “Sunrise” song, I thought about that Huey Lewis music video throughout the ensuing four decades, but I didn’t even try to identify it until recently. Going on YouTube, I looked for and found an official music video that looked not exactly but much like what I remembered. Also, the song I found has the right rhythm and does feature a beautiful guitar solo; however, I just can’t imagine thinking this particular song in its entirety was all that fantastic, not even when hearing it after having had a bit too much to drink.

So I did more research. I went to the official Huey Lewis and the News website, and looked through all the information there. I learned nothing new, except that 69-year-old Huey Lewis has lost much of his hearing and that the band recently released what will probably be its last album of new material, one that I think I’d like to hear. That led me to watch some interviews—short ones and long ones—that Huey has done about his disability. In one recent interview, he discussed replacing music with books, and he gave quick reviews of a few books I’d now like to read.

But he said nothing about his band’s first music video, one that might have held special appeal for an inebriated and probably autistic young adult living in a one-horse town. Huey talked about his life now and how he is meeting this new reality of near-total hearing loss. In watching those interviews, I came to appreciate Huey Lewis for his intelligence and good humor, and so I thought:

What the heck. I’ll just ask Huey himself about that great song whose video I watched that night so long ago. He’ll tell me the truth. He’d never lie to a fan. Maybe he has some secret knowledge he’ll share, maybe about some secret video for some sweeter song that was accidentally sent to a single Charlotte station and played only once.

Well? It’s possible.

So I fired off my detailed question to the “Ask Huey” email address on the band website, and within 24 hours I got my answer—not the one I wanted, but my answer nonetheless, the definitive one, the only one I need, this one straight from the horse’s mouth (or that of his social media coordinator). The video I’d seen that night 40 years ago was for the song “Some of My Lies Are True (Sooner or Later).” No video had been made of the other, more melodic song that the band released as their second single. My mystery tune was the one whose video I had picked out on YouTube, but it wasn’t the sweet song whose memory I wished to cherish, the one with a nicer melody and softer words.

Rest assured, none of the lies we’re hearing now are true. The world is waiting for something, but it isn’t the sunrise. Whatever it is has a dollar sign up front. We’re also seeing that sooner rather than later our resolve fades, and that we’re destined to repeat mistakes we made even when we should have known better. We’re ignoring all the red, white and blue flags that have been popping up right in front of us. And so it goes.

Bad things, bad people just ain’t gonna change, but we have to keep battling for what’s true and for what’s right, even if that fight becomes a preoccupation, an obsession.