Thursday, April 01, 2004

MARCH 23, 2004

At 6:00 p.m. I entered the United Methodist Church on the far east side of Alexandria. I was there to make a presentation after supper about the Vagabond project, to the fellowship group that my hosts, Paul and Carolyn Peterson, belong to. This was Paul and Carolyn's last time with these Alexandria friends. Once they move, they'll have to find fellowship in New Jersey.

My presentation to the group of twenty-five men and women was the typical explanation of the Vagabond project - how the idea originated, my definitions of the middle west's boundaries, how I selected the twelve focus communities, and the kinds of questions I ask during my interviews. Then I read from my Vagabond journals, featuring selections about "the talk you hear" and "the people you meet," especially the people I've met in Alexandria.

After my talk, there was excitement in the room, almost as if these people recognized that the middle west can be the stuff of literature, that the people of the region can be the heroes in their own stories. There were lots of good questions, questions that made me talk about how one writes truthfully of those he loves, how one writes of the ugliness as well as the beauty.

There was also an opportunity for me to pull my car keys out of my pocket - and, with them, the key to the Petersons' house: "As I left last May," I told the group, "Paul and Carolyn gave me this key, in case I was passing by and needed a place to stay and they weren't at home." I held the key up in the direction of Paul and Carolyn; the audience applauded them, as much for all of the Petersons' kindnesses over the years, I think, as for this one.

Afterwards, as I was gathering my things and rolling up the laminated map of the United States whereon I've marked out the boundaries of the middle west, a woman came forward and gave me what I consider to be the ultimate compliment: "Every time you paused to collect your thoughts, I'd hold my breath waiting to hear what you'd say next. It was that interesting."



Delbert Cothern of Vandalia, Illinois, faces another day every day. He was paralyzed when he was sixteen years old, diving into Ramsey Creek on a family outing. He and a cousin kept challenging each other to dive into the river with hands at the back of the head instead of extended in front of them as they entered the water. Once too often Delbert dove in that way and his head hit bottom, he broke his neck, he has been paralyzed since.

That was back in the late 1930s. Before the accident Delbert was a typical farm kid who'd rather be outdoors than anywhere. After the accident he lay motionless in bed for months on end.

His folks had to move off the farm and into town because Delbert's sweat glands shut down, he needed to remain in front of an electric fan to stay cool, and the farm didn't have electricity. His father opened a garage in town and went into the car repair business. His mother worked at the hospital.

With effort, Delbert eventually started getting around on crutches and could move well enough that he did most of the housekeeping for his parents. Out of the money his mother paid him for keeping house, Delbert saved enough to buy two acres out in the country. His parents put a trailer house on the property. Delbert and his folks lived there for many years.

Delbert kept a large garden on the acreage. Though he couldn't walk, he could stand without support. He would hoe as much as he could reach from one place, he'd use the hoe as a crutch and move forward, he'd hoe some more. Through the years, he kept the freezer and cupboards stocked with food from his garden.

Delbert's mother died some twenty-five years ago, his father lived until 1997. Delbert moved into the Cherrywood facility in Vandalia in 1996.

Delbert is a harmonica player. He came from a musical family and had taught himself mandolin as a youngster. He was a little guy for his age, he told me, so the mandolin was just the right size for him. He learned his licks listening to Roy Acuff's mandolin player on the Grand Ole Opry, but says he didn't copy the fellow exactly.

After the accident that crippled him, Delbert could no longer play mandolin. If he were to continue playing music, he had to learn an instrument he could play with one hand. So he took up harmonica, learning fiddle tunes and traditional bluegrass, and transferring them to his new instrument.

Delbert had always been something of a shy country boy who didn't think he could play out in front of people, but - bit by bit - playing in front of bigger and bigger audiences, he lost his shyness and now, he said, he would just as soon play for a hundred as for ten.

Delbert has played in the Illinois Old Time Music Harmonica Championships, coming in as high as second. He won a national championship in 1988 at Avoca, Iowa, tearing off renditions of "Soldier's Joy" and "Silver Bells" and a waltz. He has also competed at a contest in Tennessee but that championship draws a lot of great harmonica players from Nashville, Delbert said, "and they are tough to beat."

Delbert has a four-track recorder set up in his room at the nursing home and stays busy learning new songs, writing songs of his own, and recording them. He has released a 13-song tape, Just an Old Man and His Old Music: Old Timey Type Music No. 1, and on it refers himself "Ol' Delbert." There's harmonica on the tape, of course, and Delbert's singing and talking and whistling. Many of the songs are his own compositions. He introduces them with his Ol' Delbert drawl. He makes copies of the tapes to sell as the need arises and earns enough, he said, "for a little pocket money." He's not so much interested in the money as in the music, I think. It's telling that he's got a four-track recorder in his room, and no television - "I always gotta be doing something," he said, "and I'd rather be making music than anything else."

Does Delbert think he's an inspiration to others? "Well, I hope so, but I don't know if I am." He's not one to brag, not about his music, not about the example he sets for the rest of us.

Ol' Delbert just keeps on making music.



The writing life is the life lived. The life lived is the writing life. I can no longer distinguish between them. The edges have blurred. What I do and what I write about have come together and it makes no sense trying to keep them separate any longer. I suppose many writers come to this point.

Yes, it is difficult to find publishable chunks of material, if publishable chunks is what one's after. For myself, for now, I am finding it difficult to distinguish between what is journal, what is essay, what is poem, what is history, what is life. The silken web vibrates everywhere as I write here, now. How can our weekend trip to Chicago be disconnected from the Hargrave farm journals I'm working with, from this morning drive, from my next poem. In the wonder of this sense of oneness, my challenge will be not to get lost; my challenge will be to remember where I am going.

Sometimes, when it suits me, I can fabricate reality from nothing. This morning, being April Fool's, would be the perfect opportunity to play, with a vengeance. Yet I find the prospect doesn't attract me. Perhaps because it is expected today. It comes at no cost today. Anyone can do it today and get away with it. I'd much rather fabricate on the off days, the rest of the year.

Today is strange in other ways. After two days of rain, the ground is soaked. The sky is soaked, sloppy with clouds still, except to the far west where some clouds seem to be catching light from the sun; they look pink and gold like a sunrise in the wrong direction.

It has been a sloppy sky. Likely we tell ourselves it cannot possibly snow again. Hell, it could snow tonight. Never say never in Wisconsin. Never say never on April Fool's Day or Halloween. If you can't take a joke, move to Los Angeles.

The streets are still wet. Children wait for the school bus in front of Leahy's Tap. The Grand River is running high and hard this morning. There is a definite break in the clouds to the west, as if it is a new front coming in. A red-wing blackbird, geese, a robin. The trees are setting buds, definitely setting buds. Water is moving in the ditches.

All the nameless faces. Sometimes I think I shall know them in another context. Sometimes I think I shall know them another day.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?