Friday, August 26, 2016

The Last Time I Left California...

Let me tell you a story. It was February 1989. I was leaving San Francisco, having experienced a pretty devastating sequence of events that had combined to lead me to the conclusion that I wanted to return home to New England after having lived in the Bay area for four years. I was fired for suspicion of theft from the music store where I was working (I didn’t do it), my band had just dissolved, and the woman I was dating had committed suicide. Each of these events merits its own detailed telling, but none of them are the subject of this recounting. I suppose it is relevant that all three of these negative occurrences happened in the same couple of months, and all were in the vicinity of an approaching Christmas. I was devastated. In any case, I packed up and began the 3000-mile drive back to my native New Hampshire.

A vicious blizzard had come roaring across Siberia, through Alaska and Canada and had settled into an airstream pushing its way across northern California. It caught up to me in Reno, Nevada and followed me all the way across the country, shutting down Route 80, Route 70, and Route 40, forcing me to traverse our fair land on Route 10. As I passed through Texas, which was a sheet of ice, and limped into Arkansas, I saw a sign that heralded the proximity of Fort Smith, the small city where my father was born and raised, and I resolved to visit it.

My father died at 42 years old when I was 16. A Yale graduate, he never saw me get accepted into his Alma Mater, nor of course graduate from it, and in truth we never had an adult conversation, so naturally at age 30, I had some unresolved issues with my father. I had been to Fort Smith only once before when I was four or maybe five years old, and I thought it might be a fine opportunity to exorcise some demons.

I pulled into town and had lunch at a drug store counter, asking some of the folks if they knew of him or his family and the answer was repeatedly “no,” so I drove around a little bit and spotted a Catholic church. I parked, got out and walked up to the doors. I gave them a hearty tug, but they were locked. As I pulled on the unrelenting double doors, something inside of me snapped. I collapsed on the walkway leading to the entrance and fell into a fit of uncontrolled sobbing. When I pulled myself together enough to get up, I spotted a statue of the Virgin Mary and knelt before it and prayed.

I looked down at the pedestal and there at Mary’s feet was a beautiful, perfect green pine cone, still moist and pulpy, exuding the fertility of the deep South. I picked it up, still sobbing, and brought it with me. As I drove away, maybe having done myself some modicum of good, this song that I link to at the bottom of this story, The Living Years by Mike and the Mechanics featuring Paul Carrack, came on the radio. I think it was the first time I ever heard this song, and I had to pull over and listen to it, a process that birthed yet another round deep, heaving sobs.

I will remain ever grateful to Paul Carrack for writing this song, and for singing it so beautifully, and also to my higher power for forcing me to drive through Arkansas, for showing me the sign to the place of my father's birth and youth, and lastly for playing DJ that day, and providing me with a piece of music that I needed to hear. I kept that pinecone for several years until it finally crumbled to dust.


  1. Thank you for an excellent story. I read the lyrics to the Living Years, a song I probably haven't considered in well over a decade (maybe two) and it is a beautifully written song.

  2. Thanks Tony. The true value of essay writing for me is using it as a means of sorting out what I really think and what I really feel, a process that for me is only achieved through finding words for emotions, and assembling them in times of tranquility.