The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Archive for May, 2017

The Irish Whisky Song

I first saw Carl curled up with a guitar on his perch, a duct-taped metal bar stool in the shade of a cafe’s outdoor tables. I was turning in to the only place to stop for a hundred miles, nothing more than a village of stubborn desert-dwellers, and rolled the bike around to a stop just in front of him. he was momentarily perturbed at the acoustic intrusion. But I shut the motor off and the sound of his voice quickly reclaimed its territory.

I couldn’t tell you the name of the song he sang, nor could I have said what it was about. The words were mostly unintelligible. The guitar was wretchedly out of tune, and sounded like a apple crate strung with baling wire. Which is to say it matched perfectly the feeling of the song. The only thing in tune was Carl’s voice. Had he been singing anything else it would have likely invoked images of competing Tomcats with their tails tied together.

But in this place with an afternoon breeze blowing dust and tumble weeds along on their daily migration, with that guitar and this particular mumbly folksong, his voice was the most perfect choice. It was grudgingly beautiful.

He broke stride with his words to bid me a good afternoon, cramming an extra measure into the song with the guitar to catch himself up again. I nodded a hot, dusty, thirsty “afternoon” back. Carl seemed to have the thirst problem under control, with a small flock of empty Budweiser bottles on the table behind him, and one half full one in a place of honor beside his picking hand’s elbow. My response stopped the music, and he reached back to take a draw of the open bottle.

“This here’s a song about whisky”, he began, “it’s an Irish song”, and he set the bottle back down, string-hand already fingering chords, anxious to get on with things. The song he played was indeed about whisky. Or, at least, that’s what I had to surmise as every third or fourth word was, in fact, “whisky”. No idea what else he sang, but I presumed by the litter behind him that asking about the words was a fruitless exercise.

After placing my order inside, I returned with a glass of water to sit at an adjacent table. Inside places don’t agree with me well. Carl looked askance at my water glass, as one eyes a strange dog at the side of its master. Quelling the urge to brandish it at him just to get a rise, instead I asked him to sing the whisky song again. For a brief moment you could’ve knocked Carl over with a feather. I don’t think he was accustomed to having people request that he sing.

He recovered quickly though, and dove into it with performance-grade fervor. When he was finished, however, the Rant began.

I’ve been known to dabble in political ranting myself on occasion, but Carl threw his whole being into what can only be gently characterized as lunacy. he went on for way longer than it should have taken for my burger’s arrival to interrupt him. When finally it came, my head was buzzing and my gratitude to the waitress was effusive. I engaged her in banter for a moment to let the fever of his tirade fade.

As she departed, though, he turned back toward me, and I readied for another assault.

But his tone had changed. He’d noticed my jacket’s Navy patches, and was now keen on discussing our experiences. We fell to telling sea stories. His experience was during Vietnam, but he had some deep sea experiences to tell also. One eye narrowed in a glint that can only be taken seriously from a man who’s been drinking, and he asked me, suddenly serious, “you ever been topside in a storm at sea?”

As he recounted his tale, his eyes changed. A look I have seen before came over him, part-crazed, part-wild, and part baptized by the singular purity of truth known only to those who have been exposed directly to their own imminent mortality. There is no other look like it. It can’t be pretended. Those that understand it look at those who desire it’s knowledge as fools.

And in looking at those eyes, I was transported into a raging sea of foam, snow, swells and waves, standing on what looked like an insignificant speck of submarine. I was reaching for a falling mate who had been picked up by a swell that swept him into the water, and then we were both falling over the suddenly-exposed side of the boat as it heaved upward. I looked above me to see my lanyard being held by another mate, and down at the harness I gripped two-handed with all my strength to hang on to the man below me. Had it not been for the man still in deck, keeping my line as slack as he could to prevent it being snapped, neither of us would have ever been found in this storm.

The boat was thrown upward, and its sides of steel rose up beside me like a monster of The Deep. The waters sucked at us like a banshee stealing souls, and pulled back to form a chasm where the hull met the water. For a brief moment the swirling black maelstrom beneath us dwarfed everything else in my mind. We were dangling over the mouth of death, it seemed. The next wave smashed us both against the hull. But it also pushed us both back on top of the boat, and while we wanted to lay clinging to the life the boat gave us, we all realized we had only a few seconds before it began again, and we raced for the hatch.

Something similar was the tale Carl told, but my own look caught his eye. For a brief moment, our eye contact spoke what no words can pass. For that brief moment, Carl was sane – and sober. For a moment someone understood his pain. For that brief moment I could see the man behind the singing bum.

The locals clearly thought of Carl as a nuisance on a good day. And perhaps he is that. But there is more to be known about Carl than they can seem to fathom. There is a part of Carl that has spent more courage than any of them. There is a moment, now and again, when Carl can no longer forget, even if he wants to.

And in that moment, Carl is as much a man as ever walked this earth. He paid a heavy price. More, really, than he could afford.

I still don’t know the words to the Irish Whisky song he sang. But I know exactly what he was singing about.

Maybe we could all request a song about whisky from someone who knows it, now and again.

Final Forgetting: The Essence of Memorial Day

One face wept

reddened and smeared with tears

tracking their way through a deep network

of wrinkled and spotted cheeks

The drops of grief cascaded

Through the corners of wrinkled lips

Burrowed down through a wrinkled chin with a fractured assortment of irregularities,

Finally trickling down an odd, deep scar that made one jowl not quite the same as the other.

And so the pattern of tears on his shirt was uneven.

 

Another face lay, composed,

Eyes closed,

Though if they had looked on that irregular scar facing him, he could have told the tale of its origin.

Indeed, his was the only face who knew the scar’s tale, save but for its owner.

But his wrinkled eyes were closed,

and no amount of coaxing,

Or cajoling,

No amount of bluster or force

Would open them now.

 

He lay there, not recognizing the scar

Nor the face upon which the scar marked the passage of violence healed,

Nor this anguish.

Nor even its owner’s presence.

There was no remorse left in him to weep away the regret for the years it had been since they’d last spoken.

These two faces set,

against each other across death’s chasm.

 

They had known each other in a different form for precisely 2 years, thirteen days, and six hours.  Young faces they had been then, at the beginning, unknowing of the dark things of life, thrown together in a strange world,

for reasons neither fully comprehended,

for a time neither could fully remember,

for a fight neither fully understood.

They arrived with a naive lust for the fight.

They left with old men’s wisdom – scarred, twisted, brutal wisdom.

They left with the understanding that a wise violence is a reluctant fight.

 

For 60 years each face looked out at the other, frozen in memory.

unbidden,

unexpected,

unforgotten,

For sixty years, each face was remembered in the dreams of the other, a comrade through the nightmares that only they knew.

 

Two old men met face to face

looking hardly at all like the last time they’d spoken.

One bandaged

One splinted,

Separated by transport and medics.

What they had said, without speaking, was “Thank you.  Remember me”.

 

And then there were only memories.

And intentions.

 

Now one stood, head bent

tears falling in the silent anguish of loss.

The other lay silently closed in death

Light extinguished.

Memory dissipated.

That spiritual realm none may see was now its home.

Too long.

Too late.

 

The living stood there, finally forgotten.

Left behind by death.

So he remembered for both of them.

And in remembering, he wept his loss.

Face reddened and smeared with tears.

 

-2017, Glenn Roesener

The Mighty Viking