I am so honored to have an essay in this amazing collection.
From the editors:
“The true stories and poems collected here are stories about life after loss–but these stories are of lives changed rather than just diminished. Trauma cleaves the world, but after loss we may also find redemption. This collection is a shared journey about loss–and about the hope we can find.”
For copies of this book, please check out the following independent bookstores:
This essay was previously published in the 2017 Bear River Writers Review. I will be heading back to the Bear River Writers’ Conference again this year from May 30th through June 3rd. In 2017, I was in Jerry Dennis’s workshop, and this essay was inspired by his writing prompt, conversations in class, and feedback from other workshop participants. I will be in Jerry’s workshop again this year, and I am looking forward to discovering what I will write about this year. I believe this will be the tenth time I have attended Bear River. My friend Darcy and I still talk about that canoe trip on the Bear River in 2001!
One day, the Arkansas River vanished behind the house I grew up in. No one seems to know the date, but on a cool January day in 2017, I focused on what remained as I stood above the riverbed at the dam in Wilroads Gardens, a farming community five miles east of Dodge City, Kansas. Tumbleweeds, bindweed, and dead cottonwood trees stretched out to the east and west of me as if arms grasping at something or someone I could not see. I shuddered as if someone’s cold hands had touched my face. I no longer lived there, nor did I have access to the landscape of my childhood. I imagined the water, desperate, expanding outward in minute particles like horizontal teardrops flat against the dusty riverbed. The bones of dead fish and buffalo began rising to the surface of the land as if surviving some catastrophic nightmare deep below the surface of the earth.
I moved away from my childhood home in 1976 at the age of 21. Fifteen years later, my parents sold the house and our land when they moved to Michigan to be closer to me, my husband, and son. As a Michigander since 1977, I am surrounded by the Great Lakes, endless rivers, and smaller lakes so bountiful that there seems to be one attached to every city and town. Higgins Lake, a glacier-carved lake so clear and beautiful that I can watch fish swim at the drop off, seems to be a paradoxical beauty compared to the Arkansas River I adored growing up. When my future husband first showed me the clear water of Higgins Lake, a place he had been going to visit since his grandparents bought their beachfront summer cottage in the early 1950s, I stood in awe at the clarity of the water, and of the distinct changes in color that identified the various depths of water. I could stand in water up to my neck and see my entire body below me, as if I were dancing in slow motion as I slid my feet through the sand. This wasn’t the Arkansas River, the Ford County Lake, or Cedar Bluff, all places in Kansas I grew up loving even as their waters swallowed me beneath their murky beauty.
I began exploring the Great Lakes as a young mother. I felt as if a spell had been cast on me. The water pulled me in, and for a long time, I stopped thinking about the Arkansas River even though my parents still lived there. I still walked down to the dam when I visited my parents, but its slow vanishing did not seem to register with me. Nothing seemed to have changed since childhood when my mother worried about snakes, and my father complained about people who dumped their garbage down by the riverbed. When I returned to Dodge City in 2010 to visit friends, I did not fully understand what had changed with the town and within me. The house I grew up in seemed as if it had collected all of my childhood memories and buried them.
My mother died in 2008, and my father passed away in 2012. I helped bury my parents’ ashes in a small church garden in Alma, Michigan, something that felt almost sacrilegious as I performed the act. Shouldn’t I have buried their ashes in Kansas? With dirt still clinging to my hands, I felt a new sense of urgency to recover what was lost to me. For five years, I struggled to figure out what I needed to do. In January of 2017, Liz, a childhood friend who lived in Wilroads Gardens, forewarned Don, the current owner of my childhood home, that I would be showing up. Unlike previous visits to my old house, I wanted to do more than take pictures from the road. I did not want to go inside the house. I needed to go down to the dam. My cousin Audrey and I pulled into the driveway. I jumped out of the car and walked up the sidewalk that still bore my footprints in the first section of concrete. Don met me on his front porch.
We chatted for a while, and upon my request, Don gave us permission to walk down to the dam. My cousin Audrey drove through a section of the old fence that was missing and made her way through a rough stretch of the field towards the dam. After she parked her car next to a barbed wire fence that no longer held a sting as I touched it, I walked towards the dam through an obstacle course of cacti, sticker patches, and cottonwood branches that had undoubtedly snapped off in yet another round of intense Kansas wind.
With barely a hint of a breeze, I stared at the dry riverbed and looked back towards the house I grew up in. I stepped away from the brink of the dam to survey my surroundings. The iron rungs that used to provide a ladder on part of the concrete wall of the dam to the river below were tangled up in vines and weeds, invisible to someone unfamiliar with the landscape. As I looked towards the west, Dodge City’s grain elevators, water towers, and meat packing plants, interruptions in the western Kansas landscape, disappeared behind a wasteland of dead trees reaching upwards into the brilliant blue sky. As I spun around and marveled at my ability to scan the skyline as far as an eagle aloft might see, I realized my claustrophobic aversion to large cities and their permeating sensory overload stemmed from this very spot on earth where I stood. I needed air, space, and water to breathe.
My body began to ache as if I had awoken from a very long slumber. I thought of the house I lived in now. What if Higgins Lake vanished? What would be left behind? The Great Lakes? What if something happened to them? Where would I hide my secrets? When I grow old and my mind begins to falter, would my stories begin at Higgins Lake and work their way counterclockwise in time? Would I tell stories of watching majestic freighters on Lake Superior and of burying my feet in the sand at Sleeping Bear Dunes along Lake Michigan? Would I talk about all of my trips to Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and finally having the weather cooperate so I could walk around on the famous Blackrocks without being washed away by Lake Superior? Would I tell the story about the morning I stood on Higgins Lake, frozen as it always is during winter, watching a fox running towards me, snapping photographs as quickly as I could, and the thrill of it all? Or will I return to the Arkansas River, and talk about all of the times I crossed the river into Fort Dodge? Will I reveal the secrets I shared with the river as my dog Stinker and I sat on top of the dam just to watch the river go by? Will I remember the time I stood at the top of the dam watching the sky darken with violent clouds, lightning fueling the feeling of danger heading towards me, before running down the two-tracker towards home and meeting my mother and father at the doorway as they scolded me for making them worry? Whatever the future holds, I hope this will be true: There will be water, and our vanishing points will at last converge into each other.
Locations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, known for their huge amount of snowfall every winter, have over 300 inches of snow. The snow seems bent on never releasing its wintry grip on the landscape. Even in Northern Michigan’s lower peninsula where I live, people have built snow-lined labyrinths in their yards as a way to escape their houses. Mangled mailboxes, many with their doors bent open, poke upwards through roadside drifts along our main road as if waiting to be fed. The journey from our home by the lake requires some climbing skills when we venture up our own personal ski hill. After about a 150-foot trek up our twisted driveway, we can catch sight of the main road at the top of the hill. Once there, we begin a fairly easy descent of about 300 feet towards the main road through a maze of maples, oaks, and pine trees. If I had actually understood geometry in high school and college, I would be able to figure out the icy slope of the line.
Despite slippery roads and bone-chilling cold weather, winter in Northern Michigan continues to create one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. Although the cycle of plowing, shoveling, salting, and waiting to see what Mother Nature has in mind for the ten-day forecast can be a bit tedious, I am always fascinated by the daily changes. Recently, I power-walked four miles on the road knowing that yet another storm was headed our way. Bomb cyclone, anyone? Peaceful in my solitude, I admired the woods and the secrets the trees held close, the crows seemingly warning me to watch my step as I dodged icy areas on my journey, and the occasional presence of a vehicle approaching me reminded me that I was not alone in the world. Despite seeing others, I did not wish for conversation. A simple wave of acknowledgement was sufficient.
As I return home after my walks, the birds seem to welcome me before I step inside the house. If I do not replenish the feeders with seed or suet fast enough, the birds become gangs of gangly children squibbling (a new word I accidentally came up with), letting me know I need to get my act in gear. Pileated, red-headed, red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers all move to their own beat, so to speak. Chickadees, nuthatches, finches, sparrows, blue jays, and mourning doves all join in on the festivities with their various coos, chipper calls, and beautiful whistles. A cardinal couple shows up almost daily, and I always try to sneak a shot of them with my camera. Sometimes I am stealthy enough, and I capture a shot, but I do not want to disturb them when they are dining. My husband and I call out to each other when we spot the cardinals in the woods. Our affection for this couple seems to grow every year. Each morning before sunrise, I make my way outside to shoot sunrise photographs, and I listen carefully for a cheery greeting from a chickadee or blue jay.
Since December 31st, 2017, I have taken a photograph of the sunrise no matter where I am or what the weather conditions are like. Probably about 85% of my sunrise shots have been taken at Higgins Lake. Each one of them is different. Although some of my favorite sunrise shots have been taken in places such as Whitefish Point, Marquette, or the mountains in Colorado, there is something quite magical about my mornings at Higgins Lake. The landscape provides a vista for introspection or meditation. To borrow from Dorothy and her oft-quoted line, there truly is no place like home.
One morning recently the moon and stars lit up the pre-sunrise sky. The day before I had put on my knee-high winter boots and waded through about six new inches of snow in our yard so that I could head out onto the solidly frozen Higgins Lake. I held onto the branches of a huge pine tree growing near the shoreline and stepped down over the ridges of ice and layers of snow. Once again, I created a large heart-shaped path in the snow along the shoreline. I am working on my third one since January. I am rather proud of my work of art on the lake. Creating this heart makes me feel like a kid again. Although my landscape in Michigan is quite different than where I grew up along the Arkansas River in Dodge City, Kansas, the connection for me is still the same: nature and my desire to explore the world on my own. I suppose this stems from being an only child, and my parents allowing me to figure things out on my own. My late mother was a talented artist, a jokester, and someone who loved me despite my terrible teenage years. She would have loved seeing this enormous heart on the lake. Knowing her and her sense of humor, she would have asked to be photographed while standing in the middle of the heart with a red-feather boa wrapped around her winter coat.
My mother passed away on March 22nd in 2008 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was born in 1918, and she lived an imaginative and very creative life. My father died in August of 2012 at the age of 92. He loved my mother’s decorated eggs, artwork, whimsical designs (she even decorated Quaker Oats containers in order to fill them with gifts), and he tolerated my guitar playing. He dedicated himself to hard work as he ran both a restaurant and our small farm. In retrospect, it seems as if my mother was always indoors creating artwork somewhere in the house, and my father was always outside working somewhere in the yard or the field or tending to the various livestock we had. If I had completed my chores, I was allowed to explore whenever I wanted to. I realize that the sense of wonderment I felt as a child is even stronger now that I am older. I wish my parents were still alive, and I could have a conversation with them about what I have learned as I embrace these moments of solitude.
This quiet time for reflection will change as spring moves us forward and people begin to return to Higgins Lake. Warmer temperatures will allow to the lake to thaw, and it will reward us with its groans and cracks as it begins to shake loose the layers of ice. Fishermen will head out towards their favorite fishing spots as they catch the sunlight in the wakes of their small boats. Early morning water skiers will glide through the smooth water and create small waves that roll towards the shore. Robins will call as they forage the lawn for insects. I will edge closer to the water, careful to protect my camera from harm, so that I can try and capture the sun’s reflection upon the water. Perhaps this will be yet another slope of the line I do not fully understand how to calculate, but it won’t matter. My moments of solitude will be all I need.
A huge thank you to the Walloon Writers Review for publishing my poem “Depth of Field” and two photographs!
Depth of Field
Murmurous voices float across the frozen lake,
confusing my solitude, echoing my ineptitude.
My camera becomes my eyes in the dark.
Momentarily exposed, I am Selene
in flashes of silver and white.
The lullaby of a great horned owl
filters through the cold night air.
The wolf moon slides up
a pulsing vein of darkened sky.
My camera captures its journey.
I imagine you watching me
as you once did, my camera
capturing the space between us.
If only I had understood the photographs:
You were always looking elsewhere
under my constant watch.
What? It’s December? What happened to 2018? Travel, lots of writing projects (but apparently not blog writing projects!), travel, photography, and doing just about anything to get out of cleaning the house have kept me busy and mostly out of trouble. Oh, and I have returned in full force to the thing that keeps my endorphins flowing and my happy meter in high gear: Road races. Fifteen races for the comeback kid this year! Not bad for someone who was once told in a bad physical therapy session in 2016 that I was old, had arthritis (later proven not to be true by my surgeon), and was going to be sore. I was sore alright—at the idiot man who based his PT diagnosis on my age (61 at the time), and probably the fact that I’m not a skinny runner. Instead of slapping him upside the head, something my father would have recommended, I reported him instead for his ageism and stupidism remarks.
It’s been a long road (pun intended) since the initial injury in October 2015, the FINALLY-THE-CORRECT-DIAGNOSIS in early 2017, and leg surgery in April of 2017 for a acetabular labral tear and other disgusting business happening in my leg. After a long recovery, which included my husband bringing me fresh hot tea since I couldn’t carry anything while using crutches, refusing to take pain pills (isn’t that what beer is for?), lots of whining about NOT BEING ABLE TO TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS AND WALKING OUTSIDE OR EVEN DOWN THE HALL WITHOUT GOING CLUMP, CLUMP, CLUMP, I finally dropped the crutches for a walking stick. My physical therapy sessions in Traverse City were marvelous, and the PTs there thought my previous PT guy (another town, another system) was just as horrible as I thought he was.
The day my PT told me to “start walking on the roads” was a blissful day. I celebrated by walking a mile. Pain free. In September of 2017, I walked a 5K in Marquette, Michigan (GO TO THE UP OR GO HOME!), and the Turkey Trot in Traverse City in November. It felt good to be back, and I was ready to bring it on in 2018. To quote Big Joe Turner, “Flip, flop, fly, I don’t care if I die” during a road race.
I have been participating in road races for about thirty years, so I have learned a thing or two. The races in 2018 have reminded me of everything I love about training and road racing to what really, really irritates me. In the past three years, I have discovered that people cheat during road races. I had read about this happening in big road races where prize money is at stake, but local races? Seriously? For a plaque or an extra medal? Why do people cut part of the race or run when they are supposed to walk? I don’t get it.
I have also learned that technology is better. I am currently deeply infatuated with my Fitbit. Move it! I enjoy studying my stats on my computer after a race. As for foot-stomping music, I still listen to my cracked and ancient iPod. (Dear Apple, please make them again). I have moved on from Adidas shoes, then Nike, to a deep love affair with Brooks running shoes. However, I haven’t really cruised back into the running lane yet: I’ve turned into “Melissa-Aggressive Power Walker.”
On October 27th, the weather for the Mackinac Island Turtle Race consisted of high winds, rain, and cold temps. During a stretch of the race up in the interior of the island where horse poop is usually the worst obstacle, I passed a group of men running/walking in front of me. Since power walking requires PUMPING MY ARMS (hey, I studied videos on technique), and walking FAST with a specific roll of the hips, I had to get around Curly, Larry, and Moe. Curly shouted out, “Look out for her. She’s an aggressive walker.” Larry and Moe concurred, and they all moved over. Curly then told me that I could hurt someone. I looked back at dear Curly and said, “I haven’t hurt anyone—yet.” I never saw them again during the race. Who knew that intimidating other racers could be so simple? Perhaps a shirt with MAPW (Melissa—Aggressive Power Walker) would provide a cautionary warning? For the record, I ended up second in my age group for the race, and I aggressively held up my plaque for all to see. Not bad for an old lady, eh?
I had lots of other successes this year. Some races don’t have split categories, so I competed with runners while I power walked. During quite a few races, I passed runners. Aggressively. Despite clearly defined rules about cheaters, some people do it anyway. I guess those signed wavers don’t mean a thing! Some races now require walkers to have a bib with a number and a bib that says “Walker.” Or some bibs combine both sets of information. At the beginning of the Turtle, the announcer went on for about 5 minutes explaining to people why they should not cheat if they are walkers. How sad is that? And why are these people cheating? A recent article in Runner’s World declares “Over 250 Runners Were Caught Cheating at Shenzhen Half Marathon” by cutting the course. What the hell? Since I switched from running to power walking, I have been amazed by the number of so-called-walkers RUNNING during the race.
During the Elk Rapids Harbor Run in August this year, I sent a message after the race to the race officials. I inquired as to whether or not they had a policy against cheaters—in other words, so-called walkers running the race. Their response? “How did I know?” Seriously. Well, race officials, I’m not stupid, and if you look at the videos of the finish line area (I really just wanted to see how crappy I looked), you will see that people who were supposed to be walking were running. My first clue to the fact that some people might be cheating or cutting or whatever was the fact that a child barely out of diapers, listed as a walker (DUH), beat me. Now that is some fast-power walker! Future Olympian! I was kind of slow that day because of the heat (13:15 pace for the 5k), but I still thought I should have been faster than a youngster barely out of the crib. And the woman I encouraged towards the end of the race because I thought she was SUPPOSED TO BE RUNNING, well, she really had signed up as a walker. Thank goodness I beat her sorry-ass-cheating legs.
During the Bay City St. Patrick’s Day race this year, cheaters ran rampant. Seriously! They were supposed to be walkers, and it clearly said so on their bibs. A woman about my age was pretty worked up about a cheater she had confronted about cheating early on in the race! And then we saw another one! One of the young gals clearly cheating throughout the race ended up winning second place in her age group. I hope she feels good about the plaque she received.
When I used to run races, I never gave a thought to the fact that there were cheaters on the race course. As soon as I started power walking (while injured in 2016—yes, that’s stupid), I realized that not everyone feels as if they have to follow the rules of the sport. I don’t get it, but I guess I should understand it at this point in my life. Win at any cost—isn’t that how it goes now? I would rather be second to last in a race (like the Higgins Lake Sunrise 10K this year). At the Shanty-to-Shorts race this year in Bellaire, although I walked with runners and was 109th out of 118 participants, I managed to power walk myself to a first-place spot in my age group. Apparently, the runners in my age group had decided to skip the race or do the 10K! Thank you! I love the jam prize.
Since I feel as if I am somewhat of an expert on road races, I have decided to create a list of rules for future or current road racers to follow. Please let me know if there are other rules I should add.
Rules for Road Races
Never wear the race shirt during the day of the race. (All races)
If you aren’t participating in the race, do not stand in line for the port-a-pot five minutes before race time. (All races)
Start where you are supposed to start. Please note the large PACE signs now used at most races. Example: If you are a power walker, you go to the rear of the line where the walkers are located. Walkers are very cool people and love to chat. At least the non-cheating ones. For runners, if you are ten-minute miler, you do not line up with the seven-minute milers. Ask my son what he thinks about this. Or not. (All races)
Start in the back if you have a stroller. (All races)
Don’t walk or run three and four abreast while people are trying to pass you. You have put another brick in the people wall for me to get around you. (All races)
Don’t talk about food. Yes, this is a personal pet peeve of mine. While you are discussing how you can’t wait to eat a big greasy hamburger after the race, all I can think about is beer. Talk about beer. (All races)
Don’t walk backwards into me while you search for your friend. If you can see me, I can see you. I am not invisible! (Mac Island Turtle)
Learn how to grab, fold, and sip from your cups at the water/Gatorade stops. Do not come to a dead stop while I power walk my way through. (All races)
If you insist on pushing your child in a stroller during a road race with freezing-ass temps, please do something when your child is screaming for almost a mile. Leave the kid home? (Turkey Trot)
If you must force your dog to run or walk with you during a freezing-ass road race with salted roads, slush, and ice, please do not act surprised when your dog wants to drop out after the first mile. “Come on, Bowzer, only two more miles to go.” (Turkey Trot)
If you feel compelled to touch my butt during a road race because you like my water bottle on a belt, please DO NOT DO THIS EVER. (Years ago, while I was running a race in Flint.)
Do not cheat. Ever. (All races)
And of course, for training walks or during road races, if you are driving a car, you do not need to run over a person on the roads. Put down your cell phone! Pay attention. Just ask my friend Taylor what “Melissa—The Aggressive Power Walker” might scream at you on the road if you cannot move your stupid SUV over while we are out walking. Even your side mirrors could kill me. CAN YOU HEAR ME SWEARING AT YOU? Oh, yes, you slammed on the brakes, but did not come back to confront us.
I love training and participating in road races. Highlights for me this year include power walking the 5-miler Winterlaufe in Frankenmuth on February 2nd, and bringing home a 3rd-place (age group) cowbell. More cowbell! I also am extremely happy that I completed the trio of races on Mackinac Island this year: the Lilac Festival in June (3rd place in age group), Mac Island 8-miler in September (2nd in age group), and the Turtle in October (2nd in age group). I love pushing myself in a competition to see what I can accomplish with this body and these fairly old bones. Road races are mostly about the mental game of pushing yourself to go forward. I have learned to have a pretty convincing argument with myself about mile 5 or 7 if the conditions are rough, and my legs and arms have morphed into one of those giant inflatable advertising people you see outside offering deals on greasy pizza.
Road races also give me the chance to meet new people and hear their stories. Yes, I talk to anyone who wants to talk to me. I love encouraging people along the way and thanking the volunteers. I love the camaraderie after the race especially with my son. Plus, I get to hear his stories! As a bonus, my husband often comes with us, so we have fun while we travel to and from the races.
To round out the year, I recently walked the Jingle Bell Run/Walk in Midland with my good friend Julie. Although it was just a mile, it felt so good to be participating in a race with Julie again. We used to run road races together, so this event meant a lot to me. Plus, we both got to have our pictures taken with Santa. Did you know that the real Santa was in Midland at the race on November 29th for Julie’s birthday? Just saying. I told Santa I loved him, and I meant it.
I have already signed up for two races next year. I’m going to be an even leaner and meaner power-walker. Maybe I’ll give up cookies and beer. Or not. Maybe I will run a race with no split categories, or even sign up to run a race. I’m not sure. I’m really out of the running loop. After all, now that I have become an aggressive power walker, I’m kind of stoked about that moniker. I’m happy to be out on the roads at the ripe-old age of 63, looking for birds, especially raptors, not feeling any pain in my leg, and breathing in that fabulous Michigan air.
The House I Grew Up In
I walked through gardens of tumbleweeds.
The back door swung like a metronome.
Spiders gnawed at windowsills.
The kitchen smelled like cigarettes.
The living room was a coffin filled with dust.
My bedroom opened into a star-filled sky.
I ran through hallways of empty picture frames.
My key chain rattled against my teeth.
My car began to burn in the driveway.
Sidewalks gave way to quicksand.
You said I could come home again.
Published in the Dunes Review, Volume 20, Issue I
Lewis Mock teased the crowd with a bit of Hendrix-style “Star Spangled Banner” on his red Gibson guitar, before pouncing on the riff of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” Bill Warshaw set the tempo on the high hat of his DW drum set. Chris Cave joined the groove on his Nord Electro 4 keyboard as Bill drummed that steady beat we all knew and loved. And last, but not least, Jonathon Jambor jumped in on his Fender bass. Had we gone back in time? Was it 1969? Had we stepped behind a magic curtain in order to watch Birth, the band we loved during our adolescent years, perform live in Dodge City, Kansas? No! We weren’t in some Dorothy-induced-dream sequence; we were watching Birth perform live at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas, for the 2018 Kansas Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony (KMHoF). Birth friends and family members were ready to rock.
Lewis, Bill, Chris, and Jonathon showed their passion for playing rock and roll music at an early age in Dodge City, Kansas. Their moms were best friends, they lived near each other, and they all shared a deep love of music. Birth began playing gigs in 1966/1967. Dodge City is known for its history, infamy, and its hazy-filtered stories depicted on television (Gunsmoke), movies (Dodge City, circa 1939 with Errol Flynn), and countless fictional tales. Tom Clavin’s excellent book Dodge City details the town from an historical perspective, and Robert Rebein’s books Headlights on the Prairie and Dragging Wyatt Earp provide an insider’s look as to what it was like growing up in Dodge City during the seventies and eighties. For most people around my age growing up in the fifties, sixties, and seventies in Dodge City, dragging Wyatt Earp was a rite of passage. The hotter and faster the car, the better for driving down the famously-named boulevard. But there was more to life than boyfriends, fast cars, and living in a town where Boot Hill was a major tourist attraction: Music roared from our car stereos and radios as we cruised the streets of Dodge City. In dance halls and church basements, we discovered things about ourselves that our imaginations were just beginning to intuit as we listened to live music.
Hometown bands such as Friar Tuck and The Monks (KMHoF Class of 2008) and Birth rocked our world at various venues in town, and our parents were allowed some peace and quiet (“Turn down that stereo!”) while we moved and grooved to live music. Although home stereos, car radios, or 8-track tape players provided reliable ways for listening to our favorite music, there was something magical about listening to a live band play music. Plus, if a boy asked a girl to dance, well, that was the coolest thing ever. Otherwise, we stood in place, clapped along to the beat, and sang along to the lyrics to the songs we knew and loved. Birth made those songs live and breathe.
According to Chris Cave, Birth was “always a cover band. We played songs that people knew. We bought records at Ben Franklin and at Eckles Record Department. We played songs we liked. We wanted to get people singing and dancing and just engaging with us and each other. Music was a door to the world beyond Dodge City during those times.” Not only did Birth provide a door into possibilities for life elsewhere, for those of us who loved listening to Birth, we did our chores and homework, and followed house rules just so our parents would give us a ride to listen to Birth play music. We wanted to be with our friends, and we wanted to hear rock and roll music.
In Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain On Music, he suggests that “when we are young, and in search of our identity, we form bonds or social groups with people whom we want to be like, or whom we believe we have something in common with. As a way of externalizing the bond, we dress alike, share activities, and listen to the same music…This ties us into the evolutionary idea of music as a vehicle for social bonding and societal cohesion” (231). My friends and I knew that if we showed up somewhere Birth was playing the songs we loved that we would be surrounded by like-minded people. We could dance to the beat, sing along to the songs, and for an hour or two, experience the joy of being with people who mattered to us. As Charles Fernyhough reminds us in Pieces of Light, “Songful memories show how closely the making of autobiographical memories is linked to our sensory and emotional experience of the world” (55). We didn’t know it then, but we were creating memories that we would be able to relive much later in life.
As years passed and people left Dodge City and went their separate ways, Birth continued to play gigs, although I was never able to attend one prior to my high school reunion in 2013. During our reunion weekend, we reconnected with old friends, and we enjoyed the fabulous music of Birth as they rocked the Dodge House on a Saturday night. (Please read “Reunion” from October 2013 on this blog for more of that story.) Almost five years had passed since I had last seen Birth perform live, so I was very excited about hearing them play again.
On Friday night in Lawrence, Kansas, the DoubleTree Inn provided the venue for an acoustic performance by Birth. Other bands played before Birth, and we cheered those bands on as we chatted with old friends. When Birth finally took the stage, floor space in front of a pool table, fan mania erupted. It was if we were back in junior high, only we were all much older and hopefully wiser. We still knew the words to the songs, we could still dance, and no one can out hoot and holler a group of Dodge City fans when they are in the zone. According to Chris Cave, Birth “winged it throughout the entire acoustic jam. Lewis would not tell us in advance what songs we were going to play, but he drove that bastard home. It turned out to be one of the peak experiences I’ve ever had playing with Birth. Playing acoustically was something we had never done before, and it actually inspired us to think about what it really means to be Birth.” Lewis said that for Friday night’s gig, they “didn’t have a plan. I just played whatever came to mind. For the first song, I told Chris I was going to play in the key of E, so he could have the correct harmonica. I thought of ‘Get Back.’ They guys had no idea what I was going to play.” Well, for the Birth fans in the audience, we felt as if we were watching the well-oiled machine we knew and loved.
To close out the evening, Lewis led the band into an old Beatles song, “Blackbird,” and when he sang “you were always waiting for this moment to arise,” I felt a shiver of the past run through my veins. Paul McCartney’s inspiration for the song he wrote in 1968 was the civil rights movement and what was happening in Little Rock at the time. As Lewis sang the song, I flashed back to the turbulent times of the sixties when we watched the evening news with our parents and wondered what was going to happen next. Would we grow up in a world so full of despair and war? What would our future hold? Music seemed to be the key to whatever would happen in our lives, and protest songs and love songs both had a place in our music repertoire. We learned to get through our days with music as our main medicine.
After Birth played the final notes of “Blackbird,” and finished their acoustic set, my friend Gretchen and I returned to our hotel. After a night of sleep, and then running around Lawrence on Saturday morning, we headed to Free State Brewing next to Liberty Hall for the Birth “Meet and Greet.” The room was packed. We mingled, laughed, and cheered the members of Birth on, promising to be out in full force for the induction ceremony. We did not let them down. We headed to Liberty Hall and positioned ourselves close to the dance floor. Where else?
When Kathy Quinn from Fox 4 News in Kansas City introduced the band before Lewis Mock’s induction speech, we were thrilled at seeing our hometown band up on stage under the big lights receiving this great recognition. When Birth took the stage again a bit later for their thirty-minute set, the “sea of birth” as Erin Mock, Lewis Mock’s daughter referred to us, we moved and swayed as if we were ocean waves rolling into shore. How appropriate that Birth would begin their set with “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. Fernyhough says that “A song that might have been heard many hundreds of times can nevertheless send the listener back in time to its first hearing” (54). Oh, I stepped through that time machine, and it was 1972. Damn, it was good to be alive, and here I was with some of the same friends I had back then. Dancing. Singing. In the music zone.
Since the band only had a thirty-minute time slot, they had to be tight. According to Bill Warshaw, they could see the clock timing down from the stage, and they “used the whole thirty minutes.” The band played Spirit’s “1984,” the Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash,” (where we were literally jumping), Free’s “All Right Now,” Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen,” the Beatles “You Can’t Do That,” Cream’s “Crossroads,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” before ripping into “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf. We had this. As one Birth fan told Lewis, “Birth was the soundtrack of my life.”
As the members of Birth left the stage, I felt as if had run a half marathon again. I was both exhausted and exhilarated. Some of us took a short break from the action even though there was much more music by other inductees to follow. I had to go outside to breathe in some fresh Kansas air. I knew that I had witnessed and been part of something truly wonderful. Not only was I lucky enough to be in the company of such great music fans, but I was thrilled for the members of Birth and the recognition they so richly deserved for their musicianship, their love of entertaining, and their heartfelt desire to connect to their fans.
For the fans, we headed our separate ways the next day, with our promises to get together soon, and to stay in touch. For the members of Birth, parting was also bittersweet. Chris Cave said that “The moment was book-ended: from the moment I started practicing at home for this event, to the Sunday morning that we travelled home and had a brief hug and goodbye at breakfast. That was a moment! And a tough one at that.” I can only imagine. I did suggest to Bill Warshaw that the band should get a bus and go out on tour. After all, why break up such a good thing? Friends? Family? Great music? That Dodge City blood running through our veins? He said, “Sure, and we’ll get Tara Hufford to paint the bus in a hippie theme.” Sounds good to me. Birth fans will be ready to roll. I have my red dancing shoes ready to go.
What does it mean to you to be an inductee into the KMHoF?
Lewis: To be voted in, put on the ballot, be inducted, and to have so many people show up blew my mind. It was overwhelming and beautiful.
Bill: I guess to be there with all of that other real talent like Kansas, Melissa Etheridge, and Mike Finnigan (to name a few) is just plain humbling.
Jonathon: I admit this event was completely off my radar. As Lewis said in his acceptance speech, Birth was really all about sharing the music we loved with our friends. We didn’t do it for the money or notoriety—or even to bug grownups. We weren’t trying to change the world or make any kind of statement. We just loved playing those songs for all of you. And the $1 at the door thing? We just did it because that’s what you did at a concert. Heck, we would have done it for nothing. What will we do with this accolade? Personally, I will ask for an additional fifty bucks when we offer to play for next year’s prom at Minneola.
Chris: It’s such an honor. It strikes me as phenomenal the way we came in. Other bands have CDs, posters, promo photos, a website, Facebook page, YouTube videos, etc., and we didn’t have any of that. We never did this for fame and fortune. They (KMHoF) opened doors for us. They didn’t even know if we could perform, but we promised them we could! They took us at our word and couldn’t deny the amazing support of our fans, from the overwhelming number of votes we got from our Fanbase. Friends and families helped us gain access into the KMHoF. As Lewis says, it was as close to the Grammys as he, or any of us, was going to get.”
What moment during the induction ceremony stands out as “the” moment?
Chris: The whole thing was a moment.
Jonathon: Well, to begin with, my musical tastes have changed a lot. I still like music from the 60s, but not of the 1960s, but rather that of the 1560s. I am much more into hymnody than popular music these days. I would have to say that the most touching part of the weekend wasn’t the induction ceremony itself, but seeing so many old friends there: It was very touching.
Bill: One memorable moment for me was on Friday when we rehearsed at Stan Herd’s studio, and his friend Stanley Sheldon showed up. Sheldon was the bass player for Tommy Bolin and Peter Frampton on the Comes Alive album. He is currently touring with Grand Funk Railroad. Needless to say that I was a little nervous when he showed up.
Lewis: The minute I played the first chord on my guitar for the first song. I thought are we really freaking doing this? I looked at the guys and wondered how did we get here? All of my life I have dreamed of playing on the stage at Liberty Hall. I went to high school in Lawrence and graduated from Lawrence High School. I also went to KU for a while, and I saw so many shows there. I grew up as a kid in Dodge listening to KOMA radio out of Oklahoma City, and they were always advertising the ‘Red Dog Inn’ (now called ‘Liberty Hall’) in Lawrence where The Fabulous Flippers played as well as the Roaring Red Dogs and many other of the great Mid-Continent Bands. As a kid, my mom worked with The Fabulous Flippers, and I worshipped them. I always dreamed of playing music on that stage, and now I have. It was a dream come true.