It’s New To Me, So…

I feel bad for Humphrey Bogart. And Clifton Webb. And Peter Lorre.

Guys who had to spend their entire existences wearing a tuxedo.

Can you picture H. Bogart in a polo shirt?

No, of course not. ( Immaterial that they didn’t exist yet. )

Can you picture those guys as little kids, doing little kid stuff?  Playing sandlot baseball?

No. They would have been standing along the third-base line, smoking cigarettes and gazing wistfully at the horizon; poignantly longing for the childhood that never was.  ( Immaterial that they are still children in this scenario. )

And of course, in their tuxedos. White for summer, black for winter. There may very well have been tuxedos of a wild array of colors available, but all rendered ineffective in the world of film noir.

And now I’ve found two more. Guys who were probably born in a tuxedo, which I’m sure their mothers could well have done without at the time. ” Yes, mother and baby are both fine, but there were some…well…complications…”

I speak of  Lionel Hampton and Johnny Mercer.

I’ ll not bother to trumpet their accomplishments. You have access to the same resources that I do. You would do well to make their acquaintance. Extremely old-school, and so impossibly good at what they did that they managed to define both themselves and their chosen art forms as they went along. And were perfectly comfortable in their own skins, which were, of course, tuxedos.

Lionel was a jazz musician. He played the vibraphone.

Johnny was a songwriter and lyricist.

In 1947, Lionel wrote an instrumental tune he titled ” Midnight Sun.”

In 1953, Johnny wrote lyrics for it.

It is , in a word, gorgeous. Over the years, everybody in jazz has done a cover of it. Dozens of renditions.

And here’s what is so good about it.

It’s sort of… backwards. Most songwriters will start with a bit of lyric, and structure a chord progression to support it; conventional wisdom, usually with conventional results.

Johnny took a very unconventional song, one that utilizes a unique song form, unique chordal movements, and chromatic scales as a base for the melody, and wrote a seamlessly sophisticated set of lyrics for it. This is an extremely difficult thing to accomplish, especially because it’s being done in reverse; music first, lyrics later.

You’d better have your tuxedo on if you’re going to try something like that.

I have the Diana Krall cover of this song. It’s on my” top-ten best of all time” list.

And because I’m such a devoted special fan, I’ve followed the subliminal instructions hidden in the second verse to the letter. ( Diana put them there, not Johnny Mercer. )

A) Kidnap your local mailman, and duct-tape him to the roof rack of your car

B) Then stop and do Diana’s grocery shopping ( she is obviously too busy to do it herself, and that pesky Elvis fellow seems to be awfully self-involved )

C) Hold up either a 7-11 or a gas station; your choice. The mailman will need money for his train fare home.

D) Finally, stop and get Diana a Cinnamon Grande Latte at Starbucks, and be at a certain Manhattan address by 4 pm.

I was 10 minutes early.

Published in: on November 22, 2011 at 11:36 pm  Comments (1)  

Ghost Story…sort of…

Another Veteran’s Day ceremony at Greenwood cemetery in West Warwick RI, where lies the only Confederate veteran in New England; one Pvt. Samuel Postlethwaite of the 21st Mississippi. The re-constituted 21st commemorates him every year. This year’s turnout was exceptional, with a line officer ( moi ), a first sergeant, four infantrymen, and two artillerymen ( from the local Morton’s Battery).

We had about a dozen spectators on hand, and a reporter from the Providence Journal; and although he meant well, I would much doubt if anything featuring us would make it past an editor’s desk.

One of those spectators was a woman whom we recognized from attending in previous years. We finally got around to making her acquaintance, and she agreed to join us for breakfast at the nearby Phenix Restaurant after the ceremony. The Phenix is used to seeing us by now, and already had a large table arranged for us; a benefit of minor celebrity.

In her mid-seventies, Cindy describes herself as a psychic and a medium. She says that she always stops by the Greenwood cemetery because it’s ” always busy there.”  She’ll also tell you in detail all about stones, crystals, herbs and spices; what they all do, and why they don’t work for almost everyone;” because people always say that they want positive energy in their lives but really aren’t willing to do a damned thing to find it, get it, or keep it.”

I found myself  liking her a lot. Completely insane, but in a very grounded sort of way. She said that she could come with us to breakfast because she had her lucky scarf on, which she only wears on trips to cemeteries.

And through the course of  pleasant breakfast conversation, we found that Cindy likes to attend our Veteran’s day rites because she has been trying for years to determine who the little girl is.

Little girl?

Yes, she says; the one who is always playing amongst the gravestones while we are commemorating Sam. She only sees her occassionally, but always while we are there.

A few people were being supportive of Cindy in general; a few others were harshly skeptic. I remained neutral, enjoying her dismissal of the skeptics with a short-tempered backward wave of her hand, as if Queen Victoria had been suddenly accosted by a commoner.

When pressed for details, Cindy described again the little girl in a white dress, cavorting between the graves across the somewhat small cemetery while we held our ceremony. She always brings a camera, but really knows better than to think that would work. Still, it’s worth the try, she thinks.

And we always thought she was taking shots of us; more benefits of very pitifully minor celebrity.

The table’s general response was to the effect that, after several years, no one had ever seen a little girl in a white dress doing anything at all.

She understood completely, but begged to differ. She knows what she knows, and she knows about these things.

I personally thought that Cindy’s description of the little girl was very typically 19th- century stereotype, and was wondering why pleasantly insane people never seemed to come up with anything a bit more creative than this. This sounded like a movie trailer.

And then someone asked her where in the cemetery she had actually seen her; and she said she was always in the same small area; and described that in detail, too. ” Why, that’s the Sprague family plots” said our own Sgt. Salisbury.

And then…  dots suddenly connected in my head, dots which until just then had absolutely no reason to ever cross paths. I lost interest in my corned beef hash and eggs, and believe me, those who know me would attest to the gravity of any situation that might cause such a culinary calamity. The room spun a little bit, an actual sensation of vertigo.

I have my own story to tell about those gravesites. I told a lot of people about it when it happened, and I sat there in realization that their response to me back then was only marginally more civilized than what poor Cindy was getting right now. At the time , I considered myself a perfectly viable witness; and I suppose that Cindy has always considered herself equally viable. But she is obviously pleasantly bonkers, and I am, of course, not. At all. I am viable if nothing else.

My story goes back to yet another Veteran’s day, eight years ago. Same people, same place, same reason. It was a very cold and snowy day; I remember getting there very early and searching for Sam’s grave marker under the snow with a broom; and then putting up the 21st’s newly-made flag, thinking that Sam would appreciate seeing the old company colors again. ( A rather un-viable sentiment, in retrospect…)

I was a lieutenant in the company then, and during the ceremony, I stood at the left end of the company line; the captain was standing by sam’s grave while speaking to the assembly. We were at attention.

And while I stood and listened, I noticed something moving in the distance beyond where Capt. Wrona stood. It was situated so that I could watch both him and the movement simultaneously.

Across the cemetery and over the captain’s shoulder, I watched what I took to be a large piece of black crepe paper being blown back and forth between some gravestones. I thought that it was likely the remnants of a Halloween decoration that had broken loose. I stood and pondered the idea of such decorations in a cemetery, and thought it no less likely than the Christmas decorations, photographs, toys, and teddy bears that you would find in the newer section of Greenwood.

But shortly, I realized that there was something very odd about the paper. There was nothing at all random about its movement. It moved slowly and methodically from one point to another, and back again. It stayed at the same height, probably a foot or so off the ground. It would appear between the grave markers, and was not visible while it was behind the markers.

I was watching carefully, and trying to determine how a sheet of paper adrift in the wind could move in such a way; and starkly realized that there was no wind to speak of.

And then…I realized that what I was seeing couldn’t be paper at all. There was no fluttering motion of any kind.

It was a flat, non-reflective, black square. It was like a black opening in the daylight. And it was moving, back and forth, behind a particular group of markers.

I glanced at the others; there was seemingly no recognition in their faces, and the captain stood with his back to it. It continued for the rest of our ceremony. As we marched from the area to our cars, I noticed then that it was gone.

As we broke formation, I made a few jokes and comments, but no one bit for it. I was apparently the only one who noticed anything.

I begged off breakfast. I really just wanted to get away from there. Something was very wrong.

So what was it, then, that made me go back? After I knew that everyone else was gone…I drove back. I wanted to find the crepe paper. I wanted to find something rational.

I walked to the grave markers…and realized that it was a family grouping, with marble markers on the corners; with a large central marker. Very elaborate.

It was the grave of Elisha Harris, surrounded by several later generations, very well- organized.

He had been a governor of Rhode Island, was a very successful businessman, had both prominent ancestors and descendants; he passed away in 1861.

There was no sign of black crepe paper anywhere. There was nothing at all out of place.

And I was very suddenly struck with a vicious back spasm. I tried to steady myself on the nearest marker, but had to fall to the ground. These were not unknown to me at that time, but the intensity of this one was beyond my experience.

The pain was blinding, but usually would subside after a few minutes; but there was always an indeterminate period afterward where you had to be very careful of any movement, because just the right motion could set it all off again.

I had no choice but to lie there. A guy in a Confederate uniform, struck down in the middle of the Harris family burial plot. Whimsical…maybe. Ironic, yes.

What I really was… was terrified. That the black square would come back. I was lying right in the path of where it had been  moving. It would go right over me. Or through me.

I have never been, before or since, so frightened. In spite of the pain it caused, I slowly crawled away from the graves and into the road. There was no one around. I might just as well have been on the dark side of the moon. I had a cell phone, but it was in the car.

It took me over an hour to crawl to the car. It was only about two hundred feet away. I did not dare to once look back towards where I had been, or even peripherally glance to the side, for fear of it being right beside me.

I made it back. No black squares. And got home.

I told a lot of people about that incident. It never once occurred to me how completely impossible it sounds. And if they all patronized me, I never once actually noticed.

But sitting across from Cindy this morning changed all that. She sees a little girl… I see black squares…but in the same exact place?

I have tremendous respect for Governor Harris, and his entire family. There is some big magic going on over there. I might actually take a walk over there again sometime, if I’m not alone. And dressed appropriately. I’m honestly a little nervous about having even downloaded the photo of his gravestone. It’s as close as I’ve been in a long time.

And I like Cindy, and would never dare to patronize her, because I think she might have a little ju-ju of her own.

Maybe she can help me find a lucky scarf.

And I know it really does sound crazy…but I know what I know.

Published in: on November 14, 2011 at 1:22 am  Comments (3)