A personal literature and arts website


Midi Sequence by permission John Sankey, at http://www.sankey.ws/harpsichord.html
William Byrd [1542?-1623]:
Pavan and Galliard [MB29] [5:02]
Keyboard music from the Age of Shakespeare

On August 26, 1998, I was sixty-four years old. Mathematically, in terms of binary arithmetic (the foundation of today's computers), that is equivalent to two to the power of six. But what was I like at the age of two (two to the power of one), so that I am now at the sixth power of that state of being? I can't remember. Some have that gift of early memories; I don't. I do recall that when I was four (the second power of two), a buzzard flew over our rented sharecropper ("shotgun") house, and I saw the bird's dark shadow from the window that gave upon our neighbor's cornfield in the brilliant summer sun of a Louisiana August high noon. The shadow sped across the drying stalks of corn into the pines at the far side of the field. Years later I heard that if you saw the shadow and not the bird, you would soon die, and not (as Catholics were wont to say) a peaceful death. I didn't hear the superstition until I was nearly a teenager and had indeed survived. Hence I viewed the notion with a skepticism that would soon, with my arrival at what Baptists at that time called the Age of Knowledge -- age twelve -- spread to other matters, even (God help my immortal soul) matters theological.

But I am ahead of myself. At age eight (the third power of two) I walked the convex concrete handrails across the Overhead Bridge in Winnfield, a dangerous rite of passage for the boys of our town. Beneath the overpass was the Rock Island Line. Down on the tracks the Doodle Bug (all four cars of it including the engine and caboose) ran its daily mail run connecting our logging and salt-mining town to Little Rock, Arkansas in the north and Alexandria, Baton Rouge and New Orleans to the south of us. I had walked the railway tracks and also satisfied my curiosity about what lay beneath the concrete overpass itself on either side of the tracks. Hobos had eaten, and left their burned-out Sterno cans, spit-sticks and chicken bones as well as their feces there.

But walking across the handrails was another matter, concerning terror more than curiosity: to slip on the convex surface was to plummet forty feet to death on the railroad tracks below. As far as I knew then, no one had ever fallen, but the threat was real. Most boys accomplished this adventure by groups of two or three. As has always been my nature, I did so alone.

Similarly, at age sixteen (the fourth power of two) another rite of passage awaited me. Our family had moved, in our nomadic nearly annual fashion, throughout two parishes (counties outside Louisiana) from one rent house to another. My uncle in Winnfield (on my mother's side) had a red quarter horse named Baldy that he had bought for his children. Originally he had a plan to keep the horse in town in a rented barn, to be brought to the house more or less daily to entertain the children. This plan had not worked out well: the creature was old, and did not suffer patiently the behavior of the children (the climbing, the somewhat insensitive combing of the mane, the pulling of the tail, etc.) Finally one day the horse bit the hair of the girl (which probably seemed just to the horse, since she had been pulling his tail) and sealed his fate: he must be gotten rid of.

My uncle contacted my mother and told her about the availability of the horse ("Your boy Buddy will get a big kick out of him [I did] and he could probably be taught to pull a plow [he couldn't -- at least not well]".) There was one caveat: my uncle had no truck or trailer sufficient to haul the beast the thirty miles from Winnfield to Verda. It would be necessary for me to hitchhike to Winnfield and ride the horse home, which I did. In truth, I had never ridden a horse before, but I did know that the horse had not been shod, and could not travel very long on concrete or asphalt. I also did not know about saddle soreness, though I was to learn shortly. Therefore I was forced to take the back roads, by way of Five Forks Community Church (where the famous gospel singing conventions had been held every fifth Sunday of a calendar month since anyone could remember) and through the National Forest Preserve (dirt roads, all). For days afterwards I was so saddle-sore I could barely walk. At sixteen, most boys had a car for their own; I got a horse and saddle.

At age 32 (the fifth power of two) I came to know about the Vietnam War in a special way. Half a world away, saffron-robed Buddhist monks were setting themselves on fire, the city of Chicago would soon be in chaos, and young people encircled the White House, chanting, "Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?" My sons were three and one year of age respectively, and one night I had a dream in which I was standing outside a Confederate barn on an overcast day, arguing with a gray-coated officer, telling him that it was wrong to draft my boys into the War Between the States. I would go instead, I said. "You're too old," I was told in the dream. This was the worst rite of passage yet, because it involved my innocent sons. In truth, we were in a civil war in 1966: it was The War Between the States of Consciousness. As yet there is no clear victor.

Last month I turned 64, the sixth power of two and my last -- I would not survive, of course, to 128. It remains to be seen what significant event will happen in the year. However, I believe I have done with major rites of passage, except those tiny ones Heraclitus mentioned: "We do not step twice into the same waters, for the river is always flowing." Tonight, upriver, my future is even now rushing towards me, and as with every day, tomorrow all things will be new once more.

Copyright 1998 Walter Rufus Eagles