Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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James Hardesty
English 201
Essay 1
Fall 2003

Blackbirds Fly with Cowboys 

Say ‘Goodbye’ to Detroit City,
I’m headed down the road.
I’d like to spend some time in Austin town.
You can hand me down my hat and boots
and my Hummingbird guitar, cause
I’m gonna be a cowboy from now on.

The song “Cowboy From Now On” was written by my uncle, David, and my dad, just after they had returned from Willy Nelson’s 2nd Annual 4th of July Picnic in 1974. I wasn’t around yet, never even thought of except for in the nightmares of a young man, but that song runs through my head everyday—a reminder of where home is.

Now my dad and David are both successful attorneys and have left the cowboy dream far behind. My uncle returned to Detroit—he still wears his hat and boots while riding his lawn mower—but that song can bring them together, regardless of the 2500 miles that separates them geographically. When they sing it now—if they sing it now— or think about the days when they sang it together long ago, they too can return home. When I listen to it, I can sit back on a comfy old sofa in the dark recesses of my mind, tapping my foot and singing along, just as countless others must have done back then.

When I think of home, my first thoughts are of the faint smell of cow dung lingering on the damp breeze as I drove north in my beat-up Chevy Luv toward Bellingham from Arizona, and although the malodorous aroma did give me a sense that I was nearing my destination, the smell alone is not inclusive of home. Besides, I hesitate at reducing my notion of home to the scent of bovine feces. Upon further reflection I remember a treasure situated on a shelf in my house: a compilation of my dad’s recordings on compact disc. Some of the songs are solo, recorded in a kitchen on Jersey Street, and some are with David and the bands that they have been in over the years. The CD—made as a gift for my Papa’s 80th birthday—covers nearly four decades of music that defines both of them as young men. I was very little when David moved away but I can still remember the way the two of them harmonized. It was almost as if they were brought to the earth for no other reason than to sing together. Listening to this music I realize where my home truly is.

Home has nothing to do with the house or city in which I reside. I feel as much at home in this small apartment filled with toys and children, with dishes piled up in the sink and too much laundry on the floor and never enough time to catch up, as I did growing up in either my mom or dad's house when the weight of domestic concerns was not placed on my shoulders. This space feels as much like home as my dingy place in Phoenix or the fishing boat I worked on in the Bering Sea, or for that matter, the open road endlessly laid out in front of that beat-up Chevy Luv. What I have realized, maybe for the first time, is that my home is firmly planted in my mind, surrounded by music and laughter, good food and conversations past—my home is always with me in my memories. Like a slide show of my life they run through my head as if driving me—crazily hurried in a Neal Cassady-like road trip—to some better understanding of who I am.

 

♫♫♫

Home doesn’t hinge on if my parents are split up, if I was teased relentlessly as a child about my buck teeth and afro, or if my swollen purple face (resulting from a forty foot plunge over a waterfall) was eerily reflected in the frightened eyes of my parents, betraying their calm words. Home was when I sat on the frozen ground, feet limply dangling into a newly dug grave, my shoulders steaming from exertion and shaking with grief as I watched my tears slowly absorb into the thirsty soil which would consume the only dog I had ever loved or called my own. Home was when from the backseat of the car the sweet voice of my step-daughter, Alexis, audibly accepted me as Daddy for the first time and I found the courage to respond to the infinitely frightening implications of that name. It was on a bus in Israel, where as a lonely boy yearning for home I sang old James Taylor songs that reminded me of Uncle David, although I have never to this day heard him sing a JT song. It was when I stood at the pinnacle of Mt. Sinai and even while standing in the footsteps of Moses just couldn't bring myself to believe in God. Home was a little rental house where I sat, ring in hand, realizing for the first time the fragility of hope and love, as heartbreak’s overwhelming emptiness echoed off the dusty hardwood floors just after the sudden departure of my fiancé, and also when none of that shit mattered as I stood crying openly in front of my family and friends while in awe over the unsurpassable beauty that radiated from my new love, Katie, as she slowly walked towards me to embark on our life-long journey. I was at home when I kneeled on a cold linoleum hospital floor next to my new bride when we learned that our first attempt at a child had failed, taking refuge in the soft warmth of that part of the neck reserved for those loved the most, and at home in St. Joseph’s Birthing Center when our daughter, Skylar Abagail, slipped from my wife's warm womb into my unsure and wavering arms—a sigh of relief emptied from my dry lungs when I saw that she was perfect—my life changing forever with just one glance into that little girl's eyes. Home was all the times I thought I hated my brother Josh when we were boys, but nearly killed someone in protection of him as a man, and it was when my best friend recently told me that his marriage is over after he tried so goddamned hard to make it work and I think of how every marriage is bent like a bamboo bow; too much pressure and they will break. Home resides in every instant I felt bad when I didn't tell someone how much I loved them or shrugged off the love offered to me and silly sentimentality. And I’m at home when I sit with misty eyes recollecting all the times in my life which have made me who I am and brought me to where I am. All of those experiences, whether wonderful or unbearably cruel, have been laid out in some ungodly mathematical formula that equals home, regardless of whether or not I solve it for X. The only way I can hold onto the concept of home with an unbreakable white-knuckled death grip is to keep it with me in my head, and more often than not, it takes the form of song.

♫♫♫

No matter if it is an original piece by my father or a Duran Duran song that I listened to in the hospital or a Colville Melody tune from my wedding, music is the glue for me; it is the adhesive that takes all the good and bad and, using the pressures of life, laminates it into this beautiful structure that will forever be under construction—never completely finished—but will always be home.

The earliest stirrings of memory for me come from the songs Dad picked on his guitar (most early memory was lost when I fell).  There are some in particular (“Desperado Waiting for a Train,” “Rocky Top,” “Cripple Creek,” “Leader of the Band,” “London Homesick Blues,” “Gonna Be a Cowboy”) that are the most vivid memories I have. When I hear other people telling stories of their childhood and the vibrant recollection of the home that they grew up in, I am envious. To remember those images so clearly is a gift, a gift often taken for granted. When I close my eyes in an attempt to view the past all is black. There is no vision, but somewhere in the dark, in another room in the house, I can hear guitars strummed and a banjo picked. Voices permeate the dense blackness, making the dark a place of comfort instead of a monster’s paradise. I see Dad slowly walking toward me, guitar slung over his shoulder, his “thundering velvet hands” gracefully dancing across the strings, and then sitting on the edge of my bed and singing “London Homesick Blues.” As I listen to the song, to the voice of the man I love more than anything, I allow my eyes to flutter shut: comfortable, safe, secure. I know that even when my dad is gone I will always be able to visit him in the darkness while he strums his guitar and sings for his lonesome son—I wanna go home with the armadillo, country music in Amarillo and Abilene, the friendliest people and the prettiest women you’ve ever seen.

So now I am that man who must provide comfort. My daughters look to me for security, for guidance. I’m not much of a musician—I recently purchased a banjo, however—but maybe these words are my song. Maybe these little symbols on paper will serve as a window overlooking the vast rolling hills of my past that my girls can use to shed an honest insight on who I really am.

When I lay on my deathbed (many years from now) maybe we—my wife and girls and I—can all sing the Beatles’ “Black Bird” together, because I know it will make them feel at home. Maybe they’ll be able to sing that song when life is cruel or when they bury their dog, or as they gently rub the backs of their own sleepless children, or maybe just when they just miss their Old Man. Maybe when they close their eyes in search of me I’ll be able to walk through that dark room, sit on the corner of their bed, gently rubbing their backs, and softly sing to them—black bird fly, you have always waited for this moment to arrive—and watch as comfort allows their beautiful little eyes to flutter shut in peaceful, secure and happy slumber. Maybe.

Because there will be a time when I too will lay motionless in the frozen ground, no better off than that ugly mutt, but I'll have died with a song in my head and a smile on my face. My legacy will have been left behind and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will have gone to the great jukebox in the sky, or the honky-tonk in hell, it's no matter to me. Where ever I end up, it will be the place of good men with beautiful voices and, as I patiently wait the arrival of my precious wife, I’ll be listening to my father sing—like desperados waiting for a train—and once again, I'll be home.

 

Copyright 2004
James Hardesty

 

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA
1999-2015