The Past is in It’s Grave

Heckscher State Park, Great South Bay

I’m cleaning closets and donating clothes and other items I no longer need. Some are just old collectibles in boxes shoved beneath beds and in the attic. If I could fit junk in the crawl space under the house, I probably would. I have too much stuff. Soon, most of it will be gone, but it isn’t easy deciding what to keep. I can easily make a case for retaining every item. Sometimes it is comforting to pull out an old trinket and tell stories about what happened. I have an ashtray from a resort in Palm Springs from when I was fifteen, but I can’t mention it without my mother reminding me how I wandered alone for hours in rattlesnake country in the San Jacinto Mountains. I’m keeping that one. There are postcards and paperweights from family vacations and solo trips out west. Most of it is going. I can remember what happened without a cheap plastic prompt. And if I can’t remember then the item is a waste of space.

But last night I came to what I call the “Long Island Box.”

At almost fifteen years old we moved from my childhood home on the Island to Virginia—that was almost half a century ago; so far in my past I am the same number of years to 100 as I am to leaving the Island. And so much has happened since those days to make those first fourteen years little more than a title page; at best a brief introduction to the rest of my life. In fact, it seems that boy might easily be someone else save one particular item: the baseball my friends signed and gave me when I moved. On the rare days I pick it up it connects us across time and distance. I can look at the ball as proof I actually knew those people, and if I were to go back to Long Island, I’d almost expect to see them in their youth. Memories trick us into thinking of some places as special when, in fact, it is usually a particular time we relish. The truth is, when I hold the ball I don’t want to go back to New York; I want to go back to 1975.

When we were young we played baseball; we listened to music; we hiked the woods of Heckscher State Park; we skated across the Connetquot River and waded well into the Great South Bay. We hopped the fence of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum and camped out and kept secrets; we built forts and fought over stupid things. We came of age during the Vietnam War, and music was part of our blood. Now as if to symbolize all those days, I have the baseball. The names have not faded even while most of the faces have, though I certainly can conjure up the idea of who they all were. Over the years I’ve been back to New York, but never saw those friends again. Still, when I return I say I’m going “back” to New York, not “up,” as if New York will always be a time more than a place.

When those friends gave me the ball that last day, I wanted to stay in that town and finish growing up with Steve and Todd, Eddie and Paul, Janet and Lisa and Essie and Norman and Mike and Camille. So the ball remains my sole possession from life before the fall. I have wondered if my family had stayed, would I have pursued my burning desire to play baseball, or would the music and restlessness that eventually took over my life catch up with me anyway. Smack dab in the middle of my youth, in a small idealistic town, in a time when my friends and I were pushing the limits and planning our exit strategy, I got traded to another existence five states away. I have no regrets at all, but I have the baseball, and it teases me toward the proverbial road not taken. Steve and I were like Chris and Gordie in the film Stand by Me; Eddie and I spent near every single day together hiking through Heckscher, singing, teaching each other guitar. Every. Single. Day. For five years.

They all signed the ball.

Now I’m thinning out my collections of books and art, pawning off possessions and boxing up souvenirs. My emotional connection to many of these things is tied to the people I met along the way. While it is true that the further through life I paddle, the more I’m interested in what I can enjoy at the time, not stow away like pirate booty. How many times do we buy things while traveling, bring them home and display them, and eventually replace them with new souvenirs? Even if I do take the items out and look at them or show people, the significance eventually ebbs. I have stories and memories, and sometimes I have a longing to return, but I quickly realize that an object is not a memory, it is a symbol, a window through which we can watch our youth.

But this box is different. These are the remnants of when a boy literally grew up and tried like hell to hold tight to what he knew he was losing. I can hold the ball and see us in Steve’s backyard, yelling as we ran the bases, and I can still smell the marsh near the river that time we found an old shack for duck hunters and carved our names in the walls. The ball is proof I was there and it all happened. Souvenirs play an important role in moving on. They keep us from carrying the guilt of complete abandonment. Once in a while I pick up the ball and can hear their voices calling across the yard, across the years, Steve holding a sign of luck, Eddie calling for me not to go, please don’t go. And we’d say good night. Not goodbye—a small quirk of ours. Good night! We’d yell, and laugh, oh my living God we would laugh.  

I used to have this crazy dream that we would all meet at a pub, probably on the Island, and hug and laugh and drink and tell stories of then. It would be at the old Great River Inn, which I think is an Italian restaurant now, or across the river in Oakdale, on the water, and we’d get tables on the deck. Eddie and I would have made fun of Todd for the way he used to follow us through the marshes and kept cursing whenever he stepped in the mud. Steve would recall the terrifying afternoon I hit a fly ball right at the sliding glass door on the back of his house. We’ll both remember at the same time how we used to see who could hit the ball over the roof, and then we’d retrieve it from the street and see who could throw the ball the farthest. And right at that moment I’ll pull the ball out of my pocket and show them how bad their signatures were when we were young, and we’ll laugh and pass it around, but in the presence of these people the ball will suddenly seem irrelevant. We’ll break into a chorus of the Zombies “Time of the Season” like we used to while walking to the deli. Then we’ll order more wings and beers and someone will inevitably have to leave early because of family obligations. Todd will have to head home, and Camille will have to get back to the city.

But that will never happen. We lost Eddie a couple of years ago just before Christmas, and since then the desire to go back to that beautiful, timeless, idyllic hamlet has faded away. But we could have met, we should have. We could have convinced the bartender to play some early seventies music like the Beatles “Let it Be” album. And Todd and I would tell everyone how we were sitting in his room listening to the radio when the story came through that The Beatles broke up. It will get quiet and someone, probably Janet, will say she has to leave, so we’ll all stand in the parking lot and shake hands, and hug, and say we must do it again. They will drive off, but I’ll wait, because that’s how I see this going down. I’ll stand there almost five decades after seeing them last and wonder how it is possible to live this long and still remember details. I’ll be glad I went back, but I’ll remind myself I really must move on and simplify my life, so I’ll turn toward the river and wonder just how far I can still throw a ball.

Eddie and I got back in touch about five years ago and talked often. Neither of us changed when talking to each other, and it was clear we would have remained close no matter where life brought us. We didn’t drift apart; we grew up. 1975 is so far ago I can’t conceive it ever happened at all; yet I can make a case it all went down last week, and if I head down Great River Road and make a right at Church Road and follow it all the way up past Woodhaven, and stay right when I get to Leeside Drive, my dad would be outside at the barbeque, and my brother mowing the lawn. My sister would be in her room at the top of the stairs, and me, well, I’d be heading down the road to Eddie’s and we’d be walking out toward the Great South Bay for the day to see what is next.

It’s just a ball. It’s just a damn ball. It will go back in the closet, and my friends will go back to their faraway towns scattered from Long Island to Florida. All of us probably keep neat houses with boxes stowed behind stairs just beyond reach. Even this house I’m organizing and which I built twenty-five years ago is little more than a hotel to occupy as long as possible before I check out and others make themselves at home. Maybe someone will find my baseball behind a cabinet, and the names will be worn off when the kids here take it outside and toss it around. Anyway, it’s a ball; it’s how it is meant to be used.

Goodnight Eddie.

Some Days are Stone

Jonmark Stone

Oh please remember me my good friend.

You know nothings really changed.

I will remember you until the end.

Only the end is rearranged.

–jonmark stone

Jonmark would play local venues, and I’d go with other close friends of ours to listen. There was Sondra’s at the beach, where I’d order a beer and ice cream, or sometimes a filet, and JM would play everything from Neil Diamond to original work which I’d be singing for a few days after. And that gig for some prom at the Old Cavalier, after which we climbed to the top of that tower, then walked for a long time on the boardwalk. Oh, and over on Independence Boulevard the not-so-subtle Fantastic Fenwick’s Flying Food Factory, where I’d hardly hear at all over the chatter of some of the most bizarre characters we’d met back then.

To say we have the same taste in music would be laughably mild. We were barely eighteen, just out of high school, and, more so, just out of options.

So we left.

“I went on the road; You pursued an education.” Yeah, I still think of Jonmark when I hear “James” by Billy Joel. The thing is, we both left—I headed to college on New York’s Southern Tier and he headed to Nashville in his VW van. It was 1979 and this is pre-everything. Pre cellphones, pre computers, back when life was something you did, not something you read about or witnessed on a screen. Back when keeping in touch was nearly impossible if you still didn’t live at home. Back when he said, “Fuck it, I’m headed to Nashville—nothing’s happening in Virginia Beach,” but the music always kept us connected. It was the creativity, the passion, the artistic drive which controlled us both that few people outside the arts can understand. Despite decades apart in a dozen or so states, we continued to grow up together.  

Geez, that was almost forty-five years ago.

Anyway.

It’s chilly today but sunny, and the bay is rough from the passing storms which at least cleared the pollen out of the air. I’m at my desk doing work on a new essay for a (someday) book, reading students’ rough drafts, and sometimes looking up in the corner where my two guitars rest patiently in their cases. I’m certain they’ve forgotten my name. I haven’t had callouses in a very long time. When I see them though, two people come to mind: My sister, who had such an influence in my taste in music and my desire to play guitar (it was hers I learned on) back when we lived on the Island, and Jonmark, who made it seem so easy—he is that good. At college, I channeled Jonmark when I played coffeehouses, and later when I sat with Kenny Loggins and the two of us played and sang “Danny’s Song.” “This is what you should be doing,” Kenny told me. “Quit school and go do it.”

But he was too kind to note how much I sucked. A person’s passion for what they do can confuse the average mind into thinking someone is actually good at something. I definitely had passion; and this was long before you didn’t have to be that good to be successful in the music industry; back when success was reserved for those with not only that passion, but talent, and I suppose what is best called “vision.” Jonmark had all of that, and success came his way through hard work, years of playing with the best in the music industry, and some sort of innate ability to string the right notes together. And I wrote, and Jonmark and I continue to this day to be each other’s biggest fans as I continue to attempt to string the right words together to strike a note in readers, but it is more than that. It’s the “old friends” thing, the being there before we went anywhere. I have a handful of people in my life like that, but JM holds the record for the “back then” notation. Carter had just become president; Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” had just come out, and Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” lp. Saturday Night Fever hit the theaters. But we’ve done okay, the two of us; “made it in the minor leagues” as he has pointed out, which is not at all a small thing. Since the Flying Food Factory, I’ve traveled quite a bit and written about it; Jonmark has been part of some of the biggest recordings in the industry, written songs for countless other singers, music for commercials as diverse as Ford Trucks and 7-Up. Man we are old.

No. Older though.

Most of us have someone like this in our lives; someone who sees you for the young dreamer you used to be, but understands why some dreams worked out, why some didn’t; what drives you and what scares you. Someone who can just give you a look and you don’t see sixty-two, you see seventeen and all the possibilities of then, making time circular, and making hope more persistent.

I walked to the river just now, not expecting to need to bundle up, but up north friends of mine are buried in a foot of snow. Still, I sat on the rocks and looked out a long time tonight, thinking about the changes, about what remains the same. I’ve had countless changes in my life in the past five years. And when that happens it is natural to bend toward the familiar, someone who has hung in there through it all, was there before it all. I came home and listened to my favorite Stone recording, “People are Talking,” and stared out at the trees. I’m having trouble with a work I’ve been toying with for—no kidding here—forty years. Parts of it have been published, the jumbled mess was my MFA thesis, but it is one of those stories that I just can’t get right no matter how I approach it; something is missing and I’m nearly certain I will never find it.

So I opened the case of my 12 string—something I did on a daily basis when I first started this monstrosity of a book—and played around with the notes a bit. Then a little more. It felt so natural, like when words come out in just the right order, just like that; exactly like that. Turns out I do still have callouses. That happens at this age.

It’s good to have an old friend nearby to listen and to listen to. Maybe I’ll do that open mic thing after all. Life’s too short not to, right?

Because:

We die every day that we’re living

But we live every day that we do.

–jstone

Listen, my friends, to this recording. Please. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful songs you will hear. I’m not kidding. Then, please, make it go viral. The world could use someone like Jonmark Stone in its life right now. Click the picture below and listen: