Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Being older than Homer, and able to stand on my own, Mother, upon reaching the steps of our brownstone, plucked me out of the carriage first, setting me nimbly down on the third step of the stoop. I bobbed up and down, impatient and ornery.
I strutted about the step, making various animal noises I had learned: the gentle cooing of the pigeons that perched and roosted outside my window, their multi-colored, luminous feathers a counterpoint to the dull, dun colored stalagmite droppings they deposited on the stone rain shelf. The yap-yap of the ferocious dachshund that Mrs. Schultz, our next-door neighbor, would walk in the wee hours of the morning, when the little runt encountered a larger dog. The plaintive howl of the neighborhood cat, Lady Elizabeth, when she was in heat, rubbing her hindquarters suggestively on the wrought iron railing that delineated the sidewalk from the front yard. I rendered this veritable Ark of animal noises in high strutting fashion, like a solider on dress parade, legs marching in prancing, exaggerated goose steps, arms swinging demonically at my sides.
Halfway through my martial calisthenics, Mother freed Homer from the carriage.
“Look at your brother, Homer,” she said with pride, “he’s going to be a solider some day.” Homer cooed in response, a soft, understated pigeon trill. “He’s going to be a great solider. A great officer, like his grandfather, my father, who fought at Antietam. Twenty-thousand men fell on that awful day. But my Daddy survived,” she told Homer proudly and then looked my way, casting an appraising glance, “I think your brother is made of the same stuff as Daddy.”
Later I learned that maternal Grandfather Franklin Pierce Rogerson was a comparatively lucky survivor of the Battle of Antietam.
He was a captain in the New York 41st Regiment out of Cold Spring Harbor, and it was his first commission, his first trip south, and indeed his first trip outside of the State of New York. He was one of those green officers sent to the field with inadequate training. His Sergeant was the de facto commander and Grandfather Rogerson would quietly seek his advice on almost all matters, and the Sergeant was enough of a solider by trade to never break ranks and show that he was the true authority over all those young Cold Spring Harbor boys, all those oystermen’s sons, who were better at holding shell rakes in their hands than firearms, and who tooled around in the sheltered bays and coves of the Long Island Sound, whose gentle lapping waters, although salt, sometimes froze over in winter.
But a storm was unleashed at Antietam, and Grandfather Rogerson marched bravely forth into the field, his service revolver in one hand, his upraised sword in the other, his Sergeant directly in front of him, and his reluctant men dallying behind. In front, down the valley and one hundred yards to the south, several hundred boys from southern Missouri, who had most likely never heard of an oyster, were loading their cannon for a torrential barrage. As the first bowling ball sized shells began to fall around my maternal Grandfather, spewing up divots of Antietam turf until the balls struck oystermen flesh, all in a moment – before he could think --- a cannon ball landed square on into the head of Grandfather’s Sergeant, bursting it like an overripe watermelon. A shard of skull bone flew back like shrapnel and lodged in Grandfather’s shoulder.
On that day, twenty thousand Americans lay dead or dying on the battlefield, the greatest mass blood letting on American soil, but my maternal Grandfather was fine. A trifle dazed, perhaps, and certainly shaken, but the fundamentals of his mind and spirit were sound.
He began to shake a week later, when he commenced the laborious task of reforming the unit. He hoped the tremors would lessen with time, but if anything they worsened, and he began to scream about a darkness coming over his eyes, and black out for a few minutes, at first, but eventually up to a half hour.
A doctor examined him and concluded that he wayward bone fragment lodged in a nerve in Grandfather’s shoulder, causing reduced blood flow to his upper body and brain, precipitating unpredictable spells of fainting. Poor hapless Granddaddy was subject to the shakes and blackouts the rest of his life.
He moved to Washington Heights, which was still rural after the Civil War and well into the beginning of the twentieth century. As apartment houses began to dot the landscape of northern Manhattan, enclosing his farm, he was always proud to say that he was the last man to have a woodshed on the island of Manhattan.
“Sometimes qualities skip a generation,” Mother told Homer, “but sometimes they don’t. But nothings to stop my Daddy’s good traits from appearing in you or your brother. I can see it now, just like you can see sprouts blossom on a fruit tree in spring.”
Mother always misjudged fundamentals. And from that erroneous foundation, set out on flights of fancy. It was left to us to heartlessly destroy her castles in the sky. We did it with aplomb.
When I saw our avenue the next day, that ancient tree gone.
One could also begin here:
When I came home from the war, from my war, the Second World War, all I could do, after so many dislocations was to allow that drift, that stream of sober inevitability to hold endless sway. I let go the tension that had nearly ground my nerves to dust, and found the release after much hand wringing, such endless gnashing of my jaw, such incessant tossing between my sweat stained sheets. I let it go. I just let it all go! I had no Antietam, no sustained blood letting, but other fantastically generated birds of doom lurked in the trees, biding their time.
When I came home from the war long standing and hidden ills assumed an existence of their very own. They had become their own apotheosis – animated and alive. And the gravest symptom of this disease was that objects and symbols, usually so cleverly segregated, could no longer be so easily teased apart. My field of vision, customarily so acute in its depth, had become a blunt, ineffectual, unaccountably blearily.
One could also begin here:
There was another element of nagging concern. It is that extra shadow that I seem to possess like some inalienable birthright.
If flesh is heir to a thousand natural shocks, then my massive frame receives a double portion. A triple share, of unnatural confluences of shocks, of hits, of elements and infernal influences that seem to guide my errant life. It is as if, beyond my own limited sphere of somatic and psychic control, on the periphery of my meager consciousness, on that dark border zone were I end and it begins, there, there is the pocked and scarred battleground. And it is sly! And it is cunning! It is doggedly persistent in its attempts to encroach on my already faltering sense of self, to hurl its dark noose around the minute speck of quickly dimming light that I so generously label Langley, Langley Vandemark. Langley On the Mark!
Watch the dimming spark. Be wary of its trickster’s schemes. Why must every ray of celestial soul light that vaults from our single, solitary being be accompanied by an equal and opposite measure of the Shadow, that dark brother that creeps across the bright landscape of the psyche. The spoiler! The little tarty home wrecker! I play my cards, I have the good sportsmanship to lay down my hand for all to see, but It lays its hand, a hand full of cards that cancel my efforts, out beyond the border zone of perception. It blocks me. It limits my possible moves. All it knows how to do is how to step on feet, to betray, to negate, to…
But one could also begin here:
At other times it was as if the veil had been removed from my eyes. I saw events and circumstances as if a cloudy cataract had been suddenly burnt and purged away from my soul’s cornea.
When I came home from the war I cast a spell upon myself. What could be revealed was revealed. Where there were holes in my story, I simply let the cracks remain where they were. If streaming white light pulsed through the chinks, who was I to fill the gap? Not every chasm can be filled. Not every dull hole should be plugged.
One could also begin here:
Here is a gap, there is a white flash, and here, the bridge: my father’s family was actually black. Through some fortuitous selective breeding, re-locations, purposeful or accidental disruptions, my family had “passed” for white since the presidency of U.S. Grant or thereabouts. Actually, it’s hard to settle on an exact date when coal black faded to lily white. In my imagination there was never a clear boundary but a succession of wavering stages, fluttering through the generations, snaking upward, paling with each mile north of the Mason-Dixon Line, accumulating more money and power with each lighter gradation, with each lie, with each measure of forgetfulness.
I was stationed in Alabama just prior to my tour of duty in England. It was there that a creeping sensation of dread, a guilty moisture laden cloud which always hung over me seemed ready to downpour. My divided allegiances festered and seemed destined to leap frog backward and haunt me. I could sense it somewhere out beyond the perimeter fence along a tobacco road, in a shack inadequately shaded from the broiling sun by a scraggly tupelo tree, some long lost relative seemed destined to knock on my door. He would try, with a birthright as legitimate as any disrupted European royal line forced to live in exile, to reclaim one of his own; to rejoin a limb that had lopped itself off through artifice, deceit, and garden variety fear.
But no, that knock never came. But my theories seemed to confirm themselves when the first batch of “Colored” trooped were billeted adjacent to us, and I saw, with anxious eyes, that they were better than us. Our smug and superior stance, when measured and weighed alongside their selfless determination to be better than us through negation, was an unspoken accusation cast over all. For me, slouching in my den of secrets, the pronouns them and we, had a peculiar permeability. So all seemed lost. So much was gone…