This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

A Song for Memorial Day

25 May 2012

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A short fiction contrived from an old postcard

It was that last step. Some fool carpenter put the stair treads in uneven and that last one stuck out more than the others. Nearly busted the camera. Damn leg.

“You alright, Mr. Beedy?” The boy peeked around the door.

“Yessss,” he groaned. “Just caught my shoe on that dang step. Come on up and help me set up the tripod.” He grabbed hold of a box to push himself to his knees. The air was full of dust and mold.

“Where should I put it?” The boy unfolded the legs.

“Over there by the window of course. The camera can't see through walls.” He opened up the case. Damn. He thought he'd heard a crack. “Avery, I'll need you to go back to the shop. I've broken the glass plates. Go ask Mrs. Beedy to get you three negative plates and fetch them back here as fast as you can. She'll know where they are.” The boy set the tripod down and scampered down the stairs. “But you be careful and don't run with them,” he shouted.

He hobbled over to the window and raised the sash. Despite the sun and clear sky, the heat today wasn't so bad. The crowd swayed like a field of black mushrooms from all the ladies' umbrellas. The swirl of animated voices melded into a thrum of a hundred conversations.

There was Mrs. Olsen holding court. Maybe she'd tell the other ladies about that fine set of portraits he made of all her children. That might make up for the overdue payment. You could sooner teach a mule to dance than persuade Mr. Olsen to pay cash on time.

A flash of red caught his eye. It was May Ellen, Avery's sister. There wasn't an umbrella large enough to keep the freckles off her fair complexion. Little flocks of girls wove paths around the boys and young men. Always moving contrary to the pace of the older women.

The band had formed a circle and started a spirited march. That Mr. Harrington sure played a swell cornet. He leaned out the window. Where was that boy?

The start of summer, a special day to be sure, everyone into town after weeks of hard farm work. No doubt the weather was the main topic of conversation. Too wet, too dry. Then maybe aches and pains too. He'd certainly heard a lot of that at his chemist shop preparing their medicine and tonics.

Maybe they'd give a thought to the purpose of today. Later when there were some speeches, a sermon or two. The G.A.R. had asked him to speak, but he declined, as usual. Every year they asked him out of respect, and every year he said no. The band's medley of patriotic tunes seemed to attract people like a magnet.

How many down there really knew about war? A few. Mr. Lang had served in the 78th Pennsylvania. He knew. But most of the young lads had arrived here well after even the Indian wars. Come over from the old country. A few did some service and one or two had even gone off to fight the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines. But he didn't think it was the same. What was keeping that boy?

People out here were quiet and not much taken to gossip. They never asked many questions, though he could see when they thought them after they stole a look at his leg. Some had heard he'd been in the war. He'd seen the elephant all right. But his story was not for the telling.

The sound of Mr. Harrington's cornet cut through the noise as the band played. He looked off to the horizon and the sounds sent him back to a faraway place. He could feel the excitement, the apprehension coming to a boil. All the men lined up, rifles at the ready, waiting for the bugle call. Across the cornfields another grey line of men feeling the same. 'Was this my moment?' we all thought.

No, not for him. But the terror and shock of what came next still woke him up at night in a cold sweat. People didn't know the story. Shouldn't know. He wish he didn't know now. After all those years the horror still seemed fresh. The pain in his leg a constant reminder. Just another stupid consequence of war, a moment's inattention and the wagon wheels rolled over his leg. Spared a bullet only to go and hurt himself.

Seemed pointless now. War made no sense to those who did the work. We did it because we had to. We did it for duty, for our comrades, for …. reasons that were just like the other side too. It was nonsense to think otherwise. We shouldn't do it again. Ever.

He twisted on the sill. Mr. Harrington had spotted him in the window, and with a nod cued the boys into Laura Lee, just as he'd asked them play. This was his memorial. That pretty tune, the sound of a flute lofting over his hospital cot, and that poor young boy from Virginia in the next bed, softly singing along. The next morning he was gone. So many gone, lost like summer rain evaporating in the air. We were all the same. Each with a mother, a daughter, a sister – far away, waiting and hoping. 

The boy burst into the room. “I'm .. I'm sorry I took so long. Mrs. Beedy was talking to Mrs. Brandt and they ...” He cut the boy off with a wave.

“No matter. Give me the plates.” He put one into the camera and flipped the drape over his head to block the glare and hide the tear. This might do. He snapped the shutter lever.

Laura Lee
music and lyrics 
by Stephen Collins Foster

Why has thy merry face
Gone from my side,
Leaving each cherished place
Cheerless and void?
Why has the happy dream,
Blended with thee,
Passed like a flitting beam,
Sweet Laura Lee?
Far from all pleasure torn,
Sad and alone,  
How doth my spirit mourn
While thou art gone!
How like a desert isle
Earth seems to me,
Robbed of thy sunny smile,
Sweet Laura Lee!
How like a desert isle
Earth seems to me,
Robbed of thy sunny smile,
Sweet Laura Lee!

When will thy winning voice
Breathe on mine ear?
When will my heart rejoice,
Finding thee near?
When will we roam the plain
Joyous and free,
Never to part again,
Sweet Laura Lee?

This story is entirely made up, though the names were borrowed from those of
a photographer and a bandmaster who lived in Post, Iowa in 1900.
The postcard has a caption but it is too obscured to identify the actual place or date.
Special thanks to  rexlibris99 for providing a perfect music video to fit my story.

This is my contribution to Memorial Day
and Sepia Saturday
where you can find more crowds of stories and photos.


21 Wits said...

I hate when my camer nearly breaks! Ha! Ha! What a charming story! Your video had quite a bunch of very stunning and fine photos, all nicely presented! The music probably could drift me off to sleep at this time of the night, very relaxing! A fine post!

21 Wits said...

camera! I also hate when my fingers move too quickly and letters get skipped!

Brett Payne said...

An enchanting story to accompany this sepia of many colours, and a haunting song too. You have done a great job of drawing the long forgotten photographer into the lives of his subjects. Judging by the clothing styles, I think it must have been taken around the turn of the century. I wonder where it was, and what the event was?

Little Nell said...

I love old photos full of crowds milling around; so many interesting little details to pick out. I had to dab my eyes though Mike; your poignant story and then this photos accompanied by Laura Lee so beautifully sung.

Wendy said...

The photo video is truly inspiring and a wonderfully creative Memorial Day contribution. Thank-you.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Mike, great story and another excellent post. Thank you for all the time you spent writing the story and sharing it with us on this Memorial Day weekend.

Kathy M.

Bob Scotney said...

Fine story Mike and the photo video had some very interesting characters among the soldiers.

Postcardy said...

I enjoyed reading your story.

Teresa Wilson Rogers said...

I'm still catching up on week #127 and so glad I took the time to read your story - I thought it was a true story at first! Do you do this for a living - you should! This picture is fascinating, enlarged I can't stop looking at all the details, the clothing, the hats, the buildings, the colors. Just wonderful!


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