Category Archives: L: Misc Stuff

‘Angel On My Shoulder’

We all have that little music player in our head. Of course we do, it’s often how we entertain ourselves when we’re not on Facebook or watching Game of Thrones. It’s mostly a benefit. But it can occasionally be a negative, as well. That is, when it won’t turn off when you want it to. Everyone I know, and thus I’ll extrapolate to everyone, complains now and then of “having that song stuck in my head”.

Some personal examples. In 1979 when I was traveling from Milwaukee to Eastern Pennsylvania on a weekly basis, the two hour flight from Philadelphia, or from Allentown — through DC — on Friday evenings were occasionally filled with what was considered that year by the “experts” to be song of the year. “My Sharona”, a song which I loathed, then and still. Similarly, as the calendar turned to 1980 I was occasionally burdened by endless personal repetitions of Donna Summer singing “On the Radio”.

In more recent times, while I love Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, I like hearing it not so much over and over in my head, or every time I wake up in the middle of the night, as age and nature insist that I do with increasing frequency.

But a while ago, I found a remedy. If I consciously play, in my head, a song from 1961, “Angel On My Shoulder”, sung by Shelby Flint — a big favorite of mine, then and still — it seems to never stick in my head, but instead serves as a sort of eraser, turning off the music player until my mind is otherwise occupied. I don’t know why this is, but I am grateful, and as I employed it again last night to turn off Paul Simon, yet again, it occurred to me to share it.

It was fairly obscure even in 1961, and never rose high on the charts, but it has stayed with me all of these years. So here it is.

Albatross (Two)

The more I read the lines of the Judy Collins song “Albatross”, the more obvious the meeting seems to be. To me. Some may read this explanation and say, “well duh, of course that’s what it means”. Some may find something altogether different. What follows is what I, myself, believe to be the meaning of what I have called one of the saddest songs ever written.

In its opening lines, the song sets the stage for what seems to be a wedding. The guests, the steeple bells, the flowers, the veils. But within, I sense a somber note. Reading (or hearing) these lines one could just as easily envision of a funeral. The mourners, the steeple bells, the flowers, the veils.

After some consideration, I believe the author — Judy Blue Eyes herself — is equating death with that saddest of wedding circumstances, the common tragedy of hopefully past centuries — that of a young woman with dreams of her own, and hope for a bright and shining life, condemned to a loveless, arranged marriage to a wealthy older man, who offers to his prize little more than survival.

Her own insignificance in all of this is demonstrated as those attending the event impute their own beliefs on who she is, or was. Young men ask and answer their own questions, her own feelings are not considered, whether because they lack importance, or because death has rendered her mute.

But back to the wedding. The routine of her existence provides her a place to be, but also separates her from the broader society. She holds herself captive behind an almost opaque barrier. The colors of the day is an archaic reference to the wedding bouquet, and as the crowd gathers she tosses the bouquet, and in doing so casts away her former life, and with it her hopes and dreams.

The next verse defines the dream. The Prince who rides to save her, to shatter the barrier, and deliver her and bring her the life for which she has so longed.

Guests come for a couple of days and go away, not to be seen again. Her view of the world at large is increasingly oblique. What hope she retains fades as the tragedy of her existence becomes who, and all, that she is.

The iron wheels of course could be either a wedding carriage, or a funeral cortege. But the iron bells seem not to be wedding bells at all, but are instead calling her away, alone in death. The final lines repeat, and reinforce the chorus. But now we hear — so I believe — the voice of the husband, calling her away to the living death of her new life. “Come away, alone. With me”.

Albatross

For many years I have been fascinated by the Judy Collins song “Albatross”, which I have come to believe is one of the saddest songs ever written. The song appeared on Collins’ 1967 album “Wildflowers” and is one of the first which she herself wrote.

I have at various times prowled the internet to learn the meaning of the song lyrics, perhaps an explanation by Collins herself. But all I have discovered are a few on what are mostly obscure poetry blogs, or the ramblings of (ex?) hippies.

These comments are universally shallow, totally inane, and wrong. So, after thinking I should do so for some time, I am concocting my own inane comments which I will offer here shortly. (It’s great to be retired) The lyrics themselves follow:

Albatross by Judy Collins

The lady comes to the gate, dressed in lavender and leather
Looking North to the sea she finds the weather fine
She hears the steeple bells ringing through the orchard
All the way from town
She watches seagulls fly
Silver on the ocean stitching through the waves
The edges of the sky

Many people wander up the hills
From all around you
Making up your memories and thinking they have found you
They cover you with veils of wonder as if you were a bride
Young men holding violets are curious to know if you have cried
And tell you why
And ask you why
Any way you answer

Lace around the collars of the blouses of the ladies
Flowers from a Spanish friend of the family
The embroid’ry of your life holds you in
And keeps you out but you survive
Imprisoned in your bones
Behind the isinglass windows of your eyes

And in the night the iron wheels rolling through the rain
Down the hills through the long grass to the sea
And in the dark the hard bells ringing with pain
Come away alone

Even now by the gate, with your long hair blowing
And the colors of the day that lie along your arms
You must barter your life to make sure you are living
And the crowd that has come
You give them the colors
And the bells, and wind, and the dream

Will there never be a prince who rides along the sea and the mountains
Scattering the sand and foam into amethyst fountains
Riding up the hills from the beach in the long summer grass
Holding the sun in his hands and shattering the isinglass?

Day and night and day again and people come and go away forever
While the shining summer sea dances in the glass of your mirror
While you search the waves for love and your visions for a sign
The knot of tears around your throat is crystallizing into your design

And in the night the iron wheels rolling through the rain
Down the hills through the long grass to the sea
And in the dark the hard bells ringing with pain
Come away alone
Come away alone
With me.

The First of August

August begins and with it I get a sense that autumn is near. Stephen King once suggested that some time after the mid-point of September, fall arrives. Geography notwithstanding, this is more or less true. However, I will suggest that there is also – not so much a mid-point but – a high point of summer; a seamless, virtually unnoticed moment when summer begins its downhill journey and the preliminary to autumn is upon us. And so begins, for me at least, the best time of the year. From this high point of summer, to autumn’s close on Thanksgiving Day.

Oh, I know, some argue that spring is the best time, and it is hard to disagree. There are warmer days at last, newly green lawns, and a fringe of green on the bushes, soon to be followed by the trees as well, as winter is finally over.

The springtime changes weekly. At first, a few brave flowers – crocuses and the like – poke their heads up, sometimes through a late-season snow. Then a few daffodils, and then suddenly many, many daffodils, and glorious spring is upon us. Then, just as they begin to fade, the daffodils are joined by tulips. And as many daffodils as there are, they are vastly outnumbered by tulips of every imaginable color. And in a week or two the landscape changes again as suddenly, fragrant lilacs and other flowering bushes and trees burst forth.

The days continue to get warmer as now irises dominate the gardens and lawns as summer has arrived. But with it, a same-ness sets in. The summer weeks (here in Milwaukee) are no longer measured by seasonal progression, but are now counted off by the festivals; Summerfest and Bastille Days and Festa Italiana and Germanfest, and so on through the summer.

But in time, August takes hold. And while the same-ness remains, there is now – every once in a while – a hint that transition is again in the air. Pellucid blue skies are sometimes dotted with benign white puffy clouds, occasionally driven by a cool northeast wind. One senses that the flowers are no longer bursting forth, but instead holding on as nature seems to hold her breath awaiting the change. Autumn is near and there is a feeling that an old friend is on the way. Those of us of a certain age have learned not to “wish away” the weeks, or days, or even the hours, but still, anticipation is strong.

In good years, the warm weather lasts well into the fall season, But in the best of years Jack Frost makes an overnight appearance with his brushes early in October to paint the leaves. The few prematurely turned trees of September give way to the burn and blaze of Indian Summer, which will hopefully last well into the next month – coloring the world in shades ranging from mild-mannered browns and tans, to yellows and burning oranges, to brilliant scarlet.

The sun remains warm but the air, particularly at night, is cool and hazy, and maybe even a bit damp. Perfect weather, I’ve always thought, for a Friday night football game. No setting sun in the west to obscure the sophomore contest, watched with one eye as you greet both stadium friends and real friends, arriving to take their seats. And you sit, bundled against the chill, the watery concession stand hot chocolate tasting wonderful as the varsity Tomcats take the field to do battle with whatever conference or non-conference lamb is being offered up this week (It’s the good seasons that remain in memory, and that are easily recalled).

But fall is a season of transition. The local football season and beautiful October conclude, more or less simultaneously, and now the autumn is drawing down. The mild-mannered, patient, tans and browns now hold dominance over the landscape, but are still are beautiful in their way as the season marches finally to its conclusion, which is celebrated by, what else, a feast of Thanksgiving.

“I Remember Mama”

When I was pretty young, there was a TV program called “I Remember Mama”, which was broadcast in glorious small-screen black and white in Chicago on CBS Channel 4 from 1949 to the mid 50s. I was quite fond of the program. I remember well the introductory narrative in which a young woman, looking through a photo album remembers San Francisco in the 1910s, the house on Steiner Street, the family, and ends with the famous line, “and most of all, I remember Mama”. (Always, for some reason, kind of made me think of my Grandma)

As I say, I liked the show, it was wholesome, and humorous, and heartwarming. I didn’t know at the time that that’s why I liked it, but in retrospect that pretty much sums it up. Whenever I’m in that part of San Francisco, I drive down Steiner Street and remember “I remember Mama”.

The show was an adaptation of Kathryn Forbes’ memoir “Mama’s Bank Account”. Today in the mail, I received a copy of that book, and started reading. It turns out they didn’t live on Steiner Street after all, but the rest of the book, a series of short little stories is sort of like, but probably infinitely better than, the Day Calendar stories. And they are as entertaining and wonderful to me today as the TV show was to the seven or eight year old me, all those years ago.

Thank you, Field Marshal

To speak in the language of today — which I usually do not — I want to “Give a Shout-Out” to Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, former commanding officer of the British Army in World War ll, whose command also briefly included the unit in which my father served. This somewhat unusual salute is the result of the following story.

On December 16, 1944, on the cusp of the coldest European winter in a century, the German army launched an offensive through the “impenetrable” Ardennes Forest into Belgium, thus beginning what would be the largest battle in the history of the United States Army; the Battle of the Bulge.

At that moment, my father was a staff sergeant and commander of an M4 Sherman tank; a member of Combat Command B (CCB) of the Seventh Armored Division, currently in Heerlen, Holland expecting — after just completing a long difficult campaign securing the Scheldt Estuary — to wait out the winter before the all-out push into Germany.

When the German army came swarming West in many locations over a broad front, the principal objective, initially, was the Belgian town of St. Vith, which contained an important crossroads, as well as a vital railroad junction. In fact, the only railroad line from that area to the west; something upon which the German Army was counting quite heavily.

So late in the afternoon of the 16th, my father, and the rest of his unit were ordered to travel overnight, some 60 miles to St. Vith; there to establish a defensive perimeter, and hold the town against the German onslaught.

After forcing their way through the chaos of retreating American units, CCB Commanding General Bruce C. Clark organized his, and remaining US forces, and set in to defend St. Vith. Recognizing how vital the rail-head at St. Vith was to the German plan, the order was to hold the town at all cost.

After several days of repelling constant, brutal, probing in-force, and finally a massed assault, by the German Fifth Panzer Army, including, among others, the elite 1st SS Panzer Division, the so-called “Adolf Hitler Division”, Clark’s CO sent word up the chain of command that if they continued to hold, his unit would shortly cease to exist. Word came back that every hour the Germans could be delayed was vital, and to buy as much time as possible in an Alamo-like fight to the last man in the snows of Belgium.

It was at this time that the American command determined that they could not effectively orchestrate forces in the northern portion of the battle area, including St. Vith, and over the objections of tactical commander Gen. Omar Bradley, command of the “Northern Salient” was passed to Field Marshal Montgomery.

The Field Marshal visited that most critical location of his new command, St. Vith, and determined that it was not necessary for these men to perish. He would instead reorganize forces in the north into a stronger defensive line and ordered Clark to execute a fighting retreat, buying as much time as was possible for the vaunted Patton, and other reinforcements to arrive.

On Dec 23, taking advantage of the falling temperature which had turned deep mud into frozen ground, CCB of the Seventh Armored, and the other units under Clark’s command gradually withdrew in the action which would later become the U.S. Army’s textbook example of the use of armor in defense. All in all, these units held St. Vith for six days, against overwhelming odds, totally disrupting the German timetable. “The Battle at St. Vith” was later cited by the commanding general of the 5th Panzer Army, General Hasso Von Manteuffel, as the key event in the failure of German forces to succeed in the overall offensive.

After finally yielding at St. Vith, CCB of the 7th Armored Division received General Eisenhower’s personal thanks, a nights sleep, a couple of hot meals, and orders to return to the front. After a month of bitter fighting, a sign was erected on a road to the east which read “You Are Now Re-entering St. Vith Courtesy of the 7th Armored Division”, and the Battle of the Bulge was over.

So on this 70th anniversary, I want to honor and to thank my father, S/Sgt George A. Shropshire of Aurora, IL, and my namesakes, S/Sgt Thomas Forkin of Pittsburg, PA, and S/Sgt Dale Hoskins of Ramsey, IL, and the rest of the allied forces who fought with such valor. But a special thanks to you, Field Marshall Montgomery, for the decision on December 22, 1944 which saved the life of my father, two years before I was born.