Omir the Storyteller

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Vinyl Cafe


Every so often I am reminded just how much potential the medium of radio carries, and how little of that potential is realized here in the You Ess of A.

Case in point. Last week I was casting around for stuff to listen to. A while back I built myself a Linux app based on perl, mplayer, oggenc, cron tabs, duct tape, baling wire and potrzebie, that records programs off of Internet streams, encodes them as Ogg files and saves them to disk so I can copy them onto a memory card and listen to them on the bus on the way to and from work. (Boy, that was a long sentence.) Stuff like Doctor Demento, Global Griot, Music with Moskowitz, Democracy Now. It's sort of like a TiVo, but for Internet streams, so I immodestly call it "creevo" for "Creede's radio TiVo." If I ever decide to make it a little less ramshackle and a little more robust I'll probably choose a different name.

Anyway, I was checking out local public radio affiliate KUOW's home page and it says they are going to start running a program called The Vinyl Cafe, which they describe as "Canada's version of A Prairie Home Companion." Good enough for me, I think, but I decide that since it's from the CBC I might as well record the program when it's broadcast in Canada on Sunday instead of waiting for Thursday when KUOW runs it. So, Sunday morning creevo recorded Vinyl Cafe for me, along with the program that follows it on CBC Radio One, Madly Off In All Directions which starts songwriter and funnyman Lorne Elliot. But that's a subject for an entirely different diary.

I've only gotten through about a half hour of the first broadcast of Vinyl Cafe I've ever heard, and I'm already impressed to the gills. This week host Stuart McLean did the broadcast from Goderich, Ontario, a port on Lake Huron somewhere north of Detroit. He started off the show with a piece about when spring comes to Goderich; not when the calendar says March 21, but when the first vessel comes into the harbor after the ice breaks up. Then, after a song or two, he launched into a compelling story about a fellow named Roger Woodward. Roger is about my age, he lives in Alabama, he's semi-retired, and his life seems entirely unremarkable except for one thing: On July 9, 1960, with no protection other than an oversized life preserver and the clothes on his back, seven-year-old Roger went over Niagara Falls.

Not only did McLean tell the story of Roger Woodward, he had Woodward on the show live on the phone. Woodward, obviously very emotional, said he had been asked to tell the story many times since that summer day, but he had never heard it told so well by someone else.

I don't want to fall into the trap of praising "every century but this and every country but [my] own." William Gilbert called the man who does that an idiot, and rightly so. But when I listen to radio in this country, which has been homogenized by consolidation into near unlistenability, and then listen to some of the projects put on by the survivors -- public radio, a few independent efforts by commercial stations and national broadcasters like the BBC and CBC -- I just shake my head. I know why it's happened; I know I'm in the minority in getting a great deal of my entertainment from radio; but it's still a shame to have a medium I grew up with and have loved for almost 45 years be in such sad condition.

In fact, of all the programs on creevo's list, only one -- Doctor Demento -- is commercial in nature, and I get that one from a community college station in Amarillo. (They take out the commercials and run promos and public service announcements in their stead.) And, just so you don't think this is a screed against commercial radio, I would gladly listen to commercials if they would fund the programs I want to listen to. Over a decade after he officially retired from KIRO Radio, for instance, Jim French is still doing radio drama there every weekend -- but alas, since it doesn't stream, I seldom get a chance to listen.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Angel of Fredericksburg


The battle of Fredericksburg had been fierce. It was not the bloodiest of America's Civil War, but it was bloody enough, with over 7,000 casualties on the Union side against 1,200 Confederates. General Jackson occupied the high ground of Marye's Hill and his men had the Union army pinned down behind a four-foot stone wall 150 yards away. The ground between the two sides was literally covered with fallen Union soldiers. Temperatures dipped below freezing on the night of December 13th, 1862, and many of the wounded froze to death. Others used whatever means they could to keep warm throughout the night, including scavenging the possessions of their dead comrades -- and sometimes even using their bodies as shelter from the cold.

By the next morning the continuing skirmish was punctuated with cries from the wounded. "Water!" they cried. "Water!" But the Union soldiers couldn't get to them; the Confederates wouldn't let them approach.

The cries for water affected many of the soldiers, but none more than Sergeant Richard Kirkland. Kirkland was a member of General Kershaw's Second Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. Throughout the morning he listened to their cries, and finally he could take it no longer.

Kirkland made his way to Kershaw's tent, saluted the general, and said, "Sir, all through last night and all through the morning I have heard the poor wounded Federal soldiers crying for water. I request permission to go give them some."

The general sat back in his chair and looked up at the young sergent. He wasn't much to look at, but there was something about his earnestness that struck the general. "Sergeant, you realize of course that the moment you go over that wall you will probably get a bullet put through you."

"Yes sir," the young sergeant replied, "But I am willing to try."

The air hung thick with cold and anticipation for a moment. In the background the men could hear the crack of a rifle, followed by a call for water. "Very well," the general said at last. "I ought not let you go on this fool's expedition, but the spirit that moves you is so noble I cannot refuse. Go, and may God protect you."

The young sergeant saluted and left the tent. He gathered up a half dozen canteens, made sure they were full of water, and went for the wall. One or two of his fellow soldiers tried to stop him, but most, seeing what it was he meant to do, just watched in amazement.

On the other side of the battlefield, there was no less amazement when, during a lull in the skirmish, the Union soldiers saw a figure slip over the wall they had tried in vain to take the day before. A few took aim, but lowered their rifles when they saw that his hands in the air, and six canteens slung about his neck and shoulders. The Confederate soldier, keeping an eye on his foes a few yards away, carefully approached a wounded soldier calling out for water. He raised the canteen to the man's lips and let him drink. Then Kirkland took the man's backpack, propped his head up against it, and did his best to arrange the man's broken limbs to make him as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.

"Hold your fire!" the call went up from both sides. "Hold your fire!"

Kirkland continued in this way, giving water to the parched soldiers until his canteens ran out. As he shook the last of the water out of the last canteen, he heard a thump behind him. He flinched and ducked, as any soldier on a battlefield would, and then heard two more thumps. When he looked up three canteens lay near him, tossed there by Union soldiers.

All that day Kirkland delivered water to the wounded.

I wish I had a happier ending than to tell you that Kirkland did not survive the war. He was killed at the battle of Chickamauga less than a year after Fredericksburg. His heroic service does not go unremembered, however; on Sunken Road near Fredericksburg, there is a monument to Kirkland, designed by sculptor Felix DeWeldon, who is better known for the monument commemorating the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

About The Angel of Fredericksburg


Memorial Day was the brain child of one Henry C. Welles, a druggist from Waterloo, New York. In 1865 he suggested a holiday to remember those who had fallen in the Civil War. The idea gained immediate traction, and by 1868 communities outside Waterloo were celebrating Decoration Day, as it was then called. General John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared May 30 to be set aside to honor the nation's fallen dead. In 1966 the date was changed to the last Monday in May, where it has been ever since.

The time was in this country when we took Memorial Day seriously. There were parades, speeches, layings of wreaths. We did some memorializing. We still see some of it today; they still hold Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, and some communities still hold Memorial Day parades. Including, I was happy to find out, Waterloo, New York.

Mostly, though, it seems like Memorial Day has just become an excuse to take off work. You see pages and pages of the newspaper devoted to three-day sales of everything from cars to soup, and the sheer volume of them dwarfs the amount of space given over to reflecting on the sacrifice made by those who gave their lives in service to their country. So, while I fully approve of getting a day off with pay, I thought it fitting to use today's Sunday Griot to reflect, not just on those who died in battle, but to those like Sergeant Kirkland who brought a little humanity to the bloody business of war.

Water! Water! was adapted from a piece by a writer named Ben La Bree which was published in a book called "Good Stories for Great Holidays" published around the turn of the 20th century. The dialog, which sounds a bit stilted to my ear, was pulled from the story; the rest I embellished just a bit in the telling. Here's a page dedicated to the Kirkland monument with a picture of Kirkland. Not much to look at? I wrote that before I saw the picture, but the point is, he wasn't anything remarkable -- except perhaps to those soldiers he brought water to.