Thank you for visiting my page. I’m grateful you’re here. This blog is a large first step toward the realization of my lifelong goal to become a published author. That goal grows nearer by the day!
Here you’ll find several creative outlets I enjoy; writing, drawing, music, books, and the occasional rant. I have several stories outlined and at various stages of completion. I also post a ‘Sketch of the Day’ when I can sit down to draw, and an occasional glimpse into my favorite musical artists.
Below is a list of stories in-progress that you’ll find on this site. If you’d like to read more about them, click on the image or the cover within the heading to go to that page. Thanks again for stopping by. If you’d like to keep up with my antics, I’d be grateful if you’d follow me by entering your email at the bottom of this page. I’d also love to hear from you, so feel free to drop a comment or a message any time. For now, sit back and enjoy these previews of what goes on in my mind!
Debut Novel – Code Name: Augustine
My first book is planned to release in late spring of 2022, titled Code Name: Augustine. It’s a Revolutionary War-era historical-fiction adventure based on the true story of Sergeant Major John Champe and his attempt to capture the traitor Benedict Arnold.
The idea first came to me when I read Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade. In it, he mentions a plot hatched by George Washington for a continental soldier to defect and get close to Arnold so he could capture and return him for trial. I was fascinated with the idea and astonished no one else had written anything about it. Over the last few years, I’ve been researching and writing on it, and am happy to announce it is almost ready for publication. This book is a labor of love and I cannot wait to share it with you.
Due in late Spring 2021!
“What do you think would be my fate if my misguided countrymen were to take me prisoner?”
—Benedict Arnold, 1781
Reportedly asked to a captured captain from the Colonial Army, as quoted in The Picturesque Hudson (1915) by Clifton Johnson; the captain is said to have replied, “They would cut off the leg that was wounded at Saratoga and bury it with the honors of war, and the rest of you they would hang on a gibbet.”
Other stories in progress
The Man in Cell 41
This horror novel is set in the early 1960s, and tells the story of Dean Talbot and a family curse he cannot escape. Accused of a murder he’s not sure he committed and sentenced to prison on Alcatraz Island, Dean finds himself facing a supernatural foe he never dreamed could exist, and that he’s connected to it in an unimaginable way!
Click the cover to read more and see my self-produced book trailer.
Star Wars: Lifeboat – A Fan Fiction
Another labor of love. I’m a huge Star Wars nerd.
Set at the end of Return of the Jedi, Lifeboat tells the story of a group of Imperial survivors after the fall of the Empire. One carries a grudge, another carries a secret, and they all carry the scars of galactic civil war. They hurtle towards a destiny none of them could fathom aboard the deceased Emperor Palpatine’s shuttle; their life boat.
As this is a work of Star Wars fan fiction, I do not own or claim any rights to this story as mine or my idea. No printed copies will ever exist, and is available for free to read on this website for entertainment purposes only. Click the links above to start the story.
H.A.M.R.s (working title)
In the year 2307, man-kind faces extinction at the iron hands of their own mechanical creation, until a divine savior comes to their rescue. Click the picture below for a full outline of the story.
Fear, Itself (working title)
Set during the early 17th century witch trials of colonial America, a young boy discovers a dark secret within his humble home, but can’t tell anyone about it without casting suspicion of witchcraft on his family. He would soon discover the secret isn’t such a secret after all, and his family’s lives are all in danger from an unimaginable evil!
The Crimson King
In a time of medieval plague and strife, an unlikely hero sets into motion a chain of events to resurrect the legendary Crimson King, a monarch of ancient myth prophesied to save the kingdom in her darkest hour. However, many in the realm do not desire the return of the king and race to stop the prophecy from being fulfilled. This fantasy thriller is based on the music and lyrics of the 60’s progressive-rock band, King Crimson.
The Book of the Damned (working title)
During the Black Plague of the 1300’s, a disgraced English Nobleman returns from a long exile with an ancient and magical book of alchemy to exact revenge on the man who exiled him, King Edward III. He discovers an unlikely ally in 12-year-old Alice, and that his mystical book can give him a supernatural army to carry out his plan.
Scottish Knight Sir Dannag McColl is trying to find his place among the hostile English nobles at Edward’s court. Disliked and mistrusted by them because of his father’s traitorous legacy, Sir Dannag accepts a task that no one else at court wants: to investigate reports of a sickness in the village of Weymouth believed to be caused by witchcraft. Accompanied by a disgraced court physician and an ale-brewing friar, the trio embark into a dark world of betrayal, revenge, and witchcraft that will push them to the limits of sanity.
Down to the Crossroads: The Legend of Robert Johnson
Legendary bluesman Robert Johnson is a musician wrapped in mystery. It is said that one night, after being run off from a juke joint, Johnson took his guitar to a south Mississippi crossroads and there met Lucifer, the devil himself. Legend says he traded his soul to become the greatest blues player in the world. The devil tuned and played a bit on his guitar, granting Johnson’s wish and the rest is history.
Being a blues fan myself, Johnson’s story is fascinating to me and I’ve always wanted to write about it. One day, an outline came to me out of the blue (pun intended) for a different take on the legend of the man many consider to be the godfather of rock-n-roll. I’m looking forward to penning this historical fiction piece about love, danger, betrayal, music and a little bit of the supernatural and I can’t wait to share it with you!
Dear Satan Claus: A Christmas Comedy
Every 1,000 years, God challenges Lucifer with some menial earthly task for the chance to redeem his fallen son. God hopes above all hope that if Lucifer would see it through to completion, that he will be welcome back to Heaven with open arms.
Since his fall at the dawn of time, Lucifer has yet to complete one of these tasks. He finds them boring and mundane, and he’s not really sure he wants to go back to Heaven. But this time, the Devil will be handed the most challenging task God has ever charged him with: working at the Post Office on Christmas.
Colleen Critchlow is about to lose her job. In her decade with the United States Postal Service, her dyslexia has led to countless sorting errors and undelivered packages. As a final chance to stay employed, Colleen is reassigned to the USPS Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta, Georgia, formerly known as the “dead letter office”. On her first day, she is assigned to sort this year’s “Dear Santa” letters and finds a few with misspellings to “Dear Satan”. Her new co-worker, “Lucien”, is very interested in these particular letters…
Thank you for visiting my site, and I hope you’ll consider following me for email updates on new posts and releases when they happen. All the best!
Due to graphic descriptions, parental discretion is advised for this episode.
Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s episode, we’ll discuss some of the frightening tales told by the guards, employees and inmates who spent time for one reason or another behind the haunted walls of the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Due to descriptions of violent crimes from the prison, listener discretion is advised.
During the Reconstruction period following the American Civil War, East Tennessee saw a boom in construction primarily based around its rich coal mines and rapid railroad expansion. As with any mining prospects, the most remote and hard to reach areas were the richest in resources. With that limited geographical access, mining companies would house their workers near the mine to increase operational efficiency. They would also provide “company stores”, where miners could purchase goods and sundries, often at inflated prices and leaving the worker owing more to the company for supplies than they actually earned in wages; a debt they could never escape.
Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song, “Sixteen Tons.” One stanza says:
If you see me comin’, better step aside, A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died. One fist of iron, the other of steel, If the right one don’t get you, Then the left one will.
You load 16 tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.
The sixteen tons he refers to is the amount of coal mined by a miner in a day, yet whatever was harvested was never enough to dig the miner out of debt to the mining company. His lyrics paint a picture of the type of person who would work these mines; their toughness, swagger, and an eager willingness to use their fists to solve a dispute. It also tells us that at the end of the day, the miner was simply too indebted to die no matter how hard they worked, owing money as well as their soul to the company store. Even with such a mantra, many did die in those mines and left debts their families could never repay. Those who remained were at a simmering boil, ready at any moment to lash out in frustration with being taken advantage of by the mining companies.
This broken system was becoming untenable for both the miner and the mining company. The poor relationship between them was always at a breaking point due to work stoppages, low pay, and hazardous working conditions. This constant strained connection led mining companies to seek new sources of cheap labor, and they found it in the state’s convict lease system.
One of the other industries that boomed during Reconstruction was crime and there was no shortage of prisoners. Tennessee began leasing prisoners to all sorts of hard labor industries in 1866, and found a profitable partner in the mining industry, particularly in Anderson and Morgan Counties, northwest of Knoxville. Convict leasing relieved the mining company cost to house workers and gave the state a new source of funding, reducing their costs associated with maintaining prisons. One aspect the state and the mining companies exploited was the 13th amendment loophole of “involuntary servitude” as a sentence. Using this technicality, prisoners were given harsh and unusually long sentences to supply labor throughout the state, especially the African American community. This availability of cheap labor put coal miners out of work, leading to the Coal Creek War in 1891. After that bloody dispute ended, the miners were put back to work, but not every mine used their hard-won contract labor and still relied on prisoners. Two years later in 1893, the state legislature gave the go-ahead to build the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in nearby Petros, Tennessee; the state’s only maximum-security prison intended as a home for the worst of the worst.
As stated in a previous episode, a common thought in the paranormal community is that areas experiencing great tragedy, suffering, and violence tend to retain the negative energy that comes with it. Brushy Mountain is definitely one such place. For many of the most hardened criminals that had proven too much for other prisons to handle, Brushy Mountain was their “last stop, end-of-the-line” prison. It was here they were sent to serve out their sentences or die, whichever came first. Many would never see the outside world again, serving consecutive life sentences varying from 80 to 316 years for their crimes. From the early mining days until the prison closed for good in 2009, over 10,000 people lost their lives on this small patch of land with many being from terrible and violent ways. So much suffering and death was bound to leave a troubling spiritual residue. In addition, a common paranormal belief is that spirits cannot cross bodies of water. Brushy Mountain is surrounded by running creeks completely on three sides. If that belief is true, then the property will remain a prison for the souls that are supposedly still there even after the living are gone.
The original wooden structure was built, ironically, in a pattern of a cross from the air, trying to harness the only blessing those confined to its walls would ever receive. It was constructed by the prisoners themselves in a rugged and isolated bowl of the surrounding mountains, giving it an even more lonely feel and used the natural terrain as an additional security measure. Cliffs and dense forest surround three sides of the stockade and make escape nearly impossible. The location was chosen intentionally for that reason, as well as its proximity to the coal mines. Prisoners were filed in and out of the mines daily. Some on their feet, others feet first. For them, that was the only escape from the hellish conditions inside the prison. Stories tell of brutal beatings and hangings in the early years as the vicious reputation of the penitentiary spread. Another constant source of misery was the regular outbreaks of illness and fever, most of which went untreated. Those who survived the mines and the violent tendencies of their cellmates often succumbed to disease or decided to end their suffering on their own. A graveyard exists on the property where expired inmates were buried. The headstones have long since been removed but the bodies remain interred; unmarked and unknown.
In the 1920s, a reconstruction of the prison began using stone harvested from the property, again by cheap prison labor. The wooden complex slowly became the monstrous, castle-like structure that still stands today, a monument to the broken men that built it. Within those walls, hope was lost. One article written in 1982 while Brushy Mountain still actively housed prisoners said, “violence in prisons is more the rule than the exception.” At Brushy Mountain it was the standard from the beginning. Many early stories of the violent deaths inside the prison were not recorded and lost to history. However, some of the gruesome tales are still told. One in particular tells of a fight that broke out in the cafeteria between two inmates, leaving one chopped up into so many pieces that the guards claimed that when they lifted his body to take to the morgue, most of his back remained on the floor. What remained was so badly mutilated that parts of him were flushed down a toilet. The kitchen and cafeteria were the site of many violent interactions, another of which saw an inmate’s arm severed in an altercation while an accomplice to the crime chopped the victim’s spinal cord in two with a meat cleaver.
Other random acts of violence occurred throughout the prison grounds. Another story of a ghost that haunts the death row building is named Leroy. He was a prison yard bully and was mean just because he could be. One day, one of his victims took matters into his own hands, waiting for Leroy to have his back turned in the exercise area and stabbed him to death while he was doing pull-ups. Paranormal investigators have recorded a disembodied voice whispering “Leroy” when asking if anyone was in that area, and some have complained of mysterious scratch marks appearing on their arms. Another inmate, a little person named Jack Jett, was found to be a snitch. One of the inmates he ratted out waited until he was distracted and on the phone with his mother, then stabbed him 19 times in the neck. His ghost haunts the phone bank, causing investigators to experience extreme dread and intense cold spots near where he was attacked. Some prisoners claimed they would sometimes see the phone receiver float off and on its hook.
The last place with the claim of the most spiritually active on the property is the prison chapel. EVP recordings from multiple investigations have recorded disembodied voices within, some clearly saying hell, beast and pain. Photographs in the chapel have multiple orbs, commonly thought by paranormal investigators to be a form of manifested spirit energy. Inmates have claimed for years to witness objects suddenly float from one area to another inside the small sanctuary and incredibly intense cold spots. Some would joke about going to the chapel during the excruciatingly hot summers and braving the ghosts just to get cooled off.
Brushy Mountain did house an electric chair and most records indicate there were over 100 executions during the prison’s tenure, but there are conflicting records on how those executions were actually carried out. Many say “old sparky” was never used while it was there until it moved to the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville, and some say the executions were all by chair. By the time of this recording, I could not find definitive evidence to support one claim or the other.
Racial tensions were prevalent in the prison from the earliest days of construction, particularly when the prison housed the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. James Earl Ray is one of the more infamous inmates at Brushy Mountain and there were gang factions within the walls that meant him harm. When Ray arrived, many of the African American prisoners were upset being in the same vicinity as King’s assassin and threatened his life. There were also white gangs active in the prison and the rivalries regularly turned deadly. Some accounts say Ray was well-liked by the majority of the prisoners, though I do not subscribe to that theory since Ray was assaulted more than once during his time at Brushy Mountain by black inmates, including one incident where he was stabbed 22 times.
Many of the African American prisoners claimed for multiple nights they could hear sawing on metal as white gang members tried to cut their way out of their cells using tools made from scraps found around the prison, guitar strings, and carbide jeweler chains. Their goal was to kill their black gang rivals when they were locked in their cells on the third level. One white gang that called themselves The Magnificent Seven were able to get a smuggled .25 caliber pistol inside the prison. Finally, on February 8th, 1982, they succeeded in sawing their way out of their cells and execute their vendetta against the black inmates in the segregated cell block. The seven went from cell to cell on tier 3 seeking out their rivals and shooting several of them through the bars. They would then jam the doors to delay medical assistance and took four guards as hostages. After a 45-minute tear through the third level cells, the seven surrendered to the prison medic and a deputy warden. Two of the victims died from the gunshot wounds with many others wounded.
It is believed the shootings were retaliation against members of one black gang for stabbing James Earl Ray just days before the hostage incident: one of many racially motivated attacks in the prison’s 113-year history. An associate warden at that time is quoted as saying, “The gangs here are groups of predatory career criminals with a history of assaultive incidents preying on weaker inmates. They’ll prey blacks on blacks, whites on whites and on each other. They try this on society, and they get locked up in places like this. But in here they don’t have the same constraints.”
In one paranormal investigation I read about, an investigator claims to have played Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech while sitting in James Earl Ray’s cell and recorded a disembodied voice saying “hush”. There are many recordings of strange sounds, footsteps, loud bangs and even the sounds of anguished crying. In one amateur investigation, two metal folding chairs in the cafeteria were filmed sliding roughly across the floor like they were being dragged. Tour guides also claim almost daily sightings of apparitions. Some appear as solid as a normal person yet are not there. Others are dark swirling and nebulous masses reminiscent of the evil energy that has plagued the prison since it was built. One unsettling story claims there have been sightings of a crawling ghost in the auditorium known as the creeper. The story says after an altercation in the auditorium during a movie, an inmate had his throat cut with a handmade prison knife. The guards put him in a padded room without medical attention where he eventually bled to death and his anguished spirit is sometimes seen crawling on all fours across the floor.
One of those who died in the retaliatory shooting was an African American inmate named James, and there are stories that if you leave a lit cigarette on the bars of the cell he died in, he will take drags from that cigarette. In one investigation I watched on YouTube, the investigator tried this experiment in James’s cell with his camera rolling and his flashlight off, only leaving the lit cigarette visible in the frame. When the investigator speaks out to James, the red herring on the cigarette flares as if being smoked. He immediately turns the light on to see a large puff of smoke come from the cigarette like an exhale, yet there was no one there but him. If it was a hoax, it was a convincing one. While I am a skeptic at heart, based on what I could see and the reaction of the investigator, the footage appeared unaltered; both the cigarette and the chairs being dragged across the floor. While I can’t say for certain these are not staged, the footage was convincing enough for me to believe they were genuine paranormal encounters.
So, what haunts the grounds and cells of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary? Do the spirits of those who died in such a tragic place remain? In the prison’s files, the inmates consisted of murderers, serial killers, rapists, and the worst of the worst of Tennessee’s violent criminals. One research statistic stated while the prison was in operation, it averaged one murder per week and that the guards rarely had full control of the prison. After one visit to Brushy Mountain, a Nashville attorney is quoted as saying, “It was like walking into the mouth of hell.” The same associate warden I quoted earlier on gang violence in the prison later told a Washington Post reporter, “We get the hard-to-manage inmates. That’s the function of this institution. It’s the end of the line. They’re serving long sentences, they’re in close confinement. You do that to a bunch of rats, and they start chewing on each other. Humans are not so different.”
Brushy Mountain closed officially in 2009 and all remaining inmates were sent to serve out their sentences at the more modern Morgan County Correctional Complex. Now the former prison is home of a distillery, restaurant, and event venue along with multiple opportunities for tours, both historical and paranormal. Some parts of the facility have been permanently closed, such as the solitary confinement block, known affectionately as “The Hole”, but most is still open for guided as well as overnight paranormal flashlight-only investigations. The cells are open for explorers and investigators alike. Even though the remaining prisoners were transferred out, there is little doubt that those stone walls are still a prison to the spirits that remain.
Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I cordially invite you to visit my website at www.lylerussell.net if you’d like to learn more about this and other stories I’m working on. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.
Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story, as well as a good history legend. On today’s episode, I’ll share with you the strange circumstances behind one of America’s most recognizable names in its early exploration and try to shed light on the mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis.
Shortly before sunrise on October 11th, 1809, at the age of 35, Meriwether Lewis took his last breath. Mrs. Priscilla Grinder, proprietor of Grinder’s Stand, a makeshift tavern and inn on the Natchez Trace, was likely the last person to see him alive. According to her account given to Lewis’ traveling companion and Indian Agent James Neelly, the famed Governor of the Louisiana Territory, military Captain, confidante of President Thomas Jefferson and heralded explorer of the western frontier arrived alone at Grinder’s Stand in a deranged state. His behavior left her feeling unsafe, so she gave up the larger cabin for his sole use and slept in an adjacent kitchen building with Lewis’s servants taking up residence in the stable nearby. No one occupied the main cabin except for Lewis.
At around 3am, Mrs. Grinder was awakened by the cracking sound of two gunshots from the main cabin. She woke his servants to investigate, and in his report from interviewing Mrs. Grinder, Neelly wrote “He had shot himself in the head with one pistol and a little below the breast with the other—When his servant came in, he says; I have done the business. My good servant, give me some water. He gave him some, he survived but a short time.” This is the account that was hastily written by Agent Neelly and sent to President Thomas Jefferson to inform him of his friend’s death.
A few months later, another friend of Lewis’s, an ornithologist named Alexander Wilson, was traveling near the Stand and decided to inquire about the circumstances of his friend’s death first-hand. He took a room at the inn, the same one Lewis died in, and arranged to meet with Mrs. Grinder. In this account, she gave much more detail that either she failed to tell Neelly or details he felt unnecessary to include in his report. Nevertheless, this new interview revealed additional detailed information. Wilson is credited with conducting the first real investigation of Lewis’s bizarre death.
She told Wilson that Lewis arrived alone that night but assured her that his traveling companions and servants would be along soon and he would need one night’s lodging. In the tavern, he ordered spirits but drank very little, and at supper time, he ate even less. She stated he would frequently have conversations with himself, sometimes violently, only occasionally addressing her with kindly pleasantries, such as “What a sweet evening it is,” and, “Madam, this is a very pleasant evening.” She said he took his pipe and paced the floor, continuing to speak to no one but himself.
She then told Wilson that she offered to set the bed for him, but he politely declined, claiming he was only comfortable sleeping on the floor. He requested his free servant, named John Pernier, bring him his buffalo robe and bearskins. She left the main cabin to him and retired to another one nearby with her children and servants.
Mrs. Grinder said that Lewis’s disturbing behavior kept her awake most of that night. She claims she could hear him pacing the floor in the neighboring cabin and talking to himself “like a lawyer.”, She had finally dozed off when the sudden crack of gunfire startled her awake, along with Lewis’s scream of “O, Lord!” Then, just a moment later, a second shot rang out. Immediately after, Lewis came pounding on her door shouting, “O Madam! Give me some water and heal my wounds!” but she did not unbar the door out of fear. Weakened and bleeding, she watched Lewis stagger his way back into his room. At sunrise, she sent her children to fetch the servants from their beds in the stables to investigate. They found Lewis still alive lying on the bed in frightening condition. One of the gunshots had torn away part of his forehead, leaving his brain exposed but with surprisingly little blood. He was conscious enough to raise his shirt and show the servants the second wound in his side. He reportedly begged the servant to take up his own rifle and finish him off. “I am no coward,” he said, “but I am so strong; so hard to die.” They could not bear the thought of doing any such thing, and Lewis mercifully passed away shortly after. Some versions of this tale also say Lewis was cut to ribbons by his own straight razor he apparently used in a haphazard attempt to remove the bullets himself, speeding the loss of blood and his death.
The second version offers more details, though it is difficult to say why Agent Neelly would be so negligent in his report of such an untimely and awful death and omit so much. There are some who believe he may have been short on details to spare such a vaunted person as Meriwether Lewis the indignity of a gruesome end. Not all are convinced his motives were pure and that he had a hand in Lewis’s demise, keeping his report short to obscure his involvement, but more on that later. Now comes a third account, related by Mrs. Grinder some thirty years after that tragic night to a schoolteacher from the Cherokee Nation inquiring about the infamous and mysterious death. Many of the details were the same, though significant parts of the story had changed, making the already bizarre tale even more so.
In this account, there is an addition of three unknown men who arrived on Lewis’s heels and a confrontation ensued. She said Lewis drew his pistols and admonished them to leave, which they did. The rest of the story stays relatively the same until the fateful moment where she now claimed there were three pistol shots instead of two, and that she did not send her children to wake the servants as they were already in Lewis’s cabin. She now claims she was surprised to see them coming from the stables to Lewis’s aid where she thought they’d shared the cabin with him, leaving her to question why they left the cabin. She was also surprised to see Pernier wearing Lewis’s clothes; in fact, the very same clothing that Lewis was wearing when he arrived. She said he told her that Lewis had given him the garments, but he did not know why. Then, discovering that Lewis was gone, they departed to search along the Trace for the missing governor, only to find him wounded on the trail wearing Pernier’s tattered clothing and badly wounded.
Whether or not the changed parts of the story are hidden truths emerging over time, a poor accounting of the tale by the schoolteacher, or the poor memory of an aged Priscilla Grinder is unknown. Historians agree on one thing: there is little in this entire story that they can agree on. The popular theory is this whole affair was the tragic suicide of an American icon who suffered from depression, but there are others who believe this tragedy to be a murder most foul. To determine which theory is most plausible, we need to establish why Meriwether Lewis was traveling the Natchez Trace in the first place.
After his astounding three-year expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back, one of Meriwether Lewis’s life goals was to arrange his extensive journals of the trek into a publication that would satiate the ravenous public that was eager to consume the chronology of the expedition’s adventures. Lewis wanted to beat the speculative publications to print and reveal the tale from his point of view, not some printer with wild imaginations. He struggled to reach this goal because his pesky official duties got in the way. To compound his frustrations, the bureaucracy in Washington, even in Lewis’s day, was more hinderance than help, and they refused his expense reports while debating his honesty in reporting. These personal affronts irritated him so badly that he decided a face-to-face confrontation with those who denied his integrity was the only way to restore his reputation. In addition, he would use this trip to finally present his papers to the Philadelphia publishers for publication. Lewis became a man on a mission.
His journey started from St. Louis by river heading for New Orleans, where he planned to by sail around the Florida straits and up the eastern seaboard, but that’s when things turned sour. Lewis became seriously ill shortly after departure. Upon stopping at Fort Pickering near modern-day Memphis, the fort’s commander demanded Lewis stay, in the commander’s words, “until he recovered, or some friend might arrive whose hands he could depart in safety.”
Lewis was the medic for The Corps of Discovery and carried an extensive medical knowledge as well as a medicine chest for every occasion. He still religiously kept a journal of this time and writes about having a “bilious fever”, and mentioned having access to laudanum, opium, and tartar pills. Some historians think he may have developed an addiction to opium that led to his steep mental decline. He wrote to then-President James Madison, informing him that the heat and concern over his personal journals falling into the hands of British spies changed his travel plans. He would now take horses to Washington overland through Tennessee; a decision that turned out to be fatal.
In 1809, the fledgling United States was again on the brink of war with England, and New Orleans might not be a welcoming city for him since former Louisiana Territory Governor and General James Wilkinson’s treasonous acts alongside the Spanish Government were discovered. Wilkinson was holed up in New Orleans with American troops under his command, which also gave him command of passage in and out of the Mississippi River. Many historians agree that Lewis, having access to Wilkinson’s gubernatorial papers, likely found out about the former governor’s bribes taken from the Spanish government and was more afraid of falling into Wilkinson’s hands than the British. In any case, while waiting to recover enough to continue his journey, Agent Neelly arrived at Fort Pickering on his way to Nashville and agreed to accompany Lewis’s party at least that far. After ten days of rest, they loaded two of Lewis’s four trunks of journals to a pack horse and left two stored at the fort to be shipped later. On September 29th, Lewis, along with his servant Pernier, Neelly and his servant, and several friendly Chickasaw Indians, departed the fort. Ten days later, Meriwether Lewis would be dead.
After the ghastly events at Grinder’s Stand, John Pernier immediately departed straight for Virginia to find Thomas Jefferson and report what had happened. Jefferson received Pernier’s report with a sad acceptance of the cause of death being suicide, relating that Lewis, “had from his early youth suffered from hypochondriac afflictions inherited by him from his father.” Jefferson took the news hard. He always thought of Meriwether Lewis as the son he never had. Once Pernier delivered his report to Jefferson, he visited Lewis’s family to deliver the sad news and receive his final wages. The family was not so convinced of the suicide story and accused Pernier of killing his master.
About seven months after Lewis’s death, Pernier met his end, with the tale saying his throat was cut ear to ear. However, a man who was boarding with him informed Jefferson the Pernier, facing accusations of murder, took his own life by consuming a full bottle of laudanum. We know Jefferson took this news just as hard, as Pernier was a former servant of his before going to work for Lewis, and said in a later writing to a friend, “You will probably know the fate of old Pierney, Lewis’s servant, who lately followed his master’s example.” Jefferson believed his death was a suicide, but much like Lewis’s demise, many others believe it was more sinister.
On a beautiful Fall morning in October of 2019, my youngest son and I made the nearly 2-hour drive from Tullahoma to Hohenwald, Tennessee, where nearby, there is a National Parks site along the Natchez Trace Parkway dedicated to the final resting place of Meriwether Lewis. The Park is a beautiful section carved out of an even more beautiful wilderness. Hardly a landscape you would think would be the home to such a gruesome scene as Lewis’s death. The Park is small in size but grand in history. A recreation of Grinder’s Stand sits nestled among the trees next to the remains of the original building, now reduced to a few stones of foundation left in the clearing. At the back of the park, a connecting driveway circles a large cemetery, appropriately named Pioneer Cemetery, that holds the unmarked grave of Meriwether Lewis, among other local pioneers that settled the area.
There is a granite monument for Lewis, even though his grave in the cemetery is unmarked. For years, many have petitioned the Parks Service to allow an exhumation of Lewis’s body to solve the mystery once and for all on how he died. The theories vary wildly, from suicide to murder to madness to disease.
Some historians believe Lewis’s strange actions could have been from a severe bout with Syphilis, which if left untreated, can lead to mental disorders as well as brain and neurological damage. There is speculation he may have also contracted malaria, as indicated by his bout of “bilious fever”, in Lewis’s words, when he stopped at Fort Pickering. Malaria, if left untreated, also leads to bizarre behavior and dementia. Critics of this theory cite his hypochondriacal tendencies as the answer to his death coming from disease. They believe Lewis would never have let an illness or infection go without some treatment to counter the effects.
If that argument is true, could his cause of death have been from his ample stocks of medical opium? If he had hypochondriacal tendencies, as Jefferson said, he could very well have fallen victim to a chemical dependency in trying to stave off a real or imagined illness. According to the Mayo Clinic website, side effects linked to opium include confusion, hallucination, mood and mental changes, nervousness, sleeplessness, and disorientation among many others. Mrs. Grinder described observing Lewis exhibit several of those symptoms on that fateful night.
Perhaps the easiest answer is that he committed suicide. He was no doubt under severe stress and pressure from his fame and position, and if that was compounded with opium or untreated Syphilis, the toll may have been too much for him to bear. It is said that near the end of his life, Lewis regularly took to the bottle to drown his sorrows. It is also believed that even though the Lewis and Clark Expedition was a resounding success, he often felt the trek was a failure, citing the primary reason for the whole trip was to find the Northwest Passage, and even though they made it to the Pacific Ocean with only one life lost, they did not find the passage. To add insult to the injury, all their hard work in establishing trading outposts crumbled even before the Corps of Discovery returned home. Finally, after such a grand adventure and raucous homecoming, Meriwether Lewis was not thrilled with the drudgery of what amounted to a glorified desk job.
Or after all of that, could he have been murdered? Lewis’s own mother believed that to be the case. At the time of his travels, the Natchez Trace was not a safe or hospitable road. Bandits and highwaymen roamed the area preying on anyone who carried valuables. It’s possible that word of the famous explorer’s route preceded him, and some of these scoundrels looked to profit from robbing or kidnapping the famed Meriwether Lewis. One version of this theory states an infamous bandit on the trace named Tom Runions may be the murderer. Runions was known for violent behavior toward anyone who dared speak about his illegal dealings. Some believe maybe Robert Grinder plotted against his famous guest for his money, putting his wife up to spinning the tale of suicide to throw off any suspicion. When the monument at the park was erected in the 1840s, his exhumed body was examined by a coroner’s jury committee who noted that it was probable that he died at the hands of an assassin but did not complete the documentation as to why they believed that. Records of that committee’s findings would have been filed in the judge’s docket book, which seems to have been lost to history. No one knows what was in their final report to the judge.
Perhaps the danger of his predecessor’s treason was greater than previously thought. If Lewis was carrying evidence of General Wilkinson’s foul deeds, was Lewis assassinated to cover up the crime? Or was Indian Agent James Neelly involved in a murder plot? His own journals call some of his decisions on the Trace that week into question, such as sending his servant forward with Lewis and remaining behind to look for a missing horse. Some think it peculiar that a man traveling with a servant would take on a task so menial. A few years after Lewis’s death, Neelly was dismissed from his post for incompetence, and his lackluster account of Lewis’s death has always drawn suspicion. One critic of the suicide theory states that Lewis was no ordinary traveler and compares his presence to the celebrity level of Neil Armstrong returning from the moon. This same critic proposes an interesting question about the manner of death in citing that Lewis was an expert marksman. He argues how someone with Lewis’s skill could botch a point-blank suicide attempt with a weapon he would have been as familiar with as his own hand, not just once, but twice?
At the end of the day, the answer is simply that no one knows for certain how Lewis died. Among the many efforts underway to exhume his body for a second time, scholars advocating in favor of examining his body again claim they could determine if his death was suicide or an overdose, or disease or murder. Others remain skeptical a new exhumation would reveal anything of value to solve the mystery. When I asked at the park visitor’s center, the attendant told me and my son that Lewis is not actually buried under the 1840 granite marker and was done that way intentionally. He told us the real grave is unmarked on the property due to lawlessness at that time on Natchez Trace. He then said the decision was somewhat prophetic with the renewed interest in digging him up again, just in case someone advocating for another exhumation decided to take matters illegally into their own hands. I’ve searched several cemetery records but cannot determine if that story is true, however, it makes some semblance of sense to me if there were concerns over grave robbers looking for a famous grave to dig up.
Even over 200 years later, locals near the Park claim that Meriwether Lewis’s death is no mystery at all but an obvious matter of jealous rage. In one article I read, a local resident claims that, “everyone knows what happened. Robert Grinder came home that night and found Meriwether Lewis in bed with his wife and shot him. The rest of the story she just made up.”
Is that how one of arguably the most famous explorers of early America died? From the rage of a jealous husband? Or did illness overtake him? Perhaps an overdose? Or had he decided his burdens were too great and ended his own life? This Tennessee legend is likely one that will never be solved.
Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. If you’d like to read more about this and other stories I’m working on, I cordially invite you to visit my website at www.lylerussell.net. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.
Due to graphic descriptions, parental discretion is advised for this episode
Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s episode, you’ll hear three disturbing tales of a cryptid creature with a murderous appetite in a popular National Park called the Land Between the Lakes. Allow me to introduce you to The Beast of LBL.
There are stories worldwide of supernatural occurrences in places with dense forested areas. The National Park area known as The Land Between the Lakes covers over 267 square miles of natural woodlands split by the Tennessee and Kentucky border and flanked by Kentucky Lake and the Cumberland River. The Park is a popular outdoors destination that hosts one and a half million visitors annually. A handful of those visitors have encountered a cryptid-like creature described as a bigfoot, a dog man, or a werewolf. While those three have striking differences, each has been reported at different times throughout the history of the park. The first incident we’ll discuss today is related by a gas station attendant named Jan Thompson who worked near the park in the early 80s. This is a paraphrased version of what is supposedly a hand-written third-person account of that night by Mrs. Thompson.
On an uneventful night around 3am, two police officers who were regulars at this gas station pulled in under the pump canopy. In Jan’s written account, she has left the officers unnamed to protect their identity. For the rest of this story, we’ll use the aliases she gave them of Officer Bill and Officer Adam. Instead of their usual jovial banter with Jan, Officer Adam collapsed himself onto the curb and vomited everything his stomach could muster. Jan watched through the window as Officer Bill did his best to comfort his partner, but was also visibly shaken by whatever malady had befallen them. Jan came out to find out what was wrong, offering some Rolaids and refreshments. Neither said much outside of fragmented and incoherent sentences for a span of several minutes, only repeating, “I can’t believe it, it’s just not possible,” or, “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” When Adam raised his head, Jan could see dried blood on his face and neck. Jan was curious but didn’t press for more information. She could not imagine what could have disturbed these officers so badly. In her words, “Adam’s bottom lip was trembling slightly, and it wasn’t from the slight chill in the late spring air. Someone or something had filled them each with a congested fear.” After a short while, they calmed some and began their story.
They had been called to assist with a remote site investigation within LBL. It was the beginning of tourist season, and some early arrivals had already staked claim to the prime remote spots throughout the park. Sometimes disagreements would erupt between campers wanting the same site, so an occasional call to the remote areas was not unusual. They arrived at the scene around sunset to find several other official vehicles and investigators already there. Among them were other police cruisers, an ambulance, and a coroner’s van. Before them was a parked motor home with the door hanging on by one hinge. A campfire lit the immediate vicinity that whoever was camping there surely built. Flashlight beams were splitting the usually silent forest surrounding the campsite, and occasionally illuminated what appeared to be bloody hand prints on the walls of the motor home.
Bloody hand prints were insignificant to the carnage they witnessed as they walked into the site. Body parts were strewn everywhere. Shredded clothing, severed limbs, and internal organs were thrown about like confetti at a child’s party. Many on the scene had already lost their composure and their dinner at the gruesome scene. Adam and Bill asked another officer on scene what had happened. He told them a newlywed couple on a hike had discovered what they were now looking at and fled into town to call the police. So far, they identified three separate bodies; a father and mother with their young son best they could tell, and they weren’t sure what the murder weapon was that caused such devastation. The coroner overheard the report and interrupted them with an answer. He stated there was no murder weapon at all; that the bodies had been torn apart by teeth and claws. Adam asked if this was a bear attack. The other officer said bears were not native to the area, but anything was possible. He added it may have been a mountain lion or a wolf. The coroner dismissed that explanation.
“These are not from a mountain lion or a wolf,” he said. “The teeth and jaws are far too big for that.”
The coroner showed Adam and Bill on a larger portion of what was identified as the father’s torso four distinct cuts made by claws, “at least 2 inches long,” he said. “But the bites are what confuses me. The depth of the jaw is much larger than a bear, meaning this beast has a longer snout.”
Suddenly, an officer burst from the ransacked motor home holding a little girl’s dress. “There’s a fourth!” he shouted. “Look for a little girl. We might have a survivor!” They regained as much professionalism as they could and renewed their search. The officers formed a line and marched into the surrounding woods, calling for anyone who could still be out there. After a few minutes of searching, a shrieking scream pierced the night. Bill ran towards the scream alongside the other officer he and Adam first met at the scene. When they came upon Adam, he was kneeling to the ground and sobbing. Bill shined his light onto Adam’s face, asking what made him scream. His tears streaked through the wet blood on his face. Adam pointed up. Their flashlight beams traveled up the nearby tree trunk and into the canopy. The officers jumped back with a start.
Dangling from a high limb was a small and lifeless hand, and on the other side of it a pale leg with a white sock still over the foot. They had found the little girl, and she did not survive. Shortly after they took down her body from the tree, the coroner said her tiny body had been partially devoured, and clumps of dark brown/gray hair were clutched in her hand and on the bark of the tree. An animal had done this, but of what kind, they had no idea. After a few hours of trying to make sense of it all, a line of dark vehicles came up the road with a new team of investigators to relieve the officers. They gave explicit instructions not to speak of this incident to anyone, especially the media.
About a month later, Adam and Bill returned to the gas station while Jan was working, taking a break from their patrol. She describes them as being different after their harrowing experience. No longer jovial or friendly, but quiet, serious, and withdrawn. They told her that lab tests from the crime scene determined the hair and saliva samples could not be matched to any known species, and that the closest comparison was from Canis lupus, a wolf, and that I should be careful. They explained to her never to mention to anyone that they had told her what happened that night.
The Land Between the Lakes has a long history of strange occurrences. Since the early 1700s, there has been talk of Native American curses on the white settlers moving into the area, of hauntings, of orbs seen floating in several of the more than 220 family cemeteries that dot the park, and creature sightings described as a tall, hairy, wolf-like creature that walked on two legs and could be smelled from a great distance away. It is also said this creature has glowing red eyes. Two possible origin stories of the beast come from early settlement of the area, though neither can be proved. One states a Native American shaman gained the ability to shapeshift into a wolf. At some point, he used this ability in some evil way and was outcast from his tribe. The shaman was hunted down and killed by white settlers while in his wolf form, and with his dying breath, vowed to return and stalk the forests and haunt the settlers and their families.
Another account says the beast is an early European settler who moved with his family to the remote area because of an illness that kept him from controlling his “night rages” and was not fit to live in a populated society. It is said that this man’s illness was passed on to his children and they were all kept locked away in their remote cabin. In either case, there are several accounts of unexplained livestock killings and unidentified howls and wails from deep in the woods. Early settlers complained of losing their cows, pigs, horses and hunting dogs to some predator in the woods that was never identified. At a time when wild Bison still roamed in southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee, hunters and farmers would occasionally find mutilated carcasses of young Bison with the rest of the herd clustered nearby in a tightly knit defensive circle; a behavior displayed when a predator is near. Other than a hunter with a large caliber rifle, not many natural predators prey on Bison. This means whatever killed those calves must be strong, aggressive and relatively fearless.
The second account comes from a group of college students from Murray State University, who took a weekend off to camp in the pristine wilderness of the Land Between the Lakes. On their first night, the young men built a fire and were enjoying the evening when one walked out into the trees to answer the call of nature. He was gone longer than the others thought he should be, and they called out to him. The student came back into the firelight wearing a terrified look and claiming he was being watched and that he heard growls and sniffing coming from the darkness beyond. His friends laughed and teased him of being afraid of the dark, or that he encountered a wild hog or some other benign woodland critter and dismissed the notion.
As the night wore on, they started hearing something just beyond the light of their fire in the surrounding woods. At first, it was the rustling of leaves, like an animal was passing by. But they kept hearing it and quickly determined it was not passing by but encircling them. Each time they shined their flashlights towards the sound, all they would see was the beam of their light on a tree trunk, or a quick blur with no shape or form. Some of them began to believe their friend that something was out there. That’s when the howling began.
A piercing, wailing howl erupted from the brush behind them. They spun to see where it came from only for the sound to erupt again behind them. Whatever it was, it was circling them swiftly. Then, they caught random glimpses of what they thought were red eyes running through the dark. Terror finally overtook them. They piled into their Volkswagen van and sped out of the site, abandoning all of their gear to get away. As the van emerged onto the main road, one of the students looked out the back window to see a large black shape emerge onto the road and chase behind them. As the driver pressed harder on the gas pedal, the VW engine was no match for the creature’s speed. A jolt shook the van as if something grabbed it and was holding it back. The driver pressed the pedal all the way to the floor, breaking free of whatever it was and never letting off until they were far from the park. Upon returning to the campus, the terrified students looked at the back to find the metal around the engine hatch was crumpled and cut through with deep gouges that appeared to be claw marks. Authorities dismissed their claims as a drunken weekend in the woods.
Our final modern-day and arguably more famous account comes from a man named Roger, who claims to be the only survivor of a cryptid attack on another family in another part of the park. This story has a specific date of April 7th, 1982 and is believed to be credible by many members of the cryptid investigative community. He also names the members of the family but omits their last name. Some details of his story have been removed from the sources I found on this due to an upcoming television appearance where he reveals the rest of his story, so this account will have some gaps that will be filled in later.
Roger’s story takes place about an hour before sunset at another remote campsite. Roger was with another family of four that arrived at the park for a vacation. They drove a motor home with a vehicle towed behind it. After unhitching the vehicle and backing into the RV site, the family began setting up their home away from home. The mother and young daughter, Diane and Connie, decided to take a nap inside the camper while the father and son, Levi and Steven gathered firewood for dinner and a campfire for later. One part that is unclear in my research is Roger’s relationship to the family. Perhaps he will reveal that later. Roger was inside the camper preparing to take his shotgun out for target practice by picking up some cans to use for targets. He hears a commotion outside, and suddenly yelling and shouting. He looked out the window inset in the door to see Levi running around the front of the camper, then hears the driver’s door open. Levi takes his shotgun and runs back around to the side where he sees Steven lifted in the air from behind and killed by a black, hairy creature. Levi fired his shotgun, hitting the beast in the shoulder after it dropped Steven’s body.
The shot was not enough to take down the creature. It charges Levi before he can shoot again and mauls him. Levi’s limp body collapses to the ground over his shotgun, and now the beast sets his sights on Roger behind the door. Roger opens the door and as the monster gets closer, he fires his .410 from much closer range, hitting it in the shoulder area again but closer to the neck. It let’s out a blood-curdling growl and runs off past the back of the camper. He yells back to Connie and Diane to follow him outside and hide underneath the camper until help comes. He leapt from the door and rolled under, pulling himself upward above the driveshaft of the camper. The girls did not follow.
He hears Diane and Connie scream as the beast returns to the rear window, smashing it out and climbing inside. The camper rocks violently. His view is obscured, but he can hear everything as the beast rips Diane and Connie to shreds. There are two versions of the account here that are confusing. Roger says he believed a second beast came to the back of the camper and attacked Diane and Connie, but the investigator I researched who broke down this account believes the beast to be a solitary hunter, much like a werewolf is supposed to be, and that the same wounded beast came back to finish off what he started.
Roger is frozen with fear, still hiding beneath the RV, when the attack ends. He can no longer hear anything other than his own pounding heartbeat in his ears, but remains still and silent, straining to hear even the slightest sound. What he does not realize is that the beast has gone, but not without a prize. It has taken the body of young Connie with it out into the night. Something else Roger did not realize is that his point-blank shotgun blast found its mark. Weak, wounded and losing blood at a rapid pace, the beast dropped Connie’s lifeless body about fifty yards behind the camper. A thick trail of blood continued well past where she was left, leading to a large tree where the beast climbed up to rest and recover.
Roger, feeling like the danger had finally passed, eased himself back to the ground and looked out in every direction to see if the beast remained nearby. Out to the side where the cold firepit lay empty is Steven’s contorted body, the first to fall to the monster. At the front, Levi’s twisted body lay in a heap; his head and arms bent in an unnatural pose. He scrambled out and made a run for it. Along the main road, a farmer passing through in his pickup truck found Roger running as hard and fast as he could. He told Roger to get in the back while they drove to the farmer’s house to call the authorities.
The next part of his account resembles something out of an episode of the X-Files. Two agents from an unknown organization arrive at the farmer’s house to pick up Roger and transport him back to the campsite. When he arrives, the area is crawling with other agents of the same organization cataloguing the crime scene. An agent is assigned to escort Roger around the site named Walt. Roger described him as an authority figure based on the behavior of the other agents, and their vehicles as military jeeps, thought to be M-1151s, with large spotlights mounted on each of them. Walt escorted Roger around, asking him questions about the attack when suddenly and agent in the woods shouts for assistance. The jeeps train their spotlights up to see the corpse of a large beast laying in the high branches, bled out from Roger’s shotgun blast to its neck, and the body of young Connie lying not far away.
The Likely Truth:
This legend is divisive in many ways. When the Land Between the Lakes was created, it required imminent domain proceedings that displaced over 700 families that called the area their home. Those families are why there are so many small family cemeteries within the park. And those displaced residents, some of whom are still alive, are still fighting to get their land back. Some of those same residents find the legend of the beast offensive to their ancestral home, and disregard it as nonsense.
So where do they believe the legend originated? LBL has been the home of many moonshine stills since the beginning of settlements there. Some believe the old moonshiners made up the story to scare people out of exploring the woods and accidentally finding their still. Even so, LBL has been the home of one confirmed bizarre incident, the Vampire Hotel. A man claiming to be a 500-year-old vampire named Vesago invited several of his sharp-fanged followers to a structure in LBL. Declaring to be the leader of this vampire clan, he would have blood parties within the park where his friends “fed” off one another. Not long after, he was arrested for the murder of one of those friend’s parents.
Aside from that strange tale, I could not find any official reports of missing persons or murders within the park. Many believers in the LBL Beast claim a suspicious cover-up has buried the stories, and that these dog men and werewolves are known to certain government agencies. In fact, even finding these few stories was difficult, as it appears most of the tales surrounding the legend are only passed by word of mouth.
In a few of the versions I could find, the werewolf is described more as a Bigfoot-type creature over 11 feet tall but no less murderous than its lupine cousin. All of them describe the creature with glowing red eyes and extremely aggressive behavior. There is also a local warning that if you pass through the park at night and come upon a group of White-tailed Deer, they are cautioning you to turn back because the red-eyed demon is near.
I’ve driven through Land Between the Lakes and found it to be mesmerizingly beautiful. The untouched wilderness it offers is like a flame that I can’t help but be drawn to like a moth. When I drove through, it was daytime and sunny, but many stories of the fabled beast denote that day or night makes no difference, and that is enough to give me pause. I’ve spent many days and nights alone in the woods, but I am not certain I’d make a solo trip through the LBL. It appears that the creature is still active, still stalking and still hunting.
Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.
Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. In this episode, we’ll discuss two haunted Civil War battlefields; the random and wandering spirits at Shiloh, and the terrifying phantom that haunts the Chickamauga Battlefield known as ‘Old Green Eyes.’
Between the years of 1861 to 1865, over 620,000 Americans lost their lives across the scarred U.S. landscape, and Tennessee was the site of many of those bloody contests. Two of the most significant Tennessee sites are Shiloh, near Savannah, Tennessee in Hardin County, and Chickamauga just across the border into Georgia south of Lookout Mountain. Both battlefields saw tremendous casualties; Shiloh with 23,700 and Chickamauga with 34,600, nearly 10% of the lives lost in the Civil War happened in these two battles. While many battles in every conflict are given the title of “the bloodiest battle,” Chickamauga comes in only second to Gettysburg, with Shiloh being a close third for the title in the American Civil War. Two quoted accounts of the carnage at Chickamauga come from a pair of Confederate soldiers that witnessed the aftermath.
In his book, “Reminiscences of the Civil War”, Confederate General John B. Gordon wrote of Chickamauga, “Words, however, cannot convey an adequate picture of such scenes; of the countless costly, daring assaults; of the disciplined or undisciplined but always dauntless courage; of the grim, deadly grapple in hand-to-hand collisions; of the almost unparalleled slaughter and agony.” Even the name, Chickamauga, is said to translate in English to “River of Death”.
A local farmer and Confederate Cavalry soldier named Larkin Poe, who’s family home was close to the site, wrote of what he saw in the aftermath of the costly two-day battle; “The moon was far down the west and cast a ghostly light over the woods and fields. The stillness of the night was unbroken except for the sound of my horse’s hooves and the hoot of some solitary owl. I had seen an old house near Jay’s Mill filled with wounded and suffering men, and I had hardly started till I began to see dead soldiers yet unburied, lying in and near the road. I rode on, turning my horse first to the right and then to the left to avoid the thick-strewn bodies. In places I saw where great trees had been splintered by shells and riddled by bullets… Just before reaching the Brotherton house, I came upon a scene of death and destruction noteworthy even on that terrible field. I saw a piece of artillery, evidently a Federal piece, which had been knocked from the wheels by a direct hit from our guns, and apparently most all of the horses and men belonging to the gun had perished there for their bodies lay in grotesque heaps around their piece.”
In the paranormal community, a common thought is that sites of great tragedy or loss of life tend to draw the most spiritual energy and can attract the attention of malevolent entities. This could be an explanation for why there seems to be so many reported hauntings of Civil War battlefields. And if the adage about malevolent entities is true, that could be the case with the phantom called ‘Old Green Eyes’ at Chickamauga.
One of the earliest accounts of a possible supernatural encounter at the battlefield comes from a book written by Susie Blaylock McDaniel called “The Official History of Catoosa County.” In this strange tale, a resident near the battle site was returning home after attending the 1876 American Centennial celebration held on Market Street in Chattanooga. While passing through the battle site, a man known locally as “Uncle Jim” Carlock and his companions encountered a large creature they described as being over 10 feet tall with a white, furry head. The area was remote, with no houses or light shining other than the moon, and he and another reveler called Mr. Shields were on horseback while the rest of the party rode in a wagon. Shields, it is said, charged the creature and reached it before it could escape, swinging wildly and hitting it in the head. The creature cried out, almost in the sound of a baby or a young child’s voice, and said, “Let me alone!” He later stated the creature they encountered was probably no creature at all but was a washer woman balancing a basket of clothes on top of her head. Even if that were true, why would a washer woman be out in the middle of the night on a remote battlefield with laundry? Even if the encounter was not supernatural, it was at least odd.
There are brief mentions in many accounts of soldiers claiming to see Old Green Eyes immediately after the battle around Snodgrass Hill, crawling among the dead Union soldiers left unburied on the field. Early accounts in Native American lore say this creature, or one similar to it, has inhabited the area for centuries.
When something can’t be explained to the rational mind, the mind rationalizes what it can and makes up the rest. With Old Green Eyes, the legend varies wildly as to what the creature actually is. Some accounts say it takes the appearance of a large cat like a tiger, a floating head, a small goblin-like creature, a large white-headed creature like the one Jim Carlock described, or a disheveled Civil War soldier that was left unburied and has returned to exact revenge for the slight. Some who believe in the metaphysical say it could be an elemental being; a guardian of the ancient mound-builders that inhabited the era in prehistoric times, and some who believe in the spiritual say it is a demon come to feed on the pain and suffering that remains over the battlefield’s many casualties. As the legend is retold over generations, the tale becomes taller, the details become darker, and the creature becomes more sinister.
Many paranormal investigators have ventured into the park at night trying to find or make contact with Old Green Eyes or other wandering spirits. The area of the park around Snodgrass Hill is touted as the most haunted area of the park. One group of female investigators in 2001 had a sleepless night, claiming to have heard horse hooves running, gun fire, smelling gunpowder and strong odors of alcohol. They also reported an overwhelming sense of melancholy and a feeling of being constantly surrounded throughout the night. In their photos from their investigation, they claim to have captured several images of floating orbs around the battlefield monuments and encountering several ghostly mists. Many locals and long-time residents around the park claim to have encountered Old Green Eyes, with the overwhelming majority describing him as a large man with long, black stringy hair and wearing a riding duster coat. Many of those same residents do not speak about him lightly, saying the malevolent spirit is real and something to be very fearful of. Some others add that he has fangs and claws, resembling more of a demon than a man.
In one such tale, a Chattanooga teenager in the late 50s/early 60s took a shortcut through the park on a foggy and drizzling night while on his way to pick up his date from her house in Georgia. The young man stated the fog and rain made it difficult to see, but in the distance, he saw incredibly bright green headlights coming toward him in the fog. He didn’t think anything of it at first, other than he had never seen a car with green headlights before until he realized they were not headlights at all, but the eyes of something running toward his car in the middle of the road. He swerved off the road and hit a tree trying to avoid the collision. As he lay there in the front seat, the eyes stared at him from a distance through the cracked windshield, unblinking and circling the wreck for several minutes while making a terrible moaning sound. Suddenly, the creature leapt onto the crumpled hood of his wrecked truck giving the injured driver a close up view of his stalker. He described it as hunched over with long, dark and stringy hair past its waist and a large jaw with sharp fangs jutting out. It watched him for a long while with those glowing green eyes until another approaching car scared it off. When the park rangers found him and his wrecked car, they dismissed his claim as a severe bump on the head and a hallucination. Of all the accounts, this one is difficult to determine if it is true or not.
A more modern encounter involves a Park Ranger named Edward Tinney, a 17-year veteran park historian at Chickamauga, who claims a close encounter with Old Green Eyes, or something similar to him. He claims that the ‘Green Eyes’ specter is a soldier who lost his head to a cannonball and his phantom head is searching the battlefield for his body, but that other ghosts are known to roam the grounds. During a Civil War reenactment event, Tinney and a fellow ranger took up a patrol of the park on foot near where the re-enactors were camped at around 4am. After crossing an intersection within the pitch-black park, a tall dark figure appeared at the end of the road and started toward them aggressively. He described it as being over six feet tall and wearing a long black riding cloak with black stringy hair. They stopped and watched as the man approached and came very close to where they stood. It looked up at him with not green, but dark glistening eyes and a feral-looking grin. As quickly as it approached them, it disappeared as car lights in the distance started up the road towards them. They could not explain what they both saw.
A story from a re-enactor at the park on a different date tells of a phantom patrol of soldiers encamped in the park during a living history days festival. He states on their first night, he and some of his reenactment group approached a neighboring campsite where several men were encamped around a fire and were having dinner. The re-enactor states they spoke with the men for several hours about the battle before heading back to their campsite to turn in. The following morning, they packed and went back to wish their neighboring campers luck during the event, but the camp and all trace of those men or their dinner fire was gone. He says the site was completely natural and undisturbed as if no one had touched it for years.
Another reported encounter happened on a foggy night near Wilder Tower within the park, where a restaurant worker was taking a short-cut to home after a long shift. She claims in an S-curve near the tower, she slowed down because of the thick fog and caught a glimpse of an apparition in the road with big, glowing green eyes that disappeared as she got closer. Having heard the tales of ‘Green Eyes’ growing up around the area, she states she never thought she’d actually see it, and now will not go near the park after sundown.
Chickamauga has two other special ghosts of note, the first being called “The Lady in White” that is reportedly seen around the Snodgrass Cabin area. It is said she wanders the field in her wedding gown looking for a lost love in the battle. Another tale tells of a group of teenagers working a hayride event near Wilder Tower where they encountered a phantom torch floating in the tree line. When they investigated, they claim to have clearly seen a skeletal figure in a Confederate uniform dismount a phantom horse with glowing green eyes and continually called out for an “Amy” before disappearing in the brush. Could those two spirits be seeking each other, their souls destined to wander the battlefield in an endless search for one another?
At Shiloh, many of the paranormal reports mirror those at Chickamauga; the sounds of phantom hoof beats, smells of spent gunpowder, echoes of gun shots and cannon fire, and drums sounding out battlefield commands. One of the strangest occurrences is the pond on the property, nicknamed The Bloody Pond, will sometimes appear red. Rangers have dismissed this as heat-driven algae blooms at the hotter parts of the year, but not everyone is ready to dismiss the paranormal explanation. After the battle, it is said the pond was completely red from the blood of both Union and Confederate soldiers using its water to clean their wounds.
Shiloh had a storied past even before the battle, as it is the site of several Native American burial mounds. Park visitors have reported sighting orbs moving in and out of the ground around the mounds, hearing tribal singing and drumming in the woods, and strange sudden drafts of hot and cold air mismatched to the current season. Some feel freezing gusts in the summer and heated blasts during the winter.
When the battlefield became a park, several unit monuments were built in areas significant to that unit’s role in the battle, much the same as monuments at other Civil War battlefields. Many reports of gunfire and phantom yelling are common around the monuments. This is a very common occurrence for those who walk the battle line by The Hornet’s Nest. Some commenters on the park’s website claim to have heard phantom moans and cries for help nearby when there was no one else around.
Near the Peach Orchard stands a cabin that is often photographed by visitors. Some claim to have captured images of a little boy with a drum by the cabin. One visitor who posted about the drummer boy spirit claims the spirit spoke to them on their phone’s voice recorder. When asking his name, they heard a response of “Jack.” They also asked his age and got the reply of “nine.” Park records indicate the youngest Shiloh drummer to be 11-year-old Johnny Clem who survived the battle, but there could have been an unknown younger one elsewhere that perished in the fight. There have been repeated sightings of a little boy in grey and white clothes seen descending the cabin ladder and running into the woods. It’s possible this apparition was a bystander that hid in the cabin and his spirit replays him running from the battle in fear.
The Peach Orchard is home to another Shiloh ghost that appears and disappears at random places on the road around the cabin. He’s always wandering slow, as if exhausted or possibly wounded, and his features and clothing are always non-descript and drab. As the people who see him get closer, he disappears only to reappear somewhere else along the road a short time later.
Some of the structures at Shiloh are also reportedly haunted. The rebuilt Shiloh Church, a replica of the original cabin-style one-room church that the battle site is named for has reports of visitors being touched or feeling like they are being watched, and some apparitions will show up in visitor’s photos on the inside of the church as a white mist or fog. In the ranger’s housing area, many reports are made of doors and windows shutting or opening on their own, and of strange drafts of hot or cold air in closed rooms.
While Shiloh doesn’t have a reported recurring entity like Chickamauga’s Old Green Eyes, it is no less spiritually active. There is little doubt that these enshrined sites have seen great pain and suffering, and perhaps some of those intense feelings of anguish remain to remind the living of what happened there in hopes the pain and suffering is never repeated.
So, what haunts the historic Chickamauga battlefield? Is Old Green Eyes real? One tale says no; that it’s a story made up by a park ranger in the 1960s to resurrect interest in visiting the park. While that could be true, it does not account for the many varied encounters people claim to have in the battlefield park.
What about Shiloh? Do you think those random spirits people claim to encounter are souls left behind to relive their anguish where they died so tragically?
I have personally visited both battlefields, Shiloh with a guided tour and Chickamauga on my own accord. While I did not encounter any spirit manifestations at either site, there is a heaviness to the landscape, much like the paranormal investigators claimed when they said they felt an overwhelming melancholy. Perhaps that sensation is simply the weight of history for those who care to learn it.
If there was any place that I felt the heaviest to me, it would have been the area known as The Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh. There are many descriptions written by soldiers who experienced the carnage in that narrow and sunken roadway. A young Confederate soldier named Henry Morton Stanley described his experience at Shiloh; “How the cannon bellowed, and their shells plunged and bounded, and flew with screeching hisses over us! Their sharp rending explosions and hurtling fragments made us shrink and cower, despite our utmost efforts to be cool and collected. I marveled, as I heard the unintermitting patter, snip, thud, and hum of the bullets, how anyone could live under this raining death. I could hear the balls beating a merciless tattoo on the outer surface of the log, pinging vivaciously as they flew off at a tangent from it, and thudding into something or other, at the rate of a hundred a second. One, here and there, found its way under the log, and buried itself in a comrade’s body. One man raised his chest, as if to yawn, and jostled me. I turned to him and saw that a bullet had gored his whole face and penetrated into his chest. Another ball struck a man a deadly rap on the head, and he turned on his back and showed his ghastly white face to the sky.”
Members of the Shiloh tour group I was with decided to walk the distance from the Confederate artillery line across the field to the low berm where Ulysses S. Grant described, “it would not have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction and stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” We then traversed the entire length of the Union line; walking through a young forest that has replaced the splintered and shattered trunks of the trees those men hid behind as Confederate lead rained down on them. A battle that saw so much carnage is bound to leave some spiritual energy lingering. Our walk was silent, and it was difficult not to feel surrounded by what happened there.
At Chickamauga, I was not able to spend much time outside of the visitor’s center but taking in everything that happened there gives even that modernized building a heavy feeling, as if the eyes of those who fell watch your every move when you enter their hallowed ground. After leaving the battlefield and a short drive north back into Tennessee, I spent a considerable amount of time walking among the tombstones of Chattanooga National Cemetery, where many of the fallen from Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge are interred. Of the 12,800 Confederates buried there, almost 4,200 are unknown and many more Union soldiers interred in mass graves, their names lost to history. Perhaps one of them is the earthly remains of Old Green Eyes.
Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.
Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. In this episode, we’ll discuss a strange tale out of Dickson County, Tennessee about a murderous creature known as the White Bluff Screamer.
Near an isolated area known as Trace Creek, not far from where modern-day Highway 47 crosses southwest of Montgomery Bell State Park, there lived a young family whose names are lost to history trying to make their new life in 1920s rural Tennessee. The family had seven children, the oldest being around fourteen and the youngest was six. There was nothing remarkable about them, as the area saw many young families spread to the rural areas of Tennessee at the end of World War I to restart their lives. The patriarch of this family could well have been one of those returning veterans. They built a typical cabin-style home in the bottomlands southeast of White Bluff and planted their crops. All was well with their world—until the screaming started.
The first night was unsettling for the quiet rural farm. The screeching wail echoed throughout their valley. The children and their mother waited silently in their cabin as their father took his lantern around the house to investigate, but nothing was found. He dismissed the noise as some sort of injured animal. However, the following nights, the screaming grew longer, louder, and so frequent that after a week of the disturbance, sleep was impossible for any of them, and the children were terrified of the coming night. When the sun went down, the screams would start anew. Their father, desperate to rid his family of this horrible screaming, sat out on their porch one evening, rifle in hand, and watched as the sun sank over the surrounding hills. When the last light of day extinguished itself, he told his wife to lock the doors and windows, and to only open it for him when he returned. The familiar eerie wailing began almost immediately after dark. He steeled himself, said goodbye to his family, then set out into the dark woods. Tonight, he would find the source of the screams that tormented his family and kill it.
The ceaseless scream pierced his ears as he bounded through the thick brush. The man was determined, though icy chills ran through his body every time the scream started. He was an expert woodsman but struggled to keep his bearings and became lost chasing the screams through the fog. Every time he thought he was getting nearer; the unnerving wail would suddenly move farther away and in different directions. At times he felt he was walking in circles, or, that the screaming was actually encircling him. Was there more than one beast out there taunting him? The horrible sound echoed off the large trees and made tracking the source nearly impossible. He extinguished his light and knelt down trying to pinpoint the direction of the screams.
“If I can’t find it, I will let it find me,” he said to himself. He crouched and waited.
Suddenly, the horrible wail became mixed with the blood-curdling screams of a woman… and of children. Whatever this thing was, it had found his family. He raced through fog and brush, his heart pounding with every footfall. He cried out for them, but only the terrified screams of his family replied. After what seemed an eternity, he could make out the dim lantern light hanging on his front porch through the fog. He was almost there. Then, the screams abruptly stopped.
The man burst through the cabin door to find a gruesome scene. The eviscerated bodies of his wife and children were strewn about the cabin; their lifeless forms torn to shreds. As he collapsed in horror and disbelief, the eerie wailing started again.
Many versions of the tale do not end there. Some say that after finding his family slain, the man set out again in a murderous rage to hunt down their assailant, only for him to find a ghostly female figure enshrouded in a white mist. The spirit floated through the trees, leaving scorched ground beneath her in a blue, ethereal fire. Another variation says he encountered a great beast with white fur, easily twice the size of a man, with savage claws and teeth. Both of those versions have led paranormal enthusiasts to believe the White Bluff Screamer to be one of two mythical creatures: a Banshee or a cryptid. While no records of a terrible murder like this could be found, locals of White Bluff, Tennessee who keep up with the town’s history, say that this incident happened. Reports say the remains of the man’s cabin are still there, and that the White Bluff Screamer still haunts the area around it.
So, what could the ‘Screamer’ be? A Banshee, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, is a female supernatural being in Celtic folklore who’s nightly wailing foretells the death of a family member of the person who hears it. Banshees are usually associated with Irish legend, but a version of the banshee exists in Welsh and Scottish lore as well. There are also many stories originating in the United States about banshees, particularly in North Carolina and South Dakota.
For those who believe the Screamer is a cryptid of some sort, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in east Tennessee has a few reported sightings of a Bigfoot-type creature, but that is a fair distance from White Bluff. However, Tennessee is covered in large and heavily forested areas. It is possible there is more than one or that perhaps the creature migrates to different parts of the state. Most of the reported cryptid encounters in Tennessee have a somewhat violent twist to them. If this was indeed a cryptid, the massacre of the family fits the profile.
A different possibility involves another long-standing fable in Dickson County: The Legend of Werewolf Springs. This 1860s tale says a passing circus train either stopped unexpectedly or derailed just outside of Burns Station, Tennessee, and many of the circus animals escaped into the surrounding countryside. Any of the animals that could not be recaptured were left behind. Among the elusive escapees were two men known as the “Wolf Men of Borneo”; a side show act that touted these men as half man and half beast, being able to shapeshift at will. The wolf men were not recaptured and were abandoned to their fate in the Tennessee hills.
Two years after the train incident, a local landowner and one of his foremen were passing through an area called Hall Springs, now called Werewolf Springs unofficially, near Burns Station on their way to a homestead in nearby Beckley. It was almost dark and the road was muddy, so their pace was slow. The foreman kept pestering his boss that he felt like something was stalking them. The man dismissed the notion as cowardice and forced the wagon to push on through the night. Suddenly, a wild howl pierced the twilight and a creature emerged on the road behind them running on all fours. The Foreman whipped the mules to go faster but the creature was gaining on them. In a panic, they abandoned their horses and wagon for the woods, fleeing for their lives in different directions. The landowner crashed through the brush as fast as he could go until he heard another wailing howl and the terrified screams of his foreman back the way he had come. He continued to run in fear. The creature never came for him, so he lived to tell the tale.
When he made it back to Burns, he immediately went to the sheriff, who formed a posse to find the foreman and hunt down this creature. They took a goat for bait and headed to an area near the springs where other reports of a strange animal had been described. They hitched the goat to a tree, split into groups of two, and surrounded the clearing with rifles at the ready. The moon was high, and all was quiet. The nervous men kept a sharp eye out for their prey but saw nothing. Around midnight, just as the sheriff was planning to call off the hunt, an ear-shattering scream split the night and a large, hairy creature entered the clearing moving quickly towards the goat. The muzzle flash of hunting rifles cracked out their report as the men yelled to charge the beast. When they lit their lanterns to see if they’d hit it, the creature was gone, along with the goat and two members of the posse that were never seen again.
It is said that next the sheriff contacted a famed big game hunter to slay this beast and brought the man to a remote cabin near the spring to begin his hunt. After two nights of stalking the springs, the hunter found no sign of the beast and returned to the cabin to rest before his third and final night of hunting. When he woke that evening to prepare, a loud wailing howl echoed across the springs. He saw the beast through the window at the edge of the woods and fired at it from inside the cabin. His shots either missed or hit and angered the beast and it charged the cabin.
The door hinges barely held as the beast slammed against the oak planks. The hunter fired shots through the door but couldn’t tell if he hit it or not. He pushed heavy furniture against the door and window, waiting to see where the creature would try next. At one time, a weak area of the back wall was giving way, but after firing his pistol into the wall, the beast abandoned the idea of coming through it. For hours, the creature tested every part of the cabin for weak points and then seemed to leave when it could not get in. The hunter, having experience with stalking dangerous prey, was not so easily fooled. His ammo was low, so he climbed into the rafters for higher ground, reloaded every weapon he had, and waited. His caution paid off, as a few moments later, the beast returned with a renewed vigor, slamming repeatedly into the door until it finally gave way. It charged into the cabin and the hunter opened fire, hitting the beast multiple times. The beast clawed and scratched to try and get to him, but the hunter climbed too high. The story says the sun peaked over the horizon shortly after, and the creature fled the cabin and into the woods as daylight broke.
Further to the north and east of Werewolf Springs, a cave was discovered in an area called Creech Hollow where the beast supposedly lived. Another story of a young girl who disappeared while fetching water from the spring is told, and a search party set out to find her. The searchers found both animal and human bones within the cave, but the girl was never found. The lost cave is now at the bottom of Creech Hollow Lake, a man-made reservoir formed when the park opened. Mule and horse bones have also been found around the Werewolf Springs area.
A State Park Ranger who was familiar with the legend found the remains of a cabin site in between Werewolf Springs and nearby Hall family cemetery, all of which is now part of Montgomery Bell State Park. While the story of the hunter and the cabin comes to mind, it was more likely the cabin belonging to the Halls or one of the many other families that made their home within the area before being declared a park.
Even with a preponderous amount of evidence that the White Bluff Screamer and the beast of Werewolf Springs are myths, many long-time residents of Dickson County around Burns and White Bluff hold on to their claims of having seen and heard the Screamer. They are also open to the notion that the screamer and the beast could be one and the same, roaming the dense woodlands around the park. I have personally camped at Montgomery Bell State Park, both in their beautiful geothermal cabins and a short overnight hike to one of the primitive campsites along the Montgomery Bell Trail. I didn’t make it as far as Werewolf Springs, but I wandered a fair distance into that beautiful wilderness and luckily did not encounter anything resembling the famed beast.
There is also no readily available record of a rail accident involving a circus train. There are rail lines in that area that have followed the same tracks since the mid-1800s, but rail traffic in that time would likely have been troop and munition haulers during the Civil War and not civilian circus trains. That said, there are records of multiple train accidents after the war in that area, though none specifically mention a circus. Many also say that the landowner in the wagon that was stalked by the beast was none other than iron-mining tycoon Montgomery Bell, himself. Yet Bell died in 1855 which is prior to the supposed encounter.
There are also living members of the Hall family who have given accounts of their childhood growing up around the area of Werewolf Springs, and none of those reports include a creature tormenting their family. However, there are still reports of strange happenings in the woods around White Bluff. In one such account, a hunter at his cabin near the park encountered a cryptid-like creature after cleaning and field dressing his deer. He placed the innards in a washtub for later disposal and hung the deer up for skinning. While taking a break on the porch, the woods became strangely quiet when all the sudden, his hunting dogs bayed and scurried into the cabin in fear; tails tucked as they ran. When he stepped off the porch to investigate, around the corner stepped a monstrous white-haired creature. It went after his hunting dogs first, then the hunter himself. He ran for the cabin and locked himself in, barricading the door as his dogs continued barking and howling at the creature outside. The creature wailed and paced on the porch for a long while before finally giving up, stealing his deer and the wash tub of deer parts. He later found the tub in the nearby woods licked completely clean.
Did he encounter the famed White Bluff Screamer? Or was it the beast that gives Werewolf Springs its infamous name? Only one thing is for certain: there is something wailing in the woods around White Bluff, Tennessee, and what it is, no one knows.
Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.
Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s show, we’re talking about one of Tennessee’s most haunted tales, the Headless Signalman and the Chapel Hill Ghost Light.
On a dark and rainy night, a freight train heading south out of Nashville on the L&N rail line was bearing down on Chapel Hill, Tennessee. Several days of heavy rain had washed out part of the fill beneath a stretch of track before the tressel crossing the Duck River, creating a potentially dangerous hazard for trains passing over it. A lone signalman was dispatched up the track with a lantern to warn the locomotive to stop so repairs could be made before the train could safely cross. Donning his oil-treated raincoat and a rusty lantern from the station platform, the signalman began the muddy walk north up the tracks.
Somewhere near the modern-day crossing of the tracks over Logue Street, the signalman felt the familiar rumble of steam-driven steel wheels grinding on the track and the faint headlight in the distance. He watched as the train approached, knowing they probably couldn’t see him through the torrential downpour until they were much closer. He raised his lamp as high as he could, waving the dim light back and forth to catch the engineer’s attention, but the train was not slowing down. He waved it faster, even jumping to give the light an erratic movement, but there was no stopping it. He waited until the last possible minute to move off the tracks, which turned out to be a fatal mistake. The rains made the tracks slick and the signalman slipped, striking his head on one of the rails. At that moment, the engineer noticed the flickering lantern laying in the middle of the track. He sounded the whistle as he pulled the brake, but it was too late. The giant iron engine skidded past the lantern, wheels screeching as steel slid across steel and sparking from the friction. The train finally stopped several hundred yards later, far past where the signalman fell.
The engineer took a lantern of his own and ran back through the night to find the signalman, but all he found was what was left of him. The steel wheels had severed the signalman’s head clean off at the neck, leaving his headless corpse laying in the mud next to the track. Upon seeing the gruesome scene, the engineer dropped his lantern and ran back to the engine shouting, “We hit him! We hit him! What a terrible accident. We hit him!” The Brakeman and Conductor could not console the poor distraught engineer. They put him back in the cab and went back to collect the poor signalman’s headless body. They searched through the pouring rain for hours, but the body was gone. All that remained was a broken flickering lantern in the middle of the track.
Many years later, sightings were reported of a strange light on the tracks to the west of Chapel Hill, and not just by one person. Hundreds of people claim to have witnessed this strange light and none could explain it. Three significant encounters with the light are often repeated. One such story written by Kathryn Tucker Wyndham in her book, Thirteen Tennessee Ghost and Jeffrey, states that in the 1950s, two boys and their uncle were out walking the track one evening looking for the light. One of the boys, Jackie, grew bored and started tossing rocks into the nearby woods. While the other boy, PeeWee, was chiding him for making a racket, he stopped in mid-sentence and stared down the track. There, in the distance was a glowing light the appeared to be moving straight toward them. They all scurried off the track and watched as the strange orb started swooping and swaying erratically around the open area. The light stopped moving, then suddenly, it swooped in at high speed toward them, hitting one of the boys in the chest. The glow disappeared and all was black. The uncle stated that as the orb hit his nephew Jackie, a loud thud was felt through the railroad tie beneath his feet. The boy that the orb hit said afterward that it felt like a powerful force paralyzed him, holding him still. He tried to scream but couldn’t. PeeWee said he also felt a thud through the ground as the orb suddenly reappeared behind Jackie after passing through him, then speeding off down the track and out of sight.
The second tale involves four thrill-seeking boys in the 1970s that decided to investigate the light for themselves. They drove up on the tracks around midnight where the train crosses Depot Street by the old train station. It was a clear and moonless Fall night with a slight fog hovering low to the ground. They pulled up on the crossing grade and put the car in park. The boys on the driver’s side watched down the left side of the tracks while the boys on the passenger side watched the right. They left the car running in case a train came, or if the sheriff pulled up. They didn’t want to get in trouble for parking on the tracks. After a few minutes of watching and poking fun at each other for believing some silly story about ghost lights, a light suddenly appeared in the distance on the passenger side and started moving toward them.
The panicked boys were shouting at the driver to move the car and to get out of there, screaming that it was coming right for them. He slammed the car into gear and floored the pedal, but the car wouldn’t move. They shouted more and more to go, to get the car moving right now, but still, the engine revved and the car would not move. The light moved closer and closer, picking up speed as it approached. They all screamed and braced for impact as the orb collided with their car. Again, a loud thud was reported but the light diminished to a faint glow. In their fright, the boys concluded it must be on top of the car or under it, they didn’t know which. Nothing happened for what seemed like an eternity, then suddenly the glow intensified as the orb continued past them down the track and sped off into the night.
After the light disappeared, the car worked again, and the driver sped off into town to a gas station that was closed for the night. They all got out and sighed with relief after the encounter, trying to make sense of what they had just seen. As the driver rounded the back of the car, he noticed rows of deep scratches in the paint that were not there before.
There is another story of a man who was hit by a train there in Chapel Hill June 8th, 1942, named Skip Adjent. The story of his demise is verifiable, and most folks credit his death as the beginning of the ghost lights. A song was written about him by John Rickman called “Chapel Hill Ghost Light” and recorded in 1977 by Us Two and Him. His lyrics go like this:
Many years ago, along the railroad track one night,
A man was walking home and held a lantern for his light.
He never heard the whistle scream or the mighty engine pound,
He never even knew it when the freight train ran him down.
The engineer ran back in time to see the poor man die,
But as he neared the tragic spot a light rose in the sky.
The lamp the man carried was never found that night,
Now the old folks say above the track, his lantern’s shining bright.
And still, his lantern hangs over the railroad watching every freight train go by.
There’s a ghost light over the railroad shining in the Chapel Hill sky.
The last story about the light takes a darker turn, and this comes from Kathryn Tucker Windham’s book. In December of 1940, a single mother of two teenage boys known as Mrs. Ketchum went missing from her rural home just outside Chapel Hill. Being around Christmas time, the neighbors didn’t worry much about her absence, but thought it strange that the boys didn’t go with her, and even they didn’t know where she went. After two weeks, the boys and the neighbors decided to notify police of the missing woman and an investigation was started. It wasn’t long before suspicions of foul play concerning another reclusive neighbor they linked to her, but they could not confirm what happened to her without a body. Authorities questioned the man relentlessly, and one day, when returning to ask him for additional information, they found him dead of suicide. The townsfolk immediately condemned him as her abductor and that a guilty conscious compelled him to take his own life. Police assumed she must be dead after so much time, so the boys were adopted out to other family in another state and the case remained an unsolved mystery.
Some of the townsfolk were not satisfied that Mrs. Ketchum’s body was never found, so almost a year later, in January 1941, they contacted a well-known clairvoyant named Simon Warner, ironically known as “The Murder Doctor”, who lived in Shelbyville. Mr. Warner had an uncanny knack for finding missing people and things through his gift and agreed to help. Through his methods, it is said he told them she was certainly dead and described a location in exacting detail where Mrs. Ketchum’s body could be found, including the including the plant species of brush she was hidden under. The description was so vivid that some of the townsfolk knew exactly where he was talking about, and a search party was launched. Mrs. Ketchum was found in the exact place Simon Warner said, with every detail correct, even the plant species. Her frozen body was taken to the morgue, where, strangely, long-time local undertaker Thomas Lawrence did not perform an autopsy or list a cause of death on her death certificate before she was buried.
It is said the occurrences of the light did not start until after Mrs. Ketchum was found, and that the light was her spirit erratically wandering the woods near where she died searching for her sons. When a young man is nearby, her light races toward them to see if it is one of her boys and disappears when the spirit of her neighbor and abductor who committed suicide comes for her.
This haunting is difficult to investigate because sightings occur at irregular intervals. Many have claimed to see the strange light. Orbs and ghost lights are seen in many places, particularly in remote sections of the Appalachian Mountains. One of the most famous occurrences of this is the Brown Mountain Lights in North Carolina, which are described identically like the Chapel Hill light. In many cases, the lights are what is called foxfire or swamp gas, a naturally occurring phenomenon made by sudden releases of methane pockets from decomposing organic material. Swamps are hyper-active with decomposition activity, thus the name. These lighter-than-air pockets of flammable gas will sometimes flare up from spontaneous combustion due to the content of phosphine, which reacts violently when exposed to oxygen. This natural occurrence gives the appearance of a floating ball of fire or light. Some skeptics also dismiss this case as light reflection from the train rails, which are dull to the eye from the sides, but shiny and reflective on the top where the train wheels roll over them.
However, if the reports of direct interaction with the orb are true, like Jackie and the four boys stuck in their car, swamp gas and light reflection would not cause a ground-shaking thud nor explain the erratic movement. Many paranormal investigators, both professional and amateur, have captured orbs in photos from haunted places and claim they are spirits on film, but none have ever been proven beyond a doubt to be supernatural. There is also no explanation for the scratches on the back of the car, though such circumstantial evidence is also hardly proof of the light being supernatural. Anything could have caused those marks.
Believers in the legend, and of the paranormal in general, have reported these sightings as possible UFO’s, and there are several occurrences world-wide of “phantom train” legends that roar up and down abandoned tracks or places where significant train accidents have occurred.
With basic research, I found that there was a Ketchum family around the Chapel Hill area on the 1920, 30 and 40 census, but I could not find any mention of an abduction or murder. The story of Skip Adjent is verifiable, however, so much has been written about him because of the lights that it is difficult to discern which is the real story and which is sensationalized. The experiences of the four teenage boys and Jackie being accosted by the light are word-of-mouth. I could not find any official reports of the incidents, but that does not mean they don’t exist.
In the end, there is no definitive proof of the light’s origin, but with the many reported sightings since the 1950s, there is definitely something strange on the tracks around Chapel Hill, and it is not just the trains.
Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.
Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s show, I’ll share with you the Legend of Sadie Baker.
In the 6th Civil District near modern day Manchester, Tennessee lived the Sheltons, a large and prominent well-to-do family who was blessed with multiple healthy children. Their daughters were well-known in the area for their beauty and the sons were handsome and strong. All had many prospects for advantageous marriages until one day, when a beautiful stranger came to town. This legend focuses on the youngest Shelton daughter, a kind-hearted soul named Olivia.
All the Shelton daughters were sought after by many handsome and prosperous suitors, but none were so prized as Olivia. She was the most beautiful maiden in town, with flawless olive skin, curly raven-colored locks, and crystal blue eyes. Young men far and wide vied for her affection and she was the toast of the local gentry. Her parents knew and used that to their social advantage, especially her mother.
One afternoon after a day in town, Olivia encountered a sad-looking beggar girl on the dusty streets of the Manchester shopping district. Olivia had never seen the girl in town before and asked other passers-by about her, yet no one could say who she was or where she came from. The poor thing was a pitiful sight, draped in threadbare rags under a dirty cloak and smelled repugnant, causing the townsfolk to ignore her, or at least avoid walking near her, but not the kind and curious Olivia. She approached, kneeled in front of the sad-looking stranger and asked her name. The girl would not reply or even look up at her. She only extended a dirt caked hand, gesturing for a coin or anything else of value Olivia might be willing to part with. Olivia asked again for her name or if she needed help, but the beggar remained silent, only staring down and holding her hand out. Olivia asked a final time, but as much as she tried, she received no response. Through her boundless sympathy and pity for the downtrodden, and now a strange curiosity about her identity, Olivia pulled her up by the hand. “That settles it then, “she said. “You’re coming home with me, and my family and I are going to help you.” And off they went toward the Shelton house at the edge of town.
When Olivia arrived home with the young girl in tow, her sisters were giddy with the thought of a makeover project, but her mother was not so enthusiastic about Olivia’s new friend. Nevertheless, after all the girls begged to let her stay, Mrs. Shelton finally relented. Olivia and her sisters went to work straight away on cleaning her up. As the grime was slowly wiped away, they were all taken aback by the incredible beauty underneath it all. The girl had flowing golden-white locks, flawless pale skin and bright green eyes. Her slight frame fit into Olivia’s best dresses too easily. It is said that the sisters became insanely jealous of this new diamond in the rough, but none so much as Olivia’s mother. Mrs. Shelton saw this silent street rat’s beauty as a threat to her own daughter’s place as the most beautiful girl in Manchester, and that simply would not do.
Her fears were proven true later that day, as Mr. Shelton and his sons arrived home from a hard day’s work. At dinner, they barely spoke or ate as the gob smacked Shelton boys were enthralled by the stunning beauty of this young girl. She had probably not eaten in some time, and voraciously yet gracefully ate her fill without ever speaking a word.
In the following days, Olivia’s brothers are said to have fought with each other for the beautiful stranger’s attention, though she paid them nor anyone else any mind. The quiet girl just kept to herself and never spoke. Her lack of enthusiasm toward the boys didn’t stop them from bragging around town about the stunning new resident at the Shelton’s house. As word spread through the small town of her presence, the usual gentlemen callers that normally came to see Olivia and her sisters lost interest in them. Instead, they all clamored for a glimpse of the beautiful stranger behind their door.
Olivia was not jealous of the girl like her sisters were. In fact, she made every effort to be the girl’s friend, even though she never got any response for her efforts. However, all the unnatural devotion from the Shelton boys and the other male townsfolk was not lost on the keen eyes of Olivia’s mother. This mysterious girl became the talk of the town and left Mrs. Shelton facing a southern societal conundrum. She could not kick the girl out on the street for fear of appearing to be a less-than-gracious hostess, and surely someone else in town would scoop up the young maiden for their own benefit, creating even more of a suitor rivalry for the Shelton girls. Her only option was to forcefully keep the girl as a captive house guest. Mrs. Shelton would lock her away from the town for as long as it took until marriage proposals for Olivia and her sisters could be negotiated. She forbade all the Shelton men from speaking to anyone about her presence anymore. She then sat the girl in their parlor and explained that she was not safe outside, and that great harm would befall her if she left the house.
The girl did not protest her imprisonment. She just stared at the floor and never uttered a word.
Olivia’s world came crashing down one Spring afternoon when her most eligible gentleman caller, a handsome young man from another prominent family and Olivia’s sweetheart, called on their blonde house guest for a stroll about town instead of her. The visit sent Mrs. Shelton into a rage, and a crying and heartbroken Olivia pleaded with her mother to throw the girl back out into the street or at least send her away to some other town. She could not be consoled about the loss of her sweetheart, locking herself in her room and crying through the night. That’s when her mother decided to act.
She called on the local minister and insisted the only explanation for all this strange behavior was that this enigmatic girl must be a witch. How could a common beggar girl who would not speak a word and hardly left the house have captured the attention of every man in town? The minister needed little convincing, since he, too, had witnessed his congregation’s strange infatuation with her grow since her arrival. He sent word to convene the town council for a trial. Mrs. Shelton demanded the council pass judgement without the girl’s presence, as the council were all men and they, too, could be bewitched by her devilry. The minister agreed, and the council convened for judgement without allowing the girl any representation or a chance to defend herself. The trial commenced, and the fiery speech of the minister and scandalous accusations by Mrs. Shelton whipped the town into a moral frenzy. That was all they needed. Within moments, a verdict was passed.
They declared her a witch without any further evidence and immediately debated how to proceed with ridding the town from her spell. After debating the options of traditional punishments for witchcraft, such as hanging, drowning, or burning at the stake, a vote was taken that she would be buried alive and covered with large rocks so she could not escape the grave. A mob was dispatched to the Shelton house to retrieve her, and the rest were sent to the cemetery to find rocks and hastily dig a deep grave.
The silent girl was drug from her bed in the middle of the night by her golden hair. She was stripped, bound to a pole, and roughly dragged through the dirt streets where Olivia originally found her. The townsfolk spit on her and cursed her as she was shoved mercilessly toward the fresh hole in the Earth where they would bury her, yet through the horrible shame and torment, she did not resist and still said nothing.
Olivia suddenly had a change of heart, feeling responsible for this cruelty after seeing the rage of her neighbors carried out on this poor girl whose only crime was being prettier than her. She ran into the fray to try and stop the procession, placing herself between kicks and punches and pleading with them to stop, but she was unsuccessful. When the mob arrived at the cemetery, they stood the girl up at the edge of the hole where she looked around at the angry torch-lit faces of the men who were once smitten with her and the women who cursed and despised her. She suddenly locked eyes with a distraught Olivia; her bleeding and swollen face flew into a rage as she shouted the only words anyone ever heard her speak.
“I am Sadie Baker!”
They pushed her in and took turns throwing down the rocks, burying the helpless young girl under a small mountain of stone.
Several months passed, and life returned to the normal that the Sheltons were accustomed to. All of the sons and daughters were now married off to start families of their own.Last to marry was young Olivia, who ended up marrying the sweetheart she so adored. At first, there was bliss in their house. Olivia’s husband worked hard and provided a wonderful living, and they talked regularly of grand plans and having children. All seemed right for a while until one night, while preparing for bed, Olivia’s husband found her sitting and absently staring at her reflection in the dressing mirror. Her raven locks were clutched tightly in her clenched fists. When he asked her if she was alright, she screamed and accused him of wanting a family with Sadie instead of her. She then cried herself to sleep, and every night thereafter.
The strange paranoia continued for several days as she cursed her long dark hair and olive skin, hating how she looked. She told him she wished she looked like Sadie so he would love her again. He assured her he loved her now, but her fury would not let her hear him. Olivia would not eat or sleep. She sat and stared blankly into the mirror and pulled at her hair. He begged the town doctor for help, but no balm or tincture would calm Olivia’s mind. He then went to the minister, who declared that Sadie’s final words at the grave had bewitched Olivia, and that it must be Sadie’s spirit trying to take over her body. He desperately wanted to ease his wife’s pain, and out of desperation, he allowed the minister to treat her. A violent exorcism was performed, among other religious rituals to expel the tormented spirit, but nothing worked. Olivia’s condition worsened by the day.
One evening, Olivia’s husband arrived home to find her in front of the mirror again with a wide-eyed and wild stare. Her head was a mess of chopped and jagged tufts, and small bleeding cuts from the garden shears she used to cut off all her hair. Her long, raven-colored locks laid in clumps on the floor. All Olivia would say is that the ugly dark hair did not belong with her new beautiful blonde hair. She repeatedly asked him if he liked it. When he tried to calm her, she attacked him again, throwing him to the floor and pouncing on top of him with a feral snarl. She screamed into his face, “I AM SADIE BAKER!” then sprinted out of the house and into the darkened woods, never to be seen again.
Around the cemetery where Sadie was buried, reports persisted for many years after of a woman’s maniacal laughter and blood-curdling screams coming from the surrounding woods. They believed it to either be Olivia suffering the guilt of causing Sadie to be buried alive, or it was the spirit of Sadie Baker herself, returned to find her body under the stones. It was said until Sadie found her body, she would curse those who came to her grave and not leave a coin, just as Olivia should have done when they first met in the dusty streets.
I do not usually make a habit of debunking myths, however, in my research, I cannot corroborate the story in any capacity and must relegate it to local word-of-mouth folklore. The last official witch trial in the United States was held in 1918 just over 100 years ago, and, ironically, happened in Salem, Massachusetts. There is a possibility that an incident like this could have occurred in Tennessee, as many people were falsely persecuted as witches in many places throughout world history.
As for this legend, there is little known about the life of the real Sadie Baker, but this grave and the story that is attached to it that has stirred so many minds to think the grave belongs to a beautiful witch that was buried alive, when it definitely does not. The evidence I have found about the real Sarah ‘Wileman’ Baker in that grave is that she was born in Georgia around 1804 and was the widow of a Samuel Baker who was killed in 1838 during the Seminole War in Florida. By the 1860 Census, Sarah, at the age of 57, lived in the 6th Civil District of Coffee County near Manchester, along with eight various other Bakers as young as 1 years old, likely a grandchild. On that same census, there are several records of the Shelton family and their children living in the same district, but I could not find any named Olivia. Though an exact date isn’t certain, it seems she died in or around 1865 right after the end of the American Civil War. Based on property records, she was the only Sarah Baker in Coffee County at that time. Since Sadie is a derivative nickname of Sarah, this is most likely the Sarah Baker that passed in 1865 at 61-ish years old, and not a young girl thought to be a witch and buried alive.
The Sadie Baker story is well known in the paranormal world, and no new ground was broken by my investigation. However, even though it appears this legend is easily debunked, an air of mystery still surrounds the grave site. Many modern-day visitors have reported unsettling feelings of dread and fear even after just a brief time at the cemetery, and of being watched, particularly around Sadie’s grave.
Believers who make the pilgrimage to Sadie’s final resting place still leave a coin atop her stone, homage to her first encounter with Olivia begging for spare change and a hope the coin will placate Sadie’s restless spirit. I decided to see for myself what the fuss was about and visited her grave at the Concord Cemetery in Coffee County, Tennessee on April 7th, 2022.
It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon, just over 50 degrees; sunny and breezy. I wandered around the gravestones alone for about 30 minutes to get a feel of the place, trying to recreate the experiences others have reported. I’m happy to report, I did not feel any of those things. I’ve spent a lot of time in cemeteries hunting for my ancestor’s graves and have always found peace while walking among the dead. Concord Cemetery was no different. Though only 200 yards from a busy highway, it was remarkably quiet and peaceful. The only noticeable sound was the sway of the tall cedars on the property from the gentle northerly breeze.
After a time, I visited with Sadie at her stone. I never once felt uneasy or the sudden urge to glance over my shoulder. She is interred right at the front of the cemetery near the small redbrick church building that stands sentinel over the hillside plots. Her carved marble block stands low, just about ankle high; her infamous nickname emblazoned in bold black letters. Not Sarah, but Sadie. There are no dates of birth or death, no words of inspiration. Just a cold piece of marble marking the final resting place of a local legend, and her name is all that remains.
Other visitors had left pennies on top of her stone, as well as a small horseshoe, unlit candles, small crystal stones, some artificial flowers and a small green bottle marked “unfiltered poison”. While I’m not sure of the significance of the other items, I understand the coins and their attachment to the legend. Before I departed, I left a coin of my own on top of her stone. Though I’m not a believer in the legend, I still felt it appropriate to pay my own respects to the woman’s name that adorns the title of my first podcast, and just in case the story is true, I’d rather be safe than sorry!
Thank you for listening to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast inaugural episode. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.
I wrote a letter once to a personal hero of mine named Homer Hickam. He went from a financially challenged coal mining town in West Virginia to be one of the foremost NASA rocket engineers of his time. If you’ve seen the movie October Sky or read his book Rocket Boys, you know his story and you know what he had to do to get where he wanted to go. In the letter he wrote back to me, he had this to say about pushing yourself to succeed:
“The Rocket Boys succeeded with their rockets and with their lives because the followed what I call the three P’s for a happy and successful life: Passion, Planning, and Perseverance.”
The tenets I will explain here are tried, tested, and true methods for achieving the three P’s you may be after in your life, and it all starts with setting objectives that lead you to your goals. Think for a moment about something you have always wanted to do. That item you just thought of is your goal. Goals describe the purpose or result toward which some effort is directed. Goals usually do a good job of describing the desired results but provide few specific tactics.
Now think about what you must do to get there. Some goals are easy, low-hanging fruit that can be obtained instantly or over a short term. Others will take years of preparation and planning to realize and are reached through specific steps. These specific steps are your objectives. Objectives are often more detailed and easier to measure than goals. Objectives are the basic tools that underlie all the planning and strategic activities you have to undertake. They define tactics and action plans that get you to your goals.
Be S.M.A.R.T. About It
All that sounds much more complicated than it really is, especially if you know how to map those objectives. If you don’t map a map, that’s what will make all your goals hard to reach. Many know where they want to be at the end, but few can plot the course to get there. To be sure that your goals and objectives are clear, try putting them up against the S.M.A.R.T. test:
S—Specific: What are you trying to accomplish, and is your objective precise in targeting your goal?
M—Measurable: What metric will you use to measure your progress or success?
A—Attainable: Is this goal something you can actually do, or is it an unachievable carrot on a stick?
R— Relevant: What is this goal or objective mean to you? What is it going to do for your success in your bigger picture?
T—Timely: Can it be achieved within your resources and within the time you’ve allowed yourself to reach this goal?
The S.M.A.R.T. test was developed by George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham in their 1981 article “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives”, and while trying to fit a goal to every letter of the acronym, the authors left you some wiggle room in their formula. When applying this method, remember that not every goal worth achieving is measurable, and each objective does not require the agreement of others. However, sticking close to this method will increase your chances of success in reaching your goals, or perhaps expose the reasons why you should alter a goal that could be unmeasurable or unattainable. In a team setting, this method is powerful and can save your department valuable time and money.
Stages of Team Development
Let’s apply the above method to a workplace team setting. You have now set objectives and goals for your team using the S.M.A.R.T. method. What happens next? Another tenet Mr. Hickam touched on in his letter to me is the teamwork, and sometimes the lack thereof, among The Rocket Boys while trying to build and launch their test rockets. In October Sky, they go through different phases of team cohesiveness much like a group of co-workers can find themselves in when things aren’t going well, or when the team is firing on all cylinders.
Educational psychologist Bruce W. Tuckman suggested that all teams go through four distinctive stages in their development. They were originally referred to as Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing, and this simple model has been in use since he unveiled it in 1965. The model offers important insight for organizing, building, and leading a team that can help you recognize which phase your team is in and ways to move forward. Let’s take a look at each phase and see if you can spot where your team is in right now.
Forming (High Enthusiasm, Low Skills)
When in the Forming stage, team members exhibit high enthusiasm and motivation for doing something new, though their skills and productivity concerning this new activity are low. Team members will come with high, unrealistic expectations accompanied by some anxiety about what their new role is, how much they can trust others on the team, and what demands will be placed on them. Team members are also unclear about norms, roles, goals, or timelines of others while everyone finds their place. Behavior is usually tentative and polite, with many not wanting to step on toes just yet. In this stage, there is high dependence on the leadership figure for purpose and direction. If the leader neglects their duty to the team, secondary leaders will assume the reins and confusion quickly follows concerning who is in charge. An effective leader of a team that is forming will do lots of careful explaining to help the team understand exactly what the leader expects them to do.
Storming (Low Enthusiasm, Low Skills)
As the team gets some experience under its belt, there is a decline in morale as team members experience a rude awakening between their initial Forming-Stage expectations and reality. The difficulties in working together to accomplish objectives can lead to confusion and frustration. In some cases, there can also be a growing dissatisfaction with dependence upon the leadership figure. Negative reactions to each other develop, and subgroups can form which polarize the team. Even the leader can fall victim to this bump in the road. The breakdown of communication and the inability to problem-solve result in overall lowered trust. At times, the frustration builds to where team members might choose to leave rather than commit to resolving the conflict, adding more stress to an already overtaxed team.
A team that is in the Storming stage will have less enthusiasm and motivation for doing something new or working together. Conflict in the phase can be rampant while skills and productivity are still low. Leaders in the Storming stage can weather the storm by continuing to make objectives and expectations clear by demonstrating to the team how they can succeed and know when and when not to get involved. A key to managing this phase is remembering to publicly recognize your successes. The world is full of insecure people who have been told their whole lives they were never good enough, and I’m willing to bet you have more than one of them on your team right now. This is your chance to start them on a new path toward self-confidence and the willingness to grow by taking a chance and buying in to your system of leadership. Improvement is always necessary, but if you act as if you think their efforts are half empty, that’s how they’ll feel and that’s how they’ll perform. Focus on what’s right versus what you perceive to be wrong.
Norming (Rising Enthusiasm, Growing Skills)
Teams in this stage will likely exhibit higher enthusiasm and motivation to achieve their goals. As the issues encountered in the Storming Phase are addressed and resolved, there is a noticeable uptick in morale and task accomplishment. The team starts thinking in terms of “we” rather than “I” and mountains become mole hills. Team members are more positive toward each other and the goal. Trust and cohesion grow as communication becomes more open and task oriented. To-do checklists grow smaller. There is a willingness to share responsibility and control. This phase can be the most rewarding for leaders and teams due to increased commitment to purpose, roles, and goals. However, beware the pitfalls.
Even the best of teams can find themselves in trouble during this phase because the euphoric feelings of trust and cohesion are still fragile. Team members sometimes avoid conflict for fear of upsetting the positive atmosphere, and that reluctance deal with conflict can bog down progress and cause fewer effective decisions. Leaders of teams in the Norming stage can gain success by offering team members copious amounts of freedom to act on their own but standing ready with guidance and coaching when the team needs it.
Performing (High Enthusiasm, High Skills)
This is the phase all teams strive for. In the Performing stage, teams have higher enthusiasm and motivation to reach their goals, and their skills are up to the task. All cylinders are firing, and life is good!
At this stage there is a sense of pride and excitement in being part of a high-functioning team. All members focus on performance and readily assist others. Purpose, roles, and goals are clear. Standards are high, and there is a commitment to not only meeting those standards, but to exceeding them. Team members are confident in their ability to perform and overcome obstacles. They are proud of their work and enjoy working together. Communication is open and leadership is shared among the team. Mutual respect and trust are not the exception, they are the rule.
The pitfall of a high performing team is complacency. A Performing stage leader continues to enable team members to take ownership and to keep moving toward their goals, both for the team and for them personally. Leaders in this stage also must be mindful to identify and develop new leadership potential. Every leader should be looking to train their replacement, and high performing teams is where you will find them. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: EVERY LEADER SHOULD BE LOOKING TO TRAIN THEIR REPLACEMENT!
Good leaders can anticipate what a team is likely to go through and navigate their team to a better position to reach the goal on their own. Recognition of the stage your team is in is a critical skill. Once you learn to identify the signs, you can draw your map to move to your next objective and migrate toward the ultimate Performing stage. Spotting the signs can prevent team members from being staggered or depressed by the negative elements during the Storming stage. Strategies can be developed to smooth the progress of an evolving team by establishing ground rules for the Norming stage. Leaders of Performing teams can positively influence others by example and sharing their methods for success.
An interesting aspect of this concept is that teams may progress through different stages at different speeds and can find themselves in more than one stage at a time. Be careful not to set time limits for your team to break through a stage. Teams should avoid making self-fulfilling prophecies about how long each stage will last, because they will almost always be wrong.
It is also possible to regress to an earlier stage as changes within the team occur, a process that can be affected by the individuality of team members and their personal progress. Not everyone on the team will always be on the same page. One of the biggest reasons for regression is a change in mission or leadership vision. When that occurs, the usual fallback is the Forming stage, as the anxiety of learning and meeting expectations starts over again until everyone learns their role.
A team responds best to leadership tailored to the stage the team is experiencing now, and good leaders should develop more than one leadership style to navigate it. When unveiling a new set of objectives or taking on a new team, the leader must assess the level of enthusiasm and skill exhibited with respect to the set goals, then match their style of leadership to the people and the situation.
There are two final items Mr. Hickam shared with me in his letter that I would like to share with you, and these can apply to any professional or personal situation in your life. For the first one, he said, “Nothing will happen if no one takes the initiative to make it so. To be passive and wait for something good to happen in your life is probably to experience vast disappointment.” Take a look at your list of goals. Are you actively pursuing them or are you waiting for them to happen to you? The second thing he said was, “It is my belief that there are no boundaries to excellence and success except for those we place on ourselves.” Take a look at your list of goals again. Read them out loud and ask yourself what is holding you back from checking each of them off? Now apply those same quotes and questions to your team. What is holding your team back from accomplishing their objectives and reaching their goals? You’ll likely find the only thing holding you back both personally and professionally is the boundaries you’ve placed on yourself.
January 2022 – This is my first article in a series I’m calling Be a Better Leader. Each month in 2022, I will share with you some useful tips and tricks on leadership that I’ve learned through the years.
There is no shortage of resources on leadership in the world. Books, magazines, Ted Talks, blogs, vlogs, websites, flyers, Prezis, Power Points and the list goes on. So, what makes this article any different than all those others?
Other than occasional witty banter, nothing you are about to read is something that hasn’t been said a thousand times before in a thousand other places. But do you know what will make this particular article different? You. You’re here reading it because you want to learn something. What makes this article different is what you will do with this information after you read it. No difference will be made by these words. The difference will be made by your implementation of these practices to make you a better communicator and leader.
The Blueprint of Communication
Aristotle is remembered by history as a pretty smart guy, and he summed up the blueprint of communication over two-thousand years ago. His summation applies almost the same today as it did in his time. Are you ready? This is a hard concept. You’re going to want to write this down. According to Aristotle, communication has three components: the sender, the receiver, and the message. Now that’s an earth-shattering revelation, right?
There is no fluff in his analysis, but here’s where the modern era pokes holes in his simplicity. He’s right about the physical parts of a message—if I write instructions on a card and hand it to you, we’ve technically met Aristotle’s definition. The card says, “Go do X-Y-Z.” I’m the sender, you’re the receiver, and the card is the message. Now, is that all you need to go do X, Y and Z? Maybe, but maybe not. We don’t live in Aristotle’s world anymore, and what may have worked back then has become an extremely nuanced skill that few possess in the modern era. One key unlocks this skill. To be a good communicator, you have to learn to listen.
Good communication begins with intentional active listening by both the receiver and the sender. When your staff is speaking to you, don’t get in their way. Don’t let your thoughts, opinions or agendas interrupt active listening. Hear them. Whether working with one person or a thousand, a good communicator will listen to their receivers by paying attention to both the spoken and unspoken signals that indicate whether the message is getting through. Communication then becomes a two-way process, not just instructions on a card. Both the sender and the receiver have responsibilities to make the message happen, and never overlook constructive feedback from the receiver to help guide you as the sender.
Aristotle leaves out the details, particularly three critical caveats that are needed for good communication. Those are intent of the sender, clarity of the message, and perception of the receiver. If you want people to trust you and value your presence, you’d better trust them and value their presence. When a sender is not actively listening to their receiver, that’s when communication barriers pop up.
Common Barriers of Communication
I am inundated with weekly calls from someone out there who is worried to death about my car’s extended warranty. You probably receive these calls, too. Do you hang up instantly once you hear that pre-recorded voice, or are you an empath that politely waits to tell the person that finally picks up no thank you? If you wait for the spiel to finish and let them down easy, you’re a better person than me because I either prank them or hang up pretty quickly.
Why do we hang up?
It’s because the caller on the other end has not and does not make any attempt to break through the barriers to effective communication and deliver their message. Here are some of those barriers they commonly ignore, and tips on how to work around them.
Lack of Common Ground
The person calling knows nothing about me except that I probably have a credit card and I obviously have a phone since I answered it.
How to overcome it: The more you know about a person, the greater is the common experience that you share, and the easier communication becomes. Before you can lead others towards a goal, you must first seek to understand how they see themselves in the world you are trying to create. Getting to know your staff and letting them get to know you allows for an opportunity to meet on a common ground. Make efforts to learn the entire employee professionally, not just the part that gets the work done. When staff feels cared for, camaraderie, teamwork, and commitment are the result. Your communications will be much stronger when bound by mutual respect rather than authoritative fear. Leaders must be careful here to understand where the boundary lies between getting to know your employees and becoming buddies with them. Beware of the pitfalls!
Pro tip: People tend to express who they are as well as their likes by what they display in their work areas. Pay attention to what they display and recognize common inroads.
Lack of Sincerity
The caller is only interested in making a sale. They are not concerned with any long-term satisfaction with a product or service, or that I even need their service.
How to overcome it: It is difficult to lead without earning trust, and without trust, nothing you ever say will be sincere. A lot of ingredients go into building trust, but it starts with being present. Being present isn’t a skill. It’s a commitment and it takes sincerity. Make other people a priority, set aside distractions, listen to understand their point of view and, most of all, demonstrate that you care. The sender must care about the message and care about the receiver of that message. Otherwise, there is no point in passing it along.
Pro tip: Your staff may not need you all the time. But when they do need you, they need all of you. Be present and learn to recognize when you need to step in and when you need to step back.
Lack of Authority
The caller is hired simply to make the calls and read a script. They know nothing about what I drive or it’s current condition. There is a good chance the caller is unqualified to answer questions of substance about the product or anything about my car.
How to overcome it: Ideally, a leader should know what they are talking about. However, there will be times when the leader is not an expert in a subject or simply doesn’t know the answer. What becomes important then is the willingness to learn along with the staff and be coachable. If I tell you, “I know nothing about astronomy, but I’m leading a star party this Friday night and I need you to be there.” I essentially just told you this is my program, I don’t know what I’m doing, and you’re going to be there to help make me look good or we’re going to look bad together. You’re probably thinking, ‘this is going to be a disaster’. But if I say, “I can’t tell the difference between the Big Dipper and the moon, but I’d like to have this event and I need your help. Let’s research how to host a star party, find an expert to help, and put on a good show.” While the leader’s technical skill in this area may not be high, their ability as a good communicator maintains their authority while engaging you in a potentially interesting and worthwhile learning experience.
Pro tip: Don’t be a know-it-all and know when to seek help. If you don’t know an answer, don’t make one up. Find out. Nothing erodes authority and trust faster than a leader who is consistently wrong.
Lack of Clarity
The caller may exaggerate, blur the truth, or fail to mention weaknesses of a product to land the sale. They have made no attempt to earn our trust or prove they are being honest about the benefits of their product.
How to overcome it: Your words create your world. Trying to hide part of a message or twist the truth leads to fuzziness and confusion on the receiving end. Leaders who are good communicators can reshape the perceived reality of any situation by choosing the right words, so reduce the fluff, get to the point and be clear with your intent. It’s vitally important to think through your thoughts before putting them into words because the next thing out of your mouth could have a lasting effect on the relationship with your staff, be it good or bad. Leaping before we look gets us into trouble all the time. Think it through and listen first before speaking. Leaders who care about their messages and care about their receivers and communicate with clarity.
Pro tip: When communicating electronically, use every tool at your disposal to ensure your spelling and grammar are correct. Message clarity is easily lost when the receiver has to wade through a mire of mistakes. If grammar isn’t your strong suit, don’t feel embarrassed to recruit a proofreader.
Poor Presentation Skills
Callers may badger people or argue with them, be bored because this is their hundredth call of the day, distracted, unprepared to answer the simplest of questions, or barely there at all. The listener tunes them out with ease.
How to overcome it: There is no magic formula for this one. Presentation skill is simply practice, practice, and more practice. Even if you’re terrified of public speaking, accept any and all offers to address groups. Recruit your family to be a practice audience. Present your topic to your pets (sounds silly, I know, but it works), or use a mirror and speak to yourself. Also, anticipate the weak points of your discussion and develop responses to potential tough questions. Master the art of research and becoming an instant expert when needed. If you sound like you know what you’re talking about, you’re halfway to a good presentation.
Pro tip: If you have a script, presentation, or speech to give, read it out loud to yourself. Your ears will pick up problems with clarity and errors in grammar more than your eyes.
Lack of Receptiveness
The caller is not receptive to any of your needs outside of making the sale and getting your credit card number. Any discussion that isn’t leading toward a sale for the caller is wasted time.
How to overcome it: Much like in real estate, where you’ll hear location repeated three times as the most important tenet, communication has a mantra, too: timing, timing, and timing. If you’ve gotten to know your staff, you know when they are the most productive and when they struggle. You’ve learned most of their strengths and weaknesses. Using these clues, you also can surmise the best time to tell them important information and dole out important tasks. Time is especially valuable in the workplace, so work with the times you know your staff to be the most receptive.
Pro tip: Learn to be succinct. Articulate your points in the most uncomplicated manner possible for best results.
Callers disrupt our personal or family time, often calling during the dinner hour. This intrusion into the home environment generally makes people less receptive to their message than if they were to receive that same message in an e-mail or mailed flyer, for example.
How to overcome it: As stated above, timing is everything. If you drop a massive change bomb on your staff at the end of a workday or right before a weekend, chances are you just ruined their off time, and there’s a greater chance the important details will be lost in the noise of life outside of work. Unless it’s dire to pass the message along, it’s likely better to wait until you have the receiver’s full attention. A good communicator recognizes opportunities to get the most bang for their buck to get a message across with the least amount of disruption. Sometimes you have information that just can’t wait, and everyone needs to be brought in quickly. Be aware of possible diminishing returns in message reception if your timing is off.
Pro tip: Choose the right delivery method for the type of message you’re sending. Face-to-face meetings are expensive in both time and dollars, and not always necessary when a call or e-mail would suffice. Be efficient and considerate of your audience with your communication methods.
Even with all these barriers to good communication, companies still invest millions of dollars into this business model of cold-call selling for an extended warranty you may or may not need. That tells you that even with these barriers, this method still works. Now, step back and think how successful these calls could be if they made any effort to overcome these communication barriers. They may convince you to buy an extended warranty after all!
Think about how successful you could be if you found ways to get over communications barriers with your staff. Here’s a challenge for you: Next time one of your staff makes a mistake, before you deliver your reprimand I want you to really scrub how you communicated your expectations to them. Were your instructions clear? Did you send a mixed message? Did you give partial information? Did you expect them to just “know” what you wanted?
Sometimes the mistake they made is actually yours from poor communication. If it was your fault, own it, then let the employee know you own it and help them fix it. You’ll see an instant improvement.
In February, I’ll share with you one of my favorite leadership topics: Coaching and Mentoring! Until then…
I’ve always been at home on the water. Any water, be it a river or a fishing pond, a trickling brook or the vast oceans. While the eyes of many explorers look to the heavens and the far away stars, my heart has always dreamed of the deep places beneath the waves.
As an orphan growing up on the wharves, I wander the dock under the bows at port trying to guess their country of origin by what flies on the jack staff. As the ships roll in, I sit among the barrels and listen to the sailors talk in between the cries of the fishmongers about cockles and mussels for sale. I revel in the tales they spin. They tell me of treacherous sirens and beautiful mermaids, of cutthroat pirates and buried golden treasures. Some are lies, for certain, but those make the best tales. One even claims he saw a kraken. I may be ten, but I am not that gullible. There’s no such creature as a kraken. Some teach me knots while others toss me a tuppence for directions to the nearest ale houses and brothels. I learned my ropes and took many a coin for helping them navigate the town, but I would trade all the knots and coins I’ve earned for a berth on the next ship out. I dream only of the sea.
One particular night, down past the rocky point where the gulls won’t fly because the water roils there with some black evil in the depths, a great storm brewed up. It raged for three whole days wreaking havoc on the local fisherman’s haul. Ships are stranded in port while the sea rages on in unrivaled fury. On the second night, a sloop-of-war hobbles out of the blackness and into my port, her rigging looking a fright after her tempest-tossed lashing from the waves. The captain, a Dutch fellow by the name of Homburg, expertly pilots his battered oaken beast, Hollandia, right to the offing. I’m certain at launch, her lines were clean and her hull ship-shape and Bristol-fashion. This brutal storm, however, has made her a right mess. The sailors debark in a heap of ragged humanity, some vomiting, some kissing the dock as they file off the gangplank and cross themselves like some water-logged priests at an oceanic mass. Their survival is a miracle for sure, and they all credit the captain with saving their souls.
I stand there, my maw gaping open like a cracked barnacle, as the bedraggled men stagger past. Captain Homburg is last off, limping and bloodied at his left eye. The sailors take no notice of me, but the captain does. Even with one eye, he is observant of everything. “You there, wharf rat,” he calls out. I can’t answer. My voice rasps like a weak breeze as the old salt gimps toward me. His remaining good eye looks me over, then he flips me a silver piece. “None among us have the legs left to stand watch tonight, boy,” he growls with a rumbling Jutlandic tone. “See that my Hollandia remains undisturbed ’til morning and there’ll be ten more of those for ‘ya.” Eleven silver pieces! I’ve never seen so much money in my life! I puff out my chest and salute smartly like I’ve seen so many sailors do when addressed by their officers. “Good lad.” He hobbles off into the night as I take my first watch with glee.
The bright streaks of morning warm my face as I stand on the abaft railing facing east to greet the sun. My first watch is a grand success. All supplies are accounted for. Not only did I fend off imaginary bandits through the night, but, in my moon-lit boredom, I also untangled and re-lashed two running backstays. I contemplated climbing them up the mast myself, but decided against it in case my imagined saboteurs scaled the anchor ropes while I was away. Captain Homburg is most pleased with my efforts as were the sailors. Two of them hoist me on their shoulders, parading me around with a cheer as if I am the hero of the day. Soon after, they go about the rest of the work, refitting planks and hauling sails with block and tackle larger than my whole body. The deck is a bustling hive of sailors preparing to go back to sea. For a moment, I am one of the crew. Oh, how I long to be one of them forever!
For two days, I man the bottom of the gangplank under Hollandia as she becomes seaworthy once again. The sailors jeer and joke with me as they pass to and fro, tussling my hair and giving a wink and nod. The ship’s carpenter, Billy Fleet, thanks me for my expert advice on which planks are ridden with woodworms and which are not. I learn all the sailor’s names. There’s Salty Jack, Paul the Butcher, Mister Killingsworth, Hatchet, Helmsman Reed, Bosun’s Mate Peterman, and One-Eyed William Hastings, the scourge of the Black Isles. I have never heard of the Black Isles, but he must have done something terrible there. He is missing a hand and has a patch over his eye. It appears he earned his moniker the hard way. All of their names are as colorful as the men who wear them. Salty Jack enlists me to freshen up the paint on the prow figurehead; a life-size nude likeness of Eirene, the daughter of Poseidon.
“Carved her meself, I did!” exclaims Salty Jack with his jack-o-lantern toothless grin—which is also how he got his name. “With Eirene on the prow, the god of the sea always favors us. Paint her up right, and don’t be touching her breasts now. They may be wood, but I did carve them mighty nice and tempting!” His guffaw turns my face every shade of red in the paint palette. The other sailors join in having a laugh at my innocent expense. It’s all in good fun, however the last laugh is mine. When no one was looking, I gave them both a good squeeze.
At long last, the morning arrives when Hollandia must depart, bound for service off the Spanish coast. Admiral Nelson is assembling the fleet and taking the fight to Napoleon. I listen as Captain Homburg reads the orders to his sailors, that Hollandia will join the blockade forming near Trafalgar in hopes to starve out the French and their allies. The crew cheers at the prospect of action. I look on as they make ready to weight anchor, and I long to haul the rope alongside Mister Killingsworth. I swell with pride as Bosun’s Mate Peterman hoists the Meteor Flag of Old England boasting the King’s Colors at the canton. The banner catches high in the morning breeze, snapping crisp like the gnashing teeth of a lion ready to pounce.
Though my heart is full for the experience, I am saddened to stand at the end of the dock on that grey, foggy morning knowing that was as far as I would ever go to sea. A single tear rolls down my cheek and I steel myself for the hard goodbyes I will have to say. As Hatchet and One-Eyed William roll the last barrels of salt pork and dried fish up the gangplank, Captain Homburg limps to my side. “You’ve done us a great service, lad,” he tells me in a soft voice; softer than I thought possible out of the old seaman. “Your jolly countenance has lifted the hearts of these old sea dogs, myself included. Me and the crew like the cut of your jib.” He places his rough and reassuring hand on my shoulder. “We lost our last cabin boy in the storm that brought us here. Useless as he was at sea, he was good for a shanty and divvying the rum rations, and the men miss him. You’ve got some wits and decent skills with a rope. What say you, boy? Will you join us in his stead?”
An hour later, I am standing above Eirene’s freshly-painted likeness on the prow of the Hollandia while the brisk salty air whirls around me in a tempest. The gulls dive and soar through the sails as we cross into the deep blues and blacks of the channel. The mist breaks, revealing the sun glittered-waves sparkling like so many diamonds adorning the Crown Jewels. Their brilliance stings my eyes with their shimmering brightness. I howl and hoot like a wild dog filled with sheer joy of a fresh kill. There is no sensation to compare with this. The whole world could end after this day and I would not have a care. At long last, I am at sea. I am at home.
By nightfall, my elation is cut to the quick. The gentle rolling waves of my first day turn into the stuff of nightmares as Hollandia goes headlong into the teeth of another raging storm. Captain Homburg has lashed himself to the helm as the roiling black where the gulls dare not fly does it’s level best to take us under. I can hear his laughter through the cracks of thunder. He spits curses and dares the sea to take him. The crew below decks whispers of the ship being overwhelmed, maybe even cursed. They vomit and cross themselves as I saw them do before. Others bail helplessly against the ocean’s onslaught as plank after plank gives way to the icy north Atlantic waters. The salt spray stings my nose and throat. All the while, Hollandia tosses bow to stern and port to starboard, testing the strength of good English oak past its limits. Eirene, in her wooden and naked glory stands her silent vigil as the roiling black swallows us whole.
I still stand at the prow above her from time to time between the coral heads, but now it is the tides that swirl about me instead of the winds. Eirene is my constant companion. Salty Jack would be proud that I keep his wooden masterwork clear of barnacles and seaweed. Even my paint is still visible on a clear day. Sometimes I ask her why her father forsook us to the waves. She never answers. Her visage smiles back at me. Unchanging, wooden and stiff, yet warm and inviting as the day I painted her.
Sometimes I will stand my moonlit watch again on the gangplank and defend my ship against the imaginary saboteurs haunting the depths. Captain Homburg would be pleased to know I’ve kept them at bay these great many years. To my astonishment, I’ve even seen a kraken. That old sailor was telling the truth after all.
I stand abaft on clear days and imagine I can still feel the warmth of that morning sun as it crests the horizon, but the sun and moon appear different down here. The deep is cold. There is no sun here. I pass my days watching the modern metal hulls pass overhead, witnessing the change from sails to steam to ships that now travel beneath the waves. Such a marvel! I’ve even visited a few ships at anchor. I envy those who still sail above me, but I don’t begrudge them. All my life I’ve always been at home on the water, and now the water has become just that. I am home. I am where I belong, and here I will remain. My eyes will look to the heavens and the far away stars, but my heart still dreams of the deep places beneath the waves.
Author’s note: The oceans and the age of sail is a fascinating time that captured my young imagination on the first pages of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and the first time I read Melville’s opening words, “Call me Ishmael.”
As an adult, that fascination translated into a love for Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series, Gene Hackman’s The Wake of the Perdido Star, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, among many others. Everything about the ocean is a wonder. If I couldn’t sail on it, I wanted to swim under it. I fondly recall the nights laying under the coffee table in my Great-Grandmother’s living room eagerly awaiting the commercials on her console television to finish for the start of the next edition of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. I suppose that’s a condition that comes from being born under the sign of Pisces.
I’ve always been at home on the water. While the eyes of many explorers look to the heavens and far away worlds, my heart has always dreamed of the deep places beneath the waves.
The Emperor’s Lambda-Class t4-a Shuttle, Great Gran Run Hyperspace lane, Tashtor Sector, 4 ABY
Krest was furious. She paced the short distance of the stateroom in stuttering, angry steps. Meera placed her finger on the mute button, suspending the Shaaridan bounty hunter’s face on a blinking pause. “Krest, I have an idea.”
“As do I, and it involves scattering that creature’s atoms from here to Velusia.”
“There may be another way to play this and I think I know how to do it. You said the crew of the Stargazer would defend themselves, how many are there?”
“The last time the Emperor brought us here, Aloo had his own private army of aboard that ship. Surely they have heard about the disaster over Endor by now. Anyone coming close to it will have quite a fight on their hands.”
“How loyal are they to Aloo?”
“As much as we are, or were, to the Emperor. They are not conscripts or mercenaries. He cultivated the greatest warriors from Oktaria as his personal security, and there’s no telling who—or what—else they have on board.”
“How do you think they would feel about you if they knew you killed him?” The glare Krest shot back said more than any words. “If we’re going to get out of this and get what you want off the Stargazer, I need you to do exactly what I say or we’re all going to die.”
Krest stared at her with a long look of distrust, but she knew Aloo’s soldiers would cut her down without mercy for killing him if they found out she did it. “Alright, Lieutenant. Let’s hear your plan.”
“We need to get everyone on the same page or it won’t work. Gather the troops in here. We don’t have much time.” Krest opened the door and spoke quietly to Sergeant Marillion. In moments, the sergeant was back with Majors Deshken and Andalor along with Technician Vel. The six of them filled the small room to capacity, so the others crowded outside. Krest gestured to Meera. “Let’s hear it, Lieutenant.”
Meera looked around the room and gave a reassuring nod, though she wasn’t even sure herself that this plan would work, but it was all she had. “I need you all to trust what I am about to do. You need to put aside loyalties and feelings about the Empire and follow my lead.” She picked up a datapad from the table and tossed it to Marillion. “Sergeant, have one of your men get Aloo’s code cylinder and a photograph of his face on the double if you please.” He shuffled through the others out of the room. She took a quick deep breath and removed her finger from the mute button. The blue static image of Gekko sparked back to life. “Here we go.”
“…inal warning. You will be taken. How you are taken is your choice. The Guild pays me either way. Power down your engines or be fired upon!”
“Gekko, this is Meera Dyre. Please don’t fire on us! I was a prisoner on the Death Star. We are not Imperials. I repeat, we are not Imperials. We are refugees and wish to negotiate. Please do not fire!”
“Your claim is weak, Meera Dyre. The Imperial code your ship is transmitting tells me you are not only Imperials, but you travel aboard the shuttle of Emperor Palpatine, himself.” The guttural, reptilian tone of the bounty hunter’s voice sounded sarcastic and unconvinced. Meera cleared her throat to respond as a cannon blast seared across the bow of the shuttle in warning.
“We are not Imperials, I said. Hold your fire!” She muted the transmitter. “Sergeant, I need that picture. Krest, tell the pilot to power down the engine but keep his finger on the button. If this works, we’re going to need to get out of here quickly.” Sweat broke out on her brow. She needed to convince Gekko to stop firing on them before the Stargazer noticed the skirmish and got involved. Timing was everything. She unmuted Gekko again and altered her voice to sound panicked.
“We were prisoners of the Empire but escaped aboard this shuttle. We overpowered the guards and took a hostage. He’s an Imp, or he was. Looked like someone important. He was killed in the skirmish but we still got out. Please, don’t fire on us. We just want to live.”
There was a long silence. At first, Meera thought the holo-projector stopped working, but the Shaaridan monster turned his head. At least he stopped firing on them.
“Gekko, did you hear us? We are not Imps—”
“Who is your hostage? Speak now!”
She pressed the mute button again. “Sergeant, where is that picture?” The datapad was passed forward through the throng. The contorted face of Sim Aloo stared back through the screen. At that moment, the rhythmic thrum of the ship’s engines stopped as the pilot powered down the engines. She looked at Krest. “Tell the pilot to be ready. As soon as we offload Aloo’s body, fire the engines and hail the Stargazer with a mayday. We’ll be coming in hot.”
“Just what do you have in mind, Lieutenant?” Major Deshken appeared to not like this part of the plan. “Going down this path will get us all killed. You heard the bounty hunter. He has us dead in the water!”
“Lieutenant Dyre is in charge of this plan, Major,” Krest stepped in front of him. “Accept it or find your way to the airlock. I’m sure the Shaaridan will welcome the extra profit from your surrender.” He acquiesced, but the look on his face screamed that he was not happy about it. Meera punched in a code on the datapad, sending the digital death mask of Aloo through the comm channel. She watched as the progress bar painfully crawled across the screen like a wounded womprat.
“Check your datapad,” she said into the holoprojector. “It looks like the shuttle computer recognized him, too. He was an Imperial adviser named Sim Aloo. He resisted, so we had to kill him.”
Again, there was a long silence. She could see the Shaaridan looking between screens to verify Aloo’s identity. Finally, he spoke. “What was your crime, Meera Dyre?”
“What?” she asked, confused.
“You were a prisoner of the Empire. What was your crime? I warn you, do not lie or I will know it.”
She knew that the Shaaridan species had a pheromone sensitivity that could sense deceit. Something in their reptilian nature gave them abilities some would consider unnatural. If she continued to lie, he wouldn’t know it now, but should be board the shuttle, they could not hide it from him. That’s why she decided to tell a partial truth.
“My father stole something from them,” she said, not making eye contact with anyone else in the room. “And I hid it. When I refused to give it back, they killed him and took me.”
“What did he steal?”
“If you’re trying to find a puck on me—” She wasn’t expecting any further inquiry. Meera suddenly regretted bringing everyone in the room to hear this.
“I will not ask again. What did he steal?”
“It was a Kyber Crystal.” Deshken gasped, but everyone else remained silent.
“Do you still possess this crystal, Meera Dyre?” Her hand went to her neck and felt for the familiar bulge of it at the end of the leather thong, always hiding in plain sight under her Imperial uniform.
“There is a ship, The Stargaz—”
“I am aware of Aloo’s vessel. They scan us as we speak. Again, do you still possess the crystal? Is it on your person?” She reached into her shirt and pulled out, the room’s light refracted in tiny rainbows as it spun in her hand. She held it where he could see its reddish brilliance shine through the holoprojector.
“I do, and I will make you a deal.”
“We will place Aloo’s body and my crystal in a cargo container and drop it out of the air lock. You can take it and collect the reward for him from the Republic. The crystal is yours as a gift.”
“And in exchange for this generous gift?”
“You will fire warning shots at us for effect, after which you will jump to hyperspace and let us go our own way.” Meera kept the crystal dangling in front of the device where she knew Gekko could see it spin and refract. The shuttle pilot comm interrupted and she quickly hit the pause button.
“Stargazer is hailing us. They are transmitting Advisor Aloo’s personal docking codes. They must have been expecting him. Your orders, Captain Krest?”
Krest looked at Meera with urgency in her eyes. “Wait,” she said to Krest, then tossed her necklace to Major Andalor. “Major, take another and prepare to jettison Aloo’s body. Double time please, Major.” He nodded in agreement and one of the Storm Troopers followed him out. Meera then turned back to the projector. “Gekko, do we have a bargain?”
The projection flickered and refocused on the bounty hunter’s masked face. “We have a bargain, Meera Dyre. I sense you speak the truth, yet still hide much. I warn you, should you double-cross me, I will assign you the Death Mark of the Shaaridi. My kind will not rest until you are destroyed.”
“I understand. You are most gracious and deserve your reward. Stand by for cargo offload.” She cut the projector and looked at Krest. “Once the airlock reseals, tell the pilot to answer the hail with a distress call. Have him report the Bounty Hunter captured and killed Aloo for the reward and that his body is now aboard his ship, then put him in our wake and run for the Stargazer. If they believe us, we won’t have to worry about the bounty hunter anymore.”
Krest smiled in return. “You’re more useful than I thought you would be, Lieutenant.” She looked at the rest. “Look alive, rebel scum. Battle stations, and prepare for close-quarter combat!” They scurried out, leaving Krest and Meera alone for a moment.
“How did you know the bounty hunter would accept your terms? He could have captured us all any time he wanted.” Krest asked.
Meera smiled back. “My father had dealings with Trandoshans once. They are as bad a Jawas when it comes to shiny objects. Since the Shaaridi are close cousins of Trandoshans, I took a gamble.”
“That ‘shiny object’ is property of the Empire,” Major Deshkin walked back in after hearing her last statement. “You stole from your Emperor and then hid your father’s crime. Now you give your ill-gotten gains freely to this beast and take foolish risks with all our lives. You should be executed for this insolence. Your father was no better than the rebels we fight against!”
Meera shot from her chair and charged at the Major. Krest intercepted her before she crashed into him, holding her back. “My father paid for that crime with his life!” Meera screamed back. “The Emperor got his justice when his Storm Troopers came for us and murdered him. Despite all that, I am still loyal to the Empire. How dare you!” The Major was taken aback by the ferocity of her response, but composed himself for a reply ripped straight from the pages of an Imperial Training manual.
“None of that matters. I will be adding your most irregular behavior to my report for the fleet and requesting a full inquiry. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be below assisting Major Andalor.”
Meera struggled against Krest. Rage and anger coursed through her marrow. She reached after him and missed by some distance, but a sensation in her hand felt like she had grabbed him anyway. The Major stopped in his tracks and grabbed at his throat, gasping like he was being choked. Meera strained against Krest’s grip, but focused her intense feelings of hate on Deshkin. She could feel her hand around his neck and squeezing the life from him, though she was still several feet away. Her fingers slowly clenched into a fist while he turned shades of red, then blue. With a flick of her wrist, his neck spun in an unnatural twist and his corpse collapsed to the floor.
Krest flung Meera down into the chair and quickly shut the door. “My, my, Lieutenant Dyre. What other forbidden secrets do you harbor in there?” Major Andalor’s voice crackled over the intercom before she could answer.
“Payload ready for launch, Lieutenant Dyre. Awaiting you order.”
Meera was exhausted. Her lungs could barely take in enough air to speak. She did not know what just happened, but it drained every ounce of energy she had. The anger overtook her senses and she couldn’t control herself. Krest sat and pressed her finger to her lips, indicating for Meera remain quiet. “Dyre has been attacked by Major Deshkin. Send Marillion and his troopers to the conference room immediately.” She then pressed the cockpit comm. “Keep your finger on the button, Lieutenant Cearza.”
“Aye, Captain Krest. Standing by.”
She stared at Meera again with a look of wide wonder and calculating calm. “When Marillion arrives, follow my lead.” She stood, drew her vibroblade, and plunged it deep into Deshkin’s chest. Just then, the door swung wide and Marillion’s red-armored form filled the entrance without his helmet, but blaster at the ready.
“What happened here?” he asked.
“It would seem the good Major was angry that Lieutenant Dyre stole from his precious Empire. He moved against her and I ended it. Take his body below and toss him in with Aloo. That should earn us some goodwill the bounty hunter.”
Marillion looked at Meera with confusion. She sat sprawled in the chair, panting like a Lothcat, barely conscious and drenched in sweat. All she could do was nod in agreement. Marillion and one of his men took Deshkin’s arms and drug him out. The door swished closed behind them and Krest sheathed her deadly talon.
“I cannot have the crew see us as equals, Dyre. I control them because they fear me. If they know what you are capable of, I no longer control that fear. Loyalty becomes divided, and I cannot allow that. Something has awoken within you. You possess the very skills the Emperor scoured the galaxy for, but be mindful. Just because he is dead does not mean you are safe. There are others, and the Emperor still has reach far beyond the grave.”
“I am…I’m no one…I am just a …medical off…icer. Nothing more.” Meera struggled to reply.
“Silly girl. You are far more than that now. I’ll keep your secret and you will follow my command until this mission is complete. If you’ll agree to that, I swear to you I will help you discover these abilities you have. Earlier I gave you a choice, so I ask you once again: Join me and live or oppose me and die. We’ll speak on this again after we’ve taken the Stargazer.” She reached over to the comm. “Major Andalor, is the secondary cargo prepared?”
“Yes, Captain. Prepared.”
“Good. Activate Aloo’s code cylinder and jettison the package immediately.” She quickly pressed the button to the pilot. “Captain Cearza, once the cargo doors close, give a twenty-count, then fire engines. Plot intercept course with Stargazer and request fire support. Distress signal Zeta-Omicron-Six-Six. Give me some distance between us and this bounty hunter heathen.”
“Aye, Captain. Orders confirmed”
“Stay here and recover, Dyre. You’re going to need your strength for what comes next. We’ll handle the rest of your plan from here.” Krest swept out, leaving Meera alone.
Over the last twelve hours, Meera’s body endured a myriad of brutal trials, from the relentless thrashing aboard the failing Death Star, to the stresses of the situation aboard this shuttle, her lifeboat, and now whatever supernatural transformation was happening to her. The moments of quiet washed over like waves, making her limbs and eyes heavy. It felt like days since she slept. As her head lolled to the side, a tiny blue light flickered on the holoprojector. She swung her arm up as if it were tied down with stones and pushed it. The Shaaridan’s face in a blue holographic triangle erupted upward.
“Meera Dyre, my patience wears thin. You have—”
“Repeat your message?”
“They’re calling Aloo’s ship to destroy you. Take your bounty and run.”A grinding sound could be heard through the durasteel walls as the cargo doors swung open to space. They were sending out the bodies.
“I fear no luxury cruiser. My ship is—”
“There’s an army aboard it, loyal to the Empire. Take what we have offered you and run. You only have a moments to live otherwise.”
“You speak truly, Meera Dyre?” The grinding sound started again. The cargo bay doors were closing.
“I do. You have twenty seconds. Collect the payload and run.”
“You have earned the respect of Gekko. I will not forget this.” His visage wavered and disappeared. She didn’t know what happened after that. Her eyes closed and exhaustion took her.
Coming Soon in Star Wars: Lifeboat, Part VII…
Krest leads a boarding party onto the Stargazer seeking the holocron manual and her missing son, and ends up finding more than she bargained for when Aloo’s guards unleash an unexpected and powerful enemy against the shuttle crew. Meera struggles with her new-found abilities and what they are turning her in to, and Captain Vario finally wakes with a warning for her. Tune in next time!
The preceding is a work of fan fiction based upon and utilizing locations, characters, and/or plot points from the Star Wars universe, originally created by George Lucas and trademarked to Lucasfilm, Ltd. The author makes no claim whatsoever of ownership of the Star Wars name, characters represented, or the Star Wars universe generally. This work is created of the author’s own imagination and is intended for entertainment purposes only. It does not purport to be an “official” Star Wars story or part of existing Star Wars canon in any way. The author is not profiting financially in any way as the result of the creation or publication of this piece of fan fiction.
I received a message out of the blue today from a dear old friend. It said:
“Just getting ready for Wood Badge this morning, preparing my presentation and my thoughts turned to you. Wondered how you were doing and hope all is well!”
For those who don’t know what that means, Wood Badge is the penultimate (in my opinion) adult leader training in the Boy Scout organization. Over the span of seven days, sixty-four participants and twenty-eight staffers become a whole new family to you that you will never forget. I went through as a participant in course #MT-61 back in 2014. Then, for MT-63 in 2016, I was a first-year staffer when I met Liz and her husband Ren, and during my second stint on the Wood Badge staff for MT-64 in 2017, Liz and I were both staffers and Ren was a participant. I could write another entire article about this amazing training and the wonderful friends you make along the way, but that’s not why I write this today. I’ll sum Wood Badge up for you with this description: As a participant, you are in for the time of your life during the most effective servant leadership training course you have ever experienced. When you are invited to be a staffer, you are given the enormous honor to deliver the most effective servant leadership training course you have ever experienced. But again, that’s for another article. Let’s get back to that text message.
As a Wood Badge staffer, you get assigned presentations to do throughout the week that make the program so exemplary. My first year on staff, my assigned presentation was “Coaching and Mentoring.” I worked hard on perfecting it, and to this day, some five years later, I still receive the occasional message about it from random MT-63 participants. The text I received above from Liz, a MT-63 participant from five years ago, still remembered my presentation and my chaplain’s message from MT-64 about the “Lower Lights”. It goes to show you that you don’t realize how much of an impact your words can have on someone, and how long those words will stay with them.
Her kind message today found me in a strange mood. There is some tumult going on with me these days that I’m wrestling with. Of course, I responded with warm regards and that I’m great and all that good stuff. But the truth is, I’m not. The reasons why don’t matter. What matters here is that the universe knew I needed a kick in the pants, and delivered it wrapped in twenty-seven typed words from a good friend. The universe is smart. It knows things and has an uncanny sense of timing.
What that text message did was remind me of those days back in Wood Badge that inspired me so much. When you’re a staffer, your whole job is to inspire the participants in any way you can within your assigned role. I was a Troop Guide and Assistant Senior Patrol Leader, and also had the Chaplain duty during my second year to boot. I like to think that within those three titles, I did my best to deliver whatever inspiration I could. These occasional messages from my Wood Badge family are evidence that I must have done alright back then. But sometimes the well runs dry. That message this morning found me lacking inspiration, but it also reminded me of the day I became a “Rocket Boy.”
One of the presentations in Wood Badge centers around the movie October Sky. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean when I say “inspirational.” It’s a heart-warming tale about a group of boys from a small coal-mining town that do extraordinary things in the arena of aerospace and rockets during the time of Sputnik and the start of the space race. That’s a terribly poor description on my part, however, the unmistakable message of the film is the three P’s of success:
You may know this already, but October Sky is based on the true story Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam. (Trivia moment: October Sky is an anagram for Rocket Boys.) If you haven’t read the book, I cannot recommend it enough. I read it shortly after it came out, but the messages in the story didn’t resonate with me as much until I went through Wood Badge as a participant. Going back as a staffer, it put a whole new spin on those three P’s above and what they really mean. So after my first turn on staff at MT-63, I reached out to Homer Hickam to ask a favor. I decided to go to the source of all that inspiration and see what he had to say. Lo and behold, he replied.
When I was invited back for my second staff gig, I wanted to bring with me something that conveyed how much the message of this program and his story can change your life. I wanted to give the participants of MT-64 something they would never forget. I asked Mr. Hickam if he would write them an inspirational letter that I would deliver on his behalf, and he did. Here’s what the letter said:
I got to read this aloud to the ninety-one other people of MT-64 at the end of our third day together, right after watching October Sky, and there was barely a dry eye in the house. I struggled to get through it without breaking up. It’s not sad. Not at all. But those words—they hit you right in the feels, don’t they? It doesn’t matter what condition you happen to be in at any given moment. Pick up a letter written like this, and, well, like it says—
“A rocket won’t fly unless somebody lights the fuse.”
O’Dell, Rocket Boys
I framed the original as a gift for our Scoutmaster, Michelle, and made copies for everyone else. I hadn’t forgotten about that letter, but it was also not at the forefront of my mind. However, when I received that text message this morning, it reminded me how kind words can make such a difference to someone. It reminded me of the lessons I learned from Rocket Boys/October Sky.
The fuse was lit.
When I came home this evening, I went to the book shelf and pulled down my hardback copy of Rocket Boys for a quick browse. Ironically, a folded copy of that letter was neatly tucked in the dust jacket. I read it and re-read it, then I read it again. I’m not ashamed to admit my eyes leaked a little bit. I was transported back in front of those ninety-one people again; reading it aloud and sending my feels on a tempest-tossed ride one more time. I folded it back the way I found it, nestled into the cover until the next time I forget it’s in there. Then, I flipped a little further to the bookplate page and my eyes leaked—again—when I read this:
I was honored that my words so many years ago still inspired one of my participants, who turned out to become a dear friend, and how her preparations to be a staffer this year hearkened back to something I said all those years ago. I’m proud that she’s going back now for what I believe is her third or fourth time as a staffer, and that now, in twenty-seven typed words, our roles have reversed. Then to top it off, THE Rocket Boy himself, Homer Hickam, counts me among his pantheon with this inscription. Boy, I needed that.
The universe sure is smart, ain’t it?
MT-63 Owl Troop Guide. (The Bear with Owl tendencies…)
MT-64 Assistant Senior Patrol Leader and Chaplain.
I’m going to brag on myself for a moment and say that I am pretty damn good at my day job. Could I be better? Sure, all of us can benefit from improvement. But where I’m at, I do pretty well. Properly managing staff is one of the greatest responsibilities a manager could ever have in the working world. I care about my employees and the people who utilize my services like they are family. I care about my employer’s money like it was my own, and I am very conscientious about image and public perception of those I represent. My attitude, skills and experience have put me in some sort of management position since I was 22-years-old.
But now, let me tell you how that all came crashing down.
I had a boss tell me one time that she thought I was the textbook definition of a modern renaissance man. She told me because of the wide array of hobbies, skills, interests, knowledge and experience I have from my 36 years on this planet (at that time), she felt like anything I was asked to do would be done well and on-time. That may have been the highest praise I have ever received from anyone, bar none. While I try to be humble, that puffed me up a bit. It made me glad that I was recognized as a go-to employee. I am proud of what I can do and what I bring to the table. So this one time when I worked for the Federal Government, I was put into a civilian mentorship program and I was paired with our highest-ranking civilian leader. I was excited because this guy had it all going on and was a businessman’s businessman. He was smart, educated, friendly and had all the qualities of a good leader. When we finally got to sit down for our first discussion on my future career goals, he dropped a mega-ton atomic question on me that I still feel the fallout of to this day. He looked me right in the eyes and asked:
“What is your degree in?”
On the surface, that’s a benign question for most people and fairly easy to answer. It was not easy for me. Do you know why? Yep, you guessed it: I did not go to college.
I had a relatively poor upbringing. I started working at 15 and rode my beach comber bike all the way through my senior year of high school. We weren’t destitute by any stretch, and many others had it worse than me. But we were poor enough that when high school graduation came, I had already been working part-time for three years to save for a car. College wasn’t something I ever thought I could afford. In that part of my life, the thought of a college degree was hardly even on the radar. No one else in my family had gone to college either. It just wasn’t something I set as a serious goal. Of course I knew how important education was, but I also knew that if I was ever going to get out on my own and be my own person, I was going to have to work and work hard for it. No one I knew was handing out money so if I wanted it, I had to earn it.
To this day, I do not regret my decision to enter the workforce instead of going to school. In reality, the decision was truly made for me. I would not trade the knowledge and experience I have for anything. It would have been cool to go to school, but that wasn’t in my cards.
So, back to the mentoring session— my reply to him was short. I said, “I did not go to college. I don’t have a degree.”
The only part of that answer that made me feel good was the shock on his face. He told me he couldn’t believe someone with my skills and knowledge did not have a college degree. He also said that he applauded how well I had done for myself in the government system with that limitation. Then, he looked me in the eye again and dropped a second atomic knowledge bomb on me. He said:
“Lyle, you have to go get your degree. Make it a priority, because one day, no matter how qualified or talented you may be, you’re going to want a job from a box-checker. And when they can’t check the box that says ‘Has a Degree’, you’re not going to get the job, even if you’re the number one candidate.”
I walked out of his office after that a little bewildered. We had a fantastic discussion on career goals and steps to move around and up within the department we worked for. But there was a nagging, grinding feeling pulling at my soul. At 36, did I really need a degree? I got every job I ever applied for. I had already done so much and come so far without a scrolled piece of parchment hanging on the wall. I was not in a job that required specialized training, so why should I spend four years of my life trying to work, take care of my family and enjoy life while adding the crushing debt and time-consumption of college homework? After all, the School of Hard Knocks had served me well so far. I made it a long way on my experience, so nah. I’ll keep going as I am. Everything will be alright.
And now, at 47 and one career move later, his advice that I ignored came home to roost.
You see, I like to fix businesses. That’s one of my working joys is to walk into a dump and start turning the ship around. I know how to do it, I have done it multiple times, and I am damn good at it. I relish walking into a place that everyone says will never amount to anything and proving them wrong. I suppose it’s somewhat of a mimic of how I see myself. I may not look like much, but I know how to make something from nothing. It’s a skill I had to learn at an early age and continue using to this day.
About a month ago, opportunity came knocking. In my current recreation career field, a Department Director position in a neighboring town started accepting applications. I am not unhappy where I am, but I always look for opportunities to better myself. This particular Director position was a troubled and much-maligned post that was plagued with other’s good intentions but also with their bad execution. I visited the department incognito to see what I would be up against, and boy, did they need serious help. But the idea of taking over a struggling department and making it into something to be proud of again was chicken soup for my weary soul. I salivated at the chance to once again take a pig, scrub off the lipstick someone else tried to put on it, and turn it into gourmet ham sandwiches for all involved. It would have been a serious challenge that I would welcome with open arms. I updated my resume, spoke to my current boss about a recommendation and I applied.
And… crickets. No call for an interview ever came.
I didn’t understand what the problem was here. Had they decided to scrap the position? Were they waiting for more applicants? Because I thought for sure that others would see this pile of mess and run the other way. Did they lose my contact information? Surely there was some nefarious game afoot.
And still, my phone never rang.
I emailed their HR department and their Administrator with more information to make sure they received what I sent. I ensured I had crossed every “I” and dotted every “T” they required. I did get an email back that said, “Yes, Mr. Russell, we have received your application. We’ll be in touch.” Two more weeks went by.
And still, no call.
Two days ago as of this writing, I received a letterhead in the mail that said, “Mr. Russell, thank you for your interest in the position of Department Director. At this time, we have chosen a more qualified applicant and wish you the best success in the future. Sincerely, HR.” They couldn’t write down that check mark. My old mentor was right. It was my Thanks-But-No-Thanks reply. I had finally met my box-checker.
I got some inside information that they found an applicant that, even though they had been out of the industry for a few years, has a Master’s Degree where I don’t even have an Associates. They chose him over me because of that. For the first time in my life, my high school diploma and endless enthusiasm was not enough.
I’m not bitter. I’m sure he was a very qualified candidate. I wish him the best and hope for his and their success. We all succeed by lifting each other up and one day, because we work in the same field, we could be working together on some project or program. I look forward to that. But what sticks in my craw over the whole thing and that they missed out on me, who would have been an awesome director, because of one, little blue check mark that didn’t show up on a piece of paper.
I do not lament any decision I have ever made about my career or experiences. I am rich in many other things besides money, and things happen for a reason. You don’t always know what that reason is. I still do not feel I would be overly successful in a college environment and honestly, I’ve met new college graduates that can’t find their way out of a wet paper bag with a hatchet and a weed eater. I am definitely not that guy, and I have a hard time working with people like that, but it doesn’t mean I won’t. And don’t misunderstand me as slighting the college graduate. If you have your degree and are living life, by all means, live life and know that I am happy for you. All I know is the universe still has plans for me and it does not always care about little blue check marks.
But for the record, I am now registered to start my A.A. in Recreation Management this fall at our local community college. That sage advice finally hit me. In two more years, that box will get checked.
The only piece of Apple electronics I own is an 8GB 4th generation refurbished iPod Touch. I know, I’m a Luddite, right? However, this one device has precisely 1,019 songs that define my 46-year love of music. Within that 1,019 songs, you’ll find a wide and varied appreciation for all types of music from rock to rap, country to classical, and heavy metal to easy listening. For this list, I chose to focus on rock. Our friends at Oxford Dictionary define rock and roll as follows:
a type of popular dance music originating in the 1950s, characterized by a heavy beat and simple melodies. Rock and roll was an amalgam of black rhythm and blues and white country music, usually based on a twelve-bar structure and an instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums.
While doing my Sunday morning workout and listening to my rock playlist (which consists of 316 songs), It occurred to me there are really only about ten of those tracks that really get me moving and keep me motivated. Of course I like all 316 of them, but I never touch the next button when any of these ten songs come on. There are many lists out there, but this one is mine. Get ready to rock!
Honorable Mention 1: Start Me Up by The Rolling Stones
For the record, I am not a Rolling Stones fan. However, credit where it is due. Mick Jagger and company never fail to keep me moving with this iconic track. I’ll admit, there are other really good Stones songs, but if I could only choose one from their discography, this is it. Plus, I had to throw a bone to my friend John, who might be the biggest Stones nerd I’ve ever met!
I really chose them for honorable mention for three reasons. One, the opening chords might be the most recognizable in all of rock and roll. Even with only one note, any rock and roller would probably get this one on Name That Tune. Two, no rock and roll top ten list would be complete without mentioning the 13th best-selling band of all time, and the holder of the most expensive concert ticket face value ($624). The only age these guys show is on their faces because the music is still kicking all these years later. Finally, number three, this video. Mick Jagger looks like a holdover from a heavily edited Richard Simmons workout video and does not care one bit. With their charisma, The Stones and their music will outlive us all.
Honorable Mention 2: Welcome to the Jungle by Guns and Roses
Some rock and roll songs are subtle in their structure. This one is not. Welcome to the Jungle is one that jumps up and smacks you in the face and leaves subtlety lying bloody on the floor. While Guns N’ Roses had several really good rock tracks, I feel like this is the one that put them on the map and separated them from the other 80’s hair band chaff. Many of those bands were and still are amazing, but none of them really had the brazen rock audacity of G-N’-R. They have several tunes that rank high for me, but this one stands out.
The only other one that came close was Motley Crue, and they have a different moxie all their own, but Axl laying down that opening scream cements this one as an honorable mention in my Top-Ten. Click the link and see if they still got your disease!
Honorable Mention 3: Baba O’Riley by The Who
So what happens when you mix a trashed Isle of Wight music festival, an organ with a marimba repeat, the musically sequenced vital signs of an Indian spiritual leader, and the influence of a minimalist composer on Pete Townsend? The obvious result is this track, Baba O’Riley. Townsend wrote this as part of a rock opera follow-up to Tommy, but it never materialized. However, the track was salvaged, shortened and became the lead off single from 1971’s Who’s Next? by The Who.
Townsend subscribed to a concept that music could connect with an audience at the level of their DNA, and tried to put that data into a musical sequence. Another song he wrote, Join Together, was based on the same concept. I know, it hurts my head to think about too, but there may be something to it. There are some songs that when you hear it, the melody just speaks to your soul. It’s hard to explain, but you always feel it when your jam comes on. For me, its just about anything rock-and-roll. Baba O’Riley is one of those songs for me and lingers just outside my Top-Ten All-Time Greatest.
Alright, so enough with the honorable mentions. Let’s get to the meat on this Top-Ten bone. Are you ready? Head to the next page to start my official Favorite Top-Ten Rock and Roll Songs of All-Time list. Buckle in, cupcakes, because here we go.
#10: Roundabout by Yes
There are musicians, there is musicianship, and sometimes you find a group that embodies the very definition of both. Roundabout by Yes is unlike any song I have ever heard. It fits no mold or predefined composition. It is a mashup of instruments going a hundred crazy directions but still makes a melody that cannot be duplicated. Plus, if you see a band with a keyboardist rocking a glitter cape, well, that’s a wizard, Harry. Don’t mess with him.
Seeing Yes inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2017 and play this song with Geddy Lee standing in on bass was the highlight of my musical observing life. One of my co-workers told me how she went to see Yes in the 70’s and said she didn’t need to smoke anything at the show because the music was so insane she got high off the melody. I don’t believe her about not smoking anything, (if you knew her, you wouldn’t believe her either) but I do believe her about the melody. There’s not a band out there that can put together so much complicated noise and notes and pull out a mega-hit like this, but they did it and I am here for it.
#9: The Trooper by Iron Maiden
A rock and roll song that’s about a historical event is a song right down my alley. The Trooper by Iron Maiden tells the musical story of the famous Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in 1854. What’s interesting is that today’s listeners try compare the song to today’s military actions going on in the Middle East, but that couldn’t be further than the truth because it was written well before the current hostilities going on there even started. Bruce Dickinson wearing a red coat and waving a Union Jack is all just part of the show.
All that aside, this song rocks. It’s proof that metal can have melody, and that rock can have musical depth. It debuted in 1983 and still stands as a solid metal classic all the way into 2021. Some fans even joke that this should be the new National Anthem of England. I’m not from England, but part of me agrees. That riff mimicking a horse gallop and the scene in the video with the flag being passed just makes this song so awesome that it will always have a home on my top ten playlist.
#8: Sweet Emotion by Aerosmith
Sweet Emotion by Aerosmith is a sentimental favorite on my list. I had the interesting pleasure back in the late 90’s of meeting Steven Tyler at a gas station in Sarasota, Florida, and I met Joe Perry at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida. Both guys were stellar to talk to, but I was an Aerosmith fan even before those chance meetings. As a teenager, I was on an awkward date in a pool hall the first time I heard this song and I never forgot that moment. She selected it on the jukebox, and with a single wrinkled dollar bill, introduced me to one of my favorite rock bands of my formative years.
Out of all their tracks, I like this one because riffs are tight, the cadence is smooth, and the off-speed beat changes blend metal with melody. And that opening bass riff—just drills into your soul. Aerosmith has more rocking songs for sure, but this cut IS rock and roll and I am all about it.
#7: Wherever I May Roam by Metallica
I’ve never seen Metallica live, but I’ve been told from more than one person that their stage show is something to behold, and with their armory of head-banging chugging tracks, it was hard to choose one. King Nothing, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Master of Puppets, Whiskey in the Jar, and the list goes on. But if I had to choose one song from them that I like the most, Wherever I May Roam gets the nod. Plus, how could such a proper and divine demonstration of the whammy bar NOT be on my top ten list?
I’m a lyrics nerd and I love alliteration and unexpected twists in the song. At the end, “My body lies, but still I roam, yeah, yeah.” So this whole time, a ghost has been singing us this song? That’s fricken’ awesome just by itself. Plus, I’m just a fan of James Hetfield’s tireless gravel. That guy can grind out a song from the depths of somewhere that doesn’t exist in most of us mortals.
#6: Barracuda by Heart
Though Heart was not the first female-led band in rock and roll, Barracuda leads my list of the best female vocal track in rock and roll. This is no slight to other girl rocker pioneers like Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Patti Smith and the many others in that hallowed pantheon, but Ann Wilson’s voice is so pure rock and roll in this song, it almost makes me cry. And for the record, Heart’s rendition of Stairway to Heaven with Jason Bonham on drums in 2012 at the Kennedy Center was the best thing since the original. Disagree? I’ll fight over that one!
I wish Heart had kept this edgy nature to their music in later albums. but it felt like they caved to the mainstream with their music soon after this gem debuted on their second album. It’s full of metaphorical anger and obscene gestures over a rude comment made to the sisters by some sleazy music executive. Part of me is glad he was a sleaze because without him, we wouldn’t have this track. In one interview, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson was asked what she liked about playing this song:
“I love playing (Barracuda) every time. It feels really big and muscular and larger than life and, you know, it gets me off to play “Barracuda” because it’s so loud and so big and it’s fun and fast, you know? The cool little parts where it skips a beat here and skips a beat there. There are a couple of odd time signature things in there that bring it into a more sophisticated song. A sophisticated song of rage!”
Nancy Wilson to American Songwriter
#5: All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix died before I was born, but I had the benefit of a rich musical upbringing that included all the gods of classic rock. As I said with Aerosmith above, Jimi Hendrix had a lot of songs that rocked, but none of them struck me as much as All Along the Watchtower. Maybe The Wind Cries Mary or Hey Joe comes close, but neither one jams like this one does.
There have been times I wondered if artists like Hendrix had not died so young, what other awesome songs were still in there waiting to be recorded? Had he and others like Jim Morrison lived to later years, there’s no telling what other songs we would have received. Sadly, we’ll never know, but I’m glad we got what we did before Jimi left the world. He made amazing music and I, for one, am grateful for it.
#4: Crazy Train by Ozzy Osborne
When Ozzy yells, “All Aboard!”, you know what comes next. Everyone gets out their tickets for Crazy Train. I’m not an Ozzy purist, so I don’t really differentiate his solo and Black Sabbath years, but Ozzy is a rock legend that is hard to ignore on any list. Honestly, this song could be interchanged with War Pigs or Iron Man and it would still be in my top ten favorites. In his early years, Ozzy was kinda taboo to be a fan of because of his extreme antics, but as he got older and became a little more commercialized, his career saw a resurgence and he pulled his whole family along for the ride.
If you listen to the lyrics here, they are somewhat hopeful with lines like, “Crazy, but that’s how it goes, Millions of people living as foes, Maybe it’s not too late, To learn how to love, And forget how to hate.” Not exactly the message some might expect from a hard rocker like this, but it just goes to show you that suppositions about Ozzy were not always accurate. Plus, Randy Rhoads’s guitar solo here is ranked 9th best of all time by Guitar World Magazine and VH1 named it 23rd all-time greatest rock song. I concur. It’s dang good.
#3: Far Cry by Rush
I would be a hypocrite to not include my favorite band in my Top Ten list. Rush has a ton of material I like and it was hard to pick just one song. For this list, I chose Far Cry to represent the trio from Toronto. I love all their music, but this song has a little something extra in it. It’s not their most popular, but I will argue that it’s one of their most rocking tracks they ever made. When this song rolls up on the playlist, if I’m driving, I have to be really careful because Neil Peart’s drums make my foot much heavier than it really is.
In all seriousness, Rush is a group like no other and I cannot even measure my level of reverence for their musical genius. It was so hard to pick just one of their songs, but this lead-footer is my choice. I haven’t had to use the excuse yet, but I wonder if an officer or a judge will accept my excuse for going 90 in a 45 because the music made me do it. If this was a list of top ten driving songs, this would be my number one every time. In fact, maybe I should do that list next…
#2: Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin
Does Led Zeppelin have more rocking songs than this? Of course they do. But none of them come close to marrying beautiful lyrics, melodic strumming, singing electric solos and legendary bass and drum lines like Stairway to Heaven. I struggled with settling on one song from them to make my list. Achilles Last Stand is a rock triumph. Immigrant Song will blow your speakers at any given moment. Rock and Roll and Black Dog stand the test of time and are great tunes. However, there is no song from the classic rock era more iconic than this one.
When I was a teenager in Tampa, Florida, I remember the 98 Rock radio station there played this song on repeat for 24 hours as a radio stunt. The rumor was the DJ locked himself in the studio and had a heart attack, forever leaving the song that was playing when he died on eternal repeat until the police broke in the door. Of course that was all false, but a glorious and full Gregorian calendar day was devoted to this rock classic and I listened to it all day long.
#1: Shoot to Thrill by AC/DC
Everything about this song is rock and roll. The lyrics, the music, the attitude… it’s all there. In addition, what other group of senior citizen rock legends can rock a stadium full of millennials like they do in this video? And for the record, Iron Man II did not make AC/DC famous. AC/DC wrote the soundtrack 30 years before that movie was made and caused Iron Man II to be the best movie in the Marvel pantheon (yes, it was better than Endgame). I never was lucky enough to meet Brian Johnson when I lived in Sarasota, Florida, but I saw him out driving his green Bentley Vanden Plas, nicknamed “Thunder Guts”, more than a few times. If you honked at him, you’d always get a wave or a fist pump in return.
I have zero doubt that some of you are scratching your head going, “AC/DC at #1? Really?” But not only is the song good, these guys command a stage with this larger-than-life song. I can’t imagine any tune better representing the fictional life of Tony Stark, and rock and roll as a whole. It talks about the excess of a rock star and their goal of thrilling the audience every time they step out on stage. I will always love this song and it is, without a doubt, my #1 favorite rock and roll song of all time.
Well, there you have it. The music world according to me. There are so many more artists I love and would love to list, but I had to narrow this down to my favorites. What did you think of the list? What does your Top-Ten look like? Write it up and let me hear it. Until then, rock on!
If you could know the appointed date and time of your demise, would you want to?
Or, would you prefer the random, “when it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go” philosophy we humans abide by now? Perhaps just embrace the concept of YOLO?
Or what about this: what would you do if you knew the exact time and date of death for another? Would you tell them or keep it a secret?
July 27th, 2020. 4:30pm CST.
That was the knowledge I was doomed to carry for two whole weeks.
I lost a family member that day and I knew exactly when and where it was going to happen. I even knew how they would die. How would you feel if you were burdened with this knowledge? For me, it was absolutely crippling.
Anything you say (or write, in this case) in an emotional heat of the moment can have unintended consequences, so I tend to bottle up until I can make better sense of what I’m feeling before I speak or write. I’ve waited until now to pen this post in an effort let some of my raw emotion simmer down. I know it’s always going to be there but after time it settles into the fabric of my being. Now that I’ve had time to process, I feel I can write this with a small bit of coherence. As best an effort this will be, it will fall short of the eulogy this family member deserves.
Allow me to introduce you to Tinker Bell. Tink was our 14-year-old Akita/Pyrenees mix that, sadly, had to be put down after a long bout with hip and knee problems in her back legs. It wasn’t the standard dysplasia larger dogs are typically plagued with. A couple years ago, it was discovered she had damaged both meniscus in her hind legs at an early age. She never outwardly showed signs of injury, so it went unnoticed until it was too late to repair. As she got older, the problem manifested and robbed her of any remaining quality of life. She became almost immobile. The simple task of getting up from the floor to go outside was a painful chore that required human assistance, and even then it wasn’t guaranteed she could get up anyway. She was hurting, and we just couldn’t let her suffer anymore.
Let’s talk about that phrase for a second: quality of life.
Most people give context to that phrase at the end of a life as opposed to the beginning or middle. Think for a moment about what that phrase means to you right now, today. For humans, it might mean the amenities of your home or car, your decor and furniture, your bank account or investments. Most (but not all) younger folks only consider it as a material reckoning. I think very few in the human realm contemplate what “quality of life” means to them or that it applies until they’re at the end of it. Why wait til then?
I have found a thread common with some other friends of mine: J.J. in New York, Greg in Indiana, Mary Jane here in Tennessee, and my youngest son Eian. What do we all have in common? We were dog dads and moms who have all lost our beloved fur babies this year. Back in March, J.J. lost his Boxer, Memphis. In July, I lost Tinkerbell. Earlier this week, Eian lost his mixed-breed, Shiloh. Mary Jane lost her rescue dog, Simon, and Greg lost his beloved German Shepherd, Scarlet, just today as I write this. When they leave us, there is a chasm that even time struggles to fill. For me, I’m a better person because of my dog.
Something else we all have in common is that our dogs were a major part of our quality of life considerations, even though we may not have thought about it that way. They are our family. I feel it safe to say I speak for them when I say that our dogs, probably much like yours, provided some of the happiest moments in our lives as well as saved us in some of our lowest. There is no greater unconditional love on this earth than a dog’s love for their family. My friend Mary Jane even wrote a book about Simon: Life Lessons from a Rescue Dog.
If you want to see a grown man (or woman) cry, wait until something happens to their dog. I’m not ashamed to admit it. When I had to take Tink for her last ride, I bawled like a newborn baby that was just smacked on the butt. I mean I ugly-cried. I was a wreck and so was everyone else in the house. The vet could not have been nicer or more gentle, and gave me all the time I needed with her both before the deed and after she was gone. I’m terrible with goodbyes, but I stayed and made this one meaningful.
I say this often as a joke, but I mean it with some level of sincerity when I say the more people I meet, the more I like my dog. Sometimes people just plain suck. But dogs? Never. I’ll say it again: Never on earth has the unconditional love for people been seen in a greater host than a family dog, and Tink was no exception. I know I am not the first one to say it, but we do not deserve dogs. Cat people, I know you’re scoffing right now. You might argue that cats are the same way, but I will argue back that no greater love exists than that of a canine. None. Anywhere. Search your feelings… you know it’s true.
So, I go back to my original question to you: If you could know the appointed date and time of your demise, would you want to? Personally, I don’t. I can tell you from my experience with Tink that knowing for two weeks about her final appointment tore me apart. And even though we spoke different languages, I never told her. In the end, I didn’t have to. I think she knew, and I think she was alright with it. Godspeed Tink, Shiloh, Scarlet, Simon, Memphis, and all the other fur babies out there who left us too soon, with memories in our minds and aches in our hearts. Enjoy that big dog park in the sky until we can get there to throw sticks and tennis balls for you again one day.
“It is today, Sahale, that we celebrate your passage into manhood,” the old man said standing over the three boys. Eddie sat cross-legged by the fire while his best friends Danny and Zeke—known formally as Keokuk and Kele—circled him with smoldering sage bundles. The savory scented smoke washed over him in fragrant waves. The old man stood quiet and still while Eddie’s friends completed their tasks in the ritual. His dark eyes behind the deep and wise lines of age were fixed on Eddie’s face, making him shift uncomfortably. “Today, the Great Spirit will decide your destiny.”
His father called him Eddie when he was a baby. He usually went by that, but he liked his tribal name, too. Sahale meant higher place in Apache, but he only ever heard it when one of two things happened: First was from his mother when he was in trouble, and Eddie had caused a lot of that in his fourteen years. The second is when he was a part of official tribal business during the investigation of his father’s death. Today was the third time he’d been addressed with his native name formally by a tribal elder, his grandfather. After the rites we’re said, it was time.
“Away with you, Sahale. San Jacinto awaits,” the old man said with a dismissive wave. “Kele, Keokuk, tell Hania to prepare the way.”
The two boys led Eddie out of the Wikiup, where Hania, their medicine man, waited. He was a terrifying sight in his black and gray wolf’s head cloak and red-painted body. In his hand was a long spear and a small coil of rope. Danny was afraid of Hania anyway, even without the formal dress, but he had to be brave for his younger friend. Today was the day Eddie would either join their ranks as a brave of the Apache, or join with the Great Spirit and watch over them from the pastures of the sky. He looked over to Zeke, who gave a reassuring nod. They both handed their sage bundles to Eddie and sank back into the crowd gathered about to watch the spectacle.
“You are prepared. Come, Sahale,” was all Hania said, turning his back and walking toward the base of the cliff. The others around them, adorned in tribal finery no outsider had ever seen, erupted in whoops of encouragement. With ceremonial spears and bows raised in triumph, they willed Eddie forward. Bile climbed high in his throat. He looked up at the path before him as far as he could see to the peak of the great mountain, San Jacinto. It disappeared into the cold mist swirling above. Hania handed him the coil of rope, but held on to the spear. “Now we go up.”
Eddie heard stories of the bravery ceremony from as far back as he could remember. His grandfather loved to tell of his own trial with the Great Yellow Eagle. He remembered the old man’s words. One day Sahale, you will meet the Great Yellow Eagle, too he would say. Remember to hold the line. Never let go. Always hold the line. Now that he held it in his hand, he wondered if he was ready. It was just a rope after all, and nothing special. Hania turned, the black tail of his wolf cloak swaying, and started up the cliff trail. The old Apache medicine man and the young brave began their ascent. Eddie looked back to see Zeke and Danny hold their hands high for him. He would be so proud to return to them no longer as a boy, but their equal as a man.
Minutes became hours as the dusty, stone-covered trail continued upward. Eddie’s legs burned with the fire of inactivity. Grandfather warned him the trek would be difficult and that he should get out from the front of the white man’s electronic box. No good can come from white men preaching our destiny from miles away inside a box of wires, he would say. Only the Yellow Eagle knows what is best for we Apache, and a smarter coyote would have made many meals of roadrunner by this time. Eddie dismissed the old man’s warning with a scoff. He liked watching television, especially Saturday morning cartoons. Now the pain of understanding washed over him as they went higher and higher up the incline. Hania showed no fatigue at all. Eddie had to jog at times to keep up with the scary old medicine man.
Not a word was said between them until they reached what appeared to be the end of the trail into a sheer rock wall. “From here, you travel alone Sahale. I will greet you again where the Great Yellow Eagle perches on our world.” Hania gestured up where the rock face stopped, about a hundred feet above them. “Now climb.”
Eddie put the coiled rope over his shoulder, found a precarious hand and foot hold, and took a step up. The wind at this height blew hard from his left. Small bursts of dust clouded off the tiny rock shelves, stinging his eyes. He glanced back only to see Hania was gone. Was there another way up? he thought. Why couldn’t we just both go that way instead? However, he knew if he was to pass the trial, he must do what Hania said. Eddie closed his eyes. “Your name means higher place,” he said to himself. “Guess we’ll put that to the test.” Hand over hand, Eddie climbed skyward.
After the first few movements, his ascent became easier. The rock face had a gentle slope he couldn’t see looking up from the bottom. Another trial from the Yellow Eagle, he thought. This isn’t so bad. I’ll pass your test. I will be a brave today! More than once his handholds crumbled away, causing him to grasp onto whatever he could reach and rake his knuckles on the sharp rocks. Still, his grip held. Gusts of wind continued to sting his eyes and cheeks with sand as he went upward, hand over hand. With grim determination, he finally crested the cliff.
The rock ledge was about the size of his bedroom back home. He sat down to rest from the arduous climb and looked around. It was cold up here. The brisk breeze bit into his skin with a sharp chill. Peering down into the canyon where his journey began, he could barely make out the shape of the Wikiup and his family and tribe gathered, awaiting his triumphant return. Which ones are Zeke and Danny? he thought. Was Grandfather still waiting in the Wikiup? He wondered if they could see him from there. In the distance, a large city of the white man could be seen through the haze, a jagged scar piercing the skyline with its disdain for the natural shapes made by the Great Spirit. Above him, the white sun beat down from the clear blue ocean of the sky. He basked in what little warmth it offered for several minutes before getting to his feet, ready to take on the next part of his challenge.
Before him loomed a cave. Above the entrance, carved deep into the orange-tinted rock, was the unmistakable shape of the Great Yellow Eagle entangled with a serpent. Eddie did not know what it meant, but that was a sign that here is where his journey went next. His first darkened steps were met with the moist air from inside the earth, where his ancient ancestors would go escape the heat of the day. In the dim light, he could see more carvings and pictograms. Depictions of warriors hunting great buffalo, of owls and eagles, of wolves and creatures of the night adorned every surface. At the end of the shaft, just before all light diminished, was a depiction that gave him pause.
The unmistakable diamond-shaped head of a great serpent, a diamondback rattlesnake, gazed back at him through its narrow eye slits. He stepped closer to inspect the glyph. It was so life-like, Eddie felt like the eyes were watching him.
“Sahale!” came Hania’s voice from the dark. Eddie let out a shrill chirp in fright at hearing his voice. “Come. Your next trial awaits.” Hania sparked a flint onto a torch and the cavern glowed a dull orange. The acrid smoke of the old torch burned his nostrils. Hania turned to go deeper into the cave. Eddie followed with reluctance.
It was dark. So dark that Eddie had to place a hand on the wall as he walked the narrow path. Before long, the cave ended into a room with a small crackling fire set in a ring of rocks. The damp stones hissed from the moisture drawn from them by the heat. Hania motioned for Eddie to sit on one side while he sat opposite.
“Sahale, child of the Apache people and future warrior,” Hania said in a deep tone that echoed through the room. “Does your spirit tire, or are you still prepared?”
“I am prepared,” came the response his grandfather told him to say. “I am ready to face the trial of the Great Yellow Eagle. I will become a warrior among my people.”
“This is good, young brave,” Hania began. “Many moons have passed since the Great Spirit brought you to this world. Among his greatest creations is the Yellow Eagle, which our people revere.” The heat from the fire intensified. Eddie could feel the sweat forming on his brow, even though the temperature in the room was cool. Hania continued.
“Even Its’a, The Great Yellow Eagle was not without trials, and his greatest foe was T’iish, the serpent. Will you face the T’iish as Yellow Eagle has, and become one with him?”
“I will,” again was the prompted response. “I will become one with Yellow Eagle and face my trial with his blessing.”
“This is good,” Hania said, and lowered his head down. He began a low mumbling chant as Eddie stared into the fire, watching each glowing ember shift and squirm from the heat. The coals shimmered from red to orange to white and back as the fire intensified with Hania’s words. The chanting went on for several minutes. Eddie was mesmerized by the stillness of the room, the tone of Hania’s chant, and the tiny flickers in the dancing flames.
Time slowed. His legs grew numb. He didn’t know how long they had sat there in the dark. As he awoke from the fire’s trance, Eddie noticed a swaying movement above Hania’s head. He strained to see into the shadows, trying to determine what it was. It was small. Barely noticeable at first among the thick wolf pelt draped over the medicine man. Then, it broke through the shadows, growing in size and made its way over Hania’s shoulder, down next to the fire. Eddie froze with fear, eyes widening as a monstrous Western Diamondback moved effortlessly across the space between them. Its eyes were fixed on Eddie, just as the eerie glyph outside on the wall was. It was the same eyes. T’iish, Yellow Eagle’s nemesis, had come and now stood face to face with Eddie.
“Ssssahale,” it said as Hania continued his guttural chant in the background. “One named for the higher placessss. You come before me assss Yellow Eagle oncccce did. You think yoursssself brave assss he did?” Eddie was paralyzed as fear locked his muscles in place, rendering him stiff and still. “You wish to be known assss a brave among your peoplessss, the mighty Apache?” The snake continued his stealthy approach, now only inches from Eddie. It rose up it’s great body in front of his face, tongue flicking in search for prey. “I will decssside your worth, young warrior. Let ussss ssssee if you can withsssstand my bite.”
Eddie sat frozen and helpless as the giant rattler rose up into a coiled nightmare of fangs and scales. It lunged faster than eyes could see and buried its dripping fangs into his chest. The serpent’s venom poured into Eddie’s veins like lightning from an angry storm cloud. Every fiber in his body screamed in burning agony until the beast released its crushing bite. The serpent remained poised for another strike, weaving its head before Eddie’s face. Tears rolled down his swollen cheek while the venom’s liquid fire did its worst to his body, wracking him with pain.
“Now, young brave,” the snake hissed to him again. “We will ssssee what it issss that you fear. My venom sssspeakssss to your mind and revealssss your thoughtssss. Relive your nightmaressss and prove your worth to me.” Eddie still could not move. He strained to cry out and awaken Hania, but could not. His voice was drowned. The cry stayed locked in his burning chest. “You sssshall reccccieve the blessssing of the warrior if you can return to your peoplessss below. Yellow Eagle possessed great wingssss to return to the earth, yet you only carry a coil of rope, sssshaped much like me. Ironic, don’t you think? You musssst hold the line and prove your worth. If you cannot, you become one with the Great Sssspirit, and I sssshall be victorioussss yet again.”
Each scale began to glow with a white-hot fire all it’s own. All of the sudden, the snake burst into flame before Eddie’s eyes and Hania awoke with a start. Eddie was able to move again, but fell onto his back into violent convulsions when he did. The cave spun in wild circles as the venom took hold of his muscles and reflexes. Hania reached into his sack and pulled out a small buffalo hide, placing it over Eddie. The weight of the thick fur and dense skin was comforting to him, as if the pressure of the heavy hide would suppress his body’s revolt. His shaking mercifully stopped but he was no longer in control of his faculties. His head rolled to the side and spittle pooled below his mouth on the dusty floor.
Next, Hania took out a large ceremonial rattle, painted red and adorned with two eagle feathers, and a bundle of sage. He passed the sage through the fire to catch the embers. Though he could not move, Eddie could discern the unmistakable scent. He waved the bundle and the totem over Eddie and shook it at different times in the highs and lows of an ancient chant only the medicine men would know. Ashes of the burnt sage nestled in the hide, also giving Eddie a distinct scent of burning hair.
“Sahale,” Hania said after what felt like an eternity of this. “you have faced the first trial and now will continue on your own journey. I leave with you this eagle feather.” Hania held up the rattle and plucked a feather out of the adornment. He nestled it into Eddie’s constricted fist. “Never release this feather. It is your link to the world of the living; your life line. You will have a vision. The demons will come and they will torment you. Show no fear and return to us as a brave. Hold the line, Sahale. May the Great Spirit watch over you until we meet again.” With that, Hania stood, took up his satchel and left the cave.
Eddie’s mind screamed out to him not to leave but his paralyzed body and mouth betrayed his fears. He was left alone to face whatever came next. And what did Hania say it would be? Demons? As if the serpent wasn’t bad enough, now something else was coming?
The tiny flame in the rock circle threw dancing shadows around the room. He could see the fire in the corner of his eye as the scorching venom ran its course. Every nerve shrieked in agony yet he still could not move. In his fingers, he could feel the coarseness of the feather shaft. One flicker of his finger was all he could muster to clutch it tighter.
Stay anchored to the feather, he thought. Hania said to never let it go. No matter what comes for me, hold tight!
Eddie lay prostrate beneath the buffalo hide staring into the fire. He had no concept of time. All he felt was the rage of the snake’s toxin wreaking havoc on his senses. His ears rang. His pulse pounded as the venom raged through him. He could taste it in his mouth. He could feel it in his heart.
Am I dying?It feels like dying…
Slowly, letting go of life…
That’s when he heard footsteps in the gravel.
Who’s there? Has someone come to save me?
Eddie was still unable to move, his spindly limbs locked in shape by some unnatural bond he could only feel, not see. The sound of gravel crunching underfoot came closer. His eyes strained in the sockets to see who had come to save him but the range of his vision was limited and he could not see who it was. Was it his grandfather? Did Zeke or Danny follow them up here? Please, he thought. I’m here! Please let it be someone who has come to help.
“I cannot help you in that way, Sahale,” came a deep voice with a strong Apache accent. “I am no medicine man.” The footsteps came closer and suddenly a foot wrapped in an adorned leather moccasin stepped into his view. The unknown man strode past the fire and sat cross-legged in the same place Hania was when the snake first appeared. “As much as I would like to help you, I am forbidden to interfere in that manner by the Great Spirit. However, I can guide you on your journey, Sahale. Your thoughts are open to me. I can share in your nightmares.”
Eddie stared at the man through the dancing flames. He was young, but carried the mantle of an elder. His face held the deep lines of age and wisdom, yet appeared youthful, like someone who has seen many seasons but still clung to their child-like appearance. His long raven-dark hair hung in two braids over either shoulder and was held back by a golden beaded band. Two eagle feathers hung with the braids. He wore a simple pair of leather leggings with a bright red breechcloth. Across his chest was a bead and bone breastplate encrusted with silver and turquoise finery. He stared at Eddie through the dark pools of his eyes for a long while before speaking again.
“Before long, young child Sahale, the venom that paralyzes you will dissipate and you will rise again.” Not once did his piercing gaze waver. “When it does, you will be given a choice, much as I was when I faced the same trial.”
Who are you?
“Ah, there you have it.” The man smiled for the first time, revealing his brilliant white teeth. “As your mind makes questions, I will be able to answer them.”
I said, who are you?
“In time, brave Sahale, in time. But who either of us are is not important right now.” He continued to stare at Eddie, never so much as blinking. “So tell me, child of the Apache, why do you deserve to become a brave among your people?”
Because I am fourteen. It is my time to become a warrior.
The man chuckled. “You think it is age that makes you ready? That the number of seasons you have lived makes you a brave? Perhaps I should ask a different question, Sahale. What do you fear?”
That was a question Eddie hoped he would not have to answer.
Images started flowing through Eddie’s mind; memories of his childhood. His thoughts finally settled on a particular cool desert night. He recognized the landscape instantly.
“No, please no. Not this night…”
When he was eight, his father gave him a rifle—a Winchester bolt-action .243—for his birthday. Mother was against it. She argued he was too young, but his father soothed her fears and assured her he would teach him how to use it safely. Every day, they would go to the field behind their house and shoot tin cans. He loved that time with his father more than anything. Later that summer, coyotes killed several goats at his grandfather’s house on the reservation and the men decided they must find the pack and drive them off. So, on a bright moonlit night, they set out into the hills following the coyote tracks. They brought Eddie and his rifle along but assured his mother he would not have live ammunition. It’s just for show, his father said. The boy should come with the men and learn how to hunt.
Eddie never felt more alive than he did that night, walking the game trail through the brush and tracking those yipping bandits. As they walked quietly along, Eddie’s father held out his closed fist and dropped a single bullet into his little hands.
“Coyotes in large numbers can be dangerous,” his father said as he dropped the shiny brass shell down to Eddie’s gloved hands. “You must be able to protect yourself. Load up like I taught you, and if we see one, wait until I tell you to shoot.” Eddie slid back the bolt in eager agreement. The bullet slipped in with ease, and the smooth clicking sound of the oiled bolt locking it into place gave Eddie power. Confidence surged through him. Now, he was ready for anything.
This part of the reservation was isolated and dark. The moon was brilliant white, mostly eliminating the need for flashlights. The three of them hiked quietly in single file through the soft sand. His father in the front, him in the middle, and grandfather at the back. They walked for hours without finding a thing. It was just after midnight when his grandfather decided to call off the hunt for the night. Eddie yawned in agreement despite his earlier enthusiasm. His rifle became too heavy a hour ago so his dad shouldered it for him. He was past ready to go back to the truck.
Suddenly, howls and yips erupted off to their right. The coyote pack finally revealed themselves… and they were close! Eddie’s dad handed him back his rifle. The burst of adrenaline brought him back into the moment and the excitement came flooding back.
“Let’s circle around them,” his father whispered to his grandfather. “You and Eddie go below them. I will go above. Make noise when you’re close to scare them towards me. We’ll drive them to the far rocks and corner them there.”
His grandfather nodded in agreement. “Great Spirit watch over you.”
“Great Spirit watch over us all,” he said back. Eddie’s father stalked off through the brush. Then his grandfather knelt down to Eddie’s level. “You stay right behind me, Sahale,” he said. “Always right behind me.” He nodded in agreement and they walked slowly down the trail to flank the pack.
The eerie cries continued as the pack carried on their demonic racket. Eddie’s heart was pounding. His first hunt! Even though he only had one bullet, he was determined to make it count to keep his grandfather’s livestock safe from these canine fiends. The pack whooped and howled in a frenzy. “They must have cornered something,” grandfather said. “They only carry on like that when they have found prey. Let’s drive them away and save whatever they have caught. Make noise!”
Eddie’s grandfather started wailing like nothing Eddie had ever heard before. Eddie gleefully joined in and followed his grandfather deeper into the brush towards the pack. In the distance, Eddie could hear his father doing the same thing. The coyote cries went silent as the three of them raised all the hell they could muster. The yips came fewer and more distant. The pack was moving away from Eddie and his grandfather’s position and towards his father at the rocks, just like he said. It was working!
Suddenly, the night was split by the report of his father’s AR-15. Eddie and his grandfather stopped running for a moment and listened. Chaos erupted from where Eddie’s father was. Cracks from the rifle mixed in with the yelps and cries of injured coyotes. Then they heard an unexpected sound. Eddie’s father was crying for help.
His grandfather took off in a sprint that did not seem possible for a man his age. Eddie moved as fast as he could to keep up but still fell behind. One misstep on a loose rock sent Eddie face first into a patch of chicory. His rifle and flashlight flew further into the brush and out of sight. He got up and checked for chollas, just in case there was a cactus in there. Fortunately for him there wasn’t so he started feeling the ground for his gun. Abruptly, everything went silent. The shooting stopped and the coyotes quit sounding their cry. He strained to listen for his father and grandfather but couldn’t hear either of them. The night became quiet as a tomb. He scurried around more and found his flashlight at the base of a bush, but where was his rifle? Eddie dropped to his knees and crawled around frantically, to find it. With heart pounding, he crawled about in a panic until his hand finally touched the cold steel barrel of his Winchester. That’s when he heard the first growl.
Eddie froze. A second growl came from behind him. Then a third. With wide-eyed fear, he clicked on his light. Dotting the landscape in the beam before him were what seemed to be a thousand dark orange eyes reflecting back.
…Coyotes in large numbers can be dangerous…
“Eddie!?” his father called out in the distance. “Eddie, where are you?” but he sounded too far away to help.
…You must be able to protect yourself…
The closest set of orange eyes gave a piercing howl and snarled. With teeth bared, it took a quick step toward him. Eddie scurried to his feet and dropped the light but raised the rifle. The light landed badly and broke, shrouding him in darkness. His eyes strained to adjust.
… if we see one, wait until I tell you to shoot…
“Eddie? Answer me, son! I’m coming!”
More yips and snarls erupted from the dark around him. Sounds of movement came from all directions. They were circling. The pack was closing in on him! A loud crashing suddenly came through the brush in front of him.
…You must be able to protect yourself…
“Eddie? Where are you!?”
The big coyote had sprung toward Eddie in the dark! It was now or never.
Eddie squeezed the trigger and his rifle split the night, silencing everything around him. Echoes of the report bounced from boulder to boulder. He fell back from the kick of the round, knocking him on his backside. The barks and howling wailed as the pack bolted into the night from the loud rifle shot. Eddie lay in a daze, panting in heavy breaths and ears ringing from the sound, hoping his aim was true. Otherwise the next thing he would feel was teeth pulling his throat out, but the bite never came. Out of the darkness, rough hands grabbed him up by his collar, pulling him up into a forced embrace. It was his grandfather. Eddie burst into sobbing tears.
“My boy. You’re safe now,” his grandfather said soothingly. “Don’t look, it’s okay. It was an accident. You’re safe now.”
“I’m sorry, grandpa,” Eddie blubbered out. “You said right behind you, but I fell. I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”
“It’s okay, boy. You’re safe now. It was just an accident.”
“No,” Eddie cried. “No, it wasn’t an accident, grandpa! I meant to shoot that coyote.”
“I know you did, Sahale, I know you did, but it was an accident. You couldn’t see him.”
“What?” he asked and tried to look, but his grandfather held him tighter.
“No, boy. Don’t look. It was an accident.”
Eddie forced himself away and looked back to see his father sprawled out on the desert floor. Across the chest of his light grey sweatshirt was a slick, dark pool that was flowing down onto the ground beneath him. The last thing Eddie remembered was his own high-pitched scream as his grandfather squeezed him closer. That was the last memory he had of his father.
The dancing rock fire cast a large shadow behind the man as he stood up and put another oak log on it. “The venom of the serpent shows us a great many things,” the man said. “Your medicine man, Hania, told you demons would visit you and not to fear. What many do not recognize is that the only demons and fear they meet are the ones they brought up the mountainwith them. They are already inside. Here,” the man pointed to his forehead, “and here.” His fingers rested over his heart. Reaching up into his golden headband, he pulled out one of his eagle feathers and twirled it in his fingers. He moved over and knelt down at Eddie’s side.
“You have faced your demon with bravery. You are worthy, and now you must decide.”
He rolled Eddie’s head upright and placed the feather across his forehead. “You must decide if you can exist with your demon, or if you cannot. Your demon will always be with you on the earth. If you decide, you may stay here with it and become a brave of the Apache.” The man clapped his hands hard and rubbed them together. He placed one hand over the feather on Eddie’s forehead and one hand over the serpent bite. His touch was hot, burning like a glowing iron over the bite, but the hand on his forehead over the feather was cool and calming. Eddie, still immobile, inhaled a sharp breath and screamed out.
“I met your father here many seasons ago,” the man said, “He carried great fear within him. In his vision, he foresaw his own death, but that his sacrifice would save a life. That sacrifice would come out of great fear. Not your fear, but his. I shared in his vision just as I have shared in yours. Even then, the coyote terrified your father. That was his demon. When the time came for him to choose, he stayed to live with his demon, comforted that he would face his fear to save a life—your life—even though he was destined lose his own. He resides with the Great Spirit now, and has great pride in you, young Sahale. Now rise.”
The man removed his hands from the bite and Eddie’s forehead. All of the emotion and pain from reliving his nightmare came rushing through Eddie’s body like a raging river. Though groggy and painfully difficult, he could move again, but only just. The man helped Eddie to his feet and steadied him. The room was still spinning faster than his head could keep up with.
“I have slowed the venom enough for you to decide. Should you choose to stay, take your rope and begin your descent. If you choose to leave, I will carry you to meet the Great Spirit. I await you outside, Sahale of the Apache peoples. Think on this and make your choice.”
The man leaned Eddie against the wall and walked out, leaving him to think about his decision. This was nothing like he thought it would be. Neither his grandfather nor Hania prepared him for anything that he just experienced. The weight of emotion at remembering the death of his father crushed him like an avalanche. Eddie fell to his knees and sobbed. He tried to bury his feelings of guilt and remorse over his father’s death. Grandfather told everyone it was an accident, but that wasn’t true at all. It wasn’t an accident that killed his father. Eddie never believed it, and he didn’t think anyone else did either. But was it? Was it truly an accident?
It was Eddie’s cowardice.
His fear killed his father.
The realization of this truth hit him hard. All this time, Eddie carried the guilt in his heart. It weighed him down like a stone tethered to his soul. He ached every time he saw his mother cry over the only photo they had of him. Grandfather would say his time with the Great Spirit was needed, and that is why he was gone. They both told Eddie it wasn’t his fault. He never believed them. But in facing his guilt, there was doubt. He accepted that maybe it was all an accident. Some terrible, awful accident. Now he must decide is he can live with his fear and guilt, or succumb to it.
Eddie couldn’t remember how long he sat there before finally gathering the strength to get up again. The venom,though diminished, continued coursing through him. It slowed his movements and clouded his vision. He wondered how long he would feel this way. When he emerged from the cave, the man with the golden head band stood at the edge of the overhang waiting for him. A cold white wind dusted up a light snow around them. The biting icy air made Eddie pull the buffalo hide tighter to his shoulders, but the shirtless man seemed unaffected by it. He staggered up face to face with the man. They stood there for several minutes before he spoke.
“Have you made your decision, Sahale?”
“I… I have.”
“And what have you chosen?” Eddie held open the buffalo hide and extended out his arms. In one hand, he held the coil of rope, and clutched tightly in the other was the eagle feather. The man looked down at his hands and spoke again. “You cannot hold both. Whichever you release decides your fate. Choose.”
Eddie looked down at his hands, first at the feather. “I hold the line; the line of strength that pulls me through the fear. My fear is that I am the cause of my father’s death.” He then looked at the rope. “I hold the line; the line of life that anchors me to the world I know and the people I love. Tell me, Yellow Eagle, if you were me, what would you choose?”
“I, like you, faced the same trials. My demons were many. I, like you, also came before the Great Spirit with a rope and feather in hand, asking the same question.” The wind and snow flurries danced around them. Flecks of white clung to Yellow Eagle’s dark hair. He reached up and placed his hand on Eddie’s shoulder. “I could not live with my demons and chose to go with the Great Spirit. Unlike you, I was not brave enough to make peace with them.”
Eddie smiled. “You speak as if you know already know what I have decided.”
Yellow Eagle smiled back. “I have always known what you would decide.” He extended his hand out. Eddie looked down at it and handed him back his feather. Yellow Eagle smiled wide. “Live well, Sahale, of the higher places, brave warrior of the Apache. May the Great Spirit watch over you until we meet again.” He affixed the feather back in his headband and walked to the cliff’s edge, extending his hand in a farewell wave. Then, he turned and gracefully dove off the edge into the flurry of white. Eddie ran to the edge when suddenly a great Golden Eagle soared up past him, crying out to the wind and declaring that Sahale, brave of the Apache, was returning home.
While driving home from a baseball game a few nights ago, I had my iPod (yes, I still use an iPod) in my car set to play Rush. I wasn’t even out of the parking lot before Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres cranked up. I love that song and I know the lyrics well. However, for some reason, this time they painted a picture I had not considered much before. But before we get into that, let me bring any unfamiliar readers up to speed.
What is Cygnus X-1?
The real Cygnus X-1 is a black hole in the constellation of Cygnus, The Swan. The constellation is also called the Northern Cross and is visible all across the northern hemisphere. In 1971, the black hole was discovered as the first source of X-rays within Cygnus (hence the name X-1). Neil Peart read a newspaper article about it and, using his brilliant imagination, penned a nearly 29-minute progressive rock epic about it.
Cygnus X-1, Book 1: The Voyage is from the 1977 Rush album A Farewell to Kings. It’s about an explorer that sets his space ship, The Rocinante, for the heart of a newly discovered black hole. Our hero knows this is probably a one way trip, but undaunted, plunges on. Book 1 of this prog-rock epic goes on for about 10-minutes, and ends with The Rocinante spiraling into oblivion. Our hero expects his demise and the song ends. It’s in Book 2 from 1979’s Hemispheres that got me thinking about the parallels between the song and politics.
Political commentary is a dangerous minefield these days, but art does imitate life. This song is no different and was a prophecy before its time. I’m going to make some broad-brush generalizations in here about followers of the political left and right, so before you send me responses like I am a so-and-so and that’s not what I believe or My party believes in this platform, not that, just calm down and digest the core basics of what I’ve interpreted here. I’m going to ask you in advance for grace, and ask that you consider what I say with introspect. However, I always invite thoughtful discourse if you want to voice your opinion on it.
Disclaimers in place? Check. Now, let’s launch into it.
So what does a song about Cygnus X-1 have to do with American Politics?
Let’s examine the lyrics of Book 2:
“When our weary world was young, the struggle of the ancients first began. The gods of Love and Reason, sought alone to rule the fate of Man. They battled through the ages, but still neither force would yield. The people were divided, every soul a battlefield…”
This first part just sets the stage, reminding the listener that since the beginning of time, humankind has struggled with how best to govern their affairs between the boundaries of love and reason. The Rocinante emerges through the black hole to find it was a gateway to Mount Olympus, where Apollo and Dionysus are engaged in epic battle over the fate of mankind. Will they be ruled by Apollo’s wisdom and reason, or Dionysus’s love and emotion? Each god makes a plea for their case while our hero observes.
Apollo’s Plea for Reason
Apollo gets to go first:
I bring truth and understanding, I bring wit and wisdom fair, precious gifts beyond compare. We can build a world of wonder, I can make you all aware. I will find you food and shelter, show you fire to keep you warm through the endless winter storm. You can live in grace and comfort in the world that you transform.
I would contend Apollo’s vision falls more to the right side of political ideology. Typically, Republicans see through the lens of numbers and logic, placing a lower value on feelings and emotion. Apollo offers to share knowledge, the basics of food and shelter, and to show you how to make fire, but it is up the individual to take those tools transform their world for their own grace and comfort. Again, it’s a broad brush approach, but one of the party platforms of the right is deeply rooted in the idea of each person being the captain of their own destiny. Apollo’s offer was accepted, and here’s what happened:
The people were delighted, coming forth to claim their prize. They ran to build their cities and converse among the wise. But one day the streets fell silent, yet they knew not what was wrong. The urge to build these fine things seemed not to be so strong. The wise men were consulted and the Bridge of Death was crossed, in quest of Dionysus to find out what they had lost…
My interpretation of this is knowledge, numbers, and logic is only going to get you so far before you run out of creativity. In a simpler term, this world feels like a minimalist black and white painting; probably beautiful in it simplicity, but devoid of color and personality. It’s cold and hard there. In my observations, Republicans can get caught within their own versions of reason and take a narrow-minded world view; very much like a horse with blinders. The mind needs expansion or it will die.
I think the key statement in here is crossing the Bridge of Death. Curious wording, don’t you think? I would liken this to the idea that you sometimes hear out of right-wingers warning you don’t go over there by those lefties… it’s dangerous! You’ll be in peril unless you walk this fine line! Don’t cross that bridge of death! It’s a group-think idea that once you try a forbidden fruit, you are a lost cause.
Dionysus’s Plea for Love
When humankind crossed their Bridge of Death seeking out Dionysus to see what he could offer, here’s what he said:
I bring love to give you solace, in the darkness of the night; in the heart’s eternal light. You need only trust your feelings, only Love can steer you right. I bring laughter, I bring music, I bring joy and I bring tears, I will soothe your primal fears. Throw off those chains of reason and your prison disappears
It’s not a stretch to see Dionysus is taking the political left approach. He’s playing on your heart strings and telling you that only love can make things right with the world. He’s ready to give humankind everything they need to fuel a creative fire – joy, laughter, music, solace. He promises a spiritual freedom of they will abandon reason and pursue their heart’s desire. Where the kicker comes is the line that he will soothe their primal fears. That line begs a question: What are your primal fears?
The answer will be different for everyone. For some, it’s eliminating loneliness and finding their soul mate. For others, it’s financial stability. Others might argue for spiritual or physical well-being. The bounds are endless on what people fear. Dionysus is telling them he’ll take all that away for them. The Democratic platform sometimes claims to have government provide everything people would fear to lose. I contend, however, that no god or government can possibly provide for everything a person needs. No one. The people, in this song’s case, decide to take him up on the offer. Here’s how it went:
The cities were abandoned and the forests echoed song. They danced and lived as brothers. They knew love could not be wrong. Food and wine they had aplenty and they slept beneath the stars. The people were contented and the Gods watched from afar. But the winter fell upon them and it caught them unprepared, bringing wolves and cold starvation, and the hearts of men despaired…
The romantic notion of throwing all logical caution to the wind and living your best Bohemian life—Y.O.L.O., if you will—is popular among younger generations today. But there are consequences to an ideology that only lives and loves in the moment without logical planning for the future. There’s even greater consequence for depending on someone else to provide everything for you. A day will come where the well dries up. In our song, the winter falls upon the people who lived only for the summery moment with Dionysus, thinking all they needed was love to sustain them. The wolves and weather had a different idea.
The Great Battle for the Heart and Mind of Humankind
In modern politics, this same metaphoric battle rages today as I type this and as you read it. There is a deadly competition for your vote without your voice, and each side knows exactly what string to pluck to get it. One side preys on fear of losing all reason, while the other preys on your fear of losing all hope. Many good people are entrenched in one side or the other and will not accept any olive branches offered by the opposition. In the song, their battle goes like this:
The universe divided as the heart and mind collided, with the people left unguided for so many troubled years; in a cloud of doubts and fears. Their world was torn asunder into hollow hemispheres. Some fought themselves, some fought each other. Most just followed one another, lost and aimless like their brothers. For their hearts were so unclear and the truth could not appear. Their spirits were divided into blinded hemispheres.
There has never been a more poignant description of today’s Left vs. Right political ideology than that stanza right there. The whole of the United States lives in a cloud of doubt and fear because many have buried themselves so far into their beliefs that no one will budge. People fear each other. They don’t trust each other. They prey on each other. And many who are not clear on their own thoughts blindly follow others to fit in to one of these camps just for the sense of belonging. More importantly, no one wants to admit their side is wrong. Not on one single thing. The faithful are so blinded without sound judgement that they can’t see a bitter truth in front of their face: That the opposition is truly not their enemy. In the song, a select few were blessed with discernment:
Some who did not fight brought tales of old to light. My Rocinante sailed by night on her final flight. To the heart of Cygnus’ fearsome force, we set our course. Spiraled through that timeless space to this immortal place.
Our hero is not yet sullied with the ideological dilemmas of Apollo and Dionysus, and encounters people I would call the Neutrals. These are people who haven’t fully decided their fate yet and observe the battle before them between the heart and mind. They tell the sordid tales from both sides, taking on traits of each. Some may call that not choosing a side. Sometimes it’s necessary to choose, but in this case, I think the Neutrals have created a third option to consider.
Cygnus, the Bringer of Balance
Enter the hero of our story, which in my mind is you. Yes, you, who sit here and have read to this point. Here’s your grand entrance:
I have memory and awareness, but I have no shape or form. As a disembodied spirit, I am dead and yet unborn. I have passed into Olympus, as was told in tales of old, to the City of Immortals; marble white and purest gold. I see the gods in battle rage on high, thunderbolts across the sky. I cannot move, I cannot hide, I feel a silent scream begin inside.
This stanza is chock full of metaphor. The U.S. Capitol is loaded to the gills with white marble buildings and monuments gilded in gold leaf. For an every-day citizen or political outsider, the halls of government might feel like an Olympus. A place where the gods of elected government rule from on high. You could even stretch to think of it as a City of Immortals.
You enter the halls of Congress to see and hear the “thunderbolts” being hurled from the right and left sides of the aisle; the nonstop bickering over how you will live your life. It’s messy, complicated, drowned in a legalese few laymen can understand. Who would enter that fray, and upon seeing the ridiculousness of it, would not want to scream? What if you actually did it? Here’s what the song says happened:
Then all at once the chaos ceased. A stillness fell, a sudden peace. The warriors felt my silent cry and stayed their struggle, mystified. Apollo was astonished. Dionysus thought me mad. But they heard my story further and they wondered, and were sad. Looking down from Olympus on a world of doubt and fear; its surface splintered into sorry hemispheres.
In reality, if you walked into a Senate or House session, or the Oval Office, or the Supreme Court chambers and screamed in bloody frustration at them, they are going to have you escorted out. Probably with prejudice. But imagine what would happen if you did and they actually stopped and listened to you? I know what you’re thinking: Lyle, seriously, government stopped listening to the people a long time ago. You’re right. But that’s not my point in all this. Now this next part, this is the true science fiction of the tale:
They sat a while in silence, then they turned at last to me. ‘We will call you Cygnus, the God of Balance you shall be.’
Just think, for one moment, if you had the chance to be the arbiter between the left and right ideology, and they had to abide by your final judgement on their argument. Who would you side with? Always the Left? Always the Right? Some might, but the majority of us would not. We would invoke the third option of the Neutrals, and that brings me to the conclusion of this extremely long political rant.
The Hemispheres United
If you’ve stuck with me this long, I have to think you’ve got at least a foot in the camp of the Neutrals. In my mind, we the Neutrals are the centrists. I would argue the centrists live with the mantra that if you can’t do what is right, then you do what is fair. We are the ones in the middle that see merit and fault on both political fronts… the ones who political parties have abandoned for the warm and fuzzy fringes of their followers. We in the middle are left in the political cold and both sides are making a fire to warm us. We are the ones those governing gods fight over. We are the ones they hope are afraid of being alone so we can get pulled in to their fold.
It is us who pilot the Rocinante into the black hole of politics and scream in frustration at Apollo and Dionysus for their limited vision and schoolyard pettiness. It is us who seek the peace in an arena that only knows war. But not war in the traditional sense. Oh no. They don’t want to kill you. It’s the war for your heart and mind. They are the most precious bastions you can ever protect. The day we once again realize we are not enemies is the first day of our freedom. There is a way to reconcile our trespasses against each other, and Rush sums it up nicely in the final stanza:
We can walk our road together, if our goals are all the same. We can run alone and free, if we pursue a different aim. Let the truth of love be lighted. Let the love of truth shine clear. Sensibility, armed with sense and liberty, with the heart and mind united in a single, perfect sphere.
While I am not naive enough to think those who govern will stop and hear us when we scream, I am hopeful that, outside of their influence, we will hear each other when we scream. Maybe then we can once again come together—those with love and those with logic—and make our country a better example for the world.
Ask any Star Wars fans, or even those Moofmilkers who have maybe just “seen the movie once”, what they think of Chewbacca. I’m willing to bet every single one will say they love him. In fact, I’m willing to bet the Millennium Falcon that not one of them will have a negative thing to say about him. Even in this hyper-critical moment Star Wars fans find themselves in over the franchise, the one constant we can all agree on is a universal love for the Wookiee, Chewbacca.
Why do you think that is? Why has this character touched so many hearts without ever saying a word we can understand? I have a theory, and it comes with a deep personal meaning.
Chewie: The Ultimate Wingman
Han didn’t know how lucky he was to have a best friend like Chewie. Let’s be honest… he would never have survived even half of the junk he pulled, and the trouble he got into throughout his adult life, without Chewbacca.
Need something fixed on the Falcon? Chewie’s got it.
Need to borrow a Bowcaster when your DL-44 Blaster isn’t up to snuff? Chewie’s got you covered.
Trapped at a blast door on Endor by the Empire and an Imperial Walker? Chewie has your back, with a little Ewok help.
Pulling a heist? Chewbacca calls shotgun. Any time Han needs him, he is there.
One thing I wish they had delved into with The Rise of Skywalker is the connection that had to exist between Ben Solo and Chewbacca. Imagine as a child growing up with “Uncle Chewie”. There could be no better babysitter. Even when Ben became Kylo Ren, there had to be a twinge in his black heart somewhere of how his turn to the dark side would affect Chewie. He could hate mom and dad all he wanted to, but I’d bet the farm there were some strong attachments to the big furry oaf. And imagine how much it did affect Chewie? After all, he is a sensitive Wookiee. Just look at what he did with the Porgs in Episode VII!
Chewie: The Great Protector
Something that always stood out to me in Star Wars is C-3PO being the butt of a lot of jokes. Sure, he could be annoying, but he always meant well. Goldenrod, the professor, mindless philosopher, and whatever else R2 called him in his squawks and squeaks—C-3PO took it all in stride. He could dish it out, too. In fact, he could be quite a jerk about it. But on Cloud City, when he ran afoul of some Storm Troopers and was blasted apart, it was the kind-hearted Chewbacca that fought off the Ugnaughts for his parts and put him back together.
And who did Han trust to look after his love before going into carbon freeze? It sure wasn’t Lando. When Chewie was ready to rumble over it, Han calmed him down by charging him to take care of the princess.
Chewie takes his fair share of zingers, too, and he never complains because that’s just who he is. He’s been called a walking carpet, flea-bitten furball, overgrown mop head, a big hairy thing, big furry oaf, and probably the worst one… “he’s only a Wookiee.” All things you could only say to your best friend and get away with it. Even with the knocks, our ever-faithful sidekick always plunges on. Plus, you know he could remove all your limbs if he wanted to.
What Chewbacca means to Star Wars fans
“It’s a privilege unlike any other. With relative anonymity, you can bring joy to so many, and at the same time you’re giving people the opportunity to reminisce about their childhoods — and giving people big, hairy hugs. So it’s a wonderful job.”
Joonas Suotamo, on what it means to him portraying Chewbacca
The now-Legends book, The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime is a difficult book to read, because in it, Chewbacca dies. It struck me hard knowing he died in the Extended Universe. Chewbacca dead? I am not sure I can handle that! Even more profound is that Han starts a dark spiral after losing his long-time best friend. Something we could probably all relate to if it happened to us. His death was taken so hard by some fans that the author even received death threats over it.
In doing a little more research, I found out this book is rumored to be one of the primary reasons the EU/Legends was cut from Star Wars canon. To quote the Hollywood Reporter article, it says:
“A new Star Wars films without Chewbacca just wouldn’t feel like Star Wars, because the character is so much of the series’ heart. It’s impossible to take for granted that there’s an emotive quality to Chewbacca, an undeniable sense of personality that transcends the costume. As much as we’d like to imagine that if we lived in the Star Wars Universe we’d be a Jedi like Luke or Rey, a diplomat like Leia or a cocky pilot like Han, the truth is that we’d most likely be like Chewbacca; dependable, empathetic and just along for the ride. That’s an honorable position to be in.”
…and that is truth. A Star Wars movie without Chewbacca is like one without R2-D2. They may be the most influential supporting characters in film history. Being a supporting character brings around the point of all this. Why is Chewbacca the best friend we all wish we had?
Be Someone’s Chewbacca
August 2020 will be the two-year anniversary of the death of someone I knew who took his own life. His name is Miguel. We were co-workers at the rec center in my town. His mom works there with me, too. Miguel and I weren’t best friends. We saw each other when he would come in to work the pool cleaning crew, or when his mom would bring him after school to play basketball. We talked sometimes about little stuff, always nice to each other. He was 15-years-old.
In hindsight, nothing anyone could have said or done was going to stop him once he made this decision. Stars help me, I’ve thought about it constantly. Was there something I could have done differently that would have given him pause? Is there more I could have done? Could I have been nicer to him? Would he still be here if I had? Did he have a Chewbacca? I see his mom every day at work and it breaks my heart for her.
Miguel was born the same year as my youngest son. We both share a love of Star Wars. We play Star Wars games together, like Battlefront II and Galaxy of Heroes. We tag-teamed Jedi: Fallen Order on the PS4 to face Vader. I could not imagine being a Star Wars fan, or a life, without him. I’ll always be his Chewbacca, as I would to any of my kids and grand-kids.
My challenge to you: Be a Chewbacca to someone. It just might be the tiny Force push they need. Alternately, If you need a Chewbacca, we’re out there. Look hard and find us. We might be in the bottom of a muddy pit, labeled a beast and trapped in chains of our own. Help us out of there and I can promise you, we’ll be friends for life.
The round spectacles at the end of his nose fogged from the hot tea the Right Reverend Wrinkle sipped, annoying Marie past her short level of tolerance. He’s not even listening to me, she thought. He must be deaf or stupid, haven’t figured out which. The wiry reverend set the delicate cup back down in the saucer at his side table. He stared off out the window watching the dark clouds roll in.
“Storms a’comin,” he said. The old bloodhound lying by the front door perked her ears at the word storm. Marie lost her patience with the man. Her limit was reached
“Have you even heard a word I’ve said?” She got up from her chair in frustration. “They say you’re the only one around here who knows how I can get back home, but if you ask me, you don’t know a damn thing!”
The Right Reverend Wrinkle sat calm as could be and continued to glide gently in his rocker. At last, he spoke again. “I know many things, but you never can tell with a storm. They kinda’ just do what they want. It’s as if God let’s a little chaos roam free once in a while. Hard to find your way home in a storm, they say.” He reached down with a lazy hand and brushed off some of the bone dust from his sleeve. Then he put his index finger behind the tight white clergy collar and loosened it. The low rumble of distant thunder rolled across the churchyard outside.
“Yep, this storm’s gonna be a good’n. Best to keep inside, I think, eh Sticks?” The dog got up and moved to the reverend’s feet, careful not to get her tail under the curved runner of the chair.
Marie sat back down in a heap, burying her face in her frustrated hands. “Alright, let’s try this again, shall we?” She sat directly across from him, looking down at the dog. Sticks looked back up at her through tired and droopy eyes, groaning as she rolled to her side to sleep. The reverend peered down over his glasses and took another sip of his tea.
“Look, I’m sorry about running over your mailbox and smashing the headstones. Can I just use your phone? I’ll call my dad to pick me up and send a tow truck for my car. My cell phone is in my purse but I don’t remember where I left it. I promise, he’ll write you a check for the damages.” A strong gust came up as the first drops of rain streaked down the window. Another roll of thunder boomed, giving the windows a rattle. Marie sighed. “Oh great… now it’s raining. I’m gonna be stuck here forever!”
She stomped her foot and looked out the window. The accident scene looked worse from here than she remembered it. The side of the first mausoleum lay in rubble under the front of her red two-seater convertible. It was her 18th birthday present. She loved that car, but now it was junk. Rutted tire tracks smashed through the front fence, the mailbox, several headstones, and coming to an end where she crashed into the side of the one crypt in the cemetery. Marie noted that had she been going a little faster, she probably would have hit the church building, too.
“Next time, I won’t swerve to miss a cat. That’s what I get for being nice, I guess.” He got up and stood beside her, also surveying the damage and shook his head.
“You know, it’s not really about the money, is it? Oh, I can just hear it now… Them Rigbys are gonna be hoppin’ mad that old lady Eleanor’s tomb was disturbed. They said she was mean in life, but Ellie would be a sight meaner in death!” He chuckled and took back the rest of the warm tea in one swift gulp. “Well they were right about that one. I remember ol’ Ellie Rigby back when I first got to this parish. She wanted nothing to do with a shiny new deacon-in-training. Almighty, that was a wicked woman. Only one who ever took a shinin’ to her was that ol’ Father Mackenzie, but he liked everybody anyhow. Ah well, couldn’ta happened to a nicer lady!” He looked down again at the old hound, and she looked back up at her master waiting for his instruction. “Well, whaddya say, Sticks? Should we go find the phone and get somebody out here? We’ve got work to do.” Sticks woofed in approval.
“Ugh. Yes. Finally!” Marie said, and then felt bad for it. This lonely old parish priest probably never got visitors this far out in the country. He’d been kind and just made idle chat once he tended to her wounds. Even though she’d just wrecked her car and smashed his crypt, the guilt of her rudeness took control. The reverend reached down and rubbed to old dog’s head. The dog looked at Marie and gave a tired woof in admonishment for her poor manners. He rubbed her head again between the ears.
“That’s right Sticks, you go on an’ tell us all about it now.” Reverend Wrinkle opened the church office door and they cut across the empty and silent pews to the vestibule at the front door. The old dog wandered between them. Not overly excited about anything except just because the reverend was going somewhere, his faithful companion followed without hesitation. On a side table by the vestibule door sat Marie’s purse. She couldn’t remember bringing it inside. The purse had a large blood smear on the side right across the gold Coach emblem. She must have hit her head harder than she first thought.
“Oh no, my purse is ruined! Ah well. My phone is probab—”
Reverend Wrinkle picked it up and started rifling through it.
“Hey wait just a minute! What are yo—”
“A-ha! Here it is!” He held up her wallet. “Now let’s see who you are, lil’ missy.” He opened it up to her license. “Andromeda Marie Olson. Andromeda? Who names a poor kid something like that?”
“Well, excuse me for having parents who like science fiction. My dad was an actor,” she said as she swiped at her wallet. The reverend held it just out of reach and she missed. “Hey, give me that!”
He ignored her and opened the vestibule door. Marie gasped. On the table at the center of the room lie a young woman in her early 20s. Her head wrapped in a bandage, soaked through in red. Her eyes were open wide and dilated. Sprawled out on the table before her was Andromeda Marie Olson, and she was dead. Reverend Wrinkle looked down at the old brown Bloodhound, who quietly woofed back at him.
“I know it, girl. Poor little Andromeda. I guess there’s worse places to die than a cemetery in a churchyard, eh Sticks? Well don’t just sit there, ol’ girl. We’ve got rites to administer.”
“OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGod…” Marie repeated frantically. “This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening!” She wrapped her arms around herself and started to cry. “That’s why you can’t hear me… Oh my God, I’m dead!”
“Now there’s where you’re wrong, Andromeda Marie,” Reverend Wrinkle said. “Well, right and wrong, I suppose. Yes, you are dead, but I can hear you just fine, and so can Sticks.” He went to the cabinet and pulled out a plastic tablecloth from some long-ago church picnic and covered her body. “It’s hard on everybody when they first see their own mortal vessel layin’ there all cold and stiff, but it does get a little easier with time.”
“This isn’t happening…”
“It is happening,” he interrupted. “It is, and it happens around here more than you might think. I got more spirits haunting this place than ol’ Sticks has fleas.” As if on cue, Sticks scratched her ear with a hind leg. “Only question we have to answer now is why are you still here?”
“We?” Marie asked through the tears.
“Well in case you haven’t noticed, it’s just me and Sticks here, that’s who. This is what we do.” He sat in the wingback chair against the sidewall and crossed his legs while Sticks curled up by his foot. “You see, Andromeda—”
She held her hand up. “Please stop calling me that. I go by Marie.” She sat at the table next to her covered body, arms across herself, and unsure if her form would fall through the chair as she was now a ghost.
“Now don’t interrupt, Andromeda, or I won’t be able to help you. As I was about to say, you said a certain phrase back in the parlor that gave me all the inkling I need to know about your current predicament. It could be worse.”
Marie started feeling angry again at his choice of words. “Predicament? Predicament? In case you haven’t noticed, I’m dead, you moron! How much worse of a predicament could I be in?”
The reverend leaned forward with a squinted and piercing gaze. “Careful now, darlin’. There are worse things than being dead.” He said back with a grin. “Much worse.” With that, emotions resumed control and Marie broke down in sobs of anguish. Sticks sauntered over to her and rested her head on Marie’s leg to offer comfort. She looked down at the dog but saw something different this time. The warmth of the dog’s jowls on her leg was soothing; comforting in a way she couldn’t describe. All the sadness she felt over her own demise dissipated. The droopy eyes of the old hound sparkled like crystals. They offered a comfort unlike anything Marie had ever felt.
“You feel it, don’t cha? See, Sticks there, she has a gift. A gentle nudge from her and suddenly all seems right with the world. Ain’t it a grand thing?”
“It’s unreal,” Marie said and extended her hand to the dog’s head for a rub. “Can she feel me touch her?”
“Oh yes, she can feel it alright.” He scooted his chair a little closer to them and leaned in. “Just cause you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t interact with the physical world. It takes some practice, but you’ll be poltergeistin’ in no time.”
“Her eyes…” Marie continued to stare into the deep, dark pools of the dog’s red-rimmed eyes. They looked as if the whole universe was just on the other side of them.
“With the slightest touch, Sticks takes the fight right out of someone right down to the point of docile so I can talk some sense into them. You ready to hear some sense now?”
“I don’t want to talk,” she said as if in a trance. “I’m ready to go… Just let me go…” The reverend snapped his fingers under her nose and broke the spell Marie was falling under.
“Hey, hey… Andromeda. Hey, don’t go there yet. You’ll get to travel down that river eventually, but first I have to do my part.” Marie looked up blinking. “Yeah, there you are. Okay now, stay with me on this. In all my years of actin’ the ferryman, I’ve found this the easiest way for the newly-deads to get a grip on their situation. You ready?”
Marie was trying to pay attention to the reverend but could not shake the feeling from Sticks’ touch. Her mind was foggy with the euphoria of the revelations laid before her. She was dead, yet here she sat in a church vestibule with a priest and his dog talking about why she was still here as a spirit. This was definitely not how she thought the day would go. Sticks laid down by the reverend’s chair, breaking their connection. The emotion of her realizing her death crashed back in like a wave on the sea.
“Okay Andromeda, try this on for size. You told me I was the only one who could get you home. That’s how I knew you were dead. It’s the same phrase everyone says when we first meet.”
“Yes, that’s right. You’re the only one who knows the way back home.” Marie couldn’t figure out how she knew that, but she just knew.
“That’s partially true. I’m not the only one, but I’m the only one around here. Sticks has her gifts, and so do I. You see, certain people attract spirits; spirits with unfinished business here in the mortal realm. What I’m gonna tell you here will be a bit of a shock, but it’s my job to be your guide.”
“Yep. Hear me out. Psalms chapter 23, verse 4, you know it? It’s a famous one. Even the most heathenistic amongst humanity has heard it at least once. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. Sound familiar?” He leaned further forward, only inches from Marie’s face. “That valley is a real place and right now, you’re in it. But you can’t toil in there for long. Death only gives me so much time with you because it is his valley and he don’t suffer visitors much. I’m your guide out.” The storm outside increased to a fevered pitch. Marie could hear the rain pound on the tin roof above and the wind whistled through the trees outside. The reverend continued. “What we have to do is figure out which end of that valley you’re going out of.”
“This is crazy,” she said. “I have to be dreaming this. What in the hell is going on here?”
Sticks’ ears perked at the mention of hell. The reverend chuckled. “Funny choice of words there, darlin’, but you hit the nail pretty close to the head. That option is at one end of the valley.”
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon Marie… wake up. Wake up!”
“Andromeda Marie Olson, you are not sleeping, you are dead! You sit here in this room before me as a spirit separated from the body. The Book of James, chapter 2 verse 26 starts For as the body apart from the spirit is dead and I’m tellin’ you sweetheart, you are indeed dead. Sooner you accept it, the sooner we can get you goin’ home. Now, you ready to hear me yet?” He sat back and folded his arms awaiting and answer. Marie slumped is resignation.
“I’m truly dead…”
“Yes, you’re truly dead and for that I am sorry, but we’ll have time to mourn later. Right now, I need to get you on a path so I’m gonna need both those radar dishes on the side of your ghostly head pointed in my holy direction. We’re going to figure out what’s keeping you in this valley, and we should be quick about it. Just ’cause your dead doesn’t mean Death is finished with you yet. The Moonlit Man is coming and we don’t have much time. So now, are you ready to tell me which direction you wanna go?”
to be continued…
More coming soon from Andromeda and Reverend Wrinkle. Stay tuned!
I thought it would be fun to do a literary art/wood project, so I started brainstorming. While wasting time browsing Amazon, I found a place that sold a shield boss (that’s the round metal part in the center). Well you know I just had to have it. Now, about 4 months later, my ProseEdda literary art/wood project is complete! Here’s the stages of the project in photos. Enjoy!
In Norse Mythology, Fenrir is a wolf born of Loki and giantess Angrboda, the mother of monsters. Fenrir grew at an alarming rate to the Norse Gods and frightened them. Odin was particularly interested in seeing something done about this great and terrible beast when it was prophesied the wolf would devour and kill him during Ragnarok. The Gods tricked Fenrir into a game of strength by binding him with different strengths of chain to see if he could break them. He broke them all.
Little did Fenrir know that Odin went to the greatest craftsmen among the dwarves for a binding that could not be broken. They had just the thing: gleipnir. The super-strong silken bands were an enchanted concoction of a woman’s beard, a fish’s breath, root of a mountain, bird spittle, sinew of a bear, and the final ingredient, the sound of a cat’s footfall. Mixed together, they made an unbreakable bond.
Fenrir was wary of the God’s enthusiasm for this game, so when Odin proposed he try to escape a gleipnir binding, Fenrir demanded Tyr, the Norse God of Justice and Fenrir’s only friend among them, place his hand in Fenrir’s mouth while he tried to escape the gleipnir. They bound him up and as expected, he couldn’t break the binding. Fenrir bit off Tyr’s hand as he struggled to free himself but the binding grew tighter with every thrash and twist. Before long, the great wolf was trapped.
From there, Odin had Fenrir imprisoned on the isle of Lyngvi where the beast would be kept until Ragnarok. While Fenrir was free, he had two sons; Hati, the one who hates, and Skoll, the one who mocks. The white wolf, Hati, would forever chase the moon while his brother, the black wolf, Skoll, would chase the sun. Once the brothers succeeded, they would devour the heavenly bodies and herald the coming of Ragnarok. They would then free their father to take his revenge on Odin and bring about the end of the world.
I hope you’ve liked this. I truly enjoyed making it and learning my ancestor’s mythology. It was a fun challenge that taught me a few things. In the end, it gives me a wonderful conversation piece I am proud to say I made. That’s something I love about hand made items: they aren’t perfect. They are just the work of a simple artist doing what they love. Now it’s your turn. Go make something awesome!
It’s hard to talk about great music and not include Pink Floyd. The British super-group still outsells most of today’s artists since they dropped their first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, back in 1967. Their music, in all it’s crazy and glorious forms, still represents a major segment of progressive rock that can never be duplicated, and a musical sound still unmatched, though many have tried.
I got to see them live in 1994 at the old Tampa Stadium (The Big Sombrero to the locals!) in Florida during the Division Bell tour. I had a nosebleed view of my second favorite band of all time and it was glorious. Not being a smoker, my seats were great, because floor seats were covered by an odd fog over the crowd that would have made it difficult to see! Even from my seat in the clouds, it was an awesome show I will never forget. Little did I realize, that tour would end in October and be their last full-length concert ever (minus the 18-minute reunion show Live 8 show in 2005). That means I got to see one of their final set lists live. It was excellent, but I have some changes for it.
Pink Floyd: Loaded with Drama
If you keep up with the band today, you know there are some rifts that may never heal between Roger Waters and David Gilmour. When Waters broke away in the early 80’s to launch a solo career, he declared Pink Floyd to be over with. The other members disagreed and went on without him, opening a chasm that to this day remains deep and wide.
Going back further to the Sid Barrett/Bob Klose days, there was more of a divide when Barrett left and David Gilmour was permanently added to the roster. All five were together for a few months, but times were tense. Let’s be honest here. While Sid launched the band and made some great—albeit weird—music, Pink Floyd would have been a footnote in musical history without David Gilmour. Waters alone could have pulled them a little higher, but it was Gilmour’s musical vision that sent the band into the stratosphere after Barrett’s departure. Hardcore fans may disagree, but search your feelings. You know it to be true.
I talk about their drama because I think that final set list they chose is due to much of the music that featured Waters’ parts being omitted. Whether or not that was intentional, we’ll never know. With that in mind, my dream set list would be if all five members (Barrett, Waters, Mason, Wright, and Gilmour) were still happily singing as one. First, let’s see what the actual set list was.
Their Final Tour and the Tale of Two Set Lists
Some songs rotated throughout the tour, but a major change in songs happened around July prior to the European shows. The first set list is as follows:
Astronomy Domine, Learning to Fly, What Do You Want From Me, On The Turning Away, Take It Back, A Great Day For Freedom, Sorrow, Keep Talking, One of These Days,
Shine On You Crazy Diamond parts I thru V, Breathe, Time, Breathe (reprise), High Hopes, Great Gig in the Sky, Wish You Were Here, Us and Them, Money, Another Brick in the Wall, Comfortably Numb
…and the encore:
Hey You and Run Like Hell.
That was the set list I saw, and even though I was likely the only one in the stadium who wasn’t high, the crowd was berserk during the encore. Swaying and singing along to Hey You, and then almost moshing with pumping fists during Run Like Hell. And for the record, the greatest guitar solo ever in rock and roll is Gilmour’s outro of Comfortably Numb and I’ll fight those who disagree!
The second set list was similar for the most part, but set two saw Dark Side of the Moon played in its entirety and shifted the encore to Wish You Were Here, Comfortably Numb, and Run Like Hell. Surprisingly, the second list cut back the songs from the Division Bell album they were promoting. Even so, those are all great songs. But now, here’s what I would have chose for them.
My Pink Floyd Dream Set List
Everyone loves an opinion, so here’s mine. My additions to the existing list are in bold, and you can listen to them all at the YouTube Link below.
Welcome to the Machine
Cirrus Minor blended intro to Wish You Were Here
See Emily Play
The Nile Song
Pigs on the Wing, Parts 1 & 2
Learning to Fly
The Great Gig in the Sky
Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2
A Great Day for Freedom
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun blended intro to One of These Days
On the Turning Away
When the Tigers Broke Free
The Dogs of War
Is There Anybody Out There?
Us and Them
The Show Must Go On blended intro to Comfortably Numb
Run Like Hell
Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts I to V
Pink Floyd Dream Set List: Final Thoughts
The unlikely reunion for Live 8 was a huge deal for Pink Floyd fans. The rift between Waters and Gilmour divided fans as well as the band. Both of them went on to successful solo careers, and rumor has it they’ve finally buried their personal hatchets, though they do not perform together any longer.
In 2006, Syd Barret passed away. Even though he wasn’t involved with the band officially, many fans felt he was still a part of this odyssey through psychedelic rock. Shortly after in 2008, keyboardist Richard Wright passed away as well. Rogers went back to his solo career, and Mason and Gilmour went on to record Pink Floyd’s final and largely instrumental release Endless River in 2014. The cool part of the album is they have parts recorded by Wright prior to his death, so the three do appear once again. However, it didn’t receive high critical acclaim. That’s one reason none of it made it into my dream set list, but it’s still a good cut.
The music of Pink Floyd will live on long after the band members are gone. They are regarded as one of the most influential rock bands of all time and have sold a whopping 250 million albums the world over. I consider myself among the luckiest to have seen them live, even if it wasn’t the full band. It was an awesome show I will never forget.
I have reduced myself to a mere spectator on social media any more because of the ugly and divisive forum it has become. However, when I get the chance to peruse the feed, a nugget will pop up that’s too juicy to ignore. Recently on my feed, an acquaintance posted a meme that states the following:
“Biggest pet peeve: ‘Don’t call me sir or ma’am, I’m not that old’ – Listen, I got too many whoopings growing up to not call you sir/ma’am. Just let me respect you, ok?”
My acquaintance proceeded to talk about how they do not condone the criticizing of children that don’t say sir or ma’am, and they do not teach their children this because in their upbringing, it was not done out of respect but from a place of control and dominance. It is their opinion that returning a yes or no to a question is acceptable and doesn’t need to be followed by sir or ma’am. It caused me to ponder a question: Do these honorifics need to become a thing of the past?
The No’s vs. the No Sirs
Any time you share a strong opinion on the internet, Newton’s third law of motion becomes a gob-smacking reality. It says for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This situation was no different. Acquaintances of my acquaintance began choosing sides. The great Facebook debate had begun. I read the responses with great interest, which ranged from a simple “I agree”, to “that’s bull____”, and everything between. Some spoke of their own upbringings and how they did or didn’t suffer the same punishments as my acquaintance for omitting or using the familiar form of address.
I consumed them all with gusto. It was an extraordinary glimpse into human behavior over something I considered a non-starter. I know which camp I fall into, or at least, I did, but the great debate had me questioning my feelings on the subject. One particular exchange of ideas stood out, and forced me to ponder my own stance on an issue that I never realized was an issue. My best paraphrase of the exchange is that saying these formal terms are a sign of respect, to which the reply was respect is earned, not given. That phrase became the lightning rod for me.
My Own Upbringing and Experience
I was raised in the south, but I would not call my childhood a proper southern rearing. Florida is a mighty collection of transplants, so it’s hard to say Florida is truly southern. However, aspects of being raised by my dad and two grandmothers from Iowa allow adjustments for anything. While I was never forced to say ma’am or sir as a child, I always found it a better way to communicate with people older than me because using the words elevated me above the old saying children should be seen and not heard. By using these terms to address my elders, I was given the same amount of respect I was giving conversationally by people much older than me. And the interesting part is I learned that on my own without parental coercion.
The phrase respect is earned, not given is a conundrum. While it’s a true statement, respect is a red herring people chase endlessly and sometimes never catch. In hearing that phrase, my mind goes instantly to a newly-minted MMA fighter that feels like they have to trash talk and beat the baddest fighter in their ranks to get respect; that they have to go in and force it from their peers. Perhaps in that world, that is how respect is quantified, but in the everyday, non-MMA world, respect should never be forced from anyone. At the same time however, it shouldn’t have to be forced. Respect should be given freely until some reason arises where it can no longer be given.
I would go so far as to contend a lack of freely given respect is a major source of societal woe. In my day job, I often work with staff much younger than me. I respond to every one of them with sir or ma’am at the end of a greeting or statement. It is not always returned, and I don’t require it. But what I aim to do is show them I will give them all of my respect until they give me a reason not to. In the end, my staff usually hums like a well-oiled machine because they know where I stand with them. I may be the supervisor, but I respect the job I have trained them to do and their ability to do it, and treat them accordingly. By giving my respect freely to them, they, in turn, give it right back. For some, it takes a while for them to figure out how this mutual respect dynamic works, but in the end, they all get it.
If you have to earn respect, how do you do that?
I can only use my personal method on this, as I’m certain methods will differ based on the personalities you are working with. If I feel I have to earn someone’s respect, there’s two ways I attempt do it:
1 – Leading by Example
My staff knows there is not a single job in my purview that is beneath me. If it happens to be cleaning toilets, washing dishes, or any other job no one really wants to do, I’ll be right there shoulder to shoulder with them doing it. That does not mean I’ll do it for them (if that’s their job), but I am willing to help them if needed. No task can be beneath you. That is the price of being a good leader.
2 – Servant Leadership
My goal as a leader is to train my replacement. I’ll say that again: My goal as a leader is to train my replacement. I am not here to show my employees how to do everything and then watch them do it. I am here to teach them to be better versions of themselves. It is my responsibility as their leader to develop my staff into my business equals. It is my responsibility to ensure they are properly trained and to push them farther. It is my job to learn their goal and help them achieve it. It’s a job I take seriously.
Commanding respect with an iron-fist approach of do as I say and not as I do is a certain guarantee of disrespectful anarchy. Put these two principles into practice and I promise you will have no issues with respect, and you won’t ever have to ask… they’ll call you sir or ma’am of their own accord regardless of any upbringing.
Using Sir/Ma’am as a Sign of Dominance?
I can’t say taking these formalities as a sign of dominance is untrue because everyone’s experience is different. From the description, it would seem my acquaintance had a difficult time of it. It’s not for me to judge how someone was raised or the trials they faced. I spent eight years working as a civilian for the military. While no one ever told me (as a civilian) to address officers or enlisted soldiers in a specific way other than by rank, I still used the formal address when speaking to them. It wasn’t the product of any southern rearing or demand from anyone. It was just the right thing to do. Again, everyone’s experience is different, but I wouldn’t go up to my commander at the time and say “Hey Bobby, how’s it going?”. While I did become friendly with many of my military co-workers, I never felt dominated in any conversations with them. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
One of my old business mentors told me a saying I’ll never forget. Familiarity breeds contempt. The basis is, the more you know about someone, the less you respect them. Business superiors are not your friends. They are in those positions for a reason: to run the business. You can be professionally friendly with them, but the more you know of them personally, the less of a supervisor they are and the more of a buddy they become. Does this mean you can’t have friends at work? Of course not. Does this mean your boss doesn’t care about you? Of course not. I care a great deal for my staff and their personal well-being. You spend more waking time with your co-workers in a week than you do with your own family. It is a word of caution, however. Keep business relationships professional and above board. Freely give your respect while it is deserved.
Societal use of sir and ma’am has another consideration among gender identity politics. Folks who identify themselves as different genders other than their outwardly appearance are requesting not to be categorized by these terms. What some would see as a sign of respect is viewed by others as a sign of disrespect if you get it wrong. Whether you believe in a person’s choice to choose gender or not, at least in this argument, is irrelevant. If you’re going to use honorifics and you can’t be sure of who you’re addressing, it may be incumbent on you to find another way.
What’s my point in all this?
In the end, I can only govern myself and be responsible for my actions. I don’t think the mandatory use of ma’am or sir should be required by anyone except within your own parenting structure or within a military environment. While I can see both sides of the “dominance” argument, I do not require it from my children or staff. I’ll let their own respect-o-meters determine what honorific they use.
Where the world could use some improvement is when someone gets it wrong. Attacking a person for an attempt at respectful dialogue is wrong in any arena. Even minor corrections, like “I’m not that old, don’t call me ma’am”, or “My father was sir, I am not” are unnecessary. Even if those are said in jest, it creates an awkward situation that can have lingering effects. Allow the person to use their own judgement of you and practice their own culture. If you must make a correction, do it politely and quietly and move on.
While my theory on this is far from scientific, I will make you one guarantee. If you ever meet me, I can promise you I will grant you the utmost respect right out of the gate, and will likely call you sir or ma’am. Please don’t take it as a sign of dominance or a remark on your age. I say it out of my well-full of freely given respect.
Author’s note:This article originally appeared for another website I write for, www.thathashtagshow.com and originally appeared on May 8th.
Over four decades of live performances, Rush dazzled crowds with some of the most amazing music three people could make, and each set for each show had it’s own unique flair. I was fortunate enough to see Rush live one time during the R30 Tour. Looking back, I had multiple opportunities to see them. Let’s face it, these guys were on tour more times than they were off.
The R40 Tour in 2015 was their last, and featured songs from across their multi-decade catalog. It was great, for certain, but it needed more oomph in my opinion. So now, let’s turn their final set list on it’s ear and speculate on what it should have been!
In writing this piece, I have the benefit of already knowing the songs they chose for the last-ever live Rush performance, and it was tremendous. However, everyone has an opinion. There were some tunes I would rather have heard than the ones they ended up choosing. First, let’s dive in to that final show set and see what they actually played.
Rush’s Final On-stage Performance
On August 1, 2015, Rush took the stage for the final time at the Los Angeles Forum. That’s not to say the individual musicians never played again. I have zero doubt the requests for special guest performances poured in from everywhere. I was particularly fond of Geddy Lee performing with Yes! at their rock and roll hall of fame induction. Alex Lifespan jamming with the Trailer Park Boys was great, too. Other bands and musicians adored Rush. Many of them wouldn’t be where they were/are if not for our trio of pioneer prog-rockers.
In that final show, they left nothing on the table and ground out a 26-song show that included tunes they rarely played live over their 40+ year touring career. Here’s the last show set list:
Final Concert Opening Set:
The Anarchist, Headlong Flight, Far Cry, The Main Monkey Business, One Little Victory, Animate, Roll the Bones, Distant Early Warning, Losing It, Subdivisions.
Final Concert Second Set:
Tom Sawyer, Red Barchetta, Spirit of the Radio, Jacob’s Ladder, Cygnus X-1 – part II: prelude part 1 and drum solo, Closer to the Heart, Xanadu, 2112: parts I, II, IV and VII.
…and the Encore:
Lakeside Park, Anthem, What You’re Doing, Working Man.
That’s a who’s-who list of Rush’s greatest hits. Also, keep in mind their songs are not 3-and-a-half minute bubble gum pop-boppers. These are long and complex tracks. You won’t find the standard, three or four-chord pop riffs anywhere in here.
Everyone Loves An Opinion, So Here’s Mine On What Rush’s Final Set List Should Have Been.
If I were writing their last set list, Rush would hate me because they probably would have to be carried off stage in stretchers when I was through. As philosophically dreamy as it may sound, nothing lasts forever. Not even the immense on-stage stamina of Rush. The guys were ailing when the R40 Tour rolled around. For any band, life on the touring road is grueling. Though Lee said he felt pretty good throughout, his voice during R40 was different. Lifeson was struggling with staving off arthritis for a three-hour show, and Peart was dealing with some serious medical issues of his own.
“(The) last gig was a difficult night. But what you’re talking about is really what was going through Neil’s mind. He was struggling throughout that tour to play at his peak, because of physical ailments and other things that were going on with him. He’s a perfectionist, and he didn’t want to go out and do anything less than what people expected of him. That’s what drove him his whole career, and that’s the way he wanted to go out, and I totally respect that.”
Keep in mind while reading this, that Rush cut over 180 songs across their discography and 26 made the original list. That’s nearly 15% of their song catalog in that final three-hour show. That is a lot of awesome Rush as it stands. However, if I were king for the day, here’s how it would go. Songs that were not on the original list are in bold.
Opening tape: The Three Stooges Theme, then it fades into the opening riff for what I think it the tightest Rush opening track, Anthem from Fly by Night.
By-Tor and the Snow Dog
Test for Echo
Cygnus X-1: Book II (in it’s entirety)
Opening tape: The original 1984 Count Floyd introduction fades into…
The Main Monkey Business
Closer to the Heart
Spirit of the Radio
Leave That Thing Alone
2112: Parts I and V
Time Stand Still
La Villa Strangiato
It hurt to cut out others I wanted, like A Farewell to Kings, Ghost Rider, BU2B, Bravado. Force Ten, Bastille Day, The Necromancer, The Garden, and Cygnus X-1: Book I, among many, many others. But sadly, a concert can only last so long. By my calculation, my dream list above would be just over four hours. However, that’s my list and I’m sticking to it. Oh, and Neil can have drum solos anywhere he wants for all I care!
Final Thoughts On My Rush Dream Set List
While I’m sure my set list will not satisfy every Rush fan, I look through that track list and could simply put it on repeat for days. There’s a representation of every era of Rush tucked in there. All the major hits are covered, and there’s a few of my dark horse favorites mixed in. It’s a fan’s fan list of all the ones we know and love.
It seems the old adage of how artists typically aren’t famous until they are gone did not apply here. The untimely passing of Neil Peart solidified in my mind that true artistry in the age of information is recognized quickly and spreads to the masses like lightning in real time. Rush was on the forefront of technology before it was cool, and we got a front row seat to musical brilliance that started in 1974 and brought down the house in 2015.
This was not an easy list to make by any means. While writing my Rush discography reviews, I listened to each song multiple times over the course of months I was writing it. There’s so many that deserve a spot on this list. I’ll boldly declare there has never been, nor will there ever be another band quite like Rush. All fans of rock-and-roll were fortunate to witness their talent and blessed to share in their music.
What does your dream set list look like? To learn more about Rush, visit their official site at www.rush.com. Rock on!
Along with the rest of the fandom, I celebrated Star Wars Day with a couple sketches of my own while taking a break from writing Star Wars: Lifeboat. I suppose I fall into the category of fans that watched Episodes 7, 8, & 9 but wasn’t overly thrilled with them. However, I feel Disney is on the road to redemption with their direction of the franchise on Disney Plus.
The Clone Wars finale was outrageously good, The Mandalorian is phenomenal, and the slate of upcoming Star Wars projects (Obi-Wan, Cassian Andor, and more) looks great. So, in honor of May the Fourth and Revenge of the Fifth, here’s some Star Wars sketches. I even tried to learn a little Aurebesh. Enjoy!
Inda Krest, Meera Dyre and the rest of the surviving Imperials from the Death Star II arrive at Volusia to raid the Aloo Family star yacht, only to be ambushed by the opportunistic bounty hunter, Gekko!
Now, in Part V, we flash back a final time to join Darth Vader and Lieutenant Seeda at The Temple of the Kyber on the ancient moon of Jedha. The Emperor has ordered his apprentice to restart the stalled Kyber crystal excavation and retrieve two artifacts from the temple. While the crystal mining gets back underway, a rebel faction on Jedha, led by the outlaw Saw Gerrera, learns of Vader’s arrival at the temple and attempts to take him out. And now, Part V…
Temple of the Kyber, The Holy City, Moon of Jedha – 1BBY (5 years earlier)
Vader never felt such a strong disturbance in the Force as he did the day his
ship entered orbit over the ancient moon of Jedha. Many considered the moon to
be the site of the first Jedi Temple. In reality, Jedha held the largest known
deposits of natural Kyber crystals in the galaxy, and the Empire’s mining operation of those crystals had
stalled. Completion of Project:
Stardust depended on restarting the mine, despite
the obstacles the operation faced. Kyber wasn’t the only thing plentiful on Jedha. The
moon was crawling with troublesome rebels, known as The Partisans.
Completion of his fortress on Mustafar would have to wait. The Emperor needed
Vader on Jedha to ensure the crystals were harvested without further incident.
His master commanded. Vader obeyed.
He sat in his stateroom watching their approach from the video feed at the nose of the ship. The Holy City of Jedha sat atop a mesa in the middle of a vast desert. The smashed ruins of the Imperial ground base sat in the foothills before it. Rebels had sacked it a month prior, delaying Kyber harvesting and forcing the mining operation to move aboard the Star Destroyer Dauntless, which now hovered above the city. As he watched, the disturbance pulsated as the crystals cried out in agony. Something was disturbing them, sending shock waves through the Force unlike anything he had ever felt.
In the shadow of the Dauntless stood the ancient Temple of the Kyber, dominating the skyline of the bustling city formed around it. The two towering forked spires jutted into the sky as if to tune the very winds to the will of its masters. He noted the similarities the structure to Momin’s final design of Fortress Vader back on Mustafar. A simple coincidence? Perhaps the Force brought me here with purpose after all, he mused. He surmised the design must be significant in channeling the energies of the Force. He would consult with Momin’s depraved Sith spirit upon his return home. Fortress Vader on Mustafar must serve the same purpose as the temple here on Jedha, but to a greater degree. Still, the crystals wept.
Four TIE-Interceptors took up flanking positions on their final approach to the Dauntless. The comm speaker buzzed and a caption appeared on Vader’s screen showing the burly Commander Kyson, resplendent in the fineries of his formal Imperial uniform.
Vader, you honor us with your presence on Jedha. How may my forces and I be of
Kyson,” Lord Vader growled back. “Your Kyber refinement production is behind
schedule. I am here to update your process and reignite your passion for
meeting The Emperor’s deadlines.”
assure you, my Lord, we are operating at full capacity,” came the timid reply. “We
boast the highest efficiency rating from Imperial Industrial Command, and from
Emperor does not share your enthusiasm for that rating. What is the status of
“In a word, my Lord, remarkable. We are excavating the largest crystal ever recorded in the Imperial archives. The size is well beyond what is needed for Stardust’s main weapon. It connects into a chamber under the temple we cannot explain, and we are studying it’s structure before proceeding. Removing it could collapse the whole temple. Surely this momentous discovery merits a merciful delay.”
Emperor is a great many things that I am not, Commander, and one of them is
merciful. Prepare to receive my shuttle and appropriate escort to your
excavation site. I’ll will see this progress-hindering crystal myself,” Vader
replied in annoyance.
course, my Lord. Our finest battalion will escort you at your leisure.”
me of the rebels that plague your operation,” Vader asked, abruptly changing
Kyson shifted uncomfortably. “Vermin and local scum, my lord. Nothing
more than paltry annoyance, I assure you. My men are dealing with them swiftly.”
He tried to sound confident, but Vader knew he was lying.
is your error, Commander. You do not deal with rebels; you crush them. Your
lack of fortitude emboldens their attacks. I will assume command of your three
attack battalions and see them destroyed. Have your battle plans prepared for
my review.” Kyson kept his composure, but Vader could sense the insult spark an
anger brimming over in the sluggard officer. For too long, Orson Krennic’s pet,
Commander Kyson, has sat safely on his laurels. It was time for a change to his
operations, whether Krennic wanted it or not. “The rebels have continuously
embarrassed you and the Empire, Commander Kyson. I will no longer accept delay
as an excuse for laziness.”
once, My lord. We await your arrival with great antici—”
“Your pleasantries are not required, only your compliance.” He ended the transmission.
The only thing Vader expected to find in Kyson’s strategy was more excuses, delays and failures. In his mind, Vader already knew the battle plan he would follow, using himself as bait to lure out the rebels. No doubt the brazen extremist Saw Gerrera would seize the opportunity to strike such a large target as Darth Vader, and when he did, the trap would spring. He tapped a key at his console and the Empire’s last verified image of Gererra—in a flickering, blue-lined hologram—emerged upward from the projector.
The Emperor knew Vader would be tempted to prioritize hunting the rebels over recovering artifacts, especially considering the history Anakin Skywalker and Gerrera had during the Clone Wars. Darth Vader was no errand boy. Seeda and his two pet Royal Guards could excavate the entire moon if they wished. Vader was a warrior, and today he would strike down his old rebel opponent without mercy.
“All those years ago, you should have died on Onderon with your sister, yet here you are—still vexing my authority,” Vader said to himself, staring down into the image of this rebel from his past. He reached out with an open hand and his lightsaber flew to his side, pulled to him by the Force and ignited the room in a bright red glow. “It will be my pleasure to finally end you.”
At the rear of the shuttle, Lieutenant Seeda looked out the viewing window at the desolate landscape trailing behind them.
Ruins of ancient Jedi civilization crumbled to dust in their wake. Jedha was a historical treasure-trove of Jedi lore. Seeda was excited to be here, though he could not outwardly express it. He couldn’t wait to get down there to root out Jedha’s secrets, but enthusiasm for anything other than the Empire’s goals was frowned upon. The pilot announced their final approach as the shuttle passed underneath the great shadow of the destroyer. Seeda could see other large cargo shuttles taking off for the surface after unloading their Kyber hauls.
Seeda,” came the booming electronic voice of Darth Vader behind him, startling
Seeda and making him jump with surprise. How could he have not heard him
approach? “Are you prepared for your mission?”
my lord. My apologies, you startled me. I am completely prepared. I’ve uploaded
the latest Imperial archives on Jedha and her histo—”
When we arrive, you will have access to all records of artifacts recovered from
the temple. Report to me immediately if any discoveries contain ancient Sith
references. When your analysis is complete, you will muster with the escort
protection detail and proceed to the Temple.”
course, my lord. Though, Jedha was the home of ancient Jedi, not the Sith. Do
you expect we’ll find anything to the contrary?”
on your area of expertise, Lieutenant. Once you have something, report to me at
once. Tell no one of your discoveries except me. Is that clear?”
Lord Vader, perfectly clear.”
As the shuttle settled into the hangar,
they gathered at the ramp to debark. Through the viewing window, they could see
another shuttle being off-loaded with canisters of what Seeda assumed were
Kyber crystals. The only sound among them was the intermittent electronic
breath of Darth Vader. The sound made Seeda uncomfortable.
“If I may say, it does appear moving the mining operation aboard the Dauntless has guaranteed greater security,” Seeda said and instantly regretted it. The casual manner of their conversation lulled him into a false sense of familiarity with the Sith Lord. Darth Vader did not answer to anyone except the Emperor, especially not a lowly Imperial Navy lieutenant.
Seeda braced for reprisal for his insolence, but the response he received surprised him.
“Your observations on security protocol is not required,” Vader dismissed the notion with a wave of the hand. “However, your assumption is wrong. The loss of surface operations has doubled the resources needed to refine the crystals. Commander Kyson is a fool. He has more than enough troops to secure the city, yet he hesitates because he is weak. I will not tolerate interference from his ineptitude, nor the rebels, with this mission.”
Seeda looked up at the massive black-clad
figure with a puzzled look. “Won’t
you be joining our expedition force to the Temple site?”
Emperor’s pets will keep you safe,” Vader said, gesturing to the guards behind
them. “I have a more important matter to attend. I will join you once my trap
“Trap, my lord? I don’t unders—” The hiss of the nose ramp lowering drowned out the rest of his statement. In a flourish of black robes, Vader turned down the ramp with Seeda in step. Immediately after him, the two guards filed behind. A throng of pristine, white-clad Storm Troopers in a robust display of Empirical might were assembled on deck. At their head, a hulking officer in his formal Imperial uniform turned to greet them.
“Lord Vader, this is a most unexpec—” were the only words he got out. Vader extended his hand, stopping his speech in mid-sentence. The large officer lifted from the ground, his shined boots flailing as he clutched his throat and gasped for air. With a slow twist of other his wrist, Vader plucked the struggling Commander’s code cylinders from his breast pocket. They hovered out before the wide eyes of Kyson as he gasped. The tiny cylinders flew to Vader’s outstretched hand.
“Commander Kyson, you are relieved.”
Vader flicked his wrist, and the officer soared across the hangar to the open cargo bay doors. His breath returned in time for Seeda to hear his final scream as he plummeted from the Dauntless into the sands of Jedha far below. Vader turned to Seeda and extended his hand, passing the cylinders to him.
“The records I require reside in Kyson’s office. You may begin.” Vader then turned to address the mass of Storm Troopers assembled before them. “You will stabilize a route to the Temple below. Clear the streets and lock down the city. Let none stand in your way!” His challenge was met with a stomp to attention and a thousand white-armored raised fists.
Residents of the Holy City below were about to understand what it meant to be ruled by the Empire.
The holotable in Kyson’s office was already lit when Seeda arrived. The guards took flanking positions outside the door as it hissed shut, leaving him to work undisturbed. Before him, projecting up six feet into the room, was a holographic maze of green lines outlining the tunnels explored thus far beneath the Temple of the Kyber. Blinking red dots showed at the end of each tunnel with active excavation, and dots of blue marked tunnels already mined and abandoned. At the base of the map was a large, flashing yellow arrow. A few taps at the keyboard told Seeda this is where excavation has halted because of a massive crystal blocking the path forward. He zoomed in the projection to the highest resolution on the yellow area and could see why this brought production to a stand-still.
The crystal truly was a one-of-a-kind
discovery. A quick scan of his Imperial archive records showed no other of this
size or arrangement ever recorded. Even more unique was the crystal, itself. It
was hollow, creating a chamber within, but the energy signature of the
structure blocked whatever was inside it. It was also directly beneath the
split towers, making the massive crystal an integral part of the foundation.
So that’s why you delayed all this, Kyson, he thought while intently studying the holographic data. One wrong move and the whole temple comes crashing down.
Seeda sneered. He hadn’t properly set foot on Jedha yet, and her secrets were already spilling into his hands.
Based on his records, a Kyber crystal of this size and properly harnessed could power half of Coruscant for decades. He understood Kyson’s desire to harvest it whole. That feat would certainly have gained favor with the Emperor, but patience was not a virtue encouraged by the Empire, as Kyson probably realized when he fell three-thousand feet to his death moments before. He was about to close his data-pad and compile his report for Lord Vader when a filename blip on the screen caught his eye:
title said Whills and
followed by an ancient Sith symbol; Borzûm,
the Black Sun. “Well,
hello there little symbol, what are you doing here?” Seeda again tapped again
at the keys bringing up the file.
The symbol was a small black circle with
black rays emanating forth, very similar to the symbol adopted by the Empire
but not encircled. To the untrained eye, it could easily be mistaken for a
sloppy rendition of the latter, but Seeda recognized it immediately. He plugged
Kyson’s code cylinder into the
console and the file opened. Seeda drank in every word and image within,
reading as fast as he could. Kyson had made an incredible discovery and didn’t
even know it! He ran to the door, knocking over his chair in his excitement. He
burst into the hallway, where Captains Vario and Krest were startled by his
sudden appearance. They dropped their Force pikes into defensive positions,
ready to attack before realizing it was just their charge in an excited state.
“Quickly, Captain!” he shouted at Vario. “Contact Lord Vader immediately. I’ve made a momentous discovery!”
Within minutes, the office door hissed open
to a mass of black robes sweeping through the opening. “What have you discovered?” There was never
fanfare with Darth Vader. He spoke, and others obeyed.
lord, I’ve made tremendous progress!” Seeda could no longer contain his
excitement, even in front of the terrifying dark lord. “Commander Kyson was on
the verge of the most incredible find in galactic history and didn’t know what
he was doing!”
you wish to share his fate, explain yourself,” Vader commanded. “Speak plainly,
not simply just a large Kyber Crystal, per say—,” he replied.
grow tired of your enigmatic mutterings. What have you found, Seeda?”
lord, it’s a vault… A vault of the Whills.”
Vader was silent for a moment as he mulled
claim. He knew of midichlorians and the Whills, however, he long ago dismissed
their existence as Jedi dogma; a way for the Republic’s Jedi Masters to
arbitrarily judge the worthiness and strength of a Jedi Knight. Just another
myth perpetuated for control. For now, he would entertain Seeda’s notion until
he could discover the true nature of this revelation. “And what is in this vault?”
inside it is what’s inside you, Lord Vader… inside is what you desire most!”
Seeda replied in excitement. “You see, the Whills ar—”
Vader was intrigued, but not convinced yet.
“And what of this Borzûm?
This Black Sun?”
mystery I cannot yet explain, my lord,” Seeda turned back to the keyboard and
brought up the symbol on the holotable. The glyph spun in a slow circle,
casting long shadows throughout the room. “The Borzûm is an
ancient Sith philosophical symbol, a Memento
Mori of sorts, used by Sith Lords of old as a reminder of mortality; a
glorification of the idea we are all dead men walking under a black sun. For the most ambitious of
them, the Borzûm
was taken as a challenge to achieve immortality and defeat death
before it defeated them. But why a Sith symbol is prominently carved into the
wall of a Jedi holy site eludes me. It shouldn’t be here.”
Suddenly, all the pieces of this mystery began to fall into place in Darth Vader’s mind.
Could this truly be what he has sought after all this time? Is this how he can return Padme to the world of the living? The works of Darth Plagueis were here, finally, a mere parsec of where he stood. So many questions with so few answers. He must find out more. “You believe the vault contains the arcane Sith knowledge to cheat death?” he asked Seeda.
He shuffled a moment in uncomfortable
silence. Not having an answer for Lord Vader could be a death sentence at
times. This could be one of those times, as Seeda had no idea what was inside
the vault. “I
cannot answer that for certain, but all I have seen on the subject suggests
that yes, it may be so.” He braced for the reply.
“Make preparations, Lieutenant,” Vader said with impatience and spun on his heel toward the door. “We leave for the Temple at once.”
The streets to the Temple were lined with Storm Troopers going house-to-house. The people of Jedha City were strewn about around them; standing with their hands up, lying prone as their homes were searched, or laying dead in the gutters. All of them were facing the barrel of an E-11 standard-issue Imperial Blaster. The Empire descended like a hammer into the populace and laid waste to those who resisted. The armored transport rumbled through the middle of it, finally halting in front of the Temple steps where Darth Vader and Varon Seeda debarked to begin the second part of their mission. Captains Vario and Krest took up flanks beside them. A battalion of Storm Troopers formed ranks between them and the street rabble behind. Even so, Lieutenant Seeda was nervous.
should have taken a shuttle, my lord,” Seeda remarked as they went inside. “You
are too exposed using ground transport. The city’s unrest could boil over any
you offer assessment of security protocols without prompting. A third
assessment will ensure you are transferred to the ISB front lines.”
Seeda knew when it was best to stay silent.
Vader did not need further reply from him, only compliance. He mounted his
holo-pad to his wrist and the same map from Kyson’s office sprung up from his hand projector.
“The tunnel entrance is behind the altar. This way.” They marched through the
crumbling ruins of long-forgotten statues of ancient Jedi and columns carved in
Aurebesh, and other languages Seeda could not begin to understand. He wanted to
stop and study each one, but Darth Vader remained laser-focused on the tunnels
below. As he said, on the floor behind the altar was a large hole into the
ground. A stone-carved stair went down into darkness. “The excavation continues
below. We need to be mindfu—”
Emperor’s prize awaits us, and he is not as patient as I. Lead me to the vault.”
Vader commanded. He could still hear the crystals and their wails of agony. The
closer they drew to the altar, the louder they were. Something beneath the
Temple was making them scream out through the Force.
Seeda descended first. Darth Vader took one step down and suddenly, the wailing of the crystals ceased. Silence.
Vader could sense them all turning their
attunement to him, reaching out to him, searching his mind to find out who now
walks among them so powerful in the Force. He could tell the Force-sensitive
guards noticed the quiet as well. He could hear a tiny voice echo through to
him but could not discern what it said. With each step deeper into Jedha, the
voice steadily grew. Then, he could hear it plainly.
to us, Chosen One, it said. We await your presence.
He did not reply, but pressed on behind
Seeda, his hand at the ready over his lightsaber. He detected no danger in the
voice, but something about it made Vader uneasy.
Beware, Chosen One, it said again. One among you is not what they appear. You are in danger.
As they descended further down, they passed
Imperial workers continuing to mine their crystals, though they stopped at the
spectacle of Darth Vader passing among them in the tunnels. Each stopped
working and saluted smartly as the party passed, but Vader paid them little
mind. The voice kept speaking to him with each step, warning him.
You are in danger, Chosen one. One below will betray you. Enter the kyber vault. We will protect you and your companions. The others shall perish.
They wove a path through the gaunt faces of
miners. Most were prisoners or conscripts from the locals. Storm Troopers from
the 43rd Salagori Lancers were stationed every few meters to keep them in line.
Their eyes all fell to the ground when Vader passed. He could sense their fear
as he traversed the tunnel lower and lower to the source of the voices. He
could not determine if the Royal Guards heard them, too. If they did, they did
The deeper into the cavern they went, the
more workers were present.
await you, Chosen One. Make haste.
almost there, my lord. The entrance should be just ahead.” Seeda adjusted his
instruments and zoomed in on their location. “The energy emanating from these
caverns is creating interference with—”
is not the crystals…” Lord Vader stopped. Turning to his left, he reached out
his hand and a shriek of agony came from a group of prisoners huddled against
the wall. The Royal Guards ran forward and pulled forward a man in rags, and in
his hand was a transmitter beacon. Two Storm Troopers rushed forward and forced
the man to the ground, but it was not necessary. Vader had already crushed his
windpipe. He took his final gasp as the transmitter rolled from his dead hand
to Seeda’s feet. He picked it up and turned it off. Suddenly, his instruments
sparked back to life.
is here…” Vader said. He turned swiftly to the two Lancers and they snapped to
attention. “Troopers, form ranks behind us and remove this rabble from our
path! Seeda, get me to that chamber. We are not safe here for long.”
Chosen One. It is urgent we speak.
As the troopers herded the miners back up
the tunnel, blaster fire erupted behind them. Seeda jumped with a start.
The sounds of battle erupted behind them as
they quickened their pace down the tunnel. Vader could feel the walls tremble
as they delved deeper down. The crystals reached out to him, driving him lower
into the mine, drawing him closer to the source of the voices.
Make haste, Chosen One. Your enemy is upon you.
The cavern opened around a sharp bend and
opened into a small chamber. The walls glittered with kyber fragments, drawing
their eyes to the back of the chamber. Before them was a solid wall of opaque
crystal, easily five times the height of a man. They could not see the top or
bottom, and both sides were occluded by the rock walls. There was no way for
certain to determine how big it actually was. On the floor before it, in a
sunken and faded relief carving, was distinctly the Borzûm.
are behind you.
“Welcome to Jedha, Darth Vader,” came a raspy voice from the cavern entrance. They all turned to see a large man in well-worn armor, flanked by four heavily armed miners. The Royal Guards took defensive positions in front of Vader and Seeda. Vader suddenly lit the small room red by igniting his lightsaber.
is indeed a joyous day, my brothers,” Saw said as he took a long pull of oxygen
from a face mask in his armor. “Today, we remove a major piece from the
galactic board. Today will be remembered as the day we buried Darth Vader
beneath the Holy City.”
there is your mistake, rebel. Your arrogance has blinded you and your
sycophants.” He pulled a communicator from his belt. “Moff Raythe, fire when
ready. Vario, Krest, attend me.” A massive explosion shook the cavern, causing
rubble to fall from the ceiling. The guards collapsed back to either side of
Vader, pushing Seeda back against the crystal. Saw and the rebels looked around
kill us all!” Gerrera shouted.
is you who will be buried here, Gerrera. You will never make it out in time.
This cavern will be your tomb!”
yours! My sacrifice will be small to yield the death of the dark lord of the
Sith!” He reached to his belt and armed a thermal detonator, hurling it at them
with all his might.
the Temple Masters used to say, all is as the Force wills it. Guards, touch the
crystal!” They reached back and placed their hands on the smooth surface. Vader
retracted his saber and grabbed Seeda’s arm with an iron grip. When he placed
his other hand between the two guards’, a brilliant flash of light erupted as
the detonator exploded at the same moment he touched the shimmering green
crystal. The world suddenly became brilliant white light and total silence.
When Darth Vader awoke, the red tint of his helmet lenses was gone. He could see and feel brilliant white light all around him. It was warm and inviting. He rose, catching a shocking glimpse of his hands; his pink, fleshy hands. Gone were the mechanical digits he had grown accustom to. They quickly went to his face, and did not feel the cold, hard edges of his fearsome helmet, but of more flesh. His face was uncovered. A brief moment of panic set over him as he took in a deep, unassisted breath with his own lungs, not the iron machines that breathed for him. His clothing was layered black and brown robes. His hands ran up to the top of his head and felt hair.
sorcery is this? Am I dead?”
His voice, for the first time in many
years, was his own rather than the modulated growling of his helmet.
In every direction around him was a wash of opalescent white with no horizon. He was not floating, but he also could not make out what he stood on. He scanned as far as he could see for a point of reference, but could find none. Whatever he was treading on felt solid, so he walked. After a few dozen steps, a feeling washed over him. The Force was pulling at him from multiple directions but he could not detect its meaning. It was very strong here, unlike anything he’d ever felt. He tried to reach through it and sort out the source, to search for others, but none could be found.
must be dead.”
Chosen One, you are not dead. The same voice from the cavern rolled
through his head. You are safe within the
Vault of the Whills.
He looked around but could not find where
the voice was coming from. He sat cross-legged and closed his eyes, focusing on
yourself. Why do you hide?”
do not hide from you, Chosen One. We are here if you would only see us.
“Enough games! Show yourself!”
He opened his eyes and before him was an even brighter orb of light, shimmering and turning. “What manner of creature are you?”
are not creatures. We are the watchers of all who are strong with the Force in
the universe, both light and dark, and those between. My cousins and I have
been waiting for you, Chosen One. The shimmering ball expanded into a
humanoid female form in a black robe, wearing a broad white mask showing a
blank expression. Her two-toed feet hovered above the surface.
it you who spoke to me in the tunnels? What do you want of me? Why do I appear
in this form?”
many questions. In this realm, all appear in their true form before the Force.
Here, you appear as the Jedi Knight and General Anakin Skywalker.
“Anakin Skywalker is dead. I am Darth Vader.”
lie you perpetuate to yourself. The beast is you, and you are the beast. Try as
you might, you cannot escape the destiny set before you, Chosen One. To fulfill
your destiny, you must know yourself—your true self. That is why you appear in
this form. Your true self is Anakin Skywalker.
speak in lies and riddles.” He reached down to his waist, but the familiar hilt
of his lightsaber was gone. “Why am I here?”
The Watcher’s form glowed brighter, then split into
another visage, though the mask of this one appeared angry. She moved down
within inches of his face and yelled.
this one would strike us down for speaking the truth to him! He is not worthy
to possess what he desires! Expel him immediately!
do not know what I desire, fiend!” He yelled back. “Tell me who you are and why
I am here!”
am Serenity, and this is my dear cousin, Anger. We appear to you because we are
the emotional instruments you live by. You are driven by your anger, but you
seek the serenity of love and family. Search your feelings. You know this to be
true. You seek the serenity of a life with the one called Padme Amidala. You
seek to restore her from her place in the cosmic force.
Vader was stunned. This being had reached into his innermost recesses of suppressed thought and extracted what he wanted most; to leave the Empire and the Emperor behind and live out his days in peace with Padme at his side. How could she know this much? He stood up to plead his case.
you know these things then you must know how I can bring her back! You must
tell me! How can I bring her back?!?”
Anger moved up into his face again. Foolish boy! She is now one with the Cosmic
Force. She cannot return! The one known as Sidious has fooled you. He, too,
visited us with the one known as Plagueis asking the same questions. Life.
Death. Immortality. The Cosmic Force is all-powerful! Seeking to control it is
In his heart, Vader knew she was right. He
could feel anger rising inside him. He didn’t know if he was furious with the visage
of Anger for saying these things, or with himself for being fooled. Within
those same hidden recesses of his mind, he’s known all along Padme could never
be returned to him. A single tear rolled down to his trembling lip. The anger
welling inside him was about to boil over.
me how I can bring her back!”
He reached up, extending his hand at Anger
and feeling for her air way. He would choke the answer from behind her
treacherous mask. He felt within her neck piece, searching for her throat, but
found… nothing. Suddenly, her
robe collapsed to the ground and her mask tumbled down within it, coming to
rest in a neat pile and leaving behind her violently flashing orb. Anger let
out a maniacal laugh and shot toward him, smashing into his chest, knocking him
down and stealing the air from his lungs.
boy! You have been deceived! Bringing her back is a fool’s
errand! The orb of Anger disappeared. Serenity
still hovered before him as he regained his footing, coughing and choking to
recover his breath. He then fell to his knees, seeing no other avenue than to
beg for her mercy.
I beg of you, please return her to me. Please!”
It is not within our power to interfere with the destiny of others. As is my purpose for being, I am compelled to help those within the Living Force that seek it find serenity, and alas, you are the Chosen One. You are destined to bring balance to the Living Force. I will help you, but be warned, Anakin Skywalker. What you seek—the possessions of the one known as Darth Plagueis—carry a great darkness with them. A darkness that, if uncontrolled, will create a wound in the Force not easily healed. Your actions will have a ripple effect that cannot be stopped. The ancient one known as Nihilus sought this ability, and nearly succeeded, though the results were disastrous. These artifacts became interred in this vault for a reason. Once removed, their darkness will consume you. Do you accept this great and terrible responsibility?
“Yes! Yes, anything… just please show me how to bring her back.” He collapsed in sobs of anguish. The realization of all the evils he had done washed over him in an instant. Killing his fellow Jedi, the Younglings, all the incalculable deaths across the galaxy credited to him came crashing down on his shoulders. “Please… I’ll do anything…”
Very well. And in another brilliant flash of light, the visage of Serenity was gone.
Vader awoke in the main hall behind the altar of the Temple of the Kyber with
his face pushed into the ground. His right eye could see clearly the dirt and
rubble of the temple floor. In his left eye returned the familiar red hue of
his lenses with a diagnostic readout running. Then the labored, mechanized
breathing apparatus heaved him to life. Pushing himself up from the floor, he
could see his hands were once again machine parts and tattered black gloves.
Around him was a nearly shredded black cloak, covered in burns and rips.
He looked to his left to see stirring both Captain Krest and Vario. Their uniforms were also in tatters as they regained their composure. Seeing Vader’s condition, they rushed to his side to defend while he recovered, but they were both injured as well. Behind them, lying face-down, was Lieutenant Seeda. Vader reached to him through the Force and felt a heartbeat, but he also sensed something else. Walking over, he used the Force to roll over Seeda and beneath him was a small wooden box. In the top was a gold inlay of a Borzûm. He pulled the box to him through the air and opened it. Finally, he held in his hands what he long desired. Finally, there was a chance to save Padme.
A chance for him to once again experience… serenity.
Seeda awoke, groggy and injured as well. He
barely got to his feet when his communicator started blaring that a shuttle was
en route for Lord Vader. He looked over to the opening where they entered the
tunnels. It was filled with rubble and rock. He had no idea how they got out of
there before it collapsed. Vader sensed Seeda’s confusion.
not ask questions there are no answers to. Saw Gerrera is dead and we have the
Emperor’s prize. You have done well, Captain Seeda,” Vader said through a cracked and damaged
face shield. Seeda tried not to stare, but Vader’s right eye was exposed. He
could clearly see the red and orange striations of his iris surrounded by the
scarred and pale gray skin of his face. He looked down to see the Borzûm
box in Vader’s
hands. With all that was running through his mind, it was difficult to focus on
the fact he just received a battlefield promotion from Darth Vader, himself.
The injured Vader and his party emerged at the top of the Temple steps where the remaining Lancers that were not buried in the tunnels secured a wide area where a shuttle was now landing. “You will return to the Dauntless by ground transport. See to your injuries, then send your mission report directly to my shuttle. These artifacts are precious to the Emperor. I leave at once for Coruscant with our spoils. He commands, and I must obey.”
In a flourish of ragged black robes, Lord Vader turned and limped up as the ramp hissed closed behind him.
Seeda looked on as the shuttle climbed through the atmosphere and disappeared behind the clouds, watching until it was well beyond his sight.
“When I get back, I must remember to tell Commander Junus about this. He’ll be upset he missed attempt number eighty-nine.”
Next time in Star Wars: Lifeboat!
Captured! The crew aboard the Emperor’s shuttle finds themselves in the clutches of the bounty hunter Gekko. They’ll have to bargain for their freedom if they are to proceed with their mission to find the missing journal of Darth Plagueis and the kidnapped son of Captain Inda Krest!
Go back and check out Lifeboat from the beginning with Part I here!
To learn more about Star Wars, visit the official website at www.starwars.com. May the Fourth, and the Force, be with you!
The preceding is a work of fan fiction based upon and utilizing locations, characters, and/or plot points from the Star Wars universe, originally created by George Lucas and trademarked to Lucasfilm, Ltd. The author makes no claim whatsoever of ownership of the Star Wars name, characters represented, or the Star Wars universe generally. This work is created of the author’s own imagination and is intended for entertainment purposes only. It does not purport to be an “official” Star Wars story or part of existing Star Wars canon in any way. The author is not profiting financially in any way as the result of the creation or publication of this piece of fan fiction.
Feeling heroic and villainous today, so here’s a little of both! First up, in honor of the return of The Clone Wars final season, Ahsoka Tano – the best Star Wars character to not be in a film (so far). I prefer the black and white, personally, but here’s colored and uncolored. Okay, perhaps Thrawn is the best character not to be in a movie yet. We can fight it out between him and Ahsoka. Maybe Thrawn will be my next sketch of the day! (Oh, and I learned to write my name in Aurebesh!)
Then, poor Spidey has run afoul of Venom. I’m not thrilled with the final result, but not bad for an amateur! I haven’t seen the Venom movie yet, but I really do hope they eventually get these two on the big screen together. Tom Hardy’s Venom with Tom Holland’s Spider-Man would be sweet. Morbius looks pretty exciting, too. That would be an epic movie trio!
Have a wonderful Easter weekend, stay safe, and stay healthy. Practice, practice, practice!
Author’s Note: This article originally appeared on another website I write for, That Hashtag Show, and was published on April 2nd, 2020.
Rush’s twentieth and final studio album, Clockwork Angels, was started about an hour from where I sit now, at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, Tennessee with the first two singles. They traveled back north, finishing up in Toronto at Revolution Recording. The album heralded their return to roots in a final, true concept album coming 5 years after their last triumph in Snakes and Arrows. Each track was part of a larger chronicle, telling of a young man chasing his dreams in a dystopian steampunk world filled with alchemy, fire and industry. The album would also be turned into a novel by author Kevin J. Anderson in 2012.
Upon release, Clockwork Angels (the album) would reach #2 on the Billboard 200, and really struck a chord at #1 in Canada and climbed high in European markets. I think they knew this would be their last album, based on some risks they took within the project. It’s obvious they didn’t want to leave anything on the cutting room floor.
The first example of their nostalgia is the Clockwork Angels cover, designed by long-time Rush collaborator Hugh Syme. The alchemy symbols replace numbers on the clock, and note the time, 9:12. In military time, that’s 2112. Next, Peart said in May 2011 that “I intend it to be my highest achievement lyrically and drumming-wise.” Finally, they added more strings—in the form of six violins and two cellos. The best part there is they weren’t really back up… they were majorly featured in big parts of the music.
In honor of these new revelations in their music, something different we’ll do in this review is include a written excerpt from the story for each song, giving context within the tale. These words appear in the lyrics section of Rush’s website, but are not part of the recorded track.
Clockwork Angels – Track 1: Caravan
IT SEEMS LIKE A LIFETIME AGO – which of course it was, all that and more. For a boy, life on the farm was idyllic, but for the young man I became, that very peace and predictability were stifling, unbearable. I had big dreams, and needed a big place to explore them: the whole wide world.
Strap your dentures in, because Caravan will shake them out of your head if you aren’t careful. This pounding opener rocks the house and sets the tone to high and heavy. Caravan was available as a single earlier than the rest of the album and played on their Time Machine Tour in 2011. It was billed as a teaser of this great epic album they were working on, and keeping with a long tradition, launches Rush’s final album off with a sonic boom.
Clockwork Angels – Track 2: BU2B
WE WERE ALWAYS TAUGHT that we lived in “the best of all possible worlds.” The Watchmaker ruled from Crown City through the Regulators; the alchemist-priests gave us coldfire for power and light, and everything was well ordered. We accepted our various individual fates as inevitable, for we had also been taught, “Whatever happens to us must be what we deserve, for it could not happen to us if we did not deserve it.”
BU2B introduces us to the antagonist of the tale, The Watchmaker. It also hits us with Lifeson’s brilliant and screaming, layered guitar and Peart wrecking it on drums behind him. Lee’s theremin instrument makes an appearance here, too. (If you’ve never seen this bizarre instrument, Google it. It’s worth checking out). BU2B stands for “Brought Up To Believe”, and tells how our story’s hero learns what he knows from his farmhouse upbringing and what happens out in the real world are two very different things.
Peart went all out on writing this album, especially on BU2B, making some deep psychic cuts. The lyrics dig into the dark corner of your mind closet and pull out the things you know are there but choose to leave buried under the clothes pile.
“The joy and pain that we receive / Each comes with its own cost / The price of what we’re winning / Is the same as what we’ve lost”
Clockwork Angels – Track 3: Clockwork Angels
THE PLACE I HAD MOST WANTED TO SEE – Chronos Square, at the heart of Crown City. I had seen many images of the city before, and Chronos Square, but nothing could convey its immensity – the heaven-reaching towers of the Cathedral of the Timekeepers, or the radiant glory of the Angels – Land, Sea, Sky, and Light – bathed in the brilliant glow of the floating globes... A foggy woodland road, a crowded village square, the busy streets of Crown City – a wandering pedlar travels the land, uttering the ageless call: “What do you lack?”
The odd time signature here makes the song hard to follow, so you have to repeat it a couple times to really immerse yourself into Clockwork Angels. Imagine growing up in a rural setting, then suddenly you’re delving into a massive city center with sights and sounds you never dreamed could exist. That’s the mental image I get from this tune. The sheer racket of the song hammers your senses the same way you would feel in the shoes of our hero visiting Chronos Square for the first time. It’s a lot to take in and a little messy in delivery, but in a good way. Solid track. I like it!
Clockwork Angels – Track 4: The Anarchist
WALKING AMONG THE PEOPLE – who are so content, so blind – the Anarchist hears the pedlar’s call, and sneers derisively. “What do I lack? Ah… vengeance?”
The title of The Anarchist fits this song perfectly. There’s a lot of anarchy in the music, but it’s an orderly anarchy that delivers a thunderous, anthemic case for another villain in the story, The Anarchist. When I first heard this track, I didn’t really like it. However, the more I repeated it to get the feel of what The Anarchist was trying to convey, it finally hit me. The dread, sense of urgency, and the I’ve-got-a-bad-feeling-about-this vibe came through. A cool way of putting it comes from another review of this song by Ultimate Classic Rock back in 2013:
He [Alex Lifeson] has a flair for explosive dungeons-and-dragons, sword-wielding arpeggios bathed in flange. They’re all here; ‘The Anarchist’ is a sonic flip book of Lifeson’s many guitar specialties.
Ultimate Classic Rock, 2013
Clockwork Angels – Track 5: Carnies
I FOUND WORK WITH A TRAVELING CARNIVAL, and for the Midsummer Festival in Crown City, our games and rides were set up right in the middle of the Square, beneath the Angels. One night, amid the noise and confusion of the crowded midway, I saw a man working with wires and wooden barrels. He stood and turned – the Anarchist! – holding a clockwork detonator in his hand. I called out to warn the crowd, then suddenly he threw the device at me, and I caught it automatically – just as the people turned to look my way. I escaped, but in disgrace, and fled down the Winding Pinion River to the sea.
Carnies has some really good parts to it. I love the monster-rock chords that Lifeson assaults us with, and Lee gets his voice back up to that high range where it belongs. However, this is the first song on Clockwork Angels that didn’t appeal to me. It’s good, but there are much better tracks here. Peart’s lyrics do accomplish the goal though of dropping us into the chaotic and nomadic world of a carnival worker. This song just doesn’t feel well put together. It still rocks hard though!
Clockwork Angels – Track 6: Halo Effect
I HAD FALLEN HELPLESSLY IN LOVE with one of the performers. She was so different from “the girl I left behind,” and I was beginning to understand I had only pretended she was right for me. I pursued my beautiful acrobat obsessively until she let me be with her – then I suffered her rejection and contempt. Once again, I had created an ideal of the perfect soulmate, and tried to graft it onto her. It didn’t fit. Such illusions have colored my whole life.
This is simply a great track. Halo Effect is about the only cut on Clockwork Angels that qualifies as a “standard” rock song. It takes a breath from the heavier tracks that got us this far into the album. You can really hear the raw string work here with the violins and cellos in the background, giving a greater depth to this beautiful lament about thinking you love something that isn’t really there. Really, really good stuff going on in the lyrics, too:
What did I do? / Fool that I was / To profit from youthful mistakes? / It’s shameful to tell / How often I fell / In love with illusions again / A goddess with wings on her heels . . .
Clockwork Angels – Track 7: Seven Cities of Gold
THE LEGEND HAD PASSED DOWN FOR GENERATIONS. Far across the Western Sea, where the steamliners could not fly, lay a wilderness land hiding seven cities of gold. I dared the crossing on one of the stout ships that followed the trade route to Poseidon, a tough port city. I worked there for a while on the steamliners that served the alchemy mines, then eventually set out into the Redrock Desert. The stones were sculpted into unearthly monuments, and the country grew cold as I traveled north in search of the most famous City of Gold: CÃbola. Its name had sounded in my dreams since childhood.
Gimme more of that bass! I absolutely love the opening riffs on Seven Cities of Gold. It brings me back to the heavy metal sound of the 80s, and will definitely make your head bob. Maybe even thrash a little! Our hero finds himself venturing to another continent in search of lost treasure. The melodic choral arrangement masterfully links together the hard rock parts and keeps with a modern sound for Rush that still sounds like early Rush. Absolutely well done.
Neil Peart gushed about writing this one as a favorite out of his own studies of Southwest American history:
“The Seven Cities of Gold always fascinated me. Southwestern U.S. history especially fascinates me. The whole spur of the Spanish exploration of the Southwestern U.S. was the search for these mythical Seven Cities of Gold. The Spanish ones would go back to Mexico City and say, ‘I saw it! I saw it! I just couldn’t get to it, but I could see this city of gold in the distance!’ They kept believing it and sending expeditions. “
Neil Peart to Rolling Stone Magazine
How can anyone not love this nerdy bastard of a song-writer?!?! If I had a spirit animal, I’d want it to be Neil Peart.
Clockwork Angels – Track 8: The Wreckers
NARROWLY ESCAPING A FROZEN DEATH IN THAT DESERT, I made my way back to Poseidon, and found a berth on a homeward ship. Caught in a terrible storm, we seemed to find salvation in an unexpected signal light. Steering toward it, we soon learned it was false – placed by the denizens to lure ships to their doom on the jagged reefs. They plundered the cargoes and abandoned the crews and passengers to the icy waves.
One of the cooler trivia facts on The Wreckers is the result of Lee and Lifeson swapping instruments during a writing session. The result is a solid, rocking track with great harmony, haunting melody, and a kick-ass seafaring tune. I truly feel The Wreckers is the hit song of the album. The triumphant jangle in the verse just screams for adventure and exploration. The Wreckers is my favorite song on Clockwork Angels. If you added in a little synthesizer, this track would fit in on any 80s-era Rush album and be a bright, shining highlight.
Clockwork Angels – Track 9: Headlong Flight
THINKING BACK OVER MY LIFE, AND TELLING STORIES ABOUT MY “GREAT ADVENTURES” – they didn’t always feel that grand at the time. But on balance, I wouldn’t change anything. In the words of one of our great alchemists, Friedrich Gruber, “I wish I could do it all again.”
Headlong Flight, in my opinion, is a speedy rocking double entendre. The lyrics are meant to portray the story of someone recounting their full and adventurous life and wishing they could do it all again. I think this is Rush saying the same thing as a band. They probably suspected Clockwork Angels was their righteous swan song and they’re wishing they could do it all again, from Caress of Steel onward. Plus, it just rocks. I love the jumping time signature, Peart’s mini-drum solo that falls around 4:30. This song has all the sonic texture of Rush we know and love.
Clockwork Angels – Track 10: BU2B2
THOSE FATEFUL WORDS, “What do you lack?” spark an inner monologue about all that I have lost. No more boundless optimism, no more faith in greater powers, too much pain, too much grief, and too much disillusion. Despite all that, I realize the great irony that although I now believe only in the exchange of love, even that little faith follows the childhood reflex that “I was brought up to believe.”
BU2B2 feels like a misfit on the album. It’s good, but more of a bridge between rockers than a stand-alone song itself. It’s very short at 87 seconds, but gives a reflection of our story’s hero on what’s really important to believe in. This track is definitely a change of pace based on what we’ve heard so far. It’s odd, but I like Lee singing against an orchestral background. Yet another musical experiment!
Clockwork Angels – Track 11: Wish Them Well
VICTIMIZED, BEREAVED, AND DISAPPOINTED, SEEMINGLY AT EVERY TURN, I still resist feeling defeated, or cynical. I have come to believe that anger and grudges are burning embers in the heart not worth carrying through life. The best response to those who wound me is to get away from them – and wish them well.
A rocking modern-day message to cut out toxic people from your life and don’t hold a grudge. Wish Them Well is a drumming double-timer that Peart had to come out of his shell to do.
“This was the hardest drum track of any of the songs to get. Neil doesn’t really play double-time, so this was taking him out of what he usually does… He dug in—sat down on his throne, picked up his sticks and made it happen… I was throwing stuff at him that an octopus couldn’t play, but he could.”
Nick Raskulinecz to Music Radar.com
While I can appreciate the effort, and appreciate the lyrical message, the song is a little bland for me. Peart would later say this track was his attempt to angrily write about appalling and despicable human behaviors that he had to learn how to just let it go.
“With people too, you constantly think, ‘If I’m nice to people and treat them well, they’ll appreciate it and behave better.’ They won’t, but it’s still not a bad way to live.”
No, Neil, it’s not a bad way at all.
Clockwork Angels – Track 12: The Garden
LONG AGO I READ A STORY FROM ANOTHER TIMELINE about a character named Candide. He also survived a harrowing series of misadventures and tragedies, then settled on a farm near Constantinople. Listening to a philosophical rant, Candide replied, “That is all very well, but now we must tend our garden.”
This is it! The final Rush studio song ever recorded, called The Garden. What a way to send off a brilliant rock and roll career: with a blended melody of beautiful proportions. This song is the perfect outro for a brilliant 40-plus year rock and roll career. I chose this live performance as the example just because seeing it performed adds to the wonderful mystique of just simply hearing it.
Rush has always sent fans out on a high note with closing songs. They blew the lid off of it with The Garden, reminding us that even after a full and prosperous life, there comes a time for the journey to end. Lifeson’s guitar solo and piano piece, and those backing strings make this the first Rush tear-jerker. An absolutely brilliant track to cap off one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the best)…
I give Clockwork Angels a 9 out of 10. Rush’s final album is epic and fires on almost all cylinders. There was so much right with this album it’s sad it will be their last studio cut. This whole effort is a glorious steampunk geek-fest that I wish would never end. Neil Peart was right when he predicted this would be his finest hour both in lyrics and drumming. Lifeson and Lee didn’t leave anything on the table either. I can’t help but wonder what their next album would have sounded like, but I can’t imagine adding more on top of this modern Rush masterpiece.
As much as this album belongs to our triumphant trio from Toronto, not enough can be said about the influence of producer Nick Raskulinecz on Clockwork Angels, as well as Snakes and Arrows. The amazing job of bringing out this amazing new and raw sound from three of the greatest rock musicians in modern history cannot be understated. His effect on Neil Peart, most of all, is astonishing:
“I played through each song just a few times on my own, checking out patterns and fills that might work, then called in Booujzhe (Rush’s nickname for Nick). He stood in the room with me, facing my drums, with a music stand and a single drumstick—he was my conductor, and I was his orchestra… I would attack the drums, responding to his enthusiasm, and his suggestions between takes, and together we would hammer out the basic architecture of the part. His baton would conduct me into choruses, half-time bridges, and double-time outros and so on—so I didn’t have to worry about their duration. No counting, and no endless repetition.”
Clockwork Angels is a fitting end to the band that defied all norms to produce 20 studio albums, 11 live albums and gather a legion of fans that never quit. With a resume like that, it’s a perfect time to tend The Garden.
Go to page 2 for my final thoughts on the Rush Review!
I was thumbing through my sketchbook and was disappointed in myself for having a bunch of outlines with nothing finished. Tonight I decided to start trying to knock off some of my better starts and ink a couple. Sadly, there were too many to complete in one night, but here’s three I’m pretty happy with so far. I might even color the Dr. Strange. If I do, I’ll update the post. Enjoy!
Bonus Sketch: Puff, the Magic Dragon!
I drew this a long time ago in a class (I should have been paying attention, but I wasn’t). It hung in my son’s room for a while until we moved. I found it in a box the other day and rescued it from certain doom. The very first song I ever performed live in front of an audience was Puff the Magic Dragon when I was about 9-years-old. I sang it with a friend of the family who was doing a solo gig at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa, Florida. He even paid me $5 for my part! I love this drawing.
I hope you’re all staying safe and keeping well in these troubled times. I’ve got plenty more unfinished works to stay busy on. Keep your pencils sharp and practice, practice, practice!… from 6-feet apart. 😀
The famous law man of Mega-City One. Judge Dredd has always been a favorite of mine. It can be dark and funny at the same time. His world is a dystopian nightmare, where crazy villains and daily waves of criminals are the norm.
It’s an unpopular opinion in the pop-culture world, but I liked Stallone’s 90s take on Judge Dredd. I liked Karl Urban’s updated movie more, but Stallone’s was decent. I especially liked Max von Sydow as Judge Fargo and Diane Lane as Judge Hershey. In Karl Urban’s updated film, I felt like it was closer to the intention of the character, mostly because Stallone’s Dredd took his helmet off. Dredd never removes his helmet! All that said, I think Urban’s Dredd deserves another movie. There’s so much more to the 2000A.D. universe to explore with him. In the meantime, I’ll just have to settle for the comics.
When drawing Dredd, the uniform is key element number one. It has a lot of parts and detail, especially the shoulder pads and badge. I need to do better detail on those. The second feature to get right is the frowny, scarred chin and helmet. Dredd never takes off his helmet, so the chin is a paramount feature since it’s the only part of the face you see.
By far, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is who I have drawn the most, and who I have the largest collection of comics from. He’s had so many great artists through the years. My favorites are Todd McFarlane, John Romita (both Sr. and Jr.), John and Sal Buscema, J. Scott Campbell, and Erik Larsen.
The first Spider-Man comic I ever picked up was Spectacular Spider-Man #178 The Child Within: Part 1. My collection now holds the entire 263-issue run from 1976 to 1998. Even though I haven’t drawn many of his villains, my favorites are Kraven the Hunter, Vermin, Tombstone and The Lizard. Looks like I’m drawn to the darker, crazier ones. Coincidence? I think not! I’ll have to do some sketches on those guys at a later time. For now, here’s some Spidey. Enjoy!
I think on my next Sketch of the Day, we’ll lay down the law with some Judge Dredd! Until next time, practice, practice, wash your hands, and practice some more!
When I was struggling with drawing women, I practiced heavily on one of my favorite video game characters, Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series. I remember the sickest I ever have been was this one three-week period where I got bronchitis and was stuck at home. This also happened to be aroud when the very first Tomb Raider game came out on PlayStation, circa 1997. I binge-played for three weeks and still couldn’t beat it (the game or bronchitis!) but it was fun trying, and I was hooked. Lara became my muse for a time and a drew her a lot.
Speaking of illnesses, please be safe out there amid this current virus problem. I wish everyone the best of happiness and health as we ride this out. If there is a silver lining, at least we can write and draw in our spare time!
There are actually a lot more sketches of her in my sketchbook, but the others are pretty cringeworthy. After these, I worked a lot on making my scenes more dynamic and trying to use more perspective. In a couple days, I’ll share some of those I worked on with another one of my favorite muses, Spider-Man! Until then, ‘Nuff Said True Believers!
Author‘s Note: This article originally appeared on another website I write for, That Hashtag Show, and appeared on March 23rd, 2020.
Vapor Trails – 2002
Studio album number seventeen rolls in six years after their last one, and it took over a year to make. Vapor Trails would hit #6 on the Billboard 200 but has not yet hit gold or platinum status. In reality, that doesn’t make much difference when you’ve reached the peak of rock like Rush has by this time in their careers. This is studio album seventeen! Add to that the four live albums, and each member had released their own solo albums by this time. Rush had nothing left to prove. They just wanted to rock again.
Vapor Trails is the first time since Caress of Steel that they used no synthesizers on a Rush album. Lifeson also gave up his fancy guitar effects in an effort to find a “more raw” sound. Even with these compromises, they still struggled to put down solid tracks and would take a three-week on, one-week off approach to meshing their lyrics with sound. In the end, thirteen tracks were released but there were still some problems with the sound.
“It was a contest, and it was mastered too high, and it crackles, and it spits, and it just crushes everything. All the dynamics get lost, especially anything that had an acoustic guitar in it.”
Alex Lifeson, on Vapor Trails
Vapor Trails would get a full remix in 2013, which are all shared in the review below. Fans still were ravenous after the long break to hear new Rush music, even if it wasn’t in best form. One thing this album declares is there is no limit to the creative direction Rush can go.
Peart – A terrible tragedy strikes… twice.
Neil Peart would suffer a terrible personal tragedy after Test for Echo, losing his daughter in a car accident, and his wife to cancer about a year later. I cannot imagine the feelings and the emotions you carry after such a loss, but it just about made him quit music altogether. It would be hard to blame him if he had.
Instead, he packed up his BMW motorcycle and rode it around the country. In between working out lyrics on Vapor Trails, he would pen his book, Ghost Rider, and tell the story of his biking journey on the road to healing, and eventually to decide to make more music. The epiphanies he had on the road led him back to Rush and to make more music for the fans and himself. A long hiatus can sometimes be a good thing, even for Rush. Let’s get into the tracks and see how they did.
Vapor Trails – Track 1: One Little Victory
One Little Victory is the first album opening track I didn’t care much for. They meet the listener with rapid-fire drums and riffs that blows your hair back from the opening note. The song would become part of the soundtrack for Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, also released in 2002. That probably led to some of the popularity this track garnered.
I can definitely see the foot getting heavier on the gas pedal with it blasting in the speakers. It rocks, and demands your attention as an opening track, but didn’t appeal to me the way it does to most fans.
Vapor Trails – Track 2: Ceiling Unlimited
It’s just bland. The guitar riff at the 4:05 mark is nice, but other than that, this is room temperature Rush at a high rate of speed. There is so much going on in the song it’s difficult to hear any part come through clearly. This could be a problem they tried to fix with the re-master, but it might have been too late for this track. The opening lyric is poignant though:
“It’s not the heat / It’s the inhumanity”
That gives you food for thought, but the rest of the song is starving.
Vapor Trails – Track 3: Ghost Rider
“Pack up all those phantoms / Shoulder that invisible load / Keep on riding north and west / Haunting that wilderness road / Like a ghost rider”
This track shares its name with the book Neil Peart wrote about his journey across country to deal with his personal loss. Overall, this is one of the more solid songs on this entire album. It’s echo-ey, dissonant, maybe even haunting. I might even go so far as to call this a 2000s rocker follow-up to The Allman Brother’s Midnight Rider. I know, maybe a stretch but the feel of the song reminds me of that.
“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
excerpt from Ghost Rider, Travels on the Healing Road
He released the book in 2002, the same year as this album. I haven’t read it yet, but a browse of reviews on Good Reads and Amazon say this is one to pick up. The song is good, and I wish they would have used that sound more on this record.
Vapor Trails – Track 4: Peaceable Kingdom
When I first heard Peaceable Kingdom, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. There is zero doubt it’s a swipe at the perpetrators behind the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. The lyrics are a sharp rebuke of saying one thing and meaning another, in this case on Islamic fundamentalism:
“Talk of a Peaceable Kingdom / Talk of a time without fear / The ones we wish would listen / Are never going to hear.”
As with other tracks here, there’s a lot of noise going on in the background but it’s too dulled down and drowned to hear any clear musical motive. The words drive the tune, but the music is left out.
Vapor Trails – Track 5: The Stars Look Down
An abstract artist once told me he felt like it was his job in his paintings to make the viewer think about his work and split their emotions in half. Do they like it or hate it? If they can’t decide, then he’s succeeded. Well, here’s my Rush example of that.
I go back and forth on whether I really like this song. I love the choral arrangement and the harmony blending at the end, but it’s too late in the song to save the track. Overall, I get more of the individual musicians coming through. I can pick out the bass line, and the drums are sharper, but my jury is out. I’ll still listen to it, but I don’t know if I like it or hate it.
Vapor Trails – Track 6: How It Is
How It Is would have been awesome as an acoustic. In Rush’s pantheon, outside of Rivendell and Tears, there’s not much acoustic material until we get to Snakes and Arrows. This song would have been great with just Lifeson and Lee giving an unplugged run at this. It kind of starts out that way, with the clear ringing acoustics and melodic woo-woos, but then Lifeson jumps in and screw that, let’s rock! I like the track overall, but this on an acoustic list would be a hit.
Vapor Trails – Track 7: Vapor Trail
The title track, Vapor Trails, has the most Rush-y feel on the whole album. Nerdy lyrics, clear bass hum, ringing guitar riffs, sharp and pounding drums. They blend the instrument harmony so much better here than other places on this album. This one is the dark horse hit that should have gotten more attention. It certainly deserves it.
Vapor Trails – Track 8: Secret Touch
Secret Touch is Geddy Lee’s favorite song on this album.
“This is a bit of an extravaganza. We built the song around these repeating bass chords that I thought sounded like French Horns. The tune has a hypnotic feel, and because we weren’t happy just enjoying that feel, we had to smack it up with some power. When we get to the middle section and all hell breaks loose, there are these stuttering bass punctuations. I double-tracked them, but on one track I digitally truncated the notes to make them sound abrupt and punchy.”
Geddy Lee to Bass Player Magazine
While I appreciate his enthusiasm, I didn’t get the same feeling. I really like that banging guitar riff. At first, I felt like it was out of place in this track, but it actually is the saving grace of the song. Overall, the track is a little bland. The lyrics are Peart trying to express his feelings, especially after his personal tragedy, but the delivery comes across a little jumbled. The last two minutes and the outro are better than the whole song together.
Vapor Trails – Track 9: Earthshine
Earthshine is another dark horse favorite on this album. That electric opening riff rocks and the ride cymbal builds the tension into a melodic chorus of doo-de-doos. The one problem I have is how close Lifeson edges toward overpowering the song.
It’s hard for any Rush fan to complain about too much Alex Lifeson on guitar, but through this whole album, some of his new sound smashes everything else down. I’m glad he kept it in check here, and bonus points for the crying stratospheric solo starting at 3:17. This is a good Rush song in any era.
Vapor Trails – Track 10: Sweet Miracle
I love the opening of Sweet Miracle, the shortest track on Vapor Trails. It has good harmonious blends and fresh guitar work, but doesn’t hit all the marks for me to like it that much. I rate it “just okay”.
Vapor Trails – Track 11: Nocturne
Nocturne is a rare Rush trip-and-fall. Lyrics are interesting but the song lacks substance. Vapor Trails could have been twelve tracks without this and been just as good.
Vapor Trails – Track 12: Freeze
At long last, the final part of the four songs of Fear! Freeze has a crazy time signature and doesn’t follow any mold or pattern for anything. It jangles and jumps, crashes and rocks wherever it wants to and all at the same time. The lyrics are on-point. It’s hard to determine if the hero of the song is actually the hero or the beast, but it’s awesome and better than the other tracks on this record.
A word about the brilliance of the four songs of Fear
The first track released was Part III: Witch Hunt way back on Moving Pictures, twenty years earlier. If you listen to the songs in order now that all four parts exist, each one paints its own canvas that make one larger picture when they’re together, and each one has its own unique sound for the time they released them.
Part II: The Enemy Within has a ska-inspired back beat to it. Part I: The Weapon has an original sound all its own, almost like 80’s techno (and the famous Count Floyd intro!). Part III: Witch Hunt has a creepy, almost operatic vibe. Part IV: Freeze is a gritty hard-rocker that closes out the saga. Releasing them in distant parts makes them relevant at release and is genius before it’s time. Neil was a madman!
Vapor Trails – Track 13: Out Of The Cradle
Keeping with the history of hopeful and uplifting closing tracks, Out of the Cradle offers just that. It’s not a great track, but it is definitely sending us out on a high note. It keeps all the fun jangle this album started with, but is arranged much better than some of its predecessors, and overall has a different sound than any other track on Vapor Trails. It has serious foot-tapping quality.
One a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the best…)
I give Vapor Trails a 4 out of 10. I realize that may not seem fair, but hear me out. With a couple exceptions, I struggled to like this album. Not that it’s a bad record, but this is the first album I felt didn’t sound like Rush. The whole track list feels like the band is stumbling back into relevance after their longest break ever, and a couple tracks are full face-plants.
Lee’s voice and bass pop is always unique and instantly recognizable. Peart’s drum technique and offbeat cadence is also a recognizable standout, and Lifeson’s guitar work has a signature all it’s own. On Vapor Trails, the elegant sounds of the three best musicians to pick up instruments were so smashed together that they drowned each other out in a bland pool of new-metal textures. The remaster may have helped, but there are some songs here that needed more work than that.
Where this album loses me is the songs begin to run together. Only Freeze, Ghost Rider and Earthshine stick out to me as distinct, original, stand-alone Rush sound. Vapor Trails, How It Is, and Secret Touch have redeeming qualities, but the rest is just noise, and that makes me sad. The late 90’s and early 2000’s were full of bands muscling for position to have the sharpest off-key sound vibe. I feel like Rush tried to join in that cacophony and succeeded. They didn’t need to. They’re better than that.
Ah, who doesn’t love Marvel’s elite team of mutants? Er,… I mean… students from Xavier’s School of Gifted Youngsters?
I’ll admit, the movies had their hiccups. But the comics… those were always gold! I tap Jim Lee as my favorite X-Men artist and I love his drawing style. Here’s a few of my favorite X-Men drawings. I have several more I’ll share at a later date. There were some storylines I struggled to follow in the books. It was superb work, but X-Tinction Agenda and The Muir Island Saga were deep X-Men doctrine. I had to read them a few times to get a good grasp. Until then, I hope you survive the experience!
A character I haven’t drawn yet that I really liked from the comics is GambitComics have captured the imaginations of young people the world over and are bastions of excellent art and story-telling. The X-Men captured the complications of human relationships on the pages of comics, and I loved it. Until next time, Excelsior!
Batman comics have always been a favorite of mine. The Caped Crusader has lasted decades, and kept readers and artists enamored since day one. I met Justice League penciller George Perez at a Comic Convention several years ago and commissioned a Batman sketch from him. He told me whenever you draw Batman, he’s known as the “Sharpie killer”, so keep a box of black markers handy! His sketch for me is shown above. It’s still one of my favorites, so I did a few of my own, as well as a couple of his villains. Enjoy!
Batman has always been a draw (pun intended!) to me because he’s a super hero without super powers. What he does have, however, is a super bank account and that makes up for a lot of shortcomings! In the comics, I’ve always preferred the darker Batman stories. I think The Long Halloween by Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb, Brian Bolland and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, and the crossover one-shots with Judge Dredd are some of my favorite Batman stories. Hush was pretty good, too, but I liked the artwork more than the story.
I realize this will make hard-core Batman fans mad, but I didn’t like Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. They didn’t appeal to me that much, but they are definite fan favorites. What’s your favorite Batman story arc?
Until next time, practice, practice and practice some more!
As promised, I dug around through my portfolio from back in the day and found a couple sketch-outs of a character I made up. She has no name or backstory, just happened to come to mind. Due to work schedules, I didn’t draw anything new today, so you’ll have to settle for another archive entry from 2002.
For the longest time, I struggled drawing women. So, I did what every other aspiring teenage artist would do; I studied them! Medical anatomy books helped, and I also practiced in the style of a couple of my favorite comic book artists: Michael Turner, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane and J. Scott Campbell. Their figure drawings and muscle structures are superb. I learned a lot just by studying their work and seeing how they did it.
Another thing that helped, especially trying to draw heroic figures both men and women, were fitness magazines. I’m sure to the Barnes and Noble clerk I looked like a pervy little creep buying women’s fitness journals, but they really were for research! I’m also not ashamed to say I made copies of some comic splash pages I liked and traced them as a training tool. It helped to condition my hand and give me a better feel for where curves and shadows should go.
What I use
A kind person sent a message asking what equipment do I use to draw. (Thanks for the question!) I use .07 and .05 lead mechanical pencils. I like Pentel, but the brand isn’t as important as feel to me. I like these mechanicals because they have metal parts and feel heavier and sturdy in my hand. For bigger marks, I use a regular #2 lead pencil, and then I have full graphite pencils for large areas. My only preferences for those are round instead of hex cut, and I prefer solid wood instead of compressed fiber.
I also do not use the erasers on any of those pencils. I use these click erasers exclusively with white refills. The red and black Rotring Tikky you see below has been with me since high school and has seen a lot of work cleaning up my mistakes. The blue one is my back-up in case ol’ “Tikky” breaks down, but she’s been going strong for almost 30 years!
For inks, I haven’t found anything I am partial to necessarily. Sharpies and their equivalents are good, but will fade and brown over time. There are specific art pens with India ink professionals use that won’t fade, but I have found many of them run out of ink quickly or dry up if you don’t use them that often. Plus, they can be expensive. For casual sketching, plain old black markers and ink suit me fine.
Until next time, practice, practice, and practice some more!
Instead of catch of the day. See what I did there?
Once upon a time, I wanted to be a comic book artist, Ever since Middle School, I felt a draw to drawing. I’d like to think I’m pretty decent, but after visiting a few Comic Cons and meeting the people who do this for a living, well… I learned I have a long way to go. So for fun, I’ll post a couple sketches each week that just happen to come to my mind.
Today, my mind was on dragons. Don’t know why. I haven’t read or watched anything particular bringing them to the forefront. I just happen to like the overgrown lizards. Here’s a sketch I did today, just to pass some time:
I feel much better about my abilities after drawing this one. I haven’t drawn much in years but today, the mood struck. In between writings, I’ll plan to draw a few times just to brush up on the old skills. When I dug through my archive, I found this gem from, wait for it… 17 years ago! We’ll call him a throwback dragon from 2003.
I’ll rummage through the archives and see what else I can dig up! I never learned to do any digital drawing or color. I do everything in simple pencil with a soft gum eraser and a black art pen. If I ever color any, it’s with colored pencil.
For my artistic friends: practice, practice, practice. Enjoy!
Riding the success of Roll the Bones, the boys got back in studio two years later for their 15th album, Counterparts. I mention Roll the Bones because it signaled the departure of the process-heavy synth sound, where Counterparts nearly cuts the ties altogether. Here, Rush returns to the simple sounds that three guys can make into melodies off of strings and drums; pounding, glorious drums.
Peart wrote the lyrics for Counterparts with a deep emotional theme in mind as well.
The term ‘counterparts’ is described as both “duplicate” and “opposite” – a definition that so intrigued Neil that he contemplated to himself: “…considered in this way, contraries are reflections of each other, and not necessarily contradictions.”
Using that as a guide, listen to the lyrics and seek out the contrary reflections. He wrote a lot of them in there, so they’re not terribly hard to find. Fans dug Counterparts, too. The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200, giving Rush their highest U.S. charted album, and was certified gold status two months after release. It would hit platinum in Canada and Atlantic Records claimed platinum in the U.S., but the RIAA only has Counterparts at gold. Still, in a time where many rock groups were trying to find their sound, Rush joins in the alternative rock movement and still keeps it sounding like golden Rush.
Counterparts, track 1: Animate
That opening drum is sweet music! A signature of all Rush albums is the attention-grabbing opening track. Gone is the electronic processing and here stands a great, organic rock and roll song. Across the board, Animate is a solid track giving each instrument the spotlight for a time. It has a hard-rocking beat with a little grungy sound that was popular on the air waves in the early 90’s. Lifeson grinds down his Paul Reed Smith guitar, while Peart gives that Ride Cymbal a workout and Lee rattles your fillings with his steady bass. This is Rush rocking at their best in over a decade.
Counterparts, track 2: Stick It Out
Love that gritty, monster-rock guitar riff at the beginning. Stick It Out, to this Rush fan, sounds like an Alice Cooper track that Rush recorded instead of him, and it’s darkly awesome. The song is distinctly Rush, however, and it’s nice to hear the boys get back to those rock and roll roots and drop all the synth.
Stick It Out taps deep into the strong misfit emotions of the early 90’s teenager (I was one of ’em!) and rides the wave of angst all the way through. A casual listener might hear this and be shocked it’s Rush, but I guarantee you’ll be thrashing along before it ends!
Counterparts, track 3: Cut To The Chase
Peart’s lyrics jump back into the nerdy realm here on this rocker, but don’t let that fool you. Cut to the Chase is another gritty effort that rewards the listener with a rollick through all three instruments before the end. I feel like this lyric describes this song perfectly:
“It is the engine that drives itself / But it chooses the uphill climb / A bearing on magnetic north / Growing farther away all the time”
Lifeson rarely “noodles”, but we get a little of that on his guitar solo. Normally, the 80’s/90’s metal trick of unorganized, wild string work is a turn-off for me, but here on Cut to the Chase, it works. I like it!
Counterparts, track 4: Nobody’s Hero
Nobody’s Hero would be the closest thing I would call a ballad on Counterparts, but it’s not really even that. However you categorize this track, you have to admit it has some of the most powerful lyrics on the album. Many say it’s simply a song about HIV awareness, but I think its more than that. To me, it’s a song about how the common person, or the different person, or the odd person, and how at any moment and for any reason, they could be the hero we never expected.
The lyrics remind me of a quote I remind my sons of from time to time:
“Nurture your minds with great thoughts. To believe in the heroic makes heroes.”
Counterparts, track 5: Between Sun and Moon
While not a bad song, Between Sun and Moon just doesn’t do anything for me. It’s got the nerdy lyrics I like, but it sounds like a Roadhouse barroom song, and that’s not the Rush I want. To the song’s credit, Lifeson has some ferocious guitar going on here, but the sound is too Stevie Ray Vaughn for me. While SRV is a guitar god, I don’t see much in common between him and Rush except this song. Still a good track, just not my favorite.
Counterparts, track 6: Alien Shore
While I agree with the premise behind the song’s lyrics, Alien Shore has a clunky delivery. The highlight is Lee laying down that funky bass from start to end. However, I find the rest of the track forgettable. I usually skip this one on the ol’ iPod.
Counterparts, track 7: Speed of Love
Speed of Love feels like it was recorded on the wrong album. It’s a good track that might have been a leftover from Power Windows or Grace Under Pressure. The nice thing about this song is it gives a needed breather from the first six tracks without dragging the whole album down. It rocks enough to keep the record going, but slow enough to give you a track to sway to. Lifeson gets a clear and bright guitar spotlight throughout. That’s exactly what Rush needed,