Deserter pardoned: the Obediah story

Obediah Jarrett’s tombstone, Antioch Ponder cemetery

A few years ago I shared a pointer to my sister Esta’s oral history record with my uncle Forrest, including his telling of how my great-great-grandfather, whose name is varyingly spelled Obadiah or Obediah, was personally saved from being executed as a deserter by North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance. It’s a great story, one that he told over and over and over.* But there’s always been a small question in the back of my mind: where was the evidence? What was the rest of the story?

Well, last night sitting with Esta and my parents after the funeral, I went looking for the evidence. And I found it, in a 2012 book by Aldo S. Perry, Civil War Courts-Martial of North Carolina Troops. And, astonishingly, the family story is true! Mostly. And the parts I didn’t know are stranger than fiction.

So, then. Obediah Jarrett, together with his brother Jacob P. Jarrett, enlisted in the North Carolina Fifth Cavalry on May 14, 1862 in Marshall, North Carolina. The unit was, essentially, a “mountain boy” division, made up of folks from western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, and they saw a fair bit of action over the next year all over the southeast, including battles at Brandy Station, Virginia on June 9, 1863, described as the largest cavalry battle ever fought in North America and as a pivotal turning point in the Civil War, and at Chickamauga, Georgia on September 20, later that year. Chickamauga in particular appears to have been a bloodbath; 20% of the Confederate forces were killed.

Just exactly when Obediah attempted to desert is not clear. One source I consulted says that he deserted on August 7, 1863, between his unit’s two battles, but I think that’s unlikely unless the policy toward deserters changed. Because at his desertion recorded on August 1, 1864 in Concord, Tennessee, he was arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to be executed.

Side note: Perry’s history of Obediah’s division records that the Fifth Cavalry merged with the Seventh Cavalry to form the Sixth Cavalry within the 65th Regiment, and that this merger may have been the reason for the desertion of Obediah and others. In fact, the unit led the Confederacy with 31 absences per company, 10 courts martial, and 7 death sentences. Perry notes that the North Carolina soldiers volunteered into North Carolina units of company size, but found themselves realigned into a huge regiment that included companies of Virginians and was led by a Virginian. In 1864, the captain of Obediah’s company, Company I, resigned his commission because “my command has deserted to the enemy and to the mountains of western NC and after attempting I find it impossible to get them together.”

At any rate, Obediah deserted on August 1, 1864, together with a fellow Madison County soldier, Jobe R. Redmon. They were court-martialed on separate days and both sentenced to death. Redmon wrote a letter home on November 2, 1864 from his imprisonment in Kinston, North Carolina, telling his family:

“My dear wife and children I seate myself this morning with a troubbeled harte and a destrest mind to try to rite a few line to let you no that I hird my sentens red yesterday and hit was very bad I am very sory to let you no for [one line not legible] all ready I hafte to bee shot the 9 of this month I am sory to in form you that I have but 7 days to live But I hope and trust in God when they have slane my body that God will take my sould to rest.”

Redmon’s descendants kept this letter and read it every year on the anniversary of his execution.

So what happened to Obediah? Well, it’s remarkably like what my Uncle said. A man named H. H. Baird prepared a request for pardon for both men to Jefferson Davis, and separately sent a letter to his cousin, governor Zeb Vance, appealing the decision, and specifically citing the change in terms of his commission as a reason for clemency. In a postscript, he emphasized, “The day has not as yet been appointed for the execution of Private Obediah Jarrett.” Whatever happened, Obediah’s death sentence was remitted by SO #260, issued on November 1, 1864—strikingly a day before Redmon’s letter home. Redmon’s sentence was not commuted and he died.

Why Obediah was spared and Redmon executed is unknown, as is why Redmon had a date for execution before Obediah despite having been court-martialed six days later. The record is silent, but suggests that there was some sort of favoritism shown to my great-great-grandfather—and thank goodness.

At any rate, Obediah, his death sentence commuted, remained in prison until Union forces defeated the remainder of the 65th at the Battle of Wyse Fork, fought March 7-10, 1865, near Kinston. He was taken prisoner of war by the Union troops but released after taking an oath of allegiance to the United States, and from thence headed home.

The last part of the story as my Uncle tells it, is that my great-grandfather Zebulon B. Jarrett was named for the North Carolina governor who saved his father’s life. That part is almost certainly true. However, genealogical records give us one last wrinkle: Zeb Jarrett was born three years and 11 months before his father was freed, and a year before he enlisted. Zeb was almost certainly named after Zebulon Vance, but he had a different name at birth, which has sadly been lost due to the destruction of our family Bible when my Aunt Jewell’s dorm burned in a fire.

This is why I study history: truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s sometimes downright weirder.

* The last “over” there goes to the Applachian Barns Project’s documentation of the 19th century barn on my grandmother’s farm, documented from my uncle’s stories.

Laying a giant to rest

Forrest Jarrett with me and my kids, The Boy and The Girl. Photo courtesy Esta Jarrett.

We laid my uncle to rest yesterday beside his wife, my aunt Alene, in their plot in the family’s corner of the mountain cemetery where my grandparents, my Aunt Jewell, my great-grandparents, and my great-great-grandparents lie.

It was a large service, in Asheville’s First Baptist Church, full of (almost entirely) masked mourners whom I knew from my uncle’s stories, or his get-togethers at his pond, or from the wild game dinners I attended a few times that were held in his name as a fundraiser for various outdoorsy causes. But the center of it all was his story.

The story of a boy who was so shy he hid from the mailman, who trained himself to be the life of the party. Who had a frank and open face until a baseball flattened his nose (and convinced the county high school to invest in protective gear for its high school baseball catchers). Who stood with such straight and perfect posture that they called him String, until a training accident in a tank sent a recoiling 90mm gun into his back and side, leaving him with a limp and perpetual back pain that sent him home from the Army. Who was going to be his father’s heir in scientific farming, until the accident made him seek another career—a career that his second cousin, who was the political kingpin of Madison County and his lifelong quiet opponent in a family feud rooted in a land deal, told him would never be near his home. Or, as my Uncle would say, “When I come out of service, my good kinfolks, Mr. Zeno Ponder, sent word to me by my first cousin, Marvin Ball, that he’d see me in hell before I’d get a job in Madison County.”

Who was sponsored for a job with Southern Railway by famed lawman Jesse James Bailey. Who, thanks to an early job as bodyguard for railroad executive and later Southern Railway president D.W. Brosnan, followed that career through eleven Southern cities and through multiple promotions until he retired as chief of railroad police. Who managed diplomacy with the old mountain gift for giving: small favors, “pettin’ pokes” with fresh produce, country sausage, or suspiciously clear Mason jars. Or by throwing enormous all-day-long barbecues. Or by taking you hunting. Whose gift of diplomacy built a network that showed up, in force and in masks, yesterday.

Presented to Forrest Jarrett on his departure from Atlanta. He moved to Roanoke that year, where he retired.

Who, when he retired, papered the walls of a study in his home on the old family farm with certificates and plaques: certified Railroad Policeman in Indiana. Certificates of appreciation from the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the office of the mayor of Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Secret Service. Honorary Illinois state trooper. Honorary chief of police in Hickory, North Carolina. Honorary assistant Attorney General in Alabama and Georgia. Honorary Lieutenant Colonel, Aide de Camp, Governor’s Staff in Georgia. Honorary Lieutenant Colonel and Aide de Camp in the Alabama State Militia. Honorary colonel and Aide-de-Camp in the Fairfax County Police Department. Kentucky Colonel. North Carolina Order of the Long Leaf Pine. Photograph with United States Senator Strom Thurmond. Christmas card from Barbara and George H.W. Bush. Congratulatory letter from Vice President Dan Quayle. Keys to several cities, including the key to Washington, DC presented by Mayor Marion Barry. Signed and framed copies of the Crime Control Act of 1990 (S.3256), which granted railroad police the power to enforce the laws of the jurisdiction in which they were operating, and which was passed largely on the strength of his diplomacy.

And who then promptly ignored that study, except to show visitors who asked, preferring to sit on his porch and watch the mountains, or down by his pond and soak in the silence. Or to take his grandchildren down the bumpy road to the pond on the Gator.

Forrest Jarrett with The Girl, courtesy Esta Jarrett.

Because in the end, he was a man of enormous accomplishment for whom family was not only the most important thing, it was everything.

Godspeed, Uncle Forrest. You will be missed.

The Brackbill Farm history indeed(s)

Deed conveying the Brackbill Farm in Salisbury Township from Abraham Hershey to Benjamin Brackbill in 1867

After being reminded while writing the last post that I hadn’t dug up the deed to the farm back in 2009, I decided to spend some downtime this morning going back through the notes and seeing what I could find regarding the transfer of the farm from Abraham Hershey, who built the farmhouse in 1857, to the family of Harry G. Brackbill, whose descendants (my extended family) still own the property today.

And I might have found something. In reviewing the photos of the General Index of Deeds that were posted by the Southern Lancaster County Historical Society, I found a deed conveying property in Salisbury Township from Abraham Hershey et ux (and wife) to Benjamin Brackbill, my great-great-great grandfather, in 1867. No deeds in Salisbury Township were recorded after that date against Abraham Hershey, so I think this was probably the property.

Benjamin Brackbill, whose main residence and land holdings were in Paradise, was, according to his obituary, “a man of wealth.” He had two sons who were farmers, Elam (my 2x great grandfather) and Benjamin. I think it’s quite likely that Benjamin purchased the Abraham Hershey farm so that Elam could become established, without having to subdivide his farm in Paradise between his two sons.

Thanks to the index, I was able to view the actual deed (book T9, pp. 317-318) and confirm that Abraham and Barbara Hershey, who built the house on the farm in 1857, sold the farm to Benjamin Brackbill in 1867 for the sum of $22,357.50. From there, presumably the wills of Benjamin and Elam would show the property changing hands to Harry G. Brackbill, my great-grandfather. The deed also showed the history of the property before Abraham Hershey: it had been purchased from Christian Umble by Christian Hershey, Abraham’s father, on April 2, 1812. The deed for that transaction (book 8, p. 91ff) shows that the land originally belonged to Andrew Deig and his wife Ann, who sold it on April 14, 1807, to Christian Fisher; who turned around and sold the land to Christian Umble (or Ummel) on April 1, 1812; who then turned around the next day and sold it to Christian Hershey. At the time the parcel was only 30 acres; Christian and Abraham subsequently enlarged it to 101 acres before it was sold to Benjamin Brackbill.

And it doesn’t stop there! The deed (book Y3, p. 700ff) between Andrew Deig and Christian Fisher gives us more of the history. On March 27, 1786, Andrew and Robert Caldwell and their wives sold a parcel of 232 acres containing this property to John Rickebaugh and Christian Roop (or Roof); the two purchasers partitioned the land in 1790, but Rickebaugh purchased Roop’s share. From there it gets messy, with the land being divided and partitioned until it ended up in Deig’s hands via sale from Christian Hurst.

And if you want to trace it further back, you can do it yourself. 🙂

Just kidding! I couldn’t stop! The Caldwells got the land in 1746 from the executors of Stephen Cole’s estate (book FF, p. 172ff); Cole got it from the Penns in 1731 (book FF p. 168ff).

And that’s as far back as I think it’s going to go.

On the road again

Brackbill farm, June 6, 2021

After almost fifteen months of enforced home time, I’ve been traveling and visiting family for the last few days. The occasion: my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, which fell on the same day as my cousin’s son’s high school graduation. I wasn’t able to make the graduation ceremony due to flight times but have been accompanying (and chauffeuring) my parents to visits with our Lancaster County family for the past few days.

Our home base has been the Brackbill farm near Kinzers. My earliest memories here are the annual family picnics along the Pequea Creek, which borders the property. More recently, the availability of one of the three apartments in the 1857 farmhouse for visiting family has made it a logical place to stay for funerals and visits.

The house sits on a working farm, which while not as active as when I was a boy (the herd of cattle that feature prominently in my childhood memories no longer graze the field behind the barn), still produces organic vegetables and flowers for the family CSA.

We hit the road today, as I drive my folks home to the hills around Asheville, North Carolina … and probably through a bunch of rainstorms. Should be fun.

September, I remember

It’s been a pretty whirlwind summer, jumping from England into Tanglewood to the normal August madness that is the Black Hat concert, to a week with my parents. And now school has started once again. It’s enough to make one really feel the passing of time.

The Boy has found his way a little into Harry Potter, speaking of the passing of time, and we’ve watched up through The Prisoner of Azkaban, which remains my favorite of the movies, some fourteen years after I first wrote about it. The timing of the arrival of a new wave of HP Lego is welcome; he got the Whomping Willow for his birthday and was eager to build Mr. Weasley’s Ford Anglia and the Willow. The bricks for the set’s section of Hogwarts have stayed in their box.

But the biggest way the passing of time made itself known was my visit to my Grandmother’s house. “Mama Linda,” as my uncle Forrest has always called her and which makes it easy for us to tell the kids which “grandma” we’re talking about, made her home with Papa Olin in a small house that my great-grandfather Zeb Jarrett built, and my grandfather added onto. Up until my grandmother’s death while I was in grad school, we still felt her animating presence throughout the house. Now, it seems more like a museum. Rearranged by my aunt, who modernized it a little, removing most of a wall between the kitchen and the tiny dining room and made it into something that could be rented, it sat empty until my aunt’s death. Now my cousins have redecorated it a bit, taking down some of my aunt’s generic mountain pictures and cleaning it with my sister’s considerable help. But it still sits empty and waiting.

In the garden



We’re visiting my parents in the hills outside Asheville, North Carolina this week. The hardest challenge is using the days before they fly by.

We lucked out on Sunday, though. We were on the road early enough to get to my parents’ before dinner, and ended up having spectacular Mexican food and coming back home in time to catch my aunt and uncle on their porch—and see a deer in their backyard. Yesterday was just running menial errands during the day, but an Asheville Tourists game at night (a 2-1 loss, but at least it didn’t rain on us! And there was ballpark food!). And today we get to have date night in Asheville and the kids get to have a sleepover with their aunt, who will by morning be their long-suffering aunt.

But it’s also just silly things, like the fact that my dad (also probably long-suffering) says “thank you” when I drop another pile of jazz CDs on him. Or that my North Carolina family will eat grits with me (I’m a solo grits eater in Massachusetts). Or that we’re all having fun with each other.

Like the car ride home last night from the ballgame, in which my sister called to say that our cousin was going to bring home some (inaudible) to us. I hung up, turned to Lisa and said, “Did she say he was bringing mackerel?” “Yes.” “No, record albums.” “No, macarons.” “No, white lightning.” (It was macarons, and they were delicious.)

Today: downtown Asheville so the Boy can spend his birthday money at the general store, and lunch of some kind. Then a rainy afternoon (UVAopoly, anyone?) and on to dinner. And then who knows?

Jefferson, the gourmand

I keep thinking about Jefferson and being afraid that I’ll forget something about him, so I’m posting these thoughts as I come to them. If you’re not a doggy person, you may want to check back in a few days.

From the time he came home, Jefferson made it clear that he belonged to the Jarrett family: by his propensity for naps, his heroic snoring, and most of all by his appetite for food. A few weeks after we brought him home, we were shaking down our newly installed oven in our Kirkland house, cooking a turkey for Christmas dinner, and he sat in front of the oven door and watched. Just watched. With a concentration bordering on the unshakeable, he sat in front of that oven door and took in the smells coming from it until he could no longer stand it.

That’s when he would start growling. And blowing out air in frustration (see the “fuffing” in the video above). And eventually, full-on barking at the oven.

The whole family could tell when I was cooking breakfast for the dogs—especially toward the end of Jeffy’s life, when a persistent canine digestive problem had shifted us to feeding him on home cooked ground pork or turkey and rice. He would stay upstairs with Lisa until he could smell the food cooking, and then he would head down the stairs (something he rarely did under his own power; as a doggy of leisure, he preferred to be carried) and sit under the kitchen table and watch me cook, usually at around 6:15am. And then as the meat started to brown, he would start barking at the food. And it wouldn’t stop until his plate hit the floor.

Jeffy would eat anything. And he would always try to steal his sister’s food. In his younger days, he would simply wait til she wasn’t paying attention and then voom on over and start wolfing it down. As his joints started giving him problems, he would move more subtly and slowly—or as subtle as a slightly rotund Bichon with arthritis can be.

I knew that we were in trouble with him when his fabled appetite finally started failing. We now know that he was suffering from a slow moving progressive kidney disease that impaired his digestion and generally made his life hellish, but it wasn’t until the last few weeks that it became a roll of the dice whether Jeffy would eat dinner (or breakfast). In those weeks he got to enjoy the full range of food left to him: poached salmon, ground pork, turkey and beef, grilled flank steak, pressure cooked and roasted turkey. I like to think that wherever he is now, he’s eating heartily.

Creature of love

On December 4, 2003, we brought home our second Bichon puppy, Jefferson. Today it’s time to say goodbye to him.

Before Jefferson and his sister and littermate Joy joined our family, I had never known dogs. I was always terrified of them as kids: the boundless energy and jumping, the sharp teeth, the barking. These puppies were an entirely different experience. They had boundless energy—Jefferson could bound through the grass like his legs were springs—but they also would curl up and go to sleep on our laps, next to us on the sofa, at our feet. They weren’t the dirty yard dogs of my childhood memories; they were fluffy and white and wagged their tails anytime they thought they could get some attention (or food). In fact, they seemed to be powered by love.

At the other end of Jefferson’s life, I know this to be true. Tens of thousands of years ago, the first dog decided to make a bargain, to give up independent life and settle as part of a human family. I always assumed the benefits were a more stable life and access to the food the humans would procure. But I think the real benefit was more mysterious and deeper than that. Somehow, I think, that first dog got part of our soul, a part that was made of pure love.

And these creatures of love have been bound to us since. They love unconditionally and incessantly, even when sick; even when old and in pain.  They trust us to care for them, to share joy with them, to feed them and bathe them (albeit reluctantly). And they trust us with their lives.

Today we made that last decision for Jefferson. His pains and hurts were too grievous for him, and for us, and it was time for him to suffer no more. And time for us to honor our end of the bargain, because now we will suffer too and mourn. And I hope, in time, be glad that this creature of love was part of our lives.

Veterans Day 2017: remembering Uncle Reeves

Uncle Reeves and Aunt Jewell, early 1970s

My family has about the average number of veterans and career military personnel. I’ll write another day about the long career of my mom’s brother John Brackbill and his service in the Army and Navy. But on this particular day-before-Veterans Day, I’m thinking about my Uncle Reeves.

Reeves Dennis Church enlisted in August 1941, leaving his life as a merchant in Hot Springs, North Carolina. He trained in Boston; near the end of his life he told us highly abbreviated and edited stories of the infamous Scollay Square. In June 1942 he sailed to New York on the USS Siren as a seaman first class. By September he was sailing from Key West to Cuba, still on the Siren, having been promoted to yeoman third class. He was still serving on the Siren in March 1944, but had been promoted to Yeoman First Class. By May of that year he headed back to New York, when the Siren was decommissioned, and he was discharged in 1945.

USS Siren was a patrol yacht, originally assigned to coastal defense in New England, then redeployed to convoy duty along the southeastern US coast and in the Caribbean. As part of the crew, Reeves traveled to Trinidad, Jamaica, Key West, Cuba, and even to Brazil, and helped to rescue survivors of a U-Boat sunk by a Navy patrol plane.

That was the most excitement my uncle had. After the war, he returned home and married my Aunt Jewell, and settled into a quiet life, working for the NC state highway department. After retiring he would frequently give Appalachian Trail hikers seeking a zero a lift from the trail into Hot Springs. By the time I got to know him, thirty years after his discharge, you’d never have known that he spent the war keeping our country safe.

Which is one of the unique privileges we have had in America: to be kept safe by those ordinary people who volunteered to do extraordinary things.

LaRC, and what my father did there

My dad spent more than 30 years, from the 1960s to the late 1990s, at NASA Langley Research Center, which turns 100 this year. During that time he worked on Apollo-adjacent technologies, atmospheric and environmental satellite based sensors, and diagnostic equipment for hypersonic jet engines.

That’s a grossly inadequate description of what he worked on. I got to know his work on coherent anti-Stokes Raman spectroscopy and its applications to high temperature sensors pretty well, because that’s what he was working on when I was in high school. And I’m old enough to remember his overnight or weekend trips to Wallops Island to fly missions to measure ocean environmental characteristics with lasers in the late 1970s, before funding for NASA environmental research was cut during the Reagan years. But he was also at the center when it was a hotspot of research for the Apollo program. I’ve driven by the huge concrete pad dwarfed by towering girders above where Neil Armstrong practiced manually steering the Apollo landing craft to a safe touchdown—skills he ended up using for Apollo XI.

Looking forward to watching this documentary about the center (narrated by none other than William Shatner) with my kids, if I can just get them to sit still long enough.

More on my grandfather and World War I

As expected, when I started posted family history, I started getting clarifications and corrections from my family. (Thanks, Dad!) Following my post about my grandfather’s close brush with World War I, my dad emailed me to say that Papa Olin had actually been in Officer Candidate School at Tusculum College. As a newly minted second lieutenant, he would have been sent off to the front lines. Fortunately the war ended before that could happen.

I’m now hunting for documentary evidence of his time at Tusculum. Unfortunately I can’t find any online records from that period—no issues of the Tusculana, no records of OCS participation, nothing in Ancestry.com’s military databases. If anyone can recommend a place to look, I’d appreciate it.

My grandfather, enlisted man

Olin Jarrett circa 1918, photo scanned by Esta

As mentioned, we know (thanks to photos like this and a uniform folded away in an attic for seventy years) that my grandfather (Papa Olin) was going to be called up for a war that, mercifully, ended before he could see service. Unfortunately that’s about all we know.

His name doesn’t show up in the military records I can see on Ancestry.com. It’s possible he was only called up locally and then his records were destroyed before the Army got them. I don’t know.

But the pictures of this scientific farmer in his World War I uniform remain a little bit of a mystery.

Papa Olin in his uniform, from 1918

Papa Olin, Mamma Linda, Uncle Forrest, and the Depot

Mural at the Marshall Depot

In 1924, at the age of 19, my grandmother Linda Freeman married my grandfather Olin Jarrett. He had been courting her for a while; she attended the Dorland-Bell School in Hot Springs, which she credited for the rest of her life with teaching her to read, cook, and love the Presbyterians. He was a farmer in Madison County who narrowly missed going overseas in World War I—there are two photos of him in the uniform I would find in the attic seventy years later. Now he was living with his papa Zeb and mother Laura in their house on the side of a holler, learning about modern farming at the extension at Mars Hill.

It’s 16.3 miles by modern roads from downtown Marshall to Hot Springs. It would have been an impossible journey without staying overnight, which was itself impossible, by mule. But the railroad had come through Marshall in 1871 and passed through Hot Springs on its way to Painted Rock, Tennessee. So my uncle caught the train at the Marshall Depot and rode it as it twisted its way along the French Broad River all the way into Hot Springs. My grandmother always credited the railroad for bringing them together.

Fast forward many years and three children and four grandchildren, and Papa Olin’s death in 1974. It’s now 1987 and Linda learned that… well, it’s best if I let my Uncle Forrest take over telling it:

“Forrest!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“They’re going to tear the old Marshall depot down. We don’t want that to happen.”

“No, ma’am.”

“That’s where Papa Olin caught the train to come to see me down at Hot Springs.”

And so Uncle Forrest, who had worked for Norfolk Southern since 1952 and was now Director of Police, put in a few calls, got ownership of the Depot transferred from Norfolk Southern Railway to a group for a pittance, and went about transforming it into what it is today: a venue for live mountain music. And cakewalks.

A few years ago a local artist memorialized a group of folks associated with the life of the Depot. That’s my Uncle on the left, in his hat and holding the clipboard, along with the lady responsible for the cakewalks. And, of course, the Chicken Man.

The Colors of My Rainbow

When I was a little kid—I mean, probably seven or eight years old—we were visiting my grandparents in Paradise, PA. My Pop-Pop liked to play music for us, generally the radio but often a tape that he had gotten from his work at Spectrum Fidelity Magnetics. And this time he had a kid’s album, “The Colors of My Rainbow.”

That album, by a kid’s musician named Joe Wayman, squirmed its way into my psyche through repeated listenings in cassette players at home, Pop-Pop’s, and in our car on long trips between Newport News and Paradise. Having grown up on a diet of my mom’s kid’s music, much of which dated to her days as a music teacher in the 1950s and 1960s (think “Tubby the Tuba”), the smart-assery around the edges of “Recipe for Red” and “Mellow Yellow Coot” appealed to me. But maybe most of all, the melancholy in “Brown’s the Saddest Color” hit the bullseye of my soul. I still remember the lyrics to many of the songs.

Other than half remembered snatches of the songs floating through my head, I wasn’t able to find the music. But then this morning I decided to Google the lyrics I remembered. And there was a full playlist of the album on YouTube (misattributed to “Joe Hayman”). And a Creative Commons archive of the album on the Internet Archive. And now I’m happily listening to the dated production and less-good-than-remembered singing and refreshing my memory.

The long wait

Boom boom boom boom. Ten seconds’ wait, then: boom boom boom boom.

That is the opening of “Sarah was ninety years old,” one of Arvo Pärt’s most austere musical works. A drum beat, then silence, repeated over twenty-five minutes. Subtle variations in the times repay mathematical scrutiny, but only yield the pattern, not the meaning. But the drums are interrupted: once with a song of prophecy, once with an ecstatic cry of revelation, when Sarah learns that with God, all things are possible.

I think of “Sarah” often, but was most recently prompted to think of the work when I was in church on Sunday, listening to the faith story of a member of our congregation. (This is about as close to speaking in tongues as Congregationalists get, which is to say, not close at all.) And I reflected that, since returning to church a few years after college, my faith story has been like the drums and the waiting.

My practice of faith is ritualized. I sing in the choir, I observe the practices of communion and prayer. But often I feel as though I too am performing an activity with pattern, but not with meaning. I am waiting. Waiting for the prophecy, the revelation.

But there are occasionally moments of prophecy for me too. One came almost ten year ago, as I undertook a project of research to try to better understand my grandfather’s life in the wake of his passing (at ninety years old). (The Brackbill Wiki I was creating has moved since I started, by the way.) Searching for traces of my grandfather’s life, I was amazed to find this one, in an anthology of writing about experiences of boyhood:

The only man in my life who came close to resembling [Richard Chamberlain] was a gentle farmer who taught me Sunday school. Herman Brackbill was a large, soft-spoken, clean-shaven man who talked of love, even though it was God’s. His face was kind, his eyes warm and inviting. His hands were nicked, rough, large and comforting. On Sunday mornings he smelled of soap, Aqua Velva aftershave and a mothballed suit. I felt safe and relaxed just sitting next to him on the hard wooden pew. After church, I often went to the farm where Herman and his family lived. He never raised his voice to his wife or kids. He was fair. The farmhouse was peaceful inside and out. Once or twice I spent the night and imagined being part of his family.

The story: a young boy grows up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and learns that he is gay. And somehow he learned life lessons from my grandfather, and had moments of peace and safety in the middle of a childhood that otherwise taught him fear and shame.

As I think about how my grandfather changed this man’s life for the better, just through those routine Sunday mornings of Sunday school classes and church attendance, I feel that flicker of revelation. Sometimes the bolt from above is not necessary to feel the presence of God—or share it. Sometimes it’s enough to honor the ancient drumbeat of daily Sundays, and wait.