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The Whiskey Tree

Preface:  I wrote and posted this in MySpace December 25th, 2008.

Andrew Collett got the inspiration from this piece and wrote a song by the same name. I hope my writing inspires him to write more songs and I hope to write more lyrics for him, too.

Check out his work at his website HERE.  He’s an amazing guitar player.

I often regret the music shop Klangfarbe in Vienna moved to a newer location.  The old place had a brick factory building feel.  I could get a can of beer from a vending machine for a Euro and watch Andy pick up 3000 Euro guitars and give them incredible test drives.  It was my concert for one.

I hope you enjoy.  All the best,

–-Steve

Old Crow was his drink, and I thought he was a dreadful man.

I don’t think Dad considered him a close friend, but he was friendly to him.  This man had two connections within Dad’s networks:  He was in the medical profession and he also loved the outdoors.

I met him twice, both as a teen.  Lincoln once said: I don’t like that man.  I must get to know him better.  I spent most of the time watching Dad’s reactions to all his remarks I heard that seemed bitter, arrogant and rude.  I watched for the little creases near Dad’s eyes that gave away his wincing only to my trained eyes.  I think he tolerated him.  Dad had a gift of finding something redeeming in everyone, and I trusted my father enough to know I should give this man a fair chance, even though I was uncomfortable around him.

But the man died, and I never got a third time.

Dad and I spent a lot of time in an area of New Hampshire shared through a conservation trust.  There were thousands of acres of woods, small ponds and lakes, and a small mountain.  This area had a lot of meaning for me growing up.  My first winter camping was with Dad in the most remote area of this land.  We walked the woods in all seasons, including a time snowshoeing in winter where we found an old runaway dog freezing to death.  I started my first emergency fire in this land, and many others for camping and cooking.

It was also the land and woods Dad and I meant to walk on a Sunday morning when I watched a man die in room 436-B when I was fifteen.

I remember going for a walk in these woods with Dad one Christmas Day, home from college.  We stopped at the caretaker’s house before going home, to wish his wife and him a Merry Christmas.  The caretaker was all smiles and pats on the back.  He also insisted we stay for some Christmas cheer (as he put it).  Dad gave in politely—I guessed we had a little time.

The interior of the cabin was cozy with heavily shellacked log walls, decorated with antlers and the career catches of fish mounted on plaques.  Photos of sporting trips also dotted the walls.  The wood stove blazed.

Dad snorted a chuckle when the caretaker brought three highball glasses with ice, some ginger ale and a bottle of Old Crow to the table.  The caretaker smiled, and I looked at both of them.

“What’s so funny?”  I asked.

“This was his drink,” the caretaker said, pointing to the picture of a man standing next to a large buck.  It was the dreadful man I had met twice before.

I heard short stories my father and the caretaker swapped about the man, painting a picture of a different personality than I had seen—all with different paint brushes and brush strokes.

“He…wasn’t…an easy man to get to know,” the caretaker hesitated, “but he was a good man, I think.  I say hello to him about once a month.”  Dad nodded, but I didn’t understand.

“I thought he passed away,” I said.

“You never showed him, Doc?”  The caretaker was a little surprised as Dad shrugged.

Both the caretaker and Dad took turns explaining the story to me.  When the man died, he left a lot of money to this conservation trust and some other charities.  He had a clause in his will that the current caretaker of the land would maintain a bottle of Old Crow by a certain tree close to the small mountain.  Friends who knew his favorite hunting spot could come by and find the bottle, remembering the place the man loved to be.

“…and so his friends could share a drink with him,” the caretaker finished.

I learned a lot nice things about a man I had thought was dreadful.  I think President Lincoln, like my father, had the wisdom to look deeper into a life and see things beyond.  Critics of General Ulysses S. Grant were rumored to have complained to President Lincoln that Grant was a drunk. Those stories claimed that Lincoln’s response to them was:  I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.

Old Crow was Grant’s drink, too.

I also learned more about the special places people go to and think about the lives of others.  Austrians and Germans call it a Denkmal—literally a “think mark.”  A memorial, a monument or even a shrine appears in any form, from as big as an obelisk to something as simple as a wooden sign nailed to a tree.  Someone else coined the term for me when I later told the story, but the name stuck.  I call it a whiskey tree.

Dad and I went for a Christmas walk in the same woods the next year.  Since I wasn’t home often from college, Dad asked me where I wanted to go that day.  I remembered the story.

“Do you think you know where that bottle of Old Crow is?”  I asked.  Dad thought for a while, retracing old paths in his mind.

“Well…I know where he liked to hunt.  I…think I have an idea where it is.  Let’s have a look.  It would be a good hike even if we don’t find it.”

Dad found it, even with six inches of new snow.

I never held a rifle in order to hunt deer, but I stood in the area and understood why this man chose the spot for his whiskey tree.  Everything about the view, wind direction and chances to see deer were perfect.  It was a sound path, but less travelled, which meant more serious outdoors people were likely to pass through here.

Nestled in a natural hollow at the base of a large maple and covered with a flat rock was a bottle of Old Crow with chunks of ice along the sides.  Dad and I took a modest swig from the bottle, looking around in silence.

Austria is full of Denkmale–small memorials along roadsides, hiking trails and bike paths.  Many have manger-like roof tops, protecting small statues of the Virgin Mary or a Patron Saint from the weather.  Most are carved with intricate detail in either wood or stone.  Whether to stop and pray or stop and look, some quality about them makes me stop.  Period.

Christmas in Austria is a time for me to slow down, more than I had ever done in America.  It is a time where I stop to think about life, stop to pray, or just stop.

Christmas Eve is more important in Austrian households than Christmas Day.  Lunch (like any other day, if possible) is the largest meal of the day, and I had a traditional meal of fish. The Weihnachtsmann doesn’t come to the Austrian home like in Germany or in America (as Santa Claus), but the Christkind comes by at Christmas Eve, accessing the house through a window, delivering both the presents and the tree (which is why the tree does not go up until the twenty-fourth).  When young children hear the ringing of a bell, it is a sign to them that the Christkind has come and gone.

Gift giving where I live is routinely modest, and is joined with giving chocolate and homemade Christmas cookies—maybe a bottle of wine.  At night I ate a kaltes Essen—sliced ham as cold cuts, bread, hardboiled eggs and potato salad.

Many Austrian households can use Christmas Day to visit relatives and friends (even go skiing), but Christmas Day is the quiet day here.  It is a chance to relax, bake more Christmas cookies, and slow down.  I am the only one who loves the outdoors, and despite the light drizzle of rain, I wanted to go for my hike today.  I needed to, because I have traditions of my own.

I found my whiskey tree on a ledge of a large hill overlooking the southern flatlands of Lower Austria.  On a clear day you could see the ridgelines of mountains in the Styrian Province.  Today, I was happy I could see my village down below.

I don’t have a particular tree.  I don’t hide any bottle of alcohol anywhere in memory of anyone.  I brought a bottle of beer with my leftovers from last night’s cold cuts—slices of ham, cheese and bread, and the last hardboiled egg.  I smiled as I noticed someone who loves me also slipped a couple of pieces of chocolate into my pack before I left.

I looked out as far as the clouds would let me, thinking about my father and my grandfather, but thinking much more about the living than the departed.  I thought of my girl, the family and friends I have, and about my future.   I thought of this day as the birth of hope.  I could feel my heart beat a few beats slower and more at ease.

I gave thanks, to anyone willing to listen.

When I returned, we feasted on roasted pork wrapped in mushrooms and a pastry crust, roasted potatoes and carrots drowned in butter.  I took a nap—my first in over a month.

I thought about my whiskey tree in Austria.  I thought about all the ones I pass by while going for a hike or a bike ride.  They are like trail markers, guiding the living to find their way through life.

This was my Christmas.  It was a time of peace and hope…and a time to pause.

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Preface:  I wrote and posted this in MySpace April 4th, 2009 as part of a Shakespeare Sonnet Challenge.  I only had the working title “Sonnet 002” (I’m not sure if my Sophomore English teacher is still alive, but I doubt he still has my first sonnet as part of a homework assignment–I sure don’t).

Andrew Collett honored my work by making a song of it.  Sonnet 002 became the lyrics for “Cathedral Pines.”  We both felt the rhythm and stanzas of Shakespearean Sonnets fit his style of music.  I hope to write more for him.

Check out his work at his website HERE.  He’s an amazing guitar player.

I often regret the music shop Klangfarbe in Vienna moved to a newer location.  The old place had a brick factory building feel.  I could get a can of beer from a vending machine for a Euro and watch Andy pick up 3000 Euro guitars and give them incredible test drives.  It was my concert for one.

I hope you enjoy.  All the best,

–Steve

I’m a reluctant poet.

I’m not sure what inspired me to attempt one, but there’s a Shakespeare Festival celebrating the sonnet.  I hope you enjoy the poetry of others more experienced, and be kind when you come to mine.

My father and I used to get up early at this time, going to an Easter sunrise service at a place called the Cathedral of the Pines in Rindge, New Hampshire.  I climbed the mountains nearby—so many times my hiking boots knew the way.  I’ll go back there again, someday.

I don’t need to go to Rindge.  There are many cathedrals of the pines on this planet.  I hope you find yours.

I wrote a sonnet as an assignment for Sophomore English in high school.  I have no idea where it is (and probably just as well), so this is my second.

Sonnet 002

I lace my boots and brush old earth away.
I search for food and drink, preparing trail.
The feet won’t ask direction on this day,
for my soul will guide me, as wind to sail.

The ledge, the cliff and in open meadows,
miles I wander—hunger for ancient lore.
The rain and snow don’t cast fearful shadows.
Protected, I march—that’s what clothing’s for.

The mountains call now, like forests near me.
Lost elders await me among the wild.
Cathedral of the Pines or whiskey tree:
Father and grandfather brought me as child.

As man today, the boy within I seek:
Wise spirits fill me there…I let them speak.

Artsy Stuff

This is a marker for the  first entry under this category.

I often focus on travel writing, but I belong to a circle of friends who enjoy and take their poetry seriously.  They have welcomed me (and pulled me kicking and screaming) into their poetic projects. My idea and approach to poetry remain the cheeky limerick style.  For example:

Roses are red…

Bacon is, too.

Rhyming is difficult…

…Bacon!

(Whoever wrote that first is alright in my book!)

I identify the most with Shakespearean Sonnet.  You may find me posting something that came from my mobile phone while on my long train commutes. It sure beats looking at spreadsheets for work, right?

 

–Steve

 

This is a marker for the  first entry under this category.

Many stories you will first see are re-posts of things I wrote and posted in MySpace.  My original idea was to publish under the idea “All Thumbs in (insert country name here).”  With portable devices becoming handheld, I’ve always thought of how great it is for the traveler to archive their journals with cameras, voice recorders and keyboards that could fit in a pocket (and more often the same device).

This could also mean that such access might inspire me to write more, telling stories as I go.

This area will focus more on such travel essays, with photos and videos to support where I can.  It will also be where I reflect on growing up with my father and grandfather.  Memories also count as travel (it does to me, and it’s my page, so you’ll just have to live with that).

 

–Steve

 

This is a marker for the  first entry under this category.

I’ve worked narration as a natural complement to public speaking, often using one to practice the other.

My first paid gig was for a beer ad for Metro-Boston radio in the late 90’s.  Given certain criteria I had to inlcude in the spot (name, hometown, name of the bar, name of the beer and something positive about the product), I spoke into the digital mic behind a tri-fold acoustic foam panel in a noisy bar.  In one take:

Hi, my name is Steve and I drove five and-a-half hours in a raging snowstorm from Burlington, Vermont, to be with my friends here at the Iguana Cantina in Waltham.  And I’m enjoying an ice-cold Miller Lite.  Life…is…GOOD!

The beer distributor’s jaw dropped.  “That…was incredible, man…”  I replied in professional business decorum, having completed my part of the business contract:

“Gimme the f**kin’ t-shirt!”  (Did I say this was a paid gig?  Okay, I got a beer and some schwag…that counts, right?)

A week later my friends called me from Boston, saying my voice made radio…and history (you mean, you never heard the spot?).

I do voice narrations for the company I work for, using eLearning for employee training and development.  But as I record gigs, I am building Studio 01 around the same place I stand to record.

So I can keep going…

 

–Steve