Monday, May 10, 2010
It had been a sad enough week, and like Stevie Ray Vaughn once sang, the sky was crying, perhaps for the two suicides that had rocked our town within days of each other.
One was a schoolmate of my daughter Maddy’s, who had driven to the highest bridge in these parts, the Natchez Trace Bridge, which sits high above Highway 96 near Franklin, Tennessee. I guess the fear of living fueled whatever bravery was required for her to make the 155 foot leap to her end.
A few days later, a guitarist friend was having a conversation with his parents at his Franklin home. He casually went down into his basement, and hung himself. Bill, as I remember him, had always been troubled. A few days after his death, a mutual friend and I noted that we’d both been shocked but not surprised.
The Kyrie was at the forefront of my mind, even before the deluge crept down the Cumberland. Lord, have mercy.
While I made a pot of coffee, the rain started seeping through the same old spot near my chimney.
If Dennis were a doctor, he’d manage to find the pulse of a corpse, so keen is his ear. I’ll often bring him in and have him play on a haphazard recording, needing the cohesion, camouflage, and excitement his drumming can bring.
I like living in this community of musicians, who can drop everything and show up 30 minutes after an idea has been spawned. In no time, Dennis delivered the elements that had seemed lacking in the original recording.
When he left, it was raining pretty hard. A few minutes passed, and I continued working on the music. Dennis called and began talking about high water on Crockett Road and asking about alternate routes back to town. I sent him up to Concord Road and then shut my computer down, showered, and headed to town. I was thinking my Southern Born Woman and I would enjoy the cozy sound of rain on the windows while reading a book we’d started.
Also, we had some tasks that needed doing in preparation for her upcoming mixed media event called “Jezebel’s Got The Blues and Other Works of Imagination”, so I sure didn’t want to be stuck in the sticks. I was ready for an afternoon of working together, and enjoying her company.
As I drove, I checked in with my daughter Kate, to see where she was hiding out at. She was working her checkout job at Target, and couldn’t talk, so I left a message asking to be informed of her whereabouts once work let out.
About a mile from the Interstate, Concord Road was under water, and people were turning around. I took a right on Wilson Pike, a little two-lane road which crosses several streams on its way north. I’m a determined guy, and until a door slams in my face, I’ll assume its open. That character trait usually serves me well; not always, but usually.
Sure enough, I wasn’t a mile up Wilson Pike, when the low riding Lincoln in front of me slowed down and surveyed the submerged road. It didn’t look so bad to me, and I was feeling impatient. The Lincoln lurched forward and made it across the brook with me in tow.
I thought, this is nothing. That kind of thinking relates to yet another character trait, and perhaps that has served me well, too. Not always, but usually.
The drive was oddly beautiful, surrounded by lush lawns and trees, but muddy waters continued to rise. Near the end of Wilson Pike, I came to a wide river burying all trace of the roadway. I waited as a southbound sedan tested the waters and passed me, water rolling from its wheel wells. Giving my car some gas, I faced the flood and plowed through, exactly where the southbound car had come from, while oncoming traffic waited to see what would become of me. I could feel the water splashing against the fenders, and pushing against my tires, but I made my way through, pumping my brakes once across.
Moments later, I was in Brentwood proper, out of the woods. I drove the remaining eight miles to my dearest companion’s without incident.
She greeted me with a smile and a hug, and we chatted about her paintings and her theatre pieces which she was preparing for performance. I was to provide the background music with my old National guitar and a slide, moaning the blues as actors gave voice to her musings about some troubled Old Testament characters, Jonah, Jezebel, Lot’s wife, and others.
She asked for details about Bill, and I gave her what sketchy information I’d been given. We wondered about his ex-wife and their sons, and talked about the impossible sadness of a funeral service when someone passes on in this manner. We talked about the button suicide pushes with my daughters and me, about how their maternal grandmother’s choice to die raises its grotesque head when others give the gift that keeps on giving.
We worked for a while on her project, experimenting with canvas, paper, acrylic paint and other media, then drove a few blocks away to a showing of paintings of trees by her friend Mindy. Little did we know that trees were falling fast at Radnor Lake, one of our favorite walking places. Nor did we know that the same was happening at other parks in our fair city.
We had no idea that there were neighborhoods being submerged by the overflowing Cumberland and Harpeth Rivers, or that a grass-roots rescue effort would soon be underway. At Symphony Hall, the massive pipe organ was taking a beating, while the concert Steinway grand piano was being twisted, warped, and strangled.
Over at Soundcheck, where I used to keep my Hammond Organ, and where many of Nashville’s musicians rehearse and store their gear, the Cumberland was rising. Eventually the uncontained river would destroy over 1,000 instruments, including priceless vintage guitars owned by Vince Gill, Keith Urban, and other fine musicians.
The Grand Ole Opry was underwater, but the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, was on high ground, for the moment at least.
Meanwhile, we huddled under a wide umbrella and walked up Belmont Boulevard to PM Restaurant. We ordered our food and watched the TV overhead, with its sobering news, she eating sushi, and me eating a wasabi cheeseburger. If PM Restaurant isn’t washed away one day soon, try their cheeseburger; it's the best in Nashville.
Kate called in tears, wondering where to go from Target. I suggested she drive to our friend Derri's, who lives nearby. He was ready for her, as is the way of Nashville in crisis. It wasn’t the first time our family had been scattered across town in bad weather. Instead, she hightailed it to my place, which was a blessing in disguise. My basement was slightly wet, and she dutifully unplugged electrical gear, and moved instruments to the living room.
Maddy was stuck at Kate’s apartment, getting to be the little sister of Kate’s room mates, thoroughly enjoying her independence, yet wondering when she’d get to go home.
Over the next 24 hours, we heard rumors and news of homes being damaged, and even a few lives being lost. My Southern Born Woman discovered 3 feet of southern bound water in her basement, destroying her furnace and her water heater, but in light of what was going on elsewhere, she was grateful.
Eventually, I was able to reach Maddy and drive her back to my place. We passed the YMCA, where cars were completely covered by water. My neighborhood was untouched, perched as it is on high ground.
The next few days, the rest of the world didn’t seem to be engaged with what has now been called The Thousand Year Flood. The only reason my family, scattered from Seattle to Connecticut to Ireland, knew anything was because I’d sent them pictures.
In the meantime, the Volunteer State lived up to its name. People with boats appeared on streets and rescued old timers and newlyweds. Entire neighborhoods came together with a community spirit that is uniquely American, and gathered up the debris in the flood’s wake, stacking sidewalks high with sofas, televisions, and miles of carpet.
People lost all possessions, only to find out that they had no flood insurance. I know of no reports of looting or gouging. I only know of a friend with a boat cruising up and down Sawyer Brown Road, searching for loved ones of strangers, ferrying helpless folks across a river that didn’t exist the day before. I only know of songwriters and bands performing benefits, and tacos being delivered to volunteers who worked waist deep in rank basements, dismantling what the deluge had left behind, before any rebuilding would be possible.
They held Bill’s funeral in Alabama, where he’d grown up. It was packed with Nashvillians, but all the Volunteers in Tennessee couldn’t pick up the pieces of the deluge he’d left his children swimming in. What can you say at the funeral of someone who takes his or her life? I wanted to say, “Bill, are you happy now?”
I imagine he is.
There are some changes that come with no explanation or warning from Mother Nature. The “Act of God” clause in insurance policies has always miffed me; why blame God? Who’s to say who sends the sunshine or the rain? When we need the rain, we thank God when it arrives, as we do when the sun relieves the dreary weather. But what of the Thousand Year Flood? I think all God has to do with it is in the hands of those who pull people to safety, who make sandwiches for workers, who clean out the debris, and who brush fingers across each other’s brow, and whisper, It’s gonna be alright.