Steel Ribbons is about how fear of death, and praise for athletic pursuits, drove me to become a pro baseball ballplayer, an airline pilot, and a Mormon bishop. It's the story of a small town boy who makes it to the big leagues and beyond--to the even bigger big leagues of self-understanding.
The entire book is set at my Mom's kitchen table, on the day of her funeral, when memories helped me discover my true self. I learned what motivated me, and how those motivations caused me to perform for the praise of others more than for love of sport, or of God. My inner self came to the surface revealing that most of what I'd accomplished was irrelevant.
My new life started that day at Mom's kitchen table.
Steel Ribbons is finished--sort of. "Finished" doesn't feel like the right term; pushed out of the nest is better.
Da Vinci said, "Art is never finished, only abandoned." But how can we abandon our children? We can't abandon them, shouldn't abandon them, but we must let them go.
Since I don't presume to think of my work as art, I prefer to believe that I've pushed Steel Ribbons out of the nest to watch it plummet, expecting it to take wing any second. If it hits the ground, I'll take it back to the nest for preening, then push it out again.
If you are an agent or publisher, please contact me for the completed manuscript or as many pages as you care to read.
Here is a sample:
At 5 a.m. the first ring startled me awake and the image of a car wreck jumped into my sleepy brain, maybe one of the kids, maybe a relative or a close friend smashed up in the dark. Between ring two and ring three I prepared for the worst. Scenarios flashed past that included fire, flood, tempest, and the seven plagues of Egypt. I also thought about the more likely case, that friends and family back in Ohio had forgotten once again about the three-hour time difference between Cincinnati and Seattle. I picked up before the fourth ring, and rasped out a dry-mouthed “hello?”
“Hi Barry, this is Donna,” my oldest sister’s voice slipped through my brain-fog. “Mom’s gone.”
She faltered on “gone” and the word didn’t connect. Gone, as in left home in Ohio for someplace warmer? Wandered off in the confusion of dementia? But Mom didn’t suffer from dementia. She’d struggled with emphysema for four or five years, but for an 82-year-old who had smoked at least a pack a day for most of her adult life, she’d been doing well. I knew the truth, but had to ask anyway.
“What do you mean, ‘gone’?”
“She passed some time last night. Cleo found her this morning when he noticed the lights were on too early. He and Ruth go over every day for coffee, but this morning he went early just to check, because of the lights, and found her on the floor in the bedroom.”
Silence hung for interminable moments while the reality of Mom’s passing registered in my heart. Emotions welled to the surface, so I concentrated on facts. “Any idea what happened?”
“Her nebulizer machine was still running when Cleo got there so he figured she had started a treatment for her breathing. She never finished it.”
Mom’s reliable neighbor had trudged over to check on her. “Poor Cleo--he and Ruth have been good friends to Mom. I’m sorry he had to go through that.” Another pause weighed between us while I searched for appropriate words. Nothing came to mind so I just asked, “What’s next?”
“I’ll make arrangements later today but I expect we’ll have services on Saturday.”
My wife, Stefnie, and I flew out early Friday morning, we missed all the preparations because Donna, as efficient as ever, handled everything herself. After we arrived, extended family and friends consumed every moment because we hadn’t been back for several years. With Mom’s house full of people there was little time to reflect, but an hour after the funeral I wandered into the kitchen and found myself alone at the breakfast table.
My absent minded finger stirred through the loose change in an old clamshell that Mom had kept there for years. The shell was an abalone, as big as my open hand, and mixed-in with pocket change it held buttons, bobby pins, and paper clips. With three glass balls glued on the bottom for feet, the shell was designed as an ashtray, but Mom always used it to gather jetsam.
Flashes of iridescent mother-of-pearl peeked through the clutter and dredged up memories of our family vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where we bought the souvenir shell when I was seven or eight. Mom loved the shell so much that it had never left her table since the day we brought it home, something like 40 years before.
I had been away from home for almost 30 of those years as I followed my dreams and raised my own family while the shell stayed on Mom’s table. When had she last tossed an extra penny in there, mixing the new with the old? Memories surfaced of her at that same kitchen table as she told stories, as she weaved family history into often humorous, always entertaining tapestries.
Three generations of our family had taken turns sitting at the table where my two older sisters and younger brother had joined me to listen to tales about when we were young. But that would never happen again because she was gone.
Nothing in the kitchen had changed in years. I imagined Mom standing at the stove as she stirred something in a pot, probably beef stew or corned beef and cabbage. She held the telephone handset crooked in her neck, a long springy cord draped in an arc back to the opposite wall. Her wooden cross was still nailed there near the telephone and on the eastern wall a picture of Jesus hung just to the left of the window that faced the back yard.
Through the window a hanging basket full of crimson geraniums dangled from a joist of the aluminum awning that sheltered her concrete-slab patio. It seemed odd, even a little unfair, that her geraniums bloomed on without her, but the family bloomed on as well so all was as it should be.
Then my finger grazed against something odd in the shell. I stirred deep, focused on the odd shape, and floated a flattened penny to the surface, and then a second one right after it. I hadn’t seen them since my childhood, but knew exactly when and where they were flattened. They were my pennies so I plucked them out of the shell as the memory of their creation flashed into my head--myself as a six-year-old boy kneeling at the railroad track in tiny Miamiville, Ohio.
Little me seemed to be praying. High-top canvas sneakers with a red circle on the ankles adorned my feet, my favorite childhood shoes from the late 50’s--Red Ball Jets. My beloved shoes conjured up the Cincinnati Reds and jet airplanes, because the red ball logo on the shoes represented a baseball, and jets were airplanes that I longed to fly. Brand new Red Ball Jets made me happy because I felt like I could run faster and jump higher in them.
The light blue rolled-up cuffs on my new blue jeans contrasted against the dark blue denim. My pants were two sizes too big, topped with a white cotton T-shirt, also over-sized by two. Mom bought everything big because, as she said in her West Virginia drawl a hundred times throughout my little years, “You’re growin’ like a weed. I’m gonna’ go broke, or you’re gonna’ go naked, one or the other.”
My adult self drifted toward my boy self and melted right into the little body. A blended person, old and young at the same time, examined the penny in each hand as the rough wooden beam of the railroad crosstie bit my knees while I knelt there like an altar boy with an offering.
I inspected the faces of the pennies, one in each hand between my thumbs and index fingers; embossed above Abe Lincoln’s head were the words “In God We Trust,” and “Liberty” showed behind his back. The date on one of them was 1953, my birth year. The other was brand new and stamped 1959.
The pennies flashed sunlight in my eyes and I rubbed Honest Abe’s face with my thumbs, for luck, for wishes, like he was a genie held prisoner in the pennies. His hair tumbled down his face into a full beard, not like my own buzzed head.
I stacked the pennies like poker chips, and then placed them with care on the center of the steel rail. The face of one penny pressed against the face of the other, one up and the other down. With my ear to the track, I listened for the train, but no sound or vibration reached me yet. The wait wouldn’t be long so I moved back four or five yards and sat on the ground cross-legged.
I doodled with a stick in the dirt while the morning sun warmed the side of my face. I turned my head to look for the 8:04 and the sun forced me to shield my eyes with my hand.
From a couple hundred yards to the east, the tracks bent through a canyon of leafy elm and maple trees with branches that tickled the trains as they passed. The tracks ran on toward the west for a mile before they disappeared around another bend to the north.
Trains trundled through my little town several times a day, many of them marked with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad logo, and I fell asleep every evening to the rumble of the 200-car freighters that passed at bedtime. The “B&O” rocked the whole house with a gentle earthquake while I lay in my trembling bed. The deep rolling thunder of tons of moving freight soothed me into a peaceful slumber every night.
Since I was in Ohio, I expected the trains to go to Baltimore because that was the name painted on the cars. Dad had said that Baltimore was east of Miamiville, but I couldn’t remember a train going east, only west. Is it a one-way track? The trains would go to Baltimore in the end, no matter what direction they traveled through Miamiville because that was the name on the cars.
The trains were huge compared to me sitting like a bug beside the rails. I wasn’t afraid to sit close to the tracks because the trains had to go right on by. They were trapped on steel rails that were spiked to timbers imbedded in rocks, almost a part of the earth itself.
The engineer blew the horn and waved whenever he saw me, and that made me feel special because the trains supplied the whole country with coal, oil, cattle, grain, machinery, groceries, and everything else. Even automobiles rode on the trains. Dad had said more than once, “Trains are lifeblood flowing along the veins of the nation.”
I liked the engineer because he drove the train. He had to think about things miles in advance because when he came to the end of the line the train would crash if he didn’t slow down way before he got there. I liked him but felt sorry for him at the same time because he didn’t get to pick his path. He had to follow the tracks.
A truck shifted through its gears on “Bypass 50” just a hundred yards behind me. The driver had the same problem as a railroad engineer; he had to follow the road. He rolled over the bridge then across the tracks, but he could go all the way to California on US 50 so that wasn’t so bad.
The train crossed the Little Miami River on its own bridge, and I imagined that the water could tear those bridges down in a flood. The river could swallow whole houses too, I knew that for sure, I’d seen it myself, but even the river raged only where the hills allowed it to go.
Sometimes the whole name “Baltimore & Ohio” was painted on the boxcars. On other cars it read “Balto & Ohio,” but most of the time they just read “B&O.” We needed our whole state to get our name painted on the train but Baltimore was only a single city. To me, that meant Baltimore was an important place. I should go to Baltimore one day if it’s such a great city.
Bored by the wait, I thought about a penny rescue. Pennies were hard to come by in 1959 so a couple Tootsie Rolls might be a better idea. Bernie’s store just about the length of a football field away sold penny candy, only a couple of minutes down the alley past my house.
“Smashing pennies is not that big of a deal,” I said out loud and flicked the doodle stick away. I'd smashed lots of pennies, but that day was something new. One was face up and the other was face down as Honest Abe stared at himself, whispered things into his own ears.
I had faith in what would happen--a fusion, the welding of top Abe with bottom Abe. I hoped that kneeling at the alter tracks would win me a prize--a penny to flip in the air that would provide the same answer every time.
An airplane passed high overhead flying south across the tracks and tipped me over backwards as it soared above. I stayed on my back for a minute to gaze into the summer sky when I noticed the white face of the daytime moon. “Why didn’t I see that before?” burst out aloud. “I’m face up and the moon is face down.”
Little me giggled and considered the moon, that thing is a whole other planet. There are no tracks that can take a train up there. There’s no way to get there at all. Not even on a jet, but someday on a rocket maybe.
The airplane was as big as a freight car but it flew through the sky. It had a name, the Flying Boxcar, and I could name almost any plane, train, or automobile that came into view. Desire to know airplane names burned inside me and that had helped me learn how to read. My older sisters, Donna and Bonnie, had learned their letters while we sat at Mom’s kitchen table so I learned right along with them.
The Flying Boxcar disappeared behind the trees while I thought about lucky pilots who could go up or down, east or west, north or south, or even upside down if they wanted. Their airplanes were fast so they could get to Baltimore in a hurry because the rails, roads, and hills didn’t trap them at all. Pilots flew above every obstacle, straight across the country. “On a bee-line” Mom would say. If something bad happened to a fighter pilot he could eject and float down swinging under his parachute. There were no parachutes for train pilots.
The horn of the 8:04 sounded in the distance so I edged closer, crawled on my hands and knees to watch the wheels roll over my pennies. The engine rounded the bend as it rushed at me. The ground trembled and the warning horn blasted loud enough to hurt my ears. The train grew bigger as it roared closer, then it towered over me as leviathan, a monster come to crush me. A rush of terror flashed into gooseflesh over my skin, a terror that matched the rush of the train that thrilled me to my core. But the train would pass. It must pass; the rails demanded it, so I shifted my focus to the pennies. They vanished with the first wheel of the engine.
A tornado of wind twisted away from the locomotive. Like bony hands the wind clutched at everything near the tracks and tugged at me as if the train wanted me to follow.
I noticed the rise and fall of the rails as the wheels rolled by. The weight of each car pressed the heavy wooden ties down into the roadbed. The rails flexed like ribs in a person's chest; like the shallow breath of someone near the end. A curious impression struck me that the tracks were alive, the roadbed not as solid as it seemed when it waited for the train.
I stood up to watch the rest of the cars pass while the wind buffeted me, cool on my face and arms where perspiration moistened my skin. The wind forced me to lean into it or tumble over backward, or be swept into the tracks and sudden death. My arms spread like the swept-back wings of a fighter plane as my t-shirt rippled at my sides. My dreams held that the wind could lift me so I closed my eyes and imagined levitating up into the sky, carried aloft on a soft cushion of air.
Insecurities about drifting with the wind into the path of the train forced my eyes open as a boxcar rounded the bend with its door ajar. An open boxcar was a good place for hobos to hitch a ride.
My buddies and I waited sometimes for a car like that so we could throw stones at it, to scare any hobos inside to shivers. The thought struck me that even hobos wanted to go to Baltimore. Everybody, everything, went to Baltimore, it seemed.
I waved at the brakeman in the caboose then stepped in between the rails just a second after the train passed. A short search revealed my pennies lying inside the rail a few feet to the west. They were just like every other penny that I'd smashed on the tracks; not welded together, not pennies anymore, just thin pieces of copper. They were as thin as razor blades but not sharp, just thin. The ghost of Honest Abe was still imprinted on both of the pennies, but only just, and elongated like the image in a funhouse mirror. Disappointed at squandering the price of two Tootsie Rolls, I stuck the flattened pennies in my jeans pocket then went to find my buddy Sam.
My little boy body skipped away from me as the memory faded and left me in the present at Mom’s kitchen table. There in my hand on June 8th, 2002, rested the same pennies that I’d placed with care on the tracks so long before. I was amazed that Mom had kept them. She must have found them clattering around in the dryer back in ’59 and tossed them into her clamshell where they stayed for all those years.
The pennies had blazed a trail into my memories, attenuated the funeral fog, prepared me for an honest look inside, and opened my mind to understanding. As a boy I didn’t think much about what railroad tracks really meant, but I thought about them sitting at Mom’s table that day because I’d found my pennies and we had buried her an hour before.
The memory was more important than simple nostalgia. I recalled my childhood yearning for the freedom of soaring above the railroad, to fly away from Miamiville. I had longed for the ability to escape the constraints of the railroad tracks, the steel ribbons.
That day at Mom’s table, I wondered what was at the end of the tracks--just Baltimore? I loved my tiny hometown with the trains that ran through it, but had always scorned the constraints of the tracks.
Today an asphalt bike path covers the ground where the steel ribbons once stretched to the horizon. People still moved along the path, on bikes, jogging, or walking, but I’d never be able to smash another penny on those tracks. The tracks with their monstrous, snarling trains are gone. Just like Mom.