Although now I’ve lived long enough to reach an age I never thought I’d see, there is no way that I can remember a cold November in the year 1891. But I do know that story and I’d like to share it with you today.
On a fateful day in a distant and remote mountain valley in the eastern United States, a woman named Mollie Carter was out working in her meagre fields when a storm sprung up. As she ran for the shelter of her family’s cabin, a bolt of lightning struck the ground near her, not injuring her but giving her a bad fright, the electricity coursing through her enough to cause every hair on her body to stand straight up.
A couple of weeks later her son was born, a tiny little boy named Alvin who was afflicted with constant twitching. He had difficulty sitting or remaining still and for the rest of his life his hands shook so badly that he could barely write. His rural mother blamed the lightning that had nearly killed her for her son’s afflictions, saying he had somehow absorbed the powerful energy while still in her womb.
The other kids teased and mocked the trembling boy but as he grew older, his voice deepened and it was discovered that he had a pleasant singing voice. His nervous energy would propel him to take long, rambling journeys in the nearby mountains where he would listen to the music and songs of his rural neighbors.
Having grown up in an area called Poor Valley, aptly named both for the soil as well as the people who toiled to eke a living from it, he left his home as soon as he was able and traveled around the country, looking for work. Unfortunately, he caught a virulent case of typhoid fever and nearly died, returning home weakened and without a penny in his pocket.
But his love for music and the nervous energy in his feet kept him rambling in the valleys and dells until one morning in 1915 he heard a young orphan girl named Sara singing in the fields and he was instantly smitten. He asked her for her hand in marriage and she agreed, saying years later that it was his lovely singing voice that had won her over.
Together, Sara and Alvin moved into a small cabin and she became pregnant, bearing him two children. At nighttime after the chores were done, they would sit and sing together, often joined by Sara’s cousin Maybelle, who had taught herself how to play the guitar.
One day in July 1927 an advertisement appeared in the local paper, calling for musicians, offering to pay the staggering sum of 50 dollars (at a time when a brand-new Ford cost about $300) if they were chosen for a recording contract. Despite the intense summer heat and the fact that Sara was eight months pregnant with their third child, Alvin loaded his wife and her cousin into an old jalopy and made the long journey out of the mountains to the town of Bristol, Tennessee.
The man at the recording studio was stunned, delighted at how well the three of them sang and played music together. He knew that their blend of traditional American songs would do well on the burgeoning new media of radio, where for the first time millions of people could hear music in the comfort of their own home. He gladly paid the 50 dollars to Alvin, his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle, and the family returned home, amazed at their good fortune.
Their songs became popular and sold well and so the company scheduled another recording session, this time in a social club’s meeting room in Atlanta, temporarily converted into a recording studio for the occasion. The date was November 25, 1929, just a few short weeks after the stock market crash that would lead to the Great Depression.
It during that session that the family recorded this song:
I remember very well
on one dark and dreary day,
just as I was leaving home,
for a distant land to roam,
Mother said, “My dear boy,
I hope to see you next year again.
Fare you well!”
So I left my dear old home
for a distant land to roam.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that song lately, even though it was recorded when my grandfather was just a child and had no way of knowing that soon he and his 12(!) brothers and sisters, along with millions of other people around the planet ,were about to face some of the most difficult years anyone has survived in modern history.
The spiraling collapse of the economy rippled across the entire planet, engulfing the tattered war-torn nation of Germany, where earlier a bitterly angry former corporal had tried to stage a revolution in the Bavarian city of Munich. His revolution had failed and he had been tossed into jail, but as the economy collapsed and poverty and chaos reigned, his ideas took told and a few years later he led his nation into war.
On the week before my grandfather was to graduate high school, there was a terrible storm and many of the buildings in town were flooded, including the gymnasium where the graduation ceremony was to be held. Standing in the mud of a local field, my grandfather received his diploma and then the next day received orders inducting him into the military, where he was soon packed into a transport ship and sent to Europe.
My grandfather survived the war and returned home to marry and have children. He saw his country lift itself up from the twin horrors of the war and the poverty and hunger of the Great Depression, ascending the world stage to achieve almost complete hegemony by the time I was born.
I remember very well the Communist years, looking from the outside in, taught to be afraid of nuclear annihilation and the evils of a totalitarian state, and from the inside out when I had a chance to visit what was then Yugoslavia. My mother had some of the same wandering propensities as Alvin Carter, and I spent many years living and traveling abroad but I always assumed that America would be my permanent home.
And then came September 11, 2001, when the tigers broke free, and my nation became swept up in a miasma of fear and overreaching vengeance. On the ashes of the old German term Vaterland and the concept of Heimatschutz, an evil new creation called the Department of Homeland Security was formed, which rapidly spread until its tentacles reached nearly every facet of public safety in my country.
On a warm summer day in 2004 I was in a bunker in Atlanta, not far from where AP Carter and his family had recorded that melancholy song in 1929. I was several hundred meters under the ground, guarded by a detachment of fierce-looking soldiers. We were gathered there to plan for the security arrangements of an important upcoming event and I looked forward to hearing from and collaborating with experts.
I was used to the shrill gibbering of radio talk show hosts, the ignorant paranoia of the uneducated, the fascist tendencies of politicians and the bloodthirsty drumbeats for war by most of my fellow citizens but what I heard that day in that bunker shocked me. I had expected a calm rationality, a cool logic, an objective analysis from men who knew the real facts of what was going on and what to expect, many of whom had slogged through steamy jungles in Asia or had fathers who had faced the guns of the Nazis.
The last thing I expect was to hear more of the same outlandish fear, cartoonish in its size but horrifying with its real world results. I returned to my office the next day and typed up my resignation letter and handed it to my boss. I packed my few personal items in a shoebox and walked out the door, never to look back. A few months later I moved to Romania, not speaking the language, not really knowing anyone, having no visa and no job.
Now I’ve wandered far away,
from my home I’ve gone astray.
It’s hard being here. It’s even harder reading news about mass shootings in Washington, D.C. last week or the one in Chicago this week and grieving for their losses. It’s especially hard because I used to live in both of those cities and it could’ve been me, or someone I know, who was cut down. I’ve stood on the observation deck of the World Trade Center, bravely facing my fear of heights only to impress my girlfriend at the time, never guessing that one day it would be a smoking hole in the ground.
On the same year that my country lost its collective mind due to the events of September 11, over 20,000 Americans were murdered by their fellow citizens and another 30,000 Americans decided to end their own lives. Terrorism, however loosely defined, has never been a significant threat, even in the deadliest year of 2001.
My grandfather is old now and has a severe case of diabetes, the evil diseases you can see ranked as #6 on the list above, having killed more than 20 times the number of people in 2001 than terrorists did.
My grandfather’s diabetes is what they call Type 2, meaning it wasn’t inherited but rather ironically caused by his rich diet. I remember well the stories he told me of the hardships that his family went through in the Great Depression, surviving on meager scraps of food and whatever he could hunt, usually squirrels. But after the war, when the economy boomed, he could afford to eat “well”, which meant lots of packaged foods, bright in their shiny wrappers, the nutrients and minerals completely bleached out of them.
And so now he’s dying of a completely curable disease, too old and too stubborn to resist indulging himself even as it robs him of his vision, leaving him fearful and partially blind. My country continues to be plagued by horrific violence as mentally disturbed citizens turn weapons on their neighbors while my country’s government lashes out with even greater violence and creeping paranoia, fearful of a million phantom enemies.
And somehow I know, in my heart of hearts, that I shall never be able to go home again.
And these words she said to me
as she took me by the hand,
“If on Earth we meet no more,
may we meet at God’s right hand.”
Mother said, “My dear boy,
I hope to see you next year again.
Fare you well!”
So I left my dear old home,
for a distant land to roam.
6 thoughts on “For a Distant Land to Roam”
Anonymous is bringing some good news…and some hope to you possibly. Good article, touching.
Well sometimes Type II Diabetes is avoidable, sometimes it isn’t. I think it depends upon how it comes about. Regardless, the tools are there to control diabetes helping to avoid the complications. Often it is just a good exercise routine, getting off the couch or from behind the computer and being physically active three or four times a week.
Your Grandfather is not dying of diabetes. He has learned to control his diet and is quite strong. His biggest problem is macular degeneration which has robbed him of a lot of his sight. He just turned 89 and looks to be good for many more years. He is as physically active as his age allows.
It’s a funny feeling when you realize that the whole system is wrong, yet you’re the only one who sees it…
This is my new favorite article. It hits a note with me since after having voyaged quite a bit I also find myself thinking about where my place is. Then the style is great too, the main story was unexpected reading the intro but it tied in so well.