Charlie and Harold

A few weeks ago I took part once again in the Poet’s Gathering in Winston-Salem North Carolina, sponsored by Press 53. In one of our workshops Adrian Rice, a poet from Ireland who teaches at Appalachian State University, asked us to recall significant moments or images from our past.

Like a string in saline water, they can create a crystalline nub for poems that have emotional intensity. So I began to fish around for such moments and emerged with two that have remained from my summers on my family’s dairy farm in northern Virginia, where now the farms are gone and trophy homes crawl over land where cows and hay wagons once held sway.

The first recalls a childhood friend on the farm, whose tender life still sparks a kind of elegy. The second is a tiny snapshot of how I learned to shock wheat, which, I think I need to explain, means propping up sheaves of grain together so they can stay dry until they are taken to the threshing machine.

Since the advent of the combine and industrialized agriculture, people don’t do this any more. The snapshot, as you will see, was actually part of a larger picture which I only understood later in my slow maturation.

Fishing with Charlie

Charlie Fewell was my fishing buddy on the farm.

Mostly we used worms

            we dug up in the ooze

            outside the milking barn

            beside the spring.

We would amble over to the pond

            and cast our lines for sunfish, perch,

            and sometimes even bass.

I knew that Charlie wasn’t playing with a full deck,

            his parents somewhere else

            and Charlie living on the farm with his gramma and his uncle Earl,

            but he was cheerful company.

He loved to fish and so did I.

On his tackle box he had scratched the letter E.

I asked him once about the E.

“Oh,” he said, a smile lighting up his face,

            “that’s E for Fewell.”

And then we fished some more.

One day a passing car snuffed out his life

            while he was riding down the highway on his bike.

The preacher said that no one knows what purposes our lives are serving

            in a world of fish and boys and ignorance of who we are.

But we are each a child of God.

That’s what Charlie helped me understand.


Shocking the Wheat

We were shocking wheat that hot, hot day

            in the field beside the old Ketoctin Church,

            its newer headstones in a row beside the fence

            shimmering in the heat.

“Take three or five on end,

            then spread a sheaf to cap them

            so they shed the rain.”

More words than I had ever heard from Harold Fairfax,

    so strong that he could lift two milk cans at a time

    and hoist them on the truck.

The sweat poured down my tender face

            so white

            beside his face

            so blackened with a brilliance

            by the ancient sun of Africa.

We paused and drank

            the cold sweet water

            from that metal can—

            our hidden secret

            in that open field.

And then we turned

            and shocked the wheat some more,

            a silent host of witnesses

            shadowing the land.

2 thoughts on “Charlie and Harold”

  1. These poems are tender and wise; thank you for them. And, the reference to the old Ketoctin church reminded me of the day I heard you preach about religious liberty there.

  2. Oh, Bill, I love these. Especially the “E.” At some level other than fishing and farm life, they touch my own experience. I hope you’re starting a new book.

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