Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Past Is Always Present

Our house has a fairly large wrap-around porch and Alison and I love to use it whenever we can. We watched New Year's Eve fireworks from it this year and have used it in the past to view parades and bicycle and foot races. But just sitting in a wicker chair as the night wears along is a peaceful joy. Traffic dies down at 11 PM and the world becomes very still and deep. When leaves are present, when they surround and embrace the porch, very little light -- whether from street or porch lights or the moon -- disrupts the dark shadows. It becomes a refuge, a haven to escape the day-to-day pressures and responsibilities, a place where I often find myself thinking of the past.*
Sitting there I sometimes wonder if the original owners of our house sat out at night as we do? The house was built in 1905 and our town of Maplewood was just beginning to grow and change, with new streets being carved through old apple orchards, sturdy wood frame houses slowly rising up. What did those first owners hear at night? The lonely clip-clop of horse's hooves? The huff and chug of the steam train from Newark? And when did the first automobile make its way past the house? *
And what about other owners through the years? What was it like to sit in the absolute quiet of a dark night when the world wars were raging? Did someone bring a radio out to listen to the latest reports from Europe or the Pacific? Did anyone sit on the porch during a heavy snow fall (as I often do) to be surrounded by cold and white and gusting winds? Or stay out when a summer thunderstorm came rumbling through? Yes, I have been known to experience all sorts of storms out there.*
And, of course, there are those strange, sometimes unsettling moments, especially after midnight. Twenty years ago we often heard the distant voice of a young girl calling plaintively in the night: "Mommy... Mommy... Mommy..." We nicknamed her the Ghost Child and dispite going out to make sure everything was okay and despite asking neighbors, it was years before we found out the truth. It was indeed a young girl and she was searching for a loved one -- her cat, which escaped regularly and was named Monty!*
That was a disappointing end to the story. We had hoped for something a little more, shall we say, picturesque. But the Ghost Child has been replaced these days by the Night Rider. Late at night, usually after midnight, we can hear the thrum of a skateboarder making his or her way up Maplewood Avenue toward our house. The sound gets louder and louder until they get to the corner that borders our house where the rider turns and pushes hard to sail up the side street. We have never actually seen the rider, it's that dark. Just a quick glimpse of moving shadow and then the sound of the wheels fades away into the night. Who is the Night Rider? Where did they come from and where are they going? Will they be safe?*
These are decidedly small bits of history. Incidents really that usually aren't recorded because they're, well, so every day and common. But I believe that much interesting history begins with the ordinary. Take what happened to Corporal Barton Mitchell and his friend on September 13, 1862. When the 27th Indiana Infantry halted their march just outside of Frederick, Maryland, Mitchell and his pal went over to rest in the shade and happened to spot a rolled-up piece of paper in the tall grass. It turned out to be Special Order No. 191 (where Robert E. Lee divided up his army). If these two soldiers hadn't found the paper and hadn't realized it was important, there would have been no Battle of Antietam, Lee would have probably been able to reunite his forces, and that would have meant a far different battle between Lee and McClellan than Antietam (and who knows when or even if the Emancipation Proclamation would have been issued!).*
Finding those orders was pure dumb luck, but it resulted in an historic battle that changed the course of the war and the world. A tiny bit of history, a mere moment really, that had profound effects. Which is why I love to sit at night on our porch, listening and waiting and imagining. You never know where porch sitting might all lead.*


Dorothy Patent said...

Beautiful post, Jim--I laughed out loud about the wretched little girl crying out for her mommy. Now I'm wondering about the Night Rider--maybe you should write some fiction....

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

OOOoooOOOooo - this post made chills run up my spine. Bravo to you and your porch. One day we were sitting on our own wrap-around front porch watching Hurricane Isabelle whip up the trees wrapping around our own house when my son's long-lost girlfriend happened to drive by, spotting him for the first time in 6 years. She called him up, they got hitched, and their daughter Isabelle is playing right here in this very room as we speak. Random small bits of history can beget miracles.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Any UFO sightings from the front porch?

Jim Murphy said...

No UFO sightings, Gretchen, but I'll keep my eyes open. Roz, that is some amazing story -- front porches bring people together. Our neighbors know that when the porch lights are off, they are welcome to stroll over for a visit. A nice way to reinforce community and have a glass or two of nice wine! Happiness to all.