ALONG THE ROAD OF LIFE
I recently received an email response from niece Erin Osgood regarding an earlier message I had sent her announcing my upcoming visit to The Strait. In it she expressed her regrets that she and her family planned to be out of town taking their annual vacation to Maine on the same weekend I would be arriving in The Strait.
Maine. The last time I was “out East” in Maine was nearly five decades ago, in the Summer of 1972.
That Summer, in the good company of one of my college professors Irv Broughton, who was then teaching creative writing at the University of Washington, and was a writer who had published his own literary quarterly “The Mill Mountain Review“, we traveled from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, stopping along the way in Salt Lake City; Wyoming; Ohio; Arkansas; New Hampshire; Maine; and eventually Cape Cod – quite literally the length and a good portion of the breadth of the entire continent.
Stuffed into Irv’s ancient rust-colored Buick Riviera – crammed to the roof with books and an antiquated Bell and Howell camera to be used for filming interviews – we first tooled-along the spectacular Columbia River Gorge [see photo] into Utah; then on to an Interstate highway, at that time a portion of which was still a gravel road, stopping briefly in downtown Cheyenne, Wyoming where “Frontier Days” – the annual rodeo and drunken pub crawl that goes on there for a week or so – was in full swing with celebrants spilling out of bars and onto the streets brandishing firearms and celebrating their Second Amendment rights (talk about “open carry”).
Later, Irv pointed the Riviera South, past Denver where that night we grabbed a few winks at the side of the road; on over through Kansas, Missouri and into Arkansas arriving at the the Subiaco Academy, site of a 19th Century Benedictine Monastery where the poet Frank Stanford had gone to school and where in the nearby eponymous town his adoptive mother lived.
Frank Stanford [see photo]was a strikingly handsome and intensely creative young man, with a spark that shone from his eyes and a wide smile that immediately drew you to his immensely likable personality. His voice had a mellifluously warm Southern lilt that oozed with literacy. You have to ask “why are there so many great Southern poets”? The answer is twofold. First, poetry is created to be read – out loud. And second there is nothing like hearing poetry voiced with a Southern lilt.
At Frank’s instigation and encouragement, we explored the Subiaco Abbey, even shooting some surreptitious footage in the interior of the abbey where there was a museum or gallery. Late one night we were “spirited” into the monastery itself by one of the monks, up a dimly lit flight of stairs and into a tiny cubicle where the host had festooned the walls and ceiling with icons of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus along with images of cherubs, crosses, and rays of light, illuminated by rows of colored candles and Christmas bulbs. If there had been such a thing as a cell phone then, we would have been compelled to take selfies.
Here is some background Wiki on Frank, his relationship with Irv and some insight on that fateful Summer thanks to biographer Adam Walton, whose thesis on the life of Frank Stanford titled Toward Innumerable Futures is available for viewing from Lund University (Sweden):
In June 1970, Frank met Irv Broughton, the editor and publisher of Mill Mountain Press, at the Hollins Conference on Creative Writing and Cinema. Broughton read Stanford’s work at the conference and agreed to publish the poet’s first book, “The Singing Knives”. Five of Stanford’s poems appeared in The Mill Mountain Review later that year, and in 1971, “The Singing Knives” was published as a limited edition chapbook.
Stanford spent much of 1972 traveling through the South and New England with Broughton, a communications teacher and filmmaker. Together, the two interviewed and filmed poets/writers Richard Eberhart, Malcolm Cowley, and John Crowe Ransom. Broughton tutored Stanford in the technical aspects of camera work, and the poet developed an interest in filmmaking.
A few days later, we crammed Frank into the back of the Riviera and suitably fortified with ample quantities of Catawba, a wine made from local grapes, made our way North through Ohio, stopping off in Gambier to interview scholar, literary critic, essayist, poet, educator, and member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters John Crowe Ransom [see photo] in the basement of his home at Kenyon College. Then it was on to Michigan for a visit with my folks in the Detroit suburbs. All the while the sights, sounds and tastes of rural mid-America filled our senses – wine, fruit and ripe tomatoes fresh off the vine; our field of vision filled by farm after farm with their faded red barns and silos; a sea of corn flowing over the horizon and melding into a glorious sunset. The Road of Life.
After a short visit in Michigan, the Riviera carried the three of us through Northern Ohio, Pennsylvania, upstate New York and on into New Hampshire where we pulled up practically in the middle of a wedding reception being held in Hanover near the Dartmouth campus at the residence of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Richard Eberhart [see photo]. His daughter Gretchen was the bride.
When we attempted to film the event, musicians from a string ensemble that was performing at the reception became agitated, refused to wave their rights as artists and demanded that Irv sign a contract ensuring them a remuneration in return for filming the venue. Not wanting to disrupt the festivities for the sake of either art or posterity, Irv decided there was to be no film shot that day. Gracious to a fault, and destined to be named New Hampshire poet laureate, Richard Eberhart offered us his cottage on Cape Rosier for the remainder of our stay. His son Richard B., a budding writer in his own right, would accompany us with the rest of the family joining after the weekend.
What followed were several glorious days along the rocky Maine coastline, vistas of clear water with 30 foot or more ebb tides that would run like a river in full flood out to sea then return with equal vigor. One afternoon we boarded Prof. Eberhart’s motor yacht – a hand-tooled and varnished wooden beauty – and with the laureate at the helm proceeded to cruise up the coast while I attempted to capture some footage of Irv, Frank, Prof. Eberhart, and the coastal scenery along the way.
Stopping at an inlet where we anchored near the rocky mouth of a local stream that emptied into Penobscot Bay, Frank and I managed to wade ashore and spend some time on the rocks above the stream basking in the Sun and enjoying some “down time” from the hectic pace of near-constant travel; suspended as if characters in a once-in-a-lifetime time travel fantasy framed by an opaque backdrop of spaces and faces from the Past, seemingly swept along by some creative current beyond our nautical powers – our “coherence“, the mad professor Irving Broughton playing the role of Wizard of Oz. While we lay there mesmerized by the view, the tide suddenly turned as it is wont to do at that latitude, and we almost ran aground disembarking from the anchorage.
After the stay with the Eberharts, we made our way down to Cape Cod, went clamming with locals in the shallow waters off Provincetown and stayed for a night in a home that was an 18th century landmark. A few days later I left the “tour” needing to return to Seattle and arrange my move to Los Angeles where I would enroll in graduate studies at the UCLA Film School. It was the last time I saw either Frank Stanford or Irv Broughton and I never got to see any of the film footage we had shot.
THE SINGING KNIVES
A year or so later while in LA, I wrote to Frank asking his permission to use as inspiration, images and lines from his first collection, “The Singing Knives” for a short film I wanted to make as a class project. Frank answered almost immediately expressing surprise, support, and a fervent desire to see the result. I was particularly taken with these lines from Frank’s poem:
I dreamed Jimmy rowed out the front door
With a hawk on his shoulder
And I was in the bow kneeling down
When Jimmy cut a throat
The eyes rolled back in the head
Like they was baptized
I tell you
When he cut a throat
It was like Abednego’s guitar
And the blood
Flew out like a quail
I dreamed the blacksnake rode the guitar
Down the river
I dreamed the clouds went by
The moon like dead fish
I dreamed a knife like a song you can’t whistle
“Let’s go, I got to throw tonight” he says
And the knives came by
The bone handled one
The hawk handled one
The one with a blade like a skiff
He took the knife and ran it
Across his arm
Then he ran it across mine
Blood came out like hot soda
He tied our arms together
With the blue bandanna
And we laid down in the cotton
THE HOLLYWOOD HUSTLE
You can imagine the difficulty of finding a location near LA that was sufficiently rural to resemble Arkansas, with a flowing river (the LA river is a concrete flood-control channel that figures prominently in many films including Them! and Terminator II), a ramshackled cabin, a hawk (my friend Maggie Browne at Western Costume came through with a stuffed bird that we used) and casting for three boys: Jimmy, Abednego and the narrator – one white, two black.
Casting was the first hurdle. I had just finished shooting a film for director, then fellow student, Jamaa Fanaka [see photo] titled “Welcome Home, Brother Charles” a “no-budget” feature produced and somehow financed solely by Jamaa out of UCLA and filmed entirely on weekends (sometimes in the dead of night) down in Compton and Watts, California.
On more than one occasion there were heated confrontations with local business or apartment owners whose venues we commandeered as locations in keeping with Jamaa’s verite’ cinematic style. During one memorable instance as I was “wrapping up” equipment and stowing it in Jamaa’s Datsun pickup, the owner of the liquor store we had been shooting in that afternoon angrily approached brandishing a pistol, complaining loudly about how we had ruined his business for the day. Evidently he had braced Jamaa earlier demanding more money for the use of the store and Jamaa had declined.
Since all I had to defend myself was a c-stand, I opted to wait out his tirade hoping I’d live to return to my garret in Hollywood that evening. He eventually ran out of steam and stalked off back into his store so I finished loading and hurriedly got into the truck just as Jamaa squeezed in behind the wheel, started up the Datsun and peeled off onto Martin Luther King Blvd. “That guy was really pissed off at us“, I blurted. “He even waved a gun under my nose.” “I know“, answered Jamaa. “He did the same with me but I didn’t want to tell you because I was afraid you’d up and quit.”
Through Jamaa and his family, I was able to find two young black students for my project, but not without being the subject of intense parental interviews which included in one instance having to sign the family bible. The role of the white narrator was filled by the younger brother of a woman who stopped to pick me up along Ventura Blvd. as I was hitching a ride to UCLA one morning.
The location was like they say in Real Estate, the key. I had worked for another fellow student on a project that portrayed a character based on Jesus in white-face makeup who just stood around looking…well, Jesus-like. I was tailor-made for the role (you’d have to see a picture of me from that era) plus there were no lines in the script to bolix-up. The director, his name was John, lived out near Thousand Oaks and knew a guy who owned ranch property along a creek that also featured an abandoned house. Perfect.
A big obstacle was money. Being a starving student in LA with no car, living on Campbell soup and peanut butter, this project had to be done on the cheap and would depend on the help of many friends including the parents of the kids in the film. We did the shoot on black and white negative film, and I was able to scrape up enough dough to develop and strike a “work print” – a copy to use for editing.
After finishing a fine cut of the project, the next step was to create a soundtrack. I love guitar music because I’m just a frustrated picker at heart. So I wanted the folky, country feel of a single acoustic guitar for the music track. I needed to find a musician – a guitar player – who could compose and perform music I would use for The Singing Knives.
It just so happened that at the same time I was struggling with The Singing Knives, another colleague named Bob (his nickname was “Turkey” because it was a favorite expression of his), with whom I was collaborating on a script, introduced me to a self-styled impresario who hailed from Holland and who had this near obsession to promote a mega-act rock concert which he planned to stage in a soccer stadium in Amsterdam. The guy even had designs for posters and promotional materials, tshirts, coffee mugs, you name it, already made up. You have to remember that at the time, “arena rock” was huge. Every major city had these large venues that were dormant more than half the year and their city fathers were more than eager to have promoters fill them up so they could balance their budgets.
There were two massive problems with our Netherlands impresario. Number one; he had no acts under contract. So I was designated to find them and since I was not a talent scout I had to find somebody who was. So the next weekend I held a meeting in my small walk-up apartment off Crescent Heights Blvd. In attendance were a dozen or more colleagues from the UCLA Theatre Arts program. We had no furniture in the place, so everybody had to sit around on the floor drinking Two Buck Chuck from paper cups. One of the attendees that night voluteered a contact who had booked acts for several nightclubs along The Sunset Strip, including The Roxy and The Whiskey A Go-Go.
For the next several weeks, the booking agent (unfortunately I do not remember even his first name) and I scoured the town auditioning prospective acts, going to clubs, rehearsal studios, apartments, and even the living room of a mansion in Trousdale where the band was a Kiss knock-off. I was a basket case from the schedule and the lack of sleep. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was the second problem. Our erstwhile Bill Graham wannabe from Holland was just a Real Estate agent, not a promoter. He not only had no acts, he had no venues, no money, not even an office. He worked out of his apartment in Santa Monica in the same building as my friend “Turkey” Bob. So there was to be no rock concert in Amsterdam. Just another Hollywood pipe dream.
One good thing to come out of this mis-adventure (and there were others) was that I found my guitarist who composed and recorded the soundtrack for The Singing Knives so I was able to screen the fine cut with a final sound mix to my class. However, I could never come up with enough scratch to conform the camera original to the work print and have a release print struck – consequently the film never saw the light of day outside the screening rooms at UCLA.
THE END OF THE ROAD
Subsequently I moved on to other projects and physically moved as well – a lot; eventually out of LA and North to The City. Somewhere along the line the work print, soundtracks and camera negatives for the project went missing. So Frank Stanford never got to see what I saw in his work.
Erin’s response to my query about seeing her family brought this all back – this cross country adventure with a mad professor, meeting an equally crazed and sublimely talented soul for a short but exhilarating time in which we all were wholly engaged in the creative process – and for a brief time, helped melt away the years and re-live a journey along the Road of Life.
Later, after coming back to my senses, I pointed my web browser to the Wiki, searching for links to Frank Stanford, curious to see what he’d been up to. Exhilaration suddenly turned to shock. Frank had died in 1978 from self-inflicted gunshot wounds – only six short years after our Summer sojourn. Further searches on Wiki revealed that my colleague Jamaa Fanaka had died in 2012 just short of his 70th birthday and that laureate Richard Eberhart had passed away in 2005.
The Road of Life does have an end.
Revised from the original post of July 29, 2014.
There is an upcoming biography of Frank Stanford due out soon from author James McWilliams so we’ve posted an update on our all-too-brief travels in with the legendary poet entitled Footsteps Of The Poet – “feet” being the rhythmic meter of words recited in a line of poetry. One very special trip.
Be sure to check out these blogs for more extended family history: 100th Anniversary: Anna Chuda and John (Ivan) Babij, A Letter From The Front – 1945, All The Farms, Alternative Realities, Babijowa Hora (Gora), Dark Places In Past Light, Hard Not Happy Times, Kathryn Bly’s Quilt, Ruthenia, Galicia And The Babij Surname, USS Gilligan DE 508, plus the Old Country blogs and videos.
© Kazkar Babiy ™ MMXV & MMXX.
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