by Steve Gaines

[Fore Word (a “Gainesian” Spelling): I wrote my first poem in 1943 in Peru, Nebraska. I published that poem. The fact that it was in the third grade newspaper of which I was the editor means nothing. I was on my way to a distinguished career as a famous twentieth century poet. Alas… something went seriously awry and I didn’t get around to my second poem until about 1957… and though I greatly admire and respect my poetry… and am reasonably convinced that it fills a significant but otherwise unfilled niche in the evolution American Letters… I never seem to gather sufficient enthusiasm to attempt another publishing. So here I am, hove to in the mid 1990’s still languishing in the closet. I don’t find that disappointing… if for no other reason than I have yet to suffer the indignities of the rejections familiar to all writers. My confidence is still intact and I am still batting l,000! After all success is not defined by quantity…

What you find within these pages are some things I have written over a long a curious life… almost sixty now (actually 62 at this writing). I do not hold out a great deal of hope of ever becoming a poet of great acknowledgment or importance. I do hope to become a poet who has said some things… mostly about himself… that somehow give a little insight into who I really am. That is mainly for my benefit. It may even be possible that some of the things I have put to paper ring a bell in other curious belfries… or maybe not.

— Steve G.]

July 3, 1936 to June 15, 1998…

the thirties…

to begin with it was all comfortable and quiet
in the nineteen thirties’ country side of my youth
in the pastoral out of the way fields and villages of Nebraska
in the rumble seat red roadster of my father

the dimly focused pastel spring of nineteen thirty-eight
is the first one I remember
the first one I can claim as my own memory
and not some hand me down borrowed from my parents
or other helpful chronicler…..

My mother is wearing braids and an apron
in the front yard photo with my baby brother Fred
on a blanket with some puppies

I can still look at that picture
picked out from the clutter of a half century and more
a fragile collection of relics in a box
somewhere in my mother’s closet
and I am there slightly to the left standing just out of frame
Superior, Nebraska circa 1939
…it was when I first started to break loose in time

my mother has the face of a girl
my father is holding the little box camera
and my younger brother is squinting into the Spring sun
…its all quite frozen in time
a distant May more than fifty times removed
in my echo of a mind
….the first time I began to feel
the future softly speak to me

I occasionally relive those nineteen thirties
sifting through the scrapbooks of my mother and father
an almost accidental history
written in distant drifting echoes
a story of black and white times
a book of dreams and remembering

it is in those pictures that the three year old
with brown home cut hair and curious eyes lives …
floating in the fluid emulsion of the past
as clearly as tomorrow
…and the old man I am now
becoming smiles quietly at the mystery…

what do I remember…?

I remember arduous treks
in the red roadster with my father
to an uncle’s house
and I remember grand parent’s rooms
shrines of history with odd and ancient ghost in their eyes
and furniture from another century

I remember moving days
those too frequent displacements
packing and unpacking
and keeping out from under foot
the adventure and discovery in each new town
and the fear and the wonder

I loved most of all taking trips
in the racy red roadster with my Father

in the summer of 1939… I think
we drove to my uncle’s house
it was a long trip and there were just the two of us
a special reward to be so honored… I don’t remember why

My Uncle lived in a log cabin on an island
it was a place surrounded by forests
of primordial mystery and darkness
where everything cast a shadow larger than a small boy
it was cool and green and isolated… a wilderness
less than a hundred yards from a major highway

along the way the roadster had overheated
not an unusual occurrence in its declining years
but my father’s magic hands had made it well again
…yet it made no more trips
finally beyond even his apt exorcisms and patience
it was traded in on something slightly more contemporary
but not half so romantic and without a rumble seat

the nineteen thirties were only summer somehow
only green and outdoors
adventures in the backyard at the creek behind our house
where I caught my first
fish on a stick with a string and a bent pin
a twelve inch gold fish
strangely out of place in time and space
something rather oriental
bright orange and glistening in the sun
like a spark chipped off July…my birthday month

it was the same summer Europe was beginning to seethe
under Hitler’s blitzkrieg
a tragic footnote I knew nothing of…at the time
then our bulldog Dinah was accidentally run over
a pre-war casualty of gigantic proportions
and my first exposure to mortality’s cruel lessons

the forties…

the forties crashed us all into a new world
one Sunday afternoon
posing for another picture
on a front porch in Fremont, Nebraska
when our domed topped Philco radio turned history loose
on the clarion cries of war

these were years beginning now of diminishing affluence
with our father off fighting the war
however far backstage
and having to live without him
and without running water
and indoor plumbing

my mother’s girlish face
beginning to lose the flush of summer
as she lived alone in a small house full of responsibilities
and four young and demanding children
and no central heating
with cares enough to fill her day
and no easy answers
to push the night away on bedtime stories…

but I was beyond the cares of mothers
beyond any of the worrying moments or tragic overtones
gathering on the war winds
I was suddenly loose in the continuum
I had somehow slipped into the future
through some hidden chink in time
its fabric suddenly indistinct …and non linear

I stood quietly surprised in the middle of a dusty street
and “saw” myself through the future….
a small boy in pinstriped overalls
standing barefoot in Peru, Nebraska
seven years old
in nineteen forty-three
on a summer afternoon
the dirt between my toes
the dust of the summer hanging in space
and curiously looking down into time…

I was inside an anonymous man’s
mind who could “remember”
and marvel at this child’s vision
I was in all time unaware
yet of relativity and its mysteries
yet stopped in time somehow
given an over the shoulder look at my life…
I did not understand the interlude
and it did not matter…

then I slipped back into nineteen forty-three
unmoved by my encounter with omnipotence
but having set out in that moment as a curious traveler
through the strange pathways of time-space…

the forties were fun!
Sunday movies with John Wayne and William Bendix
the evil Seshu Haiakawa
and the MovieTone newsreels
with their laundered images of the real war…

we “fought” on the sands of Iwo Jima
we taught our dog to attack suspicious foreign agents
we thought likely to infiltrate the backyard
practicing torture and other coercions
forcing us to surrender state secrets
and we staunchly protected our home with wooden guns
and kept secret codes in rings from breakfast food boxes
safe from the enemies of Uncle Sam and FDR
and we aged our mother well beyond her thirty-two years
as she endured the war
and as we relished naively in it…

the pictures of the war years are the tiny new sister Gretchen
with pigtails in a tub of water out in the yard
and the three boys in uniform crouched behind trees
with fierce expressions and toy tin guns
and scenes in front of the next door church
standing with grand parents
and wearing thread-bare coats against the winter
and over-due haircuts

my older brother who was by now almost ten
had taken on a new dimension
offering comfort and security from whatever unknown fears
and at the same time always a veiled threat to rat on me
for stealing comic books from the drug store
or other such crimes against society
a young father figure left alone
with the admonition of our real father
to “be the man of the family”…to be a big boy!…and etc
a responsibility he did not relish
a job he did not campaign for

the war years were winter years
cold mornings dressing
gathered around the pot bellied stove in the bare living room
surrounded by the great absence of luxury
and the laundry my mother took in
the navy whites she scrubbed weekly…
nowhere near any ocean…
a naval training school
having taken over the small home town college

our winters were not so cold as the Russian front
yet perhaps no less barren in our “refugee” existence
in a house unpainted and weather beaten
but that bravely sustained us all
held the family together
as the inertia of the war finally winding down
held out a bleak promise…
an impossible hope for peace…
a home maintained by my mother’s silent effort
and unshared loneliness …
the war had taken three years of her life
and would never give them back

postwar began in yet another new town
thankfully with our father safely returned…overweight
from the rigors of battle

we had left the real war behind echoing in the past
but we played with a continued disregard
for the terror in those echoes
in backyards and tunnels and hedgerows
we re-invented the killing without any lasting death
with only the occasional argument
about how fast it was proper to come back to life
and shoot some unsuspecting brother or friend in the back
who thought you were still dead

in nineteen forty-five I took my first trip on a city bus
a singular adventure of financial independence
with money in my pocket
and the big city we now lived in waiting at the end of the ride
it was something far beyond the
quiet adventures and solitary hikes through
Nature Forest
or treks beside the roaring muddy Missouri…
those rites of passage
I had undertaken as a mere six and seven year old

but bus rides quickly became a luxury and unnecessary
distances turned out to be unimportant after all
when there were so many different places
to investigate between home and
wherever it was we were going
far away places we sometimes never even reached
the first time we tried…

life in the big city was nothing like our rural beginnings
open spaces gave way to territorial imperatives
defending one’s ground
sticking up for your younger brother
in the face of various attacks
frequently from my best friend’s brothers
or leaving the ball game with my bat…
the only bat in the neighborhood…
when no one would stop teasing the hitless Fred!
…my little brother after all
a gentle young boy…
with less than the appropriate level
of aggression to survive in a game of
sand lot baseball

that summer turned to embarrassment
…I was unable to face my friends for weeks

but ah…in the autumn of nineteen forty-seven
younger brothers and baseball were supplanted by girls
who I was convinced were watching me from afar
in strangely admiring glances
and desiring me behind my back…

the following Spring and it’s attendant juices
pushed me into ill-advised valentines
sent to secret admirers
who answered me in cruel smiles
and sadistically suggested that I was too short
for all the just breast budding young girls
of the sixth grade
…but that I was cute!
the most cruel indictment was cute…
little sisters were cute
…and kittens
not me at going on twelve
alas I was a victim of inexorable and bizarre genetics
and with little substance to back my suit
I was dismissed
and silently but curiously undiscouraged…
slipped into the back rooms of life
into the closet to grow up a little

junior high school buried me quietly
beneath larger people and lost causes
but possessed of a burgeoning libido
…the girls were a head taller
and the boys bolstered by the wonders of puberty
and beards beginning
considered me less than significant…and I was
simply because the scant inches
that separated me from everybody else
were made into years and differences
by my own exaggerations
and I stayed quietly in my closet
with the queer sense of my future
bubbling like memories yet to come
sustaining me beyond all proportions of a normal confidence
I was convinced I had the answers
before anyone had asked the questions
the girls continued to comfort me in my diminutive sorrow
like a sad puppy clutched to their breast
and held me “harmless”

and from the dim shadows of my closet
they shared their best secrets with me
but not their mystery
or soft touch…
I had their confidence
but not their respect
not their sweet taste …alas!

my larger brother
by now much larger!
advertised his size and went to high school
where he walked a full foot over my head
and worst of all could drive a car
he did nothing so much as silently remind me
of my own unmanly stature

occasionally I would take it into my head
to scale that mountain
but he would simply laugh
and hold me puppet-like at arms length
the world was against me
so I would throw things at him
pathetic David contending with that blond Goliath
…it never helped!

the fifties…

the decade of the fifties found me worried
that the latest war was going to end without me
and delay my manhood yet again
while older children and friends
died in the frozen mud of Korea

I was turning on the slow spit of my own impatience
wanting to do my part
wanting to prove my self a real man!
hoping to capture those war games we had played
in their real sizes…

but it was not to be
as that great misadventure cooled down
by whatever cruel twist of fate
and again I was stranded
on the rocky edge of perpetual boyhood…

so we all crept into the Eisenhower years
having been kept alive for the promises to come
and whatever grand secrets awaited us

high school turned out to be no different
…than what had come before
no better…
only I was becoming less cute
and athletics began to offered me
a war of my own to wage and win
but I proved to be no killer after all
and ambitionless by and large…
I seldom won any great victories

I was slowly coming to grips
with a great truth in my life however
things were meant to be absurd…
a quiet new philosophy began to paint me into new corners…
comfortably and curiously patient
winning and losing lost a precise meaning
and high school was becoming
a comfortable place to live in…forever

the girls were just as distant
but I knew the secret now
and things were finally changing…
time had already happened…
I began to look forward to the future with a secret smile

by nineteen fifty-three I was finally as tall as some of the girls
and one cold memorable night after a basketball game
I managed an unforgettable date with Karen
the dark haired cheerleader

Karen was sultry and mysterious
and I was … absurd!
we stood endlessly on her front porch fencing with words
as I invented inane little delays in the traditional ritual
the build up to a goodnight kiss…or not!
she waited on infinite patience it seemed to me
while I played my perverse game
and the truth hung on the winter air like a pain in my side
…I didn’t know how…to do it!
she went inside shortly after I called a recess
to retrieve my gloves from the car
I was a fool
she was probably a wonderful kisser

late in May of 1954 I lay beside a lovely young blonde
on a blanket in the woods
beside a quiet stream after our high school graduation
it was a long labored philosophical discussion
about the future and life and meanings
while our classmates frolicked beside the fire at the lakeside
waiting for the Sheriff to come and chase them home

we talked of the existence of fate
and wondered about the stars
then about 3:30 a.m. we walked back to the car
through the empty beer cans of the broken party
accompanied by curious and surprised stares
from the stragglers

it felt good to be suspected of the worst

her name was Irene
and she wore glasses
and had an inquisitive mind

it was an entertaining night but hollow at best
philosophy could have always waited
while the experience of laying under the stars
with a pretty young girl
beside a lilting stream in the early spring
practicing young love in whatever form
can never be regained…exactly
once it’s let go

I never learned that lesson
and philosophy remains at best an indifferent
blanket mate

the following autumn I left the quiet nest
of rural Nebraska behind me
and bravely entered the life of the academic
I started on the unending search for knowledge
unarmed and uninterested for the most part
but doing what was expected of me
by all those who were traditionally expectant…

it would turn out to be a long and convoluted search

the mid-fifties were undemanding
…and generally unpolemic in any way
except for the occasional panty raid
or some other absurd demonstration of false manhood

by 1955 I had kissed a girl with serious overtones
and once in the back seat of my roommate’s car
I had innocently …accidentally …and benignly
caressed the left breast of full grown woman…
the future Miss Grape of California 1960
…a breath taking experience

life was in full blush!

but for me college was something more like Life magazine
….or the movies
a place where I spent many a sabbatical afternoon
I fell in love with Kim Novak
and one or two other Hollywood images larger than life
and safely distanced from my usual insecurities

going back home was always good for my ego
high school girls were no problem for a college man
so there were tentative excursions
trips out from my closet of reluctance…
silent encouragements
and my body was beginning to fill out
at nineteen I was at last
on the long sought threshold of manhood
still beardless and tentative
but equipped with a glib tongue
and a very active imagination

alas college slipped by me
…over me
..around me
…and away from me
grades papers and attendance didn’t mix well
with the free spirit I was becoming
discipline was an unknown concept to me

unexpectedly and not a moment too soon
Uncle Sam led me safely away
from the morass of higher education
with promises of exotic lands and rapid advancement

I was an easy target for such simple logic

the army years did not soothe me however
or moderate my eternal struggle
against the odds of growing
into a man of action or significance
the army simply brought out the cynic in me
and began to shape my perception and understanding
of all things institutional and bureaucratic
… and curiously began to bring out the poetry in me

places and feelings became important
and people
and observations
and contemplations
I began to dream and ask questions
and to search for words…
I was provided at the government’s expense
with a bigger world to walk through
to think about and to observe
from the carnival streets of New Jersey
to the trade wind shores of Hawaii
I was teased with a grand view of experience
I was slapped across the face with both the sordid
and the sophisticated
exposed to the elegance of New York women
sweet smelling and curious
to grovel in my provincial quaintness
and I was brought on dark dank mornings
to the beauties of waking up in Asbury Park
under the boardwalk
with a hangover in my mouth
and my shoes missing

there were pure moments of travelogue beauty
rancid Hotel street back alleys
country clubs…
mess halls…
the USO…
black tie dinning …
the army had pried me out of my closet
and mixed me for a year or two with the real sizes of life
measured me tentatively against the requirements of the future
then dropped me comfortably back into civilian life
and marriage
…the great mother military sent me with best wishes
into the arms of another woman

the sixties…

The early sixties saw me quickly
through what was remaining of my college
…well short of honors
but finally at an ‘ending’ for the first time
…sufficiently informed
for the purveyors of those paper prizes…

so armed with my parchment ticket to success
…Bachelor of Science
I set off bravely into the real grown up world
and back to my beginnings
back to small town Nebraska
and into the thankless responsibility
of tutoring small children…

it was instructive
and one more thing that nothing had prepared me for

quickly despairing of forcing
those recalcitrant first graders
into little images of me
I wisely decided to listen to them
and thus began my real education
out of the collective mouths and minds of children
each a diminutive font of all sorts of truth

soon I began to think again
freed of my institutional insulation
with my cynicism evaporating
and able to hear and see things once more
I picked up my mislaid poet’s pen again

I began with lovely
and insipid little pictures of the spring
and with other such sophomoric protestations
…but no matter
I was looking for words again
and the future was bubbling at my memory

but all was not well…everywhere
strangely enough neither
fatherhood nor the vows of marriage
could hold me to the blank promises
I had accepted as traditionally proper
the examples of many good fathers and husbands before me
seem to set no necessary precedent
and growing up took a back seat to the curiosity again
and a new search began
for wisdom
or truth
or the other side of my soul

in the last half of the decade sixty
in the turmoil of politics and echoes from a new far away war
I stumbled back into the halls of learning

graduate school seemed a comfortable existence
not unlike junior high school had
and having never grown up completely
fit me easily into the querulous sixties
and my old ambivalence
unexpectedly segued into a benign outrage
my hair grew out
and my politics took a sharp turn to the left
my conservative past fell away from me
like dead leaves in the winter

and up against our young son without any good answers…
our doubting son who would not buy adult excuses
you’ll understand when you’re older and etc
I began thinking again
and looking in a different direction

in 1969
I began yet another tenure
as a practicing pundit and father
once again out in the country with its undemands
teaching driver’s education and coaching debate
directing the senior class play
trying to explain the world to curious children
…other people’s children
and still without the good answers
still wondering about too many unknowns
becoming a guesser at answers I didn’t know anymore…

so I rushed anxiously back into the search again
… back into the protection of academe
with an unknown impatience scraping at me
a graduate student once more
seeking the omnipotent Ph.D.
with a confused wife dragging in my wake
and the now four children we had gathered
she in her delight
I in my naiveté and fecundity
along for the ride…
a family of six constructed almost without trying
to fill the busy world of our house
a cruel twist of fate
there to complicate my selfish existence
and there to love and care for
…reward and penalty

then suddenly …
another quick left turn at the corner
and before they …
my wife and children…
could think twice
I was off again
picked up unmercifully on the siren song of the theatre
that great deluder of boys and men…

the stage had become my new love
a demanding habit to satisfy
an insatiable vulture
eating away at my thirty-four year old man’s mind
the man suddenly the child again
with an entirely new and delicious world to frolic in
with hungry eyes and a new dream…

that curious past child of nineteen forty-three
that victim of remembering
had found just the right frame of existence
to pick up a new life in…
to begin the old future again
a future waiting so impatiently in the wings…
growing children at home
disregarded wife in confused panic
left to grow as they could
and to suppress the panic…

the seventies…

the seventies began with confusion
with a new construct of dreams
my center opened up
the world began to pour in
my imagination lit up again
people and new experience and endless questions…
I sucked life in on long draughts
pieces of people…happenings…events…emotions
new memories building by quantum leaps and bounds
at mach speed

life rolled over me and around me
it dragged me along unresisting
my old closet ties stretching and breaking
the old allegiances dissolving
…good sense…
wife and children
cut loose into the space of unconscious concern
cared for but unkept in any real sense

self was important
the need to be ME!…uncluttered
such moments that were
unavailable were made available
and questions of
right or wrong disappeared entirely
guilts were smoothed over
and stored away without regret
and deliberately

I began to live in the skin of someone no one knew
a new man with a new life
I was unannounced and unprepared for
the world was caught off guard

quickly the naiveté peeled off
the future opened up in front of me
a brand new beginning at well past thirty
and perhaps a last chance

here it was
the moment of decision
the place life had steered me
toward blindly all these years
there was happiness and relief
answers and direction
a grand hope at last….
and one shinning new “accidental daughter”
who had descended on us all
wrapped in an omen of strange good fortune
a small blue eyed surprise
in the odd parentheses of nineteen seventy-three…
it seemed all too much to believe…

but the good times did not endure

I could not let go of the edge of reason after all
I could not walk away so simply…..

suddenly my clear view into the future clouded
the seventies equivocated…
I stumbled on in frustration
and fear and anger I looked for excuses blindly
and gathered up the inevitable disgust at the “unfair world”
my last chance disintegrating
my dream shattered into slivers of the past
my fond hopes scattered so easily
on the sudden gust of ill-wind
“why me!?”
madness shouted violently into that wind

and a long silence of no answers…..

then nights of stupid questions
and the useless pain of self pity
and more anger…and blind fears
…and a slow mindless desperate search
starting all over again…
the steep Sisyphus trip again beginning

I was past forty!!
teetering on the brink
on the dangerous edge of despair
middle age ponderously threatening
failure hanging above me a black shapeless menace
to my continuing and unjustified dreams of the light
somewhere up ahead… unseen in the confusion

I began to whisper soft good-byes to my future
to my long held silent promise
and responsibility to history
I was a great sad rock
pulling everything and everyone down with me
the precipice was yawning
the lost chance so heavy in its dead weight

the seventies became gloom
…nothing worked anymore
nothing made sense….

how slowly it had all stopped
how day by day it had ground down
the sheer weight of my ills and anger
like so much sand in the cogs of my mind and soul
and then a long pause
…. a sad empty space of reflection
and slowly it reversed …and waited
…. and slowly again began to bring me into the future

the pains began to heal
a new patience growing too slowly
too many reasons
for wishing back the old nothing blackness
the surrender
the great opiate of forgetting…
wishing it had never happened
the unused dreams coming perversely to the surface
the old temptations quivering in the light
the stupid unnecessary hope that I could escape reality

…but the dreams had changed

I began once more to come to grips with my mystery
with my surviving

the seventies ended in the struggle of the child
of nineteen forty-three
still stumbling over life
but continuing….
learning to live with guesses…
this time for good

no one accused me of failure
or welcomed me back from so far away
like a lost pilgrim out of the storm
it was as though I had never left
and everyone ignored my symbolic return
from having gone nowhere…
to such lengthy extremes

the eighties…

the eighties rushed me into my sixth decade
everything beginning to brown a little at the edges
silence becoming a comfort and aging a burden
but understandable
the dreams further behind me
further beyond me
but still in place and waiting

long periods of benign self pity seem to protect me now

our children are on the brink of something
and I am warmed in their anticipation and opportunity
I sense the old fears and hopes in them
and the expectations and doubts
but I can not warn them…and would not

it is a new age
as they all are new ages
and grandchildren have been added to the mix
and nineteen forty-three seems closer than ever…..

the epilog…
(with just a touch of the nineties)

that seven year old’s memory is now
filled in with eleven new views from the present
and from the future suddenly
the millennium is creeping up on me…
and my past begins to slide into a kind of distant question.
I begin to wonder who I really was…
(who I really am)
in spite of the pages preceding…
of this long recollection scattered on my
scattered remembering.

I have experienced,
in this beginning sixtieth year a sort of sea change
I have come up against a distorted image
of the person I have become…
and it is, somehow, incomplete…
not necessarily misguided,
just a little too self contained perhaps
a little under the safe blanket of non-commitment
I suddenly wonder
in the echoes of a long winter’s illness
if there is enough substance
beneath my curious construction of
I find my old comfortable corners
of self contentment are not enough to get
me by
not enough to bring me some kind of
inclusion within the large and diverse
family spread out around me.
and what good are the first sixty years
no matter how well explained
if they lead to nothing
but the dusty attic thoughts of my random

I begin to wonder
not about what it all means
but what it all anticipates…
what can all the bright new minds
take from my inconstant tenure…
what can the eleven…(so far)
little intellects grow into out of this
scatter of confessions and questions?

I can not leave great wealth in my wake
our children will not gorge on the excess
of my fiscal incompetence…
they will not find the gold
at the end of my curious rainbow…
but I hope they will find
something more to sustain them…
and their
and their…

I can not measure this past unexpected journey
in answers and treasure…
but I can somehow fill out the blank pages of
all those brand new beginnings …
define something of the antecedents
sharing my old memories of grandparent
memories of grandparent memories…
I can take them back through
several generations of foggy remembering
and of some reasonably
accurate first hand nineteenth century
I can remind them of their brown hair…
and more of their
genetic heritage…
of who looks like who who looked like who who looked
like who….

I have always been enough…
the singular pronoun over-used!
My mystery in the curious
and cryptic detritus left in the odd drawer or
basket were meant to be sufficient definition…
Were meant to be the dusty
attic old man unknown
and unknowable in the end….
a quaint soft picture of
kept alive on the odd eccentric anecdote…

I think now I must pass on
more that just a definition.
I think now,
that I must fill out some of
the question-corners and try to
build a more loving reality
and future for those who will carry on
whoever it is I have been….
and in some more meaningful context.

that will be the rest of who I will be…
what I spend the rest of what the rest of my time will be…
…not looking for judgment
rather watching the flowers bloom!
in whatever way they will
not in homage to an odd and old memory
but as reachers for their own prize!