October 27, 2012 10:10:18 PM
A flock of geese in flight is a skein. On the ground they are a gaggle. We were a gathering of humans at a funeral. A young woman was singing "How Great Thou Art" when the geese flew over. You could hear their faint honking in her pauses.
Voice quivering, the brother of the deceased said his sister had been the source of a "long line of beauty queens." He wasn't exaggerating. If evidence were needed, her three beautiful daughters and their offspring were on hand. The mother and her late husband had been homecoming king and queen at their Missouri high school. That was 1952; they had been sweethearts since they were 14.
Falling acorns from Friendship Cemetery's live oaks popped like rifle shots when they hit car hoods. The sound was strangely soothing and mildly amusing once you realized the source.
Not so soothing was the clash of steel coming from the port just across the river.
"We choose to live in joy and live in peace," the female preacher intoned.
A few blocks away a train whistled. In the distance, to the east, you could hear the sounds of children playing. Why weren't they in school?
The brother said his sister liked to listen to Elvis while she was cooking.
"And then the God of peace will be with you," the preacher finished, followed by the soft rumble of the group repeating the Lord's Prayer.
Afterward there were hugs and conversation; we were renewed and reminded on this warm October morning of the preciousness of life. Like all funerals, this was sad, but sad in a good way, if that can be said about a death. Relief after a long illness and a fully lived life.
Later, that afternoon, a friend and I drove east along the two-lane on our way to Tuscaloosa. For months we'd been looking forward to that night's concert. We had time to take the scenic route; the day was splendid.
This stretch of pavement, Highway 182 near the state line, is our version of Route 66. With the four-laning of 82, the old road has become a time capsule of sorts. There's a defunct tourist court, a old night club and a gaggle of unrelated businesses. If that's not enough, over on the Alabama side there's a fortune teller.
At McShan, our two-lane reverie ends, and we pull out onto a fast-moving four-lane highway.
In Tuscaloosa we find food, then head to the amphitheater where we join the waiting crowd. No cameras or recorders, my partner tells me. At the gate, they pat down the men and look inside the women's purses. With the quality of cell phone cameras being what they are, this seems a moot point.
"People will record this with their cell phones and post it on YouTube tomorrow," he says.
The crowd seems to be mostly middle-agers with a fair sprinkling of old hipsters, some with walking canes. Many sport T-shirt evidence of concerts past. The amphitheater is comfortable, easy to navigate.
Alabama Shakes comes out. Lead singer Brittany Howard, who sounds part Janis Joplin, part Etta James, is magnificent.
"Sure is nice to be back in Tuscaloosa," she tells the crowd.
"A year ago, they played a bar here," my friend whispers, "now they're opening for Neil Young."
"It's an honor to be opening for Mr. Neil Young," Howard said, as though she heard his comment.
An hour and a half later Young comes on. Though he's done a dozen or so concerts this month alone, he seems full of energy. The voice, that unmistakable alto, is as strong and clear as ever.
"He's almost 67," my friend whispers.
"We've never been here," Young tells the crowd, looking up at the bright moon in a cloudless sky. "This is a cool place. Love that railroad trestle over there," he says, nodding toward the river.
It's after midnight when we get back to Columbus. Later I'll turn to Mr. Neil Young for words to describe the day:
I love the sound of laughter
And music in the air
And in the Ever After
I know it's always there.
-- Neil Young, "Ever After"
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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