We held the coastline
They held the highland
And they were sharp
As sharp as knives
They heard the hum of the motors
They counted the rotors
And waited for us to arrive
From “Goodnight Saigon” by Billy Joel
I live on a dead-end road on the outskirts of Meredith New Hampshire, a small town of about seventeen hundred people according to the 2010 US census and because we are a tourist destination, the number probably doubles in the summertime.
There are a few people who have risen to fame from Meredith; most recently a young fellow named Brad Anderson who graduated from Interlakes High School in 1998 and is currently enjoying notoriety as the soap-opera character “Damian Millhouse Spinelli” in General Hospital, and gave the commencement address at his old high-school in 2008.
Bob Montana, the artist and creator of the comic strip character “Archie” summered in Meredith and then, after his tour of military service in 1948 moved here permanently with his wife Peggy. He died in 1975 and left us with laughter and the beloved characters that inhabit the mythical American town of “Riverdale”.
And then there is Major Edwin Elazaphan Bedee, who was born in nearby Sandwich NH in 1837 and was raised by his grandfather in Meredith until the age of 20 or so when he moved to Albany New York to become a printer and later came back to Meredith to join the 12th New Hampshire Volunteers and went off to fight in the Civil War.
The story of his life could fill books.
He was wounded twice, once in May of 1863 at Chancellorsville Virginia where he was one of only two officers left after the battle and was promoted to captain.
Bedee was a prisoner of war after Cold Harbor and, if the tale is correct, was a witness to the assassination of President Lincoln at the Ford Theater and helped carry his body across the street to the boarding house where the 16th President of the United States died hours later.
He then went to South Africa and was enormously successful in the diamond trade and returned a wealthy man where he used several thousand of his dollars to erect a granite and marble memorial in 1892 to honor the men of the 12th New Hampshire Volunteers – or as they preferred to be called – “The Mountaineers”. This massive monument now sits on a green lawn between the town library and the First Baptist Church.
Bedee died in 1908 and is buried in the Meredith Town Cemetery.
However, I know someone from this town who did not act, give commencement speeches, draw comic books or leave behind several hundred pounds of stones as a memorial, because it was not what he left, but what he lost that touches me each time I see him.
I was outside my house at the mail box the other day, collecting the bits and pieces of paper that connect our wallets with the rest of the world, when Jason drove by.
He waved from the front seat of his restored '65 Mustang. It's dark blue, and he's very proud of it.
He didn't smile. He never does, I haven't seen him smile for almost 50 years. You see, we go back a bit.
He lives fairly close. Just a few miles down the country road we share; separated from each other by a few emerald green fields stitched together with gray lines of granite stones.
I often heard him shooting late at night. He does that seldom now.
He had lots of guns; AK47's, M60's and a shooting range back of his house but, I don't believe he belongs to the NRA or anything. Jason didn't like joining things. Authority and him would bang together, each unmoving, until something or somebody picked him up and placed him unbidden where it wanted him to be.
He was always that way, even as a teenager.
Jason and I and two other guys, brothers, were strung out on folk music in the late fifties. The Kingston Trio had seen to that, along with The Brothers Four, The Highway Men, The New Christy Minstrels and so on.
But it was the aforementioned trio that blew us away. We bought everything they recorded. The two brothers purchased guitars. Brad got a tenor guitar, like Nick Reynolds played, and Freddie got a 6 string, like Bob Shane. And Jason got a five string banjo, like Dave Guard.
Dave Guard never played the banjo that well. Frankly, it was terrible. John Stewart, who replaced him years later, was much better.
But we didn't care. And neither did Jason. And no one bothered with music lessons.
I bought nothing except a bus trip to Ft. Dix NJ in 1960 when I graduated high school and joined the Army. I was going to be another Ernie Pyle, and that story is recorded elsewhere.
But when I came home on leave every now and then, I listened to my friends. They had formed a folk group called, "The Templers". They were good, but Jason was phenomenal.
I found out later that in less then 2 months, he was playing Scruggs style without looking at the frets. He played claw-hammer too, thanks to Pete Seeger’s half-brother Mike and "The New Lost City Ramblers". My jaw dropped when he stepped up to the mic for a solo.
My God, he was good.
It was like a natural part of his being. He played like he was born with a banjo in his hands, and the notes spun from his fingers like gold thread.
I got out of the Army a few years later with a beat up black and red Stella guitar that weighed 600 pounds, I swear. And I played, but not with "The Templers." I did a solo act.
We played gigs together, going toe to toe in several venues and I always came out on the short end. "The Templers", however, were good. Especially that thin, red haired banjo player with the shy smile and very little to say. His instrument spoke volumes.
In the midst of this, a war washed over our town like some repeated sorry wave of madness and carried off the fine young men; Jason and Freddie among them. "The Templers" were on hold.
As it did a hundred years before, the wave would return, sometimes carrying lifeless forms which we buried in the cemetery up the hill. Sometimes, it washed up a few still struggling. They took a long while to stand up on the beach. But, they did, mostly.
Freddie was wounded, and when he talked about it, he said it was like somebody hit him in the legs with a shovel.
“The scariest part was waiting for the chopper to come and get me. ‘Charlie’ would home in on the helicopter and we would often receive fire while waiting to be rescued.” Freddie stopped talking and became very still when he remembered that time.
Sometimes the receding tide brought them home; whole and sane. But they were never quite the same. Like a mirror with a tiny crack down the middle that is almost invisible until you move slightly.
And sometimes the wave returned with one so broken and trashed inside, that nothing made them smile again.
Jason was one of those.
He was a grunt. And for the last 12 months of his duty in 'Nam, he was assigned to graves registration.
He sent us a picture once.
There he was with flak jacket and steel pot with the plastic bottle of bug juice snapped onto the side. And in his left hand there cascaded dozens and dozens of silver-grey dog tags and chains. He took them off the bodies and the pieces that once were bodies. That was part of his job.
When he came home, that summer so long ago, he saw things and said things and picked the banjo up to play a few stray notes. But the original "Templers" never got back together. And he never played the banjo again.
I joined the brothers for a bit with a 12 string guitar and we played for a while. Then life caught up with us and we moved on. It was a long time before I saw Jason again.
About a year ago, I showed him, with pride, that beautiful hand made Dana Fligg long neck banjo that was given to me. He held it in his hands for a moment and I saw a life time fly by in his eyes.
"Nice", he said, half heartedly. "But, well, I don't play anymore." He handed the banjo back. "Arthritis, you know what I mean?
I guess I do. But I know that Jason could play the banjo real good.