First Contact

August 19th, 2017 (Travel Date)

Music has been with me since I was old enough to play a record player without the interruption of someone else playing it for me. The very first song I attempted to learn on the piano was by a man named Scott Joplin. I wish I could tell you that was the beginning of what would have been a long wonderful part of my life spent playing piano, but it wasn't. Coordination and a lack of patience soon revealed piano would be an extremely limited hobby and nothing more. I finally settled for learning one verse with the right hand and adding a note here and there when I could with the left. I took lessons for a while, but at that age realized I would probably never be an accomplished pianist.

Joplin’s “The Entertainer” stuck with me, as did a great number of interests and pursuits that never quite panned out or were otherwise interrupted by life in general. Spending years and countless hours learning trumpet while playing song after song in the Arban’s trumpet book, taking lessons, competing, performing, life took its toll there, too. I loved music, but where competition drives others, its influence was detrimental to the enjoyment I found playing music, so I stopped playing trumpet as well.

Giving up never did anybody any good except for the man who continually struck his fist into brick walls that refused to break. Sometimes it's a choice we have, sometimes it's something we don't get a choice about. But at some point in life, one has to decide whether that brick wall is really worth the effort, especially if it‘s never going to budge anyway.

With bipolar disorder, especially in the deepest moments of depression, there have been days where just putting one’s feet on the floor next to the bed is far more challenging than getting one’s left hand to coordinate with the right while playing a piano. Were it not for those songs that still play in my head after all these years of listening to and sometimes composing music of my own, I do not believe I would be here writing today. So it is that my mother and I arrived at 114 East 5th Street, in Sedalia, Missouri, where on August 10th, 1899, Scott Joplin signed a contract to publish "The Maple Leaf Rag". It was August when I arrived here, too, albeit 118 years later. A little late to witness the event anywhere but in the imagination, but inspirational all the same.

We did not spend a lot of time in Sedalia, but I would have liked to. We spent just enough time to witness another person stop by the historical marker and enough time to speak to a local about the county fair, the pending eclipse, and to learn a little more about Mr. Joplin. 

Daylight was burning quickly, so we headed out of town to scout out a few locations. I had picked out a few places alongside the Missouri River to watch the total eclipse: a river trail, a small town, a couple of different points on river bluffs, a giant old lone tree next to a dirt road that bordered fenceless agricultural fields, a restaurant with river access, and a meadow near a winery. We would be lucky to arrive at the hotel we would be basing out of by nightfall, if we made it through anticipated traffic at all.

The eclipse was not the only reason for this journey. The second reason was as important, if not more important to me, as a writer. It was about a town. It was about a setting and an influence and a distant time.

The town was Hannibal, Missouri: home to passing trains, docking paddle boats, and forested hillsides. Close enough to several cave systems that one could hike to and explore on occasion were one to be a child who loves exploration. Among many, there was one child who did just that. An explorer of sorts and an author. A child who learned to be a river boat pilot, and a writer — a damned good one as a matter of fact. Hannibal, Missouri, you see, was the childhood home of Samuel Clemens, though most, even today, know him by his pen name: Mark Twain.

Safe passage comes in different forms to different people. But, to a riverboat pilot of Clemens’ generation, mark twain was a particular measurement on a weighted rope with measured knots. Mark twain was a unit of measure. It meant 12 feet of water — safe passage for a boat like the ones Clemens’ piloted. While listening to Twain’s Life on the Mississippi via an audiobook, it became abundantly clear to me, just how he struggled, as well, to learn what he thought he never could. How many people fall victim to this self defeating belief I cannot say, but I suspect it is more than most are willing to admit to, especially those who have a hand in installing such ridiculous notions in our minds. Fortunately for a young Samuel Clemens, someone already worthy of the title pilot recognized his potential and taught him that he was just as capable as anyone of becoming what he wanted to be.

It is evening now, as I sit at a table in a hotel room staring through a window over the roofs of the businesses and toward the waters of the Mississippi River. All around lies a version of the town that inspired the river pilot and author I came here to learn something from. I can’t help but feel a connection to something that has been missing in my own life for a very, very long time -- confidence.

Prolonged illness in any form has a way of stripping the confidence right out of a person after a period of time. Too much time spent living hour by hour and day by day instead of looking toward a goal-driven future is enough to damage the confidence of anyone. Especially, when there is little hope for a long term cure. Medications may ease symptoms well enough to make life somewhat tolerable, but often any pursuit driven by dreams can quickly fall into the realm of delusions of grandeur without some form of guidance or training. As I’ve written before, there isn’t much that can kill the imagination quicker than reality, especially when that reality is defined by living under the spell of some thing or some one else's version of it.

The older I become, the more I’m learning to appreciate the words of the authors whose works I've read, the music played by those I listen to, and the pieces of knowledge that rise to the surface from time to time. Tomorrow this town that gave rise to a literary legend awaits, and then an appointment with the center of the moon’s shadow the day thereafter.

I'm told the light that exists within the path of totality is unlike any other, but have as yet to read a definitive description as to just what that means. I've been searching for just such a transitional light for a very long time.

Tomorrow an educational tour, the day after — totality.

"First Contact"
Image taken by Author Alan S. Garrett from Missouri, USA
2017 Total Solar Eclipse Series
August 21st, 2017, 11:50:32 AM