A Thousand Strangers

My last name is Smith.

Yes, you all know that, but there’s a certain burden that that entails that is sometimes difficult to express. As a dulcimer player, I’m constantly having to explain that I’m not the Steven Smith on http://www.everythingdulcimer.com who has posted hundreds of pieces of dulcimer music. I’ve only posted a few pieces there myself. You can tell us apart because I always use my middle initial, and he just uses his first and last names. I’ve met the other guy and his wife Jean a couple of times now. They’re great folk, and I’m glad to share a name with him. He’s a former national champion on both the mountain and hammered dulcimers, while I’m just a former regional champion on the mountain dulcimer.

There’s an excellent poet and artist in northern Ohio who shares a name with me, and a musician in the Cleveland area with not only my same first and last names, but my same middle initial as well. If you search on iTunes for Steven K. Smith, we both come up. I’ve corresponded with him and I have a couple of his albums. They’re very good.

I share my name with a professional football player, an astronaut, and a police officer in Columbus Ohio who was tragically murdered in the line of duty in the fall of 2016. I dedicated a poetry reading to him after he’d been shot, but before he’d passed.

While I was still a teenager I once had to prove to the local police that I was not the “Steven Smith” who had left a Boy Scout backpack with that name on it in a house that someone had broken into near my home. Seems that another Steven Smith around my age had loaned the backpack to some associates to whom he shouldn’t have.

I’ve heard that “Smith” is the most common surname in the English language. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s beyond question that it’s very common. It doesn’t happen as often now, but when I lived in Columbus, Ohio, about twice a year I’d get a phone call that started, “Are you Steven Smith?” “Yes.” “Are you the Steven Smith that—.”

I was never the right one.

I was very glad for that once.

While still in college at Ohio State. I got one of those calls from a woman who was searching for her son, whom she’d lost track of some seventeen years previously. She thought he’d moved to Columbus and was going down the list in the phone book calling all the Steven Smiths, hoping to reconnect with her son. I apologized for not being the right one, and she said something like, “You know how it is, people move on and you lose track of them…”

I lied through my teeth and said that I understood.

It was winter, mid afternoon. I took my walking stick and went out hiking through the city, not returning until it was dark and my legs and fingers felt numb with cold and fatigue and my belly growled from hunger.

Some fourteen years after that, after I’d become sort of marginally known as a dulcimer player and composer, I wrote a song about that incident. There are some songs you write, and some where you feel as if you’re merely the portal through which the work passes. That was the case for this one. I was in a hotel room coming back from a conference relating to my day-job at the time and the song came out—both the words and music—in the space of a little less than an hour. I’ve done very little tweaking of it afterwards. I like to say the song took me an hour and fourteen years to write. I call it, “For Steven Smith, Wherever He May Be.” Here are the words:

For Steven Smith, Wherever He May Be

© 1994 SKSmith

The telephone rang, I heard a stranger’s voice say,
“Could you help me find my son?
I’ve been calling every Smith in this city of yours,
Could it be that you’re the one?”
“I haven’t heard from him in seventeen years
And lost track of where he’s been.
I think he went to Columbus Ohio,
I want to see his face,
I want to hear his voice,
I want to hold him once again.”

The longing in her voice echoed hundreds of things
That they never said out loud.
Like, “I’m sorry,” “I love you,” “I miss you, my son,
Please let’s not be over-proud.”
“I haven’t heard from him in seventeen years
And lost track of where he’s been.
I think he went to Columbus Ohio,
I want to hear his voice,
I want to see his face,
I want to hold him once again.”

I thought for a moment that I’d say I was he,
And that now her search was through.
But that intended act of kindness would have been a foul lie
And I couldn’t be that cruel.
I share my name with a thousand strangers
Linked by the anvil and the forge.
Touching each other in unintended ways.
Are you out there somewhere,
Lost in this city,
Longing for this mother of yours?

The telephone rang, I heard a stranger’s voice say,
“Could you help me find my son?
I’ve been calling every Smith in this city of yours …
Well, maybe he’ll be the next one.”

I rarely perform this song. I’ve had people leave the room in tears when I sing it, and I often have trouble getting through it myself. I’ve never recorded it.

I hope that woman and her son reconnected in a joyful reunion. I have no way of knowing whether that happened or not, but I have to believe that they did. Of the myriad possibilities that time and space spin around us, I really want to live in the one in which this mother and son reunited.



Photo by Steven K. Smith © 2017

In 1972 I went to school at Lakewood High, near Hebron, Ohio. I was in the tenth grade. It was a mostly rural, tight-knit community, and our family had moved there only a few years previously. I was still an “outsider.” This was not helped by the fact that I was overweight, didn’t particularly like sports, either playing them or watching them, and tended to read a lot of science fiction. Even worse, I played chess at lunch periods and home-room with a couple of the other semi-pariahs.

Gym class was the bane of my existence at that time. If I could manufacture an excuse to get out of it, I did. I hated Phys. Ed. to the extent that the previous year, when I’d broken a bone in my foot in an accident playing basketball, I was sorry to get the cast off because that meant I’d have to attend gym class again.

Phys. Ed. was usually some semi-organized sport of some kind: football in the fall, basketball or volley ball in the winter and spring, for example. I did try to participate, I just wasn’t that good at it, and wasn’t terribly motivated to improve.

It’s something of a contradiction, then, that one of my most pleasurable memories of that year at Lakewood High involved a brief, offhand exchange that occurred in gym class during a basketball game.

My assignment for the game was to guard another player on the opposing team, and try to keep him from getting the ball, or scoring with it if he did. This was called, “sticking your man.” Which, I suppose, was a shortening of the phrase, “sticking to (or with) your man.” If I got the ball I was supposed to pass it as soon as possible to one of the more capable players.

The one who was the designated “captain” of our team would call time outs to discuss game strategy every once in a while. I don’t remember his name, but I don’t recall that he was one of the boys on the school’s basketball team. A lower-echelon player, if so. I usually wasn’t addressed in these discussions. One time, however, right at the end of one of these conferences, the captain turned to me and said, “You’re doing a good job of sticking your man.”

I said, “Thanks.”

It’s certainly not my only memory of Lakewood High, but it is one of the clearest, after about forty-five years.

The following summer we moved and I went to Newark (Ohio) High for the remainder of my high school career. I had fulfilled my requirement for P.E. by then, much to my relief, and Newark High had an actual chess team that played tournaments with other schools.

Perhaps ironically, at that point I got interested in exercise in a big way, in the form of bicycling. I never became a bicycle racer, but I did do many club rides and a number of long bicycle tours, and joined the League of American Wheelmen. (Now the League of American Bicyclists.) I lost the excess weight and generally spent more time outside in physical activity. What high school Phys. Ed. couldn’t accomplish, I did myself, in my own way. While I never did gain much interest in basketball, that forgotten P.E. class basketball team captain did show me that it’s possible to feel good about doing something purely physical.

Thank you.


Bike in 1975 cropped_1
Somewhere in southern Michigan, Summer 1975. Photo by Steven K. Smith

Spring has finally arrived, flowers blooming, gentle breezes, warm rains, birds singing, and all the other pleasant clichés that attend it. One of those other signs of spring is that I got my bicycle out and tried going for a ride for the first time since last fall.

Let me explain how embarrassing it was for me to write that last sentence.

While a junior in high school I saved up my money and got a membership in the League of American Wheelmen, an organization that promotes bicycling and dates from the late 19th century, and was a major force for promoting the construction of good roads in the US, among other things. It’s now known by the less sexist title, “League of American Bicyclists” but when I joined it was still “Wheelmen.”

The summer after my high school graduation I took a solo bike trip from my home in central Ohio to the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan, just north of Cadillac, about 500 miles (800 km) or so. I went with about $35 in my pocket, camping behind bushes in stands of trees along the road at night. Admittedly, $35 went farther in 1975 than it does today, but still.

The trip up there took five days. One of those days I had a tail wind most of the day and went about 150 miles (240 km). My bike broke down in a manner that I couldn’t repair on the road shortly before I got to my destination. The last 50 miles (80 km) were slow and uncomfortable with a wobbly rear wheel missing four spokes and a serious flat spot on the rim. My father and my older brother came to rescue me. What remained of my $35 dollars wouldn’t have covered a new wheel.

In my last year at Ohio State University I didn’t bother getting a parking sticker for the student lot. Rain or shine, snow or ice, I rode my bike to school from my off-campus apartment. I calculated that for every time I drove to classes the previous year, that had I parked illegally in the student lot, got a ticket each time, and paid the ticket, it still wasn’t as much as what the parking sticker cost.

I was a veteran of many invitational club rides in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, and was president of our local bike club one year. I used to think of a twenty mile ride as a “short” ride.

Biking gradually decreased, partially due to knee and back problems, but also (let’s be honest) because of general laziness and the advance of other interests. My music “career” began taking up much of the time I used to spend biking.

My inaugural spring-time ride the other day was about seven or eight miles. A positive change I may have I’ve noticed: It seems that fewer motorists are overtly hostile toward bikers these days. In my early experience it wasn’t uncommon to be honked at aggressively, cursed at, and on one occasion I had a car full of young delinquents make several passes throwing peaches at me. (A peach going 50 miles per hour hurts. I had bruises.) It’s been years since I’ve seen that sort of thing. I can’t deny the possibility, however, that maybe I’m just not seeing it because I’m on the road less these days. I hope not.

Back in the seventies and early eighties the etiquette on crowded invitational rides was to announce, “On your left,” when passing a slower rider. This convention also applies for pedestrians on multi-use trails.

While I was doing my ride the other day, part of it did occur on such a trail, one reclaimed from an old railroad right of way. When I passed the joggers on the trail I dutifully called the warning, which has become practically a reflex for me. It seemed that few of them heard it, however. Most of them had earbuds from their smartphones in and were not exactly engaged with their surroundings. I avoided hitting anyone, but I came close once. It’s a narrow path.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for someone to develop a cell phone app to detect the sound of a biker approaching and give a warning over the music. Maybe it could use GPS and distributed network technology to keep track of approaching hazards. I don’t know.

I offer this idea for free to anyone who’d like to develop it. It could potentially prevent many injuries.

Or they could just remove the earbuds and engage in the environment they’ve taken the effort to put themselves into. But that’s crazy talk.

Burning the Flag

Photo by Steven K. Smith © 2009

Last spring I burned an American Flag.

I’d found it behind one of our raised beds while I was cleaning it out to make ready for planting the vegetables. It had apparently blown there some time the previous year and was mostly hidden in the grass that the mower won’t quite reach at the base of the garden bed.

It was a small flag, the type one might have bought at a department store with a package of Independence Day decorations. The red stripes had faded to the point that they were nearly gray, and at one of the points where it had been stapled to a stick there was a rip extending into the star-field. It was maybe six by nine inches, as I recall.

I could have just put it in the trash with the rest of the debris I’d raked up, but that wouldn’t have been respectful. I’d learned in Boy Scouts, back when the continents were closer together, that the proper way to dispose of a worn-out flag is to burn it.

I had to clean out my little stainless steel fire pit to do that, a chore I hadn’t counted on doing that day. It took a little bit to locate enough dry twigs to do the job, but I managed to find some in the wood pile we use for our occasional backyard fires, that were dry enough. Getting the fire going took some time too, but I didn’t want to use charcoal lighter to do it. Somehow that didn’t seem respectful either.

When the fire was going well I draped the little, worn-out flag on top, jerking my hand back, having singed some hair on it in the process. For a moment I thought the flag might damp out the fire, but then it caught again as the flames consumed the cloth. I stood by the fire until it burned out, which wasn’t all that long. I hadn’t built a large fire. The cloth must have been nylon, or something similar, because it shriveled and melted into a black lump, rather than burned.

That done, I went back to my garden work.

I don’t consider myself a particularly “patriotic” person. I don’t make a big display on Independence Day, and I was never in the military service. (I flunked the physical for ROTC.) I did work for the Air Force for more than thirty years as a civilian engineer.

Symbols have a significance over and above their physical manifestation. Flags of every country represent the ideals of their respective nations. I’d have treated a Canadian flag the same way, for example. It’s a matter of respect.

The American flag I burned was just a little piece of cloth of no intrinsic value. It represents, however, a great ideal put forth in the constitution of the United states, one for which millions have fought and died to achieve, and then to defend. That’s what I was respecting when I burned that flag, not some little piece of printed nylon cloth.

Flag burning has come up in the news again as I write this, something that seems to happen periodically. Those who burn flags to make a political statement do so at the risk of having the substance of their protest overshadowed by their chosen means of expression, in my opinion, and therefore are not effective advocates for their cause.

And yet, one of the core principles enshrined in the constitution is freedom of speech, which has over and over again been interpreted as freedom of expression by whatever means. Even though I may feel that flag-burning as protest is less effective at conveying a point than other methods, a person’s right to make a statement in that way is a constitutionally protected freedom of expression.

Those who would call for imprisoning ones who burn the flag in protest are suggesting that a person who expresses an opinion they don’t like should be jailed. This is by far the greater desecration to what our flag represents. I cannot believe that our Founding Fathers would countenance such a proposal, and the decision of many Supreme Court justices supports me in this, including an opinion by the very conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

The proper method of disposing of a worn flag is by burning. If one would jail a person for burning a flag for a reason they don’t happen to approve of, then they are proposing that people should be jailed for expressing a belief.

That is NOT what our constitution is about.

That is NOT what patriots should support.


Steve at Bardstown KY, January 2008

In my career as a musician I sometimes give concerts and other performances, and teach workshops at dulcimer festivals. See my musician website, www.sksmithmusic.com for more details, if you’re interested.

At dulcimer/folk music festivals I often take workshops as a student as well, which sometimes seems to surprise some of the other attendees. Occasionally it surprises the workshop leaders as well.

I’ve always found that odd.

Apparently, once I reach the point where festival organizers will hire me to teach workshops, I’m not expected to need to learn anything further. This is an attitude that I find hard to understand.

Last August, I taught at the Fort New Salem Dulcimer Festival, at Salem WV. My good friend and mentor, Jerry Rockwell, taught there too, and I attended one of his workshops during the course of the weekend. At least one of the other attendees seemed to be surprised by this, I don’t know why. Of course, Jerry is an overflowing wellspring of knowledge about the mountain dulcimer, and music in general, but I have often taken workshops from other players, if I found the subject interesting, regardless of the skill level the workshop is pitched toward.

Last June, at the Kentucky Music Week festival in Bardstown KY, I took a workshop in Cajun music that was geared toward intermediate players, and a couple of workshops on improvising pitched to advanced players. My store of knowledge increased in each case. I try to take the attitude that everyone has something to learn, and everyone has something to teach, as well.

When I play at the Ohio Renaissance Festival, doing the “wandering minstrel” thing in the lanes around the grounds of the fair, I will often have people ask me some variation of, “How long did it take you to learn to play that?”

My standard answer is, “I don’t know. I haven’t finished yet.”

This is what I think is the core of my personal philosophy. There’s always something more to learn, whether about music, writing, gardening, or astrophysics. I hope never to stop learning, and that one of my very last thoughts, just before I die, is, “Not yet! There’s still more I need to know!”

The Swimming Hole

Photo SKSmith ©2006

In a flash fiction piece of mine due to be published soon, there’s a scene set in a place I visit occasionally, not far from my home. I bicycle there sometimes on mornings during good weather. It’s a little swimming hole in a local creek, and while the event I describe in the story is totally fictional, the place is real.

There’s a gravel bank by a bend in the creek, with plenty of flat stones perfect for skipping. Depending on how dry it’s been, the water gets deep enough that I can’t touch bottom for a small area. Maple and sycamore trees line the stream, but the gravel bank is bare of vegetation. I often see deer and herons around it, and a couple of times I’ve seen snapping turtles sunning themselves on the bank in the spring.

Most of the time when I go there in the morning I have the place to myself, but occasionally I’ve seen tents set up there. I just leave, trying not to disturb them in that case, if they haven’t seen me. Otherwise, I exchange a brief greeting before I go.

I went there again last Saturday morning, arriving about 10:00 AM. It was the first time I’d been there since last fall. When I pulled off the bike path there was a tree down over the trail to the swimming hole, but I was able to get around it. A little farther along there were another couple trees down, ones that appeared to have been cut with a chainsaw and felled beside each other in such a way that they would block the path. I parked my bike there and continued on foot, carrying the water shoes I’d brought with me. A little farther along another tree was down, cut the same way. They seemed to have been cut recently, probably only a few days ago.

The spot itself wasn’t disrupted, except for the remains of a campfire on the gravel bank. It was littered with beer bottles, potato chip bags, and the remains of firecrackers. The Fourth of July was only last week. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a campfire there, but this one was particularly messy.

The sky was clear, but the bank was shaded and the air relatively cool for early July. I was alone this time, and swimming alone is a remarkably bad idea. I waded some in the shallows, skipped stones, and generally relaxed for twenty minutes or so.

I think I’ve figured out why the trees were cut across the trail. I’ll bet the farmer that owns the bean field that flanks the trail got tired of people going back there to party, and worried that if one of them got hurt, he could be liable. The firecrackers probably pushed him over the edge.

If true, I can see his point, given today’s legal climate. Still, I think it’s a shame that all of those who had peacefully enjoyed that spot over the years are punished now for the inconsiderate behavior of a few. Ideally, people that take a woodland trail to a secluded spot should be responsible for their own safety, and be considerate of the land they use. Packing out their trash seems like the least they should do.

With everything dire and important happening in the world, it seems trivial to complain about this small restriction of my recreation. I suppose it is. Still, I’m reminded of the adage, “If everyone swept their own doorstep, the whole world would be clean.” Why is it so difficult to think about others, about how what you do affects your neighbors, or the planet as a whole?

I hope I don’t have to stop going to this place altogether, but I guess that’s a possibility I need to consider. I’ve enjoyed my visits to this little swimming hole over the years, and it provided a scene for a story of mine, after all. I’ll always have fond memories of it.


The flash piece, “Loops”  is due to be published in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue, of “Children, Churches, and Daddies” ( http://scars.tv/perl/ccd.htm ) See my piece “Night” in the current issue, June 2016.

“My” Pond

My Pond_1There’s a place I know near Black Hand Gorge, west of Nashport, Ohio. You pull off the road and into a parking lot by a public hunting area, walk down the path into the woods, take the first fork to the left to a little woodland pond surrounded by pine, maple, and oak trees. It’s a big enough pond that it has fish, though mostly the blue-gills there are small.

I’ve been going there now and then on sunny afternoons for nearly twenty years, when I could take an afternoon off. In the spring I see painted turtles and occasionally some snappers sunning themselves by the shore. There are beavers around, though the pond doesn’t seem to have been created by a beaver dam as far as I can see. There are patches of spring beauties and bluets carpeting the clearings around it in the spring, wild roses, queen anne’s lace, and daisies in the summer, and goldenrod in the fall. I’ve seen deer, squirrels, chipmunks, blue heron, red-tail hawks, ducks, bull frogs, and blacksnakes there, in addition to the beavers and turtles.

I’ve found this a relaxing place to read a book and to work on poetry. I have enough poems that I’ve written at that location over the years that I’ve visited it that I could put together a chapbook of them, if I chose. Some of those poems have already been published, or have had favorable responses at readings.

In the past, this spot has had more visitors than it seems to get now. This has good and bad aspects. While I enjoy the solitude when I go there, the trails around the pond are becoming more and more overgrown. I’m having to pull poison ivy from around the spot where I like to sit and read.

I suppose I’m trying to have it both ways. I want the solitude, but I want it to be free of poison ivy, and something to keep the mosquitoes down would be nice.

This is exactly what I fear will happen. It’s become a special place for me, one I’ve started to think of as “my” pond. If it became well known and popular, then before you know it the muddy trail leading to it would be paved with interpretive signs explaining the local features. A visitor’s center would pop up with concessions for ice-cream and sandwiches and souvenirs, and uniformed park rangers would guide groups of school children around on educational tours.

That’s why I’ve lied about the location of this pond at the start of this post. It’s actually in a different part of the state altogether.

Selfish of me…


(Thanks to Robert A. Heinlein)