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.

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Tree climbing

Red Maple 1
Photo by Steven K. Smith

Between the ages of six and twelve my family lived on a township road in north east Licking County, Ohio. In the yard bordering the road were six huge maple trees. They seemed huge to me at the time, anyway. One of them had a limb that jutted out horizontally from the trunk only about six feet from the ground.

It taunted me. My older brother, Dave, was able to reach it and swing himself onto that limb, and once there, other limbs were in easy reach, but I wasn’t able to reach that lower branch for  a while. How I envied him!

It’s hard to remember for sure now, after more than fifty years, but I probably made it into the tree by the time I was eight. It was better than any playground equipment at the school, and as soon as the spring weather allowed it, I spent much of the time I could wrangle away from  chores and homework in that maple tree.

At one point in the dim past the tree had been topped. Two cut off stumps of the main stems made a good place to sit, maybe thirty feet above the ground. Smaller branches growing up past the “chairs” made backrests and gave a convenient handhold when necessary. I used to take a book up there and read for an hour or more at a time.  Sometimes I’d climb past the chairs into the smaller branches near the top and feel the wind wave the tree branches and me along with them.

My parents didn’t seem to mind us climbing the tree. They told us to be careful, but that was all. I did fall from one of the lower branches once or twice, but never got really hurt.

Yesterday my wife and I went to Dawes Arboretum for the Arbor Day celebration with my son and his wife, and my two grandchildren. There was a group of professional arborists there instructing people on tree climbing. My grandson Jason was in tears over the fact that he was too young to be allowed to climb.

They had ropes up the tree in various places, and climbing harnesses, and helmets for those participating. A table set up nearby had volunteers handling the release forms. The lowest branch on this tree was more than ten feet in the air, so something would have been necessary to get up to it, I suppose. It’s been years since I tried any tree-climbing myself. Probably seven years. I don’t suppose my bones would now be as forgiving of a fall as they were when I was twelve, so I don’t go very high now, when I try it, and I carefully stay to the thickest limbs.

Last night I loaded Google maps and looked for my childhood home with the maple trees in front. I zoomed in on the road, and I know about where the house was, but I couldn’t find it, even inching along at the maximum magnification on Earth-view. That road hasn’t yet been surveyed by Google’s Street-view cameras. Apparently, that house is gone now.

At Dawes, by the arborist’s setup, it was interesting to watch the faces of the adults gathered around the tree, faces turned upward, eyes wide, sometimes shouting up warnings to be careful. I agree they should be careful, but I’d also want them to experience the adventure.