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Music, silk Hawaiian shirts evoke sweet memories

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Roger Barbee (Buy photo)

By Roger Barbee - redhill@shentel.net

Several weeks ago a large box arrived. It was from my baby sister Deborah, and it had taken her over a year to get it ready for shipping. It held many shirts - some dress, some sport, and two fine-looking Hawaiian shirts of silk - a tie and a John Deere cap. She told me to take what I wanted and divide the rest among my four sons. That way, she reasoned, we would all have something that he, her too young, deceased husband had worn.

I kept the cap, the Hawaiian shirts and two blue dress shirts because Henry Connor Barkley knew how to dress. He had style. In fact, over the years, when I would visit them, I would get into his closet, take a shirt and before the visit was over I would make sure that he saw what I had taken - usually by wearing it as I was leaving. He would look at me, shake his head, and say, "I liked that shirt."

Besides being a stylish dresser, Connor was a music lover. For years, when he and Deborah lived in Charlotte, N.C., he would spend Friday afternoons in used CD stores looking for iconic CDs. His encyclopedic knowledge and range of musicians paled only to his vast interest. When I first encountered Trisha Yearwood, I called him in my excitement. He responded, "You mean that big blond with the matching voice. Saw her last week in a concert. Now, if you like her, you oughta' listen to this early CD of the Carter family I just got."

Like all good teachers, Connor was enthusiastic and his enthusiasm would engulf me so that I was soon listening to songs and musicians I had never heard of or had forgotten. On my first visit to them after their move to Kingsport, Tenn., he gave me his copy of "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music," and told me to hurry and read it so that when he took me to Carter Fold, I would have a better understanding when I heard, he said, "That real music. And we'll watch the buck dancers, too." I devoured the book. When we drove to Carter Fold later that week I came to understand what he meant by "That real music."

When I had my accident in 2001 and was in extensive rehabilitation, several of my siblings, including Deborah, came to be with me. Connor stayed home to care for their children, but soon a package arrived for me at Mt. Vernon Hospital. It was a case of CDs that Connor had burned for me. Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Bill Withers, Muddy Waters, The Tams, The Righteous Brothers, Crystal Gale, John Hiatt and many more artists were there.

I listened to a CD each evening and discovered old favorites while thinking of Connor. It was not an accident that the first CD was "Lean on Me" by Bill Withers.

The last CD was by the Blind Boys of Alabama, a gospel group unknown to me. Soon, I was enthralled. When you hear them sing "Amazing Grace" set to the tune of "The House of the Rising Sun," you come away with another interpretation of this old song of redemption. So, during rehabilitation, the CDs he had burned were a great help because they demonstrated his love for me. They were a joy in a trying time.

However, as the folk song says, "Nothing lives forever..." On May 3, 2011, while playing golf, in his 61st year, Henry Connor Barkley fell dead on a golf green after hitting the group's Captain's Choice, or best drive. He scraped the knuckles of one hand when he hit the turf, already dead.

For our anniversary in early July, my wife got us tickets to see the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Shenandoah Music Festival in Orkney Springs. We shared a fine picnic supper of chicken, enjoyed the coolness from the on and off rain and marveled at how our time together had so quickly passed. Then it was time to see Mr. Clarence Fountain and those other marvelous singers on stage. As the Blind Boys opened with "Go Tell It on the Mountain," I hummed along, wrapped in their devout melody, the cool, early summer evening of Orkney Springs and Connor's green silk Hawaiian shirt.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at edhill@shentel.net



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