A Shenandoah Quilt and My Boy, Running by Alex Checkovich

…see once again how that horizon, a vast valley-bulked background

beckoning benevolent beyond the contoured swathe of derelict chain-link,

foul pole to fowl pull, linear mosaic curvaceous as Walt Whitman himself, undulates

its gentle broccoli-head mountains. Our drive out, as spectacular – spectacleoracular – as ever,

put me to awe. It’s a dusty Saturday in early July. A certain late-afternoon timelessness slumbers

out here in Stanley, Virginia. I should be comfortable. I should be as languid and secure as the

unknown eco-civic memories grounding this – our? – valley’s quilted fundament. But something’s

darning-needling my mind right now and it isn’t that we’re about to set reverent foot upon

an actual baseball diamond together for the very first time, “father-son style.” No,

something even larger lurks. (Not unpleasant; nothing irks…) It threatens

like promised thunder, thronging benevolent beyond those eternal

calico hills. It is the art – the folk art – that smacked my

sweet spot back at Winchester’s Museum of the

Shenandoah Valley. They had quilts,


Second Base, i.e., Mr. Brian Doyle

The furthest point from home plate he’ll ever be. Closest to that horizon, flying eternal.

But why these patterns? First pitch: they’re the forms through which my memories must thunder.

Up the First Base Line…

9. His feet: gonna thunder his first-ever base. On the mound my heart’s helpless, stranded in organic shock —paternal pattern recognition—poignant liquid joy—BOOM.

8. My first few pitches just a stroll, ball one two three warming up, “This is Mickey Mantle, Papa,” swing and miss, miss and swing and—PING!!! Bulging eye-shock. Little thrill-limbs. What: that sound! Air-popped lightning, inimitable, heretofore unimaginable, ponging the entire valley. The ball, a routine grounder, lazes toward where Brian Doyle would’ve been stationed. The sweet earth’s too hard; this hit’s hilariously skittering all the way to right field. Whoa…! Now run, son, RUN!!!

7. From Ogden Nash’s “Lineup for Yesterday”:

A is for Alex

The great Alexander;

More goose-eggs he pitched

Than a popular gander

I guess that’s me. Or is it

is for me,

Not a hard-hitting man,

But an outstanding all-time

Incurable fan

“A”… “I.” Artificial intelligence? Any quilted memory.

6. When we arrive all is still. Half a dozen scattered homes lie within eyeshot. I park my wife’s car on the gravel behind the left field foul pole, probably illegally, possibly within the tacit authority penumbra of an automotive garage which seems vaguely active, just a pop fly away. You hear maybe carried voices elmer-flicking the fly-y ambience but no one’s acknowledging our humid trespass, no one’s stepping forth to declare we can’t play here. The outfield patchwork: benign crabgrass, goose poop. The infield: refried clay. Backstop, cinder-block dugouts, Little League scoreboard, rotting refreshment stand. And get a gander at what really matters: the vast open-aired honesty here, the civic consecration to some wholesome purpose. To him the pitching rubber is as coolly exotic as a slab of astronaut ice cream. Home plate, a talismanic pentagram of power: “Megatron’s energon cube, Papa!” We both put down our water bottles. I tread to the mound. He waits at the plate, adorably determined, squint-eyed, growing smaller. Solemnity, excitement, interwoven swathes. We’re actually going to do this.

5. “There are 215 Brian Doyles in the United States,” according to one Brian Doyle, and “one of us played second base very well indeed for the New York Yankees in the 1978 World Series…” Is that really the line I wanna go with first? The mind’s eye flies to… which threads?

4. My lazy nostalgic misanthropic life-incompetence has alienated the family’s two females – tween, wife – yet again. So it goes? So we go. Morton Feldman enshrined crippled symmetries. Choose your fabric. Leave this cabin, little line drive down the road. Let’s play some baseball, son. You wanna? I need ta.

3. Hello, I have a question about one of your exhibits that I encountered during my visit on 7/7/17. It was a quilt, but not one of those featured on the Museum’s website. This one a mother had woven and then given to (?) her son, like an heirloom, or a really soft baseball card. (Or maybe she’d calico’d an inscription to her son, inside the quilt itself? My memory is unpatterned… Something we’d find imperfect, awkward, like, “My Dearest boy, for his seventeenth, Now the mantle is Yours.”) Does that ping any bats?? Would you be able to describe this quilt for me, maybe by sharing its photo or caption-card? I found it very moving. Thank you. —Dr. “A.I.” Checkovich, History Dept, U. Richmond

2. Sports held no meaning. Not for him. LEGOs, dinosaurs, Minecraft? Sure. But sports…? Well, he’s almost eight now. And fathers, like Dick Redding’s creaky old fastball, can be sneaky. And crease-y old baseball cards can work timeless guileless wiles. And Dick’s Sporting Goods in C’ville readily sold us a lollipop-guild green bat and a gem-mint mitt which will, we trust, finally find ample purchase in his life… All to say: We’ve timed this trip to “our” cabin perfectly, crushed it right out of Shenandoah National Park, overnight obsessions with Hammerin’ Hank’s ribbies and Mr. Nash’s split-fingered pennants weaving themselves into every childish tendril, into every mountainous dream.

1. Let’s run it down deliberately. He did. Those quilters definitely did. The fundament is Time.

First Base

I’d already had one of/for my girl. Call it a mind-diamond. We’re dining: glorified bodega, broke, branzino, just me and her, no NYC cursing, everyone giving us space, peace, tiny fingers trembling with joy.

…Chugging to Second…

9. The running cannot be described. The imperfect physiognomy, the serious(ly) stilted style, the pure awkward fervor of it all. He thinks he/Mickey has hit a home run. He thinks he must “run it out.” The keyword is must. So his running is not proud or triumphant or masculine or knowing. It is completely committed. It is entirely free of guile. It is spasmodic thunder scrolling oblivious across the sky after the impelling ping-lightning. A child at purposeful play. Some arcane holy mission. His Running as his Child-ness. It is what I must capture.

8. G is for Goldbarth, the great Albert himself, always weaving into my essays, my sense of whole self. “He dips sharply out of our consciousness for a couple of hours, then sneakily stitches back in. A day is made of its zillion-and-umpteen stitches, joyous, tormenting, whatever; in the immediate moment, any one of them, half-a-brainwave long, can knock our breath into orbit and drop us to our knees.” The title captures the challenge: “To Write of Repeated Patterns.”

7. G is for Gehrig,

The Pride of the Stadium;

His record pure gold

His courage, pure radium

Courage isn’t even an issue here. It’s clear his feet and knees are just going to keep iron-horsing, no matter how exposed exhausted orbital gratuitous vulnerable distant dusty unnecessary ennobling microcosm’d sweaty he/running becomes.

 6. Back in 1917, a mother finished creating the whole thing:

5. Back in 2017, a son created a card’s front from whole cloth (i.e., paper, markers, and fact-y questions for his father):

4. D is for Doyle who could wield quite a woyld, like

D is for Dean,

The grammatical Diz,

When they asked, Who’s the tops?

Said correctly, I is

as he (literally) verses that 1940s chant!, gleefully sputtering it out atop this one-time-only double-clenched gnash of rooty-tooth beat-box breaths and pattering feet.

3. How moving was Brian Doyle? The man whose work I first encountered in In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfictionand then traced traces of, threads as they wormed into my weeds. A style so limpid and (apparently) artless hitched to an outlook so wholesome and (overwhelmingly) deep that it’s obvious why the good denizens of Anytown, USA, wanted to blanket him in grateful hugs. Even now, one of his spools must be unbolting, “for I find that as few as twenty minutes with people no taller than your belt buckle is enormously refreshing, and gloriously educational, and wonderfully startling, and endlessly hilarious, and very much like drinking a tremendous glass of crystalline water when you have been desperately thirsty for a long time, and in something of a personal desert.”

2. Sweet Earth Flying. Marion Brown, Impulse! Records, 1974. All those collard greens in the uplands, termites and humus, rich alluvial muck. Olewnick: “With a grace, soul, and sense of freedom rarely achieved…. he tends to sound tentative and innocently hesitant when first entering, only to gather strength as he goes, reaching utter conviction along the way.” Two separate patches of infield, scrolling underfoot.

1. So I start jogging. Pursuing not just the ball. But also, suddenly, something else. Some stitch I can’t place quite yet. A lurking thread I find myself seeking like heat-lightning, some unversed new/old iteration of able-bodied self.

The Mound

Just once in this life, I would like to hurl a perfect literary pitch.

Effortlessly. To have the power to articulate one single clear pure thought.

Like Brian Doyle. Like THUNDER. But I cannot. No less than mountains and rivers

and playing fields, our embodied minds evolve and erode. They acquire habits, horizons,

entire contingent ecologies. My unerring effortful instinct is always to pull the ball rather than shooting for the opposite field… to offer frenzied thunderbolts to overwhelmed children… to stride earnestly too far as quarter-formed thoughts overtax obsolete tendons tendencies ligaments ligatures… to be – rather badly – “good” rather than “lucky,” the precise opposite of that ontological status desired by Dizzy Dean’s shortstop, Leo Durocher… to overwrite. So I’m isolated. All alone upon this sacred island of Appalachian Atacama, glimpsing, as I direct-slash-disembodiedly-feel my body controlled-fall, patterned mapless mosaics of tendrill’d weedlings and worm tailings and optimistic doomed nitrogen-fixing legume seedlings on this forgotten infield dirt even as I fail, pitch after benevolently lobbed pitch, to see the great broccoli forest for the trees. Unable to communicate eloquently, to convey elegantly. But the world is waiting. The good denizens of Stanley, Virginia, anonymously dallying amongst their filling stations and backyard picnic tables, are surely watching. I must create. I must throw out words. How?? It’s an irony. For the wild moundsman must turn to the work of others. To the labors of those who tamed the mountains and paced the baselines and wove the fabrics into meaningful patterns. To pre-given strictures / artificial ligatures / delimiting frames / imposed constraints / inviolate templates / ordained palimpsests / painstakingly organized threads. The rubber rests exactly so many footfalls from the plate. That particular quilt exhibits those particular hallmarks of genre. Keats’s sonnets light fourteen lines. All folk forms – hillscapes, ballparks, mementoes – embody their own emplaced histories. I cannot write – I cannot remember – without arbitrary base maps. I know that I must somehow fix in my mind his loping zoom: matted locks of sweet sweat, gazing

down/at nothing, heedless to anything beyond mud-stuttered sparrow rhythms, utterly lost w/in

some swirling harmonies wholly his own, a perfect innocent abandon of body and joy and

purpose and place. For fixing all this o’erflowing ephemeral mind-nitrogen I need

some kind – any kind – of security blanket. I need my own little quilt.

…Streaming Toward Third…

1. Precognition of a desert-island zoom-loop: even as I run down the ball, I keep an eye fixed upon his receding form, his locomoting overheating soft-as-cloth invisible-shortstop-colliding form. Elbows? Funky pulled poultry. Hair tendrils streaming. Gravity: lurking just slightly behind. How I used to run.

2. “I see we’re two strokes of an all-over pattern repeated—past where sight thins out—across the fabric of being human, or being alive at all.” Goldbarth again.

3. G is for Gibson,

The mound’s glowering gamer;

Need to win a Game Seven?

Folks, here’s your Hall of Famer

May stitching in two generations’ two resonant Gibsons double the resonances of this afternoon’s anti-glowering afterglow. Remember: Folks never actually saw Josh play; they only remember.

 4. Zooming loops:

5. And a father filled out his son’s card’s (pre-given, impelling) story-tendrils by filling in the back:

6. D is for Donora,

Tiny Anytown in PA

Where the Man and the Kid

Were born the very same day

Literally: November 21: 1920 (Stan Musial) and 1969 (Ken Griffey, Jr.). Metaphorically? Were a man and a kid both born that day in July? Aren’t memories, like quilts, simply complex embodied metaphors?

7. For “when they are released into the school yard or the playground they sprint out into the welcoming embrace of the wild green world with all their might, with their arms flung wide and their mouths open and their shoes untied, and when I see this from my tiny chair, when I see them howling and thrilling into the delicious world that arose miraculously from the emptiness of the vast unknowable universe, I weep at their joy, and at some other thing I do not understand—their irrepressible innocence, my battered innocence, our assaulted, endangered innocence, their clean, fresh, unconscious grace, the fraught teetering of our species…” One final pitch from Mr. Doyle (1956-2017), a player upon that complex dust-mosaic stage. May his heartily woven words cheer us ever on. May they keep teaching me something of what it means, simply, to be.

8. Eternal Rhythm. Don Cherry, MPS Records, 1968. East mit west, gamelan blurring blues, benign mosaic-blare out of which emergent order threatens to thunder. Olewnick: “One of the rare occasions where the listener has a visceral sense of borders falling and vast expanses of territory being revealed for the first time.” Finally the outfield, past where sight thins out, matted grasses rolling vast and jungled underfoot.

9. The ball has hurdled the dirt-grass boundary-bump, trembled a few tiny finger-feet into right field, and come to rest. I, too, have crossed a border. Our backs now face each other but I, expansive, irrepressible, blare it out anyway: “Look where it LANDED!!” What—my heart?

Third Base

And now I’ve enshrined a mirror-image for my boy. Just me and him, glorious diamond of dirt, body joy-trundling through pastoral space… They broke the Curse of the Bambino? Now I Can Die in Peace.

…Heading for Home…

1. He’s chugged through two crystalline water bottles. Sautéed hair, heavy satisfied tread, how many “homers” after Mickey’s. Enough. Let’s go home, son. To our cabin. Thunder looms. Feel it? A new CD in my wife’s car: Imagination Dragons, I call it. You wanna hear that song? YEAH!! Who do you think you ahhrr, dreamin bout bein’ a biigg stah-ah-ah-ah-ahhrr… Push that button. Zoom-demand right now. It’s so synthetic. It’s so artificial. Organic’s darkling doppelgänger. Wide gaping windows. Drink this liquid air. Hell yeah. And the clouds. Chug ‘em. And I can drive seventeen mph up this undulating road. And that means we can loop the sonic blasts three times before this whole slice of life ends. Not a soul to see us. Just him and me. Just the latest herky-jerky cheez-grinned synths echoing amidst immortal calico’d broccoli scrolling ‘neath benevolent supervillain clouds mwWAH—Thun-DAH, feel the THUNDAH!!! And when those drums kick in, that’s right when MLB shows that clip, “It’s Bryce Harper, Papa, in that ad for the All-Star game!!” And those drums—BOOM BOOM BOOM. And we love it.

2. My greatest moment as an ecologist. Henry David Throw. It happened two days ago right off that gravel driveway to our cabin, the very baseline we’re rolling up now. Pathetic but true. “True stories, luckily told” – Creative Nonfiction’s motto, as I rather badly recall. No brash PING here! Quite the opposite. We’re all four of us strolling home when some unobserved pattern recognition stitches my peripheral mind-ear. In the underbrush off the drive: Rustle, brustle. Chipmunk? Lizard? Brush, thrush. Yep, that milligram’d leaf mulch is definitely moving—crouch-pounce like a bobbing Grinch, like Brian Doyle’s Gold Glove rival, Bobby Grich—now, lift…—omigod guys c’mere quick!! Look! Hercules beetle. Bulging. Skittering. Hilarious. Is he running? Can he hear his own thunder? Dunno. He’s probably just going about his day in his own inimitable deliberate way.

3. A is for Aaron,

The great Hammerin’ Hank

Whose yearly production

You could take to the bank


I is for Ichiro,

Japan’s milligram sprite

Who flew, slung, and slashed

Like the blade of a kite

Maybe an aerial perspective would help. So we could survey the entire valleyed swathe – the whole quilt of farms, rivers, gravel, geese – in one herculean swoop. But such kitely Intelligence isn’t the kind of Artificial I’m banking here. Seeing the forest for the trees must also mean weaving glorious benign tenacious weeds.

4. What will he actually take home? From the contest between the New Market Rebels and the Front Royal Cardinals we’d attend, later, that very evening.

Date: 07/08/2017 Start Time: 07:33 PM Duration: 2:26 End Time: 09:56 PM Winning Pitcher: 11 – Alec Aleywine Losing Pitcher: 34 – Pedro Aldebol Save Pitcher: 34 – Chandler Raiden Plate Umpire: Brad Bailey Field Umpire:Steve Williams Location: Rebels Park Attendance: [four shy of all the Brian Doyles in America] Weather: Sunny, 85 degrees Authentic autographed baseballs taken home: 1

I’ve got my tenacious mind-diamond. You run with yours, son.

5. Heading home. Gonna be the four of us again. Brian Doyle’s position: “4,” i.e., 2B. His line in the ’78 Series: .438/.438/.500. Is that really the last thing we wanna remember him by?

6. I don’t know why I said it. Semi-pro stuff. According to the program, the Rebel who broke the game open in the fifth with a homer to right, Jacob Rhinesmith, hails from Anytown, Minnesota. My son and I skitter to the dugout right after the final pitch, hoping to catch our first-ever autograph. And hey, like the sixth dude we encounter is that home run hero! Blonde, normal sized… “Would you mind signing a ball for us?” He sees my boy, seems golly-touched. Sure. And as he puts pen to leather, I blare out, “Are you the fellow from Minnesota?” Uh, yeah? “Well, we’re from South Dakota”—no we’re not! My wife’s grandfather was—“so we feel a kind of affinity with you.” Dizzy Dean syllabullism, anyone? And as this guy hands me back the ball, his other hand – quickly, gently, definitely deliberately – taps my shoulder. Not a ping, not exactly a rustle or a brush. More like, Neat! Or, Okay, buddy, whatever… Or, Take care (cuz you’re freaking me out)…Or, Take care (because you’re a Papa)… Or maybe just an anti-alienating anthropic affinity, as in, Our lives now touch – for this one lightning stitch in time.

7. Hello Alex, Our Director of Collections Management and Registration Kyle Bryner forwarded to me your research request regarding the Strother family quilt in our collection. I am happy to share some information on it… Best, Nick Powers / Curator of Collections

Log Cabin Pineapple Quilt, 1897-1917

Attributed to Eliza Catherine Cordelia Dunlap Strother (1859-1929)

Whitehall, Frederick County, Virginia

Inscribed on a card sewn to the bottom left-hand corner: “present to

Dorsey Strother / by his Mother / this is his quilt / Feb 1917”

Wool, cotton, other unidentified fabrics

8. How do we hold our meanings? Blurred ecologies… Quilted words… Ye olde baseball cards created anew… What can possibly capture the eternal rhythms of our fleeting sweet earth flyings? “Today, as we move into the second decade of the 21st century, new fans should make ‘Lineups’ of their own—odes to players who speak to them and symbolize their generation. I know my father would heartily approve of such efforts and cheer them on.” That’s Linell Nash Smith. Ogden’s daughter.

1. My boy running is that perfect pitch. All alone, enmeshed within a private braided loop, I watch him go. That’s Him now, see. A particular ecology of events known as I has woven its freely chosen/constrained filmic tapestry, forever fixing Son-ness in the fundament of my mind.

Home Plate

I’d caught those cumulonimbus rumors. But my sweet spot had never really been smitten. Unlucky, pathetic—TRUE. Even though my household G-d, GD, once warned me, “He talks to us face to face, so that our choice is between listening and turning away. And in turning away there is the uneasy feeling that we are turning our backs on the very stars and on ourselves.” Even though BD imagined a sleepy- sandlot-paced conversation between his humane forebears, Sam and Louis, and then laid it out for us like a blanket blessed by the sun of early July. Even though AG’s darling, John Keats with his tiny sparrow feet, wrote of – finally! – getting crushed by the Homer enshrined by Chapman (George, or was it Josh-Gibson-hating Ben, or hopefully even “be-gentle-with-that-actual-hardball-Papa” Ray). But no. We are folks. Embodied. Emplaced. We create forms. Patterns. Games. Mind-diamonds. As I age, what strikes me most is how far from realizing our full potential we always are. Dusty infield grains of meaning keep accumulating—and eroding. Only ecology is truly perfect. All our other folk forms enshrine awkward imperfections. Benevolent? Bene, violence—yes, both. But crippled? No. Because we just keep running. Sometimes I feel like I am hanging on by a thread. Sometimes it seems like the only thing that keeps me running is my son. Well, no, let’s keep things artificial. It’s my own memories, those patterns I cannot weave without the innocent organic acts of others. I try my lonely best to quilt them. Worm-ridden, ragged-edged, weeds creeping in. And then, one day, father-son style, it finally PINGED. Just a few lost lines, like thunder from an age when oceans blanketed the Blue Ridge, eons before any leaves of grass set wild reverent foot upon some new/old fundament.

On the sands of Paumanok’s shore gray and rustling,

The yellow half-moon enlarged, sagging down, drooping,

The face of the sea almost touching

The boy ecstatic, with his bare feet the waves, with his hair

The atmosphere dallying,

The love in the heart long pent, now loose, now at last

Tumultuously bursting…

The boy ecstatic… his hair… I thrum to the As and Is in those bedrock revenants…

I’d been told. But I’d never appreciated just how ecological your patience was,

just how integrally you’d interwoven your spirit into those nameless

clovers and tailing slimes that I’d crushed under my boot-soles

upon that humble quilt of an Anytown dirt-diamond which,

time-stopped somewhere up ahead, waited for me.

Cry it out now, Walt—Thunder us—

What is poetry, after all,

but our creative



Many thanks to A. Nicholas Powers and Kyle Elizabeth Bryner of the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley for their generous assistance in matching up my blurry memory to that actual wonderful artifact now known as the Strother family quilt. Ogden Nash’s 1949 poem, “Lineup for Yesterday,” appeared in a beautiful hardback edition illustrated by C.F. Payne and annotated by Linell Nash Smith in 2011 (Creative Editions). You can tell: half of those quatrains are Nash’s originals; half of them are my own crippled doppelgängers. Brian Doyle’s essays: “Being Brians,” from In Fact (Lee Gutkind, ed.; Norton, 2004); “Their Irrepressible Innocence,” Portland Magazine (Autumn 2016); and “Sam and Louis,” The Georgia Review (Summer 2014). Albert Goldbarth’s essays: “To Write of Repeated Patterns,” from Dark Waves and Light Matter (University of Georgia Press, 1999); and “Two Characters in Search of an Essay,” from that very same Summer 2014 issue of The Georgia Review. Brian Olewnick’s reviews come from the All Music Guide to Jazz. I sought a word to chime with “branzino”; good thing Now I Can Die in Peace (ESPN, 2006) is the title of the book Bill Simmons hawked after his Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004. A certain Valley Baseball League box score: valleybbleague.wttbaseball.pointstreak.com/boxscore.html?gameid=384726. GD is Guy Davenport whose essay, “Whitman,” from The Geography of the Imagination (Godine, 1997), prepped the soil for my getting walloped by Walt’s “From Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”

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