His home is tucked serenely within a dense green hillside just north of Manhattan. We ambled our way up the gravelly road to a clearing. A log cabin appeared, and next to it a house only slightly larger. All of it perched on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River. My good friend Anthony and myself stood there for several minutes before approaching the front door. After a few minutes Pete emerged and waved us over.
“Tim Hernandez?” He asked, addressing Anthony.
“No, that’s Tim over there,” Anthony replied. He introduced himself and they shook hands.
I approached. “It’s an honor to meet you,” I said, to which Pete smiled and nodded.
His living room was an open space cluttered with all the details of a home that had been well lived-in for a few generations at least. Books were scattered on the dining table and shelved along the walls. Photos hung slightly eschewed, and in one corner hung an array of banjos and guitars. Large windows let in the natural light. It was almost noon, but the day was overcast. I sat down on a lounge chair and Pete took a seat across from me. Anthony stood near the kitchen table.
Three years after I first embarked on the search for the 28 passengers of the plane wreck at Los Gatos Canyon, who became known only as “Deportees,” there I was, sitting only a few feet away from the man who first launched that song into the world. A few days before I had jotted down two pages of questions, things I wanted to make sure I asked him, but in that moment it all went out the window. Something strange happens in those bare moments of clarity. It isn’t that I forget my notes. I’m aware of them, they’re usually in my shirt pocket. It’s that somehow those earlier thoughts, the minuscule agendas, are rendered meaningless when faced with the actual. Also, there’s a level of intuition that needs to be heeded. I trust that whatever I “need to know” in that instant will come on its own.
“I was just about to go chop wood,” Pete said.
“Need some help?”
He chuckled, then placed both of his hands on his kneecaps and leaned forward slightly, toward me. He was wearing a ball-cap, and his signature red turtleneck beneath a denim work shirt. He looked up at me with his grayish, green eyes, ready for my questions.
Just a few moments ago, while in the car on our way up here, Anthony had asked me if I was nervous. “I mean it’s Pete Seeger,” he said.
Before answering him I thought about it. “Yes I am,” I replied. “But I was more nervous when I first met Caritina Ramirez.”
“Caritina Ramirez. She was the ten-year old girl who lost her father, Ramon, in that plane crash.” And it was true. Meeting Caritina that first time, it felt like I was staring into the eyes of a child and breaking the news to her, as if for the first time, that her father was killed in a horrible accident.
Here I was now, thousands of miles away from the small oil town that is Coalinga, California. Further yet from Los Gatos Canyon. I turned my small digital recorder on and cleared my throat.
“Pete, in all the years that you’ve performed the Deportee song, did you ever once think that when you sang the words, Who are these friends all scattered like dry leaves…, it would actually be answered?”
* * *
* * *
*This excerpt is only a draft.
It is from my book-in-progress, All They Will Call You…
Please do not use or quote without my permission.
Copyright Tim Z. Hernandez, 2013