Hello, Brat – and good-bye.

This is probably the most personal of any post I’ve written for this blog. Very tough to get it out right. I found “my tribe,” but then had to leave them.

Off the rails for six months

In the summer of ’97 I moved from Taos, New Mexico to Brattleboro, Vermont. I have no clear recollection of how I got there, or why I decided to go there. It may have had something to do with being more accessible to writing clients in Boston and New York, and closer to my Wife-To-Be (hereafter either girlfriend or WTB), who was entering Yale’s School of Nursing in the fall to become a nurse midwife – a mere two hours away via I-91. But I really don’t know for sure. What I did know was that Brat (as many locals call it) was a smart, congenial, creative, and fun town tucked into the southeast corner of the state on the Connecticut River, and that rents were affordable at a time when my career was slipping into the doldrums. I found a fine second floor apartment one block from the center of downtown at a good price, with a terrific landlord. Perfect.

Have you found your tribe yet?

There’s this enduring notion that everyone needs to find their tribe. Who are they, and where – the people you come to know who form a self-organizing community of strong bonds among each other. Throughout all my travels and different homes, I hadn’t quite found them yet – though I’d fervently hoped they’d be in Taos, New Mexico. My tribe was still out there, waiting to be discovered. The persistent problem is, writers (like me) work alone. They don’t usually have tribes.

Nobel physicist and ‘Til Tuesday

Two places in Brat became frequent haunts for me: the Mole’s Eye Cafe at the corner of High St. and Main St., and a small bookstore across the street, owned and operated by one of my ex cousins-in-law. Consider the variety of people who somehow clung together, who knew and cared for each other:

  • A great bear of a man  named “Spoon,” whose grandfather happened to be a hero of mine, 1965 physics Nobel Laureate Julian Schwinger. I was writing String Theories at the time, deep into quantum theory and string theory, and had read some of his work. “Spoon” might have become a physicist, but his main job was chief Bouncer at the Mole’s Eye – a very strange job for a guy who was so intensely quiet and gentle.
  • Robert and Glenda Holmes, whom we met at a giant flea market in nearby Newfane. Glenda was deeply spiritual and wide open to the world but was suffering from a persistent disease (whose nature I didn’t know) that challenged her quality of life. Her husband Robert had been lead guitarist for the Boston-based rock group ‘Til Tuesday wth Aimee Mann (remember their big hit “Coming Up Close”? Here it is:)

Robert’s the slender, long-haired guy on the right. He sang harmonies on this song. He left ‘Til Tuesday after a couple of years and formed a new band, Ultra Blue, which won a bunch of music awards, followed by the Love Bomb, which still apparently exists. We connected at the flea market, then at the Mole’s Eye, then at his house for dinner and later at mine for dinner. Glenda, Robert, my girlfriend and I became solid friends. It didn’t hurt that I played guitar, too – not anywhere as well as Robert, no chance – but we talked a little about music theory. Good man, very smart, inquisitive. Fine musician, composer, producer.

  • A woman named Sharon, an IT expert for a local college, who loved doing New York Times crossword puzzles at the Bookstore. I’d join her and others there often to grind our way through the puzzle – this was 10 years before I’d sold my first puzzle to the Times. Sharon was also informal leader of the “Let’s Try to Understand David Bohm” discussion group at the bookstore. Bohm was another genius quantum physicist, progenitor of “Wholeness and The Implicate Order” of the universe, whom I wrote about earlier (see link, above).
  • Another guy whose name I forget who was desperately poor. Very smart, convivial, budding guitarist. Toward the end of my stay in Brat, I gave him my guitar, a Martin large-body acoustic (“Dreadnought” size) that didn’t fit me comfortably. He got a free, high-quality guitar and I hope he still has it 20 years later. My tribe in Brat did those things – they gave, expecting nothing in return.

When we were all together, talk revolved largely around the mysteries of physics and string theory and other dimensions and even alien visitors and sometimes music and sometimes other things. It was never dull, never not fascinating.

They became my tribe. Unthinkingly and absolutely. And it all happened within weeks of my arrival in Brat. Others popped in and out – the wait staff at the Mole’s Eye, Sharon’s friends, Glenda’s friends. One of them was a single woman with a 12 year-old son who was a whiz at puzzles and math. We became friends.

Robert Holmes, singing with Aimee Mann on “Coming Up Close.” He wasn’t Bob or Rob – always Robert. Very mellow guy, amazing talent.

The tribe dissolves

My girlfriend spent all of six weeks at Yale’s School of Nursing in the fall of ’97, then got itchy feet after Christmas to get back to Taos and continue her work as a non-nurse midwife. She took my 1952 Ford F1 pickup truck with limitless mechanical issues, towing a queen-sized bed U-Haul trailer, driving some 2,000 miles from Brat to Taos, solo, in winter, with no heat in the cab, no cell phone, and only a cassette player for entertainment. You can read about that adventure here. She made it, but it was no picnic.

She was solo, I was solo, and I knew I wouldn’t last too long in Brat without her. About seven more weeks.

I’d finished String Theories, sent it off to literary agencies, and it was accepted by one of New York’s finest agencies before Christmas. A new chapter in my life might be starting…

A bunch of us went out to dinner for a farewell event, including the 12 year-old and his Mom, and the boy was deeply upset, crying, when we got up to leave. The three of us had hit it off and I learned later, since he had no father, he wanted me in his life with his Mom, and lamented “why do they all have to leave?” Enough said – it was pretty tough for all of us.

Men Don’t Leave. Yes they do. I needed to get back to Taos and my best friend.

And I went back to 
My hotel room on the highway
And he just got back
In his car and drove away

Coming up close
Everything sounds like welcome home
Come home, come on home

I wanted to travel light, so I started giving stuff away. The morning I left for Taos in a Ryder truck, the sidewalk on High St. in front of my place was packed with furniture, antiques, record albums, computer stuff… some of it in trash bags. It happened the trash collectors came by while I was watching from my window, started loading the truck, then started inspecting the bags. Almost all of the bags went into the front seat in the cab. They left the stuff on the sidewalk alone.

I was off, headed west, with half my belongings on the sidewalk. So I gave a final wave good-bye to Robert Holmes, Glenda Holmes, Patti Claflin, Spoon Schwinger, Sharon Solms, and those whose names are lost in the 20 years of fog between then and now. I miss all you guys, but you can’t go back there again.

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What was it, really, that happened in Brat? Certainly (though I had almost no money) it was one of the happiest six months of life, emotionally intense, filled with unspoken love and sense of strong connection. The town has changed significantly twenty years later, it’s more gentrified now, and I won’t go back. The Mole’s Eye is gone, and the bookstore is gone, and other places where we gathered and yapped and explored what we knew, didn’t know, and couldn’t know – they’re gone, too.

My tribe now is here, in Maine. It’s taken a beating lately, losing three core members in two years, but it hangs on. It works.

But what happened in Brat – it was unique, and irretrievable.

(Robert Holmes has returned to his native land, England, and has remarried. Here’s his SoundCloud site: https://soundcloud.com/robert-holmes-7. His former wife Glenda – I don’t know if she’s still with us or not. Sharon Solms, I believe, has married and still lives in the area. Knowing Spoon as I did, he’s probably still in Brat. If any of you ever ego-surf, I’d love to hear from you through my contact page. And if anyone wants their full name removed, I can do that for you.)

Update, July 13 – I’ve just reconnected with Robert Holmes and he says his ex-wife Glenda is alive and well and still living in their old house. Good news! He also says he remembers his Brattleboro years most fondly. As do I, in case you haven’t noticed.

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There it is. My book website below…

www.nedwhitebooks.com

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.