Sometimes the only evidence of the electricity going out is the relentless blinking of 12:00 on our oven.
But there have been times in my life when the lights going out practically meant a cause for celebration. For whatever reasons, an electrical outing in my childhood home usually sparked a talent show.
Flashlights became automatic spotlights. The living room a stage. All my brother, Robin, and I needed was a brief introduction, and we were American Idol anachronisms.
My mother generally recited poetry for her talent. Casey at the Bat, by Ernest Thayer, or If, by Rudyard Kipling, were her stand-bys.
Sometimes I would do the dance to Sonny that Miss Glenda taught me when I was in the third grade. Other times I’d sing.
My father rarely performed in the shows. Robin usually stole them.
His most memorable performance, without question, happened on a hot July night in 1983. Our family was living in an ancient house my grandfather built way out in the country.
Our show began.
Mom recited her poem.
Then I sang So Far Away by Carole King.
“So far away. Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore? It would be so fine to see your face at my door. Doesn’t help to know you’re just time away. Traveling around sure gets me down and lonely. … I sure hope the road don’t come to own me. There’s so many dreams I’m yet to find.”
Even though I was right there in the middle of the people I loved best, I did what I could to use the lyrics to convey a feeling I didn’t know at the time. Maybe my song choice foretold of my nomad years. A few years after our Big Talent Show, I left home and headed for parts unknown. I filled my wanderlust and came to know all about the yearning caused by missing people I love.
At any rate, the talent show didn’t offer me much time to ponder that thought.
It was Robin’s turn to perform. He was 15 at the time.
We didn’t need an X to mark the spot to find our way to center stage in the dark. Robin took his place. We turned the flashlights on. Normally, he looked like any other skinny 15-year-old boy. But in that light, and with a broom in place of his air-guitar, he became a mini-version of Hank Williams, Jr.
Like my mother, Robin always has had a knack for memorizing poetry and song lyrics. Unlike my mother, he doesn’t have what most would consider the voice of an angel.
That detail did not stop him. He strummed his broom-guitar and began.
“I had a good friend in New York City. He never called me by my name, just Hillbilly. My grandpa taught me how to live off the land. And his taught him to be a businessman. …But he was killed by a man with a switchblade knife. For 43 dollars, my friend lost his life.”
What he lacked in tone or pitch, Robin made up for with heart and certainty. He stood there steadily strumming his broom-guitar.
My brother and I are the products of a long line of people with more than a healthy distrust for city-folk. To this day, my brother – with no shame or prompting – will expound for long periods of time about the superiority of the country lifestyle.
“I can plow a field all day long. I can catch catfish from dusk till dawn. …We grow good ole tomatoes and homemade wine. And a country boy can survive. …We say grace, and we say Ma’am. And if you ain’t into that, we don’t give a ****.”
Robin, now a Southern Baptist preacher, sang those lines to a room full of teetotalers. He couldn’t say the last word of the chorus because such language wasn’t allowed in our house.
Even back then — though I shared his roots and appreciated his conviction, I knew that cities held things I didn’t want a little geography to rule out of life. There were far-away places I wanted to know. Our in-the-dark-performances shed a clear light on the differences two siblings’ goals and perspectives can have — and prompted one of those question-the-gene-pool moments for an entire family.