Stranded out of town with Whistlin’ Mike

Published Nov. 28, 2006
I felt helpless, forlorn and forsaken the weekend I was nearly stranded in Martins Ferry. Looking across Route 7 to the city as my friend Mike tried repeatedly to start his car, the battery dying and the starter turning more slowly with every attempt, I wondered where we could possibly find help on a Saturday evening in a strange town.
We had ridden that day on the Ohio Bicentennial Wagon Train from Martins Ferry to the first stop, the Belmont County Fairgrounds. A shuttle van dropped us off in Martins Ferry at day’s end where Mike’s car, a dull-blue Honda Civic, was parked in a deserted gravel parking lot overlooking the Ohio River. When Mike turned the key, the engine wouldn’t turn over, and he kept trying until the battery was nearly dead. Mike lifted the hood and, knowing as little as I do about cars, said, “The engine’s still there.” While he stood in puzzlement, my instinct told me to try the key one more time, even though my logic told me it would kill the battery. The car started, and we returned to the fairgrounds after a stop at a Taco Bell — the wagon train provided far too little food — set up our tent, and played fiddle and recorder by the fire.
We had driven to Martins Ferry the night before, on Friday, June 20, 2003, to join the wagon train on its first weekend crossing Ohio along the National Road, now U.S. Route 40. Mike and I were music friends, having met at one of Quail Hollow State Park’s traditional music nights in November 1989. Mike shared my love of history and enjoyed playing at festivals such as Yankee Peddler and Great Trail, so when he heard I was covering the wagon train for The Review he said he would like to go. We camped that Friday in a park by the river, arose to a crowing rooster the next day, and rode through the streets of Martins Ferry in buckboard wagons, wearing 18th-century peasant shirts and broad-brimmed hats while waving to modern-day motorists.
By Sunday we had become good friends with our fellow riders, mostly retired folks from central Ohio. The crowded wagon afforded no room to stretch our legs, so we occasionally stood. Mike nearly fell in the lap of one of the women when the horses started with a jerk, and the woman said, “I’ve been trying to get Mike in my lap all weekend!” We played music under a tree on the lawn of a brick schoolhouse and ended our journey at a farm south of Morristown. We left the wagon train, which continued across Ohio, and rode the shuttle back to the fairgrounds. The car started, and we drove home dirty, dehydrated, hungry, tired and full of memories.
Mike sent an email the following Tuesday titled “Wagon Train — Day Three!” He had left his camera on the shuttle van and drove back Monday (he was unemployed at the time) to retrieve it, finding the wagon train by following the marks of its passage: “I noticed that the pavement ahead was marked by wagon-wheel tracks and flattened ‘mule patties,’ so I knew I was on the right track,” he wrote.
“After the wagon train left, I went back to my car to follow them, and it wouldn’t start again. This time it wouldn’t even turn over. … When I opened my hood, it was so hot I almost couldn’t touch it.” He got a jump from a vendor of Bicentennial pins and T-shirts. “I’m going to have get the electrical system checked,” he wrote, but I doubt he ever did — later that summer he told me excessive heat caused the trouble, so he parked in the shade at work and popped the hood to keep the engine cool.
Mike’s car had a dent in the left rear fender that never got fixed, and once after a music practice in Greentown I urged him to fill a nearly flat tire with air that he claimed was just a little low, planning to drive home on it and get it fixed the next day. Minor details like car repairs and bringing in his mail were often shunted aside in the world of Mike, an expert student of Celtic and early American music who could discuss traditional tunes for hours but who neglected those little details such as vehicle maintenance. Once after a discussion of the many variations on “Greensleeves,” Mike gave me a pack of about 10 pages of tunes, all in the “Greensleeves” family. He was the best player of the bodhran, the Irish hand drum, I’ve ever heard, although he denied he was that good, and he played hammer dulcimer and Irish-style recorder.
Musicians from several counties paid their respects at Mike’s calling hours last week, and his brother Joe, fully aware of Mike’s unusual approach to life, said he supposed everyone has a good “Mike” story. Perhaps my friend neglected some of the things that so many of us consider of prime importance, but that neglect sprang from an engrossing passion for music, and he touched the lives of dozens of musicians and listeners with his music and his gentle, genuine simplicity.
So if you happen to buy a dull blue Honda that probably hasn’t seen a coat of wax since the factory, think of Whistlin’ Mike, clad in homespun, with a mop of long dark hair, playing the music he loved — and be sure on hot days to pop the hood and park it in the shade.

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