By Dan Szczesny
In mid-1951, just as Alton Weagle was beginning to contemplate the string of Mt. Washington record stunts he’d pull throughout the decade, an NBC Radio program called “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” played a 36-second wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading from his poem “America.”
There’s no reference in anything Whitman or his own colleagues wrote about making this recording, but there is a letter from Thomas Edison himself expressing interest in making the recording, which apparently was put to wax around 1890, when Whitman was an old hermit living in Camden, N.J. Voice analysts and sound engineers have happily debated whether it’s actually Whitman or not ever since.
I don’t know if Weagle heard this back in 1951 – or if he read Whitman, or poetry, at all. I don’t know. But yesterday, sitting in my bed, I played that recording on my smart phone; from wax to micro chip with 125 years of space between us. And behind the haunting crackle and fuzz of that early marvel of sound engineering, there he was – that old man with the long, thick beard, the elder statesmen of American letters. Like a ghost. I listened again and again until I memorized each skip and pop, Whitman’s voice – the slight affectation to his words, like a Long Island lisp, emerging from another century, giving me chills.
I hope Weagle heard it, or knew of him – I will choose to believe that he did. How else to explain Alton’s wander lust, his connection to the mountains, his almost transcendental desire to use his flesh and bone to forge a bond between himself and the landscape, much as Whitman did in New York City.
How else to explain this? So lost am I in the sound of Whitman’s voice, it is my wife that brings my attention to the words themselves.
“Love,” she says. “Listen to what he says about America.”
—-Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love—-
Freedom, Law and Love. From Whitman, the man who thought of America as the ultimate poem, to Weagle, the man who loved the New England American landscape so much that he launched a decades long celebration of a mountain. And now to me, as I’ll try to meld Whitman’s words with Weagle’s actions on Alton Weagle Day come May.
Until then, I’ll be returning to the North Country often, to talk of Weagle with his family, to figure out what could possess a man to push a wheelbarrow filled with sugar up a mountain and to learn Alton’s recipe for blueapple pie – yup, he baked too! Stay tuned!
Dan Szczesny is a long-time journalist and author living in New Hampshire. His books include The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie, a hiking memoir about a one year, 225-mile journey through some of New Hampshire’s least known wilderness with his 10-year-old foster daughter. Also, The Nepal Chronicles, about a month long trek to Everest Base Camp and marriage in Kathmandu. His first collection of fiction, Sing and Other Short Stories, and includes a variety of short fiction spanning Dan’s 25 year career as a writer and journalist. His latest book, Mosquito Rain: Alaskan Travel Essays is an illustrated travelogue of Dan and his wife’s journey to discover the true meaning of the Last Frontier. Dan is also the Editor of Murder Ink, a series of New England-based Pulp Fiction anthologies set in or around the newsroom. Volume Three is set for release in 2018.