Alive With The Dead

After a car accident takes the life of a devoted Deadhead, a father discovers the healing power of his son's music

October 21, 2007|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun reporter

Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.

-- from "Scarlet Begonias" (Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead)

In the lengthening shadows of a summer afternoon, thickets of music fans -- on blankets, in lawn chairs, chucking Frisbees -- have turned a West Virginia hillside into a patchwork of tie-dye. Huge amplifiers on a stage pulse with the warbling of electric guitars. The American Roots Music Festival is about to begin.

Halfway up the hill, where you've spread a tapestry on the ground, a stranger sidles up, a barrel of a man with bowed legs, a full white beard and an expression that says, "Hey, brother, want to chat?"

His T-shirt reflects some rock history. "SOME THINGS YOU CAN REPLACE AND OTHERS YOU CAN'T," it reads. Below the words is a grinning Jerry Garcia, the founder and benign maestro of the legendary Grateful Dead, who died in 1995.

"I miss Jerry," he ventures. "Don't you?"

Maybe it's the welcoming manner, the rueful eyes behind the Harry Caray-sized glasses, or the short pants and dark socks he's wearing, a look so far short of cool it suggests a man who might need a friend. Maybe it's that he's likely the oldest guy here. But in a place where strangers really are known to reach out to each other as if they were lifetime friends, something about Ed Branthaver, 69, seems different.

Now that he has your eye, he does a pivot to flash the back of the tee. There, too, it reads, "SOME THINGS YOU CAN REPLACE AND OTHERS YOU CAN'T." Below the words is the picture of a much younger man, a fellow with shoulder-length hair who might look right at home on this hillside today. "Know who that is?" Branthaver asks.

And suddenly, he's changed. As he turns around, his face is as crimson as the flowers in "Scarlet Begonias," and his eyes are full of tears. "That's my son," he says, and he reaches out to touch your arm.

Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own.

-- "Eyes of the World" (Hunter-Garcia)

Long before there was a Grateful Dead, Ed Branthaver was born in Waynesboro, a Pennsylvania town just across the state line from Hagerstown. There was nothing counter-cultural about him.

He belonged, by birth, to the Church of the Brethren, a distant cousin to the Quakers and Mennonites. He sang in a choir and attended services, though theological questions rarely crossed his mind. A wild night in his teen years would be a couple of hours at The Dipper, a local drive-in, where if someone put a nickel in the jukebox, you'd hear the Drifters or the Four Freshmen. "Songs with a beginning, middle and end," he says.

He missed the swinging 1960s -- spent them cramming in the library at West Virginia University, prepping for a life as a social worker in the field of geriatrics. He met tall, taciturn Joan Galbraith, a member of his church, on a blind date, marrying her in 1965. Five years later, they had Daniel, their only child.

Dan, too, seemed anything but a radical. In Williamsport, their adopted hometown, he walked to elementary, middle and high schools, all within three blocks. He loved to raft and hike in the mountains. He grew tall and rangy and impressed others with his kind heart and gentle, welcoming eyes.

He rebelled a bit, as teen sons will, but couldn't make it stick: Dan vowed never to become a social worker like Dad. But he magnetized friends, especially those who craved the company of a stable personality. At 18, Dan's talent for projecting calm in a crisis -- for listening -- won him a job as a counseling aide at Turning Point, a residential center for chronic psychiatric patients in Hagerstown.

Clients stayed in touch after they left the place, and many became his friends. "Dan took in strays," says Joan.

Sometimes Ed and Joan wondered, if only for a moment, whether he was becoming a stray, too. He grew his hair to his shoulders, flashed the peace sign in greeting and used vacation time to disappear for days on end. When he was around the house, he took to putting strange music on the turntable -- loopy, improvisational stuff by the Grateful Dead, the Haight-Ashbury vagabonds who were still finding new audiences after 30 years.

The songs could wander for half an hour. "Aimless stuff," Joan says.

Once in a while, Dan hit his parents up for a twenty. They rarely begrudged him that. But one night in 2000, Ed demanded some accounting.

"Well, I've been taking in a few Grateful Dead concerts," Dan said.

"What're you wasting money on that for?"

"Dad," Dan replied, placing his hands on his father's shoulders, "have you ever listened to them?"

Ed had to admit, he hadn't.

Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there.

-- "Box of Rain" (Hunter-Lesh)

To Dan Branthaver and many of his friends, Dead music and fandom was about erasing boundaries, showing kindness and living a life of trust. To them, it was easy as a Jerry solo: Ed had to come to a show.

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