Angels and saints warred with demons and devils in the head of Silas Strayhorn; always in conflict, seldom silent, and only at rest when he slept or passed out drunk, a chorus of voices compelling him to action.
Silas was a man of great needs and questionable tastes. He toiled from sunup to sundown. No menial task or manual labor was below him. Poorly educated and prone to maladies of the mind, Silas found comfort in liquor, immoral women, and religion. The god of Abraham was his god. Born and raised in an orphanage outside of Iowa City, Iowa, Silas moved to New Hampton in 1889 at the age of thirty-four. There he was a day-laborer for anyone who required his services as a well-digger or dairy-hand. He also performed lumberjacking, basic carpentry, stone hauling, animal husbandry, and harvesting.
Protestant by birth and Anabaptist through conversion, Silas did not attend Sunday morning services, instead preferring to preach the word himself. With jaundiced eyes aflame with fever, religion, and the spark of madness, Silas would channel the Holy Spirit. The word of god flowing through him, Silas would speak in tongues and tell of damnation to all who would listen. He seldom had an audience, but this did not stop Silas. “The word unheard is still spoken. The truth knows no bounds!” he would shout. Sometimes he was overcome by faith and his body would surrender to conviction and convulsion.
This also happened to Silas when he was tired or had been drinking too much the day before. He would come to, a crowd gathered, through concern or amusement, standing over him. “Welcome back, Birch!” they would say. He did not know why people called him “The Birch” or “Birch” for short. He did not believe he shared many characteristics with that particular hardwood, but he never really questioned this appellation. Children would call out, “The Birch is coming! The Birch is coming!” as he walked down the street. People were cruel, children particularly so; for while Silas had no idea why he was known as Birch, everyone in New Hampton knew it was because he was “dumb as a tree.” As tobacconist Clement Ploughman said, “Birch is wont to preach from a book he cannot read.”
Silas was a stranger to basic hygiene, and if there were no children about to herald his coming, his odor often betrayed his presence. “You can smell him coming!” was not an uncommon refrain. A lover of alcohol and violence, Silas was good with his fists and could beat bloody a man twice his size, and too often he did. He was as apt to spend an evening in jail, for assault or disorderly conduct, as he was to sleep in a horse stall he’d been mucking earlier that day. Neatly trimmed Shenandoah beard (his one affectation), unkempt red curls, yellow cast eyes, prone to seizures, illiterate, and with a vocabulary often limited to drunken guttural utterances, Silas was Silas, and he made no apology.
“I have this dream,” he’d say, “One where I am falling. Falling forever. But I am not afraid. There is no fear. That’s the thing about eternity and falling, when you fall forever, you are flying. Our true creator reserved dominion of the air for birds and angels. The hubris of man has no place in the skies. I fall. I fall. I fall.”
Silas wanted to be a good man. More than anything else, he wanted the angels to win.