As you know, almost all of the songs we write tell stories. We want to share those stories with you. Just as we did for our first two records (see the stories behind the songs on our first CD 13 and the songs on our second CD Again), we’ll post the story behind each song on our new CD now more than ever here for you to read. The plan is to feature one song each week for the next few weeks.
Here is the story behind Waiting on Time as related by Clark Hansbarger.
The song “Waiting on Time”
On its surface, the song “Waiting on Time” tells the story of a young man’s return from war. However, at a slightly deeper level, it’s about the inevitable and often difficult loss of innocence that all humans share.
A few years ago, I was visiting our family farm in the Sweet Spring Valley of West Virginia. When I drove up to the house, a young man was on the roof repairing shingles. He was taking a break, standing on a gable, drinking water and looking out over the fields. We talked for a bit, and I learned he was recently back from his second tour in Afghanistan. It was a short conversation, but he seemed like a thoughtful, hardworking young man.
As often happens in this strange old head of mine, I began to extrapolate. Seeing this young man on the roof struck me somehow. I think it was the particular way he sipped water as he watched something in the distance that sparked a thought and eventually became this song
In the first verse, the narrator rests from his work to take a drink of water and watch a fawn step out of the corn. Seeing the fawn—a clear symbol of innocence—he drifts back to the war, where, we assume, he lost his youthful innocence. He recounts briefly the boredom, the fear, and the cold he felt there and how it, “put a hole in him he just can’t fill.” Something ineffable has changed inside him. He knows this, but he can’t properly express it.
In the second verse, the narrator more explicitly attempts to understand what happened to him in Afghanistan. Four years earlier before he went to war, he was self-assured and confident in his decisions, ready to “take the tiger by the tail,” and maybe just a little cocksure. But his loss of innocence came with an associated loss of confidence, and now that he is back home, he feels peculiar in a way that he just can’t put his finger on. Understanding what’s going on inside is like trying to “hold smoke in the palm of his hand.”
In the song’s bridge, the narrator faces his demons more directly, stating clearly now how he feels about having gone away and come back. He admits to himself that he is a changed man, but still “holds onto something that he can’t let go.” This is the very same loss that we all face at one time or another in our lives. Perhaps it is exacerbated by war, but loss of innocence is as universal as death.
The third verse returns us to the now, and mirrors the first verse, presenting a tableau of similar imagery with an important twist. The narrator again sees a deer, though now it is “an eight point buck.” It is at rest just as he was before his time at war, sipping water, unaware of any danger. While the narrator doesn’t yet understand what has happened to him, he knows that he cannot bring himself to shoot the buck. Take out of this what you will—the symbolism is powerful.
In a moment of transcendence, our veteran senses the natural world speaking to him. Briefly, he seems aware of something greater than himself. This is a moment of grace and redemption (and probably forgiveness of sin), though he doesn’t fully understand it. His inability to shoot the buck is not paralysis, but a pause in the face of an instantaneous and mysterious insight into a universal truth. In this very instant he realizes he “left something over there”—this something, of course, being his childhood innocence tied up in some way with his youthful hubris.
The chorus after each verse asks the essential question we all ask: what is this life? Is life a walk through heaven or a slog through hell? In my view, the answer is both. While our narrator was in the Korengal, we assume he was wading through hell, but now, here, in the moment and in the very same life “beside a rock strewn creek”, he experiences a transcendent moment of grace.
While I was writing this song, my plan was to avoid stereotypes of returning soldiers. Nonetheless I fear that when the narrator describes himself as “a little unsteady; a little diseased” I fell prey to some powerful tropes. (My apologies for this. I know combat veterans who, as far as I can tell, are more steady and at ease in life than I am.)
So that is the essence of this song. The music itself explicitly complements the ideas with themes, hooks, and a huge range in dynamics. But for this Bitter Liberals song, anyway, the powerful ideas outshine the music.
Here is a live recording of Waiting on Time recorded 1.11.19 at the Bright Box Winchester.
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