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ALIVE WITH THE DEAD

The Baltimore Sun

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.

On Sept. 14, 2000, Shawn Mazur, John Ditmayer and the father and son drove to Bristow, Va., to see the Other Ones -- a post-Jerry Garcia incarnation of the Dead -- play the Nissan Pavilion.

Ed didn't always "get" the music that night. When guitarist Bob Weir, drummer Mickey Hart and the others lit into jams, it seemed to go on for hours. It amazed him you could even go to a concert and just roam.

"Our seats weren't assigned," he says. "I spent the night wandering, meeting people and dancing like a fool. I've got two left feet and no rhythm, but it didn't matter. Strangers went out of their way to welcome me. It was unreal."

He was glad he went with his son. He would never get another chance.

On the night of March 30, 2001, six months after the show, Dan was out with Shawn for a beer and, as often happened, he decided late in the evening that his best friend wasn't up to taking the wheel. He drove Shawn home, slept a few hours on his buddy's couch and rose at 6 to return to his own place in Waynesboro, Pa.

It's a sharp curve, 90 degrees, on Cavetown Pike between Hagerstown and Leitersburg. The only witness said Dan wasn't speeding. Police say no intoxicants were involved. It's likely he dozed.

His brown Camry sliced through a guardrail, went airborne, rattled down a hillside and came to rest wrapped around a rock. They had to saw him from the wreck.

He spent the next 30 days in a coma, the result of diffuse axonal injury -- widespread brain damage -- in intensive care at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. Friends, coming to the city in shifts, jammed his room during visiting hours. Joan decked the walls with letters, photos and balloons. Ed borrowed tapes, snuck in a Sony boom box and made sure there was plenty of Grateful Dead in the air. Nurses called it the most joyous room on the ward.

Dan may never have known that. He died on May 1, three weeks before he would have turned 31.

One way or another this darkness got to give.

-- "New Speedway Boogie" (Hunter-Garcia)

For a whole month, day after day, you fan the embers of hope. You visit when they let you, search your son's eyes for a spark, rub his shoulders, speak as if he could hear.

Then one morning, a surgeon comes in, tears in his eyes, and tells you the operation they had to perform went wrong. You're asked into an adjacent room to identify the body of your only son, and you step into a different life. And on a sunny afternoon, when all nature seems to be in bloom, you and your spouse drive the 80 long miles back to Williamsport and never say a word.

People brought flowers and food, of course. That's about all Ed can remember from those first few days. That and the folks who stopped by to say, "You're in our prayers." That triggered something. He'd been questioning his church's tenets for a while; now they riled him. "How could a God I prayed to let this happen?" he says. "What's the use of prayers?" Daniel's friends kept coming by. "Tell me about my son," Ed told them. Shawn did -- described the road trips they took, showed him pictures of Memphis, Tenn., and Northern California, described the many friends they'd made. Johnny Ditmayer did -- related how easy it was to tell Dan everything, how Dan had convinced him to stop running from a problem with alcohol.

"Around Dan, you grew up," Johnny says.

And the memorial service? Ed couldn't believe who all came -- hiking pals, fellow Deadheads, stricken co-workers, children of friends. They heard a sermon, some classical guitar and, of course, a sampling of Dead. The words to "Ripple" were like a hand on the shoulder: "Reach out your hand if your cup be empty," Garcia's voice warbled. "If your cup is full, may it be again/Let it be known: there is a fountain/That was not made by the hands of men."

When they sorted through Dan's house, Ed and Joan found treasures they'd never known about: "earth drums" he played, poems he wrote, notebooks full of drawings. There was a book full of ticket stubs -- 142, to be exact, to concerts all over North America, not just the Dead but the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Rusted Root.

In 30 short years, the Dan they didn't know had lived fully. The more Ed knew, the more he wanted to learn.

If you get confused listen to the music play.

-- "Franklin's Tower" (Hunter-Garcia-Kreutzmann)

Just off the square in central Hagerstown, tie-dyed tapestries festoon a storefront window. Album covers are on display -- the old-fashioned, LP kind, from Workingman's Dead, Skull and Roses, Live Dead. And in the courtyard before the old Maryland Theater, a stocky man in a jester costume greets the people arriving for that night's rock-and-roll show.

"Peace and love," says Ed Branthaver through a rubber skeleton mask, the bells on his hat jangling. "Peace and love!" A few veer around him. Most beam as he hands them a flower and head inside.

The show is "The 40th Anniversary of the Summer of Love"--an allusion to 1967, when "flower power" ruled San Francisco and spread a message of peace -- and on the bill are today's incarnations of acts that Dan knew well: Big Brother and the Holding Company (minus Janis Joplin), the Jefferson Starship (minus Grace Slick), and Tom Constanten, briefly a member of the Grateful Dead.

The Dead and its offspring "jam bands" -- Phish, Bob Weir's Ratdog, Donna Jean and the Tricksters -- have been around so long, it's not uncommon to see grade-school kids dancing alongside gray-haired senior citizens.

For five years now, Ed has made himself a fixture on the scene. Now he wants to share it with everybody. It started six months after the accident.

Two friends of Danny's called Ed and asked him to a show by Phil and Friends -- the new band of ex-Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Then it was Ratdog, which brought its jam rock to Frederick. He hit summer fests in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia. He even took Joan to San Francisco, where they experienced the Deadhead's holy grail, a New Year's show. Ed wangled his way backstage and shook hands with Mickey Hart.

He was usually accompanied by someone half his age or less who could talk about Dan. He'd dance like a dervish, learn more and more tunes, and wander through the crowds, hugging strangers and telling the story of his son.

"I never meet a person who isn't interested," he says. "They all seem to love Dan."

Was he working off steam? Acting out grief? Holding Daniel by his tie-dyed T-shirt, refusing to let him go? He couldn't say; he still can't. It made him feel better, he was having more fun than he'd ever had, and he couldn't stop.

Wildflower seed on the sand and stone; May the four winds blow you safely home.

-- "Franklin's Tower" (Hunter-Garcia-Kreutzmann)

Mourning is a mystery. Ed's retired now, but he did a lot of grief counseling over the years. None of the formulas he'd taught worked for him. Everyone grieves differently, and should.

Joan does hers in private, content to drive her husband to shows, drop him off and go home to garden. Ed, who grew up shy, practically a geek, finds release in extroversion. The few old friends who know of Ed's new passion don't bring it up.

"Maybe they think I'm nuts," he says. "I don't give a damn. I've found myself. I've got more friends than ever. A lot are Dan's, and that's fine by me." He can't recall an awkward moment with any of them.

If mourning is a letting-go, the Branthavers are in process. There's the scholarship fund they've founded in Dan's name, the friends they've made through shows, the party they have each year on his birthday. Joan still has to talk Ed out of getting a life-size photo of Dan for the house.

But one of Ed's goals is to scrapbook his son's life; he still can't bring himself to gather the pictures. Jerry photos, Dead stickers and poems from clients line one wall. Dan's ashes lie in a box in the living room, between a pair of baby shoes and a bottle of Grateful Dead wine.

"One day, we'll spread them on the Appalachian Trail, where Dan loved to hike," Joan says. "At least we think so. Just not yet. Maybe when it's time, we'll know."

Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.

-- "Brokedown Palace" (Hunter-Garcia)

On that West Virginia hillside, the sun sinks and multicolored stage lights come up. The star of the American Roots Music Festival, Donna Godchaux, who once sang in the Grateful Dead, sways with the music of her new group, the Tricksters. She croons a few old Dead tunes and some bluesy new ones. As fireflies light the summer sky, it feels like the Dead, but different.

Ed has only heard her on concert tapes -- Dan's tapes, in fact -- and he says with a smile. "This is super," he says. "Donna sounds great, doesn't she?"

This show is hard by the Potomac River, just across from Williamsport -- Ed's backyard -- and he showed up early. He found that if he sold CDs for two hours, they'd let him attend for nothing.

Between songs, a fellow in his 20s, in dreadlocks, comes over. He has seen the T-shirt slogan -- "SOME THINGS YOU CAN REPLACE AND OTHERS YOU CAN'T," a paraphrase of a Jerry lyric -- and points to the picture of Daniel. "Who's that?" he asks.

Ed turns to tell his story again. By the time he's done, they're embracing, the grieving dad and the wide-eyed hippie, and tears are in their eyes.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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