Threads string down from the left sleeve end of the thirty year old blue blazer sagging from the peg behind the office door. The hem is creeping out with age and wear. It has seen the pilgrimage of too many teenage searchers in the wilderness of prep school academics. How many exaggerated names have washed over the now dangling faux gold buttons during unremarkable services celebrating fleeting mini-glories founded on misinformed opinions from those who know better?
How many breathed and un-breathed howls and screeches of disappointed parents worked their way into the dark weave like so much smoke accumulating for three decades? Perhaps the pockets still echo with the cacophony of joy, pain, and boredom as competing valedictory addresses seek asylum from the curse of time. Yet, cycles serve the watched and watcher well. Persistence has its role.
The stained, picked, sagging blue played its role–perhaps better than the owner.
“Although I’m free to roam
My body has tricked me again”
—-Sean Rowe, Bring Back the Night
“Sailin’ on a midnight boat,
There were no questions asked,
Water’s so green and the air was so clean
That he stuck right to his task, Havana daydreamin’, . . .”
——Jimmy Buffett, Havana Daydreamin’
Now deep in the heart of a lonely kid
Who suffered so much for what he did,
They gave this ploughboy his fortune and fame,
Since that day he ain’t been the same.
See the man with the stage fright
Just standing up there to give it all his might.
And he got caught in the spotlight,
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again.
—– Robbie Robertson, Stage Fright
“When I woke up this morning, things were lookin’ bad
Seem like total silence was the only friend I had”
—— John Prine, Illegal Smile
He was in the hospital. Seems like he spent too much time there between malaria, tuberculosis, and the birth of his children. The doctor said he had phlebitis, and they had to strip a vein in his leg. Later I would learn about that pain — diagnosed with it at the ripe old age of sixteen. (I did not need the knife)
My Dad was a reader of stories. Mama had purchased a small pile of paperback books, ammunition for the hospital duration. Somewhere during the phlebitis episode he handed me a small 1950s size paperback with an orange cover and the photograph of a hunter. He had finished the volume and was passing it on.
“You need to read this. You are going to think it is about hunting, but it is really a book of philosophy.” Uh, sure. Always wanted to read philosophy, but at least there was going to be hunting. A red-stocked, single-shot, Harrington & Richardson .410 shotgun was my first gun at age nine. It would be the only shotgun I ever owned until my grandfather died, and I got his a ragged .20 gauge double barrel he bought in a pawn shop. If I had to gag down a little philosophy to be immersed in the hunt, I was all in.
Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy became the epigraphical touchstone of my adult life. Revisited as a college student; annotated; passed on to adult friends; re-received in a new edition from those friends so I did not have to lend the precious aging paperback with my Dad’s fingerprints on it; and the forge of a bond with a colleague who shared Ruark’s and my experiences hundreds of miles from my youth. (Thanks, Jack M.)
Now much out of favor with many because it is built around hunting (thus killing) wild animals, echoes the racist, gender-biased culture of the 1930’s American South, and does not resonate with the hyper-speed, i-phone, non-reflective experiential learning culture of 2018. The book adheres to the soul of those who still wonder at Orion in the winter sky, wait for the green sky of hurricane season, and feel the curve of a hand built wooden boat. Ruark continues to speak to the pilgrims who know that the natural quiet of an estuary at dusk delivers a more profound sermon than the screeching brimstone hammered down from an American Express-driven mega church pulpit. To wit:
“As I remember the Old Man, he never said anything at all that you couldn’t walk away from three ways and still find a fresh idea in it. I got to where I could listen to him with only one ear, separating the meat from the philosophy, and it wasn’t until a lot of years later when I grew up to be a man that I found I remembered more philosophy than meat.” —-Robert Ruark, The Old Man and The Boy
The lord’s minister entered the space and the occupant, a lone figure yellow with light; gray with mood; read without pages.
“You are “ronin”? He asked.
Stiffly, “Your sword is required.”
“Does your master not have many sharp loyal blades? I am “ronin”, with no lord.
“You are sought.”
“My question begs.”
“The need is specific. Loyalty alone will not suffice.”
“How did you find me? ”
“You are known, but not cast out, nor yet in a far land.”
Solemnly, “You will continue to roam.”
“Ah, condemned to the dungeon of freedom!”
“We are all condemned to one space or another.”
“The task has my blade. Your lord has my thanks.”
The yellow and the gray loitered.
“But down here under heaven
There never was a chart
To guide our way across
This crooked highway of the heart
And if it’s only all about
The journey in the end
On that road I’m glad I came to know
My old friend.”
—–Emmylou Harris, “The Road”
He was a man of little wealth, but great taste, infinite jest, a mind and wit of Toledo steel, with a beautiful sense of the darkest irony; a master of the classical allusion. The sort of man whose tide of personality invited you to surf the big waves of life’s winter storms or sent you clamoring up the beach to remain a shy observer; erudite with a restless curiosity not uncommon to those who live on the crests of the storm tide. He lived in many forms, in many eras, but always as himself. He was my colleague, a chum, a friend. And yes, he had sympathy for the devil.
“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose site of the shore for a very long time.”
—Andre Gide, 1926