Everybody called her Grandma Scott, but Eliza Scott (nee Lingstad) was nobody’s grandmother. The Scotts didn’t have children. Eliza was the eldest of three sisters, and she treated her younger siblings’ offspring with grandmotherly affection. My mother fondly recalled spending several weeks each year at the Scott farm helping to tend and feed the animals and taking baskets of food and water to the fields for the threshing crews at harvest time. She and her older sister Nora helped Grandma Scott make the sandwiches for the noon meal for the workers. And every morning she and Nora were dispatched to the barn to search for eggs deposited in secret places by the Scott’s brood of laying hens. My mother said there was nothing like having fresh eggs for breakfast. Eliza’s sugar cookies, as big as dinner plates, were a special treat as well.
I was five years old when Grandma Scott died, and I vividly remember the day of her funeral. The family gathered at the farm and traveled from there to a small country church for the service. After the funeral, a meal was served for family and friends at the farmhouse. I don’t remember a thing about the church service except that it was long and tedious, or so it seemed to me, but I was used to that. Every Sunday I attended church services with my parents, and that year I had begun Sunday School.
I remember what happened afterwards, however, with searing clarity, thanks to my second cousin Joy Ann, a precocious and unpleasant seven year old whom I passionately disliked. I had experienced her treachery at a previous visit to the farm. We had been playing in the barn, and I found an egg in the corner of a stall, picked it up, and promptly dropped it. When we returned to the house, Joy Ann reported what I had done to the women in the kitchen. I heard no more about the incident, so I guess my mother did not think it was a grievous sin, although I had a few anxious moments while awaiting the outcome.
My mistake the day of the funeral did not have such a happy ending, and once again I had my obnoxious second cousin to blame.
After the funeral, they brought the casket back to the house and placed it, open of course, as was the custom, in a small sitting room next to the parlor. After the meal–a repast of homemade bread, an escalloped potato and ham hot dish, carrot sticks, celery, and Jello–the gathered guests went into the sitting room, one by one or in small family groups, to pay their last respects to the dead.
I went in with my parents. I stared at the white and powdered face of the small figure in the casket. It didn’t look like Grandma Scott at all. Her nose with its gaping nostrils looked like some monstrous bird’s beak.
Later, it was my mother’s cousin and Joy Ann’s turn. When they returned to the parlor, Joy Ann, smug in her tartan jumper and shiny, patent-leather shoes, had a rapturous expression on her face. To my surprise, she was smiling. She approached me and said, “Oh, isn’t it wonderful? Grandma Scott is sleeping so peacefully!”
When I had digested this, I replied in a loud and scornful voice, “She ain’t sleeping. She’s dead!”
There may have been a few “is nots” and “is toos” after that, I don’t remember. What I do remember is my father, a very large man, swooping down on me, picking me up and covering my mouth with his hand.
Painful as it was, I learned a valuable lesson from that incident. What I learned is a truth that has smoothed the path of life for me many times in the years that followed, and that is that honesty is not always the best policy.
That night, on the way home, I got back at Joy Ann. My mother’s cousin asked if they could ride back to town with us, and of course my parents said yes. Joy Ann and her mother sat in the back seat, and I sat between my parents in the front. It was after dark when we headed for home. After some initial chit chat, our passengers fell silent. As we reached the outskirts of town, I looked over my shoulder to see if Joy Ann and her mother were asleep. Joy Ann’s head was on her mother’s shoulder and her eyes were closed. Of greater interest, however, was the fact that Joy Ann had the thumb of her left hand in her mouth. I turned around and reported what I had seen. “Joy Ann is sucking her thumb,” I said.
“Shush,” my mother said.
My barber, Frank, is the world’s most talkative human being. He is a tall, skinny man with straight blonde hair, big ears, almost no chin, and the bluest eyes you’ll ever see.
Frank is smart, forthright with opinions on an endless variety of subjects, and unburdened by the handicap of a formal education. When you sit down in a chair in his shop, you never know what else you are going to get in addition to a haircut. Last week it was a lecture on Intelligent Design.
“I get a kick out of these religious folks,” Frank offered after he had draped me with an apron and wet and combed my hair. “Trying to sneak God into the schools by the back door.”
“I’ve been reading about that in the newspaper,” I said. “I heard that the President put in his two cents worth on the subject yesterday.”
“Yes,” Frank said. “Did you read the story about it in the [I]Chronicle[/I] today?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“You know what the folks in the Department of Education in Sacramento call Intelligent Design?” Frank asked.
I confessed that I did not, which pleased Frank no end.
“‘Creationism Lite,'” he said. I could see his reflection in the wall mirror, and he was grinning from ear to ear.
“It’s not that I think it’s a dumb idea; I don’t. There’s got to be something out there running the show. It’s just that I think God could have done a better job. I mean, why did he have to make two headed cows and babies joined at the hip? Why did he make Republicans?”
“Well, you’ve got a point there,” I said.
“I mean, they should call it ‘Design for Dummies.’ That would make more sense.”
“So you really think there’s something to it? Creationism, or whatever else they’re calling it now?”
“I do,” said Frank. “I’m not a Christian. I don’t go to church. Natural selection makes sense to me. I just think that somebody or something had to start the ball rolling. I don’t care what you call it. God, Allah, The Great Spirit, The Big Enchilada–it makes no difference to me. What gets me is the feud that’s going on. The Darwinists and the Creationists calling each other names. Is there anything that makes less sense than a couple of experts with Ph.D.’s arguing with each other?”
I didn’t answer, but that didn’t put an end to Frank’s harangue. He was on a roll.
“You know what Ph.D. stands for, don’t you?” he asked.
“Doctor of Philosophy,” I said.
“Piled higher and deeper,” Frank said.
“Seriously,” Frank continued, “why can’t they just say look, science is science and the Bible is poetry, beautiful words and a hell of a good message, and let it go at that? Nobody really knows what’s what, so why not stop fighting and get to work on doing what we’re supposed to be doing, making this a better world.”
“Frank,” I said, “You’re a philosopher.”
“Damn right,” he said. “I mean, does anybody really know what happens when we die? Is there a heaven or a hell? I don’t know. Do you?”
“No,” I said.
“Did you hear the one about the priest who died and went to heaven?” Frank asked.
“I don’t think so,” I replied.
“Well, he opened his eyes and looked around, and the first thing he said was, ‘My God! It really is true!’ The guy who told me that story is a priest.”
“I don’t know, Frank,” I said. “I think I have to go along with Darwin on this one.”
“Let me tell you a story,” Frank said. “I know a guy who’s in A.A. He’s one of my customers. He said when he first got into the program, he was one of those, whadayacallit, not an atheist, somebody who doesn’t believe in God but doesn’t disbelieve either?”
“An agnostic,” I said.
“Right,” said Frank. “Well, anyway, this guy said he knew he was in trouble when he joined AA because they told him that to quit drinking, he had to believe in a Higher Power. Somebody or something had to remove the obsession to drink because nobody could do it by himself.”
“Is that how it works?” I asked.
“Yes,” Frank said. “That’s what this guy told me. Well, he hemmed and hawed around for awhile, and then he had an idea. ‘What happens if I cut myself?’ he asked, and he told himself that he could put a bandage on the cut, or if it was bad, he could go to a doctor and he would put in a couple of stitches. Now, in a week’s time or maybe a little more he could take off the bandage and the cut would be healed. Did he do that? The doctor? No. There was a healing force, some kind of process of nature, which enabled him to recover from the injury.
“So this guy said he reasoned that if there was a healing force for wounds, maybe that force could also cure him of his alcoholism. So that became his Higher Power. And you know what? It worked. The guy was into the shop the other day, and he told me that the day before he had celebrated his AA birthday. He has been sober for fifteen years.
“So some unseen power cured him?” I asked.
Frank nodded. “It was pretty strange,” he said. “One day all he could think about was having a drink, and the next day the obsession was gone. It was a miracle,” he said.
I asked Frank if he thought his friend was telling the truth, and he said oh, yes. No doubt about it. “I believe in miracles,” Frank said. “Don’t you?”
Stew and Gus were discussing the forces of good and evil. The two men had been friends for years. They lived many miles apart, but they corresponded almost daily by e-mail.
Stew believed in heaven and hell, and Gus professed not to believe in anything. Gus would be the first to admit, however, that he was familiar with the dark side.
“I believe in gods, devils, demons–the whole shebang,” Stew wrote. “It’s the only thing that explains suffering. Good and Evil exist side by side, and you can’t blame Evil on God. Or use it as evidence that there is no God. He does what he can.”
“You mean God gave us the birds and popcorn, and the Devil is responsible for voice mail?” Gus wrote back.
“It’s more complicated than that,” Stew replied, “but essentially yes. I think that in the beginning God and the Devil made a pact. They divided up human affairs like the Allies divided up Germany after the war. You get this, I get that.”
Stew had the flu. His stomach was in a knot, and he had a stuffy nose. His wife had had the bug the week before. “Poor Daddy,” she said, but she was not overly sympathetic. “Take Alka-Seltzer,” she said. “That’s what helped me the most.” Stew did as he was told. He sat down at the computer and logged on. He was feeling very sorry for himself.
“The trick is knowing which is which,” Stew wrote to his friend. “Knowing what God can do and what he can’t. God looks out for drunks, for example. He can help people stop drinking. But smokers are on their own. It’s not God’s business.”
Stew logged off and forced himself through his morning chores. When he had finished feeding the cats, including a gaggle of strays that camped on their doorstep in the morning, he went out on the porch in back of his house and lit up a cigarette. Afterwards he felt better.
At eight o’clock Stew called Nix and told him that he was sick and couldn’t go on their morning walk. “I think I’m going to die,” Stew told his friend.
“Well, you probably will some day,” Nix said.
Stew went outside and smoked another cigarette. He was smoking too much, he knew. He had quit smoking six months before, but then he had started in again. He smoked for a week then quit a second time. This time he lasted a month.
Why did I ever go back to it he asked himself. He sighed. It was the devil’s doing, he opined.
Over the weekend, the remnants of a Pacific typhoon rolled into the coastal area where Stew and his wife made their home. It rained Friday and off and on again Saturday and Sunday.
Saturday morning, returning to his house shortly before noon after running an errand for his wife, Stew was intercepted by a neighbor who asked if Stew would drive him up the canyon in his truck so he could release a skunk that he had trapped in the crawlspace beneath his house. Sure, Stew said. The neighbor’s battle with the skunks had been going on for weeks. First he had released the animals in a vacant lot just down the street. Then he realized that they were doubling back and getting in again. When he decided to remove the captives to a greater distance, he first tried putting the trap into the trunk of his car. That also proved to be a bad idea. At that point Stew’s wife Paula volunteered their truck for any future catch and release operations.
Stew drove up the canyon road for several miles, and then guided the vehicle onto a forest access road. He drove to the gate and stopped. His neighbor released the skunk, and the disheveled animal scrambled to freedom up the steep side of a grassy cut.
The neighbor returned to the truck, opened the door on the passenger side, and got in. “Phew! He got you, huh?” Stew said.
The man sighed. He looked tired and discouraged. The neighbor and his wife were immigrants. He was from Jordan, and his wife was from South Africa. They weren’t used to the rigors of American suburban life.
When they got back to the house, Stew told his new friend that he would give him the name of a handyman who could find and fix the broken vent that was giving the animals access. It was probably under the deck, Stew said.
Stew’s friend Gus had been complaining about his insomnia and depression. Stew told him to see a doctor.
That evening there was a message from Gus in Stew’s online mailbox. Gus said that he was going to talk to his doctor about treating insomnia. His doctor thought his depression was causing the insomnia, Gus said, but he thought she was wrong. Treating the depression didn’t help him sleep, he said. Sleep cured the depression, however. “A good night’s sleep puts the demons to bed,” Gus said.
Stew replied that he thought Gus’s doctor might be right. “You’ve always been a gloomy sort,” he said. “Maybe it’s brain chemistry. Maybe it’s a matter of perception. Some people see life as a comedy, and some people see it as a tragedy.”
Sunday was a busy day. Stew and Nix went for a walk in the morning. At noon Stew helped his neighbor relocate another skunk. After lunch he spent an hour at the animal shelter looking through the lost cat listings, seeing if he could match any of the entries to a part-Siamese visitor that had begun appearing on their back fence each morning and evening, looking for a handout. Stew kept an eye on the football game, too.
On their walk, Nix and Stew debated the usefulness of pain in the sobering up process. Nix, an A.A. old-timer, said it was essential; Stew said it was worthless. “We don’t remember pain, “Stew insisted. “Events, faces, scraps of conversation, trivial bits of information–we may recall these things years later. But feelings, no. When we don’t hurt anymore, we forget about it.” Pain couldn’t hold a candle to fear as a motivator, Stew said.
Nix disagreed. “Fear doesn’t keep you sober,” he scoffed.
“Yes, it does,” Stew replied. “People get sober because they have to, because they know if they don’t they’re going to die. That’s why A.A. doesn’t work with other addictions, with smoking, for example, or over-eating. There isn’t the same urgency.”
They walked in silence for a time, and then Nix, who liked to get in the last word, said, “I still say pain is necessary, in early sobriety anyway. It’s the memory of the pain of withdrawal that keeps the newly sober alcoholic from picking up another drink.”
Stew woke up Monday morning with a song in his heart. His wife was in the shower, and Stew stood in the doorway of her bathroom singing Happy Birthday to himself. It was his birthday. He was sixty-eight years old.
Mother Nature hadn’t greeted the occasion with a smile. When Stew got up at 5 A.M., the rain was pouring down. The floor of the porch in back of the house was slick with water. Stew had patched the roof the previous week, but it was apparent that he had missed some holes.
Stew booted up his computer and logged onto AOL. There was a message from Gus in his mailbox. Among other things, there was a question. Gus wanted to know if Stew and Paula were smoking.
“I’m not, she is,” Stew wrote back. He didn’t elaborate. Stew wasn’t fibbing. He had quit again the previous Wednesday. Tuesday he had felt so bad that he had moved up his quit day from the weekend, which he had previously planned. Miraculously, quitting was painless this time. Stew thought about smoking from time to time in the days that followed, but he didn’t have cravings. He had tried a new approach, which was to keep it simple and put aside the struggle. Previously his head had been filled with information from a stop smoking class that he had taken. He had made lists of reminders and posted notes to himself. He had made quitting a major chore. This time he decided to simply stop fighting, to just quit and see what happened.
He did just one thing in preparation this time. He vowed to reward himself for not smoking. He remembered the advice to be good to yourself from the smoking class and from the time more than a decade ago when he had stopped drinking.
Stew watched with a bemused interest as the day unfolded around him. After breakfast, he pitched into his morning chores. He emptied the garbage and cleaned the cats’ litter boxes. He put a load of clothes in the washing machine and ran the dishwasher. He thought about having a cigarette, but he put the thought aside.
Before lunch, Stew sent an e-mail to every friend and relative in his address book berating them for not sending him a card for his birthday. That afternoon, the replies began to trickle in.
By the time his wife came home from work, Stew had collected a stack of e-mails from kinfolk and friends. A college roommate said it was four days until his own birthday, and he didn’t want to be reminded of it. A cousin in Florida said that she had sat down at the computer hours ago intending to send him condolences, but she forgot about it. A Minnesota friend said she didn’t send him a card because she thought his birthday was the next day. “You’ll get your happy birthday then,” she said.
Stew built a fire in the fireplace, and Paula magically produced a shopping bag full of gifts and cards. One by one he opened his presents. There was a book by one of his favorite authors, a tiny flashlight, a warm jacket, and a new cell phone. Of the cards, his favorite was a Larson cartoon of an elderly man in a cape standing on a windowsill and saying to his wife, “Dang! Now where was I going?” The caption read: Superman in his later years.
Stewart couldn’t decide how he felt about the war in Iraq. He went back and forth. One day he was for it, the next day against. Meanwhile he monitored the news from the Middle East with a growing impatience. Was war a fait accompli, or was the buildup merely a bluff?
Stewart did not like to wait, and he did not like uncertainty. What bothered him most about the affair in the Middle East was that he couldn’t make up his mind about the proper course of action. He liked being right, and he could live with being wrong, but not knowing what to do or think was driving him crazy.
His friends were no help. Monday Stew had sent an e-mail to several dozen of his friends and relatives asking for their views. Wednesday morning he was more uncertain and confused than ever.
“What a bunch of wafflers!” he proclaimed. He wrote back thanking those who had responded and totaled up the score. “It’s Doves 9, Hawks 4,” he reported. In fact, few had a clear-cut, yes or no opinion.
The next morning, Stew leapt out of bed with more than his usual enthusiasm to greet the day. “What’s wrong?” his wife asked, turning on a light.
“Charlie horse,” Stew replied. He limped into the bathroom.
When the cats were fed and the coffee made, Stew went into the small bedroom in their home that they called the office and turned on the computer. It was time for the latest episode of his favorite soap opera, Saint George and the Dragon.
Stew read an op ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor that warned against the irresolute use of power in the service of confused policy. He also read a stirring defense of the looming war by John McCain in the New York Times. In the senator’s view, it was a fight for peace, liberty, and justice.
A cartoon by Bob Gorrell was good for a chuckle. The drawing pictured Tony Blair proposing several benchmarks that Saddam Hussein must meet to avoid war, number one being surrender.
That afternoon Stew sent an e-mail to a friend telling him that he had won the Wishful Thinking award for his response to Stew’s query about the war. The friend had written,
[i]Here’s what I hope happens. Assuming the US goes in: the Iraq military caves in after a few days of onslaught and Saddam is removed (eliminated?) and the Iraqi officials and general populace accept a US engineered governmental change. The campaign is short, our economy rebounds (Osama is finally killed) and the stock market goes up and the birds sing and the sky is blue and we all hold hands and sing “We are the World.”[/i]
Later that day Stew received an e-mail from another friend, a retired doctor. It was an article by Elie Wiesel reprinted from the Los Angeles Times. We had a moral obligation to intervene said the Nobel Peace laureate. Hussein was a madman with an arsenal of unconventional weapons, which was why we had to deal with him sooner rather than later.
That evening, at dinner, Stew told his friend Nix about the Wiesel article. “It really set my teeth on edge,” he said. Stew and several of his A.A. friends were seated at big, round table at an Italian restaurant. They had given their orders to the waitress, and Nix had asked Stew if he was going to change his bet on Iraq. They had been arguing about the outcome of the buildup in the Middle East for weeks. Nix said there wouldn’t be a war, and Stew said there would.
Stew told Nix that what he learned from his e-mailed request for his friends’ opinions was that he really didn’t want to hear it if it supported the case for war. Nix replied that it was like when a newcomer in A.A. asks his sponsor a question. “When the sponsor tells him what he thinks, the new guy gets angry,” Nix said.
Every Saturday and Sunday Stew and Nix went for a two-mile walk in a local business park. They walked for the exercise, but they also enjoyed the conversational give and take.
That Sunday Stew asked Nix for his opinion about the war. “I know you think it won’t happen,” Stew said, “but do you think it should? Are you for or against sending in the troops?”
Nix replied that it was hard to know because we didn’t have enough information. “The government is lying to us,” he said. Nix said he thought the war was more about oil and Israel than they were letting on.
“All in all, I’d have to say, no, I’m not for the war,” Nix said. “On the other hand, the President has drawn a line in the sand, so I suppose he can’t back down now.”
Stew nodded his agreement.
That afternoon, another one of Stew’s A.A. friends e-mailed him a petition against the war. He was supposed to add his name to the list and send it on to all of the people he knew. There were 335 names on the list, many of them from France and Sweden. Stew forwarded the petition to Nix and then deleted it.
The following night, at an A.A. meeting, Stew apologized to Nix for sending him the petition. “The devil made me do it,” he said. Stew knew that Nix, a burly Vietnam vet, did not like peace marchers and anti-war protesters.
Nix asked Stew if he had heard the President’s speech that evening. Stew said yes, and Nix asked him what he thought of it. “I thought it was good,” Stew said.
“Me, too,” Nix said.
Earlier that evening, the President had issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein that in effect signaled the beginning of the war. What the people at the meeting seemed to like best about the speech were the comments directed at the French.
The topic for the meeting was boundaries. The secretary picked that topic, he said, because he was having trouble at home, and he couldn’t fix the problem. He didn’t like the feeling that he wasn’t in control of his life, he said.
When the secretary called on Stew, he said that he used to have problems with boundaries, but he didn’t anymore. He had learned to say no, he said.
When it was Nix’s turn to talk, he said that he agreed with Stew. It was a matter of self-esteem. “It’s hard,” he said, “but you have to learn to set healthy boundaries.” He told the story about his older son who got in trouble with the law one night and ended up in Juvenile hall. Nix and his wife let him stay there four days. When the boy got out, Nix asked him how he liked jail, and his son said he didn’t. He never went back, either, Nix said.
After the meeting, several of the men gathered in the parking lot to socialize for a few minutes before going home. One of the men passed around a copy of a photograph of a U.S. trooper in the middle of the desert. The trooper was urinating on a monument to Saddam Hussein.
Tuesday morning the news was that Saddam would stay and fight and that U.S. and British forces were massed by the frontier in Kuwait. The arms inspectors had packed up and left Iraq, as had the French and Greek envoys. Military experts expected a war to begin at night–though a full moon might lessen the cover darkness might give.
Meanwhile, the nation was put on alert against terrorist reprisals. Three government ministers had resigned in Great Britain, and French President Jacques Chirac claimed that there was no justification for the decision to use force. The Russian President and German Chancellor were also unhappy.
The Iraq people stocked up on food and other essentials. In Baghdad several thousands Iraqis held a government-organized demonstration and urged a jihad, or holy struggle, against invaders.
In the Kuwait desert, U.S. and British troops packed up tents and prepared to invade. “Finally, we’re going somewhere,” said a sergeant with an army engineering unit.
Elsewhere in the world, oil prices dropped 10 percent and stocks jumped. World opinion on the wisdom of the war was divided. Some feared more violence in the U.S. and beyond. The U.S., Britain, Spain, and Italy accused doubters like France, Germany, and Canada of repeating the mistakes of those who appeased Adolph Hitler in the 1930s. Meanwhile, resistance to helping U.S. forces appeared to be softening. Turkey was said to be ready to open its airspace. The previous day, Australia had announced its support for the U.S. position, and Poland said that it was sending two-hundred troops.
That evening when his wife got home from work, Stew told her that he thought that most people would be relieved once the war got started.
Paula gave him a look that said, “Speak for yourself.”
The next morning, before he got up, Stew lay in bed watching one of their cats play a game that she played every morning. The cat, a calico, first chased the other cats off the bed, then, immensely pleased with herself, she lay down on top of the comforter and began to chase her tail.
Getting old is no fun. The worst thing about it is that you hurt all the time. I’ve got a bum knee and a bad hip. Old war wounds. I don’t know what I would do without Advil. My cousin, who is younger than I am, says old age is not for sissies, and I agree.
When you get to be sixty, your friends start dropping like flies. I lost another one last year. An old college buddy died of cancer. It was his second go-round on the cancer front. He had colon cancer, but he survived that. A few years later, the disease showed up in his liver, and that got him. A few years ago another friend discovered that he had a tumor the size of a golf ball in one of his lungs. They took that out, and he’s still alive and kicking. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’re always looking over your shoulder when you’re old enough to keep an AARP card in your wallet.
My wife, who is twenty years younger than I am, watches me like a hawk. She’s worried that I will get senile or develop Alzheimer’s, both of which run in my family. Forget about it, I tell her. I’m fine. Worry about me when I get to be eighty. That seems to be the pattern. All my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side got dotty at the end. The good news is that they lived to be eighty or ninety.
I tell my wife to stop holding her breath. I’m fine, I say. As long as I can work the crossword puzzle, I’m okay. The New York Times crossword puzzle: that’s my Alzheimer’s test, I tell her. When I can’t do the Friday or Saturday puzzle, then you can start worrying.
One day last week, I came back from my walk and discovered that I had lost my house keys. Unfortunately, my wife was home; it was her day off. I had to drive across town to the business park where I take my morning constitutional. I found the keys in the parking lot.
The next day my wife told the story to everybody at work. They all thought it was pretty funny. I accused her of stopping strangers on the street to tell them about her mentally incompetent husband.
Actually, old age is a laughing matter–if aches and pains and the occasional lapse of memory are all you have to worry about. When it gets serious is when you are very old. I learned this last year when my mother, who’s ninety-one, had a stroke. She survived, but the life she lives today is no life, or so it seems to me. She can’t talk or feed herself. She spends her days in bed or in a wheelchair, looking out the window. She doesn’t seem to be in any discomfort or distress. It is as if the blow that took away her mind mercifully took her feelings as well.
And then there’s Walter. Walter is an old Dutchman that I met in 1988 when I first started going to AA meetings in the city where I now make my home. Walter was old then, in his eighties. At that time he had been sober for forty years. There were other old farts at that meeting, but nobody else had as much sobriety as Walter. I loved sitting next to Walter at meetings. I’d sit between Walter and another senior citizen named Frank, and when it was my turn to talk, I’d brag that between the three of us-Walter, Frank, and I-we had over seventy-five years of sobriety. Since I had been sober for only a few months, that always got a laugh.
I began driving Walter to meetings after that. I guessed that at his age, he had trouble driving at night, so I asked him if he would like me to pick him up, and to my surprise, he said yes. I was surprised because Walter is an independent cuss. Touchy, too. He wasn’t offended, however. He seemed to like the idea of having taxi service.
I drove Walter to meetings for ten years. I didn’t expect my tour of duty to be that long, but that’s the way it worked out. At first I didn’t mind; I enjoyed Walter’s company. Walter had a checkered past, as he would tell you himself. He had some wonderful stories to tell. Once he walked from Niagara Falls, New York, to Oakland, California, he told me. It was in the winter, too. The year was 1923. He was seventeen years old, he said. He hitched rides and hopped freight trains, but most of the time he walked. I asked Walter why he left New York, and he said it was because of a woman. He had a girlfriend in Oakland.
He had other stories to tell, too, stories from his drinking days, some of which he told in meetings and some he didn’t. He often told his bus to Portland story in meetings, about how he woke up one morning in a bus station in Portland, Oregon, not knowing where he was or why he was there. The last thing he remembered he was drinking beer at a bar in Oakland. He told about waking up in jail, too, and being told by somebody in another cell that he had shot a cop. It wasn’t true, but Walter didn’t find that out until they let him go.
Some stories he didn’t tell in meetings were how he quit smoking and how he lost his teeth. He threw his cigarettes out the window one morning, he said, because he had a cold, and they didn’t taste good. His teeth got the same treatment. He was having trouble with his teeth, so he walked into a dentist’s office and told the dentist to pull them all, which he did. Afterwards, as he was leaving the office, he almost passed out, Walter said. Tough old bird, that Walter.
Walter began to fail badly a year or so ago. His hearing went first, then his legs. Taking him to meetings became a chore, but, I told my wife, it was the only way he got out of the house at all. I’d like to have a tape recording of some of our conversations on the drive in recent months.
Me: Blah, blah, blah.
Walter could walk, more or less, with the help of a cane, but getting him in and out of my truck was an adventure.
They put Walter’s wife in a nursing home two years ago, and about a month ago they did the same thing to Walter. They’re both in Sunset Acres in Hayward. Walter didn’t go quietly. I got the story from Mae, a shirttail relative of Walter’s wife, who in recent years had looked after the old couple in exchange for room and board. I don’t know if what Mae told me is fact or fiction-probably a bit of both-but this is what she said.
Walter got sick, and Mae called Veronica, Walter’s daughter-in-law, because Walter wouldn’t go to the hospital. Veronica called for an ambulance, but when she did, all she got was a busy signal, so she called 9-1-1. The fireman arrived first, and they tried to get Walter into the emergency van without much luck until they strapped him onto a gurney.
“He smacked one of them,” Mae said.
“He hit a fireman?” I asked.
Mae said she had gone down to the firehouse the next day to apologize. “You should see his face,” she said. “It’s black and blue.”
I told the AA folks about Walter’s little adventure, and most of them thought it was pretty funny. They seemed to be more delighted than surprised that Walter had hit a fireman. I had everyone sign a card that I brought with me to the meeting, and a day or so later, I went to see Walter at Sunset Acres.
As far as senior homes go, Sunset Acres is neither the best nor the worst, but believe me, I wouldn’t want to live there. The place has “last stop” written all over it. There are lots of people in blue or white coats bustling around, and lots of pale, wrinkled old people in sweat clothes sitting in wheelchairs.
I didn’t recognize Walter when I saw him. He was sitting in the corner of one of the common rooms, his chin on his chest. One of the employees roused him for me and wheeled him out to the foyer where I could sit down and get a good look at him.
He seemed okay, not in any distress. We talked for a few minutes, or rather I talked and he listened. He kept nodding off. I put the card that his AA friends had signed into his hands, and he looked at that for awhile, and he seemed to be pleased.
“Tell me one thing, Walter,” I said just before I left. “Did you really pop a fireman?”
That seemed to rouse him. He smiled. “Maybe,” he whispered.
When I left, I looked back, half expecting him to be shaking his fist at me, his eyes bright with mischief and defiance, but his chin was back on his chest.
I had a doctor’s appointment the day the passenger jet lost its tail and made an unscheduled stop in Queens. My wife called from work to tell me about it. Sick to my stomach, I searched the online news websites for details. Nobody had much information.
I went outside and smoked a cigarette. The sky above the hills to the east was a wash of pink and gold. To the west, behind the house, rain clouds the colors of ashes were bunched like fists.
Later it began to rain. The water pounded on the roof, sending the cats flying for the bedroom, where they huddled cheek to jowl beneath the bed.
My appointment was a routine matter. I go in every six months to have my blood checked. I think my doctor feels the need to lecture me on the evils of smoking every once-in-a-while as well.
After the checkup, I went to lunch with my wife, who works in the clinic, and one of the other nurses. Later the doctor joined us. Nobody said anything about the tragedy in New York. The conversation was office gossip and chitchat.
The medical folks, knowing what was what about calories and cholesterol, ate lightly. Without apology or a twinge of conscience, I wolfed down a ham and egg salad sandwich and a piece of pumpkin pie.
The next morning the news was better. The Northern Alliance had waltzed into Kabul, and the guys in black hats were heading for the hills.
Weekdays I go for a walk in the morning with a friend. Our walking trail is a par course that winds through a business park on the southern edge of the city. On our walk that day, my friend told me that the Baptists were up in arms about the Harry Potter movie. According to them, it was satanic. I pointed out that the Bible has some wild and crazy stuff in it, too. My friend said that our religious nuts were as bad as the Muslims. My friend believes in God, but he doesn’t care much for religion.
Wednesday morning I read a story on the CNN Website about the rebels taking over a radio station in the Afghanistan capital and hiring women to read the news. Oh boy, I thought. Maybe we should hire the cowboys to do our public relations, too!
I checked my e-mail, and there was a message from my cousin in Minneapolis. It was a joke about a veterinarian, a cat, and a Labrador retriever. I had heard the joke before. I wrote back and told him that I was cheered by the fact that the good guys were winning the war. I also told him that I wasn’t going to fly on airplanes anymore.
My cousin replied that travel by air was safer than driving. Also he said he worried that the guys in the white hats would turn around and become the guys in the black hats.
I wrote back that you have to have faith in something.
That night I went to an AA meeting. The meeting secretary had dark smudges under his eyes; he looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. I asked him what was wrong, and he said that he had been in a car accident that afternoon. The car was a rental. His truck was in the shop because somebody had broken into it and stolen the radio the week before.
The meeting topic was gratitude. The secretary said he wanted talk about that because he was feeling pretty sorry for himself when he walked into the meeting.
A man who had been sober for nearly thirty years said that he was grateful for the things he did not have. He didn’t have a bail bondsman anymore, he said. And he didn’t have to get his financial advice or marriage counseling in bars.
When it was my turn to talk, I said that when we talked about gratitude in an AA meeting, I always thought about the pamphlet titled “Why We Were Chosen.” I don’t know why I was picked to get well, I said, but I was. I guess I just got lucky, I said.
My wife and I get up early in the morning, my wife because she has to go to work. I get up early because that’s when I wake up. I’m an early riser. Thursday morning I was up at five o’clock. I fed the cats, and then I went into the room in our home that we call the office, and turned on the computer. I went online and checked the latest news. There was a story about a plan in the works to destroy the United States. Mullah Omar was quoted as saying that “America will fall to the ground.” This wasn’t about weapons, the Mullah said. The extinction of America will come about if God is willing.
For some reason this story cheered me. I told my wife that I would be very surprised if God were on the side of the Taliban.
Thursday is the day the trucks pick up the garbage in our neighborhood. The sun was still below the foothills to the east of our house when I went outside to get the empty saucers and other containers that we use to feed the stray cats. An Oriental woman carrying two bulging plastic sacks was raiding the recycling bins, picking out the aluminum soda cans, I surmised. As I watched, she went from bin to bin up and down the street. Then she got into her car and drove away. As she left, I noticed the logo on the rear of the car. It was a Mercedes.
Holy Moses, I said to myself. Is this a great country, or what?