Friday, September 16, 2011

the warm bathtub of memory

This morning, for no reason I could discern other than the smile it put on my face, I found myself lowered into the warm bathtub of memory ... into the times when, after a night of drinking at a bar in Monterey the three of us favored, a place where we were all smitten with the waitress Rowena Gunby Halsey Jones and I could pump the player piano after inserting the paper rolls that promised mazurkas ... Bill and Joe and I would stuff ourselves into Joe's red MGB sports car and ride back up the hill to the Army Language School we were all attending in California. It was 1962.

William B. McKechnie III -- whose middle initial B. stood for nothing whatsoever and was probably laid on him,  as it had been laid on his father and grandfather before him, at a time when only the wealthy had middle names and those who were not wealthy wanted to seem that way. Bill, who would go on to try to carry on the family tradition of managing professional baseball teams and come up short. Bill, who would never marry and later die after settling down to buying and selling used items that were short of antique but interesting nevertheless.

Joe Rader -- who came from a truly hard-scrabble background in Tennessee, a place where his mother stirred the dirty clothes in a large vat over a fire in the backyard and where Joe once got so furious with his stepfather that he hit him with a tire iron ... "I wanted to kill him." Joe, whose car was but one indicator of his fierce determination not to be poor. Joe, who would sip Jack Daniels where Bill and I drank beer and then, when drunk enough, would put in a long-distance to Jinx back in Tennessee, a woman twice his age whom Joe loved with passion and would later marry, only to have her die in a car accident. Joe, who could sometimes be found in his barracks room, tears streaming down his cheeks as his listened to the opera, "Madame Butterfly." Joe, who, after Jinx' death, came out of the homosexual closet, got hooked on heroin and by his own word, became the homosexual scourge of the campus at which he was a librarian. Joe, whose fate today I do not know.

There the three of us would be, stuffed into Joe's zippy little sports car, three sheets to the wind, hollering and laughing about whatever came to mind. And Bill, who spoke no French, could become entranced when, drunkenly, I would declaim at the top of my lungs, the first lines of a 16th century poem I had once been forced to commit to memory ...

Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage,
Ou comme cestuy-là qui conquit la toison,
Et puis est retourné, plein d'usage et raison,
Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge !

Quand reverrai-je, hélas, de mon petit village
Fumer la cheminée, et en quelle saison
Reverrai-je le clos de ma pauvre maison,
Qui m'est une province, et beaucoup davantage ?

I always forgot to add the second line, but who cared -- there was a longing and softness in the lines that took me to some place within that was half-remembered and full of love, a place where, having gone forth, any man might return and, at last, be at rest. Bill would laugh at the sheer delight of hearing a language he knew nothing about and yet, I think, could feel the lullaby of sentiment. Joe too would laugh. Hell, we all laughed. The night air was good, we were three sheets up and who knew what wonders and mysteries lay ahead of us?

Plein d'usage et raison ... "full of experience and reason" is how it translates (perhaps wrongly) in my mind. To be at rest and at home with the experience that time has provided. No need for more adventure and scrambling to understand and control events.

This ... is enough.

And it is worth a smile.

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