An old man recounts his history...
THAT LITTLE OLD MAN
When I woke up this morning and opened my drapes I was a little surprised to see a little old man walking slowly past my house. Actually, he wasn't really walking. It was more like a shuffle. He must have seen me, because he waved. I waved back.
You're probably wondering why I would be surprised to see a little old man shuffling past my house. Well, for one thing, I hadn't seen this man in about six months. But it seems like it was a lot longer than that. Decades even.
I remember it was a cold January morning when I first saw him. A winter storm had blown in overnight and it was snowing something fierce. The wind was howling—it was practically a whiteout. And just as I did this morning, I opened my drapes and saw this same little old man wearing the same red and black, plaid woolen jacket fighting his way against this frozen hurricane. He didn't look like he was going anywhere fast; two steps forward, one step back. I kind of felt sorry for the old guy, so I opened my door and yelled at him to come up on my porch, figuring I'd offer him a cup of coffee to warm his bones for a few minutes. I didn't think he'd take me up on the offer, but as it turned out, he was more than grateful for my generosity.
After taking off his coat and hanging it by the fireplace, we sat down at my kitchen table and started to make small talk. He said his name was Ken. I could tell by the countless wrinkles under his eyes that he'd seen a lot of things in his life. I'm somewhat of a history buff, and it always interests me to hear what some of the old timers have to say. To hear it first-hand can be fascinating. At least to me. So I asked him how old he was, hoping to stir a story or two from his memory, provided he had any. Memory, that is.
Of stories he had only one.
I looked out the window. The storm wasn't letting up. In fact, it seemed to be getting worse, if that was possible. It didn't matter, anyway. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do that day, and I could tell he was in no hurry to leave. Besides, I wanted to hear his story.
And he was more than willing to tell it.
"Well," he said, "I was born in a log cabin in Rabbit Lake, Saskatchewan in 1922, so you do the math. That's up there in Canada, you know."
I said I did.
"Anyway..." He paused for a moment with a puzzled look on his face. He took a sip of his coffee and then said, "How much do you want to know?"
"As much as you'd like to tell."
"Alright, then. I'll give you the highlights, if you want to consider them 'highlights'."
He told me a story of picking blackberries with his mother and sister, Lorraine. He was 14 or 15, Lorraine 17. They were each working their own separate rows of bushes, with Lorraine in the middle one. It was deer season. Their buckets were almost filled and they were getting ready to leave when a shot rang out. A hunter with no license had mistaken Lorraine for a deer, killing her instantly with a shot through her throat.
"Jesus," I said.
"If it weren't for my mother holding me back, I would have killed that son-of-a-bitch right then and there."
I shook my head. I was wondering if his story was true or not, but then I thought 'who could make up a story like that?' And who'd want to, for that matter.
"I carried her home," he continued. "She would have been a senior in high school that year." He closed his eyes for a moment. "And do you want to know what happened to that 'hunter'?" he asked.
I nodded halfheartedly.
"They took his gun away and told him he couldn't hunt for five years. And fined him something like a hundred dollars."
"This was in Canada?" I asked.
"Yep," he replied. "But you have to remember, this was a long time ago, and it was an accident."
There was a look in his eyes. Something between anger and sadness. I couldn't tell which. Probably both. He finished his coffee and I refilled his cup.
"Let's see," he started again. "What was the next big 'highlight' of my life? I guess that would have been World War Two."
"What branch did you serve in?" I asked.
"Navy," he said proudly. That look had left his eyes, and I could almost see his chest puffing out. "Both theatres, Atlantic and Pacific. But mostly the Pacific."
"They say the Navy saved our butts in that war," I said, trying to boost his pride even higher.
Ken took a sip of his coffee and then sat back in his chair, staring straight at me. I don't know why, but I suddenly felt like a school kid sitting in front of the principal, waiting for his punishment. I wanted to look away, but he finally broke the ice.
"Yeah, I've heard that same thing myself," he said. "Maybe there's some truth in that. But let me tell you something, young man. I also believe that we couldn't have done it without all the branches of the service. Every single one of us put our life on the line for this country, regardless of which branch we served in. And we all did it for the same damn thing. And a lot of us didn't come back."
His voice rose as he said this, and then I definitely was that school kid, and he definitely was that principal.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to —"
He put his hand up to stop me.
"No, no. It's alright. It's just that...well, I guess you had to be there."
We sat there quietly for about twenty seconds, listening to the fire crackle and pop. Then he said something that caught me completely off guard.
"Say, you wouldn't happen to have anything to spice up this coffee, would you?" There was an impish grin on his face, the first real positive expression I'd seen since he'd walked in the door.
I smiled back. Hell, I had to. Like I said, I had nothing else to do that day. I stood up, went to the cupboard, and produced a fifth of Jack Daniels 'Old Number 7', three quarters full.
"Something like this?" I asked.
"Something like that," he answered.
I sat back down and touched up our coffees. He raised his cup up for a toast, and I raised mine. As they made a sharp 'clink', he said, "To the Irish."
"To the Irish," I said, and we both took a sip.
As we set our cups down on the table, I wondered if he still wanted to talk about the war. I decided I had nothing to lose.
"So...what kind of ship were you on, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Destroyer Escort," he said. "We weren't in any battles, but we did get hit."
"Hit?" I asked.
He told me a story of when they were in the Philippines in the middle of '43. He was a radar man on board the U.S.S. Evarts and they had just left port. When they were about twenty miles out to sea a terrific blast shook the ship. He said he'd just come on duty after leaving his bunk in the bow. They weren't exactly sure what had happened, but they figured they'd been hit by something. They were taking on water-fast.
"We had to back up those twenty miles to port in order keep from sinking. By the time we got back, we found our captain and three crew members dead in the bow where something had blown a thirty foot wide hole in the ship where the bunks were. Right where I was ten minutes earlier."
I shook my head. I didn't know what to say. Finally, I asked, "What was it?"
He took a sip of his spirited coffee and said, "We never knew exactly. It could only have been one of two things, though. A mine, or a one-man sub. They were both out there at that time of the war."
Ken looked at the clock on the wall, then to me. "You're not in any hurry to get rid of me, are you?"
I was still in my bathrobe. I held up the bottle of J.D. "I can't finish this by myself," I said.
He laughed, coughed a couple of times, then laughed a little more. "That's rich," he said. "So, do you want to hear some more?"
"By all means."
"Alright, then. Let's see. I guess the next one would be when I moved up to Alaska in 1950."
"Alaska, huh? I'll bet that was something."
"Oh, yes. Yes it was. That was before it was even considered for statehood. Went up there, got my pilot's license, shot my first moose, got married, and had a bunch of kids with my first wife."
It was my turn to laugh this time. Maybe it was the whiskey, but I could see he was loosening up. He finished his coffee and I did the same. I went into the living room and threw another log on the fire while he replenished our drinks.
"But that's not the highlight," he said as I sat back down.
"No. Don't get me wrong, though. My children are definitely highlights of my life. But I don't really have anything to tell you about them that might raise your eyebrows, other than that they're the greatest kids in the world. What I'm going to tell you about is Good Friday of '64."
I knew what he was talking about, and he told me a story about the Great Alaskan Earthquake. He said he was living in Anchorage at the time and had just gotten home from work to his second wife when the ground started to shake.
"Actually, when it first started it reminded me of being in the Navy and back on the ocean, because it wasn't really shaking. It was more of a rolling. But after about fifteen seconds of that, then all hell really broke loose."
He went on to tell me that it was the biggest earthquake North America had seen in recorded history, and even though there weren't a lot of deaths from the earthquake itself, there was a hell of a lot from the following tidal waves that hit as far away as Crescent City, California.
"Anyway," he said, "what really got me was how damn long that thing went on. It was like four minutes of trying to stand up, falling down, standing up, falling down. Christ, I didn't think it was ever going to stop. I accidentally broke my wife's arm when I was pulling her from the house."
"Four minutes?" I asked incredulously.
"Longest four minutes of my life."
We sat there in silence while I looked up at the clock and watched the second hand ticking off seconds. He knew what I was doing: I was trying to put myself in his shoes, to be there while all that was going on. After twenty seconds was up, I just shook my head and took a drink.
"You know, I just realized something," he said. "I told you I'd give you the 'highlights' of my life, but it seems everything I've told you so far were more like 'lowlights'.
I hadn't really noticed, but now that he brought it up, it was rather obvious.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"I just turned 49 last week."
He furled his brow and looked into my eyes, as if he thought I was lying. He took a drink.
"Well, that would mean you were born in 1960."
I nodded. He sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. I looked out the window and noticed that the snow had let up a little. You could actually see across the street.
"Do you remember Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon?" he asked.
I told him I did.
"Well, that's about it, then."
"Excuse me?" I asked.
He smiled a sad smile.
"That's about it. You see, other than my kids being born, and of course, my grandkids and great-grandkids, most of the 'highlights' in my life have actually been 'lowlights', as I've just come to realize. Yes, there were some other good things that happened in my life, but nothing I would consider a real highlight, at least by my definition. Sure, I saw Armstrong walk on the moon too, but I've also seen some of the worst things that could happen in a man's lifetime happen. And so have you. So I wouldn't really be telling you anything that you haven't already witnessed in your own lifetime." He shrugged his shoulders. "Sorry."
I wasn't sure what to say to that. It got me to thinking, though—about my own life and my own 49 years. And as much as I didn't want to admit it, he was right. It seems that a lot of the major things that happen in our lives, the ones we remember, are negative ones. It's a rare thing to turn on the evening news and listen to the top story being something good happening in the world.
We spent the rest of that morning finishing off the Jack Daniels and making more small talk. I got him to reflect on some of those other 'small' good things that happened in his life, and I shared some of my own with him.
Around noon the snow had stopped completely, and he said it was time for him to be getting home. I offered him a ride, but he insisted on walking. Maybe it was my imagination, but he didn't look as old walking out the door as he did when he walked in.
As I watched him make his way down the street, still fighting the wind, I had to envy the man. To see what he'd seen in his lifetime was staggering to me—from being born in a log cabin before television was even heard of, to seeing a man walk on the moon, to where we are today with computers and robots and all these other modern conveniences we all seem to take for granted. From seeing his sister killed, to fighting through the last World War, to seeing the Shuttle disasters and the Twin Towers fall, the man had seen more things happen in his lifetime than all of his predecessors put together. For better or worse, I admired the man.
I said at the beginning of this I was a little surprised to see that little old man walking—pardon me—shuffling past my house this morning when I opened my drapes. For one thing, I hadn't seen him in about six months.
And for the second thing, he died four days after that first day I met him.
Note: Although some of this 'fictional' story was compromised in regards to the ghost, I still wrote it as somewhat of a tribute to my father who passed away in 2004. But the events that took place in 'That Little Old Man's' life actually did happen to my dad.
Alvin Kenneth Jones
June 13th, 1922 - April 8th, 2004