Are we merely three baby-boomers entering our goldish years and looking backwards for no reason other than we don’t want to look forwards? Does the horizon backwards seem now farther away, wider and broader than the horizon forwards? Farther away so richer in possibility than the horizon ahead? Richer in possibility so more inviting, enticing? “But that’s nonsense! The past is past because it’s no longer possible! The future, not the past, is the realm of possibility!” I guess you’re right; past is past and done is done.
Sort of. Sort of not.
I need, straight away, to absolve Jill and Skip. I’m fairly sure I’m the only only one of us who reads obituaries, always with a tinge of surprise. Jill and Skip are still going places. I though, despite having gone a lot of places, have never quite felt like I was going anywhere. Or wanted to. Or needed to. Instead, places, and lots of other life stuff, have come to me. They’ve happened to me, over and over. Mom’s primal wish for all of us was: “I just want you to be happy!” I’m amazed at how happy I’ve been, and am. Karl Jaspers late in life opened a set of lectures citing a poem he thought was from Angelus Silesius, but is not:
Ich bin, ich weiss nicht wer. I am, I know not who.
Ich kom, ich weiss nicht her. I come, I know not from where.
Ich geh, ich weiss nicht hin. I go, I know not where.
Mich wundert’s I’m amazed
dass ich glücklich bin. that I’m happy.
Let it be noted that Karl Jaspers, the old man who saw fit to cite this little poem, did so after, along with his wife, enduring virtual house arrest in Nazi Germany, both of them keeping cyanide pills at all times within reach, in expectation of a visit from the SS.
Jill has hit on the spirit of this blog by calling it ‘Views from the Back-Back’ and has encapsulated that spirit by announcing that we have stories to tell. The telling of stories, by its very nature, is a looking backwards. Even science fiction only pretends to look forwards while in deed looking backwards. Every story is once upon a time. Take it or leave it, we’re going to do a lot of looking backward.
But I’m still trying to figure out this blog thing. What is it? How to do it? I found myself wondering what the word even means, which for me generally means where the word came from. So I reached out once again for help from my handy online etymology dictionary, www.etymonline.com, which told me that ‘blog’ is the con-fusion of the words ‘web’ and ‘log’. Why say ‘weblog’ when ‘blog’ will suffice, eh? I didn’t have reason to wonder about the ‘web’ part of the word, so focused on the ‘log’ part. We all know what a log is, but why do we call it a log? Certainly it has nothing to do with tree logs, could it? Turns out, no, it does. My friend at etymonline explains that the first log was a ship’s log. A few hundred years ago, when shipping was so important but still pretty primitive, sea captains needed a way to reckon how quickly the ship was moving. The solution was to tie a piece of tree log to a very long rope and throw the log overboard. The rope had ribbons knotted onto it at regular intervals. Once the log was overboard and in the water, it would stay in place, while the ship proceeded forward. Shipmates would time how long it would take for the rope to be fully extended, which would provide the data needed to calculate the ship’s speed, which was measured in knots and recorded into the log.
So they too, while sailing forward, had good reason for looking backward. And modern ships still measure speed in knots. The past is always present. It’s done, but not finished.
So I guess it’s story time now. I’ll tell another story from our early days back in Ohio. I’m not sure why I’m telling this story, or telling it here, or telling it now. The simple answer might be that Jill has given me the assignment to tell stories and this is simply one of the stories I have to tell. But: it’s a story about frogs and I’m telling this story at the beginning of springtime and, where I live, one of the great features of springtime is the nightly singing of hundreds of frogs who share time and place with Dita and me, tree frogs piping down from the trees, bullfrogs grunting and gurgling from around our pond. And it’s nighttime, so those froggy friends are singing now. Maybe they want me to tell this story, here, now.
I’m pretty sure Dita’s the only one I’ve ever shared this story with.
Once upon a time, in southwestern Ohio, when I was about five years old (as best as I can tell from my poor version of a ship’s log), in the midst of an Ohio summer, I was given maybe my first official chance to enter manhood, and didn’t pass the test.
That summer, late one afternoon, Dad told me Granddad was in town and the two of them were taking me fishing that night. We would be gone all night, the entire night! I was five (I think), and had never done anything at night but go to bed, go to sleep. This night I was going to be up all night!
We ate dinner with everyone else, as always around the barnwood maple table which remains to this day my dinner table. Then we got ready to leave. How strange it was to get into the car with Dad, only he and I, the sun still in the sky but not very high, and leave everyone else behind. We drove out of the city, into the countryside, that Ohio farmland countryside of orderly open spaces, cornfield after cornfield, bunches of wild weeds lining the roadside, a border between road and cornfield, the insects of summer singing their songs from out of those wild weeds. I always loved driving down such roads in summer, car window open, listening to those bugs sing and sing and sing.
Dad said something about someone he knew at work knowing someone who had a farm which had ponds on it, which was where we were headed. We reached that farm a little before nightfall. Dad drove to a pond. Granddad was already there, already fishing. We got out of the car and joined Granddad, all three of us now casting lines, trying to catch bluegill. Dad, as always, was smoking his cigarettes. Granddad, as often, was smoking his cigars. We didn’t talk much. We kept fishing. I guess, but don’t quite remember, we caught a few bluegill. It got very dark and we kept standing there, on the edge of that pond, fishing. Way past my bedtime and we kept fishing. How new, how strange.
Then one of them, not sure which, said it was time to go. Turns out it didn’t mean going home and going to bed. It meant going to another pond, a much bigger pond, on the same farm. We went to that pond and there were many, so many, other men at that pond. They were getting ready to do something but I couldn’t tell what. No one had a fishing pole, which seemed strange. They had flashlights and spears. I had played plenty with toy spears. I had never seen a real one. I was the only child there. All those grown men, smoking, talking in muted tones, holding flashlights, holding spears. Almost as if going to battle.
The group moved down to the pond. The muted tones hushed and the work began. Men fanned out around the pond. They shone light beams into the pond, looking for frogs. When they spotted a poor frog, the spear went to work, did its work and another dead frog was put into a bag. And another. And another. And another. All night long. The insects of summer still sang, all night long, from the wild weeds, but the song seemed no longer sweet, had gone from major to minor. I tagged along, all night long, watching my Dad and my Granddad partake in this slaughter. Strange. So strange.
Still night, but not much night left, everyone suddenly looked at me. I had been a fly on the wall. Suddenly, I was the point of attention. What? Someone, not Dad or Granddad but someone, said, let’s see how the boy does! Someone else said, give him a gig! The night had taught me that these spears were called gigs. A gig was thrust my way, and I took it. A man walked me to the pond’s edge and shined a light beam into the water. Look there! There’s a nice big one! Go after him! Did I have a choice? We always have a choice but I struggled to see one as I was pushed and pushed, slowly, quietly, closer to that frog. Too soon I was in reach, in range, and I still couldn’t find my choice. The man whispered, come on now, do it. Do it. The man, the frog, the gig, the boy. What choice? Do it! Dad and Granddad watching. Everyone, all those men, watching. Do it! I had to do something and, up till the very last moment, that something was gigging that frog. I poised the spear, steadied my balance. Moment at hand and time to do. Then, in tandem with my lunge at the frog, something told me to pretend to lose my balance and miss my mark. I played the part well, almost tumbling into the water while the frog sprang lively away. I even nicked my left leg with the spear point a bit, enough to draw blood. I was proud of that blood. All the men laughed, and laughed. Good try son, maybe next time, son. I never noticed, probably on purpose, my Dad or Granddad. Did they laugh too? Probably. What did they think? Did I bring shame? Probably not, but maybe.
The sun rose, and we still weren’t finished. We were finished with the killing, but we weren’t finished. Time for breakfast. Time to take all those dead frogs out of all those bags, cut off the hind legs, discard the rest, toss the legs in a fryer, fry them up. The sun rose that morning over a bunch of men and one little boy, everyone, including the boy, eating leg after leg after leg. The sun rose that morning over a pond bereft of its frogs, but maybe one. The sun rose that morning over a boy who already sensed that growing up was maybe something he didn’t really want to do.
But do we have a choice?