|PHOTO: Kevin Stryke|
Whenever he was asked about “the big one” he’d mumble, “Me, didn’t do much.” This is from a man who was well decorated for bravery and valor, too many citations to count. On the topic of dogs he’d sport, “I hate dogs… but they love me,” all the while concealing a pocketful of doggie treats. While he never acknowledged the many accomplishments in his life he was quick to praise others, my Tiki porch, Lynda’s garden of dreams and the achievements of the many youth who crossed his path while he visited our humble seaside town.
This was Arthur, but not always.
Returning from the war Arthur found his bride Kathleen, a dance ticket that found him his life partner. Together they hunkered down, had children and cultivated the American dream.
Dreams don’t last forever. The harsh reality inevitably wakes us from our bliss. The scourge of Alzheimer’s disease took his wife, the mother of his children. She was still there in the room he visited daily but only in the physical sense. Like the war he served without question, it went on too long. Still he stoically held vigil as days turned to months, months to years. Gradually his social, albeit measured, countenance withered with his love’s memories.
This is when I met Arthur, a man of few words, going through the motions because his God so willed it. He had survived five heart procedures, all but lost his sight and even his hearing was going south. Such a series of trials would make one think that the Fates were testing his dauntless resolve. If you asked him between his perpetual visits to the nursing home and his tending to his yard how things were going he would likely respond, “not much,” few words, all action.
It was the 4th of July weekend, a holiday when all Americans celebrate what they hold most dear. These liberties were paid in full by the men and women like Arthur who faced mortality and its toll so that we could all eat grilled hot dogs and shoot off fireworks at dusk.
My job was to disc jockey the block party. Arthur attended. This was a big thing. Arthur doesn’t party, well, not any more. I was cordially introduced to him as he was escorted, much against his will, to a safe chair where he wouldn’t fall. Arthur didn’t need help. He was determined to stand on his own even if his body wasn’t up for the task.
The afternoon slowly past, tolerant would best describe his demeanor. When I approached his table I began some pleasant small talk when he stopped me mid-sentence and asked me if I had the song Quiet Village. I did.
Quick history lesson. Quiet Village performed by Martin Denny and his Orchestra was an instrumental hit single in 1959. It was a beautiful mistake. He performed regularly at the Shell Bar, a Hawaiian resort with an outside lounge. Enlisted men stationed there would frequent the nightclub. One day a soldier requested that he play the song with all the bird calls and frog sounds in it. There was no such number. On the day the troop had heard them perform live birds and animals were chattering all around. An idea was born and the band added bird calls to the lazy exotica tune and the rest is history. It was the highlight of the exotica era, a time when American servicemen could put on a record or go to a Tiki bar and recall faraway shores and boomers struggling to build a life could escape on the first of what we now call staycations.
Soon Lynda's garden was filled with the sound of tookie-tookie birds and tickled ivory. The music, Lynda’s palm trees and party lanterns, and the wave of smiles and laughter around him must have taken Arthur back to a time when his burden was not quite so heavy. He opened up, smiles were quickly swallowed and he slowly joined in the festivities. It was subtle, but distinct. The next day as we cleaned up the party’s aftermath his daughter told me, a bit astonished herself, that Arthur actually enjoyed himself that day, words Lynda so wanted to hear.
Years past and Arthur became a part of our lives. He looked forward to whenever we got together. We were welcomed to call him anytime and catch up. He even let one of our teens write a paper on his life. I personally appreciated his warm, fatherly affection as I found myself faltering. The last time we were together he hug me so firmly as if to absorb my petty tribulations and add them to his own, a burden he was more accustomed to carrying. We had become his extended family and we in turn were able to help this man enjoy once more what his sacrifices gave us, a land where freedom, friends and family could lift us all up.
On the day he past he called his daughter Lynda and matter-of-factually told her to go to the hospital because he was dying. No joke. No swan song, no dramatic bedside finale, just a man taking on the chin what life gave him once again. I was floored by this. His passing was an eventuality as much as we pushed that fact aside, but his spirit was deathless.
I will always be inspired by his time in my life and will try to learn the lessons he offered. I pray for such resolve but know that I will go kicking and screaming, nailing the door shut in a feeble attempt to keep Death from darkening my foyer.
I’d like to think that Arthur has found again a quiet village, his bride in his arms, toasting with my Mom and Dad who both shared the same spunk and heart, but that’s just me. I’m not Arthur. Me, I’m just a freshman in Art school.