The Other Side

Bonfires of the Memories


Young whippersnappers can hardly believe their ears when I’m talking.

It sounds like the History Channel when I trot out dinosaurs like “TV set,” “Beatles album,” “clock radio,” “I haven’t typed it up yet,” not to mention my annual summer disaster calling a flip-flop a “thong.”

Such anachronisms are just a few of the border crossing stamps on my Senior Citizen passport.

Twenty years ago, during the bad old days of Dubya’s presidency, a staff problem landed me improbably as a substitute in a middle school American History class. When the hour was over with no broken bones or glass, some students and I chatted about presidents. I carelessly mentioned there’d been not one, but two President Bushes. The 13-year-olds may have heard of the W one, but the HW? Never.

I shamelessly entertained the young historians with the factoid that I’d lived through 11 presidencies. No “Will this be on the test?” questions, so the teenagers started guessing which eleven. Their list petered out after Clinton and Kennedy. Distant memory bells tolled for Reagan and Nixon, but the likes of my Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, and Carter lineup might as well have been surnames randomly plucked from a phone book. Grasping at straws, Little Johnny came up with, “Lincoln?”

No, I wasn’t 140 years old. But it felt like it.

When you make it to the age that they say isn’t for sissies, you know a lot of old people and even more old stuff. Unfortunately, too much of the accumulated clutter is no longer worth knowing. Like how to use a pencil eraser to re-spool the loose tape hanging out of a Sir Mix-a-Lot cassette.

And, alas, too many of the old people are gone. As Casey Stengel observed, “A lot of people my age are dead.”

It’s easy to identify now with Rip Van Winkle. The world keeps changing, while, apparently, I’ve been asleep in a cave for decades. I’m outdated, and the sleep hasn’t even done much for my youthful looks.

Diogenes Laertius has the earliest written version of what was obviously an ancient folk tale. In it, Epimenides of Crete, seeking a lost ewe, wanders into one of those slumber-thon caves and falls asleep for 57 years. When he finally wakes up and returns to Cnossos, old Epimenides is as perplexed as Rip Van Winkle will be 1,500 years later. Time has passed for everyone but him, and everything has changed. Wandering around in a distant future, no one recognizes the young face of the old shepherd.

Having survived all those presidents, I’m old enough to remember hearing in school that the last Civil War veteran died. It was 1956.

My mother’s little sister, Ruth Coleman, was a student nurse the summer before I was born, and a wire photo of her at the hospital bedside of a soi-disant 106-year-old Confederate veteran made the newspapers in Texas.

The fact that Mr. Williams may not have been 106 years old in 1949, much less a Civil War vet, isn’t the point. Turning the pages of my grandmother’s scrapbook, Aunt Ruth told me about being a 21-year-old Cherry Ames and listening to a cranky old man who’d known Samuel Clemens and fought as a boy at Sabine Crossing.

Actuaries say that more Americans are living to be 80 and beyond. Already, many of us longevity medalists have known someone like Aunt Ruth who’s listened to tall tales told by a really old person like Mr. Williams.

Now that it’s our turn, oh the stories we’ll tell!

There’ll be “Satisfaction” and “Like a Rolling Stone” playing on AM radio and Led Zep’s 120-decibel Green Lake concert in 1969.

Or looking out on a Filucy Bay crowded with cruisers rafted together Memorial and Labor Days, the exploding skies of Phil Pascoe’s Fourth of July fireworks show above Drayton Passage, and live-music schottisches at the Firemen’s Ball in the Vaughn civic center.

You’ll hear Dominic and Shirlie Marietta’s banter at the old KC Liquor Store and about the heyday of Outernational Records, when the world’s foremost mail-order catalog of classic reggae records exported vinyl to collectors in Tokyo, London, Oslo and Istanbul from our Lakebay Post Office.

Will we have the hundred years Walt Williams had to retell these old stories? Time will tell — even if we don’t.

Near the end of the original “Blade Runner” movie, the Roy Batty character has the famous lines, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

Pair them with an African proverb, probably apocryphal, you may have seen circulating on the internet, “When a wise old person dies, a whole library disappears.”

The Key Peninsula’s snow-capped storytellers have seen things just as unbelievable, but they won’t be telling you about what happened off the shoulder of Orion or near the Tannhäuser Gate forever.

Every day, an entire Library of Alexandria of memories burns down. Tears in rain will not extinguish those inevitable bonfires of forgetting. Other than our memory of the old stories we’ve heard, all that will be left of the old stories lost in time will be mute ashes.

Time now to tell — and listen.

Dan Clouse lives a happy life on the older side in Lakebay.