CHAPTER 7: I Remember...
On the evening of 20 July, 1969, I was in a canoe on a lake in New Hampshire. It was a crystal clear night, and as I gazed up at a nearly-full moon engulfed by a sea of stars, I thought, "There are people up there, right now."
In the naivety of my youth, I was awed by the accomplishment. I'm still awed today—even more so, now that I understand how impossibly difficult it was, technically—but that feeling has been overtaken by cynicism. It cost over $24 billion (with a B) to pull off what was essentially a political stunt, a means to intimidate our adversaries, both real and imagined, with bragging rights. That was its true purpose. Sure, some decent science came as a result, but in truth, humanity could have survived quite well without that information. Or we could have obtained it robotically, at a fraction of the cost.
I'm not at all opposed to space exploration; I'm as driven and anxious as the next person who dreams of visiting other planets. Both science fiction and science fact have been a lifelong passion. Yet lately I've had to temper that passion with a good healthy dose of reality: in light of the embarrassingly primitive developmental stage humans occupy right now, and given our utter failure at proper stewardship of our home planet, we've not earned the right to indulge in such fantasies. Worse, based on the way things are headed right now, I suspect we never will.
Largely of German descent, my father imparted a vague, unsettling air of Nazi-ism; that he occasionally used German words heightened the effect. He treated eating purely as a necessity, not something to be enjoyed. If he was asked how he liked his meal, a reply of "edible" was high praise. He chewed with his mouth open, often taking a swig of milk with each shovelful of food, and there in that hole in his face was a disgusting churning image, rather like a garbage disposal.
Meanwhile, I was scrawny, with a perpetually tiny appetite. Alas, my mother had zero tolerance for me not finishing the heap of food she'd pile on my plate, and it would often be a struggle to choke it all down. She would not leave the table until my plate was clean (lest I might sneak the remainder into the trash). So, on one side of me was the human garbage disposal, and on the other was my mother, red-faced from repeatedly screaming, "EAT, DAVID!" Most nights I left the table on the verge of vomiting.
After college, I went back to work for my high school sign painter boss, a.k.a. Charles, the former race car driver/therapist. I'd gone up to our painting studio to work on a sign that had to be redone. Unfortunately I'd neglected to open the air vent in the ceiling of the windowless room, and after using paint stripper for a few minutes, the room began twisting into unnatural shapes, the voices on the radio grew unintelligible, then it all faded away.
I came to on the sidewalk. Charles had come to check on my progress, found me slumped over the workbench, dragged me outside and, after I regained consciousness, drove me to the hospital.
Thus he saved my life twice: once as my unofficial therapist in high school, and once as my boss. Had he not come to check on me, I wouldn't be alive to write this. It took many years for me to acknowledge this as a near-death experience.
Charles did much more than hire me and save my life; he introduced me to a number of classical music composers I'd otherwise have never heard. In the corner of the studio he kept an old portable record player on which he'd stack a number of LPs. One day a piece of music came on, and I had to stop my work and listen—I mean really listen. I removed all of the other LPs and put that one on repeat. What was happening? What was going on? I felt my very soul being accessed in ways I'd not known before, as if the music spoke directly to the very core of my being.
That's when I discovered the renowned British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and his extraordinary Fifth Symphony. The third movement (Romanzo) immediately became my "theme": contained within a mere twelve minutes was the musical equivalent of my life. Even more remarkably, it still is my theme, even after decades of additional experiences. There, laid bare, is me.
But to "get" it, you need to completely surrender yourself to the music, be receptive of it, allow it to totally overcome you, to send chills up your spine. Only some people experience this; the rest just hear notes. I feel sad for those who aren't moved by music. How does this happen? Why does it? I've attempted to research the phenomenon, but I've not encountered an explanation.
Regardless, this brief bit of sound is still capable of reducing me to a sobbing mess, even after having heard it literally tens of thousands of times over the course of forty-odd years. If you're among those who feel music deeply, this is perhaps the best way to get to know me long after I've passed.
When I met my high school science teacher's husband, I found much more than a modeling companion; I found someone who understood me better than almost anyone else, and I'd spend three to five evenings a week with the two of them as part of their family. When they met my father, I thought their heads would explode: they almost didn't believe what I'd told them about him until then. "How can he not see you for what you are?" they pleaded. My reply: "He doesn't see me at all."
Debbie and I were on our first date: dinner at a little dive near where she worked. I was unusually nervous, and as we made small talk, I anxiously manipulated a little packet of mayonnaise with my fingertips. Suddenly the packet burst open, and a blob of mayo soared through the air, up and over the lamp hanging over our table, and landed—splat!—right on her blouse.
I'd watched in horror as it all unfolded in slow-motion. Stunned, all I could do was wait for her reaction. Which was to burst out in tearful laughter.
It remains one of the most embarrassing/hysterical moments of my life.
Several dates later, Debbie and I were strolling hand-in-hand through the Philadelphia Zoo. She was wearing a bright, colorful flower print dress. I glanced down at her, and noticed a sliver of bra strap visible just above the neckline.
I casually remarked, "Black, huh?"
She blushed, then gave me a look that spoke volumes: appreciation, with a hint of embarrassment and a strong overtone of desire...
During my Manhattan commuting days, one night on the trip home, the train came to an abrupt stop a few miles before the first station in New Jersey, in the middle of nowhere. Signal problems, evidently. We were parked there for three long hours—long enough that a pregnant woman a couple of cars ahead went into labor.
It was just like something out of a TV movie: I'm sitting there patiently waiting for the train to move again, and someone came running through the car shouting, "Is there a doctor on the train?"
Turns out there was, and the child was safely brought into the world around 2 AM, somewhere between Weehawken and Secaucus.
I'm not the slightest bit into celebrities. There are none I'd care to have met... save for one. And he's not a typical celebrity by any means. Carl Sagan has been a hero in my life. Among the most brilliant people ever to have lived, he consistently spoke optimistically to us ordinary folk via his books and programs. That his optimism was likely misplaced is beside the point; he knew a whole lot of shit only a tiny handful of others did. His book Contact rocked my world, and—amazingly—the film adaptation was even better: the perfect marriage of science and cinematography. Orgasmic for a science and film geek like me.
Were I to have been granted an opportunity to meet only one famous person, he'd have been my choice. Sadly we lost him to cancer far sooner than we should, at the age of only 62. On 20 December, 1996, I mourned.
I was getting to know Emma, the girlfriend of Jerry, a young man I'd befriended when he showed up at my home as a contractor's apprentice. She'd tag along with him once in a while, and eventually I learned that she was sexually abused from the age of five, raped at the age of seven, and continued serving as a sex slave to total strangers into her teens—a fate inflicted on her by her father as a means to earn drug money. Yet she was one of the most profoundly "normal" young women I'd ever met. How was it that someone who'd endured such horrors could wind up emotionally better-balanced than most "ordinary" people? Why wasn't she institutionalized and/or brain dead from psych drugs? Her resilience was simply astounding.
Even more astounding was her birthday. I baked a cake myself, decorated it and, together with a few trusted friends, threw a party for her. I even put together a mix of her favorite tunes to play during the party. Evidently no one had ever done such a thing for her before. She was so overwhelmed by it that we all had to assure her repeatedly this was "normal" life. That we all cared for one another. Did things for one another. Made one another feel extra-special on special occasions. Sadly, Emma was so used to being treated like a piece of meat that she assumed her life was "normal." And as I reflected on my own faulty assumptions about parents who genuinely loved one another, I understood. And I wept for her.
Whenever I've felt as though I had it rough, I'd imagine what it must have been like for Emma growing up, and I'm deeply humbled.
I was in the hospital having tests done on my heart. I was scheduled for a heart cath, wherein probes are inserted through my veins and guided directly into my heart to measure blood flow, among other things. Just before the test, one of my very best friends—Richard, the son I never had—was visiting me. When they came to wheel me away, he followed the gurney down the halls, around the bends, through the doors, and right up to an elevator, which was as far as he was allowed to go. I vividly recall him craning his neck to watch me as long as he possibly could as the elevator doors closed. The orderly in control of my vehicle noticed this, and asked if he was my son. "No," I said, "he's my adopted son."
"Oh. They're the best kind." I recall thinking hard about that observation, when the orderly—a younger black woman, the type of person most people wouldn't give the time of day, much less expect to be deep and insightful—explained. "Real children, they have a sense of entitlement. They expect to be loved no matter what. Adopted ones like him, they know the true value of love. They earn it."
I wished that elevator ride could have gone on for hours, because I truly wanted to get to know this total stranger, this "nobody" who bore wisdom well beyond her years and her station in life. It made the next two hours of needles and drugs and tests far more tolerable, because it gave me a whole new way of looking at Richard—not to mention life in general.
I remember a million things. I've never decided if that's good or bad. All I know is, to quote Roy Batty from Blade Runner, "All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."
Copyright © 2020 by David K. Smith. All Rights Reserved