For Those Left Behind: Memorial Day 2017

“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly—but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”—Ernie Pyle, World War II journalist, writing about what he saw at the front. Killed in action April 18, 1945.

I do not come from a family that talks much about its military service. My father was drafted in 1958, served his two-year-long tour, and then came back home to a job that had been held for him. This was during the Cold War, so he did not see action but he did see more of the world than he had up till then, or since. He served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Cold War as a calculator tasked with determining missile flight paths. (I believe he worked with the Atlas missile, an early ICBM model.)
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In Memory of a Fallen Friend

Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.
 
Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise
.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.”

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Six-foot-four. If you asked him, and people often did while gazing up at him, “How tall are you,” he would reply, “6-4,” as if someone had once told him that “6-5” (his obvious actual height) sounded like a brag and he did not want to add a brag to his already imposing height. The man bent his head to pass through door frames. He was tall.

Modesty was the virtue he most cherished. It was not a false modesty or a virtue-signaling; I have learned that you will sometimes meet people in life who radiate modesty because they know that life cuts all of us down and they have learned it in the hardest of ways. Mickey J. was one of those people, and when I went to bed last night, I still thought I lived in a world shared with my friend, but he had died yesterday. I woke to the news on my phone.
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Goodnight, Sweet Prince

Even in his later years, hunched over a cane, age did not appear to de-fang him. Don Rickles was still quick with his quips, even if the quips came quickly to him because he shot them out every day for six decades, quick with his many facial expressions of disgust and disappointment.

His reactions to audience reactions often brought his jokes from the barely memorable to the legendary. Rarely has a performer conveyed so much with the mere flicker of a expression change.

Don Rickles died today. The stand-up comic was 90, a month shy of his 91st birthday, but he was rarely shy. (I’ll be here all night folks, thanks.)

His stand-up act, till his last days, was remarkable, for someone past age 90 or not even 19, really: it was always unscripted. Yes, he knew what “insults” he was most likely going to deploy “against” audience members, and he knew that somehow he was going to convey that he was on the audience member’s side and not punching down at them. That was the extent of the notes he carried on stage with him. It was a tightrope act.

“If I were to insult people and mean it, that wouldn’t be funny. There is a difference between an actual insult” and doing that, he often stated.
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Snow Falling on Everything

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.—James Joyce, the conclusion of “The Dead,” Dubliners

Cemeteries are cram-packed full with people who had other plans that day. Reservations for dinner, a movie ticket in the pocket. A refrigerator with new groceries. A sink with dirty dishes.

We all know this deep down, but the occasional reminders can nonetheless surprise. “Always wear clean underwear,” a cliché cartoon version of a mother tells a cliché cartoon version of ourselves in a cliché cartoon version of a conversation that never happens in real life. But the end comes in a moment, and it is always dramatic, even when it is mundane.

(I suppose it is never mundane for the person who experiences it, but I have not yet been there, not even been near it, and no one who has had the end moment has made a verifiable report about it. Tsk-tsk. Where are their priorities?)
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Remembering Pete Seeger

In 1996, in my job of assistant editor at a weekly newspaper, I awarded myself the title of music reviewer for a single issue and attended a concert given at a local high school by Pete Seeger, who died three years ago today at age 94. (Our newspaper’s actual music reviewer was only interested in attending and writing about rock concerts. This was a stroke of luck for me.) I wrote a review, even though I knew that a review is not what one writes about a Pete Seeger concert. An appreciation. A thank-you note. But not a mere review judging aesthetic merits.

It was a great concert, by the way.
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In Memory of Arthur Cash

He was already a distinguished professor, both in title and in fact, when I was his student for the first time, in the early 1990s. Dr. Arthur H. Cash had earned the rare title of “Distinguished Professor” from the State University of New York system in 1989, and I do not know if that title is what gave him the clout to hold classes in his dining room and kitchen rather than in whichever campus building the pesky registrar had located the class, or if I am getting it all backwards and his clout, with or without a title, brought us to his kitchen.

I learned this morning that Dr. Cash died Thursday, December 29, at the age of 94. His obituary appeared in he New York Times on December 30 but only today did it start to make the rounds of social media among his students. He retired in 1997 (a memorable party that I actually remember) but his retirement was an active one: his most recent book, John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty, was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
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John Glenn: A Memory

“It was quite a day. I’m not sure what you can say about a day in which you see four beautiful sunsets in one day, but it’s pretty interesting.”—John Glenn, February 20, 1962

October 29, 1998, was a Thursday. John Glenn, about to become a former U.S. Senator, was on board the space shuttle Discovery, and if all went according to plan, he was going to shatter the records for longest time between trips into orbit, oldest person to travel into space, and probably a few other things. He was 77 and had orbited Earth on February 20, 1962, thirty-six years earlier.
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‘Aubade’ by Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin was honored today with a memorial stone in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. He died thirty-one years ago today. Larkin’s memorial sits between those of Anthony Trollope and Ted Hughes. Chaucer’s tomb sits nearby. Edward Lear’s memorial stone is immediately above Larkin’s.

I wrote the following essay in June:

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“I don’t know that I ever expected much of life,” Philip Larkin wrote to his lifelong friend Kingsley Amis in October 1979, “but it terrifies me to think it’s nearly over.” He had another six years of life left, but the emptiness of the end—”the total emptiness for ever,/The sure extinction that we travel to”—was much on his mind.

The poem from which those lines originate, “Aubade,” was published in 1977 in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). Larkin had started it in 1974, worked at it that year, and then left it until 1977, when he finished it. “Death is the most important thing about life,” he wrote his companion, Monica Jones, when they were both still young.
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