Spring Green Ch. 01byAdrian Leverkuhn©
Oh yes, things change. Life forces change on us, and sometimes that change comes in the form of a woman. Cycles of life and all the other stuff we learn in school remind us -- or try to, anyway -- that 'nothing lasts forever'... it's just that with some people the idea takes a while to sink in, for the idea to take root and grow. Call 'em slow learners if you like. While you're at it, you'd better lump me in that category. Slow, as in: it took me quite a while to figure out what was going on.
So, to begin: a woman comes along and bingo: big life change. Right! That's gonna make headlines? Nope. Hold the presses! Film at eleven! Not a chance. No, the change I'm thinking about resides in memory so deep you might best think of it as... genetic. This genetically empowered change is the kind of thing people miss because the process is incremental... small, slow, almost undetectable change. And although this is my story to tell, I couldn't begin to do it without tracing the faintest outlines of my 'genetic' memory for you. I'm hoping you might see parts of your own story in a new light, because maybe, just maybe you'll hear echoes of some greater memory about your own, evidence that some larger process is at work. And I'll have to begin this story by describing the most unlikely hero imaginable. I want to paint a picture of an older man, a man in his seventies but not yet withered and worn down by time. Tall, this man is well over six feet, and stocky in a muscular way. He had hair on his head once upon a time but now all that remains is a thin silver fringe around the sides, yet when you look at him the one thing that stands out is the eyes. Cool and grayish-blue, the whites clear, they feel distant in a way but the closer you get the more you feel a certain penetrating warmth: soon you see the mirror image of a happy soul in these eyes. No eyeglasses, an expensive suit that seems a natural extension of his body, he stands beside a majestic mahogany desk; behind him a wall of glass, far below the lights of a large city shimmer in golden glory. This man is, then, the very picture of success. He is Homo Americanus, and quite proud of the fact. He is mortal flesh but in his way he is unchanging.
For this man is my Uncle Chuck (that's Charles Wentworth Addington, Jr. if you must know), and I say unchanging because for him change meant nothing unless he was the one in charge of it, unless he'd managed it and shaped it and beat the ever loving crap out of it. Before he'd ever admit he'd had to deal with anything so trivial and mundane as change. Change always leaves a mess -- and Uncle Chuck didn't do messy. Change was unpredictable, and Charles Wentworth Addington, Jr. just wasn't a spontaneous man. Spontaneous is combustion, often shocking and energetic. Uncle Chuck was glacial, as cool as they come -- and as deliberate. Maybe too cool, you might say, for his own good, but in the end he wasn't immune to change. No one is. Change, like time, is a predator. Change is patient, steady, waiting and ready to line you up in its sights and pull the trigger -- whether you're ready or not. And change never misses what it targets.
But let's get one other detail out of the bag up front: this story isn't about Uncle Chuck, and it's not just about change, though maybe I should make that Change with a Capital C right about now. No, this is in its roundabout way a love story. Maybe love stories, as a matter of fact. Falling in love is often a messy, unpredictable, and spontaneous affair. Falling in love often generates a little combustion, leaves a little black soot that's hard to wash off. I'm sure you get the picture; if you don't, well, just remember as events unfold that things Change. And Change almost always comes along when you least expect it, whether you're ready for it or not.
Uncle Chuck lived out most of his life in an office on the forty-eighth floor of what was at one time the tallest building in Boston, Massachusetts. Forty-eight was of course the top floor, and Chuck's office was the biggest one up there. Real nose-bleed territory, or so my father called it. And to give you proper context let's add that Chucked owned the building, and the bank in it, the land the building was on and a lot of the land around it. Chuck was rich in so many ways. So many ways no one understood. Not even Chuck.
He had one son whom he was devoted to completely, my cousin Ham, or Charles Wentworth Addington, III; everyone called him Ham because he had fat cheeks that looked exactly like the hamster's that ran endlessly in a little stainless steel cage in the corner of his bedroom when he was a kid. Hate to say it but I find this odd, too, because that's about all I remember of Ham, that hamster in the cage running and running and never going anywhere. I remember most clicking its little claws made on the treadmill that was, it seemed to me, its life's work. Odd, because I remember thinking the hamster was happier than Ham was, but I guess some people make their own treadmills no matter the circumstance.
But, and this is important, more than anything else in the world, Uncle Chuck loved his wife Ruth, and while perhaps his love for her was just another manifestation of his desire to hold timelessness in his hands -- there was never the least reason to doubt his absolute love for her. She was beautiful, yes, but so much more than simple beauty shone through; her beauty was of a timeless sort... one might even be tempted to call it an unChanging beauty, and when I speak of Chuck as we move along you need remember her presence was always in the air about him, even if she wasn't physically with him. Let me add something in case I've confused you: what made her so staggeringly beautiful was the simple fact her beauty was so much more than skin deep. She was beyond nice. She'd come from old money yet she studied sociology, worked in soup kitchens and could always be found on Tuesdays volunteering at a hospital for crippled and burned children. Beautiful, and timelessly so. She was as beautiful on the occasion of Chuck's sixty seventh birthday, the day she passed away, as she had been all his life. Everyone at the party said so, right up until she suffered the stroke that felled her while she whirled about the room, as ever his perfect hostess.
That was 1969, which I remember vividly as the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius (enter Chorus, stage left -- 'let the sun shine in'); was it just me that thought the very air that we breathed was alive with Change. Or was it, as I now suspect, a vast opera that felt very much like Change -- but was instead an obnoxious a chimera. Some might call that time a period of manifest change, even dialectical change, but now after seeing where it all led I'm content to call it a False Spring. The long winter of our discontent has yet to lift, or so it sometimes seems.
Anyway, Ruth passed away that year. But 1969 was about all kinds of Change: Nixon and Cambodia, hippies and Led Zeppelin, Ken dolls and Kent State. And something happened on the moon. But '69 was also the year Ham left to fly helicopters in Vietnam. He returned, a decorated war hero, in a flag-draped coffin three months before Chuck's 67th birthday. I think that was Uncle Chuck's first real experience of the spontaneous combustion Change can release. There was more change coming, of course. More than any of us knew. But let me take another tack now, show you some other pieces of this puzzle.
Ah yes, my father. My dad was the exact opposite of Chuck. Chuck was Beacon Hill; Dad was The Cape. Chuck was Wharton; Dad dropped out of Harvard to go to Paris because it sounded like the thing to do. Chuck met Ruth at Penn and married her after a four year courtship; Dad was painting hookers on the Boulevard de Clichy one morning when an English girl happened by and, admiring his work, asked if he'd like tea at the Crillon. They married later that afternoon, a large quantity of Pernod rumored to be a major factor in their well-considered decision. But more on my mother in a moment; I need to talk about the dynamic between Chuck and my father now.
These two brothers, it turned out, became more than just a study in contrasts: they were instead mortal enemies, opposite particles of anti-matter held apart by all the force nature could muster. Their parents failed at the enterprise completely, by the way. I'll spare you the details. But, and listen up here because this might be important, the root of this genetic memory I alluded to earlier was buried deep within the fertile soil of their contentious relationship. What grew there blossomed and grew, withered and died -- only to be reborn again as though this cycle of despair was the product of vast tidal influences.
My mom, on the other hand, has always been a rather contrary creature in and of herself, a study in contradictions in her own right, so much so that her mere presence unsettles even the most well-adjusted people and, on more than one occasion, she was known to make Uncle Chuck consider a swan-dive from the top of the building just to get away from her. But I'm not going to waltz into the DSM-IV and say she's bi-polar or has Multiple Personality Disorder; I will say that right up to this very day she's doing her level best to keep half the psychiatrists in London quite busy. Mad as a balloon, as Douglas Adams was known to have said. But lovely nonetheless. She seems intent on living forever, and as she believes this possible I won't be in the least surprised if she pulls it off.
Dad, on the other hand, punched out relatively early. He'd had his fill of life by the time he was thirty, or so he told us one and all during one of his brief periods of self-examination; regardless, he was a free-spirit and died in his own free-spirited way, skiing in Chamonix. He was 43 at the time, and by then a decent if too serious architect; when he passed I was in college. Mom was, God bless him, still at his side. He soldiered on into the great void with a smile on his face even if he did cry a little. He was wondering, Mom told us later, if they served Pernod in heaven and was apparently quite put out when she said she didn't know.
Dad's main vice, aside from my mother, was the sea, and that love of the sea was the one thing that both my father and Uncle Chuck had in common. They both reveled in the mere idea of the sea, they breathed the sea and I'm sure salt water ran in their veins, but there was a perverse quality to their lust and it took me some time to figure out from where this distorting element had arisen. Well, on reflection it took perhaps twenty years of passive observation to figure this one out. It has something to do with genes and memory and yes, change. And this is where I came to play in their unfolding drama.
They both liked to race sailboats as it turned out, and they really "loved" to race against one another. When they were both out on the water, which was often, and when they were in reasonable proximity to each other, it was like witnessing the Athenians and the Persians during the Battle of Salamis. Splinters and shouted insults between boats, shaking fists and trembling lips, and me. The little kid huddled just out of sight -- taking it all in. I was the sole witness to their war, to the unending everlasting fratricide that defined our family life. In the end, Dad stopped racing his own boat because he couldn't get insurance anymore and that was the end of my life on the water. Prudent choice on the insurers' part, certainly, but apparently sailing was just another venue for their little war, for them to tear each other to shreds. I was not impressed at the time and you shouldn't be either. But there was more Change in store; the sea kept calling and eventually I kept sailing, for you see I too loved the water.
After Dad passed-away the sailing fires slowly burned down to embers, it was then Uncle Chuck caught the cruising bug; I would -- on the other hand -- in short order become interested in girls and cars. But the sea was always there, I was always thinking about her. Soon I wanted to sail, sail all the time, and Chuck provided both the means and, unexpectedly, the end. And I think our coming together was as inevitable as it was unavoidable. Uncle Chuck and I discovered we both missed my dad far too much to let go of one another. All that hatred simply evaporated. It never dawned on me that what they had endured all their lives' was a peculiar form of love.
Because frankly, I didn't know Chuck very well at the time, had not the slightest clue what made the guy tick. Dad had always painted an impressionist's landscape of his brother: like a Seurat it made sense from a distance -- but the closer you got all form dissolved into chaos. And while clearly in this noise there was color of a sort, the truth was not so easily found. Yet in my youth I accepted this Dali landscape as our collective Truth. I had so much to learn and the world's worst teacher.
After college I took a year off and wandered through France, my mother's homeland -- I did so on foot mostly but by canal barge a couple of times -- and while I might have been following Dad on my journey there were deep family roots in that ancient soil I had yet to feel. And I needed to feel them. Needed to, like we need air to breathe. Anyway, call France an elective affinity on my part; Goethe won't give a damn and it's as close to the truth as mere words can get us. Besides, I found after graduation I had this completely inexplicable desire to paint landscapes and eat snails drenched in garlic-butter. Boston offered little to satisfy these urgings and Mom decided to move back to England then as well -- so off I went.
But note here and now that Chuck had wanted very much that I come work in the bank, follow in his footsteps, and oddly enough it was this impulse more than any other that set me off on my wanderings. There is, you see, a certain gravity in the footsteps we follow. Uncle Chuck was a little miffed and I'm sure Dad was laughing his ass off while arm wrestling Toulouse Lautrec over a bottle of absinthe in the Parisian whorehouse that must surely be his heaven.
I had been around enough docks and boats by that time to know that families are like tides. There's an ebb and flood to our anguish and joy, dangerous currents swirl around the rough edges of need. But there's a sort of inevitableness within these cycles, change is predictable within a certain range, as such change is so often apparent after a bad storm. Time heals all wounds -- even if after all is said and done a little pain remains. I suppose it's just our nature. In time Chuck got past the desire to control everything and accepted my departure. You might say he was learning to accept Change. Or perhaps the gravity of which I just spoke flowed through more veins than even I suspected.
When I came back from France a year later I started at The Fletcher School, was taken with the grand idea that I might turn out to be a decent diplomat and so set my sights on working for the State Department. Uncle saw this as well within the range of acceptable outcomes and gave up on the idea of my working on the 48th floor; soon he was inviting me and an endless if stately progression of girlfriends out for a spin on the Bay almost every weekend. Then it was every weekend. On Thursday evenings in the summer it was soon a given I'd crew during the informal races that took place in the waters off downtown. We soon developed, you see, a little gravity of our own.
He was a careful sailor, prudent, as unlike my father as he could be. Before casting off lines for even a quick sail out to the rocks and ledges around Flying Place the tanks would be filled and the larder stocked, his battered Plath sextant ever ready to take a quick sight or bearing-off if needed. He explained it to me thus one crisp autumn afternoon: suppose, he said, you're out on Mass Bay, maybe headed out to look at whales or cross to P'town, and the rudder breaks. Just snaps off. Soon you find yourself drifting off toward the Gulf Stream and your next landfall might be Ireland, or more fun still, Greenland. "Would you," he said, "rather make the trip with a little food and water on board, or make do for six weeks on a six-pack of Dr Pepper and that bag of Doritos?" An interesting philosophy of life, don't you think?
And he was Prudent. His boat shoes were always double-knotted; "No need to trip and fall overboard, now is there!" So complete was my father's upbringing I didn't even know there were people who double-knotted their shoes until Chuck pointed this out.
While Dad didn't mind somersaulting down the road less traveled, Chuck wasn't about to go any such place with stopping by the auto club first. "Always keep your charts up to date! It's a pain in the ass but keep up with your Notices to Mariners!" Always do your homework, in other words. Right, got it!
My dad had always been too busy hurling the middle finger at his brother to teach me a thing about sailing; now I had a teacher, and a damn fine one, too. I paid attention. And soon he was looking over the girls I brought along, sizing them up. "Now that's a damn fine woman," he'd confide while we tied off the boat beyond earshot, or "Goddamnit, you can do better than that knock-kneed imbecile!" He was patient, steady, cool. I was coming to feel quite at home with him. And anyway, he was usually right about the girls, too.
We started going out to dinner a couple of times a week, usually to talk about world events but sometimes to talk about football or -- yes -- sailing away to parts unknown someday: "Ruth just won't have that kind of talk at the table!" He talked a lot about crossing the Atlantic someday and cruising slowly through the canals of France in search of the perfect loaf of bread, that perfect bottle of wine he just knew was out there waiting -- for those willing to look. I tried to get him to loosen up, try to be spontaneous from time to time, to live these dreams. No such luck, he wouldn't have it. Those dreams were beyond the range of his tides. But come August every year we looked forward to the boat show in Newport, and it was always a fine day when we loaded up in his ancient Land Rover and headed south down 95 to look at the newest boats and gadgets. We called it Dreamville. Odd, now that I think of it.
One year we went down and looked over a bunch of smaller cruising sailboats: "Just the thing, you know, for a week in Maine!" or "Hell, you never know, I might just get an itch and have to do the Bermuda Race next June." But there was a darker undercurrent inside his dreaminess: "Son, I'm getting too old to handle a big boat anymore." I began to hear this more frequently at dinner, and at each passing boat show. And while his thinking was methodical, logically methodical, it was always within that precious range of the comfortable.
My last year of school, when we went to the show in Newport he talked to a couple of boat-builders about a boat capable of crossing the Atlantic, about this or that feature and though I heard him say "that's just a damn fine idea" more than a few times, I could see he had his eye on one boat in particular. "What do you think of her?" he kept asking me, and "I like the lines of her, don't you?" We kept coming back to that one and we crawled below time and again; there had been a nasty recession on for a couple of years and the builder looked hopeful each time Chuck came by and despondent each time we walked away. Late that final afternoon of the show as folks were shutting down for the year, Chuck ambled over to the builder and pulled out his checkbook. I thought the builder, a spry man from Maine, was going to have a heart attack right there. A Merry Christmas was, I'm sure, had by one and all that year.
But... had Chuck been Spontaneous? I wasn't sure; maybe a glimmer, just maybe.