August 2, 2013

I was halfway through my power walk this morning. Normally, I don’t stop, just turn around and head for Stroke Hill, up Stanka Lane. But I did stop, and I saw an old man on a bike, slowing down.

I didn’t want to talk–I admit it. He was dressed in white shorts, white tee, white ball cap. He asked me if I had seen the beautiful egrets, the mothers feeding their babies; and yes, I have seen many egrets.

He stuck out his hand: “I’m Dexter.” “Gene,” I replied. I asked him if he lived on the river and he said yes. My friend Jerry lives on the river, so I asked if he knew him. “I live next door to him,” Dexter said. Small world.

He is eighty-five.  This was his first bike ride since . . . Since what? “My wife died five months ago,” Dexter said. He began to weep.  I began to weep. I took hold of his arm. He talked about sixty-three years of marriage and how lonely he was. He asked if I had regrets. Oh, yes.

Almost forty-five minutes later, I said, “Dexter, I have an appointment; I have to get back home. He nodded. “Listen,” I said, “we’re not finished talking. Walk next door to Jerry’s house and tell him you met Gene and give you my phone number. We’ll sit out on a porch and talk about life.” Dexter took my right hand in both of his. And all the way home on my walk I hoped that he would follow through. It doesn’t matter, I will.

I didn’t want to talk. It’s like how we hold children in such high regard. We love their joy, and we wish we had it, but we’ve seen too much; we’ve grown cynical. As will most children, when they grow up and “see.”

I met a writer, M. Scott Peck, at a summer camp where I worked. We had a slide show going in the background at a dinner in the camp dining hall. Peck stood up for his speech and said (paraphrasing), “I mean no disrespect. Someone put a lot of work into this slide show. Can anyone tell me what is wrong with it?” I had helped put the slides together. It depicted our happy child campers, in their classes, sniffing flowers, hugging reptiles, dancing and acting and singing. What was wrong with that? M. Scott Peck said, “There isn’t a single adult in any of these photos. Are we so jaded, we don’t believe in joy? Is it a noun, an invention? We manufacture it for kids, but we don’t get any? Deserve any? We aren’t beautiful?”

I have never forgotten that lesson. But I slide. I am shy by nature so I avoid people. I fear I am a freak. Am I alone?

I didn’t want to talk to the old man. You have felt that way; you’re human, not an egret.

Remember Dexter.

About Eugene Jones Baldwin

I am a writer: non-fiction, fiction, journalism (Alton Telegraph), essays (The Genehouse Chronicles) and have a website: I've published a couple dozen short stories and had eleven plays produced. Current projects: "Brother of the Stones" (available on Kindle), a book of short stories; "The Faithful Husband of the Rain, short stories"; "A Black Soldier's Letters Home, WWII,;" "There is No Color in Justice," a commentary on racism; "Ratkillers," a new play. I am an avocational archaeologist and I take parts of my collection of several thousand Indian artifacts (personal finds) to schools, nature centers, libraries etc. and talk about the 20,000 year history of The First people in Illinois. (See link to website) I'm also a playwright (eleven plays produced), musician, historian (authority on the Underground Railroad in Illinois, the Tuskegee Airmen) and teacher.
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