Old Guys

It is with a certain regularity we collect each other. So common is this procedure a diagnosis is available for those who collect people, what for want of a better word to call it friendship. It is also about being a good neighbor, being comfortable at work. In practice, about the same as collecting stamps, antiques, bugs on a pin, guns, dolls, books…except it’s each other and we don’t routinely push a pin through each other to hold us still, if with friends I might like to try.

I enjoy collecting old guys, Dan Houlihan was a specimen in my collection, to wonder whether I collected him or he collected me. To his collection I was a farm type he thought rare and exotic. As a farmer I appreciated the reverence, to be thought rare and exotic. From my perspective Dan was equally curious, a Brooklyn-type animal, a genuine big city kind, so liberal as to be dangerous at ambient temperatures, who said things out loud a farmer would only whisper in confidence to his tractor.

Allen Bell is another old guy in my collection, a former Rhinelander pharmacist, natural history writer, bird watcher, stone collector, a wonderfully mellow man in love with life. My suspicion is we do not all love life the same, I believe WWII vets are particularly adept at loving life, plain household, run-of-the-mill life. We can probably guess why. The rest of us want a special perch, an extra seat cushion, first class accommodations, an imported beer, the perks, this to define the point where life is profitable. For Allen Bell and people like Allen life is God. Not that he would say this directly since he’s moderately religious so the statement is too blunt, but being in my collection I get to describe the specimen and its habitat. A curious thing happens on the way to the Kirkhouse when you realize every bush, tree, anthill, worm, nematode, bacilli, green leaf is as good a measure of God as what’s hiding under the altar stone.

Charles R. of Madison is another of my collectables. I don’t know where Charlie and I met, to guess it was fleeting. Charlie is a retired Lutheran minister in that city which is the odd part; he in the ministry and I a raving semi-atheist, the end result is a surprisingly comfortable combination of character flaws. Charlie is a poet, more definitively a closet poet which is the same thing as a closet homosexual. Neither are ready for daylight. Poetry can be like that, too intense, too personal to share, too revealing, this happens to guys more often than not, even worse should the affliction happen on farm guys. Charlie and I exchange letters a couple times a year, his handwriting is going to hell and has to be decoded letter by letter. He has volunteered to stop writing if it’s a bother; I assure him it’s no bother. Charlie relates how long ago he was running full marathons, seems it must have been another man. He confesses he has ceased combing his hair and only shaves every other day. “I’m busy saying goodbye to life,” he says, his main chore is to un-stuff his life. The household he can’t use any more, the papers, books, collections, photos, they are better in someone else’s keeping. “Enough is enough,” says Charlie. To suspect this means something.

Charlie reminds me of the Voyager space probe now on the far outer rim of the solar system where the solar wind comes to a dead stop and beyond is interstellar prairie. The Voyager’s plutonium 139 power pack and thermocouple is near the end but with an interval to recharge is good for 270 watts, this won’t last. Maybe two years. Some at JPL think this can connive another ten years, to store bits and pulse them back when the capacitor has gained enough breath to say something out loud. Charlie is like my Voyager pulsing back bits from out there where the solar wind ends. I tell him to store it, his poetry, send me a batch when his voltage peaks. It’s not very often but like the Voyager is interesting stuff because it is from that far edge, a life whose sun is distant and small as to be trivial and unimportant. Charlie like Voyager entering the un-rippled end of the pond, sending back data on what it’s like where interstellar gravity takes over, a weather report.

Old guys are experimental animals and the chance to study how it’s done, how getting old is done. What they can’t teach in high school because who then believes this will happen to us? Perhaps to think this could be useful to know, reason enough to collect old guys.