The young look forward, the old look back.
Someone way smarter than me said that. Guess I’m old then. If you saw me, you wouldn’t need to be told. But the looking back part, been doing a lot more of that lately. So much so, I’ve been driving Elaine nuts.
Funny how the memory works. You can think you forgot something, like it’s gone for good. Then you hear a song from fifty years ago and it unlocks a door. One you haven’t opened for so long, you forgot it was even there. A flood of images and sounds―and all the emotions that go with them―come rushing in. It’s great when it’s a nice song and opens a nice door. Not so great when the room behind that door is stacked with boxes of pain.
The song itself was stupid, the lyrics I mean. I didn’t even like it back then. Seems like I would, coming from a beach town. Had a catchy tune, I’ll say that. I was in the car; it had just played on the radio not twenty minutes ago. Before that, I’d barely heard it over the last several decades. The few times I had, it triggered a replay from one of the worst moments in my life.
I’m talking about Surfin’ Safari by the Beach Boys. I’m not a superstitious man, don’t believe in omens, but considering what I had come here to do, I’ve gotta say…I got a little spooked hearing it again. I reached over and shut the radio off. Of all the songs that could have played on the thirty minute drive here (and I wasn’t even listening to an oldies station). What did it mean? Was God trying to tell me something? Like maybe, turn this car around?
I was pretty shaken up when I heard it, pulled the car over to the side of the road, thought about calling Elaine. But I already knew what she’d say. She thought I should let the lawyer and real estate agent deal with it. Get whatever we could and buy something else. Another property, something that had no attachment to the past. “We can even find a place on a lake if you want.”
But the market was terrible now. We’d only get about half of what it was worth. But here’s the funny thing…Elaine and I had just been talking a few weeks ago about how much we wished we could afford a little getaway place, somewhere on the water, because we both liked to fish. Or if the fish weren’t biting, just to sit there. That was part of our retirement dream, a waterfront place. All sorts of possibilities for something like that here in Florida. But our pension fund got creamed a few years back. Like most folks, we’ve been digging out ever since. And like most Baby Boomers, we didn’t have enough years left to close the gap. A getaway place was totally out of reach.
Then out of the blue, a registered letter came from some attorney in Louisiana saying I’d inherited a three-bedroom house right on the water, near this little town totally forgotten by time. This seemed more like the providence of God. The house was mortgage free; the taxes were even up to date. At first, I thought it had to be some kind of prank. But as soon as I saw the dead man’s name on the letter, I knew it was real.
He’d written me a few years ago, promising one day I’d get just such a letter. It was the last time we had communicated. I didn’t believe it, couldn’t imagine how he could’ve held onto the property all these years, considering what had happened. So I just put the whole thing out of my mind.
But here it was, in my hands, big as life. Elaine and I owned a perfectly good waterfront home, all ready to go. So, should we use it or sell it? That’s what I had driven here to find out. I put the car in drive and got back on the road, headed toward the place. I hadn’t been here in fifty years, not since I was eleven, but I didn’t need a map. The scene was burned into my mind.
Everything seemed the same. The little downtown area, if you could call it that, hadn’t changed one bit. I could see every street, every building, every curve in the road, just the way it was. The question now though, and this was how Elaine had put it to me: “Can you spend time there without dredging up the past? Can you replace all the fear and pain with something positive? ‘Cause that’s what it’ll take.”
I honestly didn’t know. I suppose that’s why I came. Brought my fishing pole with me, some clean linens and a pillow, a suitcase, my Bible and a couple of good books. I aimed to give it a fighting chance. That was the idea anyway. People nowadays call it “facing your demons,” but I don’t like the sound of that. I think demons are real, and I’m quite sure I don’t have any living in me. All I’m facing are a ton of bad memories. If being here didn’t put an end to them, we’d sell the place, buy something else.
Simple as that.
Turning down the last dirt road leading toward the water, I remembered having one of those “getting everything out” sessions with my father before he died. About what happened here. The talk had been his idea. During my teen years he had told me bits and pieces of the story, hard as it was to hear; the stuff I’d have no way of knowing on my own. There was that other long talk a few months after Elaine and I had gotten married, one of those man-to-man things. Dad had wanted to make sure I’d learned all the life-lessons he’d gone through before what happened in ‘62.
Years had passed, decades really, and the subject never came up again. Until that final conversation just before he died.
I pulled into the long dirt driveway leading to the house. I could just see it through a stand of overgrown oleanders. Slowing to a stop, I thought, Dad was right. There were still a lot of things I hadn’t understood about what happened. That last conversation was tough to sit through.
Dad hadn’t started out as a good father, but he’d ended up one―so I listened. Hard as it was. At the end of each conversation we had about 1962, he would say, “Sometimes, we only appreciate the things that matter most when they are taken away.”
Life in America at that time was so different than things are now. You almost had to live through it to appreciate how much. JFK and Jackie had ushered in a new day, full of hope. People called it Camelot. The economy was booming. The world was at peace, had been for over ten years. People still owned radios, but everyone was in love with their new TVs. It was the era of I Love Lucy and Leave It To Beaver. Life was simple. Things made sense. Families were happy.
At least they looked happy. When they weren’t happy, everyone understood you were supposed to pretend.
One particular week in 1962 the world almost ended, and that’s not an exaggeration. Everyone who lived back then knew it was true. Historians would later say things were even worse than President Kennedy and the politicians had let on. In some ways, even worse than they realized. If God had looked the other way for a single moment, we’d all be dead. Every single one of us.
Of course, the world didn’t end back then.
But for our family, one part sure did.