Sunday, July 18, 2010

Godspeed, Greyhound

An e-mail arrives with the news Bob Wennberg has pancreatic cancer. He could be gone by the fall, they say.

I turn to the window, to the tree, to the sky, to 1977 on a golden Santa Barbara morning. Bob is standing at a lectern, peering down through his bifocals at a bevy of diffident nineteen-year-olds. He cocks back his head and sets forth the key analytical critiques of disembodied existence. It’s hard stuff.

Somebody asks Bob a question you wouldn’t remember, and gets an answer you couldn’t forget. Bob says, “Some days, I think I’d like to be a Greyhound bus driver. I wouldn’t give lectures anymore. I’d just look out ahead at the highway and drive—right into the night. I’d take people where they needed to go. They’d be there by the next morning. It would be honorable work, something useful.” He chuckles, but you wonder if the man is half serious.

Now there’s a website for his former students to write to him in the past tense and say … what? Dear Doctor Wennberg, You were the greatest. I don’t remember much philosophy, but you had such a big impact on my life. Thank you so, so much.

Is that enough?

* * *

Last week my friend John called on a whim, asked if I’d go with him to the Blue Bayou in Hillsborough. The musical act was billed as an Indian jazz flute player. So I went with John, and my daughter Alex came along, and we’re sitting there listening to this music—it’s both familiar and peculiar at the same time—having a draft or two. And John says, “What if you had more than one life? What would yours be?”

“I don’t know,” I say. I think about it for a minute. “I guess I’d like to have my same mind and experience—I’d like to be me—in my son’s body. I would know everything I know now, right? But I’d be in his body. Six-two and athletic and buff. And nineteen.”

“You’d be formidable,” John says. “But wouldn’t it be just a different sort of torture? Think about it, really ….”

“OK, what would you be?”

“I’d be a passionate musician. I’d be consumed by some instrument."

There had been this brief and magical moment when John had everything—his own mortgage company and a faux-farmhouse mansion with a pool on seven acres, a Porsche convertible, and a beach house in Beaufort with a boat. To say nothing of a lovely and inscrutable Argentine wife and four equally stunning children. Then she left him and it all unraveled. He lost it all, except for the kids—them, and the grand piano. Nobody knows how he got the thing into the rented bungalow in Carrboro when it ended.

“It wouldn’t even matter if people loved me,” John says. “They would, of course—everybody’d love me—I’d be that good. But I wouldn’t care. It would just be about the music.”

* * *

Thirty feet goes by fast when you’re sixteen on your way down from a concrete bridge into a river of clear melted snow on a hot day in the Ecuadorian jungle. Down, down, into the water, hold my breath, feel the current, swim against it, open my eyes, see the green boulders and the tiny fish.

I break the surface and tread water, look back at the bridge. Steve Moss is up there. “Come on, Steve!” I shout. “You can do it. Jump!”

Steve is silent, staring down. He’s never going to do it. Steve is a quiet, nerdy medical student from the farmlands of South Georgia. He’s been working long hours in the mission hospital with my dad. I’ve taken him here to show off. I want Steve to see I’m not afraid to jump from the Alpayacu bridge. I’ll dare him to do it, too, but I know he won’t. He’s not the type.

People are so predictable—they really are. Except when they’re not.

Slowly, cautiously, Steve hoists himself onto the concrete wall. He stands up there, balanced on the narrow slab for almost a full minute. He’s trying to get up his courage, I think. I’ve seen people get this far and back down, ease off the bridge and wonder what they were thinking.

“Just do it, Steve! Don’t be a chicken. It’s OK, it’s only water down here! You’ll be fine.”

Steve bends his knees slightly, almost crouches, and then . . . he releases himself out into thin air like an uncoiling spring. Up, up, out over the water, he’s a bird. Then he coils again, a spinning ball, one flip. Two. Two-and-a-half. He cuts the river like a knife blade and disappears under the Alpayacu, leaving barely a ripple.

We dry off on the warm rocks and Steve says, “I admire your dad a lot. He’s the kind of doctor I want to be.” Then he tells me about his father, Captain Robert “Moose” Moss.

Steve’s dad was a farm boy from Colquitt County, Georgia, but in 1941 he became something else: a highly decorated P-40 fighter pilot and one of the legendary Flying Tigers of World War II. Moose and his fellow Tigers shot down 299 enemy planes in seven months. They were credited with stopping the Japanese invasion of China. When Moose got back to South Georgia, he wanted to build something different at Moose Farms—something to remember the Flying Tigers—for the sheer majesty of people diving through the air but now without the metal and the fire and smoke. And so he built a deep swimming pool and a high diving board and it became a world class aquatic facility where six Olympic teams have trained.

The Moss Farms competitive diving teams—the kids who train there—are called the Diving Tigers. Steve was one of them. (“Just jump!” I’d shouted.)

* * *

Pam and Alex join me for sushi and a drink on a hot Friday night at Brightleaf Square. We sit out in the courtyard, listen to the Bull City Syndicate playing blues for awhile, then head down Main Street for a walk.

Pam and Alex disappear into a little shop with West African objects d’art. I stay outside and watch the passersby. When the girls don’t come out after awhile, I go in and find them engrossed in conversation with the Nigerian shopkeeper. I join in.

“How’s business?” I say.

“Getting better,” says the Nigerian shopkeeper. “I was worried when I opened here. They had the street torn up then, and there wasn’t much foot traffic.”

He talks to Alex. He has a daughter, too. Alex tells the shopkeeper she just graduated from college and doesn’t know what she’s going to do.

“Here is a proverb for you,” the shopkeeper intones. “A wise person said, ‘You only live once. But if you work it right, once is enough.’”

That could be true, I think. Trouble is, so many people screw it up the first time—right out of the box. By the time you know, that’s it. So once is not enough. Twice, maybe. Otherwise, what good is midlife imagination? What’s that for?

We’re about to leave. “Good luck,” I say to the shopkeeper. (I mean it. I’m worried about him.)

“Thanks,” he says. “At least I’ve got my day job.”

“Oh? And what’s that?”

A moment later I’m staring at a business card and I realize I’ve been talking to a doctor—a professor of obstetric anesthesiology at Duke Medical School. The shop is his hobby.

* * *

I leave Pam and Alex at the concrete waterfall by the Tobacco Warehouse and walk back to get the car at Brightleaf. I cut across Pettigrew Street and pass the Durham bus station. I see a Greyhound there, about to leave the depot. It’s an inferno out here—I'm drenched with sweat. I hear the hum of the bus and imagine the cool inside. Then I ponder the Nigerian shopkeeper-anesthesiologist and suddenly I think, I could be somebody else. I could be a touring country singer, or a police officer in a college town. I could be out there—protecting the public from twenty-eight-thousand knuckleheads. Or what if I turned and walked, just over there, and got on that bus? I’d sit right up front where I could see everything. I wouldn’t need to know where we were going. The bus driver would take care of that. He would head us out West. We'd cut across the Piedmont like a silver knife through the steamy night. We’d be into the high country by eleven-thirty, crossing the intercontinental divide. All the passengers would be asleep, but not me. I’d watch the moon rise over the Smokies and I’d talk to the driver. He’d be quiet for awhile, but finally ... he’d tell me the meaning of this life and what may lie beyond.

This was a good one, Bob. Godspeed.


Clara de Tierra said...

I love this. Leaves me feeling excited and nostalgic and content all at the same time. :)

Anonymous said...

The drinks you serve here are the cool refreshing ones you order on a summer night with a friend or two. One of those evenings where longing and laughter and a sense of tranquility are gently stirred...not shaken.
John Doerfer

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I wish Bob could have seen your essay before he died. I'm glad, though, that he heard from so many of his "passengers" about what a great ride he gave them when he was still in the driver's seat!
[Professor Jim Taylor, Dept. of Philosophy, Westmont College]