Monday, November 19, 2012

Kites, Cardigans and Good Ol' F.U.

My great uncle sported a "high-and-tight" haircut and a buttoned-up collar. He was a product of Fork Union Military Academy -- which he always referred to as "good ol' F.U." I think he went to F.U. because he had been more of a behavior issue than because he had been the "military type" as a young man; he had a quick wit and a hearty smile; he was a bit impish. Family legend has it that he was stronger than the average ox, having once lifted a car off of a little girl's leg in the 1950's -- back when squat-lifting a car by its bumper was a pure-metal job three-times more miraculous than it would be today.

As kids, my sister and I would spend Friday nights at the house he shared with my grandmother in South Philadelphia; Mom worked late and Dad, for many years, had a steady gig at the legendary nightclub, Palumbo's, in town. These visits consisted of a meatball-sandwich dinner (on the greatest Italian bread in the history of the world), before my dad left for work, and, then, of all the TV we wanted and all of the M&Ms and ice cream we could cram into our maws. My sister and I would draw (and draw and draw...) and play invented games and watch ridiculous nineteen-eighties shows like the unintentionally surreal Dukes of Hazzard.

My great uncle and my grandmom would sit in the living room with us, laughing and smiling at shows they didn't really want to watch, and my sister and I would fall asleep on the couch. Dad would finally come and get us, late. (By that time, the TV would have been switched to whispering  re-runs of The Honeymooners.) We'd stagger out to the car and snooze for most of the short trip back to South Jersey.

One night, for some reason, my mother was there for the ride home -- she'd probably taken a night off to join my dad at the nightclub. As I was dozing in the back seat, I heard her commenting about my great uncle. Not unkindly, she said: "Where does he find his clothes? Those things haven't been in style since the 50s! It has to be hard work to find them."

For years, that statement has stuck with me. My great uncle always did look like he had stepped out of an episode of Leave it to Beaver. And it is true: it is kind of hard to be completely out of style. You have to either keep all of your old clothes, forever, or you have to seek out the stuff. My mom was right: it would be hard work. It would be a commitment.

But I think I get it now. I think I am starting to feel it -- what my uncle must have felt -- what all people must feel as they get older, even if they don't intellectually recognize it.

We spend the early parts of our lives keeping up with change. Faces change; technology changes; fashion changes; morality changes -- everything at the conclusion of our lives is different than it was at the beginning and through the middle. In a way, I can see the elderly (and even the getting-older) start to feel as if the world they helped to build is forgetting about them.

I've seen guys on the beach in the summer flying those two-handed, super-kites that require muscle and skill to operate. The things are so big that they actually drag their operators ten or fifteen feet at a time -- these guys run; they skid; they fall; they get up; they run again; biceps bulge as they steer the kites into tricks.

We all do that, don't we? Our lives are those giant kites. Sometimes, we are in control; sometimes, we're on out backs in the sand sometimes we are barely balanced and holding on with white knuckles, sweat soaking our hair. Maybe it gets to be too much. Maybe we just have to dig in our heels at some point. Maybe we need to let go and refuse to keep up anymore -- not ready to die, just sick of all of the sand in our swimsuits.

We start to choose our little rebellions against change and forward motion. My great uncle refused to do sneakers and T-shirts. If cardigans, buttoned-up Oxfords and wing-tips were good enough for 1955, they were good enough for 1981. In fact, maybe they were better, from his point of view.

I say God bless the ageing masses for holding out. I'm just forty-four, but you will never see me with an e-reader, I can tell you that. My uncle liked the clothes of his youth; I like my books. At some point, we all need to dig our heels into the sand about something.


  1. I think sometimes there are good reasons to give certain friends or relatives a nudge into the present, if it genuinely increases their happiness. I grew up around lots of old people, and I've seen how unhappy too much living in the past can be--but hounding people to change their style, their habits, etc., is often asking them to deny their own identity--or their own rapidly vanishing past.

    Although I'm awfully stubborn, in 2009 some friends bullied me into joining Facebook, an experience that has been 25% pleasant (at best) and 75% dreary. Looking back, I'm not sure I understand why some people were so bothered to see that I was perfectly happy without it.

    1. True, Jeff -- one just needs to keep a souvenir or two fro the past, not a whole museum. That could be depressing , indeed.


  2. We octogenarians would love to be active enough to take part in life but, fair do's, we have taken on-board computers, the internet and Kindles (all sitting down activities).

    Oh to be seventy again !!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Anonymous. Hey, you're commenting on a blog. You deserve credit for keeping up with new things. But here's hoping you have some souvenirs around you of the wonderful things you have seen and experienced. Sometimes, as a guy who feels like something of an anachronism, I wish I could have witnessed some of the times you have seen. If my dad's stories are any indication, I missed a lot of great stuff.