First, the wild flowers. No, Bernie, they’re not for you; they’re for your wife. I apologize for visiting you unannounced. Don’t get up. I don’t want to interrupt or disturb anybody.
This is a special occasion. I want to say a few things that I don’t think I had time to say when we were together last. This is important to me. You don’t have to say anything--just listen.
You and I have known each other for over forty years--forty-five, to be exact. We became best friends in a very short time. I forget where we first met, perhaps at some political event or at Ponderosa. You and I, we seem to share similar interests. Both of us were still working when we met. I worked for the phone company and you worked for Brockway. We didn’t see each other often in the early days. Family responsibilities were more important priorities.
One day you asked me to join you skiing at Greek Peak. That was an adventure I’ll never forget. You were an expert skier, I was a novice. You were patient and a good teacher. I moved from the Bunny Slope to the top of the mountain on 'beat up' rented skis, falling down on every turn in the beginning. But I acquired a measure of confidence and I improved, and by the end of the first season I could keep up with you on the easy hills and flat runs. You led me into the woods once, saying, “Follow me.” You crouched and went up and over a high bump and then stopped by the side of the ski trail to watch me as I followed. I fell backward instantly on that bump, as you knew I would. I found out the hard way that you were teaching me another lesson. 'Keep your weight out over the skis.' We both laughed as I brushed the snow away from my coat and goggles, and we went on to ski Elysian Fields. It was a beautiful day.
Today is a beautiful day. Have you noticed? Too early in autumn to snow, but the sun is warm and the sky is a deep thoughtful blue. I don’t see any clouds up there, do you? It’s an Indian summer day, very comfortable and warm.
Remember when we went to Syracuse to join the welfare protests? It may have been about 1969. I’m sure you remember. You criticized a welfare mother who held a sign: THANKS FOR NOTHING! The organizers were asking for an increase in monthly cash allotments. Later we visited her apartment with others and you admitted she didn’t have much of anything and you complimented her for keeping a clean apartment and looking for work. I think that convinced her to forgive you for your earlier criticism.
If a smile was worth money, you would be worth millions of dollars. It’s not just my opinion of your smile. I’ve heard favorable comments from so many people over the years about your smile. My wife often comments on your smile. She thinks it's a permanent feature. And I’ve heard strangers say something about your smile after they met you. It’s the biggest smile in Cortland, some people say.
Excuse me a moment. I brought some music for your entertainment. It’s in the car. I’ll only be a moment.
Alright, here it is. A CD player with music, just for you. I have some Italian opera and some church music. You don’t have to thank me. ”Praise unto God” is one of the songs. There’s also “Amazing Grace” and “Born Again.” There’s more. Give me another moment and I’ll set the player down and start the music. There! Let’s start with “Amazing Grace.” If that’s too loud, I’ll adjust it down a bit. I will set it at a background level. I know how much you and your wife appreciate good music. She plays piano, but the music you make, Bernie, as I recall from our vacation trips and sharing hotel rooms, is mostly hot air. Don’t deny it, and don’t laugh like that. You’ll shake the earth and cause an earthquake.
I know both of you are devoted Christians. That’s why I brought church music. Later I’ll play “Memories” from Cats, and some opera selections from La Boheme.
Bernie, although you are a born-again Christian and I am an agnostic, I really appreciate the fact that you never pushed your religious beliefs on me. You did get me to stop swearing, but that wasn’t so much a religious dogma thing. That was advice on good manners and good taste. You suggested substitute words. I still shout “Sacramento, California” when I get angry. As you say, it lets the steam out. On the subject of anger, I recall your story about the guy who lived on Otter Creek Place, how he was dumping his junk across the street from his house by the creek. You saw that pile grow bigger day after day as you drove by. One day you stopped to talk to that guy, remember? You told him of your concern, and he asked if you had a badge. You said, "No, but I will get a person with a badge." You left him there and drove home. You said that you did not contact the city police but just wanted that guy to think about it. Next day the junk was gone. God works in mysterious ways.
I have always admired you as a person of unusual accomplishments and as a person who always leads by example. My coming here today is about expressing my appreciation and gratitude to you. Don’t try to hush me. I think of you as my neighbor, a friend, a good-natured Italian-American gardener and fix-it-up man. Bernie isn’t your real name. Don’t laugh. You started to use it a few years ago when you brought fresh vegetables from your garden and gave them to my wife. You’d say to her, “Bernie has a present for you.” You were always a generous man. You had a big garden and worked faithfully for years until you gave it away for your relatives to use. I guess you got rid of it because you were getting old, huh? Or was it another generous gift?
You taught me plumbing and cement finishing at my house. Remember installing the hot water heater? I taught you about phones and electricity at your house. You were never interested in the Internet. I guess that had something to do with our age difference. Let’s see, aren’t you about fifteen years older than I am? Hush.
Do you recall that vacation trip we made in Florida? Sure, you do. That was the vacation that took us from Orlando to Key West and back up on the west side in less than one week. Remember the old lady at Bush Gardens who called us orangutans? Of course, you do. I wonder if you remember our trip to visit the National Parks and, in particular, the buffalo crossing at Yellowstone? You went right into the woods after them to take a photo, crossing over fallen trees and through deep brush. If one of those animals got ornery, it may have run you down. That was dangerous. You’re an impulsive man, and you seem to enjoy danger, but that was too risky. I cautioned you but you ignored me. How about that place in Canada called Heads Smashed in Buffalo Jump? That was interesting, wasn’t it?
Your wife and my wife always allowed us those vacation trips, no disagreements or regrets from either of them. They both said that they preferred to stay home and weren’t interested in the adventure and hardship of our trips. How often did I say to you, “Bernie, your wife is glad to get rid of you for a few weeks?” When we visited India it was unbearably hot, noisy and odd-smelling everywhere. I’m not sure our wives would have enjoyed that place. Remember the elephants we rode? I was ahead of you and my elephant stopped and crapped. You commented that you never saw so much crap come out of an animal before.
We had some interesting times in Mexico too. When thieves tried to steal my money from an overhead bag on a bus parked at the bus station in Leon, you wouldn’t let them off the bus. I called the bus driver who was standing outside, and when I got his attention, he ordered the thieves off the bus. There were three of them, as I recall. They left the money on the floor of the bus, and one of them said that I dropped it there. I also remember a time when you argued over the price of a room with a hotel clerk in Chihuahua. It was after we returned by train from Los Moschis. He wanted $20 for a room and pretended not to understand English, and you shouted to me to stay in the lobby with our bags while you went down the street to get a better deal at another hotel. When you came back about fifteen minutes later, you shouted, “I got a room for $8.” That’s when the hotel clerk suddenly spoke English and said, “I’ll give you a room for $7.”
My thoughts just now switched to the time you introduced me to your son and daughter, who were visiting when you and your wife had your fiftieth wedding anniversary. He looked like you, and she looked like your wife. Nice, good-looking young adults. They have the same good manners as their parents. Too bad they live out of town. I'll probably never see them again.
When you were in your forties, you parachuted from a private plane three times in one day. It happened over at Norwich. You came home and told your wife and she didn't believe you. The next day you did it again and returned with a certificate. A month later you walked all the way to Syracuse and back on a bet made at work. No money was involved. You completed the walk in less than 20 hours and your fellow workers bragged about it to anyone who would listen or care.
I remember that old black and white photograph of you and your wife when you got married. She was absolutely beautiful and you looked so handsome. Didn’t you go on a belated honeymoon after the war ended? Yes, you told me that you drove a Nash Rambler with fold-down rear seat and you both slept in the car and only slept in a motel when it was time to take a shower. You travelled across the United States, with forays into Canada and Mexico. Obviously, adventure was in your blood at an early age.
Didn’t you tell me that you went to the Soviet Union with exchange students from SUNY? That was in the early 60’s during the cold war. You studied the Russian language and took the role of activities director on the six-month trip. You were much older than the others. You separated from the other students on the way back and took a train to Poland and East Germany. At the Berlin Wall you dropped a book on the pavement and the flat side of it made a loud noise when it fell, and the Russian guards came running over to you with drawn weapons. The barrel of a gun was less than two feet from your head. You explained to them what happened and they left. Did you realize that you could have triggered an international incident?
That stubborn streak that you and your family are known for, that side of you that is inflexible and resembles self-righteousness, has served you well over the years. It managed to keep you disciplined and focused on goals and other activities until they were accomplished. But there were some notable exceptions. Remember the argument you had with the convenience store owner when we stopped for gas and a soda on our way from Merida to Uxmal, Mexico? You took a soda but forgot to pay for it. You were talking to the guy all the while and I guess that’s why you forgot. As you walked outside the store, he followed you and asked for payment. You told him you already paid for the soda. That started an argument. He thought you were cheating him, and you thought he was a double-dipper. Both of you got angry and had words, but your Italian was no match for his Spanish. Besides, neither of you was communicating. You’re smiling now as I recall this because you know that I intervened and convinced you that the store owner was right and that you hadn’t paid.
Another serious international incident was avoided when you paid for the soda and both of you shook hands and apologized.
And when I think about our several trips to Mexico, I will always be grateful for your attachment to peanut butter and crackers. I remember we took a bus at Villahermosa for Palenque, and the bus driver dropped us off at an intersection about seven miles outside Palenque. It was getting dark, and we hitch-hiked a ride into Palenque. We got a hotel room and then tried to visit the ruins at Palenque. It was closed for the day. So we returned to the hotel. We looked for a restaurant or grocery store but none was open. So we went back to the hotel room. That’s when you opened your overnight bag and pulled out heavenly peanut butter and crackers. We ate all of them and drank bottled water, then went to sleep. Next day we were amazed and impressed by everything we saw and heard at the ruins.
You visited the Holy Land, too, didn’t you? That was back in the 60’s. The Israeli soldiers on a bridge that crossed from Jordan gave you a hard time. Was it your stubbornness that got you into trouble with them? I think you’re smiling again. You explained to them that you left your visa in a hotel room in Jordan. They sent you back to get it.
Part of your enjoyment of life is your unceasing urge to play practical jokes on friends, relatives and even strangers. Your high school classmates called you a trickster. They had you pegged. Some of the things you did were outlandish. I won’t mention them now in front of your wife, or even strangers or officers of the law. City police wouldn’t leave a stone unturned in pursuit of you, even though the complaints were about pranks such as hidden blue recycle bins or misplaced political signs. You surprised me at your house on Halloween once, when you answered the door dressed as a ghost. Speaking of ghosts, didn’t you and some friends play a trick on a visiting church official who slept over at your house? After a night of conversation and an evening prayer, everyone went to bed except you. You stayed awake. About an hour later you put a sheet over your head and went into the guest’s bedroom. You made an unearthly sound like moaning. The church official, a man in his forties, bolted upright in his bed, pointed at you and shouted: “Begone!” Before you left, you heard him say it again, and then he asked God for forgiveness.
I could go on and on about you, but I didn’t come here to disturb your routine or remind you of things that you may have forgotten, or things that may upset you. I just want you to know how much I love and appreciate you as a friend and mentor.
The music has stopped. I think it's time to change CD’s. Let’s hear some Puccini. O Soave Fanciulla and Che Gelinda Manina--how icy-cold your little hand is--from La Boheme.
Mind if I rearrange the flowers? There, that looks better. I placed them on the side of the tombstone, so the engraving with your name and your wife’s name are clearly visible.
It’s a quiet, beautiful day and I miss you.
Two Orangutans Vacation in Florida:
O Soave Fanciulla, You Tube: http://youtu.be/EZJqR_8uE9s