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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The mistakes we've made

Nov. 3, 1980

A gull splashes in the water, hoarding some precious edible discovery as other gull crowd in, the surface of the river rippling with wide, wandering waves, each searching for the banks.
A duck honks from the far shore, complaining about the poor accommodations, leafless trees marking his out of season trip south.
The moving water echoes at an elevated pitch as it comes to and gurgles over the lip of this man-made dam, sharp stones stretched out the whole width of the river at the bottom. Only the willows remain, crying over the edges of the water with their golden tears, each leaf floating on the surface like a tiny ship, clogging up the gaps between the stones.
Old man Ben grins, smoke billowing from his pipe as if he was captain to each ship, smoke catching on the wind, thinning out, mingling with the great clouds of white steam escaping the paper mills high above us.
"We used to talk politics here," Ben tells me, his gaze caught on the endless variety of activities going on at once, from a sparrow squawking on a fallen branch to the race of swallows, each imitating a World War Two dogfight in the sky over our heads. "We'd sit here and argue about who was best for what, everybody taking a different side, saying how they themselves could do a darn-side better job than the folks we'd elected downtown. Even I thought so at the time, caught up in the arguing as if what we said mattered more than a thimble full in the long run, me, trying to make things interesting by egging the others on, sometimes pushing them to make them come out and say they didn't know squash from beans."
Ben pauses, takes a deep puff on his pipe as he listens to the ringing of the nine o'clock bells from across the river, Sacred Heart church's steeple one of many brick towers sticking out of that side, stark statues among the waving leafless limbs of trees. Ben's face turns towards the morning sun, giving his gray hair and brows and beard a yellowish tint, his nearly colorless eyes squinting, registering some piece of knowledge I'm too young to understand, something he knows or knew but sees now passing away.
"Now, I mostly sit here by myself," he says, "wondering what's going to happen to us. I mean we keep electing these people and they keep letting us down."
He shivers and glanced upstream as a flock of geese takes flight from the flat surface of deeper water there, wings flapping with great fury to lift them into the air, waves of their effort slapping on the stones at our feet. Ben lifts his pipe as if to wish them well, smoke rising from his mouth and the mouth of his pipe. I can smell the smoke and the river.
"Even people who think they know so much today don't know as much as they think they do tomorrow, or even when they pull the lever in the voting booth," Ben says. "The whole world might just crash down on all our heads."
A gull cries, and we both stare out at the water as the white wings rush down and the black beak slashes at the surface to come away with a silver, squiggling prize. The tumbling hushed whisper of the falls continues, the foam at the top drips down bit by bit from some factory waste upstream. Ben stares for a long time at the surface of the water, at the foam and the ripples, and then, he laughs.
"We used to argue here about all the mistakes those politicians were making," he says. "Maybe we were wrong. Maybe we're the ones who make the mistakes by never getting ourselves elected instead."

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