When An Old Man Dies…

There is this phrase out there that goes, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.

If you ever try to do my job for any length of time, you’ll find there are fewer words so true out there. Of course, I would replace “man” with simply “person”. Hey, I won’t even make this age exclusive. How many stories does even a small child have to tell? Lord knows they will try to tell you if you give them the chance.

I’m reminded of this adage by the past few weeks when I have been exposed to characters fit for so many novels. That’s just another fringe benefit of my position. Most people live lives where they meet people who come into their paths serendipitously. In my job, I direct my path toward these people. An average person may meet someone authentically interesting every now and again. I meet them constantly, and I actively peel back the layers of their years to uncover those things which sometimes even Hemingway and Twain would have been hard pressed to make up.

How many new people have you met this last year? How many of them did you find interesting? How many of them did you actively ask personal, sometimes painful questions? How often do you walk away feeling personally connected to them for having shared your conversation?

Newspaper writers are not supposed to get personal for the most part. It’s impossible to stay completely impersonal, but you would be surprised how difficult it is to even try. Can you really ask such deep questions one after another to a person without feeling some connection to them? I like to think empathy leads to better questions.

Last Memorial Day I ran into a friend while taking photos. She is always at the local memorial day with her mother and her grandfather, a World War II Veteran. She informed me then that her grandfather was turning 100 on Halloween of this year. I wrote it in my schedule and mostly forgot about it. Beginning this month (October) I found the note, and someone called us up to tell us about him all over again. Naturally, I scheduled an interview for our special section on senior living.

I met Ed one Friday afternoon in his assisted living building.

Ed was almost what you would expect from a 99 year and 11 month old man, except 100 year old people somehow are almost younger than their age. I’ve seen people in their 60’s and 70’s who act and look older than Ed.

Even so, Ed had a walker, one with hand breaks and a seat. He has just a little white hair left on top of his head, but most of it wraps around in a familiar pattern. He leans forward, as older folk tend to, and he smiles a smile you wouldn’t expect. Teenagers are 100 times more moody with less justification.

One of the attendants at the assisted living place helps Ed to sit down and we start talking.

This is not an easy interview.

Sometimes you speak to someone and you know exactly which direction to go with your questions. Sometimes it is more difficult. Ed’s claim to fame is his age. How many questions can you come up with for someone’s age?

I planned on feeling out the interview with standard questions on life accomplishments, proud times and awe inspiring moments, but Ed is not the type of person to let someone my age steer the conversation.

The conversation is honestly all over the place. We talk about his home town in Illinois, he jumps to the war, boy scouts, Civilian Conservation Corps, WWII, CCC, resort ownership and back to Illinois. Ed’s storytelling is admittedly erratic and unpredictable, but I don’t care.

He remembers dates more clearly than I ever have and he gets frustrated and blames his age when it takes him more than a few seconds to remember some obscure year 70+ years ago.

Ed occasionally garbles his speech, and when he does nothing he says is understandable. Leading up to those moments, however are newspaper gold.

He says some non politically correct things. That’s a little jarring, but who am I to change a 100 year old man.

He shares his nightmares with me, except they were real once, in some battlefield in Europe, or a strange corrupt street in Chicago. He tells me he has never had a boring day in his life and he’s prepared to prove it to me. I’m a believer at the end of the hour.

This old sage has lived a century. He has so much to complain about, but he barely does. Almost everything he had to tell me was said with the same tone as a brag or a witty joke. Exceptions, of course, being the passing of one of his children, and his wife.

We shy away from the painful facts. That’s another reason why this interview is not easy.

How do you talk to another person about their death, especially someone you only met an hour ago? Ed is counting down his days. You might never guess that he is 100, but then again you would never know by looking at him that many years of untreated acid reflux has given Ed esophageal cancer. He’s in stage 4. I can’t ask him about it. I have to stumble through those questions with his daughter on the phone later.

In Pine River, a smoldering fire is burning in a library named Ed, and there is nothing to be done about it. People talk about the Library at Alexandria, but in light of this, who cares. Real libraries are great, but this… is unexplainable.

I’ll be lucky if I have even a fraction of the stories Ed has at any point in my life. I consider myself a creative and maybe interesting person, but so many of the stories that will die with me will belong to people like Ed who I met through my job. I’m happy I can try to prolong them even for just a little bit.

It’s an incredible thing, to meet people like this. I have met so many of them. It’s humbling. I meet so many people with such incredible experiences. It could humble anybody.

4 Responses

  1. Cathy

    oh, wow, I haven’t cried about my Dads passing, which hasn’t happened yet, for quite some time, but Travis thank you for honoring an honorable mans life! Need Kleenex now!

  2. Judy Wallace Gard

    thanks for sharing, Cathy, ask as many questions as you can…after he’s gone, it’s too late…but if you have any questions about things as a child…ask…wish my folks were here to ask…
    Sounds like an interesting man…talk while toy can…thanks again for sharing…

  3. Cinny

    What an excellent article! My parents died 15 & 20 years ago, and I have spent the past year scanning old family photos back to the early 1900’s. I know the people, but I don’t know many of the stories. They took their “library” of stories with them. Wish I could have both of them sitting with me as I scan the photos, telling me the stories as I go along! Would have been priceless!

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