Friday, February 12, 2010
Calhoun's Can(n)ons for February 12, 2010
The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.
L.P. Hartley, “The Go-Between.”
The email from a childhood friend led to an obituary in The Desert Sun, a small Coachella Valley newspaper. Glen Kennedy, another one of my early childhood friends was dead. He passed away at his Thermal, CA, home with his family by his side, said the paper. And since he was too young for this – a proper death being, oh, some other time, but not now, not now – it was a sad shock.
Nine year-old Glen of the malachite eyes, ears like ailerons, a dusting of freckles across his pug nose, knew I had an interest in insects of all kinds and so gave me my childhood nickname: “Bug” Hughes, an appellation that soon became my official nome de plume, appearing on all my school papers. I even added a little insect-like squiggle above the “u” in Bug, and thought it was quite the logo.
Naturally, I promptly fell in love with Glen, a secret, unrequited love since there’s nothing to “requite” when you’re nine and your chosen swain thinks all things female can best be described as, “YUK, Girls!”
But that didn’t matter. Nor does it matter that thinking back on all this today, I have to wonder how much of my love for Glen had something to do with the fact that he lived on a ranch and had horses. After all, when it comes to horse-crazy young girls, there’s bound to be some crossover confusion when it comes to boys and horses, or boys who have horses. But that is a quibble because in the country of memory, Glen was my first true childhood love, a fantasy construct that I kept tucked away in a safe place in my heart, far from all the adult realities of life. He was that bell jar-encased piece of childhood innocence, of possibilities, the always open door of What If’s that we carry with us like small flames in the dark.
I suspect we all have such imaginary constructs somewhere in our hearts. The media often features sweet stories, usually popping up on Valentines Day, of old folks reuniting with their high school sweethearts after years apart. A wedding photo of a smiling couple follows. So, it’s possible such early loves can become a reality. But in the normal course of things, these fantasies are simply that. Fictions and memory fragments we hold dear as they are as fragile and transitory as hope.
Fragile, frozen in time, and false. One of the last times I saw Glen was a few months before high school graduation. We were at his house discussing all manner of things, including his staunch declaration that he’d never get drafted (this was 1961 as Vietnam was heating up) and if drafted, he’d head for the hills or Canada first. No way was he going to be conned into this government manipulated “war.” Indeed, in many ways he had grown up into a wised-up, cynical, independent-thinking Holden Caulfield character who was adept at spotting the “phonies.” And since I never saw him again, that is also the Glen of my memory.
Which is why his obituary came as a shock. Continued The Desert Sun, “ In 1966 Glen enlisted in the United States Army, and served his country through two tours of service during the Vietnam War, for which he received the National Defense Service Medal and the Vietnam Service Medal. He was honorably discharged following his brave service on Sept 20, 1973, holding the rank of 1st Lieutenant.”
Glen? A Lieutenant? Two tours of duty? And there it was, the perfect example of how elusive our lives and how unreliable our memories are. And how little we know of the people we think we know. And how time and life can work its complex transformations on all of us, leaving our old selves unknowable and our old memories stranded like a delicate extinct Mayfly locked in a piece of golden amber: Bug Hughes who once loved a boy with malachite eyes, long, long ago when the world was new and the desert air was soft with the scent of orange blossoms.
And while the path in front of me grows shorter with every year, I also have the eerie sensation that the path behind me is also winking out, one old friend, one piece of memory at a time. And I know that someone a few years hence – but please, not now, not now –will read my obituary and perhaps recall the fragment shadow of a young girl, an image that is both true and false, an ephemeral snap-shot of memory from an unknowable foreign country that even at the moment of remembering is already passing swiftly into the darkness.