Once when I was stuck in Palatka, Florida, a truly smelly north Florida backwater featuring an all-pervading, nostril-putrefying paper mill, I took an English class from one George Kennedy, who hailed from Chicago. He was Head of the Department at St. Johns Junior College back in the very early 1970’s.
George, unlike the other professors – even those from up north who seemed to fit in well with their sun-baked setting while keeping a schedule of departure times at the nearest airport handy – was very theatrical, and I found his lectures both entertaining and stimulating. George was fond of his bourbon and that may have had something to do with the fact that he tended to tell the same stories over and over.
There was one he repeated often. Napoleon Bonaparte, having had his advance crushed by the Russians, his freezing soldiers in desperate, frostbitten retreat, supposedly sat aloft his horse as he prepared to gallop away to some warm spot reserved specially for him, and, surveying his dying troops, said blithely, “So much for cannon fodder !”
It is impossible to prove whether or not Napoleon ever said any such thing, but a good story teller is never put off by whatever paltry thing the ‘truth’ might be. I remember precious little about Palatka and have vigorously sought to forget most of it. But George, erect and always onstage, his chiseled face like what Lord Byron must have looked like in his heyday, earned a place in my much -treasured gallery of life-trivia with his tale about the cannon fodder. And if the name ‘Kennedy’ meant he had an Irish background, and if we accept the stereotype of Irishmen being gifted raconteurs, then George was your guy.
I was – whatever I was not – one helluva an English student back then. I had fucked up university and set off a-travelling, fallen in love with a crazy Finnish women in London, and come back determined to boost my grades enough to get offered a place in an English University. It wasn’t long before I was drinking with George. His wife, about whom I recall little except that she was a friendly, sturdy, average looking, short-haired woman who didn’t mind lifting a cup with her spouse, was a cordial if often fleeting presence.
Now if there was one guy who didn’t seem to belong in Palatka, it was George. And naturally I asked him about it. In a subtle way, you know, like “George, what is a talented, eloquent, learned, theatrical guy like you doing in a One-McDonald’s shithole like this?”
Apparently George had been asked this question before because he had a ready answer. “When my wife and I came here after I accepted the offer, we agreed that we would only stay until something better came along.” Theatrical pause, look of something at once helplessly merry and implacably woebegone dancing briefly in his eyes: “That was 25 years ago.” He said no more, nor did he need to.
George and his betrothed must be gone by now, and I sometimes wonder if he ever did head elsewhere. I doubt it. Head of the Department, fairly cushy job with no need to worry about any ‘publish or perish’ nonsense, steaks on the grill, bourbon in the ice-filled glass. Who could want for more?
But something troubles me about this memory, about George, and I think you know what it is. I guess it has to do with what Frank Sinatra meant when he sang the lyrics “Those little town blues” in the famous song “New York, New York”. Now I grant you this, and I have written about it numerous times. Occasionally, while riding on a train or bus through a small town that no one in their right mind would dream of going to stay for longer than a quick burger and a toilet break, I have seen some mysteriously seductive local woman walking along the street. And while knowing full well that in fact her life was probably about as mysterious as a punch-in time clock at the local factory, I would get this urge to get out and follow her, find her, marry her, and simply dissolve into the unmysterious mystery of her days. Somehow it would work out, I figured, and I would imagine ravishing her, limb and juice, in some otherwise dreary abode within the dark interior of that nameless town.
I think it was the anonymity that appealed so much, a jumping off point to join the ephemeral goddess – and say ‘goddamn’ to the world. It is part of my nostalgia for what never happened. And even though I know that if what never happened had happened, I would have been disappointed, definitely after a short period of euphoria, the imaginary flavors still linger on my panting taste buds,
I am tormented by these imaginings. When the young see me now, a man in his 70s out walking his dogs, they would never guess where I really am, those mental answers to all questions, all longings, rushing back and forth in my brain like a rain-dance in a field of chanting pagans or a wild, naked ballet in a monastery. The people dying in the nursing homes must have similar visions.
But I am fortunate in one way I believe has been crucial. I didn’t stop in Palatka. I kept searching. And let’s confirm that I did meet people along the way. Maybe I even knew intimately a woman or two that some other lonely man like me in transit somewhere had spied from the window of a bus and wanted. Ah, the futility of deciding whether to stop or keep going.
I think it is about one’s ‘system’ of belief. I recently read an article which I have discussed with my students, both Russian and Chinese. The question was “Will Religion Ever Disappear?” To be honest, I didn’t expect much when I made up my mind to give it a quick look. Google increasingly sucks because it has become too political and many interesting articles will fade to black if you don’t subscribe. Or else start bitching about your adblocker. Moreover, the robots are getting dumber apparently, because the search engine titles I enter hoping to find information about ancient cultures usually turn up a such-named video game or rock group.
Moreover, articles with titles like “Will Religion Ever Disappear?” will start in a readable way and then dissolve into a call from the congregation. As soon as I hear the Summoning from the Mount, I disappear.
But this article was different. It was balanced. And it gave many good reasons why ‘religion’ (if it must be called that) will never disappear. Indeed, the article suggested that if conditions of prosperity prevail (such as are common in the industrialized nations), the corpulent merchants and wiry joggers tell God to take a hike. But when the tsunami washes in, or when savage, barbaric mercenaries come marching down the High Street, hacking off heads, deflowering virgins and violating staunch wives, playing bayonet volleyball with the babes and eating up all the doughnuts from Krispy Kreme, then the praying begins.
It is, I feel, a most interesting dialectic between shepherd and flock: God is ignored until needed, then God ignores those who need him. The deeply religious will dispute me on this, but I’ve seen it all my life.
It reminds me of a cartoon sequence I saw once which first depicted a bunch of students sitting in a classroom where there is no professor but only a recorder delivering the lecture. The next cartoon shows the same classroom, only this time there are no students either, only a room full of recorders recording the recorded ‘lecture’. The ultimate, all-defining emptiness behind every curtain, every facade, every sky. And yet the search goes on.
For some reason, I came up with a way of illustrating the difference between Faith, Hope, and Belief. Maybe I am wrong, probably am, but this is what I came up with.
Let’s suppose that a person finds himself lost in the middle of a vast snowy field, blurry and white on all sides and no path leading anywhere. He wanders around, his feet getting numb, his arms and legs stiffer by the minute. He believes that a path must exist somewhere simply because there is always such an exit route; one only has to find it. And he hopes to. But there is no path, and he begins to lose his hope even though he still believes that such a path exists.
And then, just as he is ready to accept defeat and curl up into a little frozen ball, a Path appears. It slices smartly through the snow and seems to beckon him. Instantly rejuvenated and rejoicing, he shakes himself until the blood is flowing again and heads down the path. His Belief has been confirmed, his Hope rewarded. Soon he will arrive somewhere.
Except that he doesn’t. The path goes on and on and on until he feels that some sort of cosmic joke is being played on him. He feels betrayed by what he believed before, but soon this rush of anger is replaced by a returning loss of hope. The bone deep, stony cold reenters his body and he eventually reaches the point where the path doesn’t even seem like a path any more, but just an abstract furrow in the snowy field. He is ready to collapse.
And then he spies a cabin just up ahead. In the swirling wind he cannot tell if it is smoke coming out from the little chimney or not, but now his will darts back into his brain, he shrugs off his deep freeze and heads for the cabin. A sense of magic dances within him and now he believes again, even as he hopes.
But the cabin is empty and its doors are locked. Someone must live here, his heart cries out. But who and where have they gone? He pulls with increasing distress at the doorknob but it holds fast. Still it is a house of sorts which proves the existence of someone who has been here before. Who would it be, and when will they return? Will they return?
Now he is really stuck, even more than before when it was only the wide snow and the handsome but empty path. He stretches his neck and arches his nostrils, imagining that he can vaguely smell bacon frying on the inside. But he can’t be sure, and little by little the scent disappears. Maybe it was only the workings of an imagined ghost. Still, he feels the connection with something that must be near…or somewhere…not so far away.
Should he keep going and look for another cabin, based on the assumption that where there is one there must be more? For who would live alone, way out here? But he sees nothing as he peers up the path. The cold is inside him again, this time really daunting as if an avalanche had fallen in his heart.
He believes nothing now because his system of logic is in frozen tatters; his hope is lessening minute by minute because he perceives that existence has reached a deadend. So should he keep going?
He decides not. Maybe someone will come. He must simply be patient. So he sits down in front of the cabin, now ready to accept whatever will be. And now, as his eyes seal shut and his brain works like sleepy miners trapped in a gas-filled cave, tapping, tapping, tapping against the underground wall in hopes of being heard, his Belief and his Hope, defeated, give way to Faith. One last tremor of desire, and he tries to stand up, tries to go forth and look for more.
Maybe…probably…somewhere in the distance, there is something. Maybe people are dancing around a fire in strange costumes or wearing nothing. Somewhere up ahead. But at this point his bones say no. He has reached his Palatka and all he has going for him now is his Faith that this is where he belongs.
===By Eric Le Roy===