It was a cold November day in Brookings, Oregon, the wind driven rain looked to go to flurries, as the sun began to set and the temperature dipped. Jake, just turned 29, had got a late start to work, fixing dinner for his step brothers and sisters back in Crescent City, and a later start on life, pumping gas in Brookings, Oregon to pay for his tuition.
Jake’s dad had split early on and his mother had passed on when he’d just turned 13, but not before giving him a love of letters and a library pass card, which provided a liberation from a dark row house and the sting of his father’s alcohol laced belt. The Robertsons had adopted him years ago. Somehow the joy he took from the library’s refuge and tutoring his step brothers and sisters, Jake had decided to become a writer.
He’d bloomed late, after having had a taste of the overnight pleasure you could take from a bottle, a bag or the street girls in Eureka, who wrote their names in neon, and thought he knew what he wanted out of life. But tonight, as the rain and cold stung, he was doubting it. His best pal had shacked up with his girl, his pump jockey pay wasn’t enough for next semester’s tuition. For a minute, he thought about bailing and heading for the momentary comforts of Eureka, when the cashier yelled out, “Jake, pump on 3.”
Jake sullenly walked to a beat up Camaro with a couple about his age and two screaming kids in the back. Seeing the Washington state plate, Jake asked if they were passing through. The driver ranted how they were leaving their hometown “up the road,” how there was nothing to do, no place to go and the cops were always hassling them for the loud music, the arguments or their kids’ ditching school. He finished, asking Jake what his town was like. Looking to extricate himself from the noise of their lives, Jake muttered, “Pretty much the same.”
Returning to the office, Jake saw a little man with a crushed brown hat, huddled outside the door. Jake asked him if he needed anything and over the wind, thought heard the name Clarence and he’d come to see Jake. Then he said something, muffled by the wind, about learning to sing.
Chalking it up to yet another mentally ill homeless person, Jake walked out to the next car pulling in, a restored Model A, with Massachusetts plates. Driving was a ghostly pale young woman, accompanied by, a tall, thin fellow she called “Ralph.” Jake, upon inquiry, apologetically told them that this was only a part time job and of his dream of becoming a writer. “Ralph” seeming to look through Jake, told him in a heavy New England accent, that “…the things that success is…earning the respect of intelligent folks and the affection of children; tolerating the betrayal of false friends, while finding the best in others; and above all to leave the world a better place from having been there.” Just as the old Ford seemed to disappear with the wind, a bewildered Jake saw Clarence wave to them and smile.
Ten minutes later, a shiny Packard with Indiana tags pulled in. Jake greeted the middle aged driver, who called himself “Max.” He said he was a lawyer from Terre Haute, but had left the practice of law, travelling the county, underwriting his gypsy life by freelance writing. Jake listened as “Max” recited a piece he’d been working on, “Go quiet among the hustle and bustle, and remember what peace you might find in silence, “ then muttering in a Hoosier accent, “Needs some work.”
He continued his recitation, some passages Jake later recalled: “Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time…the world is full of trickery…But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism…with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.” As Jake set to thanking Max, in a blink, the Packard vanished — but not before Clarence, still standing in the rain, yet eerily dry, smiled and waved.
As Jake stood there dumb, hanging onto what he’d heard, while sinking into the misery of his moment, a Cadillac with New York plates pulled in. The driver, “Lou,” had a square jaw and a New York accent, tinged a bit with German. He asked Jake how his day was going and Jake said he’d seen better.
The driver patted him on the shoulder with a ham sized left hand, softly saying, as if to read Jake’s mind, “You’re going to have a lot of those days, young fella, but what they’ll remember, what you’ll know, is that you suited up and showed up every single day. That you gave it your best every one of those days and on that last day, when your tank’d finally run dry or been siphoned off by smaller carney clowns incapable of making it in the Show, you took yourself out-and that memory of how you’d played the Game, made you the luckiest guy on earth.”
The Caddie pulled out, giving a brief thumbs up to Clarence, who returned the gesture with a circling index finger.
As Jake handed “Lou” a receipt, “Lou” asked “What’s your hometown like, young fella.” Jake looked up into the rain for a second, smiled sheepishly, then said, “Pretty much the same, sir.”
And as “Lou” drove off to see America, blissfully grateful for the short time he had to do so, Jake walked by Clarence, still standing out in the wind and rain, still dry and unruffled, but for that crushed fedora.
Shaking his head, Jake recalled hours ago their strange introduction, chuckled, and asked Clarence if he’d learned to sing yet. Then, just as the wind howled and Jake blinked, Clarence grinned and was gone, the words “earned my wings” hovering in the cold, night air.
And so, scant years later on Jake would again meet those people, Max, Ralph, Lou, again encountering experiences from that cold windy, night in Brookings: the writer he aspired to be, the lawyer he’d become, the Judas’ true friends, a beloved lady and the men and women in white coats who would tell him he was “terminal” (somehow escaping identification of them or any of us who are not).
All of these recollections, frequent and invariable, return often and never, absolutely never, failed to summon up from the deepest regions of Jake’s heart and soul, a smile — a smile born of the knowledge that joy, warmth, finitude and love, just as their counterparts, exist within all of us.
It lies only for each of us to reach inside, grasp and hold on tightly to that which we choose to. As Carole King presciently wrote in Seasons, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and each time you choose between the two.”
And so, on this Thanksgiving, I bid and pray, for all of this great community, which has been so kind and generous to a gypsy traveler, that for the slightest, and indeed, all of those moments when you release your forks, spoons and knives, that you may reach inside, grasp and hold on tightly to all of the good lying within you and that which surrounds you.
Happy Thanksgiving all.
Thanks to Ralph Emerson, Max Ehrmann, Lou Gehrig, Carole King and Frank Capra.