Rowdy and wild at 95: A tribute to my friend “Freddy” who departed these shores Nov. 8, 2011. If the introductory line seems a bit boastful for a gent my age well really it’s not, more the lament of a tired old guy that finds there’s always something to do every time he thinks - or hopes there ain’t. Whether rowdy and wild, “95” relates not to age but to the unseemly rate of speed we seem to be traveling down this boulevard since retirement 18 years ago.
Oh for a short period there, my concept of heaven was not being servant to an alarm clock. Rather than arising at 3 a.m. one might “sleep in” to 4 or 5 and if he had stayed up ‘till 10 last evening watching the Playboy Channel, might even laze in bed ‘till 6. Alas!
Like a wild bird caught caged and accustomed, loosed of it’s confinement we sat a moment gathering our bearings then of a sudden realizes we’re shed of constraints and wing off into the wild blue yonder to flitter and flutter whether chooses our fancies. So sat I a moment as if stunned by my good fortune unbelieving of it all then lifted up and headed back into a world of old familiar habits.
Freed of the “cage” but not the internal rhythm, the new schedule yet had me out of bed before dawn sitting out back on the patio sipping a scalding coffee, mandolin in hand entertaining myself with “Turkey in the Straw” ‘till time the coffee pot emptied and the sun lifted above the eastern horizon. After that an hour of telecast news, the morning paper and later still, a bit of breakfast if I didn’t forget. Following that it was piddle and putter at whatever menial task one might lay a hand to, then off to the banter and tall tales of the coffee klatch down at the local Denny’s.
As years build the aging process tempers the energies and enthusiasm of both mind and body: the nearer retirement the more eagerly we look forward to being lazy, or more correctly perhaps, anticipating the day we can afford to be lazy if its laziness we so choose. In reality the realization is often better than the anticipation. Trading the daily grind for an idyllic beachcombing lifestyle tends more than a little appealing to a calloused old hand grasping the worn handle of a plow, but retirement includes other than just peaches and cream. The older we are the faster we age; philosophically speaking, shall a man just sit and wait the fall of the final curtain?
But the pride of a man accustomed to “doing” is in the works of his hands. Idleness is not a real good instiller of pride has no creativity, bears no fruit and accomplishes nothing.
The old bird sat in place only a moment or two before deciding there were yet enough feathers to fly, maybe not so high as before, but give it a try; even an occasional check stub would offer a sense of worth for an old hoss stripped of his harness and turned out to pasture. Oh he may rest on his laurels, assume an air of wisdom, teach from a lifetime of experiences, (become a know it all) or claim the honor of the aged but soon we’re just another voice from another day and culture to which nobody under 50 listens. Off pitch out of tune and out of time.
One supposes a “rear sitting in a chair” might never wear out. People like the brilliant theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking produce amazing amounts of work long after the body crumbles but otherwise the sun shines hot on the back of an old cotton picker; joints ache bones turn brittle and muscle turns to flab. It’s not for nothing that official retirement age for the American worker is 65.
“Work while it is day,” so are we advised by the scriptures: Even at age 65 still a bit of daylight remains but no question night coming on in a hurry whatever of the doing remains to be done do it now.
Just in the “nick o time” the day is saved by my friend Fred, aka Mr. Clean, aka Freddy the freeloader retired homebuilder, now a house painter remodeler extraordinaire, fair to middlin’ country singer/musician and certified eccentric.
Idle days and lackadaisical ways offer little to alleviate my boredom so when Mr. Clean sizing me up as the patsy that I am asks the ‘ol mule to reharness for a mere three/four days per week, four hours per day, the old draft animal acquiesces and sets about readjusting to the reigns. Unfortunately, the old hoss fails to recognize the challenge of it beforehand; the negatives will have more angles than a medieval castle. Freddy is a workaholic, constantly “overextending,” operating a half-dozen projects concurrently; if one job goes down pack up and move across town to the other. And never before had the new recruit labored in an environment where temperatures can—and often do run to 115 degree and above in the dead of summer.
The three or four day work week might stretch to six or seven, and well, the four hour day proved a joke at the beginning sometime stretching to five or six plus a 30- or 40-minute walk-around come quitting time. What’s more staggered starting times means that I can no longer count on leisure time uninterrupted, the call for assistance will come any day of the week, any time of the day.
But Freddy is a musical cohort, has become nigh-onto family and needs the help; once a 200-pounder now down to a skinny 135 double-jointed pole scarred with a half dozen work related hernia surgeries.
The man could do anything. Fit into the smallest places and spaces, under floors into attics and down rabbit holes if per chance the task required it. All lacking was a dependable “go-fer” and someone to do the heavy lifting. I was it. Van, he cajoled, “I couldn’t do this without you,” and assured that per chance he wouldn’t live forever, and having learned the ropes I could get into the business for myself.
I’ll admit to being a mite tempted, especially when the old fellow confided that the fluid nature of the occupation and his musical sideline had once helped to facilitate 18 concurring “flirtations.” That’s respectful numbers even for a Rock Star but heck, in my wildest dreams. After all a mere “sideman” could never aspire to such glorified status as head handyman or ‘heavy metal’ guitar twanger; call me go-fer, flunky, Kool aide light whatever good enough for me leave it at that.
Freddie and I met through a common interest in country twang long after his rowdy ways and playboy days had cost him his first wife, after health problems had readjusted his natural weight from two hundred pounds down to 135, and after a new ‘five ft. two eyes of blue’ had taken charge of his social affairs.
Working with Freddy was, well, we shall sum it up by simply calling it “an experience.” Working as his musical ‘sideman’ one never knew what next to expect nor did he, we suspects, just start strumming, cast around for some clue then say “Boys, it goes something like this.”
As an aging apprentice, hefting five-gallon cans of paint were yet within my energy range and from considerable travels I knew what a paintbrush was, a carpenters level, and could even identify a handsaw and hammer but the carpentry nomenclature is huge, tools I had never heard of, never knew existed or would ever have use for, all thrown willy-nilly into the back of a pick-up truck toting a camper shell with two tool troughs, one to each side. A “go-fer” searching for the petitioned tool was little more than a scavenger down at the county dump rummaging through acres of junk searching for something he’d never heard of and hadn’t a clue as to shape or form.
At days end refuse from the job is loaded up and hauled home, metal and wood dumped out back, other bits and pieces tossed into a dilapidated utility building nearby and when that filled, a Blade-Cat fetched in to level a piece of hillside so’s to accommodate a 35-foot storage trailer. The place was home to coyotes, deer, wild turkey, hog and rattlesnake, the topography ran to scatter-oak ridges with wild grasses scorched tender-box dry by the brutal summer sun; one of my assigned duties was to keep the place within county fire codes by removing flammable material near the house and outbuildings. The articulation applied to the landscaping out front belied the jumble out back, just as Freddy’s haphazard hand tool arrangement was in sharp contrast to the quality of his work.
It must have been more than a little frustrating for an artisan as he to be so unequally harnessed with a novice as me, and yes it sometime showed in his impatience but my loyalty as a friend, and my acceptance of the mans eccentricities had endeared me to his petite little woman who showed her appreciation by becoming a “protector” of sorts, calling me her best friend and demanding I not be “mistreated.”
“Lahoma” widowed by cancer had once aspired to professional dancing but at five foot was much too short for the chorus line, had met Freddy at a dance, pointed him out to a friend and said see that fellow over there? That’s the man I’m going to marry. And so she did and set about living happily ever after - or as long as the tides of time would allow.
Despite age and illness the two were always there whenever the music started, pushing the limits of endurance, fighting the encroachment of time jealous of every allotted minute.
She was first go: Wistfully, from her bed by the window she directed me across town to the valley beyond, and said see? I live just over there, why I could just walk out the door and soon be home. Closer to “home” than might have been imagined, the next dance with her Freddy would not be at the grange or down at the VFW, rather somewhere in the towering columns of clouds beyond the big river.
Freddy was flat of his back waving a hand as though conducting an orchestra when I walked into his room down at the local hospital. He should have been past it, but against my advice, the previous day had fixed himself a salad including a sliced apple a week after colon surgery. Now again confined, t’was not a baton held he, but an imaginary brush as he surveyed the ceiling and various angles of his room fancying himself up there a slinging paint.
There are times I can see his tired old eyes staring back at me from my own mirror, times I rebel at the very thought of stepping outside the door but then I’m a lot like Freddie; it’s home for a few hours sleep, up at dawn and gone again.
We fancy asking the man the protocols of Heaven perchance we’re ever afforded the opportunity; I expect he’ll put down his brush pick up his old guitar, start plunking away and say, well Van, it goes something like this.