My Extra Year
All of last year I thought I was a year older than I actually was. For twelve frantic months, with my fiftieth birthday looming larger by the hour, I walked around with a bad attitude. “I am forty-nine. You got a problem with that!?” No one did. Neither waitresses, Kinko’s clerks, nor my long-suffering tabby cat would pick a fight. In fact, no one noticed the new chip on my shoulder. I realized being middle aged is mostly a time when one is largely ignored.
Still, it was a heady time. The entire year I tried more than ever to pay closer attention. I wanted to taste and feel the texture of the world around me; to be one of the smart and informed who begins each conversation with “Guess what I heard on NPR?” and, “I just read a fascinating article in the science section of the Times.
With mortality looking back at me in the mirror, I had so much to learn in so little time. For example, what to make of the rise of male enhancement products? With only one quick year remaining until the big 50, I desperately sought the answers to all the world’s great questions. I contemplated the guilt of Kobe, Michael, and Martha, and debated internally whether PBS was too liberal and FOX was too conservative. I sat as close as I could to my 12-inch television set to dutifully read CNN’s ticker tape of tragedy crawling along the bottom of my screen. I learned that Utah still had active polygamists, North Dakota had “killer” blizzards, and California had either too much or too little rain. I learned we were all suspects. Satellite trucks could appear outside our houses at any minute.
In airport waiting rooms, gas stations, and even in doctors’ offices, I was trapped in an unrelenting loop of sound bites and images. Commentators commented, lawyers lobbied, and analysts analyzed. Nobody could agree on anything. I was exhausted trying to keep up with them. I developed “bomb fatigue.” Bombs went off on crowded buses in Israel and then tanks rolled into Gaza, and then bombs went off on crowded buses in Israel and tanks… Scott Peterson enters the courtroom. Michael Jackson waves to his fans. Muslims gather and scream outside mosques. Lawyers and their clients disembark from black SUV’s. Denials came just before admissions. Then came tearful apologies on the steps of courthouses. In the background, Rumsfeld spun, Dean howled, Kenny Chesney crooned, Franken cackled, the Dow stumbled then rallied then stumbled, O’Reilly scolded, and through it all there continued to be persistent drizzle in Seattle and severe thunderstorms in Kansas.
When my birthday rolled around, I was ecstatic, and a mite embarrassed, to discover that I was in fact forty-nine... again. The age of fifty would be delayed. Wow, a entire extra year, I thought. However, this time around I didn’t want to act so desperate and I certainly wanted to cut down on tracking current events.
For the next few months I avoided most forms of media and, instead, began to listen to other people’s voices. In a prison yard, I participated in a charity Crop Walk with more than one hundred female inmates. There were 19-year-old murderers and other women, who simply summed up their incarcerations by saying, “I’ve done some bad things.” In their own words, they recounted how drugs, alcohol, and usually the wrong boyfriends led them to doing hard time. “This is a surreal dream, being in prison. This shows what can happen when you lose your focus.” They held hands and smoked as they circled the yard raising money for various charities Afterwards we gathered in a makeshift auditorium to eat shoestring potato chips from Dixie cups. One inmate sang, “I want Jesus to be my friend. I want Jesus to walk with me.” Another made an impromptu speech. “There is so much evil in the world. We need to leave all that hate and anger behind us.” As I was checked through countless locked gates back into freedom, the assistant warden said, “They’re like our children, and they test us daily. But today they did great.”
The next month I was on the Mississippi River with a band of idealistic twenty-year olds, whose simple goal was to clean up all the decades of trash accumulated on the shores and islands of that over-worked river. We sped back and forth in small powerboats, reclaiming 55-gallon barrels (one labeled “Prep-N-Kote”), shopping carts, tires, and refrigerators. The work was strenuous, but rewarding. To my surprise the river water was as warm as a freshly poured bath. I thought of that famous saying about the river: “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.” Afterwards we gathered in a beat-up houseboat in a hidden cove for sandwiches and drinks. The stereo was cranked up with the latest tunes from Britney and Rage Against the Machine. I was exhausted, covered in Mississippi. But I could easily picture spending the whole summer with the crew. They were having the time of their lives. I asked Chad, the founder of the six-year-old cleanup group, what the Mississippi River meant to him. His eyes lit up as he watched the river.
“It means everything. It’s my life. Now I’m in awe of it. How the bluffs change, the islands and different sloughs. It’s a sense of freedom to me.”
I felt as if I had finally tapped into the real frequency of the nation. And the more I embraced the world around me the more that world revealed its treasures. Stories were everywhere, in nursing homes, in pick-up trucks, on forest trails, and in museums. I held the velvety hand of a 104-year-old woman, and the wet bodies of ring-neck snakes and mole salamanders. I gave guitar lessons to ten-year olds, guiding their fingers across the fret board. I sang “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” and “What A Wonderful World” every week to an Alzheimer’s group. Inspired by Chad, I regularly picked up trash along the roads in my own town. In the afternoons, neighborhood children came knocking on my front door, holding buckets containing toads. “Stephen, look what we found! Look at the toadies!” And I did.
To my dismay, the extra year would pass quicker than all the ones that came before. Or so it seemed. Eventually the long, humid nights, filled with the buzzing of cicadas and the calling of frogs, were soon replaced with falls rains, bare tree limbs, and endless skeins of geese. On Thanksgiving afternoon of my second forty-ninth year, I am in the company of a man I’ll call Orlen. He takes me on his secret path to the river, down among the wiliest coons and possums, the towering hickories and oaks, right down to where the century-old snappers lie in warm mud and the nasty water snakes coil on overhangs like giant springs. Orlen, a semi-retired bricklayer, is almost eighty, but on most days he can outwork anyone from my Boomer generation. The week before I had seen him in town setting bricks for a new entryway. With eyes twinkling, he called out, “Come over here, son, and see what regular people do for a living.”
Not long after I moved here and met him, Orlen quickly dismissed me as “too smart,” The implication is hardly flattering: I’m soft, a damned writer no less, and much too thoughtful to be of much use in a blue-collar Illinois town. I was not offended. All my life I’ve moved back and forth between the worlds of white and blue-collar labor, and the good and bad people that inhabit both. After almost a half century, spent in nine states, I feel as comfortable in a small town café as I do at a university poetry reading. Hard work has never bothered me either, although I do hope my ditch-digging days are behind me for good.
Today on this freezing, low-light day, while much of the nation is asleep in its Lazy-Boys, stuffed on pie and tripped out on, Orlen patrols his three hundred acres of wild river frontage like a blue tick, his nose to the ground and his eyes looking in all directions. He had spotted me on the county road, doing my thirty-minute-after-meal-power-walk in spotless white Nikes and my four-hundred dollar leather jacket, trying to keep my weight from busting two hundred. Soon I find myself winded, in a failing attempt to keep up with the old man, who is built like a pro football linebacker and walks as fast as a gazelle. I can feel odd, high-pitched impulses in my chest, what I’m convinced is the beginnings of an eventual heart attack, but pride will not let me complain to Orlen, who wouldn’t care anyway. Regular people don’t whine. Orlen wears three flannel shirts over a V-neck T-shirt, jeans, and Wellington boots. No hat. No gloves. Regular people don’t freeze. He chews on an unlit cigar and he’s not afraid to spit.
Old growth poison ivy vines trip me up. The jagged branches of fallen oaks and sycamores bark my ankles. The sky is pink and giant snow clouds are push down from Canada. All the good weather is about used up. I can feel the temperature drop with each minute, but Orlen is anxious to show me something, he promises, that will change my life.
“My son’s down there,” he points, toward a impenetrable thicket of briar. “It’s bow season. We best leave him alone.” Shots echo from across the other bank. Before I can ask, Orlen says, “That’s the Baker kid. I let him hunt my land if he cleans up his beer cans.” Orlen grew up hunting anything that moved down in southern Indiana, around French Lick. Fox hunting was his specialty. “I got to where I could smell them. Red, grey. Didn’t matter.”
I’ve heard about the traps along the river, where Orlen baits turtles with chicken livers. He might even have the 200-pound alligator snapping turtle he’s rumored to keep in a cage in the shallows. He says the turtle climbed out of the Mississippi River and walked east through more than a hundred miles of corn and soy to settle here in central Illinois.
“Hey, Orlen,” I ask. “Whatever happened to that big snapper you had?”
“He’s in the freezer. When I cleaned him, I found this 8-pound channel catfish inside… and an unopened six-pack of Pepsi. But good meat.”
After a half hour my new Nikes are coal-colored. The river’s water level is the same height as the shore, just a place where the mud gets deeper. A leopard frog jumps over my shoulder, its round tympanum gleaming like a third eye. I still hear geese overhead, but the branches of the forest have formed a dark cathedral and I can’t see the sky anymore. Dusk has altered all my senses. The occasional rifle shots sound like something I would hear in a dream. I’m no longer sure I am here at all. We enter the deepest part of the bottomland. Orlen keeps chattering away—something about spotting little honey bears in the woods and maybe a cougar or two—but his words are soon replaced by the sound of running water and the first barred owl of the night. “Who cooks for you?” it wonders over and over without an answer.
I almost crash into Orlen, who stands at the water’s edge. Fresh snow flakes coat his shoulders. “Here, right here. Can you feel it?” he asks impatiently, looking down at our muddy feet. “It’s right under us.”
What’s under us?,” I ask, looking around.
“The pipeline.” Orlen says proudly, as if taking credit for it. “There’s oil shooting up from the Gulf of Mexico right below where we’re standing. Runs north all the way to Chicago. It’s moving under here—thousand of barrels every hour. The oil off loads at Texas City, runs through Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and into Illinois, up that hill we come down, right across my back yard. You had no idea did you?” Then he walks away to check his traps.
Orlen’s last question is more of a challenge than a query. He wants me to understand that he possesses important knowledge, too. And that a guy with no college education, who has never read the Times, now owns hundreds of acres and a gorgeous brick house, and has a valuable resource coursing through his property like a artery from the earth. All of this was accomplished, he was saying, with muscles and twelve-hour days. Over and over again, year after year, the way regular people do it.
I brush away the fresh snow off a stump and sat down. In the distance I see the glow of Orlen’s cigar as he pulls his cages up from the river. I have no desire to see what is inside. The Canadian front was upon us and snow fell silently into the river. In a few days I would turn fifty, certainly for the last time. I tried to think of what might be in store for me in ten, or even five, years. I had no idea. Physically, at this age, whatever was going to lead to my death—cancer, stroke, heart attack—was already well defined. An abnormal cluster of cells. Blocked aorta. Aneurysm. The list is endless. So is that more unpredictable one. But it was too late to turn back now. I felt I was just getting to the good parts.
“Are you coming or you going to just sit there thinking?” Orlen was staring at me, a twitching burlap bag slung over his shoulder
“I’m coming,” I answered. “Slowly, but I’m coming along.”
It was when I
stood up, that I finally felt it. Orlen was right all along. But it
wasn’t oil I sensed. The earth was
throbbing, just beneath my feet, true and steady, like all of our hearts
beating together in unison.