Lester and the Line Tamer

Lester and the Line Tamer

        “I am a Line Tamer,” emphatically stated the old man.  “I’m not afraid of the printed word, having once wrestled it to the ground . . . and I’ve even caught several and released them into the public.”

        “Why are you here?” asked the young boy as he pulled himself up in the mammoth hospital bed.  He was a small consideration when compared to the various electronics and medical equipment surrounding his temporary abode.

        “Captain Clark asked me to read to you.  He is very impressed with your toughness.  He says you’d fight a buzz-saw just as soon as shake hands with it.”

        Smiling through the dulling pain that was always a constant reminder of his stay at St. Jude, the boy managed to speak up, “He’s my favorite guard here.  He always has bubble-gum.”  Straining to pull his body up farther in the bed, he completed the maneuver and extended his hand, “Hi, I’m Lester.”  And thus began the existential journey of Lester and the Line Tamer.

        The chair screeched as it was pulled across the linoleum floor and placed next to the handrails on the side of the bed.  The old man cuddled four books between his left arm and his stomach.  He picked out the bottom one and carefully turned back the cover.  “I understand you have quite a thirst for learning.”

        “Well . . . I like to know things.  If that’s what you mean.”

        “Yes, yes that’s what I mean.”  Holding up the worn text, “This ain’t no funny-book or the Cliff Notes.”

        “I know,” the young boy replied, almost as if it was the dumbest statement he’d ever heard.  “I’m not a child ya’know!”

        “Well now that we’ve got that settled, let’s begin.”  The old man made himself as comfortable as possible in the antiseptic armchair and turned back the first blank page.  “Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau.  The first chapter he titled, Economy.”

        He continued to read, “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.”

        This was the first of many readings that the old man would share with the boy.  As a single parent, Lester’s mother had to work during the day.  Lester’s father had been killed in Vietnam and the boy had no memory of him other than the pictures his mother painted of the loving father and husband.  On this day, the old man quit and quietly left the room as the boy fell into a well deserved sleep.

        Thoreau consumed much of their time together in the following weeks and months.  The second chapter began an unacknowledged analysis of mortality.  The old man was reading at his usual steady pace, “Live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”    

        “Do you think Thoreau thought about dying?” asked the small curious patient in the overwhelming bed.

        “He thought about it a lot, replied the old man.  “That’s why he thought so much about living!  He wanted to know that he lived.”

        “How old was he when he died?”

        “I believe he was in his early forties, but the point is that he wanted his life to be meaningful no matter how short it might be.”

        “I think I’ll take a nap now.  I’m so tired.”  With that, the old man closed the book and carefully retreated from the room.

        Nothing was mentioned about death for the next several readings.  When the old man told Lester that the next chapter was titled Reading, a Cheshire look came across the boy’s face and he blurted, “Is that an important part of being a Line Tamer?”

        Pleased that the boy made the comparison, the old man replied softly, “Well yes, it is.  Thoreau was big on reading.  He liked to read the classic literature in the original Greek or Latin.”

        “Far-out!”

        “Slightly taken aback by the colloquialism, the old man continued, “Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race; for it is remarkable that no transcript of them has ever been made into any modern tongue, unless our civilization itself may be regarded as such a transcript. Homer has never yet been printed in English, nor Aeschylus, nor Virgil even — works as refined, as solidly done, and as beautiful almost as the morning itself; for later writers, say what we will of their genius, have rarely, if ever, equaled the elaborate beauty and finish and the lifelong and heroic literary labors of the ancients.”

        “Do you read the classics in their original language?”  Lester asked.

        The old man couldn’t help but laugh.  “No . . . I’m a Line Tamer, but I’m no Henry David Thoreau!  Besides, Homer, Aeschylus and Virgil have now been translated into English.”

        “But you could, if you wanted to?”

        “The Greek might be a little difficult.”  The old man paused taking a moment for reflective thought but continued, “There’s more to being a Line Tamer than just reading.”

        “What do you mean?”

        “It’s taking what you learn from reading and making it live in perpetuity”

        “Where?” asked the boy with a more than puzzled look.

        Laughing again, the old man responded quickly, “By writing it down  . . . it can last forever.  Just like we’re reading what Thoreau wrote in the 1850’s and when you read Homer.”  The old man paused.  “Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey more than 3000 years ago.”

        “Wow.”

        “Wow is right.  Thoreau said, ‘The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him. No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; — not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech.”

        “Will I have time to write something . . . something important?”

        Reaching over and taking the boy’s hand, the old man carefully searched the left side of his brain for a response.  “No one on this earth can answer that question Lester.  Do you remember what Thoreau said at the beginning of the chapter?”

        “Read it to me again, please.”

        “In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident.”

        On his next visit, the old man was reading from the chapter on Sounds when he noticed a 9×12 manila envelope on the small corner table next to Lester’s bed.  He innocently inquired, “What’s in the envelope?”

        “Oh, just something I’m working on,” the boy replied coyly.

        “Can I read it?”

        “Not till it’s ready,” Lester insisted.

        “Okay, but I’ll be gentle.  I started writing myself when I was about your age.”

        Lester thought for a minute and bluntly asked, “Can you read me something you wrote?”

        “When it’s ready!”

         Lester laughed as best he could since it hurt when his diaphragm released and his stomach responded to the movement.  The old man continued reading until the boy fell into his usual sleep.

        The next two months was uneventful as Lester and the old man jockeyed around the reading of either of their works.  Lester had been through several new procedures and their time together had been interrupted by this formable array of medical research.

        “After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what — how — when — where?” read the old man as he began the chapter, The Pond in Winter.  The boy’s mind however, seemed to be some place else.  The old man put down the book.

        “What’s the matter?”

        “I’m just thinking.”

        “Thinking about what?”

        “Thinking about dying!  What else have I got to think about in this place?”  Lester folded his arms and set his lip.

        The old man turned to look into the boy’s eyes, “I wrote a poem when I was only sixteen called, It Feels Like The Wind Off The Lake In Winter.  Even then, as a healthy young athlete, I had a premonition of death.”  Softly chuckling, he continued, “And look at me now . . . I’m an old man.”

        “Would you read it to me?”

        “What, the poem”

        “Yes”

        “Well, I don’t have it with me, but I may be able to recite a few lines.”  You could almost see the old man searching his memory banks as he began,

 ”The rain slaps the window’s face
Of memories that have passed,
And turned to dust.
I fear that mystic calling
Engulfed in nature’s debt,
As age weaves its tangled path
From birth to death.”

         The old man picked back up the book, but the boy pleaded, “More.  Can’t you remember any more?”

The shadows whisper waiting
Wanting my wasted body yet,
Weighing my soul.
Dancing their haunting message
In time with the pounding beat,
My heart must surely stop
To heed the music.”

        Taking a second to let the verse sink in, the old man recited,

“The crackling fire smiles anew
As a timber burns its life,
And calls for me.
It summons as silence must
In my mind and on my neck,
It feels like the wind
Off the lake in winter.”

        “You are . . . a Line Tamer,” the boy slowly whispered as the old man picked up where he had left off in the tattered book with the secrets being shared between two kindred spirits.

        It looked for awhile like Lester was getting better.  But Spring, both the season and the chapter, brought new rounds of radiation and a haggard bald look that a young boy should never see in a mirrored reflection.  By Memorial Day the unusual book club of two honed in on the last chapter of Walden.  After turning to the last page, the old man was instantly stuck by the closing lines as he read,  “I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

        As the old man closed the book, Lester looked up quizzically and asked, “Was Thoreau a Line Tamer?”

        “He certainly was!” chuckled the old man.  “As a matter of fact when he was very sick and in bed, just like you, he was asked by his aunt, ‘Have you made peace with your God?’ to which he deftly replied, ‘I didn’t know we had ever quarreled.”

        The old man took sick himself the next day and it was several weeks before he could return to the hospital.  When he approached Lester’s room, a nurse that he knew approached him and told him that the boy had been moved to Intensive Care and the prognosis was not good. 

        The old man went to the ICU knowing that visitors were not allowed, but he was hoping that he could get word of the boy’s condition.  He saw Lester’s mother sitting next to a bed in one of the cubicles surrounded by curtains.  He stood quietly not wanting to intrude, but he could hear the mother’s soothing voice.

        She gently stroked the wasting child’s head.  Tears were streaming down the sides of her face turning the summer highlights of blonde curls into a darkened mane.  A 9×12 manila envelope was clutched to her breast.  She softly asked, “Are you afraid, my precious one?”

        “No mother, I’m a Line Tamer.”