standing behind a gray-haired man at the information desk of the public
library in Corpus Christi, Texas one day. He was asking a young 20-something
woman for some history of that city in the 1940s. His demeanor was
pleasant enough – in fact I would call it “old school gentlemanly,”
but it suddenly turned on a dime when the girl made a friendly suggestion.
The change in his voice was startling and it took me a moment to process
what had just happened.
Youth in general, has few answers for Age. The librarian impersonator
had no answer to his question, so she did what most young people do
when they have no answer – she passed the buck. I heard her say “…maybe
if you asked some of your friends.” That was the line that set him
off. In a loud and gruff tone, he shouted “All of my friends are dead!
That’s why I’m asking you!”
I’m sure the young woman hadn’t given a thought to the effects of
attrition on friendships. After all, most, if not all of her
friends were alive to answer her questions.
The man apologized for raising his voice, but walked away, and whatever
question he had is known only to him and the “librarian.”
I hadn’t thought about that incident for years until this week when
I offered a ride to a 93-year old member of a club I belong to. True
to his generation, when the meeting was over, he bid farewell to the
departing members – but didn’t ask anyone for a ride. I remembered
that I had seen him arrive by taxi the month before so I offered him
a ride just as the restaurant owner was placing a call to the taxi
company. He accepted my offer and we had a pleasant 20 minute trip
where he surprised me by picking up a conversation we had had three
weeks earlier at the club’s annual picnic.
Had it been open to the public, our talk might’ve been entitled: “Incurious
people and how they got that way.” He remembered my wife had once
been a librarian and he, a former State Librarian for Indiana, said
(half-jokingly) that “only a curious person would marry a librarian.”
I asked if he thought curiosity was genetic and he said he supposed
it was. He mentioned that a distant forebear had been an interpreter
for Indians and settlers on the Ohio frontier in the early 1820s.
We agreed that it takes a curious person to bridge two cultures.
He asked me if I remembered the last scene in All Quiet on the
Western Front. Bob is not the type to assume things, but in this
case he assumed I had seen the film. He did not ask me if I remembered
the movie – he asked specifically if I remembered the last scene.
“No, not the scene of him reaching for the butterfly before he was
shot,” he said, reading my mind. “I mean that misty parade of faces
of his friends that had fallen before him.”
Then he said “That’s the way it seems when you outlive your contemporaries.
I can see my friends' faces now just like in that movie. It’s really
| Final scene
from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)