Spark

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

7:35 a.m. So I am drowsing, watching a dream play out, and I “hear” the word “chispa,” without context, nor was the dream in Spanish nor having anything to do with Spanish. So I wonder what the word means, and I go to my Spanish-English dictionary, and see that “chispa” means “spark.” So I take it you boys want to strike sparks, and you’ve decided to use me as your flint?

Are we responsible for what happens to your thoughts and dreams?

Very funny. You may not be responsible, but you certainly seem to horn in when it suits you. So what’s on your mind, or minds?

You did try this twice before.

I did. Three, you could almost say – 4:35, and I wound up doing something else, 5:10, and I decided I was too tired to pursue the question (any question), and 5:40, when I lasted only long enough to make a note about something to discuss with Charles. Used up my “go get ’em” coffee allowance, too, though I suppose I could just make some more. So did you want to discuss JFK some more?

You did, two hours and a half ago.

[5:10 a.m. Slow start, this morning. Let’s talk more about JFK.

[As in “Why am I reading about him and watching old speeches suddenly”?

[That, certainly. The “how” of it is obvious; the “why,” less so. But you know, maybe I don’t really want to do this. Maybe later.]

I am being carried here as much by the habit of conversation as by any real need to ask questions.

Hence, chispa.

Reminding me we want to strike sparks. Okay. Well, consider that I have asked a question (given that clearly you have something to say). Will that work?

Not every time, perhaps, but this one. Let us postulate a question of John F. Kennedy’s continuing relevance to your life today, in the context of our joint intent to spark others. For, clearly, he cannot be assumed to mean to them what he meant to you. For some, yes, surely. But not for most. So perhaps a reminder or two would be in order, for the good it may do.

Is it worthwhile?

A word on that. Your experiences in communicating have left you discouraged about the possibilities of really getting to someone against any strong opinion they may have formed, no matter how inadequate their foundation. Yes, it is true that you can’t convince anybody of anything. But you can dangle the bait in front of the fish. You can illuminate the sky with a previously unthought-of idea or connection. You can open lines of communication for them, that their own non-3D component will be willing and able to exploit. You can’t do everything, but you can do that – anyone can – and that is as much as you should ask for or employ anyway. People will find their own way, refusing bait that is not tasty to them, snapping up what is, and perhaps jumping into the boat for more, when their equivalent of a JFK presents itself.

So, keep pitching.

Your cousin used to say, “Keep punching.” Same idea.

Bub sometimes reminded me of a provincial JFK. He had the attractiveness to people, the energy, the intense aliveness. And he has been dead a good long time too. Let’s see, 43 years. And I was 32 when he was killed in that house fire.

Yes, he had the same quality of inspiring people, more by what he was than by what he did, really.

The two were inextricable. What he was and what he did flowed together. It used to drive me crazy, really, the sense of possibilities frittered away.

Find your poem and include it, and let’s talk about it.

All right, but why?

Because this is not about him so much as about you, and not about you so much as about the human predicament, the human possibility, that is only made manifest by actions, yet is something very different from those actions (or any action, including thought and imagination).

Night Snow

His possibilities dead, behind him

He leaves crystallized rationalizations

And a thousand cigarette butts and

Tickets to every sporting event within a day’s drive.

And memories. And plastic idols,

And discarded unnoticed bystanders

Captured by the smile.

Too late! Too late! Too late!

 

Bewildered by the terrific din

Of cessation of that internal motion,

The survivors stand amazed, forlorn,

Numbly gathering shards of reminiscence,

Exchanging reassuring myth of

Inexplicable catastrophe,

Lest they be forced to rectify their lives.

Too late! Too late! Too late!

 

You terrible others, why do you not mourn

Possibilities foresworn? The death

Was only culmination of the life. Not

That he died, or died too soon, but that he

Retreated from himself, hammered up a legend,

And died unable to return.

Every silent nighttime falling snowflake calls,

Too late! Too late! Too late!

 

–January 5, 1979

 

I will include it in the transcript, but I’m not interrupting this to look for it. Thus, I’m working off my memory of it rather than the script of it. So -?

You were critical of how he directed his attention. You thought, “All that potential, and you’re wasting it on going to sports events?”

Well, I did. It seemed so – I don’t know, so empty somehow. I guess it seemed a betrayal to bring all those gifts into a life and fritter them away. And as I write that, I realize that’s what many people have thought of me, and I realize that just as they didn’t have the data to judge me, so I didn’t have the data to judge Bub, nor – as you have pointed out once or twice – anyone.

Nobody can render an adequate judgment on anyone’s life. However, as a practical matter, you more or less have to, which should tell you that therefore there’s nothing wrong with doing so – provided that you do it in the right way, out of the proper attitude, making the proper reservations.

Meaning, keep in mind that our judgments have to be provisional and cannot be definitive. That they should be made in charity and not as if we were trial judges: guilty or not guilty.

As you say, we have mentioned it now and again. Now finish with the prose piece you wrote about the same spark to your life, the week after he died

If I can find it. I think I put it on this computer.

It will serve to hold the place against further discussion.

The Shirley MacLaine seminar, you mean?

We do. But that will be next time.

Hmm. Okay.

 

Remembering Bub

Newspaper reports talked about a heroic death in an unsuccessful attempt to save a seven-year-old from a fire. His viewing filled the funeral hall with people; the funeral Mass was con-celebrated by nearly a dozen priests; attendance at the funeral was among the largest in years. I can imagine Charlie Reilly looking on with amusement and delight at the dramatic and moving reaction to the abrupt end of his brief life.

But it isn’t drama and spectacle to his family; it is amputation, so unexpected, so unimaginable, as to be still nearly unbelievable.

When you lose a limb, at first the nerves in the area cannot report pain, and so there is only shock. Then, for a time, there is a sort of numbness, which functions as a sort of gradually deflating cushion. Then, the injured stump begins to throb, and the throbbing gets stronger, and the pain begins and gets worse. From that point, there is only the twofold necessity of learning to function without the amputated limb, and outliving the pain.

Journalists throughout the Delaware Valley knew Charlie, and I imagine that quite a few of them sat down at their typewriters to try to bring him back to life, if only for a few minutes. Many of them knew him far better, and were far more closely associated with him, than I. But I have a special point of view, for his mother and mine are sisters, and so we were cousins, and so I knew him when he was a boy called Bub.

When we were younger, and ethnic identity seemed more important than it does now, I remember being aware of the Irish quality which was so strong in him. Whereas both my parents were of Italian descent, he was a volatile mixture of Italian and Irish, and to me that Irish quality seemed so strong….

In retrospect, it seems stronger than ever. I think of Brendan Behan, or Jimmy Breslin, or an American Republican version of George Bernard Shaw. Such was the intensity of life, the devouring of the moment, and of the people around him. Such was — one suspects — the recurrent feeling of lostness, a feeling carefully concealed and denied. Such was the projection of an image of tough, hard-headed realism, covering an interior sensitivity and vulnerability.

(I am aware, writing this, that it may seem maudlin for a relative to compare a relative to Behan and Breslin and Shaw, particularly when the relative neither sought nor achieved the fame and accomplishment that these luminaries did. But they serve as examples everyone knows, and besides, I was convinced that Bub had a streak of greatness in him; I always thought that if he ever got down to writing seriously he would turn out stories of first-rate quality.

(Too late, now, to hope that he will someday take off that year he occasionally talked of — the year to do nothing but write. Now we can only hope that somewhere in all those boxes of papers, he left the stories he was working on as much as 20 years ago.)

Such accounts of Bub as I have seen have praised his energy, his drive, and his ability. All of this he had, in great amounts, but it was not for these that I valued him, but for the sense of “aliveness” he radiated. I think of the song in which Frank Sinatra says his life seems to him like “vintage wine, from fine old kegs; from the brim to the dregs.” Most of us seem to me to live as though only half-awake; we’re stuck on the middle registers of the emotional scale. Bob hit all the notes, from the very high to very low, and his intensity produced an almost magical effect on his friends.

Very few people reacted to him neutrally. He was well-loved and well-hated. And he was well aware of it, and encouraged it by his great flair for self-dramatization. I think of a night in 1966, when I was 20 and he was 27.

My parents and I were in the small Salem County community of Penn’s Grove when our car broke down.

He was editor of the paper there, and we called him and he met us, and by his presence turned the rest of the evening into magic — at least for me.

First he called a garage owner he knew, and the men interrupted his supper to pick up the car. Then, with the car in the garage, the four of us went out to eat. As soon as we walked in the door, it was, “Hey Charlie,” “how ya doing, Charlie?,” “Hey Reilly, what’s up?” from all sides. He knew everybody, and you’d swear he was an old drinking buddy of half the town. Which maybe he was.

All through dinner he regaled us with stories of his life there. He relished the telling of his stories, going into great detail. They all centered around his activities, which in a lesser storyteller would have seemed mere egotism; he raised it to a sort of personal mythology, in which he was sometimes hero, sometimes jester.

So he told how he had uncovered a numbers operation in a dry cleaner’s shop by counting the number of “customers” per hour while sitting outside in his car. “That’s the place I go to get my clothes cleaned,” he said with a laugh. “She calls me Snoopy now. I go in there and she says `here’s Snoopy,’ and I say `how y’ doing, Money?’”

I said I was surprised he still dared patronize the place. That big pixyish Irish grin of his: “The first time I went back there after the story ran, I expected her to give me my suit back with a big iron mark on it, but she didn’t.”

And he talked about a run-in with the mayor over something or other. In the middle of his complaint, the mayor asked Bub what he had ever done for the town. “I knew he had bought his car in Wilmington, so I say `well, Mayor, at least I bought my car here.’” And he talked about the threats to “wrinkle his face” which followed his stories on local corruption, and how he had started to carry a gun, just in case. (Those stories later led to a grand jury investigation.)

And he told how the mayor had told him, one time, that he was canceling all the city’s legal advertising because of some story or other. “I said, `mayor, you just made the front page. If that’s your decision, I can’t do anything about it — but hang on for the ride.’”

And on and on, all through dinner, keeping us amused, fascinated, interested in everything. He was always `on.’

Then we went back to the garage, and my father couldn’t believe it was so low. Turned out the man had charged for the part he had replaced, but not for the labor. “But it’s Sunday night” my father protested. The man smiled. “I wasn’t even open,” he said, and gestured with one hand toward Bub. “But for him…” and he would not take any more. That’s the kind of effect Bub had on people.

I keep thinking of how he went back into the fire to try to rescue that kid, and I think I understand the various things in him which set him in motion.

First, there was courage. It was an integral part of him, like his brain and his story-telling and his readiness at any minute to move. (One night my father said to him, “Bub, did you hear about the stick-up on the Walt Whitman Bridge?” Before he could get to the punch line, which is “some kid threw it there,” Bob was on his feet, moving to the phone to contact his newsroom. And then laughing at how he’d been victimized.)

Beyond courage, there was a certain recklessness, maybe a seeking after excitement, or a compulsion to test himself against all possible pressures and adversaries, or simply a delight in action. (His addiction to sports in all manifestations may be a part of this.)

And beyond recklessness, there was his involvement with others. He had a sensitivity which he denied in words and demonstrated in actions, as for instance in the scholarships he silently provided which put at least two black kids through school.

Beyond the courage and the recklessness and the sensitivity, I am convinced, was an absolute inability to believe that anything could kill him. Even more than the rest of us, I think he thought he was indestructible. (And, lest you think that such a conviction detracts from the courage it took to return to the burning building, imagine yourself imagining third-degree burns while standing on the roof before reentering.)

And now he is dead at 39, and already our treacherous tendency to warp the past through hindsight is beginning to make the shortness of his life seem almost inevitable, as though all that living on coffee and cigarettes and nerve endings had already given him a full life. But it is not so. It’s just that the living bury the dead and find ways to live with the fact.

— FLD

 

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