reflections from the southeast PA rural underground
Sunday, February 1, 2009
I arrived around 5:30 am and to my surprise their son was awake. He stepped outside the door onto the driveway and said with a sleepy grin, "Hey guy how are ya?" "Good, good," I said. This was our usual greeting I had realized over the past week of working together. If you could call it work. We spent some hours organizing mini digital video tapes and he was definitely getting some editing work done but there were also many intermittent pool tournaments and runs to Subway or the castle. "Right on time!" the doctor said. "Yeah well, I try," I answered as enthusiastically as I could at that hour. Wanting to please the old man and his wife.
As we headed down the road for the Philadelphia airport the talk was small and mostly amounted to comments about the amazing number of cars on the road so early in the morning. I was confused when the doctor directed me to bear left at the intersection in Shillington instead of heading towards the turnpike. He must be going to take 422, I thought. That was all well and good except that an hour from now the rush would be in full swing and we would be bumper to bumper with the growing number of commuters heading to the city. Finally the conversation picked up as my mind drifted to the many times I had taken this route including the one last week to the very same destination.
"Wayne," the man declared with a comfortable steadfastness in his voice, "When we came up here years ago I used to go hunting at Tulpehocken Farms. There was only one red light from Sinking Spring to the Farms. It was all farms. No Penn State Berks, no Berkshire Mall." "Must have been in the 70's?" I said. "Well yeah, well no that would have been 1968," chimed in the nurse from the back seat. They spoke with authority and ease about all this. Their knowledge and tone was so different than mine. Than my generation. Or maybe it was just my tribe of artists and craftsmen. So wobbly and indecisive about everything were we. So assured and congenial and matter of fact were they. It was soothing to talk to this couple. They carried the assurance of 52 years of marriage with them. They carried over 25 years as missionary doctor and nurse in Africa. They had raised five kids. Who was I?
The conversation did not turn to literature but I couldn't help thinking of that other great man from Shillington who had just passed the day before. He too had no doubt driven this route from rural Pennsylvania to the city of Philadelphia. Certainly his literary characters had. Was he not in many ways of the same mold? Was not too, the other John of literary fame who had written so beautifully of the relationships between women and men in his native Pottsville, PA. John Updike had passed unexpectedly from lung cancer at the age of 77. Doctor J was now 78 and his wife a few years his junior. How amazing were these people. In less than an hour they would be on a plane to Beijing and then to Hong Kong and then to their final destination of Zambia! What will I be doing at 78 years of age!?
At the Seipstown Grange we had eaten lunch made by many of the master gardeners from Northhampton and Lehigh County. We were there to hear Tim read about groundhogs and tomatoes. "So Updike died," I said to Tim. I said that I had recalled an NPR piece the day before where one of the hosts claimed that John O'Hara had written about small town Pennsylvania first but that John Updike had surely done it better. This was a matter of taste and subjectivity wasn't it? "Well," Tim paused, "Updike was a better writer than John O'Hara." I had to disagree. When had John Updike analyzed so acutely the psyche of a woman whose marriage was on the verge of being compromised? Where in all his many books was the female character that could measure up to John O'Hara's description of the mind of Caroline Walker Engish? It didn't exist. At least not in my limited readings of "The Poorhouse Fair" and "Rabbit Run." Surely this great American writer of 77 years had been the more literary of writers but the better writer? I didn't think so.
As we pulled up to the curb of the United Airways International terminal, Doctor J smiled and said in a kind of friendly growl, "Man, I can't wait to tell that ticket lady we're going to China!" I humored his remark and smiled as well. These were great people. Later that day there son would express his worry for his father who had just gotten passed a bout of bronchitis. Maybe it was too much to be going back to Africa again for so long and at their ages? But this is the only way they would have it. This particular child of the doctor and the nurse had been known to weave words together quite lyrically himself. The lyrics of his song about Reading, Pa crept into my head:
Run rabbit ruuuuuuuuun, into the sun
Move move awaaaaaaaaay, forget about yesterday hey hey.