Memories can comfort us, scare us, make us laugh, make us cry, bring us pride or bring us shame; and sometimes, when we’re really lucky, they give us the means to better understand ourselves and our world — something we call wisdom.
The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 50: Chasing After the Stars
by Steven C. Day
It was a clear, almost moonless night — a great night for stargazing, or at least it would have been but for the millions of city lights still blazing even at an hour when only tavern managers and perhaps vampires still prowl the night.
As I stepped out of The Last Chance Democracy Café’s back door, locking it behind me, it occurred to me that I couldn’t make out a single star, just a great washed-out darkness above, a solid black ceiling faded by a single coat of watered-down white paint.
And I remembered how one night back in college in Colorado, I went chasing after the stars. It was well after midnight as I crept out of my dorm room, my roommate, Bill, snoring so loudly I swear the walls were shaking (or maybe that was from the guy upstairs whose girlfriend shared his half of the dorm room).
This was the early 70’s, when almost anything went on campus — pot, drunken parties, cohabitation; curfews were a joke no one even bothered laughing at.
Heading out in my hand-me-down Ford — a car that must surely have been listed in some edition of Webster’s somewhere as one of the antonyms for stylish — I drove west out of Greeley, up through Loveland and into the Big Thompson Canyon. The canyon, normally so dramatic with its cliffs rising hundreds of feet above the roadway, was invisible now in the darkness: If it weren’t for the occasional glimpses of rock in the car’s headlights, I could just as easily have been driving down a winding road in the countryside.
With the summer tourist season long over, Estes Park, located just above the canyon, had a put away look to it, like a Christmas decoration carefully boxed up and set aside in the absolute assurance that its time would come again. I glided through town, took a left turn and drove up to a private campground I knew right next to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Then, with my flashlight in hand, I headed out to climb a mountain — or a big hill, anyway.
* * *
Earlier that evening (the evening I was locking up the café, not the one 33 years earlier in Colorado), Horace had interrupted a discussion about Bush’s supposed summer reading list, saying something completely off topic.
He said, “I miss the spirit of the 60’s.”
Having a kinder disposition than either Tom or Winston, both of whom, I’m convinced, were about to say something which included the phrases, “what the hell’s that got to do with anything,” and “crazy old coot,” Zach simply asked, “You mean the antiwar protests?”
“No . . . well, on second thought maybe I do miss the protests a little too, but I’m really not talking about the late 60’s, the Woodstock and Vietnam War protests 60’s. I’m talking more about the early and middle parts of the decade, the 60’s of JFK and even LBJ . . . back before the Vietnam War destroyed him.”
Tom shrugged. “I don’t know, what I remember best from the early 60’s was when the US and the Soviet Union almost blew the world up during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I don’t miss that much.” He paused with a pensive expression for a moment before adding: “Although I have to admit that I do miss Jack Kennedy’s style.”
Winston nodded, and then in what was a remarkably respectful tone for Winston said, “Now, there was a man who knew how to turn a phrase.”
Then, uncharacteristically, the table fell silent for a full minute, maybe two.
Zach looked over at me questioningly. It wasn’t surprising that at age 22 he didn’t understand what was happening. Remembering is a different thing at 22 than it is at 74, Horace, Tom and Winston’s age, or even at 51, my age.
Age gives you the perspective that comes with having watched the sun rise and set another ten thousand or so times — giving memories more depth and texture. Now, make no mistake, that’s damn small compensation for everything else age does to you, including dimming those very same memories, but it does at least give you that.
And the thing about John F. Kennedy is he probably wasn’t a great president; he was a good one, I think, and maybe good is the best anyone could have done given that he had only three years before the madness cut him down. But still, he wasn’t great in the sense of a Lincoln or a FDR.
But my God, did that man have style.
* * *
I had hiked this area, the foothills and mountains near the campsite, many times (though previously always during daylight). I almost died there once. True story: I was hiking around, going nowhere in particular — I think I had crossed over to inside the national park — when I heard a bullet whiz by. It sounded like a mosquito racing past my face at the speed of, well, a bullet. I screamed out loudly, assuming the shooter simply didn’t know I was there. Another hot mosquito sizzled past. I ran like hell.
I never learned the source of the firepower: I suppose the most likely explanation is that some hunter’s line of fire, strictly illegal mind you, accidentally intersected my route. Perhaps he didn’t hear my shouts before squeezing off the second round. Much more malicious explanations are, of course, also possible.
In any case, this episode didn’t stop me from going back to the same spot on other days, or in this one case, during the dead of night. And armed with only my small flashlight, I walked through the dead campground; the toilet buildings, together with their assorted odors, were locked up for the season tighter than the cap on a new bottle of ketchup. Then it was up the mountain, following a familiar if unmarked path.
I don’t think I ever thought of the shooting as I ascended through the darkness — no macabre images of assassins waiting in the darkness — and no, I stumbled across no bullets that night. Though climbing up through acre after acre of evergreen trees, each casting its own sinister shadow, was plenty spooky, even if no actual goblins presented themselves.
And then I was at the top, stopping a good five feet short of the spot where I knew a sheer cliff dropped off at least 200 feet. Turning 90 degrees to my right I scampered up a short distance onto the upper most rock outcropping.
Then I turned off the flashlight and looked up.
* * *
Horace broke the silence. “The thing I miss about the early to mid-60’s is the public optimism. That was the last time I can recall when a majority of Americans had both a can-do attitude and a dedication to working for the public good, instead of just for private gain.”
“Ask not what your country can do for you . . .” began Tom.
“Ask what you can do for your country,” I finished it.
“Jack Kennedy said that during his inauguration,” Tom said to Zach.
“You know that?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Terrific.” As an old college professor, Tom was legitimately happy Zach knew. A lot of college kids wouldn’t have, you know: Teaching things like that isn’t a priority in schools anymore: After all, how can knowing what JFK said 45 years ago help make you a better checker for Wal-Mart?
Horace took over. “Zach, the thing is that back then most people really did believe that we had the ability to make this nation better, to actually do something about things like poverty and injustice. There was a lot of ugliness back then too, of course. As a black man who lived in that time, I know that . . . and I know we’ve talked about this before, but people, not all of us, but a lot of us . . . most of us, still believed in public service, still believed that democracy was supposed to be about building a better nation, not just about padding the pockets of the wealthy.”
“Why wouldn’t we have believed?” Tom broke in. “We saw our parents do it. The Greatest Generation, as Tom Brokaw called them. They not only kicked Germany and Japan’s butts, they also came home to build a new America, one with the strongest and at the same time one of the fairest economies the world has ever known; a middle class economy where, if not everybody, at least most people got a piece of the action . . . a real chance for a better life.”
“So, yes, I miss that sense of public purpose,” said Horace. “I miss it a lot.”
Tom added, “And boy could we use it now.”
“Exactly,” Horace continued, his voice a little sadder. “Global warming, economic inequality, our corroding infrastructure, flat wages, debt going through the ceiling and on and on. If we ever needed a can-do attitude in this country . . . the belief that we Americans have what it takes to roll up our sleeves and solve our problems it’s now, and not just military conflicts, but the problems right here at home, too. But somehow . . . somewhere we’ve lost that. We’ve given in to a feeling of helplessness . . . That’s what it is, you know. It isn’t that people don’t know that we’re in big trouble in this country. They do. Poll after poll proves it. But year after year of conservative attacks on the whole idea of public purpose, as opposed to selfishness and greed, have emasculated a big part of what’s always been best about the American spirit. It’s made us feel helpless. And that’s incredibly, incredibly sad.”
* * *
It’s one of those bits of pop culture from so long ago that quoting it shows your age. But when I remember that night I climbed a hundredth of a millimeter closer to the vastness of the heavens, I can’t help but think of Carl Sagan’s once famous line from his PBS show Cosmos, “There are billions and billions of stars.”
That night on the mountaintop, I’d have bet anything that I could see every last one of them.
This was the night sky the way God painted it, the way western settlers passing through the Rockies saw it hundreds of years ago when lying awake at night after the campfires died out. The night skies we see in our cities and towns today, where we are surrounded by “light pollution,” have no more in common with the sanctity of this scene than a child’s playdough model has with Michelangelo’s David.
The brightness of these countless pinpoints of light was astonishing; they seemed so much closer, as though a million strings of lights were hanging in the sky right above me.
And for just a moment, the vulnerability, absurdity really, of my situation, the lone hiker kneeling in the darkness, seemingly atop the world, passed entirely from my mind. There was only the sky.
* * *
Standing outside of the café some 33 years later, looking up at a dull, pasty city sky, I felt an almost overpowering desire to go climb that mountain again and recapture the scene. An improbable plan formed: Instead of going home, I would drive to the airport, grab a redeye to Denver, rent a car and drive up into the mountains. If everything went just right, I would get there early enough to beat the sunrise.
Then, without a second to lose, I’d bolt out of the car and race up the mountain.
But I had to hurry. Money? Did I have enough money to get the ticket? Oh wait, the credit card would take care of it — the rental car too. My blood was rushing; I could almost smell the evergreens as I crushed the needles under my feet, climbing higher and higher — climbing up to the stars.
I didn’t go, of course. I had a wife and two kids home asleep and a bucket and a half full of promises I couldn’t break. How did Robert Frost put it?
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
What was I going to do, call my wife in the morning and say, “Hey, honey guess where I am?” No, the time in my life when I could just decide to tear out on an adventure in the middle of the night was over.
And I’ll admit this made me feel a little melancholy as I was driving home. But as I think about it now, it feels okay, because you know what? The mountains and the stars above them are both still out there and they aren’t going anywhere, at least not for an awfully long time. That night when I dreamed of retracing my old adventure wasn’t to be the night, but there will be other nights, other chances.
And it’s good to know that whenever I do again decide to go chasing after the stars, they’ll still be there waiting for me, as brilliant and inspiring as ever.
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 26 years. Contact Steven at scday(AT)buzzflash.com.
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
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