It’s a fresh month at the Falls of the Ohio. Today has opened up on the cloudy side and there is a slight chance for rain…but I’m going to risk it anyway. The lure of the river is too strong and I’m looking forward to exploring the western fringes of the Falls of the Ohio State Park. Stray migrating Monarch butterflies pass by me and the loosestrife flowers are still in bloom. I can tell the inevitable changing of the seasons is near. Already I can detect a slight yellowing occurring in the canopies of the willow and cottonwood trees. In a few weeks, all these leaves will be on the ground and ready to become recycled by and for life.
I’m walking along the shoreline which is a mix of limestone rocks and sandy/muddy beaches. Mostly I’m being engaged by my own thoughts which change quickly like the reflections on the water. I was so preoccupied by my own surrender to nature that I did not immediately notice the elderly gentleman sitting on a nearby log. With a motion of his arm, the figure said to me in a clear voice, “It’s alright my man, I saw you coming down the beach. Wonderful day to be alive isn’t it?” I replied something affirmative and instinctively walked towards him.
“Now that I’m retired…I like to come out here and sit by the river. Can’t think of a better place to have my morning tea and breathe deeply,” said the old man. I admit to being intrigued by him and I’ll bet he’s a real character too. I also sensed a kindred spirit since he was doing essentially the same thing as me, namely hanging out by the river. I asked where he was from and with a nod over his shoulder, he said:
“My friends call me Jimmy D. on account of my bulbous nose. I don’t expect someone as young as you would remember the entertainer Jimmy Durante?” I told him I had heard the name before, but it really was before my time. Jimmy D. then said, “I’m a life-long resident of Clarksville, Indiana. You know, that little town beyond the giant berm behind us? I was just a boy in 1937 when the whole town disappeared under twelve feet of Ohio River flooding. My family and I spent about a month with kin in Indianapolis before we could move back and start over. They had to rebuild the whole place because it’s just too historically important…you know, we date back to 1783 and we’re the oldest settlement in the Northwest Territory?”
I agreed that is indeed a great distinction and one I noticed being touted on several signs in the local parks. I then gave Jimmy D. my particulars which included my name, being an artist, and living across the river in Louisville. I then said, “Jimmy, I guess that makes us Metro neighbors.”
I decided that I had a few minutes to get to know Jimmy better. When I make my excursions to the river…I try (not always successfully) to not rush things and be in a hurry. I will confess, thinking about time and the nature of time has become a preoccupation with me of late. I see so many people rushing around and I wonder what’s so important about being in two places at once?
I broached this subject with Jimmy D. and here’s where I can get a little preachy.
I told Jimmy, “It seems to me that one of the best things we can do for ourselves and the planet is to slow down to the speed of life and find a good log to sit on.” I further added, “Nature has evolved processes that have been hard-won over millions and billions of years. What is it about our kind that wants to accelerate and consume the experience of living as quickly as we can? Sometimes it can come as a big relief to stay put and appreciate the good around everyone which is all too easy to take for granted.”
Jimmy D. put his cup down on the river-polished log he was sitting on. I could tell he was weighing my words through his own sensibilities. Before too long he turned back to me and said, “Fella, you just might have something there.” He then began to explain a little more of his own life’s experience.
“When I was a young man I couldn’t wait to leave this little town and experience the wider world. I thought my chance would come during World War II. I could both do my duty and get out of here at the same time. All my friends who were of age (and even a few who looked older than they actually were) were joining the armed services. I decided that this would be my ticket out too and I tried to enlist. As it turns out, I couldn’t pass the physical on account of having one foot larger than the other! I tried not to get discouraged and wanted to do my part. So, I walked next door (bum foot and all) to Jeffersonville and joined up with Jeffboat. I learned how to weld, which became my profession. I helped build the LSTs (Landing Ship-Tanks) that made the invasion of Europe a success for the allies and the free world. I realized that even from the comforts of my home, I could help shape events in far away places. After the war, my wanderlust had diminished considerably and love found me. After that there was a family of my own to take care of. I stayed on at Jeffboat and helped make them the largest inland ship builder in the country. I can’t recollect how many towboats and barges I helped construct. And when it was my time…I retired and that is why you are finding me sitting on this log. I can honestly say I have no regrets for how my life turned out.”
My new friend then pulled out a blue-colored pipe with a long stem and lit it. A puff of white smoke was quickly dissipated by a light, passing breeze. Jimmy D’s pipe kept going out and so I offered to help.
My new friend thanked me and asked to hear something about my own story. I obliged him although as a rule I’m not all that crazy about talking about myself. I said that like him, the military factors into my life. My dad was a career soldier and our family shuttled back and forth between the United States and Europe. It was great being exposed to so much history and culture, but as a kid I wondered what it would be like to have a deeper relationship with my extended family? My mother is Dutch. I was born in Amsterdam. My dad’s family hails from the New York City area and we have relatives in southern New Jersey. Seems that we only saw our relatives when we were in transition from one place to another. I grew up without having life-long friends. After art school, I settled in Louisville, Kentucky and have been here going on thirty years now. My two sons have had the nice experience of getting to know my wife’s family and so have had the reverse experience I had. Much about the art I make revolves around a sense for place and seeing the value in materials that are considered worthless. A lot of what I do is about being in the moment which is why encounters at the river are so valuable to me. Jimmy D. just nodded and took another drag off of his pipe.
It’s funny how often I have been willing to reveal some detail about myself to a complete stranger…especially if we are traveling together and there is little chance of running into one another again. I have had some great conversations with persons unknown to me while sharing rides on European trains. I suppose after conversations that might be of an intimate nature, can you truly say you are still strangers to one another? Jimmy D. and I alternated our conversation with just staring at the river going by. The Ohio River may not be a train, nevertheless, it is moving on a journey of its own. You can tell when two guys are comfortable with one another if time goes by and neither feels like they need to break the silence by saying something forced and stupid. When the tobacco was spent from the pipe, Jimmy D. knocked the ashes against the log. Among the last words I recall from our meeting at the river came from Jimmy D. “I’m an old man now and my time is coming. I hope my ashes will get the chance to mingle with the river.” I completely understood and wish for something similar for myself. I like the idea of merging with nature with the chance to become part of something else. I left Jimmy D. where I found him waiting for that train that will take him to the ocean and the wide, wide world beyond Clarksville.