The old man’s sports page

Rappahannock News - - NEWS - Ben Jones [email protected]

My fa­ther, a griz­zled rail­roader, called the obit­u­ary sec­tion of the Portsmouth Star daily news­pa­per “the old man’s sports page.” It was the page that peo­ple “of a cer­tain age” turned to first.

“I al­ways check it to see if I’m in there,” he told me. I re­al­ize now that he told me that about sixty years ago, when he was 44 and I was 13. And I re­mem­ber too that my fa­ther had started work­ing for his fa­ther at the age of 13, car­ry­ing wa­ter and kegs of rail­road spikes to the men who were lay­ing track on the old At­lantic Coast Line Rail­road. When I was 13, I was a clue­less doo­fus, read­ing Mad Comics and fan­ta­siz­ing about be­com­ing the next Stan Mu­sial.

Daddy had a grim sense of hu­mor. He would tell me that Babe Ruth had died, and I would say, “What did he die of?” And he would say, “Same thing as ev­ery­body else – lack of breath.”

At any rate, af­ter read­ing the box scores of the St. Louis Car­di­nals, and thor­oughly soak­ing up the comics page, I got into the habit of check­ing the obits to see who had “kicked the bucket.” I haven’t been in there yet and nei­ther have you.

But to­day I read about Jack Gil­bert, who was my fa­vorite liv­ing Amer­i­can poet un­til this week, when he passed at the age of 87. Now, I don’t have a fa­vorite liv­ing Amer­i­can poet. But good po­etry lives for­ever, and that is a bless­ing I count on. I loved Gil­bert’s abil­ity to be si­mul­ta­ne­ously cyn­i­cal and ro­man­tic, a neat trick that takes rare ex­pe­ri­ence to ac­com­plish. You can’t fake it. He writes from his own truth and that hon­est re­al­ism cre­ates an ac­ces­si­bil­ity – a word now used to mean that the reader can ac­tu­ally grasp and re­late to what the the poet is talk­ing about. For some rea­son ac­ces­si­bil­ity is a lost art, and it is a big rea­son that po­etry it­self is be­com­ing a lost art.

Gil­bert was also a man who shunned the crowd. He never ap­peared at writer’s con­fer­ences, and his pub­lic read­ings were rare. He won na­tional ac­claim in his early thir­ties and quickly be­came bored with all that came with it. And al­though he was a very pri­vate man, his po­ems re­flect so much of his hu­man­ity that to read them is to know him well.

I like to think that Jack Gil­bert would have loved Rap­pa­han­nock, where it is re­ally okay to just be who you are, a place where ec­cen­tric­i­ties and in­di­vid­u­al­ism seem to be the rule rather than the ex­cep­tion. Maybe he did live here, hap­pily and anony­mously. Of­ten I have seen those strangers sit­ting alone in the cor­ner of a crowded cafe, study­ing the other pa­trons like a sci­en­tist study­ing hu­man be­hav­ior, with one eye in a microscope and the other in a tele­scope.

The other obit­u­ary I read to­day was that of Cleve Dun­can, the lead singer of a 1950’s doowop group called the Pen­guins, a quar­tet that had one hit, and one hit only. But I’ll bet you heard it back in the day and you’ll prob­a­bly hear it again, be­cause the re­ally good ones get even bet­ter with time. The song was “Earth An­gel.” Re­mem­ber? “Earth an­gel, earth an­gel, will you be mine?”

Mr. Dun­can said he never got tired of singing that song. I’m glad he didn’t.

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