Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"The 'Forever Young'"


"...Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out;
Runners whom renown outran
& the name died before the man..."
exerpt from "To an Athlete Dying Young" A.E. Housman, 1896

Today would have been John F. Kennedy's 95th birthday.  Yet when we see him today in our mind's eye, the image is a picture of youth - the energetic, confident leader - the epitome of "vigah" - and alongside of him, his lovely young wife & little children. 

Popular culture is filled with figures whose lives were cut short in their prime.  A few that immediately come to mind: James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Lou Gehrig.  They, too, are frozen in time, in our collective memory.

Even without fame and fanfare, each family has its own legendary figures taken before their time - eliciting the immortal cry "what might have been..."  Think about your own family for a moment - surely you've known, or know of, a relative who died defending our country, or one who got terminally sick at a young age, or one who was taken tragically in an accident.

On August 22 of last year I made a post on Facebook, noting the 100th birthday anniversary of Gerald Runyan, my grandfather.  The mere thought of him as an elderly man is as foreign to my family as the man in the moon.  That's because "Jerry" Runyan was killed in an automobile crash in 1939, when he was just 27 - and my father, who was still a baby at the time of the tragedy, responded to my post last summer that his dad was among the "forever young."

The forever young.  A beautiful sentiment that evoked the above lyric elegy by Housman.

I knew from a young age that both of my parents lost their fathers when they were little.  My dad was 16 months old, and my mom was just 5 years old when her daddy (she always referred to him that way) died, a 34-year-old mechanic named Ray Vanhorn.  Naturally, I had always looked at those tragedies from the vantage point of those left behind.

When I was a teenager, an evolution in my understanding began.  It started one afternoon when a beloved elderly neighbor a few doors down from my boyhood home in Milton, Mr. Fred "Skeet" Lohman, called me over to chat with him while he clipped his hedges.  He brought up the subject of my grandfather, and proceeded to tell me the usual things I'd heard before - Jerry's prowess on the baseball diamond; his fun, gregarious nature; and of his popular young wife & kids.  But then his demeanor changed as he began to describe the details of the night of the accident - the horrible crash, and the immediate and lasting reaction of our little town - shaking his head the whole time and speaking in hushed tones as if it had all happened the previous week.  I was left to ponder why it still affected him so, more than four decades afterwards.

The evolution continued, when, in the winter of 1996, I had driven up to Watsontown to take my wife to a "tupperware" style party of some sort, and while she was busy with that, I took our year-old son with me over to nearby Turbotville Cemetery, where many of the Runyan family, including Jerry and his widow, Miriam - my grandmother - are resting.  Holding my baby boy in my arms, I gazed down at the names and dates on the stones, and for the first time it really hit me - with crystal clarity I was able to see the tragedy from the vantage point of the young man who wouldn't get the chance to grow old with his wife; of the young father who wouldn't live to see his kids grow up; to see his little girl become a dark-eyed beauty and get married and have her own daughter & son; to see his little baby boy become a ballplayer like he was, a man, a U.S. Marine, a father.

I believe it's perfectly fitting that we remember the "forever young" as they were - virile and full of potential, smiling towards the future.  I imagine it's how they would like to be remembered, and perhaps remembering them in that fashion helps us to better cope with mortality - both theirs and ours.

But, having said all that, I also believe that Housman may have taken the sentiment too far, and by doing so, gave short shrift to the real meaning of life - Living; enjoying your family & friends, experiencing life's ups & downs, and looking forward (and backwards) together.

And I believe that Jacqueline Kennedy got it 100% right, when she remembered
her beloved Jack this way:

"now he is a legend when he would have preferred to be a man..."

Top photo:  Jerry Runyan getting ready for a baseball game.
Above:  Jerry & Mim (Heffelfinger) Runyan
with their children, Nancy & Jim.

No comments:

Post a Comment