Walking with an Old Man at the Mall

Originally published as part of a trilogy called “Cycle” in Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art, and later included in the book of flash non-fiction, Fragments, this piece has just been adopted for inclusion in a new anthology of literature sponsored by AARP.

For my father, who would have been ninety-six on the twenty-third.

Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall

First of all, he’s walking, you’re joining him. Don’t stop if he doesn’t. Don’t keep walking if he doesn’t. You are a shadow, an imitation.

Stand on his side where he can better hear you. If he can’t, repeat yourself as if for the first time, no matter how many times. Never say “never mind.” When he tells you something, you have never heard that story before, even if you can repeat it word for word. When he tells you about the baseball games with his Dad seventy years earlier, they are new stories, and your response must sound genuine. When he tells you about the time he went swimming at camp with his friends, and how when they went to retrieve their clothes from under a boat they found a snake, be amazed again, ask what happened. Laugh again since he will laugh.

When he pauses in front of a store, don’t question it. At that moment, allow his sole purpose in pausing is to look at whatever item is in that display. He might mention how he used to own that tool, those pants. Let him know you remember; do not make a big deal that he remembered. He needs you to know he didn’t stop “to rest”—he stopped to look at the display. When he says he could use that new suit, a new pair of shoes, or a new whatever is new, agree. If he happens to stop in front of Frederick’s of Hollywood, there’s no need to joke; it will only emphasize he couldn’t get past a place he would never stop with his son. This time he simply couldn’t continue. Talk instead about his grandkids. Talk about the rain. Do not talk about old times. There’s no need to recall the time he drove you to the airport for a flight to college and you saw him hours later waving to you onboard the plane. Avoid bringing up the time just the two of you spent the day at Shea Stadium when you were a child. Instead, ask about the Mets and if he happened to catch the game last week. You know he did. Let him tell you about it.

When he seems tired but doesn’t want you to keep stopping, stop to fix your shoe, to read a sign; look for a bench and suggest you sit and talk. He’ll ask about your son; he’ll ask about work. Have something to say other than “fine, Dad.”

Do not look at your watch. Do not check your phone; most definitely do not check your phone. Leave both in the car. Do not indicate in any way he is keeping you from anything. No other time is relevant anymore. But you will grow tired and restless. If he senses this, he will insist you leave. He will say he knows you have a lot going on, and he’ll say he’ll see you later, and he’ll do whatever he can to make you feel he is completely fine with it. Stay anyway. Then sit a bit longer. Do not ask about the doctors; the walk is to forget about the doctors. Do not quiz him on medicine or schedules. He is out for a walk, you joined him, it is something about which he will tell others—that he went for a walk at the mall and his son was there and joined him. Do not let his story end with “but he had to go.”

When he can’t remember where he parked his car, ask if he parked in the usual area. He did. Sit down for a few minutes. It will come to him. There’s no need to ask probing questions like “which stores” or “what street” he was near. Just sit a while. He’ll remember. You’re not in a rush.

When you leave the mall be near him as he steps from the curb, but do not help. He will be fragile and unstable. The step from curb to parking lot is a leap; he used to do it with you on his shoulders and two others running out front. Let him step down on his own but be ready. He bruises easily and a simple scrape is a trip to the doctor. Have the patience he had when your childhood curbs seemed like the cliffs of Dover.

Don’t say “I guess I’d better get going.” Don’t make plans. Don’t make any comment to indicate he did well or that it was a “good walk.” He didn’t do well and it wasn’t a good walk. He’s older now. He’s slower now, but he knows this. Really, once the walk is done, the time spent together always seems to have passed faster than we recall. He knows this as well.

The May Second Alliance

My God we were so young and unblemished, the very image of innocence.

You have to understand the times: The seventies had just ended a few months earlier; the fall of Saigon was only five years in the past, and we were brand-spanking new college students raised in an era when we were still able to remember the excitement of the late sixties, CSN, Dylan, marches, protests, and all that came with it—long hair, tie-dyed shirts (the first time around), and some sense of innocence and hope—Earth Day, Woodstock, RC Cola commercials, and Peter Max posters. And if we were not old enough to experience those cultural turning points in the country’s history, some of us had older siblings who made us aware of more than baseball cards and stickball in the street.

It is also important to know there were only a half-dozen television channels (which went off the air during the overnight hours), AM radio was king, there were only landline phones without answering machines, and every one of us—I mean everyone—spent the majority of our time outside. We were aware of the news, from Nixon to Ford to Carter; from the Beatles breakup to Disco to the advent of MTV.

Okay, some other crucial details to set this up: I went to college at a Franciscan University which is one of the core places for Franciscan studies in the world. Add to this that Thomas Merton taught there briefly just before becoming a monk (and during my freshman year, one of the librarians, Fr. Irenaeus Hirscher, would tell me stories about his friend “Fr Louis,” aka Thomas Merton), and even our orientation included video lectures by the feel-good, self-hugging likes of Leo Buscaglia. It was a place of peace, or harmony, and the priests lived on our floors (though Bonas was ranked one of the top ten drinking colleges in the country, so there’s that to include).

Is that enough imagery? You have the picture of peace and tranquility? The only thing missing was someone walking around putting flowers in everyone’s hair.

So, May 2nd, 1980

We woke that Saturday morning to the ball fields covered with tanks, military equipment, a few helicopters—a full-on display of all things ROTC. It was a day to celebrate the US Military on campuses in the form of their collegiate programs. Officers walked about in uniform, recruiting officers walked about with clipboards and smiles, and ROTC students walked about in their ROTC uniforms . This seemed to be a direct contrast to everything the college had preached. Remember, this is more than twenty years before 911, and we were already war weary. Hell, “Give Peace a Chance” was still getting regular airplay and Lennon was still alive.

I walked across campus and ran into two people: Fr. Dan Riley, a priest just back at his alma mater to live in a dorm and be a spiritual guide to students and run the ministry center—a man who remains a dear friend to this day; and an upperclassman, Lloyd Withers, who drove an antique black pick up truck. Our conversation drifted toward the display on the ballfield and how it all seemed out of place. I believe Lloyd was the first to say, “We should say something,” or something radical to that effect. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. We should say something. Wow! Suddenly I felt like I was in college for real! I was about to become part of a new movement. Fr. Dan agreed with Lloyd and eventually we talked about how the military should not be a presence on a Franciscan campus, and how it contradicts everything St Francis and St Bonaventure stood for. I stood there saying “Exactly!” having never read a word of either one of them, but just figuring Fr knew what he was talking about. A few other students joined the conversation and since Fr is a tall man with a deep, hearty laugh, when people saw or heard him back then, they drifted in. One thing led to another, and someone showed up with a hand-held speaker with a microphone.

Fr said, “Bob, go get your guitar.” Lloyd said, “I’ll get my truck.”

Within thirty minutes a dozen or more of us stood on or around the back of Lloyd’s truck chanting something like, “No ROTC at Bonas!” or something else that most likely rhymed as those things are apt to do. Fr read passages from St Francis and the gospel, and in between his readings I played “Teach your Children” and everyone around sang together. A crowd formed. I switched to “For What it’s Worth” and more people came. Fr. read. People sang.

Someone took pictures. Note: there were no cameras other than, you know, cameras, and on that particular day the only one walking around with one was a newspaper man from the Olean Times Herald in town. Then local artist and teacher and friend Cole Young came by and played “Working Class Hero.” I joined him on the truck as we switched to “Give Peace a Chance,” and a movement had begun. This was going to be big.

During a break the photographer came over and talked to Fr and Lloyd. He asked why we were doing this, and our general consensus was that we were not at all against ROTC or the military, of course, but found its blatant display on a Franciscan campus out of place. He asked what we called “this alliance of yours.” Lloyd looked at me and asked, “What’s today?” I said, “May 2nd.”

“We call ourselves ‘The May Second Alliance,’” Lloyd answered, and I immediately envisioned t-shirts, posters, an office in the student center. Maybe a compilation album. Definitely more press.

After the military and the students and the “protesters” all dispersed, we stood around and talked for a bit, and on May 3rd, we all got up and went about our business. I don’t recall anyone ever mentioning it again other than when the article came out in the newspaper, and I wondered, or today I’d like to think that back then I wondered if all movements started like this—excitement, motivation, purpose, the definition of Margaret Mead’s decree that the world is most often changed by the efforts of a small group of people. And what separates us from those that we remember for their longevity and influence are the ones who woke up on the following morning and kept talking, kept at keeping at it until progress was made. Not only do I not remember if any talk of the contrast of Franciscan values and military power made it to the administration building, I’m not completely sure I even cared. It wasn’t my thing, really. I’d like to believe that when the article came out, then President Fr Mathias Doyle and Vice President Fr James Toal at the very least talked about it, but, honestly, whatever.

It was suddenly the 80’s and the new decade brought with it other ambitions for me to become passionate about.

But I do know that on that day I knew that’s what being in college should feel like. Raw emotion fueling a hopeless cause with just enough authority to make us feel like we had a voice, and I’m sure that Fr. Dan knew that, and was playing his part for us, helping us find our own voices as he preached into the mic.

Teach your children, indeed.

Pin on Thomas Merton Conference 2014
“Merton’s Heart” in the distance, where he would go work in his journal, overlooking the ballfields of campus