Guest Column (6/25/09)

See you later, alligator — I hope

June 25, 2009

By Edwin Cooney

For two weeks and three days now, I’ve been meeting or revisiting some really special people who live everywhere throughout America except where I live.

As I rode the rails eastward between Oakland, Calif. and Buffalo, N.Y., I met Patti — a temporarily wheelchair-ridden lady from Elko, Nev. Patti runs a safe haven for stray animals looking for a home. Even more incredible, she’s about to marry her husband for the second time. A very dynamic individual, Patti devoutly believes in second chances. She divorced her husband some years ago and wants to be with him once again almost as much as she wants to walk following the motorcycle accident which five years ago destroyed both knees and severely damaged her back. Her recovery has been an exceedingly slow and painful one. This July, she’ll undergo surgery to replace both knees at once. She hopes to discard her wheelchair by mid September — just in time to remarry the man she once thought she could do without. It’s not likely that I’ll see Patti again, but it would be a treat to have that opportunity.

Then there’s Denny from Erie, Pa., a truck driver looking forward to coming off the road so that he might spend more time with his wife and son. Denny is an excellent conversationalist in part because he’s as good a listener as he is a talker. Deeply devoted to his family, Denny has a wide range of interests and is especially curious to know how people think and feel as well as what they care about.

Many of those I meet I expect to see again, especially those I have known for awhile.

For openers, there’s the lady I call my mother who we all hope will turn 100 on Jan. 1, 2010. Edith Gassman has been blessed enough to see many seasons. She’s lived during the administrations of 18 U.S. presidents going back to William Howard Taft. Edith, however, often opines that too many worthy people don’t live nearly long enough.

Then there’s a really sweet lady named Joanie whose family is hoping and praying — as am I — that her upcoming cancer surgery will allow her at least five more happy years. Joanie’s sister Barbara is someone I’ve known since I was a lad of 11. Joanie, although I don’t know her as well, has been sweet and generous to me. I hope to see her again next year and as many times in the coming summers as humanly and medically possible.

It has been my experience that ongoing contact too often causes us to take those around us for granted. However, as I prepare to return to my California diggings, I’m keenly aware of the preciousness of those with whom my contact has been all too fleeting.

As these sentiments go to press and I begin my trek westward along steel rails, I’ll offer heartfelt telepathic greetings to people such as the following: my dear friends Chet and his wife “Lady Linda,” who are both thoughtful and intellectually energizing; Judy Joy, whose middle name is a commentary on what she brings to others; dutiful Jan, whose intensity and sincerity is matched by few; unpredictable Kathlyn, whom I’ll always treasure; my pal Paul, who makes me feel good just by saying hello; Barbara, whose passions bubble like the finest champagne; Bob, who watches out for me but doesn’t want me to know it; and Roe, who cares more than she should which causes me to feel humblingly grateful.

The people I’ve mentioned above are only the beginning of a list of those who matter to me. That which is fleeting (the time I shared with them and others) is of value by virtue of its brevity. However, what really matters is the opportunity to experience people of quality for whatever time there may be.

Fifty-three years have passed since Bill Haley and the Comets sang out “See Ya Later Alligator.” Haley’s “goodbye” was to a spurning lover. My expression of that silly salutation expresses the hope that I may have the good fortune to encounter this gang of wonderful alligators many more times to come.

Edwin Cooney is a national political and historical columnist.