the idea of memory
Ulysses Comes Home
I want to tell you about Floyd, but I think I might be able to best do it by first contrasting him with Walt Whitman and then by comparing him with Jim Corder, a university scholar who gave us a new appreciation in the 1980s and 1990s of language and the power of rhetoric.
In one of his own anonymous reviews of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman described himself as “one of the roughs” with a “face not refined or intellectual, but calm and wholesome — a face of an unaffected animal — a face that absorbs the sunshine and meets savage or gentleman on equal terms.”
I’m one who can’t seem to wrap my arms around Whitman, try as I have. Perhaps he’s a taste I’ve never found all that satisfying. Just too noisy and an outrageous self-promoter. I need something more introspective, something with a larger portal to view the world in a different light. With Walt, after all, his megaphone was his nineteenth century microphone. He was like a star athlete or a movie actress named Lady Solipsism who was always maneuvering to stay in the spotlight and never in the shadows.
No one could be more different from Whitman than Floyd, a mild-mannered man with no delusions of grandeur and no need for self-promotion.
A better fit for Floyd would be Jim Corder, author of Yonder: Life On The Far Side Of Change, a book that probes the reaches of linguistics and formal rhetoric to make sense of the past and to seek ways to better understand the momentous changes we have studied and even witnessed in the tumult of the twentieth century and into the present. I like Corder’s writing style and the way he “interrogates” memory. He is constantly pondering the idea of memory and how inaccurate and illusory as well as indispensable it is.
As my wife Jody and I made our day-trip earlier this week to see Floyd, I started thinking of Corder and what he would make of this man, the widower of my deceased cousin, Mildred. Floyd lives by himself in a retirement community in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, about two plus hours from our home in West Virginia. He’s a WWII veteran who continues to amaze me in how much of the distant past he holds fresh in his mind. If he’s not the oldest living veteran of WWII, he must be close to the top of the list. He’s one of the elite few in the small category called “the very old.”
We make the trip to see him every three or four months. On our last visit in February, Jody made him a delicious birthday dinner to celebrate his ninety-eighth year of being part of this great passing parade. Like Corder, he speaks easily how language is the key to understanding our own narrative and the spoken word. Floyd is thoughtful and reticent but what he has to say is always worth waiting for. He also is humble and not at all comfortable talking about himself. One thing for sure is that he would not have been a good bar-hopping buddy of Whitman’s.
What I treasure most about Floyd is his gentlemanly demeanor and his sense of self. He is a retired university librarian and a well-read man. It’s always a delight to talk with him about books. But in our brief time together, we almost always go back to genealogy questions and his and Mildred’s life together. As he told me earlier, he won’t be here forever “so ask your questions now.” In his knowledge of history and place, he’s a bit of a Ulysses, but without all the Greek hero’s various stops home from Troy.
In Floyd’s story, it was a direct return from New Caledonia after the war was over. Once he got off the train and into Mildred’s arms, he was seldom without her. He was an intellect and needed no Whitman-like bluff or bluster to define his sense of self. He sought no mythology to give him grandeur. Instead, he went inward on another type of discovery, that of the intellect, of reflection, of seeking answers to how to live his life in a productive and honorable way. He was on a journey to define what love is all about.
His artifacts include a collection of silk maps the aviators would use and spread out in their laps without worry of wrinkling. He had a collection and had hoped Mildred, his Penelope, would transform them into some other peaceful form. At one time he gave us a couple which we passed on to Jody’s son Aaron, a commercial pilot, who also has a great respect for men like Floyd and what they endured.
These past few years Floyd slowly worked his way through the many letters he and Mildred exchanged during their war-time separation. At one moment, he seemed bewildered as to what to do with them, since they had no children and he had already outlived most of his few relatives. I found a lady at the Library of Congress who was glad to take them as part of a WWII veterans program. He only smiled when I asked to see them before he shipped them off. They were too personal, he said, for me to read. I could then see the impish Mildred in my mind’s eye grinning at the thought that I would never know what those young love birds were saying to one another over an ocean and time apart when letters took weeks rather than seconds to arrive. And these were letters, not insubstantial tweets, written in paragraphs with thoughts that were coherent and focused on a love that was to endure for more than seventy some years. As she sank deeper and deeper into the basement of her dementia, Floyd would read from them to her. He knew she was finally gone to him when he no longer could see any response to his words.
With these images in mind, I understand more and more how Corder’s writing tries to help us make sense of the past, both personal and in general. He wrote of the art of rhetoric in a formal sense, something far more than argument, but rather a whole system by which a world is made and known, a culture revealed through language. His effort was to seek clarity and establish credibility and trustworthiness of character. He saw the need for openness, the inclination to explore other perspectives and not to be closed to other possibilities. And in so doing, he was fully aware that so much of history is conceived out of memory, not always as reliable as we would like to think.
I like to listen to Floyd’s stories in the backdrop of Corder’s hesitations about memory, how indispensable it is despite the conflict between its inaccuracies and illusions. The story of Mildred and Floyd really goes back to the late nineteenth century when events spun together like crashing galaxies to bring those young people finally together in marriage in 1940. Decisions by others earlier on and events beyond their control guided those two destinies. Both Corder and Floyd look back at history and how the events of the past, often long before our births, have shaped our lives. As a historian himself, Floyd has always seen the importance of knowing the past which has allowed him to deal with the challenges of the present.
As Jody and I prepared to leave, Floyd walked out with us to the car and reminded us that he was simply fulfilling one of the “steps of decency” inherent in a host seeing off his valued guests. He is a slight man with his share of infirmities, but he’s determined to live what is left of his long and honorable life with integrity and a respect for others. In my mind, he is a teacher and true humanist. Most of all, he is a blessing to our lives.
In the words of Corder,
“The humanists, if they do their work, will preserve and study the texts for us. That will let us know history and diversity. That, in turn, will enable us to know that others exist and that others have views. If we know intensely that others exist and that others know, then we can never treat them as objects for manipulations, parts of our instrumentation.”
As a veteran myself, I salute this giant of a warrior and the woman who was the only love of his life. They lived a long and good life and have left a legacy without compare.
Image: photo of Floyd and David Evans taken by Jody Evans.