At length, however, despite the prodigious care that the great magnifico, Don Juan Bellvidero, took of himself, the days of decrepitude came upon him, and with those days the constant importunity of physical feebleness, an importunity all the more distressing by contrast with the wealth of memories of his impetuous youth and the sensual pleasures of middle age.
Honore de Balzac, "The Elixir of Life"
You will be frail and musty, with peer Whilst I am young and lusty among the roaring dead.
Dorothy Parker, "Braggart"
By R.L. SCHREADLEY
My old friend Choo Choo (Jay Bachman Rumph, Jr.) passed away earlier this month. My wife and I knew him for 40-odd years, first as an across-the-street neighbor on James Island, then as an entertaining travel companion, and lastly as one with whom we traded monthly drinks and dinners when our traveling days were over.
Choo was - how shall I say? - sui generis. One of a kind. A man of many parts. One part Peter Pan, both in that he never really grew up and, more particularly, never grew old. Second, part Pied Piper, as evidenced by the hundreds of boys and girls, many of them poor and black, he enchanted in classrooms presided over by him in a 30-year career as a teacher.
I take at least partial credit for introducing Choo to the country that became, in retirement, his favorite home away from home. On a tiny spit of land connected by causeway to the town of Ergidir, on a large beautiful lake in southwestern Turkey, Choo built a small rental property he called - what else? - the "Pension Choo-Choo." He named the eight or 10 rooms set aside for guests after famous artists - Rembrandt, Raphael, Vincent Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc. Each room had framed prints of the artist's work whose name it bore. On the top floor he had an apartment where, until a few years ago when he could no longer climb the stairs, he spent four or five months each year. My wife and I twice stayed in the Rembrandt room on our visits to Turkey.
Largely because of the bizarre persona he cultivated both at home and abroad, the Pension Choo-Choo became quite popular while he was associated with it. It was written up in travel magazines. Feature articles of Choo and his pension were published in major newspapers in Istanbul and elsewhere.
He had a driver in Ergidir he called "Dusty," because of his resemblance to the American actor Dustin Hoffman. With Dusty driving, we toured Turkey from Istanbul in the north to Antakya (the ancient Antioch) in the south, to the Kurdish lands in the east near Lake Van. We had many, many interesting stops along the way, and almost everywhere there was someone who knew Choo either personally or by reputation (mostly, I think, from the newspaper articles).
His days in Ergidir followed a pattern. Up at the crack of noon, a leisurely walk along the lake, or a short cruise on the "SS Choo-Choo" (a 15-foot outboard motor boat), followed by a mid-afternoon meal at the Big Fish or the Big Apple restaurants. Probably four or five bottles of Turkish Efes beer along the way. As common in Turkey, he had dinner at an hour when most people I know are in bed here at home. After dinner, fueled by more than a few drinks of raki (a Turkish version of the Greek ouzo), he'd dance up a storm with tourists at one of Ergidir's waterfront nightspots. Choo loved to dance. He missed that as much as anything when his knees gave out. By then his weight had ballooned to more than 300 pounds.
He could have run for mayor of Ergidir and won, if Turkish law allowed it. Everyone knew him. Everyone liked him. He sponsored a boys soccer team, the Choo-Choo's. He was invited to many of the very public "cuttings" that celebrate a Turkish boy's passage to puberty. After the deed (the circumcision) is done, the celebrant, dressed up like a prince in a gold and white gown, with a crown upon his head, is paraded through town in an open car followed by other cars, horns blaring, people shouting, and so forth. This, and the feast for scores of relatives and guests, costs money, a lot of money, money that poor families often do not have. Choo opened his heart and wallet for them on more than one occasion, I am sure.
Well, that is all past now. I can think of only one word that sums up the relationship my wife and I shared with Choo. It is, I think, the most beautiful word in the English language. The word is "friend." He was our friend, and we were his.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.
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