As life runs on, the road grows strange
With faces new, and near the end
The milestones into headstones change,
‘Neath everyone a friend.
— James Russell Lowell (1819-1891)
It’s wisely said that life is often a disappearing act. Relatives who’ve passed on are the ones who first come to mind — parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. Of my immediate family, I am now the only survivor.
As one grows older, the role you’re cast to play subtly changes from budding to supporting, principal and, if you’re lucky, leading actor. You might end your working days playing walk-on roles, with a few lines to say while the scenery is reset backstage. But you’ve been there, done that. Exit stage left.
This little preamble leads me to a scenario that’s intrigued me for some time now. I imagine myself a member of a symphony orchestra (full disclosure: I have no musical talent whatsoever). The orchestra is playing one of the classics. Let’s say I’m fourth violin. As the performance progresses, every minute or so one of the members of the orchestra rises, puts down his instrument, nods respectfully to the musical director and leaves the stage. The performance continues.
Before long, I steal a glance at my surroundings and see that I am the only one still playing. I’m terrified, for I know that I now have the undivided attention of the director, and, like Queen Victoria, he is not pleased.
I rise and almost run offstage, forgetting to nod. The audience erupts in cheers. It gives the director a standing ovation. He bows gracefully, leaves the stage, returns to bow again, leaves again. The house lights go up.
Now, let me ask readers a simple question: How often do failed chief executive officers and bank presidents, once-great sports figures nursing bad knees, writers whose insights have deserted them, actors and actresses who’ve lost their looks, and perhaps above all, defeated politicians — how often have they been cast in roles they simply could not play, like my poor fourth violin?
Well, anyway, you’ve probably known many such people, and you might now scan the obituary pages for names you recognize — friends, associates, the former great and the not so great. They probably search the obits for you, too.
It’s sobering to think you’ve outlived so many you’ve worked with and for — in my case friends in the Navy and at this newspaper. The brotherhood of the sea and the brotherhood of the newsroom are alike in so many ways. Almost all who were in those brotherhoods with me are gone now.
And there are others, others you probably never met, but nevertheless felt somehow you knew. Army’s Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis (Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside); the New York Yankees’ Joe Dimaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle; the Boston Red Sox’s Ted Williams (the Splendid Splinter — I think I saw him hit his last home run at Fenway); the St. Louis Cardinals’ Stan Musial, the New York Giants’ Mel Ott; Broadway’s Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Ray Bolger, Robert Preston; Hollywood’s Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe, Cyd Charisse. Most of them are dead now, but they too were a piece of my life and the lives of many others. I grew up with them. I grew old with them.
In a sense, everyone whose path crosses ours in life is a star, some of them distant, others but a touch away. They all helped shape the piece of the world we’re privileged to live in, the piece that is quintessentially American.
R.L. Schreadley is a retired naval officer and a former Post and Courier executive editor.