Dikkon Eberhart



Memoir writing is dreaming backwards.


Eleven years ago, my father became one hundred years old.


When Dad turned one hundred, my wife and I had no grandchildren yet. We hoped we might have grandchildren someday—after all, we had produced four children, so the prospect of grandchildren was bright.


However, whenever our grandchildren did come along, they would not be able to sit with this man, my father, the poet, who was one hundred years old. Dad would be gone by then. Our grandchildren could read his poetry, they could view him in pictures, but they would not be able to know him as I knew him.


So I sat down at my desk, and I began writing stories about my dad, and about my mom, and about how it all was. In order to write these stories, I discovered, also I needed to write stories about Dad’s and Mom’s own parents, and about how it all was for them, too.


The more stories I wrote down, the more stories I remembered, and the more stories I remembered, the more dangerous this process became. I was dreaming backwards, with emphasis on the word dreaming.



You see, I am a writing sort of a fellow. In order to understand my life as I live it, I objectify it. This is not a choice of mine; it’s the way I’m wired.


My psyche places me outside my life, while I try to live my life fully as I am able. From outside, I observe the themes of my life, upon which I mull. And as I mull the themes, I order my memories so that they illustrate and they dramatize the themes. It’s a circle—it’s what I mean by dreaming backwards.


When we dream, we are both receiving something from our outside and creating something from our inside at the same time. That’s why dreams fascinate, though they are not real.


As I wrote my stories about my parents and about their parents, I was dreaming backwards. My father, the poet, was called “Dreamy Dick” when he was a boy, and the apple does not fall far from the tree.


Dreaming backwards is dangerous because it may fool the dreamer. It may make the dreamer believe that the created story of the past is the past. However, that is not so. The past is ungraspable—it is past. If you are writing a memoir, the people of the past are unable to tell you, now, if you are wrong in your memory. The people of the past are unable to chide you when you order your memories for the purpose of dramatizing your themes…at their expense.



To the casual observer, writing a memoir probably seems easy enough. After all, you know the stories—just write them down.


But memoir writing is a razor-edged endeavor. The writer of a memoir has a responsibility which is weighty. If the writer fails to balance precisely between self-enhancement and self-abnegation there is a danger of falling and of being cut, cut badly. A memoir—this is what I have concluded—a memoir should be a kind of prayer by which the writer expresses, highest among all things, humility.




As an example of my desire to live in a past which I did not possess myself, here’s a memory. I loved my father partly because of the past he had lived in before me. I could dream my way into his experiences when something of his experience touched mine; I was ten-years-old and a warrior.


Dad had been a naval officer during World War II. His principle responsibility was training young gunners on navy bombers the necessary marksmanship, with their .50-caliber double-barrel machine guns, to survive strafing attacks by Japanese Zeros, and to shoot the Zeros down instead. After the war was won, Dad kept his target kites.


Choose any summer day, when I was ten. Maybe on that day we’d take Dad’s elegant old cabin cruiser out onto the ocean in Maine, and we’d go to Pond Island, along with a swarm of smaller craft, some fifty of our closest friends and us.


We’d have a boatload of clams, lobsters, and cod, also corn, potatoes, salads, pies. (I’d be especially proud if I’d caught the cod the day before while drop-lining near Saddleback Ledge.) The hour would be early, still cool, with a light air from the south, no fog. I’d handle the anchor at the island, following Dad’s directions. Several trips would be needed in the launch to ferry all our equipment to the shore.


Then, on the south side of the island, we’d dig a deep clambake pit in the sand, line it with stones, fill it with drift wood, and set a bonfire ablaze to heat the rocks. We kids would fill a dingy with fresh rockweed, torn from its roots below tide line.


When the fire burned down to glowing coals, we’d layer the pit with the seaweed—instantly bright green on the seething rocks, and popping—and we’d toss on the food, layering it with seaweed and topping the whole bake with a thicker, final layer of seaweed. Finally, we’d cover everything with an old sail and bank the sand up around the sail’s edges to hold in the heat.


Then, finally, there’d be nothing to do but to wait while the bake baked, to stroll, to run, to explore, to lie in the strengthening sun, to philosophize vigorously—or meanderingly, as the mood suited. Perry and Craig would lead us all in singing The Sinking of the Titanic, and we would all take a delicious, ghoulish pleasure in the line “husbands and wives, little children lost their lives….”


Beer and wine for the grown-ups; orange Nehi for us kids.




Then it would be early afternoon, and the breeze would have come up. It would be a good, strong, summer sou’wester—good sailing weather…kite sailing.


Dad and I would rig a kite. It was an act of shared and minute technical specificity that I adored since it was so uncharacteristic of my father; Dad was not a tool guy. But kites, I realized at age ten, were really poems, and therefore they deserved his intensity of attention to their every nuance.


Sometimes Dad would agree to fly the huge 10-foot-high kite, but usually it would be one of the 6s or the 8s, which are plenty big enough when you are yourself about four-and-a-half feet high.


Dad and I would work for half an hour, threading the lines, re-screwing a thimble, guying the rudder straighter. Then it would be time, and I’d carry the kite sixty or seventy feet downwind along the beach, carefully playing out the four lines it took to control these monsters, while Dad made final adjustments to his reels and his control arms and his harness.


He’d attach the controls to his chest, a “front pack” of great drums of line controlled by hurdy-gurdy handles, with arms that stuck out two-and-a-half feet from each shoulder, through which the lines ran before heading for the kite. Distance was controlled by grinding the drums with the handles; yaw and lift and plane were controlled by the rudder, which in turn was controlled by shifting one’s shoulders backwards and forwards, thus pulling the rudder one way or the other.


It was my job to hold the kite upright, buffeted by its weightiness in the wind, and to await Dad’s command to thrust it into the sky.


Before I thrust the kite into the air, knowing the fun we were about to have, I would stare at the silhouette of a Zero that was painted on the kite with the big red target circles over the gas tanks in its wings. So that was where to hit ‘em! And especially I would stare at the carefully stitched .50-caliber bullet holes in the kite that riddled those very wings. How close I was then, dreaming backwards, in that numinous moment, to the howl of the bullets themselves!


“Go!”


As hard as I could, I’d launch the kite up into the wind. In a second the kite would catch the wind and zoom high. In my mind, the stream of bullets would follow it, and the thudding of the guns would buffet me, and the hot brass would rain all around.



In a steady wind, Dad could fly the kite up to three hundred feet, make it hover there for the longest time, and then make it dive straight down into the sea—straight down into the sea!—only to pull back on his controls at the very last instant so that the kite tore through the top of a wave and rose again, streaming shining droplets from its wings and from its lines, like some raptor on a string!


This was jam at a clambake.




The past was mythic. My father was mythic. I was mythic—and ten.


I dreamed backwards to the Golden Time—when lived the Old Ones, who fleeted among the ancient trees, and knew.





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Dikkon Eberhart



The man was on top of the world. Or on top of New Hampshire. Or, merely, on top of New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee.


He sat on the deck of the summit lodge with a 360 degree view, interrupted in a few directions by clumps of trees, and in one direction by the mechanism of the ski lift. The sun was warm, for February. There was little wind; the ski runs were well groomed. It was a Wednesday. School vacation week had brought families to the mountain, the man’s family included. At the moment, though, he was alone.


He was exhausted by the blandishment of the present time.




During vacations, many persons desire to drop out of the present, the man included. In a week, the same public arguments and scandals and breathless excitements will once again nail them all to the—might the man say ‘to the Cross’?—of the present moment. But vacation offers a momentary cessation of the noise.


“I’m looking even more like my father,” the man had said to his wife that morning, after shaving.


“Yes, you are.”


The man’s father had died twenty months before at age one hundred and one. The man’s father had been a poet—highly regarded, internationally lauded—whose fame had then faded before his own demise. But the father had possessed the toughness to hold stubbornly to life.


“You know the critics?” his father, sitting in the sun at age ninety-nine, had asked him.


“Yes?”


“They’re all dead.”


“Yes.”


His father had smiled. “And I’m not.”



After the man’s father reached a high place at age one hundred, he continued to push life’s rock uphill for one more year.


That’s grit!


The man missed his father fiercely. Often, when he was driving alone, he put into the CD player a spiritual which promised that those who are separated by Jordan will one day find each other on the opposite side.


Also, his father had been a skier. In his father’s day, athletes ascended mountains by strapping sealskins to the bottom of their skis and walking there. A day might be occupied by a long climb, stopping now and then for a breather, a swig from a flask, and a refreshing pipe when the view inspired. There would be a picnic in the snow at the top, and then would come the reward at the end of the day—that one, long, delightful schuss back downhill again.


Today, of course, we use a speedy chairlift to carry us through the air to the top of the mountain, and we are able to enjoy a score of downhill runs in the time that the man’s father had experienced one.


Mechanical devises nowadays truly do make life’s uphills easier to master than was the case a mere century ago. But that does not justify chronological snobbery, as C.S. Lewis called it, our unexamined assumption that things of the past ought to remain in the past and ought not to trouble us cleverer moderns.


Our chronological arrogance allows us—or so we think—to dismiss the truth that things of the past had their own integrity in terms of their own time. We are allowed—or so we think—to judge the things of the past in terms of what we believe are our own more enlightened modern insights.


The man was sixty, and he was feeling about his own past a new weightiness. There were now accretions upon him. They were the results of life assumptions, relevant to himself in years before, of the events and philosophies and choices by which he had lived. He was beginning to experience the old person’s anxiety that these important events and possibilities and choices were hidden from young adults of the present.


What must the burden of the past have been on his father at age one hundred? That man could reach back nearly to the Boer War. The Boer War! Scarcely anyone today has even heard of it, but it was a bellwether of its time.


Lounging in the winter sun on his New Hampshire deck, the man thought back through forty of his own years, and he remembered himself on the deck of another summit lodge such as this one, but on the other side of the world. Then, he had been high in the Bernese Alps, enjoying the same mid-winter ambiance as today, except that the mountain scape was limitless—dazzling alpine peaks, stretching all the way into Italy, with the Jungfrau as a magnet to the eye.


On the deck with him were skiers who had taken the train up the valley from Schoenreid to the base of the funicular car. Then the funicular car had carried the merry group to the summit, where they had debouched upon the deck of the summit lodge and now sat in the sun, drinking beer or schnapps, and eating fat sausages with sauerkraut.


As compared with the present day, no ski garment worn by anyone on that long-ago deck was an advertisement.



The man’s father came along the deck and sat down next to him. “Just like the 1920s,” he said, and then he laughed, “Except in those days we needed to climb up, and once we got above the tree line, it was harder.”


“Why?”


“There wasn’t any way to know which route across the snow fields was safe. If you were the first to cross.” He filled and lit his pipe. “And we always wanted to be the first to cross.”


The man had a vision of his father as Nick Adams, from Hemingway’s Cross-County Snow, but as a Nick touched more closely by the muse than Nick the brawler ever was.


“In those days, were you ever here, right here?”


“Above this valley, yes, but lower down,” he gestured down-valley, “by the Diableret Glacier.” His father mused a bit and then said, “You know, if we time our runs right, we could make it there today. It means skiing the snow fields above Saanen and Saanenmoser. Then we could ski back down to Gstaad and take the train back up the valley to Schoenreid for dinner.”


And was there ever anything more romantic sounding than that?



As it happened, the man and his father didn’t make it all the way to the Diableret. His father was more comfortable with a slower series of runs, and they ended by dropping down out of the snow fields and into the trees above Saanenmoser. So the up-valley train ride was shorter, and they were early for dinner, and the man’s mother was pleased.


+++++



The man’s memory up there on top of New Hampshire could take him back only forty years, to the 1960s, to the conflicts he had himself lived through, for good or ill. But when his father had been young and was skiing the Diableret, back in the 1920s, the lessons his father was concerned about came from another great conflict so recently ended—from The Great War.


The French speakers were wounded and vengeful; the German speakers were resentful and truculent; the English speakers (except some of them like Churchill) were hoping conflict itself would go away; the Russian speakers were saying nothing at all because they sagged under the Bolshevik weight and were silenced. And the Americans were ascendant…and talking all the time.


Less and less was privacy valued in society. Taste was for publicity, and human aspiration and salvation was adjusted now in political terms—what can government do about man’s lot, how can government use humankind for its own glory? And Christianity was no longer the one world religion that was generally understood in the West to be true.


But the man’s father had his own father—the man’s grandfather—back in the 19th century. The lessons learned by the adults of that 19th century time concerned what had happened in their own pasts.


Big were colonialism, its pros and cons, and also rationalism’s challenge to religion. Manifest Destiny was, indeed, still manifest. Explosions were occurring in what was later to be called psychology, physics was bending time and finding that light has gravity, and cubism, Dadaism, and other movements of the artistic avant-garde were delighting or affronting, depending.


The big storm that rumbled over the horizon was the fight between capitalism and communism. That would have its hellish impact later…but only after the democracies finally decided to fight back against their own destruction and defeat fascism. Then they could turn to communism.


Yet, as the man mused in his silent space atop that New Hampshire mountain (he had recently re-read a good deal of C. S. Lewis…together with the Gospel of John), there’s a longer perspective as well, and it was there in the man’s father’s day, as well as in the day of his father’s father, too.


There is an even greater Father still, and He saw the universe at its beginning, knows its present, and understands its future. He isn’t compelled by chronological snobbery; he has not our limited human perspective. What all persons struggle with today is no different from what persons struggled with in ages gone by. All persons climbed through life, up their snow fields, and they took their looks from their summits all around.


We today are also comfortable with the sins we have chosen, until we learn to ski with the Father.



***



The man walked down to the snow, stamped into his skis, and pushed off for the long run home.





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Dikkon Eberhart



Once, in Detroit, when my last sales appointment of the day cancelled, I went to the zoo.


Detroit has a good zoo, with lots to look at and to admire. One of the things they have is a lion house. That is, there is an outside yard for the lions, with rocks and a cliff, and with grass and trees. There is also an inside house for the lions to retreat into, which is entered through a crevice in the cliff where the cliff comes down.


Visitors may watch the lions outside, but they may also go into the lions’ inside lair and watch the big cats there, too.


I stood for a long time outside, pressed against the fence around the lion’s yard, watching the lions as they sauntered or lay still. I had owned lots of cats in my life, and, while I watched the lions, I entertained myself with the assurance that I held a deep appreciation for cats as a species, and that I enjoyed a canny level of communication with them.


Most noteworthy among the lions was one magnificent male at the height of his nobility and kingliness. Perhaps eight feet long, with rippling muscles at the shoulders and hips, his regal head was topped with a full mane of black hair. His tail was a whip with which to express his emotion.


The favorite among my own cats had been Beamish. A magnificent male in his house-cat’s own right.


Beamish possessed the strength and dexterity, from a sitting position, next to an open door, suddenly to spring into the air and to land, balanced perfectly, on the top edge of the door itself, without his landing having caused the door to swing at all.


While I remembered Beamish, my big male lion occupied the rest of my attention. I ranged back and forth along the lion cage fence, trying to stay close to him as he surveyed the scene and kept the lionesses under the strictness of his eye. In time, though, he grew weary of this entertainment and made his way to the crevice into the cliff and went inside.


I followed him inside and discovered that I could get nearer to him inside than outside. Now, he was in a vertically barred cage, alone for the moment. There was a single horizontal railing keeping me away from the cage. The gap between the railing and the cage was about eight feet. When outside, I had been about forty feet away from my lion. Now, I was standing next to him!


Here—I thought—was Beamish, but in his wildest imagining.


Here was Beamish into whose eyes I had often stared, nose to nose, sometimes for ten minutes at a time, neither one of us blinking. In those minutes of communication, it had seemed to me that Beamish and I were both drinking in the holy similitude of our natures. Of course, the unenlightened might deny the brotherhood of Beamish and I and speak of differences between species, but we knew better, we did.


Just so did I now stare into the eyes of my lion.


Here was a lion of Daniel’s command!



Due to our depth of sharing of all that is weighty in God’s universe, we two—my lion and I—we knew things together. My lion had the power of savagery, but we knew things together, he and I. If the need had arisen, I knew he would have muted his savagery, and he would have lain his chin on his forepaws and purred at me, and he would have allowed me to stroke his nose.


We two Romantics, my lion and I, we certainly knew how Keats or Shelley should have written of us, or how the German Romantics should have painted us. They should have shown us urgent in a swirl of cloudy fog, atop a crag, with our eyes staring into a vastness of cosmic possibility.


Even now, my lion and I, we held one another’s eyes in affection and—dare I say it, reader—in love!



Perhaps, even, here in my lion at the zoo was the very type of Aslan, as C.S. Lewis had known him—Aslan himself, the Christ of Narnia, who loved the children so. Perhaps here before me was the very nobility that called for a self-sacrifice of such purity and of such literary and artistic absoluteness as, finally, to thaw the witch and to turn all Narnain captives free.


Yes, I thought to myself, yes, I can see it now, there in the eye of my lion.



Oh—I gave a figurative toss of my hand--what of his bars?


Did not we, all of us, have bars of our own? Was it so very big a thing in the cosmos that I should be able to walk away from his lion house any time that I wished, when he could not do the same?


From his eye, I understood that he, too, saw our fates as the Romantic puzzlers they were. We were fellow travelers on God’s green earth, he and I, and I was pleased to learn that we each took these puzzlers with the sardonic humor to which they were entitled.



Then my lion “spoke” to me!

At the very height of our conversation, my lion turned his head, turned around, shifted his tail aside, and shot a long stream of hot urine between the bars and accurately across the front of my shirt.

+++++


Note to self: Dikkon, remember to distinguish reality from poetry.