Screwtape 2.0 – Or, the story of how Twitter came to be.
City of Dis, Hell – District 7 – Baal Administration Building – Department of Evil Mischief, Mayhem, and General Suffering – Executive Office Suite 9B – July 10th, 2006 – 8:45 AM
Steve Screwtape stood in front of the large picture window in his new office. He took a large gulp of air, breathing in deeply as a fresh stream of green toxic burning Sulphur seeped in through the heating vents. It was wonderful — so much better than the old system. At his old offices, they never did get the HVAC system set up right. The temperature was never above 750 degrees and he was always chilly. This was quite an upgrade.
He smiled as he carefully studied his new, and he had to admit, spectacular view. It had been twenty years, but he finally got that corner office he always wanted. And best of all, this one came with a big window. Those boys back at the old Leviathan Memorial Offices must be green with envy. How fitting.
Here from his office on the 9th floor he could look out over the whole vast fiery cavern of Hades at once, and it never looked lovelier. To his left, he had a clear view of the great, black drainpipe of souls, endlessly dribbling the never-ending supply of the damned from earth to their doom. He squinted his eyes to focus, but from this distance from the ceiling of Hell, he could not make out individual faces. He could see a blur, though, and it was a glorious squirming mass of infernally bound spirits grasping to the sides of the pipe as they kicked and bit and scratched one another to stay in the pipe. It was their last stop before the Abyss, and even then the damned struggle. It was hopeless of course, and their ear-piercing shrieks were quite loud when they eventually plunged into the bubbling red lake of fire below, but Steve always smiled with every deposit. No…., Please…., Aieeee……., splash! He flicked the pane of glass on his window with a loud thud. Even 4 inches of pure clear safety glass could not muffle the endless screeching. Perfection!
“Nice, eh?” came a soft voice from behind.
“What? Oh, yeah, it is,” Steve said as he turned to the voice behind him. It was Donna DeSimone, his assistant of many years. Steve may be in charge of mayhem and malice, but it was really Donna who got things done.
“Well, at least up here the Wi-Fi here works, and you should see the new copier I got. I just love these new offices. Such a big improvement,” Donna said. “Infernal Mackerel, I can’t believe that old piece of crap I used to have to use for a copier. It is amazing we ever got anything done.”
“It appears our department is on the upswing,” Steve said.
“It’s about damn time,” she said. “We do the great Dark Lord’s infernal work here, you know. It is about time it is recognized.”
“Your commitment truly is inspiring.” Steve nodded. He paused and sniffed the air. “Wait a minute, did…, did you bring…?”
“I did,” Donna said as she smirked. “I know it is your favorite, and with it being a special occasion and all, I thought it was worth the splurge. Now, wait right here.” She went out the side door into her connecting office and returned pushing a cart. On the cart were several trays of desserts and two large pots of coffee. “I know how much you enjoy those pastries I brought in last month and being that it is the first Quarterly review in our new—,”
“—Oh, dammit! The quarterly review! I totally forgot. With the move, and all, I totally blanked that was today.”
“It is,” Donna said as she shook her head. “You really should look at your calendar more often.”
“But, I…, I don’t have any of the…” Steve sputtered.
“Calm down, Bossman,” Donna said as she pulled out a black and red leather file folder. “I got everything ready.”
Steve smiled and said, “Donna, you are the greatest, you know that.” He reached over to the cart and popped a large, golden plump donut into his mouth. He closed his eyes and sighed.
“Great diabolical horns of Astaroth! These are great!”
Donna’s face beamed with pride as she lifted up a pot of coffee in her hand and poured Steve a cup. It was in his favorite mug, just unpacked; a stark lifeless skull, with a handle carved from human femurs. On it, emblazoned in blood were the words ‘World’s Greatest Boss’. She passed him his cup and said, “If you think the donut is good, well, try the coffee.”
Steve took a long swig, his pursed lips curling into a smile as the hot liquid rushed down his throat. “Delicious! What…, what is different?”
“Well..., I used the tears of motherless children to brew the coffee,” Donna said.
“It does make it extra bitter and full of woe. I love it,” Steve said. Smacking his lips, he added, “But, even better than the coffee are these pastries. I think I will have to have an—” He reached over for another before his hand was playfully smacked away by Donna.
“Now, save those for everyone,” Donna said. “We have the whole management team coming it, and I want to make sure we have enough.”
“Yeah…, but, it is just the same old guys as every month. They won’t miss me having an extra.” He licked his lips and added, “they really are extra sweet. So much better than those old stale dunkin donuts we usually get.”
“It’s all in the creme. Filled to the brim with the Pureed souls of unbaptized children.”
“I thought it was extra delicious. Now it all makes sense,” Steve said as he grinned. “Those unbaptized Children souls really are yummy. Just like Momma used to bake.”
“They are. But, don’t get used to it. It was a splurge.”
“I bet it was,” Steve said.
“And, I hope Tim won’t mind.”
“Yeah,” Donna said. “I got an email from HQ. They want Tim from Finance to sit in this month.”
“Oh no, not that Tim!” Steve said as he raised his eyebrow. “I guess all the upgrades to the facilities bit into the budget and they are clamping down. And now I will have to contend with having a bean counter riding me.” He frowned, and added, “nothing good ever comes without a price.”
“Sadly, yes,” Donna said.
Steve looked down at his watch. It was nearly 9. “Is everyone else coming? I assume you sent out a reminder. I would have expected them to be here by now.”
“They may have a problem with traffic. I know, I almost did. There was a big pileup on Whore of Babylon drive, and cars are backed up all the way to Red Dragon Boulevard.”
“Well, they will get here when they get here, I guess,” Steve said as he glanced back at his watch again. “I assume everyone has our new address.”
“Yes. I emailed it out last week and everyone responded to my email but Don. I got an out of office message. Apparently, he is out of town.”
“Out of town? Don Death is out of town? He knows this meeting was on the schedule. Now how are we going to have a quarterly review without the Death report.”
“Don’t worry, Steve. It is all taken care of,” Donna said as she smirked. “I called his secretary and it appears he took the wife and kids to the lake for a long weekend.”
Donna smiled and said, “Well, she reminded me that you approved his request for vacation last week.”
Steve smirked and said, “It appears he doesn’t look at his calendar either.”
Two hours later the Quarterly review was in full force, and it was not going well. In attendance was Phil Pestilence, dressed in his trademark pale green suit, and looking sickly as always. He was sweating profusely. Beside him, and looking equally nonplussed, was the always nattily dressed Walter War. His scarlet tie was askew as he had taken quite the drubbing from Steve all morning. On the opposite side of the table, and wearing a threadbare black turtleneck with several gaping holes showing his emaciated ribcage, was Frank Famine. Ironically, Frank was just finishing off his third pastry.
Tim from finance watched Frank eat the pastry, took out his little notebook from his breast pocket and wrote something down. “I do hope you keep all your meetings within your food and beverage budget this quarter, Mr. Screwtape.”
“I will, Tim,” Steve said as he glanced over at Donna and scowled. She shrugged. The meeting was really not going well.
“Now, if I can direct everyone to last month’s figures again,” Steve said as he pointed to the screen behind him. On it were various stats: infant mortality, deaths by violence, disease, famine, etc… All were going down, and had been for quite some time. He took out his laser pointer and swept down across the screen. “I don’t mind telling everyone that this is unacceptable. The Boss is furious about the trajectory of these key metrics. We are losing on all fronts.”
“Hey, it has just been a bit of an off season,” Walter said. “I got things brewing. You’ll see.”
“Oh, Walter?” Steve snapped. “Like what? You haven’t had a good run in 70 years.”
“Look, I thought things would work out differently,” Walter said as he put his head down. “Don’t worry, though. I predict big things coming, I just know it.”
“Yeah…, well, so far, your forecasting skills suck. You promised me that once we gave nuclear bombs to humans after World War II they would be killing each other by the bushel within a decade. Well…., how has that worked out, eh?”
“But you have to admit,” Walter said, “World War II was pretty spectacular.”
“It was, Walter, but…, that was a while ago. You have just been coasting lately. You can’t just phone it in, you know.”
“There is no need to be rude, Steve,” Phil interrupted. “We are all trying. We are doing our best.”
“Well, your best isn’t getting it done,” Steve snapped. “Lucifer is really clamping down right now. Looking for good MROI and none of you are performing.”
“MROI?” Frank whispered to Donna.
“Misery Return on Investment,” Tim said as he overheard and turned to glare at Steve. “Didn’t you inform your team of the new corporate policies, Mr. Screwtape?” He shook his head, took out his little notebook and wrote something else down and returned it to his pocket.
Steve sighed, but said nothing.
“But Steve,” Phil said, “I know we have been going through a slow patch. I mean, those damn antibiotics have put a real cramp in my old plans, but, I have a surefire killer idea for this quarter. Guaranteed to work. You will have so much sickness and misery around, you won’t know what to do with yourself.”
“Oh?” Steve said. “Well, go on. I am all ears.”
“Boils!” Phil said. “A great big beautiful plague of weeping, oozing, open sored boils,” He glanced around the room, desperate to gage a reaction, and added, “Am I right, guys? Can you see it? How great will THAT be? Huh? Am I right? Boils! I am telling you, they are going to be the next big—”
“—Boils?” Steve said with a defeated sigh. “This is your big idea? Wow. Quite a long fall from the old Black Death days, eh Phil.”
“Now you are just being mean, Steve,” Phil said as he sat down and quickly crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“We need to think outside the box here, people! The old tried and true just ain’t getting it done! We need something bold, and —”
“—Excuse me, sir,” came a voice from the other end of the table. It was Ted, and for the last few hours he had said nothing. He, unlike the others, was dressed quite casually. Painfully overweight and wearing a “Got Milk” T-shirt, his goatee and man-bun was a sharp contrast to the others in the room.
“Yes? You have something to add?” Steve said, his tone clipped and irritated.
“Well…, go on then,” Steve said. “I know you are one of the newest members of the team, but, hey…, if you have an idea to pitch, please do. It appears we are scraping the bottom of the barrel right now.”
Ted cleared his throat and said, “I have been following a couple of programmers in New York who I think may just be on to something. It could be big, Steve. Real big.”
“Another program?” Frank said as he put his donut down and glared over at Ted. “Haven’t we had enough of that?”
“Yeah, Ted,” Walter said. “Look, we all respect the work you have done with online Porn, Ted.” He glanced over at Steve and added, “I mean, really. It has been stunning beyond belief. Some of the whacked out perv-a-thon raging upstairs on Earth has even old Asmodeus blushing, but…, technology has a limit, you know.”
“Yes, Ted,” Phil added. “We are all impressed with your prior work, but…,” Pointing to Walter, he added, “you can’t say that some pixelated T&A is going to have the same destructive impact as a full out war will, can you?” Pointing to Frank, he added, “or a long, luxurious famine, or, in my case, a great raging disease. Your internet work is great, but it is all a bit…, well…., small time, don’t you think?”
“Small time?” Ted said as he smirked. “Hey, I don’t want to talk out of turn here, but, none of you guys have had a hit in years.” He pointed to the charts on the monitor and added, “We are in the longest era of peace in history. Modern medicine has beaten back most of the horrific plagues of the past and…,” glaring over at Frank he said, “we now have more fat people than any time in history. So obviously your plans are working out!”
“Now look here you little—,” Frank shouted as he jumped to his feet.
“Sit down, Frank,” Steve said. “Let’s hear the boy out.”
“As I was saying,” Ted said as he cleared his throat. “These guys have an idea for a program that will allow any individual the ability, at the punch of a few keystrokes, to broadcast whatever crazy ID fueled rage thought imaginable to the whole earth at once. Now…, as we all know, humans do not, as a group, have very good self-control. So, someone will broadcast something heinous, and then others will repost it, adding on more terrible comments and then the next thing you know…, total mayhem.”
“But, this will just be for…, you know, the low sort, right?” Steve said. “I like the concept, but, it will be limited don’t you think.”
“I don’t know,” Ted said. “You never know how these things work out, but, if it goes well, you might actually end up with some truly deranged individual with millions of followers and…, who knows what will happen.”
“Hmmm, it’s an idea,” Steve said.
“Best of all, like Porn, it is self-replicating. All we have to do is get it going and it will self-replicate.” Glancing over at Phil, Ted said, “Unlike these very expensive, and sadly, increasingly ineffective plagues. This one will cost very little to start and nothing to maintain.” He grinned widely and added, “And thus, provide a very good MROI.”
“I like the sound of that!” Tim said.
“What will this thing be called?” Steve asked.
“The programmers are toying with different names, but, it seems like they are leaning towards calling it Twitter.”
“Twitter? Like the birds?”
“Well, that is what I think of this idea,” Walter said. “It is for the birds.” He turned towards Steve and said, “You aren’t going to go for this idea, are you?”
“It is very budget friendly,” Tim said as he took his notebook out of his pocket. “You have to take the costs into account. Look at the whole picture. Cost benefit, etc. etc. etc.”
Steve paused for a while, the tension growing as his brow furrowed and he was deep in thought. After a good five minutes of silence, he said, “Alright, I am convinced. Let’s give it a whirl. See what comes of it.”
Ted beamed. “You won’t regret it, Steve. And hey, you never know. If it works well, it might drag the whole culture into the toilet well beyond the perviest porn available. And if we are really lucky, it might even catch on at the highest levels of power.”
“You mean like a President or something?” Walter scoffed. “Now you are talking out of you’re a—”
“—Stranger things, Walter. Stranger things,” Ted said.
“You guys are crazy to consider this!” Phil said. “I am telling you, don’t go down this path. Boils. That is the solution to our situation. We need more boils.”
Steve frowned and shook his head. “Nope. My mind is made up. I am going to approve this Twitter thing.” He turned to Donna, and said, “Give Ted’s project the green light. Let’s see what happens.”
“Will do, Boss. Will do.”
Happy “What If” Day! This holiday season is so busy for everyone, and I am sure you are as surprised as I that it is that festive time of year again. Where does the time go? It seems like only yesterday we were singing “What If” carols. And with all of the “What If” cards to rush into the mail, and of course, the “What If” tree to decorate, as well as those last minute “What If” day presents to buy, it is an exhausting season. Why do I always put off holiday preparations until the last minute?
What? You haven’t heard of “What If” day? It is such a pity; but of course, it is not surprising. For you see, “What If” day, sadly, does not exist. But…, it should.
103 years ago today, on June 28th, 1914, events took a turn off their genteel and well-worn path, and the future (our present) was forever changed. Few great hinge points of history have photographs of the very moment their axis turns, but this one has, and I have attached it to this post.
This faded, black and white picture — unremarkable if the context is not known — shows the last few seconds before the world that existed before was irrevocably and utterly shattered. That simple right turn birthed all of the horrors of the 20th century; from its horrific, civilization-melting genocides to its endless blood-soaked wars. Oceans of blood and mountains of corpses have been left behind in the wake of this turn. Everything from World Wars 1 and 2, the Holocaust, Communism, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Cold War and even 9/11 can be traced back to this exact moment. The vibrations of this bizarre turn in the road continue to reverberate loudly — even unto our own day over a century later. For on this day, in Sarajevo, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofie were assassinated, and World War I commenced over a month later. And we all know what happened after that.
But…, what does this have to do with “What if” day, you might ask. Everyone, or at least those with a bare minimum of historical knowledge, knows that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and World War 1 commenced. What is so “what iffy” about that? The “What if” comes from the fact that it was all so incredibly accidental.
There are two schools of thought in the world of historical analysis. There is the “great man of history” folks, who believe that events are ultimately caused by the actions of single, very notable individuals. No Julius Caesar, no Roman Empire, for example. On the other side, there is the “great tide of history” people. They believe that certain events — such as World War 1, for example — are inevitable, and, given time, the results are inevitable, regardless of the players.
I propose another theory. Call it the “Bizarre Accident” theory. More things in life than we care to admit come about from circumstances that are amazingly trivial at first, but horrifically consequential later. The old “Butterfly Theory” falls into this camp. In case you are unfamiliar, this is the theory that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, currents are created that can, two years later, form into a hurricane in the Atlantic. World War 1, with all of the terrible ramifications, truly came about because of the most bizarre set of circumstances imaginable. Ones that, if we were able to replay the scenario over again, like some well watched DVD, we would never be able to recreate.
1. The assassination that occurred on June 28th, 1914 was NOT the first attempt that day. In fact, it was the second. Earlier that morning, one of the terrorists had thrown a bomb at the Archduke’s car and it bounced off the passenger door and injured some of the officials in the caravan following behind. What are the odds of an assassination attempt being tried, and failing, and then another succeeding on the very same day? Pretty slim I would think.
2. The Archduke, obviously distressed at having someone trying to kill him (a perfectly rational response I would think) decided, after what must have been a very tense lunch with local officials, to cut his trip short and return to Vienna. First, however, he decided to visit the hospital and see the injured from the earlier attack. His driver, unfamiliar with Sarajevo and, having not gotten directions on the new safer route, made a wrong turn down a crowded street. Realizing his mistake, he stopped the car and quickly put it into reverse, stripping the gears and causing the vehicle to stall. As fate would have it, he was right in front of Moritiz Shiller’s café. This also just happened to be the restaurant where Gavrillo Princep, one of the conspirators, had gone to drown his sorrows in a beer after seeing the earlier assassination attempt fail.
3. Gavrillo emerged from the café, saw the Archduke and his wife sitting right in front of him, took out his pistol and fired the two most fateful shots in history.
One cannot think about the bizarre accidental nature of this event without pausing. The trip to Sarajevo was largely an add-on affair. It had not been planned for months, but, was a last-minute decision. The fact that all of world history, with all of the terrible consequences that emerged from World War 1, was mutated into a bloody horror show by a simple wrong turn boggles the mind.
What if the driver had gone straight to the hospital as planned and the Archduke had not been assassinated? Would World War 1 have occurred anyway? It is a good question. It is possible that it was all inevitable, but, what if it wasn’t? So much evil was unleashed in that conflict, it is hard to fathom an alternative world where it did not happen. Not only did millions die in that conflict, but, would Hitler have come to power if Germany had not fought (and lost) World War 1? As an additional thought project, consider the fact that if this spark of war had occurred a month later, or a month earlier, World War 1 STILL probably have been avoided. Having the assassination occur at the end of June, when, (then as now), Europe goes on holiday in July was a major factor in the war breaking out. Timing, as we all know, is a central factor in life.
No one wanted war in 1914 — no one! The alliances that were in place, however, largely went into automatic mode since all of the foreign ministers were on vacation. The Kaiser was on his yacht and the Czar was away hunting when everything switched onto autopilot during those fateful days in July. Austria threatened Serbia, Russia mobilized, Germany mobilized, France mobilized and so on and so on and so on. By late July, it was all too late. The dogs of war were barking too loud to stop and tens of millions died as a consequence.
But…, it did not have to be this way. We can all imagine a world where the two world wars, the holocaust and the horrors of communism never arose. And it is equally hard to imagine that such a world would not be infinitely better than the one we have. It makes one’s head spin. And, as a separate little nugget of trivia, and something that should be filed under the heading of “too weird to be true and sounds made up”, the license plate of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car was A 111 118, or, as conspiracy theorists like to point out, A – Armistice 11/11/18. The truth often if far stranger than fiction.
So…, enjoy your “What If” day today! Oh…, and watch out for those unexpected turns. You never know where they might lead.
It is odd how sometimes the weather outside mimics events happening in the rest of your life. An unnaturally early spring, that lead to a yard full of blooming daffodils in February and newly sprouting green shoots on the trees is now suddenly about to be covered with snow. T.S. Eliot claimed April was the cruelest month, but, the truth is, March has a much better claim on such a title. Winter, long in hiding and fooling us all into thinking he has left for the season, has returned with a bitter vengeance. And like the weather outside, sadly, a little bit of winter has come to my family this past weekend. On Saturday, March 11th, at approximately 2:30 PM, my Father-in-law, Jim Barron, passed away of a sudden heart attack.
When a loved one dies, especially unexpectedly, a great debate always arises among the surviving family. “If only I had known, I would have…” says one, or, “I wish I had said…” says another. This is to be expected and is a normal human response. Death, especially when it comes without warning, is disorienting. We are wired for things to be as they are, and as living creatures, and especially in a modern culture that keeps death hidden away like some dirty secret or soiled laundry, we feel as if something strange or unnatural has just happened. It is like traveling in a car and then suddenly slamming on the brakes. Momentum forces you forward after the vehicle has stopped and a few seconds pass before the seatbelt yanks you back into reality. That yank is jarring. This sharp blow to our fantasy world hurts, but, the reality is, death is the most natural event of all, and comes to all men. And despite our wishing otherwise, foreknowledge of a loved one’s passing is more of a curse than a blessing. The dread of an event inevitably taints the experience. I have waited for death for several close relatives in the past, and I do not care to repeat the experience. The inevitable drip drip drip as life and vitality seep away is agonizing. This is often far worse than the actual passing itself.
Luckily, and I do mean luckily, this was not the case with Jim. There was no prolonged sickness, with tubes and wires and constant questions and probes by strangers invading his privacy and stripping away his dignity. All at an enormous cost he would have railed against. He would have hated that. His passing was very fast, and I take great comfort in knowing that he died exactly as he would have wished, just going about his business on a run of the mill Saturday, driving to the store. This was something he loved to do, his independence being cherished. No doubt if he were alive now, and I could quiz him on this subject, going out the way he did would have been a close second in his list of preferred demises. The first would have probably been keeling over while working in his yard.
I also think it is a testament to the great character of the man that, as his final act, he was able to steer his car over to the side of the road and not cause an accident. Having lost his leg to a reckless driver back in the 50’s, he knew more than most the dangers of driving. Despite his age, 87, he was an excellent driver, and very careful. I am not shocked at all to learn that in his last moments on earth, as his long overworked and tired heart gave out, he thought first of the safety of others. For anyone who knew Jim, this should come as no surprise.
I have been very fortunate to know many people in my life. Some good people, some not so good. But of all of the people I have known, few have ever been more eager to help others than my father-in-law, Jim. His last actions are but a punctuation mark on the long sentence he had written.
Over the past two days my mind has reeled with the flood of memories of him flowing into my mind. Death is very clarifying that way and definitely intensifies the neural synapses. I smile at the memories of all of the times he “dog sat” for Tassi in the past. He loved that dog so much, and was always willing to keep her when Mary and I went out of town. I can’t help but grin now thinking of them both reunited in the afterlife, her tail wagging ferociously as he gives her pieces of baked chicken.
Warmth washes over me as I recount numerous, anonymous and interchangeable Sunday dinners with Jim at our house. He loved crock pot Sundays as much as I did. Coupled with the various holiday get-togethers over the decades (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter), it is quite a tapestry. None leap out in specific details, all of them melting into one golden hazy memory, but all are ones I will cherish.
But a relatively recent event does rise up in clarity and sharp focus, and best illustrates Jim’s character. When Mary and I moved our company to Henrico, we chose to locate it in an industrial park near Jim’s house. Thinking it would be nice to have the office close by to her Dad, it really has turned out to be the perfect location. Several times over the past couple of years, I would hear a knock on the door and find Jim standing outside on the stoop. He often stopped by as he was off on his way somewhere — getting his “steps” in, off to BJ’s or yet another doctor’s appointment at the VA. Jim liked to be busy.
We would sometimes have a cup of coffee together, or I would give him a water, and he was rarely here more than thirty minutes or so. The visits were short, but pleasant, and It was always nice to see him. He always ended by asking me if we needed help with anything. Normally, there wasn’t anything I needed, but, a few weeks ago, his eyes lit up when Mary told him I needed to go to the “dump”. He was as delighted as a 6-year-old boy on Christmas morning by this revelation.
Only those who knew Jim well can fully appreciate the excitement he had over this seemingly nasty task. Being a “dump virgin” myself, I was oddly curious, but filled with low expectations. This was a dump after all, and as the name would indicate, I expected the day to be dumpish at best. But, despite my basement-like expectations, I had a surprisingly good time with my father-in-law that day. He helped me deposit all of the trash boxes I had accumulated into the landfill and then proceeded to take me on the grand tour of the wonders of the Henrico County Springfield Location landfill. It was quite an experience.
Like an experienced tour guide in one of Europe’s finest museums, Jim drove me all over the complex pointing out the various sights. He showed me the weighing station, and the methane gas collection plant, and the recycling center, all with no less pride than any tweedy docent at the Louvre showing a DaVinci masterpiece. He gave me the full history of the upgrades the dump had undergone over the years, and I was impressed by the depth of his knowledge. Who knew?
Near the end of our tour, we stopped and marveled at the “grab and go” station where, “valuables” (the quotes are intentional) were left for scavengers. I jokingly told him that he was violating the “five-minute looking” rule as I watched him salivate over some old rusty tools. He laughed and nodded before proceeding to drive me up on top of the manmade mountain of trash. Due to the lack of other vehicles around us, it was immediately apparent to me we were on a road off limits to the public. That did not matter to Jim. He was on a mission, and he was in full rebel mode! He was going to show me the full scale of the place, come hell or high water, and I cannot remember him seeming happier. He was ecstatic at not only showing me the dump, but more, that he was helping Mary and I. This was the type of guy he was.
Jim was not an affectionate or overtly emotionally demonstrative man. In fact, I am sure if you were to look up “the silent generation” in an encyclopedia, you could quite easily use his picture as exhibit A. He would be the perfect representative of his demographic group. As a quick aside, I remember seeing the excellent Clint Eastwood movie, “Gran Torino”, a few years ago and being blown away. Mary did not go see it with me, but, I said at the time, and I repeat now, this movie could have easily been titled “The Jim Barron” story. It was like seeing him up on the big screen. One day, once some time has passed, I will ask her to watch it with me. My movie reference to her Dad is a huge compliment.
His was the generation of men and women who worked hard, kept quiet and uncomplainingly went about their business. They were the generation who built the foundations of the modern world we live in now, silently and stoically. They may not have expressed their feelings directly, but, they still expressed them, albeit in other ways. For Jim, and his kind, helping jumpstart your car, or loaning you a generator during a hurricane was his way of saying he loved you. This silent generation is now sadly passing away and civilization is worse off for their departure.
I was also recently blessed with one final visit from Jim to my office, just me and him. I didn’t know it would be the last, and I am glad I didn’t. It would not have been the same. Although it was only last week, it seems like a lifetime ago now. Too much has happened too fast.
I didn’t know what was going to happen on Saturday, and I am sure Jim didn’t either, but, life can be mysterious sometimes. Although no man can foresee his own future, often one can see signs. Like that first reddening of the trees in early October, although it still feels like summer outside when the A/C is still on full blast, you know Fall, and inevitably, Winter is near. I think Jim knew winter was approaching, sooner rather than later.
Now, at 87, Jim was no fool. He knew it wasn’t spring anymore. It wasn’t even fall. It was winter, and quickly getting to be late winter. I am sure that as the years passed by, and all of his old friends died, it weighed heavily on him. How could it not. But most of all, I know that he terribly missed his wife, Helen. I never knew her, since she passed away in 1975, but his love for her was deep. Through Mary, I feel as if I have come to know her. But Forty-two years is a long time to be alone, and she was on his mind.
We had a long visit last week, and a surprisingly deep chat about faith, life, his late wife, and his final plans. I was, and am, very honored that he chose to speak to me on such personal subjects. Jim and I are an odd pair to have such a conversation. We are both naturally indisposed and ill at ease talking about such intimate topics. It is like two frogs discussing the intricacies of bird flight, both of us were way out of our natural wheelhouses. But, perhaps that is why he chose to talk to me. In many ways, especially in this way, we were alike.
When my late mother was having so many problems, Jim understood, having had similar issues years ago with his own ailing parents. Perhaps both being “refugees” from West Virginia, he Clarksburg in the 50s, me Bluefield in the 80s, who came to Richmond for better prospects, he recognized an understanding soul that trod a familiar path. I certainly recognized it in him.
To me, I can think of no better man than Jim to emulate in many ways. If they were assigning awards on how to age with grace, he would have been a world champion. Enormously curious and highly adaptive, he was the most technically and intellectually savvy 80-year-old I know. In fact, I think the age break here is irrelevant. He wanted to know how things worked, and his quick mind never faltered, something I know worried him. His life is a testament to the adage that perpetual growth and constant learning is the secret to successful aging.
Of the many things, I am going to miss about Jim, it is his curiosity about things, and, our shared love of history that I may miss most. It will be a hard habit to break to not send him a link to an interesting documentary I just watched on YouTube. He loved them, and we both enjoyed discussing the latest “How Things Work” episode or “World War II” doc I sent. Now, I will have to watch them alone, and that realization is bittersweet.
He also has left an amazing legacy. Not in riches, though, but in each and every one of his children and grandchildren. He was immensely proud of all of them and loved each one deeply. From the steely and determined oldest daughter, Ann, who alone raised two wonderful children, Jessica and Matthew. She got her spine and her street smarts from her Dad, and I know he was very proud of and loved her.
To his oldest son David, and his wife Jerilynn, he had nothing but affection and admiration. They too raised amazing children; Isaac, Benjamin and Isabel that Jim was proud of and loved.
Jim’s youngest son, Michael, and his wife Mui were also deeply loved and admired by him, and I know he was proud of them both, as well as their amazing children Andrew and Zachary. He has left a rich legacy indeed, and, one can tell a lot about a tree by the fruit that it bears. The harvest from the Barron tree has flourished greatly.
And lastly, but not least of course, Jim loved, respected and was immensely proud of his youngest daughter, my wife, Mary. He always would call her for advice on some subject, and though he did not always take her wise council, he knew she had his best interests at heart and was probably right. I chuckle at the numerous debates on “why it is not a good idea to have Gypsies pave your driveway” they had. Mary always “won” the argument, but, sadly, Jim would agree and then go his own way and do what he wanted to do, despite her wishes. The rebel heart is untamable.
But of all of them, it is perhaps to me, his son-in-law to get the best legacy of all. Years ago Jim told me how much Mary reminded him of Helen, and I know that is a high compliment. He told me how he was a very fortunate man to have found a big eyed, pretty, smart and warm hearted girl to fall in love with back in the mid-twentieth century. To my eternal gratitude, he and that woman, Helen, created Mary, and I fell in love with and married her myself. For that, I will always be thankful.
Lastly, although Jim will be missed terribly, I am not sad. His separation from us is temporary. We will all see him again. Although he did not wear his faith on his sleeve, I know he died in Christ, and has now joined his wife in heaven as they anticipate the final resurrection that awaits us all.
At times like this, my mind often drifts back to that tiny church in Bluefield where I served as an Altar boy with the late “Father Vick”. When I would be pulled out of school to serve a funeral, (a nice perk back then) he always ended the service with a very touching prayer that I still remember clearly to this day, forty years later.
“Oh lord support us all the day long of this troublesome life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over and our work is done. Then in thy great mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at last, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”
I can think of no better prayer for Jim. Evening has come. The busy world has been hushed, and his fevered life is done. Now he has entered into a holy rest and peace at the last. As an alternative ending to this prayer, personalized just for Jim, I need to add the phrase that he said to me every time we parted. He never said “good bye”, but always “See you later, Pal”. Nothing could be more fitting. See you later, Pal. You did a good job and we will see you again!
***The picture I used for Jim was one of my favorites of him, and shows his true personality. When we got our new puppy Truffle, he was quick to drop to the ground and let her climb up his shirt.