Monday, January 31, 2011

…Sat on the Park Bench Like Book Ends

Time it was and what a time it was,

A time of innocence,

A time of confidences,

Long ago it must be,

I have a photograph,

Preserve your memories,

There all that’s left you...

- Paul Simon, ‘Old Friends’

The term ‘old friends’ could be interpreted a couple of ways. In common usage, it means colleagues, companions and acquaintances of long standing, people with whom you have a bond of affection lasting many years.

But it might also mean those friends who are on in years, aged and wearing experience on their face and body.

In either case, the idea of connecting with ‘old friends’ holds a special place in our hearts. With ‘old friends’, your shared experiences and memories come back with easy connection. With little effort, we connect with life’s landmarks – births, weddings, deaths and the like – without the need for a lot of explaining.

I had dinner this last week with friends of my family whom I hadn’t seen in perhaps 40 years. Barney and Pat were so close to our tribe in Nevada. He’s 88 now and I guess Pat’s a bit younger. They lived for a while in our funky little town of Virginia City, and shared hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours with us.

Barney was a geologist, with a big booming voice, a friendly grin and a kind of effortless enthusiasm that was simply magnetic. While we assumed that Barney was one of our dad’s endless parade of drinking buddies (and I don’t mean that sarcastically), as kids, we found him really cool. He could tell you anything you wanted to know about rocks. To this day, when I read or hear mention of the element ‘Beryllium’, it is inseparable from my memories of Barney’s expansive and engaging description of where this metal was found, how it got there, and why it was so important.

His wife Pat had her eye on the former sailor when he came in to cash a check at Harolds Club in Reno, where she was working after the war. Harold’s club is the real old Reno. Later eclipsed by its neighbor Harrah’s, Harold’s club was where locals went to drink, gamble, and cash their checks. We’ve had generations of relatives and pals who worked there, or had someone in their family who did as well, in their black pants and white shirts, as cashiers, waitresses, bar tenders, and Keno runners. If you don’t know what that is, you are obviously not from Nevada.

There was a year-long gap between the time Pat cashed Barney’s check at Harold’s Club, and the time she ran into him in Virginia City. She recognized the strapping sailor from the previous year and told her friends to pull over so she could say ‘hi’.

Pat was glamorous to us as kids. She was kind of dazzling – beautiful, confident, and pound for pound, at least as friendly as Barney. One thing led to another, and now they’ve been married for about half a century.

In the interim, there have been the foundation stories of my life: Pat Hart and the Brass Rail, Gordon Lane and his legendary bar next door, which was officially known as ‘The Union Brewery’, but simply known as Gordon’s to anyone who had spent five minutes in Virginia City would know. From Gordon’s, the great pantheon of drinking-legends from that town connected and became a community. There was four-foot-ten Kelly O’Keefe, an Irish miner who could drink anyone under the table. Highway Harry, Bob Dufresne, Agalee Del Carlo, Mike Nevin…they all spent long hours tossing them back and telling what seemed to me the funniest stories in the world.

Barney worked all his adult life as a geologist, and by all accounts, it was a profession he loved with a passion that was almost as strong as his passion for his beautiful wife. He also came to love our eccentric little town in the mountains.

They never had kids. My own circle of siblings all grew up and had their own broods; life went on, and all of a sudden, it’s four decades later.

Pat and Barney live on the water in a small, comfortable apartment in Newport Beach, just off the Pacific Coast Highway. They don’t get around so much, because of their physical limitations, but Pat managed to cook up a fantastic meal when I came by for dinner this week – crab cakes, Italian bread salad, pot roast, mashed potatoes and gravy... The food was great, but it was passing time with these two ‘old friends’ that was so moving to me.

In a real sense, as kids we were exposed to a lot of personalities which we have ultimately combined into who we are as adults. Barney and Pat, along with Gordon Lane – who just passed away this last year - Pat and Penna Hart, and all the other characters who came into our lives each left a little something. A wicked sense of humor from one, a booming gregariousness from another, an unshakable need to stop and help out or, the ability to make an instant party from yet another; they have all become our ‘character’ as adults. Barney and Pat’s open, honest and joyful embrace have contributed to who I am as an adult.

Driving back up the 405 San Diego freeway toward home after that dinner, I pondered how wise the native Indians were in this country, long before the white man, something that had never struck me as strongly. For many westerners, the concept of ‘our elders’ or ‘our ancestors’ seems quaint and archaic. But after my visit with Barney and Pat, I felt a very sweet and fierce connection not only to them, but to my brothers and sisters, my parents, and to a younger, more wide-eyed me.

Barney & Pat Eglit


Anonymous said...

Nice post, Jon.

I enjoyed reading it.

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jon,
We are friends of Barney & Pat and have loved having them in our lives. It's great to know that you have re-connected with them and that they have a "new" friend in their lives.

Kevin & Teresa