Thursday, September 01, 2005

Frogs and Walls: a moral piece

My long lost and erstwhile best friend Gabe Baxter appeared on the doorstep on Friday evening. Supper was over, the dishes done, and I was wanting to start on the editorial for the Easter edition. Two columns about Spring and the birds and the bees. My editor at our local county paper had demanded it be in tonight or I was out a job. All he asked was I wrote once a week, that was all, and yet, even then, I’d begun to slow. But, my pond was his favorite topic.

My pond at this time of year is inspiring. The frogs are croaking in an old cistern near the pond, the kingfisher has decided it’s time to fish, and jonquils along the bank are in bloom. With the sun higher the pond gets more light and I noticed small fish the other day. The forest is still in slumber. The birds are noisy. It’s like the world is awakening, a line often used, but it is about all I can say.

Gabe was old money. His grandparents had owned a sizable chunk of the county which now lay under an interstate cloverleaf. He inherited an adequate farm, two apartments, and a small shopping center on a corner near the campus. He was my height, a little slimmer than I (despite cutting out doughnuts for your’s truly during the evening shift of getting the paper out.)

We shook hands and stood for a moment looking just like two older guys who hadn’t seen each other for a while.

“Would you like something to drink?” I said. “Got soda, beer and hard stuff.”

“Scotch. Neat.”

“I’ll make it two. Grab yourself a deck chair.”

He did. And I got two tumblers of the good stuff. Hard stuff.

“Still working at the paper,” he asked.

“Oh, sure. Always will be. Nobody else’d hire me. You still playing landed gentry?”

“Farm is a tax loss again. Apartments just about break even. The shopping center is making a profit. I get to eat.”

I wasn’t sympathetic, terribly. He didn’t look hungry. His housing was part of his tax deduction. Mine wasn’t paid for, nearly.

“I like your pond,” he said. “Got any fish.”

“Not to speak of. Small stuff. The kingfishers like it. Occasionally a great blue heron. Turtles. Frogs. Small snakes.”

“Moccasins??” He knew better. “Do I keep hearing a dog bark? But it sounds--funny.”

“Could be,” I said.

“Is that a cistern or a well?”

He indicated a small concrete box near the pond.

“It was a cistern many years ago. The roof started to collapse so I took the roof off and just never did anything with the cistern. It’s only about three feet deep.”

“You must like living out here in the boonies.”

He, and I, had done our time in Viet Nam. He had been in the judge advocate’s corps. Never carried a sidearm. Never once had to hide in terror in a bunker. Never once had been rained on by 50-cal cartridges from a chopper overhead. He would say boonies, like he’d been there. Like he knew were the boonies were. Hell, he’d grown up in the boonies.

“This is hardly the boonies. I even have city water. The boonies are out there somewhere.” I dismissed the boonies, where ever they were, with a wave of my hand.

“I like my life,” he said. And then he sighed. “But outside Nam I haven’t done much. I got the properties, of course, but that doesn’t really count. Does it? I go to the beach once or twice a year. Down to the Smokies. But I don’t really seem to ever go--well--anyplace.”

”Why not?” I said.

“I don’t know.”

“You got the money. And the time. I don’t have either, now, after getting laid off . . . “

“But I read your articles . . .”

“... opinion pieces...”

“...and you’ve been all over the states...”

“...that was during high school...”

“...and to the middle east ...”

“... Asia Minor...”

“ ... as well as Hawaii and Mexico and most of Canada.”

“Always with someone else or on somebody else’s money,” I said. “Those were a long time ago.”

“Are you sure that’s a dog barking yonder,” he said.

“Actually, no. It sounds more to me like a frog.”

“Yeah, coming from your cistern. How’d they get in there?”

“Probably either by bad luck or dropped by a kingfisher or the eggs were carried in accidentally. What I want know to is, how would they get back out?”

“You going to help them?” said Gabe.

“I should. If they kept breeding in the cistern wouldn’t it just become this mass of frogs?”

“Would they know when to stop?” said Gabe.

“I don’t give frogs a lot of credit but then they can survive below freezing temps in order to survive the winter. So, sure, they probably would know when to stop.”

“So,” he prompted, “how would they get out?”

“Maybe a branch’ll fall in and they essentially climb out. God might come along and pick em up.” I paused. “That’d be me. In case you hadn’t picked up on that point.”

I rose to get refills. The deck was unsteady. Like the foundation was loose. I’d have to take a look at that in the morning.

We took our refills down the side of the hill to the cistern. Gabe stood boldly between the cistern and the pond as if to dare any of the frogs to make a long leap for frog freedom.

“Maybe,” he said, “all they do is jump.”

“Why? I mean, why would they want to jump? To leave? I doubt they know there is a pond thirty feet away.”

“To leave home and visit the world. Go check out the big pond but who’d want to be the little frog in a big pond?”

“I don’t think a frog is smart enough to know there’s a great big wonderful world out there. That’s a human trait.”

“Ever been to a big city?” Gabe asked.

“Is London big enough?”

“I visited New York once. Hated it. Too many people. Too many foreigners. Too many people not like me. In a good sense, of course.”

Of course.

“We’re told to visit the world,” he said. “To see places. You used to extol your students to do that. It’d make ‘em better reporters. But you’d run the risk they’d never want to come back home.”

“So? What’s wrong with that?”

“If you want your child to live near here, in the safety and company of his family, then it’s plenty wrong.”

“Are you trying to tell me, children should not move away?”

“Well, no, ....” he said. Wavering.

“But how can they stay at home yet experience the world?”

“We bring the world to them,” he said.

“Oh. TV? CNN? No thanks.”

I waved him off with my tumbler, spilling precious good stuff. Hard stuff. Now the woods were becoming unsteady. Must have been an earthquake.

“I can be just as modern with the world coming to me as you can be going to the world,” he said.

“It’s got to be we go to it or we become more vulnerable to changes we don’t want. If you don’t want to change, you don’t,” I said. “Something tells me that if you live way back in the jungle, a person, a society, could resist change. But we don’t live that far back and we can’t resist change entirely. I’ve always held that if you fight change then all that’ll happen is you’ll just surrender in steps bigger than you can handle and, as you recognize that changing, that surrendering it really upsets you. But it’ll still happen. With you. Without you. For you. Or against you.”

“What would be wrong with this perfectly sound and safe cistern?” he said. “Life goes on. Nobody ever changes it. Until you had wall-to-wall frogs.”

“Ever hear of shooting fish in a barrel?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Ever think maybe a great blue would like nothing better than stand here, right here, and be able to feast on frogs like we do on shrimp? Is that the world coming to you?”