Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Wild

Today is Jack London’s birthday. But that doesn’t matter much to him right now because he would have been 124, a feat way beyond his abilities. But he did have abilities and, unfortunately, didn’t have much of a chance to see them all the way through. He died at age 40 in, most probably, a terrible manner. I was reminded of him today via Garrison Keillor’s website, The Writer’s Almanac. And I thoroughly enjoyed, as usual, the summary of today’s subject, Jack London. When reading Garrison’s piece I was immediately reminded of my aunt Kate, who, on February 11, 1979, presented me with a fresh copy of The Call of the Wild when we were snowbound in the small town of Chester, Vermont. We were staying at the Chester Inn which was, perhaps, a popular location during Jack London’s days. In fact, the Chester Inn was quite old indeed. There were antiquated electrical outlets everywhere, lamps, furniture, and wallpaper that definitely originated from the very early 1900s. It was, to a thirteen year-old, a depressing place, but I remember it fondly nonetheless, because it represented dual periods of time that really don't exist anymore.

We were there for a couple of nights in February of 1979. It was cold as hell and the snow drifts were up to my waist. It was an odd meeting of people. My mom and I customarily trekked up to Vermont to ski in this general area. But this trip included my friend Kenny Jaffe and Kate, and I am not sure whether we skied or simply explored the area. I do remember it was a good time.

What I remember the most is Kate. She was an amazing person. A couple of years younger than my mom, Kate was single, vivacious, and had a unique and almost incomparable burning desire to explore and experience life. She extracted all of the freedom that a responsible life had to offer; she traveled and met people, came home, then did it all over again. She was extraordinarily kind and generous too. On top of this she was beautiful.

Kate pulled me aside one night during this stay in Chester, and she handed me the book. We were alone and she looked into my eyes, quite earnestly, and said something like, “John, I want you to read this book because it reminds me of you and the things you like to do. You’ll get a lot from it, I promise.” And then she gave me a verbal preview of the story and told me about Jack London. He was perhaps the kind of guy that I could be like, she said, but then again, he did live a hard life and died early. I received the book from her outstretched hands without hesitation. Kate taught literature at the Breadloaf School at Middlebury College, and then afterwards at Worcester State College, so I took her suggestions to read this seriously.

On the evening of Easter Sunday, in 1981, she was working the desk at the Howard Johnon’s Hotel in Dorchester, Massachusetts. A man walked in, she was on the phone with a close friend, he demanded money, and then he shot her. She died immediately.

Right now I have that copy of The Call of the Wild in front of me. I read some of it today, a stormy day with snow and high winds. The conditions were like those I remember from Chester in 1979. And I could not help but think about Kate Downey and the days we spent together in that special capsule of time, that remarkable short period when, without any readily identifiable reason, she gave me the book. She was the best of her kind.