By Larry Miller
It was 1962, and I was at Central Michigan University, taking a class in Psychology, a class that the university deemed necessary for those who aspired to become teachers. And I had made up my mind that teaching was the only profession that I could imagine myself being the most use in, to myself and to the world I might encounter.
I didn’t know the professor, and to this day cannot recall his name, although I have always regarded his class as one of the more interesting ones that I took.
Advertisements - Click the Speaker Icon for Audio
It was a Monday-Wednesday-Friday class. I was a graduate student. Because I had spent two and half years, after high school, in a number of numbing jobs: selling shoes, learning how to tear boxcars apart for Grand Trunk Western Railway, stocking bins for Chrysler Corporation; a rodman for the surveying crew of my city… And because I had then volunteered for four years in the Navy, I did not enter college until I was twenty-four years old; thus, I found myself to be the old man in a classroom that held about twenty other students. Those “other students” must have been at least six or seven years younger than I.
Of course, looking back at life from today’s perspective, from that of a man of eighty-plus years, I think that I must, in some ways, be a little wiser than I was in those university days. At least I hope I am. In those days, I probably wouldn’t have scored myself very high, but certainly slightly higher than I would my classmates.
Eventually, in that particular class, I often offered my opinions on matters at hand, and felt as though my opinions seemed to be taken seriously by the others in the classroom. It seemed, even then, that my experiences age caused the others to wait for me to speak, perhaps on their behalf. And it may have been that I enjoyed my status of senior advisor. Vanity often has its rewards.
It seemed, to me, that whenever the professor got us into territory too dangerous for many to enter, the heads would turn in my direction. I suspected that the others were afraid of sounding unsure; they were, perhaps, afraid of being … well, wrong. Most of them had not learned, yet, that being wrong has its benefits: principally, growth. For we can learn much from our mistakes.
Thus, they often turned to me. Hopefully I did not disappoint them too often.
Anyway, that is the setting of this theme, of this particular matter. It was the very first day of the class. Precisely on the hour, with most of the class somewhat settled in their seats, the door opened, and a tall, distinguished looking man walked in, looked us over briefly, and, without saying a word, walked to the blackboard and raised a movie screen that had been covering a portion of the surface. On the board were the words of what was, perhaps, the most important question that any of my university
“Think this over,” the professor said, “and write a paper that adequately defines your answer. Leave it on my desk before you leave today. I will pick them up later. I’ll see you Wednesday.”
And having said that, he walked briskly out of the classroom. Of course there was, as expected, a lot of talking that ensued, immediately upon his departure. And I do remember, very clearly, looking around at my classmates. They were all graduate students, some of them also enrolled in the field of education, but I am sure that many of them would eventually find careers outside of education. That is how it went in those days, when jobs seemed to be plentiful and teacher’s wages were…well, modest.
I pulled out of my soft briefcase a pad of notebook paper and a pen, the latter of the ballpoint variety, and sat back into my seat. Of the few things that I remember of that day, one specific thought comes to mind: the immensity and profoundness of the question on the blackboard.
Let us think of this together, you and I. Although I cannot prove it, I feel relatively comfortable in stating that the question the professor put to us was most likely something that, at least self-consciously, you and I have given some consideration, in the past. Either great joy or great affliction surely has presented occasions to give life to such a thought.
Of course, with my advanced age-that is the discreet way of putting it-I find that I am quite willing, once again, to give in to thinking about such an opportunity.
Living life over? Is it worth the effort to even think about the matter? I doubt it. I sincerely doubt, nowadays, that I would be satisfied with any answer that I might arrive at. Looking back on that day, from the perspective of one who has put in more than fifty additional years of living, I now find it much easier to just sit back and chuckle about such profound thoughts.
Living life over? Hmm. Is it even worth the effort to think about it? I find it tempting to just pass the opportunity, and to chuckle about the audaciousness of it. It borrows on the absurd. Not that I find myself over and beyond such thinking. Maybe the simple truth is that, finally, I find myself in the position of admitting that there is something that is, as the Scots would say, is beyond my ken. One of the most important truths that I have acquired is the knowledge that there are things that none of us will ever know. That, despite the fact that there are those who believe they hold the truths.
There is something to be said for posing the unfathomable. It is that mysterious realm, philosophy, that produced the likes of Plato, and Socrates, and Aristotle, and many, many others.
But it is also true that there have been thinkers who have been driven mad in their pursuit of the unreachable. It wasn’t the search that drove them to madness; it was the conclusion that must have inevitably dawned on them. Ecclesiastes, he of Biblical fame, called it “Vanity,” a chasing after the wind.
Although I don’t remember much about the paper that I eventually scribbled out, I do remember, very vividly, that I stated that I probably would choose to live life over only if I could skip the teenage years. Maybe, I reasoned, I did not really mean that, and that I merely thought the possibility of such a choice was wishful thinking that had no reasonable basis.
I think it was Mark Twain who said that he would live life over, but only if he could escape teething.
Ah, what a wonderfully humorous reaction that remark was, for it implied that he most likely would turn down such an opportunity.
For me, life’s dangerous period was adolescence. I still have horrendous thoughts about that time period of life. It shaped thy thinking for all that was to occur. I can’t say that I hated those particular year, butI did find them terribly frustrating. And having been a school teacher for more than thirty years, albeit on the high school level, I found, and still find, much reason for that frustration.
Of course, being a father of three children-who are grown now, and who have children and grandchildren of their own, I can throw in personal details that would substantiate my position.
They themselves have visited that age when ugliness reared its head all too often. And I have sat back and listened to their plaints about this and that, only to recognize that their plaints are right on. They were the same plaints I had voiced to whoever would listen. The problem was; and is, that adolescence is that time in life when we find few who would choose to do the listening.
And that may be the worst frustration of the age.
Adolescence brings out the worst in our emotions. We become paranoid. Nobody likes us. I am ugly. Everybody has it, so why can’t I have it? School is too hard; they give too much homework. Charlie Everett took my apple at lunch. You never listen to me.
Thus, we take all our sorrows and hurts home with us, expecting to solicit some degree of solace. When we discover that those two beings that we call parents have troubles of their own and who routinely dismiss us with the usual platitude: “It’ll pass,” we are devastated.
Oh, woe is me! We feel as though no one understands us. No one really cares about how tough life is for us.
Typical conversation at the dinner table. Girl seeks attention and sympathy from mother. Mother has three other kids sitting at the same table.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” girl says.”All I want is for you to listen to me. Just one time.” “Harold, keep the dog away from the table, and stop feeding him table scraps.””You’re not listening to me.” “What did you say, dear?” You’re not listening to…” “Christina, you can shove those vegetables over to the edge of the plate all you want, but you are still going to eat them. What did you say, dear?” “Just once I want you to listen. . .” A yelp! “That’s the last straw, Barbara Ann. You punch Christina one more time and you can forget going to the school dance.” A scream from one side of the table. Sobs from the other side. Vegetables discreetly passed under the table to Rocky, the dog.
And a lonely, bawling figure flees the table and runs up the stairs, escaping into the only refuge she knows, her bedroom, a place that gives a girl a brief respite from an uncaring world. A tear-smothered bedspread speaks of the unfairness of life, even in her own sanctuary.
And the crestfallen Wallace family settles down for the night.
Oh, there is much to learn from such encounters. We will retaliate. We will get revenge. They’ll see, just you wait.
At that point-and that point will arise hundreds of times-we use the timeworn battle ploy of trying to divide and conquer. If Dad won’t do anything, I’ll take it to Mother. If Mother won’t do anything about it….
Too late! They have joined forces. I am all alone. The battle is lost.
But the years pass, and we have gone on to become parents ourselves. And quickly we learn that parenthood causes one to choose sides, whether other parents would agree with me, or not. Issues are raised, and a parent has to choose sides; it’s us against them. It’s not exactly war, but more like constant conflicts.
And, no one wins. There is no such thing as a victor. There are only the survivors.
Life, for adults, is filled with decision-making times. But life, for teenagers, is filled with scheming.
There were times when my high school students were eager to engage in discussions about what was going on in their lives. Since most of my students, for most of the years, were juniors, they brought viewpoints that were…well, challenging, to say the least. I found that they were willing to voice complaints. Inside my classroom they found a kind of refuge, a place where they could say something without fear of being punished for their viewpoints. They knew that Mr. Miller would never snitch on them. They needed a place to vent, to rid themselves of hidden emotions.
More than once I heard from them a complaint that seemed to be commonly shared. They resented-sometimes subconsciously-hearing their parents say to them: “Enjoy yourselves. These years are the best years of your lives.”
While I strived to be fair and unbiased when discussing the issues of living out the teenage years, I have to admit that whenever I heard this particular remark, I quickly took offense at what I regarded as an absurdity. Why? Because it if were true that their teen years were supposedly the best years of their lives, then what did they have to look forward to? Everything from that point on would have to be downhill.
Hope? Forget it! Happiness? Going, going, gone!
Always at that point, I took upon myself the opportunity to try to point them to the future. I explained that the best years are always ahead of us. We have lives to live, places to see, new things to discover. Forthem lay the great chance to live as no one had ever lived before.
Poet John Donne expressed the same thing in his “Song.” If thou be’st borne to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
One truism I tried to leave them: Yesterday is the tomorrow that got away from us. In other words, as American poet Cullen Bryant put it in his brilliant poem Thanatopsis: “So live.”
Please excuse me if I have this into a diatribe, but I feel a need to justify the condition I would for the chance to live life once again.That opportunity to take up life again would be taken, but only on the condition that I could be whisked through those terrifying years.
Those terribly calamitous years remained the block to any idea of relishing such an opportunity. I regarded-and still do regard-adolescence as a time when no one, not even oneself, took a person seriously. At times it was all so frightful, at times ridiculous, all too often emotionally draining.
Ask the same question when I am in a less somber mood, and many would most likely guess that I would jump at the chance to live life over. But they would be wrong. I am not saying I would deny myself the opportunity. What I am saying is that I would have to give it a lot of consideration.
Would I be aware, for example, that I had already lived onelife, and had sometimes made a mess of things? Such awareness would certainly change my view of reliving life, and would cause me to rethink some of the things that I had done. And most certainly, to make corrections.
To this day, I regard the process of thinking as the most significant thing we humans do, for our actions follow our thoughts. Not to get too religious with you, yet I can’t help but to note who said: “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” And I should add, actions follow, as well.
More than likely such a second life would be without the accompaniment of knowledge of a previous life. While having knowledge of a past life might be helpful in living the new life, where would be the adventure? Life without adventure would be dull, perhaps even tedious.
I presented the question of living life over to several friends, and almost every single one of them answered that they felt one life lived was enough. I know these friends very well, although no one knows them completely. That is a given.
One particularly close friend, whom I knew to have had more than her share of sorrows, was very quick to admit that she would spurn such a chance. As she noted, tragedies and disappointments had soured her sojourn through live, and she felt that facing them once was more than enough.
While I was a patient at University of Michigan Hospital, awhile ago, having undergone open-heart surgery, followed by an even more traumatic operation called a debridement, the National Weather Bureau issued a warning of possible dangerous storms approaching the area. As a result, all of us patients were herded out of our rooms and made to sit in the hallways, so that we would be less vulnerable to shattered glass from broken windows that might be the result of the force of tornados.
One of the nurses in my section, knowing how active I had been in my recovery efforts, said that I was free to walk the hallways, to relieve myself of boredom. I quickly took him up on the offer, and began a walk that took me past all the other patients in that u-shaped section.
What an eye-opener that exercise turned out to be. I later learned of the afflictions of some of those patients. One was a man who admitted to me, when I stopped to chat with him, that he expected to die in the hospital,since he weighed more than four-hundred and fifty points and was facing critical surgery. He told me that he had noticed my active style of recovery from the surgeries that I had gone through, and he urged me to “keep it up,” for that activity was, he had determined, important to my recovery. I thanked him, and wished him well, to which he remarked: “You have some life ahead of you; enjoy it.”
One life. Is it enough? So, we need to live another one. If so, then why?
Another of those patients I encountered was one who had not been taken out into the hallway but had been left in his bed, in his private room, because he was a paralytic and was on the borderline of dying and was too fragile to be moved. He was sixteen years old. And about my third time passing his room, I looked in, and his eyes locked onto mine. And he was smiling. And I have often, very often, wondered what he was smiling about. Did he know something that we don’t know?” Was he looking forward to something beyond this earthly existence?
Oh, by the way, he died two days later. Hopefully with that smile still on his face.
Would he have welcomed the opportunity to live a new life? To live life over? To begin anew?
There is something else, I might add, that just might make the question superfluous. What about the idea of reincarnation? I realize that this idea is repugnant to many Christians. But why? Is the idea so preposterous that it simply cannot be considered? Does Christian religious thinking absolutely preclude the freedom to think about it? Does Christianity have all the answers to life and thus can be comfortable in denying such New Age thinking?
As recently as four or five years ago, I would have been quick to deny the idea of reincarnation. Since then, I have read several works, by very credible people, who have given me much to contemplate.
For example, just where does the soul come from? And before one becomes angered at what I am suggesting, let me, here and now, state that I am not about to become involved in a debate over the nature of the soul or even whether the soul does indeed exist. Personally, I believe firmly in a soul, one that is not related at all to the brain, one that is present in every person at birth, perhaps even before birth. If you do not believe in such, that is your right. But for the sake of this entire discussion, I choose to accept the soul-concept.
So, the question that I asked should not be discarded simply because one does not believe in the soul. That is not what this whole debate is about.
Consequently, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that reincarnation is real. Obviously, then, there would be no reason to discuss the choice we might make. Life would be a continual examination. And according to the believers in reincarnation, the only choices are the next entities that we choose to inhabit. Apparently they have choices about such beings.
But this argument is not about reincarnation. It is about whether any one of us would choose to live life once again. And I suppose that one’s answer would be predicated upon one’s experiences in the present life. The problem, as I see it, is that one could not be guaranteed the possibility of being freed of far greater tragic circumstances than what one already knows or has known.
I admit that I have often regretted not having taken advantage of what life has presented. Too often I have frittered away opportunities that would never be presented again. And acknowledgement of those failures has led me to wish that I could live through those particular moments once again, so that I could retrieve the opportunities.
Of course, I would not fail at taking advantage of those opportunities. Yeah! Sure!
Such wishful thinking! Robert Frost addressed this possibility in his wonderful poem “Birches.” He writes: “I’d like to get away from earth awhile/And then come back to it and begin over.”
But Shakespeare would reply: “There’s the rub.”
Like Frost, we would choose life again only for the opportunity of taking advantage of what we might call the golden opportunities.But even Frost admits that such wishes come after we are “weary of considerations.”
But, then, like I said before, where is the adventure? Must we cast aside all “considerations” and calamities? Is there nothing to learn from those demanding times?
No! I would not choose to live life over simply to savor only the good times. All too brief are the moments of the good times. Also, who is to say that I would be more aware of those opportunities than I have been, of those opportunities that have speckled my short life?
Two years ago I did try, in a manner of speaking, to live life over. I had often regretted not having tasted more deeply of the opportunities that had been given to me while I was living in Panama. Looking back at those times, I have often thought that it would be wonderful if l could go back and relive those memorable twenty-seven months. Oh, I thought, if only I could take back those opportunities.
When I was in my early twenties, I worked for the Naval Security Agency, on a somewhat remote base on the shores of the Caribbean Sea.There were only twenty-six of us at that base. Galeta Point, the naval base of that portion of my naval career, was a veritable wonderland. At least, in hindsight it was.
Surrounding our little spit of land, on which stood only two small buildings and a single dirt road, were the sea, a lagoon that was populated with small and large sharks, a bay that was prime for fishing, andthe eastern edge of one of the greatest jungles in the world. The jungle was so close to us that there were days when small squads of us sailors, armed with machetes, were required to clear away the small trees and creeping vines that were so invasive.
Daily we sighted land crabs, and boa constrictors, and huge jungle cats. Often we spotted iguanas, sunning themselves in clearings, and we chased them down. They always lie close to the forest floor, but when approached they would rise on surprisingly long legs and skitter off. Only occasionally were we successful at catching one. We never kept them. They belonged to the land, and thus were set free.
It was a marvelous and exotic place. Of course, it is in looking back that we often see the positive and tend to disregard the negative.The problem, as I see it now, is that Carpe Diem had not taken a hold of me; if it had, it would have increased the luxury of realizing it all. Writer William Faulkner would have phrased it as not remarking it. I was too young to digest it all, while I lived there. I think I took it all for granted, then, and merely meandered through the many months, without taking the opportunity to truly enjoy what was presented to me.
Thus it was that I spent years looking back at those years with fondness, and with the feeling that life was passing me by without my being able to relive those precious memories.
Years later, when I had mostly recovered from open-heart surgery and the horrible aftermath of infections, and had come close to dying, I was getting my life back in order, and once again I dreamed about the oneplace that occupied much of my attention: Panama.
At that point, my wife, Carol, and my daughters, Julie and Heidi, convinced me that I should take a trip there and relive the memories. At first I resisted. I used the argument of the expense of such a trip. They replied that I couldn’t take it with me. I argued that Panama had changed, what with the American government having ceded the country back to its rightful owners. They replied that the country was still part of my past, and that it had once been my home.
They would not relent. They felt that it would be wrong for me to reach old age and die, without having given it a try. They knew that the memories had seized me, and had held me captive to the miserable feeling of regret.
So, I finally agreed to the trip. I went online and contacted hotels and touristy adventures and airline flights. Yet I was not so wholly caught up in it all not to recognize what writer Thomas Wolfe once said: “You Can’t Go Home Again.” I even told my pastor about it all,including the truth of what Wolfe had written. My pastor agreed that Wolfe was right, but he added that maybe it would be best to take the trip, anyway. He suggested that if I did not take the trip, then I would be forever haunted by my qualms.
I did not choose to take the trip alone. I invited Paul and Tim (my two sons-in-law), and my son Steve and his son (my grandson) Chris.They all jumped aboard with great enthusiasm, and I pursued the plans with equal vigor.
I anticipated that Panama must have changed much from what I had known. After all, sixty years had passed me by. Still, I held hope that some of the old Panama would still be there for me to experience. But while I knew that the old military bases and other government properties had been gifted to the Panamanian government, I also knew, in my heart, that the natural wonders I had known must not have undergone any change. Such foolish conclusions!
I wanted to share with my family where it was that I went swimming with the sharks in the lagoon at Galeta Point. I was eager to walk into the dense jungle once more, and practice my mimicry in order to entice the monkeys to come down from their high branches.
And perhaps I might once again roll the pickup truck I was driving over the coiled boa constrictor that sunned itself on the dusty road that led to Galeta.
We could visit Fort San Lorenzo, an ancient structure that saw flags of four different nations, at various times. I had visited that fortin 1954. It is high above the Rio Chagres. I had marched around its ramparts insearch for the gold Spanish coins that occasionally were found. In my timethere, an occasional Spanish doubloon was found, perhaps left by the pirate Henry Morgan. And wouldn’t it be something if one of us could be so lucky!
And more than anything else, I wanted to stand off to the side of one of the locks that made the country so famous. Maybe we could watch one of the thousands of ships that yearly are raised or lowered at the Miraflores Lock, which was very near Colon, a small city on the Atlantic side of the isthmus.
So many things could be done, in so great a country. I wanted very much to find a country that defied change. I wanted, once more, to practice my limited use of the beautiful Spanish language with people whom I admired. Maybe even stop in one of the old cantinas, and sit in its cool darkness while drinking a cerveza (beer).
But before we took off, I was called by two friends who had heard about my plans and who announced that they were worried about my venture,and who both took it upon themselves to warn me about what I was about to experience. One of them, Louise, had lived in Panama, for a few years, and had returned on a couple of trips with her husband.
The other was Enola, a wonderfully gracious and lovely lady, wife of our town’s now-retired City Engineer. Both of these ladies were aware of the dangers that tourists face when visiting Panama, especially when visiting Colon and its environs.
Bob and Enola are neighbors of ours. She is a native Panamanian, and the two of them take regular trips back to Panama, to visit with relatives. Because of Enola’s close connection to, and knowledge of, the country, I respected her advice, and she was quick to warn me of armed gangs (“pandillas” in Spanish) who preyed on tourists and who also were at war with other gangs. Subsequent explorations on the internet disclosed the fact that what Enola told me was absolutely true.
Apparently much had changed in the Panama that I thought I knew. The drug wars had invaded Central and South America. Crime had risen, especially violent crime. Even the U.S. government took steps to warn its citizens of what could happen: muggings, kidnappings, rapes, murders.
Apparently the area of Colon, Panama, in which I had worked and lived for those two years and more, was especially rife with danger. The world, including the world of Panama, had changed dramatically, and both of these women worried that our little group might not be safe. Danger lurked, not from crabs and sharks and jungle cats and boa constrictors, but from criminals of the worst sort.
Enola was especially concerned for our group. She is a remarkably intelligent lady, and I knew her to be reliable in whatever she said. And the online information that I discovered was scarily candid about the truth of her warnings. In fact, one particular interview with a couple who had visited Colon included this remark: “Colon is one of the most dangerous and grotesque places in the Western Hemisphere.” That statement was accompanied by more than a thousand photos of a city that lacked adequate water and sewer facilities but certainly did not lack crime.
Consequently, although it was a hard decision, I chose to take the advice of Enola not to visit the area surrounding Colon. Instead I found a hotel on the Pacific side of the Isthmus, in the vicinity of Panama’s greatest city, Panama City. The decision meant, of course, that I would be denied the opportunity to experience Galeta Point. Of course, disappointment settled in.
Eventually the day of departure arrived. With luggage and airline tickets and passports in hand, we set out from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale, where we stayed one night, and boarded a flight the following morning for Panama.
My memories of the Panamanian were fond ones. I remembered them as friendly people. Hard workers. Eager to please by learning to speak English. How I longed to be with them again.
When we landed, I found stern looking soldiers who were manning the immigration lines. There was no friendliness in their faces. They seemingly did not speak fluent English, which I thought was odd, since most of our fellow passengers were from the United States. I thought, at the time, that it was possible that they purposely chose not to speak English so that they could disdainfully make more difficult our entry into their country. Also, each of the officers carried automatic rifles, as did many other security personnel who stood carelessly around the building. It was not a friendly environment.
Thirty minutes later, with a minivan that I rented at the airport, and with Paul as designated driver at the wheel, we started out for the hotel, a hotel that Bob and Enola had stayed at several times and had recommended.
Supposedly the hotel was not more than twenty-five minutes away from the airport, which, as it turned out, was actually true. But finding it was another matter. We had no GPS. We had only the written confirmation of our rooms, which included the address. No problem. Right?
Big problem! Traffic in and around Panama City is much like the traffic that is part of any of the world’s big cities: horrendous. I had chosen Paul as our designated driver for the entire trip because he had proved on more than one occasion that I could trust him not to drive fast or recklessly. My blood pressure would not tolerate fast and furious. And he was extremely cautious and thoughtful throughout the entire five days we were in Panama.
It is interesting that we found most drivers there were ignorant of what stop signs meant. Getting from one lane to another, or makingturns, or changing-directions, was all a matter of hand-gestures and smiles. Yet I do not recall any instances of road rage. Nor, for that matter, do I remember seeing any accidents. It was all a miracle, to me. In those respects, I found Panamanian drivers to be some of the friendliest and most tolerant, in the world.
Our biggest problem was trying to locate the hotel. We drove and circled and changed directions, and stopped and asked questions that could not be understood by people who did not speak English and-well, it was all so humorous to us. We laughed a lot during the hours that we drove around the great city. And what made matters worse was that we did not understand that what we thought were street signs, were not street signs. Rather they were merely signs that designated areas.
Long story short. It took us more than four hours to find our hotel. And success was the result of stopping at a modern looking pizza restaurant on the northern end of Panama City, for it was there we stopped once more to ask for directions. Thankfully we found a wonderful girl who spoke fairly fluent English, and with my limited use of Spanish, and the written confirmation from the hotel, and the young girl’s wonderful help, we finally found the right route to the hotel.
There was one positive reward to our four hours of driving around and around and around: we saw more of Panama City than any tourist guide could have provided. And what we saw were hundreds of tall buildings, hundreds more than what I recall from the 1950s.
But we also saw poverty that defied imagination. From the balconies of rooms of many of the high rises were sheets and clothing hung over the railings. We later learned that many of those rooms were occupied by squatters, and that their lives could be uprooted the moment that the building’s owner chose to have the building torn down or renovated. –
Much squalor was evident. Also much wealth. Sometimes squalor and wealth existed side by side. And we saw very little evidence that anything was happening to change the order of things.
The trip turned out, in most regards, to be a bust. Of course, there was the disappointment in my not being able to visit Galeta Point, with its promise of seeing sharks up close. And we never got to Fort San Lorenzo, where the lost doubloons must still lie under the muck of the forest. And the magnificent jungle that I had previously known had been cut down and shoved back, in order for motels and shopping malls and tourist rip-offs to move in.
We did visit the locks at Gatun, and watched an ocean freighter being raised for its continuing journey. And, in fact, our hotel wason a choice piece of land that abutted the Pacific entrance-exit to the canal, and thus we witnessed the world’s commerce in action.
And one day we did drive in the direction of Colon, which should have been a trip through dense and crowding foliage. And in what was labeled a National Park, we parked our van, and ventured along trails that looked suspiciously new. I desperately wanted to see wildlife.
But there was no density to the jungle. And it was not jungle, but merely a thin forest. There were no creeping, winding vines. And the tops of the trees were sparse and did nothing to prevent sunlight from penetrating to the floor. And the only wildlife any of us saw were a few monkeys that Steve and Chris spotted.
At night, we were warned, it was best not to venture into the great city. So we ate at restaurants that were located at the end of a nearby peninsula, and we dined on fish roasted whole over open flames. And we sampled various true Panamanian beers, even though the true Panamanian beer of my youthful days was Balboa Beer, which our waiter said was unavailable. Another disappointment.
The jungle was gone. The beer was changed. The monkeys were living in their own poverty of a denuded landscape. And the time for me to relive those youthful days was gone.
And so, I returned home, another wounded warrior in the battle to retrieve a savored life. And I brought home, with me, respect for the wisdom of Thomas Wolfe: He was right. “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
Today I ate lunch with three friends from my church. Each of these men has reached the mature years, the youngest being in his early seventies. And before we finished, I told them that I wanted to ask them a question, and that I would appreciate it if they would give serious consideration to the question before answering.
When they agreed to my request, I said: “if you could live life over again, would you?”
It is not necessary to bore you with all the conversation that took place as a result of the question. But it is useful to know the results.
I could see that each of them was pondering the idea.
After a short while, each of them offered up his decision. Each of them professed a fondness of the life he had enjoyed. Each of them admitted to having it good, and consequently they all reasoned that this life was adequate and that they would spurn the opportunity.
One of them, Dennis, at first thought about the possibility of doing it but only if he could make corrections about the first life. When I told him that he would not be aware of a first life, he changed his mind, and said that the present life was sufficient,and that he would not want to take a chance on what a second life might be like.
Living life over! What ramifications might be the result!
If married now, would a person marry again? If so, would he choose a different spouse? And what about the jobs one holds? Would a person choose to do something so totally different from his present line of work?
What choices would I, myself, make?
And those children of mine? Would they be born? And my grandchildren? And my great-grandchildren?
Would new failures and successes dramatically change my outlook on life? Most likely. For the better? For the worse? Who knows?
Too many ramifications, I think!
For myself, the trip to Panama was, in an oblique way, that second life, or that second chance. It put this present life in a new perspective. I found that I had not been able to make those corrections that Dennis had alluded to, and that it was entirely possible that one life was enough to cause us to think about the precious gift that we already possess.
The poet-philosopher John Dryden said it well enough:
“None would live past years again,
Yet all hope pleasure in what yet remain;
And from the dregs of life think to receive
What the first sprightly running could not give.”