A Short Story
There is a state that is not what it used to be. There is a village within that state that falls into the same category. Families have an obligation to prepare the next generation for a better life. Political regions apparently do not have that same obligation.
The village has a city name; Johnson City. From the period of my first memories of village life, until the time when I entered the army, I always remember one specific street corner.
At one time a large store was located there. If my memory serves me correctly it was a hardware store. I do clearly remember, I am sure, that to enter the store you had to climb three massive concrete stairs that wrapped around the entire front.
The store no longer exists; due to a fire. A silvery aluminum diner was finally placed on the site. It has always been called the “Red Robin Diner.” But this story is not about inanimate objects; it is about people, or, more succinctly, it is about one man. This man was one of several that were, and are, always located on that corner. Their faces change and their manner changes but they are the same men.
They are retirees, older men living off a pension, a government dole, or off their savings. When I was young they sat on an old wooden bench that was painted red. It is still there as you can see for yourself. It probably belonged to the village. The men smoked, and talked about something that I was never privileged to hear. They also had a bottle of something or other that was wrapped in a brown paper sack. In between cigarettes, or cigars, they would pass the sack around and each man had a swig of whatever was hidden in it.
They were nice friendly men. There were no loud voices or harsh words. They simply enjoyed each others company and nodded “hello” to the folks that passed them by. A nice toothy (or toothless) grin usually accompanied the “hello.”
I previously stated that the story is about one man. Possibly my memory has played some tricks on me over the years and this one man is a composite of all the old men that have located themselves on that corner. It makes no difference. This singular or composite soul was friendly, cheerful, unshaven, had a hole in his pants, and his shoes (that were once meant for work) were never polished. Yes; that is a good analogy. His shoes were like he was, unpolished but substantial, faithful, ready to serve.
This man smoked a pipe (in between nips). It was not a beautiful meerschaum pipe. It appeared to be made of briarwood and had a plain shape. He lit his pipe with what us youngsters called “farmer matches.” They were not your modern safety matches. They were more functional for a pipe smoker. The matches were singular (not in a pack) and had a hefty piece of wood (not the cheap paper stick that we now use). The heads had a section to burn and a section to strike. The striking portion was on the end and was typically white in color. Once struck, the burning section would be ignited which in turn would set the hefty wooden stick aflame.
Again, we are not here to compare the old with the new but rather to set into motion the details about this old man and his wooden matches. Keep in mind the attributes of this old man. He was wise, somewhat the worse for wear (as we all would be if we had completed the tasks that he had), a little unkempt, but most importantly he loved the people around him. In fact he loved them almost as much as he loved lighting his pipe. I really believe he enjoyed lighting those farmer matches. He was constantly at it.
The match would appear from nowhere. He would be inspecting it before the casual observer even knew he had one in his hand. The old man would test the wooden section for sturdiness. Then he would spin it between his fingers and inspect the white striking end. This would be followed by an inspection of the secondary lighting section (which was usually red but sometimes blue). Once he was satisfied, the match would be struck against some hard surface. The striking end would burst open into a star like pattern with other minor star patterns being created from the original one; then additional star patterns were created from the secondary ones. You could never tell how many star patterns were created due to the fact that it happened so fast. Yet, you knew that several patterns existed before they died out. At that same moment the secondary fire (blue or red; it makes no difference) would occur. This would create yet another burst of energy that exceeded what was necessary to light the pipe. The old man would keep the creation at a safe distance until the wooden section was on fire. Only at that time would he light his pipe.
I must repeat that he appeared to enjoy lighting the matches as much as smoking the pipe. I say this because he would always use about five matches for every pipe-full of tobacco. Additionally, his eyes would gleam with joy whenever he lit a match. It was not the gleam of a pyromaniac but rather the gleam of someone who created something. He appeared proud like a new father, or, had that “ah-ha!” moment of someone who had a new insight. It was something that I never understood but always was amazed at observing. How could an old man on a corner get such satisfaction out of lighting his pipe?
It was only when I had my own “ah-ha!” moment (years later) that I understood the old man on the corner. The ceremony of the pipe was his creation yet every time he accomplished that act he knew exactly what would occur. Oh, I don’t mean that he knew how many star patterns there would be, and he sure didn’t know what was located on those minute cinders that resulted from the burnt out star patterns. He only knew that he could create them and that the results would take care of themselves. It was only natural that there would be star-cinders, flame energy and gases, and finally the wooden stick that would serve as the means to the end.
Therefore I believe that somewhere beyond all the galaxies, their stars, the gases, the unbridled energy, the cinder-like asteroids, the unknown black holes, there is an old man standing on a corner lighting his pipe. There is, most likely, a hole in his pants. There may be some friends that he shares nectar with; although I can not quite picture it being hidden in a brown paper sack. He is friendly and benevolent but does not care to guide our every move. He simply likes to create a stir with his farmer matches. He loves the explosive star patterns, likes to watch the flames and gasses that are created by the red and blue sections, and is somewhat disappointed when the wooden section finally burns out.
He knows that he will need to re-light his pipe in a few minutes and also knows that the residue of the last match will have to take care of itself. He doesn’t know that we are riding on one of the smallest cinders and that we treat the last burning ember of the striking ember as the center of our system. Time to him is irrelevant. Time to us is in light-years.
We have made such a big thing out of someone lighting a pipe. It is really very simple. We do not know (and will never know) where the beginning and end is. It is not really our beginning or our end; they are His matches and His pipe. So therefore the creative act of lighting farmer matches goes on. The center of the sphere of sparks is everywhere yet nowhere. The length of time for a match to exhaust itself is both future and past (of which neither really exist). Yet we continue to attempt to identify the past through something we call history and the future through something we call science.
It is just an old man lighting his pipe.
© Copyright – Waldo Tomosky