Andrew L. Pincus: So many trestles to cross

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LENOX — A hundred feet below the single-track railroad trestle, the muddy Chattahoochee coiled in lazy eddies. The twin rails gleamed into the distance in the hot Georgia sun; between the wooden ties lay nothing but air and river. One misstep and sweet dreams, baby. A narrow platform midway across offered the only escape if a freight came rumbling along.Joe said we had to cross.

We were high school friends out hunting Indian and Civil War relics — arrowheads, minie balls, the occasional stone hatchet or old belt buckle. Eighty years after the war ("the war between the states," as it was taught in school) those things still turned up on plowed fields like the one shimmering in the afternoon heat on the far side of the river.

Tiptoeing across an abyss? Foolhardy. Insane. Didn't we learn as kids that it was unsafe to step on cracks? But that was Joe: lanky, strapping Joe who was up for anything, played tackle on the football team and sang bass in the chorus. I was his sidekick: awkward with girls, star of the Latin class, clarinetist in the band. How we met, I can't exactly say. Possibly it was in the record store, where we both pored over the classical 78-rpms in the bins. In his darkened attic room, we thrilled to Tchaikovsky and Berlioz on his huge bass-reflex speakers. The real bond between us was: we were loners. We didn't fit in with either the fraternity crowd or the country boys from out beyond Buckhead.

Atlanta was a sleepy southern city then. The drawl was as thick and muddy as the slow-flowing Chattahoochee. Trackless trolleys plied the unhurried streets. The races got along but it was always understood who was servant and who was master, who drank out of which fountain. Joe and I talked about it. We agreed the system was wrong. We were courteous to blacks — Negroes — but what could we do? We knew nothing of the change to come from one Martin Luther King Jr. who was growing up, our age, on another side of town.

Out of curiosity, I recently looked up Joe on the internet. He was alive, still living in Georgia. But I'm from a dinosaur generation. I don't do social media. Besides, what would I have said? "Hiya, Joe. It's your old arrowhead-hunting buddy, Andy. Howya doin'? Have you kept out of jail?"

THE TROUBLE WITH OLD FRIENDS

The question would not have been totally out of line. Even back then Joe had a troubled air about him, an air of abandonment. I saw him only once after high school and going off to college, the army and jobs. It happened about 15 years later while I was passing through Atlanta. Joe was not glad to see me. He was doing PR — an unlikely job for an outsider like him — and seemed in trouble. Divorced? Fired? Arrested? He didn't say and I couldn't ask. We never spoke or wrote again.

That's the trouble with old friends. One by one, they fall away or die. I recently read that only a third of my college classmates were still alive. My best friends are all among the departed. New friends come along but they're not the same. They don't possess the rootedness of the past. We trail our history like a shadow.

How did I live so long? Oh yes, I exercise and eat a sensible diet, blah-blah. But I've outlived my time; all of us at this age have outlived our time. The music, the technology, the language, the movies and noise and speed: I don't get it. Or rather, I get it but it seems of a piece with the general determination to rip up and poison the planet and to hell with tomorrow. Well, I had my turn. Now it's somebody else's turn — lots of somebody elses'. If they can find a way to have a tomorrow.

"Be embraced, ye millions!" Beethoven shouted to the world in another age. "Stop!" I want to shout today. "How can ye be embraced if ye keep ye nose glued to ye screen?"

"Get with it! Beethoven is so yesterday!" the world shouts back. But of course my generation shouted something like that to my parents' generation, and theirs no doubt to their forebears, and so on back to the cave. It seems strange to possess knowledge and experience that the world no longer needs. I'm not alone, of course. Joe, for example, could probably tell a pretty instructive tale. Keats' ideal of truth and beauty was once a pole star for civilization. Today it's a relic of the past, like an arrowhead left in the dirt across a muddy river.

Atlanta — the Atlanta of that time — is a dream. Literally, a dream, an Atlantis. The house, the road, the school, family and friends: they come back to me in the night. The day is haunted by the imminence of carbon, bombs and politicians in love with them, being ignorant of truth, beauty and much else besides.

Joe and I crossed that damned trestle. To get home, we walked over to the highway and hitchhiked. Sometimes I think I've been walking trestles ever since.

Andrew L. Pincus covers classical music for The Eagle and is an occasional op-ed page contributor.

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