You may not believe it, but I once knew a man who was unencumbered by the world. I am sure he had worries and concerns as everyone does. After all, he was a family man. He owned his own business. Joys though these things are in life, they tend to weigh heavy on a man. Yet, he carried his burdens differently than most.
He was quiet in a way that would not allow him to call attention to himself. He was jovial and affable in the way of a man satisfied with simple pleasures. I recall once as a small boy, walking along the front porch rail of his house. There was a wasp nest between the railings that I did not see. My play disturbed them and I was stung repeatedly. He was there to pull the throbbing pain from my legs with his pipe tobacco.
Even today, whenever I inhale the increasingly rare and deeply rich aroma of pipe tobacco from someone nearby, I think of him. I think of the pipe stand on the table near his chair. The green, glass bowl at its center. I would remove the wooden cover and take in its scent. There in the evenings, after a day of work from which he often returned home after dark, he would doze while watching Archie Bunker or The Waltons, pipe dangling from the corner of his mouth.
Mornings would find him up early at the kitchen table taking his coffee as the radio next to him announced the local news and listed the names of those who had passed on the day before. He wore his V-neck undershirt and work pants. After finishing a cup or two of coffee, he would go into his cluttered office and make phone calls and prepare for the day ahead, don his navy blue work shirt with the patch reading “Bohannon Conditioning” on one side above the pocket and “Leonard” sewn in cursive with red thread on the other. His employees –a rag-tag, rotating group of two or three—known as “the men” would arrive shortly thereafter and they would all climb into the work van with him and drive away to install or repair AC units all day.
The late sunsets of summer would give him a chance to work in his garden after the day’s labor was done. He would end his day tending rows of tomatoes, eggplants, squash, beans, okra, cucumbers, and corn from the red clay of the Georgia Piedmont behind his house. If he arrived home after dark, he would be out there in the early morning.
He learned to swim as a boy in the pond he and his brothers had built on their farm alongside their father. There were no lessons to be had that day. They were each tossed in to the dark water and told to sink or swim. That immersion gave him a feeling for water that remained long after. For this self-same boy who learned to swim in that creek-fed farm pond would grow to walk the bottom of the sea in a brass helmet and lead boots with a blow torch in hand as an Army salvage diver. And the fish that swam below the surface of pond and sea would bring him joy to the end.
He had a mind for numbers that led him to mechanical engineering on the back of the GI Bill. He tried out Chicago but it didn’t suit and home was calling as a family arrived. So, he returned to the little village of Moreland in the Piedmont, about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta and made a life there. A life he was born to.
Worries, he shed like an old coat. Or maybe he just drowned them. Maybe he placed them onto a hook at the end of his fishing line and just cast them out into the old pond at the home place, or into Bledsoe’s pond, or that of Mr. Charlie Williams. He fished them all and I was blessed to accompany him.
Or maybe he buried these worries in the red clay of the garden. Maybe he used them as fertilizer under the tomatoes, that they would grow fat and round and ripened red, with all frustration and anger. Energy turned to better use. Maybe the fish or the tomatoes, lightened his burden. Carried the weight so he didn’t have to. I know there were worries we did not see. Perhaps his greatest gift was found in keeping them so far out of sight that we never knew.
As Thelma Lou said of Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, “he couldn’t sing a lick”. But, in church he would sing out as loudly as if he were in the car alone with his favorite song on a warm, sunny day. Like a bird on a warm, spring morning after a rain.
His gentleness seemed odd, even to those who knew him. Playful and kind with children. Among them, he became one of them. The only section of the newspaper that interested him was the comics page. His patience was legendary. I have seen my grandmother give him a tongue lashing that would scald the hair off a porcupine. Yet, he would simply nod and without raising his voice, reply “yes, dear” in as pleasant a tone as though she had just offered him another slice of lemon pie.
This cruel world we live in does not reward the kindness of men like this. But I think that’s ok with them because the people within that sort of kindness and gentleness aren’t seeking any reward. The rewards they know in this life are found in the simple joys they come upon day by day. The reward is in the living of life.
I don’t know what his secret was. I’ve tried it myself. I’ve cast lines. I’ve planted roots and seeds in the earth. And though the weight rose ever so slightly, it only left me for a time. I have not mastered this as he did. I haven’t mastered the art of living lightly in the world. Such unencumberance is a gift one is born with.