Ocean Echoes - One Who Sang
( Originally Published 1922 )
AS I walked along that September night thinking of the good and the bad that is in all of us I heard away off in the distance the sound of a banjo. It seemed cheerful in view of the sadness I had just left, and I turned towards it, walking along the lake.
Now the sound became plainer, and I could hear a man's voice, old and cracked, singing an ancient rebel song :
"When first I joined the army
My mother said to me,
'Come back, you red-headed son-of-a-gun
And brand the brindle-steer.'"
Words and music came back to me, re-echoed from a small island in the lake, and I followed them to the smudge of a fire where the old man sat.
Two youngsters were sitting with him, and he was entertaining them, more, it seemed, for the love of his song, than for the sake of their proffered bottle.
They made me welcome, and the old man continued his songs. He had a violin with which he alternated the banjo. Then he would tell stories about all sorts of things, for he had had a queer and roving life. He had been, it seemed, a traveling circus man for years and years, and able to do a little something anywhere he might be needed.
The young men went off somewhere when they had heard enough, and I was about to start away, being drawn by a cat-like feeling for the little camp. I turned to say good-by to the old man.
"Where do you sleep?" I asked.
"Oh," he answered, "I sleep here in the brush. That is, when I can find my blankets."
"Do you always go to bed drunk?" I asked, laughing.
The old fellow fell to sobbing, and I, thinking that he was none too sober then, was about to turn away, when he cried:
"No, I don't go to bed drunk. I am almost blind. I'm hard put upon once the sun sets. When be shines in the sky I'm all right."
It was my part now to show him sympathy, and I questioned him. He told me that he sang, fiddled, and played the banjo for the food and the few dimes the people gave him.
"No one will give me work any more. They don't want me. Why should they? I'm of no use in the world. I should die damn it ! Yes, I should die. But" for his pessimism, never toe strong, had run itself out "I could work, I know I could. I'm a tough old geezer yet."
I gathered wood and rekindled the fire, and he and I talked until Mars lit up the dawn sky. It was a strange thing, meeting this old man, and it had far-reaching consequences for me and for others who didn't know me any better than the loons who cawed on Mono Lake.
At any rate, I was moved that night as I had never been moved before, perhaps by the stories of his youth which raised in me memories of my own; perhaps by the aged helplessness of him, which suggested that duty whose fulfilment had been stopped by my mother's death. I almost thought that some unseen power was bidding me take charge of him, so blind and helpless, and at the mercy of the passersby.
When daylight came I saw his eyes. Pitiful they were, like those of a blind dog, with sagging under-lids, and a lifeless look. But one was a little better than the other, and I felt that for that one there was hope, could I but get him to a doctor.