Hardly anyone noticed what I was doing as I stepped onto the beach at Casey Key near Venice, and that is the way I wanted it.
It wasn't a big occasion, nor was it the kind of publicity stunt that was my forte for years as a columnist.
It was a promise I made to myself years ago.
It has been nearly half a century — okay, 48 years to be exact — since a high school teacher turned me on to T. S. Eliot, A.E., Houseman and Robert Frost.
When I was in Vietnam a few year later, that same teacher, the late Bain Lightfoot, engineered a student book drive in which students at my old high school wound up mailing me a couple of hundred pounds of books that I shared with other literature-starved Marines. (No, that isn't a contradiction in terms. Many of us were heavy readers and enjoyed a chance to peruse something other than military training manuals or Dear John letters from poor wives and girlfriends.)
Apparently not all of his students had been as taken with Eliot as I. There were about 10 copies of Eliot's poems among the books. I gave all but one — which I still have — away and then read and reread the one I kept for years, until it began to fall apart. I'm on about my fifth copy now.
My favorite, then an now, was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Eliot's paean (or dirge, according to the viewpoint) on the difficulties of revealing love, or the futility of life or the inevitable advent of aging, depending whose criticism you read.
I remember strongly that I, at 21 and wondering if I would make 22, often wondered what it would be like to be the old guy in the poem:
I grow old, I grow old
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Over the years I began to understand more and more of the poem. (I also, incidentally, memorized it, and The Hollow Men and several other lengthy poems, partly because I love them, partly because it keeps my mind sharper, or at least less dull, and mostly because stating that one has done so is an excellent way to obtain privacy at cocktail parties and in bars.)
In the back of my mind I formulated the idea of, when finally old, emulating the protagonist in the poem
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach.
It wasn't as easy at it sounds.
First, it isn't easy to find a reliable definition of what constitutes old, especially in a language abounding in euphemisms like "elderly" and "senior" and "aging."
And one will find plenty of people, especially in my age group, who argue that the definition is entirely arbitrary, and, in some ways, they are right. I have friends in their 80s who are younger than I, and in their 30s who are older.
But, on the occasion of my 64th birthday (wherein I was forced to sit in a limousine for hours that seemed like days and hear constantly repeated playings of the Beatles' When I'm Sixty-Four) I decided that 65 would be as good an age as any to make my homage to Prufrock.
Since I became ill early in the year and had to undergo open-heart surgery from which I am still recovering, it was easier to get my head around issues of mortality and the finite nature of life.
(My wife calls it "Having a bad first quarter.")
I looked high and low, including on the Internet, for white flannel trousers. Apparently they aren't in the same vogue they were in Eliot's time. All I could find were pajamas, and they had little blue figures on them that looked like bunny rabbits.
Christiana Swanson, a young friend who sews, volunteered to make me a pair if I could find the flannel, which I did, tucked away at the end of a dry-goods counter at Wal-Mart.
Parting my hair behind presented another problem. I have a bald spot which, comb-over (or, actually comb-back) notwithstanding, makes parting unlikely.
I even had trouble finding peaches at first. The first store I went to had only canned peaches, so I brought a can of the no-sugar added variety because I am not unconvinced that my internist is having me followed. Finally I found fresh peaches and bought two, just because I was feeling extra-daring.
I admit that I had a sort of daydream wherein somebody of a literary bent would get the symbolism, engage me in conversation, ask me to recite the poem and, as the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico, I, white hair flapping in the breeze, would declaim — leaving not a dry eye on the beach.
I recited quietly to myself as I walked along and in the end, it probably looked like an old guy with his pants rolled up walking along the beach gnawing on a peach and talking to himself.
Literary deconstructionists would hate it, but when I realized that was what was actually happening, I couldn't help smiling at having co-joined life and poetry for at least a few minutes.
Because that, in large part, is what the poem is about:
Always tell people when you love them. Enjoy your memories. Don't despair at what life wasn't, but rejoice in what it is.
Take a walk on the beach. Eat fresh fruit and don't worry about what other people think about what you are doing.
And if you think this was weird, remember I could have re-enacted another one of my favorite poems, The Cremation of Sam McGee, although Sarasota County authorities, I fear, would have objected.