We meet 'neath the sounding rafter,
And the walls all around are bare;
As they shout back our peals of laughter
It seems that the dead are there.
They're gone now. All of them. Fred, Geoff, Cec, Gladys, Don, Blair, Marcella and the rest. All those who taught me something about the strange demi-world I inhabited for 40 years.
It's easy for me to think back on those times and dwell on frigid nights at fires or accidents, stuffy council chambers, boring Rotary luncheons, the ennui between calamities.
But it's at least as important to recall the faces and the names of those on whom I patterned my work ethic -- and ethics.
I had no formal education in my chosen field. None. Just a perhaps stupid willingness -- even eagerness -- to learn and see and do it all. They were the ones who schooled me in the old days and in the old ways, and God help me, I loved them for it.
So when I read those haunting lines from Indian Revelry in a fine, gritty novel by Sean Chercover, I was riveted. The poem was written around 1835 by W.F. Thompson during a deadly epidemic in the far-flung reaches of the British Empire. I won't bore you with the details of its provenance. You can find those on the excellent Mudcat Cafe website, if you're so inclined.
It resonated at least partly because of the context. Chercover says it was sung by Chicago newspapermen -- presumably to the dirge-like The Lost Chord -- in the 1890s, and sometimes still is whenever they gather.
It's really about being an outsider, maybe even an outcast. And about a sense of having been cursed, because I believe a person didn't choose that life, that life chose the person.
All those names I mentioned were real people who had marital, drinking, financial, health or other troubles that were directly related to their work. So did I, for that matter. It came with the territory, and we all accepted it as the price we paid for serving the mistress who had us in her thrall.
Old school newspapering is not only not for the faint of heart, it's not for anyone who has a heart. It is ugly and cruel and often vicious, and it eats away at any finer traits someone might have.
If Chercover is right, then it means the old ways, if dead in this age of information overload, are at least remembered, perhaps even reverenced. I guess that's all right with me, because if I had to do it all over again the way I did it, I would. I'd have no choice.
But I wouldn't wish it on anyone else.
Then stand to your glasses, steady!
We drink in our comrades' eyes:
One cup to the dead already --
Hurrah for the next that dies!