Alan Seeger, an American poet born in 1888 died in the First World War in 1916 fighting for France as a member of the Foreign Legion. His brother was the father of Pete Seeger, the American folk singer. Before he died he wrote a memorable poem which, ironically, was a favorite of President John Kennedy.
I have a Rendezvous with Death
by Alan Seeger
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
I first heard the poem in grammar school and, although Seeger’s poetry is not rated very highly, it impressed me very deeply for its strange overtones of impending doom and yet retaining a grotesque association with a lover’s tryst.
Life is, or at least gives the adventurous appearance of being, a random serendipitous exploration of this delightful and threatening and promising bundle of dimensions that configured us to deal with at least some of its aspects. Because we are designed to travel within it facing backwards there are few events that can be predicted absolutely. Death is one of them and the realization at the age of four or five that I had of its inevitability was a chilling shock that reoccurred periodically through my life when the thought popped up again. Initially I wondered how people could remain sane with this end firmly lurking just over the horizon.
A few years beyond that first awakening I became familiar with the various naive fantasies each culture nurtures to anesthetize the horror but, unfortunately for me, the reality of final and absolute dissolution never could be banished. Most of the theological attempts to calm that disturbing actuality, while probably originating in creative minds with genuine empathy for fellow humans, has been so thoroughly corrupted by avaricious institutions eagerly massaging those fears for monetary gain as to make the whole scene appallingly unreal and rather repulsive. Most of the religious concepts of the nature and function and end point of life are rather ancient, conceived in societies far less sophisticated, less complicated and immensely less knowledgeable than our own and their after death projections are consequently exceedingly simple minded and vague and seem to me to be totally unrewarding..
Nevertheless there is a certain consistency in their structures in comparing life to some sort of game wherein the living players must conform to a set of rules compiled by a rather erratic minded short tempered diety and win and lose points on the basis of that conformity. At life’s end the Ultimate Scorekeeper will tally up the results and declare winners and losers with appropriate rewards and punishments. After that, it seems, there is a total stasis in action and the qualities of the individuals remain fixed for all further time. Game over! What a bore!
As someone approaching an end game condition my mind has meandered through somewhat related speculations brought up to date. It is not hard to imagine that the virtual reality now extant throughout computer games can be vastly developed in the manner of the holodeck portrayed in the Star Trek series so one does not merely view a devised universe but actually seems to exist within it with resident memory altered, much as in normal dreaming, to assume not only current reality but substantial devised memories implanted to validate it. In that way, what we experience as “death” is merely a process of waking up to the real reality and being highly amused at the various experiences we considered to be “real”. What we wake up as, of course, could very well be something radically different than human. There are multitudes of strange life forms with odd physiologies and environments perusable in current science fiction which could fit the bill and even the basic forces of this universe such as gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak atomic forces, could merely be conventions devised by the creator of the current game in which we are immersed. Anyway, this idea seems to me to slide much more into my acceptability than the concepts of the ancient religions. I’m surprised no enterprising snake oil salesman, such as Ron Hubbard, has not managed to make the concept somehow profitable as an ongoing scam.
That rendezvous that Alan Seeger perceived for himself and which we each must meet eventually remains a persistent thought that looms closer with each successive year of existence. One becomes rather preoccupied as to when and how it will come into being. Although violence and death, along with all that emotional furniture necessary for love and reproduction, remains the mainstay of the bulk of entertainment, in general, daily life is not so chock filled with these heightened occurrences. Outside of war zones and crime scenes and calamitous disasters death appears only a few times in each of our lives. I have lost both parents, my wife, and one of my two sons. I have not been close to my other relatives and so their disappearance was rather remote. I am not a terribly social person and have had few friends who have dropped away also rather distantly. In that way, I suppose I am rather insulated compared to the average person. Each loss dislodges my personal emotional equilibrium for about ten years until the emotional pain dulls to the point where the event can be stowed in memory safely and distantly and the internal screaming stops.
But the passage of time for each of us is a unique event. As we mature the milieu of places and people which fill our world that we come to accept as forming the structure of our universe obtain a sort of solidity which we begin to believe as having some absolute permanence. I grew up in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, NY where there were still unpaved streets, empty lots full of bits of abandoned buildings, tall trees and half wild sections adventurous kids could use for exotic imaginings. On each Armistice Day a small contingent of tottering old Civil War veterans marched down Narrows Avenue to a tiny cemetery near 70th Street where a few canted headstones marked the untended graves of some guys who died in the Revolutionary War.
What we had in common were the newspapers with Alley Oop. Benny, Smilin’ Jack, Flash Gordon, Blondie, Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner, Mandrake the Magician and many others. The radio gave us Uncle Don, the Singing Lady, Buck Rogers, Jack Armstrong, Orphan Annie, Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Fred Allen and lots more. The films donated Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Mouse, Laurel and Hardy, W.C.Fields, The Marx Brothers, Eddie Cantor, Zazu Pitts, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Carol Landis, Mae West, Peter Lorre, Clarke Gable, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, William Powell, Myrna Loy, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Charles Laughton, James Cagney and of course many, many, more. They all formed the threads that illuminated and joined the tapestry of our lives in common.
These times, events, places, prejudices, preferences, fashions, loves and hates have died and vanished just as the many people who created them have ceased to exist except as distant historical and, for me, magically nostalgic references.
I remember back in 1936 when we kids in Public School 102 were marched out to line 69th street. None of us knew why. We waited a long time and finally a kid on a bicycle delivering groceries drove up the street. We kids cheered wildly, to his embarrassment. After another long wait an open convertible drove through so we dutifully cheered Franklin Roosevelt and then were marched back to school. So much for politics. The participants have changed but the hopes and aspirations and mechanics remain somewhat the same. And people with genuine appreciation for and understanding of the well being of the country seem to have totally disappeared replaced by the strangest collection of greedy nincompoops and outright thugs. But perhaps I have had a distorted view of politics. Will Rogers, H.L.Mencken and Mark Twain had frequently apprised the politicians of their era and the fit to the clumsy clowns now in the field, from the president on down, seems uncomfortably snug.
My early life moved through one depression and, whatever they call it these days, the current ambiance seems not much different. It has yet to dip into the deep despair of those early days with the Okies fleeing to an uncharitable California to escape the terrible dust storms but the global warming deniers and their voraciously greedy and incompetent allies in the major energy corporations are assuring that no viable preparations will be made to counter the inexorable disasters building as the globe accommodates its climates to the atmospheric changes. That plus the careless emplacement of unstable, insanely and carelessly supervised atomic reactors chomping at the bit to spatter radioactive hell throughout countrysides throughout the world make for (as the sarcastic Chinese proverb indicates) interesting times. The catastrophes of the 1930’s will seem indeed mildly pleasant in comparison to the ultimate miseries yet to come.
I have lived through fascination and vigorous times beginning when technology was fused and ignited and ready to explode into the marvels of today when the laces of instant communication and information were just preparing to be pulled tight. The world was still immensely rich with the energy treasures downloaded from the Sun since the time of the dinosaurs, when the abundant forests of the western world had not yet been decimated totally, when the soils were still crammed with potential food for the world, when the seas teemed with life to be harvested easily and economically and when there were few enough people in the world to potentially make life fulfilling and rewarding for everybody alive on a prolonged sustainable basis, although that potential, sadly, never came to be realized.
When one is born into a world of wealth and wonder as a child it is not possible to even approach the appreciation such a world should demand. It is only after witnessing the incessant devastation a vicious careless ignorant and downright stupid species, the human vandals, could wreak on every aspect of a functioning living glorious planet in a mere two centuries or so, that full appreciation for what has been lost is generated and suitably and deeply, regretfully, mourned.
But this sad nostalgia is out of a very human, very ephemeral viewpoint. Marvelous things have come and gone in the duration of this very small world and one’s regrets at their passing must be likened to the fascination I had with a small cardboard tube kaleidoscope I had as a three year old where each wondrous configuration of bits of colored paper, glowing shards of broken glass and strange beads and bits of brilliant red and green and blue and violet plastic vied with the most impressive stained glass windows of famous cathedrals and as I slowly turned the tube new and equally fascinating views appeared in endless procession and again quickly disappeared.
This planet has passed through several almost total extinctions of life from various causes – major volcanic eruptions, massive bombardment from meteors, violent climactic and ecological changes in the constituents of the atmosphere, and probably others not yet discovered. But life has countered all these catastrophes by retreating, regrouping, and devising novel and energetic responses that has resulted in many of the living things we see today. Doubtless these extinctions and resurrections will continue since both the destructive and the creative forces are probably endlessly flexible in their ingenuities.
All our individual lives are limited and there are very few species that persist more than a few tens of millions of years. The brief hundred or less years that the bulk of people live is minuscule indeed when looking over the periods that life wrests from the offerings of the planet. Humanity itself is a very volatile creation and the last two centuries have been sensational in nurturing and expanding the species and donating to it capabilities that seem to be violently coming out of control when the confluence of technology and the raw fierce forces of primitive acquisition and social power are exerted on the environment and human society. The current explosion of scientific knowledge and technological application seems very likely to make very radical and probably unexpected changes to human life. In the not too distant future there is the promise of fundamentally redesigning physiology and mental capacity which may provide abilities to live under extraterrestrial environments but by that make humanity into something completely unrecognizable by today’s understanding. It seems inexorable that these changes, whose implications are apparent today, will generate destructive conflicts and great misery. It is not likely I will survive to see much of that.
I owe an apology to those who have the fortitude to have remained with me to read this long meandering effort. In these last few months I have found the source of energy and creativity which fueled much of my life to have severely diminished. Many of my days have seemed terribly swift and short and burdened with a terrible sense of permanent fatigue. I sleep much too much and do far too little of the routine necessary tasks we are each required to do to merely maintain a sane existence. I have lost something like twenty pounds although my eating habits have remained stable. I have read that this signals that life is coming to an end although there are no strange pains or other physical debilitations to confirm this and doctor’s examinations have indicated no vital lacks. I have been trying to accustom myself to the concept of that final bucket kick.
But within the last week or so there seems to have been a turnaround and I feel not quite so tired and have a bit more energy. It may be that last flash of light before sunset or perhaps my body has discovered a novel way to lengthen my telomeres. I cannot say.
But I thought it worthwhile for a general review before that final rendezvous.