News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 4, 2009

THE OFF SEASON: In praise of old men

By Mike Lunsford

I remember the days of driving into town with my grandfather many years ago, sometimes on a Saturday morning to the lumber yard or over to his church to mow grass; he would often comment on the people he waved to from the rolled-down window of his pick-up.

He would tell stories associated with the folks I saw from the front seat of that old truck, and often they’d wave back and yell some unintelligible remark from the street corner they stood on or the front porch they swept or the bench from which they spit. Most were, as I saw them, anyway, ancient.

Nearly always, my granddad would point to a particular old fellow in overalls and straw hat and say, “He’s a rough old bird; worked in the mines for years,” or to some other equally aged resident: “I’ve known him for 50 years…” I couldn’t imagine knowing anyone a half-century; it was unfathomable to me then.

Now, when I think of the people who have had strong influences on my life, I reach backward toward the old men who crossed paths with me in my journeys. By the time we met, most had reached a point in life where they felt it unnecessary to make big jumps, particularly when a small hop or two would do. They were comfortable in their skins in spite of their liver-spotted hands and rheumy eyes and thinned hair.

I am thankful for these old characters, men who were as real as the soil under my feet and the air that I breathed; they were men without pretension … genuine and honest.

The first of those old birds was, of course, my grandfather, himself, but I’ll not talk anymore of him today. I have already said much about him in the past and have placed the memory of him high on a shelf where others don’t seem to be able to touch him anymore. I’ve mentioned Salty Seamon, too; I grew up near his place out on the County Line Road, but I have already devoted stories to him and his paints, as well.

I haven’t, however, mentioned two others in this space before: Les Powers and Don Scheick.

I met Les in my first year of college. I worked with him for an entire summer at a local elevator. He was, I think, over 80 then, and he spent his day sitting on a stool writing out sales tickets to customers who drove through a long garage to pick up horse feed and straw bales and rabbit pellets. Les was the brains of the outfit, and I supplied the muscle, since I was apparently too stupid then to believe there was anything I could not pick up or move.

Les was a wonderfully kind old guy. In the early afternoons, after the traffic slowed and I had swept the garage from one end to the other and made the place as neat as a pin, we’d sit a while in the air conditioning of his booth and talk and slug down Orange Crush, wiping the backs of our hands across our mouths as if we’d taken a bracing shot of rye. We never broached heavy subjects; I wasn’t picking an octogenarian’s brain for the meaning of life. I just found him interesting, I guess. He’d lived a good life and seemed happy, and in a sense I already knew, even at that age, that he had just about everything I wanted by the time I reached his age.

After that summer, as other jobs came, along with a college degree and a wife, I would still walk into the mouth of the drive-through to see Les, until, eventually, he was gone and had given up working for good. I saw him one more time, past 90, in a discount store lobby. He remembered me and was as kind to me as the first day we met; he died just a few years later.

Dr. Donald Scheick — I have a hard time calling him by his first name even now — like Les, was one of the best men I ever knew. He was a professor of history at Indiana State for decades before he taught me, first in a History of American Colonization course, then later in graduate school. I eventually became his grad assistant and worked side-by-side with him in his cramped, but always neat, first-floor office in Stalker Hall.

The first time I met Dr. Scheick, as a sophomore, was not so pleasant; he scared me to death. I walked into his basement classroom in Holmstead Hall, unintentionally, but according to Scheick, inexcusably late. Slow-moving trains would not have stopped me had I been driving into town closer to 7 a.m. than the 8 a.m. starting time of the class, he said. From that very first day, he knew my name, and assigned a special seat just for me.

“Your seat, Mr. Lunsford, will be next to the door. It is the seat for students who apparently have trouble knowing the time. It is the ‘late seat,’” he said as he adjusted the thin tie that disappeared beneath his cardigan sweater.

Don Scheick expected students to work, to listen, to truly earn his credit. I think I did that in his class, and did it again a few years later when I arranged a special course on Thomas Jefferson with him for graduate school. For that class, I met Scheick in the basement den of his eastside home. A clock would dryly tick behind him as he looked over my work, adjusted his eyeglasses, and asked me to explain my reasoning, or checked off the titles of books he wanted me to have read by the next time we met.

But the glacier that I first thought grew around Don Scheick’s heart slowly thawed as I got to know him, and as he began to know me.

In fact, it was never really there. He didn’t suffer stupidity well; he was upset that academic standards were slipping lower and social graces were disappearing, but he was never a prude. Every so often, when the files were filed and the essays graded, we’d push our chairs back to talk, and I soon saw that Don Scheick deeply cared about his teaching and my learning, about his family and my future. He was warm and quick-witted, and a wry smile would come over his face as he shared a story.

As I grow older, I still have more than a few goals yet to reach, but selfishly, I fervently hope that I am granted a long life, that I get to be an old man, that I am comfortable in my skin despite its wrinkles and scars and the aches of creaking bones under it. I want to be a grandfather, want to be a friend like Les Powers and Don Scheick were to me.

One can do worse than to end up a tough old bird.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, or through regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit Mike’s Web site at www.mikelunsford.com to learn more about his second book, due out this fall.