An old man with a story lived in a house just behind mine at one time. He has long since died and I moved away from there but his story has stayed with me and the larger meaning of it has grown in my mind through the years.
We were always separated by a gray steel chain link fence. I in my yard vacuuming the pool or hosing off the decks; he in his yard wandering beneath the trees and smoking a cigar. The old man’s name has long escaped from my memory. He was in his eighties when I met him with tired gray eyes full of cataracts and white coarse stubble on an unshaven chin. His clothing was old and worn but it hung comfortably on his thin frame as he ambled beneath his cherry trees assessing the crop.
Whenever we met across the fence he was smoking a well-worked cigar and I never saw him smoking a fresh and new one, it was always only a stump with a smoldering end. He’d only remove it from his mouth to talk which he did infrequently. It was as if he’d lived and talked and heard and in these autumn years of his life he only required his cigar and his yard and some peace to enjoy them.
Every now and then our greetings to each other in passing along the fence he would stop and approach. I knew then that the cigar was coming out and that he needed to chat. I always accepted his invitation to converse and so I’d put down what I was doing and walk over to our common section of fence, a place where a gap in my rose hedge and a gap in his trees made a neighborly space.
The old man would lean on the fence with both arms folded and he’d appraise me with those eyes and then he’d mumble a greeting behind his cigar. I’d ask him how he’d been and he’d remove his cigar and begin to talk. His teeth were in shocking decay and his lips were stained brown from his cigar. He’d tell me about his shop across town and the go-carts he built there and about his family in Washington State. We’d discuss the likelihood of a good cherry crop. He’d remind me that I was welcome to pick all the cherries I could reach across the fence. So our conversations went for several years until one day he shared his special story with me.
The old man was a skilled craftsman and especially clever with sheet metal fabrication. He told me a story of his work during World War II. In that time he was commissioned somehow to work as part of a crew to build “The Bomb”. He said that he worked at Lawrence Hall of Science at Cal Berkeley building the metal structure of the bomb. He told me that the government had captured Nazi scientists who were imprisoned somewhere in San Jose. The old man told me that they would go to these men and consult with them on the design of the bomb. The old man also told me that his rotting teeth didn’t cause him any pain because of his work. He said that the bomb’s radiation had killed the nerves in his jaw so he didn’t feel any pain from his rotting teeth.
Our conversation soon turned away from the bomb and the war. He put his cigar back in his mouth and lit its cold blackened end then eyes followed the smoke upward to the trees and he mumbled something about it being a good year for cherries; he turned from the fence and shuffled off through his thinning lawn.
We never again talked his work in building the bomb. I thought about the solitary life of this old man and about how history was lost when he died. I thought about all the history teachers at the high school a block up the street who taught from books about the war but who never knew about the old man who held history just behind his cigar. It made me wonder how many other old men and old women were there in town whose stories would soon be lost to the dust and never shared with the young. It is tragic that there are so many people who’ve lived long lives and who have stories and wisdom to share but who have no one that cares to listen.