My son, Arthur Henry Gunther IV, inhabits this space each holiday season. Here is his 2016 story.
By Arthur Henry Gunther IV
It had been a strange year. One of those years where cynics seemed to stand up a little straighter, like some kind of posture I told you so. One of those years that provoked visceral reactions of all kinds. It was sickening to watch people suddenly emboldened with the idea that they had permission to give in to all manner of baser instincts. It was so easy to hate, to stop trying to evolve. It was all a bit sad.
Which was the state of mind that Ezra found himself in as he drove north on the day before Christmas. There wasn’t much light left and Ezra was happy just to be alone for a few minutes, to be just driving. He was one of those drivers that rarely drove in silence. Ezra always had the radio playing, whether it was music or the news. Since the election, though, Ezra had steered clear of the radio. The news was just that and the music too much a minefield of uneven songs and traffic and weather. Even the stations playing Christmas music offered little comfort. Luckily, his car still had a tape deck. The last month and a half he had taken to rifling through a box of unlabeled tapes he had made in the late 1990s and listening to nothing else as he drove. It had been so long since he had heard the tapes that the songs that played were always a surprise. Plus there was no news, no traffic and weather together, nothing to avoid. Maybe it was age, or Ezra’s innate tendency toward wistfulness, but the songs on the tapes seemed filled with some kind of sincerity that lately seemed in rare supply. It was strangely comforting.
As Ezra hit the Bear Mountain traffic circle and prepared to enter the lane to cross the bridge, something in him hesitated. He found himself instead veering right and heading toward the parking lot in front of the inn. It was always hard to just drive by Bear Mountain without stopping and he had left too early anyway. There was probably just enough daylight left for a walk by the lake. Turning into the parking lot, Ezra shut off the car, grabbed his coat and scarf, and began walking.
Walking with a notion of purpose, Ezra passed the inn on the right and followed the path down to the lake. Glancing to his left, he was surprised to see a thin layer of ice at the top of the water. There was no one around as far as he could see. The ice rink was already closed for the night and most people were probably on their way to wherever they had to be on Christmas Eve. The silence and stillness were a refreshing combination. Heartened and warming up with the effort of his walk, Ezra turned toward the path that led to the zoo and descended down the steps under the tunnel to the other side. Ezra was happy to see that the gate to the zoo was still open. Hopefully the bears were awake.
Thinking himself alone, Ezra put his head down and quickened his pace, only to be startled by a young voice speaking out in front of him. Looking up, Ezra saw a group of ten or so girls gathered around the Walt Whitman statue that greeted each visitor to the zoo. There seemed to be two adult women accompanying them. The voice that had woken Ezra out of his stupor belonged to a girl, maybe nine years old, who stood atop the rock which Walt Whitman stood on.
The girl cleared her throat and spoke forcefully, “Keep your face toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you!”
Jumping down from the rock, the girl was quickly replaced by another. Speaking aloud in a similar voice, she announced, “Happiness; Not in another place, but this place; not in another hour, but this hour!”
Ezra recognized the words as belonging to Whitman. One of the adults saw him listening and came to his side.
“Are you one of the dads?”
“Um, I’m not sure what you mean.”
“One of the Girl Scout dads? We’ll be wrapping up soon.”
“Oh, no, I was just walking by.”
The woman seemed to sense Ezra’s confusion. “The girls each year choose a poet to study. This year they chose Whitman. We thought it would be fun to come up here and read the words from his perch. Right at the great man’s side. You’re welcome to listen as long as you like.”
She walked away and the speeches went on.
“Either define the moment, or the moment will define you!”
“Re-examine all that you have been told. Dismiss that which insults your soul!”
Ezra wasn’t sure if it was his current state of mind, or the sight and sound of these powerful young voices atop Whitman’s rock, side by side with the great statue, but the stupor that had held him the last two months seemed to lift with each reading.
The last girl climbed up. She was the smallest of them all. Though her face barely emerged from her coat and hat, her voice boomed out with authority, “The strongest and sweetest song remains to be sung!” The girl followed these words with a giant smile and bow. She was ushered down from the rock with a series of raucous rounds of clapping.
Ezra stood frozen for a second, then lifted his head up and began walking back in the direction he came. He’d see the bears another time.
With the echo of the young girls’ voices speaking Walt Whitman’s words filling his head, Ezra climbed back in his car and turned the ignition. The tape that he had been listening to before immediately came on. It was a song he hadn’t heard in years. Another song from the 90s that he had forgotten. The smile that had started to grow on Ezra’s face grew larger and more determined as the female voice on the radio sang, “Up up up up up up up, points the spire of the steeple. God’s work isn’t done by God. It’s done by people.” With that, Ezra drove on.
The writer is an elementary school teacher in the South Orangetown, N.Y., School District. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org