Ralph knows what’s what. Born in 1912, he’s seen, did and heard a lot and he doesn’t mind sharing it. He’s sitting in his living room, snacking on cheddar crackers and taking a peek at the financial news on the Bloomberg network. He’s got an inquisitive face, smooth soft lines, and earlobes as long as Buddha’s. Just checking, Ralph assures me in his buzz-saw voice.
I’ve known Ralph since we moved here and his bus company drove our kids to school. Sometimes he would do the kindergarten run and drop off Ezra. One day Ezra came home with a trilobite fossil and a science magazine. They were gifts from Ralph. Later we serve together on the library board. Whenever we run into each other, I greet him as “the dangerous conservative.” He calls me the “dangerous liberal.” It’s all in good fun, and now as he relaxes in his easy chair, he talks about how he and his family moved here in 1951 and why he is still here. When did you feel it was your home? He chuckles. “I never gave it any thought,” and then, “People were cheerful, gregarious, and good-natured. I could make money. Living conditions were satisfactory.”
Ralph’s a busy man. Mornings, he hangs out in the back room of the general store where the real news in town, who’s doing what and who’s seeing whom, gets swapped over coffee and doughnuts. Tuesday nights, he might swing by Town Hall next door to his home to keep tabs on the selectmen. He serves on the finance committee, drawing up the town’s budget, keeping an eye on how the town spends its money. He claims to handpick those who serve with him although they are elected positions. At Town Meeting, Ralph, a former moderator, will give his two cents and more about how business is progressing. Then, he hosts his weekly think tanks, a gathering of sixty-plus men who like to talk over what is happening well beyond this town’s borders. Ralph puts it this way, “I still have my nose in it.”
People might think Ralph is a native, but he’s one of those near natives, moving here with wife Marge to the hunting lodge he calls Toad Hall. Ralph has sold the house and the eight acres to the town for $80,000, an offer he made. He remains tenant for life, and someday a community center will be built on this spot.
Ralph came for a business opportunity with Henry, one of the town’s super-capitalists. He wanted to be a college history professor, but when he graduated from Dartmouth in ’35, it was not a wise career choice. So, as Ralph puts it, he reinvented himself as an industrial engineer and worked for petroleum companies. After doing that for years, Ralph, another super-capitalist went to work for himself, first building service stations, then involved in construction and busing schoolchildren, who he calls “kiddlies.” The transportation business suited him. He let the drivers, his ladies, take care of the buses while he and Marge got to travel and play golf. Ralph played golf for 78 years, but gave it up because of a bum shoulder. He says he used to be an above average golfer but not outstanding. Adequately competitive.
Ralph says the town wasn’t significantly different then it is now except for the presence of summer folk. And the trees. He once had a clear 150-degree view from his house to the hills in other towns. “I was disappointed that the trees grew,” he says.
His daughter, Catherine, who lives in New Jersey, visited this weekend. Not much of Ralph’s family is left. Marge died several years ago, and their son, Allen, earlier. In his practical way, Ralph say life goes on, people do die. His son’s death was a particularly hard one, however. He used to read something in the paper, then pick up the phone to tell his son that this story proves a point.
Ralph acknowledges that Worthington winters are hard on the elderly. But it suits him. The town has a health center. He has numerous friends and acquaintance. “People feed me, pat me on the head, and say nice things. Why go somewhere else just because it’s warmer? I’ve lived long enough anyway. I’m not anxious to die off, but on the other hand I’m not particularly anxious to live much longer.
Now about that think-tank. There are about seven regulars, all men, although a couple of Ralph’s women friends will stop by. The living room with its long couches can accommodate ten nicely but any more than that, people just sit back and let others do the talking and that’s not the purpose of these gatherings. Ralph says the night begins with the group hanging onto something that transpired during the past week, and then it runs its own course. A discussion about the Balkan Peninsular leads to the Byzantine Empire, pleasing the inner history professor in Ralph. The hurricanes in the Gulf Coast bring up global warming. Every now and then he shouts when the discussion degenerates into old men discussing their ailments. There’ll be none of that.
The night starts at 7:30 and occasionally he has to boot them out at 11. People get wound up. Sometimes discussion gets a little more raucous than it needs to be. “It often swings around to the wretched Democrats and the wretched Republicans,” he quips.
One fellow, a devout Republican and a good friend, will stomp out when the liberals in the group start bad-mouthing Bush and his war policies. Ralph laughs gleefully at that thought.
This piece was from a book, tentatively called Redneck’s Revenge and Other Stories, that I started when I lived in Worthington and put aside. Ralph was one of the colorful characters I met. I posted this story on my old blog Fiction de Taos.