Isaac Watts, in 1719, penned the words to a well-known hymn, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." Set to music composed in 1708 by William Croft, one of the verses speaks to the comparatively short appearance of mortals on the eternal stage of time, which marches inexorably onward.
"Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day."
As Father's Day 2008 dawns, I find it almost impossible to believe that my dad died 40 years ago this summer. In the spring of 1968, he'd undergone open-heart surgery, then still in the early stages of refinement. Things went fine in surgery, but a few months later Daddy suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.
Without question my life would have unfolded differently had not Daddy died that summer before my senior year of high school. The Vietnam War was raging, and I was conflicted as to whether I should enlist, as Daddy had done when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. My mom, a product of a time when the man of the household brought home the bacon and made the big decisions, still in shock and completing the raising of my younger brother and me, wanted me in college instead of in the military.
Daddy and I had talked of such things before his surgery. Without stating it plainly, he intimated that I was a naïve and mostly innocent little boy still, sheltered from the harsh realities of the larger world by my bucolic small town upbringing. He spoke of the previous summer, and asked if I remembered touring a freighter docked in Savannah while we were there for a short family visit. He wanted me to finish high school, then return to those docks, and find a cargo ship that would hire me on to work my way across the Atlantic to Europe. There I could then spend a few years gaining real life experience to complement any subsequent college education I might feel led to obtain.
All of that was dizzyingly still at play in my head and heart when we buried Daddy in August of 1968. Nine months later, high school diploma in hand, the course he'd hoped I'd follow was no longer available. America offered two simple choices: go to college, or go to Vietnam. A Huey chopper pilot's life expectancy in a landing zone was measured at six seconds in 1969; I landed in Statesboro at Georgia Southern College, instead.
"A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone," Watts' ancient hymn goes on. "Short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun."
Last Sunday morning I sipped coffee on the back porch, watching from my favorite chair as nearly two dozen house finches squabbled at a feeder which could accommodate only six. As the entourage alternately fed, hovered, and perched on the nearby fence and bird bath, they conversed in animated fashion. My wife's dog lay on the concrete floor under the ceiling fan, more interested in staying cool than spoiling the finches' party.
I thought back to Einstein and his theories on the relative nature of time. The house finch can expect to fly around the grand stage for 10 years or so. My wife's dog, lying next to me slobbering contentment, might be with us for twice that long. We mortals can act out our part, with ever-improving medical technology as an ally, for roughly up to a century. Meanwhile, in geologic time, another vertical rock column is expected to fall free from uplifted Devil's Tower in Wyoming any day, interpreted as from right now through the next 10,000 years.
As I thought on the relativity of time, I wondered if the finch talk around the feeder would seem to occupy a longer frame to them than it would to their human observer. Would they, back at the nest, reflect upon the good old times of sharing with their feathered friends around the coolness of the bird bath?
Thinking again of my dad, I remembered some rare, poignant wintertime Saturday mornings from my youth. On those crisp mornings, we'd walk to Lee O'Neal's service station in Greensboro, a block-and-a-half from Daddy's hardware store. There, a dozen or so old geezers would gather around a pot-bellied stove as they told tales and spit tobacco juice, which would sizzle on the side of that red hot old stove.
Daddy would put a nickel in a chest-type cooler, and slide out a 6 and ½ ounce bottle of Coca-Cola for me. I'd sip a little, then pour in some peanuts, and listen to the old men while I savored the Coke and peanuts.
Remembering those days last Sunday, it occurred to me that maybe, in their time frame, the little birds were enjoying the same sort of experience the old-timers had as they gathered 'round that pot-bellied stove at Lee O'Neal's service station all those years ago.
Today, as Father's Day dawns, I'll reflect on those happy and relatively short 17 years I spent with Daddy. Whenever I take time and think about him, those memories envelop me in safety and security like a warm blanket, and I realize that each day gets me closer to the hope of seeing him again. And though I don't know what lies beyond this earthly life, I choose to believe that I'll see Daddy again. I want to know if he thinks I did OK, and what I could've done better.
And it hit me that Isaac Watts was right about time bearing all its sons away. But Watts was wrong about one thing: they're not all forgotten. Davis Gray Harwell, Jr., my daddy, is with me now, as he has been for the last 40 years.
Nobody knows if, what, or where Heaven might be. But last week, watching the birds, I pictured Daddy and some good friends gathered 'round that old pot-bellied stove, telling tales.
"A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone."
Indeed. And when that short watch ends, and time bears this son away, I'm thinking Daddy's got a Coke waiting for me in the cooler, and a package of peanuts. And if I'm right, when I do get to see Daddy again, it'll be the best Father's Day ever.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.