A lady asked me who my male role models were, and without taking a new breath I launched into my standard rap about how all the world is NOT a stage, and I am NOT concerned with playing roles or projecting images, and we would NOT be so obsessed with seeming instead of being, and the whole aria.
By the time she got me quieted down, I was ready to think about it: Well, who were the people who shaped my life in what the great humorist of our time, Stan Freberg, calls The Early Years?
My father was well into his 40s when I was born. He had married late after a rollicking life as an Irish bachelor and, though innately uxorious, he never knew quite what to make of me.
Then there were his pals, all bachelors: my uncle Nick, the romantic failed law student who drank (which in my family meant he couldn't hold his liquor). Howard Taylor, the Indian-faced inventor who built his own power plant, including dam, at his Adirondack place and who lived on tooth-curling Oneida County cheese and maple syrup spooned from a saucer. And Charlie Briggs.
Nick and my father took me to see Charlie Briggs when I was about 10. He lived in an abandoned castle near Howard's foxfarm that Nick managed. It was fall. The driveway, like Manderley's, wound for miles among flickering golden aspens and scarlet maples and unkempt meadows.
Suddenly Nick said, "There's the castle!" and I looked, and there was nothing but a crumbling old Victorian monstrosity of fieldstone and clapboard painted a disgusting yellow. It was immense, I'll say that for it.
We went up the front steps, 20 feet wide, and found four fishing rods with the worms mummified on the hooks, a sheath knife stuck into the curling dried wood of a step, and a bloody spot glittering with fish scales. Down the bank, at the sandy edge of the private lake a paintless lapstrake Adirondack guideboat had been beached.
"Been trapping'," Nick said. He was given to the enigmatic statements that long-married couples make to each other. It turned out that Charlie Briggs kept a dozen or so fishlines in the water at various points around the lake - strictly illegal - which he looked after better than he looked after himself.
We went inside, past a few 30-30 rifles negligently propped against doorjambs, past rooms where huge swatches of fabric wallpaper hung from plaster walls and dead chandeliers drooped at waist height from elaborately carved ceilings, past piles of laths, empty champagne bottles, bricks, rotten mattresses, rolled windowshades and a stone fircall 12 feet thick.
We trudged up a flight of winding stairs. Nick calling for Charlie now and then but getting no answer. Another flight. "Servants' quarters," Nick said. An open sagging door, Nick knocked.
"Come in come in." He had been standing there all the time watching us climb. Squirrel-bright eyes above a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of gray hair and beneath a sootyknitted toque. Checkered wool shirt buttoned to the throat against the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] degree heat. Sooty whipcoard pant. Sooty tramping boots. Sooty hands.
Charlie's room: 12 by 12, one window an army cot by the wall under a shelf with a fine Hallicrafters all-wave radio. On the bedside table, a stack of Bull Ourham packets and a Shadow dime novel. Besive the table, exactly within reach, a pail of cigarette butts and beside that another pail filled to the top with kitchen matches. On the floor, a two-foot charred are where a million matches had been struck. Across the room, a mass of dime novels, four feet high and eight feet long.
The cot had a long concave place in it and two sooty pillows propped at its head.
My father held up a crumpled cigarette pack.
"Throw it out the winda," Charlie said.
I sidled over to the window. Below in the great courtyard was a mountain of junk at least 30 feet high, mostly cans, but also bedsteads, wardrobes, stoves, tweed jackets and toilet seats.
We talked for an hour. Charlie made tea on his Coleman stove. No one said much. I said nothing. Charlie paid not the slightest attention to me. I never forgot him.
So how can a 70-year-old hermit be a role model to a 10-year-old kid? I'll tell you. I have this chair I sit in all the time. It was my father's chair. It has been reupholstered and cleaned and fixed up half a dozen times. The cover is in tatters, and the undercarriage has a hernia.
My family says we absolutely must move that chair up to the attic, and I say yes, we obsolutely must. It is a disgrace.It is a scandal.
All the time I say this I am sitting in it, nestled there in the corner between the bookshelves, with my pipe tanle alongside, awash in pipes, matches, cleaners, ashtrays, reamers, wine glasses and escaped dottle, and I pick up my C.P. Snow novel, wriggle deeper into the concavity and sigh.
Next week, I say. We'll move it next [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]