It seems that one of the main inspirations in my life has come from old men. I don't know why but it's true. It could be the Old Spice smell they all seem to carry with them. Then again it could be the way faces and voices tend to get deep and wandering like a river in a canyon with the passing of time. It could simply be the way an old man's eyes twinkle when they are telling you a story they damn well know to be a lie but it's obvious that you believe it. Whatever the case may be, I have been drawn to old men since I was a small child.
When I was very young my best friend was an old man who lived next door to us. His name was Van Vanderhoff. He lived with his wife Celia (we called her Seal) in a tidy green two story house. They had a nice garden and well pruned trees. From what I can remember they had a lot of the knick-knacks old people like to keep around, like baskets of fake grapes, frog figurines and other nice things. I have no idea what we used to do, I probably told Van about dinosaurs while he watered the plants. I most certainly watched him as he filled the soda cans he kept buried in his garden with vinegar (they were buried just to the tops so he could fill them). He did this to keep the cats out of his garden. I can't remember if I told him I liked cats, but it makes sense that I would keep quite about such things. It is tough to be trapped between two friends. Well when I was 6 we moved away. I don't remember feeling sad to lose my best friend. That is one nice thing about old men, you know they will be OK, and I was off on a new adventure. Anyway, I knew he had Seal, plus we still visited on occasion.
There were always old men in my life, but I think the next time I really had a great friendship again was when I was 19 and moved to Mount Hermon CA to work at Mount Hermon Camp. I was a custodian and very happy to be in California. I was far from home and having the time of my life. One day early into my first summer I saw an old guy sitting out in front of the post office. We started talking and he said his name was Syd Ossenga. He was a true Dutchman. He was 84 years old I think when I first met him, and his biceps were hard as rocks. He used to love flexing so we could feel his arms. He liked doing this for the ladies too! I had the privilege over the next four years to spend some good time with old Syd. I used to stop by his house and he would tell me about his days in the war. About his wife who he still missed after 15 years. He told me about rolling full drums of oil while he worked at Standard Oil. I remember him talking about how when he came back from the war he hated God for causing all the death. Then through the love of his wife, family and friends, he found peace with God. So when he would laugh about how loud he liked to play his polka records on his stereo (and how surprised his neighbors always got), I could see his deep sincerity!
We exchanged a letter or two. I carried one around in my guitar case for a couple years. I felt bad because the last few times I went down there, the days I saw his car out front I did not stop. This was either because I had been drinking with my friends, or was going somewhere. I tried to see him, but we always missed each other. Now, if he is still alive I would be shocked. It has been 12 years since I met him, which would make him 96. but you never know. My great grandmother lived to be 104. and she did not enter a rest home until she was 98, so I just might see him again. At the same time, I do regret those few times I wanted to stop by but I didn't. Somehow, at the same time I am sure old Syd would just laugh and smile, and say thank you for stopping by the times that you did!