Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Two Strangers, Alone Together, Now 43 Years!

By Dan Beauchamp

"It's a bloody miracle!" she said, shocking him a little. "Two strangers thrown together forever, for years, and expected to make it!"

He had just remembered that they were about to celebrate another anniversary, the 43rd. Both looked at each other, somewhat in surprise, discovering each other for the very first time yet again, still together and yet still a little alone.

It had been a bloody miracle. They were brought together by chance, both already 30, one never married, the other already a marriage veteran. She was a veteran at 30 of Capitol Hill, a farm girl from nearby Maryland who, after a brief stint in the university, went to work for a powerful Southern Democratic committee chairman and then as the secretary to a rising young star in the Republican Party from the Northeast. Finally she was one of the first women to work as an administrative assistant on Capitol Hill; she was worldly wise, a smoker, and a capable drinker and so clearly savvy in the ways of Washington.

And he, also a smoker and very capable drinker with a generous expense account, was a native Texan, who had already ditched two false starts toward his future before suddenly heading out for California in 1962. There he entered the aerospace industry, and after five years, landed in D.C. as the Washington representative of the huge aerospace company's small life sciences division. A little dizzy when he got there, he was tired of looking for love in all the wrong places, and more than a little intimidated by someone he thought so clearly settled and secure in the world of politics.

By the sheerest of chances the two of them were introduced at lunch at the Rotunda restaurant, then the leading watering hole on Capitol Hill. She arrived, late as usual. She was not tall, and he was very tall, and both of them were warily looking the other over, both of them were a little reluctant, even fearful, to be once again negotiating the narrow shoals of finding someone new, someone this time that might last, both of them nearing the final stops in the courtship express and both at first guarded and wary.

As it turned out, both were gamblers at heart, and six months later they were married; they enjoyed a brief and comic honeymoon at an empty Poconos ski resort without any snow, surrounded by a sea of empty tables and chairs, a few forlorn waiters and one other couple, and privately both of them wondered if this was an omen.

Yet then together they found excitement as newlyweds in a townhouse on Capitol Hill, near Mr. Henry's on Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E. and each Sunday they listened to the new talent, a young school teacher by the name of Roberta Flack, and walking to the nearby Penn movie theater and seeing "I am Curious Yellow."

It was 1967. And he, more and more marching in demonstrations against the War in Vietnam, and she equally alarmed but back in the office, working late, her boss announcing his opposition to the war at an American Legion Hall back in the district. And both listening almost every night to the latest Bob Dylan record, "Nashville Skyline." And to jazz always, and sometimes to the Paul Desmond and Jim Hall classic, "Together/Alone," not yet knowing that it was their song.

Then, as the war ground on, he, after applying for graduate school and finding himself astonished to be accepted, abruptly left his good job and promising promotions for yet another uncertain future, this time in academic captivity, already ten years older than the other successful applicants, and then, after entering a famous recovery program to save a young marriage already beginning to wobble, finishing his doctoral studies and by the sheerest of accidents taking his first job in a school of public health at the University of North Carolina.

And she, at 32, stopping smoking and rarely drinking by now, and he stopping both. And both exchanging life in the Washington whirl for work at two of the most beautiful college campuses in America, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke. And he finding the other love of his life, chasing the American body politic for the great promise of more justice and community so that all may have health and life.

And she cast into an entirely strange new world after the skimpiest acquaintance with university life, finding work in the town of Chapel Hill (and hating it) and then a good job for Duke as the administrator for a public policy institute, a place where her political background was valued. And he moving up through the ranks as a professor of health policy and politics, writing, and working again in Washington for a federal agency, and also in Ann Arbor, Michigan as a visiting professor, and driving through the wreck of Detroit to visit her sister Winnie and her family in St. Clair Shores, one of her nine siblings, most still living in the farmland near Frederick, Maryland.

Two strangers, who came to know each other more and more, and yet also to see, more and more, how much more they didn't know, and how that was part of the territory of knowing and loving, and then they left North Carolina for ten years in New York, ten of their best years, he as a health official and a professor in a new school of public health and she as a health official (the federal lobbyist for the NYS Department of Health), years where they felt truly at home and also a little shipwrecked when their commissioner and boss had suffered a devastating stroke and never recovered, and the governor declined the honor of running for president. And she, belatedly, with a huge and hungry grin, accepted her baccalaureate degree from the Empire State College, a part of the SUNY system, while two of her sisters and brothers-in-law clapped loudly in the audience.

Two strangers who gradually made more and more room in their lives for his and then their daughter, who had lived with them for almost a year in North Carolina and then left, leaving them desolated, and then who came again as a young married woman while they were in New York as she sought her career in fashion design, and who, by now was fully part of their lengthening years as man and wife.

And then, out of the blue, moving to the strange, haunting little town of Bisbee, AZ, where she at first most certainly felt adrift and estranged, lost in a world where the trees were mostly at the mountaintops and he remembering the deep attachments to the Southwest he had formed in his last years in Texas, and feeling himself at home at last, a man who wanted more than anything to celebrate the bare bones, the grace and gospel of life itself, and she wanted to become once again the master gardener that she already had been in North Carolina, in New York, and this time in the high desert country, and along the way discovering her great talent as a photographer.

And he, gambling again and running for Mayor and winning and suddenly thrown in the midst of the politics of a small yet famous former copper mining town fighting for its fair share in a nation off to war yet one more time, the war that was so quickly depleting the budget of the agency that held the millions of dollars to overhaul an ancient wastewater system the small town so desperately needed. And the town got the money and on his last day in office the contractor put the shovels in.

And now, 43 years later, they both find that there is still more to discover about each other, more that is left to surprise and startle, more that shows the endless mysteries of friendship, love, tears, and endurance and a life together that is their great teacher, and both knowing, in their seventies, that the next phase will likely hold the biggest surprise of all and because still together, stand ready to receive what comes next, yet wondering how will they face it, if suddenly left alone and not together, knowing that while they may still be lovers and strangers they also are the persons they know far better than anyone else on the face of the earth.

But not entirely two strangers and lovers alone; they are as always accompanied by wonderful friends and companions, this time a rescue border collie and Australian shepherd by the name of Callie, who had a rough early life and who, with large wondering eyes and a loving heart, is still fearful, still worried and uncertain that this love and kindness will last, another one of the four dogs they have loved and cherished. And many cats, the last being the veteran, Harry, a Bisbee cat, who has lived on both sides of the nation with this couple, and several times at that, and who is still up for the future with these lovers and strangers, who, against all odds, are still together.

Writer Dan Beauchamp's blog, Tales of Copper City, explores politics, spirituality, religion and numerous other subjects. A native Texan, Dan Beauchamp served as a professor of health policy at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1972-1990 and also at the State University of New York at Albany from 1988 to 1998. He also served as a special assistant to the director of prevention of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Washington and Deputy Commissioner for Policy and Planning of the New York State Department of Health from 1988 to 1992. He has have written many articles and several books on the democratic ethics and politics of public health. In 2000, he was elected mayor of Bisbee. Dan's one-line bio is this: "I moved to Bisbee, AZ in 1996 to explore the gospel of life itself."


No comments: