Who Else Is There?

In the fertile imagination of a bookish, young boy, their names echoed down the years, a pantheon of heroes—some real, some fictional—whose gallantry and derring-do inspired dreams of glory.

There were Galahad, Arthur’s most loyal knight; Brian Boru, high king of Ireland; Ivanhoe, Scott’s noble warrior; Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest; and Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn—all of whom led me to think that perseverance and a righteous cause can triumph over all odds.

I read of boys I fancied to be just like me, and wished I could be just like them:  Peter Pan, Jim Hawkins, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, and my favourite, Tom Sawyer.  It was delicious to imagine myself walking in their shoes, yet sobering to realize I could never fill them, except in my playtime fantasies.

As I grew older and my interests broadened, the list expanded to include heroes from the world of sport, some of whom had feet of clay I either was ignorant of, or chose to ignore.  Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach; Busher Jackson of the famed ‘Kid Line’ with Primeau and Conacher; Arnie Palmer, the King; and the incomparable Ali, the greatest.  They inspired me to believe I could accomplish anything, even though reality kept bringing me back to earth.

By the time I came to realize that all my boyhood heroes were male, almost all of them white like me, the list of people I admired had already swelled to include both women and people of colour whose stories I avidly read.  The women included Joan of Arc, faithful martyr to a cause; Marie Curie, two-time Nobel prizewinner; Florence Nightingale and Laura Secord, who sought the battlefields heretofore trod only by men; Amelia Earhart, intrepid aviator; Anne Frank, diarist of atrocities; and Rosa Parks, igniter of a movement.

The men included Mahatma Gandhi, champion of non-violence; Jackie Robinson, who broke the colour-barrier in major-league sport, beginning in Canada; Willie Mays, the ‘Say Hey Kid’; MLK, another martyr to a cause; Bob Marley, the reggae Rastafarian; and Harry Jerome, world record-holding sprinter.  Sports heroes were prominent, of course, befitting my own predilections.

A common theme running through these lists, although I may not have been aware of it at the time, is the willingness on the part of these iconic figures to persevere through all manner of tribulation before finally achieving success.  However, I also admired others whom some considered failures, despite their ablest efforts against all odds to attain their objectives: Horatius at the bridge; William Wallace of Braveheart fame; the doomed troopers of the Light Brigade; Jimmy Carter, a one-term US president; Terry Fox, forced to surrender short of his goal to a relentless cancer; and Roméo Dallaire, who strove unsuccessfully to prevent the Rwanda genocide.  The passage of time, however, has heightened the regard in which most of us now hold their accomplishments.

A number of the people I looked up to, although famous in their own right, have been linked inextricably in the historical record, rightly or not, to someone else.  Lee and Grant at Appomattox; Stanley and Livingstone in the Congo; Holmes and Watson in Conan Doyle’s famous works; Churchill and Roosevelt in WWII; MacArthur and Truman in Korea; Mantle and Maris of the Yankees in 1961; and Mandela and Tutu combating apartheid in South Africa.

All of these figures are from the past, however, so what of the present?  Are there people I regard as heroes out there right now?  Are there people to whom today’s youngsters might justifiably look for inspiration?

A partial contemporary list for me would include:  David Attenborough and David Suzuki, devoted to the preservation of our planet; Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, pioneers in the feminist movement; Stephen Hawking, physicist and exemplar of courage; Malala Yousafzai, girls’ and women’s rights advocate; Alexandra Octavio-Cortes, US activist and congresswoman; Greta Thunberg, climate change protester; and Alexei Navalny, Russian political dissident.

Almost everyone on that list is younger than I, unlike those who populated my boyhood lists.  They are all, if not politicians, quite skilled in the political arts.  And every one of them, devoted to the betterment of society, has put their commitment to their causes into constructive action.

None of the groups described in this piece is complete, of course.  Any of you reading them could come up with names of others who might accompany, or replace, my choices on lists of your own.  The most important of those, however, is the final one, the people you would consider heroes for today, people who will inspire and lead us to a transformed, more equitable society.

So, I leave you with this question as you consider the people I’ve mentioned—

Who else is there?

Bubba’s Shrimp

For two years at the turn of the century, my wife and I spent our winters in Gulf Shores, Alabama, five months each time, in a modest, seaside cottage painted a lovely periwinkle, perched on stilts above the sand.  With two bedrooms and two bathrooms, an expansive deck looking out on the Gulf of Mexico, and a large, fully-equipped kitchen to enjoy, we were as happy as two transient northerners could be.

We golfed three times a week at several of the south Alabama courses, toured the area extensively, including a couple of ferry trips to Mobile, and walked the beach every day.  Despite the chilly waters, we even managed to frolic in the Gulf on a number of occasions.  On our off-days, we planted ourselves on the deck, eyes almost blinded by the sun’s glare on the whiter-than-white sand, entranced by the ever-shimmering aqua-emerald-blue waters of the Gulf.

Fortunately, we had decamped to warmer climes nearer to Sarasota by the time Hurricane Ivan ripped through the area in 2004, destroying the quaint community we had lived in, leaving us with nothing but pictures and fond memories.

The fondest of those is of a place we learned about from Willie, a wizened caddy who regularly humped both our bags at one of the golf courses.  Once he learned we were seafood lovers, he insisted we visit Billy’s Seafood, a local store in Bon Secour.

“Y’all gon’ thank me,” he said.  “Jes’ make sure to talk to Bubba.  Tell ‘im Willie sent y’all by.”

We found Billy’s Seafood at the end of River Rd. on the Bon Secour River, a haphazard collection of buildings hard by the piers where the fishing trawlers and shrimp-boats tied up.  The motto emblazoned on the main building said it all: IF IT SWIMS…WE’VE GOT IT!

Before going inside, we strolled down to the piers, marvelling at (and smelling!) the variety of seafood being transferred by conveyor-belt from the boats to the waiting fishmongers—shrimp, crabs, oysters, Flounder, Mahi-Mahi, Amberjack, Grouper, Tuna, Snapper, and Cobia.  Once in the store, we saw tub after tub of the harvest, freshly shelled, filleted, and cleaned, all being raided by hordes of eager customers. 

Being first-timers, we were a tad reticent to join the throng until we found Bubba, who turned out to be a large, middle-aged man with a gray-white beard, smelling of fish, clad in white pants, white t-shirt, and white apron, all stained from his hands-on approach to filling orders.  He knew Willie, of course, and welcomed us with open-armed hugs to which we submitted somewhat apprehensively.

Despite the crush of customers, Bubba toured us through the place, offering advice as to what might please our palates.  I don’t remember the entirety of our first order, but I do know we came home with a bag of Big Daddy Jumbo shrimp in the box, and Bubba’s ‘secret’ recipe for preparing it.

“If y’all do ‘zactly as I say, these shrimp gon’ be the best you ever ate.  I damn-sure guarantee y’all gon’ come back here an’ hug mah neck!”

To this day, twenty years later, it remains one of our very favourite dishes.  We started by washing and butterflying the shrimp, then inserting a sliver of jalapeño and shard of sharp cheddar between the folds.  Next we wrapped each one in a slice of hickory-smoked bacon, held fast with one or two toothpicks, and then marinated the batch in tangy Italian dressing for a couple of hours.

Bubba’s directions specified grilling over charcoal, but the best we could do was a propane-fired grill, an old but well-maintained rig on the deck.  It had three burners, so I placed the shrimp on the unlit middle one, and cooked them slowly, convection-style, using the two outside burners.  The timing was crucial according to Bubba, but he offered no specifics, saying it was up to the cook to judge the precise moment when they’d be done to perfection.  More by random chance than culinary skill, I managed to cook the shrimp just right that first time, taking them off the grill before the bacon got too crisp or the cheese all melted away.

We ate them on the deck, watching the sun sink lazily into the Gulf—accompanied by a Cajun rice concoction, a light salad, a crisp Pinot Grigio, and a lovely Mozart album on the stereo.  As I recall, our impression at the finish of the meal was that we should have cooked more of them.

And indeed we have in the years since that first feast.  The shrimp we find in Canada do not compare to Bubba’s, of course, but they suffice.  And when we are in Florida, we try to buy the freshest we can find so as to most closely approximate the texture and taste we remember so fondly. We often eat them now with red pepper added, and a pasta dish.

We shopped at Billy’s Seafood several more times during those two years in Alabama, and spoke with Bubba each time his shifts matched our visits.  On one of those occasions, we presented him with a bottle of bourbon to thank him for his kindness, a gift he graciously accepted.

I must confess, however, that we never did hug his neck.   

Who Abides?

The Dude abides

That’s a line from the 1998 film, The Big Lebowski, which has achieved almost cult status.  The dude in question is the main character in the film, Jeff Lebowski—played by Jeff Bridges, and based on Jeff Dowd, a real-life friend of the moviemakers, Joel and Ethan Coen.

The significance of the line has evolved over time, from a simple declaration that the character exists, to a more profound interpretation that he endures the many perturbations in his life and survives them.  In other words, he not only is who he is, he is cool with it.

I, however, have always taken a slightly different meaning from the line, one more in harmony with the archaic meaning of the word abides—to remain, to continue, to stay—as in the old hymn, Abide With Me.  Under my interpretation, the Dude is defined by those traits and attributes that constitute his individuality, the personas he inhabits, and which remain a part of him to the end.

In the film, we see the Dude as he was at the age of forty or thereabouts, over a period of a week or so in 1990, a small sliver of time in what we might assume was a lengthy life.  We do not see him as he was in his formative years, nor do we see what he might have become in his dotage.  Thus, the character abides in our memories only as a sliver of his entire self.

By contrast, if I look at myself, I see a more complete range of the personas I have occupied from childhood to present-day, many of which have overlapped.  These include son, brother, student, friend, employee, husband, homeowner, father, investor, player-of-games, writer-of-books-and-blogs, singer-of-songs, traveller, retiree, and grandfather, to name a few.  Over time in these various guises, I have journeyed from self-centredness to a broader awareness of the world around me; from a laissez-faire perspective to a questioning of the status quo; from near-certainty in my thinking to more patience for countervailing arguments; from confidence in my physical prowess to a reluctant acknowledgment of my increasing frailty; from a blithe belief that life would last forever to a comfortable concurrence that it won’t.

As Gibran wrote, Life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday.

Several months back, I wrote some haiku verse about the link between boyhood and manhood, influenced by Wordsworth’s statement, the Child is father of the Man

from my aging eyes,

the boy I once was looks out—

hardly changed at all

now well beyond my

diamond jubilee, the

man is still the boy

While the sentiment is true in many ways, it is ultimately false, for I have had to abandon more of the incarnations I have lived than I’ve been able to maintain.  And many of those that abide are more passive now.  I am a father still, but not one who is actively needed on a daily basis by his children; I draw from my investments now, rather than adding to them; I am a player of far fewer games than during my halcyon days, and those that remain are much gentler; my travels are more curtailed, even in non-pandemic times; I roll creakily out of bed every morning—gratefully to be sure—but no longer bounding into each new day.

If, as the haiku verses claim, the man is still the boy, and if that boy is looking out unchanged, he must surely be exclaiming, What the hell happened?

Despite that, however, this tract should not be construed as a complaint, as a railing against the coming of the end-times.  It is intended, rather, as a wry observation of the inevitable decline that accompanies the march of time, to the accompaniment of  gentle, knowing laughter at the conceit that it could ever be otherwise.

The question does arise, though, as to who exactly I will be when I eventually cross the bar.  Which of these many personas will still be present to accompany me out, and how many more will have already taken their leave?  The answer, which matters to no one but me, lies partially in the list above; and I know it will not be I who will decide.

Still, I wonder.  I have been so many people over my almost four-score years—some of whom I liked, some I regret being, some lost to the fog of time, and some still a part of me.  In spite of my years, I remain convinced that I will continue to grow, to adopt new personas even as I shed longstanding ones.

Is that what we might have seen happen with the Dude if that long-ago movie had allowed a broader viewing of his life?  I like to think so.  And had that been the case, the opportunity might have helped me to find an answer to my own ultimate question.

Who abides?