When we were in high school in the 1950s, our house was always full of our friends. We had World Books, atlases, and other reference material in the apple crate bookcases in the living room. One afternoon a bunch of us were complaining as we moved our homework from the dining room table to set the table for supper.
“Why do we have to study these boring old poems that go on forever. They are full of big words nobody ever uses anyway” I said.
“What poem are you studying?” Daddy said.
“Something called Thanatopsis. It is very long and full of words we have to look up and be able to tell what it’s about.”
“It ends like this, he said,
“So live, that when thy summons comes to join The innumerable caravan, which moves To that mysterious realm, where each shall take His chamber in the silent halls of death, Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night, Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
“Wow, Mr. Graham, how did you remember that?”
“I studied it in high school. We were required to memorize poems or Bible passages every week. It was not enough to understand it, we had to recite it. Elocution was a required part of high school, teachers call it speech now, I think.”
“What does it mean?”
“It’s a poem about living well so you don’t have to be afraid of dying”
While we were eating supper Daddy went on.
“The bible says about the same thing.” He’d push his chair back, look aound the table at family and guests.
“It is important to know what is important to you. Other people have thought and lived the ideas you are learning now. The Bible says it a different way.” A long poem there says,
1 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
2 While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
3 In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
4 And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
5 Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
6 Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.’”
“Solomon wrote this about getting old, with trembling hands, and weak legs, eyes dim, and hearing fading. He said that choosing to live life wisely when we are young leads to fewer regrets when we no longer are all powerful and in charge.”
I don’t know how well we listened, but it was better that the lectures parents often give. It was as if he were giving us a magic secret.
“Mr. Buster must have memorized the whole bible,” one of my friends said, as we washed the dishes. “He sounds like a school teacher.”
“I don’t think so, He just reads a lot. He likes that kind of stuff,” I said. When I quoted my father’s interpretation of the poem in class, my teacher, Miss Pauline Neighbors, asked, “Is your father a professor at the University?” I answered, “No, he’s just a mechanic.”
During daytime, Buster Graham worked at the Tuscaloosa County Road machine repair shop on bulldozers, gravel road scrapers, and sheriff’s cars. He came home and read Longfellow and Shakespeare, Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. Sometimes our history books disappeared and we found them where he had been reading. When he talked about Thomas Jefferson and his library and gardens, we felt as if we had been there.
“If you can keep your head when all about you..” he’d start.
“Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” we knew to respond.
Buster and Annice Graham liked having young people around(or at least seemed to) so much of the social life for young people in the community was centered at their house.
Although his ideas were considered extreme in the rural community, today they would be called liberal. His high school teachers taught progressive ideas about labor unions, and public service for every citizen. In Romulus the farmers appreciated his being able to wire a house or put in plumbing. This modified the skepticism they had for all his talk of book learning. They called him when cars wouldn’t start or their new electric well pumps were shorted out by ants. The side work paid the bills when he was off, too sick for bulldozers. They approved his playing piano at church with the oil stains under his fingernails, because he could also keep tractor engines running long after others had given up.
The cold January day he was buried, there was not standing room in the church, cars filled the churchyard and were parked all the way down the half mile drive from the highway, and there were so many donations in his memory that the money remodeled our Masonic lodge.
Dorothy Graham Gast