Paul Lee was an old friend from Aneta who died on April 13, 2013 at the age of 64. While I was visiting Aneta last week for the city’s annual turkey bar-b-que, I came across a letter-to-the-editor in the Aneta Star reflecting on Paul’s life. The letter was written by Paul’s younger cousin, Greg Lee, who grew up with Paul in Aneta before moving away while Paul stayed at home.
Greg’s letter seemed to have two themes – (1) Paul was an incredibly talented young athlete, and (2) because Paul clung to his youthful athletic stardom, he failed to realize his potential. The letter concluded with a lengthy quote from Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 song, Glory Days. The song’s lyrics describe a high school baseball star who wasted everyone’s time by incessantly telling boring stories of his glory days and who never amounted to anything.
According to Wikipedia, Springsteen wrote the lyrics to Glory Days based on a real-life encounter with a former high school friend. Springsteen was not an accomplished athlete in high school (see the video on You Tube; he throws a baseball like a girl in the 60s) and he admits to hating high school, so the song seems an obvious attempt to mock the athletes who were popular and successful in high school. Springsteen would do well to remember that Envy is one of the seven deadly sins.
As Greg’s letter indicated, Paul loved to talk about his glory days, and all of Paul’s friends will agree on that point. But, although Springsteen was clearly mocking high school athletes, I’m sure Greg did not intend to be critical of Paul. Rather, that part of the letter was probably intended to be a cautionary tale.
But if the letter contained cautionary words of wisdom for small-town kids, you might wonder if Paul would have agreed. Fortunately, I know the answer. A few years ago, while perched on a barstool in Aneta’s Whitetail Bar, I enjoyed a long conversation with Paul about glory days before I broached the subject of Springsteen’s song Glory Days.
Paul thought Springsteen’s song had it all wrong. Most people, according to Paul, have a brief opportunity to do something really dramatic and memorable, and that opportunity is most likely to occur with high school sports. That is when everyone’s attention is focused and everyone wants the same thing. Paul mocked the frustrated high school athletes who later attempt to find glory by competitively running a 10k or endlessly practicing golf. As he said, who cares then?
But everyone cares about athletic success in high school. It is a defining moment that lasts forever. I just watched a movie about high school football in Texas – Friday Night Lights – and the most inspirational point of the movie occurs near the end when the coach gives a stirring halftime speech – “I want you to put each other in your hearts forever because forever is about to happen here in just a few minutes.” Paul understood and appreciated the way Texans feel about high school football (Odessa Permian HS) and college football (UT Longhorns).
First Lady Barbara Bush once noted at a college commencement address that material success in life is relatively unimportant. As evidence of that, she said you’ll never hear of individuals on their death bed lamenting that they failed to achieve one more promotion up the corporate ladder. That would be chasing fool’s gold. But you can’t say the same thing about making or missing an important free throw in a District Championship game. That result will stick with you forever.
On a different level, Springsteen’s criticism of nostalgic reminiscences seems petty. I am reminded of the sage advice given by cowboy philosopher Gus McCrae to Lorena Wood in Lonesome Dove:
- “Lorie darlin’, life in San Francisco, you see, is still just life. If you want any one thing too badly, it’s likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”
Nostalgic reminiscing provides a simple, accessible joy to people who are not preoccupied with future objectives. Intense, never-ending ambition is fine for some people, but it is not for everyone. The crux of the matter is whether reminiscing prevents an individual from achieving things in life. People who believe that are guilty, I believe, of the logical fallacy that correlation implies causation (cum hoc ergo propter hoc, which is Latin for “with this, therefore because of this.”) I think it is more accurate to conclude that individuals who aren’t predisposed to forward thinking are more likely to enjoy looking back. There’s nothing wrong with that.
The solution is simple – Glory Days are worth remembering, but shouldn’t be shared with those who aren’t interested in them.
Returning to Greg Lee’s letter, he said that Paul had big ideas and plans that went beyond Aneta and North Dakota, and that, although Paul failed to leave Aneta, Greg was inspired by Paul’s dreams and left Aneta. This comment reminds me of some additional wisdom by Gus McCrae, who scolded Woodrow Call for disparaging a woman who didn’t get out of Lonesome Dove and instead died there:
- “It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living. I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live.”
Gus’s point was that an individual can lead a satisfying life, regardless of where. I believe Paul’s life in Aneta, not in San Francisco or New York, was satisfying. He managed the family farm and started three successful businesses, even though he never made it to Yankee Stadium. He once told me that if my brother Kelly, Jim Kleven, and he could attend a game in Yankee Stadium, they might as well die and go directly to heaven because they would have nothing more to look forward to in this life. That sounds like a man with sound priorities and one who is comfortable in his own skin. He lived his dream, not someone else’s.
Coincidentally, Time magazine had an article this week on the exploding interest in cremation, with almost 50% of the deceased people in America currently being cremated. One of the explanations proffered by the article is that, because of the baby boomers’ geographical mobility, they don’t have a single hometown to be buried in. Rather, they are born in one place, educated in another, work in several, and finally retire to die somewhere else. That is not true of Paul. He was a son of Aneta, and the people of Aneta will favorably remember him for many ears.
p.s., although Paul didn’t agree with the Glory Days lyrics, he was a Springsteen fan. My brother Kelly informed me that Paul’s three favorite songs were Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark (1984) along with the Doors’ Light My Fire (1967) and Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love (1967).
I had a friend was a big baseball player back in high school
He could throw that speedball by you
Make you look like a fool boy
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
but all he kept talking about was
Glory days well they’ll pass you by
Glory days in the wink of a young girl’s eye
Glory days, glory days
Now I think I’m going down to the well tonight
and I’m going to drink till I get my fill
And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it
but I probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
a little of the glory of, well time slips away
and leaves you with nothing mister but
boring stories of glory days