Certainly some of us have gotten involved in interlocking relationships involving the same people over a considerable period of time—relationships that seem to be going nowhere, at least going nowhere of any consequence. And, over the years in which they are rather sporadically and casually recalled, nothing approaching clarity of understanding ever emerges, as to what they were all about.
Such was the relationship between my father and my uncle, brothers-in-law of each other. They really didn’t have much in common. My uncle was single, having never married though rumor had it that, at one point, he was seriously involved with a lady friend. He remained, however, the quintessential bachelor, and, with the passing of years, became a stalwart of his Catholic parish, even to the point of daily mass. He lived in the family home and cared for his aging mother.
But he was a modest success in what he put his hand to. He worked for the same company all his life—over 50 years—a railroad company, and upon retirement received the customary gold-plated pocket watch, inscribed with his name and the years of his employment. He never attended college (a relative rarity in those days), but did graduate from high school. Rumor had it that he was a good sprinter on the school team, and that, as he grew older, he was quite adept on the golf course. His only passion seemed to be playing bridge, and his name would periodically appear in the local daily newspaper about being part of a foursome that won a local bridge tournament. When all was said and done, it could be said of him that “he was a successful city boy”.
By way of contrast, my father, approximately the same age as my uncle, was a country boy, born and raised on a farm raising corn and tobacco. He and his several brothers worked the farm with their father, doing the grueling work of plowing the land, not with mechanized or motorized equipment, but with the stubborn and recalcitrant mule that was little inclined to be collaborative. He was a product of the one room schools common in that part of the state, but never graduated from that modest institution.
He left the farm at his earliest opportunity, which came his way with the First World War. He joined the naval expeditionary force that sailed the Atlantic. Following the war he moved into an urban environment, where he met my mother, and married her. That put him in contact with my uncle, mentioned above, and they became in-law related. His background equipped him for the two loves of his life: hunting and polo. He toted his shotgun to the countryside in the fall of each year, looking for quail and pheasant, and he took advantage of any opportunity offered him to mount a horse and engage in a game of polo.
This is the background of these gentlemen. They didn’t have much in common. And they didn’t converse much together. How it came about that a wager emerged between the two of them, by now in their thirties, that one could outdo the other in traversing the rugged terrain of a large local city park is beyond comprehension. The plan was to leave the house at the same time, heading toward the park by different routes, scrambling through it, and arrive back home first. I had a cousin my age who was privy to all these machinations, and he and I, just boys, agreed we would follow them, to see what would happen. Both of the contestants suspected something like this, and warned us not to think of it, but we did.
So off they took, each with a determined look about them, and we two boys followed them, each of us choosing one of the contestants, while remaining at a respectful distance. It was a sight for sore eyes, watching them slip and slide, climbing rock formations, slogging through streams, and finally, after about three hours, stumbling home, dirty, sweaty, scratched, bitten by varmints and exhausted.
My cousin and I could never figure out who won, since they took different routes. But they returned to the house at about the same time. They had a few words of disagreement between themselves, as to who was the winner. But the topic was never raised again, leaving the great unanswered question: what was the point? What were they trying to prove? Did it make any difference?
Their more or less non-committal relationship never changed. Of course, they are now both dead, as is my cousin, so I am likely the only living family member who witnessed this strange episode. But it ranks up there with myriads of other similar incidents, leading to the familiar situation we have all faced: proving a point. But so often, as in this instance, a point can be made and finalized, with only one unanswered question: what point?
How often have we resolutely set off on undetermined pursuits and apparently finalized our tasks, though wondering, at the end, why did we do it? Did it make any difference whether the city-boy or the country-boy won the wager, whatever it might have been, when the wager wasn’t clear, and most people could care less anyways, including, apparently, the contestants?