It was an ungodly 5 a.m. on June 16, 1976, as I shook my father’s hand and boarded the Concord Trailways bus at what was then Freddy Prince’s IGA Food Liner. I was suddenly struck by the realization that this was the “end of the line.” Freddy’s was as far north as the bus went and so beyond Berlin was, and is still in some ways, a virtual and paradoxical wilderness.
Having just graduated from high school, I had used the intervening seven days to say my goodbyes to all that could be relevant to a man/boy of just 18. I had gone to a going away party at a friend’s camp on Cedar Pond, arriving home only hours before what was going to be an interminable succession of bus rides that would culminate at Fort Dix, N.J.
I had made my first poor nascent adult decision and liberally imbibed beer and bourbon as my contemporaries wished me well on my last night home. My childhood friends and I had talked well into the night about what we all would do and where we all would go in the intervening days, months and years.
Many would imminently leave to go to college or planned to work at the paper mill. I was somewhat alone and conspicuous in that I was going into the army at a time when a military career wasn’t a first choice in the immediate aftermath of the long and unpopular Vietnam War. However, I had convinced myself that I was only doing what my father and countless Americans had done. No one was beating down my door to give me a scholarship; I was simply another small town boy needing to find a purpose, embark on a path and make my own way in life. In that, nothing has really changed.
I can still see concerned look on my father’s face as we sat in the Dunkin Donuts shop prior to my bus departure. I tried unsuccessfully to consume a cup of coffee in my state of near post-inebriation with the knowledge that I had likely disappointed my dad. In some deep place in my mind and soul, I appreciated his forbearance in not attempting to scold me and it came to me that his unspoken words carried the weight that, it was now my job to be the “Captain of my ship and the master of my soul.”
It was a lot to take in at 4 o’clock in the morning and when I looked at the looming reality of the dawning day, I felt sullen, despairing and vastly uncertain over the choice I had made. In any case, there was no going back. To mark the occasion, my father had purchased for me a small wooden plaque that contained the poem oftentimes referred to as “A Father’s Prayer.” My dad was not given to emotionally laden gestures but at that moment his attempt at a meaningful parting of father and son left us even emptier and with little to say. I doubt that father and son partings are ever easy but I dutifully regarded his offering albeit with limited enthusiasm.
It reads as follows:
Your Family Name
By Nelle A Williams
You got it from your father
It was all he had to give
So it’s yours to use and cherish
For as long as you may live
If you lost the watch he gave you
It can always be replaced
But a black mark on your name
Can never be erased
It was clean the day you took it
And a worthy name to bear
When he got it from his father
There was no dishonor there
So make sure you guard it wisely
After all is said and done
You’ll be glad the name is spotless
When you give it to your son
Needless to say, it was not a poignant “movie moment.” I am not even on the bus yet and out of Berlin and as I read this poem, I was already guilty of sullying up the family name. My father’s inscrutable look betrayed he just might be harboring similar feelings. I slipped it into my pocket thinking to myself, “Just what the heck does he expect me to do with this thing, hang it above my bunk at basic training? The intervening silence between us was heavy but there was nothing left to say. Inevitably and thankfully the bus arrived and I boarded it, settled in and watched my father watch me leave my hometown. My hands kept reaching into my pocket and I must have read that poem a couple of hundred times on the 20-hour bus trip to New Jersey. That unadorned plaque accompanied me throughout the majority of my life’s travels and I never forgot the meaning or my father’s intentional message contained in the its simple lines.
Both my parents are still current Berlin natives. Except for a three-year stint by my father in the Korean War, they have resided in Berlin all of their lives. It took me 35 years to return to my beloved Berlin to join all the hardy and diverse people that strive and persevere in the Great North Woods. I’ve reinvented myself so many times over the years from my time as an Army Combat Medic to the person that now gets to drink coffee every day with my 88-year-old dad and mom.
My pilgrimage has taken me halfway around the world, and I have resided all over this great country from Texas to Massachusetts and many places in between. I spent my life working in medical research and have participated and witnessed the dawning and evolution of a technological world and a complete reinvention and attendant consequential changes, both good and bad, that such progress engenders. From that time to this day my certitudes of what to believe consume me to the core of my being and, like most of you, I have ever more questions than I have ready answers.
Recently, while conversing with my old dad on the many consternating topics of the day, he abruptly stood up and did an elderly and graceful human pirouette and with outstretched arms said: “You can only react to and control what is in your grasp, the rest depends on how far you want to reach out for.” I look at him a lot these days with a renewed appreciation. In my life, I have traveled more widely and variously than he, but we very much flow from a deep and common source that ultimately has its roots in the Great North Country and Berlin in particular. My dad is still as sharp, effective and independent as the day that he placed me on the Trailways bus more than 41 years ago.
So, there you have it. As for me, I’m pretty much a construct of rigorous scientific methodology, extraordinary mentors and teachers, formative experiences and lastly, my deep roots in a place that I have always loved but that I could not indulge given my occupational pursuits. My soulmate and wife Barbara and I feel a profound sense of pride and contentment to be part of the Berlin community. I want to thank The Berlin Sun for affording me a potentially recurring platform where, as a community, we might explore a continuing and respectful dialogue and a sharing of inclusive perspectives that can only better inform differing journeys and personal circumstances in these greatly changing times.
I am at heart “An American Refugee” who has finally had the opportunity to come home. My hope is that people might be ready to hear and to share some human interest stories. And maybe, we might begin some cracking good community conversations and hear and listen to the collective voices from “the wilderness” that comprise the great people of Berlin and all of the communities that make up the Great North Woods.
David W. Boucher
Proud North Country Resident