Climb the Mountain, Walk that Walk, and Swim With the Sharks…
There’s a trend today to travel to named places. Many visit Everest, stay around the bottom, or go to one of the base camps. Some walk the Camino in Northern Spain. Others go to the Carribean and swim with sharks.
As far as I can see, by witnessing the place in which some climber, saint, or explorer experienced his deliverance, we can hope to absorb some of his qualities. Not a bad idea.
I once went to see Francis Chichester’s Gypsy Moth in Greenwich. I felt inspired by looking, just looking, at that tiny vessel in which he’d circumnavigated the oceans of the world, through storms, hurricanes, and mountainous seas, to arrive back to the South Coast of England in one piece, man and boat. And all done single-handedly.
I was reminded of these kind of challenges recently. What triggered it was the chance meeting of an old pal whom I hadn’t seen in just on 50 years. We met as the two of us were visiting our respective parents’ graves in St. Ibar’s cemetery, or Crosstown, in Wexford.
I’ll call him Jimmy.
We’d first met in our late teens. Jimmy hadn’t been as selective as I‘d been in his choice of parents, and had come up through a background of poverty, hardship anmd wanton violence. He was a tough kid, resilient and brave. As far as Jimmy was concerned, his weakness was that he had a kind heart. It endeared him to many people, myself included. We both had musical aspirations. We encouraged each other in our efforts. I was half-way serious about what I wanted to achieve.
Jimmy burned. He had clear ambition, a scorching desire ,and an indomitable belief.
All this was exemplified in his decision to quit school, in the year of his Leaving Cert, in which he stood to do very well, join a showband, and go on the road.
Not too long after he’d done this, the showband scene began to wane, giving way to the rock groups and Folk movement, and as many of the bands became redundant, most of the musicians went back to their day jobs.
Not Jimmy though.
He kept practising his trumpet, studying musical theory and learning about other aspects of showbusiness. When the scene finally folded, Jimmy went to London, played with commercial dance bands, got into session work, and regularly played small jazz venues for his own enjoyment and musical development.
Then came the car crash. After the fourth or fifth operation, he was left with two nerve-damaged right-hand fingers, a nearly new mouth, new teeth, and no embouchure to speak of. Not ideal for a trumpet player.
He could, just about, coax some strangulated noises from his beloved instrument. So he started teaching, became one of the best in that business, and meanwhile continued his musical theory study. He submitted projects, and achieved success in the film music industry. He then financed and set up a musical instrument shop in Soho, having it run by two fellow-musicians who were good teachers and good sales people. For four years, the shop sold more in a week than many shops sold in months. Jimmy was beginning to think in terms of semi-retirement and devoting his time to full-time screen writing.
Then one day the shop didn’t open, and Jimmy was called. His partners had disappeared and so had Jimmy’s money. All of it. Huge debts had accumulated. Apart from the financial implosion, Jimmy was truly devasted by the betrayal. And it wasn’t just by his ex-partners. His wife had gone off with one of them, leaving two bewildered children with him.
He says they were what saved him.
By this time, he had re-educated his mouth and lips to blow a trumpet, and the other right hand fingers to negotiate the valves. Now in his late thirties, he was back on the road, and getting radio, TV and film work again. Slowly, doggedly, he kept to his purpose, month by month, year by year, and not only negotiated discounts on otherwise impossible debt, but put the children through school and college, and years later, in his late forties, found himself debt-free, sane, and sound.
Teaching again, and playing, and getting back into writing, with some success, he was experiencing a modicum of comfort.
When the cancer hit.
For three years he endured treatment, crippling doubt, but from somewhere, summoned the courage and will to persist.
Good health eventually prevailed, and he continued his battle with life and living, collecting an Honorary Doctorate from an American University School of Music en route.
I listened to his story, told matter-of -factly, with gratitude for having been able to give his children comfort, a sense of self-belief, and an enthusiasm for their lives. And he was enjoying some comfort too, with a new woman, at the onset of third age.
Jimmy had never been to Everest. Nor had he ever done a long walk in Northern Spain. And he had only a vague notion, and less interest, in the Caribbean.
But he had climbed his mountains, walked his walk, and swum with the worst kind of sharks.
We parted with the usual sincere promises to keep in touch. Maybe we will. I certainly hope so.
And I was left with a reinforced thought that it isn’t what happens to us in life, but how we respond to it, that so often makes us or breaks us. And further, whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, we always, always, always, have the choice to bring the best of who we are, where we are, with what we’ve got, to bear on it.