Gene Nelson column

Gene Nelson 

In recent weeks I have found myself reflecting on the Simon and Garfunkel song, “Old Friends.” Many of you may recall it.

Old friends, old friends,

Sat on their park bench like bookends

A newspaper blown through the grass

Falls on the round toes,

Of the high shoes, of the old friends….

Can you imagine us years from today?

Sharing a park bench quietly?

How terribly strange to be seventy.

Old friends…

Hard to believe that I was in my 20s when I first heard this song. Simon and Garfunkel were in their 20s when they first sang it! And it was terribly strange to think of being 70. As I recall, back then we were told not to trust anyone over 30. But now I am 70, and yes, it is terribly strange. Who is that old guy I see in the mirror every morning? Actually he feels fortunate to have been granted another morning.

But what really started me thinking about that song from long ago was a recent fishing trip to the Rogue River in Oregon with, yes, “old friends.” It has to be 35 years ago that I made my first trip to the Rogue with these guys. A number of them have been going longer than that. “A time it was, and what a time it was, a time…” We camped for years. Cooked our meals outside and slept in tents on the ground, rain or shine. Guys would play cards and drink wine until midnight, then get up and be fishing in the river before sunrise. Yes, what a time!

But it has been a long time since I have been up and fishing in the Rogue before sunrise. Instead of tents, we now stay in comfortable cabins. Why go out early when you can remain in a warm cabin and have a second cup of coffee? Late night card games? Now just a fond memory. At 70, I am one of the younger members of our crew.

Yes, the Rogue boys have grown old together. We remember the saints no longer with us: Collins who, with a flick of the wrist, could cast a fly half way across the river and was so eager to teach the rest of us; Gary, who one night got stuck in his small tent and finally, in frustration, took a fishing knife and cut his way out. We share stories about each other and various river adventures that still make us laugh. How did we get that boat back to shore after the motor fell off? Then there was the night we tipped the battery over in a truck and stalled in the dark in the middle of nowhere. Wonderful stories. Of course, now we talk of grandchildren and prostates and hip replacements and blood pressure … old friends.

There was a certain sadness in the air this year. It is a long trip and for some of the guys, it is getting too strenuous. Physical limitations make that big river a bit too difficult and even dangerous, to wade. There was open discussion, wondering if this was our final trip. We know there can’t be many left. As we talked, I was reminded of these words from the Donald Justice poem, “Men at Forty”:  “Men at forty learn to close softly the doors to rooms they will not be coming back to.” Sitting quietly around the campfire, I wonder if we were hearing the sounds of those closing doors. 

And yet, there was still good wine to drink, great fellowship and wonderful laughter. Any sadness was muted by the awareness of, and gratefulness for, so much joy and good friendship shared for so long. We are better for having journeyed together — recipients of a precious gift which nothing can ever take away.

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