I think every day of my friend John who left the body a week ago at 103, in sound mind and body until the last few months when he needed hospice. I know he went out in good hands. John stands out for me for his attitude toward life. He had the coolest bookstore in the South, the Book Basement, in Charleston. I worked with him every working day for five years. He was such an essential encouragement for my education, I may not have finished without his sound counsel. After a certain point, I lost confidence in American education and its value. I went into school wanting to be a teacher. Left school wanting no more to do with the education system from either side of the desk. I would have liked to go to graduate school in something like Existential Theater or Egyptology. Couldn't have afforded it if I'd wanted to. So I read about those subjects and others. Bookstore was the only kind of work I wanted to do, though these were the last years of the small bookstores before the gigantic corporate bookstores and amazon, which is so easy I don't even miss bookstores.
A small bookstore custom fit to its customers seems to me a major cultural loss across the land. So much of the interpersonal business as it was in another time is gone over to the anti-personal corporate bookstore that does drone deliveries by GPS. It's a new age. Rents are out of range now for a small, personal business, and have been for a long time. John was fortunate to be able to keep the store going well unto retirement age. He was the WW2 generation, was a radioman in the Navy stationed in Alaska. He also went to the Citadel before the war. It was the time of the Depression (economic downturn) and he could not afford college. He went to the Citadel for free. He hated it, but it got him an education. To his last years he had nightmares of being late to some lineup drill they did. He was reading Dickens before first grade.
John grew up Catholic and had intense reaction to it similar to my reaction to fundamentalism. We were in theological agreement: no to all that. He had thrown off supposed-to morality and followed his guiding light of lines from Shakespeare, To thine own self be true.... It was the scripture he lived by. It had no organization around it, no church, no authorities, no supposed-to. I can't say that I ever saw or heard of John engaging in deception. He was inhibited, though not deceptive. He was one of many Southern liberals. Through my decade in Charleston, I only knew liberals. The reactionaries outnumbered the liberals. The divide then, late sixties, was like it is now, though without the influence of Rupert Murdoch and Karl Rove, to name a few instrumental in making the right wingnuts socially aggressive.
John was good to the people around him. In his retirement, he gave several annual scholarships to foreign students in the music department at the College of Charleston, scholarships that made it possible for them to study there. He contributed to his community in his own personal ways, ways he believed important. His career was distributing books to readers. Looking back over my own path from perhaps its last chapter, from this perspective I have come to see John a gift from God in my educational transition from Kansas through the Deep South to the North Carolina Blue Ridge. I did not know it then, but I knew something was ahead, a reason not to commit to Charleston. I had no idea what it was, but intuited I'd be going someplace else. The day the door opened for the possibility to relocate to Waterfall Road, then Road 1131, I knew this was it, knew I was going to the mountains, no turning back. Only a handful of my friends took the chance to go to the mountains a great opportunity. John was one. The ones who said I'd be back, I don't even remember most of their names. The five who saw the mountains my next step continue to be my friends. Though John has left the body, he continues.
william halsey himself