A story by Giles Ryan (Korea)
Here in New England, about forty of us, old friends, have come together again to mark the fifty years since we all first gathered for Peace Corps language training, a shared experience followed by another, our time in Korea as school teachers, after which we were never the same.
Tolstoy long ago observed that there are only two kinds of stories — someone goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. All of us have done both. We all went on a journey long ago and far away, and then we spread out across Korea, each one of us a stranger come to town. The towns were all different and we each had our own experience, and we were all marked by it for the rest of our lives.
We are so pleased to reconnect like this, making eye contact with our past. Sadly, a few among our old friends could not come and a few never will, for they are truly absent. But most of our group are here, and have come with life-partners, so there are new faces, too. All along the decades since we last parted in Seoul, we have all built different lives.
Each evening we have a convivial gathering and share our life stories as well as the recollections of our adventure long ago. Many of us also share stories of our children — surely our greatest accomplishment, yes? — and show each other pictures of grandchildren and share anecdotes to illustrate their infant wit and flowering genius.
It has been so very long since I was in this part of the country. The place names of New England speak to me in another language. Aside from the recent Pilgrim English overlay of Boston, Concord and Milford (my mother’s hometown), there is also the rich and ancient substrata of Native American words, profoundly un-English, their consonants and vowels connecting in a way that makes its own music: Monadnock, Nantucket, Pawtucket, Narraganset, Chicopee and Mattapan. Living in the Pacific Northwest these past decades, I’ve heard another music, place names in other tongues: Chinook, Sammamish, Snoqualmie, Tillamook and Walla Walla. These rich remnants of cultures past are stark evidence of the vastness of America, for we can be certain that the Abanaki people hunting deer in the Massachusetts forest and the Duwamish people hunting whales on the shores of the North Pacific would have understood not a word of each other’s speech. But that was long ago. Modern flight has shrunk our continent to no more than several hours of tedious air time, and most Americans now speak the same tongue — more or less.
One morning of our visit some of us make the long ascent up Mount Monadnock. We like to think we are strong enough for this task, but in truth some of us must re-learn the difference between hardy and foolhardy. In the early stages, the roots and rocks are risers up the mountain, but overall this is a difficult climb, more difficult than what I’m used to in the Cascades, and as we go up and up, we see there is no path at all and certainly nothing like a staircase. But we help each other up and down. We are fatigued by the climb, some more than others (we are, after all, in our seventies), but we can put aside how much the last hours have taken out of us and instead we may consider what this time has given.
There is the splendor of autumn colors in New England, the reds and russets, beige and gold, earth and dun, and here and there the sight of an evergreen which may well wonder how he went astray and came into such gaudy company. I feel for these poor, piney fellows. True, they never shed their color, but they are monochrome, all dull, and much of a muchness, and each autumn sees them upstaged by the splendor of all these other trees which, to be sure, shed all their leaves but only after going through a riot of hues.
But aside from all this stunning beauty, we have the genuine pleasure of each other’s company. We are staying at different country inns, some on the Vermont side and others on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River, but we all gather together for a last evening dinner at the Chesterfield Inn, a beautiful setting and an excellent place to take photos and capture memories of the moment. Some of us are already wondering if — when? — we’ll gather again. We even speak of a year or two from now, surely no more than three, and assure each other we will be in touch.
After all, if you’ve ever gone on a long, long journey, and if you’ve ever been a stranger come to town, you cannot say you never will do so again. I look around the room and see these faces, now slightly altered but the essence unchanged, and I see adventurers whose company I joined so long ago, companions of the same exploit.
Unbidden, the lines come back to me, words from another context when Tennyson imagined Ulysses calling to old comrades to once again . . .
‘sail beyond the sunset and the baths of all the western stars.’ And he reminds the Achaeans how in younger days long ago they all shared ‘one equal temper of heroic hearts.’
I look around the room and tell myself, we share it still.
November 11, 2019