ttending a funeral at the start of summer feels like how a lantern looks, a timid encasing that can’t solve darkness. The sudden death of a friend is as shocking as it is a fantastic interruption to a smooth June begun a continent away. Shopping malls and bonus cards yield to a dank rural church in which a diminutive priest endorses Latin homonyms, his eulogy seemingly overrun by loud vowels — overrun like the dead man himself. A family sobs with no telephones to distract them, for once sensitive to a supremeness of mood that doesn’t involve an immediate need to share or broadcast it. Crassness sits still.
The dead man was once a classmate who helped me with my first long history paper, an awkward effort to examine the highbrow English editorial mood in August 1914, in the weeks before the outbreak of World War I. His father helped me gain admittance to rooms containing well-preserved bound volumes of such newspapers as The Times of London and The Manchester Guardian. First in London and then in New York City, I plunged into reams of microfiche containing the editorials written ahead of the war.
The language was ornate and blustery, disparaging of the Kaiser, Europe’s bogeyman, but almost primly remote from the idea that all the fuss emanating from England’s south — the chaos of Balkan making and Austrian refining — could lead to war, let alone one that would evaporate the flames of many lanterns and disfigure a partly sophisticated continent.
My classmate was two years ahead of me, a lover of architecture, and interested in the genesis of war because of the harm it did to his beloved buildings, slowly at first in the first war, then totally in the second, when the line between civilian and military targets was made to collapse by the erratic miracle of air forces.
He graduated summa cum laude and went on to earn elaborate graduate degrees and design buildings; I earned nothing of the sort, instead pretending my way into the adult world through journalism, which required only the loosest of academic tickets, if any at all. He once gave a series of lectures I attended about too-tall buildings and the effect of skyscrapers on human mortality; they were disproportionately high to the human enterprise, he argued, thus creating an imbalance in nature. The possible shouldn’t always accept a calling.
When I finished my paper, I let him read it and he warned me that parts of it were overwrought. He also cautioned me about its length (it was in fact five pages longer than the maximum allowed). I ignored him and the paper received a failing grade because it had broken that simple but central rule. He advised me to appeal to my teacher, and I did: a shorter version of the same paper was given a passing grade. In all, he told me, a cautionary tale.
From what I know he began to cross a street but failed to complete the crossing because of a moving van — a lorry (a word with a cheerful ring) — that inexplicably throttled into reverse. He received a hard knock on the head from a flat metal surface but later suffered a sudden hemorrhage that killed him. One thing led to another, invariably and soon cataclysmically, like Europe a century ago, when similar first hard knocks didn’t seem at the start like an incipient death sentence. But they were.
Crossing the Atlantic in a hurry to then re-cross it with equal haste can seem a surreal burden when the reason for the hurry is met with unconscious resistance. It’s a bit like thinking rationally about mortality. The first few seconds are simple, if not quaint, because they don’t seem to apply to you. Mortality is traction in a vacuum. After which comes a more powerful realization, and the conscious mind is made to freeze in its tracks, a lantern lit in mind and escaped from swiftly — while such an escape still seems possible. Amen.