By Al Craz
About four years ago teacher retirees in New York began a campaign to pass a COLA bill and protect their pensions. Inflation had cut them down big-time. So I wrote “The Old Teacher’s Story,” trying to inject some Anderson touches as a personal exercise. I tried for Anderson’s simple, folk tale approach, hoping that as in Anderson the simple begins to resonate in more complex and perhaps profound ways.
A county retiree newsletter published it. A COLA bill did not pass.
A few months ago, retirees again began a COLA campaign. I sent copies of the story to my reps in Albany. One called and asked permission to send a copy to the governor! “Sure,” I said.
Then, just a few days before a huge rally by retirees in Albany, the state teachers’ union published the story in their monthly newspaper, New York Teacher, circulation 435,000. I called and asked where they got it, and they said it was from a labor relations person.
The rally was a success. Retirees were promised a permanent COLA bill this year by the four most powerful politicians in New York.
A few days after, the union newspaper editors called and asked if my story were true. People were calling to ask where to send the “old teacher” a check. The spirit of Sherwood Anderson still lives!
When the old teacher retired after 35 years teaching in a public school, he felt good and said to his wife, “Let’s go!” So they took a little trip by car to the west and visited some national parks. “What a beautiful and great country it is,” the old teacher thought.
After that summer and fall passed, the old teacher fidgeted and decided to look for a job. Living on the pension would be tight. With inflation, things would get tighter without a cost of living adjustment. So he worked driving limousines and made a little supplement so he and his wife could eat out once a week in a small nearby restaurant.
That winter they planned a larger garden, and the old teacher went skiing once in awhile. They visited their two kids and the grandchildren. Occasionally the old teacher and his wife went to the city and heard the great music in the grand halls. They had always lived simply and these were good days.
Some years passed this way and the old teacher one June was in the garden and he realized he was tired and things weren’t quite right. His pension by now had shriveled because of inflation, higher taxes and bigger utility bills. If he and his wife took a little trip the tolls had all doubled or tripled, and gasoline was very expensive. The special trips to the city became impossible: parking spaces made more an hour than human beings; tickets, even a cheap restaurant, were beyond the old teacher’s reach. “Well,” thought the old teacher, “We will just have to give some things up.”
Summer he worked in the garden; the added vegetable garden came in handy. The old teacher knew the house needed new storms and screens, and painting. He had always figured he would do those things himself, but he was a bit tired now, and going up a ladder scared him a little. He did paint the living room and kitchen, though. “I must think of something,” he said to himself.
The house was theirs. they had created a fine garden over the many years. He trimmed everything, planted everything, cut the grass and kept it all alive and green. In the spring, tulips, daffodils and crocus flashed their colors against the green grass and shrubs. In summer, iris, phlox, lilies and hydrangea grew and flourished beneath his caring hands. When a grandchild was born he would plant a tree.
A patio behind the house overlooked the garden. “Our patio,” thought the old teacher. He and his wife could sit there before dinner in the summer under the old sycamores and have a drink, and hear the birds and see the flowers. Suddenly a dark thought–perhaps an intuition–flashed in the old teacher’s mind.
He lost the job driving limousines. Business was slow. But a nearby liquor store let him sweep up and straighten out the rows of bottles a few hours each week. He smiled quietly: “A master’s plus 60 sweeps clean.”
Sweeping one day, the old teacher remembered buying a case of champagne. “Probably for our 25th wedding anniversary,” he thought. “I was probably teaching college at night in those years. They were pretty good years.”
In the summer, the weeds lay beneath the lovely blossoms. And the old teacher tore them out before they grew high and shoved through the flowers to the sunlight. The ugly weeds sneaked beneath the swaying petaled stems, taking moisture and nutrients for themselves, away from the loveliness above. “There’s a story in this somewhere,” thought the old teacher, as he moved through the bed of flowers, carefully tearing out the hidden weeds.
One winter night after a simple dinner, the old teacher’s wife said, “The property taxes have gone up again. Over 30 percent the last years. Fuel oil is up again. We’re going to have to…” “I know,” said the old teacher. “Go into the savings.”
That winter was extra cold and long. The old teacher cut a lot of wood for a small woodstove in the living room. One night, standing in the bare garden, on a very cold, clear night, a full moon dazzling the snow, the old teacher carried an armful of cut wood toward the house.
Suddenly something grabbed at the inside of his chest and he stopped walking. He could hardly breathe. He waited. slowly his breathing became easier. The grabbing loosened and he continued into the house.
That night he lay awake in bed for a long time. Feeling alone and small in the dark, he thought about his old body and what was happening to it. He thought about the West. “Should have gone again. I wish I had skied more, traveled more…the lovely music…” and he slept.
The next morning blazed winter sunlight, brighter than summer because of the clarity and the new snow. The old teacher pored over the many books shelved neatly in the living room. “Ah! I knew I kept it. Death of a Salesman.” The old teacher flipped toward the end and found the lines, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away…a man is not a piece of fruit! Now pay attention.”
“I must send these lines to my state senator and my assemblyman. They will read them and understand why…well, why we must keep our house. Especially now. We created it. It is our art, created for ourselves. How else can I tell them that? Perhaps there are no words. But they must know about houses. They must worry sometimes about their houses. They pay taxes. They must know…”
The old teacher scribbled Miller’s lines on a neat white sheet of paper and added, “We just want to keep our house.” He carefully placed the sheets in the two envelopes, sealed them and put on the expensive stamps. Then he walked to the red, white and blue mailbox with the brave eagle on it and mailed his letters to the Capitol.
That year, once again, the Capitol defeated the bill increasing pensions for retired teachers.
The next year, the weeds grew through the flowers.
Al Craz is a retired teacher and Anderson collector, residing in East Moriches, New York.