By LEON YOUNGBLOOD
Years ago, when I thought I might one day amount to something, I was assigned the task of interviewing a man whose years had reached the ‘century mark’. As my cynical editor put it, “He didn’t have sense enough to die young and healthy to make a good impression upon entering the hereafter. He’s waited until now, when he’s old and decrepit. He’s never done anything of significance, apparently, except live a hundred years. Talk to the man, ask what he thinks about it, ask how he did it, ask if it was worth doing. Maybe you’ll get a few lines.”
So, with these words and this assignment, I eventually found myself knocking on the door of a small, modest, white frame house. An old van was in the dirt driveway, with a ‘handicap’ license plate. A few neglected, old bird feeders hung on various limbs in the weedy yard. An old screen door did not hinder my knocking, for the top portion of the screen was missing; so I knocked on the old solid door behind it, and an old woman answered. I told her my name, stated my business and was welcomed inside, into a dimly lit interior. I was apparently in the living room. It smelled of age, of chronic dampness and ill health. A television was blaring and a fat man lay on a bed in a corner, watching it.
He directed his attention to me, though. The woman said, “I’m Thelma, and this is my husband Paul. You’re wanting to see my father,” she said. “His name is Durly, but most people call him Uncle Durly. And, yes, he turned a hundert an’ two just a few days ago. He still gets around. He’s out back. He should be in, in a few minutes.”
Paul, Thelma’s husband, was the only person I could be introduced to, at the moment. He apologized for being in bed and explained, “I have a bad back.” I did not doubt this was true, for he had to have been at least 70 pounds overweight, and that cannot be good for anybody’s back. My reason for visiting was restated, and Paul took an immediate interest. We somehow got into his life story right away. He was a preacher, maliciously relieved of his last pastorate because of his health. He told me of his impoverished childhood, his calling, the “Arkansas revival where over 80 people were saved,” and how the young pastor at their current church didn’t appreciate any of this in spite of all the advice and wisdom he (i.e., Paul) could bestow, and he did it all in an agonizingly long 15 minutes.
Before he was done, he compared himself to his namesake, the Apostle Paul. And he warned me about his father-in-law, too. “The old man’s a sex maniac!” he cautioned. “He’s a dirty old man!” Unless Uncle Durly had a fondness for young male reporters, I wasn’t particularly worried. And even if he was, I figured there would be no difficulty. After all he was “a hundert an’ two.”
But then, as if on cue, the “old man” came into the room.
I was not exactly expecting Durly to walk in, through a back door. I presumed he would be languishing on his death bed, gasping for every last precious breath. As per his son-in-law’s assessment, the man may have been a sex manic, but it could only have been along the lines of fantasy, and not ability. The man was blind, now, and mostly deaf. But all the same, he was healthy. His 77-seven year old daughter introduced us–loudly–and I began my interview.
I said, “Uncle Durly, you’re a hundred and two years old?”
Thelma took my arm. “You have to speak louder,” she said. “Like this: DADDY! THIS MAN WANTS TO ASK YOU SOME QUESTIONS. OKAY?
Durly absorbed this bit of information. He said, “Who is he? Is he from the gover’ment?”
“NO, DADDY. HE’S FROM A NEWSPAPER. HE WANTS TO INTERVIEW YOU.”
“He wants to what?”
“‘INTERVIEW’ YOU. ASK YOU SOME QUESTIONS. OKAY?”
This being established, Thelma turned the situation over to me. “UNCLE DURLY,” I said, and Thelma said, “LOUDER!”
“UNCLE DURLY,” I said, “YOU ARE A HUNDRED AND TWO?”
“I’m a ‘[bleep] fool!’ Why, you–”
“NO, NO, DADDY. HE ASKED IF YOU ARE A HUNERT AN’ TWO YEARS OLD.”
Durly settled down. “Oh,” he said. He reflected a moment, and said, “Well, I reckon I am. That’s what they tell me. I stopped countin’.”
This set the pace. We chatted a bit, at the top of our lungs, and Thelma helped tremendously. I got the particulars, the “who, what, where, when”–but even in my young journalistic mind, it seemed mundane. Durly really had contributed nothing much to the world, generally speaking.
Finally, I asked, “UNCLE DURLY, DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE TO LIVE A LONG LIFE?”
At this point, I thanked Durly. He extended his hand and I accepted the shake. His grasp was firm and strong. “I’s pleased to make your acquaintance,” he said.
“PLEASED TO MAKE YOURS,” I replied.
Other than the novelty of the man’s age, I felt I really did not have that much to present to my editor. Durly went to his room for a nap. It was all a little depressing, with the dim, dingy house, the bitter son-in-law, the feebleness of the residents–then Thelma asked, “Would you like to see his garden?”
“That’s where he came in from.”
“I’d love to see it, Thelma!” So Thelma took me from the living room, through the littered kitchen, out the back door and into Durly’s garden.
I was amazed. The garden covered the whole, small back yard. Neat, beautiful rows of vegetables met my eyes: Peas, corn, tomatoes, squash, herbs, all contained in small spaces. And there were flowers. Hundreds of flowers. Due to a severe ignorance, I cannot tell what kinds, but they were fragrant and beautiful.
“How?” I asked. “How does a hundred year old blind man do all this?”
“By touch, an’ by feel an’ smell, I guess. I don’t know. Dad ain’t never seen it an’ never will, but ain’t it pretty.”
I confessed it was. Thelma said, “I reckon you see, we ain’t much happy. My husband ain’t really nuthin’. I ain’t nuthin’. Daddy ain’t accomplished much, his hunert years, but look at this! I reckon the point is, you may live in a dung pile, but you can still slap the Devil an’ do something glorious!”
The editor did not go with the story. Said it was “too sentimental.”