Coffee with John

A dear comrade of mine passed recently, one John Gilman – and when I say “one” John Gilman, those of us familiar with this man immediately recognize the redundancy. He was singular in his time. As we may remark casually to a friend, mutually admiring some phenomenal relic of the past, “They don’t make ’em like they used to!” If anyone I knew embodied such a phrase, it was Mr. Gilman.

Once you live to a ripe old age, you seem to reach a point where very few people, if any at all, remember you when you weren’t old. In the time that I knew John, the past 10 years or so, he was always old. Not just “older” but old. Like, Great Depression old. Steam locomotives old. Nazi-killing old. HUAC old. You get the point.

What a privilege it was. What a privilege to be able to sit down with an elder over a boiling hot cup of coffee on so many freezing Wisconsin evenings and look back with him over those many years. John told stories the likes of which I had never heard before.

John could bring me back to his grammar school, as he threw the principal down a flight of stairs. Back to the Depression as he sauntered nightly through the saloon district of his hometown, Chester, Pa., peddling magazines and tomatoes. Back when the buzz bomb destroyed the hospital where he was being treated during the war, catapulting him a hundred feet in the air, breaking his back. I could go on, but then again, there’s a reason that he published his autobiography.

Those afternoons and evenings with John were equal parts inspiration and nostalgia. Ten years ago, before May Day was reborn in the United States with our brothers and sisters in the modern immigrants’ rights movement, the flame was kept alive through stories like John’s stories that I am sure many of us can recall our elders passing down to us. The streets filled with throngs of workers bearing red flags and picket signs on May 1, militant sloganeers often literally painting the town red. Such stories kindled my own imagination.

I have to wonder on whose shoulders the responsibility of the past rests. Is it up to the younger generation to listen to our old-timers and the stories they pass down before they pass on? Or are our elders the ones we must hold accountable for our history? Where does the past begin and where does it end?

In its ideal form, the past is a dialogue, a burden that no one generation should bear individually. It is something to be shared, even if it is unpleasant to our ears. At the risk of sounding a bit too purple in my prose, this communion of memories is one of the great ways that we humans have been able to show our love for one another, generation after generation.

After countless cups of coffee with John, I only now realize that I was really drinking history. I sip another cup and think about my dear friend as I write these untamed thoughts. I see the lesson of those afternoons and evenings. I’ll say it as directly as I can – we must love our elders, listen to them, learn from them and care for them. Not because the thought that they may not be with us someday is never far from our mind (or theirs), but simply because they are here with us now, the only time that truly matters.

Photo: John Gilman wears his uniform and many medals at an anti-war rally in Milwaukee, Wis. (PW file)