There is a quote from the 1972 movie Jeremiah Johnson that I have always liked. “There’s nothing wrong with quiet.” That’s something most people these days know little about and, in fact, don’t seem to care. I’ve wondered what it was like in centuries past when no cars or trains or airplanes existed to break the silence. When I was a young boy spending summers and holidays along the banks of the San Fernando River in central Tamaulipas, Mexico I had the opportunity to experience something approaching primeval silence. The nearest town was about thirty miles away. There was no electricity where we had our cabin and we cooked with wood and used kerosene lanterns at night. Sometimes when the breezes quelled to a hush and the pauraques stilled and even the owls took a respite from their haunting coos we could hear the distant rumblings of trucks as they ground their gears on the highway leading south to the city of Victoria many miles away. If you didn’t stop and listen carefully you would miss the tortured inhale and exhale: A slow and monotonous plea in the lowest registers as C slid into D flat and then to G. “Listen,” someone would say. “That’s a truck thirty miles away.” But other than that the quiet was intense.
Back in 1982 I drove from South Texas to Boston, Mass. On the road fourteen hours a day living on granola bars and coffee, and on the seat next to me in a small box a cargo worth more than gold: an echocardiogram of a little five-year-old boy who was going to have open heart surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital. All that mattered to me was my child’s health and safety. I think every parent knows exactly what I mean. That love does not diminish over the years and the greatest gift of parenthood is the chance to relinquish self for the rest of one’s life. When I passed Allentown, Pennsylvania I saw a luminous glow to the east. I stopped for gas and asked the attendant, “What’s that light?” He smiled and said, “That’s New York City.” I replied, “But New York City is a long ways off.” The attendant nodded and said, “Well, it might be but that’s still New York.” An hour later at about midnight I pulled over at a rest stop and even as cars and trucks sped by I could still hear the great roar of the city that never sleeps. At about two in the morning I drove across Manhattan and I remember seeing The World Trade Center in the distance. By the way, in 1969 I was in a taxi heading from Kings County through Manhattan and then to the airport to catch a flight to Houston and we drove by a huge construction project. The taxi cab driver said, “That’s going to be The World Trade Center.”
But on my way to Boston that lonely night in 1982 I drove across one of the bridges leading off Manhattan Island and all I could think about was putting as many miles between me and the madness all around. At four that morning I stopped in Worcester, Massachusetts exhausted. I rested a couple of hours and then drove on to Boston. At about two that same afternoon that very special five-year-old boy walked off an airplane with his momma. I can still see the look in his eyes when he saw me. Every father and mother who has ever loved their children with all their heart will understand why even now all these many years later I still choke up remembering that time. A couple of days later I helped wheel that little boy into an operating room. But that was a long time ago (though it often seems like just yesterday) and that little boy is now a doctor himself. As I write these notes a breeze blusters over the cabin’s roof and whips the limbs on the mesquite trees surrounding me. That is the sound of primeval quiet. Last night the dogs barked for a while. Was it a wild hog or a deer or perhaps someone moving overland nearby? I figure that I am okay in the hush that slips in after the dogs settle down. I glanced out the window at a darkness intensified by overcast skies. Earlier a pauraque had whistled for what seemed an hour. A calm and reassuring call that says all is well. Sometimes the coyotes will start singing and my dogs engage them with falsetto whoops and sliding portamenti. The clumsy acappella lasts a few seconds then abruptly stops. The concert is over.
I’ll take my guitar out on the porch and serenade my dogs. They don’t seem to mind. I might even decide to sing a song. They endure. I read in the evenings when I’m not out in my shop goofing around making a knife or a wooden spoon or maybe building a bow. A person should do divergent things in life. It helps the mind and the body. Spend your time on cerebral efforts and then work with your hands. Try to do it surrounded by quiet. That’s precisely why I dislike electric tools—an affront to the quiet surrounding me.
The sun is trying to break through and maybe the breeze will calm down by evening and I’ll take the dogs for the walk they look forward to after their late afternoon meal. I don’t have to tell them we’re going walking. I amble out of the cabin with a canteen dangling over my shoulder and they get all excited. When I grab my walking stick from the storage room they start jumping and can barely contain themselves. But we all know to keep it quiet. On our long walks (at least four miles) nary a word is spoken. I mimic the squeal of a rabbit and they know that means to hurry up. I make a whheest sound and they know to hold still. I freeze and they freeze. They freeze and I freeze. We sniff the breeze as birds chirp nearby. All the while quiet surrounds us. Yes, there’s nothing wrong with quiet.