A Phone Call from Santa Fe

We are hardly the only Vermonters who rise at dawn and take an early evening shuteye soon after the sun disappears beyond the ridge of Red Mountain. Farmers perhaps? No, just gravel road country folk who ignore TV and start yawning a few hours after All Things Considered has brought us the news without the commercial interruptions for dental adhesives, laxatives, or acid reflux remedies that surround snippets of news on the tube.

Occasionally the phone interrupts an evening’s reading—telemarketers offering a once-in-a-lifetime cruise to the Bahamas from Miami including accommodations and airfare at an unbelievably low price. Phyllis listens until the denouement ("So if you will just confirm your address and credit card information, we’ll . . .") because she is kindhearted and believes that even if callers make no sale, they get credit for a completed spiel. I am less generous and toy with the boiler room phone vendors, often switching into poor French and pretending I don’t understand English.

By some vague edict or other, such calls are supposed to cease by early evening. So recently when we were in bed reading, we were surprised to hear the phone just before nine. Make no mistake: those old rotary phones have a lusty ring you can hear 100 yards away—none of your effete, touch-tone buzzes.

"How are you, Arthur?" asked a youthful, disembodied voice I couldn’t recognize. Nervy as telemarketers are, none has ever cold-called and used my first name.

"I’m fine, but who is this?" Best to cut to the chase.

"It’s Paul. Paul Wengle. Remember me?"

Indeed. A voice from the past—a one-time neighbor, then a grade schooler, now calling from three time zones away, a reasonable hour in Sante Fe.

Enter Paul.
About a dozen years ago a neighboring professor in midsummer unexpectedly got an academic year of study abroad and was anxious to find nine-month tenants to occupy his house (for a highly subsidized rental) and care for his aging dog. He found Claire, a clerk at a health food store, and her ten-year-old son, Paul Wengle.

While Claire commuted in her beat-up Ford Fiesta to her job 15 miles away, a school bus deposited young Paul at the bottom of our steep mountain road about 2:30. He’d walk up to their empty house and even before shedding his knapsack would stroke and talk to the dog before letting her out. It turned out that Paul had never had a pet of his own, not even a gerbil. (Nor had he ever had a father either as far as I knew.) Arthritic dog and schoolboy soon bonded.

As I worked at home and ran out of steam by midafternoon, young Paul began dropping by to help me rake leaves, toss a football, or discuss the Boston Red Sox. Can you see us in autumnal Vermont, the wispy gray-headed elder and black-haired, sweet-faced youngster?

As winter settled in, he came directly to my house from the school bus. I would prepare hot chocolate and we’d discuss school, which bored him. No preachments from me about nose-to-the-grindstone homework if he ever wanted to amount to something. Instead I suggested with a touch of whimsy that he never let his homework stand in the way of his education. He was entranced with accounts of school dropouts who had become famously successful: the founders of both McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I found a youth-oriented biography of that notorious grade-school dropout Thomas A. Edison, which Paul read over a weekend.

Sometimes I supplemented Paul’s small allowance by paying him to tie up newspapers and magazines that we’d take to the recycling center. With the first snow, he shoveled with me. We set up a bird feeder.

Since my own sons were newly married and scattered around New England, I looked forward to his afternoon appearance at the kitchen door. He filled an afternoon void when I might otherwise play solitaire or rest on the couch with our 14-year-old marmalade tabby.

In June Paul and his mother moved away, and I lost touch with him.

During that evening phone call from Sante Fe, Paul recalled our afternoons together. "I often think about you and wonder how you are. You know you really started me reading. Remember that book about the fellow in the homemade raft in the Pacific?"

"Kon Tiki," I offered.

"That’s it, yes. How are you these days? What’s new?"

So this 22-year-old and I chatted. He was taking courses at a community college and managed two part-time jobs: clerk at a photography store and helper at a florist’s.

I thought we might exchange photos. He wasn’t sure he had anything recent but (prodded by me—was this a mistake?) he admitted his photography store took passport photos and he could have one taken of himself. He gave me his post office box address and assured me he’d write and enclose a photo. In these days of e-mail, could we (balding ex-teacher and youthful, part-time student) become pen pals? Or have pen pals gone the way of windup Victrolas?

Off to the Southwest went a snapshot of Phyllis and me at Ernest Hemingway’s former estate outside Havana. I wrote Paul that our visit to Cuba had been surreptitious and in fact illegal in the eyes of Uncle Sam. I chose this particular snapshot because I had introduced Paul to The Old Man and the Sea but not without pontificating on the symmetry of the six-word title: 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3. My letter ended by telling Paul his evening phone call had made my day.

So how to account for Paul’s lack of response after three or four months? No call, letter, photo. I had forgotten to ask for his phone number, and his post office box address was no help. There were no Wengles in the Sante Fe phone directory, but I did finally track him down at the second photography store I called.

Assuming an airy tone (no parental reprimand; after all, my own sons were hardly great correspondents), I asked, "So how are you, Paul? Survived millennium hoopla all right?" We talked a bit. After a brief lull he said to me, "You really helped me with my project, you know. Yours was the best response."

Project? Response? His call had been more than friendly interest?

"You see, in this Psych course I’m taking, we had this . . . well, assignment where we had to reach back to three people we hadn’t seen in years and see how they were and all and sort of, like, write it up.

Deflated, I managed to ask him in a toneless voice if he did well in the project.

"B minus, but I had some spelling mistakes which, like, brought my grade down."

My first reaction was that I had been conned, caught up in a phone scam like my fellow old-timers who buy long-life light bulbs over the phone. I wished him well with a jaunty "Hang in there, Paul."

Off the phone I forced myself to realize that those long-ago afternoons of mentoring were far from one-way. How satisfying they had been for me. If I had been used, it surely didn’t seem that way to Paul. Because of a college assignment he had reached out and touched someone from the past, but wasn’t it, as he might have put it, "like a learning experience all around"?

Within a few weeks I began to think of Paul once again with affection. Perhaps I’d mail off to that Sante Fe post office box the Jim Harrison novel I’d just read, no strings attached. No acknowledgments needed or implied. An unfettered gift.

Arthur S. Harris Jr.

Arthur S. Harris Jr., a World War II conscientious objector, lives in Arlington, Vermont. © 2001 Arthur S. Harris Jr.