Bayside Middle School made a big deal out of Eight Grade Graduation. I remember my dad had just gotten a new car; a very light yellow four-door sedan with tan leather interior. Although he had owned it just a few short weeks it already held his scent, a unique alchemy of leather, freshly hewn grass and some sort of aftershave that had a giant cork cap. On a warm, green May evening, he, my mom, my brother Chris and I were on our way to my Eight Grade Commencement, robe and all, when I uttered these words from the back seat “ah, commencement; the end.” My dad, without moving his head looked at me in the rear view mirror and corrected me “no, the beginning – commencement means beginning.”
Around this time of year television stations are fond of running retrospectives of what has transpired over the last year. The prominent events of the year are reviewed, those that died over the year are remembered and invariably some recounting of the last new years eve makes it in there as well. I have yet to see, though a year-end show that looks forward to what might be in the next year.
As a child I was sent off to a strangely strict boarding school called Maranatha Baptist Academy – a place that strongly discouraged individuality and creative thinking. I’ll get into some of the details about this place in other chapters, but suffice it to say it was a very regimented place. As a resident student at Maranatha I was not allowed to leave campus – period. The only time I was allowed to leave was to go to Wednesday night church for which bus service was provided, and to go home for the weekend. One night just before the holiday break, on the cusp of New Year’s, though I joined my best buddy Steve Normington for a ride in what he sardonically called his “half car.” It was half gold, half rust (the actual corrosion, not the color). This was the Dodge Duster he used to commute to Maranatha daily from his humble home near Hartford. The ride was only to be for several miles, just long enough to watch the odometer creep past 99999 over to 00000. Cars didn’t have odometers that went past 100,000 at that time, probably out of recognition of the fact that they rarely would obtain such mileage. Detroit called it “planned obsolescence” and it was part of an actual marketing plan to turn customers to new cars sooner rather than allow them to get in the mindset that they could keep going in the one that they had.
As we drove down some dark, nameless and desolate street behind Maranatha where the City of Watertown gave way to the kind of country that lies between all American small towns we watched intently as the tenths column of the odometer provided a countdown to the actual event. Sure enough, the 99999 gave way in small, inconsistent jerks until the odometer read 00000 again. Steve looked at me flummoxed, I looked at him, and we shared the anti-climactic moment. It was a little like the day after your birthday when everyone asks you “so, how does it feel to be ___? (fill in any age) Any different than ____?” (fill in any age minus one). It occurred to me that what we were really doing was celebrating our friendship and the times we had in that car. The odometer was just the excuse to get out and do it in a unique way. So it is with New Year’s Eve I think.
What is it we really are celebrating on New Year’s Eve? While some might cynically say “that we made it another year,” I think what we’re really celebrating is not the passing of time but that we are passing through it – and we pause for a moment to do some really good things: We gather with loved ones, we share of our time and energies with them, we help them feel special, we drink something special, eat something special; we resolve to do certain things better over the next year. We are stopping for a moment to acknowledge our greatest gift, time. In this way New Years Eve suffers from the same shortcoming of other holidays in that we only do it once a year and for the rest of the year the notion – be it giving thanks, just plain giving or acknowledging and enjoying the passing of time, is pretty much out of our minds.
It’s a fiction of course – we could choose to do this on any given night; countdown to midnight, kiss the one we love, embrace the fact that we’ve been given another clean calendar to fill any way we choose. Steve and I could have gathered around any change in his odometer, and by the time we got to Bethel College in Minnesota where we became roommates we managed to find many ways to celebrate in that Duster which now had well over 120,000 miles.
Two years almost to the day after our 100000 mile ride, that very same car slid sideways down an icy hill and struck a tree at speed. Steve fell into a 21-day coma and time as we know it changed forever for him that day. It took him years to relearn the things we all know by muscle-memory. About two years ago now I lost Steve to an untimely death, when he, frustrated with the debilitating after-effects of that accident, decided to take his own life.
I’m still waiting for that year-end television program that opens up the microphones and cameras and asks “ahead of you is _____ (fill in any year), what would you like to do with it? The calendar is blank – fill it in.”
The camera zooms a little closer to a middle-age balding man wearing a white dinner jacket tux: “I’d like to recognize what I didn’t understand at the end of eighth grade; that commencement means beginning, not ending. I’d like to have equal appreciation for passing through time that I feel tonight in every day of the next year – for tonight for me isn’t just the start of a new year but truly a commencement of a new era. And to continue to recognize that I can feel this way on March 24 or June 4 and any other day because the same is true on those days – I’ve been given the gift of time.” The reporter would only partly understand what he meant; with a little editing it might make the show. They raise their glasses, 5-4-3-2-1-0… and suddenly nothing changed, nothing other than time itself commenced.
By Clay Konnor