Unfolding the Map
Wallula, in William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) estimation, is a town that once had potential but is now a has-been. I'll look at the concept of being washed-up and of being "a contender" in the context of life. To see where Wallula sits either living or languishing, depending on your perspective, take a look at the map!
"Old Wallula was one of those river settlements you can find all over the country that appeared destined to become key cities because of geographical position. Sitting at the confluence of the Walla Walla with the Columbia and just a few miles downstream from where the Snake and Yakima meet the big river, old Wallula was a true joining of waters (the name may be a Nez Perce word meaning 'abundant water'), although if you lift your gaze from the rivers you see desert. Astride the Idaho gold rush trail, Wallula began well: riverboats, stagelines, railroads, two highways. But money and history came through, paused, and went on."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 10
"I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it."
Terry in On the Waterfront
Remember that line? It's Marlon Brando's character Terry bemoaning his fate as a washed up fighter who took too many dives and never got his shot at fame. Many of us have had the feeling at least once in our lives. What might I have been? To what heights might I have risen? If I'd only gotten that chance I deserved!
Look at me, for example. I have had lots of dreams in my life. Some of them, dreams I had when I was really young, were unrealistic and were rightfully discouraged, destroyed or set aside. I had the usual childhood dreams of being a football player or an astronaut. Of course being a somewhat wimpy kid with glasses, asthma, a huge overbite, and a lack of coordination made those dreams a little difficult to achieve. Later, as I grew into my body and some of the other issues were addressed, my dreams became a little more realistic, but only marginally. In high school, my fascination with space led me to want to be an astronomer. But sometime, a guidance counselor set me straight as to the career prospects of astronomers so my fascination just stayed a fascination, but nothing else.
There are other things that I regret. Don't tell my wife but I've sometimes wished that I had been more adept at dancing when I was younger. I tell my young male friends now, and they never listen to me, that if they want to have more options for dating they have to learn how to dance. Most women I know love to dance. Most men I know do not. Yet, what's the harm in learning something new and opening up opportunities to meet people? Had I known how to ballroom dance, or swing, or salsa when I was a young man looking for fun and companionship, I would have had a hell of a lot more dates and probably a better time. I would have been a contender, despite my awkwardness, with the ladies. Besides, I've discovered that dancing is fun!
I regret sometimes also that I am not working in my chosen field of teaching political science. I love teaching. I love being able to connect with people and introducing them to concepts and to new ways of thinking that they may have not or been unable to consider before. I love getting people excited about something. I live for opening someone up to new concepts. And I must say that I get to teach - I'm teaching an online class and a face-to-face class this spring. But I still find myself regretting sometimes that I'm not in a political science department somewhere teaching full-time.
But that's the irony about regrets. The only reason we have regrets is usually because we aren't happy today and we look back on the "missed opportunities" as unexploited gateways to a better life that passed us by. In reality, unless our lives are completely horrible, we usually follow the paths we tread and we find the good, the joyful and the wonderful in them. We may have the occasional regret when we are under stress or something has gone wrong and it's only then that we think that we "coulda been a contender" with some other life. In fact, in getting where we are now, where I can write a post on being a contender and you can sit and read it, then we were contenders and we contended well! We got our shot at a title and we made the most of it. We could have taken shots at other titles, but we didn't. Who knows what might have happened had we taken another path and fought another fight? Instead of standing, we might have been on the mat.
I watched a Twilight Zone episode recently, notable for the starring role of African-Americans in this episode, about another washed up fighter who, through the powerful wish of a little boy, gets a chance to be the fighter he always wanted, instead of the has-been he is. On the mat after being knocked out, suddenly he finds himself declared the winner. The young boy tells him the fighter that he wished really hard for him to win. However, the fighter can't believe that the wish is actually responsible for turning his fate around, and refuses to believe. At the end of the episode, he is back on the mat and has lost the fight.
Which brings me back to LHM's quote. He presents Wallula as such a place. It could have been a contender because it had things going for it. It had geography and gold rush money and all of the trappings such as steamboats and trains and highways. It had money coming in. But, for some reason Wallula didn't become a major place; it became an out-of-the-way town in the eastern end of a largely rural state. Is that bad? No. It just is. Perhaps some who live in Wallula wish for bigger and better things, but probably many who live there like it just the way it is right now. Sure, it coulda been a contender, and coulda been something different. Maybe Wallula didn't believe enough in itself and got passed by. But maybe that's all just as well. Maybe Wallula is just what it is supposed to be.
The first song that came to my mind with the theme of this post is the wonderfully melancholic Billy Strayhorn classic, Lush Life. I am going to list the lyrics after the video because they are so amazing - Strayhorn wrote the bulk of this sophisticated song when he was only 16. One wonders what he had experienced to be able to write such a song at such a young age. To me, it speaks of loneliness, and of people washed up bedraggled on the shores of life and not willing to jump back into the currents and swim. It's easier to be caught up in a backwater and "rot with the rest," as the song so poignantly states. This version is by the incomparable Nat King Cole . Though the photo says that it is from his 1958 album The Very Thought of You, the song was not on that album, so either this version is from 1952's Harvest of Hits or 1961's retrospective The Nat King Cole Story.
by Billy Strayhorn
I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come-what-may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life
From jazz and cocktails
The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distant gay traces
That used to be there, you could see where they'd been washed away
By too many through the day...
Then you came along with your siren song
To tempt me to madness
I thought for awhile that your poignant smile was tinged with the sadness
of a great love for me
Ah yes, I was wrong
Again, I was wrong
Life is lonely again
And only last year everything seemed so sure
Now life is awful again
A troughful of hearts could only be a bore
A week in Paris will ease the bite of it
All I care is to smile in spite of it
I'll forget you, I will
While yet you are still burning inside my brain
Romance is mush
Stifling those who strive
I'll live a lush life in some small dive
And there I'll be, while I rot with the rest
Of those whose lives are lonely, too
If you want to know more about Wallula
Next up: Walla Walla, Washington