I’m at a car and bike show and find myself deep in conversation with George, a slightly-built man with kind eyes. The collar of his shirt, buttoned all the way to the top, is tight under his tan chin and his style is very NorCal chic. Without being told, I’d have never guessed his age to be in the 70s. He strolls between each display with his hands clasped behind his back, thoughtfully inspecting every immaculate antique. He’s wearing high-topped sneakers and kool-daddy sunglasses as little beads of sweat form across his forehead in the warm sun.
He nods towards my camera. “You must be a working girl,” he opines with a grin. I laugh and confess. He asks if I just shoot or also write and we retire to the shade as I give him the rundown. He nods, then hesitates a second before he admits that he never learned to read or write as a young man, an admission that I find fascinating. Just imagine how hard life would be when trying to navigate without benefit of written language. I’m immediately hooked into finding out how my new friend managed to cope for more than seven decades without being able to read.
“I was just too busy being a kid when I was young. I never applied myself but I was smart enough to pretty much get myself where I needed to go. Small town, farm life, I dunno. It just didn’t seem like that much of an issue. It got harder as I got older, of course, and when my wife discovered that I wasn’t going to be making much money and would probably always be a manual laborer, she left me. By the time I met my second wife, I knew I was going to have to do something. She was a great help though and she loved me enough to help me out a lot when I got a job as a sign painter.” He laughed at the irony, as did I while imagining a sign painter who could neither read nor write.
“I could draw and paint, and that was really all I needed,” he explained. And that attitude seemed to work for a time as his wife worked with him at home to learn to do both. She worked for the state and was very involved in raising his daughter by his first wife, which would be his only child. “We never had kids, Mary and I. I always figured it was just best, but she had really wanted babies. Turned out I couldn’t give them to her, but she loved me anyway.” He looks off into the horizon and kind of shifts in his sneakers as he dabs at the sweat with a hankie. “You know, people don’t realize that men go through menopause just like women. Did you know that?” I’m kind of surprised at the direction the conversation has taken and now I’m the one shifting about as I admit that I had, in fact, heard that before.
“See, now I can tell you’re getting uncomfortable but it’s just nature we’re talking about. My wife taught me these kinds of things. Men don’t really take care of themselves like women do and if you don’t get testosterone supplements, I take shots actually, then you don’t always think straight and you get these hot flashes. And that’s just part of the side effects.” He dabs at his forehead again. “You know, I am so grateful for my wife. We’ve had a good life and God knows that woman has been my savior from the beginning. I really am blessed and she’s raised me up right alongside my daughter. It wasn’t an easy job either. I was kinda wild, I rode a motorcycle and you know that guy Fonzie? He had nothing on me.” He laughs out loud and nods towards a young woman in short shorts and a tight-fitting shirt as she walks past. “Now look at that right there. See, there is nothing I can do about any of that anymore. Nope, not a damned thing.” He shakes his head and the dabbing intensifies. “But I can appreciate the beauty of her red hair and long legs and I can tell you that her shirt says ‘Harley-Davidson’ and that it comes from Texas.” He tucks the hankie into his shirt pocket and continues, “I can stop by the florist on my way home and buy my wife some fresh-cut flowers. I can go in and tell her how pretty she is and how much I love her and give her a little kiss as she makes my dinner. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do, young lady. You enjoy the rest of your afternoon.” And with that, George was gone.