With Benjamin Franklin
Though there’s no disputing the gloomy odds
Against second chances, my favorite passage
In the book on Franklin that’s taken me weeks to read
Occurs near the end, on his voyage home,
His tours of duty in Europe finally behind him,
When he vows to give whatever time is left him
To the great love of his early manhood, science.
It’s not that he wants to go back to the fork
Left long ago behind him and take the turn
He didn’t take. It’s not that he would undo
His decades of public service, not even his failed efforts
To make an indifferent England cherish her colonies.
It’s just that now, having helped his country
Make its break from the past more than a daydream,
He’s free at last to proceed full time on the path
Of his deepest and purest pleasure.
No second chances for this eighty-year-old
With gout and gallstones. But instead
Of contenting himself with reliving his history,
He’s hobbling from his cabin when the sea allows it,
And his legs aren’t too swollen, and his stones
Don’t make even sitting up a torment,
To measure the temperature of the Gulf Stream,
Water and air, hoping to map its boundaries.
And when he’s chair-bound, he’s writing a paper
On how to keep hawsers from breaking in sudden swells,
Or suggesting improvements in the paddle wheel.
To treat his fervor with irony feels unseemly,
To flaunt my godlike knowledge that only fifty pages
Remain to him out of seven hundred,
That in ten, when the voters of Pennsylvania
Elect him their president, he’ll break his vow.
Good for him, when they send him to the Convention
To help with the Constitution, if he drowses off
During the longer speeches to dream
Of the laboratory he’d planned to add to his house,
And the many experiments that would have proven
We needn’t content ourselves with one life only.
Whatever they say about us, they have to agree
We managed to bridge the gap between
Those who arrived before us and those who’ve followed.
We learned enough at the schools available
To fill the entry-level positions at the extant sawmills
Our elders managed, at banks, freight yards, and hospitals,
Then worked our way up to positions of trust.
There we were, down on the shop floor
Or up in the manager’s office, or outside the office
On scaffolds, washing the windows.
Did we work with joy? With no less joy
Than people felt in the generations before us.
And on weekends and weekday evenings
We did our best to pursue the happiness
Our founders encouraged us to pursue,
And with equal gusto. Whatever they say about us
They can’t deny that we filled the concert halls,
Movie houses, malls, and late-night restaurants.
We took our bows on stage or waited on tables
Or manned the refreshment booths to earn a little extra
For the things we wanted, the very things
Pursued by the generations before us
And likely to be pursued by generations to come:
Children and lawns and cars and beach towels.
And now and then we stood back to admire
The colorful spectacle, the endless variety,
As others before us admired it, and then returned
To fill our picnic baskets, drive to the park,
And use the baseball diamonds just as their makers
Intended they should be used. And if we too
Crowded into the square to cheer the officials
Who proclaimed our country as fine in fact
As it is in theory, a few of us, confined to a side street,
Carried signs declaring a truth less fanciful.
A few unheeded, it’s true, but no more unheeded
Than a similar few in generations before us
Who hoped that the truth in generations to come,
Though just as homely, would find more followers.