Special Report

Old Ironsides Redux

Reflections on life amid another devastating setback.

By 8.22.08

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Last week, I had one of the worst days of my life. I had assumed my kidney transplant would take place about October 1. I ordered dialysis supplies to be delivered to Los Angeles, and prepared to leave about the end of this month. When I sent an e-mail to my transplant coordinator telling her when I would arrive, she replied with what, for her, in her polite, mush-mouthed way, amounted to a flame.

Back off, she said. We still have months to go before you can think about coming out here.

This is the same woman who told me, literally, "Now all we have to do is...X," and said that X would probably take two weeks.

I had to wait three days to reply to her, tamping down every snide and nasty turn of phrase I might have included.

WHEN WE LIVED IN CHARLESTOWN, MY SON BUD AND I used to go down to Old Ironsides, docked in our harbor, and watch the firing of the ship's sunset cannon. I sold an article describing that experience to Army Times. The manuscript included the passage, "Bud loves it. I generally smoke a big cigar, and I love it, too."

The editor sent me a nice note, accepting the article. "Enjoy that cigar, big guy," he wrote.

When the article appeared, the passage above came out: "Bud loves it. I love it, too."

That's right. Army Times censored any appearance of tobacco products.

Old Ironsides itself, the U.S.S. Constitution, was an easy-going ship in those days. On weekdays, we could simply climb aboard and go anywhere we wanted. Bud used to like to crawl up on the deck cannons. We could go down a ladder and cruise the two lower decks. I have always wanted to climb a square-rigger's rigging up to the first crow's nest, but they wouldn't allow that.

The ship underwent a drastic renovation to preserve its structural integrity. It was torn down to the keel. When it was put back together, the easy times disappeared. So did the casual tourist traffic. Now, there is always a line at the dock, often of more than 200 people, waiting for strictly guided tours.

I'm teaching my younger son, Joe, to memorize Oliver Wendell Holmes' 1830 poem, "Old Ironsides." You might call Joe, who was adopted from Guatemala, borderline ADHD, and he's not an intellectual giant. He's a doll. He always gets right to work. We've got the first stanza pretty well memorized:

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar; --
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

I LIVED IN LOS ANGELES FOR 18 YEARS, from 1972 to 1990. To some extent, even as late as 1990, L.A. remained comfortably spread out. You could see growth, but there was still room.

No more. When I went this last July, I found the western suburbs of Los Angeles -- Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica, West L.A., West Hollywood -- absolutely buried in traffic and people, a stampede of money. People just can't leave anything good alone. It happened in Charlestown, where there is now no open space left at all. When Old Ironsides got buried in people, it sent a signal.

THE SECOND STANZA GIVES JOE SOME TROUBLE. I think we're going to have to separate it from the first and memorize it separately:

Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor's tread,
Or know the conquered knee; --
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Joe has had to learn a lot from this stanza. What does "knelt" mean? What does "vanquished" mean? What does the poet mean by "the flood"? What does it mean when waves are white? What is a "victor"? What about "conquered knee"? What is a "harpy"?

That's a lot of intellectual heft for an eight-year-old. It was hard enough teaching him about "ensign" and "banner."

For me, I think of "no more." In one of the most disturbing pieces of news from my transplant coordinator, she hinted that my donor perhaps would not work out, that, in effect, I would be untransplantable.

I can have an even worse day than the one I had last week. Sunday found me in the hospital with a bad dose of peritonitis. It will mean at least a three-week further delay in the transplant process, and may spell "no more" to the entire undertaking.

WE NOW GET AS FAR AS THE FIRST HALF of the last stanza:

Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

We deal with "shattered" and "hulk," words that apply as well to me as to the old ship. In the midst of all this trouble, I most fear that I will fall. In the shower, stepping down into the garage, getting into my car. I tread very carefully.

For this season, a suntan disguises a lot. My skin takes color quickly. "You look good," people say to me.

"What does 'shattered' mean?" I ask Joe.

"Uhh...big?"

"Broken into pieces," I say. "What does 'hulk' mean?"

"Uhh...I don't know."

"A shell," I say. "What's left after all the pieces inside are broken."

An old friend of mine wrote me a wonderful letter, referring to a couple of my columns. "I want you to have a 'successful' transplant, regain your health and stamina, and be prepared to raise hell with a vigorous voice."

Funny. When I flew back from Los Angeles, the plane took a more or less straight route from L.A. to Chicago. On that entire stretch, through the clear sky, looking down from my window seat, I saw...nothing. Demographers say that 80 percent of us live within 50 miles of a coast. I can believe it.

I am less in the mood to raise hell than to get away from its earthly manifestations. Oh, that there were some gale into which I could step with sail ripping in the wind. Oh, Lord, deliver me.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.