Witness

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Norton Hurd stood behind me in line at the store yesterday. He put his hand on my shoulder and asked how my son is doing. Around the village I am “Michael’s Dad.” We talked for a bit and then discussed Hurricane Florence and how it missed our waterfront community.

“We were lucky,” I said to him, and he agreed, saying he was happy for everyone in our area but worried for those in the path. Then I asked which hurricane was the worst that he had experienced in this area. He didn’t hesitate.

“That would be the one in ’33.”

That’s 1933. Norton was 17 at the time. Norton Hurd turned102 years old today.

In the 1940’s, he founded Hurd’s Hardware in Deltaville which is where I do a lot of shopping and where he goes to work every day. He studied history at Lynchburg College during the depression, and while there he played tennis, baseball, and basketball, landing in their Hall of Fame.

During World War Two he trained pilots in open-cockpit planes in Minnesota, and then traveled to Guam onboard the Wasp as one of the “Hell Razors” and was in the first group of planes to bomb Tokyo. On one flight one of his engines failed and he ditched his plane in the Pacific not far from the Wasp, and he was rescued and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

I offered to let him go ahead of me but he nodded and said no, he wasn’t in any hurry. Just on his way to work.

When he returned from war he figured everyone would need appliances so in 1946 he opened the store.

“You live down that road had the tavern on the pier. Chowning’s place. I used to go there when I was young but the storm destroyed that. Did you know about that place?”

I did. Back before the storm and when the steamboats still ran up the Rappahannock River from the Chesapeake, jettying out into the river from the end of the road in front of my house was a pier with a restaurant, along with other facilities.

That was the year my mother was born. FDR was president. Norton was 17, had just graduated from Syringa High School, and was headed across state to college.

The year he was born President Woodrow Wilson was trying to end World War One; Czar Nicholas the Second was still very much in power; German Zeppelins bombed Paris; Pancho Villa invaded the United States; the Cubs played their first game at Wrigley Field (then called Weegham Park); the Easter Uprising against the British occupation of Dublin; Ernest Shackleton is stuck in Antarctica; Lenin declares Imperialism is caused by Capitalism and begins his climb to the rule of Russia.

Penicillin didn’t come along until Norton was twelve.

The irony of him being a history major is that, to me, to us, he is history, he is witness to the most brutal and powerful and awe-inspiring, and sadistic century in human history. I stood in line in front of someone who was my adult-son’s age when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I just retired from a three decade career teaching college, after spending a decade bumming around the country, and this man is almost twice my age; forty-four years older than me, and he is on his way to work.

And he is fine. Absolutely fine, running just ahead of time, outlasting countless “End of the World” events. He has patience. He has paced himself perfectly. He has all the time in the world. He missed the first flight just south of here by only thirteen years.

Some people make us stop in our tracks and realize what is important; what is essential. Norton does that every time I walk into Hurd’s Hardware and he asks if he can help me find something. One of these days I’m going to say, “Yes, actually. The meaning of life?”

Some people should live forever. He’s one of them. Some people spend their lives in such grace, such kindness toward humanity that I wish they would just keep going. Norton’s one.

There are others. People who don’t study history or make history but actually are history, colleagues of time, adding such peace to the human condition that it is cruel for them to simply no longer be.

Charles Schulz is another. Dr. Seuss. Francis of Assisi. People who not only do not bother anyone, but they dedicate their lives to making our lives simpler, more endurable, more aware. I wake up when I’m around Norton.

Pachelbel is another. Cousteau. Andre the Giant.

Sometimes the good don’t die young. Sometimes they stand as a measure to all we can be. And I’ve been studying the history of these people, and I’ve noticed one common trait: they all make people feel better about themselves and the world. They all give more than they receive.

I’m heading to Hurd’s tomorrow. I don’t know why. I’ll find something there I need.  

 

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After the “Great Hurricane of 1933”

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