Once we actually got home, we found that the elation born of our Spanish pilgrimage was heightened rather than compromised by the nightmarish return trip, involving the unexplained cancellation of a flight to Madrid, racing about Galicia from one Podunk airport to another by bus, diversions to London, bureaucratic hassles and a shamefully inefficient and unpleasant passage through immigration control and Kennedy Airport.
But the fashion in which our nation chooses to receive its visitors and its returning citizens is a subject that would demand its own lament. Today’s lament is of another and probably more familiar kind.
Princeton in the springtime is magnificent, and we returned to find our garden in the finest full bloom — forsythia ablaze, large beds of daffodils, the red and purple bursts of such tulips as the deer had somehow missed. Looking up, one saw everywhere the lighter whites and pinks of flowering trees. After a cold winter that tarried, we seem destined for a hot summer that is arriving early, and it has taken only three successive hot days to start the dissolution of the floral display.
This brings me to my theme: “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.”
When I resumed my regular schedule of exercise and showed up at Dillon Gymnasium for an early morning swim, I sensed an oddly subdued tone about the place. Very soon I learned its cause — “Gooch” had died on April 30, probably while I was still sleeping off my bad trip.
Gooch was one of the part-time facilities managers for the Princeton athletic department. For the better part of 20 years, it was he who unlocked the gym’s front door at 6:30, then supervised our entry through the turnstile. He handled the assignment of lockers. He ran a lost and found overflowing with unclaimed eyeglasses and swimming goggles. Once, with a mighty bolt-cutter, he removed an unauthorized padlock left by a scofflaw on one of the long lockers.
I cannot account for the name Gooch, which was however affectionately used and cheerfully received. His real name was Americo A. Arcamone. He was a Princetonian by birth and a graduate of Princeton High School. He was born in 1925 and carried away by a stroke a few months short of his 90th birthday.
The Italian-American community of this college town is an old and distinguished one. The early immigrants included a number of skilled stonemasons who worked on the fine neo-Gothic buildings of the campus — especially the cathedral-sized chapel, which was completed shortly after the First War. Many of them had originally come from a single village on the island of Ischia, not far from Naples. As late as the early '60s, when I first saw Princeton, linguists from some Italian university showed up to study the speech of various little old ladies dressed in black — a demographic then numerous but now apparently vanished — who constituted what they called an isola linguistica, a kind of language island or bubble of rapidly disappearing dialect. Whether Mr. Arcamone’s forebears were part of this group, I cannot say. But it’s wonderful to imagine the pride and optimism of parents who name their child after their new home.
Even fleeting and superficial conversations, when conducted on a nearly daily basis over a period of many years, yield a good deal of information. Gooch had spent most of his working life — in what capacity, I do not know — at the publishing company McGraw Hill. His work in the athletic department was post-retirement and part time, but it was wholly consistent with his enthusiasm for Princeton University sports teams. I could count on him for a quick debriefing on any football or basketball game I happened to have missed — meaning, of course, most of them. He was a keen golfer and loved especially to pursue that sport in the state of Florida.
Gooch knew my name, but he always called me simply “Professor”. He said it in a way that made it clear that for him it was a term of the highest possible respect.
Gooch’s wife died a while ago. I was going to say “recently,” but Internet research has proved to me that it a was whole decade past. These days I am frequently caught up by the shortening of perceived time horizons, a theme not irrelevant to this post. That news, too, traveled about the gym community on invisible wings, and Gooch accepted my belated condolences with a kind of stoic appreciation.
For all of us, human community is a kind of globe of concentric spheres — family and intimate friends, workmates, co-religionists, co-enthusiasts, co-whatevers — spreading out to actual strangers and beyond that to the millions unmet and unseen. But one group whose importance is often missed is that comfortable world of habitual friendly contacts — of bus drivers and mail carriers and crossing guards. It is rather wrenching to realize that at any moment, and to your utter oblivion, one of them can be snatched away. Americo Arcamone: may he rest in peace!