I have a couple of memories of Jim Powers, things that come back to me from time to time, that tell the truth about the guy. First of all, he had a reputation that had traveled from his block, Albany Crescent, all the way down Bailey Avenue to Kingsbridge Road, a distance of two and a half long city blocks. To a fellow my age, about ten, this was a great distance.
On my block we heard about Jimmy, and his older brothers, hard charging guys on a block known for its hard ball players, tough fighters and strong fellows.
But, my first memory of him was in the 5th Grade at St. John’s School in Kingsbridge, NY; Mother Teresa’s class. Mother Teresa was herself a kind of rough and tough, no nonsense nun. She patrolled the playground during recess like a beat cop, and she was quick to put an end to playground hi-jinks. Jimmy was one of the fellows in the class that she put some trust in, one of the guys she could depend on I guess. She had no pets, not her. No, Mother Teresa had junior partners, if anything, and Jim Powers was someone she depended on to do the right thing when the right thing needed doing.
As for me, well that was a different story. I was a different kind of fellow, not a trouble maker, to be sure, but not the kind of guy who sought responsibility, or made an effort to be noticed; whereas, with Jim, it wasn’t at all hard to notice the fellow. It would have been difficult not noticing him.
On St. Patrick’s Day that year, Mother Teresa called a few of us up to the front of the class and asked us to sing an appropriate song. It wasn’t her style to ask for volunteers. She just called a name, and there you were. Of course, she called Jim who responded with a pretty good rendition of “Danny Boy”, I think.
She also called me. Truth to tell, I didn’t know one Irish song. So, I gave her what I thought was a song for all seasons, “Silent Night”. That I was wrong in so thinking was evident at about the second line of the song when she loudly and angrily told me to stop, sit down and then hectored me about not knowing the difference between Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day. In my embarrassment, all I could think of was why wasn’t I able to do things as easily as Jimmy could.
It took me a few days before I raised my eyes again in the classroom, and I think, if Mother Teresa is alive today, she’d probably still be annoyed with me. I’d like to tell her, though, that I do know and can sing “Danny Boy”.
Over the next several years, Jim went through grade school and high school with me, an athlete of no little talent and wide reputation, whose tenacity, competitive spirit and dependability served him and every team he was on well. The thing I liked best about him, though, was what I’d probably call modesty or humility today, but was too ignorant of the deep meaning of those words all those years ago. He was simply what you saw of him whether he was playing or studying or walking home.
Of course there were other guys on the teams he played with, and of course there were better teams across the city. Some of those guys were good athletes, some were great; Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was one. For all of his own gifts in that department I never got the feeling that Jim thought of himself as a cut above the rest of us, or as deserving of any special treatment. He was just a hard working member of the team, perhaps the hardest worker they had, whatever the team was. It occurs to me that I am defining that rarest of qualities: leadership.
My last school memory of him is of an afternoon in late Spring of our Senior year. It was a warm afternoon. We got a sandwich and went down to the Harlem River with a couple of beers, sat there talking about what was past and what was to come. Jim was going to Dusquesne and I was going to take off for a while to go to sea on a merchant ship. It was in fact the last time I’d see him for almost forty years.
We didn’t talk about much, simply sat around eating a sandwich and drinking some beer. I remember thinking, as a matter of fact, that it wasn’t hot enough to go swimming, and that even if it was, I wouldn’t do so. I had grown too old and aware of polluted water to think of the Harlem as a swimming hole any more. No, it seemed to me to be a “sunset” moment whose memory has hung around like an old painting in a quiet room; one which is always comforting to visit.
I was looking forward to seeing Jim in a few weeks at our 50th reunion get together. Then he wrote to let us all know he wouldn’t be able to make it, there were a number of things which demanded his attention. I was about to call him, or write to him, to tell him I’d miss his presence when my wife told me that he had called me.
“How odd,” I thought, and wondered what in the world would bring about this surprising and pleasant news. So, the other day I returned his call, and we spoke.
Now, this is what I wanted to write about, here. Jim had read something which had made him wonder. You see, I had written an e-mail on a list of fellows we had gone to school with which bothered him, and he had called me to tell me so. It was a poor joke about his dependability, a passing remark in a series of silly e-mails between me and another fellow. I did not have to read between the lines that he was pained by it; something I had never thought about. No, I didn’t because he plainly told me so and wondered why I would write something like that about him when he knew that I knew it wasn’t the truth.
All the while, I heard him saying at the same time that he had always considered us friends, fellows who could depend upon each other. As he spoke I remembered this guy I knew who tried never to do anything but his best; just like he was doing now on the phone with me. And, at the same time, whether or not he knew it, getting me to do my best.
I told him I was sorry for the stupid remark. And I am.
Honest. You can depend on that.