March 15, 2010

EDITORIALA seaman's lonely life away from the sea

— The apartment in Copenhagen was too small for a mother, a stepfather and an angry boy. He went to sea on a merchant ship bound for Asia, as kitchen help, then waiter, then steward to the officers' mess.

For 30 years, Gunnar Neilssen criss-crossed the deep oceans, halting briefly in strange ports.

Sometimes he'd go home. His stepfather was dead, and his mother lived alone. On her 52nd birthday, she collapsed on the stairs while carrying a sack of groceries, leaving him alone.

When he turned 55, he tired of his wandering life and began to look for a home of his own.

As he had worked on many American ships, his English was excellent. Our blunt, take-no-prisoners way with words suited a man whose life was spent on the ocean, as did our freedom. He was independent, without a wife or children.

What more sturdily independent, self-sustaining place to live could he find than on the difficult coast of Maine, close to his beloved water.

Houses in Jonesport were affordable, and the people there were used to independent sorts. Unloading his boxes of books and stacks of recordings, his sparse furnishings and clothes, he made a home of the small house he bought on a coastal road.

Too old to go to sea, too young for Social Security, he looked about for a job. The cemetery needed grounds keepers, so he became one.

For a while, he thought the local children might enjoy his story-telling, so he read books to them at the library, and on Halloween he dressed up as a vampire to read scary stories.

But gradually, he read to them less and less often and finally quit. He stayed home with his seed catalogues and Offenbach, reading and listening as the sunset painted the western sky and the light dimmed.

His dog was good company, but eventually it died. He had a couple of cats, but they were run over by cars. He watched a lot of sunsets. He walked the road in the evenings, naming the birds, trees and flowers, collecting bottles and cans from the side of the road.

He had a garden, and planted trees, and the years passed. He was old enough for his pension, but it was barely enough. He bundled himself in one room in the winter to save on kerosene and seldom bought new clothes. His food was plain.

More years passed, and he turned 75, and 84. The town was used to him, a short, round man with a grizzled head who barked his words, was curt with chattering gossips, spent his days in his garden, was kind to birds and dogs and kept to himself.

Poverty's not ennobling. He was no better, no more forgiving, no more loving, no more charitable to his neighbors because he was poor. He was a survivor, collecting bottles, cutting coupons, economizing wherever he could.

He had his books, his music, his memories of the wild wind and the wide seas. He could find joy in the morning dew on the bee balm, or a scraggly cactus finally blooming. He was an individual, a truly independent man.

He was my friend.

— Special to the Telegram

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