Spirit Reports Chapter 7: James

I think my friend James was born in the wrong time in history. He and his violin were made for the palaces of the Habsburgs as they stood before the Great War. He was meant for the world described by Winston Churchill in the opening passages of his book, “The World Crisis,” when he wrote, “The old world in its sunset was fair to see.” Churchill writes in reference to the funeral of King Edward VII in 1910, though I look back on the old world of my adolescence with James with similar reverie. In those early days of our friendship, James described to me visions of a passed away world as if it were fantasy. Yet James had never lived in that world. He and I were fifteen when we first met in my fourth year at Falmouth Academy. However the history of us and the ways we filled the gaps in our imaginings of the lives of others, was as real and impactful as any we could reach out and touch.

One of James’ favorite topics to tell me about was the all-but-forgotten “Winter War.” In 1939, Russia invaded Finland in order to strengthen its sphere of influence and create a buffer zone against the Nazis. The conflict was a precursor to World War II in which the tiny Finnish army, mounted on skis and armed with hunting rifles, fought a Russian invasion force numbering more than the entire population of Finland itself, and won. I remember James reading books on the conflict when I first met him in the tenth grade. He’d made the official request to our school library to purchase them in the first place. I’d spend hours during study halls, or just waste time after school, sitting on the floor listening to him with my back against the radiator of our locker area while told stories of people like Simo Hayha, a Finnish farmer who in one hundred days managed to kill some eight hundred soviet soldiers in sub-zero temperatures in the Finnish winter. When James told me about the past, his eyes would light up and his voice would age in an instant, as if he himself had been there, dressed in white camouflage, lying in the snow with a hunting rifle waiting for the dawn patrol.

James’ most tangible link to the past was not through the stories he told me however. It was through music. He used to sing and play the fiddle with me while I played guitar in my small childhood bedroom. We would crowd around a cheap RadioShack microphone my mother bought for me and make armature recordings of our favorite folk ballads. In those nights, we drank beer that we stole from my father. As the night grew colder and cans of Guinness began to accumulate on the bookshelf, our playing would naturally become worse, but the notes and lyrics no longer felt old or antiquated. This was the genesis of my strange taste in forgotten folk music.

The fiddle James carried everywhere in an ancient wood and leather case was roughly a century old. On the back of the instrument was a Star of David fitted into the wood with pearl inlays. James had inherited the violin from his music teacher when he had passed away. I never knew much about him, but when James showed me that violin for the first time, he held it in his hands as though it were a treasure from the lost libraries of Constantinople. James’ reverie for the past was not just for events or wars, it was for human beings who to him were like bridges to an ever-fading reality I could only read about in books.

It was in those days that James taught me all about Irish folk musicians like Luke Kelly and Liam Clancy, and so it was because of James that I began to play the banjo in my senior year of high school. We would play and listen to music of the Irish Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and of Austria Hungary before the old empire collapsed. All of this settled me into that old world that exists only in the crackling recordings of long-dead men and  revolutionaries, and of singers from countries that don’t exist anymore. But to James, Austria-Hungary still sits on the edge of the civilized world, and to him the sun has yet to set on the gilded age. When he plays his violin at night in the kitchen of my mother’s house, I can witness it too.

It was this world I was looking for again when I visited James when we were both spending a semester of our third year in college in Europe. I was living in Ireland and I’d spent too much time by then meditating and fixating on the news of my parent’s impending divorce. James was in Vienna. I’d been going in circles for weeks when I flew in, but in that strange foreign airport where James met me by the baggage claim, his hug shook me and reset something innate and antagonistic within myself. He had on the same beat-leather jacket that he always wore back in high school, the same pair of worn-out oxfords, the same unkempt face and familiar eyes made deep with visions. I had never been so happy to see him.

James took me immediately to the nearest corner store and bought us both a beer.  We walked together at two in the afternoon looking at the old-world architecture while drinking warm beer from cans. The trams that moved on a maze of wires above the streets made me feel like I was in an old film reel from Moscow or St. Petersburg. The Eastern air was ancient and intoxicating. There was a cafe on the corner he took me to where the bread cost four euros extra. I had an omelet, much to James’ annoyance. I tried to tell him travel antagonized my gut and therefore I wasn’t in the mood for any food that was too exotic. He accepted that, and later made a sign of forgiveness for my cultural transgression when he made me coffee mixed with liqueur in his apartment. He lived in a small student lodging that I imagined was the home of Raskolnikov, though with a washer and dryer. It was on the third floor of a blocky-looking apartment building that blended together into all the others near it.

On the corner, there was an Irish pub where we spent most of the night drinking Czech beer and scheming about how we might remain on the old continent once our visas expired. We wandered to the memorial of Soviet tankers who’d died in the Second World War battle of Kursk. We split a bottle of wine along the way. By the time we got there, things had fallen into a haze. I was the most drunk I’d been in a long while, and the boundaries between the past James and I shared from high school, and the present city, began to fade. Vienna was a city that could have been anywhere, just as I could have been anywhere too, in my mother’s kitchen playing music or talking with my father in the living room back when he still lived at home. I might as well have been in Dublin losing myself. I was just happy to not be alone. James had to walk me back to the street where my rented room was. I didn’t know the way. When I finally collapsed late at night into the bed at the apartment I’d rented for the weekend, I let the worlds collapse into volumes of corroborated and invented memories, and my mind in dreams set about summarizing all that had happened to us.

I imagine that Vienna is much the same now as it was then. For me, the shelter of a friend’s apartment is forever glowing in that city. I can picture myself in the streets, where rain will soak through the cotton of my shirts and my jacket and make my hair heavy on my forehead. I can imagine standing in the rain waiting for the tram to come along the wires. James and I would let the modern machines pass by, and instead we would wait for the old wooden one. The only one left working in the city.

In all my dreams of the past and its phantom kingdoms of our imagination where we search out our own meaning, James leads the way. I can see him in Helsinki before the first Russian bombs fell and the farmers took to skis and rifles and make good on the promise of their blood. I can see him in the streets of the old medieval city of Vienna as the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved one day in 1918. He is standing in the square of the old Hapsburg palace where Hitler once spoke to a crowd of thousands. I can see him watching from afar as mistakes unfolded in the past as they will continue to do in the future. James and my histories conflate, folding in on themselves like the books that James used to read after school while I sat with him against the radiator. James is a man not contained in one time, dressed in beat-leather and unshaven. He is a true student of history. When I think of him or write him letters, I retrace my steps to his old flat in the fourth district of Vienna, where the Irish pub on the corner is always open, and he is always ready to sing a revolution song of days gone by.

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