Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Write on, Kenneth! Write on!

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In his 70s, Kenneth Shelby Armstrong and his wife bought a small piece of land on a lake in a remote corner of southeast Oklahoma. They had few resources, but brought with them a zeal for life that has always been their trademark.

Kenneth, a learned man with two doctorates, has always lived on that proverbial edge of life. He was more apt to experience history than to observe it.

In the 1940s, he was one of the first soldiers to work amidst the devastation of the atomic bombs that landed on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In the 1950s, during the desegregation turmoil he enrolled as a white student in an all-black university and wrote about prejudice and discrimination. In the 1960s, he was in the Congo during the massacres, barely escaping with his life when he ran into a guerrilla action. He was also in Saigon in the early days of the Vietnam War, in Havana the week before Castro seized power, and in Israel where he avoided a rocket attack at the Sea of Galilee the week after the Six-Day War.

And, those are just some of the notes on his life.

In Oklahoma, he built with his own hands a home for himself and his wife to live their last years, and when that was done he began to engage two phenomena that had eased their way into his life — writing and the Internet.

Fascinated with poetry and prose, he became a student of writing and started down that torturous but rewarding path of capturing with words the light that inspires us and the darkness that troubles us as one day folds itself into the next day.

It should not have surprised me when an e-mail arrived from this mentor and friend announcing that, now in his 80s, Kenneth had found an outlet for his writing — his own Web site, www.kennethwrites.com. I rushed to the site to discover columns, excerpts from booklets, postings of writing he had received from friends and most recently the announcement of a book called ‘‘Robin” — in the works for 10 years; a story set in the context of the war in Japan following the dropping of the atomic bombs.

Considering myself only a modest judge of poetry and prose, I followed Kenneth’s creative journey more with fascination than criticism.

It was difficult to separate the writing from the man I had known for so many years. And frequently his words transported me to that house overlooking the lake and I listened as he read his latest creation. Such was the case recently when Kenneth wrote:

‘‘Last evening, I sat in my chair looking out at the magnificent trees mirrored on the lake. Beyond was the blue sky that reached clear out to the Colorado Rockies. I thought how beautiful the landscape and the moment to enjoy it. It then occurred to me that in a few days, a few months, perhaps a few years, I will no longer exist to enjoy such beauty. With only a touch of sadness, I wrote a poem:

An Evening Poem

Why do I have to leave?

Only now have I discovered

The proud beauty of a tree

The waltz of a heron over water

The grace of a reed in the windWhy do I have to leave?

Why do I have to leave?

I’ve only begun to know

That wisdom, like a seed, grows

That truth is power enough

That wealth is a smile on your faceWhy do I have to leave?

Why do I have to leave?

The worst is now behind me

The fickleness of desire

The transience of fame

The foolishness of treasureWhy do I have to leave?

But, ah, it now occurs to me

That HERE is not heaven. NOW is not eternity

The mirror is dark for only a moment, and then

My gain will be greater than my loss

My limitations will no longer bind my soul

Yes, now it occurs to meMy soul is ready to go

I believe that is true — Kenneth’s soul is ready to go. But, being ready to go and going are very different; and it will take a real force of eternity to interrupt this life that moves with such zeal, such curiosity, such discovery?

Until then, we can only say, Write on, Kenneth! Write on!

Chuck Lyons is chief executive officer of The Gazette.