On Thursday, December 7, 2000, I made a pilgrimage. I took the day off of work and then proceeded to make the three hour drive to Huntington, Long Island. At the top of a hill in the middle of the Huntington Rural Cemetary, is the grave of Harry Chapin.
I was nine years old on July 16, 1981, when Harry was killed in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway on his way to a benefit concert, and barely knew who he was at the time. As I grew up, and mainly in high school and college, I came to know who he was, what he accomplished, and why his death at a very young age was such a tragic loss.
I chose the date of the trip because that was Harry’s birthday. He would’ve been 58 then if he were still alive.
I made the drive alone. I know I didn’t have to do it alone; it’s just that the people who understood, couldn’t take the time to go. The people who could take the time to go, didn’t understand.
His tombstone is a giant rock. In the face of the rock is chiseled the opening verse to one of my favorite songs of his: “If a man tried to take his time on earth and prove before he died what one man’s life could be worth, I wonder what would happen to this world.”
I left at about 9 in the morning, got there at about noon, and walked around the cemetery for a little bit. When I couldn’t find the grave on my own, I went to the office, where they looked up the location in the records and I found it with minimal difficulty thereafter.
In all, I stayed by the grave for about fifteen minutes. I spent the time thinking, contemplating how the world had changed in the nearly twenty years since Harry last walked this earth, and how much we still need a voice like his.
I stopped at a pizza place on the way back before I got back on the L.I.E. and found myself wondering if it even existed thirty years before. Judging by the architecture of the strip mall in which it was located, I figured it was safe to assume the answer was ‘no’.
I hinted at this in my previous blog entry about the end of the world, but I didn’t come out and say it outright: the world is always ending, albeit not in the apocalyptic sense of the word. There is something different about the world today, than it was yesterday, and it will be something different again tomorrow.
Someone who is here today, will not be here tomorrow. Someone who is not here today, will be here tomorrow. Think of anyone who has died at any time, and ask yourself: how has the world changed since they died? Think of the musician Aaliyah, who was killed in a plane crash less than three weeks before the September 11 attacks. If we could somehow bring her back to life, would she even recognize the world as it is today?
You don’t even need to look to people who died before major historical events. Just since I wrote the essay about the end of the world (where I said that there were 18 verified people still alive who can be verified to having been born prior to the year 1900), the oldest person in the world — Besse Cooper — died at the age of 116. Now there’s no one left who was born in the year 1896.
Every day is different; the world is always ending. And it’s always beginning. I’m not saying this in an apocalyptic sense of the word. Or, for that matter, an even vaguely spiritual or religious sense. It just is different.
That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It is neither to be celebrated nor feared. If you’ve ever gone somewhere for an extended period of time and then returned home — for example, at college — you know that things change all the time. And it might take some time to get used to what changed.
I don’t particularly care whether or not that pizza place was there in 1981. If Harry Chapin were to return, he wouldn’t recognize the world in which we live today. Could he get used to it? Possibly, but we’d have a lot of explaining to do.