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Wednesday, June 6, 2007 02:32 pm

A speech for the ages

Rites of passage — but nobody is listening

Untitled Document He has a commanding presence and deep rich voice. He speaks, and no one listens. The grandparents here have heard it all in another time; they have heard everything in another time. They do not listen. They do not listen, because of all the afternoons that have gone before. The parents here look past the podium and into an open window. They do not listen. They watch as an old professor erases their youth from his blackboard. They do not listen.  
The brothers and sisters and cousins here do not listen. They do not know how. They have lost the ability to hear voices straight on, voices not filtered through cell phones or text messages.
It’s 87 degrees in the shade, and there is
no shade.
Somewhere people swim in the cool water of a lazy lake. Here waves of heat cause the summer colors to fade. The speaking man is first to fade. By the time he takes breath for his second sentence he has dulled to black and white.  By his third sentence he is mutated to half-transparent. No one hears his speech. No one knows his name.  
He speaks, and one word sticks to the next; new words start before their predecessors end: “Bethebestyoucanbe.” Words tumble down his gown and gather in broken phrases at his shoes.  The words collect one by one, two by two, 10 by 10 — all gummed together, a pile of unrecognized sound. Somewhere a centerfielder circles under a high fly ball. Here the sound pile grows ever higher; words cover the speaker’s feet and still come pouring out and down. They cover his knees and his chest. Old words clog his mouth as new ones try to force their way through.  
No one hears. He chokes out mumbled half-words now. He climbs the empty phrase-pile, hand over hand, to free his voice, “ThirtyfiveyearsagowhenIwas  . . . ” No one hears — and yet he keeps speaking, more nothing sound. As his hill of useless syllables grows, he is forced to climb higher to keep his head above the numbing lexis-swell.  
Somewhere young lovers look to the sky and watch the clouds form hearts — and flowers. Here a man climbs a ladder of lost language; a ladder building upon itself.  Talk-climb, talk-climb, talk-climb . . . until he disappears, up the alphabet ladder, and over the top! Vanished! Above the lectured vacuum! He is disappeared atop a mile-high seamless mound of vowels and consonants.  
He is gone, but his endeavor is not. Unintelligible words come ever tumbling earthward from his unseen place. Ten more minutes of never-heard expressions float down from nowhere, until, by some accord, we do not understand his job is done. He has introduced the next speaker. Somewhere a family picnics in the shade of a white oak. Here there is no discernible break between the original speaker’s unheard words and the next speaker’s unheard words. Just as the waters of two rivers join and flow together, so do the speakers’ voices join and flow together.
The next speaker says something and no one hears him say it; an infant cries from the audience, and 2,000 people search for the cry. A worm-fat robin lands on an empty chair, and 2,000 people watch intently as it head-bobs for a minute and then flies away.  
Somewhere a gentle breeze turns a reader’s page.  Here the next speaker climbs his own ladder of lost language.  Talk-climb, talk-climb . . . until he, too, disappears, up the alphabet ladder and over the top! Vanished! Above the lectured vacuum!  
Somewhere a quiet man fishes off the bank of a slow-flowing river and drinks a cold beer. Here the next-next-speaker magically appears; perhaps he is the main speaker. No one knows for sure, because no one paid any attention to all the speakers who came before. Perhaps he is Abraham Lincoln, come to deliver the Gettysburg Address. If so, never is heard even “Four score and seven years,” because we are now a full hour into the proceedings and . . . it’s 87 degrees in the shade and there is no shade! All pretense of listening to even a speaker’s opening statement has long since melted away.  
A small child stands and applauds, and only then do 2,000 people know that the speeches are over. No one heard a spoken word this day in May when it is 87 degrees in the shade and there is no shade. If not for the child, no one would have known to strike up the band.  
The gantlet of graduation speeches is done. Whatever was said was never heard beyond the speaker’s ear.  
Somewhere a freckle-faced boy in torn jeans eats ice cream. Here the band has forgotten how to play “Pomp and Circumstance”; they restart the tune for the 10th time. Somewhere Garrison Keillor addresses a graduation class. He delivers his speech in nine words: “Be well. Do good work, and keep in touch.”
A speech for the ages. 

Contact Doug Bybee Sr. at dougbybee@sbcglobal.net.
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