Jack was 90 years old and still the town rascal.
I first met Jack when he came to my rescue in the pub. I had just moved to England, to Tunbridge Wells, a small town outside of London.
Hearing my American accent, the Brits were having a go at me about the war. World War II that is. I was trying to hold my own against disgruntled Englishmen still angry that they had to fight the Germans on their own for two years before the Americans swooped in. “And saved you!” I explained. But they weren’t having it.
Suddenly an old man slammed his beer on the bar and shouted “I was there!” and all went quiet. That was Jack.
Jack loved Americans. He loved us because, as he said, England was losing the war and the Americans made all the difference. He remembered how terrifying it was to be so close to defeat, and he pointed his finger at each of the geezers in the pub as he told them how he’d always be grateful to Americans for the victory. Then he bought me a beer. And thus our friendship was born.
Over the years I often ran into Jack. Sometimes at the pub, other times I’d see him toddling out of the bookmakers after placing a bet, or shooting billiards with the local sharks. On weekends he was known to visit the nightclubs and dance with the kids. And every Tuesday night you could find him at The Guinea Butt pub for Karaoke Night, where he’d sing his song, “My Way.”
Jack was always surrounded by a harem of (relatively) younger women as he made his rounds. I never did find out their relationship to him but like a uniform, they all crossed their arms and wore the same disapproving frown as they followed him from one vice to another.
The last time I spoke with Jack he told me a little bit about his childhood and what life was like in England 90 years ago. At first, he waxed nostalgic but after a few beers, his secret came out.
When Jack was 11-years old, he won the big swimming meet. “Your parents must have been proud,” I said.
He nodded, his face aglow with beer and memories, and for a moment I could see him as an 11-year old boy again. “The newspapers wrote about me. They called me ‘Boy Wonder Swimming’.” He bragged.
Then suddenly his expression turned dark. “But I was a fraud!”
He explained, “There was another boy, Bob Osbourne, he was a better swimmer than me. He could have easily won that swim meet. But he had mastoids, see? And so his parents pulled him out of the water. And I won the swim meet. But Bob Osbourne could have beaten me. I knew it then and I know it now. I was no ‘Boy Wonder Swimming’. No matter what they said.”
I often think about Jack and his shame over being Boy Wonder Swimming.
I think about him when I meet artists who tell me that they’ve won an award, made a sale, or been accepted by a gallery, only to have them then belittle their own achievement in the next sentence. “I didn’t really earn it.” “It’s not very much.” “It’s not important enough.”
And I’m saddened that these small moments of glory cannot be celebrated, that blessings are cursed. Like Jack did with his swimming award.
A few years ago, I returned to that small English town and went to the pub looking for him. But the locals just shook their heads.
Time finally caught up with Jack and he’s gone now.
But Boy Wonder Swimming or not, Jack lived a good life. Not many 90-year olds can carry on as a teen-ager. Jack did it his way.
My wish for you in 2021 is that you do it your way. No apologies. No playing small. And celebrating each and every success.
“For what is a man what has he got
If not himself then he has not
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way”
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