The End of DeWitt Finley

Category: Commentaries
  • 12. Standstill
  • “The End of DeWitt Finley” by Cotton Mather

    I first met DeWitt Finley after he was gone. My brother introduced us. Joseph Harrison is a tremendous poet- and if you think I’m showing family favoritism then consider instead the endorsements of Richard Wilbur, Harold Bloom and the late Mark Strand, none of whom are related to him. In his first beautiful book of poems, Someone Else’s Name, my favorite poem “The End of DeWitt Finley”, tells the true story of a salesman who survived 54 days in his car, buried in the snow. A man of deep faith, he believed that if God wanted him to be rescued, he would be. We know this from his daily journal entries. And yet all the while a plowed road was a makable walk away. So after my thoughts on the condition of “Standstill” I’ll turn the floor over to my brother and the tale of a man who has inspired now both poem and song.

    How often we get “stuck” in situations that seem hopeless, interminable and inescapable when there is a plowed road a “makable walk away”. The walk does require will, effort, and certainly risk. But the alternative is about as bad as it gets. I remember back in the nineties when I used to swim laps at the YMCA in downtown Austin, there was this big walrus of a guy always parked in the hot tub, dispensing advice to anyone within earshot. I called him the “hot tub counselor”. The counselor’s steadiest client was small middle aged man, with wavy salt and pepper hair, sad deep-set eyes, and a long drawn face. Like every else there privy to their sessions I knew he was from Spain, taught at UT, and was absolutely miserable in his marriage. “She did this, she said that, and now you wouldn’t believe what she’s done… ” and on and on, night after freaking night! I just wanted to scream “this is your only life – take charge of it!”

    When I moved out to the country I started swimming at the Y in Oak Hill Texas. But last Spring, some fourteen years later, I was in downtown Austin, had my swim stuff and decided to work out at the old place . And guess what? They were still there, yakking in the tub about the same old thing – they just looked saggier and white haired now. So I reckon sad Spaniard plans to stay in that car until death does them part.

    “The End of DeWitt Finley” performed by RH, Whit Williams and Darin Murphy
    Recorded by Lars Goransson and RH- Mixed by Lars, mastered by Bob Ohlsson

    And now without further adieu, ladies and gentlemen the one and only Joseph Harrison

    The End of Dewitt Finley

    1

    It was a life of sorts, alone on the road.
    Out of the landscape, wind-scrubbed, sparse and vast,
    Rose the cold lights of the familiar signs:
    McDonald’s, Mobil, Day’s Inn, Taco Bell. . . .
    And miles to Jordan, miles to Rock Springs Pass,
    Then down to Busby, up to Tampico,
    Over the Tongue, the Powder, the Musselshell,
    While here and there huge tombstones, megaliths,
    The buttes loomed over the flatlands, high and dry,
    The NEXT REST AREA 200 MILES
    Across the dusty, empty middle of nowhere.

    But even nowhere’s somewhere. The rented room,
    Cheap, ugly, badly lit and faintly stale,
    Meant something, though he couldn’t say quite what.
    The stucco lamp, the crease in the coverlet,
    The flimsy table, the awkward, orange chair,
    The crumpled note in the dented wastebasket . . .
    For just one night, in the history of this room,
    Had two people, really in love, been happy here?
    The face in the mirror was one he recognized.
    And the shaving kit–how long had he had that?

    2

    A short cut up an isolated road
    In the mountains of Montana, where the truck
    Slips off a switchback hairpin, and gets stuck
    In shoulder gravel. Night was coming, cold

    In the Rockies in November. He’d stay put.
    A genuine fuck-up: he’d lose a day,
    Haste making waste, as he knew old Floot would say.
    When the sun got up in the morning he’d hike out.

    The storm rolled from Alaska down the spine
    Of the great range, over the Ogilvies,
    The Selwyns, Cassians and Monashees,
    A flashing flood, fast rising in a shine

    On peak and shoulder, stirrup, scree, plateau,
    A swirling avatar of arctic wrath
    That avalanched the landscape in its path
    With mile on mile of foot on foot of snow,

    And, blitzing on, scattered its glittering load,
    Precipitating crystal shapes and shifts
    Whisked into drifting mounds and massive drifts,
    And buried a pick-up sitting by a road.

    3

    On the third day,
    Sun. The world
    Was white.

    False hills and ridges
    Glared, dazzling,
    Everywhere.

    A single bird,
    Then nothing, silence, snow,
    A perfect blank.

    “Stay with the vehicle”:
    He knew the rule.
    All help was miles

    Through bitter six-foot drifts,
    And a man will freeze
    Faster than he will starve.

    At least there was plenty
    To drink, but to eat–
    Tums, pine straw, nothing. . . .

    A search plane
    Scanned the next road over
    And flew on.

    After a month
    He wrote his boss:
    “Death here

    In another month
    Or so, or He sends
    Someone to save me.

    He has met my needs
    Daily, and I’m alive,
    Well and comforted.

    I have no control
    Over my life. It’s all
    In His hands.”

    He prayed, and slept,
    And thought. Until
    Too weak to write,

    He marked the days
    Off a calendar:
    Fifty-eight, fifty-nine. . . .

    4

    They found the salesman’s body the following spring.
    Something struck the observers about the scene
    Of the man’s death: there wasn’t the slightest sign
    Of struggle, anguish, or delirium,
    No broken glass, no torn upholstery.
    All seemed composed, contemplative, serene,
    As poised as the steady penmanship,
    The thoughtful phrasing, of his calm farewell,
    His mild acceptance of his lonely end.

    It wouldn’t be correct to call it fate:
    Rescue, in the form of a ploughed road, remained
    Throughout a makable hike away. And though
    He didn’t know this, did he want to know?
    He wanted someone to come, that was the point.
    Call it foolishness, or call it faith,
    The patience to wait in silence for a sign
    That life has something like meaning, and that yours
    Has something like meaning, meaning that is yours.

    This is a story. Some of it is true.
    I heard it from an unreliable friend,
    Adding, to her omissions, my distortions.
    He was a camper salesman, so perhaps
    There never was a pick-up truck, and never
    A room (that room was real, but somewhere else).
    Even the mild profanity in 2
    Would probably have been uncharacteristic.
    But the words in 3 are his (those I retrieved
    From a transcript of the show All Things Considered),
    And I have kept his name, because it seems
    True to his end, given its pun on fin,
    As if the name itself described his plight,
    At the wit’s end, where finally we all are.

    5

    “Stay with the vehicle”: is that the rule,
    All tenors being tenuous and brief?
    Accepting it, there’s something like relief,
    Or would be, if the ending weren’t so cruel,

    The life so short, the craft so long to learn.
    What point, from way out here, in writing back?
    Returning something no one cares they lack,
    Forgotten ashes in a dusty urn?

    But I’m complaining, as we tend to do
    Whenever bad times keep on getting worse.
    The heart grows heavier, but not the purse.
    The silence lengthens between me and you.

    One last mistake. Now loss is all we know.
    These words will not, without some act of grace,
    Find their way out of this forsaken place
    Across those miles of unforgiving snow.

    from Joseph Harrison, Someone Else’s Name, The Waywiser Press, 2003

    copyright Joseph Harrison and The Waywiser Press

    One thought on “The End of DeWitt Finley

    1. Thanks for sharing these stories and observations.

      I’m reminded of similar, if more frantic, musings by Julian Cope to augment his recordings.

      You are both generously disposed, you betray that!

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