The little girl eyed the goose warily.
The teenager slouched against the railing, fishing line slack.
The old man sat in a folding canvas chair, amidst a rustle of leaves.
I stood suddenly becalmed, taking it all in. Light of just the right wavelength eight minutes ago had escaped the superheated corona of the sun, now it fell on the wind-soothed willows on the shores of Green Valley Lake, trembling on the ragged edge of fall.
The trees had stopped pumping green chlorophyll into the leaves in preparation for winter. So the light bounced off the protective carotenoids left behind. These compounds absorb many of the photons, but reflect the wavelengths that look yellow to our eyes. The rebuffed light rebounded off the still surface of the lake and continued its long journey to my eager eyeball.
Ah, the last gasp of fall in Green Valley Park.
I’d been rushing from one weekend event to the next, playing. But I got snared by the shimmer of fall color all around the shores of the lake. I was going to jump out of my sputtering Jeep and snap something quick.
But before I knew it, I found myself wandering across the grassy slopes, counting coots — and covertly studying people.
The little girl in a fluffy purple dress with a stick-on tattoo of a kitty on her cheek caught my eye first. She stood perfectly still, intently studying the indifferent goose through her enormous brown eyes. My fatherly instincts stirred, aroused by the image of the grouchy goose chasing the poor little dear into the lake. I was going to deflect the goose, when I noticed the girl’s father also watching the bird with a beady stare.
“Is that a turkey, papa?” she asked in a clear, sweet voice.
“No baby,” he said.
She nodded solemnly. “We should eat him anyway.”
Her father sputtered.
My work was done here: I moved on.
I meandered along the leaf-accented grass, to study the boy on the fishing dock. He slouched, occasionally jiggling his fishing pole. He seemed perfectly content — not a bit bored. I took a seat and watched the coots dive for tidbits. That boy sat there with perfect concentration and heartening indolence for the 10 minutes I watched. In that whole time, he didn’t send a single text message. I felt heartened.
So I rose and drifted on along the shoreline, fetching up against the old man in the folding chair. He seemed perfectly at ease, but lost in thought. I studied him covertly and took note of the black, billed cap with golden thread lettering: USS Minneapolis.
At length he noticed me, looked up, nodded. He had a face like weathered sandstone, faded but beautiful, seamed and smoothed. He had pale blue eyes, cloudy — like a high overcast far out at sea.
“WW II?” I asked.
“Yep,” he said.
“Navy,” I said.
“Yep,” he smiled.
Dumb question. “See a lot of action?” I asked, conversationally.
“Oh. A little bit,” he said, friendly, but close-mouthed.
“What a war,” I said.
He nodded. “Better here,” he said. “Peaceful.”
“Yeah,” I returned, following his gaze to study the yellow shimmer of the willows in the water. “I love the fall.”
“Yep,” said the old man. “Gets you ready for winter.”
I left him to his memories. Later, I looked up the USS Minneapolis — a 10,000-ton cruiser — one of the most decorated ships in World War II. The ship fought in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of the Philippine Sea and others. Several of those ranked as the most violent and important naval battles ever fought, determining the course of the war in the Pacific.
I didn’t know that then — or I would have stayed and begged that old man to tell me every story he could remember.
But I guess sometimes you don’t want to talk: Not with fall shimmering in the water — and winter not far off.