Saying Good-Bye at the Library

by Bill Peak

I learned his full name for the first time from the obituary—Melvin V. Caulk—but for me he was always just “Mr. Caulk.” Punctually, at half past nine every Saturday morning, Mr. Caulk came into the library. His first stop was always the Circulation Desk, where he would bemoan the Orioles' latest loss or celebrate their latest victory with whoever was handy, then he would mosey on over to the Information Desk where, if I was lucky, I would be working. Early in our friendship, when he learned my last name, Mr. Caulk decided I should be called "Chester," and always, as he drew near the Information Desk, he would call out in his gravelly old man's voice, “Where is Chester Peak?” Then he would spend a few minutes talking baseball or his military service or—knowing my love of spicy foods—he would regale me with stories of the time he and Mrs. Caulk had visited Hatch, New Mexico, “Green Chile Capital of the World!”

After we'd had our little chat, Mr. Caulk would make his way slowly (he did everything slowly in those days—slowly and uncomplainingly) into the open area behind the Information Desk, where he would fire up one of our public computers and indulge the second of his library enthusiasms: online crossword puzzles. Over the course of the next hour or so, I would glance his way from time to time and, inevitably, find his little hobbled figure hunched over the keyboard staring at his monitor with all the intensity of a NASA scientist reviewing the latest radar telemetry.

When I was a young man a great uncle of mine passed away at 94 years of age. Before he died, my father visited him regularly in the hospital. On one of his visits, Dad happened into the room just as Uncle Hume was sampling the hospital's midday fare. “Taste these green beans, Bill,” my great uncle demanded. “These are just about the best green beans you'll ever eat!” Afterwards, my father (who, as a doctor, had seen countless patients through their final illnesses) told me how much he admired my great uncle. “That's how I want to go out,” he said, “like Uncle Hume, still enjoying life, still appreciating the green beans.”

The last time I saw Mr. Caulk, he was in a nursing home undergoing therapy after a severe bout of pneumonia. His son was with him and the two of them were watching a game on television—baseball or football, I can't remember which—but Mr. Caulk was absolutely entranced by the action on the screen. At one point his son and I were talking quietly to each other about the famous Dodgers-Giants play-off game of 1951, trying to remember the name of the player who hit the home run called “the shot heard round the world,” when Mr. Caulk piped up from the bed beside us, “Bobby Thomson!” Before I left, he thanked me profusely for the milkshake I'd brought him (his doctors wanted him to gain weight). “I wouldn't mind having another of those,” he said, “it was really very good.”

The obituary said Mr. Caulk passed away peacefully in his 87th year of life, doubtless surrounded by loving family. Members of his second family—those of us at the Talbot County Free Library—would like to have been there too. It is part of the sadness of living in the world, working in the world, that we come to know and love people ... and then have to stand and watch as, slowly but surely, they fade away. But of course I tell myself that this is also one of life's blessings. Certainly Mr. Caulk would have said it was. Like Uncle Hume, the man knew how to enjoy life. Still, come half past nine this coming Saturday morning, I'm going to miss Mr. Caulk.