Bill Powell —
After seven decades of my life, I have experienced, learned, and remembered many things—among them, that people touch our lives by being totally “present” with the other person, by genuine caring, feeling and being felt, and by knowing that such connections are often formed in ways using deeper languages, beyond words. One of my most profound and impactful memories of this nature is about a man named Finley Stewart, an unintended hero who opened up my mind and nailed a message inside my heart and soul.
Finley lived in the town of my youth, a small, rural community in southern Indiana. I was a rather scrawny kid, and while most boys grow straight upwards as they age, as I grew my back began to bend and hurt, caused by an inherited condition called Scheuerman’s disease. My sense of being different from my peers became more pronounced. I became more bookish and quiet and developed a keen sense of the subtleties of human communication, both verbal and nonverbal.
I recall people referring to Finley as the “town tramp,” a term that has since taken on a different and more derogatory meaning. In that place and time he was an infrequently seen figure who lived on life’s margins with minimal human contact. He escaped all further diagnostic labeling other than “odd.”
Before I ever talked to Finley, which happened when I was 10 or 11 years old, I’d asked my mother and grandparents about “that old man who wore all the dirty old clothes.” They gave me his name—actually both of his names. He sometimes called himself Willie de Weese, but no one was sure whether Finley or Willie was his true given name (though the Stewart name was on a brand of cigars in the period and there were other people named de Weese in the area). Little else was known about him other than as a young man he had worked as a hired hand for two spinster sisters in a neighboring town before withdrawing into a more reclusive and itinerant life. Though he was a loner, I came to know that in simple and unintended ways people could still enter his isolation and affect him. I also came to know that he could reach out and affect me in equally enduring ways.
Of a somewhat advanced age, Finley was a short man with chronically soiled hands, a deeply tanned and lined face and, regardless of the temperature, a man who always wore many layers of filthy clothing. He was timid and usually sported several days’ growth of whiskers and crudely staved off the development of a full beard with scissors. Finley had a very pronounced, but not terrible, body odor—from months’ or years’ worth of accumulated smoke and caked sweat and dirt.
I first met Finley face-to-face after my family moved to a house sandwiched between a grain elevator and a New York Central Railroad line. The rail line at that time still teemed with the last of the old steam locomotives, coal dust and clinkers, and reeked of tar-impregnated ties, cinders and soot. The rail bed was composed of interesting stones such as quartz, marble chips, lime and granite, small fossils, and agates. It was a veritable gold mine to the rock-hound I’d become, and I spent my summers walking the rails searching for rocks for my collection. While searching I would sometimes see Finley forlornly walking the tracks alone.
The rail lines that cut through town were Finley’s paths home. His “house” was an old, abandoned railroad storage building near the rail depot a half mile from my home. On one sweltering July day, I was searching through the gravel hoping to add to my collection of miniature fossils when I looked up to find him walking slowly toward me. Hesitantly, even shyly, he approached me and when he came near he quietly asked what I was doing—that he’d seen me so occupied many times before and wondered what my searching was about. By his manner he seemed quietly intrigued and certainly not a threat.
Nowadays, children would probably be warned to flee at the sight of such a character. I was not so warned; the message I learned from my family was to treat everyone with respect regardless of their “station” in life. Though I’d previously said a shy “hi” to him on a few occasions when I’d unexpectedly encountered him in alleys as I’d walked home from school, it was the first time he ever initiated a conversation.
I told Findley of my collection of rocks and fossils and showed him some of the things I’d found that day. He pointed out one bright white, flaky quartz stone as being one he liked. I asked if he wanted it and he very hesitantly said “yes,” took it, and thanked me. Finley then did what I later discovered he’d never done before—he invited me to his house to see his own collection of stones. I sensed no guile in him.
As Finley talked about his own lifetime’s collection, his face brightened and he said that in all his years of roaming and scrounging he’d picked up a lot of “pretty” rocks and bright glass and had made a special place where he could display them. I sensed that he was talking about something for which he felt pride, and that these were his only true treasures. I also felt his hesitation about having a visitor see his home and sensed fear—fear of the loss of his invisibility and of being vulnerable, of being ridiculed, or of losing something of value. It never occurred to me to judge him or imagine what he must live like. I didn’t think about being trusted by him or feared. I was merely intrigued by the possibility of seeing some new rock and mineral treasures, possibly from faraway places.
Several days later I decided to visit Finley. What I experienced that day and years later evoked empathy and a way of knowing beyond words. With misgiving, I walked a narrow path through weeds from the hot rail bed through the dusty weeds to the windowless door in the front of the shed that was Finley’s home. I knocked tentatively and waited for what seemed an eternity. I heard nothing, knocked once again, and then turned to leave.
Some seconds later, I heard a soft voice ask, “Who’s there?” I gave my name and told him I’d come to see the rocks he’d mentioned. I think that was the first time I’d ever given him my name. It sounded as though he began untying a rope, which must have served to secure the door to the frame and provide some measure of safety. In a few seconds he opened the door a crack and looked at and around me. I again sensed fear and I remember being nonplussed by this; it had never occurred to me that I could evoke fear in an adult. Only later did I come to realize that it was not I that he feared so much as the crack in his isolation that I symbolized. He hesitantly, quietly, allowed me to come in, saying that the only way to get to his backyard gallery was through his one large room. I entered and my conscious awareness of being able to more fully know another’s reality was forever changed.
Finley’s one-room “home” was filled from floor to ceiling with old clothing. To get through to the rear door, it was necessary to stoop down and crawl through a tunnel in the clothing. In the middle of the tunnel was a side shaft to a chamber formed within the pile. Scented by years of perspiration, the burrow he had formed was his place to retreat and sleep. The shed had no heat or electricity, so the space provided a measure of warmth in the winter. Crawling further, I dodged a reeking old enameled chamber pot near the back door that was his toilet and then emerged into the backyard.
The yard was a grassless area about thirty feet in diameter floored with packed earth. Its boundaries were marked by old scraps of lumber nailed between box elder trees. Sitting in rows on the lumber were stones of various sizes and types, colored glass bottles, and brightly colored pieces of junk arranged so the light would illuminate them. I looked at the display and felt disappointed, having imagined more exotic things. Though Finley was quiet and tentative, I felt his pride in his menagerie. In a moment of what I recall as a sort of empathy-epiphany, I felt some of what he felt and realized that the beauty and meaning he saw in his collected stones and bottles was real to him and that my appraisal was my own—no less nor more subjective than his. To be kind was to appreciate.
Seeing that old man thus, momentarily feeling what he felt, seeing as he saw, I started to become consciously aware of experiencing, feelings, perspective and empathy with a stranger, and the sense of a deeper knowing of someone by way of that connection. There is more to knowing than information; there is a kind of tacit knowledge that comes from resonating with what’s in another person’s heart.
I carefully examined each rock and commented on its uniqueness and the way it sparkled in sunlight. I told Finley how much I liked, even envied, his collection and that perhaps we could trade if ever I got enough good things that he might want. Other than that we spoke sparingly and soon lapsed into silence, not knowing what to say. After a few minutes of further looking and after awkward good-byes, I exited back through his burrow.
In the years that followed, I periodically saw Finley. When our paths crossed, we would wave in friendly fashion but spoke little; our dialogue was in large part nonverbal but we did ask how each other was doing and acknowledged our shared interest. In those years I never met anyone who had any notion of how he lived. I kept my experience to myself, not wanting to expose him, fearing that sharing what I’d seen might make him the butt of ridicule.
Once, at the end of my high school years, he appeared at a gas station, uptown in the small town in the middle of winter, trying to push a dying car owned by a young mother who was very poor. She had no social supports. He didn’t know how to solve her problem, so I and others put a gallon of gas in her car and joined him in pushing it in the bitter cold to see if it would start. It wouldn’t. He trudged off with her and a child toward where she lived, trying to keep her warm. His heart was large and alive.
Ten years after my visit to his home, our own house was destroyed and, following a family diaspora, I moved alone across town. Soon to graduate from college, I was influenced by the nonviolence and social concerns of Quakers and was to become a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War. For my alternate service, I became a social worker. At this juncture in my life, I had my last meaningful contact with Finley. I was sitting on my porch on yet another hot July afternoon just watching the cars drive by. Life was not always buzzing with excitement in rural Indiana. Glancing down the street, I saw a familiar, stooped, aged figure amble my way. Finley walked with a wide gait that I can still picture in my mind. He shuffled along with his head down and his eyes fixed on the path ahead. Though he was aware of his surroundings, this habit served to preclude meeting another’s gaze and also kept him stable. Truth is, I’d begun to walk like that. I thought he’d likely walk on past and not notice me. But, as he came near, he hesitated and then came directly across the street and up my front walk. Only then did he look at me directly. His eyes appeared more aged and weary than I remembered.
As he approached he reached inside his shirt and pulled out a wrinkled and soiled envelope. He handed it to me and said, “I wanted to mail this to you last Christmas but I didn’t know where you lived anymore and I didn’t have a stamp for it anyway.” Then he lowered his eyes and waited for me to open it. I opened the envelope and in it was an obviously inexpensive Christmas card with a red poinsettia on the front and the words “‘you were always my friend’. Merry Christmas, Willie de Weese.” I was stunned by the simple words, his thought, and immense meaning, and could only muster a mere “Thank you…this is a nicer gift than I can begin to tell you.” I laid my hand on his shoulder. After a moment he hesitated as if to say more, seemed moved by the interchange, and then gave a slight wave, turned, and ambled on down the street assuming his usual downward gaze.
I never saw Finley again. Ordered away to another town to do my alternate service as a social worker, I began my career remembering that subtle, intensely personal, experience he’d provided about human relating and mattering. I remember feeling intensely alone at that meeting, as was he, and occasionally heard about him from townsfolk on the rare occasions when I returned to visit family. Finley reportedly had become noticeably demented and depressed and was eventually forcibly moved to the county home about seven miles away. Reportedly he “ran away” from the home regularly and followed the rail line back to his old abode. After several such excursions, someone bulldozed and burned his shack and belongings so as to deter him from running away. Probably those actions were well intended, but Finley returned home for the last time to a denuded lot with neither his building nor his gallery in the trees left standing. He was found sitting quietly on the packed earth that had once housed his treasures and returned to the county home. Thereafter he withdrew into grief and silence, took to his bed, and died shortly thereafter.
A broken heart makes little sound. Broken dreams less still. Lives sometimes just end rather than winding down gracefully. But my life was altered by an old man and the tacit connection we felt between us, by a man who remembered me with an act of kindness. His acknowledgement that I mattered to him and that the narratives of our lives had intersected, enabled me to know about grasping the essence of people in quietly powerful ways. This is my enduring quest, to pass along the gifts given to me by Finley and by other quiet and caring men and women I’ve met along the way. Perhaps their gifts will bear the fruits of a bit of wisdom, and perhaps even peace, that I can share. Then I can die having come full circle.
An earlier version of this article appeared as “Beneath Still Waters: Legacies of Quiet Men” in Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping, vol. 5, no. 2, 1999.