Sixty years ago this summer, when my late wife and I met and married, I was the proud, but beleaguered, owner of a middle-aged Jaguar roadster, a roaring, demanding beast that was as close to my wildest dreams as possible. It was like a love affair with, say, Sophia Loren — fantastic and intense, but in the event, unsustainable and impossible. With a new romance demanding my attention and before long, a family on the way, it was time to end it. The day I watched the buyer drive it away was a very sad one.
For six decades, I’ve nursed the memories of that enchanted year and yearned more or less wistfully for another like it. Now, with Mother sadly gone, the house quiet (and absent any dissenting voice), and the end of my driving days drawing ever closer, I decided to cast caution to the winds and go for it. I couldn’t help but remember my father, who loved to sail, but never got his boat before it was too late.
There was now an additional consideration to the original one of cost; to whit, could I still get in and out of a roadster? After trying several, I finally found one that, without too much embarrassment, I could: a sleek, silvery, 21-year-old German that’s been stashed crosswise in the back of my barn all winter, waiting for a spring that it now appears will never come. But on the one good day of the past two weeks, when the sun shone, the roads were dry and the temperature flirted with 60, I fired her up and headed to Lyme, New Hampshire, for a lunch with old friends.
I’d almost forgotten the pure visceral excitement of the experience: sitting low and wrapped in a leather seat, the wind riffling my hair, a satin-smooth, five-speed transmission with a clutch to match, and a powerful engine filling all the space ahead of me in the car. I flew over Orange Hill in a sort of muted ecstasy. Helga (her name, after Hägar’s wife) whispered seductively to me of plenty of power to spare; I responded with a quote from Tennyson: “’You and I are old.’ We are going into the sunset together at 2500 rpm — maybe, under duress, 35. So relax, and let’s just enjoy this beautiful moment.”
That evening, aglow with the pleasure of an experience so long deferred, I got to thinking about the word, “visceral.” It has to do with experiences felt deep inside, and generally involving one or more of our natural senses. As I pondered, it occurred to me that, even in old age, visceral experiences are everywhere.
There’s the brilliance of the first sip of an ice-cold beer on a hot July day. I’ve taken to buying beer in 7-ounce bottles because after that first slug, the experience goes downhill. Years ago in Texas, the maestro of the ranch told us we could drink all the milk we wanted, but we had to milk it ourselves. So, the Mexicans and I milked old Brownie each morning, and the madama poured it into old-fashioned bulb-topped bottles and stuck them beside the freezer in the fridge. Dashing into the kitchen from 106-degree heat to grab one of those bottles and chug it down — that was a visceral pleasure. Better yet, the Mexicans wouldn’t drink it on hot days. Said it gave them urticaria — hives.
The clank of the hunting-camp wood stove being fed in the predawn darkness, followed by the smell of burning birch bark, then maple, and a few minutes later, the aromas of perking coffee and frying bacon, will be my treasured companions till I lose more than my mind. It’s not just the memory of the smells that will stay; it’s the visceral pleasure of having been in the company of such great friends.
A lot of visceral memories have to do with water. Why not? We come from water, and we’re closest to our origins when on it or in it. The rise and plunge of a tough small sailboat in big waves in a fresh breeze is one of life’s purest pleasures. My first summer of sailing, on Cape Cod — I was given the use of the camp Snipe during time off from my kitchen job — was self-taught; but that Snipe and I got all the way out past Chatham a couple of times, in complete disregard of the camp’s need for a pot-walloper.
My friend, Al, and I got a little impatient one day with scouting the rapids of the Coppermine River and took off first down one long run of white water. In less than a minute, we were into some pretty hairy drops and boiling waves and, as an old New England saying goes, some doubtful of the sequel. But that lovely Canadian canoe and Al and I whooped and dodged and plunged all the way down through it. I can feel that motion in my body yet, all these years later, deep in my viscera.
I recall the comforting sputter, long ago, of a tiny Svea stove inside our tent on a subzero night high up. And nowadays, when my little terrier jumps into the space between my knees in bed, lies down and sighs, I can reach down, touch her head, and feel my blood pressure go down, and my respiration and heart rate slow down.
If we but remain open to them, the visceral pleasures will last as long as we do.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.