Friday, January 9, 2009

Senator Claiborne Pell, R.I.P.

He died on New Year's Day, at the age of 90. Some years ago, that would have seemed to me to be a full span of years. Now that I am a little closer to that mark, it seems nearly premature. And as we wait with bated breath for the approaching Singularity, or for Skynet (different sides of the same coin), it seems not unrealistic to think that some of the younger ones now living may eventually come to celebrate a four or five hundredth birthday. (And why stop there?)

Here's my Senator Pell story. I forget exactly which year this was, but it would have been in the neighborhood of 1990 or so. The music had become thin, and the rare books had not really gotten started. I was driving a cab to make a living, and Pell was still in the Senate. So it's a cold, rainy December afternoon in Newport, I'm driving Car 54 (really!), and I get a call on the radio to come down to the office for a pickup. It turns out to be Senator Pell. He had been on his way back to Newport from Providence, with some friends, in their car, on the way to the Governor's Ball at Ochre Court. (A big deal event involving formal dress, champagne, and that kind of thing.) The car gave out, just would not go any more, near the top of the arch of the Newport Bridge. The Senator got out of the car and walked down from the top of the bridge, in the rain, to the taxi office, which was close to the Newport end of the bridge, and asked for a cab. I got the call. I drove him out to his home on Ledge Road and waited while he changed clothes. He invited me in, and I went in for a moment, but considering that, right then, what my dispatcher might have to say could be more important than comfortable relaxation, I chose to wait for him in the cab, where I could hear the radio. (No cell phones then, you kids!) After a while, I drove him to Ochre Court. He paid the fare, with a nice but not outstanding tip, and that was the end of that.

If I had been in town on Monday, I think I would have made an effort to get to the funeral. As it was, I did not even know about it until yesterday, when a friend whom I will identify as L.C. said something about shaking Bill Clinton's hand.

Vale, Senator Pell.

You have to love a man who will walk a couple of miles in the wind and rain, down from the top of a bridge, to get to a party! I would like see to more of that kind of steel in the leaders we have now. Most of them look to me like they would have melted before reaching the exit ramp. Or — hah! — called for a [taxpayer-funded] helicopter airlift.

That bridge has since been named for him.

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