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I was very lucky for my first 54 years to find myself in the orbit of a man who lived life with more zeal than anyone I’ve ever known. Those of you who’ve read some of my posts will probably guess I’m speaking of my Dad, and you’re right! Please bear with me while I recount, in short form, some stories, a few of which I’ve told here before, that explain what I mean:
He was born on March 6, 1919, the fifth of six boisterous and energetic children, in Birmingham, England. Although not considered “intellectually gifted,” he was very bright and threw himself into his studies (the ones that interested him, at least) with gusto. One of his interests was play-acting, and he memorized yards and yards of Shakespeare, as he appeared at first in bit-roles, and then as major characters in school productions. But his pièce de résistance was his role as the Pirate King in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. At some point during his “I am a Pirate King” song, he flung his cloak open with great abandon, knocking all the footlights into the orchestra pit, injuring several musicians, and bringing down the curtain for the performance.
Then there was the time he and a couple of Army buddies found themselves in St. Peter’s Basilica, having marched into Rome with Mark Clark and his army in June of 1944. I suppose Dad’s ‘command presence,’ which he took with him everywhere he went for his entire life, must have been recognized by the Swiss Guard in their fancy dress, and the the three of them, as soon as they were spotted, were immediately whisked up a flight of stairs and into an unscheduled private audience with the Holy Father, who gave them each a rosary and engaged with them in a charming visit.
Or the time the witch-doctor’s curse rebounded, and the deadly spell he’d put on Dad ricocheted (see what I did there), and the witch-doctor himself dropped dead when he got out of bed the next morning. Not to mention his treating with, and then imprisoning the cannibal king who’d eaten the local tax collector, just prior to a United Nations delegation visit to Northern Cameroon UN Trust Territory.
Or the year that we spent under 24/7 armed guard, as Dad disposed of a corrupt and influential ruler and his retinue in a large Northern Nigerian Emirate. Dad, Mum, my sister (age 2) and me (age 9) were all targeted for assassination. I was never shot at. But there was that time we found the poisonous snakes in the bed. And those interesting evasive maneuvers in the car on a few occasions. That was fun. Of course, Dad prevailed, the Emir was deposed and exiled, and that was that. (Except for those pesky rumors which circulated for years afterward that we’d all been killed one way or another by the Emir’s stooges).
Through it all, Dad remained his usual outgoing, loud, hard-charging, ebullient self. I never saw him depressed. I never saw him unhappy. I never saw him pitying his sometimes overwhelmingly bizarre and chaotic lot. He just kept embracing life, making his mark, and cheerfully mowing down the opposition, no matter what form it took. May the fruit not fall far from the tree. I do my best.
And Dad didn’t stop when we left Nigeria. He was a committed and enormously popular teacher (the one that his college students called at 3AM when they’d been arrested for having one too many at the local bar and they needed someone to get them out of jail and take them home), and after he retired, returned to England, and entered politics, he was the terror of the teachers’ Union and the local Education Authority, both of whom saw much of their power evaporating as Dad “reorganized things” (bull, meet china shop) more to his liking and to the children’s benefit. His constituents loved him, and after he left the Conservative Party and ran the last couple of times as an Independent for County Council, his majorities only increased.
Perhaps the best summation of Dad came as a complete surprise, via an email after he died, from the daughter of a fellow Army officer. Her own father had died, and while going through his effects, she found his WWII diary, and a description of Dad, as follows:
I’ve never heard anyone so noisy from the time he gets up, to the time he goes to sleep . . . and after!”
That was Dad. He seized every day by the throat, and never let go. He was joyful in, committed to, and zealous about life in all its forms, no matter how it manifested itself.
I can think of some people I didn’t know, but who I believe might have exhibited one or more of those characteristics themselves. In the entertainment field, I think of Louis Armstrong. I can’t look at him, or hear him, without breaking into a smile. I think he lived his life with zeal. In politics, I think of Margaret Thatcher. When it counted, she didn’t waver, she didn’t wobble, she didn’t flinch. She was zealous about the important things. In academia, I think of Camille Paglia. Yes, she’s a bit odd in some of her ideas, but I love to listen to her when she’s on a roll. What an intellect, and (more often than not) what sound common sense and enthusiasm for her subject. The very definition of zeal.
I’m curious: Who have you known in your own life who’s impressed you with their zeal for living? Or who do you admire in public life of one sort or another, for their zeal, either in a specific area or just as it comes across in their attitude towards life?
I’m focusing on “positive zeal” here; but of course, it works the other way as well. Include such examples if you like, but please, in both instances, tell us “why” this or that person serves as an example of zeal for you.
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