Back in the day we were obliged to memorize and recite a dreadful old Wadworth psalm that concluded, if I remember it right, with this consolation: “Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and, departing , leave behind us footprints on the sands of time.”
I've been thinking about those footprints.
• Instead of footprints on the sands, I've left mainly assprints on the couch.
• I remember the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller at a long-ago political rally where he was given an enthusiastic nub-slapping introduction to a rowdy crowd by his running mate, the one-armed war hero Maurice “Footsie” Britt, who went on and on enumerating the governor's accomplishments, to which Rockefeller, a little tipsy as usual, replied in all humility when he mounted the platform: “Thank you, Footsie, for all those great things you said about all the great things I've done.”
His seemed bootprints that would last a good long time. But who's left now, after just an eyeblink, who could tell you what any of those “great things” were?
• A memorabilia auction in Little Rock last week included hundreds of film reels and movie posters that featured, according to the daily newspaper, ‘long-ago Western stars Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy — all legendary names from early Hollywood but unfamiliar to probably anyone under the age of … 40.”
I have to admit that one hauled me up. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were veritable gods to people in a certain age group at one time in living memory. We might couldn't have told you who the president was, or the fuhrer, but we knew that yippie-e-o pantheon down to the names of their steeds, and if hoofprints of such wide-eyed awesomeness have already disappeared from all but the plaqued imagination of geezers, what chance does any mere mortal have of scrunching a lasting print in the fourth-dimension silica?
Will Elvis be next to slip off into oblivion?
• A dinosaur once left a long trail of washtub-size prints along an ancient muddy creekbank in what is now southwest Arkansas. Those prints found second exposure and scientific identification in our lifetime, and they tell us all that we know of that creature, called a diplodocus, and the race or species its footprints evidence. To wit, it was humongous, it was a herbivore, and it lived 100 million years ago, give or take a fort-night.
But that creekbed track also reveals the inadequacy of footprints as memorial markers. The footprints say almost nothing of the diplodocus' character, its essence.
For instance, did each and every diplodocus have a sense of individual uniqueness — in other words, a personal identity? Did it have friends, and did it know them by a diplodocus equivalent of Steve, Pete, Becky and Gomer? Did it think diplodocus homosexuals, if there were any, represented a threat to the sanctity of traditional diplodocus monogamy? Was there such a thing as diplodocus school (well, fish have them) — or diplodocus church, to spread the gospel of a heavenly or hellish afterlife for immortal diplodocus shades? Did any of them experi-ence a Jurassic hankering to don a baseball-type cap and to wear it backward, or are such yearnings limited in all of earth's biota to physical possibility, and to product availability? Did the dips have a technological facility (e.g., working as organic steam-shovels as was often alleged in “The Flintstones”)?
More to the point, did they make tiny pets of the bashful shrews playing about their ankles, somehow anticipating that the little ratballs would evolve into a line of critter that would one day by the legerdemain of paleontology haul the diplodocus vita up out of the void?
A hundred million years from now, it might be that a trail of human footprints (perhaps left by Confucius, or your uncle, or by Wilbur Mills in the sands along the Tidal Basin) will resurface, and that a being much different from the diplodocus and from you and me will be in a position to observe those prints, and will have the knowledge and sufficient interest to hoke up a prototype. By then the science might have advanced so that a single footprint will give them to know more about us than
we know about dinosaurs. More than we know about ourselves.
A new metaphor has wormed into contemporary usage. The reference now is not to footprints but to legacies, and legacies mostly appear in blather about fading sports stars and has-been politicians eager to rescript the annals. One of these notables, an ex-president, was in the house last week, said to be on a mission to “rebuild his legacy.” The metaphor change gives him a chance to succeed at that. You can rehab a legacy where you can't a footprint. Just not much you can do with a footprint.
Both footprint and legacy are attempts to foil the Reaper, or bumfuzzle him, and the Reaper didn't get his undefeated champion's belt be-cause he lacked the requisite patience and indifference. He can wait you out unbored for 100 million years, and then another 100 million, and he doesn't care. He doesn't care a bit.