An ode to Fred Oakes, a poet and neighbor

Published: 6/9/2019 7:16:33 AM

When Fred Oakes moved to Madison Circle in 1963, it was still nine years before I would be born. When I came to meet him, just a few months ago, he was my neighbor. He died last week, aged 83 years.

In his Recorder obituary, he is pictured holding a book with an owl on the cover, silhouetted by a full yellow moon. I have a signed copy of that book on my mantle. The book’s title is Poems by F.L. Oakes. He had signed it to me, “For Andrew, a Good Neighbor.” I want to tell you a story about two neighbors, both poets, brought together by the city of Greenfield.

I said he’s my neighbor. I live on Maple Street; the house Fred lived in is on Madison Circle. My street is all bungalows and busy with trucks that rumble by all day, full of scrap metal, routed over the mountain to Cheapside. It was a neighborhood we could afford. It was 2006 and my wife Lynette and I – we had met at UMass-Amherst, getting our graduate degrees in poetry – were toiling away at those jobs you take when you have a degree in poetry – my wife a schoolteacher, myself a newspaper reporter. One of the advantages of the location was that if we crossed the street, we were just a block away from the quaint, tightly-knit neighborhood of Madison Circle, and another block from Beacon Field, so we could take our dog for pleasant, leafy walks with the Poet’s Seat Tower looming over us on the ridge just to our East.

It was on one of these walks, early in the morning as my wife and I were expecting our daughter Aisla to be born, that I was struck with the germ of a poem, called “Halo Moon.” Since I describe the sound of the halyard of the flagpole at Madison Circle knocking in the poem, I was probably in the sight line of Fred’s second-story window at the time. I submitted the poem to the Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest and I won.

My daughter was born by the time I had the famous Poet’s Seat chair in my house, and my son Levi would be born four years later. The lure of grandchildren drew my own parents to Greenfield from Ohio, where they had been living. They ended up buying a house on Madison Circle, just around the corner from Fred. They were retired like Fred was. Fred had worked for many years at Yetter’s florist shop.

I’m sure by then, I had seen Fred around the neighborhood. More recently, he used to get into his green truck with his dog Jack and go take him for walks. But though we lived only about a block away, we didn’t yet know each other. A neighbor, after all, is just a person who lives near you. Just like a poet is someone who tries to capture that feeling of being alive and to write it down so that maybe someone else will read it and it will spark in them a feeling, too.

I came to meet Fred because one day I was sitting at my kitchen table, trying to write something. I don’t remember precisely what. It was in March and I was on Spring Break from my job teaching at a college in Springfield. I heard a strange noise from outside, in the quiet spots between the passing cars on Maple Street. I went out on the porch to listen and I heard someone call for help. I walked down Maple Street, but determined it wasn’t coming from one of those houses, so I walked a block over from Madison Circle.

Eventually, I called out and said, “Where are you?” A voice called back and said, “I’m in the back.” I bushwhacked through a neighbors yard and saw Fred lying on the ground with a shovel in his hand, fallen. He couldn’t get up. I vaulted the fence, ripping the crotch of my jeans in the process, and offered him a hand. It wasn’t enough. I squatted down, took him under the shoulders and lifted him up to standing.

He said he hadn’t ever fallen before. He was in the back shoveling Jack’s poop up from the half-frozen yard. By then, another neighbor had come by and was standing with us. Fred said he knew who I was, and he knew I had written poems. He said he was a poet, too, and an interview with him would soon come out in the paper about his recently published book of poems. I was worried about him, because he is about as old as my own grandmother, who lives alone in rural Missouri. But once he was on his feet, he insisted he was okay. We watched him go back into his house.

A few days later, the signed copy of the book showed up on my doorstep. I wrote him a note and told him I enjoyed his poem, “Gettysburg.” He wrote me back, expressing gratitude and telling me more about the writing of the poem. I saw him just a few weeks ago. I was walking my dog with my kids. He was driving with Jack to go to the woods for a walk. He leaned out the window and said, “I didn’t know you were a tennis coach who wears a kilt.” I laughed, not knowing what to say, but he clearly approved. He waved at me and drove away, like neighbors do.

Maybe we don’t realize how many people around us have that spark in them until something causes our paths to intersect. But it’s never too late. Good-bye, Fred. Thank you for the poems.

Andrew Varnon is a poet, professor and tennis coach who lives in Greenfield.

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