Paul Andersen: Fair Game
September 20, 2010
Bernie Rogers was almost 20 years my senior, but he often seemed younger than I because he viewed life through young eyes. When I saw him last, those eyes had a mirthful sparkle that belied his 78 years. The spirit of youth was never so beautiful as when Bernie smiled.I like to think that I made Bernie smile when I said something silly, which I often did when I was with him. His youthfulness made me happy, so my mood with him was light, our conversations witty, our thoughts unfettered and adrift. Bernie was also shrewd, so if I went too far, his smile could shift from humor to a kind of paternal caution. Bernie did not suffer fools gladly.Bernie Rogers died last week following heart surgery in Grand Junction. He had a cow valve installed to replace a faulty one of his own, and I was told that Bernie played the cow connection to the hilt with the hospital nurses. He mooed in anticipation of his new valve. Had I been there, I would have informed Bernie that his humor was utterly bovine and that he was milking it for everything it was worth. That would have elicited the cautionary smile. “Now, Paul …,” he would have counseled, wagging his forefinger.I first met Bernie Rogers in the Wilderness. He signed up for my inaugural Wilderness Seminar at The Aspen Institute 15 years ago. The seminar was filled with great conversations in the outdoors. Bernie and I became fast friends in a setting dear to both of us.Another bond we had was Chicago, where both of us were born. We shared a kindred attachment to the North Shore, where an elegant sophistication characterized townships ornamented with stately mansions gilded by the Industrial Age. Imbued with romance for this bygone era, Bernie emerged as a Great Gatsby, a princely son of America’s aristocracy.Bernie was of a different age. He was a Cole Porter melody, a Gershwin rhapsody, a Hemingway character, a Fitzgerald study. Bernie was Maurice Chevalier in “Gigi,” a man of the world who knew what books to read, which wines to drink, which restaurants to frequent, and how to address beautiful women. He was sophisticated and urbane and … oh, that sparkle in his eye …As a writer, I gained important perspective from Bernie. He taught me how an author thinks. There was an evaluative quality in his mind that captured the essence of things with lightning speed and was able to articulate thoughts in a succinct and engaging manner. Bernie was smart and confident and well read. He cherished good literature. He was authoritative without being overbearing, a welcome trait among intellectuals. He talked openly, yet there was something reserved about him. He kept you guessing until he issued a statement that could target you with pinpoint accuracy – and sometimes with brutal honesty.There are few people comfortable with talking philosophy, a subject I began to delve into as a result of the seminar. I read the Great Books, and Bernie was always interested in what I had discovered. After listening carefully, he would distill meanings with simple clarity, in just a few words.Bernie practiced the “Aspen Idea.” He lived it fully with body, mind and spirit. His being exuded sound reason, significant insights and a graceful, physical presence. The physical part was manifest in adventures when he celebrated two of his landmark birthdays by sea kayaking the Baja coast.Our first trip began on a deserted bay as we shoved our heavily loaded kayaks into pounding surf at the crack of dawn. We paddled, unsupported, 60 miles in six days, camping on beaches, eating fresh fish, drifting with the tides. At 70, Bernie looked like Poseidon’s own son, cresting waves in his kayak with a colorful bandana tied around a head of bleached, white hair. His skin was always dark brown, indicative of a sun worshipper who basked in the power and wonder of the cosmos, from which he drew sustenance.Now my old friend, Bernie – my own Zorba – is gone. But Bernie will always be with me as I see his beautiful smile in the clouds, in the mountains, in the waves, in the sun.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times.