When I was nineteen I’d had enough, and took some time off from school working for the father of a friend, scooping ice cream at a slightly tacky coastal resort in southern Spain. I didn’t speak any Spanish when I went. The waiters working in the cafetería where my kiosk was installed all resented me for making an adventure of their livelihood (and probably for not belonging to a union) and called me Billy for no discernible reason, and many other things like gilipollas (roughly: dumbass), making it gradually easier to understand everything else (“Gilipollas needs another bathroom break.” “Let’s see if we can make gilipollas cry.”) which I guess is how language gets learned, one random building block at a time. I read a lot of John Irving during the slow parts, got fantastically sunburned, and finally became so good with the money that I was even counting in Spanish in my head. For all this I walked out of there every evening with tres miles pesetas (about twenty-seven dollars) and a mountain climber’s sense of accomplishment.
The guy who owned the place used to glance over at me skeptically between cigarettes from a corner table, though a couple of months in he seemed genuinely bemused, and once in a while even made the trip over when business started picking up in early summer to ask if I needed any reinforcements. I didn’t. He was a tough old cuss and seemed to appreciate this. At the end of the day, when I had turned over my register and collected my wage, he began summoning me for long walks on the promenade overlooking the beach, to the end of town and back; he seemed to have a lot on his mind.
And we must have made quite a sight: I at least eight inches taller, without a haircut for months, lacquered and metronomically nodding, he with a head like a chopping block, sometimes lavishly waving at all of recent development, sometimes balling his fists in disapproval. He was the type of guy whom it was easy to picture having avidly participated on one side or another of recent Spanish history (I had my suspicions which), and most of the talk seemed to return to how we make our often contradictory ways in the world. I felt flattered. He growled, often lost himself in emotional recollections, and just as suddenly ricocheted out of them with multiple references to cojones, never holding my lack of Spanish comprehension against me, then lastly, at the end of our walks, fixed me with a look like he had not noticed me there the whole time, and dramatically sounded out: “Suerte.”
Which always gave me such a charge, it did not even matter a couple of months later when I finally learned the translation – luck, only luck – having already filled it to capacity with everything else I only ever half-understood. What was luck but what you made of it? And anyway, suerte seemed like an altogether grander thing to want to pass along.
Many years later I was reminded of all these words we hear and think we fully understand from reading Courage by Bernard Waber, because you could make a pretty good case that courage isn’t strictly what this is about. The boy on the cover facing the end of a diving board may truly be hoping to tap into some previously undiscovered reservoir of fearlessness, or he may be trying to block out all of the hectoring voices behind him, or calculating the odds against shattering into a million pieces upon impact, or drowning, or wondering who in the world would even notice if he did.
There are professional tightrope walkers between these covers too, and trapeze artists, acting conceivably on pure tenacity rather than any sense of daring that they can remember; a boy confronting the word “superciliousness” at a spelling bee (requiring presumably diligence, composure); mysterious dinners (prescribing a taste for adventure, and faith that the world is not just out to poison you or make you strong).
There’s making up after an argument and introducing yourself to strangers (because really what’s to lose?), keeping secrets and “not peeking at the last pages of your whodunit book to find out who did it” (discipline? self restraint?), there’s deliberately stepping on all the sidewalk cracks, because what kind of a gilipollas lets superstition get in the way of a nice relaxing walk?
There’s starting that sand castle over and not crying about it (a personal favorite in our house), saying goodbye and breaking bad habits, admiring but not plucking, confronting scary noises in the night, all of them variations on duty and responsibility, and sticking with it, and trying to see the best in things, which always sounds so dreary whenever I hear myself struggling to explain it to my children, it’s really all I can do sometimes to resist an exclamation – “Courage!” – and hope I do not betray my meaning with an accent.