You probably don’t remember Alec Leamas.
He was a gritty, somewhat colorless man you would pass by and never notice, underpaid, his life at risk daily. To me he was a hero of sorts. Leamas was a British spy in East Germany, and when his operatives were killed he was called back to London. To him it was a chance to come in from the cold and live a normal life. But his superiors didn’t give him the chance. They set him up and sent him back. Leamas was the classic Cold War agent created by ultimate spy thriller author John Le Carre in the first masterpiece of the genre, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I felt I was different after I put it down.
I had looked to heroes who were the obvious good guys. Then I found unheralded Alec Leamas doing a dirty job that had to be done. It wasn’t that I wanted to be him; it was just that he put a face on the foggy idea I had back then of whom I’d become. That’s who I am, I thought, that guy. Not Leamas the spy, Leamas who is alone.
I have no idea how much that book affected me. Maybe no more or less than the Eagles’ “Desperado” stubbornly riding alone along fences even though it’s killing him or Simon and Garfunkel’s loner anthem “I Am A Rock.”
“I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need for friendship
Friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock
I am an island
Don’t talk of love
Well, I’ve heard the word before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I’d never loved,
I never would have cried”
Yeah, that’s me, I thought. An island. I could have written that myself.
I had no trouble living alone, relying on no one, loving no one, beholden to no one and hell bent to stay that way. You’re leaving? Who gives a damn? I’m fired? So what? The thing is I had never recognized, or at least never understood, Leamas’ longing to come in and be a normal, everyday man again even though it was there all the time. I hadn’t heard it in Paul Simon’s voice either. Looking back I think perhaps it was easier to be the loner. Safer. I could hold my hand over the flame and curse and spit at the burns, but I could keep it there. Love was more powerful than fire. I didn’t need it.
This industry is a haven for loners; it’s made for them. It’s a place to work hard and honest but be alone, anonymous, cut from the strings of the past and from people.
Drivers can roll for hours on end, never coming within reach of another human being. There’s as much potential anonymity in a truckstop as there is camaraderie. You can walk in and never do more than nod at a couple of people, order from a waitress who takes the hint and doesn’t talk to you and pay a cashier. Then drive again.
We’ve all heard of drivers who leave their truck in the night and move on. Or who communicate with dispatchers only rarely, using a few blunt words on some remote device, and leave their cell phones switched off out in their “leave-me-the-hell-alone” world.
But try as you may, you cannot isolate yourself from the people around you and still be complete, fulfilled as a human being.
After listening to a distant funeral bell, John Donne, (1572-1631), English metaphysical poet and church minister, wrote in “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”:
“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
We are all tangled up in each other’s lives. It will be harder to come in than it is to stay out there. But it can be done. Just because you can be the tough as nails, unbreakable, lone wolf doesn’t mean you should be. The heart inevitably hardens, and eventually it is irretrievably damaged. You are not an island. You are involved in mankind. That bell is ringing for you.
I came in from the cold. And I’m not going back.