I’ve arrived at the home of preeminent archaeologist and professor emeritus at Marshall College, Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Jr., whose most recent adventure, an identity suit brought forth by the American Veterans Committee, ended six months ago. After a series of lectures on Brushy Bill Roberts, in which Dr. Jones debunked the recently popular theory that Roberts was actually western outlaw William H. Bonney, otherwise known as Billy the Kid, a movement arose, led by Fox News commentator and self-described “historian” Bill O’ Reilly, to question the identity of Jones himself.
The lawsuit cited his impossibly young demeanor and record-breaking longevity as proof of his fraud. Dr. Jones is mobile, and doesn’t appear to be a day over 80. He is also, by all official accounts, the only surviving veteran of World War I, and the oldest man to have ever lived, unless you take the Old Testament literally. At 117 years and 147 days, he has long surpassed Jiroemon Kimura of Japan, who lived to age 116 years and 54 days.
Thanks to his oft-cited research and nearly unbroken record of speaking engagements since the early 1980s, the professor’s attorneys made quick work of what was clearly a politically-motivated hit job. Dr. Jones has been increasingly vocal in recent years about the spread of false information, in a series of lectures called “The Cloud of Nonsense.” He often warns audiences of what he refers to as creeping fascism. When asked if he was surprised or disappointed by attacks on his character, Dr. Jones replied, “I’m too old to be disappointed. There’s always room for a little surprise, but not today, kid. Consider the source.”
Dr. Jones sequestered himself at the end of that debacle, and this is the first interview he has accepted since. The terms of the discussion are that the trial is off limits, as are other well-tread topics, such as the series of docudramas bearing his name, which he has disavowed as “poppycock,” and his family, namely his late wife Marion, and his father, Dr. Henry Jones, Sr.
He answers the door in clean but well worn pajamas. He hasn’t shaved today, or any day this week from the looks of it, as has been his style for the better part of a century. My first question is off the cuff when I wonder aloud about the age of the lone chestnut tree that dwarfs his house. He says it predates the home and it’s one of the few that survived the blight. “I was going to offer you tea,” he says, “but it looks like the interview has already started.”
He leads me into his front room, which doubles as his office. I am embarrassingly ignorant of his work, aside from the content of the films I’ve viewed over a dozen times, so the various trinkets that line the dusty shelves fill me with trepidation, as if he’s going to pick one up and ask me to identify it in some sort of vetting process.
I remind myself that he knows I’m not a student of archaeology, which is why he took this interview in the first place, as stated in his reply letter. We take seats facing each other there, in two upholstered chairs in front of his desk. The room is dim, and although it is Friday morning, it feels like Sunday afternoon.
Since it is fresh on my mind, I ask him first about our correspondence. “You touched on this in your letter,” I say, “but why did you choose a blogger with a readership of about a dozen for your first interview?”
“Well,” he says, “you actually wrote a letter, which I respect. I’m not ignorant of computers, but there’s something to putting pen to paper.”
“You also mentioned the media-”
“Look, kid,” he begins. I’m pretty sure he calls everyone “kid” at this point. “If you’re trying to build a narrative about the news, it’s only as good as the people writing it. These days I regard it with about as much precision as Tom Swift. Flights of fancy based on something, maybe.”
“But obviously you keep up,” I say.
“I have to,” he says, leaning forward a bit and clasping his hands over his knees, “but the best source of information is living life with an open mind, as long as you realize that you’re the one screwing it up. The only solution to that problem is having good friends who will call you on your bullshit. People you trust. That’s rare. It’s the greatest treasure I’ve found. You have to hang onto that as long as you can.” His voice is gravelly.
“As an archaeologist, though, you can’t just believe what you see?”
“Not at all,” Dr. Jones replies. He furrows his brow. “We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. That doesn’t recuse me from discovery.” He sits up straight and looks over my shoulder, into the distance. Into nothing. “The curse of man is that what we learn is repeatedly lost, buried, rediscovered, and lost again.” He looks back at me, right into my eyes. “We’ve forgotten some things recently. Things that will be unearthed.”
“I wanted to ask you about that,” I say. “Recent events. Some people have tried to relate that to your adventures-”
“Adventures? Heh.” He’s wily. Incredulous. “I would have said ‘work.’ I know you kids were raised on movies, and that looks fun, but we fought two world wars. It was done from necessity, with grim determination.”
“There’s something appealing, though,” I say, “about the imagery of punching Nazis.” I’m pushing it with this. We’re dancing around film territory, but he mentioned it first, so I feel comfortable pressing on.
He has a glint in his eye that confirms my precarious position on this thin ice, but he answers. “It’s all propaganda, though, isn’t it? You have evil men, and then you have a guy who made some bad choices and now he’s guarding a castle. It’s all the same when I have to throw him out a window, but don’t confuse the two.”
“There’s a theme you return to in your lectures, what you call ‘creeping fascism.’ What’s changed?”
“Well,” he begins, “The clown is still a clown. That much is certain. The debate is over which lies to believe, and that’s where you’re caught in the quicksand. When nothing is certain, you have to get down to the evidence. Facts.” He holds out his left palm and punctuates each word by stabbing at it with his right pointer finger. “When your view is obscured by a cloud of nonsense, you have to get close to the ground.”
“That sounds good in theory, but what do you do down there?” I smile a bit, so he knows I’m not ridiculing him.
He catches it. “Observe. Pay attention. Dig, if need be.”
Dr. Jones puts his hands on the armrests of his chair, as if he is about to arise, and he offers the tea he alluded to earlier. I accept and he goes into the kitchen to put on a kettle. I’m invited in from the doorway because, as he says, “it’s brighter in here.” He sets our cups on a small, white table with fold-down extensions. There are two chairs, painted yellow. His is worn down to the wood where his hand grips it now to pull it out. Mine is immaculate, with a flower-patterned cushion.
We are seated, and he says,”Oh, the kettle.” I make to get back up and he holds up a finger. His knees pop, but he’s spry. He delivers the goods, and after a flurry of sugar and stirring, I take a sip. “It’s good tea,” I remark. He says that he has no business knowing tea, but his father did. There’s silence after that, and I feel the period at the end of his sentence. I decide it’s time to get back to work.
“I’m not telling you anything you don’t know,” I say, “but you’re the oldest man alive. You were around before manned flight.”
“Well,” he says, looking into his tea. His trademark crooked grin creeps up. “There were hot air balloons before this hot air arrived. But the Wright Brothers? Yeah. I was around.” Mischievous.
“In all that time, what, to you, was, or is, the biggest threat to mankind? Or civilization, however I worded it. I left my notebook in the sitting room.”
He cocks an eyebrow. “You can go get it if you want.”
“No, I’m fine. Steel trap,” I say, tapping on my head.
“It’s your funeral,” he says. “If you’re talking about threats, hubris is it. Things come and go but the underlying problem is how great we all think we are. A little humility goes a long way.”
“You keep mentioning the repetition of old mistakes. Are we doomed that way?”
“Doomed?” He looks at the ceiling. “I’ve been there. The thing about doom is that we’ve all got it coming. Even me, believe it or not.” His eyes are locked on me now, his arms crossed on the table in front of him. “I never thought I’d be here this long, but I’ve got a hunch that I’m just about done. Whether the human race is, well son, that’s up to you.”
“I gotta be honest,” I say. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
“Do?” he says. “Live. Breathe. Keep living.” He chuckles. “It’s worked for me so far. You know, kid, there’s more to all this than fortune and glory. The pursuit of knowledge, the retention, that’s the fight. The hope that maybe someday we’ll stop forgetting. That’s why ‘it belongs in a museum.’ That’s its proper place. When it’s in the museum, we know its location, we can display it, point it out, and when we’re gone, our children will know where it can be found. It isn’t buried, forgotten, destroyed. The museum is all we have.”
I hope I can retain all this until I make it to a keyboard. I have a feeling I will.
We make small talk while he cleans our dishes and I make motions to collect my things and leave. He recognizes my cues and thanks me for the discussion. “I don’t regret my decision,” he says.
I ask him what’s next. I try not to let it show, but his previous comments have sparked concern that he’s planning to languish in his home, alone, hiding from suspicious journalists. He puts that notion to rest as we walk to the front door.
“I’m giving this house back to the college. They’re discussing turning it into an exhibit, but I gave anything of importance to the museum decades ago. I’d rather have Mutt box it up and give it to the grandkids.” He pauses for a moment, as if he’s considering telling me something, then he speaks. “I’m headed to North Dakota.”
“Sounds like you’re planning on staying there.”
“Maybe,” he says, “but that’s between you and me, kid. All I know is there’s a bit of life left in me yet, so I better get living while I can.”
I extend my hand. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Jones.”
He accepts my handshake and returns it, firm. “Please,” he says, “call me Indiana.”
“Indiana,” I say.
He releases my hand, nods, and slowly shuts the door.
I’m standing on the porch. It’s unseasonably warm, but still crisp. Jacket weather. I look up at the lone chestnut and remember playing under the one in my granny’s yard as a child, pulling apart those spiny, sea urchin spheres to get at the nuts inside.
I take a deep breath and head down the steps and onto the sidewalk, striding. Resolute.