I love to live so pleasantly,
Live this life of luxury,
Lazing on a sunny afternoon ...
The Kinks, 'Sunny Afternoon', 1966
One Sunday afternoon I was hitching my way out of Killarney along the coast of County Kerry, Ireland. Traffic was sparse, with only well-dressed families going to and from church. I had gotten my first lift out of Killarney and was left at a fork in the road in the middle of no place. I stood waiting for another ride under a brilliant blue sky punctuated by fluffy white clouds by the side of the two lane blacktop slicing through vibrant green fields rolling down to the sea. For over an hour very little traffic came by and those who did weren't stopping, though many of them waved friendly enough, but hardly useful.
As the afternoon was wearing on a car stopped at the fork. It was not to pick me up however, but to let someone out. I watched as an old man in the traditional tweed coat and cap pulled himself stiffly from the passenger seat, tipped his cap to the driver, and slowly began to shuffle down the poorly paved road. He seemed a little unsteady, as if he'd just drunk his Sunday dinner. The driver watched him take a few steps and then went to put the car in gear. Seeing me he paused for a second while I looked at him with an inquiring smile and my thumb extended. He shrugged with a look that said, "OK, you got me" and I climbed into the seat the old man had just vacated.
The driver was a local man from Killarney and was headed to a town further along the coast. This we great news to me as the town he was headed toward had a hostel where I knew I could get a bed. He told me that he wouldn't have stopped ordinarily, but as he was letting the old man out he thought he might as well pick me up. Unlike many of the drivers I got rides with this man was not very talkative, so I had to work to hold up a conversation.
"So do you know the old man?" I asked him.
"Aye, he's a local man I've known since I was young. Now that he's getting on he doesn't get to town much, and when he does he drinks a bit more than is good for him, but what's the harm?"
I agreed and we rode on in the sunlit afternoon, enjoying the views of the rolling hills and the ocean that was peaking through the trees.
Some time later we passed a truly massive house along the road surrounded with acres of perfectly manicured lawn. In front of the house was a flag pole with the Stars and Stripes proudly flying over a beautiful corner of Ireland. I would have thought it was a country club, but for the stories I'd heard the day before to be on the lookout for the house of 'The American Man'. Apparently he is known by that name throughout Kerry. The story goes that he was a self-made man in the states who's parents had come from the Killarney area years before. When he made his millions he made his triumphant return to the homeland and built a monument to the efforts of he and his family. This monument to ego struck me as more than a little over the top.
Noticing what I was looking at the driver asked, "So have you heard about the American Man?".
I told him what I'd heard at the last hostel where I'd stayed. I added that I thought it was nice that the man was successful, but that I didn't think I would spend that much money on such a grand house.
After another silence he said, "Now while I was talking to your man that I dropped back up the road I happened to mention The American Man in the conversation and do you know what the old man said about him?"
"No, I don't" I answered, but I was sure that I was about to find out.
"Your man says to me that he feels sorry for The American Man. 'Sorry' says I 'How can you feel sorry for the man when he's got more money than you've ever seen in your whole life?'".
"Aye, he's got all that money" the Old Man said, "but the American Man worked hard all his life making his money while I enjoyed myself the whole time and now we're both old. And after all that work what's he got? He can't drink any more beer than I can. He can't eat any more food than I can. He can't have any more women than I can. He can't do anything more than me, so what's the money get him in the end?"
The driver laughed out loud at this and drove on, smiling at the thought of the old man's comments.
I watched as The American Man's empire faded in the distance behind me and found myself agreeing with the Old Man. I had very little money at the time myself, but I was in a beautiful place on a beautiful day, and all the money in the world would not have made it any more beautiful or enjoyable.
The Old Man must be dead and gone by now, and The American Man as well. Perhaps the driver who gave me a lift is still around, sitting in a pub telling stories of an Old Man he used to know and how he taught him what it means to live a good life through feeling sorry for the richest man in Kerry.