Ingham County, MI
As news about a screw-up at the Oscars tries and fails to get a purchase on your attention, your thoughts, which have been schooled in a proper indifference, turn to other matters. My own turn to two great ordinary men, Anton and Larry, neither a college graduate, both reposing now in their places of final rest.
Of Anton—“Tony,” as we knew him—I have written elsewhere. Of Larry, more anon.
Anton was a U.S. Navy and World War II veteran. He will be buried today in the Rock Island National Cemetery with military honors conducted by the Moline American Legion Post 246. Of all my teachers—O for a thousand tongues to sing their praises!—many of the really good ones were unofficial, and Tony is near the top of that list. He used to say that if you can’t light your pipe with a match while standing on the deck of a naval ship at sea in gale-force winds, you’re not a pipe-smoker. His respect for good tools, especially hand tools, wasn’t reverential but it was deep and abiding. One day he asked if he could take the fluting tool I inherited from my grandfather to his shop to look it over and clean it up. When I handed it to him he held it as if it were his grandbaby. He polished the bits and sealed them in zip-lock bags before returning the tool and all its parts. He also gave me a beautiful old hand plane and a couple of wooden levels. I still use them, though mostly I just look at them and venerate them, as if they were the relics of a saint.
Sometimes a job around my place would have us stumped, and then he’d say, “Okay. What and what else?” And eventually, often to my astonishment (for he might have been stumped, but I was utterly baffled), he’d figure it out.
His wife was younger by about ten years, but she preceded him in death by almost two, a victim of cancer, that wide-ranging pestilence whose principal characteristic is unlimited growth, also the standard we measure the health of our economy by. Tony lived out the residue of his years in a good nursing home, scourged by Parkinson’s but attended to frequently by a daughter and son-in-law.
The last time I visited him there—it was a warm sunny day—I sneaked in a couple bottles of Hacker-Pschorr Weissbier. Whenever the topic of beers came up in my garage or his, he’d always rhapsodize about Hacker-Pschorr, which he pronounced “Hacken-Shpore.” And so, in spite of the nursing-home rules—no glass bottles—we sat in his room and shared a drink, a golden liquid repast, a last supper. He smacked his lips and smiled and relished the taste of his Hacken-Shpore. And then, as I arose to leave, he uttered in that raspy Parkinson’s voice of his the most heart-wrenching thing I ever heard him say: “the problem with this place is thinking of things to do.” His beloved White Sox, when they were in action, could always help fill the empty hours, but the Sox don’t play around the clock, much less around the calendar. Tony, an indefatigable tinkerer, needed something in his highly-skilled hands, a problem to turn the screws of his considerable intelligence to. I wished I could bring him another fluting tool to clean and put in order. We shook hands, I left with the empty bottles well-concealed, and we saw each other no more.
Whereas Tony lived across the street, Larry lived right next door. He managed to carry on for about fourteen months after cancer took his wife, Laurie, whereupon it also took him. By a single day and no more that horrible affliction spared him a second Valentine’s day without her.
Everyone in Rock Island county who was worth a damn knew Larry, erstwhile owner of a small grocer, member of Sacred Heart parish and the Knights of Columbus, impatient as hell with the Republican party for as long as I knew him—twenty years or so—which wasn’t nearly long enough. Like Tony, Larry was a capable man, a tinkerer who loved to fiddle about in his garage of a summer or fall Saturday afternoon, Patsy Cline or Hank Williams on the garage boom box. But he was a big man too, and as often as not he’d have a job that called for someone less portly and more agile than he. So I did the plumbing repairs under his sinks and climbed the ladder to change out the halogen bulbs in his motion-sensor lights, and my kids climbed up into the garage attic to retrieve the Griswold-like yard ornaments for Halloween and Christmas that he kept there and put out every year. Decoration day had nothing on Larry and Laurie, who always included our kids in just about everything.
They had a video-game set-up in their back bedroom, a den of delight we did not allow in our house, and our boys would race over to their house, enter without knocking, and get busy killing Stormtroopers. The phone would ring: “The boys are here,” Larry would say. “They’re back in the library studyin’.” We learned quickly that it does in fact take a village to raise a child—a village as opposed to a State, which is what the senator “from” New York meant by that word. You need good families and good relatives and good neighbors. And as far as neighbors went, Miss Laurie and Mr. Larry, as the kids called them, were without compeers.
Sometimes they’d knock on our door and tell us to send the kids over. They were taking them out to dinner for Harris pizza. There would be no argument; no money would be accepted.
When they returned from their annual winter vacation, they came bearing gifts for the kids.
They’d invite us to Sunday lunch, even though they were already feeding an extra eight or ten relatives. “You know the drill,” Larry would say, which meant Grace would be said at three o’clock and a drink would be offered beforehand to whomever showed up. Laurie would shake salt into her Bud Light. She’d have two. Larry would have one out by the grill and that would be it, though he could tell stories about days gone by: “One time she said to me, ‘Larry, you’re crossing the center line!’ I said, ‘Hell!’”—and here he’d hold out his hands as if he were gripping the steering wheel of a garbage truck and driving it all over the place—”‘I pay taxes on both sides of the road!’”
One Sunday afternoon at about two-thirty, NASCAR on the television, Larry asked me if I wanted a bourbon. I didn’t insult him by saying No. Next thing I knew I had a twenty-ounce beer glass in my hand, one of those windowed kind with a handle that everyone used to drink Watney’s Red Barrel out of before the craft beer craze came along. It was half full of ice cubes over which, filled to the brim, he had poured the whiskey. The house roared at the look on my face when he handed me the glass, so I did my best Larry imitation: “Jayzis! What the hell! What are you trying to do to me! Shit!” And the house roared some more. It was a house that could laugh. That might have been the day I dozed off sitting upright on their couch.
When I was disenfranchised after our repatriation to Michigan but still in need of housing near the all-tyrannous paycheck, Laurie and Larry gave me their house while they were in Hawaii on the annual winter get-away. This was very convenient, since I was on crutches at the time, fresh off ankle surgery. The invitation stood to stay with them even when they returned, though as it turned out Tony’s son-in-law had a house he was going to let me live in in exchange for doing a few odd jobs and keeping an eye on until he could get it ready to rent out.
Larry renewed the invitation to stay at their place after Laurie died, and for the last year or so I’ve been catching my sleep three nights a week in the “library” where once my boys “studied,” a few short feet from the dining room of my former house, where a young Catholic couple, also with three young children, will never benefit from the great neighbors we knew and loved and benefited by.
When I accepted Larry’s offer I found that the tub in the main bathroom had been modified. A U-shaped piece had been cut out of its side to accommodate Laurie in her last days–a negative space alive with meaning, and not because it would have come in handy a year-and-a-half earlier when I was trying to negotiate the same tub with a cast on my right foot while my kindly hosts were enjoying what they didn’t know would be their last winter get-away together.
A few weeks ago I had dinner with Larry on a Wednesday. We ordered in some local sandwiches, some “Made-Rites,” he and a daughter and his two grandsons and I. That night he seemed especially to want me there (I had missed dinner the Wednesday before) and, of course, he insisted on paying for everything. He had done very well through chemo and was now poised for radiation therapy on multiple lesions on his brain (where “multiple” meant “too numerous to count”). But on the Friday preceding the Made-Rite dinner Larry had slowed considerably. We all noticed it. At dinner he was himself but not himself, as if he’d finally agreed to drive on only one side of the road that he paid taxes on both sides of. Two days after our last supper he was in the hospital, and two days after that he was dead. One of his last acts was to make sure I knew that his house was still mine for the using.
When my wife and I decided to leave Rock Island, by which time Tony’s wife was gone and Tony was in the nursing home, there was one stone on the path to repatriation that we both stumbled on, which my wife expressed in terms simple and to the point: “This would be a lot easier if we could take Laurie and Larry with us.” We had discussed the move with no one in the neighborhood, and when it came time for me to put the “For Sale” sign out in front, I lost my nerve. I was too much of a coward to do it in the daylight. I certainly had no stomach for the job as I pushed the stakes into the ground after dark.
“No, no no!” said Larry the next day. “This won’t do! This won’t do atall!” And the break, when it finally came, was awful.
Last summer Larry and one of his daughters made two trips to Michigan, one for our daughter’s high school graduation and another for her open house. To the end he was promising to make another four-hundred-mile trip this summer. But Larry’s travels are over. He’s a townsman of a stiller town.
Concerning Laurie’s demise I have something to say as well, but not now. Now I wish to note, if only for myself, the passing of two great ordinary men, both of them worth all the entertainment “personalities” laid end to end. (And if all of them were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, as I believe Dorothy Parker said of the Yale girls at the prom.)
The poet was right to say,
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
Tony made it to ninety, Larry only to seventy-three. We are nearer both those ages than we are to the starting point, point zero. People we know and love and are close to die every year, but they don’t die the way folk used to. Plus they die not in single spies but in battalions.
I know that the cost of living is dying. But as our own shadows lengthen, the prices sure do seem to soar. Each year appears more costly than the one before. What are the compensations on the downhill side of life, that part of life characterized more often by losses than gains?
Such great ordinary people as Tony and Larry still exist. They know where they are and care that they are somewhere rather than anywhere; they care that they are somewhere rather than everywhere. And they know, each of them, how to live in their particular places.