Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On the Death of Dick Hart

Dick Hart died at home. He was 82, had been ailing, and his death was like shutting off a light or a computer. His heart stopped in the wood-paneled room where Dick’s easy chair faced toward the fire place and the television set. A big fish that Dick had caught in Alaska was mounted over the fire-place, bent like a flexed bow or harp, a blue-green diagram of force straining upward from the hearth. The fish had a little steely eye and it looked down vengefully into the room with the dark walls at the easy chair and the stacks of magazines and paperback-books and the mat by the door that led into the garage and the wan light from the backyard buried in snow that was cast across the dead man’s face.

The manner of Dick Hart’s death was this: his old lungs were corsetted by fibrous tissue and Dick could not breathe deeply enough to sustain much exertion. Walking to the toilet exhausted him and, during the several weeks before he died, he fell a number of times and bruised his face and ribs. His heart was failing and he had been prescribed a diuretic. This forced him to stagger to bathroom every twenty or thirty minutes, an effort that had become increasingly perilous in light of his shortness of breath. About a week before his death, Dick fell hard and was disoriented. He didn’t know his name and couldn’t identify common household objects. It was thought that he had suffered a stroke and that his mind was permanently impaired so that he would probably have to go to a nursing home to die. In the hospital, doctors confidently proclaimed that Dick’s right frontal parietal lobe had been devastated by a lesion clearly visible in MRI scans. Dick invented words for objects shown to him, said that his name was “Beverly,” which is, in fact, the name of his wife, and confused his daughters and granddaughter. He said that he was terribly thirsty but the doctors said that his swallowing reflexes were impaired and so, at first, he was given only ice-chips in a cup to allay his thirst. As it happened, he was merely dehydrated and, when fluids were administered, he recovered his wits, recalled his name and understood that he was hospitalized, inexplicably because he couldn’t account for the fog that had suddenly enveloped his mind and, then, with equal alacrity, evaporated. Without the slightest trace of chagrin, medical professionals who had declared Dick unalterably maimed by stroke (and who were preparing to install a stent) released him from the hospital. Some family members thought that this instance of medical misadventure was a miracle – perhaps, in a way, it was.

Dick spent the summer before he died at his lake cabin and that place was more important to him, probably, than his home in Albert Lea. He was anxious to improve his stamina so that he could return to the lake when summer and warm weather returned. After discharge from the hospital, appointments were made for physical therapy and the plan was that Dick would increase his strength and, it was hoped, return to his ordinary routine notwithstanding the fibrous ligatures binding his lungs. On the morning that he died, Dick read the newspaper and ate a piece of toast. He thought of himself as fasting in the event that blood tests were required at the clinic. A next-door neighbor, also an old man, was called to assist Dick in walking from the house to his car. Dick said that he could make the distance from his couch in the living room to the car and that he didn’t need help. Beverly went outside to meet the neighbor man and they warmed up the car. When Dick didn’t appear at the door leading into the house from the garage, Beverly went inside and found him lying face down on the floor in the family room. Dick was angry that he had fallen and said that he wanted someone to pick him up. Beverly summoned the neighbor man and they pushed a wheelchair next to where Dick had fallen and hoisted him up into the chair. In the wheelchair, Dick threw his head back and closed his eyes as he exhaled his final breath and, then, he was dead.

It was the lethal month of February, when the ice seems incurable and bright days full of cold sunlight alternate with grey, furious blizzards. Beverly called Julie, my wife and Dick’s daughter, while the EMT workers were working unsuccessfully to revive the old man. I picked Julie up at the clinic where she works and we drove twenty miles to Albert Lea where Dick lived. The interstate was questionable, ice-scabbed in places and the passing lane filthy with drifts of snow smashed and flattened by trucks. When we reached the house, Dick was lying on his back with a blanket covering his mid-section. His body was a couple steps inside the door leading from the family room into the garage. A lone ambulance technician, a silent robust-looking woman with black eyes and an enigmatic expression, was sitting on a kitchen chair, holding some kind of valise. My wife had hurried ahead of me, entering the house while I was parking the car. Julie had fallen to the floor and was huddled against the dead man’s chest, a dark puddle of misery wailing into the corpse’s ear. Julie’s mother sat on the other side of the body, also on a kitchen chair, helplessly surveying the scene. Outside, the neighbor man stood with his wife near the curb, a bit off-balance as if about to topple himself into the dirty banks of snow rimming the residential lane. I had noticed some dangerous slicks of ice in the driveway, lead-colored slippery shields of ice as hard and impenetrable as steel. It would be bad, I thought, if someone were to slip on that ice. The bruise on the dead man’s brow and cheek disfigured half of his face and confounded his appearance so that Dick didn’t really look like Dick, and, in any event, I had never seen him without his glasses which were now missing, and so, it seemed, that my wife was wailing over the corpse of a stranger. Another sister stood next to her mother, touching the widow’s shoulder. The tableaux had an aspect of ancient, immemorial calamity. The dead man’s face was empty and his eyes were slightly open showing an inert, grey beneath his eyelids and I noticed that Dick’s feet were crossed delicately at the ankle. It was as if he had been executing a graceful soft-shoe dance when death dropped him to the floor and there was something balletic about the way that one ankle rested upon the other, his toes pointing toward the door that led to the garage that led to his car that led to the clinic that led to his appointment with the physical therapist and his rehabilitation and his dream of returning to his cabin when the lake thawed and the black flies swarmed and the hungry fish patrolled the surface of the sunny water hunting for food.

Death had treated the old hunter fair and square. It had stalked him for a couple of months through the deep snows of December and January. The kill-shot was clean, a bullet through the heart administered at close-range. Dick’s wife of sixty years was holding his head when the light went out in his eyes.

I am an old man myself and it will date me to quote A. E. Housman. (Does anyone still read his poems?) The second stanza of his verse “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” says this:

Their shoulders held the sky suspended
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay,
What God abandoned these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

By citing these words, I don’t mean to imply that Dick was a mercenary of any kind and, like all poetry, verse is always only approximate to truth. But Dick Hart was a man characteristic of his generation and counts as a yeoman in that lost army whose shoulders once held the sky in its place.

When I was a little boy, growing up in New Brighton, a suburb north of St. Paul, Minnesota, men like Dick Hart comprised the earth’s foundation. Such men made up the middle of the middle class. They were at the center of things in that vanished world. The middle class is waning now and its humble virtues are discredited and, as men like Dick Hart fail and die, a world that once considered itself impregnable and eternal dies with them.

What was that world like? If I tell you about Dick’s life, it will stand as the biography for multitudes of men, a legion of them who shared the same values and perspectives. Dick was born on a farm at home in the great Depression. He went to High School in a village called Pine Island, a little place in the country midway between small cities. I suppose he grew up playing soldier and pretending to slaughter Japs and Krauts. (We were still playing games mimicking combat in World War Two when I was a child in the early sixties.) His father was a carpenter and he learned to build things with his hands and, like most men of that era, he was self-reliant – he lived in a world in which men were supposed to fix things and worked on machines that operated with gears and levers and that transferred force in ways that were palpable to the eye and could be figured-out by an ingenious mind. Men built tree-houses for their children and hung swings on their porches and fixed their cars when they were busted and people lived surrounded by simple tools with ancient and honored purposes: hammers and saws and ladders, rakes and shovels and tractors that a man could repair if the implement broke down in a field far from the road. Dick was a good baseball player and, in fact, joined a semi-professional team and, at his funeral, a weathered leather glove and baseball were displayed as an artifact. He didn’t use the word “baseball” – rather, he “played ball;” that was how you described that pass-time.

Old pictures show that Dick had the face of old man when he was a boy. His nose was big and his features had a saturnine cast and photographs show shy and melancholy eyes. He had the kind of face that a man has to grow into. Other photographs taken when he was in his thirties show a ruffian, a tough-looking man with a muscular torso standing in his tee-shirt in a basement that he has just poured, gloating at the camera and glorying in his strength and competency. Like most men of his generation, he was drafted and spent two or three years in the military. He went to college and earned a teaching degree and, later spent another year in graduate school – school teachers were paid more if they had a master’s degree. He taught junior high kids earth science in a small town and, unlike people today, didn’t change jobs or move but stayed in the same place for his whole life where he supported his wife and family with his salary – a man could own a house and have a wife and some kids and two cars on a teacher’s wages in those days. In fact, if you were frugal and could make things with your hands, you could even afford a lake-front property so long as you were prepared to put your back into it and build the cabin by your own sweat and toil.

Unlike most of us, who will placidly sleepwalk from cradle to grave, Dick’s life gave him an opportunity for heroism. In April 1967, a tornado shredded Albert Lea. Dick had just completed a new house, a place that he had built with his own labor, and when the sky turned green and the roiling clouds swung the tornado across the city like a scythe, he gathered his children together in a corner of the basement, flung his body over them for protection, and crouched there underground as the wind dislocated the well-wrought joints of his house and hurled the boards and lathe and shingles, together with everything else that they owned, across a dozen acres of swampy, battered suburb. Probably, Dick’s gesture putting himself between his family and the deadly storm was instinctive. But he showed fortitude and courage over the long haul when he rebuilt the house, again with his own hands, raising the roof and walls over the place where the earlier structure had been demolished.

He owned a motorcycle and snowmobile. Once, he drove with his brother-in-law to Alaska, the place where he fought and conquered the great fish. There were weddings and divorces. Young people behaved badly or well depending upon the circumstances. At school, Dick confiscated things from his students and kept the booty in a cardboard box – a menacing-looking knuckle-duster, some pen-knives, a paperback with the title“The King is a Fink.” On family vacations, he proudly identified rocks visible in road-side cuts. He read paperback westerns, slender fragile-looking volumes with covers displaying lean men on horseback or cowboys fighting with their fists or, defending with blazing six-guns cowering bare-shouldered women. His favorite LP record was “Johnny Horton makes History.” Johnny Horton wrote “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Sink the Bismarck” and “When its Springtime in Alaska (it’s forty below).” But Dick’s favorite ballad was “North to Alaska,” a tune that Horton wrote for a John Wayne movie that also starred Capucine, Fabian, and Ernie Kovacs. The ballad tells the story of a man named Sam who goes to Alaska during the Klondike gold rush, strikes it rich and builds honeymoon cabin for his bride Ginny, “below that old white mountain just a little south-east of Nome --

“Where the river is winding,
Big nuggets they’re finding,
North to Alaska
They’re going north to Alaska, the rush is on,
North to Alaska,
They’re going north to Alaska, the rush is on.”

The family photographs are generic: we see Dick on a mountain pass in July, kneading a snow ball from a droopy-looking roadside drift; some men are adjusting motorcyles at an anonymous rest-stop. Dick displays another big fish, slumping from hand to hand. A grandchild perches on his lap. Another grandchild is shown sleeping on his protuberant belly. In a gloomy clearing, a deer sprawls in the withered leaves and Dick holds its head upright, clutching the antlers to pose the dead animal for the camera. With his brother-in-law, Dick sits against a frieze of snowy mountains, brutish-looking glaciers danging from loins of the peaks. His son has finished graduate school and taken a Ph.D and Dick stands beaming beside the young man who has a Fu Manchu moustache and is wearing pinkish-tinted glasses. Dick and his wife pose beside Santa Claus. Dick sits on the couch, the place that he read the newspaper and drank coffee on his last morning of his life, crowded by his children and their children, malevolent little wiener dogs suspiciously eyeing the interlopers in the house from their vantage on the carpet below.

None of this is unique or special and this is precisely my point. It is impossible for eulogy to not blur into memoir and, for me, Dick Hart exemplifies a certain masculine virtue, a kind of stolid and practical common sense that characterized life in the Midwest as it existed during my childhood. I don’t think it necessarily diminishes Dick, or his life, to observe that he was representative of a way of life that is now mostly gone, the blue collar and middle class world that salary-men of his kind made for themselves and their families. When I think of Dick, I recall the construction sites that were ubiquitous in my childhood, the vacant lots humming with bees in the goldenrod and the piles of earth cast up around the foundations of new houses where little kids could burrow or build forts on their conical crests. I think of the concrete masonry blocks that were used to erect basement walls and the ponds fringed with cattails that the contractors drained and backfilled and the piles of shingle and plywood and the bright nails in their cardboard boxes awaiting use in the homes that were being built everywhere for young post-war families. I recall men like Dick Hart washing their cars in their shorts and tee-shirts, the gutters foamy with soapy water, or puttering around their yards with shovels or rakes in hand dressed in their khaki military fatigues, showing-off the fact that their old service clothes still fit them – at least sort of. I think of November evenings when it was cold and crisp and the men came back from hunting with deer sprawled dead across the roof-tops of their sedans. The carcasses were hung in garages and gutted to the astonishment of little boys and tiny girls peeping out around the door leading into the house and the warm kitchen. People drank Grain Belt or Schlitz or Hamm’s beer which came from “the land of sky-blue waters.” Coleman camp lanterns sputtered and burned so brightly that you could scarcely look into that incandescence and the older boys practiced sword-fighting with bony, hard legs hacked from the bucks and, later, around Christmas time, people exchanged gifts of dense, strong-smelling deer sausage. The men worked all the time and were mostly sober – hard-drinking was an adolescent luxury that you gave up when you became a father. There were boats with Evinrude outboard motors for trolling fish parked on the grass alongside woodpiles that the men had split and stacked. Mothers watched one another’s children during the summer and gossiped over coffee in each other’s kitchens and there was a subtle stink of female boredom and discontent wrapped around everything. You cooked vegetables from cans and boiled sausage in bucket-shaped pots and ate bologna sandwiches on white bread smeared with mayonnaise and, sometimes, my mother spread butter on a bread-slice and, then, dumped sugar onto it and we ate those sugar-sandwiches as a dessert – it was a summer-time, out-of-school treat and, for some reason, the white frosting of sugar made the butter seem cold and refreshing.. In the backyards, every house had a kennel made from a concrete slab and fenced with wire and, beyond those chain-link fences two or three sad-looking black labradors lurked, their muzzles slowly turning grey as they aged in their prison-pens, the dogs barking at the wood-chucks and muskrats that sometimes ambled out of the vacant lots and to stand dazed in the backyards. Houses had burning barrels where newspapers and cardboard containers were incinerated and little kids stood next to those fires as the sun set poking at the flames with pointed sticks.

The men went bowling with their cronies and belonged to social clubs. On Sunday, they put on their boxy, dark-colored suits and went to church where they ushered, standing outside the sanctuary during the sermon, whispering to one another in the narthex, so as not to be preached-at by the pastor who was a man also very much like them. When the kids were confirmed, you stopped going to church. Except for the Catholics, everyone was casually irreligious. The men worked all the time and were negligent, inattentive fathers and, if something needed to be said, they didn’t say it because everything important and essential was simply understood and couldn’t really be expressed in words anyhow. These men didn’t beat their children but were capable of it if necessary and their children feared them, fear being sufficiently similar to respect to count as, more or less, the same thing. At night, they watched baseball on TV and, in the days before air conditioning, sat around the house in their saggy boxer shorts on summer nights and, often, they listened to the radio, a man’s voice calling balls and strikes, hits and fouls, in the warm, humid darkness lit by the glow of cathode tubes, a kind of lullabye from the clock-radio set to serenade the father in the morning when it was time to go to work. In their dank basements, the men had finished the rooms by nailing flimsy paneling to the studs and they had wet-bars overlooking their pool tables and souvenir mugs from Wall Drug and Yellowstone and plaques with humorous slogans on the walls but, most of the time, the men were too tired from work to drink with their friends and no one ever gathered at those cellar bars which promised pleasures that were, after all, mostly hypothetical. Men were responsible. They had families to support and mortgages. In the winter-time, the snowmobiles howled in the darkness, but only on Saturday nights, and, I think of those sleds always toppling down hills where the wind had undercut the drifts and hollowed out grottoes on the steep slopes and the riders were always plunging through the sub-zero night, falling in clouds of powder snow as the heavy machines rolled like sodden logs end over end, somehow no one ever really getting hurt, although the men emerged from those accidents with snow down their backs, grinning and indestructible, their helmets half-squashed and their boots and thick mittens gashed.

This is the world that I remember and men like Dick Hart were the pillars of that world and its guardians. If your father had been a Republican you voted Republican in every election and, if your father was a Democrat (and this was the case with Dick) you voted for Democrats regardless of what scoundrel the other scoundrels had put up for election and you worshiped John Kennedy to the point of idolatry and you despised Communists although you had never met one, at least to your knowledge. Everything about this world could be understood in terms of common sense and courage was all you needed to face the world. Character meant everything and all men were equal regardless of how much money they made, or hoped to make and there was no shame in being poor if you were hardworking but no one needed to be poor because the world was full of promise: everyone was young and the future was yours for the taking. The rivers were wide and there were gold nuggets in the stream-beds that you could pick up with your bare hands and put in your pocket and, from the debris that fell off trucks carrying construction materials to the work sites, a man could fashion a perfectly serviceable house for himself and his wife and his children.

Dick paid his taxes. He worked hard for his wages. He voted in every major election. He supported his dependants. The things he made were built to last and they endure. His opinions were the opinions of most other men and this is not said in disapprobation but in praise. Once, he caught a great fish with a hook that he cast into the dark, cold depths and, before it was taken, the fish burst through the surface of the lake and made the waters scatter in all directions and the eye of that fish as it leaped was fierce and sparked as it caught the sunlight.