Monday, December 10, 2007

David L. Hunt 1923-2007

My father died very suddenly one day last week. He died as he had often lived in his later years, as he had come to prefer: alone and unnoticed. In life, he could be a fairly annoying person. I think my mother really hated him, and it would be hard to say that she was simply wrong to do so. She had reasons, maybe even one or two good ones.

He was a member of the so-called "greatest generation," a veteran of World War II, Pacific Theater of Operations, and one of his many racial prejudices was the Japanese -- a pigheaded idée fixe that mere facts and logic could never budge. His heroes were John Wayne, Johnny Cash, Mark Twain, and H. L. Mencken. There were no women in his pantheon, and all his gods were very white.

So why do I miss him as much as I do? What are these tears about? I guess I'm writing this to figure that out. Friends and lovers are chosen, and show what you want to be. Relatives are assignments given by Nature. They remind you of what you are. This of course can be unpleasant. Conversations with my Dad could be tests of my liberal virtues, such as they are. His phone calls were sometimes pop quizzes in tolerance. My grades improved as I got older. I eventually realized that being insensitive and something of a bigot are shortcomings that can be balanced and outweighed. Also, I stopped arguing with him when I developed my now-overwhelming aversion to wasting my time.

I suppose his virtues were just the obverse side of his shortcomings. He and his twin sister Doris were the last of the nine children in his family, and born prematurely. As he told the story many times, he almost died in infancy. This made him especially precious to his mother, who always treated him like a little prince (how Doris fit into this I never thought to ask). He got used to doing things his own way, with relatively little need to take the preferences of others into consideration.

He always did just what he wanted to do, not what he was supposed to do or what people told him he had to do. His character was sharply focused. What he really wanted to do at any one moment was, well, something constructive, it didn't seem to matter what. He was no "workaholic," but he was always up to something. If nothing else was happening, he would go out into the backyard and pave part of it with concrete, or rip out one variety of plant and install another. His backyard was written up in the local newspaper, with a big color picture of his magnificent shrub roses and delicate, translucent begonias. This is a trait I failed to inherit, as you know if you have seen my yard. (Or maybe it just took other forms, like this stupid blog.)

He always said that he chose his trade, repairing mechanical watches and clocks, because it's a thing you can do when you are old and feeble, so he would not have to retire. And he didn't. He kept it up, pottering away and listening to angry right-wing talk radio (he eventually came to regard Rush Limbaugh as some kind of semi-liberal sissy) to the very end. He almost literally died at his bench. An eighty four year old man, decades older than most people when they retire, dies at work. As near as we can determine, he was coming in the side door of his shop, going from the work bench in the garage to the one inside, when he dropped his Nat Sherman cigarette and keeled over backward, stretched out on the floor, and never got up. Being a Sherman, the cigarette simply went out, instead of burning the place down.

His shop always smelled powerfully of gear lubricant and good tobacco, and always had at least fifty mechanical clocks in it, the rustle of their ticking as calming as forest murmurs. Their hourly discordant clanging and dinging was an experience I will surely miss.

I think I loathe death for two reasons. For one thing, it comes too early. Humans should live twice as long as they do. Seventy or eighty years is enough to do about half of what one brain can accomplish. Dad left a shop full of unfinished projects, as no doubt will I. The other thing is the waste of knowledge. When that brain hit the floor of his shop and faded out, a lifetime of unrecoverable knowledge faded out. His trade was a handicraft, Medieval sort of thing, and could only be passed on by way of apprenticeship. He had once hoped one of his grandchildren would become his apprentice, but it never happened. If only there were some way to just download all that experience and pass it on to others through a cable! So much of it just goes to waste. (This, by the way, is a problem that traditional immortality does not solve. This knowledge would be equally wasted if locked away in a sexless, bloodless, dirt-free heaven where there are no watches and clocks because there is nothing to do and nowhere to go.)

I was surprised to learn that his will requested "no service." An agnostic in his earlier years, who seldom entered a church unless some woman brought him, I think he ended up a believer of some sort or other. I suppose he just found funerals creepy and depressing, and didn't want to inflict one on anyone else. My brother and sister and I decided that what we will do is have a wake instead. Eat his favorite foods, drink his vodka (he left three gallons in the pantry), tell stories, cry, laugh. Maybe read some letters and poems (his favorite was Robert Service). I think I'll barbecue some ribs with a cherry-based sauce I'm working on, and cook up some fish steaks with orange zest and white grapes. That's the way to remember someone whose motto seemed to be: Life comes around once. Deny yourself nothing.

Added later: The picture at the head of this post is taken, without permission, from the site of a local newspaper (scroll down their page to see a charming write-up about Dad) [photo credited to Rory Mcnamara.] I hope they accept this link as just compensation for swiping their excellent photo. I don't seem to have any decent digital pictures of him of my own. I like the expression in this one. He seems to be saying, "Yes, I got your joke. I just didn't think it was funny." This shows him in the last year of life, aged 83 or so. To the left is a much earlier one, which I scanned. On the back he has written: "11-2-46 / To Mother / With Love / from David on his 23rd Birthday." That would be about two weeks after I was born. It was probably in the mountains east of Los Angeles. That's a guess, based on the fact that at that time L. A. was our home.
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