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.

14 comments:

I.D.R.C. said...

Your dad may not have liked me too much, either, but may he rest in peace.

My sympathies to your family at this difficult time.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to extend my condolences as well to you and your family.

I'm sorry to hear of your strong differences of opinion with your father. It's interesting to me to hear about because my differences with my father go the other direction - he is and always has been quite liberal, and I grew up to be very conservative. Conservative enough that the things you mentioned about your father make him sound like someone I would have got along with just fine.

Regarding the waste of knowledge: there is a possibility besides the grave being the end of everything, and a traditional heaven: purposeful reincarnation. My personal experiences with out-of-body travel (I'd highly recommend the books by businessman Robert Monroe about his initially accidental and then lifelong purposeful out-of-body experiences) have shown me firsthand that we live many, many lives and that none of what we learn is lost. Your father, in my opinion, will take with him to his next life his highly-developed mechanical skills. I hope that is not too morbid a way to talk at this difficult time for you. I understand it probably sounds silly, but if you're willing to read up on and practice the techniques for learning OOB travel you can verify it first-hand for yourself.

Anyway, all that aside, my best to you and your family.

Lester Hunt said...

idrc and anon, Thanks for your kind words. As to reincarnation, I've always thought it could be great, provided that you could remember having lived your earlier lives. But by all accounts, you can't. Some people claim to remember something, but it always seems to be pretty skimpy stuff. Nothing like how to diagnose, repair, and reassemble a busted Bulova in 90 minutes flat.

Anonymous said...

It's true that, in my understanding, you may not remember the details of how to fix a Bulova in 90 minutes flat. But my belief is that you learn how to learn that sort of thing, and get a running start for the next life you live where you choose a similar focus. In that way a Beethoven starts life with what seems to be an intuitive understanding of music which is actually the result of lifetimes of practice and work. He has to relearn the mechanics of music but they come easily and familiarly.

And besides, maybe what we're really working on here is not so much technical proficiency in a field as it is the refinement of our ability to create, perceive, and enjoy beauty. And through many lives we gradually build ourselves into magnificent, "large" souls who no longer need to reincarnate here to learn what this world has to teach. I think this is true, actually. I don't think there is any waste of what we learn and experience in these lives of ours.

Anonymous said...

He would have gotten along well with my Dad! We can say they are the dying breed or the rugged proud individualist. We can say these guys were victims of the blue collar ethic.

Their prejudices may have been bothersome and scary but one has to wonder if we with our liberal outlooks could have been the generation to defeat Nazi fascism and dictatorial communism. Bless their hearts, they may have lead more fulfilling lives than we could understand.

Lester Hunt said...

Anonymous #1, "But my belief is that you learn how to learn that sort of thing, and get a running start for the next life you live where you choose a similar focus." I don't think I've ever said this about a religious or spiritual belief before but: That would indeed be nice, if true. Whew! That may never happen again!

Lester Hunt said...

Apparently, some people have come away from this post with the impression that my differences with my Dad were political in nature. I should probably point out here that this is not true. In fact, there was a while, a few years ago, when we were both paid-up members of the Libertarian Party. Believe me, I would not find political disagreement a "pop quiz in tolerance." As the only individualist anarchist in a faculty of 2,053 ... if I found political differences hard to tolerate I would be stark raving bonkers by now!

Ruchira Paul said...

Lester,
Coming to this post more than a week late.

Please accept my sincere condolences and thanks for writing an honest and heartfelt tribute to your dad.

Both my own parents have passed away - my father at a much earlier age than we had expected for an otherwise robust man. My mother who lived longer, was the same age as your father when she died three years ago.

I got along fine with my parents so I didn't have to learn the "tolerance" you describe. But that also kept me in a "child" mode with them even after I had become an adult with everyone else. They were the ones who indulged me - the tolerance was all theirs.

I really appreciate your writing this piece. Your father was a prototype of a generation which I admire both in the US as well as in India. Some in my father's generation too fought in WWII but under the British flag. Most others were active in India's own freedom movement. Their characters were formed by being events outside of their own immediate material concerns - a huge privilege, in my opinion. They had a vision of themselves and the world. I have seen both varieties of world view come out of their shared experience - conservative and liberal. They stood fast by their convictions which surely turned some into insufferable curmudgeons. But they seemed to know what they were angry about - it was not an airy-fairy fashionable attitude of rage.

One question. Is your mom still living? Probably not. I didn't see you mention her role in the "wake."

All best to you and your family.

Lester Hunt said...

Ruchira, Thanks for your generous thoughts. My Mom died some five or six years ago. So we're both orphans! Yes, they were a pretty tough generation. My Dad always said that the Depression was their Defining Experience, but clearly WWII was another. It's now almost impossible to imagine what it must have been like: whole nations and empires intent on achieving one horribly costly goal, and seemingly every single person enthusiastically supporting it. My generation had Vietnam, which had the opposite sort of meaning!

Matt Barney, Ph.D. said...

Very sorry to read your news, but I'm glad you posted it. I remember fondly as a student in two of your classes (in the late '80's) you mentioning that your father worked fixing clocks and watches. It made me think he/you might have Swiss ancenstors and I often wondered about the brilliant people who must have given birth to my favorite professor's own intelligence.

Lester Hunt said...

Matt Barney, Your comment was posted while I was in CA (for Dad's memorial non-service) so I missed responding to it. Anyway, in case you ever see this, thanks so much for your kind words. To answer your question: No, unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose father was also a watchmaker, I have no Swiss ancestry that I know of. English, Swedish, and Sicilian. Dad got into the business because an uncle of my mother's, one of the Sicilians, was a watchmaker in Santa Rosa CA.

Ted Dutcher said...

Your Dad used to fix my watch(es) for years. I went this past summer to his shop here in Santa Rosa after phoning him and getting a disconnect message, and I saw the little shop sign gone. I kind of figured what had happened, and sadly drove to a local jeweler to get my watch battery replaced. They knew of him, and spoke of him kindly as one of the last of the old timers (pun intended?), and charged me more than David ever did for the battery replacement.

I let it go as part of life, things change, but last week a friend emailed our private maillist of 70 people asking for a recommendation for watch repair, and so began my search on the internet for what happened. I found the article you posted in this blog, and your blog as well, both of which I found not only useful, but illuminating as well.

You see, I admired your dad. He was a true craftsman, an independent businessman in a sea of soul-less corporate chain stores, a bit of local color, and I sensed immense integrity in his work, which is so rare these days. He believed in being honest and doing a good quality job, so I trusted him. He was part of what makes a thriving local community, by adding his value to it, even if he wasn't very active in it. I also enjoyed talking with him, and discovered a bit of the curmudgeony qualities you wrote about so well in your blog above. But I would look for common ground, and whatever wisdom he cared to share. I always enjoyed a visit to his enchanting little shop, and will miss him...

He shared a lot of the same values as my father, who was in the same generation, and who taught me the values of honesty and integrity, and doing a good job for its intrinsic value. In doing so, and despite their limitations, both men made the world a better place, and this message is a tip of the hat to honor your dad.

Ted Dutcher, Santa Rosa, CA

Lester Hunt said...

Thanks much for your kind comment. I found it very moving -- and true!

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