- 5 march
That's what I said, and I can't say it wasn't expected. He was probably in his seventies. Not that his age had anything to do with it.
I can't say exactly when it happened, either. A year or two ago. The news of his death reached me via the neighbor lady next door to my boyhood home, a place I don't visit much anymore. She told me last November, so I've known about his demise for some time, but I haven't written about him yet because while he was a pivotal figure both as a role model in my life and, paradoxically, as the barely living embodiment of Don't Let This Happen To You, he was also an enigmatic man and therefore difficult to know well. Very often, understanding someone is all about changes undergone, at last, in oneself, and perhaps only now am I able to have a clearer perspective. But that's just a guess. Getting a handle on him was always a challenge. I've tried to understand not only his value to me as a friend but also his significance as a husband, a father, and a neighbor.
He and his family moved in at the far end of my street in the mid 1960's. His youngest son Ivan was in my 5th grade class, and Ivan and I orbited into friendship probably because we had a similar mental bent, a way of describing events with vocabulary only we seemed to be using. On the Rocket Jets ride at Disneyland, for example, our enthusiasm for the experience centered on g-forces. Not neato, not cool -- g-forces.
So this friendship got me closer to Fred, which was easy to do because he seemed to be a genial fellow, soft-spoken, slow to move, and almost always smiling. This was very un-Dad-like, and when a guy who's roughly the same age as your dad is more like a gentle kid, well, it's a curious thing.
For me, there were three main elements to Fred.
#1. He built boats in his garage. There was one main powerboat, an outboard-motored 16'... um, vessel... called the Popeye. I don't know where he got the plans, or if there were any design drawings anywhere other than in his head, but it was an endearing little boat. Made of plywood and sporting four bullet-proof plexiglas portholes, it was to other powerboats what those homebuilt campers on pick-up trucks (you know the ones, the camper shells made of found wood and toaster parts, with shingle roofs, sash windows, and Thoreau quotations wood-burned into the sides) are to Winnebagos. Also in Fred's fleet were a couple of small sailboats, the Swee-Pea and the Olive Oyl, which we kids used every summer to get stuck in the muddy backwaters of Newport Bay. But we did learn to sail. Sort of.
#2. Fred didn't have a job, his wife did. Which, in 1960's suburban Orange County, California, was just plain queer. What's more, he didn't fret about it. Everything was just fine. The wife had a good job with a lot of seniority at a big company and everything was just fine with that. That whole configuration didn't exactly put them in the middle of the social whirl of the neighborhood. But Fred was okay with that too, mostly, I suspect, because...
#3. Fred was a drunk. This probably accounts for the genial, soft-spoken, slow to move, smiling part of his character. And now, as I think back, he did seem to sleep a lot. I'd be at the house, hanging out after school with Ivan, and Fred would sometimes wander out of the bedroom around 4:30. But I was just a kid and nothing about that seemed wrong to me. That was the way things were at their house.
As we advanced through school, Ivan and I picked up many of the same friends and by high school we were in the same clique of smarty-pants boys and girls who got the good grades, partied with the foreign exchanges students, and went to art-house movies.
When we acquired our driver's licenses we graduated from local beach trips with the Popeye to extended excursions to Ensenada where the boat would be moored for the summer near their tiny trailer. We were teenage boys and girls and Fred on the loose in Mexico. We'd shuttle down in pairs or in larger groups, laying in several weeks' worth of supplies, and hang out, making that transition from high school kids to young adults.
As our clique reached critical mass, not only in numbers but in sexual awareness, college/career angst, and basic maturation, inevitable changes occurred and the group fragmented, some of us into romantic pairs, to lead our lives beyond youth, beyond high school, beyond Fred.
But had it not been for Fred, I would be in a much different place now, and so would many other people. Fred was a supplier. Not of booze (in fact, by the time we were drinkers we were old enough to buy it ourselves, particularly in Mexico), but of the freedom we needed back then, and the access to it.
Fred was a yes in a world full of no.
I'll never know all the facts about him. My memory of the man is made up snippets, brief utterances, incidents.
Once, when Fred was driving me, my girlfriend, and two of his grandchildren down to Ensenada, the six-year-old granddaughter whined and complained loudly that she had dropped her hairbrush down underneath the seats of the station wagon. Fred kept one hand on the wheel while he fished for it with the other, but after a search of about a half-minute, he came up empty. This made the girl whine even more loudly. He felt around again under the seat, still nothing. The whining became nearly intolerable. Fred stayed calm, and a small smile came to his lips as he said "We'll give you the brush in Ensenada."
Fred kept a cheap beanbag ashtray on the dashboard of the station wagon because on these Mexico drives he smoked more than the standard car ashtray could handle. One time, about halfway through the trip, it was so full that the butts were tumbling off and scattering. He gathered the strays, lumped them into a manageable mountain in the ashtray, then purposefully picked it up and dumped it onto the floor of the car. "Can't stand a dirty ashtray," he said.
We were sitting in lawn chairs at the edge of the bay, just watching the water. After about an hour of silently observing the water's rise, he declares, simply, "High tide." Then, a couple seconds later, imitating the voice of the sea, he says "Hi, Fred."
Things like that. Small. Odd. Precious.
I remember his wife telling me that she fell in love with him, back during the Korean War, because he looked like Alan Ladd.
Sometimes Fred would walk through the neighborhood, knocking on doors and inviting himself in for a drink, and he was often accommodated. He was a friendly drunk.
One day Fred got it in his head that he had to go see a documentary that was playing for one night only at a theater 15 miles away. It was about the P-47. Like me, he loved airplanes. I drove him out there. He fell asleep right after it started. He would've liked it.
Now, there's a way of looking at all of this from the perspective of a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. You know what they'd say. But I loved the guy, and felt a deep affinity, recognizing a lot of myself in him. I don't know how deep his torments went, and I suspect they were abysmal, but I know how they looked from the outside, and what that outside provided me with was a picture of a man who seemed calm and kind and funny while living the life of what many in the neighborhood thought of as a loser. When I was a child he was nothing of the kind. He was a man who was present, physically anyway, and that was rare.
There was a mystical aura about him, enhanced by his travel to India to visit his eldest son, a Hindu monk, and his occasional bursts of aphorisms, the theme of which was always "keep your eye on the doughnut and not on the hole."
As I got older and could see the nature of his problems, or the surface of them anyway, compassion took the place of my bemusement. I think he'd been given up on, in many ways. I say this not to judge those around him. That's just the way I see it. If I'd lived in that house my feelings would be quite different, I'm certain of it, but I didn't, and that gave me a more optimistic experience.
The similarities, of course, are clear. I'm an alkie and so was he. I got better, he didn't, and part of my own recovery has something to do with him, who he was, how he was, and what that meant to me. He stayed home, I've stayed home. He was often seemingly lost in his own contemplative wonder, and so am I.
I saw Fred less and less after the school clique scattered and all its members became embedded in their own domestic situations. Whenever I'd drive down to see my parents, I'd swing by and take a peek at Fred's open garage, sometimes catching a glimpse of him slumped near the unfinished hull of a not-yet-seaworthy dream. I'd hear gossip from old neighbors about how bad he looked. After Amy was born we took her by Fred's place for her first trick or treat, and it was true. He looked bad. He must've had a liver like a throw rug.
The truth is I didn't expect him to live as long as he did.
Because his son Ivan and I had a difficult friendship as we hit our mid-twenties, I hardly ever spoke to Fred during the last years of his life. I'm sure, with death, he's had some miseries relieved.
I'm saying all this now because today was his birthday. How I came to memorize that fact, I don't know. Like his character, it's just one of those things I'll always remember.
"Kentucky Avenue" -- Tom Waits -- BLUE VALENTINE
"Some persons are likable in spite of their unswerving integrity."
- Don Marquis