Obituary

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John Prine

John Prine and I are both from Maywood, though not the same one. His Maywood was in Illinois and mine was in New Jersey. Not a real connection, but one among many small doors souls might open to common likes.

One of those we share is country. Both of us were domesticated rural animals, born only nine months apart. (My son, another John Prine fan, just told me that he and John share a cool birthday: 10/10.)

I found John during my first job in radio, at a country station in rural New Jersey (yes, there is such a thing). At the station we got about a cubic foot of new albums every week. Sometimes more. Most we never listened to, obeying advice from services paid to thresh musical wheat from chaff. But I’d take the home as many rejects as I could, and plow through them for stuff I liked and that maybe the station would play. Sometimes the station would add a song, but most of the time I’d just keep the good ones and bring the rest back.

One of my keepers was John Prine’s Sweet Revenge, best known for Dear Abby, which was kind of a novelty song. But the song that knocked me out most on that album was “Grandpa Was a Carpenter.” Here’s the refrain:

Grandpa was a carpenter, he built houses, stores and banks
Chain-smoked camel cigarettes, and hammered nails in planks
He would level on the level, he shaved even every door
And voted for Eisenhower, cause Lincoln won the war

This called to mind my own father, a chain-smoking Republican and lifelong carpenter who served as a phone operator for Eisenhower after the end of WWII. Anyway, my love of John Prine and his songs began then, and has lasted forty-seven years, so far.

There are so many great songs. “Angel from Montgomery.” “Illegal Smile.” “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.” “Sam Stone.” One-liners like, “A question ain’t a question if you know the answer too” (from “Far From Me”). But my favorite is “Paradise.” Here’s one verse and refrain:

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Kind of like they did here:

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It’s called mountaintop removal mining. That photo is not of Muhlenberg County, which is west of there; but it’s been tortured and stripped so it’ll do.

Like many fans, I’d heard John was sick with COVID-19. Given his health history, news yesterday of his death was no surprise. I wonder now if the final verse of “Paradise” will become prophecy:

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am

The picture of Freddy Herrick I carry everywhere is in my wallet, on the back of my membership card for a retail store. It got there after I loaned my extra card to Freddy so he could use it every once in awhile. As Freddy explained it, one day, while checking out at the store, he was notified at the cash register that the card had expired. So he went to the service counter and presented the card for renewal. When the person behind the counter looked at my picture on the card and said, “This doesn’t look like you,” Freddy replied, “That was before the accident.” The person said “Okay,” and shot Freddy’s picture, which has appeared on the back of that same membership card every year it has been issued since then.

I met Freddy in 2001, when I first arrived in Santa Barbara, and he was installing something at the house we had just bought. When my wife, who had hired him for the work, introduced Freddy to me, he pointed at my face and said, “July, 1947.”

“Right,” I replied.

“Me too.” Then he added, “New York, right?”

“New Jersey, across the river in Fort Lee.”

“Well, close enough. New York for me. Long Island.”

“How do you know this stuff?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s just weird.”

Everything was weird with Freddy, who became my best friend in Santa Barbara that very day. In the years since then he has also remained one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known.

Freddy was an athlete, an author, a playwright, a screenwriter and an actor, most of whose work is still unpublished, sitting in boxes and on floppies, hard drives and various laptops. These last few months, while avoiding doctors yet sick with what turned out to be liver cancer, he was working on a deal for one of his scripts. I hope it still goes through somehow, for the sake of his family and his art. The dude was exceptionally talented, smart, funny, generous and kind. He could also fix anything, which is why he mostly worked as a handyman the whole nineteen years I’ve known him.

Freddy grew up in wealth, and did his best to avoid that condition for most of his life, or at least for the nineteen years I knew him. This was manifested in a number of odd and charming ways. For example, his car was an early-’60s Volkswagen bug he drove for more than fifty years.

I last saw Freddy in late January, before I headed to New York. And, though I later learned his cancer was terminal, I did expect to find him among the living when I got back to Santa Barbara on Wednesday. Alas, I learned this morning that he died at home in his sleep last Saturday.

Freddy talked about death often, and in an almost casual and friendly way. Both his parents died in middle age, as did Jeff MacNelly, a childhood friend of Freddy’s who also happened to be—in the judgement of us both—the best cartoonist who ever lived. Measured against the short lives of those three, Freddy felt that every year he lived past their spans was a bonus.

And all those years were exactly that, for all who knew him.

Rest in Fun, old friend.

Loving Leonard

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I was as deeply affected by learning Leonard Cohen died as I was by the election results. Maybe more. I can’t name an artist whose songs mean more to me than his. Not Dylan, not (I’m thinking…) anybody. (Here’s how he lifted me one time when I was sick a few years ago.)

Through the soundtrack of my life, nobody else taught more about how to be a man, a lover, and a human being with one foot in the temporary world and the other in eternity.

A couple weeks ago, I was driving to the Peets on Upper State Street in Santa Barbara when some station on the radio played the title song of Leonard’s new album, You Want It Darker.

I didn’t make it all the way. Had to pull over. There was no way I could listen and keep driving. It was too deep, too right. I had never heard it before, and it demanded full attention. Still does. The lyric begins,

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

And he was.

I heard today, somewhere in the links below, that he recorded that final album in his Los Angeles apartment, on what turned out to be his death bed.

Please listen to audio links. Leonard’s voice was so deep and worn; and his humor was, if anything, sharper than ever, right to the end.

Having so much of his music in my life makes me miss him more, not less.

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JohnLeeHooker1997(This post is reblogged from this one, posted on June 11, 2001.)

The best live performance I’ve ever attended was John Lee Hooker playing St. Joseph’s AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church in Durham, North Carolina.

It was around the turn of the 80s, and in those days I went to pretty much every interesting act that came through town. I had no idea this was going to be anything unusual.

When I walked in the door, John Lee was standing near the entrance looking old and beat in his orange jacket. He also smelled pretty bad, frankly, and I felt guilty for noticing it. As usual, I took a seat in the front pew (I hate sitting in the back of anything). In a few minutes John Lee came in and grumbled “Stand up!” in a gruff voice. Everybody obeyed. He then launched into a series of songs that made it impossible for anybody to sit for the next several hours. It was a Rock & Roll Gospel Event of the first order. After that I knew a lot more about John Lee and the hard-driving boogie blues genre he pioneered.

For the last few years John Lee has lived down the hill from my house, which overlooks the Bay Area from Redwood City. He has a small ranch house on a cul-de-sac off Alameda de las Pulgas, the main drag at the base of the hill. There is usually a Caddy parked out front with a vanity plate that makes clear who’s home.

Recently we also came to share the same barber. So now I’ll share the story our barber once told me about his most famous customer.

It seems that John Lee liked to have his hair cut at home, and the barber was glad to oblige. 240px-KeithR2Then one day, when he came over to John Lee’s house, there was a corpse in the front parlor, laying on the couch. When the barber went over to have a closer look, the corpse — which belonged to a gaunt white man — appeared to have been dead for some time. When the barber went into John Lee’s bedroom, where the old man liked to sit to have his hair cut, the barber said, “Did you know there’s a dead guy in your living room?” “Aw,” John Lee replied, “That’s just Keith Richards. He always looks like that.”

Yesterday we drove past John Lee’s house on our way out of town. I wondered, as I always do, about how the old guy was doing. It turned out our barber was losing his customer on the same day.

So: is it true? Whether or not, it’s a great story.

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This is for Christopher Baker.

Chris was nine years old when a friend shot him through the head by mistake, using a gun the friend’s father kept for protection. Chris was a great kid: fun-loving, kind and athletic. In the open casket at his funeral, he wore a baseball cap that covered the fatal wound. The hole in his parents hearts would never be filled. Chris was their only child, and they never had another.

If Chris had lived, he would be forty-two years old now. Instead, for those who remember him, he’ll always be nine.

If you think I’m about to go into an argument for gun control, be disappointed, because I don’t have one. Like millions of others who know innocent victims of gunfire, I feel grief and despair, even after all these years. Unlike many or most of them, I have no answer.

As Gideon Litchfield writes in Quartz, There is nothing more to say. There is no “debate,” no “national conversation.” There are only entrenched positions that don’t influence each other at all. Specifically, the gun non-debate—

echoes another frozen conflict: the one in Israel-Palestine. Four years of covering it made me see that, in certain disputes, the opposing forces attain a sort of self-correcting stasis. Even after a particularly cruel outrage, equilibrium returns quickly, as if neither side can let go of its claim to eternal victimhood. Change does come—many decades-long conflicts have ended—but it takes its own, often mysterious path that neither words nor any single tragedy can alter.

Indeed, instead of “gun-control debate,” we should call it the “gun-control conflict.” There is no debate here, only forces locked in frozen combat.

And the number of cats out of bags are legion. Today there are more guns than people in the U.S. Given that fact alone, it is not much easier to “control” the gun market, or the use of guns, in the U.S., than it is to control the tides. Guns are abundant and loose in human nature. I fear the best we can hope for is not being among the unlucky, as Chris was.

 

 

 

davy1

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
— Mahatma Gandhi

I’m not sure if Gandhi actually said that. Somebody did. My best human chance of finding who said it — or at least of gaining a learned enlargement on the lesson — would have been David Sallis. “Big Davy” didn’t know everything, but he came closer than anybody else I know, and he was a living exemplar of Gandhi’s advice.

Davy’s answer would have been knowing, clever and enlarged by a joke, a wild story or both. Alas, I can’t ask him, because he died last Friday of a stroke he suffered a few days earlier. He was just 56, and is survived by his wife Margaret and daughter Rosie —

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— both of whom he adored absolutely — and by countless friends and colleagues who remain shocked and saddened by his passing.

I caught a telling example of how much Davy knew when he was visiting in Santa Barbara for the first time a couple years ago, and we took a long walk downtown. Observing the distinctive typeface of the city’s street signs, he described in depth its origin and design elements. I don’t remember what he said, except that the typeface, like the town, was of regional Spanish provenance. Now when I look online, all I can find about the typeface is that it’s called “Mission,” and lives in no standard font library. Whether or not Davy knew more than the rest of the world on the subject, it was totally in character that he might.

Davy didn’t like it when I told other people he was a maths genius. A stickler for accuracy, he said he was taught by some real ones, at Imperial College and elsewhere. But while he might not have been their equal, he was wickedly smart on the topic. One evening I saw that demonstrated at a bar in Silicon Valley. Davy was sitting at a table with another maths whiz, talking about how to solve some particularly vexing problem. Pausing in the midst of the conversation, Davy folded a napkin several ways at various angles and pushed it across the table to the other guy, who said “That’s it!” and looked back at Davy in amazement. Davy returned a look of agreement with one raised eyebrow and a wry smile. It was an expression that at once said both that he had won and this was all in fun — and “Isn’t it great that we’re both learning something here?” Here’s a photo I shot of the scene:

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Davy was also a lover and player of music. Here he is on a guitar he brought to our house on a visit:

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Davy’s tastes were wildly eclectic and refined. That guitar is an Erlewine headless Lazer — the same one played by Johnny Winter. At the time it was on its way to joining Davy’s extensive collection of vintage saxophones and guitars of every kind, any of which he might pick up and wail away on at a moment’s notice. He could hold forth on Bach and punk with equal authority, and had forgotten more about Frank Zappa than all but a few will ever know.  Here he is with our friend Robert Spensley (another fabulous musician), in their Zappa shirts:

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Davy became instant friends with my wife and I when we met in London in May 2013, at a lunch with a handful of colleagues at Visa Europe, which employed his consulting services for many years. It was Davy who brought VRM (subject of my work with the Berkman Center) to the company’s attention, and who had been the main instigator of the gathering.

Suspecting that we might be among the few who would know a world-changing business and technical hack when we saw one, he shared with us plans for Qredo, an architecture for sending and sharing data securely and privately between parties who could also, if they chose, connect anonymously — and then selectively disclose more information as purposes required. Qredo eventually became a startup, and I served through its formative months on the company board, visiting often to Richmond, Davy’s beloved home town. Here he is, describing how Qredo fit into some VRM contexts :

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Yet what I love and remember best about Davy was how much fun he was as a companion — at work on Qredo, in conversation at pubs and in other convivial settings, on walks in Richmond and around London, and over countless meals in places both fun and fine. To all those occasions Davy brought the most irrepressible inner child I have ever known in an adult human being. Here is a small collection of shots that show our boy at work and play:

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Since he left I haven’t gone ten minutes without lamenting how much his absence lessens the world. The one solace I find is knowing how much larger he made the world when he was with us.

For those able to attend, a ceremony and burial will be held on Monday, 30 November, 11 AM at Richmond Cemetery.

bob-kauffmanWhen the Los Angeles Clippers open their first game at home this season, I want them to pause and celebrate their original franchise player: Bob Kauffman, the team’s all-star center for its first three seasons, when they were the Buffalo Braves.

In fact, I think the team should retire Bob’s jersey, #44. For the ceremony the team should also bring out his four daughters, all of whom were also basketball stars: Lara and Joannah at Georgia Tech, Carey at Duke and Kate at Clayton State. Bob died on July 27 at age 69.

Bob was an amazing player to watch, a privilege I enjoyed often as fellow student at Guilford College. Guilford was nowhere before Bob arrived and a powerhouse by the time he left. Same went for the Braves.

At 6-8 and 240, Bob was a big guy, but he played bigger. Here’s what Guilford wrote about him a couple days ago:

Kauffman scored 2,570 points on 64 percent field-goal shooting and collected 1,801 rebounds in his 113-game career, all current school standards. He also holds Guilford marks for career scoring average (22.7 ppg.), single-game rebounds (32), single-season rebounds (698, 1967-68), career rebounding average (15.9), career field goals (943), single-season field goal percentage (.712, 1967-68), single-season free throws (273, 1966-67), career free throws (684) and single-season free-throw attempts (344, 1966-67).

Great stats, but none suggest how tough and intimidating Bob was as a player. I remember watching one Braves game against the Celtics on TV, pleased when the announcer said Bob was the only center in the NBA who knew how to play Boston’s Dave Cowens, straight up. Amazingly, I just found an account of what followed, in 30 Things About Dave Cowens:

…he slugged Guilford’s Bob Kauffman, appropriately nicknamed “Horse,” at the foul line, then patiently waited for Kauffman to swing back. Kauffman hit Cowens so hard Cowens finished the game wearing an eye patch.

And yet he was totally generous: a consummate team player. I remember Bob McAdoo’s first game with the Braves, against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Bob grabbed an offensive board he could have put right back in; but instead he kicked it out to the rookie, so the kid could get off his first pro shot.

Bob’s pro career started as what today we’d call a lottery pick: he was taken third in the 1968 draft by the Seattle Supersonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) behind future Hall-of-Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. But the Sonics didn’t know what to do with Bob. Nor did the Chicago Bulls, where he played the next year.

Then Bob got lucky. Thanks to various trades and player shufflings, he landed with the Buffalo Braves, an expansion team, for their inaugural season. The fit was perfect. Here’s Jerry Sullivan in The Buffalo News:

In the Braves’ first season of 1970-71, Kauffman averaged 20.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists. He averaged 18.9 points and 10.2 rebounds in ’71-72 and 17.5 points and 11.1 rebounds in ’72-73. He made the Eastern all-stars in all three seasons for Buffalo teams that lost 60 games.

As his daughter Lara put it to Jerry, Bob left his heart in Buffalo:

“The Buffalo fans from all over, people who moved to Atlanta or wherever I go, they all remember my dad,” Lara Kauffman said. “What people remembered about my dad was he played very blue-collar. I think he was sort of a reflection of a lot of people in the Buffalo community the way he played. He wouldn’t back down from anybody. He played against Lew Alcindor at the time. He matched up against Wilt Chamberlain. My dad would go head-to-head with those guys.

“He was undersized. He was 6-8 and played a face-up game. But because he was so physical, oftentimes he would match up against the toughest player. He would go toe-to-toe with them. I think his style of play reflected Buffalo a lot. He was a hard-working player. Every timeout, he ran off the court. He was the first to the bench.

“He tried to set a good example of hard work and play,” his daughter added. “If my dad had a late night the night before with the guys, he was up at 5 a.m. running six miles. He never stopped. He was just a committed athlete. He was also a gentleman. He would sign autographs. He had all the patience in the world with the fans. They were important to him. He never treated people as second-class. He always had time for them.”

And that’s how I remember him as well. Back at Guilford, there wasn’t a bigger man on campus than Bob, yet he was sweet and friendly with everybody.

Bob’s career as a player was sadly short. Hip problems forced him to retire at 28, from the Atlanta Hawks. After that he coached the Detroit Pistons for a year and then returned to the Hawks’ front office before leaving the game for other work. (If memory serves, Bob was the GM for Detroit when they hired Dick Vitale as coach.)

My favorite testimony to Bob’s value as a player was uttered by his coach at Guilford, Jerry Steele. After Guilford’s play-by-play announcer told Jerry that Catawba College guard Dwight Durante (“the best 3-point shooter you never saw“) appeared that week in a Sports Illustrated piece, Jerry replied, in his usual slow drawl, “Well, Dwight Durante may have his picture in Sports Illustrated, but I’ve got Bob Kauffman’s picture in my bedroom.”

The announcer was Carl Scheer, known today as a legendary NBA executive, former GM of the Carolina Cougars, Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers and Charlotte Hornets — and the inventor of the Slam Dunk Contest, among other distinctions. If it weren’t for Bob, Carl might still be a lawyer in Greensboro. Suzanne Dietzel in Greater Charlotte Business:

After a respectable run in undergraduate college basketball and baseball, Scheer graduated from Marquette Law School and began a career in a small law firm in Greensboro. After realizing that his desire to litigate cases would likely be unrealized due to the size of the firm, he visited Guilford College and asked to be slated to broadcast basketball and football games – a passion he had indulged in graduate school.

Scheer had made fast friends with many in the sports community when opportunity knocked. According to Scheer, “Guilford was embarking upon an aggressive, small college basketball campaign, largely driven by star player, Bob Kauffman. I had announced his college career, and once he found himself in demand by two competing leagues, he asked me to represent him for his contract negotiations.”

Scheer elaborates, “In 1968, agents were unheard of. Knowing I was a lawyer, Bob asked me to represent him.” He jokes, “I am sure I left the poor guy quite a bit of money on the table! But, really, the experience introduced me into the world of sports and business; I was hooked.”

Not surprisingly, his work ethic and comfortable personality helped to foster a good rapport with team owners, and he was asked to interview for the position of assistant to the commissioner of the NBA.

Recalls Scheer, “The NBA commissioner at the time, Walter Kennedy, told me after my third interview that he liked me and thought I was a great candidate, but the job was going to ‘the other guy.’ At the time I was content with that. I had had that 15 minutes of glory and was happy to go back to my small North Carolina law firm. But months later he called back and told me the other candidate declined the position, and asked if I would like to be reconsidered. It was a dream come true. I moved to New York and began my indoctrination into the game. There, my sports career started.”

The best lives have the best consequences. I’d like one of Bob’s to be a celebration of his place as the Clippers founding all-star — who also happened to be a four-star dad.

Links:

 

That line came to me a few minutes ago, as I looked and read through the latest photographic blog posts by Stephen Lewis in his blog, Bubkes). This one…

Stephen Lewis photo… titled Farmyard, Grandmother, Chicken, and Ovid in Exile, is accompanied by richly detailed text, including this:

The courtyard in the photo no longer exists; it and and the vegetable garden were uprooted several years ago.  in their place: a summer-time restaurant surrounded by neatly planted flowerbeds and a tall antenna tower of a mobile telephony company resting on a broad concrete footing.  The grandmother still lives on the plot, however, and tends the little that remains of her garden.  She is in her late-eighties now and, at day’s end, often sits on the raised curb of the newly paved road next to her former farmyard in expectation of passersby…

Nothing is permanent, but in this case the more durable feature is the grandmother and her friendly face — the face of the place, while she lasts.

Also arresting is Corn Stalks, a Plateau, the Black Sea, and the Horizon:

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It’s a place that calls to mind face in its verb form. A synonym might be to meet, or to confront. We face a challenge, an opportunity, a problem, success, failure, or the world. Things face us as well, but not always directly. Three of the four things in the photo are mostly hidden by the first, but far more vast and open. Also flat. Horizons may feature mountains, but they are horizontal: flat and wide.

We are walking and running animals that work best in the horizontal. Our eyes shift more easily to left and right than to up and down. Our stereoscopic vision and hearing also locate best in the horizontal spread from one here to many theres.

Our species dispersed from Africa toward gone horizons, mostly along coasts long since drowned by melting ice caps. The Black Sea has changed greatly in spread and shape throughout human history, and may have reached its present height in a deluge through the Dardanelles and Bosporus seaways.

The view on the path in the photo is framed between the vertical blinders of dry corn stalks at the edges of fields of unseen vastness. (Corn fields have always been both beautiful and a tiny bit creepy to me, ever since I got a bit lost when wandering as a kid into a cornfield somewhere, with no clear direction out other than the sound of distant voices.)

Between the last paragraph and this one, Stephen posted another photo, titled Shabla, Bulgaria: Seawards and Kitchenwards, taken on the shore of the Black Sea:

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The subject is mostly boats and ramps. In the foreground are stairs and wood railings, two of the many literal and figurative framings, none quite horizontal, in a vertical photo with dimensions we call “portrait.” On the face of this Bulgarian shore, one ear is the sea itself. All the ramps face land and sea. To them the camera is an unseen visitor from another dimension.

While seeing and hearing are mostly horizontal (our ears as well as our eyes are aligned with the horizon), eating is vertical: food is something we “eat up” and “get down.” So is nutrition: we “raise” crops and cattle.”

In Stephen’s photos, things have faces too. Some are literal, such as in Guns of August, Books of August: The Iconography of a Gravestone in Prague:

ww-i-grave-prague-copy-2 The photo puts in contrast the irony of cemetery “monuments” (as gravestones are now called), commemorating stuff nobody alive remembers, for an audience a living performer might round to zero. Under the subhead The Emotions of the Living; the Passivity of the Dead, Stephen writes,

The photo above, taken in the immense cemetery in the late-19th/early-20th century residential quarter of Vinohrady, portrays a gravestone tableau of life’s emotionized figures that reveals the ways that those in the comfort and safety of the home-front consciously or unconsciously sanitized, rationalized, and ennobled the senseless carnage of World War I.

Last month I visited the graves of relatives three generations and more ahead of mine, at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, and reported on that visit in Lives of the Dead. While some graves at Woodlawn yearned toward the kind of extravagance Stephen found in Vinohrady, my late kinfolk leaned in the opposite direction, marking little or nothing of who they planted there. To my knowledge, I was the first to surface (at those last two links) twenty Englerts, Knoebels and others whose faces in death are carpets of mowed grass.

And who knows how long anything will last on the Web? My old blog, on which I wrote from 1999-2007, survives by the grace of a friend, and its blogroll is a near-cemetery of rotting links.

Every thing faces a future for as long as we grace it with expectation of use, appreciation or some other goodness. Why else save anything?

So I’m glad Stephen keeps putting these photos up, and enlarging them so well with prose. Here’s a list of other photos in his series, posted since the last time I last blogged his series:

It’s a wonderful gallery. Enjoy.

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What makes Howard Stern’s radio show so compelling, besides Howard himself, is that everybody who contributes to the show is a character. That goes for all the staff members who come on the air, and all the callers — especially the oddballs called the Wack Pack. There’s Mariann from Brooklyn, Bigfoot from the backwoods of Vermont (and sometimes its jails), Sour Shoes, High Pitch Eric and too many others to name. But the biggest character of them all was physically the smallest: Eric the Actor, first known as Eric the Midget, who died Saturday. He was just 39 years old.

Eric was a tiny dude with bad diseases and a voice like a kazoo. He was demanding, selfish, obsessed with celebrities, professional wrestling, the Oakland A’s, large breasts and other stuff Howard and his crew loved to goof on. He was also the kind of guy Monty Python called “a gentleman of unshakable negativity.” He liked to complain and loved to fight. When he did, he sounded like a duck getting goosed.

Eric also felt completely deserving of the fame he gained on Howard’s show, which commenced at 3am for Eric’s home in Sacramento, California. He called almost every day. He didn’t always get on the air, but it seemed like he got more air time than any character on the show other than Robin Quivers and Howard himself. In the end his fame proved huge, with coverage of his death in People, Variety and countless other celebrity rags. Yet every Stern show fan knows that if Eric could still call in, he’d be complaining about what the reporters got wrong. And it would be funny as hell.

Eric was pepper on the show’s steak. It’ll still be tasty without him, but it won’t be the same.

Bonus link.

Yesterday was my Uncle Chris’s 100th birthday. When he passed fifteen years ago, I wrote the following, which I just unearthed from the Old Web. Now seems like a good time to expose it to the world. He was the embodiment of a Good Man, I still miss him, and I’d like his many great-grandkids to know more about the kind and strong root stock of their amazing family.


The Good Doctor

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December 17, 1999

My Uncle Chris died yesterday morning, just before dawn, surrounded by his wife and five sons, at his home in Graham, North Carolina. In addition to his immediate family, he is survived by thirteen grandchildren, dozens of nieces and nephews, thousands of former patients, the church and town he helped build, and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, all of which will be diminished by his passing.

Uncle Chris and his mom, Granny Crissman

Uncle Chris with his mother, “Granny” Crissman

He was eighty-five years old. For forty-five of those years, he was Graham’s family doctor. If Andy Griffith had played a doctor instead of a sheriff, his model would have been Clinton S. Crissman, MD. Uncle Chris and Andy both grew up around Mt. Airy, North Carolina, and Graham was a real-life Mayberry: one of those little Southern county seats with the courthouse in the square and the Confederate soldier statue facing north up Main Street.

Although Graham was no less segregated than most southern towns in the Forties and Fifties, Uncle Chris was always everybody’s doctor. Over the course of his career he delivered more than three thousand babies, including at least one Miss North Carolina. I doubt that any other human being has ever done more good, personally, for the people of Alamance County than Doctor Crissman.

Uncle Chris was a Good Man in the purest meaning of that expression. He was more than a doctor. He was a healer. When he put his arm around you, looked you square in the eye and said “I believe you’re gonna be all right,” you were on the best drug the good Lord ever made.

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Doctor Crissman with grandsons Steven and Andrew

Case in point. Back around the turn of the Eighties, when I was still a young man, I was seized by chest pains at work. I went to my local doctor, who didn’t like my EKG and promptly put me under Intensive Care at Durham County General Hospital. A week later we found that it was only pleurisy, but for a while there it was scary.

While we were all wondering what this was about, nobody did more to calm me down than Uncle Chris. He drove down from his office, forty miles away, put his strong hands on my legs, looked me in the face and said, with grave authority, “Now David, your job is to hold down the bed. You just do what these nurses tell you to do and you’ll be all right.” His accent, by the way, was exactly Andy Griffith’s.

In those days I knew lots of doctors, including several who worked in the local health care system, and I talked Science with every one of them. But none did more to heal me than Uncle Chris, with his strong hands and plain words. If I tried to talk Science with him, he’d just smile and joke back. saying, “Well, David, I think you know more about that than I do.”

Of course, I didn’t know squat. And most of my doctor friends didn’t know a zillionth of what Uncle Chris knew in his bones about what makes people sick and well.

My cousin Mark, who took over his father’s practice a few years ago, marvels at how much medicine his old man practiced without the aid of modern technology — and how successful he was at it. I believe that was because Uncle Chris was a natural. Love is always the best medicine; and God never made a doctor who was better at delivering that medicine. Especially to kids.

Whether he was giving us polio shots, carving up a watermelon or hauling us around to church, school or countless athletic events, he was always warm, funny, generous and kind.

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Uncle Chris with granddaughters Laura and Julie

When I look at these pictures of Uncle Chris, which I harvested from old family photo albums, the hands strike me again as perfect instruments of love and care. It’s easy to see their effect on his grandchildren — the same effect their parents, aunts and uncles experienced a generation earlier.affectionate. But those are all just adjectives: brochure words. Where they all came together was with those big hands of his. “Hands are the heart’s landscape,” says Pope John Paul II. They are also the best metaphor or for care (from the Allstate slogan to Christ’s last words on the cross). For countless children, patients and friends, those hands were the places to be.

Even as an adult, I loved the way Uncle Chris would hold people while he talked with them — or even while he was talking with someone else. I think I’ll miss that even more than talking with him about basketball, especially his beloved Deacons. If I didn’t bring them up right away, he’d say, “David, you haven’t asked me about my Deacons yet.”

Uncle Chris went to college at Wake Forest University, as did sons Paul and Charles. He was a loyal member of the Deacon’s Club, and often traveled with the team. Once in a shopping center I ran into Rod Griffin, one of Wake Forest’s basketball greats. I asked him if he knew Doctor Crissman and he said “of course,” making it clear that the good doctor was among the team’s favorite Deacon Club members.

Uncle Chris’ affections and appreciations were not limited to the Deacons alone, however. Next to the Deacons he loved to follow all of ACC basketball, and beyond that the rest of the college game. I remember how he was moved to tears when David Thompson, the N.C. State star, was injured in an especially brutal accident under the basket. “I love that boy,” he said to me. “I just hate to see that happen.” But the truth was that Uncle Chris loved just about everybody, as far as I could tell.

Even though our family lived 500 miles away, in New Jersey, we were always in the Crissman orbit. At least once a year — usually on Easter, at the height of North Carolina’s dogwood season — we would drive down to visit with the Crissmans on their farm-size property (bought in the early Fifties from next-door neighbor Tom Zachary, the great baseball player best known for pitching Babe Ruth’s 60th home run). Uncle Chris and Aunt Doris (my mother’s sister) had five boys. The first two, Paul and Eric, were the same ages as me and my sister Janet. The other three, Charles, Mark and Kelly, were no less fun.

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Uncle Chris (in the blue shirt and glasses) surrounded by sons Eric, Kelly, and Charles; granddaughters Karen, Emily, Julie, Melanie and Kate; daughters-in-law Linda and Patt; and grandson Steven

In my mind I can still see the original property — twenty-six acres of rolling pasture, populated by a single tree. Near that tree Uncle Chris built a large ranch house that was ideal for a family with four (soon five) active boys. The pool came soon after the house, then the barn, the gardens, the greenhouse, the bamboo grove and then the hundreds of new trees. Today those trees, mostly hardwoods, are huge. They also comprise some of the prettiest woods in the whole state: silent testimony to the nurture in their author’s nature.The Crissmans had ponies, dogs, cats, and other animals that roamed the acres of grass and trees. With a spread that big, everybody worked like farmhands when they weren’t having fun. For kids it was paradise. And there was never any doubt about who made it that way.

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The Wheel House in 1974, 1980 (after Hurricanes David and Frederic) and 1999 (after Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd). Note how the lower floor was washed away, twice. It’s still gone.

In the Seventies, when Uncle Chris and his generation were starting to retire, his wife Doris’s two sisters, Eleanor (my mom) and Margaret both moved to Graham (Mom with my father from New Jersey and Aunt Maggie from California). So did I, with my wife and two kids. The gravitational pull was that strong. Like those trees, all of Uncle Chris’s sons, nieces and nephews are in now their forties and fifties (his first son Paul and I are the oldest, at 52). When my wife Joyce first met the whole family, she said “those are all such good men.” It’s easy to see why.

March, 1974 was a rough month for my own little family. Colette was three and Allen had just turned one. My radio career in New Jersey had fizzled, my car barely ran and everything was looking bleak. We needed a place to stay and Uncle Chris provided one. It was a giant old house on Main Street in Graham that had gone unoccupied for so long that the mailman refused to come to the door because the place was clearly “hainted” (because, legend had it, the original owner, a judge, had died there in the very long tub in the bathroom upstairs). Uncle Chris let the four of us live there free of charge until I could get a steady job and we moved to Chapel Hill. He never asked for, or expected, a dime.

He was also generous with another amazing piece of real estate: The Wheel House — the Crissman’s family retreat in Oak Island, North Carolina. This simple box has always been closer to the water than anything else around, always expected to be trashed by a hurricane, and always survived after hurricanes passed through. I’m not sure if it signifies anything, but it seems worth noting anyway.

There are so many other things I could say about Uncle Chris. How he was the best man at my second wedding. How he survived the tragic premature death of his beloved Doris and later married a dear friend, Bernice, who in the difficult final months of his life returned the good care he had given so many others over the years. How much Mom, who now calls herself “the last twig on the tree” of her generation, will miss his visits to her house. How he gave so much to the Methodist Church he helped build, to the schools, to the community. How hard it is to imagine a world without him.

Of course he’s still here. The love he gave so abundantly continues to grow and spread;’ because that’s what love does. And that’s what he knew perhaps better than anybody else around.

Doc Searls
Emerald Hills, California

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