Pappy’s visit lasted eight days. We visited galleries, malls, museums, workplaces, restaurants, jazz clubs, sculpture gardens, and various holiday venues ranging from carols sung by a choir in the lobby of a fine hotel, to a puppet show at a small children’s theatre. We cooked, chatted, swapped lies (and, at times, truths), imbibed, and often stayed up late into the night. All the while Pappy filmed the merriment. A few months later he would send us a video titled Pappy Does Dallas, A Smash Production, Five Thumbs Up, don’t miss it.
I could not, however, simply ignore the ethereal events that had transpired at Irene’s remarkable little house. I wanted to know more of the unknown, more history, more about the days of innocence and youth. I looked for strategic moments, and then occasionally slipped a question about the past into our conversation.
We did not talk about Mother, or family matters, excepting a brief mention of Mum Mum, Gramma Xenie, and Grandpa Fought’s bakery. We did not discuss failure and struggle as defined by solipsistic elitists with no tolerance for entertainers, or by estranged lovers and parents. Such disappointments were best left at the box-office. The show must go on. We did not discuss inheritance, excepting a brief mention of cholesterol and heart disease. Legacy was more a discussion of talent and determination—a view of the future rather than the past. I showed Pappy the copy of Man’s Search for Himself, and his discourse written within. He took a quiet, realistic interest, and requested that I make a copy for him, but said little else, excepting to refer to his mention of Burkhart. Otherwise, we did not discuss the past much. I don’t think that the past means that much.
Pappy did enjoy talking about Emerson Burkhart. Late one night we reminisced about his old house, the wolfhounds, his paintings, his shenanigans, and Mary Anne. Pappy told of meeting Carl Sandberg with Emerson, and about art and poetry, and about painting murals. Those were exciting days for Trevor and I, and, I dare say, for Pappy as well. These were memories of youth, and exploration, and dreams, and quest. These reminiscences were visions of what is always possible. This was not a discussion of severed times. Otherwise, we did not discuss the past much. The past is what one has done. The past is what your boys have done.
And so, it came time for Pappy to return home. At the airport Pappy once again donned his Santa hat, and he, Trevor, and I—three Fought boys—frolicked about happily, like three prancing goats. This had been a very special Christmas. We were getting to know our father. He was getting to know us. Once again, our reunion was encompassed by a wonderful aura of love that required no direction—no burdens from history, and no demands upon tomorrow. It is the present now.
Pappy was wired. He had a substantial computer system at his house, along with CD writers, scanners, printers, and a variety of software for every imaginable creative endeavor. He also had a video camera, video editing equipment, audio editing equipment, several movie projectors, and a hodgepodge of other fascinating, indescribable pieces of equipment that perhaps only he could operate. In addition, he had access to the media department at the university where he worked. He had an endless curiosity for audiovisual gadgets, and had surrounded himself with a bountiful supply of such.
Each day was a day in Toyland, and Pappy was a babe in his element. It was as if he had finally written himself into an animated adventure from which he chose never to return. Reality had been harsh, multidimensional, and had relentlessly demanded the surrender of innocence. While the purveyor of cognizant human endeavor was ever so industriously distributing workloads to those standing in an endless queue of potentially great statesmen, powerful civic leaders, doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, and even an occasional beloved actor and Hollywood star, Donn Fought, the Golden Knight, the perpetual child, had been overlooked. No dose of reality, no matter how ruthless, could pierce the hauberk that protected his innocent heart.
All the gadgets at his disposal were just that—gadgets. Achievers would use them as tools to obtain status and wealth. To Pappy they were only toys to enhance his imagination. He, to the dismay of many who expected more of him, did not live in a world of status and wealth. Destiny draws a fine line between the romantic idealists who rather inadvertently discover themselves in a world of success, lights, cameras, and action, and those who remain undiscovered.
It was not that Pappy had not tried to cross that line; he had tried. He had suffered the pangs of rejection by the audience of man, time and time again. He had gone underground…refused to act, or work…submitted to unused potentialities, blocked by hostile conditions (often judged by stammer rather than stature), and by his own internalized conflicts…the designer of procrastination. He had also laid those days into the coffin, along with the falsity—the illusions—buried without regret. Pappy had come to terms with procrastination. The eternal child within had endured. After all the dust of human ambition has settled, society is less demanding of an old man. Now, he was free to play with the gadgets that he had gathered; free to experiment with imagination; free to be happy.
I was not wired. I was computer illiterate. I was a lingering purest who painted with acrylics simply because I did not have the studio space necessary for oils. I could see no legitimate connection with art and the computer. I labored with a small typewriter, or wrote by hand, quite unaware of the wonders of word processing. Occasionally I would chisel a piece of sculpture in a small piece of stone imagining it to be a large slab of marble. The only three-dimensional value that computers represented to me was the possibility of stacking two-dozens of them into a pile and using an acetylene torch to fuse them into a massive hunk of creative abstraction. I was also a fifty-year-old bartender, who had not come to terms with procrastination.
Having visited Pappy a couple of times and seen the potential of these gadgets (especially the possibilities of the computer), viewed Father’s Day Frolics and Pappy Does Dallas and seen the integration of video and animation that he was able to achieve, and having discussed the computer age with many experienced patrons who visited my bar, I began to question my illiteracy. There is no return from the age of the computer, and if I was ever going to do more than sling whiskey, I was going to have to make friends with the detestable device. And, if I was going to stack two-dozens of them and melt them into a mind-boggling mass of perplexity I figured that I had better begin to accumulate materials. In a fog of confusion, armed with a meager vocabulary learned by listening to partially inebriated geeks, I marched into Computers R Us and purchased my first system.
I never looked back. While I remain adamant in my contention that a computer will never create art—which is only conceived in the propagation of the heart with the mind—I did discover an amazing world. It was not only the world of word processing (which is priceless once realized) and other programs that make everyday accountabilities an easier task, or the world of graphic manipulation that eliminates much tedium; it was also the world of the Internet.
Suddenly I was confronted with a tool of tremendous capacity, which greatly extended access to good and evil. I’ll not identify the licentious regions of temptation with which I grapple from time to time. Suffice it to say that one’s darker side is immediately available, and abundant with cohorts. I question if the advent of the computer has not ushered in the eventual demise of humankind. At any rate, our decision is binary. There is also the opportunity to pursue the beneficially benevolent prospective of this brave new world. I eagerly delved into learning to manipulate my new gadget, and I have made great strides, surprising myself by my enthusiasm and aptitude. I presently own three systems (only twenty-one to go). With the Internet I was able to maintain daily communication with Pappy, and to transfer photographs, graphics, ideas, poetry, and other data.
These days technology advances at an inconceivably rapid pace. Today’s innovation is often tomorrow’s paperweight. “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.” What do we seek in such a great hurry—pleasure, power, prosperity? While I was truly enjoying the delightfully subjective recompense for my investment in technology, I remained duly aware of the inherent nature of life—death. The acrimonious words of Buck Star haunted me as I recalled his declaration that, “…You have conquered nothing more than the passage of time.” or “…you and Trevor are just like your father! You are hopeless dreamers, continuously chasing an ubiquitous windmill, and you have nothing to show for your time” Or, the more ominous prognostication by Arthur Morris Kidwell, “…Your father’s moment is near. You, and your generation, are waning as well.” And, reminders of mortality loomed at the very edge of dawn.
It rained continuously almost all day—Earth Day. I was awakened quite early by a telephone call from the veterinarian. Ankh had been ill, not eating or using his box for a couple of days, and I had taken him in for a diagnosis. I was informed that he was very dehydrated, and it would be best to leave him overnight for observation and fluids. I don’t like doctors, but at least I have the option to tell them so, and to stomp out of their compassionately sterile, avariciously rich domain in a huff. The animals do not have that option. My cherished friend for one third of my life had not made it through the night. My heart nearly stopped. The rain dripped down the window like a million tears.
I woke Darcy and told her what had happened, and that I was going to claim my furry pal for a proper burial. She drove. The sky was gloomy and I wore my shades. After, and only after, I paid three hundred and fifty-four dollars toward the doctor’s BMW that occupied the only covered parking space in the lot, I was handed a cardboard box that had been taped shut. I did not remove my shades, and it was best, if looks could kill, that I didn’t. Except for the thunderous pounding of my heartbeat in the rain, the drive home was profoundly silent.
The sky seemed ever darker and the rain continued to pour, as I gathered a wooden wine box and one of my longtime favorite denim shirts and took them to the patio. I opened the pitiless packaging, and with thundering trepidation, picked up my best friend; my confidant for nearly seventeen years; my pal who had categorically received the full range of my emotions and responded with purrrfect repose; my traveling buddy, when one summer I had journeyed nearly twelve thousand miles across the western states in a VW camper bus; my connection to the vast living world that exists regardless of the presence of the human condition; my closest animal friend. I picked up my cat from within the box. He was faintly warm as I held him, then hugged him, then kissed him. I wrapped Cat Ankh Amen in the denim shirt and placed him in the wooden box, then nailed the lid in place.
In the back yard there was a small peach tree that arched above a pleasant, shady, grassy spot. The birds and bugs were attracted to this location, and it teemed with nature. In the pouring rain, it was there that I dug the grave. I laid my companion into the earth, and covered him with mud and sod. It was from there, I am certain, that Ankh crossed over the rainbow bridge.
It was surely quite a sight, me burying a black cat in the pouring rain, with distant thunder and lightning, on Earth Day. When I came back into the house I was soaked and muddy, and spent. I took off my clothes, lay down, and wept.
But Cat Ankh Amen was not yet gone. When Trevor got word about the fate of my old feline friend, he decided to send out a song in memoriam over the airwaves from his radio show. He selected a tune titled Shooting Star from a CD by Bob Dylan. He cued the selection, and after a brief mention of the boy and his cat, he started the song. Shooting Star would not play, however, even though it was cued properly to that selection. In an awkward radio moment Trevor apologized over the air, re-cued the song, and started it again. Again, it would not play the selected tune. Although the selection number continued to indicate that we were listening to Shooting Star, the tune heard was Dylan’s classic, Tombstone Blues. Now, I suppose that this seems rather far-fetched. Everyone that was there at the radio station, however, will verify this incident, and will quickly say that there was no logical reason for what had occurred. They rather superstitiously concurred that it was the antics of a black cat passing.
And, Cat Ankh Amen had not yet passed. In a pathetic state of hangover from the wake the night before, I dragged myself to the nearby convenience store for some coffee. I purchased two large cups of java, a gigantic, gooey pastry, some aspirin, and three scratch off, lottery tickets. With my brain exploding painfully, I sipped coffee and scratched. I won three hundred and fifty dollars—only four dollars shy of the veterinarian bill.
You don’t have to believe this story. You don’t have to adhere to superstition. You can wander blindly through life believing that animals do not have spirits. You can labor under the grotesque misconception that humans are entitled to dominion over the beasts. You can imagine that humans are not the most malicious beasts of all. I tell you that it was his adios—from Cat Ankh Amen, a black cat passing.
I purchased a concrete statue of St. Francis and placed it beneath the gentle arch of the peach tree, over his grave. Darcy planted bluebonnets and shamrocks. Beneath St. Francis I placed a quotation that I had copied which read, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man but deteriorate the cat.” Mark Twain.
In all of life there are few things that are universally constant. It is the greatest phenomenon of human sentience that all living organisms exist concurrently, yet no two are the same. No two amebas; no two flowers; no two sheep; no two clowns; no two clones. We all, however, share one common direction—to live is to die.
“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs.” William Shakespeare—King Richard II.
I telephoned Pappy and shared my grief at the loss of my pal. Pappy was an animal lover, more a dog person than a cat person, but he had great admiration and respect for all critters. He responded with genuine empathy, and it did make me feel better. Shortly after, I received a video from him with some footage of Ankh taken during Pappy’s last visit. Sometimes it is difficult to watch. Sometimes it is an affectionate look back.
Epitaph: Yesterday’s Companionship and Tomorrow’s Reunion.
Rita Hayworth. Holy Cross Cemetery; Culver City, California.
Of course, I telephoned Mother—a cat lover loved by cats. She, too, is an ardent animal lover. I tried to tell her that I had talked to Pappy about this, but she had a way of filtering out any mention of our father.
Epitaph: Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.
Dean Martin. Westwood Memorial Cemetery; Los Angeles, California.
Death begins at birth, and the interim is indeed brief. I often wonder why people carry the past along with them for so long. As I think back, I can honestly say that I recall no one that I have not forgiven, except for myself at times. But I am a naïve Peter Pan, choking in the necktie of quixotic expectations and middle-aged underachievement. Like Pappy, Sir Uck Uck on his endless quest, I am fond of recurring blissful flights into ignorance, art, avoidance, music, and creative Never Never land. If we are all bound by death, why then do we spend so much of our life wallowing in egotistical muck? Wouldn’t it be as easier to wallow away that time in a calm, sunny, merciful land of make believe?
Last words: “That was a great game of golf…”
Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby. October 14, 1977.
Next came word that Brother James, our adopted brother, had succumbed to brain tumors. He had passed away in Arizona, in mid-life, in a state of confusion about life and death. I spoke to him over the telephone shortly before, and I could hear the uncertainty in his conversation.
Last words: “Does nobody understand?”
James Joyce. 1941.
When one reaches middle age, he or she begins to see the shadow of death creeping closer into life. Our parents’ generation wanes quickly into passing, leaving us to face mortality without their graceful wisdom. James died a young man by today’s standards, but not before he saw the ephemera of his mother and father. During this time, Trevor attended the memorial service for a couple of “old timers” in the radio and music business, as well as having received word of Sherri’s father having slipped into “the great sleep.” It is quite simple, really. The older one gets, the more death he experiences.
Epitaph: Man must endure his going hence.
C. S. Lewis. Headington Quarry Churchyard; Oxfordshire, England.
Several short months later Trevor and I received a telephone call from our mother. Everett had painted his last rendition of the subtle hues of sunlight dancing on the tin roof of an abandoned barn. His ashes were to be scattered into the Kentucky hills that he loved.
Last words: “…my work did not reach the quality it should have.”
Leonardo da Vinci. 1519.
How ironic that as we age we witness the maturing face of mortality. It is, however, our choice to view either drama or humor. The face of the great unknown can be frightening. On the other hand, if “life is a stage,” why not purchase a ticket to an occasional comedy. I once read of a man who, when informed that he had terminal cancer, chose to spend his last few months watching classic comedy movies and cartoons. “Laughter is the best medicine,” he thought. And so it was, as his cancer went into remission and he lived a long, and I dare say, happy life.
Epitaph: Here lies Ezekial Aikle, Age 102. The good die young.
Ezekial Aikle. East Dalhousie Cemetery; Nova Scotia.
Epitaph: Here lies Ann Mann, who lived an old maid, but died an old Mann.
Ann Mann. Dec. 8, 1967 In a London cemetery.
Death might be divided into three acts, which merge at an irreversible finale. Act I; we live. Act II; we suffer the process of dying. Act III; we pass into the afterlife. In act one we make the choices that define the person that we are, and the person who will enter the stage set for act II.
Epitaph: Truth and History. 21 men. The Boy Bandit King.
He died as he lived.William H. Bonney “Billy the Kid.”
Fort Sumner Cemetery; Fort Sumner New Mexico.
Epitaph: A tomb now suffices, for him whom the world was not enough.
Alexander the Great.
Epitaph : She did it the hard way.
Epitaph: I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
Last words: “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub.”
Conrad N. Hilton.
Most people believe, by various methods of rationalization, that what we have done in life affects us in our afterlife. I certainly have no doubts about that. It gets complicated, however, when one tries to determine exactly what actions will generate favorable reactions on the other side, or worse if one attempts to calculate the difference between a little sin and a big sin. Keep in mind that no one knows when act I will end, and act II will begin. Some die young.
Epitaph: Memories linger of a little angel, Heaven sent, who brightened our lives, but for a brief fleeting moment.
Unknown. Greenwood Cemetery. Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Epitaph: It is so soon that I am done for; I wonder what I was begun for.
Anonymous. Cheltenham, UK.
For these, there is no significant “preparation” necessary for the afterlife. “Suffer not the children, for they are the kingdom of Heaven.” A newborn child is not born iniquitous; rather, it is a nascent and continuous absorption from those of us who have learned and cultivated our decadence from those who walked before us. It is an amazing, and terrifying, anti-garden that has grown from the bite of an apple to the human condition that exists today.
Somewhere between good and evil, we enter act II. Some die quickly.
Epitaph: Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a .44. No Les No More.
Lester Moore. Boot Hill Cemetery; Tombstone, Arizona.
Epitaph: Here lays Butch, we planted him raw. He was quick on the trigger, but slow on the draw.
Cemetery; Silver City, Nevada.
Most, however, have the occasion to lie on death’s bed and reflect upon their life—without the opportunity to reconstruct it. I do not know the last words that Brother James spoke.
Act III is curtained. It is audience participation, involving emotions and actions such as grief, elation, anger, greed, fear, memorials, interments, epitaphs, division, separation, interpretation, and many others. For the spectators, Act III is played out in Act I. What happens backstage is unknown to us.
Last words: “Curtain! Fast music! Light! Ready for the last finale! Great! The show looks good, the show looks good!”
Florenz Ziegfeld. Showman, Ziedgeld’s Follies. July 22, 1932.
Only a few short months later Pappy telephoned Trevor and I and informed us that Mary, his gentle wife, had passed away.