Saturday, March 04, 2006
Death in the Family
My Uncle Mike died this week and we still haven't told my father.
He was the youngest child in my dad's family--just as I am the youngest in my family, but the similarity ends there, or at least I hope it does.
Mike died in a V.A. hospital in Californina. I knew things were bad when my Aunt Margaret told me last week that she was flying out to visit him.
Margaret never flies, always chosing an ocean liner through the Panama Canal rather than getting on board a jet.
My Uncle Joe in L.A. called me Saturday morning to tell me the news. He said Mike seemed to be alert when they first to see him this week, but was kind out of it when they went to see him again. Joe suspected Mike was lit--drunk--in his hospital bed, meaning someone was sneaking him booze.
I thought this was a little outlandish until I spoke to my brother in San Francisco, who told me he stopped visiting Mike in the hospital for that very reason: Mike kept bugging him to bring in a bottle.
Mike was the closest thing my dad's family had to a black sheep. He did things his way, just like Frank Sinatra, and abused himself with cigarettes, alcohol, and God knows what else, so that the truly amazing thing about his death is the fact that he lived to be 76 years old.
He did just about everything to his body but throw it under a speeding locomotive. God protects fools and drunkards, but I guess even He gets tired.
My father was determined to make some kind of character of Mike, "my kid brother" as he liked to call him. My mother couldn't stand him and insisted upon calling him by his given name of Hubert.
Mike had a pet wolf, which ran off on him one day, much to his sorrow. Mike apparently dated Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary fame. And Mike told me a novelist once created a character called "Father Lenihan" in Mike's honor and put him into a book.
Mike even told me once to join the Merchant Marine, like he had done, and then he showed me his sailing papers, kept up to date, he said, as his "escape plan" in case the world of landlubbers ever got to be too much.
I have to be honest. I never cared for Mike. I know you shouldn't speak ill of the dead and I am truly sorry for his pain, but I can't say too many good words about the guy.
In Mike's world view, everybody was full of crap but him. Teachers, politicians, union leaders, just about anyone who came into his sights. Most of these people probably are full of crap, but Mike never seemed to offer anything better, just wisecracks and disdain.
My father liked to tell a story about Mike's experience as a paratrooper, when he broke his leg while making a jump in Korea and was sent back to the States--one week before the Korean War broke out. That was Mike all over.
Ride, Captain, Ride
I went to visit my brother in San Francisco for the first time in 1979 and he took me over to Sausalito to visit Mike on his houseboat.
Mike was working on a car when I first saw him and every time the engine refused to turn off he shook his head and said, "well, I'll be dipped in shit."
He also receited some dirty ditty that ran, "the French they are a funny race, they fight with the feet and fuck with the face." Yeah, I guess he was a character.
I remember the houseboat being rather rundown, not quite the floating palace I had imagined.
He did make a great sandwich for lunch, though, and I mentioned I was going to take a ferry tour around San Fransisco Bay. Oh,no, he said, he had a friend with a sailboat who would gladly give me a much better tour.
So that's what I did. We got on board this small sailboat and went right under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was great and it beat hell out of riding around on some tourist tub.
Mike and one of his buddies--a grizzled old timer who looked like a prospector from an old western--told me they actually knew the captain of the tourist ferry, who had earned the nickname "Cap'n Crunch" because he somehow managed to crush a parked Volkswagen while docking the massive vessel.
And Cap'n Crunch made an appearance that afternoon. At one point the ferry rolled by us and Mike and his buddy jumped up and down waving and shouting "Hey, Bernie!"--apparently the Cap'n's real handle--and then we were bouncing like a cork in the ferry's wake. I can't swim so that was a little disturbing to me.
Mike gave me the wheel and went out to the bow and when he asked me to turn, I guess I did it too hard because Mike was suddenly went staggering dangerously close to the edge of the boat.
We made it back to port, however, and had a spaghetti dinner at someone's house, though I can't remember whose place it was. I remember that the spaghetti was good, though.
A few years later Mike set up a job for me at a school for me in San Francisco. I had been an English tutor in college and I had expressed an interest in moving out west.
However, when faced with the possibilty of actually doing something I had talked about for ages, I did what I usually do in such cases--I bailed. I told the lady running the school that I had changed my mind and would not be moving out of Brooklyn.
Mike was livid, called me an asshole, and he was probably right. He was one of those people who could pick up and take off for parts unknown and always end up all right, but I was always afraid of going hungry and winding up on a park bench.
Calling Long Distance
Years later I talked to my shrink about this and he asked me why I didn't go to California. I was young, I could have quit or gotten a new job out there or I could have moved the hell back to Brooklyn if I felt like it. But I didn't. I stayed frozen in place like I so often do.
Mike would call my father on occassion and my mother would always roll her eyes when she realized who was on the other end of the line. If my father noticed her disgust, he didn't say anything about it.
I think the next time I saw Mike was he came back east to attend his son's funeral, sometime in in the late Eighties, I think, but I'm not certain. Mike had married a French Canadian woman years before and had two kids before the marriage went south.
I met them in 1967 when my family drove up to Montreal on vacation. I remember my cousin Claude as being a serious young boy who showed us his microscope and slides. He was a nice kid; too bad I never saw him again.
No, it seems like I just blinked and Claude was a young man, dead on a Montreal street from a drug overdose. I still remember the little boy, though, in his bedroom, so proud of his microscope.
Mike stopped by our place in Brooklyn before heading north. I recall the place stunk of booze and cigarettes, as everything did when Mike was around.
Mike knew my desire to write fiction and upon his return from Canada he told me this story about how he was riding on the bus and had a wet dream--ejaculating and creating life, he told me, even while having to face death.
I've yet to work that story into any of my fiction, but I may yet. At the time, however, I was rather creeped out by the whole thing.
One Last Time
On my next visit to San Francisco, my brother suggested I go across the bay and see Mike. I was reluctant to go, but then I got really ticked when my brother said I was going alone.
He would take me to the ferry and pick me up at the end of the day, but I was going in to this thing solo. Like hell I was. I refused and I got so mad at one point I suggested that the next time my brother came to New York he could go down to the Bowery and visit those drunks.
I learned my sister-in-law wasn't fond of Uncle Mike either. While she was pregnant with my niece, Mike decided to tell her how he was tempted to run out of the hospital after his first child was born. Just what an expectant mother likes to hear.
I didn't go to see Mike that year, but I made up for it a few years later. I had a rented car then and after meeting with the editor of the Santa Rose Press Democrat--I didn't get the job--I drove into Sausalito and spent the afternoon with Mike and his girlfriend or wife, or whatever she was.
I think Mike called me Jimmy at one point, which is my brother's name, but I didn't take it personally. It was the last time I saw him alive.
After that Mike was mostly a slurred voice on the telephone. I heard a story about him being pulled over by a young cop, who asked my uncle if he was drunk.
"Don't be fucking stupid," Mike replied, "of course, I am."
My father said Mike was in danger of going to the slammer for all his drunken driving offenses.
Let me say here that I have no tolerance for drunken drivers. After working for five years as a cop reporter in Pennsylvania and covering some horrific crashes, I can tell you that a drunk behind the wheel can do more damage than a truckload of dynamite.
But Mike somehow avoided the joint and was, for a time, actually consuling other alcholics. His health eventually gave out and for a while he was calling us collect from the V.A. hospital.
Now he's gone and we're faced with this dilema of whether or not we should tell my father. My dad is 84 and suffers from Alzheimer's. Part of me is saying, hell, the guy doesn't need any more bad news. But I feel he has the right to know what happened to his kid brother.
Most of my family is in favor of not telling him, so I guess I'll keep my mouth shut, but I'm not comfortable with it. I feel like I'm censoring the news, even if it only applies to one person.
No, I didn't much care for Mike, but the least I can do is say a prayer for the man who took me sailing around San Francisco Bay so many years ago.