Requiem for a Heavyweight
The first time I saw a dead body was back in 1966, when Charlie Bentley, Sr., was laid out at the Methodist Church in an open coffin on a sunny summer day. Like most country people, Charlie Bentley communicated with his face, not his tongue. Over the years, a skeptical eyebrow, a slight upturn at the corner of the mouth, or an exaggerated squint etched themselves into a permanent reminder of who owned that face. It was a natural bit of carving that even death could not obliterate.
Our town has seen a lot of death over the years. Graveyards around town have tombstones that speak of warnings from beyond the grave, fires that claimed children, and locals who chiseled their favorite things in granite, including doughnuts, dogs, cowboy hats, and, in the graveyard across the street, even a '56 Corvette. But one recent death took us all by surprise.
John Kurasinksi was our closest neighbor and a man not given to social pleasantries. If he found your horse or dog on his property, he might threaten to shoot it, although he was more bluster than action. He usually greeted me with his standard, "Who gave you permission to screw things up this bad?" and, if you invited him and his wife, Lucille, over for dinner, he would rarely accept because he didn't like being hemmed in. Once a year, my wife Adrienne and I would take him to Man of Kent, a local pub, and buy him a burger and a pint of Guinness, but that was about the limit of his indulgence; he didn't like being in anyone's debt.
What John did like was doing favors. He changed the blade on my brush-hog, fed my pigs, helped start my tractor, and looked after our farmhouse when we were not around. Each day, he kept a log on a yellow pad after checking the mousetraps: October 8: No Mice; October 9: No Mice; October 10: Two Mice! In return, we bought him war movies for Christmas, gave him aged whiskey barrels that he used for making pear wine, and helped him find sausage-making equipment (his spirals of kielbasa were legendary). He liked to stop by for a cup of tea and a "snort." His favorite used to be single-malt Scotch, but he turned to bourbon in later years. He would ask for just enough to cut the taste of the tea.
The thing about John was that he was homegrown stubborn. He was a stalwart member of the Methodist Church until he got fed up with their tight-fisted ways, and so one day he walked out the door and never went back. He was like a mutt in a fracas with a porcupine-- even when his nose was full of quills he would keep on charging. But small country towns have lots of space for people like John. He had plenty of land, and, as he often said, "In the woods, every day is a new day." He'd be out logging, mowing, seeding, and clearing, no matter what the weather, and he got to know the north side of Walnut Mountain better than anyone. He retired at 57 and enjoyed himself every day for the rest of his life.
But when I got the phone call that started, "Did you hear what happened to John?" I didn't think about his stubbornness. Instead, I remembered the votive candle on the dashboard of his chocolate-brown VW Rabbit. I asked him what it was for, and he said, "That's my defroster." Early in the morning, John used to give the local radio station the weather report while sitting in his outhouse. I guess he could estimate the temperature pretty good from that position. (The single-seater was a constant source of humor in the family. It had been attacked by a rabid fox and inhabited by a large black frog, and it was once picked up and moved a hundred yards up the mountain by a severe windstorm.)
He liked hats, his favorite being a black English bowler with a wild turkey feather stuck in it. John also loved wine making, and his dandelion brew was infamous. He and a neighbor, Tom, got so drunk on it one night that in order to negotiate a narrow bridge on their way home, John had to walk in front with a flashlight while Tom tried not to drive the pickup into the brook. John was keen on anything with an internal combustion engine, including an old Jeep with a hydraulic bed, antique blue Ford tractors, an Olds Super 88 with a frozen engine, and even a Sherman tank that he almost bought for driving around his property. (He made do with a bulldozer.)
John's memorial service was a hard one. He was dressed in his sweatshirt and winter beard, the one that set off his round, bald head. (Lucille wanted him to appear as natural as possible.) He did look at peace, but gone were all hints of his impish grin, the one that foretold a salty remark. A bit to my surprise, it was a packed house. Here was a man who wasn't fond of company, yet he got plenty of it when he died. The answer to this puzzle was in the photos displayed at the service. He was always smiling, whether standing in a field next to his nephew and wearing a silly looking cowboy hat or posing with his Navy buddies as a dapper young seaman. He was happy in the company of his friends and family, the photos telling John's true story better than he did.
When the minister asked if anyone wanted to say a few words, I didn't stand up and add my testimony. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to say my piece without crying like a fool. So I want to take a moment and say it now. We loved you, John. In a world of folks who can't decide between latte and cappuccino, in a time in which most of us can't see beyond a pretty face, you were bedrock, the stuff that will endure beyond this insubstantial age. And even though you hated crowds and public spectacle, I know that you would have said a few words over my dead body if I had been the first to go. But I knew all along that you had more character than me.
So when the rain comes sweeping down over Egg Mountain toward your homestead across the valley, Adrienne and I will listen for you in the night, for the complaint of storm that yields to morning's clear skies. You are pillowed in the voluptuous sweep of our hills, in the hearts of your neighbors, and in the sound of your ashes on the howling wind, restless, seeking, but a comfort to those in need of a friend on the other side of midnight.