Today was the funeral of a friend of mine who died last week. I worked with him in the 1980’s at a canoe rental in Missouri. His name was Mark, and it’s no insult to say that he was an odd bird. I’m not going to attempt to say the most important things about him, or even to try to make sense of his complex life. I just learned of his death yesterday. Mark and I talked about Jesus often, but I have to admit that Mark was drunk during the longest of those conversations. Mark loved the story of St. Francis, but it might have been the hippy part that appealed to him most. On this day of grieving, while praying for his family, I just want to record a good memory of Mark.
He was a genuine Ozarks kind of guy who knew plenty about gardening and fishing and working outdoors. But he was also a Spanish teacher, a lifelong learner, and a restless mind. Mark had logged a lot of graduate school hours and was definitely over-educated for working at a canoe rental. He played the “college perfesser” card pretty often for comic effect. For example, he would describe his time overseas as “when I lived in Iberia,” just so they would ask him if it was cold up there north of Russia. Saying “I lived in Spain” would have been too easy, and he would have missed the chance at a funny misinterpretation.
His verbal playfulness was relentless, and his wit was wicked. He was always making jokes, and he didn’t really care if anybody but him understood them. He was the kind of guy who was always being told, “You’ve got too much time on your hands,” but I think he was just goofing and spoofing to keep his active mind engaged in an under-stimulating environment.
Mark used to write, and then mail, letters to his boss (my dad) at the canoe rental, claiming to be customers who were disgruntled about various things. Sometimes he just swore and heaped abuse on the business in general, sometimes he demanded his own firing, sometimes he insisted that other employees be fired. One of my favorite letters from a pseudo-customer was the dentist from St. Louis who told a story about clearing his throat to get the attention of the receptionist, only to be told, “If you’re gonna cough up that lung, do it outside, typhoid Harry!” Another one (which I’ve lost somewhere) told of a canoe rental employee who chased the customer down the river, yelling abuse at him from behind trees along the bank.
In later years, Mark sent me letters and then e-mails full of strange, stream-of-consciousness observations about life, and stories that he thought I would enjoy. I just looked through a few of them to see if they could be shared on the blog, but most of them have too much cursing –cursing too integral to the story-telling to be cut.
Rough and perverse though the writing was, though, Mark had a definite literary voice. His sentences veered around like kayaks in a creek. He would get bored with a sentence half-way through and start another, more interesting one instead, or slip into self-referential or pop-cultural reverie. (One of the sentences in the excerpt below includes nods to Descartes, an imaginary etymological dictionary, and cannibalism.) He sounded kind of like Dave Barry without the superego that keeps Barry from talking about things worse than boogers. Kind of like Richard Brautigan meets Patrick McManus. Kind of like Mark Twain on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Most of his letters started out “I have a story.” Here’s the one about the ice storm.
I have a story about the ice storm that occurred up hereabouts in late/mid nineties. It pretty much encompassed all of Missouri and parts, if not all, of some neighboring states.
I was teaching school in a town called Reed Springs. The ice storm that came overnight and part of the next day, though breathtakingly beautiful, took down thousands of trees. It even caved in a few roofs. It also knocked down hundreds of electric poles, leaving people, too numerous to enumerate, without ‘lectric, as we call it in the Shoe Me State.
I lived in a “cabin” on Tablerock Lake. I can’t say what distinguishes a cabin from a small house. Perhaps it’s a sort of bucolic/rustic grabber in the classified sections that appeals to naïve city dwellers craving to “get away from it all.” Not that I didn’t like the place. It’s just that I’ve peed in bigger rooms.
Anyhoo, it had a gas furnace that was regulated by electricity, of which I was fresh out for nearly two weeks. Good thing we had no school during that spell, for my hot water ran on ‘lectric. After a couple days I would have surely given off the same bouquet as the kid my fourth grade teacher sprayed with Lysol and placed in the back of the room against the wall.
I had a small fireplace that only functioned (i.e. heated the place) when its fans were turned on by the magical wires that ran the lights, range, water, fridge, Gloppita Gloppita Machine (reference: How to Murder Your Wife) and everything else that we in the modern, civilized, glacier-melting world have come to whine and complain about if we lose them for five seconds.
So, the fireplace being too small for me to crawl into it, I curled up as close to it as I could. It was my salvation for about 12 days, as I slept in front of it, used it for light, and cooked in it–mostly taters [OHO (Old High Ozark) Potatoes]. I won’t go into the family I killed and ate, except to say they were nice people. And tasty too. Anyway, it was a rough two weeks, although there are probably plenty of people in Africa and Haiti who would have gladly traded lives.
The day the ‘lectric finally came on, the owner of the cabin, who was, of course, spending the winter in Florida, called. Having only recently heard of the Ice Holocaust, he asked me how I was getting along. I told him of my rough and tumble existence, that I had kicked Mother Nature’s behind with me wits and me mitts. I was a changed man, I told him. “I don’t need no ‘lectric. just my Crusoean resourcefulness, these calloused dukes and my grizzly bear-like survival instincts. I might just chuck it all and live in the Amazon now. The hell with all you people and your Big Macs. I’m livin’ off’n the land. I’m Huck Finn, only bigger, meaner and Huckier. Get in my way and I’ll eat your spinal chord with some fava beans.”
My landlord patiently indulged me as I related the entire story and subsequent Unabomberesque manifesto. Then, after a couple seconds of dead air, with a nervous chuckle, he told me about the auxiliary power system he’d installed a couple years back. It seemed the house had enough of its own power to run the lights, the furnace, and one major appliance for a month. He told me if I’d just turned the lights on in the basement I would have seen the switch…Oh yeah! I didn’t have any lights to turn on!
Good thing for him he was in Florida. I might have put him in a big pot of landlord stew.