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» Conversation Killers

My Father's Last Words
I won't get into the medical details surrounding my father's death, but it did involve hospice care, ensuring he passed away at home surrounded by his closest friends and family. While he didn't utter many words to me during his final weeks, I considered this a good sign as he spent a lot of time dispensing final tidbits of advice to my ne'er-do-well brothers and a few friends he felt could have done better with their lives. The last few days saw him in a near comatose state, only occasionally uttering a phrase or two to whoever he recognized by his bed.

On what turned out to be his last day of life, the local Episcopalian priest visited to give a blessing and last rites to one of her dearly beloved parishioners and patrons. While the priest was herself well loved in the community, it was known that her later morning Sunday sermons could extend well beyond the normally scheduled hours, and the less patient would attend the early morning service as that guaranteed a set exit time. My father was among those who attended the early service, although to accomodate my late morning schedule, he would endure the extended services when I was visiting the islands and sleeping late.

As her soft voice filled the alcove, I realized the priest was going into "extended sermon mode". After an interminable interval, my father levered himself upright, looked her straight in the face and said:


He immediately collapsed back onto the bed and resumed his slow breathing.

The silence which accompanied this utterance was nearly absolute, broken only by my father's continued breathing and the faint sound of the remote air conditioner. The priest was clearly discomfited by the incident, and not knowing precisely what to do, reached down to pat one of my father's dachshunds who had taking up station sitting close by her feet. The dog softly growled at her, which prompted my mother to defuse the situation.

"Thank you very much: that was wonderful."

Knowing she was being given a way out, the priest softly said, "thank you: I think I should go now." I accompanied her to the door and attempted to comfort her by saying, "he loved helping the parish - but he was never very patient." The priest quietly replied, "he always did prefer the early service."

Several hours later, my father breathed his last, with my mother and myself sitting next to him. 2 days later, a service was held at the tiny church he loved. The same priest gave the eulogy, and everyone was astonished at its brevity.
(Sun 15th May 2011, 19:02, More)

» Stuff You've Overheard

Radio Shack social justice vigilantes.
I once worked for a few years at a Radio Shack store in the mid to late 80s: business had become quiet ever since the new supermall had opened a couple of miles away with its own RS and we found ourselves with a lot of idle time during the afternoon periods.

One of my friends who also worked there was a fantastic electronic tinker: when bored, he would routinely open up the various boxes of electronic gadgetry and tweak them for improved performance. Many a customer must have received a pleasant surprise when they found their two way radio sets now had an operational range of five miles instead of the advertised and FCC-limited one thousand yards; or when they opened up their new Pro-34 programmable multiband radio scanner and discovered it was several orders more sensitive as well as capable of accessing all the supposedly locked out cellphone and private police frequencies. We would keep one of the modified Pro-34s as a display unit and during slow periods set it to scan for interesting conversations over the supposedly private airwaves.

One afternoon we were listening to cellphone dialups and my friend was idly writing down the phone numbers being called: prior to the modern network system the touch tones were still in use and it was child's play for him to identify telephone numbers from their tone frequencies. We usually just tossed the numbers in the garbage as the calls themselves were relatively harmless: dope dealers discussing their latest hauls or a couple of punks discussing which of their friends they were going to rip off that afternoon. One evening, however, we came across a call which drove us to action.

The radio locked onto the phone call as the carrier went high, so the phone number was easy to capture: it was a fairly innocuous sounding discussion between an overworked businessman and his wife, who asked him to come home to dinner and spend some time with the kids and his repeated refusal to show up soon, citing a huge backlog of extra paperwork to get through before closing on some important deal. With a resigned sigh, she relented and told him she would try to keep things warm upon his return, whereupon she hung up.

The radio did not resume scanning: this could only mean the guy on the other end had kept carrier high in order to dial another number. Quickly perking up, my friend hit the lock button to keep the scanner from drifting after this particular session and hurriedly jotted down the number being dialed and leaned in towards the scanner's loudspeaker. When the answer came, it was the sound of a young lady asking who was calling. The businessman identified himself to her whereupon she expressed great pleasure with his call, followed quickly by his saying, "I'll be right over, honey." The carrier dropped at that point. We stared at the now softly hissing scanner, then almost simultaneously looked at each other and said, "Bastard!"

It took us a few minutes to decide on a plan of action: as I seem to have a talent for turning a wrong number call into a full conversation I dialed the number of the housewife and, quickly explaining that this was not a wrong number I adamantly tried to convince her to call up the other phone number in a half hour's time and keep calling until someone answered, then ask for her husband to come to the phone. I quickly explained our "accidental" eavesdropping and said such a wonderful sounding lady did not deserve to be treated in this manner. I never knew what happened afterwards but she thanked me and hung up. This happened about sixteen years ago before the vaunted "caller ID" systems were widely implemented so we did not fear any sort of reprisals along those lines: in today's world it seems accidental SMS and email address errors reveal far more indiscretions any airwave vigilantes could hope to equal.
(Fri 11th Jun 2004, 2:07, More)

» Hidden Treasure

Uncovered and reburied.
A friend once purchased an old station wagon from a much older original owner and brought it over to my place for the sort of cleanup and tinkering I enjoy doing on someone's new ride. While clearing out the years of accumulated dust and crud from the interior, I opened up the footwell vent box on the passenger side of the vehicle and found a thick envelope taped to the side of the box. Opening that up revealed several hundred dollars in assorted twenty and fifty dollar bills. Being honest sorts, we called up the prior owner of the vehicle and were told, "well, it was for emergencies involving the car so I guess it's part of the car: enjoy it." We certainly did: taking care of registration, inspections, plates and a full tuneup without spending any more of my friend's money was especially pleasant - and the last time I visited him he was still using that spiffy old wagon.

On the Upcountry Maui farm property I lived on for many years, we noticed a section of the land where the ground boomed if you walked on it with a heavy tread. After some impromptu soundings to determine the general dimensions, we hired some acoustic analyzers from O'ahu and determined the most likely place to dig for an entrance. We hit paydirt on our first excavation: a shielded entranceway to a twelve hundred square foot plus fallout shelter which we assumed was built during the Duck and Cover era of the Fifties. We called the prior two owners of the land and they said they had no idea it was there. As the owner before that was long dead, we concluded he was responsible for the heavy duty construction work. We cleaned it up and ran electric power and some basic plumbing to it, then effectively sealed it back up again: there really was not much else we could think to do with it as we had several perfectly good houses scattered across the property and were not inclined to rent out a cave to someone else.

I just realized we didn't tell Haku about the shelter when we sold the property to her: I guess that little bit of treasure has been successfully reburied.

Several months after my father had died and we had finished all the details of his passing, I returned to the islands to spend some quality time with my mother. During an episode where we cleared out dad's closet space, mom said I was welcome to the old training revolvers (we used blanks on hikes with the setters to acclimate them to gunshots for those unfamiliar with the practice) and his favorite shotgun. As we folded up his shirts and pants to donate to a local charity, mom handed me his overstuffed tie rack (nothing but high quality thin silk ties: my dad's formal fashions would do a rude boy proud) and a box filled with his various money belts saying, "he traveled with you the most: I think he would like you to have these. And if you find some money in them, so much the better." Five belts, seven hundred dollars. Thanks, dad.
(Fri 1st Jul 2005, 8:03, More)

» Devastating Put-Downs

Losing Luggage, Gaining Laughter
A good friend of mine from my college days and later has since undergone a sex change operation. However, during the years leading up to the "gender reassignment" project completion, (s)he received quite a lot of grief from her elder sister and her divorced mother's then-new boyfriend regarding her future choice. One evening, after I had arrived during a rare gathering of all 4 plus myself for a planned evening out, I entered the neo-row house just in time to hear the elder sister utter, "well, you'll always be my little Charles to me." Chas immediately retorted with, "you're just angry because I'll be a much better daughter than you ever were." This was followed by a shriek and gales of laughter from their mother, Nancy, who was in the kitchen preparing a tray of light snacks for us to enjoy before heading out.

As the giggles from the kitchen subsided, Hank, the new boyfriend said, "so, Chas, you just can't hack it as a male?" It was my turn then, and being weak on ammo at the time, I pulled out an ancient line to hit him with. "Listen, buddy, the next time we want an outburst from an asshole, I'll fart, okay?" Hank turned his head to look at me but was immediately distracted by the resumption of laughter from the kitchen area. Hank quickly called out, "did you hear what he just called me?" only to be thwarted by Nancy's condescending tones: "Hank, you are a major asshole - but we all love you anyway." The look on his face said everything: it wasn't my tired old line which had caused him any distress, but his girlfriend's support of it which had deflated his ego.

The rest of the evening passed without incident brought about, no doubt, by Nancy's lovely support and appreciation of everyone present.

Including all the assholes.
(Thu 24th Nov 2011, 18:05, More)

» Grandparents

I didn't know 3 of them. And I knew the 4th even less.
When my grandmother "Cita" (real name Alice but I never asked about the nickname) died, she shared the same date a beloved scots terrier passed away. I honestly cried far more for a companion I spent many joyful years with than for my father's mother, who I saw as a cranky, mean spirited crone whose only joy in life was making the family wait to open gifts on Christmas Day.

It was a simple rule: no one could open any gift boxes until all immediate family members on the island were under the same roof. Cita wouldn't call from her apartment until some time around noon, and in later years she'd wait until one in the afternoon before saying "I'm ready: come pick me up." The drive wasn't a long one, but when we arrived at the apartment my grandmother seemed to enjoy taking her time, making my brothers and me insensate with boredom as she chatted with M&D before finally standing up and shuffling down to the parking lot and the waiting station wagon. If it was an attempt at reducing materialism among us, it worked very well for me, as I gradually developed indifference to the piles of presents during the annual event.

A decade after Cita's passing found me helping my mother sort through some boxes of possessions. The family had moved to another island and simply dragged everything along, placing the bulk into short term storage while we awaited completion of dad's first "from scratch" house, built directly over the charred remains of the prior owner's home (but that's a story for another time). Opening up one box, I pulled out a folded uniform along with some framed photographs and several yellowed documents. My mother exclaimed, "oh! Cita's uniform! I'm glad we still have that."

"Mom, what was this uniform for?"

"Oh, we never told you! Cita worked with USO in the Pacific for WWII, and helped with the logistics planning and schedules. She met all sorts of movie stars and singers and comedians before they went to entertain the troops. She didn't want her favorite son sent far away, so she pulled some strings and kept your father stationed on O'ahu."

Cue the dropped jaw, wide eyed look. "Wow, that's amazing."

It was the first glimpse of an alternate version of my departed grandmother, and it was as alien as the stunning photograph of the woman in uniform and cap which had been carefully packed along with the uniform and documents - and which I clearly remember had never been displayed in Cita's apartment.

A few more days and a few more boxes later, I came across more of Cita's belongings, including a yellowed stack of letters. I handed them to my mother and she briefly scanned through them saying, "I wonder if. . .oh: it's still here!"

"What's that?"

"The Lindbergh letter."

Oh fuck, here it comes again. "The Lindbergh letter?"

"Yes! She had been traveling across Europe back then and was in Paris the week he made the flight. She thought he might be missing home a bit so she baked him an apple pie and brought it to him the day after he landed. This is the letter he wrote, thanking her for the pie."

It's been less than a week and my image of my grandmother has already been smashed to bits. There was more to come, but not for another 15 years.

Flash forward to 2002. Mom has flown out to Taos, New Mexico and I've driven out to help her locate Cita's final resting place. During the period when her urn was placed in a tiny below ground crypt, there was a scandal involving the local clergy, some under age boys and girls and - well, nevermind. Records were badly kept - if at all - and we were just hoping to find the general area where she might have been interred. As the first day turned to dusk and our eyes blurred from reading what records were available to us, I suggested visiting a restaurant I had noticed during the drive into town. As we approached the entrance, mom said "oh: this was Cita's house. They've done a good job keeping it intact." Yes, I was about to learn more wonderful things about the grandmother I never knew.

The meal was very good and I marveled at how well the restaurant group had integrated the valance lighting system into the very solid, sprawling adobe structure. It actually looked like it had been an original part of the house. Mother quickly corrected me. "Oh no, they didn't add that: that was Cita's original idea for this place. She taught me everything I know about architecture and design - and she hated Frank Lloyd Wright as much as you do."

I rail against the monster, the deity, the cosmic arbiter, whatever or whoever it was that took away the wonderful lady with scores of fantastic life stories to tell her grandchildren and replaced her with the hateful old woman who made it clear she couldn't stand having us around.

The next day, we assemble the best picture of where Cita was interred from the various bits given us, and head over to that part of the church grounds with a metal detector to scan for larger objects. At first I think there's a mistake, as we find a small courtyard with a tree in the center, but as I begin my sweeps, we find a strong return close to the base of the tree.

"There's something down there. Do you think they just forgot they had buried her out here and planted this tree?"

"That's really strange - but it was a chaotic time."

"Want to call this her spot? She'll be one with the tree."

"I think she'd like that."

I hope I'm wrong and the life after death people are right and I'll eventually meet up with Cita some time in the far future. I have in my possession an old band-style ring, fitted with 3 diamonds, 2 of them in a cut style so old jewelers refuse to duplicate that pattern. One of the original stones was lost when the ring slipped off mom's finger while she was washing the dishes: the sparkly replacement is easily spotted and highly incongruous. The ring was given to my father by my grandmother and he gave it to my mother as an engagement ring. The inside of the gold band is inscribed with several Hawai'ian names, and I'm certain Cita knew the story behind them, whether it truly belonged to royalty and was given to settle a debt or if she acquired it through even more fantastic means.

Rest well, Cita.

p.s.: Many fantastic stories here: I have not ever laughed and cried as much over a qotw.
(Mon 6th Jun 2011, 18:56, More)
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