A Different Drummer: A leftover
By Steve Gibbs
I HAVE A LEFTOVER RIDGWAY STORY. When Susan and I spent June in my little home town in PA, we attended two funerals.
We said to ourselves when we began our month in the attic that we wanted to do more than be on vacation. We wanted to meld into the community, feel like locals and connect with our friends and neighbors on a closer level.
A few days after arriving, bad news rippled through the community. Travis, a well-known, well-liked wounded Vietnam war veteran who was seen regularly tooling up and down Main Street in his electric wheelchair decorated with patriot flags and MIA stickers had passed away from basic overall deterioration of his body. He’d had no specific illness other than being a hard-drinking man and a constant reveler, which is why everyone knew him.
I didn’t know Travis. He came on the scene after I’d moved out 34 years ago. However, everyone I knew knew him, so I attended the memorial. It was an informal affair held in the breakfast and meeting room of the American Legion building. The National Guard was there in uniform to give Travis a three-gun salute from the parking lot and bestow upon his widow the American flag.
About 60 people showed up. They wore jeans, T-shirts, plaids, ball caps, and sneakers or boots. It looked just like the crowd that came to our wedding reception at the Grange Hall 25 years ago. In Ridgway, it takes something special for folks to dress up, like Sunday church. Weddings and funerals are a daily occurrence and no cause to break out the fancy duds.
Travis’s memory wall at the front of the room also had a unique design. His three sons had taken their favorite picture of their father, one of him having fallen out of his wheelchair in the woods and passed out drunk face down in the grass on a slope with the chair on its side four feet away, and blew it up poster size. It was mounted on a tripod front and center. “Our dad.”
A smaller, more dignified professional wedding photo of him and his wife stood on the central table. In front of it, the three sons had pre-poured about 100 small plastic cups of blackberry brandy, their father’s drink of choice, for the guests.
For the service a handful of people spoke: Travis’s wife, his three sons, a few friends. His sons were a curious trio. Each was several years apart, and they lived away in separate towns, but they looked identical and groomed identically. Each boy had a shaven head, a pointy goatee, and a pencil-thin moustache.
Two cups of brandy were distributed to everyone for the toast. Once the table was cleared, the help immediately laid out 100 new glasses and filled them with brandy from two half-empty jugs. One cup was for the toast, led by the eldest son, who said, “This gathering is exactly what my father would have wanted. Please raise your glass and drink a toast to his memory.” We did that, with much cheering and hooting. Then he said, “And the other glass is just because. Enjoy.” People stuck around for an hour sipping cup after cup.
The other funeral was more personal. When Susan and I arrived we immediately called farmer friends Cliff and Jeanette, who sell all sorts of goodies from their home. We ordered eggs, goat’s milk fudge and two bars of soap. We explained we had no car to drive out, and Cliff offered to deliver. When he arrived, we sat on the front porch and talked. “How are you doing?” we asked Cliff, who looks like Santa (his photo is at littlemillcreek.net).
“I’m OK. I’d be better if it wasn’t for my son, Stevie.” I know Stevie. He’s a cook at the Lumberjack and a heavy-metal guitarist in a local band.
“What’s wrong with Steve?”
Cliff started to tear up. He said, “Steve called me yesterday and said ‘Dad, I think you need to take me to the doctor.’ I asked him why and he said, ‘Because I’m yellow.’ Craig (my brother-in-law) and I drove to pick him up. He looked like a lemon. We took him to Pittsburgh. They said he has five-percent liver function. He drank vodka like water.”
“Geez, Cliff, that’s terrible. Hopefully they can clean his blood and put him on the transplant list. Don’t worry. Liver transplant surgery is very common these days.”
“I hope so. He’s only 41,” he said and left. Two days later Steve died.
At his memorial, held in a funeral parlor, the minister was Steve’s life-long friend. He not only gave a touching eulogy full of empathy and anecdotes, he explained that Steve was someone who did only what he wanted to do. He never listened to anyone or took anyone’s advice. He was unpredictable and wildly in love with the present moment. While the minister spoke, a video loop of Steve jamming on guitar played silently in the background.
Each speaker told of how they admired Steve’s adamant independence and self-directedness. Finally it was Cliff’s turn to speak about his son. He took the stage and silently gathered himself. Then he said, “I hear you all applauding my son’s independent streak. You admire his stubbornness. Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m mad at him. If he was here, I’d punch him in the nose. I told him for years the drinking would kill him, and he wouldn’t listen. If he wasn’t so stubborn and independent, he might still be alive.”
Steve Gibbs teaches at Benicia High School and has written a column for The Herald for 25 years.