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Reflecting on the Passing of Two Unlikely Mentors
Published on May 13, 2012 by guest author: Adam Rust

There is truism out there that says that people dies in threes. I must confess that I have succumbed to agreeing. Just this week, three famous people died. Each made their mark in the arts, beginning in the 60s: Horst Faas, Vidal Sassoon, and Maurice Sendak. As a child of the 70s, I can remember when my mother read “Where the Wild Things Are” while wearing a bob.

Two people that made a bigger impact in my life died this year. I knew both for only a short while, but they were people who helped me through some hard questions. While their memories have remained in my mind, the news of their deaths was the first time that I had spoken about either of them in years. This story is both a recounting of my own history but also a warning for a reader – you should realize that you can have an impact on a person that you barely know.

I met Dave when my parents hired him to remodel their bathroom. Dave was about 35. In spite of his age, he was just starting his own carpentry business. He had lived a hard life. He learned to be a carpenter during his two-year stay in a rehabilitation clinic in the Bay area.

He worked in our home for about three weeks. My parents were expanding their bathroom into the last seven feet of their bedroom. Looking back, I wonder if my parents realized that this carpenter-in-recovery was also going to be a counselor to their son.

I was a young ninth-grader in my last year at an all-boys Country Day school in southwestern Connecticut.

We lived out of time from the culture around us. We addressed our teachers as “sir” and our fellow classmates by their last names. We thought it was really funny when we pulled on the knots of our friends’ ties. We memorized poems and read Latin. We thought we were almost mature, because we were now allowed to stay up late enough to watch Saturday Night Live.

The truth is that I would have preferred to remain in our comfortable bubble. The absence of girls gave us special latitude to explore body noises in class. I was challenged to connect with kids at the public schools. I owned albums by Duran Duran and Big Country. I held out hope that my parents would drive me to "Ghostbusters" but not come in to sit with my friends while we watched. My particular bout of un-coolness was further plagued by my geographic isolation – the nearest commercial entity that might have qualified as a potential place to hang out was a drug store six miles away.

I wanted to learn about being cool. Some of my classmates were starting to make claims about making out at beach parties with girls from Southport. Somehow the descriptor that it all happened in Southport seemed to solidify the authenticity of the claim of a beach party with girls in attendance. Did the mere mention of the word “Southport” lend credence to those boasts? Somehow it did.

In the end, those kinds of stories just led to more questions: "How do I meet girls?" and "what is it like to drink beer?" I knew nothing about either. Both seemed absolutely unattainable. Getting some clarity seemed impossible, in part because I had no idea where to start. That is where Dave came in.

By most popular standards, he was a poor choice for a role model. To me, though, his struggles gave him an authenticity that my parents could never muster.

I will give credit to Dave for his patience. Even if he was making a fine measurement to fit a cabinet, he remained thoughtful. My questions were probably inappropriate: “So,” I might have said, “I bet at least some of that time was a lot of fun, right?”

Dave’s eyes opened up and he laughed. Dave had a very hoarse voice. “Yes,” he said, “for a while there I was having a lot of fun. I remember when I wasn’t much older than you. I had a job doing landscaping at the golf course. Going out to Smith Richardson at one in the morning to drink beers ... then waking up at six to go back out there and cut grass. Yes, there was a lot of fun out there.”

The fact that Dave acknowledged the power of temptation gave force to his subsequent warning.

“For me,” he said, “it came down to the fact that even though I was having a lot of fun, I was still hurting myself. I was having less fun and more trouble.”

I had not kept up with Dave since I saw him at my father’s funeral about 10 years ago. I did know that he had moved to New Haven and remarried. It was my mom who told me about his passing. “You should know that our friend Dave died before Christmas. His body did not take to his transplanted liver.”

There are some passages in Eccelsiastes where Solomon doubts the possibility that any work by a man has a value that lasts. I have excerpted two sections from the first chapter below, but of course there are many others that would still convey the same kind of existentialist angst:

 

What do people gain from all their labors

at which they toil under the sun?

Generations come and generations go,

but the earth remains forever.

 

What has been will be again

what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one can say,

“Look! This is something new?"

It was here already, long ago;

it was here before our time.

No one remembers the former generations,

and even those yet to come

will not be remembered

by those who follow them.

 

My interaction with Jeff usually went like this: The phone would ring in my apartment at about 8:30 in the morning. I worked a mix of days and evenings back then. Some days I was up, other days I was not. It didn’t really matter to Jeff. He was up and he was ready to talk to me. When I answered the phone, my mind foggy or alert, the words came out before any introduction.

“Is today that day,” he would say. His voice was deep and full of gravel. He could have been an announcer for pipe tobacco. “Is today the day that you are going to ask that precious, precious, wonderful girl to marry you?”

One of the odd things about these moments was that I did not have any picture of Jeff in my mind. I may have met him during one of my trips to Susie’s small town in North Carolina. Even then, I did not remember him. Most of those trips involved meeting a good share of my girlfriend's family's 200 closest friends. Jeff was the father of Susie’s best friend in elementary school. Former employees, old-time tennis partners, housekeepers, someone that acted alongside her brother in community theater, co-workers at the local paper, the civic leaders who loved Susie’s mom … the friends went on and on and they all came over for coffee sooner or later.

I never minded Jeff's interference in my social life or the early morning calls much because this man was so full of affection. Plenty of people took the opportunity to urge me toward matrimony, but only Jeff could convince me that he was on my side. I proposed after one year.

It is impossible to know when I will play the same role in another person’s life. These days, my most giving interaction with strangers is as a Little League baseball coach. I love it. In the last five years, I have probably coached 50 children between the ages of 5 and 9. Most of them have plenty of role models in their life, but there are some exceptions. I usually have an intern at work once or twice a year. Most of those kids have plenty of people in their lives that can answer difficult questions. Certainly, they don’t ask me about much except where they can get a job or if I will write a recommendation for them.

But, as I have said already, you just never know.

Adam Rust lives is a father and husband who lives in Durham, N.C. He also blogs at www.Banktalk.org

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