Essays - Summer 2012

Rites of Passage

When a quirky old man who lived on the Cape died, I thought I didn’t care

By Steve Macone | June 1, 2012
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


Eddie died. It didn’t bother me. Eddie was an old man the entire time I knew him, a relative I didn’t get to know until I was 12. “We’re going to visit your Great-Uncle Eddie and Aunt Emily in Falmouth,” my mother said one summer during a camping trip on Cape Cod, said it like we were just stopping at a gas station. The sentence served the double purpose, outlining our itinerary while also letting us know that some people named Eddie and Emily existed. And that, further, we were related. Apparently we’d visited them briefly when I was four. It didn’t ring a bell. So, on the car ride over, Mom turned to us every few minutes and offered facts without context, trying to build some hype around these people. “They lived in Okinawa for years.” “Eddie was a pilot.” It was like cramming before visiting some bizarre country: their main exports, I assumed, were hard candy, corduroy, and judgment. For my mother they were sweet relatives she hadn’t had time to visit. For me, at 12, the news registered just above neutral, as only slightly interesting. Mom may as well have been telling us about some lame, peripheral color in a box of crayons. These were burnt sienna relatives.

My parents, my two siblings, and I pulled up to Eddie and Emily’s house in our blue Caprice station wagon, a species of car that, like certain dinosaurs, had achieved absurd proportions and freakishly specialized features only then to become extinct. The car’s body, the length of a Camry tailgating a Prius, got wider at the end like an ant that had let itself go. The back space would flip up to form two more backward-facing seats, as if the designers at Chevrolet were both encouraging drivers to conceive more children and providing an actual location to do so. In this way-back area, miles from the reach of Dad’s palm, a Wild West, Lord of the Flies subculture would develop. Pinches went unpunished, thigh space was taken through eminent domain. Little things no one would miss, and sometimes socks, were slipped through the pop-out window slits as we drove. Cars behind us were given the thumbs up and then, as we got a little older, mocked for their enthusiastic replies.

We piled out of that airplane hangar of a car and crammed into the neatly decorated living room of Eddie and Emily’s Cape Cod–style house, a place full of doilies, dusted hardwood, and stiff, 1950s-looking couches. Everyone looked at everyone else pleasantly, blinking and occasionally saying words. My mother tried to kindle the conversation, poking at decades-old embers. For me, the slow conversation was nodes on a family tree morphing into real people, the way dots on a map, once visited, become real places where you can get a good burger or picture yourself living—or places you decide are only worth driving through, not worth stopping at again.

The exception to the general stillness was Emily, a slender, energetic woman flitting around the house with hospitality. The sister of a grandfather who had died years before I was born—a man I was always told I resembled—Emily kept singling me out with glances, wistfully saying her dead brother’s name out loud, and then feeding me elaborate meals. It was an arrangement we both accepted immediately. Long after everyone else got full, I kept taking her up on her offers of coffee cake and hot dogs. So we sat, me chewing and her staring, each of our hairstyles a variation on the bowl cut.

“Eddie likes fishing,” my mother said about the World War II bomber pilot staring at me. “Maybe he’ll take you fishing.”

And so, just like that, my father and I committed to waking up nauseatingly early the next morning. As an awkward, hate-filled preteen, I found fishing to be the one hobby timeless and genuine enough to keep me marginally tethered to the world, like when a felon comes out of his cell to do watercolors. I wore my best No Fear T-shirt and a bead necklace with enough black in it to still fit in with the Goth-lite look I was cultivating that summer. Eddie had flown more than 50 high-risk bombing missions over Europe and northern Africa, could play Chopin sonatas on the piano, and referred to staying in bed past 5 A.M. as sleeping in. The highlight of my year was the Vans Warped Tour. We kept our conversation to fishing.

As the outboard on the 17-foot Boston Whaler worked on the light chop, chugging us out to Vineyard Sound, the air was cool, smelling of mist and gasoline. Eddie wore mud boots, a frumpy baseball cap, and a sagging orange jacket. He looked like Walter Matthau doing an impression of Walter Matthau. As he drove, Eddie would periodically glance down at this new device called a GPS, into which he claimed to have fed coordinates. The patches of fog would clear to reveal behind them denser patches of fog. This happened several times until, finally, we came to a place that looked like all the other water we had crossed. Except now, in the distance, sat a single boat, the only object visible anywhere. Eddie looked at the boat, down at his GPS, and then back up at the boat.

“That son of a bitch is in my spot,” he said. My father and I paused, looked at each other, and laughed. Eddie, it turned out, was the man.

If that’s not what made me like him, it was his talent at fishing. “Now we’ll just drift across the top of them,” he would say, and every 10 minutes we pulled winter flounder and fluke up over the chrome guardrails and plopped them onto the boat’s gut-stained deck. Conceptually, I’d known that fluke and flounder were silly, sideways fish, perfect for supporting roles in underwater Disney movies. Up close, they looked like beastly hallucinations, angry pancakes come to life, unhappy they’d been forced to sleep on their side for the duration of their existence. Eddie clubbed one on the head, said, “He won’t be right after that” in the mock voice of a doctor breaking bad news to a family, and tossed it in the cooler. We had a great time that day, and because he was not a grandfather I was required to visit, or a friend I’d call to play street hockey with, I wouldn’t see him again for three years.

Long before Eddie’s death, I suppose I’d decided that it would not be sad. Its inevitability hung on his every movement—his walk a metronomic shuffle, his smile a laborious barn raising across his face that pulled jowls up huge distances. So it would never rouse in me even the same species of emotion, the same gasped-at surprise of an aunt being whisked away in her early 60s by leukemia. The old man’s death, I’d subconsciously told myself, would be something closer to locking up a bar after a good night—a chore done in silence, but in the strange wake of the fun that preceded it.

When the news of Eddie’s death came, attending the funeral seemed like the least I could do. He’d been nice to me. But my arrival at the church on Cape Cod was more an act of politeness, like dropping off a borrowed rake, than of mourning. Just minutes before, I’d been joking with the cashier at Dunkin’ Donuts, and now I was sitting with my parents in the cold church and scanning the faces: mostly people I didn’t know, all dressed a little nicer than I was and acting as if someone had just died.

The priest started in on a homily for Eddie. Because Eddie was an 86-year-old war veteran and a member of the Greatest Generation, the priest had a lot to work with. The church settled in for a poignant celebration of a good man’s life. It started out fine.

“I am reminded of the film An Officer and a Gentleman,” said the priest. Many nodded. Yeahhh, I thought, smiling. In addition to those things Eddie did to help save the free world, I had also seen him open car doors for my mother.

“I am reminded of another story,” the priest went on, without actually addressing An Officer and a Gentleman. “Two brothers, college age, were hiking in the woods of Tennessee when they came upon a cemetery. There were many headstones, small, plain ones, with only a first name on them. It was clear to the boys that these were the headstones of slaves.”

Bringing up slavery, I thought. Bold move. “And then there was a bigger headstone, a grander one. It had the full name and was clearly the master’s. On it were five words: ‘A Life Lived With Integrity.’ ” Now his voice was slowing, driving home the point.

“Five words.” Someone coughed in the back of the church.

“Used to describe a life.” Wait for iiit, I thought.

“Just like An Officer and a Gentleman.” As a church we all did a little counting. Five, yup. And … five. Then we all stared straight ahead. I tried to send the priest a telepathic message: If you have a string in your hand that connects to glitter cannons, now is the time to pull it.

“Let us stand to profess our faith,” he concluded. Raised Catholic, I was no stranger to priests’ varying skill levels. A riveting homily that could inspire you to be good for as far out as Wednesday would be followed the next week by a mumbled, illogical train wreck that made you wonder if there’d be any wine left for communion. The worst homilies were like boring parties that also somehow managed to get out of hand. My brother, my sister, and I used to refer to one round, white-haired priest as Father Uncle Bob simply because he, very vaguely, looked like our Uncle Bob. “Shhhhh,” I’d whisper to my brother 12 minutes in, “Father Uncle Bob has something important to say about the time you threw up in his pool.”

The best homilies tossed out desultory passages from scripture and experiences from everyday life and then, with some gentle but firm advice, tied everything up neatly. At the Immaculate Conception Parish in Malden, Massachusetts, we had a deacon named Mark. Everyone was pretty sure deacons weren’t even allowed to give homilies, since their wives and families provided them corrupting amounts of real-world experience, but this just made it seem more exciting when he got to the altar. Deacon Mark’s voice was careful and smooth, almost too good, like a 14-year-old driving suspiciously well. He’d say something trivial, perhaps mentioning that, let’s see, he had played a pretty fun game of Monopoly recently. The next thing you knew, it was, “Let God’s presence be not like a board game: a somewhat lame, last-resort thing that you rush to only when it’s raining, or on vacation from real life, or something used only in the presence of children. No, let your morality and relationship with God stay always open. Lay it across your dining room table on Saturday nights, for everyone to see, when you need it most to do the entertaining.

“Folks,” he’d say, like he was just asking us to close a door, “do me a favor and let’s not keep the Lord stashed in the back of our closets.”

The priest in Falmouth was no Deacon Mark. I thumbed the hard candies in my pocket as everyone in the church seemed to accept a homily that used two stories both having the number five in them to compare Eddie to a slave owner. People actually nodded. But I didn’t know the deceased so well that I had to pretend the ceremony was fitting, didn’t need to delude myself into thinking the priest had done a good job. When Eddie’s son got to the podium and choked up before reading his passage from the Book of Wisdom, my throat didn’t get tight. So, in that beat where everyone always moves on but funny people whisper comments in your ear, I wondered what Eddie would have said about his own homily:

“I’ve got five words for ya: ‘I Want My Money Back.’ ” “Don’t Wait, Write Homily Earlier.”

Or: “Could Have Been Fishing Instead.”

The second time Eddie and I went fishing, I arrived as a 15-year-old who, a little less shy now, could openly confess how cool I thought it was to piss over the side of a boat. We went for bluefish, dancing our floating poppers across the top of the water, waiting for the marvelous upward splashes—hope realized in a series of little eruptions—then fighting the fish with heaves and bows. We marveled at the gouges the bluefish teeth left in the lures. Eddie complimented my technique, fishing being the only thing I excelled at at the time besides sweating through shirts in social situations. We caught a cooler full and had to stop only when my right shoulder and biceps stopped working. When we got back, Eddie filleted the fish. I said thank you six or seven times and then left again, this time for seven years.

Early one fall, I drove down during the middle of the week with my mother, headed out with Eddie, and fished for sea bass. I was months out of college, a little mopey, trying to figure out what I wanted.

“When I got out, after all the missions, they asked if I wanted anything, you know, as a little something,” Eddie said. “I said, ‘I want to go home in a boat. No more planes.’ ” The tone of “no more planes” seemed to reveal how he had moved past the horror he’d seen, brutality rendered blasé, like someone sick of oatmeal. By choosing his mode of transportation home he had chosen how he would leave the war behind. Then he did this thing my generation isn’t good at. Demonstrating the lost art of shutting up, he changed the subject. “They’re $17.99 for a filet down the street!” he said laughing about the sea bass we were catching.

The funeral procession snaked down a two-lane highway and into the Massachusetts National Cemetery. Cars emptied, and everyone convened under a concrete awning built among hills of scrub pine. Three members of the honor guard stood around Eddie’s ashes. The sideways, January sun seemed extra warm on our black coats. Emily wore a cute fleece hat and wailed.

A young woman with hair in a tight bun yelled, “Ten-hut.” Together with another airman she unfolded the flag, flapped it hard, folded it back up, and presented the triangle to Emily, who clutched it as if it were Eddie himself.

My mother had called me with the news that Thursday. “He got up in the middle of the night and thought the cellar door was the bathroom,” she said. “He split his head open at the bottom and crawled back up. Emily woke up at 4 A.M. and found him on the couch, covered in blood. He had to be med-flighted to Boston.”

The news came over the phone dumbfounding and wry, like a meekly mumbled one-liner from Eddie himself. It seemed crueler than he deserved. In a picture of Eddie next to his plane he looks bright-eyed and dauntless. His plane looks like Snoopy should be flying it. Gravity had held a grudge and, not fooled by his disguise of age, snuck up on him six decades later in a quiet hour while he was looking for the bathroom. I hung up and wondered if there was an algorithm to determine the likelihood that he’d die falling down stairs and not 60 years earlier in the cold sky on a dark night over Europe. I imagined Eddie’s face on those cellar steps, so often smiling but serious once again, drawn back into one last life-and-death exertion.

Three summers after the sea bass, just nine months before Eddie’s death, I had to go to the Cape for work. I called, and they were home. There wasn’t time for fishing. I could only stop by. I had missed lunch, but Emily still had a homemade lamb stew on the stove and fresh, warm cornbread. I did that little happy cackle at the food as I slurped. Emily was telling me how much I looked like her brother when Eddie came in and suggested we go next door to his neighbor’s house and take as much stuff as we could carry.

His neighbor had sold the place, he explained, and held a yard sale. Everything left was still laid out in the house, up for grabs. It was a flea market with nobody to haggle with but ourselves. We took metal folding chairs, accessories for my sister’s new grill, someone’s sunglasses that may have never been for sale, a couple of fans, and knives, lots of knives.

“We’re doing him a favor,” Eddie kept saying, loading up my arms like I was carrying firewood.

Eddie had once put on a fashion show for my father after they discovered a shared love of a bargain. “Fifteen dollars,” Eddie said as he paraded out from his bedroom in a suit, no shoes on, spinning and then stretching his arms down at a 45-degree angle to look at the cuffs. “I paid $15 for this. And it’s a good suit.”

My father then shared a story about once buying a suit for $20 and finding $6 in one of the pockets. “Fourteen dollars,” Dad said. “The suit came with a rebate!”

Eddie acted as if he’d just learned that a guy he’d been casually talking baseball with had once pitched a perfect game.

“Hmm,” I answered my mother on the phone as I sat on the couch watching TV, “I should really go to the funeral.”

The honor guard played taps, its scoured and scouring beauty piercing any chance of cliché. The shots of Eddie’s salute bounced fierce off the hills and then faded. And suddenly, at a funeral attended out of obligation, the sun got very blurry. I inhaled hard and bowed my head with everyone else, just to be polite.

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