Jeff Smith 3 p.m., March 10
- Community Blog
- The Railsplitter
The Forge Of Life
My best friend Tommy lost his 92-year-old grandmother about two weeks ago. She was a real lady who was born and raised in a different era. She hailed from a family of Scots who voyaged to Hawaii long ago to work one of the pineapple plantations and make a better life for themselves. Born in Hawaii, she wound up here in Coronado for the latter part of her life, and it was my great privilege to have known her in recent years. During my travels as a former long-haul truck driver, I used to collect newspapers from around the country and bring them home for her to read, a form of personalized newspaper delivery which she greatly appreciated. It didn't matter if the papers were printed in large cities or tiny one-horse towns: often enough, the pictures themselves told the stories, and the stories were frequently comical. Such an easy thing for me to do, picking up papers here and there along whatever route I happened to be driving at the time, yet those papers gave her so much pleasure... it was with great sadness that I heard the news of her death. I knew she and Tommy were close, and Tommy has been like a blood brother to me, so I offered moral support and a few kindly words of sympathy to my grieving friend. Little did I know his trial had just begun...
Yesterday, while burning out two particularly stubborn tree stumps in my yard, Tommy came to my gate and hailed me in an unusually agitated manner. Inviting him in, I waited to hear what he had to say: his eyes filled with tears as he told me he lost his dad the previous night. Two deaths in the family in less than two weeks, and the latest a real shocker. It's one thing for a 92-year-old relative to pass away after a long and fruitful life, but for one's dad to go early so soon afterward... well, that's another story. Before I tell you about Tommy's dad, or "Mr. D" as I always respectfully addressed him, let me just say that Tommy is as tough as they come, a real hand back in the day when it came to motocross, surfing, and vertical skateboarding. He's also the best glassworker I've ever seen, a real artist when it comes to board repair. Naturally, I felt great sorrow yet again upon hearing of this second tragedy, and seeing my best friend so cut up over his losses. If any kook had randomly walked by yesterday and foolishly given Tommy grief for crying on my shoulder, I'd have gladly punched the kook myself for opening his stinking piehole... that's what it means to be a blood brother among old school locals.
Tommy's dad was quite a character. In his own low key way, Mr. D was a cultural icon here in Coronado, owner/operator of the first and oldest surf shop in this burg. For approximately 35 years, he and his family (including Tommy) ran that classic shop, renting or selling boards and gear, fixing dings or cracks in glass, sharing hilarious stories with friends in spontaneous gatherings, the whole nine yards. As a young skateboarder, I bought my very first set of Cadillac Wheels and Chicago Trucks directly from Mr. D himself, using money I had earned from my paper route. I remember that purchase well, because it was the first time I ever bought something I really wanted with money I had earned with my own two hands... a milestone if there ever was one. In all subsequent dealings and purchases, whether I was buying German racing bearings, Birdwell Beach Britches or a 4th of July T-shirt, Mr. D always treated me fairly, never ripped me off or tried to sling bullshit my way, offered sound advice and wise observations at critical junctures, and, like others such as Coach Greene and D.C., generally acted as a role model for a mixed-up kid from a dysfunctional family torn apart by bitter divorce. Not the kind of assistance I take lightly, in retrospect.
Mr. D was a straightforward guy who didn't tolerate or propagate bullshit, yet he had an amazing repertoire of humorous tales and anecdotes. One of my favorites was his tale of how Prince Charles went surfing here in Coronado. During a visit to this area, the Prince walked into the shop and wound up renting a board and wetsuit from Mr. D, who agreed to accompany the Prince to the beach as a surfing guide. The break to which Mr. D took the Prince was NOT really suitable for beginners. Laughing during this latter-day narration, I asked Mr. D how the Prince fared, and he told me the Prince went "over the falls" about two dozen times before calling it a day, and each time he ate shit he took a beating from the surf. "Nice guy, though... the perfect gentleman," said Mr. D, who was known for his honest assessments of character. I always found this story hilarious, since nobody actually got hurt. Prince Charles may have gasped for breath once or twice while going through the local machine wash, but he lived to tell the tale and warn all good Englishmen about the perils of surfing in Coronado: "Not quite as dangerous as the Falkland Islands, but damned close!!!"
Then there was the tale of how Mr. D and his cronies drove around Coronado after Christmas one year, collecting all of the Christmas trees which people had put out for curbside pickup. Something like 150 to 200 trees, transported in multiple loads to North Beach by pickup truck. There the trees were stacked in a huge conical pile and subsequently torched after dark: the flames rose 70 or 80 feet, if not higher, and they could be seen from many vantage points in Coronado and San Diego. This story always warmed my heart, since I helped burn part of the I.B. Pier when it washed ashore back in the day during a brutal storm. That conflagration set some standards of its own, but I like to think of "The Great Christmas Tree Fire" as holding the local record. Hey, nothing wrong with a good bonfire, especially after dark on a winter evening when the beach gets downright chilly. Gotta watch those pesky military aircraft flying overhead to land at North Island, otherwise you're good to go... who knows, maybe inbound pilots used the towering flames as a navigational beacon.
Mr. D had a thousand such tales, too many to list here by my reckoning. Stories of Baja back in the day, tales of overseas adventure gleaned from friends and family, every imaginable tale including some with woeful or disastrous endings. The surf shop was like a clearinghouse for information, with travelers constantly dropping in to relate details of their most recent adventures. In addition, postcards would periodically arrive from obscure corners of the globe, and these cards were always scrutinized and passed from hand to hand. In its own way, the surf shop made for a good chunk of local lore and history as well: the walls were like a "Hall of History"---photos and cards plastered everywhere, each telling its own story. Kinda like a museum for locals, if you will, with many old school residents making unique contributions. And there was Mr. D at the center of it all, holding down the fort and tending to business in his usual low-key manner. Sometimes, you don't understand the impact a person has upon your life until that person suddenly passes away... your former lack of understanding was not due to negligence or taking that person for granted, but due instead to the fact that life intervened when you might have said or acknowledged so much more in terms of friendship.
Nevertheless, I managed to style out Mr. D in recent years much the same way I styled out Tommy's grandmother: by bringing things from distant areas of the United States. Peach and blackberry cider from the Carolinas, Chow Chow from Georgia, heller hot sauce and peppers from Texas and New Mexico, funky regional foods from every corner of the nation... all greatly appreciated by Mr. D, who enjoyed variety with his meals. I also shared many home-cooked dinners with Tommy, always insisting that Mr. D get his share. That's what respect is all about, looking after one's elders and treating them as you'd want to be treated in your latter years. Oddly enough, I saw and spoke to Mr. D about a week ago when he pedaled past my house; I was out front, performing some minor outdoor task, and I immediately dropped what I was doing to speak to him. This was mere days after Tommy's grandmother passed away, and Mr. D told me how close Tommy had been to her. I knew they had been close, and I reassured Mr. D that I would do everything in my power to help my friend through his grief. At that time, Mr. D looked his usual self, getting on in years but still fairly robust, so it was a great shock to learn of his death yesterday, and to see my best friend in tears over his second tragic loss.
Since then, I've done my best to offer moral support, yet give my friend and blood brother the spiritual solitude he needs. I've told him everything I've written here, stressing Mr. D's significant role in local history, and the esteem in which he was held by many old school locals. He always treated me fairly, which is more than can be said for many douchebags in this town. I also told Tommy that these hammer blows in life are what forge us or break us... hard as they are to weather, and in true Nietzschean fashion, they will kill us or make us stronger. Tommy's a good man, the best I know, so I'm confident he'll survive this ordeal, but that doesn't lessen his grief one bit, and I really feel for him going into this holiday season. It's not as if the nation isn't in enough trouble already, enough to worry any citizen without a double dose of personal grief and sorrow thrown into the mix. Sure, grieving is an important process, but grieving over the holidays during a recession like this can be particularly brutal. On the other hand, the true measure of a man is determined through trials like these... in the forge of life, the hammer blows come hard and fast, and how a man conducts himself at such times reveals his true mettle, that malleable core of strength and inner steel tempered by blood and fire.
To my best friend Tommy, I hereby impart the following advice: "Hang in there, my true blood brother, and be a rock to remaining members of your family. Remember all the good things about the departed, and let go of the rest. Know that the hearts of old school locals are with you in your grief and sorrow. Know that the sun will rise again, brightening the future and leaving only the most hallowed memories of those loved and lost."
"THERE IS AN OLD BELIEF,
THAT ON SOME DISTANT SHORE,
FAR FROM DESPAIR AND GRIEF,
OLD FRIENDS SHALL MEET ONCE MORE."