My friend Herb passed away recently. I'm posting this here in his memory.
The Ancient Curmudgeon
Darkness was welling up from the stands of spruce trees and creeping up the snow-covered flanks of the Chugach Mountains as I listened to the oh-so-familiar voice on my cell phone. “The Voice” was guiding me through the maze of subdivision streets and intersections and cul de sacs of his neighborhood, guiding me towards his home late in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve.
I was on my way to visit with this old friend. I mean really old. Neither of us can believe how old he is. I first met him in 1963 when I was 21, and I thought he was pathetically old then. Now he’s abysmally old.
His wife answered the door in response to my knock. I had one foot over the threshold when “The Voice” began hurling compliments at me. At least, I think they were compliments. My doubt comes from the fact that he used words like “appallingly” and “you haven’t done anything to deserve…” I burst out laughing. I had not expected the compliments. Instead, I had expected him to sneak in the back door of friendship, careful not to let me know that he was anything but Alaska’s favorite curmudgeon. It is an image he polishes regularly, though his public appearances have dwindled in his days of retirement.
“I am astonished,” Herb said as I stepped into his living room, “at how appallingly good you write!” There were more words along those lines, but I was laughing too hard to hear them. At the same time, my heart and brain were telling me what an excruciatingly significant compliment I was hearing. Having never been a master of anything, I have no idea if the true masters find it agonizingly difficult to praise another’s work, or if the words slide off forked tongues like cheese off a pizza. I’ve never known Herb to have a forked tongue. Instead he has a brain and mouth and voice that have accomplished some of the most memorable radio work I’ve been privileged to hear.
“Just push those magazines aside and sit down,” he said. Two couches faced each other in the living room. Herb occupied the end of one. The rest of it was covered with books, magazines, and newspapers, as was the one next to me. I found a place to sit on a hassock at its end, and gave my friend an appraising look. Beneath his light blue terry cloth robe, his legs were bare. Above the robe was a face that could be mistaken for Mephistopheles. A gray goatee jutted from his chin. Bushy eyebrows rose to a point at their middle over sharp brown eyes that missed nothing. All he needed was a trident and a forked tail, and the image would be complete. And a microphone. This devil needed a microphone to be complete.
Our friendship dates from 1963 when I went to work at KFQD radio station. Herb was news chief for the station. He was very, very good. Forty-five years later I still remember the piece Herb wrote and recorded after the USS Thresher submarine sank in deep waters, with the loss of all hands. I don’t recall his words or the background music, but even today I vividly remember the emotions evoked by his writing and presentation. After the emotions subsided, the respect for his craftsmanship welled, and that has never subsided.
When doing news, Herb played it straight. During his days of being a talk show host, though, is when he gleefully created his image as Alaska’s premier curmudgeon. I would laugh when people talked about how mean, how disrespectful, how brilliantly sarcastic he was when he sparred with his guests. I say only one thing in response: If you took a stand on something, you’d better have both feet planted on solid ground, and have your wits about you, or an avalanche named Herb would bury you in intelligence, witticisms, and profoundly eloquent challenges.
Late in our visit Herb again began speaking of my attempts at writing. “You’ve done nothing to deserve it!” he accused. “You’re a natural.” He said it as if he didn’t think it was at all fair.
Herb made the mistake of giving me his e-mail address, and I regularly deluge his inbox with my stuff. Only once, last March, did he answer. I spoke of that message during our visit. My husband had just died after many years of a cruel illness, and Herb had written, “…remember there are more people than you might know about, who care about you. Some of them have trouble saying so.”
“That was very kind,” I said.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he ordered.
I love you, Herb. Don’t let that go to your head. Can’t have you thinking that someone actually likes you, you know.
In the meantime, know that I hold you in appallingly high esteem, though I’m not at all sure anyone as stupefyingly old as you deserves that.
Jan. 2, 2008 Gullible