I invited my father, Herb Mekemson, up to Alaska for his 80th birthday. My brother Marshall put him on the airplane in Sacramento and I met him in Anchorage. He got off the plane grinning. We shook hands and embraced. He still had a strong grip.
“Curt, have you been causing problems again?” he asked. These weren’t the first words out of his mouth but they were close. There was a twinkle in his eyes, sort of.
“What do you mean, Pop?” I asked in mock innocence. He was gripping his pipe like it was the last life raft on a sinking ship.
“I got off of the plane and the first thing they announced was I couldn’t light up in the airport. I’ve needed a smoke since I left Seattle.” I had been an advocate for smoke-free areas in Sacramento and continued my efforts in Alaska.
I laughed. He and I had been through the tobacco discussion dozens of times. We had it down to a routine. I’d point out there was a direct correlation between his smoking and the heavy cough he had in the morning. He’d note that he had been smoking for over 60 years and was still going strong, thank you. I’d observe that somewhere his Scotch Presbyterian mother was rolling over in her grave, and so it would go. He liked his tobacco straight up. For years he had smoked unfiltered Camels but they lacked the kick he needed. In his words, he had switched to ‘roll-your-owns’ as opposed to the ‘new fangled tailor mades.’ As a result, most of his shirts were aerated from burning tobacco. Out of self-defense, he had switched to a pipe. He liked to tease me that most of my efforts in the tobacco wars were designed to thwart him.
“Well, Pop,” I announced, “in honor of your visit, you have been granted special dispensation. You can smoke in my truck.” He hurried me out of the airport, barely taking time to pick up his suitcase.
We had quite the adventure planned but first there were social responsibilities. I took him over to meet my roommates Cyndi and Roger. Cyndi owned the house and Roger and I paid rent. It was a good arrangement. Cyndi was a slope worker, which meant she worked for two weeks up on the North Slope in the oil industry and then had two weeks off. Roger was in the vending machine business, which included cigarettes. Surprisingly, the three of us were quite compatible.
When Cyndi and I first met to interview each other over possible roommate status, I mentioned that I was Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association. She became quite excited and announced she had a Lung Association connection.
“I was a Trek leader in Minnesota before I came to Alaska,” she said. When I informed her that I had created the American Lung Association’s Trek Program, we decided that fate had brought us together. As for Roger, he and I had a penchant for weird movies, the weirder the better. Strange Brew is an excellent example. Many a winter evening was spent happily vegging on the couch, drinking beer, and watching videos.
Once Pop had visited my home, our next responsibility was visiting the ‘girlfriend.’ I had been dating a pulmonary physician and we hung out a lot together. I had an open invitation to move in.
“Why don’t we get married,” she suggested. “You can stay home, write, and raise the children.” I liked the staying home and writing idea but wasn’t ready for the kids and married part. Her English Spaniel had a different perspective. I kicked him off of the bed when I was around. His response was to pee on my side of the bed and mark it as his territory. I would have gone and peed on his bed if he had one. Two can play the dominant male species game.
My friend cooked dinner for Pop and me, which was a little scary. Cooking was not her forte. Our meal was good though and the dog was on its best behavior. We had a very pleasant evening.
Pop liked the idea of me getting married and having kids. He had always wanted me to produce grandchildren and both our biological time clocks were ticking. At 40 plus, I was rapidly approaching the point where having children was impractical. At 80, he was rapidly approaching the point where he would never see them. Actually, Pop had three wishes for me. The first was the married with children bit. The second was that I would become a photographer and take pictures of all the beautiful sites I saw in my wandering. The third was that I would become a good Christian boy and return to the flock.
A few years later I would fall in love, get married, inherit two great kids— and take up photography. I always figured that two out of three weren’t bad.
The next day we headed off to Denali. I had a permit for camping in the Park. Pop went crazy with his camera and the Alaskan scenery; we had to stop every 20 minutes or so for photo ops. Even a moose waited patiently beside the road to have its picture taken. By the time we reached camp, heavy black clouds were swirling overhead and a cold wind was reminding us that summer had yet to arrive. I hurried in setting up the large Coleman tent I had brought along while Pop, who insisted on being part of the action, went in search of firewood. A few minutes later I noticed that he had disappeared.
“Oh damn,” I thought to myself, “how do I explain to my sister and brother that Pop had become lost in the Alaskan wilderness gathering firewood.”
Then I spotted him off in the distance on top of a hill taking pictures.
“I saw some mountain goats up on the opposite mountain and I wanted to get closer for pictures,” he explained to me after descending.
“Do you know there are grizzly bears wandering around up there,” I said pointedly. He just smiled. At 80 he was ready to meet his maker. If it happened with the help of a grizzly bear, so be it. But it wasn’t going to happen on my shift, if I could help it.
After dinner we sat by our crackling campfire and talked for a couple of hours as snowflakes danced around the perimeter. Our family, his past and my future were all topics of discussion. There was something magical about the setting and Pop was obviously enjoying himself tremendously. Sitting in the Alaskan wilderness in the midst of a swirling snowstorm at age 80 was something that he had never envisioned for himself. I had him bundled from head to toe and he insisted he was toasty warm. Eventually the topic got around to one of his favorite subjects, religion.
“You know, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot,” he started. The Pearly Gates were beckoning and Pop wanted to be sure his credentials were in order. He was about to jump in to his ‘You should read the Bible too, Curt’ lecture. To forestall the inevitable, I asked a question out of curiosity.
“Assuming you make it to heaven, what do you think it is like?”
He laughed. “I am afraid my view’s a little unusual. I see myself as a spacecraft hurtling through space. I am not in the spacecraft. I am the spacecraft and I am exploring the universe and seeing all of the glorious sights it has to offer.” Apparently there would be no jewel encrusted buildings and streets paved with gold for him.
While I was contemplating this rather wondrous view of the after-life, I took too long in coming up with my next question.
“You should read the Bible too, Curt,” Pop began. “I’ve been listening to a radio minister and he is going through each Book in detail and explaining what it means. There’s a lot of great stuff. I’ve bought a complete set of his tapes.”
The radio minister part hoisted a red flag for me. Marshall and I had cut our religious eye teeth on a slippery southern radio preacher in the 1950s and I had recently been tuning in to Jim and Tammy Baker. They were prime time in Alaska. It was quite clear to me that they were bilking their flock and the process fascinated me. This didn’t mean that I believed all radio preachers or televangelists were frauds. It seemed reasonable to me that sincere religious people would want to take advantage of modern communication opportunities to share their views. Still, I decided to gently pursue where Pop’s radio minister was taking him.
“Um, what do you mean by great stuff?” I inquired.
“The stories, the history, the messages,” he replied enthusiastically, giving me a catalog to choose from. He was prepared to wax eloquently on the subject, to convert me on the spot. It wouldn’t be easy. I had read the Bible, and found it interesting, educational, and meaningful. But I wasn’t about to accept it as literal truth. I was curious as to where my father stood on the religious continuum between liberal interpretation and fundamentalist dogma. He had always been deeply religious but somewhat tolerant of other perspectives.
“So, Pop,” I queried, jumping to a litmus test of Christian fundamentalism, “do you believe that the world is 6,000 years old?”
“Yes,” was his simple reply and it was immediately clear where the radio minister was leading him: it was over the foaming falls of fundamentalism where a leap of faith assures a righteous landing. On one level this didn’t bother me. Life can be rather short and brutish as Hobbes noted, and full of suffering as the Zen Buddhists like to point out. We find our comfort where we can find it. If Pop’s belief helped him deal with the present and face his future, then it had value for him. Who was I to say otherwise? It wasn’t exactly like he was being misled, either. The Mekemson side of my family comes from a long line of true believers dating back to John Brown the Martyr of Scotland in the 1600s— and undoubtedly beyond.
I have my own share of spiritual genes. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years considering different religious traditions and pondering imponderables. Crass materialism, in and of its self, seems to be a poor reason to exist. I tend to believe that there is a deep, underlying unity in the universe and that all of life on earth is connected. It’s hard to get much more mystical than that.
I was a little concerned that Pop had paid several hundred dollars for the tapes. He lived off of his Social Security pension and the amount represented a lot of money. Bilking came to mind. I was more concerned with the implications of his beliefs as we chatted into the night. It wasn’t enough that he believed the earth was 6000 years old. I, too, should believe it. School systems were wrong for teaching evolution and should be required to teach creationism. He also expressed a strong bias against homosexuality and gay people that he had picked up from the radio preacher. The latter made me particularly sad.
The best man at my first wedding and a friend from childhood, Frank Martin, was gay. When my mother was dying of cancer while I was at Berkeley, Frank would often stop by and visit her, bringing whatever comfort he could. Later, when my former wife and I returned from serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa, Frank and his partner hosted several anniversary parties for us in San Francisco. He was always generous and kind to our family. Now, my father was being taught that Frank was a sinful man, condemned to be burned in Hell.
Beyond expressing my disagreement as gently as I could, I mainly listened. My point of view wasn’t going to change what my father believed. Besides, the old fellow may have expired from hypothermia listening to me. We put out the fire, retired to the warmth of our down sleeping bags, and dreamt we were spaceships hurtling through space.
Over the next few days, Pop and I covered a good bit of Alaska, ending up in Homer. His sister Francis had raised her children there and he wanted to see the town. Afterwards, I drove him back to the airport and made sure his pipe was out before taking him inside and seeing him off. It took months for my truck to stop smelling like tobacco smoke.
NEXT FRIDAY’S BLOG: A final story about Pop. Did he really leave me a message after he passed away or was it the invention of my over-wrought imagination? Plus— My final thoughts on religion.