First my father-in-law, a tough old cob who had previously been declared dead on two occasions (Once after being crushed in a mine disaster, and once after being shot in the face with a shotgun. Seriously.) was finally brought down by age, black lung, and the lingering effects of his injuries. Then my father died with a stack of ideas on his desk and a lot of plans for the future, only two days after retiring from the job he'd worked almost forty years.
The ache that an aunt had felt at my father-in-law's funeral turned out to be a bone cancer that took her by summer. And then a week ago our 21 year-old niece collapsed after after a blood clot made the short journey from her leg to her lungs. In between, our dog died, our cat died, and all the money that I'd been saving for retirement was reduced to about what I'd need to buy a meal at Steak N' Shake.
So how the hell was your 2008?
Seriously, were it not for the election that cast a momentary bit of light, the year just past would about as dark as a sack of coal dust. At midnight. In a cave.
A review of folks that died over the twelve months just past is one of those maudlin features that appear each year in magazines and on television. But while the Oscars can be counted on to remind you of the big screen names that were lost over the year, and Time and Newsweek will give you their rundown, here are a few more to remember. Some will make those other lists, some won't and some I've added because even on a topic this dark, a little humor doesn't hurt.
In January, military blogger Andrew Olmsted was killed by a sniper in Iraq. Olmstead was definitely in disagreement with most of us on the left, but also in disagreement with those on the right who saw Iraq as an opportunity to launch some kind of reverse domino theory. His messages from Iraq were as open and personal as any you're likely to find. In his final message, posted after his death, he quotes Plato, Babylon 5, Greg the Bunny, and John Wayne. And he had this to say about blogging.
Believe it or not, one of the things I will miss most is not being able to blog any longer. The ability to put my thoughts on (virtual) paper and put them where people can read and respond to them has been marvelous, even if most people who have read my writings haven't agreed with them. If there is any hope for the long term success of democracy, it will be if people agree to listen to and try to understand their political opponents rather than simply seeking to crush them. While the blogosphere has its share of partisans, there are some awfully smart people making excellent arguments out there as well, and I know I have learned quite a bit since I began blogging.
Also in January, we lost the world's most famous beekeeper, the founder of Fatburger, and the sultriest voice on TV. At the end of the month, Alan G. Rogers was killed by an IED in Iraq. He was the first openly gay soldier killed in Iraq, an ordained minister, and a fighter not just for the military but also for civil rights.
In February, we lost a guy who created a smart ass duck, the man who brought a six-foot rabbit to the screen, and a man who wrote for both a monster and a witch. On the last day of the month, we lost a man who spoke English with an accent all his own -- maybe because he spent his earliest years in Mexico, first grade in Paris, got his first instruction in English in a London day school. Even if you never agreed with a word William F. Buckley said, there was no denying that he steered the language with both skill and mad resolve. Modern conservatives may point to Ronald Reagan, or to Barry Goldwater, but the truth is they are pale imitations of Buckley, and not one of them has a fraction of his wits or wittiness. Oh, and none of them are half so dangerous. Buckley defended Joe McCarthy, worked undercover for the CIA, wrote a book a year, and interviewed everyone from Richard Nixon to the Dali Lama. If one tenth of the Conservatives out there had one tenth of Buckley's skill, then liberals (and the country) would be in deep excretory exudation.
March took the man who learned how to get people to spill out their innermost selves to a few lines of program code, an actor for all seasons, a princess who became a communist, and Kentuckians mourned Mr. Wildcat. Finally, March also removed the man who gave us looming black monoliths, the math behind communication satellites, and a universe of brilliant ideas. Arthur C. Clarke wrote the story that became the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey along with dozens of short stories and novels that combined an incisive intellect and often wry humor. Several years ago, on one of the best days of my life, I did face to face interviews with Buzz Aldrin and Burt Rutan, then finished the evening by speaking with Sir Arthur by videolink from his home in Sri Lanka. I had the chance to tell him then how much open-mouthed astonishment and pure pleasure his works had given me as a child. If there's an author out there about whom you have similar feelings, let them know now.
In April, an American vampire died after bombing hotels in Bolivia, folks got their chance to pry the gun out of the hand of Moses, and the guy who painted robots, wookies, and the Elvis stamp, put down his paintbrush.
Geniuses are a dime a dozen, but in May we lost the guy who invented the Pringles can (no wonder it seems like the world is getting less orderly and starting to crumble).
The Cincinnati chemist who invented the iconic Pringles potato chip can was buried in one. Relatives revealed yesterday they honored Fredric Baur's bizarre last wish and buried part of his cremated remains in a Pringles can.
While not in the same league as the Pringle's guy, we also lost one of the designers of the first electronic computer, who happened to be married to a computer (yes, really, and it was legal in all 50 states). And while President Carter continues his work in this country and others, perhaps the most important of the Georgia Mafia is done.
Carter called [Hamilton] Jordan his "closest political adviser, a trusted confidant, and my friend."
"His judgment, insight, and wisdom were excelled only by his compassion and love of our country," said Carter
June may be a sunny month, but it brought the darkest note of irony for the year when a leading anti-gun activist was stabbed to death. If you don't know Diddley, now's your chance to pull out the 45s and catch up. In the middle of the month, author and editor Algis Budrys passed away. Unless you're a fan of science fiction, that name might not mean much to you, but it means a hell of a lot to me. I was lucky enough to win an award back in the early 90s that left me sitting in front of Mr. Budrys for a week, learning how to create characters, construct a situation, and hold together a plot -- all in three thousand words. Later, I was lucky enough to sell one of my first stories to him. When I talk to people today about how to write fiction, I can do no better than to repeat what he taught me. He wrote ten novels scattered over 50 years, edited dozens of publications, helped generations of struggling writers, and left a mark on the industry far larger than his bibliography would indicate.
Please resist the temptation to say "finally" when I mention that July brought the death of a five-term Senator from North Carolina.
While the networks and most of the press will soft-pedal his virulent racism and reckless disregard for the First Amendment in his hounding of artists, foreigners and many others, Helms stayed his divisive course until the bitter end — at least until the end of his public career.
After building a reputation as a frankly speaking bigot, Helms ended his public life as a liar who whitewashed those previously bold stands.
Of more consequence (and I mean that), was the death of Thomas Disch, who brought us many fine novels and The Brave Little Toaster.
If you spent the long hot summers of your youth drawing chills from EC Comics, you probably shivered at the art of Jack Kamen, who died in August. But a real chill settled over the heat of summer when Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones died so unexpectedly. Representative Tubbs Jones was staunchly opposed to the Iraq war from the outset, even when her opposition drew punitive action from the Bush administration against her district. In 2004, she stood up against certifying the results of the mangled Ohio election results. Fearless and outspoken, hers is a voice we'll certainly miss.
In September, folks around St. Louis were shocked by the deaths of a local mayor, two councilpersons, and the public works director of the suburb, Kirkwood. Politics at every level can be dangerous. A week after that, writer David Foster Wallace died. Those who had followed his writing over the years certainly had reason to think this end was coming, but our greed for more of his writing made us hope it would not come so soon. Also in September came the death of Oliver Crawford, who had been hauled before Joe McCarthy's committee and blacklisted for refusing to name names. Mr. Buckley probably viewed him as a criminal, but Crawford survived his time on the blacklist and returned to write extensively for television (including that episode of Star Trek where Spock tries to manage the crew of a stranded shuttle from pure logic and gets people killed, so be grateful he held out).
Just try and get through the rest of the day without going "dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah" when I tell you that October took the composer of the Batman TV theme. You can now go back to wearing those baggy sweats and stained Keds, since no one is making a list. If you're reading this on your cell phone, give your thanks (and good byes) to this guy. I don't care what anyone says, Jim Chee was never as good as his mentor, Joe Leaphorn, but both sprang from the mind of author Tony Hillerman. I never passed through Tuba City or spent the night in Kayenta without looking for Hillerman's characters.
At my age Halloween isn't all that frightening, but it certainly was sad this year. That was when we lost Studs Terkel. In his very personal stories from folks at all levels of the social strata, Studs rewrote the rules for how history is related. We did not know ourselves until he held up the mirror. Some people are national treasures, some people are the soul of their nation, some people bring out the best in all of us. Studs was all of that and more. Yes, I know the man was 96, and no one lives forever, but outside the losses in my own family, there was none so keenly felt as this one.
In the excitement leading up to the election, and with the panic instilled by the fiscal collapse, we were still shocked by the death of Madelyn Dunham just two days before her grandson was elected president. Damn it.
"She was one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America," Mr. Obama said. "They’re not famous. Their names are not in the newspapers, but each and every day they work hard.
"They aren’t seeking the limelight. All they try to do is just do the right thing. In this crowd there are a lot of quiet heroes like that."
Later in the month, Donald Finkel -- A St. Louis poet who showed that there's still a lot of new things to be done with the English language -- lost a long fight with Alzheimer.
The tables slept on their feet
could wait there
forever if commanded
no matter what men set on them
a strong back was all it took
and a little patience
In December, Henry Molaison died believing it was still 1953. That was when Molaison (known for the last 50 years as Patient HM) had experimental treatment to address severe seizures. The treatment worked, but it also left him unable to form new long term memories. He lived the rest of his life in a tragic confusion, able to reason perfectly well, but unable to hold onto the fragments of a life that went tumbling past. However, his personal tragedy provided information on how the mind worked that greatly affected our understanding. The person who is probably most responsible for the vast right wing machine died this month, so did a political philospher who was a socialist and an expert on Orwell, but who still did some things that seem kind of, um, Orwellian.
If my list seems chockablock with writers and short on those losses most critical to you his year, I'm sorry about that. I know I've missed everyone from the last British World War I soldier, one of a handful of remaining Munchkins, three astronauts, and Nurse Chapel. Heck, I didn't even cover Tim Russert, whose absence left a shadow over the election coverage this fall. Overall, this seemed like a year for losses.
So how about in 2009, we just don't let anyone off the ship. Okay?