April 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Good Men

It may be that, because I was already thinking about my friend Frank, the Reverend Smith is gripping my heart in ways fictional characters rarely do.

Vicki and I have been spending part of most recent evenings in the special pleasure of watching the entire run of a brilliant TV series, as many episodes as we want each night, on DVD. When it first aired, somehow Deadwood got by us.

Based on the true story and real people of Deadwood, an illegal settlement that grew like a poisonous mushroom on Indian land in the Dakota Territories during the Black Hills Gold Rush after the Civil War, the series is a wonder of authenticity and master storytelling. Every other character is your favorite, and nearly all of them get some time in the spotlight.

Reverend Smith, usually just Reverend, is the only Deadwood resident without a lick of self-interest. For the most part he’s ignored by the placer-miners, grifters, opium dealers and addicts, gamblers, whores, murderers, thieves, drunks, sociopaths, psychopaths, pederasts, and others who slog through the blood-, mud-, and shit-filled streets, though none seems willing to risk doing physical harm to a holy man. Reverend is called upon to preside over the shallow burial of those whose bodies aren’t more commonly disposed of as feed for Mr. Wu’s ravenous pigs.

Reverend preaches in the streets with the intensity and joy of the true believer, but mostly as suggestions to the sinners, not force-fed fire and brimstone. He lives the credo of kindness and love in the thick of true hell on earth, and asks not a thing in return except, late in the game, the chance to rest beside a whorehouse piano player to better hear and enjoy his music. He’s denied this simple pleasure and told to leave. He’s bad for business.

Now Reverend has begun to suffer physical torment, which he bears not as a martyr, but as a simple child of God. One eye turns down while the other shows a heart wrenching combination of joy, fear, confusion, intensity, and awe. He still approaches everyone as friend, but asks to be forgiven when he cannot always remember whom they might be, and if in fact they are friends he can no longer recognize. He holds one arm tucked to his side and stoops against his will, dragging one leg that offers increasingly little support. Worst, he confesses in shame, he has spells when he can no longer feel the Divine within him. Deadwood’s equally good but inwardly raging doctor suspects that Reverend is being felled by a brain tumor.

Reverend’s face haunts me, tribute to an actor named Ray McKinnon, who portrays him on Deadwood. It reflects pain I have suffered, but without the grace of this man. In his decline, the Reverend’s face is a study in the beatitude of the doomed believer. It’s all I can do not to weep for him, a character in a TV movie.

It may have something to do with a kind, good man I once knew, my friend Frank. He showed up when I needed him, though he saw it in reverse. I was working in a vipers’ nest, where well-meaning efforts were greeted with treachery and deceit, and not yet recovered from some serious health issues. My father was declining physically, mentally, and with increasing speed following the wholly untelegraphed death of my mother a couple of years before. She simply pitched face forward onto the breakfast table, fell from her chair onto the floor, mumbled something about a terrible headache, and never spoke another word, “the healthiest one in the family” dead three days later.

I had since built, populated, and started tending a honeybee hive in my dad’s backyard, pleasantly distracted and absorbed by these ancient, helpful, and wondrous little creatures. They demonstrated order in a time of chaos, trust as long as I behaved in ways that suggested no threat, and provided me with honey, respite, and peace.

I wrote about the experience several times, getting no response from my urban readers, except Frank. He sent a letter, thanking me for these tales with an urgency that seemed far out of proportion to what they told. He had once been a beekeeper, had quit long before for reasons he didn’t explain, but felt the old feelings and was thinking of starting in again after reading of my own enthusiasm for this gentle husbandry. I emailed him privately, asked for his phone number, gave him mine, and we arranged to meet at his place.

Bucky Fuller's "Dome Home."
Frank's was grander.
He was elderly and a bit frail for reasons he seemed unwilling to share. We talked bees, and writing, and kismet, and gradually he opened up just a little. He was a former priest, and was married to a former nun, who cheerfully moved throughout the large geodesic dome that was their home in a thickly wooded area of a Detroit suburb. Now and then she crabbed a little about Frank’s renewed hobby, but they were loving pokes at the man whose secrets she shared and for whom she subtly feared – something.

Frank had long counseled drunks and addicts, and told me only that some unspecified “doubts” had led him to leave the church. Even when his face was split with a grin, his eyes betrayed a torment he would say nothing else about.

We discussed books, some politics, the human comedy – with for-instances – my parents, our children, his grandchildren, the addictive personality and the relatively infrequent times when it is remediated, plants, birds, the damned insecticide merchants who were contributing to the threatened erasure of wild and domestic honeybee populations, woodworking, the peculiar and undeniable benefits of geodesic dome construction and habitation, life in the woods even at a minimal remove from paved streets and overbuilt lots, comparative religion, and comparative hive design.

Tending a top bar hive in Kenya
We thoroughly discussed the so-called top bar hive, which is more common in developing countries than here in the U.S., where the boxy, carefully configured Langstroth hive predominates. It was invented and patented a decade before the Civil War by a Philadelphia-born Congregational clergyman who started keeping bees to cope with depression.

The top bar hive begins as a simple wooden trough with sloped sides, surmounted under its cover by a series of parallel wooden bars, each smeared or otherwise fitted with some “starter” beeswax. The honeybees construct, or “draw,” their freeform combs from the underside of the bars and working down, much as they do in the wild. Frank and I decided to experiment.

I built two top bar hives, one for each of us, and we placed them in separate clearings on his wooded land. We watched them progress for a time through the glass panes I had fitted on one side of each hive, and were encouraged by how quickly the curvaceous, golden comb began to fill the empty space inside, back to front. The bee populations were thick, in constant motion, and gentle.

Then it stopped. Workers were stumbling around on the landing board at each hive’s front entrance. Even as we watched, distressed, they fell singly and in haphazard groups from the landing onto the ground below, where their corpses piled up. The hives showed no sign of insect or animal invaders, they were visibly clean and watertight, and there seemed to be no problem that we – the beekeepers – could alleviate or eliminate.

Well before the season was over, our hives were dead. We puzzled over the disaster and settled on the beautifully flowered and landscaped condo development nearby as the cause. Several times, Frank had seen the grounds misted with chemical fertilizers and insecticides and it seemed obvious that our honeybees collected nectar and pollen from these toxic blossoms, brought it home, and suffered the consequences of a weedless, pest-free landscape.

We didn’t say the words, but Frank and I seemed to conclude that trying again would be pointless under the circumstances. We corresponded. He was angry at the state of his health. We were both grieving the failure of our mutual beekeeping. We worked by day at our respective jobs and tended to our lives outside of them. He had a new grandchild. My sisters and I took over our father’s life and care. I fell in love the first time I met and spent a couple of mealtime hours with Vicki, and decided we would marry.

Our wedding
When the time approached, we decided – having each been married before – to make it a private occasion. I had a favorite Italian restaurant, upscale and owned by the namesake daughter of the couple who had run the best pizzeria in my childhood stomping grounds. She created a menu for our wedding dinner, including a dessert of zabaglione, with a wink to the fact that I had once written of the airy dish as an aphrodisiac of strong reputation. As kismet provided, Frank and his wife lived just a few miles down the road. We asked him to preside.

Without fail, during every visit during our summer of bees, Frank thanked me with everything in him for reawakening the joy he had once felt in beekeeping. Almost embarrassed, each time I changed direction to my gratitude for finding a kindred soul, and a wise and gentle friend. But when I asked him to perform our marriage, he reacted with something even more profound. It caught his breath as though he wanted to say, “Are you sure?”

We showed up at the restaurant before the Friday evening rush, were shown to a romantic corner in the fireplace pit, and began. Vicki and I had written our vows – some autobiography, solemn promise, and simple words – and sent them to Frank shortly before, asking if he’d read them for us. The restaurant owner and Frank’s wife stood as our witnesses. We all dressed for the occasion, Frank and I in black suits, our ties matching Vicki’s red wedding sheath, which we’d had handmade and custom fitted by Hong Kong seamstresses. My hair was trimmed, gray and thinning. Hers was a golden, glowing whirl. A waiter stood to one side snapping pictures. He did his best.

Frank faced us and recited a brief proem, as personal and warm as anything I’ve heard in any church, on any occasion. When he turned to our vows, first Vicki’s and then mine, he smiled and paused here and there, his breath again catching. We loved him. Then, by the power of the state, we were pronounced two made as one.

Not long after, Frank died. The cause was a vicious cancerous brain tumor that he’d never quite disclosed to me. For a while before he succumbed, it attacked when he tried to speak, and otherwise hectored that good man’s body.

On the day he died, his wife said while informing us of the event, several young deer stepped from the trees and, unprotected and in full daylight, gathered calmly and quietly beside the geodesic dome. They too, I guessed, had lost an important friend.

It’s a loss I continue to feel as sorely as for anyone I knew much longer, before they went wherever we go when our bodies are finished. Hopefully, there is another place where the big questions and the tormenting doubts are answered.

So it’s hard to watch what is, after all, only a television drama, as Reverend stumbles cruelly to his own end, his face, like Frank’s, a study in the beatitude of the doomed believer. Requiescat in pace, both of you good men. One may as well have been the other.


  1. A lovely tribute. Thank you for sharing it.


    1. Thanks, LAH. I appreciate you reading it.

  2. Heartwarming story. Most appreciated. God bless.