Sunday, September 9, 2012

eulogy for sah

Eulogy for Stewart Albert Hurlburt
By Steven R. Hurlburt
September 6, 2012
Arlington Memorial Park
A Thursday afternoon

Thanks to everyone for coming, for paying attention to my dad.  If he was here he would probably be a little embarrassed and self-conscious of the whole affair – all this fuss – just for him.  It’s not that he wasn’t gregarious or didn’t get along with people; he did.  But he was a private, conservative person and wasn’t much for ostentation or big shows of emotion.

This day, two years ago, he had his first heart attack; it was a big one, and it almost killed him.  Word spread about his condition, as it normally would after someone has a heart attack; friends and relatives from Atlanta and Highlands called to see how he was doing and to wish him well.

A couple weeks later, we were having BLT’s for lunch.  He had stabilized, was out of the hospital and feeling as close to normal as he would ever feel again.  We were talking (though I don’t remember what about), and I could tell he was feeling agitated, something was off.  I asked what was up and he said the news of his situation was “all over the place.”  I said, well, OK . . . that’s normal.  He looked at me a bit askance and said he didn’t want people to think that he and my mother were, and I quote, “big  shots or something.  We’re just not comfortable with that.”

My dad was a Yankee, born in East Orange, New Jersey to favorable circumstances.  He was the third son of, on the male side, solid British stock that had lived in the northeast since the 1600’s, and on the female side, a striking woman from the plains of Minnesota.  His father was an engineer and inventor:  he helped construct, design and install infrastructure in places as varied (and at the time, exotic) as Bermuda and the Panama Canal; he built a wooden skiff in his back yard with his three sons (dad being the youngest) which they kept at the Jersey shore; and from my only visit to his house, I have the dreamy memory of the motorized miniature planes and boats granddad created cutting through air and water, and the cool hand-held metal boxes with buttons and switches that controlled them.  It was magic.  And it was way better than Xbox.

My dad grew up lucky, as did I.  His father would take him and the boys camping on a friend’s farm out in the Jersey wilds where he learned how to use a knife and how to tie knots whose prefixes were sometimes obvious from their looks: square, figure eight; other times mysterious:  like the granny and the half hitch.  He spent summers in Seaside Heights, scooping ice cream on the boardwalk, lifeguarding on the beach and adventuring in the skiff with his brothers.  He loved the water – being on it or in it – and he loved sports (he wrestled and played lacrosse).  He played football at Rutgers where he suffered a knee injury that affected him throughout his life.

My dad was a Marine.  He graduated Rutgers on a Sunday and on Monday morning he enlisted in the Corps.  He wouldn’t tell you this but in his first training class he was ranked 14th out of the 252 other officer candidates; in his second, at Quantico, he was 6th in a class of 250.  He was then assigned duty at Shangri-La (now Camp David), where he was one of three officers charged with the security of the President and other dignitaries.  After that, upon reaching the rank of Captain, he was attached to the light cruiser U.S.S. Vicksburg as Commanding Officer of the Marine detachment on board.  He saw action in the seas surrounding Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the Vicksburg was one of the first  U.S. ships to enter Tokyo Harbor to oversee the Japanese surrender.  He would occasionally share his memories of these best-of-times, but only if prompted.  He had simply done his duty.  After four years of service, he resigned his commission and entered Harvard Business School. He graduated two years later and moved to Atlanta for work.

My dad was a Southerner.  Growing up in New Jersey, I guess you could say he started out as a Southern atheist – he just didn’t know any better.  He probably turned agnostic when he moved to Atlanta to work, then became a true convert when he met my mom – as southern as they come.  From there he never looked back.  They were introduced at the Druid Hills Country Club (back when it was actually in the country), romanced for a year and married in 1949.  Kids soon followed; first me, then my brother Mark two years later.

The years went by as a wholesome, but not entirely trouble-free, fifties and sixties cliché.  My dad was trim, dark, handsome, a corporate man, a snappy dresser, a family man genuinely devoted to his wife and kids and church.   He gave up smoking; he drank little.  He kicked the soccer ball around with us, and took us to The Varsity and Georgia Tech football games.  He built a tree house in the back yard.  He did a hundred thousand things for Mark and mom and me I can’t even remember.  He was somehow always thereSemper fidelis.

I remember being on vacation in Sea Island; I was maybe five or six years old.  It was our first afternoon and the family was walking around, inspecting the pool, the beach, whatever.  I happened to step off the sidewalk into a nest of sand spurs and I’m sure I screamed and was about to tumble to the ground because my feet were covered with them and I just couldn’t stand up.   I was about to crumple into the spur infested ground, and there he was, like Superman, effortlessly lifting me up in his arms of steel.

He refereed high school football games at Grady Stadium, hardly a mile from where I now live.  At one point he bought a motorcycle.  He played golf some weekends, and when he wasn’t doing that he cut the grass, raked the leaves, fixed the roof, kept the house shipshape.  The massive tool bench he inherited from his father – that his father built – was always covered with one project or another but was never a mess.  Dad loved tools; there was nothing better than a well made implement designed to do a specific job well.  He could fix anything.  My brother and I observed his habits, his attention to detail, his affection for symmetry and order, and when we could, helped out.  Meanwhile, my mother, the house manager, ferried us to school and little league, made sure we had decent clothes and did our homework.  She fed us and tucked us into bed and nursed us when we were sick.  And, she had an organic garden in the back yard, way before it was cool.

In my early teens, I remember dad coming home from work one day very discouraged.  He usually didn’t talk about his job, but this time was different.  He’d undergone some kind of standard psychological profile testing, designed to determine his strengths and weaknesses in the corporate arena.  What he couldn’t understand was the answer to the question:  “In performing your job, do you trust your fellow workers a) completely, b) somewhat, or c) not very much. He, of course, answered “completely,” because he expected his colleagues’ standards of honor, truth and doing the right thing to be the same as his, which he didn’t view as elevated, just normal.  That the correct answer was “somewhat” sent him reeling.  It did not compute.

My dad was a Christian in the best sense of the word.  The Catholic writer Andrew Sullivan sums it up this way:  “A Christian is not a Christian simply because he agrees to conform his life to some set of eternal principles or dogmas; or because at one particular moment in his life, he experienced a rupture and changed himself entirely.  He is a Christian primarily because he acts like one.  He loves and forgives; he listens and prays; he contemplates and befriends; his faith and his life fuse into an unselfconscious unity that both affirms a tradition of moral life and . . .  makes it his own.”  Dad was kind in spirit and had a generous heart; he had a keen sense of honor and commitment and idealism and of doing the right thing well.
He led by example, not by wagging his finger, and in that way he was also conservative in the best sense of that word.  He was suspicious of change and had an appreciation of the inherited traditions and wisdom of the past. He wanted to conserve and preserve nature and the environment.  His life was lived in modest pragmatism.  He believed in live and let live.  He didn’t want to remake the world in his own image.  He believed in individual liberty and personal responsibility.  He was not a joiner of fundamentalist causes.  He practiced charity to all.

When I went off to college (and then beyond), my dad was fortunate enough to be able to retire early.  He painted a bit – you can see a couple of his pieces on your program – and I feel this silent, solitary art form suited him; I wish he would have done more.  He and my mom spent time at their house in Garden City Beach.  They became grandparents.  They built their house in Highlands.  He played golf and won a club championship.  He even came to see his 43-year-old son’s rock band play a gig in some crappy, smoky bar, which was definitely beyond the call of duty.  He buried his younger son.

My dad was optimistic, and for the most part, life treated him well; but as it does with all of us, it eventually undid him.  It started with the death of my brother ten years ago.  It continued when he had a bad fall – breaking his nose and hurting his hip on a family cruise a couple years later.  Then the heart attack, then congestive heart failure, then another heart attack.  Slowly the strong, generous heart that had served him and others so well was giving in to that Bastard Death, his arms of steel wasting away to nothingness, and he couldn’t quite, or didn’t want to grasp that.  Finally, however, he did. “There isn’t any place I can go to get rest,” he said to me one night, exhausted.  And then, “No sense in you wasting your time here, Steve.”  And then, “I thought I could get out from under all this . . . but I can’t.”  It was one of the few times he told me he couldn’t do something, and he faced that Bastard Death with way more grace and courage than it deserves.

Eventually he was reduced to spending much of his time in a chair in his bedroom.  But even then one of his youthful enthusiams was his comfort.  Through the years he’d collected dozens of pocket knives of all shapes and sizes.  (“Hurlburt men have always carried a pocket knife,” he once told me.) They were something he appreciated: a well made instrument designed to do a job well.  He loved the sharpened edge, the compact design, the satisfying snap-and-click sound as he pushed the blade back into the body of the knife.  I used to hate the fact that he would sit in that chair and open mounds of junk mail, all wanting him to give money for the latest disaster du jour or to buy something from the Scooter Store or to stock up on something called Grout Bully.  But one day as I sat there watching him open all that crap with the always-sharp edge of one of his favorite knives, I realized it wasn’t the crap he was interested in. It was the blade – that ancient, primitive thing.  The blade wasn’t ostentatious or frivilous; it was something you could count on.  It wasn’t trendy or flashy or transitory; it was something, actually, that was very conservative, like him.  It was the sharpness of the knife, the soul of that blade, the crease in the envelope yielding easily to the honed edge, the precise engineered click and snap of an instrument from our ancient past – one made well and doing its job well – that  gave him something to look forward to.

Although he might give me that “askance” look again if he were here, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that my dad was a great man; he was a good, kind soul; not self-seeking or self-aggrandizing; he was generous to a fault.  And in spite of all of the inevitable failings wrapped up in our humanity, as much as it was humanly possible, he really was a man who, as the writer of Philippians says, was true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good repute, virtuous and praiseworthy.  He was a man of high character, and we are all a bit diminished now that he’s no longer with us.

Those are some of my thoughts about my father.  If you would, I’d like to take just another minute to read something else, something written by a man who’s not here today.  It’s a letter my brother wrote to my dad almost 20 years ago when he was 38-years-old.

It’s dated June 20, 1993, and it reads:

Dear Dad--

As we get older we tend to forget a lot of things, but I remember so many things that make you a great Dad and I want to say thanks.

Thanks for the little car you got me when I cut the end of my finger off in Dayton.

(He must have been about four year old then.)

Thanks for all the Christmas eves you stayed up putting toys together for Steve and me.

Thanks for the time you took carving me a wooden knife.  I wish I still had one of those.
Thanks for the skateboard you made me from that piece of kitchen countertop.

Thanks for my first bike, my first pocket knife, my first .22, my first hunting trip. 

Thanks for turning me loose at the beach with the john boat.

Thanks for the mini-bike you got me that must have been a large problem with mom.

Thanks for my first motorcycle.

Thanks for still loving me during my teen years -- boy was I stupid.

Thanks for your advice over the years even though I seldom took it—big mistake on my part.

Bottom line -- thanks for being a great dad all these years.  Love you pops.

p.s. Happy Father’s day

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