One of the things that takes some getting used to as you get older is that you have so much more to remember. Not new things; you forget those.
Old things. Something you see will set off a little Roman candle in the back of your brain and suddenly you’re remembering something that happened in 1969 or someone you knew in 1975.
The confluence of recent high-profile funerals for John McCain and Aretha Franklin sparked in me the memory of the quite different memorial event that occurred a generation ago. I hadn’t thought about my friend Jim in a long time, but (although I was living half a continent away at the time, so I wasn’t present in person) stories I heard of his funeral stick with me all these years later.
It was either the saddest or the most affectionate memorial I’ve ever heard of. And I still can’t quite figure out which it is.
Jim was an old-fashioned newspaperman. He was a little guy, had a white beard and wore a coat and tie to work every day. He’d hacked his way for years around small-town papers scattered across the Carolinas. I knew him when I was just starting my career at the afternoon paper in my hometown and he was finishing up his as the daily columnist on the bigger morning paper.
Jim was like other newspaper columnists I’ve known through the years — very little like the man his readers thought he was.
In real life, he was a quiet guy who was friendly, but mostly kept to himself. He dated a woman on the copy desk and may have been married before, but he never talked much about his personal life or history. He smoked a lot of cigarettes and loved a cherry-flavored soft drink called Cheerwine that was made in his hometown and that he enthused over in print whenever he couldn’t think of anything else to write about.
The person he appeared to be in his column was quite different. He came off as a complete extrovert, a friendly guy who loved to chat anytime, anyplace about anything. People who’d never met him thought he was a gabby, bubbly guy. He wasn’t.
There were a few stories about him that made the rounds, of course. One time, the office wags said, Jim was sitting quietly in the newsroom when a call went out over the police scanner about an armed robbery that had just taken place.
The dispatcher described the getaway car and Jim looked up, bemused. The car sounded a lot like his car. Then the dispatcher called out the license plate number and it was his license plate number. Then the dispatcher broadcast Jim’s address and said officers were being dispatched there immediately to arrest him.
Jim scrambled to the phone to call the cops and say it couldn’t be him because he had been sitting in the newsroom all morning surrounded by fellow reporters and please don’t come arrest him. It must be a mistake. It wasn’t. It turned out the robbers had stolen it from a parking lot to use in the holdup.
Jim was probably best known among us younger reporters for his group beach trips. He’d worked at a lot of papers and knew a lot of writers, so every year — sometimes twice a year — he’d gather a crew of 15 to 25 at the Cadillac Motel in Myrtle Beach for a long weekend of poker, drinking, fishing and eating seafood.
Jim loved to play a game we called “monte.” A player started with a two-card or three-card hand and could improve it with several draws of replacement cards followed by betting. Best two-card or three-card hand won. Jim liked it because it moved fast and a lot of us could play at once. He also liked it because he won a lot. He didn’t drink alcohol, so he’d sit at the table with bottle of Cheerwine and quietly stack up the chips as the rest of us grew drunker through the evening.
After Jim died, there was some sort of service, but his buddies held on to his ashes. A few months later, some of the beach trip regulars carried his urn along on a poker trip to the Cadillac Motel.
At some point during the evening, someone called for a round of monte. They set Jim’s ashes at the head of the table, opened a bottle of Cheerwine and set it next to him and dealt him a hand.
Jim won the hand. The players gathered the chips and put them in the urn with his ashes and raised a glass to him. The next morning, they dumped the ashes and chips into the ocean at a spot where Jim like to fish.
There were no anecdote-filled eulogies or public outpourings of affection and grief that I ever heard about. Just a few guys sharing a last card game and a drink. Perhaps that’s sad. But I think Jim would have liked it that way. He always kept to himself.
Joe Earle is editor-at-large at Reporter Newspapers and has lived in metro Atlanta for over 30 years. If you know someone with an interesting story to tell who would make a good subject for an Around Town column, email firstname.lastname@example.org.