Richard Thomas Mayer was born December 12th, 1921 in Red Lodge, Montana. When he was 25 or 26 years old, he met Jean Marshall Burnside at a dance and told her she was going to be the woman he married. The next day, he took flowers to her home and asked her out. They did end up marrying and staying married for over sixty years.
They had three children: my uncle David, my aunt Debbie and Rick, who was born after they moved to Alaska.
Dick served in the Army during World War II. He got the call-sign Red Dog, a play on his home town, and moved around the world. He would have been the first to move into Japan had the United States decided to continue pursuing ground combat instead of dropping the atomic bombs. Instead, he spent a lot of time in Papua New Guinea doing, as he once described it, “a lot of beer drinking and poker winning.”
Once they moved to Alaska, Dick started an architecture business and did fairly well for himself, though between the Great Depression and the 1964 earthquake, he never rose above moderate middle-class status which was enough for him and Jean.
I heard talk that Dick had trouble with drinking and anger issues. This talk came primarily from Rick, my dad, who was an angry drunk himself. Small comments from Jean and Dick through the years made me believe there were kernals of truth to it. All I know is that he never drank as long as I knew him and the few times I ever saw him angry, it had taken a lot and was usually followed by a feeling of profound shame for letting it get the better of him.
Dick and Jean more or less adopted me when I was five years old. I lived with them, as did Rick, who slept on the couch and often smelled like sweat and cheap beer, constantly dirty from construction shifts that lasted 12-15 hours and exhausted from the few hours of drinking and late night television he could stay awake through afterwords. I tried living with my dad and his psychotic wife for a period when I was eight or so, and again when I was ten. After they went to jail again, got out and fled to Nevada, I pretty much stayed with my grandparents full-time.
I moved out when I was sixteen, eighteen and twenty-one. They always took me back, no matter how much of a bastard I had been, or the mistakes I had made, or the money I had cost them.
My grandfather always read books to me and inspired in me a love for it, for writing and for adventure. We would fill a duffel bag (purple, with the now defunct Charlotte Hornets logo on it, a team of which nobody in my family was a fan of) with toys meant to go on quests with. Plastic binoculars, a compass, wooden swords and platic baggies to collect precious gems (whatever rocks I thought looked neat).
He greeted everyone with a warm smile and a terrible joke. As I got older, he would occasionally confide in me that his new caretaker would “hopefully have big tits this time” or that it was “time to call in the strippers” when my grandmother would spend the weekend at her friend’s condo. He was joking and he knew I knew that; he was far too in love and would be until the day he died.
Every summer for several years, we would travel down to Red Lodge to spend a month in a house full of relics from a past generation. A cuckoo clock you had to manually reset. A blood-red bathtub with feet. Dusty tomes and faded yellow couches, literal dinosaur fossils wrapped up in newspaper comics long since out of print. Outside was a rickety shed with a door blocked by a massive tree that had taken root. I watched the Chicago Bulls take a championship title over the Utah Jazz on a brown, boxy television with crooked rabbit ears.
Down the street, my grandfather would take me to an old school candy shop with dozens of candies in banded wooden buckets to be paid for by the pound. Directly upstairs was a vintage ice cream salon filled to the brim with classic Coca-Cola merchandise. Black and white photos of celebrities and newspaper clippings were laminated to the tabletops. That salon was the first place I had ever seen a Coke in a glass bottle and after giving the cashier two quarters to slide into his lever-action cash register, the first place I ever drank one.
I read a lot of Hardy Boys mysteries from the library there, a two-story building filled with the delicious musk of old books, and after checking them out and paying a visit to the outdoor pool where I dived about as well as a two-legged dog, we would slip down to the diner and have pigs-in-a-blanket. Our secret, because Jean was a devout Christian and detested swine in any capacity.
He introduced me to the Three Stooges and Fred Astaire. Bing Crosby and Dick van Dyke. Lawrence Welk and Lucille Ball. Jimmy Stewart and Frank Sinatra. He introduced me to manners and courtesy, to respecting women and loving them. To cheesy jokes and what romance used to be.
As he aged, it became difficult to watch him struggle to open jars. It was hard to watch his Parkinson’s shake food from his forks and spoons on their way to his mouth. It was torturous knowing I couldn’t help him, not really, because he would get angry at the impotence age had left his body. It was intensely hard to watch and I spent as much time as I could away from home in those last years, running away from it, retreating into a secure bubble of selfishness instead of spending time listening to his stories, or just sitting and watching old Westerns.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, while my grandmother fussed and worried, my grandfather hugged me tight and told me he was proud of me for pursuing my dreams as a writer after his own children had squandered their talent. When I came back and expressed my desire to return some day, he told me with a twinkle in his eye that he would like to see Los Angeles again.
And I lied to him. I lied to him and told him Hollywood wasn’t filthy and full of asshole tourists. That the city itself wasn’t full of fake people, mean-hearted and outwardly beautiful people who would stab someone in the neck for a role as an extra and who would blow out of proportion every meaningless audition they had in an effort to sleep with the right person or, failing that, someone who would just drive the desperation away for a while.
I lied to him because I knew that even the Golden Age of the silver screen had its issues but that half a century of time had left a beautiful veneer on the city in his mind and I didn’t want to destroy that for him.
They moved to an old folks’ home in Washington in 2011 while I was living…somewhere. I think also in Washington, but I didn’t know they had gone down until I had already moved back to Alaska again. My grandmother passed the summer of next year. My grandfather was in and out of delirium and unable to talk on the phone. He fell in love with the nurses when he wasn’t all there and longed for his wife when he was.
He started taking care of me as his own child at the age of 71, even though I wasn’t even his flesh-and-blood grandson. He passed away two months before his 91st birthday. He was the closest thing to a real father I’ve ever had.
The only thing I really inherited from him was his wedding band, a 14 karat yellow gold ring that once had milgrain along the edges but has mostly faded away over the decades. I wear it every day.
If I could sum him up in ten words or less, the man he was to me and to his wife, I suppose I would do it by the phrase he said to me every time I got ready to walk out the door: “Try to be one of the good guys.”
I’m fucking trying, Bompa. Don’t tell Grandma I said the F word.