If you're lucky, you will meet, spend time with, learn from--maybe even become friends with--rare individuals whose very presence in your life makes up for a lot of the general disappointment and drudgery some of us come to expect from our fellow homo sapiens. I have been so lucky. I have met, spent time with and learned from--even become friends with--people who have made it a pleasure, even a blessing, to be part of the same human race they belong to.
Last week came notice of the deaths of three of those rare individuals. They died within a day or two of one another. All of them had their passing announced in the same day's paper. Two were local guys; the third was famous around the world, I imagine--even off-world--but he always felt local to me.
I wish I could remember the first story of Ray Bradbury's I ever read. I suspect it was something from The Martian Chronicles. Maybe Dandelion Wine or that short masterpiece of poignancy, "There Will Come Soft Rains." I grew up with a crush on science fiction--read everyone from Isaac Asimov to H.G. Wells, with 100 writers in between--but it was Bradbury who put the soul in the genre for me.
His delicate tales were spun with soft-tissue characters--vulnerable, poetic and magical people--as central to the hardware of robots and space travel and societies where the aberrant has become the norm. No matter what wicked thing this way comes, which strange visitor arrived out of the Martian night, who beat on the hidden door of the secret library, it came through the eyes of a young boy who could have been me, a family which might have been mine, a world not so far removed from the one I knew.
I wasn't Bradbury's friend, sadly. Never met him. But I spent light-years lost in his cosmos and have spent my entire writing life trying to arrange my words as beautifully as he did his. When I heard he died last week, I felt one of those inner, inexplicable things which, all put together, make up what we have become, wither and fall away into the mists of nostalgia. Even the ancient and noble ghosts of Mars took a moment to mark his passing and shed a tear or two into the martian sand, I'm sure of it.
My first memory of Mel Shelton was from a marching band competition in the early '60s. I was on the field in Meridian High School's puny 28-piece band, stumbling through some sad-ass formation or other, when we became conscious of Boise High School's 150-piece band lining up in both end zones, getting ready to follow us. As soon as we tottered off the field, they thundered on, playing the Boise fight song, with Mel standing on the 50 yard line like a proud father to his huge and snappy brood. That band of his was marvelous. So marvelous that, even now, 50 years later, the hair stands up on my scalp and salutes whenever I watch a great marching band take the field.
In time, Mel left Boise High and directed the band at Boise Junior College. He also led the Treasure Valley Concert Band, which continues on to this day. That's where I met him, playing in his community band during summer concerts in the old band shell in Julia Davis Park. His love of that music showed in every flourish of his talented baton, every grin on his warm face, every jiggle of his jolly girth. If Boise ever had a Music Man, it was Mel. And if the Heavenly Wind Ensemble ever plays any Sousa or Holst, it needs to make space for Mel on the podium.
Perry Swisher was so rooted in Idaho, I imagined he smelled like sagebrush and Bonneville County potatoes. Outside Bruneau, his grandfather bred the horses that carried Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill. As a legislator, Perry led the effort to get Idaho State Junior College made a full-fledged university. As a public utilities commissioner, he fought to keep utility rates reasonable for Idaho families and bring the latest technology to the state. As a journalist, he dared to expose the hypocrisy and corruption of Idaho's power elite. And as a friend, he could make you laugh with every word that came from his agile mind and laser-guided tongue.
I met Perry after the great body of his life work had been accomplished. I learned only later how essential a proponent he has been over a 60-year span for education, communication and honesty in government. But as a young person, just growing into my political boots, I thrilled at his opinion pieces in the old Intermountain Observer, Idaho's first alternative press. In as staid a state as Idaho, especially in the late '60s, Perry's voice was sassy and bullshit-free. Then 30 years on, to become a column-writing colleague of his at Boise Weekly was like having a beer with a childhood hero. And I was never disappointed. If anything, he had grown sassier and more bullshit-free with age.
I had the opportunity a few years ago to meet some of his lifelong friends. Every few weeks, they would meet for breakfast, some coming in from as far away as Pocatello. This was aside from his regular klatch who gathered every day at Moon's Kitchen Cafe. I made that scene only once--they met very early in the morning, alas--but that once was enough to see how fondly his co-conversationalists thought of him. If a person can be judged on how greatly his friends will miss him--and what better way to judge a person?--Perry lived one of the most successful lives I've ever been witness to.
It will be damn hard to imagine Idaho without him.