Thursday, January 8, 2015

Remembering Huvie

“Boredom. Days and weeks and months of boredom . . . mixed with . . . dread!” he shook his head and shuddered, as if to shake off the thought. As he spoke the house was filled with the smell of turkey in the oven.

That’s how my father-in-law, Huvie (pronounced like “Groovy”) described his days on a mine sweeper in the South Pacific in World War II.

“We’re taught to avoid danger, but it was our job to look for mines. We were looking for bombs. It’s boring. And it’s terrifying, let me tell ya!”

Huvie & Carolyn, circa late 1940s
It was Thanksgiving. We were sitting in the den of Huvie and Carolyn’s old Victorian home in Bluffton, Indiana. It was the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. He sat in the dark vinyl recliner, his long legs crossed, a can of Meister Brau and paper plate of potato chips on the black metal TV tray beside him. Detroit Lions fans cheered from the television. The women were somewhere, doing something. Huvie and I, and maybe a child or two were watching the Lions game.

“We knew the Japs were at Iwo Jima because there were no mines. Later, after the fighting I was just randomly looking through binoculors and saw the flag the marines raised atop Mount Suribochi.”

The cadence of his accent was a midwestern mashup of Missouri and Michigan. He wore black glasses and a white ring of hair around his bald head. He was tall and lanky, with welcoming, friendly body language.

I’d married Huvie’s 4th daughter in the adjoining living room just a few years earlier. When we discussed plans for marriage, he looked at me across the dining room table and said, “I’ll give you $2,000 and an extension ladder if you’ll elope.”

I laughed.

“I’m not joking," he said. "I’m serious! It would all be easier that way, and you’d have a ladder!”

His name was Robert Huvendick, but almost nobody called him Bob. He was Huvie to everyone.

He was raised in Missouri during the depression in what we’d recognize now as poverty. The austerity and deprivation of that childhood would frame his view of money for the rest of his life. He sold fuller brushes before heading off to the war and came home to marry Carolyn. He went to college on the GI bill and played basketball until he blew out his knee. From that day on golf was his sports obsession.

On perhaps another Thanksgiving, over yet another Meister Brau and a paper plate of potato chips nestled in a wicker plate holder, he laughed about the birth of his first daughter, Sally and how he left the hospital and drove through town honking his horn and whooping and hollering out the window to alert the world.

He worked his entire professional life for Corning Glass, first in Albion, Michigan, and then in Bluffton, Indiana. In the years after his retirement, my family spent many summer weeks at his lake cottage on Duck Lake in southern Michigan.

The tackle box on his pontoon boat displayed the austerity he brought to everything he bought. He could afford a big, fancy tackle box and an expensive rod and reel, but that would be foolish. The box was small and maybe a kid's starter tackle box. It was filled with  assorted hooks, sinkers, a half rusty pair of needle nose pliers, spare black rubber worms and a Durkee spice-rack bottle of anise oil. He dipped the rubber worms in the oil, convinced it attracted the bass that lazed under the docked boats on a hot summer day. A live box beside the dock gathered bass during our visits and if the catch was big enough he’d clean them on a rickety picnic table.

Once he asked my littlest, also named Sally, if she'd like to watch him clean the fish. Perhaps 6 or 7 years old, she happily said yes, thinking they'd scrub them with soap and water. But as he cut the head off the first one she screamed in horror, "You're not cleaning them, you're killing them." 

She cried hard. He laughed hard.
Huvie & Carolyn, circa 1990s

While at Duck Lake, he read the Detroit Free Press everyday and was always in the middle of a book, beginning a book, or finishing a book. Library books and loaned paperbacks littered both home and lake cottage. In the afternoons he’d putter on a project, wash the sail boat, paint some trim, tidy up the wood pile, or sit before the TV watching golf, his legs crossed, working a toothpick in his mouth. From time to time he'd sit in a chair in the front lawn with a towel draped 'round his shoulders and Carolyn would give him a haircut. Most days, he'd bath in the lake with a bar of soap kept at the end of the dock.

He made martinis promptly at 5:00, or a little earlier, because, “It’s 5:00 somewhere,” he’d mutter, pouring inexpensive gin into two glasses, then a whiff of vermouth, and a slice of lemon. He never made just one. The first he took to his wife, who he’d remain married to for 68 years until his death. He grilled steak or chicken and warn of its imperfections when he brought it in. And though eating it on garage-sale plates and all of us sitting on a madcap assortment of second-hand chairs most other families wouldn't bother keeping, he’d say in a deadpan tone, “I wonder what the poor folk are doing tonight.”

Huvie’s explosive sneezes would scare children shitless and his hearty laughter could make a dark day bright. He would maddeningly retell the same stories and jokes and worried about practically everything as if it was his full-time job. Presented with a toddler, he’d cross his legs and saddle the child up on his foot for a horsy ride to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”

On one of the last Thanksgivings spent in the den back in Indiana before the Lions’ game with Huvie, he shared details of the death of his oldest daughter, Sally, decades earlier when she was 16. This story, seldom uttered in their home for the shear oppressive, suffocating weight of its sadness just came out of him – the confusion, the terror, the unexpressable and unnecessary guilt that nagged at him every single day thereafter. When I told my wife later that night what her father had told me she sat up in bed in disbelief.

In ways I’d never realized, he was a 2nd father to me. Over the years that I knew him he showed more appreciation for my hard work and creativity than my own father did. But sadly, my connection to Huvie ended 4 years ago amid my separation and divorce from his daughter. It could be said that in Huvie’s world I proceeded him in death by 4 years. That put a little burning coal of hurt in my heart that I will probably never get over.

Still, in the summer when I cross the Little Chicago or Carrigan bridges and catch the silhouette of a man fishing from a pontoon boat, I immediately think of Huvie. When the smell of turkey fills the house and the Detroit Lions are on TV, I forget about my snooty beers and wish I had a Meister Brau. And when someone bounces a child on their knee and sings “Yankee Doodle,” it’s Huvie’s voice I’ll hear.

Farewell Huvie, you were such a good man.

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