A Remembrance of Ed Gardner

March 26, 2004

Every once in a while, a bit of prose just tugs at me. Today, I received an email from an old friend of mine; David and I went to college together but didn’t meet until years later. This past weekend, his father passed away. David has written the following remembrance, one I thought I’d share. I never met his father, but reading this piece, I have a sense of who he was and, perhaps more importantly, who his son is.

Ed Gardner died in the early hours of the Vernal Equinox. His physician nodded in assent as various options for heroic care were declined. The monitor next to him recorded a futile effort to maintain order as my father slipped from the grip of a disease that had gradually robbed him of his mind. “Can I summon a minister for him?” the doctor asked. I managed a weak smile through the tears and replied, “Only if you can find a Druid.” Dad would have appreciated the humor. He was 79 irreverent years old.

Edward Merrill Gardner, Jr. was born in Brooklyn, New York, in the year that Calvin Coolidge became President. He was the only child of a mechanical engineer and a private school headmistress. His parents divorced when he was about eight. Growing up in the city and on the family homestead in the mountains outside Highland Mills, NY, he wore white shirts, tweed knickers and high lace-up shoes. I’m sure he got dirty playing in the woods with his cousins, although the pictures never showed him that way. He had crystal clear grey-blue eyes, and dark brown hair that was always slicked down and parted razor-straight. He was handsome. He was bright, but also a bit lazy when it came to school work. He went off to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and left after his sophomore year to join the Navy.

He served as a Pharmacist’s Mate aboard a troop transport ship in the Asian Pacific during World War II. It must have been grim duty because–while he would tell the occasional outlandish sea story–if you asked him about Tokyo Rose or about the Marines he nursed after a beach assault, he would become tight-lipped and silent. After the war, he briefly took another stab at college–this time at NYU–and then went to work for the Boy Scouts, first as a camp director and then later as a scout executive. This is who he really was, and throughout my childhood I remember my father smelling like wood smoke and citronella, standing on a table in a camp dining hall to make announcements, or trudging down some dusty camp road to manage the next disaster. He was often gone before I was up in the morning and home after my bedtime. He must have walked miles every day. I remember bouncing along on his shoulders, ducking low branches, my hands on top of his buzz-cut head, eyes stinging in the smoke from the ever-present cigar or pipe clenched in his teeth. “Cigars”, my dad would say, “are great insect repellent.” After he left the scouts, he ran the business end of a psychiatric clinic, sold computers, and worked as a substitute teacher. Eventually, he earned a college degree. But it was a lifetime spent out in the woods–getting things done by gritty persistence or brute force–which really defined him.

Ed knew what he liked, even if sometimes it made him a bit of a paradox. He taught by example, both good and bad. He sometimes drank too much and had a bad temper, so I learned moderation and patience. He was a devoted husband and an eternal optimist. He could drive an Army surplus dump truck or an Austin Healy Sprite with equal style. He loved ragtime piano, bad poetry, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, and very large bowls of ice cream. He loved to sing, especially little nonsense tunes like Danny Kaye’s “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy”. He loved chess. I don’t know that he was exceptionally good at it, but that didn’t stop him from founding and coaching a chess club for many years at the public library and teaching a love for the game to hundreds of kids. He led armies of teenagers on 200-mile white water canoe trips in the middle of nowhere, and made fund-raising speeches at black tie dinners. On the occasions he went to the symphony, he would enthusiastically report that his favorite part was the “kettle drums” (and he “knew damn well the correct name was ‘tympani’, thank you very much!”) He was a naturalist, and liked to say that the arrival of Juncos at the bird feeder was a harbinger of snow. Then, because he didn’t want it to snow, he’d pick up a ruler and rap on the window to scare them away.

He was a boy at heart, a great entertainer of youngsters. Our favorite childhood book was the Maurice Sendak-illustrated “The Moon Jumpers”–because after reading it, we’d go out in the back yard and jump at the moon. He seemed to believe that to really have a good time, one had to push the limits of personal safety. Indeed, his favorite sport was jousting. Not with horses and lances, but with canoes–contestants standing on the gunwales, aiming for the other boat’s team with a bamboo stick topped with a chlorox bottle. “Paddle harder!” he’d yell from the dock. He wasn’t big on formality but knew about authority, and so as a compromise generations of camp counselors, students and chess players came to know him as “Mr. Ed.” He always had a vegetable garden, and would head right out to dig in it every day when he got home from the office (often still wearing his good shoes). He loved to sail and had briefly owned a pretty boat. In all the years that I have sailed, I regret that I never once sailed with my father. Sometimes he struggled with being a father. Sometimes he got it just right. He didn’t come to many of my soccer games, but he taught me how to build a house. He didn’t bug me enough about being a good student, but when I invited him to come on a father-son cruise on my ship, he hopped on a plane for Norfolk the next day. He taught me how to read a topo map, delighted in spooking my friends and me when we camped out in the back yard, and taught me how to drive when I was 13 so I could plow the road before catching the school bus. He made me stand on my own when I’d done something wrong, but I always knew he believed in me no matter what.

When he loved some thing or someone, you knew it. Ed was the kind of guy who would call his beloved daughter-in-law, pregnant with our first child–and me away on reserve duty–to tell her that the harvest moon he could see was the same one that she could see…..and the same one that I could see hundreds of miles out on the ocean–and that if she was lonely or afraid all she needed to do was look at the moon and know that he and I were also looking at it, and thinking of her (“I see the moon, the moon sees me, the moon sees the someone that I’d like to see…”).

His heroes, apart from Henry the Navigator, were his few close friends. He could be stubborn and difficult, even abrasive. He kept up a tough exterior, and he carried his share of burdens. He had a big heart and an even bigger sense of humor. That sense of humor sustained him–and me–to his last days. Robbed of his ability to assemble sentences, he still had good hearing and an understanding of the sublime. He delighted in eavesdropping on the rambling chatter of the other Alzheimer’s patients, and we had a running joke: “Lotsa”, he’d say, cracking a smile, “Lotsa”. I’d complete the sentence for him: “crazy people in here.” “Yes!” he’d say, his eyes twinkling.

Perhaps his greatest love of all were his dogs, and foremost among them, Salty. I think he enjoyed dogs so much because they were so much like him: full of life, loyal, and always ready to go for a walk. As we left the hospital in the predawn cold, Bridget said that she knew he had gone to a better place–one that most certainly included a cranberry bog and a Golden Retriever.

David is a professor of biology at Roanoke College; I suspect he could teach creative writing, too. My thanks to David for allowing me to post his remembrance of his father.