I went home.
Which is . . . where? Well, by the poetic definition, where the heart is. Minneapolis. I drove back, wrote some stuff, decompressed, and did the video for the visitation. Found the 45s dad liked, including a version of “Under the Double Eagle.” I listened to three or four until I found the right one - opening notes clicked right away.
Sunday, the day before the visitation, I went . . . home. The other way. Drove up in a quiet mood; hit a desultory rainstorm around Detroit Lakes, an echo of the storm I’d run through the last time up. Got to the house, opened the garage door with the remote. The Harley was gone. I figured Dave had taken it to prepare for the funeral; it would be standing outside the funeral home, along with one of the transports.
Inside the house it was cold. Morgue cold. Somehow neater - Sis must have come to straight up, take some things. Or not; I hadn’t left it in any disorder, because that would be a sin against his memory, and because somehow - and it took a while - I finally inherited his Navy-born instincts for getting everything squared away.
Ah - the small muffins I’d bought were gone. The two small flags I’d set in his mug on the table, with a cutout of him in Navy uniform, was gone. I made a cup of coffee and sat outside on the deck, and felt very tired.
No, go out. Leave.
I found myself in the oldest part of the West Acres Mall area. When they put up the big mall there was also a Holiday Inn, a grocery store, and a strip mall. That was the bonus round - gosh, you mean there's another place with more stores? Who needs downtown!
Yes, here's the mood of the hour
Get out of here. For a few hours I drove around and looked at Fargo old and Fargo new, the two always side-by-side, as with all places - but here I know the old by heart. The thing about Fargo new is that it hasn’t replaced the old. It’s filled in the holes.
Sometimes buildings are as stark and self-contained as the day they were built.
Downtown's rebirth still pleases.
The big signs above were around when I was a kid. The one with the holes always unnerved me a little; I had no context for its shape or meaning.
It's always a fine summer sign when the setting sun lights up the top of this one.
I've never known what that means.
But now I am finally curious, and googling reveals that it's called the Moose Building. So, the Moose Lodge? But S AF N . . . that would be Sons of Norway? But AF isn't OF. It's AV.
Found an article that said it was Sons of Norway, but then went Moose in the 60s. Turns out there's a meeting hall / theater on the top floor I never knew existed. There was an entire world we never knew until the satellites opened the door.
The other night while going through stuff he’d set aside I found an article the local paper did on my Fargo website, back in the early days of the Internet; 1987 publicity photo of me in the story. This was before downtown came back. I was told by someone In The Know and connected to the Civic Fathers that the website made some Important People ask why downtown couldn’t come back, why they’d let it fade and dim. Eh, maybe. I’d like to think so. I know at the time, early internet, the pictures of bygone Fargo were a surprise to some people: that’s who we were? That was a city. That was a proud and prosperous place.
And now? They redid the sign for the Black Building, and it makes me feel marvelous.
The Fargo of my childhood is not only still there, it's cleaned up, restored, and held in the hands of people who value it.
This never meant more than it did this week.
Here’s the thing: Dad was the type of guy whose dentist showed up for the visitation. And as it turned out, his dentist was my best friend in grade school.
Never quite got that line about not being able to go home again. I mean I get it, but I don’t feel it.
There was his motorcycle outside the funeral home - and one of the trucks.
People had a good time, considering the circumstances. That’s odd, I know. The circumstances are the consideration that mitigate against having a good time. But define good. Par-tay har-tay? No. Tears? Many. Not all tears of pain; not all tears of happy remembrance. Some tears of joy, in the recollecting. My sister did a fantastic job setting up the displays, all the pictures, the memorabilia, the war mementos. I saw cousins I hadn’t seen in a long time; I saw the cousin who was the Farm Cousin I saw every Sunday, as sardonic as ever. I met . . . a Bleat Reader! Honestly. Perhaps he’s decloaked in comments; haven’t seen yet. What a joy and a kind thing to do.
All of this main room palaver is a good excuse for not walking closer to the chapel door, where you will glimpse the box, and if you see the box you will see the truth.
Seems I edged my way towards it, backed up, until the fact of the matter was inferred and intuited, at which point you muster up the strength to turn and look into the room, at which point every timber you had built in your head and heart the last week to give you a place to stand turns into sticks and straws.
There he is, my father, dead.
It's not him. But it is. His mortal vessel. There’s no finality like seeing the remains in the shiny box, unmoving, stilled by a sole blow. Remains. Horrible word. How can this be his remains, when this was the man we knew? Was he remains when he slept and didn't move? Is this not him because the chest does not rise or fall?
But how can this be him, when the animating spirit that lit up the flesh and operated the bones and took in the light and made his head turn to follow a sound - when that unquantifiable thing is gone, how can this be him, anymore than a house without occupants can be a home?
All this from the doorway, 20 yards away. The emotions are sparking and snaking like downed powerlines, and it takes a while to knit them together.
After a prayer and fine words from the padre, stories. Oh my, the stories. The Rust Gang got up and reeled off one hunting story after the other, and I knew none of this. I’d heard a few, but there were so many - and it was Dad in a different element, but not one out of character. On the contrary - Dad in blaze orange, crawling up a hill with a rifle, stalking a buck, that was Dad in his element. As was home and work and church. But this was pure Ralph in a way the others couldn’t be.
The fellow who'd taken him up on his last flight on his birthday gave an account, full of awe: My dad was flying the plane from the rear seat, couldn't see the instruments, and made every turn with perfect instinctual precision, kept the plane absolutely level, had the situational awareness to match a shadow of another plane on the ground with its exact position. The guy was absolutely stunned. It was a classic plane, by the way - a 1967 model my dad found entrancing. There were other new planes, sleeker and more modern, but this was the one that spoke to him.
I said some things, read a letter I’d found that afternoon in my dad’s stuff: a note to my Mom, telling her he was getting his discharge that day and couldn’t wait to see her again. Most typical Ralph thing ever: he noted that he’d loaned some guys $36, and they wouldn’t get paid before he left, so he’d probably never see it again, but he’d given them his address in case they wanted to mail it.
Generosity, trust, eyes wide open, looking towards home.
There was one more thing I haven't mentioned, but it was there in all the stores:
Ralph Lileks was the most humorous man these people had ever met.
Afterwards, just to make it complete and right, we went to the VFW for hamburgers and beer. But before that I ran to the station to get some gas, and ran into employees who wanted to say their piece and express condolences and tell me what as joy it had been to know him.
They’d printed off the website about the station and it was sitting on the counter.
There’s a sign out by the diesel pumps telling the drivers what happened, and asking them to blow their horn on the way out in tribute.
(TBH, vid from bro-in-law Dave a day later.)
Went home and turned on the TV so his music is coming from the room where he spent his nights. I’ll turn it low but I won’t turn it off.
By the way: Wife and Daughter brought Birch up, because he always loves a car ride, but he didn’t bank on this. His joy upon seeing us return was ecstatic. It was surreal, walking him around at night, or sitting on the back porch with family and dog here, where none had been before in this configuration.
Death will do that.
Tomorrow: the end
Updates continue, because they were done long ago. This one's tough because my love of these motels comes exclusively from childhood family road trips, and that time seems no more far away today then it did when I started the site. As if there's a point in your past that's always the same distance away.
The Gallery of Regrettable Food was, in a way, my testament to my Mom, and the Motel site is a testament to the road, which was Dad's gift of adventure.
I have to say the idea of returning any of this site back to normal feels like a long ways away.