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Archive for May 24th, 2008

Since I’m a Canadian, Memorial Day doesn’t mean much to me. Our May long weekend is Victoria Day, and is often the weekend before. From the times I’ve been travelling in the United States on the Memorial Day long weekend, it seems to involve a lot of parade drill from everyone from octogenarians to people in wheelchairs – and as a sport, parade drill is low on the list for breakneck action and usually looks faintly ridiculous to my outsider’s eye. But I do remember one unforgettable Memorial Day, when we visited the fantasist Avram Davidson at the Veteran’s Hospital in Bremerton, Washington.

As you may know if you have any taste for literary fantasy, Avram was one of the great fantasists and humorists of the 20th Century. But, as sometimes happens with greater writers, he was not very skilled at taking care of himself. Through poverty, he had developed the habit of living in small towns where rents were cheaper, and, according to him, moving on when he had exhausted the local library.

In the last couple of years of his life, this habit had brought him to Bremerton. When his long-neglected health began to fail, he landed in the local veteran’s hospital, thanks to his service in World War 2 as a hospital corpsman in the Marine Corp in the Pacific. There, from the narrow confines of his room, he fought a running battle with the bureaucrats of the hospital and of Veteran Affairs, none of whom were used to dealing with patients who were not only highly intelligent but who had a high degree of curmudgeon and anarchist in their mental makeup.

Perhaps it was a campaign in this ongoing battle that prompted Avram to invite everyone he knew within a day’s travel distance to the hospital’s Memorial Day celebration, just to annoy his opponents. Or maybe Avram’s famous generosity, so long denied because of his poverty, seized on the celebration as a overdue way to treat his friends and repay them for their visits. He could, too, have been restless in the limitations of his life, and worrying that he might not have long to live.

Knowing Avram, the invitation was probably extended for all these reasons. But, whatever his motivations, the invitation went out, and we drove down from British Columbia that morning with all the excitement that inhabitants of Hobbiton must have tramped over to the party field to celebrate Bilbo’s birthday party.

The trip was memorable as the only one we ever took south of the border in which the American customs guard did not interrogate us on the strength of our rustbucket Maverick.. In those days (and possibly still, for all I know), custom jobs were veteran-preferred postings. The second that the guard heard that we were visiting the veteran’s hospital, he smiled and waved us through without another question.

When we got there, we found that the hospital had laid dozens of tables out on the lawn. The celebration was in full swing, but we had no difficulty finding Avram. He was sitting as far away from the bandstand as possible, surrounded by a dozen people, holding court in his wheel chair and telling stories about recent and past events.

At this late date, I don’t remember everything everyone said. But I do remember that, when someone noted that a tavern sat just beyond the hospital grounds, Avram said that many of the patients would go to any length to get to the hard liquor served at the tavern. When the hospital tried to discourage the custom by planting a pole in the gap of the fence, so that wheelchairs couldn’t squeeze through it, wheelchair patients would drag themselves along the fence, inch by painful inch, to get to the tavern. On Friday nights, he said, they looked like insects spread across a windshield as they clung there.

At some point, too another guest took out a letter he had been asked to forward to Avram six months ago. To my surprise, it was from me – I had completely forgotten the incident.

The stories and jokes went on, many told by Avram, but others contributing their share as well. A band arrived and played the usual American patriotic songs. We continued talking, oblivious to the occasional glares from other visitors. We lined up for food, and the hospital staff glared at our numbers and said nothing. The celebrations ended, and staff started to clean, until only our table was left standing, and still we talked. We didn’t care. I don’t know how Avram’s other visitors were feeling, but I felt as though I had stumbled into a London coffee house on an evening when Samuel Johnson was holding forth, and I didn’t want the evening to end. If we hadn’t had a ferry to catch and a two hour drive on the other side, we might have stayed until midnight.

As things happened, that was the last I saw of Avram. He was dead less than a year later, having left the veteran’s hospital for a basement suite in the town just before the bureaucrats could throw him out. I understand that he was only found a couple of days after he died, and I don’t like to think about his final moments alone.

Instead, I prefer to think of him as I last saw him when I looked back across the grass. He looked tired, but he was obviously in his element, telling stories and laughing at what other people said – a master storyteller even in his leisure.

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