“And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew. That one small head could carry all he knew.” –Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village
That was one of my stepfather’s favorite quotes.
My stepfather — Richard A. Brown — he always used his middle initial in formal situations — passed the night of June 28th.
He passed of heart failure. I suspect he simply thought it was his time to go.
Richard was an interesting, sometime heartsore, ball of contradiction. He was a farm boy… yet had an incredible intellect. He was a man’s man… yet spent many hours with my mom planting the most delicate of gardens. He was fiercely private… yet, he loved people, entertaining all with folksie story-telling and self-deprecating humor.
Richard grew up in upstate New York.
He grew up much faster than the rest of us. He had to. Where were his parents? Gone. They left him — and six younger siblings — with grandparents. At a time when you’re supposed to be a kid, Richard — as the oldest Brown child — had to be an adult — with parental responsibilities that would overwhelm adults twice his age. Of course, Richard downplayed this… I can just hear him say, “my only real responsibility was to make sure the younger kids didn’t get struck by a meteorite.” (Pitchforks were a different story, Richard was always fond of recalling!)
Richard was big and strong as an ox. He used to laugh remembering how someone had talked him into carrying not one BUT TWO 100-pound feed bags at the same time. He would say, “I was just an ignorant baby, I thought that was normal because no one told me it wasn’t.”
Later in life he wore that “simple farm boy” persona. But we all know he was far from being a simple farm boy. His intelligence was off-the-scales. I could go on about him “walking backwards through the snow to Cornell University”… or being a decorated military intelligence officer… or him being fluent in Russian… or him having an encyclopedic opinion on just about every academic topic under the sun…
… but when I described Richard’s intelligence, I usually do it this way: The man does crossword puzzles… IN INK!
Was he supposed to be a good ‘ole farm boy? Was he supposed to be an academic? Was he supposed to be a soldier? Was he supposed to be “the Big Bastard” (as he was wont to call himself)? What was the best way to be a father 3,000 miles away from your kids? Was he supposed to unselfishly counsel every needy soul within a 30-mile radius?
He didn’t know. He searched most of his life just trying to figure out who he was.
And his searching did not come without cost, as attested to by 40 years of taking it “one day at a time.”
But he persevered when people thought he couldn’t.
He persevered with my mom when she got sick, ultimately being the responsible caregiver for a slowly declining Alzheimer’s patient.
And he persevered when his physicality started failing him. So he got around the house a little slower. So he got to his projects a little slower. So curbs and, well, other cars got in his way from time to time. He remained fiercely independent. And — always — sharp-as-a-tack.
Richard loved working with his hands, and in particular working the soil. I remember him explaining to me one of the great shames of South San Francisco. Before development, South City had incredibly rich top soil. The developers, so it seemed, scrape off the top 10 feet for resale, exposing a barren, unproductive layer of clay. Richard spent years — maybe a decade — composting that soil back to its original fertile state… sweating all the way… cursing the developers all the way… cursing the gods all the way… but at the end of the day, you could just tell how pleased he was… “good enough for government work,” he’d always say… but it was far more than that… Richard grew anything and everything… including something I found recently: A monstrous, 5-lbs lemon! I never did get to ask him about that… his botanical secret now sadly a secret for the ages.
Richard loved his Mason Lodge — Francis Drake #376 — where he presided as its Grand Master for many years. He most especially loved his Mason brothers! The Masons were the center of Richard’s social universe for the last half of his life… there’s many generations of “kiddies” (as he would call them) who still think he bares an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus!
Richard was an avid reader and a fine marksman. And “Poppa” loved – loved – LOVED his grandchildren. Whenever one of the kids couldn’t fall asleep, Poppa would put that grandkid on his belly and, in an instant, they’d be sound asleep!
Above all, Richard loved flying… by himself… in singular control… way up high. Peace. At last.
I last saw Richard on Father’s Day. I — like everybody else — couldn’t imagine that would be the last time I saw him… the Brown’s have a consistent way of defying the gods.
For me, so many things left unsaid. He took care of Doodie. He took care of my mom. I love him for those things.
It’s difficult to summarize a man — and his life — as complex as Richard. There’s no doubt Richard is snickering somewhere saying, “Good luck with that one, buddy!”
So I’d like to do it this way. All his life, while Richard may have searched for who he was…
… he never had a doubt about what he was: An intelligent man. And an honorable man.
At the end of his life, I think he’d be especially pleased to hear that.
Richard A. Brown… to you a good soldier’s send off. Rest in peace, Poppa.