It’s often said they come in threes, and maybe we only note the coincidence when a third one arrives, often unexpected and always unwanted.
In reality death comes in the millions. But “millions” are statistics, as Joseph Stalin once remarked; a trio is a tragedy. And it feels truly tragic to lose, in a blink, Frank McMichael, Al Brown and Stan Harris.
Frank was perhaps the best known, having done time as a county supervisor and as a longtime voice of restraint and common sense in local politics. My last visit with him came a few weeks ago when we sat in his front yard on West Perkins talking about life, the world, marriage, kids and dogs.
It was as wide-ranging and thoughtful a conversation I’ve ever had in my life. Frank McMichael, having recovered from cancer and barely dodging hospice care five years ago, was alert and lively. His chief burden was caring for his ailing wife, Midge, who slept inside. Who could predict he’d expire before Midge?
We talked about government and history, Frank’s brother’s construction business, growing up poor in Tennessee, and the funny, wide-ranging skills needed, and problems confronted, by police officers. (Frank was once an LA cop.) He was insightful, clear-thinking, articulate, thoughtful and with the ability to instantly recall pertinent facts and information to illuminate parallel trends both historic and current. And 10 days later he was dead.
Al Brown was the jovial guy with the booming laugh who drove an ugly little green car all over town, often erratically, while delivering information, humor and crossword puzzles to Ukiahans in need of a Wall Street Journal, New York Times or Santa Rosa Press-Democrat to start their mornings right.
He was forever in a hustle to complete his route before heading to Friedman’s to clock another eight or so hours, yet Al always had time to pull to the curb and chat when I was on a morning walk. He had a lively sense of humor and a solid blue collar outlook on work and life, and believed most politicians are busy making both work and life more difficult.
And Al sure knew his way around life and work. He told me the last time he took a day off work was sometime back in the ‘90s, and couldn’t foresee when his next work-free day might occur. But the day arrived sooner than expected.
A big, hearty fellow, Al fought cancer on even terms for a long while, but then his hair and weight started disappearing, the voice began cracking and then one day his longtime companion, Jen, and his old delivery route comrade, Denny, were making the rounds, tossing the papers.
And I never saw Al again.
We nicknamed Stan Harris “Mr. Fixit” because he could repair anything and everything, but he was also the king of yard sales, a dog’s best friend and a championship caliber smoker.
Which one is not like the others?
In his twilight years he’d go find, fetch and fix old washers and dryers, working in his driveway so as to not miss chance encounters with passing dogs. Unlike most of Dog’s Best Friends, Stan didn’t bother with biscuits or treats, and instead simply held dogs close while nuzzling them, murmuring who-knows-what into their furry necks.
Whatever it was, my dog loved him like she loved few others, always going out of her way to see if Stan was on his driveway dealing with a broken Kenmore-this or a Maytag-that. Or sitting on his little chair smoking and planning the next yard sale, which he forever claimed he was getting too old to be doing, right up to the next one.
His yard sales were big, with acres of items spread around his corner lot and onto the driveway, many accumulated by his daughter from abandoned storage lockers. His garage, a source of great amusement to me and endless toil to him, contained treasures that would eventually be yard sale bargains. Which meant his own garage was a great big storage locker.
One morning he said to me “Come look here” and led me to the back of his jam-packed garage.
“This lamp?” he asked. “I sold this same lamp right here at a yard sale last summer. I know it’s the same lamp because of these yellow glass balls stacked up like this. Never seen one like it. Sold it, like I said.
“Then my daughter went out, bought a bunch of stuff in a storage unit in Sonoma County and so here’s that same lamp come back again.
“So now you know why I’ll never be able to get this garage cleaned out. I can’t win! It’s enough work selling this stuff once, but when you have to do it over again, well I just got too much stacked against me.”
He laughed, went outside, sat down and fumbled around for a cigarette. As Puppy the dog and I left to resume our walk he called out, “Now you come back soon and see me again, alright?”
Stan obviously wasn’t talking to me.