by F.N. Wright
MICHELE MCDANNOLD AND I pull into the cemetery about 45 minutes early to FN Wright’s funeral. We’d met at the Mattoon American Legion, coming from opposite sides of central Illinois, and carpooled as “Team Fez” over to Findlay. A dozen or so uniformed VFW men are already assembled around the spot. We stay in the car for a while, talking about our memories of Fred and our future plans for Red Fez. The military veterans showed up, but we thought it equally likely a biker gang or a passel of hippie writers could have been the dominant group, knowing Fred and his multiple affiliations. It’s a safe bet a colorful and diverse group attended his memorial service in California. Here, family, friends, and old military men are gathered in clusters.
Burial ceremonies are depressing and bizarrely dignified. There are the tarps and cloths, the flowers, stones and chairs, the gaunt professionals in suits and dark glasses that gently but confidently guide the service. The immediate family feels the most grief as the finality of their loss sets in. Friends and distant relatives share in the sadness and feel awkwardly unable to provide any real comfort, which only time can provide.
A photo collage stands up in the corner of the blue tarped tent. FN Wright’s image as a child. FN Wright a young man in the service. FN Wright in his prime at his typewriter (an obligatory photo for writers of his age, and Fred appears in several). FN Wright hugging a pretty woman, a gleam in his eye. FN Wright as a wild white haired old man. Then as we’ve finally met him, caught up in the boxed belly of an engraved bass leaping out of its river.
The services begin suddenly when a man starts talking in a conversational voice, telling us how he admired Fred while growing up with him. Traffic goes by on the highway, one or two cars at a time, a soft whoosh that’s enough to mute the sound of the pastor’s voice. Surely the family can hear him and they’re the ones that need to most. The group, less than fifty of us, gather around at a respectful distance and watch. The Our Father prayer is said but not everyone joins in, not everyone gets the words right.
We can see the honor guard fold up the flag and present it to Fred’s son Stu. The veterans are mostly silent but the emotion of their wartime experiences is broadcast from their faces, in a solemn and moving display. We can hear as Taps is played, with one imperfect note. The rifles sound out in three volleys. Later I see young boys clutching the shell casings, worthy souvenirs. The services are ending and we’re all invited back to the American Legion in Mattoon for lunch.
People slowly start to leave or break into smaller groups. Michele leads the way to introduce ourselves to Stu, now that we have figured out which guy he is, and to awkwardly mumble our condolences. We’re also introduced to Natalie, Fred’s niece who is also a writer and artist. Then we walk away past the stone, and notice it’s a family plot. The name is Kerans. They are in the western corner of the small cemetery, by the highway. Surrounded by cornfields, a train track runs at an angle a short distance behind, as if restless spirits could hitch or hop to anywhere they’d like to be.
The VFW men have gone and my white car stands out among the graves. We talk about Fred some more on the way back to the American Legion. Turns out we both started reading his poetry about seven years ago on Brian Fugett’s website, Zygote In My Coffee. Michele started emailing with Fred a few years ago, and then had conversations with him on the phone. I only came to know him personally the last year and a half of his life.
First I had listened to his call-ins to Tim Murray’s Red Fez Radio Show. His wit was quick and his mind extra sharp, and the host and listener had to keep up with him. He had endless stories and jokes to tell. His humor was quirky and his cadence was unusual. Endless technical problems plagued him in typical old-man style, from a lack of computer speakers to internet and phone problems. Yet he showed up more often than not. The crazy recordings made over the internet are now treasured archives.
Then over the winter of 2011-12 FN Wright showed up as a surprise participant in our Zygote In My Fez literary nerd fantasy football league. His team started out as the “Tennessee Terrors” but suffered a losing streak and eventually morphed into the “Comeback Kids.” Fred was so into the game, arguing with the likes of Frank Reardon over player trades, dealing, begging and cajoling for better players. He had awful luck, but eventually won his last six games or so in dramatic fashion and finished respectably. We all figured he would do much better next season, and in fact Fred was getting ready to draft a ZyFez fantasy baseball team shortly before he died. That league never got off the ground without him.
Another interesting thing is that his Cardinals won the World Series that October. Talking about all this sports stuff online was a great way for some of us to bond with Fred and get to know him better. For him I imagine it allowed him an escape from his health troubles, which were deadly serious, yet he only mentioned them to most of us in passing.
We found out about Fred’s death on facebook, via his son. I know it came as a surprise to some of us. Fred was an old man but he could’ve had a lot of living left to do. His family members were awaiting his return to Illinois. His small press friends across the midwest looked forward to spending time with him upon his return. It wasn’t in the cards.
Shortly after Fred died, Tim Murray did a touching Red Fez Radio Tribute show in his honor, taking calls from several of his close friends. Here we learned that Fred also went by Frank, as in his character Hippie Frank, and that he mailed out many of his writings and paintings as gifts, and talked with some of his friends in marathon phone sessions, helping them through their life problems. While at the same time, he was dealing with many problems of his own.
Michele and I somehow ended up getting to the American Legion first, just as the food was being uncovered. So naturally we sat down and had a plate. Something about burials can make a person especially hungry, oddly if not inappropriately so, perhaps it’s a subconscious celebration of life. Eventually the rest of the group filtered into the American Legion bar area, a rather large and very dark room with “members only” slot machines at one end, a long bar with inexpensive booze, and military and local history display cases all around the room.
As we scarfed some food, the family started rearranging the individual tables into a few long tables, a sign of a closely knit group. Stu approached us again and thanked us for coming, Natalie came up and said hello again, and Fred’s daughter Lisa introduced herself and talked with us for a while. They are all really nice people. We looked at some more Fred photos and the Mattoon display cases, until Michele and I had to leave for our trips back home. It had just started to rain as we walked out.
We’re all left now with memories and the charge of preserving Fred’s legacy. In addition to his talents for writing and painting, what made FN Wright stand out as a star was his personality and accessibility. Sometimes the old head writers who’ve been at it since the 1960’s with some success tend to sit slightly above the fray in the small press pecking order. Not Fred. I believe he would have talked with and helped just about anyone that sought him out. As young writers and human beings, especially, that sort of openness and warmth is appreciated. I think it’s what made many of us feel close to Fred in a relatively short period of time, just as much as the quality of the man’s creative works.
So now, without him, it’s time to remember, celebrate, preserve, and promote what he left behind. Thanks FN Wright, you self-proclaimed “old cur.” All your friends miss you over here in Zygote & Red Fez land, and way beyond.
Dispatches from Atlantis #8:
by Paul Corman-Roberts