Max, by a good friend, David Tanner
Gray and old and with quavering voice Max lies in his home office in a hospital bed and converses. Lungs that once sucked in the desert air flying over Northern Africa during WW II are now barely functional. Arms and legs once strong and vital have lost their metal. From the neck down, he is a shadow of his former self to be sure. I have come to visit. It is the kind of visit that makes one wonder how many more visits are left before Max’s final soliloquy. I would like to be there when it finally happens. I am sure something profound will be said even if no words cut the air. Max is a brilliant conversationalist, always reading, always thinking, always dreaming and very often in the privacy of his own inner sanctuary, reaching out to his creator with supplications too deep for words. To be sure Max was not a concise thinker. Surely he would often get lost in the poetry and cadence of his own sentences. Often he would ask, “Am I making any sense here?” I would always nod in the affirmative even if I felt he wasn’t because the last thing I wanted to do was derail the linguistic locomotive that pulled the vivid images through the tunnels of his colorful mind.
Born in 1919 he was my father’s friend. Like my own father, I have always known him. Before I could read I knew Max and his first wife Doris who we all knew as Dorie. Max knew tragedy. I was about thirteen when Dorie was killed in an automobile accident on Porterville highway and their youngest son Bill was effectively frontally lobotomized. It was an incident that would change our family’s relationship in ways that my own father could never reconcile or see coming. It was my father who was called when the news came that Dorie was dead. Someone had to tell Max and John Lavender the pastor of the First Baptist Church could not be reached. Max was doing a job over at Norm Larson’s dairy and when my father arrived Max had already gotten the news. My father was always grateful for that. I think it would be fair to say, and not without cause, Max became a hermit for some time after Dorie’s untimely death. He continued to run his contracting business, after all he still had three children to support, but Max stopped playing a significant role in our lives. It was hard on my father because he loved him and he struggled to understand his own loss. It was the same for my mother because she had lost a second sister one of blood and one of bond before it was time both due to automobile accidents. I was a kid and had little sense of human tragedy until I met Max again in my early twenties.
I was walking down Chester Avenue one hot summer day and was getting ready to step off the curb into the alley between 18th and 19th streets when a white Chevy El Camino pulled up and stopped. Max was driving and undoubtedly smoking. We exchanged greetings and before he pulled out onto Chester Avenue he said, “Come and see me sometime.” I don’t know how long it took for us to connect but connect we did. In those young days in my life I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to follow the faith or the lie; an election I still struggle with even today. I found Max amazing and he quickly became to me a mentor. He could spin a story that would make you dizzy with its humor and profundity. Out of the piney woods of North Georgia his antecedents came to Taft and the California oil boom. With hands as hard as the times they lived out the Protestant work ethic, raised a family and did their duty. Raised a family indeed! Max’s mother and father begat, if memory serves, ten children. There was precious little time or inclination for belly button gazing. I suspect Max was so inclined and I also suspect it caused no little amount of consternation from his parents. Enough of these tales from Max’s past, it is the Max I know that I am most qualified to write about.
Sitting at Max’s feet in those early days were some of the most stimulating times of my intellectual life. Max had read a lot but his long suit was the Old Testament. He could make the ancient stories come alive in ways my early Sunday school teachers could never have imagined possible. Max was a man of vision and imagination; my Sunday school teachers on the other hand were by and large, cannon fodder. If Max were looking over my shoulder at this moment he would remind me now that civilization was built on cannon fodder, and he would be right and I would be properly admonished.
Max possessed a great deal of pride but was not prideful. He was much too smart to be obvious. It would be a mistake not to mention something about Max’s comportment because it was a big part of who he was. As thin as a fence rail and with a mop of hair that refused to let go, Max was a striking figure; handsome to say the least. He wore his clothes well. Whether in suit and tie at church or at work dressed in khaki pants and Wellington boots his pant legs half tucked in, he cast a figure worthy of his generation. It is hard not to be too effusive when speaking of Max’s demeanor. Even in later years when an oxygen canister became his companion whenever he was out, there was something special about him. I remember one Christmas Eve when we sat on opposite sides of the church at midnight mass watching him and glorying in our friendship. Dignity was the word that came to me that holy night. A dignity that filled the church like the great swell of the organ that played the Christmas anthems that filled us with wonder and hope. There was always a sense of new beginnings brought to us by the new possibility laying in the cr che.
In the year 2000 my father died. I was devastated. I remember little of the day of his funeral. As I approached the doors of the First Baptist Church Max was there to say goodbye to his old friend and say something to his friend the son. Max embraced me and let me go as if I were a hot rock. That was Max. I knew he had given what he could physically. He then said something to me I will never forget and indeed it is one of the few things I remember from that day. “You will see him again,” he said in his unbelievably expressive voice.
It has been over two years since I last added anything significant to this essay. I held to this suspicious and superstitious notion that if I finished the writing Max would die and I didn’t want that. Max quite fittingly did die on Good Friday 2006. I have grieved my loss. Gone is my friend. Gone is my advisor. Gone is my second father. Gone are the visits and the chats. Gone are the days we would just chew the fat over what Max would have called the eternal verities. Gone. Gone. Gone. And Max because you told me so, I will believe that I will see you again where you will tell me anew and with clearer eyes the old, old story. It will be your theme in glory. To tell the old old story of Jesus and his love.