This morning the Mrs. and I went out for an aimless walk to get out of the housekeeper’s way. We had no place to go and nothing in particular we wanted to see, so we stayed along the lake shore through Len Phu Village (home) and then up to Than Nien. Along the way we were needlessly honked at by cars and motorbikes like usual, saw a hawk of some kind chilling on a fence rail, and then came to Tran Quoc Pagoda outside of which we were pestered by peddlers of tacky souvenirs, boiled peanuts, and various other foods. We kept our eyes out for lady finger bananas but saw none. Sad.I pass by Tran Quoc Pagoda on a twice daily basis on my way to work and we can see it in the distance from our veranda, but we hadn’t stopped to visit before today. The Mrs. couldn’t care less about traditional Asian religious sites, since, as a Korean person, they seem entirely common to her, but I can’t get enough of them. For whatever reason (perhaps my own religious background and having studied philosophy?) I love religious buildings of all kinds and want to visit every single one that I see. And today I visited my first in Vietnam.Formerly located on the shores of the Red River, Tran Quoc Pagoda was relocated in 1615 to its current location on a small islet on West Lake (Tay Ho) just off Than Nien Street which runs between West Lake and Truc Bach Lake. Built in the 6th century, it is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi and a peaceful little spot to stroll around when walking along the lake shores. Apparently it is also a renowned spot for its sunset views. If you find yourself around the Truc Bach or West Lake areas, definitely take a moment to visit Tran Quoc. It is immaculately upkept and quiet, and it is opulent without being garish. It seems important to mention that Tran Quoc is a functioning temple, not simply a tourist spot. People worship and perform various rites here, so don’t be like the one lady we saw today shouting across the courtyard for a friend to come take her picture. Discretion is key.
Last night the Mrs. and I headed toward the Opera House to see a volunteer production of “James and the Giant Peach” by the Hanoi International Theatre Society, the proceeds of which were donated entirely to charity. On the way there we stopped at a couple places for food, the first of which was Zon at 25 Lo Su street. There we ordered Bahn Xeo and a plate of fresh greens and rice paper wraps.
Zon is a nice little place, well lit, clean, and comfortable. After ordering we realized that Zon isn’t a restaurant exactly but more of a beer + beer food kind of place. Banh Xeo literally means “sizzling cake” and is made of a deep fried rice batter. It then comes topped with vegetables and meat. Ours had mostly bean sprouts with shrimp and beef. The pancake itself is light and fluffy, though a bit over greasy. The taste was good, but bland if not dipped in chili sauce.
In addition to the Banh Xeo we received a plate of fresh, crispy greens and carrots that we wrapped in rice paper and also dipped in chili sauce. The greens were fresh and delicious, though far from filling. It was the first time I have attempted to perform my own rice paper wrap and I must say that I need practice. I think there is an art form to it. Ours were loose and ugly and fell apart after each first bite.
Overall we liked Zon. The atmosphere isn’t overly Vietnamese, but it’s a nice spot if you’re looking to have a drink and eat some snacks along with it. It reminded us a lot of pajeon or bindaeddeok in that it was fried batter and not exactly something you’d eat as a stand-alone meal. But with a bottle of cheap beer Banh Xeo goes well. As for the play. . . well. . . let’s just say it was spirited and good for charity.
My Mrs. and I went to Dac Kim today for lunch in the Old Quarter since it is highly recommended by hotels, travel books, and tourism information booths. Apparently the place fills up in late afternoon and stays full until late night. We arrived just about noon and the first three floors were already full, but we had the fourth floor to ourselves for half the meal, which was a luxury in a place is so small and with tables that are shared by strangers.
Bun Cha is a food that originated in Hanoi and is quite famous. It’s a simple dish: grilled pork (cha) and thin rice noodles (bun), served with herbs and dipping sauce. The Mrs. thought it was delicious and immediately understood why her friend in Korea said she wishes she could import it. Personally, I thought the food was rather unimpressive. The pork wasn’t special. The dipping sauce was good, though a bit salty. The fried spring rolls weren’t delicious in the least. But hey, at least we only paid 3x more than locals typically pay! That’s right. Locals pay 20,000vnd each for the Bun Cha and 30,000vnd for the spring rolls. We paid 60,000vnd each for the Bun Cha and 80,000 for the spring rolls. But we didn’t figure that out until much later. Awesome. So, here is the verdict: The Mrs. very highly recommends the food, liked the relative cleanliness, but not the overcharge. I am indifferent to the food, liked the atmosphere, but am really annoyed by the overcharge. It’s doubtful we’ll go again.
I’m inclined to start out by trying for profundity by saying something like he was a Rubik’s Cube of sorts, a basic, simple cube composed of a collection of many other simple, colored cubes that together make up an infinitely more complex whole, especially to the unfamiliar and uninitiated. Or maybe I could say he was more a prism, several sided with the deceptive outward simplicity of clear glass, through which refracted the vivid colors of an unseen inner life that could only be seen when held at the right angle and examined just-so. Or perhaps it would be better to say he was like the Great Pyramid of Giza, the color of earth, weathered and marred by the revolution of time, and holding tight, deep inside its unseen labyrinthine passages, catacombs dedicated to the preservation of those he loved, those to whom his very existence was dedicated. But such metaphors and similes don’t quite convey the reality of the man. They are much too tortured. It is better, perhaps, in this case, to take a simpler approach, one more direct. It is better to say, perhaps, that Norman Burgher was only a man, a simple one in a sense, simple in the way all people turn out to be in the end when all the apparent complexities of an emotional and psychological life are fully broken down and deconstructed. And that’s what made him great, his complex simplicity.
Perhaps he was, in fact, weathered and the color of earth, labyrinthine in ways, and maybe he did refract light into unexpected colors when examined at the right angles, but ultimately he wasn’t a difficult man to understand. Like most people, he had many sides and at various times played different roles, but all of them reflected a simple truth of the man. Norman Burgher was, simply put, only a man, but in practice he was much more than that. To those who knew him well he was many men.
I knew Norman Burgher pretty much from the moment I was born and though he was always familiar to me, it wasn’t until I was almost full grown that I understood him and appreciated him the way I should. As a child I understood him no more than I understood myself or developmental psychology or the true significance of family or any other such thing. In fact, as a child I understood very little. But one of the things I did understand was my name. I knew its sound and its denotations. I knew it was me in certain ways and that when it was called it was expected that I would respond in turn. But for years it seemed that maybe Norman Burgher did not understand this about me. Perhaps he didn’t know that there was a title that belonged to me, that an identity had been assigned to me, and that I owned it and reacted to it and knew it to be me.
For reasons no one ever knew, he called me by a myriad of other names instead. When I was young I was always either Jake or George, never precisely one or the other, but always, generally speaking, one or the other. If I was Jake, my sister was George; if she was Jake then I was George. As I grew older the names changed. For a long time I was The Dude. And off and on throughout it all I was simply Young Man, something I imagine my cousins were called too, though I learned, somehow, to associate the term with myself alone.
There was this one time though when it was momentarily different, a time that is vague in my memory, when, as a child visiting the Burgher Residence, something nearly incredible happened that I have never fully forgotten. It was one of those life shaping experiences, the kind that gives a person a key part of their own definition and identity. I was young, possibly in my early elementary school years but perhaps even younger, and I was doing something I shouldn’t have been doing. I don’t remember precisely what it was, but somewhere within the nebulous cloud of that early childhood memory exists either danger or destruction, or perhaps both, certainly something that was going to change the potential energy of some object into the kinetic energy of movement and then abruptly back to the potential energy of rest on the floor. But before I was able to cause that potential to be realized, it was all brought to an abrupt halt when I heard from somewhere across the room, in a booming, growly, unmistakably mumbled shout: Aaron!
I wish sometimes the memory was clearer, but really it doesn’t need to be. Even with its lack of overall clarity, the certainty of that sound, of those combined phonemes that are my name, to this day, that moment represents a seminal moment in my own psychological development. Hearing my name emit so definitively and abruptly from that particular voice box, in that tone, with that force and strength and urgency and emphasis, has stayed with me forever. It was a validation of sorts before I knew what validation was, validation of my existence, of my unique, personal identity, and it came from a man as loquacious as a stone and as outwardly emotional as a shot of whiskey. And it was something I never forgot.
Years later, as I was preparing to move overseas, he called me by name again. But by then he didn’t need to. Because by that time I already knew. This was Norman Burgher: a man who knew my name.
When my sister and I were children we spent a lot of time at the Burgher Residence. We’d visit in winters and go out on the snowmobile trails, both of us afraid to ride with Norman because he drove so much faster than his wife Patricia did. We’d visit in the summers too, would play in the dirt pile behind the house or go for rides around the yard on the 4-wheeler. It wasn’t often that we were alone in the house with Norman. There was always someone else around. I guess it was because he wasn’t exactly the babysitting type. But there was this one time.
Again, it’s a hazy memory, so I know that I was quite young. But there we were: Jake, George, and Norman. It was getting on about dinner time that day and I imagine that my sister and me were asked what we wanted to eat. It was rather obvious to us, even at that young age, that we wouldn’t be getting a home-cooked meal that night, so we asked for pizza. I don’t know if it was pick-up or delivery, but I remember clearly that when the pizza box was opened and revealed a large, greasy, plain cheese pizza, there was a bit of a surprise waiting inside: two dollops of melted vanilla ice cream had spilled out of the small plastic cup they had been put in and onto the middle of the pie. As a child unaccustomed to open mindedness and gastrointestinal experimentation, I wanted nothing to do with that pie and I think I probably whined and complained before eating only a few forced bites.
As innocuous as such a thing is in adult reality, it was far from benign at the time. To my fragile, developing, child psychology that moment struck with surprising impact, and for years after I distrusted Norman Burgher when it came to decisions regarding food, especially pizza. After all, he had ruined the only one he ever ordered for me.
It’s strange, the things that shape us when we’re children, the things that form lasting impressions and associations. It’s almost ridiculous that an event as seemingly insignificant as a little melted ice cream on pizza can color the way we view a man for the rest of our lives. But for whatever reason that’s how life works. And for me that was Norman Burgher: a man who I thought put ice cream on pizza.
Something most people probably didn’t know about Norman Burgher is that he collected coins. I was made privy to this at some point when I was in 5th or 6th grade, I think, and was shown his collection. I’m not sure how big it was in reality, but at the time it seemed significant. There were several boxes of individually sleeved coins kept in a drawer in his bureau. The coins were in beautiful condition, shiny and unmarred, some were exceedingly old, from as far back as the 1800s. Not only were they old, but many were special coins with images and symbols I had never seen before. The collection as a whole impressed me, as did each coin itself, perhaps a bit too much. You see, I have a confession to make: when I was young I had a theft problem.
The first time I was caught stealing was when I was living in Bar Harbor. I must have been in Kindergarten or 1st grade and my sister and I stole a piece of gum from a local corner store. We shared the gum in the shed behind the house, surreptitiously chewing it up together as fast as we could. But we were young and inexperienced in the world of crime and my mother soon found us. She didn’t have to put us under under a white hot light and interrogate us in some isolated room with unadorned cement walls to coax us into admitting our crime. She knew what we had done and we cracked immediately under the pressure, and were promptly marched back to the store where we admitted through tears the crime we had committed. And years later when I was caught stealing baseball cards at Wal Mart, my mother heartlessly told the police officer to do with me whatever he pleased and went home to put the groceries away before the milk got warm. But in between those events was another attempt at crime: my failed theft of an old, shiny quarter that belonged in a box in Norman Burgher’s sock drawer.
I’m not sure how I was caught with it. I only remember that I was. Perhaps it was mother’s intuition that led her to discover that coin or perhaps it was because I had not yet refined my skills of theft and deception. My mother knew exactly where the quarter had come from. She knew exactly where it was going to return to. And without hesitation she put me on the phone, dialed the Burgher Residence, and forced me to confess my most recent crime.
I’m pretty sure I cried when I told Norman what I had done. I was ashamed and embarrassed, but above all else I was afraid. Norman Burgher was not exactly a man of gentleness and he was that old fashioned type of man who seemed to believe more than anything else in integrity, something I clearly lacked. I truly expected to receive a diatribe full of condemnation and curse words. I expected threats to my physical being. I expected to be hated and disowned and never forgiven. But, luckily for me, none of those expectations were fulfilled. I don’t remember what he said to me and I don’t remember his reaction when I returned the coin, but I do remember that he handled the situation with aplomb. He did not hold it against me and he did not shout at me or curse me. I don’t even think he was angry, just disappointed, which perhaps was worse. But in that event, though it did not deter me from certain future criminal endeavors and aspirations, I did learn something I have never forgotten, and that is the power of absolution. And that, too, was Norman Burgher: an exemplar of forgiveness.
Norman Burgher was an old fashioned kind of man, a self sufficient, take-care-of-things-himself type. He grew up on a farm in Kentucky, did his military service, worked as a firefighter, and later as a potato farmer in his retirement. He always seemed to me like the kind of man who could solve any problem on his own and could fix anything that needed fixing. He knew how to put a boat in the water. He had snowmobiles and a 4-wheeler. He had tools and a shed. He could clean a fish and gut a dear. If left to himself in the wilderness somewhere, he probably would have survived just fine. In that sense he and I were polar opposites. What we had in common was our height, build, face shape, and a tendency not to speak much. I appreciated our similarities, but I respected him for our differences. It probably would have served me well to learn from them, but I wasn’t cut from that tree.
When I was still rather young he purchased a cottage on a lake in northern Maine close to the Canadian border. It was a basic cottage, a bit run down, simple and austere. But over the years he transformed it into something more. He rebuilt the water front with stones and shouted at me when I then threw the stones into the water. He continually extended the dock and improved it in various ways, adding not just length and sturdiness but a wheel powered lift to put the boats and kayaks into the water. He re-shingled the roof and rebuilt parts of the inside. He replaced the septic system so that instead of flushing the waste into a large underground area that became soft and squishy when full, it properly discharged into manageable, empty-able tanks. But before he got around to redoing the septic system, he built an old fashioned outhouse in the back of the shed behind the house into which shit and piss dropped into the earth below, fetid, black, and rank just as an outhouse pit is supposed to be.
That outhouse was such a strange thing to me. It was something I refused to use. I was, after all, the son of a banker at the time, so an outhouse toilet was, literally and figuratively, below me. In fact, I don’t know if anyone else used that outhouse. I know my sister didn’t and I am pretty sure my cousins avoided it as well. And I can’t imagine that any of my more civilized, accustomed-to-indoor-plumbing-why-use-an-outhouse-when-the-indoor-flushable-toilet-works-fine family members ever ventured out to the back of that shed either. But Norman Burgher did. It was his throne. It was the place where his simple, don’t-need-no-luxuries self was able to be, literally, exposed, displayed, and relieved.
I think back on that outhouse now and imagine that stacked up beside it were various Tom Clancy novels and rolls of toilet paper. Perhaps there were other things there as well: tools or fishing rods or metal cans full of gasoline for the boat or lawn mower. He did do work out in the shed too. But I never understood that outhouse. All I know is that there were times I saw him emerge from that shed with a look on his face that reflected little more than than the satisfaction of a man satisfied in having handled his business, whatever that business might have been. And there were times when he could not be found around the house, but I always knew where he was. He was exactly where he belonged, tending to his throne and his throne room. And that, incredibly, was Norman Burgher: a man who used an outhouse instead of a toilet.
In northern Maine where he lived there is a lot of snow. One of the great pleasures in visiting during winter was the opportunity to go snowmobiling on the miles of trails built along an old, abandoned railroad bed. When I was small I was usually a passenger with my mom or Norman’s wife Patricia, but sometimes, as I got a little older, I would ride along with Norman. I mentioned before that riding with him was frightening at first. I enjoyed riding along with my mom, but not with Norman. He drove much faster than my mother did and it terrified me. He seemed, to my child’s mind, a fearless, maniacal, motored-vehicle savant, a man at one with the machine. And I respected that. But I also feared it. And then I learned from it.
The first time driving a snowmobile on my own, something I must have done when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, was one of those moments when the boy within me first felt like a man emerging. And it was Norman Burgher who taught me to do it. It must have taken an enormous amount of trust for him to put so much mechanical horse power between a child’s legs and a throttle under the thumb. And I imagine that my fearful excitement at that first moment was matched only by his own fear of the risks he’d just assumed. But he showed me how and then set me off driving in circles around the back yard, endless circles that I could have traced for hours, while he stood knee deep in the snow watching and waiting for me to inevitably sink the treads into some fresh powder and get myself stuck. When I got myself stuck he would trudge through the snow grumbling about having to lift me out of the trough I had made, and he would tell me to go faster and to stay on the tracks that had already been packed down. And then I would be off again, driving in circles while he watched and waited.
Looking back I see something new in that memory, something I never previously associated with Norman Burgher, and that is patience. And it wasn’t just with the snowmobiles either. Later it was with the way I drove his jet ski, drained it of gasoline, and clogged the intake with weeds from driving too slowly in the shallows. He would, grumbling and cursing as always, reach under it, wet up to his neck, and pull the weeds out of the intake so that it could run again. And he would complain about the fuel costs too, telling me I should give him my money. But every time I wanted to go out on the water, the gas tank was full and ready to be emptied again. It was as if he took some sick pleasure in the patience, especially in displaying it as impatience. And it almost seems as if his grumbling, cursing complaints were actually an outward sign that he cared, as they were always followed by the provision of whatever need it was that had provoked the grumbles to begin with.
Norman Burgher taught me not only to drive a snowmobile, but also a 4-wheeler, jet ski, and boat. But in so doing he did much more than that. He showed me a little bit of the man within myself. He showed me that I could safely wield the power of those machines with the same speed, confidence, and mania that I had once associated with him. And he did so with a frustrated, impatient patience that showed me even more. And that was Norman Burgher: a maker of men.
While on the topic of machines, I should probably tell about that one time I wrecked his snowmobiles. My friend Ryan and I were up north during Christmas Vacation at some point during middle school. We took the snowmobiles out, but we didn’t bring them back. Ryan had crashed into me from behind and rendered the machines unusable with bent skis, dented fenders, etc. Ryan and I didn’t know what to do, so we wandered down the tracks until we saw a house. We used the phone to call the Burgher residence. I explained what had happened with more trepidation than I had ever before felt, because I knew that this was my biggest screw up yet, that this time I was really testing the man. After he assured himself that we were unhurt, he told me in no uncertain terms that he was going to kick my ass. And I waited for him to pick us up.
He picked us up at the house where we were waiting and drove us back to the Burgher Residence, the entire ride saying nothing, his silence and expression communicating the depth of his anger and our silence the depths of our fear. When we got out of the car we proceeded into the house: Ryan first, me following, and Norman a hot step behind. And as soon as I stepped foot through the door I felt a sudden, throbbing pain in my hind parts. A foot had been firmly planted into my ass just as I had been promised. That was Norman Burgher: a man of his word.
It was my father who taught me to fish when I was young. He baited my hooks, tied on plastic, red and white bobbers, and showed me how to cast. I had seen him descale and clean fish, brook trout I think, and had marveled at the way he pulled the guts out of the splayed fish in a single, smooth tug. But for some reason, when I think of fishing, I think of Norman Burgher, not my dad. I guess it’s probably because of the many times I went fishing with him on his boat and the one time I almost killed him.
I went out on the lake with Norman many times. We went all over it in search of fish. We fished near the shores and in the deeps. We fished on the east end and the north end. I watched the sonar that showed the depth of the water and the hundreds of fish apparently below us, some small, others big. We would spend hours out on the boat. He would bait his hooks and cast the line into the water. He would jiggle the line and real it in slowly to entice the fish, to make them think the bait was still alive, to make them think it was a meal that called to them and not death. But time after time, no matter where we fished or what bait was used or how many hours were spent out on the boat, the only thing he ever reeled in was a hook with dead bait on the end. And every time, stoically, he would settle his gear on the floor of the boat, turn on the engine, and head back to the cottage where he would hang up his rod on the porch and go about doing other things.
It’s strange, I think, that I associate fishing with Norman Burgher, because I don’t think I ever saw him catch a fish. The only fish I remember are the ones from the sonar display, something I think he used just to torture himself and test his own patience. I do believe that he knew how to fish. I just don’t think he was good at it. But at least he tried. I did enjoy going out on the lake with him even though I didn’t do much fishing myself. But there was this one time.
One evening as the sun was beginning to set he took my sister and I out a little ways to where the loons usually were. He set up our fishing poles with red and white bobbers, baited the hooks with night crawlers, and sat back to watch. But he made a mistake that night when he chose to sit in the middle of the boat, situated precisely between two children who didn’t fully understand the potential danger of barbed hooks being swung around at the ends of long poles. I’m not sure how many time we nearly hooked him, but I certainly remember when we did.
Norman Burgher was not really a life jacket kind of guy, but that night he had one on for some reason, a light brown vest type. And it’s a good thing he did, because at one point, while I was trying to improve the distance of my cast, I extended my arms as far back as I could and then let fly with all my strength. But for some reason my line didn’t fly. My hook had caught on something, something that said, “Jesus. God damn.” And when I turned to see what kind of fish I had caught, there was Norman Burgher with a barbed hook lodged as deeply as it could possibly go right at the neck line of the life vest. Had he not been slouching, his neck would have been exposed and I might have caught him in the jugular. But he was unflinching about such things and after he unhooked himself we kept on fishing as if nothing had happened. Incidentally, I think we might have caught a small catfish that night, but I doubt he expressed much excitement about it. He probably just wanted to go home. And that was Norman Burgher: stoic, fearless fisherman.
At the lake there used to be a purple and white paddle boat. One summer my friend Ryan (not the snowmobile crasher, but another one) and I took the paddle boat out to where the water was fairly deep. Because paddle boats aren’t much fun, but basically just tiring, we decided to make our own fun with it and proceeded to jump off and climb back on repeatedly. After a while though we realized we might be in a bit of trouble as it grew full of water and the front end began to sink. But we were not deterred and continued with our game. By the end of it not only was the front of the boat near the pedals full of water, but so were the two storage compartments in the back and all that remained above water was one back corner of the boat and we weren’t really sure how we should proceed from there. But then we heard a puttering engine and muffled grumbles coming out over the water as the sun began to set. And there was Norman Burgher, coming out on his boat with a length of rope. He tied the rope to the end of the paddle boat that was still above water and towed us back to land where he had to pull the drowned plastic paddle boat from the water in order to turn it over and empty it out. And the entire time, from the moment we saw him coming to get us until the moment the boat was finally turned over and emptying, he mumbled indiscernibly to himself various frustrations with occasional, clearly enunciated curse words of various lengths and creativity. And that, too, was Norman Burgher: frustrated rescuer of sunken ships.
Up at the lake there were other things that happened, things that involved living things, namely, ducks and yellow jackets. Most of us at the lake enjoyed feeding the ducks and seeing if we could develop within them the temerity to eat from our hands. And, like most normal people, we usually avoided the yellow jackets, which some summers made their home in a tree in the front yard. But Norman Burgher was different. He did not care to feed ducks from his hand or avoid yellow jackets. He was more concerned with dinner.
One summer when there was a particularly intrepid group of ducks, I saw him making a bread trail from the water up to the steps that led to onto the porch. I thought it strange to see him feeding ducks, since it was something he had always left to the rest of us. And after he finished making his trail of bread, I saw him standing just inside the doorway pressed against the wall as if trying to avoid being seen. I asked him what he was doing and he told me simply that he was trying to get the ducks to come inside. When I asked him why he showed me a hunting knife and made a gesture that indicated that he was about to do something violent to whatever unwitting duck had the stones to climb those steps. I don’t know what I said or did after that, but the look on my face must have been one of sheer terror and disbelief, because it didn’t take him long to abandon his plan, brush the bread of the steps, and close the door.
I had not witnessed the violent death of an animal before. The hooking of a fish and its slow, flopping suffocation had alway seemed somehow civilized, I guess because there was no blood involved. But to picture a duck with its throat cut or head taken off was something altogether different and I was far too innocent to get down with the plan. And at the time I thought of the ducks sort of as my undomesticated, free spirited pets, not as food. His choice to abandon his plan, I really believe, is telling of Norman Burgher the man. He had fought in a war and grown up on a farm. He had seen blood and violence. But I had not. And in recognizing that, he spared my innocence at the expense of his belly, something not all people would have chosen to do. In retrospect, however, I wish we had gotten that duck. It would have been a pretty good meal.
And then there were the yellow jackets. This is something I was not around to witness, but had recounted to me a short time after. One summer when the yellow jackets had built their hive inside a knotted tree in the front yard, Norman Burgher decided he’d have a go at their honey. He didn’t seem to consider the possible consequences and wasn’t concerned with the fact that yellow jackets don’t make honey. So he uncoiled a wire hanger and jabbed it down into the nest to probe for something that wasn’t there. All he succeeded in doing was pissing off a hive of yellow jackets that promptly released their pheromones and, in defense of their nest, swarmed to attack the beast with the uncoiled hanger. As Norman Burgher’s wife Patricia told me the story, the man himself stood off to the side and recalled the event. He laughed and relived his own defense from the yellow jackets, swatting at his invisible, recollected assailants as he told me, “Those f****** came out mad as hell and stung me all over. Shit, those sons of bitches. . .” And that, too, was Norman Burgher: what else can be said?
My mother had been telling me for the past couple years when we talked on the phone that she was watching Norman Burgher finally grow old. He had lived with diabetes for as long as I can remember and it had taken its toll on his body. And because of his years spent working on a farm under the hot Kentucky sun he had been dealing with fairly minor skin cancer issues for a while. In addition, he had been having trouble with his hips, which was causing him considerable discomfort. My mom feared he was nearing the end and that’s why I finally visited Maine last July, to be sure to see him one last time in case my mother’s fears came true.
It had been nearly six years since I had seen the man, a period of time much longer than I had planned or anticipated. And after all that time and after all my mother’s worries, I was a bit nervous to see him, worried that perhaps time had caught up with him in a way that would render him something different from the man I had always known. But when I arrived up at the lake in early July, I was pleased to see that he was still the same old Norman Burgher he had always been. He sat outside with his shirt off and arms crossed. He mumbled to himself. He was taciturn but when he did speak he did so with the same growly, garbled voice he always had. And when he poked fun at me he called me by names that weren’t my own and performed a few bars of his strange, falsetto, mock laughter before abruptly stopping and returning to the silence that so much suited him. Basically he was his same old self, just a bit more tired and his hair gone white.
Before I left for Vietnam his doctor had spotted something in an x-ray that gave reason to worry, which gave everyone a bit of concern. But it turned out to be nothing and about a week later he went to a doctor to get his hips checked out. It turned out he didn’t need hip replacement surgery and received cortisone shots instead, which relieved much of his discomfort. With the pain relieved it seemed that things were looking up for Norman Burgher. He could be more active again and could sit down for more than 10 minutes at a time without having to adjust himself or stand up. But Norman had a secret, one of those mysterious kinds that just don’t make sense, one of those mystical, almost supernatural-insight type of secrets.
I was talking to my dad the other night and he told me something almost unbelievable, something that is still difficult to comprehend, something that brings the deconstruction of Norman Burgher to its final point, to its most fundamental point, to the simple truth of who he was as a man.
Over the past couple months he apparently replaced, for his wife, all the appliances at the Burgher Residence. He bought them new and got them installed to be sure that they would work properly and not cause any problems. He also started telling his wife that he loved her, a sentiment he wasn’t exactly famous for expressing so plainly in words. But he wanted to be sure that she knew. Because he knew. He knew he had a secret. He knew it was the end and the only thing left he could do was make sure that the woman he had loved his entire life was taken care of and that she knew for certain exactly how he felt, that she had, for 53 years, lived in the innermost place of his heart, that she had always been with him. And that, truly, was Norman Burgher: a man of love for his family.
Norman Burgher died last week at the age of 80. He suffered a stroke and that was that. No one expected it to happen. It took everyone by surprise and has left an indelible void in the lives of all those who cared about him, a hole in the universe that can’t be filled up again. But, sadly, that’s how it is with life: it eventually ends. And last week, for Norman Burgher, the time arrived for a good, productive life, a meaningful and impactful one, to come to an end, and now we carry on without him.
Norman Burgher was a presence in my life from the very beginning. He was not always there physically, but he was always inside me, existing within the impressions he made and the lessons he unknowingly taught. When I wanted to see him I always knew where I could find him, either at the Burgher Residence or up at the lake. But he’s gone now. Gone to some other place from which he cannot, himself, return. But, though he’s now gone, he is not irretrievable. Memories exist and his impact lives on. And that reminds me of one last story, the last story I have, from the last time I saw him.
It happened this past July as I was preparing to head back south from the Burgher Residence to see my sister. Before I left I recited a self-pitying story about how much money plane tickets from Seoul had cost me and how expensive it had been to travel in Europe. I said I couldn’t believe the cost of petrol these days and I casually mentioned that my wallet was running awfully thin. Norman’s wife just rolled her eyes and didn’t respond, which made me think my not-so-subtly-implied request for gas money had fallen on deaf ears. So I prepared to leave. And that’s when Norman Burgher came into the room with $40 in his hand, grumbling and complaining to himself under his breath, and handed me the money in what I know was only mock disgust. I said thank you and gave him a hug which he awkwardly and reluctantly accepted. And just before I left he shook my hand and said, “Take care of yourself young man,” thirty-three years after my birth still not using my actual name. But that was okay with me because that was Norman Burgher: my grandfather.