Today we came home from a ten-day family holiday in Chicago to find a message on our answering machine advising us that an old friend and colleague, Dave McVey, had passed away. We had missed the funeral.
I know Dave would probably forgive me for unwittingly missing this event while spending time with my family. Certainly, his family was important to him, and I doubt he would begrudge me the precious time I just spent with mine. Still, I would have liked to have been in Yorkton last Friday to honour his life. But that’s not possible now, so instead I offer this, whatever this turns out to be.
I first met Dave in my second year of teaching at Yorkton Regional High School. I remember it well, because Dave was a close-talker, although I never had a label for that syndrome until the hilarious Seinfeld episode years later. When Dave first greeted someone, he’d pull him in close with a firm hand shake, look him straight in the eyes with a fixed big-eyed stare through coke-bottle-bottom glasses and shout out his greeting at about 90 decibels, “Hi, I’m Dave McVey.” The volume could probably be attributed to Dave’s hearing loss. The invasion of personal space and the piercing eye contact were something else. There was no macho intimidation in them, just the solid assurance of a man who knew who he was and who was curious if you knew who you were too. I did – or at very least I thought I did – so we got along great from the first meeting.
I wouldn’t say that Dave and I had the same teaching style at all, but I think we shared a philosophy that one needn’t expunge personality from teaching; in fact, it was desirable to exaggerate it. In the classroom, he was bigger than life, an entertainer. The booming voice helped with that, as did his love of his subject matter. Add to that an occasionally unorthodox classroom management style, and you have the recipe for a great teacher. I remember him telling me several times how, early in History 10, he would always show the same film on the Renaissance (yes, film; it was another time, folks), but the moment a student would put his/her head down on the desk, he stopped the film and proceeded to give lecture notes instead. “Yeah,” he would conclude, “I’ve never made it through that thing yet.” Then he would erupt in his signature laugh which landed somewhere between a cackle and a chuckle.
There are many things I will miss about Dave; knowing I will never hear that laugh again is pretty high on the list.
Dave had a love of cars, but unlike macho dudes who focus solely on muscle cars, Dave loved the unorthodox. In latter years, I know he and Lee drove a PT Cruiser, but I also remember him telling me about a Bobcat he once owned. (The Bobcat, for those who may not remember, was the Mercury doppelganger for the infamous, exploding Ford Pinto.) The odd thing about it, given how gutless subcompacts were in those days, was that it had air conditioning. Dave chuckled as he described how he would have to turn the air conditioning off if he wanted to pass a vehicle. I countered with a story of an even more gutless 1300cc Datsun pickup I had owned in high school and University. And so we found yet more common ground.
In the days when we lived in Yorkton, Dave drove a somewhat bedraggled but always polished black Cavalier that had just a few more miles on it than the space shuttle Atlantis. Often, as I was walking back to school from lunch, I could hear the distinctive whine of its four cylinder engine coming up behind me as Dave returned from lunch across town. Inevitably, Dave would pick me up and offer me a ride, and we’d have more time to chat.
Dave was an excellent story teller. I remember the fractured tale of his trip to the hospital to transport a friend whose vasectomy had gone very wrong. The entire story was hilarious. It began with the friend’s wife calling Dave to ask him if he could be so kind as to transport her “pumpkin balls” to the hospital , and ended on the punch line of his friend, after several attempts to communicate at lower decible levels to the deaf old nun/nurse who repeatedly asked what was wrong with him, yelling at full volume, “My testicles are swollen!” I would have loved to have been in that waiting room.
Both Dave and Lee were giving and generous people. I’m quite sure that we never had them over to our house nearly as often as they opened their doors to us. But Dave also had a frugal streak. That’s understandable, really. Dave and Lee had made the commitment, as we had at the time, to survive on a single salary, and those were some tough economic times, with skyrocketing interest rates, new house purchases, and expanding families. Dave’s frugality, though, sometimes took strange turns. I remember lending him a screw gun once so that he could dismantle a deck that curiously and purposelessly circumnavigated their entire house. When Dave returned the gun, he explained to me how some of the 25 cent Robertson bits I had lent him had been getting a little banged up, so he had ground off the ends. “They should be good as new,” he assured me. Thirty years later, I can never throw away a borked Robertson bit without first holding it in my hand for a second, looking at it, and smiling.
Why, in the walk of life, do some people stick to you and others fall away? Perhaps it’s the time in our lives. We were both young couples, starting families, making homes, carving out an identity in new jobs. Add to that a few common interests, shared beliefs, and good times, and you have the basis for a friendship, I suppose. In the end, though, I think it’s simpler than that. I’ve concluded, over time, that the people that I’ve held dearest over the years are those with whom I could laugh. Dave made me laugh. I think on occasion, I made him laugh too – his distinctive laugh.
That’s why today, when I heard the news of his passing, thirty years of separation snapped shut, and I was stunned in a way that surprised me. Surprised because I knew Dave had not been well, but I suppose one thinks there will always be time for at least one more visit – sometime.
That time is now gone. Now all I have to offer is this tribute. It’s not very much, really. I realize that. You deserve far more. The rest I will keep private.
Via con Dios, my friend. Laugh loud.