While my family and I were driving back to NJ from Louisiana after the Christmas holidays, I received a text from a friend informing me that a mutual friend, John Hurley, had passed away.
John was 81 years old and he and his wife Charlotte were really friends with my parents but I knew them both because all of us, my parents included, belonged to the same little swim club and we ran into each other all the time during the summer months.
Now I’m not going to pretend to know everything about John and I’m going to confine my reflections on who I perceived him to be, with advance apologies to his family and close friends should they read this and say, “Wow. This guy is way off.”
Thinking about John on the drive home, it struck me that he was a Preston Sturges kind of character — think Joel McCrea in “Sullivan’s Travels”. Intellectually curious, a strong believer in fair play, always looking for but never really expecting people to give back a little more than they received or stole, and always on the side of the little guy. John possessed that sharp wit seasoned with a dash of cynicism and skepticism that made all of Sturges’ characters very funny and real. You would have liked him.
John had been a high school and college English teacher for more than 35 years and when I first met him 12 or 13 years ago, what endeared him to me the most was that he was still intellectually curious, still questioning authority and still taking a genuine interest in hearing what others had to say. I could understand why former students still sought him out years after he retired to tell him what a great teacher and mentor he was.
I always figured I’d have my spirit completely crushed by the world before I hit 60, spending the rest of my days with a safety pin, poking holes in the checks I sent to utility companies hoping they would jam up their payment processing machinery. Suffice to say, I was very relieved to have run into John; here was a guy who set a new precedent. And as someone who believes that happiness is little more than an hour glass that gets turned over the instant the doctor gives you a smack across the behind, John gave me hope that I didn’t necessarily have to turn out like Henry Fonda in “On Golden Pond”.
John was not a man who put on airs, or cared a lick about possessions like fancy cars, nice clothes or expensive luggage. He was a man who traveled light both figuratively and literally. When John and Charlotte traveled to Europe and other continents, what didn’t fit in the two backpacks they brought didn’t make the trip.
Even if I had never said a word to John, I still would have known he was a “different drummer” kind of guy just by watching him in the pool. He’d come to the swim club many days on his own, sometimes walking instead of driving the several miles it took to get there and usually later in the afternoon when the place was kind of quiet and he had the pool to himself.
John would get changed and slip into the deep end of the pool, a roped off section with a short diving board that had a three-inch wide pipe on either side of it that when turned on, filled the pool with ice cold water that came directly from an underground spring.
Most people swim a couple of laps, bob up and down, hang on the side and catch a little sun but I don’t know how else to describe it but John used to glide around like an otter, quietly and with very little movement. I’d usually be sitting at a table reading and glance over from time to time and spot him floating on his back, hands folded across his chest, eyes shut. And if he wasn’t doing that, he was positioned directly under one of those two pipes, receiving whatever benefits one can derive from a steady, heavy stream of 50 degree water.
Some days after he got out of the pool, John would come over to where I was sitting, often with my father, and the three of us would spend a half hour or so talking about movies or books or politics. I don’t remember much about specifics only that we had a lot of laughs and that there was no doubt that John Hurley had a wealth of information stored beneath that chlorinated scalp of his.
I said from the beginning that I would share my perceptions about John and God knows I’m fully capable of reading more into things than may actually be there, but the reason I told you about John’s swim habits is because watching him in the water was like watching a young boy. Carefree, playful and to the naked eye — at least to my naked eye — unconcerned about anything other than the sensation of the water on his skin and the warmth of the sun on his face. To me, a middle aged guy still trying to keep as many balls in the air as I can, seeing how John navigated through the world, spirit intact and knowing him as the empathetic, gentle man that he was and always will be, I’m beginning to think maybe you can tip the hour glass over more than once.
I know it’s a cliche, but believe me when I tell you, I’m a wiser and happier person having known him. Goodbye, John. I will miss you.
© 2013 The Monkey Bellhop and John Hartnett