My neighbor Jerry was the most interesting man in the world.
The guy in the beer ads never came close.
You’d never know it to look at him. When I met him, after he and his family moved into the house just on the other side of our driveway, he was making his living as a tree surgeon. Not that this can’t be an interesting thing in itself, mind you. My daughters were very young at the time, and they were fascinated by his truck – a bright orange monstrosity with two inverted traffic cones stored on the front bumper, which is why the girls called it “the Vanpire.”
He also ran the Sunday newspaper wholesale route in this area, and whenever he had extra papers or damaged ones he would have to recycle he’d slide them over to us. I got more regular service from him regarding the New York Times than I ever did in the year or two I was a paid subscriber back in the 90s.
He was a genuinely nice person, the sort of guy who always invited my kids over whenever the latest stray animal had kittens or puppies in his garage, who lit up when you’d tell him about your day.
And every time Jerry would open his mouth, something fascinating fell out.
He was descended from whatever the equivalent of royalty is in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and had once attended seminary to become a minister in that denomination before being expelled. “I asked too many questions” was all he would say about that. Nevertheless, he still managed to find his way to Thailand as a missionary.
They converted him, it turned out. He remarried – a local woman – and started a family there. He lived there nearly twenty-five years before bringing his family back to the US – to Our Little Town, of all places. I never did figure out why he came here, particularly.
The stories that came out of his time in Asia were many and varied.
Jerry always sat in on my classes down at Home Campus. Anyone over the age of 60 can do that for free, and despite the fact that he didn’t look all that much older than me he qualified and he took advantage of that with abandon. He took every single class I taught.
On the first day of every class I have my students fill out a 3x5 card – name, phone number, that sort of thing. I have learned over the years that you have to ask one question to separate out the herd a bit – something that will identify each student as unique so you can get to know them as more than just the anonymous faces who might or might not be taking notes when you speak. For the last few years, the question I always ask is, “Tell me one thing you’ve done that nobody else in this room has done.” You get a lot of answers to that question – travels, mishaps, awards, achievements.
Jerry’s response, the first time he took one of my classes? “I smuggled a nurse into a refugee camp past the Khmer Rouge guards.”
For those of you too young to remember, the Khmer Rouge were the psychopaths who came to power in Cambodia in 1975 and eventually slaughtered a third of the Cambodian population. Go watch the movie The Killing Fields if you want to spend an evening marveling at just how inhumane humanity can be. Those were not guards you wanted to catch you, in other words.
He did a lot of things like that. One afternoon out by the wood pile in his back yard (not surprisingly, he heated his house with wood from the trees he was paid to cut down – hey, all his customers cared about was that he hauled it away) we got into a discussion about that sort of thing and he told me a long story involving several planeloads of relief supplies, a stinging bureaucratic betrayal by the people in the United States he was supposedly working for, and at least a month in a Thai prison, which he described in sociological detail as a fascinating experience.
When he took my Western Civ II class a few years back one of the assignments was to read a snippet of Loyola, who had founded the Jesuits as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 16th century. After class we were discussing it and he mentioned that at one point during his stay in southeast Asia he had spent several weeks driving the world head of the Jesuit order around to a number of different countries. “Nice guy,” he said. “Just don’t try to argue with him.”
Jerry had once been an officially licensed Congressional lobbyist – a job he never liked because he had to wear a suit. He’d been to every continent except Antarctica, though he said he wished he’d gotten more of a chance to see Africa and South America. He lived in a city where elephants routinely walked the streets, which is why he never got too bothered by our cats.
Jerry passed away on Thursday, nearly two weeks after suffering a brain aneurism. He never regained consciousness.
Raise a glass in honor of the most interesting man in the world, next time you think of it.