By Peter Rodman
I’ve met a lot of people in my time. People with big lives. The famous and the infamous, and then some. Heroes…and yes, villains.
But there are people you meet along this journey who've never made headlines, or had a fan club, or been on television, and they're just as monumental in their quiet way as anybody on Earth--because the truth is, this life isn’t about all that other stuff anyway.
Howard Evans, I am so proud to tell you, was one of the dearest souls I’ve ever met--and despite our 27-year age difference, one of my closest friends.
I first met him in the fall of ’04, when I was nervously navigating the rigors of home ownership as a buying 'virgin,' at the tender age of...53!
I live on the corner, and Howard’s house was right behind mine, on the side street.
At first we’d just wave as we cut the lawn, or trimmed the bushes--swapping tips about droughts, and storm drainage and such--but eventually, our personal stories surfaced.
He listened politely to my truncated tales of past media glory…but more importantly, he accepted that I was simply looking forward to these quieter years, in a way many of my longtime friends and relatives couldn’t accept or believe.
Howard took me at face value.
He knew I wanted time, for a more reflective era, both to celebrate and separate myself from all the commotion. There is still a lot of noise in my head, and I simply needed less of the hoo-hah my life had included, up ’til then.
As soft spoken as he was, eventually his own story began to emerge. One day, as I was delivering a few movies for him to watch, he invited me in. “You know,” he said in an almost-whispered tone, as if it were the one secret he couldn't hold in anymore...
“I’m recently widowed.”
Of course other people knew that--but what he was really sharing was that it had been 18 months, and he just was not getting past his grief yet.
The 'confidential' part was that he was still in mourning, despite the face he had been putting on for others. I felt priviledged that he would share such a personal thing with me, a recently new neighbor.
His eyes filled with tears, and he eagerly brought me into the various rooms in their small home of more than 40 years, and introduced me to Dotty.
Everywhere I looked, there were framed pictures of a life obviously well-lived.
Sometimes he’d burst out laughing as he recalled some cute remark she'd made, or some memorable event they'd shared.
“I really miss her,” he said.
He was secure enough to share that grief openly--obviously, for the first time in a long time--and it made me feel pretty darn special.
We hugged, and I told him he needed to know that from then on, I’d always be there for him.
Ours was unlike almost any adult relationship you'll usually find.
We treated each other very...carefully.
Like something precious, you would never want to hurt.
This may sound strange to say, but it felt like we were babies, almost--sharing with awe and wonder, all that we had been through and seen, as adults.
Like my own Dad, Howard was a World War II veteran who’d seen action in ‘the European theatre,’ as they called it back then. But unlike my Dad--who’d flown dozens of missions over Germany as a B-17 Captain--Howard had been on special assignment as the personal driver to Generals and Base Commanders and more. So while my Dad was dropping bombs from overhead, Howard would often be dodging them, to rush some orders or battle plans back and forth, on the back-country roads of Europe!
He regaled me with stories of high-tailin’ it outta trouble along narrow hair-pin turns, ferrying “V.I.P.s” far more important than any rock star or athlete I ever interviewed. We were like father and son, in those moments.
While 'the Greatest Generation' was busy saving the world, Howard Evans was quite literally ‘at the wheel’--driving the highest higher-ups imaginable to their strategy sessions and secret rendezvous.
And it was all because of who he was: A trusted, quiet, unassuming, reliable, no-nonsense, humble man...more than able to keep a secret.
We seldom shared our politics, but always seemed to roll our eyes together in dismay, at the mindless sharp-right turn our country has taken. In truth, I'm sure Howard was a mighty rare jewel among aging WWII veterans below the Mason-Dixon line, in his relatively 'liberal' world-view.
But this was a well-read man, and even though I'd occasionally have to 'clean out' his computer for him, he stayed 'up' on pretty much everything, including technology. He was a man determined to take a nice, big bite out of life's apple.
Just as often, what we shared were the more mundane details of yard work. “I see you’re planting those three trees!" he'd say, by way of greeting me from his own backyard, "Trying to soak up all that water, eh?”
We shared our mutual love of all kinds of music--I made him CD mixes of old standards, or any specific requests he had, and he gave me a whole bunch of his vinyl records--in perfect condition, of course--as he’d long since transitioned away from using a turntable.
He could talk about books, movies, music, philosophy, just anything--and you'd be hard pressed to find a better-informed, more logical mind.
Back then (the mid-zeroes), I’d be traveling two or three times a month to Asia. It got to where I was gone almost 50% of the time--I'd actually taken an apartment in Beijing for a few years--and Howard would watch my house while I was gone--maybe pick up the mail, you know, and just keep an eye out for me.
But an interesting thing happened, as he worked through his grief over Dottie. Howard began ‘seizing the day’ in ways that made me feel (quite literally) like the older man, of the two!
Here was this short, dapper, polite fellow--now in his ‘80s, and fit as a fiddle--obviously anxious to make the most out of each and every day of his remaining years.
His interest as a parishioner in the Vine Street Church grew to where he was eventually named Treasurer.
He golfed! He walked! He worked out!
He even out-did me at travel...enough to where I began picking up his mail, as often as he was mine!
Always, he remained as natty a dresser as you’d ever see--as handsome in his neatly pressed short-sleeved shirts and slacks as any other guy might be in a three-piece suit.
We’d haunt the local Chinese lunch buffet every week or two, and once or twice he persuaded me to go golfin’ with him across town.
I brought him home a ‘Big Bertha’ driver he seemed to like, and his game improved...so I eventually got a whole set of lefty clubs myself! (Those, you will find safely stored under the brown-recluse webs, in my garage.)
We talked for hours of Chet Atkins, and Tony Bennett, Ed Ames, and more.
In short, he was the best neighbor you could ever have.
Pretty soon, he was sharing something even more special: Howard Evans was falling in love again!
He’d gone head-over-heels for a spark-plug of a woman named Eva, and when I finally met her, I could absolutely understand why they were perfect for each other.
She exudes the kind of happy, upbeat 'live-for-today' spirit that’s just so contagious you can’t help but smile, whenever she’s around.
Eventually, there came a day when Howard told me he’d actually popped the question. "You ol' devil!" I said. (Eva was over ten years his junior!) He said he definitely wanted me to be there when they got married, and I was very excited to go.
Maybe I’d played a song or two of mine for Howard somewhere along the way, but I don’t really remember that too much. (Most of what I found interesting was his life, so maybe that's why I can't remember when or how many I ever played him. Maybe a couple; I'm shy about that, and only that!)
Still...I don’t know what got into me...but the next thing I knew, a whole new song popped out of me, perfectly describing both our relationship and theirs.
Howard sat on my couch one afternoon, and I surprised him with it. I don’t think I’ve ever reached an audience any better than I did that day.
By the end of it, we were both crying!
I knew he’d be movin’ across town, and this was partly like a sad 'going-away' present, as I saw it...but also a celebration of the best couple I knew.
He asked if I’d sing it at the wedding, and I did.
He asked me to do it again at the reception, and I did.
He had me bring my guitar over to their place, a few months later when we were having dinner, and play it again.
Each time, Howard unabashedly let his eyes well up with love, hearing the story he'd actually lived. For their wedding gift, I eventually assembled a whole bunch of pictures I’d taken of them, and got one of those scrolling picture frames (they were kinda new back then), adding the song as the background.
“The sound on that thing’s not so good,” he confided. (He was right! You could always count on Howard's honest appraisal.)
Soon enough, I recorded a version on CD for them so he'd have one forever, and I brought it over during one of Eva’s terrific home-cooked dinners. This was his story, and I never felt I owned the song at all. I don't even know where it came from.
To me, it'll always belong to Howard Evans:
“Sometimes, when life goes wrong
Every song seems sad;
Two lifelong loves…gone--
So long, to all they had.
Two old friends, found again,
Taking time to heal;
God works in wond'rous ways
To give them something real…”
Anyway, I think I’ll stop right there.
Eva called tonight, to give me the sad news.
I had no idea he was sick.
Howard died last Friday, July 6th...exactly 46 years to the day, after my own Dad.
He was 87--and as we giggled on the phone, the way people sometimes do even in these moments, Eva and I agreed that nobody would ever have guessed his age.
"We really had a good time," she added...just as upbeat as ever.
As for me, I'm kinda heartsick to have missed his last call, a couple weeks back--but hopeful that he got to hear my return message, in which I told him I loved him.
"Oh, I'm sure he did," she said. (I knew she meant that in the larger sense.)
Nope, I’m not sure he ever heard that particular message--but like the song says...“He Knew.”
I’ll miss you, my friend.
Copyright 2012 by Peter Rodman. All Rights Reserved.
*Words & Music Copyright 2006/2012 by Peter Rodman.