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And Then There Was Hugh

Hugh Creveling was my friend. I was Hugh’s friend.

I have a host of friends (thank God) and a number of very good friends. Hugh seemed to have only one friend and that was me. I know this because when a Binghamton, NY police officer called me in December, 2012 and asked if I knew a Hugh Creveling, I responded, “Yes, why are you asking?”. He replied that Hugh had been found dead in his motel room and the only number on his cell phone that had been called in months was mine.

I liked Hugh the way you like friends who can be really annoying at times. In the English language we do not have many gradations between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. Our language and thinking are typically either/or. The Innuits of Northern Canada have 20 or more gradations between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. There is even one word to convey: ‘I like you very much but I would not want to go seal hunting with you’. That’s the kind of friend Hugh was. I would not go seal hunting with Hugh but I was his friend. (Actually, I don’t have any friends that I would go seal hunting with.)

Hugh had a talent for being annoying which, more than likely, contributed to his having only one friend. It wasn’t really a talent, it was how he lived, how he saw the world. It probably never occurred to him that he was being annoying, any more than it occurs to me when I am being annoying. Hugh lived a good part of his life driven by demons and your demons work hard to keep you to themselves.

Hugh was likeable from a distance. The closer you got to the spectacle of Hugh, the less appealing he appeared. Hugh emitted a vibe like juglone from a Black Walnut tree. It protects the tree from competition and keeps from other plants from getting too close. A big man in a white dress shirt, bowtie, and jeans who could speak fluent Japanese. A bit scary. But if you were willing to press closer you could see he was truly a good fellow.

I cannot recall exactly where and when I first met Hugh and how our friendship developed. He was a Vietnam vet and a drunk/addict. I seemed to be attracted to such people (or they to me) but that’s really another story. Somehow, we met and became friends.

Hugh stayed at my house a few times but he didn’t like being in one place and was loathe to have a permanent address. In fact, he so much loathed a permanent address that he had his Social Security checks sent to my house. I would sign and cash them for him and then send him the money via Western Union subtracting the Western Union fee, which is onerous particularly when your only income is Social Security. On a number of occasions, he asked me to take out $50.00 and give it to my daughter Megan as a gift. I can’t help but think that he was vicariously giving the money to his daughter.

Hugh was estranged from his two children, a boy and a girl, as I was estranged from my two sons. The adjective “estranged” is used to soften the hard truth that we both abandoned our children. At our core, neither Hugh or I are really like that. But then I never thought I was the kind of fellow who would sell my blood or work as a migrant laborer on a South Jersey vegetable farm and Hugh never thought he would end up in a wheelchair in a cheap motel.

Addictions make choices for you. You lose the power to choose for yourself. You do stupid dreadful things. For sure they are “choices”, but it’s the darkness within making the decisions, not the light. You are on a carousel that never seems to stop. Inevitably, you either have the good fortune to be thrown off, pushed off, or jump off and live or you ride the dark horse until you die. You can even get back on if you are crazed enough! I was thrown off. Hugh, living in the city of carousels, rode the dark horse to the end.

I visited Hugh a number of times when he took temporary residence at various veterans’ homes or cheap motels/hotels. The veterans’ home in Binghamton (which is in fact, the Carousel Capital of the World), was depressing and was closed shortly after my last visit. I was traveling to a business meeting in Rochester, New York. There is an excellent pie shop (Bingham’s) on the way, not far from Binghamton, and I would stop there on every trip through the area. If the time and my mood was right, I would stop in and say a quick hello to Hugh.

I found him in the dingy lobby reading his Japanese newspaper which he had asked me to get a subscription for. It was a sunny day and he was looking rather Zen like all alone at the table. Startled to see me, he jumped up and greeted me like the friend he was. We went out for lunch and then I was on my way. I usually didn’t make the time for lunch as I was a very “busy guy” and had lots to do but I remain grateful to this day for stopping that day. It was an act of kindness for both of us and we both were the better for it.

There is a Sufi story in which a young man is sent out on a mission by his father the king. The son becomes entangled in the world and forgets his fathers’ mission and what he is supposed to do. When he is almost out of hope and completely lost, a small bird comes and sings a song, “Awake, you are the son of a king!”.

I don’t know how often this bird comes to sing but I assume it’s a lot. Perhaps if you miss it the first time, you stay lost. But Hugh was asleep, drunk, high, or otherwise occupied whenever his bird sang. My bird song came at 2:00 AM on January 24, 1982 in the voice of a woman I didn’t know. She was crying hysterically in a room I didn’t recognize nor could I remember how I got there. I heard it. It threw me off the carousel. It hurt.

After the call from the Binghamton police, I drove up to the cheap motel where Hugh had been staying. I was hoping to claim whatever personal belongings he had (which wasn’t much) so as to add them to Hugh’s stuff that was still in my basement for any relative that might show up. I was shown a pile of stuff, including his wheelchair, but when they learned that I wasn’t a blood relative, they wouldn’t release any items to me. A long drive with nothing to show.

As Hugh was a veteran, they arranged for him to be buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Binghamton, New York. I was the only individual who knew of his death and the only one who posted a remembrance on the funeral home guestbook. Nine months after my post, his daughter, who had been looking for him for 15 years, found the site, learned of his passing, and posted her own note asking me to contact her.

We exchanged letters. I sent her whatever remaining items I had from her dad and we have remained friends since. I still have the bench that Hugh’s father made and that Hugh bequeathed to me. It sits just outside my front door and I rest there frequently. I often think of Hugh and his father’s craftsmanship.

Last year for my birthday, I rented a cabin in upstate New York. Passing through Binghamton, once again I stopped for a pie (hopeless pie addict), and decided to see if I could find Hugh’s grave. Much to my surprise, I drove right to the general area and found his grave with little effort. It was overgrown and I spent some time cleaning it up and then said a few prayers.

Visiting and praying at a gravesite is an experience I enjoy despite all the macabreness associated with death and graves. Somehow, it seems more likely that the dead person hears you and that they are nearby watching you. As ghosts (or spirits if you prefer) they are bound to the vicinity of their burial, with their memories slowly fading away as their mortal forms return to dust. Cemeteries are full of these ghosts. You brush against them and feel them in the breeze. They are always comforting you more than they need to be comforted.

I don’t know what else to say about Hugh other than I miss him sometimes. He was a blessing to me. I sometimes sit on that bench he gave me and cry for all those who have passed away. I talk to them, tell them what I am up to and then look about to be sure nobody is watching me. But there they are. They have jumped the cemetery wall and are sitting right next to me, at my feet, behind my back and putting their ghostly arms around me. I feel the breeze and I know that I am not alone and I am loved beyond anything I can imagine.

Then I think about driving to Bingham’s for a slice of pie.

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