It is with tear filled eyes and a heavy heart that I write this post. On Thursday, April 11th, 2013, my uncle, Lt James Clark of the Bedford NH Fire Department, was found dead in home. He was 56 years old.
Jim was my uncle, my mother’s best friend and our neighbor for 25 years. The space he leaves behind is large and will not be easily filled. Words cannot express how unfair or untimely this death is. He died of a massive heart attack shortly after getting home from a busy shift at the fire station, and was found by his 16 year old daughter. Based on the coroner’s findings, it has been ruled that it was likely his work is what triggered the heart attack, and he is considered to have died in the line of duty.
On Tuesday, I will attend my first fireman’s funeral. Because he is considered to have died serving, the funeral will most likely be the most elaborate I have ever attended. This is ironic, as he was the most humble man I have ever met.
I’m posting this here for two reasons. First, I wanted to give an explanation for the lack of posts over the last few days, and why they may be spotty in the days ahead. Second, I wanted to share some thoughts on intellect and how we judge it.
There are two ways of judging the intelligence of another person. The first is to sit someone down with a well designed test and to see how they do. Depending on the test, this should give you some sense of intellect. The second, more common way, is the assessments we make about those we meet when we don’t have a test on hand and have to rely on our own senses and their accuracy. While this is what we are called on to do most often, our assessments here often have more to do with us than with the person we are assessing.
My uncle was the one who taught me the utter fallibility of my own sense of other people’s intelligence. He was a man who was too often typecast: he was a farmer, a fireman and a runner. He was who you called on when you needed wood chopped, a fence mended, or to borrow a truck. He was a true Yankee: thrifty, hard-working, reserved, but kind. In crowds, he would let himself fade to the sides, too often marginalized by our societies obsession with degrees and it’s frequent perception of both conservatives and country dwellers as lesser minds. This stereotype is wrong.
My uncle was in possession of one of the rarest and most amazing minds of anyone I have ever met. He communed with animals and the land as though he were made of more primal stuff than the rest of us. He was the type of man who can look at the sky and tell you if the weather’s good for haying, or identify which chicken is laying the good eggs. He read widely about history, politics, philosophy and poetry. He could converse easily on the intricacies of the Affordable Care Act, and ruminate about the nature of God and life in a way very few could. He was not a numbers guy, but he had a keen sniff test. He was the sort of guy who could hear of a study and just say “something’s not right”. His sense was always spot on. He was a painter, and he left behind a treasure trove of watercolors of the farm he worked and the land he loved. He was a poet, and had put together a full volume of his work in the year before his death.
As people filed in and out of my parents house for the last few days, it’s become clear how few people knew how much was going on in his head. The most common phrase in our house these days seems to be “I never knew Jim did ______”. In a world obsessed with status and accolades, my uncle never offered more than he was asked, never asked for credit if it wasn’t offered. He taught me that the musings of a man after a few hours on a tractor can be more interesting than those of someone locked in an ivory tower for years, and that the farmer philosopher is not limited to characters in a Robert Frost poem.
So I’ll miss you Uncle Jim. I never told you that you changed the way I speak to people, that you made me slower to judge, more eager to listen, and reminded me that still waters run deep. I’m sorry that too often when we talked I got hung up on proving how smart I was instead of taking advantage of the time I had to hear how smart you were. I’m sorry you had to go so soon, and I hope that you are in a great field in the sky, where the weather’s always right for haying and the baler never breaks down.
Rest in peace.