Wednesday, November 23, 2011

ON THE AVENUES: Rest in peace, Kevin.

ON THE AVENUES: Rest in peace, Kevin.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

(My weekly column appears a day early this week. NAC will be taking off for Thanksgiving. We'll be back on Friday)

Since early last Sunday morning, there has been one less set of very large footsteps in New Albany, because that’s when Kevin Hammersmith left us, far, far too soon.

It was dreary and damp outside in the following days, and while the rationalist in me knows there is no direct connection between meteorology and the death of one human among so many others on Earth, still the coincidence is one worth noting.

The songwriters and poets can conjure their imagery of tears falling like rain, but we essayists can only feel their sting.

Whenever a loved one’s life comes to an end, we invariably gather to find some way of quantifying the unquantifiable, and to make sense of the insensible. Every single time, we fail. The world is too huge, and we are too small. The eternity of deepest time inevitably mocks the diminutive human life span, and all one can do is to remember the fallen, and to keep on living, working, growing and pressing forward.

It's just the way it is.

---

In early childhood, when our fathers (both now gone) worked together, Kevin and I were best friends. As so often happens, the dimensions of our friendship changed as we grew older, but no matter what else occurred, when we’d go months and sometimes years without seeing each other, we retained a bond of the sort that’s impossible to fathom unless so much formative time was spent together.

Those days of childhood were a cornucopia, so filled with the simple glories of post-war, small town Americana that it isn’t entirely clear to me whether we actually lived them ourselves, or watched them unfold weekly on the Andy Griffith Show. Probably the answer is elements of both, in equal measure.

On most Saturdays, we’d go to the Hammersmith home, or they’d come to ours, and apart from the joys of rampant playtime, the highlight of these relaxed evenings would occur after dessert, when our fathers (sometimes joined by Kevin’s doting Uncle Ed) would turn down the volume on the television and begin discussing the life and times of the little people – the working, blue-collar, middle class of which they counted themselves as long-suffering, dues-paying members.

Kevin surely would agree that these skull sessions of youth, sweet teas in hand, listening intently as our fathers surveyed Georgetown, America and the planet, were absolutely huge in shaping the dimensions of our subsequent lives. The Hammersmith side of the ongoing daddy debate tended toward a fiscally conservative, cautious, Republican approach, blessedly absent the social agenda of the contemporary era – although there was no love for long-haired hippies from either corner.

My father, while no liberal, harbored a subversive, populist streak that left him eternally suspicious of oligarchies and elites. If this bumper sticker would have existed in 1967, Roger G. Baylor may have considered sneaking in the dead of night to the Hammersmith residence and affixing it to Ken’s truck: “A working man voting for a Republican is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.”

In turn, Ken would have mustered a vigorous riposte, probably like this: “So tell me, Baylor, who pays for it?”

Of course, sons are never precise clones of their fathers, and it’s safe to say that in terms of our respective personalities, Kevin and I carried forward modified aspects of these identities as we progressed through school, work and life. I always teased him for being clean-cut, corporate and all buttoned-down. He laughed and mused that if he waited long enough, I might yet grow up – and then what?

But even when we disagreed on matters like local politics and bridge tolls, the discussion remained sane and civil. There was mutual respect and considerable affection. As a close friend has accurately observed, it was difficult to dislike Kevin, even when you wanted to.

Assuredly we were different in many ways, but it strikes me that we were alike in harboring a desire to escape some conscious aspects of our upbringings, while at the same time remaining physically exactly where we were. Except for his years at Purdue, Kevin was a Floyd County lifer, just like me. I bummed my way through college, traveled, and always washed up here. He was a predictably fine student, had a wide choice of career options upon graduating, and chose the one that brought him back home, building his career right here, and effectively plugging one of the local brain drain’s rivulets. Apart from a gap or two, there we stayed, only a few miles apart, for more than fifty years.

Kevin’s philanthropic endeavors are the stuff of local legend, and they will be for years to come. It is my firm belief that in his eagerness to be of assistance to the community, he far transcended expectations in terms of his job, something which testifies eloquently to his bedrock sense of self, of purpose, and of social obligation in the noblest of old-fashioned applications. He did it because he meant it.

If any one person in this city deserves a statue, it’s Kevin, although he’d roll his eyes and squirm at the suggestion.

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Any stranger can write an obituary, but eulogies are best reserved for those who actually knew the departed. In all such cases, remembrances are the exclusive domain of the living, as are funereal rites, observances of mourning, and the means we each employ to recover from our devastating loss.

We humans cannot ever truly fathom the inner workings of our own consciousness, much less begin to understand those of others. When the final bell tolls, each of us remains enigmatic in a unique, irreplaceable way, and Kevin’s no exception to the rule. I knew him, but I didn’t know him at all. No man is an island, and yet in some ways, we all are.

Had I ever thought to ask Kevin if he truly felt happiness in the life he chose to live, he undoubtedly would have grinned and answered yes, and there would have been no reason for me to think otherwise.

Now that he’s gone, what I wish I could have said to him is this: Kevin, I really, really hope that you were genuinely happy and felt personal fulfillment in your life. You spent so damned much of your time giving of yourself to others, and I hope you saved some of it for you.

Goodbye, friend. You’re unforgettable.

9 comments:

Ann said...

Fitting, eloquent and heartfelt.

SBAvanti63 said...

Simply beautiful!

KateC said...

Absolutely amazing. You may not- but I believe he sees this and knows.

Ceece said...

I'm sorry to say I didn't know him, but this column makes me wish I had.

Karen Gillenwater said...

Thank you, Roger. I know this comes from your heart and it touches me deeply to read what you have shared. Kevin must have known your feelings through the relationship you had. While you went about it in different ways, each fitting your own interpretations of those conversations between your dads and your own beliefs and experiences, you absolutely share his commitment to this community and I am thankful for that. I feel very fortunate to have known Kevin and to have experienced his joy of life and his gifts to all the people he touched.

Iamhoosier said...

What Ceece wrote.

Buddy Sandbach said...

Rog, you have always have a way with words. Kevin and I became better friends much later after High School, as I was serving him beers at your place. He really was a very good human being. I remembering him driving his dads tractor, to school on Senior Day. That photo should be his "parting shot"' when it comes to the next reunion, don't you think?

Buddy Sandbach said...

Rog, you have always had a way with words. Kevin and I became friends at a much later age than you two. But even though our friendship didn't start until after High School, when I was serving him beers at your place, he was always accommodating, to say the very least. He will be missed, especially during the Harvest Homecoming, which will miss his leadership as President. RIP Kevin Hammersmith. You will be missed.

bnsears said...

I appreciate what you wrote here about Kevin. Having known Kevin since Kindergarten in the lower level of the CUMC in Georgetown, through 6 years at Georgetown Elementary and 6 years at Floyd Central, I always considered us friends for life.

Like you, there would be months and years between the times Kevin and I would see each other, but each time Kevin had that smile on his face and positive things to say. He was someone you enjoyed being around.

His untimely death, especially in the manner it occurred, was tragic. He will be missed by his family, friends and the citizens of New Albany and Floyd County that he helped over the years.