THE HAPPIEST MAN ALIVE


The throw of the dice this week is a continuation from last months column, which is too long a time for a continuation.

I left off, where I was about to stop by Maurice’s home. I’ve written about him several times over the years. Maurice was raised on a small modest farm in Iowa, where he used to race his horse across the open fields, when he wasn’t milking cows and picking corn. When he turned seventeen he left home, and hitchhiked to Solana Beach, where his girlfriend was working in a home in Rancho Santa Fe. Maurice worked on the ranches of Rancho Santa Fe, until he was drafted into the army. It was Christmas day, and the day after his wedding. When he returned to his wife three years later, they began a life in Solana Beach. He began living as the happiest man alive.

I had to wait a year or more before I could drive by his house in Solana Beach, knowing he wouldn’t be out in the garden, or fixing miniature furniture, or baking cinnamon rolls for all his girlfriends.  

I had to wait, because the little white house with the white picket fence without Maurice was like a flower without petals, or a child without a mother.

Maurice came into my life, in an almost fictional way. I can see him now; standing amongst the hundreds of Christmas lights he strung up every year across his lawn, over the roof, winding around the trees and over the garage all the way to the street. He even had one of those talking toys that sang, ‘Ho Ho Ho  Merry Christmas’ when you rang the door-bell. Inside the tiny living room, he filled every shelf and empty corner with ceramic glass or tin ornaments, a dedication to his wife who passed away ten years earlier, and their wedding anniversary.  

When Maurice opened his front door, he laughed out loud, when the mechanical voice, shrieked, Merry Christmas. Before he even said anything, his smile beamed as he waited for me to laugh with him. Then he led me to the sofa, in front of a coffee table covered with homemade powered sugar cookies and chocolate covered almonds and cashews, and said, “Go on, sit down and I’ll make some drinks.”  But that wasn’t the first time I met Maurice. The first time I met him; I was walking down the street at dusk, just taking a walk with a moon shadow following me.

     “How are you tonight?” We talked only a moment or so before he asked me inside for a drink.

     “Thank You. I’m going to take a rain check; I live right down the street.”  It was such an innocent invitation; I felt absolutely no fear other than that ground in nuisance fear that precedes any invitation from a man. 

     “I know where you live.”

     “Oh? I’m going to come back–really I am.”

     “I sure hope so. I love to have company.”

That was Christmas 1994.

The next night, I dragged Rudy with me to look at Maurice’s flickering Christmas lights. We didn’t get a chance to knock on the door, he must have seen us through the window, and he opened it.

     “Are you coming in this time?” 

     “Yes, I mean if it’s not a bad time.”

     “It’s never a bad time for friends.”

I clutched Rudy’s hand and we crossed over the reindeers seated in the flying red sleigh and magical little toys that glittered beside Santa Claus, and went inside.  I was already sure that this was going to save me from a mediocre Christmas, while Rudy was still quizzically observing Maurice’s easy behavior. Maurice was seventy-nine years old, cut lean and taught like a racehorse. His long white hair was combed straight back without a part, and he was dressed in faded Levi’s, Nikes, and a pressed bottom-up shirt.  

“Are you hungry?” He asked.

“Hell yes,” Rudy shouted. Maurice jetted out to the kitchen leaving us to sink into the worn cushions of his sofa, and listen to country western Christmas Carols. We stayed and laughed through an assortment of snacks, music, and Maurice dancing about as we hooted and howled like Iowan farmers.

When I stopped by a day or two later to thank him, he said.

  I’m the happiest man alive.”

  “Why?” I asked.

  “Because I have so much to be thankful for, and I have such good good friends.”

  “Maurice, are you happy all the time?”

  “Oh yes-all the time. I get angry like everyone else, but I’m so lucky.”

  “Why?”

Then he told me the story of the three days he squatted along the beachhead at Buna, Australia within the confines of tropical diseases, rain, mud, and without water or food.  By the time the last Japanese positions had fallen, one thousand or more Americans lay dead, with thousands more wounded or sick.

  “They was much stronger and more equipped than us.  I made a vow with God, if he got me out alive, I would never ask for anything again and never complain about anything again. “

  “You kept your word.”

  “ I sure have. I watched my whole squadron die, almost all of them. They was such young boys, you just couldn’t believe it was happening.”

I went back to Maurice’s house almost every day, and asked him how he was. “I feel so good; I’ve never felt better in my life.”  Sometimes he’d alternate and say, “I’m the luckiest man alive.”  I never caught him complaining, or tilting forward with regret. He didn’t waste his time judging, avoiding, or renouncing change. He kept his old fashioned machinery, furnishings and style and let everyone else go crazy trying to be modern and chic. Every knick knack had some special meaning or story to go along with it. Like the corn husker he hung out in the garage, the same one he used when he was a kid. But what he loved most about that house was his orange tree. He always loaded me up with a grocery bag filled with oranges. “They make the best orange juice you ever had.”   

Over the next four years, I was at Maurice’s home, at least twice a week. I watched Rodeo with him, watched him plant tomatoes and cucumbers, cut sweet peas and roses for his friends, fry chicken, fix furniture, feed Bugsy the cat when he was only a day old, and dance in the front room while singing some country tune.  I recorded his whole story on tape, and then wrote a book about his life.  “I don’t think I’m that interesting, but if you think so, I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”  I learned what it was like to grow up on a farm during the depression in middle America. His family lost the farm, and that’s when young Maurice put out his thumb on Highway 80, and hitchhiked to San Diego.

  “I was so lucky! I was picked up by a woman in a Cadillac who needed someone to drive her car.”

Then, when I wasn’t paying attention, Maurice grew distant, he turned down invitations to dinner, and he stopped inviting me. I didn’t ask him why, I just accepted it, which was where I went wrong.

I even passed him in the drugstore one day, and instead of confronting him, I darted out the front door. About six months later I got a phone call from his niece.

  “I’m calling because Maurice passed away.”

  “NO.”

  “Yes, he did. But he didn’t suffer, he went very quick.”

  “Was he at home?”

  “ Yes. Lynn found him under the orange tree.” 

I drove past his house, and had to keep on going. There was nothing left of the garden, and the new owners had placed those skinny tall poles signifying, a demolition for a new two-story house.  Maurice is still a part of my life. I realize I was lucky, to have met him and known his story. Any dice to throw email: folliesls@aol.com  

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