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John King

John King

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March 28, 2017
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March 28, 2017
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April 10, 2009
I heard about John’s death on Friday afternoon, the 3rd. Amy King had called my wife Karen Loeb to tell her about it, and Karen called me at the reference desk , arranging to meet me at lunch so that she could tell me the devastating news in person. I really appreciate how both Karen and Amy handled this burden.

We got through lunch. Back at my job in the afternoon I had to do something to organize my thoughts. I work at the public library in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, at the information/reference desk. We guide customers through the online catalog, or answer various questions about the library’s programs and locations, as well as answer the quick lookup or longer term research questions that come in.

And of course those questions did come in. But I was thinking of John. And of Debi, and Amy and the rest of the King family, and of all the people in all the world who right now were trying to make arrangements to get to St. Pete in a few days’ time. And how time was what we didn’t have anymore, at least no more time with John, and when was the moment of heaviest impact going to come? This death thing that John and I spoke of so often, skirting it or bearding it, or just getting spooked by it. I wanted to call him, I felt so in and out of myself, to let John be the one to calm me down.

About halfway through the afternoon I began to assemble a shrine out of the few objects we had in the library that pertained to John in some central way. We had available both the vhs version of “From Here to Eternity” and a copy of the James Jones book. They both went on the counter near my workspace. I checked the catalog to see if the Hawaiian shirt book (the Hope book) was in. It was, and I opened it to the page showing Montgomery Clift wearing “the Death Shirt”—the Duke Kahanamoku line shirt with the waving palms against the midnight blue background that was the object of many a collector’s hours of hunting. I wished that I had on that shirt myself just then, but I was wearing a regular Wisconsin plaid shirt. The copy of the Duke that John had given me several years ago was home in my closet, even though it was a Friday and sometimes we did an abbreviated Aloha Friday even in Eau Claire. (Again, John’s reach.)

For more personal items I was glad to see that the Mel Bay ukulele method book was in stock, “Famous Solos and Duets for the Ukulele.” That went on the counter. But I was disappointed to find that our copy of John’s Bach cd was checked out. Then I thought again, “even in Eau Claire”: not only do we own it, but people are using it.

Still, that left the shrine a bit brief. I had been thinking for hours of something else. Moby Dick was a book that John loved, and there is a chapter called “The Lee Shore” that we discussed fairly often. It is only four paragraphs, and could be photocopied onto one sheet, and so that went on the counter too.

The text of that chapter is a bit tricky to understand. It seems to be about death but in studying it now the only real reference to death comes in the last sentence: --Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing—straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!-- It is a chapter about one Bulkington, who amazes Ishmael by re-upping for the Pequod voyage shortly after returning from a four years dangerous voyage. Ishmael compares him to a ship avoiding the lee shore during a storm because the shore is --that ship’s direst jeopardy--. It really seems to be a metaphor about the artist’s need to avoid the comfortable and seek the unknown instead of --the treacherous, slavish shore--.

But the line in that chapter that John and I continually returned to was one that we both read as epitaph: --Know ye now, Bulkington--? I highlighted that line in blue on the photocopy on the counter. We used it when any of our contemporaries died. --Know ye now, Biggleston--? we intoned, after a man our age who worked at Eckerd College had died unexpectedly.

That was in the mid-1980s. But it was a line that repeated over time when others of our peers went before their time, as in --Know ye now, Lee Sanders?
Richard Hill?
Flo Mingo--?

In my mind that day it was terrible to say, --Know ye now, John King--!

At the end of my shift I took all of the materials off the counter and put them on the librarian’s recommended shelf. Then I went home to put on the death shirt. (I know John would have done the same for me.) I ached to talk to him. I marveled that this one print was the white whale of vintage Hawaiian shirt collectors, and planned to pack it to take with us to the funeral.
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