Wednesday, April 13, 2005


My father died on February 17. The following is what I read at his funeral:

My father, Duncan Pirnie Davidson, was probably the smartest person I’ve met. This is the man that turned me on to Faulkner by giving me his copy of The Sound and the Fury. More than just smart, he was insightful, and self-sufficient. He worked his whole life, put himself through Stanford Law School by taking some crazy jobs: working at an ice factory, driving a Good Humor truck, riveting bombers one summer at MacDonnell Douglass. At one time or another he’d also built soundwalls on the side of freeways and worked on a crew paving streets. He served a stint in the Merchant Marine when he was 18, which landed him in the hospital in Panama with malaria. He learned how to fly planes in the Air Force, a fact I discovered, to my sheer terror, when I was seven. Dad’s buddy had a Cessna, which he volunteered to take me up in for my first flight. We flew to Catalina Island, which is basically an overgrown rock in the Pacific Ocean. After lunch, dad’s friend said, “So, Duncan, wanna take ‘er off?” He hadn’t flown a plane since the 40’s, but he didn’t hesitate to fly that one off the edge of a cliff over all that blue water. The plane had twin controls, but my dad was the only one with my hands on them. Ultimately, he retired from the Air Force Reserve as a Lieutenant Colonel after 25 years of service. And, lest we forget, he could rig and sail a boat, another fact I discovered to my terror as a kid. This is more of a testament to the wimpiness of my youth than any inherent recklessness of my father’s as a pilot or sailor.

However, my father is most remembered for being a Worker’s Compensation judge. As a kid, I knew this, of course. But the thing that most impressed me was that he could build anything. Whereas most people who’d devoted their lives to an intellectual profession might be somewhat deficient in working with their hands, my dad was a carpenter, a bricklayer, and a handyman. He could plant trees, install insulation and sprinkler systems. When the pool needed an acid bath, he drained it and gave it an acid bath. But beyond this, he was an artisan. He had an artistic vision, and he used this to remake the backyard of our childhood house. When we moved in, it was a swimming pool surrounded by loose rocks. My dad installed a retaining wall reinforced with rebar, a prefect redwood deck, laid cement, and put down a brick inlay right in the middle of it all. He cut the bricks himself with a masonry saw, and didn’t use mortar, but laid them so tight that all he had to do was push sand between the cracks to keep them in place. Not one of those bricks came loose.

I helped my dad with that backyard, but I was seven, and couldn’t do more than lift a cinder block or hold a two by four in place while he cut it. A little later, when I was the ripe old age of 11, we ripped out the driveway and my dad let me have a go at the jackhammer.

But we did more together than working. Which was more like play for me anyway—how many 11-year-olds get to use a jackhammer? He’d come home from trying cases all week, and come watch my Pee Wee football practice, and take me to the games in far flung suburbs of Southern California on Saturdays. And when my interest in tackle football waned, around the time my skill set proved lacking and I moved from first to second string, he never stopped believing in me. Nor did he become angry or disappointed when I decided to give up football to race BMX bikes. He’d come home from work in San Bernardino at 5:30 or 6:00 on a Friday, throw down some food, and take my friends and I right back out there for the Friday night races.

I used to want to go into law like my father. In junior high I hung out at his office, watching him try cases and interviewing him and his colleagues. I wrote a 12-page paper on why I wanted to be a lawyer. I got an A on the paper, but changed my career path to being a writer. Once again, my dad didn’t show any disappointment, even if he felt it. When I was in high school, I’d go to his office in San Jose with him on Saturdays and use the State’s copy machine to make my underground skateboarding magazine while he caught up on cases. Your tax dollars at work.

In short, my dad always had my back. I’ve worked in nightclubs for years, doing security, and it’s a very real thing for me to say that someone has my back. It’s unconditional; if it’s time to stop, hold your ground, and throw down, someone who’s got your back is right there beside you. It’s a lot rarer than you’d think, and though my father and I never got in any Patrick Swayze in “Roadhouse” situations, he had my back all the way through. I realize now that I’m older and have more perspective on things, that this may not have been so easy at times. Not every parent finds it easy to “go with the flow” when the cops call at 3:00 AM to say they’ve picked up your kid drinking beer and skateboarding some loading docks behind a warehouse. To be sure, I had more social maladjustments during my school days than most kids, being forced into the role of black sheep so much that I finally embraced it. Not many parents can hack their kids being self-identified punk rock outcasts; matter of fact, that’s why most kids are punk rock outcasts to begin with: because their parents can’t bring themselves to believe in them. This was never the case with my dad; he loved me no matter what. And I think he understood who I was because we were so much alike. I remember my dad taking me to the Wherehouse in the mall to buy a copy of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” on cassette because he thought the song “Big Balls” was as hilarious as I did. Of course, he was in his fifties and I wasn’t yet ten, but the point is, we were not dissimilar character types. He chose to walk his own path.

Much of this path was his work. A Worker’s Compensation judge for 25 years, he retired at age 72, though he didn’t really want to. That’s when the health problems began. He wasn’t as sharp as he used to be, and this became more pronounced until he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He had a harder and harder time getting around, and was too proud to use a cane until the cane wasn’t enough and he had to use a walker. Gone was the invincible father of my childhood who had arms like Popeye and could lift sacks of cement like they were filled with cotton candy. Still, his Alzheimer’s never progressed to the point where he failed to recognize his family. When they discovered the extent of the blockage in his carotid arteries and put him on blood thinners, in order to get more oxygen to his brain, he immediately became more lucid. The week before he died he told me he wanted to get a laptop computer.

I think my father went out the way he would’ve wanted to. Or at least in a way he could’ve accepted. He hated hospitals. The day before he died, he was telling the doctors he felt fine and just wanted to go home. All told, he was in the hospital for less than a week. He had a major stroke and could’ve been bedridden for years, or could’ve succumbed to the long-term effects of Alzheimer’s. I think at some level, he knew he didn’t want to go out like that. His body knew it was time.

When she found out her grandpa had died, the first thing my daughter Dolly said was: “So Grandpa gets to start over again as a baby.” Not sure where she got that. Don’t remember talking to her about reincarnation, but maybe I did. I’m also not sure Grandpa would want to start over again as a baby, but I’ll leave that up to him. Dolly also said, “I wan to fly to Heaven in an airplane and visit Grandpa.” Either way, whatever’s become of my father in the hereafter, he’s sure to be on the same path, doing things his own way.

As a side note, my father's funeral was fairly kick ass, if a funeral can be such a thing. There was a bagpiper in a kilt who played "Danny Boy" at the beginning and "Amazing Grace" at the end. There was an Air Force Honor Guard who presented my mother with a flag and played "Taps" on the bugle. There was a very mellow Episcopalian minister named Robert Honeychurch, of all things, who was cool enough not to try to say a bunch of stuff about a man he didn't know, but instead read a few choice prayers and Psalms. And, finally, there was Frank. We played two Sinatra songs, "It Was A Very Good Year," and the following:

My Way

And now, the end is near;
And so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I’ll say it clear,
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain.

I’ve lived a life that’s full.
I’ve traveled each and ev’ry highway;
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.

Regrets, I’ve had a few;
But then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.

I planned each charted course;
Each careful step along the byway,
But more, much more than this,
I did it my way.

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall;
And did it my way.

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried.
I’ve had my fill; my share of losing.
And now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing.

To think I did all that;
And may I say--not in a shy way,
No, oh no not me,
I did it my way.

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels;
And not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows--
And did it my way!


smoking in a dark entry said...

I know this is now old ground for you and hope it's not too painful to revisit, but I just read your eulogy for your father... I thought it was so lovely the way you knew him and understood him so well and that he was behind you all the way. My father is in his early 70's and in failing health. I've been having problems with reconciling who he is now with who he was, am feeling estranged from him and trying to deal with our differences. I just hope when his time comes I can do him a similar justice.

dave said...

hello duncan,
your eulogy to your father was very touching.all of the neat things you remember doing with your dad sounds just like my dad and me.i also grew up in san bernardino and rode my bmx and dirt bike daily.thanx for being so open about your life.