Phil…. an appreciation


I read half of it, stopped and then re-read the first few words of Phil’s e-mail again.

“We are sorry Phil died on 4/14. please cancel subscription, or media. If friend, we are sorry for your loss”

I guess this is the way it happens in the Cyber Age…. cold, dispassionate, straight from the heart of HAL.  As a student, teacher and maker of films…. Phil would appreciate that one last reference with a wry chuckle.

For me the loss is immeasurable; there are few people I enjoy talking with more than Phil; in our roughly monthly phone conversations since I left Colorado several years ago, our beer drinking sessions over damned hot and spicy Thai and Vietnamese food, we dissected the world into parts that mattered to us and ignored the rest.

We connected on so many levels that our few differences never mattered.
I will miss that deeply… I can never have those debates again with any other lefty… those folks who believe that intelligent debate is comprised of “Limbaugh is a fat drug addict”, and “…well, Bush did worse.” 

He was the most far-left person I’ve ever known and my politics were always on the table, but we were able to speak to one another on a respectful game board of true friendship… exchanging well-thought out political opinions unhampered by emotion.

That’s why I no longer bother for the most part; crossing verbal and intellectual sabers with Phil always left me improved, more thoughtful and well satisfied. I hope he felt a little of the same.

What mattered to Phil was every aspect of the art of film making; we both loved the work of director Akira Kurosawa, especially his partnership with actor Toshiro Mifune and well as the John Ford’s westerns starring John Wayne–two collaborations that closely mirrored one another.

And like me, Phil could never watch “Old Yeller” again. “Goddamn, Walt Disney,” he would say.

When my beloved Tripoli died suddenly and unexpectedly five years ago last week, Phil was the first person I called. He had known “Trip” since the age of seven weeks when I began taking him to my office as I would do the rest of his life.

He listened while I cursed and wept and I was deeply moved when he told me how he, as someone who also had a sweet-natured Aussie, loved Trip as the “special dog” he was.

Words failed me in those dark days when I sought the fitting few words to place on my best friend’s urn; there was so much to say and there was so little space on the polished hardwood box.

Phil soothed a deeply broken heart with the obvious that I was unable to summon:

Trip_creekHe spoke through tears of 15 years how his dog and him traveled about

The dog up and died, he up and died
And after 20 years he still grieves

Phil was the older brother I always desperately wanted and never had; in many ways, even being the older brother is a poor substitute.

I saw Mickey Mantle play only twice, a double header against the Angles; as a native New Yorker, Phil could recount individual games and performances from the 50s in Yankee Stadium. How I envied him… him and his Dad on spring days 50 years gone watching one of the best lineups in baseball history on display:

  • Richardson 2b
  • Tresh ss
  • Maris rf
  • Mantle cf
  • Howard c
  • Skowron 1b
  • Lopez lf
  • Boyer 3b
  • Ford p

He felt deeply and could explain the essential zen and eternal zeightgiest of baseball in the American psyche, and eloquently review quintessential lessons The Game has for men who yearn to return to the carefree days of the sandlot.

We believed that “Field of Dreams” was written and produced just for boys and their dads and no one else; I still agree but I thought it was Phil’s picture. He had a PhD in English Lit and had massive knowledge about everything from Chaucer to Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. He was a computer programming whiz and a thoughtful and gentle mentor of film students at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

He was also a Baker Street irregular to the extreme, knowing almost all there is to know about The great Master Detective and his colleague John H. Watson, M.D., Late of the Army Medical Department, who saw service in the Second Anglo-Afghan War where he was wounded at the Battle of Maiwand.

Like most people, I had a passing knowledge of Holmes but with Phil’s encouragement, I may still one day become a Baker Street stalwart through the myriad books, short stories and old radio dramas.

Phil’s Holmes to my Watson… seemed to describe us about as well as anything. Watson always had more to learn in the science of deductive reasoning… but often times Holmes reminded the good doctor to “bring along your pistol Dr. Watson, if you please.”   

Phil was a rather indifferent vegetarian and a perpetual “down” dresser; we shared a deep interest in find very inexpensive shirts at Wally World and would never pass up a 2 for 1 or a BOGO sign in almost any store. This left us with more budget for the necessities of life and our respective vices, none of which included the dreaded single-malt addiction that has befallen greater men than we; “… $250 for a bottle, just one bottle?”

Amen.

I fear I may have drawn a far too “stuffy” portrait of Phil, so I can assure you that he thought “Fawlty Towers” was genius, and that the Little Rascals and The Three Stooges are permanently installed in the celestial “He-Man Woman Haters’ Club” section of the Fortress of Solitude where all American males of our era engage in contemplative pursuit.

Over the last several weeks I’ve tried to recall something I was better at than he…. baseball–no, vocabulary–absolutely no, American history–doubtful… after a while I gave up, not in defeat, but with the resounding good fortune I’d had to know and learn from him.

About five years ago I got a call from a Denver friend of Phil’s who informed me that he had he had been seriously injured in a car accident which mercifully put his pathetic sled of an old Toyota to death…. But Phil dodged two bullets that day; what caused the wreck was  a massive heart attack that would have killed him on the spot had his car not crashed immediately into a tree. Paramedics arrived promptly and saved the day.

It cost Phil his Winstons… but gave him five more years in return.

I have been unable to find where my good friend now rests and I am saddened that things end this way… unknowing, disconnected, no one to share the loss with. I have no details of his passing but I imagine his heart failed him finally and I pray it was painless and swift… he’d hate that last part, but certainly forgive me the spiritual reference which he always blamed on my having been educated in a Jesuit graduate school.

He was my confidant, the first to recognize that my psychotic wife’s actions were nothing short than a failed assassination”, a brilliant thinker and a man possessed of a deep and caring heart,

He was available to those in need presented a rather rumpled and bookish-looking fellow who could laugh like a maniac at thoughtful puns and recall in a snap the best quips, sarcasms and devilish put downs of the previous 100 years.

An Army veteran of the Cold War, Phil had a surgical sense of put-down humor and used it sparingly and infrequently.

Perhaps that the greatest compliment he ever passed my way, after reading something I’d sent him, was…  “My God man, this borders on the literate and insightful.”

To which I said, “Oh, so it’s come to this, has it…. underestimation?”    

He was a gentleman and a gentle man. He gave more than he asked or ever received, was thoughtful and reflective, and expressed himself with an economy of words that I am doomed to never equal. And he thought my John Wayne impression was the very best.

I like to believe that Phil has been reunited with Tripoli and that they’ll watch out for one another until I can join up for a long overdue Frisbee tossing session, a few Chinese beers and once again speculate what Ted Williams’ numbers would have been had he not lost five years of his prime to WWII and Korea.

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About Gary Alexander

Volunteer coordinator for veterans support network in North Texas. Now retired from his private psychotherapy practice, I specialized in the diagnosis and treatment posttraumatic stress, working with victim assistance programs, veterans and the Veterans Administration for over 20 years. After being wounded in action in Vietnam, I was medically retired from the Marine Corps and know first hand many of the readjustment difficulties and psychological stresses experienced by today's OIF and OEF veterans. I am available, at minimal cost, to speak at your functions on several subjects including veterans issues, Vietnam, the Medal of Honor, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and critical incident debriefings.
This entry was posted in Family, friends, Film, Humor. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Phil…. an appreciation

  1. Alex Voog says:

    Awesome tribute to a lost friend. I hope you find out his final resting place. I’m glad to have re-found your blog, be well.

  2. Bob Mack says:

    A great eulogy. I’m sorry for your loss. Good friends are hard to find.

  3. My deepest sympathy for your loss.

    Your reflections of friendship, respect and trust in each other is rare in this age of distrust. Why do I feel that there is far more to be penned on these wonderful interactions. Maybe that is just wishful thinking on my part as I was moved by what you wrote. A native New Yorker myself. As a boy I worked in that great ball yard known as the “House that Ruth Built”. Being a Brooklyn Dodger fan no greater punishment could be administered. Pride can be bought – obviously. I surly never got to meet Phil but he may have caught a bag of peanuts or popcorn this Bronx boy was hustling in the upper deck. God rest his soul….

    Semper Fi, Winch

  4. Thanks guys….. Phil was one of a knd and I was lucky to walk a ways with him.

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