A fond farewell
When I drove to Pisgah last Thursday for Jack Lawless’s celebration of life, I did so with trepidation.
It had nothing to do with Jack himself. He’d led a long fruitful life, died at the tender age of 85, and as far as I knew, never had an enemy to his name.
So what was the problem?
Just this: When people live as long as Jack did, by the time they leave this Vale of Sorrow, few people who knew them are still around. Almost all their contemporaries are dead, and most folks a generation younger who might’ve known them have left for greener pastures decades ago.
As it turned out, my worry (as it usually is) was all for naught.
The parking lot was full, the lodge was jamming.
It was Old Home Week at its best. Almost everyone there was a friend of Jack’s, and many of them were friends of mine as well.
If you didn’t know Jack, you missed a prince of a man. He was a Saranac Lake native and a Navy vet. Also, he’d held a myriad of jobs, from bar owner to village manager of Malone and Saranac Lake, and a bunch of others in between.
But resume aside, Jack was just an all-around good guy. He was bright, friendly and always ready to swap stories. And just for the record, he was a fine storyteller — both in content and delivery.
Oddly, for all the time I knew Jack, I don’t know one story about him and I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because we never hung out in the same places back in the Glory Days. Or maybe it’s because the only stories he told me were about other people. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two – or something else entirely.
I was standing in a corner, watching people, thinking about Jack’s storytelling, and suddenly one came to light. It was about his father and it took place in the late early ’60s.
I leaned back, closed my eyes, and slowly Jack’s dad appeared before me.
Mr. Lawless (I think his name was Kenneth John, but I never called him that) owned the Texaco station, where the Verizon store is now. He was tall, good-looking, and had an arch sense of humor and a sardonic worldview. My brother worked for him for five summers, so I stopped in the station a lot, mostly to hang out in Machoville and listen to Mr. Lawless tell stories.
Between his stories and acerbic observations, he was always fun to be around. But don’t get the wrong idea — he was no teddy bear. Mr. Lawless was a man’s man and someone not to be trifled with, for he did not suffer fools.
The ancient Romans had an expression about fools. It is, “Infinitus numerous stultorum est,” which means The number of fools is infinite.
Keep in mind, this phrase came about when the world population was maybe 300 million. Today it’s over 7 billion. So the Fool Factor has increased so much, you can barely turn this way or that without bumping into one. Or more likely, without having one bump into you. And it was a fool of the first order who’s the subject of this story.
It was a fine summer day in 1960. Jack and another guy who worked at the Texaco were on the job,while Mr. Lawless had left for some reason or other. In pulled a 1959 red and white Buick Electra with Jersey plates. The car was as luxurious as any car ever, and not quite as long as the Queen Mary.
The driver came in and said he wanted an oil change and lube, and a wash and wax. But he had a special condition: He had his own oil with him and wanted Jack to use that. It wasn’t a typical request, but Jack figured any money he lost on the oil, he’d make up in the wash and wax, since it was all labor. So he agreed and the guy left the car and went off on his merry way.
Jack did the oil change and lube and then, since it was way past his lunch hour, decided to leave and have lunch, which he did.
When he came back, Mr. Lawless was in the station … and he was fuming.
After the guy from Jersey came back, he raised holy hell about what a lousy wash and wax had been done. He carried on so much that the worker, not knowing what to do, didn’t charge him for it. After Mr. Lawless returned and found out what’d happened he was one step short of homicidal rage.
He wasn’t mad at the employee, because he’d been left there on his own. But he was mad at Jack, who he said should have been there, seeing the job through till the end and being in some authority. He was also mad he’d been beat out of his due, and you can bet there was no love lost between him and the sleaze artist from Jersey.
… and payin’
The next day Jack and Mr. Lawless were in the station when they saw a car slowly coming down LaPan highway. It was a red and white Buick Electra with Jersey plates. It stopped by Dorsey street and out stepped the driver, who of course was the schmuck who’d burned them the day before. He walked down the highway and came in the station. Mr. Lawless was standing behind his desk in his characteristic pose, with his arms folded across his chest.
“Morning,” said Jersey, with a big smile
Mr. Lawless nodded but said nothing.
“I ran outta gas,” said Jersey.
“Can’t drive a car without gas,” said Mr. Lawless.
“Right,” said the guy.
A silence followed as neither one said anything. Then Jersey spoke.
“So can I borrow a gas can?”
“No,” said Mr. Lawless.
“No?” said the guy. “You mean you don’t have a gas can?”
“This is a gas station,” said Mr. Lawless. “Of course, I have gas cans.”
Another silence followed. Finally the guy figured out what was going on.
“You mean you won’t lend me the can?” said the guy.
“I just told you that,” said Mr. Lawless.
“So what can I do?”
“Call a tow truck,” said Mr. Lawless.
The guy spotted the phone on the wall in back of Mr. Lawless.
“Can I use your phone?” he said.
Mr. Lawless shook his head slowly, prolonging his enjoyment.
“What am I supposed to do?” said the guy.
Mr. Lawless pointed out the front window.
“Phone booth there on the corner,” he said.
The guy huffed out of the station and headed to the phone booth.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The guy wrote a letter of complaint to Texaco headquarters, who in turn forwarded it to Mr. Lawless, along with their own snottygram about good customer relations and so on.
When Jack told me the story, I asked him what his father did with the letter.
“Just what you’d expect,” he said. “He tossed it in the circular file and then had a good laugh about it.”
As I watched the commotion around me from my corner in the Pisgah lodge, I thought about that story, about Mr. Lawless, about Jack. It was a great party, really. Suddenly a feeling of sadness came over me as I realized that Jack, who loved parties, was missing it.
I mulled over that for a while, till it was replaced by another thought. It was this: For all I know — or don’t — Jack was there the whole time.