RIP for a dear friend

February 11, 2010

Musician, historian, father, friend. I'll miss you, Paul.

Deep breath.

OK. Let’s see if we can put words together in a row here.

My best friend in the world died Tuesday. Actually, he died Monday, but in the event God was feeling generous and wanted to deal out a miracle, the family left the life support on until Tuesday.

God did not feel generous, yet another in the long series of beefs I have with God. (Hey, God? You really screwed up on this one, big guy. I really don’t like you much at all right now.)

Paul Edward Specht. January 9, 1952 — February 9, 2010. Gone way too soon, and the world is a darker place without his innate goodness, good humor, and unbelievable musical talent to help light it.

I met Paul in 1997. A fellow Civil War aficionado, he and I (and a number of other people I’m proud to call friends more than a decade later) met in the old Civil War chatroom on AOL, back when you still got 20 hours of internet access via dial-up access with a 156-baud modem. People from all over the country, drawn together by a common love of history and fascination with the events that shaped American history for the last 150 years.

It would be a more than a year later that I’d actually meet him for the first time, and some while after that before we began to gravitate toward a more serious relationship, one that danced around marriage but eventually drew back from it, survived a few bumps and breaks, and wound up something that doesn’t really lend itself real well to description, except that I was closer to him than I’ve ever been to anyone in my life, even when I was 1,000 miles away.

Which I was most of the time, since Paul lived in suburban Philadelphia and I lived, for most of that time, in suburban Memphis.

Over the next decade, we traveled together to battlefields across the eastern half of the country; we climbed Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg and pored over the Elkhorn Tavern at Pea Ridge and the Carter House at Franklin, where the final dim hopes of Confederacy were slaughtered amid a hail of lead and an abatis of Osage orange. Atlanta, Fredericksburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Fort Donelson.  And there were non-CW rendezvouses, although we generally found some sort of historical slant to anywhere we traveled — Springfield, Ill., for the Abraham Lincoln library and tomb and old state house, St. Louis for the federal courthouse where the Dred Scott decision was handed down.

I got to know and love his son, Stefan, a charming three-year-old when I met him, a strapping 15-year-old now, a good six inches taller than me, with the vocabulary and language skills of an adult in a teenager suffering with bi-polar disorder. I cheered with his triumphs, agonized with his problems. Fortunately, there have been more of the former than the latter. Stefan was the center of Paul’s world; his mother had passed away before Stefan turned 3, and Paul took on the daunting job of raising a child alone while working two jobs.

Those jobs? Another huge part of his life. He’d worked for nearly 30 years for Hoshino USA, a musical instrument company that makes and sells Ibanez guitars and Tama drums. Loved it. Was great at it. Held half a dozen different positions in the firm. Continued to work with his laptop from his hospital bed as he battled the leukemia that eventually took his life.

The other job, also musical. He played. He played with a variety of bands, he played a variety of music, he played a huge range of instruments. He’d play, in the course of any one gig, three different saxophones, any of a dozen or more harmonicas, a flute and a clarinet. At home, he was teaching himself piano. He played blues, he played jazz, he played classical, he played rock, he played country. OK, not a LOT of country, but he did play some. And he did a rousing rendition of “Marching Through Georgia,” which he always delighted in playing for me and would, at least, follow up with a rendition of Dixie or Bonnie Blue Flag to appease my Southern sensibilities.

One year, we went to the blues festival at Helena. We were wandering down the street, stopping to listen to the people playing on the sidewalk. He stood in with a Japanese band that spoke no English except the blues lyrics they sang. Two older black men stopped to listen as he wound up one song, handed me the harmonica and grabbed another one in a different key.

“Your man, he can play that harp,” one of the gentlemen commented to me.

Yeah. He could. And my favorite times visiting him were lying in bed, early in the morning, listening to him downstairs, practicing. When he knew I was awake, he’d segue into some of my favorites…Bewitched, which he always said reminded him of me, or Basin Street Blues, or some Jimmy Buffett or some Charlie Musselwhite.

And none of that speaks to so much of what he was. We were at a muster — our name for our annual gatherings of Civil War friends from all over the country, at some battlefield somewhere — and one guy, who didn’t have a lot of money, had the starter go out on his car. Paul quietly wrote the check to cover the repair bill, told Max he could pay him back whenever he was able. One member wanted to come to a muster, but couldn’t afford a plane ticket; he bought it for her. His neighbor split up with her husband, who took the stereo system; Paul got her a pair of Bose speakers to hook to her CD player. He’d drive across town to pay for something that inadvertently got left in a shopping bag and not paid for at checkout, and he’d raise unshirted hell with a company that didn’t want to honor a guarantee on a cell phone that wasn’t working right. He wasn’t religious, but loved Christmas and Christmas music and Christmas decorations, and delighted in getting them out and putting them up every year. He’d work for weeks to learn and perfect a certain tune, if he knew someone wanted to hear it. He made certain Stefan got to karate lessons, swimming lessons, ice skating lessons, racing from work to lessons to a gig that night.

I felt like someone punched me in the gut last April, when his sister called to tell me he had leukemia. I agonized as he went through the chemo that almost killed him, then got to experience the joy of hearing him on the telephone when he had recovered from a three-week coma and could talk. And even more, to see his son’s face when I handed the phone to him. I got to cook Thanksgiving dinner for him, at home with his cancer in remission, and experience a brief four-day stint at what life might have been like if we’d taken the plunge and gotten married.

And then the cancer came back, bringing with it a massive brain hemorrhage, for which I’m really grateful because that way, he didn’t have to face the cancer demons again. And while Paul didn’t fear much in life, he did fear that. He had been through prostate cancer, a heart attack and leukemia in an 18-month span, and he had no physical or emotional reserves left.

Some things just ain’t right, and the untimely death of a man who was so good, so ethical, so giving, so kind, so talented, so needed by a teenaged son, so beloved by so many people — that’s one of the least right things there is. Cancer’s a mean, ugly, unforgiving bastard, and I hate it.

And I miss Paul. God help me, I miss him.


5 Responses to “RIP for a dear friend”

  1. Rose Mary Says:

    The lump in my throat is so huge right now I cannot swallow. It is the one thing I fear most – losing my friend, my love, my bud. What a beautiful tribute. I am so glad for you and for Paul that your paths were obviously meant to cross and ultimately ended up connecting. Kay my heart aches for you.
    Love ya Lady

  2. longago Says:

    I met Paul on this very day — February 11 — I think it was 23 – 24 years ago. May you rest in peace Paul. I haven’t had much contact with him over the last 20 years but will never forget him.

    Kay, what I lovely tribute. I hope your memories will bring you comfort and peace.

  3. Len Cleavelin Says:

    God did not feel generous, yet another in the long series of beefs I have with God. (Hey, God? You really screwed up on this one, big guy. I really don’t like you much at all right now.)

    You know my answer to that; I won’t belabor it.

    I do feel your loss; I’ve seen the closeness firsthand in your phone conversations with him. I’m sorry I never met him.

    May all find peace.

  4. Mark Amentt Says:

    Kay, I was at the service today.. It was a tough one…
    Thank you for so “eloquently” speaking to all of us about Paul.. Your reading of his blog commentary on the “argument that had been brewing” summed up a man that was clearly an inspiration and calm voice in a storm.. “Etiquette and compromise” when discussing “heated toics”.. A comment that shows Paul’s class and insight.. Miss him and love him..

  5. Leah Says:

    Kay I am sorry for your loss! I cant imagine losing someone so close to you…If you need anything let me or mom know….

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