29 October 2005

Remembering Ed Sinclair

Today we put Ed Sinclair in the ground.

“In the ground” is not the right phrase of course; we don’t really put people in the ground anymore, we Presbyterians, as Thomas Lynch took pains to remind us last week. “Once you have a dead guy in the room you can talk about anything,” he told us. All we have is ashes, these days, and I can’t imagine someone bringing an urn up to the lectern and dipping their fingers into it. Can you? Can you see someone’s grown child opening up one of those heavy brass milk jugs and pulling out a fragment of bone, their fingers trailing a dirty grey powder that drifts out over the edge and threatens to get on the front-row pew cushions? Would they hold up that chunk of burnt calcinate and declare, “This was my mother, this my father?”

No, we’re far too civilized to bring the mortal remains of our dead into our sanctuaries. Clean and modern – that’s how we like it.

Still, you had to feel something of Ed in the room, listening to the way Bill described his life. We did find that we could talk and think about just about anything, because he brought Ed into the room with words and stories. Woe to the person who doesn’t befriend the pastor! You might be but a pale and transparent shade at your own memorial. Ed made sure that wouldn’t happen. Bill told us of how some years back Ed “engineered” his own funeral, describing how he wanted things done. Part of that involved lunch at Indian Harbor and recounting his life’s story. Apparently the first session lasted over two hours and only made it through the first thirty-eight years. Because he started in 1913, a time when the “modern world” was something we’d find only half familiar. He talked about dragging an effigy of the Kaiser down the road behind a Model T Ford. He made it up through the way he had to stay behind on the homefront in World War II because he was an engineer in the energy business, and keeping the oil and gasoline flowing was a crucial part of winning the war.

Ed was a petrochemical engineer, you see. He was one of the people who designed, built and operated refineries. I bet he and his colleagues were the men who created the refineries we see today, because we haven’t built many refineries here in the US in the past three decades, and the basic technology came of age in the middle of the 20th century.

Of the pictures of Ed on the obligatory picture board down at Indian Harbor was one that looked to be from the fifties or early sixties. It was my favorite of the lot. This picture showed Ed leaning over a model of a refinery, his eyes cast upward to the top of one of the process stacks. He was looking up through those thick glasses of his, his hair already starting to lighten toward the white it would be when I knew him. Gathered around the model were a few of his colleagues, all in suits with those cheap black ties, all equipped with those thick glasses and their heavy rims. Engineers. Today’s engineers, especially the software guys, with their beards and Birkenstocks and cargos held up with hemp-canvas belts, you never quite know if they’re the guy sitting on the next killer app or just another aging deadhead. Not the engineers of Ed’s time. Everything about them – their hair, their demeanor, their glasses, their haberdashery – shouts Engineer. Still waters run deep. The strong silent type. These are the things we used to say about men like this. They reminded me of the old pictures I saw of the men at Mission Control back in its glory days of Gemini and Apollo. These are the men who built America into a world power. In Rome they would have been the men who designed and built the fabulous roads and aqueducts and mills which constituted the physical plant of that Republic-become-Empire. Ed was of that line, men who greatly dared and greatly built and never quit.

He never quit. If we can say anything, we can say that about Ed. Bill reminded us of that, telling us how Ed had offered to drive Kathy out to Michigan next year if she wound up having to drive herself again. As if we needed to be told. We had all seen him up in the choir, at all our events, his picture on the Stephen minister board. A week or so ago he was as he ever was for us. When we get back into the sanctuary, I’ll still be looking for him to come down the side aisle, getting a head start on the recessional hymn, and as I keep one eye on the hymnbook shaking my hand more often than not.

Because when I say “the strong silent type” that fits Ed, and yet it didn’t. He would talk your ear off given a chance. Just the other week we heard John Waters tell us about growing up in the church, and how he credited Ed Sinclair for telling him how to talk to the pretty girls at school. And I recall the things he said to me when I had just graduated MIT into the post-80s recession, how he told me about economic downturns nobody even recalls now. I mentioned how ridiculous the “Are you now or have you ever been” question on job applications was since the USSR had just then been thrown on the scrap-heap of unlamented empires. Ed of course remembered the heighday of McCarthyism, and how frightening a time that had been in the land of the free. Talk about perspective!

We probably all remember those conversations. Ed didn’t have such an easy time getting around a crowded room these past few years, but he never let that stop him. You could be zipping by in the devil’s own hurry and Ed would stop you in your tracks. You know what I’m talking about. He would hold out that cane, the tip pointing to just behind your feet like a wizard drawing a magic circle, and you’d be drawn in. Time would stop for a few moments, and you’d go away a richer person than before.

So it would be easy to say that we’re all poorer for the loss of Ed, but the truth is we’re all richer carrying what he shared with us. So let’s keep on sharing it. Because the more we share, the richer we all become.

2 Comments:

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posted by Anonymous Anonymous on
14 February, 2007 04:59  

Keep up the good work »

posted by Anonymous Anonymous on
06 March, 2007 23:15  

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