Saturday, February 14, 2015
My father, Henri Victor Fields, died this morning on Valentine’s Day 2015.
He was born in East Texas in early May of 1947 to Maggie Peal Fields, an artist, and her much older husband, Harry Fields. He grew up there in Frankston among the towering pines and humid sticky days. Harry worked for the Texas Railroad Commission at a train depot near the small central square. Before long, Vic had a little brother, Gene Fields. Copper haired to Vic’s sandy blonde, cheerful and at ease with people, Gene and Vic occupied different ends of a spectrum in many ways, very similar in others.
Vic was exceptionally bright. He told me he would read the dictionary, one word at a time each night. According to Vic, during the nineteen fifties Maggie and Harry rented out parts of their house on Commerce Street to travelers. Maggie made biscuits and Harry worked at the depot, and “Little Fields” grew up among the strangers at the boarding house and the nosy rhythms of a small town. Stories of Vic and his brother’s adventures in East Texas were the fables of my young life.
Maggie was a painter throughout her life and Vic grew up in a house of artistry. He and his little brother had a fondness for pranks, many of which are probably the things his friends remember best about him. For example, Harry had a fear of fire. Vic and Gene made what looked like a giant match from a broomhandle and painted plaster. They would run through the hall of the house in Frankston pretending to strike this giant match on the floor. Another time, they apparently rigged up a telephone in a treehouse and used it to call far off places. (Russia is how the story goes.) I suspect this was as much Gene as Vic, but my Dad’s telling of the tale made it easy to imagine the two little boys giggling and reaching out to a larger world from a platform in the boughs of the great pines.
The boys had a dear cousin, Ange Lyles, whose mother was close with Maggie. Angie and her mom lived there for a while in Maggie’s house. Many of Vic’s early stories involve Angie, and sepia photos from that time show a girl with big cheeks and bigger eyes peering at the boys from the porch. The cousins remained close throughout their lives.
Vic strove to get out of Frankston and eventually made it far. By all accounts he was a gifted student at the local highschool, where Maggie also worked as a librarian as the boys grew up. Upon graduation, Vic was (as the story goes) the first boy from his school to ever attend University. In the summer of 1967 Vic headed off to college at the University of Texas in Austin. Around this time, the boys played in a band. Vic told stories of trips to Austin to play, though one suspects Gene was the better musician of the two.
Within a year or so (after, perhaps, a semester spent back in East Texas, where Vic had to do penance at Henderson college for having had a little too much fun and spent too little time with his classes) Vic moved into La Voyager apartment complex, north of the University Campus in Austin. Next door lived a long haired, dark eyed beauty named Sherry. She studied studio art at the University. Their first date was the weekend of Texas Roundup, an event in which neither of them participated. Before long they were married and had a Siamese cat named Old Kitty. This started one of their many traditions. For the rest of Vic’s life, there was always a Siamese in the house.
Vic studied political science and Sherry studied art. They drank beer at Shultz’ Beer Garden and lived on the periphery of the counter-culture movements of the late sixties. Vic loved Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, the Stones. After graduation they bounced around a bit. They lived in Denver as ski-bums for a season, in Cincinnati, and then returned to Dallas for graduate school. Realizing that Vic had a mind and focus which could go far, a professor there recommended him for the University of Columbia’s Russian Studies Institute in New York.
They moved to Manhattan, lived on the Upper West Side near Columbia. Vic studied Russian language and politics there. Sherry worked at Saks Fifth Avenue initially. They fell in with the Columbia poli-sci literati and often told stories of their peers and mentors there. One of these was former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, “ZB,” about whom they told stories.
In the later stages of the PhD program there at Columbia, Vic was approached by the Central Intelligence Agency. All but the dissertation done, he and Sherry left New York for the woods and suburbs of Langley, just West of the Potomac. In the height of the Cold War, he worked for the CIA as an analyst, building dossiers on members of the Politboro. He told stories of CIA role playing sessions in which each of them acted the part of a different minor official in Moscow, trying to consider the angles of spycraft that would give the US some advantage.
As the story goes, Vic was eventually tapped to move to Russia for a year under some bogus pretense. Sherry was recently pregnant, and they declined. Instead, he took a job with Dow Chemical, which had plans to expand their distribution in the Soviet Union. They moved to Chicago, where they had two boys.
But the lure of academia called. (And probably the joy of raising a family on a chemical salesman’s wage amid the snow and strife of Chicago in the late seventies waned quickly.) They moved back to Texas, to Lubbock where Vic entered law school at Texas Tech University.
Sherry worked as a City Planner, Vic learned the law. Soon, a third child was born. A daughter. Blonde and big eyed. Lauren. Weezel. Vic made friends there; some of these would remain close to him for decades. They drove out to the Pinky’s liquor store and drank Coors beer and talked about professors.
After graduation they moved back to East Texas and lived for a while in Maggie’s old house again. Brother Gene and his wife, Jemmy, lived nearby as well with their daughters, Robin and Allison. It was a house of kids and art and music and noise and southern cooking. Vic took a job with the Ramey law firm in Tyler while Sherry probably went a little bit nuts killing time in rural East Texas.
They moved to Tyler, to a two story house on Pinecrest Street. Near a few blocks of undeveloped woods they raised three kids, several cats (still Old Kitty, but also Houdini), and a pile of Golden Retriever puppies, beginning another tradition that would last throughout Vic’s life. (Rusty begat Scout who begat Ranger. Is that how it goes? Close, maybe.) The kids went to school, joined the scouts as Gene and Vic had, learned to cuss. Sherry worked as an artist. Vic made partner at the law firm.
His love of pranks continued. He would stop at a local nudist colony out on the interstate and sign up the other partners for mailing lists. Once, when going to a fortieth birthday party for another lawyer, he bought a pig from an East Texas farmer. He took the pig to the party, wearing a sign that said, “Happy Birthday!” Everyone got a good laugh, and when the party was over, they expected Vic to take the pig away. Of course, he just smiled and said, “Nope. This is your pig now.” (See, Vic knew even then that pigs could not be rented. Once you owned a pig, it was yours!)
Vic developed a running habit then, in the latter part of the eighties. He ran from the house to a nearby lake, on the grounds of the University of Texas at Tyler. He saw foxes there, and ducks, and would take Rusty on some of these runs. He grew more intense, grim. He would fill up a backpack with encyclopedias and dictionaries and run. Around this time he also developed an enthusiasm for backpacking and dragged his family along on several truly brutal treks among the peaks of the Rockies.
He loved the mountains, particularly the Continental Divide near Pagosa Springs, in Southwestern Colorado. He also learned to scuba dive around this time, and took his family on several vacations to Grand Cayman, where we swam with stingrays and saw sharks deep down along a wall.
But Vic was discontent as he approached forty. He struggled then with a depression that had likely been with him since his father had succumbed to dementia some years before. The fear of losing his mind was a great cloud on Vic’s horizon, and he spoke often of it in these years. Needing a change (and probably fearing that their children were growing up a little too East Texas redneck for their more liberal tastes) Vic and Sherry moved again, this time back to Austin. They moved in circles sometimes, I guess.
In Austin they rented a house in the hills west of town, and Vic became a partner with Davis and Davis law firm. Mike, Lauren, and I grew up, wrecked cars, got mediocre grades, made friends. Ripened. Vic worked with insurance companies and chemical exposure cases. Sherry painted and threw pottery. Old Kitty and Houdini were replaced by Dragon.
Vic and Sherry bought a house at 503 Westlake Drive, on an acre of hill country. They raised kids and built a beautiful home. Vic and Sherry’s Dad and the kids laid out what seems like miles of flagstones, built ponds and a deck. The house was a hub of youthful activity, parties, energy, romance, music. Vic started his own firm, hired minions. Some of these turned out to be friends. The family went on a grand vacation to Europe in nineteen ninety four. We explored the Swiss Alps, the Catacombs of Paris.
The kids grew up, moved out, but not too far away for the most part. Vic stayed active in his children’s lives. He would often stop by with a pint of Haggen Daaz Dutch Chocolate, Anderson’s Coffee (only Alfred’s Blend, of course), a bottle of Morgan Pinot. He continued to work at the law. I remember stacks and stacks of papers in his office. He once told me that after twenty years as a lawyer he couldn’t stand to look at papers or even read much anymore.
But he did read, and one of the things he read, likely the last book he ever read, was Lonesome Dove, by Texan Larry McMurtry. He enjoyed cowboy shows, and the myth of the last cattle drive appealed to him. In the story, two old friends, one light and one dark, go on an epic journey from South Texas to Montana. He could quote Lonesome Dove almost verbatim, along with loads of Dylan lyrics. Sometimes we would talk mostly in “Lonesome Doveisms” and Dylan verse; no surprise that the kids who came around thought we were pretty weird.
In Lonesome Dove there’s a sign that hangs above the South Texas ranch. The sign reads, most memorably, “We Don’t Rent Pigs.” But far below that it has another saying, a motto, written in latin. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. At one point Coll, the serious one, teases Augustus, Gus, the light-hearted one, saying “You don’t even know what that says. It could be inviting someone to rob us.” To which Gus replies, “If anyone comes along who can read that, I hope they do try to rob us. I’d like the chance to shoot at an educated man once in my life.”
Later in the story, when Gus dies, Coll vows to bring his friend’s body back to Texas, to an orchard just south of Austin. He carries the body of his friend all the way back on the sign. The part in latin is the only piece which makes the whole journey, and ends up becoming the tombstone of Captain Augustus McCrae. It means, loosely, “Some grapes help other grapes to ripen.”
If you've been to 503 in the last twenty years you've seen the sign, or at least a replica, made with real old square nails and burned in wood. My brother and I made it for Dad. He freaked out, because he thought we’d stolen it from the museum in South Texas where the film prop hangs.
One grey day in February, a lot like today, while we walked on the stones on the shoreline at Burnet Marine Park, near Vancouver Canada, amid very different piney trees than the ones he had grown up amongst, Vic told me he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He was fifty eight years old.
He made me promise then that he would never end up in “Rusk” like his father had. I expect he made a bunch of people promise him this. He was scared.
He quit the practice of law and lived for another ten years, in his home, at 503. He had quite a few more adventures. We spent a Christmas along the Continental Divide. He came to visit us in Canada and explored the woods and coastline and mountains here. He visited his brother and spent time with Maggie in the later years of her life. He became a grandfather to Mike’s son, Greyson Fields.
Vic got his wish. He lived at home, at 503, on the porch, with his Golden Retriever, Ranger, and his Siamese cat, Blue Duck, near his Lonesome Dove sign. In the summer the yard filled with fireflies and the sound of frogs from the pond below. He ate all the Haagen Daaz he wanted. Last summer he and Gene had a reunion in Central Texas. They drank too much Shiner Bock beer, and listened to Dylan and the Stones. Sherry and Mike looked after him right until the end. In the last six months of his life he was a sad, scared skeleton. But he was surrounded by family, in a comfortable and familiar place that he built with his wife, his family, his hard work, and the strength of his younger mind.
Lauren and he sat on his porch swing and drank coffee in one of his last lucid moments. Alfred’s Blend, of course.
Some grapes help other grapes to ripen. Lauren will be one of those. Like Mike is for Greyson. Like Vic was for us.