Sunday, August 3, 2014

My Cool Brother Bill

It is with great sadness that I take a step away from the Farm House restoration to relate the news that my oldest brother Bill has passed away at the age of 69 from heart failure. With your kind indulgence, I'd like to set my nom de blog aside for today, and tell you all what Bill's little brother Rob remembers about him.

* * *

My early memories of Bill involve music and laughter: the music coming from him, and the laughter from me. This was the early Sixties, when folk music was at its zenith of popularity, and Bill was completely gone on it. And if Bill was gone on something, we all were, because Bill was cool.

Bill, as I first remember him.

Mom, the source of our musical talent, played the piano and guitar. Bill played guitar and banjo, my second oldest brother Jon played guitar and was just becoming a violin prodigy, and Erle, the third-oldest, was just starting with the 'cello, later to become the best guitarist in the family. Everybody sang.

But what I remember most from those early years is Bill and his big, shiny, loud five-string banjo. He played bluegrass, with picks on every finger of his strumming hand. In those early days, he called the tune, and it was fun.

Normally, Bill was very self-possessed—not distant nor unapproachable, just relaxed and quiet. But when he got behind that banjo, The shields came down. His face lit up with a million-dollar smile, his eyes sparkled, and it was hootenanny time at the old Spencer place. Man, was that cool.

Bill and his million-dollar smile, with a friend. We always had dogs and cats when we were growing up. From the pile of wood scraps in the background, I'm guessing this was at the Willow Glen house, which Dad designed and had custom-built.

There was another situation in which Bill opened up, and that was at dinner. In those days we always ate dinner together at the kitchen table, and the seating was assigned: Mom and Dad sat at each end, and the five brothers were arrayed along the sides, clockwise by age: Bill and Jon on one side, Erle, Randy and I on the other. Bill was the funniest one in the family, and Randy and I, sitting right across from him, were his most enthusiastic audience.

The show would start the minute we sat down, and he always kept Randy and me in stitches, often to the point where we were so busy laughing that we forgot to eat! Mom or Dad would have to remind us that there was food still on our plates, and we'd better get to it quickly if we didn't want to eat it cold. We'd both buckle down and start shoveling it in. because there was nothing worse than having to eat cold vegetables, especially Brussels sprouts.

This would only spur Bill on to greater feats of mirth, in the hope that as we shoveled he would get one of the two of us to put forth with a crowd-pleasing spit-take, or maybe even the roof-raising milk-out-the-nose shot. I did my share of spit-takes, but managed to keep my milk always going in the right direction. The nose shot was Randy's specialty. I imagine that right about then my parents were wishing they'd had five girls instead.

This was the look Bill had when he was in a joking mood: full of whimsy, with just a touch of the agent provocateur.

Eventually, I took to eating my salad last, because it was cold to begin with. You know, I still eat my salad last, and I can still do a good spit-take too.

Speaking of Brussels sprouts, that reminds me of one of Dad's favorite stories, one that occurred well before I came on the scene, when Bill was still pretty little. I may have the vegetables reversed in this tale, but that will not alter its import, so here goes: Jon, my second-oldest brother, hated Brussels sprouts. Apparently one dinnertime Jon finally took a stand and simply refused to eat them.

Seeing a chance to employ some fatherly psychology, Dad said, "Fred [Dad used to call Jon by his middle name when he was in an especially fatherly mood], maybe you're not looking at this in the proper light. You like cabbage, right?" Jon agreed, for Dad spoke the truth.

Dad smiled and said in a confidential tone, "Well, guess what? Brussels sprouts are really just little cabbages with a fancy name." Jon suddenly saw Brussels sprouts in a new light, and proceeded to eat them with enthusiasm. Dad basked in the glow of a job well done.

Sadly, Dad had neglected to consider that whereas Bill was just fine with Brussels sprouts, cabbage offended his young sensibilities. Thus, in response to Dad's pronouncement, Bill cried, "These are little cabbages? Yeccccccch!"  Now Bill refused to eat them. Bye-bye, glow. After that, the family always referred to Brussels sprouts as "little cabbages."

Brussels sprouts yes! Little Cabbages no!

Bill's humor wasn't the kind that relied upon standard jokes or funny anecdotes. His humor was kind of an amalgam of Dad's manly joshery and Grandpa Kesling's absurd, slightly subversive, stream-of-consciousness wordplay (he had a particular flair for spoonerisms). The result was nimble shoot-from-the-hip commentary on whatever was going on at the moment, delivered from a bemused, slightly puckish point of view. It was rarely condescending, but it often had a zingy edge when he got on a roll. That is when I laughed the hardest, even if the zing was at my expense. I felt honored to be zung by someone so cool.

I can't tell you how fundamental an effect all this had on my own personality, the music and the humor. It led me at a very early age to equate both with love. You see, unlike the rest of us boys, Bill was not really a performer in the traditional sense. That is, he did not relish getting up in front of an audience in order to elicit its love and approbation. Rather, Bill joked with us for the same reason he played and sang with us, in order to express his love and approbation. He liked to crack me up at dinner because it made me happy, which made him happy. That was so cool.

* * *

Bill was close to fifteen years older than I am, and I guess because of that I brought out Bill's nurturing instincts when he was still in high school. I don't recall even one time when Bill was ever cross with me, and from my earliest memories he was always looking to encourage my mental development. Because of all the stimulation from the music and simply from having four older brothers, I became interactive and alert to my surroundings from the time I was six months old, and he was the first to notice it. Whenever he'd notice my attempting to interpret things around me, he'd do what he could to give my thought process a boost.

The most noteworthy example of this was when he noticed that I, at the age of two, was teaching myself how to read by sounding out signs to myself that I saw along the road as we drove around town. Our parents didn't believe him until he proved it, unambiguously and dramatically, one fateful day when the whole family was in the car, on a day excursion up to San Francisco, and Dad quite uncharacteristically got us completely lost.

I remember this trip, not so much for the event in question as for an old abandoned Victorian we must have driven by ten times as we drove around in circles. I mention this in passing because it occurs to me as I write that my fascination with that old house ultimately led to our buying this old house, and that never occurred to me until just now.

The story of this eventful trip is far too long to relate here in full, but to give you a very abbreviated version of it, Dad in frustration finally turned up a narrow road that led straight into an area we had not yet explored. Still looking out the window thinking about that old house, I noticed that we kept passing a sign that had a silhouette of a bike and two short words under it. 

Bill was watching me as I figured out what the sign meant (the silhouette made that easier than usual), and advised me quietly that I'd better let Dad know, which I did with increasing alarm and volume as Dad just kept driving ahead. Everyone else was quiet as a mouse; they had learned not to bug Dad when he was behind the wheel, especially when he was already annoyed over having gotten us lost. Finally, he issued his standard invocation of supreme paternal authority: "QUIET! Don't make me come back there!" Cut to flashing lights, policeman, and expensive ticket.

Bill was quite successful in getting his point across, and that led my parents to begin tutoring me in reading at home. As a result, by the time I reached my seventh birthday I could read at a sixth-grade level. This was a huge head start to my education that likely would not have happened had Bill not taken the time out of a busy adolescence to take an interest in my development.

The five Spencer boys, circa 1963 or maybe 1964, in front of our Shasta Avenue home in San Jose. I remember posing for this photo; we were on our way to church. Behind us is the '61 Fury station wagon in which we made our assault on San Francisco. To our right you can just see the rose bush that I crashed into one day when I made too wide a turn on my trike, leaving me suspended among its carnivorous branches. This event provided Bill with a rich source of dinner-table material.

Not that Bill's efforts ceased there. Once I could read at that level, Bill started giving me reading assignments from the encyclopedia, mostly the entries dealing with great scientists: Newton, Einstein, Brahe, Bohr. He also lectured me on the Scientific Method. Jon was a big part of this effort as well. The readings were still a bit over my head, but the lectures hit the target right away, and the habit of reading the encyclopedia stuck. Once Bill left for the Navy, Jon gave me instruction in logic theory, building upon the Scientific Method instruction he and Bill had given. Soon, my third-oldest brother Erle joined the effort, giving me math problems to work out, teaching me how to use a slide rule, and helping Mom encourage me to read for enjoyment as well as edification.

I can't tell you what a boon this has been to me throughout my life. I got a huge boost up the learning curve that put me ahead of the game throughout my schooling. Moreover, the efforts of my family on my behalf showed me that learning took place constantly, not just in school, and that I got more out of seeking the answers to questions myself than I did out of having them handed to me. And it was all the result of Bill's infectious enthusiasm motivating the rest of us.

Bill was a natural leader in our family who led not by force of will, but by coolness. Bill was always hip to things before everyone else, whether it be folk music or my efforts to teach myself how to read. Moreover, he didn't lord his hipness over us; he just moved on to the next thing, and we followed, because we'd learned to trust his judgment. To us younger brothers, he was like a third parent, but an awesomely cool one.

One of the other interests Bill pursued briefly in his pre-Navy years was oil painting, which proved to be a huge influence on Randy, who had a real gift for the graphic arts. Bill did not pursue this interest for long, but he did produce two competent paintings which hung in our home for years. They were both of the same subject: a British racing green roadster, in full race dress, negotiating a twisty bit of roadway (which Jon informs me was the Laguna Seca racetrack in Monterey).

These scenes reflected the strong influence of our Uncle Ernest, Mom's brother, who was a significant early role model for Bill. The two even looked a lot alike. In the Sixties, Uncle Ernest was a race car driver who competed with great success in the top rank of the Sports Car Club of America, when that form of car racing was as popular nationwide as NASCAR is in the South today.

In his roughly eight-year career, Uncle Ernest took 23 checkered flags, and in 1965, racing a Shelby Cobra in competition with drivers such as Jackie Stewart and Ken Miles, was National Champion in Class A Production. Before that, he had run a flight school up in San Jose for years (he had been an instructor in the Army Air Force during World War II). Race car driver and aviator: to us boys, that was coolness squared.

Uncle Ernest at the Tucson Nationals, March 20-21, 1965: in the lead to stay. Ernest kept the race-tuned Ford 289 V8 from this car after his racing days, ultimately installing it in his Falcon station wagon.

Bill's paintings were in fact an overt homage to Uncle Ernest's racing career: Laguna Seca was Ernest's favorite circuit, and the car in the paintings was, if memory serves, Ernest's Austin-Healey roadster (the car he raced before the Cobra).

Bill's respect for Uncle Ernest was reflected in his own choice of vehicles. His first, of brief duration, was a Triumph TR-10; while it was nothing more than a tiny econobox, it was nevertheless from the same stable as Ernest's first racer, a TR-4.

Very soon, Bill replaced the TR-10 with his own TR-4, which as I recall fit the stereotype of "unreliable British roadster" to a T. It was always breaking down, and Bill would only make matters worse by trying to fix the car himself. Invariably, Dad would have to have the car towed to our mechanic to have all the leftover parts put back in their proper places. Dad used to say that eventually the mechanic pulled him aside after one such operation and told him, "If you let your son work on this car again, don't bring it back to me!"

Eventually, Bill sold the TR-4 to Jon, and purchased a big Austin-Healey 100-6, very similar to Uncle Ernest's, only it was yellow. Bill immediately painted it British racing green to match. He didn't have it painted, mind you; he painted it himself, in the garage. As I recall, he did a surprisingly good job. Bill was always a do-it-yourselfer; I remember that back in high school he refinished his guitar. I always thought that was cool.

A nice example of an Austin-Healey 100-6, in the same color yellow as Bill's.

This car was somewhat more dependable, and it was certainly more powerful. It was in fact quite a beast, legendarily so, with a big straight-six powerplant that had more torque than anyone ever really needed outside a racetrack. At the same time, it was uncommonly nimble, and it was that combination of ample power and good handling that made it such a popular road racer. Ernest once told me, "The 'Vettes with their big, heavy V-8s used to get a good lead on me on the first straightaway, but in the curves I'd make it all up in no time in that Healey, and plenty more to boot." Jon ended up with that car, too, when Bill left for the Navy.

* * *

Dad was quite an athlete in his day, and both Bill and Jon inherited this ability fully. Bill's event was the pole vault, and he was extremely good at it, typically competing at the top level regionally. The zenith of his athletic career was when he competed in the regional finals, with the winners of each event to proceed to the national Olympic qualifying event.

To make a long story short, Bill placed first, but was then disqualified on a technical violation that would most assuredly not have occurred had the official in charge been doing his job. It was a damnable shame, but Bill was cool about it.

Randy on his way to Scout camp, Summer 1966, in front of our house in Whiting Woods. I love this picture, because so much is going on in the background. Our awesome poodle Pepi is there, along with Mom, whose attire, along with Randy's sleepy expression, suggests this is pretty early on a Saturday morning. It looks like Jon is planning a trip to the beach, for there he is doing something under the rear of the car, and the family surfboard is hanging out the trunk. That must be one of his friends standing against the house, because he's too big to be Erle and Bill is off in the Navy. The car is Dad's bone-stock 1966 Galaxie 500 with the stump-puller 352 V-8 truck engine.

Rather than get back in the process for the next Olympics, or continue his studies at that time, Bill chose instead to get his required military service behind him. Bill joined the Navy in honor of Dad's own Navy service during WW II. After his duty, Bill often remarked that the Navy had given him a much-needed lesson in responsibility; Dad would always agree vigorously with this assertion, but I was never sure whether he was agreeing with Bill, or relating Bill's Navy experience to his own. In any event, Bill was still as cool as ever upon his return.

Bill and Jean, Christmas 1966. Bill was home on leave, and Jean came home with him.

Bill entered the service almost a year after we moved to a big house in Whiting Woods, nestled at the foot of the Verdugo Mountains in northern Glendale. Naturally, Bill looked exceedingly cool in his Navy uniform. He served his entire tour of duty at Pearl Harbor; his fiancée Jean Naregan took that opportunity to transfer to the University of Hawaii for her last two years of undergraduate work. She was pretty cool, too.

The same night as the last picture. There's Bill with Jean, Jon with his then-girlfriend Florrie, Grandma Kesling in the chair behind him, and Grandpa in the back alongside his trusty projector, changing reels. Either Dad or Erle is behind the camera. Showing home movies was Grandpa's other traditional role at family get-togethers, one of my absolute favorite activities. Either Pepi or our other poodle, his son Puff, is barely visible next to Jean. One of Dad's legendary Christmas trees is in the background. And oh, look! My present from Santa, the Show'N'Tell record player-radio, which I told you all about some time ago, is in front of Jean.
Please excuse the remnant of paper glued to the photo in front of Florrie's feet; I removed as much of it as I could safely.

Jean graduated just as Bill was finishing his active duty, and soon after their return they were married at a church in nearby Montrose. The whole Spencer family was in the wedding party; I was the ring-bearer, my first significant position of responsibility.

Jon had graduated from high school the previous year, and between university and work, he was hardly ever home except to sleep. Bill was quite busy as well, what with work, completing his degree work, and making a home with his new bride. Erle's time was quite occupied with his hard-rock/blues-rock band (called Smog) that terrorized the neighborhood with its frequent, highly-amped practicing in our garage. Randy was busy with his artistic pursuits, when he wasn't hanging out at Smog practice.

Bill and Jean, not long after their wedding. I always liked the way Bill looked with a mustache.

All this notwithstanding, the family during these years still managed to get together on a regular basis, often at Bill and Jean's place. At first they lived in an apartment on the east side of Reseda; later they moved to a rental cottage in Chatsworth, and a few years after that to a home they bought on the west side of Reseda. Bill by that point made music only rarely, but he was still just as funny as before, and just as cool, or at least as cool as a young, hard-working married guy could afford to be. In due course, Jon married as well, and Erle followed suit soon thereafter.

During these years, Bill got into photography in a big way. In this, he was following in Grandpa Kesling's footsteps. Grandpa Kesling flew reconnaissance in the Army Air Service (now the Air Force) in the period directly following World War I. His mission was to fly over Europe and take surveillance photographs that were used to monitor German compliance with the Treaty of Versailles. The family archive contains many hundreds of photographs he brought back from this mission, along with the cameras he used.

Grandpa in 1917 with his future wife, Cora Scales, in front of the Scales home somewhere in the San Jose area. Grandpa is wearing his Army Signal Corps uniform; he was taking flight school nearby at the time. What a lovely couple! The house, by the way, is basically a one-story vernacular version of the Farm House, the only house I've yet found that remotely resembles it.

He also brought back all the thorough Army photographic training he had received, and photography thus became his lifelong hobby. He did all his own developing and printing until color photography came along, and when he started taking home movies, he did all his own editing. He naturally became the official photographer of the family from the Twenties into the Seventies; at family events, he was always behind a still or movie camera, recording the proceedings. As a result, while we have thousands of photos and many hundreds of feet of film of these years, Grandpa Kesling is in only a handful of them.

Bill at about three years of age, posing in front of a citrus bush next to the porch of Grandma and Grandpa's home (note the 48-star flag in the top right background). Judging from the odd aspect ratio, this picture was taken with one of the cameras Grandpa used in the Army Air Service. Either that, or he was using an iPhone.

In the Seventies Bill took over the photography duties in our family, like Grandpa developing and printing many of his own images, going Grandpa one better by delving into color processing, which was still quite a complicated process in those days, requiring a lot of skill and a trained eye.

Bill took the craft of photography to a whole new level in our clan. Whereas Grandpa's photos tend to be more or less posed, Bill strove to make his camera a discreet observer of the action, so that his subjects would appear at their best, natural and comfortable, free of the discomfort that can come from the awareness that a lens is pointed in their direction. In truth, Bill was a ninja, more often than not taking photographs without his subjects' being aware of it. It takes great coolness to pull that off.

Soon, I picked up on this, and I thought it would be funny to try to thwart his efforts by looking straight into the camera lens just before he took the shot. He took up my challenge with gusto, and it became a game of cat-and-mouse between us. He was always far cooler than I could ever manage, however, and usually my first clue of his whereabouts was the clicking of the shutter.

Eventually, he began zinging me by sneaking up like an assassin, five feet away and just out of my view, lining up the shot, and calmly saying something designed to make me forget our game and look in his direction. Despite my best attempts to suppress the impulse, I always looked. At that point, the game became Cato and Inspector Clouseau, with me as the latter looking like a schlemiel in the resulting photo. Of course, everybody else looked cool.

But I loved it. Bill's photographic games with me were simply an extension of his humor, just as his photographic services to the family were another expression of his love for us all.

* * *

As time went on, Randy and I saw our older brothers less and less, as their lives became more complicated and their responsibilities grew. There was a long period when we didn't see Bill at all, and then one day Dad took me aside and told me that Bill and Jean had parted ways. For the first time in my life, I felt very sorry for Bill, but Dad assured me it was the best thing for the both of them. He said that neither had done anything wrong, and that they had parted the best of friends. 

I was just entering high school at the time, and for the first time in my life, the vast majority of my time was spent away from home. I had not yet decided what career path to take, and so I took every class I could squeeze in, with particular emphasis on music and math. After school, work, practice and performance, I would drag myself home for food and sleep.

During this time, both Bill and Jon came back into our lives in a big way. At the time I thought it was to monitor my progress and make sure I stuck to my studies, but in retrospect I can see that it was to take the load off me at home. Mom's health had begun to fail, and Dad now had to cook and keep house in addition to his breadwinning. Bill and Jon helped Dad make ends meet, and did what they could to keep Mom healthy by making sure she got the best nutrition possible.

Bill by that time was on the cutting edge of nutritional knowledge, thanks to his work in the healthcare industry, and he taught Dad and me many things that were just entering public awareness twenty years later. In other words, Bill was still being his cool self, hipping us to things way before they became widely known. He and Jon really kept my home life stable at a very crucial time, and made sure conditions were ideal for me to do my best.

When it came time for me to go to college. Bill knew I would need a car of my own, so he found me the perfect car: a nice little '68 Toyota Corona sedan with a "three-on-the-tree" manual transmission.

It was and still is a family precept that one does not truly know how to drive until he can operate a manual transmission. Jon had tried to teach me to drive and shift in his brand-new Fiat roadster when I first got my learner's permit, but I was pathetically unequal to the task, having just gotten contacts after ten years of wearing coke-bottle-bottom glasses. I was not yet accustomed to having my peripheral vision and depth perception back when Jon tried to teach me to shift, causing me to freak out behind the wheel as the entire world appeared to hurtle towards me from all directions. It was terrifying enough to step on the gas pedal without having to worry about pushing another pedal at the same time; I must have burnt poor Jon's clutch and stripped at least his first gear before he finally gave up and told Dad to teach me on his own automatic-shift car.

Bill knew of this dark episode when he selected the Toyota. It had the most forgiving manual transmission in all of autodom, and there was one less gear to deal with. Moreover, it came at a price I could easily afford: 75 dollars. In retrospect, Bill must have subsidized the purchase, but he cooly never gave me the slightest hint of his assistance.

I had by then passed my driver's test, just barely, but I was still a lousy driver. I knew the rules of the road, but I knew very little about controlling a car or negotiating a roadway. Bill said he wasn't going to turn the car over to me until I passed his test with flying colors. And so did I enter Bill's Driving School. He drove us to the Rose Bowl, with its network of long, empty roads, put me behind the wheel, gave me a brief primer on how to operate the transmission, and told me to start driving.

After I had made one fitful circuit of the long road around the stadium, he had all the information he needed to understand my various problems. He then proceeded to break the entire discipline of driving down for me in a set of simple, logical, iron rules. such as: "Always have your right foot over either the accelerator or the brake, depending upon the situation around you. Never allow it to float between them."

Another was: "Always keep your eyes moving. Make sure you are aware of everything happening 360 degrees around the car, and as far ahead and behind as you can see, but especially ahead."

After running through these rules, he had me take the course again, reminding me of each rule as I was about to break it. This time I made it around much more smoothly. He congratulated me on my vast improvement, saying, "The key to good driving is smoothness. Never put the car into an extreme attitude, never make a sudden move other drivers aren't expecting, and never put yourself into a situation you can't get out of smoothly." In other words, be a cool driver.

He was an effective teacher. I passed his course, with flying colors, inside of four days. I wasn't yet ready for Laguna Seca, but I was a safe and confident driver, and he'd given me the tools I needed to become, with much practice, a good driver.

* * *

And with that, I drove off to college. While I have a very good memory in general, I recall virtually nothing not school-related from my college years. It was my turn to disappear from the family, especially when I moved into the dorms at the start of the fourth semester.

The only coherent family-related memory I can summon from those years took place, I believe, in the summer of 1981. Mom had passed away the previous November, and I was spending the summer with Dad and working full-time. I believe Bill was working in San Diego then.

One day Bill called and said he was going to be up in the Bay Area on business. He was taking that opportunity to arrange a small family reunion at Grandma and Grandpa's house in San Jose that coming weekend, and he wanted me and Dad to drive up to attend.

Our only mode of transportation was my Bug (The Toyota had thrown a rod a few years previous), which was at the time desperately in need of a tune-up The poor thing was running on two cylinders, and I in fact had planned to get it fixed that weekend. Back then, all I knew about working on cars was topping up the fluids and filling the tires with air.

Nevertheless, nothing was going to keep us from attending, and so we made our way up to San Jose that Friday evening at as fast a crawl as the Bug could manage, pulling up at Grandma and Grandpa's curb at 3 AM. Bill was outside to greet us, our approach having been announced by a chorus of backfires and valve rattles. "Good Lord!", exclaimed Bill, "It's a miracle you made it!"

When I awoke the next day at the crack of noon, Bill said to me, "After you eat some breakfast, let's see about getting your car in shape." Bill had already been to the auto parts store to get everything that was needed for the task.

And so, after breakfast Bill sat me at the back of the Bug and proceeded to guide me, step by step, through a thorough tune-up. Under his direction, I gapped and replaced the plugs, installed new plug wires, installed and gapped new points, replaced the condenser, rotor and distributor cap, adjusted the valves, replaced the valve cover gaskets, set the timing, and changed the oil. Afterwards, we went for a spin, and the car ran like new.

Upon our return, I turned to Bill and said, "You've come a long way from the TR-4 days."

He smiled and replied, "You've come a long way from this morning." I had indeed, thanks to him.

He went on to say, "The Bug is the easiest car in the world to work on, and the cheapest.  There's really very little on this car that you couldn't do yourself, and save a lot of money doing it. You just have to get past your fear and dig in."

As always, I took his words to heart, and from then on I did do most of the work the car needed myself, including rebuilding the carb, replacing the brake system, and with my super-talented friend Nik, replacing the engine and clutch. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for life, and feels pretty cool doing it.

By the time we pulled back into the driveway, the house was beginning to fill up with family, and as usual Bill recorded the proceedings. Actually, he'd been doing that all day, and fortunately I have the pictures to prove it.

I'm checking the size of a socket, in case you were wondering. 

He even took the opportunity to zing me once more, for old times' sake.

A classic Bill zing tactic: you can see he's crept up to a place where I wouldn't see him with my nose buried in the engine compartment. Once he had the shot lined up, he did something to get me to look. At least by this time I'd learned not to look like I had a fish hook in my mouth when he took the photo.

Sadly, just as with Grandpa, Bill ended up in very few of the pictures. Happily, Uncle Ernest cooly stepped into the breach, and tried to give Bill a little of his own medicine in the bargain. If anyone could zing the zinger, he would be the one.

Clockwise from left: Grandpa Kesling, I, Grandma Kesling, the Ninja, Dad's stepmother Zoe, and her son (and Dad's half-brother) Craig, whom we called "Butch".

But Bill by that point was able to out-cool even Uncle Ernest, and with his ninja moves managed to make his face appear blurred in the photo. Bill was unzingable.

* * *

Not long after this event, Bill moved to Chicago to take a great position with a major pharmaceutical company. He was very excited at the prospect, and he was so wholly occupied with the task of becoming acclimated to his new surroundings that I didn't hear from him again for a long while. I was pretty busy myself; I finished with school the next semester, and moved to a little cottage back home in Montrose, soon becoming all wrapped up in the business of becoming a responsible adult.

A year or maybe two later, Bill called and asked whether I would do him a big favor and adopt his cat Tycho (named after the scientist Tycho Brahe). He had to give him up because he was moving to a place that did not allow pets.

Would I? Of course I would! I felt honored that Bill had asked me, and gratified that I was at last able to make some small return for all the many things he had done for me. Of course, I can see now that it was he who was in fact doing the giving. Bill could easily have found Tycho a good home with one of his local circle; not only would he have then been able to keep Tycho close by, but he also would have saved the considerable expense of sending Tycho out here.

But Bill was well aware of the acute sense of separation I was feeling from the family at the time, and he knew that having Tycho would make my house feel more like a home. We had always had dogs and cats in our home when we were growing up. Moreover, he knew I still needed a nudge towards responsibility and stability, and he trusted that having to take care of Tycho would provide that nudge.

He was right on both counts. Here is not the place to tell you about Tycho and the adventures we had together, and besides, Tycho really merits a post all to himself. Let me just say here that Tycho was one of the finest felines I have ever known. He was startlingly intelligent, as friendly and affectionate as a dog, and altogether as cool as the man who had raised him. Having Tycho around served to bring Bill's cool, supportive presence back into my life on a daily basis, and he really helped me get through my bumpy transition to full adulthood, just as Bill no doubt had planned when he sent him to me.

* * *

I don't think it was too long after Tycho came my way that Bill married Mona, and in due time Bill assumed the role he had been preparing for all his life, that of father. It was a package deal: twins, David and Theresa. With that, Bill ceased to treat me as a little brother, and from then on he treated me as his peer. He'd call me and give me the whole story on what this father thing was all about: lots of diaper changes, very little sleep. He used to say that while it was hard enough to get one baby to sleep, it was several orders of magnitude more difficult to get two to sleep at the same time. Most times, he and Mona would no sooner get one baby to sleep when the other would wake, and then both would be awake, lather, rinse, repeat. Not that he was complaining; actually, he was clearly thriving on the experience, because he told these stories with great relish and evident joy.

I ate this all up. I loved having Bill share these intimate stories with me. Bill was completely, wholly in the moment, and though I was far away, I was nonetheless right there with him. For the first time in my life, I began to feel just a little bit cool myself around the edges. After years of being the baby of the family, for Bill to treat me with such easy equanimity was the first recognition from within the family that I was an adult. This caused me to redouble my efforts to be the best person I could be, in order to merit Bill's respect.

After the twins' first year, our communication entered one of its periodic dormant periods, as Bill and Mona really focused on the important work of bringing up the children. By the time their third child Stephanie came along a few years later, I began to miss talking to Bill greatly.

When I brought this up during one of our then-infrequent phone chats, Bill said, "I'm on Compuserve now. If you were to get on it too, we could send messages quite easily." So I joined, and we communicated on it, but the charges were so insanely exorbitant that I had to cancel the service after a month. Bill and I were both naturally poor mail correspondents, and so we went back to talking infrequently for a time.

Then in early 1989, Bill called and told me that he'd switched from Compuserve to something called "the Internet," and that I could get my own Internet account for about fifteen dollars a month. So I did. Yet again, Bill was years ahead of the curve, and he took me along with him.

Thus began a rich e-mail correspondence that would last for 25 years. I began to get regular updates on his doings, with an emphasis in two areas: his kids, and his many home-improvement exploits. He and Mona got into the practice of buying a fixer-upper in a good area, living in it for a time as they renovated it, then trading up to another fixer-upper in a better area. As I mentioned earlier, Bill was always fearless at doing for himself whatever he needed done. This struck me as an incredibly cool thing to do, and I resolved to do it myself once I had the wherewithal.

During the next five years or so, Bill would come to town periodically on business, and we brothers would have a nice get-together. Jon would travel down from up in the Silicon Valley, where he lived at the time, and we'd get together at Erle's place. Erle was married to Paula then, and they had two girls of their own.

By the time Wifey and I married in 1995, we were already well into the renovation of our home in Culver City, and Bill and I were comparing notes on our various projects. It was not long afterward that Jon and Erle joined our e-mail correspondence, and from then on we got quite a little klatch going for ourselves. I have always considered e-mail the single greatest Internet service, for it restored a vital brotherly communication that had been missing in action for decades. The frequency of communication has since ebbed and flowed, and in recent years has largely migrated to social media, but it has not stopped since, and I have been all the happier for it.

With Wifey by my side, my family bonds strengthened exponentially on both sides. Jon invited Dad to come live in his neck of the woods, the greater Raleigh area in North Carolina, which brought our families into close contact. Not long afterwards, Wifey's wonderful mother came to live with us. Bill became an invaluable resource to us in our efforts to keep Wifey's mother in good health, constantly passing along the latest information on nutrition and medical matters from his extensive connections within the health care industry. Though he was thousands of miles away, and though they were not to meet him in person for several years to come, both Wifey and her mother quickly came to think of Bill as a member of our immediate family, for that is always how he treated them. How cool is that?

Soon enough, Uncle Ernest came back into our lives in a big way. Though he was entering his eighties, Ernest was still quite active, running the family electrical-contracting business that his father had started back in 1935, and which was by that time the oldest family-owned business in San Jose. But he had gotten to the point where he needed our assistance, mainly to help fight off a succession of unscrupulous foremen who, in consideration of Ernest's advanced age, saw Kesling Electric as a juicy takeover target. The capers we pulled together were the stuff of legend.

Through these capers we became very close to Uncle Ernest, and one of the things we noticed most poignantly was the extremely high regard which he frequently expressed for Bill. This was profoundly significant to us, for Dad had often expressed this very same sentiment to us when he was in our care. We felt it was a deeply touching tribute to Bill's service to the family, and certainly one well-deserved.

I shall never forget what Uncle Ernest said to me after the triumphal conclusion of our most harrowing caper together. As the three of us drove back to the family manse in San Jose, Ernest turned to me and said, quite out of nowhere, "You know, Rob, you're a pretty cool character. Not as cool as Bill, but pretty cool."

So don't take it from me, take it from the family authority on the subject: Bill was very cool.

* * *

Early in the new millenium, Uncle Ernest finally closed down the business and moved to Wifey's mother's vacant house here in Norwalk, where Wifey grew up. A year or so later, Bill flew out here on business, and stopped by the Culver City house for a nice long visit. It was a momentous occasion, for not only was it the first time Bill met Wifey and her mother face-to-face, but Uncle Ernest was there, too.

The Kings of Cool.

Dad passed away late in 2003, and all the family who could make it came to Jon and his wife Nancy's Victorian farmhouse in Apex, near Raleigh, for the funeral. It was of course a deeply sad occasion, but it was also a life-affirming one. Jon and Nancy had recently completed an extensive renovation, and their lovely, capacious home became the base of operations for a long weekend of companionship and conversation.

Bill was there, as were Erle and his two youngest daughters Anaiah and Johanna. Wifey's mother had made the trip with Wifey and me, and of course Jon and Nancy's sons David and Michael were there as well. After the funeral, we all just hung out together around the kitchen table and ate, reminisced about Dad, told family stories, and brought each other up to date on our doings.

Here, Bill is doing to Jon what I always tried to do to him: looking calmly right into the camera while everyone else is unaware of it. And I'm looking at him doing it. That's Jon's son David between Bill and me.

Leaving the photographic duties in Jon's capable hands, Bill just sat back and observed the proceedings. At first he was quiet and pensive, but gradually his face relaxed into a benign smile. Then, the funny observations began to flow, and soon after that, the zingers. Soon, all the brothers joined in, and a memorable time was had by all. We zinged and laughed and made such a ruckus that I half expected to hear Dad saying, "QUIET! Don't make me come down there!"

Clockwise: Bill, Johanna, Erle, Nancy, Anaiah, Wifey's mother, Wifey and I.

Afterwards, we resumed our separate lives, and our e-mail correspondence, with a heightened sense of the bonds that tied us together. Our weekend together had not only spurred memories of our shared experiences, but it also opened up new areas for discussion. In the process, I think we all came to see each other in toto: not just as the boys that we had once been, but also as the men we had become.

I came to learn a lot about the ways Bill's interests had developed after his move to Chicago. I learned that he had become a huge Deadhead, which made perfect sense, because their music grew out of folk roots. I also learned that Bill and I shared a love for old radio shows and old music. We spent a lot of time happily comparing notes on these subjects.

Bill had found National Public Radio (NPR) to be a rich source for both old radio shows and old music. In fact, Bill was probably NPR's most enthusiastic and effective spokesman. Once he knew what I liked in these areas, he passed along a great many links to shows that fit my interests, especially shows featuring old music. A significant portion of the Farm House playlist comes from Bill's referrals.

Bill also loved the sport of ice hockey, a love that he passed on to his son David. While I like sports in general, I am unique among my brothers in that I am first and foremost a baseball fan—I bleed Angel red—and for many years, the appeal of ice hockey escaped me. Over these later years, however, Bill patiently explained the rules of the game to me until they finally sunk in, and I finally began to see what Bill had been talking about. From then on, I have become more interested in hockey with each passing season, although I still get cranky when we have to work our way through a Ducks crowd to get to an Angels game.

But Bill's greatest interest, the one closest to his heart, was always his children. He kept us up to date on their activities and achievements, and he was justly quite proud of them. Bill spared no effort nor expense in providing for all of them the conditions in which they could achieve their full potential without distractions, just as he had done for me when I was young.

I greatly appreciated this. While I regretted the fact that his children did not have the opportunity to get to know us, Bill through his loving reportage made sure that we got to know them.

And then fate gave Bill the chance to start correcting that imbalance. The Rose Bowl is traditionally a match between the top teams in the Pac-10 and the Big 10. For the 2007 season, these teams were USC and Ohio State. However, Ohio State was chosen to compete in the BCS championship, so an at-large team was chosen to represent the Big 10: by a great stroke of fortune, that team was Illinois, the alma mater of Bill's son David.

This was an especially happy turn of events for Illinois, for it would be their first appearance in the grandaddy of all college bowls in 24 years, and so David made plans to attend. These plans were complicated when, not long before the game, David broke his ankle. While David wasn't about to let that keep him from going, still Bill was concerned that he would be limping around a big strange city on crutches. And so, he asked us to put David up for a night.

Would we? Of course we would! We were elated at the chance finally to meet David. We found him to be every bit the fine young man and cool guy that we had come to know through Bill's many dispatches, altogether a fine tribute to his parents. We got along very nicely, even though David's alma mater was to meet mine on the field of battle the next day. Bill's son is a pretty cool guy too.

David in our parlor, sporting a cast and coolness.

* * *

During the following years, Bill would send us gifts from time to time, gifts that showed real insight. The gifts ranged from food, to DVDs, to CDs—whenever he found something he thought we'd like, he'd send it along. He was always right, and we were deeply touched by his thoughtfulness; it was nice to know we were in his thoughts, as he was in ours.

Then, a few weeks ago, the horrible news came from Stephanie that Bill was in intensive care. Bill had suffered a heart attack, and he was not expected to recover. For us, this came as a complete shock, because the last we'd heard from him on the subject, he told us he had just passed through a difficult period health-wise but was on the mend, quite confident he'd continue to be in good shape going forward.

Nevertheless, when Wifey talked to David on the phone later in the day, he told her that Bill's health had in fact resumed its decline after he wrote that letter. Bill had not given any hint of this in his subsequent e-mails.

Five days later, Bill passed peacefully, with his children there around him.

* * *

Bill was a man blessed with many great gifts. He was intelligent, perceptive, and empathetic. He could sing and play and be funny and take great photos and teach you whatever you needed to learn. He was an extremely capable man who could have done whatever he wanted with his life.

And yet, all he ever wanted to do—and what he did best—was to be a good son, brother, husband and father. He took all those great gifts and put them in service to those he loved, freely and unselfishly.

That's what made him so cool.


  1. I think it's a totally cool tribute by equally 'cool' brother!

  2. What a fascinating look into a wonderful life. You were surely loved and looked after by your big brothers.

    1. Thank you. Yes, I count it as a signal blessing that from my earliest recollection onward, I have always known I was loved.

  3. I wish I had someone who loved me as much as Bill loved you. He must have recognized how much "cool " potential you had to show off your reading skills at age two, to challenge your self control for spitting your milk out at the table, insisting you learn to take care of your car and dragging you towards the all time super cool activity of trying to drive a stick shift. He must be smiling and singing now - thinking - no need to worry - I did my big brother job well - I showed Rob he had all of the tools he needed to be really cool too. Kiki.

    1. Kiki, I bet you did have someone who loved you as much, but we don't always know about it.

      As far as my being cool, I do my best to follow Bill's example, but while I may someday with continued effort come within reach of being as good a man as he was, will never, ever be nearly as cool.

    2. Arrrrrrgh. That last phrase above should be, "I will never, ever be nearly as cool." In my defense, I'm typing with an injured wing.

  4. That was a fascinating tribute and family history I had not known. I can relate to a large sibling group and that era. Rich Sudbeck

    1. Rich, thanks so much for reading and commenting; for some irksome reason, your comment did not come to me for moderation until now. Yes, I know you also have a lot of siblings, and it's evident that you all have remained close to each other. That is quite a blessing.


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