Posted by: wrmcnutt | January 6, 2010

Are There Ever Really “Final” Thoughts?

This is my father’s Eulogy.  I have incorporated into it the tale of the Swan Wings I related just the other day – I apologize for repeating myself here.  But if you tough it out, you can read about the funny aftermath, which has not been seen here before.


This has been very, very hard.  Most of the time, when I sit down to write, I have a pretty good idea what I want to say, and it’s just a matter of finding the words.  I’ve known this particular assignment was coming for some time, and about two days ago I got a specific deadline.  And still I had nothing.  Every time I started to work out what I wanted to say about my Father, I ended up thinking about myself.  As time was running out, I eventually I fell back on my oldest technique to get the words out: just sit down and write.

So I sat at my keyboard, opened a blank document, and burst into tears.

I think maybe I was avoiding thinking about my Father because as long as I didn’t think about him, somehow, he wasn’t really gone.  As long as I didn’t face it, it wasn’t real.  He wouldn’t have been very impressed with that.  I’ve always tried to solve problems the same way he did:  head on.  After a few minutes, I pulled myself together, and typed the title, “Final Thoughts.”  But Dad’s going to be on my mind for awhile, and that got me to thinking; are there ever really “final thoughts?”  Don’t we remember those we love for all our lives?

In ancient times, the people of our blood followed the Old Religion, and in it was Valhalla, the northern warriors’ idea of heaven.  But for the north-man unfortunate enough to die abed of old age, what was his fate?  The old north-men weren’t sure, and so they sought word-fame, with the idea that, as long as they were remembered, they weren’t completely gone.

The many faces here tonight and many, many more that could not be here show me that, though Dad has gone home to Jesus, he clearly isn’t completely gone from among us either.  It is my hope that by sharing a couple of stories with you that I might, in a small way, contribute to my Father’s word-fame, that he might remain among us for just a little while longer.

In his youth, Bill McNutt was a world class athlete.  For a brief period he held the world record for the fastest 100 m butterfly.  Shortly after that, he was presented with a plaque with the names of the greatest swimmers in the world, and his name was on it.  You know, swimming wasn’t his sport.

Think about that – he was one of the best in the world, and it wasn’t even his game.

Dad’s game was springboard diving.  Twists, spins, turns, flips, jack-knives, and, of course, swan dives; he knew them all.  Somewhere in his house are about ten pounds of medals.  There’s literally a large bucket of gold, silver and bronze medals somewhere in my Dad’s house.

One Saturday when I was about fourteen went to the pool, as we had most of the summer, and the summer before.  It was not large: just six or eight lanes, and a diving well.  There was a one meter springboard and a three meter board there.  In those days, it was still possible for a private pool to have diving boards without being immediately sued into bankruptcy.

Dad was always lean as a rail.  Not skinny, but if the man was over 5% body fat in the past 35 years, I’ll be amazed.  He always wore black swim trunks.   He stood and walked across the concrete deck.  I’ll never forget the expression on his face. It was calm, and serene, but not in the least bit soft.  He walked with the complete confidence of a man who was the utter and supreme master of his environment.  He walked to the three meter board, and climbed the ladder.  Nobody was paying much attention.  Kids had been doing cannon balls off of the one meter board all day, and the occasional teen had dared to jump off of the three meter board.   He stepped off one, two steps, and then jumped.   He threw his arms straight up into the air, and piked up a knee.  He rose up high, higher, higher . . . and came down on the very edge of the board.  It bent down, down, down, far farther that I would have expected my small father to flex a springboard.

And then I found out that men can fly.  The springboard released, and threw Dad about ten feet into the air.  The springboard bounced three times on its padding and the noise rang across the concrete decks and the low hills around. Heads turned.  As he reached the apogee of his arc, his head drew back, and his arms flared out in the classic posture of the swan.  Then he piked over, and dove straight down.  He cut the water with hardly any splash, curved round beneath the surface, and popped up to the surface near the ladder, like an otter.

As he climbed the ladder, heads continued to turn.  He walked back to the three meter ladder, and again addressed the board.  Again he paced, stepped, and flew.  The board rang, and at that point, all conversation ceased.  He performed two or three other dives and then he stepped out in what would be his final dive.  When he took flight, I thought he was going to come apart.  The dive was called a single-twist-and-one-and-a-half and it was jaw-dropping in its complexity.  He was spinning on both a vertical axis and a horizontal axis at the same time.  he applause was thunderous, and I was just astonished.  That was my Dad.  He had drawn all that admiration and approval and he did it without saying a word.  Other boys might shove each other claim “my Dad could beat up your Dad,” but I just saw my Dad kick all the other, lesser dad’s butts out in front of God and everybody.  That was the only time that I saw the master craftsman work his trade.  But it set the picture of my Dad in my head: a champion who could fly like Superman.

As it turned out, that was the last time he ever flew off of a springboard.   The next day he was to leave on a long and very important business trip.  He awoke early, stood up by the bed without any problem, took one step forward, and fell flat on his face.  His feet didn’t work right.  A cursory examination of his feet showed that he had, in fact, bruised his feet utterly black from heel to toe.  Now, a normal man would call his boss, advise him that he was injured, and stay home.   But Dad being who Dad was, he saw no reason he couldn’t continue to do his job.  Between the two of them, he and Mom managed to get him dressed and, using one of the kitchen chairs as a walker, out to the taxi.

But three days later he still couldn’t walk, so he decided he should see someone, and he went to the Emergency Room in the city he was in.  That’s when he learned that they teach specialized vocabulary to medical personnel.  The nurse, in doing the initial assessment said, “Those are some funny lookin’ bruises you’ve got there, Mr. McNutt.”  So Dad told her where he got them.  After a short time, the Doctor came in, did a detailed exam and observed that “you’ve got some funny looking bruises there.”  And Dad had to tell the story again.  Then they brought in a orthopedic Doctor to consult, who said, “Those are funny looking bruises.”  But the x-ray said that nothing was broken, and there appeared to be no nerve damage.   Dad was told he would have to just wait to heal, and that he should follow up with his GP when he got home.  Dad was always careful to listen to his doctors, so when he got home he went to the GP, who said, “Those are some funny looking bruises.”


When he got so sick recently, Dad chose to share something with me that shocked me to my core.  He felt that he was a coward at heart.  Back during the Vietnam conflict, careful planning on his part allowed him to meet his service obligation without facing the draft lottery and ending up in-country in the infantry.  Instead, he served as a firefighter for the Air Force.  But he felt that this made him a coward, and this assessment of himself was something I neither understood, nor agreed with.

You see, that firefighter training gets into your bones.  No matter how many years go by, fire is the enemy. Years after his enlistment was up, we were dwelling in Tuscaloosa Alabama.  One of the neighbor’s houses caught fire.  Naturally, the professional firefighters were called, but in the meantime, what was to be done?  One end of the house was fully involved, but 3/4 of the family’s possessions were still intact in the rest of the house.  A normal man would have made sure that no one was in the house, and waited on the fire department.  Dad, being who he was, and lacking firefighting gear, organized a sort of reverse bucket-brigade, hauling the family’s possessions out of the house.  And who do you suppose was on the business end of that line of people passing furniture and property?  Inside the house, in the heat and the smoke, picking up property and passing it to safety.

Now I’m gonna tell you about the only time in all the forty-six years I knew my Father that I decided I was going to hit him.  Forty years after the Tuscaloosa fire, a friend’s house caught fire across the street while he and I were sitting on the porch.  We had been smelling smoke for a few minutes, and one of the neighbors came up the walk.  “Buddy,” she said, “I think Jeep’s house is on fire!”  We both glanced over and sure enough, you could see flames flickering in the basement window.  I looked at him for direction, wondering “What do we do?”  As I watched, all the emotions drained from his face.  In their place was a stone-hard determination that I occasionally refer to as the “I am a space marine” face.  And then he disappeared.  I had no idea the old man could move that fast.  By the time I got my mental balance, he was rounding the back of Jeep’s house and heading for the basement.

Now me, not being a trained firefighter with professional reflexes I couldn’t deny, I went inside and dialed 911.  Then I grabbed a fire extinguisher and trotted down to behind Jeeps house to see if I could help.

And there I saw the gates of Hell.  The arsonist had stacked building materials in a pyramid and splashed accelerant on the walls.  By the time I got down there, the basement walls were fully involved and sheets of flame were engulfing the basement ceiling.  And in the middle of it was my scrawny, not-quite-old-but-definitely-past-his-prime father, grabbing hold of burning building materials with his bare hands and dragging them out of the basement in an effort to save the building.  There were no cameras taking pictures of him. He wasn’t going to be famous. Until I was there, there was no one watching.  It hadn’t been his job for forty years.  But fire was the enemy. He saw me and paused to confirm that the firefighters were on their way.  Then he gave me (at 23 years of age) strict orders to stay outside, and turned to walk back into that inferno.

That was when the near-hitting came in.  My little fire extinguisher was clearly going to be able to do nothing about this fire.  It just wasn’t big enough.  It was however, plenty big enough to knock my father out.  There was no way I was going to let him go running back in there.  In the then two decades plus that I’d known him; I had not ever won a debate, discussion, or argument with the man. So I wasn’t going to debate it; I was just going to cold-cock him, and drag him away from the burning building and let him yell at me later.

Turned out it didn’t need to happen that way.  As he turned and I readied my improvised bludgeon, I saw him stop, shake his head, and step back.  Oh, he was angry.  That man did not like to lose.

This is the example I have to follow, and the conduct I have to live up to.  Coward, yeah right.   If I am ever tempted to step back from danger in the service of others, I cringe in shame, cowboy up, and try follow my father’s example.

I could tell you how Dad’s whole approach to life was framed by helping people.  It drove his entire professional career.  Or I could tell you about the way he raised his children.  Every moment was a learning opportunity.  I could tell you how he never shrank from a challenge, teaching himself skills like masonry, carpentry, and electrical work.  And I could tell you about how so many of the questions about my life are answered with “My father taught me, a long time ago.”

In the fiction world of Terry Prachet’s Diskworld, there is a communication network called “the clacks.”  It’s a semaphore communication network manually operated by very brave men in very isolated and harsh environments.  They work up high in all kinds of weather.  When one of them dies in the line of duty, his name is entered into the network, passed from one semaphore tower to the next in between official communications.  When it hits the end of a line, it’s passed back in the other direction, and goes back and forth forever.  Because as long as someone is still saying his name, he’s not completely gone.

This week, many of you have been asking me if there is anything you can do.  And there is: remember my father, and say his name.

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  1. Ok – I will!

  2. Every time I see you, I will think of him.

  3. My very dear friend, your father was blessed with a skald for a son. Through your words, I too see him fly and if he was a coward, the world needs more like him.
    I am sorry if my words are clumsy. We just came from my mother-in-law’s memorial a couple hours ago and I have no words. Hold your memories. Know that he loved you and as your tales are told and retold, he will live in the hearts and minds of others.
    I love you and I am sorry that you are walking this path. You are not alone.

  4. As Becky said, you are not alone. The others who have walked this path are there with you. And will speak of your dad as the gentle man he was.

  5. Bill, your father is well served.

  6. Your remembrance of him brought tears to me. Thanks.

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