When I met Jim Farrar, the last thing he needed was another son. He had four of them already, every one the sort of sturdy person any father would be proud to call his own. At first I didn't even latch onto Jim as a surrogate old man, as so many people did. Jim was well aware of this need that he met in people who never got enough fathering which accounts for nearly everyone, including Jim himself. His own father was a speakeasy songster, who made more time for his bottle than he did for his boy, so Jim knew the hunger of someone who never got enough daddy, and he made it easy for anyone to come and get it by announcing himself to the world as "Pops" Farrar.
If Jim needed anything when I met him, it was a running partner, and a little encouragement. After raising four sons with his wife, Darlene, he had decided to go it alone not long before we met. He adored his new freedom, which he had not known in its pure form since he was a very young man at sea with the merchant marine, and he had all the energy in the world, but left to himself he had a tendency to rusticate at his home in a semi-rural stretch of the East Side, which he affectionately called The Belleville Rainforest. Sometimes, he needed a nudge. You could say Jim needed someone with the same freedom he was enjoying, and with similar interests music and people, especially women, with a little tobacco and spirits thrown in.
Though forty years his junior, I was a good running mate for Jim. As footloose, music-drunk divorcés, we were in the same boat, and I use that cliché on purpose. He was very much a mariner, having been a seagoing merchant marine and chief engineer on dredge boats on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. I sat in an actual boat with him one time only, though, in the little rig he kept at a dock up the river road, just past the Piasa Bird. He couldn't get the damn outboard engine to start, which really aggravated the erstwhile chief engineer, until Andrea Day (all good Pops stories have a sexy woman in them) and I talked him down to the river with a pouch of tobacco and a bottle of wine.
We never set sail together, yet I still called him Captain Jim his nickname down at Lake of the Ozarks, his first, amazing social scene as a newly divorced senior citizen. I mean no disrespect to his ex-wife and children and it is a fact that Jim was gentlemanly and chaste in his second bachelorhood but one of his prized possessions was a snapshot of him on a boat down at the Lake with a woman on either side of his ears, and a smile that stretched between them.
That is the man I knew, and the man I mourn. I am knuckling tears out of my eyes right now, struggling to write about Jim in the past tense, because he was so alive. I have never known anyone who could seize the present moment so totally, with such generosity and joy. He must have had selfishness and cowardice in him once, as any man does, but he had outlived them by the time we met. I knew a man who gave of himself without questioning. He could spin yarns for hours, or listen and gently advise. More than either, he preferred the give and take of true conversation, when insight meets interest like the slap of a lake on a party boat. "Well, hell yeah!" Jim would say if he were alive to hear that comparison, because that was his way instant and enthusiastic support, spiced with a curse word or two.
The only good thing I have to say about cancer is that it did help Jim and I have that last, genuine conversation that the bereaved almost never get to have with the loved one who dies. When he was diagnosed, he told his sons to contact me, and over the phone we had a deathbed conversation that proved premature by a year. He remembered our travels to East Wind, a hippie commune in Ozark County, where we skinny-dipped and entertained at a pig roast, and our trip to Columbia to see Alice, a mystic horse trainer, and Cindi, an American Indian holy woman. He laughed over our time on the road with Fish, as he called Nymah Kumah, an African tribal drummer and storyteller, how insane we must have looked shambling into fast food joints in rural Missouri the old man of the sea, the African bush man, and the young, vagabond writer.
It was typical of Jim and his generosity to spell out so carefully what good I had done for him, how I opened some new and surprising stretches of road for him so near the end of his journey. And I, who had never called him "Pops" unless I was writing about him for the public, had the chance to thank him for salvaging any hopes I ever harbored for having a father.
Chris King grew up in Granite City, Illinois, in a storytelling kind of family. He studied literature at Washington University, quit grad school to tour with the rock band Enormous Richard and eventually settled in New York City. He is married to Karley, a former Olympic athlete from Togo, and edits a travel magazine for money. For kicks, he maintains two Web sites, www.hoobellatoo.org (an oral history/ field recording project) and www.skuntry.com (an indie record label). He still misses St. Louis.