Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Alexander Cockburn, my friend (1941 - 2012)

I wrote this post last year, the week after we lost Alexander. He was our dear friend, whom we miss every day.

The loss was immediate and intense when we received notice that 
Alexander had passed from this world on July 21, 2012. We had known he was battling cancer, but we were sure he was going to win. Alex was the type of person everyone thought would live forever. Even with news of his illness, I never considered a world without Alex Cockburn.

As the day wore on, there were more and more online memorials written about him. Most of the websites I had never heard of, but the range of emotions toward his death was vast. For most Alex was seen as a far-left political journalist, to the point of being labeled radical. Nothing I read described the man we knew and loved. We didn't lose a great political antagonist. The Alex we knew was witty, caring, compassionate and generous. A true friend in every sense.

Alex and my husband, Dave, met over their mutual love of classic American cars. He was born in Scotland and raised in Ireland, and moved to the states in the mid 70's. He settled in the Northeast, and ordered car parts from Dave not long after. Buying parts led to buying cars. Alex was soon visiting SC, and driving away in a new (to him) purchase. This continued for years. In those early years of trading, Alex wrote a magazine article about Imperial Motors, and from that time until we closed in 2003, business boomed. Dave felt like he owed much of his success to Alex for getting the word out worldwide.

In a 2007 C-Span interview, Alex said that becoming friends with Dave, opened up a whole new part of America for him. Becoming friends with Alex opened up our whole world.

Fast forward to the mid 1990's when Dave and I married. Alex came for a visit soon after. This time it was for an old  pickup truck to use on his "farm" as he lovingly referred to his place in northern CA, where he had recently moved. In later years the farm evolved into a quaint apple orchard, with fresh squeezed apple juice and "special hard cider".
Alex the Cider-Man - photo by Caroline Eller
From that visit on we had a tradition whenever Alex was leaving. In the last few minutes he would dig out one of him many cameras that he carried around with him in a satchel and take our photograph. Before he left our driveway, we held hands and said a prayer. We thanked God for our friendship with Alex, and for his safe travels. It was always the same after that first time. "Well, it's time for the photos", Alex would say, "and then THE prayer."

With Alex everything was prefaced by "THE". The first time we traveled to his place in Petrolia, CA, we were introduced to THE famous pork BBQ. He had engineered a pit on the side of a small hill where he built a fire, above that there was a pulley system to let the pork down on top of the coals, to be left for hours and hours until so tender it would melt in our mouths. After this visit, there was a another new tradition. Whether we were at his home, or ours, we always had "THE" pork. Dave's method was not quite the engineering piece of work as Alex's, but the result was just as good.

Alex loved to eat, and even though he was as thin as a rail, he could put food away - and with great speed.  I always stocked up on wine and meat for his visits. I always drank more around him too, but no matter, every sip was more delicious in his company. I once told him that I could see why women fell in love with him so easily - he was a charming guy. Very engaging. I loved conversations with him, loved the way his words sounded, not just from his Irish lilt, but the way in which he spoke, the way he formed his sentences. He got off topic easily, but then usually brought things back around to his point, more or less. He had a wonderful, dry sense of humor and would insert little pieces of this and that into each and every conversation. He was sharp as a tack, and his mind was always working.   

In the early days Alex would bring a tape recorder and record Dave speaking. I'm sure it took them at least a year to be able to understand each other. Dave has a very southern, country drawl and Alex with his Irish/Scottish accent.

We were unlikely friends. Alex was a brilliant journalist, his mission and passion was to unveil the truth, however ugly it might be and display for all the world to see. He had written for the Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, and had a long time column "Beat the Devil" in The Nation. He added us to his CounterPunch newsletter in the late 90's when it was ignited. And if a headline had his name underneath, I would always read it. The rest of the newsletter - not so much. We aren't political. We aren't radical. Sometimes we even forget to vote. We are simple folk who just fell in love with Alex and his beloved dog, Jasper. 

When something happened in the world that made us perk up with interest, Alex was the first person we called. We always thought he would "be in the know" and could give us details we might not see on the evening news. If Alex needed a part or mechanical advice for one of his cars, he would call Dave, whom I think he thought of as some kind of "Car Whisperer". But Dave did his best to live up to Alex's perception of him, and almost always came through with the part no one else could find, or the solution no one else knew for the car.

If an interesting car or truck came on the scene in SC, we would email Alex the photos as bait to see if he showed any interest. If he did, he would send a quick reply, asking for more details. Who knows just how many cars/truck were exchanged over the almost 40 year relationship he and my husband shared.

Alex broadened our minds with his intuitive questions - making us think instead of just believing every thing we heard. He engaged us on topics we didn't normally delve. And it will probably spin his fans, followers and critics in circles to know that Alexander let my husband watch FoxNews, on his TV, in his house. Oh My. He gently teased us about our conservatism, but never belittled us for not sharing (most of) his political opinions.

He enjoyed cooking, baking and entertaining his friends in his home. He introduced me to the world of bread, more specifically THE "Russian Rye". It was beautiful and delicious, and he was generous with the recipe. From then on Alex and I traded bread recipes. If I tried a new kind, I would snap a photo and shoot it off to him. He would examine it, ask about the yeast and for the recipe.
Russian Rye
We traded wine too - in the mail. We had a special box that was made for shipping bottles. I would send him a couple of my favorites at the time, and he would send the box back with a couple of bottles of Lost Coast Plush. For me, it was always Plush. He knew it was my favorite.

Visits with Alex were pleasures that we looked forward to, and savored. After he would unpack his stuff - the many bags of things he took everywhere, he would spread out in our guest room. And I mean s p r e a d  o u t. He didn't just use the room, he took it over. I was always amazed at how quickly he could clear it all out too. He basically took over the phone too. We would retire to our room about 11pm or so, and the phone would start ringing. We never got up, because we knew it would be for him. He used to carry around a typewriter and fax machine. When he bought his laptop we scurried about making sure he would have internet access as well. When he went wireless (and we hadn't yet), he drove to town, slowly - watching his computer for open wireless accounts that he could "borrow". He would stop in the middle of the road when he found one so he could send his column off to whomever was waiting for it.

The first time we went to CA our plan was to drive one of his cars home, as I had never driven across the country. Alex had maps of every state we would cross, with all the routes highlighted. "Go the back roads" he said. And he graciously gave us use of his 1963 blue Plymouth station wagon. Everywhere we stopped, we took a picture of us, and then a picture of the car - for Alex. 

1963 Plymouth Wagon
Alexander hated to be cold. Northern California is chilly at times, but not as cold as SC winters, and SC really isn't usually cold. When he came to get the Plymouth, it was either late fall or early spring, and it was unseasonably cold. He was cold outside, cold inside - wore his jacket all day, everyday - even to bed, I think. When it came time for him to depart, he wanted a blanket to keep him warm. We had just come across a wonderfully thick blanket, so we offered it for the drive. On our next visit to CA we picked up the blanket. Alex was reluctant to give it back.

The next time he visited us, we hid the blanket. By then we were in a new house and were frequently napping on our screen-in porch. On cold winter days we liked having the blanket to keep us warm. We hoped Alex wouldn't ask about it. We knew it might be a year or more before we were in CA again to retrieve it. A day before he was to leave Alex asked, "do you remember that lovely blanket I borrowed once before?" Dave and I exchanged nervous glances, and said we didn't have it anymore. A terrible lie. Alex dropped it. And when we heard the news that he had died, Dave said this was his one regret - that he didn't give him that damn blanket.

Often during Alexander's visits to SC (of which we were blessed with many), Alex was left to fend for himself during at least one day. He always went to the little town where we lived, and walked around. Talked to the locals, bought gifts & wine for dinner. He was once declared the "best looking guy in Tryon (NC)". He was proud of that, and reminded us often. At the end of one trip Dave and I both had to leave the house early on the day Alex was to depart. Later, I discovered that Alex had helped himself to my stash of loose tea, homemade jelly, the opened bottle of wine and the small supply of moonshine we had tucked away in the fridge. That was Alex, and he would have expected no less if it had been us in his home.

Alex was a generous friend. During any conversation, whether in person or by phone, if we mentioned that we would like to have such-and-such that he was talking about, we would receive it in the mail soon after. When he visited there were always gifts - a red enameled bowl from India, Turkish coffee pots, handmade serving platters, a clock made out of a Lincoln wheel, sacks of tea and local coffee. We once brought him an olive wood salt bowl w/ finishing salt - he acted like we had given him the moon.

Somewhere around 2002 we had to move my mother-in-law to a nursing home. I was complaining to Alex on the phone one day that she was ripping out all the tags that I had sewn into her clothing. The edges were rough, and she didn't like them. Not long after I received several dozen silky, soft clothing tags with her name sewn on them. That's just the way he was. Very giving, very caring.

We didn't know Alex first as a writer, although we have signed copies of many of his books. We didn't know him as a political journalist, but we relied on him for political information.

Most of all we are honored to have called him friend, and we miss him.
Our last family photo, with Jasper and Percy, in Petrolia, CA. Oct. 2011
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