A Tribute to my friend Mel

By Greg Kerr
January 5th, 2020

“It’s good to see you, Mel!”

“At my age, it’s good to be seen,” Mel always replied, hugging me.

People wonder, how did an 82-year-old retired fireman and a 29-year-old tech employee wind up friends? Like so many journeys at the South End, it begins in the sauna.

Mel was sitting on the bench opposite me, with several other men who all had the telltale pacemaker lump in their chest. Mel looked at me and told me that when he joined the South End around my age, he would sit on that side of the sauna listening to all the old men talk about their health problems. He never thought that’d be him someday, yet here he was sitting there talking about his health problems.

We talked more and I learned that Mel has been retired (almost) my entire life.

“Wow,” I said. “I wish I could’ve been retired my entire life.”

One sarcastic quip like that and Mel and I were buddies. I’d see him at the club all the time, on the beach with his fins, and I thought he was invincible. Swimming in the bay every week at his age.

Mel wanted to show me his vintage cars, so one weekend Jeff Gunderson and I went up to the car hobbyist gathering in Marin. I was driven to Mel’s house in a Model A, by the man himself, as he showed me how the old engine started. How the water pump worked. How each knob and dial translated directly to a mechanical component in the engine. It was a beauty to see what elegant mechanical machines cars were before today’s computer-controlled behemoths.

At Mel’s elegant house, which he rebuilt after retiring, we dressed up like 1930s gangsters - hats and all - and posed for photos in the cars. His wife Ronnae served us an amazing and generous lunch, as Mel was showing me all his vintage gadgets. An old washing machine and a working player’s piano! Mel asked if I wanted a cup of coffee and he spent 10 minutes extracting espresso from evenly ground beans, and perfectly frothing the milk. I felt bad Mel was spending so long on the coffee, but Ronnae insisted that Mel thrived off entertaining guests like this.

A few weeks later Mel saw me walking to the swim club and screamed at me to hop in his truck. Next thing I knew, we were pulling up next to the cable car. Without hesitating Mel rolls down the window and asks the cable car driver if “he and some other retired fireman could get a free ride on the cable car, as a ~professional courtesy~.” Sure, the operator said, just tell the driver you’re riding as a professional courtesy.

One day when we took a break from discussing Mel’s passion for dogs and yoga in the sauna, Mel noticed me struggling to hook the buttons on my left shirt sleeve. He bought me a button hook, so I swung by his house to pick it up. It’d be one of the last times I ever saw Mel, as his asthma caught up with him, and he stopped swimming so often.

We sat on Mel’s porch for a cold beer, and my ears almost shattered from this godforsaken ringing. I asked Mel what on earth could be causing that noise. He said maybe it was his sonic pest repeller, which broadcast a frequency that human ears don’t hear. As he turned off the ringing stopped immediately and I told Mel, that’s no pest repellant - it’s a millennial repellant! And please keep it off when anyone from my generation is over visiting!

On the porch, we discussed how I looked up to Mel, and Mel’s role models throughout his life. Mel understood why I enjoyed his company - almost anything I’ve been through in my life, he’s been there and done that; numerous times too. I asked Mel about how old I need to be before I can truly tell people what I’m thinking and not give a damn how they respond. Mel said that at some point you realize that the people that matter in your life will be with you, however honest you are. The ones who can’t handle your honesty, never really mattered.

Mel and I traded messages for the next few months. He was always busy planning trips to Hawaii or preparing for visitors from out of town. I told Gunderson that I was worried - he says he’s busy, but then he mentions hospital visits, blood problems, asthma, etc. I believed Mel wasn’t feeling so great anymore, and he was “busy” because he was preserving his energy for those closest to him.

When Fred Rogers gave his acceptance speech at the 1997 Emmys, he asked everyone to sit quietly for 10 seconds and think of those who helped you become what you are. After the 10 seconds, he said, “Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made.”

Mel: Thank you so damn much for taking the time to mentor a kid like me.