It’s Memorial Day weekend and some times I think we forget what that’s about. First, it’s about our war dead. No matter how you feel about war, we all hurt for the sons and daughters who don’t come back or come home damaged, and how that reverberates through the psyche of our society. It is also about people missing from our lives leaving that permanent, empty and personal sense of loss. All through life, things and people fall away, reminding us that we are all going to have a turn. It’s the ultimate equal opportunity. Some are noticed more than others, some quickly forgotten, while others wrench the heart of life forever.
The slow death of Bung had an effect on us that took a long time to play out. We all knew we were not going to get through it easily. For the last year of Bung’s life we watched as his body slowly broke down from the inside out. He showed up at the store every morning to drink his usual 10 cups of coffee, smoke unfiltered Camels, down a couple bags of chips and whine about all he had to do. But he was becoming strangely quiet about everything else, including island politics, ordinarily his favorite rant. Nobody ever listened to him even though he thought himself pretty important as a trash pickup and freight hauler guy. Bung’s basic problem in life was simple: he did not like the change brought about by the declining influence of the permanent island families. He also did not like the increasing numbers and influence of the seasonal residents, or as he called them, the “that’s not the way we do it in Falmouth” crowd. These are the people who come to the island for its quaintness, grow bored after a year or so and look to change things so the island is like any other tourist trap in America. Who wouldn’t want that? This stuff would work Bung up into a frenzy every day and turn him beet red and snorting and full of enough caffeine-fueled adrenaline to get him through the rest of his day. It was not a healthy approach to life and we saw the signs when his body began to fight back.
Sometimes people would find Bung huddled under some staircase or in a doorway hunched and trembling. We didn’t know what to think. Mental? Physical? Every person on the island asked him to see a doctor but he just shrugged it off. We found out later that he was afraid of doctors and of the mainland, where he had been just a few times since arriving with the Coast Guard in the 1960s, staying after discharge and marrying a local girl. Bung was from St. Louis, Mo., and poor, his family having migrated from the hills of Kentucky in search of something they never found. He escaped with the Coast Guard to the island that took him in along with all the other damaged souls now threatened by the island’s sudden popularity with those who had the power and money to marginalize Bung and anyone else who did not see things their way. Bung never shed the image of himself as the poorest guy in town and even bragged about it, probably believing he deserved little more. To insure that he never lost that distinction he sent bills out only once a year — from memory and only for what he needed to survive.
The strategic cocktail parties by this time between the haves and the have-nots were beginning to divide even the locals. Islanders were becoming dependent, having given up the harsh and unpredictable life of fishing for work on the summer houses. Some islanders just went with it while some fought it. Bung fought.
In an effort to get Bung to go to see a doctor, we all told him that we would not hire him until he did, which just made matters worse. He dug in his heels until we had to back off; watching him not be able to feed his family wasn’t quite what we had in mind. It all came to a head one spring morning when the ladies who owned the island’s only restaurant were getting ready to open for the summer season. They’d been hounding Bung to swap out an old dishwasher and bring in a new one, and he had finally decided to do it. Carrying the dishwasher out by himself, he suffered a massive heart attack. Frank Silva heard him scream and ran to help him, thinking he had hurt his back. Bung latched onto the front of Frank’s shirt with both hands looking for help with bulging, terrified eyes. Later Frank said all he could see was pain and fear and did not think he was ever going to be able to loosen that grip. By this time, we had a real, honest to goodness EMT on the island in the person of Ronny Bench, who was also the Sea Tow guy who would go out to rescue boaters in trouble in any weather at any time of year. The Coast Guard was called; Ronny administered CPR for an hour and a half. It was heroic, and while all this was going on islanders silently trickled in as they heard the news. Among them were Bung’s wife Ginny and two sons Jake and Bobby. There was absolute silence except for “one, two, three air, one two three air, one two three, air” over and over and over for an hour and a half.
We all thought Ronny had saved him because that’s what Ronny did — he saved people and he was the best. If I was ever in trouble in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night or in the middle of the ocean, Ronny would come and save me. We all believed that and we all believed Ronny would save Bung too, but Ronny could not. The Coast Guard doctor said Bung was dead when he hit the ground, but Frank knew better.
Bung’s body lay in the bed of his pickup for several hours waiting for the boat that would bring him to New Bedford. I stood vigil alone by the body in a daze, hoping it would say something to me, even just spiritually, but Bung was gone. Everyone else had gone home in shock. Sons Jake and Bobby didn’t say a word through the whole thing, and still haven’t as far as I know.
Bung was 47 when he died, a life not completed. The town got together to take care of the unfinished projects around the house like sheetrock and roof leaks, but the unresolved issues we each absorbed were mostly forgotten until we had an excuse to remember. Like now.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.