A few years ago, I checked the voicemail on my cell phone and heard the following message start like this:
“Hi Chris, it’s Ken. I am out here in the middle of Sunset Lake, treading water. Hopefully someone will come along soon and pull me out. In the meantime, I’m sure getting tired.”
If I didn’t know Ken Evans, such a preposterous message might have incited panic, but I just smiled at the image of my old friend — who also happened to be pushing 80 at the time — up to his neck in the little pond outside his Oak Bluffs cottage.
A burst of Ken’s laughter floated up from the tiny amplifier on my phone. Torrents of rain had flooded Siloam avenue and forced him from his house and into a town shelter on higher ground.
“Actually it turned out to be kind of like an outing. Most of the cops I knew were there, and the chief of police, whom Sally and I both knew. Actually it turned out to be a pretty good time,” Ken added.
The 20-second message told a lot about the man more than three decades my senior. He had an admirable knack for rolling with the punches and gleaning humor from hardship. Both qualities made him a steadfast, charming and cherished friend for the last 18 years.
When we met through mutual friends, my dad was quite sick with Alzheimer’s disease 900 miles away in Ohio, and I craved a connection with that generation born into the Depression. Ken had retired to Oak Bluffs and was game to meet up for coffee at Mocha Mott’s or to talk on the phone.
I leaned on him a lot in those early years as I switched jobs from teaching to newspapering, and then in quick succession experienced the death of my dad, a divorce and the harsh realities of surviving on the Island where high rents outpaced the paycheck.
Ken’s voice alone, calm and assured, was a real tether to sanity and very often a reminder of my own strength. He frequently complimented me on my abilities as a father and as a journalist, one who covered all the political skirmishes of the town where he lived.
As an Oak Bluffs resident, he proved especially quote-worthy when I was assigned to write an amusing story in 2003 about the high-tech grinder pumps that came with a new sewer system in Oak Bluffs.
The experience of sharing a grinder pump was just one more way the already thickly settled residents grew a little closer to one another, Ken explained to me. “There’s an intimacy to it. More talking about very private things,” he said with a smile before showing off the most fitting gift his in laws had bestowed on him — a new toilet seat fitted with a hydraulic delay in the lid so it wouldn’t slam on the bowl when you put the seat down.
“In the old days of cesspools, you wouldn’t have invested in a top-drawer seat like this,” he said, giving a G-rated demo of the new contraption. “But you have to keep up with the technology in town.”
The quote rather horrified his wife Sally, but kept the two of us laughing for years.
Perspicacious is the adjective I once told Ken described him quite well. I tripped over the fancy word once and cracked open a dictionary for its exact meaning — a ready insight into the nature of things.
Stymied by writer’s block one Thursday afternoon in the Gazette newsroom, I rang up Ken for a dose of wisdom.
“Chris, strive for mediocrity,” was his answer to my predicament.
He repeated the three words again, offering no explanation. The advice ran against the grain but sunk in, and I got my story written.
By the time I met Ken, he had given up flying, but he loved to talk about his days as a pilot and jokingly referred to himself as a lieutenant colonel in the Martha’s Vineyard Air Force. This was perfect fodder for me some years later when I had moved off the Island and decided to play a postal prank on Ken.
A friend of mine in Boston was headed to London so I asked him if he would mail a letter for me from a British post office. Here’s the “Special Communique” Ken received in the mail a few weeks later, postmarked London:
To: Lieut. Colonel KEN EVANS
From: Comdr. Cedric Goodsleeve
R.A.F. ORDER COMSTAT
BE ADVISED THAT OPERATION “EARL GREY’ WILL BE UNDER JOINT COMMAND OF MVAF AND RAF FORCES BEGINNING 08:00 HOURS ON 8 SEPT.
DETAILED ORDERS WILL FOLLOW ONCE OUR AGENT (CODENAME 005) PARACHUTES ONTO EAST CHOP HEADLANDS. ORDERS WILL BE SLIPPED UNDER THE THIRD PANCAKE AT LINDA JEANS. WAIT TO POUR SYRUP UNTIL ORDERS HAVE BEEN RETRIEVED. THEN CONSUME PAPER WITH YOUR NEXT BITE.
WE HAVE EVERY HOPE FOR A SUCCESSFUL MISSION AND ARE COUNTING ON THE FULL AND ZEALOUS COOPERATION OF THE MVAF FORCES UNDER YOUR COMMAND.
Ken loved it and showed it around to his friends. “You really outdid yourself this time with the missive you sent through the mail,” he said to me in a voicemail.
When Ken’s wife Sally became ill and later died, I stepped up the mail and phone calls to try to cheer him up.
A few days before Ken died in April, my fiancée Simone and I went to visit him at Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. His body was giving out on him. But while he would nod off and breathe with considerable labor, he did summon up all the energy he could to be really present with his visitors, to be Ken.
Weeks later, I realized that he was embodying the lines from a Kipling poem he told me he had memorized as a boy: “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew / To serve your turn long after they are gone, / And so hold on when there is nothing in you / Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!”
Ken asked us: “Tell me what you two want to do with your future.”
He waited on our answers and for his coffee ice cream to soften some more. When it came time to leave and drive the 90 miles back to Boston, Simone leaned down to Ken curled up on his hospital bed and wrapped her arms around his frail body.
He murmured some words to her. As we walked out of the building, I asked her what Ken had said to her.
“He said, ‘I love both of you.’”
I can’t bear to erase the messages he left me even though hearing his voice makes me miss him all the more.
“Hi Chris, it’s Ken! I don’t know whether you realize it or not, but I’m aboard the Discovery that lifted off. I’ll be able to send you personal messages once in while as we approach the space station. So stay tuned, because you’ll be getting the scoop. Over and out.”
A former Gazette reporter and editor, Chris Burrell is a reporter for the Patriot Ledger. He lives in East Boston.