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MOLLY IVINS An Elegy for Big Jim My old man is one of the toughest sons of bitches God ever made I say that after second thought and I say it again after third thought My father is a throwback. He would have made a great eighteenth century sea captain. He has incredible courage, stamina and fortitude. And he is a stoic to the bone. I’ve known him for fifty-three years, and I’ve never heard him whine or complain about anything. \(I started this column at approximately 8:00 p.m. April 18, knowing that my father had advanced cancer and anticipating that sometime in the next six months, an obituary column would be required. I was planning to send him this column, on the theory that he would like to know exactly what I thought of him. About 8:20, seven sentences into the column, I received a phone call informing me that my father had put a bullet through his brain. I am shocked but James E. Ivins was a huge, rangy man who weighed twelve pounds when he was born and grew to six feet, six inches which, in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, made him extraordinary. His hair was gray by the time he was thirty, turned silver and then snow white, although he always weighed exactly what he did when he was on the crew at the University of Wisconsin. He also had cobalt-blue eyes, was extremely handsome, and was an altogether extraordinary physical presence. To the best of my knowledge, he had no vanity whatever, and only looked in a mirror for a specific purpose, such as to see if his tie was straight. Because my father was a closed man emotionally, there are many things about him. I do not know. His own father was something of a failure in and out of jobs, haunted by bill collectors. My grandmother claimed that my father had been “the man” of their family since he was five, and I have no reason to doubt her. In a memoir he wrote, my father spoke of his father’s last years, when my grandfather was enfeebled by a stroke and barely able to move. After recording his death, my father noted, “I always thought life short-changed him.” And that is about as emotional as my father ever got. My dad went to public schools in Chicago and received an excellent education there. He was proud that he had gone to school with, as he said, micks, wops, kikes, and blacks, and all were fine with him. From his years at Senn High, he knew and loved Shakespeare. Whenever he went on a business trip, he would bring back a book for his children something he had liked when he was a boy. So I grew up reading Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson the entire canon of those who believe in chivalry and honor. My father went to college in the depths of the Depression on the all-family-pitch-in method. His Aunt Agnes McMahon, a schoolteacher, and his Uncle Frank Ivins, the Episcopal bishop of Milwaukee, helped out. Dad worked the entire time, but he also joined Kappa Sigma, and for all his life, that was a big deal for him. A fellow Kappa Sig was a brother, no matter the circumstances. Jim Ivins lettered in crew several times, and then worked his way through law school as a crew coach, along with a mad variety of other jobs. He had some good stories about the rough diamonds he trained to pull an oar, including the time his Poles, rowing against Culver Military Academy, broke the course record and then \(as per my dad’s lectures on good sportssorry we won.” Until he was at least eightythree, my father continued to row a few times a week in his single shell. While he was still in law school, Dad bought his first sailboat for $150; he called it “Slow Poke” and said it lived up to its name. He was never without a sailboat again until the last month of his life. Before World War II, my father worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission, and those were among the best times of his life. My dad was a simple man in a lot of ways; he believed in good and bad and right and wrong, and when he was a G-man, he got to go after bad guys who were rob bing widows and orphans. This was good. After going to a lot of trouble \(he claimed to be the oldest ensign and then the oldest got into WWII. He spent most of the war in the Pacific, and I always thought my dad was sort of like Mr. Roberts, forever stuck in some backwater delivering toilet paper to the troops. But actually, he saw quite a bit of action specifically at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where \(on account of being a guns for forty-eight hours and suffered traumatized eardrums, which led to his becoming progressively more deaf over the years. My father always said of WWII: “To have a job worth doing, and to do it well, is the greatest satisfaction in life.” In some ways, I think it was the best time of his life; his written account of Leyte Gulf is a masterpiece of sailorly concision. Deafness is a particularly alienating affliction. Those of you who know the hearingimpaired know whereof I speak. You can have a serious one-to-one conversation with someone who is slightly deaf \(always procult for a hearing-impaired person to join in a group conversation or a family gathering. My father, with a few beers taken, was a sociable character and always loved to sing \(he was particularly good on “Me Father Was the Keeper of the Eddystone Light” ness progressed, it became harder and harder for him to socialize. I think he was very lonely. Perhaps it was connected to the deafness, but my father’s one great failing was his temper. The one emotion he was good at expressing was anger. He could erupt like Vesuvius. He never hit anyone in the family, but my God, he was terrifying. I believe that all the strength I have comes from learning how to stand up to him. My father became a corporate attorney 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MAY 8, 1998