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Humbug Square - Death with dignity

An old friend passes on without the balm of religion

I picked up Hugh a week before Christmas. He was waiting for me in the driveway of his little green house, smoking one of his awful Captain Black filtered cigars.

I helped him into my car and fastened his seat belt. His clothes were covered with leaves.

"I fell," he growled. "It's the first time. It's the beginning of the end."

His hands were shaking.

I took him to my father's assisted-living place in Decatur to see if Hugh wanted to move there. In the last few years, Hugh had lost most of his vision and most of his hearing. Yet, at 86, he'd kept going it alone in his house.

"Are you sure you're OK?" I asked him in the car.

"The only thing I hurt was my pride," he said.

We met my father in the lobby of the five-story center. Dad, who ran cross-country in college, uses a walker now. He takes tiny duck steps, rocking from side to side to build up speed, snorting in great gulps of air. Dad is also going blind from the same disease that took Hugh's sight — macular degeneration.

Hugh turned his head so he could watch my father out of the corner of his eye.

"He's more feeble than I am," Hugh whispered as Dad shuffled into the dining room.

I had ordered a sandwich for Hugh. He was afraid of making a mess with a fork in front of the other old people because he couldn't see the food.

I was unaccustomed to seeing Hugh vulnerable. For decades, I'd seen him on the offensive. He delighted in torturing me about my wildly fluctuating weight and my wretched track record with women. He had been married many times — he told me not to mention the number, but it was in Mickey Rooney territory.

Even blind, he could spot my weaknesses from 50 paces.

One day I was leaving his house and he cocked his head like a bird and said, "You got fat again!" He grabbed my arm.

"Oh, goddamn," he said as he felt my bicep. He suggested I work off the weight in bed with my girlfriend.

"I don't have a girlfriend," I said.

"You're pathetic," he said.

WE GAVE HUGH a quick tour of the assisted-living center. The manager showed him a room near my father's and described the level of services.

We went to my father's room. Hugh collapsed into a chair. It turned out that both Hugh and Dad had spent time on Ascension Island in the Atlantic. Hugh was a highly decorated master sergeant in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Dad was a civilian civil engineer for the Army and later for the Air Force.

But they couldn't hear each other and the conversation devolved into "What?" ... "What?"

I took Hugh to my car in Dad's wheelchair. As we headed to his house, Hugh was exhausted but raved about the center.

"Why in hell didn't you tell me how nice this was?" Hugh said. "This is like a first-class hotel."

I got him safely inside his house. When I arrived home, I e-mailed his son, Bruce, in Washington to tell him about Hugh's fall.

Bruce and I had met in the fall of 1965 in Reed Hall at the University of Georgia. I was strolling down the hall and heard somebody playing a Bob Dylan record. Not many people were listening to Bob Dylan at UGA back then. I wandered into Bruce's dorm room. We've been friends ever since.

The first time I met Hugh, he was 46. He was tall, slender and strong. He looked like Kramer on "Seinfeld." Hugh was relentless from the first. One time I had breakfast with him and Bruce. My hair was nearly to my shoulders.

"Look at that hair," Hugh said. "It's so long I might have to give you a kiss."

HUGH AND I began to interview each other. Over the last decade or so, the conversations became more intense.

We were so far apart politically — Hugh to the right and me to the left — that we eventually agreed on some issues, such as our mutual disgust with George W. Bush and our understanding that America is headed for another Great Depression because of the nation's comical amount of debt. We had other things in common. We'd both had debilitating bouts of clinical depression and both put down the bottle. We were voracious readers. Hugh got books on tape when his eyes began to fade.

He could never understand why I didn't get remarried after my divorce. He grilled me about my long periods of celibacy and badgered me about my ex-wife, whom he loathed.

He told me about losing his first wife, Bruce's mother, to a brain tumor in 1954. He also walked me through every fateful moment of the night in 1968 when Bruce's younger brother, Tim, was killed in a car wreck.

And Hugh told me why he was an atheist. I taped the interview because I'm basing a character in a novel on Hugh.

At the age of 10, he started observing the behavior of the members of the Methodist church his parents attended in the 1920s. At camp meetings, church members would testify to the power of the Lord. But Hugh noticed that some of the people who testified didn't act like Christians at home. They got drunk and cheated on their spouses.

He remembered one neighbor in particular. "I've seen that son of a bitch get up and testify about what God had done for him and how it had changed his life, and I thought, 'Now, that can't be true because I see him drunk all the time.'"

The difference between church testimony and real-life behavior was so stark that, Hugh recalled, "In my damn little feeble brain, the thought struck me: I thought, 'Well, now, each person has two people — the person I see and can testify is not the same person I see later on drunk. Now, how old am I going to be before I get the other person and what kind of person is it going to be?'"

Hugh had discovered hypocrisy.

He realized that the people describing heaven had never been there. He did the math on Noah's boat and realized it couldn't possibly have carried two of each animal.

"By the time I was 12 years old, I was a confirmed atheist," he said. He never wavered and delighted in tormenting the evangelists who came to his door trying to jam Jesus down his throat.

Two weeks ago, Bruce called to say that Hugh had gone to the hospital. The staff examined a large lump below his rib cage. Hugh was convinced it was cancer. The doctor thought it was an aneurism.

While Bruce was on the phone, Hugh shouted in the background, "Tell him I'm dying!" I couldn't help but laugh.

All Hugh wanted to do was go to a hospice, get pain-killing drugs and refuse additional medical care.

Bruce called me again Jan. 5.

"Hugh won the lottery," he said. "They agreed to send him to a hospice yesterday."

Bruce paused. Then, he said Hugh didn't last 12 hours at the hospice. He died around midnight, apparently in his sleep. Just the way he wanted.

Hugh Spake was cremated without a ceremony, as per his wishes. He didn't want an announcement in the paper, but this isn't an announcement.

It's a salute.

Goodbye, Hugh.

Senior Editor Doug Monroe raised a toast to Hugh last Sunday. Doug can be reached at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.