The Last Days Of B. D. McKay
The Memories of Scott McMahan
Most of all, I remember the rain during this time. Rain marked each worsening development in B. D.'s situation. From the long drives in from Hendersonville to the VA hospital on the other side of Asheville, to the last moments when family members started appearing, to the day when B. D. was laid to rest, all I can remember are downpours.
When we first moved in with B. D. in Hendersonville, in early 1980, I remember him as a spry and active person who got around very well. If he had any problems walking, I was not aware of them. His red Ford Fairmont was the family's transportation. He would take us to eat at the Five Points restaurant in downtown Hendersonville, then a place with good country food. I would immitate B. D. by getting a hamburger steak, just as he did. He would get gas on the way back, and give me a dollar or so to get a comic book. I remember those as happy times, when B. D. would take me to Jackson Park to fly kites, or to Allen Airport to see the airplanes. We moved in with him because of divorce, and my father had never had any active interest in my life, so B. D. became a surrogate father, giving me the male attention I had not had before. I remember this time being much longer than it was; in actuality, it was only a single summer.
At the time, I was a rambunctious child barely ten years old, and was having new experiences every moment. I had never had much of a place to ride my bike, not like Hendersonville afforded. I had barely gotten old enough to read comics. Science, electronics, and space were all new to me as I first experienced the Star Wars movie in 1979, opening up those vistas. I was full of growth, and had never experienced pain and death firsthand. I would not have my own struggles with health problems until several years after B. D. died. The only death in the family I can recall is a great-grandmother who lived in Pageland, someone I had seen only once or twice before in my life and was not close to. I did not understand B. D.'s own pain, way his life was coming to an end, nor how he was trying to pass on his legacy to me while there was still time. All of his stories of Charlotte and the war made the same impression on me as stories from television and comics.
What caused B. D. to begin falling wasn't certain. His legs just gave out. We had a thin, paper wardrobe in the hall, and one day he fell into it, tearing out a gash. That's the first time I remember him falling. During 1980, his legs worsened, and he began getting checked out at the VA hospital over in Asheville. By 1981, B. D. was in his wheelchair.
B. D. had a sort of resignation tinged with humor about the whole thing. His cartoons of the time are sad, but still finding something to smile about in toaster ovens, ambulance rides, and other pieces of life. I'm sure this humor is what saw him through hardships in the war as well.
B. D. was stable for a year or so. He would wheel his chair out onto the porch and smoke, and spent a lot of time with me in the summers. We would play army, with me drilling, doing calisthenics, and going through the manual of arms with his B.B. gun. He would tell me about other times and other places, sharing his life's experience with me. Other times, indoors, I would learn about electronics from him. He patiently taught me to solder, and to use tools in general. He indulged my ravenous curiosity with material far beyond anything the schools would teach me. We would play cards, work with my clay, and almost anything else we could think of. Not only was what we did important, but that he would spend time with me and, in so doing, make a mark on my life that could not be erased.
Yet his legs got worse. They were scaly, and weak. He was apparently in a lot of pain, although he never showed it to me. I'm not sure how much pain he was in. The former Marine who flossed with barbed wire never let it show. Trips to the VA hospital became more frequent as his condition grew worse.
No one really figured out what went wrong with B. D.'s legs. The doctors did not have any definite diagnosis. B. D. himself speculated that what went wrong was the result of having his foot frozen in the war. As good an explanation as any.
Then came the last trip B. D. would ever make to the hospital. He stayed for several days, and during that time family members scattered to the four corners of the earth began to appear. I was too young to know what this meant. Finally, having no other ideas, the doctors decided to amputate his legs, but he died during the operation.
I don't know, and I don't believe anyone knew or will ever know, why B. D. died. But I can take a guess. Nothing more than that, because at the time I was an eleven year old boy and didn't know anything about the pain he experienced or the fact of death. I was still amazed at the world, much like B. D. depicted in his poem about Myrtle Beach: "Scott was amazed" at the ocean, and everything else. B. D.'s death was the first significant death in my life of someone close to me.
Likely, B. D. could have lived many more years as an amputee, and realistically his quality of life would not have been much different since he was confined to a wheelchair already. I was much too young to understand at the time, but looking back, his final poems were almost a farewell. In "My Bike", his bike "gave him wings / it took me afar". In "Once Upon A Time", he said "we had our fill of life's good things". Both of these were written at the end of his life, in February of 1984.
Not merely a farewell, but a lamentation over the loss of a time that would never come again. B. D. must have been riding his bicycle across the countryside inside his mind, while in his body, he was confined to a world that got smaller and smaller. Maybe the lure of the world where "my bike meant freedom" was too strong to resist. Especially as he watched me riding my own bike. I'm sure that, on one level, he was living vicariously through me; but on another level, he saw that the times he remembered with "golden memories" would never come again for him.
I do not want to neglect the fact of digital electronics, either, because I am certain B. D. saw the world moving to them. In the early 1980s, analogue electronics of any sort was on their way out, and tubes were completely obsolete. All of his life, he had been an electronics enthusiast, and now almost everything he had ever learned about these subjects was becoming irrelevant as the whole world of analogue electronics was set to vanish from the world. How useless and out of touch with the world this made B. D. feel I can only imagine.
B. D. made somewhat of a transition from tubes to the silicon world. He knew some information about the transistor (the silicon equivalent to the tube). The two were similar in theory even if different in components. He knew some about the low-voltage world of compact silicon parts. He knew a little bit about integrated circuits, and the operational amplifiers that wiped tubes out. He did not seem to "keep up" with the technology as the world went from analogue to digital, though. I do not recall him ever mentioning digital electronics in any way at all. Maybe he felt he had nothing to teach me.
B. D. was obsolete. He was the enthusiast of a forgotten world that ran with a technology no one wanted to use. He had not merely mastered, but loved, the skills that no one needed anymore. I don't know, but I can imagine, that he felt the world had changed so completely that he couldn't function in it anymore. To me from failing hands he threw the torch; I would have to bravely go on alone into the new, digital world.
B. D. departed this life in the VA hospital. And we all made one last trip down to Pageland, South Carolina, where B. D. had already picked out his final resting place. The tiny town, at least back in the early 1980s, was a surrogate childhood home for him, because it was rural and unspoiled, open and free, much like I imagine his childhood in Charlotte to have been. On that day, as we drove in procession out to a remote graveyard, and as B. D. was being laid to rest, it rained.
If B. D. could have drawn one last cartoon about his own funeral, he'd probably have put in a last panel showing the rural country graveyard a few years later with an interstate highway and a business district a stone's throw away. That was his sense of humor. But, for him, I hope that, somewhere, "life in the country" goes on and he can build tube amplifiers, ride his bike, and not have to remember the good times anymore because he's too busy living them.
And as I have written elsewhere, B. D.'s lasting legacy in my life was something he never got to experience firsthand with me. Through all he taught me about electricity and electronics, he was able to point out to me a road, way off in the distance, I could possibly take. He would not even take the first steps along this road beside me. With what little money we had after his death, I got my first computer. Over the years of my life, those first halting steps typing in BASIC programs from the manual that came with the computer turned into a lifetime of food in my stomach and a roof over my head, through bad times and good, always something to fall back on. He could not travel this road with me, but he pointed in the right direction, and gave me "freedom to steer for a star".