February 5, 2014 —
My friend Art Peck was not a simple man. What he knew about the world, he mostly learned from experience. When he wanted to know more, he turned to a book, or the Internet, or to someone with more experience. With less than an 8th grade formal education, he built a small empire, several boats, a few cars and a house. He was born smart, not raised smart. He had his own ideas, whether about politics, or the environment, or business, or art, or the way a mutual friend kept house.
I never left one of the afternoon bull sessions at Art’s barn without wanting to be a fly on the wall after I shut the door. I had been privy to many of his apt assessments (not all negative) about others after they left the confines of the barn. That makes him sound catty, and he could be, but his intuition about people was so keen that most people would be better off knowing what he thought of them.
Although he could do almost anything he set out to do, he knew how to pick his projects and what to spend his money on. He knew a new roof on his and Beth’s house would add equity for years to come but tile the bathroom floor? Why should he, he figured? “Whoever buys the house will want to choose their own tile, and I like the soft carpet,” he told me.
When Art went to buy a pick-up truck at the local dealer he had to special order one without any options. No fancy 4WD for Art. “I’m old enough now that when it snows, I stay in.”
Lest you think this man was a stiff, let me advise you otherwise. He outfitted his new truck with hand-wrought wood side panels and adorned it with a decal “Wal-Mard Special” in Wal-Mart yellow lettering. He deliberately misspelled Wal-Mart to avoid the copyright police.
After our area experienced the second 100-year flood in 10 months, Art constructed a lighthouse and, after asking our permission, placed it on one of our islands in the Delaware. It was the talk of the town and a statement of resilience, until a local environmentalist complained to the National Parks Service and the lighthouse was removed. “Some people just don’t know how to have fun,” said Art.
Even his friends could be the butt of his humor. A letter came in the mail one day from the Liberty Institute in Philadelphia, complete with a PA postmark. The official-looking letter said we were now living in a protected eagle-nesting area and were subject to restrictions on our behavior. We were incensed. We loved cohabiting with our raptor neighbors, but this letter was telling us we couldn’t read late at night.
I don’t remember how we figured it out, but Art was pretty distressed when I told him I knew the letter was from him. “Darn city slickers,” I can imagine him saying. But I had been forewarned by his stories from the Sputnik era, when he and a friend planted a contraption on someone’s property that pretended to be a piece of the fallen Russian satellite. They played the friend for all he was worth before revealing their prank. Now that I think of it, we could have had a few months’ worth of good fun with the Eagle Institute prank, if I had been half as smart as Art.
He told Beth he didn’t want a memorial service. I’m sorry for that. But he didn’t say I couldn’t write about him. So long, friend.