John Fenton, R.I.P.
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.
~ Louise Glück
I want to tell you now, as best I can, about my brother John, a man who lived and worked outside the USA for more than half of his life. I cannot hope to capture the breadth of such a journey in words, but what I can do is give you a small and personal glimpse into an extraordinary person who lived an incredible life.
John came into the world in 1943, in Annapolis Maryland, the first of four children born to Richard and Mary Fenton. Margaret, Bill and Mike all followed and the whole Fenton family lived for a time in Willimantic, Connecticut on Granper’s farm. All was well until one terrible day in September 1949, when Margaret was lost to us in an accidental drowning, just two weeks after my birth. She was only three years old when John found her in the pond. I have seen faded pictures of this little girl looking back at me over the depths of time and I wonder how all our lives would have changed had she lived. Margaret’s death forever marked the marriage of Richard and Mary, and I believe had a profound impact on John. A terrible memory no one should be asked to carry, least of all a boy of 6.
Our grandparents eventually moved to Avon Park in central Florida and my father took a job in Maryland. We would often visit Grandper during the cold winter months for a week or so of sun and swimming. I can remember one glimmering day out at a local lake, skiing, boating and generally just messing around, when I got into trouble in water deeper than I, a new swimmer, should have ventured. I was thrashing about, going down for perhaps the third and last time, when a strong hand grabbed mine and lifted me into the glorious air.
The three brothers grew up in Laurel Maryland, living on a government compound where my father worked in Forestry research for the Department of Agriculture. Back then Laurel was a little town in the Maryland woods, before the beltway was constructed and the Baltimore-Washington Metroplex sprawled to absorb Laurel and all the surrounding towns. This was an idyllic place to spend outside, with all the fields and woods and streams any kid could ask for. We were a wild bunch then, always treading a fine line between the merely rambunctious and the marginally legal.
One day we took our bikes out to cruise the dirt roads and trails in the area. John was 12, Bill 10 and I was 6. We came across a small airfield, with a hanger and working piper cubs. Next to this airstrip was a field of cows minding their own business and unaware that that they had become objects of interest to the Fenton boys. In our as-yet-undeveloped brains we thought it would be cool to scare the herd into stampeding because, STAMPEDE. So we threw some rocks at them and look! It worked! Oh wait, they are stampeding *toward* us!! We whirl and race back toward the fence, but just like in the movies someone trips and goes sprawling while the audience groans and shouts “Get up you silly ninny!” Before I can move, I see John racing back*toward* the herd, waving his arms and yelling like a loon. Incredibly the herd stops and goes back to munching grass as if nothing had happened. I do not know if John expected them to stop, but I remember thinking then that my brother was the bravest person in the whole wide world.
Time is a strict and unforgiving taskmaster and things became more and more difficult around the Fenton household. John was fiercely independent and longed for freedom. Immediately upon graduation from high school he joined the US Airforce. He was stationed on a base in Ankara Turkey which I believe spawned his life-long wanderlust. The Airforce also taught him computer technology upon which he built a career and landed him a job with Computer Science Corporation. He worked in Vietnam for CSC in the years before the war.
He landed in Hawaii in 1967. My father died in 1968 when I was but 19 and just finishing my sophomore year at Concord College in Athens West Virginia. John asked if I wanted to come out to Hawaii and live with him in the small town of Kailua on the windward side of Oahu. Abandon everything you have known, he asked, escape the east coast life and fly 6000 miles west where the horizon beckons over the blue pacific. A month later I landed at Honolulu International Airport and found John standing next to his ancient VW bug, motor running and trunk open. I would live in Hawaii for the next twenty years, a gift from my brother, saving me once again.
You would think that Honolulu would be exotic enough to satisfy any latent wanderlust, but this was John, the guy with eyes firmly fixed at whatever was over the horizon. He eventually found his way to Iran, where he worked for two years. He told me he loved the country and the people and only left because Americans were asked to leave after the fall of the Shah. Well, “asked to leave” is a bit mild – he was escorted at gunpoint to a cargo jet, leaving all his household goods behind. This was 1979. In 1981 he was off again, this time with Mobile Oil in Jakarta Indonesia, where he would spend the rest of his days.
We met up quite frequently whilst I was in Singapore from 1991 to 1998 and he would come to the island-nation to renew his work visa at the embassy. One day, his voice trembling with emotion, he told me that he and his wife Dewi had recently welcomed a daughter, Michelle. Michelle became his pride and joy and changed him from world traveler to family man.
When I moved to Seoul in 1998 and then on the North Carolina our contact became less frequent and more online. The last time I saw John face-to-face was in 2003 at our house in Chapel Hill, where he stayed and we talked into the night.
Over the last 10 years we sent each other hundreds of emails on all topics, but mostly about baseball and politics. We parted ways on politics and learned not to speak of it, so we stuck to baseball, he with his beloved Baltimore Orioles and me with Yankees, whom John called TEE, The Evil Empire.
For intervals, then, throughout our lives
we savor a concurrence, the great blending
of our chance selves with what sustains
all chance. We ride the wave and are
the wave. And with renewed belief
inner and outer we find our talk
turned to prayer, our prayer into truth:
for an interval, early, we become at home in the world
~ William Stafford, Concurrence
It seems like you were always there for me. I am sorry big brother that I wasn’t able to save you. You pulled me from that lake and gave me the life I have had and all the things I have seen and done. Once you told me that you wished you could have saved Margaret but couldn’t, so you saved me. I am left with these inadequate words, a small attempt to let everyone know what a great guy you were and how you lived – and who you saved.
I miss you Bro. Rest in Peace.