Godspeed, good man.
Dane Smith, 12/22/54 - 5/9/03
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I once read, in a review of Citizen Kane of all places, that a man always seems the same size to himself, because he does not stand where we stand to look at him. Dane Smith meant a great deal to a great number of people during his 48 years. To my brother Ben and me he was an uncle, to you something else, perhaps a skilled dive boat captain, a fellow skydiver, a hunting partner, or fellow worker on the lines at Harley Davidson. To the special few, a brother or husband. To himself, he was just an ordinary man. To everyone else, he was anything but.
Dane was a welcome fixture at our families holiday gatherings, always in a good mood and joking around with the whole family. Though I did get to see Dane at other events, such as kayaking in the Susquehanna or at Jimmy Buffett concerts, my fondest memories of Dane involve sitting around the dinner table. Most of his stories were the type that riveted two impressionable teenagers whose sole goal in life was to scare the daylights out of their mother. Whether hurtling towards the ground at 176 feet per second, waking up at 4am to dive for oysters, or sitting next to Gary Hart in first class on a plane from Denver, he always had a story for us. Here is how most of his stories would go:
"Okay, so one night my buddies and I decided to go diving, but there was no gas in the boat. So we "borrowed" a dinghey, and piled in enough diving gear for two days, a gas grill, and some buckets for oysters. Seven-foot swells that afternoon, so we had to trade off rowing duty every twenty minutes, lemme tell ya, it was hell. So about fifteen miles off-shore, we started getting hungry, so, since we forgot worms, I baited some cheeto's up on my buddies reel and caught us a nice six-foot sailfish that damn near pulled me under. Man, that was one tasty fish."
And the classic:
"Okay, so there were thirteen of us piled into my buddy's Subaru Brat headed out to "'yak the yough", as we called it. It took awhile since we stacked all our kayaks on the back and they kept falling off onto the turnpike. Turns out the road to the drop point was closed so we had to hike the last five miles in shoulder-deep snow and by God if Paulie didn't get bitten by a rabid wolf. Ten minutes later that wolf was turning on the spit (we were quite hungry from carrying those kayaks for five miles) and Paulie was fixed up with a tourniquet made from the elastic waistband of his jockey's, which were no longer wearable anyway, if you catch my drift. So we're about to put in when I realized I forgot my helmet, so I lashed one together out of some branches, a turtle, and some used dental floss I found in my life jacket..."
These are obviously exaggerations, but you get the idea. As Ben and I grew older, we would share our adventures with him over a family dinner and he would laugh and shake his head. I hope that one day, when I'm gone, my nieces and nephews would grin and tell stories of me that begin "So we're in the Old Faithful Inn and there's a head-size hole in the wall and Ryan is nowhere to be found..." or "So there I was in a tuxedo in Bangkok..." I hope that I can be the larger-than-life figure to my nieces and nephews that my uncle Dane was to me. He instilled a sense of adventure in my brother and me that can never be broken and I thank him for it.
Sometimes it makes me sad, when I look at the grainy black and white photos of uncle Dane as a child, to think that I did not know him growing up. Maybe he and I would've been pals like he was with Bill Warner. But then I realize that there are people like my mother that knew him as a little brother and Bill Warner who was his best friend growing up and it makes me smile.
Then I get to the pictures of my uncle Dane in the 70's and 80's with his friends out squirrel hunting with a 357 or with his family at a holiday dinner, and it makes me sad to think that I didn't know him as well as I would've liked back then. But then I listen to my mom and dad talk of him and his adventures with skydiving and kayaking, and I laugh. And I'll never forget the time he threatened to make us squirrel soup for dinner.
This past August, I took a series of black and white pictures of my small family, including the one shown here. I wonder, on occasion, if anyone else knew Dane as I knew him when I took this photograph. I doubt it, much like I don't know Dane the way my mother did throughout his entire life. I'm quite certain that I don't know what my father thought of Dane beginning when he was a student in my father's seventh grade General Music class and onto how their lives would become intertwined. I probably couldn't guess of conversation topics when my brother Ben and his fiancée Stephanie would join Dane and my aunt Carmel for dinner. If you knew my uncle Dane, I'm sure you have stories of how he affected your life in some small way. I keep my collection of stories about him stored away in my filing cabinet, some which I could reproduce on paper like some of those listed, others which I cannot.
I wonder what I will tell my kids and my nieces and nephews about my uncle Dane, and it makes me sad that no one else could possibly know the breadth and depth of Dane, no matter how many stories I or anyone else could tell. When we die, sadly nothing remains of us but the memories that survive in others. There was the Dane, the uncle that I can describe, that tried to teach my brother and I how to play football one February afternoon, if only I would have taken my hands out of my coat pockets. There was Dane, the brother, who would join his sister for a beer on occasion, and be a guinea pig for her cooking experiments, and was a shoulder to cry on when their parents passed away. And there was Dane, the husband and best friend of Carmel, my aunt, who loved and cherished her and couldn't stop smiling on his wedding day (or any day since) for anything.
Then there is the Dane that I keep to myself. Those are the stories that I could not tell you even if I wanted to. I am glad that no one can know Dane as I knew him, just as I am glad that you have stories about him that you cannot share. Maybe that is what makes you and I special, and what makes Dane special to us. I hope that he touched your life in a way that transcends description, much like any great man, whether he realizes it or not, should. Even though Dane is gone, he remains bigger than the trees and the rolling hills, seeing over even the snow-capped Rockies and the dwindling storm clouds, and though we each think of ourselves as the foothills, he looks each of us in the eye and smiles.