My father-in-law hungered for a type of freedom that would scare the shit out of lesser men. And I’m not talking about the bumper sticker type of freedom that only requires lip service and a bit of flag waving; Lynn Cunningham lived his life aiming for complete autonomy. He was the type of man that would’ve been just fine in any of the romanticized and notoriously rough time periods in our past. The Stone Age would’ve been a cake walk. The dark ages would’ve broken its teeth on his resolve and the Wild West would’ve been his bitch. You get the idea.
His mom was a traveling con artist but her artistic talent as it applies to conning was lacking because she was constantly chased out of town. Lynn got sick of it somewhere in Utah, and when the mob with their pitch forks and torches was coming after her, he decided to stay behind and live in a potato cellar. I’m speaking figuratively about the mob but not about the cellar. It was a mostly subterranean little hut with one door that also served as the window and I have a picture of it right above my computer. I had it enlarged and framed so I could hang it on the wall and use it as my “it could always be worse” reminder. Lynn lived like a hobbit in that single room all through adolescence eating rabbits and farming independence. He graduated high school, had a few adventures, and then moved to Alaska.
It’s almost criminal to skip over his stories via that verbal montage because “had a few adventures” doesn’t cover it. You know those “the most interesting man in the world” commercials with which Dos Equis is having all that success? Lynn was that guy minus the dark complexion and fiction. Lynn lived vicariously through himself; he was the most interesting man in the world. His stories were always epic but we knew they were completely true and exaggeration free because they fit him like a trucker hat. I had always thought that I’d be able to write the man’s biography but I procrastinated. I imagined a time when I could leisurely pull the stories out of him while we sat in a coffee shop or on a beach surrounded by cigar smoke but a stroke killed him. It seems health issues are a side effect of true freedom. I wouldn’t have needed embellishment or artifice to write an incredible novel. I could’ve simply written out his tales verbatim because the simple gravitas of his life would’ve translated into a real page-turner.
Lynn wasn’t religious but he believed in a limited heaven of sorts. He thought that he’d live for a time after death in the memories of his children and those that loved him only to fade into black after his memories were forgotten. I wish I would’ve written that biography because if anyone ever deserved immortality, it was him.
Lynn was a recreational bush pilot in Alaska for a time. It might sound perverse, but it isn’t. The “bush” is to Alaska what the “outback” is to Australia. There’s a strip club back home that capitalized on the double-entendre so don’t feel bad if your thoughts went astray for a second. Lynn would hop into his little red and white plane with some beer and a big gun and fly around the state just to see what he could see. Considering the unreliability of emergency services at the time and the simple stoic and unforgiving nature of the last frontier, these trips were just as dangerous as you’d imagine. That’s some serious freedom, right? Flying over land never tread on by man with a buzz instead of a pilot’s license is the ultimate F-U to convention.
He flew over a bloated walrus carcass on one of his forays. Of course he landed his plane on the beach and chopped the tusks free from the walrus with a hatchet. That’s exactly what the guy from the commercials would do, right? He took them home and drilled a hole in the top of each tusk so he could nail them to the wall right next to an eight foot strip of baleen and an antique beer tap. All three of these items are hanging in different places in my house and I hate the fact that Lynn only told me the story behind the tusks. Did he rip the baleen out of a humpback’s mouth as it was spitting him out? Was the beer tap actually a spout from the fountain of youth he found at the end of a rainbow? Probably, but I can’t fucking prove it because of that damn stroke.
Lynn didn’t pay his taxes; someone who doesn’t take from the government shouldn’t have to pay the government, right? Sure he used the tax funded roadways, but only because they were there. He didn’t need them anymore than Doc did at the end of Back to the Future. And unfortunately, he didn’t go to the doctor either. He didn’t trust them. He didn’t need them. They weren’t necessary in that potato cellar so fuck ‘em. The same mentality that elevated Lynn above all of the bullshit that’d entrench other men eventually brought him down. I know that there’s an equal and opposite reaction for every action but I was devastated that Christmas when he died and no amount of “I knew it was coming” did a damn thing to console anyone.
I mounted those walrus tusks in cherry wood and hung them in my living room. I suppose that’s a disservice in some small way because the man that hacked them from the bloated odobenidae would’ve preferred that they be nailed to the wall in the same desultory fashion that they had always been displayed. I love those tusks though. They’re brindled with glacial-silt filled cracks and gouges that speak of walrus battles and deep ocean dives to graze on sea urchins. I hate sounding cheesy but I’m going to risk it; those tusks symbolize my father-in-law’s hallowed freedom and a way of life that’s pure. I gently touch them every time I walk by them with a reverent look on my face that makes Lynn’s daughter look at me like I’m daft. I suppose in a way I am, but the daft mourn too.
His daughter, my wife, has a video of him that she likes to watch alone. In it, Lynn is playing an Ovation guitar with a cracked neck he never bothered to fix. In faded denim and a trucker’s hat he’s slowly strumming and singing “The Silver Tongued Devil and I”. Kris Kristofferson would stand up and offer a slow clap if he could see that video. Lynn plays before and after the beat because one two three four doesn’t mean much in that type of performance. He never strays from the lyrics though, because the words matter. “The silver tongued devil’s got nothing to lose, I’ll only live ‘till I die, we take our own chances and pay our own dues, the silver tongued devil and I.”