You probably won't die alone, or at home. But if you do both, the police who answer the eventual 911 call will inspect the premises for signs of forced entry, missing valuables and other evidence of foul play.
"Tell me, Mr. Rogers," said an officer who had just performed that duty on Monday of last week. "The back room with all the papers in it, was it always in such a state of ..."—he paused, searching for a word that would be both tactful and accurate—"... disarray?"
"Oh, yes," I said. "If it wasn't, that would be a very suspicious circumstance."
Illustration by Gerry O'Neill
Bob Sherrill on the cover of the August 2002 issue of Urban Hiker
Photo by Tom Walters
Though he flew on dozens of bombing missions over Germany with the Army Air Corps, Bob Sherrill always scoffed at the idea that he and his fellow World War II vets were heroes; his account of postwar demobilization in the September 2000 Urban Hiker was called "The Longest Party: Robert Sherrill salutes the Greatest Degeneration." Here, Sherrill (second from left) and friends goof around after the war.
The disarray, the room and house all belonged to Bob Sherrill, who died in bed two weeks ago at 82, sometime between the July Fourth fireworks (which he watched from his front porch, according to a neighbor) and Thursday's mail (which he never retrieved).
Bob—he signed his work "Robert Sherrill," but was Bob to everyone who knew him—was the kind of old-school newspaperman who hated to be called a "journalist," though he was one most of his life after the Army Air Corps plucked him out of Asheville to attend World War II. He also hated that Roman numeral "II," as opposed to "2," and every other word and phrase he found trendy ("dot-com"), euphemistic ("senior citizen"), redundant ("-based," as in "Durham-based business") or just plain godawful ("impact" as a verb). Talking with Bob could be like walking through a minefield—one careless cliché and boom!—but those who did it regularly learned to write good English.
At Wake Forest College in the late 1940s, "back when it was where it's supposed to be" (i.e., the town of the same name), Bob worked on the undergraduate magazine with a fellow student named Harold Hayes. When Hayes became editor of Esquire a dozen years later, he hired his old buddy as associate editor, and Bob spent the '60s helping capture that freewheeling decade in print. Behind George Lois' unforgettable covers (Sonny Liston in a Santa hat! Andy Warhol drowning in soup!), Esquire featured John Sack in Vietnam, Gore Vidal on the underside of the Kennedy legacy, and Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe inventing what was not yet called the "New Journalism." (Wolfe's 1965 essay on stock-car racer Junior Johnson, "Great Balls of Fire," began as a long, rambling letter to Esquire describing the piece he planned to write; it was Bob who realized the letter was the essay.)
So great was the influence of Hayes' Esquire that last year Vanity Fair gathered the survivors in New York for a reunion photo. In the January 2007 issue, there was Bob, puckish in seersucker, surrounded by Talese, Wolfe, Peter Bogdanovich, Clay Felker, Nora Ephron and other heavy-hitters of that golden era (boom!).
|Bob Sherrill's essay "The Truth About Growing Old" was the lead article in the July 1992 Esquire, but for some reason the magazine chose to run a pretty girl on the cover. V.C. Rogers' revised version shows why that might have been a wise decision.
Before and after Esquire, Bob worked at publications in San Diego and Los Angeles, as well as newspapers in Ahoskie, Greensboro, Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh. In recent years, he wrote regularly for the late Urban Hiker magazine, less regularly for the Durham News and intermittently for any publication he could interest in a freelance assignment.
I met Bob nearly 30 years ago at the Durham Morning Herald, where he (and I) merged seamlessly with the other misfits and eccentrics who populated the Herald's grimy, smoky, not-yet-computerized newsroom. A few years earlier, an exasperated Jim Shumaker—the inspiration for Jeff MacNelly's comic strip Shoe—had hurled a typewriter from that same second-floor newsroom into the adjacent alley, and the place still had a whiskey-in-the-desk-drawer atmosphere straight out of The Front Page.
Back then, Herald staffers who didn't have a standard Monday-Friday schedule worked Saturday through Wednesday and got off around midnight. Wednesday at midnight doesn't offer many options for launching a weekend, so every Thursday around 2 a.m., after closing down the Cosmo Room (later Val's Upstairs, then Eddie's, now that empty building across from Brightleaf), the Herald gang would relocate to Bob's place on Cobb Street and continue its discussion of all that was wrong with the world, the newspaper business in general and our own bosses in particular. (Little did we know how bad bosses could get.)
We'd drink Bob's beer and try to find places to sit amid the slurry of clippings, books, random notes and rough drafts that spilled from plastic milk crates onto the tables, chairs and floor in whatever room Bob was using as his office that month. Through some magic, the pieces that emerged from this ... disarray ... were beautifully written. One of the best was Bob's last freelance piece for Esquire in July 1992, "The Truth About Growing Old." In it, he wrote:
Who among us musty old mortals is not at least a little aware of standing on the Big Trapdoor as the Master toys teasingly with the lever—even those with whom death has never seriously flirted? We are wallowing in death. This country has been on a death jag for twenty years and more, since the life went out of the Sixties like air out of the bellows of an old church organ or one of those old blacksmith's forges, and the showers of sparks subsided and the coals finally died. What has happened? Death with dignity. Who started that hideous joke? Now, along with everyone else, when one of us old people with a feeble grip on life goes into the hospital, he is asked if he wants the plug pulled should he stop twitching. Nah, just put the gun to my right temple and ... This "living will" reeks of perfectly proper politics, but whatever, death does not interest me. Fuck death.