Readers of my newspaper lost a graceful, elegant essayist, I lost a father-in-law, and the world lost a gifted teacher and aviator when Stanley Peter Andersen passed away on November 5, 2006. He was 84.
I’m not the right guy to write a proper obituary for Dr. Andersen, and this isn’t one. I didn’t meet him until he was in his mid-sixties, and, while I benefited immensely from his encouragement and example, he always treated me more like a colleague than a student. Those wanting to read his formal obituary, written by my wife, his daughter, can find in the December 2006 edition of The West Portal Monthly.
The reason I’m the wrong guy, is that while I find it easy to miss Stan, I find it difficult to mourn him. I feel his death as a loss, not as a tragedy. Because, while I never knew him as a young man, I know what trials that young man had to go through to get the chance to become an old one.
It’s quite a story, and Stan loved stories—so, I offer this as his memorial, in lieu of flowers. Come with me now to a different place and time….
The year is 1943, the place, an airfield somewhere in eastern England. Stanley Peter Andersen, 21, is about to embark on his first mission aboard a B 25 Liberator, where he will serve as navigator over the hostile skies of Nazi Germany. As he mounts the ladder that will carry him into the belly of the beast, a dark, hooded figure approaches.
“Are you Lieutenant Stanley Peter Andersen?” a papery voice asks.
“Yes. Who are you and why aren’t you in uniform?”
“I am Death, and this is my uniform.”
“Sure you are, and I’m General Eisenhower.”
Death pulls back his hood, revealing a naked skull.
Stan recoils from the gruesome sight.
“Are you here for me?” he gasps.
“I’m here for everybody.”
“That depends on you, Lieutenant Andersen. I have a deal to offer you.”
“Okay, Death—or whoever you are—here’s the thing. I’m not selling my soul, and I’m definitely not selling out anyone else on this mission, so why don’t you be a pal and take a hike.”
If Death had a mouth he would smile. Instead, he pulls a folder out of his cloak and hands it to Stan.
“Read this,” Death says, “then do as you wish.”
Stan takes the folder, pulls out a hand-lettered parchment and reads.
Death, The Party of the First Part, and Stanley Peter Andersen, The Party of the Second Part.
By affixing his signature below, Lt. Andersen agrees to the following terms and conditions, herein offered by Death:
RESOLVED: That Lt. Andersen will fly thirty-five missions during this war, become lead navigator for his squadron, and will survive same with only a bullet hole through his left hand, which will heal perfectly. That he will earn both the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his military service;
That upon his reentry into civilian life, then-Captain Andersen, United States Air Force Reserve, will complete his education through the attainment of a Doctorate of Philosophy in American Studies at The University of Minnesota;
That during a long and distinguished career as a college professor and author, he will rise to the Chairmanship of the Humanities Department at San Francisco State University, where he will teach many subsequently-published writers, and will publish his own work in diverse venues, from The West Portal Monthly to The New Yorker, and beyond;
That he will marry twice and have four daughters, and survive to see those children have children, and live to see said family grow, yea, even to the next generation, becoming a great-grandfather thrice over;
That he will win a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Helsinki, Finland, where he live with said family for two years, returning once thereafter as a visiting professor. The remainder of his life will be spent residing in the beautiful city of San Francisco;
That in retirement he will continue to teach at the prestigious Fromm Institute, giving lectures that enthrall his students, covering all the subjects that are his true academic loves: culture, architecture, literature, and sundry others, as, from time to time, he sees fit;
That he will travel the world, in peace, not in war, and be enriched by it, and thence shall share those riches with his friends, his family, and, true to his nature, his students;
That his inspiration will touch many lives, and those lives will be enhanced far beyond the time that Death, The Party of the First Part, sees Dr. Andersen, The Party of the Second Part, again;
That he will bear the joys and burdens of being a life-long San Francisco Giants fan, yet never see them win the World Series, one of the only goals in his long life that he shall not attain;
That he will know sicknesses that would cause Death, The Party of the First Part, to visit him prematurely, but that he will recover miraculously from cancer, stroke, heart attack, diabetes, and various other ailments, and will still be himself, with all his considerable powers, until the very end;
That when, in the fullness of time, said end approaches, in the next millennium, he will have lived a life so full he will have no regrets.
All the above, and more, shall come to pass, if Stanley Peter Andersen, The Party of the Second Part, accepts and affirms this contract by affixing his signature below.
SIGNED: Death: Death_ Stanley Peter Andersen: ________________
Stan looks up from the parchment and, skeptic that he is, says:
“I’m not saying I believe a word of this, but, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend I do. So, what’s in it for you?”
Death’s laugh sounds suspiciously like a death rattle, but the words he speaks are gentle.
“I am not the Devil, Lt. Andersen, I’m Death. Satan works for the Department of Evil, I work for the Department of Life. I come to all, even the most worthy, like yourself. You have much to give in your time on earth, and I wish to see you survive to do so. Your situation now is perilous; I want to protect you from that peril.
“You must die, of course, such is the fate of all flesh, but this I promise you. When the time comes for you to see me again, you’ll welcome me as a friend.”
And with those last words, Death vanishes in a puff of smoke.
Now, while the details of Stan’s life are true, the above is fantasy, of course. But imagine that it really did happen that way, that Stan did sign the contract, and that word of the deal got out to his fellow airmen.
“Have you heard the scuttlebutt about Andersen?” they’d say. “He’s seen the future and the fix is in. He gets to go home at the end of this war!”
The entire Eighth Army Air Corps would be clamoring to fly in Lt. Stanley Peter Andersen’s plane on every mission.
“I guess,” they’d say, “that Andersen is one lucky SOB.”
And they’d be right.