I Can Hear the Laughter

One sees him walking slowly across the sand of a sun-splashed beach, a little girl by the hand, looking back at the camera through eyes as blue as the surf.

He laughs and the camera lingers on his face the way memory clings to special moments, and then he turns back to the ocean and is gone, the silent laughter drifting toward the sea like a tendril of silver fog.

Chuck Meade was, by universal standards, an ordinary man. His name is not likely to grace the pages of history nor his image the walls of museums.

But in an age when hostilities abound and generation gaps widen, Meade lived his life with a triumph of spirit that made him special to at least one group of people in the world.

His family called him "Papa" and they loved him dearly.

I was introduced to Meade through a daughter, Michelene Reed of North Hollywood, who sent me a six-minute videotape that traces her father's life from photographs of his childhood to family movies of his old age.

She wrote, "You have been on my mind today because you're one of the enjoyments my father and I shared. . . .

"We often called each other up to ask, 'Did you read Al today?' and laugh like mad.

"My sweet papa died in the summer of '87 and I've just finished a video on him. Now I'd like you to meet him on tape. Al Martinez, this is Chuck Meade."

Newspapers allow scant space for average people, with the exception of those who fall victim to calamity.

Quiet summer natures provide warmth, but lightning in the soul creates drama, and drama is the stuff of headlines.

Michelene's letter made clear that the man she called Papa had died at age 82 without ever having led a parade, and my tendency was to answer with a thank you note and let it go at that.

Then late one night, home from wandering, alone with my weariness, I watched the videotape she had sent me.

Here was Chuck Meade as a farm boy in Wisconsin, as a high school tumbler, as the husband of a dazzling young dancer, as a father with a growing family, as a dapper banker and business manager and, finally, as a gray-haired man handsome enough to be a movie star.

The tape, composed by Michelene and her fiance, is the kind of affectionate tribute few fathers are accorded, with a joy so real it projects beyond the television screen.

It was put together with special feeling.

We hear Chuck's voice telling a story of his grandparents' first Thanksgiving in America, and we see the compelling footage of a son who died in infancy, edging with faint sadness a tape otherwise made in celebration.

I watched it once and then twice: Meade pushing a daughter in a wheelbarrow, dancing with his wife, showing off a pet chicken, mowing a lawn, cooking at a family barbecue, blowing out birthday candles.

He was a gentle man who gave of himself with easy benevolence.

"I'll never stop missing him," Michelene said as we talked in her home a few days later. "I can still hear his laughter and see the twinkle in his eyes as he scolded us kids for egging the ice cream man.

"I can even remember the phone number of a store he owned in the '40s. I was 8 and he'd take me out of school and let me work for a day. It was the best time of my life." Pause. "Rugby 6-1905."

Chuck and Vasso Meade were married 48 years and bore five children, who in turn gave them 10 grandchildren.

Michelene describes him as an Irish charmer and a gentle tease, who loved to play the small tricks that kept the family laughing.

"But he was also a soft-hearted man," she said. "There was a story in the paper once of a boy who was very ill and Papa used to pray for him. When the boy died, Papa cried."

He told the children bedtime stories of his life on the farm when they were little and always sang one song to them, "The Animal Fair."

Nothing lasts forever. Summers pass, laughter fades and fathers die. But Meade, at the end, left the same warm glow he had provided in life, and this makes him special.

He suffered a stroke that left him barely able to speak. But he could still communicate as few can. With the family gathered by his bedside, he turned to them and sang, slowly and with strained articulation:

The animals had a fair, the birds and the bees were there... .

"He sang it all the way through," Michelene said. "We laughed and cried at the same time. It was his way of saying he loved us."

A week later, Chuck Meade was dead. The videotape says goodby in a loving manner to a father who achieved no cosmic heights but was adored by his family. And that, in its way, is triumph enough.

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