Tuesday, November 10, 2009

GODSPEED, ROYBOY: ROY MATCHETT 1924 - 2009


Roy Matchett, a man I’ve known for close to 40 years, the father of a close friend in high school and college, died this past Saturday, October 30, at the age of 85. Roy was not a man of great renown. He was not a famous film director, an esteemed screenwriter, a gifted cinematographer or a beloved actor, though I always thought he resembled a best-of-all-possible-worlds cross between Paul Newman (those piercing blue eyes) and Mel Brooks (he was more physically imposing, but shared the great comedian’s raucous humor). So why, if all of the above are true, is he being eulogized here? Well, simply because Roy was that rare animal, the parent of a pal who eventually became a pal himself. I spent a lot of time running around Roy’s house with his son Ron, and I can’t remember even a split second when Roy and his eternally good-humored wife Jeanne didn’t treat me just like one of their own boys. I never felt like I was the intruding sidekick that had to be endured for the sake of their own boy’s bad taste in choosing friends. Whenever I visited their house, whether it was for dinner or just to hang out and take up space, I was made to feel like I belonged there. At the same time, if we did something dumb Roy dished out his disdain in a manner which ensured we both felt chastised—he wasn’t about to let me off the hook due to anything as easy as biology.

Roy’s temper, in addition to being a source of genuine fear (he never raised his hand to anyone as far as I ever knew, but he had a voice that sounded like the kind of thunder that would gather together into its own kind of fist), was also an endless source of comedy for me and Ron, and Ron’s older brothers Lee and Kevin too. Part of the fun of hanging around with the Matchett boys was the stories with which they would regale eager listeners about their dad’s often profanely eloquent tirades, and more often than not these stories were told in the presence of Roy himself, who was always up for having a good laugh at the expense of his reputation as a human volcano. From my perspective, growing up around Roy Matchett was like being the little egghead chicken toddling around at the feet of Foghorn Leghorn. He had the capacity to be endlessly interested in what was going on in my life, and he would talk to me at length about my family—he knew my grandpa well—and all the things I was captivated by—and then the next minute he might just as easily find himself in a fit of stuttering exasperation by something I might say, or something I didn’t understand about what he was trying to tell me. And Roy was never satisfied with understatement in getting his point across whenever outrageous exaggeration was an option.


One of the funniest anecdotes illustrating Roy’s benign Foghorndom came when his family took me along on my one-and-only Hawaiian vacation, on the island of Kauai, during the spring of 1980. Ron, his then-girlfriend (now wife) Janell and I flew independently from the rest of the family out of Eugene and met everyone at the airport in Kauai, where Jeanne immediately burst into tears upon seeing us arrive safely. Roy burst into something else when it was discovered that (again, for the one-and-only time during my whole history of commercial flight) my luggage had been lost (accidentally left in Honolulu would probably be more accurate) and took it upon himself to ride herd on the local airport staff until my bag reappeared a day later. The Matchetts had secured for us all a lovely two-story condominium right on Poipu Beach for our week-long stay. Their only mistake was that they rented a property in which the only unit large enough to house Ron, Janell, his brother Lee and wife Jeannette, and myself was the one at the top of the stairs. All was fine until Roy, lounging in his quarters below, got an earful of five young people treating one man’s ceiling like their own hardwood floor. The first two days were peppered with complaints from the elder statesman directed at all of us for making stampeding noises when we were moving about the condo. One morning he came upstairs, sat us all down on the couch and actually conducted a seminar on how to walk across the floor without disturbing the downstairs neighbor. (Of course no one was downstairs during this demonstration to affirm whether or not Roy’s techniques were effective.) Confident that we now possessed enough knowledge of basic physics and acoustics to avoid such transgressive behavior for the rest of the trip, Roy returned to his lower dominion while we got ready for the day’s adventures.

Perhaps a half hour had passed and we were almost ready to leave for the beach when the front door to our condo flew open and a red- faced Roy burst in (accompanied, I’m fairly positive, by a dramatic musical soundtrack stinger). “All right, who the HELL is up here STOMPING back and forth across this floor??!!” he bellowed. There wasn’t much time to do anything but try to suppress laughter, which I knew was probably not the best response to share in this situation, before he continued. “Cozzalio, didn’t I show you how to walk across the floor?! There’s no need to smash your feet down full force every time you have to take a piss or go get something out of the refrigerator!” I also remember some vague threat involving being tossed into shark-infested waters should we not be able to get our pounding heels under control. And then it was off to a fun day with Roy as our tour guide, and his jolly demeanor bore not an ounce of recall about the outrage that started his day. Later, just to tweak the master, we three boys shot a lovely photo of our bare feet as a special souvenir for our benignly grumpy patriarch. I like to think he treasured it.


Roy knew I thought he was hilarious, and I always got the impression that he really enjoyed making me laugh. He enjoyed watching me laugh too, I think. He and Jeanne took me to Reno one weekend when I was probably no older than 15 to see Don Rickles—my first big show. Rickles was hilarious, of course, but Roy seemed more tickled about how funny I thought Mr. Warmth was than about the show itself. (“Hee-hee-hee! I looked over and thought the spaghetti vendor was gonna split a seam!”) As I got older, I remember the conversations I had with Roy as being characterized by emergent respect, a lack of condescension that one might naturally expect coming from the older, wiser father of a best friend (which I definitely experienced from other parents). I think that as my high school years gave way to college I began to think of Roy, and Jeanne too, as real friends rather than necessary attachments who came along with knowing their son.

The last time I saw Roy was around 1992, when I brought my wife to my hometown for Christmas and we went to their house to visit. I talked to him on the phone a couple of times after that four or five years later. Then, around six or seven years ago I got a call from Ron telling me that his dad had suffered a devastating stroke and had lost his capacity for speech. It was around this time that the dreams began (much like the ones I still continue to have after my grandmother had been killed in a freak car accident), in which I come to visit the Matchetts and Roy, of course, is not frail and incapacitated but vital and booming and irreverent, just how I always knew him. At the end of the dream—and I always somehow know that the dream is ending—I am filled with sadness and dread because, like the times when I am reunited with my grandma, I don’t want Roy to go away-- I know that, however convincing my dream, his reality was something far different than the pleasant concoctions of my mind and my memory.

And now, after a long and difficult time in which his physical capacity only weakened and his awareness of even his closest family members was inconsistent and unreliable, Roy has passed away. I will always regret that I never got to properly say good-bye, or that I was unable to spend any more time with him, either before or after his stroke, for selfish reasons as much as any others. But in this hour in which everyone who knew him contemplates the pain he had to endure, the commitment and love and support with which his family surrounded him during his most arduous years on this planet, and the relief which he surely now enjoys, it’s easy for me to think back on Roy Matchett as one of the most influential people in my life. Without ever intending to, he did much to shape my sense of humor, its saltiness and irreverence and warmth, and the loyalty and respect he offered to people, specifically to the nerdy, bespectacled buddy of his youngest son, is a model to which I am, if I am living my own life correctly, constantly referring. When I think of Roy Matchett, from this moment until I am incapable myself of remembering, I will think of a man who I loved at times as much as I did my own father. Godspeed, Roy Boy. And if the Lord makes too much noise stomping around up there in that mansion on the hill, don’t hesitate to tell him to knock it off. You deserve your rest.

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7 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

A touching tribute, Dennis. Moreso because the anecdotes you tell remind me of my own father.

My condolences.

Arbogast said...

I'm sorry for the loss of this clearly matchless pal.

Rick Olson said...

the kind of thunder that would gather together into its own kind of fist

Great writing, and a lovely remembrance.

Paul said...

Oh, Lord, do we all remember the thunder from Roy! Dennis, you've written a superb remembrance of a great guy. Thanks for expressing the sentiment so well!

blaaagh said...

I barely knew Roy Matchett, but I knew his son Ron well once, as you know, and I know that Roy and his wife Jeanne were/are very important to you. I read your remembrance with great fondness for my memory of you as a very young man, helped and influenced by a kind family up on the hill--and for my memory of the few times I was in the Matchett house, which was full of the warmth and humor of that family.

Murray said...

Well done and well said Dennis. Just the way I remember Roy too! May he rest in peace.

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