Remembering Rob Hiaasen: The unique voice of a storyteller


If you google Rob Hiaasen’s name, you can read about the end.

But that’s not the way we want to remember Rob.

We want to remember Rob the way we’re sure he would want the readers of The Palm Beach Post to remember him: as a writer.

He loved the artful craft of journalism, worked hard at it, and never stopped believing in the power of words to entertain and inform.

RELATED: More of Rob Hiaasen’s best stories in The Palm Beach Post

As a reader, Rob’s smart observations and sly musings had force. They’d force you to immediately go back and read them again.

From a 1992 article about increased interest in the presidential candidacy of Ross Perot:

Why are people going nuts over a man who looks like a driver’s ed teacher?

From a 1992 story about a rare visit inside Palm Beach’s exclusive Everglades Club:

It feels as though you’re in your grandmother’s living room. You’re scared to touch anything or sit anywhere. Even the air feels old.

Or the beginning of his 1993 interview with actor and voice icon James Earl Jones:

Darth Vader was in a white bathrobe and shower shoes.

So here is the way we will remember Rob — through the words and stories he shared with us at The Palm Beach Post.

***

A 1990 column about life as a new father:

Our family income was lanced when my wife quit her full-time job to stay home with our son. Rather than force our newborn to work for his Cheerios, we found the three best ways to save money are:

1. Have a baby.

2. Eat chicken.

3. Avoid automatic tellers.

Having a baby got me in this economic mess, you’re thinking. But your checking account isn’t hurting necessarily because of the cost of having a child but because of the missing income.

A baby does wonderful things to a budget while drubbing your personal life. Non-essentials (fun stuff) are cut, saving you money on:

1. vacations

2. restaurants

3. movies at theaters

4. new clothes (why buy them? You don’t go anywhere.)

5. florists (You don’t send me flowers any more. That’s right, pal.)

Grandparents and friends account for much of the gear and clothes in the kid’s first year. I’ve proposed annual baby showers to accommodate my boy’s clothing and recreational needs until puberty. This could work.

Eventually I will have to buy my boy something. But for now, the kid is the least of our expenses — provided he stops growing by … what’s today?

Yes, just call the Hiaasen household Chickens R Us. I never realized the economy and versatility of a chicken until I started seeing it on my dinner plate eight days a week. Sometimes the bird is broiled or barbecued or fried. Sometimes it’s brought to the table on a leash with a curse on its head.

Either way, it’s a great buy.

Finally, avoid the automatic teller machine or “the evil one” as our family calls it. The fast cash entries tempt but they insidiously nibble at your savings. And who records those withdrawal slips?

To review:

1. babies, yes.

2. chickens, yes.

3. automatic tellers, no.

***

A 1993 column extolling the simple things in life:

A friend writes that the big things in life — marriage, babies, buying a home — aren’t always as exciting or desirable as first believed. What do our hearts really treasure? The simple things.

The friend made a list of 10 simple pleasures and passed the assignment along, which is what I’m doing.

Talk to anyone around the office or wherever. Polling shows that simple pleasures typically involve food and solitude. Rice pudding with vanilla ice cream. Bailey’s on the rocks. People wanting to get up in the morning before the dog or husband and read the paper or magazine cover-to-cover.

Time alone, please God.

Before asking you to name 10 simple pleasures, this ground rule:

Unacceptable answers include anything involving children — their smiles, hugs or potty successes. No sunsets in Key West, pay raises, home refinancing, hot tubs in Aspen, or stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.

Think simple. Hitting the ball on the racket’s soft spot after you haven’t played tennis in two years is a simple pleasure.

Here is a sample of simple pleasures:

1. The icing on birthday cakes from Publix.

2. The Beatles’ slow version of “Revolution.”

3. The second beer.

4. Handwritten letters on three notebook pages (front and back) from a friend you were thinking of the day this mail came.

5. Losing a few pounds by accident.

6. Finding Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” on TV, again.

7. Seeing a deer at dusk along Interstate 75 somewhere in North Florida.

8. Guessing the surprise early in “The Crying Game.”

9. A nap of consummate depth and healing.

10. A good hair day.

Occasionally taking stock of simple pleasures can be a little free therapy.

Take a turn.

***

From a 1992 story on Florida’s mascot, the alligator:

Like Dick Clark, the alligator hasn’t changed much in 200 million years.

The alligator is a member of the crocodilian group, which includes crocodiles, caymans, gavials and several ex-spouses.

The alligator has always been a simple and successful creation: It eats, swims and makes little alligators. Its jaws can crush cattle bones, but it hardly has enough muscle to open its mouth. The power is in the closing.

***

From a 1992 column on the devastation in Homestead after Hurricane Andrew:

In this little slice of hell, there is a perverse adaptation. Here, where Hurricane Andrew tried to kill a city, the shock value wears off the longer you’re here. Seeing the wreckage becomes routine.

Most gas stations, gift shops, bait shops, restaurants and department stores are gone. You don’t even need toll quarters. The devastation leads to disorientation. East is west and north is south. Visitors turn to the sun for direction. A man in his pickup was driving Wednesday through a nuked neighborhood, where signs on homes read “STATE FARM” and “PRUDENTIAL (Jesus Saves!).”

“Where is east?” we asked the man.

“I know north, but I don’t know east or west,” he said.

Life’s regular signs are gone.

***

From a 1991 column questioning the cultural relevance of Mother Goose children’s books:

Mrs. Goose’s vocabulary seems old and strange.

Kids don’t use these words on the playground: Hillocks. Victuals. Sixpence. Knave. Hame. Mintery. Muskidun. Just saying knave could get you detention.

In our house, we say Good Night Moon and follow Max to Where the Wild Things Are and we are pestered by Sam-I-Am. I started reading Mother Goose to my 2-year-old boy. I kept tripping over the bloodletting.

“He jumped into a bramble bush and scratched out both of his eyes” and “cry baby cry, put your finger in your eye” and “whipped her little daughter for spoiling her nice new clothes.”

And I’ve been worried about slapping my kid’s hand when he keeps knocking over Daddy’s special beer juice.

***

A 1990 column about his aging grandmother:

Ethel lives on the third floor in a semi-private room at a convalescent center in Fort Lauderdale.

But there is no semi-privacy. Her roommate has Alzheimer’s disease and is bandaged to her wheelchair. In the middle of nothing, or everything, the roommate screams like a tropical bird.

This is the routine.

Born to German parents, Ethel married an Irish doctor from Chicago who made house calls for $5 in the 1920s. They took the train to Florida in 1948 because they had fallen in love with the weather.

Ethel was stocky, witty and fun in a favorite-grandparent way. She would arm-wrestle, teach the grandchildren to skip stones in the New River, allow them to stay up for Johnny Carson when sleeping over. The kids could drink Coke and eat Pringles and nobody threatened cavities.

If you gripped Ethel’s forearm, she could lift you off the ground and swing you. And she would scold you for not wiping down the bathroom walls after taking a shower.

Ethel is 88. She weighs as much. Not enough blood gets to her brain. I don’t use the word senile to describe my grandmother. The word sounds indifferent and terminal. Old age is what’s wrong with her, I say.

She has a bed, dresser, nightstand and railed partition. But privacy and appearance are history. Ethel has tried to put lipstick on, but she can no longer stay within the lines.

Ethel wears a yellow bathrobe that needs closing. She wears a diaper and sometimes smells of urine. She is occasionally tied to a wheelchair.

This is the routine.

On her nightstand is a Dixie cup of three maroon pills. There is also a 6-ounce can of apple juice and a glove compartment-sized box of Kleenex. The pressed sheets on her bed feel gritty like hotel linens. Pictures of her great-grandchildren are taped to the side of her dresser.

A card from her son reads “I Love You. It’s True!” in letters big as an eye chart’s top line. Memory is dim and poetic, Tennessee Williams wrote.

Ethel’s is also treasonous. She doesn’t know who the hell sent her a birthday card or why.

I visit her. She calls me Lou — the nickname of her sister who died years after Ethel’s husband. Ethel is exhausted from saying the wrong name. Her head flops on her shoulder. She crashes into sleep.

I hold her hand. Her knuckles feel like I’m petting a cold conch shell.

Her ring finger is choked by her husband’s first gift. Her roommate rocks and caws.

Now I take stock in heaven.

***

A 1992 column about how he struggled with religion at Easter time:

A motive for belief. A motive for belief.

I have no motive, and I have no belief. I’m talking about religion or spirituality — pick your terms.

“An older Catholic writer once put it that the story of God-become-flesh, handed over to death, and risen to new life is too good to be true, a kind of well-meant adult fairy tale.

“For him, paradoxically, this was not an obstacle to belief; it was rather a motive for belief.”

My uncle wrote that. My uncle, a priest, lives in Toronto and writes holiday letters to the family. I read them but don’t remember them. His 1992 Easter Greeting came in Wednesday’s mail.

“As I approach Easter, I must say simply that I have yet to find an alternate hero or heroine, alternate ideology or political program so worthy of belief, or so worthy of my stumbling commitment as the person and program of Jesus Christ,” he wrote.

This is one barbell of a sentence. I like “stumbling commitment,” and I admire his conviction. But do I envy his conviction? He’d probably tell me not to envy any religion. It’s not the point; but what is the point?

That’s the problem with the subject of religion, which appears on my mental Rolodex every other light year. Nothing but questions.

Is there a God?

Is there life after death?

Do people really go to hell?

Is Easter an adult fairy tale?

Why am I asking myself these things at age 33?

“As much as I am fascinated by nature and in awe of its beauty, I need deeper reasons to hope, other than natural sources of strength,” my uncle wrote. He and I have never talked about religion; this article is the closest we’ve come.

I called myself an agnostic in high school because it sounded sophisticated and shocking. This was around the time I was using the word “existentialism,” while my friends were busy inventing friendly euphemisms for female parts. Maybe agnosticism represented my gut feelings — no, the label was for show.

I was “raised” in the Catholic Church, but I never was a Catholic. That would be my decision. I can’t imagine dubbing my 3-year-old son a Catholic or agnostic. I remember all those Sundays in church, where my butt would be sore from sitting, while my father stayed home watching Notre Dame football highlights. Maybe religion is wasted on the young.

Easter was a spiritual zero for me. I’ve accepted this as fact. Some people are tall, some aren’t. Some write books, others don’t. Some have religion, others watch football and try not to think about Easter and such personal and undeterminable things.

I was fine until this Easter and my uncle’s letter and now something tucked deep down doesn’t feel fine. A smudge of emptiness is among my good fortunes. There has to be something more than my life, my family, my friends, my writing, my death.

I do hope.



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