A Life Worth Remembering5 min read

He was born in 1939.

Fennis Paul Maxwell, my father.

Final son to a large family that fled the Dust Bowl and landed with almost nothing on the West Coast.

Coburg, Oregon. Small place in the middle of nowhere at the time. Everyone worked, all the time. While his father was off painting ships for the War, he was pulling green beans from the ground at age six. He never forgot that. Hated green beans until he died. Swore that his kids would never have to do that. Ever.

He shared a few memories of that time. Learning how to fish and hunt. How to get by. A fever that they decided to cure by wrapping him up tightly in blankets next to the wood stove. That led him to a claustrophobia which re-emerged when he was an adult.

His father wasn’t an easy man to be a child around.

Case in point, no one was ever to touch his dad’s shotgun except his dad. But when my father found some kids trying to skin a cat, he didn’t hesitate. He grabbed the shotgun, scared them off, and dealt with consequence of his father’s fury later.

Around 13, as my father would tell me, he was working as a server at a summer camp popular among the rich of the West Coast. They found, much to their amusement, that this boy had a peculiar sense of smell. He was good enough pairing wines with their meals that even at that age, he could match the recommendations of a sommelier.

Enter Wanda and Bill Holzhauser…

They decided to sponsor the young man. So off he went from Coburg to Tarzana. Meeting and schooling with the Hollywood elite of the time. Playing pranks like filling a pool with jello. Raising a little hell.

He attended Occidental College but didn’t finish. The draft found him placed in military intelligence, where he picked up seven languages and a stint monitoring the (newly created) Berlin Wall. Dealing with folks who came over it.

There were certainly stories out of that time. Spy-type adventures, some of which were certainly tall tales, some which he probably shouldn’t have talked about, and some that haunted him. He returned to marry into a Hollywood family, to the daughter of screenwriter Ernest Pagano and actress Norma Drew. Became a stock broker.

Then came their son.

Me.

I remember the feel of his stubble on my cheek.

I remember him singing Russian lullabies that he said put me to sleep. And calling me his tiny tiger.

His various careers were always more tenuous than he wanted. He had a volatile nature when it came to figures of authority (it’s a family trait). His history of jobs became ones where he was lauded for his performance, praised for innovation, but then would run up against someone up the chain and that was always that.

But I remember him advocating my reading and academics. Riding bikes with me when we were both younger.

He showed up to many of my performances in the California Boys Choir. Made sure I stuck it out. He also pushed (and bribed the hell out of me with an Atari game console) into this newfangled thing called “computers” and made sure I learned enough to never have to work in manual labor.

I never learned about drinking from him, never had “the Talk” (I originally learned details about sex from a book), and more often than not he was working day/night/swing shifts he didn’t want. He was always happy for vacations, as I remember it, and the holidays.

About the time I graduated college, there was an accident.

Trying to load up a van with my furniture and something twisted, or went wrong. It never fully healed and, when they tried surgery, it blossomed into a condition of permanent pain.

It’s likely he had what I and his granddaughter have; an overactive immune system that attacks the body. But at the time, it was just considered bad luck. He was told to deal with it. And that led to decades, bed ridden.

I remember that the one desire he consistently and truly had was that he wanted to design games. So I took up that torch, becoming a game designer inspired by that wish. Thanks to my wife introducing me to a designer at Seventh Level Interactive on Return to Krondor, and then working with the folks at Interplay and Paramount and White Wolf and with the grace of so many others, I got to fulfill his dream.

Over a decade ago, there was a family fight

Lines were drawn up. That’s the last time I spoke to him directly.

Once upon a time, he used to go to sweat lodges. He used to talk to medicine workers in Hawaii. Took shots of lava rocks and call them Pele’s blessing. He would feed squirrels and bluejays from his hand. He hung out with the occasional motorcycle gang and help them photoshop pictures.

There’s no clean and clear ending to this.

He died in middle of February, 2021. His body will be cremated, his ashes likely spread to the wind, sea and time. Where he walks now, we can’t follow, but one day we’ll be taking the same journey.

May the road be smooth beneath his feet.

May the weather he finds be to his liking.

May the stars watch over his path and ever protect him.

And may he, at his journey’s end find home, and rest, and love.

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