EULOGY … Douglas Vincent Bontempi was a good man … Youngest of three (mostly Italian) brothers. From a model Roman Catholic family, active in the Church. Attended Catholic schools. Until Greg, our middle brother, got a strep throat that infected his kidneys, developing into nephritis. And at 15 he died … Out of a tight-knit family & a well-defined community, Doug, only 14, was thrown into the world, alone. I think it must have been his soul’s “dark night of the soul” – an experience that most experience at a much older age, if at all. No one was there for him. I was away at seminary boarding school. Mom started drinking. Dad’s construction business went bankrupt from all the medical bills. Both tried suicide. And then they got divorced … So, Doug looked around & found a new family, a new community, in a motorcycle gang. First, the Gypsy Jokers and eventually the Hell’s Angels. He embraced the role of outlaw & won respect from his hard-riding peers. He was known as fearless & one who could be trusted. Among the Angels, loyalty to family matters more than the law, and that suited my brother … But after 25 years as an outlaw, Doug made a radical change in his life. He left the Angels; gave up alcohol, drugs & took a job driving truck for a steel supply company. Got deeply into weights & working out. And finally found his true passion in drumming … In 2002 he came out to see me in Colorado for the mushroom festival & we made him King of the Parade that year. He rode the Amanitamobile & was followed by a marching band of drummers. Entranced, he started taking lessons, buying djembes. And this new passion led him to a new community, a new family. He traveled to Africa with new friends. Had planned to travel back there & back to Colorado. But pancreatic cancer struck him down … People came to the memorial last weekend in California who had known him only as altar boy, or only as outlaw, or only as drummer. In all those communities, all those families, Doug had proved himself fearless & a person who could be trusted … He wasn’t big on talk. He let his actions speak for him. So, let me keep this simple. Douglas Vincent Bontempi was a good man.
SANTA CLARA VALLEY … Such déjà vu! … Returning three times to the Bay Area within the last eleven months, after spending most of last summer in California with my dying Dad. … Fr. Tim Kidney – a classmate with me for four years at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Los Altos Hills & newly appointed pastor (of the church I grew up in!) – co-celebrated the evening mass for Doug with a favorite priest of all of ours, Fr. John Coleman (84), who remembered me as one of his first altar boys at St. Joseph's Mountain View (where the service was held) … Doug’s lifelong friend Joe Cusimano single-handedly coordinated all the funeral arrangements. He brought me from the airport to see Fr. Coleman (St. Joseph’s East Palo Alto) for a pre-Mass prep. The good Father pulled out from his room in the rectory an engraved pen stand from 1957 – when he’d left Mountain View. A gift he’d saved for some 52 years, given to him by my Dad (at that time a Knight of Columbus & Altar Boy Director). Pulled out now to show me & Joe. The pen broken, but the inscription still etched in brass on a bar of alabaster, “from your altar boys.” I felt as though I’d been held in loving suspension in this wonderful man’s memory all those years, suddenly to come alive again like Lazarus … And I must say, it was captivating to watch the Mass as a ritual of community celebration – especially by two men whom I knew & liked. I found myself making some of the ritual signs, saying some of the ritual words (often mimicking the English to myself in Latin), humming to unfamiliar hymns. It was as if I couldn't help but join in, for just a moment, with that ancient ritual energy that so enspirited me as a youth & was still the tradition of my family & friends … Although, I don’t think Doug had been back to Church in 50 years. Still I couldn’t help but feel, like those who came to the Mass, that he would have liked our taking him back to his roots, bringing his story full circle … In the end, funerals aren’t so much about the dead, though they let us honor the dead ritually en masse. More, it’s a way of grieving & letting go – for the living.
HELL’S ANGELS … The Angels sent a security detail to the reception after the Mass, just to be sure there was no trouble. Even though he’d left the Club years before, “Dirty Doug” was well known in certain circles & the obituary had been published in the San Jose Mercury (Doug had once gained mention in Rolling Stone as well as Peter Manson’s Helter-Skelter)… Joe said they were packing, just to be sure the reception was safe … It’s easy to forget, living in San Miguel County, that gang warfare is an urban fact of life for many in our cities.
AT THE RECEPTION … Joe prepared a moving DVD of photos put to music, ranging from Catholic school class pictures to Doug’s time in Africa. The memorial was held in our old Catholic grammar school a few blocks away across the El Camino (one-time wagon-rut Spanish Mission route from San Fran to San Jose) … In St. Joseph’s spacious auditorium & parish hall, where my Dad once acted in church plays, the linoleum squares we folk-danced on were still intact – nowhere worn through like the rest of the building. Enrollment declining, though Stephanie Mirenda, an old grammar school classmate/lay administrator, works valiantly to keep the doors open. The black-robed Holy Cross nuns with their sunburst halo headdresses long gone.
ASHES ASHES … The next morning five of us scattered Doug’s ashes at Land's End, where he & I had scattered our mother’s ashes 22 years earlier. As he’d asked us to do. One of his last wishes … My poet friend Kush & I sang chants as the water lapped up his remains & carried my little brother into the great flow of the Pacific … Later, cutting through the Haight, Kush & I take a detour home. Praying for Doug & invoking the spirits at Corona Heights, above Market St., where Ishi and Lew Welch once came to walk … Nothing lives long. Nothing lives long but the Earth & the Mountains.
THE TALKING GOURD
a virgin communion
taking the host in hand
(so long forbidden!)