Let me begin by expressing, on behalf of the extended Smee family in Pittsburgh, our deepest and sincerest condolences to you, Ann, on losing Paul. Please know that to a person we cherish you, and that we hope you’ll continue to remain a part of our family. This may be unusual to say, but we’re grateful . . . that in you, and in Bristol, Paul found a person and a place that provided him what he needed to be content and at peace in his world, as much as one can be.
To Paul and Ann’s friends, thank you for sharing in my brother’s life and for the support we know you’re giving Ann over this difficult time. I’m Bob Smee, by way of introduction, and my wife Eileen is here. I’m Paul’s youngest brother, younger by nearly 8 years. Our other brother Jim was born roughly in the middle of that timeline. Our mother Dean has lived on the same street as Jim since shortly after our father passed away in 1987. Mom simply isn’t capable of making this trip at this point in her life, and she and Jim both regret not being able to be here today.
I hope it’s not revealing a dark secret to say that Paul’s manner of speaking, as you here knew it, was faked! I knew Paul when he had the same funny accent that I do. After Mom and Dad came to England as tourists once in the mid 80’s – and had reunited with Paul, who had sort of gone missing from the U.S. -- and met Ann for the first time, they returned two very strong impressions. One, as expressed by my mother, was that “To hear Paul talk now, he sounds more English than the Queen!” And the other was how relaxed and happy Paul now seemed to be, which they attributed in no small part to this wonderful and gracious woman Ann who now shared his life.
The story of Paul during his time here in Bristol covers a span of almost exactly half of my lifetime. Let me try to backfill the story a bit prior to this era, from a little brother’s perspective.
The house that I grew up in in Pittsburgh, from about age 3 on, was, by my mom’s accounting, something like the 10th or 12th address that Paul had lived at over the first 11 years of his life. My parents had been part of the great migration in the U.S., after World War 2, of rural southerners to the northern urban areas, moving to find jobs and new opportunities. Think of the parallel here – at a young age, they moved a thousand-some miles away from their families to establish a new life in unfamiliar surroundings.
I imagine how many friends Paul had made, teachers he knew, people he met, things he’d found … and was then moved away from, time and again. Mom has commented more than once in these later years that all that relocating probably wasn’t the best thing to put an impressionable young child through.
When Paul left home for college, I hadn’t yet turned 10. He left a fairly cloistered, sheltered neighborhood, wearing the flat-top crew cut hair, and thick framed glasses, and pressed, button down shirts, that were the current, conforming fashion. And I think it’s fair to suggest that he was eager to get away from a strained relationship with his father, and his pest of a baby brother, and whatever else. And he went to Boston -- in the early 60s anyway, anything but a sheltered environment.
When he returned home a couple of years later during a summer break, he had hair draping down to here … and a beard … and was clothed in denim, with patches and political buttons affixed … and carrying an acoustic guitar … that he would play with extraordinary proficiency … playing something called “folk music” … and protest songs. THAT was something to see in the old neighborhood! I soaked up his influence like a sponge. And Paul would talk to me as if I might now be welcome in his world, instead of being just that pesky little brother.
A while later, back in Boston, it became clear that Paul wasn’t so focused on college anymore. And he came to find himself being inducted into the U.S. Army. The army folks determined they wanted Paul for his brain, not his combat potential, and so they pulled strings to get him assigned to a position at headquarters in Saigon.
Paul passed back through our home briefly after basic training, on his way to report for regular duty. I have a photo that I took of him the first – and only – time I saw him in uniform . . . the full dress uniform of a U.S. Army private, with brass buttons and a couple of decorations pinned on his chest . . . and his hair now shaved to within a fraction of an inch of its life. I’d half expected to get a grimace or a wave off when I asked to take that picture, but instead he gave a bigger smile than I can ever remember previously on him. To this day I’m not sure why.
I’d write to Paul in Vietnam. I’m 12 or 13 years old now. I’d like to share a couple of anecdotes from that time, just because I like them so much . . . . I asked him once in a letter if he carried a gun. He wrote back that there wasn’t really much need to – he had no one to shoot at in Saigon – but occasionally he’d have to do guard duty on the roof of the building where he worked, and they issued you a rifle for that. He liked that guard duty because it gave him the opportunity to get some reading done in a quiet place. He said what was IMPORTANT was to always carry cigarettes with you. That way, if you were out in the city after curfew, you could use them to bribe the South Vietnamese Army soldiers to let you pass through roadblocks. That’s a life lesson I haven’t particularly found a place to apply yet. But I’ve always liked the mental image I have of Paul bribing some Vietnamese soldiers with cigarettes.
Paul came back in one piece, back to the Boston area. And over time I’d have reason to make occasional trips there from Pittsburgh, to visit, or to engage in some adventure or other with Paul. I cherish memories of these times, interacting in Paul’s world ... to toil or play with Paul as a co-equal.
And then Paul went missing from the U.S., for a time. It was in this time that you received him here in Bristol. And after a while contact with the U.S. side was re-established. After our dad’s death, Paul began making trips back to the states, and back to Pittsburgh. With Ann of course. And early on, in this new era, it was easy to see that Paul had found a level of serenity, a place of satisfaction, and the ideal partner to share that with. And with Ann, Paul was doing the most fascinating things – skiing the Alps, or vacationing in Greece, or bicycling America’s Continental Divide.
And so here we are. Most of my life I saw Paul as constantly reinventing himself, maybe under duress, and being annoyingly unpredictable. But recently, particularly in the last few difficult weeks, I’ve tried to reach a better understanding, as best I could. And I now view it that, despite appearances, Paul remained remarkably constant. It was just his surroundings, his locale, the world he inhabitted that kept changing.
It came to me recently that an analogy – maybe a forced analogy – could be made between the Paul Smee I knew in the first half of my life, and Billy Pilgrim from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Billy Pilgrim had become unstuck in time. And I think there’s a parallel in Paul having been unstuck . . . in place. In Billy Pilgrim’s case, he found himself bouncing uncontrollably between the past and the future and the present of his own life. And he found this very disconcerting, until he arrived in his own “future” on a strange planet no one knew of, and where he came to learn that the concept of a continuum in life was artificial and irrelevant. Time just is, and what was and what will be . . . have always been . . . and will always continue to be. In this strange place he gained insight, and found contentment and peace. And 26 years ago, Paul arrived in a far away place where he too found his level of contentment and peace. And so it goes.
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