I just got an email from my first wife, “I guess you know Hodge died.”

Twenty-some years ago, I was sharing a Chevas and water with my father-in-law and he was going pn about about the CEO of his company being the smartest man he’d ever known. For some reason, I’m not sure why, I replied, “Well you know, of the five smartest men I ever knew, three never went to college (which was true) and one is illiterate.”

You’d have thought I swatted him across the nose with a two-by-four, but all I wanted to say, in a roundabout way, was that I was a better at judging horse flesh than he was.

About that illiterate, his name was Hodge. That’s all I’ll say just in case one of his daughters is looking in. When I first met him he was already retired, an old factory electrician, living in a little one-bedroom on the other side of the tracks. He had two children, daughters with Bryn Mawr-like educations that he was so proud of, but who never came to visit, but who always called.

I can’t say why he liked me, he just did. I’ve always been lucky that way.

Someone had suggested him to me for handyman electrical and plumbing work, and all he asked was that I pay cash. No paper trail. I only paid him that first time. After that he brought tomatoes, and squash, and zucchini, and beans. Then I went over to his house to help him weed his garden, which took up the entire back yard. And then it became a family affair, for even my wife found those evenings of sitting on his back stoop drinking tea while we gathered produce to be a peaceful reminder of another time and her own childhood with her grandmother in Tennessee.

But Hodge was a horn dog. Art in Alaska recently mentioned Justice Douglas’ (of Roe v Wade fame) ability to woo young girls. Hodge was in his early 70’s, white haired, couldn’t read a lick and as direct as a census taker, especially if he saw something about a woman’s architecture he admired. He was dating three girls in their 20’s and early 30’s. He said it was because he was “swung heavy”.

After my dad died, my mother came to visit for a few weeks, and it was her habit to sit in the kitchen and sew, while talking to her own mother, who died in 1965. Hodge was there one day, working on the furnace, then, after he’d gone, I walked in and asked Mom if she’d met Hodge. She looked up and said, “That heathen.” That kind of direct.

On his birthday, in 1988 I think, I took Hodge back to east Kentucky and the town of his birth. He never quit thanking me for that. It was a ghost town by then, but on the road he told me how he’d joined up with the CCC in the 1930’s where they’d trained him to be an electrician, which he was the rest of his days. But he could do much more. He knew when the moon was right to plant. He knew what the trout really wanted, and how to chum a creek (which is how I gave Bernie his name), and for a broken man, he could walk five miles without breaking a sweat, all at an easy gait, which i swear, I’d call a mosey.

Sometimes I would go to his house and make out his bills, you know, do the checks. He would sign each check, but with the torturous scribble of a second grader. Once, I walked in as he was watching Jimmy Swaggert. He said, “You got to hear this preacher.” I said, “Why do like him, Hodge?” “He preaches from the Bible.” “But, Hodge, you can’t read a lick. How do you know?” “I just know. He sounds like it.”

So, why do I like this old fellow? Hodge taught me humility.

I can’t remember the visit, there were so many, but I asked Hodge, “Why won’t you let pay you? You spend so much time over here, fixing things.” He looked up, and said, “I feel sorry for you. Neither one of you don’t know nothing about nothing.”

How can you not love a man like that?