We stood in a long line at the banquet for the academic symposium Life, the Universe, and Everything. Howard Tayler, Sandra Tayler, Jerry Pournelle, and myself. We were all sitting at the same table, probably with members of the con committee. Suddenly Jerry bellows at the top of his lungs, "Donner, party of 16!" Long pause. Then, "Donner, party of 15!" This was the same symposium where he sat on a panel with Howard about tighter, crunchier writing and after everyone else had introduced themselves, Howard explained that he had to fit all of his dialog into three panels. Jerry bellowed, "Dammit, boy, you're the only qualified to be here, I get paid by the word!"
Jerry Pournelle passed away Friday. He reputedly returned from DragonCon under the weather and whatever caused it, the sickness claimed him quickly. I've often felt like con crud was going to kill me. I don't find that joke funny any longer.
Jerry came across bigger than life. He held the distinction, as far as we can tell, of being the first person to write a novel on a computer. He played every line for the balconies. If you've ever seen the play, Aspects of Love, the eulogy from that show best sums up Jerry, for he had a thirst and lust for living. The man was too big to be contained by something as fragile as a physical form. As ephemeral as simple humanity. Jerry burned like the stars his novels explored. Timeless. Unstoppable. Unquenchable. Did you know that nuclear fusion is actually the cooling, mitigating factor of a star? Without fusion to keep the gravitic heating of a star to a mere ceiling of 200,000,000 degrees, it would continue heating to theoretical infinity. Imagine Jerry without that limiter.
I've always imagined that limiter was his wife, Roberta. Roberta is one of the sweetest, gentlest human beings I've ever met. I didn't meet Jerry at LTUE. I met him a couple years before, at Writers of the Future. During the barbeque, Jerry sat at the table with the other judges. It was an opportunity for the pros to catch up with one another. Roberta, on the other hand, found the shyest contest winner at the banquet, the person who simply would not approach one of the pros under any circumstances, cornered them and made them talk about their work for 15 minutes. Then she found the next shyest winner and cornered them. She did that the entire time. I'm not the shyest anything, so I just sort of orbited and observed, but at that moment, I decided that while I acted, innately, almost exactly like Jerry, I wanted to grow up to be just like Roberta. I've strived to be more like her at every convention since.
I talk about Roberta because I've lost a lot of people in my life. I know that when people die, we talk about the late person, and we seem to think that the tragedy is their loss. And it is, but that is an inherently selfish way of thinking. Losing Jerry hurts because I've lost Jerry. He won't be in my life anymore. I won't see him at conventions. I won't read any more of his books. I won't hear him on This Week in Tech. But that's really all about me.
The real tragedy is the effect on his family. I don't think I've met his son, but I've met Roberta. I actually don't know her current status, and I can't find a reference to her more current than ten years old. But in my mind, she's the avatar of all the people who grieve for the loss of this man. He's passed from their lives and he's left a loud, large, and boisterous hole in his passing. It will not heal cleanly. It will not be filled easily. It will never quite feel right ever again. They might feel okay again, but they will never feel the same.
But somewhere, bar con is just starting up, and Jerry is just sitting down, ordering a drink, and waiting for the rest of them to join him.
Can you hear him? "Pournelle, party of 1!"
He's patient. Take your time.