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Tucson Weekly Rainer Ptacek

Nice guys always finish first in the hearts of their friends and relatives.

By Jeff Smith

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  LEO DUROCHER WAS right about a lot of things--proposing to Irene Dunne, intentionally walking Berra in order to pitch to Ford in the sixth game of the '54 World Series, personal and professional things of that ilk-- but he was wrong about the one thing for which he is best-remembered: "Nice guys finish last."

Leo Durocher never met Rainer Ptácek.

Rainer finished on the 12th of November at the age of 46, way ahead of Donald Trump, Saddam Hussein, The Rev. Al Sharpton and a bunch of other peckerheads who, if Durocher had been right on that call, should have crossed the plate long before a guy like Rainer ever was called home. I don't mean to damn him with what by today's cynical standards passes for faint praise, but Rainer Ptácek was a nice guy.

Of course being nice is not in an of itself sufficient to draw the kind of crowd that packed San Pedro Chapel for Rainer's memorial service last Monday a week: Rainer also happened to be one of the best blues guitarists on the planet, a pretty good singer and songwriter, an ironic humorist with enough twinkle in his eye and warp in his brain to clue you that he wasn't always nice, an ace barbecue fire-builder, and a damn near perfect husband and father. For the wife and kids he had. Ivana Trump and Tori Spelling might beg to differ, but who in his right mind would want to be related to either of them?

I didn't know Rainer for all that lengthy a stretch--just about five or six years--but it was my good fortune to see him at the height of good health, the depths of terminal illness, and the renaissance of remission that gave him nearly two years of a farewell tour and enabled him to see his baby daughter work her legs and run her mouth, and welcome a granddaughter into this world a week before he died. And give and get more love, kindness and consideration than most of us might transact if we outlived Methuselah.

On Groundhog's Day of '96, while Rainer was riding his bike to work at the Chicago Store, his brain faded out and he fell over. He wound up at the University Medical Center where they scanned him and imaged him and concluded that Rainer Ptácek had brain cancer. They said it appeared like a cloud throughout his head--no neat, angry little lump of malignancy that could be excised and let the man live in peace. So Rainer had to commence the exhausting ordeal of radiation and chemo treatments. Truth be known, it's probably easier to go belly up than to gut it out while they poke sharp things in you and pump you full of toxic juice and radiation.

But Rainer took it like a man, a man on a mission. For one thing, he wanted to see his daughter Lily grow from lump of clay to the lady of her own mind that she so clearly has become. For another, he realized that he had not been, how you say, providential? Cash-wise. Blues guitarists are not the best customers for life insurance, 401K plans, even real estate, and Rainer and Patty (Keating--wife, mom, and as Rainer wonderingly told me one night at Rosa's over tacos, "So much woman, you can only stand back and let her be.") had been pouring money down the same rent-hole for 20 years, and had basically dick in savings.

So while the friends of Rainer Ptácek incorporated into The Friends of Rainer Ptacek, for purposes of fund-raising, Rainer got himself up and about again, grew his hair back and cut an album with Emmylou Harris, Howe Gelb, Robert Plant and a lot of other musicians who owe Rainer for many of their hot licks. It made enough of a nut to buy the house they lived in, and keep the family from having to sleep in the car. And those 21 months Rainer chiseled out of time gave him a rare opportunity to appreciate what living is about.

Corny at it sounds, Rainer took time--precious as those last finite moments became--to smell a lot of roses, at least one Lily (and babies have their own sweet scent that's every bit as wonderful as puppies), red chili and his mother-in-law's chicken tacos...just a lot of good stuff you'd make mental note of, one last time, if you knew your time was about up.

Which Rainer knew. And the knowledge didn't make him bitter or angry, frightened or sad. Not so you'd notice. Sure he'd have his dark hours of desolation--he was a man, a nice guy, not a saint--but he was given the chance to learn what mortality and immortality mean, and he apprehended these truths and was grateful. No joke. I've seen people meet death with grace and resignation, but usually at the tag-end of a long span of years, when time and mileage confer a sort of peace.

Rainer left early, with the wisdom and the will to wrestle a good deal more out of this life. Had he only the time. But he didn't. Hey, nobody gets out alive, and damn few get the chance to say a proper "adios."

Rainer left with a smile and he left a lot of smiling faces behind.

Now with Rainer gone, and Frank Johnson before him, could we take a break from all this mortality for a while? It's been a bad week for the good guys.

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