2011-09-15 / 15 Minutes

O death, where is thy sting?

Special to Florida Weekly

Bernie Reading died a week ago Saturday. He was surrounded by his loving wife, Phyllis; her sister, his friends, his stepson, his protégé; and a saintly woman from Tidewell Hospice. He died at his Englewood home, in a hospital bed set up just inside the lanai.

Dave Hendrickson, Mr. Reading’s protégé, was standing near the foot of the bed when he felt his knee pop. It was as if Mr. Reading, who wasn’t above a quick wallop to gain an apprentice’s attention, had delivered a final love tap. The pain made Mr. Hendrickson look up and view something only he was meant to see.

As he described it, a sheet of glittering colors seemed to be pulled up from Mr. Reading’s feet toward his head. Mr. Hendrickson, the world forgotten, watched as Mr. Reading’s soul was slowly wound up by what appeared to be a spectral being. Mr. Hendrickson stood frozen. The Tidewell woman rose, came over, and pronounced Mr. Reading dead.

Bernie Reading Bernie Reading “I knew there was some sort of disturbance,” she explained later.

After the miracle had dissipated, Mr. Hendrickson retired to the porch, along with Mr. Reading’s stepson Doug Dombrowski and another visitor. They recalled the man who taught them much.

Mr. Hendrickson recalled the day Mr. Reading, a sign painter, sent him out on a job. When he was finished, he attempted to clean up the oil-based paint with water. Mr. Hendrickson called Mr. Reading, who showed up with the bed of his vehicle lined with plastic bags — as if he knew Mr. Hendrickson would mess up.

Mr. Dombrowksi recalled one day when Mr. Reading asked him to prep a sign. Mr. Reading mixed his paints so that they dried quickly — he was a fast painter. Mr. Dombrowski, just an apprentice, didn’t realize how fast the paint dried until it did, sticking the board to the brush and the brush to Mr. Dombrowski.

“Don’t worry,” Mr. Reading said. “One day you’ll inherit this.” To Mr. Dombrowski, that was more of a threat than a promise.

Small stories, but only an iceberg’s tip of what Mr. Reading meant to many. He came to Florida when he was 6 years old. His stepfather, who lost all in the aftermath of the Florida land boom of the 1920s and the ensuing Great Depression, pitched two tents for his family on the Englewood beach. He and Mr. Reading’s mother slept in one tent; Mr. Reading had his own small scrap of canvas.

As a man, Mr. Reading cut a swath. He almost killed himself attempting a motorcycle-in-a-barrel act at a carnival. He became an actor and filmed a movie. He attended Florida Southern College, and he hosted a radio show. He was a wilderness guide — and later, a journalist. Mr. Reading lived life with his eyes wide open, recording his impressions and later publishing his work in a book and various anthologies. He wrote his own eulogy, but the best example of his appreciation of life was contained in a poem which ended with:

“I am saving all the wisdom I’ve ever had and more / to make me glad to ride the rocking horse of course through the goodbye door.”

Late in life, he married Phyllis, a sweet woman, and spent his remaining 10 years with her. She still cries when she remembers her best years, the ones she spent with Bernie Reading.

He reminded her of his spirit the night he died: Mr. Reading’s typewriter began chattering away, manipulated by unseen hands. Mr. Reading had left — but he was still in the house. ¦

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