A good friend died suddenly last week. Yeah, the Knox County Airport flag is at half-staff, and the newspaper reporters are calling around, and important people are making public statements, and the internet around here shows more airplane videos than cats these days. If you read the papers you don’t need me to tell you about how Kevin Waters, owner of Penobscot Island Air, did so much to make island life safer and happier. Heroic reminiscences of Kevin are rapidly approaching folklore and it’s starting to sound a bit over the top. Thing is, it’s true. 

The positivity was unbelievable; the jargon was unremitting, and sometimes indecipherable. A large dictionary could be assembled, the Complete Lexicon of Kevinisms. “Sweatless!” “Hey, hi-speed!” “God love ya!” Everything was “the mission,” be it a flight over water for the alleviation of human suffering or an air-dropped snowplow part or locating a missing gallon of milk. Everybody was Honey or Chief or Kid or something familiar. Well, almost everybody; professional bureaucrats might not always be Honey. I was Tarzan a couple of times. Anybody lucky enough to know him could stick their head in the door and get a dipper full of the the quirky blessing of Kevin’s optimism. I’d stop by his office at the airport feeling like the Village Idiot and come out feeling like the Right Stuff. 

The thing is, he could pull this off even when he was in no mood. On Kevin’s worst days, when hearts were broken or aviation was rough business or summer was just too exhausting for words, and most people would have no choice but to focus on their own problems, Kevin would still ask somebody else, “You doing OK?”  

It cannot be that Kevin was born just to make sure our dumb ol’ UPS boxes get delivered. It may be that he was here to make sure we got through the day. His words, mumbled quietly: “It’s about looking out for the other guy.”

Of course, the thing about having friends is that’s who you vent at, and vent at me he did. Frankly, I feel good that I could help by listening once in a while, because people like Kevin hardly ever need anything from anybody —or they let the rest of us poor slobs think that. I’d call Kevin to ask some random question and half an hour later I’ve been schooled on the complexities of the FAA paperwork, little of which I might have comprehended, or about how some type-A, starched-collar type on another island rings Kevin’s personal phone number at 10 o’clock at night, giving rise to the logical assumption that a medical emergency is developing, that a dispatcher should be rousted out of his bunk and put to work standing by the radio, an airplane readied for an emergency night flight, and an ambulance called to the airport — when in fact the late-night message is only, “Where the blazes is my FedEx package?” 

Over the last few days a couple of quick posts on the Matinicus Facebook page, that backyard gossip fence of the ether, really nailed it. One islander offered the simple phrase, “I hear a plane.” Just those words; they are enough. When we are sick or injured that phrase promises relief, and the reassurance that soon we would feel better. After days of fog, those words mean that at last the groceries, the mail, some much-needed repair part is almost here. Last week, after a day of needed company stand-down following Kevin’s sudden passing, on the second morning we heard the sound of the mail plane once again. Kevin’s air service pilots were still coming out here, still crossing the bay to bring us all those cardboard boxes filled with civilization. 

There was the brief note of a summer renter from last year who was flown off with an acute appendix. Responding to mention of Penobscot Island Air online, he offered simply, “They saved my life.” 

Then, there was the suggestion that we keep three words close to our hearts: “Be like Kevin.”  

That one’s going to be around for a while. To “be like Kevin” means to ask, “You doing OK?”

The other day something brought to mind our island Christmas party on the longest night of the year, and Kevin with a troop of pilots and freight handlers and mechanics and family members enjoying our silly outpost and a festive dinner. Before they all flew off this island in a well-organized solstice night convoy, Kevin made a heads-up call to Portland so that air traffic control didn’t see an inexplicable half-dozen small planes suddenly springing from the mid-ocean blackness on the edge of the radar, approaching Rockland in close formation several hours after suppertime, and conclude that we must be suddenly at war with Nova Scotia.