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I don’t want to be disagreeable. I may be feeling this way, as if I’m on track toward irascibility, given that I just passed a birthday. This psychic depression, graying the world, may just be a temporary thing, a phase, a moment in time. Once I’ve passed all the birthday garbage, I’ll be fit to live in the real world–it was my 74th.
But I doubt it. It’s more than birthday blues.
I just lost a roommate. I may have lost others I don’t know about, but this one was a relative and friend, my mother’s first cousin. An entire generation separated the two of them; he was far closer to my age than hers.
In his youth he was a star athlete, a talented hurdler who once, entirely on his own, just about won the state track meet, having taken first place in the highs and lows. Oostburg High School lost that the title by a half point.
He got me my first real job when he let me know the state park down by the lake needed help, the park where he’d worked the previous summer. It was a great job, even though it meant cleaning more pit toilets than any human being should in a lifetime. At Terre Andrea State Park we rarely did the same thing two days in a row. The whole gang of workers were almost always outside, on the beach or close. Raking up schools of dead ale-wives every other morning was not greatly satisfying, but the job itself always was. Everything was outdoors on the lakeshore.
“Food tastes better outside,” the boss used to say when we ate lunch at the picnic table by the shed. He was a Korean War vet with a big, jovial personality, a man who rarely got angry and loved to stay around after work for a cold beer drawn from the ancient refrigerator in the office basement, generally full of confiscated Blue Ribbon or Schlitz or Kingsburys, bounty we collected from under-agers hamming it up in the park.
This friend of mine who passed away–he didn’t really join in that festive hour after work. It wasn’t his thing to slug down a cold beer or two before going home. It hadn’t been mine either before I took that job, but I didn’t stay away from the fridge in the basement and learned, thereby, to be a little less Dutch Reformed.
He asked me if I’d like to room with him when he returned and I went to college. He was a junior; I was a freshman. I was leaving a girlfriend, he was taking his with. If the two of them weren’t yet engaged, they were certainly on that flowery path. We slept in the same dorm room, but weren’t in the same classes, nor did we find the same table in the commons. He attended chapel religiously. I did what I could to steal away.
I smoked a little, but then most everybody did. He didn’t. Wouldn’t. I remember hiding my Kents, kind of, in my desk drawer; but he wasn’t my mother and never tried to be, only got testy about my conduct once, when an elaborate prank got out of hand and just about sent an innocent kid into shock. “Now you’ve gone too far,” he said from his upper bunk, a bit angrily.
Those words suggested an assessment that may well have been growing throughout the year. I don’t remember him otherwise trying to discipline his trying roomie, but he must have thought about it–“Now you’ve gone too far” has an edge that’s a little worn.
He loved science. I was beginning a lifelong affair with literature and art. He was driven. I was a wanderer. He knew where life’s journey would take him. With every passing week, I was less sure about what I’d been told was Truth. It was the 1960s; I grew increasingly anti-war on a campus where Nixon was beloved. He was consumed by his studies, his lab work, his girlfriend. To this day, I don’t know how he escaped the draft.
For years, I’d seen him when my wife and I visited the town I still call home. Sometime after graduation, he moved back. I didn’t. I’d see him in church–them, his wife and their family. He grew into a devoted environmentalist, turned his own backyard property into a haven, a sanctuary, a woodland retreat. For many years he taught in the local Christian school and led discussions outside the classroom. He was a believer, sometimes a true believer.
He became deeply committed about the evils of evolution, touted, in fact, a six-day creation, wrote letters and articles criticizing those followers of Jesus not as so moved. He came to the college where I taught (and we’d attended) to quiz profs who would be his kids’ teachers because he wanted to know where they stood on Darwin. He was orthodox.
It was not difficult for me to assume, later in our lives, that he saw me as someone who didn’t live by the tenets of his strenuous orthodoxy. But we always spoke kindly to each other, just as we had while cleaning toilets and picking up alewifes years before. We were always friends and relatives. He and his wife and family were kind and generous with their hospitality.
Lost him, and not long ago either.
As a boy, he’d lived out in the country, closer to the lake than I did. When I was old enough to pedal my bike down to the beach, by chance we used to meet there, a mile south of “straight down,” near the Boat Club, not far from where my mother sometimes picked up fish when I was a little shaver.
When fishing shut down, the beach turned playground. Only a few of the homes that now line the place were there, so on gorgeous summer days we’d have most of that wild world to ourselves, no signs chasing us off the property.
I don’t know that it happened often, but once when my friends and I happened to be there, as he was, we found a fairly hefty piece of driftwood lined with protruding nails. It was one of those few days when Lake Michigan happened to be just warm enough to get in–there weren’t many. It was perfect weather to be down there, a long ways from the pointed steeple of the church we both attended in town.
I don’t know whose idea it was, but I’m tempted to say it was his because, at that time at least, I lived in his shadow–he was two years farther along the road to becoming a man. He sprouted hair where could I only dream of. I was pudgy; he already had the firmness he never lost. It wouldn’t have been my idea to lug that log out into the water the way we did, then strip down to nothing at all and tie the strings of our suits to that water-logged barge. Skinny dip?–sure. But use that driftwood to hang our suits–that was his idea. He was the acknowledged leader. Besides, that he did it made the whole naked business just fine.
The nails on that driftwood meant we could skinny dip all afternoon without having to leave our suits on shore or worry about flashing people getting in and out; and it was grand, as skinny dipping always is. It was a moment in time, maybe four or five boys suddenly and warmly conscious of a joyful sexuality we were only beginning to experience and nowhere near understanding.
His death reminded me of so much that had been conjoined in our lives and so much of what was not. We worked together, lived together, worshipped together, sang together, played ball together, and sometimes, down by the beach, played together. But on some things and in some ways, we were miles and miles apart.
We were friends, just friends, and the world I live in is no longer quite the same with him gone. We weren’t buddies, save for a day or two on Lake Michigan, somewhere around the Boat Club, when we spent most of the afternoon in breaking surf, our swimsuits tied securely to a raft that floated beside us. Just kids. Just boys.
Makes me smile, that memory does, and that’s a good thing, this week especially.
We skipped the Ash Wednesday service, didn’t get to town so we didn’t get marked with that ashen cross. I just didn’t feel as if I needed reminding of all that dust, you know? Just sort of seemed redundant, I guess. Hope that’s okay.