2009 Favorites: Life, Death and College Revisited

(This week we’re posting some faves from the last 12 months. This was published in The Oregonian in June, a recounting of a long weekend in central Oregon with my surviving college housemates)

The last time the four of us were together there were five of us.

That was more than 20 years ago. Charlie was an oarsman from Colorado, Mike had played football at the same Seattle high school I’d come from, Dusty was a theater major from Oakland, and Todd, out of suburban Los Gatos, Calif., edited the school newspaper. We were a varied bunch, but for a few years in the mid-’80s we all orbited around one dumpy prefab house on Southwest Terwilliger Boulevard.

We ate in the kitchen, drank beer and watched “Hill Street Blues” in the living room, and cranked Little Feat loud enough to be heard down the block. None of that had happened before, not to us, anyway. And now that it was, you couldn’t imagine wanting it to change.

It did anyway. Graduate school and first jobs. Serious girlfriends and wives. New jobs in new cities. Then wives and kids. Divorce, new girlfriends and new wives. Friendship and estrangement; life and, inevitably, death.

We drifted in and out of touch, then suddenly a couple of decades had passed and we decided to get together. It took months to plan –the requirements of work, kids, wives –but then it happened. Todd flew in from Michigan. He and I drove out to Hood River to pick up Mike, and we loaded the bikes onto his car and drove to Black Butte in central Oregon. Dusty drove up from Lake Tahoe and then we were at the same table, drinking beer and laughing like no time had passed and nothing had ever changed.

This is what people do. You keep these magical thoughts in your head, this belief that somewhere in the world your own past continues to exist; that it’s just a matter of being in the right place, surrounded by the right faces. And then everything else will fade away and the younger you will re-emerge, smiling, to take his place in the sunlight.

So this is how we planned it. Four of us alone together in central Oregon, with the sun-baked wilderness at our feet; with grown-up responsibilities out of  sight and nothing but the clear sky looming above us.

Hours in the morning to drink coffee, old stories to retell, memories that hadn’t been dislodged since they weren’t even memories, as much as stuff that had just happened.

After a while we put on our boots and hiked to the top of Black Butte, talking about the sunny autumn of 1983, when we loaded up our books and records and set our collegiate minds to playing house. It was all fun and games then: the first boozy trip to the grocery store, when Charlie hurled the spice jars high into the air from 100 feet away, daring me to let one crash to the floor; the family-style dinners; the wild midnight basketball games at the school across the street.

Up on top of Black Butte that morning we were those guys again. Later, we had beers with lunch, then drifted off to the pool to lounge in the golden light of an unseasonably hot afternoon.

It was all perfect, except for the empty chair where Charlie might have been. Except that he died of cancer in 2003. And he’d kept himself distant for much of the 15 years before then, anyway.

(grab a beer and hit the Read More button to, you know, read more…)

When the light faded we drove off to Sisters to get dinner, and this was where the world started to intrude. Waiting for a table near the bar of a pub, we had to fend off an aggressive tout trying to hit us up to pay an unposted cover charge for a band we had no intention of listening to; then another customer swooped in on the just-vacated table the waitress had told us to wait for. “Oh, you’ve been waiting,” he snarled, his eyes hard and his chest, if not his fists, thrust out.

It was a small cloud, but somehow the world seemed chillier than it had before. Now it was easier to remember the raised voices and slammed doors; the icy floors in wintertime and the bitter feuds that always seemed to coincide with the approach of finals.

Twenty-five years later we could keep most of that out of our minds. We rode our bikes. We traded family pictures and caught up on career moves and tales of ex-spouses and their new spouses. Then cell phones started ringing. One of my kids had a slight concussion; Dusty’s wife was facing an even more unsettling health crisis. Then our time together was dwindling, and we hadn’t talked about Charlie yet.

He’d been the first to leave. The first to settle down with a girlfriend and the first to dedicate himself to a career. He was the first to get seriously ill and then the first to die. Which was all the more difficult to internalize, given that he’d stopped returning our calls a decade earlier. Not because there had been a feud or hard feelings. Charlie had turned the page, and he wasn’t the sort of guy who would, or could, look back.

We didn’t talk about any of that. We did talk about how young we looked; how lucky we were, because time had more or less kept its mitts off of us, and who could say when that was going to change?

Then the man eating breakfast just across from us slumped to the floor. It happened that suddenly. One minute the 60-ish guy in the camouflage trucker’s cap and checked button-up shirt was eating his eggs like the rest of us. Then he was on the floor, not breathing.

Someone started CPR. The waitress dialed 9-1-1. I pushed a table out of the way and stood back, feeling helpless as the minutes crept by. Finally, a siren wailed closer, and an ambulance discharged three paramedics, who hooked the man up to machines, then rolled him onto a board and hefted him quickly onto the gurney. Then they skidded off. We paid our bill and walked out into the high desert sunshine.

The mountains were still sparkling in the distance. We still had another day to spend together. We still didn’t talk about Charlie, but now we didn’t have to. We knew we’d be catching up with him soon enough.

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