I’m the last man standing. Once three of us stood for the picture taken nearly forty years ago. We’re looking out on a lake in the Missouri Ozarks, three butts to the camera. Me and two high school buddies on our last adventure together.
Bill – the guy with the orange towel covering his head’s blistering sunburn – is dead. Danny – the one in the center who already looks a bit chubby – died last week.
The three of us had driven to the Ozarks from Michigan where we had gone to school together. We camped and water-skied every day for a week. We dove off reservoir cliffs and once found a water moccasin curled on a sunny ledge. I learned to drink beer. Until then I couldn’t stand the taste, don’t ask me why. It was my social handicap: You don’t drink beer? – always delivered in an incredulous tone – was a conversation killer. I sat on the beach and after the first couple they started tasting pretty good. “I’m proud of you, Schmidt,” said Bill.
The reception for his funeral was at his mother’s house, a tiny box on the corner of two gravel streets in Burton Township, an auto-worker suburb of Flint. Bill was the class clown – cynical but funny. He wrote in my Senior yearbook:
We had fun in this crummy hole, never forget it. I know you will be a big success in life, maybe.
I think he was trying to get out of that crummy hole when he died in Los Angeles. I never heard the full story but Danny said he was murdered by one of LA’s infamous Freeway Killers.
At the reception Bill’s mother showed me some poetry he had written. Who knew? I wish I had a copy; I just remember it was beautiful writing. I urged her to find a way to get it published but I’m sure nothing came of it. She probably thought I was drunk, which was entirely possible thanks to Bill and our Ozarks jaunt.
Danny had the boat and car. He always had the best toys. In high school he started working as an electrician in the auto shops during that hey-day of Michigan’s car building ephemera when Flint was known as “Buick Town.” He worked long hours, made lots of money and lived alone in a mobile home. So he always could buy nice cars, boats and motorcycles.
I lost track of Danny a dozen or so years later. I tried to find him but that was before the Internet and I gave up. I did find an article in a Muskegon newspaper reporting that a “Daniel Lentz” had been killed in a motorcycle accident near Lake Michigan. Danny never called himself “Daniel” but I went a long time wondering if he was dead or alive.
Last year I finally tracked him down using the Internet. We traded emails every few weeks. He sent me pictures of his home set in the wooded hills, pastures and farmlands of central Tennessee on the Kettle Bend of the Duck River where he had moved twenty years ago. He called himself the “hermit on the hill.” He had undergone a quadruple bypass, given up drinking and smoking and been retired for nine years. “I found that being retired is what I was born for. I am really good at doing non-productive things,” he wrote me.
Danny’s gloomy streak that I remembered had darkened. He complained of “clogged arteries, arthritis, worn out joints and just being lazy.” He intended to rid himself of his “stuff,” buy a camper and travel for a few years. “I wanna chase nice weather for a while and then I will be ready for an old people’s apartment. Then I will start smoking again and that will finish me off.”
I felt sad for him and invited him to visit me in Oregon “before you check out for good.” A few months ago I tried again but he was in the middle of putting his property up for auction so couldn’t come. He promised to visit next summer.
I guess Danny found that faded Ozarks picture when he was cleaning out his things. He sent me a copy a month before he died.
I don’t really know what happened. Probably a heart attack. I thought it odd that I hadn’t heard from him since the date of his auction in mid-November. Sunday after Thanksgiving I emailed him a New Yorker cartoon that reminded me of his goal of winnowing his stuff. Two people are standing in an empty house. A bare bulb hangs from the living room ceiling, a shiny brick on the floor. One guy says: “I’ve simplified my life by converting all my possessions into one gold brick.”
A few hours later I got a message in Facebook titled “Hi, from Danny.” But it wasn’t from Danny. It was from his sister, Trudy, who was using his Facebook account to notify people that Danny had died two days earlier. No details, nor was the online obituary much help. It just said he had “passed away at the Maury Regional Medical Center in Columbia, TN.”
One by one, that seems to be how we lose our friends. Some get snatched for no apparent reason. Others check out with a chart full of bad habits. After a while you have to ask yourself: Why me? How did I survive all the accidents, booze, close calls, drugs, … zealotries. You could fill an alphabet's list with all you’ve dodged. Why me? Was it healthy living? Good genes? Luck?
Maybe it was God. I’ve always had people who said they were praying for me. Although that’s not something I do for myself, it couldn’t hurt. Good vibes can never hurt.
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