2017 Sucked the Big Boner of Untimely Death
Death is never timely I like to think. 2017 kicked our family square in the nuts with the passing of two of our peers who were not only close friends but younger than my wife and me. Part of this is a cautionary tale and part is for a general reminder that you can recover from a lot of hardship whether it’s your fault or not but there’s no coming back once you meet the reaper.
I met the Commander when we were both temporary employees at a big chemical Research and Development Site in the early 1990’s. I had long curly hair down to the middle of my back and he looked a little like El Diablo and it’s a small wonder they hired either one of us, but he was a least a qualified chemist from a good program and a little graduate school too. I was just a technician on the 10 year plan to a bachelor’s degree, poon tangin’ around looking for some interesting trouble. We kept a healthy distance in the first few months as something told us both that the economy was just coming back out of the hopper and
we kinda needed these jobs and to get hired full time. Eventually we ended up after work for a beer or two and then a bunch of us were going to meet up at Sandy’s Clam Bar on the Street of Dreams. I had a couple of roommates at the time, Owlie and LareMo. Owlie and I got to the Clam Bar first and I gave him a description of The Commander something like this: “He’s real skinny and wears a leather biker jacket and looks like Satan with wire rimmed glasses.” 10 minutes later circling the big bar Owlie spotted him and took a closer look, getting in response “What the hell are you looking at? Moron.”
“Hey, you must be the Commander, glad to meet you” and a friendship was born. We were collectively a thick skinned bunch, to say the least, and none of us were prone to taking a lot of shit.
The job at that time really was a lot of fun. We weren’t getting rich but the place was family owned and being a research facility was a little loose. We both got hired full time within the year and did our share of productive work, which allowed our bosses to overlook the Monday and Friday absenteeism and general disregard for the sweater vest crowd that used to rule that type of place. I remember my good friend showing up to the monthly research meeting in an old Dewar’s Scotch shirt with the sleeves cut off. All was OK so long as you were turning out good results. We did a lot of socializing with the work peers in and out of our age group, and even some of the executives and owners. Commander and I had a great many things in common including the love of good wine, bloody red steaks, horse racing (Saratoga Race Course was right down the road), and punk rock. Hell, he even used to have one of the secretaries page me out of boring meeting in order to go to the OTB for a wager and a Reuben. Like I said, for not paying top dollar, at least the job was low impact and allowed for enjoyment of life. It was irreverent riot.
That’s the address in a student ghetto of a rich blue blood liberal arts college (my alma mater) where I lived with Owlie, LareMo, and later Red the Apostle. Even though it was a dump it was only about 150 bucks each a month and you could hardly wreck it. We had a couple of married couples we were friends with in the neighborhood and everybody was around mid 20’s and trying to figure life out. I think the core group of friends was 10-12 people and we had a blast for very little money for about 3 strong years as girlfriends came and went and everybody who met the Commander liked and trusted him. The whole bunch were friends with him until the end. Now, before you go thinking “so what, a bunch of degenerates had some good times together?” you should know that this is a pretty respectable bunch. There were a couple of schoolteachers, an accountant, a rocket scientist, and other professionals in the bunch. The group busted up after awhile but stayed in the area and stayed extremely close. We were at each others wedding and knew each others families like a bunch of brothers and sisters. Plus, we still worked together for 5 years until I got the wanderlust and quit the job and moved to New Orleans. Commander even came down and got married down there.
A Series of Events
As I was adventuring for a couple of years in the Big Easy, The Commander continued to progress in his career, becoming a Senior Chemist with a wife, a dog, a bunch of high quality stuff and a nice little house down by a river an an old city neighborhood. There is a certain “black magic” element to the stuff he was working on but he also knew the chemistry of it better than just about anyone. This dude would spend his spare time reading old textbooks, for chrissakes. Well, the company sent him to France, China, and Brazil, among other places in order to teach those plants how to make this great stuff. He was well rewarded but things were slowly changing.
Friends started moving away. They ended up in small cities or needed better school districts for young kids or just moved on. It happened slowly and you could hardly notice it. Hell, I went back to Upstate, NY after New Orleans for a couple of years but left for Buffalo in 2002. I think it gets tough without the social circle you were used to.
His house down by the riverfront flooded. The place wasn’t destroyed or anything but water up to the middle of your living room wall will do a number on all the leather furniture and antiques. Being a stubborn fucker, The Commander duked it out with the bank over whether or not he was qualified to make the repairs himself and tilted at that windmill for some time instead of just finding a contractor who the insurance company could pay to fix the place. This was driving Mrs. Commander nuts as she was sick of living in a half assed fixed place. This coincided with her cleaning up her rock and roll lifestyle while Commander just kept matriculating the way things always were. This led to divorce.
Uncle John died. Uncle John was quite a bit older than us but we loved seeing him at the track the once a year when we could go (it’s 4.5 hours away). He was a good humor man and Commander loved the guy and they had a lot in common. When John died of cancer it was like he lost his best friend. The dog had died a few years previous so now my pal was all alone drinking red wine in a neighborhood with no real social scene. He was going to work and doing the usual quality work but we started to notice how sloppy he was getting when we would meet up. The was a DUI thrown in there so now we have real isolation, and not much purpose for a guy with little tolerance for a brutally mundane life and the booze slope got a little more slippery. I don’t have much doubt this is what led to his dismissal from work where he had accumulated 20 years of good will. I’m told he was offered rehab and told HR to go fuck themselves and that was that.
He came to visit us in Buffalo for a long weekend in winter 2016. He had a great time with our dog Banjo!, as always. It was brutally cold but we all eked out a good time coinciding with a Mrs. Smidlap Art Show Opening. I asked him at one point in the weekend if he was thinking of trying to cool down on the vino and he said “I should probably consider that.” I didn’t talk to the Commander after that. I drove him to the train station and he had plenty of money from a pension buyout. I guess I just assumed he was looking for a new job and was set to get his driver’s license back. I emailed about getting together that summer but didn’t get a reply until our visit was over. The following Spring we got a call that he was dead. Our good friend never called to say he was sick or say goodbye, he was just deceased. Nobody was very surprised but it lingers for me.
What I Think
The two of us were pretty similar characters and many of us are a few bad breaks (some of them self inflicted) from a huge change of life. Once you’re dead there is no recovery. So while I’m still planning my Roth IRA conversions and all the future will hold long and short-term, I keep The Commander in the back of my mind now. This was not some accident or a tragic cancer. This was a peer and best man at my wedding dead at age 48. If you looked on paper, he did everything right. He saved, worked hard and smart. He had a big heart for the underdogs in life and a large sense of humor. I’m sure he had plans.
So, it’s been almost a year since my good friend’s passing. If it hasn’t happened to you I can tell you I’m a little less nervous about the plans coming together perfectly. I can tell you losing a peer sticks with you in unexpected ways, but not necessarily thoughts of regret. For me it makes me look at my own actions against a backdrop of his life. Thank goodness for a good home life as the soul crushing boredom demons can get ‘hold of you they don’t like to let go.