Death. Now there’s a topic that will always attract attention! Just the word is enough to set the mind to working, sometimes changing the topic and sometimes creating fantasies to explain how we don’t fear death. In the end, however, only a person terribly sick in body or sick in mind ever welcomes death. Or perhaps I’m employing a cheep trick designed to attract readers to my blog by writing of death; a hook to snag the curious fish and pad my ego with the numbers of those who take the bait. Huh, Why didn’t I think of that sooner? No, really, all joking aside. If you feel that I am playing some sort of self-aggrandizoing game I urge you, dear reader, to go elsewhere. I am writing about death because it is something common to all of us and something that I have seen my share of. I sincerely hope that those of you who press on will derive something positive from the activity.
Death is something that is very common; as common as life, and we see life all around us. The streets and buildings of our cities and towns are filled with life, and if you try to reserve a camping space at a state or federal campground on short notice in my Pacific Northwest you will quickly feel like there is way too much of it. We are surrounded by life in our families and friends, as well as in our workplaces. In our yards life explodes as flowers and vegetables and ornamental shrubs and trees, if we are of a mind to cultivate them, and life explodes as weeds if we should chose the opposite. In the mountains and in the countryside and even in the driest of deserts, if you know where and when to look for it, life abounds.
It is very easy for most of us to shut death out of our view as we cruise, totter, stumble, careen and otherwise navigate our way through life. All of us have to deal with death at the end of things however, and just about all of us have to deal with it along the way. A tree you planted might have been killed by beetles; a disappointment. A beloved pet who loved you as you loved it for many years as you grew up begins to piddle on the carpet, struggles to get from its bed to its food bowl, finally quits eating and dies one night on your dinning room floor. Father/Mother in heaven, how much pain, and how much I loved that cat!. One or more of your parents finally runs out their course on this beautiful but broken planet and goes to join their parents who died before them. Yes, it happens to us all, so unless you are better at deceiving yourself than I have been you have tasted the bitter cup of death and know that it is a cup that we all are destined to drink. I hate death, but it is common to us all and therefore deserves to be spoken of. In fact, perhaps it’s sting may be softened if we would speak of it more often and deny it some of its mystery. A devil known is always better than a devil which is not.
But death is a big topic and I do not write of big topics. I am a storyteller and propose to write about three particular deaths and how those people were related to me, and perhaps what impact their death had on me. I had experienced the deaths of pets while a child; the almost obligatory death of goldfish and parakeets which I could not keep alive no matter how I tried, and a couple of cats who’s death by automobile and disease gave me a good deal of heartache. And I saw more than my fair share of death in the war in Vietnam, but in that case we knew it was coming. When people shoot at you and launch things that explode on impact into where you are working/sleeping/hiding, death sometimes happens. Hell, it happens a lot! That’s the point of war! But the thing is that you expect it. Death is not a surprise visitor in the night. Rather, death always has a place set at the table in such situations, and frequently arrives to share an unpleasant meal.
In fact, I did not begin to develop a true sense of the randomness and injustice of death until I returned home from Vietnam. In very short order after my return I learned that three friends who had never left the safety of the United States of America had died while I was away at war. Three people whom I had known for one year, three years, and nearly all my life were gone by the time I turned twenty one. That shook my soul and contributed to some degree to a very nihilistic and pleasure-driven personal philosophy that guided my life for many years. I propose now to write of these three people. Their deaths impacted me in many ways and contributed to my living as if death could take me before the sun rose the next morning, and I must confess that the way that I lived certainly increased that possibility. But that was not my friend’s fault. They were people who lived their short lives and died without the least intent of injuring me. I will therefore write a celebration of their lives, and thereby celebrate the victory that my puny literary endeavor gains over that old worm Death, who has deluded himself into believing that he is the winner in the end.
I met Kathy Hustead at a house that she was sharing with three young women, one of whom was an old friend from my neighborhood. I was on leave for a month between my two tours of duty in Vietnam and Cynthia Orgulson invited me over to drink some beer and smoke a joint or two at her place. I went to that house and the party began, and before the evening had ended I had formed a very interesting bond with Kathy, and a very uninspiring relationship with Olivia, the young woman who had first secured this living space and thought of herself as the alpha female. I usually get along well with people but we did not click at all, and I quickly departed from that house but my connection with Kathy remained intact.
We did a lot of things together for the rest of that month, which was odd if you think about it. Kathy had a boyfriend, and we never elevated our relationship to what you could call romantic. It’s not that I inhabited some lofty. shining tower of platonic indifference; I would have pursued a romantic relationship with Kathy in a heartbeat! I knew that this was not likely to happen but enjoyed her company so much that it didn’t seem to matter. And Kathy sensed the genuine enjoyment that I felt of Kathy for Kathy’s sake, and not for what I could get out of her, and returned my affection in her own way openly and honestly. We both knew that I would go back to war in a dwindling number of days and that my odds of coming home in a box were such that deep attachment was a dangerous thing, so we developed a more superficial attachment that was all the same thick and strong, like the cables on a great suspension bridge, and we swore that we would renew our friendship as soon as I should return to America alive and released from the military. I hoped that Kathy was thinking “Who knows what a year might bring?” I certainly was thinking just that thought.
Three years earlier I met Doug Barnett on the hight school diving team. I had always loved diving off of the boards at swimming pools and had become pretty good at doing flips and ‘corkscrew’ dives and gainers and a host of other maneuvers, mostly at the Navy pool which my veteran father had access to and at the municipal pool near Balboa Park in San Diego. Doug and I were thrown together on the junior varsity team for Hoover High because we both loved diving, and because we both couldn’t quite achieve the gymnastic perfection required to truly compete at a varsity level, so for us junior varsity had to do.
We certainly did know how to have fun though. Our practices included a good deal of goofing off and experimenting with new dives, which often ended up in painful ‘belly flops’, and we loved to climb up on the three meter board, or high board as we called it, and practice wobbly and ill-advised dives from that height. We buckled down as best we could when competition with other teams rolled around, but our skill level was limited and a second or third place was the best that we could ever seem to muster.
When we weren’t competing or practicing, Doug and I were hanging on to the edge of the pool, trying to avoid the cold spring wind that rose up from the canyon below and blew directly at the San Carlos Country club, who generously allowed our very working class school to base its program there. On competition days we had to stand perfectly still on the board, waiting for a judge to blow the whistle that told us it was time to begin our dive. I froze my wet, skinny little cojones off standing in the wind on that board, and frequently didn’t care how well I scored on a dive as long as I could quickly get back into the warm water of the pool. Any other time we would be in the water of not very far removed from it, laughing and talking about our dreams (mostly girls) and the lives that we meant to pursue when we graduated.
Before graduation day came Doug and I made plans to get together when he got back from a trip that he was going to make to see his father in Wisconsin. Doug’s family had been broken up by some trauma that he never shared with me and he struggled to remain involved with both of his parents. The split had been ugly, and so it would require the emancipation that Doug’s eighteenth birthday would provide to enable him to journey the fifteen hundred miles to visit with and strengthen his relationship with his father. Doug swore that he would call me when he returned, and I believe that he probably did so. I was not there when he called however, for I had joined the Army to seek adventures where I might find them before Doug could return.
I knew Jo Herrera for most of my life. I met Jo, or Josefina, in kindergarten and we were friends all through elementary school. Jo’s family was Mexican but her parents were very proud that they had retained their Spanish heritage. Jo invited me to her house to begin learning the Spanish language when we were very young, the first or second grade I think. I didn’t stick with it because tadpoles and playing tag with the other neighborhood boys and other such pursuits eclipsed learning a second language from a girl who was in all ways very average. We liked each other but in the most innocent and prepubescent manner, and by the time I began to develop an interest in girls in the later years of elementary school La Donna and Willie, who were very pretty, had captured my heart, attention, and fantasies. Jo remained a friend, but very much on the margins of my attention.
We went to different junior high schools and so I didn’t see Jo for three years. Then, in 1964, we were reunited at Hoover High School. Time had been very kind to Jo. In those three years Jo blossomed into one of the most beautiful girls that I have seen even to this day. Jo’s was not a painted-on beauty either. She just quietly went through her days giving light to every room and situation into which she walked. In our senior year Jo was elected homecoming queen. I think that the vote was as close to unanimous as one can get at a high school with nearly three thousand students.
A big part of Jo’s beauty was her personality. She really didn’t seem to know that she was beautiful, or if she did know it she didn’t act as if it really meant anything. Jo was often seen hanging out at school with people she had known for years even if they weren’t ‘cool’, didn’t have letters in football, basketball, or track, or didn’t have cars. Jo really was our queen. The popular kids deferred to her for he beauty and accomplishments, and the rest of us loved her for her humanity, and in our wildest dreams thought that she might someday be interested even in one of us. Jo was special, there is no doubt about it.
When I got home from Vietnam I set about making contact with my old friends, and was for the most part successful. My life was rocked however when I went to look for Kathy, Doug and Jo. Kathy married her boyfriend who was a stock car racer. She was sitting in the stands one evening watching a race when one of the drivers lost control of his car, flipped over and over, and landed in the stands right on top of her. Killed her instantly. Doug was involved in a drug deal that went bad and took a knife blade to his neck. He lingered for a while but finally, mercifully, died of the knife stroke that had changed him from a laughing kid on a diving board into an insensate vegetable with decubitus ulcers. Jo developed an aggressive cancer of the ovaries or cervix or something down there and died quickly. None of them saw their twenty first birthday.
I did see my twenty first birthday. Now why the hell is that? I heard bullets whistle over my head (they don’t ‘whang’ or ‘ping’ or any of that Hollywood ricochet bullshit. They make an evil, fluttering whistle sound as they go over your head or past your ear, and you love that sound; it means that you are still alive). I heard rockets explode scant yards away from where I stood, saved from blast and shrapnel by the aluminum walls of buildings, sandbags, and the bodies of other soldiers who stood between me and the point of impact. I saw men drop on the field of battle, or hanging from their harnesses in the door opening of a Huey helicopter, and bodies of enemy soldiers plumping up under the burning Vietnamese sun like roadkill in the middle of a country lane. How, I asked myself, did I come back from that hell to resume my life when these friends had theirs taken from them for no damned good reason at all?
I will not pretend that I pondered these questions deeply. I was far to stoned to do anything like that. I was twenty one and the fact of my survival of the war had in many ways trumped the self-doubt and insecurities that I had felt as a child. As a result I tackled life with an irreverent and egocentric gusto in which I felt wildly empowered to seek gratification of any want that I felt as quickly as I might once I was aware that I felt it. Still, the memory of these three friends and their tragically shortened lives haunted me in brief, unexpected moments of sober reflection.
In later years those memories have come to haunt me even more. Perhaps Twain was right in his short work “The Mysterious Stranger”. Perhaps Kathy and Doug and Jo were spared painful and unloved lives and slow, agonizing and unnoticed deaths by their early exit from the world of the living. Perhaps. Mark Twain was a pretty good writer, and could use his noodle. But I call ‘bullshit’ on that. Death is not natural after all. Death was not a part of the plan. Death is the peculiar province of a certain son of a bitch who is frequently portrayed as having horns and hooves and a pointy tail and, well, you know the picture. Death shouldn’t be. Kathy and Doug and Jo should not have died, and I should not feel guilty that i didn’t. And I no longer feel the least bit guilty about that.
I hope that my three friends have found peace. I don’t believe in a God who takes pleasure in barbecuing His victims so I know that I have a good chance of this hope being true. In any case, I have survived my own folly long enough to finally understand that we are given a time to be on this planet, and if we live long enough to learn some wisdom along the way we should share it with those who come after us in the hope that we might bring some clarity to them, and make their passage through this life a little easier. It is this that I hope I have accomplished by writing this story. If I have failed in that, at least I hope that you have been entertained.