Monday, June 20, 2011

Goodbye to an Old Friend

My oldest and dearest friend suffered a stroke last week. Today, he was declared brain dead.

How do I say farewell to someone who was such an important part of my life for 45 years? Well, as a wordsmith, this is one way.

My friend’s name was John Wilson. We first met my freshman year in college. He was hard to miss. There weren’t many people in the dorm who were 6-foot-6 and played a 12-string.

We later pledged the same fraternity and became roommates. We shared many interests. We were both history buffs, folk music enthusiasts, wargamers and passionate about conservative politics.

We shared everything and had no secrets from one another. We had many adventures, such as the notorious County Highway Z episode when we learned that God does indeed protect drunks and fools — we were both that night. Together, we ran the largest College Young Republicans club in the state. I remember one night the two of us sneaked into the state legislature’s parking garage and slapped Republican bumper stickers on the cars of Democratic lawmakers.

He was a frequent guest at my family’s home. My parents came to regard him as a son, and he loved them in return. We were best men at each other’s weddings and one of his children is named after me.

After college, I went into journalism and he became a lawyer following a stint in the Army. At first, he was a criminal attorney with a public defender’s office. Over and above the poor pay, he was discouraged that most of the people he was defending were as guilty as sin and deserved to be behind bars.

He switched to corporate law, specifically insurance law. In his words, he was defending the oppressed insurance companies from the outrageous demands of greedy widows and orphans. After a while, he switched sides and concentrated on worker’s compensation cases, helping injured workers get financial benefits.

But his heart was never really in the law. In addition to career dissatisfaction, he battled a number of internal demons most of his life. It finally came to a crisis and he dropped out of sight for a while.

He found redemption in a childhood passion — photography. He became obsessed with photographing beauty. He sought it out with all the urgency of a starving man for food. And he found beauty all around him. His camera captured the everyday scenes around us and transformed them into things of beauty.

One of his journeys took him from Northern California to New England, down to Florida, across the Gulf Coast and back to California. I saw him for the last time in December when stopped by Palm Springs en route back to Northern California to set up his photographic business.

He made a photographic record of that journey, what he called, “10,000 Miles by Car Around the USA.” I invite you to share in the beauty he saw by clicking on the link.

In conclusion, let me relate one incident from early in our relationship. I guess this was back in 1968. We’d consumed a fair amount of adult beverages one evening and were listening to some music on the record player. One song in particular struck us both. The lyrics foretold our future.

Goodbye, my old friend. I guess we never found our park bench.