One cold night between Christmas and New Year’s a year ago, I donned a wool coat and sat on my screened porch as I reconnected via telephone with one of the first friends I ever had.
I remember Wesley Craig playing kickball, overdressed in slacks, button-down shirt and sweater vest on a field at Lisbon (Maine) Elementary School. I recall his kid sister swinging her metal lunchbox at us on the macadam playground — until the latch gave way and let loose a torrent of crayons. I can still see the magazine clipping taped to his basement bedroom wall and bearing a quote from flame-throwing pitcher J.R. Richard, “I could kill somebody,” that before a stroke nearly took his own life and ended his career.
We shared a love for the Boston Red Sox starting in the 1970s and alternative music in the 1980s. I haven’t seen him since I was an usher in his wedding, close to 20 years ago, but that December night we slipped into an easy conversation that probably lasted a couple of hours.
The Mitch Graff Napkin
That call with Wesley effectively kicked off a series of reconnections with old friends — by phone, email, in-person — that rank among the highlights of my 2016.
After graduating from Lisbon High School in 1985, I was off to the University of Rochester in upstate New York, sight unseen. One year was enough, as I have explained previously, but it wasn’t for lack of some good friends.
Tony Rupp lived next door, he and Phil Villars sharing a phone line with me and my roommate, Tony Vengrove. Besides being a loyal friend, Buffalo native Tony Rupp generously allowed me to use his word processor; I can still hear him telling me to save my document often, as power surges associated with his mini-refrigerator were common.
Across the hall from Tony and Phil was Mitch Graff, a Red Sox fan from Peabody, Mass., who stayed up really late and tended to sleep away mornings. He also begat the Mitch Graff Napkin, or one that he would twist and turn into a hard knot on any occasion that we ate pizza or wings, which is to say quite often.
In late February, I received emails from Tony Rupp and Mitch, who have been in a fantasy baseball league since 1987 and who were headed to Cooperstown, N.Y., that weekend for their annual player draft. In his post script, Tony thanked me for turning him on to the band R.E.M., a point Mitch echoed:
“I’ll never forget coming back from Record Archive with my copies of [R.E.M.’s records ‘Chronic Town’ and ‘Murmur.’ To this day, when I listen to “Wolves, Lower,” I still hear the joyous sound of discovery. Noting beats that.”
Live chickens and goats
Also in late February, I received an email with the subject line, “Hey Neal!” It was from Erik Feather, with whom I worked at the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune while attending the University of Missouri. We worked in the circulation department; Erik doing more substantial things such as designing and pasting up ads, X-Acto knife in hand, while I called customers to make sure their home delivery had restarted after a vacation, for instance.
Erik was a smart, funny and interesting person to be around. Almost all of my exposure to him occurred at work, although one of my favorite college moments was the night he and I and Lauri Hofherr, another colleague, attended a Ben Vaughn concert at the great Blue Note in Columbia. It was right before spring break, and the show was sparsely attended. From the balcony, we watched as Vaughn walked across the round tabletops below.
I had come across an item online about Erik receiving an honor from his current employer, the city of Columbia. I sent a general email that someone rescued from a spam folder and brought to Erik’s attention, prompting his reply and our exchange.
I lamented to Erik that I had only recently learned of the death — 15 years earlier — of our former boss, who apparently died of a massive heart attack while vacationing in Florida. He was only 44. Erik and I agreed, Glen Nolte was a really nice guy.
Erik just did things that no one else I knew did, and he told of his exploits without a hint of self-aggrandizement. I doubt I’d even ever heard of Belize before he vacationed there, well before it became a tourism stronghold.
Erik traveled extensively in Central America. He remembered to me scuba diving and snorkeling, and spearing fish and grilling it over dried coconut husks.
“We’d travel around on these overloaded buses, they’d open the luggage compartments on the outside of the bus and live chickens and goats would spill out!” he wrote. “There was always a heavy military presence on every bridge you crossed, these kids in uniforms with machine guns would file onto the bus and check everyone’s papers.
“I saw them pull some poor guy out of the bus one time and he never got back on. As we were pulling away he was on his knees beside the road getting a rifle butt to the head. That was kind of a ‘holy shit’ moment for me.”
After graduating from the University of Missouri, I worked as a reporter at the Sedalia (Mo.) Democrat. I had a lot of fun with photographer Jerrey Roberts, whether it was to intercept mall shoppers for a man-on-the-street feature called “Street Talk” or to soak in the atmosphere and too much beer at a honky tonk called the Dallas Lounge. I fondly remember a Sunday road trip for Christmas shopping at the Plaza in Kansas City.
We kept in touch for a short while after I moved to York, Pa., in 1991, but I probably had not spoken with Jerrey for more than 20 years until this Labor Day weekend. Riding back to my office that Friday morning, I received a phone call from Massachusetts. I instantly recognized Jerrey’s voice — I think it shocked him when I said his name before he could tell me.
We caught up for an hour and have become friends on Facebook. He is married and pondering a not-too-distant retirement from his job as photographer at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in western Massachusetts.
From Sedalia, I moved to the York Daily Record. I was there for seven-plus years, working on a two-person reporting team on the business desk. I couldn’t have asked for two better comrades in arms than Peter Krouse and his successor, Mike Cody. (It sometimes felt like it was us against the rest of the newsroom and sometimes even our business editors.)
Pete and I have seen each other with some frequency (he’s in Cleveland now), while Mike has been more estranged despite living in Baltimore. One Friday in early June, I received a voice mail from Mike, who now is a journalism instructor for the Department of Defense. He was in Hershey with his son, who was attending Hersheypark with friends.
Mike had some free time, so I met him at Chocolate World and took him on an hour-long tour of Hershey. Mike’s insatiable curiosity led us into Hersheypark Stadium, where crews were setting up for the next night’s Beyonce concert. A humorless female staffer apparently thought these two middle-aged men represented a security threat and ushered us out.
It was an innocuous event, but it was perfect. For what I remember most about the friends I remember best is the little moments and, most important, the conversations.
I’m grateful for these reconnections from the past year, however brief. I know how rare they are, especially the older we get.
As a new year beckons, I’m vowing to bring about a reunion with three friends who lived with me in the Mark Twain Residence Hall (ironically known as Twainer Dudes) at the University of Missouri. We’ve stayed in touch via text, email and Facebook, but we haven’t seen each other for more than eight years.
We’re all scheduled to turn 50 in 2017.