Survivors

Some sort of summer bug has completely kicked my butt, taken me out of the game and the game was sorta important.  We have a water line leak, which was making my neighbor’s lawn soggy and inspired me to think I could maybe actually fix it myself, which would be a first.  All week I’ve dug, and dug some more, and made more trips to Home Depot than Tim the Tool Man, looking for the right fittings, all of this unnatural for me and done when I could spare some time.  And I am not Tim the Tool Man.

And now I’m sick, which is giving my wife Jim Henson nightmares, that kind of sick.  It makes crawling into a mud hole problematic but not impossible.

And of course this is Father’s Day, so my dad would be on my mind anyway, but he’s been hanging around this week, looking over my shoulder.  Dad did not care for plumbing at all as I recall, but he surely would have solved this issue quicker than I have, sick or not.  And if Dad and my old friend Kurt Streif had been working together?

I would have watched them, and been grateful.

Originally published June 22, 2005.

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I dream in color, although I guess some folks don’t.  I don’t know what that means, either, if it carries some psychological weight or neurological insight, and honestly for years I couldn’t have told you whether I did or not, anyway.

But I do.  Because sometimes, now, I dream about an orange pick-up truck and a blue sweatshirt.

The truck belonged to my best friend, Kurt.  I can’t remember now if it was a Ford or Chevy, or frankly if it was really orange and not burnt sienna or tan or some mixture of rust and brown, but orange is what I see and I can tell you when I saw it last.

Monday, October 13, 1975, I caught my last glimpse of Kurt’s truck on the local news, although by then I knew what to expect.

Kurt was ferrying friends home from school, as he did.  Steve was riding shotgun.  Eric, Kelly and Jeanne were riding in the back.  On most days, I’d have been there, too, but I stayed at school for some reason.

It’s an old story.  A drunk driver.  A left turn without yielding, in front of a truck that can’t stop fast enough.  Five teenagers getting a lesson in physics.

Seatbelts left Kurt and Steve only dazed.  Jeanne smashed into the tailgate, breaking her collar bone.  Eric flew out of the truck bed and landed, amazingly, on the soft lawn of a nearby house, uninjured.

Eric had the good sense to walk right inside this stranger’s house and ask to use the phone.  He also had the good sense to call his mother, a block away.  Kurt would also find a phone, and call my mother.  He gave her the details, choking back tears.

“I think Kelly is dead,” he said.

Memories are funny things.  What we decide to save, and where.  My wedding, for example, is sort of a blur, but I remember odd details about a car accident 28 years ago.

They were my friends.  Steve was over at the house all the time.  Eric was Kurt’s brother.  Kelly had been Jeanne’s friend since junior high.  Jeanne was my sister.  So it was personal.

They all survived, surely scarred but alive and resilient, as kids can be.  Kelly had brain surgery but she came out of it fine.  A couple of weeks later, in fact, I took her to the state fair, and in December we went to the Christmas Formal dance together, and now we get to the blue sweatshirt, finally.

Memories are also funny in the way they sneak up on us, random and cascading and only understood in retrospect.

It’s the picture I’m thinking about, of course.  I know that now, today, this sunny Sunday so many years away.  It was taken on that Christmas Formal night.  I stand there, ridiculous sideburns and hair, in my tux.  Kurt is wearing a tux, too.  And in between us is my father, in that blue sweatshirt.  We all look happy, Kurt and I prepared for the big night and Dad just being father to the boys.

He liked Kurt, saw something of himself in this roly-poly kid who smoked cigarettes and was a wizard with tools.  And Kurt adopted Dad, found, I think, the father he didn’t have.  It’s a nice picture, and although I don’t have it with me I can see it clearly.  It’s a picture of ghosts.

Kurt died six summers ago, collapsing with a massive heart attack at 41.  My father passed away in December 2003 from cancer.

I see them in my dreams, both of them.  Kurt is always driving that orange truck, offering me a lift.  Dad is usually wearing that blue sweatshirt, always 40, always trying to help me out of some mess involving tools or my house, or else just talking to me.

I’m writing this on Father’s Day.  My daughter called from Texas, my son gave me a funny gift, and my wife presented me with a dessert so decadent and rich that I was tempted to brush my teeth between bites.  And now I sit at the computer, chasing memories from a long time ago.

It’s my second June without a call to make or a card to send.  It’s easier this year.  Somehow I wish it wouldn’t be easier, but I guess even middle-aged men can be resilient, too.

I heard from Steve a few years ago.  My sister just celebrated her 20th wedding anniversary, and in fact a couple of years ago she and her husband spent a nice evening with Eric and his wife at a high school reunion.

And she stays in touch with Kelly, who is, I’m told, still as radiant and lovely as she was at 15, when I took her to a dance, double dating with my friend Kurt.

As I say, memories are funny things, tied to each other and to us in mysterious ways, waiting for an opening.  I was just sitting here, thinking about another Sunday, before the accident, when the door opened and Kurt came into my house.  He handed my dad a gift, said “Happy Father’s Day,” and suddenly I’m back there, remembering and smiling and missing them both so much.

 

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