Tuesday, July 02, 2013

On the Death of a Friend, 30 Years Later

Tomorrow, July 3, 2013 is the 30th anniversary of the death of a close childhood friend of mine. I originally wrote this post in 2008 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his death. It seemed appropriate to post it again this week. After I'd written it, I heard from many members of his family (including his mom), which was more moving and gratifying than I can describe. This is my little way of saying I still remember.

My next-door-neighbor was a year and a half older than I was, and we had known each other since I was a toddler. Sometimes with my wife and kids, I look at the grainy Super 8 movies my parents used to take. There we are, two preschoolers sitting in a little plastic wading pool on the patio. There he is pulling me around in my old red Radio Flyer wagon, both of us decked out in godawful early '70's attire. I think he's actually wearing white shoes and a white belt. What were our parents thinking? There we are at my seventh birthday party. There he is, about to enter high school, playing with my new puppy.

Looking at it now, a 19-month age difference isn't much, but it seemed like a lot at the time. Richie was older, seemed to know the ways of the world, and was willing to grab my hand and guide me through the maze like a big brother. He showed me where my classroom was on the first day of first grade, and did it again on the first day of middle school. He gave me my first exposure to Billy Joel and Steve Martin records (smuggled out of his older brother's bedroom). He interceded with a bullying classmate of his to leave me alone. Though it's virtually unthinkable to me now, I applied to, was accepted at, and nearly attended an all-boys Jesuit high school simply because Rich was a student there.

In St. Louis, you grow up a baseball fan. You play baseball, you watch it, you listen to it, you talk about it, and back then you collected the cards that went with it. Rich was of Lebanese and Syrian descent, so he was quite a haggler. My mom would take us to baseball card shows (hey, we were really into it), and I would watch in a combination of disbelief and envy as this 14-year-old kid would begin bartering with these grizzled baseball card dealers. "How much is the Mickey Mantle?" "Fifteen bucks." "Okay, how 'bout this? I'll give you ten for both the Mantle and the Mays." This would be followed by the dealer laughing a "you're crazy" laugh and Richie heading off undaunted to the next table.

One day he came over and told me he had something to show me. We went back over to his house, where he produced a 1954 Bowman Ted Williams card that he'd bought from some poor sap at a yard sale for about a dollar. I think the market value at the time was something like $600. He also had what appeared to be the hat first baseman Keith Hernandez was wearing when the Cardinals clinched the 1982 World Series. It's provenance was complicated, but in the on-field scrum after the victory (this was back when everyone would rush onto the field after big game like that), somebody grabbed Hernandez's cap with the number 37 written right there under the brim, and somehow (I told you he was a haggler) it ended up in Rich's possession. He also did the first Mike Shannon impression I ever heard. In St. Louis now, everybody does a Mike Shannon impression, but in the early 80's it was revolutionary.

Rich's family had a little, yappy schnauzer named Tuppins. (I have since come to assume that the name came from that Julie Andrews song in "Mary Poppins," but I never thought to ask. Come to think of it, I suddenly recall being really impressed at about five years old that Richie was able to sing the part of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" where they sing it backwards. Big time stuff for the preschool set.) He'd make the reluctant and fearful Tuppins play goalie in garage hockey games, facing a barrage of plastic pucks. Rich also had a hamster named Harbey (and no, that's not a misprint--it was Harbey with a "b". Again, I never figured out why, and never thought to ask.) By hamster standards, Harbey was virtually immortal. He lived in this huge, labyrinthine Habitrail in Richie's room, and I'd swear that hamster lived to be like eight years old.

On July 3, 1983, my childhood ended. It sounds narcisstic to put it that way, and I don't mean it to. The end of my childhood isn't the main point, and 14 is about time to start growing up anyway. But I also can't seem to separate the events of that day from how they affected me and how much everything changed. That was the day Richie died. It was a boating accident. I never got all of the details and it seemed to morbid to ask, but apparently on a family Fourth of July weekend trip at a Missouri lake, some friends of his were goofing around in a motor boat and the motor caught Rich's life jacket and pulled him under and hit him in the head.

It happens to different people at different points, but that was the day when I realized that the carefree summer vacation days of childhood are a mirage. For the first time, it truly dawned on me that death was real, that you never know what a day might hold, that some things are gravely serious, and that life is incredibly, terrifyingly fragile. For the first time, I came face to face with the reality that none of us gets out of here alive. And for the first time I came to know that dull throbbing of loss deep within the gut that lasts until you fall asleep and then hits again like a wave seconds after you wake up. Over the years, that grief has gotten less and less, of course. But if I stop and look for it, I can always find a little piece of it still there.

Richard John Kilo was 16 years old when he died. He's now been gone far longer than he was here. His parents, thankfully, are still around, and they stay in touch with my folks back in St. Louis, though they moved out of the neighborhood a few years after Richie's death. They were, and remain, a wondeful, loving, warm, inviting family. My mom told me the other day that they'd called her after watching the thing I did on C-SPAN a few weeks back and said kind things.

I remember in the horrible, agonizing days immediately following Richie's death, his mom would ask his friends--even beg them--to please never forget him. I can imagine her fear that, with her son only now being here in memory, his friends would grow up, have careers and wives and kids, and lose those memories which would seem to make Rich's short time here a little less real. I was 14 then; I'll turn 40 later this year. I guess this is just a way of saying: I won't forget. I never do.

Richard John Kilo, May 26, 1967 - July 3, 1983.