July 30, 2011

Johnny at Kitty Hawk

The population of Hill City, South Dakota, is 948, one less than it was a few years ago. The one less is my friend Johnny. That he is gone from this life is a staggering thought. He was a kind-hearted and fun-loving person, and I’m sure he  left his mark on many people. He began his journey to the Spirit World, as the obituary in the Rapid City Journal put it, on February 24, 2008. The circumstances were cloudy; he was found dead in a hotel room after not coming home from a doctor’s appointment.

Johnny was a huge part of my life growing up from elementary school through college. I spent countless hours playing at his house with him and his older brother Ted. We shared the experiences of Boy Scout camping trips, church choir and youth group, playing sports as kids for hours at a time at Memorial Field and later on our high school cross country and wrestling teams, early misadventures with the opposite sex, and all the craziness of college breaks in the late 1960’s. After I left for the Peace Corps, his were some of the funniest letters (unintentionally, usually) I received while in the Philippines.

I wrote a little memorial for him on our high school web site in which I said that Life separated us, but that’s hogwash. I let it happen, and I am most unhappy about that. I had not seen or spoken to Johnny in probably over twenty years. I found out (from another great friend who I let lapse the same twenty years) in an e-mail that awaited me when I came home from school. I called Rob (with whom I had lived my last year at Seton Hall), and he told me what he knew. Johnny, who had lived in Pittsburgh since college with his wife and two kids, had gotten divorced and moved out to South Dakota where he learned herbal medicine and worked as a maintenance guy at Mt. Rushmore. He had remarried out there (with three step kids) and started a new life. He was cremated shortly after his death, and half his ashes were being sent to Pittsburgh for a memorial gathering of family and friends.

I did not go. I am most unhappy about that. I could say (and did) that I found out too late, that it was logistically difficult to get out there, that I needed to stay home with Bernadette who was sick with hemmoragic conjunctivitis. On the phone with Rob, who was packing his car to head out, I fumbled with my excuses. He, in his unchanged straightforward way, just said, “I have to go. It’s Johnny.” I should have gone too for that very reason.

I would have thought I’d have done differently. It’s bothering the heck out of me. Rob told me that the one good thing to come of it is that it finally reconnected us. But it shouldn’t have taken this.

So, Johnny, thanks for all the good times, and I’m sorry I didn’t keep up on my end. The world may little note your passing, but you made a difference in my life, and I will not forget you.


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