“For your information, both Dick Walko and Same Herman have died.”
That was the email I received that morning. It was how I started my day. Not that it’s unusual for a baby boomer to receive that kind of fatalistic news. Folks of our generation tend to spend more time at funerals than baby showers and christenings, so the deaths of the people in our lives is to be expected. It was just the way the information was presented to me–cold, clinical, and unemotional–that got to me the most. To be sure, Sam and Dick weren’t close friends of mine. Actually, they were much older than me. George, who sent me the email, used to sail with them out on the Chesapeake Bay when I was a teenager, and sometimes he’d invite me along. That’s how I got to know them in the first place. All three of them, Sam, George, and Dick, were involved in education in Baltimore County. Dick even taught at my old high school.
I didn’t have Dick Walko for a teacher, but I went sailing with him every now and then. I remember how the wind used to play havoc with his comb-over as he tried to work the tiller without spilling any of his black Russian onto his clean, white deck. Sam would sail with us sometimes too. He drank Cutty Sark on the rocks. It’s funny how I remember what those two men drank, but so little else about their lives. They were good people, and good friends of George. I remember spending more time with Sam. I once went to the Smoky Mountains with Sam and George when I was a senior in high school. One night we were asleep in a cabin, and Sam woke up screaming something about banshies coming through the window, obviously out to get us all. Sam had a vivid imagination, but I imagine that was the Cutty Sark talking. Or screaming, actually. Good times.
Sam had a twin brother, Ben, who died a couple of years earlier than he did. I don’t remember what Ben drank. Ben Herman was a writer. He penned some columns for the Baltimore Sun, and wrote a couple of books of short stories. Stories about what it was like growing up Jewish in Dundalk, just on the outskirts of Baltimore City. He told stories of familiar things, but was somehow able to transform those memories into his own, personal mythology. I still read those two books and, now that I’m much older, the myths make a lot more sense; they’ve even become a part of me. Ben used to go into burger joints and coffee shops with a note pad, and write for hours. Words flowed through the tips of his fingers and the end of his writing pen like a swiftly-running river. And the coffee kept coming and coming until he finally ran out of ink and had to go back home.
Sam and Ben Herman were kind of short, as I recall. But they were giants. Sam had the ability to smile and goof around when the sky was crashing in all around us, and Ben could take any commonplace experience and transform it, with words, into something extraordinary. It was nothing less than a miracle. I knew Dick Walko much less than Sam and Ben, but the few memories I have of him are good ones. Before I knew him personally, he was a customer on my paper route. I remember getting praise and a smile for delivering his newspaper each day–and always a good tip when I collected his money. After he retired, Dick became a substitute teacher in the same school he had just left. I’ve done some substitute teaching, and I can’t say I was ever as enthusiastic about it as Dick was. He said he missed the extra income, but I think he really just missed the kids.
I don’t talk to George about these three guys that much, and I don’t know exactly why. I believe that the passing of so many friends, acquaintances, and relatives over the years has numbed me sufficiently, so I can now intellectualize the deaths of those who helped form me into the person I have become, without becoming too emotionally involved.
Sam is dead, and so is Dick. Ben died a while back. I still live, and so does George.
And every day the tides go out and the tides come in on the Chesapeake Bay. In downtown Baltimore, the red bricks of the old buildings turn brown, and the sky goes cold and gray. Time is a human construct, and the dead laugh at us, because we give time much more importance than it deserves. And somewhere in Heaven, or whatever they call it, three old memories have started life anew. Like sailboats coming about in a stiff, cool breeze out on the vast waters of the Chesapeake Bay, starting a new tack. Or a writer in a fast food joint inhaling just enough cooking grease and coffee beans to charge him up into delving into the complexities of the human condition. Or someone on the sidelines quietly guiding those who don’t feel as if they’re important enough to be noticed.
If there is a bar in the afterlife, I imagine it’s always open. Sam, with his Cutty Sark, and Dick, with his black Russian, are already there. Ben probably has a coffee cup in his hand, and is working on his third book. I hope they leave a couple of stools empty for George and me.
In the meantime, the three of them will continue to look down and encourage us to live our lives while we still can. To use the tools we’ve been given, and to use them wisely.
To take our commonplace existences and turn them into something extraordinary.