A student, not one of mine, sent me a note explaining that she was doing a paper for a history class, that she’d been reading the old college papers from the late 60s, and she’d read that I was a war protester. “Would you talk to me about that?” she said.
It’s not difficult for me to talk about May, 1970. I told her a full-fledged Washington war protest was an odd experience for a Christian kid from small-town, Republican America—100,000 college students after the Kent State, real radicals, gays marching uncloseted under a banner, kids my age doffing their jeans and wading, in the buff, in the reflecting pools. I wasn’t prepared for what seemed the party-like atmosphere. I thought a protest march on Washington would be serious politics.
But I also told her it was one of the most important moments in my life simply because I’d done it. I’d become part of something a whole lot bigger than a Midwestern small-town. I felt a part of history, even if the fit wasn’t all that comfortable.
I told her I had friends back home who had become more radicalized by the war than I was, friends who were into things the ancient righteous warned good Christian kids about—from John Lennon and tie-dyed t-shirts with beads, to flowers and free love, and to odd-smelling smoke coming from odd-looking pipes.
“Yesterday,” Lennon wrote, “all my troubles seemed so far away.”
Later that night I opened up an e-mail to discover that one of those guys was dead, one of those friends of mine from back home, a man I still think of as a kid had, just a day before, walked out to his garage and strung himself up.
In the years that have passed since we were students, he’d married, had one child, and worked as a landscaper. He was 58 years old. He loved his dog, the obituary said. A friend who’d told me about our mutual friend’s passing told me he was often friendless and alone. His sparse obituary mentioned he had volunteered as a counselor at some kind of institution. That doesn’t surprise me either. I remember that he had a big heart.
Forty years ago, the kid lived on the edge—more so, at least, than most of the kids our age in a little proudly Christian burg. Forty years ago, he had a very special sense of humor—droll and even somewhat occasionally black. He found it difficult to address people with his eyes. He had a shockingly powerful memory for song lyrics. He quipped jokes as if out of nowhere. He never laughed hard—if he did, he seemed to feel guilty about it. That’s just about all I remember.
For awhile, when I was my students’ age, he was a friend, a good guy. And now I sit here, tapping keys, trying, as always, to make sense of things.
I don’t think I’d seen him since 1970. I didn’t know he was married, didn’t know where he lived, hadn’t even thought of him much, except for a bit earlier that afternoon. That I don’t think I can blame myself for his despondency doesn’t mean that something dark doesn’t linger around me today.
Maybe if I knew everything, I’d understand the course of his life. But does anyone?
My yesterday was dominated by news I’m glad I know, even if I wish I didn’t—if that makes sense. Probably doesn’t. It’s just very sad. Proud as I was to tell that student about May, 1970, I’m really not nostalgic—unlike John Lennon, I don’t “believe in yesterday.” The sixties weren’t nirvana.
Where are this morning’s thanks? How about this: maybe today my old friend’s wearied soul has rest. Right now, a day or so later, that’s just about the best I can do.