26 July 2008

Remembrance, Toasts, Things To Ponder

Last night some 40+ people whom I have known for more than 30 years (actually, some I've known far longer, others I had never met - I will explain momentarily) joined together to relive old times, and toast a departed friend.

For me, it added to the things I ponder late in my fourth decade on this Earth.

Thirty years ago in June, I was among some 580 graduates of Whetstone High School in Columbus. The Class of '78. The Braves. Tonight is the formal reunion, but last night was labeled "The Rogue Reunion," an informal gathering at a northside watering hole called the India-Oak Tavern. Easy to find since it is one building east of the intersection of Indianola and Oakland Park avenues. But I digress.

Everyone a bit older. Some of us with silver hair now instead of the brown, brunette, red, black or blonde of our youth. Though some still have that same original color, or close . . . some with help, others are natural. Who can tell? Now, with nearly 600 people in your graduating class, it is impossible to know everyone. Some you meet in elementary school, and had known since kindergarten. Others you never met in high school. So you get to know each other in ensuing years. You learn that some sat in the back or front of the same classes you had. Others you realize you never met because one person was focused on music, or athletics, while others were in shop, or took vocational classes, or spent different shifts down by the river "smoking." Some worked and only took a couple classes. Others had all their classes at Fort Hayes, the music, art and drama-focused school.

Nevertheless, there were two things that bonded us last night. The school we shared on the banks of the Olentangy River three decades ago, and the loss of a good friend who was taken from us all too quickly, Mark McCalla.

There were Mark stories, many hilarious, some serious, and then the frustration and unexplainable loss we all shared. Mark, a well-liked pastor, was murdered last month in West Virginia at a state park shooting range. Murdered with his own gun, police there have said. His killers caught a week later here in Columbus of all places. You know, as you grow older you are excited for your generation, and for your circle of friends when your peers are recognized nationally. But not in this way. His story made national headlines.

And then last night there were classmates telling Mark stories: There was Gary, the Columbus police officer who had kept us updated on the behind the scenes investigation; there was Dave, a real estate colleague of mine whom I've known since kindergarten, telling of how he once was driving down a long, straight street where McCoy Road changes names and becomes Highland Drive. He saw Mark at the side of his road, next to his bicycle, talking to an Upper Arlington police officer. Dave had pulled over to see if Mark needed help. Mark replied, no, he was fine but he was getting a ticket -- for speeding. Mark had been a competitive bicyclist, so one was torn laughing and nodding your head in agreement, and shaking your head in wonderment at any LEO who would pull over someone on a bicycle. But knowing Mark, yes, he probably was going a little fast.

There were stories of Mark when he was active on the Ohio State Ski Club. And Mark's battle with cancer. Not everyone knew that. Myself included. In fact, when word made its way around that Mark was gone, a few people thought it was cancer that got him. But no one was prepared for how he lost his life.

My Mark story is this. There were three feeder junior high schools (kids, today you call them "middle schools") that contributed into WHS. Ridgeview, Dominion, and Crestview. My first day at Whetstone, I was looking for a young lady whom I had spent two weeks with every summer for many, many years. Her grandmother lived two doors down from me when i was growing up. All those years we played together, but just during that brief span each summer. Connie was at Dominion. I went to Ridgeview. At Whetstone, I stopped the first person I saw in the 10th grade study hall whom I did not know, and asked if he went to Dominion. He said yes, and I asked him if he had seen Connie that morning. He pointed her out. Thrilled, we were both re-united. Not just for another two-week stint, but now for the nine-month school schedule for the next three years.

"He" (looking at me with this eyebrow raised at my zeal to find this person) was Mark McCalla.

Just a few days before he died, we were exchanging emails and he was teasing me, asking if I still had the old scarlet and gray GMC Jimmy I drove back then. No, I explained, it has been long replaced and my current transport is a forest green Jeep Cherokee. He was going to stop by my house Father's Day weekend. He got busy. And then none of us ever heard from him again.

Other non-Mark stories abounded as well. There was also some discussion of firearms. I didn't hear anyone complain about guns, considering that what was used by the two scumbags who murdered Mark. I did hear Renee, a concert photographer who has gone back to school and is getting her teacher's license on Long Island in New York, talk about the closed basement shooting range in an elementary school she visited. There was another individual who knew Mark had hunted when we were youths. I had known this also. During conversation I even took down a name and number of a classmate who wants a CCW class. We will hook her up!

Best of all, there were some quiet toasts to Mark. A great guy. A good man. The good memories far outweighed the sadness we felt . . . that we feel. Tonight, I would venture there will be some formal remembrance of Mark. And remembrances of a number of classmates we have lost since graduation in June of 1978. I know of one young lady who will be attending. To learn about her mother. Her mom, Denise, died the year after we graduated in a horrible traffic accident. The young lady was an infant and never knew her mom. She is coming to hear stories from her mom's friends, about what it was like being a teenager in the 1970s on the north side of Columbus, Ohio.

There are many ways to remember a good friend. The last time I was at a shooting range I was participating in a Garand clinic and match. Too much focus on the work at hand to do something in farewell for a departed brother in arms. The next time I am at a range, for me, however, I will send a few shots downrange in Mark's memory. I think he would have liked that. He would not want people to be sad. He'd want them to be charging down a river in a kayak, or speeding down a street on a bicycle, or on the range, just hanging out, talking, culling the paper target herd, and having a good time.

Last night's "Rogue Reunion" was an enjoyable evening. Mark may not have been with us in person. But he was definitely there in spirit.

I won't be at the formal event tonight. I have too many other things on my plate right now. Last night was enjoyable, memorable, wistful. In some ways it recharged me with thoughts of youth. Youth . . . let's see -- eight-tracks and albums were the way we listened to music, whether it was disco, rock or country rock; the Vietnam War had ended when we were 15 or so (a mere three years before); Little House on the Prairie was on the air (actually its still on the air); the promise of peace in the Middle East was "around the corner" with the historic signing of an accord between Israel and Egypt; a Korean jetliner was shot down by the Soviet Union (kids, today we call that place Russia); and anti-gun Californian Dianne Feinstein in 1978 had become that state's first female mayor. Now she makes mischief in the U.S. Senate.

But more importantly, in the late 1970s there were concerts to be enjoyed out by Buckeye Lake; Little Kings came in handy little bottles that slipped handily into your parka; I could pack nearly 10 people into my Jimmy; and when you cruised the drive-through at the Wendy's in Clintonville on North High Street, keying the mike on your CB radio would get you heard inside on the kitchen area loudspeaker.

Ahhh . . . good times.

Mostly, 1978 was a time of knowing that anything you wanted to do in the future you could. All you had to do was go after it. Overall, it was great to see last night where people are in their lives. In some cases it was sad. There was a time when we thought we had the world by the ass. Some people, today, are content. Others are starting over. Some by choice, others not. These kind of gatherings also help a person to look back at where you were, where you thought you were going, where you ended up, and contemplate where you want to go from here.

I ponder that every day. A lot is left unwritten in our lives. What you make of it is up to you. Mark's time was stolen from him. Brutally. Others have health issues. The stuff we used to roll our eyes on when our parents got into those types of discussions. Yet another reason to live for each and every day, to live it as if it might be your last. Not to settle. But to explore, to seek, to learn, live, laugh, touch and revel.

And also, so you don't drive yourself insane, to not think so hard about it. Someone reminded me of that yesterday. Good advice.

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