By John Krieg
It’s the eternal question. A plea for logic in a completely illogical world. It’s yearning for order amidst perpetual chaos. When you get to a certain age and your friends begin to leave, and you know with certainty that you will never get to talk or laugh or cry or argue or commiserate or simply hang with them ever again, you find yourself more and more frequently asking yourself, “Why them, and not me?” There is no plausible explanation, so we look to worn out old answers, some funny, some jaded (his number was up, he drew some shitty cards, it’s just bad karma), but most are unnecessary. Deep down inside we know that’s just the way it is. Still, we know it could have been us, and if it had been, we hope that someone, anyone, would have the compassion to write us a decent obituary. So in homage to that hope, here are five summations, as kind as I could make them, of the time spent together with five friends who have gone before me:
Paul was a high school classmate who graduated with me in 1970. The class of ‘70 numbered over 100 students and was the largest class ever graduated from Archbishop Walsh High School in Olean, New York. Paul was anti-jock, anti-Motown sound, anti-war, anti-convention. He was the quickest wit I have known in my entire lifetime, and most of his wit was centered on the dark, the sexual, or the bizarre. We roomed together, along with three others, in Buffalo when I took my first design job there in the fall of 1974. The house on Lafayette Circle was party central, and we were drunk, high, and off the rails most every weekend. Where Paul and I differed was most evident in our viewpoint towards working; I never stopped, and he never started. Paul was handsome and had a way with the ladies, and I must admit that I was envious of him. He juggled two or more girlfriends at one time and seemed to enjoy the challenge. I very much coveted his main squeeze, and it created a riff between us. Because of said jealousy on my part, we lost contact with each other in ’76 and never made an effort to reconnect. I always thought that I would walk into a bookstore someday and see a bestselling book that he had written prominently displayed in the front window, but such was never the case. I was surprised to learn of his death at our forty-year high school reunion in 2010, and I deeply regretted that I never attempted to mend fences. Where disputes over women are involved, a great many male friendships remain riven. I never found out how he died and didn’t really try to as it wasn’t going to bring him back to life.
Joe was another high school classmate and lifelong main wingman for Paul. Joe had an infectious humor which Paul goaded to perfection. Considering his perpetually rumpled school uniform and unkempt hair, it was hard to believe that Joe’s father owned what was considered the most cutting-edge men’s clothing store in town. Joe worked there and apprenticed under a middle-aged salesman who always said, “That’s boss, man. Man, you really look boss in that,” no matter what you tried on or how awful it really was. Joe lived with us in the Buffalo house and was the glue that held the place together. After he left to take a job as a Woolworth Store Assistant Manager in Rochester, things were never the same and everything fell apart shortly thereafter. I remember reading Joe’s Woolworth’s manager manual and have often repeated its main kernel of advice: Address all employee concerns—real and imagined. He was the most generous person I had ever met in my life and was kind with his encouragement. Joe had quadruple bypass heart surgery four months prior to the aforementioned forty-year high school reunion, and I offered to pay for his plane ticket and fly to Las Vegas where he lived to pick him up. In typical Joe fashion, he turned me down knowing that I could barely afford it. Within a year, he was dead.
Wild Bill was a babe magnet. I often served as his wingman and had several liaisons because of that association. Out with a drinking buddy one freewheeling night in 1981, Bill tried to outrun the police in order to avoid a DWI. The whole ill-planned affair came to an abrupt end when they hit a telephone pole and were apprehended. When I asked him what he was thinking, he said that he was trying to get enough distance to abandon the car and later call it in as stolen. That’s what he said, but I highly suspect that he really wasn’t thinking at all. He was sent to minimum security prison for a 60 day stretch where a routine physical revealed that he had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and he was subsequently released. Bill needed his friends then, and my best friend and I took him into my first home. Bill was not asked to pay rent, and believe me, he never offered. My best friend paid extra for the master bedroom, and Bill and I each had our own bedroom but had to share the other bathroom. That bathroom was always bulging at the seams with bras and panties and other such girly girl paraphernalia which I found annoying and Bill endearing. He lived with us until early 1983 when he took a job with a homebuilder in New Mexico. We went to look him up in ’85, and it took two days to locate him because he was holed up with a recent divorcee who was hot to trot with him after he had punched out her estranged husband in a bar fight. That was classic Bill—handsome, swashbuckling, and always fresh from the fight. We always planned to get together again someday (you know how that one goes), but death wanted its due and the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma returned 30 years later. Bill took it in stride, stating that he had lived longer than he thought he would on borrowed time. I sent him the manuscript to a book of mine in which he was the primary character to cheer him up, and he loved it. Within three months, he was gone.
Mike was a classmate at Archbishop Walsh High School. Mike was the nicest guy I have ever met in my entire life. Being a first cousin to my best friend at the time we three spent a lot of time together fishing, drinking, and hell-raising in general. During the Christmas break during my second year in college, Mike returned to campus with me early because there was a girl living in town that I was desirous of, and I knew her boyfriend was at home for the holidays. We showed up unannounced at her doorstep with beer and weed in hand and were promptly invited in. While the object of my affections played coy with me, her roommate seemed accepting enough of Mike’s advances. Realizing early in the evening that my plans weren’t going to work out, I left to hit a bar to see if my luck might improve. Later that evening, when he returned to my place and I asked him how things went, Mike said that all was going just fine in her bedroom until, instead of pillow talk, she pulled out a corncob pipe and started smoking tobacco. Apparently that was too much for him to bear and he had to get out of there fast. “Jesus, Mike,” I said, “That’s pretty nit-picky.” “John,” he replied, “she took out her false teeth because she didn’t want to stain them.” During the brief stint I was on Facebook prior to the forty-year high school reunion to rekindle past friendships, he contacted me and invited me down to his home in Alabama. I expected to stick out like a sore thumb, but the visit was really cool. He and his wife lived on 120 acres in a recently built mini-mansion, and the property had three well-stocked bass lakes. He invited me to move down there with my wife to live in their old house and help maintain the property, and if Alabama ever got it together on marijuana, we could go into farming it. Because of family strife, we were hot to go on that offer when Mike abruptly cut off all communication. I knew something had to be horribly wrong but considered it poor form to press the issue. Three months later he called sounding extremely intoxicated and profusely apologized. He wasn’t drunk at all but under the grips of ALS. I put off any thought of moving to Alabama, but continued to email him. Six months later he was in the grave.
I met Mark a few years prior to starting my construction business. Because he was an experienced landscape contractor and the most mechanically proficient person I have ever known, I invited him to partner up with me. All went well for half a year. Then the arguments and dissension crept in and quickly split up our association. I thought he was too lenient with deadlines and the crew, while he thought I was too controlling. Neither of us was really wrong. I was knocked at him for another half-year, but no one could ever stay mad at Mark for long because he had an infectious likeability that worked well with the clients if not the profitability of our jobs. After I went bankrupt, belly up, and became somewhat of a laughing stock, he remained a true-blue friend. We started growing marijuana at the same time, and for a few years he did my cloning and helped with some product sales before losing interest. Mark’s attention always waivered towards deep sea fishing, and he loved being out on the ocean. He kept his boat trailer on my property, and I was happy I could do him some small favor. After I retired from the soul-sucking profession of landscape architecture and left the desert for good, I would look him up whenever I made it back down there. We would laugh and joke about past clients and how our jobs always seemed to be an endless series of near misses and narrow escapes. At harvest time, I would always give him at least a pound of stellar herb to keep him upbeat. In July of 2018, wildfires knocked out our electricity, and I was in fear of losing my crop because the well’s electric pump couldn’t operate. He came up with a gas generator, hooked it up, and wished me well. I told him he would sure enough be getting something extra at harvest time for saving my bacon. In late August he sent me a picture with a message saying, “I don’t think my brain is supposed to look like this.” I went to the hospital to visit him in early September before going back east to a wedding while he had the tumor operated on. The operation allowed the cancer to spread like the wildfires of the past summer. He was really out of it when I brought him his weed in early November. By Thanksgiving he was dead.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I don’t know who’s next, but until then I prefer to live on borrowed time. When it’s my time to go, just like my friends, I hope I go fast. The old saying is as true now as it ever was: There ain’t none of us getting out of this alive. If any one of my remaining friends reads this and is fortunate enough to outlive me, I’m placing the burden on your shoulders. I don’t want your thoughts and prayers. Don’t waste your money on meaningless flowers. Just conjure up all the kindness in your heart, and write me a decent obituary.
John C. Krieg is a retired landscape architect and land planner who formerly practiced in Arizona, California, and Nevada. He is also retired as an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborist and currently holds seven active categories of California state contracting licenses, including the highest category of Class A General Engineering. He has written a college textbook entitled Desert Landscape Architecture (1999, CRC Press). John has had pieces published in A Gathering of the Tribes, Alternating Current, Blue Mountain Review, Clark Street Review, Conceit, Hedge Apple, Homestead Review, Indolent Books, Inlandia, Last Leaves, and others. In conjunction with filmmaker/photographer Charles Sappington, Mr. Krieg has completed a two-part documentary film entitled Landscape Architecture: The Next Generation (2010). In some underground circles John is considered a master grower of marijuana and holds as a lifelong goal the desire to see marijuana federally legalized. Nothing else will do. To that end he has two books hopefully coming out this year entitled: Marijuana Tales and More Marijuana Tales.