DISTANT DRUMS GROWING CLOSER

High among my regrets in this zigzag life of mine is the number of friends who have slipped away along the journey. I started to add “lovers,” but will hedge for a moment, given all of the complications.

Unlike my parents’ generation, mine has exhibited a tendency to let the connections go once we’re no longer in physical proximity. We don’t exchange Christmas cards the way they did. And we don’t visit much in our travels.

I think we’ve simply been too swamped trying to stay afloat in busy schedules, and while it’s possible I’m in an aberrant corner of the baby boomer phenomenon, when I ask around, no one argues to the contrary.

The one exception might be those individuals who serve as “switchboards” connecting social circles, the ones who know the news about everybody, those unique folks you easily confide in, for that matter, or at least easily reveal much more than you’d intend. In my Hippie Trails novels they show up as characters like Tate in the dorm or Nita in the newsroom. But they’re rare, and now that I’m retired from the office, I’m far from the last one of my active acquaintance.

Yes, it is hard to keep up.

~*~

One factor might be simply that guys, as a rule, rarely correspond. More often than not, it’s been their wives who’ve kept me informed – the ones I’ve yet to meet, in many cases, if we’re still exchanging holiday greetings. And that’s before the reality of divorce.

As I’ve also found, attempts to resume contact after a long hiatus can be problematic. Usually, only silence has followed or, in one case, a polite but all too curt update.

Quite simply, we’ve all gone our separate ways.

Admittedly, working in the newspaper trade did little to enhance this. It’s a field with high turnover, at least in the entry-level operations where many of us served in our younger years – the time most prone to socializing together. But the hours are typically nights and weekends, and few anymore would retreat to a nearby bar till closing, as we did during my first internship. Besides, in my last newsroom, closing hour had already arrived before we clocked out and the intensified drunk-driving crackdown dimmed any desire to stop on the way home.

That last newsroom really split into three working circles that rarely interacted anyway – the Sunday paper, where I devoted most of my career, dayside, and nightside. Few of us lived in the same city as the office, either, so once our shift was over, we fanned out across the state for home – well, some split across a state line to the south or east, as well. There was little to link our “outside” activities and families to theirs, despite some attempts such as minor-league baseball outings or a picnic. Mostly, we were pulled along our private byways.

~*~

Looking at my broader life, I’ve known some incredibly talented people and wonder from time to time how they’ve fared. (The kinds I’ve sketched in my Hometown News novel, for that matter.) Many, as I sense, have wound up performing in the small, out-of-the-way places where they’ve settled – something occasionally confirmed in a successful Google search. Or I keep reflecting on a comment a poet repeated the other night, someone born the same year as me – “I never achieved the great things that were expected of me,” even “I failed to accomplish” – something I suspect is very common among those of us born this side of the crest in the baby boom wave. Those just a year or two ahead had that much of an edge in the job openings, especially when it came to university tenure track.

Still, once in a while some jarring bit of news breaks through.

The latest reports the fatal heart attack on Thanksgiving Eve that claimed a photojournalism guru who was at the edge of one of those circles. I knew him through Marcy, the amazing shooter we’d hired at the small newspaper where I was the No. 2 guy in a staff of eight full-timers trying to cover sections of five counties – an operation so tight we didn’t even have access to live wire photos. We were forced to be resourceful (or else mediocre), and some of my proudest work comes from that shoestring venture – especially the projects with Marcy.

Given the long hours and very low pay, it couldn’t last forever. For those of us who were the hired guns from outside, the clock was always ticking – it was only a matter of time before moving on, hopefully out of our own initiative. In this instance, Marcy and Larry married shortly after I’d swept up my own young bride, and as a young couple, they soon shot off to new adventures to the east while my wife and all of our possessions trucked southwest and later northwest.

Larry, as you may have guessed, was the photo guru. In our few encounters, he always loomed larger than life as he overflowed with ideas and energy and, especially, an outrageous glow of humor. He went on, as his obituary confirms, to build a storybook professional resume of management-level success that included the National Geographic and a handful of big-city, big-name newspapers before easing on into college teaching, at least until he was embroiled in a scandal.

Newsroom management, I might add, has always been a tightrope walking act. I’ve seen some very good leaders who were shaken from their heights and simply could never quite get back into the business – they’d gone too far up to go back in the ranks but not far enough up to move from one disaster to the next, as the top level seemed to do.

His wife – and later, former wife – was one of the two photojournalists who have long set the very high standard I apply in editing news pictures, and I’ve often said I’ve worked with some of the best in the business. Her images always had a signature warmth and vision, even before we evaluate her impeccably flawless lab work. But I lost track of her career, picking up only mention that she, too, had gone on to college teaching – something I know she must do well. Somehow I missed that she’d shared in a Pulitzer Prize and now, as I look that up, I see the years she covered the White House for the Associated Press and more. There’s her portrait of five living presidents together or Bill and Hillary with the pope or Socks the cat atop a White House lectern. Yeah, she done good – real good. As I said all along, she’s the best. (Well, with one – just one – exception, who I came across thanks to her reference. But that’s another long story.)

What I didn’t remember – or perhaps even know – was how much Larry fit into that little paper where I’d worked. He was born within its circulation area and became its photographer at the beginning of his career – the same job his future wife would fill. His degree was from the state university at the other edge of our coverage.

What keeps coming back to me is the fact he was only a year older than I am. He always seemed to be, well, that looming presence up the ladder. The one landing in places I might aspire to. One well ahead of me, the way a guide would be.

There were a few close shots at that leap – near misses – but they rarely linger on my list of regrets. If anything, in retrospect, I feel blessed I was instead enabled to reclaim my own life by putting in the required work hours and then going home, where I could live and love and worship and pursue my own literary practices.

I am puzzled that this distant news hits me more than the deaths of a half-dozen colleagues of my generation from my last newsroom did – cancer, diabetes, heart-attack, perhaps even suicide. But I also acknowledge a circle of dear friends facing long-term, but ultimately fatal, diagnoses as well as others who have already had close calls, plus a few others who have passed on – or passed over, in the old Quaker term. Natural mortality is circling in, after all, and there’s no escaping. I’m aging.

So here I am with some glorious wedding photos – taken a day after the ceremony by a Pulitzer Prize winner. The ones that stay in the filing cabinet, given my own eventual divorce. Not just because of the wild polyester suit I wore for the occasion. Historic documentation, as I’m reminded.

And all of that’s flooding back now. Even without the novels.

3 thoughts on “DISTANT DRUMS GROWING CLOSER

  1. I empathize, Jnana. I wrote a post on my blog earlier this fall about all the significant, famous, awarded, creative people I grew up with, dated, am related to, lived with, know/knew well. It was a long list and I didn’t even get to them all.

    I also compile, every time someone I know/knew well dies, an updated “loss” list (older relatives don’t count). That is also a very long list and I keep forgetting a few.

    What does that make me?

    Still here. Not so famous. Glad to be alive and to have known the people I’ve known. I have yet to meet a few more, like you, I hope.

    Best to you.

    Sally

    1. The older relatives — and friends of their generation — are, indeed, something different. It’s when it hits our ranks that we start to wonder.
      Moving away from my hometown, as I did, meant breaking from those who may have died in Vietnam, for instance. Or at least having some insulation from others, like the classmate who slammed his car into a concrete wall at 100-plus mph, killing himself, his wife, and baby. (Oh, it hurts now to finally say that in public.)
      I think too of the Quakers who were hailed as mighty oaks, the likeness of which we’ll never again see, knowing all too well they were more faithful in their daily practice than I’ll ever be.
      So here we are, doing the best that we can, wherever. Maybe even holding each other up, in some way.

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