People die. Some die lingering deaths that can be hard to watch. Not as hard in the watching as it must be in the experiencing, but hard. Some die sudden deaths, shocking, unanticipated deaths that leave psychological distortions for months in loved ones left behind. Some deaths fall somewhere in between. All deaths are unpleasant in their turn, but ours is the way of death. It is the way of all flesh, the place we all go. I have seen my share of death, but three examples stand out in memory.
Hilliary Carroll and I went to high school together; sometimes I sat behind him in home room. We were both too-cool-for-school, boys who were smart enough but who were dedicated to making our own ways through the education process with little effort devoted to assigned work. He was two years older than me as a result of having suffered a long bout of Scarlet Fever in grammar school.
For me, the revolution consisted of heroic feats of reading books that had nothing at all to do with the curriculum proposed by the school. And hours listening to records, or walking around town with like-minded friends, doing nothing. (As in, “where are you going? OUT, what are you doing? NOTHING.” Nothing might have been just standing around making fun of each other, or it might include kicking over every garbage can on the block.) For Hilliary, it was a question of fascination with small engines, fast vehicles, and danger. Go carts, mini-bikes, outboard boat engines, motorcycles . . . he only moved on to sports cars after graduation.
We got along great, thanks to our shared maladaptation to the greater society, our general disinterest in the things that society valued. Getting to Hilliary’s house was not easy, but I spent a lot of time there during the high school years. It was a long ride on two buses, or a really challenging ride on a bicycle. I don’t recall Hilliary ever coming to my house. What was the point? All of the engines, the mini-bikes, not to mention the pellet pistols, were at his house. I knew a lot of the guys in his neighborhood, and there was a big, beautiful park there, so it was not a hardship. Also, his family was much nicer than mine, except for my sister. His mom was a loving woman and quite the intellectual, very funny, and his father was a writer for the New York Herald Tribune.
After high school, I never saw Hilliary again. The last time that I saw him, I made the trip to his house, not a daily but a frequent occurrence. He was in a bad mood. He was trying to make some time with a girl who lived across the street. He said uncharitable things about me hanging around stepping on his time, things that were probably justified. I went home, and I never saw him again. It happened quickly.
Within a month of graduating high school I had a new girlfriend, and I was spending a certain amount of time at her house. I already had many friends in her neighborhood. Her father worked at a big defense plant in town. He got home from work at about four-thirty, and we’d be sitting there, me, my girlfriend and her sisters, watching “Dark Shadows” or something. One day her dad walked in, and he was in a somber mood. “One of the guys,” he said, “his brother died. Car crash.”
Now I knew that Hilliary’s older brother worked at the place. He was a diver, SCUBA and deep sea. So, on a long shot, I asked her dad, “what’s your friend’s name?” He gives me that look, like what difference does that make? “Mike Carroll,” he says.
That’s how I found out about it. I called the house and talked to Hilliary’s mother, she was putting up a brave front. Hilliary had gotten himself an Austin-Healey sports car after graduation. It was early in the spring of the next year. On the night that he died, Hilliary was driving the Healey ridiculously fast through a particularly dangerous piece of road close to his house. A piece of road where a car going too fast will become airborne and then bounce. This happens while the road is going into a sharp turn, which can be fun or fatal, depending on the luck of the draw. I'll bet that he had done it before, successfully. A friend was in the car with him that night. The friend was lucky enough to be thrown from the vehicle. “Left-handed luck” that, but he lived and he looked pretty intact at the funeral. Hilliary was behind the wheel when the car spun into a light pole. He was killed instantly, and smashed up in the process. It was a closed casket funeral.
The funeral was a quiet affair. Hilliary was buried up in Connecticut; I’ve never seen the grave. His mom carried on nicely, but his dad took it very, very hard. He never recovered, in fact. He never went to work, not one day, after the death. I don’t think he ever ate at all after the funeral. He just sat in a chair in the dark until he died; it took less than ten days.
I took it better than that. Not quite in stride, but to me it wasn’t totally unexpected. Hilliary was too fond of speed and danger. Those guys often die young.
(To be continued.)