We’re at that age when people start dropping like flies, and I don’t like it one bit. Many of the famous ones are our age; that seems to be the worst of it. It was terrible when ‘Trane died, or Lenny Bruce, but that had little to do with us personally. Even that mass-extinction that hit my generation around 1970, all of those rock and rollers who eased on down the road around the age of twenty-eight, almost all of that was lifestyle stuff. If you had made slightly better lifestyle choices, you were probably okay for a few more decades. Now it’s different.
Now it’s not only a constant procession of our longtime favorite musicians and movie stars to the cemetery, writers, film directors, and whatever, it’s also people that we personally knew as children. Friends that we either knew very well for years at some point in our lives or have known for all of our lives. Dropping like flies in all categories. For many of the famous ones, and for many of our friends as well, lifestyle choices still enter into the calculus. Cigarettes, drinking, drugs, you know. But not for all. Lots of straight arrows our age are just giving up the ghost suddenly, or coming down with some terrible affliction that carries them away in no time. It’s very disturbing.
Some of these deaths hit us harder than others. I’m going to stick to Baby Boomer age for the famous people; all of our personal friends are Boomers, after all.
David Bowie’s passing was a bit hard to take, wasn’t it? He kept the details so secret, and he was so nonchalantly full of life right up until the announcement of his death. That last photo of him shows him apparently bursting with life when in fact he was preparing to burst out of the cocoon of life. With a new LP released within a few days of his death! I think that one of the things that we valued most about David all through his career was the high energy that he brought to life and performing. His enthusiasm for seemingly everything. That’s the way of it, I think. The deaths that are hard for us to accept are the deaths of individuals who were thirty-five ounces of energy stuffed into a quart bottle. How could it happen? Even worse, if it can happen to them, imagine how easily it could happen to us.
It happened to David Bowie almost three years ago.
I just got the report yesterday about somebody who was very important to me when we were teenagers. The guy had a way about him.
Freddie* and Freddy; we were pretty close there for about four years. Everybody in our town took the diminutive, almost everybody. We were all Bobby, or Tommy, or Johnny, or Eddie, or Lennie, or Connie, or Patty. It didn’t matter how tough you were, or whether you had the same name as your dad, you were Arty, or Mickey, Jackie, or Tony. It was the town.
The only gift that my parents gave to me was the freedom to wander. Neither my mom nor my dad knew or cared where I was at any given time, just as long as I shut up and stayed out of their way, and showed up at school the next day. When I say that I was raised by wolves, it is actually a slander on wolves. Wolves care what happens to their offspring. For me, absent was fine for my parents. It was something similar for Freddie, but I think that his parents just didn’t want to interfere. I think that they did care, actually, but they were too shy to assert themselves. Freddie and his sister were adopted, so maybe his parents were reticent to assert too much authority.
If Freddie and I wanted to stay out all night, it was very simple to arrange. We called our parents in turn, and told them that we were spending the night at the other’s house. “Great. Be seeing you,” was all I ever heard in response. We were then free to arrange our entire night to our advantage.
Freddie had a wild streak a mile wide, and I admired nothing more in my friends. If you would ask around about me, people would tell you that I was a very nice boy, a quiet boy, very polite, and they would be hard pressed to remember any particular time that I got into trouble. They would say that because I was like some kind of high-level spy, a boy that could steal and vandalize at will without getting caught. I was never a particularly bad boy; I was never feared by the other boys; nor was I ever restrained in my behavior by the unnatural demands of the adults. I had my disguise. My mask never cracked. Only my wild-ass friends knew what I was really about.
Freddie was a wild-ass friend.
I hate to admit anything up here on this blog, because who knows where the info ends up? But this is a funeral. This is a special occasion. I owe Freddie some honesty here.
Freddie had made a copy of the key to his father’s 1961 Oldsmobile, and we used it pretty frequently there for a couple of years. We were only fifteen or sixteen at the time. We’d do that calling the parents thing and arranging to be sleeping somewhere else thing, and we’d just hang out until the lights went out. In the meantime, we’d have been standing out in front of one of the local delicatessens, waiting for an over-eighteen big brother of a friend that we knew. “Hey Bobby! How about picking us up a few beers!” That was the easiest trick in town. We knew a lot of over-eighteen guys. It never took long. Then we’d stash the beer in the bushes somewhere and just hang out with whomever was around. When all of the house lights had been out for a while, we’d help ourselves to Freddie’s dad’s Oldsmobile.
Man, that was a fast car. Pretty typical 1960s General Motors car: lousy handling; shitty brakes; balloon tires; huge, powerful engine. Oh, man, safe? It was not. We’d be drinking the warm beer, driving around. Not just driving, we’d be looking for roads that were not under any observation where you could get the car up to one hundred miles per hour. Freddie liked to find places where you could roar up to an intersection where the grade fell off suddenly on the other side, so that the car might actually become airborne. These were very narrow streets, mind you, and if you landed with the front wheels crosswise, you were dead. Stone dead. No ifs, ands, or buts about it, stone cold dead. It happened to teenagers in our town every year. We all remember a couple of the names. RIP, Bobby K. We were just two lucky Freds, Freddie and Freddy. I still marvel at our luck.
We could do that all night. Around dawn, after the milk-man had made his deliveries, we’d help ourselves to a couple of quarts of milk for breakfast. After the newspapers had been delivered, we’d take one of two of them as well. Real menaces to society, small scale. Was it wrong? Of course it was, but I don’t recall worrying about it. Was it dangerous? You’re damn right it was. We didn’t worry about that either.
Through all of this mayhem, we were only challenged by police on one occasion. We had run the car out of gas in town at about 4:00 a.m. Usually we were careful to replace the gas that we used, or most of it anyway, and have the car back where it was expected to be before dawn. This particular night we were pushing the car back to its spot, let’s see how it goes, devil take the hindmost. Freddie had one hand on the steering wheel and his shoulder pressed into the door frame; I had both hands on the trunk. A police car came to an intersection just as we were pushing the car through it, and they blipped the siren. We stopped immediately, of course. Those guys have clubs and guns.
Since Freddie’s hand was on the wheel, they addressed him first. I retired to the kitty-corner and lit a cigarette. The three of them spoke together for about five minutes. Freddie, of course, was underage, drunk, and without documentation of any kind. No license, no registration, no nothing. After the five minutes, both cops got back in their cop car and drove off. I thought to myself, “this guy is a fucking magician.” I had planned my getaway route through backyards by then. “What did you tell them?” I asked. Freddie casually said, “that it was my car! I ran out of gas!” You have to be good to get away with that one.
Freddie was not really a wild boy. Neither was I. We were just fun-loving. We had a good time. Along with other friends, we thought nothing of setting off for Jones’s Beach at midnight, without really considering how long it would take to get there, or what we would do there, or when we could make it back by. (Freddie had his license by then, so we could get around more.) We were all a bit wilder than I would have preferred my own sons to be, and indeed we were wilder than my own sons were, but we all grew up okay. We became productive members of society. Freddie and I both served in the U.S. Navy, and we both worked all of our lives and paid our taxes, we both raised children who were not ashamed to acknowledge us. Neither of us was ever arrested. Freddie even managed to make it through his life with only one wife. (I only made it forty-plus years with my first wife. I just got too damn annoying after a while.)
Most importantly, Freddie was a good person. He never picked on anyone. We all teased each other all the time, but Freddie was very gentle about it, like a good friend should be. He was very handsome and he had great hair. He had the greatest contrapposto that I’ve ever seen, much more graceful that Michelangelo’s David. He had a blonde girlfriend who was so beautiful that it still makes some of us wonder, wow, how did he manage to land her? I’m very glad that I knew him, and I appreciate all of the time that we spent together. I wish that I had stayed more in touch over the years, but that one is a two-way street and it’s not good to think about it too much. Accept your benefit, and just be gracious.
RIP, Freddie. Thanks for everything.
*I don’t want to be too personal here. I lack permission to share these details. For all of my fellow College Pointers, Freddie lived on 6th Avenue close to College Place. If you knew him, that’s close enough for you.