Dealing with death is never easy. As we grow older, it is inevitable that we will lose grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles. Even when they live to old age, it is still sad. Just as difficult is the death of a sibling – especially if he or she was younger. Losing family, whether old or young, is one of the most difficult things any of us will deal with – a blood relative, a spouse, or a child.
But when people your own age – people you grew up and went to school with; people you remember as young and energetic – when those people die, it brings another kind of sadness. If you keep in touch with your old high school alumni association, you may occasionally receive a newsletter with a list of those who have passed on recently. Or maybe you only just discovered a Facebook page dedicated to remembering old school friends who are no longer with us.
Looking at such a list elicits mixed emotions. Although we often want to know what happened to people we knew way back then, it makes it difficult when we discover that some of them have died, some of them far too young. I suppose in part, the emotion has to do with the unreality of coming to grips with our own mortality – realizing we are not so young anymore, we are not going to live forever, and we will eventually grow old and pass on. When I read that list, I feel an odd mix of nostalgia and sadness, remembering friends as I knew them decades ago, and trying to imagine them as adults who lived their lives and died too young.
I remember old friends, friends from my youth. I remember those friends as though it were yesterday, even though I have not seen most of them for at least 45 years. I remember those times and the good friends, those still living, and those who have passed on.
The Facebook page '70's Bash Madison River Memorial Float' contains a Memorial List of the names of friends of mine (and many others I went to school with who I did not know) from pre-high school days who have left us too soon.
The youngest name on that list is my friend, Kim Regli. Kim was a 12-year-old classmate at Willson School in Bozeman in 1967. He was struck and killed by lightening while playing the outfield at a little league baseball game one stormy spring day. I remember I had played earlier that day, and was hanging around the fields to watch later games. The weather had been threatening for most of the day, and when the next game began, the game Kim was in, the clouds were dark and ominous. When the first raindrops began to fall, I jumped on my bicycle and went home, so I wasn't there when the lightening struck Kim. I remember trying to figure out how a kid could die while playing baseball. I played baseball all the time; dying just didn't seem to fit in, especially for a 12-year-old friend like Kim.
It still doesn't.
I recall that another classmate, John Mace (Class of '73), called me a day or so later to tell me of the memorial service that would be held for Kim. John made the Memorial List when he died in 2005 at the age of 50.
My family moved away from Bozeman halfway through 9th grade, in December 1969, so I lost touch with the kids I had known since 3rd grade. More than forty years passed and one day I signed up for a Facebook account. My wife had been telling me she was back in touch with school friends on Facebook, so I decided to give it a try.
Not long after joining Facebook, I reconnected with several Bozeman friends from back in the day. One of them told me of a page that served as a memorial for friends who had passed on. When I joined that page, the first thing I saw was the list, and the first name I recognized was a friend who had been a year ahead of me in school.
Back 1966, when I was in fifth grade, I ran for school President (in a school consisting entirely of 5th and 6th grades). I don't know what made me think I could win such an election, but I went ahead and tried. There were at least three students running for the office; I was probably the only fifth grader in the race.
The favorite was a sixth grader, a boy named Russell Day (Class of '72). I was terrified on the day we were scheduled to stand on the stage at the Willson auditorium and address the student body. I had never been on a stage alone before, and my speech was something less than inspiring. When Russ took the microphone, the crowd came alive. He gave a rousing speech, promising TV's in every room, no more homework, and a host of other things he obviously couldn't deliver. He had the crowd of students roaring approval, probably to the dismay of every adult in the building. I remember that speech from 47 years ago, a lasting memory from a memorable character.
Unfortunately, Russ died in 1983, aged 28.
Audie Strickler (Class of '75) was two years behind me, but he and I played on the same Little League baseball team in '65 or '66. We played for Gallatin Lumber, a local Bozeman business.
We weren't very good and we didn't win many games. Audie was clearly the star of the team, and we could count on him to pitch well every time he took the mound. It was no exaggeration to say that Audie carried the team. For the last game of the season, we had been promised a big ice cream party for that night, but we were told that the party would happen only if we won. We only played 4 inning games back then. Audie started and pitched the first two, and we scored 13 runs. Audie was throwing a shutout, exactly the kind of game he was famous for.
We were ahead 13-0 when my Dad (our coach) put me in to pitch. Over the next two innings, I gave up 11 runs, and we barely won, 13-11. As we came off the field, Audie trotted past me, slapped me on the back with his glove, and said:
"Way to hold 'em, buddy."
Although Audie had almost certainly been worried that I would blow the huge lead and cost us the game and the party, he never said it. It's funny what you remember from decades past, but that day is clear in my mind – a great memory of an old friend.
Audie took his own life in 1985 when he was 29 years old.
Jay Schuttler (Class of '72) lived down the street from me in '66-'69. He used to drive around on his motorized mini-bike. He let me ride it once, and I nearly wrecked it. One lazy summer day after playing baseball, Jay told me he had a couple of books that I might like.
He gave me two books written by George Plimpton: 'Out of My League', and 'Paper Lion'. I remember that I spent the next few days reading. They were so entertaining I couldn't put them down, because they were the kind of books you enjoy so much you hate for them to end. I had never heard of Plimpton or his books before, if not for Jay, I might never have discovered this author who became one of my favorites. After that, I bought every Plimpton book that came out. I enjoyed a lifetime of great reading from one of the greatest writers who ever lived, all because my friend Jay Schuttler gave me those first two.
I still have them.
Jay died from pancreatic cancer in 2008, at the age of 53.
I remember going to a party in 8th grade, in late 1968. An old friend from back then, Kelly Roberti, reminded me that this party had been at the house of our friend Kevin Guptill (Class of '73). At the time, I had a crush on a girl, and Kevin gave me some very sound and sage advice for how to handle this crush. I don't remember the exact conversation, but he helped to make an awkward situation easier for both that girl and me. It was one friend doing his best to help out two of his friends; just the kind of guy he was.
It was only after Kevin died of accidental drowning in May 2013 that I found out more about his life. I learned he had lost his left hand and much of his forearm while helping his Dad cut meat in a grocery store when he was 16. Despite the injury, Kevin went on to a highly successful high school wrestling career. He was a young man not inclined to allow a terrible injury to slow him down.
Our mutual friend Carl Geertz called him, "A Champion". Another friend, Greg Hall (Kim Regli's cousin), reported a good turnout for Kevin's memorial service, held about a week after he died. Many old friends who had not seen each other for years came together to celebrate Kevin's life and to mourn the loss of a man who had touched many lives, including mine. I remember how he helped me out all those years ago.
Some things you never forget.
Gary Bykonen (Class of '73) was a guy with many friends. Until Facebook, I had not seen or heard from Gary in more than 40 years. We reconnected when he commented after reading this article when it first appeared in May 2013, that he had lived next door to Jay Schuttler some time during those long ago school years. Gary jokingly mentioned several times that he knew he was still okay as long as his name wasn't on the Memorial List.
Then, in August 2014, Gary was killed while riding his motorcycle on a Seattle highway. Some time later, a friend of Gary's who was unaware he had died, posted on the Facebook page a note to Gary that his name was on the list. I recall thinking I didn't want to be the one to respond and tell her. Another friend gently informed her that it was not a mistake. Gary's name was on the list because he had passed away.
Gary was 61.
Our old friend Kelly Roberti (back in the '60's, we knew him as Kelly Roberty) was a unique character. He was one of those guys who always stood out, and when he and I began corresponding on Facebook several years ago, I was not surprised to discover that he had led an interesting life. He was a world-renowned jazz bassist and composer, an accomplished chef, teacher, author/poet, and a world-class non-conformist. Kelly was also a man who was not the least bit timid about offering opinions on the state of the world, music, people, and more.
"He was a brilliant contrarian asshole genius," said Kelly's long time friend Dave Vaughan.
Kelly met Yae and they were married in February 2012. Yae was a Japanese citizen, and she was forced to leave the US a month later due to some apparently arcane immigration rule. Kelly and Yae fought the US government for two years, trying to get them to allow her to return to live with her husband. After a prolonged battle, Yae did finally return in January 2014, surely expecting to live a long, happy life with Kelly.
Then, in a post from July 2015, Kelly reported on Facebook that he had lung cancer. Over the next nine months, he detailed his struggle, more often than not in good humor, and always showing his spirit and his desire to beat the insidious disease. As I followed his journey via Facebook, I was sure he would win, recover, and carry on as usual.
Sadly, cancer took him in March 2016, only a little more than two years after he was reunited with his wife.
Many people have friends who died young. As we grow older we will reach a point when old school friends start to go, too many, too soon, it seems. It is a sobering thing to realize that although when we were young we were bullet proof, we're not anymore.
We miss those old friends regardless of whether we kept in touch or not. They were a part of what made us who and what we are – the people we knew in our lives who helped to shape the way we look at the world.
They were and still are important to us – those old friends who left us too soon.
Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'.
He also writes about baseball for Climbing Tal's Hill, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat, and is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America.
He lives in Central Texas with his wife and family.