Old friends, old memories and old mistakes
The rumor was that Joey killed a guy. I never learned if that was true. Soon after I heard that rumor, Joey killed himself. I was 18 in 1972; he was 20. Despite our age differences we had both just graduated from high school.After he died, I told people he was my best friend, which was true. It was also true that I probably wasn’t his best friend. Suffice to say, I was his friend and he was a guy I admired with a teenager’s fascination. He was big, barrel-chested, shaved his head before it was in fashion and had jail-house tattoos; his nickname was “Bear.”Both of us were from broken homes, a rarity during that place in time. In each other, we found an understanding ear. After graduation we got jobs at a dog-racing track. We would drive to work together and usually go out for drinks and whatever after the track shut down.
Graduation was liberating for us both. He was no longer the bad kid in school, and I was no longer a jock with a learning disability. We were just two guys stuck in our hometown trying to figure out what to do with our newly found freedom. Vietnam was winding down and both of us had high military draft numbers. Our only threat was our own poor choices and bad behavior. Neither of us was college material. Joey was going to learn to be a plumber, and I hoped to travel and write books like Jack Kerouac. If Joey wondered how someone who wasn’t smart enough to get into college was going to be smart enough to write for a living, he never mentioned it. That summer was magic for me. I was young enough to be hopeful and old enough to get into bars. My father would ask me what I thought I was doing with my life. When I told him I was just going to “live it,” he’d say if I wasn’t careful I’d end up “like those bums who you see every night at the dog track.”I didn’t have the courage to tell him I was going to be a writer; I knew that, unlike Joey, he wouldn’t have let that statement go unchallenged.
A woman came between Joey and me. At the end of the summer, I met Mary, my first love. She got me to quit the track and work for her father’s diner.For the most part, Mary was very good for me. She kept me out of trouble and away from Joey, and when she dumped me I moved to Colorado. I went from seeing Joey every day to only every few weeks. As I mentioned, I was dumb and in love. I reasoned that there’d be plenty of time later to hang with my buddies. After all, we were young, healthy and free. Though Joey and I weren’t that good for one another, he was worse without me. The last few times I saw him, he was driving too drunk to have a conversation. By that time, I’d lost my dishwashing job and Mary dumped me – not in that order. Joey had made some other friends. Back then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, almost everyone I knew did drugs. It was more a matter of how much, how often and how bad. The story went that my friend, while high on whiskey and pills, had seriously hurt somebody. I never learned all the details. I kept meaning to hook up with him, find out the truth and offer my help. Unfortunately, I was too busy.
The night Joey died, I went to the dog track to try to get my job back. I saw my friend, and after a few minutes of small talk, I asked him if the rumors were true. When he heard my question, he looked scared and panicked. We made plans to meet once he got off work. I waited; he never showed up. He died that night.Even now, more than 30 years later, I can’t believe how poorly I handled our last encounter. Had I known then what I know now, I might have been able to help Joey. But we both were young, and I was stupid.What I do know now that I didn’t know then is that no one lives forever. Poor choices can stay with you longer than the hair on your head. And most importantly, the cold, hard truth is that your memories often outlive those you love …Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of “Biff America” can be seen on RSN television, heard on KOA radio and read in several mountain publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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