Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Punk and My Father

I heard last week that a guy I knew well during my college days had died of stomach cancer.

It would be inaccurate to say that Tony was a friend of mine, because during those years he wasn't. He always seemed to be in my way. At least twice he and I found ourselves vying for the affections of the same coed, which is always a problematic thing. He was a punk of the Los Angeles variant and closer to the real deal than anyone I'd met before. That made him pretty exotic on the campus of a small Wisconsin liberal arts college and it was, shall we say, a competitive advantage in matters of l'amour. He was also a moderately talented guitarist, a better-than-average cartoonist and a guy who had undeniable charisma. He was the kind of guy who would pick up a guitar at a campus party and start banging out songs extemporaneously. And when he did it, he could be funny as hell.

Through a series of events that made little sense then and still don't now, Tony ended up coming up to my house for a few days during the mid-term break of my final semester in college to visit my stepsister. He brought his attitude, his volume of Charles Bukowski and managed to get into an argument with my dad within an hour of arriving. Oddly enough, Dad didn't turn out to be a big fan of Charles Bukowski. The one thing Tony didn't bring was socks, though -- I loaned him a pair of mine. My dad was the quintessence of a sturdy, Midwestern conservative businessman and this Californian who was in his house might as well have been from Mars.

At the same time, the contradictory tendencies Tony had were endearing, once you got past some of the bluster that young men have. And he put his visual talents to good use. After college he went back to California and started a company that was involved in repairing and restoring films, a highly noble thing. His company worked on some important movies -- I saw his name on the credits of the restored version of A Hard Day's Night, among others.

I might have heard from Tony maybe a handful of times in the 25 years or so since we left college. Although he'd stayed in touch with a few of my friends, he hadn't been heard from much lately. Eventually word reached us that he'd passed away. I can't even imagine what having stomach cancer must have been like, but in most cases cancer is a horrible way to die.

When you approach the age of 50, it's inevitable that some of your classmates will die. I've lost at least 5-6 of my high school classmates and several of my college contemporaries. The passions that animate your life when you are young seem pretty silly from this distance. Tony might not have been my friend, but I came to admire the guy behind the pose. I can only hope that he didn't suffer too much and rejoice that now he is in a better place.

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