My friend Hal died on this day in 1992. He had specifically asked to be remembered on Arbor Day- not his birthday, and not the anniversary of his death- but in that, I must disappoint him. After all these years I take my memories when they come to me.
You remember MySpace, right? It was all the rage for what now feels like a period of about sixty to ninety days back at a time that seems so long ago in this internet age that it might as well have involved punch cards and vacuum tubes. But I digress. What follows is a portion of something I wrote on my MySpace blog back in 2007 when I was training to run the 2008 Country Music Half Marathon in Nashville.
One day in August some 20 years ago, I met a guy named Hal Rather at the National Junior Classical League convention at the University of Colorado, Boulder, all thanks to a guy named Scott Clemons. Scott was hosting that year's "That's Entertainment!", the annual convention talent show. I didn't know Hal; he didn't know me. Scott knew us and he needed material for the show. He handed us a stack of blank paper and said, as best as I can recall, "I need more material for tonight. You guys are funny. Write me something funny."
So a friendship starts.
There were other people in the room, other funny people- Laura, Lucy, Joe, Jenny, other faces and names are flashing but not connecting- and we threw together a ton of material that afternoon then headed off to eat dinner and go to the show. There'd been a running joke concerning one of the nightly dances at Convention that year. It had a cowboy theme; in fact, the dance had a name: I Wanna Be A Cowboy (Yo, Yo, Yo). There was a country & western band, and smart-asses like us who'd see The Blues Brothers one too many times kept asking the band if they knew the Theme from Rawhide.
They did not.
Hal and I did.
We figured that out walking from dinner to the dress rehearsal. By the time we got to the venue, we were ready to go. We had a setup and we had a two-person a cappella rendition of the Theme from Rawhide. We pitched it to Scott, he bit, and... and because Scott didn't come back to Convention after that, we co-wrote and hosted that show ourselves for the next three years.
I don't remember exactly when I found out that Hal had leukemia. Sometime in late 1991 or early 1992. Hal had spent most of the previous year abroad at the University of Copenhagen- in fact, Hal is the only person I know who spent each year of college at a different institution. Ironically, he was at Boston University the year before I met him. Then he transferred to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. For his junior year, he was in Copenhagen, and when he came back to the US he was at the school at which we'd first met, University of Colorado at Boulder. He left Boulder early to go into the oncology unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
He died on August 4th, 1992. Hal was a funny, sharp, vibrant guy, as funny and sharp as I've ever known (and I'm around some hilarious people on a regular basis). I'd known him four years, almost to the day. I was at that year's NJCL convention when it happened, flew to Nashville and arrived a couple of hours before the funeral. And then I helped carry the casket to the gravesite, and watched them lower his remains into the ground. But Hal wasn't in that box. He'd already gone on to the next adventure.
My strongest memory from Hal's death is this: I was alone, driving through Nashville, time on my hands. I wanted solace. I went to a record store on 21st Avenue looking for some music that I could slip into like a comfortable shoe, something that would soothe me and maybe distract me. They didn't have what I had intended to buy but my eyes fell on Joe Jackson's Body and Soul, which is one of my favorite albums, and I snapped it up. I got in the car, unwrapped it, threw it in the tape deck, and turned on to 21st Avenue. The first track started- The Verdict.
When buying the tape, I'd forgotten about the lyric. What I had intended to be something comfortable threw me a sucker punch in the second verse:
Some people live so fast
They're so scared of getting old
Some people keep on working
All they do is line their graves with gold
We don't know what happens when we die
We only know we die too soon
But we have to try or else our world becomes a waiting room
Would you testify for me?
I think I'd do the same for you.
I didn't return to Nashville for sixteen years, when I went there to run the 2008 Country Music Half Marathon with my friends Sharon and Karen. We accompanied Hal's mother to his gravesite, and I stood looking down at the granite marker with his name on it. At the bottom of the marker, below his name and the dates that mark his time on this earth, is this line: He had a good time along the way. It's inspired by the Jimmy Buffett song He Went to Paris.
I was 39 years old. Hal will be 22 in perpetuity.