In the spring of last year I was invited to a dinner party featuring about ten people from our high school class as well as a few spouses they’d later met. Eager to revive youthful experiences, I drove from Bakersfield more than four hours up the gut of the Central Valley to Sacramento where I entered a cathedral of trees in an upscale condominium complex much shadier than last time I saw it.
About six p.m. my college-educated friends – I was one of the few who held a mere bachelor’s degree – began arriving, and I at once felt comfortable with those I’d known well. While filling in a generation or two of details, we interacted with the ease of teenagers who’ve been chatting daily since junior high or before. Hey, what’s Joe doing? How’s Melinda? Whatever happened to Billy? Do you remember the time we…? It was exciting to ask and fun to answer.
When I spotted big Dan, six-foot-three and husky, I walked over and shook hands and right away felt as I had in the halls of high school and at noisy teenage parties. Amid memories of wild times, Dan was aglow, smiling and energetic.
“I’ll always think of you as Beer Can Dan,” I said. “Not that you drank as much as I did.”
“I knew that was my permanent nickname when the principal came up to me one day and said, ‘Hi, Beer Can.’”
“How long’s it been since we’ve seen each other, Dan?”
“Summer after high school,” he said.
“I can’t believe it. Remember that time you rode with me on Highway 99 to Fresno in my parents’ Cutlass 442? That’s the fastest I ever drove. The car was a bomb.”
During a ten-second stretch without another car in sight, sober but crazed by the hormones of youth, I hit an appalling speed I refuse to quote.
“I remember,” he said, recalling other ancient misadventures. “All of us were idiots in those days.”
Several years before this gathering, I’d emailed Dan that after a recurring battle with booze I finally established permanent sobriety and had many years without a drink. He congratulated me and noted, “I’m sure you’ve got a better life now and you’ll probably live longer.”
Dan, like a majority of those who drink, could sip a few, control his intake, and enjoy himself. But about ten percent of us simply don’t have an off button.
“I hear you became a lawyer,” I said.
“Yes, real estate law.”
“How’d things go?”
“Pretty well,” he said, modestly.
“I taught ESL for adults and have also been writing for years.”
“Do you have a publisher or are you self-published?”
Dan didn’t mean that as the stinging question it once would’ve been but no longer is.
“I’m the publisher and the writer,” I said. “Technology makes that possible.”
“By the way, my wife and I are considering moving back to Sacramento. Bakersfield’s okay but Sactown’s a lot nicer.”
“You should move back here, Tom,” he said, and turned to the gathering to add, “It’s time for Tom to come back home.”
Several urged me to return.
Dan continued in fine form throughout the evening. He’d been undergoing chemotherapy, including treatment the day before, and had lost all his hair but his spirit enabled him to retain and even enhance his qualities. Remarkable, I thought. This time I’m going to stay in touch.
When mutual friends called or emailed about Dan’s worsening condition, I got his phone number and left a message but he didn’t reply and I heard he’d decided to maintain privacy. I finally texted best wishes to his girlfriend. In a few days dozens of old friends filled his voice mailbox and posted tributes on Facebook. We’ve lost a special friend in Beer Can Dan. And we’re reminded our clocks are ticking too.