Eric did not come empty-handed when he pulled his full-sized pickup truck into my driveway late last spring. As I approached the driver’s side door, he abruptly floored the accelerator, causing the big V-8 to thunder in neutral, what I would only begin to understand much later was a frustrated fist-shake at the world.
Grinding the bare stub of a cigarette into the floorboard with shaking hands, he brushed my outstretched palm aside as he gave me a big hug. I hugged him back, after all, we had seen a lot, shared a lot, together more than a quarter century earlier, when we were both charged with the electric stupidity of youth that passes for fearlessness. Eric and I had flown together during our first six-month deployment on the USS Ranger to the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. He filled my arms with gifts, and we walked into the house.
Unshaven, with stubble encircling an otherwise bald head, Eric’s eyes darted furtively behind wire glasses. Eric looked like shit, I thought, as I slowly made sense of the jumbled bits and pieces of our phone conversations over the past several days. Eric was either nearing a nervous breakdown, or experiencing some sort of manic episode, I couldn’t tell what exactly, but he was in bad shape.
And then, abruptly, he wasn’t, and it was steady as she goes, and my old bombardier/navigator was back: confident, razor sharp, intently asking, “how are you doing, Petey,” the awkward nickname he would use to try and get a rise out of me. For the next four hours, we visited as he transited the disconnected states of his tormented life, a topic to which I am not wholly unfamiliar. Alternating tales started in fact that slowly began to stray from reality, and hysterical references to “pilot candy” and various close ones on the aircraft carrier that I knew to be true, it became clear that the same old Eric was in there, especially when he spoke of his love for his children. We shared more than a few laughs, hugs, and tears before it was time for him to leave.
It was only as Eric was getting ready to leave that I took stock of his gifts. Six Asian specialty beers, a mini toy fishing pole, three packs of Starbursts (“pilot candy” to give me a boost of energy to land the jet safely after a long night of flying). A beautiful photo of a Hawaiian sunset ready to be framed was also there, several small American flags, the kind waved at parades, and finally one huge, ship-sized orange life ring, much too big to use on my boat. After a final hug and “I love you, brother” uttered by both of us, I told him to come visit anytime.
He never did.
Last Sunday evening, Eric took his own life. I won’t pretend to understand the why, other than the obvious: the relentless attacks by demons of who knows what origin became too much for him to bear. What I do know, however, is that Eric—adoring father, caring friend, and life observer of uncommon insight and wisdom was in there, dealing as best he could with a terribly cruel and uncaring world. I will remember Eric as always kind.
May you find peace at last, old friend.