August 16, 2012 | Volume 124, Issue 28

Facing mortality

Wick’s World

You slowly realize that the first time it crept into your life, you weren’t even aware it was happening. It was as innocuous as reading the obituary in the local paper; not just reading the obits, but reading them before anything else. The joke becomes the follow-up to the friend or neighbor’s inquiry, “How are you doing?” And you reply, “Well, my name wasn’t in the obits today.”

What I am referring to is sometimes called the Grim Reaper — the human condition that occurs later in life that is more commonly known as facing one’s own mortality. The recognition comes not with simply reading the obituary column before the news, weather, or sports, but when you see your cohorts’ names with increasing frequency.

I grew up out in the middle of South Dakota on the banks of the Missouri River in the small town of Chamberlain. I had a tendency to hang out with the older kids mainly for the reason that they could get a driver’s license and buy beer sooner than kids my own age. That also gave me a larger pool of friends to pick from.

Once I began a list of who was my best friend back in first grade all the way up through high school. I lost track somewhere in the dozens. Make your list sometime. You will be amazed at how easily and readily most of us went through best friends like used cars — at least I did.

Last Thursday, I got a phone call from a current best friend who resides in Sioux Falls. His morning ritual consists of coffee and reading the newspaper. He must be close to facing his own mortality for I’ve noticed that although he reads the sports page first, the obituaries are never far behind.

Over the years he has been the closest connection to my old hometown. He still owns the family’s homestead, the first house ever built in Chamberlain, and I rely on him for any news concerning my former best friends.

This phone call came with the news “Wick, your old buddy Freddy died.”

Freddy and I developed into best friends when I became his traveling partner on a road trip to Vero Beach, Florida. Freddy had a 1963 Chevrolet convertible and his brother’s credit card and was chasing his dream of one day pitching in the major leagues. Gifted with a powerful arm and unerring accuracy, Freddy was practically unbeatable in American Legion ball. Never one to wander very far from his roots, he was apprehensive about traveling that far by himself. I hitched a ride and we stayed best friends for the better part of a year.

Freddy, who was two years older than me, died at age 67. He spent his life in Chamberlain managing a successful car dealership.

My current best friend called again the following day.

“Wick, I hate to call you every morning, but your buddy Wino died yesterday.”

After Freddy went to work and I started a downhill slide that landed me in the Army, Wino became my next best friend. Wino had just returned from Vietnam and was the guy who eventually convinced me that I needed to become a paratrooper in order to straighten out my life. He had a rather strange way of leading me down the narrow path of righteousness.

Basically, Wino was back in town after a three-year absence and asked if I would help him spend his Army bonus of several thousand dollars, one case of beer at a time. I wasn’t about to become a big league baseball player (and, unfortunately, neither was Freddy), so I joined Wino on a two-month long beer run which consisted of driving around the local towns and drinking beer. Around 4 p.m., we would cruise by the local high school of whatever town we were in to see if we could pick up any chicks. I can honestly state that in those two months we never once picked up a single girl. I am also certain that I didn’t really care.

Following a career as manager at the Chamberlain Pepsi-Cola factory, Wino died at age 68. As I say goodbye from afar to a couple of old “best friends,” I renewed my vow to outlive them all by making each day a full one.

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