Month: October 2019

Remembering my high school friendship with Will Craig

What is striking in the photos of Will on Facebook in the last few years is the joyful glint in his eye, with just a hint of mischievousness, a healthy dose of ego, and a large dose of humble warmth. It is precisely the same Will knew over three decades ago in high school. His presence was a joy. We really enjoyed each other’s company, and we laughed a lot. Adolescent laughter, not “adolescent humor”– that derogatory phrase used to by adults to describe bathroom humor, mean-spirited vulgarity, and the type of sex jokes made by those who know nothing about sexual relations. There might have been a few dirty jokes I suppose, but we were uncomfortable with vulgarity. What I remember is the unguarded laughter of happy teenagers. We were young men who, because we were provided with plenty of love from family, friends, and community, were able to set aside adolescent self-consciousness and just be. He was better at that than I was.

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(Will and I in 2008 or 2009)

We met in 8th grade when Will showed up at Grass Junior High and tried to find his way amidst the fairly tightly knit clusters of students who had known each other a long time. He seemed to have arrived from no where and it wasn’t quite clear whether he was “cool” or not. He wasn’t, at least by the Grass junior high definition. At the same time, after my brief pimpled assault on “cool” popularity, wearing Timberland top-siders and Benetton sweaters, I more-or-less stopped speaking to anyone in order to find myself again (my discovery of Bob Dylan and the fact that Bruce Springsteen and Prince were also poets around that time was probably related to this transition).

But I spoke to Will. Our friendship began around that time, and I remember attending one of the only “student appreciation days” that I went on (my talking out of turn had earned me enough demerits every semester of the rest of my junior high career to prevent my participation prior to my vow of silence). We went to Valley Fair and had a lot of childlike fun on the rides, but the only thing I remember is a brief moment where we successfully rode a ride with a couple pretty, popular girls, and were blessed with a little of their attentions.

Ladies men we were not. Too innocent and shy about the implications of romance, we were more comfortable on sports teams and church groups. Our humor lacked irony, but it filtered in via nerdy influences like the Bloom County comic strip and Monty Python. With our innocence (naivete) and adolescent intellectuality we were attracted to the emerging subversive humor of those cast as nerds in the junior high hierarchy.

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(Will and I pretending to be drunken idiots in 2009 or 2009)

We didn’t see much of each other in the summers, as I recall. Our summers were filled with Bible camps and family vacations. And I recall very little of our freshman year at Henry Sibley high school. It was a cold and dark building in the winter, a brutalist construction where none of the classrooms had windows. With joking seriousness we used to sit in the corner of the lunch room, where a ray of sunlight cut a narrow band across the table. We would lean over in exaggerated poses to absorb a few rays. I played football and Will ran cross-country. He liked Star Trek and I liked Star Wars. My family was vaguely Republican and his vaguely Democrat. Yet I drifted left and he right. Will may have joined the student council as a freshman or sophomore, and he was on the debate team for a while which consisted of drowning your opponent in facts spoken with the speed of the Federal Express man.

Will was ambitious and found some inspiration in Michael J. Fox’s “Alex P. Keaton” character on “Family Ties.” I recall in Freshman Economics, our teacher Dave Mooney (who went to my church), introduced a role playing game in which you were given a country with various natural resources and population and you could make choices about which industries to develop. Will came back within a week with a new and improved version in which you could develop a much wider range of industries, and progress towards becoming a nuclear superpower. Like I said, Will was ambitious.

My sophomore and junior years blend together into a joyful epoch, in those years when life is so intensely packed with events and bewildering growth. The other place that had sunlight was the hallway outside of some of the language and math classrooms. A nerdy little club gathered daily in that hallway after lunch and horsed around, meditating upon the vocabulary words we had to memorize by rote, and showing off various ways of using pressure and friction to climb and sit on the walls. We waited for the approach of the ancient but still perky teacher Bev Eckholm (who also went to my church…that’s the kind of place West St. Paul was in those days, everyone went to someone else’s church or synogogue…Islam prior to the Somali immigration was something in storybooks mainly.) Carl had wedged himself horizontally across the hall or doorway about four feet up. There was something absurdly funny in Mrs. Eckholm’s reaction, a Dalí-like Jerry Lewis absurdity, and in the miasma of American literature class while Mrs. Eckholm waxed erotically about Ernest Hemingway’s endurance, the picture of Carl and Eckholm’s reaction made me laugh again, and I could not stop laughing, until she sent me out of the room. And I still laugh as recall Will leading us in in a chant of “Sanguine: hopeful, cheerful, bloody.”

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(Will and Colin Klotzbach working on the Insider newspaper)

I think Will got his driver’s license before I did, I’m not all that sure how we got around. But Will being precocious as always got us down to the bohemian district of the West Bank of the University of Minnesota campus. We became regulars at a hippie vegan folk music joint called the Riverside Cafe, and we went to an art house cinema and watched weird movies like the phallic British horror movie the “Lair of the White Worm” or the indie tone poem “Baghdad Cafe” where Jack Palance was a creepy old guy who settles down with a black woman to run a cafe on a deserted desert highway, or “Powwow Highway” which was a breakthrough feature film about two American Indians on a road trip, a complacent mystic and a impatient militant. They take a wrong turn and end up at Devil’s Tower which is thereby reinscribed from alien landing site to spiritual pilgrimage site (and now that I think of, it thereby reinscribes who exactly the white aliens are who invaded and appropriated that site). We performed together as “The Hyper Happy Hippies”on the absurdist public access talk show by our proactively nerdy colleagues. The Jason Kessler and Mike Garland show featured weekly bits like monologues about Printed Paper Napkins and Muff the Wonder Dog which was a wig thrown unceremoniously on the floor, in irony so blatant that it defeated the purpose of irony.

Toward the end of our sophomore year Will hit upon his first political stroke of genius. He realized that no one was running for the communications committee on the student council. the lowliest of the elected positions. So he proposed we run, as unopposed sophomores. We won, and Will commenced to control the lines of public communication. We controlled the music played over the PA system between classes (like musical chairs, when the music ended, you needed to be in class), and played Bob Dylan, The English Beat, and Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side which got us called into the principal’s office. I was away that whole summer, working at a Christian summer camp, in an experience that turned me into a young man, mature in some ways beyond my years, and not quite sure how to proceed. I still knew nothing about girls or friendships. Over the summer, Will acquired the exclusive use of a new Macintosh computer, a fun publishing program called ComicWorks, and the administrative go-ahead to begin publishing a weekly alternative to the official student paper produced 2 or 4 times a year by the journalism class. On the first day of school, in August 1988, The Insider made its appearance under the headline “YUP”: ‘Is this the first day of class? Yup. Is this the first issue of the new Publicity Committee newspaper? Yup.”

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“The Insider” was sloppy and weird and ad-hoc, featuring creative writing, great cartoons by Colin Klotzbach, edited-down-to-nothing record reviews, mock polls where the joke was that sample sizes were 5 or 7, and a little bit of solid reporting when the situation called for it, and it did on several occasions. There was a mass walkout when a school levy referendum failed to pass. On the cover of the next issue, Will wrote:

“Mass hysteria set in when the first referendum failed. People ran around crying “What do we do?” We had heard at least 20 rumors about cuts by 4th hour. People asked us to stay up all night and write an “emergency issue” of the Insider that would compile all the rumors into a screaming mess of lies. We did not follow their advice. We set about obtaining the facts from those who know them. We interviewed teachers, administrators, the superintendent, and school board members, as well as student leaders. Both sides of the issue are represented. We have done our best to give you the facts, please do us the courtesy of reading them.”

A better statement of responsible journalism I have yet to find. Please note that responsible journalism not only entails good reporting but active reading, it’s a two-way street. Later that year a couple students vandalized the school and managed to set off the sprinklers which sprayed everything and managed to release some 20-year old asbestos into the air requiring the building to be shut down for the rest of the year. The whole student body shifted to Grass Junior High and shared the building with split shifts. The Insider appeared on the first day of class at the new location. All of this was Will’s initiative and drive.

Then he registered us to run for class president and vice president. In control of the press, and with a professional quality cartoonist, we got our message out and our caricatured images and won easily. This had been Will’s goal. But he also happened to have taken the ACT exam as a sophomore, and did well enough to get a mailing from the United World College, which he shared with me. I’m sure we talked about it more, but I wound up applying and he didn’t. I got in and he later blamed me for never giving him back his brochures! I think his ambition for student council president outweighed his desire to drop out of high school and join this unknown boarding school in New Mexico. Had he gone, I’m sure he would have made more of that privileged experience than I did.

I heard of my acceptance during the student council campaigns, and he told me not to tell anyone until after the campaign. In the meantime, we contacted a trusted ally in Tracy Hogan. We took her out to lunch at a discreet West Side diner and asked if she would be willing to take over the position of Vice President upon my vacating of the slot. She was agreeable and Will looked forward to a high impact presidency. When this became public, there was a predictable cry foul and Tracy was replaced by a nondescript good girl who made Will’s tenure unproductive and miserable. Meanwhile I dove into an exciting new place of high mountain adventures, sophisticated opinion, and worldly women. With my vast Insider experience, I found my way into a similar role there, editing a newspaper coup under the leadership of a Malaysian version of Will Craig I met there, a trade unionist rather than a Christian conservative, filled with fire and ambition, the same adolescent innocence, but in whom stridency took the place of Will’s warmth. I emerged two years later prepared for life among the elite, and got promptly lost.

Will went to Carleton, the Ivy League quality liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota, and we began to drift out of touch. I visited him early one summer when I got home and his semester drew to a close. We attended a dance party, and in front of massive speakers we danced and blew out our ear drums until dawn. Neither of us ever touched drugs or alcohol. We didn’t need it. I drove home that morning shirtless in a spartan stick shift Jetta on highway 52 back to West St. Paul.

But I have a feeling that something went wrong for Will at Carleton. He was earnest and hard-working and right-leaning, and he found himself among smart pseudo hippies, and a campus culture that didn’t really have much of a place for his kind, and he found no group of wise-cracking nerds with whom he could dominate campus politics. He withdrew and drifted into a more strict and conservative Christianity than had presided in West St. Paul. And I drifted in and out of moral consciousness, depression, and parental clashes, undoing much of the maturity I had gained over the previous few years. I never quite recovered that maturity. And I didn’t see Will again for years.

I went to New York University for college, and stayed there for some years, after a brief stint at a Venezuelan agricultural college. Will took up work as an installer, salesman, and manager for high end electronic building installations. I was still in New York in 1996 when Will invited me to his wedding. He had met Collette at church, a pretty, practical, and sensitive young woman. I don’t recall what I was doing. I was in the midst of an MA degree and perhaps some summer jobs. And I guess I just didn’t have the time or money to attend the wedding, or even, I believe, respond. It didn’t strike me as that important. I could have and should have gone. Like I said, I was lost. Re-connecting with Will at that point would have done me a lot of good in the subsequent years. My joy in life waxed and waned easily, and his steadily solidified. I realize now that for 30 years I had hole in my heart, one of many perhaps, that was Will’s absence. We all grow apart so easily, we drift and get lost, and that is healthy. But to return to the anchors we had in the tempests of adolescence is a good way to get your bearings after exploring the seas of adulthood.

Some years later, I think it was not until after I had returned from three years if teaching in Africa, that I went over to Will and Cully’s house for dinner. It was a warm evening. Will served little filet mignons wrapped in bacon, from the grill. I took the whole visit as a courtesy, and perhaps I apologized for skipping their wedding. But I did not, even then, understand that it was an evening of forgiveness. And I didn’t see them again until I visited with my own bride a decade later, and we were received graciously. But I I still didn’t get it. And I never saw him again.

Will and Cully built a life together, they raised two handsome boys. They home schooled them and brought them on carefully planned field trips across the country. They got involved in a volunteer air force auxiliary which was I suppose related broadly to Will’s conservative patriotism. As with all things he took it very seriously and contributed to that civic-minded organization as well as his church and community. One boy went to Northwestern College of St. Paul, where Cully went to school, and studied to be a pastor, with the goal of serving as an army chaplain. The other went to Carleton college and studied computer science and Chinese, their proud smiling parents in picture after picture.

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(Will and his wife and sons in Civilian Air Patrol uniforms)

Will and Cully died last week in Highway 52, when a full dump truck failed to brake as it approached two stopped cars behind a semi-trailer signaling a left turn. The dump truck crushed them into the semi. The purpose of their drive was for a man and wife, who had raised two polished young men and sent them off to college, to go out on an afternoon date together to walk in the fall foliage along the Mississippi River.

Both sets of parents survived them and are in good health. The boys are on solid ground, they are both now older than Will and I were when we went our separate paths. They are surrounded by that proverbial cloud of witnesses who will love them and encourage them in their life journeys. I hope they will remember the mischievous glint of love in their father’s eye, filled with innocent, ethical, and ambitious joy.