Saturday, December 7, 2013

Farewell to a Friend

I went to my friend Tony’s website to see what he has been up to lately. He’s a photographer in Philadelphia. His website appeared just as it was the last time I looked, probably 6 to 8 months ago. I looked at some photos from his latest project, the Harlistas Cubanos, Harley Davidson riders in Cuba. I reread his very concise biography where he mentions a number of the cars he had owned, but I noticed he didn’t mention the 1968 Opel GT that he nearly killed himself in. We were both in the Army at Fort Hood Texas when the accident happened. I decided I would mention this fact in the email I was about to write him. I knew his email address, but for some reason I clicked on the contact information section of the website. Instead of finding contact information, I found a eulogy. Tony had passed away December 13, 2012. I couldn’t believe he was gone and that it had been almost a year since he died. I thought we were keeping in touch. I'd had a plan that I hadn’t told him about yet. After our buddy Phil retired, Phil and I would drive to Philadelphia to see him. We’d bring our guitars and play music together just like we did in 1970 when he was convalescing in Dallas after the car accident.

Motor pool inspection of files
Tony, Phil and I were stationed in Texas together in 1968-69. Our entire unit consisted of former Intelligence personnel who were back from Vietnam, but still had more time to do in the Army. We were not dedicated soldiers by this time, most of us had a severe attitude problem concerning the war and the Army. Stateside there was no Intelligence work to be done, so they had us doing paperwork in offices or working in supply or maintenance. I worked in the motor pool, keeping the files in order. The Army really didn’t know what to do with us, we were just biding our time. They should have let us all out early, it would have saved the government a lot of money. But then I never would have met Tony.

The first time I noticed him was in the mess hall. You’ve probably heard about army food. You can eat all you want, but it’s a far cry from gourmet fare. I noticed this guy at the other end of the table pull a small cloth bag from his pocket that contained a pepper grinder. He proceeded to grind fresh pepper all over his pile of bland army food. I knew I had to get to know him.

When I met him, Tony was already an accomplished musician. In 1967 he was playing guitar and singing with some of the rising stars of our generation, on his way to a career as a folk singer/song writer. Then Uncle Sam forced him into service.

We lived on the second floor of an old army barracks, in a big open bay with rows of bunks, one wall locker and one foot locker per bunk. Phil also played guitar and in the evenings after work, he and Tony would sit on the edge of one of their bunks and play and sing. I desperately wanted in. I liked to sing, but didn’t play an instrument. They advised me to buy a guitar, so I bought a Yamaha for $110. They assured me it was a good guitar for the money. I can’t remember what kind of guitar Tony played, maybe a Gibson or a Guild. Phil had an old Martin D-28 that Tony and I coveted. Having performed professionally, Tony knew a lot of songs . He had a beautiful voice, high and sweet and could make it crack at the right moment. Phil could finger pick like Mississippi John Hurt. I had two excellent guitar teachers at my disposal and both were more than willing to guide me along.

One of the first songs Tony taught me was the Jackson Browne song “These Days”. Jackson taught it to him when they were both playing at one of the clubs in LA. Jackson didn’t come out with the song until his first album in 1972 and by then he had significantly changed it, influenced by Greg Allman. The way Tony taught it to me was the original way Jackson played it at the clubs. 

Tony was from Oklahoma City. A few times we drove up to his parents’ house, a day’s drive from Fort Hood. His parents were  always gracious and welcoming. Tony had a girlfriend from Tulsa. I met her once and she seemed nice and was pretty, but the relationship didn’t last. Late one night he returned to the barracks and I knew something was troubling him. I asked him what was wrong and he said his girlfriend had dumped him. He was distraught, but in typical Tony style, instead of telling me all about it, he invited me out onto the fire escape landing where he sang a very sad song written by a friend of his. It was about a guy who lost his girl to another man. We were both in tears by the end of the song.

Just a few months  before being released from the Army, Tony had a bad accident in his Opel GT. His leg was shattered and his jaw was broken and had to be wired shut. He couldn’t eat solid food, but sucked liquid through a straw. He lay in traction, confined to an army hospital bed. Phil and I visited him every chance we could. His hospital room became a music studio. The hospital personnel fell for Tony’s charm and against regulations, allowed us to bring our guitars to his room. Phil and I would sing and play for him and this cheered him up. When his jaw healed enough, the doctors unwired it and he could eat solid food and join us making music. I still play many of the songs we sang when we were young and anxious to get on with our lives

Not long after we were released from the Army, Phil and I visited Tony in Dallas, where his parents now lived. Tony was still recuperating form the accident . We stayed with his family for about a week playing music, eating his parents’ excellent food and laughing a lot. At the time I thought we would be getting together like this from time to time throughout our lives, but it didn’t happen. Phil and I left Dallas in my MG.  I dropped him off in Orange County and continued up the coast to the Northwest where I would remain for most of my life. I never saw Tony again.  We talked on the phone a few times and stayed in touch by email. 

Tony in Vietnam

Me in Vietnam
 When Tony and I went places together, people thought we were brothers.  We looked alike, but weren’t related in that way, so I denied it at the time. Now I realize they were right. Few people in life get into your heart and remain there.  Tony was one of those few. I’m going to miss you brother.