In a way, he was my best friend – even though long stretches of time may have passed between our connections.
Many of us have a special friend who makes our lives richer, both in collected memory and in at-the-moment enjoyment. Such was my friendship with Chuck Elkins, who was killed in a bicycling accident years ago in Colorado.
Our friendship dated back to 1963, when we were both in the military at the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Buffalo, New York. As young 20-somethings, we just celebrated life on our own in the city. As military men, we often dropped in at the local USO for socializing. We went out to the air base in Niagara Falls for dances. We played pickup sports. Life was an adventure.
Chuck was especially proud of his Philly heritage. He claimed to have come from the same area as those early rock ‘n’ rollers — Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Frankie Avalon. He had a “wise guy” persona about him.
I was an attendant at his wedding before I was eventually shipped overseas to serve in a NATO headquarters in Fontainebleau, France.
In the meantime, he had begun to attend the University of Buffalo. Upon my return from France and my own completion of college, I took a camping trip around the U.S., stopping along the way to visit old friends. The first stop was to see Chuck, still in Buffalo.
He, in turn, was an attendant at my own wedding, making it to the ceremony despite a fierce February snowstorm.
Early in our marriages, we visited each other’s homes in Stockbridge and Newburyport, but the most memorable moment in our friendship came when Chuck visited us in Newburyport so that he could participate in the Boston Marathon. When we got home, he went into the guestroom to peel off his running outfit. All of a sudden, he called out, “Stu, your dog just ate my sock.”
Indeed, our family golden retriever had wandered in, found the odor appealing and gulped down the sock. Then, six days later, while on a walk with my wife, he coughed it up. She picked it up on the end of a stick and brought it home.
We washed it, bleached it and framed it for him with the caption, “This sock passed through the 1988 Boston Marathon in 2:50:42 and one golden retriever, AKC #SE882611, in six days, 18 hours, and some-odd minutes.”
Alas, Chuck and his wife eventually parted, and he shifted careers from lobbying and sales for such outfits as the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association to teaching at a public high school in New Jersey.
“I’m still running but am always injured,” he wrote of his training. “It’s tough when the body gets old faster than the mind.”
Chuck was always a dreamer. He was a restless soul, frequently changing addresses, college majors, jobs, cars, careers, recreational choices, even, eventually, life partners.
Every now and then, he would stop by. I vividly remember dinner with him and my wife at a Newburyport restaurant. On a gorgeous summer evening, we sat under an umbrella in outdoor seating, chatting about those things that old friends discuss. It was a highlight of that summer.
When the time came, Chuck drove from the Philly area to attend my older son’s wedding in western Connecticut. He also attended the New Hampshire wedding of my younger son, arriving with a new relationship interest, Suzanne, a widow from the school where he had finished his teaching career. She was delightful.
“Suzanne and I really enjoyed coming up to the wedding,” he wrote. “We had a great time, even if it was too short. I also feel it would be nice if we were closer, but, as I’ve said, the highway runs both ways!”
Another highlight was the annual exchange of Christmas letters. Now, the cards, the calls and the visits have come to a tragic end when they could have enriched our lives for years to come.
Instead, we would visit his home for his funeral.
It was a sad, six-hour trek down the I-95 corridor between Newburyport and Philadelphia to put the official stamp on the end of a 45-year friendship.
While we have no choice in our relatives, we do choose our friends. Circumstances throw two people together. They find something in each other that fills a need, creates fun, leads to caring, builds a bank of memories, offers anticipation … . A friend is always out there at the ring of a phone, the click of an email, the formality of a written letter. Death brings an end to those possibilities, so it was with a deep breath and heavy hearts that my wife and I entered the funeral home
“He was doing what he loved to do,” his daughter said of his bicycling.
So here we were, gathered together in Chuck’s memory. The togetherness began to help. We lingered into the evening.
I sat numbly through the funeral service the next day, my thoughts flying all over the place like the notes of the trumpet soloist who had been hired to celebrate that phase of Chuck’s earlier life.
Then, a long, slow procession took Chuck to his final resting place.
While this tragedy produced shock, disbelief, sadness and even anger, it was a reality that we had to deal with. It is better to have had such a friend and lost him than to never have had such a friend in the first place.
Stuart Deane lives in Newburyport.