When I learned Nola had died, my first thought was to look for that picture of the two guys in their power-blue tuxedoes standing at the front of the church in Marion, Iowa.
Of course, the two men, boys really, weren’t the focus of that picture. The focus was the beautiful blonde, a tall, former pompon girl at Iowa State University, full of life on that day. The smiling and happy bride. Nola.
As I’m not the world’s most physical guy, I would always greet her with: Nola. N-O L-A. Nola. No-No-No- No Nola … especially if I drank champagne that tasted like cherry cola. Again, another side trek here. But it’s true. I never hear that Kinks song without changing from "Lola" to "Nola" in my head and heart.
The guy next to her in the picture was Jocko, my comrade with whom I chased many dragons and caught a few. Sometimes he didn’t go along for the most reckless of the rides, as I pushed both limits and sky, but he was always there to greet me, literally standing on his head on my returns. He was a loyal and good friend, a guy I loved. Still do. A brother-in-arms.
We’d actually arrived on the cusp of late, at the wedding ceremony.
I had been asked by the tall woman, the bride, to drive her future husband because she was afraid he might be too nervous. Jocko’s mom concurred. “Yes, ladies, I’ll drive.”
Instead, we did as we’d done for years, sped through the countryside, spinning Iowa gravel. Our tuxedo jackets were in the backseat, because we were sipping and sliding toward destiny. Everything was going to change. So we stopped for a bag of grease burgers, as I called them. We tried to make sure they didn’t drip over the fancy suits.
The bridegroom goosed his GTO or whatever the muscle car was … I can’t remember … other than it was brown with a light top and I had driven it a time or two when we were out on our night-time patrols. It drove faster than my ’65 Falcon, although that too found its share of duty as we escaped into Iowa nights.
Finally, a couple of miles from the church, Jocko pulled the car into a picnic area, one of those old roadside things with a turn-around and a picnic table, and said I’d better drive, as everyone expected the best man to be in the pilot’s seat when the groom arrived at the church.
I was the best man that day. I think it was 1974, but it could have been 1975. Perhaps 1976?
Doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago.
Ages of memories and heartache, good things, sad things … just life really … separates that that day from this one.
This morning, Oct. 7, 2010, I learned that Nola was dead. Cancer. A week ago in Montgomery, Ala., where she’d ended up after the divorce that I guess came 20 or so years into the marriage.
Even if I can’t find that picture of the boys in powder-blue, it is in my heart and my sometimes fuzzy, still-concussed brain. The beautiful blonde bride smiled, as did the bridesmaid, her sister, who herself was to get married two weeks later in a bowling alley. There is a side story there that I may tell one day.
I kept that picture among the pictures of my life in an old file cabinet next to my desk in my office before the flood of May 1-2. I didn’t look at it often, but when I did, it always made me smile. It was piled in that drawer with pictures of my grandparents, my various pets, an old drifter pal named Skipper, my mother and a “Have Gun Will Travel: Wire Paladin, San Francisco” calling card from an old Tide box when I was a kid. There was a picture of a young man with long, dark hair and a scraggly beard walking out of the Grand Canyon and sitting by a redwood in the High Sierras. Looked a lot like me.
Parts of my life long gone, people, for the most part, long gone. In the massive Nashville flood that washed away a part of my house last spring, I rescued that cabinet, but it had to be separated and carried to dry land drawer-by-drawer. Some things from lower drawers washed away. Others still are piled, awaiting their turn to be rediscovered, in the garage.
That picture may be there. But I really don’t need to look at it today.
I remember the bride and groom looked nervous. I looked a little nervous myself, even though I was reinforced by vodka and, of course, Lifesavers. As was the groom. A good best man, after all, has to take care of his charge.
The bridesmaid looked magnificent, as well. Always did.
It really was among my life’s happiest days.
The whole world was ours to unravel, to chase. I was a year or so out of college and I was still going to be Jack London or Jack Kerouac or Woody Guthrie. Kris Kristofferson. Tom T. Hall. Hemingway maybe, but I wasn’t going to blow my brains out. At least I didn’t think about it at that point in my life.
The bride and groom were going to settle down in a farmhouse on her parents’ farm in Marion, just outside Cedar Rapids.
He was going to work an inside-sales job at a local company. She was going to be a teacher. They were going to have children and live happily ever after.
In my roaming, I’d visit occasionally, if for no other reason than to chase away the pheasants and squirrels when Jocko went hunting on his property. I’d get him to laughing so hard that there was no reason to kill, a hobby he’d picked up from life on the farm.
I don’t drink any more, but back in 1969 when I first met the guy on whose right I’m standing in the picture, it was about 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday. My dorm room door was open. Actually I seldom closed it, ever. I looked down the hall to see this big guy I’d met only briefly in our first three or four weeks of freshman year. He’d been busy as a football player, so I didn’t know him that well. He looked exhausted from morning drills.
I reached into my footlocker and produced an almost full bottle of cheap gin and hollered down the hallway: “Hey, Jocko, I’m having dry martinis this morning. You want one?” With that both a nickname – I called him Jocko because he was a scholarship athlete – and a friendship was born. And we took turns pulling very dry martinis out of the bottle that morning and probably into the night.
I’d say it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
For the next four years, no party was off-limits. No excuse for laughter ignored. I was a good student. But, even back then, I believed time was running out. Of course it was, slowly. So, I got mostly A’s. Profs loved me. I never missed class. I did my homework. But then it was time to signal, with that hand-over-hand motion, that it was time to roll. Studies done. No one had been called by the draft board. Let’s roll, baby, roll.
Sometimes it lasted days, like the time Jocko and I planned and executed the Viking Fest – a debauched feast ripped from either the movie Tom Jones or the life of the Rolling Stones. We charged boys $5 a head for all they could eat and drink if they brought a girl. We charged men who came alone $10. Unaccompanied girls were admitted free. Such festivals, where we cooked turkeys and pheasant stew, drank from spiked kegs, were the way Jocko and I made pocket money.
Of course, we also were the primary beneficiaries of the frivolity, that night at “Lean Feeners Lodge” or elsewhere. After expenses, we could easily clear $200 or $300 and it beat working at Taco Tico.
We were the guys who walked into parties singing that Carly Simon song, who rode motorcycles long and hard into the night, who saw way too many sunrises through parched eyeballs. We knew every obscene word and gesture to throw into the Guess Who’s “American Woman” and the Doors' "Touch Me." He cheered me on when I first established my Joe Cocker party routine or became the notorious and still-famous-in-Ames guy known as "the Dancing Bear."
When we’d enter Tork’s Pub, now long gone, the bar would grow silent. It was like those old cowboy movies when the gunslinger comes in. We weren’t looking for trouble, though. Just laughs. I never set out to hurt anyone. I just had to laugh.
I had other sidekicks for some of the adventures because Jocko was on a football scholarship and things like practice and games got in the way. But still, when he had time, he was there, with gusto. He was a brother in arms in my helter-skelter race against depression and war.
There were others I loved as well. Captain Kirk. Carpy. Uncle Moose. Titzy, Nardholm.
Life changes things and people. After I left college, I moved South to be with family – my mother already had begun showing the symptoms of the suffocating disease that slowly and finally killed her 25 years later --and because I loved Tennessee. I talked with Jocko about every day for a few years, until we had a falling out that needn’t have happened. But we both had our reasons and, well, those phone calls stopped, with a few rare interruptions, more than 25 years ago. I’m sorry. But that’s life.
I am one who goes through life closing doors on the way. It spares heartache. It’s kind of that “Don’t Look Back” philosophy.
But it really never works. For the last decades, I’ve thought of my friend often, daily at least. I knew he’d gotten divorced … we did talk about that. I had heard that from other people and called to make sure he was OK. But I hadn’t been in touch in the years since his wife was remarried and perhaps began something of, I hope, a truly happily ever after existence.
I have both ridden the white horses and worn the black hats in my life.
But one thing that can’t be questioned is my loyalty. You hurt anyone I love and I am slow to forgive.
You ever own a piece of my heart, you are there to stay.
I really don’t know much about the lives of Jocko and Nola since their divorce. Last I heard from him, he was dating a nice Lebanese woman. I hope he’s happy.
And I hope Nola was happy too, although, from reading the obituary in the Montgomery Advertiser, she apparently died a slow and painful death.
While I hadn’t been in touch with Jocko I always looked for him and Nola on Facebook, which is where I have connected with other friends from my wild and carefree days.
One of them forwarded me an e-mail today from Jocko: “Nola lost her battle with cancer. Kids were with her when she died. Kinda sucks,” he wrote. Simple, true statement. I knew there were tears there somewhere.
I’ve tried to reach him. Sent him an e-mail. Found the obit on line. And inside I have cried, for Nola, for Jocko, for their kids. For myself, I guess, and the fact time really is running out on lives and dreams.
The years haven’t all been kind, although I am in a wonderful place now in my life, thanks to my wife and kids and my good friends in Nashville and, of course, the notorious News Brothers, especially my appropriately named friend "Death," who help me stay focused and laughing.
But there were years when I was in free-fall, when I needed that old friend who I’d let get away or who had done that to me. A few times, the black dogs barked at 3 a.m. or so and I'd dial his number. Hear his tired -- not irritated -- voice, hope to hear back sometime. Perhaps he needed me too at that time, too. But we just kinda lost contact. Except in our hearts.
No one’s to blame. I know that’s life. We all change. Years fly by.
Tork’s Pub has been torn down.
“Kinda sucks,” Jocko wrote.
Makes me want to go up to Iowa and scare away the pheasants while my old friend totes his shotgun. Maybe we can even have a Geezers Fest and sell admission to those of our friends who are still alive and mobile.
By the way, for the sake of uncommon modesty, I had to buy powder-blue boxers to wear under that tux. Still got 'em.