Monday, February 14, 2011

Champo and Jocko: A tale of friendship, chasing the devil in pink long johns and bunny ears and, surprisingly, reaching age of replacement parts

Four decades ago, when he stood on his head, among the shards of broken whiskey bottles that had been tossed against the wall, he probably never even thought he’d be at the point where he’d be getting a new hip.
When we slalomed down the steep hills at The Ledges, Jack Purcell’s or Chuck Taylor's for skis, coming precariously close to the edge of the bluff over the Des Moines River, I don’t imagine his hips even bothered him.
Of course when the floods came from the spring thaw, we couldn’t slalom any longer. We just would find the closest cliff from which to leap into the churning, angry brown water, enjoying our favorite compound or concoction … and drift away … bound from Boone to Des Moines in our boxers and Hanson House T-shirts.
I think it was around that time Nardholm discovered the top of a chimney, protruding from a burned-down log cabin, made a dandy outdoor toilet. A conspicuous throne, high above the woods.
But this isn’t about Nardholm, although I sure like that guy. I’ll call him a kid, as the last time I saw him he was a year younger than me. I understand he still is.
Nardholm, Titzy, Carpy, Capt. Kirk and before them Dennis Eggers, Schultzy, Jay-Dub, Hondo (aka Creamjeans) and Dogshit joined our adventures. Mule. I think even Wizard and Holtzy were involved sometimes. In fact, I may have ridden with them to Juarez, where I got lost in the rain when it was Christmastime too.
Occasionally Uncle Moose would join in, too, although he was mostly down on the farm in Red Oak, because his dad was dead and he needed to tend to the critters and the corn on weekends. Damn, though, he was a tough hombre when it came to full-speed, aerial chest-butting. Now he’s fighting cancer. That’s another story.
This one’s really about the reason I was in Juarez and why I was slaloming down hills in that altered state of Iowa.
For Jocko and Champo (me), life was not to be savored like fine wine but gobbled like a dozen 10-cent greaseburgers. After all, there was a war out there those days. And some day we were bound to grow up. Perhaps I still will.
Jocko did, though. Kind of.
While I’ve been a journalist and continued my allegiance to life’s sometimes tattered edges as well as The Beatles and Stones and international adoption, Jocko has been a successful inside salesman for a couple of companies, beginning with Rapid Roller, the Chicago company across the street from the bar where I watched the Cubs beat the Pirates in 23 innings one day.
He moved on to EverPak or something like that in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, decades ago, but we had mostly lost track of each other, life got in the way. There were reasons. But no use crying over spilt Mad Dog 20/20.
I sure wish I’d been there when his Granny died. She’s the one who made us some Bohemian Rhapsody fried chicken the morning or early afternoon when we reappeared after sleeping in a boat … don’t know whose, but it was handy up in Antioch, Ill., the summer or two before he got married.
And I wish I’d been able to turn to him when similar sadness and personal and professional disasters hit my life. But while we weren’t together, I know we always loved each other.
It was telling that when I took him to see 'Easy Rider' – I’d already seen it a half-dozen times – he came out imitating Jack Nicholson and I had memorized the Dennis Hopper lines.
Now he’s gotta get a new hip.
I’m worried as well as more aware of my own mortality. Fact is, I’m going in for an MRI this week to check out the after-effects of a wreck last summer on my still-concussed brain.
Who would have thought the two young men – Jocko and Champo -- who greeted countless dawns with parched eyeballs focusing on test patterns while waiting for the morning farm report or Howdy-Doody reruns -- would live long enough to wear out our body parts?
It’s not too surprising that death reunited us a few months ago. His ex-wife, Nola, who I remember as a beautiful, leggy pompon girl for the Iowa State Cyclones, died after a horrid battle with cancer.
I contacted Jocko to express my remorse and, in the process, help him laugh. I did, too, as we talked about how we prepared for the wedding ceremony all those years ago.
I was the best man and he was the groom, of course. By the time we got there, I guess it’s good Nola could tell us which was which. For some reason Jocko and I had arrived a bit, shall we say, dazed by the hours of preparations. Lotta stress, man.
During the laughter and tears of that telephone reunion, Jocko told me he was getting his hip replaced in the middle of February. So, as time has gone by, I’ve picked up the phone and called. He doesn’t answer. One trait we shared was that while we both ran with the devil – sometimes wearing pink long johns and bunny ears -- and generally made our friends laugh, we were highly private people, in a peculiarly public fashion, confidantes to each other and few outsiders.
I’ve been calling a few more times in recent days. He’s not answering. Why would you want to hear from people who are calling to make fun of you for being old?
But each time I dial, I think of the two of us, walking into parties, where people would instinctively put on that old Carly Simon song. Yes, we watched ourselves gavotte.
Hard-core scholars at Iowa State University, I remember Friday nights. Saturday nights. Usually Thursday nights were reserved for our favorite team sport. We called it “Rolling.”
With a simple hand-over-hand motion, I would signal the night adventures should begin. Pretty harmless adventures, at that. Beer occasionally played a part. By the way, Sundays were reserved for pizza crust soup -- my personal specialty -- and warm Van Merritt beer while watching Maverick reruns.
Heck, guys like Sly Stone and Dennis Wilson and Mike Love even played roles in our adventures. Too many tales to tell.
I was kind of the Rolling Team captain. This wasn’t an approved intercollegiate sport – Jocko couldn’t have participated if it was, as he was on a football scholarship. No. 63’s biggest accomplishment was breaking up a fight involving Tommy Nobis of LSU and some scurrilous Iowa State Cyclone back during the 1971 Sun Bowl, in El Paso.
I was proud ... and lucky … to see him perform so honorably. I had been released by the border guards in time to see the game. To this day, I can’t figure out why every time I crossed the border from Juarez into El Paso, I was detained by the guards. They always apologized afterward. But it did make the border crossing a hassle and kept me from getting to the Sun Bowl with much time to spare.
The fact I was toting a black velvet painting of Jimi Hendrix I bought for $2 in the market outside the donkey show joint slowed me down further.
Probably the greatest and still under-known anti-war protest ever staged at Iowa State came on the Sunday we were recruited to play Viet Cong for full-scale ROTC maneuvers. Seems a massive blizzard had kept the scheduled foes from making it from Iowa City (where the University of Iowa is located), so the top enlisted ROTC man on campus, “Admiral Bruns,” asked me if I could round up a few fellows to be the enemy.
I went two doors down, carrying a bottle of Gordon’s completely dry martinis, to hold under Jocko’s nose to stir him awake. Then we rounded up our comrades, a gang of reckless Cong, ready to die to train Uncle Sam’s next crop.
The maneuvers – observed for the record by real-life Army guys -- were and remain top-secret. Even 40 years later, all I can tell you is that if snowballs had been hand grenades, those gun-toting ROTC men were just so much body fluids and bones along the creek bed.
Sadly, some of those ROTC troops soon found out that the real Viet Cong had more than snowballs in store for them.
I salute and remember the snowy battle we waged and their final bayonet assault on our snow tunnel whenever I’m at the Wall in D.C. I remind their ghosts that I sang Beatles songs at them as they plunged their fake bayonets into my heart. I guess I should mention that the contingent of Cong that day dubbed themselves "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." I'll tell the rest of that story one day. It was wonderful to be there.
Here is where I should get more into the adventures of two young men who didn’t mind wearing tie-dyed underwear on their heads to impress the ladies.
But I’m getting tired. I mean I’m not young any more. My old running buddy’s getting a new hip tomorrow morning.
Soon, we can go slalom out at The Ledges again. At least in our dreams.

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