Life and Death

One night my friend Rolf and I, staggeringly drunk, walked out to a freeway entrance leading to I-5 South, having decided to hitchhike somewhere, although we had no particular destination in mind.  We got there and Rolf changed his mind.  He said, “I’ve already been on the road.  Now it’s your turn.”  With that, he stumbled off into the darkness.  I stood at that entrance for a long time before I went home.  I wasn’t ready to leave then, but I did leave eventually, and didn’t return for over thirty-five years, apart from short visits.  I recounted this story in my memoir of the road, “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search“.

But Rolf was right.  He had already been on the road.  He had been to Europe, and I always envied him the experience.  Even then, though I was too timid to do anything about it, the fires of road-longing burned strongly within me.

Rolf and I started hanging out together when were in high school.  We weren’t very similar in personality.  Maybe it was a case of diverse personalities melding, or maybe we just both needed friends.  Concurrently, I started to drink heavily when I was about sixteen years old.  He and I would get drunk together; we’d go out and shoot pool; we’d hang around and watch movies.  At some point drugs were added to the mix and we’d smoke dope when it was available.  After my year of university in California when I experimented with a diversity of psychedelics, we dropped acid once in a while too.  We roomed together twice.  Once we rented a two-bedroom apartment that was the upper floor of a duplex in the Wallingford District of Seattle for $100 a month.  Another time we rented a three-bedroom house in the University District for $200 a month.  You won’t find prices like that nowadays; you’ll pay ten times that or more for comparable accommodation.  But Seattle was a backwater back then and we liked it that way.  We’d hold down jobs, make at least enough money to pay the rent and bills and keep ourselves in food and drink and drugs, and we’d party as much as we could.  We’d have girls over; often we’d date girls who were friends with each other.  Perhaps date is too grandiose a term for what we did though.  The girls usually joined us in our standard nefarious activities, and then we’d pair off and hit the bedrooms when we got home.

I’m skimming over all of this really quickly.  There are hundreds of vignettes scattered through the years.  But all that to say that we were close.  We were buddies.  We confided in each other and knew we could rely on each other.

As I became absorbed in traveling and writing, Rolf found a passion that thoroughly consumed his interest: psychology.  He attacked it with a zeal that surprised me, as I was used to his casual don’t-give-a-damn-about-anything demeanor.  He buckled down and started to study.  He managed to get admitted to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles to study psychology.  Passing through the area during my wanderings, I rented a room on top of a nuthouse near his apartment and hung around a short time.  This, too, is recounted in “World Without Pain”.  But he had changed.  He wasn’t interested in partying anymore.  He was committed to his studies.  While I took off for another foray around the world, he hung on and earned himself a doctorate in psychology and became a university professor.

We wrote a few times to each other while I was living in India, but then we lost touch.  He met a woman, married, and had a son.  I met a woman, married, and had five sons.  We still traveled a lot, my wife and I and our progeny, but then we finally settled near Thessaloniki, Greece.  I did a web search to try to get back in touch with Rolf, wrote to him, and he responded.  We wrote back and forth every few months.

Then he wrote me and said he was attending a psychology conference in Germany and asked if he could come visit us afterwards.  He spent five days or so in the midst of a beautiful warm Greek summer.  We took him swimming at an idyllic Greek beach and showed him around Thessaloniki.  One night during a sudden unexpected rainstorm we sat under a shelter beside the pool at his hotel sipping ouzo, and we caught up in more detail on what had been happening in our lives.  His wife had been from another country.  In the midst of a midlife crisis she decided to leave him and their son and go back to settle alone in her homeland.  His son stayed with him off and on, as I remember, but was pretty much grown and gone.  His finances took a nosedive in the divorce.  He had just got a new job at a university in Alabama that he had high hopes for.

That was it, more or less.  We corresponded once or twice after he left but then lost touch again.  Some time ago I tried to find a new e-mail address and I wrote to him but he didn’t reply.

A few nights ago I was talking with one of my sisters about him and decided to try again to contact him.  One of the first things that came up on a web search was a notice from his university that he had died a year ago, in September of 2013.  I tried to find out more and came across an obituary in the Seattle Times that gave few details.

A kind of slow shock set in.  In the last few days I have been thinking a lot about all the life Rolf and I shared together.  And then he just up and died.  Death is so close, an inevitability to all of us.

The articles I accessed online did not say how he died, only that he died at home.  He may have been alone.  He may have been in pain.  I wish I could have been there to sit with him at the end.

Requiescat in pace, my friend.

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