Earlier this week my good friend Sally confirmed what I had feared for months: Our mutual friend of more than half a century, Anne, had died. I had such dread of the news, which I felt was almost inevitable, that I had held back from finding out that my fears were grounded. I stayed off of Facebook. I avoided writing Anne, and getting no response, and I put off calling Sally. In fact, when I finally did speak with her, Sally didn’t have a clue that anything was wrong, her most recent news from Anne being a few years old. I told her that the last message I got from Anne was in October, and all it said was that she was in the hospital. Following that, a call to Anne’s number, which Sally had and used, went to Anne’s husband, Zack, who confirmed our worst fears. After seven months in a Guadalajara hospital suffering from pancreatitis, Anne had died on January 11, three days after returning home.
It was fitting that I got the confirmation from Sally since it was Sally whom I had first met, and it was Sally who introduced me to Anne, and their mutual friend, Norman. It was in November 1969, and Sally, Anne, and Norman had come from St. Louis, where they were sophomores at Washington University, and I was down from Rutgers University, in New Jersey, where I was a junior. We met at the massive anti-Vietnam War Death March in Washington, hundreds of thousands of people who had come from all over the country to let President Nixon know he needed to end the war, and we just wound up next to one another amid the throngs of people there. It was a cold and windy night as we marched, single-file, across the Potomac on Memorial Bridge, past the Lincoln Memorial, and finally along the fence line outside the White House, where we each were duly photographed by the Secret Service or FBI. Everyone carried a candle, which we struggled to keep lit in the wind, the flame protected by a paper cone, and a sign bearing the name of a service person killed in Vietnam. After the march Anne invited me to stay with them at a friend’s house in Georgetown, and she and I spent much of the rest of that weekend, in between protest events, talking and getting to know one another.
There then began a close, long-distance relationship between Anne and me. Long before the Internet, that was by mailed letters and phone calls. Five months later, in April 1970, my friend John — himself now gone the way of all things, entirely at his choice, over perceived political differences in the past several years after a friendship that began in high school — drove out to St. Louis to see Anne and Sally. It was one of many trips involving Anne I made with my little Renault 10, and somewhere in southern Indiana we burned a valve and wound up limping into St. Louis, late at night, only to be greeted by dozens of people running helter-skelter over a hill on campus shouting, “They’re beating heads! They’re beating heads!” Heady times (pun not intended), those. We stayed in Anne and Sally’s dorm room, and at some point during that visit, Sally, Anne, John, and I wound up with others standing between a group of angry demonstrators and the Air Force ROTC building they were intent on burning down. It was a lesson in pacifism and peaceful protest, for which I can thank Anne and Sally, that has stayed with me ever since.
I’m not sure how it happened, but I became something of an anti-war leader at Rutgers, putting together what we called the Summer Mobe (or Mobilization) to keep the movement going on college campuses through the summer, and Anne came and joined me for that, staying with me in my bed and helping me contact campus leaders across the land and editing a guide to the Summer Mobe. We were working to all hours, an exhausting and emotional experience, using some anonymous professor’s telephone calling card to run up hundreds of dollars of toll calls, and somewhere in the midst of all that I had my first-ever attack of some undetermined sort, perhaps a panic attack, I don’t know, but where for some minutes I became detached from the reality around me. In her own calm way, Anne guided me through that and brought me down, and to this day I can still feel the sensations I felt during that flight of the mind and Anne’s reassurance through it all.
Anne was my second-ever lover, and the first real sexual love relationship I had to that point. And in the true spirit of the times, and Anne’s own philosophical persuasion, we shared everything, including ourselves. One dear friend of mine wound up bringing back some little bug or other from across the border in Nuevo Laredo, and bequeathed it to Anne, who subsequently passed it on to me. That summer, the summer of 1970, saw us visiting a progression of VD clinics, from New Jersey to Arizona to Nevada to Washington State, as well as others Anne visited while traveling across Canada with another boyfriend. It was a young doctor at a Seattle clinic who finally told us what by then we already knew: “We don’t know much about this,” he said. At the time it was called non-specific urethritis, and years later it was learned to be chlamydia. But in 1970, who knew? After Seattle we stopped worrying about it, and eventually it just faded away, though it did help keep me out of the draft the following year.
Our Excellent Adventure
The summer of 1970 marked a turning point for us. First, we spent some weeks in June exploring Anne’s home state of Kentucky which, having grown up in Louisville, she had never previously seen herself. We traveled deep into the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, past Berea, past the twin breast-like peaks of the aptly named Bighill, deep into a remote part of the Daniel Boone National Forest where, that early in the season, we were the only two people, other than a pair of escaped murderers believed to be roaming the same area. We spent an idyllic few rainy, misty days, making use of the campground picnic table, the hood of the Renault, the ground, our tent, and the top of a fire tower, the forest spread out as far as the eye could see, to make enthusiastic love every chance we could get (the fire tower experience never left me, though years later Anne claimed not to remember it). Venturing out of the forest, we decided to attend a prayer revival in a tobacco warehouse near Richmond, Kentucky, from which we wound up fleeing after Anne had a panic attack that the preacher mistakenly took to be a miraculous conversion (you can read about that experience here). Subsequently, the unwanted and most unfortunate fear of heights I had inherited from my mother came out on a rock wall in Western Virginia, making me feel I had let Anne down, something I resolved I’d never let happen again. After that expedition, Anne was off to her Canadian adventure and I went back to my summer job making Esso highway maps at General Drafting Company in Convent Station, New Jersey, with the plan to quit at the end of July and meet Anne in Denver a few days later. We met up at the old Stapleton Airport and began yet another, and greatest, of our adventures.
We pushed that little Renault for all it was worth, through every Western state except Utah, making our way at one point to Tucson to visit with Sally. By then I decided I needed a break and while Anne stayed with Sally I descended into Sonora, to the edge of the Sea of Cortez at a place called Desemboque. If ever there was a place that combined Heaven and Hell in the definition of Paradise, it was Desemboque (you can read more about that side trip here). Returning to Tucson, broiled to a crisp, I met back up with Anne and we continued our adventure.
One ritual we had was to stop just before sunset every night, no matter where we were. We’d take a break from driving and watch the sun go down, and it also was the cue for Anne to pop her birth control pill. We saw dozens of sunsets, from the desert, from mountains, on the coast, during that trip. We slept out under the stars on top of desert mesas, in the car in the parking lot of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, in our little pup tent in the August snow in the mountains north of Vegas, and with friends of Anne’s in L.A. Traveling up California 1 in Big Sur, I had another chance to prove myself to Anne. As she aimed a flashlight from the side of a succulent-covered hillside, I climbed a sea castle rising a hundred or more feet above the crashing waves of the Pacific below me, relying on fingerholds in the crumbling rock, illuminated in the dark by Anne and that flashlight, as I looked for a level place to sleep. I had conquered my fear of heights, in no small part due to my resolve not to again disappoint Anne. Not finding anywhere to camp on the sea castle, we wound up sleeping in our bags on that hillside, sliding on the succulents. During the night I had a dream the car had been stolen, and when we got back to it the next day we found it had been broken into and some money and other things taken.
By the time we got to Oregon I was sick with some sort of flu and we were out of funds. The Renault got 48 miles to the gallon and at that time we could have crossed the country on $18 worth of gas. But we were flat broke. After coming up the coast we went over into the central valley, where the harvest was in full bloom. We found a farm and, for the next several days, picked pole beans beside the migrant workers, earning thirty cents per big bucket of beans picked, earning enough for gas and food to continue our trip. It was there we learned that a lot of people are migrants because they want to be. There were whole families — and they put us to shame with their picking capabilities — and there were men who used to work in aircraft factories who left their jobs and their wives to be free of them. And there was us, a couple of college kids doing our big summer trip, living out our excellent adventure, and me fighting off what felt more and more like pneumonia, but wasn’t.
Big anti-war demonstrations were planned for Portland, and Oregon’s governor pulled the ultimate co-option, staging a big rock festival near Estacada, east of Portland, to attract young people away from the city. Not interested in getting involved in the demonstrations, Anne and I headed to Estacada and the Vortex festival where we spent a great few days, me not burdened by clothing most of the time, with Oregon state troopers benignly overlooking the proceedings and pretty extensive drug use. The only down side, again reinforcing my growing cynicism about our generation, was the theft of our old Army surplus sleeping bags on the last day of the festival.
Then came Seattle, and the doctor at the clinic, a visit with a college friend of mine in Spokane, sleeping in a cattle pasture in Eastern Washington that had the biggest cow plops either of us had ever seen, and then Glacier National Park in Montana. It was the middle of the night and I started up a dirt road that led nowhere. Anne got on my case about how foolish that was, given that we were almost out of gas. I was tired and in no mood to be told what to do, so I told her to shut up and go to sleep. Fortunately for both of us, the car started making an unknown noise, and it was that that caused me to turn back. We wound up parked next to a gas pump, sleeping in the car and waiting for the station to open in the morning. We were literally running on fumes by then and the tank took more gas than it was supposed to hold.
Glacier proved to be a crisis point for us, even more than the incident on the dirt road. As we came down the eastern slope of Going-to-the-Sun Road, it was about 3 in the afternoon, and Anne suddenly burst into tears. She was supposed to be in St. Louis in two days to sign the lease for the apartment she and Sally and Norman were to live in for the school year. We were a couple thousand miles away, and she was despairing because she was letting her friends down. I guess I was a bit out of my mind and, moved by the bawling girl sitting next to me in the Renault, I said the only thing I could think of that might calm her down.
“We’ll drive straight through. We’ll get there, and you can sign the lease.”
Anne looked at me with disbelief. She said something like, “We can do that?”
“Yes. We’ll just do it.”
And we started driving toward St. Louis, me behind the wheel secretly never believing we could do it, Anne calmed down and reassured, however falsely. We drove all through the endless Montana night, Anne asleep in the passenger seat, me struggling to stay awake by trying to guess how many crosses would be on the next right-angle turn on the deserted two-lane blacktop road across hundreds of miles of empty country. Anne I don’t think realized how close to a premature demise we came on a busy road in the morning rush hour south of Billings the next day as I pushed the Renault to pass a slower car, pulling back into our lane so close to an oncoming car I couldn’t see its front fender. We made it across Wyoming, into the Black Hills of South Dakota, and made a stop at Mount Rushmore. By then I had been driving nearly 36 hours non-stop since leaving that gas station in West Glacier and I was literally hallucinating, feeling I was astral traveling, floating above the car. I wasn’t overly fond of Anne’s driving skills, but it was time to turn the wheel over to her. We switched on and off across South Dakota, Iowa, and Missouri, and finally she was to bring us in to St. Louis. And wound up overshooting our exit, crossing the Mississippi and winding up in Illinois. It was not a pretty scene and she viewed it, I’m sure, as all my fault.
That final run from Glacier was the end of our relationship, if not our friendship, at least for awhile, and we had our first break up at the end of it. Anne got to sign her lease, so at least that, and Sally had shown up for the new semester, but it was good-bye the night I headed out to drive up to Chicago. And it was the end of the Renault, too, at least as it was, when it ran out of oil and the engine seized somewhere outside of Springfield.
There came a time 45-some years later, in a particularly reminiscent mood, when I reminded Anne of that trip, and she decided we shouldn’t communicate on that level any more. I think I understood her reasons, but I also felt it was a terrible misinterpretation, and our friendship never fully recovered from it, just as our relationship never recovered from that trip. It was one of the saddest things I’d ever felt.
The St. Louis Debacle
We did pick up our relationship again, beginning at the end of that year with a little New Year’s escapade in a motel in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago followed by a brief and less than warm-and-fuzzy stay at my sister’s in the Northwest suburbs and a fast but uncomfortable drive back to New Jersey with my mother, during which she and Anne probably exchanged fewer than a dozen words. Neither of us was particularly well accepted by the other’s parents, though I did get to share a somewhat closer time with Anne’s elderly father many years later.
I finished my degree requirements at Rutgers a semester early, so decided to go live with Anne in St. Louis and study architecture at Wash. U. for my last semester. It turned out to be one of the lowest and most challenging times of my life, not altogether to do with Anne. I was living on $4 a week, saving money to repair the Renault, which had broken down in the middle of Pennsylvania amid bitterly cold weather en route from New Jersey, fueling an ongoing feud with Norman — which, in retrospect, was entirely my fault — who was with me at the time, struggling without great success through architecture courses, doing door-to-door selling after school and on weekends, and dealing with Anne’s propensity toward taking in the occasional male who tickled her fancy. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t accept that as how she didn’t include me in her dalliances. We would have arguments, and then look forward to make-up sex. If we got sick, Anne would make hot toddies, a Kentucky specialty. I learned a hundred different ways of making oatmeal. And through all that, it was Sally who helped keep me sane and, I think, I probably did the same for her.
By the time May rolled around and Anne headed home to Louisville, leaving me standing under the Renault which was up on a lift as tornado sirens sounded in the distance, we were truly done as lovers. But not as friends. I saw Anne one last time in St. Louis the next year when Sally came to visit me in New Jersey, and in the process of taking her to Newark Airport at the end of her visit I decided to just drive her back to St. Louis instead, calling in sick to work in the midst of Indiana corn fields as 18 wheelers wound up in the background. By then Anne and I were, as is said, just friends.
The Next 50 Years
Anne and I stayed friends over the next half century. We only saw each other a relative few times over that time, mostly in Southern California, where she had moved following stints in South America and in South Africa, as I went to and from the Pacific. I met her first husband, Ralph, who slowly warmed to me. One day Anne took me flying over the Inland Empire east of L.A. The girl whose driving worried me so was now piloting the small plane she owned, my life in her hands at 7,000 feet, a totally unexpected experience. A couple years later I found myself sleeping on a couch under the wing of that plane, next to their Cadillac, in the airport hangar she and Ralph were living in near San Diego.
The last time I saw Anne was in the summer of 2009 when I went out to Arizona for a rare vacation, and to visit another old girlfriend who had moved to Tucson from the Northeast. Ralph had died in the meanwhile, and Anne came with her new boyfriend, Zack, and, joined by Sally, the five of us shared a dinner I had prepared at the condo where I was staying. It was like three or four different worlds, connected and yet separate, brought together over the table. After dinner I engaged in a kind of marital counseling with Anne and Zack — ironic given my own checkered marital history — and helped them to understand a bit about giving one another some space to be themselves. Later they married, and about five years ago moved to the shores of Lake Chapala in Mexico to enjoy their new life.
When I spoke with Zack the other day, I realized he was the exact perfect person to be with Anne in her final days. He stood by her through all those months in the hospital, sleeping in the room with her, honoring the commitment he had made to her when he married her, to be there for her in sickness and in health. Anne had made him promise to tell no one how sick she was, not even her own sister, and he honored that promise, too. And seven weeks after her passing, persuaded by my fears, Sally and I learned that our dear friend was no longer with us.
I’m still trying to get my head around the idea that I won’t hear Anne’s musical laughter again, hear her distinct way of speaking, except in my head. In some ways, it’s as Zack told me, that he had all that time to accept the fact she was going to be leaving him, and I had the past several months of fearing the worst to reach the same point. In some ways Anne’s passing reminds me of my own mortality, but I prefer to focus on the fullness of life she embodied. If this account has been long, it’s because one meets an Anne but once in life, and that once happened to stretch over more than 51 years.
Anne, I miss you. We all do. Travel well, and take good care, my dear friend.
Featured image: Anne at 17, her high school graduation picture.