Paths Not Taken - part 2

(Written November 21, 2003) A little while ago I wrote about hearing that a guy I had known in high school, “Tom”, had died. I got that news during a phone call about getting together for a visit with a couple of other friends from the Old Days. For the sake of their privacy, I’m just going to call them “John” and “Scott”.

I met “John” during my last days in the Army - he was a small time drug dealer at the time and had just gotten married. We became close friends and I ended up living with he and his wife for about 3 or 4 years - sometimes there were just the 3 of us, sometimes the number grew to 7 or 8. I met Scott through John. At the time he was vice president of the local chapter of the Pagans motorcycle club/gang. For obvious reasons, much about those days is best left unsaid.

But nothing is ever as simple as it seems at first. John was a long-haired, motorcycle riding drug dealer - and a Republican with solidly conservative views on most things. Looking back on this period from years later I credit him with saving me from myself. If I had been a loose cannon going into the Army, I was even more of one after returning from Viet Nam. I was pretty wild with very little sense of direction, most of which was heavily influenced by those around me. I could have very easily fallen in with a group like the SLA or Weather Underground or some such, and really made a mess of my life. As wild as we were, there was one side of John that was practical and solidly rooted in basic values. He pulled me back from the brink a number of times. Today he owns his own painting/finishing business and he and his wife have been married for over 35 years. They have a daughter who is a Green Party activist and their son has made them grand parents twice over.

Scott has always been what I would call a “seeker”. He eventually drifted away from active membership in the Pagans. The next major stage of his journey involved moving to West Virginia and becoming a Fire Breathing, Bible Thumping Born Again. That lasted for awhile, but, as he later confessed, he finally recalled what it was he hadn’t liked about going to church. I’ve lost track of all the things he’s tried, although I recall he worked for a newspaper for awhile and also tried his hand at gold and silver trading. The parade of women through his life seemed to be a steady stream, and I don’t even remember most of them. About 20 years ago he finally found his career - he owns a porta-potty business and seems to be doing quite well at it, having as he says, “made a shit pot full of money” in the business.

Anyhow, a few days ago John had flown into the DC area to take care of some family business and the 3 of us got together for an afternoon. We ended up at Scott’s house for a little while and started out in his shed, which was loaded with Harleys and Harley parts. Since both he and Tom had been Pagans they had kept in contact, and it was through Scott that I finally learned the details of how Tom died. I don’t know what I had expected - maybe a motorcycle crash, cancer, getting shot, or just poor health. The last I had seen Tom, at that high school reunion back in the 80’s, he had seemed pretty normal - probably a bit of a “Harley gut” but no more. So I definitely was not ready for what I heard. Scott said Tom at some point “just gave up” and sat down in front of the TV drinking beer. He died of a heart attack at a weight of 400 pounds. Geeez. Suicide by Budweiser. It seems like anything would have been better than that… Tom’s last Harley was in baskets in Scott’s shed - it had been awhile since he had been light enough to ride.

Then we went inside and met Scott’s family. Now, I’ve got to say I don’t generally put much stock in comparing myself to others. Things like what job somebody has, what kind of car they drive, how fancy their house is - those things don’t mean much to me. A guy I shared an office with during grad school days has since become Dean at an engineering college. Whatever. I believe the true measure of a life is finding those things you love to do and doing them. If you happen to be able to make money at them all the better, but that is not what it is about. It is how you move through the world and how you leave it.

As part of Scott’s settling down he got married, and he and his wife have 4 adopted children. Three of them have Down Syndrome, and the fourth was an Asian-looking infant with “severe special needs”, although I didn’t inquire into the details. The other 3 are teenagers and were lively and seemed quite happy. Scott’s wife is a delightfully easy going person who seemed to be an island of tranquility in the friendly chaos of that household. And Scott looked like, after all his seeking, he had finally found a place that was truly Home. The kids were obviously well cared for and happy, and there was at least one other DS neighborhood kid who seemed to hang out there regularly. One of the kids began proudly referring to me as his “new uncle”. I was really touched.

Like I say, I don’t usually put much stock in comparing myself to others. But I came away from that visit feeling pretty humble. There aren’t many of us who make that kind of mark on the world.
———

As part of the visit, I managed to get temporary custody of some of John’s photos of those days in order to scan them. Choppers.jpg Somewhere between when Scott was seriously involved in the Pagans and before he was Born Again, we were both building custom motorcycles. Mine started out with a ‘56 Triumph with a blown engine that I picked up for $80. It was my first engineering project, and 3 years (and a lot of $) later, there wasn’t much of the original bike left. The 650cc engine was up to 800cc, the front forks were 20” longer than stock, and the entire bike from tip to tip was over 9 feet long. Scott’s was a Harley with a black and gold motif. And that was real, genuine gold plating. $$$ I did the paint jobs on both bikes. Mine was 3 colors of metal flake (”desert sand”, copper and red) overlaid with a layer of “diamond flake” (tiny bits of glass). The paint job looked a mile deep and thousands of little sparkles in the sunshine from that diamond flake. Scott’s was high gloss black epoxy. In 1972 we had both bikes on display at the Rod & Custom Show at the DC Armory (as part of a display for a motorcycle shop). In 1973 I had a new paint job put on my bike and sold it for $2000. Doesn’t sound like much, but brand new BMW motorcycles were going for $1800 at the time. I still have the BMW I bought then. Scott’s bike was destroyed in a fire and these photos are all that remain of it.

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