I referenced my college roommate in my last column about WIGS. He passed away last Friday. This is dedicated to him, an avid reader of my work, and more importantly, my best friend from college. This piece is a tribute to all life-long friends.
I met Gil in the fall of 1969, our freshman year at Hanover. He was a football player from Chicago. I was a baseball player from Pittsburgh. From a distance, Gil appeared to have an edge, vocal about that which he didn’t like; there seemed to be a lot Gil didn’t like. In many ways, he epitomized many of us raised during the 60’s. We were part of a social and political revolution. There was uneasiness and unrest. If you didn’t choose to look any closer, you might write Gil off as a ‘hot head.’
But there was a subtler side to Gil, a pensive, studious, curious, warm, caring side. A few of our conversations informed me he was in the midst of transitioning from ‘jock’ to his larger self. The self that was a student, interested in theater, fun-loving, serious, thoughtful. When Gil applied himself, amazing things took place. Things got done, problems got solved, and people were supported.
About half-way through our sophomore year, Gil and I began to hang out a little more, and talk and talk and talk. One of the great things about college is being around 20 something’s and having deep conversations…about life, relationships, what we were learning, our futures. We helped each other grow up, in between some ‘knucklehead’ behavior.
About that time, we both ran across the play and, later, movie, “A Thousand Clowns” by Herb Gardner. Jason Robards, Jr. played the lead, Murray Burns. The play, and more specifically, Murray’s monologue, seemed to crystalize for both of us how we wanted to engage others in the world and what kind of fathers we wanted to be. In this monologue, Murray is explaining why he wants his 11-year-old nephew Nick to stay with him, and not be taken by social services.
“I just want him to stay with me until I can be sure he won’t turn into Norman Nothing. I want to be sure he’ll know when he’s chickening out on himself. I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he won’t notice it when it starts to go. I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are, I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument, I want a little guts to show before I can let him go. I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities. I want him to know it’s worth all the trouble just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance. And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.”
Gil and I decided to room together. (Live off campus? Not in 1971, and not in Hanover, Indiana, unless you were married.) What added a little ‘salsa’ to our conversations was the fact that Gil was an agnostic, on a good day, and I was a Christian … on all days. We rarely debated our beliefs; we simply listened, to understand and respect each other’s viewpoint. He always thought I’d be a priest, a minister, or something in the church. God had other plans.
One of my favorite Gil stories from our first year rooming together was the night we were getting ready for bed and one of our ‘hall mates’ came down to call his girlfriend. The phone was on the wall outside of our room. Joe’s voice could carry through two or three brick walls. As the call wore on, Gil became increasingly agitated. Twice he went out to ask Joe to hold it down. There would be no third time. The next thing I know, Gil goes out into the hall and takes a swing at Joe. After he came back into the room and had a chance to calm down, I asked him, “You feel better?”
“I missed!” And then he laughed. No, he didn’t feel better because he couldn’t believe that he took a swing at Joe for being loud. I suggested he might want to find a different way of dealing with his anger.
Even though we were different in many ways, there was an easiness to our relationship. He appreciated my patience and calm. I appreciated his willingness to confront. We appreciated our conversations; we learned from each other.
We had many good times full of laughter and some shenanigans. A deep loved had formed by the time we were rounding the curve, headed for home and graduation. For most seniors, the final weeks are tense, as major projects, tests, and finals all come due. At Hanover, seniors had the additional ‘pleasure’ of taking oral and written comprehensives in their major.
On the final day, after the final oral comprehensive, I walked out of the classroom and out of the building. My first breath outside was deep and long, as I realized that I was done with college classes. I smiled with a certain satisfaction as I walked across the quad, between two classrooms and turned toward the dorm. There was Gil, 30 feet away. We stopped and just stared at each other for maybe two seconds. Then suddenly, simultaneously, we threw our armload of books in the air and screamed – that primal scream of release. It was a poignant moment for both of us.
During rehearsal for graduation, Gil’s soon-to-be-wife, Carolyn, sewed a patch on Gil’s robe that said “Keep on Truck’n.” One last, small act of defiance. Unfortunately, the Dean of Men had no sense of humor, and during announcements, said, “Gabanski, lose the patch.” The boos and expletives that roared out from the crowd were vindication enough for Gil. He ‘lost’ the patch.
Gil went on to graduate school. I worked at Hanover and then went to graduate school. We continued to write each other and, once in a while, talk. It didn’t matter how much time had passed since we last spoke, we always picked up as if we’d never been apart. In the 44 years since we left school, we continued those deep conversations of our youth, reflecting on what had changed, what had been modified, and what remained. We went through the death of my mother; divorce for both of us; babies; second wives; changes in jobs; houses; all the while continuing to write (and then e-mail); attend reunions together; support each other; and talk about retirement, giving back, and the Simon and Garfunkel song, “Old Friends.”
Gil and I won’t be old men, sitting on park benches together, in this life. But we have lived well, together and separately. And now it is time to say goodbye, old friend … Thank you for sharing this life with me.
To our lifelong friends who have helped us become better people…