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Rembrandt's stolen masterpiece: The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633)
" … a long lost friend forever."

I received last night the news of the death of a long lost friend. Jerry was lost when we first met and to my mind never really managed to find himself, though he would have doubtless disagreed with that assessment. I considered him for a time a dear friend before he became a feared one, and his story might serve as both cautionary and explanatory, for it carried a not uncommon theme of the time. His story speaks to the deeper cost of war and a paradox of justice, where punishment sometimes proves more punishing than any original crime warranted.

When Jerry was seventeen, still in high school, he was charged with stealing some records from a local drug store.
Brought before a judge, he was presented with a choice. The judge would convict him, for he was most certainly guilty, and sentence him to time in juvenile prison, producing a permanent record, or he could dismiss the charges if Jerry agreed to enlist in the service. He chose the latter, which explains how he ended up being the only person from his platoon to survive Viet Cong ambushes three times. He went to Vietnam, where he became a reconnaissance grunt, stalking through jungle, living off the land, perhaps the most dangerous possible assignment. Following hospital time after each harrowing battle, they'd send him back for another round, until his year was up.

I met him shortly after he discharged. We were both enrolled at the local community college, me, with nothing better to do, he, on the GI Bill. We both played guitars and wrote songs and fancied ourselves future stars or something, so we started playing together. For a while, with a few friends, we had a TV show on the local cable station. We met our future first wives then—no, wait, that was Jerry's second—and began what would become a lengthening estrangement. We both ended up in Portland a few years later and we'd get together occasionally to share songs. He later moved back to Walla Walla and became a sheriff's deputy, then back to Portland to work in a steel foundry. He held more jobs than any ten men. He was emotionally unstable.

He met a woman who took his fancy. They were both already married at the time. Jerry seemed to come more fully alive. They were plotting to somehow end up together when she hung herself in her garage, which tipped over Jerry's already unstable space. He fell into a black hole somewhere, emerging as a Born Again and married to a gentle woman more than a decade his senior. She somehow managed to reel him back in and anchor him. He stopped drinking, which had always been a problem since Vietnam, and began leading church groups and singing for revival meetings. Huge ones. All over the country. He became the star we'd both once dreamed of becoming.

I last saw him at my darling daughter's wedding, where we shared songs again in my first wife's backyard. She'd ended up living near Jerry and Mary and had stayed in touch. She reported that he'd become a Trumpy and after his stroke, had become even more irrational than was normal for him. He'd rail about immigration and liberals and come across as if he'd been hatched from leathery reptile eggs rather than born again. We lived a long way from one another and didn't stay in touch, though that last afternoon when we shared songs at my daughter's wedding, we both could have sworn that we'd slipped time's passages. He still sang Mr., Are You Going My Way? I Need A Ride To Portland. In those days, long lost and never found, we were both looking for rides to Portland, rides we found, rides which only further compounded what ever dilemmas we'd intended to escape.

After Jerry had emerged from his darkest days after his paramour hung herself, I gave him a bowling trophy inscribed with his name and the phrase Biggest Balls. It was a joke gift with a serious drift. Jerry was a tough and tender young man who, despite following Christ, became an embittered veteran. He longed to play his guitar and had no idea what he'd settled for when he made that devil's deal with that judge. He had survived so damned much in his life only to die in his driveway, found by a neighbor. Now a long lost friend forever.

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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