My mother called me Saturday to tell me that my old college room-mate Ricky had passed away. He was 46. College room-mates often seem to fall in two camps. One camp is the kind of room-mate who becomes a life-long friend. The other is the kind who turns into a life-long anecdote. Ricky was in the third camp of room-mate. He was the kind of room-mate with whom one has congenial enough relationship during college, but with whom the friendship did not really last after college.
Ricky came from a small town in south Arkansas not far from the small towns I grew up in. His father owned an extremely successful Exxon station right on the Interstate 30 freeway. Ricky used to regale me with stories of how it was the towing business that made freeway service so lucrative. He was the only person I ever met whose degree was in "Transportation".
Ricky was a real Arkansas guy. He liked country folks, truck drivers, "All My Children" (and who didn't have a crush on Erika Kane in those days?), deer hunting, days at the lake, and saying "how are y'all doing?" with a nasal intonation. Like me, then and now, he wore baseball and trucker's caps not because they acquired a vogue in the late 1990s, but because that was customary attire for people from our setting, from the days when we were kids. In our 1970s college days, he was certain that disco had supplanted rock music--and that it was good riddance. We all had feathered hair in the late 1970s. Although he hoped to sow a wild oat or two in college, there was no doubt that his ultimate goal was to find someone nice to marry, and raise chidren. He was old-fashioned in all the good ways, and a few of the bad ways, too. He was the salt of the earth.
Ricky came to be my room-mate for a few semesters, after he showed up at my door a bit frazzled. His own room-mate, a curious pre-med intellectual of ferocious moods who told people "Call me Lucifer", had begun to inflict literal physical violence upon Ricky. Nobody wants to live with a room-mate with whom things have come to blows, but Ricky, a kidney transplant recipient, was literally precluded from taking the risks that fighting with anyone might involve.
Fortunately, when Rick showed up at my door, my room-mate was the extremely eccentric but overall good guy Neil, who graciously agreed to switch out dorm rooms to facilitate domestic order. Rick moved into my dorm room.
Ricky and I got along fine for the time we roomed together, although we did not have the sympathy of soul that leads to life-long friendships. Our dorm figured out that the way to do much-needed painting at our dorm was to offer students free paint to paint their own rooms. I saw this as something like being told how fun it was to white-wash a fence. He insisted that we paint our dorm room blue, which seemed silly to me, but then it turned out it was nice to wake up in a blue room. He spent each mid-day viewing the soaps on a huge television. He liked technology. He was the first man I knew who figured out how to word process a document on a campus mainframe computer. That seems like nothing now, but it was cutting edge in 1979. The instructor was taken aback to receive a right-justified essay from him. Ricky had to explain its provenance, lest he be suspected of plagiarism.
For some reason, he wanted to set up a huge model train board in a full one half of the dorm room, and I agreed to "bunk" the beds so that he could. This gave me the thrill of hearing him hammer tracks onto plywood every late weekend night that I tried to sleep. He was a good guy, overal, though. After a semester or two, we each switched to room with other people with whom we were better friends. I am "no fun", in the sense that I don't drink alcohol and was more interested in a good book, a deep conversation and perhaps a good rock LP than in a party or the stereotypical "guy" things.
I think I needlessly hurt his feelings, just after college, by not driving to his wedding to his girlfriend Pam. I can understand why that would wound, and I'm surprised, in hindsight, I handled things that way. I am not a huge wedding buff, but I enjoy them fine. It surely could not have been too much trouble to go to his. We had not been in touch since college, although I vaguely knew he lived in Arlington, between Dallas and Fort Worth.
I understood from college that Ricky's life expectancy was less than the usual, because Ricky had been a kidney transplant recipient. My father, a great guy, but also a country doctor who has seen it all and treated most of it, frequently will advise me on the morbidity of this condition or that, so that at any given time I see the Grim Reaper hovering over this soul or that. It's about like that Robert Heinlein story about the machine that tells you when you will pass away. I can reel off facts about more obscure things I know nothing about than anyone but a liberal arts professor.
Still, when my mother called me, I felt badly that he had passed away. I also felt badly I had never said "hi", though I knew he lived in my general area. I had lost touch with Ricky altogether, although he lived not an hour from me. This morning I looked up his obituary in the Arlington, Texas newspaper. He had been married to Pam for 22 years, and they had three children. He was an analyst at Lockheed Martin, having gotten a master's in the 80s. He led Scout troops, to which the family requested donations instead of flowers.
I'm reaching the age in which death visits people I know. That's a part of life to which I am not fully adjusted. I wish, sometimes, I were better about Christmas cards and thank you notes and staying in touch and all the congenial things. Perhaps anti-biotics convinces me that people are immortal, but I know, in reality, they're not. Even when you pass someone in the hallway as you each head for different destinations, you miss them a bit when that person's door closes.
I stop at Ricky's father's station in Hope when I am driving to see my parents. Next time I am there, I will buy a ballcap, festooned with some slogan I know he would appreciate, and think about Ricky a bit.