As I’ve journeyed around the world, I’ve reported on the many places I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, the challenges encountered and the lessons learned along the way. And I’ve chirped a little when things didn’t go my way. But there’s a dark side to all this solitary traveling – one that became crystal clear to me recently when a close friend of mine passed away. For the sake of my own clarity, I’ve postponed these thoughts, this post, for some time. The pain was too raw to deal with on this stage, too revealing of my feelings, which I have often kept under tight control.
It is hard to explain why Eric’s death hit me so deeply. I think, perhaps, a good part of the grief came from the distance I find myself from family and friends, unable to respond to such events with more than a phone call or a bereavement basket of flowers to grieving wives or husbands. Doing what I do involves a measure of control over my circumstances, even though I often find circumstances controlling me. A friends’ death lays pillage to that idea that somehow I can control what happens around me, that everything and everyone involved in my life will continue on without disruption.
I don’t know why Eric befriended me, because that is how our friendship started. He was this tall, athletic, strange-looking guy with the ponytail who started showing up at the Gator Club in downtown Sarasota, putting his name on the white board to challenge the pool table and beating me as often as I returned the favor. He didn’t talk much but he did have a ready smile and a hearty laugh. For some reason, he took to me, not a slam dunk under any circumstances, as my small coterie of good friends will attest.
I don’t make friends easily, having learned to be cautious of others through an early lifetime of moving around from one military base to another, making new friends only to see them move away or for me to leave them. The names of the many schools I attended over my early years are lost forever, as are the names of those people who I once considered good friends, even best friends. Eric was a best friend, one of just a handful I claim today.
Eric’s story was unique but he did not tell it to many. He did confide in me, however, and on the rare occasion I would share his stories about his past, few would take me, or him seriously. You see, Eric claimed to be a Special Forces black ops guy who did some dirty work for the CIA in South America.
One time, he left for six months. When he returned, he told me the CIA had hired him as a consultant in Peru, I think, and paid him half a million for a few months work. He had to return, he confided, when his cover was blown and he had to take down three men, bringing his kill total to 64. He was an expert long-range marksman, but in this instance his martial arts skills were necessary.
Like I said, his story was unbelievable to most of my friends, who thought he was manufacturing this other, dangerous life to impress people. But, interestingly, he never broadcast his background. He did share a lot with me, however. How he came from a relatively well-off couple in California and earned three degrees from California Polytech; how his parents had died in an auto crash and left him several millions dollars and a house on Casey Key, one of the barrier islands south of Sarasota, an enclave for the rich. Eric didn’t act rich.
Eric was a martial arts expert and met his second wife, Elizabeth, when he trained her in the arts. That job, in itself, may have been a red flag on the truthfulness of his claims, but if you didn’t believe him he would just shrug and change the conversation. He didn’t need to convince anyone of who he was, although I guess my willingness to believe him at his word meant something to him.
Eric fell for one of the bartenders at the Gator Club and married her very quickly. I was his best man – and messed up the best man’s speech. The marriage didn’t last long. Probably that damn speech.
Not long after, Eric and Elizabeth, who he had been training, finally admitted doing what everyone knew they were doing – dating. Elizabeth soon became a darling at the weekend pool games at Gator. They were joined at the hip. They eloped to the Bahamas, or Bermuda, or someplace warm. They didn’t tell me, although they came to me to talk when they came back. But it wasn’t unexpected.
I had lost touch, a little bit, with Eric for maybe five years. He had moved to his hideaway mansion on a North Georgia hilltop, far away from civilization – and his real or imagined enemies. We exchanged an occasional e-mail and Christmas cards, but that was about it.
The bond was strong enough, even after those years, that when I spent a month in North Carolina between adventures, I took the time to drive more than four hours to visit Eric and Elizabeth. What I saw, shocked me. Eric had bloated, the result of a heart problem caused by the bite of a South American bug that lays its eggs inside its victims. The newborn eat the victim’s heart. I’m not making this up.
We had a great time, drinking and talking, and smoking and drinking, and … that was the last time I saw Eric. The brain cancer might have eventually killed him, if the treatment didn’t first. The pneumonia wasn’t so kind. It was very quick and he was asleep when the time came.
Anyway, Eric should have gone on a lot longer than me.
Which is also to say that the road can be lonely, the dark side of vagabonding (see title).
Part 2 – New Friends (coming soon!!!)