The other day I heard an old gospel song that was totally new to me. It was called “Gone Home.” It got my mind and memory to working — because it’s about those we loved and cherished, who have died before us, passed away, “gone to the other side.” Gone home. The video above is about Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, but we’ve all lost dear friends who we would give anything to see again.
If you’ve been able to reach my age (70) without losing any of the friends who you played with as a child, who you double-dated with in high school, who you joined the military with, drank beer and swapped stories with, whose company was more precious to you than anyone’s but your family — or maybe more so — then you’re lucky. REAL lucky.
I wasn’t so lucky — not by a jug full. So pull up a chair and let me tell you about five dear friends who left this life, far earlier than they should have.
Joe was the same age as me, but his mom, who was a teacher at the old North Madison School, had skipped him over one grade, knowing that he didn’t need it. Joe was extremely smart — possibly near genius level. So he was a seventh grader, and I was in the sixth, when we first met.
Besides being extremely smart, Joe had a rollicking, delightful sense of humor that could light up a room. When he laughed — loudly, uproariously — you couldn’t help laughing, too. He was entertaining, wonderful company, and just a very good friend. Joe’s parents were farm folk, and so he grew up having to help his dad with the chores, plowing and planting, harvesting, and so forth. I never once heard him complain about that, but it was pretty obvious that he had no intention of staying on the farm for his career.
Joe was not a picky eater, but I remember that he DID NOT like chicken (imagine that, from a farm boy!) He told me once that he had had to make too many trips into the henhouse to gather eggs, feed the fowls, try to avoid stepping in the chicky-doo, etc. Joe said once when he was in the chicken house gathering eggs, a hen suddenly became upset or mad at him, and flew straight into his face, giving him a beating with her wings and biting him with her beak. But then, as Joe said, “She made her first mistake; she landed on the ground right beside my feet.” That hen found out quickly just how hard an angry farm boy could kick. “She didn’t live long after that,” Joe laughed in telling me about it.
He and I remained good friends right on through high school, where he was consistently an Honor Roll student. Then off Joe went to Indiana University, where he achieved one of the highest grade-point averages ever at our biggest and best-known state college. Joe had a steady girlfriend at IU, and a bright future in front of him.
Meanwhile, during his senior year, I was dispatched to the Vietnam War as part of the 1st Infantry Division. That was in 1965. I only had seven months left on my enlistment when I was sent over, but it was still a hazardous assignment. Combat pay, and all that.
As word spread that I was serving in Vietnam, people from home began writing to me — and Joe was one of the first, and the most consistent. He would try to jolly me up, warn me to be careful, tell me what was happening at college, and so forth. I appreciated all the letters, but Joe’s in particular. He went the extra mile for me. For instance, there was a book that I had been trying to find for years (there wasn’t any Internet or Amazon.com in those days, for those of you who are too young to remember it). I mentioned that to Joe in one of my letters. He wrote back and told me that he would ransack the bookstores at Bloomington and find it for me.
And he did. In the next letter, he told me that this bookstore which didn’t have it in stock, had agreed to order a copy for him. And when it arrived, he promptly shipped it to me. And I still have that book. I always will.
Then one day, I think it was in April, the month before I was due to go home, I received a letter from my dad. He and Mom wrote to me on a regular basis, of course. And this letter was pretty routine, down to and including his signature. Then — I assume he had written the letter the night before but hadn’t mailed it yet — there was a P.S. “Joe Cline was killed in a car wreck yesterday. Seems hard to believe. I’ll write with more information when I’ve got it.”
I sat there on my bunk, stunned. Here I was in a combat zone; in danger every day, by definition. And Joe was a senior, about to graduate from college, with a great career ahead of him, probably a marriage and children — and it was all wiped out in a second. And I was destined to come home, safe and sound, from a shooting war. Dad was right: It was hard to believe.
Joe had been home for spring break; his dad was driving him back to Bloomington, and a car coming from the other direction veered across the center line and collided with the Clines’ car, head-on. Joe’s head was slammed against the dashboard (no safety belts in those days, either). His father was injured, but not fatally. Joe lived for several hours — he was so young and strong. But he finally slipped away from the doctors. Gone Home.
I had written regularly to his mom, Blanche, and his younger sister, Scarlett, while I was in Vietnam, too. When I wrote the closing on my replies to Scarlett’s letters, I would tease her by writing, “from your ‘other brother.’ ”
About a week after the accident, I received a letter from Scarlett. In it, she told me of Joe’s death, of the terrible grief that had descended on herself, Blanche, and Jay, hers and Joe’s dad. I couldn’t even imagine what they were going through. And then she wrote: “Wayne, I guess you’re the only brother I’ve got left now.” I broke down and cried when I read that. I thought, “How cruel can fate be?”
Blanche and Jay established a scholarship fund at Madison Consolidated High School in Joe’s name: the “Joseph V. Cline Memorial Scholarship.” It’s still being awarded to the most deserving graduate each year. And many years later, when Scarlett learned that she had a terminal illness herself, she made a decision. Her parents, long deceased by then, had asked her never to sell their farm. Well, she went against their wishes on that. BUT — having sold it, she took the proceeds — more than $500,000, as I remember — and added the money to the scholarship fund. It will now exist in perpetuity, in Joe’s memory.
I think Joe would approve. But he would also make a joke about it — and erupt in that wonderful, contagious laugh.
Gavin and I knew each other from first grade on. He was a big boy, bigger than life, very smart like Joe, but with a different turn. We became best friends in about the fourth grade; stayed that way until freshman year of high school, when we started to drift apart. No quarrel or falling out; our paths just diverged.
Gavin — “Gavie” as all his friends called him then — was loud, very funny, and could be very crude when he wanted to. In fact, he reminded me so much of his uncle, Bill Lodge, who was also loud, crude, and very funny.
I remember once we were idling around, listening to the radio on one of my visits to his house, and the old song, “Grandfather’s Clock” came on. Remember it? “My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf, so it stood 90 years on the floor …” All of a sudden Gavin dead-panned, “My grandfather’s cock was too large for my grandfather …” I cracked up. That was Gavie.
Sometimes we’d be doing something, or he’d just have walked back over to me after doing something, and he’d say, with no preamble, “Wayne, damn your soul!” Again, that was just Gavin being Gavin. It was just his way of saying, “Hey, what’s goin’ on?” or “Been gettin’ any lately?” Sometimes if I did something stupid, or screwed something up royally that I was trying to say, Gavie would say, “Nice move, bowels!”
Gavin made straight A’s in school, or nearly that good, right on through high school. I kept up with him through about the eighth grade — then my grades plummeted, as I just quit trying. Gave went on to Wabash College, and took Marine ROTC all four years. After graduation, he joined the Marines as a second lieutenant, and in due time, was sent to Vietnam, where the war was really heating up by that time.
Before he was sent to Vietnam, but after he had entered the Marines, Gavin told me once that, having grown up as the scion of a well-known, prosperous family in a small town, he had always felt (with a little discomfort) that the way was always paved for him. He said he wanted to serve in the U.S. military to prove that he could make a career on his own, without the help of reputation or family ties.
That was admirable of him. But when the APC (armored personnel carrier) that Gavin commanded went out one night on patrol in the jungle, it ran squarely over a land mine, which exploded, with Gavin taking the main force of the blast. He received horrible burns to his face, ears, neck, upper chest, shoulders and arms. He had to spend months in a burn center in Texas, recovering from his wounds. He received a medical (honorable) discharge from the Marines as a result; went home; married his sweetheart, Marsha Main, who was from Colorado, and enrolled in law school. After becoming a lawyer, Gavin settled in Colorado with Marsha and began his law practice.
Years passed. Gavin Knox Lodge IV was born. But then in early 1983, when Gavin was 37 years old, he began having some symptoms, which upon medical tests, turned out to be a malignant brain tumor. I found out about it from his mother, Nadine, who was then secretary to a judge at the Jefferson County courthouse.
Our 20th class reunion was held that August at Clifty Inn. This was before cellphones, so our class leaders set up a phone booth near the dining room, with an open line connected to Gavin’s home phone out in Colorado, as he was too ill to come to Indiana for the reunion. We classmates took turns talking to him, about two minutes apiece. When I spoke to him, he roared, “Wayne! Good to hear from ya!” I told him I’d had a few beers, and he answered, “Yeah, I’m gonna start on some of that myself soon.” There was no self-pity in his voice; no fear of death. Gave was always a big guy; bigger than life. He later told his mom that he had enjoyed his chats with his former classmates enormously.
Gavin turned 38 in September. In November, he finally succumbed to his illness. He had Gone Home, probably shouting an off-color one-liner as he walked through the Pearly Gates. Just Gave, being Gave.
I didn’t meet Fred for the first time until the start of our sophomore year at Madison Consolidated High School. He had attended Shawe Memorial (the Catholic high school in Madison, for those of you who aren’t from this area) his freshman year, then moved over to Madison for the last three years.
The first thing most people noticed about Fred was his size — about 6-5 in his stocking feet, skinny as a rail. The second thing they noticed was that he was one of the best-natured guys you’d ever want to meet. I think Fred was born laughing, and never really stopped. He had one of those faces that always looks about to smile, if it’s not already grinning. And when he laughed — which was often — he sounded a lot like Goofy, the Disney cartoon character. Now, I’m not suggesting that Fred was “goofy,” because he wasn’t. He was of above average intelligence. But when he laughed, it sounded like, “Uh-hu-uh-hu-uh-hu!” Kind of a guttural sound, down in his throat. If you knew Fred, you’d have recognized that laugh anywhere.
I don’t remember Fred having a natural wit as Joe and Gavin did. But he was bright and articulate, would laugh at anything, and was almost never in a bad mood.
And his brothers and sisters have told me in recent years he was the best big brother, ever. He was the oldest of eight children, and he took his responsibilities as “big brother” seriously. I can still see him walking along with one of his younger siblings, his arm around their shoulders as they talked, in a gesture that was both loving and protective. If you were another kid in his generation, you DID NOT want to give any of Fred’s brothers or sisters a hard time! I have heard from people who knew him in grade school that Fred, good nature and all, was not afraid of ANYONE. He would, as we used to say, “fight a buzzsaw.”
Fred and I buddied around quite a bit in high school, went to a few ballgames, walked the streets of downtown Madison, “shooting the shit” as we used to say, enjoying each other’s company, running into one or the other of his younger siblings occasionally. He always stopped to talk to them; never acted like he thought it “un-cool” to associate with them when in the company of a friend his own age.
As we both neared graduation, I had decided to join the U.S. Army, as my grades were not up to college standards and my folks couldn’t afford to pay my way anyhow. When I told Fred about my decision, he said he was leaning the same way. Another of our classmates, Lonnie Surratt, also had decided to go Army, so we all joined up together, four days after graduation. We spent basic training together at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and then were sent our separate ways for our advanced training and permanent duty stations.
The years passed; all three of us completed our three-year hitches and came home. Fred married his high-school sweetheart, Carol Wardlow. Eventually they wound up living in Logansport, the parents of two children, Fred as the manager of a savings and loan branch.
And then in 1986, we got terrible news back here in Madison: at age 41, Fred had taken his own life. I won’t go into any details; his family had to suffer through that already; no use bringing it up again. Suffice to say, his family and we, his friends, were stunned and overwhelmed with grief. Fred, one of the most cheerful, happy-go-lucky guys I ever knew, was one of the last people we ever thought would do that. He had Gone Home, far too young.
Ron was another classmate of mine, through most of the 12 years of public school. Ron was an unusual guy. The first thing that you noticed about him was that he was gentle and kind. I don’t remember him ever being in a fight, or a heated argument with anyone. He was just a very dear friend, easy-going, with no agendas, who would listen to you, and sympathize. But he also had a keen sense of humor, in the sense of appreciating the one-liners and wisecracks of others. I can still hear his infectious laugh. And like Fred Kelley, he was a “big brother” to four younger siblings.
The second thing you learned about Ron after you knew him for a while, was his extreme intelligence. He had enormous discipline about his studies in school, and finished high school as co-salutatorian of the Class of 1963 at Madison. Moving on to college, he achieved top grades, and became a professional engineer.
Ron did me a number of kindnesses in high school. Several times when I wanted to attend a school function — school play, Custer Contest, whatever — and I didn’t have a way to get there (not having gotten a driver’s license), I would approach Ron a little timidly and ask, “Are you going to the play tonight?” He would say, “Might as well.” And I’d say, “Could I ride with you?” “Sure.” “Think we ought to dress up a little?” “Might as well.” Anything you wanted to do was OK with Ron. In both our freshman year, when the Madison Cubs lost to the Muncie Central Bearcats in the state semifinals; and our junior year, when Madison was beaten narrowly by the future state champs the Evansville Bosse Bulldogs, I wouldn’t have had a way to get to Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to see the games — if Ron hadn’t offered me a ride with himself and his family. I’ll always remember those kindnesses, good buddy. And his family always treated me like — well, one of the family.
After he went off to college, and I went off to the Army, Ron and I lost touch. We ran into each other at the Madison Regatta a couple of times; I went to the funeral home when his father died in 1987, and Ron, who was deeply grieved, was very glad to see me.
Then, about four years ago, I happened to encounter a local guy who was a first cousin to Ron, and who I had known since first grade. I said, “Hey, how’s your cousin Ron Finke doing these days?” The guy shook his head and said, “They just sent him home to die.”
I was stunned. The first cousin said Ron, who lived in upstate New York, had been having symptoms — headaches, mainly. When he went to see his doctor, the diagnosis was grim: Brain cancer. Inoperable.
Ron, my gentle, good-hearted friend, lived a couple of months, I think, then passed away. After funeral services at his current city of residence, he was brought back here for burial, in his ORIGINAL hometown. I went to the funeral home here; sympathized with his poor mother, who had just lost her first-born son. Hugged and consoled his three sisters; renewed acquaintances with his brother, who had been a deputy prosecutor in Madison at one time. And met his son and daughter, long since become adults. In his son’s face, I could see a reflection of my friend Ron when he was a young man.
Both physically and spiritually, my buddy had Gone Home.
I didn’t happen to meet Steve until 1979 — at a local bar, ironically enough. I had seen this nice-looking, well-dressed young man sitting at the bar a few times before, and finally started a conversation with him. Turns out he was three years younger than me, a 1966 MCHS grad whose family had moved to Madison from Milan in the summer of ’65. His older brother, Bob, had been a member of the 1954 Milan Indians basketball state champs.
Steve was a little reserved — as befitted his appearance, I guess — at first, but after we chatted for a few minutes we both knew that we had found a like-minded friend. He was articulate, smart, had a great sense of humor (all my friends seemed to have had that, didn’t they?), and was also a veteran of the U.S. Army and the Vietnam War, just like me. Our political views were similar, and he was a writer, too, although not currently working at it. Plus, he was an extremely talented artist, often doing politically-oriented cartoons. I remember one in particular: This was the era when the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers had just taken over Iran after overthrowing the shah. Steve did a cartoon showing the ayatollah up to bat at a baseball game. The view was as the pitcher would have seen home plate, from the mound. The catcher was leaning around Khomeini, and flashing a sign to the pitcher. A translation by the sign said, “Beanball!”
The Madison Courier was short a reporter at the time that I had known Steve for a little while, so at another of our meetings in a bar, I talked him into applying for the job. He did, and was hired. He was a talented man and a fine writer, so he kind of just fit right in.
Except that — in the afternoons, when I would stop by our favorite tavern, after work, I would find Steve there. We would sit and talk and drink our beers. But I began to wonder, “How long has he been here?” I began to surreptitiously ask the bartenders when he wasn’t there (OK, I guess I was “snooping,” but I had helped him get his job) just when he had come in. Usually it was, “Oh, some time late this morning.” In other words, when he was on the clock.
No, I never divulged that to any of my superiors at the Courier. I’m not a person who would do that to a friend. But it still made me uneasy. After all, he’d been hired on my recommendation. But his actions began to become known to his employers through other means. Steve was a great guy, a smart guy, a very talented guy. But he was very independent. And as I had figured out by this time, he was an alcoholic.
Now, I was too, as I realized years later. But I finally managed to stop, and remain sober to this day. Steve never did.
Late in 1979, Steve quit his Courier job to take a position as investigator for the Jefferson County prosecutor. He did well in that job for 10 years, apparently managing to balance the performance of his duties with his drinking to a satisfactory (to his boss) degree. Then in 1990 he quit the prosecutor’s job to start his own private detective agency, out of his home in Hanover. His wife was a professor of German at Hanover College, and they lived on campus.
I didn’t see Steve much any more, except at meetings of a Veterans of the Vietnam War post which was established in Madison in 1995. He was the same old Steve, still friendly and witty; a little heavier than I remembered him, but then weren’t we all?
But in June 1996, on the first day of my vacation that year, I happened to run into a mutual friend in downtown Madison. He said, “Did you hear about Steve’s death?” I said, “Steve who?” “Steve Wichmann. They found him dead in his house.”
Another shocking, mind-numbing bombshell, straight out of left field. Making some phone calls, I discovered that about a month before — maybe a little longer — Steve had been diagnosed with severe liver damage. Friends said his appearance changed for the worse, almost overnight. He and his wife had always returned to her native Germany in the summer to visit her parents and enjoy their time off. He was ill when the time came for their visit that year, and his wife said she would not go without him. But Steve, with his smooth, articulate persuasion, managed to talk her into going anyway, convincing her that he would “stay here and rest” and be fine. So, probably against her better judgment, she went. She called him every day for the first week or so; then once she called and got no answer. She contacted the Hanover Police, who went to the Wichmann house, and found Steve’s body inside. He had died from a sudden seizure connected with his liver damage.
I’ve always wondered if Steve didn’t sense that his days were numbered, and that he didn’t want to die in front of his wife.
Steve’s death shook me up, aggrieved me, tremendously. Usually on my vacations I would drink as much, and when, I wanted. I stayed sober all week — not a drink — until Steve’s visitation and funeral were over.
Then the next evening — it was a gloomy, rainy summer day — I lugged a case home and began drinking in front of the TV set. And thinking, remembering, “Was there anything I could have done? Could I have maybe helped him to get his drinking under control? Or even quit?” and so forth. Finally, my thoughts and emotions, and the rain pouring down in the gloom outside, overwhelmed me, and I began crying like a baby. I bawled and bawled, staggering out into the hallway to look out the screen door, where the rain was pouring down as if the heavens, too, were weeping over such a good, talented man, gone before his time. Gone Home.
Summing it all up
So, I guess all this makes me a survivor — of some kind or other. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad to still be around. Hope I can stay as long as possible. I’m enjoying life now as I didn’t for many, many years.
But the friendship of these great buddies helped make my life much happier, much more worthwhile. They made me laugh, they taught me things, they helped me when I needed help. And I tried to do the same for them.
Writing this has been difficult. Obviously a lot of these memories are painful. But I’m glad I wrote it. Hopefully people who read this, will get some idea of what these great friends of mine were like. And, whenever my time comes, I hope they’ll be waiting up there for me, yelling, “Hey, man, Welcome Home!”