Into the sunrise

The view from Mount Haystack

We met in second grade and quickly became friends. Bruce’s family lived in the village a little over three miles from my family’s house in the country. By the time we were about 10 years old or so, our parents let us ride our bikes back and forth, on rural roads with no shoulder, even after the unimaginable happened and a friend making that trip with Bruce was hit by a car and killed. Those were different times for parenting styles. More than that, our parents recognized that Bruce and I were inseparable, so much so that our fourth grade teacher decided we should be assigned to different classes starting in the fifth grade. I was just a kid, but it struck me as odd, even arrogant, that she got to decide whether my friend and I were too close.

The reassignment did little to interrupt our friendship. We belonged to a Boy Scout troop that took us on multiple tent camping weekends during western New York’s brutal winters, the boyhood ideal of a bonding experience. Our families vacationed together. He and I worked together on a farm for a boss so awful that we could only laugh at what he put us through. We did an epic backpacking and mountain climbing trek with our scoutmaster, just the three of us. That trip taught us skills that we used when, at age 16, we led our younger brothers on a multi-day hike on Vermont’s Long Trail (to repeat, our parents were of a different time). We made the Scouts’ Order of the Arrow together, which required us to spend a weekend doing manual labor, eating practically nothing, not speaking (for teenage boys, that was almost as difficult as the diet), and sleeping under the stars with no tent or tarp. We awoke the final morning far enough away from others that we at least satisfied one craving, to talk, even if our hunger went unabated.

We didn’t hang out together much in high school. He was a jock and class president and popular. I was a band nerd. These differences hardly mattered to us, but it meant we weren’t in the same social circles anymore. When I saw him in the hallways at school, often in a crowd of football players and cheerleaders, I might greet him and chat for a moment, taking perverse pleasure in the dirty looks I might get for crossing the nerd-jock social boundary. Bruce would ignore all that and treat me like the old friend I was.

In college, I was a commuter, resentfully stuck at home, while he lived the typical college life on an urban campus. So I visited his off-campus apartment for a beer-sodden weekend. We repeated the low-grade debauchery on a road trip to another high school friend’s campus. We both dated girls named Nancy, and ended up marrying them. My relationship lasted. His didn’t, but it produced two daughters he treasured. He then married a wonderful woman who clearly made him happy.

As we grew older, jobs and families and miles kept us apart. Every year or two we’d get together for a drink or a meal, or we’d see each other at a family event (my cousin had married his brother, thanks to the two families’ connection made through us). Our fathers, who were good friends, died just days apart. I can still see the look Bruce gave me when I entered the funeral home to pay respects to his father only a day after my own father died. We were too choked up to talk much, but I instantly knew what his intense stare meant: disbelief that we must experience the loss of our fathers simultaneously. I kept up with his life mainly through his older brother, the one married to my cousin, who remains a hiking buddy and great friend. In the past two years, I saw Bruce twice: at our 40th high school reunion and after the death of his younger brother from brain cancer. As I left that funeral, he gave me that familiar deep stare.

Just last week, I was talking to an acquaintance who mentioned she volunteers at the ambulance corps in Bruce’s town. Pretty sure he volunteered there, too, I Googled while we talked and was reminded that he was recently president of that ambulance corps. She promised to say hi to him for me when she met him. I vowed to myself to get in touch with Bruce. I had made that vow a number of times in recent years, as had he. We rarely followed through. Life got in the way.

Less than two weeks into the year when we would turn 60, I got a text from my cousin, the one married to Bruce’s older brother, telling me Bruce died of a heart attack. The shock gave way to deep sadness for his wife and kids and surviving brother. The next day I started mourning for my own losses — the gradual one inflicted on the boys we once were, as adulthood pulled us apart, and the sudden one that mocked my good intentions to revive the friendship someday.

Bruce had a deep faith, and I am glad for his family that they have that to comfort them now. We never talked about that. But we long ago shared a deeply meaningful, if wordless, spiritual moment. It was during that backpacking trip with our scoutmaster. The conditions were extreme for two guys in their early teens without much mountaineering experience. One night we camped near the summit of one of the Adirondacks’ highest peaks, something that’s now illegal but then was merely crazy. It was a miserable night. A thunderstorm raged around us. This was at a time, in the mid-1970s, when outdoor gear was a crude predecessor to today’s technology. My tent leaked. My inadequate clothes and sleeping bag got soaked. I struggled to cook my dinner with Sterno under a tarp in the downpour. But we awoke to dazzling sunlight and a bracing chill. We emerged from our tents and made our way to the brightly lit summit to watch the rising sun color in the surrounding peaks. The mountain is called Haystack. It offers one of the most renowned views in the Adirondacks, and we had it to ourselves. I don’t remember our scoutmaster’s exact words, but his message struck me as profound: It’s Sunday morning, and this is our church. We fell silent then as we gazed at the scene.

That’s how I will remember Bruce, in the warmth of a new day’s sun on a mountaintop with our lives ahead of us.