Looking for Gary Cheers
You never know when will be the last time you’ll ever see someone. I’m not talking about family or someone you see all the time or someone who dies in your arms. That’s another story. In life, there’s always a last time, but will you remember it?
The last time I saw Gary Cheers he was working in a Head Start Program at a school in a small town on the North Carolina coast. We talked in the gym while the kids played basketball or volley ball or something like that. It was the year after we graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and went our separate ways, him to grad school, me to law school.
I’d driven up the coast from Ocean Drive Beach where I was staying with my girlfriend, and I asked around his hometown until I found him. It didn’t take long, only a gas station or convenience store and someone directed me to the school.
What we talked about I don’t remember, only the scene with my girlfriend standing to one side and listening. Certainly we talked about what we’d done the past year, him at Florida State and me at Duke. He was going for a degree in psychology, one of the many interests he’d had in college. We probably talked about the war, about Nixon, about the pits the country was in.
I don’t think he was going back to grad school the next semester. Maybe the money. Maybe the threat of the draft and a deferment to teach school was an option. I’m not sure. I was surprised he wasn’t going back. Disappointed somehow.
This was three weeks before I left for basic training and ultimately Vietnam—since I’d been drafted while I was in law school. No more deferments. No interest in the Reserves, where a helpful dean had found a couple of open slots.
It was a last idyll at the beach, but for some reason I wanted to go see Gary before I left for the army. Maybe because it was a cloudy day and only a short trip up the coast. I’m sure the girlfriend wasn’t impressed with Gary. Wirier and smaller than me, he had short blond hair and a mouse face, and he talked with a funny accent, “aboot” for about, an eastern-shore accent he called it, and pedantically correct. But he was fit and smart and alive with interest in everything around him.
My girlfriend probably wasn’t impressed with me either, since she dumped me not long after she saw my shaved head, my loss of law-student swagger. Peered into the abyss of war, no light at the end of the tunnel. Or maybe she realized something about me, about us that I already knew.
Older and warier, no longer a working lawyer, I stumbled on her obituary on the internet, no more than a single paragraph. Husband, child, memorial service at a funeral home. I didn’t find anything else on her, but I’m still curious, about her life, what she’d done. The short time it lasted, it was good. I remember the last time I saw her.
I’ve known a few people quite well for a time, or worked with them; and they pass out of my life, and me theirs, and then I hear they’ve died. A couple of lawyers I worked with on cases, broke bread with in expense account meals, and enjoyed conversation with. Liked them. And they died young. A youth minister whom I met at a church camp where I lifeguarded and he was a counselor; and later I dined with him, served as his subject for a course he was taking on counseling, and sought his advice about a girlfriend, a high school senior who ran away from an abusive home.
I wondered if my minister friend was gay, in the closet in those days. No women in his life that I could see. We’d gone our separate ways well before I was drafted; but over the years I tried to track him down, even called the Duke Divinity School. They didn’t have a record of where he was, and I didn’t follow up. Then in the alumni magazine, I saw his obituary. The memories abide, though, the two of us sitting behind Burl Ives in the Duke Chapel, Handel’s Messiah rising and washing over us.
Some of what I remember may be wrong. But that’s the way I remember it.
Gary was special. Gary was ordinary. Witty. Insecure. Smart.
We spent much time together during our four years at UNC. Friends, roommates, housemates, and competitors in freshman calculus and sophomore zoology, lunches and dinners and beers in bars, bullshit sessions. More than a few lonely Saturday nights—no dates, too bummed out about it to study. Looking for girls to chat up, never finding any at this predominately male bastion, then.
One spring night we set out thumbing, headed for the beach near his hometown, down a lonely two lane road from Chapel Hill with nothing but a six pack of beer. Two losers. I was thinking, seeking something, fleeing I don’t know what. Headed for utopia, and we didn’t make it. Or maybe we did and didn’t know it.
I don’t remember how far we got under those dark pine trees before we turned back. The beer disappeared faster than any rides appeared.
Years later, back from Vietnam, gainfully employed and owning a car, raising two kids with my wife, I asked a mutual friend, another former housemate,
“Tom, you ever hear anything from Gary Cheers?”
“Nope, not since Carolina. Next time I go to the coast, I’ll look him up.”
Once before, after Vietnam and law school, my new wife and I drove through Gary’s little town, and I asked a few people if they knew him, but not a serious effort—just passing through on our way to someplace else. Time pressing us on.
Later I heard that he’d earned a Master’s Degree or maybe it was that he didn’t finish it. Heard that he’d ended up back home, teaching school. Or maybe I imagined all that. I’m sure he was a good teacher, though—curious about everything, eager to share what he’d learned.
I don’t think he wanted to go back there—to the small town, a dot on the coastal highway. He had big ambitions, big dreams when I knew him. Wanted to explore the world, do great things. I always thought he’d go far, be a college professor maybe, a doctor or a psychiatrist or something like that. And maybe he did do great things.
Our freshman year, Gary lived across the hall from Johnny of Chowan County, the state peanut capital as Johnny reminded us. That was the year some redneck threatened to kill me over what I said in a dorm bull session, that I wouldn’t care if my daughter dated someone who was black. Long before I had a daughter.
That wasn’t Johnny, who always seemed harmless, good-hearted and well-intentioned, friendly. Once at the end of a holiday, on a Sunday night,—the memory lingers in part because it was one of those times when you’re just back in the pressure cooker of grades and loneliness after a long bus ride, not wanting to be there but needing to be, having to be, missing family or the high school sweetheart you’ve seen for the last time—Gary and I were standing outside his dorm room, talking or maybe leaving for the cafeteria, and Johnny pops out of his room with a bowl of peanuts.
Stepping into the corridor, he holds out the bowl. “Like some peanuts?” he says. “Just brought ‘em from home. Best in the world.”
Another friend from UNC told me later that he and Johnny were in the same unit after we were drafted. Or maybe Johnny had volunteered. Johnny had gone to OCS and become a lieutenant, and it went to his head, my friend said. My friend and I were draftee peons, which, as former law students—both poor kids on the make until we were waylaid by the draft—was a bitter pill to swallow. In the army, Johnny was the boss, the man, and not the genial Johnny we hardly knew at UNC. So my friend said.
Johnny died in Vietnam, after only a few weeks in country. Killed by a grenade or booby trap out in some ville in the boonies. His name’s on the Wall. Just like Murray’s, the upper classman who sat across from me in study hall in high school.
I can still see him, Johnny, standing in the door to his room, holding out the bowl of peanuts. I think they were raw, or maybe boiled, but not the roasted ones I like. Gary would’ve remembered.
I recall a few spectacles we attended: a spring bacchanal on the Quad (did we actually have dates?); purple Jesus in a jug (can’t remember my date, if I did); protesting the “speaker ban” law, listening to some communist dinosaur (I got bored and left—had to study, Gary stayed to the final yawn). Performers I don’t remember but the Ramsey Lewis Trio I do.
Gary reveled in it all: politics, civil rights, free speech, esoteric discussions of religion, philosophy, and life, and music. Especially the music. He taught himself to play the guitar—and played and sang. Not that I stayed around to listen. Otis Redding, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” When I hear Otis Redding now, I think of Gary. “Watching the tide roll away … ”
The years go by and I ask Bob, a former housemate, if he’s heard from Gary. Nope, he says. He’ll stop by Gary’s hometown next time he goes to the coast. My then wife, still my wife now, says it had become an inside joke with us: Bob and Tom and me. By this time, I’m making a pretty good living as an oil company lawyer. I’d escaped my small town roots, though they still grew deep in my gut and I often went to visit my aging mother, when I could schedule her into my travels. Going back there and getting a haircut in my old barbershop, seeing Tom or Bob, eating pork barbecue, slipping into my Southern accent and lost vocabulary. “Over yonder, you reckon, livin’ high on the hog."
I don’t know who told me, or when it was. Gary was dead. A brain tumor or something like that. It was probably a half-dozen years after he died that we found out.
The penultimate (a word Gary would use), the penultimate time I saw Gary was at graduation in 1968. My widowed mother, uneducated, not even a graduate of first grade, a millworker, only learning to drive a car after my father died, had driven down to Chapel Hill by herself. My brother had moved to Tennessee with his young family and couldn’t make it.
But Gary’s whole family was present: mother, father, sisters, baby brother, and all proud enough of Gary to burst. He was the oldest, and this was a big deal for them: first in the family to go the state university and do well there—all A’s and B’s, graduating in the top 10% of the class. We were always in competition and I was probably a bit jealous of his successes. And him of mine, I suppose. I went on to law school and did okay there, made law journal and all that. I received the letter while I was in basic training.
I always expected Gary to excel at what he undertook and that we would cross paths someday and know we’d each done well in life. Had families who loved us, appreciated us, and we them.
It didn’t happen that way, that we ever crossed paths again after those brief minutes in the high school gym in 1969, while the Head Start kids played nearby. But I hope they remember him, and others remember him, as well.
And I wonder, will anyone remember the last time they saw me?
A graduate of Duke Law School and the University of North Carolina, James Garrison practiced law until returning to his first loves: writing and reading (mostly) good literature. His novel, QL 4 (TouchPoint Press 2017) set in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, is a tale of intrigue, betrayal, and crime among soldiers on the same side in an unpopular war. It won an award for literary fiction from the Military Writers Society of America in September 2017. His creative nonfiction work has appeared in daCunha.global online, and his poems have been published in the Houston Writers Guild Press Anthology, Out of Many - One (first prize for poetry), and Sheila-Na-Gig online, which nominated his poem “Lost: On the Staten Island Ferry” for a 2017 Pushcart Prize. See his webpage at https://jamesgarrison-author.com.
"Why do I write? Because I read and I’ve discovered in the world around me and in the arc of my life wonderful stories like the ones I read, all just waiting to be released from the stone and shared with others who read."