We both hated college, and hated what our lives had become. I had unexpectedly been accepted into my father's alma mater, and it was a great school, so I felt I had to at least give it a shot.
I had originally planned to go to RIT in Rochester, NY, but between my unexpected acceptance and (the ridiculously stupid reason of) not wanting to leave a rock band I was currently playing in, I decided to stay home and go to Union College instead. I think if I'm honest with myself, getting accepted there was also a little bit of a relief, since the thought of leaving home was a little scary to me at the time. That first year of college wasn't a great period in my life. The band broke up, I was miserable, I had no real friends because all my old friends were gone and since I wasn't living on campus, I didn't have much of an opportunity to make new ones. I wasn't even sure I had made the right choice of schools.
And electrical engineering? That shit is hard. I have to give my father credit for sticking it out, especially while working a full time job. I don't think I inherited much of his smarts, however, because I had no natural aptitude for math, and almost as little for physics, so it quickly became clear that I was destined to be a C student at best. Every day was going to be a constant struggle to study hard enough and long enough to pass my required engineering classes. It wasn't until I was almost a year into it that I realized the handicap I was working under -- all the other kids who lived on campus "studied together" regularly, and by studied together, I mean they passed around the test answers from the previous year's classes. I was the only idiot trying to get by on brains alone.
Paul was in a similar situation, but with the added burden of having left a girlfriend when he went away to school. He had been dating a junior, so when he went off to college, she got to stay behind. They tried to make it work for a while, but you know how it is when you're 19 -- your mind runs away with you and your head fills with all sorts of imaginary betrayals. Given the long distance nature of their relationship, they sort of unofficially broke up even though he was still in love with her, or at least he thought he was. At the time, I thought it was more of an obsession, since when we did talk on the phone, that's mostly what we talked about. I think she was a kind of anchor for him -- a link to home, a link to the the past, a link to everything good and honest and fine in his life. All the things that being "away" seemed to change and erode. I spent a lot of time doing what you need to do for friends sometimes; I reassured him, agreed with his assessments, told him things were going to work out; even though I knew I was probably just telling him what he wanted to hear.
It's amazing how all-encompassing your problems can seem when you're in college, but when you look back on them ten or twenty years later, they seem so insignificant. Test scores, grade point averages, girls who like you and girls who don't, whether you'll have a part time job for the summer -- writing it down makes it look even more ridiculous. Even so, the pressure can seem immense; I think because behind it all, there is something so daunting that you are only able to think of it in abstract terms. Your future. Your career. The rest of your life. Abstract concepts that, if you were anything like I was while in college, you could only allow yourself to think about for short periods of time, otherwise the unanswerable questions might drive you insane.
The summer after high school graduation was a weird time for us. Summer had barely begun, yet the end of it was always in the back of our minds. We spent the whole three months wondering what was going to happen with our girlfriends and even with our own friendship. We hiked a lot in the woods near his house, talked about our plans and, because we were geeks, played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. We played the same campaign on and off for most of the summer, until my character Jaxom died in a random cave-in while on a quest. It didn't seem fair, and still doesn't, but by that time in our lives we both knew that life isn't always fair. Sometimes a cave-in happens when you least expect it and there's not a damned thing you can do about it.
We did see each other on and off during that first year, but since my school used some ridiculous thing called a Tri-mester, which split the school year into three equal parts with short breaks in between, our time off never overlapped. He used to come home for break after I had already gone back, and sometimes just for kicks, I'd drive by in the morning and pick him up in the Impala and he'd go with me to my classes. We'd sit in the back and he'd spend about a week being a bad influence on me, drawing cartoons and designing knives and swords in the margins of his notebook while I was desperately trying to understand whatever the teacher was attempting to explain. Once in a while, just to be a wise-ass, he'd raise his hand and answer a question. I don't remember him ever getting one wrong.
It was during the first of these breaks that we vowed we'd start writing letters to each other while he was away, but instead of doing it the normal and sane way, we decided to do it in the spirit of our D&D campaigns -- complete with an ink-dipped fountain pen, parchment paper and medieval script. We called them Scrolls, and even managed to send the first few as rolled up parchments in mailing tubes. The tubes didn't last long because they were a pain in the ass and expensive to mail, so we switched to envelopes almost immediately. The scrolls themselves contained lots of ornate drop caps and plenty of thees, thous and thines with a lot of -eth endings on the verbs to keep things interesting. Over time, we named our own kingdoms and wrote as the relative monarchs of said kingdoms, both trapped by our responsibilities, both looking forward to the day when we could afford to leave our castles for a period of time and wander the land as common woodsmen.
Completely geeky, I know. Even so, it always brightened my day when I checked the mail and had a new scroll from my friend. They always began with "Hail and well met, Lord Virgil," and just reading that salutation brought a smile to my face and lifted my spirits. In fact, it still does. We imparted news officially, as if it were news of the kingdom, and we spoke of our women in couched terms, referring to them as m'lady, harlots or wenches, depending upon our mood and their behavior. The mailman must have thought we were completely nuts, given the sealing wax and weird crests and symbols on the outside of the envelopes.
I saved them, tucked away inside an old notebook from school, and tonight is the first night I've looked at them since Paul passed away in '09. After he died, his wife found some of the scrolls I had written to him - which he had kept the same way I had - and she gave them to me. It was interesting to see both sides of the correspondence in one place, and it was a shock to see, some 25 years later, how depressed and beaten down we both were, and how much strength we took from each other's words of encouragement, even though they were disguised as Kingly Missives.
There was one scroll from Paul that I find myself thinking about every Christmas eve. It was a particularly bleak one because he had finally come to the conclusion that it was over between him and his girlfriend and he was feeling depressed and a bit adrift, and Christmas break was coming up. For the first time since he had gone away, he wasn't planning to see her when he came home for break. At the same time, I had a crush on a girl who liked me "as a friend," and she was all I could think about. I was also seriously contemplating a change of schools, and I hadn't had the guts to spring that on my parents just yet. I had finally figured out that electrical engineering wasn't for me, and I was averaging somewhere around a 2.5 GPA. Needless to say, neither one of us felt much like celebrating.
In the correspondence, we talked about honor and friendship, our own mortality and the future, and the importance of staying true to your beliefs, and to your friends. The scroll began with his news of the break up, and ended with him asking me to write back and tell him what I truly thought about his situation. We knew that even as events in our lives forced changes upon us, we would always be friends -- and through this series of scrolls, two very introverted geeks were able to admit to each other that sometimes in life you need to lean on your friends, and that each of us would be there for the other, no matter what our futures may bring.
He closed his scroll with this:
Snow, falling softly.
Songs and bells ring through the winter night.
People laughing and close....distant they seem.
This is Christmas - a time of love, or so they say.
Where is that love for me? Do you feel the same, my brother?
While others are merry, I shall be empty.
In your kingdom, is it the same?
I will walk in that dark and holy night,
and I will meet you in the fresh snow, and I will smile.
For this Christmas, we celebrate friendship and brotherhood.
Merry Christmas, my Brother. My friendship and fellowship is my gift to you.
Geeky? Without a doubt. Heartfelt and sincere? As sincere as a 19-year-old kid can be, and that's pretty goddamned sincere. Corny? It may seem so now, but it didn't at the time. At the time, it was a lifeline. That was a dark Christmas for both of us, but we helped each other get through it.
The following year, I transferred to Siena college and he did the same, and we spent four more years in Academia where we muddled through most of computer science, decided that it sucked, and ultimately switched to marketing and advertising, which was interesting and pretty easy if you were creative. Mostly what I remember about those years was the sheer amount of fun we had.
Eventually, we got out of school and got decent jobs; I somehow managed to marry the girl I had that crush on, and a couple of years later, he married a girl he met one summer up at The Slug's family camp. On some level, it's like that first miserable college year never existed. Time fades memories and if you're lucky, you remember the good times better than the bad. Based on some of the stuff I wrote, I think that's definitely the case for me, because I was one gloomy son of a bitch on paper.
Even back then, we both realized life was short. I think Paul felt it more intimately than I did, and I think he also somehow knew that he'd have less time on earth than most. We had more than one conversation about how the life expectancy of your typical viking was about 39, and the life expectancy of a viking warrior was probably much less than that. We marveled at the fact that you could be considered a wise old elder at the age of 35, even though as 19 year old kids, we couldn't even imagine being that ridiculously old. I think that knowledge of his mortality drove him much of the time -- then and later on in life -- and it's probably why he had accomplished more in his 45 years than most people could given twice that number.
Back in 2004, we found ourselves once again living in houses that were roughly ten minutes from each other by car. As a result, for five years we spent countless Sunday mornings drinking coffee and hanging around in each other's workshops. When the snow flew, we'd invariably joke about that scroll, and swear that one Christmas eve, when both of us were home and our wives were asleep on the couch, we'd take that long winter walk. He'd start out from his house and I from mine, we'd meet somewhere in the middle and, with little fanfare save a handshake and a quiet "Hail and well met, brother," we'd break out the flask of Drambuie and toast our lives and the sheer, unbelievable good fortune that had graced us with this enduring friendship.
Every Christmas eve, especially when the moon is full and there's fresh snow on the ground, I sorely regret never having taken that walk. Maybe someday, many years from now or in the blink of an eye, it will still happen -- if there is indeed something after this life, as he always believed.
In the meantime, I'll raise a glass of Drambuie to my friend, my brother, and take a moment to remember the good times we had.
Merry Christmas, Mate.
Hail, and well met.