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Lessons learned from a lifetime of Augusts l Chuck's World


Last updated 8/28/2019 at 11:54am

“History never repeats itself,” Mark Twain once said, “but it rhymes.”

Of course, if you believe the internet, Mark Twain said everything worth saying. Aside from a couple of nods in the direction of Abraham Lincoln, Twain pretty much owns the online quotation business.

There’s actually no evidence that Twain said or wrote any such thing. He gets the attribution anyway, and why not? He was a very witty and often insightful man. He could rock a moustache, too.

It’s a great line, because we all get it. Things change, and life is never exactly the same, but there are similarities that always seem to pop up. For me, this would be in August.

August feels like a rhyming month. It feels ominous, somehow, as if bad news waits until the dog days of summer. We’ve had our share of that in August, in my family.

It’s just a coincidence, but every year a dark cloud tends to wander across the calendar, and I’m always glad to see September.

Even innocuous events have some shadows, come August. This past weekend, there were a slew of articles about it being the 80th anniversary of the release of “The Wizard of Oz.”

I have no idea why we should pay attention to this particular number, but it’s a great movie and it holds up well.

Happy birthday, then.

I am of a generation that grew up with annual showings of the film on network television, but we’re not the only ones – according to the Library of Congress, “The Wizard of Oz” is the most-watched movie in film history.

But you know how it happens. Something crosses our path, something we read or see or hear, and we think about it for a while, and then our brains head down the yellow brick road. Sometimes we arrive in unexpected places, which is how I ended up thinking about Kurt.

My friend Kurt played the Cowardly Lion in our eighth grade stage production of “The Wizard of Oz,” and he was great, very funny and entertaining. It was a surprise, too; I’d only known him on the playground, a short, roly-poly kid who acted tough and didn’t seem the kind to be interested in singing and dancing.

I’ve reached an age where I now have friendships measured in decades, which always startles me. I don’t understand the mechanism, why some lives remain important and others drift away, the bonds between us turning out to be flimsy and ultimately nonexistent.

They all have origin stories, though, random meetings on neighborhood streets or in junior high classrooms, the beginning of the rest of it, and we usually remember.

I became friends with Kurt during that play, then, which is why I always think of him when it comes up. We went on to be nearly inseparable throughout most of high school, and he became the kind of friend who could walk through the front door without knocking, a fixture in my family.

We roomed together for a year in college, even, before that drifting thing began. I saw him intermittently for a few years, and in those pre-internet days we kept in touch mostly through other people.

For a while, Kurt would sometimes show up in my dreams. These were vague without a lot of detail, but he’d suddenly appear, leaning against his pickup truck, happy to see me. He’d greet me and we’d talk, then, and no matter how much I said in these dreams, no matter how hard I tried to explain, he never seemed to understand that he was dead.

It was 20 years ago this week, the last week of August, that one of those other people called me. Having a good heart doesn’t guarantee that it’ll be a healthy one, or at least that’s the only thing that makes sense. You’re not supposed to drop dead when you’re 41.

I’m not trying to tell a sad story. It’s been 20 years; there’s no more sadness left, just awareness of what was, and wasn’t.

But I was talking with another old college friend a few weeks ago, standing outside in the mountains of northern Arizona, our old stomping grounds. We touched on a lot of subjects that weekend, including some conversation about our changing lives and bodies. There were some light-hearted complaints about aching joints and things the kids are doing that we don’t understand, but eventually we got around to Kurt.

I’d known him the longest, but he was part of our group, always larger than life, a big personality. I can make jokes about aching knees all day long, about the annoyances and indignities of aging, but it rarely occurs to me to consider that it’s a privilege.

He’s not the only friend who didn’t get the opportunity to grow older, but he’s the one I think about the most. Again, this isn’t sadness – it’s just August.

This is why I remember, every August. I understand that. To remind myself that what hasn’t killed me has left me with a lot of years that others didn’t get. I may not be stronger, but I’m alive. It feels important to remember.

Which is probably why I had those dreams. I was always in some sort of trouble, minor trouble, stranded, lost, out of gas. Kurt would show up then, with his truck, and give me a ride.

And for some reason, I always woke up before I had a chance to thank him.


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