“In a past life I was a velociraptor,” Adam said with intense eye contact, his Jurassic Park poster framing his bowl cut on the wall behind him. I didn’t know what to say. I had never had a connection to a previous life. I didn’t possess such spiritual sagacity. The gravity of the situation was magnified by the silence of Adam’s house. It was a silence that had an eerie personality. Maybe it’s because every time I went to Adam’s place I was always doing something spooky–watching Poltergeist or Alien, playing with an Ouija board, discussing games such as “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” or “Bloody Mary.”
The general consensus, though, was that Adam’s house was haunted. It was a labyrinth of wood–dark hallways and door ways leading to nooks and rooms. Nestled against a beautiful grove of pine forest, the house was a quintessential New England home. Granite foundation built to withstand the cycle of seasons.
As I sat there in the aftermath of the “velociraptor” statement, I felt the need to come up with something. I tried to concentrate, connect with the spirit world that flowed through the house, and get a glimpse into any previous dinosaur life that I might have had myself. Nothing came to my 10-year-old brain. So, I lied. “Yah, well…I was a triceratops.” “Cool!” Adam said, the moment that had slowed down returning to normal time. “Want to see my Alien toy?” I ended up also buying an Alien toy to fit in with Adam. It, quite frankly, terrified me.
Adam was always able to balance the serious, playful, absurd, and brilliant. His mind always seemed to be grabbing whatever it could get its hands on and cataloguing, cataloguing, cataloguing. We both had the macro curiosity for the world that only youth affords. We would go from ghost-hunting his house to the stream on his property where he could enthusiastically describe all of the natural life that made up its ecosystem. I would stare into the clear, flowing water and try to see the source of the passion. That’s the effect he had.
We drifted apart when Adam moved up a grade in elementary school. His precocious tendencies moving him to a different plane of “a year ahead” that is untouchable at that age. He took on a new group of friends, and our close-knit trio of Adam, Tommy and Timmy that began in preschool became a duo. I started hanging out more with Tommy, and from there other teenage friendships evolved through middle and high school.
We didn’t reconnect until college. Many of my hometown friends opted to go to the state school, University of Maine at Orono, a near three hour drive northwest of my hometown. I went six hours in the other direction to Staten Island. The Orono clan in the north began to form, and I would hear stories about them playing made-up games, going on nature adventures and other silly endeavors that can only be given proper seriousness and care by college students. Included in the group of merry pranksters were Tommy and Adam, a few other close friends and some other solid people who I would get to know over time. From there, I started to get to know Adam again during my trips home on vacations.
Adam and I reconnected over guitar. We were both self-taught guitar slingers who had ears for a good song and an appreciation of the folk wisdom of the legends like Bob Dylan. In one of our first jam sessions, we covered Wilco’s “Reservations” with youthful seriousness, yearning for enough life experience and relationship experience to convincingly deliver lines like: I’ve got reservations/About so many things/But not about you. Adam could talk at length about the Wilco catalogue, constantly digging for b-sides and rarities.
In the summers, we started playing open mics at The Big Kahuna– an out-of-place blues venue in our tiny hometown with an owner who brought an air of NYC snarkyness to his small-fry operation. We’d get 15 minutes each week to hammer out covers and originals. Our reward each week was a CD ripped from the soundboard. We’d change our band name each time, The Bottle Rockets being our default when we couldn’t think of anything clever.
We truly re-cemented our friendship during a long winter in Maine. Adam had found a nice apartment attached to a library in nearby Waterford. He was one of my few friends who stayed in our hometown area after graduation, his summer job for a local conservation not-for-profit turning into full-time work. So when I found myself living with my parents at age 23, Adam was one of the few people still around. I’d drive the dark backroads to his house where we’d listen to full-length Pink Floyd albums while battling hordes of Nazi zombies. The winter days were short but grueling. One time I showed up and Adam had put up black-out curtains He said that the CDC had been calling him and wanted his information. I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or serious.
On most weekends we’d make the long drive to Orono together so that he could see his future wife, Beth, another childhood acquaintance from my hometown. Before hopping onto the highway, we’d buy giant coffees from Dunkin’ Donuts. Sometimes we’d chat, expressing doubts about decisions or the the future, or talk music, or make plans for grand double albums with lofty concepts. Or we would just cruise to music. The dirty snowbanks on the empty northern highway moving by to albums by The Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective or classics like The Beatles. We almost always listened to albums in their entirety. As spring came, we took a few camping trips to secret spots that Adam knew about.
After that winter, I left Maine for good. Adam gave me an empty notebook as I was leaving. It was one of those high-end ones that populates the turnstyles of independent bookstores. He encouraged me to keep writing, and I shyly took the gift, giving him an awkward hug. It was a moment that yearned for something profound and sentimental but, in the end, probably didn’t need words. We had helped each other through a dark winter and now had found a fork in the river.
We saw each other here and there from that point on. I made the trip up to Maine from Kentucky for his wedding. Adam and Beth always made lots of space for me in their lives. We shared trips to music festivals and getaways in Maine cabins together. There is an air of tell-it-like-it-is straightforwardness to Beth that added an honest dynamic to the time spent together. She’s always been a grounding force. They had adventures in Montana together, toying with the idea of moving there before settling near our home town.
As the years in Korea started to tally up, the diverged rivers slowly brought us further apart again. I’d see Adam a few times in the summer for some pick-up basketball or to go camping. We’d check in by e-mail from time to time. The responsibilities of our respective lives piled on as he bought a as house and prepared for his first kid to be born. But it was still a friendship that eschewed awkward society courtesies. When I found the time to see him, he would cut through the time spent drifting apart with a quick joke or anecdote. He was never afraid to tell you a slightly embarrassing story about your past to bring you back to roots and reality.
Adam died tragically while driving on a clear April day through no fault of his own. I got the call from Tommy about an hour before work. The beautiful spring day in Maine was reflected on the other side of the world in Jeju. Like now, the flowers were in full eruption giving perfume and pollen that suddenly soured when Tommy said in a concerned voice, “Tim this is big.”
The community shook. Adam was a bright young force in a small town where most people of our age, myself included, leave. It was one of those things that doesn’t process. The event multiplied the distance between me and home. I sat for weeks at my desk at work in Korea completely numbed, reading news stories about Adam, looking at pictures of the stretch of highway, feeling like it wasn’t real. I think that’s part of the reason that I didn’t go home immediately. A piece of me thought that he would still be there that summer in Maine, waiting to make sarcastic comments over hoops or to play me a few of his newest songs.
In the last e-mails that we exchanged, I was complaining about college debt. I was just starting school to become a teacher myself. Part of my decision had been inspired by he and Tommy. They had been teaching for a few years and had worked into comfortable lifestyles. Teaching suited them, a meeting place of passion, intelligence, and altruism. Adam was able to share his love of the natural world with the next generation, bringing the streams and woods and lakes to life for them. Adam said that “debt is inevitable” brushing aside financial worry. It’s the passion and the goal that matters, and the rest is secondary.
I was always a bit jealous of Adam’s clearsighted confidence. I hung out with him enough to know that this was well-earned and didn’t come without its fair share of worry and anxiety. But still, Adam seemed to live by a code rooted in sharp intelligence and common sense. His particular folksy code of ethics served him well. He generally knew what was right, and kept things in perspective. A series of well-grounded decisions brought him to a hard-earned place of comfort.
It was this worldview that attracted people to him. It should have been no surprise that those times when I was off on my own branch of experience, Adam was having the same effect on other people. He left behind a scattered collection of friends who believed in him and the ideas that he planted. These ideas and impacts still continue to grow and evolve.
After his death, I became even more certain that I wanted to become an educator and share my love of words. It is a rare profession that rewards and often requires passion. I still check in with Adam every once in a while to make sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons and making decisions based upon what I know to be true. The world of education can easily become complicated and convoluted and perspective is important.
Since childhood, I’ve left behind my belief in the supernatural and mystic. I no longer look for signs of ghosts. But that doesn’t mean that there doesn’t continue to be surprise and awe in the world. That initial tributary of childhood wonder is something that flowed toward grander things. With age and maturity comes a perspective that invites comfort and confidence. I’m getting closer to knowing the secret that Adam seemed to have figured out and, if I’m lucky, we’ll get to hang out as dinosaurs in a next life together.
Recommended listening: Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Track 1994-2014 by Wilco
Recommended reading: Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse