We are not supposed to be a generation that dies very young, and in fact, for some of us, we scarcely believe we’re going to die at all. So caught up in a torrent of ageless consumerism and the fetish of our own ironic past, the mere concept of mortality eludes even the most nihilistic of us.
However, it’s no joke that my graduating class has yet to hit forty years old, and already my fraternity – Chi Psi at North Carolina – has lost four brothers from my tenure. I know two things about mentioning the word “fraternity”: it creates one instant groan, and then a second when you say yours was different. Well, mine was. It was the only place where intellectuals, iconoclasts, weirdos and out-of-staters could gather and still have a fighting chance at smooching the gorgeous Chi Omega from Kannapolis. It was the only fraternity Tessa would come near, if that tells you anything.
Jon Baker and me, Trader Vic’s 1990
The first of our group to go was Jon Baker, my “big brother” and one of the quickest minds to set foot in North Carolina. His command of trivia would have given that Mormon guy fits on “Jeopardy,” but he could also command crowds: he was our president, and lorded over some of the greatest parties of the late 1980s. One night he grabbed my guitar (which was missing two strings) and proceeded to play every Steely Dan song in the catalogue, including a few other crazy AM hits along the way. When he was done, it was 3am and there were about twenty of us around him. The kicker? He had never played guitar before. He died at thirty years old.
The next to go was Chuck Pierce, the apotheosis of a scholar/athlete from Tennessee. Insane amounts of pressure from his past, along with his high-octane scholarship, made him freak out while at the Lodge, and before long he stopped going to class. It didn’t make him any less funny, any less charming, and any less wonderful. After graduation, he lived with the Gribster and me in the Purple House and his unique humor kept us afloat. The day I moved to California, I got the news: he was gone at twenty-eight.
I didn’t know Chris Myers as well; he was one of the quietest folks in our brotherhood. The rumor was he was a genius, and if you happened to be lucky enough to overhear a snippet of his dialogue, all was confirmed. He was the kind of guy I look back upon and wish I’d had the foresight to take him out with us, take him drinking, dancing, anything. Not that he would have gone, but at least he would have been asked. Plagued by depression, he took his own life early last year.
This morning, we got the news that Joe Quinn, one of my favorite people ever and a frequent commenter on this blog, died of an aggressive lung cancer that felled him in two months. He leaves behind his wife and two kids. As Jody K says, he was the consummate southern gentleman, and as everyone knew, after three drinks he’d be saying things you’d remember fifteen years later.
He wasn’t just on my list of greats, he was everybody’s All-American. If you were at a party and Joe was there, everything would be cool. If it was 2am and he was up watching TV, you’d watch it with him until the sun rose. His peculiar accent, fermented in the wild mountain air of McDowell County, became much-imitated among us out-of-staters, and we can all repeat our favorite phrases.
He was a bourbon drinker, but I doubt he’ll mind that I will raise a glass of single-malt scotch in his honor, for him and my other brethren who are now guardian spirits hovering o’er.