Reflections on the Big Chill
Doug Perez

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Until just last week, it had been a year since I visited the "In Memory" page here. I had a little brush with death myself about a year ago. It was merely a blood clot that involved a very short bit of 'touch-and-go' living. But it made the big chill something just too real in my mind. Visiting my own (potential) end, even for just an hour or so, brought home the fact that I was closer - a lot closer - to the end than I was to the beginning. While it was just an unconscious thought, I clearly did not want to visit that idea again.

When I opened up the page a few days back, I was hit with two sets of feelings and reflections. One had to do with a new name that I found on the list. The other had to do with the process of compiling this list in the first place - its very existence.

First, I found that Chris Leedy had been taken from us. In the 8th grade, back at El Dorado, we were inseparable. Chris had a super cool older brother and, thus, knew a lot about cars and girls and jazz and sports and everything I wanted to know about at that age. Though I was his same age, I idolized Chris in middle school. And I remember him later as a rare, phenomenal athlete who was so accomplished in several sports that he earned a white sweater! He was smart - incredibly sharp! He could dance. He was popular. He made it into not only the "cool guy" circle but also was both a jock and an intellect.

Of course, I could say that I "lost" Chris a long time ago. (This is true of most of us and most of those on this page, no?) But I was struck numb to hear of his death. This was both because of the substance of it and because of how it came about. Chris died of a heart attack that occurred while dancing at his eldest son's wedding. Sheesh. What a tear-jerking circumstance. One envisions the happy young groom, along with everyone else, attempting to come to grips with it. How profoundly tragic. Yes, that's what it was -- a true, real life "tragedy," I thought to myself.

But learning of Chris' tragic death, drove me to a new kind of reflection about each and every person on this page -- and to a sort of epiphany. I was struck in a different way by the sadness of it all. For this page is replete with tragedies -- none of our friends here were - or even would be now - "old enough" to be taken from their young lives. Their deaths were all tragedies. And my newfound attention to it moved me to think more and more about our lost pals and about the substance of their lives.

I was reminded of the several pals that we all lost during our stay at CVHS -- when they were just kids. Jim Post was my best pal in the 3rd and 4th grades. Bob Shank and I had been on the Freshman Basketball team together. They were the two teenagers who died while at CVHS that I was closest to . . . killed together on a motorcycle, before they even entered the second half of high school.

Then, I reflected upon those who died in the service. I remembered hearing about the death of big Ron Pimentel, a mountain of a man, in Vietnam in 1968. I recalled the week that Ricky Wikle, my basketball playing buddy, died a year later in that far off conflict. Then too, I was brought back to the devastating moment in 1995 - at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington - when I found out 25 YEARS AFTER IT HAD HAPPENED that Paul Coe also had been killed in action.

While our class of 600+ was so large that everyone didn't know everyone else, I also knew several others who died in just those first few years out of high school. Dick Haynes, that wonderful, loving, caring human being with the permanent laugh on his lips survived Vietnam only to die of a rare disease in 1975. Dave Welham, whom I did not know well but remember, also survived Vietnam only to die tragically at 23 in a plane crash. And I recalled the night when, as a young Deputy with the Contra Costa Coroner's Office, I had to write the coroner's report for Dave Weynand, who died swimming in a pool at a party.

Paul Tromerhauser (auto accident), Terry Gruhn (leukemia), and Bobby Waddell (whom I remember from middle school onward) also left us in the '70s. How can anyone give a moment's pause to these events and note anything but an aching sadness over the loss of all of these young people. . . ..before most of them could enjoy the experiences of marriage and parenthood, before many could engage any career successes, and before the youngest of them even knew a mature love?

I thought further on about the '80s, and was struck by how many fewer people had passed on during that decade. Was this generation (or this particular group of California "kids") just unlucky, or is this a pattern of life that I am just now coming across -- that so many people pass away when they are in their teens and early twenties? [Or, heaven forbid, is it just that we know about these folks, and have yet to learn about others?]

It seemed to me hardly more "fair" or "just" that we lost people in the '80s, when they had tasted of life, but were not allowed to experience the ripening of love and career and family ties and so forth. In the '80s we lost that handsome "boy" Ernie Rhode, the affable, friendly-to-everyone Vickie Morgan, the smart-as-a-whip Linda Hess, and the extraordinarily talented Keith Godchaux .

The list of those lost in the '90s begins to become even more substantial, of course. I don't wish to besmirch the memories of people whom I do not know and/or remember, so I will just muse for a moment about those that I was close enough to for their passing to genuinely hurt.

Gary Bussey is gone. My stars. Can anyone ever remember Gary without a smile on his face? He was the quintessential "life-of-the-party" guy who loved life and thought it was his job to remind you to love it too. Lynette Sumerlin passed away in 1998. She was the first person to introduce me to the "flower child" idea - an earth mother, beautiful in both spirit and mind, and, if it's permissible to say so, ravishingly gorgeous.

And speaking of gorgeous people, inside and out, Jack Woodhead left us between the last two reunions. Smart, handsome, athletic, and friendly. Who will ever forget his way of taking in each new day's wonder? Donna Cox also died between those last two reunions. I remember those riveting eyes dancing about the room at the post-post event party in 1996 ... still ready to enjoin everyone to "get up and dance!"

Rosemary Greenway was one of the most multi-talented people of our class - - a wonderful, nurturing person (to people and animals alike) who was also an important artist. Steve Heaston was, arguably, the most successful athlete/coach to come out of CVHS ever. A college star in aquatic sports, he was later so accomplished as a water polo coach that he coached the United States of America to a silver medal in the Seoul Olympics.

This page has lengthened over the years - and continues to grow, of course. Today it has begun to include numerous people who have, arguably, lived full lives. . . making it to half a century in this crazy world. We are beginning to exit middle age, Eagles, and to enter our golden years. (As I constantly joke with Dave Walker and Kim Solga, "There's no way around it -- people don't, by and large, live to be 112. . . and, therefore, 56 is not 'middle aged' by any stretch of the imagination.")

But still, when I say these words out loud, they stick in my craw. Isn't "(S)he lived a full life" something we say about those who pass on in their 80s or 90s? Isn't that the type of phrase we use to deal with death when death does not, in fact, seem to be so "tragic" in some sense? When death can, arguably, be viewed as part of nature's pageant and just another few minutes' of rotation on the great wheel of life? When we can smile warmly about a long, happy, productive life that has made, in some sense, it's last "natural" turn?

Perhaps what I must remember is that it will ALWAYS be tragic, no matter what the circumstances, when a soul departs us. No matter what the substance of the accomplishments and legacies left behind; no matter what the gifts and talents of the dearly departed; no matter whether they were, as Ted has outlined elsewhere, nerds, jocks, cheerleaders, or hoods - the winner of the Altair Award or the mousy little guy sitting in the back . . . .. the Homecoming Queen, or the Pep Club member who always wore white, went to every game, but who's name you just can't remember for the life of you.

Goodbye, Chris. Goodbye to all of you. No matter who or when or how, we all are a little bit lessened each time an Eagle goes "soaring high with honor true."

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This page updated: June 20, 2014