I got back to Mondoville about three and a half hours ago, after seeing old friends and saying goodbye to another one.
At 8 a.m. Friday, Mrs. M ferried me out to pick up a rented Hyundai Elantra, and I tossed my bags (well, a suitcase and a backpack) into the trunk, connected my cell phone to the onboard computer, and started my trip to Lexington, KY. The trip is almost entirely Interstate driving — I-26 to Asheville, 40 to Knoxville, and 75 to Lexington.
The occasion for the trip wasn’t a happy one — it was a memorial gathering for James Kolasa, who left us on 21 April, three years and change after the death of his wife, Amy. At James’s request, I read a poem at Amy’s gathering, and now it was time to read a different one for James himself. Like Amy’s, the gathering for James was held at the historic Meeting House at Shaker Village in Harrodsburg, about a half-hour from Lexington. And like last time, I stayed (as is my habit) at a cheap motel — the same one I stayed at last time.
I once again demonstrated that I’m out of step with things. The rental car lacked a CD player, and didn’t come with satellite radio. Because 1) my obsolescent cell phone has a full memory without any music, and 2) even if there were room, I wouldn’t have bothered to load my music onto it (Who has that kind of time?), this meant that I was at the mercy of terrestrial radio. Basically, then, my choices for most of the trip were classic rawk stations (mainly playing stuff I didn’t much like when I heard it in high school and college), contemporary country music, and NPR. I took option #3 when I could, but the broadcasts were almost exclusively devoted to the Dobbs decision, and since I was already in a dark mood, continuing coverage of our fragmenting country was not what I was looking for. I did find some contemporary orchestral music, so I took what I could.
One exception to this was an odd little radio station in Henderson County, NC, near Asheville. WTZQ describes itself as the “Q-munity oldies station,” and it lives up to the claim. The playlist is quite eclectic. For example, as I type this, I’ve heard tracks from Eddie Rabbitt, Rod Stewart, Kay Kyser, Perry Como, Neil Sedaka, and the current selection — the Dovells’ “Bristol Stomp.” Previous trips through the area have rewarded me with stuff like the Weavers’ version of “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” and Trini Lopez doing “This Land Is Your Land.” This is the kind of weirdness I can get behind, even if the station’s low power means that I only get to listen for about 20 minutes as I drive by. Fortunately (as the above link suggests), they are now available via the web.
Since I was passing through his part of the world, I met the Mad Dog at an outpost of one of my favorite fast-food chains. We caught up for about an hour, and even had time for a picture.
A couple of hours and some more bad radio later, I made it into Lexington, got checked into the cheap hotel, and got in touch with my friend (and fellow blogger, and James’s college roommate) William Harris, Prof. of Math at Georgetown College, a little north of the city. While Transy is a small college, and my meeting Will and James would have been inevitable (particularly since I was wanting to study math (Will’s field), computer science (James’s field), and physics), we in fact sparked our friendship at the college’s radio station, where Will was program director and James was the engineer. And if you’ve checked out Will’s blog, you’ll see that he too is a music obsessive.
So naturally, our first stop on Friday evening was a CD store near the U of Kentucky. The building has housed a record/CD store as long as I know — that is, since 1983, but the name has changed. The Cut Corner Records of my college days is now CD Central. But the atmosphere hasn’t changed — it’s a good place for music geeks, even of the white-haired variety. Will and I were the only customers, and I struck up a conversation with the cashier and the proprietor. The first few artists I asked about were out of stock (not their fault — as you may have noticed, my tastes run toward the space between obscure and arcane.) One of the artists I mentioned was the late Paul K., a key figure in the Lexington music scene during my days there. The cashier mentioned that they Paul’s work disappeared in a hurry after his death in 2020.
“My band opened for him a few times in the late 80s.” As I said that, I remembered one such occasion — James was in attendance (He was always great about supporting the Groovy Kool), and I remember how tickled he was when Paul K. and the Weathermen opened their set with an alt-rock version of “Take the A Train.” I didn’t mention it in the store, but I’ll mention it now.
A minute or so later, I asked the proprietor what they had from the local scene. He pointed me in the right direction, and I discovered that the Psychedelic States series of 60s compilations (each looking, as you might guess, at the garage scene in a particular US state) has issued a 2-disc Kentucky installment. Twenty bucks later, I owned 62 tracks from my adopted home state. Will, meanwhile, had picked up Tales from Topographic Oceans, a two-album set from James’s favorite band, Yes. Oceans was kind of a running joke among the three of us — the two LPs contained a total of four songs, each occupying an entire side. Even people who like prog rock typically acknowledge that the album is Exhibit A for the prosecutors of prog’s noodly self-indulgence. In particular, the track “The Ancient” took on a sort of Holy Hand Grenade status in our circle of friends: “For God’s sake, don’t play ‘The Ancient’!” Turns out that the CD version even includes bonus run-through tracks. When Will told me that, we both laughed.
We drove around the University neighborhood a bit, and passed by a couple of the houses where James (and later, James and Amy) lived during our grad school years and after, until they moved to a rural place they called the “20 Acre Wood.” From there, we went to a location of my favorite eatery in Lexington, Ramsey’s Diner. As is my custom, I had a Hot Brown (an open-face sandwich of turkey, ham, Mornay sauce (or white gravy and cheddar cheese), and bacon. Traditionally, it also contains tomato, but I opted out on that part. Dessert was the restaurant’s signature chocolate brownie pie a la mode.
We finished with enough daylight to get another picture in.
I crashed pretty shortly after Will dropped me off at the hotel — it had been a long day, and the memorial was Saturday morning.
I got up at about 8, and had time for breakfast before I needed to be in Harrodsburg. One of my many weaknesses is an unholy delight in breakfast buffets — particularly in difficult times. During my brother’s trial, my morning routine involved a visit to the Frisch’s Big Boy with its buffet. Although Frisch’s is a Cincinnati-based chain, it has expanded into Kentucky, and so I figured I might as well expand along with it. So I did, and afterwards, I made the drive into Mercer County, arriving about 45 minutes before the memorial started. Facility staff were setting things up, and I saw one of the people who had organized the event, a friend of James’s from grad school and his job as a prof at the local community college. As we shook hands, I introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Warren Moore.”
She looked perplexed for a moment, and I understood why. “You might know me as Smitty.” Click. It’s funny — although I pretty much exclusively go by Warren these days, the dividing line is 1987, when I started grad school. If we met before then, I’m Smitty (because my folks didn’t want to do the whole Big/Little Warren thing, and Dad vetoed the name Trey, because it reminded him of a Stephen Foster song.
More of our classmates drifted in — both from James’s class of 1986 and Amy’s class of 1989. I didn’t graduate from Transy, but I would have been class of 87, and I happened to bridge the two groups to an extent.
[Side Note: Our friend group wound up going long on academics and other advanced degrees. Four of us wound up as professors, with a couple of others becoming M.D.s, attorneys, and so forth. At one point, I thought I might call out to someone as “Hey, Doc,” but I realized that that really wouldn’t have been specific enough. End Side Note.]
James’s elder brother opened the memorial by reading James’s obituary, and Judith Collins (the English prof at
the U of the Cumberlands Campbellsville U (Thanks for the correction, Will!) who spearheaded both this event and Amy’s) delivered the eulogy. This makes twice that she’s had to eulogize one of her — and our — closest friends. She reminded us of the breadth and depth of James’s passions, from Artificial Intelligence (his academic specialty) to beekeeping, woodworking, playing bridge, and tinkering with anything he could disassemble (and perhaps reassemble, but that was a secondary consideration.) She captured his childlike curiosity and fascination with. . . well, with everything, and reminded us of the many reasons so many of us loved him. Then, James’s brother-in-law played an acoustic version of one of James’s favorite songs — “Here Comes the Sun”. I spoke to him after things were done, to tell him he had done a fine job — including the odd timed sections in the middle. Again, this is twice he has had to do this; he played “In My Life” for Amy.
James’s classmate, Angela Ray (a Comm prof at Northwestern — I told you we run long on academics), read Maya Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall,” followed by James’s mom who talked about what James was like as a kid, and shared a poem that promises God’s comfort to we who mourn. I hope she receives it.
A few of us shared anecdotes about our times with James. Will talked a bit about their time as roommates, but most notably, he talked about their correspondence over the years, and how James’s personality, wit, humor, and all the other things that made him lovable, showed up in those letters over the years. Again, we understood — many of us had corresponded over the years, though never as much as we should have, or than we would have wanted. But we always remember that, afterward.
After other people had finished speaking, it was my turn. I mentioned that while my relationship with Transy is conflicted, my friendships with my classmates — so many of whom were there — were not. And of these, I felt especially close to James, both in the two years at Transy, and in the years following while we both worked on out Master’s degrees. I mentioned hanging around together, listening to music, cracking jokes, wasting time, and all the other things that make a friendship. He made some of the challenging times of my life easier than they might otherwise have been, and I’ll always value that.
And after he and Amy became a couple, they were one of those couples that seemed as though it was something that had to be, could only be together. “James&Amy” were a single word early on, and that never really stopped, even after we lost her, and now I guess it’s true again. That in turn led me to the poem I picked for the day when Judy invited me to read.
An Arundel Tomb
By Philip Larkin
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd –
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-littered ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Finally, things concluded with a song I had last heard at Amy’s memorial. It was no easier to hear this time, but it was necessary.
Afterward, as we were mingling and catching up with each other, in the class reunion manner that attends these events, an older gentleman with what I think may have been a Central European accent approached me, carrying a very thick volume bound in the manner that those of us in the game recognize as the mark of theses and dissertations.
“So you are Warren then, yes?”
“Do you think you might be this Warren?” He opened the book — it was James’s Master’s thesis, and the gentleman had been his thesis advisor. I had never seen James’s thesis before, and the older man opned it to the acknowledgements page. About 5/8 of the way down, there was a list of first names, friends who had been with him along his lengthy journey through the work. It actually took James longer to complete the Master’s than it did me, but that was in his nature as well. As another classmate said, “James had two speeds: Slow and Reverse.” But he did get it done, and here on the acknowledgements page, I saw the names of so many of the people in the room, and my own among them. The list was followed by a quote, and knowing James and knowing us, I read it in the voice of a character from a cartoon we both loved.
“I told you I’d finish, but you didn’t believe me!”
And another friend (James’s grad school officemate, also in the list) and I laughed and nodded.
A group had reserved a few tables at a local watering hole not far from the Transy campus, and so I went back to the hotel, got changed, and caught up with everyone about an hour later. When I got to my seat, I found a plastic bag with my name on it, and that was my second discovery of the day. There were letters I had written to James over the years, chiefly during my undergrad days almost 40 years back. He had saved them, and all the other letters he had received from his friends, for all those years. I saw quite a few folks with similar packets when I looked around the room. Later, we chose packets of seeds from James’s house — among other things, he was a certified Master Gardener — and now I have a packet of Sorghum seeds. I wonder when I’ll plant them.
There were about twenty of us, and again, we engaged in the mix of catching up and reminiscence that such events inspire. The old refrain was uttered: “Why do we only get together when one of us dies?”
Life intervenes of course, that’s why. We were scattered across the country, from Mondoville to Denver, and unfortunately, it sometimes requires cataclysm to bring us back together. And we all agreed that we should work on doing things like this without a precipitating death.
I nodded. “Yeah, because if someone has to die for this kind of thing to happen, we’ll eventually have to start asking for volunteers.”
Will and I, along with his classmates/our friends Leah and Cathy, were the last four to leave. I gave Leah a hug goodbye as we headed for the street. A group of people a little older than we were were entering as we were leaving. One of them, a woman, said, “If you’re getting hugs like that, I want to know where the line forms.” And again, we laughed.
This morning, I woke up before my alarm had a chance to do anything. I threw my stuff into my bags, dropped off my keys, and made my way back — arriving (as I said) a few hours ago. The drive was more irritating than usual — there were a couple of wrecks and other traffic snarls along the way, and the never ending road destruction (I know what I said) near Asheville. But I did make time to join lots of my fellow wanderers at a new place south of Lexington.
That’s right — I went to a Buc-ee’s. If you’ve been keeping an eye on the American pop culture scene, you’re probably already aware of the chain’s status as a sort of Road Trip Nirvana. It’s famous for vast arrays of gas pumps (100 or more), a huge assortment of freshly prepared road food (from breakfast sandwiches and brisket to a bakery and beef jerky bar), spectacularly clean restrooms offering genuinely private stalls, and terrifyingly friendly staff. I can attest to all of this, and I actually get what the fuss is about now. If you’re in a situation where you need to take a break and there’s a Buc-ee’s handy, take advantage of it. The kitschy Beaver mascot statue at the entrance also made me smile, and I watched families take pictures of the kids posing with it.
So here I am, home again. I told Will yesterday that even though the occasion was awful, the opportunity to spend time with our friends is a leaven, and reminds us of Larkin’s last line. What will remain of us is love, for James and Amy, Judy, Leah, Cathy, Suzanne, Will, Angela, Judy, Julia, Tammi, Kevin, Jimmy, Michaela, and the dozens of others who gathered in an old wooden building on a hot day in Harrodsburg, KY.
Love to us all.