I have been trying to track down my high school roommate Mike Smith for years. We were military brats ó vagabonds of the world constantly being uprooted and replanted, sometimes at a momentís notice. We lived in the dorm in Bremerhaven, Germany. I used to tell folks I went to a European boarding school. While that was factual, it was a lot more like Animal House than anything that resembled a fancy prep academy.
Over the years, Iíve reconnected with a lot of my former classmates. I always thought that someday Mikeís name would show up on one the registry lists, or he would find me and Iíd receive a friend request on Facebook.
I never expected to find his name in the ďTribute to Our Lost FamilyĒ section of our high school newsletter that arrived in my inbox Thursday night. But there it was on the page. I donít know how long I sat and stared at the PDF on the screen, refusing to believe that he was gone.
The last time I saw Mike was August 1984, just a few days before I shipped out for Navy boot camp. He graduated college that spring, married Ginger, his high school sweetheart, and landed a civil service job at Shaw Air Force Base (AFB) in Sumter, about an hourís drive from my home in Columbia, South Carolina.
That summer I spent nearly ever weekend at their house, except for the weekends I would pick them up and we would drive on to Myrtle Beach. Iíve never seen two people so happy to be with each other ó or so happy to be alive.
That wasnít always the case.
While Mike and I were in college, Ginger was in the battle of her life against cancer. She was diagnosed during her senior year in high school (I graduated a year early) and from what I understand, Mike never left her side. The following year, Mikeís dad was transferred to Shaw AFB and Mike enrolled at the University of South Carolina where I was entering my sophomore year. We saw each other every day.† Gingerís dad was transferred to Virginia, where she continued her treatments.
I remember the first time she was well enough to travel and came to visit Mike in Columbia. Since Mike didnít have a car (or a driverís license), I volunteered to take him to the airport. He wanted to give Ginger a guided tour of the city, so I got to play tour guide as we drove around town with the windows down in my í78 Pinto as the 850-watt Blaupunkt stereo was thumping to John Cougarís ďNothing Matters and What If It DidĒ cassette tape. †
I know it doesnít sound all that romantic. Ginger was sitting in the front passenger seat, Mike was in the back seat behind her, leaning forward to hold her hand between the front bucket seats. But at a stoplight, I glanced back at Mike and his face was beaming as if we were cruising around in a stretched limo.
I dropped them off at Mikeís apartment and offered to take them wherever they wanted to go during her visit. Thinking back, I donít believe they ever left the apartment until I picked them up to take her back to the airport.
Mike wasnít the same after that visit. He was still super studious, but the laid back, somewhat carefree dude Iíd known since we were sophomores in high school was gone. All you had to do was look at him and know he was in pain. Not the kind of pain you get from stubbing a toe or hitting your finger with a hammer while holding a nail, but the kind of pain when you realize part of you is missing and thereís only one person in the world who can fill the void. I didnít understand it. In fact, it would take years before I could even begin to comprehend what he was going through. All I knew was that my friend was hurting and I supported him. Thatís what us military brats do, especially us ďdormies,Ē because there were lots of days back in Germany where all we had were our friends.
Mike finished up that semester at Carolina, and then transferred to a university in Virginia to be near Ginger. He would have married her right then and there, but her parents wouldnít allow it. They loved Mike and treated him like a son, but they were firm that he couldnít marry their daughter until he had health care that would cover her cancer treatments.
Mike became a man on a mission. He graduated early and, putting his own dreams aside of working in the diplomatic corps, accepted a civil service job at Shaw AFB and rented a house two blocks away from his parents.
I remember when he called me that June to tell me he was back in South Carolina, asking if I could drive over to Sumter to see them. That was the first of many weekends the three of us spent together during the summer of í84. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone my age experience the true meaning of unconditional love and devotion toward each other.
I was elated for them both. I rejoiced in seeing my friend happy again.
There was one weekend, on a lark, we decided to go to the beach, which was two hours away by car. Ginger grabbed a couple of blankets, I stopped at the convenience store and bought some bread and cold cuts and we headed out. We spent the afternoon playing in the water and having a blast. By the time it was dark, none of us wanted to leave ó and none of us had the money for a hotel room. So we decided to sleep on the beach. Everything was fine until high tide rolled in about 2 a.m. and I woke up to the sound of Ginger screaming, then realized the dry beach I fell asleep on was now under water.
After a good laugh, we jumped in my car and drove back to Sumter, singing Elvis songs the whole way back.
That August I left for Navy boot camp. We kept in touch through letters. I was in training for nearly a year before receiving orders to meet my ship in the Philippines. I received a letter from Mike while in Subic Bay telling me Gingerís cancer was back, but he thought they had caught everything early.
I was in Hawaii, nearly three months later when I received his next letter. He told me Ginger had taken a turn for the worse and things werenít going well. By his words, I could tell he was putting on a brave face and trying his best to maintain faith, but between the lines I could also read the fear he was feeling.
There may have been a letter or two before the letter I prayed would never come, came. We had returned from deployment and my ship was back in homeport in San Diego when Mike sent the letter letting me know that Ginger had passed away. I finished reading the letter and walked out to the bank of payphones on the pier and called him.
I donít know how long we talked. An hour. Two hours, maybe longer. I did my best to comfort a friend from three time zones away. But what do you say to someone who just lost the only person in the world who can fill a void that will always be empty?
We wrote and talked for about a year after that, then lost touch. I never knew what happened to him, where he moved to or what he was doing.
In the mid-2000s when social media began taking off, making it somewhat easier to find former classmates, I signed up for all the military brat registries. I reconnected with most of the folks I went to school with ó except Mike.
I never expected to find him on this list.
Godspeed my brother. I shall always remember you.