Sunday, August 7, 2011

Remembering the 'Culminator'

One of the real regrets of my life is that I have no photographs of myself with my friend Mike Culpepper, who died 20 years ago today.

Well, that's one regret that I have. Another regret is that I have no photographs of Mike by himself. I have only my memories.

But I have many of those.

One of the things I remember is how many of the same things we both liked. Near the end of his life, he liked the music of the Southern rock group the Black Crowes, and I remember that he mentioned to me once that he liked their song, "She Talks to Angels."

(Mike was really more of a fan of the Black Crowes than I was so I guess that isn't really a good example. However, it illustrates our shared appreciation for Southern rock — so maybe it isn't a bad example, after all.)

He liked other songs by the Black Crowes, too, but that stood out in my mind after he died. Maybe, under the circumstances, it seemed to have a special relevance — regardless of how one felt about the concept of an afterlife (thoughts of which were unavoidable — the introduction of the word angels invited its consideration).

Mike wasn't one of my childhood friends. In fact, we met relatively late in his life, about six or seven years before he died. (I guess late isn't the right word. Mike and I did know each other in the last years of his life, but I think what I'm getting at is not really chronological. It's more proportional. It was a rather significant chunk of Mike's life. Mine, too, actually.)

We met through a mutual friend in one of those random, chain–reaction things that so often seem to happen in life. I've met many people that way — most of the time, those acquaintances haven't amounted to much more than comments like "Didn't we meet at ...?" and "Oh, yes, I thought you looked familiar ..." the next time we bumped into each other, but my friendship with Mike was different.

I don't remember how or where we met, but I know through whom we met — my friend Brady.

Ironically, I hadn't really known Brady all that long, either, when I met Mike. I met Brady through some mutual friends I knew in college — Mike (that's a different Mike) and Joe.

Mike and Joe were roommates. I think I met Joe first. Must have. Joe was a journalism student, and so was I. Mike was an artist.

Before our college careers were over, Joe and I did attend some of the same classes. But that wasn't how we met. My memory is that we met through another friend (also a journalism student) whom I did meet in a journalism class, and she introduced us at some sort of social occasion on campus.

I didn't know any of those people before I graduated from high school — but they came to mean more to me than most of the people I'd known since grade school.

After we finished college, we all gravitated to central Arkansas, which is where I met Mike Culpepper. You know how the memories of some people, some places and some things are forever linked to certain times? I guess that is how I feel about Mike.

For me, memories of our friendship are almost entirely linked to my memories of the 1980s. We met when I was living in Little Rock, working for the Arkansas Gazette, and he was living in Pine Bluff, a short distance away.

We became friends as we crossed paths frequently at Brady's place. I worked on the Gazette's sports staff, and Mike was a sports fan. We always had a lot to talk about.

I felt honored to work for the Gazette. It had a rich tradition of which I was proud to be a part, and sports always played an important role in the lives of the people in Arkansas, as it still does today. As a child, I dreamed of working on the news side at the Gazette, but that never meant that I regarded my work on the sports side as trivial.

I can say, without hesitation, that I am proud of the work I did there. And my memories of that time in my life are enhanced by the ever–present memory of my friend, Mike Culpepper. It would have been a completely different experience for me if he had not been there. We didn't work together, but I can't think of my time at the Gazette without thinking of the influence Mike had on me.

He was a true friend.

Like just about everyone I knew, Mike was a Razorback fan, and he always wanted to talk about the Hogs. And, like most of the men in Arkansas at that time, he was a Dallas Cowboys fan. He always wanted to talk about the Cowboys, too.

He wanted to know who the hot prospects were at different positions and who was likely to be in the Super Bowl.

I didn't always know what he wanted to know, but that was OK with Mike. I soon discovered that he would bring up topics usually as a way to start an open–ended conversation. He liked to speculate.

My job required me to work nights and weekends. So did Mike's. In fact, there were several occasions when Mike came by my apartment late at night, and we would watch TV and drink a beer — or eat some food he had just picked up at the Waffle House nearby.

(Mike always was fond of the Waffle House. I never understood why. Maybe it was because the Waffle House was about the only place in west Little Rock that was open late at night. The food was always a little too greasy for my taste.)

Mike usually had food with him on those nocturnal visits, and I figured, although we never discussed it, that he must have missed a lot of meals. He was always thin (painfully so after his chemo treatments). But he was generous, almost to a fault. Whatever he had was yours to share, even if he was down to his last penny or his last morsel of food.

Often, when Mike came by, we would play computer football — which was an altogether different thing from what folks play today. I had an old Commodore 64 in those days and a computer football game diskette. Mike would come by shortly after I returned from work — sometimes he would be waiting outside my door when I arrived — and we would play football until the wee hours of the morning.

Then, sometimes, Mike would fall asleep on my couch, and I would retreat to my bedroom. If neither of us had to work the next day, more computer football would be played after we got up.

That computer football game was a tradition for awhile — not only for Mike and me but for Brady and a mutual friend of ours named Steve as well. In fact, it was the source of a nickname that Brady gave Mike that was based on Mike's surname — the Culminator. Even now, whenever I speak or even think of Mike, Culminator comes to mind.

I spent about 4½ years at the Gazette, then I moved to Texas, where I enrolled in graduate school. I was working on the sports staff of the local newspaper, and I took pride in watching (from a distance) the Razorbacks' Southwest Conference championship season, which brought them to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl.

Mike and Steve came to visit me, and the three of us went to the game. Arkansas didn't win (the Razorbacks lost to Troy Aikman and UCLA), but it is a memory I treasure now — along with the game program I bought that day.

I was still in north Texas — on the verge of getting my master's degree, in fact — when Mike was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer in the spring of 1991, and he died less than five months later.

I had planned to take my last graduate–level class that summer and receive my degree in August, but I put those plans on hold. I made a few trips back to Arkansas that summer to visit Mike as he was undergoing the final, ultimately futile treatments for his disease, then, on this day 20 years ago, Steve called to let me know that it was over.

It had been a hot, sticky summer — not nearly as hot as this one has been although the humidity here in north Texas was higher in 1991. My memory of Aug. 7, 1991, is that the actual temperature wasn't quite 100°, but the humidity made it feel like it was well over 100°.

I had been out somewhere, running some sort of errand, and I had just been back in my apartment for a few minutes when the phone rang. My clothes were drenched in sweat — there wasn't a single part of me that was dry — and I probably made sloshing noises as I rose from my seat to answer the phone.

I'm still not sure what I thought or what I felt at the moment Steve called. I remember feeling dizzy, and I stuck out my hand so I could grab something and remain standing. I couldn't tell you what I grabbed — a chair, a table, whatever. All I know is that I did remain standing. I propped myself up against whatever it was that I grabbed, and I remained vertical.

I couldn't imagine a world without Mike in it, even though I had been preparing myself for the likelihood that he would not survive ever since I heard the diagnosis. I knew the outlook was not good — Brady had told me how grim it was — and yet, somewhere in my mind, I clung to the belief that he could, that he would beat it.

But he did not.

That brings me to another regret that I will take to my grave. Each time I visited Mike during those months when he was fighting his losing battle, I mentally accepted the fact that I could be seeing him for the last time. But I could never bring myself to say goodbye to him.

I wanted to say goodbye. I wanted to tell him what a great friend he had been, that I would never forget him, but I just never could when I had the opportunity. Maybe I was a coward.

A couple of weeks before he died, I finally broke down and wrote him a letter. Writing has always been my default position, I guess. It's easier for me to deal with things when I write them down.

Anyway, I wrote a very heartfelt letter to him. I assume he received it, but I don't know. He never sent me a reply, and his parents didn't mention it to me when I came back to Arkansas for his funeral.

During that phone conversation 20 years ago today, as I say, I felt dizzy, and there was a sudden roaring in my ears. I knew Steve was talking, probably telling me details that I have long since forgotten that he told me, but I couldn't make out the words for awhile.

(I guess the best way to describe it would be to compare it to the teacher's wah wah wah droning in the old Charlie Brown cartoons. No offense, Steve. Nothing made sense to me at that moment.)

Then things cleared up enough that I heard Steve tell me that Mike's family wanted me to be one of his pallbearers. I don't remember what I said or how I said it. I probably said something like "I'll do that" or "I will be there" or maybe even just "OK," and Steve said something like "We already told them you would."

So, on Aug. 10, 1991, I found myself in Pine Bluff, Ark., serving as one of Mike's pallbearers — instead of doing what I originally planned to do on that Saturday, receive my master's degree.

I thought about that during the eulogy, and I remembered what John Lennon said: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." And I remember wondering what plans Mike had that had been interrupted.

Before they lowered Mike into the ground, I finally said goodbye. It was under my breath so I doubt that anyone at the graveside heard it, but that was OK because it wasn't meant for anyone else.

That provided a certain sense of closure, I suppose, but I was still left with the maybes.

Maybe I thought I was saying that to Mike's spirit, but I have often wondered about that. In the last months of his life, Mike underwent something of a religious conversion. He didn't strike me as being particularly religious most of the time I knew him, but in the months before his death, he seemed to embrace his family's Catholicism.

I wasn't really sure what I believed about the afterlife at the time. I am no more certain about it today. Maybe, when I was standing next to his coffin just before it was lowered into the ground, I felt it was being respectful of Mike and his faith, even if it wasn't/isn't a belief that I share.

Maybe Mike had accepted something that some of us could never accept — at least, until it was too late.

Mike was still in his 20s when he died. I have often wondered what he might have done if he had been allowed to live for the next 20. Would he have gotten married? Would he have had children? What would he have done with the additional time?

I always thought he was a talented person. I can't begin to guess what he might have done if he had lived, but I'm sure it would have been impressive.

Mike may have been the most courageous person I have ever known. I long ago concluded that I will never be able to face what he faced with the grace with which he faced it.

But I will try.

As I say, I don't know what I think happens when people die.

But if there is anything to the perception that humans have souls that live on after their physical bodies die, then I know at least one thing is true.

My friend talks to angels.

Put in a good word for me, Mike.


Sherri said...

I never got to meet Mike, but I feel like I knew him through you and Brady. I do remember you guys taking me to PB to meet his mom and visit his grave site. I wish I could have played football with him. I was addicted to the game too. I think this is a fitting tribute to your friend David!

David Goodloe said...

Thank you, Sherri.