Monday, March 25, 2013

Goodbye, Steve

I received a phone call today that, sadly, was like many others I have had in my life. I knew it was coming. But it's never a welcome phone call, even when it is expected.

A good friend of mine, Steve Davidson, died of cancer early today. I knew him when I lived in Little Rock in the 1980s. We haven't seen each other in quite awhile, but I have kept up with him through our mutual friend, Brady.

It was through Brady that I learned Steve was sick, and, in the words of Yogi Berra, it was like deja vu all over again. Another friend in our circle, Mike Culpepper, died of cancer more than 20 years ago, and I kept up with the changes in his condition through Brady. Steve, Brady and I were pallbearers at his funeral.

Brady and I spoke on the phone last night. He spent some time with Steve yesterday. Family and friends had been summoned to Steve's side in anticipation of the end, but Steve apparently surprised everyone. When Brady called me last night, I expected him to tell me that it was over. But, he said, Steve was still breathing when he left.

His breathing was increasingly labored, Brady told me, and he said he didn't expect Steve to live through the night. He didn't. Apparently, he died at 4 this morning.

The picture at the top of this post was taken when Steve and I arranged to meet in southern Arkansas in the fall of 1988. I had been living in Texas for a couple of months, and we got together one weekend. Steve was a deer hunter; I don't own a gun, but I brought my camera, as you can see.

See that little black lump behind Steve? That was my dog, Pepper, curled up into a ball and taking a nap. He was part black Lab and part something else. At that time, he was still a puppy, probably about 10 or 12 weeks old (I got him as a stray so I don't really know when he was born). He went everywhere with me in those days. He loved to run, to chase a rubber ball or do anything, really, and I recall that he thoroughly enjoyed that weekend in the woods. So did I — even though it was very cold.

Steve was Pepper's buddy, maybe moreso than any of my other friends (although Pepper really got along with everybody). I think it may have been because Steve was the first of my old friends to meet Pepper. As a matter of fact, they met on that trip to deer camp in October of 1988.

(I knew they would hit it off when I saw Steve giving table scraps to Pepper.)

When that picture was taken, we had been out hiking through the woods, and Steve had decided to sit down and take a breather. Pepper flopped down behind him and, as dogs do, caught a few Z's while we humans were resting and talking and laughing. When we got up to go, he was up and ready, too.

Somewhere, I have another picture of Steve with Pepper that was taken on that trip to deer camp. Steve was sitting in a folding chair at our campsite. Pepper was sitting next to him, and Steve was stroking his head. I'm not sure where that picture is, but, if I find it, I think I might have it framed. It's one of my favorites, and I need to have it on display.

Hard to believe that weekend was nearly 25 years ago. It's even harder to believe that I will never see Steve again.

Remember that circle of friends I mentioned earlier in this post? When I was living in Little Rock, we formed a computer football league, using a football game disk I had found for my old Commodore 64. The league survived for three years after I left Arkansas. Every time I came back for a visit, I packed up my computer, and my visits became football weekends.

Eventually, the league fell by the wayside. But our friendships never did. The league began to falter after Mike died, but it survived for another year or so. But that's another story.

When I left Arkansas, it was to enroll in graduate school. About a week after I moved, Mike and Steve came down for a visit. The three of us went to Six Flags Over Texas, and I'll never forget sitting on a bench with Steve and watching as Mike rode a roller coaster over and over again. It became a running joke with the three of us, one that Steve and I never mentioned again after Mike died.

Now, I'm the only living person who remembers that afternoon.

I was between my first and second semesters of grad school when Steve and Mike paid me another visit — around New Year's. As it happened, Arkansas was playing in the Cotton Bowl, and we decided, at the very last minute, that we wanted to go to the game. I tried to pull every string I could, never thinking that I could actually get something at the last minute — but, lo and behold, I was able to get three tickets, and we went to the game.

The Razorbacks didn't play too well that day, but the three of us had a fine time, anyway. I still have the game program I bought that day, and, from time to time, I thumb through it, and my thoughts return to that sun–splashed afternoon. For many years, it has been mostly a reminder to me of Mike. Now, it will remind me of Steve as well — and of the afternoon the three of us shared.

Again, I am now the only living person who recalls that experience.

Sports so often figured prominently in our friendship — and I am not speaking only of computer football or the Cotton Bowl.

When I first knew Steve, I was working on the sports desk of what was then the most widely circulated newspaper in Arkansas — the Arkansas Gazette. That job came with certain perks that appealed to Steve. For one, I had access to early editions of the newspaper, which came in handy on Saturday nights when the first edition of the Sunday paper complete with the coupons hit the newsroom.

On those occasions, I often brought several copies of the coupon inserts to Steve and my other friends.

As a member of the Gazette's sports team, I used to get a season pass to watch the minor league baseball team in Little Rock, the Arkansas Travelers. This wasn't as valuable as it sounds — admission to Traveler games in those days was only about two bucks a head — but I used it frequently on my nights off.

Since admission was free for me, I would pay for half of Steve's ticket, and it was like each of us got in for a single dollar. Besides, as a Gazette copy editor, I could go up to the press box and visit whoever was covering the game for the newspaper that night, and Steve went with me.

Steve enjoyed rubbing elbows with people whose bylines he had been seeing for years. And he got a kick out of the bird's–eye view of the action on the field.

Same thing applied to horse racing.

I didn't get a free season pass to the races at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, but whenever Steve and I went there together, I did get us in to the press box where we could see the writer who was covering the horses for the Gazette — and, on one memorable occasion, I introduced Steve to Terry Wallace, the fellow who called the races at Oaklawn.

I don't think I ever saw Steve so starstruck. He'd been hearing that man's voice call every race he had ever seen at Oaklawn — and there he was, shaking hands with him, chatting with him.

"I'll never forget that," he told me when we left the press box that day. I hope that was a pleasant memory for Steve over the years.

There is even a sports connection to the timing of Steve's death. Nineteen years ago today, the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team defeated Tulsa in the regional semifinals. They ultimately won it all.

I kind of think that might have appealed to Steve.

Perhaps my greatest regret after Mike died was the fact that I never said goodbye to him. I should have. I had a couple of opportunities, and I let them slip through my fingers. Maybe I was scared. I don't know.

I'm older now, and I truly believe that if I had been in Little Rock this weekend, I would have been able to tell Steve that he had been a true friend and that I will miss him.

I think he knew. I hope he did.

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