1986 was the first time that intimate death entered my life. Until that point I had never had anyone close to me die and then in the span of a couple of months my Grandpa died and one of my closest friends from high school was killed. I was reminded of this two weeks ago when I visited Arlington National Cemetery and found the headstone (Section 67, Grave 2711) of my friend Louis Robinson, Jr. (L CPL, US Marines), who was killed August 31, 1986, a week after his birthday and the same day his child was born.
We, my friends and I, never really knew the circumstances of Louis’s death, but we were told that while stationed out west he was waiting for a transport flight to go to Tennessee to be with his wife for the birth of their child. He went to a park with some buddies and was having some beers. Another Marine was at the park with his family, and after being told by his wife that Louis had offered their young son a beer (according to the story his buddies said he was joking around) he went back to his car, got a gun out of the glove box and shot Louis in the chest. Louis’s buddies threw him in a car and took off for the hospital, lost control of their car and ran over a sidewalk and into a storefront. He never made it to the hospital alive.
I’m not sure how much of this story is true, but I can tell you that it wouldn’t surprise me too much if it was. It has all the earmarks of the silly or stupid crap we did in high school. We always seemed to get ourselves in little jams by acting like stupid kids while cruising the streets of DC and the suburbs. Heck we’d even been caught in the vicinity of gunfire twice before.
We laughed off all our misadventures. After all we were invincible, as yet untouched by the truly horrible punishment that life can mete out. Sure we all had a little something we could point to as painful: divorced or alcoholic parents, bad break-ups with girlfriends, a car crash or two, but few of us really believed that true tragedy could, or would, touch us.
Louis’s death changed that. I can’t speak for my other friends, but it rocked me to the core. The invincibility that I’d felt disappeared and was replaced by hesistance for the first time that I can remember. Not that I had never felt fear or uncertainty before, but I felt a truly visceral fear for the first time ever. Events that I had previously looked at as a crazy kind of fun — can you believe we just did that? — I now viewed as events that I had miraculously survived — how the hell did I not die?
One of my closest friends died doing the kind of thing we’d done for years. Silly, juvenile, stupid and totally within the norm for your average 19 or 20 year old American idiot. It saddens me to no end that he died before he outgrew that stage of life, that he never had the opportunity to become a real man, to watch his kids grow up, to experience the pain and joy that it is to be a parent and an adult member of society.
And it shocks me that it has already been 20 years since he died. To be honest I didn’t realize it had been that long until I saw Louis’s headstone, and it really knocked me for a loop. I have no idea what became of his child or his wife; she was from Tennessee and none of us met her before the funeral or saw her after that day. The fact that Louis was a black city kid from DC and she was a white country girl from Tennessee made the situation a little awkward, and I’m not sure if she stayed in touch with Louis’s family. Unfortunately I know for a fact that I didn’t and that is something I regret to this day.
Now I’m thinking of my own kids. They’re just now entering their teenage years and I’m wondering what kind of trouble they’ll get into. What stupid, short-sighted, totally inane mischief will they perpetrate? Should I share my own misadventures in hopes of making myself an object lesson, or do I risk giving them the wrong idea? I have no idea and I guess Celeste and I will just have to do what parents have always done: play it by ear and do our best to minimize the damage. And hope to God that good luck is hereditary.
I really wish Louis had lived to face these hopes, fears and questions himself. We could have talked and laughed about it over a beer with all our other friends.