Saturday, April 29, 2017

Memories of Jerry Forster

A Walk in the Park

Yesterday my best friend, Jerry, died, so I went for a walk in the park where we had walked together over 200 times.  His truck wasn’t in the parking lot.  He claimed in 25 years I had never been late, but he was almost always there waiting.  I’d walk into the warming building and find his old pack precariously balanced on a picnic table.  He wasn’t an early adopter of new equipment.  He was still using the same model of Jansport external frame backpack that he used on our first trip in 1991.  They had been out of production for over a decade and this one had come via e-bay.  In 2012 a backpacker joked that the Smithonian Museum had called. They wanted to get their antique packs back.  Jerry carried a big brass stove which required large/heavy LP gas bottles and a separate coffee pot until the stove would barely warm water and could only be turned off by unscrewing the gas bottle.  We replaced it with a modern JetBoil that was smaller and lighter than the LP gas bottles, never mind the brass stove and the coffee pot.  We used “cowboy” canteens long after Camelbacks with those convenient drinking tubes were in common use.  Jerry particularly seemed to like a small blue canteen that one of his family had given him.
     When I entered the warming building, he would invariably say, “Good morning, dear.”  We’d head out for our four-mile walk, with hills.  On too many mornings it was below freezing, with snow and ice on the trail.  The wooden bridges were particularly dicey with ice or sometimes fresh frost.  The major objective on each walk was the big hill on the Ted Grey loop.  We’d start our training with maybe 25 pounds in our packs and walk the hill four times, then finish the loop.  The next week, we’d carry 28 pounds and climb six times.  Training ended when we were carrying 55 pounds and climbing the hill 16 times.  There is a short steep hill before the big hill.  He’d ask if it counted.  “No, Jerry this one doesn’t count.”  As we reached to the top of the big hill each time, I’d scrape a line in the snow or dirt, then watch to ensure Jerry didn’t make an extra one.  He’d occasionally suggest I’d forgotten to make one on the previous trip.  Jerry liked to pick a stick or stump that was about 65% of the way up the hill as his “halfway” point.  He said it made him feel so good when the second half was easier than the first half. 
     To distract ourselves from the rigors of these hill climbs, we’d save the most controversial conversational subjects for the hills.  The Clinton years were great.  Jerry really didn’t like the Clintons.  During the Bush years, I resorted to clipping editorials from the New York Times to get Jerry’s juices flowing.  He loved to debate and was happy to take either side on an issue.  If he took a side first, he could get me to take the other side by asking the right questions.  I’d find myself passionately explaining why it was perfectly reasonable to believe something neither of us actually believed.  Since 1991, we spent 200 hours climbing that hill 1,500 times. We each carried a total of 27 tons.
     During the remainder of each walk, we discussed more routine subjects.  Jerry would tell me about his deals to buy or sell car washes, and his trials and tribulations with his employees and customers.  I’d ask, “Did you wash any cars this week?”  Too often he’d respond, “No, the weather was too good.” Or “There wasn’t enough salt on the roads.”  He’s the only person I knew who wished for more salt on the roads.  Jerry loved to talk about his family; who had come to ride the pony or catch frogs in the pond.  He loved to cook breakfast for the whole clan on Sunday afternoons.  Jerry was always interested in my projects at work, and my bosses.  I talked out a lot of sticky issues with Jerry.  After I retired, he liked to keep up with the progress of each of the people I tutored and events at the other places I volunteered. Jerry loved to debate but he was a great listener.  At our Thanksgiving brunches, Jerry was always in the midst of the conversation, asking the second generation about their jobs and families.
     When my wife, Trina, died, Jerry came down from Clarkston every week to have breakfast with me and walk the streets of Birmingham.  We walked and talked and cried together.  When our friend Bob’s wife, Carol, died, Jerry convinced Bob to meet him at the gym weekly.  This gave Bob a reason to get out of the house and a chance to talk.  Jerry seemed to know he couldn’t fix our sadness but he knew he could help by listening.
     As I had lunch with Jerry, last Wednesday we realized what time of year it was.  During this week for 25 years we were doing one of two things. 
A. getting ready for a trip - double checked the packing list.  “Who’s bringing the stove?”  Do we absolutely need a tent?”  “Do we need long johns?”  “I’ve refreshed the first aid kit.” “I got a new element for the water filter.”  “We’ll both bring matches, right.”  “Am I buying the freeze dried dinners?”  “Do we really have to have stroganoff again this year?” He’d always say, “I’m going light this year.” But in the end, he’d bring the same stuff he brought last year.
B. by this week of the year we’d already be home from this year’s adventure and Jerry would be telling stories.
“We didn’t know exactly where we were
Almost ran out of water
Divine intervention!  It looked like at least an hour of sliding on loose gravel to get to a slot through the last layer of rock, but John saw a light and there it was, the way out!
The brush ripped our clothes up so badly we had to buy new clothes on the way to the airport! 
John’s legs were so scratched up, people thought he’s had knee surgery.
It was a great trip!”

“I sprained my ankle hopping between boulders and
I had to shame a rafting guide into giving us a ride down the Colorado.
I had to walk 3 days on the sprained ankle
I lost my sleeping bag with two nights left.
We’ll definitely do that trip again.”
And we did.

At the end of every walk at the park Jerry said, “Well you worked the snot out of me again.  I’d like to stay and play but...”  Yes, Jerry we all wish you could’ve stayed and played much, much longer.