My Friends

March 31, 2009

Nicki Schall04232018I am an avid reader. Surprise. I added it all up once and estimate I’ve read maybe 5,000 books in my life, going all the way back to The Little Train That Could. Now that was a well-crafted book. A good story, strongly plotted, with a very sympathetic character living a clear story arc.

Anyway, I love history, and that means I love biography because history is simply the aggregation of lots of biographies, with an occasional natural disaster thrown in. But the only biographies you can buy are all about famous people. Is fame a prerequisite for leading an interesting life? For contributing your piece to the aggregation that is history?


I have this non-fiction book outlined, and I plan to write it right after my third novel. I figure by then I’ll have either totally failed, or I’ll have the leverage to get something different published. Yeah, I know, I’m an optimist.

The Book is called My Friends, and it consists of six short biographies, maybe 100 pages each. Biographies of the six of my best friends at various stages of my life. Their lives are unique and amazing, and I had the good fortune of being part of them, if only for a while. Here they are.

Pat Fogarty.

Growing up in Hillcrest, NY, just outside Binghamton, Pat was my best friend. Pat was a smart as anyone I’ve ever known. Top of his class starting in the 1st Grade and keeping it up all the way through Harvard. He was also a major-league geek, complete with big black glasses and a plastic pocket liner. And one of the co-founders of the radical anti-war Weatherman movement. After Harvard, Pat joined the Peace Corps and died in a truck accident in some nasty part of Africa.

Lee Willis.

Lee and I were best friends in high school and after. We went to Europe together and toured for three months on motorcycles, living in a tiny two-man tent. We went off to different colleges, and while I studied beer and girls, Lee dropped out, joined the Marines and volunteered for Viet Nam. In retrospect, a gallant thing to do. Lee commanded an armored personnel carrier. He was the guy you see from the waist up out the top of some hatch. In Lee’s case, he got shot while doing that. A bullet slipped inside his Kevlar and tracked across his back, leaving the biggest scar I’ve ever seen. Medevac saved his physical life in Viet Nam, and Debbie finished the job emotionally when he got back. They’re still together today, I am very happy to report.

Nicki Schall

Nicki was the first girl I loved. That’s her (with me in uniform) in the picture when she was crowned Queen of our Winter Carnival weekend. We started dating senior year of high school (she attended a Catholic girl’s school called The Convent, and I was at a boy’s military prep school – we were a pair) and continued to for the rest of her life. She was the daughter of an Army Lieutenant-Colonel who considered me just this side of bacteria. Nicki went to Skidmore College, and freshman year I called her at school to go there for the weekend. I learned from her roommate that she was in the hospital back home in Syracuse. I went there and, seated away from the hostile glare of her father, I overheard her doctor tell her parents she had Hodgkin’s Disease, and there was no cure. Against my better judgment, they swore me to secrecy and never told her she was dying. She learned about it when she worked a summer job for GE and saw a doctor’s report in her file. When she found out I knew and didn’t tell her, she didn’t speak to me for two years. We got together briefly junior year, but she died the following January.

Rick Marsi & Michael Barclay

Rick and Michael were my best friends at Colgate. I’ve intertwined them here for brevity, but each of their lives bears illuminating.

Michael bought my Gibson acoustic guitar from me freshman year and despite our relentless abuse, taught himself to play and has been a professional musician all his life (The Michael Barclay Blues Band, (http://sonic.net/~michaelb/). Making a living playing the blues is a challenge, and Michael’s solution was to get his PhD in Psychology and work with children in the California Penal System.

Rick joined the Peace Corps out of college and went to India. After he returned, he went to Penn and got his Master’s in Indian Studies and became an accomplished sitarist, although he plays the drums and sings lead in the world’s oldest garage band. (The band isn’t the oldest – it’s members are.) Rick became a naturalist (http://www.rickmarsi.com/) and adventure tour guide to some of the most interesting places on earth, including the Andes in Peru and rural Russia. He has written a number of books, and his study of the city of Borovichi is a wondrous read.

John Ritchie

John Ritchie became my best adult friend when we worked together. An Okie made good, John was one of the first formally-trained radiation safety professionals and went on to co-found several companies. When that wasn’t challenging enough, he took his old Corvette and emigrated to Europe for 16 years, where he met and married a lovely Swedish woman. He’s lived in a historic cottage in England, a spectacular old farm in Normandy, condos in Sweden and Finland, a house on stilts in the Florida Keys, and now a beautiful home in Tucson. And soon a condo-in-the-sky in Panama. There are stories to match each location.

The point here is that celebrity doesn’t make you interesting. And obscurity doesn’t mean you’re not a good story.


One comment

  1. Imagine my surprise when I Googled my sister Nicki’s name and found something about her although her death preceded the internet by 20 plus years. Almost everything you wrote about her was true with the exception of my father’s rank- a lieutenant colonel at the time of his retirement from the reserves- and Nicki’s death-January 2, 1968. Your comments about my father were interesting, as well. It has taken me many years to understand a man who loved his daughters deeply, cared for them well, but did not understand the power of time, touch, and conversation in raising children.
    I still am overwhelmed that you took the time so many years ago to call me in order to bring some pictures of Nicki to me on your way through Syracuse. I treasure those photos. Ironically, my time on the internet today has been spent searching for someone Nicki knew in college so that I may return a personal belonging.
    Closing now, Bif, in order to search my local library’s online site for your books.

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