I look at my life as a book that contains numerous chapters of widely varying content.
My career at the newspaper, which began a few hours after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, is one chapter that’s still being written.
Going to Gettysburg with Captain Gary as First Sergeant Goldy lasted about 10 years, but ended when Gary died a couple of years ago. I could go again, but it wouldn’t be the same without my best friend.
I’ve done many things — hunting and fishing with Mary and Frank Calemine and our buddies, bowling, photography, rifle and pistol shooting — but only for so many years. In most cases when the people associated with them went away, so did my desire to continue.
Going south with The Famous Company of Myrtle Beach Golfers was one of my favorite chapters, but its last page was written almost 20 years ago because I outlasted — or outlived — the characters who shared it with me.
Dale Merritt, who died last December, was one of its last surviving members.
He was “Digger,” having been christened that by “Sweetie” — Russell Craig, who was from Richmond and remembered Digger O’Dell, the friendly undertaker on an old radio show.
Digger was a funeral director, and I probably had more in common with him than any of the other long-time regulars: Pauline (Paul Barnett), Whizzer (Bruce White) and Mother (Bob Martin Sr.). He was only 10 years older than I was, and the rest had me by 20.
There have been others — Sweetie, Jeemy, Charlie Horse, Lovey, Gramps, Kook and Marshmiller among them — but we were the permanent members of the Security Council.
Dale could laugh and cut up, but considering his profession could be dead serious when he had to. (Pun intended.) He had a mischievous impishness and loved to target the people he thought deserved it — just as I do.
We were at breakfast when some of the other members began talking enthusiastically about “getting (name deleted for obvious reasons) into the club.”
Digger was in that club, too. Eventually, he asked, “Well, when are we going to get Jimmy in the club?”
Thoroughly pleased with himself, he turned and grinned at me. I had to look away, lest I start LMAO and shatter the bleak silence that had fallen.
He walked up behind two golfers who had two hotel maids backed into a corner, sweet-talking them: Let yourselves into our room and help yourself to the booze, and we’ll get together after we get done playing golf.
That sort of thing.
Digger listened for a while, then asked in a high-pitched voice, “Does that offer go for me, too?” One of the golfers looked at him and said “You’re too short, you’re too fat, and you ain’t pretty enough!” They scrammed, and the maids fell over each other laughing.
His memorial service was postponed until recently. Digger and his wife Sue (he called her Suey) had moved to North Carolina years ago. The family had scattered and needed time to be gathered.
The first thing I said to Suey was, “I haven’t had a drink all day!” and she laughed.
That’s what Dale and I announced — and loudly so — every time we had a drink, regardless of how many we already had. That irritated the most-irritable of the other Famous Company members, which is one reason we did it.
Suey turned to her daughters, Kim and Jennifer, and said “I told you Goldy would be here.”
I told her she hadn’t changed and was being truthful. Suey is as beautiful and full of life, smiles and good humor as ever, and she still wears the same bee pin that her friends recognize as part of her persona.
Once when we were leaving to go south, she told us to “Keep him for two weeks! I’ve got the credit cards!”
Suey has come out of retirement to be a greeter at the funeral home that handled Dale’s arrangements — the same role she used to fill amazingly well at his side: a comforter for people who need comforting.
Kimmy (that’s what Digger called her) told us great stories about her father, concentrating on his Dale-isms, a one-off book of which actually has been compiled.
He used one Dale-ism — utterly deadpan — every time someone experienced a natural gas leakage (from either end, it didn’t matter): “Get any on you?”
I laughed out loud, and Kimmy said I must have heard that before. I had. Plenty of times.
Kimmy lives near her mother in North Carolina and told the people who were there to celebrate her father’s life that every now and then, he would ask, “I wonder what Goldy’s doing.”
I often wondered the same about him. He could have called me, or I could have called him, but it never happened.
We did talk one time after they moved, when he dialed my number by mistake, and it lasted for a while.
He said one thing about North Carolina puzzled him. There were statues of Confederate generals and soldiers everywhere, and they were all facing the same direction — north.
Digger said he asked some of the locals why this was so, and they just grinned and didn’t answer him.
I told him the Confederate statues were facing north because that’s the direction the enemy came from. He said, “Oh. NOW I see.”
That was the last time we heard each other’s voices. I’ve encountered this phenomenon before, with others who’ve moved away.
Four decades ago, Gene Goodrich was my best friend, field-trip sidekick and beer buddy at the newspaper. He was Goody and I was Goldy. His son Geoff told me in an email that one of the last things his father said was, “I wish I could have seen Goldy again.”
It’s likely that the call is never made because it would be too much like saying good-bye, and that’s something nobody wants to do.
After coming home from Digger’s memorial, I dug out a group photo of The Famous Company, framed it and put it on the same wall with pictures of Captain Gary, Mary and Frank and their family and our hunting and fishing buddies. Friends forever, ageless forever at a grand moment frozen in time.
I will likewise dredge up a few Famous Company stories and share them with you now and then. They involve some of the dearest friends I ever had, and I want you to know about those guys.
I’m not ready to say good-bye to them.