Jack Clarke (Clarke with an E, damn it!)

An old friend of mine died the other day, about a month ago. I didn’t know about it till my wife showed me his obituary.

An old friend… I hadn’t seen him for about 20 years. There was a picture of him, sure looked like him, though older of course (he was about two months older than me). I still had doubts, but the birth date, the names of his parents and brothers. Yeah, it’s the same guy.

The obituary, though, described a different person from the Jack Clarke I knew. Not false, necessarily, but different. It said he often enjoyed ‘…walks in the woods and had a passion for nature and animals.’ I didn’t really know that.

It said he ‘…could list and identify all of Canada’s birds and could imitate birdcalls, fooling the birds into thinking he was one of them.’ I never knew that, either.

It said he ‘…was a gifted photographer.” I never saw him with a camera in his hand.

It said he ‘…was a very good cook and baker, especially spaghetti and homemade breads.’ Looks like whoever wrote this was kind of reaching there, but, okay, I’ll buy that.

I’ll buy it because no one really knows everything about anybody. One thing is that he was a lifelong golfer and a good one. Another thing is that he was involved locally for several years coaching youth baseball. He was the head coach one year for a rep team that nearly went to the provincial finals.

I met Jack in high school. We were both in grade 9 math, he sitting behind me and bugging me till I gave up and started to converse. He was short and kind of chubby. I didn’t know it at the time, but his friends had nicknamed him ‘Roast.’

I didn’t see him for several years (his family had moved away). One day I was sitting in a local pool hall where I met a guy I knew with someone I didn’t. The stranger was introduced to me as a challenge: “Bet you don’t know who this is.”

I looked at him. I saw a tall, slender guy, neatly trimmed beard, nicely dressed. It was Jack. A lot can happen between the ages of 14 and 21.

Over the next few years Jack (and Darrell and Don) and myself basically ruined most of our weekends and quite a few weekdays, to be honest, with copious amounts of alcohol. And I got to know a very different Jack Clarke from the fellow in the obituary. Different because of what was left out.

For one thing, while I am one of those guys who mostly looks kind of rumpled, Jack always looked like he had stepped out of a men’s fashion magazine. Not that he wore a suit; he dressed casually, but it always looked clean and sharp.

For another thing, while I born to enjoy sports from the comfort of chairs and couches with potato chips and dip near to hand, Jack was a good athlete.

But most importantly, while the obituary (as obituaries do) accents positive things (Do not speak ill of the dead), my times with Jack, while often filled with laughter (sober and drunken), were often contentious. I couldn’t compete with him athletically. He was more successful with women than I was (I was very shy in those days). But intellectually I felt I could hold my own.

Jack sensed (correctly, I am sure) that I thought I was smarter than he was. I don’t think that’s true, looking back on it, but I think I did believe that. That led to constant friction between us. He didn’t like it, we constantly argued. I suspect that I was often an insufferable asshole. I would constantly pick on things he said, sometimes very little things, and blow them up.

I remember one time he told me that I made him so mad he just wanted to punch me right in my face. I stuck my chin out and said, “Go for it!” To his credit (and my good fortune, come to think) he somehow restrained himself.

Perhaps because of the teasing he had endured as a child about his weight, and the work he had done to get himself in shape, Jack was not humble about himself. He constantly told everyone about how handsome he was, how great he was at sports, what a great cocksman he was. He told everyone he had a great singing voice. Whenever he would start singing along with a song on the car radio I’d shut the radio off. He found this annoying for some reason.

In the end I have to admit that he dominated our relationship. I remember once drinking at some bar in downtown Vancouver. He met up with some woman and obviously did not want to leave. I had driven us there, but so be it. I left, drove home (about 40 miles). I was woken up about 7 a.m. with a phone call from Jack. Could I please come pick him up?

I did.

Two more stories:

A bunch of us at my place playing poker and drinking too much. Jack liked to dramatize everything in his life, and drunk as we all were, this time he became morose and started rambling on about what a bad person he was. “I’m terrible, I’m not a good friend. I brag too much. Nobody really likes me.” And so on.

What was called for was a little sympathy. So, with the great generosity of spirit and sensitivity I am sure to be remembered for, I said, “You’re god damn right!”

On the other hand…

A few of us at a pizza joint after closing time one night. I’m sitting there when somebody grabs my shoulder from behind, “There you are, you god damn sonofabitch!” I turned to see who was about to assault me…but it was my brother, visiting from out of town, just having a moment of fun with me.

But he told me later that Jack Clarke, in that moment, was already rising to intervene on my behalf, a fearless warrior in defense of a friend. I think he may have been a better friend to me, than I was to him.

He wasn’t a bad guy. I think he was a good man. But I was changing and he was changing. Whatever our friendship was based on no longer really existed. Our lives diverged and we didn’t keep in touch.

We were the same age, and his death reminds me of my own approaching demise. Nothing specific tells me this, just my age and declining vigor. Those days of my late teens and early 20s seem so very long ago now.

Goodbye, old friend.

Gary Fletcher – December 27, 2017

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