I was in Seattle last week, and when I checked my e-mail, there was one from a favorite student.
Its only text was a Faulkner quote: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."
I puzzled over it a bit; later I'd puzzle over it even more. It turned out, however, to be strangely relevant and timely since I was about to meet with a friend I'd had no contact with for 40 years.
The story began in 1969 when I was in Navy Class A school in Florida. My best friend there was a West Coast kid named Cliff Estes. How we became friends is still a mystery. We weren't in the same barracks or the same classes, nor did we play the same sports. As near as I've figured out, we struck up our friendship by fluke - through random conversations during smoke breaks between classes.
However it was, within a short time we became pals. Certainly, he was an easy guy to get along with. He was bright and funny and as good a listener as a conversationalist. He also was very mature for a 20-year-old, which only made sense, given his background.
Cliff had gotten fed up with school early in the game and dropped out in senior high. He spent the next year-and-a-half ramming around California, Oregon and Washington as a door-to-door salesman. Eventually he went back and got his degree, after which he got his draft notice, which at that point had gone to 50 cities before it caught up with him. He then enlisted in the Navy, and thus our paths crossed.
We hung out all the time, and while I'd like to tell colorful tales of our adventures together, I can't because we had none. Neither of us was enamored by the bar scene, nor were we charmed by the prospect of giving our hard-earned cash to the thankless (and all too often graceless) locals who delighted in hustling the servicemen every which way they could.
Instead, we spent our time on base, chatting, working on our tans and playing hundreds of games of Scrabble.
After we said our goodbyes and went to our next duty stations (he to Guam, I to Germany), we wrote for a while, but within a year we lost touch. Of course, that wasn't unusual - almost all of us fell out of touch with each other. But what was unusual was, over the years, I found myself repeatedly wondering what had become of Cliff.
Part of it was a desire to reconnect with an old pal. But there was another part as well: Even though we were kids and didn't know each other very long or very well, I always sensed that Cliff would end up doing well. I'd no idea what direction his life would take, but I was certain it'd be a positive and successful one, and it nagged like a bad toothache that I didn't know.
Seek, and you might or might not find
Unfortunately, I had no way of finding him. He'd had no permanent address when he came in the Navy, and where he went afterwards was anyone's guess. Also, while I knew his father and brother's names, I'd no idea where they were either.
When telephone software became available about 25 years ago, I started seriously looking for Cliff. At one point I thought I'd hit the jackpot when I found a town in Texas with three Estes: one named Cliff and the others with his father's and brother's names. When I called, I found out they were an entirely different branch of the clan and had no idea of the whereabouts of the Estes I was looking for.
Then this past May, at the insistence of my dear friend Emma Rose and against my better judgment, I joined Facebook. A few days later, I noticed there was a search entry and, just for giggles, I typed in Cliff Estes. A moment later, a profile of a Cliff Estes came up.
But was he MY Cliff Estes? He sure didn't look like it. Then again, the Cliff Estes I knew was a smiling, clean-shaven 20-year-old with a full head of hair and in a uniform. This Cliff Estes was a bald guy my age with a silver goatee and a serious expression.
Figuring I had nothing to lose, I e-mailed him. The next day, I got an e-mail back, and my 25-year search had finally succeeded.
He lives in Seattle, and since I planned on going there to visit my niece, we set up a rendezvous, which is where I went after reading that e-mailed Faulkner quote.
And how was it?
Great though like nothing I've ever experienced.
We talked about stuff we remembered from Pensacola, all that Old Home Week palaver. And we talked about what we did later in the service, and then after we got out. But the best thing wasn't what we discussed; it was how Cliff is doing - which is great. He's a successful boat designer and photographer, has been happily married for 37 years and has a family he's proud of but doesn't brag about too much. He also exudes a joie de vivre that's irresistible. He is, in short, the guy I always hoped and pretty much knew he would be.
But is he how I remembered him? In some ways, yes in most ways, no.
No matter - I jived with this Cliff at least as well as I did with the other one. In other words, it was the best of both worlds.
I never expected anything that good could come from revisiting a relationship of days so long gone and only a complete fool or ingrate could expect anything better.