This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald on October 17, 2006.
In my last column, I wrote about how turning 50 prompted me to wonder about my best friend, Stephen Gibbs. Steve lives in Portland, and I mused about why, after 30 years of friendship, we hadn’t spoken in five years.
The column elicited many responses from readers who’d also lost touch with friends, and while most encouraged me to call Steve, I hesitated, uncertain about our friendship.
Then Denise Rousset wrote in an email, “Go find your friend because our lives are peppered with the friendships we've made, but the ones we remember are like sinew and bone. . . . It will give you peace to tell this person how much his friendship has meant to you, and I'm sure it will mean a lot to him as well. Maybe even timely for him. Maybe even vital at this moment.”
That did it for me. I took a deep breath, picked up the receiver, and dialed.
As the phone at the other end began to ring, I wondered if Steve even lived at the number anymore. When I last saw him, he was renting a room in a basement from friends. But maybe that arrangement had ended.
I also harbored a deeper worry about Steve because twenty years ago his father, who was manic-depressive, committed suicide by swimming out to sea. Though Steve had never exhibited the slightest sign of depression, his silence scared me.
On the other hand, perhaps he’d gotten married and simply moved on with his life. I just didn’t know.
After a couple of rings, the phone picked up. It was a recording of a woman’s voice. She listed the people who lived in the household. Sure enough, Steve was one.
I stumbled through my greeting and left my number. Then I waited.
After three long days, while listening to my messages, I heard a voice I’d know anywhere. He sounded good.
But hidden in the background of his call was the unanswered question: Why had we lost touch?
When we spoke the next evening, I learned the answer. But before I share it, here’s what’s new with Steve.
“I’m passionate about pulling barbed-wire,” he said. “I’m a volunteer.”
Steve said he works with people committed to restoring wilderness to 175,000 acres in the Oregon desert by removing miles of fencing from federal lands no longer used for ranching. Removing the fences allows antelope and other wildlife to roam freely.
Because the area is wilderness and machinery is prohibited, volunteers trek in by horse and manually coil and remove the wire. It’s a difficult and dangerous job, and Steve loves it.
Since volunteering pay no bills, Steve works odd jobs to earn a meager living. Each year he helps organize a rummage sale that raises money for Portland’s Catlin Gabel School. He works part-time for the school, but receives no benefits.
“In other words, I’m looking for an heiress with a health plan,” Steve said, laughing, though I could tell he was serious. “In the world of money and power, I’m on Baltic and Mediterranean.”
I also learned that Steve’s mother, who as a little girl in England had a Nazi bomb plummet onto her porch, is alive and well at age 87. “I wouldn’t be here today if that bomb had exploded,” Steve said.
Along with his relentless wit, Steve continues to make life choices that intrigue me. He still lives in a basement, though he managed to take an expenses-paid trip to India a few years ago. He doesn’t have email or even own a computer, but he’s saving for one. If asked for a business card, he uses obsolete cards from a company he worked for years ago. He turns the card over, applies a label with his name and address that he gets free from his insurance agent, and jots down his phone number.
In other words, Steve hasn’t changed a bit.
But why, then, did we drift apart?
I asked him this toward the end of our two-hour call, and I pictured his blue eyes when he said simply that over the years he has often lost track of friends, that staying in touch with people in different places in life seems to take too much effort.
As he has done throughout our 30 years of friendship, Steve was able to articulate what I couldn’t. His words, of course, described my own reason for not trying to reach him.
As we made plans for a visit, I felt as if we’d cleared a path in our friendship, as if we’d pulled away the barbed wire of a needless fence.
. . .