Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Upon turning 50

This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald two days after my 50th birthday on October 3, 2006.

Today I’m thinking and wondering about Stephen Gibbs.

I’m thinking about him because a few days ago I turned 50, and turning 50 makes a person think about things. And I’m wondering about him because he’s my best friend and it’s been five years since Steve and I spoke with one another.

While I’ve certainly been busy these past few years, I suspect that’s not my excuse for not staying in touch. How hard is it to jot a note to his Oregon address, or reach over and pick up the phone? And why hasn’t he called me?

I met Steve at a seminar in 1977, when I was 20. We’re about the same age, and the moment he said a few words I knew I liked this guy. Picture blond hair, clear blue eyes, a square jaw. His mother was British, and his father was an American soldier in World War II.

Steve and I appeared to have little in common when we met. While I typed up essays for English classes, Steve worked odd construction jobs and lived in Santa Cruz in a weathered shed surrounded by geese on the wooded property of a friend. He often wore second-hand clothes, and made life choices I never would have made.

But we shared a connection, a similar view of the world, and his remarkable wit captivated me and everyone he met. I remember us musing one day about women, and I asked, “What’s your ideal girl, Steve?” Without missing a beat he said: “A semi-organic wood nymph into granola and trucks.” His timing with humor was excellent.

But his timing with women was tenuous.

Typical of this was his experience at a garden center where he worked after graduating high school when one morning a young woman saw his blond hair and broad shoulders and asked, almost breathlessly, if he was a surfer.

An honest fellow, Steve said no, he wasn't.

“Instantly her eyes faded,” Steve told me. “Without a word she turned and walked away.”

Steve had several girlfriends over the years, and I met all of them, just as he got to know the girls I dated. One girl I didn’t meet, though, was his high school sweetheart, Mary. In a picture Steve showed me, Mary wore glasses and her long black hair was parted down the middle. He also showed me a shard of clay from pottery she made for him in art class.

The day he told me about Mary, Steve said he sometimes thought about going back to find her. Maybe because in your twenties everything seems possible, I said I’d help him find her if he wanted. I liked her for loving him, and I pictured the two of them putting together the pieces of the broken ceramic bowl.

After living in Santa Cruz and then Los Gatos, Steve moved to Humboldt County and lived in a tent on a rambling, rustic lot where he helped his brother build a house.

When I went to visit that first fall, I felt the chill of the changing season. We walked the property, watched the afternoon arc of a hawk’s silhouette, and then, as we stepped into his tent, I saw a primeval verdant mildew in the shockingly familiar goldenrod rug that for years lay beneath the coffee table in my parents’ home. Steve must have salvaged the rug from my parents, and there it was: my past; his present.

For years after his move to Humboldt, I visited Steve each October. He eventually found an apartment, and we spent lazy days talking over bagels, playing backgammon, and going on long runs. We enjoyed running, having come of age when Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon in 1972, and when a college track star named Steve Prefontaine became a legend even before his tragic death in a car accident in 1975.

So why, then, haven’t we spoken these past few years? Do friends just sometimes drift apart? When Steve last visited, we enjoyed our time together. We said our goodbyes in no different way than usual. And yet something between us must have changed.

Today what has changed is that I’m thinking about Steve. I'm wondering about him as I settle into the skin of a 50-year-old man who 30 years ago met a fellow with blue eyes who made me laugh and became my best friend. And today I’m even wondering if I ought to go back and try to find him.

. . .

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