This weekend, my old school, Eastern Illinois University, dedicated a new arts building. As part of the weekend of activities christening the Doudna Arts Building, the University had a small ceremony announcing the endowment of the Mark "Atwood" Evans Scholarship for arts students.
My old friend Tim and I had planned some time ago to drive down to Eastern for the ceremony. Yesterday morning, I drove by his house, picked him up and we drove down for the ceremony. We had one stop to make. We wanted to visit Mark's gravesite.
We had not been there since the day we buried him in June of 2006. The day was cool, bright and clear. We decided to leave something for him. I had burned a cd of one of his favorite songs, REM's "Don't Go Back To Rockville." We left a note on it-- that we loved and missed him-- signed it, and left it at his gravesite.
On the way in, we passed through Atwood, Illinois, the town he got his college nickname from. He grew up in Hammond, Illinois, where he's buried, but somehow got the nickname of the town next to Hammond; Atwood and Hammond shared a high school.
On the road, I got a call from old friend Dan, who I had shared an apartment with in Wrigleyville in the eighties. He told us that the services for Graham Lewis, a friend from the same circle Atwood was from, was at 2 pm at a church in Charleston, Illinois, where we were headed. We got to town, checked into our room, and were able to make it to the end of the services.
We walked in and were faced with a bunch of middle-aged people. We began to recognize them as the people we'd gone to college with in the early and mid eighties. We stayed for a bit, stopping to talk to people, some of whom we hadn't seen for 15 or 20 years.
Graham is the second from the left in the picture below. It was taken around 1984 or 1985.
We found Dan, and we ran over to Roc's, a bar now owned by Mike, the guy who had owned the Uptowner/Cellar, the cool bohemian bar we hung out at back then. We stopped to raz him and to have a beer. We asked about his kids-- we remembered his daughter being born back around the time I graduated. He pointed to the pretty blonde we was behind the bar-- it was his daughter, who was now 21. We just about keeled over.
We were quickly joined by Davo, Eric, Brian and others, who had already planned to be there that weekend for the scholarship ceremony and were shocked to have to add a funeral to our schedules.
We finished our beers and ran over to the school. After a little confusion, we found everybody who was involved in the ceremony-- Mark's parents, the art department chairman, and various friends of Mark's. I met Allison, the woman who'd set the scholarship up, for the first time-- previously we'd only corresponded by email and telephone. She spoke briefly, and then Mark's mother gave a very moving speech that had everybody on the verge of tears.
The art department chairman took us on a tour of the new arts building. He talked about how during the time when they tore down the old fine arts building, which was, ironically, the ugliest building on campus, and the completion of the Doudna center, they had to hold the arts classes in an old grocery store near campus. The new arts center was wonderful-- welding facilities for making jewelry, kilns for ceramics, an ampitheater and many other great facilities.
Our friend Lorelei, who stayed in Charleston after graduation, showed us some of her works that are around campus. It really reminded me of what a unique, interesting and talented group of friends I have from college.
We ran to our room to change, and headed for the party Lorelei was having. There were friends there I hadn't seen in over 20 years. We went to have a drink at a couple of our old haunts, and called it a night.
On the drive home the next day, Tim told me that he'd discovered that night that Lisa Frieze, another friend of ours from that time, had also passed away last week. She'd had a heart-related problem that finally caught up to her. She'd lived with a group of women in a house that was called, alternately, The Tenth Street House and "The Spaghetti House." The latter was because of a great party they'd thrown in which they served up spaghetti, and the guests provided the hooch. It was from that party that I'd left with a group of people and driven down to Memphis and visited Graceland. Julie and Kerry, two of the girls from that house, were there, and had a scrapbook that had pictures from the party. Kerry told me that she was digging in the back of a cabinet and discovered that Elvis shotglass we'd gotten them at a shop across the road from Graceland on that 1985 trip.
Beth, another woman who lived in that house, was not there, but I'd run into her husband Mike at Graham's funeral.
As I arrived home from this trip, I was exhausted. I'd intended to go to my old school to do something to honor an old friend. I hadn't realized I'd be dealing with the loss of two more old friends. Still, it was great seeing guys like Tim and Dave, and renewing bonds with friends I hadn't seen in years.
Saturday night, while we were in the Uptowner, there was a folkie guy playing and singing. He played a mix of his stuff and old stuff. At some point he played Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up In Blue." I thought it was the perfect song to be playing at that moment. The song is widely taken as Dylan's retrospective on the sixties.
On the trip home the next morning, Dylan's version came up on my Ipod shuffle, which I'd hooked up to the stereo. Tim asked me to crank up the volume, and we quietly sat and listened to the song as the Illinois cornfields flew by.
I remembered that the night before, I'd been talking to Lorelei and remembering my last night at Eastern, in July of 1985. A group of us, including Lorelei and my late friend Mark, had gone down to the campus quad to watch a movie they were showing outdoors-- The Big Chill. I remembered as we'd sat there watching the movie that this was my "Big Chill" group-- the people who stood by my side and made my life interesting and fought the good fight. Hanging out on Saturday with a substantial part of the group from that long-ago night, I realized that I'd been right. We may separate and do our own things in our lives, but all of us have our hearts and in a way our homes down in that campus in the middle of the cornfields. We're still all pursuing our passions and fighting the good fight, knowing that that group of friends is beside us, wherever they may be in the world.