A Memory of Curt for Memorial Day

I met Curt Mason through my first husband, Steve, in college.  Curt was his best friend and even though he was not in school with us, we spent considerable time hanging out and getting up to no good with Curt. Curt was the master of no good, but nonetheless he was ‘quality people’ in all the ways that really mattered. He was probably the most loyal person I have ever met and once he decided you were in his circle, he never, ever, judged you. It’s a testament to his character that during the days that Steve and I were ending our marriage and breaking each others hearts, Curt maintained his relationships with both of us. (Fortunately, with time, Steve and I have been able to put the past in the past – maybe Curt knew us better than we knew ourselves.)   It’s been just two years since he died and I think of him often and fondly.

Curt was a master storyteller and most of my memories involve Curt holding court and spinning the craziest of stories. And, generally speaking, the craziest parts were all true and the rest embellished beyond all recognition. Curt never let facts get in the way of a good story (for some reason he always referred to himself as “Curtis E” Mason and I did not learn until years later than his middle name did not actually start with the letter E…), but he also knew ultimately that the truth made the best story of all. His greatest love was rock music, and that love was felt most passionately for Thin Lizzy, but fundamentally he had a deep respect for the craft of making music itself and he would give props to any musician who laid it all on the line and had the musical chops to back it up. I happened to be reading Billy Bob Thornton’s “The Billy Bob Tapes” and encountered this passage that just screamed Curt to me:

I think…country music actually came from old men who’d sit on coke crates out in front of the store or on the screened-in porches or in the yard under the hickory nut tree, spinning yarns and just talking about people who lived there. Country music, real country music, is just different from other types of music. The songs are usually driven by stories.

When I replace ‘country’ with ‘rock’ and change the location to out by the pool at his apartment after dark with beer in hand, I am transported back in time. I’d like to think Curt would agree with me and if he were still here, would have a story or ten to tell about his experience with some country music artist or other.

Curt lived hard and it is almost certain that the years of smoking, drugs, and alcohol caught up to him when he died unexpectedly at the age of 46. At the time we met I was a wide-eyed innocent college co-ed and there was literally nothing we had in common except for our connection via Steve. He was rough around the edges and his hard life showed. I was clean cut to the core and my easy life showed. From outward appearances, he was hardly anyone I would have picked as a friend. But yet he was a friend, and a dear one to me. I think Curt’s biggest gift was that since he did not actually pick his friends based on their appearance, he was open to what anyone had to say. Whatever goofy naive observation I had to share around the poolside was accepted without question and he always had his own observations to add.

In his later years, when he was a late-night DJ (The Rocker for KKFI 90.1 FM in Kansas City), he would occasionally send me Instant-Message notes if I happened to be online when he was on the air. I don’t recall that we discussed anything deep or profound (although he did tell me he quit smoking by waking up one morning, deciding to stop and then simply never smoking again – another of the unbelievably true stories of Curt’s life). We mostly just chatted about the day-to-day stuff, and now that he’s gone I cherish those chats. I can only imagine how many other people were the recipients of these late night reach outs, and I am certain I was not the only one.

He was not in the military and did not fight for our country, but he did tell her stories. Here on Memorial Day he is the one who has come first to my own memory, so in honor of a great storyteller, I chose to share just a small piece of his story.

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Grandma speaks the truth

Brian’s grandmother passed away on October 16 after 98 very full years in this world. I won’t recount her history as there is already a very good description in her obituary, and I’m in awe of all she accomplished. We only shared about 14 of those 98 years together, after Brian and his extended family entered my life, but they were certainly memorable years nonetheless. Probably the traits that stood out most for me were her extravagant welcome and acceptance of people, and her natural ability to exaggerate the facts to fit how she felt about us.

From the moment Brian introduced me to Grandma (and I always called her Grandma), she immediately accepted me as part of the family. I recall some family function that Brian took me to in those early days of our dating. We had been together long enough to meet the family, but it can’t have been more than 3 or 4 months into our relationship. I had met Grandma and Grandpa, as well as his parents and brother and sister-in-law, but I had yet to meet many of the cousins and other extended family. As was the case in most those family functions, there was a cacophony of kids squealing, parents hollering, people talking, sports on the TV and a density of bodies in the family room that would most certainly have blown the fire code by a substantial margin. Amongst all this noise, Grandma silenced the room by yelling out, “Everyone, everyone, Brian has an ANNOUNCEMENT to make.”  I could see Brian’s mother’s eyes widen and the room went dead silent and I think there was a collective inhale as folks started to suspect an engagement was about to be announced. This was equally surprising to Brian and I as there was no such announcement coming and these things were not even in our consciousness at this point. Brian rallied and said, “Everyone, this is Lyda. Lyda, this is everyone.”  Folks quickly went back to their conversations at hand and perhaps more used to Grandma’s typical pronouncements were less thrown by this outburst than I was. Of course, in retrospect, perhaps Grandma indeed saw something in the cards that Brian and I just hadn’t figured out yet, as we were engaged before the end of the following year.

Another time, I was training to run a 10K and my training came up in conversation while we were out having dinner out with Grandma and the rest of the clan. Brian’s cousin Lyndsey showed up after us and Grandma pulled her aside and said, “Oh Lyndsey, did you know Lyda is running a marathon?!” Not sure how we got from 6 miles to 26 miles in the course of a single conversation, but by this time I had come to realize if Grandma liked you all stories got enhanced in the retelling. And again, in the end, she may have just been ahead of her time as I did indeed complete a marathon many years later.

She also told Brian and I how Brian’s cousin Brent had just taken a new job after college. According to her, he was so good with computers that after less than a week at the job, they asked him to run all the computer systems for the company. According to Brent, he was just doing inside sales and didn’t have any better computer skills than anyone else there. At this point knowing Grandma’s track record, I would say Brent’s got a bright career coming somewhere in his future.

Even when she got to the point when her memory struggled to hang onto the details of day to day life, she was always extremely glad to see Brian and me. She would tell us what a wonderful couple we were (to which Brian still maintains, “Hey, Grandma speaks the truth.”) and to come visit anytime. One more poignant episode took place when we were starting to first see signs of her impending dementia. Brian and I were staying over at their house for the weekend and I was chatting with Grandma after dinner. She looked at me and said, “Listen, you can’t stay in the guest room because Lyda and Brian are staying over tonight, but we’ve got plenty of room so please make yourself welcome.” Even in that diminished state, her sense of welcome and hospitality kept going strong.

At the time I met Grandma, I had already lost all of my own grandparents, and she took me in as if I had always been a member of the family. Brian and I chose early on not to have any children of our own and I have always been extremely grateful we never got any pressure or guilt from family about that choice. One mother’s day weekend, Grandma decided to buy geraniums for all of the mothers in the family. She just could not bring herself not to get one for me as she felt like that would have left me out, so in the blink of an eye she handed over the flowers and told me they were a gift in honor of my mother and that was that.

Grandma’s presence in my life was the true gift and I hope I can extend even a fraction of the welcome and hospitality to others that she showed to me.


Meet Gil, and then make a donation

Last year when I did the full-on marathon with Team in Training, I did the event in honor of my friend, Nick.  Thinking about Nick’s journey to recovery helped keep my feet pounding the pavement far beyond when my brain had gotten tired of running and the rest of me wanted to go home. His story was an inspiration to me and I think knowing that he was alive and well was an element of that inspiration. As most of you know, this year I’m taking on a different challenge and trying to be a little more patient with myself as I walk a half marathon.

I considered not dedicating the training to anyone in particular, but my thoughts kept drifting back to my friend Gil. Unfortunately, Gil’s story does not have a happy ending – he died in 2008 from Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia at the age of 41, leaving behind a wife and 6 year old son. I have often commented on the brutality of the way Leukemia afflicts such young people, and I guess this situation isn’t really any different. Is it not just as brutal for a young son to lose his father? Sadly, when Gil passed away, I had not been in touch with him in almost 8 years and I had no idea he was living just across the state in Spokane, let alone battling Leukemia.

I met Gil when we were both in college at the University of Kansas. He was a graduate student in the Department of Geography and I was an undergrad working in the department office, also studying Geography. In some random way, I don’t really remember now, he also wound up living in the same apartment building as me and my then boyfriend (soon to be first husband), Steve. I guess because our daily lives intersected so much at both school and home, we spent countless hours together with Gil and his girlfriend, Lisa, who was also a friend.  Gil was a night owl and would often call or show up at 10 or 11pm to see if we wanted to play Spades or Hearts, and I have many memories of long nights of playing cards and laughing until our faces ached.

You see, Gil was the oddest human being I have ever met. He enjoyed being outrageous to the point of being absurd. He told me once that he yelled out at some women in a car next to him, “I bet you don’t even sleep with the sheets on!”  No one knew what that was supposed to mean, not even Gil. He loved to make crazy movies that also did not make any sense. I happen to have a few on VHS (that sadly I can’t watch any more since I no longer have a VCR) and in one he runs around the campus sneaking up on people with a large piece sheepskin on his head and filming their reactions.  He was very hot headed and if he got mad during one of our card games, he would scream and yell and get red in the face, but a few nights later he would be knocking at our door again to play cards and as near as I can recall, we always played. He often accused me of having a ‘difficult’ sense of humor and would do things he thought were funny that I would often only find amusing. This would frustrate him to no end and he would get weirder and weirder trying to see if he could get me to actually laugh out loud.

After we all left college, we stayed in touch off and on over the years. I got married, then divorced, and spent many years of my career as a road warrior. There were countless times that I called Gil from some random hotel room and we would spend hours talking on the phone about nothing in particular. He would give me quizzes with questions like whether I thought it was funnier for someone to die by having their guts fall out or whether it was funnier for someone else to die by having guts fall on them. (Again, no one ever knew where he came up with this stuff or what it meant.) It was sometime during these years that I developed quite a crush on him. He was crazy, and handsome, as well as a very loyal friend. I saw him a few times when he lived in California and had high hopes for something more, but his feelings were always strictly platonic. I now admire his ability to maintain our friendship and still make it clear that he was never going to be interested in me in any other way, even if it frustrated me at the time.

We drifted apart and I met and married Brian. He lived in Japan and eventually married a Japanese woman, Keiko. He invited us to his wedding in Florida, which we attended (and I am now of the opinion that one should never pass up wedding invitations – it’s not the first time I have rekindled a friendship over a wedding invitation). In May of 2000 Brian and I planned a trip to China to visit my father and stepmother and decided to stop in Tokyo and visit Gil and Keiko. We did a few touristy type things, but my fondest memory of that trip was playing Hearts and laughing way into the night. That was the last time I saw Gil. We may have traded an email or two after that, but Gil wasn’t much of one for email and Japan was simply too far away for hours-long phone calls. Life moved on and we went our separate ways, although I always expected we would reconnect again as we had so many other times over the years. I had no idea he had started a family, no idea he had moved back to the US, and I certainly had no idea that he battled Leukemia for years, including some rather intense treatment sessions. Instead I learned of his death from his old girlfriend Lisa, who when we spoke simply said the world just didn’t seem quite right without Gil in it and she could not have said truer words.

So, my friends, cherish your friendships – reach out to someone you haven’t talked to in awhile (because you don’t always get second chances) and please make a donation to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society on my behalf, so that 6 year olds don’t  have to lose their dad, wives don’t have to lose their husband, and friends don’t have to lose each other.

Walk on, Lyda