Jim was my best friend in junior high school. He was a Navy brat, I was a Marine Corps brat, and we were fortuitously thrown together by the fates when our families both moved to Mitchel Field, New York before the start of our seventh grade year. We were both placed in a “Talented and Gifted” program at our friendly neighborhood junior high school, where they basically sequestered us and some other bright kids away from the mainstream of the school, likely turning us into odd ducks, if we weren’t so already. I suspect that Jim and I were in the latter category.
We essentially functioned as a two-person intellectual tag-team unit for the next three years at school and in our neighborhood, generally hanging out together except for during the few weeks each summer when he went to camp in Virginia, and we wrote long, elaborate, coded letters to each other laying out of plans for the year following his return. I still have a lot of those letters from him, most of them written with a fountain pen, blobs of ink all over them, preserving one of Jim’s more persistent (and eccentric) preferences at that time.
Jim and I first connected over our shared obsessions with the early music of Steely Dan and Jethro Tull, and we would spend hours and hours playing, discussing, analyzing and dissecting their albums. He was a bit more cosmopolitan than I was, and introduced me to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Monty Python, and Perrier. I think I introduced him to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom Series, Dungeons and Dragons, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (via a copy of Tarkus that I pilfered from the library of a nearby community college). Whatever we got into, we got into deep, and my cultural tastes today are largely similar to those that I forged with Jim during those formidable, formative years.
We did many of the things that smart junior high school boys do, and some that many don’t: we skateboarded, we smoked things we shouldn’t have, we figured out how to deal with girls, we wrote pretentious poetry, we worked on the school’s closed-circuit television show, and we designed elaborate linguistic and wargaming systems that combined Burroughs, Tolkein, and our own rather off-kilter senses of humor. We also liked to set things on fire, and once almost burned Jim’s house down while igniting model airplanes in his basement. I still have scars on my left leg where molten model plastic splashed me.
Soon after that accidental fire, Jim hand-delivered a note to my house, which I still have. On the outside, it said “Special Bulletin to Eric Smith (Only)”. Inside it read:
“Though you may have guessed already, I will tell you that on the Friday 19th, after I took Wendy out (yup! yup!) my mother discovered her bottle of Sobo (TM) glue in the “small” room (basement) and also other things (hint: [some drawings of candles, model airplanes and fire appear here]). I made sure your mom didn’t find out, so things went a little easier, and I was heavily restricted for one night, for which I compensated by reading my (and Tolkein’s) companion. So, you guessed, fate has destined our pyromaniacal phase to terminate and I accept his decision on the matter and have decided that we now must enter a more conservative phase, where we must seek peace of mind, keeping within the limits, being subtle, yet radical, and settling down to more time with Wendy and Maria (yup!). But we must stay tactical, shrewd, uncanny, as we battle our foes. Also, we must be a team without civil war. I have drawn up a file to record and index anything or anyone concerning our organization(s).”
Of course, as happens with all organizations built around or for military brats, eventually duty calls for the military members, and their kids go with them. Jim left Mitchel Field first, the summer before our tenth grade year, moving to New Jersey, where (like me) he grew a foot in a year or so, and took up fencing, because he was the type of guy who just looked right with a sword in his hand. We continued to correspond regularly, and got together a couple of times that year before I moved to Newport, Rhode Island, and then on to Jacksonville, North Carolina, at which point our letters tended to become less frequent, though more florid. I have a six-page, handwritten letter, for example, containing an epic poem called “Green Dragon Friday” that Jim sent me during the first semester of our senior year in high school. It’s really a spectacularly clever and creative piece, and it’s one of the reasons that I consider Jim one of the best writers (and smartest people) I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.
College time came: I went off to the Naval Academy, and Jim was accepted to a prestigious Ivy League school, where he went on to become an All-American fencer. His school and my school were rivals on that front, so when he came to Annapolis to compete, we would get the chance to catch up. I made it through college in four straight years, but Jim’s wanderlust took him, and headed off to Europe to explore, travel, think, study, work and write for a couple of years, extending the time it took to finish his degree.
Just before Christmas of 1988, Jim boarded a plane in London to return to the United States. But he never made it home, perishing instead with 269 other people when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, and plummeted to the ground, 31,000 feet below. Jim had a window seat, just above the wing. According to the investigation report:
“. . . when the cockpit broke off, tornado-force winds tore through the fuselage, tearing clothes off passengers and turning insecurely-fixed items like food and drink trolleys into lethal objects. Because of the sudden change in air pressure, the gases inside the passengers’ bodies would have expanded to four times their normal volume, causing their lungs to swell and then collapse . . . A minute after the explosion, the wing section containing 200,000 lb (91,000 kg) of fuel hit the ground at Sherwood Crescent, Lockerbie. The British Geological Survey at nearby Eskdalemuir registered a seismic event measuring 1.6 on the Richter scale as all trace of two families, several houses, and the 196 ft (60 m) wing of the aircraft disappeared . . .”
I think it’s safe to say that Jim would have liked to have lived another several decades, and to have spent his final moments not as described above, but rather in the presence of his loved ones, as will Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the man convicted of killing him, who was released from his life sentence on “compassionate grounds” yesterday, returning home to a hero’s welcome in Libya.
I lost only a childhood friend over Lockerbie and I’m viscerally appalled by the Scottish judge’s decision, so I can’t comprehend how those who lost children, parents, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives must feel. There are strong ties to Pan Am Flight 103 in the Capital Region and other parts of Upstate New York (especially Syracuse), and I grieve for those families here and elsewhere as they watch mercy being dispensed to the person who unmercifully robbed them of their loved ones.
Those families are the ones worthy and deserving of relief on compassionate grounds, though there is none to be granted them.
Notes: Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi died in May, 2012, some 30 months after his release. My sentiments on the subject discussed above and the injustices committed remain unchanged. There is an error in the memorial page above; Jim was returning to South Hadley, Massachusetts, not England.