John Mahoney's Free-fire Zone
John Mahoney
John Mahoney
is editor of the Log Cabin Chronicles.

His previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 08.04.13
Muskrat Lake
Cobden, Ontario


Thinking about Dean

COBDEN, ONTARIO | No, really, this is about me thinking about me thinking about Dean Blay, my oldest childhood buddy from our earliest days on the Eastside in Newport, Vermont.

On July 13, 2013, several of us from the Class of 1953 of Newport High School were wondering what Dean was up to, and how sorry we were he wasn't at our sixtieth reunion. We understood that, for some us, it would be the last kick at the can.

The next day Jane and I drove back home to Canada. She had urged me to call Dean several times before the reunion, but I kept putting off making the call and time passed...

Over the next few days I worked on the photographs of our classmates and e-mailed them to those who have computers.

On the twenty-third I sent Dean an e-mail, telling him we were all sorry that he hadn't been with us and offered to send copies of the photographs I had taken. I received prompt replies from both his son Keith and second ex-wife Bonnie.

The family had held a funeral service for Dean the previous day. He had been unwell for several years, suffering from heart problems. His cremated remains had been interred along with the remains of the three dogs he had loved in life.

So much for putting off doing today that which you can do tomorrow.

Dean and I had been close friends since 1940. Our little neighborhood gang included Carol, Jeannie, Johnny B., Eddie, Buster, Charlie, and my younger brother, Gubby.

It was Dean who introduced me to the wonders of bank checks when we were little kids. He told me you just fill it out and you get money with it. He gave me a blank one to get my own money -- it took my mother a while to explain how it really works. And, by the way, just where did you get that check?

Dean and I were together until half way through Grade 6. Then, early in 1947 our military family moved to Westover Air Force Base at Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, then in 1948 to Wiesbaden, Germany, and finally to RAF Burtonwood near Liverpool, England.

In 1951 we rotated back to the States and as soon as we got to Newport, Dean and I reconnected. We swapped a lot of stories about those formative teenage years, and I'm going to keep them between us.

But there are two rememberings I'll share with you:

  • I was sitting of a lovely late-summer evening on Jeannie's front porch on Spring Street -- I'd had a crush on her since we were five years old and now, that we were teens, had quickly linked up.

    We saw this smallish figure slowly walking down the street. It was canted about 20 degrees to starboard and not walking the straight and narrow. As it got in front of the porch, we saw it was Gubby.

    A soiled little fourteen-year-old-Gubby, dirty from head to toe. And he was shit-faced.

    He had been with Dean all day, pulling electrical wire under the building Dean's father was fixing up for his workshop. In lieu of cash payment for labor, Mr. Blay had been feeding the boys Virginia Dare wine.

    My grandfather, who'd always hid his beer in the old horse stall, thought this was funny as hell. Mom and Dad were not at all amused.

  • That same summer Dean introduced Gubby and I to the art of drinking really cheap whiskey. I think it was something like Three Feathers.

    First, you poured a shot or two into a tea cup. Then, pinching your nostrils, you took it down in one quick gulp. None of us had ever heard of single malt Scotch.

After a miserable year at Chicopee High School in Massachusetts, Gubby and I moved back to Newport to live with Aunt Dot and Uncle Ken, our mother's sister and her husband. Again, Dean and I quickly started hanging out.

We talked about really buckling down in our senior year, and getting the highest marks in the class -- we had always had the best grades in our first six years at the Eastside School. But things didn't work out that way.

I wanted to play football -- Dean told me I'd never make the team, but I did. And I wanted to date Patty, the captain of the NHS cheerleaders -- Dean laughed and said she would never go out with me, but she did and soon we were deep in teenage love. So, Dean and I drifted apart.

Concerned about his diet and health -- there were stories that his father's "housekeeper" kept a padlock on the food pantry -- Aunt Dot kept asking Dean for Sunday dinner. He always accepted, but he never showed up.

Dean's mother had died while he was in grade school and his father was not a real hands-on guy, nor a role model. While in high school, Dean worked night and weekends at the movie theater, and he did a lot of carousing and drinking. He was pretty much on his own from a very early age.

Then came winter 1953. Dean turned eighteen, dropped out of school and quietly joined the Air Force, and was gone from my life. I've always felt guilty that I hadn't put myself out more for him, but the cards weren't stacked that way.

Thirty years later he came home to Newport for our thirtieth NHS reunion, a quieter man, unhappily married, and in the toxic embrace of hardcore religion.

He was amazed, he said, at how small the houses were, how narrow the streets. He looked up a girl whom he had worshipped as a teenager, and returned from that encounter sorely disillusioned and disappointed. She was to die in a motel fire several years later.

Dean came to dinner at our log cabin farm in Fool's Hollow, Quebec, with old friend Roy -- Jeannie's cousin -- and, sans alcohol, it was like old times. It was the last time I saw him.

Over the years he would call now and then, usually in the middle of the night when he was back on the booze and feeling nostalgic. I'd be sitting and shivering bare-assed on the stairway, and he'd want to know if I wanted to listen to some Frank Sinatra. I was always glad to hear from Dean, so I listened and talked with him.

The last time we talked was a couple of years ago. He had been in hospital after going on a wild drinking spree with a younger woman he had met at Alcoholics Anonymous. He said he reckoned he had messed up, and had told the guy who worked for him to call me if he died.

So I wasn't surprised to learn he had died four days after we had sat around talking Dean talk at our reunion. But it didn't make me any less sad.

So, my old friend Dean Alden Blay, if there is a Hereafter, and you're there and they let me in, the first round is on me.

Love, Johnny