Howard and I walked on the beach. It was spring break. He and I and our girlfriends traveled to Cape Fear, North Carolina, for the week. It was not far south enough to enjoy warm weather, but it was what we could afford. We had an entire house to ourselves, just us four. We spent the days walking on the beach and the evenings eating at the local restaurants, just us and the locals. They were happy for our business and for the most part treated us like royalty. One night we got the all-you-can-eat crab legs. They cut Howard off after his fourth serving. We protested. They did not relent.
Getting cut off on the all-you-can-eat crab legs was unusual because Howard rarely lost arguments. He was very smart and intense and could pick apart your best arguments. Sometimes he would stop talking and just stare you down. He hated to lose. He also loved to have fun. For about two years of my life in college, we spent a lot of time together. Howard was involved in some of the strangest events of my life. He was typically the cause.
One night we were up late on Allyson’s roof back in Morgantown, and Howard asked me what side I would be on if I lived during the Civil War. “Union,” I told him without even thinking about it. Of course. To my mind, there was no other answer. Howard was from Beckley, way down south. He disagreed and he got angry. So did I. We had to be separated.
We found a dead dolphin on our walk one day at Cape Fear. The day was overcast and windy. The dolphin had a rope tied around its tail fin and there was a large chunk of its body missing, as if it had been bit by a larger predator. All my memories of that beach were of the night and dusk. Our whole trip was cool and overcast. I had never been to the beach before and one time we went out late at night to the sand. The tide was out. The beach was enormous and it felt like a miracle. I ran around the sands, the hard-packed sand under my feet and a full moon lighting up the water and expanse of beach. I couldn’t believe how much the beach had changed in just a few hours.
Howard came back to the house one day in a bit of shock. He pulled something out of his jacket pocket– a shark’s tooth. It was enormous, as large as his palm. We turned it over and over in our hands and marveled at it. Nobody was around, and the beach was ours. The tooth was his treasure.
One day, we walked all the way to the farthest edge of the beach. The tide swirled where the waters came into the inlet that cut the beach in half. We stood and watched the water as the sun went down and the sky darkened. I realized that we were close to being trapped as the tides changed. The water was threatening to cut us off from the beach where we’d walked up from the house unless we retreated immediately. Howard knew this. I did not. I ran back to where I thought it was safe. Howard stayed there. I retreated more. He stayed. He wanted to show he was not scared. That was what Howard did. He put you in a situation that tested you and proved he was brave. Or at least braver. It was not hard with me.
I found out many years later that Howard died in a boating accident on the Gauley River. I was reading the back pages of the university alumni magazine and I saw his name. But it couldn’t be him, I thought. He’s too young. It was the same class year. I made a few calls. Yes, a friend told me, Howard died. I was shocked. I thought you’d known, my friend told me. This was before Facebook. In my network of friends, everyone knew but the news had eluded me. I was in my own world and I never talked to those friends from college any more.
I remember the last time I saw Howard. I was with Miles in the Mountainlair student union in Morgantown getting our pizza. From across the food court, I saw him, unmistakably Howard. Tall, slender, short dark hair and long gait. We made eye contact and he approached. It was great to see him. He was back in school to get his masters degree. Counseling I think or maybe psychology. He was working with kids in trouble. Howard was a powerful person by the force of his will and intelligence. I was glad to see he was using his powers for good.
We promised to stay in touch and get together while he was in Morgantown. We never did. A few years later, I heard the news. It was Labor Day weekend, 2001 when he died. I found out in the spring, many months later.
I made a contribution in his memory to his family’s church. His mother wrote me a nice note. I should write her back, but I am not sure where to start.