I got an email from a former high school classmate saying Jackie had died. He had cancer. The last time I saw him was at our 50th reunion a while back. He didn’t look so good then but was hardly at death’s door.
Jackie was the only African American person in our class. He was very popular and was voted class president. He was also a good football player, and I remember he played halfback. I remember one time when the issue of his heritage came up, he denied being African American, though he clearly was, and instead said his family came from Seminole Indians. I’m not sure why an affiliation with one oppressed group was preferable to another, but he must have been sensitive about being black. I also remember him recounting his elementary school days—it was the 1950s in Missouri and schools were segregated. The school he went to was later transformed to a center for the mentally retarded. Progress?
In High School he was part of a group of Explorer Scouts that went to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and canoed from the Charles L. Sommers Wilderness canoe base out of Ely. Our guide was a grizzled South Dakotan named Roy who wanted to know if we wanted to take a trip for “tourists” or be true “voyageurs” and go for the gusto. Of course, we wanted to be voyageurs and see territory on the outer edges of the maps. Thus, we set off on an eight-day excursion that featured a lot of paddling, muddy portages, and lots of mosquitoes. The mosquitoes and black flies were so bad that they chewed on our ears until they bled. No one complained, we just kept slogging through. I remember one particularly long portage through swampy land we called loon shit. If you weren’t careful you could sink up to your waist. We came upon a canoe stuck in the mud and we heard someone holler beneath it. We lifted the canoe off, and underneath was Jackie stuck in the mud. We pulled him out and got a big laugh out of it. Another thing I remember about Jackie on that trip was he got a sunburn. I didn’t know black people could get a sunburn, but apparently it can happen. Just like what can happen to us white boys. Between sunburns, mosquitoes, and slogging through portages, it was a rugged trip. We even got lost for a day or so. Roy studied his maps, and we got back on track. Nevertheless, we made it back to the base on time with everyone alive, though skinnier and more hardened by the trip. I enjoyed it so much I returned with some more intrepid voyageurs the next year. I don’t think Jackie came back.
Over the years I lost track of most of my high school classmates—except for occasional reunions. I understand that Jackie did a stint in the army in Germany, where he met Heike, his wife. He moved to Minneapolis and became an elementary school teacher. After I moved to Minnesota we re-connected. I remember him inviting me over to his house for dinner. We caught up with each other after all the years. I also remember playing a round of golf with him and a few others. He told of how he and his brothers would take an annual trip to Arizona to play golf.
A couple of other memories bubble up. We met him and Heike for dinner once at a restaurant in St. Paul. We also had them over for dinner at what was then our new home. We intended to stay in touch, but I guess got too busy.
I had always intended to contact him to invite him out for a round of golf. It never happened. Looking back, he probably wouldn’t have been up to it anyway, though I didn’t know he was sick. Lesson learned: Don’t put stuff off. You never know when someone just might fade away on you.