March 2, 2017

Cliff’s Edge - Harold, Erwin, Jimmy, and George

In the mid-1950s, my dad had built our first home, 23 Hammond Street, Monticello, New York. Two doors up, 19 Hammond Street, lived one of my friends, Harold Supon. Two doors down, 26 Hammond Street, lived another friend, Erwin Steier. Because of an unfortunate infidelity in my immediate family (of which I was then too young to understand), in the middle of my fourth-grade year the Goldsteins of Hammond Street uprooted to Miami Beach. I never talked to, or saw, Erwin or Harold again.

At Miami Beach High, my best friend was George Zifferblatt, who shared my passion for boating, fishing, scuba diving, and lobster poaching. In my senior year at Beach High, flunking chemistry (even while cheating), I skipped class and hung out in the library, where I met Jimmy Kronsnoble. That summer, after graduation, we bummed around Europe and North Africa together.

My four friends, yes, Harold, Erwin, Jimmy, and George.

And all are dead.

Of course, if life itself is filled with mysteries, how much more so death, an intruder?

I found out a year after it happened that Harold had been killed while learning to fly a small plane. He was 16 years old. Googling his name, I recently found a digital version of the local news story about the crash, dated September 21, 1972. I also found his name on the “In Memoriam” page of the 1973 graduating class at Monticello High School, which would probably have been my class but for the infidelity.

Right above Harold Supon’s name was “Erwin Steier.” He died at age 32, and although I don’t know for sure, it was most likely from a drug overdose.

George Zifferblatt had been flying commercial jets when, in 1999, after beating severe colitis, he died of breast cancer at 42.

For years I had lost touch with Jimmy Kronsnoble. I’d google his name but come up with zilch, not a good sign. Eventually, I got a hit for him: a name on an AIDS blanket. Over time, and with more sleuthing, e-mails, and phone calls, I found his mother, who remembered me as her son’s traveling companion in Europe. Jimmy, she told me, was gay (I never had a clue), and that at age 35 he died of AIDS. The year was 1991, when my second child was born.

Though not haunted (too strong a verb) by their deaths, I am troubled by them. I’m 61, still humming with life. Harold, Erwin, Jimmy, and George have been decomposing for years (poor Harold for more than four decades). OK, yes, God has a purpose for me, a calling, which could explain why I’m still metabolizing protein, but not why Harold, Erwin, Jimmy, and George aren’t.

Of course, if life itself is filled with mysteries, how much more so death, an intruder? It is, if we go back to God’s original purpose for us, the most unnatural of acts. We’re just so used to death that, like taxes, we take it for granted. We shouldn’t. Death is so bad, so alien, that only the self-sacrifice of the Creator Himself (John 1:13) could beat it.

Paul’s so clear about the need to overcome death that, unless the dead are raised to life, our faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:12-14). The credibility of the gospel hinges on Christ raising us from the grave.

I know little about the mysteries of life and death except that I’m alive.

But still, a 16-year old killed in a plane crash? A 42-year old man dying of breast cancer? I’ve been thinking about my four dead friends (obviously), even if it’s the essence of senselessness to try to make sense of the senseless, like trying to define what is by definition undefinable.

I don’t know why, but Harold’s death (the thought of it) is the only one of the four that still brings me to tears, even though I hadn’t seen or talked to him since the mid-1960s. A few images of him lightly float on old synapses fueled by drying chemicals in the part of brain that has stored them: Harold and me playing in a “time machine” that he built in his den; Harold and me catching the yellow school bus; Harold and me eating at his house. Vague images, and not one I could describe with detail. But they are still real enough to create the sadness that flows in me, even now.

I know little about the mysteries of life and death except that I’m alive and Harold, Erwin, Jimmy, and George are dead; and that in Christ I have the promise that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). Until then, I live (ironically enough) with death, recognizing that the inevitability of death isn’t the same as reconciling with it.