Bryan's Song

by Garry Stephanson

He didn’t ask to die. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t deserve to die. But he died! My lifelong friend is no more, except in my memories. But, oh what memories!

 About ten years ago, Bryan was hospitalized due to an illness. While not life- threatening, it did require a number of transfusions. Yes, he was one of those who received HIV tainted blood, the precursor to AIDS. As this is a memoir of our friendship, I won’t fix blame as seems to be the vogue. It would serve no useful purpose now. My friend is dead!

 Bryan and I grew up in the west end of Winnipeg. We first met in high school in the ‘50s and formed part of a “gang” of about seven youths, all with the same off-beat senses of humour and common interests (at that time, gags, gas guzzlers, and girls). I wouldn’t say that we terrorized the city, but we certainly did cause the authorities severe consternation, especially our teachers. None of our pranks were what you would classify as conventional or malevolent. But there was always some weird twist to them and Bryan more often than not was the one who came up with these schemes. That is not to say that the rest of us were simply willing followers. Each of us always managed to add our particular “spin” to the situation.

 Bryan lived with his mother and younger brother (his father had passed away several years earlier). His home was a kind of central meeting place and safe haven for us due in large part to his mother’s free-spirited life style. We would gather there for poker, beer and cigarettes, but mainly to enjoy each other’s company, far removed from the well-intentioned interference of parents and siblings. Though each of us was quite different, collectively we were a clan and were regarded as such by our peers. Perhaps this is the ritual of all young men, but in our case the bonding was absolute.

  Cigarettes were easy to come by in those days; beer was not. So Bryan determined that we would make our own in his basement. We got the “fixings” and then, as a production line, began the process. To say that our first attempts were failures is to be overly kind - they were unmitigated disasters! Our haste to bring ale to the table resulted in several varieties unfit for human consumption, ranging from flavoured water to stuff resembling molasses. One batch caused chaos in his household in the middle of the night as the bottles exploded in machine gun fashion due to an excess of carbonation. We eventually got it right and all was fine in our world, though our parents probably had their suspicions when we arrived home late with rather befuddled expressions on our faces and a tendency toward incoherence!

  Our poker games would not have been recognized by anyone who frequented Las Vegas. We all, especially Bryan, invented poker and blackjack variants that got so complicated that it usually took half an hour to explain how the game was to be played. This of course eventually turned into a complete shambles as we sloshed down our home brew. “Wet cards are wild!!” Some games had so many wild cards that even when we remembered what they were, you needed a royal flush to tie! Bryan had the maddening habit of being inscrutable. I don’t know how many times he bluffed us out with only a pair. He’d sit there with the usual twinkle in his eye, firing off sarcastic comments, and baiting us on until we were convinced he had us beat. Other times he’d play the “poor me” routine to perfection, convincing all present that he was a fool for staying in the game, then laying down a full house to our total chagrin.

  Bryan had a way of making the absurd sound logical and the ridiculous seem reasonable. He never shouted, but when he spoke you listened - admittedly sometimes just out of curiosity as to what scheme he was hatching next - you always paid attention just to be on the safe side. He had this knack of being convincingly believable. His style was always quiet, slow and easy. Why run when you can walk? Why walk if someone will bring it to you? I don’t think I ever saw him flustered. He never bought a brand name product if he could get an unknown one for a little less money. He had some of the weirdest products I’ve ever seen. Some even worked! Others such as the telephone he got second hand and hooked up illegally, weren’t exactly successful. If you phoned him, it was like talking at the bottom of a well to someone with an eastern European accent. Did he get rid of it? Never! It worked didn’t it?

 We both joined the RCAF Auxiliary while we were in high school. It was a blast (almost)! All our technical trades training was on the WW II Mustang fighter. It was a fantastic aircraft for its time and actually was excellent for training due to its relative simplicity. All the junior tradesmen were required to take their turns servicing aircraft during weekend flying. It was a boring, noisy and dirty job, especially refuelling where one was often doused with AvGas in the process. Bryan got the brilliant idea that we should liven this process up and check how observant of fire safety regulations the regular force NCOs were. On the appointed day he handed out fake cigarettes (quite realistic with their red-spangled tips) and we proceeded to refuel the aircraft on the line. Well, the NCOs were observant. Also, they were not stupid. When they spotted our hi-jinks, all hell broke loose - but from afar! We were advised in less than diplomatic shouts to get rid of the cigarettes while, at the same time, the fire trucks roared onto the scene. Not until it was clearly evident that the fake cigarettes represented no hazard did the NCOs approach the aircraft. We didn’t have to take our turn at servicing for the rest of the summer. We couldn’t have anyway as all our spare time was devoted to permanent canteen KP!

  In spite of our pranks (and there were others), Bryan and I did well enough in our high school and military courses to be selected for air force university sponsorship (ROTP). We both decided that instead of a military college, the local University of Manitoba would be best for us. It was an excellent scholarship as we had planned to take engineering and didn’t have the money to do it on our own. All we had to do was pass the medical. Now this was an experience out of “Catch 22.”

 Can you imagine about fifty young men wandering around the military hospital wearing absolutely nothing except paper slippers and nervous looks? Bryan was in another lineup and later when we met in the mess for lunch he related the following vignette. The chap in front of him was fresh from the farm. When handed a specimen bottle and told to fill it, he waited in line, then took his turn in the men’s toilet. When he handed the bottle to the nurse, she scrutinized the sample closely. “This looks like water,” she announced testily. The farm boy replied, “Well it is. You told me to fill it!” We passed all the tests and were duly sworn into the RCAF in the spring of 1956.

  During our freshman engineering courses, I was driving a big old black limousine (my father’s idea for safety). Bryan evidently convinced his kid brother that it had previously been owned by the gangster Al Capone (it was of that vintage). I came out of his house one day just in time to prevent his brother from throwing a rock through my treasured beast’s windshield. He was going to test the bullet proof glass!

  Our years spent in engineering seemed to be at the two extremes; total fun or total drudgery. On the work side, Bryan took some kind of correspondence course to improve his memory as there was a large requirement for memorization in the first year. It was quite remarkable to see him use “the system” as he could easily rhyme off lists of disparate items several days after he was shown them. However, memory alone was not enough as you also had to show you could use the concepts. Neither of us really applied ourselves, except concerning girls and he had to take first year again. I was lucky and just squeaked through with the promise to the military types that I would buckle down. Regardless, we tried our damnedest to off-set the boring academic side of our existence by pure, unadulterated fun.

  Parties were our forté. Ones at the downtown air force mess were particularly delightful as the mess not only did the cleaning up, but provided easy and reasonable access to booze. On one occasion, we tried to move a piano down one floor to our party room. Bryan had suggested this and I was mellow enough by that time to completely agree. He took the lower end as we started down the stairs, but suddenly decided it was too heavy and stepped aside. He didn’t say anything so I just kept pushing. I remember seeing his rather bemused expression as the piano and I hurtled past him down the stairs. Fortunately, there was a wall at the bottom of the stairs. Unfortunately it didn’t stop the piano, just me! Well, at least part of the piano made it to the party. Bryan’s only comment after this rather spectacular event was that he supposed this meant no music for the sing- along!

  Our engineering stags were probably the templates for “Animal House!” At one, the “entertainment” (a stripper) didn’t show. The almost-engineers didn’t appreciate this and proceeded to trash the establishment. Bryan and I liked fun, but not this kind so just stood back to watch the happenings, since intervention would have been futile and probably dangerous. The bar was left unattended and therefore we treated it as free game. I will never forget trying to talk to Bryan while he was busily attempting to drink a beer. You see he had four beer bottles, two in each hand with the necks held between his fingers. When he tried to drink from one, the other in that hand busily poured it’s contents down his front! He was oblivious to this incongruity and couldn’t fathom why I was laughing so hard. Needless to say, when I drove him home he smelled like he had been doing the backstroke in a beer vat.

  One Christmas, it was decided to have a “progressive” dinner on Boxing Day. That is, we would “bless” the homes of all our parents with our presence, one after the other, for Yuletide cheer and goodies. As there was about six or seven places on our agenda, one can imagine what shape we were in as we homed in on the last few stops! I can vividly remember driving down one of the city’s main thoroughfares with Bryan, dressed to the nines complete with bowler hat, blowing a cavalry charge out the window on a bent and tarnished old bugle! Why we didn’t get stopped by the constabulary is beyond me. Arriving at my home, we “poured” into the house, to be greeted by my astonished mother and thunderstruck sister who had obviously spent hours preparing a gourmet spread for the “young gentlemen”. Bryan serenaded the assembled throng with several bugle ditties, all sounding amazingly similar in their disconcerting stridency. Meanwhile the rest of my companions attacked the food and drink like the Mongol hordes. It was all over in about 15 minutes! Then, it was off to further food and frivolity. The exit was as circus-like as the entrance, with Bryan endowing my young sister with a beery kiss, much to her chagrin - and delight, then my bewildered mother, and finally the dog! The next morning I apologized to my family, but they thought that it had been a marvellous spectacle, especially my sister. The dog was noncommittal.

  After graduation, even though we were in the air force, our paths seldom crossed due to the vagaries of service life. We both married wonderful women and each had two fantastic children. It was not until the early ‘80s that we finally found ourselves resident in the same city. By this time, Bryan had left the military and joined the civil service where he was doing very well. I was winding down my military career, such as it was, and avidly anticipating retirement. Ironically, we still didn’t see one another as often as in the halcyon days of our youth as we lived at opposite ends of the city. Visits back and forth were generally on special occasions such as holidays and birthdays.

  Nevertheless, it was always a real treat to see my old buddy as he was continually up to some kind of caper. For example, he convinced my wife and I to become Amway distributors. The secret, he whispered, “Was to convince others to do the same, because that's where the money is!” Well, we didn’t have similar entrepreneurial capabilities and the only things we sold were the products - to ourselves! I’m positive Bryan made a few bucks at this venture just as he always seemed to do regardless of how outlandish the scheme.

  It was not until the mid-80s that I learned of Bryan’s infection. He had not said a word about it to me, perhaps ignoring the inevitable in hopes it would go away. Well, it didn’t. Outwardly, he was the same old Bryan, but inside this most insidious of diseases was playing havoc with his mind. He tried desperately to play out all his fantasies and dreams in the time left him, much to the chagrin of many of his associates. I personally admired his fortitude as he never bemoaned his fate. In fact, he seemed to be relishing the fact he had nothing to lose and could let loose his inhibitions in the same manner as when we were youths. His family supported him in spite of these eccentricities, showing a deep and enduring love which few could emulate. When the end finally came, it was with quiet dignity.

  It bothers me immensely that I never said a real goodbye. I guess I always thought that would come later. But when later came, I’m not at all sure he could understand what I was saying. Our final meeting was about two weeks before he passed away. Just before I left his room, we made eye contact. I like to think that some of my thoughts did get through, or that at least he understood my sentiments. In any case, it was not “Goodbye", but “Au revoir”. I’m positive that when my appointed time arrives, I’ll be met by an enthusiastic Bryan, fully wrapped up in some questionable venture and doing his considerable best to convince me to join forces. And you know what? Of course I will. Heaven just won’t quite be the same!

  I’m still bothered by his tragic demise. Why Bryan? He was a gentleman and a gentle man loved and respected by his friends and all who knew him. Some say it was “the luck of the draw.” But why did there have to be a draw? Is this a cruel joke played by an unfeeling deity or simply benign neglect? Or are our lives mere pawns in a universal lottery and can be taken without notice or reason? I guess we all have our personal opinions in this regard. For me, I prefer to believe that there was purpose in his death, though I am not positive what it was. Perhaps it is a message to us to treasure the time we have, every single moment, because life can be so fleeting.

  Regardless, Bryan set an example for the rest of us who will inevitably face death, but hopefully not under such cruel circumstances. I came across a quotation that best sums up the fortitude and strength Bryan so visibly demonstrated:

“Courage is the ability to face life on whatever terms are offered.”

As Thomas Moore so aptly wrote:

“Farewell! - but whenever you welcome the hour,
That awakens the night-song of mirth in your bower,
Then think of the friend who once welcomed it too,
And forgot his own griefs to be happy with you.”

I miss you old friend and I’ll always remember the wonderful times we had together.

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