Old acquaintances, popping up from out of the blue

Two old acquaintances dropped by this past week, each one a friend not seen for nearly 40 years.

The first was Tom Thompson, a 1970 graduate of Illinois Valley High School in Cave Junction where I was a year ahead of him in school. Until we sat down to sink our teeth into delectable memories over lunch on Thursday, we hadn't chatted since 1969.

The second was Richard Eubank, a Marine Corps buddy I last saw in 1971. We both ordered the special — a large order of auld lang syne with a side dish of humorous anecdotes only a jarhead could digest — when we met for breakfast Friday morning.

Tom and I endured the troublesome teen years together. I recall he was more mature and brighter than most of us. Truth be told, when it came to being juvenile, I had the market cornered.

Richard was 23 and a sergeant when he and I met. Of course, as a smart-ass 18-year-old who knew everything there was to know, I figured he was already getting up there in years.

Lordy, funny how the years change one's perspective. If only I knew today half what I thought I knew all those years ago ...

Back then, all three of us were looking at the lion's share of life ahead, thinking about the possibilities. The world was our oyster. We just knew we would find the pearl.

Now we are looking at the bulk of our lives behind us, reflecting on the paths we chose and pondering our decisions. We quit looking for the pearl long ago. Now we're satisfied with oyster stew.

Both Tom and Richard retired from the military — Tom from the Navy; Richard from the Corps. Neither seemed to hold it against me that I had become a journalist. Or perhaps they were merely being polite.

Like me, both are married with grown children. And, like me, they seemed to have a Charles Dickens view of the period we spent together. Indeed, it was both the best of times, the worst of times.

A resident of Aloha, Tom and his wife are temporarily living in Medford while helping a daughter settle into Eagle Point. He looks fit and content.

As products of rural Southwest Oregon, he and I survived lean childhoods in a microcosm of small-town America. He fondly refers to it now as that "curious little valley."

One of five children whose father died when he was young, he hailed from Selma. I was also one of five siblings whose father died when we were young. I grew up — actually, I'm still working on that — in the mighty metropolis of Kerby.

Tom retired as an E-8 in the Navy after serving 25 years as a cryptographer. Those are the brainy folks who work with military secrets, that shadowy world few people ever see. I would have asked him about his work but figured he would have to kill me if he told me any secrets.

Even among old friends, some things are best left unsaid.

But we shared stories of our youth, of long summer days spent swimming in the Illinois River and parties whose discovery by a parent would have caused him or her to turn gray overnight.

He recalls returning to school his senior year with hair hanging over his ears. School officials were aghast. Heaven forbid! Yet only a few months later they relaxed the long hair ban.

Bob Dylan was right. The times, they were a-changin', even in our remote corner of the world.

We talked about people alive, as well as those no longer with us — Doc, Robert, Tim, Jon, Mike, Dan and Donney. Sadly, they were the victims of life's unexpected twists and turns.

Richard, now 60 and living in Eugene, no longer seems like the "old man" I knew back in the Fourth Marine Division. Now he looks about my age. Like I said, funny how that works.

The former recon instructor and Vietnam War veteran who retired as a master sergeant still looks tough enough to chew nails. Yet his keen sense of humor kept me in stitches.

Thanks for sharing some great memories of the people I've been fortunate to meet along the way, guys.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or at pfattig@mailtribune.com

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