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I’ve been putting off writing this. And listen: I’m a writer. Writing is what I do for a living; I also write because I’m driven to do so. I cannot not write.
I’ve written 3 books, some TV shows, more film scripts than I can count (around 20); more magazine pieces than I can count.
While working for a national magazine I solved a double murder and almost got myself killed in the process.
My last book – a memoir – almost killed me to write too. Three times.
Based on the last screenplay I wrote, Sean Penn, a producer on the project, wished me death.
But my point being: Writing about a childhood friend should be easy, a piece of goddamn cake compared to all this.
Yet I think I’ve put off writing this because it’s too scary. The blank page of this was more frightening than when I was writing about true-life murders and all the times I nearly got killed. So I’ve put it off.
See, Donnie wasn’t just a childhood friend. He was my best friend. Maybe he was the best friend I’ve ever had and will ever have. Later in life now, I realize how important real friendship is.
Allan Weisbecker is my name. From about the age of three I lived up on Harrison Avenue, at 315, shouting distance from Donnie’s house down on Hyatt. We’d shout out our back doors to each other. This sort of thing:
“Wanna hack around?”
Then we’d hack around. That was the expression back then. Hack around. Meant go out in the world and have kid-adventures. Donnie and I hacked around a lot.
Years later, in 1966, when we were seniors at Harrison High, Donnie and I read a book called On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. About some guys – you know, the Beat Generation from the 1950s – driving around the country having adventures. We were going to do that, just the two of us. Go on the road and have adventures. Hack around.
We didn’t do it, though. Donnie joined the Marine Corps and I went surfing.
When Donnie joined the Marines in 1967 I was living in Miami, going to the U of Miami, and was just about to make my move to Hawaii. Another high school chum, Pete Altmann, and I drove from Miami to San Diego, where Donnie was stationed, to see him before he shipped out to Nam. We got a “drive-away” car to make the trip; one of those deals wherein you drive someone’s car to where they want it and they pay for gas and expenses.
We got a souped up Fort Mustang -- this was heaven for a couple of 19 year old guys. We made it from Miami to San Diego in 49 hours, which means we averaged about 100 mph on our pilgrimage to see our buddy. We’d only stop to gas up and take a leak and grab some take-out food. Smoky and the Bandit had nothing on us.
We showed up out of the blue at Donnie’s Marine barracks at Fort Pendleton, surprised him. Donnie’s Marine buddies were blown away that we’d driven from Miami to see him, and had done it in 49 hours. We scored major points with these young soldiers who were going off to war, and Donnie scored points too -- that he had buddies who would go to all that trouble to come see him off.
The drive-away car deal gave you 7 days to get to California from Miami so we had the car for 5 days before we had to turn it in.
We grabbed Donnie out of his barracks and took him to Tijuana in our drive-away car. (Trust me on something: that car was never the same.)
So we did our little On the Road trip after all, an abbreviated version.
We hacked around.
The trip to Mexico would be the last time I’d see Donnie. He went to Vietnam soon thereafter and was killed there.
In 1969 I was living in Hawaii, right on the beach on the North Shore of Oahu, very near the famous surf break called Bonzai Pipeline.
One day near the end of May I came home from surfing to find a telegram in my mailbox. It was from my mom. It read, simply, “Donnie killed Vietnam.”
I use quotes because those are exact words, all the telegram said; Mom’s message was burned into my memory.
Mom’s message was so short because there was nothing else to say in an impersonal medium like a telegram. Mom and Donnie were tight. He was like family; it was as if I had a brother and he had died. It was exactly like that.
I don’t remember much else about that day, except that I had a date that night. I went on the date, didn’t cancel it. I’ve been ashamed of this ever since. I’ve never told anyone about this before, my date, and how I didn’t cancel it. I’m sorry if this is something you don’t want to hear, but it’s a relief for me to spill it.
Donnie and I kept in close touch while he was in Nam. He’d write about the war he was fighting; I’d write about my life in surf paradise. Although Donnie had only surfed a few times – we made a few Gilgo Beach runs together – he was planning on coming to Hawaii when he got discharged to learn about surfing, about The Life.
A few days after I got the telegram from Mom informing me of his death, I got a letter from Donnie. For all I know it was written on the day he was killed and a buddy or a medic found it on his body and mailed it for him.
I hadn’t cried when I got the telegram but I did upon getting the letter.
Maybe I cried because – strange as this sounds – seeing the letter I now realized that Donnie really was dead; that I’d never see him again.
I remember that Donnie wrote about combat, what it was like, and how he was a radio man and how that was dangerous because Charlie would try to kill a radio man first in an ambush so he couldn’t call for air support. He also wrote about coming to Hawaii to surf with me.
Maybe this is what made me cry; how we humans will make plans to come visit our buddy in Hawaii and then we’re killed in war.
Or maybe I cried because of the date I went on, out of guilt. Because I realized I’m not the person I want to be.
There’s a quote on the Home Page of this memorial website:
“No one is ever gone as long as someone still has memories of them.”
I believe that this is true. In fact, maybe this is partially why I write. So when I’m gone people will think about me and keep me around a little longer. Here’s a little quote from my latest book, a memoir:
I sat at my desk for a while, looking out at the Sweet Gulf and thinking. Just to my right as I sat there were two photographs on the wall above the trunk Lisa broke into, the one of my father in his thirties looking like a god, the other of Mom at about age 20. I may or may not have looked at Mom’s photograph that day as I sat there, but I thought of her, I’m quite sure. I always think of Mom when I need help or advice or sometimes just in problem-solving. Now that I’m alone I have no reason not to talk to her aloud, even if only to say, “Please help, Mom,” or “I know you’re there, Mom.” I don’t mean there literally, like she’s watching from heaven or some such, but there because I’m thinking of her. When someone who has passed away is in a living person’s thoughts, that person lives too, in a sense. Even now, because you’re reading about Mom and therefore thinking about her, she is a little bit alive. Not as alive as when I’m talking to her, certainly. It’s a spectrum kind of thing that I don’t fully understand. (If you will, look at the photograph of Mom at the end of this book; it’s the one from my wall. Please do this now, just for a moment… Mom is beautiful, isn’t she?)
So yes, I believe that what I’m doing now, writing about Donnie, and what you’re doing now, reading about him and therefore thinking about him, is keeping him around a little longer. And I believe that this is a good thing, because Donnie was a decent person, a kind and honest one, a good friend, my best friend, and deserves to be kept around as long as possible.
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