August 30, 2009
I don’t quite remember how I met the best friend I ever had, Matt Vail. I think I just met him in school, like I met most of my friends through the years. I’ve known other friends longer, but none of them impacted my life quite like Matt Vail.
The closest I can assess, we became good pals in the 7th grade. We weren’t exactly “popular kids,” though I remember desiring to be one. Matt just enjoyed being Matt… and my friend. We engaged in the same things most nerdy kids partook of in the very early ‘80s: movies, video games, Dungeons & Dragons, Legos, playing with action figures, DEVO, and generally just messing around outside.
We had this thing at school where we would sneak up behind each other and sock each other’s shoulder as hard as we could with our fists. Sometimes that’s how kids express their affection for each other.
In the 8th grade, we had a rather passive teacher with a good sense of humor, Mrs. Cole. Matt and I took turns rolling her out of the classroom and into the hallway in her chair on various days when we were feeling particularly snotty. She would laugh and protest the whole time and our classmates would roar with glee. It ended one day when she fell off, broke the heel off her shoe and twisted her ankle. Surprisingly, we never got in trouble.
In High School, at the end of our Sophomore year, I told him that we could remain friends, but that I didn’t want him hanging around me at school because I wanted to try and get in with the popular crowd. It remains the single-most worst thing I have ever said to a person in my entire life and it crushes me to this day. As it turned out, he moved to Idaho shortly thereafter and I ended up missing him terribly.
We wrote back and forth occasionally, but I didn’t see him again until I moved in with my wife into our first apartment. He was in town because he joined the Navy. They were at the port of San Francisco getting ready to embark to the Persian Gulf to fight the first Gulf War. The visit lasted only a couple of days, but I was ecstatic and we got along famously.
Matt contacted me by letter one day. Their ship hit a mine in the Persian Gulf. Everyone was okay, but they were heading back to base and he would be coming to California to see me soon. He gave me the date of his arrival.
The date came and he didn’t show up.
I called his mom. She told me that he had been hit by a jeep on base while walking out of the canteen. He had sustained severe head injuries and was being held at the VA Hospital in Spokane. I booked a flight out that evening.
The Matt I saw was a horrific parody of the Matt I knew. The muscles in his arms and legs had seized up, so even though he was lying on his back he was still half curled up. He smiled incessantly, the expression of an idiot child permanently etched upon his face. All he could do was moan and drool.
Matt never really recovered. He ended up briefly in a special facility for awhile in Seattle. My wife and I visited him and then saw him off at the airport when his mom came to take him back home. She was surprised at my determination to be a part of his life and encouraged us to visit them in Idaho.
We never did.
I wrote a few letters now and again. Betsy, his mother, replied as to his progress. The last one I received showed him at a fair in a wheelchair. His legs had relaxed enough so he could sit, but one of his arms remained locked and pinned to his chest. He wore that same moronic smile.
Flipping the picture over, I saw his name written in a barely legible child’s scrawl. I never wrote back again. That was about 16 years ago.
To this day I think of him all the time, but I am afraid to correspond or visit. I think about the good times we had and I think about the friendship I took for granted. I think about how good he always was to me and how not so good I was at times to him. And today, when I think of him, I still cry.
There are few words outside of love that I can use to describe how I feel about my best friend Matt. He haunts my soul.