(The Elementary Years)
While growing up in the Valley of the Moon could certainly be described as bucolic and in some ways paradisiacal, it was also a real life. So with the peace also came the tragedy; there was joy but there was also pain. Alongside our moments of discovery and growth, came times of sorrow and loss.
The neighborhoods where we lived, nestled at the base of those glorious golden rolling hills, were like an extended home for us. Dotted all across these neighborhoods lived our friends and their families. As kids, we biked or walked from house to house, entering as if they were our own, and we came to know each other’s parents and siblings almost as well as our own.
I could name so many of the familiar faces on just my own street alone; and even more on the cross streets up the hill, and down the block from where my own house sat; not to mention the myriad more people who comprised our extended network of ‘family’ who lived on surrounding streets further afield. And folks didn’t move so often back then, so when a family settled into a home, they generally stayed there.
As a child, I grew accustomed to who lived where, and I suspected they had always lived there, and I came to expect that they would continue to live there forever. And apart from the occasional family who did in fact move away, my expectations were mostly satisfied, and I lived and grew up contentedly within this matrix of consistency and dependability.
But as we all know, nothing stays the same forever; and unfortunately, our extended neighborhood family was about to lose a vital and irreplaceable member.
It had been a warm day which was just drawing to a close, and twilight had begun to settle, as crickets chirped their signal that night was replacing the day. I had just gone to bed and was enjoying the soothing sound of the fan which I had in my room for use on warm evenings; and I snuggled down into my sheets, as the fan blew cool air across me.
I was in fifth, maybe sixth grade at the time; I think it was summer, so perhaps I was between the grades. It was a typical evening, apart from the sirens that we had heard earlier just down the street, and coming up Calistoga Road from the north and from the south. But even sirens weren’t all that unusual, so we didn’t think much about them. But it was strange when I heard a knock on the front-door downstairs at about 8:40 that evening, after I had just gone to bed. And I heard my mom answer the door, and I recognized male voices, but couldn’t discern who it was speaking at our door.
They spoke in hushed tones, and I couldn’t make out anything that was being said until their short visit came to a close; and as they left, they said more loudly, “We just thought you should know.” I recognized their voices now: it was Mr. Hedges and Mr. Zellmer from up the street. They were both family friends. But why would they come to tell us ‘something we should know’? What should we know that couldn’t wait, I wondered? So I got up from bed and went downstairs to find out what this strange visit was all about.
My mom was visibly rattled and emotional as I came down the stairs, which made my heart race uncomfortably. She looked sorrowfully at me and said, “Sam died…he was hit on his motorcycle.”
Sam Ray?! It didn’t seem possible. No, it couldn’t be possible. We hoped it hadn’t happened, but it had.
Sam was the third child of four, in the Ray family, our good friends who lived in the yellow stucco house, in the cul-de-sac just down the street. He was about nineteen years old, tall, good-looking, athletic, and good-natured. For kids my age, he was just about the greatest guy you could imagine. He was exactly the kind of person you’d want to be when you grew up; because everyone liked him, and he made a real difference when he was around.
He often played Frisbee-golf, with Greg Zellmer, and I remember when my friends and I would see them coming up the street, tossing their Frisbees at street-lights, car tires and whatever else they deemed the next ‘hole’, we all grew excited in anticipation of their arrival. It was like a celebrity sighting for us. They were cool, and they could throw those Frisbees so dang far. They were awesome!
But what was even better was Sam would actually play with us. He was already out of high-school, but he still gave us little kids his time; and he kicked a ball around with us, or he tossed the football, or whatever we wanted to do. One afternoon my good friend Scott Eitelgeorge and I had been playing badminton in my backyard and Sam stopped by. We challenged him to a game, and he played several games with us. As he left, we challenged him to a rematch, and he showed up again the next week and played with us again. That meant so much, he was just like a big brother to us.
Sam wasn’t just good with kids; I know everyone’s parents also liked him. He had a great sense of humor and loved to tease people. When he’d knock on your front door, you’d go to open the door and couldn’t, because Sam would be on the outside chuckling and holding the doorknob, and pulling outward against your efforts. He was the only person I ever knew who did that, and it became a trademark of his. Everyone knew that if someone came knocking, and if you couldn’t open the door, then it must be Sam on the other side, laughing and grinning.
What would our neighborhood be without him? It was difficult to imagine playing football on the street now, knowing we’d never see him tossing the Frisbee, or making his way up the street towards us again. And no more badminton rematches, and nobody to hold the door when we answered it. And so many other things too, that his absence would leave as holes in our hearts.
I saw him one last time at the funeral home. It was an open casket, and as I entered his room I saw him laying peacefully. It was a confusing moment because he didn’t look like Sam, but I knew it was him. I searched his face for some detail I could relate with; and there were familiar features, though they were transformed now. His sandy-blond hair was as I had known it, and I was glad for that. But the most comforting detail, for me, were his fingernails, as odd as that may sound. He was a good mechanic, often working on his motorbike and other things like that, so when I noticed some grease still under a nail or two, that is when I felt I was still seeing the Sam I had known. It made me happy to see that grease, though I was heartbroken; and it was reassuring in a small way.
Months later, or perhaps it was a year, his mother let me into his bedroom to pick out a baseball hat. I picked out a red and white one and was glad to have something of his. I remember the inside band of the hat was stained with Sam’s sweat, and it struck me that this was really a part of him. Again, this may seem strange, but it was important to have a memento like that; it allowed me to feel closer to him, now that he was gone.
Often, as the years passed by, I wondered where Sam was exactly, and wondered if he could see me from heaven, or what he was thinking. I treated him like a guardian angel, communicating with him in my thoughts, though not spoken out loud. The thought that Sam might be watching me also made me consider, and reconsider, my actions when nobody was looking. So I’d have to say that Sam helped me to be a better person, even years after his passing.