I came across something yesterday on my Facebook feed that stopped me in my literal tracks. FB now shows us posts from the past, something I actually agree with in the very temporal sound byte social media world...it was a song an old friend had shared to my page back in late 2011. A Chris Whitley tune called the Cool Wooden Crosses. I listened to it again and felt tears coming and a lump gathering in my throat.
My friend Kregg and I go way back. From the last few years of Grade School and Junior High. It wasn't till actually in high school that we really began to hang out, part of the same small group of friends from those days whom I will always keep close to my heart. My best friend, Kevin, had killed himself at age 15, and for a year or longer I actually felt quite mad and dis attached. Nothing made sense anymore, nothing seemed important. I still battle with that from time to time, and having a small group of friends whom accepted me was literally life saving. And at age 16 highly important. I began to laugh and smile again. Kregg and I were never the best of mates, but we always had a mutual sort of understanding. A connection through pain. When Kregg was only 7-8 years old he saw his mother pick up a .22 rifle and shoot his drunken father 7 times and killing him. He was eating a bowl of cereal with his brother, it happened right in front of him and he saw he whole thing. His father had been abusing her, and them for years. She became, to my knowledge, the very first woman to begin the battered wife syndrome. She still served time in prison and the boys went to live with their grandparents. Kregg rarely ever even mentioned it, but a few times we shared quiet moments over seeing and being part of such darkness. We would talk and then suddenly he would just stop. I knew at times Kregg struggled much as I did. That was our bond.
After high school we went our separate ways, seeing each other during the summers and college holidays but more and more drifting into our own lives, our own paths. His keeping him close to our hometown, mine carrying me to far off places. Still when I returned home our little group always managed to catch up, have a few laughs and recall those moments way back when that even then grew a bit hazy. Except the ones based around pain. Those don't fade so easy. We spent a fair a bit of time at a cabin he owned with another good friend. He was an excellent hunter and fisherman. Very patient and very skilled. Those walks in the woods with him and our other mates were stirring something deep inside me. A view and a feeling of the woods, lakes, streams that ran deeper than just mere appreciation.
Eventually those occasional meetings dried up. I moved to New Zealand, got married, had kids, got grown up. Kregg too got married, though never had kids as he never wanted to and never did. I had heard he had a business that was flourishing, a big house, and by all accounts was doing very well. I saw him on a few visits back home but probably had been 10 years or so since we had last seen one another when out of the blue I got a Friend Request from him on FB. We began to exchange a lot of views, mostly in agreement, sometimes not. Mostly I was struck by how his taste in music was so similar to my own. So when he sent me that tune I, at the time, gave it a precursory listen and forgot about it really. Till it popped back on my feed a few days ago.
Back in the summer of 2012 we went back to the states for a visit. We arranged an evening celebration at one of our old gang's place. Everyone showed up and it was a wonderful time. The passing of the last 30 years pretty obvious, and the hugs and laughter seemed very genuine.
Less than a month later back in New Zealand I got a phone call one afternoon from the friend whom had hosted that gathering. He told me to sit down. He proceeded to tell me that Kregg had driven from his house, checked into a hotel, and had proceeded to kill himself. In his note he wanted no obituary, no funeral, and no grave. He was to be cremated and his ashes scattered as if he had never existed. I just sat there staring at the wall in front of me. Kregg was dead.
So to see his name pop up was a bit startling. To listen to that tune for the first time. To Listen To It! Hit me like a brick. I understood why he had known I would get it. The haunting, bare, and uncompromising sound of it was something we shared. Not just in music. It was like opening a gift from him. That hot summer night in Wisconsin I never really sat alone with Kregg and asked him what was really happening in his life. I didn't take his face in my hands and look him in the eye and ask him that. I don't write that from guilt. I know what lurked deep in there, and still does within me, wasn't going to come out in him just because I asked. Only the mirror tells us the real truth. My friend Kregg is dead. But he can't erase his presence here. He can't because he sent me a song....
From bitter to empty
Go the bridges through town
From valley to valley
Before she burns them down
Before she burns them down
Well they gather by the river
Many miles above the ground
In a tower of mirrors
Before she burns them down
Hear the peals of opinions
Weigh your words to waste no sound
Cool wooden crosses on the mountain
Before she burns them down......words by Chris Whitley
That hot summer night July 2012...Kregg is in the back with the red shirt. Keep the fire lit e hoa