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Losing Another Friend

I learned last night that my old friend Alan Matthews died unexpectedly yesterday. While we have not been close for many years, it is a great and sad loss to me. He is the third of four brothers to die too young, and I am deeply shaken by the news. My heart goes out to his dear wife Cecilia.

I’m trying hard to remember when I first knew Alan. I think it may have been in Sunday school when we were very young. At any rate, we ended up Freshmen together at Indian Springs School in 1964 and we were very close friends from then until the mid seventies when different life choices led us apart. 

We spent a lot of time together during the summer of 1966. While I had a job part of that summer, there were weekends and other periods when neither of us had much to do. I would sleep late and then drive over to Alan’s, wander up to his third-floor room, and wake him up, sometime around noon. He would struggle up and get dressed while I sat downstairs visiting with his mother and whichever brothers happened to be around, and then we would head to Ollie’s Barbecue for lunch. We wandered around aimlessly most of those afternoons, trying to hang out where everyone else was so that we didn’t miss anything.

Alan and I were as different as night and day. I was always fired up about something while Alan was always level, no apparent highs or lows. Somehow, we got along great, but I think that was because Alan was pretty easy to get along with.

He had a mischevious streak in him at Indian Springs, while I was close to being delinquent. We snuck off campus together to get into all kinds of trouble. We “borrowed” a TV set from the school library for an entire school year and installed it in a friend’s room where we would gather late at night to drink bourbon and watch the late show. And I think it’s safe to break our vow of secrecy and admit now that he’s the one who drained the entire lake, not thinking in advance of the massive fish kill that would result.

My most amazing experience with Alan was during the summer of 1975, my last free summer before finishing law school, marrying, and going to work. I called Alan that spring and told him I had leased a motor home for the summer and wanted to head out cross country. I asked him to come along and he agreed. So in June of 1975, I pulled my big SportsCoach into his yard. Alan spent two hours transferring the casette deck from his car into the motor home and then he and I and my dog Auburn headed out to see the world.

We drove north to Chicago, saw some friends there, and then spent a couple of nights with his brother Larry in Rockford, Illinois. From there, we headed west to North Platte, Nebraska where we visited my friend Rusty Wallace (Smooth) and his then wife Tish Oden at their farmhouse. From there, it was on west, down into the American Rockies and then up into Canada, where we found a couple of hitchiking girls who travelled with us for several days. We visited Banff and the other Canadian parks and and eventually ended up at the Calgary Stampede, a huge celebration we just happened into. We took the motor home to the opening of the movie “Jaws” at a drive-in theater so far north that it was too bright out to see the dark opening scenes at 10 pm.

We had a rule that we would never pay for a campground for the motor home, so we spent nights in truck stops, church parking lots, and sometimes in incredibly beautiful wilderness locations on someone’s private property or in a National Forest. Somewhere along that trip in the west, Alan took the most magnificent photographs I have ever seen of an incredible lightening storm in the western sky. I hope someone still has those prints, but I haven’t seen them for years. They were long exposures capturing multiple lightening strikes over one or two minutes. Truly magnificent.

We wandered on to the west coast and worked our way slowly all the way from Canada down to San Diego to visit my sister. And from there, we drove in shifts and brought the motor home all the way back to Alabama, stopping only to buy gas as needed. Whoever wasn’t driving was in a bunk with the TV on or sleeping as we moved across the country. I remember once cooking a steak in the motor home as Alan drove, and we stopped in a rest area to enjoy our dinner. Alan drank beer as he was going off duty, while I drank coffee getting ready for six or eight hours of all-night driving. It seems as though we made it from San Diego to Birmingham in roughly 48 hours of non-stop driving, but I really don’t remember the details. In all, we were gone for about eight weeks and covered about 12,000 miles.

So here’s the thing about Alan Matthews. He wasn’t just soft-spoken, he was usually unspoken. He could spend a whole day riding with you across beautiful country in a motor home and never say a word. I could engage him in conversation, but if I didn’t, it was quiet. At some point, I might say, “This looks like and interesting place. Would you like to stop for lunch?” And he would nod his head and say “Ok”. Every once in awhile he would change the music on his tape player. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know he was there at all. The only time I could really count on him to speak up was if I was driving and came to a stop sign. Then he would always check from his side and chime in “Clear Right”, to let me know it was safe to proceed. As a result of his quiet demeanor he was, in fact, the perfect travelling companion.

Alan was our handyman on that motorhome trip, and you could actually watch him think when he was making some system work right or repairing something in our vehicle. He would frown seriously at whatever needed repairing, as if it were a person misbehaving, until he had an idea, then he would get an “ah-ha” look and raise his right index finger as if to say “I’ve got it.” And off he would go in search of a tool or something. There was a little bit of the mad scientist about him.

Alan always moved around somewhat awkwardly and not at high speed. When we were walking out onto a glacier together in Canada, I told him it was like a treadmill and he might not move at all because the glacier moved faster than he could walk. He was a good cook. He read newspapers and maps and guidebooks in great detail wherever we went, and was a master of obscure facts as a result. He was an outstanding navigator.

Things changed after that great trip. I finished law school the next spring and got married. I went to work in the summer of 1976 and had my first child the next year. There wasn’t much time to hang out with Alan, or anyone else, but I regret that I didn’t make more time for such things. Life and work and children began to take over, and I let go of many important parts of my life. Alan used to show up at our house at night in the late seventies and early eighties, bringing his own six-pack and sitting down in the living room for the evening. But I was always busy bathing kids or working late or something, and gradually he stopped showing up. 

I called Alan sometime in the nineties when I had a boat I was taking to the Bahamas. I asked him to join me for any part of the trip he would like, but he said it was fall and he had Alabama season tickets and he didn’t think he could make it. We hadn’t hung out together in 20 years, but I know he would have been the perfect first mate. I wish it had happened, but that’s the way life goes. We fill it up with our activities and then it is gone before we know it. 

So the only lesson I can draw from all of this is the time-worn adage that life is indeed short, and that we need to reconnect with those people who have been important in our lives. We need to call them up and see how they’re doing and meet up for a drink or lunch or dinner. It’s all going by pretty fast now, so let’s do it while we have the opportunity.

Here’s to my good friend Alan Matthews. We’ll miss you buddy, and thanks for being a part of our lives.

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Reader Comments (7)

Beautifully said

November 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Damsky

John, you have portrayed the Thooze that I knew to a tee. In the time that we spent together, he never once mentioned the RV trip, though I'm sure it was impressionable to him. That's just Thooze, and somehow it made him all the more endearing.

November 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJerry Shadix

Thank you for that... Alan was so quietly Good.
I love knowing he ended up sharing his life with his beloved Cecilia.
They were so great together!

November 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKit koehnemann samford

Just plan wonderful.I had some great times with warren and alan at jax state hangin in the trailer they shared.That's when I got to know alan better.Over the years I have noticed,which I am proud to say,some of alans mannerisms and traits had rub off on Carson.Carson is lucky guy to have had 2 fathers that love him very much.

November 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereddie robinson

You have encapsulated a wonderful person for us- Alan was unique and will be remembered forever by all.

November 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStuart Royal

My friend.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJackie Gordon

Thank you for the posting. It means a lot to the family. You captured Alan perfectly.

November 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShelley Matthews

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