Before leaving Jersey City that sultry August morning, we had to go buy these short-brimmed khaki hats that someone had seen in the window of an Army-Navy store up on Central Avenue. After all, they looked like the cap worn by Jack Kerouac on one of his book covers. And this was going to be our Kerouacian adventure: north to Vermont, living like drifters, camping under starry heavens, burning up the last of summer before starting our freshman year of college.
Forty-eight years ago, we hadn’t so much planned the junket, as decided on it. Charlie got his mother’s Buick Special; Peter, Pat, and I squeezed in with our sleeping bags and other gear.
And it would be great! Going wherever we wanted, just as Kerouac chronicled his own wanderings in On the Road and other beat writings that hooked our middle-class souls. I loved the raw energy coursing through those books – the sense of busting loose and moving, in quest of distant sights and wild characters. When Kerouac’s alter-ego, Sal Paradise, rolls into L.A. and comes across ‘the beatest characters in the country,” he says immediately, “I wanted to meet them all, talk to everybody.”
So did I. Sure, they were just books but their rhythm at our wide-eyed age in 1971 set us on our journey even before it began. Peter, Pat, and I had gone to grammar school together and high school, where we met Charlie in freshman year. Pat and I were also friends from the same neighborhood; he lived around the block from me on Virginia Avenue, a minute’s walk from my door.
In fall and winter, under the darkening sky of late afternoon, Pat and I played touch football, sewer plate to sewer plate, in the street outside his house. We’d stop every few minutes to let homebound neighbors drive through.
In fifth and sixth grades, we stood side by side in black cassocks and white surplices a hundred times or more to serve funeral masses at Our Lady of Victories Church, up the hill from our parish school.
After graduation from OLV, we boarded the red Montgomery Street bus heading downtown to St. Peter’s Prep, a Jesuit high school located but a few blocks from the Hudson River – that is, opposite the lower Manhattan skyline and the rising towers of the World Trade Center, then under construction. Now, in a couple of weeks, Pat and I would take that same red bus to St. Peter’s College, a commuter school also run by the Jesuits.
But first we were hitting the road with Peter and Charlie, blowing the hot city, going to the country, looking to dig one another’s company and drink deep of nature and adventure. It would be the Last Big Fling before college:
The Big Camping Trip!
Which ended badly.
When we pulled up to Pat’s house, he walked over with his stuff and said: “My mother wants to know if we’ll take some pear nectar she found in a closet.”
“Pear nectar?” the three of us said as one. We were still howling as we threw the cans into the trunk with everything else.
Pat grinned. He was the quietest among us, but he had this thing with language and how it sounded – an amusing knack for shortening words into a primitive patois. In sizing up the culinary junk available at Journal Square after a dance or basketball game, he’d head to Boulevard Drinks for “dog meat” (hot dogs) and “napple” (pineapple drink) or to 3 Guys from Italy for “za” (pizza). Jethro Tull, his all-time favorite band, was simply Tull and the rocking Mott the Hoople, Mott. He also minted the classic “herb holder” for athletic supporter. On one summer outing to Belmar on the Jersey shore, Pat announced Friday night he was going to spend the weekend without changing his herb holder (with the same certainty as Cool Hand Luke saying he could eat fifty eggs). And he did it, giving off a proud stink on the ride back to Jersey City Sunday evening.
“In order for an individual to find his balance in nature, he must re-evaluate himself in his own terms, and not in the terms of his society,” Pat wrote in a rambling, personal essay for admission to the St. Peter’s College honors program. “He must then work toward his development without regard for the criticism which he will receive. . . When he finds what he is truly meant for, he will begin to enjoy life to its fullest . . . He will enjoy nature and once again become one with nature as it was meant to be in the beginning.”
Like a Dean Moriarty character, the always restless central figure in On the Road based on Kerouac’s friend, Neal Cassady, Pat was open to anything. When our other friend Charlie couldn’t make the trip, Pat stepped into his place, ready to go.
With our new Kerouac caps in place, Charlie gunned us north. Nearly three hundred highway miles slid by, quickened by our stream-of-consciousness ravings that echoed Kerouac’s road romps. “Somebody passed a bottle of rotgut, the bottom of it, I took a big swig in the wild, lyrical, drizzling air of Nebraska,” Sal Paradise remembers in On the Road of one westbound hitch atop a flat board trailer. One of us would tick off our names rapidly and add something like “bolting north, eying chicks, hunting brew, in hell bound Vermont spreeeeee!”
Our first big stop after hours of driving was the beautiful Dartmouth campus in Hanover, N.H., where Charlie would start school in a few weeks. We searched out his assigned dorm, French Hall, and fixed on the goofy idea that Charlie would be French-kissing his way through freshman year.
Charlie laughed the loudest. He was famous for a booming laugh that rolled over everyone around him, so they couldn’t help but laugh with him. There was no one in those self-conscious teenage years who seemed so blissfully indifferent to his own untucked and tousled appearance, so rubber-limbed on the gym dance floor when the music was loud and the Motown beat strong, and so eagerly sought out in a crowd by girls and guys drawn to his mirth mixed with a joyful madness. We all loved Charlie, whose great sense of fun and manic air belied a sharp intellect.
Dartmouth wouldn’t know what to make of him.
From the campus we went a short distance across the Connecticut River into Vermont, finding an available site in a campground near Quechee Gorge. We grilled our “dog meat,” had a couple of beers (and curious sips of a local rotgut called Old Duke) and bedded down like the pros we thought we were in sleeping bags laid atop mats of cushioning pine needles.
Next morning, we continued west along Route 4 and stopped at the old country store in Taftsville to buy sandwiches for later. Over the red covered bridge to the other side of the Ottauquechee River, we turned left onto a dirt road and stopped along the way to swim in the cool water. Barely twenty-four hours gone from humid Jersey City, we already felt free and refreshed in the scenic Vermont of our expectations.
Our plan was to take our time en route to staking out a second night’s camp site at Allis State Park, reached by heading into Woodstock and then following Route 12 north. The road twisted and rose and sloped down again over thirty-five miles through a few sleepy villages but mostly farms, set against the haunting beauty of the Green Mountains. As we neared the park, a big, inviting pond emerged around a turn in the late afternoon but the camp sites were all booked for the night.
We four city boys shrugged and crossed the road to enjoy Baker Pond, the water stretching out beneath the mountains under a warm sun. We had it all to ourselves, too. Charlie, Pat, and Peter followed the shoreline out of my view with plans to go swimming again. I had done enough swimming for one day and stayed at the car, with Kerouac’s Desolation Angels on my lap and the whole scene so silent and peaceful that I dozed off a few minutes.
By the time I woke, it was after five. I honked to signal the others. Hungry now, I could count on Peter to have an even bigger appetite — one that I often kidded him about.
At six-foot-four or so, he was taller and more muscular than the rest of us, a star on our high school basketball team who also possessed good looks, supreme self-confidence and easygoing charm. I had been president of the student body in our senior year just ended, but Peter was the more natural politician, a born mingler and talker. He was also a persuasive guy you followed automatically (“Let’s go up to the Square”), unless you were smart enough to realize he was leading you to a movie you didn’t want to see or a stop for food when you weren’t hungry.
A few minutes later, I spotted Peter on his way back. But no one was following him now. For some reason, instead of retracing their route around the water’s edge he was wading through the water toward me from the facing shore of a green peninsula that jutted into the pond about fifty yards from the car. I returned to Kerouac. But gazing back an instant later, I saw Peter slump forward with each sloshing step. He moved with difficulty, as if in pain — strange behavior for a robust athlete who’d plunged into the bracing Ottauquechee River a few hours earlier. His labored manner shook me fully awake and instilled a sense of dread.
I got out of the car and went toward him. But I couldn’t make out what he was trying to say — finally, something like, “Pat’s hurt.”
It was enough for me to avoid stepping into the water. I thought it would slow me down.
I ran around the shoreline toward where the three of them had gone earlier, turned left onto the peninsula and bent to thread my way through brush and low branches. I called out to Charlie, with no idea where he was. He yelled back, from a distance.
“Charlie! ” Again, he responded, closer now. At the end of the peninsula, I looked down to find him crouching in water up to his waist. He was holding up Pat, limp in his arms, to keep him from submerging. What the hell had happened? Worse still, in a maddening twist of terrain, a sheer bluff dropped four long feet to the water where Charlie was struggling. I could see he’d been trying to lift Pat up this insurmountable height and getting nowhere, was stuck in the pond with precious time ticking by. Charlie didn’t know Pat as well as Peter and I did, but Charlie was now entwined with Pat’s terrible fate.
I jumped in opposite him and could feel that the bottom was squishy, almost slippery, beneath us — the worst possible footing as we strained to raise Pat up the four feet and lay him flat on the ground. “One two three lift! One two three again!” Finally, we got Pat up and out of the water.
Neither of us knew much about first aid, but we went at it anyway. We breathed into Pat’s mouth while pinching his nose closed. We depressed his chest. Desperate, we pounded his chest with the soft side of a fist — once or twice at a time — in hopes of jolting him back. But if there was a sign, any at all, of Pat’s body stirring or twitching in response to our pleading labor, neither of us saw it in our panic. All our friend gave back was a thick, pinkish gel from his nose and mouth.
I was too absorbed in the effort, and too stupid at seventeen, to draw any clue from this ugly substance, but I would retrieve it from memory years later and understand what it was telling us. Now, as the effort to revive Pat seemed to grow more pointless by the minute, I took off my gray T-shirt and used it to wipe the gel and grime from his utterly still face.
He was dead. We both knew it. I can remember taking slow, disbelieving stock of the scene: Pat’s thick-chested body laid out below us in a forest at the water’s edge. In the heat of early evening, Charlie and I were lathered in sweat.
It was a scene from a violent movie, only we were in it. And I still didn’t know how we had reached this part of the plot. Charlie began to explain. He recounted in a mournful, can’t-believe-it tone how the three of them had gone into the pond from the opposite shore and started swimming the fifty or sixty yards to where we were now. About halfway across, Pat started flailing and calling for help. But Charlie, who had made it to land, and Peter, a stretch behind him, both thought he was kidding. For it was that kind of trip, full of stupid laughs. So, when Pat was freaking in mid-water, the two others laughed some more and translated the scene aloud as something along the lines of “St. Peter’s Prepster in Vermont Swimming Spree.”
Pat had sunk from view before the two of them realized he wasn’t fooling this time. Peter dove, searched, came up in need of breath, unable to get him. Charlie found him in a sitting position at the bottom, about twelve feet down. He grabbed his shoulder, brought him up, and sidestroked over to this spot. When Pat’s face flopped into the water during the swim, Charlie feared the worst.
Our anxious, heavy breathing subsided. Then there was silence — a silence that was no longer peaceful, but powerful and disturbing. I can remember thinking, where are we and now what the hell do we do?
A phone. We obviously needed a phone.
I left Charlie and stumbled my way back through the growth to the car, where Peter looked ashen and ill. I grabbed a clean shirt — can’t imagine why to this day— and made it a few hundred yards down the same road we had come in on to a farmhouse.
Sheets and other wash swayed on the clothesline. Yellow flowers lined the walkway to the door. An old woman answered my knock. “There’s been an accident over at the pond Could I use your phone?”
Saying nothing, she pointed to another room and stood watching me. I dialed “O.” I barely knew where we were — except in the middle of nowhere — but somehow the operator, or dispatcher, figured out our location and told me to return to the scene. I thanked the still silent woman and left.
Charlie had been alone with Pat and tried to resuscitate him again in the fifteen minutes I was away. It seemed at least another fifteen minutes before anyone else showed up.
Officer Donald Blais of the Vermont State Police was notified of a drowning at Baker Pond ”at approximately 1832 hours” and reached the scene at 1855, according to his report. The Orange County Medical Examiner, Dr. Dorothy Parks, of nearby Northfield, pronounced Pat dead and State’s Attorney Philip A. Angell, Jr. “gave permission to remove the victim from the scene,” the report added.
Blais did not mention in his account a final, gut-twisting moment etched in my memory: when a woman, possibly Dr. Parks, or someone from the ambulance squad, produced what looked like a foot-long needle and sank it deep into Pat’s chest, possibly one last attempt to jump-start his heart with a shot of adrenaline.
At some point, I walked back to the old woman’s house and phoned my brother Joe, then working as a night sports reporter at The Jersey Journal in Jersey City. He started the chain by notifying the other Charlie, whom Pat had replaced on the trip. After another call home, my father faced the grim task of going around the corner to Pat’s family, only to learn his parents and three sisters were away on vacation in Hershey, Pa. They would get the bad news later in the evening when Pat’s father happened to phone a neighbor who was looking after their dog
I left the old woman ten bucks to pay for all the long-distance calls and started to leave. Finally, she spoke: “I’m sorry about your friend.”
At Baker Pond, the cops told us to follow them to their station. They led us up and down hills for several miles like a roller coaster.
Pat was eighteen. I was seventeen, but older than Peter and Charlie by two months, so they questioned me first, and alone, about whether this had been a drinking or drug binge gone bad. Not only was this untrue — we had those few beers and mouthfuls of Old Duke nearly twenty-fours earlier — but I resented the suspicion and said so.
“We were having a good time camping,” I told him. “No one was drunk. No drugs were involved.”
Charlie said that “victim never came around at any time,” Blais wrote. “This Officer interviewed the witnesses and also obtained the information necessary for a report. Case closed.”
Pat’s death was not reported in the next day’s edition of The Times-Argus, based in nearby Barre, or in the two local weeklies, The Randolph Herald and The Northfield News. It was as if it hadn’t happened. But in our tight network of friends and neighbors back in Jersey City, the news relayed by phone from a farmhouse on Route 12 in Brookfield, Vt., was passed along and upended summer routines even before we left for home. At Journal Square, Charlie gathered with other friends he called after hearing from my brother. On Virginia Avenue, neighbors huddled up and down the street as they waited past dark for Pat’s family to return home.
Peter insisted there was only one way we’d get through our long ride back. “Let’s not talk about it,” he said- “Let’s talk about anything else, even stupid stuff, or the drive will be awful, maybe even dangerous.” It was a wise suggestion. Amazingly, for long stretches in those first few hours, we did not talk about Pat’s death. We even managed to laugh a few times before the dark night of Vermont, Massachusetts, and northern Connecticut was followed by the highway lights of gloomy Bridgeport and the car became mostly silent, except for our wondering aloud whether something else — a heart attack in the cold water, perhaps — had caused Pat to drown.
It must have been 4 a.m. by the time I walked into my house. Almost immediately I started to describe the camping and the good time we were having, but I didn’t get far. I erupted in convulsive, chest-racking sobs that drained hours of pent-up grief. I couldn’t stop crying for the longest time. My older sister came over and held me, weeping too. My father, a temperate man, went to the kitchen and returned with a tumbler of scotch. “Sip that slowly,” he said.
Maybe a half-hour later, there was a knock at the door. Father Swenson, of course. He must have seen our lights on. A priest in the parish whose gruff manner and thunderous voice masked a famously soft heart, he had just completed the long round trip to Hershey, where he picked up Pat’s grieving parents and three sisters and drove them back from their aborted vacation. He sank into an easy chair and wearily draped a hand over his face. To my sniffling sadness he spoke briefly, something about the mysterious ways of God, then dragged himself up and left.
My Kerouacian adventure on the open highway ended in a weepy vigil amid the safety of home and priestly wishes for divine comfort. All was now exhaustion, as the first traces of light outside signaled a new morning. My good friend dead and no one to blame. At the same time, I felt a sudden, powerful need to distance myself from Peter and Charlie, perhaps in hopes of banishing the two most vivid reminders of the crack-up at the end of the road.
First, though, the three of us braced ourselves for a visit to Pat’s parents later in the day. We expected a dose of recrimination and wanted to face it before the grieving shifted to the funeral home. Instead, Pat’s father, an iron worker, was waiting on the front porch, reassuring us loudly and immediately as we climbed the steps, “I’m glad Pat was with you guys, his pals.” It was a great relief to be welcomed in what would be the first of many visits over the next few years — visits when his parents marveled at our memories of a son we probably came to know better than they did. The tales of drinking, speeding along Kennedy Boulevard, and other mischief would have amused them far less if Pat were still alive. But in death, he was a rascal, an explorer, and a beloved character, remembered in the glow of feisty adolescence, unspoiled by the compromises the rest of us would make in the years ahead.
The funeral mass was said at our parish church, where Pat and I had assisted at so many funerals as altar boys. This time, I was a pallbearer, along with Charlie, Peter, and other friends, because of a pallbearers’ strike. After the burial in Holy Cross Cemetery came the distance that I craved. My girlfriend, Cathy, offered rescue from the sadness of Jersey City by bringing me along as she rejoined her family’s vacation at the shore. In Cathy’s welcome company, the wide beach, the swoops of seagulls, and the splintery boardwalk of tilt-a-whirl and frozen custard helped put even more space between me and that Tuesday in Vermont.
Soon afterwards, Charlie left for Dartmouth and Peter for Boston College. And I, one of eight children with limited financial resources, brooded my way to St. Peter’s College — in tired, old Jersey City — stuck on the ground after feeling the thrill of flight. It would be a harder year for Pat’s absence.
I turned Latin and Greek from high school into a classics major, reading about the struggles of men against the fury of the gods, and spent junior year studying in Italy. I used my Vermont sleeping bag during overnights on Mediterranean beaches and Alpine heights. After such a heady year on my own, senior year was something to get through. So, in the months before graduation, I wrote stories for The New York Times while vying for a staff position in the news business with the many other hopefuls wowed by Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting or Sidney H. Schanberg’s riveting dispatches in 1975 about the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge.
At the same time, an anxious sense of drift gnawed at me. After graduation in 1975, I landed a $120-a-week job as a night newscaster at a small FM station on the Jersey shore and lived a block from the beach in the quiet off-season. But I quit after less than a year and drove cross-country to Los Angeles, then traveled north to Portland and Seattle, before returning east. I detoured into a couple of public relations jobs and made other solo trips to Europe before rounding back again to Jersey City and barroom nights upon nights.
Peter, who returned to Jersey City after college and continued to do his own traveling, had long since abandoned his interest in Kerouac’s tales of the road. He said he thought they were silly, or something like that. My own reading of the books also trailed off, but not the self-destructive Kerouacian behavior. Only recently did I wonder if those many liquid nights with laughing friends were an unconscious attempt to fade scary pictures from my memory.
The deadening routine eventually flared into frightening spurts of anxiety — a panicky aversion to some of the people and haunts that made up my days and nights. A therapist helped me find the way back to calm and to commit to the challenge that appealed to me for so long. Instead of pretending to be a journalist by freelancing for the Times, I finally got into the news business. And what remained of a tired routine was altered forever when Peter’s girlfriend introduced me to Jane. We married in 1982 and had two great kids.
As the thirtieth anniversary of Pat’s death approached in 2001, I had been a New York newspaperman for more than twenty years. I’d gathered thousands of facts, done countless interviews, and gone lots of places. At the New York Daily News, the country’s largest and most famous tabloid, the accent is on daily. You work the phone, you go places, you talk to people, you write quickly, you go home. Deadline, and a keen sense of competition are immutable elements of the day, and a day that ends at 7 p.m. is usually long enough to turn the haziest tip into a clear picture for the next morning’s edition.
But there was one story I put off reporting even though it entered my thoughts more and more often in recent years: the story of Pat’s drowning. I couldn’t quite crack it and was slow to try. The easy cop-out was that the daily newspaper stories got in the way. But the deeper reason for my unwillingness to turn over rocks and sift through memory was that the inquiry would require some hard questions of myself, as well as Peter and Charlie — two friends whose actions that day had become all too comfortably fixed in my mind and, for all I knew, in theirs. My friends seemed entitled, after all these years, to a permanent reprieve from whatever summons my questions might represent. It was easier not to ask.
But the questions wouldn’t go away. What had really happened? Had Pat suffered a heart attack, as we suspected? And if Pat could swim, why did he drown?
Or sink so fast?
On a more emotional level, did we behave well that day? Or was there something else we could have done — should have done — to prevent the tragedy?
We were only seventeen years old. How did this all-consuming event shape our lives?
I was no longer content to wrestle with these questions alone. Indeed, I, the big-city newspaperman, was no longer sure of anything. For all that I remembered, and all that I slowly discovered, the more I pondered the episode’s mysterious power.
My notebooks from back then and letters exchanged with Peter and Charlie in the months after the drowning make no mention of the tragedy we experienced, suggesting either that real men didn’t dwell on such sadness or we didn’t know how. Going back – at the thirty-year mark since the event – would allow me to reconnect with the power of that time and dust off friendships that were so central to my life.
I started by wielding the phone as the reporter I’d become and following up with written queries. I unearthed Trooper Blais’ two-page account from the Vermont Criminal Information Center in Waterbury and Pat’s death certificate from the archives of the General Services Center in the state capital of Montpelier. The documents were like maps to a buried past. They pointed the way back with their unexpected richness of detail, while leaving larger truths yet to be discovered.
It was fascinating to see the young man who used to be me as a character in a just-concluded drama, listed and described as a “witness” in the police report and typed in as “Informant” on the death certificate. And there it was: Dr. Parks had certified the “immediate cause” of death as “drowning” and left blank the next two lines reserved for the “conditions, if any, giving rise to the immediate cause” — such as, I suppose, a blow to the head or a cardiac episode. Other words included were “accident” and “no injury.” The document indicated that no autopsy was performed.
Besides these papers by mail, I talked a sympathetic Vermont public servant into reading me the report of the medical examiner’s investigation. It repeated many of the details, but added, ”No history or evidence of violence or use of alcohol or drugs” and “No solid food consumed for five hours.” It concluded, ‘No further medical investigation required.”
Accidental drowning. Case closed.
Closed, perhaps, but not closure. The thirty-year-old documents were pieces of a puzzle still unsolved.
Around this same time, I also learned the meaning of the pinkish gel that came from Pat’s nose and mouth as we tried to revive him. In David Guterson’s evocative novel Snow Falling on Cedars, written with the input of a forensic pathologist, the body of a fisherman whose death launches the plot is examined by the island coroner. He pumps the dead man’s chest and produces from the mouth and nose “something like shaving cream though flecked with pink-hued blood.” The doctor in the story knows, and indeed forensic pathologists are trained to see in a body found in this manner, that the appearance of a pinkish discharge results from “air, mucus, and seawater all mingled by respiration, which meant the deceased had been alive at submersion.”
In the nonfiction circumstances of 1971, surely the pink-hued gel produced by Pat’s body helped Dr. Parks decide Pat had drowned, period. To quote the death certificate: “Approximate interval between onset and death: minutes.”
Peter and Charlie said they’d noticed that the water got deeper only when they were swimming across to the peninsula. Maybe Pat could swim but was unprepared for the depth he unexpectedly found himself in, twenty or more yards from shore. Maybe, like me, he could swim just so far before he had to stop, float for a moment, and catch a breath, before being able to press on, but was frightened and panicked to find an unanticipated void beneath his feet. According to Charlie, Pat seemed to leap above the water a few times as he screamed for help. It’s a picture of fright and exertion that could only have exhausted him.
I see him in memory and want to yell: Swim the rest of the way, Pat! Calm down and swim!
Pat’s mother was torn and bewildered by Dr. Parks’ conclusion. I learned this after renewing contact in the spring of 2001 with his father, who greeted me on the phone as if we had last spoken a few weeks before. He had sold the family house after his wife died in 1993 but still lived in the old neighborhood. He described trips to Ireland and said he “worked the day shift” at the nearby Park Tavern — playing cards with other retirees. Hearing I had a son of my own, he said, “Never deny him anything.”
A few days later, Pat’s sister Darlene phoned me out of the past. The last time I had seen her, she was a young teenager hanging out with friends on the corner. Now she was a forty-year-old married mother of three, the oldest named after Pat, and lived only a few miles from me. Though I feared Darlene was calling to protest the search that prompted me to ring her father after so long, on the contrary she had been on a parallel course. Months earlier she had phoned Peter and Charlie to talk about Pat and was preparing to contact me.
Eleven years old when Pat died, she recalled being too distraught at the sight of him laid out at the funeral home to stay more than a few minutes. “Whenever his name was brought up later on, I would leave the room,” she said. “I was closest to him. He was there one day and then he was gone.” She described how disturbing it was, twenty-two years later, to be burying her mother in a family plot and see Pat’ s name on the headstone. “It was like I didn’t know he was there,” she said.
That moment revived grief that was more unsettling for having been dormant so long. Among other things, she wanted to know how someone she remembers being able to swim could have drowned. “I can remember being in his arms in deep water as a kid,” she said.
She shared copies of an anguished exchange between her mother and Dr. Parks three months after Pat died. “Since Patrick was a good swimmer and a good athlete, I would like to know if there was any indication of cramps on Patrick’s body and, if so, where they were located,” her mother wrote. “This request is being made only because I feel that the death certificate lacks pertinent information. Patrick’s companions have told me as much as they could, but the question of a cramp has never been answered, therefore would you kindly set my mind at ease by answering this question for me.”
Three days later, Dr. Parks replied: “The pond, where the accident occurred, is in general a small pond and is reasonably shallow. However, there is an area that goes through a section of the pond where the water currents have dredged a channel. It was evidently at the channel area where your son drowned. It is quite likely he did have either stomach cramps or leg cramps that temporarily interfered with his ability to swim. However, after drowning occurs, all cramps subside as the muscles all relax.”
Making what seems a key point, Dr. Parks went on: “Unexpected deaths by drowning in good swimmers have always been very difficult to explain. I suspect cramps in most of these cases are the actual cause of the accidents.”
Charlie, who became a corporate lawyer, also worked in Manhattan and lived near me in the suburbs with his wife and four children. However, we seldom saw each other for reasons that had more to do with my own crotchety desire – indeed my need – to decompress on weekends with my family, even vegetate, after deadline days and late homecomings when Liam and Catherine were almost ready for bed.
When I took my first tentative steps in exploring Pat’s death, thirty years later, I told Charlie and we got together for lunch in view of the handsome, old clipper ships anchored at South Street Seaport. It was the first time in a long while that we had seen each other — the first time that I could recall our talking about Pat’s death and acknowledging our bond, forged in those frantic moments when Pat lay still at our feet.
Charlie was famous for the precision of his memory. If somebody wanted to know when a song was first released, or when this or that happened, Charlie would dazzle with a quick answer that he could support by mentioning any number of other events that took place around the same time and who was at each one. Over lunch, his recollection of Baker Pond seemed just as certain: the swim, Pat’s frantic pleas, the attempts at mouth-to-mouth. But on the larger question about the impact afterward, he was at a loss. He said he knew that the ordeal had been formative but added that it was hard for him to articulate how. At least that’s where we left it at the time.
In the spring of 2001, there was much more to say. I went back to Vermont for a couple of days and was on the phone, late on the Sunday after my trip, telling Charlie how remarkably unchanged the area was after thirty years. I may have gone back for Charlie, too, for he was full of questions about my stay and Baker Pond in particular. It soon became clear that he wanted to share a lot more than before and would be able to address my own nagging questions about how I behaved during our nightmare at the water’s edge.
He recalled seeing my face twist in painful disbelief when I finally found him squatting four feet below me with Pat in his arms. And hearing me now fumble my way to an elusive realization — that maybe I had done some good back then — he urged me to see that in joining him in the fruitless attempt at resuscitation and then going for what he called “real help,” that I had behaved responsibly. I had held on amid violent stress.
And the more I thought about the expanse of water revisited on the trip just ended, the more awesome it seemed that he managed to bring Pat up from the bottom — an achievement that Charlie, an unwilling hero, attributed simply to being able to pinpoint the spot where he last saw Pat go down. But if that exertion was easy, the longer aftermath was not. “I spent a lot of time thinking about that day,” he finally revealed to me. “The whole thing was so alive and so tormenting.”
I shuddered to learn how one stretch especially haunted his memory: when I left him to go find a phone, he was alone “with this body.”
And unlike Peter and I, who both ended up far from Vermont, Charlie found picturesque Dartmouth — about an hour’s drive from Baker Pond — to be a constant reminder of all we’d seen and experienced and a constant source of what-ifs. For years Charlie wondered if he hadn’t enrolled at Dartmouth and wanted to see the campus before school started, would our destination have been out of harm’s way? If he hadn’t been the one driving his mother’s car, would the trip have led somewhere besides Baker Pond?
My wife had gone to bed. I was sitting in a small room with the lights out as Charlie spilled these details of the past thirty years. I was greedy for everything he had to say and yet pained to realize we had put each other at remote lengths in a matter rooted deep in our friendship. I winced to hear Charlie recall: “At one point, when you went off to get help, and I was alone with Pat, I leaned into his ear and apologized to him for what happened.”
Charlie didn’t know Pat as well as Peter and I did before the trip, but he became the angel who guarded him in twilight. He needed no forgiveness; except the forgiveness he may have granted himself after a long penance administered by time. He said it took about a year to feel at home at Dartmouth, longer to so much as mention the event to new friends, and years more before time finally wore away the sharp edge from the memory.
I went to bed that night feeling closer to Charlie than I had in a long time.
Peter, a lobbyist in Washington until his recent retirement, returned to New Jersey for the thirtieth anniversary of our high school graduation. The night before the reunion, we met in Jersey City and first drove around marveling at the vast acres of high-rise apartments and office developments that have transformed the blighted industrial wasteland that was the Hudson waterfront when we lived in town. We continued on into Hoboken, by 2001 a much more yuppified community of coffee bars and ethnic restaurants than was imaginable when we last passed serious time there, in the 1970s and early 1980s, sampling the bars along Washington Street and the alternative rock scene at Maxwell’s, a club opened by one of our schoolmates and still going strong.
Ever the seeker and ever energetic, Peter had worked at an amazing assortment of jobs after college — newspaper reporter, teacher at an all-girls high school, ABC News polling analyst, and more — before settling into his corporate position. He married the woman who introduced me to my own wife; they had three beautiful daughters. For years we were so close that we could all but read each other’s thoughts. But each year we lived 200 miles apart required us to spend more time catching up and bridging the distance when we managed to get together.
Still, I was hard-pressed to recall the last time Pat had been a topic of our conversation.
This time, a warm Friday night in Hoboken, it was difficult to find an empty restaurant table. We walked all over before getting one near the kitchen in some Italian place.
Over dinner, I expressed surprise at discovering in my attic that the letters the three of us exchanged immediately after Pat died and in later years didn’t address his drowning. I wondered if we had been all too eager to dispel the memory, or at least hide it behind the boozy adventures and college regimen described in page after page.
It was hard not to feel like a reporter when nudging Peter to talk about our shared past. But like a reporter, I needed to know things. So, Peter, who knew that I hoped to write something, was as much a source now as my good friend. However, in a night of catching up and laughing, drinking wine and eating good food, we went shallow, not deep, on the subject that interested me most. The last thing I wanted in this welcome reunion was to put an edge on the evening by insisting on some sort of agenda. Still, if I were to ever finish my “story,” and understand it for the first time, I would have to point Peter back to that day and satisfy my own unsettled curiosity about what happened.
Charlie said something in our conversation that Sunday night, a detail so vivid and critical that it shattered my understanding of that chaotic day and made me view Peter in a brighter light. A few weeks after our reunion in Hoboken, I called Peter at home. Maybe the distance of the phone connection, like the darkness of a church confessional, made it easier for me to admit what I now knew and to acknowledge at last that his was an especially ponderous burden. My throat thickened when I told Peter that I couldn’t imagine what it was like to have been the one whom Pat had called by name for help.
There was a long pause and then Peter started talking.
“There were so many other things we did at that age that could have resulted in tragedy for all of us,” he said. Drinking and driving, for example. “How many times, miraculously, we escaped injury and then one day, in this pristine setting, it just grabbed one of us.”
In a way, I was lucky. My grief was not worsened by the might-have-been — of seeing Pat panic and thinking he was only fooling. But Peter, like Charlie, recalled years of second-guessing himself and made it seem that he, too, was waiting for this conversation as much as I had been back in Hoboken.
“Could we have done something differently? Were we foolish to do what we were doing?” He described his memory of that day, especially the hesitancy when he and Charlie thought Pat was joking, as “a poison” that he tried to squeeze out by discussing what had happened with his girlfriend and others he came to trust at college. He likened college — making crazy new friends, but also wrestling with the pain of summer — to our ride back from Vermont, when nutty laughs were followed by searching conversation. “1 had to talk about it at school,” Peter said. Until eventually, as he put it, “the poison got drained,” and something good remained: he still thinks of Pat as one of the best friends of his life.
In a subsequent conversation, Peter described how he had gone for help in the car during the twenty minutes or so that I was over on the peninsula with Charlie and Pat. At his first stop down the road, no one came to the door; at another house, he strained to make out a man on the other side of a screen door who promised to call an ambulance. When I found Peter at the car looking so fractured and spent, he surely was feeling the full weight of his grief. “1 was upset because we were all in the pond together,” he said. “We had made a misjudgment.”
“Peter, help! ” That’s what Pat had yelled, according to Charlie. “Peter, help!”
It’s harder as years pass to make friends as good as the old ones. Of all the unexpected fruits of my inquiry, the most rewarding was to behold Peter, Charlie, and myself, for the first time, as the more responsible men that, I believe, we became because of the test laid before us as teenagers. Yet in getting closer to the truth thirty years later, my journalistic crust offered no shield against the sadness of discovering that each of us had suffered in ways unknown to the others.
When I returned to Vermont in early May of 2001, the rich greens of late summer were barely a promise as random heaps of snow still melted on hills and the banks of streams. Birch trees towered white and naked as they awaited a leafier cover: Thirty years after Pat died when I returned, I was struck by how rural the area still was, except for satellite dishes perched on homes here and there. For all its covered wooden bridges and panoramic stretches of rolling road, this part of central Vermont was less a region of old country inns than of isolated farms, barns sagging with age, and small villages where every other home could use a caulking gun.
If we had been able to stay longer on our trip, we might have landed a camp site at Allis State Park the following night, after all, and found the Rustic Restaurant farther north on Route 12 outside Northfield. Choices in the area are few and this one depressed me at first with its limited menu, musty air, and paucity of patrons. But the longer I sat there waiting for a salad, and took in the stuffed animal heads, the pool tables, the massive bank safe standing incongruously near the door and — yes — the huge mushroom mounted where the Rotary Club meets on Wednesdays at 6:15, the more I realized that the four of us, and especially Pat, would have loved everything about the place. This lifted my mood, as did the sweet woman who served me like family.
And Baker Pond looked exactly as it did when four young men from Jersey City arrived in late afternoon without a care about where they would sleep that night. The farmhouse where I relayed such terrible news still had the best view of the wide water. The silence, even with a couple of men fishing from separate points on the shore, was undisturbed except for twittering birds.
I retraced my route to the peninsula along a path trodden by many others since. Some went on to discover the peninsula itself, including one pilgrim, or amorous couple, who left a blanket in the wooded expanse, along with a few beer cans and the scorched remains of a felled birch tree crisscrossed to make a fire.
Time had sanded away the four-foot bluff and left a long, manageable slope to the water’s edge, now mere inches off. When I turned around at this spot, I could see again the doctor and the cops emerging from the growth, finding us too late to matter.
It’s the place where Pat died, but also where he lived and laughed. I studied every inch again and absorbed its lonely beauty.
Sad? A little. But more wistful about the road of friendship that led us here and the time since past.
“Even across the divide of death, friendship remains, an echo forever in the heart,” Willie Morris wrote.
The paradox, I see only now, is that what happened at Baker Pond has become central to the friendships that abide the tragedy — friendships that this middle-aged man allowed to become diminished by neglect while hungry for contact. Friendships that seem clearer, and more precious, since my going back.
Before heading home, I returned to the pond briefly in the cold morning. Under a brighter sun that lit up the peninsula through gaps between blooming trees, I realized I would probably never return. It’s unimportant now, for the place is neither tomb nor memorial.
The cool water refreshes, at last.