"Friendship is a supremely beautiful gift that God blessingfully gives to His fond seeker-children." – Sri Chinmoy.
I burnt all my photo albums thirty years ago, a renunciation that left more than a little tinge of lingering regret, but odds and ends still turn up in unexpected places, in the bric-a-brac of a family member's basement or a solitary snap falling out of an old book, falling out of the past. This morning I chanced upon a crumpled old photo of an acquaintance from a long time ago, mythologised in sepia-brown and a whole flood of memories came flying, seeing again, like the light from a far-off star those events from a far-off past.
To say that we remember implies that we might have forgotten, but I have not forgotten Lonnie Gray. Although not in our conscious awareness there is some reality in which everything we have ever seen, done, known, is still there in what we are, a simultaneity in which everything perpetually co-exists. For this reason it's nice to surrender to an impulse of the heart and write a few sentences about Lonnie, who passed away three decades ago, for in this simultaneity we share he too might be touched by this affection from someone from literally another life.
Lonnie was born in 1940, the same year his father perished from machine-gun fire, a rough earth grave in a Polish meadow of war, he the first and last son, misfit scion of the family. His mother, relieved it was all over, marriage and kids, held the wrinkled, bawling pink concoction of flesh and wrappings up at the window, watched the brown flood of the river charging through willows, and this was the first thing he ever saw.
Lonnie might easily have become an alcoholic - through childhood maladies his mother gave him a generous dose of gin as a cure-all – or perhaps too a misfit and introvert, spending a long time as a child wandering alone in the hills enjoying the unconcern of a careless family. But neither came true.
Smart and adaptable he could do many things, fixed cars, felled bush, cut timber from fallen trees and built log post fences over the scalped hills of New Zealand's back country farms, he black as a witch cat from all the fire charred, holocaust wreckage of forests. His sisters went into law and real estate, but the irresistible currents of another destiny tugged him along and he would not beach as his mother would sometimes lament on those lesser humdrum shores of custom and sobriety, drown his free spirit there worse than gin or river water. Instead, a drifter, fell in love, fostered a no-good, sour wedlock boy-child of his own though Lonnie the father would never see his son outside of that first failed year of bickering, dismal marriage. In the little finally left of love, feeling the burden of his own despondency and not wishing to infect a lamenting spouse with his own cloying melancholy, a hopelessness too deep to shift by her or anyone's endearments, he left abruptly, the last of his good times in an envelope by her bed, plus goodbye note in spidery hand.
Lonnie went north, drawn by instinct and memory to the big empty mountains in the central North Island for solace, lick his wounds, hibernate through this deep winter of his life and some sadness as though at something of himself wrenched away and lost, then at a junction of gravel roads that would each lead to unknown and different experiences, indeed to entirely different endings, low on gas and confronted by certain necessities, sat in his station-wagon for all of ten minutes - east, west, north? – tasted the unbearableness of his freedom and the utter randomness of life that would later seem so liberating, then ducked east until he reached the Whangaehu River, stopping at a country pub and meeting there in the public bar my own erstwhile boss who liked what he saw and right there offered Lonnie work.
So I first met him there at Mangamahu Station, a rough country farm at roads end where we shared a cabin, a bunkhouse lit by candlelight and moonlight, Lonnie telling yarns over billy tea into the long nights, polishing the bolt on his Lee Enfield and linseed oil into the weathered stock, one reliable thing in his makeshift life at least, so he said.
Once, just a kid, mother at the wheel of a rattletrap car, they confronted on a single lane bridge a runaway truck, 1,000 gallons of churning fresh farm milk sloshing in the steel tank, brakes gone on a long down haul of twisting hill roads – the Maori driver made it on to the bridge, needle over ninety, and then had to choose. Just before impact and the certain end of Lonnie's entire family the driver chose the brave hard way, swung fiercely and sent himself and the trailer of milk down 200ft into a rocky creek bed. The water ran pure white for a whole day, a river of milk, before they hauled the wreck out. He remembered it for a long time afterwards, the intensity of a near death, the runaway truck hurtling onto the narrow wood railing bridge with it's steel trailer swinging wildly, the sacrificial face staring at them through the windshield of the huge cab then shouting something, death cry of resolve, decided, swinging away at the last moment and the unbelievable roar of 10 tons of steel and machinery smashing through the bridge sidings and down into the gorge. Then the shattering impact below and the howling truck engine, going on and on as though boring into the earth, relentless and amplified in the rock walls of the ravine, the dying crescendo roar of a giant beast – then sudden silence.
Lonnie's mother went to church for a full month after to praise a God she hadn't found too much time for before, gave a big chunk of the weekly welfare cheque to the driver's grieving family, three fatherless kids, trapped in a part-share state house.
How can you ever repay that said Lonnie. But life's ledger balance didn't work like that, a quid pro quo of reckonings, nor his own later sufferings fit into any tidy cosmic scheme of compensation.
Big gaps here open up in what I remember but years later, a husky phone call, remember me?, a late night rendezvous and re-acquaintance with this man I liked. And even more years later I heard of his end, a felon sought by country police half-hearted in pursuit of a character they secretly admired, car conversion, his own station-wagon long gone and Lonnie back to country work in a stolen rig, scrub covering the number plate, far up on a hillside felling trees and a farmhand rides up, cops looking for you Lon, saddles up a horse and puts the Lee Enfield into a scabbard, saddle bag of food and heads up to the back boundary and beyond into history. Rides way back where no one goes. A survey team finds him months later, long dead on the floor of his hut God only knows of what. Under the wool bale sacking of his bunk bed a manuscript, handwritten, story of his life, but no chance of recovering it from the police back then. What ever happened to it? All those stories from a life disappeared. I wish you all happiness and a safe passage on your journey.
"The vine that binds two friends together is adorned with gratitude-heart-blossoms." – Sri Chinmoy.