Some lost souls just don’t want to be found.
For them, the span of their lives is judged not by the calendar nor the actuarial tables that insurance companies live and die by, nor by the average life spans computed by the American Heart Association. All of these objective measures of how long people may live just don’t mean squat to a person who feels inside his life is over and doesn’t wish to be reminded of his former life and the promise it once held.
My old friend
As if I needed a reminder of this – for there was a time I also found myself among the living lost – a phone call to the home of one guy we’ll call Oliver D. Jericho did the trick. Oliver – I never could get myself to call him Ollie for reasons that should be apparent later — was my college roommate for a semester back in the mid-60s.
I had met and befriended him in my sophomore year of high school as I began hanging out with the drama, debate, and forensics students: the speech kids. Oliver was sharper than a carpet tack when it came to debate, and knowledge in general. For whatever reason, he and I hit it off and became close for a few years.
When you asked him a weighty question, you could almost hear the gears clicking in his head as he scrolled for the correct, clear, and specific answer. He often would do this thing with his hands, closing them into fists and then extending his two opposing index fingers as they stared at each other a couple inches apart and began rotating in the air. While this little staccato ballet was in motion, his head would bob slightly, side to side, and his tongue would click softly off the roof of his mouth.
“Tch, tch, tch, tch, tch…”
Oliver D. Jericho was thinking. And you were dead-sure the answer that would emerge from all this personal stagecraft would be an illuminating one.
Okay, he was a nerd. Just not your typical nerd. He was a nerd with an edge. For one thing, he played a mean guitar and would often wear this little black French beret and horizontally striped t-shirt when he played. Sort of looked like a refugee from Mutiny on the Bounty or a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. Most probably he was just trying to evoke the model of a beatnik. The late 1950s and early 1960s were, after all, their era. Complete with Maynard G. Krebs of Dobie Gillis fame.
The Prisoner, maybe?
In actual appearance, Oliver was interesting, standing about 5’9”, of average frame and body, sporting short-cropped curly brown hair, fighting and losing a bout with high school acne. But he always dressed cool. Cool by 1964 standards, that is. Button-down collar, the right pants and right shoes, not bad really. If he were to pick a TV character he would like to be seen as, it would be Patrick McGoohan of the 1960s enigmatic show, The Prisoner.
A keen wit
Oliver was also a wit, as per this scene: Once, in the midst of doing a solo on his guitar, staring at the packed audience with this deadpan, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia” expression, one of the strings pops and it doesn’t pop quietly. Undaunted and nonplussed, Oliver simply gets up, walks over and picks up a backup guitar, returns, sits down and announces into the mike, “For my next trick…” and the guitar riff continues like it had never stopped.
Intelligence and wit. That was Oliver. If The West Wing had been made back in the 60s, he could have played the Bradley Whitford role, although a nerdier Whitford. But he was a multitasker and his pragmatic nature would have acquitted him well in the Machiavellian worlds of politics, law, and business.
He seemed destined to be the high school nerd who would outshine all his duller, macho classmates. He’d be working on his third million while we’d be struggling to make $30,000 a year. The Bill Gates of our class. The whole school saw him that way, and he was voted as the male graduate most likely to succeed.
Except he didn’t. Or, if he did, success didn’t last long. Oliver had dropped out of sight, and no one I know had seen or heard from him in many years. I managed to track him back to his and my hometown, and he was living alone in his late mother’s small home.
Now a recluse
So what was this older Oliver D. Jericho doing, sitting alone in a darkened suburban Oklahoma City house in the summer of 2004, avoiding friends who might have known him way back when, and passing time alone in life? And why, when I finally found him via a Google search, did he spurn my phone call as if he weren’t even there?
The phone rang several times before being answered.
“Hello?” came the resonant, somewhat sleepy, tentative voice.
It sounded older than Oliver’ 58 years and it sounded odder, but still it could be him. I drafted the next verbal link.
“Hi. This is Jim Willis, and I’m trying to locate Oliver Jericho” I said.
A brief pause followed, and then an emphatic and very awake, “Not here.”
It was Oliver. No doubt now. It was his voice, and it was his style. Back in high school and college he often dropped the subject out of short responses as in…
“Looks like it.”… or …“Think not.”
“Not here,” fit his pattern and after 35 years it still sounded like him.
I suddenly had this acute feeling I was invading his privacy, and I wondered if it was a mistake trying to contact this friend I hadn’t seen in so long.
The future back then
The once-shining guy who had come back home to roost in his family’s nondescript home, the guy who had avoided 40 years of high school reunions like they were Oklahoma rattlesnakes, the guy who had disappeared from the face of the earth, was letting me know he did not want to be found.
It rang in my ears and reverberated as if bouncing off the canyon walls back home in California’s San Gabriel Valley. But why didn’t he want to be found? Or was it just that he didn’t, for some reason, want to be found by me?
Could he be put off by having read of the success I’d enjoyed in my professional life? The local paper had published a few stories about my induction into the high school hall of fame and about my books and my teaching and research in Europe. Could it be Oliver wasn’t up to swapping life stories with a guy who he knew had struggled just to make his grades, way back when, while Oliver was acing the toughest major the university had to offer: Russian Studies? And that to be followed a few years later by graduating magna cum laude from one of the country’s top MBA schools?
Now his former roomie was chairing an academic department at a private university in California while Oliver had jettisoned his career and was back home in his mother’s house and making no contact with that outside world he once knew.
My own wrong choices in life have disqualified me from feeling better than anyone else, but he wouldn’t know that. If Oliver’s life had taken the disastrous turn it seemingly had, he was feeling bitterness and embarrassment, and he wanted to stay lost.
Not, “He’s not in, but can I take your phone number and I’ll have him give you a call when he returns?”
Not, “He’s stepped out for a couple hours but will be back about 10.”
Not, “He will be sorry to have missed your call.”
Just, “Not here.”
Period. End of conversation. End of story. Or at least, that’s what he wanted. I couldn’t help but think, however, that “Not here” also spoke at a deeper level to that fact that the Oliver D. Jericho I had known was, in fact, not there. I couldn’t help but wonder why.
Letting it go
The empathy — or projections — rose again inside, and I decided instantly not to press the matter. Not to say into the receiver, “Come on Oliver, I know that’s you. What’s up, man?” Maybe if it had only been a year since we last spoke, but not 25 years. I just let it go in the interest of his privacy, at least for the moment.
There were no goodbyes before he hung up. Just the click of the receiver.
I continued my search for answers, though, and a couple years later found Oliver’s email address and made contact with him that way. I was happy to see his response but was saddened to hear how bitter he had become at life, to the point of adopting an alter-ego. He called himself Jason now, and the life he had described living sounded a lot like Jason Bourne.
As was the case with many who finished college in the 60s and found themselves in the military, Oliver’s experience was very traumatic and seemed to change him forever. He felt unable to get the help he needed from the VA and found himself looking back on a life that could have been.
Back when he was voted as the class senior most likely to succeed.
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."