by Mike Gordon
Just because you’ve known someone your whole life doesn’t necessarily mean you’re friends with them. Never mind that you were raised in the same neighborhood, went through Boy Scouts together, played in the school band together, got drunk for the first time together, were in school classes together year after year; 7th grade through high school graduation.
I remember more friction between Johnnie and me during all those years than anything else. Sure, there were some good times we enjoyed together, but Johnnie was the big kid and I was the little kid, though we were the same age. When I turned 16 and got my driver’s license I was 5′ 1″ and weighed 115 pounds. I was slow-maturing physically. Johnnie had a schlong. I had a wee wee. We nicknamed him Lash LaRue after an old-time cowboy with a long whip. I don’t really care to remember what my nickname was.
My size and state of physical maturity were, however, by no means an indication of any lesser social placement as far as I was concerned. I had a healthy enough ego back then also, and never, ever tolerated anyone pushing me around, no matter how big they were, hence the source of the friction. Johnnie was very aggressive. He liked getting his own way and usually got it. Not always with me, though. I could be a real thorn in his side. When he’d try to dismiss me and I wouldn’t dismiss, or try to force his way and I wouldn’t budge he’d get mad, threaten violence and storm off. He and I never did get in a fight though I got into plenty of them. Perhaps because he thought I was too little to worry about or that I might just possibly embarrass him.
Anyway, graduation came around and Johnnie went to college in Oregon. I went to college in Fairbanks and the following year to the University of San Francisco. Several of my hometown friends visited me while I was going to school in San Francisco and during my junior year Johnnie even stopped by. I was pleased to see him and flattered that he went to the trouble. I was married with a pregnant wife, doing well in school and working part-time, all of which seemed to impress Johnnie. He had decided to quit school and go back to Anchorage. I was pretty surprised. Johnnie was very intelligent and had done extremely well on his college entrance exams. Perhaps he thought school was a waste of his time.
I ended up back in Anchorage a few years later, broke and trying to re-establish myself. By then Johnnie had a real estate broker’s license, his own 4-plex, his own airplane and a brand new Camaro. I had a pregnant wife, a small girl, lived in a Quonset hut and drove a very cold Volkswagen camper that first winter. Johnnie helped me out between paychecks a time or two when I was getting started as a salesman for New York Life. The nature of our relationship appeared to be changing.
It was about this time that Johnnie discovered he had Leukemia. At 22 years of age. It didn’t change things much at first. We had been on a successful moose hunting trip recently and decided to go goat hunting. Johnnie had spotted some from his plane on a mountain top next to Kenai Lake.
We took a little fourteen foot aluminum boat with a small raft in tow along the far side of the lake and pitched a base camp. The next day we climbed to the top of the mountain from around the back side so as to have the goats between us and the shear drop-off into the lake. We pitched a tent for the night in the tundra and stunted evergreens, got up early the next morning and headed with our rifles toward the ridge. As we approached the ridge a big billy spotted us the instant we spotted him and headed off across the face. When we actually got to the ridge he was way on the other side of the face but still barely in range.
I fired and hit him in the hind quarter, which stopped him long enough for Johnnie to squeeze one off with his scope-equipped rifle. The billy goat just sort of pushed himself off the mountain when hit the second time and fell right out of sight; at least halfway down the face. It was a good thing it was so early because by the time we climbed halfway down the face of the mountain, found the goat, cleaned and deboned it and packed it back up the face of the mountain it was so dark we had a problem finding our tent.
The next morning we carried our gear and the goat back down to base camp and hung the meat to dry. It was windy and the lake was too rough for our little armada so we spent the night.
That evening in the tent, the goat hanging outside and the wind howling, we had the only real heart-to-heart conversation Johnnie and I ever had. He confided in me how he felt about being 22 years old and knowing he was going to die within one or two years. We talked about our families, our friends and our relationship over the years. That night we really became friends for the first time. Because a friend is not just someone with whom you spend a lot of years. A friend is someone you can open up to and who can open up to you. A friend is someone with whom you can share and share alike your deepest thoughts and emotions; your dreams and your fears.
It had taken over ten years, a lifetime at that age, and a huge personal crisis for Johnnie to open up to me. I’m sure glad we had that one good talk before he died. It didn’t necessarily have to have happened, even considering Johnnie’s circumstances. It never happened with my own father under similar circumstances. But when I think of Johnnie I can’t help but think about that night in the tent and how close we were.
First thing in the morning we shot a bear that was trying to bogart our goat. Our little armada was packed to the limit with gear and meat, but we managed to get back to the highway safely. We soon became partners in the Bird House Bar along with another school chum returned from the world, though Johnnie was sick and receiving treatment in New York most of that year. He married his New York City nurse and I participated in the wedding ceremony. It was a short-lived but loving marriage.
Johnnie died before his 24th birthday with his whole life before him. I was one of his pallbearers and he was one of my few good friends.
John E. Tegstrom
Born 2 June 1942
Died May 1969
Buried Angelus Memorial Park
I was born in Fort Pierce, Florida and moved to Alaska from Mississippi in 1953, when Alaska was still a territory. I graduated from Anchorage High School and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a minor in Philosophy from the University of San Francisco. I played alto saxophone in the Anchorage High School band, as well as ice hockey through high school and as a freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks before moving on to USF. Incidentally, I completed the seventeen credits I needed to graduate from USF in the Spring of 2011, forty-eight years late, earning a 4.0 GPA for the semester!
I have been a member of the Anchorage City Council and Anchorage Borough Assembly before unification, twice a board member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, State of Alaska, and twice its Chairman. I have been on many boards, including Boys and Girls Clubs of Alaska, Anchorage Opera, Anchorage Repertory Theatre, Anchorage Mental Health Association and Boys Scouts of America, Western Alaska Council. I am an active Rotarian and past president of Anchorage Downtown Rotary and an honorary member of the Homer/Kachemak Bay Rotary Club.
My interests are climbing, running, skiing, scuba diving, reading, writing, traveling, opera and spending summers with my wife, Shelli, in our beloved Halibut Cove home. I have climbed six of the seven highest mountains on each of the continents and made three attempts on the seventh, Mt. Everest, reaching 27,500 feet at age fifty. I have also run fifteen marathons, including the original run from Marathon to Athens.
I have a son, Michael, a daughter, Michele, and seven grandchildren by my first wife. Shelli and I will celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary in September 2013 and hope to spend many more years together in retirement (if the economy ever cooperates) enjoying life on both sides of Kachemak Bay.
Great article. My best friend from High School and I, live in the same town and I rarely see him. We are merely strangers. Mr. Gordon, sometimes you grow apart and sometimes you keep growing together. It must be very healing to write about your friend.
Thank you for sharing a part of your life with your audience. I remember reading this story last April when I was considering attending APU, and I recall how touched I was. Perhaps that helped with my decision to attend! (Just kidding). Also, I appreciate the way your story encouraged me to reflect on my own life and experiences relating to friendship. You certainly have a talent for conveying tender thoughts. Don’t stop writing!
Mike, This is a touching account. I heard Bill Clinton talking to his Foundation recently. He remarked, movingly I thought, that as we get older many of the people that we knew aren’t around anymore, but we carry them with us. As you have carried Johnnie with you all these years. Bill and I stayed with you and Shellie in Halibut Cove. We had driven up the Alcan from Alberta with cousin Ferne in Dolly the farm truck. It was very special for us English visitors. I have to tell you we lost Bill on 9 August 2014, now nearly three years ago. But I constantly carry him with me, and hey, I have to tell you, it’s not everybody that has special prayers said for them by the Dalai Lama and his funeral done by a former Archbishop of Canterbury (Rowan Williams). Rowan said, “I was only glad that I could do this for the truly remarkable and loveable man”. I wanted to contact Shelli but could not find her email address and Bill didn’t leave his passwords, or at least I couldn’t find them. Then I saw this. Love to you both.