Jim had three wives. No, not all at the same time; one after the other. His second wife was my sister, which is how he and I came to meet. Our first actual meeting was at a Detroit Tigers game to which my sister had invited me to tag along. For years afterward, Jim delighted in telling people how I had “shut him down” that night. What he meant was that I apparently had a comeback for his every zinger; that I had topped him at every turn. He was someone who was used to being the Alpha Zinger in most any room, and he said he’d never experienced this feeling before. Much later, I asked him if this had pissed him off at all. “No,” he declared, “I enjoyed the heck out of it.”
This was, by the way, an interesting moment for me as well. I hadn’t actually been conscious of trying to “shut him down” that night. I was just trying to have a good time. Perhaps Jim sensed my lack of hostile intent and that’s what made it okay.
Jim was a wildly avid traveler. His preferred mode of transportation was the automobile, and it must be said that he was an aggressive driver with an amazing stamina for driving long hours.
Quick anecdote on that topic: On one of my trips out west with Jim, we found ourselves in a motel west of Denver, and vacation time was growing short. “Tomorrow, we are going to drive,” Jim stated solemnly. He wasn’t kidding. We got in the car just after dawn and went to sleep that night in southern Illinois. Look at a map and decide for yourself whether you’d care to drive that far in one day!
One of the keys to our friendship was that, while we enjoyed a lot of the same things, we also respected our differences. Example: On that same trip through Colorado, Jim was inclined one evening to take in the entertainment at… well, an adult-themed drinking establishment. I told him I wasn’t interested and he was fine with that. He went off to amuse himself while I stayed in the hotel room, ordered a pizza, and curled up in front of the TV for the night. Jim didn’t get in until well after I’d turned off the light. The following morning, Jim had no interest in getting out of bed until well into the day, so he flipped the car keys to me and rolled over. I drove into Denver, toured the state capital building, and visited the Denver Mint. While Jim would probably have enjoyed these things to some extent, these attractions definitely held more appeal for me than they did for him.
This is a tough time of year for me because I am constantly bombarded with reminders of things Jim and I shared, particularly our devotion to hockey and football. Jim was the most knowledgeable hockey fan I’ve ever known, so attending a game with him was always terrific. Jim was able to point out subtleties of player movement and psychology that I would not have picked up on, which made the game a much more complete and involving experience for me. Regardless of the sport, it was not uncommon for my phone to ring after an exciting play was made in a game I was watching. It would be Jim on the other end, watching the same game and calling to discuss what we’d just seen. As a result, I find myself thinking of Jim frequently these days. Something remarkable will happen in a game and I’ll automatically think, “Oh, I have to call Jim–” but then I remember that I can’t.
My sports connection to Jim is particularly strong this week. Jim was a long-time season ticket holder for the Detroit Lions. For most of the past 17 years, he and I have attended the Lions Thanksgiving Day game together.
Aside for you NFL fans: The most memorable of these games was undoubtedly the infamous Lions-Steelers “coin toss” overtime game in 1998. It isn’t often that you can say you witnessed a moment that actually caused an NFL rule to be changed!
As it turns out, Jim had already purchased his Lions season tickets for the 2009 season, and I was recently invited to join another friend of Jim’s at the game to be played this Thursday. Unfortunately, logistics will prevent me from attending, but I will certainly be watching the game on TV and casting the occasional glance over toward Jim’s seats, which were about 10 rows from the field in the corner of an end zone. If you’re curious, his seats were on the far side of the field from the normal TV camera position, and in the back corner of the end zone to the right as you view the field on TV.
Another defining trait of Jim’s was his generosity. When I was making plans in 1992 to move from Detroit to Chicago, it was Jim who called me and said, “I’ve got a truck. When do you want to move?” He not only brought my stuff to Chicago, he made a follow-up trip several weeks later with lower-priority stuff. I could go on; Jim did favors like that for an awful lot of people over the years, but I think that story is a representative sample of his generosity.
Jim had chronic problems with his knees and shoulders, exacerbated by substantial weight issues that he was never able to entirely address. In spite of this, he was a shockingly strong individual. I well remember one Thanksgiving when our family dinner was held at the house he and my sister lived in. Sometime after dinner, a few of us were teasing Jim good-naturedly about his physical condition. Jim replied by saying something like, “Oh yeah? You don’t think I’m in very good shape?” He then proceeded to pick me up and lift me over his head, fully extending his arms so that I was rather high up. I am not a small guy. I’m 6’2” and haven’t seen the sunny side of 250 in many years, yet Jim picked me up as if I were a sack of potatoes and seemed quite capable of tossing me across the room. I don’t mind telling you that I was mildly terrified. After I assured Jim that I was duly impressed with his condition, he gently set me down. By the way, it is also fair to note that this was absolutely the only moment even close to a physical confrontation I ever had with Jim. Our normal mode was quite civilized and respectful.
The last anecdote I’ll offer here took place on the day of Jim’s marriage to his third wife. For the first time in my life, I was Best Man at a wedding. At Jim’s request, I sang a solo of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” accompanied by another family member on acoustic guitar. At the reception, I delivered a toast that consisted of two parts: First, the hard part, where I did my best to speak from the heart and wish the newlyweds well. Then, I went from the sublime to the ridiculous and sang a parody of Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” the lyrics of which I will not trouble you with.
There was another interesting aspect to my being best man. I knew only a few members of either family, so I was meeting a lot of people for the first time. More than once, people came up to me, shook my hand, and asked how I knew Jim. “Oh, he used to be married to my sister,” was my reply. Talk about a conversation stopper! People either couldn’t process or couldn’t respond to that concept. Jim and I shared quite a laugh over that one. No disrespect to my dear sister at all; it’s just something you don’t expect to hear.
Someone asked me recently how I was doing in terms of “getting over” my friend’s death. Jim’s passing, like the passing of anyone close to us, isn’t something one “gets over” exactly. Rather, it’s a loss one accommodates, and their absence becomes ultimately a positive thing, reminding us of how lucky we were to know them during their brief turn on this stage.