Ralph Gilley died. .
Ralph was my classmate and I went to school with him for 12 years….maybe 13 if he went to Mrs. Porter’s kindergarten with me, which was private back in the day. I can’t remember if he did or not. But first grade through our Senior year, most definitely. But odd as this may sound, I don’t remember Ralph before Seventh grade. I graduated with 76 other 18 year olds in 1977, so it’s not like Ralph got lost in the crowd. I just can’t remember.
Ralph was a big guy. He played tuba in the band and was a defensive lineman in Jr High & High School. He told me in the summer of ‘75 that he had what he called an irrational crush on me since Sixth grade I didn’t know it then, but much later I remembered the youthful hallmarks of a one sided sided crush..
I was a cheerleader in Jr High & HS and in Jr. High, we made a huge sign for the team to run through starting at the end zone then to their side of the field and hormones dictated that we do so, hand in hand with a player on each side. Ralph asked me to run with him many times in Seventh and Eighth grade. I remember he held my hand a little longer, after I’d let go. At 12, I didn’t understand the significance of the proverbial lingering touch.
Another memory I have of Ralph was his uncanny ability to impersonate a 7-Up commercial from the early 70’s. The soft drink was called the uncola at one time so, it featured this affable Jamaican guy heralding the glories of the fictional uncola cut. Sone Darren Stevens-like ad wizard on Madison Avenue painted one half of a lemon green, leaving the other half yellow and that was the uncola nut from which the soft drink was supposedly made, Ralph had this guy’s accent and deep, hearty laugh down to a tee. See the commercial below.
The laugh always got me. I’d laugh at the laugh.
The last time I saw Ralph was at our HS Ten year reunion in 1987. We saw each other across the room and met in the middle. All I saw rapidly approaching me was this huge toothy, recognizable smile. He hadn’t changed a bit. He gave me a massive bear hug despite me being a foot shorter. We shared a few memories & “you look terrifics” before he lead me to his table to meet his wife. I don’t remember her other than she seemed sweet and a good match for Ralph. Even so, I’d catch him looking at me from time to time. Did nostalgia & a ten year absence revive old feelings? If so, they were fleeting.
Ralph died of colo-rectal cancer. He’d gotten a wellness colonoscopy in November of ‘21 & received a clean bill of health. Then, in February, , he saw what no one wants to see: some bright red blood, the tell tale signs of a serious problem. A return visit to the doctor meant more test that all had the same results:that a series of tests revealed he had cancer—already in Stage three. All this in just under four months. He tried one round of chemo then realized that’s not how he wanted to endure in the time he had left. One of his closest friends told me Ralph was stoic, brave, readily accepted his fate. I very relieved to hear that. I’d hoped that would have been the case .
Ralph would’ve been surprised by the turnout, he would’ve been pleased his service morphed into a small class reunion. We were eight in total. Most I hadn’t seen since graduation night. We didn’t recognize each other initially. Why was I surprised? What’s 47 years?? . We were gray haired, fat, thin, bald, used a cane, we were wrinkled, turkey necked and we all were donning glasses. A few who married upon graduating were already great grandparents.
Ralph was cremated, so he requested a memorial service. A continuous loop of photos of Ralph played on a screen as a few people shared their memories of him. But they were only of Ralph after his second marriage, I sat there looking at this montage, not recognizing him in any of them. No childhood photos, nothing from Jr High or HS. It was odd to sit there and process things like being back in that stifling little town…I processed encounters with people I didn’t recognize, I was processing the death of a classmate.
I left after a brief reception, after a few more mini reunions. Everyone knew I was retired from broadcasting (my tiny hometown is even smaller than when I lived there). A few knew my mother died. Her obit was in the community newspaper, We shared a few memories of Ralph. And then suddenly, I didn’t want to answer any more questions, much less ask them. Besides, I had to make the 70 mile trek home. I can no longer drive at night courtesy of ripening cataracts which pair nicely with a good Pinot Grigio and glaucoma. But the reason to come home? My 11 year diabetic dog/child had a dinner/insulin shot deadline slated no later than 5:30
Before hitting the highway though, I drove by the house I grew up in, the one Ralph and his cousin, Paul would drop by unannounced, but always welcomed. We had a pool table and a groovy sound system in the play room. Anyway, I passed by and aside from remembering beating Ralph at a few games of 8-ball, all I felt was a disconnect, something I’d been trying to achieve well over half my life.
I drove back in silence. And after spending an afternoon feigning ooos and ahs over photos of grandkids with a lot of orthodontia ahead of them, after not recognizing so many people, after them not recognizing me, after wondering why everyone avoided the topic of a husband and children with me, after realizing I’d achieved severance with my sordid past in that house…in that little town….after bidding a final goodbye to a man, who as a boy, I used to say hello to daily., I pulled into my garage, entered my house where an 11 year old tan terrier mix was waiting for me with as much enthusiasm as those chicks in the audience when The Beatles premiered on Sullivan.
I held him for as long as he’d let me, then he ran to the door, the universal canine signal for “let me out now or I’ll demonstrate the urgency of my need to void my bladder on your new area rug”. Message received. I watched him go to his favorite spot, the dead patch of grass he’s been killing for six years. Then I thought of my own mortality.
Which brought my mind back to Ralph. I smiled—couldn’t help it.
Que descanse en paz, mi amigo.