Friday, March 21, 2014

Better to burn out than to fade away . . .


On an original J-rig in the Grand Canyon, around 1972.
Mark was a great skier and river rat and followed an inner voice that wouldn't allow for hedging ideals. He skied the back-country on skinny skis and leather boots, before back-country skiing was mainstream, and he did so on that old gear with more style, finesse and power than most of today's plastic, carbon fiber crowd.  Twenty years is a long time to miss a brother.

Come As You Are

The spring of 1994 was a bad season. The bad started two days after the equinox when Mark drove up the canyon at midnight, drank a pint of whiskey, stepped out of his truck and put a bullet through his head.

Two weeks later, on my 32ND birthday, Kurt did the same.

The sheriff found Mark an hour later. He was laying face-down, the blood streaming 20-feet down the slope of new asphalt. The door of his truck open, his heart barely beating. He was in a new development, where luxury homes would soon be built, in neighborhoods where everything would seem perfect and the children would run free without worries. Three decades earlier Mark lived in a similar neighborhood, where he ran free, where life was fresh and when euphoria was not a lost memory.

In 1991 I went to a small club to watch a new band. The audience was small, not unusual for unknowns in Salt Lake City of 1991, but the band was on the threshold of enormous fame.  We were innocent naivetĂ©s, witnessing greatness in infancy. Afterward Kurt shook my hand and thanked me for coming. His eyes were clear, translucent blue, full of excitement; as if living in an age of discovery, as if entering an unknown wilderness.

Mom called me early the next morning. Not a crier or talker, all she could say was, “Mark shot himself, he doesn’t have much time”. Conversation over. I drive to the University and find him in the ICU. I see a small entrance wound in his left temple - he’s the only lefty in the family - and his nose is packed with gauze, “to control the cerebral fluids leaking through his blown sinuses”, the nurse explains. The exit wound is a fleshy explosion from his right temple. Oddly, the bullet wounds are not nearly as shocking as his eyes: wide open, fixed, dilated shark eyes. Dark. No response. No life.

Mark is a year older and the center of my earliest memories. When young he was bold and fearless with a street-tough exterior. We roamed the neighborhood, amid the building of new homes and he quickly sized up the rich kids who moved in almost daily. Mark quickly rose to the top of the pecking order. I tagged along and was left alone by the bullies; they did not want trouble from him. Mark’s eyes were full of excitement, like he lived on the threshold of discovery, like he lived on the edge of a paradise, a land just waiting to be explored by the first humans.

My parents are Mormon, and, despite their best efforts, Mark found a love of alcohol. In Junior High, the toughs of the school didn’t know we were brothers. If they did they left me alone. My small-size and reticence seemed to attract those looking for an easy fight. One big kid always picked on me, but I’d run away without a word. One night, after prolonged harassment, Mark told me he wouldn’t fight my fights but shared his secret, “Punch first, square in the nose or throat, with all your rage, then stand ready for more.” “Most will run away,” he said. The next day I took his word, bloodied my knuckles on the ass-hole’s teeth . . . I stood my ground, and sure enough the kid ran away. Not good enough for Mark, he went after that kid and put an exclamation point on the situation. The next day Mark was expelled from school for savagely beating that nose-picker. Against his word, he fought my fight, sending a loud message to anyone thinking of messing with his brother.

In 1993 I saw Kurt on TV. His eyes were still translucent blue, but they were now heavy and troubled. Life was leaving him. 

By the end of high school Mark was an alcoholic. He became an electrician, but drank too much, couldn’t hold a job and his wife finally kicked him out. He went back home to live with our parents, back to the old neighborhood in the foothills, at the edge of the wilderness of our youth. My parents loved him despite his trouble, but somehow that could not ease his suffering mind. He soon ended his life. Two decades later, I still wonder what I might have done to help.

I saw Mark and Kurt the other night. Mark was high on a mountain, on a peak we often hiked in our youth, where I ski or hike each week as an aging man. Kurt was on a small stage alone, playing a guitar, singing with his raspy voice. Their eyes were clear and full of excitement, like they were entering an unknown wilderness. I woke up happy.



1 comment:

  1. I never met Mark, but I do remember the truck. Owen and I would be headed up Farmington Canyon and would have to hop out and lock the hubs. Then we would continue on, usually to have a most excellent day, or evening, tracking fresh powder in Mud and Rice Bowles. The truck was one connection, one part that continued on for a number of years. I am glad to have at least that connection.