It was September of 1974, my first day at a new school. We’d moved over the summer, and over the previous couple of months, my brothers had gone out into the neighborhood and made friends, but I was that weird loner kid who hung out at the library. I was 15, but I looked 11. Short, with a round baby face, I was frequently stopped in the halls that day by teachers who wanted to know why I wasn’t at the elementary school down the block were I belonged. The fact that I was a junior shocked them. It was a long day, not knowing anyone or where anything was, and having to constantly convince people that I was supposed to be here. My last class of the day was Drama, which it turned out was in a classroom hidden behind the cafeteria. By the time I found out where the hell it was, I was late. I got to walk in after everyone else was in their seats, so I was completely the center of attention. A quick look around the room, and it looked like the closest available seat was right in the center of the room about three rows back. I made my way awkwardly toward it, trying to look less nervous than I was. One of the girls loudly said “Oh, he’s so little! We can use him as an elf at Christmas!” As I felt the burning embarrassment begin to rise, a loud voice erupted from the back of the room. “I got dibs on Santa!” The class burst into laughter, and I looked to see who had mercifully shifted attention away from me. A big guy was sprawled on a sofa against the back wall. He had absurdly large muttonchop sideburns, and was, improbably enough, wearing a dark green choir robe over his shoulders like a cape. He was every inch a king holding court over his domain, indulging the teacher as she taught.
That was my introduction to Wally Oden. A would-be Falstaff, equal parts viking warlord and court jester. At first I was a bit intimidated by him; it was a lot to take in. He was loud and bold and boisterous, the life of the party that existed wherever he was, and I wasn’t sure if I was invited. But eventually I caught his last name and realized it was the same as that of one of the hooligans my older brother was palling around with. So I approached one day. “Hey, are you related to Larry Oden?” He told me Larry was his brother, begged me to not hold it against him, and asked how I knew him, because it was pretty obvious we didn’t run in the same circles. In Freaks and Geeks terms, Larry would have been Daniel, and I was somewhere between Sam and Neil. I told him Larry was friends with my brother.
“Joe’s your brother?!!?” He bellowed. He went on to give his entirely unflattering opinion. We bonded over our mutual disregard for our siblings.
At first we saw each other in the Drama class and at play rehearsals; after a while I joined his lunch circle and met several of the guys I later knew as “the Muggs” (Mis-Understood Good Guys), a bunch of oddballs and outcasts, mostly from lousy families, who had banded together in Revenge of the Nerds fashion. I’ve been threatening for years to write a history of the MUGGs, but so far this post is the closest I’ve gotten. There are many stories to tell, but I need to wait for the statute of limitations to run out on some, and for the participants to promise not to sue me before I can share them.
The MUGGs generally congregated each evening at one of the local all-night coffee shops (whichever one hadn’t thrown them out yet) to socialize, laugh, invent shenanigans, drink a lot of coffee, rarely order food, and tip badly (we were all broke). Trying to get coffee to spray out of somebody’s nose was always the underlying goal. Wally wasn’t the funniest, but when he got off a zinger, it was a good one, and he was always at the center of the table, exerting a force not unlike gravity, never demanding attention but always having it. He was the soul of the MUGGs.
Much of my pop culture knowledge was acquired at that table at Carrow’s-Coco’s-Michael’s-Olde Coffee Pot-etc. A typical conversation might veer from Doc Savage to vintage car parts to Ed Platt’s performance in Atlantis, the Lost Continent in a minute. I was well-steeped in comic books and TV, but my family didn’t go to a lot of movies, so I had a lot of catching up to do. The only movie that comes close to catching the flavor of those evenings is Barry Levinson’s Diner.
After high school, Wally and I became roommates. His mom had moved out of their apartment and Wally decided to stay, so he invited me and Bill (another one of the core MUGGS; I was MUGG #17) to move in. In that apartment was where I first heard Harry Chapin, first watched giant robot anime in Japanese (UFO Diapolon on UHF channel 22), read a lot of science fiction, blew stuff up in the living room, drew derogatory cartoons of my friends (now all mercifully lost to the ages), and learned to live on mac & cheese and bologna sandwiches, because we were all broke all the time.
For a while, Wally and I both worked for the same company, a silkscreen shop in Azusa; I made the artwork, he cleaned and exposed the screens and eventually did some printing, enough to allow him to move into offset printing at a better company, while I moved on to working at newspapers, design studios, ad agencies, and so on.
I was Best Man at his wedding. He was Best Man at mine. When we were supposed to get fitted for our tuxedos for my wedding, he showed up wearing medical scrubs; he had just left the hospital, his daughter Teri having been born an hour or two earlier. Most people would have canceled the fitting and stayed at the hospital, but Wally had made a commitment and commitments were to be kept. If he said he’d be somewhere, he showed up, usually early. He kept his appointment and then headed back to be with his baby.
We went on camping trips together, to comic conventions together. We helped each other move several times. His grandson was one of my archery students. We were fixtures in each other’s lives for four decades.
A few years ago, Wally had a serious heart attack and was put on permanent disability. Afterward, he seemed to develop a fatalistic attitude, as if he figured he was going to die anyway, so there was no point in quitting smoking or changing his diet. He also seemed to become more critical and negative and more bitter about life in general. Of course, a better person than me might have recognized the signs of depression, and a better friend would have made an effort to be more forgiving and understanding and reach out to their hurting friend. I was not that better person or friend. I still saw Wally at special events like weddings, parties, reunions and the like, but I didn’t call or initiate contact anymore. Part of it was that he, like a lot of people, had become more political, and a lot more strident in expressing his politics, while I was going the other direction. I had to unfriend him on Facebook if I wanted to stay friends in real life, because neither of us much liked the version of the other that lived there. We were too strident and too impatient with each other. I think that’s what Facebook does best.
I know Wally told some of our mutual friends that he thought I hated him. I didn’t hate him, but I hated the way I felt around him. The truth was that the Wally I knew was getting harder to find behind the bitter cynic who was wearing his skin. I should have made the time to see him, to talk to him about it, to be his friend. The way he had been my friend and taught me about so much of life 40 years earlier. But I didn’t. It was just easier to limit my exposure. To leave him alone, when the one thing he didn’t want was to be alone, when being alone was the thing that was making him more unhappy and difficult to be around. Maybe I could have helped him. At the least, I could have been a better friend.
Wally had another heart attack on Saturday. He died at home, 25 days before his 61st birthday. For 42 years, he was my friend. Now he’s my friend who died too soon. My friend that I had pushed away, and now it’s too late to pull him back. He was my big brother, even if I was annoyed with him for the last few years. I wish I had made him laugh the last times we were together. I’d like to hear that big booming laugh again.