Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of my best friend, Charlie O’Brien. His daughter Michelle and I have started a Facebook Page to commemorate this sad milestone and to share photos and memories. Charlie was my mentor and editor, but he did not live to see me write my first book, something he had urged me to do for many years. Ten years have passed and sometimes an entire day goes by withut my feeling the hollowness caused by missing my best friend.
Shortly after he died, his family held a memorial service for Charlie, in a tent near the water in Quincy, Massachusetts. Some of us read eulogies. I worked hard on mine. I wanted to capture the spirit of our friendship and the story it told. Perhaps I’ll write that book some day. Carlie would like that I think.
Here’s what I wrote ten years back:
“Finally, I have the last word. After 37 years, I’m free of O’Brien’s editing. He can’t hammer me with a: “Jesus Christ, Israel, just cut to the bloody chase.” No more will Charlie tell me to move a graph up here, make a chop there. When I’m done speaking today, he doesn’t get his chance to turn to you and say: “What really happened
Charlie would have enjoyed today. To him, family and friends were as good as it got. Can’t you just picture him sitting here, listening– shaking his head side-to-side, tugging a beer, toking a cigar waiting his turn, saying a paucity of words, both wise and irreverent.
I wish this were a roast, but it is not.
For nearly 40 years, Charlie O’Brien and I laughed together, often at the expense of one of us or the other. Jousting was essential to our relationship almost to the end. So was humor. Hiking three years ago at
Tahoe, we sat drying on a rock after he had guided us into a snow drift. Earlier, that day, he had demanded that I accept he was going to die which was tough and for that reason, we had been hiking mostly in
silence until Charlie guided directly into a waist deep snowdrift.
As we sat there, I asked him if he had any wisdom to
impart–something he now saw that he had not understood before… Some
pearl to leave behind.”
He thought for a moment. “I might have been wrong about the
vitamins,” he said with the straightest of faces, then he gazed
pensively out at the Lake. Charlie, over the years, had fanatically
consumed entire alphabets of Vitamin pills, using a vile protein
concoction as his chaser.
Three years later, I would be sitting on a barstool next to Charlie
for the last time. Cancer and its so-called treatments had reduced him
to sipping soft drinks through straws. By contrast, I was downing his favorite droughts at a steady pace. There was a chance, he told me, that he’d be taking medical marijuana pills. The juxtaposition of
preferred recreational substances would become our last good laugh. He would die three weeks later in the company of people who loved him.
I cannot believe he’s really gone. I expect to see him at any minute. I picture him packing for yet another trip. Charlie loved, LOVED to travel.
Our travels and misadventures together were legendary. They began in 1968 with a hike up a New Hampshire mountain. Of course we got lost and I swear it was his fault. Over the years we probably took more than 40
trips together, many on extended Thanksgiving weekends.
There were three rules for the annual trips:
(1) It had to be an adventure.
(2) It had to be cheap.
(3) It had to be new.
Cheap fell away first. Then, we repeated a few destinations, but the adventures were always unique.
We did amazing things.
We hiked the Grand Canyon, when I was 50 and he was 55, in a single day. We dived in the Seychelle Sea Caves in Mazatland’s Mayan Jungle, meeting locals who lived in thatched huts and communicated by cell
phone. We kayaked to a desert island on the Sea of Cortez where a monsoon marooned us for three days. We snuck into Cuba and spent two unsuccessful days searching for an authentic Cohiba Cigar staying in
the National Hotel, once owned by the Chicago mob. We visited Death Valley, where Charlie duped me into watching a ‘pantomime ballet performed by a 75-year-old pot-bellied hag dancing to opera on a
wind-up Victrola. We laughed so hard we had to go out side to pee.
Sailing to Catalina Island on “Manana,” the boat we owned together—actually the stern still said “Kewtie Pie– with a ‘K,’ because we never got around to replacing the sissy name the previous owners had given her– we hit a storm and I snarled the jib. We would have motored in but Charlie had bought another cheap
battery that–just like the last cheap battery– died. Ten-foot waves were breaking across our stern and we were losing our heading. Charlie shrugged and said it was a fine day to die, but it turned out to be a
better one to live.
One time, we were drinking in an Ensinada, Mexico dance hall, where locals paid ten pesetas to fox trot with Indian women and Charlie almost had me convinced that I really wanted to eat the worm, when Federales with loaded and pointed machine guns suddenly appeared, lining up everyone up against the wall for a search except for us two gringos at the bar who thought it wisest not to mention that the bad guys had ducked into the woman’s room and crawled out the window.
The last moment of the last night of most jaunts were usually savored on some hotel balcony overlooking outrageous beauty. We’d share cigars, cognac, philosophy and humor. “Great trip,” Charlie would
conclude–then fall asleep in his chair with drink in hand. We had already planned our next Thanksgiving trip. We were going to follow the route of the Civil War from Gettysburg to Shiloh when cancer ended
Charlie’s versions of these stories and mine were almost always at
odds. It doesn’t matter whose were more accurate. Often, we were both
too loaded to know. We shared huge chunks of life together. They were
among the best of my life.
I met O’Brien in 1967 at the Quincy Patriot Ledger’s West edition
office. He was an editor and I a reporter. I applied to be his #2.
Everyone thought I was the worst possible choice, and they were
probably right. But Charlie swung the bat for me and I got the job. We
sat facing each other from midnight to dawn, five nights a week for
nearly four years. We got to know each other in eight-hour doses. He
was my boss but became my friend and eventually the best friend I would
We were adventure companions and sailing buddies. As roommates for two years we were the oddest of couples. He was my mentor and surrogate big brother. Our adventures nearly killed us a couple of times. We
nearly got arrested a couple other times, or into a brawl or two in seedy, foreign places. We laughed lots and argued a fair amount. He understood who I was but liked me anyhow.
He was always calm–even facing death. Most perils, he described as “a bit hairy.” He called cancer, “the luck of the draw.”
He gave me the two things I need most—encouragement and shit. He gave a lot of people encouragement. He saved the shit for a select few of us. His encouragement pointed me toward the top and his shit stopped
me from going over it.
Charlie taught me about life and living; about death and acceptance. He taught me ethics without preaching, about tolerance without suffering assholes and about patience even if I wouldn’t get to the bloody point.
Charlie usually put his focus on other people. He was always non-assuming. I never knew him to betray a secret. He contrived little custom rituals with people he liked. He became my wife Paula’s cooking
assistant, where he gave her sage advice on children and her husband. He very rarely lost his temper except once when Paula hid his liquor on a camping trip.
Charlie was actually a very simple person. He didn’t change that
much in the years I knew him. In the end, he just wanted to have more
good days than bad and the good days were often defined by who he spent
them with. He enjoyed reading or hearing “a good yarn.” He cultivated a
hard-ass image but everyone knew he was a softie.
He had disdain for self-important people, Republicans and hypocrites. He didn’t usually trust people in uniform, expect Park Rangers. (Brother John, a Boston cop didn’t count ‘cause he never wore
the damned thing.) He was a committed atheist. He usually had a buck for the panhandler. He read voluminously and very slowly. He preferred fact to fiction. Three favorite books were: “Memoirs of US Grant,” “Into Thin Air” and “Undaunted Courage.” The only thing I ever heard him call inspiring was “Tuesdays with Maury.” He almost never lied and was consistently objective and logical. He almost always drove too fast.
Above everything, he valued his family and friends, even more so at the end.
Charlie considered himself a better editor than writer. Yet, he authored a truly unforgettable work: “Health Updates,” which his friends received by email. It broke newspaper rules by burying hard news leads inside little good news sandwiches. In the middle graph we’d find telltale words like “inoperable” or “a mild discomfort in the
lower jaw.” As the author warned, Health Updates would end sadly. Before it did, we learned about courage, strength, reality and that justice has nothing to do with it.
I last visited Charlie two weeks before he died. I stayed for only a few minutes because he was clearly suffering. There just weren’t enough good days left.
I miss him terribly. I’d give anything if he could tell me now to tighten and rearrange these few paragraphs. I still see him shaking his head from side-to-side, saying: “Jesus Christ, Israel—would you just
cut to the bloody chase?
I’d even give him the last word.”