Thursday, May 10, 2007

Eulogy for Mike

My old friend Mike died a month ago today. Born Richard Mikesell in 1938, in later life he preferred the more formal first name, but he was always Mike to me.

We met in the 11th grade at John Muir High School in Pasadena. I remember Mike then because he always wore a blue bomber jacket with a colorful dragon embroidered on the back. It was a present from his brother, a Korean War veteran, he explained, who brought it back for him from Japan.

Many of my memories of Mike are lost in the mists of time, but colors and shapes stand out. Mike the poet, Mike the game player, Mike the penultimate hippie, Mike the poser, Mike the roomate, and Mike the lover. While he may have been married once or twice, he never had children. And I have learned from the Virtual Memorial set up for him, that he had a close relationship with his brother's family. In the guestbook, his niece Lyn wrote:
You were such a constant in my life and a very important part of my growing up. I love you so much and miss you dearly. I miss our daily conversations, your humor, your wisdom and your strength. I miss the care, the love and the closeness we shared. I'm so grateful that I was there with you in the hospital during the last few weeks of your life. You waited for me to get there the last night, and I was there, holding your hand, telling you "it was okay" and to go ahead and just "let it go." It was time and at 3:42 am God called you home to be with Him.
Although I haven't seen Mike since our 45th high school reunion five years ago (here he is with Ernie in the chair and me on the right), we kept in touch from time to time by email. He always signed his posts "Pal." Three years ago he wrote that he had just returned from Las Vegas where "I placed in the top 25 amateur senior pool players in the world and my team was also in the top 25 .....there were 12,000 entries from all over the world." After I told Mike I was studying Spanish, he wrote: "Yo hablo in espanol, para que mucho tiempo en Colombia.....para cocaina.....Yo hablo bastante para negotio y otra cosas....como amor....." Of Oaxaca, where I was headed, he said: "it had the best grass at the time I traveled through hit and the road waved like a ribbon in a breeze before us and we had to pull over to get our bearings." When he went to Bangkok a few years ago I put him in touch with my friend Jerry who lives there. Jerry later wrote that Mike seemed more interested in playing pool in the bars than in meeting girls. Mike had his hands full of both during his 68 years.

I heard of Mike's death from his brother, responding to an email change of address notice I sent to him. Although I know from Lyn's words that he died in the hospital, I don't yet know know the cause. His name was on the committee planning our high school class's 50th reunion this year. Unlike many of our fellow students, Mike did not stick to one career but rather dabbled in many, licit and illicit. He told me a few years ago that "things are chugging right along here with some screenwriting, some 'life-coaching' and some real estate.......a lot of conjecture time." He sent me the synoposis of "Harbinger," a story about an autistic child who can see the future and is therefore considered a threat by the authorities. It was written under the pen name of Austin Hughes. As far as I know, the script was never sold.

Much of what Mike told me over the years was open to question. He said that he shared the Oscar for writing the screenplay for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" with Bo Goldman and Laurence Hauben, but that claim is not supported by any information I could find. Goldman is still writing, but Hauben, a friend of Mike's, died in 1985. Mike intimated that he supplied the drugs that fueled production of the script for the movie of Ken Kesey's book. Another scheme Mike told me about involved a "talent agency" which supplied models and beauty queens to the Sultan of Brunei's brother for lavish parties. This became a scandal in 1997 when one of the women claimed she had been lured to Brunei to be a sex slave. Mike said a documentary had been made in which he had been interviewed, but I never found a copy of it. When Rowan & Martin's "Laugh-In" was a hit TV show, Mike told me he dated one of its starlets, Goldie Hawn.

Mike loved women, beautiful and sexy women. The photo page of his Virtual Memorial is full of pictures of Mike with various women. He loved to brag about how gorgeous his girls were, and would call me to let me speak with his latest flame. Some of them lasted a long time and became friends. Mike claimed to have set up a web site where lovely unclad beauties posed for paying customers, but he never let me see it.

My warmest memories of Mike come from the several months we spent together as roomates in an old house on Regent Street in Berkeley with two other friends from Pasadena. All of us were students at UC, but I can't recall Mike's major. To help furnish our house, Mike drove up to an unpainted furniture store that displayed its wares on the sidewalk, put a dresser in the trunk and drove off without paying. Then he dressed in workman's clothes and pulled up to a Vic Tanney gym where he confidently took several chairs from the waiting room and added them to the haul. Because he had difficulty with his share of the rent, Mike regularly contributed to dinner by shoplifting steaks and cubes of butter from the nearby market. He had a girlfriend from Switzerland, named Bridgette as I recall, but also spent considerable time in the company of a male teaching assistant whom we all assumed was gay. I was the member of a campus political action group called SLATE and talked Mike into joining. Before I knew it, he was one of the leaders and ran, unsuccessfully for campus office. Mike always had charisma; he could charm the paint off walls. After I left the university, Mike was involved somehow in the Free Speech Movement and he later lived offcampus in a house with a man who starred briefly in a TV show. All grist for the mill.

It was the Sixties and drugs were a temptation for many. Mike was writing poetry and training to be a guru, and one night he came to my little house on South Marengo in Pasadena. First he got me stoned and then he began reciting poetry from memory. It all sounded like conversation to me; I couldn't tell the poetry from the prose. Later Mike lived in the guest house of a mansion in Topanga Canyon and practiced guruship. I tried to be his disciple but the dope was too powerful and I would fall asleep. Mike finally got caught smuggling drugs across the Mexican border in the second gas tank of a Jaguar and served time at the federal prison on Terminal Island next to Long Beach. Among his colleagues there was Charles Manson who, Mike said, was a lousy baseball player. I went down to visit him with his mother and spent an hour in the prison lunchroom with a view of the bay. My recollection is that Mike was upbeat, as he always was, even in that environment. I can't recall ever seeing him depressed.

There was another arrest for drugs later but I don't recall the details. Maybe it involved his lifelong friend Bobby "Boris" Pickett, songerwriter of "Monster Mash," who, amazingly, died the week after Mike from leukemia. Mike once told me that Pickett used some of the earnings from his hit song to buy hash in Afghanistan which he smuggled into the U.S. inside oriental carpets. When I was in the music business and experimenting with a variety of drugs, I lived in a house in Venice near the beach and Mike lived several blocks away in a highrise condo. I asked him to get me some heroin and he brought me a small packet of Mexican brown. It sat around my house for a mouth before I emptied it in the toilet. Later, Mike told me he made use of his experiences outside the law to help counsel offenders on probation.

It's no wonder that Mike became a championship pool player. He loved games. When I was 17 and recuperating in bed from a femur broken in a car crash, Mike came to my house with a chess set and said: "let's learn how to play." Not long after, he went into the Army, and when he got out he was a champion chess player. He took up pool with the same competitor's fervor, and soon was earning money as a pool hustler. He may have even studied under the legendary Minnesota Fats. I'm happy to see that he turned legit, but I don't doubt that he tried a hustle every now and then.

Thinking about Mike's death brings on thoughts about my own impending demise. Whether it happens now or ten years from now, it will take place, the end of me. Life is a terminal disease. Here at the monastery where I am currently on retreat, the comforts of Christian belief are close at hand. Over the mountain behind me, at Tassajara Zen Monastery, a different set of mythological tools are available. We humans cannot bear the uncertainty of death, the end of me. But I think we all have the task to undertake death without clinging to life and with dignity. Mike was a seeker all of his life and I have no doubt that he passed the test.

I'm sorry you're gone, Mike. You were a major presence in my life. I hope you wrote your autobiography and entrusted the pages to someone because I doubt that anyone I know has lived a more interesting and exciting life. You were a boon companion and a warm friend. I shall miss you.

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