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Strange As Angels: Letter to a Friend

Dear Eric,

I don’t believe the news. How can I? There are too many things still to discuss with you, that we are still planning, and I’m not going to let some lousy rumor ruin interrupt our conversation now, after decades of pleasant and inspired repartee. As you know, the biggest lie is the unspoken one. At least that’s what they say; but who are “they”? And how does one define “falsehood” in these dreary and diseased times? We are bombarded by bad news and disease alerts and breaking news of two terrorists seen riding a moped without helmets somewhere south of Kabul. It’s a bore, man. So forgive me if I reject completely this nonsense about you being sad or despondent or less than a total hero. Because you’re a hero to me, Eric, and you always will be. And because you understand that I never gave a crap about you or anyone else who isn’t me, here’s my rickety but incontrovertible proof.

1. You are a hero because you drove me to Ukiah to buy the Beauty and the Beat by the Go-Go’s when I was a sophomore and you were a junior. We zipped over in your dad’s Subaru Brat, with the Reagan and NRA stickers in the back window. We probably got in trouble by a teacher or two, or at least scolded in a non-verbal way; but listening to “How Much More” sixteen times in a row has beautifully obscured the memory.

2. You are a hero because of the Hippie Wagon, a piece of old-world machinery rarely seen these days. The vintage ambulance was pale yellow, with a laser-like spotlight and faded red crosses on the doors. We drove it around town during Fair week like we were Hemingway and Dos Passos drinking champagne with pretty French girls, and the boom-booms from the trenches were far enough away to be confused for another case of Cristal being opened by American flyboys still too raw to respect death and her tragic petticoats. We used to park the Wagon behind the fairgrounds and sip Miller in the bottle while the carnival lights spun their way towards heaven.

3. You are a hero because one time we drove your dune buggy past the James Place, and you pointed out the rows of old apple trees still bearing fruit, which tasted like the pioneer spirit and also divine. And we drove further out to Rancheria Creek, and there was a magical swimming hole bordered on one side by a smooth sheer rock that caught the afternoon sun and there was even a sandy little beach, as if God had made it just for us. And once we saw a river otter poke his friendly head out of the water. What childhoods we had, swimming in secret waterholes with fellow wild mammals.

5. You are a hero because one time at a dance in Hopland you told me to get ready to haul ass to the car, and I didn’t know what the hell you were talking about, but said, sure, of course. And then a couple of minutes later all the power went out and I hear a whisper, “Let’s go!” The next thing we know we’re firing up 101 towards the Boonville Road. Coming over the rise just past where the Hmong refugees sell strawberries and jam to tourists in the summer, you hit 115 in your Dodge Charger. It felt like 45. You might have even turned the lights off briefly. That was really stupid. And unforgettable. Which makes you a hero.

6. You are a hero because you traded Elvis Costello’s “My Aim Is True” for a Foreigner cassette of mine. I went home and listened to “Alison” nonstop for years. Until I met a girl in college named Alison and she kissed me on the lips in Harvard Square then sprinted up Mass Ave. in the warm summer night and hopped the turnstile and ran into the crowd. I ran after her, zig-zagging pedestrians and tourists and I hurtled the turnstile too and saw Alison step onto a train going into Boston. The Red Line. The doors shut and I pounded on the doors but Alison never turned around. People were staring at me. I haven’t listened to the song since. And you laughed when I told you. Because that’s what real friends do: they laugh at the small stuff, which lets self-obsessed “victims” like me keep things in perspective. Like she’s only a girl, man, you said. And you’re only 22, you said. Yes, Eric, but an “ancient 22”! I don’t know if I told you this, Eric, but Alison moved to Tokyo and married a banker. They have a child named Zachary. I’m ecstatic that Alison has her life and it’s separate from mine. And also for you teaching me that the brief pain of a girl’s lips on yours when you’re young and thousands of miles from home goes away like snowflakes on your tongue. Poof it’s gone.  All the stupid pain disappearing into the circle of darkness. Like the Red Line into Boston.

7. You are a hero because you were my partner in Cyber-Pacific, the t-shirt company we started back during the first Gulf War. We only had one shirt, but in three convenient sizes: “U.S. Out of California!” We sold about 75 one day at a concert in Golden Gate Park. Hardly the ambulance-chasing profits we envisioned. But it was another laugh. And Bob Graham Productions made the shirts, back when Bob Graham’s ghost still attended a show now and then.

8. You are a hero because everyday of my life beginning in second grade I could count on you. And because you may not be here physically, I’m counting on you even more. That makes no sense, I know. But neither does breaking into the Ag building one night, only to be surrounded by a hundred frightened chickens! Since when were their chickens at the high school? I think I ran through a plastic wall then stomped some potted flowers. We made a blood oath to each other to keep fighting until we win. And we haven’t lost until they pry my fingers from the cassette player PLAY and VOLUME buttons.

9. You are a hero because your parents, Jack and Janese, became a second family to me. And on your birthdays Janese would make pancakes for you and Richie and me and Jerry and Danny and Jeff and Aron Evans and Darren Salisbury I think I remember a little too close to the flame perhaps. We ate dozens if not hundreds, between us all. And Jack and Janese taught me a lot of things about the world and the forest and how different thoughts are okay, too. And in these times when no one can talk about anything without a gun being pulled, I’ll be forever in your debt, and in Jack and Janese’s too.

10. You are a hero because you called me from Cal-Poly one night to give me this stiff warning: never mess around with a Ouija board. And because you said it, I never have. If you, Mr. Logical Scientist, said that ghosts were real and you just made contact, then I know it’s true. I know it’s not logical, but neither is reality. I choose absurd randomness over (tedious) linear materialist cosmology.

11. You are a hero because you moved to Truckee to ski everyday and be in the woods and do what you want. You always did what you wanted. That is heroic. And later, when you got married, you and Tamar heroically offered me your special cabin on your wedding night, because I was in no shape to drive. But somehow I caught a ride down south to meet some girl. And despite my rudeness, you never even mentioned it.

Actually, that’s more insane than heroic. But that makes you a true friend, one without judgment. I know I screwed up. I know I’ve screwed up everyday of my life, some mistakes bigger than others. And when we get together next, let’s talk about how I can get better, and maybe become a hero one day just like you.


  1. Jim Updegraff January 13, 2016

    Who is Eric and why the letter?

    • debrakeipp January 14, 2016


  2. Diane Pool January 13, 2016

    Would that we could, each one of us, have known such friendship that we could write or receive such a letter. Just once would be enough to bring peace to an ailing heart…whether we were sender, recipient, or simply blessed to be a humble witness.

  3. Denise Stiles January 14, 2016

    Zack Beautifully written, heartbreakingly funny , sweet and tragic. I recollect these days just as clear as yesterday. I am so sad for the shocking passing of Eric, for Janese’s unbearable pain , for the loss of your friend and of the Valley’s Son.

    Denise (Carr) Stiles

  4. Gina Hernandez January 14, 2016

    What a beautiful well written letter Zach. Thank you for sharing your memories with all of us. I too have memories of Eric driving his dad’s truck, all of you walking down the halls at school. My heart is heavy with sadness, not just for the loss of Eric, but also for the pain of Janese, & Erics wife. My God keep them safe and provide comfort at there time of pain and sadness.
    Sending love
    Gina (Carr) Hernandez

  5. debrakeipp January 14, 2016

    Zack, this is a great send-off for your bud. I remember another really funny memorial obit you wrote about the black man who died in his 50’s and was part of your dad’s group home who had something like size 16 or 18 b-ball shoes which he lost before a game. You rehashed the whole experience which was truly hilarious. Sweet article.

  6. Nick Carr (Pallazola) January 14, 2016

    Eric, my 2nd baseman. Rest in peace, brother.

  7. Jim Updegraff January 15, 2016

    There is only one obit – he was born, he lived, he died.

  8. Ken Hower May 4, 2016

    Thank you Zack for posting that. If you could send me an email, I’d really appreciate it. I’m on the Rubicon Trail Foundation website as a director.

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