Becoming Me

I have a remarkable friend, for many reasons but one unusual one—from a cultural perspective, or at least a technological one, he’s still living in the 1980s, when we became friends.

He has a landline, not all that unusual but with the same phone number his parents first got back in the 1960s, ported over after their deaths. And no cell phone.

There’s more, though. After completing graduate school 30 years ago, he returned to his home town, worked some odd jobs, and eventually got hired as an actor at a local dinner theater, a popular place for decades.

Much of its popularity comes from my friend, I’d suggest, because he’s been there forever. He plays Scrooge every year in their production of The Christmas Carol, which seems to always be a huge hit. He does 8 shows a week, changing every month or so, year-round.

If you catch my drift. The only job he’s really had in the past quarter-century or so has been on a stage, not an office or even a restaurant, where he might have to encounter a keyboard and monitor.

He’s not computer illiterate; he’s not a computer anything. He’s somehow managed to stay alive and functional in the 21st century with no working knowledge of anything electronic. He mostly pays cash, or writes a check.

I take a bit back. He has a DVD player. Probably a CD player, too.

This staggers me, and probably you. I’ve had a personal computer in my home for 30 years, usually multiple computers. I’ve had a cell phone since the late 1990s, back when they were useless more than 30 miles outside of town. I resisted smart phones for a while, but now you couldn’t pry it out of my pocket. I’m a slave to modern technology and think about that sometimes, but mostly I accept and stay grateful for the good parts.

My friend isn’t living in the past; the past lives in him, unchanging because he couldn’t think of a reason to change. It fascinates and sort of horrifies me in equal measure. His life is pretty much as it was when we met, and that was a long time ago.

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South Pacific, 1977. I’m the bald guy.

South Pacific, 1977. I’m the bald guy.

It was over 40 years ago, that’s how long. He was a college freshman when I was a sophomore, a skinny, goofy kid who was broad and theatrical on stage, burying remarkable talent that took a few years to emerge. I left college after that year, thinking I’d just take a semester off and getting waylaid by love and sadness and money. By the time I returned, he was one of the few left from my first time there.

We were theater majors, people who bonded naturally through shared passion and just the family feelings that come when you produce a play. This man and I became close friends, and in the spring of my first year back, out of money and needing a job, he told me about an audition for summer dinner theater at the place he worked.

It’s not a hard relationship to follow. He gave me a head’s up, and shepherded me through the audition process. He’s the one who told me about our fellow cast member for the summer, a singer from Texas, and for a fair amount of time he was the only friend who knew the two of us had fallen in love, awkwardly and at a complicated time. And he was the natural choice to be my best man at our wedding, and he tagged along when we moved to Seattle, staying a couple of years.

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We talked for an hour or so last night, firming up the summer. For a year now, our fellow cast members from the 1983 summer show, the summer we got married, have been discussing having a reunion. After a few comments, particularly following my visit last spring to my old college town and that dinner theater, still going strong, we began talking about getting together. We considered last summer but the timing was too soon, too many plans with people in different parts of the country.

Love at first sight.

Love at first sight.

So we finally picked a weekend in late July of this year, and after months of slow and steady planning we’ve got a full crew. All eight cast members, plus musicians, plus some spouses, plus a few offspring, plus a couple of others from the previous year’s show (which Julie and I, and my friend, were in), will be reuniting on my 61st birthday in Flagstaff, 36 years after a summer that changed our lives.

I set up a Facebook group a year ago, and for the past 48 weeks I’ve tried to keep the date in everyone’s mind, posting once a week or so, easy. Obviously my tech-challenged friend was harder to corral, but it all worked out.

And as I mentioned in our meandering conversation last night, I’ve realized that I have levels of affection for my past, particularly that formative period as a young adult. I stay in touch with a lot of people from my college days, almost all of them theater people. We sometimes reminisce about the plays we did, the fun we had, the trouble we avoided that has us shaking our heads at this stage, wondering how we survived.

But this is muted sentiment, now. It was so long ago, and I can only think of a handful, maybe 3-4 people, who managed to carve out careers in some aspect of show business, none of them famous or fabulously successful. Most moved on, eventually, many of them doing community theater or teaching, keeping the passion going with a lower flame. The memories are nice, the people still friendly, but time has passed.

Singing for my supper, though? Spending my summers in a small mountain college town, sleeping late, showing up for work at 4pm, singing and dancing and entertaining tourists five nights a week, getting paid, getting used to seeing each other backstage in our underwear, going out after the show every night, falling in love with each other—I realize now that these were the important ones, the special people in each other’s stories.

Julie and I married each other, in the middle of summer. A cast member married one of the theater’s cooks, an engineering student, and another married one of the restaurant’s piano players. There are about 15 offspring and at least three grandchildren.

And me. My life has been a journey with remarkable experiences and a bunch of bad years, but I realize now that I’ll probably never be happier than I was in those summers, young and unburdened, doing the only thing I ever really wanted to do: Make people happy, make people laugh, make people sing along, and do it with those I loved and enjoyed.

The rest of my life was just waiting to happen, but for a moment I stopped, and just enjoyed being young, being alive, being in love. Being me, and now I get to go back, and remember.

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Chuck SigarsComment