Fifty years ago I was thrown together in a dorm room as a college freshman in Kansas with a kid from Junction City and a guy from Hutchinson. It was to be one of those serendipitous positive events that helped shape my life. I have heard horror stories from parents about their children’s and grandchildren’s college roommates from hell. Mine couldn’t have been better!
Josúe Perez was a tough, smart little sucker who, as the son of a decorated Sergeant Major in the Army, had been all oer the globe and knew how to take care of himself. He spoke fluent Spanish and was studying to be a teacher. Freeman Lance Miller, a music major and violin whiz, was a gentle soul who grew up in a “big” city close to my small rural hometown, but whom I had never met during high school although our paths had surely crossed dragging Hutch main street on Friday nights. I was just a tall, skinny kid just off the farm who loved nature and science and had aspirations to be a doctor.
We survived that first year as a team, and then became fraternity brothers, having a ball along the way as they corrupted a Mennonite kid by teaching me to dance and drink beer.
Lance transferred to Kansas University his junior year, and he became the doctor as well as a devoted Jayhawker! Joe went on to teach at our college then led an impressively varied international career including a stint as president of a technical college in Phoenix. I decided to forego medical school (damned advanced calculus) and opted to save the world as a lawyer, at a time when the country was in great social ferment. I was elected as chair of Kansas Collegiate Young Democrats (I think there were maybe 10 of us.) and my political fate was sealed.
In the ensuing years, we lost touch with each other, as is often the case, with jobs, families, and life in general intervening. So I was delighted when about a year ago Joe, who had settled in Phoenix, tracked me down via Facebook. We reconnected and proceeded to get back in touch with Lance who was still practicing in Kansas City. In a few months we were planning a reunion of the Three Amigos at my place in the Colorado mountains. Would we get along?? With long-lost friends it’s always a roll of the dice. At a recent high school reunion I marveled and was sometimes flabbergasted how my good friends and fellow students had turned out so differently, especially in terms of politics and world view.
The reunion celebration started out at Denver International Airport and continued on the way to my cabin where, as might be expected, we spent the evening reminiscing and guffawing about the fun we had in college, the characters we associated with, and all the goofy things we did (like the panty raid that made the front page of the NY Times when kids at other colleges were burning flags). Some turned out to be bank presidents, others educators, and a few lawyers and outright con artists. We talked family, kids, grandkids. One common feature: No one had lived the life depicted in Leave It To Beaver. Yet we had somehow turned out pretty normal, had done okay, and were enjoying the golden years.
That first night I wrapped up the two big city flatlanders in blankets and took them out on the deck so they could see what the Milky Way really looked like.
Next day we four-wheeled up to a high-elevation ghost town not too far from my place where we nosed around the ruins and engaged in some hijinks in an open mine shaft followed by an incredible display of daring and perfect balance as we nimbly rock hopped across a stream at least six inches deep.
Then under a blue-bird Colorado sky on the way home we soaked in some fabulous mountain scenery that had the boys gawking.
By now I figured Joe and Lance were appropriately acclimated to the thin air, so had them practice a little fly casting in preparation for our big outing the next day. That evening we grilled up a massive amount of hamburgers, spicy hot dogs, and Italian sausage and threw diets to the wind. After dinner, Lance and I were particularly impressed with Joe’s exceptional kitchen patrol and cleanup skills.
My sink has not been as scrubbed and clean since it was installed 20 years ago! After a short BS session we hit the hay early, visions of big trout dancing in our heads.
Next morning, after the gents had thawed out in the 50 degree temps I keep in the cabin at night (aka old-fashioned way to air condition in the summer), we went fly fishing on one of my favorite streams.
By day’s end, both had proved to be artful anglers and my star pupils.
They both showed off their newly acquired piscatorial skills by casting, hooking, and landing the big boys all on their own!! Joe netted a large 16.5-inch rainbow and Lance was on his heels with a with a hard-fighting brownie that was over 15-inches!! Trophies for a small water.
All told, we caught dozens of fish, scared far more to the next county, and somewhat miraculously, neither of the neophytes took a dunking although both threatened to take the plunge a couple of times. Admittedly, we did have to winch Joe from a mud flats where he was stuck calf-deep in his waders. Overall, the guide was duly impressed with their performances.
That night the three septuagenarians relaxed and recuperated in easy chairs at the cabin. It had been a long day that ended with us running to my SUV and then sitting out a massive mountain rain and hail storm. Our talk finally turned to politics and the state of the country—a risky proposition. I am a yellow-dog Democrat whose politics were shaped more by my Mom’s side of the family than the conservative Mennonites in my hometown. Her dad was a railroader and union man who worshipped Franklin Roosevelt for saving the country during the Great Depression. Joe came from a military family, is a bishop in the Mormon Church, and supported the GOP. Lance was his usual thoughtful, middle-of-the-road self who respected all three sides of any argument.
Fireworks could have been in the offing, but astoundingly we found ourselves pretty much in agreement on some of the most controversial issues that are dividing our country in such a bitter fashion. Here’s how the conversation went:
- Immigration: All of us admire the spirit of people from other countries who set out for the USA in search of better jobs and a better life for their families. But we all agreed illegal immigration has to be confronted, and in a decidedly humane way. Illegal immigrants have no doubt taken jobs from our fellow citizens, often from those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, and have undermined unions who have historically protected working men and women from capitalistic avarice. Interestingly, each of us chafed at the experience of having clerks in stores who couldn’t speak English, most of all Joe who speaks fluent Spanish. I threw out my solution that got nods from Joe and Lance—toss the business people and big farmers who hire the illegals into jail. Cut the snake off at its head in other words. A few high-profile prosecutions with actual jail terms for those who break the law, and you can bet the message would get out loud and clear. Of course there would have to be an improved data base of legal workers for honest businesses to rely on and protections against discrimination for US citizens of Hispanic descent.
- Loss of opportunity: There is a lot of debate about so-called “diversity” these days. I am an old-fashioned believer in the melting pot view of the USA—E Pluribus Unum–and much more concerned that America live up to our guiding belief of being the land of equal opportunity no matter your color, creed, or country of origin. My generation had a 90% chance of doing better economically than our parents; our kids only a 50% chance. The gap between the haves and have-nots is growing in this nation, particularly between those with a college education and those without. The three of us all agreed that this is one of the major challenges facing the country. One possible solution—guarantee that anyone who wants to go to college or a technical school can get four years free….IF they agree to do two years of national service (the military, Peace Corps, Volunteers For America, teaching in poor school districts, etc.). Today a college education is, in my estimation, about the same value of what a free high school education was to my generation. And as importantly, that essential underpinning of a democracy—a spirit of national commitment and service–seems errant today. The time I spent in the US Army during the Vietnam Era was one of the most important leveling, educational experiences of my life. Where else would a Kansas farm boy get to know tough Ohio steel workers, ghetto black guys from Chicago, upstanding proselytizing Mormons from Utah, and slow-talking boys from the Deep South…and emerge as buddies with them. It changed my entire world view and made me more tolerant of those different from me in the way they look and what they believe. One last thing we seemed to agree on was that none of the three of us, who are fortunate not to be struggling paying our bills, needed tax cuts if it means more money for the rich and less health care, less decent housing, less schooling, and less opportunity for the vast majority of our fellow citizens.
- Pope Francis: Joe was raised as a Catholic and is now a devout Mormon. Lance was raised as a Baptist and raised his kids as Catholics. I am a jack Mennonite who practices no religion other than that of the wisdom of Mother Nature, but admires the Christian ways of many Mennonites who practice what they preach in their everyday lives. Interestingly, we found that all three of us are great admirers of Pope Francis, a man who embodies and practices true Christian principles almost all of us can agree on, particularly those relating to helping the poor and less fortunate.
I came away from those conversations thinking that a substantial number of Americans would agree with us—that there is much more that unites than divides us. We need to start there, lowering our voices and listening to each other. I also came away so thankful that I was fortunate to have had such good men as friends in my youth and that we reconnected later in life. Indeed, the Three Amigos did find fraternity AND trout after all those years.
The drive back to Denver was a convivial affair, recounting our triumphs on the trout stream that seemed to have become a tad magnified. We stopped in historic Cañon City and enjoyed a massive barbecue lunch, after which I offered to take the boys to an urgent care center to have their blood pumped clean, but they politely declined.
Soon we were at the airport saying our goodbyes and promising to do it all again next year. As I drove away, I was smiling to myself–we had found fraternity and trout together after five decades, renewing those old strong bonds we had forged some many years ago.
PostScript: I received this thoughtful, heart-felt, and inspiring note from my buddy Joe after he read a draft of the blog. Thanks, Joe. Lucky to have you and Lance as friends!
You nailed the 4 days perfectly. I spoke at church Sunday and I shared almost the same words as though we collaborated on what to say. Afterwards people came up and appreciated the comments and thought the story was beautiful. I told them it wasn’t a story but reality. Though separated by time, true friends are never strangers.
Three people from three different backgrounds and beliefs have common ground because we know how to communicate and appreciate each other’s opinion and thoughts. Our free agency gives us a broader understanding of other’s thoughts and beliefs. We have built a fraternal bond that will last for all time.
Chris, thank you for being so accommodating. You were a very gracious host and true friend. The experience is forever embedded in my journal of memories. We have so much that unites us and really nothing that divides us because we know each other well. Now, let’s go out and teach the world that concept.