Memories and Stories of A Good Life

This is the eulogy I delivered for a great friend last week.

Jerry and I have been friends for over fifty years. Our paths have diverged and crossed many times. During times when we had more in common, we traveled the same paths for long periods. We helped each other get through stressful periods in our lives. Then he would go off and do his thing and I would do mine.

Our interests changed, but I always knew I had a friend in Jerry, a friend I could call on who would come running and bring all his tools and equipment. A friend who was not afraid to get his hands dirty helping out.

I first met him when I worked at City Pharmacy in downtown Commerce. He had left the job I held at the drugstore to become a men’s clothing salesman for Jim Clark’s down the street.

He sat down at the counter one day about closing time as I was wrestling with the wooden pallets behind the soda fountain. He made some suggestions as to how to do it more efficiently. I looked over at this handsome fellow all decked out in a tie and sport coat. That’s the first time I remember seeing Jerry Lambert. I admit I was a little irritated at his unsolicited advice, but he soon proved himself to be sincere and friendly and shared a few more helpful hints about the job he had held before me.

Our kids grew up together. Kim and Shelly have maintained a friendship from about age 6 to now. I won’t mention how many decades that covers. Jerry and Derek built the fence around our yard almost thirty years ago. By the way, Derek, that is the only fence on the place that I have never had to repair.

When I first heard that Jerry Don was ill, several things came to my mind immediately. One is the way that Jerry liked to get “up close and personal”. We were about the same height, but he usually managed to get himself up under my chin, even going so far as to bump his shoulder against my chest or put a hand on my arm when he was talking to me. I noticed that it was his habit to talk to everyone that way. He liked looking you right in the eyes. That’s just one of the ways Jerry Don showed how much he liked people and why he had such a loving family and so many friends.

When I went to see him at home the first time after hearing that he was not going to survive, he seemed like his usual exuberant self, not much subdued from pain or medication, ignoring the elephant in the room—the forecast of his impending death. I listened to him describe the path his illness had taken, the decisions he had made, the courageous path he had chosen in how to live the last days of his life.

We were sitting side by side on barstools and when he turned to look at me directly, I asked him if I could tell him a few stories—if I could relate the memories that had flooded my mind and stayed there.  But first, I told him about another friend that I had visited a few years back who was in a similar situation. I admitted that as I drove away after seeing that friend for the last time, I knew he had done more for me than I could ever do for him.

I had not had any eloquent or soothing words for that friend and I regretted that I did not have any for Jerry. All I had were memories. He asked me to tell the stories. I think they say a lot about Jerry Don Lambert.

The first has to do with the dune buggy he used to own. After being chained to a desk twelve hours a day for twelve weeks of tax season, I always thirsted for the outdoors. Jerry, in his usual generous spirit, always loaned me the Volkswagen he had converted to a dune buggy.

One year, I found a particularly good stretch of off-road to my liking and, exercising what I viewed as superior driving skill, plunged that VW into an embankment, bending at least one wheel. I feared the entire frontend would have to be replaced, definitely repaired.

I got it to the shop, called Jerry, offered profuse apologies and promised to repair the damage. His cheerful response:   “Don’t worry about it, partner. That thing is for having fun. It’s made to take rough treatment.”

Then there was the ping pong tournament. We were in New Mexico on a skiing trip with our families and a few more many years ago and found ourselves in an after-ski place that had a ping pong table. There were four or five of us guys, so I suggested a tournament. Before we started playing, Jerry picked up a paddle that quickly looked like a natural appendage to his arm. He tapped the paddle on the table and said, “I have to warn you, boys. I cut my teeth on a ping pong table”.

I smiled, thinking of the hundreds of lunch periods I had spent in the rec. room of a defense contractor I worked for, playing ping pong, pool and shuffleboard. But we all quickly found that Jerry was not exaggerating. He had cut his teeth on a ping pong table and had lost little or none of his hand-eye coordination.

Jerry played his first hole of golf with me. Neither of us remembers the exact details, but I had a set of cheap clubs, had just finished nine holes and was ready to head home just as dark approached. I saw Jerry in the parking lot and told him he should start playing with me sometime. With his usual enthusiasm, he said, “How about now?”

Well, it was almost dark and he didn’t have any clubs. Not to mention the flip flops he was wearing.

He looked down at his feet and at the rising moon. “Can I borrow your sticks? We’ll have time for at least a couple of holes. With that moon, we might play nine.”

I hit the first ball off the tee to show him how it was done. I cringed a little as he teed up the ball and took a couple of practice swings that seemed dangerously close to his toes. Then he hit one, turned to me and said, “Is that how you do it?

I winced when I saw his ball in the middle of the fairway about thirty yards past the one I had hit in the rough. “Yep, that’s how you do it.”

He developed this habit of forecasting his shots that I found annoying at first.  What made the habit annoying was that, about half the time, he was right. I quit playing a few years after that. Gave up in frustration. But Jerry kept going.

His golfing buddies tell me that Jerry kept forecasting where the ball was going to go and actually making it go there. Occasionally, he would hit one in the rough and leave himself a really tough lie behind a tree or two. Instead of playing it safe, taking a stroke and punching one out into the fairway and taking a bogey or, in my case, a double bogey, he would take the more difficult path.

“Okay, boys. I’m gonna hook this a little to get past that first tree, make it duck between the two limbs on the second, then fade it right. I figure about three bounces will put me on the edge of the green. With a thirty foot putt, I can get it in for a birdie.”

His buddies stopped laughing at those predictions a long time ago—because Jerry almost always made the ball perform just as he predicted. He was usually the smallest guy in the group, but hit the ball the longest distance.

NEXT WEEK. PART TWO REMEMBERING THE LIFE OF JERRY DON.

Jim Ainsworth is author of Rivers Flow. Click here to buy direct from Amazon.

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