Jack Long died suddenly on October 9, 1994 from complications suffered in an accidental fall, but the true cause was alcoholism. I am trying in some futile way to glean some higher truth from his death, but the only truth that remains for me is that I have lost an old dear friend, what we used to call before the days of male-bonding, a "pal," a "buddy," and, though it could be said that in fact I lost Jack as a "buddy" to alcoholism years ago, I hate the irretrievableness of the friendship his death represents.
Allow me some forgiveness for the "I" perspective of this piece, but I can only write of Jack that way as he has been a figure of importance in my life for almost as long as I can remember, our families living a half-mile from each other in the Highland section of Holyoke, MA. In high school, Jack was a "star." Traditions of our Irish-Catholic community hold that there is nothing more noble than being a "good guy," and in being elected president of his high school senior class, a public casting that perhaps more than any other served as his self-defining moment, Jack was formally and forever certified in his cultural context as a "good guy."
We became true peers for the first time at Amherst, reconnecting after Jack took a year at Canterbury, and in the two years before I took an enforced sabbatical, did much of whatever we did together.
And it was in those years at Amherst, years he referred to as the best in his life, that the colors of Jack's character unfurled fully, characteristics that he would defiantly maintain for the rest of his life. He did everything in excess; he drank coffee and cokes and alcohol too much and too often, ate too much of all the wrong foods, stayed up too late, spent money intemperately on friends and self, gambled too recklessly, and smoked as many unfiltered cigarettes as he could muster in his waking hours. He was, in short (an apt pun that Jack would have liked), a one-person repository of those acceptable manly ills of the fifties, an anti-hero of the well-beingness movement of the last quarter century, but, he was, in keeping with his Celtic lineage, a consummate story teller, with an idiosyncracy of punctuating punch lines with a wheezing chortle that collapsed into racking cigarette-cough spasms, and, always, a wonderful companion.
In New York, where I reconnected with him once again after my graduation in '60, we lived together for a while, drank a lot together, worked together.
In due course we both moved separately into what we believed to be more mature pursuits, but we remained close. Jack founded and ran a successful temporary employment agency, one that provided him with all he wanted. For years we continued to get together on regular occasions, going to Yankee and Giant games together and spending time together at our respective weekend retreats, either at our place in upstate New York or at his beach place in Rhode Island, and Jack and Jeanette, his love of the past thirty years, were charter members of our extended family. And through it all, through all the stories and laughter and times out and times in, there was, of course, the drinking.
Somewhere in the seventies, New York changed, and for many of us in the "drinking life" marriages failed, the music faded, the stories ran down without punch lines, and the laughter stopped. Some of us stopped drinking; others didn't. Jack was one of those who didn't. We tried for a long time to continue our life as before, but we both knew it wasn't the same, and in time we maintained our relationship mainly by phone and even that with decreasing frequency over the years. And in those infrequent calls at night, one would usually hear the sounds of Kenton, Woody Herman, Basie, Ellington, Dizzy or Louis Armstrong in the background as though we were all once again at Chi Phi in the '50s, and would know that Jack was in the time of his time.
However, among these inconsistent and infrequent calls, there was one constant. Though a year apart, our birthdays were but a day apart, mine coming before his in October, and every year, no matter what coast I was at or country I was in the time, I would call Jack on his birthday to wish my "elder" health and happiness and exchange birthday greetings, and whenever he answered the phone (and he always did, no matter what the time), he would exercise that grace he had that always made me feel that my call was of particular meaning to him, which would please me greatly.
This year, for the first time in all these years, there was no answer. I did not know at the time. that he was being buried that very day, October 14th, his birthday, but because there was no answer, I both feared and knew on some level that he was gone--as for years now in that inner knowing place we all have, I have been expecting one day to hear the news that I eventually did hear a few days later that my old buddy had died suddenly in some kind of senseless accident.
I would prefer not seeing his alcoholism as a tragedy for his family and loved ones, but seeing it any other way would be a lie. It is a deeply felt personal loss to his brothers and sisters and their spouses and children. They have reviewed this remembrance and grieve as I do for the Jack who is remembered here. But, within the acceptance of that tragedy, if we ask, as we do of a creative work, how well did he do it, and was it, worth doing in the first place? – then Jack did it very well indeed. He wanted very much to be a "good guy," and to all of us who loved you, Jack, you were all of that always. And you did it well, very well indeed, and in an often uncaring and unfriendly world, isn't that something definitely worth doing? As Jim Crowley '60, another Holyoker and friend of Jack's, wrote me on your death, you were "a kind and generous man with a caustic and insightful wit." Farewell, my dear old good friend, you shall be greatly missed.
-Joe Moriarty '57/'60