The phone call came at 3 am. It was my sister calling to tell me my older brother Eddy had passed away at his home in Saginaw, Mich. It was unexpected, but I was not shocked. Eddy was born with a heart defect that hung over his head like a sword of Damocles his entire life. Yet he never let it prevent him from living life to the fullest.
Excluded from competitive sports, Eddy became a musician, taking up the guitar and playing in local bands where he earned the nickname “Fast Eddy.” It was the golden age of music in the Saginaw Valley if there ever was such a thing. In 1966, a local band, Terry Knight & The Pack, broke into Billboard’s Top 50 with a song “I (Who Have Nothing).” The same year, another local band, Question Mark and The Mysterians, saw their song, “96 Tears,” go all the way to No. 1.
Two years later, three members from these bands would get together and form Grand Funk Railroad. At the same time, a guy named Bob Seger was playing in clubs up and down the Saginaw Valley when he scored his first big hit “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” (Glenn Fry — a Detroit boy, and later a founder of the Eagles — sang backup.)
My brother never made the big time as a musician, so he opened a music store and sold instruments and sound equipment. One of the Mysterians, Bobby Balderrama, worked for my brother after that band broke up. Bobby was recently inducted into the Michigan Music Hall of Fame, and I had an opportunity to talk with him about those early days at Eddy’s funeral.
I also got to talk with Alan Wagner, who was Eddy’s best friend from kindergarten through high school. I hadn’t seen Al in 52 years, and the first thing he asked was if I ever thought about our trip out west. He and Eddy had planned the trip with two friends to celebrate their graduation from high school in 1962. One of the friends we called “The Schra,” which was an abbreviation of his last name. “The Schra” was a near-perfect prototype for “The Fonz” on Happy Days. I don’t remember who the other person was because he backed out at the last minute and I was substituted in his place even though I was just 16. It was kind of like Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, with me being Charley.
We each chipped in $80 for the trip, which is the equivalent of $650 in today’s inflation-eroded dollars. So it was as if we had $2,600 between the four of us.
We took The Schra’s hopped-up ‘54 Ford convertible, with the goal of going as far as we could for as long as we could. We loaded a tent, our sleeping bags, cooking utensils and as much non-perishable food as we could into the trunk of that Ford and set out to discover America. Our parents thought we would be gone for about a week.
The first day, we crossed the Mackinaw Bridge and drove across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Wisconsin. The next day, we made it to International Falls, Minn., where we crossed into Canada. Then we drove for two days across the vast planes of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to the Canadian Rockies, where we camped for about a week in the Banff/Lake Louise area. Michigan has hills and forests, but none of us had ever been in the mountains, and we were awestruck by their beauty.
We then crossed back into the U.S. and camped at Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. Eventually, we made it all the way to Salt Lake City, where we pitched our tent in the backyard of a kindly Mormon family (it’s a long story) when Alan called home and was told he had to be back in five days to register for college.
I have lots of crazy tales about that trip, and we met many interesting people along the way, but there isn’t enough space in this column to recount all the stories. It was a minor miracle that The Schra’s ’54 Ford made it nearly 5,000 miles, especially considering how many parts fell off that we left scattered along the highway.
We arrived home with less than $10 among us. We had to really budget our money because this was before credit cards, so we couldn’t just swipe some plastic and get more money from an ATM machine.
When my kids graduated from high school, they wanted to go to Cancun for their senior trip. I told them I wouldn’t give them a penny to go to Mexico to learn to binge drink, but I would give them $2,000 to either travel around the U.S. or go to Europe and see what other counties are like. None of them took me up on it.
The day after Eddy’s funeral, Cathy and I and my oldest son Michael got together with my cousin Hank Kaufmann and his wife. Hank and I were friends through middle school and high school and have stayed in close contact since we both figured out how to use email. We drove through the northern woods of Michigan, and then spent the evening at his cottage on the shore of Lake Huron, recounting adventures of our youth.
Hank is a true character. He is a plumber and pipefitter as was his father, but he is the most literate plumber you could ever meet. His father was, how should I put it … insensitive to the social graces. His mother and aunt were school teachers, and his uncle was Theodore Roethke, whom many regard as the most influential American poet of the 20th century.
Hank is an avid outdoorsman and gun-lover, as well as a lover of poetry and literature. I always accused him of having a Hemingway complex: when he was in his early 20s he found himself in Italy and broke (I believe a young lady had something to do with this), so he walked into a U.S. Army base and enlisted in the airborne infantry. I asked if he did this to get free airfare back to the U.S., and he said “No. They told me I could get all the free ammunition I wanted.”
One of our stories involved getting a case of beer (we were just 16), taking his father’s plumbing truck, still loaded with racks of pipe, and driving to their hunting cabin in the woods. We then talked all night as we consumed all the beer as well as some good German sausage. We woke up the next morning hung-over and realized we had spent all our money on beer and sausage and didn’t have enough gas to get home.
So Hank drove the plumbing truck along the road while I walked alongside searching for glass bottles. At the time, Michigan had a 2 cent bottle deposit. Gas was 25 cents a gallon; we needed 10 gallons of gas; we had 24 empty bottles from the night before so needed to collect 101 discarded bottles to get home. It took us about 10 miles to get the 101 bottles, but we then had to persuade a country grocery to give us $2.50 for our mud-caked bottles, which wasn’t an easy task.
Once we got our gas, we drove to Lake Huron where the ice had broken up just two days earlier. We jumped in to sober up so we could drive home. It was the coldest water I have ever been in in my life.
I am going to miss my brother. I’ll think about him every time I hear a Bob Seger or Eagles song. But mostly, I’m going to remember the life he enjoyed, what he accomplished, and the wife, three kids and grandkids who exist because of him. It’s not about how long you live, but what you leave behind.