We’d been buddies for almost 40 years, and somewhere along the line, for reasons neither of us could remember, we began calling each other “Moe.” It wasn’t a Three Stooges thing (although we were both fans); it just stuck and became our nicknames. Way before Caller ID technology, if I answered the phone when he called, all he had to say was “Hey Moe,” and I knew it was Jim. I would do the same. When we became email savvy, we’d sign off our emails to each other with the letters TOM. It stood for “The Other Moe.”
He would even call my sweetie Lady Moe. All that sounds kind of girlie now, but it worked for us.
Now, let’s just say that Jim took things to the extreme. There was the time when he called my office, and the receptionist told me that Mr. Cook was on the phone. I didn’t know any Mr. Cook, but took the call anyway. Then I heard this familiar voice, chuckling away, saying: “Hey man, what’s cooking?” Or sometimes it would be Mr. Costello on the line, and when I picked up, I would hear: “Hey Abbott!” It never stopped.
You see, Jim and I met at a part-time job in college during the early 1970s. He was a Vietnam vet, married, local Washingtonian and going to school on the GI Bill. I was five years younger, a very fortunate draft escaper, single, from New Jersey and going to school on the Daddy Bill. We couldn’t have been more different. He was tall; I was short. He was Catholic; I was Jewish. But we were both accounting students at the University of Maryland, with a shared, warped sense of humor. So we became fast friends.
It was at this job that I was first exposed to what I call that sixth sense of his. That was his sense of humor. You see, Jim had a deep, hardy, bellowing, infectious laugh, and after we knew each other well, I would jump at the opportunity to get him going. Sometimes, we would giggle like little boys, which would escalate into laughing so hard we would literally be gasping for air, with tears running down our cheeks. If anyone saw us they would have thought we were crazy. Actually they’d be right.
We worked in the Education Building on the College Park campus and mostly just signed out audio-visual equipment to the future teachers of America. They would get cameras, slide projectors, tape recorders and such from us, much like they would check out books from the library. To say it was not very taxing work would be an understatement. But the money was OK, and it would give us time to get some homework done while sitting around. My hours would often overlap with Jim’s, so we would hang out and generally goof off. Since we were taking accounting classes together, we would also use some of our copious spare time on the job to study. Or at least we would practice our own unique form of studying, which was mostly goofing off.
The crack AV staff and I would do everything we could to make our little office area enjoyable. We would use all of this cool equipment for our own entertainment. That was easy to rationalize, as we needed to be experts in AV operation anyway, to instruct the students on the proper care and feeding of the machines. There was a very fancy reel-to-reel tape recorder set up behind the checkout desk. We decided to create our own special custom audiotapes, illegally recording them directly from LPs, using this very high-tech equipment. And masterfully produced they were.
I usually worked nights, and it was on one of those particular late evenings, when I was all alone in the equipment room, that I actually became deeply engrossed in my accounting texts. That was a very rare occasion (being engrossed that is). So I had one of those tapes playing in the background, helping to augment my studious mood. I vaguely noticed that the last song on the side had finished, but was too lazy to hit the stop button, as the machine would turn itself off anyway.
Then all of a sudden, I heard that familiar voice, seemingly from out of nowhere, say: “Turn me over.” I was rather startled and looked up, wondering where the voice was coming from, only to hear again, in a more stern tone: “Turn me over.” I must have been lost in thought (which again, rarely happened while I was studying), as I was still a bit confused. I recognized it as Jim’s voice, but there was no Jim around. Finally, for the third time, I heard the voice say in an even more stern tone: “Turn me over!” Only this time it was followed by: “Yeah you—you dumb ass.” I almost wet my pants laughing so hard.
After college, we found ourselves with plenty of time to kill at the end of a long work week. This was an uncomplicated phase in both of our lives, before mortgages, children and gray hair. We spent lots of weekends together being as productive as possible. Yes, we stayed very busy by sitting around and doing absolutely nothing. This was especially the case on rainy days, when we would eat Ledo’s pizza and pretend to be doing something—but were mostly perfecting the art of lying on beanbag chairs, and watching TV with our eyes closed.
On one of those special weekends, Jim suggested we put our extensive artistic skills to good use. He had this grand idea about painting a picture—not just any picture, mind you. It seemed he’d always wanted to create a painting of a locomotive with a bright beacon emanating from it. So Jim pulled out this white canvas he had already stretched over a 4-foot-by-3-foot frame. (Yes, it was going to be a big picture.)
We sketched the locomotive carefully, using our rulers to create perfect geometric images. Then came the easy part (or so I thought), which was applying the paint. The train was black and the beacon was bright orange (easy enough). But when it came to the sky and the ground, things got complicated. Jim insisted on mixing other paints to come up with just the right colors for the last two parts. He created a rather dull gray sky color. When I voiced some concern about that choice, he brushed me off, assuring me that it would be fine. So I dutifully applied the paint. Then he came up with a brownish, tan, sort of mauve color for the ground. Again, I questioned that concoction, but Jim was certain it would be great.
When we were finished, he stood back admiring his masterpiece, proclaiming it to be perfect. He asked my opinion, and I told him that I thought it looked great too, but the sky and the ground looked rather blah. That’s when my friend Moe muttered the few words that would stay with me all these years later: “Well, it looks good to me, but what do I know? I’m color-blind.” Ah, that was a little detail I wish he had shared with me before we started. Oh well. And I’m pleased to report that the locomotive with the bright beacon and ugly sky and puke-colored ground has been prominently displayed in my home for over 30 years. I cherish it.
At some point my friend Moe decided to buy a sailboat. And for reasons only known to Jim, he named it Dog Arms. I’m sure that had some important significance, but it certainly always escaped me. And it was on one fateful late March day that Jim called and asked if I would like to go sailing with him. It seems he had to participate in a minimum number of boat races as a requirement to house his boat at his boat club. As luck would have it, a race was planned for that very day. Coincidently, he needed a crew, and I was it. Oh, and he assured me that it was going to be warm and sunny.
Now understand that I had absolutely no sailing experience and had never even been on a sailboat. Nor had I ever cruised around in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. But I was a brave soul, a quick learner and up to the challenge. Of course, when I got to his house, it was cool, overcast and rainy. But Moe being Moe, he promised me the sun was coming out soon, and it was going to warm right up. Famous last words.
I quickly learned about the official sailing rules, and was able to respond to all of Jim’s commands: pull that line in, let that line out and, most important, “Duck!” Well, everything was going swimmingly, when all of a sudden there was a strong wind shift, and the boom came around very quickly. Unfortunately, Jim didn’t heed his own advice about ducking, and the boom struck him right across the bridge of his nose. And there he went, right over the side. Man overboard. All that was visible of him was his hand, still holding onto the tiller. Oy.
I instinctively grabbed his arm and dragged him back aboard. Remember, he was about twice my size, so that was not such an easy thing to do. I took a deep breath and not calmly assessed the situation. Jim had a bad case of the “where am I’s” and was making absolutely no sense. I, without a lick of sailing ability, was sitting in this boat, in the cold rain (the sun never did come out, by the way), in the middle of the bay, about an hour from land. Wonderful. HELP!! Fortunately, a guy from the club accompanying the racers in a speedboat was nearby and asked if I needed any help. I’m guessing that frantically waving my arms, jumping up and down and screaming for my mommy were dead giveaways. Very perceptive man.
He effortlessly towed us back and I (not so effortlessly) drove Jim to the hospital. After a while, he was patched up and we went home. All the way back he kept saying to me: “Don’t tell my wife about this.” He was delirious. Sure, like I was going to explain that his black eyes and battered face were the result of a little tussle between us. Did I happen to mention that Jim was about twice my size? Not real believable.
Anyway, I called to check on him the next day, and he assured me that he was fine and felt that the episode had probably knocked some sense into him. He was likely right, as many years later my pal Moe was invited to join the Mensa Society, an elite collection of brainiacs. And for the rest of his life, Jim was a proud, card-carrying member.
During the next couple of summers, we really honed our sailing skills. I adeptly crewed for him in many of those mandatory races. Naturally, we always came in last, or next to last. But the beer kept our spirits up, and we persevered.
One of our last races together before he sold his boat was particularly enjoyable. There we were again, two knuckleheads out on the bay on a warm, sunny day. As we set sail and began the course, we noticed two cargo ships off in the distance. They were clearly in our way. We could see the other sailboats make a wide turn around them, to avoid any wind interference. But my friend Moe had a better idea. He looked at me with that very devilish grin and said: “Watch this.” He headed right for those two ships. I voiced my immediate (and quite frantic) concerns that they were way bigger than us, and if we collided, there wouldn’t be much left of us. Then came more famous words which I would always remember: “We’ll be fine.”
And, to my amazement, Jim expertly sailed right between those ships. We were so close to each of them that we could actually sneeze on them. (Not that we did that, of course. As I said, they were way bigger than us.) When we came out from between those ships, we couldn’t believe it. We were actually ahead of everyone else in the race. As it turned out, two other boats would eventually pass and beat us to the finish line. But we managed to come in third place. We were all about moral victories, and that certainly was one. “Outstanding,” as Jim would say.
One late afternoon on a particularly warm day we found ourselves walking around in Georgetown. We decided to stop somewhere to get a beer and quench our thirst. The problem was, there really weren’t many bars in that area of the District. The more we strolled, the hotter and dryer we became. Then an oasis appeared right before our eyes: a drinking establishment. As I looked up at the sign over the entrance, I remarked to Jim that there was something I had heard about that place, but couldn’t remember. Anyway, we were clearly desperate, so I shrugged my shoulders and followed him in. We sat at a table and waited for someone to take our order.
As I looked around, I asked my friend Moe if something seemed odd about this place. He peered over his shoulder eyeballing the perimeter and said it looked fine to him. Where had I heard those fateful words before? “Oh Jim, I said, there aren’t any females in here. Not a single one, anywhere.” Not only that, but a lot of guys were staring at us. Really staring. It was then that I remembered what I had heard about this place–it was a gay bar. So, needless to say with neither of us being gay (not that there was anything wrong with that), we made a very hasty exit.
And wouldn’t you know it, several very large football players (much bigger than Jim, large) greeted us outside. They seemed to be conveniently camped out there for one simple reason—to harass and hassle gay guys. Suffice it to say, they didn’t have nice things to say to us. That was some experience, as we learned firsthand what gay bashing was all about. Albeit, the gay bashing of two very heterosexual guys, which must have been a first. After we got over fearing for our lives and being scared to death, we sure laughed about it. But that was later. Much later.
Moe was also very proud of his military service during the Vietnam War. Although not a big flag-waver, he closely associated himself with Vietnam veterans and their causes. He counted a few of his army buddies as lifelong friends. And he would regale me with story after story about those war years. I had no such stories to share, so I listened. They were captivating.
These last few years were really special for Moe and me. Every month or so, he would come over to my house and spend the weekend. And it was a truly great time to hang around with Jim and spend a lot of time doing absolutely nothing. We would eat Ledo’s pizza, watch old war movies and ball games, and laugh. We would laugh a lot. A whole lot.
Although Jim lived alone in the years after his divorce, he was far from lonely. No, Moe simply enjoyed his solitude and viewed it as a special kind of freedom. Often when we were having a phone conversation late in the afternoon, he would tell me to hold on, and would shout: “Hey! Anybody mind if I take a nap?” Then he would say that it looked like there were no objections, so he would talk to me later. That was freedom to Jim.
My pal Moe died suddenly two years ago last summer. And that was one of the most devastating days of my life.
I think we’re all afraid of dying. And not to sound too philosophical or corny, but death just seems a little less daunting to me now. You see, I have some comfort in knowing that when it’s my time, Jim will have a seat saved for me next to him. I really believe this. And we’ll sit around doing absolutely nothing, eating Ledo’s pizza and watching old war movies and ball games. And I know there are plenty of others who miss and love him too. I’m guessing he’ll have seats for them as well. However—and I’m very serious about this—under no circumstances will we be sharing our Ledo’s pizza.
Jim was one of the truly great and nice guys. The world, and especially my world, will never be the same without him. I miss him a lot. I miss that deep, bellowing and infectious laugh. And I really miss that silly, familiar “Hey Moe” greeting. But when I stop and think about it, a warm smile comes to my face.
Hey Moe, rest in peace, my friend.