I am, I have to admit, a hugger. It is not my nature to be. I was raised in a family that was not especially physically demonstrative. Not that my parents were cold and/or distant; they just weren’t the huggy/kissy kind. The preferred show of affection was a swift slap on the back of your head. And so I grew up to be just a little awkward with affectionate human contact. It is what it is. But somewhere along the line it changed. I hug people now. It sometimes makes my friends uncomfortable. Oh well.
As a pilot for so many years, I’ve seen more than my share of people who’ve died. It happens unexpectedly, obviously. You never assume that people are going to crash and die. But they do. One day they’re here; next day they’re not. Boom – gone, just like that.
Crashing is one thing. But people depart suddenly in other ways too. When I was with Petroleum Helicopters (PHI), I spent a lot of my time with the company contracted to oil companies and flying ships that were based offshore. I worked a week-on / week-off schedule. On Friday morning, a mechanic and I would grab our helicopter at a shore base and leave, staying offshore for our seven-day “hitch.” We usually wouldn’t return to the base until Thursday evening when we’d leave for our seven-day “break.”
For four years the mechanic assigned to me was a guy named Jim Kedziora. We started out, both new to the company, assigned to Tenneco Oil, which was eventually absorbed into Chevron. When I transferred over to Shell Oil, Jim came with me. We both lived in Pensacola, Florida and were friends off the job as well. In fact, we were the closest of friends. We were both single, and we both rode motorcycles. Jim also had a bike and we took many great road- and camping trips together. Life was good. …At least for me.
We in our little circle of friends knew that Jim was depressed. He was taking Lithium to help him deal with his mood swings, and it helped. Sadly, we did not know the depths of Jim’s depression. And all of us were stunned when he committed suicide just shy of his twenty-sixth birthday. None of us saw it coming. In fact, that break week was totally unremarkable. There was no hint that anything was amiss with Jim.
As you can probably imagine, you go through a lot of shit when someone so close to you commits suicide. There are questions that can never be adequately answered, yet you ask them anyway. They gnaw at you: Why did he do this? Could I have seen this coming? Why didn’t I see this coming? Could I have prevented it? Could I have been a better friend? On and on and on, it never ends.
Our little circle of friends disintegrated. Just being with each other was painful. Jim’s girlfriend, Darlene was devastated and went through her own hell. Chuck (a coworker with whom Jim had been living) sold his house and moved away…as did PHI pilot Greg and his wife Thelia. I moved away too, although I stayed in the Pensacola area.
It took me about a year to get over it, to be honest - to get to the point where I stopped beating myself up for not being more attentive and sensitive. If there was something positive to come out of Jim’s death, it was that it made me appreciate people more. And so I hug them. You can communicate a lot of things with a hug – more than the words can convey. I hug my friends even if I know we'll see each other "soon," in case I’m never going to see them again. Morbid, I know. But people are important and I never, ever again want to feel like I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye and tell people how I feel.
The suicide death this past week of Robin Willliams brought all of these memories back, opened old wounds. I guess you never completely get over something like that. It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years now since Jim's death. The time has sped by.
Jim in happier times offshore on the Shell Oil platform on which we worked. He's wearing a t-shirt he got at an Oyster Bar in Key West during one of our epic motorcycle trips.
A much-younger (and slimmer) me and Jim in front of N5001P, a Bell 206B