Zack Starrett, 33, died having never seen “Cool Hand Luke.” I blame myself for the shortcoming.
It was a night a couple years ago. We were talking music, movies, etc. when I told him my all-time favorite movie is “Cool Hand Luke,” the 1967 Paul Newman movie about a laid back convict in a Dixie prison who refuses to bend to the tyrannical authority determined to break his indomitable spirit.
Spoiler alert! They can’t so they kill the sassy bastard.
Zack told me he’d never seen it.
I seized his arm and said, “What are you doing the rest of the night?” By the urgency in my voice, he could surmise what I had in mind. I wanted him to toss the 20 remaining customers, grab a 12-pack and come back with me to watch “Cool Hand Luke.”
Like four straight times.
Sure, he’d lose his job and I’d get in big Dutch with the missus, but I thought it was essential that Zack see “Cool Hand Luke.”
I think it’s because I didn’t want my friend to change.
I wanted him to, like Luke, smirk at hardship, defy conventional thinking and mock the mindsets that say march on the days you’d really rather float.
And now he’s gone. He died early Thursday morning, a victim of a cascading spiral of ever-worsening Covid-related maladies.
Friends are trying to console me by telling me he’s “gone to a better place.”
I contend there’s no better place than pre-Covid Flapper’s on a Friday when Zack was on one side of the bar and everyone of us who was on the other side couldn’t imagine being any where else.
There’s a happy babble of conversation — laughter, encouragement, flirtations, complaints, defeats and victories — the whole stew of humanity condensed into one warm tavern.
It was such reliable fun I was sure it wouldn’t last.
I remember warning Zack and some friends to not take it for granted.
“Good times can overnight go away,” I said, pointing out that the owner could sell, the old building could tumble over into the parking lot “or, gadzooks, Zack, could pursue career stability.”
I never dreamed his departure would be so morbidly final.
And as much I liked and admired the 33-year-old Zack, I was looking forward to spending time with Zack at 40. Or 50.
I was looking forward to seeing where his ambitions had taken him, how he dealt with the challenges of fatherhood and if he ever planned on giving up chasing full lunar eclipses all over the globe (I hoped not).
Nothing in my planning folly had him exiting our lives so soon and without a proper goodbye.
Yeah, 2020, you just keep on giving.
Or is it taking?
I often wonder about how old we’ll be in heaven. Do we assume the age we are when we die? Do children who die in tragic circumstances remain children or are they allowed to grow up, to enjoy the illicit thrill of sneaking that first beer and then make out in the back seat with the pretty neighbor girl who all of a sudden has become interesting for reasons he can’t explain.
Will Zack still be Zack next time we see him?
I hope so because that Zack was close to perfect. He was charismatic without ever appearing over-bearing; just without being judgmental; and ready fun in any circumstance.
That’s the trade-off: Die young and unblemished and your golden memory will be revered for eternity.
His death reminds me how almost every tear we shed stems from selfishness. We cry not for the fate of others, but for how the fate of others affects our own.
We fall and skin our knee. It hurts. We cry.
Our hearts get broken. Our lives and routines are plunged into tumult. We cry.
A parent or spouse dies. Emotional and financial support is disrupted. We cry.
Shortly after learning that Zack had died, my daughters busted me in the kitchen sobbing like I imagine my Mom did when Dad told her they’d just shot Kennedy.
They thought I was weeping because Zack had died.
Someday I’ll explain the reason I wept was because we’ve been denied the opportunity to watch Zack live.