|Matt "Opie" Baldi|
The following year, Matt and I shared every single sophomore class together. And, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. He and I were very much alike - fairly smart, not particularly good looking and painfully shy. Matt, however, was a bit more complex than myself. He sort of had a “rebellious rogue” alter ego. He enjoyed Doonesbury instead of Garfield, bandited the Boston Marathon on little-to-no training, campaigned for Gary Hart in a Reagan-era world, and introduced me to the Clash & REM (which he co-opted from his college-aged brother) in a time when Phil Collins & Madonna ruled the airwaves. And, when most teenagers were busy trying NOT to get noticed he jumped at the chance to be our school’s mascot at basketball games.
Those days Matt and I shared a lot more than just classes. We ran cross country together, took a couple memorable trips to Stowe with our schools ski club, swam illegally in the Pennichuck, bet on horses (also illegally) at Rockingham Park, “discovered” U2 and saw them play brilliantly at the Centrum, followed the Tour de France and cheered Greg Lemond during his epic battles with Bernard Hinault. We even planned a post-college, cross country, bike trip - down to the last detail.
Once college did arrive, Matt chose Cornell and I went to Syracuse – just up the road. While at school, Matt discovered one of his greatest passions in life, rowing, and it happened sort of by accident. A recruiter stopped him on his way to class one day and asked him if he wanted to try out for the Cornell crew team. Matt was tall & lanky and apparently that came in handy for rowing. So, he gave it a shot and was immediately hooked. Unfortunately, by his own admission, he put a little too much time into his rowing (at the expense of his school work) and by his sophomore year he was forced to drop out of his engineering program at Cornell and transfer to UNH.
The following year, we were reunited again under even sadder circumstances. Our mutual friend Steve (the one who introduced us - wrongly thinking our feet were the same size) was coming home for Christmas after a semester abroad when his plane (Pan Am Flight 103) exploded over the skies of Lockerbie, Scotland - killing all 259 on board and 11 more on the ground. Matt, myself and all the people who’s lives Steve touched (and there were quite a few of us) were devastated by this tragedy. At the memorial service, Matt was in charge of the music, and it was all we could do to keep from completely breaking down.
The next time I saw Matt was five years later during a frantic, last-minute Christmas shopping trip to the mall. In the intervening years, he and his parents had moved to Peaks Island, Maine and Matt had turned his passion for rowing into boat building - a hobby he shared with his Dad. We sheepishly made some small talk, both embarrassed by the distance that had grown between us. I had gotten married, had a kid (with another on the way) and for some reason he still seemed ashamed about dropping out of Cornell. On our way out, we both promised to do a better job at keeping in touch. Unfortunately, that was the last I ever saw of Matt.
On the morning of June 10th, 1994, Matt parked his Volkswagen Jetta at Odiorne Point State Park, unloaded his hand-crafted kayak from atop his vehicle, slipped silently into the surf and was gone. We’ll never really know what happened that fateful day off the coast of Rye, New Hampshire. The official report was that he became hypothermic and drowned after he somehow got separated from his boat. Personally, I like to think that a rogue wave came by and claimed him as one of their own.
It’s now 17 years later and I still think about Matt quite a bit. I remember what a great friend he was, the fun we had together and the life he left behind. But, mostly I remember the stupid stuff. Like streaking at the Nashua Country Club in front of a four-some of bewildered golfers, or sneaking bulk snacks from Shaws, or seeing if we could drink from all the water fountains in our high school during the two minutes between period bells, or even spending a day in his shoes. I think about him and I miss him. Nobody has friends like that anymore - at least not me anyway!