Thursday, April 24, 2014

Borrowed Time

When I was 17 years old I had a life-changing experience. And, if it wasn’t for a bit of dumb luck, or divine intervention, it very well could have been a life-ending experience. Since then, and for the last 28 ½ years, I’ve always felt a little like I’m living on borrowed time.

This story begins, as many great ones do, with a journey…

In the fall of my senior year in high school I took a trip to Upstate New York with my friends – Steve & Matt. And even though it happened almost three decades ago, I remember the details like it was yesterday. It wasn’t just memorable because these were my two best friends in the whole world. Or, because I was just one week removed from my first real kiss. Or, because this was the first time in my life that I'd be on my own, away from home. This trip was memorable because… we ALMOST didn’t make it back!

On Thanksgiving Eve, the three of us got together at a pre-turkey day pep rally and bonfire at the Bishop Guertin High School ball fields. We ironed out our trip itinerary amid whooping, hollering and conspicuous alcohol consumption.  The grand plan was to head out in the morning, after the big football game, and drive straight through to Syracuse where we’d be staying with a BG alum, and current SU freshman, named Scott. From there we’d do a day trip to Cornell. Then one more day in Syracuse before heading back home that Sunday.

After our pre-planning pow-wow, I went over to the school’s parking lot to meet up with my new flame, Kris. She was a senior at our sister school, Mount St. Mary’s. We sat in my car and talked about the future. She was going to Keene State to become a graphic designer and I was headed to either Syracuse or Cornell to study Architecture. New York? New Hampshire?  Anyway you sliced it, life after “Senior Year” sure was going to be different. We kissed again as the embers from the fire rose ‘til they joined their brethren stars. We stood on the precipice of something big, and we knew it.

On Thanksgiving Day, with me behind the wheel of my family's AMC Eagle station wagon, Steve, Matt and I set out on the road. We cruised west along the Massachusetts Turnpike with Simon & Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park blaring out the speakers and soothing the wounds from our school's heartbreaking defeat at the hands of our hated rivals, the Purple Panthers of Nashua High. We stopped in Amsterdam, a sleepy upstate canal town, to fill the “rusty beast” with a tank full of unleaded and to get some much needed supplies. You know, critical items like Pringles, Pepsi and Hot Tamales!

We arrived on the campus of Syracuse University in the late afternoon and were greeted by a fresh batch of snow flurries, and very little else. It was pretty much a ghost town with most of the students electing to head home for Thanksgiving Break. We found a pay phone and made our first, of what turned out to be many, calls to Scott. No answer. No problem, we just broke out the snacks (and our Aerobie) and played catch in the quad as the snow fell silently around us.

Later, as the night came on strong and with still no word from Scott, we went in search of a place to stay. If you’ve never been to Syracuse, I will tell you that there are four distinct areas. The first is the University, high on the hill. Just below University Hill are the low-income apartment houses. Below that further, is downtown. And beyond that, suburban sprawl where, apparently, everyone else was that evening. Because, as we cruised the vacant streets of the city looking for a place to stay (and cranking “Gimme Shelter” by the Stones) there was not a soul to be found.

Eventually, we came across what had to be the oldest, and most historic, hotel in Syracuse. A uniquely ornate high-rise affair whose best years were clearly decades behind it. And, since we hadn’t budgeted ANY money for accommodations, we coerced Matt to check-in as a single traveler with Steve & me sneaking into the room afterwards with our luggage. One on the floor, and two in the bed (with a wall of pillows in between) we settled down for our first night in the Big City.

The next day, when Steve was at his admissions interview, Matt and I wandered around the enormous campus. Matt and I were a lot alike. Both fairly smart, painfully shy and not particularly good looking. Besides sharing every single sophomore class together, we each ran cross country, made a couple ski trips to Stowe, swam illegally in the Pennichuck, and bet on horses (also illegally) at Rockingham Park. We each had a rebellious side, but only when no one was looking. And now, with our parents many hours away, we let ourselves loose on this unsuspecting upstate city.

We ran laps around the Carrier Dome, perused the bars on “M” Street, snuck into the Architecture School and laid waste to the buffet at the Student Commons. While Matt checked out a vintage record store I wrote a postcard to Kris, describing the trip to that point. Unfortunately, Kris had the kind of last name which could be spelled in a number of different ways, and since we had only just met, I didn’t know which was correct. Long story short, a few days later, a complete stranger must have sat dumbstruck after receiving a picture of Syracuse’s Hall of Languages and some barely legible musings from a love-sick, but utterly clueless kid!

Once Steve finished his interview, we decided to figure out where Scott was hiding. So we climbed the 157 steps up to his dormitory on Mount Olympus, only to find out that he’d gone back home to New Hampshire for break. His floor’s RA, Brian Usker (or Usk as he was known to his friends) broke the bad news to us over a friendly game of foosball. Clearly despondent, and with nowhere else to turn, Usk took pity on us and offered to let us crash in his room. This time, three on the floor. Not too comfortable, but at least the price was right!

The next morning, we jumped into the car and headed south to Cornell for Matt’s interview. While waiting, we wandered around Ithaca looking for something to do.  Fortunately, with Steve riding shotgun, there was ALWAYS something to do. Steve was, by far, the most popular and well-liked kid at our school. A born leader that people were just naturally drawn to. He exuded charisma and confidence. And, as a result, he had a great many friends. But when he was hanging out with you, he made you feel like there was nowhere else on earth he’d rather be.

We rambled through the beautiful and ivy-covered college campus looking for something to keep us occupied. Eventually, we found our way to a narrow bridge spanning the Cascadilla Gorge, which separated the school from the town, and quickly searched around for something to throw off of it.  A concrete cinderblock was the object of choice. We dragged it over to the center of the span and hoisted it over the edge. It took a while to land, but when it did, the results were spectacular!

After Matt’s interview we headed back up to Syracuse. Between the three of us we had about $40 and still needed a place to stay for one more night. So, we did what any rational teenager in our position would do. We used half of our money for a hotel and the other half to buy beer. The only problem was, none of us had ID. So we asked a total stranger to buy for us. He eagerly accepted. Fifteen minutes, one prostitute proposition and two attempted drug sales later, we realized we weren’t going to be getting any beer. Or, our $20 back for that matter!

Of course, the $20 remaining didn’t buy us much in the way of deluxe accommodations. So, we headed to over to the Al-Bel, a rent-by-the-hour, flea-bag motel on the outskirts of town. Unfortunately for Matt, it was his turn on the floor - a stained and wrinkled carpet with a still undetermined odor. But Matt, always up for a good challenge, accepted his fate with dignity and fell asleep quickly - joined by God knows what else during the night. I, on the other hand, lay wide awake. Staring at the damaged ceiling and thinking about what I would be saying during MY interview the following day.

In the morning, I showered off as much of the motel smell as I could and set out for my appointment on the hill. The interview itself was pretty standard stuff, at first. Then, as we were starting to wrap it up, my interviewer asked me “Are you saved?” Seeing that I was obviously stunned with the complexity of this question, she kindly rephrased it. “I see here on your high school transcript that you are a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athlete’s. Do you believe that God has saved a place for you next to him in heaven?”

In the extra moment or two that it took to re-ask the question I formulated the best, and most scholarly answer I could come up with. I said that I didn’t think my membership in the Catholic religion would necessarily guarantee me a place in heaven. But, if I continued to lead a good life and follow God’s teachings, I definitely liked my chances. “Good answer”, she said. And with that, the interview and our visit to Syracuse was over. I gathered up Steve and Matt, and we headed back east on the New York Thruway.

For some reason, we ended up getting a late start back. The sky grew dark just a couple hours out of town. The discussion in the car drifted from the happenings of the weekend to the topics of the songs on the mix tape that Steve had put together. And as the flurries began to fall again, John Lennon came on singing, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain…”. So, our conversation was immediately directed towards the existence and nature of God.

Still a bit shaken by my poignant interview question about being saved, I focused all my attention on guiding the car though the ever increasing whiteness as Matt and Steve began to express their individual views. Suddenly, as we were crossing a river over a very high bridge, a strong gust of wind pushed the car to the right and I naturally over-corrected left, sending us into a full-speed tailspin on the newly-formed black ice.

I really don’t know how many times that car spun around, but it had to have been at least a half dozen. With each rotation we could see we were getting closer and closer to the guardrail on the edge of the bridge. And, with each rotation, we could also see that a jack-knifed semi-truck was right behind us and equally out of control. Guardrail. Semi. Guardrail. Semi. All of this in life-flashing slow motion. I honestly thought this was it.

Remarkably, the car came to an abrupt stop on the edge of the road, just beyond the bridge, after having neither crashed through the guardrail nor into the tractor-trailer. I slowly eased back onto the gas, my eyes as wide a saucers by this point, looking for somewhere safe to turn off and maybe find a place to change my pants. When to my amazement I saw through the blizzard a sign which read “Amsterdam - 1 Mile”. We were saved! I’m not sure I’ve ever been so happy.

I pulled into the closest parking lot I could find, which just happened to be a Sheraton Inn. And said, “That’s it! We’re stopping here!” My compatriots quickly agreed. I called my parents to let them know what had happened and to tell them that I’d be using the “emergency credit card” that evening. We checked in, washed away the day’s events in the hotel hot tub and over-sized swimming pool and ordered room service. What the heck! You only live once. Right?

The next day we completed the rest of the journey back to Nashua in almost reverent silence. We stopped by our school on the way home to gather our books and missed homework assignments. Somehow everything around us seemed different. Smaller. We had just completed the trip of a lifetime. We had cheated death and lived to tell the tale. Nothing would EVER be the same.

The following year, we made the long trek to Upstate New York once again. This time, Steve and I were headed towards our Freshman Year at Syracuse and Matt was bound for the same at Cornell. Two years after that, while flying home from a semester abroad, Steve was killed in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie Scotland. And, just 6 years later, Matt drowned while kayaking off the coast of New Hampshire.

In the 20 years since they’ve both been gone, I’ve tried to lead a good life in their memory. I trust that God is watching, but if he isn’t, I know that Steve and Matt certainly are. I hope that I’ve made them proud of the kind of person, friend and father that I’ve become. And, when my "borrowed time" does eventually run out, I look forward to us getting back together for more great and epic adventures!

“I don't believe in Elvis, I don’t believe in Zimmerman, I don't believe in Beatles…

…I just believe in me” ~ John Lennon


  1. Now, I'm just learning the whole story. Love you, Son. -- DAD

  2. Katie Baldi KurkjianApril 25, 2014 at 1:51 PM

    Thanks Mike, Matt and Steve would be so proud of you.

  3. Mike,
    What a terrific piece. A wonderful story and a fitting tribute to Matt and Steve. As you know, I think about them frequently. Thanks for sharing. Liam Canny BG Class of 1985

  4. A great story Mike. I lost my best friend in high school when we were both 16 when the scaffolding he was working on fell three stories. Often wonder how my life would have been different with him in it. Keep running and writing and rocking. Oh, and I believe in Jesus and know he has a place for all of us if we just choose it with our faith in him. Brian Bigelow

  5. I am truly touched by your story Michael. Thank you for sharing, Lea...