When I was a kid, my best friend was Moe Owens. He and his wife Cathy were actually friends of my folks. They were around my parents’ age and for several years when I was coming up, the Owens’ were a big part of our lives. Their son was a year older than me and very cool. I spent about every other weekend at the Owens’. They lived in Gary, Indiana. We lived about 12 or 13 blocks away in Merrillville, close enough for me to walk. In lots of ways Morris, his given name, was who I wanted to be when I grew up. In some ways I hope that I have achieved that goal.
He was quirky. For one thing he smoked big old smelly cigars. Those were the days when smokers smoked wherever they were. If I came in the back door and couldn’t see whose cars were there, of course I knew when the Owens’ were over. The smell of that cigar was his signature. Although I grossed him out about that cigar whenever I could, in fact I loved it. It was the smell of Moe. When I was a really little guy, I would hug the Owens’ when I saw them. I bathed in the smell of Moe and his cigar.
Moe was a story-teller. I think it bugged my mom sometimes because many of his stories were undoubtedly tall tales. He wasn’t always forthcoming about which ones were true, which ones were exaggerated versions of truth and which ones were purely his wild imagination. One of my favorites was about when he was in the Navy. He had something to do with cooking on a big ship. There was this arrogant officer who was harsh on the men. To hear Moe tell it (and we did many times) this guy was a tyrant. At some point he complained bitterly about the food. You can probably guess the outcome. Moe and the guys (supposedly) peed into a pot of whatever-it-was they were serving him. Also predictable perhaps, the fussy officer complimented the cooks.
Morris was an incredible mechanic. His garage/workshop was impeccably clean. There was not a speck of grease or dirt anywhere. His tools were always lined up on hooks on walls and his toolbox looked like it came right off a Sears storeroom. He never had to look for a tool. Many of the tools were given to him by his dad. Moe's father’s name was Schmidt. Smitty. I only met Smitty a few times but Moe loved him pure and simple. I never knew any grown men who would say it as openly a Moe. He loved his old man. He wasn’t afraid to say it. He told stories of the simple but effective lessons Smitty taught Moe and his brothers. Like if Smitty ever found one of his boys’ tools left out or dirty he would just throw it away. Moe said that it didn’t happen very often before they learned to put their tools away. Clean.
When I was about 11 or 12 Smitty died. He was the first person I ever knew who had passed away. And while I never knew Smitty well, Morris was one of my best friends. I had never seen a dead body before and I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I wanted to go to the funeral home. For Moe. To tell him how sad I was for him. My folks said I didn’t have to go. They understood. It was sort of a grown up thing. But I felt like I had to. My brother Pat said he would go too, although I think he mainly wanted to see his first body.
We dressed up in shirts and ties. We were used to dressing up. We attended a Catholic school. I was a little worried. I wasn’t sure what to say to Moe. I’d never had to do anything like that before. I asked my folks how to do this and my dad said not to fret about it. My mom said that something would come to me. How could I tell him how sorry I was? It was as much about telling him how much he meant to me as it was about being sad for his dad dying.
Pat and I went up to see Smitty in the open coffin. “Would you look at that!” Pat spoke in a loud whisper. “He looks just like he’s sleeping.”
“Shhh! Keep it down,” I murmured. Pat was mesmerized. I had seen some people kneel down in front of the coffin before us so I got down on my knees. It was scary and I was probably shaking a bit. Pat knelt next to me. Pat looked around and then reached up and touched Smitty’s hand.
“Cut that out, Pat!” I hissed.
“Man, he’s all cold. It’s like he’s been in the freezer or something.”
I got up to talk to Morris. I found him in the back of the big room. He was surrounded by his friends and family. When he saw me he smiled his crooked smile. “Well, Mr. Tim. Thank you for coming. I mighta guessed that you would. How are you doin’?” He was smoking a cigar. Back in those days it was still acceptable to smoke in a funeral parlor.
Nervously, I walked up to him and stuck out my hand. He put his cigar in an ashtray, stood up and stuck out his own. We never really shook hands so the formality was weird. “I’m sorry Mr. Owens,” I said lamely.
“Thanks, Timmy. That means a lot.” It may have too, but it felt so weak. Here was my buddy who had to have been in a world of hurt.
“The thing is, I never really knew Smitty,” I went on. “But I knew how much you loved him. And…” I searched for the right words. “He must have been a great guy because YOU are such a great guy. If he was your dad, he must have been really special. The world is not as good as it was before Smitty died. I’m so sorry.” He reached out and embraced me. We hadn’t hugged since I was a little boy. I don’t know if he cried. But I did.
As I grew older I didn’t see the Owens’ that much. We moved out to Chesterton when I was a junior in high school. They moved the other direction, out to Chicago. He met my high school girlfriend. He and Cathy really liked her. When I went to college and came home with Heidi, I couldn’t wait to introduce her to the Owens’. Moe took me aside and said he knew that she was the one. He was right, of course.
I ’89 my dad died. He was pretty young and he died rather quickly. My brother Dan and I arranged most of the funeral details. The last time I saw Morris was at the funeral home. I hadn’t seen him in a while. His hair was a little grayer and his face noticeably more jowly. He had been retired for a few years. He and Cathy had moved to a small Kentucky town now and he spent much of his time in a VFW club drinking and smoking (I assume) and telling stories (for certain). This time he greeted me with a hug. When I saw him he was outside the funeral parlor (society had just begun to have sense about second-hand smoke) smoking a “light” cigarette. He confessed that he wasn’t supposed to be smoking at all. He’d already had a big heart attack. He told me something like I had told him years earlier. Did he remember or was it just the right thing to say? “The world is not the same, Timmy. It’s just not as good without Jack O’Keefe.”
He expressed his condolences the way good friends do, by being terribly sad himself. Jack was one of his best friends too. Life just wouldn’t be the same. Moe was pretty old by that time and his health was declining. I thought to myself as we parted that night that I would probably never see him again. I was right.
Even though there were years where I never saw Cathy and Morris, every time we did catch up it was like we just talked the day before. Every time I saw Moe there were new stories – or reworked old stories. He always challenged my positions by playing the devil’s advocate whether on politics or religion. Before I had ever really defined my attitudes or opinions, Morris argued or cajoled or in some way made me think deeper about important ideas. If we did seem like we started to agree about something, he would cleverly change his mind to keep the argument going. He made me see both sides of an issue.
He was 40 years older than me, but that didn’t matter. As much as anyone in my life, Moe shaped me. With humor, stories, compassion, friendship. When I was a kid he never talked down to me. He always looked me right in the eye. He never discounted my ideas – even when they probably made little sense. He always welcomed me and treated me like his son. Moe was more a part of my family than some of my own family members. Everyone needs someone like Moe in their lives. I’m blessed that for a long while, he was part of mine.