Back in December 2013, I posted a blog titled “An Old Photograph.” I wrote about the tragic, untimely death of my old colleague and treasured friend Alex W. Thrower. Alex died unexpectedly on December 11, leaving behind a wife and two young sons.
The response to my recollections was far beyond what I had anticipated. Many people read the blog and commented on how much Alex meant to them.
In the months since I posted the blog, I have been thinking a great deal about Alex. I knew him long ago, in another life. At the time, I was still in my twenties, unsure of myself, and struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with my life when I grew up. I was working in a job I did not enjoy, gradually putting on weight, and feeling adrift as I pondered my future.
I am 51-years-old now and in a far better place than I was during the time that Alex and I worked together at the Southern States Energy Board (SSEB). In the years since SSEB fired me — I believe the appropriate euphemism is “let me go” or, better yet, “right-sized me” — I have not set the world on fire, but I have made peace with my life. I am comfortable in my skin. Although I have experienced my share of heartache and disappointment — watching my mother die a horrible death from lung cancer after she suffered a debilitating stroke three years earlier, enduring a divorce from a woman I dearly loved, being passed over for promotions at work, and so forth — my life has been pretty good. I am a happy man. My health is excellent, I make enough money to live a satisfying lifestyle, I enjoy playing with my ex-step-grandchildren, and I feel reasonably fulfilled with my part-time writing and teaching careers. All-in-all, I have been blessed.
I mention these things because they explain, at least partially, why Alex and I had lost touch in recent years. Although I always enjoyed his witty personality and wry observations about life, he lived far away and was traveling on a different career path than I was. In some ways, I tried to turn my back on the days when I knew him in the early 1990s. It was an unhappy time for me. Yet I never meant to turn my back on Alex.
After many years of conveniently ignoring the bad old days, I have been deliberately thinking back on my adventures with Alex Thrower. In light of the tragic, gut-wrenching circumstances surrounding his death, the tendency is to remember every episode tinged with sadness. I don’t want to do that. The Alex Thrower I knew was not a tragic figure. My memories of him as a young man are of a fellow who was joyous, exuberant, and funny.
I want to share four fond memories in particular.
An Honest Face
The first memory is a minor vignette but nonetheless so perfectly in line with Alex’s personality and sense of humor that I need to recount it here.
A few weeks after he moved to Atlanta to work at SSEB, Alex shopped for groceries in a nearby Kroger store. In the days before debit cards became ubiquitous, it was not uncommon to buy groceries and write a check for the purchase. In those days, when a customer wrote a check, the cashier was required to page the store manager to approve a purchase over a specific dollar amount. It was a laborious process that invariably caused an aggravating delay for customers waiting in the queue.
When he ambled into the store that day, Alex did not realize that Kroger had instituted a new pre-approval process whereby a customer would fill out a form, have it approved once, and receive an identification card known as an Honest Face card. The card was a handy way to avoid having to wait for a store manager’s approval each time a patron wrote a check. He or she would present the Honest Face card and the check would be accepted with no additional questions asked.
As he whipped out his checkbook to pay for his groceries, Alex confronted a cashier who asked him a seemingly simple question.
“Do you have an Honest Face?”
The young lady was speaking in shorthand. What she meant was, “have you completed a Kroger Honest Face application and received a card that you can show me so I don’t have to page the store manager for check approval?” She did not say that. She was speaking elliptically the way a clerk will ask, “What’s your Social?” when the person is seeking one’s Social Security number.
Unaware of the new card-issuing process, Alex thought the cashier was making a wry comment about his facial features. “I think I have an honest face,” he responded.
“Okay,” she said. “That’s good.”
“Yes,” Alex agreed. “It is.”
She waited for him to do something, and yet he stood there. Exasperated, the young lady sighed. “Well?”
He frowned. “Well what?”
“Well, can I see it?”
“You want to see my honest face?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Alex chuckled. “Okay. I’ll do my best.” He then stuck out his mug and shot her an exaggerated smile that he thought fairly depicted his honesty and integrity. She, however, was convinced that she had a leering, grinning lunatic on her hands.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Showing you my honest face.”
“You don’t need to be a smartass about it.”
“What’s smartass about my face?”
It took several minutes of this Who's-on-First routine for the respective parties to figure out that they had encountered a failure to communicate.
The Weekend Warrior
Another humorous incident occurred during Alex’s first day as an SSEB employee.
One of his duties was to support me as the staff person in charge of the agency’s radioactive materials transportation committee.
When Alex reported for work in July 1990, as the first order of business I asked that he call committee members to introduce himself. I handed him a roster of a dozen or so names and telephone numbers. Afterward, he retreated into his new office to work the phones.
It was softball work designed to ease him into his new position. I could not envision any problems. Thus, imagine my surprise when Alex entered my office late in the day bearing an inscrutable expression.
“What’s wrong?” I asked when I saw his sweaty, pasty-white face.
“I think I screwed up big time,” he said, his lips trembling. “Ken may fire me when he finds out what I’ve done.”
Our boss, Ken Nemeth, was well known for his arbitrariness, but even he would be unlikely to fire someone after less than a day on the job.
“What have you done?”
“You won’t believe it.”
“I can’t believe it myself.”
“Have a seat,” I said, pointing. “Take a breath, and tell me what happened.”
“It involves the colonel,” Alex said in a weak voice as he collapsed into the chair. “You know who I mean.”
One of the committee members, an older gentleman in his sixties, was a colonel in the National Guard. With his booming, husky, bass voice, barrel chest, and military bearing, I had always found the man to be intimidating. At the same time, I knew the colonel to be a decent, fair-minded man.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know who you mean. What about him?”
Alex cleared his throat. “Well,” he said, “I decided to make small talk. I’m not so good at small talk.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“Anyway, there was a lull in the conversation.”
Alex swallowed hard as though it pained him to confess his crime. “So, anyway, to make small talk, I said: ‘I see you’re a colonel in the National Guard.'”
“Okay,” I said. “So far, so good.”
Alex sighed and mopped his face with a handkerchief. “I should have left it there.”
“But you didn’t?”
“No. Then I said, well, something along the lines of, ‘You love to play weekend warrior, do you?’”
He pressed his hand over his eyes as I pressed my hand over my eyes.
“Tell me you didn’t say that.” I looked up in hopes of seeing a smile indicating it was a joke.
Alex nodded. “I did. I did say that.”
The colonel was an immensely proud man. For a young pup to insult his service in the hallowed ranks of the National Guard was anathema. Few things could upset a National Guardsman as much as being labeled a “weekend warrior.”
“I wasn’t trying to insult him.”
“Omigod, omigod, omigod. I’m gonna get fired, aren’t I? He’s prob’ly on the phone with Ken right now.”
“Maybe it wasn’t that bad.”
“Oh, it was that bad.”
“How did he take it?” I asked.
“Are you familiar with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius?”
“How long ago did you talk to him?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Not long.” He looked at his watch. “Ten minutes ago, if that.”
I reached for the phone. “I have an idea. Hang on.” Gazing at the committee roster, I dialed a phone number. My pulse was racing.
The colonel picked up on the first ring. As soon as I identified myself, he launched into a verbal tirade the likes of which I had never experienced.
“Yes sir,” I said when I could get a word in edgewise. “Yes, sir. Service at Ia Drang, Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill. I understand. Noble stuff, sir. Noble stuff.”
When the colonel calmed down a bit, I went to work. I explained that Alex was a new employee and a young man. He simply did not know what he was doing. “You know how it is when you are young and dumb and just starting out.”
It was a strange conversation to have with a man who was 66 years old. Alex was 22 and I was 27. I was hardly a wise old gray-haired man, but I played the role, anyway. I painted a picture of a young fellow of great promise who merely misspoke. I appealed to the colonel to think back on his days as a raw recruit. I extolled the virtues of justice tempered with mercy.
In short, I slung bullshit in expert fashion. Some of what I said was true.
In 15 minutes or thereabouts, I persuaded our incensed Vietnam veteran that he should show some mercy to our young soldier. No insult was intended and no harm was done.
The colonel later became one of Alex’s strongest supporters. When layoffs occurred 19 months later, the colonel personally spoke to our boss, Ken, to insist that Alex stay on the payroll.
Alex was never laid off from SSEB — although I was. I suppose the universe has a sense of humor after all.
Too Much Information
The “weekend warrior” incident was not Alex’s only misadventure using the telephone.
A few weeks after our run-in with the colonel, I asked Alex to conduct a phone survey of state radiological health officers about a proposed rule that we expected the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to promulgate in the near future. As with his first assignment, this one did not seem terribly controversial at the outset.
Late one afternoon, he wandered into my office with another strange expression on his face.
Uh-oh, I thought. This doesn’t look good.
“You won’t believe what just happened,” he said.
I grimaced. “This wasn’t another ‘weekend warrior’-type episode, was it?”
He smiled. “No. Nothing like that.”
He slid into the chair across from my desk. “I was calling people about the survey on the proposed DOE reg.”
“Apparently, the number we had for [Committee Member X] was her private cell phone line.”
I nodded. “Huh. I wonder how that happened. We’ll have to correct it.”
“Anyway, the line I called was reserved for friends and family, so she doesn’t take business calls on that line.”
“Uh-oh. Was she angry we called her cell phone? Did she scream at you?”
Alex laughed. “Not quite. She wasn’t there. She’s taken a leave of absence to have surgery.”
I was confused. “So what’s the problem?”
“Apparently, [Committee Member X] has a close friend or boyfriend named Alex. When I called, one of her friends answered the phone and did not realize this was a business call.”
My heart was beating fast. “Yeah?”
“She thought I was [Committee Member X’s] boyfriend and I called to find out about her surgery.”
“Do I want to hear this?”
“Excuse me?” I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly. My ears were working fine, but my brain did not process the words.
“[Committee Member X] is suffering from vaginal polyps. Fortunately, they’re benign.”
“What the hell is a vaginal polyp?”
Alex consulted a scrap of paper he pulled from his pocket. “Well, according to the person on the phone, the colloquial name is ‘vaginal polyp.’ Technically, it’s called a cervical polyp and is a common benign polyp or tumor on the surface of the cervical canal….”
“You took notes?”
“When she first started talking, I wasn’t sure how important the news was.”
“And now you know.”
“It was a relief to know they were benign.”
“Yes, well, that is good news.”
“Would you like to hear the additional details?”
“There are additional details?”
“The person who answered the phone thought Alex was entitled to hear the details.”
“I think I’ll pass. If I ever decide to go to medical school, maybe I’ll rethink my decision.”
Alex shook his head. “I haven’t even met the lady, and already I know all about her female plumbing.”
“Yeah. You should wait until at least the second or third meeting to hear about vaginal polyps.”
“I could have gone my whole life without that knowledge. Talk about too much information!”
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look [Committee Member X] in the face the same way again.”
“I may not be able to ever look her in the face. Period.”
“Well, there is an upside. We’ve been looking for one more item to fill the gap in the newsletter this month. Maybe this could be the lead story.”
Sharing a Cold on the Minnesota Zephyr
My last story about Alex Thrower at SSEB is my favorite.
As I mentioned in my December posting, Alex and I often traveled together on SSEB business and added a day or two, if the schedule permitted, to visit places of interest. On one occasion in November 1990, we were headed to a meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Alex Thrower, Circa 1990
Neither of us had ever been to Minnesota. Although it wouldn’t have been my choice of a place to visit, it was the destination for our business trip. Alex and I decided to head out on a Saturday for the Monday meeting so we could enjoy the local scenery.
The Internet was not well-developed in 1990, so I researched the area as best I could by relying on brochures and the library. I was looking for something new and interesting to do. We wanted to see a little local color and soak up the culture.
One of the local activities I stumbled upon was called the Minnesota Zephyr. It was a train that departed from Stillwater, Minnesota, not far from Minneapolis, and traveled in a loop through the wooded countryside. The train offered a prime rib dinner, too.
When I mentioned the Zephyr to Alex, he was excited. It sounded as though a splendid time would be guaranteed for all.
We made plans about six weeks ahead of time. Little did either of us realize that when we departed for the trip, we both would be suffering from a terrible cold. In fact, I felt feverish and lethargic on the morning we flew out of Atlanta and almost canceled the trip.
Still, I persevered. Somehow, the plane landed, we rented a car, and we drove to Stillwater without problems.
When we arrived for the train, we discovered that we were grossly underdressed. Young couples — I mean very young, as in high school students — were milling about wearing tuxedos and prom dresses.
“What is all this?” I asked a lady who was standing behind a glass window in the Minnesota Zephyr depot office. I had given her my name at “Will Call” and I was waiting to receive our train tickets.
“It’s fall prom weekend,” she explained. “The Zephyr is a popular destination for young couples going to the prom or older couples celebrating a wedding anniversary. In fact, locally it is nicknamed the ‘Lovers’ Express.’”
Alex looked at me. “What have you gotten me into?”
I shrugged. “How did I know?”
“So,” the lady asked as she reached through the window to hand over our tickets, “how long have you two been a couple?”
Alex and I stammered and shuffled our feet.
I spoke first. “We’re not — ”
— “A couple,” he concluded.
At that point, we each sneezed in stereo.
“Ah,” I said.
“Choo,” Alex concluded.
The woman nodded her head as she watched two balding men with high foreheads and glasses sharing a cold and completing each other’s sentences even as they protested their gay lifestyle.
“Hey, fellas, it’s the 1990s. Whatever gets you through the night,” she observed as she turned her attention to the next customer.
Alex wiped sweat from his brow and blew his nose into a handkerchief. “What have you gotten me into?”
“Well, at least she’s non-judgmental.”
Neither of us was homophobic, but we weren’t gay, either. We wanted to live and let live.
I thought things couldn’t get worse, but they did.
The brochure had promised that the Minnesota Zephyr sped through the forest as though it were a Japanese bullet train. In actuality, the cars rocked at a gentle 25-miles-an-hour. I thought we would travel in a 50-mile loop showing off breathtaking views of the Minnesota wilderness. The loop was only a few miles wide and the woods were so dark we saw almost nothing save for a few raccoons foraging for food in an overturned metal trash can. Their eyes were devilish in the night.
Not that anyone else cared about the speed or the scenery. As soon as we boarded the train and departed, the lights went down low and every couple except Alex and me was lost in a deep embrace.
We quietly gazed out the window while the dark woods crept by, straining to see if the raccoons had moved each time we inched past their feeding grounds.
Alex muttered, “What have you gotten me into?”
The only sound was the moaning from multiple couples as the heavy petting threatened to escalate into something more.
“Maybe the prime rib will be good,” I observed. I am an eternal optimist.
An hour later, the lights came up long enough for the meal to be served. A couple seated at the table across from us, Greg and Regina, asked the question we knew was on their minds.
“So,” Regina inquired, “how long have you two been a couple?”
Alex and I spoke at once. “We’re not a couple.”
“Uh-huh,” said Greg, the husband, with a smirk on his face. “Two straight guys just happen to ride a train known as the ‘Lovers’ Express.’ Interesting.”
“It’s not known by that name in Georgia,” I said.
Our colds would not be denied. “Ah,” I said.
“Choo,” Alex concluded.
“That’s a nasty cold you’re sharing,” Regina observed with a smirk on her face.
“What have you gotten me into?” Alex asked as he blew his nose.
Well, Alex, after all these years, I can finally answer your question.
We were making memories, my friend. We were making good memories.