MEMORIES OF ALAN - by Andrew Mudge
In the summer of 1983, before my fifth grade year at Pine Hill Elementary School, I began training for the Presidential Fitness Exam. My coach was my older brother Alan, who, a year older and one class ahead of me, was quite determined to cap off his elementary school athletic career with high honors. We practiced at home in Sherborn Massachusetts, and at my grandparents' rolling farmland in the Connecticut river valley of New Hampshire. I'll never forget kneeling on his feet, watching him do sit-ups in his faded and sweat stained Sherborn little league t-shirt. When it came to the long distance run, Alan was emphatic that we do it barefoot. So I unlaced my sneakers and chased after him, our small bodies racing swiftly among rows of corn and over dew soaked fields. A few months later, I realized that the rigorous training had paid off. Sprinting barefoot in the fitness test, I was the fastest kid in my class by two laps. The end of the school year found me the somewhat bewildered recipient of Ronald Reagan's seal of athletic achievement.
During our high school years Alan excelled as an athlete. His chosen sports were soccer, skiing, and baseball. I, a gangly teenager with mouth full of orthodontics, warmed a few benches at hockey games, but for the most part found refuge in the drama and music departments. As an upperclassman, my brother was the captain of most his teams, but he was by no means a jock. In fact, he seemed nearly possessed by a desire to participate in as many school activities as he could. He was a peer counselor and president of the AFS club. He spent spring breaks volunteering at Pilgrim Church work camps. Despite being completely tone deaf, he was cast in the chorus in two school musicals (under an agreement with the music director that would not actually sing, but only mouth the words.) He joined the school orchestra, where he was given the cymbals. My opinion at the time was that his assigned task, crashing together two oversized pizza platters, could have been performed by a trained circus bear. However Alan took to the matter with dedication and spirit, practicing fastidiously in our basement, between sessions of waxing his Nordic skis on my mother’s ironing board. Alan was simply full of life. He wanted in.
It was during my brother’s senior year at Dover-Sherborn that I began to observe a quiet wisdom, a desire to look inward. Alan carried in his pocket a dog-eared copy of Thoreau's Walden Pond, full of his own notes and highlighted paragraphs. He engaged in soulful conversations with everyone he could; his teachers, his girlfriend, the maintenance crews, the janitors. I vividly remember observing him through his open bedroom door as he carefully scrawled the words of the Max Ehrmann poem "Desiderata" in the blank pages of his physics notebook, while a Peter Gabriel tape cassette was played, then rewound, then played again (I still think of Alan each time I hear “Solsbury Hill".) For his senior project, Alan told his guidance counselor that he wanted to do something to give back to Dover-Sherborn, and happily accepted an unglamorous internship filing documents in the basement of the superintendant’s office.
Alan was thirsty to explore, to see the world beyond our Boston suburbs. With his sparkling eyes and crooked smile, he often repeated Thoreau's quote about "sucking the marrow out of life." With my parents' permission, he decided that he would take some time off before going to college. He signed up for a gap year organized by a Boston-based adventure travel program. Alan wanted to see what this marrow was all about.
In mid June of 1990, a week after high school graduation, Alan flew to the city of Odessa, in what is now the Ukraine. From there he boarded a Russian merchant marine ship named "Druzhba," the Slavic word for friendship. Alan was one of four Americans on a three hundred foot square-rigger set out on a journey from Russia to New York. In the last phone call my parents received before he left port, Alan told them that the airlines had given up their search for his lost luggage. It was official. He was to sail halfway around the world wearing only the clothes on his back. Alan was exuberant about this. Simplify, Simplify.
On the seventh of July, Alan died in a hiking accident in the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa. His ship had come to harbor the day before, and Alan set his eyes on the full moon rising over volcanic mountain peaks. In his last journal entry, a note scribbled to his high school friend and soccer teammate Derek Moore, Alan described his prospective mountain ascent as the adventure of a lifetime. He went solo, and his body was found the next day. He simply slipped on loose footing and took a bad fall.
The heartbreak of losing a brother and son was enormous, but my family did not grieve alone. July 1990 brought an outpouring of family and friends, a sort of alchemy that changed lives, most certainly mine. My family learned about the perennial force of love, and the myriad ways its branches take root. A refrigerator full of frozen dinners prepared by friends, near strangers stopping by to share a story that involved Alan, an enduring mail correspondence with a few of the young Russian sailors who were with him in his last weeks, and were clearly inspired by Alan’s passion for life. The ripples of Alan’s life had spread far and wide. The memory that’s most vivid to me however, is immediately after Alan’s funeral, when a huge impromptu soccer game took place in a horse pasture across the street from our house. Included were not only students from Dover-Sherborn, but also soccer players from other towns, who had come to pay their respect. Blue blazers and ties were draped over a fence rail. Loafers were kicked into a disorderly pile. We played barefoot. Just the way Alan would have liked it.