The Big Chill

Growing up in Easton and Redding during the 1950’s and 1960’s, we had a sense of security and optimism. During the decade between the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, there was an extended period of peace where our parents were confident that their children would not need to take up arms to fight in a foreign land. We lived in a period of economic prosperity where most families were able to afford their own homes, purchase a second car, and send their kids to college without either mortgaging their own retirement or their children’s future.

While both towns were relatively affluent, it was difficult to distinguish the rich from the middle class that most of us of were part of. Old money lived in some of the larger older homes, but so did a lot of the middle class. The only distinguishing features between the two being either a tennis court in the back yard or perhaps a live-in servant who greeted visitors at the front door. The flaunting of fame, success, or wealth just wasn’t done much in either town.

By 1959, we finally had our own high school where we wouldn’t need to travel great distances or suffer through double sessions in Bridgeport or Danbury because of overcrowded classrooms.

JBHS in 1964

The funding and construction of Joel Barlow may have been the best thing our parents could have ever done for us. A combination junior and senior high school allowed the kids from both towns the opportunity to spend 7th through 12th grade together – virtually their entire adolescence without the disruption of changing schools and the need to resocialize during a time when young teens have a hard enough time finding their way through life. Growing up with the same group of people was a wonderful experience where many of us established a bond that lasted for life even as we went our separate ways in adulthood.

By the time we were ready to graduate Barlow and go on to college, there was a solid core group of seven of young men along with two or three of our long-time girlfriends who spent most of our free time together. After school or on weekends, we could be found at either the Apizza Center on the Post Road in Fairfield, gorging on their delicious Italian pies, or all parked in a row outside the Sycamore in Bethel. Curbside service delivered paper-thin, crispy steak burgers and iced mugs that overflowed with the drive-in’s signature root beer to the metal trays hanging from the driver’s side window.

It really hasn’t changed much in the past 60 years,

We all drove convertibles, mostly British – multiple MG’s and Austin Healey’s. The American cars consisted of a GTO and a Skylark, and during our senior year, one member of the group appeared in the very first Japanese sports car we had ever seen, a Datsun Fairlady.

Our group partied for three solid days at graduation, sleeping on the beach at Compo in Westport after a class graduation party that had been hosted by one of our history teachers at his family’s Tarrywile compound in Danbury. During that summer, two or three other friends from nearby towns joined our tight-knit group while we spent much of July and August playing volleyball, waterskiing, and sailing on Long Island Sound before heading off to college.

Amazingly, our group remained close all through college. After graduation, those of us who remained in Fairfield County spent our early summers in a communal house on Fairfield Beach, some living there full-time, with the rest of us visiting on our days off and weekends. Our winter weekends were spent at a shared rental house in the Sugarbush Valley in Vermont. Many winter vacations were spent together skiing the back bowls at Vail, or the through the tree lined glades at Steamboat Springs. Most of us bought motorcycles, rode together, and continued to play volleyball both amongst ourselves and as a team during our summers at the beach.

Looks are deceiving – There were times during the winter where as many as 19 people slept in our communal rental ski house in Warren Vermont in 1973.

As time wore on, we served in each other’s wedding parties. We welcomed our friends’ first children, buying them gifts and then teaching them how to ski almost as soon as they could walk. We mourned the loss of each other’s parents as time took its toll. We were brothers and sisters.

But, one-by-one, we gradually moved on to spend more time with our new families and business colleagues, and less with our oldest and dearest friends. Most of us kept in touch, sometimes flying thousands of miles to attend weddings, birthday parties, and anniversaries. A few of the guys regularly met at various ski resorts to celebrate our birthdays every fifth year with a week of deep powder skiing without the girls. As the years passed, the number of attendees dwindled. The last one of those birthday weeks was at number fifty, when there were only two of us left still willing to tackle the waist deep powder and relish the heart pounding thrills of skiing the Resolution Bowl at Copper in Colorado.

Covid-19 has kept some of us from attending a party for one of the gang this week in Arizona as he celebrates one of those milestone birthdays that seem to come much faster now that we’re all retired. How many more of these big number birthdays that end in zero or five we’ll all have is anybody’s guess.

Our last truly large get together, where all but two of the original group attended, was in the early 1980’s. We attended our fifteen-year high school reunion in Connecticut in August and then most of the group skied for a week at Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley in California two years later in the spring. It was almost as if no time had passed from the days of our youth.

That was about the same time as one of my favorite films of all time debuted – The Big Chill. For my money, Lawrence Kasdan is one of the best directors of his era. His characters are both inciteful and humorous. I sat in awe the first time I watched this film. I could put a name from someone in our group to every one of his main characters. It was uncanny – they were us and we were them. The qualities and flaws in each of them corresponded to our own. Put together with the best movie soundtrack of all time, it was like I was watching all of us in a dream.

The characters in Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill seemed to mirror our own.

The movie was a reunion of friends just like us. Eight people who had been tight in college getting together fifteen years later to honor the ninth, who they were there to say goodbye to. Some had married, some had divorced. They had varied careers and lived in different parts of the country. They were just like us. Except for number nine – Alex. He was dead. We were all still very much alive. Until a few days ago anyway, when we learned that one member of our original group was in Hospice. He’d suffered a major stroke with serious hemorrhaging in his brain.

That friend could have been a clone of William Hurt’s “Nick” in The Big Chill. Like Hurt’s character, our Nick was good looking, possessed a sarcastic sense of humor, was a serious smoker of pot, had absolutely no career aspirations, and maintained a complete disdain for authority figures. Neither Nick could maintain a serious romantic relationship and neither Nick ever married. Both even drove the exact same make and model of automobile back then, a Porsche 911. In the film, Hurt’s character arrived late at Alex’s funeral, just as our own Nick has never been on time a day in his life. It was as if Kasdan had met and studied our Nick and then written the part just for Hurt.

Nick on the porch of Alex’s unfinished cabin in The Big Chill

Our Nick has always been a lovable creature who could make us laugh and feel sad at the same time. He marches to a different beat than the rest of us. He always has. But in our younger days, our Nick was always someone whose carefree actions made the rest of us take an occasional break from our diligent quest to succeed, if just to enjoy a few days of fun while putting aside our worries.

If you were to look up “hedonist” in an illustrated thesaurus, you’d likely see a picture of our Nick sitting on a beach in Bali with a joint in one hand and a glass of 18-year cask aged single malt in the other. Work was never part of his everyday vocabulary. Luckily, he didn’t need to seek employment, as his family trust fund provided him with more than enough money to cover the costs of his personal indulgences. In retrospect, perhaps that was more of a curse than a blessing.

Over the past few days, I have either talked to, texted, or emailed virtually all the old gang. With the exception of poor Nick, we’re all still relatively healthy, although the last of us finally gave up skiing a couple of years ago when the knees and back had had enough. No one was surprised that our old friend would likely be the first to go. We all saw it coming. His health has been deteriorating for several years. COPD has had him on oxygen for a while now. He smokes a little less but drinks a little more.

We’ve all got fond memories of our younger days together, and the stories involving Nick are some of our best. But our current sadness isn’t just that he will soon be gone, but that he missed out on so much of life’s real pleasures: family, career, personal and professional achievements. Perhaps he will never know what he really missed – but we will.

Sadly, as I am finishing this, the call just came that I knew was coming. Nick is gone.

Safe journeys, Nick. We’ll see you on the other side.

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