Know how every now and then something makes you think of someone from your past, makes you wonder where he is ... what he's doing? I wouldn't pretend to guess what brings a face or name or a laugh to mind after 30 or 40 years. I just know it happens. Maybe as you're slipping off to sleep, a few words come back, a snatch of conversation. Or a distinctive smile, a mannerism sneaks in by some secret door, and for a few seconds, he's again alive to you: "Old So and So, gosh, I wonder what ever happened to him?"
If you're curious enough, he (she) can be Googled, yes. But that solution is a recent development and it depends on his (her) having done something noteworthy enough to be imprinted on the Internet ether. Besides, those wispy impressions might resurface only once a decade, maybe only once in the rest of your life, and usually we shrug it off and forget him for another year, or forever.
But then, you might open up a newspaper and there he is: his name, his eyes, his smile from four decades past. Such is what happened to this writer on Dec. 30. As I waited to pay for the Statesman I'd picked up, I scanned the front page, and there, side by side with a young and confident Larry Craig, were two of my receding wispy impressions—men I have more than once wondered about. Ray McDonald and Chris Smith.
Ray was the most exciting football player I have ever watched. Granted, my football-watching period was short, not sweet, and limited to those Saturday afternoons when, as a marching trombonist freezing his spit valve shut in the old, cold University of Idaho stadium, I couldn't entirely ignore the game. But Ray McDonald made even disinterested lumps like me sit up and pay attention. He danced through walls of defensive linemen like Nureyev through a phalanx of dying swans. Every time he got his hands on the ball, the Vandals gained yards, and every gain went into the stats that made him the nation's top running back in 1966. He minored in music, and we both had the same piano teacher. (She told me his hands were so big he could span a 13th—music talk for huge hands—and he had to play with his fingers tilted lest they depress three keys at once.) He also pulled me out of a prickly situation in a Moscow bar. I'd walked in with a leggy blonde in a miniskirt, directly into a slathering pack of drunken football players, who proceeded to paw my date and challenge me to do something about it. Ray graciously escorted the gropers away, promising us his friends would behave themselves ... or else.
Chris Smith I knew much better, enough to call him friend. He always seemed a little perplexed by us bell-bottomed long-hairs, as he preferred vest sweaters and ties. We would split a pitcher at Mort's as he questioned how on earth I could ever be a Gene McCarthy man while he considered Hubert Humphrey the hope for the troubled nation. He was one odd duck, for sure, but I truly enjoyed his company. And never once did I suspect he was a homosexual.
In contrast, Ray left whispered rumors in his wake. I didn't know if any of them were true, but it's likely they were. As Dan Popkey chronicles, those rumors followed him to the Washington Redskins and ended his NFL career before it really started.
I knew, before I left the state, that Chris had become heavily involved in Idaho politics, and I took that as a comfort, since he was a solid liberal as well as being one of the brightest people I've known. After 10 years away, I lost all track of him. None of the people I met upon my return knew anything about him, and after a time, I forgot to ask anymore. As to Ray, I'd forgotten about him long before that, mostly. Every now and then, that snatch of conversation, that distinctive smile or mannerism, would stir up from my shifting sands, and for a moment or two, I would wonder.
Now I know, thanks to Popkey, where they are ... what they are doing. Ray died in 1993. In spite of his ruined football career—ruined because he was gay—he had never stopped scrambling for yards. He directed a school choir in Washington, D.C., and was working on his Ph.D. when AIDS pulled him down. Chris died in 1995, also of AIDS. He had come out publicly 20 years earlier and, by doing so, destroyed his career in the political arena as thoroughly as Ray had on that other playing field. Had I known, I would have made a point of saying good-bye. But by being gay in that place and that time, Chris had become an invisible man. He was alone to a degree I can't even imagine.
Dan Popkey has taken a lot of criticism for not allowing the Larry Craig story to die. Even I began to question his motives in the second installment about Craig's history, which appeared months after the man's career was taken off life support. I mean, we all (myself included) had ourselves a good giggle, didn't we? And everyone (myself included) had ample opportunity to express our moral outrage, either over Craig's alleged homosexuality or his hypocrisy. So why keep poking the corpse?
After reading the third installment, though, I have to commend Mr. Popkey for putting the epilogue to the Craig saga, the moral to the tale, and I prefer to think the story was never just about Craig, about all the sordid details. Yes, I prefer to think Popkey knew where he would end up from the beginning, as he researched that time 40 years ago in Moscow, when three extraordinary young men looked forward to bright futures (and, along the way, left a print or two in my own shifting sands).
Some of you may be thinking I've written this out of a greed to be included—like a peripheral pest who wants everyone to know, "Hey, I knew those guys!"
It's true. I do want you to know that I knew those guys. The message here, though, isn't that I simply knew them, but that I knew them as talented, motivated boys who had much to give to this world. And Popkey, in his Dec. 30 opus, brought home the sad reality that the world was denied their talents, their motivation—their complete contribution—because of one private aspect of their essence, one element among the many that made them who they were. Beyond all the giggles and all the moral outrage comes an inescapable truth (a truth Larry Craig should have learned by now, but evidently hasn't): that by denying gays the full measure of what the rest of us expect from life, we deny ourselves the full measure of what we might have gained from them. That by understanding only that they are gay, we miss—and miss out on—everything else they are.