Max was my cousin.
We grew up a block away from each other and Stephen, my best friend other then Max lived across the street. We all grew up flying our dad’s airplanes at a very young age. At 4, my father starting teaching me how to fly his V-tailed Bonanza, and by 6, the first Twin Comanche ever made. Max’s dad, my uncle of course, loved Piper Cubs, so that meant we all got to fly them too. Max and his brother were skilled aerobatic pilots by the time they could drive. That’s what their pop taught them. My dad, on the other hand believed that the best pilot was a conservative one. Odd really, considering he was an ace pilot that spent a good deal of time raising hell at the airports in his airplanes, until he got a bit older. My dad and my uncle built or renovated their first airplane when my dad was 19 and my uncle, about 23.
Max was a real card. Happy-go-lucky and fairly popular. He got along with the girls easily as he got older. He was mostly friendly and nonchalant. That may have been part of his problem, it didn’t seem like he ever took much of anything very seriously. When my parents divorced and my mom took us all over the world for a while, I didn’t see Max as much, and when staying with my father, dad tried to separate us as much as possible. Even at 13-14, we’d get together and disappear all night, camping out and shootin’ rabbits at night with a flashlight (and a pellet gun). You know, for the next morning’s breakfast. Those kind of things really pissed my dad off. He couldn’t control us. Heck, he had a hard enough time controlling me, and when Max and I were together, there was no way. So he did his best to keep us apart.
It turned out as he got older, Max seemed to have a lack of respect for guns. He had a couple accidental discharges of weapons that came very close to killing a couple people. It was nothing he meant to do. He was just careless with firearms for some unknown reason.
I was very lucky to spend time with another uncle, married to Max’s dad’s sister, a doctor and hunter. He spent a lot of time with me out on his “ranchette”, where he hunted Quail, Pheasant and Wild Bore…..he was very strict about gun safety. He took his time and kindly explained every aspect and reason for handling guns a certain way.
Max never got that, but there was something in him that didn’t think it was important.
When I was 17, I joined the Navy. I turned 18 in boot camp, in San Diego. I really had a hard time in boot camp. Besides the fact that I displayed an adverse reaction to authoritarian figures, I got real sick. It was approaching Winter in San Diego and they had us out in the yard in our skivvies doing jumping-jacks at 4:30 in the morning. I got Pneumonia and an ear infection at the same time. Even worse at the time, the Navy had a policy of not putting anyone in the hospital until their temperature ran over 102. The ear infection hurt real bad for some time. I can remember rolling around on my bunk holding my head in extreme pain, but that didn’t take more than 10 days to get thru. Worse sort of, was that I had what someone might call “walking” Pneumonia for a month before my temperature (101.8) went over 102. That meant I had to be subject to the typical boot camp activities while I was sick as a dog. Many people don’t know that one of the aspects of Pneumonia is the amount of coughing involved. I don’t know if it was because I was born with Bronchitis, but it was like doing a million situps. All the muscles in my abdominal region we pulled and hurting a lot…..like somebody hit me in the stomach over and over. That’s not even mentioning the difficulty breathing.
I finally ended up in the hospital and that “set me back”, meaning I had to start boot camp all over. It added about 3-4 weeks extra time that I had to spend there. Bad deal.
When I was finally about to graduate, about 3 days away, I was pulled into the admin. area where I got a call from dad telling me that Max was dead, and that I could leave that day to come to the funeral. I didn’t go because I was not going to get “set back” again and spend even more time there. I just couldn’t do that after what I’d been thru.
After boot camp graduation I went home. It was only a day after the funeral. Let me tell you that when children die young, the reaction of family and friends is very dark in most cases. The emotion and drama is very intense. Max was engaged to a young women…18-19, and she was screaming and crying and asking me why. I couldn’t tell her anything. I literally couldn’t answer. I had nothing to say that would help her. I turned and walked away, out in the yard. By the time I’d gone thru this a number of times, I’d figured out a lot, but at the time, I could say nothing.
Just like the “select” kids I’m writing about, I found a way to blame myself for the tragedy. For a few years, I told myself that if I’d only spent more time home instead of all over the place, it wouldn’t have happened. I did realize after a few more times, that death is something we have no control over. Especially suicide, there’s nothing you can do to stop someone that is determined.
I got a number of stories about what happened, including “Russian Roulette”, but the only one that made any sense at all, was this.
Max was living out in a mostly rural trailer park. Him and his friends were there having a barbeque. They had done some target shooting with a 22 revolver he had and then he cleaned and unloaded the pistol and left it on a table. Max left to either gather more firewood or go on a bear run. While he was gone, someone reloaded the revolver, did some more target shooting and put it back on the table. When he got back, he went in the house and kidding around, picked up the pistol, put it to his head behind his ear, said “watch this”, and pulled the trigger. He died in about 15 minutes.
That sounds like the truth to me. That’s how he was. I’d never known Max to be a depressed sort, maybe mad and frustrated, but not suicidal. He may have been disturbed by something as the day went, but it seemed to me, bound to happen.