Letters From JK: Late August, 1985

Those attending the service held in late June for my college roommate James had the opportunity to share memories of our too-soon departed dear friend. I elected not to focus on the times we spent together on campus in my remarks; instead, I used the two dozen or so letters he’d sent me between 1983 and 1989 as a jumping-off point for telling folks what he had meant to me. The period of most frequent exchange was the two years following our graduation from Transy in 1986, but we also had written each other over various college breaks.

These letters are treasures, alternately funny and serious, joyful and sarcastic, thoughtful and aggravated. Much like James himself.

During the summer of 1985, James and I lived on opposite ends of the fourth floor of Clay Hall. Mark H moved in with me, since we both had what was essentially a paid internship at IBM, while James was programming for TU’s Computing Services for the second summer in a row. By early- to mid-August, we had both decamped from Lexington on a short break before our senior year began.

There were two exchanges of letters over the last ten days of that August. In honor of what would have been James’s 58th birthday, here are highlights from those pieces of mail. The first is dated 8/21; the second is undated but likely written on 8/28. Some of you checking this out knew James and may hear his voice in your head as you read the excerpts below. Even if he’s a complete stranger to you, though, I hope I can offer a bit of insight into what my friend was like, at least around the time he was turning 21. (I also hope he wouldn’t be upset with me for doing this.)

Item: James is working on an online bulletin board system (BBS).
In recent months, a student a couple of years behind us has gotten a BBS up and running on Transy’s mainframe. Known as IS/TU (Information System/Transylvania University, I believe), it has message boards and a chat function, and can be reached from off-campus by dial-up. James apparently has had the chance to look a little under IS/TU’s hood while working for Computing Services over the summer and has spied an opportunity to make improvements. Much of August has been spent sketching out his own BBS, for the moment called ‘SNOT! (get it?). He goes on at length, particularly about how little unusable space ‘SNOT! will create by using dynamic message length instead of fixed length. He’s hoping he can finish the coding by December and that it will replace IS/TU because of its awesomeness.

I have to show up on campus a few days earlier than most other returning students (not long after Labor Day) to help with new student move-in and orientation, so he plans to move in at the same time I do in order to hang out in the computer lab all weekend and get working on it.

Alas, real life and schoolwork interceded; as far as I know, ‘SNOT! never got much off the ground.

(Side note: That fall, IS/TU became quite popular with a segment of the Transy student body. A couple of fellow CS majors discovered that it could be quite easily hacked and proceeded to do so. James and I were on the fringe of this action; my single contribution to the project was writing a program that would capture the number of logins for each account and then apply a sort routine to create a list of the top 10 most frequent users—yes, while completely skeevy, I recognize this was resonant with other interests in my life.)

Item: He’s already thinking about post-collegiate nostalgic get-togethers.
One Saturday in July, a number of the folks in our circle who were around for the summer took a day trip to Mammoth Cave National Park. We had a grand time, inspiring the following last-minute addition to the first letter.

There have been a few confabs across the years but unsurprisingly, life took us all in various directions, making an annual gathering difficult if not impossible.

But guess what came up in conversation at dinner after the memorial service? Expression of the desire to meet up regularly at occasions other than funerals.

Item: He’s enthusiastic about recent LP purchases.
In the week between the two letters, he travels the thirty miles between home to Lexington to run some errands. While there he drops by Camelot Music (remember those?) in Fayette Mall and picks up “two cheap albums.” The first is One Hit Wonders!, a compilation filled with tunes from 15-20 years ago. He notes it includes (among others) “The Rapper,” “Psychotic Reaction,” “Ride Captain Ride,” and “Smile a Little Smile for Me.” Several of the songs he lists are preceded by “!!! ->” to indicate particular ardor.

As for the second, well, I’ll let him tell you.

Over the years, it’s become increasingly common for me to think of this passage when John, Cass, Michelle, and Denny cross my mind/come on the radio.

Item: He’s having an existential crisis.
The most serious segment in these letters begins, “In other depressing news and something which will make you fear that I’ll come running at you with a knife in the middle of the night, I’ve been really ‘messed up’ lately.” He goes on to detail one reason why he stays up so late, particularly when he’s at home.

This apparently has been going on for about a year-and-a-half, and to his credit, he indicates he’s considering counseling.

In typical James fashion, he ends by trying to lighten the mood: “Why do I suddenly feel like I’m in a 501 Jeans commercial.”

Item: He’s making plans for a late October show at WTLX.
By coincidence, James’s then-girlfriend, my ex-gf (with whom James has remained very good friends after our breakup), and Jon Anderson of Yes all share a birthday, and James is settling on what he wants to play during his 10pm-midnight shift on the Thursday of that week.

My ex was well-known to hold strongly feminist views; right or wrong, James liked to tease/prod/provoke his friends from time to time. I do have doubts that the show came together as laid out here (except for the Yes portion).

Near the end of the second letter, out of nowhere, comes a paragraph full of kindness:

I was hesitant to include this; however, I believe it says more about James than it does me. I’ve remarked to people recently that James and I perhaps weren’t best friends in college, but rather the right level of friend to be roommates. Nevertheless, there was a period of roughly three years, maybe beginning right around this time, where we opened up to one another about our highs and lows, particularly in letters. I’m incredibly grateful for that, and for having held on to evidence of it.

Even though the end of October is eight weeks out, here are a love song from the past and something featuring Jon Anderson’s voice. I’ll skip the sexist stuff.