By Tim Henney
After Scottish bard Robert Burns, borrowing words and sentiments from others before him, wrote “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788 it became, after “Happy Birthday,” the most sung song in the world. I grew up in “auld” southern California hearing Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians over the radio on New Year’s Eve from the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan. It never meant much. It was just New Year’s Eve. As I grew older the song began to mean more. Today, staring 86 in the eye and wondering who’s going to blink first, me or the grim reaper, “Auld Lang Syne” has become personal, almost spiritual. The first words of the lyric ask, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?” (Is it okay that old times be forgotten?). And the song’s reply is that they should not. “Auld Lang Syne”, roughly translated as “Times Gone By,” or “Days Gone By,” are to be treasured. Especially when the times are long gone and the friends who made them memorable are as well.
Many Reader readers are too young, too technologically advanced, to recognize the primitive, nostalgic mix of melancholy and gratitude that “Auld Lang Syne” is. They might remember their parents’ recordings by Rod Stewart, Mariah Carey, Billy Joel, Kenny G., Dan Fogelberg, Bobby Darin or The Beach Boys. None of whom would probably know auld lang syne if the poem walked right up and bit them on their butts. Show Biz folks don’t have time or dispositions for such hokey stuff. Yet when I hear it today, preferably pre-heavy metal, pre-grunge, pre-rap and pre-hip hop, I almost get goose bumps. That might reflect the lucky life I’ve led.
“And surely you’ll buy your pint cup, and surely I’ll buy mine … and we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne. For auld lang syne my dear … for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for days of auld lang syne.”
I’ll take a cup of kindness for high school buddy “Long John” Donaldson, who adopted my parents’ Long Beach home in the late 1940’s. It came equipped with a 1920’s-built Brunswick billiard table with a massive slate bed beneath the green felt. Heavy as a steamroller, that table was in large measure the magnet that made that big house our teenage hangout of choice. Long John could spiral a football half a mile. He died when he flipped a flaming race car at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in 1954. He was 23.
An identical cup for John’s best pal, Long Beach Poly High shot putter (and my King Cole Trio wannabe jazz partner) Dick Hight. He was among those on a Pacific Airlines passenger plane that collided mid-air with a private aircraft over downtown San Diego in the mid 1970s. Dick and I sang hip tunes on stage at high school student body assemblies. Then we dropped out of college and joined the Air Force together when the draft threatened in January, 1951. On a summer night in 1954 at a fraternity beach party at then undeveloped Dana Point down the California coast, I told an uninvited, surly male visitor to … well, you know. When he threatened to beat me up, Dick Hight knocked the crap out of him. Right there in the sand by the bonfire.
I’ll take a cup of kindness for Jimmie Edson, my friend from fourth grade through high school, college and later. Son of a Baptist minister, Jimmie was unpredictable scatback on our sixth-grade tackle football team. As quarterback (it was my football) I’d tell Jimmie to follow the blockers, but he wouldn’t. Speedier than most, he spent more time dashing left or right than straight ahead. In the mid-’50s Jimmie bought a British Triumph TR-2 roadster exactly like the one I drove. As fast behind the wheel as on foot, he got so many speeding tickets he sold the car to stay out of jail. Jimmie became a lawyer, then a judge. He wed Judy, the first “Miss Welcome To Long Beach” pageant hostess when the original Miss Universe spectacle was founded there. Jim had maybe the keenest mind of anyone I ever knew, yet dementia took him in the 1980s. Dementia, like cancer, doesn’t care.
I’ll take a cup of kindness yet for the late Les Schaffer and Willard Nelson, both of Geneseo, Illinois, where my 1957 bride and I lived twice, we liked it so much. Wiry, white-thatched Les, 10 years or so my senior and long retired, was my tennis partner for years. When his knees gave out and I started beating him in singles, he quit the game. Early 1990s. I quit too. Tennis camaraderie, for me, withered along with Les. Willard Nelson was a modest, craggy-faced, huge-handed, big time corn and soybean farmer who served his native, picture-postcard little town (7,000 souls) for years as board chairman of both the bank and the telephone company. Befitting his ancestry, Willard drove a Swedish Saab. He and I originally bonded over a shared appetite for Tio Pepe dry sherry. In our late sixties Jackie Pelton Henney and I twice roamed rural Spain with Willard and wife Janice, rucksacks slung over shoulders, before cancer later claimed Willard en route to meet us in Tucson, Ariz.
“We two have run about the slopes, and picked the daisies fine… and wandered many a weary foot, since auld lang syne.”
Sandpoint’s Finan McDonald chief Ben Tate knows what I’m saying here. The passing of his pal Jim Lippi tossed Ben for a loop. That other Ben About Town, he who runs the Reader, knew the feeling deeply when his role model and mentor, Ted Bowers, checked out. Erik Daarstad has been walking around town feeling a big hole in his life since best friend Bob Gunter died. Few who read this essay have escaped, or will escape, the sad sentimentality of auld lang syne. Especially if you’re fortunate enough to approach 86.
I’ll take a cup of kindness for Chuck DePue, 1950 program director at Camp O-ongo, a coed summer camp in the SoCal mountains and fellow member of that magic summer’s campfire-crooning O-ongo Umptet. A school teacher, then principal, then Anaheim school superintendent, Chuck had graduated high school in 1940. Umpteteers Dick Hight, John Simpson and I, mere babes, had graduated in 1949. We considered Chuck ancient. For decades after 1950 our quartet mimicked old Mills Brothers songs. Not in public, but in the living room of my parents’ Long Beach home, girlfriends in attendance. Or in Chuck’s case, wife JoAnn. Then we’d shoot some pool. Every so often these days I’ll play Peggy Lee’s aged recording of “That Old Gang Of Mine”: “… I can’t forget that old quartet, that sang Sweet Adeline…”. And I practically sweat nostalgia. Cancer claimed Chuck soon after my bride and I met the DePues at a Cedar City, Utah canyon steakhouse in the ‘90s.
John Simpson died after a long bout with cancer in Camarillo, California, just a few weeks ago. A future veterinarian who built a thriving practice, John became nationally known for his work with dolphins. He wed Cindy in Berkeley in 1956 before that happened. I was best man. Cute Cal-Berkeley coed Jackie Pelton and I accompanied the blushing newlyweds to San Francisco and then to Carmel on their honeymoon. We were all close friends, but contrary to rumor the four of us didn’t sleep together. John and Cindy drove a red British MG in those halcyon days. I drove the TR-2 ragtop cited earlier. Those were our rides of preference in California in the 1950s, at least we who were pre-family collegians and on the G.I. Bill (Simpson had been a U.S. Marine captain, I a lowly USAF staff sergeant). We drove Pacific Coast Highway to radio hits that were Pre-Presley, pre-doo wop, pre-rock and roll. For us it was The Four Freshman, the Kingston Trio, Billie Eckstine, Peggy Lee, Rosy Clooney, Frankie Laine, Doris Day, Nat King Cole and Ella — and the score of My Fair Lady, which opened on NYC’s Broadway in 1956.
I’ll also take a cup of kindness for Harvey Lyon of Long Beach. We became cronies in Georgia as Air Force basic trainees in 1951. Several winters ago Jacquelynn and I lunched with Harvey and wife Alma in LaJolla, a scenic if thickly-trafficked freeway drive to that beach town from their Temecula, California home. We hadn’t seen them in years. Would we get along? When it was disclosed that we all felt equally happy about Obama having just whipped Mitt for a second term, we liberal whackos bonded merrily and ordered another celebratory pitcher of bloodies.
If auld lang syne is a custom fit for any of my old chums, that chum is Scotsman Tom McCraine, longtime pipe-puffing pal from Staten Island, New York. Tom was a merchant marine vet before entering the NYC corporate world. He and one-time Powers model Barbara were our next door neighbors at Pines Lake, New Jersey in 1960. Over many decades Tom and I quaffed enough kind cups of Johnnie Walker scotch to fill both decks of a Staten Island ferry. While he was overseas during WW II, beautiful natural blond Barbara, smiling mischievously in sweater, pleated skirt and saddle shoes, modeled for magazines and billboards for “Buy War Bonds” and Coca Cola campaigns. Captions beneath her photo said, “This Is What Our Boys Are Fighting For!” Today, at 93, she bustles about Ipswich, Mass., garden clubs and quilting circles, takes the train to visit Virginia relatives, and annually returns with her sons and grandkids to nostalgic Cape Cod haunts of hers and Tom’s. Auld lang syne.
Finally, I’ll take a cup of kindness for NYC corporate colleague Ed Nieder, claimed by cancer in Los Angeles in July, 2016. Age 83. He was one of my closest pals during years together on the headquarters PR staff of the original Bell System parent AT& T in New York. A talented, caring, thoughtful professional, Ed made working side-by-side in The Big Apple well worth the daily commute. He and writer wife Pat met at the University of Missouri school of journalism, the best of its breed. Both then flourished in the writing business, corporate and otherwise. In a Christmas letter steeped in auld lang syne, Pat Nieder wrote, “I am fully aware of how extraordinarily fortunate I am to have been married for 56 years to my best friend. I just wish it could have gone on longer.” So do I, Pat.
There are others, too many to remember here. That’s what happens when one looks 86 right in the eye. As the old song asks, is it alright that old times be forgotten? And is it acceptable that deceased comrades who made those times so memorable go unremembered?
No, it absolutely is not. And so, “… here’s a hand, my trusty friend, and give me a hand of thine … and we’ll take a right goodwill draught … for days of auld lang syne.”