Sunday, November 20, 2011

The First Of The Gang To Die

     A few years ago, I received a sad telephone call informing me that one of my good friends from college, Peter Rothwell, had passed away.

    “Rocky,” as he was generally known (the childhood nickname came from the Rocky & Friends cartoon show and stuck), and I had been in touch on-and-off during the years since college, but not recently.  I sort of knew what he was doing and where he lived, but I didn’t know that he was ill. 

      Rocky was a lovely guy – kind, extremely intelligent, musical and quiet – tending toward the solitary, but not unsociable when he found himself in a crowd. Because he was so modest and reticent by nature, he exuded a sort of mystery and was (I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this) a bit charismatic.  That is to say, when you were in his company you liked being there and wanted more.

  We last saw each other sometime in 1999.  Rocky traveled uptown from the financial district where he worked to join me for lunch at a beautiful restaurant I liked a lot called Aquavit, which was located in the former Rockefeller townhouse on West 54th Street where Nelson Rockefeller sighed his last sigh.  (Quite a story there.  Perhaps you remember it.)  

     Rocky looked good. There was silver through his hair now, but he was fit and still smoking cigarettes like a professional.  It was great to see him again and unexpectedly uplifting to find him pretty much unchanged so many years after graduation.  He began by telling me about his career.  Like so many of my college friends, after a false start in graduate school (NYU for psychology), he gravitated to software design. His current work had him developing new and improved ways for printing computer codes on bank checks.  He related as much detail as he probably thought I could stand on this subject and then turned to other matters, including a fairly shocking and politically incorrect story about Leon Klinghoffer, the wheelchair-bound American who was pushed off the Achille Lauro in 1985 by Palestinian terrorists.  Rocky told me that he had once worked for Klinghoffer and that nobody who knew the man (who was apparently chronically obstreperous) was the least bit surprised that he would be thrown overboard by someone someday -- it was only a matter of time.

The tunny or false albacore

   Then he got to the heart of the matter. 

     He wanted to tell me what his life was all about and why, in essence, we would probably never speak again.  

      Rocky had grown up as a fisherman.  I knew that he enjoyed spending time on the water with his father, joined sometimes by his brother and sister, more than just about anything. In adulthood, Rocky’s fishing took an usual turn, however.   The pursuit of striped bass eventually gave way to the greater challenge of ocean saltwater flyfishing (mainly off Montauk, New York) and a quest for an inedible sportfish known as false albacore or tunny. Tunny-fishing was a never-ending, early morning-to-night game of Nearly-Impossible-To-Catch-And-Immediately Release, and Rocky explained that this was now essentially his whole life.  All other professional and personal activities were subservient to and waited upon this one.

     He didn’t pontificate; he didn’t bore.  In fact, even though I’m not a fisherman and to a large degree find sportfishing objectionable as an activity, I found what he said utterly engrossing.  He knew and associated with other fishermen (on land only; on the water, with the possible exception of family members, he worked alone), but this was basically solitary, highly concentrated and satisfying intellectual and physical work for him. You always strove to improve your performance, but the results were eternally uncertain; you could never confidently predict or “game” the outcome.   When we got up from the table, Rocky surprised me by giving me a picture of himself on his boat, and at that moment I really did feel pretty sure I would never see him again.  Weird, but by that time I was coming to appreciate that life was weird.

     After Rocky passed away, I learned that he was basically a legend on the east end of Long Island, considered one of great men of his sport, as well as being a capital fellow.

     What prompted this reverie (and this may seem like an odd jump) was an article I read yesterday in the Swarthmore College Daily Gazette, an online campus newspaper, recounting how Swarthmore students, in the wake of the various national “Occupy” events, had now embraced the despicable “human microphone” as a preferred form of on-campus political “communication.” 

"Scroll neck" from Ampeg bass guitar. This was the instrument Rocky played (quite well).  Rick Danko also.

     Apart from the fact that the horrid (and stupidly named) "human microphone" easily sets up the obvious, but funny, “I [State Your Name]”/ “I [State Your Name]” call-and-response joke from the movie “Animal House,” the very idea of students at my (or any) college parroting in monotone unison quasi-celebration other people's unmediated, unconsidered words, rather than developing, speaking and exchanging their own thoughts, is sick-making. Also (and this is getting Swarthmore-specific), our campus is tiny and students do not lack means and opportunity for electronic amplification (or anything else for that matter) there.  Consequently, the "human microphone" device is gratuitous, self-indulgent and (all-time favorite college word incoming), "fascist." 

Ampeg bass guitar with distinctive scroll neck.

     My late friend Peter Rothwell was a quiet person who always spoke his thoughts deliberately, forthrightly and confidently.  “Critical thinking,” that contemporary campus cliche, came naturally to him and grew out of his brain, his education and his personal discipline; he didn’t need to put quotation marks around the phrase, pose in front of a mirror singing “Look At Me, I’m Wonderful” (a favorite Bonzo Dog Band song of ours) reflecting on its or his own personal glory, or amplify his non-musical thoughts through a human microphone.  (For his musical thoughts, he had a big bass amp.)  If Peter knew about this Swarthmore development (and I hope and trust he does), he’s shaking his head in amused disbelief, lighting up another Lucky and planning his next foray on Long Island Sound with no worries about the future, glad that we graduated and grew up.


  1. Beautiful and moving post. Thanks for this.

  2. Thank you. As you can imagine, writing it meant a lot to me and forced something from me that had been kind of trapped. I love fishing photos. Someone remarked to me that they liked the fact that Peter was nicely dressed on the water. That didn't surprise me; he was a quietly fastidious person (and, as I mentioned, an excellent bass player). Learning the weird lore of tunny fishing after Peter's passing was fascinating -- in its quiet way, it's really Extreme Fishing. We had a very nice sort of core group at college. I thought that when Caroline, Jane and I moved back to this part of Pennsylvania, which is quite near Swarthmore, I might recapture some of that feeling. Naturally, that was a silly dream. They've junked up the campus with buildings that don't belong there and corrupted the curriculum with what Dirty Harry would deride as "fashionable" courses. That's ok, though -- southeastern PA is still really great. Hope you're having a good weekend. Curtis

  3. Oh, Rocky. A gentle and, as you say, slightly and charismatically mysterious person. Still seems that way. I can't picture him without the great fan of dark curls.

    Maybe I graduated, but I don't know that I grew up.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

  4. Happy Thanksgiving. I'm glad you saw this. It's funny, I used to think (and sometimes in some moods and contexts I still do) that I haven't "grown up." But in general at this point, with some of the things that have passed by and under the bridge, I think I have. When I think of Rocky, I also think of the curls. Curtis

  5. Dear Curtis,

    Beautifully done. I didn't know Rocky well, but as I am heading out to Montauk in a few minutes, one of my truly favorite places on the planet, I will be remembering him...and your fond farewell. As we all approach our third acts, there will be more and more of the gang to go...may they all be remembered as well.

  6. Davia, Thanks very, very much. Your kind words and thoughts mean a great deal to me. Hope Montauk is terrific this weekend. We drove to Tuxedo yesterday to find a power calamity, i.e., no power, and needed to turn around or face turning into frozen people and dog statues overnight. Arrived back in PA several hours later after detours galore. Well, I finally slept well. Curtis