My best friend, Mike MacNaughton, died unexpectedly in his sleep last week.
The loss of any close friend is difficult & life-changing, and Mike was my best friend for most of my life. Recently, we reconnected again after a stretch of silence. He called me as as the COVID hit the fan as part of a sweep of “wellness” checks on friends. We followed that initial phone visit up with another one just a few weeks later, and had a great time swapping old stories that mostly held portions of truth in them.
I had even been meaning to call him the week he died — but how often have you heard someone say that just after someone’s unexpected death?
I believe we keep our friends and loved ones who have left us ever present in our hearts and minds through sharing stories about them. And Mike sure was a great source of stories and all kinds of odd adventures.
Oh the stories I could tell…not to mention stories I won’t mention here. If you want to hear some of those stories, track me down and buy me a beer or two one day and I’d love to share them with you.
I met Mike in high school where our antics included teasing our chemistry teacher, Mrs. Walters, mercilessly, pretending to “cheat” during tests by loudly whispering absurd answers like, “Number 3 is ‘barbecued barbiturates.’ ” Usually, she was more amused than miffed but she lost it one time and ordered to go to the hall. Mike was arguing our case but I picked up my desk, heading for the door. She yelled, “Where are YOU going?’ before I pointed out I was just following directions.
Mike turned me on to Vonnegut in high school, having read most of the early books as paperbacks circling a airport one time. we started talking books and movies and discovered we overlapped multiple common interests.
When the administration censored our 1971 literary magazine, Corridors of the Mind, due to my award-winning “Poem of the Year,” (vague concerns about inappropriate language and imagery) they had me & Mike rip out the offending pages from each magazine. But they had left us alone with the books in a back room — with no supervision. So, we did rip out the offending pages — from most of the magazines, then pilfered 50 or more uncensored copies to distribute surreptitiously.
Mike and I started making films together in high school. I’d already started making little movies but Mike definitely had a better eye as a cameraman. In fact, I have few photos of Mike but plenty taken by Mike. We found we worked well together in these creative collaborations and made a few crazy films that we managed to pass off as course assignments, an academic work-around we would carry forward into college.
So, we both headed off to the University of Texas for the Radio-Television-Film program, me for scriptwriting, him for film production — and to enjoy college life in Austin back in the early 70s. We each spent our freshman year in on-campus dorms, involved in a blur of various shenanigans around the campus, watching up to a dozen classic films each weekend in a blur of cinematic immersion. Saturday Morning Fun Club anchored our weeks with epic paper airplane battles and loud audience comments (“Look out behind you!” and bantering with the film. Records indicate we went to classes as well. I kinda remember some of that part, too.
Then we moved into the rental house my brother and his college cohorts had occupied before us, renaming it “Thistle.” A bunch of typical college house antics ensued, from shooting off fireworks down the hallway to adopting a pack of loose Labradors to sketchy meals and food items to Mike’s tendency to show up with such oddities for the house as a bumper pool table. And a player piano. He completely covered one of our living room walls with a composite of aerial photographs over Houston and another with mirror tiles, just to heighten the spatial disorientation possibilities for friends and visitors.
College days were all about endless ideas and possibilities. One late night discussion about “we could do anything we want, we could go anywhere we want” turned into a midnight run to Big Bend: 8 hours drive out there, 8 hours there, 8 hours back. Why not?
Another late-night adventure involved a group of us driving west of town late at night and climbing down some cliff in the dark to jump in a creek before heading to one of the few 24-hour eateries in Austin back then, Flapjack Canyon on South Lamar. I have no idea how it got started but Mike got the giggles worse than I had seen anybody get them since a kid. He could not stop laughing. He was turning red with tears streaming down his face, wheezing and gasping for air, and giggling uncontrollably. Every so often, he would almost manage to stop but our friend Steve would say one word and there he went again. My kindergarten teacher would have said “his gigglebox got knocked over.” This went on for close to 10 minutes. Our waitress went from being amused to annoyed when he accidentally knocked over several glasses of water — and kept laughing.
I wrapped up college first while Mike was still finishing out the film production sequence. He hired me to act as production manager for a final film project, offering me “room & beer” to help him and our friend, Michael Miskei, make their capstone film project. From the last-minute script change (with no preparation) to last-minute cast changes (including having the director act a major role) to commandeering my friends’ house in the country for 6 weekends of filming (pretty sure they never forgave me for that) to Miskei’s repeated bouts with the flu for half of our shooting days, the whole production was an ongoing series of disasters and never got completed. But our college days were done.
To be continued…