Thinking about what might have been.
COLUMN:THE BEATEN PATH
It sounded vaguely like someone with a thick southern accent was calling my name. I had a class to get to (it was the mid-1990s at UMass-Lowell), so I continued walking.
I turned around and did a double-take when I saw the tall African-American man smiling at me.
It was Dwayne. Holy cow.
I should explain. I met Dwayne while the two of us were stationed at Keesler Air Foce Base in Biloxi, Miss., in 1989-90. Dwayne, who was from Alabama, was the shy type, but with a great sense of humor and an infectious, almost guilty laugh. I was (am) your typical wise-acre and spent my time trying to make him spray soda from his nose.
Living in the dorms on Keesler was fairly uneventful. We trainees went to class, kept our rooms clean and went to bed at 11 p.m. Other than the occasional game of ping pong or pickup basketball, there wasn't much to do. Dwayne and I would kill the hours sitting around his room, talking about the future and listening to music. Our futures, in the short term anyway, looked to be quite different.
He was in the regular Air Force, so upon his graduation from Keesler he would be assigned to a base somewhere to begin serving his four-year hitch. He was hoping for Hawaii (everyone hopes for Hawaii), but had accepted the probability that he would end up in Nebraska, where his Alabama blood would have to adapt to the cold.
I was going home, and I told him all about how I planned to go to the University of Lowell (as it was known then) and become an electrical engineer like two of my brothers. The Air National Guard was going to pay my tuition and life was going to be good (note: I graduated with a business degree).
The theme music for our conversations was generally provided by Dwayne. He introduced me to Public Enemy, Luther Vandross, and the Isley Brothers - all on tape - as the only radio options in Biloxi were 896 country stations and one classic rock station.
When we needed more music, or when we wanted to go to all-night weekend parties at the local motels, we would venture out into Biloxi. This was a little more exciting than it should have been, since the local Racist White Men with Long Hair and Pickup Trucks Association didn't like any of us Air Force boys. The rumor on base was that the local men hated us because their women loved us - if only because we represented a potential escape from Biloxi.
The fact that Dwayne was black did not endear us to the locals any more, but luckily he was also 6-foot-2 and had muscles in places where most people didn't have places (to steal a line from the late Ron Luciano). A stern look from Dwayne was usually enough to keep the confrontations verbal rather than physical.
My days in Mississippi came to an end in March 1990. I heard that, after I left, Dwayne and some other Airmen rented a van and drove it to New Orleans, where it was promptly stolen, along with all of their clothes. After that, I didn't hear much from Dwayne. There were a smattering of letters, and I would talk to him on the radio from my National Guard base once in a while, but soon we had lost touch.
Then, more than four years after I had last seen him, Dwayne was standing in the registrar's office at UMass-Lowell, shaking my hand. He had remembered my plans; so when his Air Force hitch ended, he moved up to Massachusetts, joined my Air National Guard unit and enrolled at Lowell ... just like that.
We made plans to get together, and I ran off to class, feeling a bit shocked and thrilled.
But, it didn't work out. I was busy with the social side of school, and Dwayne and I only got together a few times. He was quiet and shy and, no matter how many times I invited him to hang out at my fraternity house, he just never made it over there. He was in a strange place and taking classes that were extremely challenging. Soon, he joined a local religious group. He was excited about the group - they were quite friendly - and tried to talk to me about it.
But, from my days working as a resident advisor, I knew the group had been classified by the university as a cult.
I was alarmed and tried to warn him away from it - but he wasn't interested in my advice. We stopped talking as much, and the months flew past faster than even one of those Mississippi afternoons. I was busy, he was busy. When the semester ended, Dwayne dropped out of school, left my National Guard unit, and went home to Alabama without leaving a phone number or address. I have not seen or spoken to him since.
What might have happened if, very early on, I had taken him home to meet my family and to enjoy a dinner; if I had really tried to help him adjust to life in a strange place and to feel at home? What if I had just been less stubborn about walking over to the dorms instead of insisting that he come to the fraternity house? What if I had been less busy with things that I can't even remember today?
I'll never know. I miss Dwayne sometimes.
Tim McCaffrey is a freelance columnist who lives in Clinton. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.