That’s the word that appears in giant pink neon letters every time I think about the way-too-soon death of my friend Allan Richter who died at the ridiculously young age of 48 when his training plane crashed into a rail car one sunny September afternoon. A student was at the helm and he was killed instantly but it doesn’t make me feel any better at all. It is never going to make me feel better.
Have you ever heard anyone use the expression “had life by the balls”? That described Allan perfectly and he was the kind of gregarious personality who made friends everywhere he went. No one was immune to his charms, his observations or his hugs and he was larger than life in the most wonderful sense of the word. He started out as a friend of my daughter’s who knew him through his lovely wife Tami, a former teacher of hers. He admired my daughter’s “shoot from the hip” style and since the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree we somehow ended up becoming friends, too. I was a reliable post-work drinking buddy because I appreciated good beer as much as he did and could hold my alcohol; as a math major we had fun talking about the engineering problems he was working on and discussed them at length. Allan was visual, so this invariably resulted in something being drawn on the most available surface…a cocktail napkin, a receipt or a snippet of paper provided by an accommodating bartender. The last time we had gotten together I cadged a drawing that juxtaposes the words “suck” “squeeze” “bang” and “blow” next to an algebraic equation; only Allan could do that with any sort of alacrity and his little drawing lives on my refrigerator.
One did not say no to Allan and he scoffed at excuses; everything was an adventure, a dare or a social experiment and I vividly remember my daughter’s 30th birthday at a local beer hall where we were hanging around clearly the oldest people at the party. Suddenly he brightened and said, “Let’s go upstairs and ride the mechanical bull!” I laughed out loud at first and tried to play the “I’m not wearing the right bra” card, but he was undeterred. Before I knew it I was showing my ID to the nice man and getting ready to get my butt kicked by this unrelenting thing. We had an absolute blast and the takeaway was that the magical moments of life always seem to lie in moving outside of one’s comfort zone and no one embraced that concept more than Allan did.
He could turn up anywhere and I will never forget walking across the National Mall in DC the day after the Jon Stewart rally and heard someone bellow out my last name. I stopped in my tracks and seconds later heard it again which seemed impossible since I was 360 miles from home. It was Allan, who was in town to run the Marine Corps Marathon as he had done for years. He gave me one of his giant hugs and we chatted for a while before wishing him luck and moving on, still incredulous at bumping into him.
I have spent hours trying to make sense of the injustice of a world without Allan and come back over and over again to the statistical fact that people who truly live and grab life by the balls are bound to run up against the odds; it’s part of the dues paid for a life embraced fully and on the edge. As a pilot, sailor and flight instructor his vulnerability surface was larger than most but I know in my heart that he would not have had it any other way. I will never stop aching for his wife and children, but will try to focus on what a wonderful legacy he left behind and stay true to his “can do” attitude; it is the best way I know of to honor such a wonderful spirit and I can pay homage to him by perpetuating the notion that life is for living viscerally and with passion.
Semper fi, my friend.