Remembering a Friend by Jim Connolly

Remembering a Friend by Jim Connolly

Remembering a Friend

By Jim Connolly

On July 23, 2020, my friend Nick Camp died in New Orleans after a fall from a building he had been working on for the past couple of years.  I was shocked.  He was 72, and we had been friends for over 65 years.  We met when we had both recently moved to the Long Island suburbs as children of 6 and 7. We had moved to our parent’s dream houses as part of the suburban exodus following WWII.  We spent a lot of time together both in and out of trouble as boys tend to do.  While we were in different grades and had other friends, we remained close until we both left Long Island as adults.  I went to college, dropped out and spent three years in the Army, almost two of them in Vietnam.   After learning a bit about how twisted the Army really was, I moved to California and later to New Mexico to acquire a B.A. and M.S. in Geology and begin my career at the University of New Mexico.  Nick went to the University of Chicago and later completed a Ph.D. in Chemistry and software development.  We both got married, had kids and did the family thing.  In the last twenty years we reconnected, and our wives developed a friendship as well.  They visited us here in NM and we visited them in Rhode Island and later when they moved to New Orleans.  Several years ago, Nick’s wife Jill developed a tumor on her kidney which has since spread throughout her body.  For Jill, losing Nick was particularly painful as he was her primary caregiver during years of treatments.  

Nick’s unexpected death shocked me.  Reflecting on our long friendship, I came to realize how much of who we are as adults is forged in the friendships we began as children.  What we shared was an insatiable curiosity about the world – how it works, why we do what we do, and where do our beliefs come from.  This curiosity was sometimes benign and harmless but sometimes also led to a variety of what would be considered trouble.  

Our first “trouble” occurred when our ages were in the single digits.  Nick’s parents had a nice Pontiac sedan that came with a cigarette lighter.  We discovered that when pushed in, it would pop out red hot and experimented with what kind of patterns you could make with a hot lighter on car seats.  This was our first experiment for which we were separated for a significant period of time to teach us this was NOT a good thing to do.  There were more.  

Early on as we were entering High School, Nick became very interested in chemistry, or more specifically the chemical process of blowing things up.  One of the first I remember was a mix of chemicals that got spilled on a cement patio.  For a week after that, walking on the patio with shoes produced small pops not unlike what comes out of a cap gun (very popular in the 50s).  Later, Nick acquired some nitric acid from a high school chemistry lab, and I got a bottle of glycerin from the drug store.  About 15 minutes after mixing them, some reddish smoke started to rise from the mixture.  Red smoke (we had read) was a sign of instability so we carefully tossed the smoking flask over the fence behind Nick’s house which enclosed a large storm water catchment basin (a.k.a. “the sump”).  The result was a large flash and loud blast.  Needless to say, we did not tell anyone of this incident, successfully avoiding consequences.  

Soon we took to going into the “sump” behind Nick’s house.  The purpose of the sump is to provide a place for rain water to go when it rained on the extraordinarily flat terrain of Long Island.  The water draining into the sump came from a network of drains on the streets that led back to the central part of town.  For much of the route, the tunnels were up to 6 feet in diameter.  We discovered that by the time we got to the center of town, the conduits were still 3-4 feet in diameter and easy for us to crawl down.  With our chemical expertise and new underground exploring skills, we hatched a plot.  We would make a really BIG smoke bomb, plant it under the center of town (where the train stopped) and set it off with a timed fuse so we could get out before it went off and watch the smoke come out of the drains near the center of town.  A home-made fuse passing through a candle-in-a-can did the trick.  We set it, got out and walked to the railroad station where we watched the town fill with smoke as people wondered what was going on.  Clearly it was a triumphant practical joke that worked and for which we never got caught.  A major success for the trouble-making team.  

Nick and I went off to college.  In college Nick took it all seriously, while I was looking for something more personally interesting.  My two years at college were an experiment in what I could do on my own.  I entered as a Chemical Engineering major and leaving almost two years later as “Liberal Studies” major with a very low G.P.A.  LSD and psychedelics were introduced to me by a slightly older guru who guided me through several sessions in which I was introduced a larger world of multiple causation, nonlinear thinking and the power of the mind and imagination.  This was a major game changer in understanding how the world and the mind work together.  

When Nick and I were home together one summer in the mid-sixties and I wanted to share the adventure of the psychedelic experience with my friend.  In the process, I learned that not everyone responds to psychedelics in the same positive way that I did.  I crushed up a lot of “Heavenly Blue” Morning Glory seeds (a source of Mescaline) and put them in gelatin capsules.  Nick and I took the Long Island Railroad to New York City, walked to Central Park and took the capsules.  I started to settle in to engage in what was happening.  Nick also relaxed, however, within an hour, he began to feel uneasy and anxious.  I tried to get him to relax and experience what was happening, but he became very agitated and insisted on walking off and not letting me follow.  Soon we became disconnected and I could no longer find him anywhere.  Eventually, feeling guilty, depressed and profoundly responsible for what had happened.  I took the train home and found out when I got there that Nick had been picked up by the police for sitting in the middle of 6th Avenue and refusing to get up.  His parents went to pick him up from Bellevue and bring him home.  This resulted in our parent approved PERMANENT separation.  Nick and I did not see each other again for years.  

Jumping ahead to 2014, Nick and I participated in the NMMW Fall Conference at Ghost Ranch.  We had long since allowed the psychedelic incident to fade and resumed our friendship.  Nick became an alcoholic and seriously wanted to stop his self-destructive behavior.  He joined an AA group and was making some progress. The timing on the NMMW conference couldn’t have been better.  The honest and non-judgmental feedback from other men helped Nick enormously.  One day at the retreat, we went for a long hike and when we got to a difficult spot Nick felt he couldn’t go on.  I started to go, but those old feelings I felt when I abandoned him in Central Park kicked in and I went back.  I shared with him the guilt I had felt for losing him in Central Park over 45 years ago.  I discovered that he never held any of that against me and was surprised that I felt guilty about something that he saw was not my fault.  After that it was clear that those skeletons were no longer hanging out in the closet.  

A couple of years ago I had taken on the job of ferrying my stepdaughter’s car from New Orleans to Oregon where she and our grandson were moving.  I invited Nick to drive with me on the trip.  He could not do the whole thing, but we did drive to Albuquerque together taking two days.  It was a great experience for both of us to really get to know each other as old-timers and revisit that mutual fascination about “how things work.”    

I will miss Nick very much.  It is sad that we cannot tell those we lose how much we miss them and love them.  If there is a point to this remembrance, it is this: Don’t wait to tell people that you love them when you think of it and think of it often.