Anyone who has ever spent much time in college knows you stay broke most of the time, even if you’re working a part-time job. There’s not a lot of money left over for extravagances, beyond the beer and hoagies that are a staple of the college diet.
And so it was that Steve Stroupe and I found ourselves sitting in his burgundy Chevy Malibu on the night of October 2, 1980, a pair of college kids listening to the Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes heavyweight championship fight on the radio because we couldn’t afford to spend 20 bucks each to watch it in an arena on closed circuit TV.
I had never listened to a boxing match on the radio before. It doesn’t seem like the kind of sport that lends itself to radio. Baseball, football and basketball, sure. But boxing? Surely it would be a disappointment, not being able to physically see the hooks, jabs, overhands or counterpunches being thrown, or the delicate dance that skilled boxers must do to stay on the offensive while also ducking punches.
But somehow, against the odds, we got caught up in it. We became engaged listening to the announcer describe the action in the ring, round by round, even as an aging Ali took a beating in a fight he never should have agreed to, against a younger and stronger man in his prime. Holmes won every round. Ali’s trainer threw in the towel after the 10th round, and Holmes retained his title.
Steve’s car was parked outside a bar in Blowing Rock, N.C., about eight miles from our college. He and I sipped a couple beers while we listened to the fight. We had both been young kids when Ali first won the heavyweight title in 1964. We were legal adults now, listening to him lose his final title bout. We knew it was the end of an era, and that era was never coming back. We talked about Ali, and we talked about sports, and we probably talked about music, school, food, life, and nothing much at all.
That was more than forty years ago, but somehow I’ve held on to the memory. It’s one of those memories you carry to the grave, for reasons you can’t explain. There’s no reason this memory should be lodged so deep in my brain. Steve and I had done a lot together during our 46 years of friendship. We had gone through high school and college together, lived together, traveled together, visited ballparks from one U.S. coast to the other.
We had been good buddies for decades, sharing laughs and good times, sharing a hug when a parent passed away. We were groomsmen in each other’s weddings, and occasional phone chatters when we lived hundreds of miles apart.
Our last chat was a few weeks ago. Not last as in “most recent.” The last one we’ll ever have on this planet.
The human memory bank is an amazing thing, capable of storing pleasure and pain in equal measure, but rarely storing the mundane moments that make up much of our lives. I try not to wander down Memory Lane too often. You might wander so far you forget how to find your way back to the here and now. But sometimes you just can’t help it.
I’ve been taking a lot of trips down Memory Lane lately. More than I can remember taking in a long, long time. But it’s what you have to do when it’s all you have left.
The lives Steve and I shared all those years ago are puffs of smoke now, so far in the rear-view mirror you can barely see them anymore. I’ve been trying to conjure up the moments we’ve spent together, but I’m not sure how well it’s working. I keep digging and digging and digging, trying to snatch an image here or there, a few words, anything. There aren’t a lot of photographs. No videos at all.
But those memories are in there, somewhere.
Steve was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late 2017. He fought it, went through the program, and seemed to have it licked. It came back a few months ago. He made it three-and-a-half years from the first diagnosis to the end, which arrived last week. That’s beating the odds in a big way. Steve never complained that I was aware of, never gave in to self-pity. He just wasn’t the type.
I wasn’t able to hop across the Atlantic to see him during his final days because of travel restrictions tied to the coronavirus. We chatted on the phone a couple times, and exchanged some texts. There wasn’t much to say, really. We didn’t talk about cancer. We talked about how he was feeling, or we talked about sports. At the end I would say something like, “love you man,” and that would be it.
Steve has been in and out of my head for months now. You see a ball game on the TV and you think of Steve. You hear a song and think of him. You’re bopping about in your workaday world, oblivious to everything but the task at hand, and up he pops, right back into your brain. He visited my dreams at least twice. In the dreams he looked like he did 25 years ago.
I came close to breaking down, but never quite pulled it off. The tears want to flow but the body doesn’t do its part. It’s been a long time since I cried, really cried. It’s like you forget how.
Steve was a comfort in a world of simmering chaos. You never had to guess with him. He was who he was: humble, honest, kind and generous, self-deprecating, his feet planted firmly on the ground. He was like a fine old table – solid, sturdy, and dependable. He was quick with a laugh, God bless him. He would have been the first to tell you that his was not a tragic life, despite his earlier-than-expected exit. He understood that the world can be a cruel and unfair place, where too many people are dealt a losing hand before they’re even born.
He wouldn’t want anyone crying for him. But a whole lot of people have.
I’m glad we spent a couple hours in his car forty-odd years ago, just us two college kids. It’s something to hold onto, when so many other things are vanishing away.