In my mind I can see a photograph taken long ago we were happy, young and free and a road without end stretched out before us
We couldn't have foreseen the storm clouds that would later kiss the ridge tops: strung together like a strange set of black pearls
Not until much later would we learn: the race isn't always won by the strongest and the brightest candles are often extinguished the quickest
Through everything you always set an example of how to love those around us and when to doubt and when to trust
I first met Louie Beeson in a psychology class at Humboldt State University. It was September 1972 and I was experiencing the grand adventure of college as a freshman. The class divided into small study groups. Louie and his partner Betsy pulled up chairs as our group formed a circle. I immediately noticed two things about Louie: his thoughtful, soft- spoken responses, and, long before it became de rigueur, an earring.
Several months passed and I was fortunate enough to find a house to rent in the country. The house had five bedrooms, and we were one housemate short. My housemates arranged an interview with a couple who were coming to look at the house and to see if we were all compatible to live together. It's A Small World, chapter 37 presented itself, as I saw Betsy and Louie walking up our lane for the housemate interview. They moved in and our household was set.
Louie's world revolved around music; the size of his record collection surpassed anything I'd seen before. Louie confided to the household that he was bisexual. Music by artists I'd never heard of graced our turntable. David Bowie was in his gender-bender phase as Ziggy Stardust. With apologies to Dylan, I had to admit that something was going on and I didn't know quite what it was. Louie was truly my field guide to places and situations that I would never have visited on my own. His network of friends was vast and many of his friends stayed with us during this period. Life was very good to us all, but time waited for no person.
Louie later moved to a house down the street, and I bought a house in nearby hamlet. Louie's new household hosted a Halloween party. He and several of his friends were coming out; the motif of the party was "gay vampire." This too, was all so very new to me. In his own way, Louie had taught me the meaning of tolerance. I found the party at once strange, wondrous, exhilarating. . . and just a bit scary.
Summer of 1976 found me in Utah working for the Forest Service. I had no friends there and often felt as though I was a stranger in a strange land. One day, I received a letter from Louie and another former housemate, Steven. How I clung to that communiqué, and reread it time and time again. It was painfully clear that these friends several states away were closer to me than anything in my new life. Later that fall I returned to California. Times had changed and my circle of friends grew splintered. Nothing major, but little walls were erected between some of our friends. A business transaction or a difference in expectations and the next thing you knew, factions were having a falling out. Through it all I never heard a bad word about Louie. It was amazing: his network of friends did nothing but grow through the years. Time passed and I saw him less and less as Louie had his life in San Francisco, and I remained in Humboldt.
My former wife Jadine—she goes by the name J.—and I visited Louie while on a visit to the Bay Area during April, 1987. Louie was Chris's sound engineer, J.'s favorite band, to this day. When J. remarked that she had just bought his latest album, Louie remarked, "That's too bad, I could have gotten you an autographed copy." We talked about our lives and then we mentioned that it was time to head for the concert at Wolfgang's. "Oh, I know some people who work there, let me see if I can get you a reserved table," Louie volunteered. We had to leave for the concert before Louie was able to get in touch with his friends, but a reserved table awaited us upon our arrival.
Several years later we heard through a mutual friend that Louie had contracted AIDS. J. and I made a special effort to get to San Francisco and spend some time with him. We left his apartment in search of food, winding up at a corner cafe. Louie and I laughed about our time together as housemates, about the time my dog Ishi gave birth to thirteen puppies and how several days before this event our housemate Steven's monitor lizard had slipped away from his terrarium. How another housemate woke me in the middle of the night. "One-by-one, Ishi's picking up her puppies and moving them. Please deal with it so I can go back to sleep." When I went into the hallway where I'd set up a space heater to keep her pups warm, I did a double-take. There, basking in the heater's warmth was the wayward monitor lizard—the reason for Ishi's impromptu, middle-of-the-night brood relocation plan.
Late that summer, I made plans to combine a visit with Louie with a trip to nearby Hawk Hill to observe the southward migration of hawks, eagles, falcons, and vultures—birds collectively called "raptors." For more than 25 years, volunteers with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory have tallied this annual flight of tens of thousands of birds. Raptors avoid flying over water whenever possible. The narrow peninsulas at both ends of the Golden Gate Bridge create conditions unique to the entire West Coast, concentrating raptors on their southbound journey. Louie shared my interest in birds, so we made our plans to visit Hawk Hill in early October.
Unfortunately, when I arrived at his apartment in San Francisco, he explained that his condition had worsened and we'd have to scrub the visit to the hill. Switching gears, we headed to a corner cafe for breakfast. Conversation wasn't easy—I had to backburner my enthusiasm for future projects and explorations out of respect for Louie's diminishing options and quality of life. But when he confided that he'd lost touch with much of the old Humboldt gang and said he was grateful for my visit, it buoyed my spirits. I'm new at this; I sometimes don't know what to say. But just being here, supporting him: this is what I'm meant to do today.
Louie's medical costs soared. His friends at the club he worked at, Slim's, organized a benefit for him. We hit the road for San Francisco for an evening that included Romeo Void—fronted by Deborah Iyall, another Humboldt alumnus—and John Doe of X. The music that night buzzed with an intensity and urgency borne of concern for Louie. I watched as a procession of well-wishers greeted him. Look at this response. What a testament! And I couldn't help but ponder, Why, if I was to fall ill and needed help. . .
In June, 1992, we received an invitation to Louie's 40th birthday party. He'd begun to doubt that he would make it to 40, and we were fortunate enough to be able to attend. It was fantastic to see his network of friends get together to honor him—but a bittersweet gathering it was as a combination birthday party and pre-wake. Louie's sight was failing and he was unable to visually identify some of his friends as they arrived for a hug and greeting. J. happened to be in San Francisco during September, 1992. She ran into a friend of Louie's who informed her that Louie had passed away the previous week and the service was scheduled for later that week. She phoned me to see if I would be able to make it, but I was not able to get away. That year had not been without its trials, as my father had passed away in June. I think most of us would prefer to honor our friends and family while they're alive, and I suspected that Louie's 40th birthday party would be the last time I would see him.
Louie had his foibles like the rest of us. I wouldn't wish for these tales of his generosity to result in a depiction of "Saint Louis." However, everyone who crossed paths with Louie has their own memories of his warmth, concern, and ability to create community, one friend at a time. Hearing the story of how Lou's father had disowned him when he came out crystallized things for me. This very special person—so adept at drawing and holding others close to him—did so out of a need and desire to create family. And that his father's loss was our gain.
The evening before Louie's service I walked a coastal headland alone, while struggling to process my grief. I'm still in my thirties. Why does it seem that those who have the most to give are taken from us so soon? They say that you are never truly dead as long your memory is kept alive. As I watched the gulls wheel and glide in the updrafts, I was reminded that Native Americans believe that birds transport the souls of the departed to the Great Beyond.
Louie, may your spirit soar forever.
Tom Leskiw and his wife Sue and their dog Zevon split their time between Eureka, California and Palominas, Arizona. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. His more than three dozen works of essays, book and movie reviews have appeared in literary journals that include Birding, Kindred, Kudzu Review, Snowy Egret, The Motherhood Muse (1st-place contest winner), Terrain.org, Under the Sun, and two anthologies published by Whispering Angel Press. His monthly column (established 1993) appears at www.RRAS.org and his website resides at www.tomleskiw.com