Christopher J. Couch was one of my best friends.
We moved to Westbrook within weeks of each another in 1961, he from Torquay, England, me from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. We became buddies in high school because he owned a car and I needed a ride. We almost died together in that blue-and-white, ’52 Chevy.
Now, suddenly, he’s gone and I’m left to wonder why.
Chris gave me a ride to the 1966 Newport Folk Festival along with a couple of other guys. On the drive home, the driver fell asleep and we went sailing off the Maine Turnpike at 65 mph. Miraculously, we simply plowed through a field, the old Chevy bucking and bumping. Couch landed on top of me in the back seat and we drove right back onto the highway as though nothing had happened, sod hanging from the chassis.
Along with our buddies Roland and Earl, I often ended up at the Couches’ little Cape at the end of the day, watching Johnny Carson. In those days we were bright, aimless youth, nickel and diming Deering Ice Cream from the corner booth and bombing around greater Portland, laughing and insulting one another.
At the McDonald’s in Portland one night, back when there was only one McDonald’s in Maine, a legendary local hood walked by the old Chevy and, unprovoked, punched Chris in the face. Couch somehow managed to hold on to his burger and shake. I have always thought the bulked-up bully just took sudden and violent offense to Chris’ obvious civility and superior intelligence.
Couch was the smartest guy I knew. Earl was the valedictorian, but Chris was extremely well-read, wrote well, excelled at debate and had peculiar intellectual interests. He read Current Biography for fun, for example, and memorized the heights of all the U.S. presidents.
I first realized what was wrong with public education one day in senior English, when Chris got a word wrong on a vocabulary quiz. I knew the proper answer for “obsequious” was “fawning,” but I didn’t know what either word meant. Couch got “obsequious” wrong, even though he knew what it meant, because he had not studied and did not parrot back “fawning.”
After graduating from Westbrook High School, where he was voted Class Funny Bone, Chris went to Albion College in Michigan. Obsessed with college from the time I was in the eighth grade, I had an alphabetized collection of college catalogues in my room that ran from Albion to Yale. Couch picked up the first one, read it, applied and got in. So I always maintained I was responsible for his education as well as his subsequent career, marriage and family.
Chris spent his entire professional life explaining things to other people, first as a journalist at the St. John Valley Times in Madawaska and the Journal Tribune in Biddeford, and then for many years as a bill analyst with the Michigan Legislature. I remember when they left to return to wife Susan’s native Michigan, Couch told me he just couldn’t make local officials sound as though they knew what they were talking about any longer.
The Couches are a wonderfully literate family. Susan teaches at Lansing Community College, son Graham is a sports writer for the Lansing State Journal and daughter Hannah is a speech therapist in Indianapolis.
In July, the whole family was at Ferry Beach in Saco, where they often rented a cottage. Roland and Earl and I drove down a couple of times and the four of us ended up bombing around all over southern Maine, laughing and insulting one another just as we had in high school. I tried to talk Chris into coming back for our 50th class reunion on Aug. 12, but he and Sue had tickets that weekend for the Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario.
He would not get to attend either event.
On Aug. 6, as I sat on Scarborough Beach, I got a call from Graham. His father had died. The cause of death was undetermined. Something about a mysterious illness he might have picked up on a canoe trip in northern Michigan after he got home from Maine.
I was in shock. Disbelief. Anger. Bargaining. What could I do to bring him back? I called Roland, who had just heard the bad news from Chris’s sister. I didn’t shed a tear though until I called Earl to tell him. When I heard Earl’s cry of despair at the other end of the line, I just started bawling like a baby.
Damn. The world has just lost a truly decent, funny and reasonable man at a time when we can ill afford to lose decent, funny, reasonable men.
Bless you, Christopher.
Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.