One of the most cherished activities during Reunion Weekend every year is the Memorial Service. Members of each class remember the beloved friends who have passed before them, sometimes sharing their accomplishments or exploits or the names of their horses. Cabot Brown CdeP 1979 provided thoughtful leadership, selecting inspiring and inclusive poems and songs to encourage us all to enjoy each day, in addition to his his own remarks which you can read here.
He had a wry smile and laughed easily.
He was a pure cowboy, the son of rancher from Northern California, Casa de Piedra 1951.
He made any move on horseback look graceful, and taught me, against all odds, how to rope a calf.
Not long after leaving Thacher, he died—a victim of a freak rodeo accident.
His name was Alex Wilson, and he was my friend and classmate—the first and only member of the Class of 1979 to be remembered here today, as he has been honored during our five previous reunions. He never made it back once.
If you go to the library and pull the 1979 edition of El Archivero from the dusty shelf where it sits, and turn to the back section where the senior pages are, you will find the usual clutter of oddly arranged photographs captioned with inside jokes, rock song lyrics, and snippets of poems and philosophical texts gleaned from the teachings of Peter and Bonnie Robinson and J.B. Close and Marvin Shagam. Images and phrases we all thought so profound, so meaningful, they would stand the test of time. Thirty years later, it is not so obvious.
And then you come to Alex Wilson’s page.
There he is, frozen in time, in a single, hauntingly arresting image: leading a saddled horse through the stables, head down, a determined look on his face, a furroughed brow just below a tattered baseball cap, his down vest zipped up to ward off the morning chill.
Just below the photograph are these words: “Life is a matter of nip and tuck.”
Life is a matter of nip and tuck.
To this day, I roll those words around my mind.
Did Alex know he was going to die so soon after that photograph was taken?
Was he that much wiser than the rest of us, appreciating the gift that is each day?
I think of Alex’s inexplicably early death, like other tragedies in my life, and wonder what benevolent power would let them happen. I am reminded of a Jewish saying: “If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.”
Alex lived a fraction of the life he was due.
We come here to remember and to celebrate the lives of our fallen classmates, during a weekend of recollection, reconnection, and reunion, with people and ideals that left their indelible stamp on our beings.
We come here to relish in the joy of old friendships refreshed, the exquisite beauty of this place we once called home, things that are great and noble and true in a world that is often so capricious, so hard, so fragile—so nip and tuck.
We walk around and are reminded vividly of Forest Cook’s litany of things Thacher: the smells of sagebrush, orange blossoms, and dust; the great teachers one finds on a lonely trail and in a friend most admired; the imperative to learn to look out for others; the joy in athletic achievement; the one essential: truth. The elements of life that make it worth living.
Thirty years ago, my classmates and I collected our diplomas just down the hill on the stage of the Outdoor Theatre, and issued forth through the Gates into the world at large on the The Extra Day Trip of Life. We quickly found ourselves on unfamiliar trails without maps. We have visited places we never knew existed and not reached destinations we thought were in our sights. We have achieved and failed in equal measure. We hoped for the best, and, despite our wilderness training, often forgot to prepare for the worst. We never quite imagined the journey would be so hard. As Thomas Aquinas said, “The road that stretches before a man wearies his heart before it tests the strength of his legs.”
But we have carried on, sustained by values inculcated through our Thacher education. Self-reliance. Perseverence. Curiosity. A willingness to fail. Doing the right thing, even when no one else is looking. We stumble, but we find our way forward—ultimately, back here, if we are lucky, and if our compass does not fail us.
Every time I return to Thacher, I try at least once to wander the wending path that leads up to this Outdoor Chapel, a habit from my days as a student. Sometimes, it’s late at night, under a vast blanket of white stars punctuating blackness. Sometimes, it’s early morning, with a blazing sun rising behind me, and the long, sharp shadow of this hilltop falling through the sage brush below. Sometimes, it’s at dusk, the fiery sky burning orange and red seemingly far longer than it ought to after the sun has disappeared. Each time, in these moments of solitude, I find myself overwhelmed by the splendor of this place; reminded of God’s grace; and immensely grateful to be alive.
Life is a matter of nip and tuck. May we grab it with both hands, here and now.
Let us honor the memory of our Thacher friends, teachers, and classmates who have gone before us by, in the words of author Elizabeth Gilbert, “participating relentlessly in the manifestations of our blessings:” this spectacular weekend; our families; the simple and beautiful things that make us smile; our friends here gathered, in this sacred chapel and in our hearts.
Just a few pages before Alex’s in the El Archivero, you’ll find another one with a picture of our graduation ceremony, and a quotation that I have carried with me ever since, from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
“Even if we are occupied with the most important things,” Dostoevsky wrote, “if we attain honor or fall into great misfortune—still let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us better than perhaps we were.”
Later today we will take our leave of Thacher once more, carrying with us a new passel of memories and Toad lore; thankful for this time together; hopeful for the chance to re-assemble again, one day, beneath these crystalline skies and ragged peaks.
And when we do, we will cherish that moment as we do this one, our collective good fortune trumping whatever life has brought to our doorsteps.
Life is a matter of nip and tuck.