Remembrance of a friend lost.
I first met Erik by phone back in 2006. I’d placed an ad on a helicopter forum, looking for summer work with my helicopter. Erik saw it. He called and introduced himself, then asked if I’d ever heard of cherry drying. It was the beginning of a long-distance friendship.
Erik was a helicopter operator based in Seattle who was building a cherry drying business in Central Washington. He’d just broken into the business and was looking for another experienced and reliable pilot to share the work he expected to get.
That first summer, he was unable to get enough work for two of us. But we stayed in touch by phone. We’d talk every few months, sometimes staying on the phone for an hour or more. He was interested in getting a Part 135 certificate for his business and I offered to help with the mountain of paperwork that the FAA requires.
The second year, 2007, he gave me a lead on a cherry contract in Wenatchee. I followed up on it with a bid. I didn’t get the job. He tried to convince me to fly up anyway. He assured me there would be work. I declined; I couldn’t afford to gamble with such a long ferry flight (10 hours each way). He called me at the end of his first day of drying. He was exhausted. He’d flown 10 hours that day and would fly a lot more that season.
Last year, 2008, Erik lined up enough work for both of us. I made the commitment to come up at the end of May. I’d get my helicopter’s annual inspection at his mechanic in Seattle, then get to work with him in early June.
That was the plan, anyway. Two things happened to change it.
In April, there was a late frost that destroyed about 30% of the Central Washington cherry crop, including half the orchards we’d contracted for. Suddenly, there was only half as much work to do.
Around the same time, one night, Erik woke up, got out of bed, and collapsed on the floor. He was paralyzed from the waist down. One of his vertebrae had crushed.
And that’s when they discovered the cancer.
I didn’t ask many questions. It was hard for me. I listened to what he told me when he called, groggy from medication. I didn’t understand most of it, but I didn’t want to ask questions — especially the big one.
When I flew my helicopter up to Seattle, I rented a car and drove to the hospital where Erik was recovering from back surgery. It was the first time we met in person. Although he’d lost an inch or more in height from his back injury, he was still very tall — maybe 6’5″! — and not at all what I expected. But we greeted each other like old friends.
Erik was learning to walk again. I followed him and a physical therapist and a hospital orderly around the hospital floor as Erik took baby steps. He had to stop twice for rest, sinking into the wheelchair the orderly steered along for him. He was upbeat; this was just a setback. He’d be fine. He expected to be flying again soon. Perhaps he’d even come see me in Central Washington, where I’d be handling all the cherry drying work.
He didn’t come by that summer. I spoke to him a few times. He usually sounded tired and weak. But optimistic. Always optimistic.
Erik’s situation had a profound impact on me. I’d always been a kind of carpe diem person, but now things became urgent for me. Erik was 56 years old. Older than me, but still not very old. His life had taken a sudden change for the worse with paralysis, pain, cancer, chemotherapy, and a never-ending stream of health problems. He couldn’t fly, he could barely walk. His life had been taken from him. The same thing could happen to me. Or anyone else. Erik’s situation reminded me that life was short and you had to make the most of it while you could. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do now; there might not be a tomorrow.
Things for Erik took a turn for the worse in autumn. I tried to plan a trip to Seattle to see him again. With book deadlines, the holidays, and house guests, I couldn’t get it together. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. Maybe I couldn’t bear to see the new reality of the man I’d associated with that upbeat, friendly voice on the phone. Maybe I just wanted to remember the voice and the person I’d imagined with it.
Then I heard he was in remission. I tried calling him several times. I had three phone numbers for him and tried all of them. Every number had a recording of his voice, asking me to leave a message, promising a call back. His work phone number even suggested that he might be out flying. I knew how unlikely that was.
When I dropped off my helicopter in Seattle again this May, I tried to set up another visit. More calls, more e-mail. No response. I didn’t know what to think.
And then today’s phone call from a mutual friend. Erik had passed away. There would be a memorial service for him in Seattle on Saturday. Because of contractual obligations, neither of us could go. I called a florist and arranged to have flowers delivered. I signed it: “Our Thoughts and Prayers are with You; Jim, Maria, and the Cherry Drying Pilots.”
Erik’s gone, but my memory of him and those phone calls remains. He expanded my horizons by bringing me to Washington State, by introducing me to a new kind of flying, a new way to squeeze a few bucks out of my helicopter investment.
And he reminded me that life is short. Live it while you can.