May 3rd, 2012
I was reacquainted with one of my oldest friends, Blane Sparhawk, via Facebook a year and a half ago. We shared a past in special circumstances, having attended high school on a U.S.A.F base thirty miles west of London: a base – and a school – which no longer exists. Americans, with our country of origin and extended families an ocean away, there was no continuity post-graduation. Colleges, lives, hometowns were a five to eight-hour flight west, and we went to them. Yet for all of us, I think, our real hometown was there, at London Central High School, Daws Hill U.S. Air Force Base, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England.
One of my friends, whose parents had both taught at the high school since the 1950s, returned only a year after her mother’s death and father’s retirement and was denied entry at the gates. (The control bunker for all U.S. missiles stationed in Europe sat below the school grounds.) Home was not home. Decades passed. Facebook was invented, and one by one, we reconnected, finding common ground and true understanding that had been missing all that time. The bond of these people is intense, and crosses the widest racial, political, and sexual barriers without flinching.
Blane was one of the people I talked to the most online. He’d joined the Army straight out of high school for eight years, and found himself somewhat adrift a decade later and reenlisted to serve in Iraq, where he received a severe spine injury as the result of a roadside bomb in 2004. He was the kind of contradiction that crops up in our tribe: a wounded vet and a liberal Democrat, a rural Midwesterner who loved great foreign cities (His last message to me, after arriving in Mexico City and walking the Centro, was “I love being a foreigner again!”).
On my last book-buying trip through Texas, Blane was the one who made everything possible. I bought many of the books with his money, and then called for more help when paperwork problems with my vehicle kept me stranded in Laredo an extra week. Under the Volcano Books had become his passion, and his trip south was primarily to see whether he was interested in staying on, to run the bookstore while I made an indefinite journey north to capitalize on the release of a Hollywood-indie film about a part of my life ten years ago.
At 3 AM on Wednesday, April 18th, while staying in the Hostal Catedral on the Zocalo, the historic epicenter of Mexico, Blane suffere a massive heart attack. He was staying in a single room, and managed to make it out to the stairs and down two flights before collapsing in the lobby. The security guard on duty began CPR, while the night manager called police in from outside, who rushed him to to their station’s aid center nearby, where they had medical equipment. It was ninety minutes there and on the way to the American British Cowdray Hospital before the end of his cardiac arrest. He was given an angioplasty and a coronary stint and put on a pacemaker and respirator: his chances of survival were put at 50%. Two days later doctors removed his sedative, and he failed to regain consciousness. A neurologist examined Blane, and found that lack of oxygen during his cardiac arrest had caused severe cerebral damage: he was brain dead. Because his mother was unable to travel and Mexican law forbids the removal of life-support without permission being given in-person, there was a short impasse. When the doctors found his driver’s license, with organ donor certification, they used his body parts to give life to others, and induced physical death long after his spiritual departure.
I only got to see Blane for the first time in 28 years for five hours: he was energetic, full of hope for building a new life in Mexico. His messages in the subsequent few days (while fighting off the infamous ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ that is par-for-the-course initiation for first-time visitors) were full of thrill and satisfaction. After losing some weight, he walked out into the Centro on Tuesday and asked a sidewalk shoe-repair stand, manned by a teenager, to put an extra hole put in his belt. When the job was done, Blane asked how much he owed, and his payment was refused. “Your pants were falling down!” the kid said. Blane could see the spirit of the people in this city was special, and generous, and wanted to spend a long time among them. None of us knew it was the last day of his life. We miss him, and continue the work of the store in his name and memory.