I’m no stranger to Death. I have had to deal with the Grim Reaper on all too many occasions.
I watched my older brother drink and eat himself to death before the age of 35 when I was in my 20’s. I lost my first wife of 25 years to cancer. More recently, Rita lost a brother, my mother passed this last Thanksgiving season, and there have been at least four in-laws and acquaintances who have left this earth in the past year as well. Perhaps it is just a consequence of living to be over 60 that the deaths seem to be happening more often now.
Although after ten years I’m still in some ways dealing with the emotional fallout from my wife’s passing, the most recent death has really been haunting me.
Earlier this month, I learned of the death of Carl. He wasn’t my close friend or any relation, but we were friends and acquaintances for several years. More than that, he was my boss and mentor. He had a major influence on my life. This is a long story, so please bear with me.
I met Carl and his friend and business partner Mark in 1995 at a meeting in Charles Town, West Virginia. I was in the early stages of trying to bring a Main Street designation to this small WV town, and one of the recommendations was that the city have one of these new-fangled “web sites”. At this time, the Internet was in it’s childhood. AOL was the major player, and we were using slow modems and telephone lines to connect.
In preparing to demonstrate this revolutionary idea to some of the city leaders, I found that there was a small new Internet Service Provider (ISP) company based in the county that was offering local dialup accounts, without needing AOL. Since the only AOL numbers available at the time were long distance calls (remember those?), I contacted them, met Carl via phone, and he agreed it would be good for them as well and they would provide access for the meeting, as well give a small talk about what the Internet could do for the town.
On the appointed day I set up my Packard Bell 386 computer with the recently upgraded 14,400 baud modem in the office we had borrowed, and when Carl and Mark arrived, I loaded their setup disk.
And failed to connect to their system.
People were arriving for the meeting now, and we just were not able to acquire the handshake to connect. I gave Carl and Mark some printouts I had made of different sites, and while they spoke to the group and tried to describe the Internet with waving arms and gestures, I thought about the problem.
What was different about this setup from my home? I noticed the phone jack we were using connected to a multi-line office phone. Could that make a difference? Discovering they had a dedicated-use fax line upstairs, I ran to the next block and bought a 50′ telephone extension cord, ran back to the office, plugged it into the fax line, threw the cord out the window, pulled it in downstairs and plugged it into the computer.
Ta-da – the Internet!
The meeting was a success, and Carl and Mark picked up a few new customers. They were so pleased with my efforts that they gave me a free account to use for a month.
As Carl, his wife Carla, and Mark, were all still working day jobs, our relationship soon evolved into me checking their company voice mail and mailing out starter packets in exchange for a free account. As things grew, I started earning an income.
Then we started offering the “Custom Install”. Remember, this was a time when most computers came with 2 or 4MB of RAM and a 2400 baud modem. For $79.95 I would go out to your home or office, install the Intrepid connection software, download Netscape, and show you the basics of how to connect. If the computer needed more RAM or an upgraded modem, I would do that to for time and materials.
Business boomed, and I learned most of my basic computer troubleshooting knowledge from trial and error on the wide variety of equipment I encountered. The ISP was soon a going concern that supported Carl, Carla, Mark, and a growing staff. I now had a full-time job and continued my education in computers and networking.
It was a fun and loose environment. We became more of comrades in arms than employer/employees. Carl was always happy to let you try something new. For example, our servers were all running Linux (if you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about it. Most internet servers still use it), and I learned quite a bit about Linux working there. One day I pointed out that we had some business clients who were looking at designing websites using a software tool that had to reside on a Microsoft-based server – maybe we should set one up?
“Fine, go ahead” was Carl’s reply.
This set me on the course of learning how to install and configure Microsoft server software, the ins and outs of the web server package, and how much easier things were in Linux. One of the more frustrating things about Microsoft and WindowsNT, was that anytime you added a new website or did any other kind of configuration change, you had to reboot the entire server, a ten minute process (in Linux, generally you can issue a command to stop and start a service, with almost no disruption), sometimes more than once.
Since we had alarms built into the system to notify us of server downtime via pager (yes, it was that long ago), the first few months were plagued with false alarms. It is a good indication of how loose and fun the workplace was that Mark soon changed the “server is down” message to “Jim is fucking with Braggi again” (our servers were named after norse gods).
From there I went on to learning about Cisco routers and switches so that I could help sell to larger businesses. I learned about ISDN lines and T1 lines and more. And when Carl, Carla and Mark decided to sell the business to a large regional corporation in 1999, they took care of me and the “founding employees” very well.
They always treated us well – Christmas parties, bonuses, and just keeping us informed of what was going on, making us feel a part of the team. I remember once Carl calling me at the office and telling “Clear your afternoon. We need to have a meeting outside of the office.” Wondering if some new crisis was afoot, I did as he asked and met him in the parking lot just after lunch. “What’s up?”, I asked as I jumped into his truck. “I heard the bass are biting upriver – we’re going to go take my boat out and do some fishing” he explained.
Those four years had a major impact on my life.
After a brief stint trying to sell IBM Websphere for a small business in Maryland, I answered an ad to teach computer and network certification classes at Hagerstown Community College. I got the job, even though I was not certified and had never taught before. Why? Because Intrepid had provided internet access for the HCC job fairs for years and provided access to the college’s Business incubation center. My new boss knew me from those days, and told me as long as I got certified before my first class did, no problems.
It turned out I was a very good teacher, and my classes became popular. I also started to rack up certifications in Microsoft, Linux, Novell, MAC, Cisco, A+ and Net+, especially since a perk of the job was I could take the tests the first time for free. My knowledge of computers and networking leapt forward, as I learned the reasons behind what I had picked up by trial and error, and explored new fields.
My classes were seasonal and over by 2pm, so I also started a company called GeekTemp, where I provided computer and network support to small business that could not afford a full-time tech. I used some of my students as unpaid labor to allow them some hands-on experience.
One of those students went on to get a job with a company that provided tech support to the US Senate. In late 2001, when my wife was diagnosed with cancer and I decided I needed to get a job with a steady income and health benefits, that former student got me the interview that launched my 14-year career with General Dynamics.
That job led to being able to work at home, and then ultimately from Ecuador when Rita retired. The financial security that brought coupled with the low cost of living in Ecuador enabled me to retire at 57 and to take up writing for International Living and other publications, travel more places in South America, and train to lose weight and hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Without Carl and his influence on my life, none of that happens. I have no idea where I would be today if we had never met in that small office in 1995, but it is safe to say my life would be radically different. At any rate, it is no exaggeration to say that my association with Carl set off a chain of events that made me what I am today.
Carl was four years my junior, full of life and optimism. I saw him rise to meet challenges with a smile, and tackle obstacles on his own terms.
We lost contact after the company was sold, but I heard he worked for a while in England, and then with another tech company. I found out recently he had returned to West Virginia, and was building his dream house for himself and Carla in the hills of Berkeley Springs.
So it was a major shock for me to hear that one Friday morning this July, Carl set off into the woods on his property, found a secluded spot, and shot himself.
Frankly, I’m still in shock. I feel so badly for his wife and family, and know from personal experience that there is nothing you can say that eases the pain of losing a beloved spouse – and I can’t imagine how much worse it is if they took their own lives.
Perhaps part of the reason it had such an effect on me is because like many of us, at one time in my life I also considered suicide. I was in my early 20’s and for reasons I’m currently detailing in a book I’m working on, I could see no point in continuing my life.
Eeirly, my planned method of choice was similar to Carl’s; I imagined myself hiking out in the hills of western Maryland, moving off-trail to a secluded spot where my body would not be found (so as to spare others – they would think I had just run off), consume a massive amount of recreational drugs, slit my wrists and quietly float away.
I eventually got past it, met my first wife and found a reason to live again. But if I had owned a gun at the time, might I have acted on impulse as it seems Carl did?
I have no idea, and probably never will have, why Carl chose this early end to his life. Did he have some illness? A secret guilt or shame? It is hard to imagine anything getting down the man I remember as being so full of life, and so willing to face any challenge.
But I remember my own dark days, and I know how your mind can box you into a corner until the unthinkable becomes almost undeniable. I wish we had stayed in contact, I wish I had shared with him my own self-destructive thoughts, I wish he had just reached out to someone.
But mostly I wish I had told him what a positive effect his being in the world had on my life, and how lucky I was to know him.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, I urge you to reach out and talk about it. Don’t let it fester. When Death comes calling, please don’t answer. If you can’t talk to friends of family about it, then contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Phones are open 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255, or go to their website at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ . Like Carl, you may not know how important your life is to those around you, or how deeply you may have affected their lives.