Good bye, Bob Mullican. This is one of the hardest sentences I’ve ever typed….
I met Robert James Mullican of Montgomery Alabama in the fall of 1977. He was the first friend I made at Washington and Lee University.
We met at the Natural Bridge Hotel when W&L used to rent it out for Freshman orientation to get us way from the Frat parties for our indoctrination. But they had kegs brought in to make the transition as painless as possible.
I met Bob at the Freshman Keg Party our first night at Washington and Lee. I was entering a world that was foreign to me. For the first time in my life, I was on my own. Away from my family and away from a group of friends who were my defacto family. I didn’t know if I could do it.
But then, I met Bob. We were both starting over. He was from Montgomery, Alabama and I was from Danville, Virginia. We were both entering the world we were raised to enter, but both doing it alone, and not totally sure it was the right thing. We were brash, young and appeared more confident than we were.
We stood around the keg and Bob told me how he was going to be a Doctor as long as socialized medicine didn’t come to be. We talked and drank and went on to the indoctrination the was Freshmen Camp. I told him, in passing, of some issues I was having with my transition and my family’s adjustment to my going to W&L with my room-mate situation.
A couple of days later, back on campus, Bob came up to me and told me there was a room available on his hall in the Graham Lees dorm, two doors down from him. Someone was cut from the football team and decided to leave the University. Since we didn’t really have a Football team, this was kind of amazing.
Thanks to Bob, I moved into a single room 2 doors down from him at Washington and Lee. I went from a dorm counselor who looked like a blond Hitler Youth to, George, who was more a forgiving, frumpy laissez-faire presence than an authoritarian one. This was the first time Bob saved me….
Back then, W&L was an all male school. I had friends at Randolph Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg and they set us up for dates. We drove over the mountain together and somehow survived driving home to W&L after more cocktails than either of us could recall. We wore Black Tie well and had a hell of a good time. We drank and danced and crawled back home to the disapproving judgement of George, our Dorm Councilor.
Bob pledged Lambda Chi, the fraternity all my friends told me to rush. I didn’t get a bid. But Bob made sure I was invited to all the parties and that I met his friends, like Ralph. He told me about the Christmas Grain party and told me to stay up and be sure he made it home to the dorm. He took a brief nap on a traffic island, but just when I was heading out to look for him, he, literally crawled in in a grain punch covered night-shirt. We looked out for each other.
My Sophomore year, Bob made damn sure I pledged Lambda Chi and that they bid me. He and my friend Ralph worked their magic. I, the eternal outsider, was now an insider. I only made it through the ridiculous pledge period because of them…
And our lives changed forever. I met some people who are to this day, my dearest friends. Thanks to Bob….
And we met some incredible women from Sweet Briar College. And Bob fell in love. Totally and completely, with one of them.
When I look back on those years , I always look back through an F. Scott Fitzgerald filter. They were definitely Fitzgeraldian days dipped in Lisa Birnbach Preppy handbook filter. We were young, white, privileged and very cute. And it was a beautiful, if unreal world.
If I was Nick Caraway, Bob was our Gatsby in love with our Daisy Buchanan. And I have never seen a man as in love with a woman as he was with our Daisy. He was protective and cautious and the ultimate Gentleman. And too patriarchal and protective for his own good. It did not end well.
That was the first crack in our perfect world….
Both our lives pretty much went to hell our senior year. Daisy had left Gatsby and my family was falling apart over my Father’s cancer and the resulting money issues. And I was freaking out about dealing with the fact I was gay.
We moved apart instead of supporting each other. I’m confident we meant well, but we had to deal with our worlds shattering on our own. We were men of a certain time and class. We were trained to draw in, not ask for support.
But we stayed friends. He went on to Law School in Alabama and seemed to pull it all together. My life was messier. But Bob, who I thought was the least likely person to deal with unconventional behavior, stuck with me.
Late night calls when I had too much to drink didn’t phase him. I remember one late night, drunken call when I told him I was Gay. He said “If you had told me in 1977, I probably wouldn’t have ever spoken to you again. But, hell, nothing else turned out like we thought it would, so I can deal with this, too. The world just isn’t what we thought it was…just be happy”
I went to see Bob in Alabama almost every year between 1981 and the mid 1990’s. The first trip was a bit awkward. We were watching something on HBO and he kept talking about the tits on the leading actress. I had to tell him “Bob, I’m not going to jump your bones. You are my friend. That’s it. Don’t try so hard.” He adjusted. For those of us from my time and place, that was a necessary conversation. After that, we spent the next 15 years discussing Diasy Buchanan and what had gone wrong in both our lives….
Until about 20 years ago.
Then we both finally grew up. He loved Fairhope, Alabama. I remember going there on my annual trip to see him and he told be how much he loved it there. Not Mobile or his condo on the beach. He loved the artsy world of Fairhope.
I fell in love and he was thrilled. He met a woman, who I never met, in Fairhope and he fell in love. Daisy was finally exorcised. We were both happy. Finally. We didn’t need each other so much anymore…..
And we were talking about getting together again in Lexington.
A few years ago, my other college friends from W&L and Sweet Briar began getting together again in Lexington, Virginia where we spent those formative years together. Some of us had not seen each other in almost 30 years. But those years and those friendships meant so much, that, as we grow a little older, it meant a lot to regroup and come together again..
Most people will never understand the world we lived in. Preppy Boys School and Preppy Girls schools where we could put on our best faces, attitudes and clothes for the weekends we shared. And we only realize how much we lost when, in those pre-Facebook days, we weren’t able to re-connect because we did not share alumni associations….We were all a little lost without each other…
A couple of years ago, my College group started meeting again. When we feared Sweet Briar would close, it jump started our need to get together. The Daisy Buchanans, Nick Caraways, Jordan Bakers and all the other wonderful Fitzgeraldian pieces of our past tried to find a new relevance.
I called Bob several times and begged and bitched at him to come meet us. He would never commit. The rest of us got together and talked about him and plotted how to get him to join us.
As my friend Carolyn said: “We are a jigsaw puzzle and Bob’s the missing piece!”…
And now always will be.
I found out Bob died when our friend Ralph read it in the Alumni Magazine and called me. Bob had already been dead for 5 months. I’m still in shock.
I keep thinking I should do the right thing -like Bob would have- and write his wife. I can’t. I just can’t. Not yet. That would make it too real.
I still need to think I can have too much to drink one night and call my friend and we can pick up right where we left off. We always did. For almost 40 years I could track him down in Alabama and we would figure out how to make the world right….
I haven’t cried for Bob until tonight. I’m finally crying as I type this.
I’ve always been a writer, or at least an observer. I’ve always had a wall between me and the rest of the world. I’m not good at interpersonal things. I just buck up and keep going. Bob was like that, too. We just tried to do our best, act as gentlemen, with a code of honor and decency, and keep going. Stiff upper lip and all that…
But I’ve finally just got to pause. And do the ungentlemanly act of publicly grieving for my friend. I’m sorry, I just can’t stop myself….he was just too special.