By sad emmet
My good friend Walter Griffin was one of five brothers. I never had one, until I met him more than 30 years ago.
He passed away last week at 68, much too soon. A few days before he died he called from the hospital to say he wasn’t going to make it. I was still in bed, half asleep. I have a sick group of friends and I thought it was someone joking. (You know who you are.) Who else calls to say they are dying? He told me he loved me like a brother and I will remember that for the rest of my days.
I met Walter in the old Rockland City Hall, the same building where they held a “time” for him Monday night. He was hired by City Manager Paul Devine as a CETA employee. They built a new city hall and the place by the railroad tracks has turned into Trackside restaurant where about 40 people partied Monday night to say goodbye to Walter and exorcise the remaining demons from city government.
A few days after I met him at city hall, he showed up at Martinsville Beach a short walk from my house. I invited him and his wife back to my house. A great, 30-year friendship was born. Originally he entered the journalism biz as a reporter for the Camden Herald covering the Cambridge NTSB hearing on the Down East plane crash and became a competitor. If I remember correctly, he “borrowed” the thick NTSB record from a table which fleshed out our stories. He was a competitor but he shared the info.
Eventually, probably because of the Camden Herald story, BDN Bureau Chief Ted Sylvester offered him a part-time job as a reporter. He took it, even though he wife called the trade “so sleazy.” She could have been right. He and Michael McGuire, a Courier Gazette reporter, started playing guitar together. I suggested to Virginia Larsen that she should hire the duo for the popular Black Pearl Restaurant. Naturally, we flocked to the joint in fair weather and foul to scream along with the pair. At the end of each set, I would throw coins at them instead of applause and they became “Spare Change.”
They would introduce me as their manager, their hair dresser, or a hired killer from Kansas City. I never had a better time. The place would be packed.
On Monday night at Trackside, McGuire dragged his guitar along and did their old songs like “Amy.” Once again I screamed along with McGuire, and then threw coins at him. Hey, it was tradition.
My very favorite was when Walter played alone and did “Scotch and Soda,” after I begged and begged.
Walter was the smartest guy I ever met. He ended up in the Belfast BDN Bureau, just to get away from the boss, I suspect. They called from Bangor once and asked me if Walter could pick up the Augusta education beat. I said to the inquiring editor “Walter can do any job at that newspaper…including yours.”
He was preternaturally calm. One Friday night he checked in at the Belfast office before leaving for the weekend. The scanner was jumping of the windowsill with reports of a huge house fire in Unity. On deadline, he found that three children had died in the fire. While the story was in progress, Robert M. Jones, the Waldo County sheriff collapsed and died at the scene. Walter calmly collected the facts, drove back to Belfast office and sent the perfectly written story on deadline.
Walter was nothing if not cool. He owned a Mustang then a Vintage Triumph. He once sold industrial paper in New York City. I remember a story about winning a small fortune in Las Vegas. He was a paratrooper headed for Vietnam when a case of asthma sent him home. He was so handsome that the Samoset hired him as a model for an early advertising layout. He would get more out of a newspaper than anyone but my mother. He would retain the information better than anyone I knew. His friend David Grima said Griffin was “Google before Google came along.” His encyclopedic memory finished more of my crossword puzzles than I care to admit.
He got cancer a few years ago and told no one, naturally. He said he came to my house to tell me the bad news one day. I had just lost an old friend who fell down her front stairs and bled to death on her lawn. When Walter came in, I begged “Don’t die on me, you SOB.” He figured it was an Irish message and he never told me about his cancer. It wasn’t until I chided him in an e-mail for missing a great time at spring training with the Red Sox, that he told me why.
We made a dozen trips to Fort Myers to get away from the Maine winter, watch some baseball and have a few beers by the Royal Palm swimming pool. You never had trouble talking to Walter for hours and hours. He would remember who played second base in the 1950’s and who once pinch hit for Ted Williams. He knew everything.
Jefferson Phil dragged us along on a series on Allagash canoe trips. Walter was a born Boy Scout and did the woods as well as anyone. I remember a freezing cold night in a campground outside Allagash Village. My friend Boston Leo lives in a three decker and like me, had precious little exposure to the woods. But he tried manfully to light a campfire with at least 100 matches. We all sat there talking, watching. Finally Walter had enough; He picked up a birch log and peeled off the bark. He piled the bark under the wet wood and started the fire with a single match. No one was surprised.
We made our last trip to Florida this year and took in ball games at the Yankee, Phillies and Blue Jays stadiums. We stayed at Preston Manor and kayaked the Weeki Wachee River and took bike trips on the Withlacoochee bike trail. We would end the day at the Pickled Parrot with a pitcher of very cold beer and never did run out of things to talk about. Mark and Jane Preston decided to change his airline ticket to give him an extra week in the sun. That was a very good thing.
Phil, Walter and I solved most of the world’s problems, sitting on Big Pine Island, listening to the loons.
Goodbye Walter, my very good friend and brother.
Wherever you are going, save me a seat.