THE BLOG
06/09/2014 12:53 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

Eulogy for a Fledgling Who Took Flight

We were four lusty 17-year-olds flying student stand-by to from Buffalo to New York City in 1967. In two weeks we'd begin our final year at the tony Jesuit high school to which our parents had entrusted our gawky bodies and putative souls. But for the next precious seven days, we were fledgling jailbirds out to test our wings in the smoggy, muggy, horn-filled air of Sin City, or, failing that, at least to strut the city's steaming streets, our heads tilted skyward, grinning like idiots at the city's towers, grooving as best we knew how to a bustling city's hustling rhythms and the attendant possibilities we'd only, until then, dreamed about, utterly confident that whatever adventure was coming our way -- as we knew it would -- we would be equal to its challenges.

I'd know Pat and Jerry since kindergarten. Tim, the fourth and newest member of our crew, I hardly knew at all. He'd grown up in another parish, which was akin to growing up in a foreign country. He was Jerry's friend. Fortunately, despite his being what I considered something of an arriviste in our ancient circle, Tim fit right in, displaying as he did a perfect understanding of our shared New York City agenda: girls and booze, in whatever order we could manage.

We were a schoolboy version of Ocean's 11-Minus-Seven -- four super cool swingers, sophisticated beyond our years, striding shoulder-to-shoulder down funky Broadway in our wooly, winter-weight sport coats, pausing only long enough to argue -- with Jesuitical fervor -- over which 42nd Street dirty movie palace to patronize, unaware that as even as we settled on a soft-porn classic called The Pink Pussy, a thief was relieving Tim and Jerry's hotel room of its imperfectly stashed cash.

Ignoring this double setback, we pooled our resources, changed hotels and drowned our sorrows that night in Coke, not Chianti, at Mamma Leone's famous pasta palace, to the maudlin strains of a wandering accordianist. Getting served was proving as difficult as getting laid.

***

My father, who had connections at NBC, had wangled four tickets to The Tonight Show. Johnny was off that night, but we were nonetheless dazzled. Dazzled by guest host Jerry Lewis. Dazzled by jolly Ed McMahon. Even dazzled by the extra-wholesome Cowsills -- unwitting progenitors of "The Partridge Family" -- who were the night's musical guests.

This single shot of live TV confirmed in me a long-standing desire to one day become an NBC page, like Dave Garroway or Steve Allen. I would go on, like them, to a career in show business. I never shared that belief with Tim or Pat or Jerry for fear of being thought a fag. But this was New York, the place where dreams came true, and I was convinced that NBC was my future.

As it happened, I would return in something less than triumph to Rockefeller Center in two years, when I became a statistician at the Associated Press's headquarters, thanks again to my well-connected father. But my return would be as nothing compared to the return to 30 Rock that another member of our crew would one day make.

***

Our luck finally turned, girl-wise, as the weekend approached. Our hotel was hosting simultaneous conventions of two nascent, other-worldly groups: one, the local fan club of a failing TV series and the other the brainchild of second-rate sci-fi author.

Trekkies, we discovered, are far more fun to hang out with than Scientologists. And easier to identify at a distance. The Trekkies were the ones with the green skin and embarrassing home-made uniforms. The Scientologists were the ones with the slick brochures and all-knowing grins.

On our last day on the loose, we crashed a Trekkie party. Six-packs abounded. So did young women in 25th Century-style miniskirts. I spoke to one for several entire minutes before she beamed herself to another corner of the room. Pat and Jerry struck out as well. We consoled ourselves with cans of warm Bud.

Tim didn't have to. He could be found sitting on a hotel bed earnestly speaking to a pretty young woman with pointy . . . ears. He later told us, in the hushed, triumphant tones of a jungle explorer who has found the long-sought source of a mighty river, that in addition to being a closet Vulcan, this young lady was a school teacher. From New Jersey.

Hours alone with a woman who wasn't his sister or mother. Such, such was the stuff as dreams are made of.

Alas, Tim's story ended well short of his intended destination. The earthling and the lady from space exchanged mailing addresses, nothing more.

We left Sin City the next morning with hardly a sin worth confessing.

***

I've stayed in touch with Pat and Jerry sporadically over the years, even as we've gone our separate ways.
I only saw Tim once after New York, in the smoke-filled newsroom of the august Poughkeepsie Journal, where I was working as a reporter.

Tim was by then the press flack for his mentor, New York State Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had stopped by the paper's offices in search of an endorsement. While the senator huddled rambunctiously with the paper's poobahs, Tim and I stood awkwardly in front of a dilapidated bulletin board and talked small.

It had been 10 years or so since New York. The past was far less interesting to either of us than the future. Other than a familiarity with state politics - his much sharper than mine - we found that neither of us had much in common. He was still single; I had a family and a career path I hoped would lead me, somehow, some way, to the life of a big-city reporter.

As things turned out, my newspapering career path never took me much nearer New York than Poughkeepsie.

Tim's career trajectory was more interesting. It was targeted, it seems in retrospect, with the precision of a NASA moon landing.

From being Moynihan's wrangler, Tim moved onward and upward to a storied career that returned him, triumphantly, to 30 Rock, to NBC studios, not as a visitor or a guest but as an equal.

When Tim Russert died, six years ago on June 13, the whole world mourned; flags flew at half-staff, the president of the United States, even the Pope, took a moment to praise him and note his passing. His peers compared him to the greats of their profession.

But that afternoon, standing before that bulletin board, we were just two guys, not exactly friends, shooting the shit for a few minutes while our masters laughed at each other's jokes and discussed the Big Issues facing Poughkeepsie. We were a pair of former jailbirds who had done some exploring together because that's what you did when you were 17 and on the loose. We were both still brim-full of possibility and we knew it, sizing each other up in our particular ways. If I harbored the reporter's secret contempt for a politician's flack, Tim could only have looked around the dismal, noisy newsroom, taken note of the backwater (Poughkeepsie!) he was visiting and I was stuck in, and drawn the obvious conclusion.

I don't particularly remember saying goodbye to Tim. Once he'd pried Moynihan out of the editor's corner office, he had no reason to linger. Our lives would go on, we'd never share another word, let alone an adventure. Our futures loomed on two very different horizons, out where life's possibilities seemed to go on forever, out where death was a thief we could not yet imagine.

This is an excerpt from my memoir Fortunate Son: A Dying Father, and Angry Son and the War on the Homefront.