This week I received word that an old high school classmate, Steve Zella, is missing after a kayak accident in the Texas community where he works and lives with his wife and two children. Steve and I were not best friends; in fact, we didn’t even run in the same circle of people. Still, in the short time that I knew him he was always the sweetest, nicest guy you could meet. A good soul, you might say. The randomness of his accident and the fact that he has two young children who are missing him has saddened me greatly these past three days. It has definitely given me pause to reflect on the important things in life.
Steve and I met in the mid ’80s, when we shared a couple of classes. Our common interest, besides comparing homework notes, was a passion for the classic rock music we were all discovering in the 9th and 10th grades. Between classes, while we sat at our desks waiting for the next bell, I would go on and on about the greatness of Cream and how Eric Clapton truly was a god. My enthusiasm eventually won over some of the people I was preaching to, including Steve. The night he revealed his conversion to the church of Clapton took place in the middle of an insanely huge party, and that night remains one of my lasting high school memories.
It was one of those bashes started when some poor guy let everyone know that his parents were leaving town. By Friday, the entire school knew where to show up on Saturday. Kids were coming out of the woodwork, lounging on the stairs, kissing on the couch in the family room, taking up space in the bedrooms and playing drinking games in the kitchen. I arrived alone and spent the night mooching beer from people and trying to convince a couple of girls to join me upstairs for some quality makeout time. No, they didn’t laugh in my face. Instead, I received pitiful smiles and comments like, “Oh, honey, no.” Dejected and feeling sorry for myself, I sulked into the living room and slapped hands with Steve and the two buds he was hanging with.
The music was loud and we had to shout to hear each other. We exchanged niceties, laughed at some of the drunker kids, and then Steve, out of the blue, said to me, “Hey man, remember how you were always talking about Cream?” I nodded and said something completely deep like, “Fuckin’ ‘A’! Cream, dude!” Steve went on to explain that after I’d talked incessantly about the damn group for almost a year he gave them a listen, and to his delight, he loved Cream. Our screaming conversation was capped off by the two of us singing the riff from “Sunshine of Your Love.” We hoisted cans of beer and toasted.
It was not a profound moment or even one that changed my life. But it was one of those instances when the exuberance of being a teenager, of feeling as if the future was unlimited, was on full display. Even today when I visualize the dim lights, the music blasting, the clatter of bottles and cans, voices rising and falling to the ebb and flow of the tunes, when I visualize two teenage boys laughing and screaming and Steve’s genuine smile, I can’t help but smile, too. Maybe it was a split second in a lifetime, but I had made a real and human connection. Soon thereafter the police came, sending most of us scurrying out the back door like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
After that party, Steve and I crossed paths frequently in the hallways, of course the classrooms, and occasionally at other get-togethers. Though we were never close, I always respected and liked him. The last time I saw him was in ’91, when I dropped in unannounced at a party he was throwing. He was gracious as ever; we discussed our futures and said, “let’s keep in touch” before I drove home. It’s funny that there are people in our lives that we see every day, who are part of our families or that we work with and their effect on us is limited; the things we have in common are limited. And then there are those who pass through in a flash, and their effect is deeply felt.
I have no idea where Steve Zella is now. I am not a religious man, but I will continue to pray for him and his family. I offer these words to try and make sense of it all. One other thing I can do, if it will help Steve find his way home, is to shout at the top of my lungs: