John McKee and Mike Metheny grew up in a Kansas City suburb called Lee’s Summit. As children of the l950s and ’60s, they, along with other members of a tightly knit group of friends, shared rites of passage and savored life in small-town Missouri.
John and Mike eventually went their separate ways – Mike to Boston to pursue a career as a professional musician and teacher, John never leaving Lee’s Summit or the family lumber business – but they remained in touch with a written correspondence that lasted over ten years. It was a dialogue that evolved into an open-ended forum for a wide range of thoughts and opinions, a conversation-by-mail about everything from impressions of different books, movies and pieces of music, to their opposing views about religion and politics.
In the late 1980s, these letters increased in frequency and intensity and just about any subject was considered fair game. Childhood reflections, former girlfriends, current events, philosophical considerations and observations, the poignant, soul-searching and occasionally humorous accounts that come from everyday living … few topics were off limits. It was a cross-country “tennis match” that served a decades-old friendship to the end.
This correspondence finally came to a close with John McKee’s last installment written the day before his unexpected death. It was a letter – handed to Mike by the minister at John’s funeral – that served as a powerful if not prophetic summing up of this prolific postal discourse. And it was a bookend to a life that had touched so many others.
For selected excerpts, see below.
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Selected Excerpts from Old Friends Are The Best Friends
JM: “How do we explain the complete turnaround in the lives of the apostles after they claimed to have seen the risen Savior? If they knew, at base, that the Resurrection was a put-up job, a hoax, would they really carry that charade to the point of martyrdom? Would they really die for a lie? I mean, cheating is fun and all, but a lion’s den and crosses? Of course there always is the possibility that they were all just plain nuts! But does this unbalanced mental condition show up in the writing they did?” (4/16/86)
MM: “If we must have our deities and direct our flattery toward a “god,” then let us do these things in the name of someone who actually is what he says he is and proves it with impressive consistency. Someone who makes grandiose promises, then delivers the goods in full view of thousands of eyewitnesses. Someone who is the recipient of large sums of money – donated by “the congregation” – as well as praises sung by the hysterical masses, but who verifies night after night that he is worthy of the reverence, the reward and the applause. Yes, I’m talking about Larry Bird, eight year veteran of the Boston Celtics and a living legend in the sport of professional basketball.” (5/28/87)
MM: “…to fully understand the folly of Mr. Bush’s selection of Dan Quayle as his running mate – and what it tells us about future Bush appointments should he become President – we must take a closer look at Mr. Quayle himself. First, even members of Bush’s own party don’t understand the choice of Dan Quayle, an inexperienced, stumbling, inarticulate, mediocre senator from Indiana. Barry Goldwater was “very disappointed.” And Alexander Haig was quoted as saying, “It was the dumbest move Bush could have made.” (11/1/88)
JM: (Regarding the possibility of a “President Quayle”) “The President presides as the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. Yet, only Congress has the sole power to declare war. The President can make legislative proposals, but Congress must act on these ideas before they become law. At every step, the President’s power is counter-balanced by the powers of the other branches of authority. One man does not a country make!” (10/18/88)
MM: “(David Cronenburg’s update of The Fly) … was a remake of a classic that was a classic because of understatement. Horrible disfigurement was literally veiled from our view. The original had the patience to save visual horror until maximum impact would be felt, and that horror was only as graphic as was necessary to establish the terrible dilemma of the scientist. …I miss the days when movies gave the imagination a good workout.” (8/30/86)
JM: “(The Fly) is a pretty tough flick, all right… full of, as you say, ‘one disgusting moment of gore after another.’ But, what about the great tragic view of man that’s presented by the tale? Just at the peak of his achievement… (the scientist) falls prey to a horrible hubris. And, what about foul fate? …I guess all of us Nick Nolte-types just plop down at the movie theater, munch our buttered popcorn, and yell our needs at the screen: HURT ME! PLEASE, HURT ME!” (6/24/89)
JM: “I’ve never forgotten that (Thelonious) Monk was such an iconoclastic player for the same reasons he was such a classicist. He knew all the rules and just where to bend or break them to suit his somber, hilarious, always-personal statements. …Monk seemed to have projected his person as fully as can be expected onto the palate of the piano. And what a person he was! Full of the frightening dissonances of our time, yet thumbing his nose at morbidity with his great ragtime humor.” (3/16/82)
MM: “To this day (the Shostakovich 5th Symphony) completely destroys me. Man’s struggles, man’s triumphs, loneliness, despair, hope, victory… it’s all there. And in ’62-63, as I jogged (to school) in the gray winter dusk – knee deep in snow at times – life’s soundtrack was always the last movement of that great symphony. …It was the first encounter I’d had with a combination of feelings that were, for lack of a better word, deep. All brought about by music that moved me like no Sousa march or flashy trumpet solo ever had…” (1/1/88)
JM: “Having just finished a new novel by John Updike that’s chock full of flying language, I’m convinced that this Massachusetts writer is a Player par excellence and a first-class weaver of words. Updike’s book, Roger’s Version, brims with elegant asides on all sorts of subjects worth talking about. Briefly, Updike’s tale is a squaring off between an old-style, liberal divinity school professor, Roger Lambert, and a young computer whiz, Dale Kohler, who believes that the statistical data being made accessible by computers forms a base for Christian belief and faith in a God-created universe. The intellectual battle between Creationism and Evolution becomes the backdrop for a sexual skirmish as the young zealot falls prey to the adulterous wiles of Lambert’s wife.” (10/19/86)
MM: “I just experienced one of the most reaffirming and rewarding literary experiences ever – Treatise on the Gods by H.L. Mencken – and must share bits of this masterpiece with someone. However, I realize that in so doing… I risk creating the impression that, once again, I wish to toss my cup of sin-ridden gasoline onto the sacred fires of a certain someone’s religious beliefs, thereby poking the sleeping giant a little too hard, disturbing his mythological reverie, and causing my mailbox to bulge with additional Biblical folklore. Not the case! Although I am curious about what you think of H.L.M.” (7/17/87)
On Old Flames
JM: “After the rehearsal, we strolled under the giant oaks that towered in the fields. Talk was light and easy… the past in rural Missouri, the future in the east, music, her favorite cow that she’d raised from birth. The moon came out huge and happy, and I was thrilled by the dew on the grass, the color of her hair. I went home whistling in the dark, to dream of fertile farm fields and what they might someday yield.” (11/6/87)
MM: “Within the first five minutes of our meeting it was as if two kindred spirits in a random universe had accidentally bumped into one another; a long lost brother, by sheer chance, had stumbled upon an unknown sister and soulmate… It was magical. (She) was witty, sensuous, great looking, and one of the most compassionate women I’ve ever met. We ended up spending the next several days (and evenings) together hitting local bars and talking into the wee hours at her cozy, nicely-furnished apartment. Then, I got on the bus for the next stop on our tour and never saw her again.” (11/23/87)
JM: “Strangely enough, the spiritual invalids that (Norman) Mailer describes are well cared for. Every technological advance has been used to further the comfort and ease of its consumers. A plethora of remedies wards off virtually all bodily discomforts. Physical convenience reigns supreme. Every kitchen is stocked with electric utensils and wondrous hardware: microwaves, built-in ovens, electric carving knifes, coffee percolators, trash mashers, blenders and can openers, mixers and dishwashers, garbage disposals and ice-makers. Every modern medicine chest would astound the ancient world with its nostrums. Yet something is wrong…” (6/11/88)
MM: “You do rightfully point out that ‘something is missing and the agonizing absence makes us angry.’ And you seem to use as evidence the ‘spiritual invalids’ who depend on ‘remedies for bodily discomfort’ and kitchens stocked with ‘wondrous hardware, microwaves, built-in ovens, electric carving knives, coffee percolators, trash mashers, blenders and can-openers, mixers and dishwashers, and garbage disposals…’ But John: YOU JUST DESCRIBED YOUR OWN KITCHEN!” (9/15/88)