Hearing that your oldest friend is dying is not how anyone would choose to start the day. But there it was, a message from his wife, saying that he was "sinking fast." Although I knew he had recently suffered a stroke, it was a shock to think that someone I had known for so long might be gone tomorrow. Besides being a dear friend he also provided the inspiration (and much of the dialogue) for one of my plays.
But that was more than 50 years after we first met, in 1946, when we were a couple of eighth-graders in Iowa. Morgan got kicked out of more classes than anyone else in school because of his antics. He couldn't help being the class clown, and amusing fellow students while annoying teachers. He annoyed other people, too, including my father, who declared him persona non grata, after finding out who it was that led a raid on his liquor cabinet during a party at our house.
Ever since we were kids, Morgan was the kind of boy who would stick up for you in a fight, and pick you up off the ice when you fell down, and get the other guys to vote for you for Homecoming Queen. We used to sneak into the school gym on a Saturday morning and play one-on-one basketball -- with boys' rules. Girls weren't supposed to play boys' basketball back then. We weren't allowed to dribble the ball because all that running and jumping would harm our "innards," according to the wisdom of the day. Morgan taught me to run, dribble the ball and shoot as well as any boy.
We went to the movies together a few times, and one school dance that I can recall, but he was never my boyfriend. We were just pals. The girls in our class scared him, he confessed to me many years later. Most of us were daughters of professors at the University of Iowa, and Morgan was a self-described "poor farm kid." He said he was always afraid to ask me for a real date.
Strangely enough, what he did was ask me to marry him.
When it happened, it was so completely out of the blue that I'm afraid I did something unforgivable. Naturally, I thought he was joking, so I laughed! We were barely eighteen and just out of high school. Besides, Morgan was never serious about anything, so I might have been forgiven, but the look on his face told me otherwise. I tried to apologize but the damage had been done. He walked away and didn't speak to me again for years.
War broke out in Korea near the end of our Freshmen year in college and I heard that Morgan, along with many of the boys I knew, had joined the Navy. Time went by. We each got married, moved away, had children, got divorced. Some years later both of us were living in southern California. He looked me up and we decided to meet for lunch. In no time at all, we were friends once more.
Not long afterward the telephone calls (which became the basis for my play, "Ryan's Reunion") started coming. Like A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters," consisting entirely of letters written between two people, "Ryan's Reunion" is comprised of telephone conversations. In the program notes the character of Morgan Ryan is described as "a senior citizen; retired, out of shape, bored and lonely."
At the time, Morgan had become obsessed with the idea that the best years of our lives were spent in high school, and he was trying to live them again by calling everyone in our class -- at least those who were still alive a half century later -- with the idea of having some kind of a reunion. Most rejected his idea and some didn't even remember him, but because I was willing to listen to my old pal, he began calling me at all hours, often using different accents and phony names. Sometimes I was annoyed, but more often I was amused by his hijinks. In fact, some of our conversations were so hilarious that I began writing them down. Much of the dialogue for "Ryan's Reunion" is taken verbatim from those notes. At the end of the play, as in real life, Morgan finds a new love and marries again. The idea of a high school reunion is forgotten.
Today I had another message from his wife. Morgan is gone. I wish I could weep for him but I know he wouldn't want me to do that. He was always so full of fun that tears don't seem appropriate anyway. So I will just say goodbye to my dear old friend, with love.