Lifelong friend dies in automobile wreck

Published 9:06 am Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Crushed. Shattered. Angry. Infuriated. Lost. Lonely. Sad. Writhing. Confused. Drifting. Depressed.

How are you supposed to feel when a friend dies? Eric is gone and I’m am trying my hardest not to seek reasons.

Life at times is like a game of jackstraws. Things can fall apart, and it can be hard to pick up the pieces with rapidly dwindling options.

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After leaving the U.S. Army, I maintained friendships with two guys. We were three people who got together every few years and spent time together. We climbed Mount St. Helens together. We ushered in Y2K together. We partied in rural Iowa together. We served together in the Persian Gulf War in the 82nd Airborne Division.

One, Bryan Christianson, was murdered in front of his house in May as his wife watched. The wheels of justice are turning, and a trial for the killer is likely.

The other, Eric Wormstedt, died early Sunday. He had been drinking, and the party was over. From what I understand, the host had gone to bed and didn’t know Eric left. He thought Eric was staying overnight.

Eric left at about 3 a.m., and he must have fallen asleep at the wheel of his Buick. It flipped, and he was ejected because he wasn’t wearing his seat belt. From the severity of the internal damages, doctors think he might have hit a tree after being ejected. He survived an ambulance ride and a helicopter ride but the injuries were too massive.

He was 36. He lived in his hometown of East Windsor, Conn.

Eric was one of the best people I have ever known, and I was so fortunate to be his dear friend. Even if you had met him for the first time, he made you feel like you had known him all of your life. He had a way with people. Everyone liked him.

People in the Army know the routine: You go to basic, then you go to AIT, which stands for advanced individual training.

Eric and I knew each other starting in AIT at Fort Gordon, Ga. A recruiter visited our barracks and explained there was a shortage of our particular signal jobs in the Airborne. If we joined, we would get a guaranteed stateside station. Many of us joined. Many of us knew each other at jump school at Fort Benning, Ga., too, and then we scattered. By incredible fortune Eric and I were assigned to the same platoon at Fort Bragg, N.C., and were made roommates.

From then on, we were together almost all the time. We were new, but we were new together so we needed each other. I knew his Social Security number, and he knew mine, because back then you’d say the nine digits to the chow hall clerk. Sometimes, for fun, I’d say his number and he would say mine. After getting out, we used each other’s numbers in our personal security. For instance, I have to punch in the last four of his number to access my cell phone’s voice mail. He had told me I could withdraw all of his money if I got a hold of his bank card.

The full name of military units can be long. Eric and I were in Champion Node Platoon, A Company, 82nd Signal Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, 18th Airborne Corps. Champion Node was nicknamed C Node, and it was in C Node that Eric and I came to meet this wild and crazy fellow named Bryan Christianson from Tulsa, Okla. Soon, we also became pals with Maurice Pearson of New Rochelle, N.Y. The four of us ran around together everywhere, often with other guys excited to hang around with us.

Man. The things we did. The stories are too numerous to share here. I need to write a book.

Eric, Bryan and I were supposed to grow old together. Our old platoon has no reunions or any of the connections the World War II vets often maintain. After Eric and I got out and after Bryan was transferred to another fort, Maurice reenlisted and was sent to Germany. We lost track of him and despite searches could not find him.

So it was the three of us. Now, Bryan and Eric are dead. Now, it’s just me. I am writing this because it helps to write, but I don’t know what to say. It’s 3:30 a.m. Monday. I hardly have had time to absorb this news. I hardly have had time to form my feelings into words.

Eric and I had a song. It was “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead. Eric introduced me to the band. People think of the Grateful Dead as having shiny, happy, hippie lyrics, but really many of their songs are dark and morbid. This is one of them, and I find the song so fitting and ironic upon reflection:

We can share the women

We can share the wine

We can share what we got of yours

’Cause we done shared all of mine

Keep a rolling

Just a mile to go

Keep on rolling, my old buddy

You’re moving much too slow

I just jumped the watchman

Right outside the fence

Took his ring, four bucks in change

Now ain’t that heaven sent?

Hurts my ears to listen, Shannon

Burns my eyes to see

Cut down a man in cold blood, Shannon

Might as well be me

We used to play for silver

Now we play for life

One’s for sport and one’s for blood

At the point of a knife

Now the die is shaken

Now the die must fall

There ain’t a winner in this game

Who don’t go home with all

Not with all

Leaving Texas

Fourth day of July

Sun so hot, clouds so low

The eagles filled the sky

Catch the Detroit Lightning

Out of Santa Fe

Great Northern out of Cheyenne

From sea to shining sea

Gotta get to Tulsa

First train we can ride

Got to settle one old score

And one small point of pride

Ain’t no place a man can hide, Shannon

Keep him from the sun

Ain’t no bed will give us rest, man,

You keep us on the run

Jack Straw from Wichita

Cut his buddy down

Dug for him a shallow grave

And layed his body down

Half a mile from Tucson

By the morning light

One man gone and another to go

My old buddy you’re moving much too slow

We can share the women

we can share the wine.

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.