My Friend Donnie

I once told my daughter, long before she was old enough to understand, that she would have many acquaintances in life, and a few true friends.  December 14, 2019, is the twentieth anniversary of the death of an unforgettable character I have the honor of calling friend. Donnie was one of those people you knew or knew of if you were an old car enthusiast in the Concord NC area.  He was a fixture at a local vintage car dealer.  When they needed a car delivered, Donnie was the man.  Whether it was Carlisle PA or around the corner, he handled it.  We both had a love for 1960 Chevrolets, so it was inevitable our paths would cross.  We became fast friends.  He was always ready for a road trip, or scavenger hunt.  Anytime I got a lead on a project car, he was ready to go, always a willing coconspirator.   

His quiet, unassuming, outward demeanor camouflaged an unstable personal life.  He truly lived in the moment.  When his check came on the first, he was the life of the party,  by the 25th, not so much.   Several times near the end of the month, Donnie would either ask for me a loan or offer something for sale.  I always tried to have his back, and he always repaid the debt.  Was I an enabler? Hell yes, but he wasn’t a kid, and I wasn’t going to change him.  

Donnie bought a nice 1968 Chevrolet Impala, an original, that just needed new paint and interior.  It wasn’t a secret that I really liked that car.  One day, after helping him prep it for paint, we were driving home.  I told him that car was a keeper, not one to flip.  My words were, “This one needs to stay in the family.”  He paused, looked over at me, and said, “Do you want it?”  I heard that line before and knew what it meant.  If I wanted it, he’d give me the first shot, if not, it was gone to the first person with the cash.  The end of the month, coupled with his short attention span, brewed the perfect storm.  I said, “How much?”  He told me.  We drove by my house and I paid him, right then, right there.  Every time this happened, I gave him an out, by telling him, “If you change your mind, let me know, no hard feelings, it can be a loan.  I know you’re good for it.”  He never had second thoughts, and never looked back.  

He and his wife had divorced around the time we became friends.  His children and grandchildren were always number one, but he was quite the lady’s man.  Truth be told, Donnie couldn’t tolerate being alone.  His life was about the present, not yesterday, or tomorrow, it was about now. His relationships with ladies were the same way.  Every one of them was the “One”. There were weekends when Donnie would start Friday evening with one lady, and finish up Sunday night with another.    His most notable relationship failure was with a woman from a neighboring city.  It was a whirlwind courtship, full speed ahead.  Within weeks, Donnie announced their engagement.  A couple weeks later, he called and said they were getting married that weekend, and honeymooning in Florida.  Donnie’s actions were true to form.  He sold his pristine 1959 Buick to bankroll the trip.  They married, drove a rental Lincoln Town Car to Florida, spent the week, and came back.  The marriage was annulled after 3 weeks.  As close as I can tell, that abbreviated relationship cost him around seven thousand bucks.  

It didn’t take him long to find the next “Ms. Right”.  Before the motor cooled off in that rental Lincoln, Donnie was in another serious relationship.  This time it was a lady from South Carolina.  I don’t know all the details but, right off the bat, they were inseparable.  It was March, time for our pilgrimage to the “Run To The Sun” car cruise-in at Myrtle Beach.  Cruise-ins are informal affairs, that are nothing more than 3 or 4-day social events showcasing like-minded old car enthusiasts’ latest projects.  Generally, they’re family events that involve shopping, sightseeing, and dining out.  Donnie, his new significant other, along with our regular group drove down.  After checking in, we all parked together and got out the folding chairs.  The weather at the beach in March can be iffy, but the car gods were on our side and granted us an unusually warm weekend.  We sat around together for a couple hours catching up when Donnie and his special lady said they were going shopping.  Several hours later they returned.  She was smiling from ear to ear holding her left hand out.  Donnie had “bought” her a very nice engagement ring.  Later that afternoon she commented that she had put it on her credit card.  She said, “After all, it was their money now.”  Donnie stood behind her, smiling.  

Later that year, they got married.  She was a nice person, and they seemed happy.  They lived in a house he had shared with his mother.  His mother’s declining health required special attention, so she moved into a senior facility.  Donnie’s health had always been an issue too.  He had battled a chronic intestinal disease for years.  Around October 1999 after an exam at the VA hospital, his doctor thought he needed a pacemaker, but said it was no hurry after the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays would be fine.  On the night of December 14, 1999, he sat down to watch TV and never got up.  

Donnie’s death didn’t bring peace.  Even though the Ringmaster was dead, the three-ring circus continued on.  Donnie left his wife broke, but his daughters and sisters fought her tooth and nail for what little was left.  There were finger-pointing and cruel accusations made.  They intimated she was a gold digger, going after his money.  To all that really knew Donnie, that brought a light-hearted chuckle to an otherwise sad time.  An auction was held to liquidate the personal property.  It was a sunny Saturday morning and all were present.  Everything was boxed in lots, marked, and auctioned.  Many really personal items that most families would keep were not set aside but included.  As the auction progressed, one of his sisters had second thoughts about some items in one of the box lots.  As the successful bidder loaded it into his truck, she asked him if she could have a few things she felt she had a sentimental attachment for.  He told her, in no uncertain terms, she had every opportunity to bid too.  She stormed off in a huff.  

After a few weeks things settled down.  Donnie’s widow moved back to South Carolina and remarried several years later.  His daughters and sisters refused to acknowledge what they always knew,  To put it kindly, Donnie was a less-than-perfect husband and lousy money manager.  We all have our faults, Donnie certainly had his, but as a father and a friend, he was the best.  

I miss you, Mr. B.

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