Thursday, April 29, 2021.
I wake up, groggy-eyed and out of it, most likely sometime near 9 or 10 AM because that’s how it is when you work from home and have an ADHD kid who won’t go to sleep until after midnight. I pick up my phone, randomly choose the first thing to warm up my synapses for the real work I’ll have to do later, and odds are, it’s Facebook.
And there it is.
“Your friend, Michael Skaife, and others have birthdays today. Send them g…”
Of course, the rest of the notification is truncated, but who TF cares.
It had become a yearly tradition for me to make fun of him for how much older than me he was (precisely 37 days if you’re wondering). He was clearly well on his way to his kindergarten thesis by the time I was squeezed out of the womb.
To top it off, he had a grandchild before I did, so I did what any kind friend would have done: I doubled-down on the insults and good-natured ribbing.
But today, Thursday, April 29, 2021, there will be no barbs thrown, no friendly proverbial slaps across the face, and certainly no unkind words tossed Mike’s way, because, you see, on Thursday, April 15, 2021, at 6:40PM, Central Daylight Time, Sergeant First Class Michael John Skaife Ret., lost an 81-day battle with COVID-19, just two weeks—to the day—shy of his 46th birthday.
Therefore, in lieu of our traditional, catty insult war on this day, I’ve decided it far more important to share some of the most important stories of our 34-year friendship here, complete with as many pictures as possible to paint a complete picture, though most of the settings look FAR different than they did when the stories took place all those years ago.
PART 1: THE EMERSON PARK YEARS
Once upon a time, an elementary school stood in the midst of Emerson Park. I never went there, and its doors were shuttered sometime in the early 1980s. With bulky chains and seemingly impenetrable locks on the doors, the building was a natural target for hooligan preteens with an appetite for annihilation. Eventually, despite our shorter physical stature, some of us figured out a way to get onto the roof, where we found windows to the gym broken out by our older, less vertically challenged hooligan counterparts from the neighborhood.
Next thing we knew, there were about 6-7 seventh-graders curiously (and perhaps foolishly) climbing through broken glass windows, jumping down onto dilapidated wooden bleachers and having the time of our young lives breaking things, playing basketball with flattened school-issue balls on courts littered with glass.
That was my first introduction to not only Mike, but also several of our other friends who would become like brothers, our bonds traversing the decades effortlessly.
We spent an enormous chunk of our childhoods at Emerson. The hills provided a natural sledding wonderland that attracted kids from neighborhoods all over the city, but the fact that we could walk out our front door and access it with ease made us feel like royal blood.
Today, it looks a bit different.
Today, there are freshly paved streets and preparations underway to rob future generations of the illustrious dreams of our past. The kids of the 2030s will never know the joy of rocketing down a hill on a “suicide sled” (the kind that unroll that you buy at a drug store for $1.99) or the pain of stitches when your head collides with a fence post at the bottom of said hill.
At least this one run remains, one we used to call “Devil’s Tongue” because of the way it forked at the end. The steepest hill of the lot, it was the one only the sturdiest of constitutions were able to endure. I still remember a kid attempting to RIDE down it on a BMX bike. The blood stain at the bottom seemed to last for years, and we kept finding teeth that the EMS workers missed. He may have even ended up paralyzed, if I recall correctly. It was not smooth, nor was it even, so surviving it unbroken was a badge of honor one wore with pride. Yes, I did it. Once. And I will NEVER do it again, especially with the new asphalt addition at the bottom. Mike also did it, because he was not to be outdone, nor was he one to have to wonder what life might be like someday when reminiscing, curious as to what such a ride may have been like.
While this may look like patchy grass with no shape or form to speak of, this was our baseball field at one time. Yes, there were real bases (though they were stolen so often that we usually used our imagination instead). While none of us were huge baseball fans, it was still fun to see how far we could smack a ball and if we could hit the playground. Rumor had it one kid (think his name was Vince) demolished the ball so hard that it crossed the street and ended up hitting one of the houses.
This single piece of overgrown fencing is all the remains of our field of dreams.
PART 2: THE GLOVER YEARS
While Mike and I knew each other from our escapades in an abandoned elementary school, it wasn’t until one fateful day at Glover Junior High (that’s “middle school” for you kids today – back then, we had 7th and 8th grade in one school and called it “junior high”).
One day, I overheard a jock kid (I only call him that because he was twice my size and had already sprouted a healthy bush of facial hair) talking with Mike by his locker, which was next to mine, and the jock was in the process of negotiating a deal for Mike to do his homework for some extra funds. When they were done, I asked Mike if he needed a partner in crime, suggesting we start a homework racket for lunch tickets and other barterable items instead of cash. Back then, free and reduced price lunches weren’t really much of a thing, and I was hungry for literally ANYTHING other than PB&J (sorry, Mom), so my scruples were easily purchased by high calorie doughy pizza and those unbelievably delicious maple bars.
So, our racket was born. Mike would be the liaison, and I would be the labor. Homework always came easy to me, so it was no biggie, and Mike, being more into football and other sports, was better with social networking. Before long, we were up to our ears in Juicy Fruit, Bubble Yum, lunch tickets, and pack upon pack of Garbage Pail Kids. In fact, we had SO much inventory, we started selling them off, and our entrepreneurship cemented our friendship for good.
This small, unassuming corner house, merely two blocks away from Emerson, was what each and every one of us considered our base. Officially living there were brothers John and Bob, while our friend Todd lived a block up the street, and I lived up the obnoxiously steep hill (think “Devil’s Tongue”). Regardless, this was where we rendezvoused to concoct our plans of the day, most of which were reasonably innocent and typical of 10-14 year-old boys.
One of our favorite pastimes involved riding our bikes all over Spokane, often ending up at Mission Park because it was the only one with an outdoor pool and was reasonably cheap for us to gain admission. Thinking back as an adult, it grosses me out thinking about the sheer volume of urine we must have been immersed in, but when you’re a kid making memories, creating inside jokes to last decades, and trying to get the attention of the person you’re certain will become the love of your life, none of that matters.
When I was taking these pics during my journey down memory lane, I couldn’t help but notice this tree (and many more like it). I think these trees, had they eyes, watched us as our memories constructed out of thin air, materializing into neurological connections, and inevitably drove decisions we wouldn’t make for many, many years later. Even though some worker put a fence in front of it, the tree had other plans. Quite frankly, at that age, so did we, and even though it wasn’t a fence placed in front of us, we all outgrew or grew through our obstacles.
One of those obstacles, at least for me, happened at Emerson, as with most of the rest of our memories.
As we aged, our tastes changed, from playing with G.I. Joe and Transformers to more active hobbies, such as basketball, much of which was played here, at the “court” at Emerson park. More than 99% of the time, there were no nets on the hoops, nor were there any lines painted on the warped, cracked asphalt court surface, but to us, it was everything.
It was on this court that we competed to see who could jump highest, and I even took it so far as to order a “manual” for how to increase one’s jump reach out of the back of a Sports Illustrated (I swear it wasn’t a swimsuit issue), and eventually, I won, becoming the first of us to “grab rim.” I would eventually pay an expensive price for my victory, however, as it was the hoop at the far end of this picture where, as I went up for a dunk, my left kneecap dislocated, shifting around to the back of my leg and requiring a trip to the ER. My basketball dreams were over at that point.
But Mike didn’t care. He wasn’t friends with me because I could carry a Hoopfest team (prior to my knee injury) or impress girls by being the only 5’10” kid around who could dunk a basketball. During my LENGTHY recovery, Mike gave me rides everywhere, including rides to and from school & work, carrying my books for me in the hallway on the way to the school elevator, and generally providing all the emotional support a dejected and broken former athlete could need. By the way, that elevator wasn’t available to merely anyone; riding it required a special key, one that would later come in handy on one of the biggest heists of our entire life.
PART 3: HIGH SCHOOL YEARS
After my knee injury and subsequent dropping of sports, I was lost. I had put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak as an aspiring athlete, so once that was over, it was like, now what do I do?
I remember Mike seeing my depression growing over this impending identity crisis, so he showed up at my locker at school one day and said, “Let’s go.” “Where?” “Shut up, let’s go.”
You didn’t argue with Mike when he said shit like that. Mike was the kind of guy who loved to surprise people for the better. To him, the bigger the smile as a result of his surprise, the more of a success it was for him. We got in his shitty Datsun pickup (sorry Mike, I know you loved that thing), and headed down Division St. to good ol’ Señor Froggy’s.
If you look closely at the pic, it was in the furthest set of windows from the camera where we sat. I sat down first, wondering what we were doing there, and that was when he said, “You need tacos, stat!” Back then, you could get tacos there for like $0.25/ea, so he comes back to the table with—no shit—about 20 tacos. Then, he says, “Let’s see who can out-eat who, ya whiny little bastard.”
That day’s competition physically hurt, and the day after hurt even worse, if you know what I mean, but I suddenly forgot about all my self-induced pity. I may not have had basketball anymore. I may have been wearing a knee brace that made me look like an android. I may have walked with that gangsta limp. But I had Mike. And his friendship was good enough for me.
One night, however, that friendship was put to a test I thought for certain would fail. Once again, back at Emerson, or at least at the following house across the street from the park (which looks CONSIDERABLY different than it did back in the day – good job current owners!):
Myself and several of our mutual friends, along with the younger kids who lived in that house (if I recall, they were like 12-13, and the rest of us were about 16) were hanging out on the front steps, doing one of our favorite activities. Now, to you younger kids (younger adults even), this is going to sound stupid, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. We had this battery-powered radio/cassette player that we’d keep a blank tape in and leave it on record. That way, in case anyone said something stupid, we could rewind the tape and listen to it in all its stupidity over and over again.
As we were enjoying our “quote DJ-ing” Mike pulled up in that POS green Datsun pickup with a bigass smirk on his face. He sat there quietly for much too long before lighting a smoke bomb and throwing it out the passenger side window at us.
Without skipping a beat, I jumped up, grabbed the still-lit smoke bomb and threw it back. Now, if you recall, I was no baseball player; basketball was my game. That didn’t seem to matter to fate that evening, as the lit firework went through an ever-shrinking crack in Mike’s window as he desperately tried to close the window before the smoke bomb reached him.
His efforts were futile. The lit smoke bomb started spewing purple sulphuric smoke as soon as it entered the two-door, two-seat mini-truck, and within seconds, he was enveloped. Freaking out for my friend’s safety (while stifling laughter), I ran over and opened the door, which resembled a scene from a Cheech and Chong movie. Mike got out the other side, smiling, and laughing harder than the rest of us, and responded, “How in the holy fuck did you pull that shot off, Misner?!?”
All I could think of was “The sun even shines on a dog’s ass some days” before saying, “I am SO sorry, man! Your truck is gonna smell SO bad!”
Mike, being the model of forgiveness and acceptance he was, shrugged it off and replied, “I don’t think that’s possible.”
Other memories from high school (that, I should add, were exceedingly difficult to recreate) included memories involving my car. I was proud of my 1978 Monte Carlo with the LT1 350 V8. After all, I put blood, sweat, tears (a LOT of tears) and literally all my spare money into that car, as it became my new identity after basketball.
One of our favorite activities was for Mike, our friends Robin and Sara, and myself to ditch Mr. Brown’s English class (with his permission, though he’ll deny it to this day) to go get early lunch from McDonald’s. He promised to let us keep going if we promised to bring him back a Big Mac and some fries each time.
Because I had such a rockin’ lowrider with the bass boomin’ out the window with two 15″ Rockford Fosgates in the trunk, a rumor started that I was dealing drugs. Mike fed into this narrative by buying me a fake car phone (nobody had cell phones back then yet), so I would “perpetrate like I was talkin'” to quote the Fresh Prince, and next thing I knew, I had freshmen coming up to me asking if I was holdin’.
To add to the mystique, I didn’t trust my car on the street, so I would park it on the sidewalk outside the band door, just like this:
All that foliage wasn’t there back in 1993, so it didn’t block so much of the sidewalk, but I did still rack up about 3-4 parking tickets a week. They were only like $2 though, so I figured it was a small price to pay to avoid my car getting accidentally hit by one of the student drivers.
And Mike encouraged me every step of the way.
One of our absolute FAVORITE memories of high school, however, was the time Mike dared me to do a burnout the entire length of the student parking lot, which ran the entire length of the football field. I’ve never been one to back down from a dare, so I took him up on it, and we did it on one of our McDonald’s runs. I started at the east end and didn’t let up until the west end, but by the time it was over, I needed new back tires, and the wind had enveloped the ENTIRE school in tire smoke. In my rear-view, I noticed crowds of students and faculty alike gathered to spectate.
Mike, this one’s for you (sorry I didn’t do the whole length of the parking lot as before, but, you know, cops and adulthood and insurance and all. And, like the responsible geek I’m am, I actually warned all the neighbors about it first so they didn’t call the cops.)
But our most epic escapade of high school took place on the last day, or at least on the last four days leading up to the last day of our senior year. Remember when I busted up my kneed and got issued the super secret private elevator key? Yeah, they forgot to ask for it back, and my locker was three lockers down from the elevator door.
So, for three days straight, in between classes when nobody was paying attention to anyone but themselves, I unbolted all three nuts holding the door to the hinges, with only one final turn left to go to remove them and free them from their captor of the building’s hallway.
The plan was simple. Mike was to drive his Datsun POS up to a very specific door that just happened to open up to the elevator door opening on the first floor at precisely 9:14AM. My task was to ask my teacher for a bathroom pass (keep in mind I was still on crutches, so this went without question at 9:12AM. The class was two doors down from my locker, giving me plenty of time to go turn the combination lock its final turn, swing it open, and twist off the three remaining nuts, each with only one turn each to emancipate it from the bolt holding it in place.
So far, so good. The door was off, The elevator key at the ready, and I ditched the crutches in the empty locker, with no identifying information anywhere on them (we’d bought them from Walgreens instead of renting them). The door fit nicely into the elevator, thought I’ll admit the ride down seemed to take three times as long as usual.
For some reason, I knew there would be a lazy administrator, most like the vice principal of punishment, as we called him, waiting to take the lift upstairs to go retrieve some poor soul caught in the act of graffiti in the boys bathroom.
But, the coast was clear. My gangsta limp, my prosthetic knee brace, and the last ounce of my courage saw me out the door, where Mike’s Datsun was waiting. We escaped that day, and forevermore, we referred to that as the “Elevator Job.”
Though, I’ll admit we developed scams more elaborate and somewhat damaging, but those memories are between he and I alone. I’m saving those for just us.
PART 4: POST-HIGH-SCHOOL
After high school, Mike and I chose vastly divergent paths. I “fell in love” (something I’m unsure is possible to an 18-year-old but that’s a debate for another time – don’t @ me) and got married the December after we graduated, while Mike joined the Army National Guard.
For the first time in my life, I moved out of my parents’ house and into my “own” place (though not really my own since I was sharing with it with someone to whom I was legally bound). Part of me was terrified, particularly upon reading the lease, which contained enough legalese to scare the shit out of any teenager.
The rules on parking were specific and obnoxiously detailed. Since my Monte Carlo was the nicer of our two cars, I won the carport access, but it wasn’t more than a few nights after we moved in that Mike decided to play the prank of a lifetime.
Mike scoured Spokane during what we called “Construction Season” (the season between false spring and second winter) for all the construction signage and lighting he could find, and he snuck into my parking lot one night to completely decorate my personal carport with said signage and lighting. See, I worked graveyard shift, so this shit was waiting for me when I got home in the morning.
And that was a clear violation of the lease.
And the complex manager was abundantly quick to remind me of the consequences.
I quickly removed all the construction equipment and signage, then disposed of it at the closest possible site I could find, but after that, it was time to concoct a plan for vengeance.
A few mornings later, his yard was littered with about 50-60 pink flamingos and other yard art. I considered us even.
Not too long after this, Mike was called up to active duty. He visited “exotic” places like Bosnia and Croatia; Somalia and Sudan; Kuwait and Iraq; and of course, Afghanistan. You know, all the most sought-after tourist destinations. Mike was part of a tank crew. His job was literally to deactivate mines, and by “deactivate” I mean detonate while wearing minimal protection that would be less likely to protect a person from an M-80 purchased from the backdoor of a reservation than the IEDs found on battlefields.
Knowing that alone made Mike the bravest motherfucker I have ever known.
He went on to experience firefights where he, an NCO (non-commissioned officer) physically pulled fully trained and allegedly prepared officers out of the way of gunfire, risking his own life in the process.
Mike would eventually come back and spend more time in Spokane, our childhood home, and when he did, we found new activities to engage in, with some more appropriate to our age than others.
For example, one of our favorite haunts was the nightclub, Goodtymes (pictured below, though it once had the back end of a pink 1959 Cadillac mounted to the wall where the green box is:
Mike was the one who showed me confidence. I was more of the sit-back-and-observe type (you know, the kind that always goes home alone, without a number to call the next day), and Mike was the kind who would walk up to random women and effortlessly start conversations, whether these women were young enough to be his daughter (EW!) or old enough to be his mother (DOUBLE EW!).
Mike was a ladies man, through and through. His confidence carried him a long way, and while he didn’t have the eloquence of articulate spoken word, his art was in the delivery. I lost count of the number of times I either rode his coattails or simply waved good morrow at the end of a halfway productive evening – successful for him and lonely for myself.
Other times, we would simply retreat back to the last apartment in which I ever lived:
This place was pretty great, not gonna lie. It made for one hell of a hangout, and it seemed to have a magic second only to a therapist’s couch. Not only Mike but other friends found themselves in moments of full, raw, vulnerable disclosure over a round of beers and some chill music coming from the computer’s sound system.
It was during one of our long, drawn-out bullshit sessions that one of our last big, crazy ideas sprung forth. Simply put, we were going “wilding” and if you don’t know what that is, Urban Dictionary defines it as:
So, we called up some friends, and four of us went up to Manito Park on the South Hill of Spokane (the wealthy part, if we’re being honest). We decided to play “ninja” and see if we could run around the park and spy on people (typically young lovers in the throes of passion – making out, not that serious) without getting caught. By the end of the night, we would run up to the Rose Garden and clip a bunch of roses to present to our respective girlfriends, since none of us could afford grocery store roses anyway.
Well, that’s when the proverbial excrement struck the wind oscillation device at high velocity.
See, there was this rock bathroom up against a hill (closed and locked for the night), and 3 of the 4 of us saw the spotlights coming around the corner – park security. Mike, unfortunately, was not one of those people. We hollered at Mike to get out of the way and hide, but his reflexes didn’t kick in right away. So, there he stood in front of this bathroom:
Now, imagine you’re some young police academy reject with a set of keys and a flashlight, and you come upon some young suspicious guy at 11:00PM at night standing out in front of a locked bathroom after closed hours with hands in his pockets. Yep, not suspicious at all, right.
Next thing we know, the other three of us are on the roof, laying on our stomachs on the backside of the building:
Our “back row seat” allowed us to hear EVERYTHING. Mike got cuffed. He was searched. He was questioned. He was threatened.
He knew the consequences. He knew all he needed to do was give us up and he was going free. But he didn’t, and the thought never once crossed his mind. We were his lieutenant, and he was the one jumping into the crossfire. What he did was for the good of the entire group, and he KNEW that.
PART 5: REFLECTION
Simply put, Michael Skaife was the most selfless man I have ever known. Regardless of the situation, his number one thought was for his fellow human, and he acted on those thoughts instinctively.
When one looks through all the pictures above and compares them with the memories of the way things used to look, one is struck by the realization that much has changed. It has been said that the only constant in this life is change.
Mike was an exception to that. While he certainly changed throughout his life and matured as with most of us, his love and care for his friends, family, and loved ones did not change one bit.
Maybe that’s what this world needs a bit more of.
Maybe we need to act less out of self-interest and more out of consideration for the greater good.
Maybe we need to take more chances, through caution to the wind, and challenge the status quo.
Maybe we need to get busy living before death removes all chances of doing so.
I love you, brother.
You made this world better with your presence.
It is now my goal to live up to the standard you set.