In the photograph at the top of this blog, I’m talking to one of my best friends, Vic Gaska. The picture was taken four summers ago at a softball game. Earlier this week, on Wednesday, Vic left work early, telling co-workers he didn’t feel well. He went home, he said, to “sleep it off.” After a nap, Vic called his best friend Mike to tell him he had decided not to go with him to the Celtics game that night. Mike was concerned – Vic never missed a game. But Vic insisted he was fine – just need some rest. A couple hours later, Vic’s wife found him sitting on the bed, leaning back against the headboard, motionless. Heart attack. Vic was 53.
I’ve been at our farm in Virginia this week. That’s where I was when my wife called from our home in Connecticut and told me the news. Speechless, I hung up and cried, which is what I’m doing right now.
Alone in our farmhouse, I opened my laptop and found my favorite picture of Vic. Before I share the image, here's the backstory.
Four years ago I decided to enter a team in an annual softball tournament that takes place in Virginia. We were living there at the time and I knew the sponsor of the tournament, which drew teams from as far away as North Carolina and Maryland. I asked the organizer of the tournament if I could field a team from Connecticut. He agreed. I immediately called Vic and his best friend Mike.
I don’t know anyone who has played in more softball games than Vic and Mike. Vic sponsored a team for years called “Gaska’s Gang.” Mike was his shortstop. There was a five-year waiting list to join Vic’s team.
It was a big ask to have my buddies drive 500 miles from Connecticut for a weekend tournament. But life really comes down to moments. And that tournament was about creating a moment to reunite friends from years past. This is us:
My friends are all characters, but none bigger than Vic. We had barely begun the first game and Vic decides to make a scene. When an opposing player tried to stretch a single into a double and was clearly tagged out – but called safe – our shortstop erupted. Vic, who played first base, had a bigger objection – the base runner had shortened the distance to second base by cutting his turn at first base a little early. He missed first base by at least five feet. That’s cheating. So Vic calmly took the ball, walked over to first base, stepped on the bag, and appealed to the umpire to call the runner out. By now, all eyes in the bleachers and in the opposing dug out were on Vic.
When the umpire denied the appeal, Vic worked him over. “Okay,” he bellowed loud enough for everyone at the ballpark to hear, “next time I hit the ball I’m just going to run straight to second base.” Even the ump laughed. After that, most of the calls went our way.
After the first day of the tournament, everyone came back to our place for a cookout. Then Vic disappeared. I found him with my 9-year-old daughter and her friend. I found them upstairs, watching “Back to the Future.” Vic looked at me and said, “Can’t you see that we’re busy?”
This picture tells you everything you need to know about Vic’s humanity. He never had children of his own. But he was a father figure to so many kids. Children adored Vic. They loved being around him because he made them laugh. He took care of them. He looked out for them. He never raised his voice. Never instilled fear. It was easy for him because he never stopped being a child at heart, which made such an endearing adult.
I've known Vic since the summer of 1982 when I got my first job as a dishwasher at a seafood restaurant called Unk’s on the Bay in Waterford, Connecticut. I was 15 and I felt so out of place when I showed up for my first day of work. Restaurants, in general, were foreign to me. I thought people who dined out and ordered lobster and smoked cigarettes and left lipstick impressions on their coffee cups and large portions of uneaten prime rib on their plates were sophisticated and rich. As the manager led me through the kitchen, the cooks were shouting and the waitresses were scrambling. It was all pretty overwhelming as I put on my apron, stepped to the dishwashing station, and the manager said something along the lines of: “This is Vic Gaska. He’ll show you the ropes.”
Vic was spraying racks of dirty dishes with steaming hot water. Tall with broad shoulders and sweat-drenched black hair that was matted to his head, he stopped and glared at me in cold silence. He looked so annoyed. I was thinking: This is going to be awful.
Then as soon as the manager walked off, Vic flashed this huge grin, extended his hand, and said: “Just kidding. What’s your name?”
I told him and he soon started calling me: “Jeff, brother.” So I started calling him “Vic brother.”
Turns out Vic was one year ahead of me in high school, but we had never crossed paths until that summer day in the kitchen. He had just started working there a few weeks before I did. Our circumstances forged a fast friendship. In the restaurant business, there is no one lower on the totem pole than dishwashers. We didn’t get thanked. We didn’t receive tips. We worked harder than anyone else. And the cooks treated us like crap.
But we LOVED our job! We spent our days riding bikes, watching MTV, and collecting discarded soda cans and beer bottles that we returned for 5 and 10-cent deposits. But the real fun happened at night after we clocked in for our shift.
Vic and I loved sports and music. MTV was brand new back then and Vic’s favorite video was Scandal’s “Goodbye to You,” sung by Patty Smyth. Vic thought Smyth was the hottest woman in rock and roll. When the cooks would yell at us – “We need more hot pans. Hurry up!” – Vic would go into Patty Smyth mode, using the nozzle of the rinse hose like a microphone and singing the lines:
I remember the good times baby now, and the bad times too
These last few weeks of holdin' on
The days are dull, the nights are long
Guess it's better to say
Goodbye to you!
Vic had a terrible singing voice and absolutely zero rhythm. But when he sung those lines– which he did at least once every night – I’d crack up EVERY TIME. Even the waitresses thought it was hilarious. (The cooks hated it!)
Once you are a friend of Vic’s, you are a friend for life. When my grandfather died seven years ago, I was pretty devastated. My hero was gone. When a loved one dies, everything seems so dark. During my grandfather’s calling hours, I was struggling to hold myself together. Then Vic entered the funeral home. That was in 2011. We hadn’t seen each other in many years. And Vic didn’t even know my grandfather. He came because he figured I might need a lift.
“Jeff brother,” he said, putting his arms around me. Before long he was talking about our days as dishwashers. “Remember Scandal?” he said. It brought me back to him singing at the sink and I started laughing. This is us at the funeral home.
It’s unusual to see two guys looking so joyous at a funeral. But that was Vic’s way. I have said before that he’s the only person I’ve ever met that made me laugh more than Robin Williams.
After Vic made that trip to Virginia to play in the softball tournament, he posted this message on Facebook: “Jeff, thank you so much for including me in this amazing weekend. I’m so fortunate to have you as a friend.... Your family is amazing and full of love......I'll never forget this weekend for the rest of my life. Love you, bro.......”
I replied: “You have the gift of humor. I’ve always said that God blessed certain humans with the ability to make other laugh. You have a wonderful way with with people, both kids and adults.”
Then he wrote: “I love life and I don’t take it for granted.”