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Who Mourns for the Survivors?

By Eric L. Watts

May/June 2004

Eric L. Watts

Chuck Foster was one of my three best friends during my senior year in high school. A New York native, his family moved to my school district in Irmo, South Carolina, the preceding summer. With long, jet black hair and an olive complexion, his Greek ancestry and urban savvy gave him an exotic look and an enigmatic demeanor that was unique to that Southern suburban school in the late 1970s. Introduced through our common love of song and dance in the school's Concert Choir, we became cohorts and comrades, kindred spirits and social outcasts. We both had wicked senses of humor that played well off each other; we often gave the appearance of being mischievous when in fact we were just having some honest fun. Chuck was the first friend I'd ever had who came from anywhere else outside my own little local neighborhood; I lived vicariously through his past. Conversely, I was Chuck's first real friend in the Deep South -- his social bridge from who and what he'd left behind to where he'd found himself at that point.

I met Steve Foster in a bar in 1981 when I was only 19, back in the day when the legal drinking age was only 18. My first two years out of the closet had involved little else besides casual and/or anonymous sex in bars, parks, rest areas and other notoriously cruisy places, so when I took Steve home on the night we met, I really didn't expect anything more than sweaty teenaged sex. But something magical happened that night, and Steve and I became very close very fast. Less than three months after our first encounter, we set up house together and quickly became domesticated. I was the breadwinner while he took care of the house. I was warmly welcomed into Steve's family as his partner, his lover, his spouse with a level of acceptance and equality that he unfortunately never received from my parents. Accordingly, my new "in-laws" became my new family, and for the next three years, although we struggled to survive in the economic recession of the very early '80s, we found happiness and security in our love, our relationship and our home.

I met Al Kaps in 1989, about a year after I moved to Atlanta, in a bar called Buddies off Cheshire Bridge Road. Al had been a longtime customer of that well-known watering hole and it quickly became one of my own favorite after-work hangouts. Al had a razor-sharp sense of humor and was a master of the emasculating one-liner comeback. He lived by the famous old quote, "If you can't say something nice about somebody ... come sit next to me," and no matter how tired or stressed out I might have been after work, a few friendly verbal barbs with Al at the bar would have me cracking up. Over time, I learned that behind the Julia Sugarbaker zingers was a heart of gold, and a friendship that began as drinking buddies eventually became best friends and then, ultimately, roommates. At that time, I was struggling with both a full-time job and a full-time college work load, and on many occasions when I was just too damned exhausted to finish my homework and I wanted to give up, Al gave me the encouragement I needed to make it through the night. I wouldn't have finished college without his support.

I met Jeff Boyd in a bar in 1991, not long after finishing college the first time around. A handsome man with brown hair and brown eyes, he was a history buff, a devout Episcopalian and could speak Portuguese -- yes, Portuguese! He read the newspaper almost every day and could speak convincingly on most any political subject. Jeff worked his entire life in retail sales, with an especially long tenure at the men's fragrances counter in Macy's at Northlake Mall. In a classic case of when opposites attract -- I took five years of French, prefer science fiction over history and don't participate in organized religion -- we found ourselves living together in a committed relationship after only a few dates. Although we loved each other, our relationship started to run into serious trouble after only a few months. Jeff wasn't just an alcoholic; he was an obnoxious drunk. His family begged me to try to make him stop drinking, and I naively believed my love was stronger than his addiction. I was wrong. After almost two years, we parted ways, still in love but unable to love.

Ron Day was the most musically talented man I have ever known. We met in 1993 when I first joined the Atlanta Gay Men's Chorus, but we didn't become friends until I moved from the baritone to the bass section in 1994. Ron also had a quick wit and his infamous "Look out, he's backing up!" quip when my beeper went off at a critical musical pause at rehearsal one night is legend among oldtime chorus members. Aside from having a wonderful singing voice, he was also the most gifted arranger of four-part choral music I've ever known, and his arrangements continue to be performed by the AGMC to this day. I'll never forget the night we went to a karaoke bar together and as I was stumbling through some favorite old showtune on the microphone, Ron was standing next to his barstool, gesturing at me with conductor's cues, trying to help me improve my performance as if I were at some concert hall. I always admired Ron's enormous talents and abilities, and he always tried to help me reach my own greatest potential while never making me feel inferior.

Charles Glenn Foster, Jr., died of AIDS in 1984. He was the first official AIDS casualty documented in South Carolina.

Steven Allen Floyd died of AIDS in 1988. I buried my first lover in the company and comfort of all his ... of all our family.

Albert Henry Kaps, Jr., died of AIDS in 1991, after months of being bedridden and weighing less than half his normal body weight.

Jeffrey David Boyd, unemployed and unemployable due to his AIDS-related facial eczema, committed suicide in 1996.

Ronald G. Day died of AIDS in 1998. He had just moved to Washington, DC, to start an exciting new chapter in his career.

These men are just a handful of the many friends I've known who have died of (or because of) AIDS in the last twenty years. There are so many more -- "Buttons" Lee, Jim Thomas, Barry "Bear" Weldon, Mark Bigler, Dennis Stabler, Karl Lipinski, Phil Eley, Stan Deach -- far more than I can count. With every funeral, every burial, every cremation, every memorial service -- with every tearful, painful goodbye -- another piece of my heart dies and goes down with them, and I continue to wonder how it is that I've managed to outlive so many of my friends and loved ones for so long. With ever-increasing guilt and grief, I honor their lives, cherish their memories and continue to mourn their deaths.

If you would like to remember, honor and cherish the lives of your own loved ones who have died of AIDS at this year's upcoming Atlanta Pride Festival, send us their photos. AIDS Survival Project will have them reproduced, enlarged and mounted on placards that will be used in the annual Pride Vigil on Friday night, June 25, in our booth in the Pride Market. For more information, call Rob Nixon at (404) 874-7926 ext. 16. To submit photos, bring them to the ASP office for scanning, send via e-mail, or mail to the ASP office address. Photos sent by mail will be returned.

Giving Credit Where Credit's Due

Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed an addition to the Survival News masthead starting this issue. When ASP management asked me to take over the production duties of this fine publication last summer, one of the transparent changes that came with that transition was that its production was to be handled off-site, e.g., not at the ASP offices, as it had always been done before. As a result, I edit and produce Survival News in my home office; that's why I don't have an ASP e-mail address or phone extension. While this arrangement works exceedingly well for a bi-monthly publication, it also means that my day-to-day contact with ASP staff is actually rather limited. Ever since the September/October 2003 issue, I've been working closely with Rob Nixon, ASP's Communications Manager, to coordinate and manage such staff-sensitive issues as deadlines, topic decisions and printing and distribution matters, while I have focused on publication design, layout and production. Inasmuch as Rob's contributions to the production of Survival News are just as vital as my own, we've decided to add his name to the masthead as Managing Editor. The only actual change being made is finally giving appropriate credit to Rob for all the fine work he's been doing all along, anyway. So, let me be the first to publicly thank Rob for all the tremendous help and support he's given me this past year ... and we both hope you'll continue to rely on Survival News as your leading reference source for news and information on HIV/AIDS advocacy, education, peer support and treatment activism.

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