The feeling of salt air enveloping me adds little comfort, perhaps even hardens the blow, as I sit on my mother’s deck thinking about Damien.
It’s a quiet evening in Falmouth Heights, and in the distance, I can almost hear the waves crashing the shore. Normally, I would feel gratitude for a muggy Cape Cod summer night, but all is not right in my hometown. It is eerily reminiscent of 1993.
A few weeks before, I was headed to the Cape for a Fourth of July vacation week with my family. Two thoughts echoed as I coasted down Route 24 - - Please Lord, tell me I didn't forget anything and call Wayne to wish him a happy fortieth. Just then my phone vibrated. I noticed it was my brother, Ted, which seemed odd since we had just spoken. He was probably going to ask me to pick up something for the barbecue, or park next door at my mother’s house.
When I answered, Ted's hesitation spoke volumes. He gently informed me someone close to me had passed, and his voice was faint, or maybe I was just fading out of the conversation. When I heard Damien’s name, I didn’t break down or curse because it simply wasn't reality. An invincible presence who unites people from all walks of life doesn’t get short-changed like that; it’s not how the script is written. If life were a TV show, Damien Palanza would be the lead character, the fan favorite. He owned a "no fear" attitude with signature authenticity and candor. People of all demographics were drawn to him; he was the guy men try to emulate because of his humor, charm, and mystique. A character with such influence isn’t just written off the show.
However, in the days to come, I began to grasp the fact I would never laugh with my childhood friend again. In recent years, through his no apologies blog, "The Real Cape", strangers discovered what I had known since middle school. I always believed Damien was exceptionally gifted because everything he created became successful, yet he was never satisfied, never complacent. To me, that is the sign of true talent.
Damien's death had me thinking of a friend long before he became known by some as "Hippie," and long before I was "C-Dog." Turning the time machine back to 1986, it was Palanza and Murph. Those were the days before cell phones and social media. Our preferred methods of transportation were BMX bikes or skateboards in any kind of weather, always seeking an adventure.
A pretty boy from the Heights, I ran with Hurd, Sushi, Morgan, Dan, and Pearson. When I entered fifth grade and the halls of Morse Pond, I was introduced to the likes of Steele, Palanza, Lehy, and Gumby. All hockey players and all tough as nails. Our group expanded with the addition of these man-boys from the 02536, some even from the foreign land of Hatchville. Like protective older brothers, they kept a watchful eye over me, for I was the smallest one of the group.
My childhood is filled with fond memories of that tight circle, and now the time machine hops to ’88. It was Beach Day for my sixth-grade class, and we were accompanied by several other classes, including Damien's. I was uneasy about going that year, fearing my secret would be revealed.
It was an overcast June day and, feeling liberated from the classroom, my friends and I were already in the ocean. Thinking I was safe because we were instructed to stay in the shallow area, I allowed my anxiety to ease. However, as we waded in the water someone mentioned the teachers were busy gabbing, so we should try to swim out farther. I stood in the waist-high water and watched them swim away, but then Damien looked back.
"Are you coming, Setes?"
I shook my head as he swam back to me.
I was beyond embarrassed. How does a kid who grew up one hundred yards from Vineyard Sound not know how to swim over his head? After letting Damien in on my shame, I expected him to laugh and poke fun at me, but it didn’t even faze him. “Wrap your arms around my back and we’ll swim out together.”
This wouldn’t be the first time Damien would display his sweet, compassionate side. At his core was an empathetic, sensitive boy who cared deeply about his friends. He may not have been the strongest, for that title was synonymous with Marc Steele, but the weight of respect that accompanied Damien’s name was unrivaled.
A year after Beach Day, I found myself in a similar predicament. Finally able to swim over my head, I was feeling overly confident after receiving the phone call to meet Damien, Steele, and Gumby at the Marivista bridge for my first jump. I guilt-pedaled all the way there knowing I was ignoring my father's pleas about the bridge, but the jump was a rite of passage and I didn’t have a choice.
Once I arrived, I placed my ten-speed over the metal barricade where my shirtless friends were already waiting. We high-fived before the three hustled onto the street and stood patiently, hands gripping the railings, as they waited for boats to pass.“Come on, Murph!” they shouted down to me.
I took off my shirt but hesitated thinking how high the bridge appeared from ground level. This revelation stirred fear inside me. I walked as though stepping over land mines, my pace slow and calculated. Once I reached the top of the bridge, the bay was clear and my friends began jumping in succession. As I hovered over Great Pond, the pain in my stomach intensified, and as they all popped up from the water there were more cries.
“Come on, Murph! Jump!”
Standing frozen for what felt like hours, I finally realized my first jump wouldn’t be happening that day. I climbed over the railing back to the street and walked to my bike. It was Damien who first asked what I was doing, so I told him my jump was on hold. Feelings of shame and embarrassment once again washed over me. I was ready to go home until he stopped me.
“Setes, relax. I have an idea.”
He met with Steele and Gumby, and after they finished talking for a few minutes, Damien smiled. “Don’t worry. There’s a place we can take you.”
I didn’t ask questions but followed the threesome, who were heading deeper into the 02536. We parked our bikes outside Menauhant Beach. “This might be a better start for you, Setes," Damien encouraged.
The "bridge," if you even want to call it that, was small and far from intimidating, but the next hour was spent laughing and playing. I know it wasn't as exciting for them, but they never showed it.
Sitting on the porch of my childhood home, I thought of all these things, and more. I only hope Damien knew how much I appreciated his strong arms.
Photo courtesy of Sarah E. Murphy