My friend Bruce died on Feb. 5.
I found out this past Wednesday.
You’ll understand in a moment.
There are a few things I should tell you about my friend Bruce.
For starters, in the 15 years of our friendship, we never met.
We never spoke.
I had no idea what he looked like, or how old he was, or that he and his wife had four grown children.
Truth is, I never even knew his name was Bruce until Wednesday — 125 days after he passed away at the age of 63 from cancer.
Still, he was a friend ... inasmuch as anyone you meet and share good times with over the internet can be considered one.
Bruce and I — and 8,317 more of his friends — forged a bond in our passion for the professional sports teams of New England. With our true identities hidden behind the aliases common for such a website, we gathered to bear the slings and arrows of our teams’ fortunes and outrageous misfortunes.
If you belong to a subculture such as this (and being a fan of the New England Patriots when the rest of the NFL-loving world considers them cheats and villains is definitely a subculture), then you know that what begins with discussions on a singular affinity eventually will run the gamut to whatever there is to type, and argue, about.
Bruce was a lawyer in the nation’s capital. This we had known because of his willingness to lend his insight on various legal matters over the years.
He often referenced “The Godfather” and used a mugshot of Aragorn, from “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy, for his avatar.
He was a modulating voice in political discussions and a pragmatist during debates over Spygate, Deflategate and the other imbroglios that Patriots followers have had to endure.
In short, on a discussion board oft-populated by middle-aged fans whining, pulling their hair out and stomping their feet ... Bruce was an adult.
When his 8,318 site-mates learned of his death this week, it ruptured the protective bubble encasing our haven from the real world.
“This hurts as much as losing someone you’ve never met can hurt,” wrote one of our mutual friends.
“Whenever someone from (the website) passes,” offered another, “I’m always in awe of the impact we all have on each other’s lives.”
Being a member of a virtual community is something of an out-of-body experience. The sense of “loss” is internal, the commiseration among friends is sent into a void.
Bruce was not the first among this fellowship to pass — some who were close, others known only by aliases and avatars.
My thoughts drifted to Dennis, another friend I never met.
A Coltrane devotee and (horrors) Yankees fan, he was at work one Tuesday morning.
During his shift, we’d come to shooting baseball trivia questions at each other in a transcontinental battle for bragging rights. Just the day before, I had stumped him on the only baseball MVP (to that point) never to be named to an All-Star Game — “I should have known that,” he said in defeat — and I was suspecting a return joust requiring arcane knowledge of Yankees lore.
It never came.
Dennis was in his office on the 97th floor of Tower 2 of the World Trade Center.
Websites everywhere, of course, were feeding information and misinformation and sending out messages to those we knew who might be in the area.
It wasn’t until later that our shared cyber community discovered that Dennis’s final comments on our site were time-stamped just as the second plane hit Tower 2 about 15 or so floors below his office.
If this all seems a tad bit off-kilter to you, consider the times in which we live.
Even without a pandemic sequestering many of us from months from our families, friends and co-workers, it is a time wherein social media communication has replaced physical contact, as our technologies “bring us together” while allowing us to maintain our distance.
I went to the store the other day and felt as though I was Heinlein’s stranger in a strange land.
Buoyed by the loosening of restrictions, I’d roughly estimate that mask-wearers such as myself were outnumbered 2-to-1 among shoppers. I turned a corner and started down an aisle when I picked up on the conversation of a pair from the mask-less majority.
They were mocking the need for restrictions and blaming the situation on prominent public officials from what I surmised was a political party different than their own.
I was about to engage in opposition, but refrained. Somehow, expressing opinions in the recycled air of a Big Box — as opposed to the internet-shielded bubble — seemed counter-productive to my objective of buying a 12-pack of iced tea.
It made me wonder about the evolutionary progression of communication in the years to come — particularly when faced with super-heated times such as these.
Was my reluctance in the store a nod to common sense, or a manifestation borne from an unwillingness to say in person what comes easily online?
I am not a social media warrior ... ask anyone. I do not tweet, haven’t joined Facebook, don’t fill Instagram with photos, or download apps to my cellphone (although not owning a cellphone might have something to do with that).
We’re knee-deep in murky waters as a country, and what used to be termed as our “national discussion” over the issues at hand dominated by more surface-level, hot-take, points-scoring, unasinous thoughtlessness than you’d find in book clubs or quilting bees ... or even websites to devoted to sports teams.
How do we make progress if everyone’s talking and no one’s listening?
After I learned that my friend Bruce had died, I sought out the final thoughts he posted on our shared “home.”
His topic was the Patriots, and the inevitable disillusionment over the decline of a dynasty — although, as always, the adult in the room was hinting at something beyond the football field.
“This is a season,” Bruce wrote, “for deep thoughts, and great courage.”
Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin moderates all forums at email@example.com.