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In memoriam: a good bar mate

Normally when a man who looks like a former member of Jethro Tull offers to read me a few lines of poetry in a bar, I politely, though quickly, finish my beer and start easing my way toward the door.

Not so when this man was one Michael Brewer.

The late Michael Brewer.

I learned that Michael took that great, unknown and unknowable journey a few days ago when, for some reason, I scanned the Mail Tribune's obituaries.

Then — BAM — there was a picture of Michael, funny hat and all, staring me in the face.

I never look at the obits and will probably never do so again. It's not the optimal way to discover that someone with whom you've spent many enjoyable hours over beers and good conversation has died.

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the obits exist because they help pay my salary, but it doesn't mean I have to read them with anything resembling interest.

(It just occurred to me for the first time that I make money off people dying. Literally. There's a depressing notion. I'm going to stop thinking about this now.)

I met Michael in June 2005, my first week in Ashland. I was working the late shift at the Trib, as I do now, and would stop by the Beau Club a couple nights a week because I didn't want to go home after work and be alone. I'm not a needy-pants when it comes to human contact, but some form of interpersonal communication following a day at work is sometimes nice.

The Beau was always open late, so that's where I went. And that's where I met Michael, sitting, as always, at the end of the bar near the door. He and his wife, Sharon, came out one day on the weekend and stayed for a few beers before walking home.

They sometimes brought friends who were visiting from out of town, but most of the time it was just them.

I can't remember why I spoke to him for the first time, but...ah! I do remember.

He commented on a Chicago Cubs shirt I was wearing one night. I asked him if he was a fan, and he laughed and told me a story about watching Ernie Banks drive in a game-winning run in Wrigley Field in the '60s. He was an Illinoisan born and bred. He moved West at some point in the 1970s.

OK, old bearded dude, you've won my respect, I remember thinking after absorbing Michael's Mr. Cub story.

I then learned that Michael was born in the same hospital as me, St. Anthony Hospital in Effingham, Ill. He'd also traveled through my home town, all 5 square miles of it, on his way to the many roadtrips he took all across the Midwest.

After a few years, as more and more of the friends I'd made upon moving to Ashland either married and disappeared from the scene, or moved to Portland to join the scene, I found myself spending most of my Beau time shooting the bull with Michael.

He joined the Army in the 1960s and his intellect brought him into the world of military cryptography. He seemed impressed that I knew a fair amount about the field because I am a huge Neal Stephenson fan, having read his code-breaker masterpiece "Cryptonomicon" soon after meeting Michael.

We'd spend hours talking about old Turing machines and other Cold War geek stuff as the Beau jukebox turned from a reliable CD changer, stocked with a solid selection of 1970s country, disco and The Stooges, to an Internet box containing infinite possibilities, most bad.

One night, when a patron queued up a round of, I believe, Bruno Mars on the hell-box, Michael said he wished he would have engaged in mass sabotage in his military days if it meant slowing, if for only a week, the digital revolution that subsequently engulfed the world.

If we sounded like grumpy old men at times, well, that's because we talked a lot of grumpy old men talk.

Michael dug poetry a lot, something I've never delved into, even during my English major days. He casually mentioned it one night that he had written some verse recently that he thought I'd like.

"Yeah, man, I don't do poetry," I said.

He shrugged and shot me a few lines off the cuff. His stuff was stacked with nature imagery, but it wasn't precious. It read more like the hard-nosed verse of Gary Snyder or Robert Frost in one of his bad moods. It was real and rough-hewn. I respected it.

I rarely go out in Ashland anymore and have less reason to do so now.

But if I do matriculate to the Beau at some point I'll glance at Michael's seat, one thought in mind:

Wish you were still around. Cheers, mate.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.