En passant: In chess, a French term1 for a special pawn move allowing the capture of an opposing pawn on the fifth rank.
We met, not on the fifth rank, but way, way back in the fifth grade, at a school where I was new and alone and kinda scared.
I’ll never forget him turning around to look at me in class as we were identifying ourselves and how he caught up with me later and introduced himself. We were friends after that.
Thus began my decades-long friendship with Stephen Wargo. I became friends not only with him, but with his entire family — his parents, his brother George, and sisters Kathy and Barb, who always made me feel welcome.
I never called him Stephen, though I did call him Steve, but most times it was just Wargo or Dude. Or (rarely) Pišta, the Hungarian nickname used by his family. He called me Petras, of course.
We hung out together a lot, into high school, where we ran together on the cross-country team (though neither of us was very good) and we did a few epic bicycle trips to Punderson State Park and camping rides across Ohio 87 to Pymatuning State Park on the Pennsylvania border.
Those trips are important because they fired my desire for travel and eventually evolved into long-distance motorcycle rides2.
Steve and I drifted apart after high school, long before I got on motorcycles. He was ahead of me in doing some amazing courageous things, like hitchhiking Jack Kerouac-style to Colorado to see his beloved older brother George3.
Hitchhiking — I’d dreamed about doing something daring like that but could never work up the nerve, could never get past the danger. But Steve just went and did it. He loved skiing and fishing and Colorado and the West.
“Once you cross the Mississippi, you’ll never want to come back,” he told me. I thought about that in 1995, while I was driving from Ohio to Nevada for a newspaper job in Reno.
I was in a Ford Ranger pickup pulling a 5×8 trailer with Discovery, my 1994 Yamaha Virago, stuffed inside. I wished he could have seen me then.
I saw him briefly on a visit home to Ohio in 1997 but we didn’t see one another again until 2016, when his sister Barb found me on the Internet.
My wife Linda and I visited Steve that July. His mother had passed away in the previous November, I think, and it was obvious he was still deeply in mourning. But we were very glad to see each other and it was as if the time had not passed, or did not matter.
We had a lot of laughs and we talked about the bicycle rides and the hikes and the cross country team and our crazy rubber raft ride down the Chagrin River. I’d gotten some sort of two-man inflatable raft as a Christmas gift and he and I took it on the river through the Cleveland Metroparks.
It was really a stupid-ass thing to do. The river still had ice on it and we managed to slice open the underside of the floor chamber. The raft still floated, though.
Then Steve dropped one of the two paddles and the current took it away and I ended up crawling out on the ice to retrieve it. If the ice had broken, I would have gone in and probably risked hypothermia.
Good times. A link to the 3-minute video I did for him is here.
Somewhere, in the jungle of our attic at home, I have a photo of us carrying that raft. I also have pictures from our other adventures, the bicycle rides and the hikes.
I came away from our 2016 reunion seized by the idea of us retracing one of our grand bicycle rides, because it seemed like he was so steeped in grief about his parents and I wanted to get him out of the house and back on the road, or something. You know, something fun.
I wanted to recapture the magic, the special feeling that’s endured from those rides to the motorcycle adventures Linda and I had later.
I kept talking to Steve about it (putting myself at risk of becoming a pest, I’m afraid) but I think maybe he was getting used to the idea or I was wearing him down; the last time I saw him, in early November 2017, we visited a nice bicycle shop, and looked at a Fuji Touring bike that was really sweet. So I like to think we would have eventually done the ride.
But we didn’t. Steve died unexpectedly of pancreatic cancer on Feb. 19, 20184. The last time I saw him was Nov. 4, 2017.
I’m trying to remember every moment, everything Steve and I talked about. It’s like I want to account for every minute. Since Steve didn’t have email, I was writing physical letters to him once or twice a month and calling at least once a month, or more.
It’s so easy to let friends drift away; life crowds in, as they say, which is so true. I didn’t want to let Steve drift away again.
And now I have to find a way to cope with his death. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to do that. I think of him often, and I smile at many of those memories, and sometimes laugh out loud, and that helps a little.
I’ve talked to Linda and Tom McCray, another good friend who was a part of those bicycle rides, about recreating Pymatuning. That may happen.
But even if it doesn’t, I think I need to see Ohio 87 and Pymatuning again, on a bicycle or aboard Terra Nova. Either way, I know Steve will be there.
1 — It means “in passing.” Phonetically, it’s pronounced “on pass-on,” in case you were wondering.
2 — Hence Wargo’s inclusion in a motorcycle-travel blog, though he himself did not ride a motorcycle. He’s mentioned elsewhere in Motorcycle Days, and I printed out and mailed him a couple of the travel stories since he disdained computers and was not online.
3 — George was a just super guy, the cool older brother I always wished I had.
4 — We knew Steve was sick, but I suspect the correct diagnosis came too late. I put together a video for his funeral, gave the sole eulogy, and was one of his pallbearers. God, I miss him.