Jul/Aug 2011 Nonfiction

The Death of Ronald Gray

by Henry F. Tonn

Photo by David Graham

Photo by David Graham

"He was an extraordinary person in a most ordinary way," is what I would have put on his headstone. He never received the appreciation he deserved while alive, but a great empty spot appeared after his death. Years later I recognized my folly, but too late to make amends. Time marches; we live with regrets.

I first met Ronald Gray in the fall of 1967 when my wife and I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where I had accepted a position as psychologist in a maximum security prison unit. Claudia and I had found a nice apartment only four blocks from the prison, on the second floor, and we shared the same porch with Ronald who lived directly below us. He was a pleasant enough fellow, if somewhat detached, with a youthful face, curly brown hair, and a stocky build. For the first few months of my residency there, however, we rarely exchanged more than a cordial hello when passing each other on the landing. Then, one day, for reasons that now elude me, I casually inquired if he played chess. He said he did, and I immediately suggested we meet in my apartment one evening for a few games. Thus launched a relationship between two very different personalities that was to last for many years, and ultimately have profound influence on us both.

It is generally accepted that one's style of play on the chessboard is a reflection of one's personality, and certainly that rule applied in our case. Ronald was a cautious, positional player who pondered lengthily between moves and rarely forayed into enemy territory without superior numbers. I, on the other hand, moved quickly in a devil-may-care fashion: threatening, slashing, constantly attempting to exchange pieces and open the board so I could maneuver freely. I was Napoleonic in my approach, but he was Wellington. We were equally matched. Some days my slashing attack opened holes in Ronald's defenses and I would cruise through several games in a row. Other times his defense was impenetrable, causing me to sacrifice everything and end up with nothing. In the beginning we did not have a chess clock and the games required hours to complete. I would grow impatient with his constant dawdling over the pieces and holler, "Move, Ronald! Move!" And he would reply, "I'm thinking! I'm thinking!" then would study the board for fifteen minutes more. Play generally extended deep into the night.

My wife, fortunately, was very tolerant, and could sleep through any kind of racket.

Neither of us was a smoker, but I developed the habit of puffing on Hav-A-Tampa Jewels cigars from time to time, just for recreational purposes. They were a light, sweet-smelling cigar with a wooden tip, and the first night I offered one to Ronald he regarded me quizzically.

"You know I don't smoke."

"Neither do I, but we're playing chess."

"What's that got to do with it?"

"If we're playing chess, we should smoke."

"That's ridiculous."

"All right, then. Don't smoke."

"How many have you got?"

"A dozen."

"Okay, then, we'll smoke them all."

Henceforth, we puffed our way through games, and as the evening progressed a thick pall of smoke hovered miasmically over the table. After a few months we added beer to the mixture, and eventually a typical evening involved smoking five cigars apiece and consuming a quart or two of whatever was on sale at the local grocery store. This did not detract from our quality of play, however; in fact, it improved it. I started studying chess books in my spare time and showing Ronald the more interesting games. He then went out and purchased his own books, poured over them assiduously, and eventually we were communicating in the parlance of the chess world.

"Brilliancy!" He would exclaim when I made a particularly creative move. " Paul Morphy! You're another Paul Morphy!"

"No! You're the man! Steinitz! You're another William Steinitz!"

And we would break into laughter.

Our chess matches led us into other areas. Ronald was relatively athletic and had actually tried out for the Chicago Cubs baseball team during his youth. We enjoyed tossing baseballs, softballs, and Frisbees at each other in the street and at the local park after work or on the weekends. Occasionally, we drove to nearby North Carolina State University and played basketball with the students. More interesting was visiting the eighteen-hole putting green on campus where we engaged in fierce multi-round competitions. Ronald's eye-hand coordination here was first rate, his putting stroke smooth, and he won more games than he lost. Once we even attended the NCAA Fencing Championships held at the university gymnasium—a sport about which we knew nothing, but a spectacle we found riveting.

Though Ronald was normal in many ways, he was also a bit odd. For instance, he lived the most Spartan lifestyle of anyone I have ever known. He did not own an automobile, preferring to walk the two miles to his place of employment every day regardless of weather. He held a simple bookkeeping position in a small company and made a modest income, but every day he was there with clocklike precision. He arose early in the morning and consumed a simple breakfast, packed himself several sandwiches for lunch, and generally cooked a full, hot meal in his apartment for supper. He rarely ate out. He also rarely attended movies or indulged in any other of the various diversions offered by the city. He did not date. Other than myself, he had no friends. Every Friday after work he walked a mile to the nearest grocery store, bought his week's allocation of foodstuffs, and called a Yellow Cab to bring him home. His recreational activities—other than those with me—were confined either to reading, watching television, or studying chess books. He owned very few personal items; even his television set was rented.

Until I met Ronald, I didn't know people actually rented television sets.

Ronald did not gossip and rarely discussed his personal life. Over a period of time I learned that he was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, and that his parents still lived there. He never attended college and his only other previous job had been as a night clerk in a hotel. A full year passed before I discovered—to my amazement—that he had actually been married. This revelation occurred while I was sitting on the porch one day on a pleasant sunny afternoon reading a book on psychology, and Ronald walked out of his apartment with a young girl by his side. "Henry," he said proudly, "I want you to meet my daughter." I was absolutely stunned, and he could not suppress a smile at my reaction. Later, however, in a more somber moment, he related sadly how his wife had left him after five years of marriage, taking the child with her, and eventually became wedded to a man in another town. Since he did not own a car, his access to the child was limited. Ronald never understood why the marriage ended or how he had contributed to its dissolution. I remember listening to this with perplexity, not understanding how one could not know. Only later in my career as a psychologist did I learn that men often remain clueless about such matters.

He was not the analytical type and more or less accepted life as it came. I, on the other hand, analyzed everything. I constantly asked people questions such as what is happiness, what is contentment, and what is the difference between the two. Interestingly enough, Ronald considered himself content but not happy; I considered myself the opposite. Ronald had no ambitions to speak of and saw himself living out his life in its present form until retirement. On the other hand, I was full of vim and vigor and ambition. I fully intended to take the entire world by storm and effect great changes for the betterment of all mankind. Furthermore, I was absolutely confident in my ability to do so. Ronald's life was a still, quiet, calm pond, mine, a raging river. We used to wonder who was better off. Is it better to be content or happy? Is it better to be satisfied with the present and have no ambition, or dissatisfied with the present and have great ambition? We discussed these issues and others during idle times.

Eventually, though, new opportunities arrived, and I moved on to Charlotte, N.C., the largest city in the state, to teach psychology at the local community college. Ronald and I kept in touch by letter and phone, and twice a year he traveled down to Charlotte by bus to visit his parents. Our competitive chess matches continued. He bought a chess clock—that marvel of modern inventions—so now we could play even more games per evening. Five minute matches proved to be the most exciting, fifteen minute ones gave us more time to think, and we continued to play an occasional two hour marathon just for old time's sake. We smoked just as furiously as ever—Have-A-Tampa Jewels—but our taste in beer improved. A new brew called Andecker arrived on the market, and, despite its being more expensive than our previous Special Of The Month, we consumed it in great quantities. So, now we had a chess clock, high quality beer, and better ventilation in the kitchen because the kitchen was located next to the back door and the back door had a screen. What else could we ask for?

We found new things to holler about.

"You touched that piece! If you touch it, you have to move it!"

"I didn't touch it. I was just adjusting."

"How can you adjust it without touching it?"

"What do you know? You can't see for the cigar smoke anyway."

"If you touch it, you have to move it."

"There are too many ashes on this board. It's unsanitary!"

During this period I was engaged in writing my first book, learning Kung Fu, attending plays and concerts all over town, and traveling to foreign and exotic countries. I filled Ron in on these events and he listened attentively but with little real interest. His life remained essentially the same. He continued to inhabit the same apartment, watch programs on the same rented television, and walk to work each day regardless of weather. The only change in his routine occurred when he joined a chess club at North Carolina State University and began playing two evenings a week. Otherwise, you could predictably find him in his apartment every night and on weekends reading, watching television, or studying the numerous chess books he had collected over the years. He seemed more content than ever.

But Ronald's great value was that he was the one person on earth I could really talk to—outside of my wife. He was the soul of discretion and I always knew our conversations would never travel further than his ears. He was patient, responsive, and non-judgmental. I could tell him anything and he was accepting. I walked a high wire and he was the net below. It was wonderful knowing he was always there, although life in that period was so good I didn't really need a confidant. As with all people in their glorious youth, I never imagined things would change.

In 1976 I moved to a coastal town in North Carolina to become the only psychologist in a sparsely populated and somewhat primitive county. My wife and I settled into a little clapboarded house right on the beach, adopted a dog named Foley and two cats named Kierkeguaard and Nietzsche, and cultivated an entirely new set of friends and a new lifestyle. I played tennis and golf and took long walks along the water with wife and dog during low tide while watching the huge orange sun turn blood red and slowly settle into the sea. I was reading and writing and traveling and working. There were no chess players in the area and my interest gradually faded. Ronald and I called each other occasionally just to touch base—generally I called him—but eventually even these contacts dwindled. Soon we were only exchanging Christmas cards during the holiday season.

Five years passed and I finally decided to pay him a visit. A psychology workshop was scheduled in Raleigh for a certain weekend and it seemed the perfect opportunity to renew and refurbish our friendship. I phoned Ronald and asked him if he would like a roommate for the night and he welcomed the idea but reminded me that he had only one bed. "I'm aware of that," I assured him. "I'll bring my sleeping bag and throw it in the corner. If you don't snore too loud or accost me in the night with one of your latest perversions, I'll be perfectly happy."

"Not to worry," he retorted. "You won't get any sleep anyway. You'll be too upset from the terrible ass whipping I'm going to give you in chess."

"You've been practicing, have you?"

"Twice a week," he confirmed. "And the rest of the nights I study books. I'll show you moves you've never imagined before."

"Yes, well, you're forgetting one thing."


"My inherent brilliance. Like Capablanca, I'll learn the moves as you play them and then use them against you. Your destruction will be even more humiliating than usual."

"In your dreams, my arrogant young friend. In your dreams."

And thus it was arranged.

When I arrived at his apartment Ron greeted me as though we had never been apart. Nothing about him had changed: youthful face, stocky body, calm, friendly demeanor. Only two things were new in his apartment. The rented television had died (it was probably the original one produced by Motorola) and he now owned a Zenith which actually projected a relatively clear black and white picture. Secondly, he had purchased a chess machine, and couldn't wait to show it off. We didn't even bother to chat, just shook hands and marched willy nilly to the chess board and started moving pieces. I was afraid I would be rusty after the prolonged layoff, but everything returned quickly. It was like old times. Cigars were lined up by the chess board and Andecker was in the fridge.

Nietzsche said in times of peace a warlike man turns upon himself, and this adage was certainly proving true in my case. In the old days I had been bright eyed and bushy tailed, full of vigor and ambition, and ready to conquer the world. Now it seemed the world was conquering me. At age forty I was turning bald and developing a paunch. My once glorious athleticism was fading to a distant memory. Twice I had failed to attain a PhD and now realized I would never teach in a major university as had been my plan. I was a state employee in a primitive county where few avenues for professional development existed. It was a comfortable enough existence but not the best choice for a person who thrived on competition. For me, tranquility was creating disillusionment, and the beginning stages of anxiety, depression, and chronic headaches were setting in.

I arrived at Ron's house at three o'clock in the afternoon, and by five o'clock had developed a roaring migraine. I threw up in Ron's bathroom and the chess game was aborted. Our planned dinner at a local restaurant was canceled and the majority of the evening passed with me curled up in a fetal position on my sleeping bag waiting for the Demerol I carried everywhere with me to kick in. Ron tiptoed around quietly, fixed himself a modest meal, and then played a series of chess matches against his machine, patiently waiting for my recovery. When I finally emerged woozily into the land of the living, he cordially asked if I would like to challenge his machine. "Might as well," I said. "Let's do it." And for the next four hours I played while he watched. I learned that the machine was better at end games than me and basically it beat the crap out of me.

Subsequently, I made a deliberate point of visiting Ronald once a year. It was a nice break from an increasingly monotonous routine, and I was able to keep my chess skills up to par. However, Ron's understanding of the game improved with each passing year, and soon I was hard pressed to stay competitive. But we always enjoyed ourselves hugely. We talked about old times and about our futures. But now we talked more about old times and less about the future. Our futures had somehow slipped away. We talked about sports and politics and about our jobs. Ron still followed and rooted for the Chicago Cubs baseball team because they had given him a tryout in his youth. Like all Cub fans, he was doomed to disappointment every year. He was more conservative in his politics than I was, and also less interested. He was more interested in the professional chess circuit and the tournaments being played around the world, and enjoyed showing me some of the more recent notable games.

I shared with him my growing anxiety about life, my frustration of never amounting to anything. He listened, empathized, but never passed judgment. I always left his home feeling energized, refreshed, and ready to face the world again.

He, on the other hand, seemed to be adjusting very well to the gradual changes in his life. He thrived on simplicity. His daughter grew up, married, and moved away. Most of his contact with her thereafter was by phone. He adjusted. His father went into a long decline, eventually dying of cancer. Ronald took the bus home for the funeral and stayed for awhile with his mother, who was still spry in her eighties. But nothing substantial changed, and he continued visiting her twice a year as always: July fourth and Christmas. He had adequate income and excellent health. There was nothing else that he needed. As the years passed he became more content than ever, perhaps even happy.

In 1986 I sent him a Christmas card bringing him up to date on my life and promising to pay him a visit in July. Two weeks later I received a letter from his mother informing me that Ronald was dead. She wrote that his employers had gotten suspicious when he failed to show up for work on two successive days and was not answering his phone. Given that Ron had always been the quintessence of reliability, they decided to inform the police. Shortly thereafter, the landlord and law enforcement personnel entered his apartment and found him curled peacefully under the covers in his bed.

He had died quietly at the age of forty-eight.

I remember being shocked when I received the letter but I do not remember grieving. I thought it was peculiar that an individual like Ron had passed away at such a young age given that he exercised daily, ate properly, and lived a life almost devoid of stress. He did all the things that doctors recommend for a healthy, long life. His father had lived into his eighties and his mother was still alive. It seemed strange and bizarre to me, like a miscarriage of justice, like the Grim Reaper had entered the wrong door.

But I went on with my own activities with little pause. I had a wife, a dog, two cats, a house by the ocean, and a good job; there seemed no reason to dwell on this unpleasant event. Life is for the living; we recall the deceased in our spare time.

But fate can employ harsh methods to redress atrophied values. Several years later my marriage dissolved, the dog died, one of the cats disappeared, and unseemly problems developed at my place of employment. The neighbors avoided me like the plague and friends were finding other things to occupy themselves. I was returning home in the evening to four walls and no one to talk to. The silence was shattering. I needed Ron now more than ever.

None of this would have mattered to him. He would have been the same: open, smiling, warmly accepting me into his home. We would have gone out to dinner, drank a few beers, and I would have poured out my tale of woe. He would have listened understandingly and commiserated, and then said, "You need to play some chess tonight, Henry. I'm sorry about your wife, but I'm going to whip your ass anyway."

And for a while everything would be all right again.


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