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Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

My best friend was a barbarian who lived on the edge and died being free. Here’s what he taught me about life, love, and immortality.

I fly a starship Across the Universe divide And when I reach the other side I'll find a place to rest my spirit if I can Perhaps I may become a highwayman again Or I may simply be a single drop of rain But I will remain And I'll be back again, and again and again and again and again

  • Johnny Cash, Highwayman

Energy

In his autobiography,Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen writes one of the most stirring passages I’ve ever read about friendship. When reflecting on the death of his dear friend and saxophone player, Clarence Clemons (AKA: “The Big Man”), Springsteen wrote this:


“I miss my friend. But I still have the story that he gave me, that he whispered in my ear, that we told together… If I were a mystic, Clarence’s and my friendship would leave me to believe that we must have stood together in other, older times, along other rivers, in other cities, in other fields, doing our modest version of God’s work.”


Oh man, that passage always gets me. Bruce’s feelings for his friend illuminate an intuitive belief that he and Clarence had a deep connection long before they met on the Jersey shore. In his book, Bruce even writes, “The first time I’d seen [Clarence’s] massive form striding out of the shadows of a half-empty bar in Asbury Park, I’d thought, ‘Here comes my brother.’”


Though he had never met Clarence before, the first time he saw him felt like a reunion of sorts. Have you ever felt that way with someone you just met? I have. Have you ever lost that person too soon? I have. And when my dear friend died, I did what I think a lot of people do -- I explored deep questions about life and death, and what it all means.


After journeying into the fog of the unknown following my friend's death, I eventually resurfaced with some clarity about existence. How my friend lived and died helped me realize that we humans aren’t just flesh and blood, we are energy. And if we are energy, then we can neither be created nor destroyed. Thus, we have always been here -- long before the body we occupy and long after it’s gone. When it comes to energy, time doesn’t exist. In this way, we are -- and we have always been -- ancient and immortal beings.


This conclusion -- that our energy is ancient and immortal -- gave birth to my "barbarian in you" philosophy. In this way, I want to thank my deceased friend. How he lived and how he died showed me that there is barbarian energy inside each of us. Moreover, that we can use that ancient energy to fuel a life filled with Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship. Like Bruce said about his friend, “I [too] have the story that he gave me, that he whispered in my ear, that we told together.” Here's that story.

He Lived Hard

I still recall the 5 am phone call in July 2011. It was Frank. We barely knew each other at the time, but we shared a dear friend in Jeremy Graczyk. When Frank called, I knew. And when I heard his somber voice, I knew for sure. “He’s gone,” Frank said. “He died base jumping in Switzerland. I’m sorry, man.” After I hung up, I returned to bed. When my wife asked, “what is it?” I answered, “Jeremy is dead.” She burst into tears.

Gathering myself later that morning, I called Sean, a Marine buddy Jeremy and I had trained with in Quantico, Virginia years before. When I told Sean the sad news, he just took a breath and said, “that dude lived hard, man. He lived hard.”

Jeremy hailed from the Granite State of New Hampshire. And like the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto, Jeremy lived (and died) being free. During his 33 years on earth, he jumped off cliffs in Norway and skyscrapers in LA. He skied down narrow chutes, rode motorcycles across the desert, and climbed El Capitan. And he deployed at least ten times to Iraq, Afghanistan, and who knows where else with some of the most elite units from America’s arsenal of warriors. My friend never wanted an easy life. He wanted a radical one, a free one, and most of all, a dangerous one. Like Achilles before him, he lived hard, fast, and brief.

The last time we saw each other, I finally asked, “Why in the hell are you doing all this crazy shit? You’re jumping off skyscrapers at 3am for Christ sakes. Why!?” His answer was pure Jeremy. “Because it’s freedom,” he said. “Everything in the modern world, especially in America, is too controlled, too regulated, and too safe. I won’t live that way. Jumping off a building is my giant ‘fuck you’ to being controlled. When I stand atop a skyscraper, a bridge, or a mountain, no one can stop me. I’m completely free.” Like I said, he’s from New Hampshire.

Jeremy knew he’d probably die with his boots on. But he’d live his life on his terms, and despite the great risks he took, he was never reckless. He knew what he was doing, and he always prepared accordingly. That said, he was not of this century – not even close. His entire energy felt like he came from a past age, a barbarian age. As a result, his time in the 21st century would be short. He charged through modernity like a Visigoth through Rome. And the one historical figure I always think of when I think of Jeremy is Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, warrior, and lover who lived like there was no tomorrow. When asked about Lord Byron, an ex-girlfriend famously said, “he’s mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” That’s Jeremy.

Connection

The first time I saw Jeremy feels like the first time Bruce saw Clarence. It was like we’ had already met. After four years at the Naval Academy and implausibly never crossing paths, we finally connected at the Marine Corps’ Officer Training Course. On a night just before our training began, we were in line for a movie at a theater just outside the base. The movie was “The 13th Warrior.”

He stood ahead of me in line with Bobby whom I already knew from the academy. When I said hi to Bobby, Jeremy just looked at me, smiled, and nodded. I nodded back. That was it. I never introduced myself to him, nor did he to me. It was like we had already met some time ago, like we already knew each other completely.

After suffering through six cold months in Quantico, we entered the next phase of our field training: the Infantry Officer’s Course. By this time, Jeremy and I were tight and pretty much thought we were the baddest dudes on the planet. From day 1, we swaggered into the infantry course and began espousing a Darwinian hatred for the weak, i.e. those we deemed unfit to lead Marines in combat. On one occasion, we literally knocked on our Commanding Officer’s door and told him he needed to drop four lieutenants from the course for being “too soft” – though we used another term. On another occasion, I saw Jeremy fire a lieutenant on the spot from a field exercise. He walked up to the lieutenant, nose to nose and an inch from his face, and screamed, “you’re fired!” He had no authority to do this, of course, but he did it anyway. The other lieutenant quietly accepted his termination while Jeremy took command of the platoon.

After five days in the field each week, we’d wash the dirt out of our ears, check our armpits and crotch for ticks, and then jump into my Ford Taurus for the hour trip north to the bars and hotels of Georgetown. To stay awake after grunting through the woods all week, we’d pop ephedra pills (legal then!) on the drive up to D.C. Blazing like truckers on speed, we’d storm into the G-Town bars and raise hell until last call. Then we’d do it again on Saturday night. Watching a 22-year-old Jeremy pinball through a noisy bar packed with uber-educated DC women was like watching a stray dog zig-zag through a playground covered in milk bones.

Because Barbarians Need Food!

For the next three months, we fought all week in the woods and partied all weekend in the bars. With each successive week, our bond grew stronger and stronger. By the end, we were like brothers. Exactly the same size (6-foot-2 and 200 pounds), we were as single as Jesus, as sinful as Satan, and as refined as Thor. And for the next few years we kept it up and holy shit did we have fun.

For Jeremy, there was the time with the female rock star and that other time with the rock star’s daughter. Then there was that time he broke his jaw skiing, the time he cracked his shoulder playing rugby, and all the times he got a black eye and stitches.

Whenever I’d visit him, I’d walk into wherever he was living that year (or month) and see his motorcycles, snow skis, water skis, kettlebells, climbing gear, piles of hardcover books on makeshift 2x4 cinder block shelves -- and who could forget his leopard print furniture! Visiting Jeremy’s lair was like visiting someone wanted by the FBI. His house always looked like he either moved in that day or was moving out tomorrow.

Jeremy’s barbarianism didn’t end with his physical prowess or wanderlust. He was also brilliant, graduating the Naval Academy with a 3.8 GPA in Systems Engineering. He loved reading controversial books and coming at me with radical ideas. Like me, he bemoaned being born ten centuries too late. Also like me, he was a devout Ayn Rand disciple and staunch atheist. Pure reason (and testosterone), we declared, would be our guiding light. (Oh, to be 23 again and have all the answers.) Despite our profound arrogance for reason, however, we still somehow praised pagan constructs like Odin, Thor, and Glen Danzig. (And did so without any hint of hypocrisy.)

As the years passed, our careers swerved in different directions. Jeremy had a career young lieutenants dream of – lots of elite units and tons of combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locales beneath America’s hegemonic sun. As Jeremy kicked the tires and lit the fires overseas, my imperial adventures were spent bar hopping in Bahrain, batting cleanup for a Dubai softball team, and earning my scuba license in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Lost at sea regarding my life and career, I chose to leave the Marine Corps in 2007. Not long after, I recall Jeremy debating whether he should do the same. But he just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t give up the action. He thought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were dumb and that President Bush was even dumber, but for Jeremy, the action was the juice. He needed it. If there was war, he wanted in. And even when he’d be stateside for brief interludes, you’d find him skiing, climbing, skydiving, base jumping, and racing the Baja 1000.

In just over three decades on earth, he shined as bright as the sun -- almost burning you with his energy. And then like a supernova, he was gone.

Dust in the Wind

In the week’s following his death, I still remember thinking, “So that’s it? He’s just gone forever?” As I dug deeper into my thoughts, Jeremy’s death caused me to ask additional questions like “How can that level of energy just disappear? Where is he now? What is he now?”

I had so many questions and none of them could be answered by reading The Fountainhead.

As I addressed these existential questions, I decided that “Jeremy” wasn’t just flesh, bone, and brain, nor was he his ideas or his opinions. He was energy – pure energy.


So when he died suddenly, I thought, “what happened to that energy?” Then I thought of Newton’s physical law that “energy can neither be created nor destroyed.” If that’s true (which it seems to be), then Jeremy’s energy was not gone -- it remained. And in certain ways, I concluded, that meant Jeremy remained.

To gain more clarity on Jeremy's "immortality," I turned to nature. When a leaf falls from a tree, I thought, it eventually turns brown, cracks, and then disintegrates into the earth. When that happens, is the leaf totally gone? No, I concluded, because its microscopic components of nitrogen, phosphorous, etc. remain. What makes the leaf and what gives it energy -- its molecules and compounds – never dies. They just return to the earth and help give birth to something new. The energy of the leaf is immortal.

So if we agree that all matter and energy burst out of the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, then our energy – including Jeremy’s – seems to have been around for a very long time and arguably will be around forever. Jeremy would be delighted to hear my conclusion that he has become immortal. Not a pagan god, but immortal nonetheless.


Awakening

Jeremy’s life and death brought clarity to my thinking about this thing we call life. It caused me to challenge my empirical beliefs (and non-beliefs) by paying more attention to my intuitions, inclinations, dreams, resonations, and déjà vu moments. In doing so, I began to answer questions I couldn’t answer with sheer reason alone.

Because we are energy, it made sense that each person carries a frequency and that some frequencies – ancient as they are – resonate on first contact. When Bruce Springsteen saw Clarence Clemons enter that half-empty bar, there was resonation. When I saw Jeremy that night outside the movie theater, there was resonation. And like Bruce, I still resonate with my dead friend today.

The immortal energy of Jeremy Graczyk is with me now. That ever-present energy (Jeremy), helps me power through workouts, take bigger risks, and live my life with incredible freedom and clarity. Jeremy reminds me to live with Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship. He inspires me to do what I’m drawn to do. He is the reason I started the Barbarian in You blog, and the reason I’m promoting barbarianism in the 21st century.

Finally, I’m not alone. Jeremy continues to inspire so many others. I’ve never met anyone with more best friends than Jeremy Graczyk. Additionally, there are close to a dozen people who have named their children in his honor. His energy lives on, which means Jeremy lives on. He is in us, around us, and always whispering, “live free or die.”



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