Mike was a longtime friend of mine — we first met in Jeanette Frerichs’ third-grade class in Central School — and we remained friends all these years. But I wasn’t alone in feeling the impact of his presence in many ways over the years.
Countless others throughout our community knew Mike, and they also knew that he sure made life a lot more interesting — and downright fun — for them.
Mike was a free spirit, the son of Croatian immigrants living first on the Southside and later on Holly Drive. Since his early years, he loved the outdoors, and this translated into an early involvement in farming — Angelo Marchini lived across the street and took him to the Marchini farm on Union Island — and a lifelong love of hunting and fishing.
As a member of the Tracy High Class of 1951, Mike probably knew more members of the class than almost anyone and had an important role, as chief steak-barbecue chef and greeter, at the class’ reunions.
In the Army, Mike won the Soldiers Medal for saving the lives of several crew members of a military transport plane that had crash-landed at Fort Bragg, N.C., but he hardly mentioned it. He was, however, more vocal about being a member of one of the original Army Special Forces units at Fort Bragg. He liked to tell the story of how he and a few of his buddies tried on green berets as a way of setting them apart from regular soldiers. The result was new headgear — and a unique identity — for the Special Forces.
Some 30 years ago, Mike and I joined forces, first with Gino Del Carlo and then Bob Frame, to make wine. Mike’s dad, John, had learned winemaking in his native Herzegovina, and had wine-making equipment in a backyard shed.
At first, we crushed Mission grapes, and the wine turned out just awful. Then we had a chance to harvest some Riesling grapes that Boyce Turner had planted in trial rows on McDonald Island.
After the grapes were picked, we staged a wine-crushing party in the Erceg family’s backyard. The party was a lot of fun, with everyone trying their hand — or feet, as the case may be — in doing some crushing.
And this time around, the wine, fermented in barrels, turned out to be quite good. We called it McDonald Gold. After several years of wine crushing and wine making, we decided to quit, deciding it was more fun to drink wine than tend to it after the crushing party.
I never went with Mike on his annual hunting trips to Colorado and fishing trips to Nonacho Lake in Canada, but I heard countless stories from Jim Meservy, Marc and Paul Marchini and Leroy Leal, Bill Coats and others, about their adventures. In Colorado each fall, Mike would arrive a couple of weeks early to get the hunting camp ready. In the meantime, he got to know countless people there and started his interest in buying property in Colorado.
Back in Tracy, Mike loved to “glean” fresh asparagus, cauliflower, corn, cherries, apricots, tomatoes — you name it — from local farms. He would then deliver portions of his haul to homes of friends. It became an annual ritual, and a way for Mike to stay in touch with everyone. When asked where he got the farm products, his answer would always be the same: “Safeway.”
Mike died last Thursday, but actually the Mike we all had known had left us several years ago. Alzheimer’s steadily took its toll of Mike’s mind, and by the time his body finally gave way, what we had known as such an outgoing person was only a memory.
For many of us in Tracy, though, those memories of Mike will always be special ones.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at email@example.com.