The email arrived on July 1, 2016. It was from my oldest and dearest friend, Bjarne Holm:
Hi Keith. Bad news on the health front. I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer early last month. My prognosis is a few months to a few years, depending on how I respond to treatment. ... I’m trying to make the best of it, and the response to treatment so far is pretty good. Fortunately I have Robin, who is doing a fantastic job taking care of me, and the medical community has been great as well.
My best to you, Alex and Bradley
I responded: Bjarne, I am so sorry to hear this. We all speak glibly about “When our time is up,” but we always think it means someone else. Bradley and I are very busy, and are leaving tomorrow for a cruise to Alaska, back on July 11th and will come see you soon.
I met Bjarne in 1967. He had a white 1957 Alfa Giulietta Spider Normale, and I had a 1960 Bugeye Sprite — my first car. Bjarne was attending San Francisco State University — working towards his bachelor’s in geology — and he was a part-time custodian at Lakeside Presbyterian Church near Stonestown in San Francisco.
Born in Denmark, Bjarne was tall and gangly, with an unruly shrubbery of blond hair. He always had a welcoming smile.
I recall his first words to me as he surveyed my disheveled Sprite: “Why don’t you get a real car?”
I asked him what he meant. “Take a look at this,” he said as he proudly opened the hood of his Alfa and introduced me to the wonders of an overhead twin-cam aluminum engine. My world has never been the same.
Bjarne helped me find my first Alfa, a 1963 Giulia Spider Normale for which I paid $1,700.
We would meet every night and work on our cars. We replaced head gaskets, took transmissions apart and rebuilt brake cylinders. Nearly every weekend, we would leave Friday night after rush hour and head to Yosemite National Park, 164 miles away. We always took Highway 120, passing through Chinese Camp and Groveland to Yosemite.
We made a nuisance of ourselves to the weekend campers, who wondered who the brats in the noisy little sports cars were.
One time I was following Bjarne on Interstate 680 when his entire exhaust system fell off — from the collector pipe on the headers to the tailpipe.
I managed to avoid impaling my car on the metal tube, and we pulled to the side of the road to collect the debris.
Bjarne straightened out the exhaust pipe, cut a beer can open and wrapped it around the two halves of the pipe. He then put two hose clamps around the pipe, bolted it back onto the car, and we were on our way.
Bjarne earned his bachelor’s in geology from San Francisco State University, and he then moved to Alaska to earn his master’s in geology from the University of Alaska. He alternated between teaching at a secondary school and doing fieldwork for large oil companies.
North to Alaska in a Corvette
We had an epic road trip in 2003. We decided to drive my 1992 black/black 6-speed Corvette up the ALCAN Highway from Portland to his home in Fairbanks, AK.
The trip, chronicled in the October 2003 issue of Sports Car Market, took seven days, and we covered 3,225 miles. The ’Vette cruised effortlessly at 100 mph as we passed a near-continuous parade of motorhomes cruising sedately along at 55 mph.
Several years later, Bjarne and his wife, Robin, moved to Sisters, OR, just 155 miles from Portland in central Oregon.
I saw him last Christmas. He noted that while his career had progressed through several respectable stages — and he was now enjoying retirement — I was still stuck fooling around with Alfa Romeos.
On July 22 of this year, I sent him this note:
Bjarne, just checking in to see how you are doing. I’d like to come visit and interview you for a couple of hours if you are up to it.
You are my oldest friend, and the person who introduced me to Alfa Romeos.
I’d like to reminisce about our various experiences, including our trips to Yosemite and Laguna Seca, Hilary Luginbuhl and Rubber Chicken Racing, the time you lived with my grandmother and so on.
Let me know if you are up for that. KM
Bjarne responded immediately: That would be great. I have chemo on Thursdays, and I make a trip to the Virginia Mason Institute in Seattle July 30 until August 4–5, a special pancreatic-cancer center. Otherwise I am generally home. Let me know what works for you.
On September 25, I drove through Sisters on the way home from the Oregon Festival of Cars. I was enjoying the McLaren 570GT I had for the weekend. I passed within blocks of Bjarne’s home. As my time with the McLaren was limited, I decided to keep driving and come back to visit my friend another day.
On October 19, I wrote: Good morning! Have finally put my Christmas plans together. Let me know what works for you in terms of my coming to visit and spending a couple of hours recording a conversation between us going all the way back to Lakeside Church and through the present. Look forward to hearing from you and visiting. Sincerely, KM
Robin replied a few hours later: Bjarne died at 12:44 a.m., 9 Oct. His last 5 days were in the Partner in Care hospice house, as I could no longer take care of his pain. Sorry you didn’t get over sooner, as he was looking forward to seeing you. Robin
I had just been too busy to visit him. He was 70 years old when he passed; October 9 was his 34th wedding anniversary.
Our time on earth is finite, and we are not in control of when it comes to an end. When you learn a friend is fighting a life-threatening condition, don’t wait. Don’t be too busy. Go right away and visit your friend. When that friend is gone, you will never again share lifelong memories with that special person — or make new ones.