I found that hard to imagine since the character Ira was a real piece of work. According to the book:
"He was a surly, cynical, lecherous grouch; a hairy sensualist who cared for nothing save filling his belly and fondling his genitals. He farted with malice, belched without shame, shit where he pleased, and offended everyone."
The second time I heard the name Ira Gross was during the summer of 1995, right after I graduated high school. I hadn't seen Marc in years, though we kept in touch and I'd made him my honorary God Father because it seemed the only label to put on our friendship that spanned a generation. He had promised that if we didn't bump into each other by the time I graduated High School, he'd fly me out to visit he and his family in New York. When I showed up, other than Marc being somewhat bemused that I was as tall as him, it was like old times: comic book talk and introspections into the nature of the universe. I was going to go directly from New York down to Myrtle Beach for my main event of the year, the Youth Sahavas, a spiritually focused youth camp. And this wasn't just any Sahavas. This was it, my fifth and final year as a camper. Over the years I'd forged many deep friendships (with people I'm still friends with today) and the spiritual camp dedicated to Meher Baba only lasted 6 days--a mere blink of an eye. So I wanted to get the most out of it and not leave with any regrets or feelings that I didn't participate or get the most out of the experience.
So when Marc told me, "By the way, I just found out my friend Ira is going to be your counselor," my mouth fell open.
Most Youth Sahavas counselors were just barely adults themselves and the few times they'd had "grown-ups" past their thirties or forties, it didn't seem to work out all that well. And on top of that, all I could picture was the hairy lout from Moonshadow, lovable as he was…in his own way. Of course Marc said that Ira Gross wasn't really like the character from Moonshadow…but I wasn't convinced about just how much of the real man inspired the character.
I approached the Youth Sahavas with some trepidation. For reasons beyond my control, I missed the first day and arrived late at night. Ira met me on the porch of the Lake Cabin and just whispered a few things so I could get settled in the last available cot, nearest the door of the porch. He wasn't particularly covered in hair that I could see, and seemed genuinely happy to see me, but I reserved judgment until I could see him in the light of day.
I broke the ice and told him I knew he was the inspiration for Marc's character. He responded as if that was nothing.
He said, "My middle initial is M so when you put my initials with my last name you get 'I.M. Gross' and the kids never let me forget it." But he didn't seem bitter about these or any jokes. It was like a badge of honor.
To my surprise I found that Ira was an older guy who could get down on our level effortlessly. What I found later was that it was effortless mainly because he never really left the level of teenager in the first place!
The next year I actually did become a counselor along with Ira. He couldn't help but crack jokes throughout the long and, at times, serious meetings that occur both before, during, and after the Sahavas.
Not many years after, I came across a conversation about how one young woman told Ira that his age was probably a problem and why he shouldn't come back to the youth Sahavas. Even though this girl had some power over me at the time, I told her she didn't know what she was talking about and that Ira was the best counselor I'd had and he helped set the template for how I was to act as a counselor (which ended up stretching 12 years).
Many years later, 2004, just months before I was to have my first child (but didn't yet know it yet), a bunch of us early-mid 20-somethings drove up from Asheville to New York for a visit to the Big Apple and some of our other young friends who happened to be living there. One night we really tried to get in touch with as many as we could. Mostly Sahavas contacts who were there for school, careers, culture, whatever. We met at an Indian restaurant in the East Villiage and lo, there's Ira. He stood out by age and I hadn't seen him in years, but after a short conversation he fit in just as well as anyone else.
It was years until I saw him again. Only recently, really. He moved to Myrtle Beach and I ran into him somewhere between 2013 and 2015 at least a few times. He was bald and I could see the ware of the cancer fight he readily described, but he was also still Ira: friendly, humorous, and ready for a real connection. He stopped by my cabin to meet my wife and he took a lot of time to get to know my oldest son. At the time I almost thought he was coming on strong, even though I always enjoyed Ira. I think I was worried about my family's personal space and didn't know what they thought or some weird thing like that even though I was happy to see him. Only this week do I see, Ira was not long for the world and he knew it. Ira did not waste opportunities to meet people, to connect, to reach out and touch them. I am perennially under the false belief that there's no rush -- and there will always be tomorrow. I am glad that Ira nudged in and embraced me and my family in those passing vacation moments, because that was the only later we'll get in this life and the reminder is a gift to me. To remember to seize that day, to grab the hand of your friend and tell them how much they mean to you or to just exchange a meaningful moment in the present.
Jai Baba Ira may you take that smile all the way to the bank, to the beyond, and bring it back to us mere mortals on here on Earth. We need constant reminders to not take ourselves too seriously.
Writing this now, I only wish I could hug Ira one last time and see that smile and say goodbye because he did, somehow, affect me in a deep way and I am grateful to all the myriad twists and turns our paths crossed to have that be so.