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Christopher Kostoss, October 16, 1972 — May 31, 2022
My Tribute to an Old Flame
I’m a nostalgic sort of person, so once in awhile I get the inkling to look up an old acquaintance with whom I’ve lost touch, to see what’s happened in the intervening years.
“I wonder what Chris Kostoss is doing now?” I said to myself Saturday morning.
Imagine my shock to search for Chris’ name while sitting down for my morning coffee. In the autofill I began to see “Chris Kostoss obituary” and “Chris Kostoss suicide.”
What? It couldn’t be the same Chris Kostoss.
I sat stunned and shed a few tears.
From the obituary:
On Tuesday, May 31, 2022, Captain Christopher Kostoss died by suicide. Chris was born on October 16, 1972. At the time of his death, he had been a New York State Forest Ranger for 23 years. Chris was also a dedicated member of the Wilmington Fire Department for over 10 years. He loved living and working in the Adirondacks. In his spare time, he enjoyed many outdoor pursuits such as gravel bike riding, swimming, hunting, skiing, and playing with his dog.
Chris was an introspective minimalist who could often be found shelling and eating peanuts at the kitchen counter. Never fond of grocery shopping, he was known for his creative culinary efforts. His house was decorated with an eclectic mix of objects he found while hiking and his doodles.
He was actively involved in suicide prevention among law enforcement. Chris was a loving father, a loyal and caring friend, a dedicated Ranger, and a good person. His manner of death does not change that. He believed in destigmatizing talk about mental health and believed that seeking help for mental health should be a routine part of health care. He will be deeply missed by his family and friends.
I met Chris in 1997. I was 22 and fresh out of college. He was 24 and had just graduated first in his class from the Ranger School in the Adirondacks. We were going to be the two summer employees at the USFS’s Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Warren, PA doing botany and forestry technician work.
At the time, summer “students” lived in a dilapidated shack with little more than a 1950s refrigerator, a cement floor painted grey, too few windows, two bedrooms each with multiple bunks, an assortment of 1950s industrial office furniture that had been discarded from the Forestry lab at some point, and some 1970s couches with bold brown and green flowers, likely rescued from the local thrift store.
No internet in those days. We checked our email perhaps once a week at the Forestry Lab. No TV or landline, either.
This “residence” — if you could call it that — was referred to affectionately by Forest Service employees as “The Hilton.” More like a prior barracks of sorts, there weren’t enough students these days to fill it up in summertime.
The acceptance letter was simple: we were given instructions to our living quarters, start date, and were notified that there would be two people living in “The Hilton” that summer. We were to move into the Hilton the week-end before, so that we’d be ready for work on Monday morning after the first week-end in May.
I was fresh out of a Christian college where we weren’t supposed to dance, drink, or have sex. The rules were widely disobeyed, but secretly, or you’d get thrown out. Students were definitely expelled from the school over these matters.
I’d had a few serious boyfriends and was gradually re-evaluating my beliefs. So while not completely sheltered, I was still a little nervous. There were no more rules in this post-college world. I was an adult now. No one to push me around or tell me what to do.
The idea of living with a man I’d never met, even though it was just a summer job for a few months, seemed like forbidden territory after a cloistered, carefully groomed four year environment of same-sex dorms and thrice weekly chapel attendance.
I was a little trepidatious. I arrived early on Sunday to the closed up Hilton, moved my stuff in, and cleared some cobwebs. It was a bland building on the side of a large parking lot, with no other structures in sight. All day long, I was alone.
Finally, at dusk, a Bronco pulled up. This must be my summer housemate.
Just as I peeked out of my bedroom, Chris walked in. He was about 5’10”, to my recollection, well-built, and dark-skinned, wearing a white t-shirt and Carhartt pants. He slowly walked around the living room, briefly took in The Hilton’s bleakness, and put his fingers through his jet-black hair.
“Hi,” I said quietly.
Chris shifted his gaze from the kitchen to me without saying anything.
“I’m Monica. I took the smaller bedroom,” I offered.
He looked at me intently. “Okay,” he said seriously.
It took him only a couple of trips to move his things in from his vehicle. Chris was a man of few belongings and even fewer words. We both retired to our respective bedrooms because we had to be to work at 7AM.
I didn’t discuss the bathroom, which was a distinct source of disquiet for me. The two bedrooms were linked by a shared bathroom. I aimed to shower very early in order to give him plenty of time to get ready afterward.
In the morning, I entered the bathroom, tiptoed over to his closed bedroom door and quietly locked it from the bathroom side, unlocking it when I was finished.
As we sat across from each other at the tiny kitchen table at breakfast, he stared wordlessly at me. Dark and brooding, I was getting the sense that Chris disliked me. His full, arched, expressive eyebrows were rendering a judgment on me, and I didn’t like it one bit.
When he was done with his breakfast, he stood up without saying a word, placed his dish into the sink, went and started up his Bronco, and drove 1/4 mile away to the forest station. I drove separately.
Chris definitely didn’t like me. This was beginning to feel very weird. The entire situation was unnerving. It was only a summer assignment, but the joint living and working situation for months on end was bound to get awkward. I was used to friendlier boys, and Chris didn’t smile at all, even in the presence of the “bubs.”
“The bubs” as we came to affectionately call the work crew, consisted of three permanent forest rangers. Then there was Chris, and one “bub-ette” (me).
It wasn’t exciting or intellectually stimulating work, but the crew was fun. The most awkward part of the workday consisted of the five of us wasting time around the coffee pot at the forest station from 7-8AM until our bosses decided which sites in Allegheny National Forest would be surveyed that day. The plant diversity was low, so it was tedious and repetitious, besides the conversation and jokes we would all make walking between forest plots, which often veered to the less PC side.
But we were getting paid to walk around the forest all day. That was a pretty good deal, in my opinion. I was a no-nonsense girl who got along with men more easily than I did with women, and the “bubs” were very congenial, and the banter felt natural. Chris opened up a little bit more when we were all in a group, but he was still pretty stoic. In my mind’s eye I remember him quietly getting bearings with the compass, snapping it shut, fixating on a point in the distance, and methodically pacing out the right distances to our next plot surveys.
The vast majority of the plots were in fairly mature, shaded forest where it was nice and cool: the perfect way to spend summer days. But once in awhile it would be a “clearcut day,” and these were the worst. We’d strap on chaps and navigate waist- to armpit-high Allegheny blackberry thickets to make nearly impossible counts of seedlings underneath, usually in the blazing hot sun with not a tree in sight. We’d emerge sweaty and scratched up by the blackberry thorns.
It was miserable and the Hilton was miserable to return to. There was no air conditioning and likewise, no trees around the building to provide any shade to keep it more cool during the day. And no place close-by to swim.
To make matters worse, Chris seemed to get more sullen when we got off work. For some reason, it seemed, he didn’t like me in particular, and in turn, that made me dislike him.
Chris never seemed to eat much. The very first day after work, Chris’ first trip to town was to the liquor store. He brought back a case of Yuengling and filled the fridge up. After work he’d empty bottle after bottle, generally while reading a book and sporting reading glasses that transformed him from logger to scholar.
It was said that man could not live by bread alone, but if Chris’ habits were any judge, man might be able to live by Yuengling alone.
One day, on a particularly hot afternoon near 100F, we returned from a clearcut day. Chris got into his Bronco and I knew he was off for another beer run. First, there was nothing else to do in the afternoon. (For that matter, there was nothing to do within 200 miles on any day.) Second, his supply had run out.
Chris was smart and capable but I was tired of living with a morose mountain man who never said anything. There was always an air of displeasure around him and you could cut the tension with a knife. I hoped he’d stay out for awhile so I could have the place, miserable as it was, to myself.
Most days, a t-shirt and jeans were perfect clothing for working in the woods. You didn’t want your legs to be scratched up from the undergrowth on a clearcut day, so shorts were never acceptable. And you were going to get dirty and scratched on the worst days, so you shouldn’t wear your best t-shirts.
I relegated the ugliest ones to work outfits.
This loose-fitting, frumpy clothing was about all I wore that summer, but now we were nearing June and this was the first unbearably hot day. When I heard Chris pull out of the driveway, I lost no time changing into my swimsuit, and I wrapped a short black sarong around my waist.
The heat and humidity were oppressive and the dirty floor in The Hilton was getting to me. After I changed into my swimsuit, I stood at the deep kitchen sink and splashed some cool water over my arms, then filled up a bucket with cool, soapy water. There was no mop. I decided that I would put some music on and hand mop the floor. Then I’d take a cool shower.
I didn’t hear Chris until I was almost done, and the screen door slammed right behind me. I heard him plunk down another case of beer on the long wooden table. He was nothing if not predictable. I rolled my eyes.
I was turned away from him, my derrière in the air, cleaning the floor on my hands and knees. There was no point in saying hello because he never responded.
“Well, well, well,” he said.
I stood up and turned around with a furrowed brow.
There he was, beaming a big, broad smile I had not seen before, his mouth half open. The steely intense gaze I had grown accustomed to over the prior weeks had changed. There was an unmistakeable look of desire on his face.
“That’s a nice little thing you got there.”
He had now uttered more words than he had in the first two weeks. He walked closer and brushed the knot of my sarong tie ever so lightly with his fingers. There was barely a molecule of space between his fingers and my clothing.
“I like this little thing.”
My eyes narrowed. It was as if Victor Krum had decided to ask Hermione Granger to the Yule Ball but had skipped past both the written invitation and the ball itself.
Inwardly, I recoiled in horror at what I’d unleashed. I remember hoping that my face was already beet red from the heat so that he would not see it turning so from embarrassment.
It wasn’t that I thought Chris was repulsive. Oh, no.
On the contrary, the only thing hotter than The Hilton that summer was Chris, with his disarming, swarthy good looks.
It was a moment of pure polarity. He was tall, dark, and handsome, oozing confidence. I was feminine, fair, and self-conscious. I felt overwhelmed by his strong masculine spirit, like I suddenly needed a fainting couch.
But I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of knowing that I felt all that. I considered him smug, self-satisfied, and arrogant. How dare he come onto me so brazenly? This guy definitely needed to be taken down a peg. Perhaps he should be slapped.
I was still shy at that age, and there was a subconscious modesty on my part, driven by the dual forces of a religious upbringing and the sense that it was not appropriate to get involved with a coworker, even if it was a temporary assignment.
And while I might have been shy, I was also very intense and strong-willed from an early age.
The unstoppable force had met the immovable object.
Something of all of this must have registered on my face. Chris shifted his gaze, perhaps to make me more comfortable.
“I’m going swimming. You wanna come?”
It was uttered more as a statement than a question.
“Uh. Yeah, ok,” I sputtered.
He had learned about a local swimming hole at Kinzua Reservoir. We drove in silence for 45 minutes. He parked and then I followed him down a fairly steep trail through the woods, descending a few hundred feet in elevation. At its base, the trail opened onto a large rocky outcropping which hung over the lake.
The evening sun was casting pastel pink and blue light on the water, which lay milky and undisturbed below us. There wasn’t a boat or a person in sight. It was still oppressively muggy, but the only thing marring the evening were a few mosquitoes that had followed us out from the woods.
The giant rock had to be at least 30 feet up from the water. He surveyed the scene, went to the edge and looked over, then came back, dropped his towel, and took a running jump.
“How is it?” I yelled down.
Chris didn’t answer my question.
“Jump in,” he said, shaking the water from his dark hair in a single bold move.
I stood there looking out at the horizon for awhile, just enjoying the evening.
“Well?” he said, a hint of annoyance in his voice.
I needed to work up the nerve.
I was an excellent swimmer. I had set a high school record in breaststroke and was a certified lifeguard. In fact, the next summer, I’d save the life of a coworker who misjudged the distance and his abilities, and swam out too far into that reservoir.
But I had quit the diving team after a near miss of the board with my head on a reverse pike. I wasn’t into daring theatrics, and I definitely wasn’t confident about jumping off this ledge.
There was also the awkward issue that my clothes would have to be removed to reveal more of my body and my swimsuit underneath.
“I don’t know about this,” I said, stalling.
“Just come on.”
“I don’t know.”
I could hear the irritation and impatience in his voice.
I didn’t want his prying eyes undressing me, so I moved away from the edge. I stayed out of his line of sight, removing my shorts and t-shirt and dropping them near our towels.
Then I took a running jump… and a big breath. The force of the water hurt the bottom of my feet as I jumped in. As I rose to the top I wiped the water from my eyes and I laughed. The water was beautiful and cool.
Chris smirked. He swam over.
“NO!” I shouted, laughing. I knew he was up to no good. He put his hand on my head and playfully dunked me under the water.
I emerged, spluttering, laughing more. I was a better swimmer than almost everyone I knew. He could drink like a fish, but I swam like one. He approached again but before he could grab me, I dove under him until I could see only a brown hole of light above. I was probably 8 feet down. I rose like a shark and grabbed one of his ankles quickly, yanking him downward as hard as I could.
We had finally broken the ice.
Somehow on the ride home the topic of a soap dish in the shower came up.
“That’s my face soap!” I said.
“Oh. Well, I’ve been washing my ass crack with that,” he lied, laughing loudly.
One day mid-summer we got a fun break from the dreadfully tedious counting of tree seedlings: we got to clear a trail with large, industrial-sized weed whackers. Afterward we ate lunch and decided to take a picture of ourselves mocking the safety glasses we were wearing:
There were a few brief communications after Chris and I parted ways that summer. He owed me some money for something, the details of which I’ve long since forgotten, and sent me a check. At the end of the written amount was a long curvy line, with a small flower drawn at the end.
What started as a bleak summer turned out to be a transformational time for me. Apart from the previous summer abroad, it was my first real experience in the “outside world” so to speak. And what I had found is that things were not exactly as I had been told or how I had perceived them at first. I found that Chris was a breath of fresh air. Because Chris was real. And while one might read this story and imagine a particular outcome, I learned over time that there was more to Chris than met the eye. He was a gentleman toward me, and there was a tenderness underneath his boyish, macho exterior.
Decades later, I learned that he raised a beautiful family and he was responsible for saving many lives, rising through the NY State Department of Conservation to the rank of Captain over a 23 year career, heading up numerous search and rescue operations. While I was only minimally aware of his career over those decades, looking back it all makes perfect sense from what I knew of the quiet, confident, and ambitious young man I met so long ago.
Chris was a man’s man. Not a man of words, but of intense purpose, competence, and action.
Chris was frequently annoyed by the obstacles that my nerdiness posed at drawing me out of my virtual world and into his physical one. So it’s only fitting that I’ve used plenty of words here to memorialize him. Just to annoy him once more, should he be out there watching and listening somewhere.
It’s hard to believe that Chris is gone. He is as young and as vibrant as ever to me in my mind’s eye, standing there as a bronze-skinned Adonis at the top of the rocky outcropping.
And he looks so youthful in these pictures below, taken only a few years ago, that it doesn’t seem possible that he is gone.
When I kissed Chris goodbye and pulled away from the Hilton for the last time that summer, Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ came on the radio as I rolled down Highway 6. A song about bad boys breaking good girls’ hearts, the feeling I had listening to it driving away is etched in my memory forever.
My entire life I had been the stereotypical good girl in that song. But now I felt like the bad boy. I felt free. The funny thing is, Chris didn’t break my heart back in 1997. It would take him 25 more years to do that. Instead, he had liberated it.
Rest in peace, Chris. I’m deeply saddened for your family and friends, and also for myself, that you left this earth before we a chance to reconnect. Your departure is a bittersweet reminder of how fleeting our lives are, and the amount of life and productive accomplishment you packed into only 49 years demonstrates how important it is to live them as fully as we can.
You will live in my memory as long I myself live.
Farewell, sweet friend.