We shared B.B. guns, sling shots, and pockets full of firecrackers and never fought amongst ourselves. We liked the same girls and fought the same bullies. Our teachers loved him, girls liked him, boys envied him and I admired him. He was smart, athletic and handsome in 1967 and had been my best friend for almost five years. We were 12 years old and inseparable. Together we slept over, slept out and sometimes didn't sleep at all trying to figure out life's mysteries:
"If sex is so great why don't they smile?"
"Did Jesus ever laugh at jokes?"
"Do you think Superman ever used his X-ray vision on pretty girls?"
"Do you think Betsy Pool is good looking?"
It didn't bother me that he was bigger, faster, stronger and better than I in almost everything we did because we always had fun. His report cards were straight "A's" and he helped me with my homework. By the fifth grade he was planning to be a doctor. I wanted to be 007.
One day his father made us a pair of stilts. In his backyard we launched ourselves on them from off a stepladder. I learned quickly what it felt like to be taller than Wilt Chamberlain. For some reason he could only manage a few fast steps forward before falling. It's hard to teach someone something that you could just do yourself without knowing exactly how you could do it. But between friends you tried.
On summer vacation he told me that his father got a new job in Michigan and were moving. We accepted it like adults and then spent our final days together hunting, fishing and playing with explosives. On our last day we sat on my front porch swing for a long time until he said, "I have to go now." I wanted to tell him to "have fun, take it easy and good luck" but it all sounded silly in my head so I said nothing. In 1967 twelve-year old boys didn't shake hands, hug or kiss each other good bye. Instead, I gave him a $1.69 hunting knife as a going away present. So he wouldn't forget, I etched my name on the length of the blade. He smiled a long hard smile looking at it. "Nice penmanship," he said rubbing his thumb over the scribbles. It would be 37 years before we would see each other again.
We met in the lobby and hugged each while patting each other's back hard the way straight middle aged men do today. He's no doctor and I'm no secret agent man.
He was sorry about my Dad and proud about my brother. He still had the newspaper clippings I mailed him stored away with his autographed knife. Our correspondence trickled to a stop when what we had to say wasn't nearly as nice as what we tried to remember.
Life got hard when his father moved the family more times than a family really should. Each time they settled down he had to pack and start over. By the time he was sixteen he had had enough and refused to leave another high school. He stayed in Ohio working on a farm at less than minimum wage baling hay. Sports ended a few years earlier when he splintered his right leg in football. The leg healed shorter than the other and now has a pin in it. He was out of work, school and money when his father left his mother for another woman. She had a nervous breakdown soon after. She later developed Alzheimer's and died the prolonged death that seems to come to those without memory or much understanding. In his home her son remained the patient and dedicated caregiver until the end.
Attending college part-time it took ten years to finish with a degree in chemical engineering. At 46 he married the girl next door twelve years his junior and started a family. Happily, he's fit and trim now at 50 and expecting their second child in August. Jogging is a passion.
Eight hours after our first reunion we shook hands three times saying good-bye sounding like a couple of kids. When he smiled, I saw the exact same smile I saw that last day on my front porch. I imagined that same bright boy with the world by the tail before me. Only now I understood what life had in store. "Try and have some fun," I said. Because fun was all we ever had, even on his father's stilts.