I had the best friend ever growing up in Pennsylvania. Our family moved to Lancaster when I was five years old. Within days, my mother somehow met up with a woman whose son was the same age as me. We were introduced and left to play together in the back yard. We were taking turns swinging a golf club when his nine iron whacked me clean in the skull.
That raised a big lump and I was dizzy for an hour. But two days later we were back playing again. We wandered the smooth fairways of the golf course where he lived on the seventeenth hole. One afternoon when we were both twelve years old, a giant rainstorm swept up from the Atlantic and dumped inches of water all over Lancaster County. Undergrounds springs bubbled up through the fairways and we stripped ourselves bare of clothing and engaged in the world’s largest Slip and Slide. His sisters came out to watch and laughed at our bare little asses shining wet and unashamed.
That day symbolized the earthy manner in which we engaged in everything we did together. Heartfelt confessions of love and fear in the giant apple tree out front of his yard. We learned about girls together, and I trusted his instincts because he had sisters and was unafraid of how girls thought and acted.
He was there for me the evening that we were supposed to attend a school dance in middle school. I’d gotten a huge bump on my head from baseball that day and was terribly self-conscious about it. Frankly, I was terribly self-conscious about everything in my life, much less showing up at a school dance with an inch-long bump on my forehead.
Assuring me that it would not matter, he lent me one of his favorite shirts or some other favor to boost my confidence, and away we went. The dance went great.
All those sexual awakenings and confidences that are part of going into puberty we shared together. Some guy on the playground told us how to masturbate and that evening, we each gave it a try. Of course, it was fantastic, and from that point on it became part of a regular routine that many young males seem to adopt.
But we still knew little about the female body, and it was not until we were wandering about the yard one summer evening that we passed by the window and saw his older sister masturbating in her room. That was a complete mystery to both of us. But we didn’t stay too long out of a combination of fear and respect.
Girls and sports occupied most of our time. We shared gym classes together and participated in the fitness tests administered by our disciplinarian physical education teacher. My friend had stronger arms than me, and excelled in pullups whereas my skinny legs covered two miles in the 12:00 time trial on the track. As close as we were as friends and athletes, our destinies began to separate through these realizations.
Yet we both shared the triumph of playing for a baseball team that won the Lancaster New Era Tournament. That was the pinnacle of achievement in youth baseball in those parts. I came in to pitch in the second game, a tight contest that we won 8-6 after stomping the competition 26-0 in the first game of the tournament. I remember the murmurings on the bench when the other players worried that I might not be able to hold my own in that important game. But I was one determined kid who knew how not to lose. And so we won, then took the championship a few days later.
But by the time I was twelve my father decided it was time to move to Illinois. That meant my relationship with a best friend was going to be broken off. We sat together on a golf tee overlooking a drop hole, and he mused, “Why does everything I love have to leave me?”
His parents were divorced and his father was a hard, hard man. One year he’d gone to live with his father down in Florida. When my friend came back he was a hardened child for sure. It took a while for the cynicism to wear off. I like to think I had a role in that. We rode our bikes everywhere we went, or trotted the half mile across the golf course to reach our homes. That activity was a healing force in both our lives. I remember wanted to spend time with him so much that I’d sprint from my bus stop through the parking lot of the golf club to get to his house before the bus made its loop out of our neighborhood and over to his place on Golf Course Road. The bus driver knew that I did this, and never once told on me. He could appreciate the bonds of childhood, and his liberal attitude about that was not lost on me.
When our family moved to Illinois, I vowed to come back to visit my friend back in Pennsylvania. That first year we did make it back. But it hurt to come home to the place that had formed so much of what I believed, and what I had become. There was an entirely new life to explain out in Illinois, and the competitive nature we both shared… forced us into angry comparisons over whose baseball team was now better.
Then he asked me a difficult question that I did not know how to answer: “Do you still beat off?”
I admitted that I did. He told me, “I quit that.”
It was four or five years later that I got to return to visit again. By then we were both in high school. Our lives had diverged in even new ways. I became a cross country runner because there was no soccer team our in Illinois. My friend became a solid defender in soccer, and played baseball in the spring. Our school had no baseball team either, so I competed in track and field. Again, we had gone our separate ways.
Through college years, we completely lost touch. There was no Internet, only long distance phone calls. And letter-writing just didn’t cut it.
So it wasn’t until twenty years later that I heard he had moved to a city near my home in Illinois. I called him up and asked to pay a visit. He quietly agreed that we could come over.
Yet once again, I had a lump on my forehead, this time from some strange microbe that I’d picked up while camping in the Upper Peninsula. The doctor would ultimately treat it with both antibiotics and a minor surgery. It was gross, and I felt self-conscious coming to see my old friend with that nodule above my eyebrow.
So it was an uncomfortable visit from the get-go. His new wife was his second marriage. The first marriage had somehow dissolved after three children were born. He had gotten married early, and something did not work out. That’s all I could get out of him. He did not want to talk about it.
Nor did he want to discuss our childhood adventures all that much. He was disinterested and disengaged from the past in general. His new life was his foundation. The old life was gone. Perhaps he had been born again?
But I was not satisfied. With my writer’s mind, the past was interesting at both a subjective and objective level. I treasured the liberalities of our adventures together. We’d shared tears and joys. That seemed important. I tried sharing that with him, but the past was a closed book. What he appeared to take away from those experiences was resolve not to repeat what he might have considered weakness or lack of resolve.
And we did not talk again for another ten or twenty years. Then he showed up on my Facebook feed as a possible friend and for a while, we were connected. But he clearly did not share my politics or my interests. He is conservative. I’m a liberal. So by his choice, we went our separate ways again. I recall a press clipping my brother sent to me when I was in high school. There was a picture of friend with a quote about some issue with high school politics. I remember being surprised at his viewpoint even then. How could this guy with whom I grow up, with whom we shared so much in common, suddenly demonstrate such rigid thinking? I realized at that moment that had we stayed in Pennsylvania, it is very likely that my close friend and I would likely have grown apart. It happens. And has happened with other friends in life.
So those are his choices, and I respect them. I’ve come to realize that the reason many people go separate ways in life is chemical. One of my blog readers and a close friend keeps reminding me of this. You can’t change people. It’s hard-wired. No amount of logic or argument will make them think any differently. You might as well try to convert a pig into a raccoon. It’s not going to work.
What I do know is that something is truly lost when people go their separate ways on grounds of arch reasoning or denial. All I ever wanted from my childhood friend was to talk about playing baseball and hanging out in the apple tree. But for reasons that I cannot comprehend, that was no longer possible with my childhood friend. What were the reasons? Was it pride in the present that made looking back seem silly? Or was it a source of shame of the past and deep personal pain that drove away the will to recollect? What about that harsh treatment by his father, and his belief that everything that he loved would someday go away?
I learned through caregiving for my own father that some misunderstandings are the product of the very personal pain faced in his life. My father lost his own mother to cancer at age seven. His father then had a mental breakdown as a result of losing his farm and livelihood during the height of the Depression. All those reactions are forgivable if you know about them. Then it’s possible to move forward in life and reconcile the past to the present. But it takes work, and the will to accept that you might not be perfect. Ever. Then you can grow in your perspective and build tolerance for the flaws of others, and in yourself.
But much of the world seems to fix on rigid ideals and nothing is allowed to interfere with that carefully constructed view of life. It is both a coat of armor and a house of cards. Some people go separate ways within themselves and make the decision to leave the other person behind. Create a “new person” and don’t look back. Conserve those beleifs that support your present. Don’t put up with anyone that tries to call up the past, or question the logic of your worldview.
The Bible shows Jesus trying to call people out of these traps of selfhood. But instead of listening to that call of love and the freedom that comes with it, people adopt rules by which they run their lives, and try to impose on others. To these folks Jesus issued stern warnings, calling them a “brood of vipers” and “hypocrites” for creating a world dependent on such rigidity, or laws based on literal interpretations of scripture. This was the real prison on earth, not the Kingdom of God.
That form of rigidity has its price. I don’t expect to ever have contact with my childhood friend again. And again, all I wanted to do was discuss those days playing catch, swimming in the pool and doing jacknife dives of the low board to splash the lifeguards. Those were good times. The Good Old Days. Childhood. And there’s nothing wrong with talking about that. Sure, there were some earthier aspects as well. But those things were just as real. Deal with it.
So, sometimes while I’m out running past a golf course on a rainy day and that familiar smell of wet fairways wafts through the air, it takes me back to that day in Lancaster when my friend and I tore off our clothes and ran naked to slide on the perfect grass bubbling with clear water from an undergrounds. And we were connected to the earh, and truly alive.