Not long after our family moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, my mother made connections with another mom whose son was the same age. That afternoon, she drove me to their house on Golf Road across the street from the Meadia Heights Country Club. As a shy child, I was a bit anxious about meeting new friends. But within minutes of meeting the other boy, I liked him. He had an interesting voice quality, for one thing. His curly hair was quite different from mine, and we had a similar energy levels.
While the two moms talked, they sent us out to play in the backyard. My new friend invited me to try out the golf clubs his father had given him. He picked up an iron, gave it a quick swing, and struck me flush on the side of the head. Down I went in a heap. The pain was profound. My thoughts swirled and I saw lights. My new friend ran inside to report the incident and the two moms came running out to check on me.
“It wasn’t on purpose,” I think he said. My mom propped me up and looked at the goose egg lump growing on my head. “Are you okay, Chrissie?” she asked.
She knew I was a tough little kid used to taking lumps from roughhousing with my brothers. They fetched some ice and we sat for a little while drinking lemonade. Then my mom drove me home.
That knock upside the head didn’t slow our friendship down one bit. Pretty soon we were visiting each other’s houses daily. I lived about a half-mile from his place. The journey required that I pass through the golf course, and I took to running down the side of the seldom-used driving range to cut through the parking lot of the clubhouse to reach his house.
He became the best friend a kid could ever want. We shared all those rites of passage common to young boys. But most of all, we played games and sports together every day. He was a coordinated kid like me, and after that initial golf club incident, we played baseball and wiffleball, football and soccer, basketball and more. We wandered the woods around our house and spent long summer days swimming in the pool and cold winter days sledding on the golf course hills. We became closer than brothers in many ways, sharing our thoughts and fears, hopes and wishes. We made lists of the girls we liked and even shared some grade school teachers together.
He was a largely confident child, especially with girls thanks to having three older sisters who demystified the opposite gender for him. Plus he was handsome from an early age, possessed of curly hair that girls seemed to like, and he dressed well. His mother made sure of that. By comparison, I was nervous around girls but did manage to become a popular kid thanks to my playground acumen in sports. My friend was great support and filled with good advice about how to ingratiate myself to girls. But one bit of advice was tough for me to take. “If you want them to like you,” he told me. “You have to let them win now and then.”
“No,” I responded. “I can’t do that.”
Then one afternoon we were playing tag in the yard with his older sisters when one of them chased me down and pinned me to the ground with her knees on my shoulders. I tried to wriggle free but could not move. She was bigger than me and I feared that she might tickle me. Somewhere on the playground that year I’d learned a few bad words and before I knew what came out of my mouth I blurted, “Oh, fuck.”
She sat straight up with a shocked expression on her face. “Chris,” she told me. “That’s not cool.”
My friend came running over at that point because he’d heard what I said as well. “Yeah, you can’t say that around my sisters,” he confirmed. She climbed off me and walked away. The game of tag was over. I’d ruined the fun and felt ashamed. I’d also learned a lesson, that some breaches of etiquette really do matter.
Later that summer my friend came to me and announced that he’d made a big decision. He was going to live with his father in Florida for a while. Perhaps permanently. I knew that their family was the product of a divorce. I’d met his father once or twice. He was a stern man, keen on discipline. One time my friend got stuck high up in the apple tree we liked to climb. He was afraid to come back down, but his father walked out of the house and had zero sympathies for the situation. “You got up there,” he intoned. “You can get back down.” Overcoming both fears of his father and fear of heights, he did climb back down.
When my close friend moved away to Florida, I expanded my network and played with other kids. It wasn’t a horrible period because I made new friends, but I still did miss my closest buddy. A year later he moved back to Pennsylvania, and something about him was changed. He was more cynical, for one thing, and a bit manipulative in his behavior. I quickly learned to be cautious around him, but that part of him eventually mellowed out and we returned to something more like the guy I knew before. That was the first time I became aware of how much a parent could affect the demeanor of a child. It made me think about myself as well.
That next year, we both went out for competitive baseball and made the lineup on the Local 285 team that won the Lancaster New Era championship. The coaches taught fundamentals and it was a real honor to be on the same team for which my brother had pitched a few years before. I pitched the team to a victory in the critical second round of the tournament, but when the team celebrated at the local ice cream store I heard one of my teammates complain that I’d purchased both a cone and a shake. “He didn’t do anything to earn that…” the kid blurted. That taught me how shortsighted and narrow some teammates can be.
Following that tournament, my friend and I both received red championship jackets in honor of the win. His jacket stayed clean and nifty for as long as I knew him. Mine grew a layer of grime on the worn-out sleeves because I wore that damned jacket everywhere I went. The fact of the matter is that between us, I was the less sophisticated and refined. My liberal nature took me into the woods and I got dirty. Such is life.
And then our family moved to Illinois. At twelve years old I was forced to leave the best friend I’d made in the world. We sat together above the drop hole on the golf course and he openly lamented, “Why does everything I love have to leave me?”
I think he was referring to his family’s divorce as well as a recent breakup with a seventh-grade girlfriend who dumped him for another guy. At that age, emotions long and short mix together with equal force. I couldn’t blame him for feeling miserable. I did too.
A few times after the move I returned to Lancaster on visits, but the reunions were always awkward. My poor self-esteem drove me to react with competitive instincts toward him. We bickered over who’d become the better athlete, and one time I chose to stay at the house of my former neighbor, now a model-grade attractive young woman, and that served as sort of an insult to my former close buddy.
Years later when we both had kids, our paths crossed again when he moved to Glen Ellyn, Illinois. All I wanted to do was share some fun memories, but he was disinterested in that. He’d left some other parts of his life behind from a previous marriage and had married another woman that he loved and wanted to move on in life. He was successful and I’m not sure that he viewed me in the same light.
Plus our politics and beliefs seemed to have diverged as well. The last contact we had together was through social media. I don’t hide what I think about social justice, morality and liberality. Pretty sure he thought I was an idiot. LOL. He soon disappeared into the mists of late middle age.
I’ll always wish him well. Our gritty little lives were mixed in earthy ways back then. I remember one cold spring afternoon when the late snows were melting in the ditches. We wore no gloves but spent some time making ice dams in the ditches. We looked up at each other and he observed, “Isn’t it weird? Our hands are cold but they feel hot inside.”
Our experiences are often that way, counterintuitive at times. The tarsnakes of life.
I did try one more time to make connections by returning to a 20-year reunion with classmates from that era. One of them walked up to me and asked, “You know, I never saw you much in high school. ” I laughed. “That’s because I moved.” Another fellow walked out from the corner of the room and approached me. “You know what I remember about you? Even though you were popular, you were nice to everyone, even the less popular kids like me.”
That encounter meant more to me than almost any other I’ve had.
The Apple Tree
I will treasure memories of my close friend and I sitting together on the outreaches of a thick limb on the apple tree on his front lawn. We’d climb out there and talk about what really mattered to us in this world. We shared our experiences in sports, our efforts at making time with girls, and trying to figure out how to compete in this world without making enemies. We struggled to manage social lives that from the earliest age felt like a maelstrom of sorts. It was the late 1960s. Social change was in the air. Even young boys were not immune to the influence of the music, the shifting social mores, and social justice movements all around.
We were six years old when John F. Kennedy was killed, followed by his brother Robert. And we understood the portent of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Something gravely amiss was going on in the world. It formed my liberal instincts from an early age. I don’t know what it meant long-term to my childhood friend. From all that I can ascertain, he became increasingly conservative as he aged. And that’s his choice. There’s a fair chance that had I stayed out East, we might have grown apart due to competition over worldviews.
Willing and unwilling competitors
To that end, I had to wrestle my friend in the 7th-grade tournament organized by our gym teacher Mr. Davis, who happened to be both a gymnastics and wrestling coach. He set up a tournament bracket and called us out of class to wrestle against each other. I’d worked my way through the opening rounds by pinning several classmates. Then it came time to wrestle my friend. We faced off and I beat him on points. His heart wasn’t truly in it, and neither was mine, but I still deeply wanted to win and made it happen. Then I went on to beat a much tougher opponent to win the overall title.
The only other time that my friend and I fought each other was on the playground. I was in that weird period of trying to prove to everyone that I was not a sissy. At that point, I was a bit of a fucked up kid, and I was challenging everyone and anyone who crossed me. One day I picked a fight with my best friend and while he put his fists up, he danced away from me mockingly and declared, “I don’t want to fight you!”
But I kept on picking fights, so he offered to serve as a referee for a fight I picked with another classmate. We met at the far end of the driving range at an appointed time. When my friend said “Go!” both of us combatants threw quick punches. I hit him flush in the nose and he hit me hard with a roundhouse hook to the temple. It hurt like hell, and we both quit immediately.
“There,” my friend pronounced. “That’s over!” Then we all three went to play basketball.
Competition drives us to do strange things in this life. Competition between friends is just as real as competition over anything else. Later in life, I counseled my own children, “Even your friends will try to control you at times. Friendship is a power struggle quite often.”
What we all need to learn from life is how to challenge competitive instincts positively. By the time I became a runner, that outlet was vital for my mental health on many fronts. But it was the competitiveness of that early friendship and the trust gained that defined so much of my life, and I have that best friend from childhood to thank for that. I wish him well, wherever he is.