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Monday, December 9, 2013

Old Friends

The other day, we met two old friends.
My Lovely Bride was chatting with a gentleman following a Pearl Harbor ceremony. I slipped up to the table, re-introducing myself to the man. Soon, another elderly gentleman joined our small group.
It was during a brief lull in the conversation that one stated he and the other man have been friends since the second grade.  Always the historian, I soon discovered they had gone to a local parochial elementary school, then to the old high school in the center of a neighboring town.
I listened to their accounts of military service, the funny growing up antics. And….my thoughts wandered to my old friend Bill.
Bill and I met in first grade, at Mayfield Center School. I recalled seeing a “new kid” standing nervously in the doorway to the classroom.  As the desk beside me was un-occupied, I waved my hand, and shouted “Hey, kid! Here’s a seat!” The boy moved across the room and plopped into the hard wooden chair. We introduced ourselves, and a lifelong friendship began.
From that time on, until setting off to our respective colleges; we were pretty much inseparable. Bill didn’t live near us in Mayfield; his family lived in Mayfield Heights. But, to small boys, this was hardly an obstacle.
We would make elaborate plans to get together on Saturdays. We followed a strict protocol. We wouldn’t just say “Hey, let’s do something on Saturday.” That simply would not suffice  
Decorum dictated we phone one another during the week to ask the other over. This way, our parents would be hoodwinked into thinking this was a spur of the moment invitation. Decorum further dictated the one whose house was to be the battleground that weekend, would call the other. So structured was our ritual, the call had to be made AFTER the Flintstone’s program had ended, which was just prior to bedtime. I think that was Thursday evening, but don’t hold me to that.
Calling during the program was a major faux pas. By calling after, we could use the guise of discussing Fred and Barney’s most recent predicaments. Then, like a bolt out of the blue, the host would say “Hey, ask your Mom and Dad if you can come over on Saturday!”  How could any self-respecting parent turn down such a gracious invitation?
I have to  report, we did have an approximate 90% success rate.
Invariably, we would plan our rendezvous for early Saturday morning. This necessitated the visitor’s father getting out of bed early on his day off, making certain breakfast had been consumed, proper attire for the weather was being worn, and the accoutrement all small boys require was loaded in the car.
This entailed all the gear required to play Army. Since both our Dads were veterans, it seemed only logical that we spend our free day from school saving the world from fascism and tyranny. Into the car would go the toy rifles, pistols, the army-navy surplus store canteens, the web belts, on and on it went. My Dad always commented it took less time to equip his Sherman tank for battle than to load me up for a day at Bill’s.
Upon being dropped off by a bleary eyed father, the visitor would be greeted by two other bleary eyed parents. We could never understand why our families didn’t share in the excitement of two boys getting together to play Army all day in the yard.  Obviously, they never experienced the joy of seeing a sun-baked dirt clod mortar round explode in a cloud of dust against the side of a Nazi tank, formerly known as the garage.
As the shadows lengthened, a strange, almost beatific look would creep across our parent’s faces. It was only a matter of time before we associated this calm, glazed-eyed expression with the soon arrival of the visitor’s driver.  With thanks to the host parents, and apologies for spilling our milk for the 90th time, we trundled to the car and the debriefing of the day’s adventures.
As it is written, when I was a child, I thought as a child…now I have put aside childish ways. So Bill and I grew and matured.
(Don’t question LB on this though. I am sure the woman will just bore you with all manner of exaggerations about how I have NOT put aside childish ways. )
Playing Army progressed to venturing forth in the field and woodlands of Ohio, in search of game. Saturday mornings became journeys afield. The toy guns had been supplanted by shotguns, the Army surplus gear replaced with the latest hunting gear.
While we partook of many adventures, the most memorable took place on December 31st, 1970.  It was a typical early Winter day in Northern Ohio. A recent snowfall covered the fields and woodlots with about 4 inches of white. We worked the edges of woodlots, fields, and corn stubble, in search of ring-neck pheasants.  As the day wore on, there was a woodlot we had not worked.
Venturing into the trees, we paid scant attention to the sound of cracking ice beneath our boots, merely assuming there had been puddles of standing water.  When I stepped between two oak trees, suddenly the floor dropped out. Suddenly, I was up to my neck in frigid water. Bill was about 30 yards from me.
I yelled “Bill, get my gun!”, as my old Harrington and Richardson shotgun was bobbing away in an open spot of its own. Always one to please, he turned to help; and went in up to his hips. 
Being the ever resourceful one, I attempted to climb out using the old trick of spreading my weight across the ice. Someone had forgotten to clue the ice into its role, which was to remain solid and stable. It took a perverse delight in breaking away, plunging me repeatedly face forward into the freezing water.  
We then resorted to the traditional firing of three shots in rapid succession, and calling for help.
After what seemed an hour, two hunters arrived. Seeing our predicament, they employed the Time honored method of finding a long branch and pushing it toward me, then dragging my soggy self out of the water
Bill and I stood there, dripping and wondering what in the world had happened. We hunted that lot last fall, and there was no water there. We were informed that over the course of the Summer beavers had decided that flooding the woodlot was an excellent idea.
Being beavers, they set out to do what beavers do. Felling and maneuvering trees and shrubs, they dammed up a small stream; thereby creating a wonderful habitat for beavers, and a surprise for hapless hunters.   
We then set off for the car, which was approximately 30 miles away. By the time we reached the parking lot we were clad in icy suits of armor. With each step, our frozen pants would crackle, chunks of ice fell from our coats, and our teeth sounded like castanets playing a marimba.
Fumbling with the keys, I got my old Mercury Cougar started, the heater set on High. We stripped down to our frozen long-johns, tossing our gear in the back seat. Steam from thawing clothing was soon covering the windows as we set off for home.  
Our mantra was a simple one. While Bill clasped his arms about his torso, and I hunched over the steering wheel, one would exclaim, with a shuddering voice “So c-c-c-cold.” This in turn would be answered by the second exclaiming between chattering teeth, “So c-c-c-cold.” I said it was a simple mantra; not necessarily a meaningful mantra. It did, however, help to keep our minds off the fact various pieces of our anatomies were in imminent danger of freezing off.
The following fall of ’71 we set off to our respective colleges. I to Bluffton College in Western Ohio; Bill to The Citadel in South Carolina.
Marriages came, children came, and adult life came. Eventually my Lovely Bride and I returned to the home town area; Bill and Kathy settled in Eastern Virginia, in Metro D.C.
Just a couple weeks ago, Bill was back in Ohio. We got together at a local hangout, LB and a classmate from High School joining us.
As we clinked glasses across the table, I realized I was not looking in the face of a retired Army Colonel; I saw a mélange of images; an uncertain new kid in a classroom door; a gangly teen running cross-country, a friend who refused to leave a friend in need, a young groom beaming as his bride came down the church aisle, a proud new father.
I saw something immeasurable; a life-long friend.

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