There’s a line in the Stephen King novella The Body (the movie version was called Stand By Me) that I think is absolutely true, at least from a boy’s point of view. It comes toward the end of the story when the narrator is giving a post-script about the lives of his friends. He says “I never had any friends later on in life, like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
The guys I grew up with were amazing–these two little blond-haired and blue eyed boys named Ravi and Paavo Laird. Their mother was a dyed-in-the-wool hippy named Tracye, and the house they lived in was this messed up whirlwind of clothes, musical instruments, and records (yes, records) all over the floor, and piled on every availabale surface. They had a yardful of animals, and only organic and unfiltered products in the refrigerator (and that stuff was a lot harder to get in the seventies).
But the best thing about them is that they were always there for me when I was growing up. When I felt like I had to flee my own house (which happened fairly frequently), or when I really felt like I needed to be with people who got me, and seemed to like me without condition or expectation, that was where I went. It was just the three of us from the first grade until junior high school, when a fourth boy joined our group–a tall, skinny kid named Ben Wise. That was when our group really began to gel together, and go deeper into things, or at least as deep as you could get for a boy.
A word or two about that. It’s different with boys than girls, I’d imagine. We are not so “touchy-feely.” I am now, of course, but when I was younger, I was pretty much your typical boy in what I liked to do, certainly more so than any other time of my life.
And it was a different time, to be sure. We did play video games, but in arcades, rather then holed up in rooms. We would ride our bikes or hike around Santee. We’d watch movies (lots of them), and we’d play football or basketball. The older we got, it tended to be the latter a lot more frequently than the former. I’ve never really been much of an athlete, though I did (and do) like sports. But the time from late elementary school through high school was the closest I ever came to actually being in shape.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget those endless days, afternoons, and evenings with the guys. Not always playing sperts, but just spending time together, talking about girls, and movies, and music, and life. We did take those conversations onto the courts and fields, too, and I think those were the best times for me. Talking, laughing, sweating, swearing. It was awesome.
And we also got each other into things we might not have otherwise done. I never thought about singing, but Ravi got me into choir, and men’s chorus. Ben, too. I broke my arm in P.E. in the 9th grade, and ending up taking drama instead of typing because my arm was in a cast–I got both of the Laird brothers into that. It got to the point where it almost seemed like we could read each other’s minds, or at least that’s what some of the parents speculated.
My father died from a heart attack when I was 16, almost at the end of my sophomore year in high school. It happened on a Thursday, I think. But maybe it was Friday, because there wasn’t school the next day. Anyway, when I got off the school bus, and my sister was waiting to take me to the hospital. I ended up not getting in to see him before he died, and it was pretty tough. My father and I did not have a close, loving relationship, but he was still my father, and I loved him as best I could.
I got home from the hospital, and rather than call my friends and tell them what was going on, I just went to my room and listened to music. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, didn’t want to hear the inevitable platitudes from people. I fell asleep with headphones on, listening to Bruce Springsteen’s The River.
My bedroom window was right next to the front door, and at a little before 7 the next morning, I heard a knock at the door. I peeked out my window, and saw my three friends standing in the doorway, with Ben holding a basketball in his hands.
What the hell? It was freaking early…
I quickly dressed and went to the door. I just stood there for a couple of seconds, kind of glaring out at them.
“Thought you might want to shoot some hoops,” Ben said.
I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to do anything, really, but I nonetheless found myself walking the half mile or so down Prospect Avenue to my old junior high school, and the basketball courts. I walked in front with Ben, and the Laird brothers followed behind. I found out later that the three of them had had a feeling something was wrong, and that the brothers had prayed about it. Then they collectively decided the best thing to do was come over. They were right.
We got to the school, and just stood around in the key for a few minutes, no one talking. And then I just said it.
“My dad died.”
They all said they were sorry, and it felt good to hear them say it without any of the awkward things attached people always say when someone dies. Then Ravi took the ball from Ben and loped up to the hoop for a quick lay-up.
“Let’s play,” he said.
We played two-on-two that day, and we played our asses off. To my surprise, I was almost good that day. It felt good to not think about anything but running, passing, and shooting. I hardly thought about my dad at all, and to the guys’ credit, they never said anything when I started to cry. We just kept playing.
I never told them, but I think it was that morning that I first really felt love for anyone besides my family. I loved those three idiots, though I would have died myself before telling them that. I wasn’t a chick, for heaven’s sake. I think now that friendship is the truest, most pure form of love. And there is nothing later in life like the friendship you experience as a boy. Your friends really are closer than your brothers in most cases, certainly in mine.
There are another couple of lines in The Body that also applies to me. Gordie is talking about the other two people that went on the hike/journey to the body with him and he talks about friends passing in and out of his life like busboys in a restaurant. That’s so true. But I believe that the ones that mean the most stay with you in some way.
Later, Gordie is crying over the sudden death of Chris, the boy he was closest to. He writes: “although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, I know I’ll miss him forever.”
I can understand that, and I pretty much feel the same way about the guys. Although we started to scatter during my senior year of high school. One day in January, the same day the shuttle Challenger exploded, we found out Ben–who had graduated a semester early so he could join the Marines–had taken his own life. As a group, we never really recovered from that, and I have to admit his loss colors my life to this day. So we began to do our own things. Ravi and Paavo began playing music, and continue to this day (Ravi plays in a local jam/fusion band called Tapwater).
I see Ravi play occasional, and sometimes Paavo will be there, too. We have a good time talking and catching up, but then it’s time to go. And that’s OK. I’m not the same person I was 20 plus years ago, obviously. But when I think about them, the picture I see is those three assholes standing on my doorstep after my dad died. I think about basketball. I remember how much they meant to me. And I think with immeasurable gratitude of the friends I have now, who I also love.
check them out sometime….