The Permanent Quarterback of Stanford Place

Photo by the author

I recently learned of the unexpected passing of a childhood friend.  As a man in my 50’s, I suppose I’ve come to accept that this sort of thing is not exactly front-page news.  Still, there is a sense of loss and a lingering nostalgia which hovers nearby.

My friendship with him existed in its purest state when he and I were kids.  We both lived on Stanford Place, a few houses from one another from the time I entered 1st grade until we all went off to our respective colleges.  We’d drifted apart long before the college years, but up until high school, he was a prominent member of my social circle.  That circle in those carefree childhood days spanned no more than a block or two in any given direction beyond my house, but the epicenter was Stanford Place.

To say that we lived on that street is not entirely accurate, it was more like our world.

We undertook adventures in yards, sidewalks and in the street itself.  One particularly snowy winter, we built an igloo in the far reaches of his backyard.  It wasn’t an igloo in the technical sense of the word, but with the use of some borrowed wood-framed screens from behind an unsuspecting neighbor’s garage, at the very least it was a snow fort.  Our parents, who in those innocent times did not fear being charged with endangerment, actually let us have a sleep-over in the frozen fort in the dead of the North Jersey winter.  To the best of my recollection, no one lost any digits to frostbite.

He had brothers like we all did.  His parents were from another part of the world and were at once exotic and yet as familiar as any other families.  His mother remains the barometer against whom every other nice person I’ve ever met has been measured.

His family had a tree behind their garage.  I think it was an apple tree.  It had the misfortune of being low and climbable and was the site of many tree forts.  The tree forts all started with grand intentions and gradually turned into much more modest affairs.  The best fort of all wasn’t in a tree at all.  It was a large wooden crate which sat on its side on the ground beneath the tree.  I don’t know if it was the fruit of the tree or just bad luck, but there were always pincher bugs around.  As a sensitive child, I was petrified of most bugs and certainly of pincher bugs as they had those conspicuous pinchers hanging off their tail ends.  I’ve since discovered that the bugs are actually called “earwigs”; had I known that name as a child, I might have never left my house.  Say what you will about kids sleeping in a snow fort, but at least there weren’t any pincher bugs.

As we got older, the lure of tree forts and sleep-overs gave way to playing football.  Far and away the best lawn for football was in front of the home of one of the only girls in the neighborhood.  We’d play kill-the-guy-with-the-ball there whenever we suspected that she and her family were out.  Far more common were the games of touch football in the street.  The line-ups of which kids were on which teams varied widely, but never his position; he was always quarterback.  In the best of all possible scenarios for him, we’d have an odd number of players, and he’d get to play “permanent QB”, switching teams to always be on the offense.

We all had professional football players who we emulated.  Those were the days long before the marketing geniuses of the NFL made it possible for just anyone to have tons of pro jerseys and such.  The best way to show your loyalty to a player was to actually announce play-by-play as you scrambled around the street looking for an open receiver.  He was a big fan of the Los Angeles Rams quarterback named Roman Gabriel.  Gabriel was clearly well ahead of his time.  With a name like that, he should be playing now, not 40 years ago.  When I saw a Facebook photo of my childhood friend a few years back, he was dressed like a Rams fan.   I couldn’t help but smile.

The years ticked by, and, as I wrote earlier, we drifted apart.  It turned out that our town was much bigger than we had once realized.  We made friends in new circles.  We later found out that the world was even bigger than our town.  We moved on and never looked back.

Well, “never” may not quite be accurate.

I had occasion to visit my hometown a few weeks back.  No trip there is complete without a trip down Stanford Place.  Everything seemed out of scale, as if the whole long street of houses were replaced by smaller replicas on a shorter, narrower lane.  A house which had always been red was a different color now.  The people who lived in those homes seemed to be interlopers, despite the fact that they might have been there for decades.

If I had taken the time to stand in the street and close my eyes, I’m convinced that I could have heard the screams and breathless play-by-play narration of boys playing football and the melodic strains of their mothers calling them in for dinner on a warm spring night.  In my rush to visit the street and move on, I took no such pause.

In truth, there’s no reason to travel to the actual Stanford Place when I have it right here in my mind.  I could hear the voices as I typed those very words just now.  I could smell the fresh cut grass and find the laces on the ball to throw my best spiral.

My losing contact with him so many years ago was as inevitable as the changing of the seasons.  I just wanted to take a moment to savor the ability I still have to look back, no matter how much has changed, to recall how things were.

Rest in peace my old friend.

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29 thoughts on “The Permanent Quarterback of Stanford Place

    1. I’ve been stalking this site waiting for a comment since I posted the piece. It’s tough to figure out how well things will come across when they’re so close to you…I’m glad that you liked it.

  1. Dave – this is wondrous. I don’t have a lot of good childhood memories, My grandparents farm – which seemed so very, very huge – looked very small the last time I drove down that now-paved road. The pastures where we picked blackberries and got chiggers were unchanged, but certainly smaller than I remembered. It seemed to take hours to walk between the houses (yes! we walked everywhere even though we were out in the country) but I see now it is not such a great distance.

    I am sorry for the loss of your childhood friend. You are right, childhood friendships are so very pure, so guileless.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I have never met anyone who hasn’t experienced the shrinking of childhood places phenomenon.

      The process of writing was an interesting one, as the man who died was essentially a stranger to me, but we shared a childhood. I’ve been in a fog of nostalgia and feeling philosophical since getting the news.

      I think writing about personal ancient memories is really challenging, but somehow bordering on selfish. So, hopefully I’ve honored my friend and grown slightly as a writer.

  2. A moving and poignant story… Me and my friends on the block had our own “Stanford Place” too (Gadsden Court, in my case), with frequent games of football and “Tackle-Loco.” I grew up in Florida, so the 17-0 Miami Dolphins were my role models–but my friends were my real team. So here’s to David, Eric, David, John, Steve, Sam, and all the others…

  3. So nostalgic, well-told. It brings me back to similar days except our street played softball. We also played hide n seek at night, climbed trees, rode bikes, built forts. I think our generation marked the end of this type of neighborhood activity. Very special memories. Thank you for sharing and reminiscing. I also love the title and the picture. Well-done.

    1. Thanks. It was interesting to write and the feedback has been enlightening as well.

      As far as suffering for my art, I’ll have you know I actually went out and bought that football yesterday for the photo. I would have preferred a more scuffed up one, but…that’s the way it goes.

      1. Even so, it’s a great picture for the story. A lone football on the curb from long ago. I know you’re a wonderful artist so I’m not surprised you came up with this idea. And I really like that you took all that time to get the photo you wanted rather than settling for some stock photo on the internet. 🙂

  4. makes you feel your own mortality, what a nice tribute to a life long “friend” rest assured he shared the same thoughts about you and your gang

  5. My sentiments and memories of those days came rushing back in a flood of pure joy and appreciation of how the experiences and lessons of what our neighborhoods taught us are the foundation of what and who we are now in a deep and fundamental way. I couldn’t be more thankful that my own are nothing like the horror stories I’ve heard from so many others. Hardly anything special, just what it was.

    I happen to have lived just a few blocks down Grove St. from Stanford Place, but I didn’t know Mr. 1Point at the time of these reflections. The kids on our block had the glorious random fortune of having a center island park, large enough to have overlapping football and baseball fields. The baseball field was at the east end, near Grove St., sloping down from home plate (a pitcher’s challenge, indeed). The goal lines for football, the two biggest trees on the sides of the field, were maybe 30 yards apart if we were lucky. It seemed plenty big at the time. We did have ridiculous scores that would run the gamut of possibilities, all exhilaratingly exhausting, regardless of which side of victory your team was on.

    Except for my family, nearly all of these people who helped to shape me into what I have become are no longer actively present in my life. That in no way takes away from their significance to me and my life now. These memories are who I am. Thanks for stirring them up.

    For the readers, Mr. 1Point and I go back to high school. I have memories and stories from those days as well that spark reflection and nostalgia in a deep and profound way. We could go on for days recalling those times. For this I am most grateful.

    Though we haven’t much kept in touch, this piece is confirmation that where we grew up was nothing at all special, but it was better than good enough.

    Thanks, Dave.

    1. I’m touched to have played any role in stirring up some of those memories.

      This bit of time travel and remembrance has been priceless, and in some fitting way is a fine parting gift both from and for my old friend.

  6. A lovely tribute. Isn’t it funny how our childhoods are seared into our memories with branding iron accuracy, but what we had for lunch last week is easily forgotten. It sounds like you miss those days when life was carefree and when having a fort was the coolest thing in the universe.

    This is some nice work. I think if you expanded on it, you could really develop these memories into some interesting characters. Stephen King is the master of character development (and wildly underrated) and something in your wistful writing voice is reminiscent of his work in “It” or “The Body” (which was the basis for “Stand by Me”).

    1. Thanks for your kind words. Who doesn’t like being compared to writing Gods like Stephen King?

      My novel has migrated back onto the back burner of normal life and it gnaws at me to get back to it. Reading things like what you just wrote gives me all the more reason to get back to writing more seriously.

      Thanks again.

  7. This was a lovely tribute to both your friend and your childhood memories. I especially appreciated your perspective on revisiting your neighborhood and finding everything was smaller than you remembered. So true.

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