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.