There have been times during my life when my brain got backed up and needed a plunger. Or maybe even a RotoRooter. Really. I would think about something and come to a conclusion that any sane person would toss out in two seconds.
An example? While in high school I decided that I had two “best” friends.
Obviously, it is impossible to have two best friends, but that didn’t matter to my teenage birdbrain. I decided I had two best friends, and that was that. And please do not ask me how I came to that conclusion. Have you ever looked into a teenage mind? It’s about as organized as a frying pan full of maggots.
I’m willing to bet that if someone asked you how you pick your friends you’d come up with an answer without much trouble. You’d mention this positive trait, that negative one, and so on. You’d say that some things are important and others aren’t, but the ones you mentioned are important to you. Right?
Why not? You’re a sane person, well past the maggot stage.
Which says I was in trouble back in high school. But then, who wasn’t? It seems to go with the territory.
Anyway, my two “best friends” in high school were named Sam and Richie. I am 80 years old now and they were about the same age I was at the time, Richie a year older and Sam a year younger. As luck would have it, they are both still around, but I have a clear conscience telling you about each of them.
What does “clear conscience” mean?
It means that Richie is a real name, but Sam isn’t.
Why is that important? Stick around a minute, Johnny.
Did Sam and Richie know each other? Yes. Did they like each other? No. Make... uh, make that, hell no! And the hate thing? On Sam’s side you can throw that in too. Sam hated everybody, Richie, especially. Richie, however, was too nice to hate anyone.
Did either of them know that I thought of the other one as my best friend? Are you kidding? I’m here, aren’t I? Healthy? Alive? With no visible scars? No signs of multiple broken bones?
Richie might have laughed about it, but not Sam!
Sam and Richie were complete opposites. Richie was the most soft-spoken, polite, caring, forgiving, ready to laugh — at himself or anything else — person I have ever known. Sam was the exact opposite. He was the most grating, obnoxious, self-centered S.O.B. on the planet. And that wasn’t just my opinion; it pretty much sums up how everyone in our high school class felt about him.
I can remember an odd thing about Sam — or maybe about me. It happened on a sunny afternoon in September 1946. I was a high school sophomore. School had been running for two or three weeks. I was sitting in English class, fifth row from the door, fourth seat in the row. The doors to the rooms in that high school were always kept closed, and had to be opened for someone to enter, so the door clicked when someone came in, and everyone looked up.
I heard the door click, looked up, and saw — believe it or not — the only person I have ever taken an instant dislike to. I saw a mass of dark curls, a pasty white face, pouting lips, flat nose, high cheekbones and dark brown eyes, above a stooped body and a swaggering walk combined with a pair of swinging shoulders.
I instantly hated the kid! He must have fit the image in my mind of everything I hated. I am not kidding. As he crossed the room from the door to the teacher’s desk he became my sworn enemy. If it had been a war zone, and I had been sitting behind a machine gun, I’d have cut him down in his tracks — regardless of uniform.
That was my first sight of Sam.
Within six months he was my (other) best friend.
I’ve already given you a thumbnail of Sam: He was grating, obnoxious, and self-centered. I’ll fill in a few details. IQ:168, highest I’ve ever seen. Attitude: “I am smarter than you are. If we disagree about anything, you are wrong. My taste is better than yours. So are my looks. So is my breath — or anything else I have. I will chase anything in a skirt, with just one goal, and with no respect for said skirt-wearing object whether I catch it or not. I love only myself. I will tell you this often and repeatedly.”
Toss in anything else you hate and you have Sam.
How did he become my best friend? Beats the heck out of me!
Now that I think back about it, I genuinely wish I had been sitting behind that machine gun. It would have saved me a lot of trouble. My relationship with Sam was like the one between a bird and a snake, except the bird is luckier than I was. The bird only gets frozen in its tracks by an icy stare and then slowly eaten alive. I was forced to live my 13th through my 23rd years in the glare of those two, ice-cold eyes.
Then I enlisted in the Air Force and moved 10,000 miles away. That helped. A lot. It took a while for me to relax, though.
In 1995 I found out the e-mail addresses of many of my old friends. I sent them all e-mails, except one — Sam. Life had taught me an important lesson: Some friendships are not forever.
I may be slow, but I learn.
But Richie? Richie Shellman and I were inseparable. We had a lot of fun with kiddish ideas. For example, we decided that since we were another G & S, as in Gilbert and Sullivan, or Garrett and Shellman, we should write an operetta, which we did. Richie wrote the music, and I wrote the lyrics. Never heard it? Lucky you!
Richie went to college when I went into the Air Force. A pharmacist when he graduated, he married his childhood sweetheart, a beautiful Polish girl nicknamed Bobbie. I knew her well. She should have been called Barbie because she was a living doll. Then Richie and I both moved at the same time, we lost contact with each other, and Mom could never find out where he and Bobbie had gone. I know now that they had a perfect marriage until Bobbie — tragically — died of a long, painful illness.
When I retired and computers came along, a 2-CD set with every telephone number in the country gave me a clue to where Richie was. As I said, I found him — and many others! — in 1995.
Father Richard, Catholic priest, Bethlehem, Conn.
It was a surprise, but it fit Richie perfectly. He was halfway to heaven when I knew him. We now keep in touch.
Sam? I have a mutual friend from high school who is living in California and is still in contact with Sam, who lives there too. Sam is 79, well, and still single, but has a mental problem.
It would be mean of me to point out that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s, so I won’t. Besides, it won’t hurt him a bit if he forgets everyone’s name; the only one he ever cared about was his.