Back when I was a preteen, I met a kid named Jerry Davis, who soon became one of the best friends I ever had. Jerry and his family moved next door while I was in the eighth-grade and we did a lot of crazy things together over the next few years. I’ve never mentioned Jerry to you before because what happened to him is not something I like to think about.
But today, out of love for an old friend who got less out of life than he deserved, and out of a sense of duty that impels me to tell you a story I believe everyone needs to hear, I’m going to tell you about something that should never have happened.
Back when Jerry and I were teenagers, if someone looking for him had asked me what he looked like I’d have told him to look for a solid ball of muscles wrapped in a big grin. That was Jerry. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on him. He was the healthiest person I ever met, and he was never without that big grin of his.
From the day I met Jerry, his heart was set on playing high school football. He found out I owned a good football, and before I knew it he had dragged me over to the Williams Street Park in New London and made me kick a football back and forth for four hours without a break.
Boom! The football rose into the air off the tip of Jerry’s foot and I scurried around, trying to catch it. Then, the minute I got my hands on it, he was yelling at me to kick it back. But he didn’t want me to just kick it any old way, and he especially didn’t want me to kick it right to him. The park was filled with tall elms, and the space between them was limited, but Jerry wanted me to kick the ball as high and as far as I could without putting it up in a tree, at the same time aiming it as far away from him as the spaces between the trees allowed.
The harder I made it for him, the better he liked it. He ran me ragged. Boy, do I remember that first day in the park! I must have kicked a football a million times. When we finally quit — only because it too dark to see — I was so pooped I could hardly walk.
But not Jerry. He bounced along, laughing, grinning, twirling the ball up in the air and catching it, as happy as a kid can get. And when we parted he said, “Tomorrow, okay?”
He didn’t have to say, “Tomorrow some more football.” With Jerry it was a given. Luckily for me, “tomorrow” was Saturday and my family had made plans to go to Rocky Neck State Park, where I whiled away the day alternately swimming in the cool Atlantic, sunning myself on warm sand, and pigging out on clams and fish Mom and Pop had caught and cooked right there at the beach.
But Sunday morning? I slept upstairs in the attic in a nice, wood-paneled but unheated room. Sometime early in the morning, Mom called up to me. “Tommy! Your new friend is here.”
So I ate a fast breakfast, we kicked the football. And I ate a fast lunch and we kicked the football. And I ate supper and...
Nope. No football. I got lucky. I had homework to do.
No football Monday through Thursday either. On those days Jerry worked, except when he was in school or in bed. His family believed that kids should work — hard! — and contribute most of what they made to the family. So Jerry had a job that kept him busy before and after school in a factory of sorts in what had been a large commercial garage. They had machines in there that cut, bent, shaped and punched holes in iron and steel. Jerry’s job was to sweep up the cutoffs, shavings and punched-out bits of steel and put them in bins. He also carried and stacked finished parts.
I went over there one day and I could not believe the heavy weights he lifted. No wonder he was one ball of muscle. It’s a good thing that company only operated as many days a week as they had to run to get the orders finished. If they had run seven days a week. poor Jerry would never have had a day off.
Jerry was the youngest member of his family. He had an older brother and three older sisters and whenever I was over at his house they were always on his case. He hated schoolwork or any kind of paperwork, but they never gave him a minute’s peace unless he made A’s and B’s.
When we entered high school, Jerry wanted to play football, but his family gave him a terrible time about it. “You need to work, not play games,” they said. In the end, though, it didn’t matter. Jerry went out for the team, but he didn’t make it. Too short, they said, and too light. And get this: The coach told him he was too muscle-bound to play football or baseball.
Did that wipe the smile off Jerry’s face? It did not! He went out for track. And though he wasn’t as fast on dashes as some, he was a great long-distance runner. He used to chide me into running with him on weekends and evenings. He would leave me in the dust after 300 yards, disappear out of sight, and come back later, still grinning — and hardly winded.
Jerry’s family never got off his back about needing to earn better grades so he could go to college, which he secretly told me he was never going to do. They were also on him all the time about getting a better job and earning more money, but he beat them at their own game. He got a job in a nursery that paid well and there he discovered that he loved nothing better than getting down on his hands and knees and tending to growing things. After a week in his new job he told me he had found his place in life and from the way they loved him at that nursery I knew he was right.
When Jerry graduated from high school his family kept on his back to go to college and “earn a proper living.” He told me they wanted him to get a business degree, but he grinned and told me, “They can argue with me all day. No one’s getting me in college.”
Then my National Guard outfit was called up for Korea, I left town, and was shipped overseas to Iceland. I came back in 1953, but I could not find Jerry. His family had moved, where to I never found out. Even the people at the nursery didn’t know.
Eleven years later I was stationed on Okinawa. Lolly and the kids were with me. A letter came from Mom. In it was a notice clipped from the New London Day. It told how Gerald K. Davis, 35-year-old graduate of the University of Connecticut and employee of a local insurance company, had died of a massive heart attack while driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
I have never had a worse shock in my life.
Poor Jerry. A kid with a heart so strong he barely puffed when he ran eight or 10 miles, a veritable ball of muscle, the healthiest person I have ever known. Dead at 35.
You know what killed Jerry Davis? His family!