Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Friends Not Forgotten

My family moved when I was eleven-years-old.
That’s a critical age. You are right in the middle of your social development. Where all those social connections you’ve created and skills you’ve developed for the past six years are about to bear fruit as you and your peers enter puberty. When the general society of the classroom would filter down into smaller, more closely knit groups of friends.
Only, that didn’t happen.
The last day of school, I stepped off the school bus and into the car. We pulled out of the driveway even before the bus had stopped at the next stop down the hill.
Socially speaking, I was back to zero at the most crucial point of my social development.
I always wondered what happened to my various friends and classmates. As it happened, a few years later, I had the opportunity to do just that and meet up with some of my old friends.
And I was in for one of the biggest shocks of my adolescent life!
We were back in the old neighborhood visiting family friends. I decided I wanted to walk down the road and stop in to surprise one of my friends, Billy. The last time I saw Billy was from the car window as we pulled out of the old driveway, watching him in the distance jump off the school bus and run into his house.
Back then, I would have just run through all the backyards to get to Billy’s house. Not anymore. No longer a local resident, I had to walk around yards and stay on the street. It gave me the opportunity to study the expansions the new family had committed to my old house. Aside from that, the neighborhood looked pretty much the same since I had left.
I got to Billy’s house and with a grin on my face, rang the doorbell. I could just imagine his surprise when he saw how tall I had gotten! A lot had changed over the years.
And I was about to find out just how much things had changed.
The doorbell rung, the smug grin on my face, I was ready.
Only I wasn’t.
The door opened, and it was not Billy.
The door opened and it was not either of his sisters, or his mother, father or any other member of his family.
The door opened and the person standing there was his girlfriend.
She stood there in a red, one-piece bathing suit.
A red one-piece bathing suit filled to perfection with an very feminine body, with all the curves and bumps in the right places. At the top of this teen-aged fantasy brought to life—virtually unchanged since the last time I saw her, long before puberty struck gold—was the head and face of my former classmate, Suzanne.
The shock of seeing someone who I knew as a little girl transformed into a young woman in an instant before my very eyes was more than my adolescent brain could handle. The sudden surging flood of hormones and trying to connect the face of the little girl I once knew with that body in that bathing suit overwhelmed my central nervous system.
My cerebrum overloaded and exploded.
My upper faculties went completely offline. I have no recollection of our conversation, other than it was very brief. I might have blurted out her name in surprise. I don’t know if she even remembered who I was. The ability to logically arrange consonants and vowels fled my mind, but apparently I mouthed out enough monosyllabic grunts and hoots to initiate some sort of communication. I hope my tongue wasn’t hanging out.
I finally came to my senses when I was half way up the hill on my return trip; I think my mouth was still hanging open. I really don’t remember much from moment she opened the door until I reached that point walking back.
They say the first impression is a lasting impression. I propose that the corollary to this is the last impression is a permanent impression. Of one thing I am certain: I came across as a complete moron. 
Despite that disastrous first time reunion, I actually enjoy running into people I haven’t seen for years. It’s always entertaining and sometimes humbling. Then there are some reunions that will never happen. Those lost to disease, violence or poor choices.
In one case, when I learned of his sudden end, it struck a particular chord in me.
There was always a competitive edge to our friendship. A sense of one-upmanship that we always engaged in when we got together. I didn’t learn of his death until many years after the fact. He apparently died just as he was getting started out on his own. Years of preparation and work getting ready for the future, and he was cut down even before he stepped over the starting line. All that effort he put into preparing for his adult life was wasted in an instant.
For me, that death meant no closure. No running into each other decades later to settle the score. It was like watching a movie where the credits roll before the story reaches its conclusion, or a joke where the punchline is never told.
It’s a tough competition where the winner is determined by who crosses the finish line last.
The competition now will have to be won by reaching new goals that I’ve set for myself. At which point, I can find a promontory with a great view, hoist a glass of aqua vitae skyward and say, “Friend, I did it. Better luck next time around!”
Then there are reunions of another kind to consider. Those where people never actually met before. We think this is a new phenomenon, where people meet over the internet and agree to get together in real life. But it has been going on for centuries, as long as humans have had extended communications through writing.
In the early 1970’s as the Vietnam War began to grind to a halt, people started becoming aware of the plight of the soldiers, and in particular those who were being held as prisoners of war. To heighten awareness of the plight of these soldiers and to show support for them, groups began selling bracelets printed with the names of POWs.
It became all the rage among young girls and teenagers. A number of the girls even in my class had some of these bracelets. I even remember seeing a few men wearing them.
My sister got one. To her, the bracelet was not something she got to be part of the trend or as a fashion statement. It meant a certain responsibility to her. She wore the bracelet until it broke. She then carefully wrapped it up and placed it in a keepsake box. She never forgot about him. Always in the back of her mind, she wondered what his fate had been.
Fast forward forty years.
She recently pulled out this keepsake box. A friend had commented about attending the funeral for a soldier whose name was on her memorial bracelet. That got my sister thinking about the man whose name was on her bracelet, put away so long ago. He had never been forgotten. The bracelet was merely set aside where it sat quietly while life moved on.
In years gone by, she might have looked at the name on the bracelet and wondered about the man it represented. To find his fate might have taken many phone calls and letters to various groups and organizations. Weeks and weeks of delays and slow communication. But today, we have the internet.
It didn’t take her long to locate his name and his story. He was a Lt. Commander in the Navy, and his plane had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile in 1967.
In my sister’s investigating, she came across a phone number. After giving it a great deal of thought, she decided a few days ago to make the phone call. The phone rang and the man who answered was the Lt. Cmdr. himself.
He spent six years imprisoned before being released in 1973. He came home. He eventually met a woman at a POW Memorial event, they fell in love and married.
The full story is far greater than just the above summary. And it is still unfolding at this moment. I feel it is better to leave the telling of the story to my sister at a future period. It is her experience and she can tell it so much better than I.
I will continue to look forward to those moments of coincidence when I happen to be in the right place at the right time and I get to run into someone I once knew.