Saturday, July 28, 2007

Lost Friends

I've been pondering the nature of friendships lately. Some I've not contacted in a while, but I know we will take up where we left off. Others I see fairly frequently, and we know where we stand. There are those that have drifted away for one reason or another, and neither of us have tried to continue.

Annie came into my life when we were sixth graders. Her rural school had been closed and she had to go to the larger school in the area. They called it consolidation in those days. We were seated alphabetically, and both our last names began with "B," so perhaps we were destined to be pals. She was a charming cute brunette. We hit it off right away.

Later, we decided we should "go with each other." This was the grade school version of girlfriend/boyfriend. She said she needed to check with her mother. That seemed reasonable to me - it didn't occur to me that I had to have my parent's permission, but this was all new. She returned with the bad news - her mother didn't approve of me. Apparently I wasn't good enough for her daughter. I was a farm boy - this wasn't the only time a bias against farm children would affect me. About a year later, Annie was able to "go with" another of our classmates. His father worked for the Big Insurance Company. He was good enough for her daughter. At the time, my father could have bought and sold his dad several times over, but just living in town was enough for her mother.

We were still friends - and we both made our way through the battlefields of high school. Annie was a cheerleader, but the politics involved, particularly with the girl who "ran" our class, ruined it for Ann. She eventually quit cheerleading. We graduated, and since both of us were from good Catholic families, found ourselves enrolled in the local Catholic college.

My life had taken a bit of a turn - I had been introduced to marijuana. I wasn't smoking a lot of it, but things had changed for me. Annie came to me once wanting a joint - she told me later it was her first, but at the time that was not what she claimed. I gave her one - she and a girlfriend smoked it. She and I were both getting into "partying."

We both ended up dropping out - I ended up in the workforce, and she went to cosmetology school. Her parents set her up with a pretty big shop with six or seven stations. Annie was a businesswoman now. She got married to a roughneck, much to her mother's chagrin. Her youngest daughter married beneath her - only the eldest married according to mom's plans. Annie went on to have two daughters and it was rumored that she had also picked up a cocaine monkey on her back. Eventually, she got divorced from Phil (who didn't seem to remember child support), and her mother kicked her out of the shop. Annie had married another man who didn't meet mama's standards.

I kept up with her by having her cut my hair. Phil had been a controlling bastard, and the beatings didn't start until the end of the marriage. I didn't know this until much later. With Mannie, the beatings started immediately. I didn't know for sure, but it was sure easy to tell he was a jealous husband. I wondered if he had a job - he was at her beauty shop just about any time I came in for a haircut. He looked at me sideways plenty of times - he was trying to intimidate me. In the body language of men, I more or less ignored him, which didn't make him happy. He also knew I could kick his butt, so he left me alone. I just hoped Annie didn't get beaten because of me - I never knew if I might have been the cause of a beating. I was her friend, and he was just going to have to deal with it.

She eventually shed herself of Mannie - it was difficult, cops were called, and much drama ensued. Annie always liked a lot of drama in her life - even after her mother threw her out, she still came by to have her daughter cut and style her hair. Her kids were always in and out or on the phone, with a dozen problems. Her husband of the moment would be on the phone, with some problem or another. Or a friend. Ann lived in a maelstrom of conflict, and she thrived on it.

She married again, and had a baby boy. This husband didn't beat her, but he was a hopeless alcoholic. It was going to be different this time - he was younger, and his parents had money. This was going to be The Guy. Oh well. She had moved to his town, and ended up moving back. She ended up married again, this time to a major druggie.

Of course, I wasn't supposed to know about most of this. Annie was always bright, fresh and optimistic about her current hubby or plans. Our birthdays are two days apart - I started making it a point to take her to dinner or lunch for her birthday every year. We talked quite a bit about our love lives and adventures. We talked about her mother. Her little sister had married for love, and it had (and still does) worked out. Little sis was a difficult person. She has a business, but she is hard on the help. Her older sister married according to Mom's wishes. She married a scion of the local Large Cattle and Grain Company. He was an alcoholic, and she wouldn't get out of bed some days. The local restaurant would deliver burgers and fries so she wouldn't have to cook. Older sister obviously wasn't happy. It was also rumored that the Scion was unfaithful. I told Annie that at least she was making her own decisions - doing what her mother wanted was no guarantee of happiness. Annie told me she looked for someone just the opposite of her last hubby - she thought that would make a difference. I told her she was looking for excitement, and that generally meant trouble. Someone boring would seem less likely to be an abuser than the out of control party animal. Someone boring like me, I joked. I wasn't serious - I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we weren't meant for each other.

She thought I was exciting enough the day I took her for a ride in my 'Vette. It had been cold for quite a while, and this was the first warm day. I took the t-tops out and away we went. I was showing off - I hit an on ramp at a rather high rate of speed. The major problem with this was that I hadn't scouted the ramp first. In cattle country, a long cold spell followed by a warm day means the cattle haulers thaw. This means lots of fresh, slick poo in corners, as it will spill out. I hit this stuff and the car began to slide. Had I nailed the power, I'd have drifted through and looked like a hero, but I panicked a bit and lifted, then hit the juice. I was originally turning right, and the rear stepped way out to the left, then it came back to the right so hard it turned me backwards. During this time, while I was sawing at the wheel and trying to keep my car away from road signs, I caught a look at Annie. Her hair was blowing wildly in the breeze, and she was smiling and laughing. I was expecting abject terror, like any normal person would display. Like I said, Annie liked living in a maelstrom. I came to a stop, and the motor had died. It was about half flooded, but I got it going and got the hell out of there.

Once, complaining about one of my failed relationships, she told me something that has helped me to this day. She told me that I couldn't hide my intelligence. She said a lot of women would be intimidated by my abilities. Now, I wasn't the valedictorian or salutatorian of our class - I never studied that hard. However, any abilities test like the PSAT - well, I blew them all away. That ability didn't do me much good without decent study habits, but I can and do pick things up quickly if I want to learn it. It got me into college, anyways. I was the uber-geek of my class, plus the tallest and biggest as well. Plus, Annie thought I was the smartest as well. She wasn't the only one, but her opinion did matter to me.

She got married again to Jay. Jay worked for the city groundskeepers. He eventually got canned, because he was stoned or drunk on the job one too many times. Annie wasn't doing much better - I could see she was too thin, and her skin didn't look good. She had lost the place where she had been for years - she couldn't pay the rent anymore. Things were unraveling for her. She moved to a rathole - and God knows she did try to clean it up. I was present a few times when her landlord would drop in threating to kick her out for non payment of rent. It wasn't much, but she couldn't make it.

Her mother died, and her father bought her a house. I happened by one day and saw her older sister and Annie in the yard. I hadn't seen the older sister in years. I stopped to chat for a while.
Later that night, I got a call from older sister. She was worried about Annie. Had I noticed how thin she was? Yes, and I had noticed how her life seemed to be going downhill. She also had a blemish on her face that wouldn't heal. Older sis was about half afraid Annie might have AIDS. Older sis had heard rumors that Annie might be turning tricks to pay for her drugs.

Wow. I didn't know about that part - I was certainly concerned about her, but I'd seen it before. Older sis's hubby, the scion, got on the phone as well. It certainly seemed whatever demons they had been fighting had been vanquished, and they were very worried about Annie. They couldn't talk to her - she would argue vehemently. She denied doing any drugs at all, but she would refuse to get her blood or urine tested. They were at the end of their rope - would I try to talk to her? It would probably mean the end of our friendship, but maybe, just maybe, she would listen to me. If Annie found out they asked me, that would mean no more familial contact. Annie wouldn't let them in her life at all, so I promised to keep my mouth shut.

I used to debate in high school. I can argue. I should have had the legal pad, taken notes and used a flowchart, and had my evidence in a little box when I started on Ann. I requested that we talk alone, but as soon as it became clear what the subject was, we moved into her main room, where some of her druggie pals and her stoned hubby were. I was informed that she hung out with the more disreputable types because they were actually better people than the hoity toity types I apparently involved myself with. She was thin and emaciated because she didn't eat, since she was poor. The blotches on her skin that wouldn't heal were none of my damn business. I should try to run a business and raise three kids and have an unemployed husband to support - I wouldn't look so hot either. And on and on and on. She was primarily concerned with who sent me.

She tried and tried to winkle that out of me. She thought it was someone I used to work with at the Post Office. I just kept saying I wasn't telling. She didn't consider it was her family, and I wasn't going to let her know. She kept telling me "I just disproved your theory on that subject, Jeff, do you agree that I'm not on drugs now?" I told her she didn't disprove anything, and I didn't believe her. Her stoner pals were highly amused. I finally left. The tears for my lost friend didn't fall until I was away.

Another friend and I have discussed our druggie past and our struggles to leave that party behind. He introduced me to the joys of getting high. Shooting bottle rockets into the sand pit and watching them explode underwater while high - that was pretty cool. Beer and booze and pot fueled off road adventures, late night drag races, bar hopping and parties until dawn - we did them all and more. However, no one tells you about the people you end up being and the low lifes you associate with. No one tells you about the multiple overdrafts and running out of food because you didn't have any money. No one tells you about the great times you'll have when a dealer fronts you some goodies, only you don't have the money to pay for it and you owe him because you didn't sell it, you used it up. Plus so many more advantages you never hear about.

He and his wife quit - she had to "get dried out" and he quit on his own. He is a successful businessman who owns a bulk fuel distributorship and a trucking company. He was upset with our former friends who hadn't quit "the scene" and were upset with him and his wife because they didn't join in on the fun anymore. So they weren't invited to the parties and were snubbed. I know I dropped a lot of my "friends" from those days and made a bunch of drug free new ones. He and I feel that we Made It Through The Fire. The fact that we met on the other side and found we were still friends only made it sweeter. We bemoan the loss of our kindred spirits still in the fire, or on the other side.

For it is our own decisions that put us in these places. No one forced me to do what I did. No one forced Annie to do what she has done. Until she takes responsibility for her decisions, she is doomed. As a friend, I did the best I could. She was lost to me, but actually, she was lost to me the moment she smoked that first joint. She was long gone by the time of our little talk. I've even beaten myself up a bit about that - but it would have been someone else if it wasn't me.

It's been several years - and every year around our birthdays, I remember. I say a little prayer for her, and hope she is well.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Fickle Finger of Fate

A post my friend sent me today jarred a memory.

Growing up, death never really touched me. Yes, living on a farm I saw the natural ebb and flow of life and death - the calves that didn't make it, the chickens that ended up in the freezer. The exuberance of the young ensured that I would live forever. One of my grandmothers died during this time, but she was elderly and infirm, and this was expected. It hurt to see her go, but she hadn't been herself for many years. I was more relieved than pained. It didn't reach out and touch my heart. Maybe I was a cold hearted kid because the experience didn't reach out and touch me, but I think it was more the lack of experience and understanding that age would give me.

Mike (not his real name) was a classmate of mine. He wasn't very smart - he was held back a year back in the times when schools actually did this sort of thing. He was from a poor family that went to the same church I did, so I knew him pretty well. Mike looked taller than he was - he was lanky and lean. He wore a lot of hand-me-down clothes from his older brothers. He always wore clodhoppers - those durable leather lace up boots with yellow soles. His light blonde hair was parted on the side, and a shock of his bangs were generally in one of his eyes. I'm sure his mother and sisters were his barber.

Our high school was a separate building about two blocks from the "new" grade school, where the cafeteria was. When the bell rang for the end of class at lunchtime, Mike would head out at a dead run for lunch. He liked being first in line. We figured he was pretty hungry, too. His parents were just that poor. If seconds were offered, Mike took advantage. Like I said, he was lean. He wasn't fast or quick - some of my better fed buddies could outrun him easily, but he was dogged and determined.

We were sent to the principal's office as well. Mike had saved a place for me close to the door in the class before lunch. It was taught by our football coach, who ate metal rods and spit out nails. Another classmate took my spot. We tossed his books to the back of the class so he'd have to leave MY seat to get them. Coach didn't find any of this amusing, and sent us to The Office. The principal didn't get to swat us - Coach wanted this one for himself. We had to remove all contents from our back pockets. The board was long, wide and flat, drilled with air holes to increase swinging speed. We bent over, and Coach grabbed a couple belt loops and squeezed, to tighten our jeans against our butts. He slightly lifted us so we were on our tip toes. Whack! Only once, but it was enough. Mike's swat sounded a bit more clunky than mine - he had a skinny butt. It stung for most of the hour, and sitting in class was no picnic that day.

We eventually graduated and Mike went to work for one of his brothers who owned one of the gas stations in town. Mike put in seven day weeks, both opening and closing the station. This was one of the old full service stations where they pumped the gas, changed oil, batteries and tires and did minor tuneups. Mike wasn't too happy with his brother. I was more fortunate - I "went off to college" and my part time job was in a discount store.

Mike discovered beer, as did I. Times were different - if a local cop caught us, we were generally escorted or told to go home. If they caught us out later, then we were in deep trouble, but most of us had the sense to listen to authority. Mike had a night off, and went partying.

South of town next to the river is a small, deep pond - The Sand Pit. Sand for road gravel had been extracted from there for years, and it was deep with serious undertow. It was part of "The Route" where we cruised late at night. Mike was cruising after the pool hall closed. He passed out and drove into The Sand Pit. He never regained consciousness and drowned.

He was the first classmate to go, and he went far, far too young. It was a humbling experience - after all, we were all going to live forever. Unfortunately, he was proof of the fallacy of that particular idea.

At the funeral, his older brother - the gas station owner - bawled his eyes out. My roomie - another high school buddy, and I went together, and we both had the same thought: "Bet he's upset that he'll have to hire some help now." Mike wasn't working for him anymore. He sort of resigned.

I think of Mike once in a while - his was the first death that really reached out and grabbed me. For instance, if I was driving way over the speed limit in the middle of the night, it actually occurred to me that I could be killed. Before his death, not so much. I really doubt that our Creator arranged Mike's death so I could learn this object lesson, but I do believe it was one of the minor benefits. Now my body reminds me time is finite. The gray hairs, the sore muscles, the occasional twinges in my hands, and the other hallmarks of growing old serve as constant reminders that the impudence of youth has a price.

But, growing old is part of the deal. We all know this from birth - maybe we can deny it for a while, but the knowledge is always there. What isn't always there is the idea that fate can seal the deal suddenly and without warning. Literally, a bolt of lightning from the sky could burn you on the spot. Or maybe it is a drunk driver hitting someone else head on. The cause isn't as important as the effect. Savor the existence we are granted.