I was going to write something glib and funny this weekend. Then I got word that an old friend from grade school died suddenly in an accident.
I would be doing John an injustice if I tried to give a biography of him. Honestly, I didn’t know the man in full. We were good friends from the time he moved into our neighborhood in early grade school until high school. After that, we went to separate colleges and rarely crossed paths in adulthood.
Facebook is a wonderful thing, though: A neighbor of mine recognized John’s name on my Friends list and said that she worked with him occasionally and that he visited our town on business. I invited him over to my house, and he obliged me with a 2-hour visit. We reminisced, but mostly we spent the time filling each other in on the last 20 years of our lives and finding out who we became after we grew up from who we used to be.
If I had more time with him, I would have told him about these particular things that stand out in my mind: First, when we were in 6th grade, I somehow convinced my mom to let me walk to John’s house every morning before school so we could hang out. (John was a latchkey kid, so I don’t know if he even bothered telling his dad that I was doing this.) We’d listen to his record collection (Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” was a particular fave of his at the time, before he got into Led Zep) or watch TV, but what John really wanted to do was call into a radio station to get the DJ to play a joke of ours on the air. He’d talk about doing it on a daily basis. I was too chicken to do it, so one morning John dialed the number to the station, actually got punched through to the DJ, and promptly handed the phone over to me. I stammered through possibly the lamest joke the DJ had heard that month (something about a dog getting shot in the foot, then later tracking down the shooter in a saloon and saying, “I’m looking for the guy who shot my paw.”)
I learned from John that not everybody shares the same worldview as me. Walking home from school once, he asked me, “If you could change your name to anything in the world, what would it be?” I didn’t even have to think about it; I blurted out, “Bruce!” John looked at me like I was an idiot. “BRUCE?!?” he yelled. “That’s worse than your actual name!” (In my defense: Bruce Lee, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Jenner, Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern.)
One summer, John, a few friends, and I decided to build a clubhouse behind his dad’s garage. We spent weeks riding our bikes to a lumberyard, buying as many two-by-fours as we could afford, and balancing them on our bike handles for the ride back to his house. The sawing, the hammering, the sweat equity, and the lack of parental supervision made us feel all “Lord of the Flies.” I remember we didn’t finish the project, and that his dad had to take over for us.
On one of those working days, John thought it would be a great idea to cool ourselves off by filling up gallon milk jugs with cold water from the hose; then we could climb a ladder onto the garage roof and dump the water on each other’s heads. (Did I mention the lack of parental supervision in our childhood?) John’s only rule was, “You have to stand under the whole gallon of cold water; no chickening out!” I convinced him and our other friends to go first; I got to dump the water on John’s head. He screamed throughout. When it was my turn, he gleefully climbed the ladder. The problem with this was that it wasn’t like the Ice Bucket Challenge that was so popular in 2014, with one quick dump and you’re done. The stream from a milk jug takes about a full minute to empty on one’s head. (You can see where this is going.) I chickened out. “Not fair!” John yelled. “I didn’t chicken out!” Yeah, well, perhaps I taught him a lesson about fairness in life. Or just that I was a chicken in most things.
When I think about the stuff that we got into as we moved on to junior high, I cringe. Say this for helicopter parenting and overstuffed schedules for kids these days: I know for sure that, because I rarely let my son out of sight until high school, he and his friends weren’t opening up a manhole cover, dumping gasoline down it, and flicking matches in it to see what would happen. (Do not try this at home.) John was there when we tried our first cigarette (sixth grade) and when we convinced some random stranger to buy us alcohol for the first time at a liquor store (eighth grade; we didn’t know what to ask for, but I remembered Bruce Willis in a Seagram’s Golden Wine Cooler commercial, so that’s what we got).
We had one fight that I can recall. John was a competitive kid who you loved having on your side but hated playing against. He was a great goalie and the biggest Chicago Blackhawks fan that I’ve ever known. Baseball was my sport growing up, along with running (which wasn’t really a sport for me but something I did to get away from the neighborhood bullies with much success). Strangely, it was a volleyball game in PE that put us over the edge. I don’t know what in particular led us to start taunting each other from the other side of the net on this day (keep in mind that I was so short that I could barely reach the bottom of the net, let alone attempt a spike at the top of it), but my team won a game and I razzed John (completely out of character for me and for him), and then his team won and he got after me. After we won the tiebreaker, John had had enough of my being a sore winner and called me some names, one of which was “shrimp.” Again, why on this day of all the days of my life that I’ve been called a shrimp that I went over the edge, I can’t say, but I flew at him in such a rage that our PE teacher, who had never seen me so much as raise my voice at another kid, stood there in shock as John and I wailed on each other for half a minute. He only separated us when we both looked at him mid-fight and asked, “Are you going to break this up before one of us hurts each other?”
One thing John and I had in common as adults: we both grew tired of the daily grind of a desk job. I left my job to become a stay-at-home dad, and John followed his passion and spent the last 8 years as a dog trainer. Chris Jones, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, wrote an article on Sunday, April 19, 2015, and touched on the challenges we face as we grow up and older: “…the dreams of youth have a way of clashing with harsh reality in middle age, when many of us feel like we are what we are, have done what we can do and struggle to see the way forward. Our novelty has worn off. Our interest in positive change has a way of dissipating.” In other words, it dawns on those of us in middle age that the dreams of our youth will go unfulfilled. We also start to see people our own age pass away too soon and, sadly, we find ourselves standing at a wake, telling our friend’s wife and kids how sorry we are for their loss.
There is so much to be disappointed about in life. It’s not fair, people chicken out, our friends fight us, clubhouses go unfinished. When we are children, our parents and teachers tell us, “You could grow up to be the President!” But even those people who do grow up to be President find that half the country hates them and that their grand visions will most likely go unfulfilled.
We all want to know that our lives matter in some way big or small. Well, John mattered to me. When someone we know dies, the standard warning we have for those still living is, “Tell your family that you love them.” I tell my wife and kids I love them daily. I tell my dad and my siblings I love them every time we end a phone conversation. Maybe, though, I should be extending that circle out further. So yes, tell your family you love them. Reach out, though, and tell your friends that they matter to you. Tell your neighbors that they make your life richer. Find an old teacher and tell her that she changed you in ways that no one else was able to. And please, track down grade-school friends on Facebook or however you can and tell them, before it’s too late, that they mattered to you, and still do.