Tuesday, April 17, 2012

old, old friend

through a peculiar series of coincidences, yesterday i came face to face with a friend from more than 30 years ago -- from 1st and 2nd and 3rd grades! we continued on through high school together, but not really together. not like we had been before the age of 10. we still saw each other in the halls of high school, but as strangers -- strangers with a secret.

the secret was, that we had once been very close. and it was hard to understand how that friend had morphed into this stranger. mike became very big, and heavily muscled, and stern. he wrestled, and walked very straight.

i didn't recognize mike at the youth theatre rehearsal (to which another long-lost classmate had invited me). if it hadn't been for Lara and Mike's daughter -- my fellow cast member -- pointing at him, i wouldn't have known it was him. in high school he was still rather narrow-faced, serious.

as we talked -- with an excitement strange in light of our subsequent decade of indifference (and inner wondering and confusion) -- his smile came back to me. and he said wise words. such as, that people don't change at all in their unique traits. he was referring to me, but i recognized that it was true of him as well: that soft, merry smile -- that smile lost to me in middle and high school, when we obediently went where the higher-ups told us to go academically -- struck a memory chord.

it was moving to hear him talk of his daughters, one of whom, fellow actor, curled long-limbed up on his lap at breaktime in pink tights and a purple plastic flower in her hair. he asserted that the idea that a second child will just divide the first child's love in half was a myth. 'you grow more love,' he said. he described the pleasure of sitting on the sofa, a daughter on each side of him watching a disney movie, smiling as he talked. he said he would like more children; maybe they will adopt. 'my arms are long,' he said, and the vivid phrase powerfully and simply called up the image he had just given me, of him sitting on the sofa, and reworked it. this is the poetry of ordinary life!

once we had talked of our post-third-grade lives, and struggled to come up with the names of those long-gone classmates, and revelled in a few crisp memories of fighting the Red Ant enemies on the school playground, or fighting the British in my back yard, uphill with muskets, we talked of history. and it came back to me that that was one thing we had shared way back then. i had voraciously read all the history books in the school library; he had too. and our play was steeped in the stories we read. even as proud Black Ants, as we got a bit older the Black Ant mythology took on American symbols. the fort we fought to defend in third grade we called The Alamo! one of the pictures i dug out of a box in the basement -- pictures he waxed nostalgic for -- depicted 'Ironclads of the Black Ant Wars,' no doubt drawn after reading about the American Civil War's iron ships.

he talked of the intensely spiritual experience -- pilgrimage, really -- to the beaches at Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. he marvelled at how he was able to stand in particular spots where he knew, from a photo in a book, or from the words of an old man who had been there and was returning -- something significant had happened 60 years before.

i realized Mike was politically conservative. that is just a simple mistake some people make, a superficial error in judgment stemming from lack of experience, from my view. but i realized, decades after we wrote each other off (do all kids feel that same confusion, to realize people once friends have changed to something else?), that he really was a man of integrity, feeling, and conviction. and i hope he also saw me again with the wisdom of an eight-year-old's eyes.

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