When asked where I’m from, I say Pennsylvania. When asked where I was born, I say Utah. Left out is a three year period between ages six and nine when my family lived in Kentucky.
My time in Kentucky was….how do I put this?
We lived on a street with a kid my age at every other door. In the summer, rain or shine, I ran outside in the morning waiting for my friends to join me. We played until sunset. Food and sleep happened inside. I lived outside.
Nothing was ever planned. Time was simply filled with youthful spontaneity that in one moment involved cracking open Hot Wheels cars on the curb and in another engaging in a pretend war using the kinds of fireworks now banned in all fifty states. We held elaborate kickball tournaments, climbed trees so high I felt closer to death than birth, and rode bikes through the local mall parking lot to Crawdad Heaven.
There was a playground nearby, a creek with tadpoles and clay, a secret sidewalk, and a dumpster my good friend Dubby and I inadvertently set on fire. Everything a boy could ask for.
There was twelve year old Chris the scientist who showed me my first live viewing of the rings of Saturn through his telescope, my best friend Jason who was everyone’s best friend, Gary the shoplifting coach who wore a skirt and lipstick to school in third grade, Dubby the delinquent who once tearfully confessed a sin to me and then knelt in my backyard to offer his first prayer seeking forgiveness, and the kid who from his living room couch aimed his father’s gun out the window to shoot at a man changing a tire, missing him by a couple inches. Some of these not-even-ten-year-old kids smoked Marlboros and drank stolen beer under the nearby bridge.
We moved to Pennsylvania when I was nine.
I’ve wondered what kind of men these boys have become. I would love to know.
I’ve wondered what kind of man I would have become if we had stayed. I’m fine not knowing the answer.
Our street in Pennsylvania had more traffic than the one in Kentucky which made it an impossible gathering spot. Even if it had been, there were no kids even remotely my age nearby. To demonstrate further, everyone at school was picked up by a yellow bus. I was picked up by a white van.
In those early Pennsylvania years, I would ride my bike for blocks looking for a street with kids like the Kentucky street I dearly missed. That kind of street had to exist, if not on this street, that one. Or that one. Or the one over there.
One warm Spring day I found that street. I had been on an exploratory bike ride clocking miles on my newly installed odometer. My home was only a half mile away but across a busy road and off the beaten path. I felt a surge of excitement when I saw a multitude of boys huddled together in the middle of their street in the same way my friends and I had assembled daily in Kentucky. I had discovered a new land.
As I pedaled toward the young flock I raised my hand to them in peace and coolly yelled out a disarming, “Hey!” Their neighborhood was outside of my school district, so their faces were unfamiliar, just as the faces of Jason and Dubby had once been when I was the new move-in. These boys were a little older than me, just as Dubby and Chris and other great friends in Kentucky had been. Still, my bike slowed as I noticed their expressions turning sour.
I heard a rapid-fire fury of words between them that I couldn’t understand and then I heard a very audible, “Let’s kill that kid!” They jumped on bikes and raced in my direction.
First instinct: shock. Second: can’t we talk this through?
Never quick to assess a situation, I watched their approach. 50 feet away. 40 feet. 30 feet. Okay, it was confirmed: I was the bullseye.
Third instinct: self-preservation. Fourth: flee.
I turned around my used-up bike with a tire going flat, riding it faster than it could go. There was no time to glance backward but I swear I could see their front tires in my periphery. I neared the busy road, beginning to feel the rumble of traffic as each car – car – truck – car passed in front of me 30 feet away then 20 feet. I weighed my options: death by car or pummeled by an angry adolescent mob?
In a split-second reckless decision, I made an attempt to shoot across traffic without turning, swerving, or dutifully stopping to look both ways.
All I remember is landing miraculously on the edge of the other side of the road, turning around, the sound of horns echoing in my ears, the traffic whizzing by.
The wild pack stopped on the other side, filling my buzzing ears with violent profanities. I continued home.
In passing months and years, every time I delivered the Springfield Sun near that neighborhood, I rode cautiously.
At about twelve years old, one lonely overcast summer day, my heart made my knees fall to the floor.
I had prayed from my soul before but those prayers originated from needs, losses, mistakes or trials that were different than this one. This prayer stemmed from a need in a part of the soul I had never known. I had never prayed because I was lonely.
“Father,” I remember saying softly, surprised at how truly pathetic I sounded. “I need a friend.”
I wasn’t sure what to say next. I saw in my mind the moment my family, friends and neighbors finished loading the truck on our short driveway in Kentucky. All of my closest friends were there: Jason, Dubby, Phillip, and others whose names have since disappeared from memory.
I couldn’t believe this was happening. Somehow I held back tears through my throat as I embraced each of them. I tried to be funny. We all smiled for a short time. It was really hard to be funny and really hard to smile. Harder still once I climbed into the station wagon that would follow the moving truck 600 miles to our Philadelphia home living room where I would later kneel on the hardwood floor with elbows digging into the couch asking aloud with my deepening twelve year old voice,
Was he there? Nothing happened.
My friends stood at the driveway as I sat in the car waiting for Mom to pull the lever from Park to Drive. Dad powered up the truck which began to slowly hiccup forward. I tried not to make eye contact with my friends. I had already said goodbye. It was over. “I’ll be back,” I think I had earlier promised, a promise a nine year old has no business making.
Our station wagon headed east down St. Christopher Drive, following Dad in the truck, away from that little home I would never forget to the Pennsylvania home where I would offer the prayer while feeling my breath hit my clasped hands as I begged,
“I need a friend.”
I faced forward in the car until about halfway down the small street when I had the urge to turn around and see if my friends still stood at my house. No, I will not turn around, I told myself. They’ve probably already forgotten we’re gone, I told myself. Our new life in Pennsylvania will be even better than it was here, I told myself. We’re moving to a home with stairs! I told myself. And a basement! I told myself.
Yes, but I still had the urge to turn around. Just as the car hit the stop sign at the end of St. Christopher Drive, as we waited to turn right on our way to the state I’d never seen to the home with stairs and a basement, I turned around, back toward my soon to be former street and former home and former tree and former secret sidewalk…and friends.
There they all stood, back where I had left them, standing in the middle of my street, facing our direction. They were all kids, and they were waving their arms slowly over their heads, making it perhaps the saddest, sweetest parting I will ever know. They were waving goodbye.
I waved back but I knew I was too far for them to see me. My throat gave way. In an instant the vision of my beloved friends was blurred by tears, but it hardly mattered. We were turning toward the highway. My friends were gone.
It’s been exactly thirty years and that wonderfully sad image is still seared into my mind.
In my Pennsylvania home, I continued to plead to a God who wasn’t there with me. I prayed but saw nothing. I prayed but felt nothing. The loneliness was still there. I had nowhere else to turn. I couldn’t create a friend. I hoped that God could. I believed that God could. Not knowing how else to say it, I repeated again,
“Help me, Father. I need a friend.”
My eyes opened. I ascended from my knees to my feet. I was embarrassed for being so ridiculous. But I realized I was now standing. I stood facing the front window and the future, the memories behind me, waving.
Just then – no – exactly then, I noticed movement at the corner of the window. I saw a blue shirt.
The blue shirt was worn by an 11 year old boy. He approached the house. Something within me stirred. A friend I had forgotten knocked at the front door. He wanted to see me.