Friendships often begin in the most usual and mundane ways. Perhaps through a simple introduction from a third-party or a chance encounter in some circumstance or at an event. Sometimes, you just have to take the initiative at an opportunity to step across the room and shake a hand.
When you’re a kid, it can happen at school or being teammates in a sport or similar activity. On occasion, friendships begin in more unique ways.
Consider, if you will, how I met my best boyhood friend, circa 1961, after my family moved into a home on Kensington Avenue in the sprawling Gotham that is Evansville, Indiana. He was a year or so older than me; it was spring and I was amusing myself in our hardscrabble backyard doing nothing when I noticed him crawling across the fence and heading my way. I was faced with the spontaneous decision if he was a friend or foe. So, I ran at him took a swing that missed, then sunk my fangs into his lower left leg, through his denims.
After my long-suffering parents apologized and his widowed mama sorted it out and became acquainted, this kid and I became fast and endearing friends over many years. His name is Markle (a family choice), but his name is, and always shall be, “Mark.”
There doesn’t seem a time from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, when our two lives weren’t entwined. He was a grade ahead of me at Harwood Elementary School and was always quick to give me the low-down on teachers’ quirks and expectations for the next school year.
Summers seemed endless; we rode our Sting-Ray bicycles with other boys, popping “wheelies” and skinning our knees and elbows. We clutched our quarters on sizzling, summer afternoons waiting for the ice cream dude and destroyed entire ant colonies using magnifying glasses.
And we talked and shared stories. You might find it odd, but I seemed to exceed at embellishing such tales. Like the time I happened to take a trip of my own to Memphis and wound up in an office building. While I was in the waiting room, Elvis Presley walked in and took a seat. After a few moments of silence, the “King: finally blurted out to me: Whaddya’ doin’ here, boy?
Mark never entirely bought that story because I couldn’t fully explain how I made that trip on my own and what the hell I was doing there in the first place. But it made for a good laugh over the years. I forget how I responded to Elvis, but he probably wasn’t listening any way.
My friend also was one of great athletic prowess, though I don’t recall he ever played on an organized team. We’d gather on the street to play baseball with my older brother and other neighborhood kids and you could always count on Mark to swat the hide off the frayed ball. In later years, we knuckled down with fellows down the street to play tackle football on a side fairway at the Evansville Country Club. If my amigo was running the ball or chasing you down for a tackle, you were a goner.
Slowly, we grew up and discovered guitars. Music would be our passport from the middle-class. Formed a couple of garage-band groups over the years with our cheap instruments and amplifiers. We drove our parents and the neighborhood crazy when we cranked those tools up in his mother’s garage, which she so nicely vacated for us. We never made a dime at the few gigs we picked up nor had groupies. Well, we did have those retired Sisters of the Little Poor who did clap a few times when we paid a visit to their retirement home.
In our early-teens, I bought an olive-drab tent and hoisted into my family’s backyard one summer. After our respective workdays, Mark and I bivouacked late into many nights to smoke Marlboros, talked about girls, Jesus, how we would deal with the neighborhood peeping tom if we ever caught the rat bastard. It seemed there was nothing we didn’t – couldn’t – talk about.
We talked about our expectations and dreams. The world as we viewed it.
A few more years passed by. He enlisted in the Army and I did soon thereafter. Both of us chose the same path as military police officers for the Army Security Agency – a spook intelligence group. Mark went to Europe; I went to Asia. We kept in touch through occasional letters and through our parents.
By that time, we had pretty much gone on to separate lives, careers, marriages and so forth. We got together occasionally after our return to civilian life. In the early 1980s, with both of us nursing wounds from broken marriages, we occasionally got together to play our guitars on the banks of the Wabash River near New Harmony, and traded snorts from a bottle of Jack Daniels.
I moved to Indy and Mark remained in Evansville, following whatever journeys looming ahead of us. The phone calls and contact lessened. In 1990, I made a desperate call to him one day and asked him to visit with my Mom and family at the hospital where my Dad was fighting his battle against cancer and beginning his end of days from this good world. He did. When the war was done, Mark was there to say goodbye.
A few years later, I got a similar call. His dear Mom, Marianne – perhaps one of the few only purely decent, gentle, innocent and most forgiving of people I ever have known – was knocking on heaven’s door. I quickly made my way to Evansville and spent those last several hours of her life witnessing my friend being a good son and reassuring her up until her last breath. I was, and continue to be, thankful to have been invited to share in those painful, beautiful last moments.
More years have gone by. Mark’s life, and my own, continually are redefined by our ever-changing experiences. We occasionally post on each other’s Facebook sites; we might talk once or twice over the year when struck by a lightning bolt of sentimentality.
We have traveled a long way from that toothsome day more than fifty years ago. Someday soon, perhaps, Mark and I will sit down together with our guitars and strum a few tunes. Talk about old times and whatever dreams may come.
And maybe I will tell him more about the day Elvis and I met.