I woke up one morning to discover all my friends were dead. Okay, maybe not all my friends, but three of my very best. Granted, I haven’t seen them for decades, yet it still hit me like a bad phone call in the middle of the night; all three of my best childhood friends were dead. And it made me sad. None of them would ever be able to get together with me to share stories and reminisce. I could never reach them by phone or meet up for a drink after a class reunion, nor would any of them ever be available to friend on Facebook.
I had three best buddies growing up. My very first was Dennis Beiter.
Dennis and me, August 1966
Dennis and I became fast friends in 1964 when my family moved two doors up the road from him. I was five; son of a Baptist preacher and Dennis, one year my senior, was the son of a Catholic grocer.
My 50-year-old memories of Dennis picture him as a freckle-faced kid with big front teeth and sandy colored hair who typically wore nothing but a plain white t-shirt and blue jeans to play in; and he was always up for an adventure.
We spent most of our days riding our bikes up and down Heinz Road, seeing how far we could coast with no hands. Sometimes we made it for what seemed like miles. But one time I recall only making it to his driveway before I wiped out, planting my face into the fresh tar and gravel.
When we weren’t on our bikes, we were playing in the woods across the road. We enjoyed turning over rocks, looking for bugs and skipping stones in the pond. We were known to spend hours out there, until finally, one of us either wet our pants (usually me) or we thought we heard the mysterious bobcat our big brothers swore lived in those woods.
When the weather was bad, we were in his basement doing what all little boys did in the mid-sixties. We pretended to be the Beatles. (Okay, maybe that’s not typical). At the top of our lungs, we would belt out, “I wanna hold your hand,” while strumming air guitars atop an old kitchen table.
It was your typical 1960’s basement with concrete floor and walls furnished with boxes and worn-out furniture. I remember next to the table was an antiquated refrigerator that I couldn’t help but peak inside any time we were down there. Mainly because it contained things I’d never seen before; things, such as bottles of beer (one would never find that in a Baptist preacher’s fridge) or freshly skinned squirrel carcasses hanging there with their furry tails still intact.
It was in his basement where I had my most traumatic childhood experience. Dennis wanted to show me the giant battleship he’d received for Christmas. We ran downstairs to check it out, but it wasn’t long before we got tired of the battleship and turned our attention to the empty box it had come in. It was long and narrow, with both ends kicked out. My buddy was the first to try it on. He slipped it over his head with his arms out in front, flailing about like the robot from Lost in Space, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!”
It was my turn next. I squeezed into the box and began to shuffle around like a robot when suddenly; I lost my footing and began to fall forward. Because I was confined in that narrow box I was unable to put one foot forward to catch myself and instead began to tip over. That’s when I caught a glimpse of the window leaning up against the wall. As I fell towards it, I must have instinctively covered my face with my left arm and down I crashed, glass shattering all around me, piercing my forehead and slashing a deep gash into my left arm just above the elbow. I remember the blood. Lots and lots of blood. And Dennis’s dad rushing me to my house and my sister crying and my grandma wrapping my arm in a dish towel and then calling my dad to come home and take me to the hospital. It was all so very exciting.
It’s been fifty years since that day. And fifty years since I saw my best friend, Dennis. We moved shortly after that and I never saw him again. But I did call him one time in early 2003. I remember thinking how strange he sounded with his deep bass voice, instead of that six-year-old with whom I had shared so many adventures. We had a great visit over the phone, reminiscing about the old days and our childhood shenanigans and we promised to keep in touch, but of course life moved on and we never spoke again. I heard from his sister recently that he died from esophageal cancer on April 1, 2013.
Dennis was my first best friend. I don’t remember ever quarreling or competing with him. (Except when we argued over who got to be Paul and who had to be John). We both just simply enjoyed playing together and having a good time. Isn’t that what friends are for?