Long-Lost Friends : Part 3

This is the third and final installment of my tribute to my childhood friends who have passed away much too soon.

Tom Theiss was my neighbor from sixth grade to our sophomore year in high school. I know this is hard to imagine, but those were very awkward years for me. I was pretty much a first class geek. (or maybe even second class). I suppose we both were. Tom and I loved playing outdoors down by our creek that ran past my backyard. We would run down there after school and spend the entire afternoon catching crawdads and tadpoles. We were both members of the Outing and Nature Club in Jr. High. (I told you we were geeks).

When we weren’t down at the creek, we were building forts in one of the vacant lots in our neighborhood. We would take scrap lumber from one of the houses under construction and build us a “no girls allowed” fort. I don’t really remember doing anything in the forts once we built them, but we had a good time building them anyway.

It was during this time when I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and I learned about the concept of becoming “blood brothers.” Huck and Tom decided to seal their friendship in blood, so they took out a pocketknife and sliced the ends of their fingers and held them together in an oath of friendship. One day when my buddy and I were sitting in our fort, I suggested we become blood brothers. But neither of us had a knife, so instead we both began looking for scabs on our elbows and legs that we could pick, in order to draw some blood. Unable to find any good scabs; the whole ordeal became rather awkward and I don’t think we were able to consummate our blood brotherhood that day.

I never heard what happened to Tom. I moved to another city in 11th grade and we lost touch. A few years ago, the Liberty High school class of 76 put out an invitation for a 35-year class reunion. Someone posted a list of deceased classmates and that’s when I discovered that Tom was dead. I have attempted to find out what happened but have had no luck up to this point getting any details. I only hope that he knew how special our friendship was during those awkward years of our youth. He was a great friend and I’ll always remember him fondly.

Long-Lost Friends : Part 2

Tom and Kent Kent and me, 1972

This is part 2 of a series of tributes to my childhood friends who have passed too soon from this world. You can find part one here.

Kent Kiepe was my cousin actually, but I also consider him one of my closest childhood friends as well. He was a few years younger than me but we had the best time together whenever I would spend a few weeks on my grandparents’ farm each summer.

We spent hours each day playing down by the creek, building forts, catching fish with string and safety pins, skinny dipping in the swimming hole, smoking our Uncle Charlie’s old cigars we found in his dresser drawer, skimming through old National Geographics (for the articles, of course), walking up to the little store at the end of the road for penny bubble gum, riding mini-bikes through the cow pasture, climbing hay bales in the hay loft, carving sticks into totem poles with grandpa’s sand grinder, riding in the back of the pick up truck to check on the crops down at the river bottom, riding into town with grandpa to get a rootbeer at A&W, sleeping over and watching home movies and eating grandma’s pancakes in the morning, playing whiffleball until the bat fell apart, riding down the hill in grandma’s red wagon until it fell apart, driving Uncle Glenn’s Chevy Corvair through the hayfield, riding bikes on Interstate 55 before it was opened to traffic, stealing cookies from grandma’s cookie jar, and exploring Victor’s abandoned house up on the hill.

In reality, Kent and I didn’t have much in common, other than we were related. He was athletic, a straight A student and always open for adventure. I was none of the above. He excelled in sports and could pretty much beat me at any game we played. But we had fun together, none-the-less.

What we did have in common was something we never really talked about. It was an embarrassing little secret that only a few members of our family knew about. We were both habitual bed wetters. That’s right, the secret is out. But somehow, that one little secret seemed to bind us together in an awkwardly intimate way.

The thing that made Kent so special to me was the way he genuinely loved and accepted me as a cousin and as a friend. He never teased me for not being good at sports. He never showed any frustration over my disinterest in his little league games. He always seemed eager to hang out with me even if what I wanted to do wasn’t on the top of his fun list. He was a great friend.

Years passed and I grew too old to spend the summers on the farm and Kent and I lost touch. I went off to college, got married and started a family. Kent joined the Navy after college and quickly rose up through the ranks as a pilot. The family was so proud when we got the news that he was tagged to become a member of the Blue Angels. But unfortunately, he never got his chance to fly with the elite team, due to his tragic death in a plane crash. Because of budget cuts, the Navy wouldn’t allow him to fly his plane to and from his teaching assignment across the state so instead; he was forced to hitch a ride in a single engine Cessna. On one particular flight, over Death Valley in California, that single engine Cessna went down. It was a devastating tragedy for our family. One we would never fully get over.

I remember the day of his funeral vividly. After the service, I excused myself from the family gathering to take a walk down to the creek. The cool breeze painted such a different landscape from the memories of my summer adventures with Kent. The forts were long gone and the swimming hole seemed much smaller than before. The hay barn was gone after collapsing under a heavy winter snow. My walk ended out back of my grandparent’s house where Kent and I used to smoke those old cigars and I began to cry uncontrollably. I cried over the loss of my cousin, my friend and our shared childhood that would never return. But I also cried in gratitude for having had such a great childhood friend in my cousin, Kent.

Long-Lost Friends

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
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?

The Old Man

4173092-3x2-940x627His familiar eyes peered through creviced brow
Remembering days gone by when time crawled long into manhood
Boyhood charms long lost to obligations and paychecks
Unable to stop time hurtling toward an unfulfilled bucket list.

My old friend sits across the table lamenting youthful regret
Yet smiles at mistakes turned beautiful through the course of time
The grey hair thinly reveals age spots atop his wrinkled head
Inhabited by a foggy memory of folk songs sung around the campfires of his youth

The ghost of his beautiful muse invades his thoughts as he remembers her huddled next to him shivering against his flannel jacket.
Her hair smells of smoke and jasmine.
Her voice singing sweetly of a budding romance ignited by a floating ember.
He looks up and smiles as he hears her once again sing their song