Old Friends

Old Friends

James P. Hughes, D.D.S., M.S.*:
 
Sociologists, social scientists, and psychologists call it “social capital”, and define it in terms of the benefits of long-term relationships outside familial and spousal ties. It is, they tell us, an important component of a healthy personality profile. It is a topic Northwest Dentistry will be exploring more than once in coming issues. That said, we are pleased to  present the following piece from contributor Jim Hughes** that takes the topic straight to the heart of the matter, and sends us out with thoughts as personal and private as  what he has chosen to share with us. For every memory that comes unbidden when you’re driving home or happen to close your eyes for a moment’s respite in the working day,  there is a long path that has not, perhaps, concluded. And in that, we continue to discover, we are not alone. 
The Editors
 
 
Can you imagine us years from today?
Sharing a park bench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy.
               Paul Simon, Bookends

That verse was written by a 20-year-old 40 or so years ago. When I was that age it seemed terribly strange to consider being 30, with 70 being some imaginary age. Now as Paul  Simon and I approach that “non-existent” age, old friendships become more important to us.
 
But despite our best efforts, friendships are often neglected or forgotten. Current friendships need to be nurtured, and past friendships can often be renewed, a process made  much easier with the help of the internet. I have recently re-established contact with two old friends with whom I had once been very close. I had thought of them often over  the years, but had never tried to contact them. As I’ve gotten older (presently 62 and counting), not surprisingly, I have developed a strong urge to reconnect with them. 
 
I have, over the years, thought often of these two old friends in particular, so recently, I decided to attempt to re-establish contact with both of them. 
 
The first one I contacted, Jim H, was my best friend during fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. I hadn’t seen him since 1967, 45 years ago. We were inseparable during those three years of grade school, and together with our occasional sidekicks, Loie and Linnie, shared more laughs and adventures than I can remember. For example, we would practice  dancing to Chubby Checker’s “Twist” record, just in case we ever had the opportunity to dance with some real girls. (Loie and Linnie were real girls, of course, but they were pals and didn’t count.) When one of the neighborhood boys drowned in a flooded street repair project, Jim H and I discussed under the stars one evening where we thought he was now and if could hear us talking about him. And, of course, there was the infamous ground hornet experiment. Jim H (my reluctant assistant) and I captured a few dozen yellow  ground hornets, put them in bottles with bucacid azure blue, a powder of unknown scientific utility from my Junior Chemistry set, and shook them vigorously until they were blue  (and mad!). What was the object of the exercise? To release the blue monsters and create a new race of blue ground hornets. Did the experiment demonstrate initiative?  Perhaps. Did it reveal a willingness to endure multiple stings from angry ground hornets? Certainly. Finally, did it suggest a profound lack of understanding of basic genetic  principles? Undoubtedly. 
 
These were some of the times we shared — wonderful times. The closeness of our relationship, however, did not survive the transition from grade school to junior high school.  And by senior high, we would nod as we passed in the hall, and that was about the extent of it. We ran with different people. I became a motorhead, while he became the  president of the Pep Club. And as far as I know, he never attended a class reunion. I thought we had just grown apart, but I did not know his point of view. And as I found out  later, Jim H felt responsible and he carried that guilt with him for more than 40 years — until our first meeting several years ago. I arrived at the restaurant on Grand Avenue first.  But when he came through the door we immediately recognized each other. We smiled at each other’s physical changes, sat down, and began to reconnect. This was more than  just catching up and telling stories. This was a case of two people, who had been close, having been separated by 40 years, sharing a sincere interest in each other. We skipped  through all of the preliminary stuff, having taken care of that 40 years earlier. Our memories of our childhood complemented each other’s. We shared these memories over lunch  and enjoyed recounting many of the good times we had shared.
 
But at times he appeared apprehensive. It was clear he had some things on his mind, and when he felt comfortable, he brought them up. First, he told me that he was gay. I replied, “So what? I’m short.” His sexuality was a non-issue as far as I was concerned. He had been out for his entire adult life and was very comfortable with it. During the  conversation that followed, he revealed that he had, at times, become infatuated with someone, “at first sight,” as it were. Then he assured me that it would not happen with me  because he did not find me necessarily attractive. I didn’t know quite how to deal with that at first since I have always considered myself universally attractive, but I got over the rejection and we shared a good laugh about it. 
 
But there was something else on his mind. I sensed this, and encouraged him to get it out on the table. His eyes began to well up as he started to explain that, back in sixth  grade, we were playing in the snow one day and he climbed the stairs leading to one of the doors of Ames Elementary School to get a little height and then dropped an ice ball on  my head for no reason other than to be mean. I had cried, yelled something awful at him, and run home. The act was unprovoked and completely out of character for him, and he  felt terrible. And he came to believe that this incident was the beginning of the demise of our relationship. And he had believed so for 40 years. 
 
I listened carefully while he painfully told his story. But, try as I might, I could not recall the incident, and told him, therefore, that it could not have been the main reason for the  slow loss of our friendship. He felt relieved to hear that, but still apologized and asked for my forgiveness for committing such a mean act. I extended my hand and accepted his  apology. It was a moment between two men that clarified an issue of deep guilt and regret on the part of one of them. He smiled and told me that a huge weight had been lifted  from his shoulders. Clarifying this issue was a cathartic moment in his life, and a very gratifying moment in mine. 
 
So where did we go from there? We get together every few months for lunch. I joined him for an afternoon at a cabin he had rented in the woods of Western Wisconsin. Best of  all, Jim H arranged for us to tour Ames Elementary because it had been closed and the school board was considering tearing it down. We even visited the infamous ice ball stairs.  And while we were in the neighborhood, we talked the head maintenance man at Hazel Park Junior High School into letting us wander around the campus. Lots of memories came  flooding back. It was good to have enjoyed those memories with an old friend. 
 
Then there is the story of my other long lost friend, Jim B. We served together as helicopter crew chief/door gunners in the Bandit gunship platoon of the 118th Assault Helicopter  Company in Viet Nam during all of 1969 and parts of ’68 and ’70. Our experiences there are another story altogether. However, suffice it to say that those shared experiences tended to form strong friendships among the young men over there. One of the differences between the Viet Nam war and World War II, for example, was that very few of us  were sent to Viet Nam as part of a cohesive unit of similarly trained personnel. Most of us arrived as individuals. Nor were we in it “for the duration”, but for a 12-month rotation.  These made it more difficult to form strong friendships. New guys (FNGs) were arriving weekly, and other guys (short timers) were going home weekly as well. However, Jim B and  I arrived within two weeks of each other, and that made the difference in our ability to form a strong friendship. 
 
Our experiences as crew chief/door gunners, I imagine, could be described as being similar to some civilian jobs such as firefighters and police. It was 90% boredom and 10% total  adrenalin rush. And these frenetic moments, whether the result of engagement with the enemy, mechanical failure, or weather, all became the glue for bonding between the  crewmembers. 
 
Jim B and I could hardly have had more different backgrounds. I was born and raised in the second largest and capital city in the liberal state of Minnesota. There were more than  14,000 lakes, millions of trees, thousands of acres of rich farmland, hills and bluffs, and a full palette of seasonal changes. Jim B grew up in West Texas, a conservative, flat, virtually treeless, dry place. (Gee, I hope my Minnesota bias isn’t showing. It would conflict with my Minnesota nice.) I made these observations during my recent, and admittedly  brief, visit to Jim B’s home.
 
First, the good news. Jim B has a remarkable facility for recalling names, places, dates, and events. This made our stories much more vivid and alive. Our first evening together was spent taking turns recounting events and people. We laughed almost non-stop since we focused almost entirely on the good times. We agreed that we took our duties as crewmembers seriously. After all, we were responsible for the flight readiness of our helicopter — no small charge. We just didn’t take the rest of the Army rules and regulations  very seriously. For example, we both smoked unacceptable substances on a regular basis. The stuff was available and cheap and allowed us to temporarily forget just where the  hell we were and what we had to do tomorrow.  We also, of course, drank our share of beer, an acceptable form of escapism. 
 
I also discovered Jim B is now a devout Christian. His knowledge of the Bible, as far as I can tell, is quite impressive. Unfortunately, he believes that everyone needs to be saved,  and he took it upon himself to try to get me saved that night. Since I believe that one’s relationship with his or her God is a very personal one, and he believes that it is his  obligation to spread the word, we agreed to disagree on a number of issues. But by the next morning at his place, I had been made aware of how we had changed, and not  changed. Whereas I had been sober for 28 years, Jim B’s morning regimen consisted of gulping down a can of root beer, followed immediately by a cigarette and Jack Daniels right  out of the bottle. It was just like his evening habits, minus the root beer. Having no right to criticize him, I tried to remain non-judgmental while I wrote this, but I could see how  it was affecting his life in a negative way. He did, however, hold down a good job of 14 years as a machinist, dearly loved his sons and grandchildren, and treated me with warmth  and respect. He is, as the song goes, a “walking contradiction”. 
 
It may appear that I am coming down hard on my friend, but I had to admit to myself that I would not have chosen him for a friend if I had just met him. It hurts to say that, but I am a strong proponent of personal accountability and responsibility, and he has made some unhealthy choices in his life for which he alone is responsible. In Viet Nam, we had entered into what sociologists call a “situational friendship”, but save for our army experiences, it would appear that we have little in common these days. 
 
Jim dropped me off at the airport in the afternoon, and he extended an invitation to come back and spend a week sometime. But I could not commit to returning at that time. I was still processing the events of the previous 24 hours. I still am. So, I have made two attempts to reconnect with long lost friends. One was a delightful success, and the jury  is still out on the other. I need to give some thought to both these reunions as to their value, which may take some time. In future attempts at reaching out, I need to prepare myself for elation, disappointment, and possibly at total “non-reaction”. Some friendships are meant to last for a lifetime, while others are destined to grow apart over the years.  But whatever the outcome, I feel I must continue to reconnect with other friends of long ago. I have a few names in mind as I write this.  
 
 
*Dr. Hughes is a retired general dentist with a Masters degree in oral pathology. Formerly of Winona, Minnesota, he now lives on South Padre Island, Texas. Email is 7ku36ir8@hbci.com
 
 
**”One Man’s Treasure”, Northwest Dentistry, May-June 2011, pages 30-32; “On Paper”, Northwest Dentistry,September-October 2011, pages 28-30.