Ten years ago today I buried one of my best friends. His death hit me hard, probably because it was the first among my cohort of childhood friends. I’ve seen off a couple more since then, but the later bouts of grief have been easier to deal with — maybe I’m getting used to it.
Back in the early days of this blog, Saturday was often designated Poetry Day, and I’m reviving the tradition for this occasion. The essay below is a reminiscence about my friend and his funeral, followed by a poem I composed in my head on the drive back and then typed up when I got home. I was too shy in those days to blog on such topics, but I’ve mellowed in the decade since.
This is a departure from our usual fare. No jihad or “refugees” or Obama or Trump in this one. So, if you prefer those topics, you can skip this one — we’ll resume normal programming soon enough.
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I first met Pete when we were both about eight years old. He had just moved into our neighborhood, and since we were age-mates — our birthdays were only five days apart — Pete and I became friends. He and his family were Catholics, like most people in that part of Maryland. They lived up to the Catholic stereotype, eventually having eleven kids, with Pete being the oldest. I was a Protestant, but his people weren’t Protestant-haters like some Catholics, and there were no Catholic-haters in our house. So Pete and I could safely establish a friendship.
When he was ten years old, Pete contracted a rare form of childhood lung cancer. He eventually recovered, but it was touch and go for a while. Two-thirds of his left lung had to be removed, along with pieces of three ribs. The area where the ribs were missing was adjacent to his heart, which made him vulnerable. We played sandlot baseball and football in our neighborhood, and we kids were told to be careful when tackling Pete, so as not to strike him in the soft spot. A particularly serious concern was the possibility that he might be hit there with a pitched ball (we played hardball), but fortunately that never happened.
Our friendship was interrupted by the four years my family spent in England. When I came back to Maryland, both of us had grown up. During my vacations from William and Mary, and after I graduated, Pete and I spent a lot of time together, with groups of friends or riding around in his car. Those times were what I remembered most in later years.
We were very different, Pete and I. I had been an inveterate intellectual since about the age of twelve, and could only do things that required brains but no skill. Pete was the opposite — he was good with his hands, and had the knack for taking things apart and fixing them. He eventually went to the local community college to study electronics, and later got a job working as a technician for the phone company.
In the early ’70s he bought an ancient Karmann Ghia for a few bucks, put a new engine in it himself, fixed up the body, and painted it lime green. That was the car he and I rode around in. You could pick it out coming a mile off, the color was so gaudy.
My friend Wally Ballou and I introduced Pete to the Grateful Dead. We paid for his ticket, and in return he drove us up to the show in Philly in that funky old Karmann Ghia. The car had a wiring problem that sometimes made its headlights go out, and Pete would have to whack the front of the car at a certain point to make them come back on. That happened while we were on our way up I-95 that night, so Pete pulled over onto the shoulder to smack some sense into the car. Wally and I just sat there looking at the tractor trailers go by in the falling sleet. More than thirty years later I remembered that night when I wrote the poem. And now it’s been more than forty years.