Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Losing Another Part of My Childhood

A snowy day in another January many years ago. Matt is second from right.

Life happens in waves.

Life is also, as John Lennon observed, "what happens while you're busy making other plans."

With that in mind, I have been writing a lot about death lately. I didn't plan it that way. It's just how it has worked out.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I wrote about the death of my favorite journalism professor.

There have been other times when I have been touched personally by death but not lately — until this week. Death is a topic no writer can avoid for long, though. Shortly before Thanksgiving Charles Manson died. A few days ago the mastermind of the notorious 1964 triple slayings in Mississippi died.

As I say, I have enjoyed a respite from personal experience with death — but that never lasts.

And my vacation from the deaths of personal acquaintances ended this week when I learned that a fellow who grew up near me in Central Arkansas passed away. I don't know the specifics, but I have heard it was heart related.

We were friends. I can't say we were best friends or anything like that. He was about six months older, which isn't a lot, even when you're kids and months seem like years — but, because of when our birthdays fell on the calendar, he was a year ahead of me in school, and so he graduated the year before I did. I always felt like that was a bit of a barrier between us as we got older. We went to school each day with different classmates. We had different teachers.

Still we were practically neighbors. We lived in the country — where neighbors has a different meaning than it does in a city or town. We didn't live in houses that were so close that we could see each other's front doors. You had to do some walking through tree–filled hillsides to get from one to the other.

But we were neighbors. My brother and I played with Matt and his younger brother in the afternoons. Our parents socialized regularly.

Would we have done that if we had lived in town? I don't know. Options tend to be much more limited when you live in the country.

But what might have been is speculation. What was — well, that is a matter of fact.

And since I learned of Matt's death, my thoughts keep returning to memories of my childhood — and what was.

Matt's father built a treehouse that we kids used a lot in the summer. It gets hot and humid in Arkansas in the summer, but we spent many summer nights in that treehouse, playing card games and doing things that kids do when the seemingly limitless free time of summer stretches out before them. Heat and humidity was a small price to pay for all that freedom.

Sometimes the four of us would spend the night in that treehouse. We would lug our sleeping bags up there, then we would sleep on top of them because it was too suffocating to try to sleep inside our sleeping bags.

That treehouse was kind of like a junior frat house, though. We didn't do much sleeping there, and things tended to get broken. Mostly we played cards — and Monopoly — by the light of a lantern or told ghost stories.

When it was quiet in the treehouse, I would sit and let the light summer breeze wash over me, and I would look at the stars sparkling in the sky and the shimmering moon.

We all learned to ride bicycles at about the same time, and that really was like being set free. That was the first time that we were truly mobile, and from that moment on if we were going anywhere we were on our bikes. No longer did we need someone to take us to a neighbor's house a couple of miles down the road. We could get on our bikes and take ourselves there.

Later on, of course, cars replaced bikes, and our journeys took us even farther from home. But that came later.

Our parents and their vehicles still had a place in our lives. We rarely got snow in Central Arkansas, but when we did, we usually needed Matt's father's truck to take us to school. I remember all of us piling into the small cab of that truck (this was before the days of club cabs) on winter mornings and listening to his tape of Charley Pride's greatest hits as we rode into town.

Matt's family moved to Arkansas from Texas when he was in elementary school, and there was always friction between us when the Arkansas Razorbacks played the Texas Longhorns in anything — but especially football. Both our loyalties were to the places where our roots were.

So it was ironic that Matt stayed in my hometown the rest of his life — and I moved to Texas.

Sports always played a prominent role in our relationship. When we were about 8 or 9, we collected and swapped baseball cards and football cards — as many boys did (and, I presume, still do). We usually watched major sports events together, and we played the games as best we could.

Folks in town had the advantage over us in the latter. They had empty lots and open fields in which to play. We lived in the country, which was rocky and hilly. If we wanted to play touch football, we had to do it in the dirt road that slithered past our homes. That was not a problem, though. People seldom drove along that road in those days, and we could usually hear cars coming long before they reached us, giving us time to clear off the road until they went past.

I remember one unusually snowy winter that brought a significant snowfall, not just the usual dusting, and we couldn't wait to play football in it — because we could actually play tackle football for a change.

We soon learned that playing football in snow is a lot colder and wetter than it looks on TV. But when we had had enough, we went to one of our homes — where there would be tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches to warm us up.

Matt was a much better athlete than I was. He played youth baseball with my brother (who was also a better athlete than I was), and I remember watching his games with a touch of envy. Matt looked like a big–league ballplayer in his Little League uniform, whether he was playing in a game or getting a snow cone between games.

As I understand it, Matt coached youth baseball after he grew up.

Matt and I seldom saw each other as adults. The news of Matt's death, consequently, triggers no memories of my adult years — it seems to me that the last time I saw Matt was at my high school class' fifth reunion (Matt wasn't in my class, but his wife was) — but plenty of memories of my childhood.

While I am mourning the loss of my childhood friend, I am also mourning the inevitable loss of my childhood. Matt wasn't my first childhood friend to die — and, unless I'm the next one to go, he certainly won't be the last.

But it is a stark reminder of the constant state of change in which we all must exist.

It is also a reminder that life is short, much too short to not do the things you love. Matt's life was shorter than I ever would have expected when we were growing up. I hope he spent it doing things he loved to do.

And I hope I do the things I love to do before my time on this planet runs out.

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