First Friends

In my imagination I often manipulate time–to watch the landscape change over a million years compressed into an hour video from a fantasy blimp over Goose Creek; and do the same on a smaller scale to watch the hardwoods bud, leaf, and die back over a single year of seasons.

But last night, I played back the life of my childhood best friend who was found dead this week, the cause not fully known, but certain to contain elements of self-destructive behavior. In the wee hours, I went back as far as I could in the tape of his life, what I might have ever known of it, to see what choices or fates might have made him who he, in the end, became.

We lived across 7th avenue from one another at age three, and stood calling the other to come out and play. We spent one night almost every week at the other’s house, and were an inseparable pair all through grade school. His parents and my parents were best friends. It was a perfect 50’s style, Donna Reed bond between families.

Bobby and I grew up together, but while I got taller at age 8 or 9, he stopped about there, never besting five feet–like his tiny mother. I can’t help but imagine somewhere in this tape of his life, his uncommon shortness might have changed the way he thought about himself.

We were Mutt and Jeff, but it never mattered a bit to me. We went to camp, fished, played ball together. And we did a lot of things at his house I’d never get away with at mine: shooting B B guns and fireworks, riding go-carts, sneaking out into the nighttime from the “summer house” behind the big, two-story mansion that has since decayed and fallen in.

And then, after a long and wasting illness, his mother died. Her death had a profound impact on Bobby and on our friendship. My life-video would note a shift at just this time, when he and I were about 14. We drifted apart, but not entirely, as it came to me last night. His father remarried and they moved to Crestwood. They had a lake house; we went there often to fish and explore the woods. Bobby started drinking; I was so disappointed. He hooked up with the bad-boy group at school. We lost touch.

I literally ran into him eight years later. He was wearing a long, white clinic jacket, a psychiatrist (I think) at University of Alabama (B’ham) where I was a research technician. We passed each other in the hall outside the hospital cafeteria, and did a classic double-take. We spent a little time together over a period of months, then Ann and I moved to Virginia. That was the last contact I ever had with Bobby, though I tried to locate him a number of times. He seemed not to want to be found. And now he is lost.

I was surprised by how much I remembered last night–about him, about us, about his family, about the feeling of growing up in Woodlawn Highlands in the fifties. Those were good times, mostly. I’m sorry we did not know the men we would become; I’m sorry he became a man who in the end, destroyed his health, and finally, his life. I’m sorry the time-compressed video has not come to a happy ending, and I have no explanation for where the story took a bend of no return.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I don’t know what to say, Fred. This is a sad story, and you laid it out beautifully. So many wounds in our friends that we are powerless to heal.