My phone rang yesterday morning. And since my phone is a lot smarter than me, I saw a name that I hadn’t thought much about in over 45 years. After a few “Holy Cows” and a round of “How the heck are you”, he said that he was coming to see me.
We all know that old friendships never die. But when one pops up like this out of the blue in the middle of a workday, you have to sit for a minute and rifle through a few memories that come back to you as fresh as if it was yesterday. Rabbit hunting with our dads came to mind. A crowded front porch on a white clapboard farmhouse. Seems like there was a couch and a washing machine on that porch.
In my mind’s eye I could see bird dogs. Slick-haired pointers with brown floppy ears. I could see corn growing in the field. I could hear the grunt of hogs and smell the aroma of hogs rooting in the mud. I could see his dad standing on the top step in his broad-brimmed pith helmet. He was a fair skinned man who tried to keep the sun off his face and neck. When I shook his hand, I was aware that his hands were thick, the size of a cast iron skillet. Rough hands that bore the marks of barbed wire and a purple thumbnail from a hammer.
Mr. Red Floyd and my dad were buddies. They worked together down at the foundry for decades. They wore hardhats and thick safety glasses as they moved around the furnaces and molding machines. Black smut smeared on their sweaty faces. A gray metal lunch box and thermos set up on the shelf. Blue collar men who didn’t seem to mind giving their best, day in and day out for longer than most nearly anyone holds a job these days.
It may sound like a little bit of a stretch to say this, but people like the Floyds are part of who I am. They are part of the community that stood alongside my family during my growing up years. Most of what I learned about work and integrity and faith and friendship came from my folks, but some of it came from those with whom we shared life. We shared food from our gardens. We shared work on cool fall days. We shared compassion when it was needed and a helping hand when we had something to offer.
When Dad passed away, a lot of good people came to the funeral home in Griffin. But I specifically remember Mr. Red being there. He was sitting in one of those high-backed Victorian style chairs because he couldn’t stand for long.
“You’ll have to forgive me for not getting up” he said. “My old legs just ain’t as good as they used to be.”
I was in my mid-fifties then, but I still felt like a young boy in his presence. We talked about Dad and all the stories of our lives together. We chuckled about old times.
His eyes were wet around the edges. “I’m gonna miss John. He was my friend.”
And that pretty much says all you need to know.
It was Mr. Red’s son, Mike, who called me. I couldn’t imagine why he would drive the hour and a half down here to the tree farm to visit with me. I mean, we knew each other back in the day. We hunted together. But he was four or five years older than me, and when you’re a teenager that separation might as well be the Atlantic Ocean.
It was early afternoon. I was covered in red mud from working in a ditch repairing an irrigation break. I saw a fella walking up the hill toward me. A big guy with gray hair and a thin Fu-Man-Chu mustache.
“Mike. It’s been a long time.” We did the manly handshake and one-armed bearhug.
You know how this sort of thing goes. It never ceases to amaze me how the memories of growing up together affect me. The past sets deep inside the lost recesses of my mind. Untapped. Quietly and silently on hold for decades. Then, with one handshake, it’s like the drill of time pierces through the bedrock and oil gushes to the surface. The conversation is so familiar that it’s like watching old home movies of a younger version of yourself.
We talked like we had just seen each other last week. There was no uneasiness. No awkward silences. Both of us talking over each other. Before we could finish one sentence, the next one started. Certainly, we talked about our dads; the most lasting influences in our lives. We talked about work and faith and family. For a while we were boys again. Young men figuring out where life would take us. Grown men sharing how that journey had unfolded.
If I could give any gift to you, I would want you to have the gift of friendship. The kind defined by life-long connections. One of the reasons Beth and I moved to Pine Mountain was to try and give our kids that gift. The gift of community. The gift of a time that will come back to you on some clear fall day and will pay dividends of unmeasurable value. The gift of picking up your phone 45 years later, knowing that there’s somebody on the other end who recognizes where you came from and who understands what matters to you in this life.
Life is not about stuff, it’s about people.
I seem to think about this more and more the older I get. Over the last three months, especially, I find myself thinking about those connections. I made a trip last weekend to see a friend I’ve known since fourth grade. So much has passed like a river moving downstream. The two of us have a shared history that is irreplaceable.
Then Mike came to visit. For no other reason than to catch up. His wife asked him, “You gonna drive all that way just to go see him?” Mike said the idea just hit him out of nowhere. “Yep. Sure am.”
That is what friends do.
Before he left, he said he had a favor to ask. “I want you to sign my book. I’ve got it with me out in the truck.”
I laughed. “Really?”
“You bet,” he said. “I’ve got two copies. One dog-eared and bent up because I’ve been reading it, and one I’ve kept nice for you to sign. I’ve never known me a celebrity before.”
I had to go wash my hands so I wouldn’t get his book dirty. “I’m not sure about this. Signing my autograph is new territory for me.”
I handed his book back to him. We did the one-armed bearhug one more time. He got in his truck and the gravel crunched beneath his tires as he rolled out past the barn.
I knelt down and gave Max a good scratch behind his ears. “How about that old boy?”
Today was a gift you can’t buy.